A MODERN THERMOPYLÆ
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three;
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the (way) with me?”
—T. B. Macaulay
Jack often went after this to the Protestant church to hear Pastor Stepanian preach. He had been much impressed by his words, and still more by his remarkable personality; and there was the added pleasure of worshipping with Shushan, who sat demurely by Miss Celandine on the women’s side of the church. Oriort Elmas was there too—a noble-looking girl, a good deal taller than Shushan, and far less regularly beautiful, but with a face full of intelligence. He heard much of her courage and charity in ministering to the poor and sick, as well as of her loving care of her young brothers and sister. He met her once or twice at the Vartonians, with whom she was very intimate; and he thought Kevork a fortunate man; with the mental reservation that he was much more fortunate himself—a reflection which makes it easy to “rejoice with them that do rejoice.”
Jack heard from Shushan, when he visited her, many lamentations over the departure of her beloved young teacher, Miss Fairchild. Many stories lingered in Urfa, and were told him by the Vartonians, of those loving ministrations to the poor, and especially to the Sassoun refugees, which had nearly cost the young missionary her life; and also of the gratitude and affection with which they were repaid. Once during her illness, when her life was almost despaired of, a poor man, a seller of antiquities, heard that she had asked for fish. This seemed impossible to procure, for it was summer, and the Euphrates, from which fish was brought in winter, was two days’ journey off. But, in the midst of the city is the beautiful Pool of Abraham, where are kept the sacred fish, which every one feeds, and which the Moslems esteem so highly, it is death to touch one of them. The poor Armenian watched by the pool until the darkest and most silent hour of the night; then, at the peril of his life, he caught some of the fish, and brought them to the Mission House. David’s Three Mighty Men, who brought the water from the well of Bethlehem, did no more.
Very touching also was the story of the service held in the Cathedral to pray for her recovery. The Gregorian Bishop, and all the priests in the city took part in it, and the great building was thronged from end to end. “God must give her back to us,” the Armenians said.
On Sunday, the 27th of October, Jack attended Pastor Stepanian’s church. After the service he went to meet his friends, who had most of them gone to the Cathedral. He saw, before he reached it, that something unusual was going on. All the Armenians he met seemed to be in a curious state of excitement; most of them were hurrying somewhere in hot haste. Whatever possessed them this time however, it was certainly not fear. The scraps of conversation that reached his ear savoured of hope, and of confident appeal to Law. “Have him up,”—”Go to Government House,”—”See what they will do,” and words like these.
“Oh, Gabriel, is that you?” he cried, seeing the boy come towards him. “You will tell me, what is all this about?” Gabriel, who had been at the Cathedral, explained: “There was a crowd of us standing about in the churchyard after service, when a Turk came in. He looked from one to another, no one caring to say anything to him—though of course he had no business there—till at last he lighted upon poor Baghas, the money-changer. He began to curse him by the Prophet, and to give him all sorts of foul language. How had he, a dog of a Giaour, dared to come to his house, and ask him for money? Baghas stood his ground, with a courage that astonished us all. He told the Turk plainly it was all his own fault. What business had he to buy gold coins of him, if he could not pay for them? Let him give him the money he owed him, and make an end, that was all he wanted. There came to be a crowd round the two of them; yet was no man quick enough to stop the Turk when he flashed out his scimitar, and stabbed poor Baghas to the heart. ‘Take that for payment, Giaour,’ saith he. But he said no more; for our people closed upon him with a cry of rage. I heard them saying, ‘Now we shall see the good of the Reforms!’ ‘Now we shall have justice!’ ‘Djanum! are our men to be killed like dogs?’ and more of that kind.”
“Heaven send they have not harmed the Turk,” Jack said; “the bill for that would be too heavy.”
“I don’t think they have. They got him in the midst of them, and they are taking him to the Government House, to lodge a complaint against him there.”
“I remember once, in England, seeing a sparrow fly at a cat, in defence of her young. It reminds me of that,” said Jack. “Gabriel, I want to see this thing through, but I don’t want you to come. There may be rough work.”
“Oh, I should like to come. I am not afraid.”
“But, if you were hurt, Shushan would not like that; we must think of her.”
