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

Steinmetz laid Etta on a sofa.  She was already recovering consciousness.  He rang the bell twice, and all the while he kept his eye on De Chauxville.  A quick touch on Etta’s wrist and breast showed that this man knew something of women and of those short-lived fainting fits that belong to strong emotions.

The maid soon came.

“The princess requires your attention,” said Steinmetz, still watching De Chauxville, who was looking at Etta and neglecting his opportunities.

Steinmetz went up to him and took him by the arm.

“Come with me,” he said.

The Frenchman could have taken advantage of the presence of the servant to effect a retreat, but he did not dare to do so.  It was essential that he should obtain a few words with Etta.  To effect this, he was ready even to face an interview with Steinmetz.  In his heart he was cursing that liability to inconvenient fainting fits that make all women unreliable in a moment of need.

He preceded Steinmetz out of the room, forgetting even to resent the large, warm grasp on his arm.  They went through the long, dimly lit passage to the old part of the castle, where Steinmetz had his rooms.

“And now,” said Steinmetz, when they were alone with closed doors, “and now, De Chauxville, let us understand each other.”

De Chauxville shrugged his shoulders.  He was not thinking of Steinmetz yet.  He was still thinking of Etta and how he could get speech with her.  With the assurance which had carried him through many a difficulty before this, the Frenchman looked round him, taking in the details of the room.  They were in the apartment beyond the large smoking room ­the ante-room, as it were, to the little chamber where Paul kept his medicine-chest, his disguise, all the compromising details of his work among the peasants.  The broad writing-table in the middle of the room stood between the two men.

“Do you imagine yourself in love with the princess?” asked Steinmetz suddenly, with characteristic bluntness.

“If you like,” returned the other.

“If I thought that it was that,” said the German, looking at him thoughtfully, “I would throw you out of the window.  If it is any thing else, I will only throw you down stairs.”

De Chauxville bit his thumb-nail anxiously.  He frowned across the table into Steinmetz’s face.  In all their intercourse he had never heard that tone of voice; he had never seen quite that look on the heavy face.  Was Steinmetz aroused at last?  Steinmetz aroused was an unknown quantity to Claude de Chauxville.

“I have known you now for twenty-five years,” went on Karl Steinmetz, “and I cannot say that I know any good of you.  But let that pass; it is not, I suppose, my business.  The world is as the good God made it.  I can do nothing toward bettering it.  I have always known you to be a scoundrel ­a fact to be deplored ­and that is all.  But so soon as your villany affects my own life, then, my friend, a more active recognition of it is necessary.”

“Indeed!” sneered the Frenchman.

“Your villany has touched Paul’s life, and at that point it touches mine,” continued Karl Steinmetz, with slow anger.  “You followed us to Petersburg ­thence you dogged us to the Government of Tver.  You twisted that foolish woman, the Countess Lanovitch, round your finger, and obtained from her an invitation to Thors.  All this in order to be near one of us.  Ach!  I have been watching you.  Is it only after twenty-five years that I at last convince you that I am not such a fool as you are pleased to consider me?”

“You have not convinced me yet,” put in De Chauxville, with his easy laugh.

“No, but I shall do so before I have finished with you.  Now, you have not come here for nothing.  It is to be near one of us.  It is not Miss Delafield; she knows you.  Some women ­good women ­have an instinct given to them by God for a defence against such men ­such things as you.  Is it I?”

He touched his broad chest with his two hands, and stood defying his life-long foe.

“Is it me that you follow?  If so, I am here.  Let us have done with it now.”

De Chauxville laughed.  There was an uneasy look in his eyes.  He did not quite understand Steinmetz.  He made no answer.  But he turned and looked at the window.  It is possible that he suddenly remembered the threat concerning it.

“Is it Paul?” continued Steinmetz.  “I think not.  I think you are afraid of Paul.  Remains the princess.  Unless you can convince me to the contrary, I must conclude that you are trying to get a helpless woman into your power.”

“You always were a champion of helpless ladies,” sneered De Chauxville.

“Ah!  You remember that, do you?  I also ­I remember it.  It is long ago, and I have forgiven you; but I have not forgotten.  What you were then you will be now.  Your record is against you.”

Steinmetz was standing with his back to what appeared to be the only exit from the room.  There were two other doors concealed in the oaken panels, but De Chauxville did not know that.  He could not take his eyes from the broad face of his companion, upon which there were singular blotches of color.

“I am waiting,” said the German, “for you to explain your conduct.”

“Indeed!” replied De Chauxville.  “Then, my friend, you will have to continue waiting.  I fail to recognize your right to make enquiry into my movements.  I am not responsible to any man for my actions, least of all to you.  The man who manages his neighbor’s affairs mismanages his own.  I would recommend you to mind your own business.  Kindly let me pass.”

De Chauxville’s words were brave enough, but his lips were unsteady.  A weak mouth is apt to betray its possessor at inconvenient moments.  He waved Steinmetz aside, but he made no movement toward the door.  He kept the table between him and his companion.

Steinmetz was getting calmer.  There was an uncanny hush about him.

“Then I am to conclude,” he said, “that you came to Russia in order to persecute a helpless woman.  Her innocence or her guilt is, for the moment, beside the question.  Neither is any business of yours.  Both, on the contrary, are my affair.  Innocent or guilty, the Princess Howard Alexis must from this moment be freed from your persecution.”

De Chauxville shrugged his shoulders.  He tapped on the floor impatiently with the toe of his neat riding-boot.

“Allons!” he said.  “Let me pass!”

“Your story of Sydney Bamborough,” went on Steinmetz coldly, “was a good one wherewith to frighten a panic-stricken woman.  But you brought it to the wrong person when you brought it to me.  Do you suppose that I would have allowed the marriage to take place unless I knew that Bamborough was dead?”

