Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet


Micheline, on her return to Paris, was a cause of anxiety to all her friends. Morally and physically she was changed. Her former gayety had disappeared. In a few weeks she became thin and seemed to be wasting away. Madame Desvarennes, deeply troubled, questioned her daughter, who answered, evasively, that she was perfectly well and had nothing to trouble her. The mother called in Doctor Rigaud, although she did not believe in the profession, and, after a long conference, took him to see Micheline. The doctor examined her, and declared it was nothing but debility. Madame Desvarennes was assailed with gloomy forebodings. She spent sleepless nights, during which she thought her daughter was dead; she heard the funeral dirges around her coffin. This strong woman wept, not daring to show her anxiety, and trembling lest Micheline should suspect her fears.

Serge was careless and happy, treating the apprehensions of those surrounding him with perfect indifference. He did not think his wife was ill—a little tired perhaps, or it might be change of climate, nothing serious. He had quite fallen into his old ways, spending every night at the club, and a part of the day in a little house in the Avenue Maillot, near the Bois de Boulogne. He had found one charmingly furnished, and there he sheltered his guilty happiness.

It was here that Jeanne came, thickly veiled, since her return from Nice. They each had a latchkey belonging to the door opening upon the Bois. The one who arrived first waited for the other, within the house, whose shutters remained closed to deceive passers-by. Then the hour of departure came; the hope of meeting again did not lessen their sadness at parting.

Jeanne seldom went to the Rue Saint-Dominique. The welcome that Micheline gave her was the same as usual, but Jeanne thought she discovered a coldness which made her feel uncomfortable; and she did not care to meet her lover's wife, so she made her visits scarce.

Cayrol came every morning to talk on business matters with Madame Desvarennes. He had resumed the direction of his banking establishment. The great scheme of the European Credit Company had been launched by Herzog, and promised great results. Still Herzog caused Cayrol considerable anxiety. Although a man of remarkable intelligence, he had a great failing, and by trying to grasp too much often ended by accomplishing nothing. Scarcely was one scheme launched when another idea occurred to him, to which he sacrificed the former.

Thus, Herzog was projecting a still grander scheme to be based on the European Credit. Cayrol, less sanguine, and more practical, was afraid of the new scheme, and when Herzog spoke to him about it, said that things were well enough for him as they were, and that he would not be implicated in any fresh financial venture however promising.

Cayrol's refusal had vexed Herzog. The German knew what opinion he was held in by the public, and that without the prestige of Cayrol's name, and behind that, the house of Desvarennes, he would never have been able to float the European Credit as it had been. He was too cunning not to know this, and Cayrol having declined to join him, he looked round in search of a suitable person to inspire the shareholders with confidence.

His daughter often went to the Rue Saint-Dominique. Madame Desvarennes and Micheline had taken a fancy to her, as she was serious, natural, and homelike. They liked to see her, although her father was not congenial to their taste. Herzog had not succeeded in making friends with the mistress; she disliked and instinctively mistrusted him.

One day it was rumored that Suzanne Herzog had gone in for an examination at the Hotel de Ville, and had gained a certificate: People thought it was very ridiculous. What was the good of so much learning for a girl who would have such a large fortune, and who would never know want. Savinien thought it was affectation and most laughable! Madame Desvarennes thought it was most interesting; she liked workers, and considered that the richer people were, the more reason they had to work. Herzog had allowed his daughter to please herself and said nothing.

Springtime had come, and fine weather, yet Micheline's health did not improve. She did not suffer, but a sort of languor had come over her. For days she never quitted her reclining-chair. She was very affectionate toward her mother, and seemed to be making up for the lack of affection shown during the first months of her marriage.

She never questioned Serge as to his manner of spending his time, though she seldom saw him, except at meal hours. Every week she wrote to Pierre, who was buried in his mines, and after every despatch her mother noticed that she seemed sadder and paler.

Serge and Jeanne grew bolder. They felt that they were not watched. The little house seemed too small for them, and they longed to go beyond the garden, as the air of the Bois was so sweet and scented with violets. A feeling of bravado came over them, and they did not mind being seen together. People would think they were a newly-married couple.

One afternoon they sallied forth, Jeanne wearing a thick veil, and trembling at the risk she was running, yet secretly delighted at going. They chose the most unfrequented paths and solitary nooks. Then, after an hour's stroll, they returned briskly, frightened at the sounds of carriages rolling in the distance. They often went out after that, and chose in preference the paths near the pond of Madrid where, behind sheltering shrubs, they sat talking and listening to the busy hum of Parisian life, seemingly so far away.

