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SERGE PANINE

By GEORGES OHNET


BOOK 4.


CHAPTER XVIII

THE UNIVERSAL CREDIT COMPANY

The banking-house of Cayrol had not a very imposing appearance. It was
a narrow two-storied building, the front blackened by time. There was a
carriage gateway, on the right-hand side of which was the entrance to the
offices. The stairs leading to the first floor were covered by a well-
worn carpet. Here was a long corridor into which the different offices
opened. On their glass doors might be read: "Payments of dividends."
"Accounts." "Foreign correspondence." "General office." Cayrol's own
room was quite at the end, and communicated with his private apartments.
Everything breathed of simplicity and honesty. Cayrol had never tried to
throw dust into people's eyes. He had started modestly when opening the
bank; his business had increased, but his habits had remained the same.
It was not a difficult matter to obtain an interview, even by people not
known to him. They sent in their cards, and were admitted to his
sanctum.

It was amid the coming and going of customers and clerks that Prince
Panine came the following day to find Cayrol. For the first time Serge
had put himself out for the banker. He was introduced with marks of the
most profound respect. The great name of Desvarennes seemed to cast a
kind of halo round his head in the eyes of the clerks.

Cayrol, a little embarrassed, but still resolute, went toward him. Serge
seemed nervous and somewhat abrupt in manner. He foresaw some
difficulty.

"Well! my dear fellow," he said, without sitting down. "What are you up
to? I have waited since yesterday for the money you promised me."

Cayrol scratched his ear, and felt taken aback by this plain speaking.

"The fact is - " stammered he.

"Have you forgotten your engagement?" asked Serge, frowning.

"No," replied Cayrol, speaking slowly, "but I met Madame Desvarennes
yesterday."

"And what had that to do with your intentions?"

"Zounds! It had everything to do with them. Your mother-in-law made a
scene, and forbade my lending you any money. You must understand, my
dear Prince, that my relations with Madame Desvarennes are important.
I hold a great deal of money of hers in my bank. She first gave me a
start. I cannot, without appearing ungrateful, act contrary to her will.
Place yourself in my position, and judge impartially of the terrible
alternative between obliging you and displeasing my benefactress."

"Don't cry; it is useless," said Serge, with a scornful laugh. "I
sympathize with your troubles. You side with the money-bags. It remains
to be seen whether you will gain by it."

"My dear Prince, I swear to you that I am in despair," cried Cayrol,
annoyed at the turn the interview was taking. "Listen; be reasonable!
I don't know what you have done to your mother-in-law, but she seems much
vexed with you. In your place I would rather make a few advances than
remain hostile toward Madame Desvarennes. That would mend matters, you
see. Flies are not to be caught with vinegar."

Serge looked contemptuously at Cayrol, and put on his hat with supreme
insolence.

"Pardon me, my dear fellow; as a banker you are excellent when you have
any money to spare, but as a moralist you are highly ridiculous."

And, turning on his heel, he quitted the office, leaving Cayrol quite
abashed. He passed along the corridor switching his cane with suppressed
rage. Madame Desvarennes had, with one word, dried up the source from
which he had been drawing most of the money which he had spent during the
last three months. He had to pay a large sum that evening at the club,
and he did not care to apply to the money-lenders of Paris.

He went down the stairs wondering how he would get out of this scrape!
Go to Madame Desvarennes and humble himself as Cayrol advised? Never!
He regretted, for a moment, the follies which had led him into this
difficulty. He ought to have been able to live on two hundred thousand
francs a year! He had squandered money foolishly, and now the
inexhaustible well from which he had drawn his treasure was closed
by an invincible will.

He was crossing the gateway, when a well-known voice struck his ear, and
he turned round. Herzog, smiling in his enigmatical manner, was before
him. Serge bowed, and wanted to pass on, but the financier put his hand
on his arm, saying:

"What a hurry you are in, Prince. I suppose your pocketbook is full of
notes, and you are afraid of being plundered."

And with his finger, Herzog touched the silver mounted pocketbook, the
corner of which was peeping out of the Prince's pocket. Panine could not
control a gesture of vexation, which made the financier smile.

