Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 35

The plague had only begun to invade St. Swithin’s, but it was unquestionably coming, and Martin, with his power as official medical officer of the parish, was able to make plans. He divided the population into two equal parts. One of them, driven in by Twyford, was injected with plague phage, the other half was left without.

He began to succeed. He saw far-off India, with its annual four hundred thousand deaths from plague, saved by his efforts. He heard Max Gottlieb saying, “Martin, you haf done your experiment. I am very glat!”

The pest attacked the unphaged half of the parish much more heavily than those who had been treated. There did appear a case or two among those who had the phage, but among the others there were ten, then twenty, then thirty daily victims. These unfortunate cases he treated, giving the phage to alternate patients, in the somewhat barren almshouse of the parish, a whitewashed cabin the meaner against its vaulting background of banyans and breadfruit trees.

He could never understand Cecil Twyford. Though Twyford had considered his hands as slaves, though he had, in his great barony, given them only this barren almshouse, yet he risked his life now in nursing them, and the lives of all his sons.

Despite Martin’s discouragement, Mrs. Lanyon came down to cook, and a remarkably good cook she was. She also made beds; she showed more intelligence than the Twyford men about disinfecting herself; and as she bustled about the rusty kitchen, in a gingham gown she had borrowed from a maid, she so disturbed Martin that he forgot to be gruff.

ii

In the evening, while they returned by Twyford’s rattling little motor to Frangipani Court, Mrs. Lanyon talked to Martin as one who had shared his work, but when she had bathed and powdered and dressed, he talked to her as one who was afraid of her. Their bond was their resemblance as brother and sister. They decided, almost irritably, that they looked utterly alike, except that her hair was more patent-leather than his and she lacked his impertinent, cocking eyebrow.

Often Martin returned to his patients at night, but once or twice Mrs. Lanyon and he fled, as much from the family stolidity of the Twyfords as from the thought of fever-scorched patients, to the shore of a rocky lagoon which cut far in from the sea.

They sat on a cliff, full of the sound of the healing tide. His brain was hectic with the memory of charts on the whitewashed broad planks, of the almshouse, the sun cracks in the wall, the puffy terrified faces of black patients, how one of the Twyford sons had knocked over an ampule of phage, and how itchingly hot it had been in the ward. But to his intensity the lagoon breeze was cooling, and cooling the rustling tide. He perceived that Mrs. Lanyon’s white frock was fluttering about her knees; he realized that she too was strained and still. He turned somberly toward her, and she cried:

“I’m so frightened and so lonely! The Twyfords are heroic, but they’re stone. I’m so marooned!”

He kissed her, and she rested against his shoulder. The softness of her sleeve was agitating to his hand. But she broke away with:

“No! You don’t really care a hang about me. Just curious. Perhaps that’s a good thing for me — tonight.”

He tried to assure her, to assure himself, that he did care with peculiar violence, but languor was over him; between him and her fragrance were the hospital cots, a great weariness, and the still face of Leora. They were silent together, and when his hand crept to hers they sat unimpassioned, comprehending, free to talk of what they would.

He stood outside her door, when they had returned to the house, and imagined her soft moving within.

“No,” he raged. “Can’t do it. Joyce — women like her — one of the million things I’ve given up for work and for Lee. Well. That’s all there is to it then. But if I were here two weeks — Fool! She’d be furious if you knocked! But —”

He was aware of the dagger of light under her door; the more aware of it as he turned his back and tramped to his room.

iii

The telephone service in St. Hubert was the clumsiest feature of the island. There was no telephone at Penrith Lodge — the port-doctor had cheerfully been wont to get his calls through a neighbor. The central was now demoralized by the plague, and when for two hours Martin had tried to have Leora summoned, he gave up.

But he had triumphed. In three or four days he would drive to Penrith Lodge. Twyford had blankly assented to his suggestion that Leora be invited hither, and if she and Joyce Lanyon should become such friends that Joyce would never again turn to him in loneliness, he was willing, he was eager — he was almost eager.

iv

When Martin left her at the Lodge, in the leafy gloom high on the Penrith Hills, Leora felt his absence. They had been so little apart since he had first come on her, scrubbing a hospital room in Zenith.

