GIVEN BACK FROM THE DEAD
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“When we can love and pray over all and through all, the battle’s past and the victory’s come—glory be to God!”
— Uncle Tom’s Cabin
One day Jack roused himself to go to the desolated house of the Vartonians. Very few of the surviving Armenians dared to be seen walking in their own Quarter; and, it was said by an eye-witness, no man was ever seen to walk upright there. They crept furtively about with bowed heads, slipping from shadow to shadow, afraid of the face of day and the eyes of their fellow men.
Jack’s object in going was to find, if possible, his father’s note-book, which he had entrusted to Kevork to give Shushan in case of his own death. It was to him a very precious relic, and he thought it might probably be amongst the things that had escaped the plunderers, as there was nothing in its plain appearance and binding to attract them.
It was agony to enter that blood-stained court, knowing all that had happened there, and to pass through those desolate rooms, associated in his mind with all the pleasant trifles of domestic life, thinking that every voice which he had heard there, save Gabriel’s, was now hushed in death: every foot that trod those floors was dust. Even that dust had no quiet resting-place in the shadow of a Christian church. Those horrible trenches outside the gate, those hotbeds of fever and pestilence, told that, if the living were dumb, a cry that “shivered to the tingling stars” was going up from the desecrated dead.
Jack passed sadly through the rooms he knew, yet did not know as they looked now, but failed in any of them to find what he sought. At last he came to a chamber upstairs, where he was startled to see a human figure lying at full length on the floor. If it were a dead man, the death must have been very recent. But when he came near he saw at once that this was not death, but quiet, natural sleep. The man’s dress was à la Frank, good and new; and his side face, which was all Jack could see, had the look of life, almost of health.
It had a look besides which made Jack cry aloud in amazement, “Kevork!—my brother!”
The voice aroused the sleeper. He sat up and looked about him. “Who is it?” he asked. Then, after a moment’s astonished gaze, “If Yon Effendi’s father were not dead, I would think he had come to look for his son in this charnel house!”
“Brother, I am Yon Effendi. How have you come back to us from the dead?”
“What does it matter? Are they not dead, all of them? You too, they told me you perished in the burning church.”
“And they told us your throat was cut.”
Kevork put his hand to his throat, where a red mark still remained. “The work was done, but not well enough,” he said. “Would it had been! Why spare this blood, of which no drop flows any more in the veins of any living man?”
“That is not true, Kevork. Gabriel lives.”
“Gabriel? How did he escape? Not—not—do not say he denied the faith!—not Gabriel.”
“No; he was heroically faithful. He was left for dead, but he lives still. How he will rejoice to see you again, my brother!”
A deeper shade passed over the face of Kevork, and he stretched out his hand to Jack. “My brother,” he repeated, pausing on the word. At last he went on in a low voice, “I know all—the worst;—your anguish and mine are the same. Our Shushan and Oriort Elmas—”
“Are saved—SAVED!” Jack cried, pressing his hand in a mighty grasp, and looking in his sorrowful face, his own radiant with thankfulness. “My treasure is safe in heaven, yours still on earth—in the Mission House with Miss Celandine. All the Pastor’s children have been rescued, and are there, thank God!”
Kevork Meneshian bowed his head, and did what John Grayson himself had done in the hour of his blessed relief from an anguish too great for tears. Jack let him weep for a while, then he said gently, “Come, brother, let me bring you to our friends, who will rejoice over you as over one given back to them from the dead.”
On the way Kevork told his story. “That morning,” he said, “when we knew what was coming, I went to fetch our grandfather, that we might all die together. There was no more danger, and no less, in the street than at home; but I was soon caught by the Turks.”
“Yes,” said Jack; “that we heard; and your throat was cut.”
“There is the mark. But there were a hundred of us, so the sheikh’s hand grew weary ere he finished. I was near the end of the long line, and I only got a hasty gash. I did not even lose consciousness; but I was afraid to stir, so I lay there in my pain, thinking I should bleed to death. By-and-by some soldiers came along, and looked at the bodies. They saw I was not dead, and were going to finish me, when a Turk interposed, and bade them let me alone. He had hard work to protect me from them, nor did he succeed without striking one of them pretty sharply with the butt end of his gun. Then I saw his face, and recognised that Osman we met once or twice—a friend of the Pastor’s.”
“Osman! He told me he rescued an Armenian, an acquaintance. I wonder he did not name you.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“We were together in the prison.”
“I suppose he suspected some spy within hearing. Well, he took me to his house, bound up my wound, and hid me in an inner chamber. There he left me, promising soon to return; but for three days and nights I saw him not again, nor any one. You may guess what I suffered shut up there, thinking of all our friends.”
“And you must have been nearly starved.”
