BY ABRAHAM’S POOL, AND ELSEWHERE
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“But thou hadst gone—gone from the dreary land,
Gone from the storms let loose on every hill;
Lured by the sweet persuasion of a Hand,
Which leads thee somewhere in the distance still.”
A group of Moslems were loitering idly beside the beautiful Pool of Abraham, watching the sacred fish and feeding them with crumbs and corn. They were talking over the events of the last few days. Some of them—who would not have hurt one of those little fishes for any consideration—were boasting how many Christian dogs they had killed, or detailing yet more horrible deeds of devotion and of prowess. “But now,” observed one of them, “we are not to kill any more. The ‘Paydoss’ has gone forth.”
“Truth to say,” another answered, “there are but few left to kill. And those are mostly old women and little children.”
“It were well,” a third remarked, “to take some order about the burying, and that quickly, or we shall have a pestilence among us, and true Believers have no charm against that any more than Christians. Allah, who comes here?”
A weird, ghastly figure strode in amongst them, coming down to the very margin of the pool. His clothing was scorched and torn, his hair grey—almost white—and his hollow cheeks and wasted face gave the more awful expressiveness to large eyes full of horror. He looked down into the bright, pure waters of the Pool. “Much water there,” he said; “but it will not put out the fire. There is nothing will put that out, for ever and for ever.”
One tried to lay hands on him, another drew a dagger. But his pale lips only curled with a scornful smile. “You cannot kill me,” he said; “I am an Englishman. There is a mark set upon me that no man may hurt me. It means, ‘He saved himself: others he did not save.’”
“Put that up,” said one of the Turks to his comrade with the dagger. “Do you not see the man is mad?”
Moslems think it wrong to kill a madman; they even honour him, as one inspired by Allah. Nor does their law allow them to receive a madman as a convert to Islam.
“Englishman?” another queried. “Nonsense about Englishmen! There are no Englishmen here.”
“That, no doubt, is part of his madness. He is a Giaour, whom it is the will of Allah to save alive.”
A young man, dressed à la Frank, joined the group. “Whom have you got here?” he asked.
“Some Giaour, driven mad by the loss of his friends,” answered one of the others.
The Giaour turned, and looked the new comer steadily in the face.
The Turk looked at him, with a perplexed, bewildered air.
“Osman Effendi, how many Giaours have you killed?” the Christian asked.
“One,” Osman answered. “But he was a prince amongst them. It was enough. Madman, I seem to know your eyes. Who are you?” He gave him another long, scrutinizing look. Then he said with a start, “Can it be? Is it possible? Are you Grayson Effendi? How have you come here? I sought for you; and heard you had gone to the church. Then I gave you up for lost.”
“I am lost,” Jack said.
“Nay, friend, you are saved, thanks to Allah the Compassionate. But how, in His Name, did you get out?”
“I have not the least idea,” Jack said. “The last thing I saw was those children, falling down into the fire. The first thing I remember after that, I was walking among dead bodies in the churchyard. There were plenty of Turks about, but they did not kill me. No one will kill me.”
“I fear you are right enough,” said Osman aside to the others. “It is a pity.” Then to Jack, “Come home with me, Grayson Effendi. I will take care of you, and give you meat and drink. Then you shall lie down and sleep—”
“No; I shall never sleep again. I dare not. I should see the burning church, and the woman who threw her children into the fire.”
“Poor fellow! He is certainly mad,” said another Turk.
Jack turned and faced him. “I am not mad,” he said. “I remember all my past life. I am an Englishman. My name is John Grayson. You have taken my wife away.”
“That at least is madness,” some one observed.
“Not altogether,” whispered Osman. “There was a betrothal, or something, to a beautiful Armenian girl. Franks take these things hard.” Then aloud, “But come with me, Grayson Effendi, you will be quite safe.”
