AN ARMENIAN WEDDING
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“’Till death us part’—oh, words to be
Our best for love the deathless.”
—E. B. Browning
At Biridjik, in the house of Hohannes Meneshian, and in the very room where John Grayson had caught his first glimpse of Armenian domestic life, two women sat at work. Mariam, looking old and careworn, was behind her wheel as usual; Shushan was bending over her beautiful embroidery. The room looked much barer than in the olden days, most of the curtains and rugs had disappeared, and there was no sign of any cooking in progress. This mattered the less however since grapes were in season now, and a basket of great, luscious clusters lay in the corner, destined to form, with rye bread, the evening meal of the family.
The villagers with whom Shushan had been staying had brought her home the day before. She was no longer safe with them. A Kourd, who had shown them a little friendliness, and to whom they had given backsheesh, had called to one of their men over the wall of the vineyard where he was working, “Take care! you have got a lily our sheikh wants to gather.” So they acted on the hint. Shushan was once more with her kindred, and in the place of her birth. But little joy had she, or they, in the meeting.
Her presence was a danger to her friends. She was hunted from place to place, like a partridge the dogs start from its cover that it may fall by the gun of the sportsman. Happy partridge, that would fall at once, gasp its little life out on the grass, and rest! No such rest for the Moslem’s victim!
More than once indeed, across the sad texture of Shushan’s life, there had shot a gleam of gold. She had been a happy girl in Urfa, when she went with her cousins to the Mission school, and learned beautiful things from the dear foreign ladies there. Afterwards in Biridjik, for a little while, she had been still happier, though with a different kind of happiness. The brave, strong, splendid English youth had come into her life and transfigured it. He had saved her from the savage dogs; he had done a still more wonderful thing than that. He had come to her help in her direst need, choosing her, claiming her for his own. Her heart throbbed yet with the fearful rapture of that day, the wonder-day of her short life—the day of her betrothal.
But now Yon Effendi was gone from her. All her joy seemed to have melted from her like the snow on the mountains, like the dreams of the night. It had left instead a yearning, painful in its sweetness, an “aching, unsatisfied longing,” for him who was its core and its centre. Yon Effendi was gone; but Mehmed Ibrahim, whom she had never seen, yet regarded with unutterable dread and loathing, seemed by his agents and instruments to be ever present, all around her, pressing her in on every side. She feared death far less than she feared him; but she was not yet quite sixteen, and since she had known Yon Effendi, she would have liked to live.
The well-taught pupil of the Mission school thought more clearly and felt more keenly than her simple-hearted mother, who had never had her chances; but the more capacious vessel only held in larger measure the bitter wine of pain. She had once or twice to turn her head aside, lest her tears should fall upon the work she was doing and spoil it.
“Mother,” she said at last, “I think, if God willed it, it were better I should die. There seems no place in the world for me.”
“Child, it is wrong to speak so,” Mariam answered. “We must live in the world as long as God pleases. To go out of it by our own act were a sin.”
“Except it were to avoid a sin,” said Shushan gravely, raising her sad eyes to her mother’s.
Both were silent for a moment. Then the mother spoke again.
“Daughter, before you went away you used to tell me the good words you learned in the school. I liked them, and they often came back to me when I was anxious and frightened. You remember how sore afraid I was that day the zaptiehs came for the taxes? Thy father had Gabriel’s tax and Hagop’s all right, but he thought Kevork’s would be paid in Aintab, and never thought of getting ready to pay it here. But they demanded it all the same, and I thought—’Now surely they will beat or torture him or your grandfather, because we have it not.’ But I remembered that word you told me from the letter of the holy St. Peter, ‘Casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you.’ So I said, ‘Jesus, help us!’ with all my heart,—and He did. For though they found and took away all our rice, they never saw the barley, or the bulghour, so we have that to live upon. And they went away content.”
