BARON MUGGURDITCH THOMASSIAN
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“Warbling still amidst the others,
Wandering with them where they roam,
And yet hallowing remembrance,
With low gushes about home.”
No doubt some subtle form of nervous weakness, the relic of his long and terrible illness, still held young John Grayson in its grasp. Moreover the loss of his father, so intensely loved, had entered like iron into his soul. His mother’s death was still, when he left home, a recent bereavement, and he was an only child. He had no near relatives except in his uncle’s family, and even amongst them there was only one he cared for much, his father’s godson, a cousin five years his senior, whose fag he had been at school.
What had he, after all, to go back to in England? He excused his torpor with thoughts like these, whenever it occurred to him to ask himself if he meant to spend his life tending vines, teaching English, and studying Armenian, in a little out-of-the-way town on the banks of the Euphrates.
He spent many months there without taking much note of time. The Meneshians were his family; the whole Armenian community his friends. He entered more and more into their life, shared more and more their interests. He was especially interested in the culture of the vineyard, wanting to know the how and the why of everything. Once—but this was in early days—he proposed taking Kevork and a couple of other lads with him, and going to stay there long before the regular vintage time. “We could guard it a great deal better,” he said, “than that lazy Turk, who does nothing but lie all day on his perch smoking cigarettes, and is always wanting backsheesh.”
“You could not do it at all,” answered Boghos, the eldest son of Hohannes, and the husband of Mariam Hanum, “just because you are not a Turk. Backsheesh is very well spent in setting the Turk to watch the Kourd, instead of both of them preying upon us. Do you not know that yet, Yon Effendi?”
They all continued to give him that name, which he had taught in the first instance to Kevork and his brothers. To them all he was a cross between a pet and plaything to be taken care of, and a superior person to be honoured. In both capacities he had every attention, and all his wants were liberally supplied. But he insisted that Hohannes should expend for that purpose some of his father’s gold, and should give from time to time a small sum by way of compensation to Boghos and Mariam Hanum, with whom he lived. Money was so scarce in that region that a very small sum sufficed.
At last one day the whole Meneshian family, and indeed the whole Armenian quarter of Biridjik, was thrown into excitement by the news that Baron Muggurditch Thomassian (in English, Mr. Baptist Thomson), was about to honour them with a visit. He was travelling from Urfa to Aintab, and proposed staying a day or two on his way with his kinsfolk, the Meneshians.
Jack shared in the excitement. He was very curious to see this wealthy, travelled, educated Armenian, whom he expected to find of a very different type from the simple folk of Biridjik. And now, at last, he was sure to find through him the opportunity of communicating with his friends in England, which, however little eagerness he might feel in the matter, he knew he ought not to neglect.
What could the duteous and admiring kinsfolk of Baron Thomassian do on the occasion, except pay him the attention of riding “three hours distance” to meet him on his way, even although it was midwinter, the rains heavy and the wretched road ankle-deep in mud? Boghos led the party, and Jack went among the rest. Old Hohannes had a few fine horses, of which he was very proud; and he had given one of them to Jack, to his immense delight and satisfaction.
In that district there is scarcely any snow, and the rain had happily cleared off, so it was only a splashed and muddy, and not a drenched and soaking company that drew up by the wayside in the shelter of a little hill, to await the coming of the travellers.
At last the jingling of mule bells announced the approach of the caravan. There was a long string of khartijes, or muleteers, there were some servants on horseback, and a few zaptiehs to act as guards. These were fully armed of course, and the central figure of the whole, Baron Thomassian himself, rode a very fine horse, and actually carried a gun at his side, for which he must have got a special “permit” from the government. He was a good-looking middle-aged man, dressed à la Frank, or in complete European costume, except that he wore a fez in place of a hat, which was amongst the things forbidden to an Armenian.
There was something else which gave all the Biridjik folk a great surprise. Beside him rode a slight young girl, closely wrapped in a long “ezhar” of striped silk, which was drawn as a veil over the greater part of her face, leaving very little of it visible except her large, beautiful, dark eyes. Veiled though she was, Boghos recognised his daughter, and Kevork at least guessed his sister. Scarce, for looking at her, could they give their kinsman the customary greeting, “Paré yejock” (your coming is a joy), or wait for the response, “Paré dessack” (we see you with joy). And Thomassian hastened to say, “I have brought your daughter back to you at the request of your cousin, Baron Vartonian. I will explain the reason afterwards.” Then Boghos kissed his daughter on both cheeks, and she kissed his hand and asked for his blessing. Kevork kissed her also; and Jack, keeping modestly in the background, thought what a pleasant thing it must be to have a sister. He had already seen lovely faces among the girls and women of Biridjik, but never, as he thought, eyes quite so soft and dark, lips quite so rosy, and cheeks of such perfect form and hue.
