Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet

CHAPTER VIII
A PLEASANT UNDERSTANDING

The day following this memorable evening, Pierre left for Algeria, notwithstanding the prayers of Madame Desvarennes who wished to keep him near her. He was going to finish his labors. He promised to return in time for the wedding. The mistress, wishing to give him some compensation, offered him the management of the mills at Jouy, saying:

"So that if you are not my son, you will be at least my partner. And if I do not leave you all my money at my death, I can enrich you during my life."

Pierre would not accept. He would not have it said that in wishing to marry Micheline he had tried to make a speculation. He wished to leave that house where he had hoped to spend his life, empty-handed, so that no one could doubt that it was the woman he loved in Micheline and not the heiress. He had been offered a splendid appointment in Savoy as manager of some mines; he would find there at the same time profit and happiness, because there were interesting scientific studies to be made in order to enable him to carry on the work creditably. He resolved to throw himself heart and soul into the work and seek forgetfulness in study.

In the mansion of the Rue Saint-Dominique the marriage preparations were carried on with great despatch. On the one side the Prince, and on the other Cayrol, were eager for the day: the one because he saw the realization of his ambitious dreams, the other because he loved so madly. Serge, gracious and attentive, allowed himself to be adored by Micheline, who was never weary of listening to and looking at him whom she loved. It was a sort of delirium that had taken possession of the young girl. Madame Desvarennes looked on the metamorphosis in her child with amazement. The old Micheline, naturally indolent and cold, just living with the indolence of an odalisque stretched on silk cushions, had changed into a lively, loving sweetheart, with sparkling eyes and cheerful lips. Like those lowers which the sun causes to bloom and be fragrant, so Micheline under a look from Serge became animated and grown handsomer.

The mother looked on with bitterness; she spoke of this transformation in her child with ironical disdain, She was sure Micheline was not in earnest; only a doll was capable of falling in love so foolishly with a man for his personal beauty. For to her mind the Prince was as regards mental power painfully deficient. No sense, dumb as soon as the conversation took a serious turn, only able to talk dress like a woman, or about horses like a jockey. And it was such a person upon whom Micheline literally doted! The mistress felt humiliated; she dared not say anything to her daughter, but she relieved herself in company of Marechal, whose discretion she could trust, and whom she willingly called the tomb of her secrets.

Marechal listened patiently to the confidences of Madame Desvarennes, and he tried to fight against the growing animosity of the mistress toward her future son-in-law. Not that he liked the Prince—he was too much on Pierre's side to be well disposed toward Panine; but with his good sense he saw that Madame Desvarennes would find it advantageous to overcome her feeling of dislike. And when the mistress, so formidable toward everybody except her daughter, cried with rage:

"That Micheline! I have just seen her again in the garden, hanging on the arm of that great lanky fellow, her eyes fixed on his like a lark fascinated by a looking-glass. What on earth has happened to her that she should be in such a state?"

Marechal interrupted her gently.

"All fair people are like that," he affirmed with ironical gayety. "You cannot understand it, Madame; you are dark."

Then Madame Desvarennes became angry.

"Be quiet," she said, "you are stupid! She ought to have a shower-bath! She is mad!"

As for Cayrol he lived in ecstasy, like an Italian kneeling before a madonna. He had never been so happy; he was overwhelmed with joy. Until then, he had only thought of business matters. To be rich was the aim of his life; and now he was going to work for happiness. It was all pleasure for him. He was not blase; he amused himself like a child, adorning the rooms which were to be occupied by Jeanne. To his mind nothing was too expensive for the temple of his goddess, as he said, with a loud laugh which lighted up his whole face. And when he spoke of his love's future nest, he exclaimed, with a voluptuous shiver:

"It is charming; a veritable little paradise!" Then the financier shone through all, and he added:

"And I know what it costs!"

