From Yunnan in China, from the clattering bright bazaars, crept something invisible in the sun and vigilant by dark, creeping, sinister, ceaseless; creeping across the Himalayas, down through walled market-places, across a desert, along hot yellow rivers, into an American missionary compound—creeping, silent, sure; and here and there on its way a man was black and stilled with plague.
In Bombay a new dock-guard, unaware of things, spoke boisterously over his family rice of a strange new custom of the rats.
Those princes of the sewer, swift to dart and turn, had gone mad. They came out on the warehouse floor, ignoring the guard, springing up as though (the guard said merrily) they were trying to fly, and straightway falling dead. He had poked at them, but they did not move.
Three days later that dock-guard died of the plague.
Before he died, from his dock a ship with a cargo of wheat steamed off to Marseilles. There was no sickness on it all the way; there was no reason why at Marseilles it should not lie next to a tramp steamer, nor why that steamer, pitching down to Montevideo with nothing more sensational than a discussion between the supercargo and the second officer in the matter of a fifth ace, should not berth near the S.S. Pendown Castle, bound for the island of St. Hubert to add cocoa to its present cargo of lumber.
On the way to St. Hubert, a Goanese seedie boy and after him the messroom steward on the Pendown Castle died of what the skipper called influenza. A greater trouble was the number of rats which, ill satisfied with lumber as diet, scampered up to the food-stores, then into the forecastle, and for no reason perceptible died on the open decks. They danced comically before they died, and lay in the scuppers stark and ruffled.
So the Pendown Castle came to Blackwater, the capital and port of St. Hubert.
It is a little isle of the southern West Indies, but St. Hubert supports a hundred thousand people—English planters and clerks, Hindu road-makers, Negro cane-hands, Chinese merchants. There is history along its sands and peaks. Here the buccaneers careened their ships; here the Marquess of Wimsbury, when he had gone mad, took to repairing clocks and bade his slaves burn all the sugar-cane.
Hither that peasant beau, Gaston Lopo, brought Madame de Merlemont, and dwelt in fashionableness till the slaves whom he had often relished to lash came on him shaving, and straightway the lather was fantastically smeared with blood.
Today, St. Hubert is all sugar-cane and Ford cars, oranges and plantains and the red and yellow pods of cocoa, bananas and rubber trees and jungles of bamboo, Anglican churches and tin chapels, colored washerwomen busy at the hollows in the roots of silk-cotton trees, steamy heat and royal palms and the immortelle that fills the valleys with crimson; today it is all splendor and tourist dullness and cabled cane-quotations, against the unsparing sun.
Blackwater, flat and breathless town of tin-roofed plaster houses and incandescent bone-white roads, of salmon-red hibiscus and balconied stores whose dark depths open without barrier from the stifling streets, has the harbor to one side and a swamp to the other. But behind it are the Penrith Hills, on whose wholesome and palm-softened heights is Government House, looking to the winking sails.
Here lived in bulky torpor His Excellency the Governor of St. Hubert, Colonel Sir Robert Fairlamb.
Sir Robert Fairlamb was an excellent fellow, a teller of mess-room stories, one who in a heathen day never smoked till the port had gone seven times round; but he was an execrable governor and a worried governor. The man whose social rank was next to his own—the Hon. Cecil Eric George Twyford, a lean, active, high-nosed despot who owned and knew rod by snakewrithing rod some ten thousand acres of cane in St. Swithin's Parish—Twyford said that His Excellency was a "potty and snoring fool," and versions of the opinion came not too slowly to Fairlamb. Then, to destroy him complete, the House of Assembly, which is the St. Hubert legislature, was riven by the feud of Kellett the Red Leg and George William Vertigan.
The Red Legs were a tribe of Scotch-Irish poor whites who had come to St. Hubert as indentured servants two hundred years before. Most of them were still fishermen and plantation-foremen, but one of them, Kellett, a man small-mouthed and angry and industrious, had risen from office-boy to owner of a shipping company, and while his father still spread his nets on the beach at Point Carib, Kellett was the scourge of the House of Assembly and a hound for economy—particularly any economy which would annoy his fellow legislator, George William Vertigan.
George William, who was sometimes known as "Old Jeo Win" and sometimes as "The King of the Ice House" (that enticing and ruinous bar), had been born behind a Little Bethel in Lancashire. He owned The Blue Bazaar, the hugest stores in St. Hubert; he caused tobacco to be smuggled into Venezuela; he was as full of song and incaution and rum as Kellett the Red Leg was full of figures and envy and decency.
