Read CHAPTER XXXI - A DANGEROUS EXPERIMENT of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

A Russian forest in winter is one of nature’s places of worship.  There are some such places in the world, where nature seems to stand in the presence of the Deity; a sunrise at sea; night on a snow-clad mountain; mid-day in a Russian forest in winter.  These places and these times are good for convalescent atheists and such as pose as unbelievers ­the cheapest form of notoriety.

Paul had requested Catrina and Maggie to drive as quietly as possible through the forest.  The warning was unnecessary, for the stillness of snow is infectious, while the beauty of the scene seemed to command silence.  As usual, Catrina drove without bells.  The one attendant on his perch behind was a fur-clad statue of servitude and silence.  Maggie, leaning back, hidden to the eyes in her sables, had nothing to say to her companion.  The way lay through forests of pine ­trackless, motionless, virgin.  The sun, filtering through the snow-laden branches, cast a subdued golden light upon the ruddy upright trunks of the trees.  At times a willow-grouse, white as the snow, light and graceful on the wing, rose from the branch where he had been laughing to his mate with a low, cooing laugh, and fluttered away over the trees.

“A kooropatka,” said Catrina, who knew the life of the forest almost as well as Paul, whose very existence was wrapped up in these things.

Far over the summits of the pines a snipe seemed to be wheeling a sentinel round.  He followed them as they sped along, calling out all the while his deep warning note, like that of a lamb crouching beneath a hedge where the wind is not tempered.

Once or twice they heard the dismal howl of a wolf ­the most melancholy, the weirdest, the most hopeless of nature’s calls.  The whole forest seemed to be on the alert ­astir and in suspense.  The wolf, disturbed in his lair, no doubt heard and understood the cry of the watchful snipe and the sudden silence of the willow-grouse, who loves to sit and laugh when all is safe.  A clumsy capercailzie, swinging along over the trees with a great flap and rush of wings, seemed to be intent on his own solitary, majestic business ­a very king among the fowls of the air.

Amid the topmost branches of the pines the wind whispered and stirred like a child in sleep; but beneath all was still.  Every branch stood motionless beneath its burden of snow.  The air was thin, exhilarating, brilliant ­like dry champagne.  It seemed to send the blood coursing through the veins with a very joy of life.

Catrina noted all these things while cleverly handling her ponies.  They spoke to her with a thousand voices.  She had roamed in these same forests with Paul, who loved them and understood them as she did.

Maggie, in the midst as it were of a revelation, leaned back and wondered at it all.  She, too, was thinking of Paul, the owner of these boundless forests.  She understood him better now.  This drive had revealed to her a part of his nature which had rather puzzled her ­a large, simple, quiet strength which had developed and grown to maturity beneath these trees.  We are all part of what we have seen.  We all carry with us through life somewhat of the scenes through which we passed in childhood.

Maggie knew now where Paul had learnt the quiet concentration of mind, the absorption in his own affairs, the complete lack of interest in the business of his neighbor which made him different from other men.  He had learnt these things at first hand from God’s creatures.  These forest-dwellers of fur and feather went about their affairs in the same absorbed way, with the same complete faith, the same desire to leave and be left alone.  The simplicity of Nature was his.  His only craft was forest craft.

“Now you know,” said Catrina, when they reached the hut, “why I hate Petersburg.”

Maggie nodded.  The effect of the forest was still upon her.  She did not want to talk.

The woman who received them, the wife of a keeper, had prepared in a rough way for their reception.  She had a large fire and bowls of warm milk.  The doors and windows had been thrown wide open by Paul’s orders.  He wanted to spare Maggie too intimate an acquaintance with a Russian interior.  The hut was really a shooting-box built by Paul some years earlier, and inhabited by a head-keeper, one learned in the ways of bear and wolf and lynx.  The large dwelling-room had been carefully scrubbed.  There was a smell of pine-wood and soap.  The table, ready spread with a simple luncheon, took up nearly the whole of the room.

While the two girls were warming themselves, a keeper came to the door of the hut and asked to see Catrina.  He stood in the little door-way, completely filling it, and explained that he could not come in, as the buckles and straps of his snow-shoes were clogged and frozen.  He wore the long Norwegian snow-shoes, and was held to be the quickest runner in the country.

