Read CHAPTER XXIX - ANGLO-RUSSIAN of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

At bedtime Catrina went to Maggie’s room with her to see that she had all that she could desire.  A wood fire was burning brightly in the open French stove; the room was lighted by lamps.  It was warm and cheery.  A second door led to the little music-room which Catrina had made her own, and beyond was her bedroom.

Maggie had assured her hostess that she had every thing that she could wish, and that she did not desire the services of Catrina’s maid.  But the Russian girl still lingered.  She was slow to make friends ­not shy, but diffident and suspicious.  Her friendship once secured was a thing worth possessing.  She was inclined to bestow it upon this quiet, self-contained English girl.  In such matters the length of an acquaintance goes for nothing.  A long acquaintanceship does not necessarily mean friendship ­one being the result of circumstance, the other of selection.

“The princess knows Russian?” said Catrina suddenly.

She was standing near the dressing-table, where she had been absently attending to the candles.  She wheeled round and looked at Maggie, who was hospitably sitting on a low chair near the fire.  She was sorry for the loneliness of this girl’s life.  She did not want her to go away just yet.  There was another chair by the fire, inviting Catrina to indulge in those maiden confidences which attach themselves to slippers and hair-brushings.

Maggie looked up with a smile which slowly ebbed away.  Catrina’s remark was of the nature of a defiance.  Her half-diffident rôle of hostess was suddenly laid aside.

“No; she does not,” answered the English girl.

Catrina came forward, standing over Maggie, looking down at her with eyes full of antagonism.

“Excuse me.  I saw her understand a remark I made to one of the servants.  She was not careful.  I saw it distinctly.”

“I think you must be mistaken,” answered Maggie quietly.  “She has been in Russia before for a few weeks; but she did not learn the language.  She told me so herself.  Why should she pretend not to know Russian, if she does?”

Catrina made no answer.  She sat heavily down in the vacant chair.  Her attitudes were uncouth and strong ­a perpetual source of tribulation to the countess.  She sat with her elbow on her knee, staring into the fire.

“I did not mean to hate her; I did not want to,” she said.  “If it had been you, I should not have hated you.”

Maggie’s clear eyes wavered for a moment.  A faint color rose to her face.  She leaned back so that the firelight did not reach her.  There was a silence, during which Maggie unclasped a bracelet with a little snap of the spring.  Catrina did not hear the sound.  She heard nothing.  She did not appear to be aware of her surroundings.  Maggie unclasped another bracelet noisily.  She was probably regretting her former kindness of manner.  Catrina had come too near.

“Are you not judging rather hastily?” suggested Maggie, in a measured voice which heightened the contrast between the two.  “I find it takes some time to discover whether one likes or dislikes new acquaintances.”

“Yes; but you English are so cold and deliberate.  You do not know what it is to hate ­or to care.”

“Perhaps we do,” said Maggie; “but we say less about it.”

Catrina turned and looked at her with a queer smile.

“Less!” she laughed.  “Nothing ­you say nothing.  Paul is the same.  I have seen.  I know.  You have said nothing since you came to Thors.  You have talked and laughed; you have given opinions; you have spoken of many things, but you have said nothing.  You are the same as Paul ­one never knows.  I know nothing about you.  But I like you.  You are her cousin?”

“Yes.”

“And I hate her!”

Maggie laughed.  She was quite steady and loyal.

“When you get to know her you will change, perhaps,” she said.

“Perhaps I know her now better than you do!”

Maggie laughed in her cheery, practical way.

“That seems hardly likely, considering that I have known her since we were children.”

Catrina shrugged her shoulders in an honest if somewhat mannerless refusal to discuss the side issue.  She returned to the main question with characteristic stubbornness.

“I shall always hate her,” she said.  “I am sorry she is your cousin.  I shall always regret that, and I shall always hate her.  There is something wrong about her ­something none of you know except Karl Steinmetz.  He knows every thing ­Herr Steinmetz.”

“He knows a great deal,” admitted Maggie.

“Yes; and that is why he is sad.  Is it not so?”

Catrina sat staring into the fire, her strange, earnest eyes almost fierce in their concentration.

“Did she pretend that she loved him at first?” she asked suddenly.

Receiving no answer, she looked up and fixed her searching gaze on the face of her companion.  Maggie was looking straight in front of her in the direction of the fire, but not with eyes focussed to see any thing so near at hand.  She bore the scrutiny without flinching.  As soon as Catrina’s eyes were averted the mask-like stillness of her features relaxed.

“She does not take that trouble now,” added the Russian girl, in reply to her own question.  “Did you see her to-night when we were at the piano?  M. de Chauxville was talking to her.  They were keeping two conversations going at the same time.  I could see by their faces.  They said different things when the music was loud.  I hate her.  She is not true to Paul.  M. de Chauxville knows something about her.  They have something in common which is not known to Paul or to any of us!  Why do you not speak?  Why do you sit staring into the fire with your lips so close together?”

“Because I do not think that we shall gain any thing by discussing Paul and his wife.  It is no business of ours.”

Catrina laughed ­a lamentable, mirthless laugh.

“That is because she is your cousin; and he ­he is nothing to you.  You do not care whether he is happy or not!”

Catrina had turned upon her companion fiercely.  Maggie swung round in her chair to pick up her bracelets, which had slipped from her knees to the floor.

“You exaggerate things,” she said quietly.  “I see no reason to suppose that Paul is unhappy.  It is because you have taken this unreasoning dislike to her.”

She took a long time to collect three bracelets.  Then she rose and placed them on the dressing-table.

“Do you want me to go?” asked Catrina, in her blunt way.

“No,” answered Maggie, civilly enough; but she extracted a couple of hair-pins rather obviously.

Catrina heeded the voice and not the action.

