Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet


Madame Desvarennes understood the situation at a glance. She beheld Cayrol livid, tottering, and excited. She felt Jeanne trembling on her breast; she saw something serious had occurred. She calmed herself and put on a cold manner to enable her the better to suppress any resistance that they might offer.

"What is the matter?" she asked, looking severely at Cayrol.

"Something quite unexpected," replied the banker, laughing nervously. "Madame refuses to follow me."

"And for what reason?" she asked.

"She dare not speak!" Cayrol resumed, whose excitement increased as he spoke. "It appears she has in her heart an unhappy love! And as I do not resemble the dreamed-of type, Madame has repugnances. But you understand the affair is not going to end there. It is not usual to come and say to a husband, twelve hours after marriage, 'Sir, I am very sorry, but I love somebody else!' It would be too convenient. I shall not lend myself to these whims."

"Cayrol, oblige me by speaking in a lower tone," said Madame Desvarennes, quietly. "There is some misunderstanding between you and this child."

The husband shrugged his broad shoulders.

"A misunderstanding? Faith! I think so! You have a delicacy of language which pleases me! A misunderstanding! Say rather a shameful deception! But I want to know the gentleman's name. She will have to speak. I am not a scented, educated gentleman. I am a peasant, and if I have to—"

"Enough," said Madame Desvarennes, sharply tapping with the tips of her fingers Cayrol's great fist which he held menacingly like a butcher about to strike. Then, taking him quietly aside toward the window, she added:

"You are a fool to go on like this! Go to my room for a moment. To you, now, she will not say anything; to me she will confide all and we shall know what to do."

Cayrol's face brightened.

"You are right," he said. "Yes, as ever, you are right. You must excuse rile, I do not know how to talk to women. Rebuke her and put a little sense in her head. But don't leave her; she is fit to commit any folly."

Madame Desvarennes smiled.

"Be easy," she answered.

And making a sign to Cayrol, who was leaving the room, she returned to Jeanne.

"Come, my child, compose yourself. We are alone and you will tell me what happened. Among women we understand each other. Come, you were frightened, eh?"

Jeanne was one petrified, immovable, and dumb, she fixed her eyes on a flower which was hanging from a vase. This red flower fascinated her. She could not take her eyes off it. Within her a persistent thought recurred: that of her irremediable misfortune. Madame Desvarennes looked at her for a moment; then, gently touching her shoulder, resumed;

"Won't you answer me? Have you not confidence in me? Have I not brought you up? And if you are not born of me, have not the tenderness and care I have lavished upon you made me your real mother?"

Jeanne did not answer, but her eyes filled with tears;

"You know that I love you," continued the mistress. "Come, come to my arms as you used to do when you were little and were suffering. Place your head thereon my heart and let your tears flow. I see they are choking you."

Jeanne could no longer resist, and falling on her knees beside Madame Desvarennes, she buried her face in the silky and scented folds of her dress like a frightened bird that flies to the nest and hides itself under the wings of its mother.

This great and hopeless grief was to the mistress a certain proof that Cayrol was right. Jeanne had loved and still loved another man than her husband. But why had she not said anything, and why had she allowed herself to be married to the banker? She had resisted, she remembered now. She had struggled, and the refusals they had put down to pride they must now attribute to passion.

She did not wish to be separated from him whom she loved. Hence the struggle that had ended in her abandoning her hand to Cayrol, perhaps in a moment of despair and discouragement. But why had he whom she loved not married her? What obstacle had arisen between him and the young girl? Jeanne, so beautiful, and dowered by Madame Desvarennes, who then could have hesitated to ask her hand?

Perhaps he whom Jeanne loved was unworthy of her? No! She would not have chosen him. Perhaps he was not free to marry? Yes, it must be that. Some married man, perhaps! A scoundrel who did not mind breaking a young girl's heart! Where had she met him? In society at her house in the Rue Saint-Dominique, perhaps! Who could tell? He very likely still continued to come there. At the thought Madame Desvarennes grew angry. She wished to know the name of the man so that she might have an explanation with him, and tell him what she thought of his base conduct. The gentleman should have respectable, well-educated girls to trifle with, should he? And he risked nothing! He should be shown to the door with all honors due to his shameful conduct.

Jeanne was still weeping silently at Madame Desvarennes's knee. The latter raised her head gently and wiped away the tears with her lace pocket-handkerchief.

"Come, my child! all this deluge means nothing. You must make up your mind. I can understand your hiding anything from your husband, but not from me! What is your lover's name?"

This question so simply put, threw a faint light on Jeanne's troubled brain. She saw the danger she was running. To speak before Madame Desvarennes! To tell the name of him who had been false to her! To her! Was it possible? In a moment she understood that she was about to destroy Micheline and Serge. Her conscience revolted and she would not. She raised herself and looking at Madame Desvarennes with still frightened eyes,

"For pity's sake, forget my tears! Don't believe what my husband has told you. Never seek to know. Remain ignorant as you are on the subject!"

"Then he whom you love is related to me, as: you wish to hide his name even from me," said Madame Desvarennes with instinctive anguish.

She was silent. Her eyes became fixed. They looked without seeing. She was thinking.

"I beseech you," cried Jeanne, madly placing her hands before Madame Desvarennes's face as if to check her scrutiny.

