Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet
THE HOUSE OF DESVARENNES
The firm of Desvarennes has been in an ancient mansion in the Rue Saint
Dominique since 1875; it is one of the best known and most important in French
industry. The counting-houses are in the wings of the building looking upon the
courtyard, which were occupied by the servants when the family whose
coat-of-arms has been effaced from above the gate-way were still owners of the
Madame Desvarennes inhabits the mansion which she has had magnificently
renovated. A formidable rival of the Darblays, the great millers of France, the
firm of Desvarennes is a commercial and political power. Inquire in Paris about
its solvency, and you will be told that you may safely advance twenty millions
of francs on the signature of the head of the firm. And this head is a woman.
This woman is remarkable. Gifted with keen understanding and a firm will, she
had in former times vowed to make a large fortune, and she has kept her word.
She was the daughter of a humble packer of the Rue Neuve-Coquenard. Toward
1848 she married Michel Desvarennes, who was then a journeyman baker in a large
shop in the Chaussee d'Antin. With the thousand francs which the packer managed
to give his daughter by way of dowry, the young couple boldly took a shop and
started a little bakery business. The husband kneaded and baked the bread, and
the young wife, seated at the counter, kept watch over the till. Neither on
Sundays nor on holidays was the shop shut.
Through the window, between two pyramids of pink and blue packets of
biscuits, one could always catch sight of the serious-looking Madame
Desvarennes, knitting woollen stockings for her husband while waiting for
customers. With her prominent forehead, and her eyes always bent on her work,
this woman appeared the living image of perseverance.
At the end of five years of incessant work, and possessing twenty thousand
francs, saved sou by sou, the Desvarennes left the slopes of Montmartre, and
moved to the centre of Paris. They were ambitious and full of confidence. They
set up in the Rue Vivienne, in a shop resplendent with gilding and ornamented
with looking-glasses. The ceiling was painted in panels with bright hued
pictures that caught the eyes of the passers-by. The window-shelves were of
white marble, and the counter, where Madame Desvarennes was still enthroned, was
of a width worthy of the receipts that were taken every day. Business increased
daily; the Desvarennes continued to be hard and systematic workers. The class of
customers alone had changed; they were more numerous and richer. The house had a
specialty for making small rolls for the restaurants. Michel had learned from
the Viennese bakers how to make those golden balls which tempt the most
rebellious appetite, and which, when in an artistically folded damask napkin,
set off a dinner-table.
About this time Madame Desvarennes, while calculating how much the millers
must gain on the flour they sell to the bakers, resolved, in order to lessen
expenses, to do without middlemen and grind her own corn. Michel, naturally
timid, was frightened when his wife disclosed to him the simple project which
she had formed. Accustomed to submit to the will of her whom he respectfully
called "the mistress," and of whom he was but the head clerk, he dared not
oppose her. But, a red-tapist by nature, and hating innovations, owing to
weakness of mind, he trembled inwardly and cried in agony:
"Wife, you'll ruin us."
The mistress calmed the poor man's alarm; she tried to impart to him some of
her confidence, to animate him with her hope, but without success, so she went
on without him. A mill was for sale at Jouy, on the banks of the Oise; she paid
ready money for it, and a few weeks later the bakery in the Rue Vivienne was
independent of every one. She ground her own flour, and from that time business
increased considerably. Feeling capable of carrying out large undertakings, and,
moreover, desirous of giving up the meannesses of retail trade, Madame
Desvarennes, one fine day, sent in a tender for supplying bread to the military
hospitals. It was accepted, and from that time the house ranked among the most
important. On seeing the Desvarennes take their daring flight, the leading men
in the trade had said:
"They have system and activity, and if they do not upset on the way, they
will attain a high position."
But the mistress seemed to have the gift of divination. She worked surely—if
she struck out one way you might be certain that success was there. In all her
enterprises, "good luck" stood close by her; she scented failures from afar, and
the firm never made a bad debt. Still Michel continued to tremble. The first
mill had been followed by many more; then the old system appeared insufficient
to Madame Desvarennes. As she wished to keep up with the increase of business
she had steam-mills built,—which are now grinding three hundred million francs'
worth of corn every year.