But he did not grudge his money. He knew he would get the interest of it back. On one subject he was anxious—Mademoiselle de Cernay's health. Since the day of their engagement, Jeanne had become more serious and dull. She had grown thin and her eyes were sunken as if she wept in secret. When he spoke of his fears to Madame Desvarennes, the latter said:

"These young girls are so senseless. The notion of marriage puts them in such an incomprehensible state! Look at my daughter. She chatters like a magpie and skips about like a kid. She has two glow-worms under her eyelids! As to Jeanne, that's another affair; she has the matrimonial melancholy, and has the air of a young victim. Leave them alone; it will all come right. But you must admit that the gayety of the one is at least as irritating as the languor of the other!"

Cayrol, somewhat reassured by this explanation, and thinking, like her, that it was the uncertainties of marriage which were troubling Jeanne, no longer attached any importance to her sad appearance. Micheline and Serge isolated themselves completely. They fled to the garden as soon as any one ventured into the drawing room, to interrupt their tete-a-tete. If visitors came to the garden they took refuge in the conservatory.

This manoeuvre pleased Serge, because he always felt uncomfortable in Jeanne's presence. Mademoiselle de Cernay had a peculiar wrinkle on her brow whenever she saw Micheline passing before her hanging on the arm of the Prince, which tormented him. They were obliged to meet at table in the evening, for Serge and Cayrol dined at the Rue Saint-Dominique. The Prince talked in whispers to Micheline, but every now and then he was obliged to speak to Jeanne. These were painful moments to Serge. He was always in dread of some outburst, knowing her ardent and passionate nature. Thus, before Jeanne, he made Micheline behave in a less demonstrative manner. Mademoiselle Desvarennes was proud of this reserve, and thought it was tact and good breeding on the part of the Prince, without doubting that what she thought reserve in the man of the world was the prudence of an anxious lover.

Jeanne endured the tortures of Hades. Too proud to say anything after the explanation she had had with Serge, too much smitten to bear calmly the sight of her rival's happiness, she saw draw near with deep horror the moment when she would belong to the man whom she had determined to marry although she did not love him. She once thought of breaking off the engagement; as she could not belong to the man whom she adored, at least she could belong to herself. But the thought of the struggle she would have to sustain with those who surrounded her, stopped her. What would she do at Madame Desvarennes's? She would have to witness the happiness of Micheline and Serge. She would rather leave the house.

With Cayrol at least she could go away; she would be free, and perhaps the esteem which she would surely have for her husband would do instead of love. Sisterly or filial love, in fact the least affection, would satisfy the poor man, who was willing to accept anything from Jeanne. And she would not have that group of Serge and Micheline before her eyes, always walking round the lawn and disappearing arm in arm down the narrow walks. She would not have the continual murmur of their love-making in her ears, a murmur broken by the sound of kisses when they reached shady corners.

One evening, when Serge appeared in the little drawing-room of the Rue Saint-Dominique, he found Madame Desvarennes alone. She looked serious, as if same important business were pending. She stood before the fireplace; her hands crossed behind her back like a man. Apparently, she had sought to be alone. Cayrol, Jeanne, and Micheline were in the garden. Serge felt uneasy. He had a presentiment of trouble. But determined to make the best of it, whatever it might be, he looked pleasant and bowed to Madame Desvarennes, without his face betraying his uneasiness.

"Good-day, Prince; you are early this evening, though not so early as Cayrol; but then he does not quite know what he is doing now. Sit down, I want to talk to you. You know that a young lady like Mademoiselle Desvarennes cannot get married without her engagement being much talked about. Tongues have been very busy, and pens too. I have heard a lot of scandal and have received heaps of anonymous letters about you."

Serge gave a start of indignation.

"Don't be uneasy," continued the mistress. "I did not heed the tales, and I burned the letters. Some said you were a dissolute man, capable of anything to gain your object. Others insinuated that you were not a Prince, that you were not a Pole, but the son of a Russian coachman and a little dressmaker of Les Ternes; that you had lived at the expense of Mademoiselle Anna Monplaisir, the star of the Varietes Theatre, and that you were bent on marrying to pay your debts with my daughter's money."

Panine, pale as death, rose up and said, in a stifled voice:

"Madame!"

