Ravished Armenia/Chapter 13

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Ravished Armenia by Aurora Mardiganian, translated by Henry Leyford Gates
Chapter XIII — Old Vartabed and the Shepherd’s Call

CHAPTER XIII


OLD VARTABED AND THE SHEPHERD’S CALL


Early in the morning we were taken into the city, tied across horses which were led just behind the group of chiefs who followed Sheikh Zilan, himself. Inside the city four horsemen led our horses into one of the low quarters of the city. Here we were given into the keeping of a cruel looking Kurd, whom I was soon to know was Bekran Agha, the notorious slave dealer of Moush.

Ten thousand Armenian girls, delicate, refined daughters of Christian homes, college girls, young school teachers, daughters of the rich and the poor, have experienced the terror of the same feeling that came over me that day when I realized that I was a captive in the house of this notorious slave dealer. His slave market had been boldly operated, in the security of his house, for many years, but never had he enjoyed such a profitable trade as when the Armenian girls were available to him.

Bekran left us in his donkey stable at night. In the morning his hammal came in to feed the animals. When he had finished this task he ordered us to follow him.

Bekran awaited us in his selamlik. I shuddered when I saw him—he was so old and withered and cruel looking. A negress waited upon him. He sat on the floor in the old fashion. The selamlik was barren and ill-kept. Everywhere there was dirt. Bekran’s flowing garments, once of rich texture, were ragged and frayed. Yet I knew Bekran must be very rich—from the profits the helplessness of Armenians had brought him.

We fell upon our knees before him—then we bent into the posture of the Mohammedans—we wanted so much to make him listen to our pleading. I had suffered so much, I thought surely I could persuade this old man to let me go to my mother again. But Bekran did not even speak. His eyes roved over us—I could feel them. He signed to the hammal and the man lifted us to our feet, one by one, that his master might see our height, our size and judge of our attractiveness. Then he gave another sign and we were taken across the inside court, through a stone doorway, and into a large room where there were a number of other Armenian girls, with here and there a Circassian or a Russian from the Caucasus, among them.

Soon the hammal came into the room with figs and bread. I could not eat, neither could any of the four girls who had been of my mother’s party from Ourfa. Few of the others ate, either—as all had come but recently into the hands of Bekran and were too downcast. When the hammal saw that we, who were late comers, did not eat, he said, “That is well. We will lose no time at the bath.” He then compelled us to cleanse ourselves as well as we could of the marks of our nights in the sand and in the donkey stable with water from a fountain in the courtyard.

Two men servants who came into the court while we were bathing joined the hammal. Together they made us stand in a long line. The girls who had been in the house when we arrived, saved us from the whips the hammal and his men carried by telling us what to do.

We were taken into a large room at the back of the house, barren of any furniture, save a pile of cushions on a rug in one corner. We were allowed to sit on the floor any place in the room, but in this corner where the cushions were. Before long Bekran Agha came in and sat on the cushions.

All morning purchasers came. As each one spoke to Bekran the porter would clap his hands and we were made to gather in a circle around the customer. Many girls were sold—but for only a few pennies apiece. There were too many in the market to demand large prices! When a girl was sold she remained until a servant came to take her away.

Late in the afternoon of the second day a customer to whom Bekran Agha paid great deference, entered the room. He was a servant, but from his clothes I knew him to be the servant of a rich man. From those of us who were left he selected three—and I was one of the three. While we stood near he bargained with Bekran. At last the terms were agreed upon. I was bought for one medjidieh—85 cents!

Outside was an araba. The other two girls and I were placed in this. We were taken outside the city, to a country house occupied by Djevdet Bey, Vali of Van, then commander of the Turkish army operating against the Russians.

We were taken at once to the haremlik, where there were a number of other young Armenian women. Before evening the kalfa, or head servant, came in to us and we were asked, one by one, if we were willing to become Mohammedans. The kalfa explained that only those could remain in the care and keeping of Djevdet Bey, the mighty man, and have the honor of his protection, who willingly adopted the creed of Islam.

Though he was cruel and, as his deeds show, the most unscrupulous of all the Turks, Djevdet Bey desired, it was made plain to us, to keep within the provisions of the fetva issued by Abdul Hamid and still in effect, which pretends to prohibit the enslaving of Armenian and other Christian girls unless they first become Mohammedans.

I did not know what the kalfa would do with me if I refused to accept the creed of Islam. I feared the punishment would be death, or the public khan at once, but I could not bring myself to deny Christ, after having remained faithful to Him so long. I asked Him what I should do—and His answer came, just as clear and direct as when I was about to use my knife outside the rocks of Diyarbekir. I seemed to see Father Rhoupen, the priest, and I even felt his hand on my shoulder again, just as when he said to me, “Always trust in God and remain faithful unto Him.” I told the kalfa I could not forswear Jesus Christ.

One of the other girls who had been brought to Djevdet Bey’s house with me also refused to give up her religion, even to save her life. The third girl had suffered so much—her heart and soul were broken. She gave way. The kalfa put her into another room. In a little while we who had refused to apostasize were summoned, put into separate arabas, and driven away. What became of the other little girl I do not know. I was taken to the house of Ahmed Bey, one of the rich men of Moush. I was a present to him from Djevdet Bey.

