Louis Joseph Vance
Part 4 out of 5
He lapsed immediately into remote abstraction, sitting with chin bent to
the tips of his joined fingers, his eyes downcast, motionless.
Disgruntled, but afraid to show it, the German cleared away the litter of
papers, assorting them into huge portfolios, and took himself off. Shaik
Tsin replaced him, moving noiselessly about the room, restoring the
reference books to the shelves and stowing the portfolios away in a massive
safe hidden behind a lacquered screen. This done, he stationed himself
before his master, awaiting his attention, a shape of affable placidity,
intelligent, at ease; his attitude not entirely lacking a suggestion of
Without changing his pose by so much as the lifting of an eyelash, Victor
spoke in Chinese:
"To-morrow afternoon, late, I shall motor down into the country with the
girl Sofia. I shall be gone three days--perhaps. I will leave a telephone
number with you, to be used only in emergency. As soon as I have left, you
will dismiss all the English servants, with a quarter's wage in advance in
lieu of notice. Karslake will provide the money."
"He does not accompany you?"
"And the man Nogam?"
Victor appeared to hesitate. "What do you think?" he enquired at length.
"What I have always thought."
"That he is a spy?"
"But with no tangible support for your suspicions?"
"You have not failed to watch him closely?"
"As a cat watches a mouse."
"Yet I agree with you entirely, Shaik Tsin. I smell treachery."
"Nogam shall go with me as my bodyservant. Thus I shall be able to keep an
eye on him. Let Chou Nu be prepared to accompany us as maid to the girl
Sofia. In my absence you will be guided by such further instructions as I
may leave with you. These failing, consider the man Sturm, my personal
representative. In the contingency you know of, Sturm will warn you in time
to clear the house."
"Of all servants except those whom you may need to guard the man Karslake.
These and yourself will be provided with means of self-protection by
"I have not yet made up my mind."
"Hearing is obedience."
Victor relapsed into another reverie which lasted so long that even the
patience of Shaik Tsin bade fair to fail. In the end the silence was broken
by two words:
From a cabinet at the end of the room Shaik Tsin brought a crystal ball
supported on the backs of three golden dragons standing tail to tail,
superbly wrought examples of Chinese goldsmithing. This he placed carefully
on the black teakwood surface at Victor's elbow.
"And now, inform the girl Sofia I wish to see her."
"And if she again sends her excuses?"
"Say, in that event, I shall be obliged to come to her room."
She had not thought, of course, of going down to dinner; she had, instead,
sent Victor word simply that she begged to be excused from joining him for
that meal. Then, unable longer to endure Chou Nu's efforts to comfort or
distract her, Sofia had stepped out of her street frock and into a negligee
and, dismissing the maid, returned to the chaise-longue upon which, in vain
hope of being able to cry out the wretchedness of her heart, she had thrown
herself on first gaining the sanctuary of her room.
For hours, she did not guess how many, she scarcely stirred. Neither was
the blessed boon of tears granted unto her. Alone with her immense and
immitigable misery, she lay in darkness tempered only by the dim skyshine
that filtered through the window draperies; hating life, that had no mercy;
hating the duplicity that had led Karslake into making untrue love to her,
but inexplicably not hating Karslake himself, or the enshrined image that
wore his name; hating herself for her facile readiness to give love where
all but the guise of love was lacking, and for knowing this deep hurt
where she should have felt only scorn and anger; but hating, most of all,
or rather for the first time discovering how well she hated, him to whom
unerring intuition told her she owed this brimming measure of heartbreak
and humiliation, the man who called himself her father.
For if Karslake had done her a cruel wrong in winning her avowal of the
love that had been growing in her heart these many weeks, while he was
merely amusing himself or serving a secret purpose--whose was the initial
blame for that?
Who had egged Karslake on, as he had asserted, "to win her confidence,"
leaving to him the choice of means to that end?
The formulation of this question marked the turning point in Sofia's
descent toward the nadir of shame and anguish; from the moment its
significance was clearly apprehended (but it took her long to reach this
stage) the complexion of her thoughts took on another colour, and the smart
of chagrin was soothed even as the irritation excited by critical
examination of Victor's conduct grew more acute.
Why should the self-styled author of her being have thought it necessary,
or even wise or kind, to commission a paid employee to win his daughter's
What had rendered the conquest of her confidence so needful in his sight?
What had made him think Sofia would prove loath to resign it to him, or
more likely to give it to another?
Why had Victor hesitated to bid for her confidence with his own tongue, on
his own merits?
One would think that, if he were her father--
Sofia sat up sharply, her young body as taut as her temper. Pulses and
breathing quickened, intent eyes probed the shadows as if she thought to
wrest from them a clue to the mystery of her status in the household of
What proof had she that he was her father?
None but his word.... Well, and Karslake's.... None that would stand the
test of skepticism, none that either sentiment or reason could offer and
support. Certainly she resembled Prince Victor in no respect that she could
think of, not in person, not in mould of character, not in ways of thought.
From the very first she had been perplexed, and indeed saddened, by her
failure, her sheer inability, to react emotionally to their alleged
relationship. And surely there must exist between parent and child some
sort of spiritual bond or affinity, something to draw them together--even
if neither had never known the other. Whereas she on her part had never
been conscious of any sense of sympathy with Victor, but only of timidity
and reluctance which had latterly manifested in unquestionable aversion.
And then there was his attitude toward her, raising a question so
repugnant to her understanding that never before to-night had Sofia
admitted its existence and given it the freedom of her thoughts.
She had seen men, in the Cafe des Exiles, toast their mistresses with such
looks as Victor Vassilyevski reserved for the girl whom he claimed as his
What, then, if he were not her father?
What if he had only pretended to paternal rights in furtherance of some
deep scheme of his?--perhaps thinking to use her as a pawn in that dark
plot which he was forever brewing in his study (with canaille like Sturm
for collaborators!) that mysterious "research work" that flavoured the
atmosphere of the house with a miasmatic reek of intrigue, stealth, and
fear--perhaps (more simply and terribly) designing in his own time and way
to avenge himself upon the daughter for the admitted slights he had
suffered at the hands of the mother, that poor dead woman whose fame he
never ceased to blacken while still her memory was potent to kindle fires
in those eyes otherwise so opaque, impenetrable, and lightless!
Now Sofia found herself unable to sit still; only through action of some
sort could she hope to win any measure of ease for brain and nerves. A
thought was shaping, claiming precedence over all others, the thought of
flight; bred of the feeling that, as long as she remained in ignorance of
the exact truth concerning their relationship, it was impossible for her to
remain longer under Victor's roof, eating his bread and salt, schooling
herself to suffer his endearments whose good faith she could not help
challenging, who inspired in her only antipathy, fear, and distrust.
It seemed clear beyond dispute that she must leave his protection, this
very night, before he could guess her mind and move to check her.
Sofia swung her feet down to the floor. One of her silken mules had fallen
off. Semi-consciously she groped for it with stockinged toes. As the
inanimate will, the mule eluded recapture with impish ease. But beneath her
foot something rustled and crackled lightly. She bent over and picked it
up: a square white envelope, sealed.
Switching on a lamp near by, she examined her find. It carried no address.
How it could have got there she could not imagine ... unless Chou Nu had
dropped it by inadvertence, which seemed as far-fetched as to suppose she
had left it there by design; for that would mean Chou Nu had been bribed to
convey a surreptitious note to her mistress; and Sofia knew that the
Chinese girl was at once too loyal to her "second-uncle," and too much in
awe of "Number One," to be corruptible.
None the less, there the envelope was; and nobody but Chou Nu had entered
the room since Sofia had come straight from the study to it, late in the
It was just possible, however--Sofia's eyes measured the distance--that a
deft hand and a strong wrist might have slipped the envelope under the
door and sent it skimming across the floor to the foot of the
But nobody would have dared do that without a powerful motive for wishing
to communicate secretly with Sofia.
She tore the flap and withdrew a single sheet of notepaper penned in a hand
she knew too well. Her heart leapt....
I implore you, of your charity, do not condemn me without a hearing because
of anything you may have overheard me say. After you left us in the study I
saw his eyes watching the door while we talked, and knew from his look that
something to please him had happened behind my back. And in the temper he
was in only one thing could possibly have pleased him.
I said what I said to him, dear, because I had to--or lose the right,
dearer to me than life, to be near you, to serve and protect you. I lied to
him because I loved you. But I have never lied to you about my love--and
only once, through necessity, about anything else. Perhaps you can guess
what that lie was, somehow I rather think you do; at least, I am sure, you
are beginning to wonder if I told the truth--or knew it, then.
If this sound cryptic, I can only beg you to be patient and charitable
until I find opportunity to clear away this one lie which stands between
us--and which is, by comparison, almost immaterial, since all that matters
is the one great truth in my life, that I love you beyond all telling.
If questions trouble your mind, I beg you do not let him know it. Your only
safety now lies in his continuing to believe that you are unsuspicious.
Above all, do your best to seem to fall in with his wishes, however strange
or unreasonable they may seem. It will be only a few days more before I can
claim you for my own, and laugh at his pretensions.
A curious love-letter; yet it was Sofia's first. If it made her
thoughtful, it made her illogically happy as well. If it put the issue to
her squarely, of loyalty to Prince Victor or loyalty to Karslake, she was
unaware that she had any choice of courses. When Shaik Tsin thumped the
panels of her door, she crushed the note into the bosom of her negligee
When one is of an age to love, it is never the parent who gets the benefit
of a doubt.