All the rest, who were old acquaintances, came crowding round her; and then Boghos turned his attention to Jack, and made him known to Thomassian, with much polite observance, as their English friend, John Grayson Effendi.
They rode back together to Biridjik, Boghos devoting himself to the entertainment of Thomassian. Jack could not help wondering that they all showed so little pleasure at the return of Shushan; on the other hand, a sort of constraint and gloom seemed to brood over the whole party. Kevork would give him no explanation. Even when he said, “I am surprised to see your sister looking so young. She seems scarcely fourteen. I thought, of course, from what you told me, that she must be older than you.” Kevork only answered, with a quick, guarded look around, “She was but ten years old when she left us.”
After the festive supper in honour of the guest, Thomassian explained the matter in private to Hohannes and to Boghos.
“Your former Kaymakam, Mehmed Ibrahim,” he said, “has come to Urfa. He has got some good office there in the Government. Somehow he found out that Shushan was there with the Vartonians, and—he has not forgotten. In short, she must go. There was no other way.”
“Amaan!” or “Oh dear!” was all her father said. But he looked perplexed and sorrowful, seeing trouble before them all.
Hohannes put the trouble into words. “He may find out, and send after her here.”
“The Vartonians thought not. You must keep her as close as you can, or send her in disguise to one of the villages.”
“How dare we—for the Kourds? A bride on her way from the church was carried off the other day from Korti, and the bridegroom and her father, who tried to defend her, were both killed. Our girls are not safe anywhere, except in their graves.” Though they sat within closed doors, they all spoke in low tones, and with furtive glances around them.
“Our only possible protection,” Thomassian said, “lies in the wealth our abilities and our industry enable us to gain. The Turks and Kourds consider our peace and safety marketable properties, which they are willing to sell us at a good price.”
“Yes,” said Hohannes sadly, “until they find we have nothing more to give, or until it suits them to take all together.”
Thomassian, who probably did not much care to talk on these matters, said that he was weary with his journey, and expressed a wish to go early to rest.
Kevork had been hanging about watching for an opportunity of speaking with him, and now, as soon as the door was opened, he came forward, offering politely to attend him to his sleeping-place.
A little later he came quickly, and evidently in much excitement, into the room where Shushan was sitting, with her mother and several other women and girls of the household, who had come in to see her.
“Mother, I have done it!” he cried.
“Done what, my son?” asked his sad-faced mother.
She was sitting, as usual, behind her wheel, but its whirr was silent now. She had enough to do in looking in the face of Shushan, and holding her hand.
“I have made a conquest of old Cousin Muggurditch,” said Kevork triumphantly. “He will take me with him to Aintab, and put me to the Foreigners’ School.”
A murmur of surprise ran round the room. But his mother asked, with some shrewdness,—
“What did you give him?”
“What you gave me, mother. I owe all to you. It was those gold coins that did it.”
The other women looked significantly at Mariam. The strings of gold coins which she wears about her person are the Armenian woman’s only absolute and indisputable possession. They stand to her instead of settlements and dowry. That must be precious indeed for which she will sacrifice them.
“He made little of the coins at first,” said the quick-witted lad; “but that was all in the way of business. I could see that he thought a good deal of them, and liked well to get them.”
“How much did you sell them for?” asked Mariam.
“I did not sell them. Not such a fool as that! I mean you to have them again some day, mother. I only gave them in pledge to him—he promising to advance my school expenses—until I should be able to repay him.”
“But that is for ever and ever,” said one of the women.
“Nothing of the sort. After two years at Aintab I shall be a teacher, and able to earn money for myself.”
Here Shushan looked up and spoke. She was very beautiful; not only with the beauty characteristic of her race—soft dark eyes, black pencilled eyebrows almost meeting, long curling eyelashes, and olive-tinted, regular features—but with the rarer loveliness of a sweet, pure expression, that suited well her name, Shushan, the Lily. During her four years of absence the familiar surroundings of home had become strange to her, so she spoke with a certain timidity.
“My brother,” she said, looking appealingly up to the tall youth whom she had left a mere child—”my brother, will you do something for me when you go to Aintab?”
Kevork protested his willingness, although somewhat surprised.
“My dearest friend,” said Shushan, “the person I love best in the world, next after my father and mother and my brothers, is just now going to Aintab, to the school for girls. They hurried me away so quickly that I could not see her to say good-bye. And I shall not see her now; for, although she must pass by this on her way, she will not come into the town, but lodge in the khan outside. Will you salute her for me, and give her this as a gift from her poor little friend, Shushan Meneshian?” She drew from her bosom something resembling a necklace, made of amber beads, and held it out to Kevork.
He stooped down to take it, saying, “Well, then, my sister, what is the name of the girl?”
“Elmas Stepanian; she is the daughter of the Badvellie.”
