“Effendi, that is the heart of Armenia burning.”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
Aye-yee—I see—a cloud afloat in air af amethyst
I know its racing shadow falls on banks of gold
Where rain-rejoicing gravel warms the feeding roots
And smells more wonderful than wine.
I know the shoots of myrtle and of asphodel now stir the mould
Where wee cool noses sniff the early mist.
Aye-yee—the sparkle of the little springs I see
That tinkle as they hunt the thirsty rill.
I know the cobwebs glitter with the jeweled dew.
I see a fleck of brown—it was a skylark flew
To scatter bursting music, and the world is still
To listen. Ah, my heart is bursting too—Aye-yee!
(It begins with a swinging crash, and fades away.)
Aye-yee, aye-yah—the kites see far
(But also to the foxes views unfold)—
No hour alike, no places twice the same,
Nor any track to show where morning came,
Nor any footprint in the moistened mould
To tell who covered up the morning star.
Aye-yee—I see—new rushes crowding upwards in the mere
Where, gold and white, the wild duck preens himself
Safe hidden till the sun-drawn, lingering mists melt.
I know the secret den where bruin dwelt.
I see him now sun-basking on a shelf
Of windy rock. He looks down on the deer,
Who flit like flowing light from rock to tree
And stand with ears alert before they drink.
I know a pool of purple rimmed with white
Where wild-fowl, warming for the morning flight,
Wait clustering and crying on the brink.
And I know hillsides where the partridge breeds. Aye-yee!
Aye-yee, aye-yah—the kites see far (But also to the owls the visions change)—
No dawn is like the next, and nothing sings
Of sameness—very hours have wings
And leave no word of whose hand touched the range
Of Kara Dagh with opal and with cinnabar.
Aye-yee—I see—new distances beyond a blue horizon flung.
I laugh, because the people under roofs believe
That last year’s ways are this!
No roads are old! New grass has grown!
All pools and rivers hold New water!
And the feathered singers weave
New nests, forgetting where the old ones hung!
Aye-yah—the muddy highway sticks and clings,
But I see in the open pastures new
Unknown to busne1 in the houses pent!
I hear the new, warm raindrops drumming on the tent,
I feel already on my feet delicious dew,
I see the trail outflung! And oh, my heart has wings!
Aye-yee, aye-yah—the kites see far
(But also on the road the visions pass)—
The universe reflected in a wayside pool,
A tinkling symphony where seeping waters drool,
The dance, more gay than laughter, of the wind-swept grass—
Oh, onward! On to where the visions are!
Russia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Bohemia, Persia, Armenia were all one hunting-ground to the troupe we rode with. Even the children seemed to have a smattering of most of the tongues men speak in those intriguing lands. Will and the girl beside him conversed in German, but the old hag nearest me would not confess acquaintance with any language I knew. Again and again I tried her, but she always shook her head.
Fred, with his ready gift of tongues, attempted conversation with ten or a dozen of them, but whichever language he used in turn appeared to be the only one which that particular individual did not know. All he got in reply was grins, and awkward silence, and shrugs of the shoulders in Gregor’s direction, implying that the head of the firm did the talking with strangers. But Gregor rode alone with Monty, out of ear-shot.
Maga (for so they all called her) flirted with Will outrageously, if that is flirting that proclaims conquest from the start, and sets flashing white teeth in defiance of all intruders. Even the little children had hidden weapons, but Maga was better armed than any one, and she thrust the new mother-o-pearl-plated acquisition in the face of one of the men who dared drive his horse between hers and Will’s. That not serving more than to amuse him, she slapped him three times back-handed across the face, and thrusting the pistol back into her bosom, drew a knife. He seemed in no doubt of her willingness to use the steel, and backed his horse away, followed by language from her like forked lightning that disturbed him more than the threatening weapon. Gipsies are great believers in the efficiency of a curse.
Nothing could be further from the mark than to say that Will tried to take advantage of Maga’s youth and savagery. Fred and I had shared a dozen lively adventures with him without more than beginning yet to plumb the depths of his respect for Woman. Only an American in all the world knows how to meet Young Woman eye to eye with totally unpatronizing frankness, and he was without guile in the matter. But not so she. We did not know whether or not she was Gregor Jhaere’s daughter; whether or not she was truly the gipsy that she hardly seemed. But she was certainly daughter of the Near East that does not understand a state of peace between the sexes. There was nothing lawful in her attitude, nor as much as the suspicion that Will might be merely chivalrous.
“America’s due for sex-enlightenment!” said I.
