Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 16

When he had practiced medicine in Wheatsylvania for one year, Martin was an inconspicuous but not discouraged country doctor. In summer Leora and he drove to the Pony River for picnic suppers and a swim, very noisy, splashing, and immodest; through autumn he went duck-hunting with Bert Tozer, who became nearly tolerable when he stood at sunset on a pass between two slews; and with winter isolating the village in a sun-blank desert of snow, they had sleigh-rides, card-parties, “sociables” at the churches.

When Martin’s flock turned to him for help, their need and their patient obedience made them beautiful. Once or twice he lost his temper with jovial villagers who bountifully explained to him that he was less aged than he might have been; once or twice he drank too much whisky at poker parties in the back room of the Co-operative Store; but he was known as reliable, skillful, and honest — and on the whole he was rather less distinguished than Alec Ingleblad the barber, less prosperous than Nils Krag the carpenter, and less interesting to his neighbors than the Finnish garageman.

Then one accident and one mistake made him famous for full twelve miles about.

He had gone fishing, in the spring. As he passed a farmhouse a woman ran out shrieking that her baby had swallowed a thimble and was choking to death. Martin had for surgical kit a large jack-knife. He sharpened it on the farmer’s oilstone, sterilized it in the tea-kettle, operated on the baby’s throat, and saved its life.

Every newspaper in the Pony River Valley had a paragraph, and before this sensation was over he cured Miss Agnes Ingleblad of her desire to be cured.

She had achieved cold hands and a slow circulation, and he was called at midnight. He was soggily sleepy, after two country drives on muddy roads, and in his torpor he gave her an overdose of strychnin, which so shocked and stimulated her that she decided to be well. It was so violent a change that it made her more interesting than being an invalid — people had of late taken remarkably small pleasure in her symptoms. She went about praising Martin, and all the world said, “I hear this Doc Arrowsmith is the only fellow Agnes ever doctored with that’s done her a mite of good.”

He gathered a practice small, sound, and in no way remarkable. Leora and he moved from the Tozers’ to a cottage of their own, with a parlor-dining-room which displayed a nickeled stove on bright, new, pleasant-smelling linoleum, and a golden-oak sideboard with a souvenir match-holder from Lake Minnetonka. He bought a small Roentgen ray outfit; and he was made a director of the Tozer bank. He became too busy to long for his days of scientific research, which had never existed, and Leora sighed:

“It’s fierce, being married. I did expect I’d have to follow you out on the road and be a hobo, but I never expected to be a Pillar of the Community. Well, I’m too lazy to look up a new husband. Only I warn you: when you become the Sunday School superintendent, you needn’t expect me to play the organ and smile at the cute jokes you make about Willy’s not learning his Golden Text.”

ii

So did Martin stumble into respectability.

In the autumn of 1912, when Mr. Debs, Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Wilson, and Mr. Taft were campaigning for the presidency, when Martin Arrowsmith had lived in Wheatsylvania for a year and a half, Bert Tozer became a Prominent Booster. He returned from the state convention of the Modern Woodmen of America with notions. Several towns had sent boosting delegations to the convention, and the village of Groningen had turned out a motor procession of five cars, each with an enormous pennant, “Groningen for White Men and Black Dirt.”

Bert came back clamoring that every motor in town must carry a Wheatsylvania pennant. He had bought thirty of them and they were on sale at the bank at seventy-five cents apiece. This, Bert explained to everyone who came into the bank, was exactly cost-price, which was within eleven cents of the truth. He came galloping at Martin, demanding that he be the first to display a pennant.

“I don’t want one of those fool things flopping from my ‘bus,” protested Martin. “What’s the idea, anyway?”

“What’s the IDEA? To advertise your own town, of course!”

“What is there to advertise? Do you think you’re going to make strangers believe Wheatsylvania is a metropolis like New York or Jimtown by hanging a dusty rag behind a secondhand tin Lizzie?”

“You never did have any patriotism! Let me tell you, Mart, if you don’t put on a banner I’ll see to it that everybody in town notices it!”

While the other rickety cars of the village announced to the world, or at least to several square miles of the world, that Wheatsylvania was the “Wonder Town of Central N. D.,” Martin’s clattering Ford went bare; and when his enemy Norblom remarked, “I like to see a fellow have some public spirit and appreciate the place he gets his money outa,” the citizenry nodded and spat, and began to question Martin’s fame as a worker of miracles.

iii

He had intimates — the barber, the editor of the Eagle, the garageman — to whom he talked comfortably of hunting and the crops, and with whom he played poker. Perhaps he was too intimate with them. It was the theory of Crynssen County that it was quite all right for a young professional man to take a timely drink providing he kept it secret and made up for it by yearning over the clergy of the neighborhood. But with the clergy Martin was brief, and his drinking and poker he never concealed.