The afternoon was unending; each time she heard a creaking she roused with the hope that it was his step, and realized that he would not be coming, all the blank evening, the terrifying night; would not be here anywhere, not his voice nor the touch of his hand.

Dinner was mournful. Often enough she had dined alone when Martin was at the Institute, but then he had been returning to her some time before dawn — probably — and she had reflectively munched a snack on the corner of the kitchen table, looking at the funnies in the evening paper. Tonight she had to live up to the butler, who served her as though she were a dinner-party of twenty.

She sat on the porch, staring at the shadowy roofs of Blackwater below, sure that she felt a “miasm” writhing up through the hot darkness.

She knew the direction of St. Swithin’s Parish — beyond that delicate glimmer of lights from palm huts coiling up the hills. She concentrated on it, wondering if by some magic she might not have a signal from him, but she could get no feeling of his looking toward her. She sat long and quiet. . . . She had nothing to do.

Her night was sleepless. She tried to read in bed, by an electric globe inside the misty little tent of the mosquito-netting, but there was a tear in the netting and the mosquitoes crept through. As she turned out the light and lay tense, unable to give herself over to sleep, unable to sink into security, while to her blurred eyes the half-seen folds of the mosquito netting seemed to slide about her, she tried to remember whether these mosquitoes might be carrying plague germs. She realized how much she had depended on Martin for such bits of knowledge, as for all philosophy. She recalled how annoyed he had been because she could not remember whether the yellow fever mosquito was Anopheles or Stegomyia — or was it Aedes? — and suddenly she laughed in the night.

She was reminded that he had told her to give herself another injection of phage.

“Hang it, I forgot. Well, I must be sure to do that tomorrow.

“Do that t’morrow — do that t’morrow,” buzzed in her brain, an irritating inescapable refrain, while she was suspended over sleep, conscious of how much she wanted to creep into his arms.

Next morning (and she did not remember to give herself another injection) the servants seemed twitchy, and her effort to comfort them brought out the news that Oliver Marchand, the doctor on whom they depended, was dead.

In the afternoon the butler heard that his sister had been taken off to the isolation ward, and he went down to Blackwater to make arrangements for his nieces. He did not return; no one ever learned what had become of him.

Toward dusk, when Leora felt as though a skirmish line were closing in on her, she fled into Martin’s laboratory. It seemed filled with his jerky brimming presence. She kept away from the flasks of plague germs, but she picked up, because it was his, a half-smoked cigarette and lighted it.

Now there was a slight crack in her lips; and that morning, fumbling at dusting — here in the laboratory meant as a fortress against disease — a maid had knocked over a test-tube, which had trickled. The cigarette seemed dry enough, but in it there were enough plague germs to kill a regiment.

Two nights after, when she was so desperately lonely that she thought of walking to Blackwater, finding a motor, and fleeing to Martin, she woke with a fever, a headache, her limbs chilly. When the maids discovered her in the morning, they fled from the house. While lassitude flowed round her, she was left alone in the isolated house, with no telephone.

All day, all night, as her throat crackled with thirst, she lay longing for someone to help her. Once she crawled to the kitchen for water. The floor of the bedroom was an endless heaving sea, the hall a writhing dimness, and by the kitchen door she dropped and lay for an hour, whimpering.

“Got to — got to — can’t remember what it was,” her voice kept appealing to her cloudy brain.

Aching, fighting the ache, she struggled up, wrapped about her a shabby cloak which one of the maids had abandoned in flight, and in the darkness staggered out to find help. As she came to the highway she stumbled, and lay under the hedge, unmoving, like a hurt animal. On hands and knees she crawled back into the Lodge, and between times, as her brain went dark, she nearly forgot the pain in her longing for Martin.