“Yes,” said Gabriel slowly. “Yon Effendi, I will go home.”
With a self-denial Jack scarcely appreciated at its full value, he turned away and ran quickly down a side street. Jack went on his way, and he had no difficulty in finding it, for cries and shouts, and the trampling of many feet directed him to a market place, some distance off. Here, at first, he could not see the wood for the trees. All the place seemed full of Turks and Armenians mixed together, shouting, struggling, swaying, and pushing, now this way, now that. It seemed to be a free fight, but what they were all fighting about was not clear to an onlooker. Still, not to be left out when good things were going, Jack took his share by snatching a knife from the hand of a Turk who was threatening an Armenian with it.
Presently half a dozen Turkish horse—Regulars, with a splendid-looking officer at their head, came dashing into the square, and sending both Turks and Christians running in all directions. But one Turk did not run, for he lay dying on the ground. It was the murderer of Baghas. The soldiers took up the wounded man and set him on a horse. And then the Turks began to return; a number of them gathered round the group, with a few Christians also. Jack heard them cry out that the man was dying.
“How did you get here, Yon Effendi?” said the voice of Barkev Vartonian beside him.
“I met Gabriel, and came. What are they going to do?”
“Going to take the man to the Government House, I suppose. They will never get him there alive.”
“Barkev, who killed him?”
“The zaptiehs, of course, when they could not get him from us. I saw one of them stab him with a bayonet.”
“I thought one of our people might have done it, seeing they wanted to take him from us.”
“How, save with sticks or stones? We have nothing else, as you know. But the Turks will try to put it on us, no doubt. Come along to the Government House, and let us see what happens.”
As they reached the place, Barkev exclaimed, “Djanum! there is Dr. Melkon, of all men, in the hands of the zaptiehs. What can he have done?”
“Not arrested as a criminal, I hope, but called in as a doctor,” said Jack, as they came up.
If so, the wounded Turk was beyond his skill. They heard those around him saying he was dead. At the same time Melkon’s voice reached their ears. He could do no good now, he pleaded, entreating the Turks to let him go about his business, which was urgent. He had a serious case to attend to—a Mussulman Effendi.
No; he must stay, and certify to the cause of death. Barkev and Jack followed the crowd, which streamed into the Government House—an open court, where they could see all that passed.
They saw the body laid on a divan, and they saw Melkon approach to examine it. The Turkish officer stood beside him, a drawn sword in his hand.
“This man has been killed by the blows of sticks or bludgeons,” he said, in a loud voice. Melkon stooped over the body; the officer stooped also, and whispered something in his ear.
Almost instantly Melkon stood up, his face pale as that of the dead man who lay before them. For once the noisy, chattering Eastern crowd kept a profound silence. Melkon’s low, firm voice reached every ear,—
“This man has died of wounds inflicted by the bayonet.”
“No case against us,” Barkev said.
But Melkon had sealed his own death warrant, and he knew it. For one moment he faced the crowd—
“I can die, but I cannot lie,” he said.
His voice was drowned in a howl of execration, and a dozen furious hands laid hold on him at once.
“To the rescue!” cried Jack and Barkev together, dashing in amongst the throng.
“Keep quiet!” muttered a voice beside them, and a Turk they knew laid his hand on Barkev’s shoulder. “Keep quiet and go home,” he went on in a whisper; “my brothers have got the doctor, and will hide him in our house. He has attended us; we like him, and we will not let him be killed.”
Somewhat comforted, the young men went home. As they passed through the streets, the Moslems greeted them with threats and insults.
“We will soon make an end of you, dogs of Giaours,” they cried. Boys threw stones at them, and women screamed curses—foul and hideous Turkish curses—at the top of their shrill voices.
“I do not like the look of things at all,” said Barkev, when they got into their own quarter.
“Nor I,” Jack answered. “I think it would be no harm for some of us to keep watch to-night. I volunteer, for one.” And he went apart to clean his precious revolver, and to load the two serviceable barrels. He had not dared to get it set in order; that would have been far too dangerous.
