Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XVIII

Cairo and the Plague 30

Cairo and plague! During the whole time of my stay the plague was so master of the city, and showed itself so staringly in every street and every alley, that I can’t now affect to dissociate the two ideas.

When coming from the Desert I rode through a village which lies near to the city on the eastern side, there approached me with busy face and earnest gestures a personage in the Turkish dress. His long flowing beard gave him rather a majestic look, but his briskness of manner, and his visible anxiety to accost me, seemed strange in an Oriental. The man in fact was French, or of French origin, and his object was to warn me of the plague, and prevent me from entering the city.

“Arretez-vous, monsieur, je vous en prie — arretez-vous; il ne faut pas entrer dans la ville; la peste y regne partout.”

“Oui, je sais,31 mais — ”

“Mais monsieur, je dis la peste — la peste; c’est de LA PESTE, qu’il est question.”

“Oui, je sais, mais — ”

“Mais monsieur, je dis encore LA PESTE— LA PESTE. Je vous conjure de ne pas entrer dans la ville — vous seriez dans une ville empestee.”

“Oui, je sais, mais — ”

“Mais monsieur, je dois donc vous avertir tout bonnement que si vous entrez dans la ville, vous serez — enfin vous serez COMPROMIS!”32

“Oui, je sais, mais — ”

The Frenchman was at last convinced that it was vain to reason with a mere Englishman, who could not understand what it was to be “compromised.” I thanked him most sincerely for his kindly meant warning; in hot countries it is very unusual indeed for a man to go out in the glare of the sun and give free advice to a stranger.

When I arrived at Cairo I summoned Osman Effendi, who was, as I knew, the owner of several houses, and would be able to provide me with apartments. He had no difficulty in doing this, for there was not one European traveller in Cairo besides myself. Poor Osman! he met me with a sorrowful countenance, for the fear of the plague sat heavily on his soul. He seemed as if he felt that he was doing wrong in lending me a resting-place, and he betrayed such a listlessness about temporal matters, as one might look for in a man who believed that his days were numbered. He caught me too soon after my arrival coming out from the public baths, 33 and from that time forward he was sadly afraid of me, for he shared the opinions of Europeans with respect to the effect of contagion.

Osman’s history is a curious one. He was a Scotchman born, and when very young, being then a drummer-boy, he landed in Egypt with Fraser’s force. He was taken prisoner, and according to Mahometan custom, the alternative of death or the Koran was offered to him; he did not choose death, and therefore went through the ceremonies which were necessary for turning him into a good Mahometan. But what amused me most in his history was this, that very soon after having embraced Islam he was obliged in practice to become curious and discriminating in his new faith, to make war upon Mahometan dissenters, and follow the orthodox standard of the Prophet in fierce campaigns against the Wahabees, who are the Unitarians of the Mussulman world. The Wahabees were crushed, and Osman returning home in triumph from his holy wars, began to flourish in the world. He acquired property, and became effendi, or gentleman. At the time of my visit to Cairo he seemed to be much respected by his brother Mahometans, and gave pledge of his sincere alienation from Christianity by keeping a couple of wives. He affected the same sort of reserve in mentioning them as is generally shown by Orientals. He invited me, indeed, to see his harem, but he made both his wives bundle out before I was admitted. He felt, as it seemed to me, that neither of them would bear criticism, and I think that this idea, rather than any motive of sincere jealousy, induced him to keep them out of sight. The rooms of the harem reminded me of an English nursery rather than of a Mahometan paradise. One is apt to judge of a woman before one sees her by the air of elegance or coarseness with which she surrounds her home; I judged Osman’s wives by this test, and condemned them both. But the strangest feature in Osman’s character was his inextinguishable nationality. In vain they had brought him over the seas in early boyhood; in vain had he suffered captivity, conversion, circumcision; in vain they had passed him through fire in their Arabian campaigns, they could not cut away or burn out poor Osman’s inborn love of all that was Scotch; in vain men called him Effendi; in vain he swept along in eastern robes; in vain the rival wives adorned his harem: the joy of his heart still plainly lay in this, that he had three shelves of books, and that the books were thoroughbred Scotch — the Edinburgh this, the Edinburgh that, and above all, I recollect, he prided himself upon the “Edinburgh Cabinet Library.”

The fear of the plague is its forerunner. It is likely enough that at the time of my seeing poor Osman the deadly taint was beginning to creep through his veins, but it was not till after I had left Cairo that he was visibly stricken. He died.

As soon as I had seen all that I wanted to see in Cairo and in the neighbourhood I wished to make my escape from a city that lay under the terrible curse of the plague, but Mysseri fell ill, in consequence, I believe, of the hardships which he had been suffering in my service. After a while he recovered sufficiently to undertake a journey, but then there was some difficulty in procuring beasts of burthen, and it was not till the nineteenth day of my sojourn that I quitted the city.

