Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet

CHAPTER V
A CRITICAL INTERVIEW

Madame Desvarennes had been driven to the Hotel du Louvre without losing a minute. She most wanted to know in what state of mind her daughter's betrothed had arrived in Paris. Had the letter, which brutally told him the truth, roused him and tightened the springs of his will? Was he ready for the struggle?

If she found him confident and bold, she had only to settle with him as to the common plan of action which must bring about the eviction of the audacious candidate who wished to marry Micheline. If she found him discouraged and doubtful of himself, she had decided to animate him with her ardor against Serge Panine.

She prepared these arguments on the way, and, boiling with impatience, outstripped in thought the fleet horse which was drawing her past the long railings of the Tuileries toward the Hotel du Louvre. Wrapped in her meditations she did not see Pierre. She was saying to herself:

"This fair-haired Polish dandy does not know with whom he has to deal. He will see what sort of a woman I am. He has not risen early enough in the morning to hoodwink me. If Pierre is only of the same opinion as I, we shall soon spoil this fortune-hunter's work."

The carriage stopped.

"Monsieur Pierre Delarue?" inquired the mistress.

"Madame, he went out a quarter of an hour ago."

"To go where?"

"He did not say."

"Do you know whether he will be absent long?"

"I don't know."

"Much obliged."

Madame Desvarennes, quite discomfited by this mischance, reflected. Where could Pierre have gone? Probably to her house. Without losing a minute, she reentered the carriage, and gave orders to return to the Rue Saint-Dominique. If he had gone at once to her house, it was plain that he was ready to do anything to keep Micheline. The coachman who had received the order drove furiously. She said to herself:

"Pierre is in a cab. Allowing that he is driving moderately quick he will only have half-an-hour's start of me. He will pass through the office, will see Marechal, and however eager he be, will lose a quarter of an hour in chatting to him. It would be most vexing if he did anything foolish in the remaining fifteen minutes! The fault is mine: I ought to have sent him a letter at Marseilles, to tell him what line of conduct to adopt on his arrival. So long as he does not meet Micheline on entering the house!"

At that idea Madame Desvarennes felt the blood rushing to her face. She put her head out of the carriage window, and called to the coachman:

"Drive faster!"

He drove more furiously still, and in a few minutes reached the Rue Saint-Dominique.

She tore into the house like a hurricane, questioned the hall-porter, and learned that Delarue had arrived. She hastened to Marechal, and asked him in such a strange manner, "Have you seen Pierre?" that he thought some accident had happened.

On seeing her secretary's scared look, she understood that what she most dreaded had come to pass. She hurried to the drawing-room, calling Pierre in a loud voice. The French window opened, and she found herself face to face with the young man. A glance at her adopted son's face increased her fears. She opened her arms and clasped Pierre to her heart.

After the first emotions were over, she longed to know what had happened during her absence, and inquired of Pierre:

"By whom were you received on arriving here?"

"By Micheline."

"That is what I feared! What did she tell you?"

"Everything!"

In three sentences these two strong beings had summed up all that had taken place. Madame Desvarennes remained silent for a moment, then, with sudden tenderness, and as if to make up for her daughter's treachery, said:

"Come, let me kiss you again, my poor boy. You suffer, eh? and I too! I am quite overcome. For ten years I have cherished the idea of your marrying Micheline. You are a man of merit, and you have no relatives. You would not take my daughter away from me; on the contrary I think you like me, and would willingly live with me. In arranging this marriage I realized the dream of my life. I was not taking a son-in-law-I was gaining a new child."

"Believe me," said Pierre, sadly, "it is not my fault that your wish is not carried out."

"That, my boy, is another question!" cried Madame Desvarennes, whose voice was at once raised two tones. "And that is where we do not agree. You are responsible for what has occurred. I know what you are going, to tell me. You wished to bring laurels to Micheline as a dower. That is all nonsense! When one leaves the Polytechnic School with honors, and with a future open to you like yours, it is not necessary to scour the deserts to dazzle a young girl. One begins by marrying her, and celebrity comes afterward, at the same time as the children. And then there was no need to risk all at such a cost. What, are we then so grand? Ex-bakers! Millionaires, certainly, which does not alter the fact that poor Desvarennes carried out the bread, and that I gave change across the counter when folks came to buy sou-cakes! But you wanted to be a knight-errant, and, during that time, a handsome fellow. Did Micheline tell you the gentleman's name?"

"I met him when I came here; he was with her in the garden. We were introduced to each other."

"That was good taste," said Madame Desvarennes with irony. "Oh, he is a youth who is not easily disturbed, and in his most passionate transports will not disarrange a fold of his cravat. You know he is a Prince? That is most flattering to the Desvarennes! We shall use his coat-of-arms as our trade-mark. The fortune hunter, ugh! No doubt he said to himself, 'The baker has money—and her daughter is agreeable.' And he is making a business of it."

"He is only following the example of many of his equals. Marriage is to-day the sole pursuit of the nobility."

"The nobility! That of our country might be tolerated, but foreign noblemen are mere adventurers."

"It is well known that the Panines come from Posen—the papers have mentioned them more than twenty times."

"Why is he not in his own country?"

"He is exiled."

"He has done something wrong, then!"

"He has, like all his family, fought for independence."

"Then he is a revolutionist!"

"A patriot."

"You are very kind to tell me all that."

"I may hate Prince Panine," said Pierre, simply, "but that is no reason why I should not be just to him."