One day, about four o'clock, Madame Desvarennes was going to Saint-Cloud on business, and was crossing the Bois de Boulogne. Her coachman had chosen the most unfrequented paths to save time. She had opened the carriage-window, and was enjoying the lovely scent from the shrubs. Suddenly a watering-cart stopped the way. Madame Desvarennes looked through the window to see what was the matter, and remained stupefied. At the turning of a path she espied Serge, with a woman on his arm. She uttered a cry that caused the couple to turn round. Seeing that pale face, they sought to hide themselves.

In a moment Madame Desvarennes was out of the carriage. The guilty couple fled down a path. Without caring what might be said of her, and goaded on by a fearful rage, she tried to follow them. She especially wished to see the woman who was closely veiled. She guessed her to be Jeanne. But the younger woman, terrified, fled like a deer down a side walk. Madame Desvarennes, quite out of breath, was obliged to stop. She heard the slamming of a carriage-door, and a hired brougham that had been waiting at the end of the path swept by her bearing the lovers toward the town.

The mistress hesitated a moment, then said to her coachman:

"Drive home." And, abandoning her business, she arrived in the Rue Saint-Dominique a few minutes after the Prince.

With a bound, without going through the offices, without even taking off her bonnet and cloak, she went up to Serge's apartments. Without hesitating, she entered the smoking-room.

Panine was there. Evidently he was expecting her. On seeing Madame Desvarennes he rose, with a smile:

"One can see that you are at home," said he, ironically; "you come in without knocking."

"No nonsense; the moment is ill-chosen," briefly retorted the mistress. "Why did you run away when you saw me a little while ago?"

"You have such a singular way of accosting people," he answered, lightly. "You come on like a charge of cavalry. The person with whom I was talking was frightened, she ran away and I followed her."

"She was doing wrong then if she was frightened. Does she know me?"

"Who does not know you? You are almost notorious—in the corn-market!"

Madame Desvarennes allowed the insult to pass without remark, and advancing toward Serge, said:

"Who is this woman?"

"Shall I introduce her to you?" inquired the Prince, quietly. "She is one of my countrywomen, a Polish—"

"You are a liar!" cried Madame Desvarennes, unable to control her temper any longer. "You are lying most impudently!"

And she was going to add, "That woman was Jeanne!" but prudence checked the sentence on her lips.

Serge turned pale.

"You forget yourself strangely, Madame," he said, in a dry tone.

"I forgot myself a year ago, not now! It was when I was weak that I forgot myself. When Micheline was between you and me I neither dared to speak nor act.

"But now, since after almost ruining my poor daughter, you deceive her, I have no longer any consideration for you. To make her come over to my side I have only to speak one word."

"Well, speak it! She is there. I will call her!"

Madame Desvarennes, in that supreme moment, was assailed by a doubt. What if Micheline, in her blind love, did not believe her?

She raised her hand to stop Serge.

"Will not the fear of killing my daughter by this revelation stay you?" asked she, bitterly. "What manner of man are you to have so little heart and conscience?"

Panine burst into laughter.

"You see what your threats are worth, and what value I place on them. Spare them in the future. You ask me what manner of man I am? I will tell you. I have not much patience, I hate to have my liberty interfered with, and I have a horror of family jars. I expect to be master of my own house."

Madame Desvarennes was roused at these words. Her rage had abated on her daughter's account, but now it rose to a higher pitch.

"Ah! so this is it, is it?" she said. "You would like perfect liberty, I see! You make such very good use of it. You don't like to hear remarks upon it. It is more convenient, in fact! You wish to be master in your own house? In your own house! But, in truth, what are you here to put on airs toward me? Scarcely more than a servant. A husband receiving wages from me!"

Serge, with flashing eyes, made a terrible movement. He tried to speak, but his lips trembled, and he could not utter a sound. By a sign he showed Madame Desvarennes the door. The latter looked resolutely at the Prince, and with energy which nothing could henceforth soften, added:

"You will have to deal with me in future! Good-day!"

And, leaving the room with as much calmness as she felt rage when entering it, she went down to the counting-house.

Cayrol was sitting chatting with Marechal in his room. He was telling him that Herzog's rashness caused him much anxiety. Marechal did not encourage his confidence. The secretary's opinion on the want of morality on the part of the financier had strengthened. The good feeling he entertained toward the daughter had not counterbalanced the bad impression he had of the father, and he warmly advised Cayrol to break off all financial connection with such a man. Cayrol, indeed, had now very little to do with the European Credit. The office was still at his banking house, and the payments for shares were still made into his bank, but as soon as the new scheme which Herzog was preparing was launched, the financier intended settling in splendid offices which were being rapidly completed in the neighborhood of the Opera. Herzog might therefore commit all the follies which entered his head. Cayrol would be out of it.