Between them, Kellett and George William split the House of Assembly. There could be, to a respectable person, no question as to their merits: Kellett the just and earnest man of domesticity whose rise was an inspiration to youth; George William the gambler, the lusher, the smuggler, the liar, the seller of shoddy cottons, a person whose only excellence was his cheap good nature.
Kellett's first triumph in economy was to pass an ordinance removing the melancholy Cockney (a player of oboes) who was the official rat-catcher of St. Hubert.
George William Vertigan insisted in debate, and afterward privily to Sir Robert Fairlamb, that rats destroy food and perhaps spread disease, and His Excellency must veto the bill. Sir Robert was troubled. He called in The Surgeon General, Dr. R. E. Inchcape Jones (but he preferred to be called Mister, not Doctor).
Dr. Inchcape Jones was a thin, tall, fretful, youngish man, without bowels. He had come out from Home only two years before, and he wanted to go back Home, to that particular part of Home represented by tennis-teas in Surrey. He remarked to Sir Robert that rats and their ever faithful fleas do carry diseases—plague and infectious jaundice and rat-bite fever and possibly leprosy—but these diseases did not and therefore could not exist in St. Hubert, except for leprosy, which was a natural punishment of outlandish Native Races. In fact, noted Inchcape Jones, nothing did exist in St. Hubert except malaria, dengue, and a general beastly dullness, and if Red Legs like Kellett longed to die of plague and rat-bite fever, why should decent people object?
So by the sovereign power of the House of Assembly of St. Hubert, and of His Excellency the Governor, the Cockney rat-catcher and his jiggling young colored assistant were commanded to cease to exist. The rat-catcher became a chauffeur. He drove Canadian and American tourists, who stopped over at St. Hubert for a day or two between Barbados and Trinidad, along such hill-trails as he considered most easy to achieve with a second-hand motor, and gave them misinformation regarding the flowers. The rat-catcher's assistant became a respectable smuggler and leader of a Wesleyan choir. And as for the rats themselves, they flourished, they were glad in the land, and each female produced from ten to two hundred offspring every year.
They were not often seen by day. "The rats aren't increasing; the cats kill 'em," said Kellett the Red Leg. But by darkness they gamboled in the warehouses and in and out of the schooners along the quay. They ventured countryward, and lent their fleas to a species of ground squirrels which were plentiful about the village of Carib.
A year and a half after the removal of the rat-catcher, when the Pendown Castle came in from Montevideo and moored by the Councillor Pier, it was observed by ten thousand glinty small eyes among the piles.
As a matter of routine, certainly not as a thing connected with the deaths from what the skipper had called influenza, the crew of the Pendown Castle put rat-shields on the mooring hawsers, but they did not take up the gang-plank at night, and now and then a rat slithered ashore to find among its kin in Blackwater more unctuous fare than hardwood lumber. The Pendown sailed amiably for home, and from Avonmouth came to Surgeon General Inchcape Jones a cable announcing that the ship was held, that others of the crew had died...and died of plague.
In the curt cablegram the word seemed written in bone-scorching fire.
Two days before the cable came, a Blackwater lighterman had been smitten by an unknown ill, very unpleasant, with delirium and buboes. Inchcape Jones said that it could not be plague, because there never was plague in St. Hubert. His confrere, Stokes, retorted that perhaps it couldn't be plague, but it damn' well was plague.
Dr. Stokes was a wiry, humorless man, the parish medical officer of St. Swithin Parish. He did not remain in the rustic reaches of St. Swithin, where he belonged, but snooped all over the island, annoying Inchcape Jones. He was an M.B. of Edinburgh; he had served in the African bush; he had had black-water fever and cholera and most other reasonable afflictions; and he had come to St. Hubert only to recover his red blood corpuscles and to disturb the unhappy Inchcape Jones. He was not a nice man; he had beaten Inchcape Jones at tennis, with a nasty, unsporting serve—the sort of serve you'd expect from an American.
And this Stokes, rather a bounder, a frightful bore, fancied himself as an amateur bacteriologist! It was a bit thick to have him creeping about the docks, catching rats, making cultures from the bellies of their fleas, and barging in—sandy-headed and red-faced, thin and unpleasant—to insist that they bore plague.
"My dear fellow, there's always some Bacillus pestis among rats," said Inchcape Jones, in a kindly but airy way.
