Read CHAPTER XL - STEPAN RETURNS of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

At daybreak the next morning Karl Steinmetz was awakened by the familiar cry of the wolf beneath his window.  He rose and dressed hastily.  The eastern sky was faintly pink; a rosy twilight moved among the pines.  He went down stairs and opened the little door at the back of the castle.

It was, of course, the starosta, shivering and bleached in the chilly dawn.

“They have watched my cottage, Excellency, all night.  It was only now that I could get away.  There are two strange sleighs outside Domensky’s hut.  There are marks of many sleighs that have been and gone.  Excellency, it is unsafe for any one to venture outside the castle to-day.  You must send to Tver for the soldiers.”

“The prince refuses to do that.”

“But why, Excellency?  We shall be killed!”

“You do not know the effect of platoon firing on a closely packed mob, starost.  The prince does,” replied Steinmetz, with his grim smile.

They spoke together in hushed voices for half an hour, while the daylight crept up the eastern sky.  Then the starosta stole away among the still larches, like the wolf whose cry he imitated so perfectly.

Steinmetz closed the door and went upstairs to his own room, his face grave and thoughtful, his tread heavy with the weight of anxiety.

The day passed as such days do.  Etta was not the woman to plead a conventional headache and remain hidden.  She came down to breakfast, and during that meal was boldly conversational.

“She has spirit,” reflected Karl Steinmetz behind his quiet gray eyes.  He admired her for it, and helped her.  He threw back the ball of conversation with imperturbable good humor.

They were completely shut in.  No news from the outer world penetrated to the little party besieged within their own stone walls.  Maggie, fearless and innocent, announced her intention of snow-shoeing, but was dissuaded therefrom by Steinmetz with covert warnings.

During the morning each was occupied in individual affairs.  At luncheon time they met again.  Etta was now almost defiant.  She was on her mettle.  She was so near to loving Paul that a hatred of him welled up within her breast whenever he repelled her advances with uncompromising reticence.

They did not know ­perhaps she hardly knew herself ­that the opening of the side-door depended upon her humor.

In the afternoon Etta and Maggie sat, as was their wont, in the morning-room looking out over the cliff.  Of late their intercourse had been slightly strained.  They had never had much in common, although circumstances had thrown their lives together.  It is one of the ills to which women are heir that they have frequently to pass their whole lives in the society of persons with whom they have no real sympathy.  Both these women were conscious of the little rift within the lute, but such rifts are better treated with silence.  That which comes to interfere with a woman’s friendship will not often bear discussion.

At dusk Steinmetz went out.  He had an appointment with the starosta.

Paul was sitting in his own room, making a pretence of work, about five o’clock, when Steinmetz came hurriedly to him.

“A new development,” he said shortly.  “Come to my room.”

Paul rose and followed him through the double doorway built in the thickness of the wall.

Steinmetz’s large room was lighted only by a lamp standing on the table.  All the light was thrown on the desk by a large green shade, leaving the rest of the room in a semi-darkness.

At the far end of the room a man was standing in an expectant attitude.  There was something furtive about this intruder, and at the same time familiar to Paul, who peered at him through the gloom.

Then the man came hurriedly forward.

“Ah, Pavlo, Pavlo!” he said in a deep, hollow voice.  “I could not expect you to know me.”

He threw his arms around him, and embraced him after the simple manner of Russia.  Then he held him at arm’s length.

“Stepan!” said Paul.  “No, I did not know you.”

Stepan Lanovitch was still holding him at arm’s length, examining him with the large faint blue eyes which so often go with an exaggerated philanthropy.

“Old,” he muttered, “old!  Ah, my poor Pavlo!  I heard in Kiew ­you know how we outlaws hear such things ­that you were in trouble, so I came to you.”

Steinmetz in the background raised his patient eyebrows.

“There are two men in the world,” went on the voluble Lanovitch, “who can manage the moujiks of Tver ­you and I; so I came.  I will help you, Pavlo; I will stand by you.  Together we can assuredly quell this revolt.”

Paul nodded, and allowed himself to be embraced a second time.  He had long known Stepan Lanovitch of Thors as one of the many who go about the world doing good with their eyes shut.  For the moment he had absolutely no use for this well-meaning blunderer.

“I am afraid,” he said, “that it has got beyond control.  We cannot stamp it out now except by force, and I would rather not do that.  Our only hope is that it may burn itself out.  The talkers must get hoarse in time.”

Lanovitch shook his head.

“They have been talking since the days of Ananias,” he said, “and they are not hoarse yet.  I fear, Pavlo, there will never be peace in the world until the talkers are hoarse.”

“How did you get here?” asked Paul, who was always businesslike.

“I brought a pack on my back and sold cotton.  I made myself known to the starosta, and he communicated with good Karl here.”

“Did you learn any thing in the village?” asked Paul.

“No; they suspected me.  They would not talk.  But I understand them, Pavlo, these poor simple fools.  A pebble in the stream would turn the current of their convictions.  Tell them who is the Moscow doctor.  It is your only chance.”

Steinmetz grunted acquiescence and walked wearily to the window.  This was only an old and futile argument of his own.

“And make it impossible for me to live another day among them,” said Paul.  “Do you think St. Petersburg would countenance a prince who works among his moujiks?”

Stepan Lanovitch’s pale blue eyes looked troubled.  Steinmetz shrugged his shoulders.

“They have brought it on themselves,” he said.

“As much as a lamb brings the knife upon itself by growing up,” replied Paul.

Lanovitch shook his white head with a tolerant little smile.  He loved these poor helpless peasants with a love as large as and a thousand times less practical than Paul’s.

In the meantime Paul was thinking in his clear, direct way.  It was this man’s habit in life and in thought to walk straight past the side issues.

