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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
promised ...

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
well imagine."

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
disgrace!"

"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
error."

"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."

"Oh, yes."

"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
tired - "that!"

"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
bourgeois domesticity."

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
you."

"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.

"What - ?"

"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?"

"But - how?"

"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."

"She sleeps - "

"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
imperceptible:

"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?"

"I remember."

"Listen carefully. Memorize my wishes with respect to our visit to
Frampton Court, remembering that I communicate my will, which you must
obey."

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?"

"Yes."

"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?"

"Yes."

"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
her.

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
noon to-morrow - _sleep!_"

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."

"Without error?"

"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?"

"Excellently."

Shaik Tsin nodded in grave yet humorous comprehension. "Now I begin to
understand. If she is caught, that gives you a power over her?"

"Precisely."

"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
merit."

"As to that, Shaik Tsin," Victor said without a smile, "our minds are one.
Go now. Good-night."



XVII

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
a message.

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
enlightening.

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
Frampton Court.

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
self-adornment.

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
was.

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 tête-à-tête 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
fault.

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,
sir - just harrived."

"Thanks," said Victor, shortly, taking the envelope and marching on into
his rooms.

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
minutes.

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.

"Nogam!"

"Sir?"

"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


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Online LibraryLouis Joseph VanceRed Masquerade → online text (page 13 of 16)