Read CHAPTER XXXIV - AN APPEAL of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

“Have you spoken to the princess?” asked Steinmetz, without taking the cigar from his lips.

They were driving home through the forest that surrounded Osterno as the sea surrounds an island.  They were alone in the sleigh.  That which they had been doing had required no servant.  Paul was driving, and consequently the three horses were going as hard as they could.  The snow flew past their faces like the foam over the gunwale of a boat that is thrashing into a ten-knot breeze.  Yet it was not all snow.  There were flecks of foam from the horses’ mouths mingled with it.

“Yes,” answered Paul.  His face was set and hard, his eyes stern.  This trouble with the peasants was affecting him more keenly than he suspected.  It was changing the man’s face ­drawing lines about his lips, streaking his forehead with the marks of care.  His position can hardly be realized by an Englishman unless it be compared to that of the captain of a great sinking ship full of human souls who have been placed under his care.

“And what did she say?” asked Steinmetz.

“That she would not leave unless we all went with her.”

Steinmetz drew the furs closer up round him.

“Yes,” he said, glancing at his companion’s face, and seeing little but the eyes, by reason of the sable collar of his coat, which met the fur of his cap; “yes, and why not?”

“I cannot leave them,” answered Paul.  “I cannot go away now that there is trouble among them.  What it is, goodness only knows!  They would never have got like this by themselves.  Somebody has been at them, and I don’t think it is the Nihilists.  It is worse than that.  Some devil has been stirring them up, and they know no better.  He is still at it.  They are getting worse day by day, and I cannot catch him.  If I do, by God!  Steinmetz, I’ll twist his neck.”

Steinmetz smiled grimly.

“Yes,” he answered, “you are capable of it.  For me, I am getting tired of the moujik.  He is an inveterate, incurable fool.  If he is going to be a dangerous fool as well, I should almost be inclined to let him go to the devil in his own way.”

“I dare say; but you are not in my position.”

“No; that is true, Pavlo.  They were not my father’s serfs.  Generations of my ancestors have not saved generations of their ancestors from starvation.  My fathers before me have not toiled and slaved and legislated for them.  I have not learnt medicine that I might doctor them.  I have not risked my health and life in their sties, where pigs would refuse to live.  I have not given my whole heart and soul to their welfare, to receive no thanks, but only hatred.  No, it is different for me.  I owe them nothing, mein lieber; that is the difference.”

“If I agree to make a bolt for Petersburg to-morrow will you come?” retorted Paul.

“No,” answered the stout man.

“I thought not.  Your cynicism is only a matter of words, Steinmetz, and not of deeds.  There is no question of either of us leaving Osterno.  We must stay and fight it right out here.”

“That is so,” answered Steinmetz, with the Teutonic stolidity of manner which sometimes came over him.  “But the ladies ­what of them?”

Paul did not answer.  They were passing over the rise of a heavy drift.  It was necessary to keep the horses up to their work, to prevent the runners of the sleigh sinking into the snow.  With voice and whip Paul encouraged them.  He was kind to animals, but never spared them ­a strong man, who gave freely of his strength and expected an equal generosity.

“This is no place for Miss Delafield,” added Steinmetz, looking straight in front of him.

“I know that!” answered Paul sharply.  “I wish to God she was not here!” he added in a lower tone, and the words were lost beneath the frozen mustache.

Steinmetz made no answer.  They drove on through the gathering gloom.  The sky was of a yellow gray, and the earth reflected the dismal hue of it.  Presently it began to snow, driving in a fine haze from the north.  The two men lapsed into silence.  Steinmetz, buried in his furs like a great, cumbrous bear, appeared to be half asleep.  They had had a long and wearisome day.  The horses had covered their forty miles and more from village to village, where the two men had only gathered discouragement and foreboding.  Some of the starostas were sullen; others openly scared.  None of them were glad to see Steinmetz.  Paul had never dared to betray his identity.  With the gendarmes ­the tchinovniks ­they had not deemed it wise to hold communication.

