PEACE AND STRIFE
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“They that have seen thy look in death
No more may fear to die.”
John Grayson and Gabriel Meneshian were threading their way through the narrow, unsavoury streets of Urfa, the gutters which ran down the middle often not leaving them room to walk side by side. They had left their horses at a khan, and were now seeking the dwelling of the Vartonians, to which they had been directed. Emerging at last into a wider thoroughfare, they saw a church, standing in the midst of its churchyard, of which the gate was open. “We must be in our own quarter,” cried Gabriel, delighted, “for this is a Christian church.”
Jack stepped inside the gate and looked at it with interest. The door of the church was open also; and Gabriel, seeing him look towards it, said, “You might go in there, Yon Effendi, and rest a little, for I see you are tired to death; I will run on and try and find the house. It cannot be far off now.”
“But you are tired too.”
“Not a bit. I would feel quite fresh this minute if I only had a drink. And, by good luck, there goes a fellow outside, a Turk too, with a bucket full of iran to sell.”
The Turk, who had been crying his ware, stopped at the moment, for he saw an Armenian boy coming down the street with a large empty pitcher in his hand. “You want this?” said he, preparing to pour his sour milk into it.
The boy said he wanted nothing of the kind. He had been sent for water, and water he must bring. His people were waiting for it, and would be very angry. He tried to pass on, but the Turk laid hold on him, seized his pitcher, and emptied the bucket of iran into it, not without spilling a good deal in the street. “Now pay me my money,” he said.
“But the thing is no use to me,” the boy protested ruefully.
“What does that matter, dog of a Giaour? You got it; and, by the beard of the Prophet, you must pay for it.”
As the boy, crying bitterly, searched for the few piastres he had about him, Jack’s honest English face flushed with wrath, and Gabriel would have sprung to the rescue had he not laid his hand on him and whispered, “Wait.”
They waited until the Turk had turned down a side street, then Jack hailed the lad, who was standing quite still, gazing dolefully at his useless pitcher of iran. “Will you give us a drink?” he asked, coming out of the gate. “We are dying of thirst.”
The boy checked his sobs; and for answer held up his pitcher to the lips of the stranger. Jack took a long deep draught, then passed it on to Gabriel, while he made the boy happy with more piastres than the Turk had taken from him. His tears all gone, he blessed the strangers for good Christians, and thanked them in the Name of the Lord.
“What church is that?” asked Gabriel, giving back the pitcher.
“That? Oh, that is the church of the Protestants.”
“Is it English then?” Jack asked, feeling a pull at his heart strings.
“No; it is Armenian. But it is of the religion of the foreigners, who talk English. They are good people, and very kind to the poor.”
“Perhaps there is service going on, as the church is open,” Jack said. “I will go and see.”
“Do,” said Gabriel; “meanwhile, this lad will help me to find the Vartonians, and I will come back for you.”
Jack passed through the churchyard, and, leaving his shoes on the threshold, entered the church. The interior was very handsome, all of white stone, and adorned with fine pillars and beautiful carving. It was not unlike a Gregorian church, save for the absence of pictures. In the window, over what the Gregorians called the Altar and the Protestants the Table of the Lord, was a small red cross. There was a very low partition, separating the places where the men and the women sat, and the floor was covered with rushes.
Before the Holy Table, on a kind of couch, all draped in snowy white, and covered with flowers, something lay. Jack knew what it was, for he had seen the dead laid in the church at Biridjik, to await their final rest. With bowed head and reverent footsteps he drew near to look. Venturing gently to draw aside the face-cloth from the face, he saw it was that of a woman. Not, evidently, a young and lovely girl like Shushan, but one who had lived her life, had borne the burden and heat of the day, and, it well might be, was glad to rest. Perhaps yesterday there were wrinkles on the cheek and furrows on the brow; now death,—”kind, beautiful death,”—had smoothed them all away, and stamped instead his own signet there of which the legend is “Peace.” The closed white lips had that look we have seen on the faces of our dead, as if they are of those “God whispers in the ear,”—and they know, though they cannot tell us, yet. English words, that he had heard long ago, came floating through the brain of John Grayson. “The peace of God that passeth all understanding.” He found himself once more in the church of his childhood, while a solemn voice breathed over the hushed congregation those words of blessing. Then, coming back to the present, he thought, “It takes away the fear of death to see a dead face like that.” He reverently replaced the veil, and withdrawing somewhat into the shadow, knelt down to pray.
