A GREAT CRIME
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“The clinging children at their mother’s knee
Slain; and the sire and kindred one by one
Flayed or hewn piecemeal; and things nameless done
Not to be told: while imperturbably
The nations gaze, where Rhine unto the sea,
Where Seine and Danube, Thames and Tiber run,
And where great armies glitter in the sun,
And great kings rule, and man is boasted free!”
—”The Purple East,” by William Watson
Meanwhile, over the crowd of anxious hearts the Mission House sheltered, the sad days went slowly by. Shushan’s fears for her husband could find no relief, and they were intensified by apprehensions about her father, of whose state disquieting rumours reached her. Her entreaties prevailed on Miss Celandine to send a couple of her zaptiehs to ascertain the truth. The zaptiehs brought back word that Boghos Meneshian was dying, and prayed that his daughter might be allowed to come to him, in order that he might give her his blessing. Miss Celandine sent her accordingly, in the charge of a trusted Armenian servant, and with a guard of four zaptiehs. This was early on the morning of Saturday, the 28th of December.
She was left by her escort at the house of the Selferians, where her father had been staying, and was still supposed to be. The zaptiehs promised to return for her in an hour. The Armenian said he would be close at hand; he was going to see a friend in a neighbouring house.
“Oh, my dear Oriort Shushan,” said Hanum Selferian, hurrying to meet her, “in the name of God, what brings you here?”
Shushan looked at her in amazement. “I have come to see my father,” she said. “How is he?”
“Well enough, I suppose. He went to the Vartonians, cured, with your mother, Mariam Hanum, about a week ago.”
“Thank God!” said Shushan, drawing a long breath of relief. “They told me he was dying.”
“Who told you such a story, my dear? He is dying as much as we all are, no more.”
Shushan felt surprised and uneasy, though she did not yet know, perhaps she was destined never to know, that she was the victim of a plot. “It may be,” she said, a shadow crossing her face, “that they told me wrong about the house. I ought to go to my cousins.”
“What? through the streets? You cannot—not even if my husband went with you. Besides, if the zaptiehs should come back, and find you gone? No, Oriort Shushan; this is what we will do—my husband will go to the Vartonians, and, if possible, bring your father to see you here.”
“I like not to take him from his work, Josephine Hanum.”
“What signifies his work? There is little enough to do here now, and more than time enough to do it in.”
Hagop Selferian, who was at work, stood up from his board, wiped his brow, and threw on his jacket. “Yes, I will go,” he said.
Shushan remained with the women and children, and shared the pillav that formed their early meal, afterwards helping Josephine Hanum in her pleasant household tasks.
But, as time passed on, she grew increasingly anxious. “I wonder the zaptiehs do not come back,” she said. It was now between ten and eleven in the forenoon.
Josephine Hanum went to the window that looked out upon the street. “There is no sign of them,” she said. “But here comes my husband.”
He crossed the court and came in, looking pale and frightened. “My father?” Shushan breathed, only one cause of distress occurring to her mind.
“He is well. But there is an army on the slope of the hill. In the town, the minarets are black with men, and the roofs of the Turkish houses with women and children. Jesus help us, what is going to happen?”
“I would give my right hand to have you back in the Mission House, Oriort Shushan,” said Josephine Hanum, looking at her guest in a sort of despair. “Hagop, dost think thou couldst bring her there?”
Selferian shook his head. “It is not my life I think of,” he said. “Wife, I met in the street that Syrian who used to work with me, Mar Tomas. He had a black turban on, and was hurrying to his church. He is a Roman Catholic, you know. It seems there is an order that all Christians who are not Armenians are to go to their churches, and stay there all the day. And they are not to let a single Armenian cross the threshold, at their peril.”
Here Krikor, the eldest boy, came running in. He had been up on the roof. “Father, mother, come up,” he said. “Come and look. Such a wonderful sight you never saw!”
“A sight that bodes no good to us. What is it, boy?”
“Oh, so much, father! I could never tell you. Come and look.”
All four mounted the stairs that led to the flat roof. The younger children followed them, eager to see.
