“You must accept,” Steinmetz
repeated to Paul. “There is no help for
it. We cannot afford to offend Vassili, of all
people in the world.”
They were standing together in the
saloon of a suite of rooms assigned for the time to
Paul and his party in the Hotel Bristol in Paris.
Steinmetz, who held an open letter in his hand, looked
out of the window across the quiet Place Vendome.
A north wind was blowing with true Parisian keenness,
driving before it a fine snow, which adhered bleakly
to the northern face of a column which is chiefly remarkable
for the facility with which it falls and rises again.
Steinmetz looked at the letter with
a queer smile. He held it out from him as if
he distrusted the very stationery.
“So friendly,” he exclaimed;
“so very friendly! ‘Ce bon
Steinmetz’ he calls me. ’Ce
bon Steinmetz’ confound his cheek!
He hopes that his dear prince will waive ceremony
and bring his charming princess to dine quite en
famille at his little pied a terre in the
Champs Elysees. He guarantees that only his sister,
the marquise, will be present, and he hopes that ‘Ce
bon Steinmetz,’ will accompany you, and
also the young lady, the cousin of the princess.”
Steinmetz threw the letter down on
the table, left it there for a moment, and then, picking
it up, he crossed the room and threw it into the fire.
“Which means,” he explained,
“that M. Vassili knows we are here, and unless
we dine with him we shall be subjected to annoyance
and delay on the frontier by a stupid a
singularly and suspiciously stupid minor
official. If we refuse, Vassili will conclude
that we are afraid of him. Therefore we must
accept. Especially as Vassili has his weak points.
He loves a lord, ‘Ce Vassili.’
If you accept on some of that stationery I ordered
for you with a colossal gold coronet, that will already
be of some effect. A chain is as strong as its
weakest link. M. Vassili’s weakest link
will be touched by your gorgeous note-paper. If
ce cher prince and la charmante princesse are
gracious to him, Vassili is already robbed of half
Paul laughed. It was his habit
either to laugh or to grumble at Karl Steinmetz’s
somewhat subtle precautions. The word “danger”
invariably made him laugh, with a ring in his voice
which seemed to betoken enjoyment.
“Of course,” he said,
“I leave these matters to you. Let us show
Vassili, at all events, that we are not afraid of him.”
“Then sit down and accept.”
That which M. Vassili was pleased
to call his little dog-hole in the Champs Elysees
was, in fact, a gorgeous house in the tawdry style
of modern Paris resplendent in gray iron
railings, and high gate-posts surmounted by green
cactus plants cunningly devised in cast iron.
The heavy front door was thrown open
by a lackey, and others bowed in the halls as if by
machinery. Two maids pounced upon the ladies with
the self-assurance of their kind and country, and
led the way upstairs, while the men removed fur coats
in the hall. It was all very princely and gorgeous
Vassili and his sister the marquise a
stout lady in ruby velvet and amethysts, who invariably
caused Maggie Delafield’s mouth to twitch whenever
she opened her own during the evening received
the guests in the drawing-room. They were standing
on the white fur hearth-rug side by side, when the
doors were dramatically thrown open, and the servant
rolled the names unctuously over his tongue.
Steinmetz, who was behind, saw everything.
He saw Vassili’s masklike face contract with
stupefaction when he set eyes on Etta. He saw
the self-contained Russian give a little gasp, and
mutter an exclamation before he collected himself
sufficiently to bow and conceal his face. But
he could not see Etta’s face for a moment or
two until the formal greetings were over.
When he did see it, he noted that it was as white
“Aha! Ce bon
Steinmetz!” cried Vassili, with less formality,
holding out his hand with frank and boyish good humor.
“Aha! Ce cher Vassili!”
returned Steinmetz, taking the hand.
“It is good of you, M. lé
Prince, and you, madame, to honor us in our
small house,” said the marquise in a guttural
voice such as one might expect from within ruby velvet
and amethysts. Thereafter she subsided into silence
and obscurity so far as the evening was concerned and
the present historian is interested.
“So,” said Vassili, with
a comprehensive bow to all his guests “so
you are bound for Russia. But I envy you I
envy you. You know Russia, Mme. la Princesse?”
Etta met his veiled gaze calmly.
“A little,” she replied.
There was no sign of recognition in
his eyes now, nor pallor on her face.
