CHAPTER XVIII - CAIRO AND THE PLAGUE
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.