Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his desert is small,
Who spares to put it to the touch
And gain or lose it all.
—Marquis of Montrose
Jack often went to the service held daily, a little after sunrise, in the Gregorian Church.
So did many members of the household, Mariam, Shushan, and Gabriel especially being constant attendants.
One day the returning party was met at the door by Hagop, weeping bitterly.
Asked by every one what was wrong, he sobbed out, “The cattle! The cattle!”
“What is wrong with the cattle?”
“They are not wrong—they are all gone. The Kourds have taken them away—every one.”
“Every one? The kine, and the sheep and goats as well?”
“There’s not a cow left to low nor a lamb to bleat of them all. The shepherds have come in, wounded and beaten, to tell us. Grandfather says they did all they could. Amaan! Amaan!”
By this time the women were all weeping. For them it meant ruin—almost starvation. But Gabriel touched his mother’s hand caressingly, and whispered a word from the Psalm they had just sung in church: “His are the cattle upon a thousand hills.”
“But that is unbearable!” Jack burst out.
“It has to be borne,” Mariam said sadly.
“We shall see! I cannot believe such things are done—here even—and there is no remedy. A man’s whole possessions swept away at a stroke. Hagop, where are the men?”
“In the great front room.”
“I will go to them. Come, Gabriel.”
But Hagop pulled his brother back. “You won’t be let in,” he said. “I was not.”
“I am two years older.”
“But you are not a man. Father said, ‘This is for men,’ and took me by the shoulder and turned me out.”
Jack rather wondered what had to be talked of which intelligent boys of twelve and fourteen ought not to hear, but he said nothing, and went in at once.
He found all the men of the household, with a few of their intimate friends, gathered in the large room of which Hagop had spoken. As he entered all were silent. They stood together in a dull stupor, like cattle before a thunderstorm. In their faces was profound sadness, mingled with fear. Jack looked around on them, and cried out impetuously, “Are we going to stand this outrageous robbery? Is there nothing to be done?”
There was no answer. Some bowed their heads despairingly; others put their hands on their hearts, and said, “Amaan!” Others, again, looked up and murmured, “God help us!”
Jack turned to Hohannes. The old man was weeping, his face buried in his cloak. The sight touched him.
“Father, do not weep,” he said gently. “We will try to recover at least something.”
Hohannes flung his cloak aside with a gesture of passionate pain. “Dost think I am weeping for sheep and oxen?” he said. “Friends, this young man is to me as a son, and to Shushan as a brother. Tell him—I cannot.”
Pale with a new alarm, Jack turned to the rest, “What is this?” he cried. “Tell me, in God’s name.”
They looked at each other in silence. At last Avedis, who seemed fated to belie his name, found his voice. He said hoarsely, “Just after the shepherds came to tell about the flocks, my father was called aside. It was a private message from the Kaymakam, who is not so bad as some. He sent to warn us that Mehmed Ibrahim has found out Shushan is here. He will send to demand her for his harem, and we will have to give her up.”
Jack groaned, and turned his face away. Silence fell upon them all—a silence that might be felt. After a while some one said, “He has not sent yet. The Kaymakam’s warning was well meant.”
“Yes,” said Avedis, “we have given gold. He will get us a respite if he can.”
“What use in a respite,” Boghos, Shushan’s father, moaned in his despair—”except to dress the bride?”
“The bride!” a younger man repeated,—rage, hate, and shame concentrated in the word.
There was another pause, and a long one. Then John Grayson strode out into the middle of the room and stood there, his form erect, his eyes flashing, his arm outstretched. “Listen!” he cried, in a voice like the sharp report of a rifle.
Every one turned towards him, but old Hohannes said hopelessly, “It is no use; yet speak on, Yon Effendi; thou dost ever speak wisely.”
“There is one way of saving Shushan.”
“Let me speak first,” an old man, as old as Hohannes, broke in hastily. “Englishman, thou hast lived long among us, but thou art not of our race. Thou dost not yet understand that we are born to suffer, and have no defence except patience. I wot thou wouldst talk to us of fighting and resistance; for thou art young, and thy blood is hot. But I am old, and my head is grey. I have seen that tried often enough—ay, God knows, too often! Did not my son die in a Turkish prison, and my daughter, whom he struck those blows to save—Well, she is dead now, and Shushan—as we hope—will die soon, for God is merciful. But let there be no word spoken of resistance here; for that means only anguish piled on anguish, wrong heaped on wrong.”
