AN ADVENTUROUS RIDE
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“What if we still ride on, we two,
With life for ever old yet new,
Changed not in kind but in degree,
The instant made eternity.”
About noon Kevork came to Jack with a pale, anxious face. “You see the state men’s minds are in here?” he said.
“It is only too easy to see,” Jack answered.
“Did you notice the scared faces in church?” Kevork went on. “There is nothing talked of here among our own people but death and massacre; and among the Turks, but how they are going to kill us and take all we have. And our own house is in the greatest danger of all. My uncle and the rest are afraid we will be held accountable for Shushan; and Heaven knows what the Turks will do to us when they find she is gone. In a word, they are all saying that if you go to Urfa and take her with you, the whole household must go too. They think they will be safer there, lost in a crowd.”
“But are they not afraid of coming so near Mehmed Ibrahim?”
“They think that very nearness will save them. He will never think of looking for them at his own door. One and all, at least, are quite determined to go, except perhaps my grandfather, who is rather passive about it, and my father, who is doubtful. Still they do not oppose the rest. My grandfather says ‘Heaven is as near in Urfa as in Biridjik.’”
“Very good,” said Jack, “but then, can they go to-night?”
“To-night!” exclaimed Kevork. “Heaven bless you! It will take them a fortnight or three weeks to get ready; they must do it all quietly, you know, for fear of the Turks.”
“Then, look here, Kevork,” Jack said, with a determined air, “I am not going to leave Shushan in this place another day; the rest may follow as they like.”
“You are right,” Kevork answered. “But as for me, I must stay. Think of it! here are three-and-twenty souls, for the most part women and children, to be brought to Urfa; and not one of them has been twenty miles from home before—not even my Uncle Avedis, who is so shrewd and clever. And then we shall have to make all our preparations, and to sell off everything we can, but with the greatest secrecy, lest the Turks should find out and stop us. Yes, I must stay. You shall take the horses.”
Jack nodded. “We must start at midnight,” he said. “I am going now to arrange matters, and to tell the women.”
He went, and was fortunate enough to find Shushan for the moment alone. He held in his hand a large bundle, which he laid on the ground beside her. “My Shushan,” he said, taking her hand tenderly, “I know you trust me utterly. I am going to ask you for a proof of it.”
She looked up at him, and her eyes said for her, “But prove me what it is I will not do.”
“Dearest, put on this clothing I have brought, kiss your father and your mother, and be ready at midnight to ride with me to Urfa.”
She looked at the garments, as he unfolded them, with an involuntary shudder. “They are Kourdish clothes,” she said.
Jack smiled. “At least they are clean,” he answered. “They have never been worn. And there is no law, that I know of, against sheep in wolves’ clothing.”
“Oh, but all want to go, father, and mother, and Hagop—all of us.”
“They shall follow us, my Shushan.”
“But to leave them in such peril! And, Yon Effendi, it is I who have brought it on them.”
“Not altogether, my beloved. Now it is not one here and there who is persecuted; the danger threatens your whole race—our race,” he said, with a sudden throb of the passionate, pitying love that was springing up in his heart for the people of his adoption. “Without you,” he added, “their danger certainly will be less. And if God wills, we will all meet again, in Urfa.”
“I will do what you tell me,—my husband,” Shushan said, and the words, if low, were quite steady. The whole trust of her simple heart was his; and although tender, modest, refined, it was still a hot, impulsive Eastern heart.
At midnight a group assembled in the courtyard of the Meneshians house. There was no moon,—all the better for their purpose; but from the cloudless sky the great, beautiful stars shone down upon them. Avedis brought out a lantern, which showed two strange figures. In the midst stood a young Kourdish warrior, his head protected by a gay “kafieh” of yellow silk, bound about it with rolls of wool, and having the front thrown back to reveal the face, which was nearly as dark as a mulatto’s. His zeboun was of bright scarlet, and it boasted, instead of a skirt, four separate tails, or aprons, which showed beneath them Turkish trousers of crude and staring blue, while a crimson belt contained the perilous revolver, its two available barrels loaded. It was not necessary now to conceal it, for it was part of the equipment.
A Kourdish boy, attired in similar fashion, and with face and hands yet more carefully blackened, clung to the breast of Mariam, as if they could never part.
“Come, my daughter,” Boghos said at last; “the moments are precious.”
“’Tis not as if the parting were a long one,” Kevork said cheerfully. “A few weeks, at most, and we follow you to Urfa.”
