UNDER THE FLAG OF ENGLAND
Written by Deborah Alcock and originally published in 1897
“Whose flag has braved a thousand years
The battle and the breeze.”
“Mr. Grayson, you are young yet,” said the venerable missionary, Dr. Sandeman to the grey-haired, toil-worn man before him.
“Do I look young?” John Grayson answered. “No, I am old—old. The last year has done for me the work of other men’s three score and ten.”
“I know what you have seen and suffered.”
“It has not been all suffering,” Jack said. “I have lived. I have tasted the wine of life as well as the poison. I have loved, and been beloved.”
“I know,” the missionary said again; and he spoke the truth—he knew. “But there are many years before you yet. For them all, that love will be a memory.”
“It cannot be a memory,” Jack interrupted, “for it is myself.”
It was far from Dr. Sandeman’s thought to blaspheme that creed of youth which stamps the signet of eternity upon its love, its joy, its suffering, its despair. Old as he was, his own heart had kept too young for that. He said, “When you return to your own land, you will find waiting for you interests and pursuits, cares and duties also, which will engross your energies, and fill your life.”
“Not my life,” Jack answered. “When I wedded Shushan, I wedded her race.”
“If indeed God calls you to help in drying the tears of this ‘Niobe of nations,’ I can think of no higher calling,” Dr. Sandeman answered with emotion.
“But for that hope,” said Jack, “do you think I could leave this place? Do you think I could abandon all these helpless sufferers, and that heroic woman, whose name a thousand times over deserves the ‘Saint’ before it, if only we Protestants had a calendar of our own, as we ought?”
“But we never could,” said the missionary with a smile; “it would need a page for every day. However, Miss Celandine herself is urging your departure.”
“And things for the present seem quieter,” Jack added. “Safe can nothing be, in this miserable land. I am glad Vahanian is staying; he will be a great help.”
“Yes,” said the missionary, “and he is glad to work here for the present, though he still keeps the dream and longing of his heart; and he thinks God will fulfil it one day, and allow him to make known the gospel of His grace to the Turks. Miss Celandine is beginning to gather in the orphans, a few of them—poor, destitute, starving little ones! Did you hear that Baron Vartonian has lent his house to give them shelter?”
“No; I am glad to think of the home I knew being used for such a purpose. And it will comfort his own desolate heart.”
“But now for yourself, Mr. Grayson. Are you ready for the journey?”
“Yes,” returned Jack, with a rather mournful smile. “You see, I have no packing to do.”
“Right; the less you carry the better.”
“Here is the one treasure I bring back from Armenia; and I have learned here, as perhaps I should never have learned elsewhere, what a treasure it is,” Jack said, producing his father’s Bible. “By right,” he added, “it should belong to Oriort Elmas, for it is the book of her betrothal; but she and Kevork both say I must take it back, on account of its memories. I wish, Doctor, those two could come to England with me.”
“With you they cannot come. But I wish they could follow you; for Kevork seems to have taken an active share in resisting the Turks at the time of the first massacre, and such things are not forgotten.”
“The Turks forget nothing—except their promises,” said Jack. “But, Dr. Sandeman, there is another matter which causes me some embarrassment. I am absolutely without money. The fact is, I have been living upon these poor people, and latterly upon Miss Celandine.”
Dr. Sandeman smiled. “I think she would say your services have been worth more than your morsel of bread. And as for your journey, we can take you on without expense as far as Aleppo. I am going there.”
“You are very good; and the cost at least I can repay you afterwards, but the kindness—never. But I shall have to get somehow from Aleppo to Alexandretta, and there to take a passage in the first steamer I can find. How can all that be managed?”
“When you come to Aleppo, you shall tell your story to the English Consul. I have little doubt he will provide for your safe conveyance to Alexandretta, and lend you the passage money.”
“How shall I get him to believe me? I should not mind so much if he were the same I knew when I passed through Aleppo with my father, five years ago. But this is another man.”
“He will believe you,” the missionary said quietly. He would not speak of his own influence for a double reason—it would be boastful, and it might be dangerous. “Your story bears all the impress of truth, and you can prove it in a hundred ways.”
“Then my course is plain,” Jack said. “And the first step,” he added with a sigh, “is to say farewell to the dear friends here.” He rose to go, but turned back to ask, with a little hesitation, “Dr. Sandeman, have you seen the Cathedral?”