Fortune had favored the house immensely, but Michel continued to tremble.
From time to time when the mistress launched out a new business, he timidly
ventured on his usual saying:
"Wife, you're going to ruin us."
But one felt it was only for form's sake, and that he himself no longer meant
what he said. Madame Desvarennes received this plaintive remonstrance with a
calm smile, and answered, maternally, as to a child:
"There, there, don't be frightened."
Then she would set to work again, and direct with irresistible vigor the army
of clerks who peopled her counting-houses.
In fifteen years' time, by prodigious efforts of will and energy, Madame
Desvarennes had made her way from the lonely and muddy Rue Neuve-Coquenard to
the mansion in the Rue Saint-Dominique. Of the bakery there was no longer
question. It was some time since the business in the Rue Vivienne had been
transferred to the foreman of the shop. The flour trade alone occupied Madame
Desvarennes's attention. She ruled the prices in the market; and great bankers
came to her office and did business with her on a footing of equality. She did
not become any prouder for it, she knew too well the strength and weakness of
life to have pride; her former plain dealing had not stiffened into
self-sufficiency. Such as one had known her when beginning business, such one
found her in the zenith of her fortune. Instead of a woollen gown she wore a
silk one, but the color was still black; her language had not become refined;
she retained the same blunt familiar accent, and at the end of five minutes'
conversation with any one of importance she could not resist calling him "my
dear," to come morally near him. Her commands had more fulness. In giving her
orders, she had the manner of a commander-in-chief, and it was useless to haggle
when she had spoken. The best thing to do was to obey, as well and as promptly
Placed in a political sphere, this marvellously gifted woman would have been
a Madame Roland; born to the throne, she would have been a Catherine II.; there
was genius in her. Sprung from the lower ranks, her superiority had given her
wealth; had she come from the higher, the great mind might have governed the
Still she was not happy; she had been married fifteen years, and her fireside
was devoid of a cradle. During the first years she had rejoiced at not having a
child. Where could she have found time to occupy herself with a baby? Business
engrossed her attention; she had no leisure to amuse herself with trifles.
Maternity seemed to her a luxury for rich women; she had her fortune to make. In
the struggle against the difficulties attending the enterprise she had begun,
she had not had time to look around her and perceive that her home was lonely.
She worked from morning till night. Her whole life was absorbed in this work,
and when night came, overcome with fatigue, she fell asleep, her head filled
with cares which stifled all tricks of the imagination.
Michel grieved, but in silence; his feeble and dependent nature missed a
child. He, whose mind lacked occupation, thought of the future. He said to
himself that the day when the dreamt-of fortune came would be more welcome if
there were an heir to whom to leave it. What was the good of being rich, if the
money went to collateral relatives? There was his nephew Savinien, a
disagreeable urchin whom he looked on with indifference; and he was biased
regarding his brother, who had all but failed several times in business, and to
whose aid he had come to save the honor of the name. The mistress had not
hesitated to help him, and had prevented the signature of "Desvarennes" being
protested. She had not taunted him, having as large a heart as she had a mind.
But Michel had felt humiliated to see his own folk make a gap in the financial
edifice erected so laboriously by his wife. Out of this had gradually sprung a
sense of dissatisfaction with the Desvarennes of the other branch, which
manifested itself by a marked coolness, when, by chance, his brother came to the
house, accompanied by his son Savinien.
And then the paternity of his brother made him secretly jealous. Why should
that incapable fellow, who succeeded in nothing, have a son? It was only those
ne'er-do-well sort of people who were thus favored. He, Michel, already called
the rich Desvarennes, he had not a son. Was it just? But where is there justice
in this world?
The first time that she saw him with a downcast face the mistress had
questioned him, and he had frankly expressed his regrets. But he had been so
repelled by his wife, in whose heart a great trouble, steadily repressed,
however, had been produced, that he never dared to recur to the subject.
