Read CHAPTER XLIII - BEHIND THE VEIL of The Sowers, free online book, by Henry Seton Merriman, on ReadCentral.com.

“Will you come with me?” said Paul to Maggie.  “I will send the servants to put this room to rights.”

Maggie followed him out of the room, and together they went through the passages, calling Etta and looking for her.  There was an air of gloom and chilliness in the rooms of the old castle.  The outline of the great stones, dimly discernible through the wall-paper, was singularly suggestive of a fortress thinly disguised.

“I suppose,” said Paul, “that Etta lost her nerve.”

“Yes,” answered Maggie doubtfully; “I think it was that.”

Paul went on.  He carried a lamp in one steady hand.

“We shall probably find her in one of these rooms,” he said.  “It is so easy to lose one’s self among the passages and staircases.”

They passed on through the great smoking-room, with its hunting trophies.  The lynx, with its face of Claude de Chauxville, grinned at them darkly from its pedestal.

Half-way down the stairs leading to the side door they met Steinmetz coming hastily up.  His face was white and drawn with horror.

“You must not go down here,” he said, in a husky voice, barring the passage with his arm.

“Why not?”

“Go up again!” said Steinmetz breathlessly.  “You must not go down here.”

Paul laid his hand on the broad arm stretched across the stairway.  For a moment it almost appeared to be a physical struggle, then Steinmetz stepped aside.

“I beg of you,” he said, “not to go down.”

And Paul went on, followed by Steinmetz, and behind them, Maggie.  At the foot of the stairs a broader passage led to the side door, and from this other passages opened into the servants’ quarters, and communicated through the kitchens with the modern building.

It was evident that the door leading to the grassy slope at the back of the castle was open, for a cold wind blew up the stairs and made the lamps flicker.

At the end of the passage Paul stopped.

Steinmetz was a little behind him, holding Maggie back.

The two lamps lighted up the passage and showed the white form of the Princess Etta lying huddled up against the wall.  The face was hidden, but there was no mistaking the beautiful dress and hair.  It could only be Etta.  Paul stooped down and looked at her, but he did not touch her.  He went a few paces forward and closed the door.  Beyond Etta a black form lay across the passage, all trodden underfoot and dishevelled.  Paul held the lamp down, and through the mud and blood Claude de Chauxville’s clear-cut features were outlined.

Death is always unmistakable, though it be shown by nothing more than a heap of muddy clothes.

Claude de Chauxville was lying across the passage.  He had been trodden underfoot by the stream of maddened peasants who had entered by this door which had been opened for them, whom Steinmetz had checked at the foot of the stairs by shooting their ringleader.

De Chauxville’s scalp was torn away by a blow, probably given with a spade or some blunt instrument.  His hand, all muddy and bloodstained, still held a revolver.

The other hand was stretched out toward Etta, who lay across his feet, crouching against the wall.  Death had found and left her in an attitude of fear, shielding her bowed head from a blow with her upraised hands.  Her loosened hair fell in a long wave of gold down to the bloodstained hand outstretched toward her.  She was kneeling in De Chauxville’s blood, which stained the stone floor of the passage.

Paul leaned forward and laid his fingers on the bare arm, just below a bracelet which gleamed in the lamplight.  She was quite dead.  He held a lamp close to her.  There was no mark or scratch upon her arm or shoulder.  The blow which had torn her hair down had killed her without any disfigurement.  The silken skirt of her dress, which lay across the passage, was trampled and stained by the tread of a hundred feet.

Then Paul went to Claude de Chauxville.  He stooped down and slipped his skilled fingers inside the torn and mud-stained clothing.  Here also was death.

Paul stood upright and looked at them as they lay, silent, motionless, with their tale untold.  Maggie and Steinmetz stood watching him.  He went to the door, which was of solid oak four inches thick, and examined the fastenings.  There had been no damage done to bolt, or lock, or hinge.  The door had been opened from the inside.  He looked slowly round, measuring the distances.

“What is the meaning of it?” he said at length to Steinmetz, in a dull voice.  Maggie winced at the sound of it.