“Warn him if you like,” Fred laughed, “and then steer clear! Our America is proud besides imprudent!”
Fred off-shouldered all responsibility and forestalled anxiety on any one’s account by playing tunes, stampeding the whole cavalcade more than once because the horses were unused to his clanging concertina, but producing such high spirits that it became a joke to have to dismount in the mud and replace the load on some mule who had expressed enjoyment of the tune by rolling in slime, or by trying to kick clouds out of the sky.
And strangely enough he brought about the very last thing he intended with his music—stopped the flirtation’s immediate progress. Maga seemed to take to Fred’s unchastened harmony with all the wildness that possessed her. Some chord he struck, or likelier, some abandoned succession of them touched off her magazine of poetry. And so she sang.
The only infinitely gorgeous songs I ever listened to were Maga’s. Almighty God, who made them, only really knows what country the gipsies originally came from, but there is not a land that has not felt their feet, nor a sorrow they have not witnessed. Away back in the womb of time there was planted in them a rare gift of seeing what the rest of us can only sometimes hear, and of hearing what only very few from the world that lives in houses can do more than vaguely feel when at the peak of high emotion. The gipsies do not understand what they see, and hear, and feel; but they are aware of infinities too intimate for ordinary speech. And it was given to Maga to sing of all that, with a voice tuned like a waterfall’s for open sky, and trees, and distances—not very loud, but far-carrying, and flattened in quarter-tones where it touched the infinite.
Fred very soon ceased from braying with his bellowed instrument. Her songs were too wild for accompaniment—interminable stanzas of unequal length, with a refrain at the end of each that rose through a thousand emotions to a crash of ecstasy, and then died away to dreaminess, coming to an end on an unfinished rising scale.
All the gipsies and our Zeitoonli and Rustum Khan’s lean servant joined in the refrains, so that we trotted along under the snow-tipped fangs of the Kara Dagh oblivious of the passage of time, but very keenly conscious of touch with a realm of life whose existence hitherto we had only vaguely guessed at.
The animals refused to weary while that singing testified of tireless harmonies, as fresh yet as on the day when the worlds were born. We rattled forward, on and upward, as if the panorama were unrolling and we were the static point, getting out of nobody’s way for the best reason in the world—that everybody hid at first sight or sound of us, except when we passed near villages, and then the great fierce-fanged curs chased and bayed behind us in short-winded fury.
“The dogs bark,” quoted Fred serenely, “but the caravan moves on!”
An hour before dark we swung round a long irregular spur of the hills that made a wide bend in the road, and halted at a lonely kahveh—a wind-swept ruin of a place, the wall of whose upper story was patched with ancient sacking, but whose owner came out and smiled so warmly on us that we overlooked the inhospitable frown of his unplastered walls, hoping that his smile and the profundity of his salaams might prove prophetic of comfort and cleanliness within. Vain hope!
Maga left Will’s side then, for there was iron-embedded custom to be observed about this matter of entering a road-house. In that land superstition governs just as fiercely as the rest those who make mock of the rule-of-rod religions, and there is no man or woman free to behave as he or she sees fit. Every one drew aside from Monty, and he strode in alone through the split-and-mended door, we following next, and the gipsies with their animals clattered noisily behind us. The women entered last, behind the last loaded mule, and Maga the very last of all, because she was the most beautiful, and beauty might bring in the devil with it only that the devil is too proud to dawdle behind the old hags and the horses.
We found ourselves in an oblong room, with stalls and a sort of pound for animals at one end and an enormous raised stone fireplace at the other. Wooden platforms for the use of guests faced each other down the two long sides, and the only promise of better than usual comfort lay in the piles of firewood waiting for whoever felt rich and generous enough to foot the bill for a quantity.
But an agreeable surprise made us feel at home before ever the fire leaped up to warm the creases out of saddle-weary limbs. We had given up thinking of Kagig, not that we despaired of him, but the gipsies, and especially Maga, had replaced his romantic interest for the moment with their own. Now all the man’s own exciting claim on the imagination returned in full flood, as he arose leisurely from a pile of skins and blankets near the hearth to greet Monty, and shouted with the manner of a chieftain for fuel to be piled on instantly—”For a great man comes!” he announced to the rafters. And the kahveh servants, seven sons of the owner of the place, were swift and abject in the matter of obeisance. They were Turks. All Turks are demonstrative in adoration of whoever is reputed great. Monty ignored them, and Kagig came down the length of the room to offer him a hand on terms of blunt equality.
