THE USE OF A REVOLVER
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“So let it be. In God’s own Might
We gird us for the coming fight.”
It was Shushan who awoke her guardian, near the going down of the sun. “Shack,” she whispered, “let us get the horses and begone. I like not the looks of these people. Some of them have come back from the vineyard; and I saw them looking in at the window, and whispering.”
Jack shook himself. “So I have slept,” he said, surprised. “I did not mean it. What time is it?”
They ate of the provisions they had with them, went together to make ready the horses, bestowed some silver on their hosts, and rode away. As soon as they were really off, Jack asked Shushan if she thought the Kourds were content with their backsheesh.
“Oh yes, content enough,” she said. “Still, I do not like their looks. Let us ride on, as fast as we can.”
They had some hard riding over the bare, burned-up ground, where not a blade of grass or a leaf of any green thing was to be seen; and then they came again to a mountain gorge. The sun had gone down now—a great relief, for it had been very hot. Shushan, who had scarcely slept at all, was suffering much from fatigue; and though she tried to answer cheerfully when Jack spoke to her, she was evidently depressed and anxious. He asked tenderly what was troubling her.
“Nothing,” she said,—”nothing, at least, that I ought to mind. This morning one of those Kourds asked me if we had come down from the mountains to help in killing the Giaours, and to get some of their goods. I asked, why we should kill them when they have done us no harm. And they asked me again where I had come from that I did not know it was the will of Allah and the Sultan, and that the true Believers, who helped in the holy work, were to have their gold and silver and all they possessed. Then they began a story that made my blood run cold—I will not tell it thee. But, Shack, I fear the worst—especially for my people in Biridjik.”
“Let us ride on,” said Jack, after a sorrowful pause. “It will not do for us to stop and think. And certainly not here.”
The darkness, or rather the soft half-darkness, of the starry Eastern night had fallen over them quickly, like a veil. And now they were getting among the mountains, and the wretched track called a road was growing more and more indistinct. Presently they entered another narrow gorge, deeper and gloomier than the one before Charmelik. But for their dependence on their sure-footed horses, they never could have faced it, so narrow was the level track, so steep the precipice below, so dark and frowning the heights on either side above them.
But even the horses seemed to get puzzled. The track became fainter and more broken, until at last the travellers found themselves on sloping ground where it was hard to secure a foothold.
Not all Shushan’s self-command could keep back a little frightened cry: “I shall fall! Hold me, Shack!”
Jack turned to help her, heard the slip of a horse’s foot in the dry, loose clay, and for one awful moment thought both were lost. However, foothold was regained somehow; and Shushan’s fervent “Park Derocha!” gave him strength to breathe again and to look about him. He saw distinctly before them another gorge, crossing almost at right angles the one beneath them, and cutting off their path, as it seemed to him. How were they to traverse it? How had it been done before, when he rode in hot haste with the zaptiehs and the Post, or back again, with Kevork?
And where was the path itself, from which they had wandered—he knew not how far? Great Jupiter shone above them, bright enough to outline their forms in shadow on the bare brown earth; and, looking carefully, he had light to discern a narrow, crooked thread of white winding some thirty feet below their standing place. He pointed to it. “We must get back,” he said.
Shushan drew her breath hard, and looked, not at the perilous slope, but at him. “Yes,” she said. Jack would have proposed to dismount, trust to their feet, and let the horses follow, but he knew it was not best. He knew too that he must restrain his longing to take Shushan’s bridle and lead her horse—that was not best either. How she held on he did not know, nor did she know herself.
They were getting down the steep incline with less difficulty than they expected, and had nearly regained the path, when Shushan cried out suddenly, “Shack, I hear shouts.” In another moment horse and rider both were on the ground. Jack could not tell until the end of his life what happened next, or what he did, until he found himself sitting on the path with Shushan’s head in his lap, seeing nothing but her face, white through its dark staining. Her horse had narrowly escaped slipping down into the gorge, but had found his feet somehow, and now stood beside Jack’s, gazing solemnly at the two dismounted riders.
