The War Terror by Arthur B. Reeve
Chapter XXXI. The Eugenic Bride
Scandal, such as that which Kennedy unearthed in this Pearcy case, was never much to his liking, yet he seemed destined, about this period of his career, to have a good deal of it.
We had scarcely finished with the indictment that followed the arrest of young Pearcy, when we were confronted by a situation which was as unique as it was intensely modern.
"There's absolutely no insanity in Eugenia's family," I heard a young man remark to Kennedy, as my key turned in the lock of the laboratory door.
For a moment I hesitated about breaking in on a confidential conference, then reflected that, as they had probably already heard me at the lock, I had better go in and excuse myself.
As I swung the door open, I saw a young man pacing up and down the laboratory nervously, too preoccupied even to notice the slight noise I had made.
He paused in his nervous walk and faced Kennedy, his back to me.
"Kennedy," he said huskily, "I wouldn't care if there was insanity in her family--for, my God!--the tragedy of it all now--I love her!"
He turned, following Kennedy's eyes in my direction, and I saw on his face the most haggard, haunting look of anxiety that I had ever seen on a young person.
Instantly I recognized from the pictures I had seen in the newspapers young Quincy Atherton, the last of this famous line of the family, who had attracted a great deal of attention several months previously by what the newspapers had called his search through society for a "eugenics bride," to infuse new blood into the Atherton stock.
"You need have no fear that Mr. Jameson will be like the other newspaper men," reassured Craig, as he introduced us, mindful of the prejudice which the unpleasant notoriety of Atherton's marriage had already engendered in his mind.
I recalled that when I had first heard of Atherton's "eugenic marriage," I had instinctively felt a prejudice against the very idea of such cold, calculating, materialistic, scientific mating, as if one of the last fixed points were disappearing in the chaos of the social and sex upheaval.
Now, I saw that one great fact of life must always remain. We might ride in hydroaeroplanes, delve into the very soul by psychanalysis, perhaps even run our machines by the internal forces of radium--even marry according to Galton or Mendel. But there would always be love, deep passionate love of the man for the woman, love which all the discoveries of science might perhaps direct a little less blindly, but the consuming flame of which not all the coldness of science could ever quench. No tampering with the roots of human nature could ever change the roots.
I must say that I rather liked young Atherton. He had a frank, open face, the most prominent feature of which was his somewhat aristocratic nose. Otherwise he impressed one as being the victim of heredity in faults, if at all serious, against which he was struggling heroically.
It was a most pathetic story which he told, a story of how his family had degenerated from the strong stock of his ancestors until he was the last of the line. He told of his education, how he had fallen, a rather wild youth bent in the footsteps of his father who had been a notoriously good clubfellow, under the influence of a college professor, Dr. Crafts, a classmate of his father's, of how the professor had carefully and persistently fostered in him an idea that had completely changed him.
"Crafts always said it was a case of eugenics against euthenics," remarked Atherton, "of birth against environment. He would tell me over and over that birth gave me the clay, and it wasn't such bad clay after all, but that environment would shape the vessel."
Then Atherton launched into a description of how he had striven to find a girl who had the strong qualities his family germ plasm seemed to have lost, mainly, I gathered, resistance to a taint much like manic depressive insanity. And as he talked, it was borne in on me that, after all, contrary to my first prejudice, there was nothing very romantic indeed about disregarding the plain teachings of science on the subject of marriage and one's children.
In his search for a bride, Dr. Crafts, who had founded a sort of Eugenics Bureau, had come to advise him. Others may have looked up their brides in Bradstreet's, or at least the Social Register. Atherton had gone higher, had been overjoyed to find that a girl he had met in the West, Eugenia Gilman, measured up to what his friend told him were the latest teachings of science. He had been overjoyed because, long before Crafts had told him, he had found out that he loved her deeply.
"And now," he went on, half choking with emotion, "she is apparently suffering from just the same sort of depression as I myself might suffer from if the recessive trait became active."
"What do you mean, for instance?" asked Craig.
"Well, for one thing, she has the delusion that my relatives are persecuting her."
