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Shiraz

By Henry C. Rowland


I FIRST met him near the cross-road that cuts in two the golf course in the Happy Valley at Hongkong, He and three of the little Chino caddies had been passing a tennis-ball, one from another, with their feet, after the usual inverted Chinese order of things, when it suddenly occurred to his Occidental instincts to elaborate the game. At least, that was what I gathered from the monosyllabic chatter and the gestures with the ball.

He impressed me as being rather young to have mastered the dialect in which he was eagerly haranguing his companions. It had taken me ten long years of careful study, and he did not look as if he could boast that many to his age. Even for his inconsiderable span of life he seemed diminutive, but here and there a deeper pock on his square little face seemed to indicate a possible cause. Physically, aside from actual size, he left but little to desire, and his cold gray Western eye, square little shoulders, and stubby calves were in rather ridiculous contrast to the shifty faces and lithe limbs of the embryonic Orientals around him. Strange to say, though a child of apparent European origin, he was not dressed in the orthodox sailor-suit with an H. M. S. cap ribbon, or in the trig Eton suit, with its abbreviated stern, in which the average exiled English mama loves to clothe her progeny. Neither were there any of the frills and ruffles of the high-caste Portuguese, although no one would have expected them, the Anglo-Saxon parentage of the child was so obviously apparent. An incident that followed made it unmistakable.

The argument had grown heated. Apparently the little Chinos were unsympathetic to any Western modification of a time-honored Oriental game. More than that, they were suspicious—not because it seemed dangerous, but because it was new. The odds in their favor were a majority, but the white child held a powerful trump in the tennis-ball that was firmly clenched in a little brown paw. This was evident to his wily comrades, and soon I saw a furtive, slant-eyed look shift from one in front to one behind.

A slight push and a stealthy grab precipitated things. Both failed, but the design lay unmasked in all its horrid nakedness. The brown-haired boy grasped the situation on the instant, and, with an instinct as quick as the treachery, took a half step forward and planted a hard little fist between the eyes of the largest assailant, the boy in front of him.

Followed a fight which for the displacement of the contestants was as keen an exhibition as I have ever seen. I suppose that I should have interfered, but I have always an extreme distaste for stopping a fight as long as the party which has my sympathy is doing nicely. I laid a mild bet with myself that my half of the world would win, and so it would have done but for a trick of destiny.

He dropped the ball, the better and harder to use his fists, and I was wondering what latent instinct had caused a boy of his apparent Eastern education to resort to his fists as naturally as a puppy brought up with kittens would bite rather than scratch, when suddenly he swung at an assailant on his left, stepped squarely on the tennis-ball, and the next instant both stocky legs shot up in the air, and he landed with a thud squarely on his square little back.

Of course the scurvy spawn of Confucius rushed in and tried to kick him in the face and one succeeded before I was able to reach him with my Malacca. Then they fled and from farther up the road hurled insults pertaining to foreign devils.

My friend was on his feet in an instant and looking for a stone. Failing in the search, he turned to me. There was a rapidly growing bump over his left eye, where one of the boys had kicked him, and his upper teeth had cut deep into his lip so that the blood trickled down the corner of his mouth and dripped on to his khaki blouse. His manner, however, was unruffled and full of dignity.

"Permit me to thank you, sar," he remarked, with a peculiar accent which I was at a loss to place. "You have come in the time to save me the beating, but I think he would not happen if I do not step on the ball. Surely it would not happen if I have taken Yung——"

"They do not fight fair like us Englishmen," I answered; "and who is Yung, may I ask?"

"Yung is my Chow dog. At most times he is with me, but to-day he does not come, because later I go with my father to the Parsee cemetery, and it is in my mind that the dog is not allow." He looked at me for a moment keenly but politely, wishing, as I could see, to ascertain my caste before giving a personal turn to the conversation. Apparently the investigation was satisfactory, for he resumed:

"You are in mistake, sar, to suppose that I am an Englishman. I am an American."

"Indeed?" I answered, then hauled out my card-case and handed him a card. He took it with a slight bow and glanced at the inscription.

"It is unfortunate that I am unable to offer you the card. Dr. Boles," he remarked, "but I am Shiraz Moore."

"Shiraz," said I thoughtfully. "That is a Persian city. Perhaps you are partly of Persian descent?"

"God forbid," he answered quickly. "I was born there, but" (semi-apologetically) "it was simply an accident. More importantly it is there that I have the misfortune to lose my mother." He removed his cap reverently at the name of his mother. I did the same.

"Thank you," he said. "Now I must go, for I can see that my father have finish his game and is returning to the pavilion. It is my wish, sar, that we meet again."

