As for George's mother, she was hardly to be persuaded from staying in the country with the child. She went twice a week, to make sure that all went well. Henriette and she lived with the child's picture before them; they spent their time sewing on caps and underwear—all covered with laces and frills and pink and blue ribbons. Every day, when George came home from his work, he found some new article completed, and was ravished by the scent of some new kind of sachet powder. What a lucky man he was!
You would think he must have been the happiest man in the whole city of Paris. But George, alas, had to pay the penalty for his early sins. There was, for instance, the deception he had practiced upon his friend, away back in the early days. Now he had friends of his own, and he could not keep these friends from visiting him; and so he was unquiet with the fear that some one of them might play upon him the same vile trick. Even in the midst of his radiant happiness, when he knew that Henriette was hanging upon his every word, trembling with delight when she heard his latchkey in the door—still he could not drive away the horrible thought that perhaps all this might be deception.
There was his friend, Gustave, for example. He had been a friend of Henriette's before her marriage; he had even been in love with her at one time. And now he came sometimes to the house—once or twice when George was away! What did that mean? George wondered. He brooded over it all day, but dared not drop any hint to Henriette. But he took to setting little traps to catch her; for instance, he would call her up on the telephone, disguising his voice. "Hello! Hello! Is that you, Madame Dupont?" And when she answered, "It is I, sir," all unsuspecting, he would inquire, "Is George there?"
"No, sir," she replied. "Who is this speaking?"
He answered, "It is I, Gustave. How are you this morning?" He wanted to see what she would answer. Would she perhaps say, "Very well, Gustave. How are you?"—in a tone which would betray too great intimacy!
But Henriette was a sharp young person. The tone did not sound like Gustave's. She asked in bewilderment, "What?" and then again, "What?"
So, at last, George, afraid that his trick might be suspected, had to burst out laughing, and turn it into a joke. But when he came home and teased his wife about it, the laugh was not all on his side. Henriette had guessed the real meaning of his joke! She did not really mind—she took his jealousy as a sign of love, and was pleased with it. It is not until a third party come upon the scene that jealousy begins to be annoying.
So she had a merry time teasing George. "You are a great fellow! You have no idea how well I understand you—and after only a year of marriage!"
"You know me?" said the husband, curiously. (It is always so fascinating when anybody thinks she know us better than we know ourselves!) "Tell me, what do you think about me?"
"You are restless," said Henriette. "You are suspicious. You pass your time putting flies in your milk, and inventing wise schemes to get them out."
"Oh, you think that, do you?" said George, pleased to be talked about.
"I am not annoyed," she answered. "You have always been that way—and I know that it's because at bottom you are timid and disposed to suffer. And then, too, perhaps you have reasons for not having confidence in a wife's intimate friends—lady-killer that you are!"
George found this rather embarrassing; but he dared not show it, so he laughed gayly. "I don't know what you mean," he said—"upon my word I don't. But it is a trick I would not advise everybody to try."
There were other embarrassing moments, caused by George's having things to conceal. There was, for instance, the matter of the six months' delay in the marriage—about which Henriette would never stop talking. She begrudged the time, because she had got the idea that little Gervaise was six months younger than she otherwise would have been. "That shows your timidity again," she would say. "The idea of your having imagined yourself a consumptive!"
Poor George had to defend himself. "I didn't tell you half the truth, because I was afraid of upsetting you. It seemed I had the beginning of chronic bronchitis. I felt it quite keenly whenever I took a breath, a deep breath—look, like this. Yes—I felt—here and there, on each side of the chest, a heaviness—a difficulty—"
"The idea of taking six months to cure you of a thing like that!" exclaimed Henriette. "And making our baby six months younger than she ought to be!"
"But," laughed George, "that means that we shall have her so much the longer! She will get married six months later!"
"Oh, dear me," responded the other, "let us not talk about such things! I am already worried, thinking she will get married some day."
"For my part," said George, "I see myself mounting with her on my arm the staircase of the Madeleine."
"Why the Madeleine?" exclaimed his wife. "Such a very magnificent church!"
"I don't know—I see her under her white veil, and myself all dressed up, and with an order."
"With an order!" laughed Henriette. "What do you expect to do to win an order?"
"I don't know that—but I see myself with it. Explain it as you will, I see myself with an order. I see it all, exactly as if I were there—the Swiss guard with his white stockings and the halbard, and the little milliner's assistants and the scullion lined up staring."
"It is far off—all that," said Henriette. "I don't like to talk of it. I prefer her as a baby. I want her to grow up—but then I change my mind and think I don't. I know your mother doesn't. Do you know, I don't believe she ever thinks about anything but her little Gervaise."
"I believe you," said the father. "The child can certainly boast of having a grandmother who loves her."
"Also, I adore your mother," declared Henriette. "She makes me forget my misfortune in not having my own mother. She is so good!"
"We are all like that in our family," put in George.
"Really," laughed the wife. "Well, anyhow—the last time that we went down in the country with her—you had gone out, I don't know where you had gone—"
"To see the sixteenth-century chest," suggested the other.
"Oh, yes," laughed Henriette; "your famous chest!" (You must excuse this little family chatter of theirs—they were so much in love with each other!)
"Don't let's talk about that," objected George. "You were saying—?"
"You were not there. The nurse was out at mass, I think—"
"Or at the wine merchant's! Go on, go on."
"Well, I was in the little room, and mother dear thought she was all alone with Gervaise. I was listening; she was talking to the baby—all sorts of nonsense, pretty little words—stupid, if you like, but tender. I wanted to laugh, and at the same time I wanted to weep."
"Perhaps she called her 'my dear little Savior'?"
"Exactly! Did you hear her?"
"No—but that is what she used to call me when I was little."
"It was that day she swore that the little one had recognized her, and laughed!"
"And then another time, when I went into her room—mother's room—she didn't hear me because the door was open, but I saw her. She was in ecstasy before the little boots which the baby wore at baptism—you know?"
"Listen, then. She had taken them and she was embracing them!"
"And what did you say then?"
"Nothing; I stole out very softly, and I sent across the threshold a great kiss to the dear grandmother!"
Henriette sat for a moment in thought. "It didn't take her very long," she remarked, "today when she got the letter from the nurse. I imagine she caught the eight-fifty-nine train!"
"Any yet," laughed George, "it was really nothing at all."
"Oh no," said his wife. "Yet after all, perhaps she was right—and perhaps I ought to have gone with her."
"How charming you are, my poor Henriette! You believe everything you are told. I, for my part, divined right away the truth. The nurse was simply playing a game on us; she wanted a raise. Will you bet? Come, I'll bet you something. What would you like to bet? You don't want to? Come, I'll bet you a lovely necklace—you know, with a big pearl."
"No," said Henriette, who had suddenly lost her mood of gayety. "I should be too much afraid of winning."
"Stop!" laughed her husband. "Don't you believe I love her as much as you love her—my little duck? Do you know how old she is? I mean her EXACT age?"
Henriette sat knitting her brows, trying to figure.
"Ah!" he exploded. "You see you don't know! She is ninety-one days and eight hours! Ha, ha! Imagine when she will be able to walk all alone. Then we will take her back with us; we must wait at least six months." Then, too late, poor George realized that he had spoken the fatal phrase again.
"If only you hadn't put off our marriage, she would be able to walk now," said Henriette.
He rose suddenly. "Come," he said, "didn't you say you had to dress and pay some calls?"
Henriette laughed, but took the hint.
"Run along, little wife," he said. "I have a lot of work to do in the meantime. You won't be down-stairs before I shall have my nose buried in my papers. Bye-bye."
"Bye-bye," said Henriette. But they paused to exchange a dozen or so kisses before she went away to dress.
Then George lighted a cigarette and stretched himself out in the big armchair. He seemed restless; he seemed to be disturbed about something. Could it be that he had not been so much at ease as he had pretended to be, since the letter had come from the baby's nurse? Madame Dupont had gone by the earliest train that morning. She had promised to telegraph at once—but she had not done so, and now it was late afternoon.
George got up and wandered about. He looked at himself in the glass for a moment; then he went back to the chair and pulled up another to put his geet upon. He puffed away at his cigarette until he was calmer. But then suddenly he heard the rustle of a dress behind him, and glanced about, and started up with an exclamation, "Mother!"
Madame Dupont stood in the doorway. She did not speak. Her veil was thrown back and George noted instantly the look of agitation upon her countenance.
"What's the matter?" he cried. "We didn't get any telegram from you; we were not expecting you till tomorrow."
Still his mother did not speak.
"Henriette was just going out," he exclaimed nervously; "I had better call her."
"No!" said his mother quickly. Her voice was low and trembling. "I did not want Henriette to be here when I arrived."
"But what's the matter?" cried George.
Again there was a silence before the reply came. He read something terrible in the mother's manner, and he found himself trembling violently.
"I have brought back the child and the nurse," said Madame Dupont.
"What! Is the little one sick?"
"What's the matter with her?"
"Nothing dangerous—for the moment, at least."
"We must send and get the doctor!" cried George.
"I have just come from the doctor's," was the reply. "He said it was necessary to take our child from the nurse and bring her up on the bottle."
Again there was a pause. George could hardly bring himself to ask the next question. Try as he would, he could not keep his voice from weakening. "Well, now, what is her trouble?"
The mother did not answer. She stood staring before her. At last she said, faintly, "I don't know."
"You didn't ask?"
"I asked. But it was not to our own doctor that I went."
"Ah!" whispered George. For nearly a minute neither one of them spoke. "Why?" he inquired at last.
