It was four o'clock in the morning when George Dupont closed the door and came down the steps to the street. The first faint streaks of dawn were in the sky, and he noticed this with annoyance, because he knew that his hair was in disarray and his while aspect disorderly; yet he dared not take a cab, because he feared to attract attention at home. When he reached the sidewalk, he glanced about him to make sure that no one had seen him leave the house, then started down the street, his eyes upon the sidewalk before him.
George had the feeling of the morning after. There are few men in this world of abundant sin who will not know what the phrase means. The fumes of the night had evaporated; he was quite sober now, quite free from excitement. He saw what he had done, and it seemed to him something black and disgusting.
Never had a walk seemed longer than the few blocks which he had to traverse to reach his home. He must get there before the maid was up, before the baker's boy called with the rolls; otherwise, what explanation could he give?–he who had always been such a moral man, who had been pointed out by mothers as an example to their sons.
George thought of his own mother, and what she would think if she could know about his night's adventure. He thought again and again, with a pang of anguish, of Henriette. Could it be possible that a man who was engaged, whose marriage contract had actually been signed, who was soon to possess the love of a beautiful and noble girl–that such a man could have been weak enough and base enough to let himself be trapped into such a low action?
He went back over the whole series of events, shuddering at them, trying to realize how they had happened, trying to excuse himself for them. He had not intended such a culmination; he had never meant to do such a thing in his life. He had not thought of any harm when he had accepted the invitation to the supper party with his old companions from the law school. Of course, he had known that several of these chums led "fast" lives–but, then, surely a fellow could go to a friend's rooms for a lark without harm!
He remembered the girl who had sat by his side at the table. She had come with a friend who was a married woman, and so he had assumed that she was all right. George remembered how embarrassed he had been when first he had noticed her glances at him. But then the wine had begun to go to his head–he was one of those unfortunate wretches who cannot drink wine at all. He had offered to take the girl home in a cab, and on the way he had lost his head.
Oh! What a wretched thing it was. He could hardly believe that it was he who had spoken those frenzied words; and yet he must have spoken them, because he remembered them. He remembered that it had taken a long time to persuade her. He had had to promise her a ring like the one her married friend wore. Before they entered her home she had made him take off his shoes, so that the porter might not hear them. This had struck George particularly, because, even flushed with excitement as he was, he had not forgotten the warnings his father had given him as to the dangers of contact with strange women. He had thought to himself, "This girl must be safe. It is probably the first time she has ever done such a thing."
But now George could get but little consolation out of that idea. He was suffering intensely–the emotion described by the poet in the bitter words about "Time's moving finger having writ." His mind, seeking some explanation, some justification, went back to the events before that night. With a sudden pang of yearning, he thought of Lizette. She was a decent girl, and had kept him decent, and he was lonely without her. He had been so afraid of being found out that he had given her up when he became engaged; but now for a while he felt that he would have to break his resolution, and pay his regular Sunday visit to the little flat in the working-class portion of Paris.
It was while George was fitting himself for the same career as his father–that of notary–that he had made the acquaintance of the young working girl. It may not be easy to believe, but Lizette had really been a decent girl. She had a family to take care of, and was in need. There was a grandmother in poor health, a father not much better, and three little brothers; so Lizette did not very long resist George Dupont, and he felt quite virtuous in giving her sufficient money to take care of these unfortunate people. Among people of his class it was considered proper to take such things if one paid for them.
All the family of this working girl were grateful to him. They adored him, and they called him Uncle Raoul (for of course he had not been so foolish as to give them his true name).
Since George was paying for Lizette, he felt he had the tight to control her life. He gave her fair warning concerning his attitude. If she deceived him he would leave her immediately. He told this to her relatives also, and so he had them all watching her. She was never trusted out alone. Every Sunday George went to spend the day with his little "family," so that his coming became almost a matter of tradition. He interested her in church affairs–mass and vespers were her regular occasions for excursions. George rented two seats, and the grandmother went with her to the services. The simple people were proud to see their name engraved upon the brass plate of the pew.
The reason for all these precautions was George's terror of disease. He had been warned by his father as to the dangers which young men encounter in their amours. And these lessons had sunk deep into George's heart; he had made up his mind that whatever his friends might do, he, for one, would protect himself.
