George Dupont had the most important decision of his life to make; but there was never very much doubt what his decision would be. One the one hand was the definite certainty that if he took the doctor's advice, he would wreck his business prospects, and perhaps also lose the woman he loved. On the other hand were vague and uncertain possibilities which it was difficult for him to make real to himself. It was all very well to wait a while to be cured of the dread disease; but to wait three or four years— that was simply preposterous!
He decided to consult another physician. He would find one this time who would not be so particular, who would be willing to take some trouble to cure him quickly. He began to notice the advertisements which were scattered over the pages of the newspapers he read. There were apparently plenty of doctors in Paris who could cure him, who were willing to guarantee to cure him. After much hesitation, he picked out one whose advertisement sounded the most convincing.
The office was located in a cheap quarter. It was a dingy place, not encumbered with works of art, but with a few books covered with dust. The doctor himself was stout and greasy, and he rubbed his hands with anticipation at the sight of so prosperous-looking a patient. But he was evidently a man of experience, for he knew exactly what was the matter with George, almost without the formality of an examination. Yes, he could cure him, quickly, he said. There had recently been great discoveries made—new methods which had not reached the bulk of the profession. He laughed at the idea of three or four years. That was the way with those specialists! When one got forty francs for a consultation, naturally, one was glad to drag out the case. There were tricks in the medical trade, as in all others. A doctor had to live; when he had a big name, he had to live expensively.
The new physician wrote out two prescriptions, and patted George on the shoulder as he went away. There was no need for him to worry; he would surely be well in three months. If he would put off his marriage for six months, he would be doing everything within reason. And meantime, there was no need for him to worry himself—things would come out all right. So George went away, feeling as if a mountain had been lifted from his shoulders.
He went to see Henriette that same evening, to get the matter settled. "Henriette," he said, "I have to tell you something very important—something rather painful. I hope you won't let it disturb you too much."
She was gazing at him in alarm. "What is it?"
"Why," he said, blushing in spite of himself, and regretting that he had begun the matter so precipitately, "for some time I've not been feeling quite well. I've been having a slight cough. Have you noticed it?"
"Why no!" exclaimed Henriette, anxiously.
"Well, today I went to see a doctor, and he says that there is a possibility—you understand it is nothing very serious—but it might be—I might possibly have lung trouble."
"George!" cried the girl in horror.
He put his hand upon hers. "Don't be frightened," he said. "It will be all right, only I have to take care of myself." How very dear of her, he thought—to be so much worried!
"George, you ought to go away to the country!" she cried. "You have been working too hard. I always told you that if you shut yourself up so much—"
"I am going to take care of myself," he said. "I realize that it is necessary. I shall be all right—the doctor assured me there was no doubt of it, so you are not to distress yourself. But meantime, here is the trouble: I don't think it would be right for me to marry until I am perfectly well."
Henriette gave an exclamation of dismay.
"I am sure we should put it off," he went on, "it would be only fair to you."
"But, George!" she protested. "Surely it can't be that serious!"
"We ought to wait," he said. "You ought not to take the chance of being married to a consumptive."
The other protested in consternation. He did not look like a consumptive; she did not believe that he WAS a consumptive. She was willing to take her chances. She loved him, and she was not afraid. But George insisted—he was sure that he ought not to marry for six months.
"Did the doctor advise that?" asked Henriette.
"No," he replied, "but I made up my mind after talking to him that I must do the fair and honorable thing. I beg you to forgive me, and to believe that I know best."
George stood firmly by this position, and so in the end she had to give way. It did not seem quite modest in her to continue persisting.
George volunteered to write a letter to her father; and he hoped this would settle the matter without further discussion. But in this he was disappointed. There had to be a long correspondence with long arguments and protestations from Henriette's father and from his own mother. It seemed such a singular whim. Everybody persisted in diagnosing his symptoms, in questioning him about what the doctor had said, who the doctor was, how he had come to consult him—all of which, of course, was very embarrassing to George, who could not see why they had to make such a fuss. He took to cultivating a consumptive look, as well as he could imagine it; he took to coughing as he went about the house—and it was all he could do to keep from laughing, as he saw the look of dismay on his poor mother's face. After all, however, he told himself that he was not deceiving her, for the disease he had was quite as serious as tuberculosis.
It was very painful and very trying. But there was nothing that could be done about it; the marriage had been put off for six months, and in the meantime he and Henriette had to control their impatience and make the best of their situation. Six months was a long time; but what if it had been three or four years, as the other doctor had demanded? That would have been a veritable sentence of death.
