Read CHAPTER XIII - UNMASKED of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

For a moment there was silence in the hovel, broken only by the wail of the dying man in the corner.  Paul and Catrina faced each other ­she white and suddenly breathless, he half frowning.  But he did not meet her eyes.

“Paul,” she said again, with a lingering touch on the name.  The sound of her voice, a rough sort of tenderness in her angry tone, made Steinmetz smile in his grim way, as a man may smile when in pain.

“Paul, what did you do this for?  Why are you here?  Oh, why are you in this wretched place?”

“Because you sent for me,” he answered quietly.  “Come, let us go out.  I have finished here.  That man will die.  There is nothing more to be done for him.  You must not stay in here.”

She gave a short laugh as she followed him.  He had to stoop low to pass through the door-way.  Then he turned and held out his hand, for fear she should trip over the high threshold.  She nodded her thanks, but refused the proffered assistance.

Steinmetz lingered behind to give some last instructions, leaving Paul and Catrina to walk on down the narrow street alone.  The moon was just rising ­a great yellow moon such as only Russia knows ­the land of the silver night.

“How long have you been doing this?” asked Catrina suddenly.  She did not look toward him, but straight in front of her.

“For some years now,” he replied simply.

He lingered.  He was waiting for Steinmetz, who always rose to such emergencies, who understood secrets and how to secure them when they seemed already lost.  He did not quite understand what was to be done with Catrina ­how she was to be silenced.  She had found him out with such startling rapidity that he felt disposed to admit her right to dictate her own terms.  On a straight road this man was fearless and quick, but he had no taste or capacity for crooked ways.

Catrina walked on in silence.  She was not looking at the matter from his point of view at all.

“Of course,” she said at length, “of course, Paul, I admire you for it immensely.  It is just like you to go and do the thing quietly and say nothing about it; but ­oh, you must go away from here.  I ­I ­it is too horrible to think of your running such risks.  Rather let them all die like flies than that.  You mustn’t do it.  You mustn’t.”

She spoke in English hurriedly, with a little break in her voice which he did not understand.

“With ordinary precautions the risk is very small,” he said practically.

“Yes.  But do you take ordinary precautions?  Are you sure you are all right now?”

She stopped.  They were quite alone in the one silent street of the stricken village.  She looked up into his face.  Her hands were running over the breast of the tattered coat he wore.  It was lamentably obvious, even to him, that she loved him.  In her anxiety she either did not know what she was doing, or she did not care whether he knew or not.  She merely gave sway to the maternal instinct which is in the love of all women.  She felt his hands; she reached up and touched his face.

“Are you sure ­are you sure you have not taken it?” she whispered.

He walked on, almost roughly.

“Oh, yes; quite,” he said.

“I will not allow you to go into any more houses in Thors.  I cannot ­I will not!  Oh, Paul, you don’t know.  If you do, I will tell them all who you are, and ­and the Government will stop you.”

“What would be the good of that?” said Paul awkwardly.  “Your father cared for his peasants, and was content to run risks for them.  I suppose you care about them, too, as you go into their houses.”

“Yes; but ­”

She paused, gave a strange little reckless laugh, and was silent.  Heaven forbid that we should say that she wanted him to know that she loved him.  Chivalry bids us believe that women guard the secret of their love inviolate from the world.  But what was Catrina to do?  Men are in the habit of forgetting that plain women are women at all.  Surely some of them may be excused for reminding us at times that they also are capable of loving ­that they also desire to be loved.  Happy is the man who loves and is loved of a plain woman; for she will take her own lack of beauty into consideration, and give him more than most beautiful women have it in their power to give.

“Of course,” Catrina went on, with a sudden anger which surprised herself, “I cannot stop you from doing this at Osterno, though I think it is wicked; but I can prevent you from doing it here, and I certainly shall!”

Paul shrugged his shoulders.

“As you like,” he said.  “I thought you cared more about the peasants.”