Without change of voice or attitude, Jack repeated his words, “There is one way of saving Shushan.”
Avedis spoke up boldly. “Let us hear what Yon Effendi has to say. He saved her once already from the wild dogs.”
Jack looked round the room. “Do I not see a priest here? Yes, Der Garabed.”
The priest had been ill, and had come out now for the first time, drawn by sympathy for the troubles of the Meneshians. He was sitting in a corner on some cushions, but when his name was spoken he rose, in his long black robe with large sleeves, like an English clergyman’s gown.
“What do you want of me, Yon Effendi?” he asked.
“I want you to marry me to-morrow morning to Shushan Meneshian.”
A murmur of astonishment ran round the room. Old Hohannes was the first to speak. “Dear son, thou art beside thyself. Forget thy foolish words. We will forget them also.”
“I am not beside myself, and I speak words of truth and soberness,” said Jack, to whom Bible diction came naturally now. “There is no other way.”
“One cannot do things after that fashion,” the priest said vaguely, being much perplexed, “nor in such haste. One must be careful not to profane a sacrament of the Church.”
“Where is the profanation? I love her—more than my life.” Crimson to the roots of his hair, and with the blood throbbing in every vein, John Grayson stood, in that supreme moment, revealed to his own heart, and flinging out the revelation as a challenge to all that company of sorrowful, despairing men.
“It is a strange thing, a very strange thing,” said Hohannes, stroking his beard.
He expressed the sense of the whole assembly. The proposal was a breach of every convention of their race, amongst whom betrothal invariably precedes marriage. “It cannot be done in that way,” was their feeling.
Jack knew their customs as well as they did; but, being an Englishman, he thought necessity should and must override custom. He spoke again, with that curious calmness which sometimes marks the very heart of an intense emotion, the spot of still water in the midst of the whirlpool. “As the wedded wife of an Englishman, no Turk will dare to molest her. I should like to see him try it! He would have England to reckon with, and England can keep her own.”
Now, if any hope survived in the crushed hearts of these oppressed, downtrodden Armenians, it was hope in England. The English were Christians, so they would have the will to help them; they were mighty warriors and conquerors, so they would have the power. Themselves under the pressure of a malignant, irresistible power, they had perhaps an exaggerated idea of what power could accomplish, if combined with beneficence.
Certainly for a young man to marry a girl in that way, without preparation, without betrothal, without even time to make the wedding clothes, was a thing unheard of since the days of St. Gregory. Yet, what if it were the only way of saving Shushan?
Hohannes spoke at last. “Yon Effendi,” he asked, “have you the right to do this? Is there in your own land no head of your house, no kinsman, without whose leave this thing ought not to be done? Answer, as in the sight of God.”
Jack held up his head proudly. “There is none,” he said. “I am my own master.”
“Then,” Hohannes resumed, “it is my mind to say to you, do what is in your heart, and may God bless you.”
“Then,” said Jack, “with your leave, father, I will ask her.”
“And I, the head of her house, give her to you in the name of God.”
Jack looked around in perplexity. “But you know I have got to ask her,” he repeated. Boy as he was when he left England, he knew that when a man wished to marry, the one indispensable preliminary was to “ask” the lady of his choice.
Then arose Boghos, who had been nearly silent hitherto in a sorrow too great for words or tears. “I too her father, I give her unto thee in the Name of God,” he said solemnly.
“I have only, then, to ask her,” Jack persisted.
“Thou hast asked, and we have given her.” It was Hohannes who spoke now. “What yet remains to do?”
Jack pulled himself together, and tried to explain. “But if she—does not like me—I can’t—you know.—Don’t you understand?—I must speak to her, and ask her if she will have me.”
The men stood silent, looking at each other. Had they spoken their thoughts, they would have said, “Heard ever any man the like of that?” Scarcely would they have been more surprised had Jack, wishing to sell his horse, announced that he could not conclude the bargain without the creature’s express consent.
At last Avedis threw out a modest suggestion. “This may be one of the customs of the English people, which we do not understand. No doubt they have their customs, as we have ours.”
Jack turned to him gratefully. “You are right, Avedis. It is the custom of my country to take the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ only from the lady’s lips.
“A very strange custom,” muttered Boghos.
“But if it is the custom, we ought to conform to it, however strange or unsuitable it may appear to us,” Der Garabed advised. “We should do all things in order; and moreover, should we fail in this, it might happen that in the English country the marriage would not be recognised. Therefore this is what I propose: let us send for the young maiden, and let the Englishman, in our presence, do after the manner of his country.”