“Stop!” cried Steinmetz suddenly, and Paul pulled the horses on to their haunches.

“I thought you were asleep,” he said.

There was no one in sight.  They were driving along the new road now, the high-way Paul had constructed from Osterno to Tver.  The road itself was, of course, indistinguishable, but the telegraph posts marked its course.

Steinmetz tumbled heavily out of his furs and went toward the nearest telegraph post.

“Where is the wire?” he shouted.

Paul followed him in the sleigh.  Together they peered up into the darkness and the falling snow.  The posts were there, but the wire was gone.  A whole length of it had been removed.  They were cut off from civilization by one hundred and forty miles of untrodden snow.

Steinmetz clambered back into the sleigh and drew up the fur apron.  He gave a strange little laugh that had a ring of boyish excitement in it.  This man had not always been stout and placid.  He too had had his day, and those who knew him said that it had been a stirring one.

“That settles one question,” he said.

“Which question?” asked Paul.

He was driving as hard as the horses could lay hoof to ground, taken with a sudden misgiving and a great desire to reach Osterno before dark.

“The question of the ladies,” replied Steinmetz.  “It is too late for them to go now.”

The village, nestling beneath the grim protection of Osterno, was deserted and forlorn.  All the doors were closed, the meagre curtains drawn.  It was very cold.  There was a sense of relief in this great frost; for when Nature puts forth her strength men are usually cowed thereby.

At the castle all seemed to be in order.  The groom, in his great sheepskin coat, was waiting in the doorway.  The servants threw open the vast doors, and stood respectfully in the warm, brilliantly lighted hall while their master passed in.

“Where is the princess?” Steinmetz asked his valet, while he was removing the evidences of a long day in the open air.

“In her drawing-room, Excellency.”

“Then go and ask her if she will give me a cup of tea in a few minutes.”

And the man, a timorous German, went.

A few minutes later Steinmetz, presenting himself at the door of the little drawing-room attached to Etta’s suite of rooms, found the princess in a matchless tea-gown waiting beside a table laden with silver tea appliances.  A dainty samovar, a tiny tea-pot, a spirit-lamp and the rest, all in the wonderful silver-work of the Slavonski Bazaar in Moscow.

“You see,” she said with a smile, for she always smiled on men, “I have obeyed your orders.”

Steinmetz bowed gravely.  He was one of the few men who could see that smile and be strong.  He closed the door carefully behind him.  No mention was made of the fact that his message had implied, and she had understood, that he wished to see her alone.  Etta was rather pale.  There was an anxious look in her eyes ­behind the smile, as it were.  She was afraid of this man.  She looked at the flame of the samovar, busying herself among the tea-things with pretty curving fingers and rustling sleeves.  But the tea was never made.

“I begin to think,” said Steinmetz, coming to the point in his bluff way, “that you are a sort of beautiful Jonah, a graceful stormy petrel, a fair Wandering Jewess.  There is always trouble where you go.”

She glanced at his broad face, and read nothing there.

“Go on,” she said.  “What have I been doing now?  How you do hate me, Herr Steinmetz!”

“Perhaps it is safer than loving you,” he answered, with his grim humor.

“I suppose,” she said, with a quaint little air of resignation which was very disarming, “that you have come here to scold me ­you do not want any tea?”

“No; I do not want any tea.”

She turned the wick of the spirit-lamp, and the peaceful music of the samovar was still.  In her clever eyes there was a little air of sidelong indecision.  She could not make up her mind how to take him.  Her chiefest method was so old as to be biblical.  Yet she could not take him with her eyelids.  She had tried.

“You are horribly grave,” she said.

“The situation,” he replied, “is horribly grave.”

Etta looked up at him as he stood before her, and the lamp-light, falling on the perfect oval of her face, showed it to be white and drawn.

