Serge Panine by Georges Ohnet


The Chateau of Cernay is a vast and beautiful structure of the time of Louis XIII. A walled park of a hundred acres surrounds it, with trees centuries old. A white painted gate separates the avenue from the road leading to Pontoise by way of Conflans. A carpet of grass, on which carriages roll as if on velvet, leads up to the park gates. Before reaching, it there is a stone bridge which spans the moat of running water. A lodge of stone, faced with brick, with large windows, rises at each corner of this space.

The chateau, surrounded by cleverly arranged trees, stands in the centre, on a solid foundation of red granite from the Jura. A splendid double staircase leads to the ground floor as high as an 'entresol'. A spacious hall, rising to the roof of the building, lighted by a window filled with old stained glass, first offers itself to the visitor. A large organ, by Cavallie-Col, rears its long brilliant pipes at one end of the hall to a level with the gallery of sculptured wood running round and forming a balcony on the first floor. At each corner is a knight in armor, helmet on head, and lance in hand, mounted on a charger, and covered with the heavy trappings of war. Cases full of objects of art of great value, bookshelves containing all the new books, are placed along the walls. A billiard-table and all sorts of games are lodged under the vast staircase. The broad bays which give admission to the reception-rooms and grand staircase are closed by tapestry of the fifteenth century, representing hunting scenes. Long cords of silk and gold loop back these marvellous hangings in the Italian style. Thick carpets, into which the feet sink, deaden the sound of footsteps. Spacious divans, covered with Oriental materials, are placed round the room.

Over the chimney-piece, which is splendidly carved in woodwork, is a looking-glass in the Renaissance style, with a bronze and silver frame, representing grinning fawns and dishevelled nymphs. Benches are placed round the hearth, which is large enough to hold six people. Above the divans, on the walls, are large oil-paintings by old masters. An "Assumption," by Jordaens, which is a masterpiece; "The Gamesters," by Valentin; "A Spanish Family on Horseback," painted by Velasquez; and the marvel of the collection—a "Holy Family," by Francia, bought in Russia. Then, lower down, "A Young Girl with a Canary," by Metzu; a "Kermesse," by Braurver, a perfect treasure, glitter, like the gems they are, in the midst of panoplies, between the high branches of palm-trees planted in enormous delft vases. A mysterious light filters into that fresh and picturesque apartment through the stained-glass windows.

From the hall the left wing is reached, where the reception-rooms are, and one's eyes are dazzled by the brightness which reigns there. It is like coming out from a cathedral into broad daylight. The furniture, of gilt wood and Genoese velvet, looks very bright. The walls are white and gold; and flowers are everywhere. At the end is Madame Desvarennes's bedroom, because she does not like mounting stairs, and lives on the ground floor. Adjoining it is a conservatory, furnished as a drawing-room, and serving as a boudoir for the mistress of the house.

The dining-room, the gun-room, and the smoking-room are in the right wing. The gun-room deserves a particular description. Four glass cases contain guns of every description and size of the best English and French manufacture. All the furniture is made of stags' horns, covered with fox-skins and wolf-skins. A large rug, formed by four bears' skins, with menacing snouts, showing their white teeth at the four corners, is in the centre of the room. On the walls are four paintings by Princeteau, admirably executed, and representing hunting scenes. Low couches, wide as beds, covered with gray cloth, invite the sportsmen to rest. Large dressing-rooms, fitted up with hot and cold water, invite them to refresh themselves with a bath. Everything has been done to suit the most fastidious taste. The kitchens are underground.

On the first story are the principal rooms. Twelve bedrooms, with dressing-rooms, upholstered in chintz of charming design. From these, a splendid view of the park and country beyond may be obtained. In the foreground is a piece of water, bathing, with its rapid current, the grassy banks which border the wood, while the low-lying branches of the trees dip into the flood, on which swans, dazzlingly white, swim in stately fashion. Beneath an old willow, whose drooping boughs form quite a vault of pale verdure, a squadron of multicolored boats remain fastened to the balustrade of a landing stage. Through an opening in the trees you see in the distance fields of yellow corn, and in the near background, behind a row of poplars, ever moving like a flash of silver lightning, the Oise flows on between its low banks.

This sumptuous dwelling, on the evening of the 14th of July, was in its greatest splendor. The trees of the park were lit up by brilliant Venetian lanterns; little boats glided on the water of the lake carrying musicians whose notes echoed through the air. Under a marquee, placed midway in the large avenue, the country lads and lasses were dancing with spirit, while the old people, more calm, were seated under the large trees enjoying the ample fare provided. A tremendous uproar of gayety reechoed through the night, and the sound of the cornet attracted the people to the ball.

