Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet
THE TELLTALE KISS
Serge slipped from his hiding-place and came toward Jeanne. The carpet
deadened the sound of his steps. The young woman was gazing into vacancy and
breathing with difficulty. He looked at her for a moment without speaking; then,
leaning over her shoulder.
"Is it true, Jeanne," he murmured, softly, "that you hate me?"
Jeanne arose, bewildered, exclaiming,
"Yes, Serge," answered the Prince, "who has never ceased to love you."
A deep blush spread over the young woman's face.
"Leave me," she said. "Your language is unworthy of a man. I will not listen
And with a quick step she walked toward the gallery. Serge threw himself in
her way, saying:
"You must stop; you cannot escape me."
"But this is madness," exclaimed Jeanne, moving away. "Do you forget where we
"Do you forget what you have just been saying?" retorted Serge. "I was there;
I did not miss a word."
"If you heard me," said Jeanne, "you know that everything separates us. My
duty, yours, and my will."
"A will which is enforced, and against which your heart rebels. A will to
which I will not submit."
As he spoke, Serge advanced toward her, trying to seize her in his arms.
"Take care!" replied Jeanne. "Micheline and my husband are there. You must be
mad to forget it. If you come a step farther I shall call out."
"Call, then!" cried Serge, clasping her in his arms.
Jeanne tried to free herself from him, but could not.
"Serge," she said, paling with mingled anguish and rapture in the arms of him
whom she adored, "what you are doing is cowardly and base!"
A kiss stopped the words on her lips. Jeanne felt herself giving way. She
made a supreme effort.
"I won't, Serge!" she stammered. "Have mercy!"
Tears of shame rolled down her face.
"No! you belong to me. The other, your husband, stole you from me. I take you
back. I love you!"
The young woman fell on a seat.
"I love you! I love you! I love you!"
A fearful longing took possession of Jeanne. She no longer pushed away the
arms which clasped her. She placed her hands on Serge's shoulder, and with a
deep sigh gave herself up.
A profound silence reigned around. Suddenly a sound of approaching voices
roused them, and at the same moment the heavy curtain which separated the room
from the adjoining drawing-room was lifted. A shadow appeared on the threshold,
as they were still in each other's arms. The stifled exclamation, "O God!"
followed by a sob of agony, resounded. The door curtain fell, surrounding with
its folds the unknown witness of that terrible scene.
Jeanne had risen, trying to collect her ideas. A sudden light dawned on her
mind; she realized in a moment the extent of her crime, and uttering a cry of
horror and despair, she escaped, followed by Serge, through the gallery.
Then the heavy curtain was lifted again, and tottering, livid, almost dead,
Micheline entered the room. Pierre, serious and cold, walked behind her. The
Princess, feeling tired, had come into the house. Chance had led her there to
witness this proof of misfortune and treason.
Both she and Delarue looked at each other, silent and overwhelmed. Their
thoughts whirled through their brains with fearful rapidity. In a moment they
looked back on their existence. He saw the pale betrothed of whom he had dreamed
as a wife, who had willingly given herself to another, and who now found herself
so cruelly punished. She measured the distance which separated these two men:
the one good, loyal, generous; the other selfish, base, and unworthy. And seeing
him whom she adored, so vile and base compared to him whom she had disdained,
Micheline burst into bitter tears.
Pierre tremblingly hastened toward her. The Princess made a movement to check
him, but she saw on the face of her childhood's friend such sincere grief and
honest indignation, that she felt as safe, with him as if he had really been her
brother. Overcome, she let her head fall on his shoulder, and wept.
The sound of approaching footsteps made Micheline arise. She recognized her
husband's step, and hastily seizing Pierre's hand, said:
"Never breathe a word; forget what you have seen."
Then, with deep grief, she added:
"If Serge knew that I had seen him unawares he would never forgive me!"
Drying her tears, and still tottering from the shock, she left the room.
Pierre remained alone, quite stunned; pitying, yet blaming the poor woman, who,
in her outraged love, still had the absurd courage to hold her tongue and to
resign herself. Anger seized on him, and the more timid Micheline seemed
herself, the more violent and passionate he felt.
Serge came back to the room. After the first moment of excitement, he had
reflected, and wanted to know by whom he had been observed. Was it Madame
Desvarennes, Micheline, or Cayrol, who had come in? At this idea he trembled,
measuring the possible results of the imprudence he had been guilty of. He
resolved to face the difficulty if it were either of these three interested
parties, and to impose silence if he had to deal with an indifferent person. He
took the lamp which Madame Desvarennes had a short time before asked Cayrol to
remove and went into the room. Pierre was there alone.
The two men measured each other with their looks. Delarue guessed the anxiety
of Serge, and the Prince understood the hostility of Pierre. He turned pale.
"It was you who came in?" he asked, boldly.
"Yes," replied Pierre, with severity.
The Prince hesitated for a second. He was evidently seeking a polite form to
express his request. He did not find one, and in a threatening manner, he
"You must hold your tongue, otherwiseŚ"
"Otherwise?" inquired Pierce, aggressively.