“As we stand now,” old Hohannes said solemnly, “every parting may be as long as life, or death; but we Christians are not afraid of death. Shushan, my Lily, in Christ’s name I bless thee, and bid thee God-speed.”
Shushan had been given into his arms by her mother, and now her father stood waiting for the last embrace. As he gave it with tear-dimmed eyes, Jack turned to Hohannes; “You have been as a father to me,” he said. “Bless me also, as a son.”
In a broken voice, the old Armenian spoke the words of blessing. The Englishman bowed his young head in reverence, then shook hands with the others, and turned to lift into her saddle the shrinking girl in her boy’s attire. Next, he sprang lightly upon his own horse, which Kevork was holding for him. “Good-bye, brother,” he said, stooping down to wring his hand.
Slowly and silently they moved along, the good horses climbing the terraces that led out of the town. A bribe,—cleverly administered beforehand by Hohannes, who had a life-long practice in these matters,—opened to them the ancient gate of Biridjik, and they found themselves in the road outside.
“Softly, softly,” Jack whispered, stroking the neck of his steed, who seemed quite to understand him. He wondered if, in this strange country, even the dumb creatures learned to accommodate themselves to the exigencies of a hunted life. Both their horses might almost have been shod with felt, for all the noise they made.
When the terraces and gardens were left behind, a running stream or two had to be crossed, and they found themselves beside the ancient reservoir which supplied the town with water. After passing this, they came to a place where three roads met, and where a Turkish guard was always stationed. This was a serious danger; he might demand their passports, and they had none.
“What shall we do if he does?” Shushan whispered. Jack pointed to his purse. But, happily, the Turk gave them no trouble, being fast asleep in his little booth by the roadside.
When they got into the open country, their road lay over rocks, which rang to the feet of their horses. At first the sound almost scared them, used as they were to fear. But for the present, in all the wide landscape, there was no one to hear, and nothing to dread.
They rode out into the still night—no mist, no dew, the stars flashing down, the great planets bright enough to cast perceptible shadows. The brilliant, shimmering starlight lent the campaign a beauty not its own; there was a kind of glamour over everything. Jack’s spirits rose with the sense of freedom and solitude. He and Shushan put their horses at full speed, and they seemed to be flying through the clear still air,—not cold, but cool enough after the hot day to be refreshing.
“Are you frightened, love? Are we going too fast for you?” he asked, hearing a little sigh, and slackening his pace accordingly.
“No; but I never rode like this before. When Cousin Thomassian brought me to Biridjik, it was “Jevash! Jevash!” (a Turkish word, which may be rendered in English, “Take it easy”).
“Do you like it, my Lily?”
“I like it well,” she answered, breathless but rejoicing. “Go on fast again; I like it well.”
Did Jack like it? There was a light in his eye, a bounding rapture in his every vein, as they flew along, alone with each other in that desolate waste, which to them was as the Garden of Eden.
After a while they drew rein again, that they might talk. “They tell me”—Jack spoke dreamily, out of a depth of half-realized delight—”they tell me the Garden of Eden was here, in this land of yours.”
“So our fathers say,” Shushan answered. “And it is lovely enough, at least in spring, when the flowers are out. If only we were not afraid,—always.”
“That was what struck me,” Jack said, “when, after my long illness, I began to get strong, and to notice what went on about me. Always, over every one, there seemed to hang the shadow of a great fear.”
“But I suppose, in your England also, there are sin and sorrow.”
“A great deal of both, my Lily. But in England law is against wickedness and cruelty, and stops them if it can. Then there is the same law in England for all. There are not two kinds of people, one booted and spurred to ride, and the other bridled and saddled to be ridden. It took me a good while to understand that was the case here, and I was among the bridled and saddled.”
“Because you were not born here. You know, Yon Effendi, we always expect to suffer, because we are Christians. Ever since I can remember, every one was afraid—afraid of the Turks in the street, afraid of the Kaymakam, afraid of the zaptiehs, afraid of the Kourds. Kevork and I were great companions, but I do not think we played much. Sometimes I played with the little ones, but I liked better to help my mother, or to hear the talk of the elders. Then came the dreadful time when Mehmed Ibrahim, our Kaymakam—”
“Don’t talk of it! You shall never see his face again, my Shushan.”
“I never have seen it, to my knowledge. I was only ten years old.”
“When a little English girl would still be playing with her doll, as my cousins used to do. Poor child!”
