The doctor was a man about forty years of age, robust, with every appearance of a strong character. In the buttonhole of the frock coat he wore was a red rosette, the decoration of some order. Confused and nervous as George was, he got a vague impression of the physician's richly furnished office, with its bronzes, marbles and tapestries.
The doctor signaled to the young man to be seated in the chair before his desk. George complied, and then, as he wiped away the perspiration from his forehead, stammered out a few words, explaining his errand. Of course, he said, it could not be true, but it was a man's duty not to take any chances in such a matter. "I have not been a man of loose life," he added; "I have not taken so many chances as other men."
The doctor cut him short with the brief remark that one chance was all that was necessary. Instead of discussing such questions, he would make an examination. "We do not say positively in these cases until we have made a blood test. That is the one way to avoid the possibility of mistake."
A drop of blood was squeezed out of George's finger on to a little glass plate. The doctor retired to an adjoining room, and the victim sat alone in the office, deriving no enjoyment from the works of art which surrounded him, but feeling like a prisoner who sits in the dock with his life at stake while the jury deliberates.
The doctor returned, calm and impassive, and seated himself in his office-chair.
"Well, doctor?" asked George. He was trembling with terror.
"Well," was the reply, "there is no doubt whatever."
George wiped his forehead. He could not credit the words. "No doubt whatever? In what sense?"
"In the bad sense," said the other.
He began to write a prescription, without seeming to notice how George turned page with terror. "Come," he said, after a silence, "you must have known the truth pretty well."
"No, no, sir!" exclaimed George.
"Well," said the other, "you have syphilis."
George was utterly stunned. "My God!" he exclaimed.
The doctor, having finished his prescription, looked up and observed his condition. "Don't trouble yourself, sir. Out of every seven men you meet upon the street, in society, or at the theater, there is at least one who has been in your condition. One out of seven—fifteen per cent!"
George was staring before him. He spoke low, as if to himself. "I know what I am going to do."
"And I know also," said the doctor, with a smile. "There is your prescription. You are going to take it to the drugstore and have it put up."
George took the prescription, mechanically, but whispered, "No, sir."
"Yes, sir, you are going to do as everybody else does."
"No, because my situation is not that of everybody else. I know what I am going to do."
Said the doctor: "Five times out of ten, in the chair where you are sitting, people talk like that, perfectly sincerely. Each one believes himself more unhappy than all the others; but after thinking it over, and listening to me, they understand that this disease is a companion with whom one can live. Just as in every household, one gets along at the cost of mutual concessions, that's all. Come, sir, I tell you again, there is nothing about it that is not perfectly ordinary, perfectly natural, perfectly common; it is an accident which can happen to any one. It is a great mistake that people speak if this as the 'French Disease,' for there is none which is more universal. Under the picture of this disease, addressing myself to those who follow the oldest profession in the world, I would write the famous phrase: 'Here is your master. It is, it was, or it must be.'"
George was putting the prescription into the outside pocket of his coat, stupidly, as if he did not know what he was doing. "But, sir," he exclaimed, "I should have been spared!"
"Why?" inquired the other. "Because you are a man of position, because you are rich? Look around you, sir. See these works of art in my room. Do you imagine that such things have been presented to me by chimney-sweeps?"
"But, Doctor," cried George, with a moan, "I have never been a libertine. There was never any one, you understand me, never any one could have been more careful in his pleasures. If I were to tell you that in all my life I have only had two mistresses, what would you answer to that?"
"I would answer, that a single one would have been sufficient to bring you to me."
"No, sir!" cried George. "It could not have been either of those women." He went on to tell the doctor about his first mistress, and then about Lizette. Finally he told about Henriette, how much he adored her. He could really use such a word—he loved her most tenderly. She was so good—and he had thought himself so lucky!
As he went on, he could hardly keep from going to pieces. "I had everything," he exclaimed, "everything a man needed! All who knew me envied me. And then I had to let those fellows drag me off to that miserable supper-party! And now here I am! My future is ruined, my whole existence poisoned! What is to become of me? Everybody will avoid me—I shall be a pariah, a leper!"
