Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet

CHAPTER XV
MOTHER AND DAUGHTER

Micheline intended following her husband, but Madame Desvarennes, without rising, took hold of her hand.

"Stay with me for a little while," she said, tenderly. "We have scarcely exchanged ten words since my arrival. Come, tell me, are you pleased to see me?"

"How can you ask me that?" answered Micheline, seating herself on the sofa beside her mother.

"I ask you so that you may tell me so," resumed Madame Desvarennes, softly. "I know what you think, but that is not enough." She added pleadingly:

"Kiss me, will you?"

Micheline threw her arms round her mother's neck, saying, "Dear mamma!" which made tears spring to the tortured mother's eyes. She folded her-daughter in her arms, and clasped her as a miser holds his treasure.

"It is a long time since I have heard you speak thus to me. Two months! And I have been desolate in that large house you used to fill alone in the days gone by."

The young wife interrupted her mother, reproachfully:

"Oh! mamma; I beg you to be reasonable."

"To be reasonable? In other words, I suppose you mean that I am to get accustomed to living without you, after having for twenty years devoted my life to you? Bear, without complaining, that my happiness should be taken away, and now that I am old lead a life without aim, without joy, without trouble even, because I know if you had any troubles you would not tell me!"

There was a moment's pause. Then Micheline, in a constrained manner, said:

"What griefs could I have?"

Madame Desvarennes lost all patience, and giving vent to her feelings exclaimed, bitterly:

"Those which your husband causes you!"

Micheline arose abruptly.

"Mother!" she cried.

But the mistress had commenced, and with unrestrained bitterness, went on:

"That gentleman has behaved toward me in such a manner as to shake my confidence in him! After vowing that he would never separate you from me, he brought you here, knowing that I could not leave Paris."

"You are unjust," retorted Micheline. "You know the doctors ordered me to go to Nice."

"Pooh! You can make doctors order you anything you like!" resumed her mother, excitedly, and shaking her head disdainfully. "Your husband said to our good Doctor Rigaud: 'Don't you think that a season in the South would do my wife good?' The doctor answered: 'If it does not do her any good it certainly won't do her any harm.' Then your husband added, 'just take a sheet of paper and write out a prescription. You understand? It is for my mother-in-law, who will not be pleased at our going away.'"

And as Micheline seemed to doubt what she was saying, the latter added:

"The doctor told me when I went to see him about it. I never had much faith in doctors, and now—"

Micheline felt she was on delicate ground, and wanted to change the subject. She soothed her mother as in days gone by, saying:

"Come, mamma; will you never be able to get used to your part? Must you always be jealous? You know all wives leave their mothers to follow their husbands. It is the law of nature. You, in your day, remember, followed your husband, and your mother must have wept."

"Did my mother love me as I love you?" asked Madame Desvarennes, impetuously. "I was brought up differently. We had not time to love each other so much. We had to work. The happiness of spoiling one's child is a privilege of the rich. For you there was no down warm enough or silk soft enough to line your cradle. You have been petted and worshipped for twenty years. Yet, it only needed a man, whom you scarcely knew six months ago, to make you forget everything."

"I have not forgotten anything," replied Micheline, moved by these passionate expressions. "And in my heart you still hold the same place."

The mistress looked at the young wife, then, in a sad tone, said:

"It is no longer the first place."

This simple, selfish view made Micheline smile.

"It is just like you, you tyrant!" she exclaimed. "You must be first. Come, be satisfied with equality! Remember that you were first in the field, and that for twenty years I have loved you, while he has to make up for lost time. Don't try to make a comparison between my love for him and my affection for you. Be kind: instead of looking black at him, try to love him. I should be so happy to see you united, and to be able, without reservation, to think of you both with the same tenderness!"

"Ah! how you talk me over. How charming and caressing you can be when you like. And how happy Serge ought to be with a wife like you! It is always the way; men like him always get the best wives."

"I don't suppose, mamma, you came all the way from Paris to run down my husband to me."

Madame Desvarennes became serious again.

"No; I came to defend you."

Micheline looked surprised.

"It is time for me to speak. You are seriously menaced," continued the mother.

"In my love?" asked the young wife, in an altered tone.

"No; in your fortune."

Micheline smiled superbly.

"If that be all!"

This indifference made her mother positively jump.

"You speak very coolly about it! At the rate your husband is spending, there will be nothing left of your dowry in six months."

