‘ASIA,’ stated the lecturer, ‘is a perfect hotbed of infection for human and plant life.’
He coughed slightly and reached into a back pocket for his handkerchief. An imitative ripple of coughing ran through the little group of women, gathered in an historic New England homestead for the serious, though avocational, study of botany. My right-hand neighbor urged upon me a large yellow lozenge, as she shot a significant glance about the throat-clearing assembly.
‘The efficient barring of the citrous canker from California,’ continued the now recovered professor, ‘is one of the triumphs of modern preventive pathology.’
A young teacher in the front row took down this sentence in its dire completeness.
Our little city had been fighting its way through an epidemic of laryngitis, grippe, influenza, and the rest of that ‘loathèd crew.’ ‘Germs’ were on every tongue and in many a nose and throat.
‘More than one hundred and fifty children absent daily from a single school building,’ a hoarse voice had informed us, as we forgathered in the anteroom, draping our heavy wraps over the backs of hospitable chairs, and hiding overshoes in secret corners. ‘And when they come back, so pale, so pale!’
‘It would n’t be so trying,’ one had furthered, ‘if it weren’t for this persistent reinfection.’
Someone over by the mantelpiece gave way to a violent sneeze. I felt my own throat filling, though I had come hither to learn of the higher fungi, with the deliberate desire to rid my mind and spirit from all thought of bodily disease. Awed inquiries for this and that victim of the prevalent contagion stirred the air. As we filed into the small lecture-room, certain members of the class were seen to contribute small covered glass dishes to a sober row of similar retainers resting upon the long demonstration table. Having missed the previous lecture, I looked inquiringly at a friend.
‘Specimens,’ she whispered, ‘of developed bacteria. He gave us the receptacles a week ago to expose in our houses.’
These little botanical menageries the professor greeted eagerly as the awful number increased.
‘I,’ exclaimed an enthusiast, looking eagerly into his face, ‘ took off the cover of mine in the street-car on my way home, and just see what I caught! You know everybody had the bug last week!’ We strained forward as she tipped the little plate plainly before our eyes. It was fearful; it was marvelous. Severa about me veiled their nostrils as inconspicuously as might be. A steady little draught was stealing in about the ancient window at my back.
So the lecture had begun: ‘Asia is a perfect hotbed of infection for human and plant life.’ Here was an evident master of the subject; he proceeded to treat the dark side of his question, reviewing impartially the outstanding pests and scourges known to plants: the devastating wheat-rust, involving the barberry by alternate years; the white-pine rust, ‘spreading’ to gooseberry and currant; the downy mildew boding potato famine; the chestnut blight, threatening, some believed, the utter demolition of the last sprout of the last chestnut tree in the land.
Here the instructor moistened his throat with a generous sip of water. A lady near the door started a dry choking and stepped over, or on, three would-be listeners before gaining exit from the room; her voice sounded a recessional into a remote corner of the house.
‘A certain injection’ — this as we recomposed ourselves thoughtfully — ‘ under the bark of the tree has proved a partial cure — ‘ The professor turned to his notes. ‘A partial cure,’ he reiterated, ‘of the blight, and’ — he smiled a bit wanly— ‘almost infallible death to the tree.’
A woman in a very thin silk stirred uneasily; it was her boast that she had been inoculated against these colds, and immunity lifted her head high above our petty discussion of hoi polloi contagion.
‘“Sisters under the skin,”’ I whispered to my inner ear, turning back to the mortality of chestnuts.
Through his emphatic sentences the phrase ‘plant disease’ rang like a minor theme. Pretty little Miss R—— drew her woolen scarf more closely about her shoulders. I recalled her remark as we had come up the walk together: ‘My uncle,’ with an inflection half apology, half glee (and I knew she meant the prominent Dr. R——), ‘said he re-
fused to answer for the consequences if I ventured out in this late afternoon air, but what can you do?’
The human frailty of all growing things pressed in upon my bewildered senses. Surely the young George knew best when he saved one fruitful tree from inevitable suffering.
‘For three years,’ the intense words pursued, ‘the white pine carries infection about before the blister exists as a blister. . . . Spores innumerable lie in wait beneath the gooseberry leaf — orange-hued spores, ready to spread upon their certain prey.’
We then took up the cabbage — for its ‘wilt,’ a fungus, too, developed no doubt while the heads were still ‘looking perfectly well.’ The air at the clinic had become quite close, and the artificial light glistened back into our eyes a trifle unpleasantly from the frank array of glass bacteria-holders on the table before us. At mention of the citrous canker my tongue described a surreptitious circle about the roof of my mouth.
After juggling with the word ‘menace,’ the scientist turned to the optimistic phase of the question. Tension relaxed five perceptible degrees. Orchid fungi, we were reminded, form but the necessary food for these fair exotics.
In my mind ‘Asia, a perfect hotbed of infection,’ ran persistently to and fro. My eye wandered out to the slate sky, where a few sifting snowflakes interrupted the distance. Against the gray stone church beyond, one tall elm lifted its arms in silhouette. Medicine men there must be, it seemed to say, but how comfortable after all to find here and there a Joyce Kilmer shaking himself free from consultations over poor ailing Mother Nature. A gentle buzzing sound roused me and, as we passed into the open, the early night air blew across my face with singular purity; fresh snow outlined each farthest twig. Quite unconsciously I drew my fur collar close about my ears.