Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet


The night seemed long to Madame Desvarennes. Agitated and feverish, she listened through the silence, expecting every moment to hear some fearful news. In fancy she saw Cayrol entering his wife's room like a madman, unawares. She seemed to hear a cry of rage, answered by a sigh of terror; then a double shot resounded, the room filled with smoke, and, struck down in their guilty love, Serge and Jeanne rolled in death, interlaced in each other's arms, like Paolo and Francesca de Rimini, those sad lovers of whom Dante tells us.

Hour after hour passed; not a sound disturbed the mansion. The Prince had not come in. Madame Desvarennes, unable to lie in bed, arose, and now and again, to pass the time, stole on tiptoe to her daughter's room. Micheline, thoroughly exhausted with fatigue and emotion, had fallen asleep on her pillow, which was wet with tears.

Bending over her, by the light of the lamp, the mistress gazed at Micheline's pale face, and a sigh rose to her lips.

"She is still young," she thought; "she may begin life afresh. The remembrance of these sad days will be wiped out, and I shall see her revive and smile again. That wretch was nearly the death of her."

And the image of Serge and Jeanne stretched beside each other in the room full of smoke came before her eyes again. She shook her head to chase the importunate vision away, and noiselessly regained her own apartment.

The day dawned pale and bleak. Madame Desvarennes opened her window and cooled her burning brow in the fresh morning air. The birds were awake, and were singing on the trees in the garden.

Little by little, the distant sound of wheels rolling by was heard. The city was awakening from its sleep.

Madame Desvarennes rang and asked for Marechal. The secretary appeared instantly. He, too, had shared the anxieties and fears of the mistress, and had risen early. Madame Desvarennes greeted him with a grateful smile. She felt that she was really loved by this good fellow, who understood her so thoroughly. She begged him to go to Cayrol's, and gain some information, without giving him further details, and she waited, walking up and down the room to calm the fever of her mind.

On leaving the house in the Rue Taitbout, Serge felt bewildered, not daring to go home, and unable to decide on any plan; yet feeling that it was necessary to fix on something without delay, he reached the club. The walk did him good, and restored his physical equilibrium. He was thankful to be alive after such a narrow escape. He went upstairs with a comparatively light step, and tossed his overcoat to a very sleepy footman who had risen to receive him. He went into the card-room. Baccarat was just finishing. It was three o'clock in the morning. The appearance of the Prince lent the game a little fresh animation. Serge plunged into it as if it were a battle. Luck was on his side. In a short time he cleared the bank: a thousand louis. One by one the players retired. Panine, left alone, threw himself on a couch and slept for a few hours, but it was not a refreshing sleep. On the contrary, it made him feel more tired.

The day servants disturbed him when they came in to sweep the rooms and open the windows. He went into the lavatory, and there bathed his face. When his ablutions were over he wrote a note to Jeanne, saying that he had reflected, and could not possibly let her go away with him. He implored her to do all in her power to forget him. He gave this letter to one of the messengers, and told him to give it into the hands of Madame Cayrol's maid, and to none other.

The care of a woman and the worry of another household seemed unbearable to him. Besides, what could he do with Jeanne? The presence of his mistress would prevent his being able to go back to Micheline. And now he felt that his only hope of safety was in Micheline's love for him.

But first of all he must go and see if Herzog had returned, and ascertain the real facts of the position in regard to the Universal Credit Company.

Herzog occupied a little house on the Boulevard Haussmann, which he had hired furnished from some Americans. The loud luxury of the Yankees had not frightened him. On the contrary, he held that the gay colors of the furniture and the glitter of the gilded cornices were bound to have a fascination for prospective shareholders. Suzanne had reserved a little corner for herself, modestly hung with muslin and furnished with simple taste, which was a great contrast to the loud appearance of the other part of the house.

On arriving, Serge found a stableman washing a victoria. Herzog had returned. The Prince quietly went up the steps, and had himself announced.