During all this time the power of the plague was rapidly increasing. When I first arrived, it was said that the daily number of “accidents” by plague, out of a population of about two hundred thousand, did not exceed four or five hundred, but before I went away the deaths were reckoned at twelve hundred a day. I had no means of knowing whether the numbers (given out, as I believe they were, by officials) were at all correct, but I could not help knowing that from day to day the number of the dead was increasing. My quarters were in a street which was one of the chief thoroughfares of the city. The funerals in Cairo take place between daybreak and noon, and as I was generally in my rooms during this part of the day, I could form some opinion as to the briskness of the plague. I don’t mean this for a sly insinuation that I got up every morning with the sun. It was not so; but the funerals of most people in decent circumstances at Cairo are attended by singers and howlers, and the performances of these people woke me in the early morning, and prevented me from remaining in ignorance of what was going on in the street below.

These funerals were very simply conducted. The bier was a shallow wooden tray, carried upon a light and weak wooden frame. The tray had, in general, no lid, but the body was more or less hidden from view by a shawl or scarf. The whole was borne upon the shoulders of men, who contrived to cut along with their burthen at a great pace. Two or three singers generally preceded the bier; the howlers (who are paid for their vocal labours) followed after, and last of all came such of the dead man’s friends and relations as could keep up with such a rapid procession; these, especially the women, would get terribly blown, and would straggle back into the rear; many were fairly “beaten off.” I never observed any appearance of mourning in the mourners: the pace was too severe for any solemn affectation of grief.

When first I arrived at Cairo the funerals that daily passed under my windows were many, but still there were frequent and long intervals without a single howl. Every day, however (except one, when I fancied that I observed a diminution of funerals), these intervals became less frequent and shorter, and at last, the passing of the howlers from morn till noon was almost incessant. I believe that about one-half of the whole people was carried off by this visitation. The Orientals, however, have more quiet fortitude than Europeans under afflictions of this sort, and they never allow the plague to interfere with their religious usages. I rode one day round the great burial-ground. The tombs are strewed over a great expanse, among the vast mountains of rubbish (the accumulations of many centuries) which surround the city. The ground, unlike the Turkish “cities of the dead,” which are made so beautiful by their dark cypresses, has nothing to sweeten melancholy, nothing to mitigate the odiousness of death. Carnivorous beasts and birds possess the place by night, and now in the fair morning it was all alive with fresh comers — alive with dead. Yet at this very time, when the plague was raging so furiously, and on this very ground, which resounded so mournfully with the howls of arriving funerals, preparations were going on for the religious festival called the Kourban Bairam. Tents were pitched, and SWINGS HUNG FOR THE AMUSEMENT OF CHILDREN— a ghastly holiday; but the Mahometans take a pride, and a just pride, in following their ancient customs undisturbed by the shadow of death.

I did not hear, whilst I was at Cairo, that any prayer for a remission of the plague had been offered up in the mosques. I believe that however frightful the ravages of the disease may be, the Mahometans refrain from approaching Heaven with their complaints until the plague has endured for a long space, and then at last they pray God, not that the plague may cease, but that it may go to another city!

A good Mussulman seems to take pride in repudiating the European notion that the will of God can be eluded by eluding the touch of a sleeve. When I went to see the pyramids of Sakkara I was the guest of a noble old fellow, an Osmanlee, whose soft rolling language it was a luxury to hear after suffering, as I had suffered of late, from the shrieking tongue of the Arabs. This man was aware of the European ideas about contagion, and his first care therefore was to assure me that not a single instance of plague had occurred in his village. He then inquired as to the progress of the plague at Cairo. I had but a bad account to give. Up to this time my host had carefully refrained from touching me out of respect to the European theory of contagion, but as soon as it was made plain that he, and not I, would be the person endangered by contact, he gently laid his hand upon my arm, in order to make me feel sure that the circumstance of my coming from an infected city did not occasion him the least uneasiness. In that touch there was true hospitality.

Very different is the faith and the practice of the Europeans, or rather, I mean of the Europeans settled in the East, and commonly called Levantines. When I came to the end of my journey over the Desert I had been so long alone, that the prospect of speaking to somebody at Cairo seemed almost a new excitement. I felt a sort of consciousness that I had a little of the wild beast about me, but I was quite in the humour to be charmingly tame, and to be quite engaging in my manners, if I should have an opportunity of holding communion with any of the human race whilst at Cairo. I knew no one in the place, and had no letters of introduction, but I carried letters of credit, and it often happens in places remote from England that those “advices” operate as a sort of introduction, and obtain for the bearer (if disposed to receive them) such ordinary civilities as it may be in the power of the banker to offer.

