Chapter XXXII. The Germ Plasm
 

I regarded her with utter astonishment and yet found it impossible to account for such a feeling. I looked at Atherton, but on his face I could see nothing but a sort of questioning fear that only increased my illusion, as if he, too, had only a vague, haunting premonition of something terrible impending. Almost I began to wonder whether the Atherton house might not crumble under the fierceness of a sudden whirlwind, while the two women in this case, one representing the wasted past, the other the blasted future, dragged Atherton down, as the whole scene dissolved into some ghostly tarn. It was only for a moment, and then I saw that the more practical Kennedy had been examining some bottles on the lady's dresser before which we had paused.

One was a plain bottle of pellets which might have been some homeopathic remedy.

"Whatever it is that is the matter with Eugenia," remarked Atherton, "it seems to have baffled the doctors so far."

Kennedy said nothing, but I saw that he had clumsily overturned the bottle and absently set it up again, as though his thoughts were far away. Yet with a cleverness that would have done credit to a professor of legerdemain he had managed to extract two or three of the pellets.

"Yes," he said, as he moved slowly toward the staircase in the wide hall, "most baffling."

Atherton was plainly disappointed. Evidently he had expected Kennedy to arrive at the truth and set matters right by some sudden piece of wizardry, and it was with difficulty that he refrained from saying so.

"I should like to meet Burroughs Atherton," he remarked as we stood in the wide hall on the first floor of the big house. "Is he a frequent visitor?"

"Not frequent," hastened Quincy Atherton, in a tone that showed some satisfaction in saying it. "However, by a lucky chance he has promised to call to-night--a mere courtesy, I believe, to Edith, since she has come to town on a visit."

"Good!" exclaimed Kennedy. "Now, I leave it to you, Atherton, to make some plausible excuse for our meeting Burroughs here."

"I can do that easily."

"I shall be here early," pursued Kennedy as we left.

Back again in the laboratory to which Atherton insisted on accompanying us in his car, Kennedy busied himself for a few minutes, crushing up one of the tablets and trying one or two reactions with some of the powder dissolved, while I looked on curiously.

"Craig," I remarked contemplatively, after a while, "how about Atherton himself? Is he really free from the--er--stigmata, I suppose you call them, of insanity?"

"You mean, may the whole trouble lie with him?" he asked, not looking up from his work.

"Yes--and the effect on her be a sort of reflex, say, perhaps the effect of having sold herself for money and position. In other words, does she, did she, ever love him? We don't know that. Might it not prey on her mind, until with the kind help of his precious relatives even Nature herself could not stand the strain-- especially in the delicate condition in which she now finds herself?"

I must admit that I felt the utmost sympathy for the poor girl whom we had just seen such a pitiable wreck.

Kennedy closed his eyes tightly until they wrinkled at the corners.

"I think I have found out the immediate cause of her trouble," he said simply, ignoring my suggestion.

"What is it?" I asked eagerly.

"I can't imagine how they could have failed to guess it, except that they never would have suspected to look for anything resembling exophthalmic goiter in a person of her stamina," he answered, pronouncing the word slowly. "You have heard of the thyroid gland in the neck?"

"Yes?" I queried, for it was a mere name to me.

"It is a vascular organ lying under the chin with a sort of little isthmus joining the two parts on either side of the windpipe," he explained. "Well, when there is any deterioration of those glands through any cause, all sorts of complications may arise. The thyroid is one of the so-called ductless glands, like the adrenals above the kidneys, the pineal gland and the pituitary body. In normal activity they discharge into the blood substances which are carried to other organs and are now known to be absolutely essential.

"The substances which they secrete are called 'hormones'--those chemical messengers, as it were, by which many of the processes of the body are regulated. In fact, no field of experimental physiology is richer in interest than this. It seems that few ordinary drugs approach in their effects on metabolism the hormones of the thyroid. In excess they produce such diseases as exophthalmic goiter, and goiter is concerned with the enlargement of the glands and surrounding tissues beyond anything like natural size. Then, too, a defect in the glands causes the disease known as myxedema in adults and cretinism in children. Most of all, the gland seems to tell on the germ plasm of the body, especially in women."

