Read CHAPTER XXXVIII - A TALE THAT IS TOLD of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

Karl Steinmetz walked slowly upstairs to his own room.  The evening sun, shining through the small, deeply embrasured windows, fell on a face at no time joyous, now tired and worn.  He sat down at his broad writing-table, and looked round the room with a little blink of the eyelids.

“I am getting too old for this sort of thing,” he said.

His gaze lighted on the heavy riding-whip thrown on the ground near the door where he had released Claude de Chauxville, after the terrible punishment meted out to that foe with heavy Teutonic hand.  Steinmetz rose, and picking up the whip with the grunt of a stout man stooping, replaced it carefully in the rack over the mantelpiece.

He stood looking out of the window for a few moments.

“It will have to be done,” he said resolutely, and rang the bell.

“My compliments to the prince,” he said to his servant, who appeared instantly, “and will he come to me here.”

When Paul came into the room a few minutes later Steinmetz was standing by the fire.  He turned and looked gravely at the prince.

“I have just kicked De Chauxville out of the house,” he said.

The color left Paul’s face quite suddenly.

“Why?” he asked, with hard eyes.  He had begun to distrust Etta, and there is nothing so hard to stop as the growth of distrust.

Steinmetz did not answer at once.

“Was it not my privilege?” asked Paul, with a grim smile.  There are some smiles more terrible than any frown.

“No,” answered Steinmetz, “I think not.  It is not as bad as that.  But it is bad enough, mein lieber! ­it is bad enough!  I horsewhipped him first for myself.  Gott! how pleasant that was!  And then I kicked him out for you.”

“Why?” repeated Paul, with a white face.

“It is a long story,” answered Steinmetz, without looking at him.  “He knows too much.”

“About whom?”

“About all of us.”

Paul walked away to the window.  He stood looking out, his hands thrust into the side-pockets of his jacket, his broad back turned uncompromisingly upon his companion.

“Tell me the story,” he said.  “You need not hurry over it.  You need not trouble to ­spare me.  Only let it be quite complete ­once for all.”

Steinmetz winced.  He knew the expression of the face that was looking out of the window.

“This man has hated me all his life,” he said.  “It began as such things usually do between men ­about a woman.  It was years ago.  I got the better of him, and the good God got the better of me.  She died, and De Chauxville forgot her.  I ­have not forgotten her.  But I have tried to do so.  It is a slow process, and I have made very little progress; but all that is my affair and beside the question.  I merely mention it to show you that De Chauxville had a grudge against me ­”

“This is no time for mistaken charity,” interrupted Paul.  “Do not try to screen any body.  I shall see through it.”

There was a little pause.  Never had that silent room been so noiseless.

“In after-life,” Steinmetz went on, “it was our fate to be at variance several times.  Our mutual dislike has had no opportunity of diminishing.  It seems that, before you married, De Chauxville was pleased to consider himself in love with Mrs. Sydney Bamborough.  Whether he had any right to think himself ill-used, I do not know.  Such matters are usually known to two persons only, and imperfectly by them.  It would appear that the wound to his vanity was serious.  It developed into a thirst for revenge.  He looked about for some means to do you harm.  He communicated with your enemies, and allied himself to such men as Vassili of Paris.  He followed us to Petersburg, and then he had a stroke of good fortune.  He found out ­who betrayed the Charity League!”

Paul turned slowly round.  In his eyes there burned a dull, hungering fire.  Men have seen such a look in the eyes of a beast of prey, driven, famished, cornered at last, and at last face to face with its foe.

“Ah!  He knows that!” he said slowly.

“Yes, God help us! he knows that.”

“And who was it?”

Steinmetz moved uneasily from one foot to the other.

“It was a woman,” he said.

“A woman?”

“A woman ­you know,” said Steinmetz slowly.

“Good God!  Catrina?”

“No, not Catrina.”

“Then who?” cried Paul hoarsely.  His hands fell heavily on the table.