“Yes” said the missionary with a shudder. “After all this time, it is still the most sickening sight I have ever beheld. Not sight alone; every sense is outraged. Do not go near it, Mr. Grayson.”
“And yet,” Jack answered, “Christ’s martyrs went to Him from thence.”
John Grayson’s journey, in the company of Dr. Sandeman, proved as little eventful as any journey at that time and in those regions could possibly be. One sad episode indeed there was. As usual, they halted at Biridjik. They found the town a wreck and the houses in ruins, many of them burned, others plundered and defaced. The streets were almost impassable with rubbish, broken glass, fragments of furniture, and other far more ghastly memorials of the massacre.
The remaining inhabitants had been forced to become Moslems to save their lives. They kept themselves shut up in their houses, or moved about—pale, attenuated shadows, with fear and horror stamped upon their countenances. No intercourse was permitted between them and the missionary’s party; only a few of them dared to look at the travellers with eyes of piteous appeal and recognition, and to make furtively, with rapid fingers, the sign of the cross. Jack longed to give them Gabriel’s word of comfort, “Christ will forgive you; only you have lost a grand opportunity.” He said this to Dr. Sandeman, who answered, “You have a right to say that; so had he; but it seems to me that no man who has not been tried thus can estimate the trial, the opportunity, or the loss.”
“But oh, the sadness of it all!” Jack said. And then these two brave, strong men of Anglo-Saxon race did just what the exiles of Israel did so many ages ago, “By the waters of Babylon they sat down and wept.”
Before they quitted Biridjik John Grayson went, in the early morning, to visit his father’s grave. He was greatly relieved to find it had been left undisturbed, for he knew that horrible outrages had been committed elsewhere upon the graves of the Christians. Kneeling on the hallowed spot, he thanked God for his father’s noble life and bright example, and for sustaining and preserving himself through so many perils.
Then the thought came to him, as it had done so many times before, though never perhaps with such poignancy, that other dust, most precious, had no resting-place in sacred ground. Over the grave of Shushan none might ever weep, nor could any find it, until that day when all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of Man. Bitter it seemed to John Grayson that this solace, the right of the humblest mourner, was denied to him.
But presently he rose from his knees with the thrill of another thought—a new one—in his heart. He looked around him. Not far could his eye reach as he stood there; but the eyes of his mind were ranging over the whole beautiful, sorrow-stricken, desolated land, from Trebizond by the northern sea to the rice plains of Adana in the south. “My Shushan has a royal resting-place,” he said. “For me, all Armenia is her grave. And, as holding that sacred dust, I will love, and live for, and cherish that land all my life long, God helping me.”
Throughout their whole route the travellers found heart-rending tokens of the ruin of the country and the misery of the people. Some sights they saw are absolutely beyond description, and would haunt them both until the end of their days. “How long, O Lord, how long!” was the word oftenest on Dr. Sandeman’s lips.
Still, no man molested them, or hindered them in any way. Aintab was first reached, then in due time Aleppo, and John Grayson found himself once more amongst Englishmen. He felt as if he had been dead and buried, and brought to life again in a new world, which he had forgotten, and which had forgotten him. He met however at the Consulate, some who remembered his father, and once he came to know these, his past began to revive within him. At once upon his arrival he wrote to his friends in England; but he did not think there would be time for an answer to come before he left.
The Consul, although personally a stranger, was very kind, which did him the more credit since he thought at first there was something curious and unusual about this young Englishman with the grey hair and the sad face. Indeed, he asked Dr. Sandeman privately if Mr. Grayson was entirely in his right mind. Once reassured on this point, he gave him most efficient help. He got him a passport, advanced him the necessary money, and sent a competent and faithful dragoman, and a couple of kavasses, with him to Alexandretta, with orders not to leave him until they saw him safely on board a vessel going to England.
With a sense of almost bewildering strangeness and wonder, Jack stood at last on the deck of the great steamship Semaphore, bound for Southampton. He watched the crowds about him—sailors preparing for the start, passengers getting on board with much stir and bustle. They had to come in boats, and there was quite a little fleet of these about the companion ladder, the rowers shouting and screaming as each tried to get his own craft in first. The dragoman had told Jack that all the Franks stopped at this place and went on shore, to visit the spot where a battle was fought long ago by Alexander the Great—the battle of Issus, that was what they called it.