"Because—he—the nurse's doctor—had frightened me so—"
"Yes. It is a disease—" again she stopped.
George cried, in a voice of agony, "and then?"
"Then I asked him if the matter was so grave that I could not be satisfied with our ordinary doctor."
"And what did he answer?"
"He said that if we had the means it would really be better to consult a specialist."
George looked at his mother again. He was able to do it, because she was not looking at him. He clenched his hands and got himself together. "And—where did he send you?"
His mother fumbled in her hand bag and drew out a visiting card. "Here," she said.
And George looked at the card. It was all he could do to keep himself from tottering. It was the card of the doctor whom he had first consulted about his trouble! The specialist in venereal diseases!
It was all George could do to control his voice. "You—you went to see him?" he stammered.
"Yes," said his mother. "You know him?"
"No, no," he answered. "Or—that is—I have met him, I think. I don't know." And then to himself, "My God!"
There was a silence. "He is coming to talk to you," said the mother, at last.
George was hardly able to speak. "Then he is very much disturbed?"
"No, but he wants to talk to you."
"Yes. When the doctor saw the nurse, he said, 'Madame, it is impossible for me to continue to attend this child unless I have had this very day a conversation with the father.' So I said 'Very well,' and he said he would come at once."
George turned away, and put his hands to his forehead. "My poor little daughter!" he whispered to himself.
"Yes," said the mother, her voice breaking, "she is, indeed, a poor little daughter!"
A silence fell; for what could words avail in such a situation? Hearing the door open, Madame Dupont started, for her nerves were all a-quiver with the strain she had been under. A servant came in and spoke to her, and she said to George, "It is the doctor. If you need me, I shall be in the next room."
Her son stood trembling, as if he were waiting the approach of an executioner. The other came into the room without seeing him and he stood for a minute, clasping and unclasping his hands, almost overcome with emotion. Then he said, "Good-day, doctor." As the man stared at him, surprised and puzzled, he added, "You don't recognize me?"
The doctor looked again, more closely. George was expecting him to break out in rage; but instead his voice fell low. "You!" he exclaimed. "It is you!"
At last, in a voice of discouragement than of anger, he went on, "You got married, and you have a child! After all that I told you! You are a wretch!"
"Sir," cried George, "let me explain to you!"
"Not a word!" exclaimed the other. "There can be no explanation for what you have done."
A silence followed. The young man did not know what to say. Finally, stretching out his arms, he pleaded, "You will take care of my little daughter all the same, will you not?"
The other turned away with disgust. "Imbecile!" he said.
George did not hear the word. "I was able to wait only six months," he murmured.
The doctor answered in a voice of cold self-repression, "That is enough, sir! All that does not concern me. I have done wrong even to let you see my indignation. I should have left you to judge yourself. I have nothing to do here but with the present and with the future—with the infant and with the nurse."
"She isn't in danger?" cried George.
"The nurse is in danger of being contaminated."
But George had not been thinking about the nurse. "I mean my child," he said.
"Just at present the symptoms are not disturbing."
George waited; after a while he began, "You were saying about the nurse. Will you consent that I call my mother? She knows better than I."
"As you wish," was the reply.
The young man started to the door, but came back, in terrible distress. "I have one prayer to offer you sir; arrange it so that my wife—so that no one will know. If my wife learned that it is I who am the cause—! It is for her that I implore you! She—she isn't to blame."
Said the doctor: "I will do everything in my power that she may be kept ignorant of the true nature of the disease."
"Oh, how I thank you!" murmured George. "How I thank you!"
"Do not thank me; it is for her, and not for you, that I will consent to lie."
"And my mother?"
"Your mother knows the truth."
"I pray you, sir—we have enough to talk about, and very serious matters."
So George went to the door and called his mother. She entered and greeted the doctor, holding herself erect, and striving to keep the signs of grief and terror from her face. She signed to the doctor to take a seat, and then seated herself by a little table near him.
"Madame Dupont," he began, "I have prescribed a course of treatment for the child. I hope to be able to improve its condition, and to prevent any new developments. But my duty and yours does not stop there; if there is still time, it is necessary to protect the health of the nurse."
"Tell us what it is necessary to do, Doctor?" said she.
"The woman must stop nursing the child."
"You mean we have to change the nurse?"
"Madame, the child can no longer be brought up at the breast, either by that nurse or by any other nurse."
"But why, sir?"
"Because the child would give her disease to the woman who gave her milk."
"But, Doctor, if we put her on the bottle—our little one—she will die!"
And suddenly George burst out into sobs. "Oh, my poor little daughter! My God, my God!"
Said the doctor, "If the feeding is well attended to, with sterilized milk—"
"That can do very well for healthy infants," broke in Madame Dupont. "But at the age of three months one cannot take from the breast a baby like ours, frail and ill. More than any other such an infant has need of a nurse—is that not true?"
"Yes," the doctor admitted, "that is true. But—"
"In that case, between the life of the child, and the health of the nurse, you understand perfectly well that my choice is made."
Between her words the doctor heard the sobbing of George, whose head was buried in his arms. "Madame," he said, "your love for that baby has just caused you to utter something ferocious! It is not for you to choose. It is not for you to choose. I forbid the nursing. The health of that woman does not belong to you."
"No," cried the grandmother, wildly, "nor does the health of out child belong to you! If there is a hope of saving it, that hope is in giving it more care than any other child; and you would wish that I put it upon a mode of nourishment which the doctors condemn, even for vigorous infants! You expect that I will let myself be taken in like that? I answer you: she shall have the milk which she needs, my poor little one! If there was a single thing that one could do to save her—I should be a criminal to neglect it!" And Madame Dupont broke out, with furious scorn, "The nurse! The nurse! We shall know how to do our duty—we shall take care of her, repay her. But our child before all! No sir, no! Everything that can be done to save our baby I shall do, let it cost what it will. To do what you say—you don't realize it—it would be as if I should kill the child!" In the end the agonized woman burst into tears. "Oh, my poor little angel! My little savior!"
George had never ceased sobbing while his mother spoke; at these last words his sobs became loud cries. He struck the floor with his foot, he tore his hair, as if he were suffering from violent physical pain. "Oh, oh, oh!" he cried. "My little child! My little child!" And then, in a horrified whisper to himself, "I am a wretch! A criminal!"
"Madame," said the doctor, "you must calm yourself; you must both calm yourselves. You will not help out the situation by lamentations. You must learn to take it with calmness."
Madame Dupont set her lips together, and with a painful effort recovered her self-control. "You are right, sir," she said, in a low voice. "I ask your pardon; but if you only knew what that child means to me! I lost one at that age. I am an old woman, I am a widow—I had hardly hoped to live long enough to be a grandmother. But, as you say—we must be calm." She turned to the young man, "Calm yourself, my son. It is a poor way to show our love for the child, to abandon ourselves to tears. Let us talk, Doctor, and seriously—coldly. But I declare to you that nothing will ever induce me to put the child on the bottle, when I know that it might kill her. That is all I can say."
The doctor replied: "This isn't the first time that I find myself in the present situation. Madame, I declare to you that always—ALWAYS, you understand—persons who have rejected my advice have had reason to repent it cruelly."
"The only thing of which I should repent—" began the other.
"You simply do not know," interrupted the doctor, "what such a nurse is capable of. You cannot imagine what bitterness—legitimate bitterness, you understand—joined to the rapacity, the cupidity, the mischief-making impulse—might inspire these people to do. For them the BOURGEOIS is always somewhat of an enemy; and when they find themselves in position to avenge their inferiority, they are ferocious."
"But what could the woman do?"
"What could she do? She could bring legal proceedings against you."
"But she is much too stupid to have that idea."
"Others will put it into her mind."
"She is too poor to pay the preliminary expenses."
"And do you propose then to profit by her ignorance and stupidity? Besides, she could obtain judicial assistance."
"Why, surely," exclaimed Madame Dupont, "such a thing was never heard of! Do you mean that?"
"I know a dozen prosecutions of that sort; and always when there has been certainty, the parents have lost their case."
"But surely, Doctor, you must be mistaken! Not in a case like ours—not when it is a question of saving the life of a poor little innocent!"
"Oftentimes exactly such facts have been presented."
Here George broke in. "I can give you the dates of the decisions." He rose from his chair, glad of an opportunity to be useful. "I have the books," he said, and took one from the case and brought it to the doctor.
"All of that is no use—" interposed the mother.
But the doctor said to George, "You will be able to convince yourself. The parents have been forced once or twice to pay the nurse a regular income, and at other times they have had to pay her an indemnity, of which the figure has varied between three and eight thousand francs."
Madame Dupont was ready with a reply to this. "Never fear, sir! If there should be a suit, we should have a good lawyer. We shall be able to pay and choose the best—and he would demand, without doubt, which of the two, the nurse or the child, has given the disease to the other."
The doctor was staring at her in horror. "Do you not perceive that would be a monstrous thing to do?"
"Oh, I would not have to say it," was the reply. "The lawyer would see to it—is not that his profession? My point is this: by one means or another he would make us win our case."
"And the scandal that would result," replied the other. "Have you thought of that?"
Here George, who had been looking over his law-books, broke in. "Doctor, permit me to give you a little information. In cases of this sort, the names are never printed."
"Yes, but they are spoken at the hearings."
"And are you certain that there will not be any newspaper to print the judgment?"
"What won't they stoop to," exclaimed Madame Dupont—"those filthy journals!"
"Ah," said the other, "and see what a scandal? What a shame it would be to you!"
