Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 33

Misty mountains they saw, and on their flanks the palm-crowned fortifications built of old time against the pirates. In Martinique were white-faced houses like provincial France, and a boiling market full of colored women with kerchiefs ultramarine and scarlet. They passed hot St. Lucia, and Saba that is all one lone volcano. They devoured paw-paws and breadfruit and avocados, bought from coffee-colored natives who came alongside in nervous small boats; they felt the languor of the isles, and panted before they approached Barbados.

Just beyond was St. Hubert.

None of the tourists had known of the quarantine. They were raging that the company should have taken them into danger. In the tepid wind they felt the plague.

The skipper reassured them, in a formal address. Yes, they would stop at Blackwater, the port of St. Hubert, but they would anchor far out in the harbor; and while the passengers bound for St. Hubert would be permitted to go ashore, in the port-doctor’s launch, no one in St. Hubert would be allowed to leave — nothing from that pest-hole would touch the steamer except the official mail, which the ship’s surgeon would disinfect.

(The ship’s surgeon was wondering, the while, how you disinfected mail — let’s see — sulfur burning in the presence of moisture, wasn’t it?)

The skipper had been trained in oratory by arguments with wharf-masters, and the tourists were reassured. But Martin murmured to his Commission, “I hadn’t thought of that. Once we go ashore, we’ll be practically prisoners till the epidemic’s over — if it ever does get over — prisoners with the plague around us.”

“Why, of course!” said Sondelius.

ii

They left Bridgetown, the pleasant port of Barbados, by afternoon. It was late night, with most of the passengers asleep, when they arrived at Blackwater. As Martin came out on the damp and vacant deck, it seemed unreal, harshly unfriendly, and of the coming battleground he saw nothing but a few shore lights beyond uneasy water.

About their arrival there was something timorous and illicit. The ship’s surgeon ran up and down, looking disturbed; the captain could be heard growling on the bridge; the first officer hastened up to confer with him and disappeared below again; and there was no one to meet them. The steamer waited, rolling in a swell, while from the shore seemed to belch a hot miasma.

“And here’s where we’re going to land and STAY!” Martin grunted to Leora, as they stood by their bags, their cases of phage, on the heaving, black-shining deck near the top of the accommodation-ladder.

Passengers came out in dressing-gowns, chattering, “Yes, this must be the place, those lights there. Must be fierce. WHAT? Somebody going ashore? Oh, sure those two doctors. Well, they got nerve. I certainly don’t envy them!”

Martin heard.

From shore a pitching light made toward the ship, slid round the bow, and sidled to the bottom of the accommodation-ladder. In the haze of a lantern held by a steward at the foot of the steps, Martin could see a smart covered launch, manned by darky sailors in naval uniform and glazed black straw hats with ribbons, and commanded by a Scotch-looking man with some sort of a peaked uniform cap over a civilian jacket.

The captain clumped down the swinging steps beside the ship. While the launch bobbed, its wet canvas top glistening, he had a long and complaining conference with the commander of the launch, and received a pouch of mail, the only thing to come aboard.

The ship’s surgeon took it from the captain with aversion, grumbling, “Now where can I get a barrel to disinfect these darn’ letters in?”

Martin and Leora and Sondelius waited, without option.

They had been joined by a thin woman in black whom they had not seen all the trip — one of the mysterious passengers who are never noticed till they come on deck at landing. Apparently she was going ashore. She was pale, her hands twitching.

The captain shouted at them, “All right — all right — all right! You can go now. Hustle, please. I’ve got to get on . . . . Damn’ nuisance.”

The St. Buryan had not seemed large or luxurious, but it was a castle, steadfast among storms, its side a massy wall, as Martin crept down the swaying stairs, thinking all at once, “We’re in for it; like going to the scaffold — they lead you along — no chance to resist,” and, “You’re letting your imagination run away with you; quit it now!” and, “Is it too late to make Lee stay behind, on the steamer?” and an agonized, “Oh, Lord, are the stewards handling that phage carefully?” Then he was on the tiny square platform at the bottom of the accommodation-ladder, the ship’s side was high above him, lit by the round ports of cabins, and someone was helping him into the launch.

