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SERGE PANINE

By GEORGES OHNET


BOOK 3.


CHAPTER XIII.

THE FIRST BREAK

The first two months of this union were truly enchanting. Serge and
Micheline never left each other. After an absence of eight days they had
returned to Paris with Madame Desvarennes, and the hitherto dull mansion
in the Rue Saint-Dominique was filled with joyful bustle. The splendid
stables, formerly too large for the mistress's three horses, were now
insufficient for the service of the Prince. There were eight splendid
carriage-horses, a pair of charming ponies - bought especially for
Micheline's use, but which the young wife had not been able to make up
her mind to drive herself - four saddle-horses, upon which every morning
about eight o'clock, when the freshness of night had perfumed the Bois de
Boulogne, the young people took their ride round the lake.

A bright sun made the sheet of water sparkle between its borders of dark
fir-trees; the flesh air played in Micheline's veil, and the tawny
leather of the saddles creaked. Those were happy days for Micheline, who
was delighted at having Serge near her, attentive to her every want, and
controlling his thoroughbred English horse to her gentle pace. Every now
and then his mount would wheel about and rear in revolt, she following
him with fond looks, proud of the elegant cavalier who could subdue
without apparent effort, by the mere pressure of his thighs, that
impetuous steed.

Then she would give her horse a touch with the whip, and off she would go
at a gallop, feeling happy with the wind blowing in her face, and he whom
she loved by her side to smile on and encourage her. Then they would
scamper along; the dog with his thin body almost touching the ground,
racing and frightening the rabbits, which shot across the road swift as
bullets. Out of breath by the violent ride, Micheline would stop, and
pat the neck of her lovely chestnut horse. Slowly the young people would
return to the Rue Saint-Dominique, and, on arriving in the courtyard,
there was such a pawing of feet as brought the clerks to the windows,
hiding behind the curtains. Tired with healthy exercise, Micheline would
go smiling to the office where her mother was hard at work, and say:

"Here we are, mamma!"

The mistress would rise and kiss her daughter beaming with freshness.
Then they would go up to breakfast.

Madame Desvarennes's doubts were lulled to rest. She saw her daughter
happy. Her son-in-law was in every respect cordial and charming toward
her. Cayrol and his wife had scarcely been in Paris since their
marriage. The banker had joined Herzog in his great scheme of the
"Credit," and was travelling all over Europe establishing offices and
securing openings. Jeanne accompanied him. They were then in Greece.
The young wife's letters to her adopted mother breathed calmness and
satisfaction. She highly praised her husband's kindness to her, and said
it was unequalled.

No allusion was made to that evening of their marriage, when, escaping
from Cayrol's wrath, she had thrown herself in Madame Desvarennes's arms,
and had allowed her secret to be found out. The mistress might well
think then that the thought which at times still troubled her mind was a
remembrance of a bad dream.

What contributed especially to make her feel secure was Jeanne's absence.
If the young woman had been near Serge, Madame Desvarennes might have
trembled. But Micheline's beautiful rival was far away, and Serge seemed
very much in love with his wife.

Everything was for the best. The formidable projects which Madame
Desvarennes had formed in the heat of her passion had not been earned
out. Serge had as yet not given Madame Desvarennes cause for real
displeasure. Certainly he was spending money foolishly, but then his
wife was so rich!

He had put his household on an extraordinary footing. Everything that
most refined luxury had invented he had introduced as a matter of course,
and for everyday use. He entertained magnificently several times a week.
And Madame Desvarennes, from her apartments, for she would never appear
at these grand receptions, heard the noise of these doings. This woman,
modest and simple in her ideas, whose luxury had always been artistic,
wondered that they could spend so much on frivolous entertainments. But
Micheline was queen of these sumptuous ceremonies. She came in full
dress to be admired by her mother, before going down to receive her
guests, and the mistress had not courage to offer any remonstrances as to
expense when she saw her daughter so brilliant and contented.

They played cards very much. The great colony of foreigners who came
every week to Panine's receptions brought with them their immoderate
passion for cards, and he was only too willing to give way to it. These
gentlemen, among them all, almost without taking off their white kid
gloves, would win or lose between forty and fifty thousand francs at
bouillotte, just to give them an appetite before going to the club to
finish the night at baccarat.

