Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet


At the end of the Promenade des Anglais, on the pleasant road bordered with tamarind-trees, stands, amid a grove of cork-oaks and eucalypti, a charming white villa with pink shutters. A Russian lady, the Countess Woreseff, had it built five years ago, and occupied it one winter. Then, tired of the monotonous noise of the waves beating on the terrace and the brightness of the calm blue sky, she longed for the mists of her native country, and suddenly started for St. Petersburg, leaving that charming residence to be let.

It was there, amid rhododendrons and strawberry-trees in full bloom, that Micheline and Serge had taken up their abode. Until that day the Princess had scarcely travelled. Her mother, always occupied in commercial pursuits, had never left Paris. Micheline had remained with her. During this long journey, accomplished in most luxurious style, she had behaved like a child astonished at everything, and pleased at the least thing. With her face close to the window she saw through the transparent darkness of a lovely winter's night, villages and forests gliding past like phantoms. Afar off, in the depths of the country, she caught sight of a light glimmering, and she loved to picture a family gathered by the fire, the children asleep and the mother working in the silence.

Children! She often thought of them, and never without a sigh of regret rising to her lips. She had been married for some months, and her dreams of becoming a mother had not been realized. How happy she would have been to have a baby, with fair hair, to fondle and kiss! Then the idea of a child reminded her of her own mother. She thought of the deep love one must feel for a child. And the image of the mistress, sad and alone, in the large house of the Rue Saint-Dominique, came to her mind. A vague remorse seized her heart. She felt she had behaved badly. She said to herself: "If, to punish me, Heaven will not grant me a child!" She wept, and soon her grief and trouble vanished with her tears. Sleep overpowered her, and when she awoke it was broad daylight and they were in Provence.

From that moment everything was dazzling. The arrival at Marseilles; the journey along the coast, the approach to Nice, were all matters of ecstacy to Micheline. But it was when the carriage, which was waiting for them at the railway station, stopped at the gates of the villa, that she broke into raptures. She could not feast her eyes enough on the scene which was before her. The blue sea, the sky without a cloud, the white houses rising on the hill amid the dark foliage, and in the distance the mountaintops covered with snow, and tinged with pink under the brilliant rays of the sun. All this vigorous and slightly wild nature surprised the Parisienne. It was a new experience. Dazzled by the light and intoxicated with the perfumes, a sort of languor came over her. She soon recovered and became quite strong—something altogether new for her, and she felt thoroughly happy.

The life of the Prince and the Princess became at Nice what it had been in Paris during the early days of their marriage. Visitors flocked to their house. All that the colony could reckon of well-known Parisians and foreigners of high repute presented themselves at the villa. The fetes recommenced. They gave receptions three times a week; the other evenings Serge went to the Cercle.

This absorbing life had gone on for two months. It was the beginning of February, and already nature was assuming a new appearance under the influence of spring. One evening, three people—two gentlemen and a lady—stepped out of a carriage at the villa gates, and found themselves face to face with a traveller who had come on foot. Two exclamations broke out simultaneously.

"Marechal!" "Monsieur Savinien!"

"You! at Nice? And by what miracle?"

"A miracle which makes you travel fifteen leagues an hour in exchange for a hundred and thirty-three francs first-class, and is called the Marseilles express!"

"I beg your pardon, my dear friend. I have not introduced you to Monsieur and Mademoiselle Herzog."

"I have already had the honor of meeting Mademoiselle Herzog at Madame Desvarennes's," said Marechal, bowing to the young girl, without appearing to notice the father.

"You were going to the villa?" asked Savinien. "We, too, were going. But how is my aunt? When did you leave her?"

"I have not left her."

"What's that you say?"

"I say that she is here."

Savinien let his arms drop in profound consternation to show how difficult it was for him to believe what was going on. Then, in a faint treble voice, he said:

"My aunt! At Nice! Promenade des Anglais! That's something more wonderful than the telephone and phonograph! If you had told me that the Pantheon had landed one fine night on the banks of the Paillon, I should not be more astonished. I thought Madame Desvarennes was as deeply rooted in Paris as the Colonne Vendome! But tell me, what is the object of this journey?"

