Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“Oh, Thou that dwellest in the heavens high,
Above yon stars and beyond yon sky,
Where the dazzling fields need no other light,
Nor the sun by day, nor the moon by night;
Though shining millions around Thee stand,
For the sake of Him at Thy Right Hand,
Think on the souls He died for here,
Wandering in darkness, sorrow and fear!
The Powers of Darkness are all abroad,
They own no Saviour, they fear no God;
And we are trembling in dumb dismay—
Oh, turn not Thou Thy Face away!”
—Cameronian Midnight Hymn
If the Armenians were safe, for the present, in their own Quarter from actual murder, it was the most that could be said. They dared not stir an inch beyond its boundaries; and within it, the Redifs who were quartered upon them, ostensibly as protectors, but really as spies, committed many horrible outrages.
They were continually pressed to surrender firearms, which they did not possess. To satisfy the authorities, any pieces that could be found by diligent search amongst the few who had dared to conceal them, were given up; and this, much to his regret, was the fate of Jack’s revolver. Still the Turks persisted in the assertion that the Armenians had a large number of Martinis, supplied to them by foreigners, and that these must be produced before they could promise them security for their lives and their possessions. Vain were their protestations that these Martinis had no existence—that they had never even heard of them. In the end, the persecuted community actually purchased arms from the Turks themselves, which they then gave back to the Government. This might appear at first a mere trick of the officials, to secure a trifle of dishonest gain. It was much more; it was part of the subtle, skilful, elaborate plan by which a net was drawn around the doomed race, and they were made to appear, in the eyes of those who might have befriended them, as the doers, not the sufferers, of violence. In a European newspaper, English or German, the transaction might have read thus: “At Urfa, a town on the Euphrates (sic), a disturbance was caused by the Armenians, who attacked a party of zaptiehs as they were conveying a prisoner to the guard-house. They overpowered the zaptiehs, and killed the prisoner, against whom they had a grudge. Some rioting ensued; shops were plundered, and several persons, both Mussulmans and Armenians, were killed. But the Armenians having surrendered their fire-arms, and being restricted, for the present, to their own Quarter, order and tranquillity have now been completely restored, through the firmness of the Government.” This was the sort of thing John Grayson might have been reading if he had stayed in England. He would probably have dismissed the subject with the careless comment, “People are always fighting and killing each other in those out-of-the-way places,” and turned with quickened interest to the great cricket match on the next page.
But now he was himself in the midst of the agony, which made all the difference. He was shuddering and starving with the thousands packed together in those close, unhealthy streets. At first a danger threatened them, almost as terrible as the sword of the Turk. The water of the fountains they used came to them through the great ancient Aqueduct; and this supply the Turks could, and did, cut off. But there were, in their Quarter, some old, unused wells, which they cleaned out and made available, though the water obtained in this way was neither pure nor healthful. Their stores of rice, bulghour, and other kinds of food, which happily they had just laid in for the winter, were husbanded with all possible care.
Jack took an active share in everything that was done. His leisure time he employed in learning Turkish; for he saw how greatly his own and Shushan’s dangers, on their journey, had been increased by his want of it. It was not a difficult task; many Turkish words and phrases, which were in common use, he already knew; the Turkish language moreover is very poor and scanty, containing, it is said, not more than seven hundred really indigenous words.
He continued to live with the Vartonians; and indeed the whole Meneshian family contrived to stow itself away in their large and hospitable house, with the exception of the wounded Boghos, now slowly recovering, and his wife, who remained for the present with the Selferians.
It was thought that Thomassian might have received some of the Meneshians, as they were his kinsmen also; but his mind at this time seemed to be wholly absorbed in grief for the destruction of his property. His large, well-stocked shop had been looted; and fresh stores coming to him from Aleppo had been intercepted and seized. Unhinged by these catastrophes, and by the apprehension of worse to come, he fell into a state of morbid depression. He used to rouse himself however to take part in the meetings for consultation which were held, with many precautions, by the Armenian “Notables”; and he often gave very good and sensible advice. He was not fond of giving anything else.
