“THE DARK RIVER TURNS TO LIGHT”
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“The thousands that, uncheered by praise,
Have made one offering of their days;
For Truth’s, for Heaven’s, for Freedom’s sake,
Resigned the bitter cup to take,
And silently, in fearless faith,
Bowing their noble souls to death.”
John Grayson awoke from his long sleep. Though still aching all over, he was much refreshed and strengthened. Nature was putting forth her recuperative powers in his young and vigorous frame. For a while he lay quite still. The light was dim, the ground beneath him foul and muddy; and he could see nothing, not even a mat, in the way of furniture. But he soon became aware that he was not alone. There were several persons in the room, or cell, and they were conversing together in low tones, mingling their words with many a sigh, and many a murmured “Amaan!” or “Jesus, help us!” One spoke of his large family of little children—how hard to leave them destitute! Another of his wife; a third of his aged father, who was blind; a fourth of his brothers and sisters; and in him Jack recognised the voice of a friend of the Vartonians, who had been away at the vineyards when the storm burst upon his people.
He raised his head. “Is that you, Kaspar Hohanian?” he asked.
“Djanum!” cried the young man, coming towards him and looking at him attentively. “Friends, this is Yon Effendi, the Englishman who married Oriort Shushan Meneshian.”
Most of the twelve or fifteen prisoners who were shut up there together knew his story, and all gathered round him with sympathy and interest. In the awful strain of their position any momentary distraction was a relief. “How had he come there?” they asked. It happened that they had all been imprisoned before he set out on his desperate errand: some, like Kaspar, had been found outside the Armenian Quarter; others had been arrested by the Redifs, on various pretexts, within it. But Jack, before he told his story, asked if they could give him any food, for he was exhausted with hunger. All they had to offer was a piece of hard black bread, defiled by the mud and filth into which it had been purposely thrown by their jailors; and a draught of water, by no means either clean or fresh. But even for these he was very thankful, and ate and drank with eagerness.
Kaspar Hohanian quoted to him a proverb of their race. “’Eat and drink, and talk afterwards,’ says the Turk. ‘Eat and drink, and talk at the same time,’ says the Armenian.”
“At all events, while I eat you can talk to me,” Jack said, with his mouth full. “Your people thought you were dead, Baron Kaspar.”
“The Turks killed all my companions—oh, and so cruelly!” he answered with a shudder. “But an acquaintance I had among them persuaded them, instead of killing me at once, to tie me to one of the tall, upright tombstones in their cemetery outside the gate. Their thought was to leave me there to die of hunger; my friend’s, as he whispered, was to come back at night and release me. But, Amaan! the patrol came along before he did, took me, and brought me here. And now I have a week given me to choose between Islam and death. It is hard.”
They were all, as it seemed, in like case, only the period of respite varied a little. Meanwhile, it relaxed the intolerable tension of their thoughts, and wiled away a few weary hours, to tell and to hear each other’s histories. Jack accordingly gave his, expressing sorrow for the fate of Der Garabed, the priest of Biridjik, and asking if any one present knew anything about him.
No one did; and while they were discussing the matter, the prison door was opened, and another captive led—or rather thrust—in, to join their mournful company. He was a man of middle age, good-looking, and well dressed in European fashion. But his head was bowed down and his fez pulled low over his face, his arms hung helplessly by his side, and his whole manner and bearing showed the most utter dejection.
Jack sprang up and came to him at once, with an exclamation of pity and sorrow. “Baron Muggurditch Thomassian!” he said.
“Don’t speak to me!” said Thomassian, turning on him a look of unutterable anguish.
He went to the most distant corner of the prison, the rest making way for him. No one ventured to approach him with enquiries or condolences, though they all knew him by sight, and several were amongst his acquaintances.
He sat down—or rather, lay down—upon the ground, and turned his face towards the wall.
Low, furtive whispers passed among the others.
“So much to lose. What can all his money do now?”
“Better had he shown mercy and given to the poor.”
But these were quickly hushed, lest he should overhear. They did not want to hurt the feelings of the unhappy man, whom indeed they would have gladly comforted, if they had known how. But, as this seemed impossible, they left him to himself; and their talk soon wandered back to their own situation, and the momentous choice that was set before them.
Some were steadfast and comparatively serene. Others wavered, and two or three seemed disposed to give way. All prayed much and often. Most of them could sing, and, led by a few of the braver spirits, they made the gloomy walls resound with Psalms and hymns, especially with that favourite of the Armenians,—
“Jesus, I my cross have taken.”
Once John Grayson’s voice broke down in singing it, for he heard Shushan saying to him, “The cross of Christ has been laid on us together.” Only, if it could be, that he might bear the heaviest end, and that she need never know of all this!
Meanwhile, Thomassian never spoke, and scarcely ever moved from the place where he sat, or lay, his face turned away from the rest. He ate little, and they could not see that he slept. Once or twice they noticed that his tears were falling silently. But not even a groan or sigh told of the anguish of his soul.