"What is the use of threats?" replied Serge, already calmed. "Excuse me; I
know that you will not tell; if not for my sake at least for that of others."
"Yes, for others," said Pierre, passionately; "for others whom you have
basely sacrificed, and who deserve all your respect and love; for Madame
Desvarennes, whose high intelligence you have not been able to understand; for
Micheline, whose tender heart you have not been able to appreciate. Yes, for
their sakes I will hold my peace, not out of regard for you, because you neither
deserve consideration nor esteem."
The Prince advanced a step, and exclaimed:
Pierre did not move, and looking Serge in the face, continued:
"The truth is unpleasant to you, still you must hear it. You act according to
your fancies. Principles and morals, to which all men submit, are dead letters
to you. Your own pleasure above all things, and always! That is your rule, eh?
and so much the worse if ruin and trouble to others are the consequences? You
only have to deal with two women, and you profit by it. But I warn you that if
you continue to crush them I will be their defender."
Serge had listened to all this with disdainful impassibility, and when Pierre
had finished, he smiled, snapped his fingers, and turning toward the young man:
"My dear fellow," said he, "allow me to tell you that I think you are very
impertinent. You come here meddling with my affairs. What authority have you?
Are you a relative? A connection? By what right do you preach this sermon?"
As he concluded, Serge seated himself and laughed with a careless air.
Pierre answered, gravely:
"I was betrothed to Micheline when she saw and loved you: that is my right! I
could have married her, but sacrificed my love to hers: that is my authority!
And it is in the name of my shattered hopes and lost happiness that I call you
to account for her future peace."
Serge had risen, he was deeply embittered at what Delarue had just told him,
and was trying to recover his calmness. Pierre, trembling with emotion and
anger, was also striving to check their influence.
"It seems to me," said the Prince, mockingly, "that in your claim there is
more than the outcry of an irritated conscience; it is the complaint of a heart
that still loves."
"And if that were so?" retorted Pierre. "Yes, I love her, but with a pious
love, from the depth of my soul, as one would love a saint; and I only suffer
the more to see her suffering."
Somewhat irritated the Prince exclaimed, impatiently:
"Oh, don't let us have a lyric recitation; let us be brief and clear. What do
you want? Explain yourself. I don't suppose that you have addressed this rebuke
to me solely for the purpose of telling me that you are in love with my wife!"
Pierre disregarded what was insulting in the Prince's answer, and calming
himself, by force of will, replied:
"I desire, since you ask me, that you forget the folly and error of a moment,
and that you swear to me on your honor never to see Madame Cayrol again."
Pierre's moderation wounded the Prince more than his rage had affected him.
He felt petty beside this devoted friend, who only thought of the happiness of
her whom he loved without hope. His temper increased.
"And what if I refuse to lend myself to those whims which you express so
"Then," said Pierre, resolutely, "I shall remember that, when renouncing
Micheline, I promised to be a brother to her, and if you compel me I will defend
"You are threatening me, I think," cried Serge, beside himself.
"No! I warn you."
"Enough," said the Prince, scarcely able to command himself. "For any little
service you have rendered me, from henceforth we are quits. Don't think that I
am one of those who yield to violence. Keep out of my path; it will be prudent."
"Listen, then, to this. I am not one of those who shirk a duty, whatever the
peril be in accomplishing it. You know what price I put on Micheline's
happiness; you are responsible for it, and I shall oblige you to respect it."
And leaving Serge dumb with suppressed rage, Pierre went out on the terrace.
On the high road the sound of the carriages bearing away Savinien, Herzog and
his daughter, resounded in the calm starry night. In the villa everything was
quiet. Pierre breathed with delight; he instinctively turned his eyes toward the
brilliant sky, and in the far-off firmament, the star which he appropriated to
himself long ago, and which he had so desperately looked for when he was
unhappy, suddenly appeared bright and twinkling. He sighed and moved on.
The Prince spent a part of the night at the club; he was excessively nervous,
and after alternate losses and gains, he retired, carrying off a goodly sum from
his opponents. It was a long time since he had been so lucky, and on his way
home he smiled when he thought how false was the proverb, "Lucky at play,
unlucky in love." He thought of that adorable Jeanne whom he had held in his
arms a few hours before, and who had so eagerly clung to him. He understood that
she had never ceased to belong to him. The image of Cayrol, self-confident man,
happy in his love, coming to his mind, caused Serge to laugh.
There was no thought for Micheline; she had been the stepping-stone to
fortune for him; he knew that she was gentle and thought her not very
discerning. He could easily deceive her; with a few caresses and a little
consideration he could maintain the illusion of his love for her. Madame
Desvarennes alone inconvenienced him in his arrangements. She was sagacious, and
on several occasions he had seen her unveil plots which he thought were well
contrived. He must really beware of her. He had often noticed in her voice and
look an alarming hardness. She was not a woman to be afraid of a scandal. On the
contrary, she would hail it with joy, and be happy to get rid of him whom she
hated with all her might.