“’Tis making a hole in the water to ask him to do anything for you,” said the younger Vartonians. “But he might comfort himself, under his losses, with the thought that the Turks are sure to poison themselves with some of his drugs, not knowing the use of them.”
Communication with the Mission House had now become very difficult, though the Armenians knew that their friends were still in safety there. It was no longer practicable to hold service in the Protestant church; so Jack’s opportunities of seeing Shushan, and Kevork’s of seeing Elmas, were no more. Miss Celandine however contrived occasionally, through her zaptiehs, to send news of Shushan to Jack, and to get tidings in return for her, of him and of her family. In this way she informed him also that she had not yet succeeded in obtaining her passport. The Pasha made fair promises; but continually put off the granting of her request on the plea of the disturbed condition of the country.
The Gregorians still assembled, very constantly, for the prayer they so much needed, in their great Cathedral; and it was before or after these services that they used to deliberate together on the state of affairs.
In one of these consultations they were lamenting, as they often did, the impossibility of sending news of their condition to those outside who might help them. Post and telegraph were closed to them; and, as they surmised, to Miss Celandine also. Two or three messengers, with letters concealed about them, had gone forth secretly, and at terrible risk, but they had never been heard of again. The presumption was that they had fallen into the hands of the Turks. What more could the Armenians do?
Then John Grayson rose up in his place, between Kevork and Avedis, and these were the words he said,—
“Friends, I will be your next messenger. Will you trust me?”
A murmur of astonishment ran round the assembly. The personal friends of Jack, and they were many, began to protest against his exposing himself to so great a danger; and indeed every one thought his life too valuable to be lightly risked.
“What would my sister say?” Kevork whispered.
And Jack answered, “She would say, ‘Der-ah haadet allà’ (The Lord be with you).” Then raising his voice, “It is the best way all round, if you will look at it. You need not endanger me or yourselves by writing anything; for I know all, and can tell it. If I am caught, I have still a good chance of escape; for I will tell the Turks I am an Englishman, and that they touch me at their peril.”
“They will not believe you, and you have no proof to offer,” said old Hohannes, with a face of much concern, for he loved Yon Effendi as a son.
“I have proof, father. I can speak and write English for their edification, and talk big about Consuls and International Law, and the power of England. Whereas, if I am not taken, the gain is great. An Englishman who has seen what I have, can say things the English—and the rest of the world—ought to hear, and there is none to tell them.”
“Amaan! That is true,” several voices said.
“And do not forget, for I do not,” Jack went on, “what I stand to win. Once free, I think I can help myself, and you too, far better than by staying here. If it were to abandon you, I would never go. Here or there, I mean to see this thing through with you. But it seems to me that I can do more, just now, there than here.”
“How will you disguise yourself?” some one asked.
“I can wear the Kourdish dress that served me coming here.”
“But you do not know the country,” another objected.
“As far as Biridjik I know it well. Trust me to find out the rest.”
Finally, Jack’s proposal was agreed to by all; except indeed by Hohannes, who kept silence, but did not change his mind. The meeting broke up, as soon as the heads of it had arranged for Jack to come to them at a later hour, to receive messages and other instructions for his dangerous mission.
As they went out together, Kevork laid his hand on his shoulder: “Brother,” he said, “do you not desire to see Shushan again before you go? I think it might be managed for you, with backsheesh to the zaptiehs.”
Jack thought a moment; then he answered with a decided “No. We have had our farewells,” he added. “It is best not to alarm her.” In his own heart he said, “I had rather keep the last words she spoke to me, ‘The cross of Christ has been laid upon us together. Nothing can part us after that!’” But he took his father’s note-book, the one precious relic that remained to him, wrote a few tender words in it, wrapped it up carefully and gave it to Kevork to give her, in case anything happened to him.