“Lord Montdidier,” he said, mispronouncing the word astonishingly, “this is the furthest limit of my kingdom yet. Kindly be welcome!”
“Your kingdom?” said Monty, shaking hands, but not quite accepting the position of blood-equal. He was bigger and better looking than Kagig, and there was no mistaking which was the abler man, even at that first comparison, with Kagig intentionally making the most of a dramatic situation.
Kagig laughed, not the least nervously.
“Mirza,” he said in Persian, “duzd ne giriftah padshah ast!” (Prince, the uncaught thief is king.)
He was wearing a kalpak—the head-gear of the cossack, which would make a high priest look outlawed, and a shaggy goat-skin coat that had seen more than one campaign. Unmistakably the garment had been slit by bullets, and repaired by fingers more enthusiastic than adept. There was a pride of poverty about him that did not gibe well with his boast of being a robber.
“That’s the first gink we’ve met in this land who didn’t claim to be something better than he looked!” Will whispered.
“Hopeless, I suppose!” Fred answered. “Never mind. I like the man.”
It was evident that Monty liked him, too, for all his schooled reserve. Kagig ordered one of the owner’s sons to sweep a place near the fire, and there he superintended the spreading of Monty’s blankets, close enough to his own assorted heap for conversation without mutual offense. Will cleaned for himself a section of the opposite end of the platform, and Fred and I spread our blankets next to his. That left Rustum Khan in a quandary. He stood irresolute for a minute, eying first the gipsies, who had stalled most of their animals and were beginning to occupy the platform on the other side; then considering the wide gap between me and Monty. The dark-skinned man of breeding is far more bitterly conscious of the color-line than any white knows how to be.
We watched, disinclined to do the choosing for him, racial instinct uppermost. Rustum Khan strolled back to where his mare was being cleaned by the lean Armenian servant, gave the boy a few curt orders, and there among the shadows made his mind up. He returned and stood before Monty, Kagig eying him with something less than amiability. He pointed toward the ample room remaining between Monty and me.
“Will the sahib permit? My izzat (honor) is in question.”
“Izzat be damned!” Monty answered.
Rustum Khan colored darkly.
“I shared a tent with you once on campaign, sahib, in the days before—the good days before—those old days when—”
“When you and I served one Raj, eh? I remember,” Monty answered. “I remember it was your tent, Rustum Khan. Unless memory plays tricks with me, the Orakzai Pathans had burned mine, and I had my choice between sharing yours or sleeping in the rain.”
“I don’t recollect that I mouthed very much about honor on that occasion. If anybody’s honor was in question then, I fancy it was yours. I might have inconvenienced myself, and dishonored you, I suppose, by sleeping in the wet. You can dishonor the lot of us now, if you care to, by—oh, tommyrot! Tell your man to put your blankets in the only empty place, and behave like a man of sense!”
Monty dismissed the subject with a motion of his hand, and turned to talk with Kagig, who shouted for yoghourt to be brought at once; and that set the sons of the owner of the place to hurrying in great style. The owner himself was a true Turk. He had subsided into a state of kaif already over on the far side of the fire, day-dreaming about only Allah knew what rhapsodies. But the Turks intermarry with the subject races much more thoroughly than they do anything else, and his sons did not resemble him. They were active young men, rather noisy in their robust desire to be of use.
The gipsies, with Gregor Jhaere nearest to the owner of the kahveh and the fireplace, occupied the whole long platform on the other side, each with his women around him—except that I noticed that Maga avoided all the men, and made herself a blanket nest in deep shadow almost within reach of a mule’s heels at the far end. I believed at the moment that she chose that position so as to be near to Will, but changed my mind later. Several times Gregor shouted for her, and she made no answer.
The place had no other occupants. Either we were the only travelers on that road that night or, as seemed more likely, Kagig had exercised authority and purged the kahveh of other guests. Certainly our coming had been expected, for there was very good yoghourt in ample quantity, and other food besides—meat, bread, cheese, vegetables.
When we had all eaten, and lay back against the stone wall looking at the fire, with great fanged shadows dancing up and down that made the scene one of almost perfect savagery, Gregor called again for Maga. Again she did not answer him. So he rose from his place and reached for a rawhide whip.
“I said she shall be thrashed!” he snarled in Turkish, and he made the whip crack three times like sudden pistol-shots. Will did not catch the words, and might not have understood them in any case, but Rustum Khan, beside me, both heard and understood.
