CHAPTER VIII. THE PLAGUES OF EGYPT.
TIME glided away smoothly at our camp amidst the storms of the rainy season. The Arabs had nothing to do, and suffered much from the absence of their herds, as there was a great scarcity of milk. The only animals that had not been sent to the north were a few goats; these were so teased by the flies that they produced but a small supply. Fever had appeared at the same time with the flies, and every one was suffering more or less, especially Florian, who was seriously ill. I was in full practice as physician, and we congratulated ourselves upon the healthiness of our little isolated camp, when suddenly my wife was prostrated by a severe attack of gastric fever, which for nine days rendered her recovery almost hopeless. At length the fever gave way to careful attendance, and my Arab patients and Florian were also in a fair way towards recovery. The plagues of Egypt were upon us; the common house-flies were in billions, in addition to the cattle-tormentor. Our donkeys would not graze, but stood day and night in the dense smoke of fires, made of sticks and green grass, for protection.
The plague of boils broke out, and every one was attacked more or less severely. Then came a plague of which Moses must have been ignorant, or he would surely have inflicted it upon Pharaoh. This was a species of itch, which affected all ages and both sexes equally; it attacked all parts of the body, but principally the extremities. The irritation was beyond description; small vesicles rose above the skin, containing a watery fluid, which, upon bursting, appeared to spread the disease. The Arabs had no control over this malady, which they called "coorash," and the whole country was scratching. The popular belief attributed the disease to the water of the Atbara at this particular season: although a horrible plague, I do not believe it to have any connexion with the well-known itch or "scabies" of Europe.
I adopted a remedy that I had found a specific for mange in dogs, and this treatment became equally successful in cases of coorash. Gunpowder, with the addition of one-fourth of sulphur, made into a soft paste with water, and then formed into an ointment with fat: this should be rubbed over the whole body. The effect upon a black man is that of a well-cleaned boot - upon a white man it is still more striking; but it quickly cures the malady. I went into half mourning by this process, and I should have adopted deep mourning had it been necessary; I was only attacked from the feet to a little above the knees. Florian was in a dreadful state, and the vigorous and peculiar action of his arms at once explained the origin of the term "Scotch fiddle," the musical instrument commonly attributed to the north of Great Britain.
The Arabs are wretchedly ignorant of the healing art, and they suffer accordingly. At least fifty per cent. of the population in Sofi had a permanent enlargement of the spleen, which could be felt with a slight pressure of the hand, frequently as large as an orange; this was called "Jenna el Wirde" (child of the fever), and was the result of constant attacks of fever in successive rainy seasons.
Faith is the drug that is supposed to cure the Arab; whatever his complaint may be, he applies to his Faky or priest. This minister is not troubled with a confusion of book-learning, neither are the shelves of his library bending beneath weighty treatises upon the various maladies of human nature; but he possesses the key to all learning, the talisman that will apply to all cases, in that one holy book the Koran. This is his complete pharmacopoeia: his medicine chest, combining purgatives, blisters, sudorifics, styptics, narcotics, emetics, and all that the most profound M.D. could prescribe. With this "multum in parvo" stock-in-trade the Faky receives his patients. No. 1 arrives, a barren woman who requests some medicine that will promote the blessing of childbirth. No. 2, a man who was strong in his youth, but from excessive dissipation has become useless. No. 3, a man deformed from his birth, who wishes to become straight as other men. No. 4, a blind child. No. 5, a dying old woman, carried on a litter; and sundry other impossible cases, with others of a more simple character.
The Faky produces his book, the holy Koran, and with a pen formed of a reed he proceeds to write a prescription; not to be made up by an apothecary, as such dangerous people do not exist, but the prescription itself is to be SWALLOWED! Upon a smooth board, like a slate, he rubs sufficient lime to produce a perfectly white surface; upon this he writes in large characters, with thick glutinous ink, a verse or verses from the Koran that he considers applicable to the case; this completed, he washes off the holy quotation, and converts it into a potation by the addition of a little water; this is swallowed in perfect faith by the patient, who in return pays a fee according to the demand of the Faky. Of course it cannot be supposed that this effects a cure, or that it is in any way superior to the prescriptions of a thorough-bred English doctor; the only advantage possessed by the system is complete innocence, in which it may perhaps claim superiority. If no good result is attained by the first holy dose, the patient returns with undiminished confidence, and the prescription is repeated as "the draught as before," well known to the physic-drinkers of England, and in like manner attended with the bill. The fakeers make a considerable amount by this simple practice, and they add to their small earnings by the sale of verses of the Koran as talismans.