"Am I wrong?" asked Herzog. "Can our friend Cayrol have refused your
request? By-the-bye, did you not quarrel with Madame Desvarennes
yesterday? Whoever was it told me that? Your mother-in-law spoke of
cutting off all your credit, and from your downcast look I guess that
fool Cayrol has obeyed the orders he has received."

Serge, exasperated and stamping with rage, wanted to speak, but it was no
easy matter interrupting Herzog. Besides, there was something in the
latter's look which annoyed Serge. His glance seemed to be fathoming the
depths of Panine's pockets, and the latter instinctively tightened his
arms across his chest, so that Herzog might not see that his pocketbook
was empty.

"What are you talking about?" asked Serge, at last, with a constrained
smile.

"About things which must greatly interest you," said Herzog, familiarly.
"Come, be sincere. Cayrol has just refused you a sum of money. He's a
simpleton! How much do you want? Will a hundred thousand francs do just
now?"

And writing a few words on a check, the financier handed it to Serge,
adding:

"A man of your position should not be in any difficulty for such a paltry
sum!"

"But, sir," said Serge, astonished, and pushing away Herzog's hand.

"Accept it, and don't feel indebted to me. It is hardly worth while
between you and me."

And taking Panine's arm Herzog walked on with him.

"Your carriage is there? all right, mine will follow. I want to talk to
you. Your troubles cannot last. I will show you the means of
extricating yourself and that without delay, my dear sir."

And without consulting Panine he seated himself beside him in the
carriage.

"I told you once, if you remember," continued the financier, "that I
might prove useful to you. You were haughty, and I did not insist; yet
you see the day has come. Let me speak frankly with you. It is my usual
manner, and there is some good in it."

"Speak," answered Serge, rather puzzled.

"You find yourself at this moment, vulgarly speaking, left in the lurch.
Your wants are many and your resources few."

"At least - " protested Serge.

"Good! There you are refractory," said the financier, laughingly, "and I
have not finished. The day after your marriage you formed your household
on a lavish footing; you gave splendid receptions; you bought race-
horses; in short, you went the pace like a great lord. Undoubtedly it
costs a lot of money to keep up such an establishment. As you spent
without counting the cost, you confounded the capital with the interest,
so that at this moment you are three parts ruined. I don't think you
would care to change your mode of living, and it is too late in the day
to cut down expenses and exist on what remains? No. Well, to keep up
your present style you need at least a million francs every year."

"You calculate like Cocker," remarked Serge, smiling with some
constraint.

"That is my business," answered Herzog. "There are two ways by which you
can obtain that million. The first is by making it up with your mother-
in-law, and consenting, for money, to live under her dominion. I know
her, she will agree to this."

"But," said Serge, "I refuse to submit."

"In that case you must get out of your difficulties alone."

"And how?" inquired the Prince, with astonishment.

Herzog looked at him seriously.

"By entering on the path which I am ready to open up to you," replied
Herzog, "and in which I will guide you. By going in for business."

Serge returned Herzog's glance and tried to read his face, but found him
impenetrable.

"To go into business one needs experience, and I have none."

"Mine will suffice," retorted the financier.

"Or money," continued the Prince," and I have none, either."

"I don't ask money from you. I offer you some."

"What, then, do I bring into the concern?"

"The prestige of your name, and your relations with Madame Desvarennes."

The Prince answered, haughtily:

"My relations are personal, and I doubt whether they will serve you. My
mother-in-law is hostile, and will do nothing for me. As to my name, it
does not belong to me, it belongs to those who bore it nobly before me."

"Your relations will serve me," said Herzog. "I am satisfied. Your
mother-in-law cannot get out of your being her daughter's husband, and
for that you are worth your weight in gold. As to your name, it is just
because it has been nobly borne that it is valuable. Thank your
ancestors, therefore, and make the best of the only heritage they left
you. Besides, if you care to examine things closely, your ancestors will
not have reason to tremble in their graves. What did they do formerly?
They imposed taxes on their vassals and extorted money from the
vanquished. We financiers do the same. Our vanquished are the
speculators; our vassals the shareholders. And what a superiority there
is about our proceedings! There is no violence. We persuade; we
fascinate; and the money flows into our coffers. What do I say? They
beseech us to take it. We reign without contest. We are princes, too
princes of finance. We have founded an aristocracy as proud and as
powerful as the old one. Feudality of nobility no longer exists; it has
given way to that of money."