As the unknown woman in black came aboard, Martin saw in lantern light how her lips tightened once, then her whole face went blank, like one who waited hopelessly.

Leora squeezed his hand, hard, as he helped her in.

He muttered, while the steamer whistled, “Quick! You can still go back! You must!”

“And leave the pretty launch? Why, Sandy! Just look at the elegant engine it’s got! . . . Gosh, I’m scared blue!”

As the launch sputtered, swung round, and headed for the filtering of lights ashore, as it bowed its head and danced to the swell, the sandy-headed official demanded of Martin:

“You’re the McGurk Commission?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” He sounded pleased yet cold, a busy voice and humorless.

“Are you the port-doctor?” asked Sondelius.

“No, not exactly. I’m Dr. Stokes, of St. Swithin’s Parish. We’re all of us almost everything, nowadays. The port-doctor — In fact he died couple of days ago.”

Martin grunted. But his imagination had ceased to agitate him.

“You’re Dr. Sondelius, I imagine. I know your work in Africa, in German East — was out there myself. And you’re Dr. Arrowsmith? I read your plague phage paper. Much impressed. Now I have just the chance to say before we go ashore — You’ll both be opposed. Inchcape Jones, the S.G., has lost his head. Running in circles, lancing buboes — afraid to burn Carib, where most of the infection is. Arrowsmith, I have a notion of what you may want to do experimentally. If Inchcape balks, you come to me in my parish — if I’m still alive. Stokes, my name is. . . . Damn it, boy, what ARE you doing? Trying to drift clear down to Venezuela? . . . Inchcape and H.E. are so afraid that they won’t even cremate the bodies — some religious prejudice among the blacks — obee or something.”

“I see,” said Martin.

“How many cases plague you got now?” said Sondelius.

“Lord knows. Maybe a thousand. And ten million rats. . . . I’m so sleepy! . . . Well, welcome, gentlemen —” He flung out his arms in a dry hysteria. “Welcome to the Island of Hesperides!”

Out of darkness Blackwater swung toward them, low flimsy barracks on a low swampy plain stinking of slimy mud. Most of the town was dark, dark and wickedly still. There was no face along the dim waterfront — warehouses, tram station, mean hotels — and they ground against a pier, they went ashore, without attention from customs officials. There were no carriages, and the hotel-runners who once had pestered tourists landing from the St. Buryan, whatever the hour, were dead now or hidden.

The thin mysterious woman passenger vanished, staggering with her suit-case — she had said no word, and they never saw her again. The Commission, with Stokes and the harbor-police who had manned the launch, carried the baggage (Martin weaving with a case of the phage) through the rutty balconied streets to the San Marino Hotel.

Once or twice faces, disembodied things with frightened lips, stared at them from alley-mouths; and when they came to the hotel, when they stood before it, a weary caravan laden with bags and boxes, the bulging-eyed manageress peered from a window before she would admit them.

As they entered, Martin saw under a street light the first stirring of life: a crying woman and a bewildered child following an open wagon in which were heaped a dozen stiff bodies.

“And I might have saved all of them, with phage,” he whispered to himself.

His forehead was cold, yet it was greasy with sweat as he babbled to the manageress of rooms and meals, as he prayed that Leora might not have seen the Things in that slow creaking wagon.

“I’d have choked her before I let her come, if I’d known,” he was shuddering.

The woman apologized, “I must ask you gentlemen to carry your things up to your rooms. Our boys — They aren’t here any more.”

What became of the walking stick which, in such pleased vanity, Martin had bought in New York, he never knew. He was too busy guarding the cases of phage, and worrying, “Maybe this stuff would save everybody.”

