Read CHAPTER XLII - THE STORM BURSTS of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

The large drawing-room was brilliantly lighted.  Another weary day had dragged to its close.  It was the Tuesday evening ­the last Tuesday in March five years ago.  The starosta had not been near the castle all day.  Steinmetz and Paul had never lost sight of the ladies since breakfast time.  They had not ventured out of doors.  There was in the atmosphere a sense of foreboding ­the stillness of a crisis.  Etta had been defiant and silent ­a dangerous humor ­all day.  Maggie had watched Paul’s face with steadfast, quiet eyes full of courage, but she knew now that there was danger.

The conversation at breakfast and luncheon had been maintained by Steinmetz ­always collected and a little humorous.  It was now dinner time.  The whole castle was brilliantly lighted, as if for a great assembly of guests.  During the last week a fuller state ­a greater ceremony ­had been observed by Paul’s orders, and Steinmetz had thought more than once of that historical event which appealed to his admiration most ­the Indian Mutiny.

Maggie was in the drawing-room alone.  She was leaning one hand and arm on the mantel-piece, looking thoughtfully into the fire.  The rustle of silk made her turn her head.  It was Etta, beautifully dressed, with a white face and eyes dull with suspense.

“I think it is warmer to-night,” said Maggie, urged by a sudden necessity of speech, hampered by a sudden chill at the heart.

“Yes,” answered Etta.  And she shivered.

For a moment there was a little silence and Etta looked at the clock.  It was ten minutes to seven.

A high wind was blowing, the first of the equinoctial gales heralding the spring.  The sound of the wind in the great chimney was like the moaning of high rigging at sea.

The door opened and Steinmetz came in.  Etta’s face hardened, her lips closed with a snap.  Steinmetz looked at her and at Maggie.  For once he seemed to have no pleasantry ready for use.  He walked toward a table where some books and newspapers lay in pleasant profusion.  He was standing there when Paul came into the room.  The prince glanced at Maggie.  He saw where his wife stood, but he did not look at her.

Steinmetz was writing something on half a sheet of notepaper, in pencil.  He pushed it across the table toward Paul, who drew it nearer to him.

“Are you armed?” were the written words.

Paul crushed the paper in the hollow of his hand and threw it into the fire, where it burned away.  He also glanced at the clock.  It was five minutes to seven.

Suddenly the door was thrown open and a manservant rushed in ­pale, confused, terror-stricken.  He was a giant footman in the gorgeous livery of the Alexis.

“Excellency,” he stammered in Russian, “the castle is surrounded ­they will kill us ­they will burn us out ­”

He stopped abashed before Paul’s pointing finger and stony face.

“Leave the room!” said Paul.  “You forget yourself.”

Through the open door-way to which Paul pointed peered the ashen faces of other servants huddled together like sheep.

“Leave the room!” repeated Paul, and the man obeyed him, walking to the door unsteadily with quivering chin.  On the threshold he paused.  Paul stood pointing to the door.  He had a poise of the head ­some sudden awakening of the blood that had coursed in the veins of hereditary potentates.  Maggie looked at him; she had never known him like this.  She had known the man, she had never encountered the prince.

The big clock over the castle boomed out the hour, and at the same instant there arose a roar like the voice of the surf on a Malabar shore.  There was a crashing of glass almost in the room itself.  Already Steinmetz was drawing the curtains closer over the windows in order to prevent the light from filtering through the interstices of the closed shutters.

“Only stones,” he said to Paul, with his grim smile; “it might have been bullets.”

As if in corroboration of his suggestion the sharp ring of more than one fire-arm rang out above the dull roar of many voices.

Steinmetz crossed the room to where Etta was standing, white-lipped, by the fire.  Her clenched hand was gripping Maggie’s wrist.  She was half hidden behind her cousin.  Maggie was looking at Paul.  Etta was obviously conscious of Steinmetz’s gaze and approach.

“I asked you before to tell me all you knew,” he said.  “You refused.  Will you do it now?”

Etta met his glance for a moment, shrugged her shoulders, and turned her back on him.  Paul was standing in the open door-way with his back turned toward them ­alone.  The palace had never looked so vast as it did at that moment ­brilliantly lighted, gorgeous, empty.

