Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 32

There may have been in the shadowy heart of Max Gottlieb a diabolic insensibility to divine pity, to suffering humankind; there may have been mere resentment of the doctors who considered his science of value only as it was handy to advertising their business of healing; there may have been the obscure and passionate and unscrupulous demand of genius for privacy. Certainly he who had lived to study the methods of immunizing mankind against disease had little interest in actually using those methods. He was like a fabulous painter, so contemptuous of popular taste that after a lifetime of creation he should destroy everything he has done, lest it be marred and mocked by the dull eyes of the crowd.

The letter from Dr. Stokes was not his only intimation that plague was striding through St. Hubert, that tomorrow it might be leaping to Barbados, to the Virgin Islands . . . to New York. Ross McGurk was an emperor of the new era, better served than any cloistered satrap of old. His skippers looked in at a hundred ports; his railroads penetrated jungles; his correspondents whispered to him of the next election in Colombia, of the Cuban cane-crop, of what Sir Robert Fairlamb had said to Dr. R. E. Inchcape Jones on his bungalow porch. Ross McGurk, and after him Max Gottlieb, knew better than did the Lotus Eaters of the Ice House how much plague there was in St. Hubert.

Yet Gottlieb did not move, but pondered the unknown chemical structure of antibodies, interrupted by questions as to whether Pearl Robbins had enough pencils, whether it would be quite all right for Dr. Holabird to receive the Lettish scientific mission this afternoon, so that Dr. Sholtheis might attend the Anglican Conference on the Reservation of the Host.

He was assailed by inquirers: public health officials, one Dr. Almus Pickerbaugh, a congressman who was said to be popular in Washington, Gustaf Sondelius, and a Martin Arrowsmith who could not (whether because he was too big or too small) quite attain Gottlieb’s concentrated indifference.

It was rumored that Arrowsmith of McGurk had something which might eradicate plague. Letters demanded of Gottlieb, “Can you stand by, with the stuff of salvation in your hands, and watch thousands of these unfortunate people dying in St. Hubert, and what is more are you going to let the dreaded plague gain a foothold in the Western hemisphere? My dear man, this is the time to come out of your scientific reverie and act!”

Then Ross McGurk, over a comfortable steak, hinted, not too diffidently, that this was the opportunity for the Institute to acquire world-fame.

Whether it was the compulsion of McGurk or the demands of the public-spirited, or whether Gottlieb’s own imagination aroused enough to visualize the far-off misery of the blacks in the canefields, he summoned Martin and remarked:

“It comes to me that there is pneumonic plague in Manchuria and bubonic in St. Hubert, in the West Indies. If I could trust you, Martin, to use the phage with only half your patients and keep the others as controls, under normal hygienic conditions but without the phage, then you could make an absolute determination of its value as complete as what we have of mosquito transmission of yellow fever, and then I would send you down to St. Hubert. What do you t’ink?”

Martin swore by Jacques Loeb that he would observe test conditions; he would determine forever the value of phage by the contrast between patients treated and untreated and so, perhaps, end all plague forever; he would harden his heart and keep clear his eyes.

“We will get Sondelius to go along,” said Gottlieb. “He will do the big boom-boom and so bring us the credit in the newspapers which, I am now told, a Director must obtain.”

Sondelius did not merely consent — he insisted.

Martin had never seen a foreign country — he could not think of Canada, where he had spent a vacation as hotel-waiter, as foreign to him. He could not comprehend that he was really going to a place of palm trees and brown faces and languid Christmas Eves. He was busy (while Sondelius was out ordering linen suits and seeking a proper new sun helmet) making anti-plague phage on a large scale: a hundred liters of it, sealed in tiny ampules. He felt like the normal Martin, but conferences and powers were considering him.

There was a meeting of the Board of Trustees to advise Martin and Sondelius as to their methods. For it the President of the University of Wilmington gave up a promising interview with a millionaire alumnus, Ross McGurk gave up a game of golf, and one of the three university scientists arrived by aeroplane. Called in from the laboratory, a rather young man in a wrinkled soft collar, dizzy still with the details of Erlenmeyer flasks, infusorial earth, and sterile filters, Martin was confronted by the Men of Measured Merriment, and found that he was no longer concealed in the invisibility of insignificance but regarded as a leader who was expected not only to produce miracles but to explain beforehand how important and mature and miraculous he was.