When the lighterman died, Stokes irritatingly demanded that it be openly admitted that the plague had come to St. Hubert.
"Even if it was plague, which is not certain," said Inchcape Jones, "there's no reason to cause a row and frighten everybody. It was a sporadic case. There won't be any more."
There were more, immediately. In a week three other waterfront workers and a fisherman at Point Carib were down with something which, even Inchcape Jones acknowledged, was uncomfortably like the description of plague in "Manson's Tropical Diseases": "a prodromal stage characterized by depression, anorexia, aching of the limbs," then the fever, the vertigo, the haggard features, the bloodshot and sunken eyes, the buboes in the groin. It was not a pretty disease. Inchcape Jones ceased being chattery and ever so jolly about picnics, and became almost as grim as Stokes. But publicly he still hoped and denied and St. Hubert did not know...did not know.
To drinking men and wanderers, the pleasantest place in the rather dull and tin-roofed town of Blackwater is the bar and restaurant called the Ice House.
It is on the floor above the Kellett Shipping Agency and the shop where the Chinaman who is supposed to be a graduate of Oxford sells carved tortoise, and cocoanuts in the horrible likeness of a head shrunken by headhunters. Except for the balcony, where one lunches and looks down on squatting breech-clouted Hindu beggars, and unearthly pearl-pale English children at games in the savannah, all of the Ice House is a large and dreaming dimness wherein you are but half conscious of Moorish grills, a touch of gilt on white-painted walls, a heavy, amazingly long mahogany bar, slot machines, and marble-topped tables beyond your own.
Here, at the cocktail-hour, are all the bloodless, sun-helmeted white rulers of St. Hubert who haven't quite the caste to belong to the Devonshire Club: the shipping-office clerks, the merchants who have no grandfathers, the secretaries to the Inchcape Joneses, the Italians and Portuguese who smuggle into Venezuela.
Calmed by rum swizzles, those tart and commanding aperitifs which are made in their deadly perfection only by the twirling swizzle-sticks of the darkies at the Ice House bar, the exiles become peaceful, and have another swizzle, and grow certain again (as for twenty-four hours, since the last cocktail-hour, they have not been certain) that next year they will go Home. Yes, they will taper off, take exercise in the dawn coolness, stop drinking, become strong and successful, and go Home...the Lotus Eaters, tears in their eyes when in the dimness of the Ice House they think of Piccadilly or the heights of Quebec, of Indiana or Catalonia or the clogs of Lancashire...They never go Home. But always they have new reassuring cocktail-hours at the Ice House, until they die, and the other lost men come to their funerals and whisper one to another that they are going Home.
Now of the Ice House, George William Vertigan, owner of The Blue Bazaar, was unchallenged monarch. He was a thick, ruddy man, the sort of Englishman one sees in the Midlands, the sort that is either very Non-Conformist or very alcoholic, and George William was not Non-Conformist. Each day from five to seven he was tilted against the bar, never drunk, never altogether sober, always full of melody and kindliness; the one man who did not long for Home, because outside the Ice House he remembered no home.
When it was whispered that a man had died of something which might be plague, George William announced to his court that if it were true, it would serve Kellett the Red Leg jolly well right. But everyone knew that the West Indian climate prevented plague.
The group, quivering on the edge of being panicky, were reassured.
It was two nights afterward that there writhed into the Ice House a rumor that George William Vertigan was dead.
No one dared speak of it, whether in the Devonshire Club or the Ice House or the breeze-fluttered, sea-washed park where the Negroes gather after working hours, but they heard, almost without hearing, of this death—and this—and another. No one liked to shake hands with his oldest friend; everyone fled from everyone else, though the rats loyally stayed with them; and through the island galloped the Panic, which is more murderous than its brother, the Plague.
Still there was no quarantine, no official admission. Inchcape Jones vomited feeble proclamations of the inadvisability of too-large public gatherings, and wrote to London to inquire about Haffkine's prophylactic, but to Sir Robert Fairlamb he protested, "Honestly, there's only been a few deaths and I think it's all passed over. As for these suggestions of Stokes that we burn the village of Carib, merely because they've had several cases—why, it's barbarous! And it's been conveyed to me that if we were to establish a quarantine, the merchants would take the strongest measures against the administration. It would ruin the tourist and export business."
But Stokes of St. Swithin's secretly wrote to Dr. Max Gottlieb, Director of the McGurk Institute, that the plague was ready to flare up and consume all the West Indies, and would Dr. Gottlieb do something about it?