Read CHAPTER I - A WAIF ON THE STEPPE of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

“In this country charity covers no sins!”

The speaker finished his remark with a short laugh.  He was a big, stout man; his name was Karl Steinmetz, and it is a name well known in the Government of Tver to this day.  He spoke jerkily, as stout men do when they ride, and when he had laughed his good-natured, half-cynical laugh, he closed his lips beneath a huge gray mustache.  So far as one could judge from the action of a square and deeply indented chin, his mouth was expressive at that time ­and possibly at all times ­of a humorous resignation.  No reply was vouchsafed to him, and Karl Steinmetz bumped along on his little Cossack horse, which was stretched out at a gallop.

Evening was drawing on.  It was late in October, and a cold wind was driving from the north-west across a plain which for sheer dismalness of aspect may give points to Sahara and beat that abode of mental depression without an effort.  So far as the eye could reach there was no habitation to break the line of horizon.  A few stunted fir-trees, standing in a position of permanent deprecation, with their backs turned, as it were, to the north, stood sparsely on the plain.  The grass did not look good to eat, though the Cossack horses would no doubt have liked to try it.  The road seemed to have been drawn by some Titan engineer with a ruler from horizon to horizon.

Away to the south there was a forest of the same stunted pines, where a few charcoal-burners and resin-tappers eked out a forlorn and obscure existence.  There are a score of such settlements, such gloomy forests, dotted over this plain of Tver, which covers an area of nearly two hundred square miles.  The remainder of it is pasture, where miserable cattle and a few horses, many sheep and countless pigs, seek their food pessimistically from God.

Steinmetz looked round over this cheerless prospect with a twinkle of amused resignation in his blue eyes, as if this creation were a little practical joke, which he, Karl Steinmetz, appreciated at its proper worth.  The whole scene was suggestive of immense distance, of countless miles in all directions ­a suggestion not conveyed by any scene in England, by few in Europe.  In our crowded island we have no conception of a thousand miles.  How can we?  Few of us have travelled five hundred at a stretch.  The land through which these men were riding is the home of great distances ­Russia.  They rode, moreover, as if they knew it ­as if they had ridden for days and were aware of more days in front of them.

The companion of Karl Steinmetz looked like an Englishman.  He was young and fair and quiet.  He looked like a youthful athlete from Oxford or Cambridge ­a simple-minded person who had jumped higher or run quicker than anybody else without conceit, taking himself, like St. Paul, as he found himself and giving the credit elsewhere.  And one finds that, after all, in this world of deceit, we are most of us that which we look like.  You, madam, look thirty-five to a day, although your figure is still youthful, your hair untouched by gray, your face unseamed by care.  You may look in your mirror and note these accidents with satisfaction; you may feel young and indulge in the pastimes of youth without effort.  But you are thirty-five.  We know it.  We who look at you can see it for ourselves, and, if you could only be brought to believe it, we think no worse of you on that account.

The man who rode beside Karl Steinmetz with gloomy eyes and a vague suggestion of flight in his whole demeanor was, like reader and writer, exactly what he seemed.  He was the product of an English public school and university.  He was, moreover, a modern product of those seats of athletic exercise.  He had little education and highly developed muscles ­that is to say, he was no scholar but essentially a gentleman ­a good enough education in its way, and long may Britons seek it!

This young man’s name was Paul Howard Alexis, and Fortune had made him a Russian prince.  If, however, anyone, even Steinmetz, called him prince, he blushed and became confused.  This terrible title had brooded over him while at Eton and Cambridge.  But no one had found him out; he remained Paul Howard Alexis so far as England and his friends were concerned.  In Russia, however, he was known (by name only, for he avoided Slavonic society) as Prince Pavlo Alexis.  This plain was his; half the Government of Tver was his; the great Volga rolled through his possessions; sixty miles behind him a grim stone castle bore his name, and a tract of land as vast as Yorkshire was peopled by humble-minded persons who cringed at the mention of his Excellency.

