Read CHAPTER II - BY THE VOLGA of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

“This is going to be unpleasant,” muttered Steinmetz, as he cumbrously left the saddle.  “That man is dead ­has been dead some days; he’s stiff.  And the horse has been dragging him face downward.  God in heaven! this will be unpleasant.”

Paul had leaped to the ground, and was already loosening the dead man’s foot from the stirrup.  He did it with a certain sort of skill, despite the stiffness of the heavy riding-boot, as if he had walked a hospital in his time.  Very quickly Steinmetz came to his assistance, tenderly lifting the dead man and laying him on his back.

“Ach!” he exclaimed; “we are unfortunate to meet a thing like this.”

There was no need of Paul Alexis’ medical skill to tell that this man was dead; a child would have known it.  Before searching the pockets Steinmetz took out his own handkerchief and laid it over a face which had become unrecognizable.  The horse was standing over them.  It bent its head and sniffed wonderingly at that which had once been its master.  There was a singular, scared look in its eyes.

Steinmetz pushed aside the enquiring muzzle.

“If you could speak, my friend,” he said, “we might want you.  As it is, you had better continue your meal.”

Paul was unbuttoning the dead man’s clothes.  He inserted his hand within the rough shirt.

“This man,” he said, “was starving.  He probably fainted from sheer exhaustion and rolled out of the saddle.  It is hunger that killed him.”

“With his pocket full of money,” added Steinmetz, withdrawing his hand from the dead man’s pocket and displaying a bundle of notes and some silver.

There was nothing in any of the other pockets ­no paper, no clue of any sort to the man’s identity.

The two finders of this silent tragedy stood up and looked around them.  It was almost dark.  They were ten miles from a habitation.  It does not sound much; but a traveller would be hard put to place ten miles between himself and a habitation in the whole of the British Islands.  This, added to a lack of road or path which is unknown to us in England, made ten miles of some importance.

Steinmetz had pushed his fur cap to the back of his head, which he was scratching pensively.  He had a habit of scratching his forehead with one finger, which denoted thought.

“Now, what are we to do?” he muttered.  “Can’t bury the poor chap and say nothing about it.  I wonder where his passport is?  We have here a tragedy.”

He turned to the horse, which was grazing hurriedly.

“My friend of the four legs,” he said, “it is a thousand pities that you are dumb.”

Paul was still examining the dead man with that callousness which denotes one who, for love or convenience, has become a doctor.  He was a doctor ­an amateur.  He was a Caius man.

Steinmetz looked down at him with a little laugh.  He noticed the tenderness of the touch, the deft fingering which had something of respect in it.  Paul Alexis was visibly one of those men who take mankind seriously, and have that in their hearts which for want of a better word we call sympathy.

“Mind you do not catch some infectious disease,” said Steinmetz gruffly.  “I should not care to handle any stray moujik one finds dead about the roadside; unless, of course, you think there is more money about him.  It would be a pity to leave that for the police.”

Paul did not answer.  He was examining the limp, dirty hands of the dead man.  The fingers were covered with soil, the nails were broken.  He had evidently clutched at the earth and at every tuft of grass, after his fall from the saddle.

“Look here, at these hands,” said Paul suddenly.  “This is an Englishman.  You never see fingers this shape in Russia.”

Steinmetz stooped down.  He held out his own square-tipped fingers in comparison.  Paul rubbed the dead hand with his sleeve as if it were a piece of statuary.

“Look here,” he continued, “the dirt rubs off and leaves the hand quite a gentlemanly color.  This” ­he paused and lifted Steinmetz’s handkerchief, dropping it again hurriedly over the mutilated face ­“this thing was once a gentleman.”

“It certainly has seen better days,” admitted Steinmetz, with a grim humor which was sometimes his.  “Come, let us drag him beneath that pine-tree and ride on to Tver.  We shall do no good, my dear Alexis, wasting our time over the possible antecedents of a gentleman who, for reasons of his own, is silent on the subject.”

Paul rose from the ground.  His movements were those of a strong and supple man, one whose muscles had never had time to grow stiff.  He was an active man, who never hurried.  Standing thus upright he was very tall ­nearly a giant.  Only in St. Petersburg, of all the cities of the world, could he expect to pass unnoticed ­the city of tall men and plain women.  He rubbed his two hands together in a singularly professional manner which sat amiss on him.

“What do you propose doing?” he asked.  “You know the laws of this country better than I do.”

Steinmetz scratched his forehead with his forefinger.

“Our theatrical friends the police,” he said, “are going to enjoy this.  Suppose we prop him up sitting against that tree ­no one will run away with him ­and lead his horse into Tver.  I will give notice to the police, but I will not do so until you are in the Petersburg train.  I will, of course, give the ispravnik to understand that your princely mind could not be bothered by such details as this ­that you have proceeded on your journey.”

