Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“Manners are not idle, but the fruit
Of loyal nature, and of noble mind.”
Young John Grayson stood alone in the large upper room which had been assigned to him and to his father. Mr. Grayson had gone out to reward and dismiss the zaptiehs and the Arabs, and to make arrangements about the Syrian servants, whom he meant to keep with him; but Jack was looking for his return every moment, to partake of the breakfast which had been just brought in. First, a stool had been placed in the middle of the room, and then a metal tray, much larger, set upon it. Handsome embroidered cushions, placed beside, showed where and how the guests were expected to sit. Except these cushions, and a few rugs or small carpets, the only furniture the room contained was a divan running along the side, covered with Turkey red, and adorned with white embroidered cloths. There were also some beds, or mattresses, folded up in a niche in the wall; and a few articles belonging to the travellers had been brought and left in the room.
There were several windows, large, and very close together. Jack stood at one of them, and looked out on the courtyard round which the house was built in the form of a hollow square. There must be a great many rooms, he thought, and wondered if one family occupied them all. The court looked gay and pleasant, with late crocuses, a few fruit trees, and, best of all, a little stream of living water flowing right through it, and filling the air with its cheery murmuring.
But the eyes of the hungry boy soon turned back to the well-spread table, where they rested approvingly upon a remarkably good breakfast. There was a dish of pillav, made of a preparation of wheat called bulghour, with boiling butter poured over it, and upon the pillav a well-cooked fowl lay in state, as the best part of the banquet. There was queer-looking bread in large cakes thin as wafers, and folded together like napkins; there was a great copper vessel lined with something that looked like silver, and filled with madzoun, a kind of cold, sour, boiled milk, and there was a pitcher of tempting pink sherbet, with glasses to drink it from. Jack gave a little sigh of satisfaction, and ejaculated, “Wish father would come before the fowl gets cold.”
Grayson came, looking white and weary, a thing unusual with him.
“Let us have our breakfast, father,” Jack said. “I am sure you are starving,—I am.”
His exploits on the fowl went far to prove it. But his father gave him little assistance.
“You don’t eat, father,” he said.
“I am not hungry. Though the sun is up such a little while, it has contrived to give me a headache. I shall sleep it off. You want a sleep too, as your eyes are crying out.”
“Not a bit of them, father. I could not sleep now; I want to go out and see this queer old place. I’ll sleep all the better when I come back.”
“Well, do so; but take care of the sun, and get one of the servants to go with you. You will find them about somewhere.”
Grayson spoke with a dull, listless air, quite foreign to his brisk, energetic nature.
“He is very sleepy,” Jack thought, as he put on his protective head-dress, and ran cheerfully down into the court.
He looked about for the servants, but could not see either of them. As he was standing there, an open door attracted his eye, and he could not help looking in. A woman was baking bread, in an oven consisting of a large round hole in the clay floor of the middle of the room. She was taking small pieces of dough from a lump beside her, slapping them on the inside of the oven, and promptly removing those already baked sufficiently. Two dark-eyed little boys were playing quietly at some game on the ground, and an older lad was standing beside her, talking, apparently about a bundle of cotton in a cloth which he held by the four corners.
Raising her eyes for a moment from her oven and her dough, the woman saw the stranger at the door. He did not know a word of Armenian, nor she a word of English, but she saluted him with great courtesy, bowing almost to the ground; then, as she rose slowly, touching her heart, her lips, and her forehead. The children did the same; the youngest acting his little part so prettily that Jack fell in love with him on the spot. As the woman, by signs, invited him to enter, he did so, and the children placed a cushion for him in the corner farthest from the door. The older boy brought him sherbet, flavoured and tinted with rosewater.
“This is all very nice,” thought Jack. “Still, when one pays a visit one is expected to talk. And how can I talk to people who don’t know a word of my language, nor I a word of theirs?”
He tried to solve the difficulty by introducing himself, patting his own breast and forehead, and repeating, “John—John Grayson,” an experiment attended with only partial success, his new friends learning to call him “Yon Effendi.” Then he pulled out his schoolboy silver watch for their edification. The two little boys, who stood gazing at him with their great black eyes, evidently thought he was a far greater wonder himself; but the elder looked at it intelligently, as one who perfectly knew its use.
