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SERGE PANINE

By GEORGES OHNET


BOOK 2.


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."


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.


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Online LibraryGeorges OhnetSerge Panine — Volume 02 → online text (page 1 of 5)