Madame Desvarennes entered. At the first glance, the men noticed the traces of the emotion she had just experienced. They rose and waited in silence. When the mistress was in a bad humor everybody gave way to her. It was the custom. She nodded to Cayrol, and walked up and down the office, absorbed in her own thoughts. Suddenly stopping, she said:

"Marechal, prepare Prince Panine's account."

The secretary looked up amazed, and did not seem to understand.

"Well! The Prince has had an overdraft; you will give me a statement; that's all! I wish to see how we two stand."

The two men, astonished to hear Madame Desvarennes speak of her son-in-law as she would of a customer, exchanged looks.

"You have lent my son-in-law money, Cayrol?"

And as the banker remained silent, still looking at the secretary, Madame added:

"Does the presence of Marechal make you hesitate in answering me? Speak before him; I have told you more than a hundred times that he knows my business as well as I do."

"I have, indeed, advanced some money to the Prince," replied Cayrol.

"How much?" inquired Madame Desvarennes.

"I don't remember the exact amount. I was happy to oblige your son-in-law."

"You were wrong, and have acted unwisely in not acquainting me of the fact. It is thus that his follies have been encouraged by obliging friends. At all events, I ask you now not to lend him any more."

Cayrol seemed put out, and, with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders up, replied:

"This is a delicate matter which you ask of me. You will cause a quarrel between the Prince and myself—"

"Do you prefer quarreling with me?" asked the mistress.

"Zounds! No!" replied the banker. "But you place me in an embarrassing position! I have just promised to lend Serge a considerable sum to-night."

"Well! you will not give it to him."

"That is an act which he will scarcely forgive," sighed Cayrol.

Madame Desvarennes placed her hand on the shoulder of the banker, and looking seriously at him, said:

"You would not have forgiven me if I had allowed you to render him this service."

A vague uneasiness filled Cayrol's heart, a shadow seemed to pass before his eyes, and in a troubled voice he said to the mistress:

"Why so?"

"Because he would have repaid you badly."

Cayrol thought the mistress was alluding to the money he had already lent, and his fears vanished. Madame Desvarennes would surely repay it.

"So you are cutting off his resources?" he asked.

"Completely," answered the mistress. "He takes too much liberty, that young gentleman. He was wrong to forget that I hold the purse-strings. I don't mind paying, but I want a little deference shown me for my money. Good-by! Cayrol, remember my instructions."

And, shaking hands with the banker, Madame Desvarennes entered her own office, leaving the two men together.

There was a moment's pause: Cayrol was the first to break the silence.

"What do you think of the Prince's position?"

"His financial position?" asked Marechal.

"Oh, no! I know all about that! I mean his relation to Madame Desvarennes."

"Zounds! If we were in Venice in the days of the Aqua-Toffana, the sbirri and the bravi—"

"What rubbish!" interrupted Cayrol, shrugging his shoulders.

"Let me continue," said the secretary, "and you can shrug your shoulders afterward if you like. If we had been in Venice, knowing Madame Desvarennes as I do, it would not have been surprising to me to have had Master Serge found at the bottom of the canal some fine morning."

"You are not in earnest," muttered the banker.

"Much more so than you think. Only you know we live in the nineteenth century, and we cannot make Providence interpose in the form of a dagger or poison so easily as in former days. Arsenic and verdigris are sometimes used, but it does not answer. Scientific people have had the meanness to invent tests by which poison can be detected even when there is none."

"You are making fun of me," said Cayrol, laughing.

"I! No. Come, do you wish to do a good stroke of business? Find a man who will consent to rid Madame Desvarennes of her son-in-law. If he succeed, ask Madame Desvarennes for a million francs. I will pay it at only twenty-five francs' discount, if you like!"

Cayrol was thoughtful. Marechal continued:

"You have known the house a long time, how is it you don't understand the mistress better? I tell you, and remember this: between Madame Desvarennes and the Prince there is a mortal hatred. One of the two will destroy the other. Which? Betting is open."

"But what must I do? The Prince relies on me—"

"Go and tell him not to do so any longer."

"Faith, no! I would rather he came to my office. I should be more at ease. Adieu, Marechal."

"Adieu, Monsieur Cayrol. But on whom will you bet?"

"Before I venture I should like to know on whose side the Princess is."

"Ah, dangler! You think too much of the women! Some day you will be let in through that failing of yours!"

Cayrol smiled conceitedly, and went away. Marechal sat down at his desk, and took out a sheet of paper.

"I must tell Pierre that everything is going on well here," he murmured. "If he knew what was taking place he would soon be back, and might be guilty of some foolery or other." So he commenced writing.

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