Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 18

Dr. Woestijne of Vanderheide’s Grove acted in spare time as Superintendent of Health for Crynssen County, but the office was not well paid and it did not greatly interest him. When Martin burst in and offered to do all the work for half the pay, Woestijne accepted with benevolence, assuring him that it would have a great effect on his private practice.

It did. It almost ruined his private practice.

There was never an official appointment. Martin signed Woestijne’s name (spelling it in various interesting ways, depending on how he felt) to papers, and the Board of County Commissioners recognized Martin’s limited power, but the whole thing was probably illegal.

There was small science and considerably less heroism in his first furies as a health officer, but a great deal of irritation for his fellow-townsmen. He poked into yards, he denounced Mrs. Beeson for her reeking ash-barrels, Mr. Norblom for piling manure on the street, and the schoolboard for the school ventilation and lack of instruction in tooth-brushing. The citizens had formerly been agitated by his irreligion, his moral looseness, and his lack of local patriotism, but when they were prodded out of their comfortable and probably beneficial dirt, they exploded.

Martin was honest and appallingly earnest, but if he had the innocence of the dove he lacked the wisdom of the serpent. He did not make them understand his mission; he scarce tried to make them understand. His authority, as Woestijne’s alter ego, was imposing on paper but feeble in action, and it was worthless against the stubbornness which he aroused.

He advanced from garbage-spying to a drama of infection. The community at Delft had a typhoid epidemic which slackened and continually reappeared. The villagers believed that it came from a tribe of squatters six miles up the creek, and they considered lynching the offenders, as a practical protest and an interesting break in wheat-farming. When Martin insisted that in six miles the creek would purify any waste and that the squatters were probably not the cause, he was amply denounced.

“He’s a fine one, he is, to go around blatting that we’d ought to have more health precautions! Here we go and show him where there’s some hellhounds that ought to be shot, and them only Bohunks anyway, and he doesn’t do a darn’ thing but shoot a lot of hot air about germicidal effect or whatever the fool thing is,” remarked Kaes, the wheat-buyer at the Delft elevator.

Flashing through the county, not neglecting but certainly not enlarging his own practice, Martin mapped every recent case of typhoid within five miles of Delft. He looked into milk-routes and grocery deliveries. He discovered that most of the cases had appeared after the visits of an itinerant seamstress, a spinster virtuous and almost painfully hygienic. She had had typhoid four years before.

“She’s a chronic carrier of the bugs. She’s got to be examined,” he announced.

He found her sewing at the house of an old farmer-preacher.

With modest indignation she refused to be examined, and as he went away she could be heard weeping at the insult, while the preacher cursed him from the doorstep. He returned with the township police officer and had the seamstress arrested and confined in the segregation ward of the county poor-farm. In her discharges he found billions of typhoid bacilli.

The frail and decent body was not comfortable in the board-lined whitewashed ward. She was shamed and frightened. She had always been well beloved, a gentle, shabby, bright-eyed spinster who brought presents to the babies, helped the overworked farmwives to cook dinner, and sang to the children in her thin sparrow voice. Martin was reviled for persecuting her. “He wouldn’t dare pick on her if she wasn’t so poor,” they said, and they talked of a jail-delivery.

Martin fretted. He called upon the seamstress at the poor-farm, he tried to make her understand that there was no other place for her, he brought her magazines and sweets. But he was firm. She could not go free. He was convinced that she had caused at least one hundred cases of typhoid, with nine deaths.

The county derided him. Cause typhoid now, when she had been well for four years? The County Commissioners and the County Board of Health called Dr. Hesselink in from the next county. He agreed with Martin and his maps. Every meeting of the Commissioners was a battle now, and it was uncertain whether Martin would be ruined or throned.

Leora saved him and the seamstress. “Why not take up a collection to send her off to some big hospital where she can be treated, or where they can keep her if she can’t be cured?” said she.

The seamstress entered a sanitarium — and was amiably forgotten by everyone for the rest of her life — and his recent enemies said of Martin, “He’s mighty smart, and right on the job.” Hesselink drove over to inform him, “You did pretty well this time, Arrowsmith. Glad to see you’re settling down to business.”

Martin was slightly cocky, and immediately bounded after a fine new epidemic. He was so fortunate as to have a case of small-pox and several which he suspected. Some of these lay across the border in Mencken County, Hesselink’s domain, and Hesselink laughed at him. “It’s probably chicken-pox, except your one case. Mighty rarely you get small-pox in summer,” he chuckled, while Martin raged up and down the two counties, proclaiming the scourge, imploring everyone to be vaccinated, thundering, “There’s going to be all hell let loose here in ten or fifteen days!”