Now Stokes of St. Swithin’s was a reticent man and hard, but when they had the last bag upstairs, he leaned his head against a door, cried, “My God, Arrowsmith, I’m so glad you’ve got here,” and broke from them, running. . . . One of the Negro harbor-police, expressionless, speaking the English of the Antilles with something of the accent of Piccadilly, said, “Sar, have you any other command for I? If you permit, we boys will now go home. Sar, on the table is the whisky Dr. Stokes have told I to bring.”

Martin stared. It was Sondelius who said. “Thank you very much, boys. Here’s a quid between you. Now get some sleep.”

They saluted and were not.

Sondelius made the novices as merry as he could for half an hour.

Martin and Leora woke to a broiling, flaring, green and crimson morning, yet ghastly still; awoke and realized that about them was a strange land, as yet unseen, and before them the work that in distant New York had seemed dramatic and joyful and that stank now of the charnel house.

iii

A sort of breakfast was brought to them by a Negress who, before she would enter, peeped fearfully at them from the door.

Sondelius rumbled in from his room, in an impassioned silk dressing-gown. If ever, spectacled and stooped, he had looked old, now he was young and boisterous.

“Hey, ya, Slim, I think we get some work here! Let me at those rats! This Inchcape — to try to master them with strychnin! A noble melon! Leora, when you divorce Martin, you marry me, heh? Give me the salt. Yey, I sleep fine!”

The night before, Martin had scarce looked at their room. Now he was diverted by what he considered its foreignness: the lofty walls of wood painted a watery blue, the wide furnitureless spaces, the bougainvillaea at the window, and in the courtyard the merciless heat and rattling metallic leaves of palmettoes.

Beyond the courtyard walls were the upper stories of a balconied Chinese shop and the violent-colored skylight of The Blue Bazaar.

He felt that there should be a clamor from this exotic world, but there was only a rebuking stillness, and even Sondelius became dumb, though he had his moment. He waddled back to his room, dressed himself in surah silk last worn on the East Coast of Africa, and returned bringing a sun-helmet which secretly he had bought for Martin.

In linen jacket and mushroom helmet, Martin belonged more to the tropics than to his own harsh Northern meadows.

But his pleasure in looking foreign was interrupted by the entrance of the Surgeon General, Dr. R. E. Inchcape Jones, lean but apple-cheeked, worried and hasty.

“Of course you chaps are welcome, but really, with all we have to do I’m afraid we can’t give you the attention you doubtless expect,” he said indignantly.

Martin sought for adequate answer. It was Sondelius who spoke of a non-existent cousin who was a Harley Street specialist, and who explained that all they wanted was a laboratory for Martin and, for himself, a chance to slaughter rats. How many times, in how many lands, had Gustaf Sondelius flattered pro-consuls and persuaded the heathen to let themselves be saved!

Under his hands the Surgeon General became practically human; he looked as though he really thought Leora was pretty; he promised that he might perhaps let Sondelius tamper with his rats. He would return that afternoon and conduct them to the house prepared for them, Penrith Lodge, on the safe secluded hills behind Blackwater. And (he bowed gallantly) he thought that Mrs. Arrowsmith would find the Lodge a topping bungalow, with three rather decent servants. The butler, though a colored chap, was an old mess-sergeant.

Inchcape Jones had scarce gone when at the door there was a pounding and it opened on Martin’s classmate at Winnemac, Dr. the Rev. Ira Hinkley.