“No; he left me some food, though I was too miserable to care for it. At last he came, and told me he had been imprisoned for assaulting the soldier who wanted to kill me; his relatives, as he suspected, having contrived the thing to keep him out of harm’s way, since he knew they thought him lacking in a proper zeal for Islam. But, on my account, and still more on that of the Badvellie’s children, whom he wanted to save, he had been very eager to get out, and managed it at last, with large backsheesh. He told me all the terrible news—of those who were dead, and of those who, less happy, were living still.”
After a sad pause he went on. “For myself, I am grateful to him. He supplied all my wants, and kept me concealed there many days. At last, yesterday, he came to me and said, ‘I can hide you no longer. People are beginning to suspect something. If they find you, they will kill you, and kill me also for giving you shelter.’ I said, ‘For myself I care not, for what have I left to live for?’ but added that I could not bear he should suffer on my account. So he said the best he could do for me was to give me a Frank dress, arranged as Mussulmans wear it, and money enough to keep me for the present. Which he did, and may God reward him, and number him—if it so may be with any Turk—amongst His redeemed!”
“Amen!” Jack said. He did not like to tell Kevork, what Osman evidently had not told him, that the father of Oriort Elmas had fallen by his hand. There was no need for more, for now they were at the gate of the Mission House. “It is best,” Jack said, “that I should bring you first to Miss Celandine; she will know what to do. For we must not tell Gabriel too suddenly; he is ill and weak. You must be prepared, Kevork, to see him greatly changed.”
Yet the meeting between the brothers seemed to fan the feeble, flickering spark of Gabriel’s life into a flame. It was another tie to earth to feel he had one brother there left him still—”No, two brothers,” as he said, looking lovingly at Jack.
A little while afterwards, Jack was sent for one day by Miss Celandine. “Franks have come to her from Aintab,” said the excited messenger.
Delighted to think that Miss Celandine’s long loneliness was over, Jack went to her at once. He found her in earnest converse with a grey-haired American missionary, whom, in introducing Jack to him, she called Dr. Sandeman. Then she said to Jack, “I want you very much, Mr. Grayson. Baron Vartonian is in there,” glancing at the door of an inner room. “He came with Dr. Sandeman. He has just heard that of all his large family there remains to him now not one. You know more about them than any one else who is living now, save Gabriel. Will you go in and speak to him, and comfort him if you can?”
Though his heart fainted within him at the thought of such a sorrow, Jack went into the inner room. There were two persons there. Old Baron Vartonian sat on the divan, his head bowed down upon both his hands, his face hidden. Now and then the sound of low, deep moans—such moans as only come from a strong man’s deepest heart—broke the stillness.
Beside him stood a young man with a face incredibly pale and worn and wasted, as if with some great agony, though its look was one of past rather than of present suffering.
“The look of one that had travailed sore,
But whose pangs were ended now.”
His hand was laid tenderly, and with a caressing touch, on the old man’s shoulder; for that was all the human sympathy he was able to bear just yet. He motioned Jack to sit on the divan. “You were their friend, you loved them,” he said.
“And received from them much kindness,” Jack answered in a low voice. After a pause he went on, “She that was dearer to me than my life was as a child in their house. It was they who brought her to the Mission School, where such joy and help were given her.”
“Why do I live?” the old man broke out suddenly. “It is wrong! It is horrible! It is against nature! No reaper reaps the green and leaves the ripe. No gardener leaves the dry stick in the ground and uproots the flourishing tree. I am alone—alone—alone! I came back, after all those long months of suffering, thinking, ‘now I will rest, now I will end my days in my home with my dear ones; my son—my firstborn—shall close my eyes, and my children, and my children’s children, shall lay me in the grave.’ And I find all gone—sons and sons’ sons, with the mothers and the children, and the children’s children—even the little babe I had never seen. Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
Then letting his hands fall and looking at the two who stood beside him: “But I do not believe it. It is not possible. Surely one at least is left alive. Let us go and see.”
The pale-faced young man rose also. “It were best for us to bring him to his own house,” he said to Jack. “Perhaps, when he sees it, he will be able to weep.”
So Jack went, for the second time, to the house of the Vartonians. The old man, burdened with a weight of sorrow nature seemed scarce able to bear, asked them after a while to leave him in the family living-room, which had been the centre of his home. While he sat there, alone with his memories and his God, the two young men waited together in the court.