At the later consultation it was decided that Jack should not wear the Kourdish dress: it was thought he could not keep up the character sufficiently to disarm suspicion. A proposition that he should go dressed à la Frank was negatived also, since a person so attired would never be found travelling alone. At last a disguise was found for him,—the dress of an Armenian peasant of the very humblest class, a countryman. It was hoped that the appearance of utter poverty and of ignorance might secure his safety.
It was December now, and the nights were dark, as dark as they ever are in that southern land. There are many places in which the ancient wall of Urfa is much broken down, in some it is only three feet high, with stones and rubbish and broken masonry all about. Stealthily and noiselessly Jack crept towards one of these. There was no difficulty in getting over the wall, but then at the other side there was a natural rock to be descended—almost a precipice. This also however the agile youth accomplished, and stood in safety at the bottom. His next difficulty was to elude the Turkish patrol, which passed frequently during the night. Seeing it at a distance, he laid himself down quite flat amongst the stones, until the men had passed, and everything was perfectly quiet. Then he cautiously set out upon his journey, passing through fields and vineyards, and striking into the Roman road where he had ridden with Shushan three months before. Although the weather was now cold, he intended to travel by night, and rest during the day, in order to minimize the dangers of discovery.
Yet, three hours later, the die was cast, and his fate was sealed. A party of Turkish horsemen, who were conveying some prisoners into the town, saw at a distance in the morning light his dark figure thrown out by the white path behind him. He knew they had seen him, but there was no place near where it was possible to conceal himself, so his only chance was to pass on boldly in his assumed character.
The captain of the troop took little heed of him, just flinging him a curse in passing as one beneath his notice. Unhappily, amongst the band of wretched prisoners—all the more wretched for having had to keep up on foot with the riding of the Turks—Jack saw a face he knew, Der Garabed, the priest of Biridjik. No fear of consequences could keep the look of grief and pity out of his eyes. It was observed, as also was the captive’s quick glance of recognition, changed though it was immediately into the dull, vacant stare his race have a wonderful power of assuming.
The Captain gave a rapid order, and Jack was surrounded and seized. Asked what his name was, he answered boldly, “John Grayson. I am an Englishman.”
This was received with a shout of laughter. “By the Prophet, a likely story!” the Captain said. “English Effendis do not go about the country alone and in rags. More probably a Zeitounli prowling about to stir up rebellion.”
“I can prove my words,” Jack said. “I am an Englishman. I put on this dress to get down to the coast in safety, as the country is disturbed. I have never been in Zeitoun. I can prove what I am. Those who hurt the English have to pay for it. Those who help them get well paid themselves, in good medjidis.”
The last word had rather a softening influence. “Of what religion are you?” the Captain asked.
“Of the religion of the English,” Jack answered promptly. The Captain hesitated for a moment.
“Captain,” shouted a Turk from his following, “the Giaour is lying. He is no English Effendi, but an Armenian of Urfa. I saw his face that day there was fighting. He had a revolver in his hand, and shot true Believers with it.”
“Is that so? Then he goes to the Kadi,” said the Captain, his momentary hesitation at an end. “Bind him, men, in the Name of Allah, the Merciful. You are an impudent liar, like all your race,” he said to Jack, turning away with a curse.
Jack hoped he might be able to speak to the priest; but this boon was denied him. He was placed at the other end of the file of captives. The man to whom he was bound seemed either afraid, or too thoroughly crushed and dejected to speak to him. His own state of mind was not enviable. His first feeling was that he had failed. He meant to do such great things; he had gone forth full of hope and courage, as one who should work a great deliverance in the earth. And now?—and now?—What would they all feel, all the friends who loved and trusted him so? They would be waiting, wondering, speculating about his fate. Their anxiety would change into suspense, their suspense would deepen at last into sad certainty. Yet, most likely, there would be none to tell of his fate. And Shushan? The thought of her sorrow swallowed up all other thoughts, all other regrets. And Shushan? For her dear sake he would not give up hope, he would struggle on even to the end. His English name and his English race might save him yet.
