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

The Countess Lanovitch never quitted her own apartments before mid-day.  She had acquired a Parisian habit of being invisible until luncheon-time.  The two girls left the castle of Thors in a sleigh with one attendant at ten o’clock in order to reach the hut selected for luncheon by mid-day.  Etta did not accompany them.  She had a slight headache.

At eleven o’clock Claude de Chauxville returned alone, on horseback.  After the sportsmen had separated, each to gain his prearranged position in the forest, he had tripped over his rifle, seriously injuring the delicate sighting mechanism.  He found (he told the servant who opened the door for him) that he had just time to return for another rifle before the operation of closing in on the bears was to begin.

“If Madame the Princess,” was visible, he went on, would the servant tell her that M. de Chauxville was waiting in the library to assure her that there was absolutely no danger to be anticipated in the day’s sport.  The princess, it would appear, was absurdly anxious about the welfare of her husband ­an experienced hunter and a dead shot.

Claude de Chauxville then went to the library, where he waited, booted, spurred, rifle in hand, for Etta.

After a lapse of five minutes or more, the door was opened, and Etta came leisurely into the room.

“Well?” she enquired indifferently.

De Chauxville bowed.  He walked past her and closed the door, which she happened to have left open.

Then he returned and stood by the window, leaning gracefully on his rifle.  His attitude, his hunting-suit, his great top-boots, made rather a picturesque object of him.

“Well?” repeated Etta, almost insolently.

“It would have been wiser to have married me,” said De Chauxville darkly.

Etta shrugged her shoulders.

“Because I understand you better; I know you better than your husband.”

Etta turned and glanced at the clock.

“Have you come back from the bear-hunt to tell me this, or to avoid the bears?” she asked.

De Chauxville frowned.  A man who has tasted fear does not like a question of his courage.

“I have come to tell you that and other things,” he answered.

He looked at her with his sinister smile and a little upward jerk of the head.  He extended his open hand, palm upward, with the fingers slightly crooked.

“I hold you, madame,” he said ­“I hold you in my hand.  You are my slave, despite your brave title; my thing, my plaything, despite your servants, and your great houses, and your husband!  When I have finished telling you all that I have to tell, you will understand.  You will perhaps thank me for being merciful.”

Etta laughed defiantly.

“You are afraid of Paul,” she cried.  “You are afraid of Karl Steinmetz; you will presently be afraid of me.”

“I think not,” said De Chauxville coolly.  The two names just mentioned were certainly not of pleasant import in his ears, but he was not going to let a woman know that.  This man had played dangerous cards before now.  He was not at all sure of his ground.  He did not know what Etta’s position was in regard to Steinmetz.  Behind the defiant woman there lurked the broad shadow of the man who never defied; who knew many things, but was ignorant of fear.

Unlike Karl Steinmetz, De Chauxville was not a bold player.  He liked to be sure of his trick before he threw down his trump card.  His method was not above suspicion:  he liked to know what cards his adversary held, and one may be sure that he was not above peeping.

“Karl Steinmetz is no friend of yours,” he said.

Etta did not answer.  She was thinking of the conversation she had had with Steinmetz in Petersburg.  She was wondering whether the friendship he had offered ­the solid thing as he called it ­was not better than the love of this man.

“I have information now,” went on De Chauxville, “which would have made you my wife, had I had it sooner.”

“I think not,” said the lady insolently.  She had dealt with such men before.  Hers was the beauty that appealed to De Chauxville and such as he.  It is not the beautiful women who see the best side of human nature.

“Even now,” went on the Frenchman, “now that I know you ­I still love you.  You are the only woman I shall ever love.”

“Indeed!” murmured the lady, quite unmoved.

“Yes; although in a way I despise you ­now that I know you.”

“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed Etta.  “If you have any thing to say, please say it.  I have no time to probe your mysteries ­to discover your parables.  You know me well enough, perhaps, to be aware that I am not to be frightened by your cheap charlatanism.”

“I know you well enough,” retorted De Chauxville hoarsely, “to be aware that it was you who sold the Charity League papers to Vassili in Paris.  I know you well enough, madame, to be aware of your present position in regard to your husband.  If I say a word in the right quarter you would never leave Russia alive.  I have merely to say to Catrina Lanovitch that it was you who banished her father for your own gain.  I have merely to hand your name in to certain of the Charity League party, and even your husband could not save you.”

He had gradually approached her, and uttered the last words face to face, his eyes close to hers.  She held her head up ­erect, defiant still.

“So you see, madame,” he said, “you belong to me.”

She smiled.

“Hand and foot,” he added.  “But I am soft-hearted.”

He shrugged his shoulders and turned away.

“What will you?” he said, looking out of the window.  “I love you.”

“Nonsense!”

He turned slowly round.

“What?”

“Nonsense!” repeated Etta.  “You love power; you are a bully.  You love to please your own vanity by thinking that you have me in your power.  I am not afraid of you.”

De Chauxville leaned gracefully against the window.  He still held his rifle.

“Reflect a little,” he said, with his cold smile.  “It would appear that you do not quite realize the situation.  Women rarely realize situations in time.  Our friend ­your husband ­has many of the English idiosyncrasies.  He has all the narrow-minded notions of honor which obtain in that country.  Added to this, I suspect him of possessing a truly Slavonic fire which he keeps under.  ‘A smouldering fire ­’ You know, madame, our French proverb.  He is not the man to take a rational and broad-minded view of your little transaction with M. Vassili; more especially, perhaps, as it banished his friend Stepan Lanovitch ­the owner of this house, by the way.  His reception of the news I have to tell him would be unpleasant ­for you.”

“What do you want?” interrupted Etta.  “Money?”

“I am not a needy adventurer.”

