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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 1. The Modernists
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The Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 1. The Modernists Post by :p00kie Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1936

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The Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 1. The Modernists

BOOK II CHAPTER I. THE MODERNISTS

The Bacteriologic Department of the Corlear Medical School stood at this time on one of the cross-streets of the old East Side, not far from Corlear Park. It was a large, old-fashioned brick building, worn of threshold, and as ugly in line as a livery barn. Its entrance was merely a gap in the wall, its windows rectangular openings to let in the light. Not one touch of color or grace, not one dignified line could be detected throughout its whole exterior. It was constructed for use, not ornament.

Interiorly it was quite as utilitarian. Its halls, bare and cheerless, echoed to the tread and were repellent as those of a barracks. The visitor felt chilled, disappointed, as if he had been met by the insolent servant of an indifferent hostess. It seemed the home of the mathematical, the mechanical, the material; but this was a mistake. It was a house of dreams. The right knock at one of those ugly doors would permit one to step into the presence of the most cheery, the most learned, the most imaginative of individuals--the man of germs, poet, dreamer, and experimentalist, absorbed in the pursuit of the unattainable, concerned with the ultimate structure of organic life, baffled, yet toiling on for love of his work, while the sick of the world believe in him as an angel of altruism.

The far-away rivers of the world have all been traversed and mapped, but the streams of blood in the arteries of man are filled with the unknown. The habits of the Esquimaux, the customs of the dwarfs of Central Africa, the ways of the baboons of Sumatra are minutely set to book, but the wars of the phagocytes remain indeterminate, unexplained. With microscope to his eye the bacteriologist is now examining the constituent parts of the blood, isolating, breeding, and minutely studying the germs of fevers, the growths of tumors, and other elemental forms of human parasites, in order to discover their antagonisms, their likings; for in these jungles of the flesh the war of races proceeds quite as in the Amazonian forests--the white cells against the red, devouring, destroying.

The men behind these bald, bleak doors are tireless workers as well as seers and sages. They toil (at ridiculously low salaries) in the avowed hope of eradicating diseases. They do not pause in dismay of the insoluble. They--or such as they--discovered the cure for small-pox, for hydrophobia, diphtheria, and for yellow-fever. They and their like brought chloroform to the woman in travail, and ether to the wounded soldier. They have enormously reduced the number of those who die on the battle-field by their antiseptic dressings, and by one discovery after another have made infantile diseases less destructive. They already control yellow-fever and are about to eradicate typhoid--yet they say "our work is but begun."

Here one comes upon their dreams. Calm and contained as their words are, their hearts are aflame with passion for the undiscovered. They are akin to those who seek the theoretic poles of the earth, undaunted by endless defeats. With quickening breath they watch the electrons flame and fall, seeing the ultimate constitution of matter almost within their grasp, and yet they do not permit their dreams to blind or weaken them in their wearisome, hopeless quest.

They have their heroism for humanity, too. They meet death face to face, as they pry close into the cause of decay, the secret of morbid growth. There is more danger in certain germs than in lions. Blood-poisoning is to the surgeon a more constant menace than hunger to an Arctic explorer. These students never know what destroyer they may unwittingly unloose. Cross-section of abnormal tissue is more entrancing than a rose-leaf, a cluster of bacilli more beautiful than a snowflake. They have gone past all creeds, these calm young men, but they bow before the unspeakable majesty of the unknown. To them the Hebrew Scriptures are but the tales of minstrels in the childhood of the race, Mohammed a dreamer of baseless visions, and Christ but incarnate love in an age of war. The Creator they conceive is too profound to admit of any attribute. He neither thinks nor feels, and the life that pulses at the base of the first faint cell is a part of the same power that binds the stars to their circling suns.

Notwithstanding their daily contact with the most appalling cases of disease and death, they come and go briskly with jocular greetings on the stair-ways. They return to their homes each night to read, to smoke their pipes, deporting themselves like commonplace fathers and brothers and husbands. They even make love like other men; but, nevertheless, they may be overtaken in muse like alchemists, subject to fear and hope like children. To the business-man their ways are ways of silence and sorcery. Their deep-hid convictions are at variance with all theories of Christian redemption, and the realities of their realm more startling than any romance of war or peace. To them matter is as insoluble as the transforming forces which emanate from it. They play with nerves, laying bare the beating heart of life, forever finding, yet forever failing.

To this big, bare building, to one of these barren rooms, Morton Serviss returned after eight weeks study of the sands and the stars and the cave-dwellings of vanished men. From the infinitely lonely and huge and beautiful he cloistered himself to pore upon the habits of the infinitely small, to listen to the swarming, diminished tumult of the protozoa. He came back, as usual, brown, alert, and keen-eyed--eager for work, confident of some new victory, for he was an investigator of weight and standing among the younger men of science. On the street he was indistinguishable from other debonair young men of good social position; in his laboratory he was a master, absorbed, reticent, and precise of plan.

His chief, a little, gray, bent, brusque German, greeted him with absent-minded smile, remarked briefly upon his good health, and then they set to work. In thirty seconds he had forgotten the desert, the face of Viola, all his energies concentrated on the segment of cancer beneath his eye. A newly developed germ, a thousandth part the stature of a gnat's toe, shut out the valley of the Colorow. All day he moved among a wilderness of tubes, jars, and copper ovens, peering, observing--and in a sense happy.

But at night, when alone with his pipe in his study, the lavender sands, the violet peaks, the vivid saffron skies returned with power. Viola, too, came back to bewitch him from his reading, to make his microscopic world of shadowy substance and the smell of his laboratory a hateful thing.

