Louis Joseph Vance
Part 2 out of 5
"What the devil!"
"Oh, come now! Don't go off your bat so easily. I'm only going to do you a
"Damn your impudence! I want no services of you!"
"Oh, yes you do!" Lanyard insisted, unabashed--"or you will when you learn
what a kind heart I've got. Now do be nice and stop protesting! You see,
you've touched my heart. I'd no idea you were so passionate about that
painting. If I had for one instant imagined you cared enough about it to
burglarize my rooms ... But now that I do understand, my dear fellow, I
wouldn't deny you for worlds; I make you a free present of it, at the price
I paid--twenty thousand and one hundred guineas--exacting no bonus or
commission whatever. You'll find blank cheques in the upper right-hand
drawer of my desk there; fill in one to my order, and the Corot's yours."
For a moment longer the prince stared, hate and perplexity in equal measure
tincturing his regard. Then slowly the look of doubt gave way to the ghost
of a crafty smile.
What a blazing fool the fellow was (he thought) to accept a cheque on which
payment could be stopped before banking hours in the morning--!
Such fatuity seemed incredible. Yet there it was, egregious, indisputable.
Why not profit by it, turn it to his own advantage? To secure what he had
sought, the letters concealed between the canvases, and turn them against
Sofia, and to play this Lanyard for a fool, all at one stroke--the
opportunity was too rich to be slighted.
He dissembled his exultation--or plumed himself on doing so.
"Very well," he mumbled, sulkily. "I'll draw the cheque."
"That's the right spirit!" Lanyard declared, and escorted him to the desk.
A knock sounded. Lanyard called: "Come in!" A sleepy manservant,
half-dressed and warm from his bed, entered.
"You rang, sir?"
"Yes, Harris." Lanyard tossed him a sovereign. "Sorry to rout you out so
late, but I need a cab. Whistle up a growler, will you?"
The man retired cheerfully, rewarded for many a night of broken slumber.
Prince Victor got up from the desk and proffered Lanyard the cheque.
"I fancy," he said with a leer, "you'll find that all right."
Lanyard scrutinized the cheque minutely, nodded his satisfaction.
"Thanks ever so ... No, not a word!" He forbade inflexibly a wholly
imaginary interposition on the part of Prince Victor. "You don't know how
to thank me--do you? Then why try? I know I'm too good, but I really can't
help it, it's my nature--and there you are! So what's the good of bickering
about it?... Now where did you leave your coat and hat? On my bed, as you
He smiled charmingly and darted through the portieres, returning with the
articles in question. "Do let me help you."
The prince struggled into the coat and grunted an acknowledgment of the
service. Lanyard pressed the hat into his hand, picked up the canvas,
replaced it in its frame, and tucked both under the princely arm.
Another knock: Harris returned.
"The four-wheeler is w'iting, sir."
"Thanks, Harris. Half a moment: I want a word with you. You see this
gentleman?" Lanyard caught Victor's look of angry resentment and
interrupted himself. "Don't forget yourself, monsieur le prince.
He patted significantly the pocket which held the revolver, and turned back
"This gentleman," he said, consulting the signature to the cheque, "is
Prince Victor Vassilyevski. Please remember him. You may have to bear
witness against him in court."
"What insolence is this?" Victor demanded, hotly.
"Calm yourself, monsieur le prince." Lanyard repeated the warning gesture.
"He is a nobleman of Russia, or says he is, and--strangely enough,
Harris!--a burglar. I caught him burglarizing my rooms when I came home
just now. You may judge from his appearance what difficulty I had in
"'E do seem fair used up, sir," Harris admitted, eyeing Victor indignantly.
"Would you wish me to call a bobby and give 'im in charge?"
"Thanks, no. Prince Victor and I have compromised. He doesn't relish going
to jail, and I've no particular desire to send him there. But he does want
what he broke in to steal--that painting you see under his arm--and I've
agreed to sell it to him. Here's the cheque he has just given me. Providing
payment is not stopped on it, Harris, you will hear no more of this
incident. But if by any chance the cheque should come back from his bank--I
may ask you to testify to what you have seen and heard here to-night."
"It is a lie!" Prince Victor shrilled. "You brought me in with you,
assaulted me, blackmailed that cheque out of me! Nobody saw us--"
"Sorry," Lanyard cut in; "but it so happens, that the gentleman who has the
rooms immediately above came in when I did, and can testify that I was
alone. That's all, monsieur le prince. Your carriage waits."
Harris opened the door. Choking with rage, the prince shuffled out, Lanyard
politely escorting him to the curb. There, with a foot lifted to enter the
four-wheeler, Prince Victor turned, shaking an impassioned hand in
"You'll pay me for this!" he spluttered. "I'll square accounts with you,
Lanyard, if I have to follow you to the gates of hell!"
"Better not," Lanyard warned him fairly, "if you do, I'll push you in ...
Bon soir, monsieur le prince!"
THE LONE WOLF'S DAUGHTER
THE GIRL SOFIA
She sat all day long--from noon, that is, till late at night--on a high
stool behind the tall, pulpit-like desk of the caisse; flanked on one hand
by the swing door of green baize which communicated with the kitchen, on
the other by a hideous black walnut buffet on which fruits of the season
were displayed, more or less temptingly, to the taste of Mama Therese.
But for these articles of furniture, the buffet, the desk, and the door to
the kitchen quarters, uninterrupted rows of tables, square, with
composition-marble tops, lined three walls of the room. The fourth was
mainly plate-glass window, one on either side of the main entrance.
Back of the tables were wall-seats upholstered in red plush, dusty and
threadbare; and, above, a frieze of mirrors. The floor of the restaurant
was a patternless mosaic of small hexagonal tiles, bare in warm weather, in
the winter covered by a thick but well-worn Brussels carpet of peculiarly
repulsive design. The windows wore half-curtains of net which, after
nightfall, were reinforced by ruffled draperies of rep silk. Through the
net curtains, by day, the name of the restaurant was shadowed in reverse by
plain white-enamel letters glued to the glass:
CAFE DES EXILES
The girl stared so constantly at these letters, during the off hours of the
day, that she sometimes wondered if they were not indelibly stamped upon
her brain, like this:
[Reverse: CAFE DES EXILES]
She gazed in the direction of the windows as a matter of habit, because
Mama Therese objected to her reading at the desk (all the same, sometimes
she did it on the sly) because the glimpses she caught, above the
half-curtains, of heads of passersby gave her idle imagination something to
play with, but mostly because it was difficult otherwise to seem
unconscious of the stares that converged toward her from every table
occupied by a masculine patron, whether regular or casual--unless the
patron happened to be accompanied by a lady, in which unhappy event he had
to content himself with furtive, sidelong glances, not always furtive
enough by half.
The feminine patrons stared, too, but from quite another angle of view.
Sofia knew why. If she hadn't, the mirror across the room would have
enlightened even a woman without vanity; which paradox this thoroughly
human young person was not.
She was, indeed, healthily vain; and when she wasn't focussing dream-dark
eyes upon the windows, or verifying additions and making change, she was as
likely as not to be stealing consultations with the mirror opposite, making
sure she hadn't, in the last few minutes, gone off in her looks. Not that
her comeliness bade fair ever to prove the cause of any real excitement.
Mama Therese made a first-rate dragon: she was very much on the job of
discouraging enterprising young men, and this without respect for union
hours or overtime. And when she wasn't functioning as the ubiquitous
wet-blanket, Papa Dupont understudied for her, and did it most efficiently,
too. If anything he was more vigilant and enthusiastic when it came to
administering the snub sufficient than even Mama Therese; in Sofia's sight,
indeed, he betrayed some personal feeling in the business; he seemed to
consider alien admiration of his charge an encroachment upon his private
prerogatives, to be resented accordingly.
Sofia understood. At eighteen--thanks to the comprehensive visual education
in the business of life which she could hardly have failed to assimilate
from a coign of vantage overlooking every table of a Soho restaurant--there
were precious few things she didn't understand. But her insight into Papa
Dupont's mind in respect of herself was wholly devoid of sympathy. She was
just a little bit afraid of him, and she despised him without measure. And
this contempt was founded on something more than his weakness for taking
numerous and surreptitious nips (surreptitious, at least, until they became
numerous) while presiding over the zinc in the pantry between the
restaurant proper and the kitchen; and on something more than his
reluctance to let Mama Therese make an honest man of him, although these
two had squabbled openly for so many years that most of the house staff
believed them to be married hard and fast enough.
For the matter of that, Sofia herself might have been the dupe of this
popular delusion--which Mama Therese did her best to encourage by never
referring to Dupont save as "mon mari"--had they been less imprudent in
recriminations which had passed between them in private when Sofia was of
an age so tender that she was presumed to be safely immature of mind.
Whereas she had always been precocious, if rather a self-contained child.
Almost from infancy she had been conversant with many things which she knew
it wouldn't do to talk about.
Such sympathy as Sofia wasted on the couple was all for Mama Therese. What
with keeping an eye on Papa Dupont that prevented his drinking himself to
death seven times per calendar week, and an eye on Sofia that was fondly
credited with being largely responsible for her failure to run away with
each and every presentable man who ogled her, and browbeating the waiters
and frustrating their attempts to cheat the house out of its fair dues, and
supervising the marketing and the cuisine: believe it or not, Mama Therese
led a tolerably busy life and deserved whatever gratification she got out
of it, to say nothing of highest commendation for industry, fidelity, and
frugality. But that did nothing to prevent Sofia from not liking her.
Her inability to play up to the relationship in which she stood to Mama
Therese in the manner prescribed by sentimentalists worried Sofia more than
a little. She was as hungry to give affection as to receive it; and surely
she ought to be fond of Mama Therese, who (Sofia was forever being
reminded) had in the goodness of her great heart adopted her as the
orphaned offspring of a cousin far-removed, and had brought her up at her
own expense, expecting no return (excepting humility, gratitude,
unquestioning affection, and uncomplaining acceptance of a life of
incessant toil at tasks uncongenial when not downright unsavoury, without
spending money or hours of untrammelled liberty in which to spend it).