He was shy before the spectacled gravity of the five Trustees as they sat, like a Supreme Court, at the dais table in Bonanza Hall — Gottlieb a little removed, also trying to look grave and supreme. But Sondelius rolled in, enthusiastic and tremendous, and suddenly Martin was not shy, nor was he respectful to his one-time master in public health.

Sondelius wanted to exterminate all the rodents in St. Hubert, to enforce a quarantine, to use Yersin’s serum and Haffkine’s prophylactic, and to give Martin’s phage to everybody in St. Hubert, all at once, all with everybody.

Martin protested. For the moment it might have been Gottlieb speaking.

He knew, he flung at them, that humanitarian feeling would make it impossible to use the poor devils of sufferers as mere objects of experiment, but he must have at least a few real test cases, and he was damned, even before the Trustees he was damned, if he would have his experiment so mucked up by multiple treatment that they could never tell whether the cures were due to Yersin or Haffkine or phage or none of them.

The Trustees adopted his plan. After all, while they desired to save humanity, wasn’t it better to have it saved by a McGurk representative than by Yersin or Haffkine or the outlandish Sondelius?

It was agreed that if Martin could find in St. Hubert a district which was comparatively untouched by the plague, he should there endeavor to have test cases, one half injected with phage, one half untreated. In the badly afflicted districts, he might give the phage to everyone, and if the disease slackened unusually, that would be a secondary proof.

Whether the St. Hubert government, since they had not asked for aid, would give Martin power to experiment and Sondelius police authority, the Trustees did not know. The Surgeon General, a chap named Inchcape Jones, had replied to their cables: “No real epidemic not need help.” But McGurk promised that he would pull his numerous wires to have the McGurk Commission (Chairman, Martin Arrowsmith, B.A., M.D.) welcomed by the authorities.

Sondelius still insisted that in this crisis mere experimentation was heartless, yet he listened to Martin’s close-reasoned fury with enthusiasm which this bull-necked eternal child had for anything which sounded new and preferably true. He did not, like Almus Pickerbaugh, regard a difference of scientific opinion as an attack on his character.

He talked of going on his own, independent of Martin and McGurk, but he was won back when the Trustees murmured that though they really did wish the dear man wouldn’t fool with sera, they would provide him with apparatus to kill all the rats he wanted.

Then Sondelius was happy:

“And you watch me! I am the captain-general of rat-killers! I yoost walk into a warehouse and the rats say, ‘There’s that damn’ old Uncle Gustaf — what’s the use?’ and they turn up their toes and die! I am yoost as glad I have you people behind me, because I am broke — I went and bought some oil stock that don’t look so good now — and I shall need a lot of hydrocyanic acid gas. Oh, those rats! You watch me! Now I go and telegraph I can’t keep a lecture engagement next week — huh! me lecture to a women’s college, me that can talk rat-language and know seven beautiful deadly kind of traps!”

ii

Martin had never known greater peril than swimming a flood as a hospital intern. From waking to midnight he was too busy making phage and receiving unsolicited advice from all the Institute staff to think of the dangers of a plague epidemic, but when he went to bed, when his brain was still revolving with plans, he pictured rather too well the chance of dying, unpleasantly.

When Leora received the idea that he was going off to a death-haunted isle, to a place of strange ways and trees and faces (a place, probably, where they spoke funny languages and didn’t have movies or tooth-paste), she took the notion secretively away with her, to look at it and examine it, precisely as she often stole little foods from the table and hid them and meditatively ate them at odd hours of the night, with the pleased expression of a bad child. Martin was glad that she did not add to his qualms by worrying. Then, after three days, she spoke:

“I’m going with you.”

“You are not!”

“Well. . . . I am!”

“It’s not safe.”

“Silly! Of course it is. You can shoot your nice old phage into me, and then I’ll be absolutely all right. Oh, I have a husband who cures things, I have! I’m going to blow in a lot of money for thin dresses, though I bet St. Hubert isn’t any hotter than Dakota can be in August.”