“Atcha!” he grunted. “Now we shall see a kind of happenings. That girl is not a true gipsy, or else my eyes lie to me. They stole her, or adopted her. She lacks their instincts. The gitanas, as they call their girls, are expected to have aversion to white men. They are allowed to lure a white man to his ruin, but not to make hot love to him. She has offended against the gipsy law. The attaman2 must punish. Watch the women. They take it all as a matter of course.”
“Maga!” thundered Gregor Jhaere, cracking the great whip again. I thought that Kagig looked a trifle restless, but nobody else went so far as to exhibit interest, except that the old Turk by the fire emerged far enough out of kaif to open one eye, like a sly cat’s.
The attaman shouted again, and this time Maga mocked him. So he strode down the room in a rage to enforce his authority, and dragged her out of the shadow by an arm, sending her whirling to the center of the floor. She did not lose her feet, but spun and came to a stand, and waited, proud as Satanita while he drew the whip slowly back with studied cruelty. The old Turk opened both eyes.
Nothing is more certain than that none of us would have permitted the girl to be thrashed. I doubt if even Rustum Khan, no admirer of gipsies or unveiled women, would have tolerated one blow. But Will was nearest, and he is most amazing quick when his nervous New England temper is aroused. He had the whip out of Gregor’s hand, and stood on guard between him and the girl before one of us had time to move. The old Turk closed his eyes again, and sighed resignedly.
“Our preux chevalier—preux but damned imprudent!” murmured Fred. “Let’s hope there’s a gipsy here with guts enough to fight for title to the girl. It looks to me as if Will has claimed her by patteran3 law. The only man with right to say whether or not a woman shall be thrashed is her owner. Once that right is established—”
“Touch her and I’ll break your neck!” warned Will, without undue emotion, but truthfully beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The gipsy stood still, simmering, and taking the measure of the capable American muscles interposed between him and his legal prey. Every gipsy eye in the room was on him, and it was perfectly obvious that whatever the eventual solution of the impasse, the one thing he could not do was retreat. We were fewer in number, but much better armed than the gipsy party, so that it was unlikely they would rally to their man’s aid. Kagig was an unknown quantity, but except that his black eyes glittered rather more brightly than usual he made no sign; and we kept quiet because we did not want to start a free-for-all fight. Will was quite able to take care of any single opponent, and would have resented aid.
Suddenly, however, Gregor Jhaere reached inside his shirt. Maga screamed. Rustum Khan beside me swore a rumbling Rajput oath, and we all four leapt to our feet. Maga drew no weapon, although she certainly had both dagger and pistol handy. Instead, she glanced toward Kagig, who, strangely enough, was lolling on his blankets as if nothing in the world could interest him less. The glance took as swift effect as an electric spark that fires a mine. He stiffened instantly.
“Yok!” he shouted, and at once there ceased to be even a symptom of impending trouble. Yok means merely no in Turkish, but it conveyed enough to Gregor to send him back to his place between his women and the Turk unashamedly obedient, leaving Maga standing beside Will. Maga did not glance again at Kagig, for I watched intently. There was simply no understanding the relationship, although Fred affected his usual all-comprehensive wisdom.
“Another claimant to the title!” he said. “A fight between Will and Kagig for that woman ought to be amusing, if only Will weren’t a friend of mine. Watch America challenge him!”
But Will did nothing of the kind. He smiled at Maga, offered her a cigarette, which she refused, and returned to his place beyond Fred, leaving her standing there, as lovely in the glowing firelight as the spirit of bygone romance. At that Kagig shouted suddenly for fuel, and three of the Turk’s seven hoydens ran to heap it on.
Instantly the leaping flames transformed the great, uncomfortable, draughty barn into a hall of gorgeous color and shadows without limit. There was no other illumination, except for the glow here and there of pipes and cigarettes, or matches flaring for a moment. Barring the tobacco, we lay like a baron’s men-at-arms in Europe of the Middle Ages, with a captive woman to make sport with in the midst, only rather too self-reliant for the picture.
Feeling himself warm, and rested, and full enough of food, Fred flung a cigarette away and reached for his inseparable concertina. And with his eyes on the great smoked beams that now glowed gold and crimson in the firelight, he grew inspired and made his nearest to sweet music. It was perfectly in place—simple as the savagery that framed us—Fred’s way of saying grace for shelter, and adventure, and a meal. He passed from Annie Laurie to Suwannee River, and all but made Will cry.
During two-three-four tunes Maga stood motionless in the midst of us, hands on her hips, with the fire-light playing on her face, until at last Fred changed the nature of the music and seemed to be trying to recall fragments of the song she had sung that afternoon. Presently he came close to achievement, playing a few bars over and over, and leading on from those into improvization near enough to the real thing to be quite recognizable.