Not likely, after those fatal shots. Meanwhile, at the present moment, where was he? Whither was he going? All the stories which, in the last five years, he had heard spoken with bated breath of the horrors of Turkish prisons rushed like a sea of bitter waters over his soul. They brought with them a sensation absolutely new to him—utter, unreasoning, overpowering fear. Terror and anguish took hold on him; large drops, like the touch of cold fingers, stood upon his forehead; he shivered from head to foot. He had faced death before this, and it had seemed to him but a light thing. “After that, no more that they can do.” After that; but how much before—oh, God of mercy, how much before!
All at once Stepanian’s voice seemed sounding in his ears. “You must trust God utterly.” Wherever they might bring him, whatever they might do with him, God would be there. He could not get out of that Presence, nor could they. A thrill shot through him of hope restored and strength renewed; a vision of conflict over, and victory won at last. As a cry “unto One that hears,” his prayer went up: “Oh, God of my fathers, I beseech Thee, suffer me not through any pains of death to fall from Thee. Suffer me not to deny my faith, nor yet to accuse my brethren, in the Name of Christ, my Redeemer!”
While he thought of God he was calm. When he thought of his chances, of what might happen to him, of whether any one would believe his story, the dark fears came again. Even of Shushan it did not do to think too much just now—he could only commend her to God. Constitutionally, he was brave and fearless. But to think of a Turkish prison without shuddering requires much more than constitutional bravery,—either nerves of adamant, or faith to remove mountains. Perhaps not either, perhaps not both together could prevent the anguish of anticipation, whatever strength might be given for actual endurance.
Back again in Urfa, and at the Government House where he had seen Melkon witness his brave confession, Jack found that his story would not be listened to for a moment. Some of the captives were taken away, he knew not whither; others, along with himself, were led within the gloomy gates of the prison, and after passing through several dark passages, thrust into a room or cell. As well as he could discern by the light that streamed from a narrow window high up in the wall, this cell was already full—nay, crowded—men standing packed together as those who wait for a door to open and admit them to some grand spectacle. “I suppose,” he thought, “they will take us out by-and-by for some sort of trial. But what stifling, foetid, horrible air! Enough to breed a pestilence!”
It was utterly impossible to sit down, difficult even to raise a hand or move a foot, so dense was the crush. Occasional thrills through the living mass told that some wretch was making a frantic effort to get a little air, and thus increasing the misery of his neighbours. Jack contrived to say to a companion in misfortune, whose ear touched his mouth, “How long will they keep us here?”
At first the only answer was a mournful “Amaan!” followed by piteous groans.
He repeated the question—”How long will they keep us in this horrible place?”
“As long as they can,” gasped the man he had addressed;—”until death sets us free.—Why not?—It is the prison.”
But another hissed into his ear, “No; it is hell—hell.”
“’If I make my bed in hell, behold Thou art there,’” John Grayson thought. With a brave effort to cling to his Faith and his God, he said aloud, “God is here. Let us cry to Him.”
“God has forsaken us,” said the last speaker; but from two or three others came the feebly murmured prayer, “Jesus, help us!” “Jesus, help us!”
Time passed on. Jack would have given all the wealth he could claim in England, were it here and in his hand, simply for one square yard of the filth-stained ground beneath his feet to rest upon. It was long since every limb had ached with intolerable weariness; now the dull ache was succeeded by shooting, agonizing pains. He was too sick for hunger, but the thirst was terrible, and the sense of suffocation came in spasms that made him want to tear a passage with teeth and nails through the living mass about him. Once the pressure, becoming heavier, made him try to look round. Near him a man had swooned. Was it a swoon, or was it death? He caught a glimpse of the livid face between two others; for there was no room for the fainting, or even for the dead, to fall.
Time passed on. He felt his strength forsaking him. He tried to speak, but his voice sounded hollow and unlike itself. Was he dying? He thought this numbness and faintness might mean that; but then perhaps the wish was father to the thought. He was young and strong, and such do not quickly die.