“Your wife!”

Paul knew before the words were spoken.

He turned again, and stood looking out of the window with his hands thrust into his pockets.  He stood there for whole minutes in an awful stillness.  The clock on the mantel-piece, a little travelling timepiece, ticked in a hurried way as if anxious to get on.  Down beneath them, somewhere in the courtyards of the great castle, a dog ­a deep-voiced wolf-hound ­was baying persistently and nervously, listening for the echo of its own voice amid the pines of the desert forest.

Steinmetz watched Paul’s motionless back with a sort of fascination.  He moved uneasily, as if to break a spell of silence almost unbearable in its intensity.  He went to the table and sat down.  From mere habit he took up a quill pen.  He looked at the point of it and at the inkstand.  But he had nothing to write.  There was nothing to say.

He laid the pen aside, and sat leaning his broad head upon the palm of his hand, his two elbows on the table.  Paul never moved.  Steinmetz waited.  His own life had been no great success.  He had had much to bear, and he had borne it.  He was wondering heavily whether any of it had been as bad as what Paul was bearing now while he looked out of the window with his hands in his pockets, saying nothing.

At length Paul moved.  He turned, and, coming toward the table, laid his hand on Steinmetz’s broad shoulder.

“Are you sure of it?” he asked, in a voice that did not sound like his own at all ­a hollow voice like that of an old man.

“Quite; I have it from Stepan Lanovitch ­from the princess herself.”

They remained thus for a moment.  Then Paul withdrew his hand and walked slowly to the window.

“Tell me,” he said, “how she did it.”

Steinmetz was playing with the quill pen again.  It is singular how at great moments we perform trivial acts, think trivial thoughts.  He dipped the pen in the ink, and made a pattern on the blotting-pad with dots.

“It was an organized plan between husband and wife,” he said.  “Bamborough turned up at Thors and asked for a night’s lodging, on the strength of a very small acquaintance.  He stole the papers from Stepan’s study and took them to Tver, where his wife was waiting for them.  She took them on to Paris and sold them to Vassili.  Bamborough began his journey eastward, knowing presumably that he could not escape by the western frontier, but lost his way on the steppe.  You remember the man whom we picked up between here and Tver, with his face all cut to pieces? ­he had been dragged by the stirrup.  That was Sydney Bamborough.  The good God had hit back quickly.”

“How long have you known this?” asked Paul, in a queer voice.

“I saw it suddenly in the princess’s face, one day in Petersburg ­a sort of revelation.  I read it there, and she saw me reading.  I should have liked to keep it from you, for your sake as well as for hers.  Our daily life is made possible only by the fact that we know so little of our neighbors.  There are many things of which we are better ignorant right up to the end.  This might have been one of them.  But De Chauxville found it out, and it is better that I should tell you than he.”

Paul did not look around.  The wolf-hound was still barking at its own echo ­a favorite pastime of those who make a great local stir in the world.

“Of course,” said Paul, after a long pause, “I have been a great fool.  I know that.  But ­”

He turned and looked at Steinmetz with haggard eyes.

“But I would rather go on being a fool than suspect any one of a deception like this.”

Steinmetz was still making patterns on the blotting-pad.

“It is difficult for us men,” he said slowly, “to look at these things from a woman’s point of view.  They hold a different sense of honor from ours ­especially if they are beautiful.  And the fault is ours ­especially toward the beautiful ones.  There may have been temptations of which we are ignorant.”

Paul was still looking at him.  Steinmetz looked up slowly, and saw that he had grown ten years older in the last few minutes.  He did not look at him for more than a second, because the sight of Paul’s face hurt him.  But he saw in that moment that Paul did not understand.  This strong man, hard in his youthful strength of limb and purpose, would be just, but nothing more.  And between man and man it is not always justice that is required.  Between man and woman justice rarely meets the difficulty.