Like some shy, sad shade summoned up by the malign genius of a haunted
chamber, a slender shape of pallor in softly flowing draperies slipped
through the silent door and, advancing a few reluctant steps into the
soundless gloom, paused and in apprehensive diffidence awaited the welcome
that was for a time withheld.
For minutes Victor gave no sign or stir; and in all the room nothing moved
but ghostly whorls of smoke writhing slowly upward from a pungent censer of
The great lamp of brass was dark, and there was no other light than a
solitary bulb, whose hooded rays were concentrated upon the crystal ball,
so that the latter shone with a dead-white glare, somehow baleful, like an
elfin moon deeply lost in a sea of sombre enchantment.
Bending forward in his chair, an elbow planted on the table, his forehead
resting upon the tips of long, white fingers, Victor's gaze was steadfast
to the crystal. Refracted light sculptured with curious shadows that
saturnine face intent to immobility.
Too young, too inexperienced and sensitive to be insusceptible to the
spell of the theatrical, the girl was conscious of a steady ebb of her
new-found store of fortitude, skepticism, and defiance, together with an
equally steady inflow of timidity and uneasiness. That sinister figure at
the table, absorbed in study of the inscrutable sphere--what did he see
there, to hold his faculties in such deep eclipse? Adept in black arts of
the Orient as he was said to be, what wizardry was he brewing with the aid
of that traditional tool of the necromancer? What spectacle of divination
was in those pellucid depths unfolding to his rapt vision? And what had
this consultation of the occult to do with the man's mind concerning
Sofia was shaken by a tremor of dread....
And as if her emotion were somehow communicated, arousing him to knowledge
of her presence, Victor started, sat back, and with a sigh passed a hand
across his eyes. When the hand fell, his face wore its habitual look for
Sofia, modified by a slightly apologetic and weary smile.
"My child!" he exclaimed in accents of contrite surprise, "have I kept you
"Only a few minutes. It doesn't matter."
But her voice seemed sadly small and thin in comparison with Victor's
rotund and measured intonations.
"Forgive me." Victor rose, nodding to indicate the shining crystal. "I have
been consulting my familiar," he said with a light laugh. "You have heard
of crystal-gazing? A fascinating art that languishes in undeserved neglect.
The ancients were more wise, they knew there was more in Heaven and
Earth.... You are incredulous? But I assure you, I myself, though far from
proficient, have caught strange glimpses of unborn events in the heart of
that transparent enigma."
He took her hands and cuddled them in his own.
She quivered irrepressibly to his touch.
"But you are trembling!" he protested, solicitous, looking down into her
face--"you are wan and sad, my dear. Tell me you are not ill."
"It is nothing," Sofia replied--again in that faint, stifled voice. She
added in determined effort to subdue her trembling and turn their talk to
essentials: "You sent for me--I am here."
"I am so sorry. If I had guessed ..." Enlightenment seemed to dawn all at
once. "But surely it isn't because of that stupid business with Karslake?
Surely you didn't take him seriously?"
"How should I--?"
"It is too absurd. The poor fool misconstrued my instructions to make
himself agreeable--I am so taken up with the gravest matters at present, I
didn't want you to feel lonely or neglected--and, it appears, felt it
incumbent upon him to flirt with you as a matter of duty. I am out of
temper with him, but not unreasonable; I shan't dispense with his services
altogether, without more provocation, but will find other work to keep him
busy and out of your way. You need fear no more annoyance from that
"I was not annoyed," Sofia found heart to contend. "I--like him."
"Nonsense!" Victor's laugh was rich with derision. "Don't ask me to believe
you were actually touched by the fellow's play-acting. You--my
daughter--wasting emotion on a mere commoner! The thing is too ridiculous.
Oblige me by thinking no more about it. I have better things in store for
"Better than--love?" the girl questioned with grave eyes.
"When the time comes for that, you shall find a worthier parti than poor
Karslake, well-meaning though he may be. Moreover, you heard--forgive me
for reminding you--there was not an ounce of sincerity in all his
philandering for you to hold in sentimental recollection. So--forget
Karslake, please. It is a duty you owe your own pride and my dignity; it
is, furthermore, my wish."
She bowed her head, that he might not see the reflection in her face of the
glow that warmed her bosom, where Karslake's letter nestled. But Victor
took the nod for the word of submission, and patted her shoulder with an
indulgent hand, guiding her to a chair close by his.
"Sit down, my dear. I want to explain why I asked you to come to me at this
late hour--never dreaming my message would find you so overwrought.... You
quite see how needless it was to permit yourself to be upset by such a
trifling matter, don't you?"
"Oh, quite," Sofia murmured, with gaze fixed on the interlacing fingers in
"That is sensible." Offering her shoulder one last accolade of approbation,
Victor moved toward his own chair. "And now that you are here, we may as
well have our little talk out," he continued, but broke off to stipulate:
"If, that is, you are sure you feel up to it?"
"Yes," Sofia assented, but without moving.
"I am not so sure. Perhaps a glass of wine might do you good."
"Oh, no!" the girl protested--"I don't need it, really."
But Victor wouldn't listen; and disappearing into shadowed distances,
returned presently with a brimming goblet.
"Drink this, dear. It will make you feel quite fit again."
Obediently, Sofia raised the goblet to her lips.
"You have never tasted a wine like that," Victor insisted, smiling down at
It was true enough, what he claimed; though it had something of character
of a sound old Madeira, this wine had more, a surpassing richness, a
fruitiness in no way cloying, a peculiarly aromatic taste and fragrance,
elusive and provoking, with a hint of bitterness never to be analyzed by
the most experienced palate.
"What is it?" Sofia asked after her first sip.
"You like it, eh? An old wine of China, unknown to Western Europe." Victor
gave it a musical name in what Sofia took to be Chinese. "Outside my
cellars, I'll wager there's not another bottle of it this side of
Constantinople. Drink it all. It will do you good."
He seated himself. "And now my reason for wishing to talk with you
to-night.... A note came by the last delivery from Lady Randolph West. You
met her, I understand, through Sybil Waring, a few days ago. She was
apparently much taken with you."
"She is very kind."
Victor had found a sheet of notepaper and, bending to the light, was
searching its scrawled lines with narrowed eyes.
"'Too lovely,' she calls you--and quite justly, my dear. Yes; here it is:
'Too lovely for words.' And she wants me to bring my 'charming daughter'
down to Frampton Court for this week-end."
Sofia said nothing, but put her half-empty glass aside. The wine had done
her good, she thought. She felt better, stronger, mentally more alert, and
at the same time curiously soothed.
Victor refolded the note and tapped the table with it, holding Sofia with
"It should be amusing," he said, thoughtfully, "a new experience for you.
Elaine--I mean Lady Randolph West, of course--is a charming hostess, and
never fails to fill Frampton Court with delightful people."
"I'm sure I should love it."
"I am sure you would. And yet ... I may have been a little premature, since
I have already written accepting the invitation." He indicated an addressed
envelope face up on the table. "But on second thoughts, it seemed perhaps
wiser to consult you first."
"But if it is your wish, I must go," Sofia replied, mindful of Karslake's
injunction not to oppose Victor. "What have I to say--?"
"Everything about whether we accept or do not--or if not everything, at
least the final word. I must abide by your decision."
"But I shall be only too glad--"
"Think a moment. It might be wiser not to go. You alone can say."
"I don't quite understand ..."
Victor sighed. "It is a painful subject," he said, slowly--"one I hesitate
to reopen. But we can never profit by closing our minds to facts; I mean,
to the reality of the danger which is always with us, since it is within
"What danger?" Sofia enquired, sullenly, knowing the answer too well before
it was spoken.
"The danger of sudden temptation to indulge the lawless appetites with
which heredity has endued us--me from the nameless forebears whom I never
knew, you directly from parents both of whom boasted criminal records."
"I don't believe it!" Sofia declared, passionately--"I can't believe it, I
won't! Even if you are--"
She was going on to say "if you are my father," but caught herself in time.
Had not Karslake warned her in his note: "_Your only safety now lies in his
continuing to believe that you are unsuspicious._" She continued in a
tempest of expostulation whose fury covered her break:
"Even if you were once a thief and my mother--my mother!--everything vile,
as you persist in trying to make me believe--God knows why!--it is possible
I may still have failed to inherit your criminal tendencies; and not only
possible, but true, if I know myself at all. For I have never felt the
temptation to steal that you insist I must have inherited from you--nor any
other inclination toward things as mean, contemptible, and dishonourable as
they are dishonest!"
With only his slow, forbearing smile by way of comment, Victor heard her
out, but when she paused to reassort her thoughts, lifted a temporizing
"Not yet, perhaps," he said, gently. "There is always the first time with
every rebel against man-made laws. But, where the predisposition so
indubitably exists, it is inevitable, soon or late it must come to you, my
dear--the time when the will is too weak, temptation too strong. Against
it we must be forever on our guard."
"I am not afraid," Sofia contended.
"Naturally; you will not be before the hour of ordeal which shall prove
your strength or your weakness, your confidence in yourself, or my loving
fears for you."
Sofia gave a gesture of weariness and confusion. What did it matter? If he
would have it so, let him: it couldn't affect the issue in any way, what he
believed, or for his own purposes pretended to believe. Had not Karslake
She tried to recall precisely what it was that Karslake had promised, but
found her memory of a sudden singularly sluggish. In fact, her mind seemed
to have lost its marvellous clarity of those first moments after tasting
the wine of China. Small wonder, when one remembered the emotional strain
she had experienced since early evening!