Serge laughed. He saw what Herzog was driving at.

"Your great barons of finance are sometimes subject to executions," said
he.

"Were not Chalais, Cinq-Mars, Biron, and Montmorency executed?" asked
Herzog, with irony.

"That was on a scaffold," replied Panine.

"Well! the speculator's scaffold is the Bourse! But only small dabblers
in money succumb; the great ones are safe from danger. They are
supported in their undertakings by such powerful and numerous interests
that they cannot fail without involving public credit; even governments
are forced to come to their aid. One of these powerful and
indestructible enterprises I have dreamed of grafting on to the European
Credit Company, the Universal Credit Company. Its very name is a
programme in itself. To stretch over the four quarters of the globe like
an immense net, and draw into its meshes all financial speculators: such
is its aim. Nobody will be able to withstand us. I am offering you
great things, but I dream of still greater. I have ideas. You will see
them developed, and will profit by them, if you join my fortunes. You
are ambitious, Prince. I guessed it; but your ambition hitherto has been
satisfied with small things - luxurious indulgences and triumphs of
elegance! What are these worth to what I can give you? The sphere in
which you move is narrow. I will make it immense. You will no longer
reign over a small social circle, you will rule a world."

Serge, more affected than he cared to show, tried to banter.

"Are you repeating the prologue to Faust?" asked he. "Where is your
magical compact? Must I sign it?"

"Not at all. Your consent is sufficient. Look into the business, study
it at your leisure, and measure the results; and then if it suit you, you
can sign a deed of partnership. Then in a few years you may possess a
fortune surpassing all that you have dreamed of."

The financier remained silent. Serge was weighing the question. Herzog
was happy; he had shown himself to all Paris in company with Madame
Desvarennes's son-in-law. He had already realized one of his projects.
The carriage was just passing down the Champs Elysees. The weather was
lovely, and in the distance could be seen the trees of the Tuileries and
the different monuments of the Place de la Concorde bathed in blue mist.
Groups of horsemen were cantering along the side avenues. Long files of
carriages were rolling rapidly by with well-dressed ladies. The capital
displayed at that hour all the splendor of its luxury. It was Paris in
all its strength and gayety.

Herzog stretched out his hand, and calling the Prince's attention to the
sight, said:

"There's your empire!"

Then, looking at him earnestly, he asked:

"Is it agreed?"

Serge hesitated for a moment, and then bowed his head, saying:

"It is agreed."

Herzog pulled the check-string communicating with the coachman and
alighted.

"Good-by," said he to Panine.

He slipped into his own carriage, which had followed closely behind, and
drove off.

From that day, even Jeanne had a rival. The fever of speculation had
seized on Serge; he had placed his little finger within the wheels and he
must follow - body, name, and soul. The power which this new game
exercised over him was incredible. It was quite different to the stupid
games at the club, always the same. On the Bourse, everything was new,
unexpected, sudden, and formidable. The intensity of the feelings were
increased a hundredfold, owing to the importance of the sums risked.

It was really a splendid sight to see Herzog manipulating matters,
maneuvering with a miraculous dexterity millions of francs. And then the
field for operations was large. Politics, the interests of nations, were
the mainsprings which impelled the play, and the game assumed diplomatic
vastness and financial grandeur.

From his private office Herzog issued orders, and whether his ability was
really extraordinary, or whether fortune exceptionally favored him,
success was certain. Serge, from the first week, realized considerable
sums. This brilliant success threw him in a state of great excitement.
He believed everything that Herzog said to him as if it were gospel. He
saw the world bending under the yoke which he was about to impose upon
it. People working and toiling every day were doing so for him alone,
and like one of those kings who had conquered the world, he pictured all
the treasures of the earth laid at his feet. From that time he lost the
sense of right and wrong. He admitted the unlikely, and found the
impossible quite natural. He was a docile tool in the hands of Herzog.

The rumor of this unforeseen change in Panine's circumstances soon
reached Madame Desvarennes's ears. The mistress was frightened, and sent
for Cayrol, begging him to remain a director of the European Credit, in
order to watch the progress of the new affair. With her practical common
sense, she foresaw disasters, and even regretted that Serge had not
confined himself to cards and reckless living.