Martin had forgotten Ira, that bulky Christian who had tried to save him during otherwise dulcet hours of dissection. He recalled him confusedly. The man came in, vast and lumbering. His eyes were staring and altogether mad, and his voice was parched:

“Hello, Mart. Yump, it’s old Ira. I’m in charge of all the chapels of the Sanctification Brotherhood here. Oh, Mart, if you only knew the wickedness of the natives, and the way they lie and sing indecent songs and commit all manner of vileness! And the Church of England lets them wallow in their sins! Only us to save them. I heard you were coming. I have been laboring, Mart. I’ve nursed the poor plague-stricken devils, and I’ve told them how hellfire is roaring about them. Oh, Mart, if you knew how my heart bleeds to see these ignorant fellows going unrepentant to eternal torture! After all these years I know you can’t still be a scoffer. I come to you with open hands, begging you not merely to comfort the sufferers but to snatch their souls from the burning lakes of sulfur to which, in His everlasting mercy, the Lord of Hosts hath condemned those that blaspheme against His gospel, freely given —”

Again it was Sondelius who got Ira Hinkley out, not too discontented, while Martin could only sputter, “Now how do you suppose that maniac ever got here? This is going to be awful!”

Before Inchcape Jones returned, the Commission ventured out for their first sight of the town. . . . A Scientific Commission, yet all the while they were only boisterous Gustaf and doubtful Martin and casual Leora.

The citizens had been told that in bubonic plague, unlike pneumonic, there is no danger from direct contact with people developing the disease, so long as vermin were kept away, but they did not believe it. They were afraid of one another, and the more afraid of strangers. The Commission found a street dying with fear. House-shutters were closed, hot slatted patches in the sun; and the only traffic was an empty trolley-car with a frightened motorman who peered down at them and sped up lest they come aboard. Grocery shops and drugstores were open, but from their shady depths the shopkeepers looked out timidly, and when the Commission neared a fish-stall, the one customer fled, edging past them.

Once a woman, never explained, a woman with wild ungathered hair, ran by them shrieking, “My little boy —”

They came to the market, a hundred stalls under a long corrugated-iron roof, with stone pillars bearing the fatuous names of the commissioners who had built it — by voting bonds for the building. It should have been buzzing with jovial buyers and sellers, but in all the gaudy booths there were only one Negress with a row of twig besoms, one Hindu in gray rags squatting before his wealth of a dozen vegetables. The rest was emptiness, and a litter of rotted potatoes and scudding papers.

Down a grim street of coal yards, they found a public square, and here was the stillness not of sleep but of ancient death.

The square was rimmed with the gloom of mango trees, which shut out the faint-hearted breeze and cooped in the heat — stale lifeless heat, in whose misery the leering silence was the more dismaying. Through a break in the evil mangoes they beheld a plaster house hung with black crape.

“It’s too hot to walk. Perhaps we’d better go back to the hotel,” said Leora.

iv

In the afternoon Inchcape Jones appeared with a Ford, whose familiarity made it the more grotesque in this creepy world, and took them to Penrith Lodge, on the cool hills behind Blackwater.

They traversed a packed native section of bamboo hovels and shops that were but unpainted, black-weathered huts, without doors, without windows, from whose recesses dark faces looked at them resentfully. They passed, at their colored driver’s most jerky speed, a new brick structure in front of which stately Negro policemen with white gloves, white sun-helmets, and scarlet coats cut by white belts, marched with rifles at the carry.

Inchcape Jones sighed, “Schoolhouse. Turned it into pest-house. Hundred cases in there. Die every hour. Have to guard it — patients get delirious and try to escape.”

After them trailed an odor of rotting.

Martin did not feel superior to humanity.

v

With broad porches and low roof, among bright flamboyants and the cheerful sago palms, the bungalow of Penrith Lodge lay high on a crest, looking across the ugly flat of the town to the wash of sea. At its windows the reed jalousies whispered and clattered, and the high bare rooms were enlivened by figured Carib scarfs. . . . It had belonged to the Port-doctor, dead these three days.

Inchcape Jones assured the doubtful Leora that she would nowhere else be so safe; the house was rat-proofed, and the doctor had caught the plague at the pier, had died without ever coming back to this well-beloved bungalow in which he, the professional bachelor, had given the most clamorous parties in St. Hubert.