He suffered in silence. But he no longer suffered alone. Like an overflowing
river that finds an outlet in the valley, which it inundates, the longings for
maternity, hitherto repressed by the preoccupations of business, had suddenly
seized Madame Desvarennes.
Strong and unyielding, she struggled and would not own herself conquered.
Still she became sad. Her voice sounded less sonorously in the offices where she
gave an order; her energetic nature seemed subdued. Now she looked around her.
She beheld prosperity made stable by incessant work, respect gained by spotless
honesty; she had attained the goal which she had marked out in her ambitious
dreams, as being paradise itself. Paradise was there; but it lacked the angel.
They had no child.
From that day a change came over this woman, slowly but surely; scarcely
perceptible to strangers, but easy to be seen by those around her. She became
benevolent, and gave away considerable sums of money, especially to children's
"Homes." But when the good people who governed these establishments, lured on by
her generosity, came to ask her to be on their committee of management, she
became angry, asking them if they were joking with her? What interest could
those brats have for her? She had other fish to fry. She gave them what they
needed, and what more could they want? The fact was she felt weak and troubled
before children. But within her a powerful and unknown voice had arisen, and the
hour was not far distant when the bitter wave of her regrets was to overflow and
be made manifest.
She did not like Savinien, her nephew, and kept all her sweetness for the son
of one of their old neighbors in the Rue Neuve-Coquenard, a small haberdasher,
who had not been able to get on, but continued humbly to sell thread and needles
to the thrifty folks of the neighborhood. The haberdasher, Mother Delarue, as
she was called, had remained a widow after one year of married life. Pierre, her
boy, had grown up under the shadow of the bakery, the cradle of the
On Sundays the mistress would give him a gingerbread or a cracknel, and amuse
herself with his baby prattle. She did not lose sight of him when she removed to
the Rue Vivienne. Pierre had entered the elementary school of the neighborhood,
and by his precocious intelligence and exceptional application, had not been
long in getting to the top of his class. The boy had left school after gaining
an exhibition admitting him to the Chaptal College. This hard worker, who was in
a fair way of making his own position without costing his relatives anything,
greatly interested Madame Desvarennes. She found in this plucky nature a
striking analogy to herself. She formed projects for Pierre's future; in fancy
she saw him enter the Polytechnic school, and leave it with honors. The young
man had the choice of becoming a mining or civil engineer, and of entering the
He was hesitating what to do when the mistress came and offered him a
situation in her firm as junior partner; it was a golden bridge that she placed
before him. With his exceptional capacities he was not long in giving to the
house a new impulse. He perfected the machinery, and triumphantly defied all
competition. All this was a happy dream in which Pierre was to her a real son;
her home became his, and she monopolized him completely. But suddenly a shadow
came o'er the spirit of her dreams. Pierre's mother, the little haberdasher,
proud of her son, would she consent to give him up to a stranger? Oh! if Pierre
had only been an orphan! But one could not rob a mother of her son! And Madame
Desvarennes stopped the flight of her imagination. She followed Pierre with
anxious looks; but she forbade herself to dispose of the youth: he did not
belong to her.
This woman, at the age of thirty-five, still young in heart, was disturbed by
feelings which she strove, but vainly, to rule. She hid them especially from her
husband, whose repining chattering she feared. If she had once shown him her
weakness he would have overwhelmed her daily with the burden of his regrets. But
an unforeseen circumstance placed her at Michel's mercy.
Winter had come, bringing December and its snow. The weather this year was
exceptionally inclement, and traffic in the streets was so difficult, business
was almost suspended. The mistress left her deserted offices and retired early
to her private apartments. The husband and wife spent their evenings alone. They
sat there, facing each other, at the fireside. A shade concentrated the light of
the lamp upon the table covered with expensive knick-knacks. The ceiling was
sometimes vaguely lighted up by a glimmer from the stove which glittered on the
gilt cornices. Ensconced in deep comfortable armchairs, the pair respectively
caressed their favorite dream without speaking of it.