The night, so far as they knew, passed quietly away. Many Armenians had shops or booths, or other business to attend to outside their own Quarter, and this was the case with some members of the Vartonian family. On Monday morning the women prayed of them to stay at home, and, indeed, the greater number did so. But others thought it the part of wisdom, as well as of manly courage, to go about as usual. Barkev Vartonian was amongst these, and Jack went with him for company.
They had not gone far beyond the limits of their own Quarter when a boy ran against them, screaming with terror, and caught Jack by the zeboun.
“What is it? What is the matter, poor child?” he asked; then looking more closely cried out, “Hagop! Hagop Meneshian! How is this? Have you all come? Where are you?”
“We came in at the gate,” Hagop gasped out. “Then the Dajeeks set on us with sticks and stones and knives. Oh, they are going to kill us! What shall we do?”
“Don’t be afraid; we will protect you. Where are the rest?”
“Down there—in the Market Place—the corner, by the dead wall. Kevork and the others are defending the women and children as well as they can. I slipped through somehow, and ran on to tell you.”
“Don’t come back with us. Run along that narrow street, keep to the right, and once in our Quarter you will be safe. Ask any one for Baron Vartonian’s house. You can send us any men you find to help.”
Barkev and Jack hurried on to the rescue of their friends. They were met on their way by a hideous rabble of Turkish men and boys, the very scum of the city, who were dragging along at the end of a rope, with shouts and ribald laughter—something. Was that a human form, so horribly torn and mutilated? Was that a human face? Was it the face they saw, not four and twenty hours ago, white and set, yet calm in its brave resolve?
“It is Melkon,” Jack whispered in horror; “they have killed him. Oh, God, what things are done here!”
“Come on! come on! Don’t look,” said Barkev. “We have my cousins to save from a like fate.”
They found the Meneshians in a corner of the Market Place, still keeping the foe at bay. They had the advantage of being, most of them, on horses or on mules; but the density of the hostile crowd, and the number of women and children they had with them, had kept them from breaking through, while they made all the better mark for stones and mud.
However, their tormentors were getting tired of a kind of sport which yielded no profit. Rather a pity, when their brethren were looting the well-stocked Armenian shops in the Bazaar! So the crowd soon gave way sufficiently to enable Jack and Barkev to extricate their friends, and they led the terrified party towards the Armenian Quarter. Some were bleeding from the stones that had been thrown at them; all had their clothing torn and disfigured with mud. The children were crying, and two or three of the women were ready to faint.
Meanwhile, there was a roar behind them like the roar of many waters, breaking on a rock-bound shore. The mob—the savage mob of an Eastern city—was “up.” “Death to the Giaours!” was the cry that rose and surged, surged and rose again. The luckless Armenians who had ventured into the Turkish town were fleeing before the storm,—fleeing for their lives, many of them streaming with blood.
Would that mob pour on, like sea waves in a storm, into the narrow streets of the Armenian Quarter? Would they slay utterly young and old, men and maidens and little children? No, the weak should not die, if the strong could protect them. Barkev, Kevork, Jack, and other young men sent the rest on before them, and took their stand in a narrow street at the entrance of their Quarter. It bade fair to be a little modern Thermopylæ. Surely neither Greek nor Roman ever fought in a holier cause, or for dearer issues; nor against greater odds, nor with more determined courage.
Gabriel, just back from school, came with the rest. Jack sent him for his revolver. “You know where to get it,” he said. The others armed themselves, as they could, with sticks and stones. Not another firearm was seen, save this revolver.
The Turks had plenty of firearms. With the rabble were mingled regular soldiers, Zaptiehs, Redifs, Hamidiehs, Kourds, all fully armed, all thirsting for blood and plunder. The Armenians could scarcely have held their own had they not had good allies on the flat roofs of their houses. These had all parapets of loose stones, treasuries of effective weapons for the men, the women, and the boys, who flung them down on the heads of the Moslems.
Jack’s two barrels were soon emptied, as two of the Turks knew to their cost. But he could not reload, so a friend behind him snatched the weapon out of his hand, and thrust into it a stout bludgeon. With this he played the man, his whole soul in the blows he dealt. He was fighting for dear life—for dearer lives than his own. Was it minutes, hours, years that he stood there, struggling in that desperate mêlée? Were the Moslems giving ground at last? What did it mean? There certainly was a space growing before the defenders; they had room now to breathe. Two or three Turks lay in the street dead or dying, others were well bruised with bludgeons or cut with stones. A panic began among them. And presently—for an Eastern crowd does nothing by halves—the street was cleared with a rush. It was a regular stampede.