Jack yielded so far as to walk away with him from the group. But when they had gone a little distance he stopped, and said, very quietly, “Osman Effendi, I thank you. But I cannot enter the house of a Turk. I must go back to the ruined dwellings of my friends. I would say ‘God bless you!’ if, in the face of what I have seen, I could still believe in God. I cannot. Farewell.”
He took the nearest turning which led to the Armenian Quarter, and soon found himself in the midst of horrors which the effects of no siege, no battle known to history, could have equalled. The dead—and the dying too, who lay undistinguished amongst them—were being dragged to the great trenches outside the town, which the Moslems had dug to receive them. There were many houses, like that of the Vartonians, in which no human creature, not even the babe in arms, was left alive.
On and on he wandered, from one horror to another. What he saw, in its details, is best left untold. He was not mad; the consciousness of the past was coming back upon him, every moment more clearly and fully. As the human heart will ever do, in the most overpowering, most universal agony, he still reverted to his own. “Shushan! Shushan!” was his cry, amidst the reeking ruins of the devastated city. Always, everywhere, it is not the “all” we care for, but the “one.” We are made so.
He bore his burden alone, in the blank unbelief of utter despair. “Cold, strong, passionless, like a dead man’s clasp,” there closed about his heart the horror of “the everlasting No,” choking it to death. No hope, no love, no God, no Christ.
How long he wandered in that ghastly scene of death he could not tell. Some desultory plundering was still going on; parties of Turks, chiefly of the lowest class, sometimes met him, but no one thought of killing him. The killing was over, and even if it had been otherwise, his supposed madness would have secured his safety. Sometimes he saw an Armenian in the distance, gliding ghost-like in the shadow of a wall; but if he hailed the phantom, it would vanish instantly into some hiding-place near at hand. He barely noticed the change of day into night or of night into day again. As the claims of his physical nature asserted themselves he took food, almost without thinking; plenty of it lay about, uncared for, in the desolated homes. The one thing he did not dare to do was to sleep. He feared the dreams that would be sure to come—he feared still more the awakening.
After what seemed to himself a long time, he thought he heard a faint cry from the interior of a house in the courtyard of which he was standing. He went in, and was guided by the sound to a store closet, where food had been laid up. There, on the ground, her head upon a sack of bulghour, lay a woman quite dead, beside her a little baby, probably dying also.
Better let it die so, reason would have said, and perhaps kindness too. Nature is stronger than either. Jack stooped down, took up in his arms the little wailing babe, and tried to soothe its cries. Evidently it was starving. What should he do? He could not give it rice or bulghour, and hard, dry bread, even dipped in fruit syrup, would not be more suitable. How could he feed a baby? Then all at once he thought of the Mission House. Miss Celandine would know what to do. He had often thought of her before; but either he supposed her out of reach, as for some time past she had almost been, or else unconsciously he shrank from going where he used to find Shushan. Moreover, for aught he knew, she might by this time have left the place. He thought Osman told him she had got her passport at last.
However, he soon found himself treading the familiar way by which he had gone so often to visit Shushan. How clearly he saw her now, in all her winning loveliness, her sweet eyes full of joy, coming to meet him with her little hand stretched out, English fashion, and on her lips the one word, “Shack!” He had not seen her so clearly since Osman’s tale turned his heart to stone.
As he went he held the little babe close to his breast to keep it warm, and half feared it would die by the way. He found the great gate of the Mission House, and saw forms, like shadows, creeping in and out—wretched objects, most of them with bandaged limbs or heads. The spacious courtyard seemed turned into a hospital; men, women and little children sat or stood about, waiting to be treated. He asked some one where he might find Miss Celandine, and was directed to the Church.
What a transformation that beautiful church had undergone since he saw it last! If the yard was the hospital for out-patients, the church was the ward where those lay who could not be removed. It was crammed from end to end with men and boys—the wounded and the dying. Their mats were placed on the floor, so close together that it was hard to move among them.
Still, the first thought of relief and softness came to Jack as he stood there and looked around him. There at least love reigned, not hate. Once more he was amongst beings who were human, and who pitied and helped one another.