“My childhood ended then. They sent me to Urfa, with some merchants from our town, who were going there. Oh, I was happy there! I had the school, and the dear foreign ladies, and my cousins the Vartonians, and, above all, Elmas Stepanian.”
“Do you know, my Lily, that Kevork loves Elmas, just a little bit in the way I love you?”
“How could he help it?” Shushan said, and smiled quietly. “In the school,” she went on, “I learned many things about the Bible, and about our dear Lord, that I did not know before, though I think I always loved Him. They helped me to understand why all the troubles came to us. Has He not said, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation’? But He has said also, ‘I am with you always.’ If one is true, so must the other be.”
“Yes,” said Jack thoughtfully, “I think I can believe it now.”
“It all seemed so real in the happy years at school; and afterwards, when I first came back to Biridjik, I felt as if all day long He was close by me; and then all the fear went out of my heart. There was no room for it when He was there.”
Jack was silent. He feared God, prayed to Him devoutly, and desired sincerely to do His Will; but this experience of His personal presence and nearness was beyond him as yet.
“But I could not help seeing how things went on about me,” Shushan resumed. “And for a year and more we have been hearing of worse things yet. I did not talk of them, for what was the use of frightening everybody? We could do nothing; we were helpless. But they sank into my heart. Then the horror—about Mehmed Ibrahim—came again. I began to think God had forsaken us. Do you know the sad things about that in the Psalms? They seem just written for us. ‘But now Thou art far off, and puttest us to confusion … so that they that hate us spoil our goods. Thou lettest us be eaten up like sheep, Thou sellest Thy people for nought, and takest no money for them. Thou makest us to be rebuked of our neighbours, to be laughed to scorn, and had in derision of them that are round about us. For Thy sake also we are killed all the day long, and are counted as sheep appointed to be slain.’”
“Oh, Shushan, stop! It is too sad.”
“Only one word more. ‘Up, Lord, why sleepest Thou? Awake, and be not absent from us for ever. Wherefore hidest Thou Thy face, and forgettest our misery and trouble?’ That was what I feared—that He forgot—that He did not care.” Shushan’s head bent low. Jack stretched his hand out to touch hers; she raised her head, and turning her face to his in the dim light, said, “He did not forget me, He sent me you. And it is not likely He has remembered Shushan Meneshian, and forgotten all the rest.”
In talk like this, passing gradually into lighter topics, they rode along, now fast, now slow. Shushan, little accustomed to riding (save to the vineyard on a donkey), grew very tired, though she would not have confessed it for worlds. They had a mountain gorge to go through, where the narrow path, only wide enough for one, winds along the mountain side, a slope above, a deeper slope—almost a precipice—beneath. One false step, and the unlucky traveller would lie, a mangled corpse, in the rocky gulf below. They had only starlight to guide them, and the mountain on the other side increased the obscurity.
“Trust your horse, my Shushan,” Jack said. “Horse sense is better here than ours.”
Shushan did so; and though she trembled, no cry, no word of fear, passed her lips. Only she murmured the favourite prayer of her people, “Hesoos okné menk”—Jesus, help us.
Her prayer was heard: they emerged safely from the perilous gorge. Then presently, in the soft starlight, there fell upon their ears a perfect burst of song—sweet, liquid notes, rising and falling in thrills and gushes of delicious melody that seemed to fill the air around them. “The nightingale!” Shushan whispered; “Listen, oh, listen!”
Hitherto, not a tree had relieved the monotony of the waste and dreary path, which indeed was rather a mule track than a road. Now they were drawing near a couple of stunted thorn-bushes, one of which gave a shelter to the sweet songster.
“There is a well here,” Jack said. “Kevork tells me travellers always rest and sup—or breakfast as the case may be—beside it. Ah, there it is!”
He sprang from his horse, and helped Shushan down from hers. Then he spread the saddle cloths beneath her on the ground, and took from the small bag strapped beside him on the horse the viands it contained—bread, white delicious cheese in small squares, apples, pears, and peaches. He had with him his father’s little flask and cup, one of the few things that had escaped the rapacity of the Syrians; and they needed no better beverage than the cold, pure water with which the well supplied them. Very happily they ate and drank together in the starlight.
Shushan refused the last peach, saying, “No more, I thank you, Yon Effendi.”
“My Lily must not call me that again. English wives do not speak so to their husbands. ‘Mr. John!’ how odd it would sound!”
“I think it has a very pleasant sound—Mis-ter John.”
“No, dearest, you must call me, as my father used—Jack.”
“Shack? Oh, that is so short, so little of a name for a great, tall Effendi like you!”
