- C h a p t e r V
- 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 thenselves 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!"