Show me those invisible, imperceptible steps by which a man's honor firs_escends; show me the way back to the serene altitude of clean conscience, an_ will undertake to enlighten you upon the secret of every great historica_vent, tragic or otherwise. If you will search history carefully, you wil_ote that the basic cause of all great events, such as revolutions, civi_trifes, political assassinations, foreign wars, and race oppressions, lay no_n men's honor so much as in some one man's dishonor. A man, having committe_ dishonorable act, may reestablish himself in the eyes of his fellow-beings, but ever and ever he silently mocks himself and dares not look into the mirro_f his conscience.
Honor is comparative, as every one will agree. It is only in the highl_eveloped mind that it reaches its superlative state. Either this man become_mpregnable to the assaults of the angel of the pitch robes, or he boldl_lunges into the frightful blackness which surrounds her. The great greed o_ower, the great greed of wealth, the great greed of hate, the great greed o_ealousy, and the great greed of love, only these tempt him.
Now, of dishonors, which does man hold in the greatest abhorrence? Thi_uestion needs no pondering. It may be answered simply. The murderer, th_hief, and the rogue—we look upon these callously. But Judas! Treachery to ou_ountry! This is the nadir of dishonor; nothing could be blacker. We neve_top to look into the causes, nor does history, that most upright an_mpartial of judges; we brand instantly. Who can tell the truth about Juda_scariot, and Benedict Arnold, and the host of others? I can almost tolerate _udas who betrays for a great love. There seems to be a stupendous eliminatio_f self in the man who betrays for those he loves, braving the consequences, the ignominy, the dishonor, the wretchedness; otherwise I should not hav_ndertaken to write this bit of history.
To betray a friend, that is bad; to betray a woman, that is still worse; bu_o betray one's country!-to commit an act which shall place her at the merc_f her enemies! Ah, the ignoble deaths of the men who were guilty of thi_rime! And if men have souls, as we are told they have, how the souls of thes_en must writhe as they look into the minds of living men and behold th_orror and contempt in which each traitor's name is held there!
Have you ever thought of the legion of men who have been thrust back from th_ery foot of this precipice, either by circumstances or by the revolt o_onscience? These are the men who reestablish themselves in the eyes of thei_ellow-beings, but who for ever silently mock themselves and dare not loo_nto the mirror of their consciences.
In this world motive is everything. A bad thing may be done for a goo_urpose, or, the other way around. This is the story of a crime, the motive o_hich was good.
Once upon a time there lived a soldier, a gentleman born, a courtier, a man o_ine senses, of high integrity, of tenderness, of courage; he possessed _plendid physical beauty, besides estates, and a comfortable revenue, o_ather, he presided over one. Above all this, he was the father of a girl wh_orshiped him, and not without reason. What mysterious causes should set t_ork to ruin this man, to thrust him from light into darkness? What step le_im to attempt to betray his country, even in times of peace, to dishonor hi_ame, a name his honesty had placed high on the rolls of glory? What defens_an he offer? Well, I shall undertake to defend him; let yours be the verdict.
Enforced idleness makes a criminal of a poor man; it urges the man of means t_ravel. Having seen his native land, it was only natural that my defendan_hould desire to see foreign countries. So, accompanied by his child, he wen_broad, visited the famous capitals, and was the guest of honor at hi_ountry's embassies. It was a delightful period. Both were as happy as fat_ver allows a human being to be. The father had received his honorabl_ischarge, and till recently had held a responsible position in the Wa_epartment. His knowledge had proved of no small value to the government, fo_e was a born strategist, and his hobby was the coast defenses. He neve_eheld a plan that he did not reproduce it on the back of an envelope, on an_andy scrap of paper, and then pore over it through the night. He ha_ommitted to memory the smallest details, the ammunition supplies of eac_ort, the number of guns, the garrison, the pregnable and impregnable sides.
He knew the resource of each, too; that is to say, how quickly aid could b_ecured, the nearest transportation routes, what forage might be had. He ha_ven submitted plans for a siege gun.
One day, in the course of their travels, the father and daughter stopped a_onte Carlo. Who hasn't heard of that city of fever? Who that has seen it ca_asily forget its gay harbor, its beautiful walks, its crowds, its music, it_otels, its white temple of fortune? Now, my defendant had hitherto ignore_he principality of Monaco. The tales of terror which had reached his ears di_ot prepossess him in its favor. But his daughter had friends there, and sh_anted to see them. There would be dances on the private yacht, and dinners, and teas, and fireworks. On the third night of his arrival he was joined b_he owner of the yacht, a millionaire banker whose son was doing the honors a_ost. I believe that there was a musicale on board that night, and as th_anker wasn't particularly fond of this sort of entertainment, he inveigle_is soldier friend to accompany him on a sight-seeing trip. At midnight the_ntered the temple of fortune. At first the soldier demurred; but the banke_old him that he hadn't seen Monte Carlo unless he saw the wheel go around.
So, laughing, they entered the halls.
The passion for gaming is born in us all, man and woman alike, and is concede_y wise analysts to be the most furious of all passions and the most lasting.
In some, happily, the serpent sleeps for ever, the fire is for ever banked.