"Well!" said the Princess, gayly, "you will give us another."

Madame Desvarennes assumed her cold businesslike manner.

"Ta! ta! ta! Do you think there is no limit to my resources? I gave you four millions when you were married, represented by fifteen hundred thousand francs, in good stock, a house in the Rue de Rivoli, and eight hundred thousand francs which I prudently kept in the business, and for which I pay you interest. The fifteen hundred thousand francs have vanished. My lawyer came to tell me that the house in the Rue de Rivoli had been sold without a reinvestment taking place."

The mistress stopped. She had spoken in that frank, determined, way of hers that was part of her strength. She looked fixedly at Micheline, and asked:

"Did you know this, my girl?"

The Princess, deeply troubled, because now it was not a question of sentiment, but of serious moment, answered, in a low tone:

"No, mamma."

"How is that possible?" Madame Desvarennes demanded, hotly. "Nothing can be done without your signature."

"I gave it," murmured Micheline.

"You gave it!" repeated the mistress in a tone of anger. "When?"

"The day after my marriage."

"Your husband had the impudence to ask for it the day after your marriage?"

Micheline smiled.

"He did not ask for it, mamma," she replied, with sweetness; "I offered it to him. You had settled all on me."

"Prudently! With a fellow like your husband!"

"Your mistrust must have been humiliating to him. I was ashamed of it. I said nothing to you, because I knew you would rather prevent the marriage, and I loved Serge. I, therefore, signed the contract which you had had prepared. Only the next day I gave a general power of attorney to my husband."

Madame Desvarennes's anger was over. She was observing Micheline, and wished to find out the depth of the abyss into which her daughter had thrown herself with blind confidence.

"And what did he say then?" she inquired.

"Nothing," answered Micheline, simply. "Tears came to his eyes, and he kissed me. I saw that this delicacy touched his heart and I was happy. There, mamma," she added with eyes sparkling at the remembrance of the pleasure she had experienced, "he may spend as much as he likes; I am amply repaid beforehand."

Madame Desvarennes shrugged her shoulders, and said:

"My dear child, you are mad enough to be locked up. What is there about the fellow to turn every woman's brain?"

"Every woman's?" exclaimed Micheline, anxiously, looking at her mother.

"That is a manner of speaking. But, my dear, you must understand that I cannot be satisfied with what you have just told me. A tear and a kiss! Bah! That is not worth your dowry."

"Come, mamma, do let me be happy."

"You can be happy without committing follies. You do not need a racing-stable."

"Oh, he has chosen such pretty colors," interrupted Micheline, with a smile. "Pearl-gray and silver, and pink cap. It is charming!"

"You think so? Well, you are not difficult to please. And the club? What do you say to his gambling?"

Micheline turned pale, and with a constraint which hurt her mother, said:

"Is it necessary to make a fuss about a few games at bouillotte?"

This continual defense of Serge exasperated Madame Desvarennes.

"Don't talk to me," she continued, violently. "I am well informed on that subject. He leaves you alone every evening to go and play with gentlemen who turn up the king with a dexterity the Legitimists must envy. My dear, shall I tell you his fortune? He commenced with cards; he continues with horses; he will finish with worthless women!"

"Mamma!" cried Micheline, wounded to the heart.

"And your money will pay the piper! But, happily, I am here to put your household matters right. I am going to keep your gentleman so well under that in future he will walk straight, I'll warrant you!"

Micheline rose and stood before her mother, looking so pale that the latter was frightened.

"Mother," she said, in trembling tones, "if ever you say one word to my husband, take care! I shall never see you again!"

Madame Desvarennes flinched before her daughter. It was no longer the weak Micheline who trusted to her tears, but a vehement woman ready to defend him whom she loved. And as she remained silent, not daring to speak again:

"Mother," continued Micheline, with sadness, yet firmly, "this explanation was inevitable; I have suffered beforehand, knowing that I should have to choose between my affection for my husband and my respect for you."

"Between the one and the other," said the mistress, bitterly, "you don't hesitate, I see."

"It is my duty; and if I failed in it, you yourself, with your good sense, would see it."

