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Chapter 2

LETTER II.

The Cholera in Paris.—Its frightful ravages.—Desertion of the city—My determination to remain.—Deaths in the higher classes.—Unexpected arrival and retreat.—Praiseworthy conduct of the Authorities.—The Cholera caricatured!—Invitation from an English General.—Atmospherical appearance denoting the arrival of the Cholera.—Lord Robert Fitzgerald.—Dinner at the house of Madame de B——.

Dear ——,

We have had little to occupy us since my last letter, but the cholera, which alighted in the heart of this great and crowded metropolis like a bomb. Since the excursion on the frontiers last year, and our success in escaping the quarantine, I had thought little of this scourge, until the subject was introduced at my own table by a medical man who was among the guests. He cautiously informed us that there were unpleasant conjectures among the faculty on the subject, and that he was fearful Paris was not to go unscathed. When apart, he privately added, that he had actually seen a case, which he could impute to no other disease but that of Asiatic cholera.

The next day a few dark hints were given in the journals, and, with frightful rapidity, reports followed that raised the daily deaths to near a thousand. The change in the appearance of the town was magical, for the strangers generally fled, while most of the habitués of the streets in our immediate vicinity were soon numbered with the dead. There was a succession of apple-women seated at the corners, between the Rue St. Dominique and the Pont Royal, with whose faces I had become intimate in the course of P——'s traffic, as we passed to and fro, between the hotel and the Tuileries. Every one of these disappeared; the last, I was told, dropping from her chair, and dying before those who came to her aid had reached the nearest hospital.

One case, among multitudes, will serve to give you a faint idea of the situation of Paris, at this moment of severe affliction. Returning from a walk through the deserted streets one morning, I saw a small collection of people around the porte-cochère of our hotel. A matchseller had been seized with the disease, at the gate, and was then sustained on one of the stone seats, which are commonly used by the servants. I had her carried info the court, and made such applications as had been recommended by the faculty. The patient was a robust woman of middle age, accompanied by her mother, both having come in from a distant village, to raise a few sous by selling matches. In making the applications, I had occasion to observe the means by which these poor people sustain life. Their food consisted of fragments of hard dried bread, that had been begged, or bought, in the course of their progress.

While two or three of us were busied about the daughter, the mother knelt on the pavement, and, with streaming eyes, prayed for her child, for us, and for herself. There was something indescribably touching in this display of strong natural ties, between those who were plunged so deep in misery. A piece of five francs was put into the hands of the old woman, but, though she blessed the donor, her look was not averted an instant from the agony depicted in her daughter's face, nor did she appear conscious of what she possessed, a moment after. The carriers from the hospital bore the sick woman away, and the mother promised to return, in a day or two, to let me know the result. Not appearing, an inquiry was made at the hospital, and the answer was, that they were both dead!

In this manner some ten or fifteen thousand were swept away in a few weeks. Not only hotels, but, in some instances, nearly whole streets were depopulated. As every one fled, who could with convenience or propriety quit the town, you may feel surprised that we chose to remain. When the deaths increased to eight or nine hundred a day, and our own quarter began to be visited, I felt it to be a duty to those under my charge, to retire to some of the places without the limits of the disease. The trunks were packed, the carriage was in the court, and my passports were signed, when A—— was suddenly taken ill. Although the disease was not the cholera, I began to calculate the chances of any one of us being seized, myself for instance, in one of the villages of the environs, and the helpless condition of a family of females in a foreign country, under such circumstances. The result was a determination to remain, and to trust to Providence. We have consequently staid in our apartments through it all, although two slight cases have occurred in the hotel, and hundreds around it.

The manner in which individuals known to us have vanished, as it were, from before our eyes, has been shockingly sudden. To-day the report may be that the milkman is gone; yesterday it was the butcher's boy; the day before the poulterer, and presently a new servant appears with a message from a friend, and on inquiring for his predecessor, we learn that he is dead. Ten or fifteen cases of this sort have occurred among those with whom we are in constant and immediate connexion.

The deaths in the higher classes, at first, were comparatively few, but of late several of the most distinguished men of France have been seized. Among them are M. Perier, the prime minister, and the General Lamarque. Prince Castelcicala, too, the Neapolitan Ambassador, is dead, in our neighbourhood; as, indeed, are very many others. There is one short street quite near us, out of which, it is said, between seventy and eighty dead have been carried. The situation of all this faubourg is low, and that of the street particularly so.

Dr. S——, of North Carolina, who, with several other young physicians, has done credit to himself by his self-devotion and application, brought in the report of the appearance of things, once or twice a week, judging of the state of the disease more from the aspect of the hospitals, than from the published returns, which are necessarily and, perhaps, designedly, imperfect. He thinks of the first hundred that were admitted at the Hotel Dieu, all but one died, and that one he does not think was a case of Asiatic cholera at all.

All this time, the more frequented streets of Paris presented, in the height of the usual season too, the most deserted aspect. I have frequently walked on the terrace of the Tuileries when there were not a dozen others in the whole garden, and driven from my own hotel in the Rue St. Dominique to the Place Vendôme without meeting half a dozen vehicles, including fiacres and cabriolets de place.