“You English are all alike,” she said.  “You hold one at arm’s length.  I suppose there is some one in England for whom you care ­who is out of all this ­away from all the troubles of Russia.  This has nothing to do with your life.  It is only a passing incident ­a few weeks to be forgotten when you go back.  I wonder what he is like ­the man in England.  You need not tell me.  I am not curious in that way.  I am not asking you to tell me.  I am just wondering.  For I know there is some one.  I knew it when I first saw you.  You are so quiet, and settled, and self-contained ­like a person who has played a game and knows for certain that it is lost or won, and does not want to play again.  Your hair is very pretty; you are very pretty, you quiet English girl.  I wonder what you think about behind your steady eyes.”

“I?” said Maggie, with a little laugh.  “Oh ­I think about my dresses, and the new fashions, and parties, and all the things that girls do think of.”

Catrina shook her head.  She looked stubborn and unconvinced.  Then suddenly she changed the conversation.

“Do you like M. de Chauxville?” she asked.

“No.”

“Does Paul like him?”

“I don’t know.”

Catrina looked up for a moment only.  Then her eyes returned to the contemplation of the burning pine-logs.

“I wonder why you will not talk of Paul,” she said, in a voice requiring no answer.

Maggie moved rather uneasily.  She had her back turned toward Catrina.

“I am afraid I am rather a dull person,” she answered.  “I have not much to say about any body.”

“And nothing about Paul?” suggested Catrina.

“Nothing.  We were talking of M. de Chauxville.”

“Yes; I do not understand M. de Chauxville.  He seems to me to be the incarnation of insincerity.  He poses ­even to himself.  He is always watching for the effect.  I wonder what the effect of himself upon himself may be.”

Maggie laughed.

“That is rather complicated,” she said.  “It requires working out.  I think he is deeply impressed with his own astuteness.  If he were simpler he would be cleverer.”

Catrina was afraid of Claude de Chauxville, and, because this was so, she stared in wonder at the English girl, who dismissed him from the conversation and her thoughts with a few careless words of contempt.  Such minds as that of Miss Delafield were quite outside the field of De Chauxville’s influence, while that Frenchman had considerable power over highly strung and imaginative natures.

Catrina Lanovitch had begun by tolerating him ­had proceeded to make the serious blunder of permitting him to be impertinently familiar, and was now exaggerating in her own mind the hold that he had over her.  She did not actually dislike him.  So few people had taken the trouble or found the expediency of endeavoring to sympathize with her or understand her nature, that she was unconsciously drawn toward this man whom she now feared.

In exaggerating the power he exercised over herself she somewhat naturally exaggerated also his importance in the world and in the lives of those around him.  She had imagined him all-powerful; and the first person to whom she mentioned his name dismissed the subject indifferently.  Her own entire sincerity had enabled her to detect the insincerity of her ally.  She had purposely made mention of the weak spot which she had discovered, in order that her observation might be corroborated.  And this Maggie had failed to do.

With the slightest encouragement, Catrina would have told her companion all that had passed.  The sympathy between women is so strong that there is usually only one man who is safe from discussion.  In Catrina’s case that one man was not Claude de Chauxville.  But Maggie Delafield was of different material from this impressionable, impulsive Russian girl.  She was essentially British in her capacity for steering a straight personal course through the shoals and quicksands of her neighbors’ affairs, as also in the firm grip she held upon her own thoughts.  She was by no means prepared to open her mind to the first comer, and in her somewhat slow-going English estimate of such matters Catrina was as yet little more than the first comer.

She changed the subject, and they talked for some time on indifferent topics ­such topics as have an interest for girls; and who are we that we may despise them?  We jeer very grandly at girls’ talk, and promptly return to the discussion of our dogs and pipes and clothing.

But Catrina was not happy under this judicious treatment.  She had no one in the world to whom she could impart a thousand doubts and questions ­a hundred grievances and one great grief.  And it was just this one great grief of which Maggie dreaded the mention.  She was quite well aware of its existence ­had been aware of it for some time.  Karl Steinmetz had thrown out one or two vague hints; everything pointed to it.  Maggie could hardly be ignorant of the fact that Catrina had grown to womanhood loving Paul.

A score of times Catrina approached the subject, and with imperturbable steadfastness Maggie held to her determination that Paul was not to be discussed by them.  She warded, she evaded, she ignored with a skill which baffled the simple Russian.  She had a hundred subterfuges ­a hundred skilful turns and twists.  Where women learn these matters, Heaven only knows!  All our experience of the world, our falls and stumbles on the broken road of life, never teach us some things that are known to the veriest schoolgirl standing on the smoother footpath that women tread.

At last Catrina rose to go.  Maggie rose also.  Women are relentless where they fight for their own secrets.  Maggie morally turned Catrina out of the room.  The two girls stood looking at each other for a moment.  They had nothing in common.  The language in which they understood each other best was the native tongue of neither.  Born in different countries, each of a mixed race with no one racial strain in common, neither creed, nor education, nor similarity of thought had aught to draw them together.  They looked at each other, and God’s hand touched them.  They both loved the same man.  They did not hate each other.

“Have you every thing you want?” asked Catrina.

The question was startling.  Catrina’s speech was ever abrupt.  At first Maggie did not understand.

“Yes, thanks,” she answered.  “I am very tired.  I suppose it is the snow.”

“Yes,” said Catrina mechanically; “it is the snow.”

She went toward the door, and there she paused.

“Does Paul love her?” she asked abruptly.

Maggie made no answer; and, as was her habit, Catrina replied to her own question.

“You know he does not ­you know he does not!” she said.

Then she went out, without waiting for an answer, closing the door behind her.  The closed door heard the reply.

“It will not matter much,” said Maggie, “so long as he never finds it out.”