He paused, and then in sudden wild grief exclaimed, "Come, now! Would it not be better that I should take myself out of the way? At least, I should not suffer any more. You see that there could not be any one more unhappy than myself—not any one, I tell you, sir, not any one!" Completely overcome, he began to weep in his handkerchief.
The doctor got up, and went to him. "You must be a man," he said, "and not cry like a child."
"But sir," cried the young man, with tears running down his cheeks, "if I had led a wild life, if I had passed my time in dissipation with chorus girls, then I could understand it. Then I would say that I had deserved it."
The doctor exclaimed with emphasis, "No, no! You would not say it. However, it is of no matter—go on."
"I tell you that I would say it. I am honest, and I would say that I had deserved it. But no, I have worked, I have been a regular grind. And now, when I think of the shame that is in store for me, the disgusting things, the frightful catastrophes to which I am condemned—"
"What is all this you are telling me?" asked the doctor, laughing.
"Oh, I know, I know!" cried the other, and repeated what his friend had told him about the man in a wheel-chair. "And they used to call me handsome Raoul! That was my name—handsome Raoul!"
"Now, my dear sir," said the doctor, cheerfully, "wipe your eyes one last time, blow your nose, put your handkerchief into your pocket, and hear me dry-eyed."
George obeyed mechanically. "But I give you fair warning," he said, "you are wasting your time."
"I tell you—" began the other.
"I know exactly what you are going to tell me!" cried George.
"Well, in that case, there is nothing more for you to do here— run along."
"Since I am here," said the patient submissively, "I will hear you."
"Very well, then. I tell you that if you have the will and the perseverance, none of the things you fear will happen to you."
"Of course, it is your duty to tell me that."
"I will tell you that there are one hundred thousand like you in Paris, alert, and seemingly well. Come, take what you were just saying—wheel-chairs. One doesn't see so many of them."
"No, that's true," said George.
"And besides," added the doctor, "a good many people who ride in them are not there for the cause you think. There is no more reason why you should be the victim of a catastrophe than any of the one hundred thousand. The disease is serious, nothing more."
"You admit that it is a serious disease?" argued George.
"One of the most serious?"
"Yes, but you have the good fortune—"
"The GOOD fortune?"
"Relatively, if you please. You have the good fortune to be infected with one of the diseases over which we have the most certain control."
"Yes, yes," exclaimed George, "but the remedies are worse than the disease."
"You deceive yourself," replied the other.
"You are trying to make me believe that I can be cured?"
"You can be."
"And that I am not condemned?"
"I swear it to you."
"You are not deceiving yourself, you are not deceiving me? Why, I was told—"
The doctor laughed, contemptuously. "You were told, you were told! I'll wager that you know the laws of the Chinese concerning party-walls."
"Yes, naturally," said George. "But I don't see what they have to do with it."
"Instead of teaching you such things," was the reply, "it would have been a great deal better to have taught you about the nature and cause of diseases of this sort. Then you would have known how to avoid the contagion. Such knowledge should be spread abroad, for it is the most important knowledge in the world. It should be found in every newspaper."
This remark gave George something of a shock, for his father had owned a little paper in the provinces, and he had a sudden vision of the way subscribers would have fallen off, if he had printed even so much as the name of this vile disease.
"And yet," pursued the doctor, "you publish romances about adultery!"
"Yes," said George, "that's what the readers want."
"They don't want the truth about venereal diseases," exclaimed the other. "If they knew the full truth, they would no longer think that adultery was romantic and interesting."
He went on to give his advice as to the means of avoiding such diseases. There was really but one rule. It was: To love but one woman, to take her as a virgin, and to love her so much that she would never deceive you. "Take that from me," added the doctor, "and teach it to your son, when you have one."
George's attention was caught by this last sentence.
"You mean that I shall be able to have children?" he cried.
"Certainly," was the reply.
"I repeat it to you; if you take care of yourself properly for a long time, conscientiously, you have little to fear."
"Ninety-nine times out of a hundred."
George felt as if he had suddenly emerged from a dungeon. "Why, then," he exclaimed, "I shall be able to marry!"
