Henry Seton Merriman.

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"In this country charity covers no sins!"

The speaker finished his remark with a short laugh. He was a big, stout
man; his name was Karl Steinmetz, and it is a name well known in the
Government of Tver to this day. He spoke jerkily, as stout men do when
they ride, and when he had laughed his good-natured, half-cynical laugh,
he closed his lips beneath a huge gray mustache. So far as one could
judge from the action of a square and deeply indented chin, his mouth
was expressive at that time - and possibly at all times - of a humorous
resignation. No reply was vouchsafed to him, and Karl Steinmetz bumped
along on his little Cossack horse, which was stretched out at a gallop.

Evening was drawing on. It was late in October, and a cold wind was
driving from the north-west across a plain which for sheer dismalness of
aspect may give points to Sahara and beat that abode of mental
depression without an effort. So far as the eye could reach there was no
habitation to break the line of horizon. A few stunted fir-trees,
standing in a position of permanent deprecation, with their backs
turned, as it were, to the north, stood sparsely on the plain. The grass
did not look good to eat, though the Cossack horses would no doubt have
liked to try it. The road seemed to have been drawn by some Titan
engineer with a ruler from horizon to horizon.

Away to the south there was a forest of the same stunted pines, where a
few charcoal-burners and resin-tappers eked out a forlorn and obscure
existence. There are a score of such settlements, such gloomy forests,
dotted over this plain of Tver, which covers an area of nearly two
hundred square miles. The remainder of it is pasture, where miserable
cattle and a few horses, many sheep and countless pigs, seek their food
pessimistically from God.

Steinmetz looked round over this cheerless prospect with a twinkle of
amused resignation in his blue eyes, as if this creation were a little
practical joke, which he, Karl Steinmetz, appreciated at its proper
worth. The whole scene was suggestive of immense distance, of countless
miles in all directions - a suggestion not conveyed by any scene in
England, by few in Europe. In our crowded island we have no conception
of a thousand miles. How can we? Few of us have travelled five hundred
at a stretch. The land through which these men were riding is the home
of great distances - Russia. They rode, moreover, as if they knew it - as
if they had ridden for days and were aware of more days in front of

The companion of Karl Steinmetz looked like an Englishman. He was young
and fair and quiet. He looked like a youthful athlete from Oxford or
Cambridge - a simple-minded person who had jumped higher or run quicker
than anybody else without conceit, taking himself, like St. Paul, as he
found himself and giving the credit elsewhere. And one finds that, after
all, in this world of deceit, we are most of us that which we look like.
You, madam, look thirty-five to a day, although your figure is still
youthful, your hair untouched by gray, your face unseamed by care. You
may look in your mirror and note these accidents with satisfaction; you
may feel young and indulge in the pastimes of youth without effort. But
you are thirty-five. We know it. We who look at you can see it for
ourselves, and, if you could only be brought to believe it, we think no
worse of you on that account.

The man who rode beside Karl Steinmetz with gloomy eyes and a vague
suggestion of flight in his whole demeanor was, like reader and writer,
exactly what he seemed. He was the product of an English public school
and university. He was, moreover, a modern product of those seats of
athletic exercise. He had little education and highly developed
muscles - that is to say, he was no scholar but essentially a
gentleman - a good enough education in its way, and long may Britons seek

This young man's name was Paul Howard Alexis, and Fortune had made him a
Russian prince. If, however, anyone, even Steinmetz, called him prince,
he blushed and became confused. This terrible title had brooded over him
while at Eton and Cambridge. But no one had found him out; he remained
Paul Howard Alexis so far as England and his friends were concerned. In
Russia, however, he was known (by name only, for he avoided Slavonic
society) as Prince Pavlo Alexis. This plain was his; half the Government
of Tver was his; the great Volga rolled through his possessions; sixty
miles behind him a grim stone castle bore his name, and a tract of land
as vast as Yorkshire was peopled by humble-minded persons who cringed at
the mention of his Excellency.

