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Clotel; or, The President's Daughter

Chapter 23. Truth Stranger Than Fiction
"Is the poor privilege to turn the key
Upon the captive, freedom? He's as far
From the enjoyment of the earth and air
Who watches o'er the chains, as they who wear."
DURING certain seasons of the year, all tropical climates are subject to epidemics of a
most destructive nature. The inhabitants of New Orleans look with as much certainty for
the appearance of the yellow-fever, small-pox, or cholera, in the hot season, as the
Londoner does for fog in the month of November. In the summer of 1831, the people of
New Orleans were visited with one of these epidemics. It appeared in a form unusually
repulsive and deadly. It seized persons who were in health, without any premonition.
Sometimes death was the immediate consequence. The disorder began in the brain, by an
oppressive pain accompanied or followed by fever. The patient was devoured with
burning thirst. The stomach, distracted by pains, in vain sought relief in efforts to
disburden itself. Fiery veins streaked the eye; the face was inflamed, and dyed of a dark
dull red colour; the ears from time to time rang painfully. Now mucous secretions
surcharged the tongue, and took away the power of speech; now the sick one spoke, but
in speaking had a foresight of death. When the violence of the disease approached the
heart, the gums were blackened. The sleep, broken, troubled by convulsions, or by
frightful visions, was worse than the waking hours; and when the reason sank under a
delirium which had its seat in the brain, repose utterly forsook the patient's couch. The
progress of the heat within was marked by yellowish spots, which spread over the surface
of the body. If, then, a happy crisis came not, all hope was gone. Soon the breath infected
the air with a fetid odour, the lips were glazed, despair painted itself in the eyes, and sobs,
with long intervals of silence, formed the only language. From each side of the mouth
spread foam, tinged with black and burnt blood. Blue streaks mingled with the yellow all
over the frame. All remedies were useless. This was the Yellow Fever. The disorder
spread alarm and confusion throughout the city. On an average, more than 400 died daily.
In the midst of disorder and confusion, death heaped victims on victims. Friend followed
friend in quick succession. The sick were avoided from the fear of contagion, and for the
same reason the dead were left unburied. Nearly 2000 dead bodies lay uncovered in the
burial-ground, with only here and there a little lime thrown over them, to prevent the air
becoming infected.
The Negro, whose home is in a hot climate, was not proof against the disease. Many
plantations had to suspend their work for want of slaves to take the places of those carried
off by the fever. Henry Morton and wife were among the thirteen thousand swept away
by the raging disorder that year. Like too many, Morton had been dealing extensively in
lands and stocks; and though apparently in good circumstances was, in reality, deeply
involved in debt. Althesa, although as white as most white women in a southern clime,
was, as we already know, born a slave. By the laws of all the Southern States the children
follow the condition of the mother. If the mother is free the children are free; if a slave,
they are slaves. Morton was unacquainted with the laws of the land; and although he had
married Althesa, it was a marriage which the law did not recognise; and therefore she
whom he thought to be his wife was, in fact, nothing more than his slave. What would