THE RED RUGS OF TARSUS
OFF TO EGYPT
Written by Helen Davenport Gibbons and originally published in 1917
“The force of example” was a dry old phrase to me not longer than twenty-one days ago. But since Scrappie’s coming has moved the generations in our family back one whole cog, I have been thinking about that phrase as something vital. If I continue to call you “Mother,” Scrappie will call you that. Must I also begin now to call Herbert “father”—move him back a generation, too?
I feel as if I had always had Scrappie. We are not yet at the end of May. But April seems ages ago. The mail from America is just coming with stories of the massacres, and what I read seems unreal. Most of it is. The stories about us are absurd. We never “fled to the coast.” We sent but one cablegram to Philadelphia, and none at all to Hartford. That cablegram contained only the single word “safe” to relieve your anxiety. I see now what that anxiety must have been. So you read that Tarsus was wiped off the map? It would have been—had not the wind changed that night.
Since I have been quietly resting, stretched out on my back, I have decided to put April, 1909, out of my life. Herbert and I do not want to share each other’s memories. We have not told each other all we have seen—nor even all we felt and all we did. I cannot get Herbert’s full story from him. He does not ask for mine.
Of course, we cannot escape the result of the events we have lived. Just as Herbert’s hair has become so white, there must be something inside of us changed, too. Time alone will tell that. Only one thing we do realize right now,–our responsibility to the Armenians. We must work in Egypt, in France, in Germany, in England—and, perhaps later, in America—to let the world know how the Armenians have suffered and what their lot must always be under Turkish rule. We see too—oh, so clearly—how heartless and cynical the diplomats of Europe are. They are the cause, as much as the Turks, of the massacres. Not the foreign policy of Russia or Germany alone. As far as the Near East goes, the Great Powers are equally guilty. No distinction can be drawn between them. In England, in Germany and in France, people do not care—because these horrible things are done so far away. They are indifferent to their own solemn treaty obligations. They are ignorant of the cruelty and wickedness of the selfish policy pursued by the men to whom they entrust their foreign affairs. I see blood when I think of what is called “European diplomacy”—for blood is there, blood shed before your eyes.
We are looking forward eagerly to having you join us in France next month. We shall not talk of the massacres, to you or to any one, except so much as is necessary to help the Armenian Relief Fund and to show the wickedness and faithlessness of the diplomacy of the Powers in Turkey. Herbert and I have been saved, and we have our blessed baby. Our life is ahead of us—we are glad to have it ahead—and we want to spend our time and energy in meeting new duties, in solving new problems. Perhaps that is the spirit of youth. But then we are young, and what interests us is our baby’s generation. The new life dates from May 5th, when she came to us.
Dear, dear, you would never guess from this long letter I am writing what is going to happen this afternoon. I am able to write only because of the stern orders I got from the boss this morning. He has immobilized me. I am lazily resting in bed just as if I hadn’t been up yet at all. My bed is an island, entirely surrounded by luggage. Suitcases are nearest me. Trunks and steamer bundle are by the door. A Russian steamer is due to leave this evening. Herbert has taken passage on her as far as Beirut. There we shall catch the Italian leaving Saturday, or perhaps the Messageries Portugal, scheduled for Monday. Fancy going to Egypt to get cool in summer! Most people go there to get warm in winter.
Our year is finished. We meant to go early in June, anyway. It is a good thing I am feeling so well, and got my strength back so quickly. The heat is coming on, and we fear quarantine at Beirut and Port Said, if an epidemic breaks out here. This is an urgent reason for our going immediately. Herbert turned over night from a college professor to a newspaper man. He has managed to send dispatches by little boats to Cyprus and they have gone uncensored to Paris. But now he has done all that needs to be done here in the way of getting news out. Much good has been accomplished by publicity. If you didn’t have me here to think about when you opened your newspaper at the breakfast table, you would just read headlines, and say, “the Armenians are in trouble again.” By “you” I mean the average person at home. Now what Herbert and I must do is to tell our story and give our testimony as convincingly as we can, and then put it where the most people can see it. We detest the advertisement from a personal standpoint, but cannot consider that now.
S.S. “Assouan” Off the Cilician Coast, Friday night,
It wasn’t a Russian steamer after all, but an old tub of a Khedivial. It is a palace to us, however, and the British flag looks good to Americans.