“Listen! Lee, darling! Listen! I do think the phage will immunize against the plague — you bet I’ll be mighty well injected with it myself! — but I don’t KNOW, and even if it were practically perfect, there’d always be some people it wouldn’t protect. You simply can’t go, sweet. Now I’m terribly sleepy —”

Leora seized his lapels, as comic fierce as a boxing kitten, but her eyes were not comic, nor her wailing voice; age-old wail of the soldiers’ women:

“Sandy, don’t you know I haven’t any life outside of you? I might’ve had, but honestly, I’ve been glad to let you absorb me. I’m a lazy, useless, ignorant scut, except as maybe I keep you comfortable. If you were off there, and I didn’t know you were all right, or if you died and somebody else cared for your body that I’ve loved so — haven’t I loved it, dear? — I’d go mad. I mean it — can’t you see I mean it — I’d go mad! It’s just — I’m you, and I got to be with you. And I WILL help you! Make your media and everything. You know how often I’ve helped you. Oh, I’m not much good at McGurk, with all your awful’ complicated jiggers, but I did help you at Nautilus — I DID help you, didn’t I? — and maybe in St. Hubert”— her voice was the voice of women in midnight terror — “maybe you won’t find anybody that can help you even my little bit, and I’ll cook and everything —”

“Darling, don’t make it harder for me. Going to be hard enough in any case —”

“Damn you, Sandy Arrowsmith, don’t you dare use those old stuck-up expressions that husbands have been drooling out to wives forever and ever! I’m not a wife, any more’n you’re a husband. You’re a rotten husband! You neglect me absolutely. The only time you know what I’ve got on is when some doggone button slips — and how they can pull off when a person has gone over ’em and sewed ’em all on again is simply beyond me! — and then you bawl me out. But I don’t care. I’d rather have you than any decent husband. . . . Besides. I’m going.”

Gottlieb opposed it, Sondelius roared about it, Martin worried about it, but Leora went, and — his only act of craftiness as Director of the Institute — Gottlieb made her “Secretary and Technical Assistant to the McGurk Plague and Bacteriophage Commission to the Lesser Antilles,” and blandly gave her a salary.

iii

The day before the Commission sailed, Martin insisted that Sondelius take his first injection of phage. He refused.

“No, I will not touch it till you get converted to humanity, Martin, and give it to everybody in St. Hubert. And you will! Wait till you see them suffering by the thousand. You have not seen such a thing. Then you will forget science and try to save everybody. You shall not inject me till you will inject all my Negro friends down there too.”

That afternoon Gottlieb called Martin in. He spoke with hesitation:

“You’re off for Blackwater tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hm. You may be gone some time. I— Martin, you are my oldest friend in New York, you and the good Miriam. Tell me: At first you and Terry t’ought I should not take up the Directorship. Don’t you t’ink I was wise?”

Martin stared, then hastily he lied and said that which was comforting and expected.

“I am glad you t’ink so. You have known so long what I have tried to do. I haf faults, but I t’ink I begin to see a real scientific note coming into the Institute at last, after the popoolarity-chasing of Tubbs and Holabird. . . . I wonder how I can discharge Holabird, that pants-presser of science? If only he dit not know Capitola so well — socially, they call it! But anyway —

“There are those that said Max Gottlieb could not do the child job of running an institution. Huh! Buying note-books! Hiring women that sweep floors! Or no — the floors are swept by women hired by the superintendent of the building, nicht wahr? But anyway —

“I did not make a rage when Terry and you doubted. I am a great fellow for allowing everyone his opinion. But it pleases me — I am very fond of you two boys — the only real sons I have —” Gottlieb laid his withered hand on Martin’s arm. “It pleases me that you see now I am beginning to make a real scientific Institute. Though I have enemies. Martin, you would t’ink I was joking, if I told you the plotting against me —

“Even Yeo. I t’ought he was my friend. I t’ought he was a real biologist. But just today he comes to me and says he cannot get enough sea-urchins for his experiments. As if I could make sea-urchins out of thin air! He said I keep him short of all materials. Me! That have always stood for — I do not care what they PAY scientists, but always I have stood, against that fool Silva and all of them, all my enemies —

“You do not know how many enemies I have, Martin! They do not dare show their faces. They smile to me, but they whisper — I will show Holabird — always he plot against me and try to win over Pearl Robbins, but she is a good girl, she knows what I am doing, but —”

