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Hydrophobia

( Originally Published 1918 )



"OF all the ferocious animals that you know, at least by hearsay, which one would you most dread to meet?" asked Uncle Paul. Emile was the first to reply.

"For my part," said he, "if I went nutting in the woods I shouldn't at all like to meet a wolf, even if I had a stout stick with me."

If I should meet a wolf," Jules declared, "I would just climb a tree and make fun of Mr. Wolf, for he doesn't know how to climb. But I should be more afraid of a bear, for that can climb trees better than we, and it hugs a man till it stifles him."

"As for me," said Louis, "the animal I should fear most would be the tiger; they say it is so ferocious. With a bound it springs on a man as the cat pounces on a mouse."

"The wolf is a coward," Uncle Paul assured his hearers. "Just threaten it in a loud voice, throw a stone or two at it, or shake a stick, and you put it to flight. Nevertheless, if it were pressed with hunger, it would take courage and one might pass a very bad quarter of an hour in its company. The bear is more dangerous. With it, retreat up a tree is of no avail, and precipitous flight has not much chance of success, for the bear is very nimble. What a terrible fate to. find oneself held tight in a horrible embrace, and to feel the beast's warm breath on one's face! With the tiger it would be worse. Let its claws once get hold of a man, let its jaws once close on him, and he is torn to pieces. There is nothing so terrible as its sudden attack and its bloodthirsty ferocity."

"We have no tigers in our woods," assented Uncle Paul, "but we have in our very midst an animal that is still more formidable in certain circumstances. This terrible enemy that we are liable to encounter at any moment does not possess by a good deal the strength of the tiger or bear; most often it is not even so strong as the wolf ; sometimes it is so feeble that a well-directed blow of the fist is enough to knock it down. Its nature is not sanguinary; its teeth and claws are not strong enough to frighten us."

"Well, then," Emile demanded, why is this enemy so much to be feared?"

"Do not let this lack of strength reassure you. As for me, I shudder at the mere thought of the danger to which we are exposed. Against those other animals, however dangerous or strong they may be, defense is possible. With presence of mind and with weapons one may come out of the fight victorious ; if one is injured by teeth or claws the wound may heal. But against this other creature presence of mind, skill, courage, weapons, help—all are useless; let it bite you only once, let the point of its tooth merely tear the skin so as to draw blood, making no more than a scratch, and it will suffice to en-danger your very life. Better would it be to find yourself in the wolf's jaws or the bear's embrace. Vainly you get the upper hand and ward off the animal's assaults) vainly you kill it : a tiny scratch, insignificant enough from any other animal, will in the near future cause your death, a horrible death, more atrocious than any other in the world. As a result of that tiny wound a day will come, and it will come soon, when, seized all at once with a furious madness, shaken by horrible convulsions, frothing with drivel, and not recognizing either relatives or friends, you will spring upon them like a ferocious beast, to bite them savagely and give them your disease. No hope of restoring you to health, no way to alleviate your sufferings; you must be left to die, an object of horror and pity."

"What is that formidable animal?" Jules inquired. "Are we really ever likely to have a tussle with it?"

"We are daily exposed to this danger. No one is certain of not being attacked this very day, this very instant; for the terrible animal frequents our public places, wanders in our streets, makes our houses its home, and lives in close intimacy with us. In fact, it is no other than the dog."

"The dog, the most useful and most devoted of our servants!" exclaimed Jules incredulously.

"Yes, the dog. In proportion as it merits our attachment under usual conditions, so does it become the object of our just fear when seized with a malady called hydrophobia."

"They say, and I've often heard it, that mad dogs are very dangerous," remarked Louis. "How do they get this disease?"

Its origin is unknown. Without any discoverable cause, from no motive that we can discern, the dog goes mad; the malady is spontaneous; that is to say, it makes its appearance unheralded by symptoms. Any dog may be attacked, the contented pet in a fine house as well as the poor homeless waif that hunts for a scrap in the sweepings at the street corner. I must add, however, that the sufferings of hunger and thirst, with bad treatment, tend to pro-mote the disease, stray dogs being more subject than others to spontaneous madness. Here we have a new and very weighty reason why we should take good care of our dogs. To let them suffer cruelly is to expose them to the inroads of a horrible ailment that may perhaps be our own destruction.

