Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet

CHAPTER XXII
THE MOTHER'S REVENGE

On leaving Herzog, Serge had turned his steps toward the Rue Saint-Dominique. He had delayed the moment of going home as long as possible, but the streets were beginning to be crowded. He might meet some people of his acquaintance. He resolved to face what ever reception was awaiting him on the way, he was planning what course he should adopt to bring about a reconciliation with his redoubtable mother-in-law. He was no longer proud, but felt quite broken down. Only Madame Desvarennes could put him on his feet again; and, as cowardly in trouble as he had been insolent in prosperity, he accepted beforehand all that she might impose upon him; all, provided that she would cover him with her protection.

He was frightened, not knowing how deep Herzog had led him in the mire. His moral sense had disappeared, but he had a vague instinct of the danger he had incurred. The financier's last words came to his mind: "Confess all to your wife; she can get you out of this difficulty!" He understood the meaning of them, and resolved to follow the advice. Micheline loved him. In appealing to her heart, deeply wounded as it was, he would have in her an ally, and he had long known that Madame Desvarennes could not oppose her daughter in anything.

He entered the house through the back garden gate, and regained his room without making the slightest noise. He dreaded meeting Madame Desvarennes before seeing Micheline. First he changed his attire; he had walked about Paris in evening clothes. Looking in the glass he was surprised at the alteration in his features. Was his beauty going too? What would become of him if he failed to please. And, like an actor who is about to play an important part, he paid great attention to the making up of his face. He wished once more to captivate his wife, as his safety depended on the impression he was about to make on her. At last, satisfied with himself, he tried to look smiling, and went to his wife's room.

Micheline was up.

At the sight of Serge she could not suppress an exclamation of surprise. It was a long time since he had discontinued these familiar visits. The presence of her beloved one in that room, which had seemed so empty when he was not there, made her feel happy, and she went to him with a smile, holding out her hand. Serge drew her gently toward him and kissed her hair.

"Up, already, dear child," said he, affectionately.

"I have scarcely slept," answered Micheline. "I was so anxious. I sat up for you part of the night. I had left you without saying good-night. It was the first time it had occurred, and I wanted to beg your pardon. But you came in very late."

"Micheline, it is I who am ungrateful," interrupted Panine, making the young wife sit down beside him. "It is I who must ask you to be indulgent."

"Serge! I beg of you!" said the young wife, taking both his hands. "All is forgotten. I would not reproach you, I love you so much!"

Micheline's face beamed with joy, and tears filled her eyes.

"You are weeping," said Panine. "Ah! I feel the weight of my wrongs toward you. I see how deserving you are of respect and affection. I feel unworthy, and would kneel before you to say how I regret all the anxieties I have caused you, and that my only desire in the future will be to make you forget them."

"Oh! speak on! speak on!" cried Micheline, with delight. "What happiness to hear you say such sweet words! Open your heart to me! You know I would die to please you. If you have any anxieties or annoyances confide in me. I can relieve them. Who could resist me when you are in question?"

"I have none, Micheline," answered Serge, with the constrained manner of a man who is feigning. "Nothing but the regret of not having lived more for you."

"Is the future not in store for us?" said the young wife, looking lovingly at him.

The Prince shook his head, saying:

"Who can answer for the future?"

Micheline came closer to her husband, not quite understanding what Serge meant, but her mind was on the alert, and in an alarmed tone, she resumed:

"What strange words you are uttering? Are we not both young? And, if you like, is there not much happiness in store for us?"

And she clung to him. Serge turned away.

"Oh, stay," she murmured, again putting her arms round him. "You are so truly mine at this moment!"

Panine saw that the opportunity for confessing all had come. He was able to bring tears to his eyes, and went toward the window as if to hide his emotion. Micheline followed him, and, in an eager tone, continued:

"Ah! I knew you were hiding something. You are unhappy or in pain; threatened perhaps? Ah! if you love me, tell me the truth!"

"Well, yes! It is true, I am threatened. I am suffering and unhappy! But don't expect a confession from me. I should blush to make it. But, thank Heaven, if I cannot extricate myself from the difficulty in which I am placed through my own folly and imprudence—there is yet another way out of it."

"Serge! you would kill yourself!" cried Micheline, terrified at the gesture Panine had made. "What would become of me then? But what is there that is so hard to explain? And to whom should it be said?"