The slope of the hill above them glittered with Turkish and Kourdish soldiers, the gay dresses of the latter lending animation to the scene, and the swords and bayonets of all flashing in the sunlight. Every point at which the Armenian Quarter could be entered bristled with soldiers drawn up in battle array, while behind them surged and swayed a savage mob, men and boys, and even young children amongst them. All were armed, many with guns, the rest with daggers, knives or bludgeons. In the Turkish Quarter the housetops swarmed with women; and above the confused noises of the great city, above the hoarse murmurs of the soldiers and the mob, was heard their peculiar throat-sound, called the Zilghit: “Tchk, Tchk, Tchk, Tchk,” which means, “Go, men, and fight for Mahomet. We are with you.”
White to the lips, Selferian turned to the women. “This means death,” he said.
As he spoke, a glittering crescent shone out on the fort above the hill, catching the sunshine on its glassy disc. At the same moment, a green flag appeared on a minaret at the opposite side of the Armenian Quarter. From another minaret a Muezzin sang out over the town the Moslem call to prayer,—
“La ilaha ill Allah, Mohammed resoul Oullah.”
Then came the shrill blast of a trumpet, and Shushan, who was looking at the troop of soldiers nearest them, saw them deliberately open their ranks, and allow the mob behind to pass with them into the Armenian Quarter.
All the family rushed down again from the roof. Selferian barred the door, and his wife drew the shutters across the windows. The children began to cry with terror; though, except Krikor, they scarcely knew what they feared. Selferian’s aged mother was there also, weeping and wringing her hands.
Soon the sound of shots, the noise of hurrying feet outside, and the shrieks and cries that filled the air, told that the killing had begun.
How is it with men and women, and little children, in these dire extremities? Thank God that we do not know,—that we are never likely to know!
“Oh God, do not let them kill us!” children sobbed in their terror. “Oh God only let them kill us at once!” men and women prayed, their lips white with a deadlier fear.
It was deliberate, organized, wholesale murder. First came the soldiers—Zaptiehs, Redifs, Hamidiehs,—then the Turks of all classes, especially the lowest, well furnished with guns and knives. Their little boys ran before them as scouts to unearth their prey. “Here, father, here’s another Giaour,” they would cry, espying some unhappy Armenian in an unused well or behind a door. Then the Moslem, perhaps, would put his knife or his dagger into the hands of his little son, and hold fast the Giaour till the child had dealt the death blow, winning thus, for all his future life, the honourable title of Ghazi. After the murderers came the plunderers, a miscellaneous rabble, who took away what they could, and destroyed the rest. They would heap the provisions together in the midst of the living-rooms, mix them with wood and coal and other combustibles, then pour kerosene on the mass, and set it on fire.
The Vartonians, the Meneshians, and a few others, were gathered in the courtyard of the large Vartonian house. The two families were all there, except Baron Vartonian, who was still in Aleppo, old Hohannes Meneshian, who happened to be visiting some friends, Kevork, who had gone in search of him—and Shushan. They clung together, the women and children weeping, the men for the most part silent in their terror. Above the sorrowful crowd rose a voice that said, “Let us die praying.” Immediately all knelt down, and their hearts went up to heaven in that last prayer, which was not the cry of their despair, but the voice of a hope that, even then, could pierce beyond the grave.
Thus the murderers found them, when they burst in the gate. Even in their madness the sight arrested them—for one moment. So the Giaours prayed! Then let them pray to Allah, and acknowledge His prophet, and they might be allowed to live. Cries were heard, “Say ‘La ilaha ill Allah.’ No, you need not speak. Only lift up one finger—we will take it for ‘Yes.’”
Brave answers rang through that place of death. “I will not lift up one finger.” “I will not become a Moslem.” “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ——” Ere the confessor could complete the sentence, he stood in the presence of Him in whom he believed.
Boghos and Mariam Meneshian died in each other’s arms, slain almost by one stroke. Nor did Mariam greatly care to live, for she had seen Hagop, her youngest born, slain first, clinging in vain to his father. Gabriel remained; and something in the boy’s look and attitude seemed to touch the Moslems. They made a special effort to save him. “Only acknowledge the prophet; only lift up your finger,” they said.
