Read CHAPTER XXII - THE SPIDER AND THE FLY of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

It is to be feared that there is a lamentable lack of local color in the present narrative.  Having safely arrived at Petersburg, we have nothing to tell of that romantic city ­no hints at deep-laid plots, no prison, nor tales of jail-birds ­tales with salt on them, bien entendu ­the usual grain.  We have hardly mentioned the Nevski Prospekt, which street by ancient right must needs figure in all Russian romance.  We have instead been prating of drawing-rooms and mere interiors of houses, which to-day are the same all the world over.  A Japanese fan is but a Japanese fan, whether it hang on the wall of a Canadian drawing-room or the matting of an Indian bungalow.  An Afghan carpet is the same on any floor.  It is the foot that treads the carpet which makes one to differ from another.

Whether it be in Petersburg or Pekin, it still must be the human being that lends the interest to the still life around it.  A truce, therefore, to picturesque description ­sour grapes to the present pen ­of church and fort and river, with which the living persons of whom we tell have little or nothing to do.

Maggie was alone in the great drawing-room of the house at the end of the English Quay ­alone and grave.  Some people, be it noted, are gravest when alone, and they are wise, for the world has too much gravity for us to go about it with a long face, making matters worse.  Let each of us be the centre of his own gravity.  Maggie Delafield had, perhaps, that spark in the brain for which we have but an ugly word.  We call it “pluck.”  And by it we are enabled to win a losing game ­and, harder still, to lose a losing game ­without much noise or plaint.

Whatever this girl’s joys or sorrows may have been ­and pray you, madam, remember that no man ever knows his neighbor’s heart! ­she succeeded as well as any in concealing both.  There are some women who tell one just enough about themselves to prove that they can understand and sympathize.  Maggie was of these; but she told no more.

She was alone when Paul came into the room.  It was a large room, with more than one fire-place.  Maggie was reading, and she did not look round.  Paul stopped ­warming himself by the fire nearest to the door.  He was the sort of man to come into a room without any remark.

Maggie looked up for a moment, glancing at the wood fire.  She seemed to know for certain that it was Paul.

“Have you been out?” she asked.

“Yes ­calling.”

He came toward her, standing beside her with his hands clasped behind his back, looking into the fire.

“Socially,” he said, with a quiet humor, “I am not a success.”

Her book dropped upon her knees, her two hands crossed upon its pages.  She stared at the glowing logs as if his thoughts were written there.

“I do not want to give way,” he went on, “to a habit of morbid introspection, but socially I am a horrid failure.”

There was a little smile on the girl’s face, not caused by his grave humor.  It would appear that she was smiling at something beyond that ­something only visible to her own mental vision.

“Perhaps you do not try,” she suggested practically.

“Oh, yes, I do.  I try in several languages.  I have no small-talk.”

“You see,” she said gravely, “you are a large man.”

“Does that make any difference?” he asked simply.

She turned and looked at him as he towered by her side ­looked at him with a queer smile.

“Yes,” she answered, “I think so.”

For some moments they remained thus without speaking ­in a peaceful silence.  Although the room was very large, it was peaceful.  What is it, by the way, that brings peace to the atmosphere of a room, of a whole house sometimes?  It can only be something in the individuality of some person in it.  We talk glibly of the comfort of being settled ­the peacefulness, the restfulness of it.  Some people, it would appear, are always settled ­of settled convictions, settled mind, settled purpose.  Paul Howard Alexis was perhaps such a person.

At all events, the girl sitting in the low chair by his side seemed to be under some such influence, seemed to have escaped the unrest which is said to live in palaces.

When she spoke it was with a quiet voice, as one having plenty of time and leisure.

“Where have you been?” she asked practically.  Maggie was always practical.

“To the Lanovitches’, where we met the Baron de Chauxville.”

“Ah!”

“Why ­ah?”

“Because I dislike the Baron de Chauxville,” answered Maggie in her decisive way.

“I am glad of that ­because I hate him!” said Paul.  “Have you any reason for your dislike?”

Miss Delafield had a reason, but it was not one that she could mention to Paul.  So she gracefully skirted the question.

“He has the same effect upon me as snails,” she explained airily.

Then, as if to salve her conscience, she gave the reason, but disguised, so that he did not recognize it.

“I have seen more of M. de Chauxville than you have,” she said gravely.  “He is one of those men of whom women do see more.  When men are present he loses confidence, like a cur when a thoroughbred terrier is about.  He dislikes you.  I should take care to give M. de Chauxville a wide berth if I were you, Paul.”

She had risen, after glancing at the clock.  She turned down the page of her book, and looking up suddenly, met his eyes, for a moment only.

“We are not likely to drop into a close friendship,” said Paul.  “But ­he is coming to Thors, twenty miles from Osterno.”

There was a momentary look of anxiety in the girl’s eyes, which she turned away to hide.

“I am sorry for that,” she said.  “Does Herr Steinmetz know it?”

“Not yet.”

Maggie paused for a moment.  She was tracing with the tip of her finger a pattern stamped on the binding of the book.  It would seem that she had something more to say.  Then suddenly she went away without saying it.

In the meantime Claude de Chauxville had gently led the Countess Lanovitch to invite him to stay to dinner.  He accepted the invitation with becoming reluctance, and returned to the Hotel de Berlin, where he was staying, in order to dress.  He was fully alive to the expediency of striking while the iron is hot ­more especially where women are concerned.  Moreover, his knowledge of the countess led him to fear that she would soon tire of his society.  This lady had a lamentable facility for getting to the bottom of her friends’ powers of entertainment within a few days.  It was De Chauxville’s intention to make secure his invitation to Thors, and then to absent himself from the countess.

