Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet

BOOK II

CHAPTER VII
JEANNE'S SECRET

In the drawing-room Jeanne and Serge remained standing, facing each other. The mask had fallen from their faces; the forced smile had disappeared. They looked at each other attentively, like two duellists seeking to read each other's game, so that they may ward off the fatal stroke and prepare the decisive parry.

"Why did you leave for England three weeks ago, without seeing me and without speaking to me?"

"What could I have said to you?" replied the Prince, with an air of fatigue and dejection.

Jeanne flashed a glance brilliant as lightning:

"You could have told me that you had just asked for Micheline's hand!"

"That would have been brutal!"

"It would have been honest! But it would have necessitated an explanation, and you don't like explaining. You have preferred leaving me to guess this news from the acts of those around me, and the talk of strangers."

All these words had been spoken by Jeanne with feverish vivacity. The sentences were as cutting as strokes from a whip. The young girl's agitation was violent; her cheeks were red, and her breathing was hard and stifled with emotion. She stopped for a moment; then, turning toward the Prince, and looking him full in the face, she said:

"And so, this marriage is decided?"

Serge answered,

"Yes."

It was fainter than a whisper. As if she could not believe it, Jeanne repeated:

"You are going to marry Micheline?"

And as Panine in a firmer voice answered again, "Yes!" the young girl took two rapid steps and brought her flushed face close to him.

"And I, then?" she cried with a violence she could no longer restrain.

Serge made a sign. The drawing-room window was still open, and from outside they could be heard.

"Jeanne, in mercy calm yourself," replied he. "You are in a state of excitement."

"Which makes you uncomfortable?" interrupted the young girl mockingly.

"Yes, but for your sake only," said he, coldly.

"For mine?"

"Certainly. I fear your committing an imprudence which might harm you."

"Yes; but you with me! And it is that only which makes you afraid."

The Prince looked at Mademoiselle de Cernay, smilingly. Changing his tone, he took her hand in his.

"How naughty you are to-night! And what temper you are showing toward poor Serge! What an opinion he will have of himself after your displaying such a flattering scene of jealousy!"

Jeanne drew away her hand.

"Ah, don't try to joke. This is not the moment, I assure you. You don't exactly realize your situation. Don't you understand that I am prepared to tell Madame Desvarennes everything—"

"Everything!" said the Prince. "In truth, it would not amount to much. You would tell her that I met you in England; that I courted you, and that you found my attentions agreeable. And then? It pleases you to think too seriously of that midsummer night's dream under the great trees of Churchill Castle, and you reproach me for my errors! But what are they? Seriously, I do not see them! We lived in a noisy world; where we enjoyed the liberty which English manners allow to young people. Your aunt found no fault with the charming chatter which the English call flirtation. I told you I loved you; you allowed me to think that I was not displeasing to you. We, thanks to that delightful agreement, spent a most agreeable summer, and now you do not wish to put an end to that pleasant little excursion made beyond the limits drawn by our Parisian world, so severe, whatever people say about it. It is not reasonable, and it is imprudent. If you carry out your menacing propositions, and if you take my future mother-in-law as judge of the rights which you claim, don't you understand that you would be condemned beforehand? Her interests are directly opposed to yours. Could she hesitate between her daughter and you?"

"Oh! your calculations are clever and your measures were well taken," replied Jeanne. "Still, if Madame Desvarennes were not the woman you think her—" Then, hesitating:

"If she took my part, and thinking that he who was an unloyal lover would be an unfaithful husband—she would augur of the future of her daughter by my experience; and what would happen?"

"Simply this," returned Serge. "Weary of the precarious and hazardous life which I lead, I would leave for Austria, and rejoin the service. A uniform is the only garb which can hide poverty honorably."

Jeanne looked at him with anguish; and making an effort said:

"Then, in any case, for me it is abandonment?" And falling upon a seat, she hid her face in her hands. Panine remained silent for a moment. The young girl's, grief, which he knew to be sincere, troubled him more than he wished to show. He had loved Mademoiselle de Cernay, and he loved her still. But he felt that a sign of weakness on his part would place him at Jeanne's mercy, and that an avowal from his lips at this grave moment meant a breaking-off of his marriage with Micheline. He hardened himself against his impressions, and replied, with insinuating sweetness:

"Why do you speak of desertion, when a good man who loves you fondly, and who possesses a handsome fortune, wishes to marry you?"

Mademoiselle de Cernay raised her head, hastily.

"So, it is you who advise me to marry Monsieur Cayrol? Is there nothing revolting to you in the idea that I should follow your advice? But then, you deceived me from the first moment you spoke to me. You have never loved me even for a day! Not an hour!"