The Christians drew breath, and looked one another in the face. “Safe at last!” Jack said.
“For the present,” said Kevork, wiping his brow. But the next moment he cried in horror, “My father! he is dying!”
The Christians, of course, had suffered in the fray. Several lay dead, others were sorely wounded. One of these was Boghos, who, though no longer young, had chosen to take part in the defence. Jack and Kevork, in great distress, carried him into a house at hand; the owner, a carpenter named Selferian, cordially inviting them in, and his handsome, intelligent wife, Josephine Hanum by name, bringing linen and cold water, while the eldest boy ran for the nearest doctor. Fortunately, the wound, when examined by him, did not seem to be immediately dangerous, though it was certainly serious.
When the Armenians had time to compare notes, it appeared that all the principal entrances to their Quarter had been defended with the same desperate courage and with equal success. There was considerable loss of life, inevitable when their assailants had firearms and they had none, but at least for the present they were safe, with their wives and children.
That is to say, they were safe within the limits of their own Quarter; outside of it, even at its very entrance, every Armenian was mercilessly slain. At least, to be accurate, the men and the boys were slain. Armenian shops, of which there were many, including the best and richest in the town, were given over to plunder, and Armenian houses shared the same fate.
Still, at first, in the Armenian Quarter, the feeling was one of relief. When a naked sword that has been held at your throat is suddenly withdrawn, your first sensation is delightful, whatever the next may be. It took the Armenians some days at least to realize two awful facts: that their friends and relatives outside were hopelessly lost, and that they were themselves straitly shut up and besieged.
Had the Meneshian family been twelve hours later in entering the town, not one of them, probably, would have been left alive. Their journey from Biridjik to Urfa had been a most perilous one, as every Moslem in the country seemed to be in arms against them. They could scarcely have accomplished it at all but for an expedient of Kevork’s. Jack had provided a Kourdish dress for him, as well as for himself and for Shushan, supposing that he would return with them to Urfa. He wore this during the journey, and rode boldly in front of the party, whose guide and protector he was supposed to be. He had changed it, however, before entering the city, as he never dreamed of danger there, and imagined it would expose him to ridicule.
Great anxiety was felt about Miss Celandine, and the other inmates of the Mission premises. But this, as far as Jack was concerned, was soon allayed, though in a way that caused his friends a terrible alarm. Two zaptiehs came to the Vartonian house, enquiring for one Grayson Effendi. Every one thought nothing less than that he had been identified in the crowd at the gate as the man who used the revolver, and that this summons meant imprisonment, as bad or worse than death. Great was the relief when it proved to mean only a polite request to visit Miss Celandine. True to his system—and he does everything upon system—the Turk would not willingly injure a foreign subject. Miss Celandine therefore was not only left unmolested, but given a guard of zaptiehs to protect her premises from the mob. These zaptiehs did their work faithfully; and it seems that some of them at least were won to regard their charges with respect and liking.
Jack went to the Mission House, as safe in reality as if he had been walking in a London street, though under the escort of men who, at a word from their captain, would have torn him limb from limb with the greatest pleasure in the world. He found the mission premises crowded with persons who had taken refuge there during the late disturbances. Many of them were wounded, and all were destitute. The courtyard was filled with them, as well as most of the rooms of the house. Miss Celandine—who, since the departure of her youthful fellow-worker, had stood completely alone—looked ten years older than when he saw her last. Thinner she could scarcely be, but her eyes had dark circles round them, and her face an abiding look of horror. She led him into the only private room she had left, and made anxious enquiries about the state of the Armenian Quarter, which, although it was at her very gates, it was practically impossible for her to enter. Then she said, “Mr. Grayson, I am sending to the Pasha to ask for a passport.”
“It is what any one would do in your place—what any one else would have done long ago,” he answered.
