A NEW LIFE
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“Among new men, strange faces, other minds.”
After that, for young John Grayson, life was a blank. Dim shadows came and went like reflections in a mirror, having no continuity and leaving no impression. In a passing way, as a dumb creature might, he felt burning heat and freezing cold, pain and weariness, and nameless, indescribable distress. So too he saw forms around him—kind, dark-complexioned people, who gave him things to drink, and spoke to him in words he could not understand. Sometimes he was conscious of a sort of dull relief, or pleasure, when they cooled his burning brow with snow, which had been brought from the mountains packed in straw, and carefully preserved. But throughout all he missed something—some one. At first he knew that he wanted his father, and used to call for him piteously. But this passed at length; he grew too weak even for the pain of longing. With the very ill, as with the very old, “desire fails.”
Yet, in spite of all, he crept slowly back to life. One day he felt himself carried somewhere, and then became suddenly conscious of a delicious coolness after what seemed a lifetime of burning heat. Looking up presently, when the sense of fatigue had somewhat passed, he saw that he was lying on a large bedstead, like one of our old “four-posters,” in the open air. There were white curtains all around him, which were being softly stirred by a refreshing breeze; while over his head—no roof between, not even the canvas of a tent—glowed the deep, rich blue of the Eastern sky. He was on the house-top.
For a while after that he recovered more quickly. But the hot weather, coming early that year, brought on a sore relapse, and again for many days his life was despaired of. More than once the watchers thought he was actually gone, and often they thought the question was one of hours. Yet in the end the long conflict of death and life ended in the victory—the slow, uncertain victory—of the latter.
He came back to life like a little child only just beginning it. For the time, his past was completely blotted out. Too weak in mind and body for connected thought, he accepted the things about him without question. He seemed to have been always there, amongst those dark-eyed people, who sat upon the ground, ate rice and bulghour, and wore striped “zebouns” of cotton cloth, and many-coloured jackets. He picked up their speech very quickly, as a child picks up his mother tongue; and at this stage did not remember his own. He came to know those about him, and to call them by their names. Between twenty and thirty persons dwelt in the large house in which he was a guest. But they were all one family—the sons and sons-in-law, the daughters and daughters-in-law, and a whole tribe of the grandchildren of a grey-haired patriarch called Hohannes Meneshian. The whole household were Jack’s familiar friends. But he loved best the three boys who had been his first acquaintances, and their mother Mariam Hanum, who throughout his illness had been his devoted nurse. He liked the gentle touch of her hand, and the tenderness in her eyes as she looked at him. Sometimes he called her Mya—”Mother,” as the boys did.
Of the three—Kevork, Gabriel, and little Hagop—Gabriel was his favourite. Indeed the child was like his shadow, waiting on him continually, and often bringing him beautiful flowers—gorgeous pomegranate blossoms, or roses of many kinds and of most exquisite perfume. Or he would bring him fruit—delicious grapes, pears, plums, and peaches. Or sometimes he would just steal silently up to kiss his hand, and touch it with his forehead, or stand or sit quietly beside him.
There was one thing that soothed him inexpressibly; though, like all else, it was accepted without question or comprehension. When Mariam and the other women went about the household tasks that, as he grew better, he liked to watch, they would say, “Hesoos ockna menk”—”Jesus, help us.” When they finished, they would say, “Park Derocha”—”Praise the Lord.” In everything there was devout acknowledgment of God; and the sweetest of all names that are named in heaven or upon earth was often on their lips, spoken with reverence and love. Something that for John Grayson still lived on,
“In the purple twilight under the sea”
of conscious thought, made this very grateful to him, and joined it with what were like the first heavenward thoughts and prayers of a little child.
So time passed on. But, as he grew stronger, there awoke again within him a vague sense of want and longing. He had no power to express his feelings, but he felt something was wrong with him—he was not in his proper place. Or was it, rather, that there was something wrong with all the people about him? They were very kind; but they and their ways had a queer, distorted, unnatural look in his eyes, like the things one sees reflected in the bowl of a spoon. He longed continually, longed inexpressibly, for something he could not get, for some one who was not there; yet he could not tell who it was he wanted.
