Read CHAPTER XIX - ON THE NEVA of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

Karl Steinmetz had apparently been transacting business on the Vassili Ostrov, which the travelled reader doubtless knows as the northern bank of the Neva, a part of Petersburg ­an island, as the name tells us, where business is transacted; where steamers land their cargoes and riverside loafers impede the traffic.

What the business of Karl Steinmetz may have been is not of moment or interest; moreover, it was essentially the affair of a man capable of holding his own and his tongue against the world.

He was recrossing the river, not by the bridge, which requires a doffed hat by reason of its shrine, but by one of the numerous roads cut across the ice from bank to bank.  He duly reached the southern shore, ascending to the Admiralty Gardens by a flight of sanded steps.  Here he lighted a cigar, and, tucking his hands deep into the pockets of his fur coat, he proceeded to walk slowly through the bare and deserted public garden.

A girl had crossed the river in front of him at a smart pace.  She now slackened her speed so much as to allow him to pass her.  Karl Steinmetz noticed the action.  He noticed most things ­this dull German.  Presently she passed him again.  She dropped her umbrella, and before picking it up described a circle with it ­a manoeuvre remarkably like a signal.  Then she turned abruptly and looked into his face, displaying a pleasing little round physiognomy with a smiling mouth and exaggeratedly grave eyes.  It was a face of all too common a type in these days of cheap educational literature ­the face of a womanly woman engaged in unwomanly work.

Then she came back.

Steinmetz raised his hat in his most fatherly way.

“My dear young lady,” he said in Russian, “if my personal appearance has made so profound an impression as my vanity prompts me to believe, would it not be decorous of you to conceal your feelings beneath a maiden modesty?  If, on the other hand, the signals you have been making to me are of profound political importance, let me assure you that I am no Nihilist.”

“Then,” said the girl, beginning to walk by his side, “what are you?”

“What you see ­a stout middle-aged man in easy circumstances, happily placed in social obscurity.  Which means that I have few enemies and fewer friends.”

The girl looked as if she would like to laugh, had such exercise been in keeping with a professional etiquette.

“Your name is Karl Steinmetz,” she said gravely.

“That is the name by which I am known to a large staff of creditors,” replied he.

“If you will go to N, Passage Kazan, at the back of the cathedral, second-floor back room on the left at the top of the stairs, and go straight into the room, you will find a friend who wishes to see you,” she said, as one repeating a lesson by rote.

“And who are you, my dear young lady!”

“I ­I am no one.  I am only a paid agent.”

“Ah!”

They walked on in silence a few paces.  The bells of St. Isaac’s Church suddenly burst out into a wild carillon, as is their way, effectually preventing further conversation for a few moments.

“Will you go?” asked the girl, when the sound had broken off as suddenly as it had commenced.

“Probably.  I am curious and not nervous ­except of damp sheets.  My anonymous friend does not expect me to stay all night, I presume.  Did he ­or is it a she, my fatal beauty? ­did it not name an hour?”

“Between now and seven o’clock.”

“Thank you.”

“God be with you!” said the girl, suddenly wheeling round and walking away.

Without looking after her Steinmetz walked on, gradually increasing his pace.  In a few minutes he reached the large house standing within iron gates at the upper end of the English quay, the house of Prince Pavlo Howard Alexis.

He found Paul alone in his study.  In a few words he explained the situation.

“What do you think it means?” asked the prince.

“Heaven only knows!”

“And you will go?”

“Of course,” replied Steinmetz.  “I love a mystery, especially in Petersburg.  It sounds so like a romance written in the Kennington Road by a lady who has never been nearer to Russia than Margate.”

“I had better go with you,” said Paul.

“Gott!  No!” exclaimed Steinmetz; “I must go alone.  I will take Parks to drive the sleigh, if I may, though.  Parks is a steady man, who loves a rough-and-tumble.  A typical British coachman ­the brave Parks!”

“Back in time for dinner?” asked Paul.

“I hope so.  I have had such mysterious appointments thrust upon me before.  It is probably a friend who wants a hundred-ruble note until next Monday.”