It was nine o'clock. Carriages were fast arriving with guests for the mansion. In the centre of the handsome hall, illuminated with electric light, stood Madame Desvarennes in full dress, having put off black for one day, doing honor to the arrivals. Behind her stood Marechal and Savinien, like two aides-de-camp, ready, at a sign, to offer their arms to the ladies, to conduct them to the drawing-rooms. The gathering was numerous. Merchant-princes came for Madame Desvarennes's sake; bankers for Cayrol's; and the aristocrats and foreign nobility for the Prince's. An assemblage as opposed in ideas as in manners: some valuing only money, others high birth; all proud and elbowing each other with haughty assurance, speaking ill of each other and secretly jealous.

There were heirs of dethroned kings; princes without portions, who were called Highness, and who had not the income of their fathers' former chamberlains; millionaires sprung from nothing, who made a great show and who would have given half of their possessions for a single quartering of the arms of these great lords whom they affected to despise.

Serge and Cayrol went from group to group; the one with his graceful and delicate elegance; the other with his good-humor, radiant and elated by the consciousness of his triumphs. Herzog had just arrived, accompanied by his daughter, a charming girl of sixteen, to whim Marechal had offered his arm. A whispering was heard when Herzog passed. He was accustomed to the effect which he produced in public, and quite calmly congratulated Cayrol.

Serge had just introduced Micheline to Count Soutzko, a gray-haired old gentleman of military appearance, whose right sleeve was empty. He was a veteran of the Polish wars, and an old friend of Prince Panine's, at whose side he had received the wounds which had so frightfully mutilated him. Micheline, smiling, was listening to flattering tales which the old soldier was relating about Serge. Cayrol, who had got rid of Herzog, was looking for Jeanne, who had just disappeared in the direction of the terrace.

The rooms were uncomfortably warm, and many of the visitors had found their way to the terraces. Along the marble veranda, overlooking the lake, chairs had been placed. The ladies, wrapped in their lace scarfs, had formed into groups and were enjoying the delights of the beautiful evening. Bursts of subdued laughter came from behind fans, while the gentlemen talked in whispers. Above all this whispering was heard the distant sound of the cornet at the peasants' ball.

Leaning over the balustrade, in a shady corner, far from the noise which troubled him and far from the fete which hurt him, Pierre was dreaming. His eyes were fixed on the illuminations in the park, but he did not see them. He thought of his vanished hopes. Another was beloved by Micheline, and in a few hours he would take her away, triumphant and happy. A great sadness stole over the young man's spirit; he was disgusted with life and hated humanity. What was to become of him now? His life was shattered; a heart like his could not love twice, and Micheline's image was too deeply engraven on it for it ever to be effaced. Of what use was all the trouble he had taken to raise himself above others? A worthless fellow had passed that way and Micheline had yielded to him. Now it was all over!

And Pierre asked himself if he had not taken a wrong view of things, and if it was not the idle and good-for-nothing fellows who were more prudent than he. To waste his life in superhuman works, to tire his mind in seeking to solve great problems, and to attain old age without other satisfaction than unproductive honors and mercenary rewards. Those who only sought happiness and joy—epicureans who drive away all care, all pain, and only seek to soften their existence, and brighten their horizon—were they not true sages? Death comes so quickly! And it is with astonishment that one perceives when the hour is at hand, that one has not lived! Then the voice of pride spoke to him: what is a man who remains useless, and does not leave one trace of his passage through the world by works or discoveries? And, in a state of fever, Pierre said to himself:

"I will throw myself heart and soul into science; I will make my name famous, and I will make that ungrateful child regret me. She will see the difference between me and him whom she has chosen. She will understand that he is nobody, except by her money, whereas she would have been all by me."

A hand was placed on his shoulder; and Marechal's affectionate voice said to him:

"Well! what are you doing here, gesticulating like that?"

Pierre turned round.

Lost in his thoughts he had not heard his friend approaching.

"All our guests have arrived," continued Marechal. "I have only just been able to leave them and to come to you. I have been seeking you for more than a quarter of an hour. You are wrong to hide yourself; people will make remarks. Come toward the house; it is as well to show yourself a little; people might imagine things which they must not imagine."