Cayrol was most uneasy, and made a confidant of his wife, who, deeply
troubled, told Panine the fears his friends entertained on his account.
The Prince smiled disdainfully, saying these fears were the effect of
plebeian timidity. The mistress understood nothing of great
speculations, and Cayrol was a narrow-minded banker! He knew what he was
doing. The results of his speculations were mathematical. So far they
had not disappointed his hopes. The great Universal Credit Company, of
which he was going to be a director, would bring him in such an immense
fortune that he would be independent of Madame Desvarennes.

Jeanne, terrified at this blind confidence, tried to persuade him. Serge
took her in his arms, kissed her, and banished her fears.

Madame Desvarennes had forbidden her people to tell Micheline anything of
what was going on, as she wished her to remain in perfect ignorance. By
a word, the mistress, if she could not have prevented the follies of
which Serge was guilty, could, at least, have spared herself and her
daughter. It would have only been necessary to reveal his behavior and
betrayal to Micheline, and to provoke a separation. If the house of
Desvarennes were no longer security for Panine, his credit would fall.
Disowned by his mother-in-law, and publicly given up by her, he would be
of no use to Herzog, and would be promptly thrown over by him. The
mistress did not wish her daughter to know the heartrending truth. She
would not willingly cause her to shed tears, and therefore preferred
risking ruin.

Micheline, too, tried to hide her troubles from her mother. She knew too
well that Serge would have the worst of it if he got into her black
books. With the incredible persistence of a loving heart, she hoped to
win back Serge. Thus a terrible misunderstanding caused these two women
to remain inactive and silent, when, by united efforts, they might,
perhaps, have prevented dangers.

The great speculation was already being talked about. Herzog was boldly
placing his foot on the summit whereon the five or six demigods, who
ruled the stock market, were firmly placed. The audacious encroachments
of this newcomer had vexed these formidable potentates, and already they
had decided secretly his downfall because he would not let them share in
his profits.

One morning, the Parisians, on awakening, found the walls placarded with
notices advertising the issue of shares in the Universal Credit Company,
and announcing the names of the directors, among which appeared that of
the Prince. Some were members of the Legion d'Honneur; others recent
members of the Cabinet Council, and Prefets retired into private life.
A list of names to dazzle the public, but all having a weak point.

This created a great sensation in the business world. Madame
Desvarennes's son-in-law was on the board. It was a good speculation,
then? People consulted the mistress, who found herself somewhat in a
dilemma; either she must disown her son-in-law, or speak well of the
affair. Still she did not hesitate, for she was loyal and honest above
all things. She declared the speculation was a poor one, and did all she
could to prevent any of her friends becoming shareholders.

The issue of shares was disastrous. The great banks remained hostile,
and capitalists were mistrustful. Herzog landed a few million francs.
Doorkeepers and cooks brought him their savings. He covered expenses.
But it was no use advertising and puffing in the newspapers, as a word
had gone forth which paralyzed the speculation. Ugly rumors were afloat.
Herzog's German origin was made use of by the bankers, who whispered that
the aim of the Universal Credit Company was exclusively political. It
was to establish branch banks in every part of the world to further the
interests of German industry. Further, at a given moment, Germany might
have need of a loan in case of war, and the Universal Credit Company
would be there to supply the necessary aid to the great military nation.

Herzog was not a man to be put down without resisting, and he made
supreme efforts to float his undertaking. He caused a number of unissued
shares to be sold on 'Change, and had them bought up by his own men, thus
creating a fictitious interest in the company. In a few days the shares
rose and were at a premium, simply through the jobbery to which Herzog
lent himself.

Panine was little disposed to seek for explanations, and, besides, had
such unbounded faith in his partner that he suspected nothing. He
remained in perfect tranquillity. He had increased his expenditure, and
his household was on a royal footing. Micheline's sweetness emboldened
him; he no longer took the trouble of dissimulating, and treated his
young wife with perfect indifference.