"Spontaneous madness once developed in a dog, the malady, unless precautions are taken, is propagated in others with frightful rapidity. Ten dogs, a hundred dogs, can in a short time themselves become mad. An animal attacked with rabies is, in short, tormented with an irresistible desire to bite others. Wild-eyed, tail between its legs, hair erect, lip frothing, it springs with lowered head on the first dog it meets, bites it, and immediately springs at another, then another, as many as it comes across. Now, every dog bitten becomes itself mad in a few days, some sooner, some later, and propagates the evil in the same way unless energetic measures cut this scourge short.

"The disease is communicated to man also by the bite. A mad dog bites animals and human beings without distinction; it springs furiously at passers-by, and even springs at its master, whom it no longer recognizes. If the tooth, moistened with saliva, pierces the skin so as to draw blood, it is all over with the victim : hydrophobia has been communicated."

"It is the same here, then, as with the viper's venom?" asked Jules.

"Exactly the same. From the mad dog's mouth runs a deadly saliva, a real venom which, mingling with the blood through an open wound, causes madness at the end of a certain time. On unbroken skin this saliva has no effect; but on the slightest bleeding scratch it operates in its peculiarly terrible fashion. In short, like other venoms, the saliva of rabies, as it is called, must infiltrate into the blood in order to act.

"It shows you that the bite is less dangerous if made through clothing, especially thick clothing. The fabric can wipe the dog's teeth on the way and retain the venomous saliva; it can even arrest somewhat the action of the jaws and prevent the animal's teeth from going in so far. If there is but a slight wound that fails to draw blood, the saliva has not penetrated and there is no danger.

"The conditions necessary for the development of rabies, namely the mingling of the dog's saliva with our blood and its introduction into our veins, should always be in our minds if we wish to avoid a danger that threatens us even in the midst of seeming security. It is to be noted that in the first stage of the disease the dog is more demonstrative in its affection than usual: the poor beast seems to wish once more to lavish its tokens of attachment on those it loves, before abandoning itself to the transports of fury that will soon be beyond its control. Let us suppose that at this moment you have a slight wound on your hand, and the dog comes, docile and fawning, and lovingly licks the little wound. Its tongue mixes the saliva with your blood; the terrible venom infiltrates into your veins. Fatal caress !

Rabies and all its horrors perhaps will be the consequence. Take this as a warning: never allow a dog, however reassuring its demeanor may be, to lick you on a place where the skin is broken. No one can affirm with certainty that the atrocious malady is not already developing in the animal, and you might fall a victim to your excess of confidence.

"Hydrophobia shows itself in man usually in from thirty to forty days after the bite. It begins with headache, deep depression, continued uneasiness, troubled sleep, and bad dreams; then come convulsions and delirium. The face expresses great terror; the lips turn blue and are covered with foam; the throat contracts so as to render swallowing impossible. The sight of liquids inspires the patient with insurmountable aversion, and a drop of water placed in the mouth would produce frightful strangulation. Then come fits of madness during which the patient struggles furiously to bite and rend the one who is taking care of him. The disease has changed him to a wild beast. At last death comes and puts an end to this horrible agony."

"Then there is no remedy for hydrophobia?" asked Jules.

"Medicine as yet knows absolutely none. All it can do is to let the sufferer die—banishing forever the execrable notions that formerly prevailed, and perhaps still do at present. To get rid of the incurable and dangerous patient it was necessary, they said, to smother him between two mattresses. Whoever should today commit such a barbarous act would be pursued by justice and punished as a murderer."

"Formerly they smothered the patient between two mattresses, now they let him die—no great advance," observed Louis.

"Pardon, my friend; it is no small advance to have banished forever from the sick-bed the senseless brutalities of ignorance, pending the day, which will come, I hope, when science shall gain, the upper hand of the terrible disease.

"Hydrophobia, when it has once set in, cannot, I say, so far as we know, be cured; but at least, by means of certain precautions, we can anticipate it and prevent the mad dog's bite from leading to fatal results. The saliva of rabies acts in poisoning the blood precisely as does the venom of dangerous serpents. The precautions to be taken are then, in both cases, about the same : the saliva must be prevented from entering the veins; it must be destroyed in the wound. To this end it is customary to bind the bitten part above the wound, so as to arrest the circulation ; then the torn flesh is made to bleed and is afterward washed in order to remove as much as possible of the venomous humor; finally, and as soon as may be, the wound is cauterized with iron heated white-hot."

"Oh, what a frightful remedy!" cried Emile. "Is there no other?"

