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The Love-Germ

By Constance Cotterell

“Yes,” said the Professor, thumping on the road with his big
stick as he spoke, ” I am on its track at last. A few
more experiments, and the world will have it in its own hands to
free itself from the greatest evil it has ever suffered.”

His nostrils quivered. A little more imagination, and I should
have seen flashes from his eyes. I may mention at once that he
was not a stage professor, but a nice clean tidy person in real life,
the sort of man one could put in a drawing-room without the
carpet and curtains swearing at him. He wore clothes that were
in fashion, and the only odd thing about him was his rather long
hair; but it curled and suited him so well that I sometimes
thought that was just vanity. In fact, he was quite the nicest-
looking Professor I have ever seen, and shaved himself every
morning like the most blatant Philistine.

” Are you so sure,” I ventured desperately, for when he was
terribly in earnest he was very convincing, like a loud-voiced
preacher, ” are you so sure that its only effect is evil ? ”

He stood still in that narrow lane, and out of the hedge up above
the long dog-rose boughs waved their roses at him.

“It is the mightiest instrument of woe that man has ever had
to fight,” he said solemnly. ” At his strongest and best it smites


                        126 The Love-Germ

him down. In the flower of his days it permeates his brain, it
undermines his imagination, it corrupts his very reason. Its
mildest onslaught warps the judgment. When a man begins to
think a woman, of whom he probably knows less than of any
other, the best of her sex, the way is open for the germ—if it is
not already there. And of women it is the greatest enemy.
Where would the sufferings of thousands,     millions, of them have
been, if the germ had never burrowed in their brains ? Betrayed,
the victims of drunken or depraved husbands, helpless widows with
hungry families—all this might have been saved to them ! :

” But,” I objected, trying to stem his rage, ” doesn’t its in-
fluence generally pass and leave the brain as healthy as before ? ”

He looked at me keenly. He did not wear spectacles, and his
eyes were not in the least dim or bleary.

” That is true,” he said slowly, ” in some cases. After the best
years of life have been blighted,” he added quickly. “Inmost
cases the brain-power is weakened for life. In women especially.”

” Why do you say all this to me, a woman ? :

Because,” he answered, ” young as you are, I believe you to
have a grasp of the seriousness and true import of life which will
prevent you, once warned, from falling into this terrible fate.”

I tried feebly to stop him, but praise is the hardest thing to
fight. Your own heart is against you, and delighteth to hear.

He walked on in silence a little, snuffing up the scent of the
dog-roses, and immensely enjoying himself, I could see. He was
resting from the untiring quest of germs, down there in the
country where we had come to stay too. I looked at him, with
his head thrown back and the passion in his face and the fire in
his eyes, and I thought treason. I thought what a magnificent
lover he would make.

I went back to my old idea. “Are we not just a mass of


                        127 By Constance Cotterell

germs, some good and some bad ? Why mayn’t this supposed
love-germ be a good one ? ”

At the word ” supposed ” he glared at me in such a manner that
I dared not doubt the fiend s existence.

” A good germ,” he cried, ” that makes men forgetful of right
and of their duty, untrue to their religion, unfaithful to their wives ?”

” It’s responsible for the wives in the first place,” I said per-
versely, ” so isn’t that rather a righteous judgment ? ”

He looked annoyed. ” Don t quibble,” he said. ” You call it
a good germ that was rampant under Catherine of Russia and
Charles II. of England ? A good germ that made five miserable
women through Henry VIII. ? A good germ that led Marc
Antony and hundreds like him to dishonour ? A good germ that
ruins Fausts and Gretchens by the thousand ? A good germ that
wastes young lives like—like Romeo’s and Juliet’s, that might
have been turned to great account ? A good germ that sends
honourable men and women to death ? It’s not natural, and
therefore it’s not right, for one human being to want to die for
another ! The first and the most common thing a lover offers is
to die for his mistress. Is that healthy ? ”

” But,” I objected rather diffidently, for I could not help quail-
ing before his passion and his array of instances, especially the
Faust idea, ” but isn’t it noble to die for another ?”

” Are we here to talk about nobility?” he cried. ” We are
thinking of what is for the good of the whole race.”

He was thoroughly modern, this professor, at least as far as I
had got. But then, you never know when you have got to the
innermost of a man.