“I do not like leaving the poor beggar alone all night,” said Paul.  “There may be wolves ­the crows in the early morning.”

“Bah! that is because you are so soft-hearted.  My dear fellow, what business is it of ours if the universal laws of nature are illustrated upon this unpleasant object?  We all live on each other.  The wolves and the crows have the last word.  Tant mieux for the wolves and the crows!  Come, let us carry him to that tree.”

The moon was just rising over the line of the horizon.  All around them the steppe lay in grim and lifeless silence.  In such a scene, where life seemed rare and precious, death gained in its power of inspiring fear.  It is different in crowded cities, where an excess of human life seems to vouch for the continuity of the race, where, in a teeming population, one life more or less seems of little value.  The rosy hue of sunset was fading to a clear green, and in the midst of a cloudless sky, Jupiter ­very near the earth at that time ­shone intense, and brilliant like a lamp.  It was an evening such as only Russia and the great North lands ever see, where the sunset is almost in the north and the sunrise holds it by the hand.  Over the whole scene there hung a clear, transparent night, green and shimmering, which would never be darker than an English twilight.

The two living men carried the nameless, unrecognizable dead to a resting-place beneath a stunted pine a few paces removed from the road.  They laid him decently at full length, crossing his soil-begrimed hands over his breast, tying the handkerchief down over his face.

Then they turned and left him, alone in that luminous night.  A waif that had fallen by the great highway without a word, without a sign.  A half-run race ­a story cut off in the middle; for he was a young man still; his hair, all dusty, draggled, and bloodstained, had no streak of gray; his hands were smooth and youthful.  There was a vague suspicion of sensual softness about his body, as if this might have been a man who loved comfort and ease, who had always chosen the primrose path, had never learned the salutary lesson of self-denial.  The incipient stoutness of limb contrasted strangely with the drawn meagreness of his body, which was contracted by want of food.  Paul Alexis was right.  This man had died of starvation, within ten miles of the great Volga, within nine miles of the outskirts of Tver, a city second to Moscow, and once her rival.  Therefore it could only be that he had purposely avoided the dwellings of men; that he was a fugitive of some sort or another.  Paul’s theory that this was an Englishman had not been received with enthusiasm by Steinmetz; but that philosopher had stooped to inspect the narrow, tell-tale fingers.  Steinmetz, be it noted, had an infinite capacity for holding his tongue.

They mounted their horses and rode away without looking back.  But they did not speak, as if each were deep in his own thoughts.  Material had indeed been afforded them, for who could tell who this featureless man might be?  They were left in a state of hopeless curiosity, as who, having picked up a page with “Finis” written upon it, falls to wondering what the story may have been.

Steinmetz had thrown the bridle of the straying horse over his arm, and the animal trotted obediently by the side of the fidgety little Cossacks.

“That was bad luck,” exclaimed the elder man at length, “d ­d bad luck!  In this country the less you find, the less you see, the less you understand, the simpler is your existence.  Those Nihilists, with their mysterious ways and their reprehensible love of explosives, have made honest men’s lives a burden to them.”

“Their motives were originally good,” put in Paul.

“That is possible; but a good motive is no excuse for a bad means.  They wanted to get along too quickly.  They are pig-headed, exalted, unpractical to a man.  I do not mention the women, because when women meddle in politics they make fools of themselves, even in England.  These Nihilists would have been all very well if they had been content to sow for posterity.  But they wanted to see the fruits of their labors in one generation.  Education does not grow like that.  It requires a couple of generations to germinate.  It has to be manured by the brains of fools before it is of any use.  In England it has reached this stage; here in Russia the sowing has only begun.  Now, we were doing some good.  The Charity League was the thing.  It began by training their starved bodies to be ready for the education when it came.  And very little of it would have come in our time.  If you educate a hungry man, you set a devil loose upon the world.  Fill their stomachs before you feed their brains, or you will give them mental indigestion; and a man with mental indigestion raises hell or cuts his own throat.”

“That is just what I want to do ­fill their stomachs.  I don’t care about the rest.  I’m not responsible for the progress of the world or the good of humanity,” said Paul.

He rode on in silence; then he burst out again in the curt phraseology of a man whose feeling is stronger than he cares to admit.

“I’ve got no grand ideas about the human race,” he said.  “A very little contents me.  A little piece of Tver, a few thousand peasants, are good enough for me.  It seems rather hard that a fellow can’t give away of his surplus money in charity if he is such a fool as to want to.”

Steinmetz was riding stubbornly along.  Suddenly he gave a little chuckle ­a guttural sound expressive of a somewhat Germanic satisfaction.

“I don’t see how they can stop us,” he said.  “The League, of course, is done; it will crumble away in sheer panic.  But here, in Tver, they cannot stop us.”

