Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet


The air was mild, the night clear and bright. Cayrol's carriage rolled rapidly along the broad avenue of the park shadowed by tall trees, the lanterns throwing, as they passed, their quivering light on the thickets. The rumbling carriages took the last guests to the railway station. It was past midnight. A nightingale began singing his song of love to the stars.

Madame Desvarennes mechanically stopped to listen. A sense of sorrow came over this mother who was a prey to the most cruel mental anguish. She thought that she could have been very happy on that splendid night, if her heart had been full of quietude and serenity. Her two daughters were married; her last task was accomplished. She ought to have nothing to do but enjoy life after her own fashioning, and be calm and satisfied. Instead of that, here were fear and dissimulation taking possession of her mind; and an ardent, pitiless struggle beginning against the man who had deceived her daughter and lied to her. The bark which carried her fortune, on reaching port, had caught fire, and it was necessary to begin laboring again amid cares and pains.

A dull rage filled her heart. To have so surely built up the edifice of her happiness, to have embellished it every hour, and then to see an intruder audaciously taking possession of it, and making his despotic and hateful authority prevail! And what could she do against this new master? Nothing. He was marvellously protected by Micheline's mad love for him. To strike Serge would be to wound Micheline, surely and mortally. So this scoundrel could laugh at her and dare her with impunity!

What must she do? Take him aside and tell him that she knew of his disloyal conduct, and tell him of her contempt and hatred for him? And after that? What would be the consequence of this outburst of violence? The Prince, using his power over Micheline, would separate the daughter from the mother. And Madame Desvarennes would be alone in her corner, abandoned like a poor dog, and would die of despair and anger. What other course then? She must dissemble, mask her face with indifference, if possible with tenderness, and undertake the difficult task of separating Micheline from the man whom she adored. It was quite a feat of strategy to plan. To bring out the husband's faults and to make his errors known, and give her the opportunity of proving his worthlessness. In a word, to make the young wife understand that she had married an elegant manikin, unworthy of her love.

It would be an easy matter to lay snares for Serge. He was a gambler. She could let him have ready money to satisfy his passion. Once in the clutches of the demon of play, he would neglect his wife, and the mother might regain a portion of the ground she had lost. Micheline's fortune once broken into, she would interpose between her daughter and son-in-law. She would make him pull up, and holding him tightly by her purse strings, would lead him whither she liked.

Already in fancy she saw her authority regained, and her daughter, her treasure, her life, true mistress of the situation, grateful to her for having saved her. And then, she thought, a baby will come, and if Micheline is really my daughter, she will adore the little thing, and the blind love which she has given to her husband will be diminished by so much.

Serge did not know what an adversary he had against him in his mother-in-law. It was a bad thing to cross the mistress when business matters were concerned, but now that her daughter's happiness was at stake! A smile came to her lips. A firm resolution from that hour must guide her, and the struggle between her son-in-law and herself could only end by the crushing of one of them.

In the distance the music from the work-people's ball was heard. Madame Desvarennes mechanically bent her steps toward the tent under which the heavy bounds of the dancers reechoed. Every now and then large shadows appeared on the canvas. A joyful clamor issued from the ballroom. Loud laughter resounded, mingled with piercing cries of tickled women.

The voice of the master of the ceremonies could be heard jocose and solemn: "La poule! Advance! Set to partners!" Then the stamping of heavy shoes on the badly planed floor, and, above all, the melancholy sounds of the clarionet and the shrill notes of the cornet were audible.

At the entrance of the ballroom, surrounded by tables and stools, two barrels of wine on stands presented their wooden taps, ready for those who wanted to quench their thirst. A large red mark under each barrel showed that the hands of the drinkers wire no longer steady. A cake-seller had taken up his place at the other side, and was kneading a last batch of paste, while his apprentice was ringing a bell which hung over the iron cooking-stove to attract customers. There was an odor of rancid butter, spilled wine, and paraffin oil.

Adjoining the ballroom, a merry-go-round; which had been the delight of the village urchins all day, appealed for custom by the aid of a barrel-organ on which a woman in a white bodice was playing the waltz from 'Les Cloches de Corneville'.

