ROSES AND BATH TOWELS
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“He moved about the house with joy
And with the certain step of man.”
“Good-morning, Mr. John, I give you my salvation.”
Very softly and sweetly fell the English words from the pretty lips of Shushan. Jack stood before her (it was spring now) with a great basket of spring flowers—glorious red anemones, fragrant wild roses, pink and yellow—wild heliotrope, wild hyacinths, and other flowers for which we have no name in England. They were not alone together, of course; Mariam Hanum was there at her wheel, and two or three other women or girls of the family, spinning or sewing. Shushan herself was bending over a piece of the beautiful silk embroidery she had learned in Urfa, when the entrance of the young Englishman with the flowers they all loved so well made all look up together. Only the men and boys of their own family might come in thus freely to the room where the women sat; for any others the younger ones would have withdrawn, or at least have veiled their faces modestly. Shushan, at her first home-coming, used to do so for Jack; but the practice had gradually and insensibly fallen into disuse. She had been learning English in the school in Urfa, and at this time it was the greatest pleasure Jack had in life to hear her speak it. She was not unwilling to do so, being most anxious to remember all she had been taught.
“Is that right said, Mr. Yon?” she asked.
“It is very nice. And now, for my salutation, I give you my flowers. Here are enough for everybody.”
He laid the basket down beside Mariam, having first taken out a fragrant nosegay of roses and heliotrope, carefully chosen and tied with grass.
“It is for saying a good lesson,” he explained, as he offered it to Shushan.
Jack was now a tall, handsome youth of eighteen. Of late he had grown strong and active, and he took part as much as he could in outdoor life, especially in riding. In the saddle he was utterly fearless, and he began to be very helpful to Hohannes in the training of his young horses.
A month after the departure of Thomassian, he began to look out for answers to his letters. But in vain he watched and waited; nothing came for him. Weeks passed away, and then months; still the silence was unbroken. Jack was astonished, disappointed; sometimes, by fits and starts, he was angry. It looked as if his English friends did not care for him any longer, as if they chose to forget him. If it were not so, why had they, all this time, made no effort to find out what had become of his father and himself? Very well; if so it were, he could do without them. He could not just then feel any pressing anxiety to leave Biridjik; although of course he always meant to go back to England some time or other. When he came of age, he would certainly go, for then he could claim his inheritance.
But it was pleasant here. How richly glowed the Eastern sky! how glorious the wealth of roses! how sweetly smelled the blossoming vines, as he rode past the vineyards on the hills!
At last the vintage time came round again.
One fine autumn morning a string of horses, mules, and donkeys stood at the door of the Meneshians’ house. Upon them were packed two tents of coarse black cloth—that cloth of Cilicia which the tent-maker of Tarsus used to weave. Some thin mattrasses and rugs were thrown over the bright-coloured saddles, and in the saddlebags were provisions, cooking utensils, and a few changes of dress. Then the whole family, from old Hohannes down to the youngest child, seated themselves, or were seated, on the animals as best they could find a place; and the yearly visit to the vineyards—the great autumn holiday of the Armenians—began.
If ever they shook off the deep melancholy which ages of oppression had stamped upon their race, it was in the simple pleasures of those sweet vintage days. The days were all too short for them, so they began them very early, with the singing of a psalm or hymn together. Then they dispersed to the different kinds of work allotted to them. Some stripped the low trees of their wealth of clusters, others trod out the juice in wooden troughs; again, others made it into sherbet, or into a kind of sugar, or mixed it with starch and with the kernels of nuts for the preparation of bastuc. Again, a company of happy children plucked the large grapes singly from their stalks and laid them in the sun, on great white linen cloths, to turn themselves into raisins. Their labours were lightened with talk and song, and sometimes even with jests and laughter.
One morning John Grayson, gathering grapes apart from the rest, heard a piteous cry for help. The voice was Shushan’s; she was in pain or danger. Dropping his basket on the ground, he tore along, leaping over the low vines, making a straight line for the spot whence came the cry, whence came also horrible sounds—the yelps, the snarls, the growls of savage dogs.
In a corner of the vineyard Shushan and little Hagop clung together, just keeping at bay, with loose stones from the low wall, five or six wild, half-famished, wolfish dogs. Their strength was nearly gone. Another minute and they would be torn to pieces.
Jack dashed in amongst the dogs, dealing frantic kicks and blows about him. No matter what came next, if only he saved Shushan.
“Run! make for the tent!” he cried to her and Hagop.
The brutes being for the moment occupied with him, the thing was possible, and they did it.
The sunshine flashed on something bright in the belt of his zeboun—the great scissors used for cutting grapes. He seized it, and drove it with all his might into the neck of the nearest dog. Yelping with pain, the creature ran off. But the stoop was nearly fatal; two or three sprang on him at once;—he felt fierce teeth meeting in his flesh.
“Done for!” he groaned, conscious only of agony and blackness.
But the next moment a tumult of cries and shouts rang in his ears; the dogs were flying in all directions before the sticks and stones of his friends, who had hurried in a body to his help. They had heard the yelping even before Shushan and Hagop, trembling and exhausted, were able to reach them. The creatures belonged to some Kourdish shepherds, who chanced to be passing that way, and the low wall of the vineyard was no protection against their attacks.
Jack was brought back to his tent amidst the praises and condolences of the whole company. Mariam Hanum bound up his wounds, weeping and blessing him, and saying many a hearty “Park Derocha” (“Praise to the Lord”) for the deliverance of her children.
Shushan did not say much; but, after they went home from the vineyard, she was observed to be very busy over some choice embroidery. She did not take the time for it from her ordinary work, or from any of her domestic tasks, but she worked diligently all her spare time, and sometimes far into the night.
At last, one day, she laid a parcel of considerable size at the feet of the astonished English youth, saying timidly, “Yon Effendi, you saved my life. I want to thank you.”
The parcel contained what an Armenian lady considers the most graceful and most appropriate gift she can offer to a gentleman, especially if it be all her own work—a set of beautifully embroidered bath towels!
But a day was to come when John Grayson would have given all he possessed, nay, his very life, that he had not heard Shushan Meneshian’s agonized cry for help in the vineyard, or had heard it too late.