Catrina had a long conversation with the man, who stood hatless, ruddy, and shy.

“It is,” she then explained to Maggie, “Paul’s own man, who always loads for him and carries his spare gun.  He has sent him to tell us that the game has been ringed, and that the beaters will close in on a place called the Schapka Clearing, where there is a woodman’s refuge.  If we care to put on our snow-shoes, this man will guide us to the clearing and take care of us till the battue is over.”

Of course Maggie welcomed the proposal with delight, and after a hasty luncheon the three glided off through the forest as noiselessly as they had come.  After a tiring walk of an hour and more they came to the clearing, and were duly concealed in the hut.

No one, the keeper told the ladies, except Paul, knew of their presence in the little wooden house.  The arrangements of the beat had been slightly altered at the last moment after the hunters had separated.  The keeper lighted a small fire and shyly attended to the ladies, removing their snow-shoes with clumsy fingers.  He closed the door, and arranged a branch of larch across the window so that they could stand near it without being seen.

They had not been there long before De Chauxville appeared.  He moved quickly across the clearing, skimming over the snow with long, sweeping strides.  Two keepers followed him, and after having shown him the rough hiding-place prepared for him, silently withdrew to their places.  Soon Karl Steinmetz came from another direction, and took up his position rather nearer to the hut, in a thicket of pine and dwarf oak.  He was only twenty yards away from the refuge where the girls were concealed.

It was not long before Paul came.  He was quite alone, and suddenly appeared at the far end of the clearing, in very truth a mighty hunter, standing nearly seven feet on his snow-shoes.  One rifle he carried in his hand, another slung across his back.  It was like a silent scene on a stage.  The snow-white clearing, with long-drawn tracks across it where the snow-shoes had passed, the still trees, the brilliant sun, and the blue depths of the forest behind; while Paul, like the hero of some grim Arctic saga, a huge fur-clad Northern giant, stood alone in the desolation.

From his attitude it was apparent that he was listening.  It was probable that the cries of the birds and the distant howl of a wolf told his practised ears how near the beaters were.  He presently moved across to where De Chauxville was hidden, spoke some words of advice or warning to him, and pointed with his gloved hand in the direction whence the game might be expected to come.

It subsequently transpired that Paul was asking De Chauxville the whereabouts of Steinmetz, who had gained his place of concealment unobserved by either.  De Chauxville could give him no information, and Paul went away to his post dissatisfied.  Karl Steinmetz must have seen them; he must have divined the subject of their conversation; but he remained hidden and gave no sign.

Paul’s post was behind a fallen tree, and the watchers in the hut could see him, while he was completely hidden from any animal that might enter the open clearing from the far end.  He turned and looked hard at the hut; but the larch branch across the window effectually prevented him from discovering whether any one was behind it or not.

Thus they all waited in suspense.  A blackcock skimmed across the open space and disappeared unmolested.  A wolf ­gray, gaunt, sneaking, and lurching in his gait ­trotted into the clearing and stood listening with evil lips drawn back.  The two girls watched him breathlessly.  When he trotted on unmolested, they drew a deep breath as if they had been under water.  Paul, with his two rifles laid before him, watched the wolf depart with a smile.  The girls could see the smile, and from it learnt somewhat of the man.  The keeper beside them gave a little laugh and looked to the hammers of his rifle.

And still there was no sound.  It was still, unreal, and like a scene on the stage.  The birds, skimming over the tops of the trees from time to time, threw in as it were a note of fear and suspense.  There was breathlessness in the air.  A couple of hares, like white shadows in their spotless winter coats, shot from covert to covert across the open ground.

Then suddenly the keeper gave a little grunt and held up his hand, listening with parted lips and eager eyes.  There was a distinct sound of breaking branches and crackling underwood.