This was too appalling! Jack tingled all over at the thought of such an ordeal for Shushan, and for himself. “Oh, I can’t! For Heaven’s sake, let me go to her,” he said.
“If that also is according to the custom, it shall be duly observed,” said Hohannes, with the air of one who humours a sick person. “Let us all go.”
Happily for Jack, some of those present had the sense to reflect that the women’s apartment would not hold them all, and that therefore their assistance might be dispensed with. Still the grandfather and father of the maiden, two of her uncles, the priest, and three other persons thought it behoved them to go and witness the due performance of this ceremony of the English.
Jack was conducted by this solemn group to the room where Shushan sat with her mother. As with trembling footsteps he approached her, the rest fell back and stood in a grave half-circle, their ears and eyes intent upon his every word and motion. “Heaven help me!” thought Jack. “Had ever man to propose in such a way? What shall I say?” But no words would come to him; sense and speech seemed both to have departed from him.
The silence throbbed in his ears like a pulse of pain—the awful silence, which he knew he ought to break, which he must break, for his life, and more than his life—and yet he could not. Not a word could he utter.
Shushan, meanwhile, not knowing what all this might portend, hastily veiled her face, and clung to her mother. Mariam had a copper dish which she had been cleaning in her hand, and in her surprise and alarm she let it go. It slipped slowly down her dress, and fell at last with a slight sound upon the floor. In the strained silence every one started, and Shushan dropped her veil with a little frightened cry.
Jack saw her sweet face, pale with anguish, her soft, dark eyes, heavy with unshed tears. Every thought was lost in an unutterable longing to snatch her from the fate that threatened her. “Will you let me save you, Shushan?” he pleaded, coming close to her,—and his voice was the voice of a strong man’s infinite tenderness.
Shushan stood up, looked around upon her father, her grandfather, and all the rest, then looked calmly and steadily in the face of the Englishman. “Yes,” she said softly.
For she knew there was one way of escape for the Christian maiden in a strait like hers. There had been often in Armenia Christian fathers strong enough to say, like Virginius,—
“And now, my own dear little girl, there is no way but this.”
What more likely than that the brave, kind Englishman—whom it would not hurt so much, as he was not of her own blood—might do for her that which her kindred would find too hard? There was a strange fascination, a sort of rapture in the thought of dying by his hand. “I am not afraid,” she said, with a firm sweet look,—”not afraid to die.”
“To die!” Jack cried in horror. “Who talks of dying? No, you shall not die, but live. You shall live for me, my own true wife, in happy England. Say ‘yes’ to that, Shushan.”
She looked at him in wonder. At last the colour mounted to her pale cheeks, her lips parted softly, and a low murmur came, “If God wills.”
Hohannes turned gravely to the rest. “No doubt,” he said, stroking his beard, “Yon Effendi has done after the manner of the English, when they would take their wives. If he is satisfied, we may go our way, thanking God, who has sent him to the help of our dear child in her peril.”
Jack’s heart beat thickly, as one by one they went, and he was left alone with Shushan and her mother. Hohannes had looked back to see if he were following; but no, he stood rooted to the spot. “The custom of his country,” thought the old man, and passed on.
Jack stood looking on the ground, not daring to raise his eyes to Shushan’s face. But when the last retreating footstep had died away, he looked up, and there was that in his face which she had never seen before. The question of his heart was this: “Does she care for me, or am I only better than a Turk?” It spoke in his eyes, and thrilled her with a sense of something strangely new and sweet. He had been kind and good to her for so long a time, but this—what was this?
Instinctively she turned from him to her mother. Mariam’s tears of joy and thankfulness were falling drop by drop. She could have thrown herself at the feet of the deliverer of her child. But, true to the custom of her race when a maiden is in the presence of him who has chosen her, she drew the veil over her daughter’s face.
“Ah!” Jack exclaimed involuntarily. But he had seen enough—enough at least to assure him that he could teach Shushan to love him as he loved her. “Dear mother,” he said, “you have been a mother to me for so long; now I am going to be your son altogether, and take care of your Lily.”
Scarcely had the men reached the court when the priest said gravely, “There is one thing we have left out of our account, which is serious, and may not be disregarded. An Englishman cannot marry a subject of the Sultan without a written permission from his own Consul—even if he can do it except in the Consul’s presence. Under the circumstances, I dare not perform the ceremony; terrible harm might come of it; and moreover it might not be valid in England.”
