THE RED RUGS OF TARSUS
LIFE AND DEATH
Written by Helen Davenport Gibbons and originally published in 1917
April seventeenth, Sometime in the morning
Once that wind changed, we slept. Mary and I slept from one to three. Baby Rogers is a good little chap. Yes, my dear, “I laid me down and slept. I awaked, for the Lord sustained me.” This is the way to learn a text—live it.
When we got awake, it was daylight. Shouting again at the gate. I ran to my study window that looks down into the street outside of the gate. Excited men were pushing and struggling. Their cries were shrill. My heart sank. Was the killing to be renewed under our eyes? Then Mary said, “They are selling bread, and want six metallics a loaf.” The business of life goes on in spite of cataclysms. Selling bread! In the midst of life we are in death. Yes, but in the midst of death we are in life. The family goes home to dinner after the funeral. When you are living the cataclysm, however, your vision is not adjusted to the small events. The matter-of-fact things are happening because they always happen and must happen.
A door outside slammed. Then the door into Mary’s room opened. In came Mother Christie, looking as though she hadn’t slept. The steel-rimmed spectacles used indifferently by herself and Daddy Christie, were pushed away up on her forehead. She said briskly: “Another baby! a dear little boy, and not a rag to put on him!” I went to my steamer trunk to fetch three little flannel petticoats and two kimonos. Down jumped the spectacles without her putting her hand on them. “No, no, my child, I cannot take them.” Before I had pressed them into her arms, she had finished her protesting. Away she went, murmuring: “Give and spend and the Lord will send. That’s what you think.” Well, there may be time for me to make more petticoats.
They say that eight hundred houses have been burned. Many people were still in the houses. If they showed themselves, or tried to get out by windows or roofs, they were shot. It was death either way. We fear that few Armenians are alive in Tarsus outside of our compound and in the Catholic Mission nearby. The whole Armenian quarter, right up to my windows, is burning. The bright blaze persists in many places where there is yet much to feed upon.
We did not think of breakfast. Mary had fallen asleep again after nursing the baby. I munched biscuits in my bedroom, and then I undid on the bed the bundle I had made up in the night. The piece of flannel might be needed sooner than I could use it. So I stretched it out on the mattress, and cut four flannel petticoats. With the blinds barricaded, my only light was what filtered through the slits in the shutter of the side window. I had to keep doing something, and I did not want to go out to talk to any one. So I found my thread and thimble, and began to make up the petticoats.
It may have been minutes or hours. I shall never know, for I had not looked at the clock when I woke. Suddenly I heard cries outside, that were taken up by the thousands in the college yard. In the mingling of voices I caught my husband’s name. “Steady now,” I thought. “Is this life or death?” Then Jeanne’s golden head appeared at my door.
“Herbert’s here,” said Jeanne.
I hurried out into the study, and ran to the window with Mary and Jeanne. Daddy Christie and Herbert were at the gate, surrounded by regular soldiers. But we did not see the tall figure of Miner Rogers. Joy and apprehension were strangely mingled. I ran first to the door leading to the balcony. Up the steps came Daddy Christie. Herbert and Henri were behind, evidently trying to keep people from following them. Daddy Christie said, “Thank God, you’re safe: where is Mary?” I led him to our study. People seemed to rise up from nowhere, crowding about us. Jeanne had instinctively taken Mary into her own room, and Daddy Christie followed.
It may have been minutes or hours. I shall not know. After the lapse of a few hours, it seems to me that I am writing fiction. Perhaps I make it up as I go along. Never again shall I believe in the accuracy of testimony given on the witness-stand about what happened in moments of stress.
Turning so that I looked towards the double-doors, I saw Herbert standing there. Surging thoughts went through me. One was that I must not let these emotions reach the baby. I clinched will and muscles to safeguard the little thing. The other thought was to get over beside Herbert. As I made my way through the crowd toward the door, I thought: have I died and Herbert too? What was that I suffered last night? How can I know? Then the brain in my head told me: touch him, and if he is warm, it is not death. I took his left hand in my right and with my other hand touched his face. It was warm.
“Where is Miner Rogers?” “He is dead,” came the answer. Herbert’s free hand reached back of him for the door-knob. He went slowly out on the balcony, closing the door behind him, as if he did not know what he was doing.
Herbert has no recollection of this meeting. We figure out that it is because he had already been reassured about me, for he distinctly remembers seeing me at the study window as he came through the street below. The second his anxiety was relieved about me, his mind concentrated on the terrible news he and Dr. Christie were bringing to Mary.
I turned back toward the room to realize that Dr. Christie was telling Mary. This was too much for me and I went into our bedroom beyond. One sees on the stage, and reads in novels, meetings like this. Ours was not dramatic. It was natural and human. Herbert was entering the bedroom from the other door at the same moment, and when he saw me he asked: “Can you make some tea? I am hungry.”
I investigated my washstand to see what I could find in the way of food. Two Turkish officers had followed Herbert into the bedroom. They were hungry, too. I took the lid off the chafing-dish. Inside were bits of bacon. The officers must have wondered why I laughed—Herbert, too. Pent-up feelings were expressed in that laugh. I realized that I had presence of mind enough not to give bacon to Moslems. The pig is an unclean beast to non-Christians. Typewriters have been smuggled into Turkey with perfect ease when packed in the middle of a box of hams.