"The doctor is right, mother," exclaimed the young man.
But Madame Dupont was not yet convinced. "We will prevent the woman from taking any steps; we will give her what she demands from us."
"But then," said the other, "you will give yourselves up to the risk of blackmail. I know a family which has been thus held up for over twelve years."
"If you will permit me, Doctor," said George, timidly, "she could be made to sign a receipt."
"For payment in full?" asked the doctor, scornfully.
"And then," added his mother, "she would be more than delighted to go back to her country with a full purse. She would be able to buy a little house and a bit of ground—in that country one doesn't need so much in order to live."
At this moment there was a tap upon the door, and the nurse entered. She was a country woman, robust, rosy-cheeked, fairly bursting with health. When she spoke one got the impression that her voice was more than she could contain. It did not belong in a drawing-room, but under the open sky of her country home. "Sir," she said, addressing the doctor, "the baby is awake."
"I will go and see her," was the reply; and then to Madame Dupont, "We will take up this conversation later on."
"Certainly," said the mother. "Will you have need of the nurse?"
"No, Madame," the doctor answered.
"Nurse," said the mother, "sit down and rest. Wait a minute, I wish to speak to you." As the doctor went out, she took her son to one side and whispered to him, "I know the way to arrange everything. If we let her know what is the matter, and if she accepts, the doctor will have nothing more to say. Isn't that so?"
"Obviously," replied the son.
"I am going to promise that we will give her two thousand francs when she goes away, if she will consent to continue nursing the child."
"Two thousand francs?" said the other. "Is that enough?"
"I will see," was the reply. "If she hesitates, I will go further. Let me attend to it."
George nodded his assent, and Madame Dupont returned to the nurse. "You know," she said, "that our child is a little sick?"
The other looked at her in surprise. "Why no, ma'am!"
"Yes," said the grandmother.
"But, ma'am, I have taken the best of care of her; I have always kept her proper."
"I am not saying anything to the contrary," said Madame Dupont, "but the child is sick, the doctors have said it."
The nurse was not to be persuaded; she thought they were getting ready to scold her. "Humph," she said, "that's a fine thing—the doctors! If they couldn't always find something wrong you'd say they didn't know their business."
"But our doctor is a great doctor; and you have seen yourself that our child has some little pimples."
"Ah, ma'am," said the nurse, "that's the heat—it's nothing but the heat of the blood breaking out. You don't need to bother yourself; I tell you it's only the child's blood. It's not my fault; I swear to you that she had not lacked anything, and that I have always kept her proper."
"I am not reproaching you—"
"What is there to reproach me for? Oh, what bad luck! She's tiny—the little one—she's a bit feeble; but Lord save us, she's a city child! And she's getting along all right, I tell you."
"No," persisted Madame Dupont, "I tell you—she has got a cold in her head, and she has an eruption at the back of the throat."
"Well," cried the nurse, angrily, "if she has, it's because the doctor scratched her with that spoon he put into her mouth wrong end first! A cold in the head? Yes, that's true; but if she has caught cold, I can't say when, I don't know anything about it—nothing, nothing at all. I have always kept her well covered; she's always had as much as three covers on her. The truth is, it was when you came, the time before last; you were all the time insisting upon opening the windows in the house!"
"But once more I tell you," cried Madame Dupont, "we are not putting any blame on you."
"Yes," cried the woman, more vehemently. "I know what that kind of talk means. It's no use—when you're a poor country woman."
"What are you imagining now?" demanded the other.
"Oh, that's all right. It's no use when you're a poor country woman."
"I repeat to you once more," cried Madame Dupont, with difficulty controlling her impatience, "we have nothing whatever to blame you for."
But the nurse began to weep. "If I had known that anything like this was coming to me—"
"We have nothing to blame you for," declared the other. "We only wish to warn you that you might possibly catch the disease of the child."
The woman pouted. "A cold in the head!" she exclaimed. "Well, if I catch it, it won't be the first time. I know how to blow my nose."
"But you might also get the pimples."
At this the nurse burst into laughter so loud that the bric-a-brac rattled. "Oh, oh, oh! Dear lady, let me tell you, we ain't city folks, we ain't; we don't have such soft skins. What sort of talk is that? Pimples—what difference would that make to poor folks like us? We don't have a white complexion like the ladies of Paris. We are out all day in the fields, in the sun and the rain, instead of rubbing cold cream on our muzzles! No offense, ma'am—but I say if you're looking for an excuse to get rid of me, you must get a better one than that."
"Excuse!" exclaimed the other. "What in the world do you mean?"
"Oh, I know!" said the nurse, nodding her head.
"It's no use, when you're only a poor country woman."
"I don't understand you! I swear to you that I don't understand you!"
"Well," sneered the other, "I understand."
"But then—explain yourself."
"No, I don't want to say it."
"But you must; I wish it."
"I'm only a poor country woman, but I am no more stupid than the others, for all that. I know perfectly well what your tricks mean. Mr. George here has been grumbling because you promised me thirty francs more a month, if I came to Paris." And then, turning upon the other, she went on—"But, sir, isn't it only natural? Don't I have to put my own child away somewheres else? And then, can my husband live on his appetite? We're nothing but poor country people, we are."
"You are making a mistake, nurse," broke in George. "It is nothing at all of that sort; mother is quite right. I am so far from wanting to reproach you, that, on the contrary, I think she had not promised enough, and I want to make you, for my part, another promise. When you go away, when baby is old enough to be weaned, by way of thanking you, we wish to give you—"
Madame Dupont broke in, hurriedly, "We wish to give you,—over and above your wages, you understand—we wish to give you five hundred francs, and perhaps a thousand, if the little one is altogether in good health. You understand?"
The nurse stared at her, stupefied. "You will give me five hundred francs—for myself?" She sought to comprehend the words. "But that was not agreed, you don't have to do that at all."
"No," admitted Madame Dupont.
"But then," whispered the nurse, half to herself, "that's not natural."
"Yes," the other hurried on, "it is because the baby will have need of extra care. You will have to take more trouble; you will have to give it medicines; your task will be a little more delicate, a little more difficult."
"Oh, yes; then it's so that I will be sure to take care of her? I understand."
"Then it's agreed?" exclaimed Madame Dupont, with relief.
"Yes ma'am," said the nurse.
"And you won't come later on to make reproaches to us? We understand one another clearly? We have warned you that the child is sick and that you could catch the disease. Because of that, because of the special need of care which she has, we promise you five hundred francs at the end of the nursing. That's all right, is it?
"But, my lady," cried the nurse, all her cupidity awakened, "you spoke just now of a thousand francs."
"Very well, then, a thousand francs."
George passed behind the nurse and got his mother by the arm, drawing her to one side. "It would be a mistake," he whispered, "if we did not make her sign an agreement to all that."
His mother turned to the nurse. "In order that there may be no misunderstanding about the sum—you see how it is, I had forgotten already that I had spoken of a thousand francs—we will draw up a little paper, and you, on your part, will write one for us."
"Very good, ma'am," said the nurse, delighted with the idea of so important a transaction. "Why, it's just as you do when you rent a house!"
"Here comes the doctor," said the other. "Come, nurse, it is agreed?"
"Yes, ma'am," was the answer. But all the same, as she went out she hesitated and looked sharply first at the doctor, and then at George and his mother. She suspected that something was wrong, and she meant to find out if she could.
The doctor seated himself in George's office chair, as if to write a prescription. "The child's condition remains the same," he said; "nothing disturbing."
"Doctor," said Madame Dupont, gravely, "from now on, you will be able to devote your attention to the baby and the nurse without any scruple. During your absence we have arranged matters nicely. The nurse has been informed about the situation, and she does not mind. She has agreed to accept an indemnity, and the amount has been stated."
But the doctor did not take these tidings as the other had hoped he might. He replied: "The malady which the nurse will almost inevitably contract in feeding the child is too grave in its consequences. Such consequences might go as far as complete helplessness, even as far as death. So I say that the indemnity, whatever it might be, would not pay the damage."
"But," exclaimed the other, "she accepts it! She is mistress of herself, and she has the right—"
"I am not at all certain that she has the right to sell her own health. And I am certain that she has not the right to sell the health of her husband and her children. If she becomes infected, it is nearly certain that she will communicate the disease to them; the health and the life of the children she might have later on would be greatly compromised. Such things she cannot possibly sell. Come, madame, you must see that a bargain of this sort isn't possible. If the evil has not been done, you must do everything to avoid it."
"Sir," protested the mother, wildly, "you do not defend our interests!"
"Madame," was the reply, "I defend those who are weakest."
"If we had called in our own physician, who knows us," she protested, "he would have taken sides with us."
The doctor rose, with a severe look on his face. "I doubt it," he said, "but there is still time to call him."
George broke in with a cry of distress. "Sir, I implore you!"
And the mother in turn cried. "Don't abandon us, sir! You ought to make allowances! If you knew what that child is to me! I tell you it seems to me as if I had waited for her coming in order to die. Have pity upon us! Have pity upon her! You speak of the weakest—it is not she who is the weakest? You have seen her, you have seen that poor little baby, so emaciated! You have seen what a heap of suffering she is already; and cannot that inspire in you any sympathy? I pray you, sir—I pray you!"
"I pity her," said the doctor, "I would like to save her—and I will do everything for her. But do not ask me to sacrifice to a feeble infant, with an uncertain and probably unhappy life, the health of a sound and robust woman. It is useless for us to continue such a discussion as that."