Most of the party knew this already, but in their excitement they had disregarded or forgotten it. They stood just as they were in the court, and looked at one another; “all faces gathered blackness.”
“Call forth Yon Effendi and tell him,” said Hohannes.
Avedis called him, and he came, his face flushed and glowing with a shy, half-hidden rapture.
Der Garabed explained the difficulty. Jack tossed his head impatiently, like a young horse restrained unwillingly by bit and bridle. “What a plague!” he cried in boyish indignation. Then, his face changed and sobered as the man within him asserted himself; he seemed to grow years older all at once. “This is what we will do,” he said: “Bring Shushan well disguised to one of the Christian villages near—you know them all, and which is best to choose—and hide her there for a few days. I will take horse this very hour and ride to Urfa. You know it is reported the Consul is there at present. If he is, I can see him; if not, I can go after him. I daresay he can give me some writing, or document, which will make everything straight for us. But if he cannot, and the thing must be done in his presence, I will bring Shushan to him, were he at the end of the world. For I carry this thing through, or I die for it—so help me God!”
“Good. And before you go, we will betroth her to you,” Hohannes answered.
Then he took him privately into the room where his father’s things were hidden. He gave him all the gold that remained; and then, with an air of mystery, took out another parcel, and having unwound its many wrappings, displayed to Jack’s astonished eyes a small revolver and a belt of cartridges.
“I did not know you had these,” he said.
“No; I was afraid to tell you while you were but a boy; lest some chance word to your companions might betray that we had firearms here, and ruin us all; or else you might have been too eager to get hold of them, and unwilling to wait. But now you are a man, and have sense and understanding; and on the way to Urfa, where there are robbers, they may be of use to you.”
Jack took the revolver in great delight, and went off to examine it. In England he had been a good shot for a boy of his age, though only with an ordinary gun. But he had sometimes cleaned the revolver for his father, so he knew what to do. He found it in a terrible condition from rust and damp, and feared it would be quite useless. However, he managed with great difficulty to clean two barrels out of the six, and to load them; more it would be useless to attempt.
As he was thus engaged some one knocked at the door. Knowing his occupation to be a very dangerous one, he did not say, “Come in,” but went and opened it cautiously. Gabriel stood there. “Yon Effendi,” he said, “the post is going to-night.”
“That means that you may get to Urfa in nine hours instead of in two days; for you know they go the whole way at a hard gallop. It means safety too, for they have zaptiehs to guard them.”
“Good, Gabriel. ‘Tis thou shouldst be called Avedis (good tidings). I will go at once and settle to go along with them.”
“You will hide that thing,” said Gabriel, with a frightened glance at the revolver. “’Twould mean death. And oh, Yon Effendi, one word, please!” He stooped, kissed his hand, and pressed his forehead to it. “Tell them a boy comes with you. Take me, I pray of you, Yon Effendi!”
Jack hesitated. “There would be danger for you,” he said.
“No more than here.”
“But your father and mother, and your grandfather, Gabriel?”
“They give me leave; nay, they wish it. They say it is for my sister you are doing all this; therefore if I can help you—and I can. I know Turkish well, and that will be very useful. I know the ways of the Turks too, much better than you do. And I love you, Yon Effendi.”
There was reason in what he said, and in the end he had his way.
That evening all the Meneshian family met together in the largest room of their house, the men and boys sitting at one side of it, the women at the other. At an ordinary time they would have “called their neighbours and chief friends,” but now they were afraid to do it; so Der Garabed was the only outsider, and his presence was official, for he read certain prayers of the Church and a passage of Scripture. Then Jack stood up, and walked over to the place where Shushan sat, beside her mother. In his hand was his father’s Bible and another book—an Armenian hymnbook. Shushan rose and stood before him with bowed head and veiled face, as with a few low-breathed words he gave her the books. She took them from him, and laid them on the table. No word was spoken by her; in taking them she had done enough. The betrothal was sealed. Then, according to custom, the boys handed round bastuc and paclava, (a kind of paste made with honey,) and also coffee and sherbet. But this was rather a sacrifice to use and wont than a genuine festivity. The little gathering soon broke up, and Jack and Gabriel prepared for their journey.
At nightfall they said to their friends and kindred the usual “Paree menác” (remain with blessing), and were answered by the usual, and in this case most heartfelt “Paree yetac” (go with blessing).