"Oh! Micheline, could I have expected to find you thus?" cried the mother, in despair. "What a change! It is not you who are speaking; it is not my daughter. Fool that you are! Don't you see whither you are being led? You, yourself, are preparing your own misfortune. Don't think that my words are inspired by jealousy. A higher sentiment dictates them, and at this moment my maternal love gives me, I fear, a foresight of the future. There is only just time to rescue you from the danger into which you are running. You hope to retain your husband by your generosity? There where you think you are giving proofs of love he will only see proofs of weakness. If you make yourself cheap he will count you as nothing. If you throw yourself at his feet he will trample on you."

The Princess shook her head haughtily, and smiled.

"You don't know him, mamma. He is a gentleman; he understands all these delicacies, and there is more to be gained by submitting one's self to his discretion, than by trying to resist his will. You blame his manner of existence, but you don't understand him. I know him. He belongs to a different race than you and I. He needs refinements of luxury which would be useless to us, but the deprivation of which would be hard to him. He suffered much when he was poor, he is making up for it now. We are guilty of some extravagances, 'tis true; but what does it matter? For whom have you made a fortune? For me! For what object? My happiness! Well, I am happy to surround my Prince with the glory and pomp which suits him so well. He is grateful to me; he loves me, and I hold his love dearer than all else in the world; for if ever he ceases to love me I shall die!"

"Micheline!" cried Madame Desvarennes, beside herself, and seizing her daughter with nervous strength.

The young wife quietly allowed her fair head to fall on her mother's shoulder, and whispered faintly in her ear:

"You don't want to wreck my life. I understand your displeasure. It is natural; I feel it. You cannot think otherwise than you do, being a simple, hardworking woman; but I beg of you to banish all hatred, and confine these ideas within yourself. Say nothing more about them for love of me!"

The mother was vanquished. She had never been able to resist that suppliant voice.

"Ah! cruel child," she moaned, "what pain you are causing me!"

"You consent, don't you, dear mother?" murmured Micheline, falling into the arms of her by whom she knew she was adored.

"I will do as you wish," said Madame Desvarennes, kissing her daughter's hair—that golden hair which, in former days, she loved to stroke.

The strains of the piano sounded on the terrace. In the shade, groups of merry dancers were enjoying themselves. Happy voices were heard approaching, and Savinien, followed by Marechal and Suzanne, came briskly up the steps.

"Oh, aunt, it is not fair," said the dandy. "If you have come here to monopolize Micheline, you will be sent back to Paris. We want a vis-a-vis for a quadrille. Come, Princess, it is delightfully cool outside, and I am sure you will enjoy it."

"Monsieur Le Brede has gathered some oranges, and is trying to play at cup and ball with them on his nose, while his friend, Monsieur du Tremblay, jealous of his success, talks of illuminating the trees with bowls of punch," said Marechal.

"And what is Serge doing?" inquired Micheline, smiling.

"He is talking to my wife on the terrace," said Cayrol, appearing in the gallery.

The young people went off and were lost in the darkness. Madame Desvarennes looked at Cayrol. He was happy and calm. There was no trace of his former jealousy. During the six months which had elapsed since his marriage, the banker had observed his wife closely, her actions, her words: nothing had escaped him. He had never found her at fault. Thus, reassured, he had given her his confidence and this time forever. Jeanne was adorable; he loved her more than ever. She seemed very much changed to him. Her disposition, formerly somewhat harsh, had softened, and the haughty, capricious girl had become a mild, demure, and somewhat serious woman. Unable to read his companion's thoughts, Cayrol sincerely believed that he had been unnecessarily anxious, and that Jeanne's troubles had only been passing fancies. He took credit of the change in his wife to himself, and was proud of it.

"Cayrol, oblige me by removing that lamp; it hurts my eyes," said Madame Desvarennes, anxious that the traces on her face, caused by her late discussion with her daughter, should not be visible. "Then ask Jeanne to come here for a few minutes. I have something to say to her."

"Certainly," said Cayrol, taking the lamp off the table and carrying it into the adjoining room.

Darkness did Madame Desvarennes good. It refreshed her mind and calmed her brow. The noise of dancing reached her. She commenced thinking. So it had vainly tried to prove to her that a life of immoderate pleasure was not conducive to happiness. The young wife had stopped her ears so that she might not hear, and closed her eyes that she might not see. Her mother asked herself if she did not exaggerate the evil. Alas! no. She saw that she was not mistaken. Examining the society around her, men and women: everywhere was feverish excitement, dissipation, and nullity. You might rummage through their brains without finding one practical idea; in all their hearts, there was not one lofty aspiration. These people, in their daily life were like squirrels in a cage, and because they moved, they thought they were progressing. In them scepticism had killed belief; religion, family, country, were, as they phrased it, all humbug. They had only one aim, one passion—to enjoy themselves. Their watchword was "pleasure." All those who did not perish of consumption would die in lunatic asylums.

