Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet


One morning in the month of May, 1879, a young man, elegantly attired, alighted from a well-appointed carriage before the door of Madame Desvarennes's house. The young man passed quickly before the porter in uniform, decorated with a military medal, stationed near the door. The visitor found himself in an anteroom which communicated with several corridors. A messenger was seated in the depth of a large armchair, reading the newspaper, and not even lending an inattentive ear to the whispered conversation of a dozen canvassers, who were patiently awaiting their turn for gaining a hearing. On seeing the young man enter by the private door, the messenger rose, dropped his newspaper on the armchair, hastily raised his velvet skullcap, tried to smile, and made two steps forward.

"Good-morning, old Felix," said the young man, in a friendly tone to the messenger. "Is my aunt within?"

"Yes, Monsieur Savinien, Madame Desvarennes is in her office; but she has been engaged for more than an hour with the Financial Secretary of the War Department."

In uttering these words old Felix put on a mysterious and important air, which denoted how serious the discussions going on in the adjoining room seemed to his mind.

"You see," continued he, showing Madame Desvarennes's nephew the anteroom full of people, "madame has kept all these waiting since this morning, and perhaps she won't see them."

"I must see her though," murmured the young man.

He reflected a moment, then added:

"Is Monsieur Marechal in?"

"Yes, sir, certainly. If you will allow me I will announce you."

"It is unnecessary."

And, stepping forward, he entered the office adjoining that of Madame Desvarennes.

Seated at a large table of black wood, covered with bundles of papers and notes, a young man was working. He was thirty years of age, but appeared much older. His prematurely bald forehead, and wrinkled brow, betokened a life of severe struggles and privations, or a life of excesses and pleasures. Still those clear and pure eyes were not those of a libertine, and the straight nose solidly joined to the face was that of a searcher. Whatever the cause, the man was old before his time.

On hearing the door of his office open, he raised his eyes, put down his pen, and was making a movement toward his visitor, when the latter interrupted him quickly with these words:

"Don't stir, Marechal, or I shall be off! I only came in until Aunt Desvarennes is at liberty; but if I disturb you I will go and take a turn, smoke a cigar, and come back in three quarters of an hour."

"You do not disturb me, Monsieur Savinien; at least not often enough, for be it said, without reproaching you, it is more than three months since we have seen anything of you. There, the post is finished. I was writing the last addresses."

And taking a heavy bundle of papers off the desk, Marechal showed them to Savinien.

"Gracious! It seems that business is going on well here."

"Better and better."

"You are making mountains of flour."

"Yes; high as Mont Blanc; and then, we now have a fleet."

"What! a fleet?" cried Savinien, whose face expressed doubt and surprise at the same time.

"Yes, a steam fleet. Last year Madame Desvarennes was not satisfied with the state in which her corn came from the East. The corn was damaged owing to defective stowage; the firm claimed compensation from the steamship company. The claim was only moderately satisfied, Madame Desvarennes got vexed, and now we import our own. We have branches at Smyrna and Odessa."

"It is fabulous! If it goes on, my aunt will have an administration as important as that of a European state. Oh! you are happy here, you people; you are busy. I amuse myself! And if you knew how it wearies me! I am withering, consuming myself, I am longing for business."

And saying these words, young Monsieur Desvarennes allowed a sorrowful moan to escape him.

"It seems to me," said Marechal, "that it only depends upon yourself to do as much and more business than any one?"

"You know well enough that it is not so," sighed Savinien; "my aunt is opposed to it."

"What a mistake!" cried Marechal, quickly. "I have heard Madame Desvarennes say more than twenty times how she regretted your being unemployed. Come into the firm, you will have a good berth in the counting-house."

"In the counting-house!" cried Savinien, bitterly; "there's the sore point. Now look here; my friend, do you think that an organization like mine is made to bend to the trivialities of a copying clerk's work? To follow the humdrum of every-day routine? To blacken paper? To become a servant?—me! with what I have in my brain?"

And, rising abruptly, Savinien began to walk hurriedly up and down the room, disdainfully shaking his little head with its low forehead on which were plastered a few fair curls (made with curling-irons), with the indignant air of an Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.

"Oh, I know very well what is at the bottom of the business—my aunt is jealous of me because I am a man of ideas. She wishes to be the only one of the family who possesses any. She thinks of binding me down to a besotting work," continued he, "but I won't have it. I know what I want! It is independence of thought, bent on the solution of great problems—that is, a wide field to apply my discoveries. But a fixed rule, common law, I could not submit to it."

