The Germ Growers/Chapter 2
THE RED SICKNESS.
Of course James Redpath's disappearance attracted much attention, and was the talk not only of the village, but of the whole country-side. It was the general opinion that he must have been drowned. by falling over the cliffs, and that his body had been washed out to sea. I proved, however, to have been the very last person to see him, and my testimony, as far as it went, was against that opinion. For I certainly had seen him walking straight inland. Of course he might have returned to the coast afterwards, but at least nobody had seen him return. I gave a full account of place and time as far as I could fix them, and I mentioned the queer-looking clouds and even described their shape. This I remember, was considered to have some value as fixing my memory of the matter, but no further notice was taken of it. And I myself did not venture to suggest any connection between it and Redpath's disappearance, because I did not see how I could reasonably do so. I had, nevertheless, a firm conviction that there was such a connection, but I knew very well that to declare it would only bring a storm of ridicule upon me.
But a public calamity just then befell Penruddock which made men forget James Redpath's disappearance. A pestilence broke out in the place of which nobody knew either the nature or the source. It seemed to spring up in the place. At least, all efforts to trace it were unsuccessful. The first two or three cases were attributed to some inflammatory cold, but it soon became clear that there were specific features about it, that they were quite unfamiliar, that the disease was extremely dangerous to life and highly infectious.
Then a panic set in, and I believe that the disease would soon have been propagated all over England and farther, if it had not been for the zeal and ability of two young physicians who happened very fortunately to be living in the village just then. Their names were Leopold and Furniss. I forget if I ever knew their Christian names. We used to call them Doctor Leopold and Doctor Furniss. They had finished their studies for some little time, but they found it advisable on the score of health to take a longish holiday before commencing practice, and they were spending part of their holiday at Penruddoek. They were just about to leave us when the disease I am telling you of broke out.
The first case occurred in a valley about two miles from the village. In this valley there were several cottages inhabited mostly by farm labourers and artisans. These cottages lay one after another in the direction of the rising ground which separated the valley from Penruddock. Then there were no houses for a considerable space. Then, just over the hill, there was another and yet another. The disease had made its way gradually up the hill from one cottage to another, day after day a fresh ease appearing. Then there had been no new eases for four days, but on the fifth day a new ease appeared in the cottage just over the brow of the hill And when this became known, also that every case (there had now been eleven) had hitherto been fatal, serious alarm arose. Then, too, the disease became known as the "red sickness." This name was due to a discoloration which set in on the shoulders, neck, and forehead very shortly after seizure.
How the two doctors, as we called them, became armed with the needful powers I do not know. They certainly contrived to obtain some sort of legal authority, but I think that they acted in great measure on their own responsibility.
By the time they commenced operations there were three or four more cases in the valley, and one more in the second cottage on the Penruddock side. There was a large stone house, partly ruinous, in the valley, near the sea, and hither they brought every one of the sick. Plenty of help was given them in the way of beds, bedding, and all sorts of material, but such was the height which the panic had now attained that no one from the village would go near any of the sick folk, nor even enter the valley. The physicians themselves and their two men servants, who seemed to be as fearless and brave as they, did all the work. Fortunately, the two infected cottages on the Penruddock side were each tenanted only by the person who had fallen ill, and the tenant in each case was a labourer whose work lay in the valley. The physicians burnt down these cottages and everything that was in them. Then they established a strict quarantine between the village and the alley. There was a light fence running from the sea for about a mile inland, along the brow of the rising ground on the Penruddock side. This they never passed nor suffered any one to pass, during the prevalence of the sickness. Butchers and bakers and other tradesmen left their wares at a given point at a given time, and the people from the valley came and fetched them.
The excitement and terror in Penruddock were very great. All but the most necessary business was suspended, and of social intercourse during the panic there was next to none. Ten cases in all were treated by the physicians, and four of these recovered. The last two cases were three or four days apart, but they were no less malignant in character: the very last case was one of the fatal ones. I learned nothing of the treatment; but the means used to prevent the disease spreading, besides the strict quarantine, were chiefly fire and lime. Everything about the sick was passed through the fire, and of these everything that the fire would destroy was destroyed. Lime, which abounded in the valley, was largely used.
A month after the last case the two physicians declared the quarantine at an end, and a month later all fear of the disease had ceased. And then the people of the village began to think of consoling themselves for the dull and uncomfortable time they had had, and of doing some honour to the two visitors who had served the village so well. With this double purpose in view a picnic on a large scale was organized, and there was plenty of eating and drinking and speech-making and dancing, all of which I pass over. But at that picnic I heard a conversation which made a very powerful impression on me then, and which often has seemed to provide a bond which binds together all the strange things of which I had experience at the time and afterwards.
In the heat of the afternoon I had happened to be with Mr. Leopold and Mr. Furniss helping them in some arrangements which they were making for the amusement of the children who took part in the picnic. After these were finished they two strolled away together to the side of a brook which ran through the park where we were gathered. I followed them, attracted mainly by Mr. Furniss's dog, but encouraged also by an occasional word from the young men. At the brook Mr. Furniss sat upon a log, and leaned his back against a rustic fence. The dog sat by him; a very beautiful dog he was, black and white, with great intelligent eyes, and an uncommonly large and well-shaped head. He would sometimes stretch himself at length, and then again he would put his paw upon his master's shoulder and watch Sir. Leopold and me.