What was she doing in the midst of this rottenness? She, the woman of business? Could she hope to regenerate these poor wretches by her example? No! She could not teach them to be good, and they excelled in teaching others harm. She must leave this gilded vice, taking with her those she loved, and leave the idle and incompetent to consume and destroy themselves.

She felt disgusted, and resolved to do all to tear Micheline away from the contagion. In the meantime she must question Jeanne. A shadow appeared on the threshold: it was hers. In the darkness of the gallery Serge crept behind her without being seen. He had been watching Jeanne, and seeing her go away alone, had followed her. In the angle of the large bay-window, opening into the garden, he waited with palpitating heart. Madame Desvarennes's voice was heard in the silence of the drawing-room; he listened.

"Sit down, Jeanne; our interview will be short, and it could not be delayed, for to-morrow I shall not be here."

"You are leaving so soon?"

"Yes; I only left Paris on my daughter's account, and on yours. My daughter knows what I had to tell her; now it is your turn! Why did you come to Nice?"

"I could not do otherwise."

"Because?"

"Because my husband wished it."

"You ought to have made him wish something else. Your power over him is absolute."

There was a moment's pause. Then Jeanne answered:

"I feared to insist lest I should awaken his suspicions."

"Good! But admitting that you came to Nice, why accept hospitality in this house?"

"Micheline offered it to us," said Jeanne.

"And even that did not make you refuse. What part do you purpose playing here? After six months of honesty, are you going to change your mind?"

Serge, behind his shelter, shuddered. Madame Desvarennes's words were clear. She knew all.

Jeanne's voice was indignant when she replied:

"By what right do you insult me by such a suspicion?"

"By the right which you have given me in not keeping to your bargain. You ought to have kept out of the way, and I find you here, seeking danger and already trying those flirtations which are the forerunners of sin, and familiarizing yourself with evil before wholly giving yourself up to it."

"Madame!" cried Jeanne, passionately.

"Answer! Have you kept the promise you made me?"

"Have the hopes which you held out to me been realized?" replied Jeanne, with despair. "For six months I have been away, and have I found peace of mind and heart? The duty which you pointed out to me as a remedy for the pain which tortured me I have fruitlessly followed. I have wept, hoping that the trouble within me would be washed away with my tears. I have prayed to Heaven, and asked that I might love my husband. But, no! That man is as odious to me as ever. Now I have lost all my illusions, and find myself joined to him for the rest of my days! I have to tell lies, to wear a mask, to smile! It is revolting, and I suffer! Now that you know what is passing within me, judge, and say whether your reproaches are not a useless cruelty."

On hearing Jeanne, Madame Desvarennes felt herself moved with deep pity. She asked herself whether it was not unjust for that poor child to suffer so much. She had never done anything wrong, and her conduct was worthy of esteem.

"Unhappy woman!" she said.

"Yes, unhappy, indeed," resumed Jeanne, "because I have nothing to cling to, nothing to sustain me. My mind is afflicted with feverish thoughts, my heart made desolate with bitter regrets. My will alone protects me, and in a moment of weakness it may betray me."

"You still love him?" asked Madame Desvarennes, in a deep voice which made Serge quiver.

"Do I know? There are times when I think I hate him. What I have endured since I have been here is incredible! Everything galls me, irritates me. My husband is blind, Micheline unsuspicious, and Serge smiles quietly, as if he were preparing some treachery. Jealousy, anger, contempt, are all conflicting within me. I feel that I ought to go away, and still I feel a horrible delight in remaining."

"Poor child!" said Madame Desvarennes. "I pity you from my soul. Forgive my unjust words; you have done all in your power. You have had momentary weaknesses like all human beings. You must be helped, and may rely on me. I will speak to your husband to-morrow; he shall take you away. Lacking happiness, you must have peace. Go you are a brave heart, and if Heaven be just, you will be rewarded."

Serge heard the sound of a kiss. In an embrace, the mother had blessed her adopted daughter. Then the Prince saw Madame Desvarennes go slowly past him. And the silence was broken only by the sobs of Jeanne who was half lying on the sofa in the darkness.



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