"It is like the examinations," observed Marechal, looking slyly at young Desvarennes, who was drawing himself up to his full height; "examinations never suited you."

"Never," said Savinien, energetically. "They wished to get me into the Polytechnic School; impossible! Then the Central School; no better. I astonished the examiners by the novelty of my ideas. They refused me."

"Well, you know," retorted Marechal, "if you began by overthrowing their theories—"

"That's it!" cried Savinien, triumphantly. "My mind is stronger than I; I must let my imagination have free run, and no one will ever know what that particular turn of mind has cost me. Even my family do not think me serious. Aunt Desvarennes has forbidden any kind of enterprise, under pretence that I bear her name, and that I might compromise it because I have twice failed. My aunt paid, it is true. Do you think it is generous of her to take advantage of my situation, and prohibit my trying to succeed? Are inventors judged by three or four failures? If my aunt had allowed me I should have astonished the world."

"She feared, above all," said Marechal, simply, "to see you astonishing the Tribunal of Commerce."

"Oh! you, too," moaned Savinien, "are in league with my enemies; you make no account of me."

And young Desvarennes sank as if crushed into an armchair and began to lament. He was very unhappy at being misunderstood. His aunt allowed him three thousand francs a month on condition that he would not make use of his ten fingers. Was it moral? Then he with such exuberant vigor had to waste it on pleasure and seeing life to the utmost. He passed his time in theatres, at clubs, restaurants, in boudoirs. He lost his time, his money, his hair, his illusions. He bemoaned his lot, but continued, only to have something to do. With grim sarcasm he called himself the galley-slave of pleasure. And notwithstanding all these consuming excesses, he asserted that he could not render his imagination barren. Amid the greatest follies at suppers, during the clinking of glasses; in the excitement of the dance-inspirations came to him in flashes, he made prodigious discoveries.

And as Marechal ventured a timid "Oh!" tinged with incredulity, Savinien flew into a passion. Yes; he had invented something astonishing; he saw fortune within reach, and he thought the bargain made with his aunt very unjust. Therefore he had come to break it, and to regain his liberty.

Marechal looked at the young man while he was explaining with animation his ambitious projects. He scrutinized that flat forehead within which the dandy asserted so many good ideas were hidden. He measured that slim form bent by wild living, and asked himself how that degenerate being could struggle against the difficulties of business. A smile played on his lips. He knew Savinien too well not to be aware that he was a prey to one of those attacks of melancholy which seized on him when his funds were low.

On these occasions, which occurred frequently, the young man had longings for business, which Madame Desvarennes stopped by asking: "How much?" Savinien allowed himself to be with difficulty induced to consent to renounce the certain profits promised, as he said, by his projected enterprise. At last he would capitulate, and with his pocket well lined, nimble and joyful, he returned to his boudoirs, race-courses, fashionable restaurants, and became more than ever the galley-slave of pleasure.

"And Pierre?" asked young Desvarennes, suddenly and quickly changing the subject. "Have you any news of him?"

Marechal became serious. A cloud seemed to have come across his brow; he gravely answered Savinien's question.

Pierre was still in the East. He was travelling toward Tunis, the coast of which he was exploring. It was a question of the formation of an island sea by taking the water through the desert. It would be a colossal undertaking, the results of which would be considerable as regarded Algeria. The climate would be completely changed, and the value of the colony would be increased tenfold, because it would become the most fertile country in the world. Pierre had been occupied in this undertaking for more than a year with unequalled ardor; he was far from his home, his betrothed, seeing only the goal to be attained; turning a deaf ear to all that would distract his attention from the great work, to the success of which he hoped to contribute gloriously.

"And don't people say," resumed Savinien with an evil smile, "that during his absence a dashing young fellow is busy luring his betrothed away from him?"

At these words Marechal made a quick movement.

"It is false," he interrupted; "and I do not understand how you, Monsieur Desvarennes, should be the bearer of such a tale. To admit that Mademoiselle Micheline could break her word or her engagements is to slander her, and if any one other than you—"

"There, there, my dear friend," said Savinien, laughing, "don't get into a rage. What I say to you I would not repeat to the first comer; besides, I am only the echo of a rumor that has been going the round during the last three weeks. They even give the name of him who has been chosen for the honor and pleasure of such a brilliant conquest. I mean Prince Serge Panine."