"A freak."

"Which manifested itself—"

"Yesterday morning at breakfast. Pierre Delarue, who is going to finish his business in Algeria, and then settle in France, came to say 'Good-by' to Madame Desvarennes. A letter arrived from the Princess. She commenced reading it, then all at once she exclaimed 'Cayrol and his wife arrived at Nice two days ago!' Pierre and I were astonished at the tone in which she uttered these words. She was lost in thought for a few moments, then she said to Pierre: 'You are leaving tonight for Marseilles? Well, I shall go with you. You will accompany me to Nice.' And turning toward me, she added: 'Marechal, pack up your portmanteau. I shall take you with me."'

While speaking, they had walked across the garden, and reached the steps leading to the villa.

"Nothing is easier than to explain this sudden journey," remarked Mademoiselle Herzog. "On learning that Monsieur and Madame Cayrol were at Nice with the Princess, Madame Desvarennes must have felt how very lonely she was in Paris. She had a longing to be near them, and started."

Herzog listened attentively, and seemed to be seeking the connection which should exist between the arrival of the Cayrols and the departure of Madame Desvarennes.

"The funniest thing to me is Marechal taking a holiday," observed Savinien. "They are still at dinner," he added, entering the drawing-room, through the great doors of which sounds of voices and rattling of plates were heard.

"Well, let us wait for them; we are in agreeable company," said Herzog, turning toward Marechal, who only answered by a cold bow.

"What are you going to do here, Marechal?" inquired Savinien. "You will be awfully bored."

"Why? Once in a way I am going to enjoy myself and be a swell. You will teach me, Monsieur Savinien. It cannot be very difficult. It is only necessary to wear a dove-colored coat like you, a gardenia in my buttonhole like Monsieur Le Bride, frizzled hair like Monsieur du Tremblay, and to assail the bank at Monaco."

"Like all these gentlemen," said Suzanne, gayly, "you are a gambler then?"

"I have never touched a card."

"But then you ought to have great good luck," said the young girl.

Herzog had come up to them.

"Will you go partners?" he asked of Marechal. "We will divide the winnings."

"You are too kind," replied Marechal, dryly, turning away.

He could not get used to Herzog's familiarity, and there was something in the man which displeased him greatly. There was, he thought, a police-court atmosphere about him.

Suzanne, on the contrary, interested him. The simple, lively, and frank young girl attracted him, and he liked to talk with her. On several occasions, at Madame Desvarennes's, he had been her partner. There was through this a certain intimacy between them which he could not extend to the father.

Herzog had that faculty, fortunately for him, of never appearing offended at what was said to him. He took Savinien's arm in a familiar manner and asked: "Have you noticed that the Prince has looked very preoccupied for the last few days?"

"I don't wonder at it," replied Savinien. "He has been very unlucky at cards. It is all very well for his wife, my charming cousin, to be rich, but if he is going on like that it won't last long!"

The two men withdrew to the window.

Suzanne went up to Marechal. She had resumed her thoughtful air. He saw her advancing, and, guessing what she was going to say, felt uncomfortable at having to tell an untruth if he did not wish to hurt her feelings by brutal frankness.

"Monsieur Marechal," she began, "how is it that you are always so cold and formal with my father?"

"My dear young lady, there is a great difference between your father and me. I keep my place, that's all."

The young girl shook her head sadly.

"It is not that; you are amiable and ever friendly with me—"

"You are a woman, and the least politeness—"

"No! My father must have hurt your feelings unwittingly; for he is very good. I have asked him, and he did not seem to understand what I meant. But my questions drew his attention to you. He thinks highly of you and would like to see you filling a position more in harmony with your merit. You know that Monsieur Cayrol and my father have just launched a tremendous undertaking?"

"The 'Credit European'?"

