Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 28

Captain Martin Arrowsmith, M.R.C., came home to his good wife Leora, wailing, “I’m so rotten tired, and I feel kind of discouraged. I haven’t accomplished a darn’ thing in this whole year at McGurk. Sterile. No good. And I’m hanged if I’ll study calculus this evening. Let’s go to the movies. Won’t even change to regular human clothes. Too tired.”

“All right, honey,” said Leora. “But let’s have dinner here. I bought a wonderful ole fish this afternoon.”

Through the film Martin gave his opinion, as a captain and as a doctor, that it seemed improbable a mother should not know her daughter after an absence of ten years. He was restless and rational, which is not a mood in which to view the cinema. When they came blinking out of that darkness lit only from the shadowy screen, he snorted, “I’m going back to the lab. I’ll put you in a taxi.”

“Oh, let the beastly thing go for one night.”

“Now that’s unfair! I haven’t worked late for three or four nights now!”

“Then take me along.”

“Nope. I have a hunch I may be working all night.”

Liberty Street, as he raced along it, was sleeping below its towers. It was McGurk’s order that the elevator to the Institute should run all night, and indeed three or four of the twenty staff-members did sometimes use it after respectable hours.

That morning Martin had isolated a new strain of staphylococcus bacteria from the gluteal carbuncle of a patient in the Lower Manhattan Hospital, a carbuncle which was healing with unusual rapidity. He had placed a bit of the pus in broth and incubated it. In eight hours a good growth of bacteria had appeared. Before going wearily home he had returned the flask to the incubator.

He was not particularly interested in it, and now, in his laboratory, he removed his military blouse, looked down to the lights on the blue-black river, smoked a little, thought what a dog he was not to be gentler to Leora, and damned Bert Tozer and Pickerbaugh and Tubbs and anybody else who was handy to his memory before he absent-mindedly wavered to the incubator, and found that the flask, in which there should have been a perceptible cloudy growth, had no longer any signs of bacteria — of staphylococci.

“Now what the hell!” he cried. “Why, the broth’s as clear as when I seeded it! Now what the — Think of this fool accident coming up just when I was going to start something new!”

He hastened from the incubator, in a closet off the corridor, to his laboratory and, holding the flask under a strong light, made certain that he had seen aright. He fretfully prepared a slide from the flask contents and examined it under the microscope. He discovered nothing but shadows of what had been bacteria: thin outlines, the form still there but the cell substance gone; minute skeletons on an infinitesimal battlefield.

He raised his head from the microscope, rubbed his tired eyes, reflectively rubbed his neck — his blouse was off, his collar on the floor, his shirt open at the throat. He considered:

“Something funny here. This culture was growing all right, and now it’s committed suicide. Never heard of bugs doing that before. I’ve hit something! What caused it? Some chemical change? Something organic?”

Now in Martin Arrowsmith there were no decorative heroisms, no genius for amours, no exotic wit, no edifyingly borne misfortunes. He presented neither picturesque elegance nor a moral message. He was full of hasty faults and of perverse honesty; a young man often unkindly, often impolite. But he had one gift: curiosity whereby he saw nothing as ordinary. Had he been an acceptable hero, like Major Rippleton Holabird, he would have chucked the contents of the flask into the sink, avowed with pretty modesty, “Silly! I’ve made some error!” and gone his ways. But Martin, being Martin, walked prosaically up and down his laboratory, snarling. “Now there was some CAUSE for that, and I’m going to find out what it was.”

He did have one romantic notion: he would telephone to Leora and tell her that splendor was happening, and she wasn’t to worry about him. He fumbled down the corridor, lighting matches, trying to find electric switches.

At night all halls are haunted. Even in the smirkingly new McGurk Building there had been a bookkeeper who committed suicide. As Martin groped he was shakily conscious of feet padding behind him, of shapes which leered from doorways and insolently vanished, of ancient bodiless horrors, and when he found the switch he rejoiced in the blessing and security of sudden light that re-created the world.