At dinner he made himself vastly agreeable, recounting many anecdotes fresh from Paris, which duly amused the Countess Lanovitch, and somewhat shocked Catrina, who was not advanced or inclined to advance.

After dinner the guest asked Mlle. Catrina to play.  He opened the grand piano in the inner drawing-room with such gallantry and effusion that the sanguine countess, post-prandially somnolescent in her luxurious chair, began rehearsing different modes of mentioning her son-in-law, the baron.

“Yes,” she muttered to herself, “and Catrina is plain ­terribly plain.”

Thereupon she fell asleep.

De Chauxville had a good memory, and was, moreover, a good and capable liar.  So Catrina did not find out that he knew nothing whatever of music.  He watched the plain face as the music rose and fell, himself impervious to its transcendent tones.  With practised cunning he waited until Catrina was almost intoxicated with music ­an intoxication to which all great musicians are liable.

“Ah!” he said.  “I envy you your power.  With music like that one can almost imagine that life is what one would wish it to be.”

She did not answer, but she wandered off into another air ­a slumber song.

“The Schlummerlied,” said De Chauxville softly.  “It almost has the power to send a sorrow to sleep.”

This time she answered him ­possibly because he had not looked at her.

“Such never sleep,” she said.

“Do you know that, too?” he asked, not in a tone that wanted reply.

She made no answer.

“I am sorry,” he went on.  “For me it is different, I am a man.  I have man’s work to do.  I can occupy myself with ambition.  At all events, I have a man’s privilege of nursing revenge.”

He saw her eyes light up, her breast heave with a sudden sigh.  Something like a smile wavered for a moment beneath his waxed mustache.

Catrina’s fingers, supple and strong, struck in great chords the air of a gloomy march from the half-forgotten muse of some monastic composer.  While she played, Claude de Chauxville proceeded with his delicate touch to play on the hidden chords of an untamed heart.

“A man’s privilege,” he repeated musingly.

“Need it be such?” she asked.

For the first time his eyes met hers.

“Not necessarily,” he answered, and her eyes dropped before his narrow gaze.

He sat back in his chair, content for the moment with the progress he had made.  He glanced at the countess.  He was too experienced a man to be tricked.  The countess was really asleep.  Her cap was on one side, her mouth open.  A woman who is pretending to sleep usually does so in becoming attitudes.

De Chauxville did not speak again for some minutes.  He sat back in his chair, leaning his forehead on his hand, while he peeped through his slim fingers.  He could almost read the girl’s thoughts as she put them into music.

“She does not hate him yet,” he was reflecting.  “But she needs only to see him with Etta a few times and she will come to it.”

The girl played on, throwing all the pain in her passionate, untamed heart into the music.  She knew nothing of the world; for half of its temptations, its wiles, its wickednesses were closed to her by the plain face that God had given her.  For beautiful women see the worst side of human nature ­they usually deal with the worst of men.  Catrina was an easy tool in the hands of such as Claude de Chauxville; for he had dealt with women and that which is evil in women all his life, and the only mistakes he ever made were those characteristic errors of omission attaching to a persistent ignorance of the innate good in human nature.  It is this same innate good that upsets the calculations of most villains.

Absorbed as she was in her great grief, Catrina was in no mood to seek for motives ­to split a moral straw.  She only knew that this man seemed to understand her as no one had ever understood her.  She was content with the knowledge that he took the trouble to express and to show a sympathy of which those around her had not suspected her to be in need.

The moment had been propitious, and Claude de Chauxville, with true Gallic insight, had seized it.  Her heart was sore and lonely ­almost breaking ­and she was without the worldly wisdom which tells us that such hearts must, at all costs, be hidden from the world.  She was without religious teaching ­quite without that higher moral teaching which is independent of creed and conformity, which is only learnt at a good mother’s knee.  Catrina had not had a good mother.  She had had the countess ­a weak-minded, self-indulgent, French-novel-reading woman.  Heaven protect our children from such mothers!

In the solitude of her life Catrina Lanovitch had conceived a great love ­a passion such as a few only are capable of attaining, be it for weal or woe.  She had seen this love ignored ­walked under foot by its object with a grave deliberation which took her breath away when she thought of it.  It was all in all to her; to him it was nothing.  Her philosophy was simple.  She could not sit still and endure.  At this time it seemed unbearable.  She must turn and rend some one.  She did not know whom.  But some one must suffer.  It was in this that Claude de Chauxville proposed to assist her.

“It is preposterous that people should make others suffer and go unpunished,” he said, intent on his noble purpose.

Catrina’s eyelids flickered, but she made no answer.  The soreness of her heart had not taken the form of a definite revenge as yet.  Her love for Paul was still love, but it was perilously near to hatred.  She had not reached the point of wishing definitely that he should suffer, but the sight of Etta ­beautiful, self-confident, carelessly possessive in respect to Paul ­had brought her within measurable distance of it.

“The arrogance of those who have all that they desire is insupportable,” the Frenchman went on in his favorite, non-committing, epigrammatic way.

Catrina ­a second Eve ­glanced at him, and her silence gave him permission to go on.

“Some men have a different code of honor for women, who are helpless.”

Catrina knew vaguely that unless a woman is beloved by the object of her displeasure, she cannot easily make him suffer.

She clenched her teeth over her lower lip.  As she played, a new light was dawning in her eyes.  The music was a marvel, but no one in the room heard it.

“I would be pitiless to all such men,” said De Chauxville.  “They deserve no pity, for they have shown none.  The man who deceives a woman is worthy of ­”

He never finished the sentence.  Her deep, passionate eyes met his.  Her hands came down with one final crash on the chords.  She rose and crossed the room.

“Mother,” she said, “shall I ring for tea?”

When the countess awoke, De Chauxville was turning over some sheets of music at the piano.