THE RED RUGS OF TARSUS
THE STORM BREAKS
Written by Helen Davenport Gibbons and originally published in 1917
April sixteenth, Nineteen-nine
Men came here to tell Mrs. Christie trouble was coming. Offered to send a guard for our gate. They knew that Dr. Christie and Miner Rogers and Herbert—three of the four men of the mission family—had gone away to Adana. The fellows were Kurds. They looked like brigands. Mrs. Christie put them off, saying we were not afraid. This with a calm little air as if she didn’t quite realize. When I asked her about it, she replied: “Didn’t you see? They wanted to get hold of the college gate.” What a woman she is! Today with Armenians coming to us in greater numbers every hour, I say to myself: What if the Kurds had possession of our broad gate?
From our study window I can see the Cilician Plain stretching on and on to the Taurus. The Plain today looks like a monstrous Turkish rug. It is a riot of color, quantities of poppies and irises and other spring flowers. Did you ever think of this: red predominates in Turkish rugs?
Last night we learned that the train going through towards Adana had turned back at Yenidje. By this time one hundred refugees had come to us. Massacre seemed imminent. Socrates barricaded all my shutters, and watched outside my door.
This morning another telegram came from Herbert saying that he was detained, and would get back when he could. There were no trains in either direction, so we knew the whole country was upset. Rumors began to leak through about the terrible times in Adana and I knew why Herbert had not returned. This morning there were more than five hundred refugees with us.
In the course of the morning we heard that Armenians had been killed at the Tarsus station and that the station master and other employees had fled. Then there was the whistle of a train from Adana. It brought a wild mob of Bashi-bazouks. For concentrated hatred, a Bashi-bazouk is a small-pox germ. I saw the train vomiting forth its filthy burden. The men wore no uniforms. They were dressed in dirty white bloomer-things, with bits of carpet fastened up their legs with crisscross ropes, in place of shoes. They looked like worn out rag dolls. I saw them gather in a mud colored fan-shaped crowd at the flimsy entrance to the Konak, where the authorities could not be quick enough in passing out guns and ammunition and other instruments of the Devil to every one. Then Hell broke loose. The townspeople joined themselves to this mob. Along the road that crosses the space between us and the railway they went in groups of fifty, going at an easy run and brandishing their arms, uttering low weird howls that grew in a crescendo of rage. They made for the Armenian quarter, the last houses of which are only one hundred and fifty yards from us.
Shooting started and continued all day. Along with the sound of the shots we could hear the screams of the dying.
All day there has been a procession of refugees. They seem to have gathered in little groups first, for they came in a few hundred at a time in pulsation. In the afternoon they came steadily. Mother! the sound of the feet of the multitude. Some poor things were wounded, some were looking for husbands or children that could not be found. They brought nothing with them. Sick women were carried on the backs of their husbands. Little children struggled to keep up with panic-stricken elders. Children, feeble old people, chronic invalids, the desperately ill, were possessed with supernatural strength. When they reached the goal, our gate, they were like the Durando we described in the Marathon race last summer. A big fellow in the meager guard at our gate was a host in himself. He had a hearty voice, and kept waving his arms and shouting, “Come in, everybody. Inside this gate is safety for you all! Courage, little children.” Occasionally he would pick up a crying baby or a sick woman, and help them inside. It was the one cheerful kindly sight of the day—to see that soldier.
About noon from Jeanne and Henri’s study I saw an attack on a house very near us. There was a low hum in the distance: then a roar, and on the second-story balcony twenty-five Bashi-bazouks climbed, bursting in the door to the house of the richest man in Tarsus. There was shooting and screaming: then flying bits of burning paper came out of the windows, followed by blue and red flames. By opening our shutters cautiously we could hear the cruel hiss of the flames and smell kerosene in the smoke. Then the rending and crashing of the floors made a deafening noise, and the sparks began to alight on our property.
This is the regular order of things,–kill, loot, burn. The Armenian quarter is the most substantial part of the city. Most of the people store cotton on the ground floor, and this, together with liberal applications of kerosene, served to make a holocaust. Now at evening-time we realize our own imminent danger.