“A beautiful country, but the
rest of Europe does not believe it. And the estate
of the prince is one of the vastest, if not the most
beautiful. It is a sporting estate, is it not,
“Essentially so,” replied
Paul. “Bears, wolves, deer, besides, of
course, black game, capercailzie, ptarmigan every
thing one could desire.”
“Speaking as a sportsman,” suggested Vassili
“Speaking as a sportsman.”
“Of course ”
Vassili paused, and with a little gesture of the hand
included Steinmetz in the conversation. It may
have been that he preferred to have him talking than
watching. “Of course, like all great Russian
landholders, you have your troubles with the people,
though you are not, strictly speaking, within the
“Not quite; we are not starving,
but we are hungry,” said Steinmetz bluntly.
Vassili laughed, and shook a gold eye-glass chidingly.
“Ah, my friend, your old pernicious
habit of calling a spade a spade! It is unfortunate
that they should hunger a little, but what will you?
They must learn to be provident, to work harder and
drink less. With such people experience is the
only taskmaster possible. It is useless talking
to them. It is dangerous to pauperize them.
Besides, the accounts that one reads in the newspapers
are manifestly absurd and exaggerated. You must
not, mademoiselle,” he said, turning courteously
to Maggie, “you must not believe all you are
told about Russia.”
“I do not,” replied Maggie,
with an honest smile which completely baffled M. Vassili.
He had not had much to do with people who smiled honestly.
“Vrai!” he said, with
grave emphasis; “I am not joking. It is
a matter of the strictest fact that fiction has for
the moment fixed its fancy upon my country just
as it has upon the East End of your London. Mon
Dieu! what a lot of harm fiction with a purpose can
“But we do not take our facts
from fiction in England,” said Maggie.
“Nor,” put in Steinmetz,
with his blandest smile, “do we allow fiction
to affect our facts.”
Vassili glanced at Steinmetz sideways.
“Here is dinner,” he said. “Mme.
la Princesse, may I have the honor?”
The table was gorgeously decorated;
the wine was perfect; the dishes Parisian. Every
thing was brilliant, and Etta’s spirits rose.
Such little things affect the spirits of such little-minded
women. It requires a certain mental reserve from
which to extract cheerfulness over a chop and a pint
of beer withal, served on a doubtful cloth. But
some of us find it easy enough to be witty and brilliant
over good wine and a perfectly appointed table.
“It is exile; it is nothing
short of exile,” protested Vassili, who led
the conversation. “Much as I admire my own
country, as a country, I do not pretend to regret
a fate that keeps me resident in Paris. For men
it is different, but for madame, and for you,
mademoiselle ach!” He shrugged
his shoulders and looked up to the ceiling in mute
appeal to the gods above it. “Beauty, brilliancy,
wit they are all lost in Russia.”
He bowed to the princess, who was
looking, and to Maggie, who was not.
“What would Paris say if it
knew what it was losing?” he added in a lower
tone to Etta, who smiled, well pleased. She was
not always able to distinguish between impertinence
and flattery. And indeed they are so closely
allied that the distinction is subtle.
Steinmetz, on the left hand of the
marquise, addressed one or two remarks to that lady,
who replied with her mouth full. He soon discovered
that that which was before her interested her more
than any thing around, and during the banquet he contented
himself by uttering an exclamation of delight at a
particular flavor which the lady was kind enough to
point out to him with an eloquent and emphatic fork
from time to time.
Vassili noted this with some disgust.
He would have preferred that Karl Steinmetz were greedy
or more conversational.
“But,” the host added
aloud, “ladies are so good. Perhaps you
are interested in the peasants?”
Etta looked at Steinmetz, who gave an imperceptible
“Yes,” she answered, “I am.”
Vassili followed her glance, and found
Steinmetz eating with grave appreciation of the fare
“Ah!” he said in an expectant
tone; “then you will no doubt pass much of your
time in endeavoring to alleviate their troubles their
self-inflicted troubles, with all deference to ce
“Why with deference to me?”
asked Paul, looking up quietly, with something in
his steady gaze that made Maggie glance anxiously at
“Well, I understand that you
hold different opinions,” said the Russian.
“Not at all,” answered
Paul. “I admit that the peasants have themselves
to blame just as a dog has himself to blame
when he is caught in a trap.”