“You may be telling the truth about that incident or you may not,” said De Chauxville.  “But my knowledge of the betrayal of the Charity League is sufficient for my purpose.”

“Yes,” admitted Steinmetz grimly, “you have information there with possibilities of mischief in it.  But I shall discount most of it by telling Prince Pavlo to-night all that I know, and I know more than you do.  Also, I intend to seal your lips before you leave this room.”

De Chauxville stared at him with a dropping lip.  He gulped down something in his throat.  His hand was stealing round under the fur jacket to a pocket at the back of his trousers.

“Let me out!” he hissed.

There was a gleam of bright metal in the sunlight that poured in through the window.  De Chauxville raised his arm sharply, and at the same instant Steinmetz threw a book in his face.  A loud report, and the room was full of smoke.

Steinmetz placed one hand on the table and, despite his weight, vaulted it cleanly.  This man had taken his degree at Heidelberg, and the Germans are the finest gymnasts in the world.  Moreover, muscle, once made, remains till death.  It was his only chance, for the Frenchman had dodged the novel, but it spoiled his aim.  Steinmetz vaulted right on to him, and De Chauxville staggered back.

In a moment Steinmetz had him by the collar; his face was gray, his heavy eyes ablaze.  If any thing will rouse a man, it is being fired at point-blank at a range of four yards with a .280 revolver.

“Ach!” gasped the German; “you would shoot me, would you?”

He wrenched the pistol from De Chauxville’s fingers and threw it into the corner of the room.  Then he shook the man like a garment.

“First,” he cried, “you would kill Paul, and now you try to shoot me!  Good God! what are you?  You are no man.  Do you know what I am going to do with you?  I am going to thrash you like a dog!”

He dragged him to the fire-place.  Above the mantelpiece a stick-rack was affixed to the wall, and here were sticks and riding-whips.  Steinmetz selected a heavy whip.  His eyes were shot with blood; his mouth worked beneath his mustache.

“So,” he said, “I am going to settle with you at last.”

De Chauxville kicked and struggled, but he could not get free.  He only succeeded in half choking himself.

“You are going to swear,” said Steinmetz, “never to approach the princess again ­never to divulge what you know of her past life.”

The Frenchman was almost blue in the face.  His eyes were wild with terror.

And Karl Steinmetz thrashed him.

It did not last long.  No word was spoken.  The silence was only broken by their shuffling feet, by the startling report of each blow, by De Chauxville’s repeated gasps of pain.

The fur jacket was torn in several places.  The white shirt appeared here and there.  In one place it was stained with red.

At last Steinmetz threw him huddled into one corner of the room.  The chattering face, the wild eyes that looked up at him, were terrible to see.

“When you have promised to keep the secret you may go,” said Steinmetz.  “You must swear it.”

De Chauxville’s lips moved, but no sound came from them.  Steinmetz poured some water into a tumbler and gave it to him.

“It had to come to this,” he said, “sooner or later.  Paul would have killed you; that is the only difference.  Do you swear by God in heaven above you that you will keep the princess’s secret?”

“I swear it,” answered De Chauxville hoarsely.

Steinmetz was holding on to the back of a high chair with both hands, breathing heavily.  His face was still livid.  That which had been white in his eyes was quite red.

De Chauxville was crawling toward the revolver in the corner of the room, but he was almost fainting.  It was a question whether he would last long enough to reach the fire-arm.  There was a bright patch of red in either liver-colored cheek; his lips were working convulsively.  And Steinmetz saw him in time.  He seized him by the collar of his coat and dragged him back.  He placed his foot on the little pistol and faced De Chauxville with glaring eyes.  De Chauxville rose to his feet, and for a moment the two men looked into each other’s souls.  The Frenchman’s face was twisted with pain.  No word was said.

Such was the last reckoning between Karl Steinmetz and the Baron Claude de Chauxville.

The Frenchman went slowly toward the door.  He faltered and looked round for a chair.  He sat heavily down with a little exclamation of pain and exhaustion, and felt for his pocket-handkerchief.  The scented cambric diffused a faint, dainty odor of violets.  He sat forward with his two hands on his knees, swaying a little from side to side.  Presently he raised his handkerchief to his face.  There were tears in his eyes.

Thus the two men waited until De Chauxville had recovered himself sufficiently to take his departure.  The air was full of naked human passions.  It was rather a grewsome scene.

At last the Frenchman stood slowly up, and with characteristic thought of appearances fingered his torn coat.

“Have you a cloak?” asked Steinmetz.

“No.”

The German went to a cupboard in the wall and selected a long riding-cloak, which he handed to the Frenchman without a word.

Thus Claude de Chauxville walked to the door in a cloak which had figured at many a Charity League meeting.  Assuredly the irony of Fate is a keener thing than any poor humor we have at our command.  When evil is punished in this present life there is no staying of the hand.

Steinmetz followed De Chauxville through the long passage they had traversed a few minutes earlier and down the broad staircase.  The servants were waiting at the door with the horse put at the Frenchman’s disposal by Paul.

De Chauxville mounted slowly, heavily, with twitching lips.  His face was set and cold now.  The pain was getting bearable, the wounded vanity was bleeding inwardly.  In his dull eyes there was a gleam of hatred and malice.  It was the face of a man rejoicing inwardly over a deep and certain vengeance.

“It is well!” he was muttering between his clenched teeth as he rode away, while Steinmetz watched him from the doorstep.  “It is well!  Now I will not spare you.”

He rode down the hill and through the village, with the light of the setting sun shining on a face where pain and deadly rage were fighting for the mastery.