I have made tea about twenty times during the day. What a blessing you sent those provisions. Good thing we chose from among our wedding gifts the chafing-dish and the tea-basket to bring along on our journey. I have given away everything I could spare. Things to drink out of are a vital necessity. I gave away my tooth-mug to a thirsty old woman, and reserved as my drinking cup the little china affair one keeps tooth-brushes in on a washstand. It stands unabashed beside the smart little silver tea-kettle and spirit lamp. How I miss my oranges. Mother Christie found a stray one this morning and sent it in to me. The boys brought some charcoal and made a fire in a mangal in my fireplace. I have tried my hand at a pilaf. Kevork brought some sheep-tail grease in a bit of paper and I held my nose while I melted it and poured it into the pilaf. I do not see why these people do not cook with wagon grease and be done with it.
Your tins of condensed milk I have given to Mary Rogers for her baby. A mother brought her two-year-old boy to me. The poor little thing had had nothing to eat since yesterday. The whole Armenian question sums itself up for me in those big brown eyes and their kindling with sudden light as I held a bowl of warm milk to that baby’s trembling mouth. I couldn’t make him smile, though, for all my coaxing.
The meals of our immediate family are served in my bedroom. Mrs. Christie’s house, the big dining-room, the school buildings are overflowing with refugees. It is only the most strenuous efforts of the college boys that prevent them from over-running us too. I have just my bedroom, Mary the other bedroom for herself and the baby, and Miss Talbot is in our study. Jeanne’s extra bedroom eighteen women have managed to get into. Henri’s study is crowded too. I am working on baby clothes to keep my mind occupied. I am making flannel nighties: there are hundreds of babies out under our trees and on the hard asphalt of the tennis court without one change of clothing.
Dear, dear, here is a woman who has been in terrible suffering all day long. Her husband and brother were with her and several times tried to flee with her. They picked her up a bit ago and started with her through the red and black streets. Overpowered, she stopped in —-’s garden and had her baby. Wrapping the baby in something and putting it in the mother’s arms, the men picked her up and made the final dash for safety. We have pulled the buggy out of the carriage-house and made a place for her in the corner. She is resting nicely now.
Socrates came to me and said that friends of his, Greeks like himself, have invited him to join them in an attempt to escape to Mersina. They have a dead Greek’s passport for him. He asked my advice. I told him I could not take the responsibility. Danger? There is little choice—staying here or trying to get away. I told him to go off by himself to think it over. He came back to tell me this: “You are alone. If you have to run away, you have nobody to go with you. Professor Gibbons—no one knows where he is. I will stay with you1.”
Have been sitting on the steps leading up to the rooms of the Imers, looking out over the pathetic throng in the garden. Kevork in his snug little coat and long gingham student-apron has been sitting beside me. “You are hungry,” said he. “Your future may be five minutes long. Your husband is missing. Maybe he is dead. Those telegrams were dated yesterday, you know. Your baby is not born. You cannot defend yourself or run away. You are just like an Armenian woman. Tell me what you think about revenge?”
Dostumian hunted wildly and fruitlessly for his mother and little sister among the crowd. Harutun urged that he, on account of his red hair, would not be taken for an Armenian. He could find them. When he got to the house, he put the mother on his back and ran to us before the Bashi-bazouks knew what he was up to. When he took the mother, he hid the little girl in a corner by piling sticks of wood on her. Told her to keep quiet, and wait for him to come back.
By the time he returned to excavate the youngster, and had put her on his back, and climbed to the roof of the house, the Bashi-bazouks were after him. Oh, the flat Oriental roofs! Harutun skipped from one to the other, taking amazing distances, with the child on his back. Danger is a prod. He got to a place on some roof beside which a foreign construction company had set up a pole in anticipation of the electric lighting system. Down that pole slipped Harutun. He ran like mad, and restored the youngster to her mother and her brother.