She was bewildered; she was lonely; she dared not start on her long journey without his hand to comfort her. She listened for him — listened — tense with listening.

“You will come! I know you’ll come and help me! I know. You’ll come! Martin! Sandy! SANDY!” she sobbed.

Then she slipped down into the kindly coma. There was no more pain, and all the shadowy house was quiet but for her hoarse and struggling breath.

v

Like Sondelius, Joyce Lanyon tried to persuade Martin to give the phage to everybody.

“I’m getting to be good and stern, with all you people after me. Regular Gottlieb. Nothing can make me do it, not if they tried to lynch me,” he boasted.

He had explained Leora to Joyce.

“I don’t know whether you two will like each other. You’re so darn’ different. You’re awfully articulate, and you like these ‘pretty people’ that you’re always talking about, but she doesn’t care a hang for ’em. She sits back — oh, she never misses anything, but she never says much. Still, she’s got the best instinct for honesty that I’ve ever known. I hope you two’ll get each other. I was afraid to let her come here — didn’t know what I’d find — but now I’m going to hustle to Penrith and bring her here today.”

He borrowed Twyford’s car and drove to Blackwater, up to Penrith, in excellent spirits. For all the plague, they could have a lively time in the evenings. One of the Twyford sons was not so solemn; he and Joyce, with Martin and Leora, could slip down to the lagoon for picnic suppers; they would sing —

He came up to Penrith Lodge bawling, “Lee! Leora! Come on! HERE we are!”

The veranda, as he ran up on it, was leaf-scattered and dusty, and the front door was banging. His voice echoed in a desperate silence. He was uneasy. He darted in, found no one in the living-room, the kitchen, then hastened into their bedroom.

On the bed, across the folds of the torn mosquito netting, was Leora’s body, very frail, quite still. He cried to her, he shook her, he stood weeping.

He talked to her, his voice a little insane, trying to make her understand that he had loved her and had left her here only for her safety —

There was rum in the kitchen, and he went out to gulp down raw full glasses. They did not affect him.

By evening he strode to the garden, the high and windy garden looking toward the sea, and dug a deep pit. He lifted her light stiff body, kissed it, and laid it in the pit. All night he wandered. When he came back to the house and saw the row of her little dresses with the lines of her soft body in them, he was terrified.

Then he went to pieces.

He gave up Penrith Lodge, left Twyford’s, and moved into a room behind the Surgeon General’s office. Beside his cot there was always a bottle.

Because death had for the first time been brought to him, he raged, “Oh, damn experimentation!” and, despite Stokes’s dismay, he gave the phage to everyone who asked.

Only in St. Swithin’s, since there his experiment was so excellently begun, did some remnant of honor keep him from distributing the phage universally; but the conduct of this experiment he turned over to Stokes.

Stokes saw that he was a little mad, but only once, when Martin snarled, “What do I care for your science?” did he try to hold Martin to his test.

Stokes himself, with Twyford, carried on the experiment and kept the notes Martin should have kept. By evening, after working fourteen or fifteen hours since dawn, Stokes would hasten to St. Swithin’s by motor-cycle — he hated the joggling and the lack of dignity and he found it somewhat dangerous to take curving hill-roads at sixty miles an hour, but this was the quickest way, and till midnight he conferred with Twyford, gave him orders for the next day, arranged his clumsy annotations, and marveled at his grim meekness.

Meantime, all day, Martin injected a line of frightened citizens, in the Surgeon General’s office in Blackwater. Stokes begged him at least to turn the work over to another doctor and take what interest he could in St. Swithin’s, but Martin had a bitter satisfaction in throwing away all his significance, in helping to wreck his own purposes.

With a nurse for assistant, he stood in the bare office. File on file of people, black, white, Hindu, stood in an agitated cue a block long, ten deep, waiting dumbly, as for death. They crept up to the nurse beside Martin and in embarrassment exposed their arms, which she scrubbed with soap and water and dabbed with alcohol before passing them on to him. He brusquely pinched up the skin of the upper arm and jabbed it with the needle of the syringe, cursing at them for jerking, never seeing their individual faces. As they left him they fluttered with gratitude —“Oh, may God bless you, Doctor!”— but he did not hear.

