16. THE BLACK PLAGUE—II
The Town Clerk expressed
his gratitude to me for having taken charge of the vacant house and the
patients. He frankly confessed that the Town Council had no immediate means
to cope with such an emergency, but promised that they would render all
the help in their power. Once awakened to a sense of their duty, the Municipality
made no delay in taking prompt measures.
The next day they placed a vacant
godown [=warehouse] at my disposal, and suggested that the patients be
removed there, but the Municipality did not undertake to clean the premises.
The building was unkempt and unclean. We cleaned it up ourselves, raised
a few beds and other necessaries through the offices of charitable Indians,
and improvised a temporary hospital. The Municipality lent the services
of a nurse, who came with brandy and other hospital equipment. Dr. Godfrey
still remained in charge.
The nurse was a kindly lady
and would fain have attended to the patients, but we rarely allowed her
to touch them, lest she should catch the contagion.
We had instructions to give
the patients frequent doses of brandy. The nurse even asked us to take
it for precaution, just as she was doing herself. But none of us would
touch it. I had no faith in its beneficial effect even for the patients.
With the permission of Dr. Godfrey, I put three patients, who were prepared
to do without brandy, under the earth treatment, applying wet earth bandages
to their heads and chests. Two of these were saved. The other twenty died
in the godown.
Meanwhile the Municipality was
busy taking other measures. There was a lazaretto [=isolation facility]
for contagious diseases about seven miles from Johannesburg. The two surviving
patients were removed to tents near the lazaretto, and arrangements were
made for sending any fresh cases there. We were thus relieved of our work.
In the course of a few days
we learnt that the good nurse had had an attack and immediately succumbed.
It is impossible to say how the two patients were saved and how we remained
immune, but the experience enhanced my faith in earth treatment, as also
my scepticism of the efficacy of the brandy, even as a medicine. I know
that neither this faith nor this scepticism is based upon any solid grounds,
but I still retain the impression which I then received, and have therefore
thought it necessary to mention it here.
On the outbreak of the plague,
I had addressed a strong letter to the press, holding the Municipality
guilty of negligence after the location came into its possession, and responsible
for the outbreak of the plague itself. This letter secured me Mr. Henry
Polak, and was partly responsible for the friendship of the late Rev. Joseph
I have said in an earlier chapter
that I used to have my meals at a vegetarian restaurant. Here I met Mr.
Albert West. We used to meet in this restaurant every evening and go out
walking after dinner. Mr. West was a partner in a small printing concern.
He read my letter in the press about the outbreak of the plague, and not
finding me in the restaurant, felt uneasy.
My co-workers and I had reduced
our diet since the outbreak, as I had long made it a rule to go on a light
diet during epidemics. In these days I had therefore given up my evening
dinner. Lunch also I would finish before the other guests arrived. I knew
the proprietor of the restaurant very well, and I had informed him that
as I was engaged in nursing the plague patients, I wanted to avoid the
contact of friends as much as possible.
Not finding me in the restaurant
for a day or two, Mr. West knocked at my door early one morning, just as
I was getting ready to go out for a walk. As I opened the door Mr. West
said: 'I did not find you in the restaurant, and was really afraid lest
something should have happened to you. So I decided to come and see you
in the morning in order to make sure of finding you at home. Well, here
I am at your disposal. I am ready to help in nursing the patients. You
know that I have no one depending on me.'
I expressed my gratitude, and
without taking even a second to think, replied: 'I will not have you as
a nurse. If there are no more cases, we shall be free in a day or two.
There is one thing however.'
'Yes, what is it?'
'Could you take charge of the
Opinion press at Durban? Mr. Madanjit is likely to be engaged here,
and someone is needed at Durban. If you could go, I should feel quite relieved
on that score.'
'You know that I have a press.
Most probably I shall be able to go, but may I give my final reply in the
evening? We shall talk it over during our evening walk.'
I was delighted. We had the
talk. He agreed to go. Salary was no consideration to him, as money was
not his motive. But a salary of £10 per month and a part of the profits,
if any, was fixed up. The very next day Mr. West left for Durban by the
evening mail, entrusting me with the recovery of his dues. From that day
until the time I left the shores of South Africa, he remained a partner
of my joys and sorrows.
Mr. West belonged to a peasant
family in Louth (Lincolnshire). He had had an ordinary school education,
but had learnt a good deal in the school of experience and by dint of self-help.
I have always known him to be a pure, sober, god-fearing, humane Englishman.
We shall know more of him and
his family in the chapters to follow.