Happily, Jack had his flask in his wide sash. He got at it, sprinkled Shushan’s face with the water, and put some between her lips. After a few moments—it seemed like an age—she looked up. He began to lavish tender words and caresses upon her, asking anxiously if she was hurt, but she stopped him quickly.
“Oh, what does it matter?” she said. “Listen, Shack!”
He had been deaf as well as blind to all except her state. Now he listened. The mountain echoes rang with wild, discordant shouts.
“The Kourds! They are pursuing us,” said Shushan, sitting up. Terror had restored her senses more rapidly than all the arts of love could have done.
“Another set of them?” asked Jack, bewildered.
“No. The Kourds of Charmelik,” said Shushan in a frightened whisper. “I feared it. They heard us speak, and knew we were no Kourds.” Even in that moment’s agony she said “heard us speak,” as Jack remembered afterwards,—lest he should blame himself.
“I will run round the corner, and look,” he said. “Do you fear a moment alone, my Shushan?”
“No; but take care. Keep under cover of the hill.”
Jack ran to a turn that gave him a view of the road from Charmelik. As far as he could see along the track no creature was visible. But high up on the hill he saw dark forms, descending, doubtless by some goat-track known to themselves alone. They could reach Shushan almost as soon as he could.
He tore back to her, possessed with the thought that he would set her on horseback, and make a race for it. But when he came near, he saw their horses had moved away, and were both out of sight.
The shouts sounded nearer and nearer; he saw the flash of a gun, and heard the report.
“Shack!” said Shushan. She was still sitting on the ground, having sprained her ankle in the fall. “Shack!”
He bent down to her. He had been looking to his revolver, and held it in his hand. “If the worst comes,” she said, “you will kill me with that—promise.”
Jack set his teeth for an instant: then he said firmly, “So help me God.”
Another pistol shot—not near enough to harm them. But the Kourds were upon them now. Jack saw the face of the man who had given them his hut—an evil face. He took aim, fired, and the Kourd fell in a heap, and rolled down the sloping ground to his very feet.
But there were twenty following him, and most of them had guns, while Jack had no other shot—for them. He stood at bay between his wife and the robbers, keeping his hand on the revolver as if just about to fire.
The Kourds desire close quarters with a dead shot as little as other men. They wavered,—hesitated. Presently one fellow, braver than the rest, discharged his gun, the shot passing close to Jack’s head, then sprang down the slope and flung himself upon him. They closed in mortal conflict, hand to hand, foot to foot, eye to eye. At last Jack turned suddenly, dragged his foe to the edge of the abyss, tore himself loose with one tremendous effort, and with another, flung him over. Down—down—down, still down, he rolled and fell, fell and rolled, till he lay a mangled heap amongst the boulders at the bottom of the gorge. Jack would assuredly have followed him, had he not fallen, or rather thrown himself, backwards at full length on the path. As he lay there two or three bullets whizzed over him.
They were the last salute of the departing foe. The Kourds by this time had had enough of it, and beat a retreat more rapid than their advance. When they found out their guests were not what they appeared to be, brethren from a distant tribe, they had supposed they might be Armenians carrying communications from the revolted Zeitounlis to Urfa, and that therefore they would be worth intercepting. But now they came to the conclusion they were too well armed to be molested any further.
It was long before Jack and Shushan dared to breathe again. “Park Derocha!” said Shushan at last. “Thank God!” Jack responded. He had risen to his feet, and was looking anxiously around to see that all was safe.
“Shack,” said Shushan presently, “my foot hurts dreadfully now—praised be the Lord!”
Jack had no linen, but he tore his sash, poured on it all the water remaining in his flask, and wrapped it round the ankle, which was beginning to swell. “I meant that word,” Shushan added smiling, “for pain is not felt until danger is past, and danger is—oh, so much worse than pain! But, Shack, the horses!”
“True, we must get them; I daresay they have not gone far. Dare I leave you here while I go to look for them?”
“You must. Our lives hang on it. God will take care of me.”