Whereupon Madame Dupont leaped up in sudden frenzy. "Very Well!" she exclaimed. "I will not follow your counsels, I will not listen to you!"
Said the doctor in a solemn voice: "There is already some one here who regrets that he did not listen to me."
"Yes," moaned George, "to my misfortune, to the misfortune of all of us."
But Madame Dupont was quite beside herself. "Very well!" she cried. "If it is a fault, if it is a crime, if I shall have to suffer remorse for it in this life, and all the punishments in the life to come—I accept it all for myself alone! Myself alone, I take that responsibility! It is frightfully heavy, but I accept it. I am profoundly a Christian sir; I believe in eternal damnation; but to save my little child I consent to lose my soul forever. Yes, my mind is made up—I will do everything to save that life! Let God judge me; and if he condemns me, so much the worse for me!"
The doctor answered: "That responsibility is one which I cannot let you take, for it will be necessary that I should accept my part, and I refuse it."
"What will you do?"
"I shall warn the nurse. I shall inform her exactly, completely—something which you have not done, I feel sure."
"What?" cried Madame Dupont, wildly. "You, a doctor, called into a family which gives you its entire confidence, which hands over to you its most terrible secrets, its most horrible miseries—you would betray them?"
"It is not a betrayal," replied the man, sternly. "It is something which the law commands; and even if the law were silent, I would not permit a family of worthy people to go astray so far as to commit a crime. Either I give up the case, or you have the nursing of the child stopped."
"You threaten! You threaten!" cried the woman, almost frantic. "You abuse the power which your knowledge gives you! You know that it is you whose attention we need by that little cradle; you know that we believe in you, and you threaten to abandon us! Your abandonment means the death of the child, perhaps! And if I listen to you, if we stop the nursing of the child—that also means her death!"
She flung up her hands like a mad creature. "And yet there is no other means! Ah, my God! Why do you not let it be possible for me to sacrifice myself? I would wish nothing more than to be able to do it—if only you might take my old body, my old flesh, my old bones—if only I might serve for something! How quickly would I consent that it should infect me—this atrocious malady! How I would offer myself to it—with what joys, with what delights—however disgusting, however frightful it might be, however much to be dreaded! Yes, I would take it without fear, without regret, if my poor old empty breasts might still give to the child the milk which would preserve its life!"
She stopped; and George sprang suddenly from his seat, and fled to her and flung himself down upon his knees before her, mingling his sobs and tears with hers.
The doctor rose and moved about the room, unable any longer to control his distress. "Oh, the poor people!" he murmured to himself. "The poor, poor people!"
The storm passed, and Madame Dupont, who was a woman of strong character, got herself together. Facing the doctor again, she said, "Come, sir, tell us what we have to do."
"You must stop the nursing, and keep the woman here as a dry nurse, in order that she may not go away to carry the disease elsewhere. Do not exaggerate to yourself the danger which will result to the child. I am, in truth, extremely moved by your suffering, and I will do everything—I swear it to you—that your baby may recover as quickly as possible its perfect health. I hope to succeed, and that soon. And now I must leave you until tomorrow."
"Thank you, Doctor, thank you," said Madame Dupont, faintly.
The young man rose and accompanied the doctor to the door. He could not bring himself to speak, but stood hanging his head until the other was gone. Then he came to his mother. He sought to embrace her, but she repelled him—without violence, but firmly.
Her son stepped back and put his hands over his face. "Forgive me!" he said, in a broken voice. "Are we not unhappy enough, without hating each other?"
His mother answered: "God has punished you for your debauch by striking at your child."
But, grief-stricken as the young man was, he could not believe that. "Impossible!" he said. "There is not even a man sufficiently wicked or unjust to commit the act which you attribute to your God!"
"Yes," said his mother, sadly, "you believe in nothing."
"I believe in no such God as that," he answered.
A silence followed. When it was broken, it was by the entrance of the nurse. She had opened the door of the room and had been standing there for some moments, unheeded. Finally she stepped forward. "Madame," she said, "I have thought it over; I would rather go back to my home at once, and have only the five hundred francs."
Madame Dupont stared at her in consternation. "What is that you are saying? You want to return to your home?"
"Yes, ma'am," was the answer.
"But," cried George, "only ten minutes ago you were not thinking of it."
"What has happened since then?" demanded Madame Dupont.
"I have thought it over."
"Thought it over?"
"Well, I am getting lonesome for my little one and for my husband."
"In the last ten minutes?" exclaimed George.
"There must be something else," his mother added. "Evidently there must be something else."
"No!" insisted the nurse.
"But I say yes!"
"Well, I'm afraid the air of Paris might not be good for me."
"You had better wait and try it."
"I would rather go back at once to my home."
"Come, now," cried Madame Dupont, "tell us why?"
"I have told you. I have thought it over."
"Thought what over?"
"Well, I have thought."
"Oh," cried the mother, "what a stupid reply! 'I have thought it over! I have thought it over!' Thought WHAT over, I want to know!"
"Don't you know how to tell us what?"
"I tell you, everything."
"Why," exclaimed Madame Dupont, "you are an imbecile!"
George stepped between his mother and the nurse. "Let me talk to her," he said.
The woman came back to her old formula: "I know that we're only poor country people."
"Listen to me, nurse," said the young man. "Only a little while ago you were afraid that we would send you away. You were satisfied with the wages which my mother had fixed. In addition to those wages we had promised you a good sum when you returned to your home. Now you tell us that you want to go away. You see? All at once. There must be some reason; let us understand it. There must certainly be a reason. Has anybody done anything to you?"
"No, sir," said the woman, dropping her eyes.
"I have thought it over."
George burst out, "Don't go on repeating always the same thing—'I have thought it over!' That's not telling us anything." Controlling himself, he added, gently, "Come, tell me why you want to go away?"
There was a silence. "Well?" he demanded.
"I tell you, I have thought—"
George exclaimed in despair, "It's as if one were talking to a block of wood!"
His mother took up the conversation again. "You must realize, you have not the right to go away."
The woman answered, "I WANT to go."
"But I will not let you leave us."
"No," interrupted George angrily, "let her go; we cannot fasten her here."
"Very well, then," cried the exasperated mother, "since you want to go, go! But I have certainly the right to say to you that you are as stupid as the animals on your farm!"
"I don't say that I am not," answered the woman.
"I will not pay you the month which has just begun, and you will pay your railroad fare for yourself."
The other drew back with a look of anger. "Oho!" she cried. "We'll see about that!"
"Yes, we'll see about it!" cried George. "And you will get out of here at once. Take yourself off—I will have no more to do with you. Good evening."
"No, George," protested his mother, "don't lose control of yourself." And then, with a great effort at calmness, "That cannot be serious, nurse! Answer me."
"I would rather go off right away to my home, and only have my five hundred francs."
"WHAT?" cried George, in consternation.
"What's that you are telling me?" exclaimed Madame Dupont.
"Five hundred francs?" repeated her son.
"What five hundred francs?" echoed the mother.
"The five hundred francs you promised me," said the nurse.
"We have promised you five hundred francs? WE?"
"When the child should be weaned, and if we should be satisfied with you! That was our promise."
"No. You said you would give them to me when I was leaving. Now I am leaving, and I want them."
Madame Dupont drew herself up, haughtily. "In the first place," she said, "kindly oblige me by speaking to me in another tone; do you understand?"
The woman answered, "You have nothing to do but give me my money, and I will say nothing more."
George went almost beside himself with rage at this. "Oh, it's like that?" he shouted. "Very well; I'll show you!" And he sprang to the door and opened it.
But the nurse never budged. "Give me my five hundred francs!" she said.
George seized her by the arm and shoved her toward the door. "You clear out of here, do you understand me? And as quickly as you can!"
The woman shook her arm loose, and sneered into his face. "Come now, you—you can talk to me a little more politely, eh?"
"Will you go?" shouted George, completely beside himself. "Will you go, or must I go out and look for a policeman?"
"A policeman!" demanded the woman. "For what?"
"To put you outside! You are behaving yourself like a thief."
"A thief? I? What do you mean?"
"I mean that you are demanding money which doesn't belong to you."
"More than that," broke in Madame Dupont, "you are destroying that poor little baby! You are a wicked woman!"
"I will put you out myself!" shouted George, and seized her by the arm again.
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" retorted the nurse. "Then you really want me to tell you why I am going away?"
"Yes, tell me!" cried he.
His mother added, "Yes, yes!"
She would have spoken differently had she chanced to look behind her and seen Henriette, who at that moment appeared in the doorway. She had been about to go out, when her attention had been caught by the loud voices. She stood now, amazed, clasping her hands together, while the nurse, shaking her fist first at Madame Dupont and then at her son, cried loudly, "Very well! I'm going away because I don't want to catch a filthy disease here!"
"HUSH!" cried Madame Dupont, and sprang toward her, her hands clenched as if she would choke her.
"Be silent!" cried George, wild with terror.
But the woman rushed on without dropping her voice, "Oh, you need not be troubling yourselves for fear anyone should overhear! All the world knows it! Your other servants were listening with me at your door! They heard every word your doctor said!"
"Shut up!" screamed George.
Her mother seized the woman fiercely by the arm. "Hold your tongue!" she hissed.
But again the other shook herself loose. She was powerful, and now her rage was not to be controlled. She waved her hands in the air, shouting, "Let me be, let me be! I know all about your brat—that you will never be able to raise it—that it's rotten because it's father has a filthy disease he got from a woman of the street!"
She got no farther. She was interrupted by a frenzied shriek from Henriette. The three turned, horrified, just in time to see her fall forward upon the floor, convulsed.