If he was bored by the United Brethren minister’s discourse on doctrine, on the wickedness of movies, and the scandalous pay of pastors, it was not at all because he was a distant and supersensitive young man but because he found more savor in the garageman’s salty remarks on the art of remembering to ante in poker.

Through all the state there were celebrated poker players, rustic-looking men with stolid faces, men who sat in shirtsleeves, chewing tobacco; men whose longest remark was “By me,” and who delighted to plunder the gilded and condescending traveling salesmen. When there was news of a “big game on,” the county sports dropped in silently and went to work — the sewing-machine agent from Leopolis, the undertaker from Vanderheide’s Grove, the bootlegger from St. Luke, the red fat man from Melody who had no known profession.

Once (still do men tell of it gratefully, up and down the Valley), they played for seventy-two unbroken hours, in the office of the Wheatsylvania garage. It had been a livery-stable; it was littered with robes and long whips, and the smell of horses mingled with the reek of gasoline.

The players came and went, and sometimes they slept on the floor for an hour or two, but they were never less than four in the game. The stink of cheap feeble cigarettes and cheap powerful cigars hovered about the table like a malign spirit; the floor was scattered with stubs, matches, old cards, and whisky bottles. Among the warriors were Martin, Alec Ingleblad the barber, and a highway engineer, all of them stripped to flannel undershirts, not moving for hour on hour, ruffling their cards, eyes squinting and vacant.

When Bert Tozer heard of the affair, he feared for the good fame of Wheatsylvania, and to everyone he gossiped about Martin’s evil ways and his own patience. Thus it happened that while Martin was at the height of his prosperity and credit as a physician, along the Pony River Valley sinuated the whispers that he was a gambler, that he was a “drinking man,” that he never went to church; and all the godly enjoyed mourning, “Too bad to see a decent young man like that going to the dogs.”

Martin was as impatient as he was stubborn. He resented the well-meant greetings: “You ought to leave a little hooch for the rest of us to drink, Doc,” or “I s’pose you’re too busy playing poker to drive out to the house and take a look at the woman.” He was guilty of an absurd and boyish tactlessness when he heard Norblom observing to the postmaster, “A fellow that calls himself a doctor just because he had luck with that fool Agnes Ingleblad, he hadn’t ought to go getting drunk and disgracing —”

Martin stopped. “Norblom! You talking about me?”

The storekeeper turned slowly. “I got more important things to do ‘n talk about you,” he cackled.

As Martin went on he heard laughter.

He told himself that these villagers were generous; that their snooping was in part an affectionate interest, and inevitable in a village where the most absorbing event of the year was the United Brethren Sunday School picnic on Fourth of July. But he could not rid himself of twitchy discomfort at their unending and maddeningly detailed comments on everything. He felt as though the lightest word he said in his consultation-room would be megaphoned from flapping ear to ear all down the country roads.

He was contented enough in gossiping about fishing with the barber, nor was he condescending to meteorologicomania, but except for Leora he had no one with whom he could talk of his work. Angus Duer had been cold, but Angus had his teeth into every change of surgical technique, and he was an acrid debater. Martin saw that, unless he struggled, not only would he harden into timid morality under the pressure of the village, but be fixed in a routine of prescriptions and bandaging.

He might find a stimulant in Dr. Hesselink of Groningen.

He had seen Hesselink only once, but everywhere he heard of him as the most honest practitioner in the Valley. On impulse Martin drove down to call on him.

Dr. Hesselink was a man of forty, ruddy, tall, broad-shouldered. You knew immediately that he was careful and that he was afraid of nothing, however much he might lack in imagination. He received Martin with no vast ebullience, and his stare said, “Well, what do you want? I’m a busy man.”

“Doctor,” Martin chattered, “do you find it hard to keep up with medical developments?”

“No. Read the medical journals.”

“Well, don’t you — gosh, I don’t want to get sentimental about it, but don’t you find that without contact with the Big Guns you get mentally lazy — sort of lacking in inspiration?”

“I do not! There’s enough inspiration for me in trying to help the sick.”

To himself Martin was protesting, “All right, if you don’t want to be friendly, go to the devil!” But he tried again:

“I know. But for the game of the thing, for the pleasure of increasing medical knowledge, how can you keep up if you don’t have anything but routine practice among a lot of farmers?”

