Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet

CHAPTER IV
THE RIVALS

On reaching Paris, Pierre Delarue experienced a strange feeling. In his feverish haste he longed for the swiftness of electricity to bring him near Micheline. As soon as he arrived in Paris, he regretted having travelled so fast. He longed to meet his betrothed, yet feared to know his fate.

He had a sort of presentiment that his reception would destroy his hopes. And the more he tried to banish these thoughts, the more forcibly they returned. The thought that Micheline had forgotten her promise made the blood rush to his face.

Madame Desvarennes's short letter suggested it. That his betrothed was lost to him he understood, but he would not admit it. How was it possible that Micheline should forget him? All his childhood passed before his mind. He remembered the sweet and artless evidences of affection which the young girl had given him. And yet she no longer loved him! It was her own mother who said so. After that could he still hope?

A prey to this deep trouble, Pierre entered Paris. On finding himself face to face with Cayrol, the young man's first idea was, as Cayrol had guessed, to cry out, "What's going on? Is all lost to me?" A sort of anxious modesty kept back the words on his lips. He would not admit that he doubted. And, then, Cayrol would only have needed to answer that all was over, and that he could put on mourning for his love. He turned around, and went out.

The tumult of Paris surprised and stunned him. After spending a year in the peaceful solitudes of Africa, to find himself amid the cries of street-sellers, the rolling of carriages, and the incessant movement of the great city, was too great a contrast to him. Pierre was overcome by languor; his head seemed too heavy for his body to carry; he mechanically entered a cab which conveyed him to the Hotel du Louvre. Through the window, against the glass of which he tried to cool his heated forehead, he saw pass in procession before his eyes, the Column of July, the church of St. Paul, the Hotel de Ville in ruins, and the colonnade of the Louvre.

An absurd idea took possession of him. He remembered that during the Commune he was nearly killed in the Rue Saint-Antoine by the explosion of a shell, thrown by the insurgents from the heights of Pere-Lachaise. He thought that had he died then, Micheline would have wept for him. Then, as in a nightmare, it seemed to him that this hypothesis was realized. He saw the church hung with black, he heard the funeral chants. A catafalque contained his coffin, and slowly his betrothed came, with a trembling hand, to throw holy water on the cloth which covered the bier. And a voice said within him:

"You are dead, since Micheline is about to marry another."

He made an effort to banish this importunate idea. He could not succeed. Thoughts flew through his brain with fearful rapidity. He thought he was beginning to be seized with brain fever. And this dismal ceremony kept coming before him with the same chants, the same words repeated, and the same faces appearing. The houses seemed to fly before his vacant eyes. To stop this nightmare he tried to count the gas-lamps: one, two, three, four, five—but the same thought interrupted his calculation:

"You are dead, since your betrothed is about to marry another."

He was afraid he was going mad. A sharp pain shot across his forehead just above the right eyebrow. In the old days he had felt the same pain when he had overworked himself in preparing for his examinations at the Polytechnic School. With a bitter smile he asked himself if one of the aching vessels in his brain was about to burst?

The sudden stoppage of the cab freed him from this torture. The hotel porter opened the door. Pierre stepped out mechanically. Without speaking a word he followed a waiter, who showed him to a room on the second floor. Left alone, he sat down. This room, with its commonplace furniture, chilled him. He saw in it a type of his future life: lonely and desolate. Formerly, when he used to come to Paris, he stayed with Madame Desvarennes, where he had the comforts of home, and every one looked on him affectionately.

Here, at the hotel, orders were obeyed with politeness at so much a day. Would it always be thus in future?

This painful impression dissipated his weakness as by enchantment. He so bitterly regretted the sweets of the past, that he resolved to struggle to secure them for the future. He dressed himself quickly, and removed all the traces of his journey; then, his mind made up, he jumped into a cab, and drove to Madame Desvarennes's. All indecision had left him. His fears now seemed contemptible. He must defend himself. It was a question of his happiness.

At the Place de la Concorde a carriage passed his cab. He recognized the livery of Madame Desvarennes's coachman and leant forward. The mistress did not see him. He was about to stop the cab and tell his driver to follow her carriage when a sudden thought decided him to go on. It was Micheline he wanted to see. His future destiny depended on her. Madame Desvarennes had made him clearly understand that by calling for his help in her fatal letter. He went on his way, and in a few minutes arrived at the mansion in the Rue Saint-Dominique.

Micheline and Jeanne were still in the garden, seated in the same place on the lawn. Cayrol had joined Serge. Both, profiting by the lovely morning, were enjoying the society of their beloved ones. A quick step on the gravel walk attracted their attention. In the sunlight a young man, whom neither Jeanne nor Micheline recognized, was advancing. When about two yards distant from the group he slowly raised his hat.

Seeing the constrained and astonished manner of the young girls, a sad smile played on his lips, then he said, softly:

"Am I then so changed that I must tell you my name?"