Jeanne and Serge met every day at the little house in the Avenue Maillot.
Cayrol was too much engaged with the new anxieties which Herzog caused
him, to look after his wife, and left her quite free to amuse herself.
Besides, he had not the least suspicion. Jeanne, like all guilty women,
overwhelmed him with kind attentions, which the good man mistook for
proofs of love. The fatal passion was growing daily stronger in the
young woman's heart, and she would have found it impossible to have given
up her dishonorable happiness with Panine. She felt herself capable of
doing anything to preserve her lover.

Jeanne had already said, "Oh! if we were but free!" And they formed
projects. They would go away to Lake Lugano, and, in a villa hidden by
trees and shrubs, would enjoy the pleasures of being indissolubly united.
The woman was more eager than the man in giving way to these visions of
happiness. She sometimes said, "What hinders us now? Let us go." But
Serge, prudent and discreet, even in the most affectionate moments, led
Jeanne to take a more sensible view. What was the use of a scandal? Did
they not belong to each other?

Then the young woman reproached him for not loving her as much as she
loved him. She was tired of dissimulating; her husband was an object of
horror to her, and she had to tell him untruths and submit to his
caresses which were revolting to her. Serge calmed her with a kiss, and
bade her wait awhile.

Pierre, rendered anxious on hearing that Serge had joined Herzog in his
dangerous financial speculations, had left his mines and had just
arrived. The letters which Micheline addressed to the friend of her
youth, her enforced confidant in trouble, were calm and resigned. Full
of pride, she had carefully hidden from Pierre the cause of her troubles.
He was the last person by whom she would like to be pitied, and her
letters had represented Serge as repentant and full of good feeling.
Marechal, for similar reasons, had kept his friend in the dark. He
feared Pierre's interference, and he wished to spare Madame Desvarennes
the grief of seeing her adopted son quarreling with her son-in-law.

But the placards announcing the establishment of the Universal Credit
Company made their way into the provinces, and one morning Pierre found
some stuck on the walls of his establishment. Seeing the name of Panine,
and not that of Cayrol, Pierre shuddered. The unpleasant ideas which he
experienced formerly when Herzog was introduced to the Desvarennes
recurred to his mind. He wrote to the mistress to ask what was going on,
and not receiving an answer, he started off without hesitation for Paris.

He found Madame Desvarennes in a terrible state of excitement. The
shares had just fallen a hundred and twenty francs. A panic had ensued.
The affair was considered as absolutely lost, and the shareholders were
aggravating matters by wanting to sell out at once.

Savinien was just coming away from the mistress's room. He wanted to see
the downfall of the Prince, whom he had always hated, looking upon him as
a usurper of his own rights upon the fortune of the Desvarennes.
He began lamenting to his aunt, when she turned upon him with unusual
harshness, and he felt bound as he said, laughing, to leave the "funereal
mansion."

Cayrol, as much interested in the affairs of the Prince as if they were
his own, went backward and forward between the Rue Saint-Dominique and
the Rue Taitbout, pale and troubled, but without losing his head. He had
already saved the European Credit Company by separating it six weeks
before from the Universal Credit Company, notwithstanding Madame
Desvarennes's supplications to keep them together, in the hope that the
one would save the other. But Cayrol, practical, clear, and implacable,
had refused, for the first time, to obey Madame Desvarennes. He acted
with the resolution of a captain of a vessel, who throws overboard a
portion of the cargo to save the ship, the crew, and the rest of the
merchandise. He did well, and the European Credit was safe. The shares
had fallen a little, but a favorable reaction was already showing itself.
The name of Cayrol, and his presence at the head of affairs, had
reassured the public, and the shareholders gathered round him, passing a
vote of confidence.

The banker, devoted to his task, next sought to save Panine, who was at
that very moment robbing him of his honor and happiness in the house of
the Avenue Maillot.

Pierre, Cayrol, and Madame Desvarennes met in Marechal's private office.
Pierre declared that it was imperative to take strong measures and to
speak to the Prince. It was the duty of the mistress to enlighten
Panine, who was no doubt Herzog's dupe.

Madame Desvarennes shook her head sadly. She feared that Serge was not a
dupe but an accomplice. And what could she tell him? Let him ruin


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Online LibraryGeorges OhnetSerge Panine — Volume 04 → online text (page 1 of 5)