At the Institute telephone switchboard he plugged in wherever it seemed reasonable. Once he thought he was talking to Leora, but it proved to be a voice, sexless and intolerant, which said “Number pleeeeeze” with a taut alertness impossible to anyone so indolent as Leora. Once it was a voice which slobbered, “Is this Sarah?” then, “I don’t want YOU! Ring off, will yuh!” Once a girl pleaded, “Honestly, Billy, I did try to get there but the boss came in at five and he said —”

As for the rest it was only a blurring; the sound of seven million people hungry for sleep or love or money.

He observed, “Oh, rats, I guess Lee’ll have gone to bed by now,” and felt his way back to the laboratory.

A detective, hunting the murderer of bacteria, he stood with his head back, scratching his chin, scratching his memory for like cases of microorganisms committing suicide or being slain without perceptible cause. He rushed up-stairs to the library, consulted the American and English authorities and, laboriously, the French and German. He found nothing.

He worried lest there might, somehow, have been no living staphylococci in the pus which he had used for seeding the broth — none there to die. At a hectic run, not stopping for lights, bumping corners and sliding on the too perfect tile floor, he skidded down the stairs and galloped through the corridors to his room. He found the remains of the original pus, made a smear on a glass slide, and stained it with gentian-violet, nervously dribbling out one drop of the gorgeous dye. He sprang to the microscope. As he bent over the brass tube and focused the objective, into the gray-lavender circular field of vision rose to existence the grape-like clusters of staphylococcus germs, purple dots against the blank plane.

“Staph in it, all right!” he shouted.

Then he forgot Leora, war, night, weariness, success, everything, as he charged into preparations for an experiment, his first great experiment. He paced furiously, rather dizzy. He shook himself into calmness and settled down at a table, among rings and spirals of cigarette smoke, to list on small sheets of paper all the possible causes of suicide in the bacteria — all the questions he had to answer and the experiments which should answer them.

It might be that alkali in an improperly cleaned flask had caused the clearing of the culture. It might be some anti-staph substance existing in the pus, or something liberated by the staphylococci themselves. It might be some peculiarity of this particular broth.

Each of these had to be tested.

He pried open the door of the glass-storeroom, shattering the lock. He took new flasks, cleaned them, plugged them with cotton, and placed them in the hot-air oven to sterilize. He found other batches of broth — as a matter of fact he stole them, from Gottlieb’s private and highly sacred supply in the ice-box. He filtered some of the clarified culture through a sterile porcelain filter, and added it to his regular staphylococcus strains.

And, perhaps most important of all, he discovered that he was out of cigarettes.

Incredulously he slapped each of his pockets, and went the round and slapped them all over again. He looked into his discarded military blouse; had a cheering idea about having seen cigarettes in a drawer; did not find them; and brazenly marched into the room where hung the aprons and jackets of the technicians. Furiously he pilfered pockets, and found a dozen beautiful cigarettes in a wrinkled and flattened paper case.

To test each of the four possible causes of the flask’s clearing he prepared and seeded with bacteria a series of flasks under varying conditions, and set them away in the incubator at body temperature. Till the last flask was put away, his hand was steady, his worn face calm. He was above all nervousness, free from all uncertainty, a professional going about his business.

By this time it was six o’clock of a fine wide August morning, and as he ceased his swift work, as taut nerves slackened, he looked out of his lofty window and was conscious of the world below: bright roofs, jubilant towers, and a high-decked Sound steamer swaggering up the glossy river.

He was completely fagged; he was, like a surgeon after a battle, like a reporter during an earthquake, perhaps a little insane; but sleepy he was not. He cursed the delay involved in the growth of the bacteria, without which he could not discover the effect of the various sorts of broths and bacterial strains, but choked his impatience.

He mounted the noisy slate stairway to the lofty world of the roof. He listened at the door of the Institute’s animal house. The guinea pigs, awake and nibbling, were making a sound like that of a wet cloth rubbed on glass in window-cleaning. He stamped his foot, and in fright they broke out in their strange sound of fear, like the cooing of doves.