"Sit down, my dear child," interrupted the mistress. "If I tell you these things, it is because I have the proofs that they are untrue. Otherwise, I would not have given myself the trouble to talk to you about them. I would have shown you the door and there would have been an end of it. Certainly, you are not an angel; but the peccadillos which you have been guilty of are those which one forgives in a son, and which in a son-in-law makes some mothers smile. You are a Prince, you are handsome, and you have been loved. You were then a bachelor; and it was your own affair. But now, you are going to be, in about ten days, the husband of my daughter, and it is necessary for us to make certain arrangements. Therefore, I waited to see you, to speak of your wife, of yourself, and of me."

What Madame Desvarennes had just said relieved Serge of a great weight. He felt so happy that he resolved to do everything in his power to please the mother of his betrothed.

"Speak, Madame," he exclaimed. "I am listening to you with attention and confidence. I am sure that from you I can only expect goodness and sense."

The mistress smiled.

"Oh, I know you have a gilt tongue, my handsome friend, but I don't pay myself with words, and I, am not easy to be wheedled."

"Faith," said Serge, "I won't deceive you. I will try to please you with all my heart."

Madame Desvarennes's face brightened as suddenly at these words as a landscape, wrapped in a fog, which is suddenly lighted up by the sun.

"Then we shall understand each other," she said. "For the last fortnight we have been busy with marriage preparations, and have not been able to think or reason. Everybody is rambling about here. Still, we are commencing a new life, and I think it is as well to lay the foundation. I seem to be drawing up a contract, eh? What can I do? It is an old business habit. I like to know how I stand."

"I think it is quite right. I think, too, that you have acted with great delicacy in not imposing your conditions upon me before giving your consent."

"Has that made you feel better disposed toward me? So much the better!" said the mistress. "Because you know that I depend on my daughter, who will henceforth depend on you, and it is to my interest that I should be in your good graces."

In pronouncing these words with forced cheerfulness, Madame Desvarennes's voice trembled slightly. She knew what an important game she was playing, and wished to win it at any price.

"You see," continued she, "I am not an easy woman to deal with. I am a little despotic, I know. I have been in the habit of commanding during the last thirty-five years. Business was heavy, and required a strong will. I had it, and the habit is formed. But this strong will, which has served me so well in business will, I am afraid, with you, play me some trick. Those who have lived with me a long time know that if I am hot-headed I have a good heart. They submit to my tyranny; but you who are a newcomer, how will you like it?"

"I shall do as the others do," said Serge, simply. "I shall be led, and with pleasure. Think that I have lived for years without kindred, without ties—at random; and, believe me, any chain will be light and sweet which holds me to any one or anything. And then," frankly added he, changing his tone and looking at Madame Desvarennes with tenderness, "if I did not do everything to please you I should be ungrateful."

"Oh!" cried Madame Desvarennes, "unfortunately that is not a reason."

"Would you have a better one?" said the young man, in his most charming accent. "If I had not married your daughter for her own sake, I believe that I should have married her for yours." Madame Desvarennes was quite pleased, and shaking her finger threateningly at Serge, said:

"Ah, you Pole, you boaster of the North!"

"Seriously," continued Serge, "before I knew I was to be your son-in-law, I thought you a matchless woman. Add to the admiration I had for your great qualities the affection which your goodness has inspired, and you will understand that I am both proud and happy to have such a mother as you."

Madame Desvarennes looked at Panine attentively; she saw he was sincere. Then, taking courage, she touched the topic of greatest interest to her. "If that is the case, you will have no objections to live with me?" She stopped; then emphasized the words, "With me."

"But was not that understood?" asked Serge, gayly' "I thought so. You must have seen that I have not been seeking a dwelling for my wife and myself. If you had not made the offer to me, I should have asked you to let me stay with you."

Madame Desvarennes broke into such an outburst of joy that she astonished Panine. It was then only that in that pallor, in that sudden trembling, in that changed voice, he understood, the immensity of the mother's love for her daughter.

"I have everything to gain by that arrangement," continued he. "My wife will be happy at not leaving you, and you will be pleased at my not having taken away your daughter. You will both like me better, and that is all I wish."