“It is like you, Stepan,” he said at length, “to come to us at this time.  We feel it, and we recognize the generosity of it, for Steinmetz and I know the danger you are running in coming back to this country.  But we cannot let you do it ­No, do not protest.  It is quite out of the question.  We might quell the revolt; no doubt we should ­the two of us together.  But what would happen afterward?  You would be sent back to Siberia, and I should probably follow you for harboring an escaped convict.”

The face of the impulsive philanthropist dropped pathetically.  He had come to his friend’s assistance on the spur of the moment.  He was destined, as some men are, to plunge about the world seeking to do good.  And it has been decreed that good must be done by stealth and after deliberation only.  He who does good on the spur of the moment usually sows a seed of dissension in the trench of time.

“Also,” went on Paul, with that deliberate grasp of the situation which never failed to astonish the ready-witted Steinmetz; “also, you have other calls upon your energy.  You have other work to do.”

Lanovitch’s broad face lightened up; his benevolent brow beamed.  His capacity for work had brought him to the shoemaker’s last in Tomsk.  It is a vice that grows with indulgence.

“It has pleased the Authorities,” went on Paul, who was shy of religious turns of phrase, “to give us all our own troubles.  Mine ­such as they are, Stepan ­must be managed by myself.  Yours can be faced by no one but you.  You have come at the right moment.  You do not quite realize what your coming means to Catrina.”

“Catrina!  Ah!”

The weak blue eyes looked into the strong face and read nothing there.

“I doubt,” said Paul, “whether it is right for you to continue sacrificing Catrina for the sake of the little good that you are able to do.  You are hampered in your good work to such an extent that the result is very small, while the pain you give is very great.”

“But is that so, Pavlo?  Is my child unhappy?”

“I fear so,” replied Paul gravely, with his baffling self-restraint.  “She has not much in common with her mother, you understand.”

“Ah, yes!”

“It is you to whom she is attached.  Sometimes it is so with children and parents.  One cannot tell why.”

Steinmetz looked as if he could supply information upon the subject:  but he remained silent, standing, as it were, in an acquiescent attitude.

“You have fought your fight,” said Paul.  “A good fight, too.  You have struck your blow for the country.  You have sown your seed, but the harvest is not yet.  Now it is time to think of your own safety, of the happiness of your own child.”

Stepan Lanovitch turned away and sat heavily down.  He leaned his two arms on the table, and his chin upon his clenched hands.

“Why not leave the country now; at all events for a few years?” went on Paul, and when a man who is accustomed to command stoops to persuade, it is strong persuasion that he wields.  “You can take Catrina with you.  You will be assuring her happiness, which, at all events, is something tangible ­a present harvest!  I will drive over to Thors now and bring her back.  You can leave to-night and go to America.”

Stepan Lanovitch raised his head and looked hard into Paul’s face.

“You wish it?”

“I think,” answered Paul steadily, “that it is for Catrina’s happiness.”

Then Lanovitch rose up and took Paul’s hand in his work-stained grip.

“Go, my son!  It will be a great happiness to me.  I will wait here,” he said.

Paul went straight to the door.  He was a man with a capacity for prompt action, which seemed to rise to demand.  Steinmetz followed him out into the passage and took him by the arm.

“You cannot do it,” he said.

“Yes, I can,” replied Paul.  “I can find my way through the forest.  No one will venture to follow me there in the dark.”

Steinmetz hesitated, shrugged his shoulders, and went back into the room.

The ladies at Thors were dressed for dinner ­were, indeed, awaiting the announcement of that meal ­when Paul broke in upon their solitude.  He did not pause to lay aside his furs, but went into the long, low room, withdrawing his seal gloves painfully, for it was freezing as it only can freeze in March.

The countess assailed him with many questions, more or less sensible, which he endured patiently until the servant had left the room.  Catrina, with flushed cheeks, stood looking at him, but said nothing.

Paul withdrew his gloves and submitted to the countess’ futile tugs at his fur coat.  Then Catrina spoke.

“The Baron de Chauxville has left us,” she said, without knowing exactly why.

For the moment Paul had forgotten Claude de Chauxville’s existence.

“I have news for you,” he said; and he gently pushed the chattering countess aside.  “Stepan Lanovitch is at Osterno.  He arrived to-night.”

“Ah, they have set him free, poor man!  Does he wear chains on his ankles ­is his hair long?  My poor Stepan!  Ah, but what a stupid man!”

The countess collapsed into a soft chair.  She chose a soft one, obviously.  It has to be recorded here that she did not receive the news with unmitigated joy.

“When he was in Siberia,” she gasped, “one knew at all events where he was; and now, mon Dieu! what an anxiety!”

“I have come over to see whether you will join him to-night and go with him to America,” said Paul, looking at her.

“To ­America ­to-night!  My dear Paul, are you mad?  One cannot do such things as that.  America! that is across the sea.”

“Yes,” answered Paul.

“And I am such a bad sailor.  Now, if it had been Paris ­”

“But it cannot be,” interrupted Paul.  “Will you join your father to-night?” he added, turning to Catrina.

The girl was looking at him with something in her eyes that he did not care to meet.

“And go to America?” she asked, in a lifeless voice.

Paul nodded.

Catrina turned suddenly away from him and walked to the fire, where she stood with her back toward him ­a small, uncouth figure in black and green, the lamplight gleaming on her wonderful hair.  She turned suddenly again, and, coming back, stood looking into his face.

“I will go,” she said.  “You think it best?”

“Yes,” he answered; “I think it best.”

She drew a sharp breath and was about to speak when the countess interrupted her.

“What!” she cried.  “You are going away to-night like this, without any luggage!  And pray what is to become of me?”

“You can join them in America,” said Paul, in his quietest tone.  “Or you can live in Paris, at last.”