In spite of himself, Serge remembered the night of his union to Micheline,
when he had said to Madame Desvarennes: "Take my life; it is yours!" She had
replied seriously, and almost threateningly: "Very well; I accept it!" These
words now resounded in his ears like a verdict. He promised himself to play a
sure game with Madame Desvarennes. As to Cayrol, he was out of the question; he
had only been created as a plaything for princes such as Serge; his destiny was
written on his forehead, and he could not escape. If it had not been Panine,
some one else would have done the same thing for him. Besides, how could that
ex-cowherd expect to keep such a woman as Jeanne was to himself. It would have
been manifestly unfair.
The Prince found his valet asleep in the hall. He went quickly to his
bedroom, and slept soundly without remorse, without dreams, until noon. Coming
down to breakfast, he found the family assembled. Savinien had come to see his
aunt, before whom he wanted to place a "colossal idea." This time, he said, it
was worth a fortune. He hoped to draw six thousand francs from the mistress who,
according to her usual custom, could not fail to buy from him what he called his
The dandy was thoughtful; he was preparing his batteries. Micheline, pale,
and her eyes red for want of rest, was seated near the gallery, silently
watching the sea, on which were passing, in the distance, fishing-smacks with
their sails looking like white-winged birds. Madame Desvarennes was serious, and
was giving Marechal instructions respecting her correspondence, while at the
same time watching her daughter out of the corner of her eye. Micheline's
depressed manner caused her some anxiety; she guessed some mystery. Still the
young wife's trouble might be the result of last evening's serious interview.
But the sagacity of the mistress guessed a new incident. Perhaps some scene
between Serge and Micheline in regard to the club. She was on the watch.
Cayrol and Jeanne had gone for a drive to Mentone. With a single glance the
Prince took in the attitude of one and all, and after a polite exchange of words
and a careless kiss on Micheline's brow, he seated himself at table. The repast
was silent. Each one seemed preoccupied. Serge anxiously asked himself whether
Pierre had spoken. Marechal, deeply interested in his plate, answered briefly,
when addressed by Madame Desvarennes. All the guests seemed constrained. It was
a relief when they rose from the table.
Micheline took her husband's arm and leading him into the garden, under the
shade of the magnolias, said to him:
"My mother leaves us to-night. She has received a letter recalling her to
Paris. Her journey here was, you no doubt know, on our account. Our absence made
her sad, and she could no longer refrain from seeing me, so she came. On her
return to Paris she will feel very lonely, and as I am so often aloneŚ"
"Micheline!" interrupted Serge, with astonishment.
"It is not a reproach, dear," continued the young wife, sweetly. "You have
your engagements. There are necessities to which one must submit; you do what
you think is expected of you, and it must be right. Only grant me a favor."
"A favor? To you?" replied Serge, troubled at the unexpected turn the
interview was taking. "Speak, dear one; are you not at liberty to do as you
"Well," said Micheline, with a faint smile, "as you are so kindly disposed,
promise that we shall leave for Paris this week. The season is far advancing.
All your friends will have returned. It will not be such a great sacrifice which
I ask from you."
"Willingly," said Serge, surprised at Micheline's sudden resolution. "But,
admit," added he, gravely, "that your mother has worried you a little on the
"My mother knows nothing of my project," returned the Princess, coldly. "I
did not care to say anything about it to her until I had your consent. A refusal
on your part would have seemed too cruel. Already, you are not the best of
friends, and it is one of my regrets. You must be good to my mother, Serge; she
is getting old, and we owe her much gratitude and love."
Panine remained silent. Could such a sudden change have come over Micheline
in one day? She who lately sacrificed her mother for her husband now came and
pleaded in favor of Madame Desvarennes. What had happened?
He promptly decided on his course of action.
"All that you ask me shall be religiously fulfilled. No concession will be
too difficult for me to make if it please you. You wish to return to Paris, we
will go as soon as our arrangements have been made. Tell Madame Desvarennes,
then, and let her see in our going a proof that I wish to live on good terms
Micheline simply said: "Thank you." And Serge having gallantly kissed her
hand, she regained the terrace.
Left alone, Serge asked himself the meaning of the transformation in his
wife. For the first time she had shown signs of taking the initiative. Had the
question of money been raised by Madame Desvarennes, and was Micheline taking
him back to Paris in the hope of inducing a change in his habits? They would
see. The idea that Micheline had seen him with Jeanne never occurred to him. He
did not think his wife capable of so much self-control. Loving as she was, she
could not have controlled her feelings, and would have made a disturbance.
Therefore he had no suspicions.
As to their leaving for Paris he was delighted at the idea. Jeanne and Cayrol
were leaving Nice at the end of the week. Lost in the vastness of the capital,
the lovers would be more secure. They could see each other at leisure. Serge
would hire a small house in the neighborhood of the Bois de Boulogne, and there
they could enjoy each other's society without observation.