Read CHAPTER VIII - SAFE! of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

The season wore on to its perihelion ­a period, the scientific books advise us, of the highest clang and crash of speed and whirl, of the greatest brilliancy and deepest glow of a planet’s existence.  The business of life, the pursuit of pleasure, and the scientific demolition of our common enemy, Time, received all the care which such matters require.

Debutantes bloomed and were duly culled by aged connoisseurs of such wares, or by youthful aspirants with the means to pay the piper in the form of a handsome settlement.  The usual number of young persons of the gentler sex entered the lists of life, with the mistaken notion that it is love that makes the world go round, to ride away from the joust wiser and sadder women.

There was the same round of conventional pleasures which the reader and his humble servant have mixed in deeply or dilettante, according to his taste or capacity for such giddy work.  There was withal the usual heart-burning, heart-bartering, heart ­anything you will but breaking.  For we have not breaking hearts among us to-day.  Providence, it would seem, has run short of the commodity, and deals out only a few among a number of persons.

Amid the whirl of rout, and ball, and picnic, race-meeting, polo-match, and what-not, Paul Howard Alexis stalked misunderstood, distrusted; an object of ridicule to some, of pity to others, of impatience to all.  A man, if it please you, with a purpose ­a purpose at the latter end of the nineteenth century, when most of us, having decided that there is no future, take it upon ourselves to despise the present.

Paul soon discovered that he was found out ­at no time a pleasant condition of things, except, indeed, when callers are about.  That which Eton and Cambridge had failed to lay their fingers upon, every match-making mother had found out for herself in a week.  That the discovery had been carefully kept in each maternal breast, it is needless to relate.  Ces dames are not confidential upon such matters between themselves.  When they have scented their game they stalk him, and if possible bag him in a feline solitude which has no fears for stout, ambitious hearts.  The fear is that some other prowling mother of an eligible maiden may hit upon the same scent.

Paul was invited to quiet dinners and a little music, to quiet dinners without the music, to a very little music and no dinner whatever.  The number of ladies who had a seat in a box thrown upon their hands at the last minute ­a seat next to Angelina in her new pink, or Blanche in her sweet poult de soie ­the number of these ladies one can only say was singular, because politeness forbids one to suggest that it was suspicious.  Soft cheeks became rosy at his approach ­partly, perhaps, because soft and dainty toes in satin slippers were trodden upon with maternal emphasis at that moment.  Soft eyes looked love into eyes that, alas! only returned preoccupation.  There was always room on an engagement card for Paul’s name.  There was always space in the smallest drawing-room for Paul’s person, vast though the latter was.  There was ­fond mothers conveyed it to him subtly after supper and champagne ­an aching void in more than one maiden heart which was his exact fit.

But Paul was at once too simple and too clever for matron and maid alike.  Too simple, because he failed to understand the inner meaning of many pleasant things that the guileless fair one said to him.  Too clever, because he met the subtle matron with the only arm she feared, a perfect honesty.  And when at last he obtained his answer from the coy and hesitating Etta, there was no gossip in London who could put forward a just cause or impediment.

Etta gave him the answer one evening at the house of a mutual friend, where a multitude of guests had assembled ostensibly to hear certain celebrated singers, apparently to whisper recriminations on their entertainer’s champagne.  It was a dull business ­except, indeed, for Paul Howard Alexis.  As for the lady ­the only lady his honest, simple world contained ­who shall say?  Inwardly she may have been in trembling, coy alarm, in breathless, blushing hesitation.  Outwardly she was, however, exceedingly composed and self-possessed.  She had been as careful as ever of her toilet ­as hard to please; as ­dare we say snappish with her maids?  The beautiful hair had no one of its aureate threads out of place.  The pink of her shell-like cheek was steady, unruffled, fair to behold.  Her whole demeanor was admirable in its well-bred repose.  Did she love him?  Was it in her power to love any man?  Not the humble chronicler ­not any man, perhaps, and but few women ­can essay an answer.  Suffice it that she accepted him.  In exchange for the title he could give her, the position he could assure to her, the wealth he was ready to lavish upon her, and, lastly, let us mention, in the effete, old-fashioned way, the love he bore her ­in exchange for these she gave him her hand.