Very soon after my arrival I went to the house of the Levantine to whom my credentials were addressed. At his door several persons (all Arabs) were hanging about and keeping guard. It was not till after some delay, and the passing of some communications with those in the interior of the citadel, that I was admitted. At length, however, I was conducted through the court, and up a flight of stairs, and finally into the apartment where business was transacted. The room was divided by an excellent, substantial fence of iron bars, and behind this grille the banker had his station. The truth was, that from fear of the plague he had adopted the course usually taken by European residents, and had shut himself up “in strict quarantine” — that is to say, that he had, as he hoped, cut himself off from all communication with infecting substances. The Europeans long resident in the East, without any, or with scarcely any, exception are firmly convinced that the plague is propagated by contact, and by contact only; that if they can but avoid the touch of an infecting substance they are safe, and that if they cannot, they die. This belief induces them to adopt the contrivance of putting themselves in that state of siege which they call “quarantine.” It is a part of their faith that metals, and hempen rope, and also, I fancy, one or two other substances, will not carry the infection; and they likewise believe that the germ of pestilence, which lies in an infected substance, may be destroyed by submersion in water, or by the action of smoke. They therefore guard the doors of their houses with the utmost care against intrusion, and condemn themselves, with all the members of their family, including any European servants, to a strict imprisonment within the walls of their dwelling. Their native attendants are not allowed to enter at all, but they make the necessary purchases of provisions, which are hauled up through one of the windows by means of a rope, and are then soaked in water.

I knew nothing of these mysteries, and was not therefore prepared for the sort of reception which I met with. I advanced to the iron fence, and putting my letter between the bars, politely proffered it to Mr. Banker. Mr. Banker received me with a sad and dejected look, and not “with open arms,” or with any arms at all, but with — a pair of tongs! I placed my letter between the iron fingers, which picked it up as if it were a viper, and conveyed it away to be scorched and purified by fire and smoke. I was disgusted at this reception, and at the idea that anything of mine could carry infection to the poor wretch who stood on the other side of the grille, pale and trembling, and already meet for death. I looked with something of the Mahometan’s feeling upon these little contrivances for eluding fate; and in this instance, at least, they were vain. A few more days, and the poor money-changer, who had striven to guard the days of his life (as though they were coins) with bolts and bars of iron — he was seized by the plague, and he died.

To people entertaining such opinions as these respecting the fatal effect of contact, the narrow and crowded streets of Cairo were terrible as the easy slope that leads to Avernus. The roaring ocean and the beetling crags owe something of their sublimity to this — that if they be tempted, they can take the warm life of a man. To the contagionist, filled as he is with the dread of final causes, having no faith in destiny nor in the fixed will of God, and with none of the devil-may-care indifference which might stand him instead of creeds — to such one, every rag that shivers in the breeze of a plague-stricken city has this sort of sublimity. If by any terrible ordinance he be forced to venture forth, he sees death dangling from every sleeve, and as he creeps forward, he poises his shuddering limbs between the imminent jacket that is stabbing at his right elbow and the murderous pelisse that threatens to mow him clean down as it sweeps along on his left. But most of all, he dreads that which most of all he should love — the touch of a woman’s dress; for mothers and wives, hurrying forth on kindly errands from the bedsides of the dying, go slouching along through the streets more wilfully and less courteously than the men. For a while it may be that the caution of the poor Levantine may enable him to avoid contact, but sooner or later perhaps the dreaded chance arrives; that bundle of linen, with the dark tearful eyes at the top of it, that labours along with the voluptuous clumsiness of Grisi — she has touched the poor Levantine with the hem of her sleeve! From that dread moment his peace is gone; his mind, for ever hanging upon the fatal touch, invites the blow which he fears. He watches for the symptoms of plague so carefully, that sooner or later they come in truth. The parched mouth is a sign — his mouth is parched; the throbbing brain — his brain DOES throb; the rapid pulse — he touches his own wrist (for he dares not ask counsel of any man lest he be deserted), he touches his wrist, and feels how his frighted blood goes galloping out of his heart; there is nothing but the fatal swelling that is wanting to make his sad conviction complete; immediately he has an odd feel under the arm — no pain, but a little straining of the skin; he would to God it were his fancy that were strong enough to give him that sensation. This is the worst of all; it now seems to him that he could be happy and contented with his parched mouth and his throbbing brain and his rapid pulse, if only he could know that there were no swelling under the left arm; but dare he try? — In a moment of calmness and deliberation he dares not, but when for a while he has writhed under the torture of suspense, a sudden strength of will drives him to seek and know his fate. He touches the gland, and finds the skin sane and sound, but under the cuticle there lies a small lump like a pistol-bullet, that moves as he pushes it. Oh! but is this for all certainty, is this the sentence of death? Feel the gland of the other arm; there is not the same lump exactly, yet something a little like it: have not some people glands naturally enlarged? — would to Heaven he were one! So he does for himself the work of the plague, and when the Angel of Death, thus courted, does indeed and in truth come, he has only to finish that which has been so well begun; he passes his fiery hand over the brain of the victim, and lets him rave for a season, but all chance-wise, of people and things once dear, or of people and things indifferent. Once more the poor fellow is back at his home in fair Provence, and sees the sun-dial that stood in his childhood’s garden; sees part of his mother, and the long-since-forgotten face of that little dead sister (he sees her, he says, on a Sunday morning, for all the church bells are ringing); he looks up and down through the universe, and owns it well piled with bales upon bales of cotton, and cotton eternal — so much so that he feels, he knows, he swears he could make that winning hazard, if the billiard table would not slant upwards, and if the cue were a cue worth playing with; but it is not — it’s a cue that won’t move — his own arm won’t move — in short, there’s the devil to pay in the brain of the poor Levantine, and perhaps the next night but one he becomes the “life and the soul” of some squalling jackal family who fish him out by the foot from his shallow and sandy grave.

