Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 15

With none of the profane observations on “medical peddlers” which had annoyed Digamma Pi, Martin studied the catalogue of the New Idea Instrument and Furniture Company, of Jersey City. It was a handsome thing. On the glossy green cover, in red and black, were the portraits of the president, a round quippish man who loved all young physicians; the general manager, a cadaverous scholarly man who surely gave all his laborious nights and days to the advancement of science; and the vice-president, Martin’s former preceptor, Dr. Roscoe Geake, who had a lively, eye-glassed, forward-looking modernity all his own. The cover also contained in surprisingly small space, a quantity of poetic prose, and the inspiring promise:

Doctor, don’t be buffaloed by the unenterprising. No reason why YOU should lack the equipment which impresses patients, makes practice easy, and brings honor and riches. All the high-class supplies which distinguish the Leaders of the Profession from the Dubs are within YOUR reach right NOW by the famous New Idea Financial System: “Just a little down and the rest FREE— out of the increased earnings which New Idea apparatus will bring you!”

Above, in a border of laurel wreaths and Ionic capitals, was the challenge:

Sing not the glory of soldiers or explorers or statesmen for who can touch the doctor — wise, heroic, uncontaminated by common greed. Gentlemen, we salute you humbly and herewith offer you the most up-to-the-jiffy catalogue ever presented by any surgical supply house.

The back cover, though it was less glorious with green and red, was equally arousing. It presented illustrations of the Bindledorf Tonsillectomy Outfit and of an electric cabinet, with the demand:

Doctor, are you sending your patients off to specialists for tonsil removal or to sanitoriums for electric, etc., treatment? If, so, you are losing the chance to show yourself one of the distinguished powers in the domain of medical advancement in your locality, and losing a lot of big fees. Don’t you WANT to be a high-class practitioner? Here’s the Open Door.

The Bindledorf Outfit is not only useful but exquisitely beautiful, adorns and gives class to any office. We guarantee that by the installation of a Bindledorf Outfit and a New Idea Panaceatic Electro–Therapeutic Cabinet (see details on pp. 34 and 97) you can increase your income from a thousand to ten thousand annually and please patients more than by the most painstaking plugging.

When the Great Call sounds, Doctor, and it’s time for you to face your reward, will you be satisfied by a big Masonic funeral and tributes from Grateful Patients if you have failed to lay up provision for the kiddies, and faithful wife who has shared your tribulations?

You may drive through blizzard and August heat, and go down into the purple-shadowed vale of sorrow and wrestle with the ebon-cloaked Powers of Darkness for the lives of your patients, but that heroism is incomplete without Modern Progress, to be obtained by the use of a Bindledorf Tonsillectomy Outfit and the New Idea Panaceatic Cabinet, to be obtained on small payment down, rest on easiest terms known in history of medicine!

ii

This poetry of passion Martin neglected, for his opinion of poetry was like his opinion of electric cabinets, but excitedly he ordered a steel stand, a sterilizer, flasks, test-tubes, and a white-enameled mechanism with enchanting levers and gears which transformed it from examining-chair to operating-table. He yearned over the picture of a centrifuge while Leora was admiring the “stunning seven-piece Reception Room fumed oak set, upholstered in genuine Barcelona Longware Leatherette, will give your office the class and distinction of any high-grade New York specialist’s.”

“Aw, let ’em sit on plain chairs,” Martin grunted.

In the attic Mrs. Tozer found enough seedy chairs for the reception-room, and an ancient bookcase which, when Leora had lined it with pink fringed paper, became a noble instrument-cabinet. Till the examining-chair should arrive, Martin would use Wise’s lumpy couch, and Leora busily covered it with white oilcloth. Behind the front room of the tiny office-building were two cubicles, formerly bedroom and kitchen. Martin made them into consultation-room and laboratory. Whistling, he sawed out racks for the glassware and turned the oven of a discarded kerosene stove into a hot-air oven for sterilizing glassware.

“But understand, Lee, I’m not going to go monkeying with any scientific research. I’m through with all that.”

Leora smiled innocently. While he worked she sat outside in the long wild grass, sniffing the prairie breeze, her hands about her ankles, but every quarter-hour she had to come in and admire.

Mr. Tozer brought home a package at suppertime. The family opened it, babbling. After supper Martin and Leora hastened with the new treasure to the office and nailed it in place. It was a plate-glass sign; on it in gold letters, “M. Arrowsinith, M.D.” They looked up, arms about each other, squealing softly, and in reverence he grunted, “There — by — jiminy!”