"My God!" cried George. He sprang toward her, and tried to lift her, but she shrank from him, repelling him with a gesture of disgust, of hatred, of the most profound terror. "Don't touch me!" she screamed, like a maniac. "Don't touch me!"
It was in vain that Madame Dupont sought to control her daughter-in-law. Henriette was beside herself, frantic, she could not be brought to listen to any one. She rushed into the other room, and when the older woman followed her, shrieked out to be left alone. Afterwards, she fled to her own room and barred herself in, and George and his mother waited distractedly for hours until she should give some sign.
Would she kill herself, perhaps? Madame Dupont hovered on guard about the door of the nursery for fear that the mother in her fit of insanity might attempt some harm to her child.
The nurse had slunk away abashed when she saw the consequences of her outburst. By the time she had got her belongings packed, she had recovered her assurance. She wanted her five hundred; also she wanted her wages and her railroad fare home. She wanted them at once, and she would not leave until she got them. George and his mother, in the midst of all their anguish of mind, had to go through a disgusting scene with this coarse and angry woman.
They had no such sum of money in the house, and the nurse refused to accept a check. She knew nothing about a check. It was so much paper, and might be some trick that they were playing on her. She kept repeating her old formula, "I am nothing but a poor country woman." Nor would she be contented with the promise that she would receive the money the next day. She seemed to be afraid that if she left the house she would be surrendering her claim. So at last the distracted George to sally forth and obtain the cash from some tradesmen in the neighborhood.
The woman took her departure. They made her sign a receipt in full for all claims and they strove to persuade themselves that this made them safe; but in their hearts they had no real conviction of safety. What was the woman's signature, or her pledged word, against the cupidity of her husband and relatives. Always she would have the dreadful secret to hold over them, and so they would live under the shadow of possible blackmail.
Later in the day Henriette sent for her mother-in-law. She was white, her eyes were swollen with weeping, and she spoke in a voice choked with sobs. She wished to return at once to her father's home, and to take little Gervaise with her. Madame Dupont cried out in horror at this proposition, and argued and pleaded and wept—but all to no purpose. The girl was immovable. She would not stay under her husband's roof, and she would take her child with her. It was her right, and no one could refuse her.
The infant had been crying for hours, but that made no difference. Henriette insisted that a cab should be called at once.
So she went back to the home of Monsieur Loches and told him the hideous story. Never before in her life had she discussed such subjects with any one, but now in her agitation she told her father all. As George had declared to the doctor, Monsieur Loches was a person of violent temper; at this revelation, at the sight of his daughter's agony, he was almost beside himself. His face turned purple, the veins stood out on his forehead; a trembling seized him. He declared that he would kill George—there was nothing else to do. Such a scoundrel should not be permitted to live.
The effort which Henriette had to make to restrain him had a calming effect upon herself. Bitter and indignant as she was, she did not want George to be killed. She clung to her father, beseeching him to promise her that he would not do such a thing; and all that day and evening she watched him, unwilling to let him out of her sight.
There was a matter which claimed her immediate attention, and which helped to withdraw them from the contemplation of their own sufferings. The infant must be fed and cared for—the unhappy victim of other people's sins, whose life was now imperiled. A dry nurse must be found at once, a nurse competent to take every precaution and give the child every chance. This nurse must be informed of the nature of the trouble—another matter which required a great deal of anxious thought.
That evening came Madame Dupont, tormented by anxiety about the child's welfare, and beseeching permission to help take care of it. It was impossible to refuse such a request. Henriette could not endure to see her, but the poor grandmother would come and sit for hours in the nursery, watching the child and the nurse, in silent agony.
This continued for days, while poor George wandered about at home, suffering such torment of mind as can hardly be imagined. Truly, in these days he paid for his sins; he paid a thousand-fold in agonized and impotent regret. He looked back upon the course of his life, and traced one by one the acts which had led him and those he loved into this nightmare of torment. He would have been willing to give his life if he could have undone those acts. But avenging nature offered him no such easy deliverance as that. We shudder as we read the grim words of the Jehovah of the ancient Hebrews; and yet not all the learning of modern times has availed to deliver us from the cruel decree, that the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children.
George wrote notes to his wife, imploring her forgiveness. He poured out all his agony and shame to her, begging her to see him just once, to give him a chance to plead his defense. It was not much of a defense, to be sure; it was only that he had done no worse than the others did—only that he was a wretched victim of ignorance. But he loved her, he had proven that he loved her, and he pleaded that for the sake of their child she would forgive him.
When all this availed nothing, he went to see the doctor, whose advice he had so shamefully neglected. He besought this man to intercede for him—which the doctor, of course, refused to do. It was an extra-medical matter, he said, and George was absurd to expect him to meddle in it.
But, as a matter of fact, the doctor had already been interceding—he had gone farther in pleading George's cause than he was willing to have George know. For Monsieur Loches had paid him a visit—his purpose being to ask the doctor to continue attendance upon the infant, and also to give Henriette a certificate which she could use in her suit for a divorce from her husband.
So inevitably there had been a discussion of the whole question between the two men. The doctor had granted the first request, but refused the second. In the first place, he said, there was a rule of professional secrecy which would prevent him. And when the father-in-law requested to know if the rule of professional secrecy compelled him to protect a criminal against honest people, the doctor answered that even if his ethics permitted it, he would still refuse the request. "I would reproach myself forever," he said, "if I had aided you to obtain such a divorce."
"Then," cried the old man, vehemently, "because you profess such and such theories, because the exercise of your profession makes you the constant witness of such miseries—therefore it is necessary that my daughter should continue to bear that man's name all her life!"
The doctor answered, gently, "Sir, I understand and respect your grief. But believe me, you are not in a state of mind to decide about these matters now."
"You are mistaken," declared the other, controlling himself with an effort. "I have been thinking about nothing else for days. I have discussed it with my daughter, and she agrees with me. Surely, sir, you cannot desire that my daughter should continue to live with a man who has struck her so brutal, so cowardly, a blow."
"If I refuse your request," the doctor answered, "it is in the interest of your daughter." Then, seeing the other's excitement returning, he continued, "In your state of mind, Monsieur Loches, I know that you will probably be abusing me before five minutes has passed. But that will not trouble me. I have seen many cases. And since I have made the mistake of letting myself be trapped into this discussion, I must explain to you the reason for my attitude. You ask of me a certificate so that you may prove in court that your son-in-law is afflicted with syphilis."
"Precisely," said the other.
"And have you not reflected upon this—that at the same time you will be publicly attesting that your daughter has been exposed to the contagion? With such an admission, an admission officially registered in the public records, do you believe that she will find it easy to re-marry later on?"
"She will never re-marry," said the father.
"She says that today, but can you affirm that she will say the same thing five years from now, ten years from now? I tell you you will not obtain that divorce, because I will most certainly refuse you the necessary certificate."
"Then," cried the other, "I will find other means of establishing proofs. I will have the child examined by another doctor!"
The other answered. "Then you do not find that that poor little one has been already sufficiently handicapped at the outset of its life? Your granddaughter has a physical defect. Do you wish to add to that a certificate of hereditary syphilis, which will follow her all her life?"
Monsieur Loches sprang from his chair. "You mean that if the victims seek to defend themselves, they will be struck the harder! You mean that the law gives me no weapon against a man who, knowing his condition, takes a young girl, sound, trusting, innocent, and befouls her with the result of his debauches—makes her the mother of a poor little creature, whose future is such that those who love her the most do not know whether they ought to pray for her life, or for her immediate deliverance? Sir," he continued, in his orator's voice, "that man has inflicted upon the woman he has married a supreme insult. He has made her the victim of the most odious assault. He has degraded her—he has brought her, so to speak, into contact with the woman of the streets. He has created between her and that common woman I know not what mysterious relationship. It is the poisoned blood of the prostitute which poisons my daughter and her child; that abject creature, she lives, she lives in us! She belongs to our family—he has given her a seat at our hearth! He has soiled the imagination and the thoughts of my poor child, as he has soiled her body. He has united forever in her soul the idea of love which she has placed so high, with I know not what horrors of the hospitals. He has tainted her in her dignity and her modesty, in her love as well as in her baby. He has struck her down with physical and moral decay, he has overwhelmed her with vileness. And yet the law is such, the customs of society are such, that the woman cannot separate herself from that man save by the aid of legal proceedings whose scandal will fall upon herself and upon her child!"
Monsieur Loches had been pacing up and down the room as he spoke, and now he clenched his fists in sudden fury.
"Very well! I will not address myself to the law. Since I learned the truth I have been asking myself if it was not my duty to find that monster and to put a bullet into his head, as one does to a mad dog. I don't know what weakness, what cowardice, has held me back, and decided me to appeal to the law. Since the law will not protect me, I will seek justice for myself. Perhaps his death will be a good warning for the others!"
The doctor shrugged his shoulders, as if to say that this was no affair of his and that he would not try to interfere. But he remarked, quietly: "You will be tried for your life."
"I shall be acquitted!" cried the other.
"Yes, but after a public revelation of all your miseries. You will make the scandal greater, the miseries greater—that is all. And how do you know but that on the morrow of your acquittal, you will find yourself confronting another court, a higher and more severe one? How do you know but that your daughter, seized at last by pity for the man you have killed, will not demand to know by what right you have acted so, by what right you have made an orphan of her child? How can you know but that her child also may some day demand an accounting of you?"
Monsieur Loches let his hands fall, and stood, a picture of crushed despair. "Tell me then," he said, in a faint voice, "what ought I to do?"
