Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet


By a wave of her hand she dismissed Savinien, who, abashed, went out with Marechal. Left alone, she seated herself at her secretary's desk, and taking the pile of letters she signed them. The pen flew in her fingers, and on the paper was displayed her name, written in large letters in a man's handwriting.

She had been occupied thus for about a quarter of an hour when Marechal reappeared. Behind him came a stout thickset man of heavy build, and gorgeously dressed. His face, surrounded by a bristly dark brown beard, and his eyes overhung by bushy eyebrows, gave him, at the first glance, a harsh appearance. But his mouth promptly banished this impression. His thick and sensual lips betrayed voluptuous tastes. A disciple of Lavater or Gall would have found the bump of amativeness largely developed.

Marechal stepped aside to allow him to pass.

"Good-morning, mistress," said he familiarly, approaching Madame Desvarennes.

The mistress raised her head quickly, and said:

"Ah! it's you, Cayrol! That's capital! I was just going to send for you."

Jean Cayrol, a native of Cantal, had been brought up amid the wild mountains of Auvergne. His father was a small farmer in the neighborhood of Saint-Flour, scraping a miserable pittance from the ground for the maintenance of his family. From the age of eight years Cayrol had been a shepherd-boy. Alone in the quiet and remote country, the child had given way to ambitious dreams. He was very intelligent, and felt that he was born to another sphere than that of farming.

Thus, at the first opportunity which had occurred to take him into a town, he was found ready. He went as servant to a banker at Brioude. There, in the service of this comparatively luxurious house, he got smoothed down a little, and lost some of his clumsy loutishness. Strong as an ox, he did the work of two men, and at night, when in his garret, fell asleep learning to read. He was seized by the ambition to get on. No pains were to be spared to gain his goal.

His master having been elected a member of the Chamber of Deputies, Cayrol accompanied him to Paris. Life in the capital finished the turmoil of Cayrol's brain. Seeing the prodigious activity of the great city on whose pavements fortunes sprang up in a day like mushrooms, the Auvergnat felt his moral strength equal to the occasion, and leaving his master, he became clerk to a merchant in the Rue du Sentier.

There, for four years, he studied commerce, and gained much experience. He soon learned that it was only in financial transactions that large fortunes were to be rapidly made. He left the Rue du Sentier, and found a place at a stock-broker's. His keen scent for speculation served him admirably. After the lapse of a few years he had charge of the business. His position was getting better; he was making fifteen thousand francs per annum, but that was nothing compared to his dreams. He was then twenty-eight years of age. He felt ready to do anything to succeed, except something unhandsome, for this lover of money would have died rather than enrich himself by dishonest means.

It was at this time that his lucky star threw him in Madame Desvarennes's way. The mistress, understanding men, guessed Cayrol's worth quickly. She was seeking a banker who would devote himself to her interests. She watched the young man narrowly for some time; then, sure she was not mistaken as to his capacity, she bluntly proposed to give him money to start a business. Cayrol, who had already saved eighty thousand francs, received twelve hundred thousand from Madame Desvarennes, and settled in the Rue Taitbout, two steps from the house of Rothschild.

Madame Desvarennes had made a lucky hit in choosing Cayrol as her confidential agent. This short, thickset Auvergnat was a master of finance, and in a few years had raised the house to an unexpected degree of prosperity. Madame Desvarennes had drawn considerable sums as interest on the money lent, and the banker's fortune was already estimated at several millions. Was it the happy influence of Madame Desvarennes that changed everything she touched into gold, or were Cayrol's capacities really extraordinary? The results were there and that was sufficient. They did not trouble themselves over and above that.

The banker had naturally become one of the intimates of Madame Desvarennes's house. For a long time he saw Jeanne without particularly noticing her. This young girl had not struck his fancy. It was one night at a ball, on seeing her dancing with Prince Panine, that he perceived that she was marvellously engaging. His eyes were attracted by an invincible power and followed her graceful figure whirling through the waltz. He secretly envied the brilliant cavalier who was holding this adorable creature in his arms, who was bending over her bare shoulders, and whose breath lightly touched her hair. He longed madly for Jeanne, and from that moment thought only of her.

The Prince was then very friendly with Mademoiselle de Cernay; he overwhelmed her with kind attentions. Cayrol watched him to see if he spoke to her of love, but Panine was a past master in these drawing-room skirmishes, and the banker got nothing for his pains. That Cayrol was tenacious has been proved. He became intimate with the Prince. He tendered him such little services as create intimacy, and when he was sure of not being repulsed with haughtiness, he questioned Serge. Did he love Mademoiselle de Cernay? This question, asked in a trembling voice and with a constrained smile, found the Prince quite calm. He answered lightly that Mademoiselle de Cernay was a very agreeable partner, but that he had never dreamed of offering her his homage. He had other projects in his head. Cayrol pressed the Prince's hand violently, made a thousand protestations of devotedness, and finally obtained his complete confidence.

