For a scourge had come, and the city was trembling in the fear of it. Again Duck Town was responsible. Duck Town always was responsible. Every spring when the floods came, and Mud Creek spread itself out over the prairie, only the ducks of Duck Town were secure. Then, when the waters subsided, there came malaria, or perhaps something worse, from the musty cellars that could not be drained. The settlement lay in the bottoms, where the wretched dwellings of the poor stood huddled together as if in whispered conspiracy about some black contagion of a deadlier malice than any that had yet struck terror to the hearts of men.
Several years ago it was typhoid fever that had helped many people to move out of Duck Town. A very badly behaved disease it was. It came right up into the city and went stalking brazenly into the most stately homes along the wooded avenues and beautiful boulevards.
Next after the ravages of typhoid came diphtheria in its most malignant form, and this time—Heaven help us!—this time scarlet fever had come. And this time, as before, there were competent physicians to receive the plague; there were specialists and careful nurses with snowy aprons and pretty caps.
But not in Duck Town. Down there the people knew a man whom they called the Old Doctor. He was not old, not really; it was merely that he had the manner of a veteran. He browbeat them shamefully, as was perfectly proper for an old doctor; he bullied them a great deal, and scolded, and called names, and worked for them, and did not know how to sleep. That made them fear and respect him, but goodness knows what made them love him. They did, though—feared, respected, and loved the man.
Only he could not teach them to be sanitary. He knew their names, their silly Russian names and their silly Polish names; he knew their Slavic and their Bohemian names, but their language he did not know, and all the hygiene they could learn was to call for him when sickness and trouble came to them.
“Keep clean,” he would say. “Drain your cellars; air out and keep clean; do try to keep clean!”
But how could they do that? Four big families in one small house do not help much to keep one small house both clean and sanitary. Dr. Redfield knew that, and he swore at Duck Town for a vile and filthy hole. So did the people swear at Duck Town, and many of them suddenly stopped living there. For, despite the strength and courage of their champion; despite the potency of drugs; despite the sleepless nights and days spent in fighting disease, the deadly contagion grew and spread.
Dr. Redfield had gone through epidemics before, but never one like this, and now his energy was gone. For the first time in his life the impulse had come upon him to own defeat and surrender. Other men, younger doctors than he, should take up the fight. As for him, he could not battle against such odds. He would give it up; he would go away. He would take this little boy with him and begin to live.