For a while the doctor sat looking at him. "Sir," he said, at last, "tell me one thing. You are inflexible; you feel you have the right to be inflexible. But are you really so certain that it was not your duty, once upon a time, to save your daughter from the possibility of such misfortune?"
"What?" cried the other. "My duty? What do you mean?"
"I mean this, sir. When that marriage was being discussed, you certainly took precautions to inform yourself about the financial condition of your future son-in-law. You demanded that he should prove to you that his stocks and bonds were actual value, listed on the exchange. Also, you obtained some information about his character. In fact, you forgot only one point, the most important of all—that was, to inquire if he was in good health. You never did that."
The father-in-law's voice had become faint. "No," he said.
"But why not?"
"Because that is not the custom."
"Very well, but that ought to be the custom. Surely the father of a family, before he gives his daughter to a man, should take as much precaution as a business concern which accepts an employee."
"You are right," was the reply, "there should be a law." The man spoke as a deputy, having authority in these matters.
But the doctor cried, "No, no, sir! Do not make a new law. We have too many already. There is no need of it. It would suffice that people should know a little better what syphilis is. The custom would establish itself very quickly for a suitor to add to all the other documents which he presents, a certificate of a doctor, as proof that he could be received into a family without bringing a pestilence with him. That would be very simple. Once let the custom be established, then the suitor would go to the doctor for a certificate of health, just as he goes to the priest for a certificate that he has confessed; and by that means you would prevent a great deal of suffering in the world. Or let me put it another way, sir. Nowadays, before you conclude a marriage, you get the lawyers of the two families together. It would be of at least equal importance to get their two doctors together. You see, sir, your inquiry concerning your son-in-law was far from complete. So your daughter may fairly ask you, why you, being a man, being a father who ought to know these things, did not take as much care of her health as you took of her fortune. So it is, sir, that I say to you, forgive!"
But Monsieur Loches said again, "Never!"
And again the doctor sat and watched him for a minute. "Come, sir," he began, finally, "since it is necessary to employ the last argument, I will do so. To be so severe and so pitiless—are you yourself without sin?"
The other answered, "I have never had a shameful disease."
"I do not ask you that," interrupted the doctor. "I ask you if you have never exposed yourself to the chance of having it." And then, reading the other's face, he went on, in a tone of quiet certainty. "Yes, you have exposed yourself. Then, sir, it was not virtue that you had; it was good fortune. That is one of the things which exasperate me the most—that term 'shameful disease' which you have just used. Like all other diseases, that is one of our misfortunes, and it is never shameful to be unfortunate—even if one has deserved it." The doctor paused, and then with some excitement he went on: "Come, sir, come, we must understand each other. Among men the most exacting, among those who with their middle-class prudery dare not pronounce the name of syphilis, or who make the most terrifying faces, the most disgusted, when they consent to speak of it—who regard the syphilitic as sinners—I should wish to know how many there are who have never exposed themselves to a similar misadventure. They and they alone have the right to speak. How many are there? Among a thousand men, are there four? Very well, then. Excepting those four, between all the rest and the syphilitic there is nothing but the difference of chance."
There came into the doctor's voice at this moment a note of intense feeling; for these were matters of which evidence came to him every day. "I tell you, sir, that such people are deserving of sympathy, because they are suffering. If they have committed a fault, they have at least the plea that they are expiating it. No, sir, let me hear no more of that hypocrisy. Recall your own youth, sir. That which afflicts your son-in-law, you have deserved it just as much as he—more than he, perhaps. Therefore, have pity on him; have for him the toleration which the unpunished criminal ought to have for the criminal less fortunate than himself upon whom the penalty has fallen. Is that not so?"
Monsieur Loches had been listening to this discourse with the feeling of a thief before the bar. There was nothing that he could answer. "Sir," he stammered, "as you present this thing to me—"
"But am I not right?" insisted the doctor.
"Perhaps you are," the other admitted. "But—I cannot say all that to my daughter, to persuade her to go back to her husband."
"You can give her other arguments," was the answer.
"What arguments, in God's name?"
"There is no lack of them. You will say to her that a separation would be a misfortune for all; that her husband is the only one in the world who would be devoted enough to help her save her child. You will say to her that out of the ruins of her first happiness she can build herself another structure, far stronger. And, sir, you will add to that whatever your good heart may suggest—and we will arrange so that the next child of the pair shall be sound and vigorous."
Monsieur Loches received this announcement with the same surprise that George himself had manifested. "Is that possible?" he asked.
The doctor cried: "Yes, yes, yes—a thousand times yes! There is a phrase which I repeat on every occasion, and which I would wish to post upon the walls. It is that syphilis is an imperious mistress, who only demands that one should recognize her power. She is terrible for those who think her insignificant, and gentle with those who know how dangerous she is. You know that kind of mistress—who is only vexed when she is neglected. You may tell this to your daughter—you will restore her to the arms of her husband, from whom she has no longer anything to fear, and I will guarantee that you will be a happy grandfather two years from now."
Monsieur Loches at last showed that he was weakened in his resolution.
"Doctor," he said, "I do not know that I can ever go so far as forgiveness, but I promise you that I will do no irreparable act, and that I will not oppose a reconciliation if after the lapse of some time—I cannot venture to say how long—my poor child should make up her mind to a reconciliation."
"Very good," said the other. "But let me add this: If you have another daughter, take care to avoid the fault which you committed when you married off the first."
"But," said the old man, "I did not know."
"Ah, surely!" cried the other. "You did not know! You are a father, and you did not know! You are a deputy, you have assumed the responsibility and the honor of making our laws—and you did not know! You are ignorant about syphilis, just as you probably are ignorant about alcoholism and tuberculosis."
"No," exclaimed the other, quickly.
"Very well," said the doctor, "I will leave you out, if you wish. I am talking of the others, the five hundred, and I don't know how many more, who are there in the Chamber of Deputies, and who call themselves representatives of the people. They are not able to find a single hour to discuss these three cruel gods, to which egotism and indifference make every day such frightful human sacrifices. They have not sufficient leisure to combat this ferocious trinity, which destroys every day thousands of lives. Alcoholism! It would be necessary to forbid the manufacture of poisons, and to restrict the number of licenses; but as one has fear of the great distillers, who are rich and powerful, and of the little dealers, who are the masters of universal suffrage, one puts one's conscience to sleep by lamenting the immorality of the working-class, and publishing little pamphlets and sermons. Imbeciles!...Tuberculosis! Everybody knows the true remedy, which would be the paying of sufficient wages, and the tearing down of the filthy tenements into which the laborers are packed—those who are the most useful and the most unfortunate among our population! But needless to say, no one wants that remedy, so we go round begging the workingmen not to spit on the sidewalks. Wonderful! But syphilis—why do you not occupy yourself with that? Why, since you have ministers whose duty it is to attend to all sorts of things, do you not have a minister to attend to the public health?"
"My dear Doctor," responded Monsieur Loches, "you fall into the French habit of considering the government as the cause of all evils. Show us the way, you learned gentlemen! Since that is a matter about which you are informed, and we are ignorant, begin by telling us what measures you believe to be necessary."
"Ah, ah!" exclaimed the other. "That's fine, indeed! It was about eighteen years ago that a project of that nature, worked out by the Academy of Medicine, and approved by it UNANIMOUSLY, was sent to the proper minister. We have not yet heard his reply."
"You really believe," inquired Monsieur Loches, in some bewilderment, "you believe that there are some measures—"
"Sir," broke in the doctor, "before we get though, you are going to suggest some measures yourself. Let me tell you what happened today. When I received your card I did not know that you were the father-in-law of George Dupont. I say that you were a deputy, and I thought that you wanted to get some information about these matters. There was a woman patient waiting to see me, and I kept her in my waiting-room—saying to myself, This is just the sort of person that our deputies ought to talk to."
The doctor paused for a moment, then continued: "Be reassured, I will take care of your nerves. This patient has no trouble that is apparent to the eye. She is simply an illustration of the argument I have been advancing—that our worst enemy is ignorance. Ignorance—you understand me? Since I have got you here, sir, I am going to hold you until I have managed to cure a little of your ignorance! For I tell you, sir, it is a thing which drives me to distraction—we MUST do something about these conditions! Take this case, for example. Here is a woman who is very seriously infected. I told her—well, wait; you shall see for yourself."
The doctor went to the door and summoned into the room a woman whom Monsieur Loches had noticed waiting there. She was verging on old age, small, frail, and ill-nourished in appearance, poorly dressed, and yet with a suggestion of refinement about her. She stood near the door, twisting her hands together nervously, and shrinking from the gaze of the strange gentleman. The doctor began in an angry voice. "Did I not tell you to come and see me once every eight days? Is that not true?"
The woman answered, in a faint voice, "Yes, sir."
"Well," he exclaimed, "and how long has it been since you were here?"
"Three months, sir."
"Three months! And you believe that I can take care of you under such conditions? I give you up! Do you understand? You discourage me, you discourage me." There was a pause. Then, seeing the woman's suffering, he began, in a gentler tone, "Come now, what is the reason that you have not come? Didn't you know that you have a serious disease—most serious?"
"Oh, yes, sir," replied the woman, "I know that very well—since my husband died of it."
The doctor's voice bore once again its note of pity. "Your husband died of it?"
"He took no care of himself?"
"And was not that a warning to you?"
"Doctor," the woman replied, "I would ask nothing better than to come as often as you told me, but the cost is too great."
"How—what cost? You were coming to my free clinic."