Serge loved Mademoiselle Desvarennes, and it was to become intimate with her that he had so eagerly sought her friend's company. Cayrol, in learning the Prince's secret, resumed his usual reserved manner. He knew that Micheline was engaged to Pierre Delarue, but still, women were so whimsical! Who could tell? Perhaps Mademoiselle Desvarennes had looked favorably upon the handsome Serge.

He was really admirable to view, this Panine, with his blue eyes, pure as a maiden's, and his long fair mustache falling on each side of his rosy mouth. He had a truly royal bearing, and was descended from an ancient aristocratic race; he had a charming hand and an arched foot, enough to make a woman envious. Soft and insinuating with his tender voice and sweet Sclavonic accent, he was no ordinary man, but one usually creating a great impression wherever he went.

His story was well known in Paris. He was born in the province of Posen, so violently seized on by Prussia, that octopus of Europe. Serge's father had been killed during the insurrection of 1848, and he, when a year old, was brought by his uncle, Thaddeus Panine, to France, and was educated at the College Rollin, where he had not acquired over much learning.

In 1866, at the moment when war broke out between Prussia and Austria, Serge was eighteen years old. By his uncle's orders he had left Paris, and had entered himself for the campaign in an Austrian cavalry regiment. All who bore the name of Panine, and had strength to hold a sword or carry a gun, had risen to fight the oppressor of Poland. Serge, during this short and bloody struggle, showed prodigies of valor. On the night of Sadowa, out of seven bearing the name of Panine, who had served against Prussia, five were dead, one was wounded; Serge alone was untouched, though red with the blood of his uncle Thaddeus, who was killed by the bursting of a shell. All these Panines, living or dead, had gained honors. When they were spoken of before Austrians or Poles, they were called heroes.

Such a man was a dangerous companion for a young, simple, and artless girl like Micheline. His adventures were bound to please her imagination, and his beauty sure to charm her eyes. Cayrol was a prudent man; he watched, and it was not long before he perceived that Micheline treated the Prince with marked favor. The quiet young girl became animated when Serge was there. Was there love in this transformation? Cayrol did not hesitate. He guessed at once that the future would be Panine's, and that the maintenance of his own influence in the house of Desvarennes depended on the attitude which he was about to take. He passed over to the side of the newcomer with arms and baggage, and placed himself entirely at his disposal.

It was he who three weeks before, in the name of Panine, had made overtures to Madame Desvarennes. The errand had been difficult, and the banker had turned his tongue several times in his mouth before speaking. Still, Cayrol could overcome all difficulties. He was able to explain the object of his mission without Madame flying into a passion. But, the explanation over, there was a terrible scene. He witnessed one of the most awful bursts of rage that it was possible to expect from a violent woman. The mistress treated the friend of the family as one would not have dared to treat a petty commercial traveller who came to a private house to offer his wares. She showed him the door, and desired him not to darken the threshold again.

But if Cayrol was resolute he was equally patient. He listened without saying a word to the reproaches of Madame Desvarennes, who was exasperated that a candidate should be set up in opposition to the son-in-law of her choosing. He did not go, and when Madame Desvarennes was a little calmed by the letting out of her indignation, he argued with her. The mistress was too hasty about the business; it was no use deciding without reflecting. Certainly, nobody esteemed Pierre Delarue more than he did; but it was necessary to know whether Micheline loved him. A childish affection was not love, and Prince Panine thought he might hope that Mademoiselle Desvarennes——

The mistress did not allow Cayrol to finish his sentence; she rang the bell and asked for her daughter. This time, Cayrol prudently took the opportunity of disappearing. He had opened fire; it was for Micheline to decide the result of the battle. The banker awaited the issue of the interview between mother and daughter in the next room. Through the door he heard the irritated tones of Madame Desvarennes, to which Micheline answered softly and slowly. The mother threatened and stormed. Coldly and quietly the daughter received the attack. The tussle lasted about an hour, when the door reopened and Madame Desvarennes appeared, pale and still trembling, but calmed. Micheline, wiping her beautiful eyes, still wet with tears, regained her apartment.

"Well," said Cayrol timidly, seeing the mistress standing silent and absorbed before him; "I see with pleasure that you are less agitated. Did Mademoiselle Micheline give you good reasons?"

"Good reasons!" cried Madame Desvarennes with a violent gesture, last flash of the late storm. "She cried, that's all. And you know when she cries I no longer know what I do or say! She breaks my heart with her tears. And she knows it. Ah! it is a great misfortune to love children too much!"