Madame Desvarennes saw beside her a little pink-and-white baby girl, toddling
on the carpet. She heard her words, understood her language, untranslatable to
all others than a mother. Then bedtime came. The child, with heavy eyelids, let
her little fair-haired head fall on her shoulders. Madame Desvarennes took her
in her arms and undressed her quietly, kissing her bare and dimpled arms. It was
exquisite enjoyment which stirred her heart deliciously. She saw the cradle, and
devoured the child with her eyes. She knew that the picture was a myth. But what
did it matter to her? She was happy. Michel's voice broke on her reverie.
"Wife," said he, "this is Christmas Eve; and as there are only us two,
suppose you put your slipper on the hearth."
Madame Desvarennes rose. Her eyes vaguely turned toward the hearth on which
the fire was dying, and beside the upright of the large sculptured mantelpiece
she beheld for a moment a tiny shoe, belonging to the child which she loved to
see in her dreams. Then the vision vanished, and there was nothing left but the
lonely hearth. A sharp pain tore her swollen heart; a sob rose to her lips, and,
slowly, two tears rolled down her cheeks. Michel, quite pale, looked at her in
silence; he held out his hand to her, and said, in a trembling voice:
"You were thinking about it, eh?"
Madame Desvarennes bowed her head, twice, silently, and without adding
another word, the pair fell into each other's arms and wept.
From that day they hid nothing from each other, and shared their troubles and
regrets in common. The mistress unburdened her heart by making a full
confession, and Michel, for the first time in his life, learned the depth of
soul of his companion to its inmost recesses. This woman, so energetic, so
obstinate, was, as it were, broken down. The springs of her will seemed worn
out. She felt despondencies and wearinesses until then unknown. Work tired her.
She did not venture down to the offices; she talked of giving up business, which
was a bad sign. She longed for country air. Were they not rich enough? With
their simple tastes so much money was unnecessary. In fact, they had no wants.
They would go to some pretty estate in the suburbs of Paris, live there and
plant cabbages. Why work? they had no children.
Michel agreed to these schemes. For a long time he had wished for repose.
Often he had feared that his wife's ambition would lead them too far. But now,
since she stopped of her own accord, it was all for the best.
At this juncture their solicitor informed them that, near to their works, the
Cernay estate was to be put up for sale. Very often, when going from Jouy to the
mills, Madame Desvarennes had noticed the chateau, the slate roofs of the
turrets of which rose gracefully from a mass of deep verdure. The Count de
Cernay, the last representative of a noble race, had just died of consumption,
brought on by reckless living, leaving nothing behind him but debts and a little
girl two years old. Her mother, an Italian singer and his mistress, had left him
one morning without troubling herself about the child. Everything was to be
sold, by order of the Court.
Some most lamentable incidents had saddened the Count's last hours. The
bailiffs had entered the house with the doctor when he came to pay his last
call, and the notices of the sale were all but posted up before the funeral was
over. Jeanne, the orphan, scared amid the troubles of this wretched end, seeing
unknown men walking into the reception-rooms with their hats on, hearing
strangers speaking loudly and with arrogance, had taken refuge in the laundry.
It was there that Madame Desvarennes found her, playing, plainly dressed in a
little alpaca frock, her pretty hair loose and falling on her shoulders. She
looked astonished at what she had seen; silent, not daring to run or sing as
formerly in the great desolate house whence the master had just been taken away
With the vague instinct of abandoned children who seek to attach themselves
to some one or some thing, Jeanne clung to Madame Desvarennes, who, ready to
protect, and longing for maternity, took the child in her arms. The gardener's
wife acted as guide during her visit over the property. Madame Desvarennes
questioned her. She knew nothing of the child except what she had heard from the
servants when they gossiped in the evenings about their late master. They said
Jeanne was a bastard. Of her relatives they knew nothing. The Count had an aunt
in England who was married to a rich lord; but he had not corresponded with her
lately. The little one then was reduced to beggary as the estate was to be sold.