"So be it; he is an exceptional being, a great citizen, a hero, if you like. But that does not prove that he will make my daughter happy. And if you take my advice, we shall send him about his business in a very short time."

Madame Desvarennes was excited and paced hurriedly up and down the room. The idea of resuming the offensive after she had been forced to act on the defensive for months past pleased her. She thought Pierre argued too much. A woman of action, she did not understand why Pierre had not yet come to a resolution. She felt that she must gain his confidence.

"You are master of the situation," she said. "The Prince does not suit me—"

"Micheline loves him," interrupted Pierre.

"She fancies so," replied Madame Desvarennes. "She has got it into her head, but it will wear off. You thoroughly understand that I did not bid you to come from Africa to be present at my daughter's wedding. If you are a man, we shall see some fun. Micheline is your betrothed. You have our word, and the word of a Desvarennes is as good as the signature.—It has never been dishonored. Well, refuse to give us back our promise. Gain time, make love, and take my daughter away from that dandy."

Pierre remained silent for a few minutes. In a moment he measured the extent of the mischief done, by seeing Micheline before consulting Madame Desvarennes. With the help of this energetic woman he might have struggled, whereas left to his own strength, he had at the outset been vanquished and forced to lay down his arms. Not only had he yielded, but he had drawn his ally into his defeat.

"Your encouragements come too late," said he. "Micheline asked me to give her back her promise, and I gave it to her."

"You were so weak as that!" cried Madame Desvarennes. "And she had so much boldness? Does she dote on him so? I suspected her plans, and I hastened to warn you. But all is not lost. You have given Micheline back her promise. So be it. But I have not given you back yours. You are pledged to me. I will not countenance the marriage which my daughter has arranged without my consent! Help me to break it off. And, faith, you could easily find another woman worth Micheline, but where shall I find a son-in-law worth you? Come, the happiness of us all is in peril; save it!"

"Why continue the struggle? I am beaten beforehand."

"But if you forsake me, what can I do single-handed with Micheline?"

"Do what she wishes, as usual. You are surprised at my giving you this advice? It is no merit on my part. Until now you have refused your daughter's request; but if she comes again beseeching and crying, you who are so strong and can say so well 'I will,' will be weak and will not be able to refuse her her Prince. Believe me; consent willingly. Who knows? Your son'-in-law may be grateful to you for it by-and-by."

Madame Desvarennes had listened to Pierre with amazement.

"Really, you are incredible," she said; "you discuss all this so calmly. Have you no grief?"

"Yes," replied Pierre, solemnly, "it is almost killing me."

"Nonsense! You are boasting!" cried Madame Desvarennes, vehemently. "Ah, scholar! figures have dried up your heart!"

"No," replied the young man, with melancholy, "but work has destroyed in me the seductions of youth. It has made me thoughtful, and a little sad. I frightened Micheline, instead of attracting her. The worst is that we live in such a state of high pressure, it is quite impossible to grasp all that is offered to us in this life-work and pleasure. It is necessary to make a choice, to economize one's time and strength, and to work with either the heart or the brain alone. The result is that the neglected organ wastes away, and that men of pleasure remain all their lives mediocre workers, while hard workers are pitiful lovers. The former sacrifice the dignity of existence, the latter that which is the charm of existence. So that, in decisive moments, when the man of pleasure appeals to his intelligence, he finds he is unfit for duty, and when the man of toil appeals to his heart, he finds that he is unqualified for happiness."

"Well, my boy, so much the worse for the women who cannot appreciate men of work, and who allow themselves to be wheedled by men of pleasure. I never was one of those; and serious as you are, thirty years ago I would have jumped at you. But as you know your ailment so well, why don't you cure yourself? The remedy is at hand."

"What is it?"

"Strong will. Marry Micheline. I'll answer for everything."

"She does not love me."

"A woman always ends by loving her husband."

"I love Micheline too much to accept her hand without her heart."

Madame Desvarennes saw that she would gain nothing, and that the game was irrevocably lost. A great sorrow stole over her. She foresaw a dark future, and had a presentiment that trouble had entered the house with Serge Panine. What could she do? Combat the infatuation of her daughter! She knew that life would be odious for her if Micheline ceased to laugh and to sing. Her daughter's tears would conquer her will. Pierre had told her truly. Where was the use of fighting when defeat was certain? She, too, felt that she was powerless, and with heartfelt sorrow came to a decision.

"Come, I see that I must make up my mind to be grandmother to little princes. It pleases me but little on the father's account. My daughter will have a sad lot with a fellow of that kind. Well, he had better keep in the right path; for I shall be there to call him to order. Micheline must be happy. When my husband was alive, I was already more of a mother than a wife; now my whole life is wrapped up in my daughter."

Then raising her vigorous arms with grim energy, she added:

"Do you know, if my daughter were made miserable through her husband, I should be capable of killing him."

These were the last words of the interview which decided the destiny of Micheline, of the Prince, of Madame Desvarennes, and of Pierre. The mistress stretched out her hand and rang the bell. A servant appeared, to whom she gave instructions to tell Marechal to come down. She thought it would be pleasant for Pierre to pour out his griefs into the heart of his friend. A man weeps with difficulty before a woman, and she guessed that the young man's heart was swollen with tears. Marechal was not far off. He arrived in a moment, and springing toward Pierre put his arms round his neck. When Madame Desvarennes saw the two friends fully engrossed with each other, she said to Marechal:

"I give you leave until this evening. Then bring Pierre back with you; I wish to see him after dinner."

And with a firm step she went toward Micheline's room, where the latter was waiting in fear to know the result of the interview.



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