They sat on the back stoop, exulting in freedom from Tozers. Along the railroad bumped a freight train with a cheerful clanking. The fireman waved to them from the engine, a brakeman from the platform of the red caboose. After the train there was silence but for the crickets and a distant frog.

“I’ve never been so happy,” he murmured.

iii

He had brought from Zenith his own Ochsner surgical case. As he laid out the instruments he admired the thin, sharp, shining bistoury, the strong tenotome, the delicate curved needles. With them was a dental forceps. Dad Silva had warned his classes, “Don’t forget the country doctor often has to be not only physician but dentist, yes, and priest, divorce lawyer, blacksmith, chauffeur, and road engineer, and if you are too lily-handed for those trades, don’t get out of sight of a trolley line and a beauty parlor.” And the first patient whom Martin had in the new office, the second patient in Wheatsylvania, was Nils Krag, the carpenter, roaring with an ulcerated tooth. This was a week before the glass sign was up, and Martin rejoiced to Leora, “Begun already! You’ll see ’em tumbling in now.”

They did not see them tumbling in. For ten days Martin tinkered at his hot-air oven or sat at his desk, reading and trying to look busy. His first joy passed into fretfulness, and he could have yelped at the stillness, the inactivity.

Late one afternoon, when he was in a melancholy way preparing to go home, into the office stamped a grizzled Swedish farmer who grumbled, “Doc, I got a fish-hook caught in my thumb and its all swole.” To Arrowsmith, intern in Zenith General Hospital with its out-patient clinic treating hundreds a day, the dressing of a hand had been less important than borrowing a match, but to Dr. Arrowsmith of Wheatsylvania it was a hectic operation, and the farmer a person remarkable and very charming. Martin shook his left hand violently and burbled, “Now if there’s anything, you just ‘phone me — you just ‘phone me.”

There had been, he felt, a rush of admiring patients sufficient to justify them in the one thing Leora and he longed to do, the thing about which they whispered at night: the purchase of a motor car for his country calls.

They had seen the car at Frazier’s store.

It was a Ford, five years old, with torn upholstery, a gummy motor, and springs made by a blacksmith who had never made springs before. Next to the chugging of the gas engine at the creamery, the most familiar sound in Wheatsylvania was Frazier’s closing the door of his Ford. He banged it flatly at the store, and usually he had to shut it thrice again before he reached home.

But to Martin and Leora, when they had tremblingly bought the car and three new tires and a horn, it was the most impressive vehicle on earth. It was their own; they could go when and where they wished.

During his summer at a Canadian hotel Martin had learned to drive the Ford station wagon, but it was Leora’s first venture. Bert had given her so many directions that she had refused to drive the family Overland. When she first sat at the steering wheel, when she moved the hand-throttle with her little finger and felt in her own hands all this power, sorcery enabling her to go as fast as she might desire (within distinct limits), she transcended human strength, she felt that she could fly like the wild goose — and then in a stretch of sand she killed the engine.

Martin became the demon driver of the village. To ride with him was to sit holding your hat, your eyes closed, waiting for death. Apparently he accelerated for corners, to make them more interesting. The sight of anything on the road ahead, from another motor to a yellow pup, stirred in him a frenzy which could be stilled only by going up and passing it. The village adored, “The Young Doc is quite some driver, all right.” They waited, with amiable interest, to hear that he had been killed. It is possible that half of the first dozen patients who drifted into his office came because of awe at his driving . . . the rest because there was nothing serious the matter, and he was nearer than Dr. Hesselink at Groningen.

iv

With his first admirers he developed his first enemies.

When he met the Norbloms on the street (and in Wheatsylvania it is difficult not to meet everyone on the street every day), they glared. Then he antagonized Pete Yeska.

Pete conducted what he called a “drug store,” devoted to the sale of candy, soda water, patent medicines, fly paper, magazines, washing-machines, and Ford accessories, yet Pete would have starved if he had not been postmaster also. He alleged that he was a licensed pharmacist but he so mangled prescriptions that Martin burst into the store and addressed him piously.

“You young docs make me sick,” said Pete. “I was putting up prescriptions when you was in the cradle. The old doc that used to be here sent everything to me. My way o’ doing things suits me, and I don’t figure on changing it for you or any other half-baked young string-bean.”

Thereafter Martin had to purchase drugs from St. Paul, over-crowd his tiny laboratory, and prepare his own pills and ointments, looking in a homesick way at the rarely used test-tubes and the dust gathering on the bell glass of his microscope, while Pete Yeska joined with the Norbloms in Whispering, “This new doc here ain’t any good. You better stick to Hesselink.”

v

So blank, so idle, had been the week that when he heard the telephone at the Tozers’, at three in the morning, he rushed to it as though he were awaiting a love message.