Martin had with him sufficient equipment for a small laboratory, and he established it in a bedroom with gas and running water. Next to it was his and Leora’s bedroom, then an apartment which Sondelius immediately made homelike by dropping his clothes and his pipe ashes all over it.

There were two colored maids and an ex-soldier butler, who received them and unpacked their bags as though the plague did not exist.

Martin was perplexed by their first caller. He was a singularly handsome young Negro, quick-moving, intelligent of eye. Like most white Americans, Martin had talked a great deal about the inferiority of Negroes and had learned nothing whatever about them. He looked questioning as the young man observed:

“My name is Oliver Marchand.”

“Yes?”

“Dr. Marchand — I have my M.D. from Howard.”

“Oh.”

“May I venture to welcome you, Doctor? And may I ask before I hurry off — I have three cases from official families isolated at the bottom of the hill — oh, yes, in this crisis they permit a Negro doctor to practice even among the whites! But — Dr. Stokes insists that D’Herelle and you are right in calling bacteriophage an organism. But what about Bordet’s contention that it’s an enzyme?”

Then for half an hour did Dr. Arrowsmith and Dr. Marchand, forgetting the plague, forgetting the more cruel plague of race-fear, draw diagrams.

Marchand sighed, “I must go, Doctor. May I help you in any way I can? It is a great privilege to know you.”

He saluted quietly and was gone, a beautiful young animal. “I never thought a Negro doctor — I wish people wouldn’t keep showing me how much I don’t know!” said Martin.

vi

While Martin prepared his laboratory, Sondelius was joyfully at work, finding out what was wrong with Inchcape Jones’s administration, which proved to be almost anything that could be wrong.

A plague epidemic today, in a civilized land, is no longer an affair of people dying in the streets and of drivers shouting “Bring out your dead.” The fight against it is conducted like modern warfare, with telephones instead of foaming chargers. The ancient horror bears a face of efficiency. There are offices, card indices, bacteriological examinations of patients and of rats. There is, or should be, a lone director with superlegal powers. There are large funds, education of the public by placard and newspaper, brigades of rat-killers, a corps of disinfectors, isolation of patients lest vermin carry the germs from them to others.

In most of these particulars Inchcape Jones had failed. To have the existence of the plague admitted in the first place, he had had to fight the merchants controlling the House of Assembly, who had howled that a quarantine would ruin them, and who now refused to give him complete power and tried to manage the epidemic with a Board of Health, which was somewhat worse than navigating a ship during a typhoon by means of a committee.

Inchcape Jones was courageous enough, but he could not cajole people. The newspapers called him a tyrant, would not help win over the public to take precautions against rats and ground squirrels. He had tried to fumigate a few warehouses with sulfur dioxid, but the owners complained that the fumes stained fabrics and paint; and the Board of Health bade him wait — wait a little while — wait and see. He had tried to have the rats examined, to discover what were the centers of infection, but his only bacteriologists were the overworked Stokes and Oliver Marchand; and Inchcape Jones had often explained, at nice dinner-parties, that he did not trust the intelligence of Negroes.

He was nearly insane; he worked twenty hours a day; he assured himself that he was not afraid; he reminded himself that he had an honestly won D.S.O.; he longed to have someone besides a board of Red Leg merchants give him orders; and always in the blur of his sleepless brain he saw the hills of Surrey, his sisters in the rose-walk, and the basket-chairs and tea-table beside his father’s tennis-lawn.

Then Sondelius, that crafty and often lying lobbyist, that unmoral soldier of the Lord, burst in and became dictator.

He terrified the Board of Health. He quoted his own experiences in Mongolia and India. He assured them that if they did not cease being politicians, the plague might cling in St. Hubert forever, so that they would no more have the amiable dollars of the tourists and the pleasures of smuggling.

He threatened and flattered, and told a story which they had never heard, even at the Ice House; and he had Inchcape Jones appointed dictator of St. Hubert.