"To your mother," answered Serge, bowing his head.

"To my mother? Very well, I will go to her. Oh! don't fear anything. I can defend you, and to strike you she will first have to attack me."

Serge put his arms round Micheline, and with a kiss, the hypocrite inspired her whom he entrusted with his safety with indomitable courage.

"Wait for me here," added the young wife, and passing through the little drawing-room she reached the smoking-room.

She halted there a moment, out of breath and almost choked with emotion. The long expected day had arrived. Serge was coming back to her. She went on, and as she reached the door of the stair leading to her mother's rooms, she heard a light tap from without.

Greatly astonished, she opened the door, and suddenly drew back, uttering an exclamation. A woman, thickly veiled, stood before her.

At the sight of Micheline the stranger seemed inclined to turn and fly. But overcome with jealousy, the young wife seized her by the arm, dragged off her veil, and recognizing her, exclaimed:

"Jeanne!"

Madame Cayrol approached Micheline, and beseechingly stretched out her hands:

"Micheline! don't think—I come—"

"Hold your tongue!" cried Micheline. "Don't tell me any lies! I know all! You are my husband's mistress!"

Crushed by such a stroke, Jeanne hid her face in her hands and moaned:

"O God!"

"You must really be bold," continued Micheline, in a furious tone, "to seek him here, in my house, almost in my arms!"

Jeanne drew herself up, blushing with shame and grief.

"Ah! don't think," she said, "that love brings me here."

"What is it then?" asked Micheline, contemptuously.

"The knowledge of inevitable and pressing danger which threatens Serge."

"A danger! Of what kind?"

"Compromised by Herzog, he is at the mercy of my husband, who has sworn to ruin him."

"Your husband!"

"Yes, he is his rival. If you could ruin me, would you not do it?" said Jeanne.

"You!" retorted Micheline, passionately. "Do you think I am going to worry about you? Serge is my first thought. You say you came to warn him. What must be done?"

"Without a moment's delay he must go away!"

A strange suspicion crossed Micheline's mind. She approached Jeanne, and looking earnestly at her, said:

"He must go away without delay, eh? And it is you, braving everything, without a thought of the trouble you leave behind you, who come to warn him? Ah! you mean to go with him?"

Jeanne hesitated a moment. Then, boldly and impudently, defying and almost threatening the legitimate wife:

"Well, yes, I wish to! Enough of dissimulation! I love him!" she exclaimed.

Micheline, transfigured by passion, strong, and ready for a struggle, threw herself in Jeanne's way, with arms outstretched, as if to prevent her going to Serge.

"Well!" she said; "try to take him from me!"

"Take him from you!" answered Jeanne, laughing like a mad woman. "To whom does he most belong? To the woman who was as ignorant of his love as she was of his danger; who could do nothing toward his happiness, and can do nothing for his safety? Or to the mistress who has sacrificed her honor to please him and risks her safety to save him?"

"Ah! wretch!" cried Micheline, "to invoke your infamy as a right!"

"Which of us has taken him from the other?" continued Jeanne, forgetting respect, modesty, everything. "Do you know that he loved me before he married you? Do you know that he abandoned me for you—for your money, I should say? Now, do you wish to weigh what I have suffered with what you suffer? Shall we make out a balance-sheet of our tears? Then, you will be able to tell which of us he has loved more, and to whom he really belongs."

Micheline had listened to this furious address almost in a state of stupor, and replied, vehemently:

"What matter who triumphs if his ruin is certain. Selfish creatures that we are, instead of disputing about his love, let us unite in saving him! You say he must go away! But flight is surely an admission of guilt—humiliation and obscurity in a strange land. And that is what you advise, because you hope to share that miserable existence with him. You are urging him on to dishonor. His fate is in the hands of a man who adores you, who would sacrifice everything for you, as I would for Serge, and yet you have not thrown yourself at his feet! You have not offered your life as the price of your lover's! And you say that you love him!"

"Ah!" stammered Jeanne, distracted. "You wish me to save him for you!"

"Is that the cry of your heart?" said Micheline, with crushing disdain. "Well, see what I am ready to do. If, to remove your jealous fears, it is necessary to sacrifice myself, I swear to you that if Serge be saved, he shall be perfectly free, and I will never see him again!"