A hoarse and shaky voice: “I want to speak to the doctor.”

“Yuh — yuh — ‘S the doctor speaking.”

“This is Henry Novak, four miles northeast, on the Leopolis road. My little girl, Mary, she has a terrible sore throat. I think maybe it is croup and she look awful and — Could you come right away?”

“You bet. Be right there.”

Four miles — he would do it in eight minutes.

He dressed swiftly, dragging his worn brown tie together, while Leora beamed over the first night call. He furiously cranked the Ford, banged and clattered past the station and into the wheat prairie. When he had gone six miles by the speedometer, slackening at each rural box to look for the owner’s name, he realized that he was lost. He ran into a farm driveway and stopped under the willows, his headlight on a heap of dented milk-cans, broken harvester wheels, cord-wood, and bamboo fishing-poles. From the barn dashed a woolly anomalous dog, barking viciously, leaping up at the car.

A frowsy head protruded from a ground-floor window. “What you want?” screamed a Scandinavian voice.

“This is The Doctor. Where does Henry Novak live?”

“Oh! The Doctor! Dr. Hesselink?”

“No! Dr. Arrowsmith.”

“Oh. Dr. Arrowsmith. From Wheatsylvania? Um. Well, you went right near his place. You yoost turn back one mile and turn to the right by the brick schoolhouse, and it’s about forty rods up the road — the house with a cement silo. Somebody sick by Henry’s?”

“Yuh — yuh — girl’s got croup — thanks —”

“Yoost keep to the right. You can’t miss it.” Probably no one who has listened to the dire “you can’t miss it” has ever failed to miss it.

Martin swung the Ford about, grazing a slashed chopping block; he rattled up the road, took the corner that side of the schoolhouse instead of this, ran half a mile along a boggy trail between pastures, and stopped at a farmhouse. In the surprising fall of silence, cows were to be heard feeding, and a white horse, startled in the darkness, raised its head to wonder at him. He had to arouse the house with wild squawkings of his horn, and an irate farmer who bellowed, “Who’s there? I’ve got a shotgun!” sent him back to the country road.

It was forty minutes from the time of the telephone call when he rushed into a furrowed driveway and saw on the doorstep, against the lamplight, a stooped man who called, “The Doctor? This is Novak.”

He found the child in a newly finished bedroom of white plastered walls and pale varnished pine. Only an iron bed, a straight chair, a chromo of St. Anne, and a shadeless hand-lamp on a rickety stand broke the staring shininess of the apartment, a recent extension of the farmhouse. A heavy-shouldered woman was kneeling by the bed. As she lifted her wet red face, Novak urged:

“Don’t cry now; he’s here!” And to Martin: “The little one is pretty bad but we done all we could for her. Last night and tonight we steam her throat, and we put her here in our own bedroom!”

Mary was a child of seven or eight. Martin found her lips and finger-tips blue, but in her face no flush. In the effort to expel her breath she writhed into terrifying knots, then coughed up saliva dotted with grayish specks. Martin worried as he took out his clinical thermometer and gave it a professional-looking shake.

It was, he decided, laryngeal croup or diphtheria. Probably diphtheria. No time now for bacteriological examination, for cultures and leisurely precision. Silva the healer bulked in the room, crowding out Gottlieb the inhuman perfectionist. Martin leaned nervously over the child on the tousled bed, absentmindedly trying her pulse again and again. He felt helpless without the equipment of Zenith General, its nurses and Angus Duers sure advice. He had a sudden respect for the lone country doctor.

He had to make a decision, irrevocable, perhaps perilous. He would use diphtheria antitoxin. But certainly he could not obtain it from Pete Yeska’s in Wheatsylvania.

Leopolis?

“Hustle up and get me Blassner, the druggist at Leopolis, on the ‘phone,” he said to Novak, as calmly as he could contrive. He pictured Blassner driving through the night, respectfully bringing the antitoxin to The Doctor. While Novak bellowed into the farm-line telephone in the dining-room, Martin waited — waited — staring at the child; Mrs. Novak waited for him to do miracles; the child’s tossing and hoarse gasping became horrible; and the glaring walls, the glaring lines of pale yellow woodwork, hypnotized him into sleepiness. It was too late for anything short of antitoxin or tracheotomy. Should he operate; cut into the wind-pipe that she might breathe? He stood and worried; he drowned in sleepiness and shook himself awake. He had to do something, with the mother kneeling there, gaping at him, beginning to look doubtful.