This energetic woman was conquered, and yet understood that she was wrong to allow herself to be conquered. She fell into a deep reverie, and forgot that Cayrol was present. She thought of the future which she had planned for Micheline, and which the latter carelessly destroyed in an instant.

Pierre, now an orphan, would have been a real son to the mistress. He would have lived in her house, and have surrounded her old age with care and affection. And then, he was so full of ability that he could not help attaining a brilliant position. She would have helped him, and would have rejoiced in his success. And all this scaffolding was overturned because this Panine had crossed Micheline's path. A foreign adventurer, prince perhaps, but who could tell? Lies are easily told when the proofs of the lie have to be sought beyond the frontiers. And it was her daughter who was going to fall in love with an insipid fop who only coveted her millions. That she should see such a man enter her family, steal Micheline's love from her, and rummage her strongbox! In a moment she vowed mortal hatred against Panine, and resolved to do all she could to prevent the longed-for marriage with her daughter.

She was disturbed in her meditation by Cayrol's voice. He wished to take an answer to the Prince. What must he say to him?

"You will let him know," said Madame Desvarennes, "that he must refrain from seeking opportunities of meeting my daughter. If he be a gentleman, he will understand that his presence, even in Paris, is disagreeable to me. I ask him to go away for three weeks. After that time he may come back, and I agree to give him an answer."

"You promise me that you will not be vexed with me for having undertaken this errand?"

"I promise on one condition. It is, that not a word which has passed here this morning shall be repeated to any one. Nobody must suspect the proposal that you have just made to me."

Cayrol swore to hold his tongue, and he kept his word. Prince Panine left that same night for England.

Madame Desvarennes was a woman of quick resolution. She took a sheet of paper, a pen, and in her large handwriting wrote the following lines addressed to Pierre:

"If you do not wish to find Micheline married on your return, come back without a moment's delay."

She sent this ominous letter to the young man, who was then in Tripoli. That done, she returned to her business as if nothing had happened. Her placid face did not once betray the anguish of her heart during those three weeks.

The term fixed by Madame Desvarennes with the Prince had expired that morning. And the severity with which the mistress had received the Minister of War's Financial Secretary was a symptom of the agitation in which the necessity of coming to a decision placed Micheline's mother. Every morning for the last week she had expected Pierre to arrive. What with having to give an answer to the Prince as she had promised, and the longing to see him whom she loved as a son, she felt sick at heart and utterly cast down. She thought of asking the Prince for a respite. It was for that reason she was glad to see Cayrol.

The latter, therefore, had arrived opportunely. He looked as if he brought startling news. By a glance he drew Madame Desvarennes's attention to Marechal and seemed to say:

"I must be alone with you; send him away."

The mistress understood, and with a decided gesture said:

"You can speak before Marechal; he knows all my affairs as well as I do myself."

"Even the matter that brings me here?" replied Cayrol, with surprise.

"Even that. It was necessary for me to have some one to whom I could speak, or else my heart would have burst! Come, do your errand. The Prince?"

"A lot it has to do with the Prince," exclaimed Cayrol, in a huff. "Pierre has arrived!"

Madame Desvarennes rose abruptly. A rush of blood rose to her face, her eyes brightened, and her lips opened with a smile.

"At last!" she cried. "But where is he? How did you hear of his return?"

"Ah! faith, it was just by chance. I was shooting yesterday at Fontainebleau, and I returned this morning by the express. On arriving at Paris, I alighted on the platform, and there I found myself face to face with a tall young man with a long beard, who, seeing me pass, called out, 'Ah, Cayrol!' It was Pierre. I only recognized him by his voice. He is much changed; with his beard, and his complexion bronzed like an African."

"What did he say to you?"

"Nothing. He pressed my hand. He looked at me for a moment with glistening eyes. There was something on his lips which he longed to ask, yet did not; but I guessed it. I was afraid of giving way to tenderness, that might have ended in my saying something foolish, so I left him."

"How long ago is that?"

"About an hour ago. I only just ran home before coming on here. There I found Panine waiting for me. He insisted upon accompanying me. I hope you won't blame him?"

Madame Desvarennes frowned.

"I will not see him just now," she said, looking at Cayrol with a resolute air. "Where did you leave him?"

"In the garden, where I found the young ladies."

As if to verify the banker's words, a merry peal of laughter was heard through the half-open window. It was Micheline, who, with returning gayety, was making up for the three weeks' sadness she had experienced during Panine's absence.