He did not see Miss Celandine there, but an Armenian woman, with a sweet, serene face, came towards him and enquired what he wanted. He showed her the babe. “Can you save it?” he asked.
“We will try,” she answered, taking it gently from him. “Poor little one! I fear it is too late. Does it belong to you? Is it perhaps your little grandchild?” she asked, looking up at him.
It occurred to Jack that the question was a strange one; but—was anything strange now? He answered, “No; I found it just now, beside its dead mother. I know not who they are.”
“Where is Miss Celandine, Anna Hanum?” asked a servant, coming up. “There is a boy here in great distress, who wants to speak with her.”
“She will be here just now,” said the woman who was speaking to Jack. “Where is the boy?”
He came running in after the messenger, pale and crying, as one in sore trouble. He seemed to know Anna Hanum, and began to pour out to her his tale of sorrow. Its burden was, “I have denied my Lord. I have denied the Lord Jesus Christ! Will He ever forgive me?”
“How was it, my poor child?” the woman asked pityingly.
“They killed my father and my mother,” he said. “Then they held a knife to my throat, and asked me to be a Moslem and save my life. In my terror I said—I know not what. But it must have been ‘yes,’ for they spared me, took me to a Turkish house, and gave me food. They kept me shut up until now, when I ran away and came here. Will Christ ever forgive me? Oh, do you think He will ever forgive me?”
Ere she could answer, there came a faint weak voice from one of the sufferers lying at their feet. “Christ will forgive you. Only, you have lost a grand opportunity.”
Something in the voice sent a thrill of strange, sweet memories through the heart of John Grayson. He turned towards the spot from whence it came. “Who said that?” he asked. A man, horribly mutilated, pointed out to him a boy who was lying beside him, with a light rug thrown over him. Threading his way with difficulty through the mats on which the patients lay, Jack came to his side and knelt down. He saw a young face, white, wasted and drawn with pain, yet full of a strange, unutterable peace. And he knew it was the face he loved best in the house of Meneshian—after the one through whom his heart had got its death blow. “Gabriel!” he said.
“Who is it?” asked the boy. “Is it—no, it is not, it cannot be! And yet you have the eyes of Yon Effendi.”
“You used to call me that in the old days. Oh, Gabriel! I thought they had killed you all.”
“Yes, all,” Gabriel said; and into his eyes there came, instead of tears, a light from beyond the sun, beyond the stars. “We have all come home now, except me. I am just a little late for the first gathering-up there, but I forget my pain in thinking of their happy meeting all together, and of the joy they have in seeing the Face of Christ. Besides, He is here with me too; and I think He will let me go to them soon.”
Then a wave of bitter pain surged over the soul of John Grayson. He supposed Gabriel did not count as any longer one of them her who, in the earthly home, had been the dearest of them all. Could he think the heavenly home would be complete without her? “What you must have suffered, Yon Effendi!” Gabriel went on, looking at his changed face and grey hair. “But I never thought to see you again! We all made sure the Turks had taken and killed you.”
“Would they had!” Jack said. “Gabriel, how did you escape when all the rest were killed?”
“When they killed us all, and our cousins the Vartonians too, they cut and wounded me, and left me for dead. I suppose I was a long time unconscious. When I came to myself, I was lying among the bodies, almost under them. I pushed my way out a little, that I might see. I did not want to live; but I knew how they would drag the dead—and the dying too—out of the town, and fling them into the ditches beneath the wall. I was afraid of that. So I lay very still until night came and all was quiet. Then I managed somehow to get myself free. I crept along slowly, I know not how; I think I fainted often by the way, but at last I came here, to the place in all the world most like to heaven. And here they will let me stay until I go to heaven itself.” The boy’s voice was beginning to fail through weakness.
“Don’t try to speak any more,” Jack said.
“Oh, but I want to tell you—Can you give me a drink?”