He grew silent and melancholy, and his friends thought him in danger of another relapse, which would certainly have been fatal. Happily, it was now autumn again, the sultriest months of the year being over. So one day they wrapped him up carefully, seated him comfortably on cushions upon a donkey, and brought him with them, to a vineyard which Hohannes possessed on a slope of one of the hills above Biridjik. He was a man of some property, having flocks and herds also. The great, luscious grapes, “as large as plums,” purple, green, and amber, hung in ripe profusion, nearly breaking down the low bushes they grew upon. Jack ate of them to his heart’s content, and lay in the pleasant shade of a fig-tree, watching the other young people as they gathered them for their various uses. Tents had been brought, and it gave him a kind of dreamy satisfaction to sleep in one of these; it seemed somehow to bring him nearer to the things he had lost, and was vaguely feeling after. Often hints of them seemed to flash on him unbidden, but when he tried to grasp them vanished as they came, leaving him confused and faint, with a fluttering heart and an aching head.
However, his strength improved in the cooler air and amidst the new surroundings. He had soon an opportunity of testing it. One day he happened to be by himself, resting under his favourite fig-tree, when he heard a noise as of something trampling and tearing the vines. Looking up, he saw that a flock of goats had got in among them, and were doing terrible damage, not only to the ripe fruit but even to the trees. He got up and called for help, but no one heeded, and he supposed no one heard. It was dreadful to see all this harm done; in fact, he could not endure it. Taking heart, he went to the rescue himself, or rather, for the first time since his illness, he ran. His steps were unsteady, his limbs shook under him; once indeed he fell, but he was up and on again in a moment. The exercise seemed to give back strength to his muscles and vigour to his brain. He shouted aloud; he took up stones and flung them at the trespassers, sending them flying over the low stone wall. Then, the Englishman’s joy of battle waking in him, he gave chase as fast, or faster, than his limbs would carry him.
He heard the others crying out to him; but he thought they were encouraging his efforts. Even when they came running up with evident intent to stop him, he thought they were only afraid he would do himself harm. But at last the youngest son of Hohannes caught him bodily in his arms, shook the stones out of his hand, and cried breathlessly, “You must not! You must not!”
Jack had a good deal of Armenian by this time. “Inchu? Inchu?—Why? why?” he gasped; “they were destroying your vines.”
The young man, by name Avedis, or “good tidings,” looked sadly at the injured trees, but only said, “Those goats belong to the Kourds.”
Jack stammered in his eagerness to find the words he wanted. “What has that to do with it?” he got out at last. “What right have the Kourds to spoil your vines?”
“Don’t you know, Yon Effendi, that if we dare to stop them doing it, or even to drive their sheep and goats out of our fields and vineyards, they think a great deal less of stabbing or shooting one of us than you would of killing a cat?”
“But then they would be hanged for it!” cried Jack. “Have you no—oh, what is the word for it?—have you no—police?” He said the word in English, and a rush of old, new thoughts and impressions came crowding into his brain.
“The men who keep order, and take people to prison.”
“Do you mean the zaptiehs? They are worse than the Kourds. The Turk and the Kourd are the upper and the nether millstone, grinding us to powder. If one of us is fool enough to complain of a Kourd or a Turk, the Kaymakam—the governor, I mean—says he will enquire into the matter. And he does. He sends for the man who has complained, throws him into a dungeon, and keeps him there till he confesses all the wrong is on his own side; or perhaps until his people pay a sum of money. Or perhaps he may be never heard of again at all.”
Avedis did not say this with fierce looks and indignant gestures, but in a calm, matter-of-fact way, as if such things were part of the everlasting order of nature, which has been from the beginning and will be until the end. Jack did not follow every word; but one thing he understood very clearly: they must all stand still and see their beautiful vines destroyed. There was no remedy—why? Because this was not England. England! Now he knew everything. He was an English boy, left alone here in this strange land. And his father—where was his father? “Where is my father?” he cried aloud in English.
“What is that you say?” asked Avedis.
Jack repeated his question in Armenian.
“Come and sit down under the tree,” said Avedis.
Jack obeyed, silent and trembling. Avedis stood, looking at him sadly. “Tell me, where is my father?” Jack repeated with pleading eyes, into which a new expression was dawning slowly.
“You know, Yon Effendi, you have been very ill,” Avedis said. “Your father, a great English Effendi, very wise and good, was ill too. You recovered; your father did not recover. He is gone to God. Do you understand me, Yon Effendi?”
Jack understood so well that he flung himself face downwards on the ground, and burst into a passion of weeping. In vain Avedis tried to comfort him. “God forgive me,” he thought, “I ought not to have told him. I fear I have killed him.” And he certainly had not acted up to the meaning of his name. The rest of the family blamed him severely, when they heard what he had done. It was the custom of their country for the bearer of sad tidings to go about his task with great circumlocution, carefully “breaking” them, as we say in England.
