WHAT PASTOR STEPANIAN THOUGHT
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“But he was holy, calm, and high,
As one who saw an ecstasy
Beyond a foreknown agony.”
—E. B. Browning
John Grayson left his young bride, for the present, in the care of Miss Celandine. “She is safe; she is absolutely safe!” he kept saying to himself, that one thought swallowing up all the rest. He went constantly to see her, and was relieved to find that she very soon recovered from the effects of her sprain, which indeed was not serious. Meanwhile he stayed with the Vartonians, and watched anxiously for the coming of the Meneshians to Urfa. Until he saw them settled there, and in some measure safe, he did not think he ought to apply for a passport for himself and Shushan, or, as she would then be called, Lily Grayson.
It was October now. The gloom of a great terror seemed gathering over the town. So accustomed had Jack grown to fears and apprehensions that he did not notice it as anything unusual. But he could not fail to notice a most astonishing and unexpected outburst of rejoicing and festivity that came suddenly in the very midst of the gloom. As sometimes in a day of storm, when the great thunderclouds sweep across the sky, the sun looks out for a moment, flashing a shaft of light through the darkness,—so here, when all seemed blackest, a sudden rumour passed from heart to heart, from lip to lip, “The Sultan has granted the Reforms.” Not only did the Armenians of Urfa whisper it within closed doors—as they were wont to do with anything bearing, however remotely, upon politics; men said it aloud to each other in the streets and in the shops; and women talked of it as they baked their bread, or drew their water from the fountains. What did these Reforms mean? Did they mean—men said they did—no more plundering Kourds, no more tyrannous zaptiehs, no more dungeons and tortures for innocent men, and, best of all, no more of that wordless, nameless terror that made the life of the Armenian woman one long misery? If indeed they meant this, ought not the whole community to go mad with joy?
The tidings came officially, by telegraph, and were read aloud in the Gregorian Cathedral. There followed, throughout the Armenian quarter, tearful rejoicings, and many Services and meetings for prayer and thanksgiving to Almighty God.
One day, while these were still going on, Jack was walking in one of the narrow streets, when he met a young girl and a boy about Gabriel’s age. The girl was wrapped from head to foot in an ezhar, and closely veiled, but the boy he knew well, having often seen him with the Vartonians and with Gabriel—young Vartan Stepanian, the Pastor’s eldest son. So he knew the girl must be Oriort Elmas, Shushan’s friend, and he saluted both very cordially in passing.
He had not gone on twenty paces when a cry from Vartan brought him back. A tall, powerful Turk had come suddenly through a door in the wall, and being close to Elmas, for the street was scarcely two yards wide, seized her veil to pull it off. Vartan sprang upon him and tried to drag him away, but was not strong enough.
“None of that!” cried Jack in good English. He had no weapon, but he clenched his hand, and putting forth all his strength, dealt the Turk a blow between the eyes that sent him staggering against the opposite wall.
“Allah!” cried the discomfited follower of Mahomet, looking at him with a dazed, astonished air. An Armenian to strike a blow like that! Surely Shaytan had got into him!
“Come—come quickly,” Vartan said, hurrying his sister on, for fear of pursuit. “More Dajeeks may come,” he explained to Jack, who mounted guard on the other side of Elmas. “Let us go to the church. It is the nearest place where we can be safe.”
“No; that is a long way off. My father’s church.”
They walked quickly, and were soon there. When in Urfa before, Jack had always attended the cathedral services; he had not entered the beautiful Protestant church since he saw the dead lying there in her peaceful rest, on the morning of his first arrival. Vartan led him through it; then, by the little side door, into his father’s study. All around the room there were bookshelves, filled to overflowing, and with books in several languages. The Pastor was seated in a chair, before a little deal table, reading. He was dressed à la Frank, and when, after a few words from Vartan in Armenian, he rose and greeted his visitor in excellent English, Jack thought himself back in his own land again. He almost thought himself back again in the study of the good old clergyman who had been the pastor and teacher of his childhood.
It broke the illusion a little when that stately gentleman touched his own forehead, and stooped down to kiss the hand Jack stretched out to him, instead of taking it in a hearty grasp. But this was in especial thanks for the service rendered to his children, and a few earnest words just touched with Eastern grace were added.
The pastor said a word or two to Elmas and Vartan, who left the room. Then he invited Jack to take the one chair, and seated himself on the little divan under the window.