The days seemed unending, but still they drew towards an end. Ay, and far too quickly for those who looked forward with unutterable dread to what was to come after! The only breaks in the monotony were the jailor’s daily visits with bread and water. Generally he came and went without a word; but on the evening of their last day of grace he broke the silence.
“You Giaours had better be learning your ‘La illaha ill Allah’ to-night,” he said, “for if you have not got it off by to-morrow morning, you die like the dogs you are.”
Then he shut the door, and left them to themselves.
There was a long silence, only interrupted by a few sorrowful “Amaans!”
It was broken at last by the youngest in the room, a lad of some eighteen years. “I would not be afraid,” he said plaintively, “if I thought they would kill us at once. Were it only a shot or a sword-thrust, that were easy to bear. But to be killed slowly—cut in little pieces—or perhaps like some——”
“Hush, boy!” Kaspar Hohanian interrupted. “Whatever they do to us, it must be over sometime. And then—there is heaven beyond.”
“Ay,” said an older man, “there is heaven for us, after a brief agony. But, friends, we have not ourselves alone to think of; there are our wives and children.”
“True,” another chimed in; “if we die, they starve.”
“If we die, they do worse than starve,” the former speaker resumed. “To what fate do we leave our women, our girls? You know it all, brothers. Whereas, if we turn Moslems, they will be safe, and under protection.”
“You are speaking well,” observed a third. “And I cannot think, for my part, that the Lord Jesus will be angry with us when He knows all. Has He not given us our families to take care of? Does not His holy Apostle say in his Letter, ‘If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel’? If we must deny the faith, and be infidels, it seems as well to do it one way as another.”
“And I have my old father to think of; he will die of grief,” a sad voice murmured.
“’He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me,’” said another voice, unheard till then amongst them. Thomassian rose up in his place, and looked around him on the group. His whole appearance was changed—transfigured; his look firm and fearless, his eyes shining as if with some inner light.
“My brothers,” he said, “you think I have no right to speak to you, that it ill becomes me to take upon my lips the words of my Lord and Saviour. And you think that which is true.”
“No, no,” murmured two or three, unwilling, in that supreme hour, to give pain to a fellow-sufferer.
But Kaspar said more frankly, “To confess the truth, we none of us thought you were a religious man, Baron Thomassian.”
“I was not. I lived for the things seen, not for the things unseen, which are eternal. Very early I said to myself, ‘I am an Armenian, one of an oppressed, down-trodden race. I cannot rise, make a mark in the world, and win its splendid prizes. Yet I have brains. I have the power to will, to plan, to execute. What can I do?’ There was but one answer—’I can get wealth, and wealth means safety, enjoyment, influence.’ So I tried to get wealth, and I got it by honest industry. At least in the beginning, my hands were clean enough. I prospered; I surrounded myself with comforts, with luxuries. I took to wife a lady, whom—God help me!—I love as truly as any man among you loves his own. But—ah me!—I forgot God.”
“So no doubt have we all, some more, some less,” said Kaspar Hohanian.
“If there is any one here who feels that, let him look up and take comfort,” Thomassian went on, “for not one among you has gone from Him so far as I. But, though I forgot Him, He has remembered me. I was led on from one thing to another; until, for the sake of gain, I did some things of which the thought can sting me even now. I was hard upon the poor, and upon my debtors. I did wrong in various ways, and even to some who trusted me. Mr. John Grayson, you are one of those I wronged.”
Jack started at the unexpected utterance of his name.
“It is no time now to think of wrongs,” he said.
“No, for him who has suffered—yes, for him who has done the wrong. After that time I saw you in Biridjik, I went indeed to Aleppo, but I did not take your letter with me, nor did I speak for you to the Consul. For he and I, just then, were at daggers drawn. I had used his name and influence, and the presence of his dragoman, to pass through the Custom House some prohibited drugs. He was angry, and with reason. I did not dare to face him. I wanted to be rid of your letter, for fear of complications; so I just dropped it into the post office at Tel Bascher, where I have little doubt it lies until this day.”
“Then my friends have not been false to me,” Jack said, much moved. “And, if my letter had come to them, they might have saved me—and Shushan,” his heart added.
Thomassian came over close to him, and stretched out his hand. “Can you forgive me?” he asked.
Jack was silent for just a moment. Then he said slowly, “’As we forgive them that trespass against us.’ Yes, Baron Thomassian, I do forgive you, in His name whom we hope so soon to see.” “But, oh! how I wish you had spoken!” he could not help thinking, tho’ he crushed back the words in time. “Don’t think it would have made a difference,” he said. “I do forgive you, with all my heart.”
“It might have changed everything, or it might not,” Thomassian said mournfully. “I have no power now to undo that wrong, or any of the others I have done. Friends, while I sat in silence yonder, my face turned from you all, the sins of my whole life came upon me. They swept over my head like black waters, they seemed to choke my very life out. The thought of death was terrible. I could not die, and go into God’s presence thus. And yet, to give up my faith would only be to add another sin, and one for which there is no pardon.”
