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Karslake or,
preferably, both."

"Oh, I promise that--"

"But there is more: If by any accident you should ever find yourself left
alone in public, do not let strangers speak to you, refuse to listen to
them."

"I promise."

"And finally: If anybody should ever seek to turn you against me, come to
me instantly and tell me about it."

"But naturally I would do that, father."

"Good. I rely upon your discretion and loyalty. At another time I will
explain matters in more detail. For the present--enough of an unpleasant
subject. You have a busy day before you. At my request Mrs. Waring has
arranged to have various tradespeople wait upon you this morning to take
your orders for the beginnings of a wardrobe. If you can find something
ready-made to wear you will want, no doubt, to spend the afternoon
shopping. A car will be at your disposal, and I give you carte blanche. I
wish you never to know an unsatisfied need or desire. Still, I am selfish
enough to reserve for myself the happiness of selecting your jewels."

"Oh!" Sofia cried, breathlessly. Victor was holding his arms open; and how
should she deny him? "You are too good to me," she murmured. "How can I
ever show my gratitude?"

Holding her close, Victor smiled a singular smile.

"Some day I may tell you. But to-day--no more. I am much preoccupied with
affairs; but Mrs. Waring will take care of you till evening, when I promise
myself the pleasure of dining with you both."

At the sound of a knock he put Sofia gently from him, and said in a strong
voice:

"Enter."

The door opened, Nogam announced:

"Mr. Sturm."

Hard on the echo of his name a man swung into the room with an air at once
nervous and aggressive--a tall man shabbily dressed, holding his head
high--and at sight of Sofia and Mrs. Waring, where he had doubtless thought
to find Prince Victor alone, stopped short, betraying disconcertion in the
way he instinctively assumed the stand of a soldier at attention, bringing
his heels together with an undeniable click, straightening his shoulders,
stiffening both arms to rigidity at his sides. And for a bare thought his
eyes rolled almost wildly in their deep sockets. Then he bowed twice, from
the hips, with mechanical precision, profoundly to Victor, with deep
respect to the women.

Victor smothered an exclamation of annoyance.

Unbidden, a word shaped in Sofia's consciousness, a French monosyllable
into which the war had packed every shade and gradation of hatred and
contempt, the epithet _Boche_.

Immediately erasing every sign of irritation, Victor greeted the man with
casual suavity. "Oh, there you are, eh, Sturm?" Then, as Sofia and Mrs.
Waring turned to go, he added quickly: "A moment, please. Since Mr. Sturm
to-day becomes a member of the household, acting as my assistant in some
research work which I am undertaking, I may as well present him now. Mrs.
Waring, permit me: Mr. Sturm. And the Princess Sofia Vassilyevski, my
daughter ..."

Mumbling their names after Victor, the man Sturm executed two more bows. At
the same time he seemed to remind himself that his soldierly carriage was
perhaps injudicious, and forthwith abandoned it for a studied slouch which,
in Sofia's sight, was little less than insolent. And unmistakably there was
something nearly resembling insolence in the eyes that boldly sought hers:
a look equivocal at best and, intentionally or no, wholly offensive in
essence; as if the fellow were asserting their partnership in some secret
understanding; or as if he knew something by no means to Sofia's credit....

Her acknowledgment of his salute was accordingly cool, and she was glad
when a nod from Prince Victor gave her leave to go.



X

VICTOR ET AL


Those first few weeks of emancipation from the ennui of existence at the
Café des Exiles were so replete with wonders that Sofia lived largely in a
beatific state of breathless excitement, devoting the best part of her days
to thoughtless flying from delight to new delight, and going nightly to her
bed so healthily tired that she slept like a top and never once awakened to
memories of disturbing dreams.

Perhaps her pleasure burned the brighter for its dark, ambiguous
background--those many questions which Prince Victor persisted in leaving
unanswered. Sofia knew bad times of perplexity and depression, when the
price of translation from drudge to princess seemed a sore price to pay.

And yet, required to state the cost to her in terms explicit, she must have
hesitated lest she appear ungrateful in complaining, who hardly needed to
express a wish to have it granted, who indeed knew many a wish realized in
fact before she was fully aware of its inception in her private thoughts.

All those lovely material things of life which her famished girlhood had
ached for so hopelessly now were hers in abundant measure, and all the less
tangible things, too, so requisite to the happiness of women in a worldly
world--or nearly all. Frocks she had, with furs and furbelows no end;
flowers and flattery and frivolities; freedom within limitations as yet not
irksome; jewels that would have graced an imperial diadem--everything but
the single essential without which everything is hollow nothing and life
itself only the dreaming of a dream.