Mr. Leopold stood with his back to an oak-tree, and I leant against the fence beside him listening to him. He was a tall, dark man, with a keen, thoughtful, and benevolent expression. He was quite strong and healthy-looking, and there was a squareness about his features that I think one does not often see in dark people. Mr. Furniss was of lighter complexion and hardly as tall; there was quite as much intelligence and benevolence in his face, but not so much of what I have called thoughtfulness as distinguished from intelligence, and there was a humorous glint in his eye which the other lacked. They began to talk about the disease which had been so successfully dealt with, and this was what they said:—
Leoplold. Well, Furniss, an enemy hath done this.
Furniss. Done what? The picnic or the red sickness?
Leopold. The red sickness, of course. Can't you see what I mean?
Furniss. No, I can't. You're too much of a mystic for me, Leopold; but I'll tell you what, England owes a debt to you and me, my boy, for it was near enough to being a new edition of the black death or the plague.
Leopold. Only the black death and the plague were imported, and this was indigenous. It sprung up under our noses in a healthy place. I came from nowhere, and, thank God, it is gone nowhither.
Furniss. But surely the black death and the plague must have begun somewhere, and they too seem to have gone nowhither.
Leopold. You're right this far that they all must have had the same sort of beginning. 0nly it is given to very few to see the beginning, as you and I have seen it, or so near the beginning.
Furniss. Now, Leopold, I hardly see what you are driving at. I am not much on religion, as they say in America, but I believe there is a Power above all. Call that lower God, and let us say that God does as He pleases, and on the whole that it is best that He should. I don't see that you can get much further than that.
Leopold. I don't believe that God ever made the plague, or the black death, or the red sickness.
Furniss. Oh, don't you? Then you are, I suppose, what the churchmen call a Manichee—you believe in the two powers of light and darkness, good and evil. Well, it is not a bad solution of the question as far as it goes, but I can hardly accept it.
Leopold. No, I don't believe in any gods but the 0ne. But let me explain. That is a nice dog of yours, Furniss. You told me one day something about his breeding, and you promised to tell me more.
Furniss. Yes, it is quite a problem in natural history. Do you know, Tommy's ancestors have been in our family for four or five generations of men, and, I suppose, that is twenty generations of dogs.
Leopold. You told me something of it. You improved the breed greatly, I believe?
Furniss. Yes; but I have some distant cousins, and they have the same breed and yet not the same, for they have cultivated it in quite another direction.
Leopold. What are the differences?
Furniss. Our dogs are all more or less like Tommy here, gentle and faithful, very intelligent, and by no means deficient in pluck. My cousin's dogs are fierce and quarrelsome, so much so that they have not been suffered for generations to associate with children. And so they have lost intelligence and are become ill-conditioned and low-lived brutes.
Leopold. But I think I understood you to say that the change in the breed did not come about in the ordinary course of nature.
Furniss. I believe not. I heard my grandfather say that his father had told him that when he was a young man he had set about improving the breed. He had marked out the most intelligent and best tempered pups, and he had bred from them only and had given away or destroyed the others.
Leopold. And about your cousin's dogs?
Furniss. Just let me finish. It seems that while one brother began to cultivate the breed upward, so to speak, another brother was living in a part of the country where thieves were numerous and daring, and there were smugglers and gipsies, and what not, about. And so he began to improve the breed in quite another direction. He selected the fierce and snappish pups and bred exclusively from them.
Leopold. And so from one ancestral pair of, say, a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, you have Tommy there, with his wonderful mixture of gentleness and pluck, and his intelligence all but human, and your cousin has a kennel of unintelligent and bloodthirsty brutes, that have to be caged and chained as if they were wild beasts.
Furniss. Just so, but I don't quite see what you are driving at.
Leopold. Wait a minute. Do you suppose the germs of cow-pox and small-pox to be of the same breed?
Furniss. Well, yes; you know that I hold them to be specifically identical. I see what you are at now.
Leopold. But one of them fulfils some obscure function in the physique of the cow, some function certainly harmless and probably beneficent, and the other is the malignant small-pox of the London hospitals.
Furniss. So you mean to infer that in the latter case the germ has been cultivated downwards by intelligent purpose.
Leopold. What if I do?
Furniss. You think, then, that there is a secret guild of malignant men of medicine sworn to wage war against their fellow-men, that they are spread over all the world and have existed since before the dawn of history. don't believe that there are any men as bad as that, and if there were, I should call them devils and hunt them down like mad dogs.
Leopold. I don't wish to use misleading words, but I will say that I believe there are intelligences, not human, who have access to realms of nature that we are but just beginning to explore; and I believe that some of them are enemies to humanity, and that they use their knowledge to breed such things as malignant small-pox or the red sickness out of germs which were originally of a harmless or even of a beneficent nature.
Furniss. Just as my cousins have bred those wild beasts of theirs out of such harmless creatures as poor Tommy's ancestors.
Leopold. Just so.
Furniss. And you think that we can contend successfully against such enemies.
Leopold. Why not? They can only have nature to work upon. And very likely their only advantage over us is that they know more of nature than we do. They cannot go beyond the limits of nature to do less or more. As long as we sought after spells and enchantments and that sort of nonsense we were very much at their mercy. But we are now learning to fight them with their own weapons, which consist of the knowledge of nature. Witness vaccination, and witness also our little victory over the red sickness.
Furniss. You're a queer mixture, Leopold, but we must get back to the picnic people.
And so. they got up and went back together to the dancers, nodding to me as they went. I sat there for awhile, going over and over the conversation in my mind and putting together my own thoughts and Mr. Leopold's.
Then I joined the company and was merry as the merriest for the remainder of the day. But that night I dreamt; of strange-looking clouds and of the shadows of invisible cars, and of demons riding in the cars and sowing the seeds of pestilence on the earth and catching away such evil specimens of humanity as James Redpath to reinforce the ranks of their own malignant order.