I echoed the sentiment. We bowed and parted.

That same evening, after dinner, I wandered into the billiard-room in search of an acquaintance named Brown, whom I found with a group of other men absorbedly watching a game of billiards.

"Watch this game, Boles," he said to me. "You know I'm a bit of a player, myself, but this bearded chap could make me look like a beginner."

"Who is he?" I asked, backing into one of the high chairs.

"I don't know—haven't heard his name, but I could swear that I have met him somewhere—something familiar about the eyes. He's drunk now—or ought to be. Before dinner he sat near me on the veranda, and in an hour and a half he had got away with a quart of whisky; the boy brought a full bottle and set it down beside him, and when he got up, it was empty. Since he's been playing here, he has soaked up about a quart more. Never'd guess it, would you? He must be a natural physical antidote for rum!"

As he spoke, the bearded man finished a long run, and as he turned to reach for his half-filled glass, my friend struck his fist softly against his open hand. "I have it! I know who he is! Jerrold Moore, by Gad! The portrait-painter who made such a splash in London about five years ago. Don't you remember? I knew him slightly when he was studying in Paris."

"Has he a son? A little nipper about ten years old?" I asked, for all at once I traced the familiarity of his expression to my little friend of the golf-links.

"Yes—I believe he has. Poor chap, I remember now. He married a great beauty, an American girl, whom he met in London. They were to take a tour around the world, but lived for about a year in India, where Moore did some of his best work, painting rajas and Hindus and things. Afterward they went to Persia, where he did a portrait of the Shah. I believe that there was a child born there, and not long afterwards Mrs. Moore met with an accident while riding. Horse fell on top of her and smashed her all up! Died of her injuries. Ugh! I don't wonder the poor devil drinks; he was mad about her."

"There is still the boy to live for," I suggested.

"Of course—and he doesn't look like a weakling, does he?"

I glanced at the man with added interest. He was of medium height, broad-shouldered, but lean and wiry, with a small waist and narrow hips. His head was very thoroughbred, with small, close-set ears, and his face was tanned almost to mahogany. He wore a closely-trimmed Vandyke, and there was something wonderfully sympathetic in the expression of his eyes.

"Looks like a plucky sort of chap who is putting up a hard but losing fight against an overwhelming tragedy," said my friend, and this diagnosis impressed me as accurate.

Moore quickly ran off his string, and Brown took the opportunity to go over and speak to him. The other man laid aside his cue, settled the score, and came over and slid into a chair beside me. I had a speaking acquaintance with him, as we had been shipmates on the "Diamante" from Manila a few weeks previously.

"I used to think that I was a bit of a billiard crack," said he ruefully, "but I've changed my mind since I struck this chap. Now I want to see some one else get singed." He lowered his voice. "The wonder to me is that he's not under that table instead of knocking the balls together on top of it. He puts the rum away as if it were milk! He's got to windward of about half a gallon since tiffin!"

I did not reply, for I was watching a diminutive figure clad in linen blouse and baggy pongee trousers fastened under the knee with silver "good-luck" buckles. It was Shiraz, my friend of the morning, and he slipped quietly into the room as Moore and Brown started a game. The child recognized me with a respectful nod, then climbed into one of the high chairs, where he sat with his elbow on the arm and his square little chin dropped wearily into the palm of one hand, while his eyes, red and heavy-lidded, for the hour was late, never ceased to follow the figure of his father.

"See that kid?" said my acquaintance. "That's Shiraz—Moore's youngster. Rum little beggar—so quaint and old-fashioned. Moore lost his wife a few years ago, and since then he's been trailing all over Asia. Drags the kid around with him. Beastly shame; Shiraz ought to be at school and playing with other children. He can scarcely speak English! He and his dad chin in some Hindu dialect."

"It's a pity," I answered.

"That's just what I say. Just because his own life's been spoiled is no reason for neglecting the boy, poor little chap. See how done-up he looks! A chap who knows Moore slightly told me that he spends most of his time crystal-gazing, and all that rot. H'mph! I'll bet he finds more consolation in a glass bottle than he does in a glass ball. The two don't go together as I understand it—do they?"

He yawned and left me, and I was not sorry, for he was a garrulous animal, and, besides, I wanted to go over and say a word to Shiraz, whose head was drooping lower and lower, the bruise over his eye growing darker and more distinct as the tired blood withdrew from the weary little face.

"Shiraz," I said, after we had exchanged greetings, "it is late, and you are very tired. Will you not take an old doctor's advice, and go to bed?"

A little tinge of color crept back under the tan of his cheeks, possibly at the softness of my voice; for the sight of this lonely little motherless chap, patiently watching and waiting for a rum-soaking father, was infinitely pathetic to me.