Surely such nobility ought to be requited with nothing less than love!
Nevertheless, the plain, and to Sofia disquieting, truth was: it wasn't.
She was fond of Mama Therese after a fashion. No one was ever more ready to
acknowledge the woman's good qualities. But her faults, which included
avarice, bad temper, gluttony, native cruelty of inclination, and simple
inability to give a damn for anybody but herself, forbade satisfaction of
Sofia's yearnings to give her affections freely through bestowing them upon
the abundant and florid person of Mama Therese.
Still, she made no murmur. There was more than a trace of fatalism in the
composition of her spirit. As she conceived it, in this life either things
were or they were not; and as a rule they uncompromisingly were not: one
couldn't have everything.
She was not happy, it would be stretching the truth to say she was content,
but she was resigned, she was patient, she waited not altogether without
All the same, sometimes, as she sat, day in day out, on her high stool,
looking down on familiar aspects of life's fermentation as it manifests in
public restaurants, or peering out of the windows to catch tantalizing
glimpses of its freer, ampler, and--alas!--more recondite phases--sometimes
Sofia wondered whether there were not grimly cynic innuendo in those three
words which the mystery of choice had affixed to the window-panes and
graven so deep into her soul.
CAFE DES EXILES
For surely she was in exile there, an exile from all the fun and frolic
and, fury of life, marooned in weary isolation, on a high stool, in a
frowsty table d'hote, in the living heart of London.
MASKS AND FACES
Quite naturally she became acquainted with Faces....
She grew adept at a game which consisted mostly in keeping close watch upon
those who for this reason or that engaged her attention, without giving
them the slightest reason to suspect she was doing anything of the sort.
One could not always be staring in abstraction at nothing in particular as
it passed to and fro on the sidewalk in front of the Cafe des Exiles; one
could not often or for long at a time succeed in reading a book held open
in one's lap, below the level of the cashier's desk, Mama Therese was too
brisk for that; one had to do something with one's mind; and it was
sometimes diverting to watch and speculate about people who looked
There were so many Faces, they came and went so constantly, like bubbles in
a tideway, that to Sofia most of them seemed indistinguishable one from
another, mere blurs of flesh colour studded with staring eyes and slitted
by apertures which automatically and alternately gaped to receive gobbets
of food and goblets of drink and closed to gulp them down. A man needed to
be remarkable for something in his looks, not necessarily pulchritude, or
for uncommon individuality, for Sofia to favour him with more than one of
her seemingly casual glances or to remember him if he visited the cafe a
But those there were who stood out from the rank and file, for whom she
watched, whom she missed if they failed to put in appearance at their
accustomed hours, about whom her idle but able imagination wove wonderful
fantasies, enduing them with histories and environments as far removed from
fact as the drab dreams of the realists are from the picturesque
commonplaces of everyday.
And there were others who came once and never again, but whom she never
forgot. But for some of these last, indeed, she would never have remembered
some of the former. The brown-eyed youngster with the sentimental
expression and the funny little moustache, for example, lurked in the ruck
a long time before the one and only visit of a bird of passage dignified
him in the sight of the girl on the high stool.
On the occasion of his first appearance (but that was long ago, Sofia
couldn't remember how long) the slender young man with the soulful eyes and
the insignificant moustache had commended himself to her somewhat derisive
attention by seeming uncommonly exquisite for that atmosphere.
The Cafe des Exiles was little haunted by the world of fashion; its diner a
prix fixe (2/6), although excellent, surprisingly well done for the money,
did not much seduce the clientele of the Carlton and the Ritz. Now and
again its remoteness, promising freedom from embarrassing encounters save
through unlikely mischance, would bring it the custom of a clandestine
couple from the West End, who would for a time make it an almost daily
rendezvous, meeting nervously, sitting if possible in the most shadowy
corner, the farthest from the door, and holding hands when they mistakenly
assumed that nobody was looking--until the affair languished or some
contretemps frightened them away.
Aside from such visitations, however, the great world coldly passed the
cafe by; although it couldn't complain for lack of patronage, and in fact
prospered exceedingly if without ostentation on the half-crowns of loyal
Soho and more fickle suburbia.
The Sohobohemian on its native heath and the City clerk on the loose,
however, were not prone to such vestments as young Mr. Karslake affected.
It wasn't that he overdressed; even the ribald would have hesitated to
libel him with the name of a "nut"--which is Cockney for what the United
States knows as a "fancy (or swell) dresser"; it was simply that he was
always irreproachably turned out, whatever the form of dress he thought
appropriate to the time of day; and that his wardrobe was so complete and
varied that he seldom appeared twice in the same suit of clothes--except,
of course, after nightfall; though his visits to the Cafe des Exiles for
dinner or afterward were so infrequent that each attained (after Sofia
began to notice him at all) the importance of an occasion. Luncheon was his
time, and those empty hours at the end of the afternoon which London fills
in with tea and Soho with drinks.
He seemed to have a very wide and catholic acquaintance among people of all
ranks and stations in life; one could hardly call them friendships, for he
lunched or sipped an aperti not often with the same person twice in a blue
moon. And whether his companion were a curate or some ragged wastrel of the
quarter; painted young person from the chorus of the newest revue or proper
matron from Bayswater; keen adventurer from Fleet Street or solid merchant
from the City, his attitude was much the same: easy, impersonal,
unaffected, courteous, detached. He was as apt as not (going on his facial
expression) to be mooning about Sofia when his guest was gesticulating
wildly and uttering three hundred words a minute. When he spoke it was
modestly, in a voice of agreeable cadences but pitched so low that Sofia
never but twice heard anything he said; and his manner was not
characterized by brisk decision. All the same, one noticed that he had, as
a rule, the last word, that what he said left his hearer either satisfied
He was unmistakably silly about Sofia; though that didn't impress her, too
many of the regulars were just as hard hit, one more or less didn't count.
But he never stared to the point of rudeness, and it always seemed to make
him hugely uncomfortable if she appeared in the least aware of his
adoration; and Mama Therese and Papa Dupont never even noticed him, so
circumspect was he. Still, Sofia saw, and sometimes wondered, just as she
wondered now and then about most of the possible men who seemed disposed to
be sentimental about her.
For there were times when she felt she could do with a little more
first-hand experience and a little less second-hand knowledge.
Love (she supposed) must be a very agreeable frame of mind to be in, it was
so generally vogue....
What first led her to think that Mr. Karslake might be an interesting
person to know, entirely aside from his admiration, happened on an
afternoon in June, a warm day for England, when a temperature of some 81
degrees was responsible for "heat-wave" broadsides issued by the evening
At about tea time, Mr. Karslake, faultlessly arrayed, ambled in, selected a
table diagonally across the room from the caisse, exchanged pleasantries
with the waiter who served him a picon, and used a copy of The Evening
Standard & St. James's Gazette as a cover for his wistful admiration of
Presently he was joined by a gentleman twice his age, if not older, whose
conservative smartness was such that one wondered if he hadn't strayed out
of bounds through inadvertence. One would have thought his place was in the
clubs of Piccadilly if not (at that particular hour) at a tea table on the
river terrace of the Houses of Parliament. On the other hand, there wasn't
a trace of self-importance in his habit, it achieved distinction solely
through the unpretending dignity of a decent self-esteem.
Sofia tried to fix what it was that made her think him the handsomest man
she had ever seen. She failed. He wasn't at all handsome in the smug
fashion associated with the popular interpretation of that term; his
features were engagingly irregular of conformation, but the impression they
conveyed was of a singular strength together with as rare a fineness of
spirit. A mobile and expressive face, stamped with a history of strange
ordeals; but this must not be interpreted as meaning that it was haggard or
prematurely aged; on the contrary, it had youthful colour and was but
lightly scored with wrinkles, its sole confession of advancing years was in
the gray at either temple. The eyes, perhaps, told more than anything else
of trials endured and memories that would never rest.
Once they had looked into hers (but that came later) Sofia was sure she
would never forget those eyes. And as she saw them then, she never did
forget them. But the next time she saw them she did not know them at all.
The newcomer hailed Mr. Karslake by his name (which was the first time
Sofia had heard it), sat down on the wall-seat beside him and, when the
waiter came, desired an absinthe.
He had used two languages already, English to Karslake, French to the
waiter; Sofia understood both and spoke them to perfection. So it was
rather exasperating when, his absinthe having been served and the customary
platitudes passed on the weather and their respective states of health, the
conversation was continued in a tongue with which Sofia was not only
unacquainted but which sounded like none she had ever heard spoken. This
seemed the more annoying because there were few people in the restaurant to
drown with chatter the sound of those two voices and because, in spite of
their guarded tones, their table was one so situated that some freak of
acoustics carried every syllable uttered at it, even though whispered, to
the quick ears at the cashier's desk. A circumstance which had treated
Sofia to many a moment of covert entertainment and not a few that
threatened to shatter what slender illusions had survived eighteen years of
Mama Therese. But nobody else (with the possible exception of the last) was
acquainted with this secret of the restaurant, and Sofia was careful never
to mention it.
Now it so happened that Mr. Karslake had never before sat at that
The language spoken at it to-day intrigued Sofia extravagantly. It was rich
in labials, gutturals, and odd sibilances. She was positive it was not a
European tongue, though she thought it might possibly be Russian, because
it sounded rather like Russian print looks; it might just as well have been
Arabic or Choctaw, for all Sofia could say to the contrary. But his fluent
ease in it impressed her with the notion that young Mr. Karslake might not,
after all, be as negligible a person as he looked and as she indifferently
She determined to study him more attentively.
It was rather a long confabulation, too, and one that both men seemed to
take very seriously--though its upshot was apparently quite acceptable to
both--and terminated abruptly with Mr. Karslake announcing, in English,
with every evidence of satisfaction:
"Good! Then that's settled."
To this the older man dissented tolerantly.
"Pardon: nothing is settled; it is proposed, merely."
"Well," said Karslake with a little laugh that to Sofia sounded empty, "at
all events it ought to be amusing."
The other lifted one eyebrow and smiled remotely.