Better fate was mine. By some happy perverseness (occasioned perhaps by my disgust at the notion of being received with a pair of tongs) I took it into my pleasant head that all the European notions about contagion were thoroughly unfounded; that the plague might be providential or “epidemic” (as they phrase it), but was not contagious; and that I could not be killed by the touch of a woman’s sleeve, nor yet by her blessed breath. I therefore determined that the plague should not alter my habits and amusements in any one respect. Though I came to this resolve from impulse, I think that I took the course which was in effect the most prudent, for the cheerfulness of spirits which I was thus enabled to retain discouraged the yellow-winged angel, and prevented him from taking a shot at me. I, however, so far respected the opinion of the Europeans, that I avoided touching when I could do so without privation or inconvenience. This endeavour furnished me with a sort of amusement as I passed through the streets. The usual mode of moving from place to place in the city of Cairo is upon donkeys, of which great numbers are always in readiness, with donkey-boys attached. I had two who constantly (until one of them died of the plague) waited at my door upon the chance of being wanted. I found this way of moving about exceedingly pleasant, and never attempted any other. I had only to mount my beast, and tell my donkey-boy the point for which I was bound, and instantly I began to glide on at a capital pace. The streets of Cairo are not paved in any way, but strewed with a dry sandy soil, so deadening to sound, that the footfall of my donkey could scarcely be heard. There is no trottoir, and as you ride through the streets you mingle with the people on foot. Those who are in your way, upon being warned by the shouts of the donkey-boy, move very slightly aside, so as to leave you a narrow lane, through which you pass at a gallop. In this way you glide on delightfully in the very midst of crowds, without being inconvenienced or stopped for a moment. It seems to you that it is not the donkey but the donkey-boy who wafts you on with his shouts through pleasant groups, and air that feels thick with the fragrance of burial spice. “Eh! Sheik, Eh! Bint, — reggalek, — “shumalek, &c. &c. — O old man, O virgin, get out of the way on the right — O virgin, O old man, get out of the way on the left — this Englishman comes, he comes, he comes!” The narrow alley which these shouts cleared for my passage made it possible, though difficult, to go on for a long way without touching a single person, and my endeavours to avoid such contact were a sort of game for me in my loneliness, which was not without interest. If I got through a street without being touched, I won; if I was touched, I lost — lost a deuce of stake, according to the theory of the Europeans; but that I deemed to be all nonsense — I only lost that game, and would certainly win the next.

There is not much in the way of public buildings to admire at Cairo, but I saw one handsome mosque, to which an instructive history is attached. A Hindustanee merchant having amassed an immense fortune settled in Cairo, and soon found that his riches in the then state of the political world gave him vast power in the city — power, however, the exercise of which was much restrained by the counteracting influence of other wealthy men. With a view to extinguish every attempt at rivalry the Hindustanee merchant built this magnificent mosque at his own expense. When the work was complete, he invited all the leading men of the city to join him in prayer within the walls of the newly built temple, and he then caused to be massacred all those who were sufficiently influential to cause him any jealousy or uneasiness — in short, all “the respectable men” of the place; after this he possessed undisputed power in the city and was greatly revered — he is revered to this day. It seemed to me that there was a touching simplicity in the mode which this man so successfully adopted for gaining the confidence and goodwill of his fellow-citizens. There seems to be some improbability in the story (though not nearly so gross as it might appear to an European ignorant of the East, for witness Mehemet Ali’s destruction of the Mamelukes, a closely similar act, and attended with the like brilliant success 34), but even if the story be false as a mere fact, it is perfectly true as an illustration — it is a true exposition of the means by which the respect and affection of Orientals may be conciliated.

I ascended one day to the citadel, which commands a superb view of the town. The fanciful and elaborate gilt-work of the many minarets gives a light and florid grace to the city as seen from this height, but before you can look for many seconds at such things your eyes are drawn westward — drawn westward and over the Nile, till they rest upon the massive enormities of the Ghizeh Pyramids.

I saw within the fortress many yoke of men all haggard and woebegone, and a kennel of very fine lions well fed and flourishing: I say YOKE of men, for the poor fellows were working together in bonds; I say a KENNEL of lions, for the beasts were not enclosed in cages, but simply chained up like dogs.