Comprendre c’est pardonner,” quoted Steinmetz vaguely.

He hesitated to interfere between Paul and his wife.  Axioms are made for crucial moments.  A man’s life has been steered by a proverb before this.  Some, who have no religion, steer by them all the voyage.

Paul walked slowly to the chair he usually occupied, opposite to Steinmetz, at the writing-table.  He walked and sat down as if he had travelled a long distance.

“What is to be done?” asked Steinmetz.

“I do not know.  I do not think that it matters much.  What do you recommend?”

“There is so much to be done,” answered Steinmetz, “that it is difficult to know what to do first.  We must not forget that De Chauxville is furious.  He will do all the harm of which he is capable at once.  We must not forget that the country is in a state of smoldering revolt, and that we have two women, two English ladies, entrusted to our care.”

Paul moved uneasily in his chair.  His companion had struck the right note.  This large man was happiest when he was tiring himself out.

“Yes; but about Etta?” he said.

And the sound of his voice made Steinmetz wince.  There is nothing so heartrending as the sight of dumb suffering.

“You must see her,” answered he reflectively.  “You must see her, of course.  She may be able to explain.”

He looked across the table beneath his shaggy gray eyebrows.  Paul did not at that moment look a likely subject for explanations ­even the explanations of a beautiful woman.  But there was one human quantity which in all his experience Karl Steinmetz had never successfully gauged ­namely, the extent of a woman’s power over the man who loves, or at one time has loved her.

“She cannot explain away Stepan Lanovitch’s ruined life.  She can hardly explain away a thousand deaths from unnatural causes every winter, in this province alone.”

This was what Steinmetz dreaded ­justice.

“Give her the opportunity,” he said.

Paul was looking out of the window.  His singularly firm mouth was still and quiet ­not a mouth for explanations.

“I will, if you like,” he said.

“I do like, Paul.  I beg of you to do it.  And remember that ­she is not a man.”

This, like other appeals of the same nature, fell on stony ground.  Paul simply did not understand it.  In all the years of his work among the peasants it is possible that some well-spring of conventional charity had been dried up ­scorched in the glare of burning injustice.  He was not at this moment in a mood to consider the only excuse that Steinmetz seemed to be able to urge.

The sun had set long ago.  The short twilight lay over the snow-covered land with a chill hopelessness.  Steinmetz looked at his watch.  They had been together an hour ­one of those hours that count as years in a life time.  He had to peer into the face of the watch in order to see the hands.  The room was almost dark, and no servant ever came to it, unless summoned.

Paul was looking down at his companion, as if waiting to hear the time.  At great moments we are suddenly brought face to face with the limits of human nature.  It is at such moments that we find that we are not gods, but only men.  We can only feel to a certain extent, only suffer up to a certain point.

“We must dress for dinner,” said Steinmetz.  “Afterward ­well, afterward we shall see.”

“Yes,” answered Paul.  And he did not go.

The two men stood looking at each other for a moment.  They had passed through much together ­danger, excitement, and now they were dabbling in sorrow.  It would appear that this same sorrow runs like a river across the road of our life.  Some of us find the ford and plash through the shallows ­shallow ourselves ­while others flounder into deep water.  These are they who look right on to the greater events, and fail to note the trivial details of each little step.  Paul was wading through the deep water, and this good friend of his was not inclined to stand upon the bank.  It is while passing through this river that Fortune sends some of us a friend, who is ever afterward different from all others.

Paul stood looking down at the broad, heavy face of the man who loved him like a father.  It was not easy for him to speak.  He seemed to be making an effort.

“I do not want you to think,” he said at last, “that it is as bad as it might have been.  It might have been worse ­much worse ­had I not made a mistake in regard to my own feelings when I married her.  I will try and do the right thing by her.  Only at present there does not seem to be much left, except you.”

Steinmetz looked up with his quaintly resigned smile.

“Ah, yes,” he said, “I am there always.”