A GREAT CRIME CONSUMMATED
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“God’s Spirit sweet,
Still Thou the heat
Of our passionate hearts when they rave and beat.
Quiet their swell,
And gently tell
That His right Hand doeth all things well.
“Tell us that He,
Who erst with the Three,
Walked (also) with these in their agony;
And drew them higher
And rapt them nigher
To Heaven, whose chariot and horses are fire.”
—C. F. Alexander
Dread were the watches of that December night, amidst the unutterable agonies of half a city. In the Armenian Quarter the only sleepers were those—thrice happy!—who would never awake again—
“Until the Heavens be no more.”
They were very many, like the slain in some great battle that decides a nation’s destiny. They lay in heaps, in the open street, in the court-yards, in the houses. Tearless, wild-eyed women, strong in the strength of love, came and sought their own amongst them. Sometimes a wife who found her husband, a mother who embraced her son, wept and wailed and made sore lamentation, but for the most part they were still enough. Sometimes they thanked God that they had found them—there.
It went worse with those who sat in their desolate homes, and watched the slow ebbing, often in cruel anguish, of the lives they loved. The number of the wounded and the dying was enormous. For one thing, the murderers were unskilful, for another they were often deliberately—diabolically—cruel. Moreover, it was better economy to hack a Giaour to pieces with swords or knives than to shoot him, since every bullet cost two piastres!
It went worse still with the women, the girls, the little children even, who were dragged to the mosques and shut up there, in hunger, cold, and misery, until the murderers of their fathers, their husbands and brothers had leisure to come and take them, and work their will upon them. Oh God of mercy and pity, that these things should be in this world of Thine!
Had He quite forsaken Urfa? Not always, standing outside the Furnace, can we see therein the Form of One like unto the Son of God. In the Furnace, men know better.
That night, in the vast Gregorian Cathedral, a great congregation met. Many, no doubt, came there as to a place of refuge, hoping that even Moslems would respect that sacred spot. But many more came to worship, perhaps for the last time, in the courts of God upon earth. A band of heroic Gregorian priests—men who were ready to be offered, and who knew that the time of their departure was at hand—made of this last service a solemn and sacred feast. They showed forth the Death of their Lord, giving the Bread and the Wine, which He ordained for all time as its hallowed memorials, to the kneeling, awe-struck multitude. Men, and women, and little children, thinking thus upon His Death for them, were strengthened to meet death for Him in faith and patience. On one of the pillars of that church, now in ruins, some hand, now cold in death, has traced the record that eighteen hundred persons partook of that solemn Sacrament. Never again should they eat of that Bread or drink of that Cup—
“Until the Trump of God be heard,
Until the ancient graves be stirred,
And with the great commanding word
The Lord shall come.”
For those still left in the doomed city, that seemed indeed the last Trumpet which sounded in the early dawn of Sunday, the 29th of December. It sent a thrill of horror through every Armenian heart. They knew it was the signal for resuming the massacre, and completing the work of death and ruin left unfinished the previous day.
An orgie of blood and crime, worse than all that had gone before, began then. Many Moslems of the lowest class, who had hitherto been kept in check by the fear that the Christians might defend themselves, now joined the murderers. Moreover, all passions are blunted by indulgence, and require stronger and yet stronger stimulants. The passion of cruelty is no exception. Where it really exists, where men kill and torture—not for rage or hate, or greed, or fear—but for the joy they have in doing it, it is as a demon possessing the soul. It lives, it grows, it thirsts, it craves sacrifices ever greater and more ingenious. It develops a horrible, a Satanic subtlety. It inspires deeds at the mere recital of which humanity shudders. We may not tell, we may not even think of them. Involuntarily we close our eyes, we stop our ears. But ought we not sometimes to remember that our brothers and our sisters have endured them all?
Hanum Selferian was sitting in what had been only yesterday the best room of her comfortable home. Now not a single article of furniture remained unbroken or unspoiled. Curtains were torn down, presses were smashed open, and their contents either taken away, broken into fragments, or strewn about. In the midst of the floor lay all the food in the house—bulghour, rice, meal, coffee, vegetables, bread—tossed together in a confused heap, over which charcoal had been thrown and kerosene poured. But no eyes for this, or for aught else, had the broken-hearted wife. On a bed in the corner lay her husband, dying. He was horribly mutilated; but the hand of devoted love had bound up the fearful wounds, and done the little that was possible to assuage their anguish. All the long night she had watched beside him, her children clinging round her weeping and praying, the elder ones trying to help her when they could. No joy came in the morning, but a new and terrible fear. What if the Turks should return? Flight and concealment were out of the question now.
