“Scenery to burst the heart!”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
THE REBEL’S HYMN
The seeds that swell within enwrapping mould,
Gray buds that color faintly in the northing sun,
Deep roots that lengthen after winter’s rest,
The flutter of year’s youth in April’s breast
As young leaves in the warming hour unfold—
These and my heart are one!
Go dam the river-course with carted earth;
Or bind with iron bands that riven stone
That century on century has slept
Until into its heart a tendril crept,
And in the quiet majesty of birth
New nature broke into her own!
Or bid the sun stand still! Or fashion wings
To herd the heaven’s stars and make them be
Subservient to will and rule and whim!
Or rein the winds, and still the ocean’s hymn!
More surely ye shall manage all these things
Than chain the Life in me!
Great mountains shedding the reluctant snow,
Vision of the finish of the thing begun,
Spirit of the beauty of the torrent’s song,
Unconquerable peal of carillon,
And secrets that in conquest overflow—
These and my heart are one!
Yet another night we were destined to spend on the Zeitoon road, for we had not the heart to leave behind us the stragglers who balked fainting in the gut of the pass. Some were long past the stage where anything less than threats could make impression on them, and only able to go forward in a dull dream at the best. But there were numbers of both men and women unexpectedly capable of extremes of heroism, who took the burden of misery upon themselves and exhibited high spirits based on no evident excuse. Nothing could overwhelm those, nothing discourage them.
“To Zeitoon!” somebody shouted, as if that were the very war-cry of the saints of God. Then in a splendid bass voice he began to sing a hymn, and some women joined him. So Fred Oakes fell to his old accustomed task, and played them marching accompaniments on his concertina until his fingers ached and even he, the enthusiast, loathed the thing’s bray. In one way and another a little of the pall of misery was lifted.
Kagig sent us down bread and yoghourt at nightfall, so that those who had lived thus far did not die of hunger. Women brought the food on their heads in earthen crocks—splendid, good-looking women with fearless eyes, who bore the heavy loads as easily as their mountain men-folk carried rifles. They did not stay to gossip, for we had no news but the stale old story of murder and plunder; and their news was short and to the point.
“Come along to Zeitoon!” was the burden of it, carried with a singsong laugh. “Zeitoon is ready for anything!”
Before we had finished eating, each two of them gathered up a poor wretch from our helpless crowd and strode away into the mountains with a heavier load than that they brought.
“Come along to Zeitoon!” they called back to us. But even Fred’s concertina, and the hymns of the handful who were not yet utterly spent, failed to get them moving before dawn.
We did not spend the night unguarded, although no armed men lay between us and the enemy. We could hear the Kurds shouting now and then, and once, when I climbed a high rock, I caught sight of the glow of their bivouac fires. Imagination conjured up the shrieks of tortured victims, for we had all seen enough of late to know what would happen to any luckless straggler they might have caught and brought to make sport by the fires. But there was no imagination about the calls of Kagig’s men, posted above us on invisible dark crags and ledges to guard against surprise. We slept in comfortable consciousness that a sleepless watch was being kept—until fleas came out of the ground by battalions, divisions and army corps, making rest impossible.
But even the flea season was a matter of indifference to the hapless folk who lay around us, and although we fussed and railed we could not persuade them to go forward before dawn broke. Then, though, they struggled to their feet and started without argument. But an hour after the start we reached the secret of the safety of Zeitoon, without which not even the valor of its defenders could have withstood the overwhelming numbers of the Turks for all those scores of years; and there was new delay.
The gut of the pass rose toward Zeitoon at a sharp incline—a ramp of slippery wet clay, half a mile long, reaching across from buttress to buttress of the impregnable hills. It was more than a ridden mule could do to keep its feet on the slope, and we had to dismount. It was almost as much as we ourselves could do to make progress with the aid of sticks, and we knew at last what Kagig had meant by his boast that nothing on wheels could approach his mountain home. The poor wretches who had struggled so far with us simply gave up hope and sat down, proposing to die there. The martyred biped copied them, except that they were dry-eyed and he shed tears. “To think that I should come to this—that I should come to this!” he sobbed. Yet the fool must have come down by that route, and have gone up that way once.
We should have been in a quandary but for the sound of axes ringing in the mountain forest on our left—a dense dark growth of pine and other evergreens commencing about a hundred feet above the naked rock that formed the northerly side of the gorge. Where there were axes at work there was in all likelihood a road that men could march along, and our refugees sat down to let us do the prospecting.