That did not mean, of course, that he intended to live a virtuous life; such was the custom among young men of his class, not had it probably ever occurred to his father that it was possible for a young man to do such a thing. The French have a phrase, "l'homme moyen sensuel"–the average sensual man. And George was such a man. He had no noble idealisms, no particular reverence for women. The basis of his attitude was a purely selfish one; he wanted to enjoy himself, and at the same time to keep out of trouble.
He did not find any happiness in the renunciation which he imposed upon himself; he had no religious ideas about it. On the contrary, he suffered keenly, and was bitter because he had no share in the amusements of his friends. He stuck to his work and forced himself to keep regular hours, preparing for his law examinations. But all the time he was longing for adventures. And, of course, this could not go on forever, for the motive of fear alone is not sufficient to subdue the sexual urge in a full- blooded young man.
The affair with Lizette might have continued much longer had it not been for the fact that his father died. He died quite suddenly, while George was away on a trip. The son came back to console his broken-hearted mother, and in the two week they spent in the country together the mother broached a plan to him. The last wish of the dying man had been that his son should be fixed in life. In the midst of his intense suffering he had been able to think about the matter, and had named the girl whom he wished George to marry. Naturally, George waited with some interest to learn who this might be. He was surprised when his mother told him that it was his cousin, Henriette Loches.
He could not keep his emotion from revealing itself in his face. "It doesn't please you?" asked his mother, with a tone disappointment.
"Why no, mother," he answered. "It's not that. It just surprises me."
"But why?" asked the mother. "Henriette is a lovely girl and a good girl."
"Yes, I know," said George; "but then she is my cousin, and–" He blushed a little with embarrassment. "I had never thought of her in that way."
Madame Dupont laid her hand upon her son's. "Yes, George," she said tenderly. "I know. You are such a good boy."
Now, of course, George did not feel that he was quite such a good boy; but his mother was a deeply religious woman, who had no idea of the truth about the majority of men. She would never have got over the shock if he had told her about himself, and so he had to pretend to be just what she thought him.
"Tell me," she continued, after a pause, "have you never felt the least bit in love?"
"Why no–I don't think so," George stammered, becoming conscious of a sudden rise of temperature in his cheeks.
"Because," said his mother, "it is really time that you were settled in life. Your father said that we should have seen to it before, and now it is my duty to see to it. It is not good for you to live alone so long."
"But, mother, I have YOU," said George generously.
"Some day the Lord may take me away," was the reply. "I am getting old. And, George, dear–" Here suddenly her voice began to tremble with feeling– "I would like to see my baby grandchildren before I go. You cannot imagine what it would mean to me."
Madame Dupont saw how much this subject distressed her son, so she went on to the more worldly aspects of the matter. Henriette's father was well-to-do, and he would give her a good dowry. She was a charming and accomplished girl. Everybody would consider him most fortunate if the match could be arranged. Also, there was an elderly aunt to whom Madame Dupont had spoken, and who was much taken with the idea. She owned a great deal of property and would surely help the young couple.
George did not see just how he could object to this proposition, even if he had wanted to. What reason could he give for such a course? He could not explain that he already had a family–with stepchildren, so to speak, who adored him. And what could he say to his mother's obsession, to which she came back again and again–her longing to see her grandchildren before she died? Madame Dupont waited only long enough for George to stammer out a few protestations, and then in the next breath to take them back; after which she proceeded to go ahead with the match. The family lawyers conferred together, and the terms of the settlement were worked out and agreed upon. It happened that immediately afterwards George learned of an opportunity to purchase the practice of a notary, who was ready to retire from business in two months' time. Henriette's father consented to advance a portion of her dowry for this purpose.
Thus George was safely started upon the same career as his father, and this was to him a source of satisfaction which he did not attempt to deny, either to himself of to any one else. George was a cautious young man, who came of a frugal and saving stock. He had always been taught that it was his primary duty to make certain of a reasonable amount of comfort. From his earliest days, he had been taught to regard material success as the greatest goal in life, and he would never have dreamed of engaging himself to a girl without money. But when he had the good fortune to meet one who possessed desirable personal qualities in addition to money, he was not in the least barred from appreciating those qualities. They were, so to speak, the sauce which went with the meat, and it seemed to him that in this case the sauce was of the very best.
George–a big fellow of twenty-six, with large, round eyes and a good-natured countenance–was full blooded, well fed, with a hearty laugh which spoke of unimpaired contentment, a soul untroubled in its deeps. He seemed to himself the luckiest fellow in the whole round world; he could not think what he had done to deserve the good fortune of possessing such a girl as Henriette. He was ordinarily of a somewhat sentimental turn– easily influenced by women and sensitive to their charms. Moreover, his relationship with Lizette had softened him. He had learned to love the young working girl, and now Henriette, it seemed, was to reap the benefit of his experience with her.