One officer was the Mutesarif of Namrun, where we spent a honeymoon month last summer. He came, I suppose, to assure us of his friendliness. You ought to see how he drank tea. Just like a Russian! And he stopped eating Uneeda biscuits only when the tin was empty. The other officer was an Albanian who spoke French. Herbert had picked him out in Adana to bring the bodyguard of soldiers that he had compelled the Vali to give him. Herbert says we can trust him. He is under Herbert’s orders, with the soldiers, as long as we need him. Herbert had no time to give me details of these days. He went out with the officers as soon as he had eaten, after telling me to stay in my rooms. Miss Talbot came in. Then Jeanne and Mary. I could give them no word of what had happened in Adana. They told me about Miner.
Herbert came back soon with Daddy Christie. They had been arranging about posting the soldiers of Herbert’s guard. But they said that the massacre was over, and no attack against us was to be anticipated. What they had feared was the fire. If that had driven us out in the mob—- But why talk of what might have happened? What did happen was terrible enough. Miner gone, and with him Mr. Maurer, a Hadjin missionary, shot dead. Herbert and Lawson Chambers, a Y.M.C.A. traveling secretary, were down in the town when the massacre started. They did not get back to the Armenian quarter at all. They telegraphed Major Doughty-Wylie. He and Mrs. Doughty-Wylie took the last train that went through to Adana. The Major was shot in the street. His arm held up in front of him saved him. Herbert says he left him this morning in bed, and with a fever. Daddy Christie told us what had happened at the Mission and in the Armenian quarter. Then Herbert began his story. He had just started when there was a knock at the door. Someone wanted Dr. Christie. He went out. In a moment he came back and called Herbert. We waited. That is woman’s sphere—waiting.
Young Miner cried in the next room. Mary went to him. What a blessing she had that baby! I told Jeanne she had better go and stand by her. Herbert returned—alone. He had a bit of paper in his hand. He gave it to me, saying that it had just been brought through from Mersina. It read: “No ships yet—massacre expected any minute. Cannot rely on authorities.” It had been brought by an Armenian who reported the country full of Kurds. We seemed safe for the moment in Tarsus. Herbert put it right up to me. The Albanian officer and the soldiers were under his command. The train he had seized in Adana was still at the station. He could try to get down the line to Mersina. His coming—with the soldiers—might stave off the massacre for a few hours. The ships were bound to reach Mersina soon.
I had no choice, Mother. It all seemed so simple—the only thing to do. It is still life or death, and we don’t know which. But we do know each step as we go along. I put my hands on Herbert’s shoulders to hold myself up. For I only pretend to strength and courage. I really have neither. And I said to him: “You are all the world to me, but I must remember that you are only one man to the world.” He answered: “Of course. That’s the way it is. I shall try my best to get back tonight.” He kissed me and went out. We would both have lost our nerve if we had talked longer. I’m glad he hurried. I threw myself on the bed and cried. Then I remembered Mary, and was ashamed of myself.
Just for something to do I have tried to go back over the day and put it down for you. People have come in. When they saw I was writing they went away. Now Mother Christie arrives to tell me that I simply must come and eat. They have managed to get a real meal together—the first in two days. It is way after six o’clock.
Herbert did not go to Mersina. He came back last night—or rather I brought him back. At supper—a meal of sorrow—Daddy Christie received a telegram. The lines are working. That has been a mystery these past few days. They stopped the railway, but why didn’t they cut the telegraph? And, in the midst of killing and looting and burning, we have received telegrams delivered coolly by an employé who stepped over the dead to get to us. The telegram was from Adana, stating that the British cruiser Swiftsure had arrived at Mersina.
I felt like a condemned man reprieved at the gallows. But had Herbert started? A little while before he had sent a soldier up from the station with a message saying that he found his locomotive gone, and had been trying to get another out from Mersina by using the railway’s private wire. He might still be there. He need not undertake the trip now. Broken viaducts in the dark—rails torn up—Kurds wildly prancing around and shooting from their horses. I said nothing to the others at the table. I slipped quietly out of the room, hurried up to our apartment, put on my riding-boots and Herbert’s raincoat (I am glad I am pretty tall—only the sleeves needed a tuck), and made my way to the gate. I had the barn lantern we use in the stable. I did not want to risk Socrates or any of the Armenian boys. They were still killing stray ones—especially at night. The four soldiers left remonstrated. They could not understand me any more than I could understand them. They tried to bar the way. But they did not dare touch me. So they decided to resign themselves to the inevitable. Two of them came along with me.
It was a weird mile with only the lantern to light us. One soldier went in front, finding the path, and the other was beside me. From occasional zigzags I suspected what we were avoiding. Mercifully I could not see. Finally we reached the station. Herbert and his officer and the telegraph operator were in the little ticket office. Herbert was at the end of his patience—he just couldn’t get up a locomotive. When he heard my news, he was very happy. The Albanian officer was not. He was for the adventure. Doubted if the news was true. Why hadn’t the Mersina operator mentioned it? Just then a message went through for Adana about a special train for the British Government. The operator told us. We knew then that it was true.
Back we went, all of us. I did not ask Herbert any more about his interrupted story of the days in Adana. I did not want to hear. He did not want to tell. We found a funny story that had been sent to us for Christmas, and of which we had read only a few chapters. We reread those—and the rest of the book, laughing ourselves to sleep to save our sanity.