Shushan put a few stitches in her embroidery before she answered. She was working, with crimson silk, the deep red heart of a rose. Richly the colours glowed beneath the skilful touch of her slight brown fingers, but out of her own life all the colour seemed to have gone. And now it was the strong that failed, and leaned upon the weaker for support; it was the better taught that turned wistfully to the simpler for words of cheer.
“Oh, my mother,” she said, “my heart is weary, my heart is sad! Sometimes even it asks of me, and gets no answer: ‘Does He care for us Armenians?”
Does He care for Armenians? Not only from the trampled land herself has that cry gone up in the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth,—from many a quiet home in countries far away, wherever the tale of her woes has come, it has echoed and re-echoed. “Strong spirits have wrestled over it with God” in the silent watches of the night, even until the breaking of the day; “tender spirits have borne it as a terrible and undefined secret anguish.” Is there any answer, yet, except this one, “What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter”?
Mariam had no wise words of comfort to give her child; but she had the mother’s secret of love, which so often is better than wisdom. She folded Shushan tenderly in her arms and kissed her. Then the girl recovered a little.
“I ought not to talk so to you, mother,” she said. “We know He does care.”
“Amaan! God is good,” Mariam said. “He cares for every one; even, I suppose, for the Turks.”
There was a silence during which Mariam resumed her spinning, and Shushan her embroidery.
“I am not easy about the grandfather,” Mariam said presently. “I wish we could get him to eat a little more. Since the fright about thee, and the loss of his flocks and herds, he has scarcely been his own man. And that last visit of the zaptiehs did him no good—What is that noise in the court? Some one has come.”
The whirr of the spinning wheel ceased, and Shushan dropped her work, growing very pale. Neither thought of going forth to see, for neither expected any good thing to come to them. Shushan would have hidden herself, but there did not seem time; so they sat in silence, listening to a confused Babel of sounds outside. But presently both cried at once,—
“The voice of Kevork, my son.”
“The voice of Yon Effendi, my betrothed.”
“Cover yourself, my daughter,” said Mariam hastily. And Shushan veiled her face, and sat still where she was, while the mother went forth to welcome her son, whom she had not seen for more than eighteen months.
That night, for once, the voice of joy and thankfulness was heard in the house of Hohannes Meneshian.
Jack had taken Kevork into council over the communication made to him by the wife of Thomassian. The two young men had agreed that no time was to be lost in returning to Biridjik and bringing Shushan back with them to Urfa, even if they had to disguise her for the purpose as a boy. Thinking the knowledge of their plan might imperil the Vartonians, they did not tell them of it. They told no one in fact except Miss Celandine, whose promise to receive and shelter Shushan was readily given.
Jack went to Muggurditch Thomassian, and asked him to lend him a sum of money. To this the merchant made no objection, for he felt certain the young Englishman would eventually have funds at his command. Jack gave him a written acknowledgment and promised him good interest, requesting him at the same time not to mention the matter to the Vartonians, who might be hurt at his not applying to them in the first instance. There was indeed little danger of his doing so, for the cousins, at the time, were not upon friendly terms. The Vartonians, like other Armenians, rich and poor, had contributed liberally to the needs of the unfortunate fugitives from Rhoumkali, even taking some of them into their house. They were indignant with their wealthy kinsman, who had given a handsome subscription to the cause, but seemed to be recouping himself by heavy charges upon the drugs and medicines supplied to the sufferers; and the younger members of the family expressed very freely their opinion of his conduct.
With part of Thomassian’s money Jack bought Kourdish dresses for himself and for Kevork, and also a smaller one, fit for a boy of about fourteen. He had still the good horses upon which he and Gabriel had ridden to Urfa. After a sharp conflict with himself, he decided not to wait for the Consul’s communication. Shushan could be still his betrothed; as such he and Kevork could bring her to Urfa, and place her under Miss Celandine’s protection. The marriage could take place afterwards.
However, to his great delight, just as they were starting, the necessary papers arrived. Miss Celandine’s influence had obtained them, and she also procured for the travellers a zaptieh to guard them on their journey. They took an affectionate farewell of the Vartonians, whom they told simply that they were returning to Biridjik, and of Gabriel, now an ardent and delighted pupil in the Missionary School.