Serge smiled, and resuming his light, caressing tone, replied:

"My dear Jeanne, if I had a hundred thousand francs a year, I give you my word of honor that I would not marry another woman but you, for you would make an adorable Princess."

Mademoiselle de Cernay made a gesture of perfect indifference.

"Ah! what does the title matter to me?" she exclaimed, with passion. "What I want is you! Nothing but you!"

"You do not know what you ask. I love you far too much to associate you with my destiny. If you knew that gilded misery, that white kid-gloved poverty, which is my lot, you would be frightened, and you would understand that in my resolution to give you up there is much of tenderness and generosity. Do you think it is such an easy matter to give up a woman so adorable as you are? I resign myself to it, though.

"What could I do with my beautiful Jeanne in the three rooms in the Rue de Madame where I live? Could I, with the ten or twelve thousand francs which I receive through the liberality of the Russian Panines, provide a home? I can hardly make it do for myself. I live at the club, where I dine cheaply. I ride my friends' horses! I never touch a card, although I love play. I go much in society; I shine there, and walk home to save the cost of a carriage. My door-keeper cleans my rooms and keeps my linen in order. My private life is sad, dull, and humiliating. It is the black chrysalis of the bright butterfly which you know. That is what Prince Panine is, my dear Jeanne. A gentleman of good appearance, who lives as carefully as an old maid. The world sees him elegant and happy, and its envies his luxury; but this luxury is as deluding as watch-chains made of pinchbeck. You understand now that I cannot seriously ask you to share such an existence."

But if, with this sketch of his life, correctly described, Panine thought to turn the young girl against him, he was mistaken. He had counted without considering Jeanne's sanguine temperament, which would lead her to make any sacrifices to keep the man she adored.

"If you were rich, Serge," she said, "I would not have made an effort to bring you back to me. But you are poor and I have a right to tell you that I love you. Life with you would be all devotedness and self-denial. Each pain endured would be a proof of love, and that is why I wish to suffer. Your life with mine would be neither sad nor humiliated; I would make it sweet by my tenderness, and bright by my happiness. And we should be so happy that you would say, 'How could I ever have dreamed of anything else?'"

"Alas! Jeanne," replied the Prince; "it is a charming and poetic idyl which you present to me. We should flee far from the world, eh? We should go to an unknown spot and try to regain paradise lost. How long would that happiness last? A season during the springtime of our youth. Then autumn would come, sad and harsh. Our illusions would vanish like the swallows in romances, and we should find, with alarm, that we had taken the dream of a day for eternal happiness! Forgive my speaking plain words of disenchantment," added Serge, seeing Jeanne rising abruptly, "but our life is being settled at this moment. Reason alone should guide us."

"And I beseech you to be guided only by your heart," cried Mademoiselle de Cernay, seizing the hands of the Prince, and pressing them with her trembling fingers. "Remember that you loved me. Say that you love me still!"

Jeanne had drawn near to Serge. Her burning face almost touched his. Her eyes, bright with excitement, pleaded passionately for a tender look. She was most fascinating, and Panine, usually master of himself, lost his presence of mind for a moment. His arms encircled the shoulders of the adorable pleader, and his lips were buried in the masses of her dark hair.

"Serge!" cried Mademoiselle de Cernay, clinging to him whom she loved so fondly.

But the Prince was as quickly calmed as he had been carried away. He gently put Jeanne aside.

"You see," he said with a smile, "how unreasonable we are and how easily we might commit an irreparable folly. And yet our means will not allow us."

"In mercy do not leave me!" pleaded Jeanne, in a tone of despair. "You love me! I feel it; everything tells me so! And you would desert me because you are poor and I am not rich. Is a man ever poor when he has two arms? Work."

The word was uttered by Jeanne with admirable energy. She possessed the courage to overcome every difficulty.

Serge trembled. For the second time he felt touched to the very soul by this strange girl. He understood that he must not leave her with the slightest hope of encouragement, but throw ice on the fire which was devouring her.

"My dear Jeanne," he said, with affectionate sweetness, "you are talking nonsense. Remember this, that for Prince Panine there are only three social conditions possible: to be rich, a soldier, or a priest. I have the choice. It is for you to decide."

This put an end to Mademoiselle de Cernay's resistance. She felt how useless was further argument, and falling on a sofa, crushed with grief, cried:

"Ah! this time it is finished; I am lost!"

Panine, then, approaching her, insinuating and supple, like the serpent with the first woman, murmured in her ear, as if afraid lest his words, in being spoken aloud, would lose their subtle venom:

"No, you are not lost. On the contrary, you are saved, if you will only listen to and understand me. What are we, you and I? You, a child adopted by a generous woman; I, a ruined nobleman. You live in luxury, thanks to Madame Desvarennes's liberality. I can scarcely manage to keep myself with the help of my family. Our present is precarious, our future hazardous. And, suddenly, fortune is within our grasp. We have only to stretch out our hands, and with one stroke we gain the uncontested power which money brings!

