THE DARK RIVER
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“A thousand streams of lovelier flow
Bathed his own native land.”
The Eastern sun was near its setting. Everywhere beneath its beams stretched out a vast, dreary campaign—pale yellowish brown—with low rolling hills, bare of vegetation. There was scarcely anything upon which the eye of man could rest with interest or satisfaction, except one little clump of plane trees, beside which a party of travellers had spread their tents. They had spent the day in repose, for they intended to spend the night in travelling; since, although summer was past and autumn had come, the heat was still great.
The tent in the centre of the little encampment was occupied by an Englishman and his son, to whom all the rest were but guides, or servants, or guards. The Syrians, the Arabs, and the Turkish zaptiehs who filled these offices were resting from their labours, having tethered their horses under the trees.
It was about time for them to be stirring now, to attend to the animals, to make the coffee, and to do other needful things in preparation for the journey. But they were used to wait for a signal from their master for the time being—Mr. Grayson, or Grayson Effendi, as they generally called him. Pending this, they saw no reason to shorten their repose, though a few of them sat up, yawned, and began to take out their tobacco pouches, and to employ themselves in making cigarettes.
Presently, from the Effendi’s own tent, a slight boyish form emerged, and trod softly through the rest. “Hohannes Effendi”—so the Turks and Arabs called him, as a kind of working equivalent for “Master John”—was a bright, fair-faced, blue-eyed English lad in his sixteenth year. He was dressed in a well-worn suit of white drill, and his head protected by a kind of helmet, with flaps to cover the cheeks and neck, since the glare reflected from the ground was almost as trying as the scorching heat above.
Once beyond the encampment, he quickened his pace, and, fast and straight as an arrow flies, dashed on over the little hills due eastwards. For there, the Arabs had told him, “a bow shot off,” “two stones’ throw,” “the length a man might ride while he said his ‘La ilaha ill Allah!’”—ran the great river. Waking some two hours before from the profound sleep of boyhood, he had not been able to close his eyes again for the longing that came over him to look upon it. For this was “that ancient river,” last of the mystic Four that watered the flowers of Eden, witness of ruined civilizations, survivor of dead empires, the old historic Euphrates. Not that all this was present to the mind of young John Grayson; but he had caught from his father, whose constant companion he was, a reflected interest in “places where things happened,” which was transfigured by the glamour of a young imagination.
On and on he went, for the wide, featureless, monotonous landscape deceived his eye, and the river was really much farther than he thought. He got amongst tall reeds, which sometimes hindered his view, though often he could see over them well enough—if there had been anything to see, except more reeds, mixed with a little rank grass—more low hills, and over all a cloudless, purple sky. The one point of relief was the dark spot in the distance, that meant, as he knew, the trees from which he had started.
He thought two or three times of turning back, not from weariness, and certainly not from fear, except the fear that his father might wonder what had become of him. But, being a young Englishman, he did not choose to be beaten, and so he went on.
At last there reached his ears what seemed a dull, low murmur, but what was in fact the never-ceasing sound of a great river on its way to the sea; while at the same time—
“The scent of water far away
Upon the breeze was flung.”
He hurried on, now over a grassy place, now through tall, thick reeds, until at last, emerging from a mass of them, he found himself on the edge of a steep precipitous bank, and lo! the Euphrates rolled beneath him.
He could have cried aloud in his surprise and disappointment. Was this indeed the great Euphrates—the grand, beautiful river he had come to see? Had this indeed flowed through Paradise?—this dull, muddy, most unlovely stream? Dark, dark it looked, as he stood and gazed down into its turbid waters. “Dark?” he said to himself, “no, it is not dark, it is black.” And the longer he gazed the blacker and the drearier it grew.
Why stay any longer by “this ugly old stream”?—for so he called it. There was nothing to do, nothing to see. He turned to go back, and then the whole scene in its loneliness and desolation took a sudden grip of his young soul. The awe and wonder of the great, silent, solitary space overcame him. The river, instead of being a voice amidst the stillness, a living thing amidst the death around, was only another death. It seemed to flow from some—
“Waste land where no man comes,
Or hath come, since the making of the world.”
Then all at once, by a very common trick of fancy, young John Grayson found himself at home—at home really—in happy England. His mother, dead a year ago, was there still. He saw her room: the table with her books and work, and her favourite clock upon it; a shawl she used to wear of some blue, shimmering stuff like silk;—he saw her face. And then, as suddenly, all was gone. He knew that she was dead. And he stood alone with the silent sky, the desolate earth, the gloomy river—an atom of life in the midst of a vast, dead world. Before he knew it the tears were on his cheek.
This would never do. He was ashamed of himself, though there was no one there to see. Dashing the disgraceful drops aside, he started at a run to go back.
After a time he stopped, in a space fairly clear of reeds, to look about him. He could see in the distance the clump of trees that marked the camping place, but it looked very far off. The low hills confused him; it would not be such an easy matter as he thought to return. He sat down to rest a little, for disappointment and discouragement made him feel suddenly very tired.
But he soon sprang to his feet again with a shout. A familiar sound reached his ear, the long Australian “Coo-ee-en!” which his father had adopted as the most penetrating kind of call. He gave back the cry with all the strength of his lungs, and waved his handkerchief high in the air.
Presently he saw his father coming towards him through the reeds, followed by two of the Arabs. He ran to him in high delight, his sad reflections gone into the vast limbo that engulfs boyish sorrows. “Father! father! I have found Euphrates.”
“Yes, my boy, but I had some trouble to find you.”
They stood together, son and father, in that great solitude, as in a sense they did also in the greater solitude of the world. The father was one of those men of whom it is impossible to say he belongs to such and such a type, or, he is cast in such and such a mould. Rather was he hand-hewn, as by the Great Artist’s own chisel. He was tall, spare, wiry, with a cheek as brown as southern skies could make it, dark hair and beard showing early threads of grey, dark eyes full of fire, and a mouth as sensitive as a woman’s. The boy had inherited his mother’s blue eyes and fair hair, but he was very like his father, both in expression and in the cast of his features, especially the shape of his forehead and the moulding of his fine mouth and chin. Slight as was the shadow of rebuke conveyed by his father’s words, he felt it—it was so rare.
He said simply, “I am sorry.”
“Did you think Euphrates worth the trouble when you found it?” asked his father, who had seen the far-famed and disappointing river long ago.
“Very much the reverse, father. An uglier, muddier, blacker kind of a river I never saw.”
“I suppose we are quite close to it? I will go on and have a look, as there is no hurry about our start. Stay here, if you are tired, with one of the Arabs.”
“I will come back with you. I should like it.”
“Come along, then.”
A short walk brought them to the bank, the two Arabs following at a respectful distance stately and indifferent.
The sun was setting now, and, behold! a wonder met their eyes. The dark stream was transfigured, as if by the wand of an angel. It poured rejoicing on its way, a torrent of liquid gold; for it had taken to its heart of hearts all the glory of the setting sun, and gave it back to the beholder in a marvel of radiance. So might look to mortal eyes the river of God, the river of the water of life, that runs through the shining streets of the New Jerusalem. The boy uttered a cry of wonder and delight. The father gazed in silence. At last he said, “So the dark river turns to gold.”
“But come, my boy,” he added presently, “before the sun sets. Let us take away with us in memory this look of the Euphrates.”