“Is the case analogous?
Let me recommend those olives I have them
from Barcelona by a courier.”
“Quite,” answered Paul;
“and it is the obvious duty of those who know
better to teach the dog to avoid the places where the
traps are set. Thanks, the olives are excellent.”
“Ah!” said Vassili, turning
courteously to Maggie, “I sometimes thank my
star that I am not a landholder only a poor
bureaucrat. It is so difficult to comprehend
these questions, mademoiselle. But of all men
in or out of Russia it is possible our dear prince
knows best of what he is talking.”
“Oh, no!” disclaimed Paul,
with that gravity at which some were ready to laugh.
“I only judge in a small way from, a small experience.”
“Ah! you are too modest.
You know the peasants thoroughly, you understand them,
you love them so, at least, I have been
told. Is it not so, Mme. la Princesse?”
Karl Steinmetz was frowning over an olive.
“I really do not know,” said Etta, who
had glanced across the table.
“I assure you, madame,
it is so. I am always hearing good of you, prince.”
“From whom?” asked Paul.
Vassili shrugged his peculiarly square shoulders.
“Ah! From all and sundry.”
“I did not know the prince had
so many enemies,” said Steinmetz bluntly, whereat
the marquise laughed suddenly, and apparently approached
within bowing distance of apoplexy.
In such wise the conversation went
on during the dinner, which was a long one. Continually,
repeatedly, Vassili approached the subject of Osterno
and the daily life in that sequestered country.
But those who knew were silent, and it was obvious
that Etta and Maggie were ignorant of the life to
which they were going.
From time to time Vassili raised his
dull, yellow eyes to the servants, who d’ailleurs
were doing their work perfectly, and invariably the
master’s glance fell to the glasses again.
These the servants never left in peace constantly
replenishing, constantly watching with that assiduity
which makes men thirsty against their will by reason
of the repeated reminder.
But tongues wagged no more freely
for the choice vintages poured upon them. Paul
had a grave, strong head and that self-control against
which alcohol may ply itself in vain. Karl Steinmetz
had taken his degree at Heidelberg. He was a
seasoned vessel, having passed that way before.
Etta was bright enough amusing,
light, and gay so long as it was a question
of mere social gossip; but whenever Vassili spoke of
the country to which he expressed so deep a devotion,
she, seeming to take her cue from her husband and
his agent, fell to pleasant, non-committing silence.
It was only after dinner, in the drawing-room,
while musicians discoursed Offenbach and Rossini from
behind a screen of fern and flower, that Vassili found
an opportunity of addressing himself directly to Etta.
In part she desired this opportunity, with a breathless
apprehension behind her bright society smile.
Without her assistance he never would have had it.
“It is most kind of you,”
he said in French, which language had been spoken
all the evening in courtesy to the marquise, who was
now asleep “it is most kind of you
to condescend to visit my poor house, princess.
Believe me, I feel the honor deeply. When you
first came into the room you may have observed
it I was quite taken aback. I I
have read in books of beauty capable of taking away
a man’s breath. You must excuse me I
am a plain-spoken man. I never met it until this
Etta excused him readily enough.
She could forgive plenty of plain-speaking of this
description. Had she not been inordinately vain,
this woman, like many, would have been extraordinarily
clever. She laughed, with little sidelong glances.
“I only hope that you will honor
Paris on your way home to England,” went on
Vassili, who had a wonderful knack of judging men and
women, especially shallow ones. “Now, when
may that be? When may we hope to see you again?
How long will you be in Russia, and ”
“Ce Vassili is the best
English scholar I know!” broke in Steinmetz,
who had approached somewhat quietly. “But
he will not talk, princess he is so shy.”
Paul was approaching also. It
was eleven o’clock, he said, and travellers
who had to make an early start would do well to get
home to bed.
When the tall doors had been closed
behind the departing guests, Vassili walked slowly
to the fire-place. He posted himself on the bear-skin
hearthrug, his perfectly shod feet well apart a
fine dignified figure of a man, of erect and military
carriage; a very mask of a face soulless,
colorless, emotionless ever.
He stood biting at his thumb-nail,
looking at the door through which Etta Alexis had
just passed in all the glory of her beauty, wealth,
“The woman,” he said slowly,
“who sold me the Charity League papers and
she thinks I do not recognize her!”