They could see Paul cautiously rise from his knees to a crouching attitude.  They followed the direction of his gaze, and before them the monarch of these forests stood in clumsy might.  A bear had shambled to the edge of the clearing and was standing upright, growling and grumbling to himself, his great paws waving from side to side, his shaggy head thrust forward with a recurring jerk singularly suggestive of a dandy with an uncomfortable collar.  These bears of Northern Russia have not the reputation of being very fierce unless they are aroused from their winter quarters, when their wrath knows no bounds and their courage recognizes no danger.  An angry bear is afraid of no living man or beast.  Moreover, these kings of the Northern forests are huge beasts, capable of smothering a strong man by falling on him and lying there ­a death which has come to more than one daring hunter.  The beast’s favorite method of dealing with his foe is to claw him to death, or else hug him till his ribs are snapped and crushed into his vitals.

The bear stood poking his head and looking about with little, fiery, bloodshot eyes for something to destroy.  His rage was manifest, and in his strength he was a grand sight.  The majesty of power and a dauntless courage were his.

It was De Chauxville’s shot, and while keeping his eye on the bear, Paul glanced impatiently over his shoulder from time to time, wondering why the Frenchman did not fire.  The bear was a huge one, and would probably carry three bullets and still be a dangerous adversary.

The keeper muttered impatiently.

They were watching Paul breathlessly.  The bear was approaching him.  It would not be safe to defer firing another second.

Suddenly the keeper gave a short exclamation of astonishment and threw up his rifle.

There was another bear behind Paul, shambling toward him, unseen by him.  All his attention was riveted on the huge brute forty yards in front of him.  It was Claude de Chauxville’s task to protect Paul from any flank or rear attack; and Claude de Chauxville was peering over his covert, watching with blanched face the second bear; and lifting no hand, making no sign.  The bear was within a few yards of Paul, who was crouching behind the fallen pine and now raising his rifle to his shoulder.

In a flash of comprehension the two girls saw all, through the panes of the closed window.  It was still singularly like a scene on the stage.  The second bear raised his powerful fore-paws as he approached.  One blow would tear open Paul’s brain.

A terrific report sent the girls staggering back, for a moment paralyzing thought.  The keeper had fired through the window, both barrels almost simultaneously.  It was a question how much lead would bring the bear down before he covered the intervening dozen yards.  In the confined space of the hut, the report of the heavy double charge was like that of a cannon; moreover, Steinmetz, twenty yards away, had fired at the same moment.

The room was filled with smoke.  The two girls were blinded for an instant.  Then they saw the keeper tear open the door and disappear.  The cold air through the shattered casement was a sudden relief to their lungs, choked with sulphur and the fumes of spent powder.

In a flash they were out of the open door; and there again, with the suddenness of a panorama, they saw another picture ­Paul kneeling in the middle of the clearing, taking careful aim at the retreating form of the first bear.  They saw the puff of blue smoke rise from his rifle, they heard the sharp report; and the bear rolled over on its face.

Steinmetz and the keeper were walking toward Paul.  Claude de Chauxville, standing outside his screen of brushwood, was staring with wide, fear-stricken eyes at the hut which he had thought empty.  He did not know that there were three people behind him, watching him.  What had they seen?  What had they understood?

Catrina and Maggie ran toward Paul.  They were on snow-shoes, and made short work of the intervening distance.

Paul had risen to his feet.  His face was grave.  There was a singular gleam in his eyes, which was not a gleam of mere excitement such as the chase brings into some men’s eyes.

Steinmetz looked at him and said nothing.  For a moment Paul stood still.  He looked round him, noting with experienced glance the lay of the whole incident ­the dead form of the bear ten yards behind his late hiding-place, one hundred and eighty yards from the hut, one hundred and sixty yards from the spot whence Karl Steinmetz had sent his unerring bullet through the bear’s brain.  Paul saw it all.  He measured the distances.  He looked at De Chauxville, standing white-faced at his post, not fifty yards from the carcass of the second bear.

Paul seemed to see no one but De Chauxville.  He went straight toward him, and the whole party followed in breathless suspense.  Steinmetz was nearest to him, watching with his keen, quiet eyes.

Paul went up to De Chauxville and took the rifle from his hands.  He opened the breech and looked into the barrels.  They were clean; the rifle had not been fired off.

He gave a little laugh of contempt, and, throwing the rifle at De Chauxville’s feet, turned abruptly away.

It was Catrina who spoke.

“If you had killed him,” she said, “I would have killed you!”

Steinmetz picked up the rifle, closed the breech, and handed it to De Chauxville with a queer smile.