He marched violently up and down, refreshed by the soaring sky, till he was calmed to hunger. Again he went pillaging. He found chocolate belonging to an innocent technician; he even invaded the office of the Director and in the desk of the Diana-like Pearl Robbins unearthed tea and a kettle (as well as a lip-stick, and a love-letter beginning “My Little Ickles”). He made himself a profoundly bad cup of tea, then, his whole body dragging, returned to his table to set down elaborately, in a shabby, nearly-filled note-book, every step of his experiment.

After seven he worked out the operation of the telephone switchboard and called Lower Manhattan Hospital. Could Dr. Arrowsmith have some more pus from the same carbuncle? What? It’d healed? Curse it! No more of that material.

He hesitated over waiting for Gottlieb’s arrival, to tell him of the discovery, but determined to keep silence till he should have determined whether it was an accident. Eyes wide, too wrought up to sleep in the subway, he fled uptown to tell Leora. He had to tell someone! Waves of fear, doubt, certainty, and fear again swept over him; his ears rang and his hands trembled.

He rushed up to the flat; he bawled “Lee! Lee!” Before he had unlocked the door. And she was gone.

He gaped. The flat breathed emptiness. He searched it again. She had slept there, she had had a cup of coffee, but she had vanished.

He was at once worried lest there had been an accident, and furious that she should not have been here at the great hour. Sullenly he made breakfast for himself. . . . It is strange that excellent bacteriologists and chemists should scramble eggs so waterily, should make such bitter coffee and be so casual about dirty spoons. . . . By the time he had finished the mess he was ready to believe that Leora had left him forever. He quavered, “I’ve neglected her a lot.” Sluggishly, an old man now, he started for the Institute, and at the entrance to the subway he met her.

She wailed, “I was so worried! I couldn’t get you on the ‘phone. I went clear down to the Institute to see what’d happened to you.”

He kissed her, very competently, and raved, “God, woman, I’ve got it! The real big stuff! I’ve found something, not a chemical you put in I mean, that eats bugs — dissolves ’em — kills ’em. May be a big new step in therapeutics. Oh, no, rats, I don’t suppose it really is. Prob’ly just another of my bulls.”

She sought to reassure him but he did not wait. He dashed down to the subway, promising to telephone to her. By ten, he was peering into his incubator.

There was a cloudy appearance of bacteria in all the flasks except those in which he had used broth from the original alarming flask. In these, the mysterious murderer of germs had prevented the growth of the new bacteria which he had introduced.

“Great stuff,” he said.

He returned the flasks to the incubator, recorded his observations, went again to the library, and searched handbooks, bound proceedings of societies, periodicals in three languages. He had acquired a reasonable scientific French and German. It is doubtful whether he could have bought a drink or asked the way to the Kursaal in either language, but he understood the universal Hellenistic scientific jargon, and he pawed through the heavy books, rubbing his eyes, which were filled with salty fire.

He remembered that he was an army officer and had lipovaccine to make this morning. He went to work, but he was so twitchy that he ruined the batch, called his patient garcon a fool, and after this injustice sent him out for a pint of whisky.

He had to have a confidant. He telephoned to Leora, lunched with her expensively, and asserted, “It still looks as if there were something to it.” He was back in the Institute every hour that afternoon, glancing at his flasks, but between he tramped the streets, creaking with weariness, drinking too much coffee.

Every five minutes it came to him, as a quite new and ecstatic idea, “Why don’t I go to sleep?” then he remembered, and groaned, “No, I’ve got to keep going and watch every step. Can’t leave it, or I’ll have to begin all over again. But I’m so sleepy! Why don’t I go to sleep?”

He dug down, before six, into a new layer of strength, and at six his examination showed that the flasks containing the original broth still had no growth of bacteria, and the flasks which he had seeded with the original pus had, like the first eccentric flask, after beginning to display a good growth of bacteria cleared up again under the slowly developing attack of the unknown assassin.