In fact, he found himself always with memories of Lizette in his relationships with the girl who was to be his wife. When the engagement was announced, and he claimed his first kiss from his bride-to-be, as he placed a ring upon her finger, he remembered the first time he had kissed Lizette, and a double blush suffused his round countenance. When he walked arm and arm with Henriette in the garden he remembered how he had walked just so with the other girl, and he was interested to compare the words of the two. He remembered what a good time had had when he had taken Lizette and her little family for a picnic upon one of the excursion steamers which run down the River Seine. Immediately he decided that he would like to take Henriette on such a picnic, and he persuaded an aunt of Henriette's to go with her as a chaperon. George took his bride-to-be to the same little inn where he had lunch before.
Thus he was always haunted by memories, some of which made him cheerful and some of which made him mildly sad. He soon got used to the idea, and did not find it awkward, except when he had to suppress the impulse to tell Henriette something which Lizette had said, or some funny incident which had happened in the home of the little family. Sometimes he found himself thinking that it was a shame to have to suppress these impulses. There must be something wrong, he thought, with a social system which made it necessary for him to hide a thing which was so obvious and so sensible. Here he was, a man twenty-six years of age; he could not have afforded to marry earlier, not could he, as he thought, have been expected to lead a continent life. And he had really loved Lizette; she was really a good girl. Yet, if Henriette had got any idea of it, she would have been horrified and indignant– she might even have broken off the engagement.
And then, too, there was Henriette's father, a personage of great dignity and importance. M. Loches was a deputy of the French Parliament, from a district in the provinces. He was a man of upright life, and a man who made a great deal of that upright life–keeping it on a pedestal where everyone might observe it. It was impossible to imagine M. Loches in an undignified or compromising situation–such as the younger man found himself facing in the matter of Lizette.
The more he thought about it the more nervous and anxious George became. Then it was decided it would be necessary for him to break with the girl, and be "good" until the time of his marriage. Dear little soft-eyed Lizette–he did not dare to face her personally; he could never bear to say good-by, he felt. Instead, he went to the father, who as a man could be expected to understand the situation. George was embarrassed and not a little nervous about it; for although he had never misrepresented his attitude to the family, one could never feel entirely free from the possibility of blackmail in such cases. However, Lizette's father behaved decently, and was duly grateful for the moderate sum of money which George handed him in parting. He promised to break the news gently to Lizette, and George went away with his mind made up that he would never see her again.
This resolution he kept, and he considered himself very virtuous in doing it. But the truth was that he had grown used to intimacy with a woman, and was restless without it. And that, he told himself, was why he yielded to the shameful temptation the night of that fatal supper party.
He paid for the misadventure liberally in remorse. He felt that he had been a wretch, that he had disgraced himself forever, that he had proved himself unworthy of the pure girl he was to marry. So keen was his feeling that it was several days before he could bring himself to see Henriette again; and when he went, it was with a mind filled with a brand-new set of resolutions. It was the last time that he would ever fall into error. He would be a new man from then on. He thanked God that there was no chance of his sin being known, that he might have an opportunity to prove his new determination.
So intense were his feelings that he could not help betraying a part of them to Henriette. They sat in the garden one soft summer evening, with Henriette's mother occupied with her crocheting at a decorous distance. George, in reverent and humble mood, began to drop vague hints that he was really unworthy of his bride-to-be. He said that he had not always been as good as he should have been; he said that her purity and sweetness had awakened in him new ideals; so that he felt his old life had been full of blunders. Henriette, of course, had but the vaguest of ideas as to what the blunders of a tender and generous young man like George might be. So she only loved him the more for his humility, and was flattered to have such a fine effect upon him, to awaken in him such moods of exaltation. When he told her that all men were bad, and that no man was worthy of such a beautiful love, she was quite ravished, and wiped away tears from her eyes.
It would have been a shame to spoil such a heavenly mood by telling the real truth. Instead, George contented himself with telling of the new resolutions he had formed. After all, they were the things which really mattered; for Henriette was going to live with his future, not with his past.
It seemed to George a most wonderful thing, this innocence of a young girl, which enabled her to move through a world of wickedness with unpolluted mind. It was a touching thing; and also, as a prudent young man could not help realizing, a most convenient thing. He realized the importance of preserving it, and thought that if he ever had a daughter, he would protect her as rigidly as Henriette had been protected. He made haste to shy off from the subject of his "badness" and to turn the conversation with what seemed a clever jest.
