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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.

R.K.

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 négligée
before answering.

When one is of an age to love, it is never the parent who gets the benefit
of a doubt.



XVI

THE CRYSTAL


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
beaten gold.

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
herself?

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
waiting long?"

"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
quarter."

"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
you."

"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
her lap.

"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
her.

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
speculative eyes.

"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.



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