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His sort are never so
dangerous as when apparently discouraged." "Be reassured. I promised you
three weeks ago his interference would not continue beyond that night. It
has not. Lanyard knows I have his daughter, that any blow aimed at me must
first strike her."

"Doubtless yourself knows best...."

With the Irishman gone, Prince Victor turned to Sturm.

"You will want a good night's sleep," he suggested with pointed solicitude.
"Who knows but that to-morrow will bring your night of nights, my friend?"

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
familiarity.

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?"

"No."

"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?"

"Yes."

"But with no tangible support for your suspicions?"

"None."

"You have not failed to watch him closely?"

"As a cat watches a mouse."

"But--nothing?"

"Nothing."

"Yet I agree with you entirely, Shaik Tsin. I smell treachery."

"And I."

"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 everybody?"

"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
Sturm."

"And Karslake?"

"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:

"The crystal."

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."



XV

INTUITION


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 négligée
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?

And--_why_?

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
confidence?

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--

If!

_Was_ he?

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
Victor Vassilyevski.

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 Café des Exiles, toast their mistresses with such
looks as Victor Vassilyevski reserved for the girl whom he claimed as his
child.

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
afternoon.

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
chaise-longue.

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.



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