Their journey to Biridjik was without adventure. On the way they agreed together that they would not say much to their friends about the massacres. But the precaution was a needless one, for already they knew enough.
As it was September and very hot, they travelled by night, arriving in Biridjik on the morning of the second day. The remaining hours were given up to talk, to rest, and to making arrangements for the future.
In spite of all the dangers that surrounded them, Kevork could not be unhappy as he sat with his mother’s hand in his, his father looking on with interest, and his brother Hagop with adoring admiration, while he told of his wonderful eighteen months in the Missionary School at Aintab. And if the name of Elmas Stepanian slipped sometimes into his story, was there anything wrong in that? Did he not see her every Sunday in church, and did he not hear of her splendid answering at the examinations, and of the prizes she gained? Had not his teacher told him and the other youths about it, that they might be stirred to emulation by the grand achievements of the girls?
For Jack there were even sweeter joys that day. It is true that he was only permitted to see Shushan veiled, and in the company of her mother, or of some of the other women. Still, he could whisper a few words of cheer about the home they hoped to have by-and-by in free, happy England. And when she murmured doubtfully, “But my people, Yon Effendi?” he said the whole household must follow them to England. There Kevork could find a career, the younger boys an education, and all of them peace and safety, and bread enough and to spare. It is true the difficulties in the way of these arrangements would have seemed to him, in his sober moments, almost insurmountable; but in certain moods of mind we take small account of difficulties.
There was much to be done that day in arranging for the wedding, which all agreed should take place the next morning. According to custom, Jack ought to have provided the dress of the bride; but this, under the circumstances, he could not do. Avedis however came to him privately, bringing a beautiful robe of blue satin with long sleeves, trimmed with gold embroidery. “You know,” he said, “I was to have married Alà Krikorian. Sometimes I think it was well she died, for she has escaped the woes that are coming on our people. But I had the bridal robe all ready; and I shall never marry any one else. Take it as my gift to you; give it yourself to Shushan; and God bless you both.”
His own best garments Jack laid ready, with care, for the morning. Rising very early, he put on his ordinary clothes, and went forth to meet Der Garabed, who came by appointment to bless the bridegroom’s apparel. This ceremony accomplished, Jack arrayed himself for the wedding, and, with Hohannes and the other men of the family, went to the church. He sat in his own place on the men’s side, Shushan coming in afterwards with her mother and other female relatives, and sitting among the women. The service proceeded as usual, until, at the appointed time, Jack, with a beating heart, stepped out of his place, and came and stood before the altar. Shushan also was led to the spot, and stood there beside him. Neither dared to look up.
Der Garabed read from the Holy Book of the first bridal in Paradise; and again, from its later pages, of how Christian wives and husbands ought to love and cherish one another. Then, as they turned and stood face to face, each for one instant looked into the other’s eyes, and read there the secret of the love that is more strong than death. They had to clasp hands, and to bow their heads until each forehead touched the other. Old Hohannes took a cross from the hand of the priest, and, his own trembling with many emotions, laid it on the two bowed heads. The priest recited a few prayers, and put the solemn questions that the ritual of every Christian Church prescribes. Then, raising their bowed heads they stood together, with the right, before God and man, to stand together until death should part them. The psalm was sung, and the benediction given; and John Grayson led forth his Lily—all his at last. There was deep, solemn gladness in his heart; he felt as if, in the expressive Scottish phrase, “his weird was won.”
Peril might be behind them, before them, all around them, yet this one hour must be given to joy. It is true he had no mother to “crown him in the day of his espousals,” no father to breathe the blessing his filial heart missed so sorely. Still he believed in blessing, Divine and human. His faith was strong, his hope was high. He thought it would be no hard task to bring his bride in safety to his English home—and hers. Once there, they could both work together for the deliverance of her people—”our people” was what John Grayson thought, with a throb of joy, of sympathy, and—is it strange to say it?—of pride.