“I do not care a jot about the peasants,” she answered passionately, “as compared ­It is you I am thinking about, not them.  I think you are selfish, and cruel to your friends.”

“My friends have never shown that they are consumed with anxiety on my account.”

“That is mere prevarication.  Leave that to Herr Steinmetz and such men, whose business it is; you don’t do it well.  Your friends may feel a lot that they do not show.”

She spoke the words shortly and sharply.  Surreptitious good is so rare, that when it is found out it very naturally gets mixed up with secret evil, and the perpetrator of the hidden good deed feels guilty of a crime.  Paul was in this lamentable position, which he proceeded to further aggravate by seeking to excuse himself.

“I did it after mature consideration.  I tried paying another man, but he shirked his work and showed the white feather; so Steinmetz and I concluded that there was nothing to be done but do our dirty work ourselves.”

“Which, being translated, means that you do it.”

“Pardon me.  Steinmetz does his share.”

Catrina Lanovitch was essentially a woman, despite her somewhat masculine frame.  She settled Karl Steinmetz’s account with a sniff of contempt.

“And that is why you have been so fond of Osterno the last two years?” she asked innocently.

“Yes,” he answered, falling into the trap.

Catrina winced.  One does not wince the less because the pain is expected.  The girl had the Slav instinct of self-martyrdom, which makes Russians so very different from the pleasure-loving nations of Europe.

“Only that?” she enquired.

Paul glanced down at her.

“Yes,” he answered quietly.

They walked on in silence for a few moments.  Paul seemed tacitly to have given up the idea of visiting any more of the stricken cottages.  They were going toward the long old house, which was called the castle more by courtesy than by right.

“How long are you going to stay in Osterno?” asked Catrina at length.

“About a fortnight; I cannot stay longer.  I am going to be married.”

Catrina stopped dead.  She stood for a moment looking at the ground with a sort of wonder in her eyes, not pleasant to see.  It was the look of one who, having fallen from a great height, is not quite sure whether it means death or not.  Then she walked on.

“I congratulate you,” she said.  “I only hope she will make you happy.  She is ­beautiful, I suppose?”

“Yes,” answered Paul simply.

The girl nodded her head.

“What is her name?”

“Etta Sydney Bamborough.”

Catrina had evidently never heard the name before.  It conveyed nothing to her.  Womanlike, she went back to her first question.

“What is she like?”

Paul hesitated.

“Tall, I suppose?” suggested the stunted woman at his side.

“Yes.”

“And graceful?”

“Yes.”

“Has she ­pretty hair?” asked Catrina.

“I think so ­yes.”

“You are not observant,” said the girl in a singularly even and emotionless voice.  “Perhaps you never noticed.”

“Not particularly,” answered Paul.

The girl raised her face.  There was a painful smile twisting her lips.  The moonlight fell upon her; the deep shadows beneath the eyes made her face wear a grin.  Some have seen such a grin on the face of a drowning man ­a sight not to be forgotten.

“Where does she live?” asked Catrina.  She was unaware of the thought of murder that was in her own heart.  Nevertheless, the desire ­indefinite, shapeless ­was there to kill this woman, who was tall and beautiful, whom Paul Alexis loved.

It must be remembered in extenuation that Catrina Lanovitch had lived nearly all her life in the province of Tver.  She was not modern at all.  Deprived of the advantages of our enlightened society press, without the benefit of our decadent fictional literature, she had lamentably narrow views of life.  She was without that deep philosophy which teaches you, mademoiselle, who read this guileless tale, that nothing matters very much; that love is but a passing amusement, the plaything of an hour; that if Tom is faithless, Dick is equally amusing; while Harry’s taste in gloves and compliments is worthy of some consideration.  That these things be true ­that at all events the modern young lady thinks them true ­is a matter of no doubt whatever.  Has not the modern lady novelist told us so?  And is not the modern lady novelist notable for her close observation of human nature, her impartial judgment of human motives, her sublime truth of delineation when she sits down to describe the thing she calls a man?  By a close study of the refined feminine literature of the day the modern young lady acquires not only the knowledge of some startling social delinquencies ­retailed, not as if they were quite the exception, but as if they were quite the correct thing ­but also she will learn that she is human.  She will realize how utterly absurd it is to attempt to be any thing else.  If persons in books, she will reflect, are not high-minded or pure-minded, or even clean-minded, it is useless for an ordinary person out of a book to attempt to be any of these.