I was returning one day from the Rue de la Paix, on foot, during the height of the disease, at the time when this gay and magnificent part of the town looked peculiarly deserted. There was scarcely a soul in the street but the laquais de place, the garçons, and the chambermaids of the public hotels, that abound in this quarter. These were at the gateways, with folded arms, a picture in themselves of the altered condition of the town. Two travelling carriages drove in from the Rue de Rivoli, and there was at once a stir among those who are so completely dependent on travellers for their bread. "On part" was, at first, the common and mournful call from one group to another, until the mud on the carriage-wheels caught the attention of some one, who cried out "On arrive!" The appearance of the strangers under such circumstances, seemed to act like a charm. I felt no little surprise at seeing them, and more, when a hand beckoned to me from a carriage window. It was Mr. H——, of New York, an old schoolfellow, and a friend of whom we had seen a good deal during our travels in Europe. He had just come from England, with his family, and appeared astonished to find Paris so deserted. He told me that Mr. Van Buren was in the other carriage. He had chosen an unfortunate moment for his visit. I went to see the H——s next morning, and it was arranged that they should come and pass the succeeding day in the Rue St. Dominique; but they disappointed us. The day following I got a letter from H——, dated Amiens, written on his way to England! They had been imprudent in coming, and wise in hurrying away from the frightful scene. I believe that Mr. Van Buren remained but a day or two.

Although most of our acquaintances quitted the town, a few thought it safer to remain in their own comfortable apartments, than to run the hazards of travelling; for, in a short time, most of the north of France was suffering under the same grievous affliction. The authorities conducted themselves well, and there have been very many instances of noble self-devotion, on the part of private individuals, the French character never appearing to better advantage. In this respect, notwithstanding the general impression to the contrary, I am inclined to believe, after a good deal of inquiry, that Paris has acquitted itself better than London. The French, certainly, are less disposed, as a rule, to "hide their light under a bushel," than most other people; but, on the spot and a looker-on, my respect for their feelings and philanthropy has been greatly raised by their conduct during this terrible calamity.

Notwithstanding the horror of the disease, some of the more prominent traits of national character have shown themselves lately. Among other things, the artists have taken to caricaturing the cholera! One gets to be so hardened by exposure, as to be able to laugh at even these proofs of moral obtuseness. Odd enough traits of character are developed by seeing men under such trying circumstances. During one of the worst periods of the disease, I met a countryman in the street, who, though otherwise a clever man, has the weakness to think the democracy of America its greatest blot. I asked him why he remained in Paris, having no family, nor any sufficient inducement? "Oh," said he, "it is a disease that only kills the rabble: I feel no concern—do you?" I told him that, under my peculiar circumstances, I felt a great deal of uneasiness, though not enough to make an unreflecting flight. A few days afterwards I missed him, and, on inquiry, learned that he had fled. Some nobleman had died in our faubourg, when he and one of a fellow feeling, finding a taint "between the wind and their nobility," forthwith beat a retreat!

During the height of the malady, an old English general officer, who had served in India, and who was now residing near us, sent me an invitation to dinner. Tired of seeing no one, I went. Here everything was as tranquil as if we were living in the purest atmosphere in Europe. Sir ----, my host, observed that he had got seasoned in India, and that he believed good living one of the best preventives against the disease. The Count de —— came in just before dinner was announced, and whispered to me that some twelve or fifteen hundred had been buried the previous day, although less than a thousand had been reported. This gentleman told a queer anecdote, which he said came from very respectable authority, and which he gave as he had heard it. About ten days before the cholera appeared, a friend of his had accompanied one of the Polish generals, who are now in Paris, a short distance into the country to dine. On quitting the house, the Pole stopped to gaze intently at the horizon. His companion inquired what he saw, when, pointing to a hazy appearance in the atmosphere, of rather an unusual kind, the other said, "You will have the cholera here in less than ten days; such appearances always preceded it in the North." As M. de —— observed, "I tell it as I heard it."

Sir —— did me the favour, on that occasion, to introduce me to a mild gentleman-like old man, who greatly resembled one of the quiet old school of our own, which is so fast disappearing before the bustling, fussy, money-getting race of the day. It was Lord Robert Fitzgerald, a brother of the unfortunate Lord Edward, and the brother of whom he so pleasantly speaks in his natural and amiable letters, as "Plenipo Bob." This gentleman is since dead, having, as I hear, fallen a victim to the cholera.

I went to one other dinner, during this scene of destruction, given by Madame de B——, a woman who has so much vogue, as to assemble, in her house, people of the most conflicting opinions and opposite characters. On this occasion, I was surprised to hear from Marshal ——, one of the guests, that many believe the cholera to be contagious. That such an opinion should prevail among the mass, was natural enough, but I was not prepared to hear it from so high a quarter.

A gentleman mentioned, at this dinner, that the destruction among the porters had been fearful. A friend of his was the proprietor of five hotels, and the porters of all are dead!




James Fenimore Cooper

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