But electric lighting companies do not sandpaper their poles. Harutun’s hands were cruelly torn. His first thought when he began to think of himself again was to come to me to get his hands dressed. He sat down on Herbert’s steamer trunk and I picked out the splinters. I washed the wounds and bound them up with gauze and camphenol, also the palms of the hands and the wrists. He begged me to leave the fingers out so he could work. The boy was as happy as a bird: for it flooded into his brain what he had done. While his hands were still trembling from the pain and excitement, he said, “Meeses Geebons, I am not afraid to die. Dying is as natural as borning. But before I die I want to kill a Turk—just one Turk!” If his hands had not been so wrapped up in bandages, I could have shaken his right one.
After I fixed up Harutun’s hands I was kept quite busy for a space with that sort of thing. A woman came and asked for some clothes for her baby and showed us the only dress she had for him. It was covered with blood—the blood of his murdered father. One dear little fellow, a favorite of Herbert’s, came to me with a gash in his head. His father has been burned to death in their house and his little sister is wounded also. I prepared the bandages for a man with a gun shot wound in his neck. He was lying just outside my door. Herbert used to joke me about my emergency outfit, saying that there were enough bandages in it to do for an army, and asking how I ever expected to use sterilized catgut. Every bit of that outfit is useful now. It has saved lives!
Sky red with fire. Half the horizon is in flames, the whole Armenian quarter is burning. Our native teachers and boys under the direction of Henri Imer are fighting the flames valiantly. The sparks are flying toward us, driven by a heavy wind, and eternal vigilance is required to note every spark the moment it falls, to quench it in time. The blaze is so brilliant that we can read by it. A telegram came from Herbert about eleven o’clock. I signed the receipt by the light of the flames. I cannot read it. It is a mixture of Turkish and French. What I can make out is the hour of sending—this means that twenty-one hours ago he was still alive.
Our condition is becoming desperate. The fire threatens us. The fury of the mob may lead them to attack us. We are sheltering more than four thousand refugees, a wailing, terror-stricken mass, all trying to get out of bullet range.
We have not been able to get any word to the outside world: we realize now that Adana is cut off and we feel sure that our husbands are in as desperate a plight as are we. Word must go to Mersina. We have a Turkish hand-writing teacher, a Moslem, who is faithful to us. We have sent him tonight by horse with Harutun, the senior whose courage was thoroughly tested this afternoon. They rode into the jaws of death perhaps, but there is nothing else to do. Not only our lives but those of the refugees are at stake.
We have prepared a few things in case we have to leave the place suddenly. Run? Where? Somebody or other remarked grimly enough: “Fix only what you can carry by yourself.”
I came into the bedroom, and here I sit on Herbert’s steamer chair. The wood fire has gone out. The room is chilly and looks so very large. One candle gives such a little light. The big blue rugs have been carried off for bedding. How bare the place seems. Oh, how lonely! The chafing-dish stands there unwashed and tilted crooked in its stand. I have torn the bed to pieces to get a blanket for my bundle. The baby basket all dainty and waiting is on the steamer trunk beside our bed. Will it cradle my little one? If it is born out in the open, at least it won’t be cold, for I have taken from the basket the knitted blanket you sent me and the package of fragrant clothing inside the tiny sheet. For some time I have had clothes ready there for after the first bath. I tied up the bundle with our double blanket, but it was too heavy for me. I have rearranged it with a small blanket, tied corner-wise. In it are diapers, a piece of tape sterilized and a pair of surgical scissors wrapped in gauze, a length of uncut flannel, and that is all. This will be heavy enough: for I must save Herbert’s thesis, and that in its filing case is a pretty solid weight. Precious thesis—it won him his fellowship, and if there is any future, that thesis must go to Paris. Poor little Mariam out there in the carriage house—how I pitied her this evening. Was it only a few hours ago they brought her in? I envy her now. Her baby is born.
