Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet


Jeanne had just taken off her ball-dress to put on a dressing-gown of Oriental cloth richly embroidered with silk flowers. Leaning her elbows on the mantelpiece, and breathing heavily, she was waiting. Her maid came in, bringing a second lamp. The additional light displayed the rich warm hangings of ruby plush embroidered in dull gold. The bed seemed one mass of lace.

"Has everybody gone?" asked Jeanne, pretending to yawn.

"Messieurs Le Brede and Du Tremblay, the last guests, are just putting on their overcoats," answered the maid. "But Monsieur Pierre Delarue has come back, and is asking whether Madame will speak with him for a moment."

"Monsieur Delarue?" repeated Jeanne, with astonishment.

"He says he has something important to say to Madame."

"Where is he?" asked Jeanne.

"There, in the gallery. The lights were being put out in the drawing-room."

"Well, show him in."

The maid went out. Jeanne, much puzzled, asked herself, what could have brought Pierre back? It must certainly be something very important. She had always felt somewhat awed in Pierre's presence. At that moment the idea of being face to face with the young man was most distressing to her.

A curtain was lifted and Pierre appeared. He remained silent and confused at the entrance of the room, his courage had deserted him.

"Well," said Jeanne, with assumed stiffness, "whatever is the matter, my friend?"

"The matter is, my dear Jeanne," began Pierre, "that—"

But the explanation did not seem so very easy to give, for he stopped and could not go on.

"That?" repeated Madame Cayrol.

"I beg your pardon," resumed Pierre. "I am greatly embarrassed. In coming here I obeyed a sudden impulse. I did not think of the manner in which I should tell you what I have to say, and I see that I shall have to run a great risk of offending you."

Jeanne assumed a haughty air.

"Well, but, my dear friend, if what you have to say is so difficult, don't say it."

"Impossible!" retorted Pierre. "My silence would cause irreparable mischief. In mercy, Jeanne, make my task easier! Meet me half way! You have projects for to-night which are known. Danger threatens you. Take care!"

Jeanne shuddered. But controlling herself, she answered, laughing nervously:

"What rubbish are you talking about? I am at home, surrounded by my servants, and I have nothing to fear. I beg of you to believe me."

"You deny it!" exclaimed Pierre. "I expected as much. But you are only taking useless trouble. Come, Jeanne, I am the friend of your childhood; you have no reason to fear aught from me. I am only trying to be of use to you. You must know that, by my coming here, I know all. Jeanne, listen to me!"

"Are you mad?" interrupted the young woman, proudly, "or are you taking part in some absurd joke?"

"I am in my right mind, unfortunately for you!" said Pierre, roughly, seeing that Jeanne refused to believe him. "And there is no joke in the matter. Everything is true, serious and terrible! Since you compel me to say things which may be unpalatable, they must out. Prince Panine is in your house, or he soon will be. Your husband, whom you think far away, is within call, perhaps, and will come and take you unawares. Is not that a serious matter?"

A frown overspread her face, and in an ungovernable rage she stepped forward, determined not to give in, and exclaimed:

"Go away! or I shall call for assistance!"

"Don't call, it would look bad!" resumed Pierre, calmly. "On the contrary, let the servants get out of the way, and get the Prince to go if he be here, or if he has not yet arrived, prevent his coming in. So long as I remain here you will dissimulate your fear and will not take any precautions. I will leave you, then. Adieu, Jeanne! Believe that I wished to render you a service, and be sure that when I have crossed the threshold of this door I shall have forgotten everything that I may have said."

Pierre bowed, and, lifting the heavy curtain which hid the door leading to the gallery, went out.

He had hardly gone when the opposite door opened, and Serge entered the room. The young woman rushed into his arms and whispered into his ear, with trembling lips:

"Serge, we are lost!"

"I was there," answered Panine. "I heard all."

"What shall we do?" cried Jeanne, terrified.

"Go away at once. To remain here a moment longer is an imprudence."

"And I, if I remain, what shall I say to Cayrol when he comes?"

"Your husband!" said Serge, bitterly. "He loves you, he will forgive you."

"I know; but then we two shall be separated for ever. Is that what you desire?"

"And what can I do?" cried Serge, in despair. "Everything around me is giving way! Fortune, which has been my one aim in life, is escaping from me. The family which I have scorned is forsaking me. The friendship which I have betrayed overwhelms me. There is nothing left to me."

"And my love, my devotion?" exclaimed Jeanne, passionately. "Do you think that I will leave you? We must go away. I asked you long ago. You resisted; the moment has now come. Be easy! Madame Desvarennes will pay and save your name. In exchange you will give her back her daughter. You don't care about her, because you love me. I am your real wife; she who ought to share your life. Well, I take back my rights. I pay for them with my honor. I break all ties which could hold me back. I am yours, Serge! Our sin and misfortune will bind us more closely than any laws could."