"Persecuting her?" repeated Craig, stifling the remark that that was not in itself a new thing in this or any other family. "How?"
"Oh, making her feel that, after all, it is Atherton family rather than Gilman health that counts--little remarks that when our baby is born, they hope it will resemble Quincy rather than Eugenia, and all that sort of thing, only worse and more cutting, until the thing has begun to prey on her mind."
"I see," remarked Kennedy thoughtfully. "But don't you think this is a case for a--a doctor, rather than a detective?"
Atherton glanced up quickly. "Kennedy," he answered slowly, "where millions of dollars are involved, no one can guess to what lengths the human mind will go--no one, except you."
"Then you have suspicions of something worse?"
"Y-yes--but nothing definite. Now, take this case. If I should die childless, after my wife, the Atherton estate would descend to my nearest relative, Burroughs Atherton, a cousin."
"Unless you willed it to--"
"I have already drawn a will," he interrupted, "and in case I survive Eugenia and die childless, the money goes to the founding of a larger Eugenics Bureau, to prevent in the future, as much as possible, tragedies such as this of which I find myself a part. If the case is reversed, Eugenia will get her third and the remainder will go to the Bureau or the Foundation, as I call the new venture. But," and here young Atherton leaned forward and fixed his large eyes keenly on us, "Burroughs might break the will. He might show that I was of unsound mind, or that Eugenia was, too."
"Are there no other relatives?"
"Burroughs is the nearest," he replied, then added frankly, "I have a second cousin, a young lady named Edith Atherton, with whom both Burroughs and I used to be very friendly."
It was evident from the way he spoke that he had thought a great deal about Edith Atherton, and still thought well of her.
"Your wife thinks it is Burroughs who is persecuting her?" asked Kennedy.
Atherton shrugged his shoulders.
"Does she get along badly with Edith? She knows her I presume?"
"Of course. The fact is that since the death of her mother, Edith has been living with us. She is a splendid girl, and all alone in the world now, and I had hopes that in New York she might meet some one and marry well."
Kennedy was looking squarely at Atherton, wondering whether he might ask a question without seeming impertinent. Atherton caught the look, read it, and answered quite frankly, "To tell the truth, I suppose I might have married Edith, before I met Eugenia, if Professor Crafts had not dissuaded me. But it wouldn't have been real love--nor wise. You know," he went on more frankly, now that the first hesitation was over and he realized that if he were to gain anything at all by Kennedy's services, there must be the utmost candor between them, "you know cousins may marry if the stocks are known to be strong. But if there is a defect, it is almost sure to be intensified. And so I--I gave up the idea--never had it, in fact, so strongly as to propose to her. And when I met Eugenia all the Athertons on the family tree couldn't have bucked up against the combination."
He was deadly in earnest as he arose from the chair into which he had dropped after I came in.
"Oh, it's terrible--this haunting fear, this obsession that I have had, that, in spite of all I have tried to do, some one, somehow, will defeat me. Then comes the situation, just at a time when Eugenia and I feel that we have won against Fate, and she in particular needs all the consideration and care in the world--and- -and I am defeated."
Atherton was again pacing the laboratory.
"I have my car waiting outside," he pleaded. "I wish you would go with me to see Eugenia--now."
It was impossible to resist him. Kennedy rose and I followed, not without a trace of misgiving.
The Atherton mansion was one of the old houses of the city, a somber stone dwelling with a garden about it on a downtown square, on which business was already encroaching. We were admitted by a servant who seemed to walk over the polished floors with stealthy step as if there was something sacred about even the Atherton silence. As we waited in a high-ceilinged drawing-room with exquisite old tapestries on the walls, I could not help feeling myself the influence of wealth and birth that seemed to cry out from every object of art in the house.
On the longer wall of the room, I saw a group of paintings. One, I noted especially, must have been Atherton's ancestor, the founder of the line. There was the same nose in Atherton, for instance, a striking instance of heredity. I studied the face carefully. There was every element of strength in it, and I thought instinctively that, whatever might have been the effects of in-breeding and bad alliances, there must still be some of that strength left in the present descendant of the house of Atherton. The more I thought about the house, the portrait, the whole case, the more unable was I to get out of my head a feeling that though I had not been in such a position before, I had at least read or heard something of which it vaguely reminded me.