"You think so?"
"To be ordering you about, sir? I should say so!" But his companion wasn't
listening or chose purposely to ignore that accent of respect.
"You are right, my friend," he said, abstractedly: "it will be amusing. But
what in life is not? I fancy that is why most of us go on, because we find
the play entertaining in spite of ourselves. And even when we think of
Death ... there's the possibility that on the other side of the curtain,
where the unseen audience sits, whose hisses and applause we never hear ...
over there it may be more entertaining still!"
Karslake was inquisitively watching his face.
"You would say that," he commented, deference and admiration in his voice.
"By all accounts you've had a most amusing life."
"I have found it so." The other nodded with glimmering eyes. "Not always at
the time, of course. But when I look back, especially at my beginnings, at
the times that seemed hardest and most intolerable ..."
He was thoughtful for a moment, glancing interestedly round the room.
"It takes one back."
"This cafe, my friend."
"To your beginnings, you mean?"
"Yes. It is very like the cafe at Troyon's, at this hour especially, when
there are so few English about."
"A restaurant in Paris. Famous in its day. Several years ago--before the
war--it burned down one night, cremating many memories. While it stood I
hated it, now I miss it; Paris without it is no more the Paris that I
"Why did you hate it, sir?"
"Because I suffered there."
He indicated a weedy young Alsatian across the room, a depressed and pimply
creature in a waiter's jacket and apron, who was shambling from table to
table and collecting used glasses and saucers.
"You see that omnibus yonder? What he is to-day, that was I in
mine--omnibus, scullion, valet-de-chambre, butt and scapegoat-in-general to
the establishment, scavenger of food that no one else would eat.... I
suffered there, at Troyon's."
"You, sir?" Karslake exclaimed in astonishment. "Whoever would have thought
that you ... How did you escape?"
"It occurred to me, one day, I was less than half alive and never would be
better while I stayed on in that servitude. So I walked out--into life."
"I wish you'd tell me, sir," Karslake ventured, eagerly.
"Some day, perhaps, when I get back. But now"--he looked at his
watch--"I've got just time enough to taxi to my hotel, pack, and catch the
"Don't wait for me," Karslake suggested, signalling the waiter.
"Perhaps it would be as well if I didn't."
They shook hands, and the older man got up, secured his hat and stick, and
started out toward the door, moving leisurely, still looking about him with
the narrowed eyes and smile of reminiscence.
Of a sudden that look was abolished utterly. He had caught sight of Sofia.
Her interest had been so excited by the singular confidences she had
overheard that the girl had quite forgotten herself and her professional
pose of blank neutrality. She was bending forward a little, forearms
resting on the desk, frankly staring.
The man's stride checked, his smile faded, his eyes grew wide and cloudy
with bewilderment. For a moment Sofia thought him on the point of bowing,
as one might on unexpectedly encountering an acquaintance after many years:
there was that hint of impulse hindered by uncertainty. And in that moment
the girl was conscious of a singular sensation of breathlessness, as if
something impended whose issue might change all the courses of her life. A
feeling quite insane and unaccountable, to be sure; and nothing came of it
whatever. With a readiness so instant that the break in his walk must have
been imperceptible to anybody but Sofia, the man recollected himself,
composed his face, and proceeded to the door.
Confounded with inexplicable disappointment, Sofia sat unstirring.
In the open doorway the man turned and looked back, not at her, but at
Karslake, as if of half a mind to return and say something more to the
younger man. But he didn't.
He never came back.
THE AGONY COLUMN
Sofia dated from that afternoon the first stirrings of a discontent which
grew in her throughout the summer till everything related to her lot seemed
abominable in her sight.
Even without this subjective inquietude it would have been an unpleasant
summer. All the world was at sixes and sevens, the social unrest stirred up
by the war showed no signs of subsiding, but indeed, quite the contrary,
there was trouble in the very air--ominous portents of a storm whose dull,
grim growling down the horizon could be heard only too clearly by those who
did not wilfully close their ears, grin fatuous complacence, and bleat like
brainless sheep: "All's well!"
High-spirited youth and witless wealth a-lust for strange new pleasures
turned from the long strain of conflict to indulgence in endless orgies of
extravagance like nothing ever witnessed by a world long since surfeited
with contemplation of weird excesses: daily that wild dance of death
attained wilder stages of saturnalia, the bands blaring ever louder to
drown the mutter of savage elemental forces working underneath the crust.
And ever and anon a lull would fall and the world would shudder to the
iteration of a word that spelled calamity to all things fair and sweet and
lovable in life, the word _Bolshevism_....
In the Cafe des Exiles there was endless discord and strife.
For several reasons trade was not what it had been, even for the slack
season of summer it was poor. The cost of everything had gone up, waiters
were insubordinate and unreasonable in their demands, Mama Therese had been
constrained to increase the fixed price of the dinner, old customers took
umbrage at this and their patronage elsewhere.
Mama Therese cultivated a temper that grew day by day more vile, Papa
Dupont displayed new artfulness in the matter of sneaking his daily toll of
drink and showed it; the two squabbled incessantly.
One of the chefs, surmising the irregularity of their relations and
foreseeing an imminent break, sought to turn it to his own profit by making
amorous overtures to Mama Therese, who for reasons of her own, probably
hoping to make Papa Dupont jealous, encouraged the idiot. And, as if this
were not sickening enough, Papa Dupont, far from resenting this menace to
the pseudo-peace of the menage, ignored if he did not welcome it, and daily
displayed new tenderness for Sofia. He kept near her as constantly as he
could, he would even interrupt a wrangle with Mama Therese to favour the
girl with a languishing glance or a term of endearment; he was forever
caressing her disgustingly with his eyes.
The swing door between the cafe and the pantry had warped on its hinges and
would not stay quite shut. Normally it stuck in a position which permitted
whoever was at the zinc an uninterrupted view of the desk of la dame du
comptoir. Instead of having it fixed, Papa Dupont put off that duty from
day to day and developed a fond attachment for the place at the zinc. For
hours on end Sofia, on her high stool, would be conscious of his gloating
regard, his glances that lingered on the sweet lines of her throat, the
roundness of her pretty arms.
She dared make no sign to show that she knew and resented, to do so would
be merely to draw upon herself the spite of Mama Therese.
But she simmered with indignation, and contemplated futile
plans--especially in the long, empty hours of the afternoon, between
luncheon and the hour of the apertifs--countless vain plans for abolishing
these intolerable conditions.
She thought a great deal of the strange man who had talked with young Mr.
Karslake, and wondered about him. Somehow she seemed unable to forget him;
never before had any one she didn't know made such a lasting impression
upon her imagination.
Sometimes she wasted time trying to explain to herself why the man had
seemed, for that brief instant, to think he knew her, only to dismiss such
speculations eventually with the assurance that she probably resembled in
moderate degree somebody whom he had once known.
But mostly she was preoccupied with pondering the strangeness of it, that
he who seemed so brilliant and brave a figure of the great world should,
according to his own confession, have risen from beginnings as lowly as her
own. All that he had suffered in the days of his youth, in that place in
Paris which he called Troyon's, Sofia had suffered here and in large part
continued to suffer without prospect of alleviation or hope of escape. And
remembering what he had said, that his own trials had come to an end only
when he awakened to the fact that he was, as he had put it, "less than half
alive" there at Troyon's, and had simply "walked out into life," she was
persuaded that the cure for her own discomfort and discontent would never
be found in any other way. But she lacked courage to adventure it.
To say "walk out and make an end of it" was all very well; but assuming
that she ever should muster up spirit enough to do it--what then? Which way
should she turn, once she had passed out through the doors? What could she
do? She had neither means nor friends, and she was much too thoroughly
conversant with the common way of the world with a woman alone to imagine
that, by taking her life in her own hands, she would accomplish much more
than exchange the irk of the frying pan for the fury of the fire.
All the same, she knew that she must one day do it and chance the
consequences. Things couldn't go on as they were.
And even granting that the outcome of any effort at self-assertion must be
unhappy, she grew impatient.
Meanwhile, she did nothing, she sat quietly on her perch, looked with stony
composure over the heads of the multitude, indifferent alike to admiration
and the uncharitable esteem of her own sex, and waited with a burning
Mr. Karslake ran true to form. He drifted in and out casually, always idle
and degage and elegant, he continued his irregular conferences with
ill-assorted companions, he worshipped discreetly and evidently without the
faintest hope, he seemed more than ever a trifling and immaterial creature.
Chance did not again lead him to the table where he had sat with the man
whom Sofia could not forget, and only the memory of that conversation held
any place for Karslake in the consideration of the girl.
Even at that she didn't consider him seriously, she looked for him and
missed him when he didn't appear solely because of a secret hope that some
day that other one would come back to meet him in the cafe.
Why she held fast to that hope Sofia could not have said.
Toward the middle of summer Mr. Karslake absented himself for several
weeks, and when he showed up again his visits were fewer and more widely
On an afternoon late in August, a hot and weary day, he sauntered in with
his habitual air of having in particular nothing to do and all the time
there was to do it in, and found a man waiting for him.
This was a person whom Sofia had quite overlooked after one glance had
classified and pigeon-holed him. A single glance had been enough. They do
some things better in England; a man cast for any particular role in life,
for example, is apt to conform himself, mentally, physically, and even as
to his outer habiliments, so nicely to the mould that he is forever
unmistakably what he is even to the most casual observer. So this man was a
butler, he had been born and bred a butler, he lived by buttling, a butler
he would die; not a pompous, turkeycock butler, such as the American stage
will offer you when it takes up English fashionable life in a serious way,
but a mild-mannered, decent body, with plain side-whiskers, chopped short
on a line with the lobes of his ears, otherwise clean-shaven, his hair
pathetically dyed, a colourless cast of countenance, eyes meek and mild.
He was soberly dressed in black coat and waistcoat, the latter showing a
white triangle of hard-polished shirt and a black bow tie, with indefinite
gray trousers and square-toed boots by no means new. His middle was crossed
by a thick silver watch-chain, and curious, old-fashioned buttons of agate
set in square frames of gold fastened his round stiff cuffs of yesterday.