“And I am not such a fool, M. de Chauxville, as to allow myself to be dragged into a vulgar intrigue, borrowed from a French novel, to satisfy your vanity.”

De Chauxville’s dull eyes suddenly flashed.

“I will trouble you to believe, madame,” he said, in a low, concentrated voice, “that such a thought never entered my head.  A De Chauxville is not a commercial traveller, if you please.  No; it may surprise you, but my feeling for you has more good in it than you would seem capable of inspiring.  God only knows how it is that a bad woman can inspire a good love.”

Etta looked at him in amazement.  She did not always understand De Chauxville.  No matter for surprise, perhaps; for he did not always understand himself.

“Then what do you want?” she asked.

“In the meantime, implicit obedience.”

“What are you going to use me for?”

“I have ends,” replied Claude de Chauxville, who had regained his usual half-mocking composure, “that you will serve.  But they will be your ends as well as mine.  You will profit by them.  I will take very good care that you come to no harm, for you are the ultimate object of all this.  At the end of it all I see only ­you.”

Etta shrugged her shoulders.  It is to be presumed that she was absolutely heartless.  Many women are.  It is when a heartless woman has brains that one hears of her.

“What if I refuse?” asked Etta, keenly aware of the fact that this man was handicapped by his love for her.

“Then I will force you to obedience.”

Etta raised her delicate eyebrows insolently.

“Ah!”

“Yes,” said De Chauxville, with suppressed anger; “I will force you to obey me.”

The princess looked at him with her little mocking smile.  She raised one hand to her head with a reflective air, as if a hair-pin were of greater importance than his words.  She had dressed herself rather carefully for this interview.  She never for a moment overlooked the fact that she was a woman, and beautiful.  She did not allow him to forget it either.

Her mood of outraged virtue was now suddenly thrown into the background by a phase of open coquetry.  Beneath her eyelids she watched for the effect of her pretty, provoking attitude on the man who loved her.  She was on her own territory at this work, playing her own game; and she was more alarmed by De Chauxville’s imperturbability than by any thing he had said.

“You have a strange way of proving the truth of your own statements.”

“What statements?”

She gave a little laugh.  Her attitude, her glance, the cunning display of a perfect figure, the laugh, the whole woman, was the incarnation of practised coquetry.  She did not admit, even to herself, that she was afraid of De Chauxville.  But she was playing her best cards, in her best manner.  She had never known them fail.

Claude de Chauxville was a little white about the lips.  His eyelids flickered, but by an effort he controlled himself, and she did not see the light in his eyes for which she looked.

“If you mean,” he said coldly, “the statement that I made to you before you were married ­namely, that I love you ­I am quite content to leave the proof till the future.  I know what I am about, madame.”

He took his watch from his pocket and consulted it.

“I must go in five minutes,” he said.  “I have a few instructions to give you, to which I must beg your careful attention.”

He looked up, meeting Etta’s somewhat sullen gaze with a smile of triumph.

“It is essential,” he went on, “that I be invited to Osterno.  I do not want to stay there long; indeed, I do not care to.  But I must see the place.  I dare say you can compass the invitation, madame?”

“It will be difficult.”

“And therefore worthy of your endeavor.  I have the greatest regard for your diplomatic skill.  I leave the matter in your hands, princess.”

Etta shrugged her shoulders and looked past him out of the window.  De Chauxville was considering her face carefully.

“Another point to be remembered,” he went on, “is your husband’s daily life at Osterno.  The prince is not above suspicion; the authorities are watching him.  He is suspected of propagating revolutionary ideas among the peasantry.  I should like you to find out as much as you can.  Perhaps you know already.  Perhaps he has told you, princess.  I know that beautiful face!  He has told you!  Good!  Does he take an interest in the peasants?”

Etta did not answer.

“Kindly give me your attention, madame.  Does the prince take an interest in the peasants?”

“Yes.”

“An active interest?”

“Yes.”

“Have you any details?”

“No,” answered Etta.

“Then you will watch him, and procure those details.”

Etta’s face was defiant and pale.  De Chauxville never took his eyes from it.

“I have undertaken a few small commissions for an old friend of yours, M. Vassili, whom you obliged once before!” he said; and the defiance faded from her eyes.

“The authorities cannot, in these disturbed times, afford to tolerate princes of an independent turn of mind.  Such men are apt to make the peasant think himself more important than he is.  I dare say, madame, that you are already tired of Russia.  It might perhaps serve your ends if this country was made a little too hot for your husband, eh?  I see your proud lips quivering, princess!  It is well to keep the lips under control.  We, who deal in diplomacy, know where to look for such signs.  Yes; I dare say I can get you out of Russia ­for ever.  But you must be obedient.  You must reconcile yourself to the knowledge that you have met ­your master.”

He bowed in his graceful way, spreading out his hands in mock humility.  Etta did not answer him.  For the moment she could see no outlet to this maze of trouble, and yet she was conscious of not fearing De Chauxville so much as she feared Karl Steinmetz.

“A lenient master,” pursued the Frenchman, whose vanity was tickled by the word.  “I do not ask much.  One thing is to be invited to Osterno, that I may be near you.  The other is a humble request for details of your daily life, that I may think of you when absent.”

Etta drew in her lips, moistening them as if they had suddenly become parched.

De Chauxville glanced at her and moved toward the door.  He paused with his fingers on the handle, and looking back over his shoulder he said: 

“Have I made myself quite clear?”

Etta was still looking out of the window with hard, angry eyes.  She took no notice of the question.

De Chauxville turned the handle.

“Again let me impress upon you the advisability of implicit obedience,” he said, with delicate insolence.  “I mentioned the Charity League; but that is not my strongest claim upon your attention.  I have another interesting little detail of your life, which I will reserve until another time.”

He closed the door behind him, leaving Etta white-lipped.