I listened in amazement, hardly knowing what to think. Did his discovery portend something diabolical, or was it purely a defect in nature which Dr. Crafts of the Eugenics Bureau had overlooked?

"One thing at a time, Walter," cautioned Kennedy, when I put the question to him, scarcely expecting an answer yet.

That night in the old Atherton mansion, while we waited for Borroughs to arrive, Kennedy, whose fertile mind had contrived to kill at least two birds with one stone, busied himself by cutting in on the regular telephone line and placing an extension of his own in a closet in the library. To it he attached an ordinary telephone receiver fastened to an arrangement which was strange to me. As nearly as I can describe it, between the diaphragm of the regular receiver and a brownish cylinder, like that of a phonograph, and with a needle attached, was fitted an air chamber of small size, open to the outer air by a small hole to prevent compression.

The work was completed expeditiously, but we had plenty of time to wait, for Borroughs Atherton evidently did not consider that an evening had fairly begun until nine o'clock.

He arrived at last, however, rather tall, slight of figure, narrow-shouldered, designed for the latest models of imported fabrics. It was evident merely by shaking hands with Burroughs that he thought both the Athertons and the Burroughses just the right combination. He was one of those few men against whom I conceive an instinctive prejudice, and in this case I felt positive that, whatever faults the Atherton germ plasm might contain, he had combined others from the determiners of that of the other ancestors he boasted. I could not help feeling that Eugenia Atherton was in about as unpleasant an atmosphere of social miasma as could be imagined.

Burroughs asked politely after Eugenia, but it was evident that the real deference was paid to Edith Atherton and that they got along very well together. Burroughs excused himself early, and we followed soon after.

"I think I shall go around to this Eugenics Bureau of Dr. Crafts," remarked Kennedy the next day, after a night's consideration of the case.

The Bureau occupied a floor in a dwelling house uptown which had been remodeled into an office building. Huge cabinets were stacked up against the walls, and in them several women were engaged in filing blanks and card records. Another part of the office consisted of an extensive library on eugenic subjects.

Dr. Crafts, in charge of the work, whom we found in a little office in front partitioned off by ground glass, was an old man with an alert, vigorous mind on whom the effects of plain living and high thinking showed plainly. He was looking over some new blanks with a young woman who seemed to be working with him, directing the force of clerks as well as the "field workers," who were gathering the vast mass of information which was being studied. As we introduced ourselves, he introduced Dr. Maude Schofield.

"I have heard of your eugenic marriage contests," began Kennedy, "more especially of what you have done for Mr. Quincy Atherton."

"Well--not exactly a contest in that case, at least," corrected Dr. Crafts with an indulgent smile for a layman.

"No," put in Dr. Schofield, "the Eugenics Bureau isn't a human stock farm."

"I see," commented Kennedy, who had no such idea, anyhow. He was always lenient with anyone who had what he often referred to as the "illusion of grandeur."

"We advise people sometimes regarding the desirability or the undesirability of marriage," mollified Dr. Crafts. "This is a sort of clearing house for scientific race investigation and improvement."

"At any rate," persisted Kennedy, "after investigation, I understand, you advised in favor of his marriage with Miss Gilman."

"Yes, Eugenia Gilman seemed to measure well up to the requirements in such a match. Her branch of the Gilmans has always been of the vigorous, pioneering type, as well as intellectual. Her father was one of the foremost thinkers in the West; in fact had long held ideas on the betterment of the race. You see that in the choice of a name for his daughter--Eugenia."

"Then there were no recessive traits in her family," asked Kennedy quickly, "of the same sort that you find in the Athertons?"

"None that we could discover," answered Dr. Crafts positively.

"No epilepsy, no insanity of any form?"