"Yes, sir," replied the woman, "but that's during working hours, and then it is a long way from home. There are so many sick people, and I have to wait my turn, It is in the morning—sometimes I lose a whole day—and then my employer is annoyed, and he threatens to turn me off. It is things like that that keep people from coming, until they dare not put it off any longer. Then, too, sir—" the woman stopped, hesitating.
"Well," demanded the doctor.
"Oh, nothing, sir," she stammered. "You have been too good to me already."
"Go on," commanded the other. "Tell me."
"Well," murmured the woman, "I know I ought not to put on airs, but you see I have not always been so poor. Before my husband's misfortune, we were well fixed. So you see, I have a little pride. I have always managed to take care of myself. I am not a woman of the streets, and to stand around like that, with everybody else, to be obliged to tell all one's miseries out loud before the world! I am wrong, I know it perfectly well; I argue with myself—but all the same, it's hard, sir; I assure you, it is truly hard."
"Poor woman!" said the doctor; and for a while there was a silence. Then he asked: "It was your husband who brought you the disease?"
"Yes, sir," was the reply. "Everything which happened to us came from him. We were living in the country when he got the disease. He went half crazy. He no longer knew how to manage his affairs. He gave orders here and there for considerable sums. We were not able to find the money."
"Why did he not undergo treatment?"
"He didn't know then. We were sold out, and we came to Paris. But we hadn't a penny. He decided to go to the hospital for treatment."
"Why, they looked him over, but they refused him any medicine."
"How was that?"
"Because we had been in Paris only three months. If one hasn't been a resident six months, one has no right to free medicine."
"Is that true?" broke in Monsieur Loches quickly.
"Yes," said the doctor, "that's the rule."
"So you see," said the woman, "it was not our fault."
"You never had children?" inquired the doctor.
"I was never able to bring one to birth," was the answer. "My husband was taken just at the beginning of our marriage—it was while he was serving in the army. You know, sir—there are women about the garrisons—" She stopped, and there was a long silence.
"Come," said the doctor, "that's all right. I will arrange it with you. You can come here to my office, and you can come on Sunday mornings." And as the poor creature started to express her gratitude, he slipped a coin into her hand. "Come, come; take it," he said gruffly. "You are not going to play proud with me. No, no, I have no time to listen to you. Hush!" And he pushed her out of the door.
Then he turned to the deputy. "You heard her story, sir," he said. "Her husband was serving his time in the army; it was you law-makers who compelled him to do that. And there are women about the garrisons—you heard how her voice trembled as she said that? Take my advice, sir, and look up the statistics as to the prevalence of this disease among our soldiers. Come to some of my clinics, and let me introduce you to other social types. You don't care very much about soldiers, perhaps—they belong to the lower classes, and you think of them as rough men. But let me show you what is going on among our college students—among the men our daughters are some day to marry. Let me show you the women who prey upon them! Perhaps, who knows—I can show you the very woman who was the cause of all the misery in your own family!"
And as Monsieur Loches rose from his chair, the doctor came to him and took him by the hand. "Promise me, sir," he said, earnestly, "that you will come back and let me teach you more about these matters. It is a chance that I must not let go—the first time in my life that I ever got hold of a real live deputy! Come and make a study of this subject, and let us try to work out some sensible plan, and get seriously to work to remedy these frightful evils!"
George lived with his mother after Henriette had left his home. He was wretchedly unhappy and lonely. He could find no interest in any of the things which had pleased him before. He was ashamed to meet any of his friends, because he imagined that everyone must have heard the dreadful story—or because he was not equal to making up explanations for his mournful state. He no longer cared much about his work. What was the use of making a reputation or earning large fees when one had nothing to spend them for?
All his thoughts were fixed upon the wife and child he had lost. He was reminded of Henriette in a thousand ways, and each way brought him a separate pang of grief. He had never realized how much he had come to depend upon her in every little thing—until now, when her companionship was withdrawn from him, and everything seemed to be a blank. He would come home at night, and opposite to him at the dinner-table would be his mother, silent and spectral. How different from the days when Henriette was there, radiant and merry, eager to be told everything that had happened to him through the day!
There was also his worry about little Gervaise. He might no longer hear how she was doing, for he could not get up courage to ask his mother the news. Thus poor George was paying for his sins. He could make no complaints against the price, however high—only sometimes he wondered whether he would be able to pay it. There were times of such discouragement that he thought of different ways of killing himself.
A curious adventure befell him during this period. He was walking one day in the park, when he saw approaching a girl whose face struck him as familiar. At first he could not recollect where he had seen her. It was only when she was nearly opposite him that he realized—it was the girl who had been the cause of all his misery!
He tried to look away, but he was too late. Her eyes had caught his, and she nodded and then stopped, exclaiming, "Why, how do you do?"
George had to face her. "How do you do?" he responded, weakly.
She held out her hand and he had to take it, but there was not much welcome in his clasp. "Where have you been keeping yourself?" she asked. Then, as he hesitated, she laughed good-naturedly, "What's the matter? You don't seem glad to see me."
The girl—Therese was her name—had a little package under her arm, as if she had been shopping. She was not well dressed, as when George had met her before, and doubtless she thought that was the reason for his lack of cordiality. This made him rather ashamed, and so, only half realizing what he was doing, he began to stroll along with her.
"Why did you never come to see me again?" she asked.
George hesitated. "I—I—" he stammered—"I've been married since then."
She laughed. "Oh! So that's it!" And then, as they came to a bench under some trees, "Won't you sit down a while?" There was allurement in her glance, but it made George shudder. It was incredible to him that he had ever been attracted by this crude girl. The spell was now broken completely.
She quickly saw that something was wrong. "You don't seem very cheerful," she said. "What's the matter?"
And the man, staring at her, suddenly blurted out, "Don't you know what you did to me?"
"What I did to you?" Therese repeated wonderingly.
"You must know!" he insisted.
And then she tried to meet his gaze and could not. "Why—" she stammered.
There was silence between them. When George spoke again his voice was low and trembling. "You ruined my whole life," he said—"not only mine, but my family's. How could you do it?"
She strove to laugh it off. "A cheerful topic for an afternoon stroll!"
For a long while George did not answer. Then, almost in a whisper, he repeated, "How could you do it?"
"Some one did it to me first," was the response. "A man!"
"Yes," said George, "but he didn't know."
"How can you tell whether he knew or not?"
"You knew?" he inquired, wonderingly.
Therese hesitated. "Yes, I knew," she said at last, defiantly. "I have known for years."
"And I'm not the only man."
She laughed. "I guess not!"
There followed a long pause. At last he resumed, "I don't want to blame you; there's nothing to be gained by that; it's done, and can't be undone. But sometimes I wonder about it. I should like to understand—why did you do it?"
"Why? That's easy enough. I did it because I have to live."
"You live that way?" he exclaimed.
"Why of course. What did you think?"
"I thought you were a—a—" He hesitated.
"You thought I was respectable," laughed Therese. "Well, that's just a little game I was playing on you."
"But I didn't give you any money!" he argued.
"Not that time," she said, "but I thought you would come back."
He sat gazing at her. "And you earn your living that way still?" he asked. "When you know what's the matter with you! When you know—"
"What can I do? I have to live, don't I?"
"But don't you even take care of yourself? Surely there must be some way, some place—"
"The reformatory, perhaps," she sneered. "No, thanks! I'll go there when the police catch me, not before. I know some girls that have tried that."
"But aren't you afraid?" cried the man. "And the things that will happen to you! Have you ever talked to a doctor—or read a book?"
"I know," she said. "I've seen it all. If it comes to me, I'll go over the side of one of the bridges some dark night."
George sat lost in thought. A strange adventure it seemed to him—to meet this girl under such different circumstances! It was as if he were watching a play from behind the scenes instead of in front. If only he had had this new view in time—how different would have been his life! And how terrible it was to think of the others who didn't know—the audience who were still sitting out in front, watching the spectacle, interested in it!
His thoughts came back to Therese. He was curious about her and the life she lived. "Tell me a little about it," he said. "How you came to be doing this." And he added, "Don't think I want to preach; I'd really like to understand."
"Oh, it's a common story," she said—"nothing especially romantic. I came to Paris when I was a girl. My parents had died, and I had no friends, and I didn't know what to do. I got a place as a nursemaid. I was seventeen years old then, and I didn't know anything. I believed what I was told, and I believed my employer. His wife was ill in a hospital, and he said he wanted to marry me when she died. Well, I liked him, and I was sorry for him—and then the first thing I knew I had a baby. And then the wife came back, and I was turned off. I had been a fool, of course. If I had been in her place should have done just what she did."
The girl was speaking in a cold, matter-of-fact voice, as of things about which she was no longer able to suffer. "So, there I was—on the street," she went on. "You have always had money, a comfortable home, education, friends to help you—all that. You can't imagine how it is to be in the world without any of these things. I lived on my savings as long as I could; then I had to leave my baby in a foundling's home, and I went out to do my five hours on the boulevards. You know the game, I have no doubt."
Yes, George knew the game. Somehow or other he no longer felt bitter towards this poor creature. She was part of the system of which he was a victim also. There was nothing to be gained by hating each other. Just as the doctor said, what was needed was enlightenment. "Listen," he said, "why don't you try to get cured?"
"I haven't got the price," was the answer.
"Well," he said, hesitatingly, "I know a doctor—one of the really good men. He has a free clinic, and I've no doubt he would take you in if I asked him to."
"YOU ask him?" echoed the other, looking at George in surprise.
