Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 14

All afternoon they drove in the flapping buggy across the long undulations of the prairie. To their wandering there was no barrier, neither lake nor mountain nor factory-bristling city, and the breeze about them was flowing sunshine.

Martin cried to Leora, “I feel as if all the Zenith dust and hospital lint were washed out of my lungs. Dakota. Real man’s country. Frontier. Opportunity. America!”

From the thick swale the young prairie chickens rose. As he watched them sweep across the wheat, his sun-drowsed spirit was part of the great land, and he was almost freed of the impatience with which he had started out from Wheatsylvania.

“If you’re going driving, don’t forget that supper is six o’clock sharp,” Mrs. Tozer had said, smiling to sugar-coat it.

On Main Street, Mr. Tozer waved to them and shouted, “Be back by six. Supper at six o’clock sharp.”

Bert Tozer ran out from the bank, like a country schoolmaster skipping from a one-room schoolhouse, and cackled, “Say, you folks better not forget to be back at six o’clock for supper or the Old Man’ll have a fit. He’ll expect you for supper at six o’clock sharp, and when he says six o’clock SHARP, he means six o’clock SHARP, and not five minutes past six!”

“Now that,” observed Leora, “is funny, because in my twenty-two years in Wheatsylvania I remember three different times when supper was as late as seven minutes after six. Let’s get out of this, Sandy. . . . I wonder were we so wise to live with the family and save money?”

Before they had escaped from the not very extensive limits of Wheatsylvania they passed Ada Quist, the future Mrs. Bert Tozer, and through the lazy air they heard her voice slashing: “Better be home by six.”

Martin would be heroic. “We’ll by golly get back when we’re by golly good and ready!” he said to Leora; but on them both was the cumulative dread of the fussing voices, beyond every breezy prospect was the order, “Be back at six sharp”; and they whipped up to arrive at eleven minutes to six, as Mr. Tozer was returning from the creamery, full thirty seconds later than usual.

“Glad to see you among us,” he said. “Hustle now and get that horse in the livery stable. Supper’s at six — sharp!”

Martin survived it sufficiently to sound domestic when he announced at the supper-table:

“We had a bully drive. I’m going to like it here. Well, I’ve loafed for a day and a half, and now I’ve got to get busy. First thing is, I must find a location for my office. What is there vacant, Father Tozer?”

Mrs. Tozer said brightly, “Oh, I have such a nice idea, Martin. Why can’t we fix up an office for you out in the barn? It’d be so handy to the house, for you to get to meals on time, and you could keep an eye on the house if the girl was out and Ory and I went out visiting or to the Embroidery Circle.”

“In the barn!”

“Why, yes, in the old harness room. It’s partly ceiled, and we could put in some nice tar paper or even beaver board.”

“Mother Tozer, what the dickens do you think I’m planning to do? I’m not a hired man in a livery stable, or a kid looking for a place to put his birds’ eggs! I was thinking of opening an office as a physician!”

Bert made it all easy: “Yuh, but you aren’t much of a physician yet. You’re just getting your toes in.”

“I’m one hell of a good physician! Excuse me for cussing, Mother Tozer, but — Why, nights in the hospital, I’ve held hundreds of lives in my hand! I intend —”

“Look here, Mart,” said Bertie. “As we’re putting up the money — I don’t want to be a tightwad but after all, a dollar is a dollar — if we furnish the dough, we’ve got to decide the best way to spend it.”

Mr. Tozer looked thoughtful and said helplessly, “That’s so. No sense taking a risk, with the blame farmers demanding all the money they can get for their wheat and cream, and then deliberately going to work and not paying the interest on their loans. I swear, it don’t hardly pay to invest in mortgages any longer. No sense putting on lugs. Stands to reason you can look at a fellow’s sore throat or prescribe for an ear-ache just as well in a nice simple little office as in some fool place all fixed up like a Moorhead saloon. Mother will see you have a comfortable corner in the barn —”

Leora intruded: “Look here, Papa. I want you to lend us one thousand dollars, outright, to use as we see fit.” The sensation was immense. “We’ll pay you six per cent — no, we won’t; we’ll pay you five; that’s enough.”

