ARSHALUS—THE LIGHT OF THE MORNING
A Prologue to the Story
Old Vartabed, the shepherd whose flocks had clothed three generations, stood silhouetted against the skies on the summit of a Taurus hill. His figure was motionless, erect and very tall. The signs of age were in every crease of his grave, strong face, yet his hands folded loosely on his stick, for he would have scorned to lean upon it.
To the east and north spread the plains of the Mamuret-ul-Aziz, with here and there a plateau reaching out from a nest of foothills. Each Spring, through twenty-five centuries, other shepherds than Old Vartabed had stood on this same hilltop to watch the plains and plateaux of the Mamuret-ul-Aziz turn green, but few had seen the grass and shrubs sprout so early as they had this year. Old Vartabed should have been greatly pleased at such promise of a good season, and should have spoken to his sheep about it—for that was his way.
But the shepherd was troubled. A strange foreboding had come to him in the night. Even at daybreak he could not shake it off. He was gazing now, not at the stretches of welcome green which soon would soothe the bleating of his sheep, but across into the north beyond, where the blue line of the Euphrates was lost in the haze of dawn. What his old eyes sought there, he did not know; but something seemed to threaten from up there in the north.
Suddenly the lazy, droning call to the Third Prayer, with which the devout Mohammedan greets the light of day, floated up from the valley at Old Vartabed’s feet. It brought the shepherd out of his reverie abruptly. “There, that was it! That was the sign. The danger might come from the north, but it would show itself first, whatever it was to be, in the city.”
The shepherd looked down into the valley, onto the housetops and the narrow, winding streets that separated them. He caught the glint of the minaret as the muezzin again intoned his summons. Quickly his eyes leaped across the city to where the first glimpse of sunshine played about a crumbled pile of brown and gray—the ruins of the castle of Tchemesh, an ancient Armenian king. A piteous sadness gathered in his face. The minaret still stood; the castle of the king was fallen. That was why there were two sets of prayers in the city, and why trouble was coming out of the north.
The old man planted his stick upright in the ground as a sign to his sheep that where the stick stood their shepherd was bound to return. Then he picked his way down the path that led to the lower slopes where the houses of the city began. With a firm, even step that belied his many years, he strode through the city until he came to the streets marked by the imposing homes of the rich. A short turn along the side of the park that served as a public square brought him to the home of the banker, Mardiganian. In this house Old Vartabed was always welcome. He had been the keeper of herds belonging to three succeeding heads of the Mardiganian families.
A servant woman opened the door in the street wall and admitted the shepherd to the inner garden. When she had closed the door again, the visitor asked:
“Is the Master still within the house, or has he gone this early to his business?”
“Shame upon you for the asking!” the woman replied, with a servant’s quick uncivility to her kind. “Have you forgotten what day it is, that you should think the Master would be at business?”
Amazement showed in the old man’s eyes. The woman saw that he had, indeed, forgotten. She spoke more kindly:
“Do you not know, Vartabed, that this is Easter Sunday morning?”
The old man accepted the reminder, but his dignity quickly reasserted itself. “If you live as many days as Old Vartabed you will wish to forget more than one of them—perhaps one that is coming soon more than any other.”
The woman had no patience for the sententiousness of age, and the veiled threat of coming ill she put down for petulance. But her sharp reply fell upon unheeding ears. The shepherd crossed the garden without further parleys and entered the house.
The house of the Mardiganians was typical of the homes of the well-to-do Armenians of to-day. The wide doorway which opened from the garden was approached by handsome steps of white marble, and the spacious hall within was floored with large slabs of the same material. Outside, the house presented a rather gloomy appearance, because, perhaps, of the need of protection against the sometimes rigorous climate; inside there was every sign of luxury and opulence. The space of ground occupied was prodigious, as the rooms were terraced, one above the other, the roof of one being used as a dooryard garden for the one above.
In the large reception room, into which Old Vartabed strode, there was a great stone fireplace, with a low divan branching out on either side and running around three sides of the room. Beautiful tapestry covers of native manufacture, and silk cushions made by hand, covered this divan. Soft, thick rugs of tekke, which is a Persian and Kurdish weave built upon felt foundations, were strewn over the marble floor. Over the fireplace hung a rare Madonna; a landscape by a popular Armenian artist, and a Dutch harbor by Peniers hung on the walls at the side. In a corner of the room, under a floor lamp, was a piano. Oriental delight in bright colorings was apparent, but the ensemble was tasteful and subdued.
The shepherd waited, standing, in the center of the room until his employer entered and gave him the Easter morning greeting which Armenia has preserved since the world was young:
“Christ is risen from the dead, my good Vartabed!”
“Blessed be the resurrection of Christ,” the old man replied, as the custom dictates. Then he spoke, with an earnestness which the other man quickly detected, of that which had brought him to the house.
It was a vision he had seen during the night. “ Our Saint Gregory appeared to me in my sleep and pressed his hand upon me heavily. ‘Awake, Old Vartabed; awake! Thy sheep are in danger, even though they be favored of God. Awake and save them!’ This, the good saint said to me. Hurriedly I arose, but when my old eyes were fully opened the vision was gone. I rushed out to the fold, but it was only I who disturbed the flock. They were resting peacefully.