He tried next to get at their names, pointing to each in turn with a look of inquiry. As well as he could make out the unfamiliar sounds, he thought the eldest boy called himself something like Kevork, the second was certainly Gabriel, the youngest probably Hagop. He took Gabriel’s little brown hand in his own large one, whereupon the child stooped down, kissed the hand that held his, and touched it with his forehead.
Fearing that he was interrupting the baking operations, he soon rose to go. He happened to notice a picture on the wall; or rather a coloured daub in staring blue, red, and green, representing an impossible warrior, running an impossible sword through the heart of a monster three or four times as large as himself. Seeing him look at it, the woman and the eldest boy began an explanation in which he could only distinguish one of the names he had just heard—”Kevork.” He thought they meant that it belonged to Kevork; and did not find out until long afterwards that “Kevork” is one of the Armenian forms of “George,” and that he had lighted upon a picture of the patron saint of his own land, slaying the traditional dragon.
He left his new friends after a silent exchange of courtesies; and, forgetting all about the servants he ought to have looked for, began to descend the crooked, winding steps, or streets, that led down to the river. Presently he heard a patter of feet behind him, and, looking back, saw Gabriel trotting after him. The child came up, and held out to him a little roll of something yellow, with what looked like the kernels of nuts in it. It was evidently to be eaten, for Gabriel, smiling, pointed to his mouth; so Jack sat down on one of the steps and made his first acquaintance with the Armenian delicacy called bastuc, a preparation of grape sugar, into which the kernels of nuts are sometimes put. He liked it at first; but it soon palled, and he began to fancy it was making him sick. Whatever was the cause, a strange faintness and dizziness came over him as he sat there by the river. “It is too hot here,” he thought. “I must go back.” He got up, but found it a hard matter to keep his feet. Twice or thrice, as he toiled up the steps, he was obliged to sit down and rest. Little Gabriel had stayed beside him, and he was very glad of it, as without a guide he would almost certainly have missed the gate of the house where their quarters were, since all the houses, built in the same way about their court-yards, looked so exactly alike. Feeling worse every minute, he stumbled up the stairs, threw the door open, and got into the room just in time to fall down in a faint.
When he came to himself, he was lying on one of the beds; and his father, stooping anxiously over him, put a glass to his lips, from which he drank obediently.
“How do you feel now, my son?” he asked.
“Oh! all right,” Jack said. “I don’t know what came over me down there by the river. I suppose it was the sun. But I am better. I can get up.”
“Don’t. Lie still and give me your hand. I want to feel your pulse.”
Jack gave it.
“Father,” he said, looking up, “your own hand is shaking. Is there anything wrong?”
“Not much, I hope. You are a little hot and feverish. A dose of quinine will do you no harm.”
“Hot!” said Jack. “No; I am shivering with cold. I can’t keep still.”
The dose was administered; and Jack, following his father’s movements with his eyes, noticed that he took one himself also.
“Now, my boy,” he said, “you have not slept for nearly four and twenty hours, and you spent all last night in the saddle. Unless you take a good rest, you may be ill. Lie as quiet as you can, and try to sleep.”
“I will, father; but—I’m so thirsty!”
His father gave him some sherbet, and covered him up comfortably with a silk rug. Then he sat down, and took out his note-book and pencil; but he wrote only a few words in a faint, irregular hand, difficult to decipher: “Have heard from Jacob, my Syrian, that the plain we have just traversed is noted for its deadly malaria—is, in fact, a perfect hotbed of fever. I fear John has it.”
After some time Jack dropped off into a troubled doze. Strange dreams came to him, ending usually in some catastrophe that made him start up in sudden fright. Once he thought he was walking by the river, and somehow lost his footing and fell in. He woke up with a cry, “The water is so cold—so dark!” His father was at his side and soothed him.
“Don’t you remember,” he said, “the dark river turns to light?”
But as soon as the boy was quiet and at rest again, John Grayson added one more to the records in his note-book, and it was almost illegible: “We have both caught the fever. God help us! If I can, I will arrange—”