But it needs only the opportunity to rouse the dull ember into flame, to sti_he venom of the serpent. It seems a simple thing to toss a coin on th_oulette boards. Sometimes the act is done contemptuously, sometime_ndifferently, sometimes in the spirit of fun and curiosity; but the result i_lways the same.
The banker played for a while, won and lost, lost and won. The soldier put hi_and into a pocket and drew forth a five-franc piece. He placed it on _umber. The angel in the pitch robes is always lying in wait for man to mak_is first bad step; so she urged fortune to let this man win. It is a_nwritten law, high up on Olympus, that the gods must give to the gods; onl_he prayers of the mortals go unanswered.
So my defendant won. He laughed like a boy who had played marbles for "keeps"
and had taken away his opponent's agates. His mind was perfectly innocent o_ny wrong-doing. That night he won a thousand francs. His real first bad ste_as in hiding the escapade from his daughter. The following night he wo_gain. Then he dallied about the flame till one night the lust of hi_orebears shone forth from his eyes. The venom of the serpent spread, th_mber grew into a flame. His daughter, legitimately enjoying herself with th_oung people, knew nothing nor dreamed. Indeed, he never entered the templ_ill after he had kissed her good night.
He lost. He lost twice, thrice, in succession. One morning he woke up to th_act that he was several thousand dollars on the wrong side of the book. I_he money had been his own, he would have stopped, and gone his way, cured.
But it was money which he held in trust. He _must_ replace it. The angel i_he pitch robes stood at his side; she even laid a hand on his shoulder an_rged him to win back what he had lost. Then indeed he could laugh, go hi_ay, and gamble no more. This was excellent advice. That winter he los_omething like fifteen thousand. Then began the progress of decline. Th_ollowing summer his losses were even greater than before. He began t_ortgage the estates, for his authority over his daughter's property wa_bsolute. He dabbled in stocks; a sudden fall in gold, and he realized tha_is daughter was nearly penniless. Ah, had he been alone, had the money bee_is, he would have faced poverty with all the courage of a brave man. But th_irl, the girl! She must never know, she must never want for those luxuries t_hich she was accustomed. For her sake he must make one more effort He _must_in, must, must! He raised more money on the property. He became irritable, nervous, to which were added sudden bursts of tenderness which the girl coul_ot very well understand.
The summer preceding the action of this tale saw them at Dieppe. At one tim_e had recovered something between sixty and seventy thousand of his losses.
Ah, had he stopped then, confessed to his daughter, all would have gone wel_ut, no; he must win the entire sum. He lost, lost, lost. The crash came i_ugust. But a corner of the vast Virginian estates was left, and this did no_mount to twenty thousand. Five francs carelessly tossed upon a roulette tabl_ad ruined and dishonored him. The angel of the pitch robes had fairl_nveloped him now. The thought that he had gambled uselessly his daughter'_egacy, the legacy which her mother had left confidingly in his care, fille_is soul with the bitterness of gall. And she continued the merry round o_appiness, purchasing expensive garments, jewelry, furs, the little thing_hich women love; gave dinners and teas and dances, considered herself a_eiress, and thought the world a very pleasant place to live in. Every laug_rom her was a thorn to him, the light of happiness in her eyes was _eproach, for he knew that she was dancing toward the precipice which he ha_igged for her.
Struggling futilely among these nettles of despair, he took the final step.
His ruin became definitive. His evil goddess saw to it that an opportunit_hould present itself. (How simple all this reads! As I read it over it doe_ot seem credible. Think of a man who has reached the height of his ambition, has dwelt there serenely, and then falls in this silly, inexcusable fashion!
Well, that is human nature, the human part of it. Only here and there do w_all grandly.)
One starlit night he met a distinguished young diplomat, rich and handsome. H_layed some, but to pass away the time rather than to coquet with fortune. H_as lucky. The man who plays for the mere fun of it is generally lucky. H_sks no favors from fortune; he does not pay any attention to her, and, woman- like, she is piqued. He won heavily this night; my soldier los_orrespondingly heavily. The diplomat pressed a loan upon his new-foun_riend, who, with his usual luck, lost it.
The diplomat was presented to the daughter. They owned to mutual acquaintanc_n Paris and Washington. The three attended the concert. The girl returned t_he hotel bubbling with happiness and the echoes of enchanting melodies, fo_he was an accomplished musician. She retired and left the two men to thei_offee and cigars. The conversation took several turns, and at length stoppe_t diplomacy,
"It has always puzzled me," said the soldier, "how Russia finds out all sh_oes."
"That is easily explained. Russia has the wisdom of the serpent. Here is a ma_ho possesses a secret which Russia must have. They study him. If he i_allant, one day he meets a fascinating woman; if he is greedy, he turns t_ind a bowl of gold at his elbow; if he seeks power, Russia points out th_hortest road."
"But her knowledge of foreign army and naval strength?"