"You will be able to marry," was the reply.
"You are not deceiving me? You would not give me that hope, you would not expose me? How soon will I be able to marry?"
"In three or four years," said the doctor.
"What!" cried George in consternation. "In three or four years? Not before?"
"How is that? Am I going to be sick all that time? Why, you told me just now—"
Said the doctor: "The disease will no longer be dangerous to you, yourself—but you will be dangerous to others."
"But," the young man cried, in despair, "I am to be married a month from now."
"That is impossible."
"But I cannot do any differently. The contract is ready! The banns have been published! I have given my word!"
"Well, you are a great one!" the doctor laughed. "Just now you were looking for your revolver! Now you want to be married within the month."
"But, Doctor, it is necessary!"
"But I forbid it."
"As soon as I knew that the disease is not what I imagined, and that I could be cured, naturally I didn't want to commit suicide. And as soon as I make up my mind not to commit suicide, I have to take up my regular life. I have to keep my engagements; I have to get married."
"No," said the doctor.
"Yes, yes!" persisted George, with blind obstinacy. "Why, Doctor, if I didn't marry it would be a disaster. You are talking about something you don't understand. I, for my part—it is not that I am anxious to be married. As I told you, I had almost a second family. Lizette's little brothers adored me. But it is my aunt, an old maid; and, also, my mother is crazy about the idea. If I were to back out now, she would die of chagrin. My aunt would disinherit me, and she is the one who has the family fortune. Then, too, there is my father-in-law, a regular dragoon for his principles—severe, violent. He never makes a joke of serious things, and I tell you it would cost me dear, terribly dear. And, besides, I have given my word."
"You must take back your word."
"You still insist?" exclaimed George, in despair. "But then, suppose that it were possible, how could I take back my signature which I put at the bottom of the deed? I have pledged myself to pay in two months for the attorney's practice I have purchased!"
"Sir," said the doctor, "all these things—"
"You are going to tell me that I was lacking in prudence, that I should never have disposed of my wife's dowry until after the honeymoon!"
"Sir," said the doctor, again, "all these considerations are foreign to me. I am a physician, and nothing but a physician, and I can only tell you this: If you marry before three or four years, you will be a criminal."
George broke out with a wild exclamation. "No sir, you are not merely a physician! You are also a confessor! You are not merely a scientist; and it is not enough for you that you observe me as you would some lifeless thing in your laboratory, and say, 'You have this; science says that; now go along with you.' All my existence depends upon you. It is your duty to listen to me, because when you know everything you will understand me, and you will find some way to cure me within a month."
"But," protested the doctor, "I wear myself out telling you that such means do not exist. I shall not be certain of your cure, as much as any one can be certain, in less than three or four years."
George was almost beside himself. "I tell you you must find some means! Listen to me, sir—if I don't get married I don't get the dowry! And will you tell me how I can pay the notes I have signed?"
"Oh," said the doctor, dryly, "if that is the question, it is very simple—I will give you a plan to get out of the affair. You will go and get acquainted with some rich man; you will do everything you can to gain his confidence; and when you have succeeded, you will plunder him."
George shook his head. "I am not in any mood for joking."
"I am not joking," replied his adviser. "Rob that man, assassinate him even—that would be no worse crime than you would commit in taking a young girl in good health in order to get a portion of her dowry, when at the same time you would have to expose her to the frightful consequences of the disease which you would give her."
"Frightful consequences?" echoed George.
"Consequences of which death would not be the most frightful."
"But, sir, you were saying to me just now—"
"Just now I did not tell you everything. Even reduced, suppressed a little by our remedies, the disease remains mysterious, menacing, and it its sum, sufficiently grave. So it would be an infamy to expose your fiancee in order to avoid an inconvenience, however great that might be."
But George was still not to be convinced. Was it certain that this misfortune would befall Henriette, even with the best attention?
Said the other: "I do not wish to lie to you. No, it is not absolutely certain, it is probable. And there is another truth which I wish to tell you now: our remedies are not infallible. In a certain number of cases—a very small number, scarcely five per cent—they have remained without effect. You might be one of those exceptions, your wife might be one. What then?"