Shiraz roused himself, and the square little shoulders went back a trifle.

"I thank you, sar, but I am not so tired that I look. It is rather ne'ssar' that I wait for my father, as he have not been well this day, having once had fever which will return in times with—with—that is, he may grow so that he fear those things which are not. For this disease he tell me that he must drink the whisky, and so I knows when it approach. To-day he have drink so much of the whisky that I fear he may be ill before the morning."

He had turned to me, dropping his voice, and the dread that showed in the brave gray eyes as he finished speaking was heartrending to see.

"Tell me about this sickness, Shiraz. I am a doctor, and perhaps I can help you. What is it like?"

"It is very terrible, sar. Once he will believe that there follow him swarms of jungle-monkeys that jabber and mock and dance around in circles. And once I am awake in» the night by his scream, and he think that a king cobra have crawl out from under the bed, and behind him another and still more. It would not be so strange in that country, for there were plenty of these things. At that time I am much frightened, but I wish to save my father's life, so I slip from the bed and step with care across the floor, for the place is dark, and it is in my mind that the room is filled with cobra. Then I get to the corner and reach my father's fowling-piece. At this time my eyes are better for the light, and I see a long black thing by the end of the bed. It seem to move, so I shoot." He smiled wearily and pointed to a scar between his eyes. "This is what the fowling-piece do! It kick me almost through the thatch, for then I am not so big and strong as now. At this, my father scream very loud, and the servants come running in with lights, and I am ashamed when I find that I have shoot only a piece of old bark rope, the rest of which is around a box, and all of the talk of cobras is only in the mind of my father, who is ill."

"Nevertheless, your action was that of a brave man, Shiraz," I said.

He turned again to the contemplation of his father, and I to that of the pathetic heroism Of this poor little wanderer, who had never known the love of a mother nor the love for a home. Now I understood the cause of the strange prematurity of face and speech. It was not the result of the vagrant, adventurous life that he had been compelled to lead, but the constant strain of anxiety and the undue responsibility: a responsibility that would have been beyond the conception of a boy of conventional education. I could feel that there was much more behind what he had told me, also that he had wished to shield his father from my criticism; and a closer glance at the man himself told me too well that the fortifying of his system against these periodical attacks, which were nothing more nor less than delirium tremens, had now become chronic treatment, although subject to more vigorous application at certain times.

Presently I wished him good-night and rose to go. I hated to leave him, but it was necessary for me to get out aboard my ship, which was lying off the man-o'-war anchorage with hatches down, all ready to go to sea the following morning. As I went through the office, I called the clerk aside and asked him, for the boy's sake, to try to keep an eye on Jerrold Moore. He said that he would do so, but nevertheless it was with rather a heavy heart that I went down to the Bund and got a sampan to take me off; first giving my name to the policeman of the beat, who checked it off against the number of the sampan—a necessary precaution unless one wants to watch the coolies every second as a mongoose watches a snake.

Every one but the watchman had turned in when I went aboard; but either the Java, or the cheroots, or possibly a train of latent memories, turned up from musty corners of my heart by my conversation with Shiraz; one or all, together with the damp, cool breeze fanning seaward through the straits and laden with the spicy smells of piny smoke and joss-sticks expired from along the shores, and the fragmentary patter of voices whirling in the eddies of stealthily drifting junks; all of these things invited me more than the smells of salty mold and burnt machinery oil below decks.

So I hung over the taffrail and watched the flitter and sparkle of lights against the blackly neutral-colored mountain side, now and again idly trying to pick up the going and coming of an occasional swift sampan as it glanced across a lane of flickering light. Once I heard a sound as sinister as the black, eddying waters under our stern. It came from far away, but I caught distinctly the sudden scuffle of feet, then what seemed to be a choking cry, followed by a gurgle, like the ebbing tide around the heel of the rudder beneath me; then a silence as drab as slack water.

For some moments I pondered, weaving stories in my brain; stories put together of thoughts and fancies that would have melted in the sunlight, but in the atmosphere around me took on a form as gruesome and grotesque as the night upon the leaping hills beyond Kau-lung. Then, slowly, my fancies burned themselves out with the last of the cigar, and I turned to go below, when a new sound came quavering up from the sea. It was the sound of a man sobbing his heart out in the gloom; the hopeless, heartbreaking grief of a child, in the throat of a man.

The night cries from the city had become hushed, and a chill mist, creeping in from the sea, had dropped a humid veil, dimming the sparkle of the lights and shrouding everything that moved upon the waters. Even the sounds were muffled, but still through the murk came distinctly the low, even, heavy-throated sobbing; such an agonizing mystery of grief as made one almost wish to join it.