"Think, that with me you will have to endure poverty, and, perhaps, misery," said the Prince, moved by the young woman's infatuation.

"My love will make you forget everything!"

"You will not feel regret or remorse?"

"Never, so long as you love me."

"Come, then," said the Prince, taking Jeanne in his arms. "And if life is too hard—"

"Well," added Jeanne, finishing the sentence with sparkling eyes, "we will seek refuge together in death! Come!"

Serge bolted the door, through which Pierre had passed, and which alone communicated with the other apartments. Then, taking his mistress by the hand, he went with her into the dressing-room. Jeanne threw a dark cloak round her shoulders, put a hat on her head, and without taking either money, jewels, lace, or, in fact, anything that she had received from Cayrol, they went down the little back stairs.

It was very dark. Jeanne did not take a light, as she did not care to attract attention, so they had to feel every step of the way as quietly as possible, striving not to make the least noise, holding their breath, and with beating hearts. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Jeanne stretched out her hand, and sought the handle of the door which opened into the courtyard. She turned it, but the door would not open. She pushed, but it did not give way. Jeanne uttered a low groan. Serge shook it vigorously, but it would not open.

"It has been fastened on the outside," he whispered.

"Fastened?" murmured Jeanne, seized with fear. "Fastened, and by whom?"

Serge did not answer. The idea that Cayrol had done it came to his mind at once. The husband lying in wait, had seen him enter, and to prevent his escaping from his vengeance had cut off all means of retreating.

Silently, they went upstairs again, into the room through the dressing-room. Jeanne took off her bonnet and cloak, and sank into an armchair.

"I must get away!" said Serge, with suppressed rage; and he walked toward the door of the gallery.

"No! don't open that," cried Jeanne, excitedly.

And with a frightened look, she added:

"What if he were behind the door?"

At the same moment, as if Jeanne's voice had indeed evoked Cayrol, a heavy step was heard approaching along the gallery, a hand tried to open the bolted door. Serge and Jeanne remained motionless, waiting.

"Jeanne!" called the voice of Cayrol from the outside, sounding mournfully in the silence, "Jeanne, open!"

And with his fist he knocked imperatively on the woodwork.

"I know you are there! Open, I say!" he cried, with increasing rage. "If you don't open the door, I'll—"

"Go! I beseech you!" whispered Jeanne, in Panine's ear. "Go downstairs again, and break open the door. You won't find any one there now."

"Perhaps he has stationed some one there," answered Serge. "Besides, I won't leave you here alone exposed to his violence."

"You are not alone. I can hear you talking!" said Cayrol, beside himself. "I shall break open this door!"

The husband made a tremendous effort. Under the pressure of his heavy weight the lock gave way. With a bound he was in the middle of the room. Jeanne threw herself before him; she no longer trembled. Cayrol took another step and fixed his glaring eyes on the man whom he sought, uttering a fearful oath.

"Serge!" cried he. "I might have guessed it. It is not only money of which you are robbing me, you villain!"

Panine turned horribly pale, and advanced toward Cayrol, despite Jeanne, who was clinging to him.

"Don't insult me; it is superfluous," said he. "My life belongs to you; you can take it. I shall be at your service whenever you please."

Cayrol burst into a fearful laugh.

"Ah! a duel! Come! Am I a gentleman? I am a plebeian! a rustic! a cowherd! you know that! I have you now! I am going to smash you!"

He looked round the room as if seeking a weapon, and caught sight of the heavy fire-dogs. He caught up one with a cry of triumph, and, brandishing it like a club, rushed at Serge.

More rapid than he, Jeanne threw herself before her lover. She stretched out her arms, and with a sharp voice, and the look of a she-wolf defending her cubs,

"Keep behind me," said she to Serge; "he loves me and will not dare to strike!"

Cayrol had stopped. At these words he uttered a loud cry: "wretched woman! You first, then!"

Raising his weapon, he was about to strike, when his eyes met Jeanne's. The young woman was smiling, happy to die for her lover. Her pale face beamed from out her black hair with weird beauty. Cayrol trembled. That look which he had loved, would he never see it again? That rosy mouth, whose smile he cherished, would it be hushed in death? A thousand thoughts of happy days came to his mind. His arm fell. A bitter flood rushed from his heart to his eyes; the iron dropped heavily from his hand on to the floor, and the poor man, overcome, sobbing, and ashamed of his weakness, fell senseless on a couch.

Jeanne did not utter a word. By a sign she showed Serge the door, which was open, and with a swollen heart she leaned on the mantelpiece, waiting for the unfortunate man, from whom she had received such a deep and sad proof of love, to come back to life.

Serge had disappeared.

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