FATHER AND SON
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“I cannot rest from travel, I will drink
Life to the lees.”
While the travellers go back to their encampment, now in full preparation for the start, it may be well to introduce them formally by name. In this respect they were exactly alike; the father’s name in full was John Frederick Pangbourne Grayson, and so was the son’s. His friends, however, generally called him John, Johnnie, or Jack, by preference the latter, which was his father’s custom also.
John Frederick Pangbourne had made himself remarkable in early life as a bold, adventurous traveller, going into places and amongst peoples little known to the rest of the world. He was in perils of many kinds, often great, sometimes desperate, but he always came through, thanks to his cool courage, his quickness of resource, his tact in dealing with men, and last, but not least, his abounding sympathy and kindness. So other men said; he himself said simply, if any one spoke of his dangers and deliverances, “I got out of it,” or “they went away,” or “they did me no harm,” as the case might be,—”thank God.” For he feared God; and though he did not go out of his way to tell it to the world, he was quite willing for the world to know it.
Beside the travel-hunger of the Englishman, which is as strong or stronger than the earth-hunger of the Celt, Pangbourne had another motive in his wanderings. He was smitten to the heart with love and longing for “brown Greek MSS.,” or MSS. in any other ancient tongue. He had already made a find or two, chiefly of early copies, or part copies, of the old Christian Apologists. But these only whetted his appetite for more. He had heard of MSS. to be found in the neighbourhood of Mount Ararat, and was purposing to go in search of them, when two events changed his plans—he got a fortune, and he married a wife.
As he was a younger son, the family acres had gone of course to his elder brother, Ralph Pangbourne, a squire in one of the Midland counties. Not that they brought him any great wealth; for he suffered like others from the economic changes of the time, there was a heavy mortgage on his property, and his family was large and expensive. Therefore he was not particularly rejoiced when Miss Matilda Grayson, a distant connection of the family, left her large fortune to his younger brother instead of to himself. However, as there was the condition attached of assuming the name of Grayson, she may well have thought that the representative of the Pangbourne family would not choose to comply. “But I wish she had given the chance to one of my boys,” thought Ralph Pangbourne.
Frederick, as he was usually called by his kinsfolk, behaved with great liberality. He cleared off the mortgage, and virtually adopted one of his brother’s children, his god-son and namesake. Still, the fortune was his.
But it would not have kept him in England if he had not about the same time met his fate, while visiting one of the universities, in the daughter of a learned Professor who was interested in his archæological researches. The course of true love in this instance falsified the proverb. He bought a pleasant country seat in the south of England, and settled down to the life of an English gentleman. Quiet years followed; and if even in his happy home he sometimes felt the stings of a longing for wider horizons and more stirring scenes, at least he told of them to none. One son, and only one, was born to him.
After some fifteen happy years his wife died, very suddenly. No man ever mourned his dead more truly; but it was inevitable that when the first pangs of bereavement died into a dull aching, he should long to resume his wandering life. Some special studies, which he had been making when the great calamity overtook him, gave definiteness to his plans. His fancy had been caught by the old legend of Agbar, King of Edessa, of his letter to our Lord, and the answer, fabrications though they manifestly are. An idea possessed him that in the neighbourhood of the ancient Edessa, Agbar’s “fair little city,” so early Christianized, MSS. might be found, dating perhaps from the first century. The thought gave an object to his proposed wanderings in the East, for to the East his heart was ever drawn by strong, mystic yearning. And if his dreams should prove only dreams, there was no duty now which forbade him to pursue them.
One duty indeed he had—the care of his boy. Always much attached, in the days of their bereavement son and father drew very close together. Everybody advised him to leave Jack at school, but everybody spoke to deaf ears; for Jack entreated him to take him with him, and his own heart echoed the plea. After all, why not? He was a strong, healthy lad, very manly, and full of bright intelligence. Might not foreign travel be the best of schools for him? To Jack the prospect seemed the most delightful ever unfolded before mortal eyes.