"Still," she argued, stubbornly, "I don't see what all this has to do with
Lady Randolph West's invitation."
"Only that to accept means to expose you to the greatest temptation one can
Sofia stared blankly. Her wits were working even more slowly and heavily
than before. And the glare in her eyes from the luminous sphere of crystal
was irritating. Almost without thinking, she lifted her glass again; when
she put it down it was empty.
"The jewels of Lady Randolph West," Victor went on to explain without her
prompting, "are considered the most wonderful in England; always excepting,
of course, the Crown jewels."
"What is that to me?"
Resentment sounded in her tone. She was thinking more readily once more,
thanks to that second magical draught, but was nevertheless conscious of a
general failing of powers drained by her great fatigue. She wished devoutly
that Victor would have done and let her go....
"Elaine is very careless, leaves her jewels scattered about, hardly
troubles to put them away securely at night. If you should be tempted to
appropriate anything, she might not discover her loss for days; and then,
again, she might. And if you were caught--consider what shame and
"I think I see," the girl said, slowly, after some difficult thinking. "You
don't want me to go."
"To the contrary, I do--but I want more than anything else in the world
that my daughter should be sure of herself and fall into no irreparable
"But I am sure of myself--I have told you that."
"Then let us fret no more about it, but accept, and go prepared to enjoy
ourselves. I will send the letter."
Victor rang, and Shaik Tsin presented himself so quickly that Sofia
wondered dully where he could have been waiting. In the room with them,
perhaps? It wasn't impossible. The Chinaman's thick soles of felt enabled
him to move about without making the least noise.
"Have this posted immediately."
Shaik Tsin bowed deeply, and backed away with the letter. Unless she turned
to watch him, Sofia could not say whether he left the room or not.
She offered to rise.
"If that is all ..."
"Not quite. There are certain details to be arranged; and I may not see you
again before we leave to-morrow afternoon. We will motor down to Frampton
Court--it's not far, little more than an hour by train--starting about half
after four, if you can be ready."
"Sybil Waring will tell you what to take, and Chou Nu will see to your
packing. Both, by the way, will accompany us. Sybil's maid will follow by
train. For myself, I am taking Nogam--having found that English servants do
not take kindly to my Chinese valet."
"Yes ..." Sofia uttered, listlessly, wondering why this information should
be considered of interest to her.
"And one thing more: I am forgiven? You are not cross with me?"
"Why should I be?"
"Because of what happened this afternoon--when I scolded Karslake for
making love to you."
"Oh," said Sofia with a good show of indifference--she was so
"Believe me, little Sofia"--Victor put out a hand to hers, and held her
eyes with a compelling gaze--"boy-and-girl romance is all very well, but
there is a greater destiny reserved for you than marriage to a hired
secretary, however amiable, personable, and well-meaning. You must prepare
yourself to move in a world beyond and above the common hearthstone of
The girl shook a bewildered head.
"It is a riddle?" she asked, wearily.
"A riddle?" Victor echoed. "Why, one may safely term it that. Is not the
Future always a riddle? Nature knows the Future as the Past, but Nature
holds it secret, lest man go mad with too much knowledge. Only to the few,
the favoured, does she grant rare glimpses through media which she has
provided for the use of the initiate--such as this crystal here, in which I
was studying your future, when you came in, the high future I plan for
"And--you won't tell me?"
"I may not. It is forbidden. Nature deals unkindly with those who violate
her confidence. But--who knows?"
He checked himself as if struck by a new turn of thought, and studied the
girl's face intently.
"Who knows?" he repeated, as if to himself.
"It is quite within the bounds of possibility," Victor mused, "that you
should have inherited some of the psychic power which was born in me.
Perhaps--who knows?--to you as well Nature will be supple and disclose her
secrets.... If you care to seek her favour?"
"By consulting the crystal."
Sofia's eyes sought that coldly burning stone. Her head was so heavy, she
hesitated, oppressed by misgivings without shape that she could name,
phases of formless timidity having rise in some source which she was too
tired to search out.
But she lingered and continued to stare at the crystal.
"Why not?" Victor's accents were gently persuasive. "At worst, you can only
fail. And if you do not fail, it will make me happy to think that you have
been given a little insight into my dreams for you."
"Yes," Sofia assented in a whisper--"why not?"
Victor drew her forward by the hand.
"Look," he said "look deep! Divest your mind as nearly as you can of all
thought--let the crystal give up its message to a mind devoid of prejudice,
its receptiveness unimpaired. Think of nothing, if you can manage
it--simply look and see."
Automatically to a degree the girl obeyed, already in a phase of
crepuscular hypnosis, her surface senses dulled by the potent "wine of
China." And watching her closely, Victor permitted himself a smile of
satisfaction as he noted the rapidity with which she yielded to the
hypnogenic spell of the translucent quartz; how her breathing quickened,
then took on a measured tempo like that of a sleeper; how a faint flush
warmed the unnatural pallor of her cheeks, how her dilate eyes grew fixed
in an unwinking stare, and slightly glassed....
Under her regard the goblin sphere took on with bewildering rapidity
changing guises. Its rotundity was first lost, it assumed the semblance of
a featureless disk of pallid light, which swiftly widened till it obscured
all else, then seemed to advance upon and envelope her bodily, so that she
became spiritually a part of it, an atom of identity engulfed in a limpid
world of glareless light, light that had had no rays and issued from no
source but was circumambient and universal. Then in its remote heart a
weird glow of rose began to burn and grow, pulsing through all the colours
of the spectrum and beyond. Toward this she felt herself being drawn
swiftly, attracted by an irresistible magnetism, riding the wings of a
great wind, whose voice boomed without ceasing, like a heavy surf
thunderously reiterating one syllable, "_Sleep!_" ... And in this flight
through illimitable space toward a goal unattainable, consciousness grew
faint and flickered out like a candle in the wind.
Behind her chair the placid yellow face of Shaik Tsin appeared, as if
materialized bodily out of the shadows. With folded arms he waited,
dispassionately observant. Presently Prince Victor nodded to him over the
head of the girl. Immediately the Chinaman moved round her chair and,
employing both hands, in one instant switched off the hooded bulb and
reilluminated the lamp of brass.
As the light died out in the crystal Sofia sighed heavily, and relaxed.
Leaden eyelids closed down over her staring eyes, she sank back into the
chair, simultaneously into plumbless depths....
Victor made a sound of gratification. Shaik Tsin enquired briefly:
"It is accomplished, then?"
Victor nodded. "She yielded more quickly than I had hoped--worn out
emotionally, of course."
"In hypnosis, in absolute suspense of every faculty and function save those
concerned solely with the maintenance of existence--in a state, that is,
comparable only to the pre-natal life of a child."
"It is most interesting," Shaik Tsin admitted. "But what is the use? That
is what interests me."
"Wait and see."
Bending close to the girl, Victor called in a strong voice of command:
"Sofia! Sofia! It is I, Prince Victor, your father. Waken and attend!"
A slight spasm shook the slender body, the lips parted, respiration became
hurried and broken, the long lashes fluttered on the cheeks.
"Do you hear me? I, Victor, command you: Waken and attend!"
Another struggle, more brief and sharp, ended with the opening of the
eyes, which sought and remained steadfast to Victor's, yet without
intelligence or animation.
"Do you hear me, Sofia?"
A voice like a sigh rustled on the parted lips, whose stir was
"I hear you...."
"Then heed what I say. My will is your law. You know that?"
Faintly the voice breathed: "Yes."
"Tell me what it is you know."
"Your will is my law."
"You will not resist my will, you cannot. Tell me that."
"I will not resist your will, I cannot."
"Good. I, Prince Victor Vassilyevski, am your father. You believe that. Do
you understand? Tell me what you believe."
"I believe that you, Prince Victor Vassilyevski, are my father."
"You will not forget these things?"
"I shall not forget."
"In all things."
"I will obey you in all things."
"Without question or faltering."
"Without question or faltering."
"You recall what arrangements we made this afternoon for to-morrow?"
"Listen carefully. Memorize my wishes with respect to our visit to
Frampton Court, remembering that I communicate my will, which you must
The girl remained silent, waiting. Victor took a moment to marshall his
thoughts, then proceeded:
"After arriving at Frampton Court, you will make occasion quietly to find
out how your room is situated in relation to the boudoir of Lady Randolph
West. You will do this without knowing why you do it. You understand?"
"At night, on going to bed, you will go promptly to sleep. After an hour
you will wake up, put on a dressing gown and slippers, and proceed to Lady
Randolph West's boudoir, taking care not to be observed. Is that clear?"
"Once in the boudoir, you will proceed to the safe where Lady Randolph West
keeps her jewels. It will not be locked, she is careless in such matters.
Having found the safe, you will open it, take whatever jewels you find
therein, and return to your room. All this you will perform with utmost
circumspection, taking all pains not to make any noise. In your room you
will hide the jewels in your dressing-case. Then you will go back to bed
and to sleep. Have you committed all this to memory?"
The sleeping girl answered in the affirmative. Then, to the injunction,
"Tell me what you are to do to-morrow night?" she repeated in a toneless
voice every item of the programme outlined for her, while Victor nodded in
undisguised delight, and Shaik Tsin grinned blandly over her head.