Jack saw a pitcher of water cooled with snow, and a cup beside it, not far off. He poured out some and brought it.
“Will you lift my head a little and put it to my lips?” Gabriel said. “My hands are cut in pieces. Thank you. That is good. I want to tell you how God brought home the three who were away from us that day.”
“You did not know that our dear grandfather had gone, the night before, to visit his old friends the Nazarians? And he found them so frightened, with only women there in the house, that he stayed. But in the morning, when we knew what was coming, Kevork went to seek for him, that we might die all together. Neither of them ever came back to us. Only yesterday did we hear about Kevork. One of the sheiks made his followers bring him all the strong, fine-looking young men he could find. About a hundred were brought to him. He had them held down hand and foot by his followers, while he cut their throats with his own hand, reciting all the time verses from the Koran. Kevork was among them.”
“And our dear Father Hohannes?”
“He was at the Nazarians, as I said. He thought that perhaps the Turks, having killed the men, might be satisfied and go away. So he bade the women conceal themselves, and sat calmly at the door reading his Bible. When they saw him there, they said, ‘You are an old man with white hair; we will spare you, if you will only acknowledge the Prophet. You need not speak; just lift up one finger.’ ‘I will not lift up one finger,’ said he. Then they dragged him out into the street to kill him, and—and—Yon Effendi, I can tell you no more. Spare me!” He turned his white face away with a look of agony.
“Dear boy! dear child! tell me no more if it hurts you so,” Jack whispered soothingly. “However dreadful it may have been, it is over now.”
“It was not so very dreadful,” Gabriel said, after a pause. “It was soon over. But oh, Yon Effendi, there is more! I said three were absent from us.” His dark, wistful eyes, so full of pain, gazed piteously into the wondering face bent over him.
A distant suspicion of who the third might mean dawned for the first time on John Grayson. “You said three were brought home to Heaven—Hohannes, Kevork, and—”
In unutterable anguish John Grayson turned his face away. “No,” he murmured hoarsely, “Shushan is not in Heaven but—in Hell.”
Gabriel half raised himself in his intense excitement. “Then you don’t know—”
“It is you who don’t know,” Jack interrupted bitterly. “There is no such blessedness as death for her—or for me.”
“Oh, but you don’t know,” Gabriel said again. “Yon Effendi, listen—you must listen to me. I have comfort for you.”
“What comfort possible for me?”
“The comfort of God; our Shushan is with Him.”
Jack turned, and looked again in the face of Gabriel. His own was set and drawn in its anguish of suspense. His lips moved, but only one word would come—”Speak.”
“As they were killing my grandfather, zaptiehs passed by with Shushan guarded in their midst. She saw his white hair,—his face,—and broke through them all to throw her arms around him and plead for his life. They were taken by surprise, and did not stop her in time. No one knows how it happened, but, in the confusion, a sword meant for him went right through her heart.”
John Grayson sprang to his feet, with a cry that made all the wounded round them turn on their mats and look up in wonder. He never even heard Gabriel’s concluding word: “So, as I said, they are all now with Christ.” But in another moment he was on the ground again beside him, his whole frame shaking with a storm of sobs—hoarse, heavy, uncontrollable,—surging up from the very depths of a strong man’s soul. After the sobs came tears—tears again at last! No longer were the heavens iron and the earth brass; all the flood-gates were open now, and there was a very great rain.
He knew nothing until Miss Celandine’s firm, gentle hand was laid upon his shoulder.
“My friend,” she said, “I know not who you are, nor what your grief may be. But I cannot let you disturb all the others who are here. Especially, you are doing great harm to my patient beside you.”
“Don’t you know me, Miss Celandine?” Jack faltered out, struggling for composure. “Don’t you remember John Grayson?”
“John Grayson! But he was a youth, and your hair is grey.”
“With anguish. But now I remember no more my anguish, for God has had mercy upon me. My Shushan is with Him.”
“Yes, we know it, and thank God for her.”