"Yes. They will have offices in all the commercial centres of European commerce. Would you like the management of one of these branches?"

"I, Mademoiselle?" cried Marechal, astonished, and already asking himself what interest Herzog could have in making him leave the house of Desvarennes.

"The enterprise is colossal," continued Suzanne, "and frightens me at times. Is it necessary to be so rich? I would like my father to retire from these enormous speculations into which he has thrown himself, body and soul. I have simple tastes. My father wishes to make a tremendous fortune for me, he says. All he undertakes is for me, I know. It seems to me that he runs a great risk. That is why I am talking to you. I am very superstitious, and I fancy if you were with us it would bring us luck."

Suzanne, while speaking, had leaned toward Marechal. Her face reflected the seriousness of her thoughts. Her lovely eyes implored. The young man asked himself how this charming girl could belong to that horrible Herzog.

"Believe me that I am deeply touched, Mademoiselle, by the favor you have done me," said he, with emotion. "I owe it solely to your kindness, I know; but I do not belong to myself. I am bound to Madame Desvarennes by stronger ties than those of interest—those of gratitude."

"You refuse?" she cried, painfully.

"I must."

"The position you fill is humble."

"I was very glad to accept it at a time when my daily bread was not certain."

"You have been reduced," said the young girl, with trembling voice, "to such—"

"Wretchedness. Yes, Mademoiselle, my outset in life was hard. I am without relations. Mother Marechal, a kind fruiterer of the Rue Pavee au Marais, found me one morning by the curbstone, rolled in a number of the Constitutionnel, like an old pair of boots. The good woman took me home, brought me up and sent me to college. I must tell you that I was very successful and gained a scholarship. I won all the prizes. Yes, and I had to sell my gilt-edged books from the Lycee Charlemagne in the days of distress. I was eighteen when my benefactress, Mother Marechal, died. I was without help or succor. I tried to get along by myself. After ten years of struggling and privations I felt physical and moral vigor giving way. I looked around me and saw those who overcame obstacles were stronger than I. I felt that I was doomed not to make way in the world, not being one of those who could command, so I resigned myself to obey. I fill a humble position as you know, but one which satisfies my wants. I am without ambition. A little philosophical, I observe all that goes on around me. I live happily like Diogenes in his tub."

"You are a wise man," resumed Suzanne. "I, too, am a philosopher, and I live amid surroundings which do not please me. I, unfortunately, lost my mother when I was very young, and although my father is very kind, he has been obliged to neglect me a little. I see around me people who are millionaires or who aspire to be. I am doomed to receive the attentions of such men as Le Bride and Du Tremblay—empty-headed coxcombs, who court my money, and to whom I am not a woman, but a sack of ducats trimmed with lace."

"These gentlemen are the modern Argonauts. They are in search of the Golden Fleece," observed Marechal.

"The Argonauts!" cried Suzanne, laughing. "You are right. I shall never call them anything else."

"Oh, they will not understand you!" said Marechal, gayly. "I don't think they know much of mythology."

"Well, you see I am not very happy in the bosom of riches," continued the young girl. "Do not abandon me. Come and talk with me sometimes. You will not chatter trivialities. It will be a change from the others."

And, nodding pleasantly to Marechal, Mademoiselle Herzog joined her father, who was gleaning details about the house of Desvarennes from Savinien.

The secretary remained silent for a moment.

"Strange girl!" he murmured. "What a pity she has such a father."

The door of the room in which Monsieur and Mademoiselle Herzog, Marechal and Savinien were, opened, and Madame Desvarennes entered, followed by her daughter, Cayrol, Serge and Pierre. The room, at the extreme end of the villa, was square, surrounded on three sides by a gallery shut in by glass and stocked with greenhouse plants. Lofty archways, half veiled with draperies, led to the gallery. This room had been the favorite one of Countess Woreseff. She had furnished it in Oriental style, with low seats and large divans, inviting one to rest and dream during the heat of the day. In the centre of the apartment was a large ottoman, the middle of which formed a flower-stand. Steps led down from the gallery to the terrace whence there was a most charming view of sea and land.