All this because thirty years earlier a certain Princess Natasha Alexis had fallen in love with plain Mr. Howard of the British Embassy in St. Petersburg.  With Slavonic enthusiasm (for the Russian is the most romantic race on earth) she informed Mr. Howard of the fact, and duly married him.  Both these persons were now dead, and Paul Howard Alexis owed it to his mother’s influence in high regions that the responsibilities of princedom were his.  At the time when this title was accorded to him he had no say in the matter.  Indeed, he had little say in any matters except meals, which he still took in liquid form.  Certain it is, however, that he failed to appreciate his honors as soon as he grew up to a proper comprehension of them.

Equally certain is it that he entirely failed to recognize the enviability of his position as he rode across the plains of Tver toward the yellow Volga by the side of Karl Steinmetz.

“This is great nonsense,” he said suddenly.  “I feel like a Nihilist or some theatrical person of that sort.  I do not think it can be necessary, Steinmetz.”

“Not necessary,” answered Steinmetz in thick guttural tones, “but prudent.”

This man spoke with the soft consonants of a German.

“Prudent, my dear prince.”

“Oh, drop that!”

“When we sight the Volga I will drop it with pleasure.  Good Heavens!  I wish I were a prince.  I should have it marked on my linen, and sit up in bed to read it on my nightshirt.”

“No, you wouldn’t, Steinmetz,” answered Alexis, with a vexed laugh.  “You would hate it just as much as I do, especially if it meant running away from the best bear-shooting in Europe.”

Steinmetz shrugged his shoulders.

“Then you should not have been charitable ­charity, I tell you, Alexis, covers no sins in this country.”

“Who made me charitable?  Besides, no decent-minded fellow could be anything else here.  Who told me of the League of Charity, I should like to know?  Who put me into it?  Who aroused my pity for these poor beggars?  Who but a stout German cynic called Steinmetz?”

“Stout, yes ­cynic, if you will ­German, no!”

The words were jerked out of him by the galloping horse.

“Then what are you?”

Steinmetz looked straight in front of him, with a meditation in his quiet eyes which made a dreamy man of him.

“That depends.”

Alexis laughed.

“Yes, I know.  In Germany you are a German, in Russia a Slav, in Poland a Pole, and in England any thing the moment suggests.”

“Exactly so.  But to return to you.  You must trust to me in this matter.  I know this country.  I know what this League of Charity was.  It was a bigger thing than any dream of.  It was a power in Russia ­the greatest of all ­above Nihilism ­above the Emperor himself.  Ach Gott!  It was a wonderful organization, spreading over this country like sunlight over a field.  It would have made men of our poor peasants.  It was God’s work.  If there is a God ­bien entendu ­which some young men deny, because God fails to recognize their importance, I imagine.  And now it is all done.  It is crumbled up by the scurrilous treachery of some miscreant.  Ach!  I should like to have him out here on the plain.  I would choke him.  For money, too!  The devil ­it must have been the devil ­to sell that secret to the Government!”

“I can’t see what the Government wanted it for,” growled Alexis moodily.

“No, but I can.  It is not the Emperor; he is a gentleman, although he has the misfortune to wear the purple.  No, it is those about him.  They want to stop education; they want to crush the peasant.  They are afraid of being found out; they live in their grand houses, and support their grand names on the money they crush out of the starving peasant.”

“So do I, so far as that goes.”

“Of course you do!  And I am your steward ­your crusher.  We do not deny it, we boast of it, but we exchange a wink with the angels ­eh?”

Alexis rode on in silence for a few moments.  He sat his horse as English foxhunters do ­not prettily ­and the little animal with erect head and scraggy neck was evidently worried by the unusual grip on his ribs.  For Russians sit back, with a short stirrup and a loose seat, when they are travelling.  One must not form one’s idea of Russian horsemanship from the erect carriage affected in the Newski Prospect.

“I wish,” he said abruptly, “that I had never attempted to do any good; doing good to mankind doesn’t pay.  Here I am running away from my own home as if I were afraid of the police!  The position is impossible.”

Steinmetz shook his shaggy head.

“No.  No position is impossible in this country ­except the Czar’s ­if one only keeps cool.  For men such as you and I any position is quite easy.  But these Russians are too romantic ­too exaltes ­they give way to a morbid love of martyrdom:  they think they can do no good to mankind unless they are uncomfortable.”

