Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
XX. The Devil to Pay
When it was all over, when the gravelled drive no longer crunched to wheels that bore away the man Nogam to answer for his misdeeds, when the household had quieted down and the most indefatigable sensation-monger had wearied of singing the praises of the Princess Sofia and, tossing off a final whiskey-and-soda, had paddled sleepily back to bed, lights burned on brightly in two parts only of Frampton Court, in the bedchambers tenanted respectively by Prince Victor Vassilyevski and his reputed daughter.
Alone, Prince Victor sat at the desk where he had, four hours earlier, inscribed those characters which should have hurried Nogam into a premature grave. That they had failed of their mission was something that fretted Victor Vassilyevski, his mind and nerves, to a pitch of exacerbation all but unendurable.
What had become of that sentence to death? And what of that other, the telegram which, forwarded by Nogam's hand to Sturm, should long since have set in motion the organized machinery of murder and demolition?
Had Nogam, as he had meekly insisted on being questioned subsequent to his subjugation, truly delivered the two messages as directed and, miraculously escaping his fate decreed, returned to Frampton Court by the twelve-three, likewise in strict conformance with instructions?
This statement Nogam had neglected to amplify, and Victor had been chary of too close questioning, lest it elicit too much in the hearing of others. Once overpowered, Nogam had been philosophic about his bad luck; but the eyes in his face of a stoic had held a gleam that Victor didn't altogether like, a light that seemed suspiciously malicious, a suggestion of spirited humour deplorable to say the least in a self-confessed sneak-thief caught in the very act, deplorable and disturbing; in Victor's sight a look constructively indicative of more knowledge than Nogam had any right to possess. Take it any way you pleased, something to think about ...
Still more disquieting Victor thought the circumstance that nobody else had seemed to notice that anomalous light in Nogam's eyes; which of course might mean merely that Victor had worked himself into such a state of nerves that he was seeing things, but equally well that the look was one reserved for Victor alone, intentionally or not holding for him a message, if he had but had the wit to read it, of peculiarly personal import.
It might have implied, for example, that Victor's half-hearted and paltering distrust of Nogam had all along been only too well warranted. In which case, the fat was already in the fire with a vengeance, and Victor's probable duration of life was dependent wholly upon the speed with which he could quit Frampton Court and hurl his motor-car through the night to the lower reaches of the Thames.
Envisagement of the worst at its blackest being part of the holy duty of self-preservation, Victor sat fully dressed, with every other provision made for flight at the first flash of warning, only waiting to make sure, and with what impatience was apparent in the working of paste-coloured features, the wincing and shifting of slotted eyes, the incessant shutting and unclosing of tensed fingers.
All rested with the telephone that stood mockingly mute at the man's elbow, callous alike to his anxiety and the rancorous regard in which he held it. His call for the house near Queen Anne's Gate had now been in for more than forty minutes; in that interval he had no less than three times pleaded its urgency to the trunk-line operator. And still the muffled bell beneath the desk was dumb.
And the worst of it was, fatal though the delay might prove, he dared not stir a hand to save himself until he knew....
In the taut torment of those long-drawn minutes a sound of circumspect scratching was enough to bring Victor to his feet in one startled bound.
He stood for a moment, a-twitch, but intent upon the corridor door, then composed himself with indifferent success, approached and opened the door. The girl Chou Nu slipped in, offered a timid courtesy, and awaited his leave to speak.
"Well? What is it?"
"Excellency: the Princess Sofia refuses to let me stay in the room with her."
"Why? Don't you know?"
"I think she means to run away. She would not go back to her bed, but walked up and down, till I ventured to urge her to take rest, when she turned on me in a rage and bade me be gone. Then I came to you."
Victor took thought and finished with a dour nod.
"You have done well. Return, keep watch, let me know if she leaves--"
"The door is locked, Excellency: she will not let me in."
"Spy through the keyhole, then; or hide in one of the empty rooms across the corridor, and watch--"
A muted mutter from the direction of the desk dried speech on Victor's lips. He started hastily toward the source of the sound, midway wheeled, and dismissed the maid with a brusque hand and monosyllable--"Go!"--then fairly pounced upon the telephone.
But all he heard, in the course of the ensuing five minutes, was the voice of the trunk-line operator advising him, to begin with, that she was ready to put him through to Westminster, then maddeningly punctuating the buzz and whine of the empty wire with her call of a talking doll--"Are you theah?... Are you theah?... Are you theah?"
At length, however, the connection was established; and Victor, hearing the falsetto of Chou Nu's second-uncle cheerily respond to the operator's query, unceremoniously broke in:
"Shaik Tsin? It is I, Number One. And the devil's own time I've had getting through. Why didn't you answer more promptly? What's the matter? Has anything gone wrong?"
"All is well, Excellency, as well as you could wish, knowing what you know."
Profound relief found voice in a sigh from Victor's heart.
"You got my messages, then? Nogam delivered them?"
"So I understand. I myself did not see him, Excellency. The man Sturm--"
On that name the voice died away in what Victor fancied was a gasp that might have been of either fright or pain.
"Hello!" he prompted. "Are you there, Shaik Tsin? I say! Are you there? Why don't you answer?"
He paused: no sound for seconds that dragged like so many minutes, then of a sudden a deadened noise like the slam of a door heard afar--or a pistol shot at some distance from the telephone in the study.
Further and frantic importuning of the cold and unresponsive wire presently was silenced by a new voice, little like that of Shaik Tsin.
"Hello? Who's there? I say: that you, Prince Victor?"
Involuntarily Victor cried: "Karslake!" "What gorgeous luck! I've been wanting a word with you all evening."
"What has happened? Why did Shaik Tsin--?"
"Oh, most unfortunate about him--frightfully sorry, but it really couldn't be helped, if he hadn't fought back we wouldn't have had to shoot him. You see, the old devil murdered Sturm to-night, for some reason I daresay you understand better than I: we found a paper on the beggar, written in Chinese, apparently an order for his assassination signed by you. Half a mo': I'll read it to you ..."
But if Karslake translated Victor's message, as edited by the hand of Nogam, it was to a wire as deaf as it was dumb.