He looked perplexed; he peered at Martin as though he did not quite recognize him, and begged:

“Martin, I grow old — not in years — it is a lie I am over seventy — but I have my worries. Do you mind if I give you advice as I have done so often, so many years? Though you are not a schoolboy now in Queen City — no, at Winnemac it was. You are a man and you are a genuine worker. But —

“Be sure you do not let anything, not even your own good kind heart, spoil your experiment at St. Hubert. I do not make funniness about humanitarianism as I used to; sometimes now I t’ink the vulgar and contentious human race may yet have as much grace and good taste as the cats. But if this is to be, there must be knowledge. So many men, Martin, are kind and neighborly; so few have added to knowledge. You have the chance! You may be the man who ends all plague, and maybe old Max Gottlieb will have helped, too, hein, maybe?

“You must not be just a good doctor at St. Hubert. You must pity, oh, so much the generation after generation yet to come that you can refuse to let yourself indulge in pity for the men you will see dying.

“Dying. . . . It will be peace.

“Let nothing, neither beautiful pity nor fear of your own death, keep you from making this plague experiment complete. And as my friend — If you do this, something will yet have come out of my Directorship. If but one fine thing could come, to justify me —”

When Martin came sorrowing into his laboratory he found Terry Wickett waiting.

“Say, Slim,” Terry blurted, “just wanted to butt in and suggest, now for St. Gottlieb’s sake keep your phage notes complete and up-to-date, and keep ’em in ink!”

“Terry, it looks to me as if you thought I had a fine chance of not coming back with the notes myself.”

“Aw, what’s biting you!” said Terry feebly.

iv

The epidemic in St. Hubert must have increased, for on the day before the McGurk Commission sailed, Dr. Inchcape Jones declared that the island was quarantined. People might come in, but no one could leave. He did this despite the fretting of the Governor, Sir Robert Fairlamb, and the protests of the hotel-keepers who fed on tourists, the ex-rat-catchers who drove the same, Kellett the Red Leg who sold them tickets, and all the other representatives of sound business in St. Hubert.

v

Besides his ampules of phage and his Luer syringes for injection, Martin made personal preparations for the tropics. He bought, in seventeen minutes, a Palm Beach suit, two new shirts, and, as St. Hubert was a British possession and as he had heard that all Britishers carry canes, a stick which the shop-keeper guaranteed to be as good as genuine malacca.

vi

They started, Martin and Leora and Gustaf Sondelius, on a winter morning, on the six-thousand-ton steamer St. Buryan of the McGurk Line, which carried machinery and flour and codfish and motors to the Lesser Antilles and brought back molasses, cocoa, avocados, Trinidad asphalt. A score of winter tourists made the round trip, but only a score, and there was little handkerchief-waving.

The McGurk Line pier was in South Brooklyn, in a district of brown anonymous houses. The sky was colorless above dirty snow. Sondelius seemed well content. As they drove upon a wharf littered with hides and boxes and disconsolate steerage passengers, he peered out of their crammed taxicab and announced that the bow of the St. Buryan — all they could see of it — reminded him of the Spanish steamer he had taken to the Cape Verde Isles. But to Martin and Leora, who had read of the drama of departure, of stewards darting with masses of flowers, dukes and divorcees being interviewed, and bands playing “The Star-spangled Banner,” the St. Buryan was unromantic and its ferry-like casualness was discouraging.

Only Terry came to see them off, bringing a box of candy for Leora.

Martin had never ridden a craft larger than a motor launch. He stared up at the black wall of the steamer’s side. As they mounted the gangplank he was conscious that he was cutting himself off from the safe, familiar land, and he was embarrassed by the indifference of more experienced-looking passengers, staring down from the rail. Aboard, it seemed to him that the forward deck looked like the backyard of an old-iron dealer, that the St. Buryan leaned too much to one side, and that even in the dock she swayed undesirably.

The whistle snorted contemptuously; the hawsers were cast off. Terry stood on the pier till the steamer, with Martin and Leora and Sondelius above, their stomachs pressed against the rail, had slid past him, then he abruptly clumped away.