Jack found that his companion was a theological student almost ready for the ministry, to which he had been looking forward with eager hope, when one day he was suddenly seized by zaptiehs and flung into a dungeon. Dr. Sandeman—who was to him as a father, young Mardiros Vahanian said with kindling eyes—had done all in his power to help him, or even to find out of what he was accused. At last it was discovered that another person had been arrested, upon whom there was found an English newspaper containing a notice of the massacre at Sassoun. This man, probably under torture, said that he had it from young Vahanian,—and that was all his crime. On one occasion Dr. Sandeman got leave to visit him, though he only saw him in the presence of Turks, and was only allowed to speak to him in Turkish. As they parted, he ventured to whisper in English just this, “Do not give up hope”—and terrible things had the poor lad suffered afterwards on account of this one word. Not then, and not at any time from his own lips, did Jack hear the true story of that prison year, heaped with agonies, with tortures, and with outrages to us happily inconceivable.
During a short time, towards the end, he had shared the cell of Baron Vartonian, who also had been imprisoned on some futile charge. A strong friendship had grown up between the young man and the old, thus thrown together; and now, in the old man’s utter loneliness and desolation, Vahanian wished to take the place of a son, and to cherish and comfort him.
Jack could not help doubting, when he looked at him, that he would be long left in the world to comfort any one. But not liking to express his doubt, he asked him how it was that in the end he got out of prison.
“I do not very well know,” the young man answered. “Dr. Sandeman never ceased to work for me; and I think that, somehow, he got the British Consul interested in my case, and that he interceded for me, as I know he did for Baron Vartonian, against whom indeed there was no charge that the Turks themselves believed in. It was one of those false accusations that any man can get a Turk to bring against a Christian for a couple of medjids, and the hiring of two false witnesses to back him up; and Christians being disqualified from bearing witness in a court of law, the accused of course has no chance of proving his innocence. However, thanks, I suppose, to the Consul, Baron Vartonian was released, and so was I.”
Jack asked him if he thought he was recovering his health.
“Oh yes, I grow stronger every day. If you had seen me when I first came out of prison, you would wonder at the change.” So he said; but Jack wondered, instead, what he could possibly have looked like then.
“No doubt,” he said, “while you were in prison, you often wished to die.”
“I did—sometimes,” he answered, his eyes kindling—”not that I might be away from my pain, but that I might be with my Saviour. But for the most part, I felt Him so near me there, that I thought death itself could scarcely bring us any closer.”
Jack’s look softened. “In spite of all your suffering, I call you blessed,” he said in a low voice. “Still, after all, that was knowing Him by faith. In heaven, it will be sight.”
“Which will be different, and must be better, though it is hard to see how it can. I thought I knew something before of the mystery of communion with Him, but I felt as if I had never tasted it till then. I did not know there could be such peace, such joy.”
“Has it stayed with you since you came out?”
“No, and yes. When a child is hurt, the mother takes it in her arms and fondles it; when it is well, she lets it run by her side. But she does not love it the less.”
“Perhaps it seems strange to you now to come back to life? Perhaps you would rather not?”
“I would rather die, you think, and go to Him? Not just yet. There are too many in the world that He wants me to help.”
“Like these poor people here who have suffered so much?”
“Yes; but there are those more worthy of our pity than even they.”
“More worthy? Truly on God’s earth it seems to me that there are none. But I know what you mean,” Jack added in a lower voice. “You are thinking of those, in harems or elsewhere,—for whom we only dare to ask one thing—death”
Vahanian’s face grew sad. It was some moments before he spoke again. At last he said, “There are those still more pitiable. No man has compassion—no man cares for the soul of—the Turk.”
Jack started, as if he had been shot. “How could we?” he asked.
“Yet you say every day, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.’”
“I never thought of it in that way. And I tell you, if I ever get back to England, I will not forgive the Turk! I will not keep silence about his evil deeds, about the things I have seen and heard of here!”
“Nor should you. To stop them would be to show the very kindness of God even to the Turk himself. But I would it were God’s will to stop them, not with His wrath, but with His love.”
“How could that be?”
“As he stopped St. Paul’s. Do you not believe Christ died for the Turk as well as for the Christian?”
“He died for all,” Jack said reverently. “And I know He commands us to forgive. But this thing is not possible—to man. And yet, it is strange, but I remember that when I was led out to die, as I thought, by their hands, I felt no anger against them—indeed I scarcely thought of them at all. Yet afterwards, when I knew all they had done, I could have torn them limb from limb.”
“Friend, you suffered more than I, because you suffered in others. It is only written ‘when they revile you,—persecute you.’ But am I to think God has no better thing for you than what He gave me? Because I have had a few drops of this wine of His, of which He drank Himself, am I to doubt that He can fill the cup for you, even to the brim? It is for our sorest needs that He keeps His best cordials. And now I will go back again to my friend, Baron Vartonian. I think he has been long enough alone.”
He went, and Jack looked after him, wondering,—and learning a new lesson of what Christ can do for His suffering servants.
This is no fiction, it is literal truth. Except, indeed, that these poor words fail to convey the depth and intensity of the pitying love, which Divine grace had kindled in that young heart for those at whose hands he had suffered such things.