“It would puzzle Napoleon to bring cannon over this approach, and the Turks don’t breed Napoleons nowadays!” Fred shouted cheerily. “Give me a hundred good men and I’ll hold this pass forever! Wait here while I scout for a way round.”
He tried first along the lower edge of the line of timber, encouraged by ringing axes, falling trees, and men shouting in the distance.
“It looks as if there once had been a road here,” he shouted down to us, “but nothing less than fire would clear it now, and everything is sopping wet. I never saw such a tangle of roots and rocks. A dog couldn’t get thought!”
Will volunteered to cross to the right-hand side and hunt over there for a practicable path. Gloria stayed beside me, and I had my first opportunity to talk with her alone. She was very pale from the effects of the wound in her wrist, which was painful enough to draw her young face and make her eyes burn feverishly. Even so, one realized that as an old woman she would still be beautiful.
I watched the eagles for a minute or two, wondering what to say to her, and she did not seem to object to silence, so that I forced an opening at last as clumsily as Peter Measel might have done it.
“What is it about Will that makes all women love him?” I asked her.
“Oh, do they all love him?”
“Looks like it!” said I.
She still wore the bandolier they had stripped from the man with the bandaged feet, although Will had relieved her of the rifle’s weight. To the bottom of the bandolier she had tied the little bag of odds and ends without which few western women will venture a mile from home. Opening that she produced a small round mirror about twice the size of a dollar piece, and offered it to me with a smile that disarmed the rebuke.
“Perhaps it’s his looks,” she suggested.
I took the mirror and studied what I saw in it. In spite of a cracking headache due to that and the gaining sun (for I had lost my hat when the Kurd rode me down with his lance) the episode of Rustum Khan carrying me back out of death’s door on his bay mare had not lingered in memory. There had been too much else to think about. Now for the first time I realized how near that lance-point must have come to finishing the chapter for me. I had washed in the Jihun when we bivouacked, but had not shaved; later on, my scalp had bled anew, so that in addition to unruly hair tousled and matted with dry blood I had a week-old beard to help make me look like a graveyard ghoul.
“I beg pardon!” I said simply, handing her the mirror back.
At that she was seized with regret for the unkindness, and utterly forgot that I had blundered like a bullock into the sacred sanctuary of her newborn relationship to Will.
“Oh, I don’t know which of you is best!” she said, taking my hand with her unbandaged one. “You are great unselfish splendid men. Will has told me all about you! The way you have always stuck to your friend Monty through thick and thin—and the way you are following him now to help these tortured people—oh, I know what you are—Will has told me, and I’m proud—”
The embarrassment of being told that sort of thing by a young and very lovely woman, when newly conscious of dirt and blood and half-inch-long red whiskers, was apparently not sufficient for the mirth of the exacting gods of those romantic hills. There came interruption in the form of a too-familiar voice.
“Oh, that’s all right, you two! Make the most of it! Spoon all you want to! My girl’s in the clutches of an outlaw! Kiss her if you want to—I won’t mind!”
I dropped her hand as if it were hot lead. As a matter of fact I had hardly been conscious of holding it.
“Oh, no, don’t mind me!” continued the “martyred biped” in a tone combining sarcasm, envy and impudence.
“Shall I kill him?” I asked.
“No! no!” she said. “Don’t be violent—don’t—”
Peter Measel, whom we had inevitably utterly forgotten, was sitting up with his back propped against a stone and his legs stretched straight in front of him, enjoying the situation with all the curiosity of his unchastened mind. I hove a lump of clay at him, but missed, and the effort made my headache worse.
“If you think you can frighten me into silence you’re mistaken!” he sneered, getting up and crawling behind the rock to protect himself. But it needed more than a rock to hide him from the fury that took hold of me and sent me in pursuit in spite of Gloria’s remonstrance.
Viewed as revenge my accomplishment was pitiful, for I had to chase the poor specimen for several minutes, my headache growing worse at every stride, and he yelling for mercy like a cur-dog shown the whip, while the Armenians—women and little children as well as men—looked on with mild astonishment and Gloria objected volubly. He took to the clay slope at last in hope that his light weight would give him the advantage; and there at last I caught him, and clapped a big gob of clay in his mouth to stop his yelling.
Even viewed as punishment the achievement did not amount to much. I kicked him down the clay slope, and he was still blubbering and picking dirt out of his teeth when Will shouted that he had found a foot-track.
“Do you understand why you’ve been kicked?” I demanded.
“Yes. You’re afraid I’ll tell Mr. Yerkes!”
“Oh, leave him!” said Gloria. “I’m sorry you touched him. Let’s go!”