Delighted at hearing his native tongue so perfectly spoken, Jack said impulsively and in English,—
“Pastor, you are more than half an Englishman.”
Pastor Stepanian shook his head rather sadly, but did not speak.
Then Jack remembered the nationality of the missionaries, his friends.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, “I meant—you are more than half an American.”
“Neither English nor American,” said Hagop Stepanian proudly. “Every drop of my blood, every pulse in my heart, belongs to my own race. But I am very grateful to the Americans, our benefactors.”
The blood rushed to the face of John Grayson. “I am afraid,” he said, “you have no cause to be grateful to us.”
The pastor waved his hand. “I say nothing against the English,” he said.—”Pardon me a moment.”
He rose, looked carefully round, and opened both doors of the study, ascertaining in this way that there was no one within earshot, either in the churchyard or the church. Then he closed the doors again, sat down, lowered his voice, and began: “Have you been long enough in this country, Mr. Grayson, to have seen a dead horse, with half a dozen hungry dogs snarling round it? Each wants a bit, yet each is so jealous of all the rest, that if one dares touch it the others fall on him, and drive him off. Can you read my parable?”
“Yes; the nations, England and the others, stand thus around Turkey. Would it were dead, Pastor!”
“Take care, my young friend, lest some such word escape you as you walk by the way, or ride among the vineyards, or sit with a friend over your coffee in his private room, where the very hangings may conceal a spy.”
“Oh, I am cautious enough. I have been here nearly five years.”
“Were you here fifty, you might still have failed to learn your lesson. A word, a whisper, a scrap of paper found upon you,—nay, the assertion of some one else that you have given him a scrap of paper—may consign you any moment to a horrible dungeon, where you will be tortured into saying anything your accusers wish. Nor is that the worst. Men have been flung into prison, and tortured almost to death, without being able to guess the crime laid to their charge. I knew of one who was used in this way, and at last they found they had mistaken him for another of the same name. He was brought half dead before the Kadi, who said to him coolly, ‘My son, regard it not. It was an error. Go in peace.’”
“The stupidity of these people would be ridiculous, if the horror were not too great,” Jack said.
“Nay, Mr. Grayson, it is not stupidity. It is savagery, and savagery dominating civilization, but that savagery is armed with an ingenuity almost devilish for the bringing about of the designs in view. All special outrages upon the Christians are cleverly timed for some moment when the eyes of Christian Europe are turned elsewhere. Our people are first entrapped, made to give up their arms if they have any, cajoled with false promises of safety, if possible induced or forced to accuse each other, or themselves, of seditious plans they never even thought of.”
“Then, Pastor, are all the rumours of plots and seditions here and there mere fabrications?”
“There are plots, no doubt, outside Armenia. Bands of desperate exiles, in the great cities of Europe, have committees, hold meetings, make revolutionary plans. And I do not say their emissaries may not find a foothold and gain a hearing in some of our towns, those near the Russian frontier, for instance. But I know of none such. And I do know what happened here a short time ago. A young man, with an air of importance, and dressed à la Frank, appeared one day in the Cathedral. The bishop noticed him, sent for him, and asked his business in the town. He said he had come to ask help for the Zeitounlis, and to establish communications between them and the Urfans. The bishop answered him, ‘In two hours you will be either outside the city gate, or in the guard-house. You have your choice. It is not that I do not desire the deliverance and the freedom of my people, but they will never gain it in this way. This is only pulling down our house upon our own heads.’ So much, and no more, sedition and disloyalty has there been in this city, Mr. Grayson.”
“But do you not think the worst for your country is over now? These Reforms——”
The Pastor shook his head. “Only another snare,” he said. “At least, I forbode it. The Sultan gives us reforms on paper to lull us into security, and to deceive our European friends, while he sharpens the dagger for our throats.”
“You think then that the reforms are worth—”
“The paper they are written on. If the Sultan meant them even—which he does not—who are to carry them out? The Pashas, Valis, Kaymakams? They are our deadliest enemies. They want our lands, our houses, our gold; they want—the dreadful word must be said—our wives and our daughters. And the Zaptiehs, the Redifs, the Hamidiehs, the Kourds and the Turkish rabble of every town want to share the spoil.”
“Do they not think too that in killing us they do God service?” Jack said “us” quite naturally now.