The cathedral clock struck six as Karl Steinmetz turned out of the Nevski Prospekt into the large square before the sacred edifice.  He soon found the Kazan Passage ­a very nest of toyshops ­and, following the directions given, he mounted a narrow staircase.  He knocked at the door on the left hand at the top of the stairs.

“Come in!” said a voice which caused him to start.

He pushed open the door.  The room was a small one, brilliantly lighted by a paraffin lamp.  At the table sat an old man with broad benevolent face, high forehead, thin hair, and that smile which savors of the milk of human kindness, and in England suggests Nonconformity.

“You!” ejaculated Steinmetz.  “Stepan!”

“Yes.  Come in and close the door.”

He laid aside his pen, extended his hand, and, rising, kissed Karl Steinmetz on both cheeks after the manner of Russians.

“Yes, my dear Karl.  It seems that the good God has still a little work for Stepan Lanovitch to do.  I got away quite easily, in the usual way, through a paid Evasion Agency.  I have been forwarded from pillar to post like a prize fowl, and reached Petersburg last night.  I have not long to stay.  I am going south.  I may be able to do some good yet.  I hear that Paul is working wonders in Tver.”

“What about money?” asked Steinmetz, who was always practical.

“Catrina sent it, the dear child!  That is one of the conditions made by the Agency ­a hard one.  I am to see no relations.  My wife ­well, bon Dieu! it does not matter much.  She is occupied in keeping herself warm, no doubt.  But Catrina! that is a different matter.  Tell me ­how is she?  That is the first thing I want to know.”

“She is well,” answered Steinmetz.  “I saw her yesterday.”

“And happy?” The broad-faced man looked into Steinmetz’s face with considerable keenness.

“Yes.”

It was a moment for mental reservations.  One wonders whether such are taken account of in heaven.

“And Paul?” asked the Count Stepan Lanovitch at once.  “Tell me about him.”

“He is married,” answered Steinmetz.

The Count Lanovitch was looking at the lamp.  He continued to look at it as if interested in the mechanism of the burner.  Then he turned his eyes to the face of his companion.

“I wonder, my friend,” he said slowly, “how much you know?”

“Nothing,” answered Steinmetz.

The count looked at him enquiringly, heaved a sharp sigh, and abandoned the subject.

“Well,” he said, “let us get to business.  I have much to ask and to tell you.  I want you to see Catrina and to tell her that I am safe and well, but she must not attempt to see me or correspond with me for some years yet.  Of course you heard no account of my trial.  I was convicted, on the evidence of paid witnesses, of inciting to rebellion.  It was easy enough, of course.  I shall live either in the south or in Austria.  It is better for you to be in ignorance.”

Steinmetz nodded his head curtly.

“I do not want to know,” he said.

“Will you please ask Catrina to send me money through the usual channel?  No more than she has been sending.  It will suffice for my small wants.  Perhaps some day we may meet in Switzerland or in America.  Tell the dear child that.  Tell her I pray the good God to allow that meeting.  As for Russia, her day has not come yet.  It will not come in our time, my dear friend.  We are only the sowers.  So much for the future.  Now about the past.  I have not been idle.  I know who stole the papers of the Charity League and sold them.  I know who bought them and paid for them.”

Steinmetz closed the door.  He came back to the table.  He was not smiling now ­quite the contrary.

“Tell me,” he said.  “I want to know that badly.”

The Count Lanovitch looked up with a peculiar soft smile ­acquired in prison.  There is no mistaking it.

“Oh, I bear no ill will,” he said.

“I do,” answered Steinmetz bluntly.  “Who stole the papers from Thors?”

“Sydney Bamborough.”

“Good God in heaven!  Is that true?”

“Yes, my friend.”

Steinmetz passed his broad hand over his forehead as if dazed.

“And who sold them?” he asked.

“His wife.”

Count Lanovitch was looking at the burner of the lamp.  There was a peculiar crushed look about the man, as if he had reached the end of his life, and was lying like a ship, hopelessly disabled in smooth water, where nothing could affect him more.

Steinmetz scratched his forehead with one finger, reflectively.

“Vassili bought them,” he said; “I can guess that.”