“And mortgages bringing six, seven, and eight!” Bert quavered.

“Five’s enough. And we want our own say, absolute, as to how we use it — to fit up an office or anything else.”

Mr. Tozer began, “That’s a foolish way to —”

Bert took it away from him: “Ory, you’re crazy! I suppose we’ll have to lend you some money, but you’ll blame well come to us for it from time to time, and you’ll blame well take our advice —”

Leora rose. “Either you do what I say, just exactly what I say, or Mart and I take the first train and go back to Zenith, and I mean it! Plenty of places open for him there, with a big salary, so we won’t have to be dependent on anybody!”

There was much conversation, most of which sounded like all the rest of it. Once Leora started for the stairs, to go up and pack; once Martin and she stood waving their napkins as they shook their fists, the general composition remarkably like the Laocoon.

Leora won.

They settled down to the most solacing fussing.

“Did you bring your trunk up from the depot?” asked Mr. Tozer.

“No sense leaving it there — paying two bits a day storage!” fumed Bert.

“I got it up this morning,” said Martin.

“Oh, yes, Martin had it brought up this morning,” agreed Mrs. Tozer.

“You had it brought? Didn’t you bring it up yourself?” agonized Mr. Tozer.

“No. I had the fellow that runs the lumberyard haul it up for me,” said Martin.

“Well, gosh almighty, you could just as well’ve put it on a wheelbarrow and brought it up yourself and saved a quarter!” said Bert.

“But a doctor has to keep his dignity,” said Leora.

“Dignity, rats! Blame sight more dignified to be seen shoving a wheelbarrow than smoking them dirty cigarettes all the time!”

“Well, anyway — Where’d you put it?” asked Mr. Tozer.

“It’s up in our room,” said Martin.

“Where’d you think we better put it when it’s unpacked? The attic is awful’ full,” Mr. Tozer submitted to Mrs. Tozer.

“Oh, I think Martin could get it in there.”

“Why couldn’t he put it in the barn?”

“Oh, not a nice new trunk like that!”

“What’s the matter with the barn?” said Bert. “It’s all nice and dry. Seems a shame to waste all that good space in the barn, now that you’ve gone and decided he mustn’t have his dear little office there!”

“Bertie,” from Leora, “I know what we’ll do. You seem to have the barn on your brain. You move your old bank there, and Martin’ll take the bank building for his office.”

“That’s entirely different —”

“Now there’s no sense you two showing off and trying to be smart,” protested Mr. Tozer. “Do you ever hear your mother and I scrapping and fussing like that? When do you think you’ll have your trunk unpacked, Mart?” Mr. Tozer could consider barns and he could consider trunks but his was not a brain to grasp two such complicated matters at the same time.

“I can get it unpacked tonight, if it makes any difference —”

“Well, I don’t suppose it really makes any special difference, but when you start to DO a thing —”

“Oh, what difference does it make whether he —”

“If he’s going to look for an office, instead of moving right into the barn, he can’t take a month of Sundays getting unpacked and —”

“Oh, good Lord, I’ll get it done tonight —”

“And I think we can get it in the attic —”

“I tell you it’s jam full already —”

“We’ll go take a look at it after supper —”

“Well now, I tell you when I tried to get that duck-boat in-”

Martin probably did not scream, but he heard himself screaming. The free and virile land was leagues away and for years forgotten.

ii

To find an office took a fortnight of diplomacy, and of discussion brightening three meals a day, every day. (Not that office-finding was the only thing the Tozers mentioned. They went thoroughly into every moment of Martin’s day; they commented on his digestion, his mail, his walks, his shoes that needed cobbling, and whether he had yet taken them to the farmer-trapper-cobbler, and how much the cobbling ought to cost, and the presumable theology, politics, and marital relations of the cobbler.)