"If I am going to be so good," he said, "don't forget that you will have to be good also!"
"I will try," said Henriette, who was still serious.
"You will have to try hard," he persisted. "You will find that you have a very jealous husband."
"Will I?" said Henriette, beaming with happiness–for when a woman is very much in love she doesn't in the least object to the man's being jealous.
"Yes, indeed," smiled George. "I'll always be watching you."
"Watching me?" echoed the girl with a surprised look.
And immediately he felt ashamed of himself for his jest. There could be no need to watch Henriette, and it was bad taste even to joke about it at such a time. That was one of the ideas which he had brought with him from his world of evil.
The truth was, however, that George would always be a suspicious husband; nothing could ever change that fact, for there was something in his own conscience which he could not get out, and which would make it impossible for him to be at ease as a married man. It was the memory of something which had happened earlier in his life before he met Lizette. There had been one earlier experience, with the wife of his dearest friend. She had been much younger than her husband, and had betrayed an interest in George, who had yielded to the temptation. For several years the intrigue continued, and George considered it a good solution of a young man's problem. There had been no danger of contamination, for he knew that his friend was a man of pure and rigid morals, a jealous man who watched his wife, and did not permit her to contract those new relations which are always dangerous. As for George, he helped in this worthy work, keeping the woman in terror of some disease. He told her that almost all men were infected, for he hoped by this means to keep her from deceiving him.
I am aware that this may seem a dreadful story. As I do not want anyone to think too ill of George Dupont, I ought, perhaps, to point out that people feel differently about these matters in France. In judging the unfortunate young man, we must judge him by the customs of his own country, and not by ours. In France, they are accustomed to what is called the MARIAGE DE CONVENANCE. The young girl is not permitted to go about and make her own friends and decide which one of them she prefers for her husband; on the contrary, she is strictly guarded, her training often is of a religious nature, and her marriage is a matter of business, to be considered and decided by her parents and those of the young man. Now, whatever we may think right, it is humanly certain that where marriages are made in that way, the need of men and women for sympathy and for passionate interest will often lead to the forming of irregular relationships after marriage. It is not possible to present statistics as to the number of such irregular relationships in Parisian society; but in the books which he read and in the plays which he saw, George found everything to encourage him to think that it was a romantic and delightful thing to keep up a secret intrigue with the wife of his best friend.
It should also, perhaps, be pointed out that we are here telling the truth, and the while truth, about George Dupont; and that it is not customary to tell this about men, either in real life or in novels. There is a great deal of concealment in the world about matters of sex; and in such matters the truth-telling man is apt to suffer in reputation in comparison with the truth- concealing one.
Nor had George really been altogether callous about the thing. It had happened that his best friend had died in his arms; and this had so affected the guilty pair that they had felt their relationship was no longer possible. She had withdrawn to nurse her grief alone, and George had been so deeply affected that he had avoided affairs and entanglements with women until his meeting with Lizette.
All this was now in the far distant past, but it had made a deeper impression upon George than he perhaps realized, and it was now working in his mind and marring his happiness. Here was a girl who loved him with a noble and unselfish and whole-hearted love–and yet he would never be able to trust her as she deserved, but would always have suspicions lurking in the back of his mind. He would be unable to have his friends intimate in his home, because of the memory of what he had once done to a friend. It was a subtle kind of punishment. But so it is that Nature often finds ways of punishing us, without our even being aware of it.
That was all for the future, however. At present, George was happy. He put his black sin behind him, feeling that he had obtained absolution by his confession to Henriette. Day by day, as he realized his good fortune, his round face beamed with more and yet more joy.
He went for a little trip to Henriette's home in the country. It was a simple village, and they took walks in the country, and stopped to refresh themselves at a farmhouse occupied by one of M. Loches' tenants. Here was a rosy and buxom peasant woman, with a nursing child in her arms. She was destined a couple of years later to be the foster-mother of Henriette's little girl and to play an important part in her life. But the pair had no idea of that at present. They simply saw a proud and happy mother, and Henriette played with the baby, giving vent to childish delight. Then suddenly she looked up and saw that George was watching her, and as she read his thoughts a beautiful blush suffused her cheeks.