“Get some hot cloths — towels, napkins — and keep ’em around her neck. I wish to God he’d get that telephone call!” he fretted.

As Mrs. Novak, padding on thick slippered feet, brought in the hot cloths, Novak appeared with a blank “Nobody sleeping at the drug store, and Blassner’s house-line is out of order.”

“Then listen. I’m afraid this may be serious. I’ve got to have antitoxin. Going to drive t’ Leopolis and get it. You keep up these hot applications and — Wish we had an atomizer. And room ought to be moister. Got ‘n alcohol stove? Keep some water boiling in here. No use of medicine. B’ right back.”

He drove the twenty-four miles to Leopolis in thirty-seven minutes. Not once did he slow down for a cross-road. He defied the curves, the roots thrusting out into the road, though always one dark spot in his mind feared a blow-out and a swerve. The speed, the casting away of all caution, wrought in him a high exultation, and it was blessed to be in the cool air and alone, after the strain of Mrs. Novak’s watching. In his mind all the while was the page in Osler regarding diphtheria, the very picture of the words: “In severe cases the first dose should be from 8,000 —” No. Oh, yes: “— from 10,000 to 15,000 units.”

He regained confidence. He thanked the god of science for antitoxin and for the gas motor. It was, he decided, a Race with Death.

“I’m going to do it — going to pull it off and save that poor kid!” he rejoiced.

He approached a grade crossing and hurled toward it, ignoring possible trains. He was aware of a devouring whistle, saw sliding light on the rails, and brought up sharp. Past him, ten feet from his front wheels, flung the Seattle Express like a flying volcano. The fireman was stoking, and even in the thin clearness of coming dawn the glow from the fire-box was appalling on the under side of the rolling smoke. Instantly the apparition was gone and Martin sat trembling, hands trembling on the little steering-wheel, foot trembling like St. Vitus’s dance on the brake. “That was an awful’ close thing!” he muttered, and thought of a widowed Leora, abandoned to Tozers. But the vision of the Novak child, struggling for each terrible breath, overrode all else. “Hell! I’ve killed the engine!” he groaned. He vaulted over the side, cranked the car, and dashed into Leopolis.

To Crynssen County, Leopolis with its four thousand people was a metropolis, but in the pinched stillness of the dawn it was a tiny graveyard: Main Street a sandy expanse, the low shops desolate as huts. He found one place astir; in the bleak office of the Dakota Hotel the night clerk was playing poker with the ‘bus-driver and the town policeman.

They wondered at his hysterical entrance.

“Dr. Arrowsmith, from Wheatsylvania. Kid dying from diphtheria. Where’s Blassner live? Jump in my car and show me.”

The constable was a lanky old man, his vest swinging open over a collarless shirt, his trousers in folds, his eyes resolute. He guided Martin to the home of the druggist, he kicked the door, then, standing with his lean and bristly visage upraised in the cold early light, he bawled, “Ed! Hey, you, Ed! Come out of it!”

Ed Blassner grumbled from the up-stairs window. To him, death and furious doctors had small novelty. While he drew on his trousers and coat he was to be heard discoursing to his drowsy wife on the woe of druggists and the desirability of moving to Los Angeles and going into real estate. But he did have diphtheria antitoxin in his shop, and sixteen minutes after Martin’s escape from being killed by a train he was speeding to Henry Novak’s.

vi

The child was still alive when he came brusquely into the house

All the way back he had seen her dead and stiff. He grunted “Thank God!” and angrily called for hot water. He was no longer the embarrassed cub doctor but the wise and heroic physician who had won the Race with Death, and in the Peasant eyes of Mrs. Novak, in Henry’s nervous obedience, he read his power.

Swiftly, smoothly, he made intravenous injection of the antitoxin, and stood expectant.

The child’s breathing did not at first vary, as she choked in the labor of expelling her breath. There was a gurgle, a struggle in which her face blackened, and she was still. Martin peered, incredulous. Slowly the Novaks began to glower, shaky hands at their lips. Slowly they knew the child was gone.

In the hospital, death had become indifferent and natural to Martin. He had said to Angus, he had heard nurses say one to another, quite cheerfully, “Well, fifty-seven has just passed out.” Now he raged with desire to do the impossible. She COULDN’T be dead. He’d do something — All the while he was groaning, “I should’ve operated — I should have.” So insistent was the thought that for a time he did not realize that Mrs. Novak was clamoring, “She is dead? Dead?”

He nodded, afraid to look at the woman.

“You killed her, with that needle thing! And not even tell us, so we could call the priest!”