Through the hail of blows on the stout doors, the rattle of stones at the windows, the prince could hear yells of execration and the wild laughter that is bred of destruction.  He turned and entered the room.  His face was gray and terrible.

“They have no chance,” he said, “of effecting an entrance by force; the lower windows are barred.  They have no ladders, Steinmetz and I have seen to that.  We have been expecting this for some days.”

He turned toward Steinmetz as if seeking confirmation.  The din was increasing.  When the German spoke he had to shout.

“We can beat them back if we like.  We can shoot them down from the windows.  But” ­he paused, shrugged his shoulders, and laughed ­“what will you!  This prince will not shoot his father’s serfs.”

“We must leave you,” went on Paul.  “We must beware of treachery.  Whatever happens, we shall not leave the house.  If the worst comes, we make our last stand in this room.  Whatever happens, stay here till we come.”

He left the room, followed by Steinmetz.  There were only three doors in the impregnable stone walls; the great entrance, a side door for use in times of deep snow, and the small concealed entrance by which the starosta was in the habit of reaching his masters.

For a moment the two men stood at the head of the stairs listening to the wild commotion.  They were turning to descend the state stairs when a piercing shriek, immediately drowned by a yell of triumph, broke the silence of the interior of the castle.  There was a momentary stillness, followed by another shriek.

“They are in!” said Steinmetz.  “The side door.”

And the two men looked at each other with wide eyes full of knowledge.

As they ran to the foot of the broad staircase the tramp of scuffling feet, the roar of angry voices, came through the passages from the back of curtained doorways.  The servants’ quarters seemed to be pandemonium.  The sounds approached.

“Half-way up!” said Paul, and they ran half-way up the broad staircase side by side.  There they stood and waited.

In a moment the baize doors were burst open, and a scuffling mass of men and women poured into the hall ­a very sewer of humanity.

A yell of execration signalized their recognition of the prince.

“They are mad!” said Steinmetz, as the crowd surged forward toward the stairs with waving arms and the dull gleam of steel; with wild faces turned upward, wild mouths bellowing hatred and murder.

“It is a chance ­it may stop them!” said Steinmetz.

His arm was outstretched steadily.  A loud report, a little puff of smoke shooting upward to the gilded ceiling, and for one brief moment the crowd stood still, watching one of their ringleaders, who was turning and twisting on his side half a dozen steps from the bottom.

The man writhed in silence with his hand to his breast, and the crowd stood aghast.  He held up his hand and gazed at it with a queer stupefaction.  The blood dripped from his fingers.  Then his chin went up as if some one was gripping the back of his neck.  He turned over slowly and rolled to the bottom of the stairs.

Then Paul raised his voice.

“Listen to me!” he said.

But he got no farther, for some one shot at him from the background, over the frantic heads of the others, and missed him.  The bullet lodged in the wall at the head of the stairs, in the jamb of the gorgeous door-way.  It is there to-day.

There was a yell of hatred, and an ugly charge toward the stairs; but the sight of the two revolvers held them there ­motionless for a few moments.  Those in front pushed back, while the shouters in the safe background urged them forward by word and gesture.

Two men holding a hundred in check!  But one of the two was a prince, which makes all the difference, and will continue to make that difference, despite halfpenny journalism, until the end of the world.

“What do you want?” cried Paul.

“Oh, I will wait!” he shouted, in the next pause.  “There is plenty of time ­when you are tired of shouting.”

Several of them proceeded to tell him what they wanted.  An old story, too stale for repetition here.  Paul recognized in the din of many voices the tinkling arguments of the professional agitator all the world over ­the cry of “Equality!  Equality!” when men are obviously created unequal.

“Look out!” said Paul; “I believe they are going to make a rush.”

All the while the foremost men were edging toward the stairs, while the densely packed throng at the back were struggling among themselves.  In the passages behind, some were yelling and screaming with a wild intonation which Steinmetz recognized.  He had been through the Commune.

“Those fellows at the back have been killing some one,” he said; “I can tell by their voices.  They are drunk with the sight of blood.”

Some new orator gained the ears of the rabble at this moment, and the ill-kempt heads swayed from side to side.

“It is useless,” he cried, “telling him what you want.  He will not give it you.  Go and take it!  Go and take it, little fathers; that is the only way!”