I went round the bazaars: it seemed to me that pipes and arms were cheaper here than at Constantinople, and I should advise you therefore if you go to both places to prefer the market of Cairo. I had previously bought several of such things at Constantinople, and did not choose to encumber myself, or to speak more honestly, I did not choose to disencumber my purse by making any more purchases. In the open slave-market I saw about fifty girls exposed for sale, but all of them black, or “invisible” brown. A slave agent took me to some rooms in the upper storey of the building, and also into several obscure houses in the neighbourhood, with a view to show me some white women. The owners raised various objections to the display of their ware, and well they might, for I had not the least notion of purchasing; some refused on account of the illegality of the proceeding, 35 and others declared that all transactions of this sort were completely out of the question as long as the plague was raging. I only succeeded in seeing one white slave who was for sale but on this one the owner affected to set an immense value, and raised my expectations to a high pitch by saying that the girl was Circassian, and was “fair as the full moon.” After a good deal of delay I was at last led into a room, at the farther end of which was that mass of white linen which indicates an Eastern woman. She was bid to uncover her face, and I presently saw that, though very far from being good looking, according to my notion of beauty, she had not been inaptly described by the man who compared her to the full moon, for her large face was perfectly round and perfectly white. Though very young, she was nevertheless extremely fat. She gave me the idea of having been got up for sale, of having been fattened and whitened by medicines or by some peculiar diet. I was firmly determined not to see any more of her than the face. She was perhaps disgusted at this my virtuous resolve, as well as with my personal appearance; perhaps she saw my distaste and disappointment; perhaps she wished to gain favour with her owner by showing her attachment to his faith: at all events, she holloaed out very lustily and very decidedly that “she would not be bought by the infidel.”

Whilst I remained at Cairo I thought it worth while to see something of the magicians, because I considered that these men were in some sort the descendants of those who contended so stoutly against the superior power of Aaron. I therefore sent for an old man who was held to be the chief of the magicians, and desired him to show me the wonders of his art. The old man looked and dressed his character exceedingly well; the vast turban, the flowing beard, and the ample robes were all that one could wish in the way of appearance. The first experiment (a very stale one) which he attempted to perform for me was that of showing the forms and faces of my absent friends, not to me, but to a boy brought in from the streets for the purpose, and said to be chosen at random. A mangale (pan of burning charcoal) was brought into my room, and the magician bending over it, sprinkled upon the fire some substances which must have consisted partly of spices or sweetly burning woods, for immediately a fragrant smoke arose that curled around the bending form of the wizard, the while that he pronounced his first incantations. When these were over the boy was made to sit down, and a common green shade was bound over his brow; then the wizard took ink, and still continuing his incantations, wrote certain mysterious figures upon the boy’s palm, and directed him to rivet his attention to these marks without looking aside for an instant. Again the incantations proceeded, and after a while the boy, being seemingly a little agitated, was asked whether he saw anything on the palm of his hand. He declared that he saw a kind of military procession, with flags and banners, which he described rather minutely. I was then called upon to name the absent person whose form was to be made visible. I named Keate. You were not at Eton, and I must tell you, therefore, what manner of man it was that I named, though I think you must have some idea of him already, for wherever from utmost Canada to Bundelcund — wherever there was the whitewashed wall of an officer’s room, or of any other apartment in which English gentlemen are forced to kick their heels, there likely enough (in the days of his reign) the head of Keate would be seen scratched or drawn with those various degrees of skill which one observes in the representations of saints. Anybody without the least notion of drawing could still draw a speaking, nay scolding, likeness of Keate. If you had no pencil, you could draw him well enough with a poker, or the leg of a chair, or the smoke of a candle. He was little more (if more at all) than five feet in height, and was not very great in girth, but in this space was concentrated the pluck of ten battalions. He had a really noble voice, which he could modulate with great skill, but he had also the power of quacking like an angry duck, and he almost always adopted this mode of communication in order to inspire respect. He was a capital scholar, but his ingenuous learning had NOT “softened his manners” and HAD “permitted them to be fierce” — tremendously fierce; he had the most complete command over his temper — I mean over his GOOD temper, which he scarcely ever allowed to appear: you could not put him out of humour — that is, out of the ILL-humour which he thought to be fitting for a head-master. His red shaggy eyebrows were so prominent, that he habitually used them as arms and hands for the purpose of pointing out any object towards which he wished to direct attention; the rest of his features were equally striking in their way, and were all and all his own; he wore a fancy dress partly resembling the costume of Napoleon, and partly that of a widow-woman. I could not by any possibility have named anybody more decidedly differing in appearance from the rest of the human race.

“Whom do you name?” — “I name John Keate.” — “Now, what do you see?” said the wizard to the boy. — “I see,” answered the boy, “I see a fair girl with golden hair, blue eyes, pallid face, rosy lips.” THERE was a shot! I shouted out my laughter to the horror of the wizard, who perceiving the grossness of his failure, declared that the boy must have known sin (for none but the innocent can see truth), and accordingly kicked him downstairs.