"Money does all that. Russia possesses an accurate knowledge of every fort, ship and gun England boasts of; France, Germany, and Japan. We have neve_aken it into our heads to investigate America. Till recently your country a_ foe to Russian interests had dropped below the horizon. And now Russia find_hat she must proceed to do what she has done to all other countries; that is, duplicate her rival's fortification plans, her total military and nava_trength; and so forth, and so on. The United States is not an enemy, bu_here are possibilities of her becoming so. Some day she must wrest Cuba fro_pain, and then she may become a recognized quantity in the Pacific."
"Even so. Having taken Cuba, the United States, to protect her western coast, will be forced to occupy the Philippines; and having taken that archipelago, she becomes a menace to Russian territorial expansion in the far East. I d_ot always speak so frankly. But I wish you to see the necessity of knowin_ll about your coast defenses."
"It can not be done!"—spiritedly. So far the American had only gambled.
"It can and will be done," smiling. "Despite the watchfulness of you_fficials, despite your secret service, despite all obstacles, Russia wil_uietly gain the required information. She possesses a key to every lock."
"And what might this key be?"—with tolerant irony.
"But if the United States found out what Russia was doing, there might b_ar."
"Nothing of the kind. Russia would simply deny all knowledge. The man whom sh_elected to do the work would be discredited, banished, perhaps sent t_iberia to rot in the mines. No, there would be no war. Russia would weigh al_hese possibilities in selecting her arm. She would choose a man of hig_ntellect, rich, well-known in social circles, a linguist, a man acquainte_ith all histories and all phases of life, a diplomat, perhaps young an_leasing. You will say, why does he accept so base a task? When a Russia_oble takes his oath in the presence of his czar, he becomes simply an arm; h_o longer thinks, his master thinks for him. He only acts. So long as h_ffers his services without remuneration, his honor remains untouched, unsullied. A paid spy is the basest of all creatures."
"Count, take care that I do not warn my country of Russia's purpose. You ar_elling me very strange things." The American eyed his companion sharply.
"Warn the United States? I tell you, it will not matter. All Russia would nee_ould be a dissatisfied clerk. What could he not do with half a millio_rancs?" The diplomat blew a cloud of smoke through his nostrils and fillipe_he end of his cigarette.
"A hundred thousand dollars?"
The diplomat glanced amusedly at his American friend. "I suppose that sound_mall enough to you rich Americans. But to a clerk it reads wealth."
The American was silent. A terrible thought flashed through his brain, _hought that he repulsed almost immediately.
"Of course, I am only speculating; nothing has been done as yet."
"Then something _is_ going to be done?" asked the American, clearing hi_oice.
"One day or another. If we can not find the clerk, we shall look higher. W_hould consider a million francs well invested. America is rapidly becoming _reat power. But let us drop the subject and turn to something more agreeabl_o us both. Your daughter is charming. I honestly confess to you that I hav_ot met her equal in any country. Pardon my presumption, but may I ask if sh_s engaged to be married?"
"Not to my knowledge,"—vastly surprised and at the same time pleased.
"Are you averse to foreign alliances?" The diplomat dipped the end of a fresh- lighted cigar into his coffee.
"My dear Count, I am not averse to foreign alliances, but I rather suspec_hat my daughter is. This aversion might be overcome, however."
What a vista was opened to this wretched father! If only she might marr_iches, how easily he might confess what he had done, how easily all thi_espair and terror might be dispersed! And here was a man who was known in th_reat world, rich, young and handsome.
The other gazed dreamily at the ceiling; from there his gaze traveled abou_he coffee-room, with its gathering of coffee-drinkers, and at length cam_ack to his _vis-a-vis_.
"You will return to Washington?" he asked.
"I shall live there for the winter; that is, I expect to."
"Doubtless we shall see each other this winter, then,"—and the count thre_way his cigar, bade his companion good night, and went to his room.
How adroitly he had sown the seed! At that period he had no positive idea upo_hat kind of ground he had cast it. But he took that chance which all far- sighted men take, and then waited. There was little he had not learned abou_his handsome American with the beautiful daughter. How he had learned wil_lways remain dark to me. My own opinion is that he had been studying hi_uring his tenure of office in Washington, and, with that patience which i_aking Russia so formidable, waited for this opportunity.
I shall give the Russian all the justice of impartiality. When he saw th_irl, he rather shrank from the affair. But he had gone too far, he ha_romised too much; to withdraw now meant his own defeat, his government'_nger, his political oblivion. And there was a zest in this life of his. H_ould no more resist the call of intrigue than a gambler can resist th_roupier's, "Make your game, gentlemen!" I believe that he loved the girl th_oment he set eyes upon her. Her beauty and bearing distinguished her from th_ther women he had met, and her personality was so engaging that her conques_f him was complete and spontaneous. How to win this girl and at the same tim_uin her father was an embarrassing problem. The plan which finally came t_im he repelled again and again, but at length he surrendered. To get th_arent in his power and then to coerce the girl in case she refused him! To m_nowledge this affair was the first dishonorable act of a very honorable man.
But love makes fools and rogues of us all.
You will question my right to call this diplomat an honest man. As I have sai_lsewhere, honor is comparative. Besides, a diplomat generally falls into th_abit of lying successfully to himself.
When the American returned to the world, his cigar was out and his coffee wa_tale and cold.
"A million francs!" he murmured. "Two hundred thousand!"