Steinmetz raised his hand and peered down into the crowd, looking for the man of eloquence, and the voice was hushed.

At this moment, however, the yelling increased, and through the door-way leading to the servants’ quarters came a stream of men ­bloodstained, ragged, torn.  They were waving arms and implements above their heads.

“Down with the aristocrats! kill them ­kill them!” they were shrieking.

A little volley of fire-arms further excited them.  But vodka is not a good thing to shoot upon, and Paul stood untouched, waiting, as he had said, until they were tired of shouting.

“Now,” yelled Steinmetz to him in English, “we must go.  We can make a stand at the head of the stairs, then the door-way, then ­” He shrugged his shoulders.  “Then ­the end,” he added, as they moved up the stairs step by step, backward.  “My very good friend,” he went on, “at the door we must begin to shoot them down.  It is our only chance.  It is, moreover, our duty toward the ladies.”

“There is one alternative,” answered Paul.

“The Moscow Doctor?”

“Yes.”

“They may turn,” said Paul; “they are just in that humor.”

The new-comers were the most dangerous.  They were forcing their way to the front.  There was no doubt that, as soon as they could penetrate the densely packed mob, they would charge up the stairs, even in face of a heavy fire.  The reek of vodka was borne up in the heated atmosphere, mingled with the nauseating odor of filthy clothing.

“Go,” said Steinmetz, “and put on your doctor’s clothes.  I can keep them back for a few minutes.”

There was no time to be lost.  Paul slipped away, leaving Steinmetz alone at the summit of the state stairway, standing grimly, revolver in hand.

In the drawing-room Paul found Maggie, alone.

“Where is Etta?” he asked.

“She left the room some time ago.”

“But I told her to stay,” said Paul.

To this Maggie made no answer.  She was looking at him with an anxious scrutiny.

“Did they shoot at you?” she asked.

“Yes; but not straight,” he answered, with a little laugh, as he hurried on.

In a few moments he was back in the drawing-room, a different man, in the rough, stained clothes of the Moscow Doctor.  The din on the stairs was louder.  Steinmetz was almost in the door-way.  He was shooting economically, picking his men.

With an effort Paul dragged one or two heavy pieces of furniture across the room, in the form of a rough barricade.  He pointed to the hearthrug where Maggie was to stand.

“Ready!” he shouted to Steinmetz.  “Come!”

The German ran in, and Paul closed the barricade.

The rabble poured in at the open door, screaming and shouting.  Bloodstained, ragged, wild with the madness of murder, they crowded to the barricade.  There they stopped, gazing stupidly at Paul.

“The Moscow Doctor ­the Moscow Doctor!” passed from lip to lip.  It was the women who shouted it the loudest.  Like the wind through a forest it swept out of the room and down the stairs.  Those crowding up pushed on and uttered the words as they came.  The room was packed with them.

“Yes!” shouted Steinmetz, at the top of his great voice, “and the prince!”

He knew the note to strike, and struck with a sure hand.  The barricade was torn aside, and the people swept forward, falling on their knees, grovelling at Paul’s feet, kissing the hem of his garment, seizing his strong hands in theirs.

It was a mighty harvest.  That which is sown in the people’s hearts bears a thousandfold at last.

“Get them out of the place ­open the big doors,” said Paul to Steinmetz.  He stood cold and grave among them.

Some of them were already sneaking toward the door ­the ringleaders, the talkers from the towns ­mindful of their own necks in this change of feeling.

Steinmetz hustled them out, bidding them take their dead with them.  Some of the servants reappeared, peeping, white-faced, behind curtains.  When the last villager had crossed the threshold, these ran forward to close and bar the great doors.

“No,” said Paul, from the head of the stairs, “leave them open.”

So the great doors stood defiantly open.  The lights of the state staircase flared out over the village as the peasants crept crest-fallen to their cottages.  They glanced up shamefacedly, but they had no word to say.

Steinmetz, in the drawing-room, looked at Paul with his resigned semi-humorous shrug of the shoulders.

“Touch-and-go, mein lieber!” he said.

“Yes; an end of Russia for us,” answered the prince.

He moved toward the door leading through to the old castle.

“I am going to look for Etta,” he said.

“And I,” said Steinmetz, going to the other entrance, “am going to see who opened the side door.”