It is the only one, and it must be applied with the least delay possible, and boldly. Life is at stake. These precautions taken, especially the cauterization, one can feel some reassurance that the malady will not make its appearance. Of course the operation would succeed better in a doctor's hands, which are more experienced than ours; but if his help can-not be got at once, let us proceed without him, for here promptitude offers the best chance of success."

I shudder at the thought of that white-hot iron making the wound sizzle," said Jules. "All the same I would submit to being burned in order to escape the most terrible of fates."

If there's no other way, I would submit, too," Emile declared. "But still I say, plague take dogs for making us have to endure the hot iron if we wish to escape something worse. Can't they keep these animals from going mad ?"

"To prevent all outbreaks of rabies is not in our power, but it rests with us to make mad dogs scarce enough not to cause us too much anxiety. When this malady threatens, notably in the heat of midsummer, police regulations require the muzzling of all dogs permitted to go from home. Furthermore, little poisoned balls are scattered in the street to get rid of stray dogs. To these measures of the police we ought to add our own watchfulness; we ought always to have an eye on our dogs, if we have any, for, living with us as they do, they will be the first to expose us to danger. It is most important, then, for us to know by what signs incipient rabies can be detected. That is what I am going to teach you according to the masters who have made a thorough study of this grave subject.

"First of all, I will refute two erroneous assumptions that are widely held and that might become fatal by imparting a false security. It is generally believed that a mad dog is always in a state of fury. That this frenzied condition shows itself when the disease is at its height, is very true; but also nothing is more utterly false as to the first stages of the malady. Far from being seized with attacks of fury, the dog just beginning to be infected shows, on the contrary, an excess of affectionate feelings : by multiplied caresses it seems to beg of man some sort of help against the vague terrors with which it is tormented. Secondly, it is popularly maintained that a mad dog does not drink and manifests a great horror of water, and that no dog seen in the act of drinking can be mad. This notion is so deeply rooted in most minds that, to designate rabies there has been formed, from two Greek words, the special term, hydrophobia, signifying horror of water. Well, my friends, never forget this : no matter what the Greek term says, a mad dog drinks very well; it drinks greedily every time it has the chance, without manifesting any aversion whatever toward the water. Later, when the animal is near its end, the throat contracts and swallowing becomes impossible. Then, and not till then, the dog shuns drink with horror. Therefore, far from reassuring us, it is on the contrary an added cause for alarm when we see a dog becoming more affectionate than usual and drinking with unaccustomed avidity.

"It is in restlessness and agitation without apparent cause that the first signs of the inroads of rabies manifest themselves. The dog cannot stay in. one place, it goes without any object from one spot to another, and retires to a corner where it turns round without being able to find a position that suits it. Its look expresses gloom and sadness. It seems obsessed by a fixed idea from which the call of a loved voice may draw it for a moment; then it relapses into sadness.

"Food is not yet refused. On the contrary, the dog pounces gluttonously on the food set before it; sometimes its depraved appetite is such that it even devours substances having no nutriment, such as wood, straw, and anything found in its way, even its own excrement. Water is drunk with the same avidity. As soon as this unreasonable agitation, this deep sadness, this excess of affection, and this depraved appetite show themselves, the dog should be suspected of rabies; prudence demands that it be chained and closely watched.

"Suspicion becomes complete certainty if the animal from time to time utters a peculiar and quite characteristic cry, which is called the mad-dog howl. In the midst of one of these attacks of lugubrious sadness, all at once the dog springs with a bound at an imaginary enemy. Then, muzzle uplifted, it gives an ordinary bark that ends bruskly and peculiarly in a piercing howl. At this discordant sound one might be reminded of the manner in which roosters sometimes crow, at least so far as the extremely hoarse and cracked tone is concerned."

"A dog often howls for want of something else to do, when it is shut up," remarked Louis. "That would not be a sign of madness?"

"No, my friend. Ordinary howling denotes a passing feeling of gloom, ennui, fright; and this cry cannot be confounded with the veritable howl of rabies, the characteristics of which are very different. This latter begins with a perfect bark and suddenly passes into a sharp and prolonged howl comparable to the cock's crow.

"As long as the furious madness that will end the progress of the malady is not declared, the animal is harmless; but it is unnecessary, it would even be dangerous, to wait so long. If the peculiar howl of rabies is heard, doubt is no longer possible : the dog is unquestionably mad. For our safety and also to spare the poor animal the tortures awaiting it, the dog should be killed at once. In the animal's interest as well as our own, it is a kind action."

"Poor dog!" murmured Jules. "The master gives it a last look of regret, and, with tears in his eyes, lodges a ball in its head."



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