Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet

CHAPTER XVI
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,

"Serge!"

"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 to you."

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 are?"

"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.

Serge repeated,

"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 resumed:

"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!"

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 candidly?"

"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 her."

"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 idea.

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 like?"

"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 subject."

"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 with her."

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.



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