All this because thirty years earlier a certain Princess Natásha Alexis
had fallen in love with plain Mr. Howard of the British Embassy in St.
Petersburg. With Slavonic enthusiasm (for the Russian is the most
romantic race on earth) she informed Mr. Howard of the fact, and duly
married him. Both these persons were now dead, and Paul Howard Alexis
owed it to his mother's influence in high regions that the
responsibilities of princedom were his. At the time when this title was
accorded to him he had no say in the matter. Indeed, he had little say
in any matters except meals, which he still took in liquid form. Certain
it is, however, that he failed to appreciate his honors as soon as he
grew up to a proper comprehension of them.

Equally certain is it that he entirely failed to recognize the
enviability of his position as he rode across the plains of Tver toward
the yellow Volga by the side of Karl Steinmetz.

"This is great nonsense," he said suddenly. "I feel like a Nihilist or
some theatrical person of that sort. I do not think it can be necessary,

"Not necessary," answered Steinmetz in thick guttural tones, "but

This man spoke with the soft consonants of a German.

"Prudent, my dear prince."

"Oh, drop that!"

"When we sight the Volga I will drop it with pleasure. Good Heavens! I
wish I were a prince. I should have it marked on my linen, and sit up in
bed to read it on my nightshirt."

"No, you wouldn't, Steinmetz," answered Alexis, with a vexed laugh. "You
would hate it just as much as I do, especially if it meant running away
from the best bear-shooting in Europe."

Steinmetz shrugged his shoulders.

"Then you should not have been charitable - charity, I tell you, Alexis,
covers no sins in this country."

"Who made me charitable? Besides, no decent-minded fellow could be
anything else here. Who told me of the League of Charity, I should like
to know? Who put me into it? Who aroused my pity for these poor beggars?
Who but a stout German cynic called Steinmetz?"

"Stout, yes - cynic, if you will - German, no!"

The words were jerked out of him by the galloping horse.

"Then what are you?"

Steinmetz looked straight in front of him, with a meditation in his
quiet eyes which made a dreamy man of him.

"That depends."

Alexis laughed.

"Yes, I know. In Germany you are a German, in Russia a Slav, in Poland a
Pole, and in England any thing the moment suggests."

"Exactly so. But to return to you. You must trust to me in this matter.
I know this country. I know what this League of Charity was. It was a
bigger thing than any dream of. It was a power in Russia - the greatest
of all - above Nihilism - above the Emperor himself. Ach Gott! It was a
wonderful organization, spreading over this country like sunlight over a
field. It would have made men of our poor peasants. It was God's work.
If there is a God - bien entendu - which some young men deny, because God
fails to recognize their importance, I imagine. And now it is all done.
It is crumbled up by the scurrilous treachery of some miscreant. Ach! I
should like to have him out here on the plain. I would choke him. For
money, too! The devil - it must have been the devil - to sell that secret
to the Government!"

"I can't see what the Government wanted it for," growled Alexis moodily.

"No, but I can. It is not the Emperor; he is a gentleman, although he
has the misfortune to wear the purple. No, it is those about him. They
want to stop education; they want to crush the peasant. They are afraid
of being found out; they live in their grand houses, and support their
grand names on the money they crush out of the starving peasant."

"So do I, so far as that goes."

"Of course you do! And I am your steward - your crusher. We do not deny
it, we boast of it, but we exchange a wink with the angels - eh?"

Alexis rode on in silence for a few moments. He sat his horse as English
foxhunters do - not prettily - and the little animal with erect head and
scraggy neck was evidently worried by the unusual grip on his ribs. For
Russians sit back, with a short stirrup and a loose seat, when they are
travelling. One must not form one's idea of Russian horsemanship from
the erect carriage affected in the Newski Prospect.

"I wish," he said abruptly, "that I had never attempted to do any good;
doing good to mankind doesn't pay. Here I am running away from my own
home as if I were afraid of the police! The position is impossible."

Steinmetz shook his shaggy head.

"No. No position is impossible in this country - except the Czar's - if
one only keeps cool. For men such as you and I any position is quite
easy. But these Russians are too romantic - too exaltés - they give way to
a morbid love of martyrdom: they think they can do no good to mankind
unless they are uncomfortable."