On seeing his aunt enter, Savinien rushed forward and seized both her hands. Madame Desvarennes's arrival was an element of interest in his unoccupied life. The dandy guessed at some mysterious business and thought it possible that he might get to know it. With open ears and prying eyes, he sought the meaning of the least words.

"If you knew, my dear aunt, how surprised I am to see you here," he exclaimed in his hypocritical way.

"Not more so than I am to find myself here," said she, with a smile. "But, bah! I have slipped my traces for a week."

"And what are you going to do here?" continued Savinien.

"What everybody does. By-the-bye, what do they do?" asked Madame Desvarennes, with vivacity.

"That depends," answered the Prince. "There are two distinct populations here. On the one hand, those who take care of themselves; on the other, those who enjoy themselves. For the former there is the constitutional every morning in the sun, with slow measured steps on the Promenade des Anglais. For the latter there are excursions, races, regattas. The first economize their life like misers; the second waste it like prodigals. Then night comes on, and the air grows cold. Those who take care of themselves go home, those who amuse themselves go out. The first put on dressing-gowns; the second put on ball-dresses. Here, the house is quiet, lit up by a night-light; there, the rooms sparkle with light, and resound with the noise of music and dancing. Here they cough, there they laugh. Infusion on the one hand, punch on the other. In fact, everywhere and always, a contrast. Nice is at once the saddest and the gayest town. One dies of over-enjoyment, and one amuses one's self at the risk of dying."

"A sojourn here is very dangerous, then?"

"Oh! aunt, not so dangerous, nor, above all, so amusing as the Prince says. We are a set of jolly fellows, who kill time between the dining-room of the hotel, pigeon-shooting, and the Cercle, which is not so very amusing after all."

"The dining-room is bearable," said Marechal, "but pigeon-shooting must in time become—"

"We put some interest into the game."

"How so?"

"Oh! It is very simple: a gentleman with a gun in his hand stands before the boxes which contain the pigeons. You say to me: 'I bet fifty louis that the bird will fall.' I answer, 'Done.' The gentleman calls out, 'Pull;' the box opens, the pigeon flies, the shot follows. The bird falls or does not fall. I lose or win fifty louis."

"Most interesting!" exclaimed Mademoiselle Herzog.

"Pshaw!" said Savinien with ironical indifference, "it takes the place of 'trente et quarante,' and is better than 'odd or even' on the numbers of the cabs which pass."

"And what do the pigeons say to that?" asked Pierre, seriously.

"They are not consulted," said Serge, gayly.

"Then there are races and regattas," continued Savinien.

"In which case you bet on the horses?" interrupted Marechal.

"Or on the boats."

"In fact, betting is applied to all circumstances of life?"

"Exactly; and to crown all, we have the Cercle, where we go in the evening. Baccarat triumphs there. It is not very varied either: A hundred louis? Done—Five. I draw. There are some people who draw at five. Nine, I show up, I win or I lose, and the game continues."

"And that amid the glare of gas and the smoke of tobacco," said Marechal, "when the nights are so splendid and the orange-trees smell so sweetly. What a strange existence!"

"An existence for idiots, Marechal," sighed Savinien, "that I, a man of business, must submit to, through my aunt's domineering ways! You know now how men of pleasure spend their lives, my friend, and you might write a substantial resume entitled, 'The Fool's Breviary.' I am sure it would sell well."

Madame Desvarennes, who had heard the last words, was no longer listening. She was lost in a deep reverie. She was much altered since grief and trouble had come upon her; her face was worn, her temples hollow, her chin was more prominent. Her eyes had sunk into her head, and were surrounded by dark rims.

Serge, leaning against the wall near the window, was observing her. He was wondering with secret anxiety what had brought Madame Desvarennes so suddenly to his house after a separation of two months, during which time she had scarcely written to Micheline. Was the question of money to be resumed? Since the morning Madame had been smiling, calm and pleased like a schoolgirl home for her holidays. This was the first time she had allowed a sad expression to rest on her face. Her gayety was feigned then.