Sometimes Stokes was there, looking anxious, particularly when in the queue he saw plantation-hands from St. Swithin’s, who were supposed to remain in their parish under strict control, to test the value of the phage. Sometimes Sir Robert Fairlamb came down to beam and gurgle and offer his aid. . . . Lady Fairlamb had been injected first of all, and next to her a tattered kitchen wench, profuse with Hallelujah’s.

After a fortnight when he was tired of the drama, he had four doctors making the injections, while he manufactured phage.

But by night Martin sat alone, tousled, drinking steadily, living on whisky and hate, freeing his soul and dissolving his body by hatred as once hermits dissolved theirs by ecstasy. His life was as unreal as the nights of an old drunkard. He had an advantage over normal cautious humanity in not caring whether he lived or died, he who sat with the dead, talking to Leora and Sondelius, to Ira Hinkley and Oliver Marchand, to Inchcape Jones and a shadowy horde of blackmen with lifted appealing hands.

After Leora’s death he had returned to Twyford’s but once, to fetch his baggage, and he had not seen Joyce Lanyon. He hated her. He swore that it was not her presence which had kept him from returning earlier to Leora, but he was aware that while he had been chattering with Joyce, Leora had been dying.

“Damn’ glib society climber! Thank God I’ll never see HER again!”

He sat on the edge of his cot, in the constricted and airless room, his hair ruffled, his eyes blotched with red, a stray alley kitten, which he esteemed his only friend, asleep on his pillow. At a knock he muttered, “I can’t talk to Stokes now. Let him do his own experiments. Sick of experiments!”

Sulkily, “Oh, come in!”

The door opened on Joyce Lanyon, cool, trim, sure.

“What do you want?” he grunted.

She stared at him; she shut the door; silently she straightened the litter of food, papers, and instruments on his table. She coaxed the indignant kitten to a mat, patted the pillow, and sat by him on the frowsy cot. Then:

“Please! I know what’s happened. Cecil is in town for an hour and I wanted to bring — Won’t it comfort you a little if you know how fond we are of you? Won’t you let me offer you friendship?”

“I don’t want anybody’s friendship. I haven’t any friends!”

He sat dumb, her hand on his, but when she was gone he felt a shiver of new courage.

He could not get himself to give up his reliance on whisky, and he could see no way of discontinuing the phage-injection of all who came begging for it, but he turned both injection and manufacture over to others, and went back to the most rigid observation of his experiment in St. Swithin’s . . . blotted as it now was by the unphaged portion of the parish going in to Blackwater to receive the phage.

He did not see Joyce. He lived at the almshouse, but most evenings now he was sober.

vi

The gospel of rat-extermination had spread through the island; everybody from five-year-old to hobbling grandam was out shooting rats and ground squirrels. Whether from phage or rat-killing or Providence, the epidemic paused, and six months after Martin’s coming, when the West Indian May was broiling and the season of hurricanes was threatened, the plague had almost vanished and the quarantine was lifted.

St. Hubert felt safe in its kitchens and shops, and amid the roaring spring the island rejoiced as a sick man first delivered from pain rejoices at merely living and being at peace.

That chaffering should be abusive and loud in the public market, that lovers should stroll unconscious of all save themselves, that loafers should tell stories and drink long drinks at the Ice House, that old men should squat cackling in the shade of the mangoes, that congregations should sing together to the Lord — this was no longer ordinary to them nor stupid, but the bliss of paradise.

They made a festival of the first steamer’s leaving. White and black, Hindu and Chink and Caribbee, they crowded the wharf, shouting, waving scarfs, trying not to weep at the feeble piping of what was left of the Blackwater Gold Medal Band; and as the steamer, the St. Ia of the McGurk Line, was warped out, with her captain at the rail of the bridge, very straight, saluting them with a flourish but his eyes so wet that he could not see the harbor, they felt that they were no longer jailed lepers but a part of the free world.