The gardener's wife was a good woman and was willing to keep the child until
the new proprietor came; but when once affairs were settled, she would certainly
go and make a declaration to the mayor, and take her to the workhouse. Madame
Desvarennes listened in silence. One word only had struck her while the woman
was speaking. The child was without support, without ties, and abandoned like a
poor lost dog. The little one was pretty too; and when she fixed her large deep
eyes on that improvised mother, who pressed her so tenderly to her heart, she
seemed to implore her not to put her down, and to carry her away from the
mourning that troubled her mind and the isolation that froze her heart.
Madame Desvarennes, very superstitious, like a woman of the people, began to
think that, perhaps, Providence had brought her to Cernay that day and had
placed the child in her path. It was perhaps a reparation which heaven granted
her, in giving her the little girl she so longed for. Acting unhesitatingly, as
she did in everything, she left her name with the woman, carried Jeanne to her
carriage, and took her to Paris, promising herself to make inquiries to find her
A month later, the property of Cernay pleasing her, and the researches for
Jeanne's friends not proving successful, Madame Desvarennes took possession of
the estate and the child into the bargain.
Michel welcomed the child without enthusiasm. The little stranger was
indifferent to him; he would have preferred adopting a boy. The mistress was
delighted. Her maternal instincts, so long stifled, developed fully. She made
plans for the future. Her energy returned; she spoke loudly and firmly. But in
her appearance there was revealed an inward contentment never remarked before,
which made her sweeter and more benevolent. She no longer spoke of retiring from
business. The discouragement which had seized her left her as if by magic. The
house which had been so dull for some months became noisy and gay. The child,
like a sunbeam, had scattered the clouds.
It was then that the most unlooked-for phenomenon, which was so considerably
to influence Madame Desvarennes's life, occurred. At the moment when the
mistress seemed provided by chance with the heiress so much longed for, she
learned with surprise that she was about to become a mother! After sixteen years
of married life, this discovery was almost a discomfiture. What would have been
delight formerly was now a cause for fear. She, almost an old woman!
There was an incredible commotion in the business world when the news became
known. The younger branch of Desvarennes had witnessed Jeanne's arrival with
little satisfaction, and were still more gloomy when they learned that the
chances of their succeeding to great wealth were over. Still they did not lose
all hopes. At thirty-five years of age one cannot always tell how these little
affairs will come off. An accident was possible. But none occurred; all passed
Madame Desvarennes was as strong physically as she was morally, and proved
victorious by bringing into the world a little girl, who was named Michelins in
honor of her father. The mistress's heart was large enough to hold two children;
she kept the orphan she had adopted, and brought her up as if she had been her
very own. Still there was soon an enormous difference in her manner of loving
Jeanne and Michelins. This mother had for the long-wished-for child an ardent,
mad, passionate love like that of a tigress for her cubs. She had never loved
her husband. All the tenderness which had accumulated in her heart blossomed,
and it was like spring.
This autocrat, who had never allowed contradiction, and before whom all her
dependents bowed either with or against the grain, was now led in her turn; the
bronze of her character became like wax in the little pink hands of her
daughter. The commanding woman bent before the little fair head. There was
nothing good enough for Micheline. Had the mother owned the world she would have
placed it at the little one's feet. One tear from the child upset her. If on one
of the most important subjects Madame Desvarennes had said "No," and Micheline
came and said "Yes," the hitherto resolute will became subordinate to the
caprice of a child. They knew it in the house and acted upon it. This manoeuvre
succeeded each time, although Madame Desvarennes had seen through it from the
first. It appeared as if the mother felt a secret joy in proving under all
circumstances the unbounded adoration which she felt for her daughter. She often
"Pretty as she is, and rich as I shall make her, what husband will be worthy
of Micheline? But if she believes me when it is time to choose one, she will
prefer a man remarkable for his intelligence, and will give him her fortune as a
stepping-stone to raise him as high as she chooses him to go."