Steinmetz did not answer at once, but hesitated ­after the manner of a man weighing words which will never be forgotten by their hearers.

“It seems to me,” he said, with a slow, wise charity, the best of its kind, “quite clear that De Chauxville died in trying to save her ­the rest must be only guesswork.”

Maggie had come forward and was standing beside him.

“And in guessing let us be charitable ­is it not so?” he said, turning to her, with a twist of his humorous lips.

“I suppose,” he went on, after a little pause, “that Claude de Chauxville has been at the bottom of all our trouble.  All his life he has been one of the stormy pétrels of diplomacy.  Wherever he has gone trouble has followed later.  By some means he obtained sufficient mastery over the princess to compel her to obey his orders.  The means he employed were threats.  He had it in his power to make mischief, and in such affairs a woman is so helpless that we may well forgive that which she may do in a moment of panic.  I imagine that he frightened the poor lady into obedience to his command that she should open this door.  Before dinner, when we were all in the drawing-room, I noted a little mark of dust on the white silk skirt of her dress.  At the time I thought only that her maid had been careless.  Perhaps you noticed it, mademoiselle?  Ladies note such things.”

He turned to Maggie, who nodded her head.

“That,” he went on, “was the dust of these old passages.  She had been down here.  She had opened this door.”

He spread out his hands in deprecation.  In his quaint Germanic way he held one hand out over the two motionless forms in mute prayer that they might be forgiven.

“We all have our faults,” he said.  “Who are we to judge each other?  If we understood all, we might pardon.  The two strongest human motives are ambition and fear.  She was ruled by both.  I myself have seen her under the influence of sudden panic.  I have noted the working of her great ambition.  She was probably deceived at every turn by that man, who was a scoundrel.  He is dead, and death is understood to wipe out all debts.  If I were a better man than I am, I might speak well of him.  But ­ach Gott! that man was a scoundrel!  I think the good God will judge between them and forgive that poor woman.  She must have repented of her action when she heard the clatter of the rioters all round the castle.  I am sure she did that.  I am sure she came down here to shut the door, and found Claude de Chauxville here.  They were probably talking together when the poor mad fools who killed them came round to this side of the castle and found them.  They recognized her as the princess.  They probably mistook him for the prince.  It is what men call a series of coincidences.  I wonder what God calls it?”

He broke off, and, stooping down, he drew the lapel of the Frenchman’s cloak gently over the marred face.

“And let us remember,” he said, “that he tried to save her.  Some lives are so.  At the very end a little reparation is made.  In life he was her evil genius.  When he died they trampled him underfoot in order to reach her.  Mademoiselle, will you come?”

He took Maggie by the arm and led her gently away.  She was shaking all over, but his hand was steady and wholly kind.

He led her up the narrow stairs to her own room.  In the little boudoir the fire was burning brightly; the lamps were lighted, just as the maid had left them at the first alarm.

Maggie sat down, and quite suddenly she burst into tears.

Steinmetz did not leave her.  He stood beside her, gently stroking her shoulder with his stout fingers.  He said nothing, but the gray mustache only half concealed his lips, which were twisted with a little smile full of tenderness and sympathy.

Maggie was the first to speak.

“I am all right now,” she said.  “Please do not wait any longer, and do not think me a very weak-minded person.  Poor Etta!”

Steinmetz moved away toward the door.

“Yes,” he said; “poor Etta!  It is often those who get on in the world who need the world’s pity most.”

At the door he stopped.

“To-morrow,” he said, “I will take you home to England.  Is that agreeable to you, mademoiselle?”

She smiled at him sadly through her tears.

“Yes, I should like that,” she said.  “This country is horrible.  You are very kind to me.”

Steinmetz went down stairs and found Paul at the door talking to a young officer, who slowly dismounted and lounged into the hall, conscious of his brilliant uniform ­of his own physical capacity to show off any uniform to full advantage.

He was a lieutenant in a Cossack regiment, and as he bowed to Steinmetz, whom Paul introduced, he swung off his high astrakhan cap with a flourish, showing a fair boyish face.