As he knelt there, he heard the footsteps of one who came to look upon the dead. Rising noiselessly, he saw a tall, noble-looking man, dressed à la Frank, approach the bier. His bent head was streaked with grey, his face pale with intense, though quiet sorrow. As he knelt down silently beside his dead, John Grayson knew instinctively that the love of those two had been what his love and Shushan’s might become, if God left them together for half a happy lifetime.
For a few minutes the silence lasted, then came that most sorrowful of all earth’s sounds of sorrow, the sob of a strong man. Jack kept quiet in the shadow of his pillar, in reverence and awe; not for worlds would he have betrayed his presence there.
Afraid Gabriel might come in search of him, he looked round for some chance of escape. He saw, to his relief, a small side door, near where he was standing. He crept towards it noiselessly, found it unlocked, withdrew the little bolt, and going through the pastor’s study, slipped out into the churchyard to wait for Gabriel. Yes, there he was, just coming in at the gate. He went to meet him.
“Did you think me long, Yon Effendi?” asked the boy. “I have found the Vartonians, and I am to bring you to them at once. Baron Vartonian himself is away from home, but one of his sons would have come with me to bid you welcome to their house, only they are in great trouble to-day, for Pastor Stepanian, their Badvellie, whom they love, has just lost his wife. Shushan will be very sorry, for Oriort Elmas Stepanian, the Badvellie’s daughter, is her greatest friend.”
“I know,” Jack answered softly. “I have seen the face of the dead. Gabriel, I do not think now that it can be very hard to die.”
“No,” said Gabriel. “It would not be hard to die for Christ’s sake, Yon Effendi.”
“It reminds me,” Jack went on, as if talking to himself, “of the last words I heard my father say, ‘The dark river turns to light.’”
Jack was received with open arms by the whole Vartonian household. It was even a larger household than that of the Meneshians in Biridjik. Its head, a prosperous merchant, was absent in Aleppo, but there was his old infirm father, and there were his numerous sons and daughters, two or three of them married, with children of their own, but the youngest still a child. There were also many servants. Some of the family were Gregorians and some Protestants, but there was no friction or jealousy between the two. Being people of substance, their house, built as usual around a court, was large and very handsomely furnished, the wood-work carved elaborately, and the curtains, rugs, and carpets of rich materials, and beautifully embroidered.
The Vartonians considered Jack in the light of a hero. But they were uneasy at Shushan’s being left, even for the present, in a village exposed to the attacks of the Kourds; for much more was known at Urfa than at Biridjik about the disturbed state of the country, and the terrible massacres that had taken place in many towns and villages. Was not the Armenian quarter still full of the miserable refugees from Sassoun, who had come there during the past winter—diseased, starving, wounded, sometimes dying, and with horrible tales of the cruelties they and theirs had suffered?
It was agreed on all hands that the best thing Jack could do was to refer his case to the lady at the head of the American Mission, whose school Shushan had attended. We shall call this heroic lady, who is happily still living, Miss Celandine. She thought the best plan would be to bring Shushan, as soon as she was married, back to Urfa in disguise, since under her charge and in the mission premises she would be, for the time, absolutely safe. She believed the English Consul would be able to give permission for the marriage without being personally present. But she was not certain as to where the Consul was to be found. Very likely he was at the baths of Haran, the season being August, and very hot. She would find out as soon as possible, and put Mr. Grayson into communication with him.
Two or three days later, Jack was setting out, with one of the young Vartonians, to explore the hill that overhangs Urfa, and to visit the remains of the ancient citadel, and the other interesting ruins with which it is strewn,—when Kevork Meneshian walked in. As soon as they had got through the usual salutations, Barkev Vartonian and John Grayson asked him together, “What has brought you here?” And Barkev added, “It is not the time for vacation.”
“True,” answered the young man, smiling; “I did very wrong to come away. And I am very glad I came.”
“You speak in a riddle,” said Jack.
“It is easily read. When Pastor Stepanian’s wife died, the news came by telegraph to Oriort Elmas in Aintab. It was in her heart to go home at once to her father and her young brothers, who must need her sorely. But what a journey for a girl, and a girl all alone, with only khartijes for companions and protectors! Only think of it, four long days on horseback, and three nights in the wayside khans! And then the perils of the road—wild Kourds everywhere, not to speak of other robbers, more treacherous, if less violent. I could not have it! So I told no one, but just wrote a note of apology, and left it for the Principal, slipped out without waiting for leave, put on a servant’s dress, and became her shadow, from the moment her lady teacher bade farewell to her in Aintab until she fell fainting into her father’s arms here in Urfa, last night.”
“A proper person you were to act as a young lady’s guardian!” said Barkev laughing.