On the steamer Joyce Lanyon sailed. Martin said good-by to her at the wharf.

Strong of hand, almost as tall as he, she looked at him without flutter, and rejoiced, “You’ve come through. So have I. Both of us have been mad, trapped here the way we’ve been. I don’t suppose I helped you, but I did try. You see, I’d never been trained in reality. You trained me. Good-by.”

“Mayn’t I come to see you in New York?”

“If you’d really like to.”

She was gone, yet she had never been so much with him as through that tedious hour when the steamer was lost beyond the horizon, a line edged with silver wire. But that night, in panic, he fled up to Penrith Lodge and buried his cheek in the damp soil above the Leora with whom he had never had to fence and explain, to whom he had never needed to say, “Mayn’t I come to see you?”

But Leora, cold in her last bed, unsmiling, did not answer him nor comfort him.

vii

Before Martin took leave he had to assemble the notes of his phage experiment; add the observation of Stokes and Twyford to his own first precise figures.

As the giver of phage to some thousands of frightened islanders, he had become a dignitary. He was called, in the first issue of the Blackwater Guardian after the quarantine was raised, “the savior of all our lives.” He was the universal hero. If Sondelius had helped to cleanse them, had Sondelius not been his lieutenant? If it was the intervention of the Lord, as the earnest old Negro who succeeded Ira Hinkley in the chapels of the Sanctification Brotherhood insisted, had not the Lord surely sent him?

No one heeded a wry Scotch doctor, diligent but undramatic through the epidemic, who hinted that plagues have been known to slacken and cease without phage.

When Martin was completing his notes he had a letter from the McGurk Institute, signed by Rippleton Holabird.

Holabird wrote that Gottlieb was “feeling seedy,” that he had resigned the Directorship, suspended his own experimentation, and was now at home, resting. Holabird himself had been appointed Acting Director of the Institute, and as such he chanted:

The reports of your work in the letters from Mr. McGurk’s agents which the quarantine authorities have permitted to get through to us apprize us far more than does your own modest report what a really sensational success you have had. You have done what few other men living could do, both established the value of bacteriophage in plague by tests on a large scale, and saved most of the unfortunate population. The Board of Trustees and I are properly appreciative of the glory which you have added, and still more will add when your report is published, to the name of McGurk institute, and we are thinking, now that we may for some months be unable to have your titular chief, Dr. Gottlieb, working with us, of establishing a separate Department, with you as its head.

“Established the value — rats! I about half made the tests,” sighed Martin, and: “Department! I’ve given too many orders here. Sick of authority. I want to get back to my lab and start all over again.”

It came to him that now he would probably have ten thousand a year. . . . Leora would have enjoyed small extravagant dinners.

Though he had watched Gottlieb declining, it was a shock that he could be so unwell as to drop his work even for a few months.

He forgot his own self as it came to him that in giving up his experiment, playing the savior, he had been a traitor to Gottlieb and all that Gottlieb represented. When he returned to New York he would have to call on the old man and admit to him, to those sunken relentless eyes, that he did not have complete proof of the value of the phage.

If he could have run to Leora with his ten thousand a year —

viii

He left St. Hubert three weeks after Joyce Lanyon.

The evening before his sailing, a great dinner with Sir Robert Fairlamb in the chair was given to him and to Stokes. While Sir Robert ruddily blurted compliments and Kellett tried to explain things, and all of them drank to him, standing, after the toast to the King, Martin sat lonely, considering that tomorrow he would leave these trusting eyes and face the harsh demands of Gottlieb, of Terry Wickett.

The more they shouted his glory, the more he thought about what unknown, tight-minded scientists in distant laboratories would say of a man who had had his chance and cast it away. The more they called him the giver of life, the more he felt himself disgraced and a traitor; and as he looked at Stokes he saw in his regard a pity worse than condemnation.

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