The one lack known to the Sofia of those days was the lack of Love.

She had gone so long longing to love, questing blindly and vainly for some
human being to whom her affection would mean something vital and dear--it
seemed cruel that her longing must be still denied. As it had been with
Mama Thérèse, it was now with the romantic father so newly self-declared.
She wanted desperately and tried her best to love Victor as his daughter
should; and that he cared for her profoundly she knew and never questioned;
yet when she searched her secret heart Sofia discovered no feeling for the
man other than a singular form of fear. His look, his tone, his manner, his
presence altogether, inspired a nameless sort of shrinking, inarticulate
apprehensions, and mistrust which the girl found at once utterly
unaccountable and dismally disappointing; so that, with every wish and will
to do otherwise, she found herself involuntarily making excuse of trivial
interests to keep out of Victor's way and, when there was no escaping,
sitting silent and ill at ease in his society, or seizing on some slender
pretext, it didn't matter what, to inveigle into their company a third
somebody, it didn't matter whom--Mrs. Waring, Karslake, even the
unspeakable Sturm.

Nevertheless, there were times, far too many of them, too, when of a sudden
Victor would forsake his occult preoccupations and, unceremoniously
upsetting whatever arrangements Sofia might have made with Mrs. Waring or
Karslake, would find other pleasures of his own invention for her to share
with him alone: long motor jaunts through the English countryside,
apparently his favourite recreation; a box all to themselves at a theatre,
where Victor would sit watching the girl with a fascination only rivalled
by her fascination with the traffic of the boards; curiously constrained
little dinners à deux in fashionable restaurants; morning rides in Rotten
Row, where it oddly appeared that Victor knew everybody, whereas not one in
five hundred seemed to know him--or to care to know him.

Sofia, indeed, was often puzzled to account for what to her appeared to be
an almost pathetic eagerness on the part of Victor, in strange accord with
his lofty pretensions, to claim acquaintanceship with and win the
recognition even of persons of the utmost inconsequence. And she remarked,
too, that his temper was apt to be raw in sequel to their excursions into
the haunts of the well-known. But it was for other reasons altogether that
she came to dread them most.

For one thing, Victor's conversation was ordinarily rather dull; at best,
the reverse of exhilarating. And in spite of her unquestioning acceptance
of him as her father, he remained to Sofia actually a new acquaintance; in
effect, a strange man. And from strangers, more than from relatives with
whose minds one is presumably on terms of close intimacy, one is warranted
in expecting something in the way of mutual stimulation through the opening
of new perspectives of experience, thought, and feeling. Whereas--with
Sofia, at least--Victor seemed unable to talk on more than two subjects,
one or the other of which was constantly uppermost in his thoughts.

He never wearied of warning Sofia against the dangers of those moral
infirmities which he asserted were hers by legitimate inheritance; and
which, if Victor were right in his contentions, she could hardly hope to
overcome without a desperate struggle. She would have to be forever on
guard, he insisted, lest the temptation of some moment, not to be foreseen,
prove too strong for her latent weakness of character, and commit her,
through some unpremeditated act of defiance to the law--most probably an
act of theft--to the life of a social outcast.

To do her justice, the girl was consciously not much impressed by this
alleged peril. She had never been aware of any failing such as Victor would
have endowed her with; so far as she could remember she had never been
tempted to commit more venial sins than inhered in lying to Mama Thérèse
now and then in order to escape unmerited disciplining at the heavy hands
of that industrious virago; and as for thieving, the very thought of
anything of that sort was detestable to Sofia.

But unconsciously, no doubt, the everlasting iteration of Victor's
admonitions had its purposed effect upon that sensitive and impressionable
spirit.

Then, too, by degrees, but all too soon, it became manifest that the memory
of his passionate attachment for her mother possessed Victor to the point
of monomania. It was only with an effort that he could force himself to
talk to Sofia on other subjects. He thought of nothing else while with her;
if she read his eyes aright, often glimpses of weird light flickering in
their opaque depths, like heat lightning of a murky summer's night, fairly
frightened her, and she knew a shuddering perception of the possibility
that Victor was at times in danger of confusing the daughter with the
mother.

"Never was there such resemblance," he once uttered, in a stare.



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