“I did not say ‘guardian,’ I said ‘shadow,’” Kevork returned coolly. “One’s shadow is always before or behind. So I took care to keep; only letting her know I was there, if I was wanted. There were many ways I could help her. That is how I came to be here; and I suppose the Mission folk at Aintab will have no more of me, since I have broken all their rules. But I have got a good deal of their learning already,” he added with some complacency. “Yon Effendi, how are my father and my mother, and all our house in Biridjik, for we did not stay there on our way? And what in the world has brought you here?”
Jack answered his questions, marvelling the while at the mixture in his character. Shrewd, practical, and almost selfish in the pursuit of his ambition as he used to think him, he had served Elmas Stepanian with a delicate, self-sacrificing chivalry of which any lover might have been proud.
“I think,” said Barkev, “you would do well to go to the Badvellie. He is very learned, and might give you the lessons you have missed.”
“I will not trouble the Pastor yet,” answered Kevork with decision—”not until I can go to him for something else. No; I shall beg of Miss Celandine to give me work, teaching the boys that come to her school, and study for myself in the evenings.”
“You’ll get on,” said Barkev approvingly. “For you know what you want. ‘A polished stone is not left on the ground.’”
“I might, in any other country. But,” lowering his voice, “what is this I hear of fresh massacres?”
“Oh, rumours, rumours! There are always rumours. I would not think too much of them—not until we hear more.”
“You may well talk of rumours,” Kevork returned. “Some of the things people say are past thinking for foolishness. Do you know I heard in Aintab that some people say in Europe it is we who are massacring the Turks? As if we could, even suppose we would! Without firearms, or weapons of any kind, so much as to defend ourselves from the Kourdish robbers—good for us to think of killing Turks! ‘Twould be striking the point of a goad with one’s fist.”
“The wolf eats the lamb, and cries out that the lamb is eating him,” said Barkev. “But,” he added, glancing round apprehensively, “is there any talk of the English coming to help us?”
“Much talk there is of the Sultan’s having consented, moved thereto no doubt by the English and the other Christians, to grant us certain privileges.”
“We do not want privileges,” said Barkev; “we want justice. We want security for our lives and properties, and, above all, for our women.”
“Well, that is what these reforms are intended to give us.”
“I’ll believe in them, when I see a Moslem punished for a crime against one of us. And that is what my grandfather, in his seven and eighty years, has never seen, nor I think will little Nerses, who is not weaned yet, live to see it.”
“Where is the use of that kind of talk, true though it be?” said Kevork; “it only brings trouble.”
The heart of Kevork Meneshian was not just then attuned to trouble. The deepest gorges of the Alps have every day their gleam of sunshine, though it be but for one short hour; so even in the most shadowed lives there is usually some brief, golden moment, when the light in a soft eye or the smile on a dear lip is more than the fate of nations or of empires. It was such a moment now with Kevork; and it ought to have been such a moment with John Grayson, only, for him, it was love itself that hung suspended in the balance of fate.
Fate, for the time, seemed to have turned against him. The ride from Biridjik to Urfa had been done at headlong speed, and he had not reached his destination until it was almost noon, and the sun’s heat absolutely overpowering. He thought his miserable sensations afterwards were only the result of fatigue, and kept up bravely until the coming of Kevork, when he had to own to overpowering headache, and feverish alternations of heat and cold. He just managed somehow to write a letter to the Consul, which he asked the Vartonians to get Miss Celandine to forward for him, if she could. Then he yielded to destiny. For eight days he tossed in fever, with Kevork as his special nurse, his kind hosts also giving him every care and attention in their power.
Once the fever left him however, he recovered rapidly, his good constitution, strengthened by a simple and healthy life, coming to his aid. As soon as he was able to be about again, he said he would go to the Mission House, and ask Miss Celandine if she had any tidings for him. As he spoke, he was standing near one of the few windows of the Vartonian House which looked out upon the street. Something he saw there made him break off suddenly, pause a moment, then utter an exclamation of pity and horror.
“What is it?” asked Kevork, coming to the window, followed by Barkev, and two of the ladies of the house, who chanced to be present.
Along the street passed slowly, by twos and threes, in a straggling procession, some of the most miserable creatures the eye of man has ever looked upon. Gaunt, half famished, with limbs reduced to skin and bone, or else swollen out of all shape by disease, they walked on with uneven, tottering footsteps. All were in filthy, ragged garments; some had rags clotted with blood tied about their heads or their arms, others limped along with the aid of sticks. Just under the window a woman dropped in the street, and lay as one dead. The man who was walking beside her stood and looked, without doing anything to help. How could he? Both his hands were gone.