“Arrowsmith, I may do you an injustice, but there’s a lot of you young practitioners who feel superior to the farmers, that are doing their own jobs better than you are. You think that if you were only in the city with libraries and medical meetings and everything, you’d develop. Well, I don’t know of anything to prevent your studying at home! You consider yourself so much better educated than these rustics, but I notice you say ‘gosh’ and ‘Big Guns’ and that sort of thing. How much do you read? Personally, I’m extremely well satisfied. My people pay me an excellent living wage, they appreciate my work, and they honor me by election to the schoolboard. I find that a good many of these farmers think a lot harder and squarer than the swells I meet in the city. Well! I don’t see any reason for feeling superior, or lonely either!”

“Hell, I don’t!” Martin mumbled. As he drove back he raged at Hesselink’s superiority about not feeling superior, but he stumbled into uncomfortable meditation. It was true; he was half-educated. He was supposed to be a college graduate but he knew nothing of economics, nothing of history, nothing of music or painting. Except in hasty bolting for examinations he had read no poetry save that of Robert Service, and the only prose besides medical journalism at which he looked nowadays was the baseball and murder news in the Minneapolis papers and Wild West stories in the magazines.

He reviewed the “intelligent conversation” which, in the desert of Wheatsylvania, he believed himself to have conducted at Mohalis. He remembered that to Clif Clawson it had been pretentious to use any phrase which was not as colloquial and as smutty as the speech of a truck-driver, and that his own discourse had differed from Clif’s largely in that it had been less fantastic and less original. He could recall nothing save the philosophy of Max Gottlieb, occasional scoldings of Angus Duer, one out of ten among Madeline Fox’s digressions, and the councils of Dad Silva which was above the level of Alec Ingleblad’s barber-shop.

He came home hating Hesselink but by no means loving himself; he fell upon Leora and, to her placid agreement, announced that they were “going to get educated, if it kills us.” He went at it as he had gone at bacteriology.

He read European history aloud at Leora, who looked interested or at least forgiving; he worried the sentences in a copy of “The Golden Bowl” which an unfortunate school-teacher had left at the Tozers’; he borrowed a volume of Conrad from the village editor and afterward, as he drove the prairie roads, he was marching into jungle villages — sun helmets, orchids, lost temples of obscene and dog-faced deities, secret and sun-scarred rivers. He was conscious of his own mean vocabulary. It cannot be said that he became immediately and conspicuously articulate, yet it is possible that in those long intense evenings of reading with Leora he advanced a step or two toward the tragic enchantments of Max Gottlieb’s world — enchanting sometimes and tragic always.

But in becoming a schoolboy again he was not so satisfied as Dr. Hesselink.

iv

Gustaf Sondelius was back in America.

In medical school, Martin had read of Sondelius, the soldier of science. He held reasonable and lengthy degrees, but he was a rich man and eccentric, and neither toiled in laboratories nor had a decent office and a home and a lacy wife. He roamed the world fighting epidemics and founding institutions and making inconvenient speeches and trying new drinks. He was a Swede by birth, a German by education, a little of everything by speech, and his clubs were in London, Paris, Washington, and New York. He had been heard of from Batoum and Fuchau, from Milan and Bechuanaland, from Antofagasta and Cape Romanzoff. Manson on Tropical Diseases mentions Sondelius’s admirable method of killing rats with hydrocyanic acid gas, and The Sketch once mentioned his atrocious system in baccarat.

Gustaf Sondelius shouted, in high places and low, that most diseases could be and must be wiped out; that tuberculosis, cancer, typhoid, the plague, influenza, were an invading army against which the world must mobilize — literally; that public health authorities must supersede generals and oil kings. He was lecturing through America, and his exclamatory assertions were syndicated in the press.

Martin sniffed at most newspaper articles touching on science or health but Sondelius’s violence caught him, and suddenly he was converted, and it was an important thing for him, that conversion.

He told himself that however much he might relieve the sick, essentially he was a business man, in rivalry with Dr. Winter of Leopolis and Dr. Hesselink of Groningen; that though they might be honest, honesty and healing were less their purpose than making money; that to get rid of avoidable disease and produce a healthy population would be the worst thing in the world for them; and that they must all be replaced by public health officials.

Like all ardent agnostics, Martin was a religious man. Since the death of his Gottlieb-cult he had unconsciously sought a new passion, and he found it now in Gustaf Sondelius’s war on disease. Immediately he became as annoying to his patients as he had once been to Digamma Pi.

He informed the farmers at Delft that they had no right to have so much tuberculosis.

