Read CHAPTER XXXVI - A TROIS of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

Of all the rooms in the great castle Etta liked the morning-room best.  Persons of a troubled mind usually love to look upon a wide prospect.  The mind, no doubt, fears the unseen approach of detection or danger, and transmits this dread to the eye, which likes to command a wide view all around.

The great drawing-room was only used after dinner.  Until that time the ladies spent the day either in their own boudoirs or in the morning-room looking over the cliff.  Here, while the cold weather lasted, Etta had tea served, and thither the gentlemen usually repaired at the hour set apart for the homely meal.  They had come regularly the last few evenings.  Paul and Steinmetz had suddenly given up their long drives to distant parts of the estate.

Here the whole party was assembled on the Sunday afternoon following Paul’s visit to the village kabak, and to them came an unexpected guest.  The door was thrown open, and Claude de Chauxville, pale, but self-possessed and quiet, came into the room.  The perfect ease of his manner bespoke a practised familiarity with the position difficult.  His last parting with Paul and Steinmetz had been, to say the least of it, strained.  Maggie, he knew, disliked and distrusted him.  Etta hated and feared him.

He was in riding costume ­a short fur jacket, fur gloves, a cap in his hand, and a silver-mounted crop.  A fine figure of a man ­smart, well turned out, well-groomed ­a gentleman.

“Prince,” he said frankly, “I have come to throw myself upon your generosity.  Will you lend me a horse?  I was riding in the forest when my horse fell over a root and lamed himself.  I found I was only three miles from Osterno, so I came.  My misfortune must be my excuse for this ­intrusion.”

Paul performed graciously enough that which charity and politeness demanded of him.  There are plenty of people who trade unscrupulously upon these demands, but it is probable that they mostly have their reward.  Love and friendship are stronger than charity and politeness, and those who trade upon the latter are rarely accorded the former.

So Paul ignored the probability that De Chauxville had lamed his horse on purpose, and offered him refreshment while his saddle was being transferred to the back of a fresh mount.  Farther than that he did not go.  He did not consider himself called upon to offer a night’s hospitality to the man who had attempted to murder him a week before.

With engaging frankness De Chauxville accepted every thing.  It is an art soon acquired and soon abused.  There is something honest in an ungracious acceptance of favors.  Steinmetz suggested that perhaps M. de Chauxville had lunched sparsely, and the Frenchman admitted that such was the case, but that he loved afternoon tea above all meals.

“It is so innocent and simple ­I know.  I have the same feeling myself,” concurred Steinmetz courteously.

“Do you ride about the country much alone?” asked Paul, while the servants were setting before this uninvited guest a few more substantial delicacies.

“Ah, no, prince!  This is my first attempt, and if it had not procured me this pleasure I should say that it will be my last.”

“It is easy to lose yourself,” said Paul; “besides” ­and the two friends watched the Frenchman’s face closely ­“besides, the country is disturbed at present.”

De Chauxville was helping himself daintily to pate de foie gras.

“Ah, indeed!  Is that so?” he answered.  “But they would not hurt me ­a stranger in the land.”

“And an orphan, too, I have no doubt,” added Steinmetz, with a laugh.  “But would the moujik pause to enquire, my very dear De Chauxville?”

“At all events, I should not pause to answer,” replied the Frenchman, in the same, light tone.  “I should evacuate.  Ah, mademoiselle,” he went on, addressing Maggie, “they have been attempting to frighten you, I suspect, with their stories of disturbed peasantry.  It is to keep up the lurid local color.  They must have their romance, these Russians.”

And so the ball was kept rolling.  There was never any lack of conversation when Steinmetz and De Chauxville were together, nor was the talk without sub-flavor of acidity.  At length the centre of attention himself diverted that attention.  He inaugurated an argument over the best cross-country route from Osterno to Thors, which sent Steinmetz out of the room for a map.  During the absence of the watchful German he admired the view from the window, and this strategetic movement enabled him to say to Etta aside: 

“I must see you before I leave the house; it is absolutely necessary.”