One or two other boys were tried, but none could “see truth”; they all made sadly “bad shots.”

Notwithstanding the failure of these experiments, I wished to see what sort of mummery my magician would practise if I called upon him to show me some performances of a higher order than those which had been attempted. I therefore entered into a treaty with him, in virtue of which he was to descend with me into the tombs near the Pyramids, and there evoke the devil. The negotiation lasted some time, for Dthemetri, as in duty bound, tried to beat down the wizard as much as he could, and the wizard, on his part, manfully stuck up for his price, declaring that to raise the devil was really no joke, and insinuating that to do so was an awesome crime. I let Dthemetri have his way in the negotiation, but I felt in reality very indifferent about the sum to be paid, and for this reason, namely, that the payment (except a very small present which I might make or not, as I chose) was to be CONTINGENT ON SUCCESS. At length the bargain was made, and it was arranged that after a few days, to be allowed for preparation, the wizard should raise the devil for two pounds ten, play or pay — no devil, no piastres.

The wizard failed to keep his appointment. I sent to know why the deuce he had not come to raise the devil. The truth was, that my Mahomet had gone to the mountain. The plague had seized him, and he died.

Although the plague had now spread terrible havoc around me, I did not see very plainly any corresponding change in the looks of the streets until the seventh day after my arrival. I then first observed that the city was SILENCED. There were no outward signs of despair nor of violent terror, but many of the voices that had swelled the busy hum of men were already hushed in death, and the survivors, so used to scream and screech in their earnestness whenever they bought or sold, now showed an unwonted indifference about the affairs of this world: it was less worth while for men to haggle and haggle, and crack the sky with noisy bargains, when the great commander was there, who could “pay all their debts with the roll of his drum.”

At this time I was informed that of twenty-five thousand people at Alexandria, twelve thousand had died already; the destroyer had come rather later to Cairo, but there was nothing of weariness in his strides. The deaths came faster than ever they befell in the plague of London; but the calmness of Orientals under such visitations, and the habit of using biers for interment, instead of burying coffins along with the bodies, rendered it practicable to dispose of the dead in the usual way, without shocking the people by any unaccustomed spectacle of horror. There was no tumbling of bodies into carts, as in the plague of Florence and the plague of London. Every man, according to his station, was properly buried, and that in the usual way, except that he went to his grave in a more hurried pace than might have been adopted under ordinary circumstances.

The funerals which poured through the streets were not the only public evidence of deaths. In Cairo this custom prevails: At the instant of a man’s death (if his property is sufficient to justify the expense) professional howlers are employed. I believe that these persons are brought near to the dying man when his end appears to be approaching, and the moment that life is gone they lift up their voices and send forth a loud wail from the chamber of death. Thus I knew when my near neighbours died; sometimes the howls were near, sometimes more distant. Once I was awakened in the night by the wail of death in the next house, and another time by a like howl from the house opposite; and there were two or three minutes, I recollect, during which the howl seemed to be actually running along the street.

I happened to be rather teased at this time by a sore throat, and I thought it would be well to get it cured if I could before I again started on my travels. I therefore inquired for a Frank doctor, and was informed that the only one then at Cairo was a young Bolognese refugee, who was so poor that he had not been able to take flight, as the other medical men had done. At such a time as this it was out of the question to send for an European physician; a person thus summoned would be sure to suppose that the patient was ill of the plague, and would decline to come. I therefore rode to the young doctor’s residence. After experiencing some little difficulty in finding where to look for him, I ascended a flight or two of stairs and knocked at his door. No one came immediately, but after some little delay the medico himself opened the door, and admitted me. I of course made him understand that I had come to consult him, but before entering upon my throat grievance I accepted a chair, and exchanged a sentence or two of commonplace conversation. Now the natural commonplace of the city at this season was of a gloomy sort, “Come va la peste?” (how goes the plague?) and this was precisely the question I put. A deep sigh, and the words, “Sette cento per giorno, signor” (seven hundred a day), pronounced in a tone of the deepest sadness and dejection, were the answer I received. The day was not oppressively hot, yet I saw that the doctor was perspiring profusely, and even the outside surface of the thick shawl dressing-gown, in which he had wrapped himself, appeared to be moist. He was a handsome, pleasant-looking young fellow, but the deep melancholy of his tone did not tempt me to prolong the conversation, and without further delay I requested that my throat might be looked at. The medico held my chin in the usual way, and examined my throat. He then wrote me a prescription, and almost immediately afterwards I bade him farewell, but as he conducted me towards the door I observed an expression of strange and unhappy watchfulness in his rolling eyes. It was not the next day, but the next day but one, if I rightly remember, that I sent to request another interview with my doctor. In due time Dthemetri, who was my messenger, returned, looking sadly aghast — he had “MET the medico,” for so he phrased it, “coming out from his house — in a bier!”