“In literal truth. Have you never heard the prayer they recite daily in their mosques? ‘I seek refuge with Allah from Shaytan the accuser. In the name of Allah the compassionate, the merciful! O Lord of all creatures! O Allah! destroy the Infidels and Polytheists, thine enemies, the enemies of the Religion! O Allah! make their children orphans, and defile their abodes! Cause their feet to slip, give them and their families, their households and their women, their children and their relations by marriage, their brothers and their friends, their possessions and their race, their wealth and their lands, as booty to the Moslems, O Lord of all creatures!’ Rather a contrast this to ‘Our Father which art in Heaven!’”
“Is it possible they think God will answer such a prayer?” said Jack.
“They do think it. You must remember their God is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, nor the Father of mankind. He represents Will and Power apart from love and righteousness. ‘The will of Allah’ means everything to them, but it is not necessarily a holy or a loving Will.”
“Still people are often better than their creed, you know.”
“They are. Moreover, the Moslems’ creed has in it some grand elements of truth. They acknowledge one God, and they believe in the duty and the efficacy of prayer. Oh yes,—and there are some good and generous Turks, who are as kind to us as they dare to be. I have known such. There was one, a Pasha, who tried to rule according to the avowed intentions of the Sultan, not according to his secret instructions. He was deprived of his office, and banished to a distant part of the empire. There a friend of mine, a missionary, visited him not long ago. At first my friend was disappointed, for though the Turk received him with all cordiality, he could not be got to talk. But when he returned the missionary’s visit, and in his lodgings felt tolerably safe, he told him that every step he took was dogged, every word he said reported by the Sultan’s spies: even in his most private chamber he never knew what safety meant; a spy might lurk behind the tapestry or outside the door. ‘I count my life,’ he said, ‘by days and hours. Soon or late I am sure to be murdered.’ If he is, I think He who said, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these,’ will have something to say to him.”
“Surely in this land,” Jack observed, “’he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey.’ But what do you think of the outlook here just now, Pastor?”
“Do you want to hear the truth, Mr. Grayson?”
“Then I think, in the words of your own poet, it is ‘dark, dark, dark, unutterably dark,’ and the darkness is over all the land.”
“Darker than it has been yet? Is that possible?” Jack queried.
“Yes, what was meant before was oppression. What is meant now is, I fear, extermination.”
“But,” said Jack, raising his head suddenly, while a new light shone in his eyes, “there is God to be reckoned with. Does He mean it?”
“’His way is in the sea, His path is in the great waters, and His footsteps are not known.’ Did you notice the name of my boy, whom you helped so kindly just now?”
“Vartan,—in English, ‘Easter.’”
“It is a name dear to every Armenian heart, the name of the hero saint of our race. And yet, Saint Vartan died in a lost battle. He fought against the Persians, who summoned the Armenians to submit to them, and to exchange the law of the Christ for the creed of the fire-worshipper. The Persians were strong and many, the Armenians were few and weak; but this was their answer, and Vartan’s: ‘We are not better than those before us, who laid down upon this testimony their goods and their bodies. Ask us no more, for the covenant of our faith is not with men, but in bonds indissoluble with God, for whom there is no separation or departure, neither now, nor ever, nor for ever—nor for ever and ever.’ That is what we said fifteen hundred years ago, that is what we say to-day, when the darkest hour of the darkest night is falling over our land.”
A pause followed, broken by Stepanian. “He died in a lost battle. The battle is lost, but the cause triumphs.”
Jack had covered his face with his hands; but at these words he looked up again. “Then you see, beyond the darkness, a gleam of light?” he said.
“Mr. Grayson, I will tell you a parable. Last spring my little son Armenag came with me one day to the vineyard. I showed him two vines. One of them was beautiful, covered with luxuriant leaves and tendrils; the other, a dry, bare stick, with branch and leaf and tendril cut away by a ruthless hand. ‘Which of these two will you have for your own, to bear grapes for you by-and-by?’ I asked the boy. Of course he chose the beautiful, leafy vine. But the other day, in the ingathering, I brought him there again. Lo! the vine that kept its leaves and branches had only a few poor stunted grapes, while the tree that had been stripped and cut down, was bending beneath the weight of its great clusters of glorious fruit.”
“And?” said Jack, his eyes eagerly fixed upon the Pastor, who went on—
“I see some clusters ripening even now. Is it nothing, think you, that men and women, and children even, have been witnessing fearlessly unto death for the Lord they love? In very truth, like the witnesses of old, they have been tortured, not accepting deliverance. Many have already joined the noble army of martyrs. And many more are coming—ay, even from this place. Never of late have I stood up to preach, and looked down on the faces beneath me, without the thought that these, my people, may soon be standing in the presence of Christ. And I too—I shall see Him soon.”