George, as we have seen, was conscientious, and regular and careful in his habits. He took the medicine which the new doctor prescribed for him; and day by day he watched, and to his great relief saw the troublesome symptoms gradually disappearing. He began to take heart, and to look forward to life with his former buoyancy. He had had a bad scare, but now everything was going to be all right.
Three or four months passed, and the doctor told him he was cured. He really was cured, so far as he could see. He was sorry, now, that he had asked for so long a delay from Henriette; but the new date for the wedding had been announced, and it would be awkward to change it again. George told himself that he was being "extra careful," and he was repaid for the inconvenience by the feeling of virtue derived from the delay. He was relieved that he did not have to cough any more, or to invent any more tales of his interviews with the imaginary lung-specialist. Sometimes he had guilty feelings because of all the lying he had had to do; but he told himself that it was for Henriette's sake. She loved him as much as he loved her. She would have suffered needless agonies had she known the truth; she would never have got over it—so it would have been a crime to tell her.
He really loved her devotedly, thoroughly. From the beginning he had thought as much of her mental sufferings as he had of any physical harm that the dread disease might do to him. How could he possibly persuade himself to give her up, when he knew that the separation would break her heart and ruin her whole life? No; obviously, in such a dilemma, it was his duty to use his own best judgment, and get himself cured as quickly as possible. After that he would be true to her, he would take no more chances of a loathsome disease.
The secret he was hiding made him feel humble—made him unusually gentle in his attitude towards the girl. He was a perfect lover, and she was ravished with happiness. She thought that all his sufferings were because of his love for her, and the delay which he had imposed out of his excess of conscientiousness. So she loved him more and more, and never was there a happier bride than Henriette Loches, when at last the great day arrived.
They went to the Riveria for their honeymoon, and then returned to live in the home which had belonged to George's father. The investment in the notary's practice had proven a good one, and so life held out every promise for the young couple. They were divinely happy.
After a while, the bride communicated to her husband the tidings that she was expecting a child. Then it seemed to George that the cup of his earthly bliss was full. His ailment had slipped far into the background of his thoughts, like an evil dream which he had forgotten. He put away the medicines in the bottom of his trunk and dismissed the whole matter from his mind. Henriette was well—a very picture of health, as every one agreed. The doctor had never seen a more promising young mother, he declared, and Madame Dupont, the elder, bloomed with fresh life and joy as she attended her daughter-in-law.
Henriette went for the summer to her father's place in the provinces, which she and George had visited before their marriage. They drove out one day to the farm where they had stopped. The farmer's wife had a week-old baby, the sight of which made Henriette's heart leap with delight. He was such a very healthy baby that George conceived the idea that this would be the woman to nurse his own child, in case Henriette herself should not be able to do it.
They came back to the city, and there the baby was born. As George paced the floor, waiting for the news, the memory of his evil dreams came back to him. He remembered all the dreadful monstrosities of which he had read—infants that were born of syphilitic parents. His heart stood still when the nurse came into the room to tell him the tidings.
But it was all right; of course it was all right! He had been a fool, he told himself, as he stood in the darkened room and gazed at the wonderful little mite of life which was the fruit of his love. It was a perfect child, the doctor said—a little small, to be sure, but that was a defect which would soon be remedied. George kneeled by the bedside and kissed the hand of his wife, and went out of the room feeling as if he had escaped from a tomb.
All went well, and after a couple of weeks Henriette was about the house again, laughing all day and singing with joy. But the baby did not gain quite as rapidly as the doctor had hoped, and it was decided that the country air would be better for her. So George and his mother paid a visit to the farm in the country, and arranged that the country woman should put her own child to nurse elsewhere and should become the foster-mother of little Gervaise.
George paid a good price for the service, far more than would have been necessary, for the simple country woman was delighted with the idea of taking care of the grandchild of the deputy of her district. George came home and told his wife about this and had a merry time as he pictured the woman boasting about it to the travelers who stopped at her door. "Yes, ma'am, a great piece of luck I've got, ma'am. I've got the daughter of the daughter of our deputy—at your service ma'am. My! But she is as fat as out little calf—and so clever! She understands everything. A great piece of luck for me, ma'am. She's the daughter of the daughter of our deputy!" Henriette was vastly entertained, discovering in her husband a new talent, that of an actor.
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 out 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!