"I will employ a word you used just now, yourself. We should have to expect the worst catastrophes."
George sat in a state of complete despair.
"Tell me what to do, then," he said.
"I can tell you only one thing: don't marry. You have a most serious blemish. It is as if you owed a debt. Perhaps no one will ever come to claim it; on the other hand, perhaps a pitiless creditor will come all at once, presenting a brutal demand for immediate payment. Come now—you are a business man. Marriage is a contract; to marry without saying anything—that means to enter into a bargain by means of passive dissimulation. That's the term, is it not? It is dishonesty, and it ought to come under the law."
George, being a lawyer, could appreciate the argument, and could think of nothing to say to it.
"What shall I do?" he asked.
The other answered, "Go to your father-in-law and tell him frankly the truth."
"But," cried the young man, wildly, "there will be no question then of three or four years' delay. He will refuse his consent altogether."
"If that is the case," said the doctor, "don't tell him anything."
"But I have to give him a reason, or I don't know what he will do. He is the sort of man to give himself to the worst violence, and again my fiancee would be lost to me. Listen, doctor. From everything I have said to you, you may perhaps think I am a mercenary man. It is true that I want to get along in the world, that is only natural. But Henriette has such qualities; she is so much better than I, that I love her, really, as people love in novels. My greatest grief—it is not to give up the practice I have bought—although, indeed, it would be a bitter blow to me; my greatest grief would be to lose Henriette. If you could only see her, if you only knew her—then you would understand. I have her picture here—"
The young fellow took out his card-case. And offered a photograph to the doctor, who gently refused it. The other blushed with embarrassment.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "I am ridiculous. That happens to me, sometimes. Only, put yourself in my place—I love her so!" His voice broke.
"My dear boy," said the doctor, feelingly, "that is exactly why you ought not to marry her."
"But," he cried, "if I back out without saying anything they will guess the truth, and I shall be dishonored."
"One is not dishonored because one is ill."
"But with such a disease! People are so stupid. I myself, yesterday—I should have laughed at anyone who had got into such a plight; I should have avoided him, I should have despised him!" And suddenly George broke down again. "Oh!" he cried, "if I were the only one to suffer; but she—she is in love with me. I swear it to you! She is so good; and she will be so unhappy!"
The doctor answered, "She would be unhappier later on."
"It will be a scandal!" George exclaimed.
"You will avoid one far greater," the other replied.
Suddenly George set his lips with resolution. He rose from his seat. He took several twenty-franc pieces from his pocket and laid them quietly upon the doctor's desk—paying the fee in cash, so that he would not have to give his name and address. He took up his gloves, his cane and his hat, and rose.
"I will think it over," he said. "I thank you, Doctor. I will come back next week as you have told me. That is—probably I will."
He was about to leave.
The doctor rose, and he spoke in a voice of furious anger. "No," he said, "I shan't see you next week, and you won't even think it over. You came here knowing what you had; you came to ask advice of me, with the intention of paying no heed to it, unless it conformed to your wishes. A superficial honesty has driven you to take that chance in order to satisfy your conscience. You wanted to have somebody upon whom you could put off, bye and bye, the consequences of an act whose culpability you understand! No, don't protest! Many of those who come here think and act as you think, and as you wish to act; but the marriage made against my will has generally been the source of such calamities that now I am always afraid of not having been persuasive enough, and it even seems to me that I am a little to blame for these misfortunes. I should have been able to prevent them; they would not have happened if those who are the authors of them knew what I know and had seen what I have seen. Swear to me, sir, that you are going to break off that marriage!"
George was greatly embarrassed, and unwilling to reply. "I cannot swear to you at all, Doctor; I can only tell you again that I will think it over."
"That WHAT over?"
"What you have told me."
"What I have told you is true! You cannot bring any new objections; and I have answered those which you have presented to me; therefore, your mind ought to be made up."
Groping for a reply, George hesitated. He could not deny that he had made inquiry about these matters before he had come to the doctor. But he said that he was not al all certain that he had this disease. The doctor declared it, and perhaps it was true, but the most learned physicians were sometimes deceived.