Yet the shock, instead of killing John Grayson, brought him back to his true life. Up to this there had been a serious danger that his brain would never wholly recover the shock of that long and terrible illness; and that, if he lived, he might go through the future years as one whose mind had an important leaf left out of it. But that day’s agony of weeping, and the days and nights of distress that followed it, meant that he would either die, or else recover wholly, and claim his intellectual inheritance in the present and the past. This full recovery, however, might well be an affair of time—perhaps of a long time.
Old Hohannes heard with the rest that the English youth knew now that his father was dead, and that he was weeping and refusing comfort, in a manner very likely to make him ill again. “We will take him back to the town,” he said; and so they did the next day.
The following morning Hohannes took him by the hand, led him into a low, dark room on the ground-floor, where bulghour and rice were stored, and shut and barred the door.
“Sit down,” he said. Jack did so; and looked on wonderingly while the old man dug a hole in the ground with some implement resembling a trowel.
At last he grew impatient, and asked, “Will you not tell me about my father?”
Hohannes looked up. “There is not much to tell,” he said. “Feeling himself, no doubt, very ill, the English Effendi sent for me, and I came. He asked me to take care of you, and if you should recover to try and send you back to your friends in England. And he gave me, to use for you as I thought best, the things I have kept hidden here. He spoke somewhat also of certain papers, but before he could finish what he wanted to say, the fever increased upon him, and his mind began to wander. As to the papers, we never got them. They were stolen away, with his other baggage, by the two Syrian servants, who were brothers, and precious rascals. But these I have.” He stooped and took out of the hole something wrapped in a skin and tied with cords. These he carefully unfastened, took off the skin, and revealed two books and a belt of chamois leather. The books he gave to Jack, who recognised, with a thrill of joy and a pang of sorrow, the pocket Bible his father always carried with him, and the note-book in which he used to see him write. “Keep these thyself,” said Hohannes. “This,” holding up the belt, “I must keep still. There is gold in it.” Instinctively his voice dropped lower, though there was none to hear the dangerous word.
“I am very glad of it,” Jack said frankly, as, for the first time, it occurred to him that these people, upon whom he had no claim, had been providing for all his wants. “Father Hohannes, you and yours have fed and tended me all this time like a child of your own. It ought to be all yours!”
“You have a generous heart, Yon Effendi. And, in fact, I have used it for you as far as was necessary and just. There were medicines and other things when you were ill, and there was the tax to pay for you.”
“The tax for me?” Jack repeated. “What tax?”
“Know you not we have to pay, year by year, every man and boy among us, for breathing the air? Even for the new-born babe the Turk exacts it. So your tax had to be found along with our own, and will be next year also. Moreover I own, a piece or two went to the Kourds as backsheesh, that they might let our cattle alone.”
“Indeed, father,” Jack said again, “I wish you would take it all; it is yours by right.”
Hohannes shook his head. “And what, then, if you should want to go home?” he said; “or if any way for your doing it should open? Moreover we dare not, for our lives, let any one know we have so much gold in the house. The Kourds would come down from the mountains and rob us, or the Turks would take it from us on pretence of arrears of taxes. It is best for me to keep it here for you. You see where I put it?”
“Yes, Father Hohannes; it is all right,” said Jack.
He was longing to go away somewhere by himself, and feast his eyes on his father’s handwriting, and on the printed words he loved so well. But, as he was going, a thought came to him that made him turn again. Things which he had heard Kevork say as he began to get better, and which at the time he had scarcely noticed, came to his mind with a sudden inspiration.
“Father Hohannes,” he said, “Kevork, your grandson, longs sore to go to Aintab, to the great school the Americans have set up there for your people. Kevork loves learning very much. May he not take some of this gold and go?”
Again Hohannes shook his head. “Kevork is a foolish boy,” he said. “The cock that dreamed of grain fell from his perch trying to scratch for it. Let him stay at home, and mind the cattle; or take to the weaving, if it like him better.” Jack was sorry for Kevork, but the possession of the precious books drove everything else out of his head. He flew upon the spoil; nor was it with a passing joy alone, since during the time that followed the chief sustenance of his life, that which made it worth living, came from these books.
He was himself again, but only a childish, weak, discouraged self—a different being from the strong, active-minded, energetic lad who had come with his father to Biridjik. His illness and its consequences had thrown him back in his development of body, of mind, and still more of character, for at least a couple of years. He was quite unable at present to look his life in the face, or to take the initiative in any way.