Thus Etta Sydney Bamborough was enabled to throw down her cards at last and win the game she had played so skilfully.  The widow of an obscure little Foreign Office clerk, she might have been a baroness, but she put the smaller honor aside and aspired to a prince.  Behind the gay smile there must have been a quick and resourceful brain, daring to scheme, intrepid in execution.  Within the fair breast there must have been a heart resolute, indomitable, devoid of weak scruple.  Mark the last.  It is the scruple that keeps the reader and his humble servant from being greater men than they are.

“Yes,” says Etta, allowing Paul to take her perfectly gloved hand in his great, steady grasp; “yes, I have my answer ready.”

They were alone in the plashy solitude of an inner conservatory, between the songs of the great singers.  She was half afraid of this strong man, for he had strange ways with him ­not uncouth, but unusual and somewhat surprising in a finnicking, emotionless generation.

“And what is it?” whispers Paul eagerly.  Ah! what fools men are ­what fools they always will be!

Etta gave a little nod, looking shamefacedly down at the pattern of her lace fan.

“Is that it?” he asked breathlessly.

The nod was repeated, and Paul Howard Alexis was thereby made the happiest man in England.  She half expected him to take her in his arms, despite the temporary nature of their solitude.  Perhaps she half wished it; for behind her business-like and exceedingly practical appreciation of his wealth there lurked a very feminine curiosity and interest in his feelings ­a curiosity somewhat whetted by the manifold differences that existed between him and the society lovers with whom she had hitherto played the pretty game.

But Paul contented himself with raising the gloved fingers to his lips, restrained by a feeling of respect for her which she would not have understood and probably did not merit.

“But,” she said with a sudden smile, “I take no responsibility.  I am not very sure that it will be a success.  I can only try to make you happy ­goodness knows if I shall succeed!”

“You have only to be yourself to do that,” he answered, with lover-like promptness and a blindness which is the special privilege of those happy fools.

She gave a strange little smile.

“But how do I know that our lives will harmonize in the least?  I know nothing of your daily existence; where you live ­where you want to live.”

“I should like to live mostly in Russia,” he answered honestly.

Her expression did not change.  It merely fixed itself as one sees the face of a watching cat fix itself, when the longed for mouse shows a whisker.

“Ah!” she said lightly, confident in her own power; “that will arrange itself later.”

“I am glad I am rich,” said Paul simply, “because I shall be able to give you all you want.  There are many little things that add to a woman’s comfort; I shall find them out and see that you have them.”

“Are you so very rich, Paul?” she asked, with an innocent wonder.  “But I don’t think it matters; do you?  I do not think that riches have much to do with happiness.”

“No,” he answered.  He was not a person with many theories upon life or happiness or such matters ­which, by the way, are in no way affected by theories.  By taking thought we cannot add a cubit to the height of our happiness.  We can only undermine its base by too searching an analysis of that upon which it is built.

So Paul replied “No,” and took pleasure in looking at her, as any lover must needs have done.

“Except, of course,” she said, “that one may do good with great riches.”

She gave a little sigh, as if deploring the misfortune that hitherto her own small means had fallen short of the happy point at which one may begin doing good.

“Are you so very rich, Paul?” she repeated, as if she was rather afraid of those riches and mistrusted them.

“Oh, I suppose so.  Horribly rich!”

She had withdrawn her hand.  She gave it to him again, with a pretty movement usually understood to indicate bashfulness.

“It can’t be helped,” she said.  “We” ­she dwelt upon the word ever so slightly ­“we can perhaps do a little good with it.”

Then suddenly he blurted out all his wishes on this point ­his quixotic aims, the foolish imaginings of a too chivalrous soul.  She listened, prettily eager, sweetly compassionate of the sorrows of the peasantry whom he made the object of his simple pity.  Her gray eyes contracted with horror when he told her of the misery with which he was too familiar.  Her pretty lips quivered when he told her of little children born only to starve because their mothers were starving.  She laid her gloved fingers gently on his when he recounted tales of strong men ­good fathers in their simple, barbarous way ­who were well content that the children should die rather than be saved to pass a miserable existence, without joy, without hope.

She lifted her eyes with admiration to his face when he told her what he hoped to do, what he dreamed of accomplishing.  She even made a few eager, heartfelt suggestions, fitly coming from a woman ­touched with a woman’s tenderness, lightened by a woman’s sympathy and knowledge.