"On waking up to-morrow morning, you will remember nothing of my
instructions, but you will carry them precisely as memorized in your
subconciousness, and you will carry them out without thought of opposition
to my will, understanding that you are without will of your own in this
matter. Finally, on waking up on the morning following your abstraction of
the jewels, you will remember nothing of the affair until reminded of it by
me, and then only this much: That in obedience to irresistible impulse, you
stole the jewels. Is that clear? Repeat ..."
Without a mistake the woman in hypnosis iterated the commands imposed upon
The impish grin of the latent savage broke through the habitual austerity
of Victor's countenance.
"There is no more," he said, "but this: Sleep now, and do not waken before
With a quavering sigh, the girl reclosed her eyes and instantly relapsed
into the sleep of trance which was insensibly in the course of the night to
merge into natural slumber.
Victor ironed out his grimace, and signed to Shaik Tsin.
"Bear her back to her room. Instruct Chou Nu to put her to bed and not to
wake her up before noon."
"Hearing is obedience."
The Chinaman bent over, gathered the inert body into his arms, and without
perceptible effort stood erect. But in the act of turning away he paused
and, continuing to hold the girl as easily as if she weighed no more than a
child, interrogated the man he served.
"You believe she will do all you have ordered?"
"I know she will."
"Barring accidents, without flaw from beginning to end."
"And in event of accidents--discovery--?"
"So much the better."
"That would please you, to have her caught?"
Shaik Tsin nodded in grave yet humorous comprehension. "Now I begin to
understand. If she is caught, that gives you a power over her?"
"And if she is not, when the robbery becomes known, your power over her
will be still more strong?"
"And over yet another stronger still."
"The Lone Wolf?"
Victor inclined his head. "To what lengths will he not go to cover up his
daughter's shame, if it threatens to become public that she is a thief? I
do nothing without purpose, Shaik Tsin."
"That is to say, you have to-night taken out insurance against punishment
if this other business fails."
"If it fail, others may suffer, but if necessary the Lone Wolf himself
will arrange my escape from England."
"To serve so wise a man is an honour my unworthiness can never hope to
"As to that, Shaik Tsin," Victor said without a smile, "our minds are one.
Go now. Good-night."
THE RAISED CHEQUE
While the Princess Sofia, Sybil Waring, and Prince Victor motored down from
London in the lilac dusk of that dim September day, and the maid Chou Nu
accompanied them, riding in front beside a newly engaged Chinese chauffeur,
the man Nogam made the journey to Frampton Court by train, and alone.
Alone, at least, in the finer shading of that adjective; aside from the
usual assortment of self-contained fellow-travellers in the third-class
carriage, he had no company other than his thoughts; a gray and meagre
crew, if that pathetic face of middle-age furnished trustworthy reflection
of his mind.... So absolute was the submergence of that ardent adventurer
who, overnight, had lain awake for hours, a dictograph receiver glued to
his ear, eavesdropping upon the traffic of those malevolent intelligences
assembled in Prince Victor's study, and alternately chuckling and cursing
beneath his breath, aflame with indignation and chilled by inklings of
atrocities unspeakable abrew!
If he surmised that he travelled alone in appearance only, it was with no
evident concern or astonishment. If his mind was uneasy, oppressed by a
nightmarish burden of half-knowledge, guesses, and premonition, it was not
apparent to the general observer. His most eloquent gesture was when, from
time to time, he tamped an ancient wooden pipe with a fingertip that wasn't
as calloused as he could have wished, philosophically sucked in strangling
fumes of rankest shag and, ignoring his company in the carriage as became a
British-made manservant, returned jaded, gentle eyes to those darkling
vistas of autumnal landscape that were forever radiating away from the
window like spokes of a gigantic wheel.
Alighting in the first dark of evening at the station for Frampton Court,
he suffered himself to be herded, with a half-score more, into the omnibus
provided for other bodyservants to arriving guests. Even to these compeers
he found little to say: a loud lot, imbued with the rowdy spirit of the new
day; whereas Nogam was hopelessly of the old school--in the new word, he
dated--though his form was admittedly unimpeachable. And if because of this
he was made fun of more or less openly, to an extent that added shades of
resignation to his countenance, secretly he commanded considerable respect.
Neither was Victor, with all the ill-will in the world, able to find fault
with Nogam's services in his new office. The most finished of self-effacing
valets, he knew just what to do and did it without being told; and when he
spoke it was only because he had been spoken to or commissioned to convey
Victor watched him from every angle, overt and covert, but had his trouble
for his pains; Nogam, observed in a mirror, when Victor's back was turned,
went about his business with no more betrayal of personal feeling or
independent mentality than when waiting upon his master face to face.
Victor could have kicked him for sheer resentment of his pattern virtues.
When all was said and done, it _was_ damned irritating. . . .
In the servants' hall he religiously kept his ears open and his mouth shut.
And, listening, he learned. For some things said in his hearing were
distinctly not pretty, and made one wonder if Prince Victor's deep-rooted
confidence in an England mortally cankered with social discontent were not
grounded in a surprising familiarity with backstairs morale. Other
observations, again, were merely ribald, some were humorous, while all were
Not a few of the company had seen domestic service in great houses before
the war; they knew what was what and--more to the point--what wasn't. One
gathered that this pretentious country home fell within the latter
classification. Here, it was stated, anybody could buy his way into favour:
the more bounding the bounder the brighter his chances of success at
War, the ironic, had caused this noble property to pass into the keeping of
a distant and degenerate branch of an old and honoured house; and its
present lord and lady, having failed to win the social welcome they had
counted on too confidently, were doing their silly, shabby best to squander
a princely fortune and dedicate a great name to lasting disrepute by
fraternizing with a motley riffraff of profiteering nouveaux riches. Other
than bad manners and worse morals, the one genuine thing in the whole
establishment was, it seemed, the historic collection of family jewels.
This information explained away much of Nogam's perplexity on one score.
After dinner, when the house party began to settle into its stride, he made
occasion, aping the other servants, to peep in at a door of the great
ballroom, where an impromptu dance had been organized; and was rewarded by
sight of the Princess Sofia circling the floor in the arms of a boldly
good-looking young man whose taste was as poor in flirtation as in
To Nogam the young girl looked wan and wistful--as if she were missing
somebody. And he wondered if Mr. Karslake knew what a lucky young devil he
He wondered still more about the present whereabouts and welfare of Mr.
Karslake. Prince Victor must have contrived some devious errand to get the
young man out and away early that day; for by the time Nogam had looked for
him in the morning, Karslake was nowhere to be found; neither had he
returned when the party left for Frampton Court--a circumstance which
Nogam regretted most bitterly. Watched as he was, it hadn't been possible,
that is to say it would have been fatally ill-advised, to have left any
sort of message or to have attempted communication through secret channels;
and all the while, hours heavy with, it might be, the destiny of England
were wasting swiftly into history.
Perhaps it was nervousness bred of this anxiety that, in the end, made
Nogam's hand slip. Or perhaps the impatient nature of the man who lay so
closely secret within the husk of Nogam decided him upon a desperate
gamble. In either event, this befell:
About the middle of the evening Prince Victor happened to look up from an
interesting tete-a-tete in the brilliant drawing-room with his handsome and
liberal-minded hostess opportunely to espy Nogam staring at him from the
remote recesses of the entrance hall.
It was the merest of glimpses; for Victor's casual glance had barely
identified the servant when Nogam started guiltily and in a twinkling
disappeared; but a glimpse was enough for eyes and a mind alike quick with
distrust, enough to assure Victor that Nogam's face had worn an
indescribably furtive and hangdog expression, most unlike its ordinary look
of amiable stupidity, and widely incongruous with the veniality of his
What the deuce, then, was the fellow up to, that he should glower and dodge
like a sleuth in a play?
Promptly Victor became deaf, blind, and numb to the fascinations so
generously paraded by Lady Randolph West; and presently excusing himself,
left her and sought his rooms.
As he went up the stairs, he saw the door to his bedchamber cautiously
opened far enough to permit one eye to spy out and discover his approach.
Immediately then the door swung wide, and Nogam ambled into view with an
envelope on a salver and an air of childlike innocence, an assumption of
ease so transparent, indeed, that only the vision of a child could have
been cheated by it.
"Just coming to look for you, sir," he announced, glibly. "Telegram,
"Thanks," said Victor, shortly, taking the envelope and marching on into
His manner toward his servants was always abrupt. No need to be alarmed by
this manifestation of it. Blinking mildly, Nogam trotted at his heels.
Seating himself at an escritoire, Victor opened the envelope with a display
of languid interest. Curiosity about the contents of a telegram is
ordinarily acute. Victor, on the contrary, sat for a long moment staring
thoughtfully at nothing and absently turning the envelope over and over in
his hands; while Nogam with specious nonchalance found something
unimportant to do in another quarter of the room.
The envelope was damp and warm to the touch. True: nightfall had brought
with it a thick drizzle, and Frampton Court was more than a mile from the
post-office. On the other hand, the night was as cold as charity; and an
envelope recently steamed open might be expected to hold the heat for a few
Victor thumbed the flap. It lifted readily, without tearing, its gum was
wet and more abundant than usual--in fact, it felt confoundedly like
library paste, a pot of which, in an ornamental holder, was among the
fittings of the escritoire. On the desk pad of blotting paper, too, Victor
detected marks of fresh paste defining the contour of the flap.
With a countenance whose inscrutability alone was a threat, Victor took out
and conned the telegraph form.
"CONSULTATION SET FOR MIDNIGHT TO-NIGHT TAKING YOUR ADVICE SHALL NOT ATTEND
BUT LEAVE FOR BRIGHTON ELEVEN P.M."