He crawled past her lamentations and the man’s sorrow and drove home, empty of heart.

“I shall never practice medicine again,” he reflected.

“I’m through,” he said to Leora. “I’m no good. I should of operated. I can’t face people, when they know about it. I’m through. I’ll go get a lab job — Dawson Hunziker or some place.”

Salutary was the tartness with which she protested, “You’re the most conceited man that ever lived! Do you think you’re the only doctor that ever lost a patient? I know you did everything you could.” But he went about next day torturing himself, the more tortured when Mr. Tozer whined at supper, “Henry Novak and his woman was in town today. They say you ought to have saved their girl. Why didn’t you give your mind to it and manage to cure her somehow? Ought to tried. Kind of too bad, because the Novaks have a lot of influence with all these Pole and Hunky farmers.”

After a night when he was too tired to sleep, Martin suddenly drove to Leopolis.

From the Tozers he had heard almost religious praise of Dr. Adam Winter of Leopolis, a man of nearly seventy, the pioneer physician of Crynssen County, and to this sage he was fleeing. As he drove he mocked furiously his melodramatic Race with Death, and he came wearily into the dust-whirling Main Street. Dr. Winter’s office was above a grocery, in a long “block” of bright red brick stores with an Egyptian cornice — of tin. The darkness of the broad hallway was soothing after the prairie heat and incandescence. Martin had to wait till three respectful patients had been received by Dr. Winter, a hoary man with a sympathetic bass voice, before he was admitted to the consultation-room.

The examining-chair was of doubtful superiority to that once used by Doc Vickerson of Elk Mills, and sterilizing was apparently done in a wash-bowl, but in a corner was an electric therapeutic cabinet with more electrodes and pads than Martin had ever seen.

He told the story of the Novaks, and Winter cried, “Why, Doctor, you did everything you could have and more too. Only thing is, next time, in a crucial case, you better call some older doctor in consultation — not that you need his advice, but it makes a hit with the family, it divides the responsibility, and keeps ’em from going around criticizing. I, uh, I frequently have the honor of being called by some of my younger colleagues. Just wait. I’ll ‘phone the editor of the Gazette and give him an item about the case.”

When he had telephoned, Dr. Winter shook hands ardently. He indicated his electric cabinet. “Got one of those things yet? Ought to, my boy. Don’t know as I use it very often, except with the cranks that haven’t anything the matter with ’em, but say, it would surprise you how it impresses folks. Well, Doctor, welcome to Crynssen County. Married? Won’t you and your wife come take dinner with us some Sunday noon? Mrs. Winter will be real pleased to meet you. And if I ever can be of service to you in a consultation — I only charge a very little more than my regular fee, and it looks so well, talking the case over with an older man.”

Driving home, Martin fell into vain and wicked boasting:

“You bet I’ll stick to it! At worst, I’ll never be as bad as that snuffling old fee-splitter!”

Two weeks after, the Wheatsylvania Eagle, a smeary four-page rag, reported:

Our enterprising contemporary, the Leopolis Gazette, had as follows last week to say of one of our townsmen who we recently welcomed to our midst.

“Dr. M. Arrowsmith of Wheatsylvania is being congratulated, we are informed by our valued pioneer local physician, Dr. Adam Winter, by the medical fraternity all through the Pony River Valley, there being no occupation or profession more unselfishly appreciative of each other’s virtues than the medical gentlemen, on the courage and enterprise he recently displayed in addition to his scientific skill.

“Being called to attend the little daughter of Henry Norwalk of near Delft the well-known farmer and finding the little one near death with diphtheria he made a desperate attempt to save it by himself bringing antitoxin from Blassner our ever popular druggist, who had on hand a full and fresh supply. He drove out and back in his gasoline chariot, making the total distance of 48 miles in 79 minutes.

Fortunately our ever alert policeman, Joe Colby, was on the job and helped Dr. Arrowsmith find Mr. Blassner’s bungalow on Red River Avenue and this gentleman rose from bed and hastened to supply the doctor with the needed article but unfortunately the child was already too low to be saved but it is by such incidents of pluck and quick thinking as well as knowledge which make the medical profession one of our greatest blessings.”

Two hours after this was published, Miss Agnes Ingleblad came in for another discussion of her non-existent ailments, and two days later Henry Novak appeared, saying proudly:

“Well, Doc, we all done what we could for the poor little girl, but I guess I waited too long calling you. The woman is awful’ cut up. She and I was reading that piece in the Eagle about it. We showed it to the priest. Say, Doc, I wish you’d take a look at my foot. I got kind of a rheumatic pain in the ankle.”

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