“You rang, sir?”
“Oh, are you there, Nogam? Is the apartment ready for the Princess Sofia?”
“Quite ready, sir.”
“Be good enough to conduct her to it.” Again Prince Victor kissed Sofia’s forehead, then let her go. “Good-night, my child.”
Moving slowly toward the door, drooping, Sofia made inarticulate response. She felt suddenly stupefied with fatigue. To think meant an effort that mocked her flagging powers. A vast lassitude was weighing upon her, body and spirit were faint in the enervation of an inexorable disconsolation.
Alone with his secretary, Prince Victor Vassilyevski dropped indifferently the guise of manner with which he had clothed himself for the benefit of the woman whom he claimed as his own child. That semblance of shy affection coloured by regrets for the past and modified by the native nobility of a prince in exile—so becoming in a parent to whose bosom a daughter whom he had never seen was suddenly restored—being of no more service for the present, was incontinently discarded. In its stead Victor favoured Karslake with a slow smile of understanding that broadened into an insuppressible grin of successful malice, a grimace of crude exultation through which peered out the impish savage mutinously imprisoned within a flimsy husk of modern manner.
Suspecting this self-betrayal, he erased the grin swiftly, but not so swiftly that Karslake failed to note it. And the young man, smiling amiably and respectfully in return, was sensible of a thrill: yet another glimpse had been given him into the mystery that slept behind that countenance normally so impenetrable.
But he was studious to show nothing of his own emotion. It was his part to be merely a mirror, to reflect rather than to feel, to be an instrument infinitely supple and unfailing, never an independent intelligence. Not otherwise could he count on holding his place in Victor’s favour.
“You were quicker than I hoped.”
“I had no trouble, sir,” Karslake returned, cheerfully. “Things rather played into my hands.”
Victor dropped into a chair beside the table and lifted the lid of a small golden casket. Helping himself to one of its store of cigarettes, he made Karslake free of the remainder with a gracious hand. The secretary demurred, producing his pocket case.
“If you don’t mind, sir ...”
Victor moved a supercilious eyebrow. “Woodbines again?”
“Sorry, sir; I know they’re pretty awful and all that, but they were all I could get in France, and I contracted a taste for them I can’t seem to cure. I remember, while I lay in a hospital, hardly a whole bone in my body, thanks to the Boche and his flying circus—it was that lot sent me crashing, you know—the nurses used to tempt me with the finest Turkish; but somehow I couldn’t go them; I’d beg for Woodbines.”