An official stood at the ship’s side, examining the passport of every passenger who came on board. Near him stood the captain, a rough, hearty-looking British seaman. There was great hurry, crowding, and confusion, and it was very evident the passport business was not done as thoroughly as it might have been. It was not difficult for a passportless person, or even two or three, to slip in “unbeknownst,” as he heard the under-steward, an Irishman, remarking casually to a friend. Jack edged himself out of the crowd, and watched. Presently he saw a boat filled with zaptiehs—well he knew their hateful uniform—put off from the shore, and make for the ships in the bay. It might be the Semaphore they meant, it might be one of the others. Jack knew his passport was all in order, still he did not like that sight. He could not realize yet that he was out of Turkey, that he stood on the deck of a British ship, and that the glorious flag of old England was waving above his head.
So he went quietly downstairs to the cabin, resolved to stay there until the good ship Semaphore should be actually on her way.
Meanwhile, the Turkish boat came on apace, and before it, faster still, flew another little boat. A young man, standing up in it, sprang on the companion ladder just about to be withdrawn, and ran up, leaving a girl and a boy in the boat.
“Too late, my man,” said the captain, waving him back.
“Oh, sir, take us!” the young man cried. He was trembling, and his face white with terror. “Take us!—we will pay!”
“I can’t. We have no more room.”
“We will pay you well—ten pounds a-piece.”
“No; our second cabin is full. And we are off now.”
“Fifteen pounds a-piece.”
“No, not for twenty pounds.”
“For pity’s sake! We are Armenians, fleeing for our lives.”
“You Armenians are all rogues,” said the captain. “No is no,” and he turned away.
“For CHRIST’S sake, then!” cried the young man in an agony.
The captain turned back again.
“Why did you not say that before?” he asked, in an altered voice. “I am a Christian man, and I cannot refuse that plea.”
“Thank God!” the young man almost sobbed.—”My sister.”
In less than a minute more the boy and girl were helped up the ladder by willing hands, and all three stood together on the deck—safe.
Then the great heart of the ship began to throb, and she was soon steaming merrily out of the harbour.
John Grayson came on deck again, and seeing three Armenians standing by the side of the vessel, drew near, laid his hand on the young man’s shoulder, and looked him in the face.
“Kaspar Hohanian!” he exclaimed in surprise. “Is it possible this is you?”
Kaspar seemed scarcely able to speak even yet. But he drew a long breath, tried to compose himself, and returned Jack’s look of inquiry.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Do you not know me? Do you not remember our awful week together in the prison at Urfa, expecting death. I am John Grayson.”
“With that white hair! I thought you were dead.”
“So I thought of you, and with more reason. I thought all the band who watched and prayed together through those sad days were gone to God—save me.”
For a moment both were silent. Jack did not care, until he knew more, to look again in the face of his friend. He could not but remember there was only one way of escape for any of that devoted group. Kaspar divined his thought, and said,—
“No; I have not denied the faith. Though, if the same trial came again, I dare not answer for myself. Strangely enough, Mr. Grayson, it was through you my life was saved.”
“How could that be?”
“I will tell you when I find my sister a place to rest in.”
“The young lady is your sister? May I—”
But the captain came up just then, interrupting them.
“Come along,” he said to Kaspar, with rough kindliness, “I will find a place to stow you in. Don’t be afraid, young lady.” Then to the boy, “Run along, my boy, to that ladder you see leading down below.”
But the lad stood motionless, his large brown eyes staring vaguely in the direction of the voice.
“He is blind, sir,” Kaspar explained. “During the massacre he hid in a dry well. He was there several hours, and came out stone blind from the terror.”
“Poor boy! Well, come along with me, all of you. The ladies will make room for your sister among them.”
“And, Captain,” Jack interposed, “the boy can have my berth. This young man and I, who are old friends, can sleep on the deck together.”
The captain agreed. He was heard to remark afterwards that he “thought Armenians were all savages, but these people seemed just like ourselves.”
At night, under the stars, Jack and Kaspar resumed their conversation. They were very comfortable; the Irish steward brought them rugs and cushions, and lingered to say he was glad the gentlemen and the young lady had got away from “thim murtherin’ brutes of Turks. I was in Constantinople last September,” said he, “and, by the Powers, Oliver Cromwell himself was a thrifle to thim!”
“And I wish we had Oliver Cromwell here to deal with them now!” Jack said, with juster views of history.
The great ship was ploughing easily and steadily through calm waters. All around and all about them reigned sleep and rest. It was a good time to talk of past perils and to enjoy present security.