Gustaf Sondelius stood extremely close behind the dictator.

He immediately started rat-killing. On a warrant signed by Inchcape Jones, he arrested the owner of a warehouse who had declared that he was not going to have HIS piles of cocoa ruined. He marched his policemen, stout black fellows trained in the Great War, to the warehouse, set them on guard, and pumped in hydrocyanic acid gas.

The crowd gathered beyond the police line, wondering, doubting. They could not believe that anything was happening, for the cracks in the warehouse walls had been adequately stuffed and there was no scent of gas. But the roof was leaky. The gas crept up through it, colorless, diabolic, and suddenly a buzzard circling above the roof tilted forward, fell slantwise, and lay dead among the watchers.

A man picked it up, goggling.

“Dead, right enough,” everybody muttered. They looked at Sondelius, parading among his soldiers, with reverence.

His rat-crew searched each warehouse before pumping in the gas, lest someone be left in the place, but in the third one a tramp had been asleep, and when the doors were anxiously opened after the fumigation, there were not only thousands of dead rats but also a dead and very stiff tramp.

“Poor fella — bury him,” said Sondelius.

There was no inquest.

Over a rum swizzle at the Ice House, Sondelius reflected, “I wonder how many men I murder, Martin? When I was disinfecting ships at Antofagasta, always afterward we find two or three stowaways. They hide too good. Poor fellas.”

Sondelius arbitrarily dragged bookkeepers and porters from their work, to pursue the rats with poison, traps, and gas, or to starve them by concreting and screening stables and warehouses. He made a violent red and green rat map of the town. He broke every law of property by raiding shops for supplies. He alternately bullied and caressed the leaders of the House of Assembly. He called on Kellett, told stories to his children, and almost wept as he explained what a good Lutheran he was — and consistently (but not at Kellett’s) he drank too much.

The Ice House, that dimmest and most peaceful among saloons, with its cool marble tables, its gilt-touched white walls, had not been closed, though only the oldest topers and the youngest bravos, fresh out from Home and agonizingly lonely for Peckham or Walthamstow, for Peel Park or the Cirencester High Street, were desperate enough to go there, and of the attendants there remained only one big Jamaica barman. By chance he was among them all the most divine mixer of the planter’s punch, the New Orleans fizz, and the rum swizzle. His masterpieces Sondelius acclaimed, he alone placid among the scary patrons who came in now not to dream but to gulp and flee. After a day of slaughtering rats and disinfecting houses he sat with Martin, with Martin and Leora, or with whomever he could persuade to linger.

To Gustaf Sondelius, dukes and cobblers were alike remarkable, and Martin was sometimes jealous when he saw Sondelius turning to a cocoa-broker’s clerk with the same smile he gave to Martin. For hours Sondelius talked, of Shanghai and epistemology and the painting of Nevinson; for hours he sang scurrilous lyrics of the Quarter, and boomed, “Yey, how I kill the rats at Kellett’s wharf today! I don’t t’ink one little swizzle would break down too many glomeruli in an honest man’s kidneys.”

He was cheerful, but never with the reproving and infuriating cheerfulness of an Ira Hinkley. He mocked himself, Martin, Leora, and their work. At home dinner he never cared what he ate (though he did care what he drank), which at Penrith Lodge was desirable, in view of Leora’s efforts to combine the views of Wheatsylvania with the standards of West Indian servants and the absence of daily deliveries. He shouted and sang — and took precautions for working among rats and the agile fleas: the high boots, the strapped wrists, and the rubber neck-band which he had invented and which is known in every tropical supply shop today as the Sondelius Anti-vermin Neck Protector.

It happened that he was, without Martin or Gottlieb ever understanding it, the most brilliant as well as the least pompous and therefore least appreciated warrior against epidemics that the world has known.

Thus with Sondelius, though for Martin there were as yet but embarrassment and futility and the fear of fear.

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