A message ostensibly so open and aboveboard that it hadn't been thought
worth while to hide its wording under the cloak of a code.
There was no signature--unless one were clever or wise enough to transpose
the two final letters and take them in relation to the word immediately
preceding. "Eleven, M.P.", however, could mean nothing to anybody but
Victor--except a body clever enough to hide a dictograph detector in a
turnip. So Victor saw no reason to believe that Nogam, although
undoubtedly guilty of the sin of prying, had been able to read the meaning
below the surface of this communication.
Nevertheless, undue inquisitiveness on the part of a servant in the pay of
Victor Vassilyevski could have but one reward.
"Fetch me an A-B-C."
"Very good, sir."
With Nogam out of the way, Victor enclosed the telegram in a new envelope
and addressed it simply to _"Mr. Sturm--by hand."_ Then he took a sheet of
the stamped notepaper of Frampton Court, tore it roughly, at the fold, and
on the unstamped half inscribed several characters in Chinese, using a
pencil with a fat, soft lead for this purpose. This message sealed into a
second envelope without superscription, he lighted a cigarette and sat
smiling with anticipative relish through its smoke, a smile swiftly
abolished as the door re-opened; though Nogam found him in what seemed to
be a mood of rare sweet temper.
Taking the railway guide, Victor ruffled its pages, and after brief study
of the proper table remarked:
"Afraid I must ask you to run up to town for me to-night, Nogam. If you
don't mind ..."
"Only too glad to oblige, sir."
"I find I have left important papers behind. Give this to Shaik Tsin"--he
handed over the blank envelope--"and he will find them for you. You can
catch the ten-fifteen up, and return by the twelve-three from Charing
"Very good, sir."
"Oh--and see that Mr. Sturm gets this, too, will you? If he isn't in, give
it to Shaik Tsin to hand to him. Say it's urgent."
"Quite so, sir."
"That is all. But don't fail to catch the twelve-three back. I must have
the papers to-night."
"I shan't fail you, sir--D.V."
"Deo volente? You are a religious man, Nogam?"
"I 'umbly 'ope so, sir, and do my best to be, accordin' to my lights."
"Glad to hear it. Now cut along, or you'll miss the up train."
Long after Nogam had left the memory of their talk continued to afford
Victor an infinite amount of private entertainment.
"A religious man!" he would jeer to himself. "Then--may your God help you,
Some thought of the same sort may well have troubled Nogam's mind as he sat
in an otherwise untenanted third-class compartment blinking owlishly over
the example of Victor's command of the intricacies of Chinese writing.
He was happily free of surveillance for the first time in his waking hours
of many days. The Chinese chauffeur had driven him to the station, and had
furthermore lingered to see that Nogam did not fail to board it. And Nogam
felt reasonably safe in assuming that he would not approach the house near
Queen Anne's Gate without seeing (for the mere trouble of looking) a second
and an entirely gratuitous shadow attach itself to him with the intention
of sticking as tenaciously as that which God had given him. But the next
hour was all his own.
His study of the Chinese phonograms at length resulted in the
transformation of his careworn face by a slowly dawning smile, the gleeful
smile of a mischief-loving child. And when he had worked for a while on the
message, touching up the skillfully drawn characters with a pencil the mate
to that which Victor had used, he sat back and laughed aloud over the
result of his labours, with some appreciation of the glow that warms the
cockles of the artist's heart when his deft pen has raised a cheque from
tens to thousands, and he reviews a good job well done.
The torn envelope which had held the message to Shaik Tsin lay at his feet.
Nogam had not bothered to worry it open so carefully that it might be
resealed without inviting comment; though that need not have been a
difficult matter, thanks to the dampness of the night air.
Of the envelope addressed to Sturm, however, he was more considerate; to
violate its integrity and seal it up again was an undertaking that required
the nicest handling. Nor was it accomplished much before the train drew
into Charing Cross.
Outside the station taxis were few and drivers arrogant; and all the
'buses were packed to the guards with law-abiding Londoners homeward bound
from theatres and halls. So Nogam dived into the Underground, to come to
the surface again at St. James's Park station, whence he trotted all the
way to Queen Anne's Gate, arriving at his destination in a phase of
semi-prostration which a person of advancing years and doddering habits
might have anticipated.
Such fidelity in characterization deserved good reward, and had in it a
rare stroke of fortune; for as he drew up to it, the door opened, and Sturm
came out, saw Nogam, and stopped short.
"Thank 'Eaven, sir, I got 'ere in time," the butler panted. "If I'd missed
you, Prince Victor wouldn't 'ave been in 'arf a wax. 'E told me I must find
you to-night if I 'ad to turn all Lunnon inside out."
Pressing the message into Sturm's hand, he rested wearily against the
casing of the door, his body shaken by laboured breathing, and--while
Sturm, with an exclamation of excitement, ripped open the
envelope--surveyed the dark and rain-wet street out of the corners of his
Across the way a slinking shadow left the sidewalk and blended
indistinguishably with the crowded shadows of an areaway.
In a voice more than commonly rich with accent, Sturm demanded sharply:
"What is this? I do not understand!"
He shook in Nogam's face the half-sheet of notepaper on which the Chinese
phonograms were drawn.
"Sorry, sir, but I 'aven't any hidea. Prince Victor didn't tell me anything
except there would be no answer, and I was to 'urry right back to Frampton
Court." Nogam peered myopically at the paper. "It might be 'Ebrew, sir," he
hazarded, helpfully--"by the looks of it, I mean. I suppose some private
message, 'e thought you'd understand."
"Hebrew, you fool! Damn your impudence! Do you take me for a Jew?"
"Beg pardon, sir--no 'arm meant."
"No," Sturm declared, "it's Chinese."
"Then likely Prince Victor meant you to ask Shaik Tsin to translate it for
"Probably," Sturm muttered. "I'll see."
"Yes, sir. Good-night, sir."
Without acknowledging this civility, Sturm turned back into the house and
slammed the door. Nogam lingered another moment, then shuffled wearily down
the steps and toward the nearest corner.
Across the street the voluntary shadow detached itself from cover in the
areaway, and skulked after him. He paid no heed. But when the shadow
rounded the corner, it saw only a dark and empty street, and pulled up with
a grunt of doubt. Simultaneously something not unlike a thunderbolt for
force and fury was launched, from the dark shelter of a doorway near by, at
its devoted head. And as if by magic the shadow took on form and substance
to receive the onslaught. A fist, that carried twelve stone of bone and
sinew jubilant with realization of the hour for action so long deferred,
found shrewdly the heel of a jawbone, just beneath the ear. Its victim
dropped without a cry, but the impact of the blow was loud in the nocturnal
stillness of that bystreet, and was echoed in magnified volume by the crack
of a skull in collision with a convenient lamppost.
Followed a swift patter of fugitive feet.
Tempered by veils of mist, the lamplight fell upon a face upturned from a
murmurous gutter, a yellow face, wide and flat, with lips grinning back
from locked teeth and eyes frozen in a staring question to which no living
man has ever known the answer.
The pattering footsteps grew faint in distance and died away, the street
was still once more, as still as Death....
In the study of Prince Victor Vassilyevski the man Sturm put an impatient
"Well? What you make of it--hein?"
Shaik Tsin looked up from a paper which he had been silently examining by
the light of the brazen lamp.
"Number One says," he reported, smiling sweetly, while his yellow
forefinger moved from symbol to symbol of the picturesque writing: _'"The
blow falls to-night. Proceed at once to the gas works and do that which you
know is to be done.'"_
"At last!" The voice of the Prussian was full and vibrant with exultancy.
He threw back his head with a loud laugh, and his arm described a wild,
"At last--der Tag! To-night the Fatherland shall be avenged!"
Shaik Tsin beamed with friendliest sympathy Sturm turned to go, took three
hurried steps toward the door, and felt himself jerked back by a silken
cord which, descending from nowhere, looped his lean neck between chin and
Adam's apple. His cry of protest was the last articulate sound he uttered.
And the last sounds he heard, as he lay with face hideously congested and
empurpled, eyeballs starting from their deep sockets, and swollen tongue
protruding, were words spoken by Shaik Tsin as that one knelt over him, one
hand holding fast the ends of the bowstring that had cut off forever the
blessed breath of life, the other flourishing a half-sheet of notepaper.
"Fool! Look, fool, and read what vengeance visits a fool who is fool enough
to play the spy!"
He brandished the papers before those glazing eyeballs.
In an eldritch cackle he translated:
_"'He who bears this message is a Prussian dog, police trained, a spy. Let
his death be a dog's, cruel and swift.--Number One.'"_
Reviewing the day, as she undressed and prepared for bed, Sofia told
herself she had never yet lived through one so wearing, and thought the
history of its irksome hours all too legible in the lack-lustre face that
looked back from the mirror when Chou Nu uncoifed her hair and brushed its
Though she had slept late, in fact till noon and something after, her sleep
had been queerly haunted and unhappy, she could not remember how or why,
and she had awakened already ennuye, with a mind incoherently oppressed,
without relish for the promise of the day--in a mood altogether as drear as
the daylight that waited upon her unclosing eyes.
Main strength of will had not availed to dispel these vapours, neither did
their melancholy yield to the distraction provided by first acquaintance
with ways of a world unique alike in Sofia's esteem and her experience.