"As you have mentioned Prince Panine," replied Marechal, "allow me to tell you that he has not put his foot inside Madame Desvarennes's door for three weeks. This is not the way of a man about to marry the daughter of the house."

"My dear fellow, I only repeat what I have heard. As for me, I don't know any more. I have kept out of the way for more than three months. And besides, it matters little to me whether Micheline be a commoner or a princess, the wife of Delarue or of Panine. I shall be none the richer or the poorer, shall I? Therefore I need not care. The dear child will certainly have millions enough to marry easily. And her adopted sister, the stately Mademoiselle Jeanne, what has become of her?"

"Ah! as to Mademoiselle de Cernay, that is another affair," cried Marechal.

And as if wishing to divert the conversation in an opposite direction to which Savinien had led it a moment before, he spoke readily of Madame Desvarennes's adopted daughter. She had made a lively impression on one of the intimate friends of the house—the banker Cayrol, who had offered his name and his fortune to the fair Jeanne.

This was a cause of deep amazement to Savinien. What! Cayrol! The shrewd close—fisted Auvergnat! A girl without a fortune! Cayrol Silex as he was called in the commercial world on account of his hardness. This living money-bag had a heart then! It was necessary to believe it since both money-bag and heart had been placed at Mademoiselle de Cernay's feet. This strange girl was certainly destined to millions. She had just missed being Madame Desvarennes's heiress, and now Cayrol had taken it into his head to marry her.

But that was not all. And when Marechal told Savinien that the fair Jeanne flatly refused to become the wife of Cayrol, there was an outburst of joyful exclamations. She refused! By Jove, she was mad! An unlooked-for marriage—for she had not a penny, and had most extravagant notions. She had been brought up as if she were to live always in velvet and silks—to loll in carriages and think only of her pleasure. What reason did she give for refusing him! None. Haughtily and disdainfully she had declared that she did not love "that man," and that she would not marry him.

When Savinien heard these details his rapture increased. One thing especially charmed him: Jeanne's saying "that man," when speaking of Cayrol. A little girl who was called "De Cernay" just as he might call himself "Des Batignolles" if he pleased: the natural and unacknowledged daughter of a Count and of a shady public singer! And she refused Cayrol, calling him "that man." It was really funny. And what did worthy Cayrol say about it?

When Marechal declared that the banker had not been damped by this discouraging reception, Savinien said it was human nature. The fair Jeanne scorned Cayrol and Cayrol adored her. He had often seen those things happen. He knew the baggages so well! Nobody knew more of women than he did. He had known some more difficult to manage than proud Mademoiselle Jeanne.

An old leaven of hatred had festered in Savinien's heart against Jeanne since the time when the younger branch of the Desvarennes had reason to fear that the superb heritage was going to the adopted daughter. Savinien had lost the fear, but had kept up the animosity. And everything that could happen to Jeanne of a vexing or painful nature would be witnessed by him with pleasure.

He was about to encourage Marechal to continue his revelations, and had risen and was leaning on the desk. With his face excited and eager, he was preparing his question, when, through the door which led to Madame Desvarennes's office, a confused murmur of voices was heard. At the same time the door was half opened, held by a woman's hand, square, with short fingers, a firm-willed and energetic hand. At the same time, the last words exchanged between Madame Desvarennes and the Financial Secretary of the War Office were distinctly audible. Madame Desvarennes was speaking, and her voice sounded clear and plain; a little raised and vibrating. There seemed a shade of anger in its tone.

"My dear sir, you will tell the Minister that does not suit me. It is not the custom of the house. For thirty-five years I have conducted business thus, and I have always found it answer. I wish you good-morning."

The door of the office facing that which Madame Desvarennes held closed, and a light step glided along the corridor. It was the Financial Secretary's. The mistress appeared.

Marechal rose hastily. As to Savinien, all his resolution seemed to have vanished at the sound of his aunt's voice, for he had rapidly gained a corner of the room, and seated himself on a leather-covered sofa, hidden behind an armchair, where he remained perfectly quiet.

"Do you understand that, Marechal?" said dame Desvarennes; "they want to place a resident agent at the mill on pretext of checking things. They say that all military contractors are obliged to submit to it. My word, do they take us for thieves, the rascals? It is the first time that people have seemed to doubt me. And it has enraged me. I have been arguing for a whole hour with the man they sent me. I said to him, 'My dear sir, you may either take it or leave it. Let us start from this point: I can do without you and you cannot do without me. If you don't buy my flour, somebody else will. I am not at all troubled about it. But as to having any one here who would be as much master as myself, or perhaps more, never! I am too old to change my customs.' Thereupon the Financial Secretary left. There! And, besides, they change their Ministry every fortnight. One would never know with whom one had to deal. Thank you, no."