He carried a well-brushed bowler as unfashionable as unseasonable.
When Mr. Karslake entered, the polished pattern of a young gentleman of
means, slenderly well set-up in an exquisitely tailored brown lounge suit,
wearing a boater and carrying a slender malacca stick in one chamois-gloved
hand, the butler stood up at his table, quietly acknowledged his
greeting--"Ah, Nogam! you here already?"--and waited for the younger man to
be seated before resuming his own chair: a stoop-shouldered symbol of
self-respecting respectability, not too intelligent, subdued by definite
and unresentful acceptance of "his place."
Their table was the one immediately beyond the buffet; and the cafe was
very quiet, with only three other patrons, two of whom were playing chess
while the third was reading an old issue of the Echo de Paris. So Sofia
could, if she had cared to eavesdrop, have overheard everything that passed
between Mr. Karslake and the man Nogam. But she didn't; their first few
speeches failed to excite her curiosity in the least.
She heard Mr. Karslake, who was becomingly affable to one of inferior
station, express the perfunctory hope that he hadn't kept Nogam waiting
long, and Nogam reply to the simple effect of "Oh, not at all, sir." To
this he added that he 'oped there had been no 'itch, he was most heager to
be installed in his new situation, and would do his best to give
satisfaction. Karslake replied airily that he was sure Nogam would do
famously, and Nogam said "Thank you, sir." Then Karslake announced they
must bustle along, because they were expected by some person unnamed, but
just the same he meant to have a drink before he budged a foot. And he
called a waiter and requested a whiskey and soda for himself and some beer
for Nogam.... And Sofia turned her attention to other things.
The murmur of their talk meant nothing to her after that, and she forgot
them entirely till they got up to leave, and then wasted only a moment in
wondering why Mr. Karslake, if he were, as he seemed to be, engaging a
butler for some friend or employer, should have arranged to meet the man in
a cafe of Soho. But it didn't matter, and she dismissed the incident from
What did matter was that she was to-day more than ever galled by the deadly
circumstances of her existence. If they were to continue to obtain, she
felt, life would grow simply unendurable, and she would to do something
reckless to get a little relief from the tedium and the ugliness of it all.
She was fed up with everything, the shrewishness of Mama Therese, the
drunkenness of Papa Dupont, the hideous dullness of the cafe, the smell of
food, the fumes of tobacco, the reek of wines.
She was fed up with the leers of Papa Dupont, the scowls of Mama Therese,
the grimaces of waiters, the stares of customers, the very sight of herself
in the mirror across the room.
She was fed up with being fed up, she wanted to do something lunatic, she
wanted to kick and scream and drum on the floor with her heels.
And all the while, beyond the threshold, life in the street was flowing by,
a restless stream, and the voice of it was a siren call to her hungry
heart, whispering of freedom, laughing low of love, roaring robustly of
And she sat there with folded hands, mutinous yet impotent, afraid, a
useless thing with sullen eyes ... wasted ...
As was her custom, between six and seven, before the busy hours of the
evening, she had her dinner fetched to a table near by.
Somebody had left a copy of a morning paper on the wall-seat. Sofia glanced
through it without much interest. None the less, when she had finished, she
took the sheet back to the caisse with her and intermittently, as occasion
offered, read snatches of it quite openly, so bored that she didn't care if
Mama Therese did catch her at this forbidden practice; a good row would be
almost welcome ... anything to break the monotony....
When she had digested without edification every item of news, she devoured
the advertisements of the shops, then turned to the Agony Column, which she
had saved up for a savoury.
She read the appeal of the widow of the English army officer who wanted
some kind-hearted and soft-headed person to finance her in setting up an
establishment for "paying guests."
She read the card of the young gentleman of good family but impoverished
means who admitted that he had every grace and talent heart could desire
and who, in frantic effort to escape going to work for his living, threw
himself bodily upon the generosity of an unknown, and as yet non-existent,
benefactor, hinting darkly at suicide if nothing came of this last attempt
to get himself luxuriously maintained in indolence.
She read the advertisements of money-lenders who yearned to advance
fabulous sums to the nobility and gentry on their simple notes of hand.
She read the thinly disguised professional cards of lonely ladies whose
unhappy lot could be mitigated only by congenial male companionship.
She read the ingenuous matrimonial bids.
She read the announcement of the lady of (deleted) title who was willing,
for a substantial consideration, to introduce gentlefolk of means and their
daughters to the most exclusive social circles.
She read the naive solicitation of the alleged ex-officer of the B.E.F.,
who had won through the war with every known decoration except the Double
Cross of the Order of St. Gall and with nothing of his anatomy left whole
except his cheek, begging some great-hearted soul to buy him a barrel organ
to play in the streets.
And then her eye was arrested by the appearance of her own name in the text
of a brief advertisement, which she read naturally, with heightened
IF MICHAEL LANYARD will communicate privately he will hear news of Sofia
his daughter. Address Secretan & Sypher, Solicitors, Lincoln's Inn Fields,
Sofia had never heard the name of Michael Lanyard. Neither did the firm
style of Messrs. Secretan & Sypher, Solicitors, mean anything to her.
Notwithstanding, she wasted more time than she knew trying to picture to
herself a man who looked like Michael Lanyard sounded, and wishing (no
matter what his looks might be) that she were his long-lost daughter Sofia,
and that he would see the advertisement, and communicate privately as
requested, and hear news of her, and come speeding in a Rolls-Royce to the
Cafe des Exiles, and walk in and humble Papa Dupont with a look of hauteur
and confound Mama Therese with a peremptory word, and take Sofia by the
hand and lead her out and induct her into such an environment as suited her
rightful station: said environment necessarily comprising a town house if
not on Park Lane at least nearly adjacent to it, and a country house
sitting, in the mellowed beauty of its Seventeenth Century architecture,
amid lordly acres of velvet lawn and private park.
She hoped the country house would be within sight of the sea, and that the
family garage would run to a comfortable little town-car for her personal
use when she went shopping in Bond Street, or to pay calls or leave cards,
or to concerts and matinees....
At about this stage her chateaux en Espagne began to rock upon their
foundations; a seismic phenomenon due to the appearance of Mama Therese and
Papa Dupont, coming from zinc and kitchen for their dinner, which meal they
habitually consumed in the cafe when the evening rush was over, the tables
undressed, and the establishment had settled down to drowse away the dull
hours till closing time.
Thus reminded that it was nine o'clock or thereabouts of a stuffy evening
in a stodgy world where nothing ever happened that hadn't wearily happened
the day before and the day before that and so back to the beginning of
Time, and wasn't scheduled tediously to continue happening to-morrow and
the day after and so on to the end of Eternity, Sofia sighed and shook
herself and put away the vanity of dreams.
But her beauty, as she sat brooding, was as sultry as the night.
In the rear of the room Mama Therese and Papa Dupont wrangled sourly over
their food; not with impassioned rancour but in the natural order of
things--as others might discuss the book of the moment or the play of the
year or scandal or Charlie Chaplin or the thundering fiasco of
Versailles--these two discussed each other's failings with utmost candour
and freedom of expression: handling their subjects without gloves; never
hesitating to touch upon topics not commonly mentioned in civil intercourse
or to use the apt, unprintable word; never dreaming of politely terming a
damned old hoe a spade; tossing the ball of recrimination to and fro with
Their preoccupation with this pastime was so thoroughgoing that Mama
Therese even failed to notice the passage of the postman on his last round
of the day. Ordinarily, for reasons best known to herself and which Sofia
had never thought to question, Mama Therese preferred personally to receive
all letters and contrived to be on hand at the postman's customary hours of
call. But to-night she only realized that he had come and gone when,
happening to glance toward the caisse, she saw Sofia shuffling the
half-dozen envelopes which had been left with her.
Immediately Mama Therese pushed back the table and got up, wiping chin and
moustache with her napkin as she rolled toward the desk.
But she was too late. Already Sofia had sorted out and was staring in blank
wonder at an envelope addressed to Mama Therese and bearing in its upper
left-hand corner the imprint of its origin:
_Secretan & Sypher
Fields London, W.C. 3._
As yet she was simply startled by the coincidence, her brain had not had
time to absorb its full significance--that Mama Therese should receive a
communication from these distinctively named solicitors on the evening of
the very day on which they advertised concerning a young woman named
Sofia!--when the letter was snatched out of her hand, a torrent of
objurgation was loosed upon her devoted head, and she looked into the black
scowl of the Frenchwoman.
"Sneak! Spying little cat! How dare you pry into my letters?"
"But, Mama Therese--!"
"Be still, you! Has one asked you to speak? Give me those others"--Mama
Therese with a vast show of violence appropriated them from Sofia's
unresisting grasp--"and after this keep your nose of a mouchard out of what
doesn't concern you!"
"But, Mama Therese!--"
"Hold your tongue. I wish to hear nothing from you, I hear too much--yes,
and see too much, too! Oh, don't flatter yourself I am like that fat dolt
of a Dupont, to be taken in by a pair of round eyes and innocent ways. I
know your sort, I know _you_, mam'selle, too well! Me, I am nobody's fool,
least of all yours, young woman. What goes on under my nose, I see; and if
you imagine otherwise you are a bigger simpleton that you take me for."
She snapped her fingers viciously in Sofia's crimsoned face, uttered a
contemptuous "_Zut_!" and waddled off, shaking her head and growling to
Sofia felt stunned. The offensive had been launched so swiftly, she was
conscious of having done so little to invite it, she had been taken
unprepared, thrown into confusion, her feeble objections silenced and
overwhelmed by that deluge of abuse, publicly disgraced....
Her face was burning, and tears started in her eyes; but she winked them
back, she would not let them fall. Conscious of the grins of the handful of
patrons, and the leers of the waiters, she steeled herself to suppress
every betrayal of the mortification in which her soul was writhing, she
made no sign but stared on stonily at the blackness of the night that
peered in at the open doors.