Meanwhile the ladies, with their graceful toilettes displayed on the low
soft chairs, talked of dress behind their fans, or listened to the songs
of a professional singer, while young men whispered soft nothings in
their ears.

It was rumored that the Prince lost heavily. It was not to be wondered
at; he was so happy in love! Madame Desvarennes, who used every means of
gaining information on the subject, even to the gossip of the servants,
heard that the sums were enormous. No doubt they were exaggerated, but
the fact remained the same. The Prince was losing.

Madame Desvarennes could not resist the inclination of finding out
whether Micheline knew what was going on, and one morning when the young
wife came down to see her mother, dressed in a lovely pink gown, the
mistress, while teasing her daughter, said, carelessly:

"It seems your husband lost heavily last night."

Micheline looked astonished at Madame Desvarennes, and in a quiet voice
replied:

"A good host may not win from his guests; it would look as if he invited
them to rob them. Losses at cards are included in the costs of a
reception."

Madame Desvarennes thought that her daughter had become a very grand
lady, and had soon acquired expanded ideas. But she dared not say
anything more. She dreaded a quarrel with her daughter, and would have
sacrificed everything to retain her cajoling ways.

She threw herself into her work with renewed vigor.

"If the Prince spends large sums," she said to herself, "I will earn
larger ones. There can be no hole dug deep enough by him that I shall
not be able, to fill up."

And she made the money come in at the door so that her son-in-law might
throw it out of the window.

One fine day these great people who visited at the mansion in the Rue
Saint-Dominique hastened away to the country. September had arrived,
bringing with it the shooting season. The Prince and Micheline settled
themselves at Cernay, not as in the first days of their marriage as
lovers who sought quietude, but as people sure of their happiness, who
wished to make a great show. They took all the carriages with them, and
there was nothing but bustle and movement. The four keepers, dressed in
the Prince's livery, came daily for orders as to shooting arrangements.
And every week shoals of visitors arrived, brought from the station in
large breaks drawn by four horses.

The princely dwelling was in its full splendor. There was a continual
going and coming of fashionable worldlings. From top to bottom of the
castle was a constant rustling of silk dresses; groups of pretty women,
coming downstairs with peals of merry laughter and singing snatches from
the last opera. In the spacious hall they played billiards and other
games, while one of the gentlemen performed on the large organ. There
was a strange mixture of freedom and strictness. The smoke of Russian
cigarettes mingled with the scent of opoponax. An elegant confusion
which ended about six o'clock in a general flight, when the sportsmen
came home, and the guests went to their rooms. An hour afterward all
these people met in the large drawing-room; the ladies in low-bodied
evening dresses; the gentlemen in dress-coats and white satin waistcoats,
with a sprig of mignonette and a white rose in their buttonholes. After
dinner, they danced in the drawing-rooms, where a mad waltz would even
restore energy to the gentlemen tired out by six hours spent in the
field.

Madame Desvarennes did not join in that wild existence. She had remained
in Paris, attentive to business. On Saturdays she came down by the five
o'clock train and regularly returned on the Monday morning. Her presence
checked their wild gayety a little. Her black dress was like a blot
among the brocades and satins. Her severe gravity, that of a woman who
pays and sees the money going too fast, was like a reproach, silent but
explicit, to that gay and thoughtless throng of idlers, solely taken up
by their pleasure.

The servants made fun of her. One day the Prince's valet, who thought
himself a clever fellow, said before all the other servants that Mother
Damper had arrived. Of course they all roared with laughter and
exclaimed:

"Bother the old woman! Why does she come and worry us? She had far
better stop in the office and earn money; that's all she's good for!"

The disdain which the servants learned from their master grew rapidly.
So much so that one Monday morning, toward nine o'clock, Madame
Desvarennes came down to the courtyard, expecting to find the carriage
which generally took her to the station. It was the second coachman's
duty to drive her, and she did not see him. Thinking that he was a
little late, she walked to the stable-yard. There, instead of the
victoria which usually took her, she saw a large mail-coach to which two
grooms were harnessing the Prince's four bays. The head coachman, an
Englishman, dressed like a gentleman, with a stand-up collar, and a rose
in his buttonhole, stood watching the operations with an air of
importance.