At these words Micheline jumped up, she became as white as her collar, and trembling, with sobs rising to her lips, stood silent and petrified before Pierre. She could not speak, but her eyes were eagerly fixed on the young man. It was he, the companion of her youth, so changed that she had not recognized him; worn by hard work, perhaps by anxieties, bronzed—and with his face hidden by a black beard which gave him a manly and energetic appearance. It was certainly he, with a thin red ribbon at his button-hole, which he had not when he went away, and which showed the importance of the works he had executed and of great perils he had faced. Pierre, trembling and motionless, was silent; the sound of his voice choked with emotion had frightened him. He had expected a cold reception, but this scared look, which resembled terror, was beyond all he had pictured. Serge wondered and watched.

Jeanne broke the icy silence. She went up to Pierre, and presented her forehead.

"Well," she said, "don't you kiss your friends?"

She smiled affectionately on him. Two grateful tears sparkled in the young man's eyes, and fell on Mademoiselle de Cernay's hair. Micheline, led away by the example and without quite knowing what she was doing, found herself in Pierre's arms. The situation was becoming singularly perplexing to Serge. Cayrol, who had not lost his presence of mind, understood it, and turning toward the Prince, said:

"Monsieur Pierre Delarue: an old friend and companion of Mademoiselle Desvarennes's; almost a brother to her," thus explaining in one word all that could appear unusual in such a scene of tenderness.

Then, addressing Pierre, he simply added—"Prince Panine."

The two men looked at each other. Serge, with haughty curiosity; Pierre, with inexpressible rage. In a moment, he guessed that the tall, handsome man beside his betrothed was his rival. If looks could kill, the Prince would have fallen down dead. Panine did not deign to notice the hatred which glistened in the eyes of the newcomer. He turned toward Micheline with exquisite grace and said:

"Your mother receives her friends this evening, I think, Mademoiselle; I shall have the honor of paying my respects to her."

And taking leave of Jeanne with a smile, and of Pierre with a courteous bow, he left, accompanied by Cayrol.

Serge's departure was a relief to Micheline. Between these two men to whom she belonged, to the one by a promise, to the other by an avowal, she felt ashamed. Left alone with Pierre she recovered her self-possession, and felt full of pity for the poor fellow threatened with such cruel deception. She went tenderly to him, with her loving eyes of old, and pressed his hand:

"I am very glad to see you again, my dear Pierre; and my mother will be delighted. We were very anxious about you. You have not written to us for some months."

Pierre tried to joke: "The post does not leave very often in the desert. I wrote whenever I had an opportunity."

"Is it so very pleasant in Africa that you could not tear yourself away a whole year?"

"I had to take another journey on the coast of Tripoli to finish my labors. I was interested in my work, and anxious not to lose the result of so much effort, and I think I have succeeded—at least in—the opinion of my employers," said the young man, with a ghastly smile.

"My dear Pierre, you come in time from the land of the sphinx," interrupted Jeanne gravely, and glancing intently at Micheline. "There is here, I assure you, a difficult enigma to solve."

"What is it?"

"That which is written in this heart," she replied, lightly touching her companion's breast.

"From childhood I have always read it as easily as a book," said Pierre, with tremulous voice, turning toward the amazed Micheline.

Mademoiselle de Cernay tossed her head.

"Who knows? Perhaps her disposition has changed during your absence;" and nodding pleasantly, she went toward the house.

Pierre followed her for a moment with his eyes, then, turning toward his betrothed, said:

"Micheline, shall I tell you your secret? You no longer love me."

The young girl started. The attack was direct. She must at once give an explanation. She had often thought of what she would say when Pierre came back to her. The day had arrived unexpectedly. And the answers she had prepared had fled. The truth appeared harsh and cold. She understood that the change in her was treachery, of which Pierre was the innocent victim; and feeling herself to blame, she waited tremblingly the explosion of this loyal heart so cruelly wounded. She stammered, in tremulous accents:

"Pierre, my friend, my brother."

"Your brother!" cried the young man, bitterly. "Was that the name you were to give me on my return?"

At these words, which so completely summed up the situation, Micheline remained silent. Still she felt that at all hazards she must defend herself. Her mother might come in at any moment. Between Madame Desvarennes and her betrothed, what would become of her? The hour was decisive. Her strong love for Serge gave her fresh energy.

"Why did you go away?" she asked, with sadness.

Pierre raised with pride his head which had been bent with anguish.

"To be worthy of you," he merely said.

"You did not need to be worthy of me; you, who were already above every one else. We were betrothed; you only had to guard me."

"Could not your heart guard itself?"

"Without help, without the support of your presence and affection?"

"Without other help or support than I had myself: Hope and Remembrance."

Micheline turned pale. Each word spoken by Pierre made her feel the unworthiness of her conduct more completely. She endeavored to find a new excuse:

"Pierre, you know I was only a child."

"No," said the young man, with choked voice, "I see that you were already a woman; a being weak, inconstant, and cruel; who cares not for the love she inspires, and sacrifices all to the love she feels."

So long as Pierre had only complained, Micheline felt overwhelmed and without strength; but the young man began to accuse. In a moment the young girl regained her presence of mind and revolted.

"Those are hard words!" she exclaimed.