He sat down, drooping with relief. He had it! He stated in the conclusions of his first notes:

“I have observed a principle, which I shall temporarily call the X Principle, in pus from a staphylococcus infection, which checks the growth of several strains of staphylococcus, and which dissolves the staphylococci from the pus in question.”

When he had finished, at seven, his head was on his notebook and he was asleep.

He awoke at ten, went home, ate like a savage, slept again, and was in the laboratory before dawn. His next rest was an hour that afternoon, sprawled on his laboratory table, with his garcon on guard; the next, a day and a half later, was eight hours in bed, from dawn till noon.

But in dreams he was constantly upsetting a rack of test-tubes or breaking a flask. He discovered an X Principle which dissolved chairs, tables, human beings. He went about smearing it on Bert Tozers and Dr. Bissexes and fiendishly watching them vanish, but accidentally he dropped it on Leora and saw her fading, and he woke screaming to find the real Leora’s arms about him, while he sobbed, “Oh, I couldn’t do anything without you! Don’t ever leave me! I do love you so, even if this damned work does keep me tied up. Stay with me!”

While she sat by him on the frowsy bed, gay in her gingham, he went to sleep, to wake up three hours later and start off for the Institute, his eyes blood-glaring and set. She was ready for him with strong coffee, waiting on him silently, looking at him proudly, while he waved his arms, babbling:

“Gottlieb better not talk any more about the importance of new observations! The X Principle may not just apply to staph. Maybe you can sic it on any bug — cure any germ disease by it. Bug that lives on bugs! Or maybe it’s a chemical principle, an enzyme. Oh, I don’t know. But I will!”

As he bustled to the Institute he swelled with the certainty that after years of stumbling he had arrived. He had visions of his name in journals and textbooks; of scientific meetings cheering him. He had been an unknown among the experts of the Institute, and now he pitied all of them. But when he was back at his bench the grandiose aspirations faded and he was the sniffing, snuffling beagle, the impersonal worker. Before him, supreme joy of the investigator, new mountain-passes of work opened, and in him was new power.

ii

For a week Martin’s life had all the regularity of an escaped soldier in the enemy’s country, with the same agitation and the same desire to prowl at night. He was always sterilizing flasks, preparing media of various hydrogen-ion concentrations, copying his old notes into a new book lovingly labeled “X Principle, Staph,” and adding to it further observations. He tried, elaborately, with many flasks and many reseedings, to determine whether the X Principle would perpetuate itself indefinitely, whether when it was transmitted from tube to new tube of bacteria it would reappear, whether, growing by cell-division automatically, it was veritably a germ, a sub-germ infecting germs.

During the week Gottlieb occasionally peered over his shoulder, but Martin was unwilling to report until he should have proof, and one good night’s sleep, and perhaps even a shave.

When he was sure that the X Principle did reproduce itself indefinitely, so that in the tenth tube it grew to have as much effect as in the first, then he solemnly called on Gottlieb and laid before him his results, with his plans for further investigation.

The old man tapped his thin fingers on the report, read it intently, looked up and, not wasting time in congratulations, vomited questions:

Have you done dis? Why have you not done dat? At what temperature is the activity of the Principle at its maximum? Is its activity manifested on agar-solid medium?

“This is my plan for new work. I think you’ll find it includes most of your suggestions.”

“Huh!” Gottlieb ran through it and snorted, “Why have you not planned to propagate it on dead staph? That is most important of all.”

“Why?”

Gottlieb flew instantly to the heart of the jungle in which Martin had struggled for many days: “Because that will show whether you are dealing with a living virus.”

Martin was humbled, but Gottlieb beamed:

“You haf a big thing. Now do not let the Director know about this and get enthusiastic too soon. I am glad, Martin!”

There was that in his voice which sent Martin swanking down the corridor, back to work — and to not sleeping.

What the X Principle was — chemical or germ — he could not determine, but certainly the original Principle flourished. It could be transmitted indefinitely; he determined the best temperature for it and found that it did not propagate on dead staphylococcus. When he added a drop containing the Principle to a growth of staphylococcus which was a gray film on the solid surface of agar, the drop was beautifully outlined by bare patches, as the enemy made its attack, so that the agar slant looked like moth-eaten beeswax. But within a fortnight one of the knots of which Gottlieb warned him appeared.