The financier was sitting in his study by the window, looking through the newspapers. When Serge entered he rose. The two men stood facing each other for a moment. The Prince was the first to speak.

"How is it that you have kept me without news during your absence?" asked he, harshly.

"Because," replied Herzog, calmly, "the only news I had was not good news."

"At least I should have known it."

"Would the result of the operation have been different?"

"You have led me like a child in this affair," Serge continued, becoming animated. "I did not know where I was going. You made me promises, how have you kept them?"

"As I was able," quietly answered Herzog. "Play has its chances. One seeks Austerlitz and finds Waterloo."

"But," cried the Prince, angrily, "the shares which you sold ought not to have gone out of your hands."

"You believed that?" retorted the financier, ironically. "If they ought not to have gone out of my hands it was hardly worth while putting them into them."

"In short," said Panine, eager to find some responsible party on whom he could pour out all the bitterness of his misfortune, "you took a mean advantage of me."

"Good! I expected you to say that!" returned Herzog, smiling. "If the business had succeeded, you would have accepted your share of the spoil without any scruples, and would have felt ready to crown me. It has failed; you are trying to get out of the responsibility, and are on the point of treating me as if I were a swindler. Still, the affair would not have been more honest in the first instance than in the second, but success embellishes everything."

Serge looked hard at Herzog.

"What is there to prove," replied he, "that this speculation, which brings ruin and loss to me, does not enrich you?"

"Ungrateful fellow!" observed the financier, ironically, "you suspect me!"

"Of having robbed me!" cried Serge, in a rage. "Why not?"

Herzog, for a moment, lost his temper and turned red in the face. He seized Panine violently by the arm, and said:

"Gently, Prince; whatever insults you heap upon me must be shared by you. You are my partner."

"Scoundrel!" yelled Panine, exasperated at being held by Herzog.

"Personalities," said the financier, in a jesting tone. "Then I take my leave!"

And loosing his hold of the Prince, he went toward the door.

Serge sprang after him, exclaiming:

"You shall not leave this room until you have given me the means of rectifying this disaster."

"Then let us talk sensibly, as boon companions," said Herzog. "I know of a marvellous move by which we can get out of the difficulty. Let us boldly call a general meeting. I will explain the thing, and amaze everybody. We shall get a vote of confidence for the past, with funds for the future. We shall be as white as snow, and the game is played. Are you in with me?"

"Enough," replied the Prince, intensely disgusted. "It does not suit me to do a yet more shameful thing in order to get out of this trouble. It is no use arguing further; we are lost."

"Only the weak allow themselves to be lost!" exclaimed the financier. "The strong defend themselves. You may give in if you like; I won't. Three times have I been ruined and three times have I risen again. My head is good! I am down now. I shall rise again, and when I am well off, and have a few millions to spare, I will settle old debts. Everybody will be astonished because they won't expect it, and I shall be more thought of than if I had paid up at the time."

"And if you are not allowed to go free?" asked Serge. "What if they arrest you?"

"I shall be in Aix-la-Chapelle to-night," said Herzog. "From there I shall treat with the shareholders of the Universal Credit. People judge things better at a distance. Are you coming with me?"

"No," replied Serge, in a low voice.

"You are wrong. Fortune is capricious, and in six months we may be richer than we ever have been. But as you have decided, let me give you a piece of advice which will be worth the money you have lost. Confess all to your wife; she can get you out of this difficulty."

The financier held out a hand to Serge which he did not take.

"Ah! pride!" murmured Herzog. "After all it is your right—It is you who pay!"

Without answering a word the Prince went out.

At that same hour, Madame Desvarennes, tired by long waiting, was pacing up and down her little drawing-room. A door opened and Marechal, the long-looked for messenger, appeared. He had been to Cayrol's, but could not see him. The banker, who had shut himself up in his private office where he had worked all night, had given orders that no one should interrupt him. And as Madame Desvarennes seemed to have a question on her lips which she dared not utter, Marechal added that nothing unusual seemed to have happened at the house.