He remembered something he had read in one of the medical books. "Dr. Ricord maintains that after a certain period the disease is no longer contagious. He has proven his contentions by examples. Today you produce new examples to show that he is wrong! Now, I want to do what's right, but surely I have the right to think it over. And when I think it over, I realize that all the evils with which you threaten me are only probable evils. In spite of your desire to terrify me, you have been forced to admit that possibly my marriage would not have any troublesome consequence for my wife."
The doctor found difficulty in restraining himself. But he said, "Go on. I will answer you afterwards."
And George blundered ahead in his desperation. "Your remedies are powerful, you tell me; and for the calamities of which you speak to befall me, I would have to be among the rare exceptions—also my wife would have to be among the number of those rare exceptions. If a mathematician were to apply the law of chance to these facts, the result of his operation would show but slight chance of a catastrophe, as compared with the absolute certainty of a series of misfortunes, sufferings, troubles, tears, and perhaps tragic accidents which the breaking of my engagement would cause. So I say that the mathematician—who is, even more than you, a man of science, a man of a more infallible science—the mathematician would conclude that wisdom was not with you doctors, but with me."
"You believe it, sir!" exclaimed the other. "But you deceive yourself." And he continued, driving home his point with a finger which seemed to George to pierce his very soul. "Twenty cases identical with your own have been patiently observed, from the beginning to the end. Nineteen times the woman was infected by her husband; you hear me, sir, nineteen times out of twenty! You believe that the disease is without danger, and you take to yourself the right to expose your wife to what you call the chance of your being one of those exceptions, for whom our remedies are without effect. Very well; it is necessary that you should know the disease which your wife, without being consulted, will run a chance of contracting. Take that book, sir; it is the work of my teacher. Read it yourself. Here, I have marked the passage."
He held out the open book; but George could not lift a hand to take it.
"You do not wish to read it?" the other continued. "Listen to me." And in a voice trembling with passion, he read: "'I have watched the spectacle of an unfortunate young woman, turned into a veritable monster by means of a syphilitic infection. Her face, or rather let me say what was left of her face, was nothing but a flat surface seamed with scars.'"
George covered his face, exclaiming, "Enough, sir! Have mercy!"
But the other cried, "No, no! I will go to the very end. I have a duty to perform, and I will not be stopped by the sensibility of your nerves."
He went on reading: "'Of the upper lip not a trace was left; the ridge of the upper gums appeared perfectly bare.'" But then at the young man's protests, his resolution failed him. "Come," he said, "I will stop. I am sorry for you—you who accept for another person, for the woman you say you love, the chance of a disease which you cannot even endure to hear described. Now, from whom did that woman get syphilis? It is not I who am speaking, it is the book. 'From a miserable scoundrel who was not afraid to enter into matrimony when he had a secondary eruption.' All that was established later on—'and who, moreover, had thought it best not to let his wife be treated for fear of awakening her suspicions!'"
The doctor closed the book with a bang. "What that man has done, sir, is what you want to do."
George was edging toward the door; he could no longer look the doctor in the eye. "I should deserve all those epithets and still more brutal ones if I should marry, knowing that my marriage would cause such horrors. But that I do not believe. You and your teachers—you are specialists, and consequently you are driven to attribute everything to the disease you make the subject of your studies. A tragic case, an exceptional case, holds a kind of fascination for you; you think it can never be talked about enough."
"I have heard that argument before," said the doctor, with an effort at patience.
"Let me go on, I beg you," pleaded George. "You have told me that out of every seven men there is one syphilitic. You have told me that there are one hundred thousand in Paris, coming and going, alert, and apparently well."
"It is true," said the doctor, "that there are one hundred thousand who are actually at this moment not visibly under the influence of the disease. But many thousands have passed into our hospitals, victims of the most frightful ravages that our poor bodies can support. These—you do not see them, and they do not count for you. But again, if it concerned no one but yourself, you might be able to argue thus. What I declare to you, what I affirm with all the violence of my conviction, is that you have not the right to expose a human creature to such chances—rare, as I know, but terrible, as I know still better. What have you to answer to that?"