“Princess,” said the man, “there are in the lives of some of us times when we cease to be men and women, and become mere human beings.  There are times, I mean, when the thousand influences of sex die at one blow of fate.  This is such a time.  We must forget that you are a beautiful woman; I verily believe that there is none more beautiful in the world.  I once knew one whom I admired more, but that was not because she was more beautiful.  That, however, is my own story, and this” ­he paused and looked round the little room, furnished, decorated for her comfort ­“this is your story.  We must forget that I am a man, and therefore subject to the influence of your beauty.”

She sat looking up into his strong, grave face, and during all that followed she never moved.

“I know you,” he said, “to be courageous, and must ask you to believe that I exaggerate nothing in what I am about to tell you.  I tell it to you instead of leaving Paul to do so because I know his complete fearlessness, and his blind faith in a people who are unworthy of it.  He does not realize the gravity of the situation.  They are his own people.  A sailor never believes that his own ship is unseaworthy.”

“Go on!” said Etta, for he had paused.

“This country,” he continued, “is unsettled.  The people of the estate are on the brink of a revolt.  You know what the Russian peasant is.  It will be no Parisian émeute, half noise, half laughter.  We cannot hope to hold this old place against them.  We cannot get away from it.  We cannot send for help because we have no one to send.  Princess, this is no time for half-confidences.  I know ­for I know these people better even than Paul knows them ­I am convinced that this is not the outcome of their own brains.  They are being urged on by some one.  There is some one at their backs.  This is no revolt of the peasants, organized by the peasants.  Princess, you must tell me all you know!”

“I ­I,” she stammered, “I know nothing!”

And then suddenly she burst into tears, and buried her face in a tiny, useless handkerchief.  It was so unlike her and so sudden that Steinmetz was startled.

He laid his great hand soothingly on her shoulder.

“I know,” he said quietly, “I know more than you think.  I am no saint, princess, myself.  I too have had my difficulties.  I have had my temptations, and I have not always resisted.  God knows it is difficult for men to do always the right thing.  It is a thousand times more difficult for women.  When we spoke together in Petersburg, and I offered you my poor friendship, I was not acting in the dark.  I knew as much then as I do now.  Princess, I knew about the Charity League papers.  I knew more than any except Stepan Lanovitch, and it was he who told me.”

He was stroking her shoulder with the soothing movements that one uses toward a child in distress.  His great hand, broad and thick, had a certain sense of quiet comfort and strength in it.  Etta ceased sobbing, and sat with bowed head, looking through her tears into the gay wood fire.  It is probable that she failed to realize the great charity of the man who was speaking to her.  For the capacity for evil merges at some point or other into incapability for comprehending good.

“Is that all he knows?” she was wondering.

The suggestion that Sydney Bamborough was not dead had risen up to eclipse all other fear in her mind.  In some part her thought reached him.

“I know so much,” he said, “that it is safest to tell me more.  I offered you my friendship because I think that no woman could carry through your difficulties unaided.  Princess, the admiration of Claude de Chauxville may be pleasant, but I venture to think that my friendship is essential.”

Etta raised her head a little.  She was within an ace of handing over to Karl Steinmetz the rod of power held over her by the Frenchman.  There was something in Steinmetz that appealed to her and softened her, something that reached a tender part of her heart through the coating of vanity, through the hardness of worldly experience.

“I have known De Chauxville twenty-five years,” he went on, and Etta deferred her confession.  “We have never been good friends, I admit.  I am no saint, princess, but De Chauxville is a villain.  Some day you may discover, when it is too late, that it would have been for Paul’s happiness, for your happiness, for every one’s good to have nothing more to do with Claude de Chauxville, I want to save you that discovery.  Will you act upon my advice?  Will you make a stand now?  Will you come to me and tell me all that De Chauxville knows about you that he could ever use against you?  Will you give yourself into my hands ­give me your battle to fight?  You cannot do it alone.  Only believe in my friendship, princess.  That is all I ask.”

Etta shook her head.

“I think not,” she answered, in a voice too light, too superficial, too hopelessly shallow for the depth of the moment.  She was thinking only of Sydney Bamborough, and of that dread secret.  She fought with what arms she wielded best ­the lightest, the quickest, the most baffling.

“As you will,” said Steinmetz.