“Oh, no!” Jack threw in. “That is too hard a saying.”
“Surely,” Thomassian said, “if you go away from the light, you must remain in darkness; if you go away from the Christ, you must remain unforgiven. That was what I came to in those days of anguish. I thought I could not let Christ go. I know now it was Christ that would not let me go. My brothers, all that time that I lay silent there, not joining in your prayers, your hymns, your counsel-taking, my whole heart has been one desperate cry to Him, ‘Oh, Christ, forgive me! Even now, at this eleventh hour, take my spoiled life, and receive me into Thy kingdom!’”
There was a silence.
“Has He heard?” Kaspar asked at last.
Thomassian bowed his head low, and veiled his face with both hands. “I stand among you confounded and ashamed,” he said.
“Because God was silent to you?” said the youth Dikran, in a pitying voice.
“Because God was not silent to me,” Thomassian answered, removing his hands, and turning on them a face full of awe-struck gladness, “because to me—the last and least of you—to me, who had forgotten Him and sinned against Him so, even to me He has revealed Himself.”
“How?” asked two or three, drawing near him with looks of reverence.
“How, I cannot tell you. That may no man tell, or understand, myself least of all. ‘I called upon Thy name, oh Lord, out of the low dungeon. Thou drewedst near in the day that I called upon Thee; Thou saidst, Fear not.’ After all, though no man may understand it, yet it is a very simple thing. I, the worst among you, have taken God at His word, and claimed His promise of forgiveness for the Lord Christ’s sake. I had so much to be forgiven, there was no other way. And He has forgiven. He has done more; He has given peace, such peace as I could never dream of. I am glad to die for Him now. I have no fear of man—not from the fear, but from the love of Him. Not because if I forsake Him He will forsake me, but because I know He never will forsake me, neither in life nor in death, nor in the life beyond.”
There was silence when he ended. At last the oldest man amongst them stretched out his hand to him and said, “Baron Thomassian, you have taught us a lesson.”
“You are better than the rest of us,” another said impulsively.
“Better? No; worse, a thousand times. Not worthy to stand amongst you as one of Christ’s martyrs. But since He has this joy to give to me, the last and least, think what gifts He must have for you, His true and faithful servants!”
“Certainly He will not forsake us in the hour of death,” Kaspar said. “Baron Thomassian, I take this answer of God to your prayer as a token of good for us all.”
“My mind is made up,” said a quiet, elderly man, who had not spoken hitherto. “Let them do their worst. I stand by the Lord Christ; and I trust the Lord Christ to stand by me.”
Then Dikran, the youngest of them all, spoke up too. “I think it is scarce so hard for me as for the rest of you. For I am an orphan, and my only brother was killed in the fighting two months ago. All through, it was not death, it was agony I feared. But now, I know Christ will help me through that.”
“And He will care for those we leave after us,” another said in a low voice.
“Yon Effendi, you have not spoken yet,” said Kaspar.
John Grayson started, as if from a dream. “There is only one thing to say,” he answered firmly, “I stand by Christ.”
“So likewise said they all.” In prayer, and mutual counsel-taking and encouragement the long night wore on. Amongst them all, there was only one who slept. Worn out with his long and bitter conflict, and at rest in the ineffable peace in which it ended, Thomassian fell into a dreamless sleep, with his head pillowed on John Grayson’s knee. Jack himself feared to sleep, on account of the waking that must follow. He prayed, thought of his past life, of his father and all his friends; above all, of Shushan. Often his mind would wander for a little amongst unconsidered, half-forgotten trifles, but it always turned back again to the things which made its home.
The morning light stole at last through their narrow grated window. Thomassian stirred, and sat up. He looked round upon them all with a smile; but his eyes grew grave and full of thought as they rested on the face of John Grayson, who, just then, was absorbed in what he thought might be his last prayer for Shushan.
“Yon Effendi,” he said, “are you ready to die?”
Jack looked at him steadily for a moment, then bowed his head in silence.
“But you would rather live, if it were the will of God? Is it not so?”
“I do not seem to care now, not greatly,” Jack said. “It seems easy to die now, with you all. But”—his voice sank low—”but there is Shushan.”
“And if I can, in some slight measure, atone for the harm I have done you, you will be glad, for her sake? But do not build on it—it is but a chance. Rather, since there is no chance really, it will be as God wills.”
“Hush!” some one suddenly exclaimed.
The key was grating in the door. In another minute it was thrown open, and the jailor entered. He did not waste words. “Come,” he said.
The band of confessors rose to their feet, and looked one another in the face.
“One moment, I pray of you,” Kaspar said in Turkish to the jailor. Then in Armenian, “Let us bid each other farewell.”
“Not so,” Thomassian answered, smiling. “It is not worth while, we shall meet so soon with joy in the presence of our Lord.”
As they went forth, John Grayson thought once more of the last words he had heard his father say, “The dark river turns to light.”
It was the morning of Christmas Day, 1895.