"Riches, that aim of humanity! Do you understand? We, the weak and disdained, become strong and powerful. And what is necessary to gain them? A flash of sense; a minute of wisdom; forget a dream and accept a reality."

Jeanne waited till he had finished. A bitter smile played on her lips. Henceforth she would believe in no one. After listening to what Serge had just said, she could listen to anything.

"So," said she, "the dream is love; the reality is interest. And is it you who speak thus to me? You, for whom I was prepared to endure any sacrifice! You, whom I would have served on my knees! And what reason do you give to justify your conduct? Money! Indispensable and stupid money! Nothing but money! But it is odious, infamous, low!"

Serge received this terrible broadside of abuse without flinching. He had armed himself against contempt, and was deaf to all insults. Jeanne went on with increasing rage:

"Micheline has everything: family, fortune, and friends, and she is taking away my one possession—your love. Tell me that you love her! It will be more cruel but less vile! But no, it is not possible! You gave way to temptation at seeing her so rich; you had a feeling of covetousness, but you will become yourself again and will act like an honest man. Think, that in my eyes you are dishonoring yourself! Serge, answer me!"

She clung to him again, and tried to regain him by her ardor, to warm him with her passion. He remained unmoved, silent, and cold. Her conscience rebelled.

"Well, then," said she, "marry her."

She remained silent and sullen, seeming to forget he was there. She was thinking deeply. Then she walked wildly up and down the room, saying:

"So, it is that implacable self-interest with which I have just come in contact, which is the law of the world, the watchword of society! So, in refusing to share the common folly, I risk remaining in isolation, and I must be strong to make others stand in awe of me. Very well, then, I shall henceforth act in such a manner as to be neither dupe nor victim. In future, everything will be: self, and woe to him who hinders me. That is the morality of the age, is it not?"

And she laughed nervously.

"Was I not stupid? Come, Prince, you have made me clever. Many thanks for the lesson; it was difficult, but I shall profit by it."

The Prince, astonished at the sudden change, listened to Jeanne with stupor. He did not yet quite understand.

"What do you intend to do?" asked he.

Jeanne looked at him with a fiendish expression. Her eyes sparkled like stars; her white teeth shone between her lips.

"I intend," replied she, "to lay the foundation of my power, and to follow your advice, by marrying a millionaire!"

She ran to the window, and, looking out toward the shady garden, called:

"Monsieur Cayrol!"

Serge, full of surprise, and seized by a sudden fit of jealousy, went toward her as if to recall her.

"Jeanne," said he, vaguely holding out his arms.

"Well! what is it?" she asked, with crushing haughtiness. "Are you frightened at having gained your cause so quickly?"

And as Serge did not speak:

"Come," added she, "you will have a handsome fee; Micheline's dower will be worth the trouble you have had."

They heard Cayrol's hurried steps ascending the stairs.

"You have done me the honor to call me, Mademoiselle," said he, remaining on the threshold of the drawing-room. "Am I fortunate enough at length to have found favor in your eyes?"

"Here is my hand," said Mademoiselle de Cernay, simply tendering him her white taper fingers, which he covered with kisses.

Madame Desvarennes had come in behind the banker. She uttered a joyous exclamation.

"Cayrol, you shall not marry Jeanne for her beauty alone. I will give her a dower."

Micheline fell on her companion's neck. It was a concert of congratulations. But Jeanne, with a serious air, led Cayrol aside:

"I wish to act honestly toward you, sir; I yield to the pleading of which I am the object. But you must know that my sentiments do not change so quickly. It is my hand only which I give you today."

"I have not the conceitedness to think that you love me, Mademoiselle," said Cayrol, humbly. "You give me your hand; it will be for me to gain your heart, and with time and sincere affection I do not despair of winning it. I am truly happy, believe me, for the favor you do me, and all my life long shall be spent in proving my gratitude to you."

Jeanne was moved; she glanced at Cayrol, and did not think him so common-looking as usual. She resolved to do all in her power to like this good man.

Serge, in taking leave of Madame Desvarennes, said:

"In exchange for all the happiness which you give me, I have only my life to offer; accept it, Madame, it is yours."

The mistress looked at the Prince deeply; then, in a singular tone, said:

"I accept it; from to-day you belong to me."

Marechal took Pierre by the arm and led him outside.

"The Prince has just uttered words which remind me of Antonio saying to the Jew in 'The Merchant of Venice': 'Thy ducats in exchange for a pound of my flesh.' Madame Desvarennes loves her daughter with a more formidable love than Shylock had for his gold. The Prince will do well to be exact in his payments of the happiness which he has promised."



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