But as the mistress was thanking her secretary, the great gate swung on its hinges, and a carriage rolled into the courtyard. Marechal flew to the window, and uttered one word,


Madame Desvarennes motioned to him to leave her, and the banker appeared on the threshold.

At a glance the mistress saw the ravages which the terrible night he had passed through had caused. Yesterday, the banker was rosy, firm, and upright as an oak, now he was bent, and withered like an old man. His hair had become gray about the temples, as if scorched by his burning thoughts. He was only the shadow of himself.

Madame Desvarennes advanced toward him, and in one word asked a world of questions.

"Well?" she said.

Cayrol, gloomy and fierce, raised his eyes to the mistress, and answered:


"Did he not come?"

"Yes, he came. But I had not the necessary energy to kill him. I thought it was an easier matter to become a murderer. And you thought so too, eh?"

"Cayrol!" cried Madame Desvarennes, shuddering, and troubled to find that she had been so easily understood by him whom she had armed on her behalf.

"The opportunity was a rare one, though," continued Cayrol, getting excited. "Fancy; I found them together under my own roof. The law allowed me, if not the actual right to kill them, at least an excuse if I did so. Well, at the decisive moment, when I ought to have struck the blow, my heart failed me. He lives, and Jeanne loves him."

There was a pause.

"What are you going to do?"

"Get rid of him in another way," answered Cayrol. "I had only two ways of killing him. One was to catch him in my own house, the other to call him out. My will failed me in the one case; my want of skill would fail me in the other. I will not fight Serge. Not because I fear death, for my life is blighted, and I don't value it; but if I were dead, Jeanne would belong to him, and I could not bear the thought of that even in death. I must separate them forever."

"And how?"

"By forcing him to disappear."

"And if he refuse?"

Cayrol shook his head menacingly, and exclaimed:

"I defy him! If he resist, I will bring him before the assizes!"

"You?" said Madame Desvarennes, going nearer to Cayrol.

"Yes, I!" answered the banker, with energy.

"Wretched man! And my daughter?" cried the mistress. "Think well what you are saying! You would disgrace me and mine."

"Am I not dishonored myself?" asked Cayrol. "Your son-in-law is a robber, who has defiled my home and robbed my safe."

"An honest man does not seek to revenge himself after the manner you suggest," said the mistress, gravely.

"An honest man defends himself as he can. I am not a knight. I am only a financier. Money is my weapon. The Prince has stolen from me. I will have him sentenced as a thief."

Madame Desvarennes frowned.

"Make out your account. I will pay it."

"Will you also pay me for my lost happiness?" cried the banker, exasperated. "Should I not rather have chosen to be ruined than be betrayed as I am? You can never repair the wrong he has done me. And then I am suffering so, I must have my revenge!"

"Ah! fool that you are," replied Madame Desvarennes. "The guilty will not feel your blows, but the innocent. When my daughter and I are in despair will you be less unhappy! Oh! Cayrol, take heed that you lose not in dignity what you gain in revenge. The less one is respected by others the more one must respect one's self. Contempt and silence elevate the victim, while rage and hatred make him descend to the level of those who have outraged him."

"Let people judge me as they please. I care only for myself! I am a vulgar soul, and have a low mind—anything you like. But the idea that that woman belongs to another drives me mad. I ought to hate her, but, notwithstanding everything, I cannot live without her. If she will come back to me I will forgive her. It is ignoble! I feel it, but it is too strong for me. I adore her!"

Before that blind love Madame Desvarennes shuddered. She thought of Micheline who loved Serge as Cayrol loved Jeanne.

"Suppose she chooses to go away with Serge," said the mistress to herself. In a moment she saw the house abandoned, Micheline and Serge in foreign lands, and she alone in the midst of her overthrown happiness, dying of sadness and regrets. She made a last effort to move Cayrol.