Martin realized that he was off for the perilous sea and the perilous plague; that there was no possibility of leaving the ship till they should reach some distant island. This narrow deck, with its tarry lines between planks, was his only home. Also, in the breeze across the wide harbor he was beastly cold, and in general God help him!

As the St. Buryan was warped out into the river, as Martin was suggesting to his Commission, “How about going downstairs and seeing if we can raise a drink?” there was the sound of a panicky taxicab on the pier, the sight of a lean, tall figure running — but so feebly, so shakily — and they realized that it was Max Gottlieb, peering for them, tentatively raising his thin arm in greeting, not finding them at the rail, and turning sadly away.

vii

As representatives of Ross McGurk and his various works, evil and benevolent, they had the two suites de luxe on the boat deck.

Martin was cold off snow-blown Sandy Hook, sick off Cape Hatteras, and tired and relaxed between; with him Leora was cold, and in a ladylike manner she was sick, but she was not at all tired. She insisted on conveying information to him, from the West Indian guide-book which she had earnestly bought.

Sondelius was conspicuously all over the ship. He had tea with the Captain, scouse with the fo’c’sle, and intellectual conferences with the Negro missionary in the steerage. He was to be heard — always he was to be heard: singing on the promenade deck, defending Bolshevism against the boatswain, arguing oil-burning with the First Officer, and explaining to the bar steward how to make a gin sling. He held a party for the children in the steerage, and he borrowed from the First Officer a volume of navigation to study between parties.

He gave flavor to the ordinary cautious voyage of the St. Buryan, but he made a mistake. He was courteous to Miss Gwilliam; he tried to cheer her on a seemingly lonely adventure.

Miss Gwilliam came from one of the best families in her section of New Jersey; her father was a lawyer and a church-warden, her grandfather had been a solid farmer. That she had not married, at thirty-three, was due entirely to the preference of modern young men for jazz-dancing hussies; and she was not only a young lady of delicate reservations but also a singer; in fact, she was going to the West Indies to preserve the wonders of primitive art for reverent posterity in the native ballads she would collect and sing to a delighted public — if only she learned how to sing.

She studied Gustaf Sondelius. He was a silly person, not in the least like the gentlemanly insurance-agents and office-managers she was accustomed to meet at the country club, and what was worse, he did not ask her opinions on art and good form. His stories about generals and that sort of people could be discounted as lies, for did he not associate with grimy engineers? He needed some of her gentle but merry chiding.

When they stood together at the rail and he chanted in his ludicrous up-and-down Swedish sing-song that it was a fine evening, she remarked, “Well, Mr. Roughneck, have you been up to something smart again today? Or have you been giving somebody else a chance to talk, for once?”

She was placidly astonished when he clumped away with none of the obedient reverence which any example of cultured American womanhood has a right to expect from all males, even foreigners.

Sondelius came to Martin lamenting, “Slim — if I may call you so, like Terry — I think you and your Gottlieb are right. There is no use saving fools. It’s a great mistake to be natural. One should always be a stuffed shirt, like old Tubbs. Then one would have respect even from artistic New Jersey spinsters. . . . How strange is conceit! That I who have been cursed and beaten by so many Great Ones, who was once led out to be shot in a Turkish prison, should never have been annoyed by them as by this smug wench. Ah, smugness! That is the enemy!”

Apparently he recovered from Miss Gwilliam. He was seen arguing with the ship’s doctor about sutures in Negro skulls, and he invented a game of deck cricket. But one evening when he sat reading in the “social hall,” stooped over, wearing betraying spectacles and his mouth puckered, Martin walked past the window and incredulously saw that Sondelius was growing old.

viii

As he sat by Leora in a deck-chair, Martin studied her, really looked at her pale profile, after years when she had been a matter of course. He pondered on her as he pondered on phage; he weightily decided that he had neglected her, and weightily he started right in to be a good husband.

“Now I have a chance to be human, Lee, I realize how lonely you must have been in New York.”

“But I haven’t.”

“Don’t be foolish! Of course you’ve been lonely! Well, when we get back, I’ll take a little time off every day and we’ll — we’ll have walks and go to the movies and everything. And I’ll send you flowers, every morning. Isn’t it a relief to just sit here! But I do begin to think and realize how I’ve prob’ly neglected — Tell me, honey, has it been too terribly dull?”