Nearer it came, and nearer, but strange to say it seemed to grow no louder, and soon I heard, as its accompaniment, the splash, gurgle, and suck of a sampan's sculling oar. Close to our stern came the silence, the ripple, and the steady sobbing. I could stand it no longer.

"In God's name, what is ailing you?" I called down softly. I knew that the noise came from a white man. A Chinaman does not sob; he moans or howls. There was a moment's utter silence; then a voice that seemed torn from the soul came up in answer.

"Is there a surgeon on that ship?" Something about the voice was familiar to me.

"I am a surgeon," I answered. "Come alongside!" I hurried softly to the accommodation ladder, where the watchman, who had heard the hail, had preceded me.

"Some one in this boat alongside is hurt," I said briefly. "Go down and give them a hand aboard!"

The sampan glided quietly up to the staging. From below me there came the noise of heavy breathings and a shuffling step, but the lantern swinging at the head of the gangway threw a black shadow on all beneath. Then there came a startled oath from the watchman; unsteady steps were ascending the ladder, and the next moment the bare head of a man with a bloody, matted beard burst suddenly into the zone of light. In the man's arms was a small, huddled figure from which, at each step, there came a groan.

As the man stepped under the lantern, he turned his face toward me, and with a quick tug at the heart I leaped outside the rail and gazed at the bundle he carried in his arms.

It was Shiraz; little Shiraz, cut and hacked and slashed, a mass of blood and wounds. The man was Jerrold Moore.

Quickly we carried the child below, and catching a glimpse of the eyes of the father as he lurched into the brighter light of the saloon, I gave him a draught and sent him to a room in charge of the steward. Then we cut the bloody garments from the child and for two hours fought with death for the precious little life, and at last I hoped that we had won. Nevertheless, I sat by his bunk for the rest of the night.

At six in the morning one of the stewards brought me some coffee and the news that the ship would probably not sail until the following day, as the glass was falling, and there was every indication of an approaching gale. An hour later, when I went on deck, it was easy to see that he was right, and as soon as it was light enough, we could see that the hurricane signal was flying. I was not sorry, for I wanted to see my patient through the next forty-eight hours.

Late in the afternoon I was awakened from a nap in my state-room by a light knock on the door. I called out, and Jerrold Moore entered. He looked ten years older than when I had seen him in the billiard-room the night before, but although his face was lined and, drawn, his speech and appearance were self-possessed.

"How is the boy, Doctor?" were his first words. "Will he pull through?"

"I hope so," I answered. "His wounds are not dangerous, but he has lost a lot of blood. We will go down and see him. I have overslept."

Perhaps it was a bit brutal of me to have taken the father in to see the boy as he looked just then, with the freckles standing out on the pinched little bloodless face, and the clear gray eyes bright with pain and the fever that was beginning to follow the hemorrhage; but I had my reasons for wishing the man to see the result of his folly. Shiraz was lying on his back, for he had a long slash across either shoulder. He smiled feebly at the sight of his father and reached out both little bandaged arms.

As he leaned over to kiss the boy, I saw a look in the man's eyes that was worth more to me than a thousand protestations of reform; and he dropped his head on the edge of the bunk, and his shoulders shook.

Shiraz looked up at me, distressed, ashamed that I should witness his father's emotion.

"It is that the bandage make him to think of my mother," he said in explanation. "You must know," he added softly, "that she meet her death by a fall from a horse by which she is much bruised. He have said," nodding imperceptibly at the bowed head of the man, "that I have the eyes of my mother——"

"Be quiet, Shiraz," I interrupted. "You are too weak to talk."

Moore raised his head. As compared with the face of the man, the boy's was almost ruddy.

"Are you in much pain, Shiraz?" he asked.

"No, Father—and have the devilish coolie wound you?"

"Oh, no, my boy—I wish to God he had—"

"Thank God that he did not, Father,—for then what would become of me?—and—have you killed him?"

"Yes, Shiraz,—I broke his neck across the gunnel!"

A look of satisfaction that made me smile came into the tired little face.

"That is as it should be, for he have try to stab you while you sleep, and when I grab him by the knees, he have cut me very bad. It is well that he is dead."

"Now try to sleep, my boy," I said. I motioned to the father, and we stole softly out.

Two hours later Moore came to my cabin with a look upon his face that made me want to shake his hand.

"We are going home, Doctor,—Shiraz and I—back to the States. I have just engaged a passage on this steamer as far as Bombay, where we shall leave you to catch a P. &. O. I have finished living for myself. From this time on I live for Shiraz.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.