As for George, he turned away and went out under the blue sky in a kind of ecstasy. Life seemed very wonderful to him just then; he had found its supreme happiness, which was love. He was really getting quite mad about Henriette, he told himself. He could hardly believe that the day was coming when he would be able to clasp her in his arms.
But in the blue sky of George's happiness there was one little cloud of storm. As often happens with storm-clouds, it was so small that at first he paid no attention to it at all.
He noted upon his body one day a tiny ulcer. At first he treated it with salve purchased from an apothecary. Then after a week or two, when this had no effect, he began to feel uncomfortable. He remembered suddenly he had heard about the symptoms of an unmentionable, dreadful disease, and a vague terror took possession of him.
For days he tried to put it to one side. The idea was nonsense, it was absurd in connection with a woman so respectable! But the thought would not be put away, and finally he went to a school friend, who was a man of the world, and got him to talk on the subject. Of course, George had to be careful, so that his friend should not suspect that he had any special purpose in mind.
The friend was willing to talk. It was a vile disease, he said; but one was foolish to bother about it, because it was so rare. There were other diseases which fellows got, which nearly every fellow had, and to which none of them paid any attention. But one seldom met anyone who had the red plague that George dreaded.
"And yet," he added, "according to the books, it isn't so uncommon. I suppose the truth is that people hide it. A chap naturally wouldn't tell, when he knew it would damn him for life."
George had a sick sensation inside of him. "Is it as bad as that?" he asked.
"Of course," said the other, "Should you want to have anything to do with a person who had it? Should you be willing to room with him or travel with him? You wouldn't even want to shake hands with him!"
"No, I suppose not," said George, feebly.
"I remember," continued the other, "an old fellow who used to live out in the country near me. He was not so very old, either, but he looked it. He had to be pushed around in a wheel-chair. People said he had locomotor ataxia, but that really meant syphilis. We boys used to poke all kinds of fun at him because one windy day his hat and his wig were blown off together, and we discovered that he was as bald as an egg. We used to make jokes about his automobile, as we called it. It had a little handle in front, instead of a steering-wheel, and a man behind to push, instead of an engine."
"How horrible!" remarked George with genuine feeling.
"I remember the poor devil had a paralysis soon after," continued the friend, quite carelessly. "He could not steer any more, and also he lost his voice. When you met him he would look at you as it he thought he was talking, but all he could say was 'Ga-ga-ga'."
George went away from this conversation in a cold sweat. He told himself over and over again that he was a fool, but still he could not get the hellish idea out of his mind. He found himself brooding over it all day and lying awake at night, haunted by images of himself in a wheel-chair, and without any hair on his head. He realized that the sensible thing would be for him to go to a doctor and make certain about his condition; but he could not bring himself to face the ordeal–he was ashamed to admit to a doctor that he had laid himself open to such a taint.
He began to lose the radiant expression from his round and rosy face. He had less appetite, and his moods of depression became so frequent that he could not hide then even from Henriette. She asked him once or twice if there were not something the matter with him, and he laughed–a forced and hurried laugh–and told her that he had sat up too late the night before, worrying over the matter of his examinations. Oh, what a cruel thing it was that a man who stood in the very gateway of such a garden of delight should be tormented and made miserable by this loathsome idea!
The disturbing symptom still continued, and so at last George purchased a medical book, dealing with the subject of the disease. Then, indeed, he opened up a chamber of horrors; he made up his mind an abiding place of ghastly images. In the book there were pictures of things so awful that he turned white, and trembled like a leaf, and had to close the volume and hide it in the bottom of his trunk. But he could not banish the pictures from his mind. Worst of all, he could not forget the description of the first symptom of the disease, which seemed to correspond exactly with his own. So at last he made up his mind he must ascertain definitely the truth about his condition.
He began to think over plans for seeing a doctor. He had heard somewhere a story about a young fellow who had fallen into the hands of a quack, and been ruined forever. So he decided that he would consult only the best authority.
He got the names of the best-known works on the subject from a bookstore, and found that the author of one of these books was practicing in Paris as a specialist. Two or three days elapsed before he was able to get up the courage to call on this doctor. And oh, the shame and horror of sitting in his waiting-room with the other people, none of whom dared to look each other in the eyes! They must all be afflicted, George thought, and he glanced at them furtively, looking for the various symptoms of which he had read. Or were there, perhaps, some like himself–merely victims of a foolish error, coming to have the hag of dread pulled from off their backs?
And then suddenly, while he was speculating, there stood the doctor, signaling to him. His turn had come!