He heard nothing further of her. Britt wrote once or twice, but did not allude to either Clarke or the Lamberts, and Serviss did not care to ask particularly about them. It was better for him not to be concerned further with the girl's singular history. He hated the irregular, the pretentious. His own life, so clear, so well regulated, made her daily performances the more monstrous. The whole had become so foolish in retrospect that he refrained from speaking of it, even to his sister.

It was not quite true that he saw little of New York, for his sister, Mrs. Rice--a widow with two children--who kept his house, or, rather, his double flat, was a social soul, and not merely went about freely, but entertained regularly. They lived handsomely, and the world in which they moved was crowded with duties as well as with sane pleasures. They entertained at their table artists from Paris, savans from Berlin, and literary lesser lights from London, and they enjoyed all this, envying the richer and more ostentatious families of the city as little as they despised the poor of Hester Street. The one quality which they insisted upon in their guests was intellectual cleverness. Perhaps they were a little severe on bores.

Their ways were quite as remote from the so-called captains of industry as from the farmers of Jersey, and the roar of Broad Street was so far away it reached them but as the hum of hornets outside their window-pane. To the explorer of Tibet this life was narrow. To the gay dinner-parties of upper Fifth Avenue it would have seemed dull. To the wrecker of railroads on Wall Street it was indubitably petty. To the merchant it was unprofitable, and yet they were quite content with it, and looked out upon the bustling throngs of fashion and the hustling world of business with equal word of good-natured contempt.

"We can't all be biologists," Serviss was accustomed to say, "and I suppose somebody must continue to steal and murder."

(Illustration: "VIOLA, TOO, CAME BACK TO BEWITCH HIM FROM HIS READING")

They came of good stock, these Servisses, and knew it and felt it. Breeding was indicated in their well-set heads, in their shapely hands, and especially in their handsome noses. "We are inclined to be stubby, that's true, but we have the noses of aristocrats--they go back to the Aryans of the Danube," said Mrs. Rice to a friend. "Morton cannot consider a girl of questionable pedigree, no matter how rich or charming she may be. We believe in stock--not in family, but _strain_; a family is an accident, a strain is a formation. The Mortons and the Servisses are _strains_. Their union in my brother will yet make itself felt." Her confidence in his powers was absolute. "He is one of the greatest young men of his day. Time will show," she added, as if to clinch her argument.

The circle of their acquaintance included, first of all--and of course--the scientific group, then in successive widening waves the general literary and educational fraternities, the artistic and musical sets, and finally they kept in touch with the old New York families, their own school-mates and friends and those related. All the details and duties of the social side of his life Morton turned over to Kate, and such was her tact, and her skill and charm as hostess, that her rooms of a Tuesday afternoon were filled with a company of men and women as cheerful and as informal as they were clever and distinguished. Among these groups Serviss moved as detached of all responsibility as any of his guests, finding in this contact with bright minds one of the greatest pleasures of his life.

These various circles moved afar from isms. They prided themselves on their balance, their commonsense, their fund of comparative ideas. True, some of the women had embraced Christian Science more or less openly, but they did not esteem it necessary to proselyte. Political creeds were but jocularly discussed. To advocate any special belief was to prick one's self down a bore, although some of those in the strictly university circles did at times become troublesomely learned in conversation. However, this was esteemed "old fogy-ism" by the younger men like Serviss, who alluded to "the days of the professional monologue" with smiling contempt. Conversation with them was a means of diversion, not of enlightenment as to any special subject.

Into these circles a thorough-going spiritualist never penetrated. To tell the truth, these modernists did not permit the hereafter to awe or affright them. Some of them went to church, but they did so calmly, patiently, as to a decorous function, and some may at times have prayed, through the medium of printed supplication, but, generally speaking, they had reached a sort of philosophic indifference as to the one-time burning question of heaven or hell. So far from acquiescing in the dictum that morality was but filthy rags, they esteemed good deeds and clean thoughts higher than any religion whatsoever.

Mrs. Rice expressed the convictions of many of her associates by saying, humorously: "No, I don't want to be saved. I'm not lost. I don't know as I care for immortality. Forever is a long time--I might get bored; anyhow, the future must take care of itself."

In all the drawing-rooms of his friends, Morton Serviss was a most welcome guest. His frank, boyish ways, his careless dress, his freedom from cant, his essential good-fellowship deceived the most of his acquaintances into thinking him a mere dabbler in science, a man of wealth amusing himself; but Weissmann, who was qualified to know, said: "He has persistency, concentration, a keen mind, a clear eye, and a _voonderful physique."

He belonged, moreover, to the men of imagination, not to those who write books or poems, but to those who tunnel mountains, build vast bridges, invent new motors, and play with electrical currents as if they were ribbons. The novelist basing himself on what he knows of human nature projects himself into the unknown, just as the scientist who stands on the discoveries of those before him feels out into the darkness for new stars, new forces. And yet as Clarke and his party indignantly declared, "both novelist and scientist ignore the question most vital to us all--the question of the soul's survival after death"--ignore it till some loved one dies, then they, too, agonize in secret over the mystery for a space, only to rise and go back to their work, concealing the conviction which their hour of anguish brought to them.

Perhaps it was not chance, but deep design, which had brought this vigorous young investigator face to face with a mystery crying out for solution--certainly it was not without craft that the unseen powers had baited their hook with the almost irresistible allurement of a young and ardent girl. If there is logic in the shadow, fate was on Viola's side.

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