"No. Of course, you understand that almost no one is what might be called eugenically perfect. Strictly speaking, perhaps not over two or three per cent. of the population even approximates that standard. But it seemed to me that in everything essential in this case, weakness latent in Atherton was mating strength in Eugenia and the same way on her part for an entirely different set of traits."

"Still," considered Kennedy, "there might have been something latent in her family germ plasm back of the time through which you could trace it?"

Dr. Crafts shrugged his shoulders. "There often is, I must admit, something we can't discover because it lies too far back in the past."

"And likely to crop out after skipping generations," put in Maude Schofield.

She evidently did not take the same liberal view in the practical application of the matter expressed by her chief. I set it down to the ardor of youth in a new cause, which often becomes the saner conservatism of maturity.

"Of course, you found it much easier than usual to get at the true family history of the Athertons," pursued Kennedy. "It is an old family and has been prominent for generations."

"Naturally," assented Dr. Crafts.

"You know Burroughs Atherton on both lines of descent?" asked Kennedy, changing the subject abruptly.

"Yes, fairly well," answered Crafts.

"Now, for example," went on Craig, "how would you advise him to marry?"

I saw at once that he was taking this subterfuge as a way of securing information which might otherwise have been withheld if asked for directly. Maude Schofield also saw it, I fancied, but this time said nothing. "They had a grandfather who was a manic depressive on the Atherton side," said Crafts slowly. "Now, no attempt has ever been made to breed that defect out of the family. In the case of Burroughs, it is perhaps a little worse, for the other side of his ancestry is not free from the taint of alcoholism."

"And Edith Atherton?"

"The same way. They both carry it. I won't go into the Mendelian law on the subject. We are clearing up much that is obscure. But as to Burroughs, he should marry, if at all, some one without that particular taint. I believe that in a few generations by proper mating most taints might be bred out of families."

Maude Schofield evidently did not agree with Dr. Crafts on some point, and, noticing it, he seemed to be in the position both of explaining his contention to us and of defending it before his fair assistant.

"It is my opinion, as far as I have gone with the data," he added, "that there is hope for many of those whose family history shows certain nervous taints. A sweeping prohibition of such marriages would be futile, perhaps injurious. It is necessary that the mating be carefully made, however, to prevent intensifying the taint. You see, though I am a eugenist I am not an extremist."

He paused, then resumed argumentatively: "Then there are other questions, too, like that of genius with its close relation to manic depressive insanity. Also, there is decrease enough in the birth rate, without adding an excuse for it. No, that a young man like Atherton should take the subject seriously, instead of spending his time in wild dissipation, like his father, is certainly creditable, argues in itself that there still must exist some strength in his stock.

"And, of course," he continued warmly, "when I say that weakness in a trait--not in all traits, by any means--should marry strength and that strength may marry weakness, I don't mean that all matches should be like that. If we are too strict we may prohibit practically all marriages. In Atherton's case, as in many another, I felt that I should interpret the rule as sanely as possible."

"Strength should marry strength, and weakness should never marry," persisted Maude Schofield. "Nothing short of that will satisfy the true eugenist."

"Theoretically," objected Crafts. "But Atherton was going to marry, anyhow. The only thing for me to do was to lay down a rule which he might follow safely. Besides, any other rule meant sure disaster."

"It was the only rule with half a chance of being followed and at any rate," drawled Kennedy, as the eugenists wrangled, "what difference does it make in this case? As nearly as I can make out it is Mrs. Atherton herself, not Atherton, who is ill."

Maude Schofield had risen to return to supervising a clerk who needed help. She left us, still unconvinced.

"That is a very clever girl," remarked Kennedy as she shut the door and he scanned Dr. Crafts' face dosely.

"Very," assented the Doctor.

"The Schofields come of good stock?" hazarded Kennedy.

"Very," assented Dr. Crafts again.

Evidently he did not care to talk about individual cases, and I felt that the rule was a safe one, to prevent Eugenics from becoming Gossip. Kennedy thanked him for his courtesy, and we left apparently on the best of terms both with Crafts and his assistant.