Madame Desvarennes went straight to him. He had seen her coming, out of
the, corner of his eye, without disturbing himself.

"How is it that the carriage is not ready to take me to the station?"
asked the mistress.

"I don't know, Madame," answered this personage, condescendingly, without
taking his hat off.

"But where is the coachman who generally drives me?"

"I don't know. If Madame would like to see in the stables - "

And with a careless gesture, the Englishman pointed out to Madame
Desvarennes the magnificent buildings at the end of the courtyard.

The blood rose to the mistress's cheeks; she gave the coachman such a
look that he moved away a little. Then glancing at her watch, she said,
coldly:

"I have only a quarter of an hour before the train leaves, but here are
horses that ought to go well. Jump on the box, my man, you shall drive
me."

The Englishman shook his head.

"Those horses are not for service; they are only for pleasure," he
answered. "I drive the Prince. I don't mind driving the Princess, but I
am not here to drive you, Madame."

And with an insolent gesture, setting his hat firmly on his head, he
turned his back upon the mistress. At the same moment, a sharp stroke
from a light cane made his hat roll on the pavement. And as the
Englishman turned round, red with rage, he found himself face to face
with the Prince, whose approach neither Madame Desvarennes nor he had
heard.

Serge, in an elegant morning suit, was going round his stables when he
had been attracted by this discussion. The Englishman, uneasy, sought to
frame an excuse.

"Hold your tongue!" exclaimed the Prince, sharply, "and go and wait my
orders."

And turning toward the mistress:

"Since this man refuses to drive you, I shall have the pleasure of taking
you to the station myself," he said, with a charming smile.

And as Madame Desvarennes remonstrated,

"Oh! I can drive four-in-hand," he added. "For once in my life that
talent will have been of some use to me. Pray jump in."

And opening the door of the mail-coach he handed her into the vast
carriage. Then, climbing with one bound to the box, he gathered the
reins and, cigar in mouth, with all the coolness of an old coachman, he
started the horses in the presence of all the grooms, and made a perfect
semicircle on the gravel of the courtyard.

The incident was repeated favorably for Serge. It was agreed that he had
behaved like a true nobleman. Micheline was proud of it, and saw in this
act of deference to her mother a proof of his love for her. As to the
mistress, she understood the advantage this clever manoeuvre gave to the
Prince. At the same time she felt the great distance which henceforth
separated her from the world in which her daughter lived.

The insolence of that servant was a revelation to her. They despised
her. The Prince's coachman would not condescend to drive a plebeian like
her. She paid the wages of these servants to no purpose. Her plebeian
origin and business habits were a vice. They submitted to her; they did
not respect her.

Although her son-in-law and daughter were perfect toward her in their
behavior, she became gloomy and dull, and but seldom went now to Cernay.
She felt in the way, and uncomfortable. The smiling and superficial
politeness of the visitors irritated her nerves. These people were too
well bred to be rude toward Panine's mother-in-law, but she felt that
their politeness was forced. Under their affected nicety she detected
irony. She began to hate them all.

Serge, sovereign lord of Cernay, was really happy. Every moment he
experienced new pleasure in gratifying his taste for luxury. His love
for horses grew more and more. He gave orders to have a model stud-house
erected in the park amid the splendid meadows watered by the Oise; and
bought stallions and breeding mares from celebrated English breeders. He
contemplated starting a racing stable.

One day when Madame Desvarennes arrived at Cernay, she was surprised to
see the greensward bordering the woods marked out with white stakes. She
asked inquiringly what these stakes meant? Micheline answered in an easy
tone:

"Ah! you saw them? That is the track for training. We made
Mademoiselle de Cernay gallop there to-day. She's a level-going filly
with which Serge hopes to win the next Poule des Produits."

The mistress was amazed. A child who had been brought up so simply, in
spite of her large fortune, a little commoner, speaking of level-going
fillies and the Poule des Produits! What a change had come over her and
what incredible influence this frivolous, vain Panine had over that young
and right-minded girl! And that in a few months! What would it be
later? He would succeed in imparting to her his tastes and would mould
her to his whims, and the young modest girl whom he had received from the
mother would become a horsey and fast woman.