Alexis turned in his saddle and looked keenly into his companion’s face.

“Do you know,” he said, “I believe you founded the Charity League?”

Steinmetz laughed in his easy, stout way.

“It founded itself,” he said; “the angels founded it in heaven.  I hope a committee of them will attend to the eternal misery of the dog who betrayed it.”

“I trust they will, but in the meantime I stick to my opinion that it is unnecessary for me to leave the country.  What have I done?  I do not belong to the League; it is composed entirely of Russian nobles; I don’t admit that I am a Russian noble.”

“But,” persisted Steinmetz quietly, “you subscribe to the League.  Four hundred thousand rubles ­they do not grow at the roadside.”

“But the rubles have not my name on them.”

“That may be, but we all ­they all ­know where they are likely to come from.  My dear Paul, you cannot keep up the farce any longer.  You are not an English gentleman who comes across here for sporting purposes; you do not live in the old Castle of Osterno three months in the year because you have a taste for mediaeval fortresses.  You are a Russian prince, and your estates are the happiest, the most enlightened in the empire.  That alone is suspicious.  You collect your rents yourself.  You have no German agents ­no German vampires about you.  There are a thousand things suspicious about Prince Pavlo Alexis if those that be in high places only come to think about it.  They have not come to think about it ­thanks to our care and to your English independence.  But that is only another reason why we should redouble our care.  You must not be in Russia when the Charity League is picked to pieces.  There will be trouble ­half the nobility in Russia will be in it.  There will be confiscations and degradations:  there will be imprisonment and Siberia for some.  You are better out of it, for you are not an Englishman; you have not even a Foreign Office passport.  Your passport is your patent of nobility, and that is Russian.  No, you are better out of it.”

“And you ­what about you?” asked Paul, with a little laugh ­the laugh that one brave man gives when he sees another do a plucky thing.

“I!  Oh, I am all right!  I am nobody; I am hated of all the peasants because I am your steward and so hard ­so cruel.  That is my certificate of harmlessness with those that are about the Emperor.”

Paul made no answer.  He was not of an argumentative mind, being a large man, and consequently inclined to the sins of omission rather than to the active form of doing wrong.  He had an enormous faith in Karl Steinmetz, and, indeed, no man knew Russia better than this cosmopolitan adventurer.  Steinmetz it was who pricked forward with all speed, wearing his hardy little horse to a drooping semblance of its former self.  Steinmetz it was who had recommended quitting the travelling carriage and taking to the saddle, although his own bulk led him to prefer the slower and more comfortable method of covering space.  It would almost seem that he doubted his own ascendency over his companion and master, which semblance was further increased by a subtle ring of anxiety in his voice while he argued.  It is possible that Karl Steinmetz suspected the late Princess Natasha of having transmitted to her son a small hereditary portion of that Slavonic exaltation and recklessness of consequence which he deplored.

“Then you turn back at Tver?” enquired Paul, at length breaking a long silence.

“Yes; I must not leave Osterno just now.  Perhaps later, when the winter has come, I will follow.  Russia is quiet during the winter, very quiet.  Ha, ha!”

He shrugged his shoulders and shivered.  But the shiver was interrupted.  He raised himself in his saddle and peered forward into the gathering darkness.

“What is that,” he asked sharply, “on the road in front?”

Paul had already seen it.

“It looks like a horse,” he answered ­“a strayed horse, for it has no rider.”

They were going west, and what little daylight there was lived on the western horizon.  The form of the horse, cut out in black relief against the sky, was weird and ghostlike.  It was standing by the side of the road, apparently grazing.  As they approached it, its outlines became more defined.

“It has a saddle,” said Steinmetz at length.  “What have we here?”

The beast was evidently famishing, for, as they came near, it never ceased its occupation of dragging the wizened tufts of grass up, root and all.

“What have we here?” repeated Steinmetz.

And the two men clapped spurs to their tired horses.

The solitary waif had a rider, but he was not in the saddle.  One foot was caught in the stirrup, and as the horse moved on from tuft to tuft it dragged its dead master along the ground.