Alexis turned in his saddle and looked keenly into his companion's face.

"Do you know," he said, "I believe you founded the Charity League?"

Steinmetz laughed in his easy, stout way.

"It founded itself," he said; "the angels founded it in heaven. I hope a
committee of them will attend to the eternal misery of the dog who
betrayed it."

"I trust they will, but in the meantime I stick to my opinion that it is
unnecessary for me to leave the country. What have I done? I do not
belong to the League; it is composed entirely of Russian nobles; I don't
admit that I am a Russian noble."

"But," persisted Steinmetz quietly, "you subscribe to the League. Four
hundred thousand rubles - they do not grow at the roadside."

"But the rubles have not my name on them."

"That may be, but we all - _they all_ - know where they are likely to come
from. My dear Paul, you cannot keep up the farce any longer. You are not
an English gentleman who comes across here for sporting purposes; you do
not live in the old Castle of Osterno three months in the year because
you have a taste for mediaeval fortresses. You are a Russian prince, and
your estates are the happiest, the most enlightened in the empire. That
alone is suspicious. You collect your rents yourself. You have no German
agents - no German vampires about you. There are a thousand things
suspicious about Prince Pavlo Alexis if those that be in high places
only come to think about it. They have not come to think about
it - thanks to our care and to your English independence. But that is
only another reason why we should redouble our care. You must not be in
Russia when the Charity League is picked to pieces. There will be
trouble - half the nobility in Russia will be in it. There will be
confiscations and degradations: there will be imprisonment and Siberia
for some. You are better out of it, for you are not an Englishman; you
have not even a Foreign Office passport. Your passport is your patent of
nobility, and that is Russian. No, you are better out of it."

"And you - what about you?" asked Paul, with a little laugh - the laugh
that one brave man gives when he sees another do a plucky thing.

"I! Oh, I am all right! I am nobody; I am hated of all the peasants
because I am your steward and so hard - so cruel. That is my certificate
of harmlessness with those that are about the Emperor."

Paul made no answer. He was not of an argumentative mind, being a large
man, and consequently inclined to the sins of omission rather than to
the active form of doing wrong. He had an enormous faith in Karl
Steinmetz, and, indeed, no man knew Russia better than this cosmopolitan
adventurer. Steinmetz it was who pricked forward with all speed, wearing
his hardy little horse to a drooping semblance of its former self.
Steinmetz it was who had recommended quitting the travelling carriage
and taking to the saddle, although his own bulk led him to prefer the
slower and more comfortable method of covering space. It would almost
seem that he doubted his own ascendency over his companion and master,
which semblance was further increased by a subtle ring of anxiety in his
voice while he argued. It is possible that Karl Steinmetz suspected the
late Princess Natásha of having transmitted to her son a small
hereditary portion of that Slavonic exaltation and recklessness of
consequence which he deplored.

"Then you turn back at Tver?" enquired Paul, at length breaking a long

"Yes; I must not leave Osterno just now. Perhaps later, when the winter
has come, I will follow. Russia is quiet during the winter, very quiet.
Ha, ha!"

He shrugged his shoulders and shivered. But the shiver was interrupted.
He raised himself in his saddle and peered forward into the gathering

"What is that," he asked sharply, "on the road in front?"

Paul had already seen it.

"It looks like a horse," he answered - "a strayed horse, for it has no

They were going west, and what little daylight there was lived on the
western horizon. The form of the horse, cut out in black relief against
the sky, was weird and ghostlike. It was standing by the side of the
road, apparently grazing. As they approached it, its outlines became
more defined.

"It has a saddle," said Steinmetz at length. "What have we here?"

The beast was evidently famishing, for, as they came near, it never
ceased its occupation of dragging the wizened tufts of grass up, root
and all.

"What have we here?" repeated Steinmetz.

And the two men clapped spurs to their tired horses.

The solitary waif had a rider, but he was not in the saddle. One foot
was caught in the stirrup, and as the horse moved on from tuft to tuft
it dragged its dead master along the ground.