Eugenia Atherton was reclining listlessly in her room in a deep leather easy chair, when Atherton took us up at last. She did not rise to greet us, but I noted that she was attired in what Kennedy once called, as we strolled up the Avenue, "the expensive sloppiness of the present styles." In her case the looseness with which her clothes hung was exaggerated by the lack of energy with which she wore them.
She had been a beautiful girl, I knew. In fact, one could see that she must have been. Now, however, she showed marks of change. Her eyes were large, and protruding, not with the fire of passion which is often associated with large eyes, but dully, set in a puffy face, a trifle florid. Her hands seemed, when she moved them, to shake with an involuntary tremor, and in spite of the fact that one almost could feel that her heart and lungs were speeding with energy, she had lost weight and no longer had the full, rounded figure of health. Her manner showed severe mental disturbance, indifference, depression, a distressing deterioration. All her attractive Western breeziness was gone. One felt the tragedy of it only too keenly.
"I have asked Professor Kennedy, a specialist, to call, my dear," said Atherton gently, without mentioning what the specialty was.
"Another one?" she queried languorously.
There was a colorless indifference in the tone which was almost tragic. She said the words slowly and deliberately, as though even her mind worked that way.
From the first, I saw that Kennedy had been observing Eugenia Atherton keenly. And in the role of specialist in nervous diseases he was enabled to do what otherwise would have been difficult to accomplish.
Gradually, from observing her mental condition of indifference which made conversation extremely difficult as well as profitless, he began to consider her physical condition. I knew him well enough to gather from his manner alone as he went on that what had seemed at the start to be merely a curious case, because it concerned the Athertons, was looming up in his mind as unusual in itself, and was interesting him because it baffled him.
Craig had just discovered that her pulse was abnormally high, and that consequently she had a high temperature, and was sweating profusely.
"Would you mind turning your head, Mrs. Atherton?" he asked.
She turned slowly, half way, her eyes fixed vacantly on the floor until we could see the once striking profile.
"No, all the way around, if you please," added Kennedy.
She offered no objection, not the slightest resistance. As she turned her head as far as she could, Kennedy quickly placed his forefinger and thumb gently on her throat, the once beautiful throat, now with skin harsh and rough. Softly he moved his fingers just a fraction of an inch over the so-called "Adam's apple" and around it for a little distance.
"Thank you," he said. "Now around to the other side."
He made no other remark as he repeated the process, but I fancied I could tell that he had had an instant suspicion of something the moment he touched her throat.
He rose abstractedly, bowed, and we started to leave the room, uncertain whether she knew or cared. Quincy had fixed his eyes silently on Craig, as if imploring him to speak, but I knew how unlikely that was until he had confirmed his suspicion to the last slightest detail.
We were passing through a dressing room in the suite when we met a tall young woman, whose face I instantly recognized, not because I had ever seen it before, but because she had the Atherton nose so prominently developed.
"My cousin, Edith," introduced Quincy.
We bowed and stood for a moment chatting. There seemed to be no reason why we should leave the suite, since Mrs. Atherton paid so little attention to us even when we had been in the same room. Yet a slight movement in her room told me that in spite of her lethargy she seemed to know that we were there and to recognize who had joined us.
Edith Atherton was a noticeable woman, a woman of temperament, not beautiful exactly, but with a stateliness about her, an aloofness. The more I studied her face, with its thin sensitive lips and commanding, almost imperious eyes, the more there seemed to be something peculiar about her. She was dressed very simply in black, but it was the simplicity that costs. One thing was quite evident--her pride in the family of Atherton.
And as we talked, it seemed to be that she, much more than Eugenia in her former blooming health, was a part of the somber house. There came over me again the impression I had received before that I had read or heard something like this case before.
She did not linger long, but continued her stately way into the room where Eugenia sat. And at once it flashed over me what my impression, indefinable, half formed, was. I could not help thinking, as I saw her pass, of the lady Madeline in "The Fall of the House of Usher."