“Are you a prophet?” John Grayson asked, looking with amazement at the calm, refined, intellectual face of this gentleman of the nineteenth century, who spoke of his own martyrdom as certainly, as quietly, and as fearlessly, as if he had said, “I am going to France, or to England.”
“I am no prophet, Mr. Grayson; but I think I can read the signs of the times. And though it becomes no man to answer for himself, there are things in which we may trust God to answer for us;—and things which He does not ask of us. He does not ask the shepherd to save himself when the sheep are smitten.”
“But death is not the worst thing that happens here,” Jack said very low, “nor even torture—would to God it were!”
“Don’t you think I know that?” said the Pastor hoarsely, as a shade of anguish crossed his face. “Don’t you think I thank God every hour for my Dead—my Dead, who died by His Hand?”
Jack remembered what he had seen in the church that day, and held his peace. A great silence fell upon them; then Hagop Stepanian stretched out his hand to Jack, and looked straight into his eyes. “Mr. John Grayson,” he said, “do you trust God?”
Jack’s frank blue eyes fell beneath the gaze of those dark, searching eyes, that seemed to have looked down into unfathomed depths of anguish and come back from them into peace. “I trust in God,” he said very low.
“I am sure of it. But here, where we stand now, we want more. To overcome in this warfare, a man must have laid, wholly and without reserve, his own soul and body, and the souls and bodies that are dearer than his own, in the hands of his faithful Creator and Redeemer.”
“Do you mean we must be willing, not only to suffer, but to see them suffer?” Jack asked in a broken voice. “That’s against nature—impossible.”
“Therefore God does not ask it of us. All He asks is that we should be willing for His will.”
“Not His will—oh, not His will!” Jack said almost with a cry. “The will of wicked men—of devils!”
“Even so;—but He is stronger than they, and will prevail. Mr. Grayson, will you take my counsel?”
“Except it be to leave this place and save myself, which at present I cannot do.”
“I know it: you have others, you have another to think of,—No; you share our peril, and unless you share also our strong consolation you will be as those that go down into the pit, and your heart will die within you. Remember, you must trust God, and trust Him utterly. In all the generations He has never yet broken faith with one man who trusted Him so. He will bring you up out of the depths again, and you shall behold His righteousness, and one day you shall see His face with joy, and know wherefore He let these things come upon us.”
The conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Vartan and a younger boy, bringing coffee and sweetmeats. The Pastor drew the little one towards him, saying in Armenian, “Tell the English Effendi, Armenag, what our fathers in St. Vartan’s day said to the Persians, when they bade them deny the Lord Jesus.”
The child answered steadily, and as if he meant every word: “Ask us no more, for the covenant of our faith is not with man, but with God, for whom there is no separation or departure, neither now, nor ever, nor for ever, nor for ever and ever.”
“And what has God said to them, and to us?”
The boy’s young voice rang clear and high as he repeated his well-remembered lesson. “’The mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of My peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee. O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires. And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.’”
“I teach my children words like these,” the Pastor said, reverting to English, “that they may know we are watchers for the morning. Which assuredly our eyes shall see, here or elsewhere,” he added with a bright glance upwards.
Jack sat in silence for a space. Then, rising to take his leave, he grasped and wrung the Pastor’s hand in true English fashion. “I will remember what you said about trusting God,” he murmured.
“God, who is not only above you in heaven, but underneath you in the depths,” the Pastor said. “There is no abyss you can sink into, where you cannot sink down on Him. And yet,” he added with a smile, “I have good hopes of your safe return at last to your native land, along with your sweet bride Shushan, the daughter of our people. For you are an Englishman, and such are always protected here. And, when God gives you deliverance, think then of this Church of His, which is afflicted, tossed with tempests, and not comforted. May yours be the hand He uses to comfort her.” Then, once more in Armenian, “Vartan, do you go with Mr. Grayson to his home; you can take him by the shortest way.”
“Yes, father, but I want to tell you”—the boy lowered his voice—”Osman has just been here, to let us know privately we should not try to hold a meeting for thanksgiving to-night. The Zaptiehs will disperse it by force.”
“I will see what ought to be done.—So much for the Reforms, Mr. Grayson. But do not speak of this. Osman is a young Turk who bears us good will, as I have told you some do; and an incautious word might bring him into trouble. Once more, farewell; God bless you.”