Wary of the hundreds of bacteriologists who would rise to slay him once his paper appeared, he sought to make sure that his results could be confirmed. At the hospital he obtained pus from many boils, of the arms, the legs, the back; he sought to reduplicate his results — and failed, complete. No X Principle appeared in any of the new boils, and sadly he went to Gottlieb.

The old man meditated, asked a question or two, sat hunched in his cushioned chair, and demanded:

“What kind of a carbuncle was the original one?”

“Gluteal.”

“Ah, den the X Principle may be present in the intestinal contents. Look for it, in people with boils and without.”

Martin dashed off. In a week he had obtained the Principle from intestinal contents and from other gluteal boils, finding an especial amount in boils which were “healing of themselves”; and he transplanted his new Principle, in a heaven of triumph, of admiration for Gottlieb. He extended his investigation to the intestinal group of organisms and discovered an X Principle against the colon bacillus. At the same time he gave some of the original Principle to a doctor in the Lower Manhattan Hospital for the treatment of boils, and from him had excited reports of cures, more excited inquiries as to what this mystery might be.

With these new victories he went parading in to Gottlieb, and suddenly he was being trounced:

“Oh! So! Beautiful! You let a doctor try it before you finished your research? You want fake reports of cures to get into the newspapers, to be telegraphed about places, and have everybody in the world that has a pimple come tumbling in to be cured, so you will never be able to work? You want to be a miracle man, and not a scientist? You do not want to complete things? You wander off monkey-skipping and flap-doodling with colon bacillus before you have finish with staph — before you haf really begun your work — before you have found what is the NATURE of the X Principle? Get out of my office! You are a — a — a college president! Next I know you will be dining with Tubbs, and get your picture in the papers for a smart cure-vendor!”

Martin crept out, and when he met Billy Smith in the corridor and the little chemist twittered, “Up to something big? Haven’t seen you lately,” Martin answered in the tone of Doc Vickerson’s assistant in Elk Mills:

“Oh — no — gee — I’m just grubbing along, I guess.”

iii

As sharply and quite as impersonally as he would have watched the crawling illness of an infected guinea pig, Martin watched himself, in the madness of overwork, drift toward neurasthenia. With considerable interest he looked up the symptoms of neurasthenia, saw one after another of them twitch at him, and casually took the risk.

From an irritability which made him a thoroughly impossible person to live with, he passed into a sick nervousness in which he missed things for which he reached, dropped test-tubes, gasped at sudden footsteps behind him. Dr. Yeo’s croaking voice became to him a fever, an insult, and he waited with his whole body clenched, muttering, “Shut up — shut up — oh, shut UP!” when Yeo stopped to talk to someone outside his door.

Then he was obsessed by the desire to spell backward all the words which snatched at him from signs.

As he stood dragging out his shoulder on a subway strap, he pored over the posters, seeking new words to spell backward. Some of them were remarkably agreeable: No Smoking became a jaunty and agreeable “gnikoms on,” and Broadway was tolerable as “yawdaorb,” but he was displeased by his attempts on Punch, Health, Rough; while Strength, turning into “htgnerts” was abominable.

When he had to return to his laboratory three times before he was satisfied that he had closed the window, he sat down, coldly, informed himself that he was on the edge, and took council as to whether he dared go on. It was not very good council: he was so glorified by his unfolding work that his self could not be taken seriously.

At last Fear closed in on him.

It began with childhood’s terror of the darkness. He lay awake dreading burglars; footsteps in the hall were a creeping cutthroat; an unexplained scratching on the fire-escape was a murderer with an automatic in his fist. He beheld it so clearly that he had to spring from bed and look timorously out, and when in the street below he did actually see a man standing still, he was cold with panic.

Every sky glow was a fire. He was going to be trapped in his bed, be smothered, die writhing.