“But I love it best, Shushan. And I will love it, oh, so much better! when I hear it from your lips.”
“Now I will say it—Shack.”
“Not ‘Shack’—Jack, like John, which you say quite right.”
“I will say that quite right too. Don’t you think we ought to ride on, Shack?”
“Not ‘Shack’—those naughty lips of yours, Shushan, must pay me a fine when they miscall me so.”
He exacted the fine promptly, saying, “I have the right, you know.”
Nevertheless Shushan adhered to the name of “Shack,” which she softened until it sounded like the French “Jacques.” Evidently she thought the harsher sound uncouth, if not disrespectful.
“But don’t you think we ought to ride on?” she resumed.
“Presently. In three or four hours we shall come to that queer little village with the black, egg-shaped mud huts—Charmelik, that is the name. The people are Kourds, and will want to talk to us. What shall we do? You do not know Kourdish, any more than I.”
“No; but I know Turkish. Some Kourdish tribes speak Turkish, and we can give them to understand we come from one of these. I will talk for us both,” said Shushan, whose courage was rising to meet the exigencies of her life. Jack, as yet, knew only the few words of Turkish he could not fail to pick up in a town partly inhabited by Turks, like Biridjik.
“They will think that odd,” he said, “unless I were deaf and dumb.”
“Be deaf and dumb then,” she answered, after a thoughtful pause. “You are going to Urfa, to be cured by a wise Frank hakim there; and I, your young brother, go with you, to be ears and tongue to you.”
“A splendid notion!” Jack said. It was not the first time he had had occasion to admire the Armenian quickness of resource, and dexterity in eluding danger. These were nature’s weapons of defence, developed by environment, and the survival of the fittest. Yet they had their own perils. Does the world recognise how hard—nay, how impossible—it is for oppressed and persecuted races to be absolutely truthful?
Just as they rode on, the glorious sun shot up with tropical splendour and tropical swiftness. It was late September now; the heat was still great, and the travellers were not sorry when at last they saw in the distance the black huts of Charmelik, the walls of the khan, and the minaret of the little mosque. Shushan, in spite of her fatigue, seemed to have changed places with Jack. She planned and exhorted; he listened to her meekly. For fighting, the Englishman comes to the front; for feigning, the Armenian. “Now, I pray of you, Yon Effendi—that is, Shack—remember, you are not to speak; and also, which is harder, you are not to hear—not if a pistol goes off close to your head. You may talk to me by signs, or on your fingers.”
Jack gave his promise; and, as both their lives depended on it, he was likely to keep it. At first they thought the khan might be safer to stay in than the huts, but a caravan from Urfa had just stopped there, and both the open enclosure and the rooms round it (if rooms they may be called) were quite full. Moreover, the Kourds of the village came about them with welcomes and questions and offers of hospitality. So Jack gathered from their looks and gestures. He stood among them, gazing about him with as vacant an expression of face as he could manage to assume, only praying they might not be rough with Shushan, for such a set of wild-looking savages, as he thought, he had never seen before; although, of course, since coming to the country, he had seen many Kourds.
After a while Shushan touched him, and motioned to him to come with her. One of the Kourds led them to a hut; and, as it appeared by his looks and gestures, invited them to consider it their own mansion, with the same magnificent air with which a Spanish grandee might have said, “This is your own house, señor.”
As soon as he had attended to their horses and brought in the saddle cloths, Jack surveyed the miserable hovel—some twelve feet in diameter, and with no furniture save a couple of dirty mats and cushions—and wished with all his heart for a decent English pig-stye!
“You must get a sleep, Shushan,” he said aloud. “But how I am ever to make you comfortable here—”
“Hush!” Shushan breathed rather than spoke, with a warning hand laid upon his arm.
“Well?” said Jack, speaking low, but surprised at her evident alarm.
She pointed to the one little unglazed hole in the mud wall that served as a window. “They sit under that, and listen,” she said. “I know their ways.”
After that, only low whispers were exchanged. A meal of pillav, with kabobs (little pieces of roast meat), was served to them by their hosts, who were presently—as Shushan ascertained with much relief—going in a body to some neighbouring vineyard, to cut grapes.
When they had finished eating, Jack spread the two horse cloths for Shushan, and exhorted her to lie down and sleep. He thought he was far too anxious to do so himself. He sat up manfully near the door, with his back against the wall, for fear of a sudden surprise; but nature in the end was too strong for him, and even in that unrestful position she managed to steep his senses in a profound slumber.