Grayson could well afford every luxury of travel that might ensure safety and preserve health. Had he been alone, he would have cheerfully faced many risks and inconveniences to which he did not care to expose his son. So far they had journeyed in great comfort, keenly enjoying the adventure. They expected next morning to reach a little town on the Euphrates called Biridjik, where they proposed to rest for a day or two, arranging, as they always did in such circumstances, for the use of a room or rooms in some comfortable house.
The journey by night, in that land where night never means darkness, was delicious. The moon was at the full, and bathed in beauty even the desolate, monotonous landscape. Its light was quite enough for all travelling purposes; it seemed indeed only a softer, cooler, and more genial day.
Early morning found them on the stretch of road leading to the river. At the other side was a sort of natural amphitheatre. A picturesque hill rose in terraces from the river, near its summit the ruins of a castle. A semi-circular wall, which had once belonged to the castle, formed a bow, of which the river was the string, and which enclosed the little town with its houses, orchards, and gardens.
On each side of their road, as they drew near the river, was a large Turkish burying-ground, full of upright tombstones, all very narrow, and some of them very high. Then came a solitary plane-tree, and a small rude khan. Around it, and down to the river’s brink, gathered a noisy, shouting, vociferous crowd. “Oh, such a crowd!” Jack thought. There were camels from Aleppo, with their heavy burdens, and their swearing, screaming drivers; khartijes or muleteers, with their laden mules; stately Arabs; zaptiehs in gold-laced uniforms, stolid and indifferent amidst the turmoil; Kourds with horses and donkeys, and dresses of every colour of the rainbow. Jack was especially amused with a Kourdish woman who joined the throng with two little donkeys, which she belaboured vigorously with a short club, her lord and master sitting the while upon one of them, content and passive. But even this sight lost its interest when he thought he discovered in the distance some one on horseback in a European dress, and beside him—wonderful vision!—what looked like a European lady. He could scarcely believe his eyes.
But now, every eye was fixed upon the river. Floating swiftly down stream, with only a stroke or two from the paddles of the ferry-men, came two enormous wooden boats, each in shape like a woman’s shoe. Then began a regular stampede, the whole disorderly crowd wanting to get in at once, and fearing to be left behind. As soon as the boats touched the land the rush became frantic. It was like Bedlam; the men pushing, swearing, shouting,—the animals, who objected strongly to the whole proceeding, being urged on by their furious or frightened drivers, to the peril of all within reach of them. Jack got separated from his father, and carried nearly off his feet, but he found himself at last in one of the boats, which was swaying horribly from side to side. The terrified horses, jammed together in a narrow space, were kicking, biting, and squealing, and the shrieks and curses of their drivers were not likely to soothe them. Some of these had dismounted, others kept their seats. Jack saw one of their own zaptiehs pushed against the side of the boat, and thought he would be killed. But he called on Allah, and used his fists manfully, and in a minute or two had extricated himself, and was sitting safely on the bulwark. Jack climbed up beside him, anxious to see where his father was, and soon discovered him, near the other end of the boat, helping to keep the frightened animals under control. It was impossible, however, to reach him through the throng.
Looking back, he saw the other boat quite close. There, amidst the crowd of men and horses, stood the English lady (as Jack supposed her), a tall, slight figure, holding the bridle of her horse. He saw the look of terror in the creature’s face, the ears laid back, the nostrils quivering, and red as fire. He was going mad; he would bite or trample her! No; she had snatched off her veil, and, quick as thought, tied it over his eyes. The situation was saved. And Jack was gratified by a moment’s vision of a girlish face, very fair, very young, and crowned with clustering golden hair. Then the boats changed position, and he lost it.
After half an hour’s swaying and joggling, they all got safe to the other side. Then there was more noise and confusion, and then they found themselves slowly ascending the steep, irregular flights of stone steps that formed the streets of Biridjik. Here Jack caught a last glimpse of his lady of the golden hair, now decorously veiled, and seated on her horse—very unsafely, as he feared, for she looked in danger of falling off over his tail, at every step he took in the perilous ascent.
But the party to which she belonged went on at once upon their journey, while the Graysons remained in Biridjik.