“It was as much your fault as his, young woman!” snarled the biped, getting crabwise out of my reach. “You’ll all be sorry for this before I’m through with you!”
I was sorry already, for I had had experience enough of the world to know that decency and manners are not taught to that sort of specimen in any other way than by letting him go the length of his disgraceful course. Carking self-contempt must be trusted to do the business for him in the end. Gloria was right in the first instance. I should have let him alone.
However, it was not possible to take his threat seriously, and more than any man I ever met he seemed to possess the knack of falling out of mind. One could forget him more swiftly than the birds forget a false alarm. I don’t believe any of us thought of him again until that night in Zeitoon.
The path Will had discovered was hardly a foot wide in places, and mules could only work their way along by rubbing hair off their flanks against the rock wall that rose nearly sheer on the right hand. From the point of view of an invading army it was no approach at all, for one man with a rifle posted on any of the overhanging crags could have held it against a thousand until relieved. It was a mystery why Kagig, or some one else, had not left a man at the foot of the clay slope to tell us about this narrow causeway; but doubtless Kagig had plenty to think about.
He and most of his men had gone struggling up the clay slope, as we could tell by the state of the going. But they were old hands at it and knew the trick of the stuff. We had all our work cut out to shepherd our poor stragglers along the track Will found, and even the view of Zeitoon when we turned round the last bend and saw the place jeweled in the morning mist did not do much to increase the speed.
As Kagig had once promised us, it was “scenery to burst the heart!” Not even the Himalayas have anything more ruggedly beautiful to show, glistening in mauve and gold and opal, and enormous to the eye because the summits all look down from over blowing cloud-banks.
There were moss-grown lower slopes, and waterfalls plunging down wet ledges from the loins of rain-swept majesty; pine trees looming blue through a soft gray fog, and winds whispering to them, weeping to them, moving the mist back and forth again; shadows of clouds and eagles lower yet, moving silently on sunny slopes. And up above it all was snow-dazzling, pure white, shading off into the cold blue of infinity.
Men clad in goat-skin coats peered down at us from time to time from crags that looked inaccessible, shouting now and then curt recognition before leaning again on a modern rifle to resume the ancient vigil of the mountaineer, which is beyond the understanding of the plains-man because it includes attention to all the falling water voices, and the whispering of heights and deeps.
We came on Zeitoon suddenly, rising out of a gorge that was filled with ice, or else a raging torrent, for six months of the year. Over against the place was a mountainside so exactly suggesting painted scenery that the senses refused to believe it real, until the roar and thunder of the Jihun tumbling among crags dinned into the ears that it was merely wonderful, and not untrue.
The one approach from the southward—that gorge up which we trudged—was overlooked all along its length by a hundred inaccessible fastnesses from which it seemed a handful of riflemen could have disputed that right of way forever. The only other line of access that we could see was by a wooden bridge flung from crag to crag three hundred feet high across the Jihun; and the bridge was overlooked by buildings and rocks from which a hail of lead could have been made to sweep it at short range.
Zeitoon itself is a mountain, next neighbor to the Beirut Dagh, not as high, nor as inaccessible; but high enough, and inaccessible enough to give further pause to its would-be conquerors. Not in anything resembling even rows, but in lawless disorder from the base to the shoulder of the mountain, the stone and wooden houses go piling skyward, overlooking one another’s roofs, and each with an unobstructed view of endless distances. The picture was made infinitely lovely by wisps of blown mist, like hair-lines penciled in the violet air.
Distances were all foreshortened in that atmosphere, and it was mid-afternoon before we came to a halt at last face to face with blank wall. The track seemed to have been blocked by half the mountain sitting down across it. We sat down to rest in the shadow of the shoulder of an overhanging rock, and after half an hour some one looked down on us, and whistled shrilly. Kagig with a rifle across his knees looked down from a height of a hundred and fifty feet, and laughed like a man who sees the bitter humor of the end of shams.
“Welcome!” he shouted between his hands. And his voice came echoing down at us from wall to wall of the gorge. Five minutes later he sent a man to lead us around by a hidden track that led upward, sometimes through other houses, and very often over roofs, across ridiculously tiny yards, and in between walls so closely set together that a mule could only squeeze through by main force.
We stabled the mules in a shed the man showed us, and after that Kagig received us four, and Anna, Gloria’s self-constituted maid, in his own house. It was bare of nearly everything but sheer necessities, and he made no apology, for he had good taste, and perfect manners if you allowed for the grim necessity of being curt and the strain of long responsibility.