The young man felt somewhat uncomfortable. He was not used to playing the role of the good Samaritan. "I—I need not tell him about us," he stammered. "I could just say that I met you. I have had such a wretched time myself, I feel sorry for anybody that's in the same plight. I should like to help you if I could."
The girl sat staring before her, lost in thought. "I have treated you badly, I guess," she said. "I'm sorry. I'm ashamed of myself."
George took a pencil and paper from his pocket and wrote the doctor's address. "Here it is," he said, in a business-like way, because he felt that otherwise he could become sentimental. He was half tempted to tell the woman what had happened to him, and all about Henriette and the sick child; but he realized that that would not do. So he rose and shook hands with her and left.
The next time he saw the doctor he told him about this girl. He decided to tell him the truth—having already made so many mistakes trying to conceal things. The doctor agreed to treat the woman, making the condition that George promise not to see her again.
The young man was rather shocked at this. "Doctor," he exclaimed, "I assure you you are mistaken. The thing you have in mind would be utterly impossible."
"I know," said the other, "you think so. But I think, young man, that I know more about life than you do. When a man and a woman have once committed such a sin, it is easy for them to slip back. The less time they spend talking about their misfortunes, and being generous and forbearing to each other, the better for them both."
"But, Doctor," cried George. "I love Henriette! I could not possibly love anyone else. It would be horrible to me!"
"Yes," said the doctor. "But you are not living with Henriette. You are wandering round, not knowing what to do with yourself next."
There was no need for anybody to tell George that. "What do you think?" he asked abruptly. "Is there any hope for me?"
"I think there is," said the other, who, in spite of his resolution, had become a sort of ambassador for the unhappy husband. He had to go to the Loches house to attend the child, and so he could not help seeing Henriette, and talking to her about the child's health and her own future. He considered that George had had his lesson, and urged upon the young wife that he would be wiser in future, and safe to trust.
George had indeed learned much. He got new lessons every time he went to call at the physician's office—he could read them in the faces of the people he saw there. One day when he was alone in the waiting-room, the doctor came out of his inner office, talking to an elderly gentleman, whom George recognized as the father of one of his classmates at college. The father was a little shopkeeper, and the young man remembered how pathetically proud he had been of his son. Could it be, thought George, that this old man was a victim of syphilis?
But it was the son, and not the father, who was the subject of the consultation. The old man was speaking in a deeply moved voice, and he stood so that George could not help hearing what he said. "Perhaps you can't understand," he said, "just what it means to us—the hopes we had of that boy! Such a fine fellow he was, and a good fellow, too, sir! We were so proud of him; we had bled our veins to keep him in college—and now just see!"
"Don't despair, sir," said the doctor, "we'll try to cure him." And he added with that same note of sorrow in his voice which George had heard, "Why did you wait so long before you brought the boy to me?"
"How was I to know what he had?" cried the other. "He didn't dare tell me, sir—he was afraid of my scolding him. And in the meantime the disease was running its course. When he realized that he had it, he went secretly to one of the quacks, who robbed him, and didn't cure him. You know how it is, sir."
"Yes, I know," said the doctor.
"Such things ought not to be permitted," cried the old man. "What is our government about that it allows such things to go on? Take the conditions there at the college where my poor boy was ruined. At the very gates of the building these women are waiting for the lads! Ought they to be permitted to debauch young boys only fifteen years old? Haven't we got police enough to prevent a thing like that? Tell me, sir!"
"One would think so," said the doctor, patiently.
"But is it that the police don't want to?"
"No doubt they have the same excuse as all the rest—they don't know. Take courage, sir; we have cured worse cases than your son's. And some day, perhaps, we shall be able to change these conditions."
So he went on with the man, leaving George with something to think about. How much he could have told them about what had happened to that young fellow when only fifteen years old! It had not been altogether the fault of the women who were lurking outside of the college gates; it was a fact that the boy's classmates had teased him and ridiculed him, had literally made his life a torment, until he had yielded to temptation.
It was the old, old story of ignorant and unguided schoolboys all over the world! They thought that to be chaste was to be weak and foolish; that a fellow was not a man unless he led a life of debauchery like the rest. And what did they know about these dreadful diseases? They had the most horrible superstitions—ideas of cures so loathsome that they could not be set down in print; ideas as ignorant and destructive as those of savages in the heart of Africa. And you might hear them laughing and jesting about one another's condition. They might be afflicted with diseases which would have the most terrible after-effects upon their whole lives and upon their families—diseases which cause tens of thousands of surgical operations upon women, and a large percentage of blindness and idiocy in children—and you might hear them confidently express the opinion that these diseases were no worse than a bad cold!
And all this mass of misery and ignorance covered over and clamped down by a taboo of silence, imposed by the horrible superstition of sex-prudery! George went out from the doctor's office trembling with excitement over this situation. Oh, why had not some one warned him in time? Why didn't the doctors and the teachers lift up their voices and tell young men about these frightful dangers? He wanted to go out in the highways and preach it himself—except that he dared not, because he could not explain to the world his own sudden interest in this forbidden topic.
These was only one person he dared to talk to: that was his mother—to whom he ought to have talked many, many years before. He was moved to mention to her the interview he had overheard in the doctor's office. In a sudden burst of grief he told her of his struggles and temptations; he pleaded with her to go to Henriette once more—to tell her these things, and try to make her realize that he alone was not to blame for them, that they were a condition which prevailed everywhere, that the only difference between her husband and other men was that he had had the misfortune to be caught.
There was pressure being applied to Henriette from several sides. After all, what could she do? She was comfortable in her father's home, so far as the physical side of things went; but she knew that all her friends were gossiping and speculating about her separation from her husband, and sooner or later she would have to make up her mind, either to separate permanently from George or to return to him. There was not much happiness for her in the thought of getting a divorce from a man whom deep in her heart she loved. She would be practically a widow the rest of her life, and the home in which poor little Gervaise would be brought up would not be a cheerful one.
George was ready to offer any terms, if only she would come back to his home. They might live separate lives for as long as Henriette wished. They would have no more children until the doctor declared it was quite safe; and in the meantime he would be humble and patient, and would try his best to atone for the wrong that he had done her.
To these arguments Madame Dupont added others of her own. She told the girl some things which through bitter experience she had learned about the nature and habits of men; things that should be told to every girl before marriage, but which almost all of them are left to find out afterwards, with terrible suffering and disillusionment. Whatever George's sins may have been, he was a man who had been chastened by suffering, and would know how to value a woman's love for the rest of his life. Not all men knew that—not even those who had been fortunate in escaping from the so-called "shameful disease."
Henriette was also hearing arguments from her father, who by this time had had time to think things over, and had come to the conclusion that the doctor was right. He had noted his son-in-law's patience and penitence, and had also made sure that in spite of everything Henriette still loved him. The baby apparently was doing well; and the Frenchman, with his strong sense of family ties, felt it a serious matter to separate a child permanently from its father. So in the end he cast the weight of his influence in favor of a reconciliation, and Henriette returned to her husband, upon terms which the doctor laid down.
The doctor played in these negotiations the part which he had not been allowed to play in the marriage. For the deputy was now thoroughly awake to the importance of the duty he owed his daughter. In fact, he had become somewhat of a "crank" upon the whole subject. He had attended several of the doctor's clinics, and had read books and pamphlets on the subject of syphilis, and was now determined that there should be some practical steps towards reform.
At the outset, he had taken the attitude of the average legislator, that the thing to do was to strengthen the laws against prostitution, and to enforce them more strictly. He echoed the cry of the old man whom George had heard in the doctor's office: "Are there not enough police?"
"We must go to the source," he declared. "We must proceed against these miserable women—veritable poisoners that they are!"
He really thought this was going to the source! But the doctor was quick to answer his arguments. "Poisoners?" he said. "You forget that they have first been poisoned. Every one of these women who communicates the disease has first received it from some man."
Monsieur Loches advanced to his second idea, to punish the men. But the doctor had little interest in this idea either. He had seen it tried so many times—such a law could never be enforced. What must come first was education, and by this means a modification of morals. People must cease to treat syphilis as a mysterious evil, of which not even the name could be pronounced.
"But," objected the other, "one cannot lay it bare to children in our educational institutions!"
"Why not?" asked the doctor.
"Because, sir, there are curiosities which it would be imprudent to awaken."
The doctor became much excited whenever he heard this argument. "You believe that you are preventing these curiosities from awakening?" he demanded. "I appeal to those—both men and women—who have passed through colleges and boarding schools! Such curiosities cannot be smothered, and they satisfy themselves as best they can, basely, vilely. I tell you, sir, there is nothing immoral about the act which perpetuates life by means of love. But we organize around it, so far as concerns our children, a gigantic and rigorous conspiracy of silence. The worthy citizen takes his daughter and his son to popular musical comedies, where they listen to things which would make a monkey blush; but it is forbidden to discuss seriously before the young that act of love which people seem to think they should only know of through blasphemies and profanations! Either that act is a thing of which people can speak without blushing—or else, sir, it is a matter for the innuendoes of the cabaret and the witticisms of the messroom! Pornography is admitted, but science is not! I tell you, sir, that is the thing which must be changed! We must elevate the soul of the young man by taking these facts out of the realm of mystery and of slang. We must awaken in him a pride in that creative power with which each one of us is endowed. We must make him understand that he is a sort of temple in which is prepared the future of the race, and we must teach him that he must transmit, intact, the heritage entrusted to him—the precious heritage which has been built out of the tears and miseries and sufferings of an interminable line of ancestors!"