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Chapter 42

Each person is born to one possession which outvalues all his others--his
last breath.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.

Toward midnight, that night, there was another function. This was a
Hindoo wedding--no, I think it was a betrothal ceremony. Always before,
we had driven through streets that were multitudinous and tumultuous with
picturesque native life, but now there was nothing of that. We seemed to
move through a city of the dead. There was hardly a suggestion of life
in those still and vacant streets. Even the crows were silent. But
everywhere on the ground lay sleeping natives-hundreds and hundreds.
They lay stretched at full length and tightly wrapped in blankets, beads
and all. Their attitude and their rigidity counterfeited death. The
plague was not in Bombay then, but it is devastating the city now. The
shops are deserted, now, half of the people have fled, and of the
remainder the smitten perish by shoals every day. No doubt the city
looks now in the daytime as it looked then at night. When we had pierced
deep into the native quarter and were threading its narrow dim lanes, we
had to go carefully, for men were stretched asleep all about and there
was hardly room to drive between them. And every now and then a swarm of
rats would scamper across past the horses' feet in the vague light--the
forbears of the rats that are carrying the plague from house to house in
Bombay now. The shops were but sheds, little booths open to the street;
and the goods had been removed, and on the counters families were
sleeping, usually with an oil lamp present. Recurrent dead watches, it
looked like.

But at last we turned a corner and saw a great glare of light ahead. It
was the home of the bride, wrapped in a perfect conflagration of
illuminations,--mainly gas-work designs, gotten up specially for the
occasion. Within was abundance of brilliancy--flames, costumes, colors,
decorations, mirrors--it was another Aladdin show.

The bride was a trim and comely little thing of twelve years, dressed as
we would dress a boy, though more expensively than we should do it, of
course. She moved about very much at her ease, and stopped and talked
with the guests and allowed her wedding jewelry to be examined. It was
very fine. Particularly a rope of great diamonds, a lovely thing to look
at and handle. It had a great emerald hanging to it.

The bridegroom was not present. He was having betrothal festivities of
his own at his father's house. As I understood it, he and the bride were
to entertain company every night and nearly all night for a week or more,
then get married, if alive. Both of the children were a little elderly,
as brides and grooms go, in India--twelve; they ought to have been
married a year or two sooner; still to a stranger twelve seems quite
young enough.

A while after midnight a couple of celebrated and high-priced
nautch-girls appeared in the gorgeous place, and danced and sang. With
them were men who played upon strange instruments which made uncanny
noises of a sort to make one's flesh creep. One of these instruments was
a pipe, and to its music the girls went through a performance which
represented snake charming. It seemed a doubtful sort of music to charm
anything with, but a native gentleman assured me that snakes like it and
will come out of their holes and listen to it with every evidence of
refreshment And gratitude. He said that at an entertainment in his
grounds once, the pipe brought out half a dozen snakes, and the music had
to be stopped before they would be persuaded to go. Nobody wanted their
company, for they were bold, familiar, and dangerous; but no one would
kill them, of course, for it is sinful for a Hindoo to kill any kind of a
creature.

We withdrew from the festivities at two in the morning. Another picture,
then--but it has lodged itself in my memory rather as a stage-scene than
as a reality. It is of a porch and short flight of steps crowded with
dark faces and ghostly-white draperies flooded with the strong glare from
the dazzling concentration of illuminations; and midway of the steps one
conspicuous figure for accent--a turbaned giant, with a name according to
his size: Rao Bahadur Baskirao Balinkanje Pitale, Vakeel to his Highness
the Gaikwar of Baroda. Without him the picture would not have been
complete; and if his name had been merely Smith, he wouldn't have
answered. Close at hand on house-fronts on both sides of the narrow
street were illuminations of a kind commonly employed by the natives
--scores of glass tumblers (containing tapers) fastened a few in inches
apart all over great latticed frames, forming starry constellations which
showed out vividly against their black back grounds. As we drew away
into the distance down the dim lanes the illuminations gathered together
into a single mass, and glowed out of the enveloping darkness like a sun.

Then again the deep silence, the skurrying rats, the dim forms stretched
every-where on the ground; and on either hand those open booths
counterfeiting sepulchres, with counterfeit corpses sleeping motionless
in the flicker of the counterfeit death lamps. And now, a year later,
when I read the cablegrams I seem to be reading of what I myself partly
saw--saw before it happened--in a prophetic dream, as it were. One
cablegram says, "Business in the native town is about suspended. Except
the wailing and the tramp of the funerals. There is but little life or
movement. The closed shops exceed in number those that remain open."
Another says that 325,000 of the people have fled the city and are
carrying the plague to the country. Three days later comes the news,
"The population is reduced by half." The refugees have carried the
disease to Karachi; "220 cases, 214 deaths." A day or two later, "52
fresh cases, all of which proved fatal."

The plague carries with it a terror which no other disease can excite;
for of all diseases known to men it is the deadliest--by far the
deadliest. "Fifty-two fresh cases--all fatal." It is the Black Death
alone that slays like that. We can all imagine, after a fashion, the
desolation of a plague-stricken city, and the stupor of stillness broken
at intervals by distant bursts of wailing, marking the passing of
funerals, here and there and yonder, but I suppose it is not possible for
us to realize to ourselves the nightmare of dread and fear that possesses
the living who are present in such a place and cannot get away. That
half million fled from Bombay in a wild panic suggests to us something of
what they were feeling, but perhaps not even they could realize what the
half million were feeling whom they left stranded behind to face the
stalking horror without chance of escape. Kinglake was in Cairo many
years ago during an epidemic of the Black Death, and he has imagined the
terrors that creep into a man's heart at such a time and follow him until
they themselves breed the fatal sign in the armpit, and then the delirium
with confused images, and home-dreams, and reeling billiard-tables, and
then the sudden blank of death:

"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 willfully 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 labors 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
dares 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 sundial that stood in his childhood's
garden--sees his mother, and the long-since forgotten face of that
little dear 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."


Mark Twain