Time passed on. Shushan was in his thoughts continually, with the wish—with the prayer often—that she might never know. Thank God—there was something to thank God for even here—she did not know now! Miss Celandine would take care of her,—and sometime, somewhere, when all this agony was over, they would meet again. Was this the cross of Christ?
Time passed on. The numbness in his limbs increased. He began to lose himself a little now and then. He was at Pastor Stepanian’s church—in Biridjik—in England even; then he would come suddenly back again, with a thrill of anguish, to the horrible present. Yet he was not dying, he was not fainting even; strange to say, he was only falling asleep. Even upon the cross, men have slept. At last no more light came in through the little grated window. It was night.
Time passed on. A sounder slumber than before came mercifully to steep his senses in oblivion. He was in England, in his old home. In the orchard was one particular tree he used to be very fond of climbing, in spite of his father’s warning, “Take care, my boy, you will break your bones some day.” He thought now that he had fallen from the highest branch, and was laid on his bed, a mass of fractures and bruises, calling on the surgeons, whose faces he saw distinctly, to give him chloroform—anything to stop the pain, and bring unconsciousness. Was he crying out at the pitch of his voice, and doing shame to his manhood?
He awoke in horror. Shriek after shriek, though not from his lips, rent the midnight air. To those who only know what the human voice can do by the cries of childish pain or fear, a strong man’s shriek of agony is an unimaginable horror.
“Oh, what is it?” Jack cried aloud, his own voice a wail.
“Some one is being tortured in the next cell to this,” a weary, indifferent voice made answer.
The shrieks went on, interspersed with short intervals of silence, and with deep, heavy groans. There were words too, heard more or less distinctly, cries for mercy, agonized prayers. Then in a higher key, “I know nothing—nothing. You are killing me.” And again, “Kill me, in the name of God. I implore of you to kill me!” Once more, as if flung out with all the remaining strength of dying lips, “No!—No!—No!—No!”
“It is only,” said the man who had spoken last, “some one who refuses to accuse his friends.”
“God help him!” Jack murmured feebly. For a little while the cries died away; then they began again, culminating in a shriek so appalling that Jack’s senses failed him with the horror, and at last unconsciousness took him out of his misery.
A waft of cooler air revived him. When he came to himself, he lay amongst a number of fallen or falling bodies. Then some one was dragging him along, as it seemed, through some passage towards the light. “Where am I?” he asked, trying mechanically to shake off the hand that held him. Then he saw that he was between two zaptiehs, who were laughing at his feeble efforts to get free. He thought it very likely they were going to kill him, and he did not care.
Yet their intentions did not seem at the moment particularly cruel. One of them pointed to a place near the wall, and told him to sit down and rest; the other fetched him a cup of water, incomparably the most delicious draught he had ever tasted. Then they half led, half dragged him into an open court, where many other prisoners were waiting.
He looked on dreamily while several of these were led up to the Kadi, who sat in state on the divan at the end of the room, and after a brief examination, sometimes a few words only, were led away again by the zaptiehs. At last his own turn came. He could manage to stand alone now, though he still felt confused and bewildered.
He was asked his name, and he gave it in full. But here strength and memory seemed to fail him together. He knew there was something he wanted to say, but he could not remember what it was. He looked around him blankly, helplessly—and the next moment would have fallen to the ground, if one of the zaptiehs had not caught him and held him up.
The next thing he heard was the voice of the Kadi addressing him again. “Listen,” said the zaptieh; “His Excellency condescends to enquire if you are a true Believer.”
“I am,” said Jack.
“Are you then of the creed of Islam?”
He stood up straight, and looked the Kadi in the face. “No,” he answered.
“Will you become a convert to the creed of Islam?”
“No,” he said again.
“Since we are inclined to mercy, we will give you a week to think the matter over. After that, if you refuse again, you must die.”
“I had rather you would kill me at once,” Jack said.
“It is not the will of Allah,” the Kadi replied. “Guards, take the prisoner away.”
He was led presently to another dungeon, where at least there was room to stretch his weary, aching limbs at full length on the ground; and where, from utter exhaustion, he almost immediately fell asleep.