“How could you say your life was saved through me?” John Grayson asked.
“I must tell you first why I was not killed with the rest,” answered Kaspar. “That was horrible. All the rest were dead, even Thomassian; but they took me back again to the prison. There they brought me a paper to sign, setting forth that the men who had been executed were convicted of a plot to attack the mosques and murder the Moslems at their Service on Friday. If I signed, they promised me life, and without the condition of renouncing my faith.”
“Was I going to take the crown from the heads of the martyrs of God, and fling it down to the dust to be trampled on like that? They urged me, arguing that these men were all dead, so that nothing I could say or sign could do them any harm, whereas, if I refused, they—the Turks—could do me a great deal of harm, which was certainly true.”
“Then I went down into hell. Do not ask me more. I was praying every hour for death, when, to my amazement, they came to me, not with fresh tortures, but with meat and drink, good clothes à la Frank, and the offer of a bath. I was wondering what strange form of mockery or torture their imaginations had got hold of to which this might be the prelude, when they explained to me that you—the Englishman—had made your escape; and that, just after they discovered this, the Pasha had sent orders for you to be brought to him, and would be very angry, and accuse them of great negligence, when he found you were not forthcoming. They knew I spoke English, and they offered me my pardon if I would personate you for the time; thinking, I suppose, that being rather tall and of fairer complexion than most of us, I would look the part tolerably well. So I was brought into a light, comfortable room, and for three or four days very well treated. It was during that time I heard of the massacre. At last I was set free. How it came about I do not quite understand, and I suppose I never shall. I suspect however that the Pasha never sent for me, having so much else at that time to occupy him, but that, instead, he sent orders that the Englishman was to be quietly set free without noise or stir. And he may have directed his messenger to see the orders carried out, else might they not have let me go so easily.”
“Did you try to go back to your home?”
He bowed his head. “My two elder brothers and my little sister—all dead. Artin hid in the well in our yard, to come out blind, as you see, and to wander about in darkness and misery, escaping death by a miracle. I found him starving, and almost out of his mind.”
“And your sister?”
“Markeret? Through the brave kindness of two aged women, friends of our family, she was saved. If any had a chance of escape, it was such old women, who were thought neither worth the killing nor the taking. They spread a rug over her, and actually sat upon her all through the killing time. The Turks came in often, searched the house, and stole or destroyed what they found. But happily they did no worse. You can imagine the distress of body and the agony of mind of those endless hours. When things seemed a little safer they took her out, half dead, and concealed her in their store-room. But I do not think the look of fear will ever leave her face. It is stamped there.”
Jack thought it was on his own as well.
“But to have made your way down here from Urfa, with those two, was a perfect wonder,” he said. “How did you do it?”
“I had help. I told you of the Turk, our acquaintance, who tried to save me before? I went to him with my tale of misery. He promised to help me, and he did. He took into counsel a friend of his, one Osman Effendi, whom you know. Together they managed matters so well for us, that, after many difficulties too long to tell of, we came safely to Alexandretta. There we mingled with the crowds who were making holiday in the plain of Issus, and tried to slip with them on board the steamer. But the zaptiehs were after us.”
“Can I help you when we come to England?” Jack asked.
“No doubt, by-and-by; and I shall be thankful. But at first we have friends to go to. A brother of my mother’s went long ago to a place they call Man-jester, to trade in Turkish goods. He will receive us, I am sure. The gold coins Markeret has about her will pay our passage, and may leave something over, to bring us there.”
“Come to me for whatever you want,” John Grayson said cordially.
Kaspar thanked him, and dropped into silence. His face showed excessive weariness, and all the more plainly because of the reaction from extreme terror. However, he roused himself to say: “I want to tell you something rather odd. One day Osman shut me up for safety in his private room. I saw a book lying there, and noticing that the characters were Arabic, I took it up to look. It was a Bible in Turkish. He came in and found me reading it. He said to me, with a kind of carelessness that I think hid some real feeling, ‘Yes, I got a loan of that. I wanted to find out the secret of your people’s patience under all that has come upon them.’ I asked if he had found it. He answered me, ‘I think I have. It is the spirit of Hesoos, your Prophet. He was like that.’—Oh, I am very tired!”
“Well, then, my friend, lie down here under the stars, and sleep. Think that now no enemy’s hand can touch you, or your brother, or your sister any more. Sleep safe under the flag of England, the dear old ‘Union Jack.’”