Primitive instinct bade the stricken girl seek her room and hide her suffering there; but the shock had stunned her to the point of physical weakness. Already a hand was pressed above her heart, that ached cruelly; and as she moved to cross to the foot of the staircase her knees gave under her. She clutched the newel-post for support, waiting to find strength for the ascent.
From the shadowed back part of the hall the man Nogam moved hastily into view, his features twisted in a grimace of concern as he recognized the bleak misery of Sofia’s face. His voice sounded strangely thin and remote.
“Is there anything the matter, miss?—anything I can do?”
She contrived to shake her head slightly and utter an inarticulate sound of negation, then began slowly to mount the stairs.
Below, Nogam stood watching, in a pose of indecision, as if tempted to follow and offer the support of an arm lest she fall, restrained only by fear of a rebuff. But Sofia’s leaden limbs carried her safely to the upper landing, then on to the blessed shelter of her room, where she collapsed upon a chaise-longue and there lay in a stirless huddle, dry of eye but deaf to the plaintive entreaties of Chou Nu and numb to all sensation but the anguish of her humiliated heart.
Toward mid-evening the man Victor Vassilyevski and his creature Sturm sat where the lamp of hand-wrought brass made the top of the teakwood table an oasis of light amid a waste of shadows, their heads together over a vast glut of books and papers—maps printed and sketched, curious diagrams, works of reference, documents all dark with columns of figures and cabalistic writings intelligible only to initiated eyes.
They had the study all to themselves. Nevertheless, when they spoke it was in the discreet pitch of those who deal in fatal secrets. At a distance of two paces only a lip-reader could have caught the substance of their communications, and even such a one must have failed unless equally at home in German and in English.
Aside from these occasional and circumspect voices, and the busy rustle of a steel pen in the hand of Sturm, the quiet of the room had a tolerably constant background of sound in a subdued whisper punctuated by muffled clicks, emanating from the bronze casket that housed the telautographic apparatus.
From time to time, as this noise temporarily suspended, Victor would get up, read what the mechanical stylus had inscribed, tear off the paper, and return to his chair.
Some of the messages thus received he made known to Sturm, who invariably acknowledged this courtesy with effusive gratitude, sometimes adding a few words of contented comment. Other messages Victor chose to keep to himself, silently setting fire to them and adding their brittle ashes to those of their predecessors on the brazen tray provided for the purpose. At such times Sturm would bend lower over his work. But Victor was well able to guess what resentment glimmered in the eyes so studiously averted; and his cold, sardonic smile more than once commented, unknown to Sturm, upon the accuracy with which he read the mean workings of his “secretary’s” mind.