The gate of their courtyard was broken the day before; and now some one pushed open the door of the room where they were. Hanum Selferian started to her feet. A man stood before her, his eyes wild and bloodshot, his face stamped with an expression of unutterable horror. One short hour had passed since John Grayson went forth from the gate of the prison. In that time he had seen things which he never afterwards told to any one, and which he would have given a king’s ransom for the power of forgetting. Now, like one walking in a dream—seeing nothing, hearing nothing—he strode up to her and asked, “Where is my wife?”
Hanum Selferian had seen him often, and knew all about him. But how could she recognise, in this broken, horror-stricken man, the bright, fearless English youth? He looked full fifty years of age. Besides, her own sorrow filled her heart, and dulled her senses. “Speak low,” she said;—”my husband”—
“I am sorry,” Jack answered mechanically. “But where is my wife, Shushan Meneshian?”
“Shushan?” She looked up now, her thoughts diverted for a moment. “You are not the Englishman?”
“Would I were not! No one will kill me. There is a mark set upon me, that none may hurt me. It is the mark of Cain.—Where is my wife? I was told she came here.”
“Yes; to see her father, Boghos, who was not here at all. It was all a trick,” said the poor woman. “Amaan! do not ask me more.”
“Don’t cry, dear Effendi,” broke in the youngest of the little girls, taking his hand caressingly, and touching it with her forehead. “Mother hid me in the storeroom while the Turks were here, but I looked through the crack of the door and saw—I saw dreadful things. They hurt poor father, oh, so terribly! but they did not hurt Oriort Shushan at all—not the very least. They only took her away with them. I am sure they will be very kind to her, she is so dear and beautiful.”
“Hush!” said the next sister, just a little older.
Krikor, the eldest boy, came running in. “Mother! mother! let us all go to the church. The neighbours—those of them who are here—say it is the best thing to do. The Turks will not touch us there.”
One loving glance she gave to her dying husband, then she looked at Jack. “Perhaps,” she said, “the kind English Effendi would take you children there. And your grandmother—Parooz, where is she?”
“Not one of us will stir a step without you, mother; there is no use in asking us. We live or die all together,” the boy said firmly, disregarding the looks and gestures with which his mother tried to stop him.
Then a feeble voice was heard, speaking from the bed. “In God’s name, let us all go. I think I could walk—with help.”
In John Grayson’s broken heart the instinct of helpfulness survived. It was as if he were dead within, and his shell, his outer self, went on mechanically, acting out the impulses impressed, and the habits formed, during his life-time. “I will help you,” he said, going over to the wounded man and preparing to raise him from the bed. Almost dying as he was, he was still able to stand, and even to walk a little.
Parooz, the eldest girl, fetched the white-haired grandmother, who had gone apart to weep, and was found in an upper room sleeping for sorrow. The children gathered round them. Jack put his strong arm about the dying man, his wife supported him on the other side, and they all went out together.
The state of the streets was indescribable. People were rushing through them wildly, shrieking, screaming, crying for help; and the dead and dying lay about under their very feet. Happily, the Cathedral was near at hand; but, for one of the little party, peace and safety were nearer still. As they came in sight of it, Selferian’s strength failed. “Let me rest a moment,” he prayed. They put down some of their upper garments, and laid him gently on them; and there he rested—from all his weariness and all his pain.
There was no time to mourn the dead. The old grandmother went on first, taking with her the reluctant Krikor. Then Jack said to the new-made widow, “For your children’s sake,” and pointed to the Cathedral.
The sights of horror they had seen, even in their short walk, quickened their footsteps. They found the churchyard and the buildings around it, the dwellings of the priests and the school-houses, already full of people. Making their way through the throng, they got at last into the Cathedral; and, after some further delay, went up into the gallery, some people the Selferians knew being there already.
Jack kept with them; his behaviour outwardly was quite rational, but he had entirely lost control over his thoughts. Once he imagined he was back again in England, wildly imploring the Queen, the Government, the whole nation, to send men and guns and bayonets to Armenia—not to save the people, but to kill them—to kill them mercifully, all at once, and make an end of this agony. Shushan and Shushan’s race seemed in his mind to have blended together into one. “’And in these days,’” he thought, “’shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.’”
All this time there were people pouring in, filling the vast spaces of the church till scarce standing room remained. At last the great iron door swung to, and was shut.
Not one moment too soon. The mob was already thundering at it. The yells and howls of the frenzied crowd outside mingled with the cries and groans of the terrified crowd within. At the same time shots came in through the windows, wounding some and killing others.
At last the storm prevailed, the iron door smashed in, and then the work of murder began in earnest. But the very density of the crowd of victims checked its progress. It was hard to cut through that mass of living flesh. One incident Jack saw which stamped itself upon his mind; though at the time he felt neither that nor anything else. Some Turk, mounted on a bench or stone, saw a face in the crowd he knew—that of a young Armenian singer, whose sweet voice was already winning him gold and glory, and who was a special favourite with the Moslems. He and others called to him by name. The youth sprang upon a pedestal, and in a minor key, with a voice of exquisite pathos and melody, began a plaintive Armenian song.