Not long after the return of Steinmetz and the final decision respecting the road to Thors, Etta left the room, and a few minutes later the servant announced that the baron’s horse was at the door.

De Chauxville took his leave at once, with many assurances of lasting gratitude.

“Kindly,” he added, “make my adieux to the princess; I will not trouble her.”

Quite by accident he met Etta at the head of the state staircase, and expressed such admiration for the castle that she opened the door of the large drawing-room and took him to see that apartment.

“What I arranged for Thursday is for the day after to-morrow ­Tuesday,” said De Chauxville, as soon as they were alone.  “We cannot keep them back any longer.  You understand ­the side door to be opened at seven o’clock.  Ah! who is this?”

They both turned.  Steinmetz was standing behind them, but he could not have heard De Chauxville’s words.  He closed the door carefully, and came forward with his grim smile.

“A nous trois!” he said, and the subsequent conversation was in the language in which these three understood each other best.

De Chauxville bit his lip and waited.  It was a moment of the tensest suspense.

“A nous trois!” repeated Steinmetz.  “De Chauxville, you love an epigram.  The man who overestimates the foolishness of others is himself the biggest fool concerned.  A lame horse ­the prince’s generosity ­making your adieux.  Mon Dieu! you should know me better than that after all these years.  No, you need not look at the door.  No one will interrupt us.  I have seen to that.”

His attitude and manner indicated a complete mastery of the situation, but whether this assumption was justified by fact or was a mere trick it was impossible to say.  There was in the man something strong and good and calm ­a manner never acquired by one who has anything to conceal.  His dignity was perfect.  One forgot his stoutness, his heavy breathing, his ungainly size.  He was essentially manly, and a presence to be feared.  The strength of his will made itself felt.

He turned to the princess with the grave courtesy that always marked his attitude toward her.

“Madame,” he said, “I fully recognize your cleverness in raising yourself to the position you now occupy.  But I would remind you that that position carries with it certain obligations.  It is hardly dignified for a princess to engage herself in a vulgar love intrigue in her own house.”

“It is not a vulgar love intrigue!” cried Etta, with blazing eyes.  “I will not allow you to say that!  Where is your boasted friendship?  Is this a sample of it?”

Karl Steinmetz bowed gravely, with outspread hands.

“Madame, that friendship is at your service, now as always.”

De Chauxville gave a scornful little laugh.  He was biting the end of his mustache as he watched Etta’s face.  For a moment the woman stood ­not the first woman to stand thus ­between two fears.  Then she turned to Steinmetz.  The victory was his ­the greatest he had ever torn from the grasp of Claude de Chauxville.

“You know,” she said, “that this man has me in his power.”

“You alone.  But not both of us together,” answered Steinmetz.

De Chauxville looked uneasy.  He gave a careless little laugh.

“My good Steinmetz, you allow your imagination to run away with you.  You interfere in what does not concern you.”

“My very dear De Chauxville, I think not.  At all events, I am going to continue to interfere.”

Etta looked from one to the other.  She had at the first impulse gone over to Steinmetz.  She was now meditating drawing back.  If De Chauxville kept cool all might yet be well ­the dread secret of the probability of Sydney Bamborough being alive might still be withheld from Steinmetz.  For the moment it would appear that she was about to occupy the ignominious position of the bone of contention.  If these two men were going to use her as a mere excuse to settle a lifelong quarrel of many issues, it was probable that there would not be much left of her character by the time that they had finished.

She had to decide quickly.  She decided to assume the rôle of peacemaker.

“M. de Chauxville was on the point of going,” she said.  “Let him go.”

“M. de Chauxville is not going until I have finished with him, madame.  This may be the last time we meet.  I hope it is.”

De Chauxville looked uneasy.  His was a ready wit, and fear was the only feeling that paralyzed it.  Etta looked at him.  Was his wit going to desert him now when he most needed it?  He had ridden boldly into the lion’s den.  Such a proceeding requires a certain courage, but a higher form of intrepidity is required to face the lion standing before the exit.