Then indignation came to her rescue, the flaming colour ebbed from her face
and left it unnaturally white, the mists before her eyes dissipated and
their look grew fixed and hard, even her lips took on a grim, unyielding
set. Beneath the desk her hands clenched into small fists. But she did not
The sensation stirred up by the outbreak of Mama Therese subsided, the
domino players resumed their game, the old gentleman reading Le Rire turned
a page and read on with a knowing smile, lovers returned to their
low-voiced love-making, waiters yawned behind their hands, all was as it
had been save that, at their table (Sofia could see by the mirror, without
looking directly) Mama Therese and Papa Dupont seemed to have declared an
armistice and were gobbling down the rest of their meal in silence and
Presently they got up and sought their living quarters. To do this they had
to pass the caisse and through the green baize door. Mama Therese marched
ahead with forbidding frown and quivering chins, with the militant carriage
of misprized and affronted rectitude. To her, it was obvious, Sofia for the
time being did not exist. At her heels Papa Dupont shambled uneasily,
hanging the head of deep thoughtfulness, avoiding Sofia's gaze. It was his
part to pretend that all was well and always would be; only he lacked the
effrontery, just then, for his usual smirk.
When they had disappeared Sofia began to think.
There was something more in this affair than mere coincidence, there was
mystery, a sinister question.
Her countenance grew as dark as the complexion of her reverie. Athwart the
field of her abstracted vision drifted the figure of young Mr. Karslake.
She was barely conscious of it.
He seated himself with plain premeditation directly opposite the caisse,
staring openly. But Sofia did not heed him at all. An odd smile shadowed
his lips, an expression half eager, half apprehensive; there was a hint of
puzzlement in his scrutiny. It was rather as if he had unexpectedly found
some new reason for thinking the girl an exceptionally interesting
personality. But she continued all unaware.
Shortly after being served with a drink which he ordered but made no offer
to taste, he moved as if minded to rise and cross to Sofia, sat up and
edged forward on the wall-seat with a singular air of timidity and
embarrassment. But whatever his intention, he reconsidered and sat back,
glancing round the room to see if anybody were watching him. He could not
see that anybody was. Not even Sofia. Relieved, he settled back, found a
handsome gold case in the waistcoat of his dinner jacket, extracted a
cigarette, nipped it between his lips--and forgot to light it.
Of a sudden Sofia had arrived at a decision; and with every expression of
it in her manner she slipped down from the high stool and left the caisse
to take care of itself. Turning to the swing door she barged through with a
high head and fire of determination illuminating her face. She had had
enough of riddles.
Behind the zinc an elderly and trusted waiter was nodding. The kitchen was
cold and dark for the night. Papa Dupont, then, would be upstairs, closeted
with the genius of the establishment.
From the pantry a narrow staircase led up to the apartment above the
restaurant. Sofia mounted rapidly, with a firm tread that was nevertheless
practically noiseless, thanks to the paper-thin soles of well-worn
slippers. She could hear voices bickering above.
At the top there was a short, dark corridor, with three doors. Two of these
were closed on sleeping-rooms; the third door, to a sort of combination
office and living-room, stood open, letting out a stream of light.
Sofia approached on tiptoe, though the altercation going on within had
reached a stage so acute that it was doubtful whether either of the
disputants would have heard had she stumped like a navvy.
The point of dissension was not at first apparent, because Mama Therese was
speaking, and what she said had exclusively to do with her estimate of
Dupont's character, the mettle of his spirit, the stuff of his mentality,
the authenticity of his pedigree (with especial reference to the virtue of
his maternal ancestry) and the circumstances of his upbringing; which
estimate in sum was low but by no means so low as the terms in which Mama
Therese was inspired to couch it.
Papa Dupont did not seem to be greatly interested. He had heard all this
before, many a time, with insignificant phraseological variations. Sofia,
pausing unseen and unsuspected in the darkness just outside the doorway,
could see him slouching deep in his chair, to one side of the table, his
soft fat hands deep in the pockets of his trousers, his chin sunken on his
chest, something dogged in the louring frown which he was bending upon
nothing, something of genuine indifference in his passive attitude toward
the blowsy virago who was leaning across the table the better to spit
vituperation at him.
And he waited with singular patience until she had to stop for want of
breath. Then he shrugged and said heavily:
"Still, I don't see what else you propose to do, my old one."
Apparently his old one was as poor in expedient as he. "It is for nothing,"
she said, acidly, "that one looks to you!"
"I have said my say. If you have anything better to suggest...." He made a
rhetorical pause for reply, but Mama Therese was well blown and sulky for
the moment. "I am not old, not so old as you, and I have reason to believe
the girl is not indifferent to my person."
"Drooling old pig," Mama Therese observed with reason: "if you dream she
would trouble to look twice at you--!"
"That remains to be seen. And I, for one, fail to see how else we are to
hold her. All this money that has been coming in, paid on the dot every
quarter--that means there is more, much more to come to her. Are you ready
to give it up?"
"Never!" Mama Therese thumped the table vehemently. "It is mine by rights,
I have earned it. Look at the way I have slaved for her, the tender care I
have lavished upon her, ever since she was a little one in my arms."
"By all means," Papa Dupont agreed, "look at it, but don't talk about it to
her. She might not understand you. Also, do not depend upon her to endorse
any claim you might set up based upon such assertions."
"She is an ungrateful baggage!"
"Possibly; but she is human, she has a memory--"
"Are you going to be sentimental about her again?" Mama Therese demanded.
"Pitiful old goat!"
"But I am not in the least sentimental," Papa Dupont disclaimed. "It is
rather I who am practical, you who are sentimental. I ask you: Is there any
way we can hold on to that money unless I marry Sofia? You do not answer.
Why? Because there _is_ no other way. Then I am practical. But you will not
admit that. And why? Because we have lived together for a number of years
through force of habit, because once, very long ago, we were lovers, you
and I--so long ago that you have forgotten you ever had a softer name for
me than pig or goat. Who is the sentimentalist now--eh?"
"Shut your face!" Mama Therese growled. "You annoy me. I have a
presentiment I shall one day murder you."
"You would have done that long ago," Papa Dupont pointed out, "if you had
had the courage. Enough! I am silent. But when you are tired trying to
think out another way, reflect on my solution. Meantime, let me have
another look at that accursed letter."
Mama Therese did not respond, she offered no objection when Dupont took up
the sheet of paper that lay between them, but ground the heels of her hands
into her fat cheeks and sat glowering vindictively while he read aloud,
slowly, with the labour of one to whom reading is unaccustomed dissipation:
Herewith we beg to enclose our cheque to your order in the sum of two
hundred and fifty pounds, being the quarterly payment in advance due you
from the estate of our deceased client, the Princess Sofia Vassilyevski,
for your care of her daughter. We further beg to advise that, pursuant to
the provisions of her will, we begin to-day, on the eighteenth birthday of
the young Princess Sofia, a search for her father with the object of
apprising him of his daughter's existence. Therefore we would request you
to make arrangements to have the young Princess Sofia brought to England
forthwith from the convent in France where we understand she is finishing
her education. We take leave, however, to advise that, pending the outcome
of our enquiries, the question of her father's existence be not discussed
with the young princess. In event of his death being established or of
failure to find him within six months, the Princess Sofia is to enter
without more delay or formality into possession of her mother's estate.
Papa Dupont put down the letter. "It is plain enough," he expounded: "if
this father is found, we can whistle for our money; whereas if I were
married to Sofia, as her husband I would control--"
He broke off sharply, and added in consternation: "One million thunders!"
Sofia stood between them.
And yet she wasn't the Sofia they knew, but another person altogether, a
transfigured and exalted Sofia, aflame with righteous wrath and
contemptuous with the pride of birth which had leaped into full being a
A princess, born the daughter of a princess, now she knew and looked it.
All thought of fear or deference was gone, she had nothing left but scorn
for these two despicable creatures, the fat harpy and her crapulent consort
who had battened so long upon her misery, who had held her in bondage to
the most menial tasks of their wretched restaurant while they filched and
hoarded the money paid them for giving her the care and the advantages that
were her due.
And something of this new-found dignity, to which her title was so
unquestionable, which set her upon a level from which she could not but
look down on these two paltry frauds, so abashed the Frenchwoman that the
phrases of invective and vilification which gushed instinctively from the
foul springs of her temper stuck in her throat, she couldn't utter them,
and she well-nigh choked with impotent fury and fear as the girl spoke.
"You swindlers!" Sofia said, deliberately. "You poor cheats! To pocket a
thousand pounds a year of my mother's money--and make me slave for you in
your wretched cafe! And for eighteen years! For eighteen years you have
been robbing me of every right I had in the world, robbing me of everything
I've needed and longed and prayed for, everything you were paid to give
me--while I drudged for you and endured your ill-temper and your abuse and
the contamination of association with you!... Give me that letter."
She possessed herself of it unopposed. But now Mama Therese found her
"What--what do you mean?" she gasped, livid with fright. Was not a fortune
slipping through her avaricious fingers? "What are you going to do?"
"Do?" Sofia cried. "I don't know, more than this: I'm not going to
stay another hour under this roof, I'm going to leave to-night--now--
immediately! That's what I'm going to do!"
"Where are you going?"
The question halted Sofia in the doorway.
"To find my father--wherever he is!"
She left the two staring at each other, dumbfounded and aghast.
At the far end of the passage she flung open her bedchamber door, entered,
turned up the light, and snatched her cloak and hat from pegs beneath the
curtained shelf that held her scanty wardrobe.
Adjusting these before the mirror she could hear Therese bawling at Dupont
to follow and stop her. Sofia had little fear he would find heart to
attempt that, none the less she hurried. Once her hat was adjusted there
was nothing to detain her; the best she had she stood in; no sentimental
associations invested that room, the tomb of her defrauded childhood, the
prison of her maltreated youth, to make her linger there, but only hateful
ones to speed her going.
She turned and fled.
Stumbling on the stairs, she heard Therese still screaming imprecations and
commands at Dupont, then the clumping of the man's feet as, yielding at
length, he started in pursuit.
Through the green baize door she burst into the cafe like a young tornado.