“But isn’t the world better for the example of a noble unselfish
life than for a selfish existence, always seeking merely to develop
itself ? ”


                        128 The Love-Germ

” And what is more selfish than the love-germ ? ”

“And more unselfish ?” I retorted, though I could not but feel
puzzled and discomfited and as though he had had the best of it
that time. His enthusiasm bore you down. Then I plucked up
heart a little. ” If it has done more harm it has done more good
too than anything else. Christ had it (“I deny it ! ” he inter-
rupted) ; people who give their lives to work among the sick and
poor have it (“That I altogether deny,” he said, “it’s a totally
different thing “) ; Mrs. Fry had it ; Sister Dora had it ; Father
Damien had it ; Dante too, and we have his poems ; all the knights
errant who took their lives in their hands (” And who asked them
to take their lives in their hands ? ” he demanded) and righted
wrong and broke down oppression—” I stopped for want of
breath, and looked defiantly at him.

He smiled kindly upon me.

” That,” said he from professional heights, ” is not argument.
These great and good people never harboured the love-germ. Nor
any relation of it. What dominated most of them was a germ not
only of another species but another genus. It was the altruism-
germ, which is slowly working out our social evolution, the
noblest bacillus the human animal can support. Like those bene-
ficent phagocylic bacilli, of which of course you have heard, it
will one day have killed all base and baleful germs.”

I was silent. His words were very big. His manner was very
unanswerable. I was not convinced. Who would be ? But his
very personality, the very air that blew from him to me, was so
convincing that I was quashed for the moment.

” There is a girl down here,” I heard him say, as I came out
of my baffled vexation ; ” she has not the germ yet, I believe ; I’m
not sure. But she is a most likely subject. I intend to watch
her. She is ripe. So is a young man who is staying down here


                        129 By Constance Cotterell

—at her father’s very vicarage. If only my experiments were
perfect,” he almost groaned, ” I could spare them and save them
alive, two sane, beautiful, useful people ! ”

” How do you catch it ? ” I hastened to ask, he seemed so

” How do you catch other germs ? We do not eat and
drink the flesh and blood of our fellow-creatures, but we keep up
a constant interchange of germs with them, nevertheless. And
this germ is even less material, more ethereal, so to say, than any

” A kind of soul of a germ.” I suggested. ” A higher order.”

” No,” he said, ” never that.”

I wanted to ask if he had ever housed the germ himself, but I
did not dare. I afterwards found he hadn’t.

” It is an almost spontaneous generation,” he went on, his face
glowing. ” It is the result of certain rapid spasms of certain
nerve-centres in the brain. When a man or woman looks at
another and begins to love, there is set up an unthinkably violent
agitation among these molecules. It is a motion so incalculably
rapid that it gives a sense of absolute rest, like a stun, as though
the working of the brain had stopped dead short. In reality it is
a movement more rapid than the mind can conceive ; and it is
then that the love-germ is engendered.”

“Cannot you operate beforehand on a brain, so that the germ
may not take ? ” I cried, moved to enthusiasm by his earnest

” I don’t know—I don’t know. It is my dream,” he answered
softly, like one thinking on an absent lover.

The rest of our way lay through the fields. He only woke up
once to say, ” If only it could be proved that a person had died
of it, and one could examine his brain ! ”


                        130 The Love-Germ

We walked across one grass meadow.

” But it never does kill,” he added sorrowfully.

I was gazing on the ripening grasses, thinking of what he
had said. Having just learnt that the real seat of sea-sickness
was in the base of the brain, I was not surprised to hear that
love was there engendered also, contrary to the testimony of
all the ages. And I recollect thinking confusedly that in the
cases of love and sea-sickness both, you were apt to call for

“This is she,” he said suddenly, almost in a whisper. “Look !
In the next field.”

I lifted my eyes and saw Pleasance Gurney coming towards us.
I remember at the very first I thought her a creature by nature
set apart as a victim to speak in terms of love-germ. We met
at the kissing-gate. The wicket, the Profes c or called it. She
bowed to him and looked at me, hanging on her foot as though
she would like to stop and speak, but he held the gate for her
without a word, and so she went on. She had a high instep and
her eyes were blue. That was all I had seen clearly. And there
was a ripple in her hair.