It was in its way a tragedy, the picture we are called to look upon ­these newly made lovers, not talking of themselves, as is the time-honored habit of such.  Surrounded by every luxury, both high-born, refined, and wealthy; both educated, both intelligent.  He, simple-minded, earnest, quite absorbed in his happiness, because that happiness seemed to fall in so easily with the busier, and, as some might say, the nobler side of his ambition.  She, failing to understand his aspirations, thinking only of his wealth.

“But,” she said at length, “shall you ­we ­be allowed to do all this?  I thought that such schemes were not encouraged in Russia.  It is such a pity to pauperize the people.”

“You cannot pauperize a man who has absolutely nothing,” replied Paul.  “Of course, we shall have difficulties; but, together, I think we shall be able to overcome them.”

Etta smiled sympathetically, and the smile finished up, as it were, with a gleam very like amusement.  She had been vouchsafed for a moment a vision of herself in some squalid Russian village, in a hideous Russian-made tweed dress, dispensing the necessaries of life to a people only little raised above the beasts of the field.  The vision made her smile, as well it might.  In Petersburg life might be tolerable for a little in the height of the season ­for a few weeks of the brilliant Northern winter ­but in no other part of Russia could she dream of dwelling.

They sat and talked of their future as lovers will, knowing as little of it as any of us, building up castles in the air, such edifices as we have all constructed, destined, no doubt, to the same rapid collapse as some of us have quailed under.  Paul, with lamentable honesty, talked almost as much of his stupid peasants as of his beautiful companion, which pleased her not too well.  Etta, with a strange persistence, brought the conversation ever back and back to the house in London, the house in Petersburg, the great grim castle in the Government of Tver, and the princely rent-roll.  And once on the subject of Tver, Paul could scarce be brought to leave it.

“I am going back there,” he said at length.

“When?” she asked, with a composure which did infinite credit to her modest reserve.  Her love was jealously guarded.  It lay too deep to be disturbed by the thought that her lover would leave her soon.

“To-morrow,” was his answer.

She did not speak at once.  Should she try the extent of her power over him?  Never was lover so chivalrous, so respectful, so sincere.  Should she gauge the height of her supremacy?  If it proved less powerful than she suspected, she would at all events be credited with a very natural aversion to parting from him.

“Paul,” she said, “you cannot do that.  Not so soon.  I cannot let you go.”

He flushed up to the eyes suddenly, like a girl.  There was a little pause, and the color slowly left his face.  Somehow that pause frightened Etta.

“I am afraid I must go,” he said gravely at length.

“Must ­a prince?”

“It is on that account,” he replied.

“Then I am to conclude that you are more devoted to your peasants than to ­me?”

He assured her to the contrary.  She tried once again, but nothing could move him from his decision.  Etta was perhaps a small-minded person, and as such failed to attach due importance to this proof that her power over him was limited.  It ceased, in fact, to exist as soon as it touched that strong sense of duty which is to be found in many men and in remarkably few women.

It almost seemed as if the abrupt departure of her lover was in some sense a relief to Etta Sydney Bamborough.  For, while he, lover-like, was grave and earnest during the small remainder of the evening, she continued to be sprightly and gay.  The last he saw of her was her smiling face at the window as her carriage drove away.

Arrived at the little house in Upper Brook Street, Maggie and Etta went into the drawing-room, where biscuits and wine were set out.  Their maids came and took their cloaks away, leaving them alone.

“Paul and I are engaged,” said Etta suddenly.  She was picking the withered flowers from her dress and throwing them carelessly on the table.

Maggie was standing with her back to her, with her two hands on the mantel-piece.  She was about to turn round when she caught sight of her own face in the mirror, and that which she saw there made her change her intention.

“I am not surprised,” she said, in an even voice, standing like a statue.  “I congratulate you.  I think he is ­nice.”

“You also think he is too good for me,” said Etta, with a little laugh.  There was something in that laugh ­a ring of wounded vanity, the wounded vanity of a bad woman who is in the presence of her superior.

“No!” answered Maggie slowly, tracing the veins of the marble across the mantel-piece.  “No ­o, not that.”

Etta looked up at her.  It was rather singular that she did not ask what Maggie did think.  Perhaps she was afraid of a certain British honesty which characterized the girl’s thought and speech.  Instead she rose and indulged in a yawn which may have been counterfeit, but it was a good counterfeit.

“Will you have a biscuit?” she said.

“No, thanks.”

“Then shall we go to bed?”

“Yes.”