The three young men ran to the street together. Jack proved the quickest, and was already kneeling on the ground and trying to raise the poor woman when the others came up. “It is no use,” said the man beside her in a dreary, almost indifferent, tone. “She is dead.”
“I don’t know that,” said Jack. “Give her air, for heaven’s sake. Kevork, keep back the others. Barkev, you could fetch us some cordial.”
It was not so easy to obey him; for those before had stopped, while those behind came crowding up, and with the strangers a few Armenians of the town. One of these pushed through the rest with an air of authority. “Make way, good people,” he said; “I am a doctor.”
He did not seem a very prosperous member of the fraternity, to judge by his dress; but then he was young, and had the world before him. He felt the woman’s pulse and her heart, and said presently, “She is not dead; but she soon will be unless she gets proper care and nourishment. Who will help me to carry her into my dispensary close by?”
Jack volunteered, quite forgetting his recent illness; but Barkev raised an objection. “Better bring her to the Mission House,” he said. “Miss Celandine has food and medicine, and will take good care of her.”
“Miss Celandine will have her hands full. Besides, my place is near. Yes, sir, take her feet,”—he nodded to Jack. “I’ll manage the rest. This way, please.”
“You are a good fellow, Melkon Effendi, and I believe you are right,” said Barkev, his attention claimed by another of the miserable group, who was begging in God’s name for a bit of bread, as they had eaten nothing for several days but grass and roots.
Jack helped Melkon to lay his patient on the surgery table, and watched his efforts to restore animation. “Who are they?” he asked.
The young doctor answered in broken phrases without stopping his work. “From one of the villages—Rhoumkali—fugitives—there has been a massacre—wholesale—of our people—by Turks and Kourds.”
“Horrible? If you had seen the Sassoun refugees when they came here last winter, you might talk of horror. I believe the young Mission lady, Miss Fairchild, sacrificed her life to them.”
Miss Fairchild, Shushan’s friend! “Is she dead then?” Jack asked anxiously.
“They sent her away still hanging between life and death, and we know not yet which will conquer. But, as for massacres—to-day there, to-morrow here.”
“Not here, in a great city like this—not here surely,” Jack said. “But the villages, the little towns like Biridjik, for them one’s heart trembles,” he added, his thoughts flying to Shushan.
“She is coming to,” said Melkon cheerfully, the duty of the moment shutting out the terrors of the future.
“Well, my lad, what do you want?”—this to a youth who appeared in the doorway. “Oh, I see; you are one of Baron Thomassian’s people, and come just in time to fetch what I want. I am out of these drugs,” and he handed him a list.
“You shall have them, Melkon Effendi,” said the young man. “But my business now is with the other gentleman. I have just met Baron Barkev Vartonian, who told me I should find him here.”
“With me?” said Jack, a little excited; for what possible business could Thomassian have with him, except to give him a letter from England; or, at least, a letter or a message from the Consul?
“With you, sir. My master salutes you with all respect, and begs of you to honour his poor dwelling with a visit, and to drink his black coffee.”
Still under the same impression, and with bright visions floating before him of bringing his young bride in triumph to England, Jack only waited to see the poor woman fully restored to consciousness, and to give Melkon a little money to supply her immediate necessities. He then accompanied the youth to the house of Thomassian, leaving a message on his way for the Vartonians, to say whither he had gone.
He was rewarded with the first specimen of genuine Oriental wealth and splendour he had seen in Armenia. He had thought the house of the Vartonians a model of luxury, but this was a fairy palace! Muggurditch Thomassian himself, in a faultless European costume, met him at the door. He had heard nothing of his illness, which was not surprising, as he seldom saw his kinsfolk the Vartonians. He explained that he had taken the freedom of asking him to visit him at the earnest request of his wife, who had a great desire to see an Englishman once more. “She is from Constantinople,” he said a little proudly. “There she used to have much intercourse with the Franks, and especially with the English, whom she greatly esteems.” Then he led his visitor across the spacious marble court, with its beautiful fountain in the midst, its bushes laden with fragrant roses, its flowers of many kinds and hues. Some of them, which were rare and newly brought to the country, he pointed out to the Englishman.
Jack admired them duly, and expressed the satisfaction he would have in waiting on “the Madam”; but, the claims of courtesy thus fulfilled, he could not help adding, “I hoped you might have a letter to give me from my friends in England, or at least a communication from the Consul.”
“Have you had, yourself, no answer to your letter, Effendi?” Thomassian asked, as he stopped to gather for his guest some roses he had particularly admired.