But the United Brethren parson, who served chapels in Wheatsylvania and two other villages, was an anti-vaccinationist and he preached against it. The villages sided with him. Martin went from house to house, beseeching them, offering to treat them without charge. As he had never taught them to love him and follow him as a leader, they questioned, they argued long and easily on doorsteps, they cackled that he was drunk. Though for weeks his strongest draft had been the acrid coffee of the countryside, they peeped one to another that he was drunk every night, that the United Brethren minister was about to expose him from the pulpit.

And ten dreadful days went by and fifteen, and all but the first case did prove to be chicken-pox. Hesselink gloated and the village roared and Martin was the butt of the land.

He had only a little resented their gossip about his wickedness, only in evenings of slow depression had he meditated upon fleeing from them, but at their laughter he was black furious.

Leora comforted him with cool hands. “It’ll pass over,” she said. But it did not pass.

By autumn it had become such a burlesque epic as peasants love through all the world. He had, they mirthfully related, declared that anybody who kept hogs would die of small-pox; he had been drunk for a week, and diagnosed everything from gall-stones to heart-burn as small-pox. They greeted him, with no meaning of offense in their snickering, “Got a pimple on my chin, Doc. What is ‘t — small-pox?”

More terrible than their rage is the people’s laughter, and if it rends tyrants, with equal zest it pursues the saint and wise man and befouls their treasure.

When the neighborhood suddenly achieved a real epidemic of diphtheria and Martin shakily preached antitoxin, one-half of them remembered his failure to save Mary Novak and the other half clamored, “Oh, give us a rest! You got epidemics on the brain!” That a number of children quite adequately died did not make them relinquish their comic epic.

Then it was that Martin came home to Leora and said quietly, “I’m licked. I’ve got to get out. Nothing more I can do here. Take years before they’d trust me again. They’re so damned HUMOROUS! I’m going to go get a real job — public health.”

“I’m so glad! You’re too good for them here. We’ll find some big place where they’ll appreciate your work.”

“No, that’s not fair. I’ve learned a little something. I’ve failed here. I’ve antagonized too many people. I didn’t know how to handle them. We could stick it out, and I would, except that life is short and I think I’m a good worker in some ways. Been worrying about being a coward, about running away, ‘turning my —’ What is it? ‘— turning my hand from the plow.’ I don’t care now! By God, I know what I can do! Gottlieb saw it! And I want to get to work. On we go. All right?”

“Of course!”

ii

He had read in the Journal of the American Medical Association that Gustaf Sondelius was giving a series of lectures at Harvard. He wrote asking whether he knew of a public health appointment. Sondelius answered, in a profane and blotty scrawl, that he remembered with joy their Minneapolis vacation, that he disagreed with Entwisle of Harvard about the nature of metathrombin, that there was an excellent Italian restaurant in Boston, and that he would inquire among his health-official friends as to a position.

Two days later he wrote that Dr. Almus Pickerbaugh Director of Public Health in the city of Nautilus, Iowa, was looking for a second-in-command, and would probably be willing to send particulars.

Leora and Martin swooped on an almanac.

Gosh! Sixty-nine thousand people in Nautilus! Against three hundred and sixty-six here — no, wait, it’s three hundred and sixty-seven now, with that new baby of Pete Yeska’s that the dirty swine called in Hesselink for. People! People that can talk! Theaters! Maybe concerts! Leora, we’ll be like a pair of kids let loose from school!”

He telegraphed for details, to the enormous interest of the station agent, who was also telegraph operator.

The mimeographed form which was sent to him said that Dr. Pickerbaugh required an assistant who would be the only full-time medical officer besides Pickerbaugh himself, as the clinic and school doctors were private physicians working part-time. The assistant would be epidemiologist, bacteriologist, and manager of the office clerks, the nurses, and the lay inspectors of dairies and sanitation. The salary would be twenty-five hundred dollars a year — against the fifteen or sixteen hundred Martin was making in Wheatsylvania.

Proper recommendations were desired.

Martin wrote to Sondelius, to Dad Silva, and to Max Gottlieb, now at the McGurk Institute in New York.