Next day the Vicarage people called on us, and after that we
were always together, picnicking, rowing, walking, bicycling.
The Professor had a very healthy taste in picnics, I cannot but
own. Indeed, he had a very healthy taste altogether, except his
diseased appetite for germs. In the smallest committee there is
always an inner circle, and in our party there was always an inner
four. It consisted of Pleasance Gurney and me, of the Professor
and the young man staying at the Vicarage, Edward Belton.
Sometimes we mixed one way, sometimes the other. The
Professor developed a great interest in wild flowers, and began to
talk about his young days ; which he persisted in shoving a great


                        131 By Constance Cotterell

deal farther off than they really were, on the same principle that
he called me ” my dear.”

Women always hear of men s young days, and like to hear of

In our private conversations the Professor became exceedingly
elliptical. I found that it always stood for the germ, he for
Edward Belton, and she for Pleasance Gurney. When I had
once found this out his talk was quite intelligible, and we got on
very pleasantly. He had said he would watch Pleasance Gurney,
and he watched her very closely. Sometimes I have seen him be
half an hour with the party of us and not take his eyes oft her.
It was a half-wistful, half-penetrating look, and she used to redden
under it, but I never could see that she disliked it. I believe he
never suffered so much at the thought of the germ seizing on
any one as at the thought of Miss Gurney s falling in love with
Edward Belton. When we walked home from the Vicarage in
the summer twilight he used to talk of it.

“Think of what she might do if she remained sane,” he would
begin, generally quite suddenly. ” Oh, it’s piteous, horrible ! ”
His voice would almost break. ” Not but what Belton is a fine
fellow,” he as often as not added, once between his teeth.

I never said anything. I was always wondering if one ought
to speak, but I never did.

The Professor came to me one day. After looking uneasily
out of window, clearing his throat once or twice, and moving a
chair or two.

” Do you know,” he said quite nervously, ” that that young
man, Edward Belton, is—is—”

“Yes?” I said cruelly, sitting and looking at him. I would
not help him out.

” Is a victim of the germ ? ”


                        132 The Love-Germ

He forced it out and looked at me for a start of horrified sur
prise. He almost gave one himself to see that I did not.

” His eyes, his voice, his absence of mind, his agitation,” he
went on, “—haven’t you noticed ? ”

” I have noticed.”

” Though he has seemed more assured the last day or so.”

I smiled.

He became still more nervous.

” I—I think we could help him, if it hasn’t gone too far.
The only thing is,” he went on musingly, more like himself, ” I
have noticed that even if you do remove the object the germ
still remains and another object will very often feed it just as

” And how do you propose to remove the object ? ” I asked,
with what no doubt corresponded to my great aunt’s much admired

I saw in his eye that he was going to evade me.

” Well, I always thought,” he said with an embarrassed hand
through his hair, ” that when—it—came, you know, it would be
a passion for—for—in fact for Miss Gurney.”

Indeed ? ”

” Just as I expected she would develop one for him.”

” O, I never thought that,” said I.

His eye brightened.

” But it was so likely she should. Everything was in favour
of it.”

“Except just one thing.”

” What is that ? ”

“I can’t communicate my view,” I said with, I hoped, a fine
scientific manner. ” Well, I conclude it will be of no use to
remove Pleasance Gurney. What do you propose to remove ? :


                        133 The Love-Germ

Well, I—I—in fact, it is in your presence that it is most
active. Indeed, I am afraid he is in a fair way to be what idiots
call in love with you.”

I cannot describe how nervous he was as he said this.

“I know it,” I said, and felt that he thought me a fool for
reddening and grinning in a weak sort of way. He has since
told me that he did.

He looked at me and gave a kind of gasp.

” And you ? ” He could hardly speak.

” Oh, I love him,” I said. For the life of me I could not help
the cruel happiness bursting through into my voice.

He did not say a word, but turned and left me, a bitterly dis-
appointed man. His back had a heartbroken look as it vanished
through the door. I know now that half the bitterness of the
blow was the thought that the germ had seized on my brain,
permeated it, undermined my imagination, corrupted my reason,
and all the rest of it, under his very eyes, while he had never so
much as dreamt of it. It is true all his thoughts had been taken
up with watching for symptoms in Pleasance and Edward Belton.
He would as soon have thought of prying for madness in his own
mother as for the germ in me.