“Djanum!” (my soul! a common exclamation) “Then I fear it must have gone astray in the post. You know how often, unfortunately, that happens here.”
“But the Consul?” Jack asked eagerly; “you spoke to him, did you not?”
“He was absent when I went to Aleppo,” Thomassian answered. “I wrote to him about your matters; but I fear that letter may have miscarried, like the other one.”
“That Consul is always somewhere else,” Jack thought despairingly, as he took off his shoes at the beautifully carved and polished door that led to the apartment of the ladies. He found himself, on entering, in a large room heavy with perfume. Silken hangings, richly embroidered, adorned the walls. Silk and satin cushions of all colours, often heavy with gold and silver, lay about in profusion. The only other furniture the room contained was the long satin-covered divan which occupied one side of it, and upon which there half sat and half reclined a very handsome lady. Her dress was of the costliest materials, and of a fashion partly Eastern and partly European. Jack made the usual compliments in his best style; and was invited to sit upon luxurious cushions, and by-and-by to partake of choice coffee, sherbet and sweetmeats, which were handed to him on silver trays by pretty, dark-eyed girls in silk zebouns and jackets. Meanwhile his host entertained him with what he could not help calling, in his disappointed soul, vapid and uninteresting commonplaces, the lady putting in now and then a languid but courteous word or two. His heart full of his own perplexities and of what he had just seen of the wretched fugitives from Rhoumkali, he began a question about the massacres there, but his host, with a warning glance directed towards his wife, turned the conversation immediately. Jack could understand his not wishing to alarm her, or to wring her heart with terrible details; especially as she did not look very strong.
But the time seemed long to him; and as soon as he thought it consistent with good manners, he rose to take his leave.
The lady called one of her attendants, and gave her a brief direction. The girl left the room, and speedily returned, bearing a pretty card-board box about a foot square, covered with coloured straw wrought in patterns. “Will you do me a kindness, Mr. Grayson?” said “the Madam.” “Will you take charge of this box of Turkish sweetmeats from Constantinople, and present it, with my salutations, to the little Vartonians, the cousins of my husband? But, I pray you, take toll of it in passing. Open the box, and eat the first sweetmeat yourself.” As she said this her dark eyes, for one instant, met and fixed the English blue eyes of Jack Grayson; the next, she was bidding him good-bye with perfect Eastern courtesy, just touched with the dignified nonchalance of the typical fine lady.
When Jack was once more alone with Thomassian, he spoke again of the horrors of Rhoumkali. Thomassian shrugged his shoulders. “It is very dreadful,” he said.
“Can nothing be done?”
“Nothing, Mr. Grayson. Foolish people, who run about talking of things they do not understand, only get themselves and other men into trouble. Here is what happens many a time—there is some wild talk going of help from England, or some such nonsense, and on the strength of it some hot-headed fellow kills a Kourd, or resists a zaptieh, and then all hell is let loose upon us.”
“But if the zaptieh is torturing his father for not paying a tax he does not owe, or giving up a rifle he has not got? Or, if the Kourd is taking—well, you know what I mean; the word chokes me,” said Jack, thinking of Shushan.
“Let be! let be! ‘Speech is silver, silence is golden.’ ‘The heart of the fool is in his tongue, the tongue of the wise man is in his heart.’—Mr. Grayson, I thank you for honouring me with a visit. I beg of you to salute my cousins in my name. I hope old Father Hagop’s cough is not so troublesome now? And how is the little one? Does he begin to walk yet? I hope to have the pleasure of visiting them very shortly, but business is pressing just now.” With such talk as this he led Jack once more to the outer door; and he, as he took his final leave, remembered an English word which he had hardly thought of since he left the shores of his native land. He confessed himself decidedly “bored.”
As soon as he got home, he opened the box of sweetmeats and looked anxiously for what the giver might mean by the “first.” Each of the dainty morsels was wrapped up separately in thin paper; but one of them looked, on close inspection, as if the paper had been removed, and then carefully replaced. He took it off, and found—traced upon it in very fine, faint handwriting—the following words:
“MR. JOHN GRAYSON—
Shushan is in danger. The chief wife of Mehmed Ibrahim is my friend. She does not wish Shushan to be found. She tells me Mehmed has discovered the name of the village where she is, and will set on the Kourds to attack it, and to make her a prisoner. There is no safe place for her, except the house of the American missionaries here—if only you can bring her to it secretly, in some disguise—for the Turks do not dare to enter it. I may not write to the Mission ladies myself, as my husband forbids me to have any communication with them, therefore I write to you. You will know what to do. God bless you.