Micheline, chaste and calm, with hands raised to Heaven, seemed to grow taller and nobler. Jeanne, trembling and overpowered, looked at her rival with a painful effort, and murmured, softly:

"Would you do that?"

"I would do more!" said the lawful wife, bending before the mistress. "I ought to hate you, and I kneel at your feet and beseech you to listen to me. Do what I ask you and I will forgive you and bless you. Do not hesitate! Follow me! Let us throw ourselves at the feet of him whom you have outraged. His generosity cannot be less than ours, and to us, who sacrifice our love, he will not be able to refuse to sacrifice his vengeance."

This greatness and goodness awaked feelings in Jeanne's heart which she thought dead. She was silent for a moment and then her breast heaved with convulsive sobs, and she fell helpless into the arms which Micheline, full of pity, held out to her.

"Forgive me," moaned the unhappy woman. "I am conquered. Your rights are sacred, and you have just made them still more so. Keep Serge: with you he will once more become honest and happy, because, if your love is not greater than mine, it is nobler and purer."

The two women went hand in hand to try to save the man whom they both adored.

All this time Serge remained in the little drawing-room enjoying the hope of returning peace. It was sweet to him, after the troubles he had gone through. He had not the slightest suspicion of the scene in the adjoining room between Jeanne and Micheline. The fond heroism of his wife and the self-denial of his mistress were unknown to him.

Time was passing. At least an hour had sped since Micheline left him to go to her mother, and Serge was beginning to think that the interview was very long, when a light step made him tremble. It came from the gallery. He thought it was Micheline, and opening the door, he went to meet her.

He drew back disappointed, vexed, and anxious, when he found it was Pierre. The two men had never met alone since that terrible night at Nice. Panine assumed a bold demeanor, and returned Pierre's firm look. Steadying his voice, he said:

"Ah! is it you?"

"Were you not expecting me?" answered Pierre whose harsh voice thrilled Serge.

The Prince opened his mouth to speak, but Pierre, did not give him time. In stern and provoking accents, he continued:

"I made you a promise once; have you forgotten it? I have a good memory. You are a villain, and I come to chastise you!"

"Pierre!" exclaimed the Prince, starting fiercely.

But he suddenly calmed himself, and added:

"Leave me! I will not listen to you!"

"You will have to, though! You are a source of trouble and shame to the family to which you have allied yourself, and as you have not the courage to kill yourself, I have come to help you. You must leave Paris to-night, or you will be arrested. We shall go together to Brussels and there we shall fight. If chance favors you, you will be at liberty to continue your infamies, but at any rate I shall have done my best to rid two unfortunate women of your presence."

"You are mad!" said Serge, sneeringly.

"Don't think so! And know that I am ready for any emergency. Come; must I strike you, to give you courage?" growled Pierre, ready to suit the action to the word.

"Ah! take care!" snarled Serge, with an evil look.

And opening a drawer which was close to him, he took out a revolver.

"Thief first, then murderer!" said Pierre, with a terrible laugh. "Come, let's see you do it!"

And he was going toward the Prince when the door opened, and Madame Desvarennes came forward. Placing her hand on Pierre's shoulder, she said, in that commanding tone which few could resist:

"Go; wait for me in my room. I wish it!"

Pierre bowed, and, without answering, went out.

Serge had placed the pistol on the table and was waiting.

"We have to talk over several matters," said Madame Desvarennes, gravely, "and you know it."

"Yes, Madame," answered Panine, sadly, "and, believe me, no one judges my conduct more severely than I do."

The mistress could not help looking surprised.

"Ah!" she said, with irony, "I did not expect to find you in such a mood. You have not accustomed me to such humility and sweetness. You must be afraid, to have arrived at that stage!"

The Prince appeared not to have understood the implied insult in his mother-in-law's words. One thing struck him, which was that she evidently did not expect to find him repentant and humbled.

"Micheline must have told you," he began.

"I have not seen my daughter," interrupted the mistress, sharply, as if to make him understand that he must depend solely upon himself.

Ignorant that Micheline had met Jeanne on her way to her mother, and had gone to Cayrol, Serge thought he was abandoned by his only powerful ally. He saw that he was lost and that his feigned resignation was useless. Unable to control himself any longer, his face darkened with rage.

"She, too, against me! Well! I will defend myself alone!"