Music is the sure key to the gipsy heart, and Fred unlocked it. The men and women, and the little sleepy children on the long wooden platform opposite began to sway and swing in rhythm. Fred divined what was coming, and played louder, wilder, lawlessly. And Maga did an astonishing thing. She sat down on the floor and pulled her shoes and stockings off, as unselfconsciously as if she were alone.
Then Fred began the tune again from the beginning, and he had it at his finger-ends by then. He made the rafters ring. And without a word Maga kicked the shoes and stockings into a corner, flung her outer, woolen upper-garment after them, and began to dance.
There is a time when any of us does his best. Money—marriage—praise—applause (which is totally another thing than praise, and more like whisky in its workings)—ambition—prayer—there is a key to the heart of each of us that can unlock the flood-tides of emotion and carry us nolens volens to the peaks of possibility. Either Will, or else Fred’s music, or the setting, or all three unlocked her gifts that night. She danced like a moth in a flame—a wandering woman in the fire unquenchable that burns convention out of gipsy hearts, and makes the patteran—the trail—the only way worth while.
Opposite, the gipsies sprawled in silence on their platform, breathing a little deeper when deepest approval stirred them, a little more quickly when her Muse took hold of Maga and thrilled her to expression of the thoughts unknown to people of the dinning walls and streets.
We four leaned back against our wall in a sort of silent revelry, Fred alone moving, making his beloved instrument charm wisely, calling to her just enough to keep a link, as it were, through which her imagery might appeal to ours. Some sort of mental bridge between her tameless paganism and our twentieth-century twilight there had to be, or we never could have sensed her meaning. The concertina’s wailings, mid-way between her intelligence and ours, served well enough.
My own chief feeling was of exultation, crowing over the hooded city-folk, who think that drama and the tricks of colored light and shade have led them to a glimpse of the hem of the garment of Unrest—a cheap mean feeling, of which I was afterward ashamed.
Maga was not crowing over anybody. Neither did she only dance of things her senses knew. The history of a people seized her for a reed, and wrote itself in figures past imagining between the crimson firelight; and the shadows of the cattle stalls.
Her dance that night could never have been done with leather between bare foot and earth. It told of measureless winds and waters—of the distances, the stars, the day, the night-rain sweeping down—dew dropping gently—the hundred kinds of birds-the thousand animals and creeping things—and of man, who is lord of all of them, and woman, who is lord of man—man setting naked foot on naked earth and glorying with the thrill of life, new, good, and wonderful.
One of the Turk’s seven sons produced a saz toward the end—a little Turkish drum, and accompanied with swift, staccato stabs of sound that spurred her like the goads of overtaking time toward the peak of full expression—faster and faster—wilder and wilder—freer and freer of all limits, until suddenly she left the thing unfinished, and the drum-taps died away alone.
That was art—plain art. No human woman could have finished it. It was innate abhorrence of the anticlimax that sent her, having looked into the eyes of the unattainable, to lie sobbing for short breath in her corner in the dark, leaving us to imagine the ending if we could.
And instead of anticlimax second climax came. Almost before the echoes of the drum-taps died among the dancing shadows overhead a voice cried from the roof in Armenian, and Kagig rose to his feet.
“Let us climb to the roof and see, effendim,” he said, pulling on his tattered goat-skin coat.
“See what, Ermenie?” demanded Rustum Khan. The Rajput’s eyes were still ablaze with pagan flame, from watching Maga.
“To see whether thou hast manhood behind that swagger!” answered Kagig, and led the way. No man ever yet explained the racial aversions.
“Kopek!—dog, thou!” growled the Rajput, but Kagig took no notice and led on, followed by Monty and the rest of us. Maga and the gipsies came last, swarming behind us up the ladder through a hole among the beams, and clambering on to the roof over boxes piled in the draughty attic. Up under the stars a man was standing with an arm stretched out toward Tarsus.
“Look!” he said simply.
To the westward was a crimson glow that mushroomed angrily against the sky, throbbing and swelling with hot life like the vomit of a crater. We watched in silence for three minutes, until one of the gipsy women began to moan.
“What do you suppose it is?” I asked then.
“I know what it is,” said Kagig simply.
“’Effendi, that is the heart of Armenia burning. Those are the homes of my nation—of my kin!”
“And good God, where d’you suppose Miss Vanderman is?” Fred exclaimed.
Will was standing beside Maga, looking into her eyes as if he hoped to read in them the riddle of Armenia.