He knew absolutely that his fears were absurd, and that knowledge did not at all keep them from dominating him.

He was ashamed at first to acknowledge his seeming cowardice to Leora. Admit that he was crouching like a child? But when he had lain rigid, almost screaming, feeling the cord of an assassin squeezing his throat, till the safe dawn, brought back a dependable world, he muttered of “insomnia” and after that, night on night, he crept into her arms and she shielded him from the horrors, protected him from garroters, kept away the fire.

He made a checking list of the favorite neurasthenic fears: agoraphobia, claustrophobia, pyrophobia, anthropophobia, and the rest, ending with what he asserted to be “the most fool, pretentious, witch-doctor term of the whole bloomin’ lot,” namely, siderodromophobia, the fear of a railway journey. The first night, he was able to check against pyrophobia, for at the vaudeville with Leora, when on the stage a dancer lighted a brazier, he sat waiting for the theater to take fire. He looked cautiously along the row of seats (raging at himself the while for doing it), he estimated his chance of reaching an exit, and became easy only when he had escaped into the street.

It was when anthropophobia set in, when he was made uneasy by people who walked too close to him, that, sagely viewing his list and seeing how many phobias were now checked, he permitted himself to rest.

He fled to the Vermont hills for a four-day tramp — alone, that he might pound on the faster. He went at night, by sleeper, and was able to make the most interesting observations of siderodromophobia.

He lay in a lower berth, the little pillow wadded into a lump. He was annoyed by the waving of his clothes as they trailed from the hanger beside him, at the opening of the green curtains. The window-shade was up six inches; it left a milky blur across which streaked yellow lights, emphatic in the noisy darkness of his little cell. He was shivering with anxiety. Whenever he tried to relax, he was ironed back into apprehension. When the train stopped between stations and from the engine came a questioning, fretful whistle, he was aghast with certainty that something had gone wrong — a bridge was out, a train was ahead of them; perhaps another was coming just behind them, about to smash into them at sixty miles an hour —

He imagined being wrecked, and he suffered more than from the actual occurrence, for he pictured not one wreck but half a dozen, with assorted miseries. . . . The flat wheel just beneath him — surely it shouldn’t pound like that — why hadn’t the confounded man with the hammer detected it at the last big station? — the flat wheel cracking; the car lurching, falling, being dragged on its side. . . . A collision, a crash, the car instantly a crumpled, horrible heap, himself pinned in the telescoped berth, caught between seat and seat. Shrieks, death groans, the creeping flames. . . . The car turning, falling plumping into a river on its side; himself trying to crawl through a window as the water seeped about his body. . . . Himself standing by the wrenched car, deciding whether to keep away and protect his sacred work or go back, rescue people, and be killed.

So real were the visions that he could not endure lying here, waiting. He reached for the berth light, and could not find the button. In agitation he tore a match-box from his coat pocket, scratched a match, snapped on the light. He saw himself, under the sheets, reflected in the polished wooden ceiling of his berth like a corpse in a coffin. Hastily he crawled out, with trousers and coat over his undergarments (he had somehow feared to show so much trust in the train as to put on pajamas), and with bare disgusted feet he paddled up to the smoking compartment. The porter was squatting on a stool, polishing an amazing pile of shoes.

Martin longed for his encouraging companionship, and ventured, “Warm night.”

“Uh-huh,” said the porter.

Martin curled on the chill leather seat of the smoking compartment, profoundly studying a brass wash-bowl. He was conscious that the porter was disapproving, but he had comfort in calculating that the man must make this run thrice a week, tens of thousands of miles yearly, apparently without being killed, and there might be a chance of their lasting till morning.

He smoked till his tongue was raw and till, fortified by the calmness of the porter, he laughed at the imaginary catastrophes. He staggered sleepily to his berth.

Instantly he was tense again, and he lay awake till dawn.

For four days he tramped, swam in cold brooks, slept under trees or in straw stacks, and came back (but by day) with enough reserve of energy to support him till his experiment should have turned from overwhelming glory into sane and entertaining routine.

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