She who had theretofore known only in day-dreams the life of light
frivolity and fashion which found feverish and trumpery reflection at
Frampton Court, was neither equipped nor disposed to be hypercritical in
the first hours of her debut there; and at any other time, in any other
temper, she knew, she must have been swept off her feet by its exciting
appeal to her innate love of luxury and sensation. But the sad truth was,
it all seemed to her unillusioned vision an elaborate sham built up of
tinsel, paste, and paint; and the warmth of her welcome at the hands,
indeed in the very arms, of Lady Randolph West, and the success her youth
and beauty scored for her--commanding in all envy, admiration, cupidity, or
jealousy, according to age, sex, and temporal state of servitude--did
nothing to mitigate the harshness of those first impressions.
If anything her depression grew more perversely morbid the more she was
catered to, courted, flattered, and cajoled. Something had happened, she
could never guess what, perhaps some mysterious reaction effected through
the chemistry of last night's slumber, to turn her vivid zest in life to
ashes in her mouth, so that nothing seemed to matter any more.
Thoughts of Karslake as her lover, recollection of her first deep joy in
his avowal and her subsequent passion of shame and regret, re-perusal of
his note, that last night had seemed so sweet a thing, precious beyond
compare--found her indifferent to-day, and left her so. Try as she would,
she failed to recapture any sense of the reality of those first raptures.
And yet, somehow, she didn't doubt he loved her or that, buried deep
beneath this inexplicable apathy, love for Karslake burned on in her heart;
but she knew no sort of comfort in such confidence, their love seemed as
remote and immaterial an issue as the menu for day after to-morrow's
dinner. Nothing mattered!
She was able even to meet Prince Victor without her customary shiver of
aversion; and when she recalled the persistence and enthusiasm with which
she had reasoned herself into believing, last night, that he might be
another than her father, she came as near to mirth as she was to come that
day; but it was mirth bitter with self-derision. Of course he was her
father, she had been a ninny ever to dream contrariwise, or that it
Nor had she met with more success in efforts to find a cause for this drab
humour; unless, indeed, it were simply the farthest swing of the pendulum
from yesterday's emotional crises, a long swing out of sunlit spaces swept
by the brave winds of young romance into a gloomy zone of brooding torpor,
whose calm was false, surcharged with unseizable disquiet, its atmosphere
electrical with formless apprehensions, its sad twilight shot with lurid
gleams no sooner glimpsed than gone.
In this state Sofia's sensibilities were less benumbed than bound in a
palsy of suspense not wholly destitute of dread; beneath the lethargic
shallows of consciousness lay soundless deeps troubled by sinister
Now, retracing stage by stage the record of the day, Sofia became aware
that its most poignant moment for her was actually the present, with its
keen wonder that she had contrived to survive such exquisite tedium.
She perceived that she had moved throughout like an automaton swayed by a
will outside its own; functioning rather than living; performing appointed
business, executing prescribed gestures, uttering foreordained
observations, and making dictated responses, all without suggestion of
spontaneity, and all without meaning other than as means to bridge an empty
space of waiting.
Waiting for what?
Sofia could not guess....
She went to bed presently, hoping only to find surcease of boredom; and her
head no sooner touched the pillow than oblivion closed down upon her
faculties like a dense, dark cloud.
Discreet and well-instructed, Chou Nu turned the night-light down to a
glimmer, placed on and under a chair adjacent to the bed a robe of cashmere
that wouldn't rustle, and slippers of fine felt with soles of soft leather,
in which footfalls must be inaudible--and glided gently from the room.
For sixty minutes its deep hush was unbroken; the even respiration of the
girl made no sound, she rested without tossing, without moving a finger.
Then, sleep having held her for precisely one hour by the clock, Sofia
opened her eyes, drew in a deep breath, and at once sat up on the side of
The memory of that hour was not to leave the girl while life was in her;
nor was the question it raised ever to be answered in a fashion
satisfactory to her intelligence. When later she heard it stated with
authority, by men reputed to be versed in psychic knowledge, that a subject
in hypnosis cannot be willed to act contrary to the instincts of his or her
better nature, she held her peace, but wondered. Was Victor right, then,
and the crime he had willed her to commit in final analysis not repugnant
to her instincts? Or was it some secret faculty of the soul, telepathy or
of its kin, that roused and sent her to keep her rendezvous with destiny?
A riddle never to be read: Sofia only knew that, finding herself awake, she
got up, donned negligee and slippers, and set her feet upon the way
appointed without its occurring to her that the way was strange, without
stopping to question why or whether.
If independent volition, sensible or subliminal, were absent, it could
hardly have been apparent. Sofia herself was not aware of its suspense or
supersession. She knew quite well what she was doing, her every action was
direct and decided, the goal alone remained obscure. She only knew that
somewhere, somehow, something was going wrong without her, and her presence
was required to set it right.
Letting herself out into the corridor, she drew the door to behind her, but
left it unlatched; with what object, she did not know. But the lateness of
the hour, the stillness of the sleeping household, made it seem quite in
order that she should pause to look cautiously this way and that and make
sure that nobody else was astir to spy upon her or challenge the purpose of
this as yet aimless nocturnal flitting.
There was nobody that she could see.
Down the corridor, then, never asking why that way, like a ghost in haste
she sped, but as she drew near to a certain door found her pace faltering.
Sofia knew that door; through it Lady Randolph West herself had introduced
the girl to her boudoir, not two hours since, when chance, or Fate, or the
smooth working out of malicious mortal machinations had moved the two women
simultaneously to seek their quarters for the night. And in the boudoir
Sofia had spent the quarter of an hour before going on to her own room and
bed, civilly attending to vapid chatter and admiring as in duty bound the
admirable jewels of the family.
Now she saw the door a few inches ajar with, beyond it, a dim glow. The
circumstance seemed singular, because--now that she remembered--when Sofia
had expressed perfunctory curiosity concerning what precautions were taken
to safeguard the jewels, Lady Randolph West had airily informed her that
she considered insurance to their appraised value plus a stout lock on the
boudoir door better than any strong-box as yet devised by the ingenuity of
"There's the safe they're kept in, of course," the lady had
declared--"but, my dear, a cardboard box will do as well when any burglar
who knows his business makes up his mind to get at my trinkets. I never
even trouble to lock the thing. I'd rather lose the jewels--and collect the
insurance money--than be frightened out of my wits by hearing it blown
open. No, thanks ever so: any cracksman skillful enough to pick the lock on
the door may bag his loot and go in peace for all of me!"
Impulse, at least she called it that, moved Sofia to approach and
cautiously open the door still wider.
Upon the antique writing-desk that housed the safe burned a single lamp of
low candle-power. A door that led to the adjoining bedchamber was tightly
shut. Sofia's mistrustful eyes reconnoitred every corner of the room, and
reckoned it empty. Again obedient to undisputed impulse, she stepped inside
and shut the door. The spring-latch of the American lock found its socket
with a soft click. Thereafter, silence, no sound in the boudoir, none from
the room beyond. But to Sofia the hurried beating of her heart reverberated
on the stillness like the rolling of a drum.
Without clear appreciation of how she had got there, she found herself
standing over the writing-desk, and discovered what the indifferent light
had till now kept hidden, that a false panel in the front of the desk had
been thrust back, exposing the face of the safe, and that this last was not
At the same time she grew conscious that her hands were shaking violently,
that her every limb, her whole body indeed, was agitated by desperate
trembling. And dully asked herself why this should be ... But didn't
Her actions now more than ever resembled those of an unthinking puppet,
although she knew quite well what she was doing; and her gestures might
have been the fruit of long lessoning at the hands of some master of stage
melodrama, so true were they to theatrical convention.
With furtive, frightened glances toward both doors, Sofia dropped to her
knees before the safe....
When she stood up again her hands were filled with jewellery, her two hands
held a treasure of incalculable price in precious stones.
She paused for a little, staring at them with dilate eyes dark in a pale,
rapt face. Her lips were parted, but only her quickened breathing whispered
past them. She was trembling more painfully than ever. But she seemed
unable to think of anything but the jewels, her gaze was held in
fascination by their coruscant loveliness as revealed by the light of the
Hers for the taking!
Then, without warning, a tremendous convulsion laid hold on her body and
soul, and she was racked and shaken by it, and at its crisis her
outstretched hands opened and showered the top of the desk with jewels,
then flew to her head and clutched her throbbing temples.
She cried out in a low voice of suffering: _"No!"_
And of a sudden she was reeling back from the desk, toward the corridor
door, repeating over and over on an ascending scale: _"No! no! no! no!
Her quaking legs blundered against a chair, her knees gave, she tottered to
fall; strong arms caught her, held her safe, a voice she knew yet didn't
know in its guarded key muttered in her ear: "Thank God!"
She made no struggle, but her eyes of pain and terror sought the speaker's
face, and saw that he was the man Nogam. In extremity of amazement she
spoke his name. He shook his head.
"No longer Nogam," he said in the same low accents, and smiled--"but your
father, Michael Lanyard!"
One more instant the girl rested passive in uncomprehending astonishment;
then abruptly she exerted herself to break free from the supporting
embrace, but found the effort wasted for lack of opposition, so that her
own violence sent her reeling away half a dozen paces, to bring up against
the desk; while Lanyard, making no move more than to drop his rejected
arms, remained where she had left him, and requited her indignant stare
with a broken smile of understanding, a smile at once tender, tolerant, and
sympathetic, with a little quirk of rueful humour for good measure.
"My father!" Sofia repeated in a gasp of disdain--"_you!_"
He gave a slight shrug.
"Such, it appears, is your sad fortune."