It was of course plain that when the poor Bolognese was looking at my throat, and almost mingling his breath with mine, he was stricken of the plague. I suppose that the violent sweat in which I found him had been produced by some medicine, which he must have taken in the hope of curing himself. The peculiar rolling of the eyes which I had remarked is, I believe, to experienced observers, a pretty sure test of the plague. A Russian acquaintance, of mine, speaking from the information of men who had made the Turkish campaigns of 1828 and 1829, told me that by this sign the officers of Sabalkansky’s force were able to make out the plague-stricken soldiers with a good deal of certainty.

It so happened that most of the people with whom I had anything to do during my stay at Cairo were seized with plague, and all these died. Since I had been for a long time en route before I reached Egypt, and was about to start again for another long journey over the Desert, there were of course many little matters touching my wardrobe and my travelling equipments which required to be attended to whilst I remained in the city. It happened so many times that Dthemetri’s orders in respect to these matters were frustrated by the deaths of the tradespeople and others whom he employed, that at last I became quite accustomed to the peculiar manner which he assumed when he prepared to announce a new death to me. The poor fellow naturally supposed that I should feel some uneasiness at hearing of the “accidents” which happened to persons employed by me, and he therefore communicated their deaths as though they were the deaths of friends. He would cast down his eyes and look like a man abashed, and then gently, and with a mournful gesture, allow the words, “Morto, signor,” to come through his lips. I don’t know how many of such instances occurred, but they were several, and besides these (as I told you before), my banker, my doctor, my landlord, and my magician all died of the plague. A lad who acted as a helper in the house which I occupied lost a brother and a sister within a few hours. Out of my two established donkey-boys, one died. I did not hear of any instance in which a plague-stricken patient had recovered.

Going out one morning I met unexpectedly the scorching breath of the kamsin wind, and fearing that I should faint under the horrible sensations which it caused, I returned to my rooms. Reflecting, however, that I might have to encounter this wind in the Desert, where there would be no possibility of avoiding it, I thought it would be better to brave it once more in the city, and to try whether I could really bear it or not. I therefore mounted my ass and rode to old Cairo, and along the gardens by the banks of the Nile. The wind was hot to the touch, as though it came from a furnace. It blew strongly, but yet with such perfect steadiness, that the trees bending under its force remained fixed in the same curves without perceptibly waving. The whole sky was obscured by a veil of yellowish grey, that shut out the face of the sun. The streets were utterly silent, being indeed almost entirely deserted; and not without cause, for the scorching blast, whilst it fevers the blood, closes up the pores of the skin, and is terribly distressing, therefore, to every animal that encounters it. I returned to my rooms dreadfully ill. My head ached with a burning pain, and my pulse bounded quick and fitfully, but perhaps (as in the instance of the poor Levantine, whose death I was mentioning), the fear and excitement which I felt in trying my own wrist may have made my blood flutter the faster.

It is a thoroughly well believed theory, that during the continuance of the plague you can’t be ill of any other febrile malady — an unpleasant privilege that! for ill I was, and ill of fever, and I anxiously wished that the ailment might turn out to be anything rather than plague. I had some right to surmise that my illness may have been merely the effect of the hot wind; and this notion was encouraged by the elasticity of my spirits, and by a strong forefeeling that much of my destined life in this world was yet to come, and yet to be fulfilled. That was my instinctive belief, but when I carefully weighed the probabilities on the one side and on the other, I could not help seeing that the strength of argument was all against me. There was a strong antecedent likelihood in FAVOUR of my being struck by the same blow as the rest of the people who had been dying around me. Besides, it occurred to me that, after all, the universal opinion of the Europeans upon a medical question, such as that of contagion, might probably be correct, and IF IT WERE, I was so thoroughly “compromised,” and especially by the touch and breath of the dying medico, that I had no right to expect any other fate than that which now seemed to have overtaken me. Balancing as well as I could all the considerations which hope and fear suggested, I slowly and reluctantly came to the conclusion that, according to all merely reasonable probability, the plague had come upon me.

You would suppose that this conviction would have induced me to write a few farewell lines to those who were dearest, and that having done that, I should have turned my thoughts towards the world to come. Such, however, was not the case. I believe that the prospect of death often brings with it strong anxieties about matters of comparatively trivial import, and certainly with me the whole energy of the mind was directed towards the one petty object of concealing my illness until the latest possible moment — until the delirious stage. I did not believe that either Mysseri or Dthemetri, who had served me so faithfully in all trials, would have deserted me (as most Europeans are wont to do) when they knew that I was stricken by plague, but I shrank from the idea of putting them to this test, and I dreaded the consternation which the knowledge of my illness would be sure to occasion.