“Yes,” he continued to Paul in English; “the general sent me over with a sotnia of men, and pretty hungry you will find them.  We have covered the whole distance since daybreak.  A report reached the old gentleman that the whole countryside was about to rise against you.”

“Who spread the report?” asked Steinmetz.

“I believe it originated down at the wharfs.  It has been traced to an old man and his daughter, ­a sort of pedler, I think, who took a passage down the river, ­but where they heard the rumor I don’t know.”

Paul and Steinmetz carefully avoided looking at each other.  They knew that Catrina and Stepan Lanovitch had sent back assistance.

“Of course,” said Paul, “I am very glad to see you, but I am equally glad to inform you that you are not wanted.  Steinmetz will tell you all about it, and when you are ready for dinner it will be ready for you.  I will give instructions that the men be cared for.”

“Thanks.  The funny thing is that I am instructed, with your approval, to put the place under martial law and take charge.”

“That will not be necessary, thanks,” answered Paul, going out of the open door to speak to the wild-looking Cossacks sent for his protection.

In Russia, as in other countries where life is cheaply held, the death formalities are small.  It is only in England, where we are so careful for the individual and so careless of the type, that we have to pay for dying, and leave a mass of red-tape formalities for our friends.

While the young officer was changing his uniform for the evening finery which his servant’s forethought had provided, Paul and Steinmetz hurriedly arranged what story of the evening should be given to the world.  Knowing the country as they did, they were enabled to tell a true tale, which was yet devoid of that small personal interest that gossips love.  And all the world ever knew was that the Princess Howard Alexis was killed by the revolted peasants while attempting to escape by a side door, and that the Baron Claude de Chauxville, who was staying in the neighborhood, met his death in attempting to save her from the fury of the mob.

On the recommendation of Karl Steinmetz, Paul placed the castle and village under martial law, and there and then gave the command to the young Cossack officer, pending further instructions from his general, commanding at Tver.

The officer dined with Steinmetz, and under the careful treatment of that diplomatist inaugurated a reign of military autocracy, which varied pleasingly between strict discipline and boyish neglect.

Before the master of the situation had slept off the effect of his hundred-mile ride and a heavy dinner, the next morning Steinmetz and Maggie were ready to start on their journey to England.

The breakfast was served in the room abutting on the cliff in the dim light of a misty morning.

The lamps were alight on the table, and Paul was waiting when Maggie came down cloaked for her journey.  Steinmetz had breakfasted.

They said good-morning, and managed to talk of ordinary things until Maggie was supplied with coffee and toast and a somewhat heavy, manly helping of a breakfast-dish.  Then came a silence.

Paul broke it at length with an effort, standing, as it were, on the edge of the forbidden topic.

“Steinmetz will take you all the way,” he said, “and then come back to me.  You can safely trust yourself to his care.”

“Yes,” answered the girl, looking at the food set before her with a helpless stare.  “It is not that.  Can I safely trust Etta’s memory to your judgment?  You are very stern, Paul.  I think you might easily misjudge her.  Men do not always understand a woman’s temptations.”

Paul had not sat down.  He walked away to the window, and stood there looking out into the gloomy mists.

“It is not because she was my cousin,” said Maggie from the table; “it is because she was a woman leaving her memory to be judged by two men who are both ­hard.”

Paul neither looked round nor answered.

“When a woman has to form her own life, and renders it a prominent one, she usually makes a huge mistake of it,” said the girl.

She waited a moment, and then she pleaded once more, hastily, for she heard a step approaching.

“If you only understood every thing you might think differently ­it is because you cannot understand.”

Then Paul turned round slowly.

“No,” he said, “I cannot understand it, and I do not think that I ever shall.”

And Steinmetz came into the room.

In a few minutes the sleigh bearing Steinmetz and Maggie disappeared into the gloom, closely followed by a couple of Cossacks acting as guard and carrying despatches.

So Etta Sydney Bamborough ­the Princess Howard Alexis ­came back after all to her husband, lying in a nameless grave in the churchyard by the Volga at Tver.  Within the white walls ­beneath the shadow of the great spangled cupola ­they await the Verdict, almost side by side.