"This is going to be unpleasant," muttered Steinmetz, as he cumbrously
left the saddle. "That man is dead - has been dead some days; he's stiff.
And the horse has been dragging him face downward. God in heaven! this
will be unpleasant."

Paul had leaped to the ground, and was already loosening the dead man's
foot from the stirrup. He did it with a certain sort of skill, despite
the stiffness of the heavy riding-boot, as if he had walked a hospital
in his time. Very quickly Steinmetz came to his assistance, tenderly
lifting the dead man and laying him on his back.

"Ach!" he exclaimed; "we are unfortunate to meet a thing like this."

There was no need of Paul Alexis' medical skill to tell that this man
was dead; a child would have known it. Before searching the pockets
Steinmetz took out his own handkerchief and laid it over a face which
had become unrecognizable. The horse was standing over them. It bent its
head and sniffed wonderingly at that which had once been its master.
There was a singular, scared look in its eyes.

Steinmetz pushed aside the enquiring muzzle.

"If you could speak, my friend," he said, "we might want you. As it is,
you had better continue your meal."

Paul was unbuttoning the dead man's clothes. He inserted his hand within
the rough shirt.

"This man," he said, "was starving. He probably fainted from sheer
exhaustion and rolled out of the saddle. It is hunger that killed him."

"With his pocket full of money," added Steinmetz, withdrawing his hand
from the dead man's pocket and displaying a bundle of notes and some

There was nothing in any of the other pockets - no paper, no clue of any
sort to the man's identity.

The two finders of this silent tragedy stood up and looked around them.
It was almost dark. They were ten miles from a habitation. It does not
sound much; but a traveller would be hard put to place ten miles between
himself and a habitation in the whole of the British Islands. This,
added to a lack of road or path which is unknown to us in England, made
ten miles of some importance.

Steinmetz had pushed his fur cap to the back of his head, which he was
scratching pensively. He had a habit of scratching his forehead with one
finger, which denoted thought.

"Now, what are we to do?" he muttered. "Can't bury the poor chap and say
nothing about it. I wonder where his passport is? We have here a

He turned to the horse, which was grazing hurriedly.

"My friend of the four legs," he said, "it is a thousand pities that you
are dumb."

Paul was still examining the dead man with that callousness which
denotes one who, for love or convenience, has become a doctor. He was a
doctor - an amateur. He was a Caius man.

Steinmetz looked down at him with a little laugh. He noticed the
tenderness of the touch, the deft fingering which had something of
respect in it. Paul Alexis was visibly one of those men who take mankind
seriously, and have that in their hearts which for want of a better word
we call sympathy.

"Mind you do not catch some infectious disease," said Steinmetz gruffly.
"I should not care to handle any stray moujik one finds dead about the
roadside; unless, of course, you think there is more money about him. It
would be a pity to leave that for the police."

Paul did not answer. He was examining the limp, dirty hands of the dead
man. The fingers were covered with soil, the nails were broken. He had
evidently clutched at the earth and at every tuft of grass, after his
fall from the saddle.

"Look here, at these hands," said Paul suddenly. "This is an Englishman.
You never see fingers this shape in Russia."

Steinmetz stooped down. He held out his own square-tipped fingers in
comparison. Paul rubbed the dead hand with his sleeve as if it were a
piece of statuary.

"Look here," he continued, "the dirt rubs off and leaves the hand quite
a gentlemanly color. This" - he paused and lifted Steinmetz's
handkerchief, dropping it again hurriedly over the mutilated face - "this
thing was once a gentleman."

"It certainly has seen better days," admitted Steinmetz, with a grim
humor which was sometimes his. "Come, let us drag him beneath that
pine-tree and ride on to Tver. We shall do no good, my dear Alexis,
wasting our time over the possible antecedents of a gentleman who, for
reasons of his own, is silent on the subject."