I believe he spent a wretched day. None of us saw him again
for hours.

” She really is a most interesting girl,” he said to me that very
night in the old friendly way. ” If only she—” and so on and
so on.

He had had to take me back. I knew the man must speak to
somebody—or grow worse. So he took me back again, though
his polite and painful congratulations to Edward are better left
unspoken of. For several days he went about us with a sad,
forsaken air. He had wept over us and would have gathered us


                        134 The Love-Germ

into his fold, and we would not. And then when Edward and I
happened to meet each other s eyes the look was a lingering look.
And when our hands happened to touch they did not hurriedly
untouch again. When the Professor marked these things I have
seen his face wrung with pain.

Then I went away for a few days.

When I came back I noticed a certain absorbed look and sup-
pressed excitement about my Professor. He seemed to want to
speak to me, but not to be able to force himself to the point. At
last he succeeded. I had just come in from a walk and we were
sitting in the garden.

” I am certain the germ is attacking her brain,” he began in a
low voice. ” I am certain of it. After all these years I cannot
mistake the signs.”

” I suppose not,” I said dryly. “Oh, no, you cannot possibly
be mistaken.”

” I cannot,” he said uneasily.

“So I said.” I fanned myself with my hat.

” She is falling in love,” he said with a gulp. ” I don’t know
with whom. Indeed, failing Edward Belton, who is there for her
to fall in—love with ?” He gulped again.

I am afraid I stared at him. ” Oh, I don t know if you don’t,” I
blundered out.

” I ? ” said the Professor.

I said nothing.

” It would be interesting,” he went on, with a spark of the old
enthusiasm I had not missed till I heard it again, “very interesting
if the germ developed without any object, if a person were found
just in—love without any one special calling it out. At times I
find her eyes looking at me like those of an animal in pain, and
seeking help from the misery it does not understand. Curious, if


                        135 By Constance Cotterell

it were instinct turning to the only man in the world who knows
what is the matter with her ! A man, alas ! who would do any
thing to help her, but who has not yet found the cure.”

He ceased, and remained gazing at the ground, a mere mass of

” You take a great interest in her,” I said stupidly,

His eyes flashed. “And who would not?” he cried. “A
young beautiful creature like that, a creature who could make
existence so good and glad for hundreds of people. There is
nothing she could not do if she remained sane. She is extremely
clever. She has taken a great interest in bacteriology, and
seems really to grasp the enormous part it plays in life. Who
could bear to see it all lost, all frustrated, by a disease of the
brain ? ”

” Of course her being beautiful can t matter,” I said cruelly ;
” but, if she is so intelligent and so interested in germs, why not
explain your theory to her and help her to avoid her danger ? ”

He looked at me thoughtfully. “It is an idea,” he said.

” Have you ever spoken of your own particular germ to her ? ”

” N—no, I haven’t,” he admitted.

” Why not ? ” I persisted. I felt I had him at some sort of
mean advantage.

” I don’t know,” he said rather weakly. ” I really couldn’t

“Well,” I said suggestively, ” I passed her a minute ago, sitting
on the seat undei the willows by the river, drawing in the sand.”

I looked at my shoes attentively for the space of a minute.
When I looked up again the other chair was empty.

By-and-by he came back. He looked frightened and anxious
and miserable.

Well ? ”


                        136 The Love-Germ

At first he affected not to know what I meant, and made as
though he would pass me on his way in. Then :

” I have spoken of it to her,” he said, and I thought, and still
think, hurried into the house.

I put my hat on, and went out of the garden. I went down to
that seat under the willows by the river. It was empty. Large
and clear in the sand in front were his initials. Somebody had
hurriedly tried to scratch them over, but there they were.

Then Pleasance Gurney visited a great deal among her father’s
poor people in the village. It took her all day long. It was the
turn of the visitings to prevent the picnics. But we all went on
picnicking just the same, except that the Professor had a great
deal of work to do, and could very seldom come. One day I went
into his room. A week s dust lay over all his papers. Theories,
naturally, one works out in one s head. The others began to
remark on his abject face, and to speak to me of it. I, of course,
had not noticed it.