"Are they not deserved?" cried Pierre, no longer restraining himself. "You saw me arrive trembling, with eyes full of tears, and not only had you not an affectionate word to greet me with, but you almost accuse me of indifference. You reproach me with having gone away. Did you not know my motive for going? I was betrothed to you; you were rich and I was poor. To remove this inequality I resolved to make a name. I sought one of those perilous scientific missions which bring celebrity or death to those who undertake them. Ah! think not that I went away from you without heart-breaking! For a year I was almost alone, crushed with fatigue, always in danger; the thought that I was suffering for you supported me.

"When lost in the vast desert, I was sad and discouraged; I invoked you, and your sweet face gave me fresh hope and energy. I said to myself, 'She is waiting for me. A day will come when I shall win the prize of all my trouble.' Well, Micheline, the day has come; here I am, returned, and I ask for my reward. Is it what I had a right to expect? While I was running after glory, another, more practical and better advised, stole your heart. My happiness is destroyed. You did well to forget me. The fool who goes so far away from his betrothed does not deserve her faithfulness. He is cold, indifferent, he does not know how to love!"

These vehement utterances troubled Micheline deeply. For the first time she understood her betrothed, felt how much he loved her, and regretted not having known it before. If Pierre had spoken like that before going away, who knows? Micheline's feelings might have been quickened. No doubt she would have loved him. It would have come naturally. But Pierre had kept the secret of his passion for the young girl to himself. It was only despair, and the thought of losing her, that made him give vent to his feelings now.

"I see that I have been cruel and unjust to you," said Micheline. "I deserve your reproaches, but I am not the only one to blame. You, too, are at fault. What I have just heard has upset me. I am truly sorry to cause you so much pain; but it is too late. I no longer belong to myself."

"And did you belong to yourself?"

"No! It is true, you had my word, but be generous. Do not abuse the authority which being my betrothed gives you. That promise I would now ask back from you."

"And if I refuse to release you from your promise? If I tried to, regain your love?" cried Pierre, forcibly. "Have I not the right to defend myself? And what would you think of my love if I relinquished you so readily?"

There was a moment's silence. The interview was at its highest pitch of excitement. Micheline knew that she must put an end to it. She replied with firmness:

"A girl such as I am will not break her word; mine belongs to you, but my heart is another's. Say you insist, and I am ready to keep my promise to become your wife. It is for you to decide."

Pierre gave the young girl a look which plunged into the depths of her heart. He read there her resolve that she would act loyally, but that at the same time she would never forget him who had so irresistibly gained her heart. He made a last effort.

"Listen," he said, with ardent voice, "it is impossible that you can have forgotten me so soon: I love you so much! Remember our affection in the old days, Micheline. Remember!"

He no longer argued; he pleaded. Micheline felt victorious. She was moved with pity.

"Alas! my poor Pierre, my affection was only friendship, and my heart has not changed toward you. The love which I now feel is quite different. If it had not come to me, I might have been your wife. And I esteemed you so much, that I should have been happy. But now I understand the difference. You, whom I had accepted, would never have been more to me than a tender companion; he whom I have chosen will be my master."

Pierre uttered a cry at this cruel and frank avowal.

"Ah! how you hurt me!"

And bitter tears rolled down his face to the relief of his overburdened heart. He sank on to a seat, and for a moment gave way to violent grief. Micheline, more touched by his despair than she had been by his reproaches, went to him and wiped his face with her lace handkerchief. Her white hand was close to the young man's mouth,—and he kissed it eagerly. Then, as if roused by the action, he rose with a changed look in his eyes, and seized the young girl in his arms. Micheline did not utter a word. She looked coldly and resolutely at Pierre, and threw back her head to avoid the contact of his eager lips. That look was enough. The arms which held her were unloosed, and Pierre moved away, murmuring:

"I beg your pardon. You see I am not in my right mind."

Then passing his hand across his forehead as if to chase away a wicked thought, he added:

"So it is irrevocable? You love him?"

"Enough to give you so much pain; enough to be nobody's unless I belong to him."

Pierre reflected a moment, then, coming to a decision:

"Go, you are free," said he; "I give you back your promise."

Micheline uttered a cry of triumph, which made him who had been her betrothed turn pale. She regretted not having hidden her joy better. She approached Pierre and said:

"Tell me that you forgive me!"

"I forgive you."

"You still weep?"

"Yes; I am weeping over my lost happiness. I thought the best means of being loved were to deserve it. I was mistaken. I will courageously atone for my error. Excuse my weakness, and believe that you will never have a more faithful and devoted friend than I."

Micheline gave him her hand, and, smiling, bowed her forehead to his lips. He slowly impressed a brotherly kiss, which effaced the burning trace of the one which he had stolen a moment before.

At the same time a deep voice was heard in the distance, calling Pierre. Micheline trembled.

"'Tis my mother," she said. "She is seeking you. I will leave you. Adieu, and a thousand thanks from my very heart."

And nimbly springing behind a clump of lilac-trees in flower, Micheline disappeared.

Pierre mechanically went toward the house. He ascended the marble steps and entered the drawing-room. As he shut the door, Madame Desvarennes appeared.



Back | Next | Contents