"Nothing," stammered George, brought to his knees at last. "You are right about that. I don't know what to think."
"And in forbidding you marriage," continued the doctor, "is it the same as if I forbade it forever? Is it the same as if I told you that you could never be cured? On the contrary, I hold out to you every hope; but I demand of you a delay of three or four years, because it will take me that time to find out if you are among the number of those unfortunate ones whom I pity with all my heart, for whom the disease is without mercy; because during that time you will be dangerous to your wife and to your children. The children I have not yet mentioned to you."
Here the doctor's voice trembled slightly. He spoke with moving eloquence. "Come, sir, you are an honest man; you are too young for such things not to move you; you are not insensible to duty. It is impossible that I shan't be able to find a way to your heart, that I shan't be able to make you obey me. My emotion in speaking to you proves that I appreciate your suffering, that I suffer with you. It is in the name of my sincerity that I implore you. You have admitted it—that you have not the right to expose your wife to such miseries. But it is not only your wife that you strike; you may attack in her your own children. I exclude you for a moment from my thought—you and her. It is in the name of these innocents that I implore you; it is the future, it is the race that I defend. Listen to me, listen to me! Out of the twenty households of which I spoke, only fifteen had children; these fifteen had twenty-eight. Do you know how many out of these twenty-eight survived? Three, sir! Three out of twenty-eight! Syphilis is above everything a murderer of children. Herod reigns in France, and over all the earth, and begins each year his massacre of the innocents; and if it be not blasphemy against the sacredness of life, I say that the most happy are those who have disappeared. Visit our children's hospitals! We know too well the child of syphilitic parents; the type is classical; the doctors can pick it out anywhere. Those little old creatures who have the appearance of having already lived, and who have kept the stigmata of all out infirmities, of all our decay. They are the victims of fathers who have married, being ignorant of what you know—things which I should like to go and cry out in the public places."
The doctor paused, and then in a solemn voice continued: "I have told you all, without exaggeration. Think it over. Consider the pros and cons; sum up the possible misfortunes and the certain miseries. But disregard yourself, and consider that there are in one side of the scales the misfortunes of others, and in the other your own. Take care that you are just."
George was at last overcome. "Very well," he said, "I give way. I won't get married. I will invent some excuse; I will get a delay of six months. More than that, I cannot do."
The doctor exclaimed, "I need three years—I need four years!"
"No, Doctor!" persisted George. "You can cure me in less time than that."
The other answered, "No! No! No!"
George caught him by the hand, imploringly. "Yes! Science in all powerful!"
"Science is not God," was the reply. "There are no longer any miracles."
"If only you wanted to do it!" cried the young man, hysterically. "You are a learned man; seek, invent, find something! Try some new plan with me; give me double the dose, ten times the does; make me suffer. I give myself up to you; I will endure everything—I swear it! There ought to be some way to cure me within six months. Listen to me! I tell you I can't answer for myself with that delay. Come; it is in the name of my wife, in the name of my children, that I implore you. Do something for them!"
The doctor had reached the limit of his patience. "Enough, sir!" he cried. "Enough!"
But nothing could stop the wretched man. "On my knees!" he cried. "I put myself on my knees before you! Oh! If only you would do it! I would bless you; I would adore you, as one adores a god! All my gratitude, all my life—half my fortune! For mercy's sake, Doctor, do something; invent something; make some discovery—have pity!"
The doctor answered gravely, "Do you wish me to do more for you than for the others?"
George answered, unblushingly, 'answered, unblushingly, "Yes!" He was beside himself with terror and distress.
The other's reply was delivered in a solemn tone. "Understand, sir, for every one of out patients we do all that we can, whether it be the greatest personage, or the last comer to out hospital clinic. We have no secrets in reserve for those who are more fortunate, or less fortunate than the others, and who are in a hurry to be cured."
George gazed at him for a moment in bewilderment and despair, and then suddenly bowed his head. "Good-by, Doctor," he answered.
"Au revoir, sir," the other corrected—with what proved to be prophetic understanding. For George was destined to see him again—even though he had made up his mind to the contrary!