A small bench took the place of a table in the main large room. There was a fireplace with a wide stone chimney at one end, and some stools, and also folded skins intended to be sat on, and shiny places on the wall where men in goat-skin coats had leaned their backs.
Two or three of the gipsy women were hanging about outside, and one of the gipsies who had been with him in the room in the khan at Tarsus appeared to be filling the position of servitor. He brought us yoghourt in earthenware bowls—extremely cool and good it was; and after we had done I saw him carry down a huge mess more of it to the house below us, where many of the stragglers we had brought along were quartered by Kagig’s order.
“Where’s Monty?” Fred demanded as soon as we entered the room.
“Presently!” Kagig answered—rather irritably I thought. He seemed to have adopted Monty as his own blood brother, and to resent all other claims on him.
The afternoon was short, for the shadow of the surrounding mountains shut us in. Somebody lighted a fire in the great open chimney-place, and as we sat around that to revel in the warmth that rests tired limbs better than sleep itself, Kagig strode out to attend to a million things—as the expression of his face testified.
Then in came Maga, through a window, with self-betrayal in manner and look of having been watching us ever since we entered. She went up to Will, who was squatted on folded skins by the chimney corner, and stood beside him, claiming him without a word. Her black hair hung down to her waist, and her bare feet, not cut or bruised like most of those that walk the hills unshod, shone golden in the firelight. I looked about for Peter Measel, expecting a scene, but he had taken himself off, perhaps in search of her.
She had eyes for nobody but Gloria, and no smile for any one. Gloria stared back at her, fascinated.
“You married?” she asked; and Gloria shook her head. “You ‘eard me, what I said back below there!”
“Oh, yes. I love it.”
“Ah! You shall sing—you shall dance—against me! First you sing—then I sing. Then you dance—then I dance—to-night—you understan’? If I sing better as you sing—an’ if I dance better as you dance—then I throw you over Zeitoon bridge, an’ no one interfere! But if you sing better as I sing—an’ if you dance better as I dance—then you shall make a servant of me; for I know you will be too big fool an’ too chicken ‘earted to keel me, as I would keel you! You understan’?”
It rather looked as if an issue would have to be forced there and then, but at that minute Gregor entered, and drove her out with an oath and terrific gesture, she not seeming particularly afraid of him, but willing to wait for the better chance she foresaw was coming. Gregor made no explanation or apology, but fastened down the leather window-curtain after her and threw more wood on the fire.
Then back came Kagig.
“Where the devil’s Monty?” Fred demanded.
“Come!” was the only answer. And we all got up and followed him out into the chill night air, and down over three roofs to a long shed in which lights were burning. All the houses—on every side of us were ahum with life, and small wonder, for Zeitoon was harboring the refugees from all the district between there and Tarsus, to say nothing of fighting men who came in from the hills behind to lend a hand. But we were bent on seeing Monty at last, and had no patience for other matters.
However, it was only the prisoners he had led us out to see, and nothing more.
“Look, see!” he said, opening the heavy wooden door of the shed as an armed sentry made way for him. (Those armed men of Zeitoon did not salute one another, but preserved a stoic attitude that included recognition of the other fellow’s right to independence, too.) “Look in there, and see, and tell me—do the Turks treat Armenian prisoners that way?”
We entered, and walked down the length of the dim interior, passing between dozens of prisoners lying comfortably enough on skins and blankets. As far as one could judge, they had been fed well, and they did not wear the look of neglect or ill-treatment. At the end, in a little pen all by himself, was the colonel whom Rustum Khan had made a present of to Gloria.
“What’s the straw for?” Fred demanded.
“Ask him!” said Kagig. “He understands! If there should be treachery the straw will be set alight, and he shall know how pigs feel when they are roasted alive! Never fear—there will be no treachery!”
We followed him back to his own house, he urging us to make good note of the prisoners’ condition, and to bear witness before the world to it afterward.
“The world does not know the difference between Armenians and Turks!” he complained again and again.
Once again we arranged ourselves about his open chimney-place, this time with Kagig on a foot-stool in the midst of us. Heat, weariness, and process of digestion were combining to make us drowsily comfortable, and I, for one, would have fallen asleep where I sat. But at last the long-awaited happened, and in came Monty striding like a Norman, dripping with dew, and clean from washing in the icy water of some mountain torrent.
“Oh, hello, Didums!” Fred remarked, as if they had parted about an hour ago. “You long-legged rascal, you look as if you’d been having the time of your life!”
“I have!” said Monty. And after a short swift stare at him Fred looked glum. Those two men understood each other as the clapper understands the bell.