Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book I. A Chapter from the Youth of Monsieur Michael Lanyard
Posed in a blaze of lights, the Princess Sofia contemplated captiously the charming image reflected in her cheval-glass. One little wrinkle, not precisely of dissatisfaction, rather of enquiry, nestled between her delicately arched brows. A look of misgiving clouded her wide eyes of a wondering child. The bow of an exquisitely modelled mouth, whose single fault lay in its being perhaps a trace too wide, described a shadowy pout.
She was beautiful: yes. Nobody could question that. La beaute du diable, no doubt, to Anglo-Saxon eyes, with that skin of incomparable texture and whiteness relieved by a heavily coiled crown of living bronze, the crimson insolence of that matchless mouth, those luminous and changeable eyes so like the sea, whose green melted into blue with the swiftness of thought, whose blue at times as swiftly shaded into stormy purple-black: but however bizarre and barbaric, beauty none the less, and under the most meticulous examination indisputable.
But was she as radiant as she had been?
On this her birthday she was twenty-five. Appalling age! Five years hence she would be thirty, in ten more--forty! And woman's beauty fades so swiftly: everybody said so. Was the shadow of to-morrow already dimming her loveliness? How could it be otherwise? She had lived so long and so fully, she had begun to live so young. Six years of marriage to Victor--that alone should have been enough, one would think, to metamorphose the fairest face into a blasted battlefield of passions.
She had a little shiver of voluptuous horror, remembering what she had endured and escaped. The sweet, true lines of her flawlessly made body were transiently undulant within a sheath of shimmering sequins: a daring gown, by British standards of that day, but permissible because she was Russian; foreigners, you know, are so frightfully weird even when they're quite all right.
And yet she was growing old, she was twenty-five! Though she didn't feel in the least like one on the threshold of middle age. Indeed, she had never felt younger, more thrillingly instinct with the power and the will to live extravagantly in one endless riot of youth unquenchable....
Reaction, of course: the swing of the pendulum to its farthest extreme. It was now two years since she had been forced to separate from Victor, finding herself unable longer to countenance and suffer his many-sided beastliness; and a year since the hand of Death had penned an inexorable finis to the too-brief chapter of her one great romance.
For there had never been love in her life with Victor. She had been too young at first to appreciate what love and marriage meant, she had been led to the altar and sacrificed upon it as an animal is led in sacrificial rites--without premonition or understanding, only wondering (perhaps) to find itself so groomed and garlanded, so flattered and adored. She had hardly known Victor before she was given to him in marriage by Imperial ukase ... to get rid of her, probably, for some inscrutable reason related to the mysterious circumstances of her parentage.
And now after six years of hell with her husband and one of mourning in solitude for her love that was lost, she was coming back to life again ... at last!
She lifted up arms that might have been a dream of Phidias chiselled in Parian marble, and stretched them luxuriously. She was superbly alive, indeed--and henceforth she meant to live. Only she must be careful to retain her looks ... If Youth must surely go, Beauty must linger and reign long in its stead.
A maid, a comely creature, trim and smart in black and white, with that vividly coloured prettiness which is too often the omen of premature decline into the fat and florid thirties, fetched a wrap and settled it upon Sofia's shoulders.
Long and dark, it disguised her figure as completely as it covered her toilette. She nodded her satisfaction, and accepted the veil which she had desired to complete her disguise, a thing of Spanish lace, black and ample, like a mantilla. But before donning it she delayed one minute more before the mirror.
"Therese! Am I still beautiful?"
"Madame la princesse is always beautiful."
"As beautiful as I used to be?"
"But madame la princesse grows more lovely every day."
"Beautiful enough to-night, to keep out of jail, do you think?"
To the mirth in the voice of her mistress the maid responded with a smile demure and discreet.
"Oh, madame!" was all she said; but the manner of her saying it was rarely eloquent.
Sofia laughed lightly, and affectionately pinched the cheek of the maid.
"And you, my little one," she said in liquid French--"you yourself are too ravishingly pretty to keep out of trouble. Do you know that?"
Her little one looked more than ever demure as she enquired after the hidden meaning of madame la princesse.
"Because you will marry too soon, Therese--too soon some worthless man will persuade you to dedicate all those charms to him alone."
"Is it not so?"
"Who knows, madame?" said Therese, as who should say: "What must be, must."
"Then there is a man! I suspected as much."
"But, madame la princesse, is there not always a man?"
"Madame la princesse need not fear for me," Therese replied. "Me, my head is not so easily turned. There is always some man, naturally--there are so many men!--but when I marry, rest assured, it will be for something more."
With the compressed lips of self-approbation she deftly assisted her mistress to swathe her head in the mantilla-like veil.
"Something more than a man?" Sofia enquired through its folds. "What then?"
"Independence, madame la princesse."
"What an idea! Marriage and independence: how do you reconcile that paradox?"
"Madame la princesse means love, I think, when she speaks of marriage. But love--that is all over and done with when one marries. One is then ready to settle down; one has put by one's dot, and marries a worthy, industrious man with a little fortune of his own. With such a husband one collaborates in the maintenance of the menage and the management of a small business, something substantial if small. And so one ends one's days in comfortable companionship. That, madame la princesse, is the marriage for Therese! It may not sound romantic, madame, but it has this rare virtue--it lasts!"