De Chauxville looked at Steinmetz with shifty eyes.  He was very like the mask of the lynx in the smoking-room, even to the self-conscious, deprecatory smile on the countenance of the forest sneak.

“Keep your temper,” he said; “do not let us quarrel in the presence of a lady.”

“No; we will keep the quarrel till afterward.”

Steinmetz turned to Etta.

“Princess,” he said, “will you now, in my presence, forbid this man to come to this or any other house of yours?  Will you forbid him to address himself either by speech or letter to you again?”

“You know I cannot do that,” replied Etta.

“Why not?”

Etta made no answer.

“Because,” replied De Chauxville for her, “the princess is too wise to make an enemy of me.  In that respect she is wiser than you.  She knows that I could send you and your prince to Siberia.”

Steinmetz laughed.

“Nonsense!” he said.  “Princess,” he went on, “if you think that the fact of De Chauxville numbering among his friends a few obscure police spies gives him the right to persecute you, you are mistaken.  Our friend is very clever, but he can do no harm with the little that he knows of the Charity League.”

Etta remained silent.  The silence made Steinmetz frown.

“Princess,” he said gravely, “you were indignant just now because I made so bold as to put the most natural construction upon the circumstances in which I found you.  It was a prearranged meeting between De Chauxville and yourself.  If the meeting was not the outcome of an intrigue such as I mentioned, nor the result of this man’s hold over you on account of the Charity League, what was it?  I beg of you to answer.”

Etta made no reply.  Instead, she raised her eyes and looked at De Chauxville.

“Without going into affairs which do not concern you,” said the Frenchman, answering for her, “I think you will recognize that the secret of the Charity League was quite sufficient excuse for me to request a few minutes alone with the princess.”

Of this Steinmetz took no notice.  He was standing in front of Etta, between De Chauxville and the door.  His broad, deeply lined face was flushed with the excitement of the moment.  His great mournful eyes, yellow and drawn with much reading and the hardships of a rigorous climate, were fixed anxiously on her face.

Etta was not looking at him.  Her eyes were turned toward the window, but they did not see with comprehension.  She was stony and stubborn.

“Princess,” said Steinmetz, “answer me before it is too late.  Has De Chauxville any other hold over you?”

Etta nodded, and the little action brought a sudden gleam to the Frenchman’s eyes.

“If,” said Steinmetz, looking from one to the other, “if you two have been deceiving Paul I will have no mercy, I warn you of that.”

Etta turned on him.

“Can you not believe me?” she cried.  “I have practised no deception in common with M. de Chauxville.”

“The Charity League is quite enough for you, my friend,” put in the Frenchman hurriedly.

“You know no more of the Charity League than you did before ­than the whole world knew before ­except this lady’s share in the disposal of the papers,” said Steinmetz.

“And this lady’s share in the disposal of the papers will not be welcome news to the prince,” answered De Chauxville.

“Welcome or unwelcome, he shall be told of it to-night.”

Etta looked round sharply, her lips apart and trembling.

“By whom?” asked De Chauxville.

“By me,” replied Steinmetz.

There was a momentary pause.  De Chauxville and Etta exchanged a glance.  Etta felt that she was lost.  This Frenchman was not one to spare either man or woman from any motive of charity or chivalry.

“Even if that is so,” he said, “the princess is not relieved from the embarrassment of her situation.”

“No?”

“No, my astute friend.  There is a little matter connected with Sydney Bamborough which has come to my knowledge.”

Etta moved, but she said nothing.  The sound of her breathing was startlingly loud.

“Ah!  Sydney Bamborough,” said Steinmetz slowly.  “What about him?”

“He is not dead; that is all.”

Karl Steinmetz passed his broad hand down over his face, covering his mouth for a second.

“But he died.  He was found on the steppe, and buried at Tver.”

“So the story runs,” said De Chauxville, with easy sarcasm.  “But who found him on the steppe?  Who buried him at Tver?”

“I did, my friend.”

The next second Steinmetz staggered back a step or two as Etta fell heavily into his arms.  But he never took his eyes off De Chauxville.