So the doctor argued. He brought forth case after case to prove that the prostitute was what she was, not because of innate vileness, but because of economic conditions. It happened that the deputy came to one of the clinics where he met Therese. The doctor brought her into his consulting room, after telling her that the imposing-looking gentleman was a friend of the director of the opera, and might be able to recommend her for a position on the stage to which she aspired. "Tell him all about yourself," he said, "how you live, and what you do, and what you would like to do. You will get him interested in you."
So the poor girl retold the story of her life. She spoke in a matter-of-fact voice, and when she came to tell how she had been obliged to leave her baby in the foundling asylum, she was surprised that Monsieur Loches showed horror. "What could I do?" she demanded. "How could I have taken care of it?"
"Didn't you ever miss it?" he asked.
"Of course I missed it. But what difference did that make? It would have died of hunger with me."
"Still," he said, "it was your child—"
"It was the father's child, too, wasn't it? Much attention he paid to it! If I had been sure of getting money enough, I would have put it out to nurse. But with the twenty-five or thirty francs a month I could have earned as a servant, could I have paid for a baby? That's the situation a girl faces—so long as I wanted to remain honest, it was impossible for me to keep my child. You answer, perhaps, 'You didn't stay honest anyway.' That's true. But then—when you are hungry, and a nice young fellow offers you dinner, you'd have to be made of wood to refuse him. Of course, if I had had a trade—but I didn't have any. So I went on the street—You know how it is."
"Tell us about it," said the doctor. "This gentleman is from the country."
"Is that so?" said the girl. "I never supposed there was anyone who didn't know about such things. Well, I took the part of a little working-girl. A very simple dress—things I had made especially for that—a little bundle in a black napkin carried in my hand—so I walked along where the shops are. It's tiresome, because to do it right, you have to patter along fast. Then I stop before a shop, and nine times out of ten, there you are! A funny thing is that the men—you'd imagine they had agreed on the words to approach you with. They have only two phrases; they never vary them. It's either, 'You are going fast, little one.' Or it's, 'Aren't you afraid all alone?' One thing or the other. One knows pretty well what they mean. Isn't it so?" The girl paused, then went on. "Again, I would get myself up as a young widow. There, too, one has to walk fast: I don't know why that should be so, but it is. After a minute or two of conversation, they generally find out that I am not a young widow, but that doesn't make any difference—they go on just the same."
"Who are the men?" asked the deputy. "Clerks? Traveling salesmen?"
"Not much," she responded. "I keep a lookout for gentlemen—like yourself."
"They SAY they are gentlemen," he suggested.
"Sometimes I can see it," was the response. "Sometimes they wear orders. It's funny—if they have on a ribbon when you first notice them, they follow you, and presto—the ribbon is gone! I always laugh over that. I've watched them in the glass of the shop windows. They try to look unconcerned, but as they walk along they snap out the ribbon with their thumb—as one shells little peas, you know."
She paused; then, as no one joined in her laugh, she continued, "Well, at last the police got after me, That's a story that I've never been able to understand. Those filthy men gave me a nasty disease, and then I was to be shut in prison for it! That was a little too much, it seems to me."
"Well," said the doctor, grimly, "you revenged yourself on them—from what you have told me."
The other laughed. "Oh, yes," she said. "I had my innings." She turned to Monsieur Loches. "You want me to tell you that? Well, just on the very day I learned that the police were after me, I was coming home furious, naturally. It was on the Boulevard St. Denis, if you know the place—and whom do you think I met? My old master—the one who got me into trouble, you know. There it was, God's own will! I said to myself, 'Now, my good fellow, here's the time where you pay me what you owe me, and with interest, too!' I put on a little smile—oh, it didn't take very long, you may be sure!"
The woman paused; her face darkened, and she went on, in a voice trembling with agitation: "When I had left him, I was seized with a rage. A sort of madness got into my blood. I took on all the men who offered themselves, for whatever they offered me, for nothing, if they didn't offer me anything. I took as many as I could, the youngest ones and the handsomest ones. Just so! I only gave them back what they had given to me. And since that time I haven't really cared about anyone any more. I just turned it all into a joke." She paused, and then looking at the deputy, and reading in his face the horror with which he was regarding her, "Oh, I am not the only one!" she exclaimed. "There are lots of other women who do the same. To be sure, it is not for vengeance—it is because they must have something to eat. For even if you have syphilis, you have to eat, don't you? Eh?"
She had turned to the doctor, but he did not answer. There was a long silence; and then thinking that his friend, the deputy, had heard enough for one session, the doctor rose. He dismissed the woman, the cause of all George Dupont's misfortunes, and turning to Monsieur Loches, said: "It was on purpose that I brought that wretched prostitute before you. In her the whole story is summed up—not merely the story of your son-in-law, but that of all the victims of the red plague. That woman herself is a victim, and she is a symbol of the evil which we have created and which falls upon our own heads again. I could add nothing to her story, I only ask you, Monsieur Loches—when next you are proposing new laws in the Chamber of Deputies, not to forget the horrors which that poor woman has exposed to you!"