Mr. Tozer had from the first known the perfect office. The Norbloms lived above their general store, and Mr. Tozer knew that the Norbloms were thinking of moving. There was indeed nothing that was happening or likely to happen in Wheatsylvania which Mr. Tozer did not know and explain. Mrs. Norblom was tired of keeping house, and she wanted to go to Mrs. Beeson’s boarding house (to the front room, on the right as you went along the up-stairs hall, the room with the plaster walls and the nice little stove that Mrs. Beeson bought from Otto Krag for seven dollars and thirty-five cents — no, seven and a quarter it was).

They called on the Norbloms and Mr. Tozer hinted that “it might be nice for the Doctor to locate over the store, if the Norbloms were thinking of making any change —”

The Norbloms stared at each other, with long, bleached, cautious, Scandinavian stares, and grumbled that they “didn’t KNOW— of course it was the finest location in town —” Mr. Norblom admitted that if, against all probability, they ever considered moving, they would probably ask twenty-five dollars a month for the flat, unfurnished.

Mr. Tozer came out of the international conference as craftily joyful as any Mr. Secretary Tozer or Lord Tozer in Washington or London:

“Fine! Fine! We made him commit himself! Twenty-five, he says. That means, when the time’s ripe, we’ll offer him eighteen and close for twenty-one-seventy-five. If we just handle him careful, and give him time to go see Mrs. Beeson and fix up about boarding with her, we’ll have him just where we want him!”

“Oh, if the Norbloms can’t make up their minds, then let’s try something else,” said Martin. “There’s a couple of vacant rooms behind the Eagle office.”

“What? Go chasing around, after we’ve given the Norbloms reason to think we’re serious, and make enemies of ’em for life? Now that would be a fine way to start building up a practice, wouldn’t it? And I must say I wouldn’t blame the Norbloms one bit for getting wild if you let ’em down like that. This ain’t Zenith, where you can go yelling around expecting to get things done in two minutes!”

Through a fortnight, while the Norbloms agonized over deciding to do what they had long ago decided to do, Martin waited, unable to begin work. Until he should open a certified and recognizable office, most of the village did not regard him as a competent physician but as “that son-inlaw of Andy Tozer’s.” In the fortnight he was called only once: for the sick-headache of Miss Agnes Ingleblad, aunt and housekeeper of Alec Ingleblad the barber. He was delighted, till Bert Tozer explained:

“Oh, so SHE called you in, eh? She’s always doctorin’ around. There ain’t a thing the matter with her, but she’s always trying out the latest stunt. Last time it was a fellow that come through here selling pills and liniments out of a Ford, and the time before that it was a faith-healer, crazy loon up here at Dutchman’s Forge, and then for quite a spell she doctored with an osteopath in Leopolis — though I tell you there’s something to this osteopathy — they cure a lot of folks that you regular docs can’t seem to find out what’s the matter with ’em, don’t you think so?”

Martin remarked that he did not think so.

“Oh, you docs!” Bert crowed in his most jocund manner, for Bert could be very joky and bright. “You’re all alike, especially when you’re just out of school and think you know it all. You can’t see any good in chiropractic or electric belts or bone-setters or anything, because they take so many good dollars away from you.”

Then behold the Dr. Martin Arrowsmith who had once infuriated Angus Duer and Irving Watters by his sarcasm on medical standards upholding to a lewdly grinning Bert Tozer the benevolence and scientific knowledge of all doctors; proclaiming that no medicine had ever (at least by any Winnemac graduate) been prescribed in vain nor any operation needlessly performed.

He saw a good deal of Bert now. He sat about the bank, hoping to be called on a case, his fingers itching for bandages. Ada Quist came in with frequency and Bert laid aside his figuring to be coy with her:

“You got to be careful what you even think about, when the doc is here, Ade. He’s been telling me what a whale of a lot of neurology and all that mind-reading stuff he knows. How about it, Mart? I’m getting so scared that I’ve changed the combination on the safe.”

“Heh!” said Ada. “He may fool some folks but he can’t fool me. Anybody can learn things in books, but when it comes to practicing ’em — Let me tell you, Mart, if you ever have one-tenth of the savvy that old Dr. Winter of Leopolis has, you’ll live longer than I expect!”