Nor was there any one about him who could give him effectual help. How to go to England was a problem no one in Biridjik seemed able to solve. Even a letter was a difficult and doubtful undertaking. It is true the town possessed a Turkish post-office, but this, at all events for foreign letters, was a perfect “tomb.” In answer to his questions, his friends told him of a certain “Cousin Muggurditch,” a kinsman of Hohannes, who lived at “Yeatessa,” but was a great traveller, going sometimes even as far as Constantinople;—he could send a letter safely to England. Jack thought Yeatessa was the place his father wanted to go to, and which was mentioned in his note-book as Edessa, the city of the legendary King Agbar. His friends assured him it was; that they knew all about it, and that the story of King Agbar was quite true, for his tomb was still to be seen just outside the city, which the Franks called Urfa, and which was only two days’ journey from Biridjik.
“I shall go there some time,” Jack said; but he said no more about it, and it seemed as if for the time all thought of change had passed out of his mind. He slipped into the life and the ways of those about him. Even his European clothes were out-worn or out-grown, and he adopted the striped zeboun, the gay jacket and the crimson fez of the Armenians. Mariam Hanum (Mrs. Mary) took care of his wardrobe, and he might be seen every Saturday going with the other men and youths to the bath, and carrying his clean clothes with him tied up in a towel.
One day he wanted a kerchief to put under his fez and keep off the sun, and he went by himself to the shop to buy it. He came back with one of bright green, which he thought very handsome; but, to his amazement, Kevork snatched it from his head and Avedis flung it into the fire, with the approval of all the rest.
“Don’t you know that green is the Moslem colour?” they said to him.
“Then be sure I will never wear it,” Jack answered; “I am a Christian.”
He went with his friends to the Gregorian Church on Sundays and feast days; often too in the early mornings before sunrise, or in the evenings at sunset. It is true he did not understand very much of the service; but the Armenians themselves were scarcely better off, as the ancient Armenian language is still used in the liturgy of the national Church. He was shown, in the adjoining graveyard, the resting-place of his father, marked like all the other graves with a flat stone. Then he printed carefully, in English capital letters, his father’s full name, and gave it to the best stonecutter in the town, asking him to engrave it for him, with a cross.
“I should like it put upon another stone,” he said; “one to stand up, as we have them in England.”
The stonecutter explained that he could not have it here. It was unlawful. Mahometans had their tombstones erect, but a Christian might only mark the resting-place of his dead with a flat stone. “But,” the man added with a smile, “that will not hinder our rising again at the last day.”
Kevork and his brothers continued Jack’s greatest friends. Kevork talked much with him, and told him many things. He said he should like to go to Yeatessa, or Urfa, because he had a sister there.
“A married sister, I suppose?” Jack said, rather wondering he had not heard of her before.
“No,” said Kevork, lowering his voice mysteriously. “My grandfather had to send her away to our cousins, because the Kaymakam who was here before this one wanted to marry her; and we never talk of her, not even before Gabriel and Hagop, lest any word might slip out about where she is, and the Turks might overhear. But I had rather go to Aintab than even to Urfa, to learn English and Greek and Latin, and grammar and geography, and all kinds of science.”
“And what then?” Jack asked with a smile.
“Then I would go, if I could, to America or to England, learn still more, and become at last a famous professor in some grand college in a Christian land.”
Kevork had already learned from a friendly priest, Der Garabed, to read and write Armenian, and to read Turkish in the Arabic character. For the Turks, and it is a significant fact, have never reduced their own language to writing; their books are printed either in the Arabic or in the Armenian character. He was in raptures when Jack offered to teach him English, which he promptly began to do, using as a text-book his father’s Bible, the only book he had, with the exception of a Tauchnitz “Westward Ho,” which happened to be in his pocket when he came to Biridjik. In return, Kevork taught him to read and write Armenian, and these lessons were shared by Gabriel and Hagop. Gabriel was a remarkably quick, intelligent boy, all life and fire; Hagop was quiet and rather dull, more at home at his father’s loom than at his brother’s book. Both used to listen delightedly to Jack, when, chiefly as an exercise for himself, he would translate some simple Bible story aloud in Armenian.
Not that such were the only uses Jack made of his father’s Bible. Outwardly his character still continued unformed, boyish, passive; inwardly it had begun silently to grow and to deepen. He did not act, but he thought a great deal. His mind was like a stream flowing underground, gathering volume as it flowed, and sure to emerge again to the light of the upper world. Its sources were fed by observation, memory, faith, and hope, and most of all by that matchless fount, not only of spiritual but of intellectual inspiration, the English Bible.