"Eh! let them think what they like; what does it matter to me?" said Pierre, sadly. "My life is a blank."

"Your life may be a blank; but it is your duty not to let any one perceive it. Imitate the young Spartan, who smiled although the fox, hidden under his cloak, was gnawing his vitals. Let us avoid ridicule, my friend. In society there is nothing that provokes laughter more than a disappointed lover, who rolls his eyes about and looks woe-begone. And, then, you-see, suffering is a human law; the world is an arena, life is a conflict. Material obstacles, moral griefs, all hinder and overwhelm us. We must go on, though, all the same, and fight. Those who give in are trodden down! Come, pull yourself together!"

"And for whom should I fight now? A moment ago I was making projects, but I was a fool! All hope and ambition are dead in me."

"Ambition will return, you may be sure! At present you are suffering from weariness of mind; but your strength will return. As to hope, one must never despair."

"What can I expect in the future?"

"What? Why, everything! In this world all sorts of things happen!" said Marechal, gayly. "Who is to prove that the Princess will not be a widow soon?"

Pierre could not help laughing and said,

"Come, don't talk such nonsense!"

"My dear fellow," concluded Marechal, "in life it is only nonsense that is common-sense. Come and smoke a cigar."

They traversed several groups of people and bent their steps in the direction of the chateau. The Prince was advancing toward the terrace, with an elegantly dressed and beautiful woman on his arm. Savinien, in the midst of a circle of dandies, was picking the passers-by to pieces in his easy-going way. Pierre and Marechal came behind these young men without being noticed.

"Who is that hanging on the arm of our dear Prince?" asked a little fat man, girt in a white satin waistcoat, and a spray of white lilac in his buttonhole.

"Eh! Why, Le Brede, my boy, you don't know anything!" cried Savinien in a bantering, jocose tone.

"Because I don't know that lovely fair woman?" said Le Brede, in a piqued voice. "I don't profess to know the names of all the pretty women in Paris!"

"In Paris? That woman from Paris? You have not looked at her. Come, open your eyes. Pure English style, my friend."

The dandies roared with laughter. They had at once recognized the pure English style. They were not men to be deceived. One of them, a tall, dark fellow, named Du Tremblays, affected an aggrieved air, and said:

"Le Brede, my dear fellow, you make us blush for you!"

The Prince passed, smiling and speaking in a low voice to the beautiful Englishwoman, who was resting the tips of her white gloved fingers on her cavalier's arm.

"Who is she?" inquired Le Brede, impatiently.

"Eh, my dear fellow, it is Lady Harton, a cousin of the Prince. She is extremely rich, and owns a district in London."

"They say that a year ago she was very kind to Serge Panine," added Du Tremblays, confidentially.

"Why did he not marry her, then, since she is so rich? He has been quite a year in the market, the dear Prince."

"She is married."

"Oh, that is a good reason. But where is her husband?"

"Shut up in a castle in Scotland. Nobody ever sees him. He is out of his mind; and is surrounded by every attention."

"And a strait-waistcoat! Then why does not this pretty woman get a divorce?"

"The money belongs to the husband."


Pierre and Marechal had listened, in silence, to this cool and yet terrible conversation. The group of young men dispersed. The two friends looked at each other. Thus, then, Serge Panine was judged by his companions in pleasure, by the frequenters of the clubs in which he had spent a part of his existence. The Prince being "in the market" was obliged to marry a rich woman. He could not marry Lady Harton, so he had sought Micheline. And the sweet child was the wife of such a man! And what could be done? She loved him!

Madame Desvarennes and Micheline appeared on the terrace. Lady Harton pointed to the bride with her fan. The Prince, leaving his companion, advanced toward Micheline.

"One of my English relatives, a Polish lady, married to Lord Harton, wishes to be introduced to you," said Serge. "Are you agreeable?"

"With all my heart," replied the young wife, looking lovingly at her husband. "All who belong to you are dear to me, you know."

The beautiful Englishwoman approached slowly.

"The Princess Panine!" said Serge, gravely, introducing Micheline, who bowed gracefully. Then, with a shade of familiarity: "Lady Harton!" continued he, introducing his relative.

"I am very fond of your husband, Madame," said the Englishwoman. "I hope you will allow me to love you also; and I beg you to grant me the favor of accepting this small remembrance."

While speaking, she unfastened from her wrist a splendid bracelet with the inscription, Semper.

Serge frowned and looked stern. Micheline, lowering her eyes, and awed by the Englishwoman's grandeur, timidly said:

"I accept it, Madame, as a token of friendship."