Together they pointed out that for a person who felt his Zenith training had made him so “gosh-awful smart that he sticks up his nose at us poor hicks of dirt-farmers,” Martin’s scarf was rather badly tied.

All of his own wit and some of Ada’s Bert repeated at the supper table.

“You oughtn’t to ride the boy so hard. Still, that was pretty cute about the necktie — I guess Mart does think he’s some punkins,” chuckled Mr. Tozer.

Leora took Martin aside after supper. “Darlin’, can you stand it? We’ll have our own house, soon as we can. Or shall we vamoose?”

“I’m by golly going to stand it!”

“Um. Maybe. Dear, when you hit Bertie, do be careful — they’ll hang you.”

He ambled to the front porch. He determined to view the rooms behind the Eagle office. Without a retreat in which to be safe from Bert he could not endure another week. He could not wait for the Norbloms to make up their minds, though they had become to him dread and eternal figures whose enmity would crush him; prodigious gods shadowing this Wheatsylvania which was the only perceptible world.

He was aware, in the late sad light, that a man was tramping the plank walk before the house, hesitating and peering at him. The man was one Wise, a Russian Jew known to the village as “Wise the Polack.” In his shack near the railroad he sold silver stock and motor-factory stock, bought and sold farmlands and horses and muskrat hides. He called out, “That you, Doc?”

“Yup!”

Martin was excited. A patient!

“Say, I wish you’d walk down a ways with me. Couple things I’d like to talk to you about. Or say, come on over to my place and sample some new cigars I’ve got.” He emphasized the word “cigars.” North Dakota was, like Mohalis, theoretically dry.

Martin was pleased. He had been sober and industrious so long now!

Wise’s shack was a one-story structure, not badly built, half a block from Main Street, with nothing but the railroad track between it and open wheat country. It was lined with pine, pleasant-smelling under the stench of old pipe-smoke. Wise winked — he was a confidential, untrustworthy wisp of a man — and murmured, “Think you could stand a little jolt of first-class Kentucky bourbon?”

“Well, I wouldn’t get violent about it.”

Wise pulled down the sleazy window-shades and from a warped drawer of his desk brought up a bottle out of which they both drank, wiping the mouth of the bottle with circling palms. Then Wise, abruptly:

“Look here, Doc. You’re not like these hicks; you understand that sometimes a fellow gets mixed up in crooked business he didn’t intend to. Well, make a long story short, I guess I’ve sold too much mining stock, and they’ll be coming down on me. I’ve got to be moving — curse it — hoped I could stay settled for couple of years, this time. Well, I hear you’re looking for an office. This place would be ideal. Ideal! Two rooms at the back besides this one. I’ll rent it to you, furniture and the whole shooting-match, for fifteen dollars a month, if you’ll pay me one year in advance. Oh, this ain’t phony. Your brother-inlaw knows all about my ownership.”

Martin tried to be very business-like. Was he not a young doctor who would soon be investing money, one of the most Substantial Citizens in Wheatsylvania? He returned home, and under the parlor lamp, with its green daisies on pink glass, the Tozers listened acutely, Bert stooping forward with open mouth.

“You’d be safe renting it for a year, but that ain’t the point,” said Bert.

“It certainly isn’t! Antagonize the Norbloms, now that they’ve almost made up their minds to let you have their place? Make me a fool, after all the trouble I’ve taken?” groaned Mr. Tozer.

They went over it and over it till almost ten o’clock, but Martin was resolute, and the next day he rented Wise’s shack.

For the first time in his life he had a place utterly his own, his and Leora’s.

In his pride of possession this was the most lordly building on earth, and every rock and weed and doorknob was peculiar and lovely. At sunset he sat on the back stoop (a very interesting and not too broken soap-box) and from the flamboyant horizon the open country flowed across the thin band of the railroad to his feet. Suddenly Leora was beside him, her arm round his neck, and he hymned all the glory of their future:

“Know what I found in the kitchen here? A dandy old auger, hardly rusty a bit, and I can take a box and make a test-tube rack . . . of my own!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38