Turning toward Madame Desvarennes, he added:

"To begin with, what do you want with me?"

"I wish to ask you a question. We business folk when we fail, and cannot pay our way, throw blood on the blot and it disappears. You members of the nobility, when you are disgraced, how do you manage?"

"If I am not mistaken, Madame," answered the Prince, in a light tone, "you do me the favor of asking what my intentions are for the future? I will answer you with precision. I purpose leaving to-night for Aix-la-Chapelle, where I shall join my friend Herzog. We shall begin our business again. My wife, on whose good feelings I rely, will accompany me, notwithstanding everything."

And in these last words he put all the venom of his soul.

"My daughter will not leave me!" exclaimed Madame Desvarennes.

"Very well, then, you can accompany her," retorted Panine. "That arrangement will suit me. Since my troubles I have learned to appreciate domestic happiness."

"Ah! you hope to play your old games on me," said Madame Desvarennes. "You won't get much out of me. My daughter and I with you—in the stream where you are going to sink? Never!"

"Well, then," cried Panine, "what do you expect?"

A violent ring at the front door resounded as Madame Desvarennes was about to answer, and stopped the words on her lips. This signal, which was used only on important occasions, sounded to Madame like a funeral knell. Serge frowned, and instinctively moved back.

Marechal appeared through the half-open door with a scared face, and silently handed Madame Desvarennes a card. She glanced at it, turned pale, and said to the secretary:

"Very well, let him wait!" She threw the card on the table. Serge came forward and read:

"Delbarre, sheriff's officer."

Haggard-looking and aghast, he turned to the mistress, as if seeking an explanation.

"Well!" she observed: "it is clear, he has come to arrest you."

Serge rushed to a cabinet, and opening a drawer, took forth some handfuls of gold and notes, which he crammed into his pockets.

"By the back stairs I shall have time to get away. It is my last chance! Keep the man for five minutes only."

"And if the door is guarded?" asked Madame Desvarennes.

Serge remained abject before her. He felt himself enclosed in a ring which he could not break through.

"One may be prosecuted without being condemned," he gasped. "You will use your influence, I know, and you will get me out of this mess. I shall be grateful to you for ever, and will do anything you like! But don't leave me, it would be cowardly!"

He trembled, as he thus besought her distractedly.

"The son-in-law of Madame Desvarennes does not go before the Assize Courts even to be acquitted," said she, with a firm voice.

"What would you have me do?" cried Serge, passionately.

Madame Desvarennes did not answer, but pointed to the revolver on the table.

"Kill myself? Ah! no; that would be giving you too much pleasure."

And he gave the weapon a push, so that it rolled close to Madame Desvarennes.

"Ah! wretch!" cried she, giving way to her suppressed rage. "You are not even a Panine! The Panines knew how to die."

"I have not time to act a melodrama with you," snarled Serge. "I am going to try to save myself."

And he took a step toward the door.

The mistress seized the revolver, and threw herself before him.

"You shall not go out!" she cried.

"Are you mad?" he exclaimed, gnashing his teeth.

"You shall not go out!" repeated the mistress, with flashing eyes.

"We shall see!"

And with a strong arm he seized Madame Desvarennes, and threw her aside.

The mistress became livid. Serge had his hand on the handle of the door. He was about to escape. Madame Desvarennes's arm was stretched forth.

A shot made the windows rattle; the weapon fell from her hand, having done its work and, amid the smoke, a body dropped heavily on the carpet, which was soon dyed with blood.

At the same moment, the door opened, and Micheline entered, holding in her hand the fatal receipt which she had just wrung from Cayrol. The young wife uttered a heartrending cry, and fell senseless on Serge's body.

Behind Micheline came the officer and Marechal. The secretary exchanged looks with the mistress, who was lifting her fainting daughter and clasping her in her arms. He understood all.

Turning toward his companion, he said:

"Alas! sir, here is a sad matter! The Prince, on hearing that you had come, took fright, although his fault was not very serious, and has shot himself."

The officer bowed respectfully to the mistress, who was bending over Micheline.

"Please to withdraw, Madame. You have already suffered too much," said he. "I understand your legitimate grief. If I need any information, this gentleman will give it to me."

Madame Desvarennes arose, and, without bending under the burden, she bore away on her bosom her daughter, regained.



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