“You guess right,” returned Lanovitch quietly.

Steinmetz sat down.  He looked round as if wondering whether the room was very hot.  Then with a large handkerchief he wiped his brow.

“You have surprised me,” he admitted.  “There are complications.  I shall sit up all night with your news, my dear Stepan.  Have you details?  Wonderful ­wonderful!  Of course there is a God in heaven.  How can people doubt it ­eh?”

“Yes,” said Stepan Lanovitch quietly.  “There is a God in heaven, and at present he is angry with Russia.  Yes, I have details.  Sydney Bamborough came to stay at Thors.  Of course he knew all about the Charity League ­you remember that.  It appears that his wife was waiting for him and the papers at Tver.  He took them from my room, but he did not get them all.  Had he got them all you would not be sitting there, my friend.  The general scheme he got ­the list of committee names, the local agents, the foreign agents.  But the complete list of the League he failed to find.  He secured the list of subscribers, but learned nothing from it because the sums were identified by a numeral only, the clue to the numbers being the complete list, which I burned when I missed the other papers.”

Steinmetz nodded curtly.

“That was wise,” he said.  “You are a clever man, Stepan, but too good for this world and its rascals.  Go on.”

“It would appear that Bamborough rode to Tver with the papers, which he handed to his wife.  She took them to Paris while he intended to come back to Thors.  He had a certain cheap cunning and unbounded impertinence.  But ­as you know, perhaps ­he disappeared.”

“Yes,” said Steinmetz, scratching his forehead with one finger.  “Yes ­he disappeared.”

Karl Steinmetz had one great factor of success in this world ­an infinite capacity for holding his cards.

“One more item,” said the count, in his businesslike, calm way.  “Vassili paid that woman seven thousand pounds for the papers.”

“And probably charged his masters ten,” added Steinmetz.

“And now you must go!”

The count rose and looked at his watch ­a cheap American article, with a loud tick.  He held it out with his queer washed-out smile, and Steinmetz smiled.

The two embraced again ­and there was nothing funny in the action.  It is a singular thing that the sight of two men kissing is conducive either to laughter or to tears.  There is no medium emotion.

“My dear friend ­my very dear friend,” said the count, “God be with you always.  We may meet again ­or we may not.”

Steinmetz walked down the Nevski Prospekt on the left-hand pavement ­no one walks on the other ­and the sleigh followed him.  He turned into a large, brilliantly lighted cafe, and loosened his coat.

“Give me beer,” he said to the waiter; “a very large quantity of it.”

The man smiled obsequiously as he set the foaming mug before him.

“Is it that his Excellency is cold?” he enquired.

“No, it isn’t,” answered Steinmetz.  “Quite the contrary.”

He drank the beer, and holding out his hand in the shadow of the table, he noticed that it trembled only a little.

“That is better,” he murmured.  “But I must sit here a while longer.  I suppose I was upset.  That is what they call it ­upset!  I have never been like that before.  Those lamps in the Prospekt!  Gott! how they jumped up and down!”

He pressed his hand over his eyes as if to shut out the brightness of the room ­the glaring gas and brilliant decorations ­the shining bottles and the many tables which would not keep still.

“Here,” he said to the man, “give me more beer.”

Presently he rose, and, getting rather clumsily into his sleigh, drove back at the usual breakneck pace to the palace at the upper end of the English Quay.

He sent an ambiguous message to Paul, saying that he had returned and was dressing for dinner.  This ceremony he went through slowly, as one dazed by a great fall or a heavy fatigue.  His servant, a quick, silent man, noticed the strangeness of his manner, and like a wise servant only betrayed the result of his observation by a readier service, a quicker hand, a quieter motion.

As Steinmetz went to the drawing-room he glanced at his watch.  It was twenty minutes past seven.  He still had ten minutes to spare before dinner.

He opened the drawing-room door.  Etta was sitting by the fire, alone.  She glanced back over her shoulder in a quick, hunted way which had only become apparent to Steinmetz since her arrival at Petersburg.

“Good-evening,” she said.

“Good-evening, madame,” he answered.

He closed the door carefully behind him.