Madame Desvarennes went to the window, and looked into the garden. Seated on the lawn, in large bamboo chairs, the young girls were listening to a story the Prince was telling. The morning was bright and mild; the sun shining through Micheline's silk sunshade lit up her fair head. Before her, Serge, bending his tall figure, was speaking with animation. Micheline's eyes were softly fixed on him. Reclining in her armchair, she allowed herself to be carried away with his conversation, and thoroughly enjoyed his society, of which she had been deprived for the last three weeks. Beside her, Jeanne, silently watching the Prince, was mechanically nibbling, with her white teeth, a bunch of carnations which she held in her hands. A painful thought contracted Mademoiselle de Cernay's brow, and her pale lips on the red flowers seemed to be drinking blood.

The mistress slowly turned away from this scene. A shadow had crossed her brow, which had, for a moment, become serene again at the announcement of Pierre's arrival. She remained silent for a little while, as if considering; then coming to a resolution, and turning to Cayrol, she said:

"Where is Pierre staying?"

"At the Hotel du Louvre," replied the banker.

"Well, I'm going there."

Madame Desvarennes rang the bell violently.

"My bonnet, my cloak, and the carriage," she said, and with a friendly nod to the two men, she went out quickly.

Micheline was still laughing in the garden. Marechal and Cayrol looked at each other. Cayrol was the first to speak.

"The mistress told you all about the matter then? How is it you never spoke to me about it?"

"Should I have been worthy of Madame Desvarennes's confidence had I spoken of what she wished to keep secret?"

"To me?"

"Especially to you. The attitude which you have taken forbade my speaking. You favor Prince Panine?"

"And you; you are on Pierre Delarue's side?"

"I take no side. I am only a subordinate, you know; I do not count."

"Do not attempt to deceive me. Your influence over the mistress is great. The confidence she has in you is a conclusive proof. Important events are about to take place here. Pierre has certainly returned to claim his right as betrothed, and Mademoiselle Micheline loves Prince Serge. Out of this a serious conflict will take place in the house. There will be a battle. And as the parties in question are about equal in strength, I am seeking adherents for my candidate. I own, in all humility, I am on love's side. The Prince is beloved by Mademoiselle Desvarennes, and I serve him. Micheline will be grateful, and will do me a turn with Mademoiselle de Cernay. As to you, let me give you a little advice. If Madame Desvarennes consults you, speak well of Panine. When the Prince is master here, your position will be all the better for it."

Marechal had listened to Cayrol without anything betraying the impression his words created. He looked at the banker in a peculiar manner, which caused him to feel uncomfortable, and made him lower his eyes.

"Perhaps you do not know, Monsieur Cayrol," said the secretary, after a moment's pause, "how I entered this firm. It is as well in that case to inform you. Four years ago, I was most wretched. After having sought fortune ten times without success, I felt myself giving way morally and physically. There are some beings gifted with energy, who can surmount all the difficulties of life. You are one of those. As for me, the struggle exhausted my strength, and I came to grief. It would take too long to enumerate all the ways of earning my living I tried. Few even fed me; and I was thinking of putting an end to my miserable existence when I met Pierre. We had been at college together. I went toward him; he was on the quay. I dared to stop him. At first he did not recognize me, I was so haggard, so wretched-looking! But when I spoke, he cried, 'Marechal!' and, without blushing at my tatters, put his arms round my neck. We were opposite the Belle Jardiniere, the clothiers; he wanted to rig me out. I remember as if it were but yesterday I said, 'No, nothing, only find me work!'—'Work, my poor fellow,' he answered, 'but just look at yourself; who would have confidence to give you any? You look like a tramp, and when you accosted me a little while ago, I asked myself if you were not about to steal my watch!' And he laughed gayly, happy at having found me again, and thinking that he might be of use to me. Seeing that I would not go into the shop, he took off his overcoat, and put it on my back to cover my tattered clothes, and there and then he took me to Madame Desvarennes. Two days later I entered the office. You see the position I hold, and I owe it to Pierre. He has been more than a friend to me—a brother. Come! after that, tell me what you would think of me if I did what you have just asked me?"

Cayrol was confused; he twisted his bristly beard with his fingers.

"Faith, I do not say that your scruples are not right; but, between ourselves, every step that is taken against the Prince will count for naught. He will marry Mademoiselle Desvarennes."

"It is possible. In that case, I shall be here to console Pierre and sympathize with him."

"And in the mean time you are going to do all you can in his favor?"

"I have already had the honor of telling you that I cannot do anything."

"Well, well. One knows what talking means, and you will not change my idea of your importance. You take the weaker side then; that's superb!"

"It is but strictly honest," said Marechal. "It is true that that quality has become very rare!"

Cayrol wheeled round on his heels. He took a few steps toward the door, then, returning to Marechal, held out his hand:

"Without a grudge, eh?"

The secretary allowed his hand to be shaken without answering, and the banker went out, saying to himself:

"He is without a sou and has prejudices! There's a lad without a future."

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