Every head turned her way with gaping mouths and protruding eyes of
astonishment as she stopped at the caisse and brazenly, in the face of them
all, plundered the till.
This was a matter of necessity. Sofia had not one shilling of her own. But
those two had robbed her, what she took was not so much as a thousandth
part of the money of which they had despoiled her. Moreover, she dared not
go out penniless to face London.
Snatching a handful of loose coin, she made for the door. But the delay had
been fatal. Dupont was now at her heels, and displaying extraordinary
agility in a man of his years of dissipation and sedentary habits. And
Therese was not far behind.
Seeing coins trickling through the fingers of the fugitive and falling to
ring and spin upon the floor, the Frenchwoman raised an anguished shriek of
"_Thief! Stop thief!_"--and such part of the audience as had remained in
its seats rose up as one man.
In the same instant Dupont's fingers clamped down on Sofia's shoulder. She
screamed, and he chuckled and dragged her back. Then his arm was struck up
by a deft hand, the girl slipped from his hold and darted out through the
Roaring with rage (now that his blood was up, his heart in the chase)
Dupont turned upon the meddler. This was young Mr. Karslake. Dupont did not
know him except by sight, but that slender, boyish figure and the
semi-apologetic smile on Karslake's lips did not inspire respect. Blindly
and with all his might Dupont swung his right to the other's head, only to
find it wasn't there.
The weight of the unexpended blow carried Dupont off his feet. He fell in a
heap, and Mama Therese, charging wildly after Sofia, tripped on his body
and deposited fourteen stone of solid flesh squarely in the small of
Dupont's back with a force that drove the breath out of him in one agonized
Karslake laughed aloud: it was all as good as a cinema. Then he followed
It was a dark and silent street by night, little used, a mere link between
two main thoroughfares. Sofia, running for dear life, was still far from
the nearest corner. Karslake doubled nimbly across the street to the only
vehicle in sight, an impressive Rolls-Royce town-car. Jumping on the
running-board he pointed out the fleeing shadow to the chauffeur.
"Lay alongside that young woman before she makes the corner, Albert!"
Without delay the car began to move.
Meanwhile, the Cafe des Exiles was erupting antic shapes, waiters,
customers, Dupont, Therese. The quiet hour was made hideous by their yells.
"_Stop thief!" "A la voleuse!" "L'arretez!" "A la voleuse!" "Stop thief!_"
An entirely superfluous bobby weathered the corner, discovered Sofia in
flight across the street, came about, and shaped a diagonal course to cut
across her bows. She saw him coming and stopped short with a gasp of
dismay. Simultaneously the Rolls-Royce slid smoothly in between them and
Karslake hopped down. Sofia uttered a small cry, more of surprise than
fright, and hung back, trying to free the arm by which he was trying to
guide her to the open door.
"It's our only chance," he warned her, coolly. "We're between two fires.
Better not delay!"
She yielded and tumbled in. Karslake followed and slammed the door. The car
shot away and rounded into the cross street before the bobby could collect
himself enough to look at its license plate. He made after it, but when he
had reached the corner it had turned another and was lost.
At the second turning Karslake looked round from the window with a
reassuring laugh, and settled back beside Sofia.
"So that ends that!"
She stared wide-eyed through the shadows. She knew him now, she was not in
the least afraid, but she was confused beyond measure.
"Why--why--" she faltered--"what--who are you and where are you taking me?"
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" said the young man, contritely. "I forgot. One
ought to introduce one's self before rescuing ladies in distress--but there
really wasn't time, you know. If you'll overlook the informality, my name's
Karslake, Roger Karslake, Princess Sofia, and I'm taking you to your
HOUSE OF THE WOLF
This startling announcement Sofia received without comment and with a
composure quite as surprising. The life which had made her what she was, a
young woman singularly unillusioned, well-poised, and well-informed, had
brought out in her nature a strong vein of scepticism. She was not easily
to be impressed. The more remarkable the circumstance in question, the less
inclined was she to exclaim about it, the stronger was her propensity to
look shrewdly into the matter and find out for herself just what it was
that made it seem so odd.
She didn't repose much faith in those striking synchronizations which
apparently unrelated influences sometimes effect with related events, and
which we are accustomed to term coincidences. She distrusted their specious
seeming of spontaneity, she suspected a deep design behind them all.
For example: Up to the moment of her flight from the Cafe des Exiles there
had been, as Sofia saw it, nothing extraordinary or inexplicable in the
chapter of happenings which had made her acquainted, as abruptly as
tardily, with certain facts concerning her parentage.
You might, if you felt like it, call it a strange coincidence that she
should have read the advertisement of Messrs. Secretan & Sypher just before
their letter was delivered and Mama Therese by her intemperate conduct
warmed Sofia's simmering suspicions to the boiling point. But then Sofia
read the Agony Column every time it came into her hands: she would have
been more surprised had she missed noticing her given name in print, and
downright ashamed of herself if she had failed to associate the letter with
If you asked her, she called it Fate, the foreordained workings of occult
forces charged with dominion over human affairs. Sooner or later she must
somehow have learned the truth about her right place in the world; and to
her way of thinking it was no more astonishing that she should have learned
it through accident supplemented by the acute inferences of a sharply
stimulated imagination, rather than through being waited upon by a
delegation of legal gentlemen commissioned with the duty of enlightening
her. And the colossal set-piece of the evening having been duly exploded,
no sequel whatever could expect anything better than relegation to the
cheerless limbo of anticlimax.
Thus when young Mr. Karslake explained his uninvited if timely intervention
by stating that he was conducting her to the parent of whose existence she
had so recently been informed, he succeeded--not to put too fine a point
upon it--only in making it all seem a bit thick.
So for the time being Sofia contented herself with silent study of his face
as fitfully revealed by the passing lights of Shaftesbury Avenue.
A nice face (she thought) open and naive, perhaps a trace too much so; but,
viewed at close quarters, by no means so child-like as she had thought it,
and by no means wanting in evidences of quiet strength if one forgave the
funny little moustache which (now one came to, observe it seriously) was
precisely what lent that possibly deceptive look of innocence and
inconsequence, positively weakening the character of what might otherwise
have been a countenance to foster confidence.
As for Mr. Karslake, he endured this candid scrutiny with a faintly
apprehensive smile, but volunteered nothing more; so that, when the silence
in time acquired an accent of constraint, it was Sofia who had to break it,
not Mr. Karslake.
"I'm wondering about you," she explained quite gravely.
"One fancied as much, Princess Sofia."
She liked his way of saying that; the title seemed to fall naturally from
his lips, without a trace of irony. None the less, it wouldn't do to be too
readily influenced in his favour.
"Do you really know my father?"
"Rather!" said Mr. Karslake. "You see, I'm his secretary."
"Upward of eighteen months now."
"And how long have you known I was his daughter?"
Mr. Karslake, consulting a wrist-watch, permitted himself a quiet smile.
"Thirty-eight minutes," he announced--"say, thirty-nine."
"But how did you find out--?"
"Your father called me up--can't say from where--said he'd just learned you
were acting as cashier at the Cafe des Exiles, and would I be good enough
to take you firmly by the hand and lead you home."
"And how did he learn--?"
"That he didn't say. 'Fraid you'll have to ask him, Princess Sofia."
Genuinely diverted by the cross-examination, he awaited with unruffled good
humour the next question to be put by this amazingly collected and direct
young person. But Sofia hesitated. She didn't want to be rude, and Karslake
seemed to be telling a tolerably straight story; still, she couldn't
altogether believe in him as yet. She couldn't help it if his visit to the
restaurant had been a shade too opportune, his account of himself too
No: she wasn't in the least afraid. Even if she were being kidnapped, she
wasn't afraid. She was so young, so absurdly confident in her ability to
take care of herself. On the other hand, intuition kept admonishing her
that in real life things simply didn't happen like this, so smoothly, so
fortunately; somehow, somewhere, in this curious affair, something must be
"Please: what is my father's name?"
"Prince Victor Vassilyevski."
"You're sure it isn't Michael Lanyard?"
Now Mr. Karslake was genuinely startled and showed it. Sofia remarked that
he eyed her uneasily.
"My sainted aunt! Where did you get hold of that name?"
"Isn't it my father's?"
"Ye-es," the young man admitted, reluctantly; at least with something
strongly resembling reluctance. "But he doesn't use it any more."
Mr. Karslake was silent, thoughtful. Sofia felt that she had scored and
with determination pressed her point.
"Do you mind telling me why he doesn't use that name, if it's his?"
"See here, Princess Sofia"--Karslake slewed round to face her squarely with
his most earnest and persuasive manner--"I am merely Prince Victor's
secretary, I'm not supposed to know all his secrets, and those I do know
I'm supposed not to talk about. I'd much rather you put that question to
Prince Victor yourself."
"I shall," Sofia announced with decision. "When am I to see him? To-night?"
"Of course. That is, I presume you will. I mean to say, Prince Victor
wasn't at home when I left, but if I know him he's sure to be when we
arrive. And I'm taking you there as directly as a motor can travel in this
Sofia looked out of the window. The car, having turned down Regent Street
from Piccadilly Circus, was now traversing sedate Pall Mall; and in another
moment it swung into the passage between St. James's Palace and Marlborough
House Chapel; and then they were in The Mall, with the Victoria Memorial
ahead, glowing against the dingy backing of Buckingham Palace.
Now, since all Sofia's reading had inculcated the belief that the
enterprising kidnapper always made off with his victim by way of dark
bystreets and unsavoury neighbourhoods, she felt somewhat reassured.
"Have we very far to go?"
"We're almost there now--Queen Anne's Gate."
A good enough address. Though that proved nothing. There was still plenty
of time, anything might happen....
Sofia shrugged, and settled back to await developments.
But there was nothing to warrant misgivings in the aspect of the dwelling
before which the car presently drew up. If it wasn't the palace Sofia had
unconsciously been looking forward to, it owned a solid, dull-faced dignity
that suited well the town-house of a person of quality, it measured up
quite acceptably to Sofia's notion of what was becoming to the condition of
a prince in exile--who naturally would live quietly, in view of the recent
revolution in Russia.