My reason tells me that this bundle beside me is necessary: but it seems futile. Everything has gone. One support after another has been removed. Humanly speaking, the fact of safety is gone. Am I cold-blooded, that the sense of it remains? Sufficiency of food? Gone. Human ties? Gone. No sister, no brothers, no mother, no husband. Railway communications? Gone. There is no Consul at Mersina. No protection from my own Government. Did you ever wonder which end of your life you are living? Kevork was right a bit ago about the future looking five minutes long. My religion has suddenly become like a solid rock, and I have planted my back right against it. Religion is simple, and it works.
Tell Herbert I have not cried once, that I am not afraid. Tell him possessions mean nothing. What good can things do? There are hundreds of gold liras in the safe. What good are they? I see where life stretches beyond the place money can signify.
All this time I have boosted myself up by saying, “Don’t break down yet, wait for something worse.” If you wait for real trouble—then you are so busy, you have no time to worry. My religion has in one night become vitally subjective. I know—because when I reason about it, I marvel at my own calm. Shall it be with me as it was with Elsie Hodge, the Bryn Mawr girl who was killed in the Boxer uprising? All day I have been thinking about her. I am writing this and shall leave it here—in case. I cannot write the words needed to describe the fate of women in my condition at the hands of these fiends. Maybe some day I can tell you.
Sitting on the floor in Mary Roger’s room, writing with my paper on my knee. When I left our room, I went to Herbert’s wardrobe and put his overcoat on. In one pocket I stuffed Educator crackers out of the box you sent. Some fell on the floor and I left them there. A wee knitted hug-me-tight went into another, and into a third pocket I put the silk American flag Clement gave me when I was married. Miss Talbot is lying down on a cot in our study. Being a Britisher, she is able to sleep. Before I left her in the study, I got out the filing case containing Herbert’s thesis. I put it down by the door here in Mary’s room, right close to my feet. Then I lay down on the floor with my bundle as a pillow.
We, from our darkened room where that blessed baby Rogers is sleeping quietly, have been looking out of the window. Two or three Turks pushed a pump affair up in front of a house near by. “Humanity is not dead yet!” I thought, “they are going to try to limit the fire.” The water streamed from the hose and it was kerosene. They soaked the roof. Little fingers of flame began waving in the wind. Heavy black smoke is hanging over the town. We can feel the hot air and smell the oil—like a gigantic smoking lamp. Sparks fell on the windowsill just now as I stood there. I patted them with my hands and put them out, but not before they burned little holes in the wood.
We closed the blinds and sat down cross-legged on the floor and talked quietly. About being widows. The boys must soon come back to us—either that, or they are dead. We wondered which one of us was a widow. Perhaps both.
Once Mary asked me: “Brownie, what are you praying for?” “Goodness, Mary, I don’t know what I am praying for. Guess I have just got to live with my soul opened toward Heaven.” A little later Mary spoke again, this time cheerfully, for she had thought of something: “I know, let’s pray for the wind to change.”
Sure enough, it was blowing in our direction. We went to the window again, never thinking of danger. You cannot consistently keep your mind on danger to yourself. As we looked, the flames were lying low, blue tipped with yellow, and reaching towards us. We concentrated on a change of the wind, and there was a change. The flames instead of lying low were vertical, licking and swaying. Then they lay low again, this time back on the ruined buildings. This may have been coincidence. You may think so if you like. But I believe I saw the hand of the Lord come down and forbid those flames to move farther. Never again will I have to be reasoned with to believe in miracles.
- As a result of his heroism, Socrates (that is not his real name, but never mind) has been our ward ever since. With what aid we could give ourselves, and the help of friends to whom we have told this story, Socrates finished his college course at Tarsus, took a year in medicine at Beirut, and has since been studying at the Turkish Medical School in Constantinople. Despite the difficulty of communications between Paris and Constantinople, we have been able to follow him and help him without interruption during the years of the war in Europe. Socrates will have his medical degree in the spring of 1917. He is a loyal Turkish subject, and has done splendid work in ministering to the wounded in the Balkan War and in the present war. When the Bulgarians were attacking the defenses of Constantinople, we loaned him to Major Doughty-Wylie, who was at that time in charge of the British field ambulance work. Major Doughty-Wylie recommended him for the British Red Cross medal.