This was infuriating, because none of their rights as American citizens was better established, or more often used, than the privilege of being ill. They fumed, “Who does he think he is? We call him in for doctoring, not for bossing. Why, the damn’ fool said we ought to burn down our houses — said we were committing a crime if we had the con. here! Won’t stand for nobody talking to me like that!”

Everything became clear to Martin — too clear. The nation must make the best physicians autocratic officials, at once, and that was all there was to it. As to how the officials were to become perfect executives, and how people were to be persuaded to obey them, he had no suggestions but only a beautiful faith. At breakfast he scolded, “Another idiotic day of writing prescriptions for bellyaches that ought never to have happened! If I could only get into the Big Fight, along with men like Sondelius! It makes me tired!”

Leora murmured, “Yes, darling. I’ll promise to be good. I won’t have any little bellyaches or T.B. or anything, so please don’t lecture me!”

Even in his irritability he was gentle, for Leora was with child.

v

Their baby was coming in five months. Martin promised to it everything he had missed.

“He’s going to have a real education!” he gloated, as they sat on the porch in spring twilight. “He’ll learn all this literature and stuff. We haven’t done much ourselves — here we are, stuck in this two-by-twice crossroads for the rest of our lives — but maybe we’ve gone a little beyond our dads, and he’ll go way beyond us.”

He was worried, for all his flamboyance. Leora had undue morning sickness. Till noon she dragged about the house, pea-green and tousled and hollow-faced. He found a sort of maid, and came home to help, to wipe the dishes and sweep the front walk. All evening he read to her, not history now and Henry James but “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch,” which both of them esteemed a very fine tale. He sat on the floor by the grubby second-hand couch on which she lay in her weakness; he held her hand and crowed:

“Golly, we — No, not ‘golly.’ Well, what CAN you say except ‘golly’? Anyway: Some day we’ll save up enough money for a couple months in Italy and all those places. All those old narrow streets and old castles! There must be scads of ’em that are couple hundred years old or older! And we’ll take the boy . . . Even if he turns out to be a girl, darn him! . . . And he’ll learn to chatter Wop and French and everything like a regular native, and his dad and mother’ll be so proud! Oh, we’ll be a fierce pair of old birds! We never did have any more morals ‘n a rabbit, either of us, and probably when we’re seventy we’ll sit out on the doorstep and smoke pipes and snicker at all the respectable people going by, and tell each other scandalous stories about ’em till they want to take a shot at us, and our boy — he’ll wear a plug hat and have a chauffeur — he won’t dare to recognize us!”

Trained now to the false cheerfulness of the doctor, he shouted, when she was racked and ghastly with the indignity of morning sickness, “There, that’s fine, old girl! Wouldn’t be making a good baby if you weren’t sick. Everybody is.” He was lying, and he was nervous. Whenever he thought of her dying, he seemed to die with her. Barren of her companionship, there would be nothing he wanted to do, nowhere to go. What would be the worth of having all the world if he could not show it to her, if she was not there —

He denounced Nature for her way of tricking human beings, by every gay device of moonlight and white limbs and reaching loneliness, into having babies, then making birth as cruel and clumsy and wasteful as she could. He was abrupt and jerky with patients who called him into the country. With their suffering he was sympathetic as he had never been, for his eyes had opened to the terrible beauty of pain, but he must not go far from Leora’s need.

Her morning sickness turned into pernicious vomiting. Suddenly, while she was torn and inhuman with agony, he sent for Dr. Hesselink, and that horrible afternoon when the prairie spring was exuberant outside the windows of the poor iodoform-reeking room, they took the baby from her, dead.

Had it been possible, he might have understood Hesselink’s success then, have noted that gravity and charm, that pity and sureness, which made people entrust their lives to him. Not cold and blaming was Hesselink now, but an older and wiser brother, very compassionate. Martin saw nothing. He was not a physician. He was a terrified boy, less useful to Hesselink than the dullest nurse.

When he was certain that Leora would recover, Martin sat by her bed, coaxing, “We’ll just have to make up our minds we never can have a baby now, and so I want — Oh, I’m no good! And I’ve got a rotten temper. But to you, I want to be everything!”

She whispered, scarce to be heard:

“He would have been such a sweet baby. Oh, I know! I saw him so often. Because I knew he was going to be like you, When you were a baby.” She tried to laugh. “Perhaps I wanted him because I could boss him. I’ve never had anybody that would let me boss him. So if I can’t have a real baby, I’ll have to bring you up. Make you a great man that everybody will wonder at, like your Sondelius. . . . Darling, I worried so about your worrying —”

He kissed her, and for hours they sat together, unspeaking, eternally understanding, in the prairie twilight.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/arrowsmith/chapter16.html

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