Without augmented fears, then, though still on the alert for anything that
might seem questionable, and more agitated with excitement than she let him
suspect, Sofia permitted Mr. Karslake to conduct her to the door.
He had barely touched the bell-button when this door opened, revealing a
vista of spacious entrance-hall.
To one side stood a manservant to whom Sofia paid no attention till the
sound of his name on Karslake's tongue struck an echo from her memory.
"Thanks, Nogam. Prince Victor home yet?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Tell him, please, when he comes in, we're waiting in the study."
The servant was the man whom Karslake had met in the Cafe des Exiles only a
few hours before. Catching Sofia's quick, questioning glance, Nogam paused
at respectful attention. And, even then, she was struck again with his
fidelity to the role in the social system for which Life had cast him. In
the cafe, that afternoon, he had cut a mildly incongruous figure,
unpretending but alien to that atmosphere; here, in the plain evening-dress
livery of his station, he blended perfectly into the picture.
Karslake gave his hat and stick to the man, then opened one wing of a great
double doorway, and with a bow invited Sofia to precede him. She faltered,
hazily conceiving that threshold in the guise of an inglorious Rubicon. But
she had already gone too far into this adventure to draw back now without
forfeiting her self-respect. With a deceptively firm step she entered a
room to wonder at.
Sombre shadows masked much of its magnificent proportions, but what Sofia
could see suggested less the study of a man of everyday interests than the
private museum of an Orientalist whose wealth knew no limits.
The air was warm and close, aromatic with the ghosts of ten thousand
perished perfumes. The quiet, when Karslake had closed the door, was
oppressive, as if some dark enchantment here had power to tame and silence
the growl of London that was never elsewhere in all the city for an instant
On a great table of black teakwood inlaid with mother of pearl burned a
solitary lamp, a curious affair in filigree of brass, furnishing what
illumination there was. Its closely shaded rays made vaguely visible walls
dark with books, tier upon tier climbing to the ceiling; chairs of odd
shape, screens of glowing lacquer; tables and stands supporting caskets of
burning cinnabar, of ivory, of gold, of kaleidoscopic cloisonne; trays
heaped high with unset jewels; cabinets crowded with rare objects of
Eastern art; squat shapes of neglected gods brandishing weird weapons;
grotesque devil masks ferociously a-grin; chests of strange woods strangely
fashioned, strangely carved, and decorated with inlays of precious metals,
banded with huge straps of black iron, from which gushed in rainbow
profusion silks and brocades stiff with barbaric embroideries in gold- and
silver-thread and precious stones.
Confused by the impact upon her perceptions of so much that was unexpected
and bizarre, the girl looked round with an uncertain smile, and found
Karslake watching her with a manner of peculiar gravity and concern.
"Prince Victor is an extraordinary man," Karslake replied to her unspoken
comment; "probably the most learned Orientalist alive. Sometimes I think
the East has never had a secret he doesn't know."
He paused and drew nearer, with added earnestness in his regard.
"Princess Sofia," said he, diffidently, "if I may say something without
meaning to seem disrespectful--"
Perplexed, she encouraged him with one word: "Please."
"I'm afraid," Karslake ventured, "you will have many strange experiences in
this new life. Some of them, I fancy, you won't immediately understand,
some things may seem wrong to you, you may find yourself confronted with
conditions hard to accept ..."
He rested as if in doubt, and she fancied that he was listening intently,
almost apprehensively, for some signal of warning. But on her part Sofia
heard no sound.
Impressed and puzzled, she uttered a prompting "Yes?"
"I only want to say"--he employed a tone so low that she could barely hear
him--"if you don't mind--whatever happens--I'd be awf'ly glad if you'd
think of me as one who sincerely wants to be your friend."
"Why," she said in wonder--"thank you. I shall be glad--"
She checked in astonishment: a man was approaching from the general
direction of the door by which they had entered.
The effect was uncanny, as if the figure had materialized before her very
eyes, out of clear air, as if one of those many shadows had taken on shape
and substance while she looked.
The man himself was nothing unusual in general aspect, of no remarkable
stature, neither tall nor small, neither robust nor slender. His evening
clothes were without fault, but as much might be said of ten thousand men
who might be seen any night in the public rendezvous of leisured London.
His carriage had special distinction only in that he moved with a sort of
feline grace. Still, something elusive made him unlike any other man Sofia
had ever met, something arresting and not altogether prepossessing.
As he drew nearer and his features became more clearly defined by the
light, she was sensible of gazing into a face of unique cast. Of an odd
grayish pallor accentuated by hair so black that it might have been painted
on his skull with india-ink, the skin seemed to be as soft and smooth as a
child's, beardless and wholly without lustre. The mouth was sensuous yet
firm, with hard, full lips. Leaden pouches hung beneath heavy-lidded eyes
set at a noticeable angle. The eyes themselves were as black as night and
as lightless; the rays of the lamp struck no gleam from them; in spite of
this they were compelling, masterful, and disconcerting.
Karslake at once fell back, with a bow so low it was little less than an
The man nodded acknowledgment of this greeting without detaching attention
from the girl. His voice, slightly tremulous with emotion, uttered her
She collected herself with an effort. "I am Sofia," she replied almost
"And I, your father ..."
Prince Victor lifted hands of singular delicacy, slender and tapering,
whose long fingers were dressed with many curious rings.
A reluctance she could not understand hindered Sofia from going gladly into
those arms. She had to make herself yield. They tightened hungrily about
her. She closed her eyes and experienced a slight, invincible shudder.
The lips that touched her forehead astonished her with their warmth.
Instinctively she had expected them to be cool, as frigid as the effect of
that strange mask of which they formed a part.
Then, held at arm's-length, she submitted to an inspection whose sum was
enunciated with a strange smile of gratification:
"You are beautiful."
In embarrassment she murmured: "I am glad you think so--father."
"As beautiful as your mother--in her time the most beautiful creature in
the world--her image, a flawless reproduction, even to her colouring, the
shade of the hair, the eyes--so like the sea!"
"I am glad," the girl repeated, nervously.
"And until to-night I did not know you lived!"
She mustered up courage enough to ask: "How--?"
The heavy lids drooped lower over the illegible eyes. "My attention was
called to a newspaper advertisement signed by a firm of solicitors. I got
in touch with them--a matter of some difficulty, since it was after
business hours--and found out where to look for you. Then, prevented from
acting as quickly as I wished, myself, I sent Karslake here to bring you to
"But, according to their letter, the solicitors thought I was in France, in
"When they advertised for me--yes. But by the time I enquired they were
"But the advertisement was addressed to Michael Lanyard!"
The thin lips formed a faint smile. "That was once my name. I no longer use
Against a feeling that she was adopting an attitude both undutiful and
unbecoming, Sofia persisted.
Prince Victor Vassilyevski gave a gesture of pain and reluctance.
"Must I tell you? Why not? You must know some day, as well now as later,
perhaps. Twenty years ago the name of Michael Lanyard was famous throughout
Europe--or shall I say infamous?--the name of the greatest thief of modern
times, otherwise known as 'The Lone Wolf'."
Involuntarily, Sofia stepped back, as if some shape of horror had been
suddenly thrust before her face.
"The Lone Wolf!" she echoed in a voice of dismay. "A thief! You!"
The man who called himself her father replied with a series of slow,
"That startles you?" he said in an indulgent voice. "Naturally. But you
will soon grow accustomed to the thought, you will condone that chapter in
my history, remembering I am no longer that man, no longer a thief, that
for many years now my record has been without reproach. You will remember
that there is more joy in Heaven over the one sinner who repents ... You
will forgive the father, if only for your mother's sake."
"For my mother's sake--?"
"What the Lone Wolf was in his day, your mother was in hers--the most
brilliant adventuress Europe ever knew."
"Oh!" cried the girl in semi-hysterical protest. "Oh, no, no! Impossible!"
"I assure you, it is quite true. Some day I may tell you her history--and
mine. For the present, you will do well to think no more about what I have
confessed. Repining can never mend the past. It is to-day and to-morrow you
must think of: that you are restored to me, and that I have not only the
means but a great hunger to make you happy, to gratify your slightest
"I want nothing!" Sofia insisted, wildly.
"You want sleep," Prince Victor corrected, fondly--"you want it badly. You
are nervous, overstrung, in no condition to understand the great good
fortune that has befallen you. But to-morrow you will see things in a
Apparently he had manipulated some signal unremarked by Sofia. The door
opened, framing the figure of the man Nogam. Without looking round, but
with an inscrutable smile, Prince Victor took the girl in his arms again
and held her close.
"You rang, sir?"
"Oh, are you there, Nogam? Is the apartment ready for the Princess Sofia?"
"Quite ready, sir."
"Be good enough to conduct her to it." Again Prince Victor kissed Sofia's
forehead, then let her go. "Good-night, my child."
Moving slowly toward the door, drooping, Sofia made inarticulate response.
She felt suddenly stupefied with fatigue. To think meant an effort that
mocked her flagging powers. A vast lassitude was weighing upon her, body
and spirit were faint in the enervation of an inexorable disconsolation.
Alone with his secretary, Prince Victor Vassilyevski dropped indifferently
the guise of manner with which he had clothed himself for the benefit of
the woman whom he claimed as his own child. That semblance of shy affection
coloured by regrets for the past and modified by the native nobility of a
prince in exile--so becoming in a parent to whose bosom a daughter whom he
had never seen was suddenly restored--being of no more service for the
present, was incontinently discarded. In its stead Victor favoured Karslake
with a slow smile of understanding that broadened into an insuppressible
grin of successful malice, a grimace of crude exultation through which
peered out the impish savage mutinously imprisoned within a flimsy husk of
Suspecting this self-betrayal, he erased the grin swiftly, but not so
swiftly that Karslake failed to note it. And the young man, smiling amiably
and respectfully in return, was sensible of a thrill: yet another glimpse
had been given him into the mystery that slept behind that countenance
normally so impenetrable.