Paul rose from the ground. His movements were those of a strong and
supple man, one whose muscles had never had time to grow stiff. He was
an active man, who never hurried. Standing thus upright he was very
tall - nearly a giant. Only in St. Petersburg, of all the cities of the
world, could he expect to pass unnoticed - the city of tall men and plain
women. He rubbed his two hands together in a singularly professional
manner which sat amiss on him.

"What do you propose doing?" he asked. "You know the laws of this
country better than I do."

Steinmetz scratched his forehead with his forefinger.

"Our theatrical friends the police," he said, "are going to enjoy this.
Suppose we prop him up sitting against that tree - no one will run away
with him - and lead his horse into Tver. I will give notice to the
police, but I will not do so until you are in the Petersburg train. I
will, of course, give the ispravnik to understand that your princely
mind could not be bothered by such details as this - that you have
proceeded on your journey."

"I do not like leaving the poor beggar alone all night," said Paul.
"There may be wolves - the crows in the early morning."

"Bah! that is because you are so soft-hearted. My dear fellow, what
business is it of ours if the universal laws of nature are illustrated
upon this unpleasant object? We all live on each other. The wolves and
the crows have the last word. Tant mieux for the wolves and the crows!
Come, let us carry him to that tree."

The moon was just rising over the line of the horizon. All around them
the steppe lay in grim and lifeless silence. In such a scene, where life
seemed rare and precious, death gained in its power of inspiring fear.
It is different in crowded cities, where an excess of human life seems
to vouch for the continuity of the race, where, in a teeming population,
one life more or less seems of little value. The rosy hue of sunset was
fading to a clear green, and in the midst of a cloudless sky,
Jupiter - very near the earth at that time - shone intense, and brilliant
like a lamp. It was an evening such as only Russia and the great North
lands ever see, where the sunset is almost in the north and the sunrise
holds it by the hand. Over the whole scene there hung a clear,
transparent night, green and shimmering, which would never be darker
than an English twilight.

The two living men carried the nameless, unrecognizable dead to a
resting-place beneath a stunted pine a few paces removed from the road.
They laid him decently at full length, crossing his soil-begrimed hands
over his breast, tying the handkerchief down over his face.

Then they turned and left him, alone in that luminous night. A waif that
had fallen by the great highway without a word, without a sign. A
half-run race - a story cut off in the middle; for he was a young man
still; his hair, all dusty, draggled, and bloodstained, had no streak of
gray; his hands were smooth and youthful. There was a vague suspicion of
sensual softness about his body, as if this might have been a man who
loved comfort and ease, who had always chosen the primrose path, had
never learned the salutary lesson of self-denial. The incipient
stoutness of limb contrasted strangely with the drawn meagreness of his
body, which was contracted by want of food. Paul Alexis was right. This
man had died of starvation, within ten miles of the great Volga, within
nine miles of the outskirts of Tver, a city second to Moscow, and once
her rival. Therefore it could only be that he had purposely avoided the
dwellings of men; that he was a fugitive of some sort or another. Paul's
theory that this was an Englishman had not been received with enthusiasm
by Steinmetz; but that philosopher had stooped to inspect the narrow,
tell-tale fingers. Steinmetz, be it noted, had an infinite capacity for
holding his tongue.

They mounted their horses and rode away without looking back. But they
did not speak, as if each were deep in his own thoughts. Material had
indeed been afforded them, for who could tell who this featureless man
might be? They were left in a state of hopeless curiosity, as who,
having picked up a page with "Finis" written upon it, falls to wondering
what the story may have been.

Steinmetz had thrown the bridle of the straying horse over his arm, and
the animal trotted obediently by the side of the fidgety little

"That was bad luck," exclaimed the elder man at length, "d - d bad luck!
In this country the less you find, the less you see, the less you
understand, the simpler is your existence. Those Nihilists, with their
mysterious ways and their reprehensible love of explosives, have made
honest men's lives a burden to them."

"Their motives were originally good," put in Paul.

"That is possible; but a good motive is no excuse for a bad means. They
wanted to get along too quickly. They are pig-headed, exalted,
unpractical to a man. I do not mention the women, because when women

Online LibraryHenry Seton MerrimanThe Sowers → online text (page 1 of 25)