The animation of this fete, in the midst of which Madame Desvarennes suddenly appeared, was a happy diversion from the serious thoughts which beset her. She remembered that Serge and Micheline must be there. She came from under the shadow of the avenue into the full light. On recognizing her, all the workpeople, who were seated, rose. She was really mistress and lady of the place. And then she had fed these people since morning. With a sign she bade them be seated, and walking quickly toward the dancing-room, lifted the red and white cotton curtain which hung over the entrance.

There, in a space of a hundred square yards or so, about a hundred and fifty people were sitting or standing. At the end, on a stage, were the musicians, each with a bottle of wine at his feet, from which they refreshed themselves during the intervals. An impalpable dust, raised by the feet of the dancers, filled the air charged with acrid odors. The women in light dresses and bareheaded, and the men arrayed in their Sunday clothes, gave themselves up with frantic ardor to their favorite pleasure.

Ranged in double rows, vis-a-vis, they were waiting with impatience for the music to strike up for the last figure. Near the orchestra, Serge was dancing with the Mayor's daughter opposite Micheline, whose partner was the mayor himself. An air of joyful gravity lit up the municipal officer's face. He was enjoying the honor which the Princess had done him. His pretty young daughter, dressed, in her confirmation dress, which had been lengthened with a muslin flounce, a rose in her hair, and her hands encased in straw-colored one-button kid gloves, hardly dared raise her eyes to the Prince, and with burning cheeks, answered in monosyllables the few remarks Serge felt forced to address to her.

The orchestra bellowed, the floor shook; the two lines of dancers had advanced in a body. Madame Desvarennes, leaning against the door-post, followed with her eyes her daughter, whose light footsteps contrasted strangely with the heavy tread of the women around her. The mayor, eager and respectful, followed her, making efforts to keep up with her without treading on her long train. It was,

"Excuse me, Madame la Princesse. If Madame la Princesse will do me the honor to give me her hand, it is our turn to cross."

They had just crossed. Serge suddenly found himself facing his mother-in-law. His face lit up, and he uttered a joyful exclamation. Micheline raised her eyes, and following her husband's look, perceived her mother. Then it was a double joy. With a mischievous wink, Serge called Madame Desvarennes's attention to the mayor's solemn appearance as he was galloping with Micheline, also the comical positions of the rustics.

Micheline was smiling. She was enjoying herself. All this homely gayety, of which she was the cause, made her feel happy. She enjoyed the pleasure of those around her. With her compassionate eyes she thanked her mother in the distance for having prepared this fete in honor of her marriage. The clarionet, violin, and cornet sounded a last modulation, then the final cadence put an end to the bounds of the dances. Each took his lady to her place—the mayor with pompous gait, Serge with as much grace as if he had been at an ambassador's ball and was leading a young lady of highest rank.

Madame Desvarennes was suddenly surrounded; cheers resounded, the band struck up the Marseillaise.

"Let us escape," said Serge, "because these good people will think nothing of carrying us in triumph."

And leading away his mother-in-law and his wife, he left the ballroom followed by cheers.

Outside they all three walked in silence. The night air was delightful after coming out of that furnace. The cheering had ceased, and the orchestra was playing a polka. Micheline had taken her husband's arm.

They went along slowly, and close together. Not a word was exchanged; they all three seemed to be listening within themselves. When they reached the house, they went up the steps leading into the greenhouse, which served also as a boudoir to Madame Desvarennes.

The atmosphere was still warm and scented, the lamps still burning. The guests had left; Micheline looked round. The remembrance of this happy evening, which had been the crowning of her happiness, filled her heart with emotion. Turning toward her mother with a radiant face, she cried:

"Ah! mamma! I am so happy," and threw her arms around her.

Serge started at this cry. Two tears came to his eyes, and looking a little pale, he stretched out to Madame Desvarennes his hands, which she felt trembling in hers, and said:

"Thank you."

Madame Desvarennes gazed at him for a moment. She did not see the shadow of a wicked thought on his brow. He was sincerely affected, truly grateful. The idea occurred to her that Jeanne had deceived her, or had deceived herself, and that Serge had not loved her. A feeling of relief took possession of her. But distrust had unfortunately entered her mind. She put away that flattering hope. And giving her son-in-law such a look, which, had he been less moved, he would have understood, she murmured,

"We shall see."

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