Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
One more instant the girl rested passive in uncomprehending astonishment; then abruptly she exerted herself to break free from the supporting embrace, but found the effort wasted for lack of opposition, so that her own violence sent her reeling away half a dozen paces, to bring up against the desk; while Lanyard, making no move more than to drop his rejected arms, remained where she had left him, and requited her indignant stare with a broken smile of understanding, a smile at once tender, tolerant, and sympathetic, with a little quirk of rueful humour for good measure.
"My father!" Sofia repeated in a gasp of disdain--"you!"
He gave a slight shrug.
"Such, it appears, is your sad fortune."
"And not the proud prince you were promised? Rather a come down, one must admit." Lanyard laughed low, and moved nearer. "I'm sorry, I mean I might be (for myself, too) if Nogam were less a fraud than that pretentious mountebank, Prince Victor--or for the matter of that, if you were as poor of spirit as you would seem on your own valuation, if you were not at heart your mother's daughter, and mine, my child by a woman whom I loved well, and who long ago loved me!"
He paused deliberately to let her grasp the full sense of his words, then pursued:
"It may help you get your bearings to know that I am truly the Michael Lanyard to whom Messieurs Secretan & Sypher addressed their advertisement--you remember--as this should prove."
He offered a slip of paper, and after another moment of dumb staring, the girl took it and read aloud the message which Victor had dictated following Sofia's flight to him from the Cafe des Exiles.
"'To Michael Lanyard, Intelligence Division, the War Office, Whitehall--'"
"That is to say," Lanyard interpreted, "of the British Secret Service."
He bowed in light irony. "One regrets one is at present unable to offer better social standing. To-morrow, it may be ... But who knows?"
Sofia shook her head impatiently, and in a murmur of deepening amazement resumed her reading of the note:
"'Your daughter Sofia is now with me.. Your own intelligence must tell you nothing could be more fatal than an attempt to communicate with her'"
To the interrogation eloquent in her eyes Lanyard replied:
"Dictated by Victor to Karslake, who passed it on to me, the night he brought you to the house from the Cafe des Exiles."
"You knew--you, who claim to be my father--yet permitted him--?"
"You were in the house before I knew I had a daughter; Karslake had no chance to consult me before fetching you. Furthermore, if he had hesitated to carry out Victor's orders just then, not only would he have nullified all our preparations to secure evidence enough to convict the man, or at least run him out of England--"
"Prince Victor? What was he doing, that you should--?"
"Dabbling in all manner of infamy, from financing a thieves' fence to organizing an association of common criminals to bring it business; from maintaining a corps of agitators to foment social discontent to fostering this last, most imbecile scheme of all, which comes to naught to-night, an attempt to overthrow the British Empire and set up in its stead a Soviet England, with Victor Vassilyevski in the dual role of Trotsky and Lenine!"
The girl made a sign of bewilderment and incredulity.
"What are you telling me? Are you mad?"
"No--but Victor is, mad with lust for power, insane with illusions of personal aggrandizement. You don't believe? Listen to me, then, appreciate to what demoniac lengths he was prepared to go to flatter his insane ambitions:"
"Sturm has invented a new poison gas, odourless, colourless, the most deadly known, and easily manufactured in vast quantities by adding simple ingredients to ordinary illuminating gas. Fanatic Bolshevist that he was, Sturm offered his formula to Victor, to be used to clear the way for social revolution; and Victor jumped at the offer--has spent vast sums preparing to employ it. His money paid for the recent strike at the Westminster works of the Gas Light and Coke Company, by means of which Victor was able to smuggle a round number of his creatures into its service. His money has corrupted servants employed in Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, in the homes of the nobility, even in Buckingham Palace itself, men ready at a given signal secretly to turn on gas jets in remote corners and flood the buildings with the very breath of Death itself. And that signal was to have been given to-night. Well, it will not be."
"But could any scheme be more grotesquely diabolical? Do you ask more proof of the man's madness? Do you require more excuse for my permitting you to be deceived by Victor for a few weeks, rather than wreck our plans to frustrate his, when all the while Karslake and I were near you, watching over you, learning to love you--he in his fashion, I as your father--and both ready at all times to die in your protection, if it had ever come to that?"
Lanyard had drawn so near that only a few inches separated them, and had his voice in such control that at three paces' distance a vague and inarticulate murmur at most might have been heard; but in Sofia's hearing his accents rang with passionate sincerity, persuading her against the reason which would have rejected his indictment of Victor as too fantastic, too imaginative, and too hopelessly overdrawn to be given credence. She believed him, knowing in her heart that he believed his statements to the last word; and knowing more, that he was surely what he represented himself to be, her father.
Inscrutable the processes of human hearts: even as from the very first Sofia had instinctively yet unconsciously recognized the intrinsic falsity of Victor's pretensions, so now she perceived the integral honesty that informed Lanyard's every word and nuance of expression, and accepted him without further inquisition.
To his insistent "Have I made you understand?" she returned a wan wraith of a smile, pitiful with entreaty, while one of her hands found the way to his.
"I think so," she replied in halting apology--"at least, I believe you. But be a little patient with me. It is all so new and strange, what you tell me, it's hard at first to grasp, there's so much I must accept on faith alone, so much I don't understand ..."
"I know." Lanyard pressed her hand gently.
"But try to have faith; I promise you it shall be fairly rewarded. Only a little longer now, an hour or two at most, and Karslake will be here to prove the truth of all I have asserted. You will believe him, at least."
"Of course," the girl said, simply. "I love him. You knew that?"
"I guessed, and I am glad, glad for both of you."
"But he is safe?" Sofia demanded in sudden access of alarm so strong that her voice rose above the pitch of discretion.