“This is why I do it. The danger seems over here. The massacre is stopped. Yet I cannot resume my work amongst the people; that is not permitted to me. Here I am useless; I am only witnessing misery I cannot relieve. But in England or America I could do a great deal. I could tell the truth—the very truth—about what is done here. If England and America knew that, I think it would change everything. I am persuaded better things of my fellow-Christians than that they would sit still and tolerate the destruction—with every aggravation of refined, diabolical cruelty—of a nation of Christians, only because they are Christians.”
Miss Celandine seldom spoke in this way; but her heart was hot and sore within her, she had just been hearing a recital of horrors such as may not be mentioned here, and was in no mood to guard her words. The hatred of Turks for Armenians is a growth of centuries, rooted in complex causes; but the fact that they are Christians lifts the bridle from the jaws of the oppressor, making every act of cruelty to them a merit—their extermination a holy war. And since by embracing Islam they would come under the protection of the Prophet, it is because of their firm adherence to their faith that these unhappy ones are given over to the sword, and worse.
“You are right to go,” Jack said simply. “And oh!” he added, his eyes kindling and his whole face changing, “you will take Shushan with you? That is what you mean—why you sent for me. God bless you, ten thousand times!”
The smile that lit up the worn face made it very sweet to look upon. “Yes, my dear boy,” she said. “I do mean that. But I dare not take her with me, either as Shushan Meneshian, or under the name she has now a right to bear. It would cause too much remark and enquiry. No; she had better pass as one of my servants, a certain number of whom I have the right to take. But this is what I sent for you to ask: Will you also apply for a passport, and come with us?”
Jack was silent. Indeed, he could not speak, for the fierce hope, the passionate longing that arose within him was too strong for words. To leave all this misery, to stand with Shushan on the shores of England—free!
“The thought grew frightful, ‘twas so wildly dear.”
But soon reflection came. It could not be. All at once he threw back his head with a sharp, sudden “No,” very startling to the lady, whose nerves were already strung to their utmost tension. “In the first place, everything would come out. I should be known as the Englishman, John Grayson, who married an Armenian in Biridjik, and who afterwards killed Kourds, and fired on Mussulmans with a revolver.”
“They would probably be afraid to meddle with you.”
“They might. You know their ways much better than I do. But I suspect they would find a way of paying me back my revolver shots in kind—or worse—before I left the country. And even suppose I got safe out, and Shushan too, what would be the fate of the Meneshians? Would not sevenfold vengeance descend on them—which, even if I could bear to think of—what of Shushan? There is another thing, though I scarce like to say it,” Jack added in a different tone, and with a kind of relapse into boyishness: “all the people here, the Meneshians, the Vartonians and the rest—in some queer way I cannot explain—seem to cling to me. They give me far more credit than I deserve for the repulse of the Turks the other day, and somehow they fancy I can protect them. I suppose it is because I am an Englishman, come of fathers and mothers who have not been afraid—because they had nothing to be afraid of—for generation upon generation. So I want to stay, at all events, till this affair is over.”
“John Grayson, you are a brave lad,” said Miss Celandine, stretching out her thin, worn hand to him.
Jack took it with all reverence. What deeds of kindness and pity, and heroic beneficence that weak woman’s hand had done! Like the people he dwelt amongst, he bowed over it, touching it with his lips and his forehead. Then he said, smiling, “But also I am a man now. If it please you, Miss Celandine, may I see my wife?”
“Certainly. I will go and fetch her.”
In a few minutes Shushan entered. She had grown a little pale with the anxieties of the last days, but he thought she looked sweeter than ever. She had much to hear from him about her family, and about her father, of whom he was able to give her a hopeful report.
An hour passed in earnest talk; but what each said to the other, neither told afterwards. When at last the moment of parting came, neither cared to think how long a parting it might be. Lip met lip, heart throbbed against heart. Shushan was the braver now. “You know, Shack,” she said, “the cross of Christ was laid on us together. Nothing can keep us parted after that.”
“The cross laid on us together,” Jack repeated; “indeed, it looks like it. But do not droop, my Lily. With God’s help we will win through yet, and have a joyful ending to all our troubles.”
But something in his own heart gave the lie to his hopeful words, as he took one last lingering gaze, and sadly turned to go.
“Yertaak paré,” said Shushan softly.
“Menaak paré,” he responded, and went.