“But I could not sleep again. Each time my eyes closed our Saint stood before me, seeming to reprove my idleness. At dawn I took my sheep to the hills—and then I remembered!”
Here the shepherd hesitated. He had spoken fast, and was nearly breathless. His employer had listened with the consideration due one so old, and so faithful, but not without a trace of amusement in his immobile face.
“It is a pity, Vartabed, your sleep was restless. This morning, of all others, you should be joyful. Tell me what it was you remembered at dawn, and then dismiss it from your mind.”
“Some things, Master, neither you nor I can dismiss from our minds. I remembered that once before our Saint appeared to me in my sleep with a warning of danger. I gave no attention then, for I was younger, and thoughtless. Those, also, were joyous times in Armenia, for there was peace and prosperity. But that very day the holocaust came out of the north; for that was twenty years ago.”
Now, the other man started. He was shaken by a convulsive shudder, and his face blanched. Twenty years ago—that was when a hundred thousand of his people were massacred by Abdul Hamid! Without a word he walked to a window, separated the curtains and looked out upon the house garden.
The banker, Mardiganian, was a true type of the successful, modern Armenian business man. He did not often smile, but his voice was kind, and his eyes were gentle. In the Easter morning promenades in any avenue in Europe or America he would have been a conventional figure, passed without notice. When he turned from the window, after a moment, only a close observer could have detected in his face or manner that inexplainable, intangible something which, indelibly, marks a race cradled in oppression.
“What happened twenty years ago, my Vartabed, can never happen again. We Armenians have done nothing to rouse the anger of our over-lords, the Turks. On the contrary, we have proven our willingness to serve the state. Our young men have been called into this great war which is ravaging the world. Even though their sympathies are with the Sultan’s enemies, they have not shown it. They have freely given their lives in battle for a cause they hate, that the Turk may have no excuse to vent his wrath upon our people. Less than a week ago the Sultan’s minister, the powerful Enver, expressed his gratitude to us for the services we are rendering the Crescent. They dare not molest us again.”
“But the vision that came to me last night was the same that would have warned me that night in 1895 of the tragedy then in store for us.”
“This time, nevertheless, it was but an idle dream.”
The banker spoke with the finality of conviction. The shepherd was affronted by his calm disbelief in the sign of coming evil, as the shepherd considered it. The old man left the room and crossed the garden in high dudgeon. His hand was upon the gate, and in another moment he would have been gone when a fresh, youthful voice arrested him.
“Vartabed—wait; I am coming!”
The old man stopped abruptly. Looking back he saw coming toward him the one who was closer to his heart than any other living thing—Arshalus, a daughter of the Mardiganians.
Arshalus—that means “The Light of the Morning.” There is but one word in America into which the Armenian name can be translated —“The Aurora.” And no other would be so fitting. She was a merry-eyed child of fourteen years, hair and eyes as black as night; smile and spirit as sunny as the brightest day. Every sheep in Old Vartabed’s flock was her pet, especially the black ones.
When she reached the waiting shepherd Aurora quickly discovered that he was glum, and she chose to be piqued about it.
“Surely you were not going without wishing me the happiness of the Easter time, or has Old Vartabed ceased to care for the one who plagues him so much?” She made a great show of pouting, but the old man’s hurt could not be so easily mended. Perhaps the sight of Aurora intensified it.
“It is idle to wish happiness; it is better to give it. When one has none to give he has no mission. I have no joy to give to-day, even to you, my Aurora, and so I had not thought of seeking you.”
“That is very wrong, Vartabed. To-day Christ is risen, and there is joy everywhere. And even more for me than many others. Just yesterday my father told me that before another Easter comes I am to go away co finish my schooling—to Constantinople, or, perhaps, to Switzerland or Paris. Does that not make you happy for me, Vartabed?”
For an instant the old man gazed down upon the upturned face. Then his hand reached for the gate again, as if to give support to the tall, straight body that seemed to droop. Aurora thought she had pained him. With an impulsive fondness she raised her hands as if to rest them upon the old man’s breast. But before she could reach him the shepherd was gone, and the gate had closed between them.
An hour later Old Vartabed again stood on the summit of the hill, looking down upon the city and the plains of the Mamuret-ul-Aziz, bathed, now, in the glory of the full morning sun. A few miles to the south lay the ridges and long abandoned tunnels which, according to tradition, once were the busy workings of Solomon’s mines. Harpout, where the caravans stop; Van, the metropolis, and Sivas, the “City of Hope,” were far beyond the horizon, outpost cities of a nation which was born before history. The old man’s thoughts visited each of these jewel cities in turn, and pictured the hope and faith with which they celebrated the coming of Easter. Then he turned again to the spires and housetops reaching up from the plains below. For he was thinking not only of Armenia—the beautiful, golden Armenia of that Easter day in 1914, but, also, of the child who was named for “The Light of the Morning.”
H. L. Gates.