Was it possible that Micheline could be happy in that hollow and empty
life? The love of her husband satisfied her. His love was all she asked
for, all else was indifferent to her. Thus of her mother, the
impassioned toiler, was born the passionate lover! All the fervency
which the mother had given to business, Micheline had given to love.

Moreover, Serge behaved irreproachably. One must do him that justice.
Not even an appearance accused him. He was faithful, unlikely as that
may seem in a man of his kind; he never left his wife. He had hardly
ever gone out without her; they were a couple of turtle-doves. They were
laughed at.

"The Princess has tied a string round Serge's foot," was said by some of
Serge's former woman friends!

It was something to be sure of her daughter's happiness. That happiness
was dearly, bought; but as the proverb says:

"Money troubles are not mortal!"

And, besides, it was evident that the Prince did not keep account of his
money; his hand was always open. And never did a great lord do more
honor to his fortune. Panine, in marrying Micheline, had found the
mistress's cash-box at his disposal.

This prodigious cash-box had seemed to him inexhaustible, and he had
drawn on it like a Prince in the Arabian Nights on the treasure of the
genii.

Perhaps it would suffice to let him see that he was spending the capital
as well as the income to make him alter his line of conduct. At all
events, the moment was not yet opportune, and, besides, the amount was
not yet large enough. Cry out about some hundred thousand francs!
Madame Desvarennes would be thought a miser and would be covered with
shame. She must wait.

And, shut up in her office in the Rue Saint-Dominique with Marechal, who
acted as her confidant, she worked with heart and soul full of passion
and anger, making money. It was fine to witness the duel between these
two beings: the one useful, the other useless; one sacrificing everything
to work, the other everything to pleasure.

Toward the end of October, the weather at Cernay became unsettled, and
Micheline complained of the cold. Country life so pleased Serge that he
turned a deaf ear to her complaints. But lost in that large house, the
autumn winds rustling through the trees, whose leaves were tinted with
yellow, Micheline became sad, and the Prince understood that it was time
to go back to Paris.

The town seemed deserted to Serge. Still, returning to his splendid
apartments was a great satisfaction and pleasure to him. Everything
appeared new. He reviewed the hangings, the expensive furniture, the
paintings and rare objects. He was charmed. It was really of wonderful
beauty, and the cage seemed worthy of the bird. For several evenings he
remained quietly at home with Micheline, in the little silver-gray
drawing-room that was his favorite room. He looked through albums, too,
while his wife played at her piano quietly or sang.

They retired early and came down late. Then he had become a gourmand.
He spent hours in arranging menus and inventing unknown dishes about
which he consulted his chef, a cook of note.

He rode in the Bois in the course of the day, but did not meet any one
there; for of every two carriages one was a hackney coach with a worn-out
sleepy horse, his head hanging between his knees, going the round of the
lake. He ceased going to the Bois, and went out on foot in the Champs-
Elysees. He crossed the Pont de la Concorde, and walked up and down the
avenues near the Cirque.

He was wearied. Life had never appeared so monotonous to him. Formerly
he had at least the preoccupations of the future. He asked himself how
he could alter the sad condition in which he vegetated! Shut up in this
happy existence, without a care or a cross, he grew weary like a prisoner
in his cell. He longed for the unforeseen; his wife irritated him, she
was of too equable a temperament. She always met him with the same smile
on her lips. And then happiness agreed with her too well; she was
growing stout.

One day, on the Boulevard des Italiens, Serge met an old friend, the
Baron de Prefont, a hardened 'roue'. He had not seen him since his
marriage. It was a pleasure to him. They had a thousand things to say
to each other. And walking along, they came to the Rue Royale.

"Come to the club," said Prefont, taking Serge by the arm.

The Prince, having nothing else to do, allowed himself to be led away,
and went. He felt a strange pleasure in those large rooms of the club,
the Grand Cercle, with their glaring furniture. The common easy-chairs,
covered with dark leather, seemed delightful. He did not notice the
well-worn carpets burned here and there by the hot cigar-ash; the strong
smell of tobacco, impregnated in the curtains, did not make him feel
qualmish. He was away from home, and was satisfied with anything for a
change. He had been domesticated long enough.