“Hunka. Really.”

“No, but TELL me.”

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“Now bang it, Leora, here when I DO have the first chance in eleven thousand years to think about you, and I come right out frankly and admit how slack I’ve been — And planning to send you flowers —”

“You look here, Sandy Arrowsmith! Quit bullying me! You want the luxury of harrowing yourself by thinking what a poor, bawling, wretched, story-book wife I am. You’re working up to become perfectly miserable if you can’t enjoy being miserable. . . . It would be terrible, when we got back to New York, if you did get on the job and devoted yourself to showing me a good time. You’d go at it like a bull. I’d have to be so dratted grateful for the flowers every day — the days you didn’t forget! — and the way you’d sling me off to the movies when I wanted to stay home and snooze —”

“Well, by thunder, of all the —”

“No, please! You’re dear and good, but you’re so bossy that I’ve always got to be whatever YOU want, even if it’s lonely. But — Maybe I’m lazy. I’d rather just snoop around than have to work at being well-dressed and popular and all those jobs. I fuss over the flat — hang it, wish I’d had the kitchen repainted while we’re away, it’s a NICE little kitchen — and I make believe read my French books, and go out for a walk, and look in the windows, and eat an ice cream soda, and the day slides by. Sandy, I do love you awful’ much; if I could, I’d be as ill-treated as the dickens, so you could enjoy it, but I’m no good at educated lies, only at easy little ones like the one I told you last week — I said I hadn’t eaten any candy and didn’t have a stomach-ache, and I’d eaten half a pound and I was as sick as a pup. . . . Gosh, I’m a good wife I am!”

They rolled from gray seas to purple and silver. By dusk they stood at the rail, and he felt the spaciousness of the sea, of life. Always he had lived in his imagination. As he had blundered through crowds, an inconspicuous young husband trotting out to buy cold roast beef for dinner, his brain-pan had been wide as the domed sky. He had seen not the streets, but microorganisms large as jungle monsters, miles of flasks cloudy with bacteria, himself giving orders to his garcon, Max Gottlieb awesomely congratulating him. Always his dreams had clung about his work. Now, no less passionately, he awoke to the ship, the mysterious sea, the presence of Leora, and he cried to her, in the warm tropic winter dusk:

“Sweet, this is only the first of our big hikes! Pretty soon, if I’m successful in St. Hubert, I’ll begin to count in science, and we’ll go abroad, to your France and England and Italy and everywhere!”

“Can we, do you think? Oh, Sandy! Going PLACES!”

ix

He never knew it but for an hour, in their cabin half-lighted from the lamps in their sitting-room beyond, she watched him sleeping.

He was not handsome; he was grotesque as a puppy napping on a hot afternoon. His hair was ruffled, his face was deep in the crumpled pillow he had encircled with both his arms. She looked at him, smiling, with the stretched corners of her lips like tiny flung arrows.

“I do love him so when he’s frowsy! Don’t you see, Sandy, I was wise to come! You’re so worn out. IT might get you, and nobody but me could nurse you. Nobody knows all your cranky ways — about how you hate prunes and everything. Night and day I’ll nurse you — the least whisper and I’ll be awake. And if you need ice bags and stuff — And I’ll HAVE ice, too, if I have to sneak into some millionaire’s house and steal it out of his highballs! My dear!”

She shifted the electric fan so that it played more upon him, and on soft toes she crept into their stiff sitting-room. It did not contain much save a round table, a few chairs, and a Sybaritic glass and mahogany wall-cabinet whose purpose was never discovered.

“It’s so sort of — Aah! Pinched. I guess maybe I ought to fix it up somehow.”

But she had no talent for the composing of chairs and pictures which brings humanness into a dead room. Never in her life had she spent three minutes in arranging flowers. She looked doubtful, she smiled and turned out the light, and slipped in to him.

She lay on the coverlet of her berth, in the tropic languidness, a slight figure in a frivolous nightgown. She thought, “I like a small bedroom, because Sandy is nearer and I don’t get so scared by things. What a dratted bully the man is! Some day I’m going to up and say to him: ‘You go to the devil!’ I will so! Darling, we will hike off to France together, just you and I, won’t we!”

She was asleep, smiling, so thin a little figure —

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