The last thing that happened to us in Turkey was to have Scrappie christened. Dr. Christie and Mother Christie came down to say good-by, and Socrates with them. The new American Consul had just arrived from Patras. (He turned out to be a college classmate of Herbert’s!) A christening party was improvised for our farewell. So Scrappie got her name, Christine Este, and the Consul gave a combination birth and baptismal certificate, with the Eagle stamped upon it. I wore my blue dimity dress. Herbert put a big rocking-chair behind me, so that I could flop down in it the first minute I felt tired. Scrappie wore the prettiest of her long dresses, and under her chin was tucked an Indian embroidered handkerchief that Mrs. Doughty-Wylie had long ago given me against the christening day.
It was an odd gathering, missionaries, English and American naval officers, sailors from the warships, Armenian friends, some of our boys, including Socrates, and others I did not know who came to help eat the cake and drink the sherbet. In the Orient, one’s door is open to all the world at a feast. I got nervous only when they wanted to kiss the baby. Scrappie howled, and I was glad of the excuse to withdraw her.
When I went downstairs to the carriage, one of the officers of the North Carolina carried my bag, and drove me to the scala. Mother Christie held Scrappie. The North Carolina’s launch was waiting. Out we went to the great ship, where I was to spend the afternoon. The Christies and others were coming later to say good-by. Herbert was to spend the afternoon rounding up the baggage with the help of Socrates, and row it out to the Assouan. A London war correspondent had just arrived, too—the first of the newspaper men—and Herbert had to pilot him around.
The sky-line of Mersina, broken by the minarets, gleamed white in the sunshine. I did not dare to think too hard about what I was leaving. My mind flew back to the day I left Tarsus, how the Armenian women pressed my hands, touched my dress as I passed, and made me promise to come back. I cheered up by looking at the American flag waving from the stern of the launch. Only a year ago, and that was the natural sight. I did not know that Tarsus and Mersina existed. Turkey was something I thought would forever be vague. And now—it has become a part of my life. All right to talk about banishing memories. But could we? The sunshine of the East they say casts its spell forever over those who have lived in it. Would we ever come back?
We steamed for a mile straight out to sea. The officers told me I was in command, and jollied along as if I were not a matron with a baby. One ensign, a Southerner, of course, called me “Miss” with that inimitable drawl. He was just the kind who would have made it “sweetheart” in an hour. I felt a bit shaky when the launch drew up beside the gleaming white cruiser. As we reached the ladder and then fell away, I imagined my baby falling into the water. First touch of maternal worry, which I suppose I shall now have for the rest of my life. The lieutenant-commander took the baby. Two ensigns carried me up. Once on that ship I was at home.
The captain was waiting to greet the youngest girl who had ever been entertained on the North Carolina. Scrappie was fixed up in an officer’s bunk, where I knew she would sleep just as placidly as ashore until it was time for her next meal. I was invited into the wardroom. A leather arm-chair and—I ought to write a cup of tea, but it wasn’t—awaited me. The officers, of course, knew lots of my friends. My mind went waltzing back to dancing days in the Armory and to my birthday dinners at the old Bellevue after Army-Navy games. I was living in the anti-Herbert period, when parsons and missionaries and Turkey and babies did not claim me.
There was a soft knock at the steel door that stood ajar. A big negro put in his head, and announced: “Missus, dat chile am cryin’.”
I hurried to my responsibility. Beside the bunk, looking down at the tiny mite, stood a coon in white linen. “Missus,” he said, “de cap’n tole me to keep mah eye on dis li’l baby, an’ not even let a fly walk ‘cross dat chile’s face. I wants yoh t’ know, lady, dem’s de bes’ awdahs dis coon’s had sence he lef’ home. But I couldn’t stop it cryin’ jes’ now.”
As I picked up Scrappie, whose great blue eyes shelter no shadow of the hell that came so near, I realized, with a wave of happiness overwhelming me, that I alone could quiet her.
Late in the afternoon Herbert came with Miss Talbot and the Dodds and Christies. They accompanied us to the Assouan in the launch. It was hard to say good-by to the women who had been nearest during the days of danger and suffering. Mother Christie held Scrappie to the last moment. Miss Talbot, my faithful nurse, who had stuck by me for seven weeks with unwavering devotion when there was so much larger and so much more tempting a field in nursing the wounded—what could I say to her? Jeanne Imer and Mary Rogers had been with me constantly. I expected to see them soon again in Europe. But Mrs. Dodds, who had taken me in and done for me as if I were one of her own family—was I just to say “Thank you!”? I said to Mrs. Dodds: “What can I ever do for you to—to—” She gently interrupted. “You don’t know life, dear, if you think you can do anything for me. You will probably never see me again. If you ever meet a woman having a baby under difficult circumstances—just help her!”