"I think I recognize this bracelet, Madame," observed Serge.

"Yes; you gave it to me," replied Lady Harton, quietly. "Semper—I beg your pardon, Madame, we Poles all speak Latin—Semper means 'Always!' It is a great word. On your wife's arm this bracelet will be well placed. Au revoir, dear Prince. I wish you every happiness."

And bowing to Micheline with a regal bow, Lady Harton took the arm of a tall young man whom she had beckoned, and walked away.

Micheline, amazed, looked at the bracelet sparkling on her white wrist. Without uttering a word Serge unfastened it, took it off his wife's arm, and advancing on the terrace, with a rapid movement flung it in the water. The bracelet gleamed in the night-air and made a brilliant splash; then the water resumed its tranquillity. Micheline, astonished, looked at Serge, who came toward her, and very humbly said:

"I beg your pardon."

The young wife did not answer, but her eyes filled with tears; a smile brightened her lips, and hurriedly taking his arm, she led him into the drawing-room.

Dancing was going on there. The young ladies of Pontoise, and the cream of Creil, had come to the fete, bent on not losing such an opportunity of enjoying themselves. Under the watchful eyes of their mothers, who, decked out in grand array, were seated along the walls, they were gamboling, in spite of the stifling heat, with all the impetuosity of young provincials habitually deprived of the pleasures of the ballroom. Crossing the room, Micheline and Serge reached Madame Desvarennes's boudoir.

It was delightfully cool in there. Cayrol had taken refuge there with Jeanne, and Mademoiselle Susanne Herzog. This young girl felt uncomfortable at being a third party with the newly-married couple, and welcomed the arrival of the Prince and Micheline with pleasure. Her father had left her for a moment in Cayrol's care; but she had not seen him for more than an hour.

"Mademoiselle," said the Prince, gayly, "a little while ago, when I was passing through the rooms, I heard these words: 'Loan, discount, liquidation.' Your father must have been there. Shall I go and seek him?"

"I should be very grateful," said the young girl.

"I will go."

And turning lightly on his heels, happy to escape Jeanne's looks, Serge reentered the furnace. At once he saw Herzog seated in the corner of a bay-window with one of the principal stock-brokers of Paris. He was speaking. The Prince went straight up to him.

"Sorry to draw you away from the sweets of conversation," said he, smiling; "but your daughter is waiting for you, and is anxious at your not coming."

"Faith! My daughter, yes. I will come and see you tomorrow," said he to his companion. "We will talk over this association: there is much to be gained by it."

The other, a man with a bloated face, and fair Dundreary whiskers, was eager to do business with him. Certainly the affair was good.

"Oh, my dear Prince, I am happy to be alone with you for a moment!" said Herzog, with that familiarity which was one of his means of becoming intimate with people. "I was going to compliment you! What a splendid position you have reached."

"Yes; I have married a charming woman," replied the Prince, coldly.

"And what a fortune!" insisted the financier. "Ah, it is worthy of the lot of a great lord such as you are! Oh, you are like those masterpieces of art which need a splendidly carved frame! Well, you have your frame, and well gilt too!"

He laughed and seemed pleased at Serge's happiness. He had taken one of his hands and was patting it softly between his own.

"Not a very 'convenient' mother-in-law, for instance," he went on, good-naturedly; "but you are so charming! Only you could have, coaxed Madame Desvarennes, and you have succeeded. Oh! she likes you, my dear Prince; she told me so only a little while ago. You have won her heart. I don't know how you manage it, but you are irresistible! By the way, I was not there when the marriage contract was read, and I, forgot to ask Cayrol. Under what conditions art you married?"

The Prince looked at Herzog with a look that was hardly friendly. But the financier appeared so indifferent, that Serge could not help answering him:

"My wife's fortune is settled on herself."

"Ah! ah! that is usual in Normandy!" replied Herzog with a grave look. "I was told Madame Desvarennes was a clever woman and she has proved it. And you signed the contract with your eyes shut, my dear Prince. It is perfect, just as a gentleman should do!"

He said this with a good-natured air. Then, suddenly lifting his eyes, and with an ironical smile playing on his lips, he added:

"You are bowled out, my dear fellow, don't you know?"

"Sir!" protested Serge with haughtiness.