A look crossing his made him start. Jeanne had just turned her eyes toward him. For a second they met his own. Serge could not help shuddering. Jeanne was calling his attention to Madame Desvarennes; she, too, was observing her. Was it on their account she had come to Nice? Had their secret fallen into her hands? He resolved to find out.

Jeanne had turned away her eyes from him. He could feast his on her now. She had become more beautiful. The tone of her complexion had become warmer. Her figure had developed. Serge longed to call her his own. For a moment his hands trembled; his throat was dry, his heart seemed to stop beating.

He tried to shake off this attraction, and walked to the centre of the room. At the same time visitors were announced. Le Bride, with his inseparable friend, Du Tremblay, escorting Lady Harton, Serge's beautiful cousin, who had caused Micheline some anxiety on the day of her marriage, but whom she no longer feared; then the Prince and Princess Odescalchi, Venetian nobles, followed by Monsieur Clement Souverain, a young Belgian, starter of the Nice races, a great pigeon shot, and a mad leader of cotillons.

"Oh, dear me! my lady, all in black?" said Micheline, pointing to the tight-fitting black satin worn by the English beauty.

"Yes, my dear Princess; mourning," replied Lady Harton, with a vigorous shake of the hands. "Ball-room mourning—one of my best partners; gentlemen, you know Harry Tornwall?"

"Countess Alberti's cavalier?" added Serge. "Well?"

"Well! he has just killed himself."

A concert of exclamations arose in the drawing-room, and the visitors suddenly surrounded her.

"What! did you not know? It was the sole topic of conversation at Monaco to-day. Poor Tornwall, being completely cleared out, went during the night to the park belonging to the villa occupied by Countess Alberti, and blew his brains out under her window."

"How dreadful!" exclaimed Micheline.

"It was very bad taste on your countryman's part," observed Serge.

"The Countess was furious, and said that Tornwall's coming to her house to kill himself proved clearly to her that he did not know how to behave."

"Do you wish to prevent those who are cleared out from blowing out their brains?" inquired Cayrol. "Compel the pawnbrokers of Monaco to lend a louis on all pistols."

"Well," retorted young Monsieur Souverain, "when the louis is lost the players will still be able to hang themselves."

"Yes," concluded Marechal, "then at any rate the rope will bring luck to others."

"Gentlemen, do you know that what you have been relating to us is very doleful?" said Suzanne Herzog. "Suppose, to vary our impressions, you were to ask us to waltz?"

"Yes, on the terrace," said Le Brede, warmly. "A curtain of orange-trees will protect us from the vulgar gaze."

"Oh! Mademoiselle, what a dream!" sighed Du Tremblay, approaching Suzanne. "Waltzing with you! By moonlight."

"Yes, friend Pierrot!" sang Suzanne, bursting into a laugh.

Already the piano, vigorously attacked by Pierre, desirous of making himself useful since he could not be agreeable, was heard in the next room. Serge had slowly approached Jeanne.

"Will you do me the favor of dancing with me?" he asked, softly.

The young woman started; her cheeks became pale, and in a sharp tone she answered:

"Why don't you ask your wife?"

Serge smiled.

"You or nobody."

Jeanne raised her eyes boldly, and looking at him in the face, said, defiantly:

"Well, then, nobody!"

And, rising, she took the arm of Cayrol, who was advancing toward her.

The Prince remained motionless for a moment, following them with his eyes. Then, seeing his wife alone with Madame Desvarennes, he went out on the terrace. Already the couples were dancing on the polished marble. Joyful bursts of laughter rose in the perfumed air that sweet March night. A deep sorrow came over Serge; an intense disgust with all things. The sea sparkled, lit up by the moon. He had a mad longing to seize Jeanne in his arms and carry her far away from the world, across that immense calm space which seemed made expressly to rock sweetly eternal loves.

Back | Next | Contents