He hardly ever spoke to me. Sometimes we sat silent for half
an hour. I think he liked that, and felt better for it. He used to
begin with his chin on his chest, and his eyes on the ground.
Then by little and little his head got higher and higher, till, by
the end of the sitting, he was generally looking out straight in
front of him, with a far away look in his eyes, and sometimes a
dawning smile on his mouth. But as soon as anybody came, or I
opened my lips to speak, he would shake his shoulders and pull
himself together, and the smile hardened into sternness, and then
sank into gloom again.

I do not believe he saw Pleasance all that week. Once she
stood under the morning room window, and called up to me that
she had stolen some cherries from our trees, for a sick child. As
she turned away I looked behind me, and there stood the Professor,


                        137 By Constance Cotterell

craning his neck to look out of the window, with a fine glow on
his face. He sat down and drummed with his fingers on the
table, though it was open to anybody to go and carry her cherries
for her.

I think it was the morning after that that we found ourselves
talking almost as we used to talk.

“This has been a terrible holiday for me,” he was saying as
simply as a child.

” Yes,” I murmured.

” Because of her danger.” His face was turned away.

“Yes.” I found I was eagerly leaning forward.

He looked more comfortable when I leaned back again.

“It is so horrible.” He drew a great breath. “No one can
understand how horrible it is to me.”

” I think I can understand.”

You ?

He looked at me with such piercing reproach that the bare idea of
my loving Edward Belton seemed for the moment black apostacy.

I dropped my head before him.

” I did not mean to hurt you, child,” he said, looking at me as
though he did not see me, ” but I believe that there is no human
being who can understand.”

He clasped his hands and gazed out of the window. His head
lay against the back of his chair. Gradually, as I had seen it
before, the pain died out of his face. His mouth and eyes grew
soft, and his hands relaxed. I think he forgot where he was. I
think he was not in the body at all.

” And I would give my life to save her,” he said to himself
very low.

As he heard himself say those words a sudden shock went
through him. He sat like a stone.

The Yellow Book—Vol. XI. I


                        138 The Love-Germ

And in the silence I heard the echo of his words ringing from a
few weeks back : The first and most common thing a lover offers to
his mistress—

” Do you know what has happened ? ” he said at last, in a
strange stifled voice, and I saw that his hands were clenched.

” What ? ” I asked joyfully, and exulted, till I saw the anguish
in his face.

” I too am a victim.”

I caught his clenched hands, I could not help it, and wrung
them hard.

” I am so glad,” I cried. ” Dear Pleasance ! Now she will be

A little light trembled over his face and was gone in an instant,
buried in deepest gloom. He rose up.

” I have a battle to fight,” he said, in such a sad, solemn, earnest
way that I held on harder to his hands, and looked pityingly up
at him.

But he broke from me and went into his own room. No one
saw him again till the evening.

I went out for a long walk.

Once or twice I lingered by his room on tiptoe. I could
think of nothing else but the fight going on within. Which
would win, those deep hopes and convictions, or the great law
of nature, the heritage from his fathers ? But in the light of
the events of my own life just then, his theories showed so
impious, that even I did not sympathise to the full with his life

In the evening his door was open. The room was empty.
Nothing had been touched. All the old dust lay on everything.
Only, his chair was drawn up to the empty grate, back to the
window. I could see him as he had sat all day with his head


                        139 By Constance Cotterell

bent, gazing, gazing at that hard, unanswering black-lead, while
the fight raged up and down within him.

Then I went out thoughtfully and walked to and fro in the
shrubbery. Were two people happy, or were two more people
miserable in this world ?

Suddenly I heard a voice quite near.

” My heart’s love,” it was saying, in tones and depths I had never
dreamt it had. And then it poured out all the dear silly things
that he had certainly never said before, nor heard, but must have
known by divine instinct.

—I caught one glimpse through the leaves as they passed. His
face looked wan and worn from his tremendous battle, but happy
I had never seen the face of a man look so happy.

I crept away.

He was great in his defeat. He was, as I had known, a
magnificent lover. I think even Pleasance does not understand
her—my Professor—as I understand him.

His book on the love-germ is not yet out. But he has just
published one on a very fine mixed breed of germs the Americans
have lately perfected in their big cities.

MLA citation:

Cotterell, Constance. “The Love-Germ.” The Yellow Book, vol. 11, October 1896, pp. 125-139. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.