"And not the proud prince you were promised? Rather a come down, one must
admit." Lanyard laughed low, and moved nearer. "I'm sorry, I mean I might
be (for myself, too) if Nogam were less a fraud than that pretentious
mountebank, Prince Victor--or for the matter of that, if you were as poor
of spirit as you would seem on your own valuation, if you were not at heart
your mother's daughter, and mine, my child by a woman whom I loved well,
and who long ago loved me!"
He paused deliberately to let her grasp the full sense of his words, then
"It may help you get your bearings to know that I am truly the Michael
Lanyard to whom Messieurs Secretan & Sypher addressed their
advertisement--you remember--as this should prove."
He offered a slip of paper, and after another moment of dumb staring, the
girl took it and read aloud the message which Victor had dictated following
Sofia's flight to him from the Cafe des Exiles.
_"'To Michael Lanyard, Intelligence Division, the War Office,
"That is to say," Lanyard interpreted, "of the British Secret Service."
He bowed in light irony. "One regrets one is at present unable to offer
better social standing. To-morrow, it may be ... But who knows?"
Sofia shook her head impatiently, and in a murmur of deepening amazement
resumed her reading of the note:
_"'Your daughter Sofia is now with me.. Your own intelligence must tell you
nothing could be more fatal than an attempt to communicate with her'"_
To the interrogation eloquent in her eyes Lanyard replied:
"Dictated by Victor to Karslake, who passed it on to me, the night he
brought you to the house from the Cafe des Exiles."
"You knew--you, who claim to be my father--yet permitted him--?"
"You were in the house before I knew I had a daughter; Karslake had no
chance to consult me before fetching you. Furthermore, if he had hesitated
to carry out Victor's orders just then, not only would he have nullified
all our preparations to secure evidence enough to convict the man, or at
least run him out of England--"
"Prince Victor? What was he doing, that you should--?"
"Dabbling in all manner of infamy, from financing a thieves' fence to
organizing an association of common criminals to bring it business; from
maintaining a corps of agitators to foment social discontent to fostering
this last, most imbecile scheme of all, which comes to naught to-night, an
attempt to overthrow the British Empire and set up in its stead a Soviet
England, with Victor Vassilyevski in the dual role of Trotsky and Lenine!"
The girl made a sign of bewilderment and incredulity.
"What are you telling me? Are you mad?"
"No--but Victor is, mad with lust for power, insane with illusions of
personal aggrandizement. You don't believe? Listen to me, then, appreciate
to what demoniac lengths he was prepared to go to flatter his insane
"Sturm has invented a new poison gas, odourless, colourless, the most
deadly known, and easily manufactured in vast quantities by adding simple
ingredients to ordinary illuminating gas. Fanatic Bolshevist that he was,
Sturm offered his formula to Victor, to be used to clear the way for social
revolution; and Victor jumped at the offer--has spent vast sums preparing
to employ it. His money paid for the recent strike at the Westminster works
of the Gas Light and Coke Company, by means of which Victor was able to
smuggle a round number of his creatures into its service. His money has
corrupted servants employed in Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, in
the homes of the nobility, even in Buckingham Palace itself, men ready at a
given signal secretly to turn on gas jets in remote corners and flood the
buildings with the very breath of Death itself. And that signal was to have
been given to-night. Well, it will not be."
"But could any scheme be more grotesquely diabolical? Do you ask more proof
of the man's madness? Do you require more excuse for my permitting you to
be deceived by Victor for a few weeks, rather than wreck our plans to
frustrate his, when all the while Karslake and I were near you, watching
over you, learning to love you--he in his fashion, I as your father--and
both ready at all times to die in your protection, if it had ever come to
Lanyard had drawn so near that only a few inches separated them, and had
his voice in such control that at three paces' distance a vague and
inarticulate murmur at most might have been heard; but in Sofia's hearing
his accents rang with passionate sincerity, persuading her against the
reason which would have rejected his indictment of Victor as too fantastic,
too imaginative, and too hopelessly overdrawn to be given credence. She
believed him, knowing in her heart that he believed his statements to the
last word; and knowing more, that he was surely what he represented himself
to be, her father.
Inscrutable the processes of human hearts: even as from the very first
Sofia had instinctively yet unconsciously recognized the intrinsic falsity
of Victor's pretensions, so now she perceived the integral honesty that
informed Lanyard's every word and nuance of expression, and accepted him
without further inquisition.
To his insistent "Have I made you understand?" she returned a wan wraith of
a smile, pitiful with entreaty, while one of her hands found the way to
"I think so," she replied in halting apology--"at least, I believe you. But
be a little patient with me. It is all so new and strange, what you tell
me, it's hard at first to grasp, there's so much I must accept on faith
alone, so much I don't understand ..."
"I know." Lanyard pressed her hand gently.
"But try to have faith; I promise you it shall be fairly rewarded. Only a
little longer now, an hour or two at most, and Karslake will be here to
prove the truth of all I have asserted. You will believe him, at least."
"Of course," the girl said, simply. "I love him. You knew that?"
"I guessed, and I am glad, glad for both of you."
"But he is safe?" Sofia demanded in sudden access of alarm so strong that
her voice rose above the pitch of discretion.
"Quietly. Yes, he is safe enough."
"You know that for a fact? How do you know--?"
"I've seen him to-night, talked with him--not two hours since."
"You have been in London?" she questioned--"to-night?"
"Rather! Victor sent me." Lanyard laughed lightly. "You didn't know, of
course, but--well, I gave him reason to suspect me, so he sent me up to be
assassinated by Shaik Tsin. As it turned out, however, Herr Sturm most
obligingly understudied for me.... Before coming back, I looked Karslake
up. He'd been busy, playing a lone hand, ever since Victor trumped up an
errand to keep him out of your way all day. No need to go into tedious
details; I found Karslake had matters well in hand: the gas works
surrounded by a cordon of troops, the house under close watch, and--best
of all--a sworn confession from an Irish Member of Parliament whom Victor
had managed to buy with a promise to free Ireland once Soviet England was
an accomplished fact. So I left Karslake to wind up loose ends in London,
and posted back with my heart in my mouth for fear I'd be too late."
"Too late?" Sofia queried with arching brows.
"Need I remind you where we are?"
A sweep of Lanyard's hand indicated the boudoir; and Sofia started sharply
in perplexity and alarm.
"Where we are!" she echoed in a frightened whisper.
Of a sudden memory returned of what had passed in that room before Lanyard
had revealed himself to her, and knowledge of her peril so narrowly escaped
drove home like a knife to her heart.
"What am I doing here?" she breathed in horror. "What have I done?"
"Nothing more dreadful than prove yourself as true as you are fine, by
revolting in the end against the most powerful force known to man, the
force of suggestion implanted in hypnotism. You couldn't know that it was
hypnotic not natural sleep you passed into last night, when Victor tricked
you with that damned crystal, or that, while you slept, he willed you to do
here to-night what, when it came to the final test, your nature would not
let you do."
"But he so often told me I had the instincts of a thief--!"
"So often--_I_ know--that you were, against your will and reason, by dint
of the very iteration of it, coming to accept that lie as a truth whose
power there was no contesting. That is why, that you might prove yourself
by your own acts, I had to let you undergo your ordeal here to-night, only
standing by to make sure no ill came of it. Otherwise you might have
carried to your grave the fear instilled into your soul by that blackguard.
But now you know he lied, and will never doubt again--or reproach your
father for the dark record of his younger years."
He checked, lifting hands of desolate appeal, then let them fall.
"Dear, if you knew you would not judge me harshly. If only you could know
what I have fought up from, a foundling without a name abandoned in a
third-rate Parisian hotel, reared a scullion, butt and scapegoat, with
associates only of the lowest, scullions, beggars, pickpockets, Apaches,
"As if that mattered!"
The girl turned a softly suffused face with shining eyes to Lanyard's. Now
at last she knew him, now the romance of her dreams of yesterday came true:
through the mean masquerade of Nogam the man emerged, identifying himself
in her sight unmistakably with that splendid stranger whom she had never
quite forgotten since that old-time afternoon when he had met Karslake in
the Cafe des Exiles and talked so intimately of his antecedents, hinting
at a history of youthful years strangely analogous with her own.
Involuntarily her arms lifted and settled upon his shoulders.
"I am so proud to think--"
A shrill scream drowned out her words, a woman's voice ranging swiftly the
staccato gamut of terror and cracking discordantly on its most piercing
Then with a bang that shook the flooring and must have been heard in the
farthest corners of the house, the bedchamber door was slammed behind their
backs. But beyond it the screaming went on in volume imperceptibly muffled
by its barrier, one ear-splitting caterwaul following another with such
continuity that the wonder was where Lady Randolph West found breath to
keep up that atrocious row, and whether any dozen women of average
lung-power could have rivalled it.
In one sharp movement Lanyard and Sofia disengaged and fell apart, their
eyes consulting, hers in dismay, his in mixed exasperation and remorse.
"I ought to be shot," he declared, bitterly--"who knew better!--to have
delayed here, exposing you to this danger--!"
"It couldn't be helped," Sofia insisted; "you had to make me understand.
Besides, if I hurry back--"
In quick strides Lanyard crossed to the corridor door, unlatched and opened
it an inch, peered out, and gave the sum of what he saw in a gesture of
finality, then leaving the door ajar turned swiftly back to the girl.
"Too late," he said: "they're swarming out into the hall like bees. In
another minute ..."
Of a sudden he closed with Sofia, roughly clasping her body to him.