"Quietly. Yes, he is safe enough."
"You know that for a fact? How do you know--?"
"I've seen him to-night, talked with him--not two hours since."
"You have been in London?" she questioned--"to-night?"
"Rather! Victor sent me." Lanyard laughed lightly. "You didn't know, of course, but--well, I gave him reason to suspect me, so he sent me up to be assassinated by Shaik Tsin. As it turned out, however, Herr Sturm most obligingly understudied for me.... Before coming back, I looked Karslake up. He'd been busy, playing a lone hand, ever since Victor trumped up an errand to keep him out of your way all day. No need to go into tedious details; I found Karslake had matters well in hand: the gas works surrounded by a cordon of troops, the house under close watch, and--best of all--a sworn confession from an Irish Member of Parliament whom Victor had managed to buy with a promise to free Ireland once Soviet England was an accomplished fact. So I left Karslake to wind up loose ends in London, and posted back with my heart in my mouth for fear I'd be too late."
"Too late?" Sofia queried with arching brows.
"Need I remind you where we are?"
A sweep of Lanyard's hand indicated the boudoir; and Sofia started sharply in perplexity and alarm.
"Where we are!" she echoed in a frightened whisper.
Of a sudden memory returned of what had passed in that room before Lanyard had revealed himself to her, and knowledge of her peril so narrowly escaped drove home like a knife to her heart.
"What am I doing here?" she breathed in horror. "What have I done?"
"Nothing more dreadful than prove yourself as true as you are fine, by revolting in the end against the most powerful force known to man, the force of suggestion implanted in hypnotism. You couldn't know that it was hypnotic not natural sleep you passed into last night, when Victor tricked you with that damned crystal, or that, while you slept, he willed you to do here to-night what, when it came to the final test, your nature would not let you do."
"But he so often told me I had the instincts of a thief--!"
"So often--I know--that you were, against your will and reason, by dint of the very iteration of it, coming to accept that lie as a truth whose power there was no contesting. That is why, that you might prove yourself by your own acts, I had to let you undergo your ordeal here to-night, only standing by to make sure no ill came of it. Otherwise you might have carried to your grave the fear instilled into your soul by that blackguard. But now you know he lied, and will never doubt again--or reproach your father for the dark record of his younger years."
He checked, lifting hands of desolate appeal, then let them fall.
"Dear, if you knew you would not judge me harshly. If only you could know what I have fought up from, a foundling without a name abandoned in a third-rate Parisian hotel, reared a scullion, butt and scapegoat, with associates only of the lowest, scullions, beggars, pickpockets, Apaches, and worse--!"
"As if that mattered!"
The girl turned a softly suffused face with shining eyes to Lanyard's. Now at last she knew him, now the romance of her dreams of yesterday came true: through the mean masquerade of Nogam the man emerged, identifying himself in her sight unmistakably with that splendid stranger whom she had never quite forgotten since that old-time afternoon when he had met Karslake in the Cafe des Exiles and talked so intimately of his antecedents, hinting at a history of youthful years strangely analogous with her own.
Involuntarily her arms lifted and settled upon his shoulders.
"I am so proud to think--"
A shrill scream drowned out her words, a woman's voice ranging swiftly the staccato gamut of terror and cracking discordantly on its most piercing note.
Then with a bang that shook the flooring and must have been heard in the farthest corners of the house, the bedchamber door was slammed behind their backs. But beyond it the screaming went on in volume imperceptibly muffled by its barrier, one ear-splitting caterwaul following another with such continuity that the wonder was where Lady Randolph West found breath to keep up that atrocious row, and whether any dozen women of average lung-power could have rivalled it.
In one sharp movement Lanyard and Sofia disengaged and fell apart, their eyes consulting, hers in dismay, his in mixed exasperation and remorse.
"I ought to be shot," he declared, bitterly--"who knew better!--to have delayed here, exposing you to this danger--!"
"It couldn't be helped," Sofia insisted; "you had to make me understand. Besides, if I hurry back--"
In quick strides Lanyard crossed to the corridor door, unlatched and opened it an inch, peered out, and gave the sum of what he saw in a gesture of finality, then leaving the door ajar turned swiftly back to the girl.
"Too late," he said: "they're swarming out into the hall like bees. In another minute ..."
Of a sudden he closed with Sofia, roughly clasping her body to him.
"Struggle with me!" he pleaded--"get me by the throat, throw me back across the desk--"
"What do you mean? Let me go!"
In answer to her efforts to wrench away, Lanyard only tightened his hold and swung her toward the desk.
"Do as I bid you! It's the only way out. Let them think you heard a noise, got up to investigate, found me here, rifling the safe--"
"No," she insisted--"no! Why should I save myself at your expense?--betray you--my father--!"
"Then give me the obedience of a daughter ... or let Victor succeed in branding you a thief, the daughter of a thief!"
He stilled the protest she would have uttered by placing fingers over her lips.
In the corridor an angry rumour of voices, alarmed calls and cries, with thumps and scuffles of hasty feet, in the bedchamber the shrieks persisting without the least hint of failing: as a damned soul might bawl upon its bed of coals ...
"Sofia, I implore you!"
Still she hesitated.
"Never fear for me, remember that I am of the Secret Service: two minutes after I see the inside of the nearest police station, I shall be free--and happy in the assurance that your name is without stain. Then Karslake will come for you, bring you to me ... Now!"
Lanyard caught the girl's two wrists together and, throwing himself bodily backward across the desk, carried her hands to his throat.
With a simultaneous crash the door was flung back to the wall. Led by Victor Vassilyevski a dozen men, guests and servants, in various stages of dishabille, streamed into the room.