Jack drew her gently into a sheltered place under the rock. Then he set off at a brisk run, not letting himself think there was danger for her, since he had to go, and yet intensely, cruelly anxious about her.
He had a much longer chase than he anticipated, for the horses had quite disappeared from view. Still he went on, keeping the path, and uttering now and then the calls they were sure to recognise.
On account of the intervening gorge, the path descended almost to the very bottom of the valley, through which there ran a little mountain stream with a narrow fringe of green, stunted herbage on each side. Instinct had led the horses to this desirable spot, where having quenched their thirst, they stood contented, cropping the few mouthfuls of short grass. Happily, in this position, the Kourds could not see them.
Jack lost not a moment in leading their reluctant steps from the haunts of pleasure to the very dry and very stony path of duty. Joyfully he brought them back to where Shushan was, and met her joyful welcome.
“Is the pain very bad now, my Shushan?” he asked.
“No,” she answered, smiling. “It is only a little very bad, as you say in English. Is not that right? Now you shall lift me on my horse again, and we will go.”
In a few minutes more they were on their way. When they came near the little stream, they halted for a while, that Jack might bring water for Shushan to drink, and bathe her ankle with it. She was very weary, and suffering considerable pain, but she kept on bravely, making no complaint. “It would be very ungrateful,” she thought, “when God has been so good to us.”
“Shushan,” said Jack, as they rode along, “do you know what they call this gorge we are coming out of? They call it ‘Bloody Gorge,’ from the robberies and murders there have been in it. Kevork told me when we rode back together, but I did not want to tell you until we had passed it.”
“Yesterday the Kourds told me the same,” said Shushan, “but I did not want to tell you.”
At length the mountain gorges were left behind, and a Roman road was reached, leading to the plain, which now began to assume an appearance of cultivation. There were wheatfields, and many fine vineyards laden with grapes. But if the prospect was pleasing, the road was vile. The great cobble stones the Romans loved had fallen apart, and the mud and gravel between them had caked into a hard cement. Not the surest-footed of steeds could avoid constant slips and stumbles, which filled up the measure of poor Shushan’s suffering. She could scarcely hold herself upon her horse.
A little comfort came when the sun shot up in splendour. About the same time they got upon a smoother piece of road, and presently Jack said: “My Shushan, art thou too weary to look up, and see old Edessa in the morning light?”
Shushan looked up. “It is a sight to take weariness away,” she said, faintly, but joyfully.
Before them rose a hill, crowned with a magnificent ruined castle, and the slopes beneath it covered with buildings, interspersed with fair green patches, telling of shady trees and pleasant gardens. But still the eye turned back to the noble ruin, with its two very tall pillars, the use whereof no man knows, rising upwards towards the sky. Fragments of a great wall remained, enclosing not the castle alone, but all the hill on which the large town is built, with its dense mass of flat roofs, varied by minarets and mosques. Everywhere white was the prevailing colour; so that, in the fair morning light, the old city of King Agbar seemed to have donned a mantle of spotless snow.
A very high, very long roof of white attracted the eye. It belonged to the great Gregorian Cathedral, a noble structure, of enormous size, capable, it is said, of holding eight thousand persons. Jack turned to point it out to Shushan, but a glance at her face made him say instead: “My Shushan, you are ready to faint. You shall rest a little here. I will lift you from your horse.”
“No, Shack, no. We are just at home now. I will keep up till I see Miss Celandine’s face.”
Through the city gate they rode, unchallenged and unhindered. Then they passed a little market place, rode on through narrow streets, and round the Protestant Church and churchyard, till they reached the gates of the Mission premises. Eyes that loved must have been looking from the window above the front door, for Jack had scarcely time to knock with a trembling hand, and to lift Shushan from the saddle, when the door opened, and a tall, spare figure stood within. The face was the face of one who had thought much, done much, suffered much, and above all, loved much. Jack gave Shushan into the motherly arms that opened wide to receive her; she laid her weary head upon that strong, kind shoulder, and fainted entirely away.
“Do not be afraid for her, Mr. Grayson,” Miss Celandine said. “Peace and safety are good physicians.”