"Struggle with me!" he pleaded--"get me by the throat, throw me back across
"What do you mean? Let me go!"
In answer to her efforts to wrench away, Lanyard only tightened his hold
and swung her toward the desk.
"Do as I bid you! It's the only way out. Let them think you heard a noise,
got up to investigate, found me here, rifling the safe--"
"No," she insisted--"no! Why should I save myself at your expense?--betray
"Then give me the obedience of a daughter ... or let Victor succeed in
branding you a thief, the daughter of a thief!"
He stilled the protest she would have uttered by placing fingers over her
In the corridor an angry rumour of voices, alarmed calls and cries, with
thumps and scuffles of hasty feet, in the bedchamber the shrieks persisting
without the least hint of failing: as a damned soul might bawl upon its bed
of coals ...
"Sofia, I implore you!"
Still she hesitated.
"Never fear for me, remember that I am of the Secret Service: two minutes
after I see the inside of the nearest police station, I shall be free--and
happy in the assurance that your name is without stain. Then Karslake will
come for you, bring you to me ... Now!"
Lanyard caught the girl's two wrists together and, throwing himself bodily
backward across the desk, carried her hands to his throat.
With a simultaneous crash the door was flung back to the wall. Led by
Victor Vassilyevski a dozen men, guests and servants, in various stages of
dishabille, streamed into the room.
THE DEVIL TO PAY
When it was all over, when the gravelled drive no longer crunched to wheels
that bore away the man Nogam to answer for his misdeeds, when the household
had quieted down and the most indefatigable sensation-monger had wearied of
singing the praises of the Princess Sofia and, tossing off a final
whiskey-and-soda, had paddled sleepily back to bed, lights burned on
brightly in two parts only of Frampton Court, in the bedchambers tenanted
respectively by Prince Victor Vassilyevski and his reputed daughter.
Alone, Prince Victor sat at the desk where he had, four hours earlier,
inscribed those characters which should have hurried Nogam into a premature
grave. That they had failed of their mission was something that fretted
Victor Vassilyevski, his mind and nerves, to a pitch of exacerbation all
What had become of that sentence to death? And what of that other, the
telegram which, forwarded by Nogam's hand to Sturm, should long since have
set in motion the organized machinery of murder and demolition?
Had Nogam, as he had meekly insisted on being questioned subsequent to his
subjugation, truly delivered the two messages as directed and, miraculously
escaping his fate decreed, returned to Frampton Court by the twelve-three,
likewise in strict conformance with instructions?
This statement Nogam had neglected to amplify, and Victor had been chary of
too close questioning, lest it elicit too much in the hearing of others.
Once overpowered, Nogam had been philosophic about his bad luck; but the
eyes in his face of a stoic had held a gleam that Victor didn't altogether
like, a light that seemed suspiciously malicious, a suggestion of spirited
humour deplorable to say the least in a self-confessed sneak-thief caught
in the very act, deplorable and disturbing; in Victor's sight a look
constructively indicative of more knowledge than Nogam had any right to
possess. Take it any way you pleased, something to think about ...
Still more disquieting Victor thought the circumstance that nobody else had
seemed to notice that anomalous light in Nogam's eyes; which of course
might mean merely that Victor had worked himself into such a state of
nerves that he was seeing things, but equally well that the look was one
reserved for Victor alone, intentionally or not holding for him a message,
if he had but had the wit to read it, of peculiarly personal import.
It might have implied, for example, that Victor's half-hearted and
paltering distrust of Nogam had all along been only too well warranted. In
which case, the fat was already in the fire with a vengeance, and Victor's
probable duration of life was dependent wholly upon the speed with which he
could quit Frampton Court and hurl his motor-car through the night to the
lower reaches of the Thames.
Envisagement of the worst at its blackest being part of the holy duty of
self-preservation, Victor sat fully dressed, with every other provision
made for flight at the first flash of warning, only waiting to make sure,
and with what impatience was apparent in the working of paste-coloured
features, the wincing and shifting of slotted eyes, the incessant shutting
and unclosing of tensed fingers.
All rested with the telephone that stood mockingly mute at the man's elbow,
callous alike to his anxiety and the rancorous regard in which he held it.
His call for the house near Queen Anne's Gate had now been in for more than
forty minutes; in that interval he had no less than three times pleaded its
urgency to the trunk-line operator. And still the muffled bell beneath the
desk was dumb.
And the worst of it was, fatal though the delay might prove, he dared not
stir a hand to save himself until he _knew_....
In the taut torment of those long-drawn minutes a sound of circumspect
scratching was enough to bring Victor to his feet in one startled bound.
He stood for a moment, a-twitch, but intent upon the corridor door, then
composed himself with indifferent success, approached and opened the door.
The girl Chou Nu slipped in, offered a timid courtesy, and awaited his
leave to speak.
"Well? What is it?"
"Excellency: the Princess Sofia refuses to let me stay in the room with
"Why? Don't you know?"
"I think she means to run away. She would not go back to her bed, but
walked up and down, till I ventured to urge her to take rest, when she
turned on me in a rage and bade me be gone. Then I came to you."
Victor took thought and finished with a dour nod.
"You have done well. Return, keep watch, let me know if she leaves--"
"The door is locked, Excellency: she will not let me in."
"Spy through the keyhole, then; or hide in one of the empty rooms across
the corridor, and watch--"
A muted mutter from the direction of the desk dried speech on Victor's
lips. He started hastily toward the source of the sound, midway wheeled,
and dismissed the maid with a brusque hand and monosyllable--"Go!"--then
fairly pounced upon the telephone.
But all he heard, in the course of the ensuing five minutes, was the voice
of the trunk-line operator advising him, to begin with, that she was ready
to put him through to Westminster, then maddeningly punctuating the buzz
and whine of the empty wire with her call of a talking doll--"Are you
theah?... Are you theah?... Are you theah?"
At length, however, the connection was established; and Victor, hearing the
falsetto of Chou Nu's second-uncle cheerily respond to the operator's
query, unceremoniously broke in:
"Shaik Tsin? It is I, Number One. And the devil's own time I've had getting
through. Why didn't you answer more promptly? What's the matter? Has
anything gone wrong?"
"All is well, Excellency, as well as you could wish, knowing what you
Profound relief found voice in a sigh from Victor's heart.
"You got my messages, then? Nogam delivered them?"
"So I understand. I myself did not see him, Excellency. The man Sturm--"
On that name the voice died away in what Victor fancied was a gasp that
might have been of either fright or pain.
"Hello!" he prompted. "Are you there, Shaik Tsin? I say! Are you there? Why
don't you answer?"
He paused: no sound for seconds that dragged like so many minutes, then of
a sudden a deadened noise like the slam of a door heard afar--or a pistol
shot at some distance from the telephone in the study.
Further and frantic importuning of the cold and unresponsive wire
presently was silenced by a new voice, little like that of Shaik Tsin.
"Hello? Who's there? I say: that you, Prince Victor?"
Involuntarily Victor cried: "Karslake!" "What gorgeous luck! I've been
wanting a word with you all evening."
"What has happened? Why did Shaik Tsin--?"
"Oh, most unfortunate about him--frightfully sorry, but it really couldn't
be helped, if he hadn't fought back we wouldn't have had to shoot him. You
see, the old devil murdered Sturm to-night, for some reason I daresay you
understand better than I: we found a paper on the beggar, written in
Chinese, apparently an order for his assassination signed by you. Half a
mo': I'll read it to you ..."
But if Karslake translated Victor's message, as edited by the hand of
Nogam, it was to a wire as deaf as it was dumb.
VENTRE A TERRE
With exceeding care to avoid noise, Sofia unlocked the door and for the
second time since midnight let herself stealthily out into the darkened
corridor; but now with the difference that she did what she did in full
command of all her wits and faculties, with no subjective war of wills to
hinder and confuse her, and with a definite object clearly visioned--a goal
no less distant than the railway station.
Lanyard had promised that Karslake should come for her within an hour or
two and take her away with him, back to London and the arms of the father
whom, although so recently revealed and accepted, she had already begun to
love; if indeed it were not true that she had in filial sense fallen in
love with Lanyard at first sight, through intuition, that afternoon in the
Cafe des Exiles so long, so very long ago!
Well: she might as well await Karslake at the station. It would be simpler,
she would be more at ease there, would breathe more freely once she turned
her back on Frampton Court and all its hateful associations. Where Victor
was, she could not rest.
If she had feared the man before, now she hated him; but hatred had added
to her fear instead of replacing it, she remained afraid, desperately
afraid, so that even the thought of continuing under the same roof with him
was enough to make her prefer to tramp unknown roads alone in the mirk of
that storm-swept night.
Though she went in trembling, she felt sure nobody spied upon her going;
and in this confidence crept to the great staircase, down to the entrance
hall, and on to the front doors; and a good omen it seemed to find these
not locked, but simply on the latch. And if the night into which she peered
was dark and loud with wind and rain, its countenance seemed kindlier, more
friendly far than that of the world she was putting behind her. Without
misgivings Sofia stepped out.
It was like stepping over the edge of the universe into the eternal night
that bides beyond the stars. Neither did waiting seem to habituate her
vision to the lack of light.
Still, the feel of gravel underfoot ought to guide her down the drive to
the great gateway; and once outside the park, clear of its overshadowing
trees, one would surely find mitigation of darkness sufficient to show the
She took one tentative step out of the recessed doorway and into Victor's
That they were Victor's she knew instantly, as much by the crawling of her
flesh as by the choking terror that stifled the scream in her throat and
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