"Don't cry out; it is too late, and would be useless," replied the financier. "Let me explain your position to you. Your hands are tied. You cannot dispose of a sou belonging to your wife without her consent. It is true, you have influence over her, happily for you. Still you must foresee that she will be guided by her mother. A strong woman, too, the mother! Ah, Prince, you have allowed yourself to be done completely. I would not have thought it of you."

Serge, nonplussed for a moment, regained his self-possession, and looked Herzog in the face:

"I don't know what idea you have formed of me, sir, and I don't know what object you have in speaking thus to me."

"My interest in you," interrupted the financier. "You are a charming fellow: you please me much. With your tastes, it is possible that in a brief time you may be short of money. Come and see me: I will put you into the way of business. Au revoir, Prince."

And without giving Serge time to answer him, Herzog reached the boudoir where his daughter was waiting with impatience. Behind him came the Prince looking rather troubled. The financier's words had awakened importunate ideas in his mind. Was it true that he had been duped by Madame Desvarennes, and that the latter, while affecting airs of greatness and generosity, had tied him like a noodle to her daughter's apron-string? He made an effort to regain his serenity.

"Micheline loves me and all will be well," said he to himself.

Madame Desvarennes joined the young married people. The rooms were clearing by degrees. Serge took Cayrol apart.

"What are you going to do to-night, my dear fellow?

"You know an apartment has been prepared for you here?"

"Yes, I have already thanked Madame Desvarennes, but I mean to go back to Paris. Our little paradise is prepared for us, and I wish to enter it to-night. I have my carriage and horses here. I am taking away my wife post-haste."

"That is an elopement," said Serge; gayly, "quite in the style of the regency!"

"Yes, my dear Prince, that's how we bankers do it," said Cayrol, laughing.

Then changing his tone:

"See, I vibrate, I am palpitating. I am hot and cold by turns. Just fancy, I have never loved before; my heart is whole, and I love to distraction!"

Serge instinctively glanced at Jeanne. She was seated, looking sad and tired.

Madame Desvarennes, between Jeanne and Micheline, had her arms twined round the two young girls. Regret filled her eyes. The mother felt that the last moments of her absolute reign were near, and she was contemplating with supreme adoration these two children who had grown up around her like two fragile and precious flowers. She was saying to them,

"Well, the great day is over. You are both married. You don't belong to me any longer. How I shall miss you! This morning I had two children, and now—"

"You have four," interrupted Micheline. "Why do you complain?"

"I don't complain," retorted Madame Desvarennes, quickly.

"That's right!" said Micheline, gayly.

Then going toward Jeanne:

"But you are not speaking, you are so quiet; are you ill?"

Jeanne shuddered, and made an effort to soften the hard lines on her face.

"It is nothing. A little fatigue."

"And emotion," added Micheline. "This morning when we entered the church, at the sound of the organ, in the midst of flowers, surrounded by all our friends, I felt that I was whiter than my veil. And the crossing to my place seemed so long, I thought I should never get there. I did so, though. And now everybody calls me 'Madame' and some call me 'Princess.' It amuses me!"

Serge had approached.

"But you are a Princess," said he, smiling, "and everybody must call you so."

"Oh, not mamma, nor Jeanne, nor you," said the young wife, quickly; "always call me Micheline. It will be less respectful, but it will be more tender."

Madame Desvarennes could not resist drawing her daughter once more to her heart.

"Dear child," she said with emotion, "you need affection, as flowers need the sun! But I love you, there."

She stopped and added:

"We love you."

And she held out her hand to her son-in-law. Then changing the subject:

"But I am thinking, Cayrol, as you are returning to Paris, you might take some orders for me which I will write out."

"What? Business? Even on my wedding-day?" exclaimed Micheline.

"Eh! my daughter, we must have flour," replied the mistress, laughing. "While we are enjoying ourselves Paris eats, and it has a famous appetite."

Micheline, leaving her mother, went to her husband.

"Serge, it is not yet late. Suppose we put in an appearance at the work-people's ball? I promised them, and the good folks will be so happy!"

"As you please. I am awaiting your orders. Let us make ourselves popular!"

Madame Desvarennes had gone to her room. Carol took the opportunity of telling his coachman to drive round by the park to the door of the little conservatory and wait there. Thus, his wife and he would avoid meeting any one, and would escape the leave-taking of friends and the curiosity of lockers-on.

Micheline went up to Jeanne, and said:

"As you are going away quietly, dear, I shall not see you again this evening. Adieu!"

And with a happy smile, she kissed her. Then taking her husband's arm she led him toward the park.

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