This is the lesson of some new writers, and Catrina Lanovitch had, fortunately enough, lacked the opportunity of learning it.

She only knew that she loved Paul, and that what she wanted was Paul’s love to go with her all through her life.  She was not self-analytical, nor subtle, nor given to thinking about her own thoughts.  Perhaps she was old-fashioned enough to be romantic.  If this be so, we must bear with her romance, remembering that, at all events, romance serves to elevate, while realism tends undoubtedly toward deterioration.

Catrina hated Etta Sydney Bamborough with a simple half-barbaric hatred because she had gained the love of Paul Alexis.  Etta had taken away from her the only man whom Catrina could ever love all through her life.  The girl was simple enough, unsophisticated enough, never to dream of compromise.  She never for a moment entertained the cheap, consolatory thought that in time she would get over it; she would marry somebody else, and make that compromise which is responsible for more misery in this world than ever is vice.  In her great solitude, growing to womanhood as she had in the vast forest of Tver, she had learned nearly all that she knew from the best teacher, Nature; and she held the strange, effete theory that it is wicked for a woman to marry a man she does not love, or to marry at all for any reason except love.  St. Paul and a few others held like theories, but nous avons change tout cela.

“Where does she live?” asked Catrina.

“In London.”

They walked on in silence for a few moments.  They were walking slowly, and they presently heard the footsteps of Karl Steinmetz and the servant close behind them.

“I wonder,” said Catrina, half to herself, “whether she loves you?”

It was a question, but not one that a man can answer.  Paul said nothing, but walked gravely on by the side of this woman, who knew that even if Etta Sydney Bamborough should try she could never love him as she herself did.

When Karl Steinmetz joined them they were silent.

“I suppose,” he said in English, “that we may rely upon the discretion of the Frauelein Catrina?”

“Yes,” answered the girl; “you may, so far as Osterno is concerned.  But I would rather that you did not visit our people here.  It is too dangerous in several ways.”

“Ah!” murmured Steinmetz, respectfully acquiescent.  He was looking straight in front of him, with an expression of countenance which was almost dense.  “Then we must bow to your decision,” he went on, turning toward the tall man striding along at his side.

“Yes,” said Paul simply.

Steinmetz smiled grimly to himself.  It was one of his half-cynical theories that women hold the casting vote in all earthly matters, and when an illustration such as this came to prove the correctness of his deductions, he only smiled.  He was not by nature a cynic ­only by the force of circumstances.

“Will you come to the castle?” asked the girl at length, and Steinmetz by a gesture deferred the decision to Paul.

“I think not to-night, thanks,” said the latter.  “We will take you as far as the gate.”

Catrina made no comment.  When the tall gate-way was reached she stopped, and they all became aware of the sound of horses’ feet behind them.

“What is this?” asked Catrina.

“Only the starosta bringing our horses,” replied Steinmetz.  “He has discovered nothing.”

Catrina nodded and held out her hand.

“Good-night,” she said, rather coldly.  “Your secret is safe with me.”

“Set a thief to catch a thief,” reflected Steinmetz.  He said nothing, however, when he shook hands.

They mounted their horses and rode back the way they had come.  For half an hour no one spoke.  Then Paul broke the silence.  He only said one word: 

“D ­n.”

“Yes,” returned Steinmetz quietly.  “Charity is a dangerous plaything.”