He clapped his great hand on his thigh with more glee than one would have expected him to feel; for this man posed as a cynic ­a despiser of men, a scoffer at charity.

“They’ll find it very difficult to stop me,” muttered Paul Alexis.

It was now dark ­as dark as ever it would be.  Steinmetz peered through the gloom toward him with a little laugh ­half tolerance, half admiration.

The country was here a little more broken.  Long, low hills, like vast waves, rose and fell beneath the horses’ feet.  Ages ago the Volga may have been here, and, slowly narrowing, must have left these hills in deposit.  From the crest of an incline the horsemen looked down over a vast rolling tableland, and far ahead of them a great white streak bounded the horizon.

“The Volga!” said Steinmetz.  “We are almost there.  And there, to the right, is the Tversha.  It is like a great catapult.  Gott! what a wonderful night!  No wonder these Russians are romantic.  What a night for a pipe and a long chair!  This horse of mine is tired.  He shakes me most abominably.”

“Like to change?” enquired Paul curtly.

“No; it would make no difference.  You are as heavy as I, although I am wider!  Ah! there are the lights of Tver.”

Ahead of them a few lights twinkled feebly, sometimes visible and then hidden again as they rode over the rolling hillocks.  One plain ever suggests another, but the resemblance between the steppes of Tver and the great Sahara is at times startling.  There is in both that roll as of the sea ­the great roll that heaves unceasingly round the Capes of Good Hope and Horn.  Looked at casually, Tver and Sahara’s plains are level, and it is only in crossing them that one realizes the gentle up and down beneath the horses’ feet.

Soon Steinmetz raised his head and sniffed in a loud Teutonic manner.  It was the reek of water; for great rivers, like the ocean, have their smell.  And the Volga is a revelation.  Men travel far to see a city, but few seem curious about a river.  Every river has, nevertheless, its individuality, its great silent interest.  Every river has, moreover, its influence, which extends to the people who pass their lives within sight of its waters.  Thus the Guadalquivir is rapid, mysterious, untrammelled ­breaking frequently from its boundary.  And it runs through Andalusia.  The Nile ­the river of ages ­runs clear, untroubled through the centuries, between banks untouched by man.  The Rhine ­romantic, cultivated, artificial, with a rough subcurrent and a muddy bed ­through Germany.  The Seine and the Thames ­shallow ­shallow ­shallow.  And we ­who live upon their banks!

The Volga ­immense, stupendous, a great power, an influence two thousand four hundred miles long.  Some have seen the Danube, and think they have seen a great river.  So they have; but the Russian giant is seven hundred miles longer.  A vast yellow stream, moving on to the distant sea ­slow, gentle, inexorable, overwhelming.

All great things in nature have the power of crushing the human intellect.  Russians are thus crushed by the vastness of their country, of their rivers.  Man is but a small thing in a great country, and those who live by Nile, or Guadalquivir, or Volga seem to hold their lives on condition.  They exist from day to day by the tolerance of their river.

Steinmetz and Paul paused for a moment on the wooden floating bridge and looked at the great river.  All who cross that bridge, or the railway bridge higher up the stream, must do the same.  They pause and draw a deep breath, as if in the presence of something supernatural.

They rode on without speaking through the squalid town ­the whilom rival and the victim of brilliant Moscow.  They rode straight to the station, where they dined in, by the way, one of the best railway refreshment rooms in the world.  At one o’clock the night express from Moscow to St. Petersburg, with its huge American locomotive, rumbled into the station.  Paul secured a chair in the long saloon car, and then returned to the platform.  The train waited twenty minutes for refreshments, and he still had much to say to Steinmetz; for one of these men owned a principality and the other governed it.  They walked up and down the long platform, smoking endless cigarettes, talking gravely.

Steinmetz stood on the platform and watched the train pass slowly away into the night.  Then he went toward a lamp, and taking a pocket-handkerchief from his pocket, examined each corner of it in succession.  It was a small pocket-handkerchief of fine cambric.  In one corner were the initials S.S.B., worked neatly in white ­such embroidery as is done in St. Petersburg.

“Ach!” exclaimed Steinmetz shortly; “something told me that that was he.”

He turned the little piece of cambric over and over, examining it slowly, with a heavy Germanic cunning.  He had taken this handkerchief from the body of the nameless rider who was now lying alone on the steppe twelve miles away.

Steinmetz returned to the large refreshment room, and ordered the waiter to bring him a glass of Benedictine, which he drank slowly and thoughtfully.

Then he went toward the large black stove which stands in the railway restaurant at Tver.  He opened the door with the point of his boot.  The wood was roaring and crackling within.  He threw the handkerchief in and closed the door.

“It is as well, mon prince,” he muttered, “that I found this, and not you.”