I was very ill indeed at the moment when my dinner was served, and my soul sickened at the sight of the food; but I had luckily the habit of dispensing with the attendance of servants during my meal, and as soon as I was left alone I made a melancholy calculation of the quantity of food which I should have eaten if I had been in my usual health, and filled my plates accordingly, and gave myself salt, and so on, as though I were going to dine. I then transferred the viands to a piece of the omnipresent Times newspaper, and hid them away in a cupboard, for it was not yet night, and I dared not throw the food into the street until darkness came. I did not at all relish this process of fictitious dining, but at length the cloth was removed, and I gladly reclined on my divan (I would not lie down) with the “Arabian Nights” in my hand.

I had a feeling that tea would be a capital thing for me, but I would not order it until the usual hour. When at last the time came, I drank deep draughts from the fragrant cup. The effect was almost instantaneous. A plenteous sweat burst through my skin, and watered my clothes through and through. I kept myself thickly covered. The hot tormenting weight which had been loading my brain was slowly heaved away. The fever was extinguished. I felt a new buoyancy of spirits, and an unusual activity of mind. I went into my bed under a load of thick covering, and when the morning came, and I asked myself how I was, I found that I was thoroughly well.

I was very anxious to procure, if possible, some medical advice for Mysseri, whose illness prevented my departure. Every one of the European practising doctors, of whom there had been many, had either died or fled. It was said, however, that there was an Englishman in the medical service of the Pasha who quietly remained at his post, but that he never engaged in private practice. I determined to try if I could obtain assistance in this quarter. I did not venture at first, and at such a time as this, to ask him to visit a servant who was prostrate on the bed of sickness, but thinking that I might thus gain an opportunity of persuading him to attend Mysseri, I wrote a note mentioning my own affair of the sore throat, and asking for the benefit of his medical advice. He instantly followed back my messenger, and was at once shown up into my room. I entreated him to stand off, telling him fairly how deeply I was “compromised,” and especially by my contact with a person actually ill and since dead of plague. The generous fellow, with a good-humoured laugh at the terrors of the contagionists, marched straight up to me, and forcibly seized my hand, and shook it with manly violence. I felt grateful indeed, and swelled with fresh pride of race because that my countryman could carry himself so nobly. He soon cured Mysseri as well as me, and all this he did from no other motives than the pleasure of doing a kindness and the delight of braving a danger.

At length the great difficulty 36 which I had had in procuring beasts for my departure was overcome, and now, too, I was to have the new excitement of travelling on dromedaries. With two of these beasts and three camels I gladly wound my way from out of the pest-stricken city. As I passed through the streets I observed a fanatical-looking elder, who stretched forth his arms, and lifted up his voice in a speech which seemed to have some reference to me. Requiring an interpretation, I found that the man had said, “The Pasha seeks camels, and he finds them not; the Englishman says, ‘Let camels be brought,’ and behold, there they are!”

I no sooner breathed the free, wholesome air of the Desert than I felt that a great burden which I had been scarcely conscious of bearing was lifted away from my mind. For nearly three weeks I had lived under peril of death; the peril ceased, and not till then did I know how much alarm and anxiety I had really been suffering.

30 There is some semblance of bravado in my manner of talking about the plague. I have been more careful to describe the terrors of other people than my own. The truth is, that during the whole period of my stay at Cairo I remained thoroughly impressed with a sense of my danger. I may almost say, that I lived in perpetual apprehension, for even in sleep, as I fancy, there remained with me some faint notion of the peril with which I was encompassed. But fear does not necessarily damp the spirits; on the contrary, it will often operate as an excitement, giving rise to unusual animation, and thus it affected me. If I had not been surrounded at this time by new faces, new scenes, and new sounds, the effect produced upon my mind by one unceasing cause of alarm might have been very different. As it was, the eagerness with which I pursued my rambles among the wonders of Egypt was sharpened and increased by the sting of the fear of death. Thus my account of the matter plainly conveys an impression that I remained at Cairo without losing my cheerfulness and buoyancy of spirits. And this is the truth, but it is also true, as I have freely confessed, that my sense of danger during the whole period was lively and continuous.

31 Anglice for “je le sais.” These answers of mine, as given above, are not meant as specimens of mere French, but of that fine, terse, nervous, Continental English with which I and my compatriots make our way through Europe. This language, by-the-bye, is one possessing great force and energy, and is not without its literature, a literature of the very highest order. Where will you find more sturdy specimens of downright, honest, and noble English than in the Duke of Wellington’s “French” despatches?

32 The import of the word “compromised,” when used in reference to contagion, is explained on page 18.

33 It is said, that when a Mussulman finds himself attacked by the plague he goes and takes a bath. The couches on which the bathers recline would carry infection, according to the notions of the Europeans. Whenever, therefore, I took the bath at Cairo (except the first time of my doing so) I avoided that part of the luxury which consists in being “put up to dry” upon a kind of bed.

34 Mehemet Ali invited the Mamelukes to a feast, and murdered them whilst preparing to enter the banquet hall.

35 It is not strictly lawful to sell WHITE slaves to a Christian.

36 The difficulty was occasioned by the immense exertions which the Pasha was making to collect camels for military purposes.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kinglake/alexander_william/eothen/chapter18.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44