But he was studious to show nothing of his own emotion. It was his part to
be merely a mirror, to reflect rather than to feel, to be an instrument
infinitely supple and unfailing, never an independent intelligence. Not
otherwise could he count on holding his place in Victor's favour.
"You were quicker than I hoped."
"I had no trouble, sir," Karslake returned, cheerfully. "Things rather
played into my hands."
Victor dropped into a chair beside the table and lifted the lid of a small
golden casket. Helping himself to one of its store of cigarettes, he made
Karslake free of the remainder with a gracious hand. The secretary
demurred, producing his pocket case.
"If you don't mind, sir ..."
Victor moved a supercilious eyebrow. "Woodbines again?"
"Sorry, sir; I know they're pretty awful and all that, but they were all I
could get in France, and I contracted a taste for them I can't seem to
cure. I remember, while I lay in a hospital, hardly a whole bone in my
body, thanks to the Boche and his flying circus--it was that lot sent me
crashing, you know--the nurses used to tempt me with the finest Turkish;
but somehow I couldn't go them; I'd beg for Woodbines."
Prince Victor dismissed the subject curtly. "I am waiting to hear about
"Not much to tell, sir. There seemed to be a storm of sorts brewing when I
got there. The young woman was at her desk with a face like a thundercloud.
While I was trying to make up my mind what would be my best approach, she
jumped down, flew upstairs and, I gathered, kicked up a holy row. You see,
she'd seen that advertisement of Secretan & Sypher's, and smelt a rat."
"What did she say?"
"Nothing definite, sir: seemed to understand she was the daughter of
Princess Sofia Vassilyevski, only she objected to her father being anybody
but Michael Lanyard."
"After a bit she stampeded downstairs again, with the old girl and that
swine of a Dupont at her heels. I blocked him and gave Sofia a chance to
get outside. The whole establishment boiled out into the street after us,
yelling like fun, but I got the girl into the car ... and here we are."
But Prince Victor seemed to have lost interest. The glow ebbing from his
face, his lips tightening, the thick lids drooping low over his eyes, he
sat in apparent abstraction, aping the impassivity of the graven idols that
graced his study.
"I don't mind owning, sir," the younger man resumed, nervously, "she had me
sparring for wind when she put it to me point-blank her father's name was
Without moving Victor enquired in a dull voice: "What did you tell her?"
"That it was a name you had once used, sir, but.... Well, what you told
her, all except the Lone Wolf business. Don't mind telling you I was in a
rare funk till you capped my story so neatly."
He laughed and ventured with a hesitation quite boyish: "I say, Prince
Victor--if it's not an impertinent question--was there any truth in that? I
mean about your having been the Lone Wolf twenty years ago."
"Not a syllable," said Victor, dryly.
"Then your name never was Michael Lanyard?"
"Never, but ..."
During a long pause the secretary fidgeted inwardly but had the wisdom to
refrain from showing further inquisitiveness. He could see that strong
passions were working in Victor: a hand, extended upon the table, unclosed
and closed with a peculiar clutching action; the muscles contracted round
mouth and eyes, moulding the face into a cast of disquieting malevolence.
The voice, when at length it resumed, was bitter.
"But Michael Lanyard was my enemy ... and is to-day.... He became a lover
of Sofia's mother, he had a hand in overturning plans I had made, he
humiliated, mocked me.... And to-day he is interfering again.... But ..."
Victor sank back in his chair. Suddenly that unholy grin of his flashed and
"But now his impertinence fails, his insolence over-reaches itself. Now I
have the whip-hand and ... I shall use it!"
Vindictiveness that could find relief only in action mastered the man.
"Be good enough to take this dictation."
Karslake turned to the table and opened a portfolio of illuminated Spanish
"Ready, sir," he said, with pencil poised.
_"To Michael Lanyard, Intelligence Division, the War Office, Whitehall.
Sir: Your daughter Sofia is now with me. Permit me to suggest that, in
consideration of this situation, you cease to meddle with my affairs. Your
own intelligence must tell you nothing could be more fatal than an attempt
to communicate with her._"
"Sign on the typewriter with the initial _V_."
"Type it on plain paper, use a plain envelope, be sure that neither has a
watermark, and get it off to-night without fail. Take a taxi to St. Pancras
station and post it there. If you make haste you can get it in a pillar-box
before the last collection."
"I shan't lose a minute, sir."
Karslake straightened up, folding the paper, and made for the door.
"One moment, Karslake.... This man, Nogam: where did you pick him up?"
"He used to buttle for my father, sir, but got into trouble--some domestic
unpleasantness, I believe--needed money, and raised a cheque. The old boy
let him off easy; but I've got the cheque, and Nogam knows it. The fellow's
perfectly trained and absolutely dependable, knows his place and his duties
and not another blessed thing. I'll send him in if you like."
Prince Victor uttered with dry accent: "Why?"
"Thought you might care to have a talk with him, sir."
"Oh!" Mr. Karslake exclaimed--"I didn't know."
"Quite so," commented Prince Victor. "I shan't need you again to-night,
When the secretary had gone, Victor sat motionless, so still that his
breathing scarcely stirred his body, with a face absolutely imperturbable,
steadfastly gazing into that darkness which shrouded the workings of his
On the doorstep a shrill whistle sounded: Nogam calling Karslake's taxi.
Victor heard the vehicle roll in and stand panting at the curb, then the
slam of its door, the diminishing rumble of its departure.
The house door closed, and after a little the study door opened, and Nogam
halted on the threshold.
Unstirring Victor enquired: "What is it, Nogam?"
"I wished to enquire would there be anything more to-night, sir."
"'Nk you, sir."
"But Nogam: in this house, regardless of the custom which may have obtained
in other establishments where you have served, you will always knock before
entering a room, and never enter until you obtain permission."
"But if I'm sure the room is empty, sir, and get no answer--?"
"Then you may enter any room but this. Never this, unless I am here--or Mr.
Karslake is--and you get leave."
"'Nk you, sir."
As the door closed Victor extended a thin, effeminate hand to a casket of
ivory, searched with sensitive finger-tips its exquisite tracery until a
cunningly hidden spring responded and the lid, splitting in two, sank down
into its walls. In the pocket thus revealed were many pills, apparently
hand-moulded, of a grayish-brown substance, putty-soft.
Slowly Victor selected three, placed one after another upon his tongue, and
He shut the casket and sat waiting.
Slowly the keenness of his countenance became blurred, as if the hand of an
unseen sculptor were rubbing down its features, doing away the veneer with
which Europe had overlaid the primitive Asiatic, which now showed on the
surface, in every detail of coarsely modelled nose, oblique eyes of animal
cunning, pendulous lips cruel and sensual.
By degrees a faint trace of colour began to flush Victor's cheeks, a smile
modified the set of his mouth, the heavy-lidded eyes lost their lustreless
opacity and glimmered with uncanny light.
He breathed deeply, evenly, with an evident relish. The action of the opium
was visibly renewing his powers. His expression, softening, became terrible
with brute tenderness and longing. Gazing into shadows in which he saw that
which he wished ardently to see, he stretched forth his arms, and his lips
moved, shaping a name:
As those syllables, freighted with that undying passion which consumed the
man, sounded upon the stillness, Victor turned sharply, with a gesture of
irritation, looking aside, listening.
Instantaneously the Asiatic disappeared, thrust back into its habitual
latency within the prison of European: Prince Victor was as he had been, as
always to the world, cool, composed, and crafty, master, never creature, of
A faint buzzing was audible, broken by muffled clicks.
Rising, Victor approached a table in a corner and with a key from his
pocket ring unlocked a heavy casket of bronze. As he raised its cover a
small electric bulb illuminated the interior, focussing on the
paper-covered face of a mechanical writing device, upon which a pencil with
a broad flat lead operated by a metal arm was tracing characters resembling
the hieroglyphics of the Chinese.
When the clicking ceased and the pencil was at rest, Victor caught an end
of the paper and pulled it forward until a blank surface again occupied the
writing-bed. Upon this with another pencil he inscribed a reply, then
closed and relocked the casket.
Back at the table with the lamp, the message just received became crisp
black ash on a brazen tray.
From a locked chest Victor produced an inverness and a soft hat of black
felt. Wearing these he moved quietly out of the lamp's radius of light, and
made himself one with the shadows that crowded one another round the walls.
He did not leave by the hall door; but of a sudden the room was untenanted.
Downstream from The Pool, a little way below Shadwell, an uncouth row of
dilapidated dwellings in those days stood--or, better, squatted, like a
mute company of draggletail crones--atop a river-wall whose ancient blocks,
all ropy with the slime of centuries, peered dimly out through groups of
crazy spiles at the restless pageant of Thames-life.
Viewed by day, say from the deck of a river steamer, the spectacle they
offered was, according to bias of mood and disposition, unlovely and drear
or colourful and romantic: Whistler might have etched these houses, Dickens
have staged therein a lowly tragedy, Thomas Burke have made of one a frame
for some vignette unforgettable of Limehouse life.
Builded of stone or brick or both as to their landward faces, without
exception they presented to the river false backs of wooden framework which
overhung the water. Ordinarily, their windows were tight-shut, the panes
opaque with accumulated grime--many were broken and boarded. Their look was
dismal, their squalor desperate.
Below, by day, heavy wherries swung moored to the ooze-clad spiles or, when
the tide was out, sprawled upon stinking mud-flats with a gesture of
pathetic helplessness peculiar to stranded watercraft. Seldom was one
observed in use: to all seeming they existed for purposes of atmosphere
More seldom still did any dwelling betray evidence of inhabitation beyond
faint wisps of smoke, like ghosts of famine, drifting from the chimneypots,
or--perhaps--some unabashed exhibit of red flannel hung out to dry with
wrist or ankle-bands nipped between a window-sash and sill.
By night, however, a stir of furtive life was to be surmised from cryptic
lights that flared and faded behind the crusted window-glass or fell
through opened floor-traps to the thick black element that swirled about
the spiles, and from guarded calls as well, inarticulate cries of hate and
love and pain, rumours of close and crude carousal.
And ever and again the belated riverfarer would encounter one of the
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