"If I had a son," continued the mistress, "I would believe—" Suddenly she ceased speaking; she became pale, and bending toward Jeanne, she looked into her very soul.

"Is it—" she began.

"No! no!" interrupted Jeanne, terrified at seeing that the mistress had found out the truth.

"You deny it before I have pronounced the name?" said Madame Desvarennes in a loud voice. "You read it then on my lips? Unhappy girl! The man whom you love is the husband of my daughter!"

My daughter! The accent with which Madame Desvarennes pronounced the word "my" was full of tragical power. It revealed the mother capable of doing anything to defend the happiness of the child whom she adored. Serge had calculated well. Between Jeanne and Micheline, Madame Desvarennes would not hesitate. She would have allowed the world to crumble away to make of its ruins a shelter where her daughter would be joyous and happy.

Jeanne had fallen back overwhelmed. The mistress raised her roughly. She had no more consideration for her. It was necessary that she should speak. Jeanne was the sole witness, and if the truth had to be got by main force she should be made to speak it.

"Ah, forgive me!" moaned the young girl.

"It is not a question of that! In one word, answer me: Does he love you?"

"Do I know?"

"Did he tell you he did?"


"And he has married Micheline!" exclaimed Madame Desvarennes, with a fearful gesture. "I distrusted him. Why did I not obey my instinct?"

And she began walking about like a lioness in a cage. Then, suddenly stopping and placing herself before Jeanne, she continued:

"You must help me to save Micheline!"

She thought only of her own flesh and blood. Without hesitation, unconsciously, she abandoned the other—the child of adoption. She claimed the safety of her daughter as a debt.

"What has she to fear?" asked Jeanne, bitterly. "She triumphs, as she is his wife."

"If he were to abandon her," said the mother with anguish. Then, reflecting: "Still, he has sworn to me that he loved her."

"He lied!" cried Jeanne, with rage. "He wanted Micheline for her fortune!"

"But why that?" inquired Madame Desvarennes, menacingly. "Is she not pretty enough to have pleased him? Do you think that you are the only one to be loved?"

"If I had been rich he would have married me!", replied Jeanne, exasperated.

She had risen in revolt. They were treading too heavily on her. With a ferocious cry of triumph; she added:

"The night he used his influence with me to get me to marry Cayrol, he assured me so on his word of honor!"

"Honor!" ironically repeated Madame Desvarennes, overwhelmed. "How he has deceived us all! But what can I do? What course can I take? A separation? Micheline would not consent. She loves him."

And, in an outburst of fury, she cried:

"Is it possible that that stupid girl loves that worthless dandy? And she has my blood in her veins! If she knew the truth she would die!"

"Am I dead?" asked Jeanne, gloomily.

"You have an energetic nature," retorted the mistress, compassionately; "but she is so weak, so gentle! Ah! Jeanne, think what I have been to you; raise some insurmountable barrier between yourself and Serge!

"Go back to your husband. You would not go with him a little while ago. It was folly. If you separate from Cayrol, you will not be able to keep away Serge, and you will take my daughter's husband from her!"

"Ah! you think only of her! Her, always! She above all!" cried Jeanne, with rage. "But me, I exist, I count, I have the right to be protected, of being happy! And you wish me to sacrifice myself, to give myself up to this man, whom I do not love, and who terrifies me?"

This time the question was plainly put. Madame Desvarennes became herself. She straightened her figure, and in her commanding voice whose authority no one resisted, said:

"What then? You wish to be separated from him? To regain your liberty at the price of scandal? And what liberty? You will be repulsed, disdained. Believe me, impose silence on your heart and listen to your reason. Your husband is a good, loyal man. If you cannot love him, he will command your respect. In marrying him, you have entered into engagements toward him. Fulfil them; it is your duty."

Jeanne felt overpowered and vanquished. "But what will my life be?" she groaned.

"That of an honest woman," replied Madame Desvarennes, with true grandeur. "Be a wife; God will make you a mother, and you will be saved."

Jeanne bowed herself at these words. She no longer felt in them the selfishness of the mother. What the mistress now said was sincere and true. It was no longer her agitated and alarmed heart that inspired her; it was her conscience, calm and sincere.

"Very well; I will obey you," said the young wife, simply. "Kiss me then, mother."

She bent her brow, and Madame Desvarennes let tears of gratitude and admiration fall on it. Then Jeanne went of her own accord to the room door.

"Come, Monsieur," called she to Cayrol.

The husband, grown cooler while waiting, and troubled at the length of the interview, showed his anxious face on the threshold. He saw Madame Desvarennes grave, and Jeanne collected. He dared not speak.

"Cayrol, everything is explained," said the mistress. "You have nothing to fear from him whom you suspected. He is separated from Jeanne forever, And; besides, nothing has passed between him and her who is your wife that could arouse your jealousy. I will not tell you the name of this man now. But if perchance he by some impossibility reappeared and threatened your happiness, I would myself—you understand, me?—point him out to you!"

Cayrol remained thinking for, a moment; then addressing Madame Desvarennes, replied:

"It is well. I have confidence in you."

Then turning toward Jeanne, he added:

"Forgive me and let everything be forgotten."

The mistress's face beamed with joy, as she followed their departing figures with her eyes, and murmured:

"Brave hearts!"

Then, changing her expression:

"Now for the other one!" exclaimed she.

And she went out on to the terrace.

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