Then a strange thing was seen and heard—there were tears on Moslem faces, and sobs that broke from Moslem breasts. This would not do! Guns were pointed at the too successful singer. “Stop!” cried the voice of one having authority. “Dear youth, be a Moslem. We will save you alive, and give you wealth and honour, as much as you will.”
“Never!” The dauntless word rang through the church, sweeter than melody of harp or lute sweeter than voice of song. It was the young singer’s last utterance—the end came then, for him.
The work of death went on, the murderers hewing a way for themselves through the crowded aisles. Meanwhile, in the vast gallery, which ran quite round the building, the terrified multitude, mostly women and children, shrieked and wept and prayed, calling aloud on the name of Jesus. A few men tried to climb out through the windows; but this was impossible, and would have been useless, for the mob were waiting outside with firearms to pick off the fugitives. Jack stood where he was; for his own life he did not care the turning of a straw, and his instinct of protection kept him beside the Selferians. He saw all the work of murder going on in the church below. And now the Moslems had reached the altar. Some of them sprang upon it, while others tore the pictures, smashed the woodwork, and broke open anything they thought might contain treasure.
There was on the reading-desk a large, beautiful, and very ancient Bible, bound and clasped with silver. With a yell of triumph, a Moslem seized it, tore out the leaves, and flung down the desecrated volume. “Now, Prophet Jesus,” he shouted, “save Thine own if Thou canst! Show Thyself stronger than Mahomet!”
For one brief moment a wild ecstatic hope sprang up in the heart of John Grayson. He looked up, and half expected the solid roof to open, revealing God’s heaven above them, and in it the “sign of the Son of Man.” His Christian lips re-echoed the Moslem cry, “Save Thine own! Show Thyself stronger than Mahomet!”
“There was no voice, neither any that answered.” The silence of the ages—that strange, mysterious, awful silence—was not broken; it lasted, as it lasts still.
In the over-wrought brain of John Grayson some chord snapped then. “There is no Christ,” he said. “He cannot hear us; He is dead long ago. There is no God; He is nothing but a dream—a dream of happy men, who sit at ease in quiet homes.”
He did not know that he spoke aloud, but a woman near him heard the words. “How can you say there is no God?” she remonstrated. “It is not true;—but God has gone mad!”
The next moment a shot from below struck the speaker, and she fell into Jack’s very arms. The Turks were firing up into the crowd in the gallery.
But that process was by far too slow. Now they were dragging mattrasses, rugs, clothing, light wood work from the adjoining priests’ houses, and piling them on and amongst the heaps of dead and dying in the church. Then they carried in great vessels of kerosene, and poured their contents over the whole mass. To this horrible sacrifice they set fire in several places. The flames arose; the crowd in the gallery saw the awful fate prepared for them, and one wild, wailing shriek of terror drowned every other noise.
Turks, meanwhile, were rushing up the gallery stairs, seizing the younger women and girls, and carrying them out. A Turk forced his way between Jack and Hanum Selferian, “Do you know me?” he asked her. “I killed your husband yesterday because I want to marry you. Come with me, and I will save you and your children.”
He seized her zeboun, but with an effort she freed herself from his grasp. Jack helping her, and the children keeping close to her, they pushed on to the front of the gallery, and looked down. A sea of fire was beneath them; its hot breath scorched their faces. The Turk was following them. Then the Armenian mother lifted her youngest child, a boy of eight, in her arms, and looked at the three little girls clinging to her side. “Children,” she said, “will you go with that man and be Moslems, or will you die for Christ with me?”
“Mother, we will die with you,” said the little voices, speaking all at once.
She could do for them one thing yet. They should not suffer. In another moment they should be with Christ. Twenty feet down, right into the heart of the hottest fire, she flung her youngest child. Then followed the little girls; and then, just as the Turk’s hand touched her shoulder, her own rest was won.
That was the last thing Jack saw in the burning church.
Oh, Christ, who that day didst keep silence in Thy Heaven, help us to remember that other day, when around Thy Cross the mocking voices sounded, “If Thou be the Christ, save Thyself,”—and Thou wert silent too. Help us to hold fast by that faith in Thee that lies between us and madness. Make us understand that these Thy people are indeed “members incorporate in Thy mystical Body.” Not with them alone through sympathy, but in them through vital organic union Thou sufferest still. In them Thou art “in Thine agony until the end of the world”; until the last member is complete, the last sheaf of the great Harvest gathered in. Thou lovest them too much for the mockery of Thy foes, or even for the passionate prayer of Thy friends, to move Thee to come down from the Cross until the work of the Cross is finished, and the earnest expectation of Thy suffering creatures changed into the joy unspeakable of the manifestation of the sons of God.