“Badvellie” means “full of honour”; and the Armenians usually speak of their priests and pastors by this respectful title.
“Stay, Kevork,” said his mother. “You had better not take that tebish. Shushan is a child, and does not know the world. But do you think that it is possible the foreigners would allow the boys and the girls to speak to one another? They are very good people, else surely our cousins would not have let their own children, and Shushan, go to school to them.”
This certainly was a difficulty, and even Shushan looked perplexed. But Kevork was equal to the occasion. “Yon Effendi tells me that the foreign Effendis, men and women, talk to each other just as much and as often as they like,” he said. “Shushan, my sister, I will pray of the Effendi who teaches me to give thy token to the Effendi who teaches Oriort Elmas Stepanian, and she will find some right way, I have no doubt, of giving it to her.”
“Do so, Kevork, and I thank thee many times.” She gave him the string of beads, and then her tongue waxed eloquent in praise of her friend. “She is so good, so clever,” she said. “She knows, oh, so many things! She can speak and write English, not just a little as I do, but beautifully, like a real American! She knows grammar and geography, and the counting up of figures, and the story of the world. She does not want a thought-string like that to help her.” (Both Turks and Armenians are accustomed, when thinking or talking, to finger strings of beads, called tebishes, and to obtain some mysterious assistance from the process.) “Oh! no. She would never use one at school, nor indeed would most of us. But now she is going where she will have such very hard lessons to learn, that perhaps she may be glad of it. At least it will remind her of her poor little Shushan. Tell her, Kevork, that Shushan puts a prayer for her on every bead she sends her.”
“I think it is a very foolish plan to teach all those things to girls,” one of the old women observed. “They will be fit for nothing else in the world but reading books, and who will mind the babies? And what will become of cooking and washing and baking bread, not to talk of spinning and sewing?”
“The girls of the American school at Urfa cook and bake and spin and sew right well for their years,” Shushan spoke up bravely. “And those who go to Aintab, like Elmas, learn those things even better there. Oh, I wish you could see Elmas in her home, working to help her mother, and taking care of her little brothers and sister; you would know what she was worth then.”
This did not fall upon unheeding ears. Young Kevork made a mental note of it; then turned quickly to ask his mother what she could manage to give him in the way of clothing, as his cousin wished to set out on his journey the morning of the day after next.
Meanwhile Jack was busily employed writing to his uncle, and to his uncle’s son. The former he told, briefly enough, of his father’s death, his own long illness, and the care and kindness of the people amongst whom he had fallen. He asked him to write to him, and to send him money for his journey home, and also to recompense those who had been so good to him. He knew, of course, that he would have a considerable income of his own, so he felt no difficulty in making this request. He concluded with love to his relatives and enquiries after their welfare. To his cousin he wrote more freely, and gave more particulars. But even to him his words did not flow easily. He could not take up his life in his hand, and look at it from the outside, so as to describe it to another. He could only give details of his surroundings, and of this he soon tired, being unaccustomed to write in English, or indeed to write at all. He broke off abruptly, folded up the two letters in one, sealed the packet, directed it to his uncle, and brought it to Thomassian.
Baron Muggurditch Thomassian was emphatically the courteous, cultured, cosmopolitan Armenian. He had amassed a considerable fortune in his business, which was that of a merchant of drugs; and to which he joined some cautious and lucrative money-lending. Moreover, he had travelled far, and seen much. He could speak several languages quite well enough to make shrewd bargains in them; and he knew the art of spending as well as of making money. He could appreciate music, poetry, and painting, no less than luxuries of a more material kind. Yet Jack felt as if he could never love him, never trust him even, as he did his friends in Biridjik. “I don’t know what it is,” he said to himself; “for there is nothing amiss with his looks, except perhaps something a little shifty about his eyes.”
Nothing, however, could have been more courteous than his response to Jack’s request that he would take charge of his letter, and see it safe into some really reliable post-office.
“I am asking my friends to send money to bring me home,” he added, by way of explanation.
“How did you tell them to send it, Mr. Grayson?” asked Thomassian.
“I never thought of telling them how. I thought they would know themselves,” Jack answered simply.
“It is not so simple a matter as you think,” said Thomassian.
“Then what must I do? Stay, could it be managed this way? You are going to Aleppo?”
“The English Consul there was my father’s friend, and very kind to us. He would let my uncle send the money to him, and would know how to send it to me. I daresay he would write to my uncle too. You will ask him, will you not, Baron Thomassian?”
“I will do it without fail.”
“And I am very grateful to you,” Jack said, giving him his hand in English fashion, though the courteous Eastern did not fail to bow low over it.
Next morning Muggurditch Thomassian went his way, taking with him Jack’s letter and Jack’s chief friend Kevork, but leaving behind him what was destined to be of still more importance in the life of the English youth.