"How good you are in deciding thus, and how I thank you for it," resumed Madame Desvarennes. "I feared you would have ideas of independence."

"I should have been happy to sacrifice them to you, but I have not even that merit."

All that Serge had said had been so open and plain, and expressed with such sweetness that, little by little, Madame Desvarennes's prejudices disappeared. He took possession of her as he had done of Micheline, and as he did of every one whom he wished to conquer. His charm was irresistible. He seized on one by the eyes and the ears. Naturally fascinating, moving, captivating, bold, he always preserved his artless and tender ways, which made him resemble a young girl.

"I am going to tell you how we shall manage," said the mistress. "Foreseeing my daughter's marriage, I have had my house divided into two distinct establishments. They say that life in common with a mother-in-law is objectionable to a son-in-law, therefore I wish you to have a home of your own. I know that an old face like mine frightens young lovers. I will come to you when you invite me. But even when I am shut up in my own apartments I shall be with my daughter; I shall breathe the same air; I shall hear her going and coming, singing, laughing, and I shall say to myself, 'It is all right, she is happy.' That is all I ask. A little corner, whence I can share her life."

Serge took her hand with effusion.

"Don't be afraid; your daughter will not leave you."

Madame Desvarennes, unable to contain her feelings, opened her arms, and Serge fell on her breast, like a true son.

"Do you know, I am going to adore you!" cried Madame Desvarennes, showing Panine a face beaming with happiness.

"I hope so," said the young man, gayly.

Madame Desvarennes became thoughtful.

"What a strange thing life is!" resumed she. "I did not want you for a son-in-law, and now you are behaving so well toward me that I am full of remorse. Oh, I see now what a dangerous man you are, if you captivate other women's hearts as you have caught mine."

She looked at the Prince fixedly, and added, in her clear commanding voice, with a shade of gayety:

"Now, I hope you will reserve all your powers of charming for my daughter. No more flirting, eh? She loves you; she would be jealous, and you would get into hot water with me! Let Micheline's life be happy, without a cloud-blue, always blue sky!"

"That will be easy," said Serge. "To be unhappy I should have to seek misfortune; and I certainly shall not do that."

He began to laugh.

"Besides, your good friends who criticised so when you gave me Micheline's hand would be only too pleased. I will not give them the pleasure of posing as prophets and saying, 'We knew it would be so!'"

"You must forgive them," replied Madame Desvarennes. "You have made enemies. Without speaking of projects which I had formed, I may say that my daughter has had offers from the best folks in Paris; from first-rate firms! Our circle was rather indignant.

"People said: 'Oh, Madame Desvarennes wanted her daughter to be a Princess. We shall see how it will turn out. Her son-in-law will spend her money and spurn her.' The gossip of disappointed people. Give them the lie; manage that we shall all live together, and we shall be right against the world."

"Do you hope it will be so?"

"I am sure of it," answered the mistress, affectionately pressing the hand of her future son-in-law.

Micheline entered, anxious at the long interview between Serge and her mother. She saw them hand in hand. She uttered a joyful cry, and threw her arms caressingly round her mother's neck.

"Well! you are agreed?" she said, making a gracious sign to Serge.

"He has been charming," replied Madame Desvarennes, whispering in her daughter's ear. "He agrees to live in this house, and that quite gracefully. There, child, this is the happiest moment I've had since your engagement. I admit that I regret nothing."

Then, resuming aloud:

"We will leave to-morrow for Cernay, where the marriage shall take place. I shall have to order the workmen in here to get ready for your reception. Besides the wedding will be more brilliant in the country. We shall have all the work-people there. We will throw the park open to the countryside; it will be a grand fete. For we are lords of the manor there," added she, with pride.

"You are right, mamma; it will be far better," exclaimed Micheline. And taking Serge by the hand:

"Come, let us go," said she, and led him into the garden.

And amid the sweet-smelling shrubs they resumed their walk, always the same yet ever new, their arms twined round each other, the young girl clinging to him whom she loved, and he looking fondly at her, and with caressing voice telling her the oft-told tale of love which she was never tired of hearing, and which always filled her with thrills of joy.



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