Dr. Pickerbaugh informed him, “I have received very pleasant letters from Dean Silva and Dr. Sondelius about you, but the letter from Dr. Gottlieb is quite remarkable. He says you have rare gifts as a laboratory man. I take great pleasure in offering you the appointment; kindly wire.”

Not till then did Martin completely realize that he was leaving Wheatsylvania — the tedium of Bert Tozer’s nagging — the spying of Pete Yeska and the Norbloms — the inevitability of turning, as so many unchanging times he had turned, south from the Leopolis road at the Two Mile Grove and following again that weary, flat, unbending trail — the superiority of Dr. Hesselink and the malice of Dr. Coughlin — the round which left him no time for his dusty laboratory — leaving it all for the achievement and splendor of the great city of Nautilus.

“Leora, we’re going! We’re really going!”

iii

Bert Tozer said:

“You know by golly there’s folks that would call you a traitor, after all we’ve done for you, even if you did pay back the thousand, to let some other doc come in here and get all that influence away from the Family.”

Ada Quist said:

“I guess if you ain’t any too popular with the folks around here you’ll have one fine time in a big city like Nautilus! Well Bert and me are going to get married next year and when you two swells make a failure of it I suppose we’ll have to take care of you at our house when you come sneaking back do you think we could get your house at the same rent you paid for it oh Bert why couldn’t we take Mart’s office instead it would save money well I’ve always said since we were in school together you couldn’t stand a decent regular life Ory.”

Mr. Tozer said:

“I simply can’t understand it, with everything going so nice. Why, you’d be making three-four thousand a year some day, if you just stuck to it. Haven’t we tried to treat you nice? I don’t like to have my little girl go away and leave me alone, now I’m getting on in years. And Bert gets so cranky with me and Mother, but you and Ory would always kind of listen to us. Can’t you fix it somehow so you could stay?”

Pete Yeska said:

“Doc, you could of knocked me down with a feather when I heard you were going! Course you and me have scrapped about this drug business, but Lord! I been kind of half thinking about coming around some time and offering you a partnership and let you run the drug end to suit yourself, and we could get the Buick agency, maybe, and work up a nice little business. I’m real sorry you’re going to leave us. . . . Well, come back some day and we’ll take a shot at the ducks, and have a good laugh about that bull you made over the smallpox. I never will forget that! I was saying to the old woman just the other day, when she had an ear-ache, ‘Ain’t got smallpox, have yuh, Bess!’”

Dr. Hesselink said:

“Doctor, what’s this I hear? You’re not going away? Why, you and I were just beginning to bring medical practice in this neck of the woods up to where it ought to be, so I drove over tonight — Huh? We panned you? Ye-es, I suppose we did, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t appreciate you. Small place like here or Groningen, you have to roast your neighbors to keep busy. Why, Doctor, I’ve been watching you develop from an unlicked cub to a real upstanding physician, and now you’re going away — you don’t know how I feel!”

Henry Novak said:

“Why, Doc, you ain’t going to LEAVE us? And we got a new baby coming, and I said to the woman, just the other day, ‘It’s a good thing we got a doctor that hands you out the truth and not all this guff we used to get from Doc Winter.’”

The wheat-buyer at Delft said:

“Doc, what’s this I hear? You ain’t going AWAY? A fellow told me you was and I says to him, ‘Don’t be more of a damn’ fool than the Lord meant you to be,’ I says. But I got to worrying about it, and I drove over and — Doc, I fire off my mouth pretty easy, I guess. I was agin you in the typhoid epidemic, when you said that seamstress was carrying the sickness around, and then you showed me up good. Doc, if you’d like to be state senator, and if you’ll stay — I got quite a little influence — believe me, I’ll get out and work my shirt off for you!”

Alec Ingleblad said:

“You’re a lucky guy!”

All the village was at the train when they left for Nautilus.

For a hundred autumn-blazing miles Martin mourned his neighbors. “I feel like getting off and going back. Didn’t we used to have fun playing Five Hundred with the Fraziers! I hate to think of the kind of doctor they may get. I swear, if some quack settles there or if Woestijne neglects the health work again, I’ll go back and run ’em both out of business! And be kind of fun to be state senator, some ways.”

But as evening thickened and nothing in all the rushing world existed save the yellow Pintsch gas globes above them in the long car, they saw ahead of them great Nautilus, high honor and achievement, the making of a radiant model city and the praise of Sondelius — perhaps even of Max Gottlieb.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/arrowsmith/chapter18.html

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