"Come, must I appeal in vain? Can you forget that I was a sure and devoted friend to you, and that you owe your fortune to me? You are a good man and will not forget the past. You have been outraged and have the right of seeking revenge, but think that in carrying it out you will hurt two women who have never done you any harm. Be generous! Be just! Spare us!"

Cayrol remained silent; his face did not relax. After a moment he said:

"You see how low I have fallen, by not yielding at once to your supplications! Friendship, gratitude, generosity, all the good feelings I had, have been consumed by this execrable love. There is nothing left but love for her. For her, I forget everything. I degrade and debase myself. And what is worse than all, is that I know all this and yet I cannot help myself."

"Miserable man!" murmured the mistress.

"Oh! most miserable," sobbed Cayrol, falling into an armchair.

Madame Desvarennes approached him, and quietly placed her hand on his shoulder.

"Cayrol, you are weeping? Then, forgive."

The banker arose and, with lowering brow, said:

"No! my resolution is irrevocable. I wish to place a world between Jeanne and Serge. If he has not gone away by tonight my complaint will be lodged in the courts of justice."

Madame Desvarennes no longer persisted. She saw that the husband's heart was permanently closed.

"It is well. I thank you for having warned me. You might have taken action without doing so. Good-by, Cayrol. I leave your conscience to judge between you and me."

The banker bowed, and murmured:


And with a heavy step, almost tottering, he went out.

The sun had risen, and lit up the trees in the garden. Nature seemed to be making holiday. The flowers perfumed the air, and in the deep blue sky swallows were flying to and fro. This earthly joy exasperated Madame Desvarennes. She would have liked the world to be in mourning. She closed the window hastily, and remained lost in her own reflections.

So everything was over! The great prosperity, the honor of the house, everything was foundering in a moment. Even her daughter might escape from her, and follow the infamous husband whom she adored in spite of his faults—perhaps because of his very faults—and might drag on a weary existence in a strange land, which would terminate in death.

For that sweet and delicate child could not live without material comforts and mental ease, and her husband was doomed to go on from bad to worse, and would drag her down with him! The mistress pictured her daughter, that child whom she had brought up with the tenderest care, dying on a pallet, and the husband, odious to the last, refusing her admission to the room where Micheline was in agony.

A fearful feeling of anger overcame her. Her motherly love gained the mastery, and in the silence of the room she roared out these words:

"That shall not be!"

The opening of the door recalled her to her senses, and she rose. It was Marechal, greatly agitated. After Cayrol's arrival, not knowing what to do, he had gone to the Universal Credit Company, and there, to his astonishment, had found the offices closed. He had heard from the porter, one of those superb personages dressed in blue and red cloth, who were so important in the eyes of the shareholders, that the evening before, owing to the complaint of a director, the police had entered the offices, and taken the books away, and that the official seal had been placed on the doors. Marechal, much alarmed, had hastened back to Madame Desvarennes to apprise her of the fact. It was evidently necessary to take immediate steps to meet this new complication. Was this indeed the beginning of legal proceedings? And if so how would the Prince come out of it?

Madame Desvarennes listened to Marechal, without uttering a word. Events were hurrying on even quicker than she had dreaded. The fears of the interested shareholders outran even the hatred of Cayrol. What would the judges call Herzog's underhand dealings? Would it be embezzlement? Or forgery? Would they come and arrest the Prince at her house? The house of Desvarennes, which had never received a visit from a sheriff's officer, was it to be disgraced now by the presence of the police?

The mistress, in that fatal hour, became herself again. The strong-minded woman of old reappeared. Marechal was more alarmed at this sudden vigor than he had been at her late depression. When he saw Madame Desvarennes going toward the door, he made an effort to detain her.

"Where are you going, Madame?" he inquired, with anxiety.

The mistress gave him a look that terrified him, and answered:

"I am going to square accounts with the Prince."

And, passing through the door leading to the little staircase, Madame Desvarennes went up to her son-in-law's rooms.

Back | Next | Contents