The boy stood erect before them, and looked at them fearlessly, face to face. “Am I better than my father, whom you have killed? Am I better than my mother, whom you have killed, and who taught me the way of holiness? No; I will not become a Moslem, and deny my Lord and Saviour Christ.” And he tore his clothing open to receive the death blow. They were angry enough now, far too angry to kill him at once. Blows and cuts rained on him, till at last he fell at their feet, bleeding from one and twenty cruel wounds.
It is enough. We can look no farther. “They had heaped high the piles of dead” reads well in song and story; and it is not too horrible to think of, when brave men fall in equal fight. But those slain, lying in their blood, with their faces raised to the wintry sky,—it is best for us not to see them. Not now. It may be we shall see them one day, when those who were slain for the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus Christ have part in the First Resurrection.
In the large courtyard of another house near by, there were many men together. The women of their families were gathered, for the most part, in a great room looking out on the court. The men were trying to conceal themselves, some in a disused well, some on the roof, some within the house. One man, however, made no effort to escape. He stood calmly at the top of the flight of steps which led to the room where the women were. It was Stepanian, the pastor. By his advice, the gate of the courtyard was left open, that the Turks might see they had no thought of resistance.
The howling, shouting mob came near, and nearer still. They poured in through the open gate; and, being men of the town, at once they recognised the Pastor. “Here is Stepanian; let us make an end of him,” was the cry.
“Fellow townsmen, you ought to spare us,” he said, “for we have done you no wrong. We are unarmed and defenceless, our little ones depend upon us, and will be left to starve.”
“Down with him!” cried the mob. “It is the will of Allah!” “Preach us a sermon first,” added a mocking voice in the crowd.
“Do not touch me here; I will come out to you,” said the Pastor calmly, and began to descend the steps.
But ere he reached the last, a shot went through his breast, and he fell. No sound was heard, and no blood was seen.
Elmas, standing at the window, had witnessed all. Strong in her great love, that frail girl went out amongst the murderous crowd, knelt down beside her father, and put her hand upon his forehead.
He opened his eyes, looked up at her, and smiled.
“Father,” she prayed, “father, speak to me! Only once; only one word more!”
That word was given to him, and to her. “Fear not, the Lord is with you. I have no fear, for I am going to my dear Saviour.”
Again he closed his eyes, and in another moment, without struggle or suffering, he saw Him face to face.
She “sat there in her grief, and all the world was dark—blank” (the words are her own). She seemed to have no consciousness of the terrors all around her. The first sound that touched her broken heart was the wailing of her little brother, a babe of three, who wanted “father.” He had followed her down the steps. She took him in her arms, and held him up that he might see. His sobs grew still at once. “Father is asleep,” he said. So He giveth His beloved sleep.
Could they but have all lain down by his side and slept! But their rest was yet to be won. More Moslems crowded into the yard, slaying all the men they could discover. Then they seized the women, the girls, and the children, tore off their clothing and their jewels, and drove them in their midst as a flock of frightened sheep and lambs are driven to the slaughter.
The last thing Elmas ever saw of that beloved form on the ground, was that some Moslem had brought a mule, upon which he seemed about to place it.
She was dragged from her dead father to the unutterable horror that followed. Oh, that endless walk, with bare, bleeding feet, through the blood-stained streets! Oh, the clinging hands, the terrified faces, the piteous sobs and wailing of the children! Thus the crowd of women and girls, almost without clothing, were paraded through the town between files of brutal soldiers—and every now and then, some of them seized and dragged away, in spite of their shrieks and cries. Vartan pushed his way to his sister, and whispered, “Do not fear, Elmas. I have the knife my father gave me hid in my zeboun. It will do to kill you.”
That was all Elmas remembered afterwards with any clearness—that, and the clinging of her baby brother’s arms about her neck.
At last they came to streets that had no stain of blood, over which no storm of agony had passed. They were in the Moslem Quarter. On and on they went, until they reached the destined place—one of the great mosques of the city, the Kusseljohme Mosque. The iron gates swung open to receive them, and closed again on that mass of helpless misery, shutting out all mercy, save the mercy of God.