One morning, taking up the newspaper, a name caught Madame Desvarennes's
eye-that of the Prince. She read:

"The golden book of the Grand Cercle has just had another illustrious
name inscribed in it. The Prince Panine was admitted yesterday, proposed
by the Baron de Prefont and the Duc de Bligny."

These few lines made Madame Desvarennes's blood boil. Her ears tingled
as if all the bells of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont had been rung together. In
a rapid vision, she saw misfortune coming. Her son-in-law, that born
gambler, at the Grand Cercle! No more smiles for Micheline; henceforth
she had a terrible rival - the devouring love of play.

Then Madame Desvarennes reflected. The husband's deserting his fireside
would be salvation for herself. The door by which he went out, would
serve as an entrance for her. The plan which she had conceived at Cernay
that terrible night of the marriage when Jeanne had confided in her,
remained for her to execute. By opening her purse widely to the Prince,
she would help him in his vice. And she would infallibly succeed in
separating Serge and Micheline.

But the mistress checked herself. Lend her hands to the destruction of
her son-in-law in a fit of fierce maternal egoism? Was it not unworthy
of her? How many tears would the Prince's errors cost her whom she
wished to regain at all price? And then would she always be there to
compensate by her devoted affection the bitterly regretted estrangement
from the husband? She would, in dying, leave the household disunited.

She was horrified at what she had for an instant dreamed of doing. And
instead of helping the Prince on to destruction, she determined to do all
in her power to keep him in the path of honor. That resolution formed,
Madame Desvarennes was satisfied. She felt superior to Serge, and to a
mind like hers the thought was strengthening.

The admission to the Grand Cercle gave Serge a powerful element of
interest in life: He had to manoeuvre to obtain his liberty. His first
evenings spent from home troubled Micheline deeply. The young wife was
jealous when she saw her husband going out. She feared a rival, and
trembled for her love. Serge's mysterious conduct caused her intolerable
torture. She dared not say anything to her mother, and remained
perfectly quiet on the subject before her husband. She sought
discreetly, listened to the least word that might throw any light on the
matter.

One day she found an ivory counter, bearing the stamp of the Grand
Cercle, in her husband's dressing-room. It was in the Rue Royale then
that her husband spent his evenings. This discovery was a great relief
to her. It was not very wrong to go there, and if the Prince did go and
smoke a few cigars and have a game at bouillotte, it was not a very great
crime. The return of his usual friends to Paris and the resumption of
their receptions would bring him home again.

Serge now left Micheline about ten o'clock in the evening regularly and
arrived at the club about eleven. High play did not commence until after
midnight. Then he seated himself at the gaming-table with all the ardor
of a professional gambler. His face changed its expression. When
winning, it was animated with an expression of awful joy; when losing,
he looked as hard as a stone, his features contracted, and his eyes were
full of gloomy fire. He bit his mustache convulsively. Moreover, always
silent, winning or losing with superb indifference.

He lost. His bad luck had followed him. At the club his losses were no
longer limited. There was always some one willing to take a hand, and
until dawn he played, wasting his life and energies to satisfy his insane
love of gambling.

One morning, Marechal entered Madame Desvarennes's private office,
holding a little square piece of paper. Without speaking a word, he
placed it on the desk. The mistress took it, read what was written upon
it in shaky handwriting, and suddenly becoming purple, rose. The paper
bore these simple words:

"Received from Monsieur Salignon the sum of one hundred thousand francs.
Serge Panine."

"Who brought this paper?" asked Madame Desvarennes, crushing it between
her fingers.

"The waiter who attends the card-room at the club."

"The waiter?" cried Madame Desvarennes, astonished.

"Oh, he is a sort of banker," said Marechal. "These gentlemen apply to
him when they run short of money. The Prince must have found himself in
that predicament. Still he has just received the rents for the property
in the Rue de Rivoli."

"The rents!" grumbled Madame Desvarennes, with an energetic movement.
"The rents! A drop of water in a river! You don't know that he is a man


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Online LibraryGeorges OhnetSerge Panine — Volume 03 → online text (page 1 of 5)