While talking thus with Marechal, Madame Desvarennes was walking about the office. She was still the same woman with the broad prominent forehead. Her hair, which she wore in smooth plaits, had become gray, but the sparkle of her dark eyes only seemed the brighter from this. She had preserved her splendid teeth, and her smile had remained young and charming. She spoke with animation, as usual, and with the gestures of a man. She placed herself before her secretary, seeming to appeal to him as a witness of her being in the right. During the hour with the official personage she had been obliged to contain herself. She unburdened herself to Marechal, saying just what she thought.

But all at once she perceived Savinien, who was waiting to show himself now that she had finished. The mistress turned sharply to the young man, and frowned slightly:

"Hallo! you are there, eh? How is it that you could leave your fair friends?"

"But, aunt, I came to pay you my respects."

"No nonsense now; I've no time," interrupted the mistress. "What do you want?"

Savinien, disconcerted by this rude reception, blinked his eyes, as if seeking some form to give his request; then, making up his mind, he said:

"I came to see you on business."

"You on business?" replied Madame Desvarennes, with a shade of astonishment and irony.

"Yes, aunt, on business," declared Savinien, looking down as if he expected a rebuff.

"Oh, oh, oh!" said Madame Desvarennes, "you know our agreement; I give you an allowance—"

"I renounce my income," interrupted Savinien, quickly, "I wish to take back my independence. The transfer I made has already cost me too dear. It's a fool's bargain. The enterprise which I am going to launch is superb, and must realize immense profits. I shall certainly not abandon it."

While speaking, Savinien had become animated and had regained his self-possession. He believed in his scheme, and was ready to pledge his future. He argued that his aunt could not blame him for giving proof of his energy and daring, and he discoursed in bombastic style.

"That's enough!" cried Madame Desvarennes, interrupting her nephew's oration. "I am very fond of mills, but not word-mills. You are talking too much about it to be sincere. So many words can only serve to disguise the nullity of your projects. You want to embark in speculation? With what money?"

"I contribute the scheme and some capitalists will advance the money to start with; we shall then issue shares!"

"Never in this life! I oppose it. You! With a responsibility. You! Directing an undertaking. You would only commit absurdities. In fact, you want to sell an idea, eh? Well, I will buy it."

"It is not only the money I want," said Savinien, with an indignant air, "it is confidence in my ideas, it is enthusiasm on the part of my shareholders, it is success. You don't believe in my ideas, aunt!"

"What does it matter to you, if I buy them from you? It seems to me a pretty good proof of confidence. Is that settled?"

"Ah, aunt, you are implacable!" groaned Savinien. "When you have laid your hand upon any one, it is all over. Adieu, independence; one must obey you. Nevertheless, it was a vast and beautiful conception."

"Very well. Marechal, see that my nephew has ten thousand francs. And you, Savinien, remember that I see no more of you."

"Until the money is spent!" murmured Marechal, in the ear of Madame Desvarennes's nephew.

And taking him by the arm he was leading him toward the safe when the mistress turned to Savinien and said:

"By the way, what is your invention?"

"Aunt, it is a threshing machine," answered the young man, gravely.

"Rather a machine for coining money," said the incorrigible Marechal, in an undertone.

"Well; bring me your plans," resumed Madame Desvarennes, after having reflected a moment. "Perchance you may have hit upon something."

The mistress had been generous, and now the woman of business reasserted herself and she thought of reaping the benefit.

Savinien seemed very confused at this demand, and as his aunt gave him an interrogative look, he confessed:

"There are no drawings made as yet."

"No drawings as yet?" cried the mistress. "Where then is your invention?"

"It is here," replied Savinien, and with an inspired gesture he struck his narrow forehead.

Madame Desvarennes and Marechal could not resist breaking out into a laugh.

"And you were already talking of issuing shares?" said the mistress. "Do you think people would have paid their money with your brain as sole guarantee? You! Get along; I am the only one to make bargains like that, and you are the only one with whom I make them. Go, Marechal, give him his money; I won't gainsay it. But you are a trickster, as usual!"

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