Inwardly she was thinking of Pierre Delarue, who had just taken honors at the
Polytechnic school, and who seemed to have a brilliant career before him. This
woman, humbly born, was proud of her origin, and sought a plebeian for her
son-in-law, to put into his hand a golden tool powerful enough to move the
Micheline was ten years old when her father died. Alas, Michel was not a
great loss. They wore mourning for him; but they hardly noticed that he was
absent. His whole life had been a void. Madame Desvarennes, it is sad to say,
felt herself more mistress of her child when she was a widow. She was jealous of
Micheline's affections, and each kiss the child gave her father seemed to the
mother to be robbed from her. With this fierce tenderness, she preferred
solitude around this beloved being.
At this time Madame Desvarennes was really in the zenith of womanly splendor.
She seemed taller, her figure had straightened, vigorous and powerful. Her gray
hair gave her face a majestic appearance. Always surrounded by a court of
clients and friends, she seemed like a sovereign. The fortune of the firm was
not to be computed. It was said Madame Desvarennes did not know how rich she
Jeanne and Micheline grew up amid this colossal prosperity. The one, tall,
brown-haired, with blue eyes changing like the sea; the other, fragile, fair,
with dark dreamy eyes. Jeanne, proud, capricious, and inconstant; Micheline,
simple, sweet, and tenacious. The brunette inherited from her reckless father
and her fanciful mother a violent and passionate nature; the blonde was
tractable and good like Michel, but resolute and firm like Madame Desvarennes.
These two opposite natures were congenial, Micheline sincerely loving Jeanne,
and Jeanne feeling the necessity of living amicably with Micheline, her mother's
idol, but inwardly enduring with difficulty the inequalities which began to
exhibit themselves in the manner with which the intimates of the house treated
the one and the other. She found these flatteries wounding, and thought Madame
Desvarennes's preferences for Micheline unjust.
All these accumulated grievances made Jeanne conceive the wish one morning of
leaving the house where she had been brought up, and where she now felt
humiliated. Pretending to long to go to England to see that rich relative of her
father, who, knowing her to be in a brilliant society, had taken notice of her,
she asked Madame Desvarennes to allow her to spend a few weeks from home. She
wished to try the ground in England, and see what she might expect in the future
from her family. Madame Desvarennes lent herself to this whim, not guessing the
young girl's real motive; and Jeanne, well attended, went to her aunt's home in
Madame Desvarennes, besides, had attained the summit of her hopes, and an
event had just taken place which preoccupied her. Micheline, deferring to her
mother's wishes, had decided to allow herself to be betrothed to Pierre Delarue,
who had just lost his mother, and whose business improved daily. The young girl,
accustomed to treat Pierre like a brother, had easily consented to accept him as
her future husband.
Jeanne, who had been away for six months, had returned sobered and
disillusioned about her family. She had found them kind and affable, had
received many compliments on her beauty, which was really remarkable, but had
not met with any encouragement in her desires for independence. She came home
resolved not to leave until she married. She arrived in the Rue Saint-Dominique
at the moment when Pierre Delarue, thirsting with ambition, was leaving his
betrothed, his relatives, and gay Paris to undertake engineering work on the
coasts of Algeria and Tunis that would raise him above his rivals. In leaving,
the young man did not for a moment think that Jeanne was returning from England
at the same hour with trouble for him in the person of a very handsome cavalier,
Prince Serge Panine, who had been introduced to her at a ball during the London
season. Mademoiselle de Cernay, availing herself of English liberty, was
returning escorted only by a maid in company with the Prince. The journey had
been delightful. The tete-a-tete travelling had pleased the young people, and on
leaving the train they had promised to see each other again. Official balls
facilitated their meeting; Serge was introduced to Madame Desvarennes as being
an English friend, and soon became the most assiduous partner of Jeanne and
Micheline. It was thus, under the most trivial pretext, that the man gained
admittance to the house where he was to play such an important part.