I cannot forget the depression that came over me when I entered the courtyard of Ahmed Bey’s house. Twice before, since the deportations began, had I been taken a captive into the houses of Turks and left at their mercy. Yet now I felt as if the future were darker than ever before. Perhaps it was because the house of Ahmed was outside the city, in the plains— as a prison would be. And there were twenty-four other girls in the haremlik, each with her own memory of sufferings, more terrible even, some of them, than had been my own.

Ahmed Bey, himself, was very old, yet some of these twenty-four girls had been sacrificed to him. The others had been divided between his two sons. Ahmed was, perhaps, a truer type of the fanatical Turk than any whose victim I had yet been. His interest seemed not to be so much in the young women themselves, as in the children he wanted them to bear to his sons—children in whom the blood of the noble Armenian race might be blended with that of the savage Turk, and who might live to perpetuate and improve the blood of his family.

I was summoned before Ahmed Bey the next day. I had asked for clothing, but the haremlik attaches would not give me any, nor would they allow me to accept garments from other girls in the harem. “Not until Ahmed indicates his desires,” was the answer of the kalfa to my pleadings.

Ahmed Bey spoke to me gently, but it was with the gentleness that hurts worse than blows. “You are to be one of the favored of my women,” he said, “because you have been sent to my house by His Excellency, Djevdet Bey.” He gave a sign, and a little slave girl appeared with the rich dress of a favored Turkish girl. “Many of these and many ornaments, as well as kindness and affection, shall be yours as long as you are obedient and respectful,” Ahmed said. “First, you shall renounce the Christ you have been taught to worship and accept the forgiveness of Allah and Mohammed, his prophet.”

I told him I was weary of suffering, but that I had been given into the keeping of God by my mother, and that I would not desert Him. At this Ahmed became furious. All his gentleness passed away. He trembled in his anger. He upbraided me and my people and blasphemed my religion. I cried with shame at hearing him, but he had no pity. I pleaded with him to free me, that I might return to my mother's party, and I told him of the paper given my mother by Haidar Pasha of Ourfa. But he would not listen.

The little slave was sent from the room to summon one of Ahmed’s sons. The son came in almost immediately. Ahmed called him “Nazim.” “This is the one sent me by Djevdet Bey, himself. I have set her aside for you, my son, because of her comeliness and youth. But her spirit must be broken. I have sent for you that you might look upon her and decide—what shall be done with her.”

Ahmed’s son spoke to me, but I did not answer. Then he took my hand, drew me up before him and lifted my face that he might look into my eyes.

“Leave her to me, my father, that I may try to persuade her to be happy in our house,” Nazim said.

The little slave led me to an apartment—a small room looking out upon tne inside court, with a divan. I asked her to leave the dress with me, that I might at least cover myself, but she said she could not do that without permission. When she had left me Nazim crossed the court from the selamlik and came at once to me.

He had the same gentleness as his father—and it hurt in the same way. He asked me to accept Mohammed that he might make me his “bride.” He told me my sufferings would be very hard to bear if I refused, but that I would have many luxuries if I consented.

I knew I could not escape. My thoughts went to my mother. I told Nazim that as long as my mother was an exile, doomed to die a wanderer, I could not speak of being a “bride.” I told him if he would save her, if he would bring her to me, I would ask her if she thought best that I sacrifice my religion in return for my life and safety—and if she would say it would be right, then, with her always near to comfort me, I would let my soul die that my body and hers might live.

“You will have to learn it is not the slave's privilege to bargain,” he said, as he strode away.

Hours went by, and I crouched on the divan—waiting. At every step I feared I was to be summoned again—this time for something I could only expect to be torture. At last a zaptieh who was one of Ahmed Bey’s personal retainers came for me. He lifted me roughly and dragged me with him across the court and into the road in front of the house. A little way from the garden wall there was a group of other zaptiehs.

Among them I saw my mother, little Hovnan and Mardiros and little Sarah, my brothers and sister, and the others of my mother’s party. I had told Nazim where they were when I pleaded with him to restore them to me—and he had sent for them.

I tried to break away, to run toward them. The zaptieh at my side held me. My mother was kneeling, with her hands lifted to heaven. Sarah ran toward me, her arms stretched out. “Aurora—Aurora—don’t let them kill us!” Sarah cried. The zaptieh swung the heavy handle of his whip high in the air and brought it down on Sarah’s head so that the blow flung her little body far out of the path. She did not move again. I think the blow must have crushed in my little sister’s head.

Mother saw—and so did Hovnan and Mardiros. Mother fell to the ground, motionless. A zaptieh lifted her and struck her with his whip.

I fell upon my knees before the chief of the zaptiehs. “Spare my mother—spare my brothers!” I cried to him. “I will do anything you wish—I will belong to Allah—I will thank him only—if you will spare them!”

“It shall be as Nazim Bey desires,” the zaptieh said. I did not understand—I clung to him and prayed to him. I tried to touch my mother, but the zaptieh kicked me to the ground. Then, suddenly, I knew why they waited. Nazim Bey had come out of the house. When I saw him I crept to his feet and begged him for mercy. “I will be Turkish—I will pray to Allah—I will obey—just to save my mother,” I cried to him.

“That is well—but you shall not only be a Moslem but you also shall be the daughter of a Moslem—that will be better still”— said Nazim. “What does the old woman say?”

A zaptieh jerked mother to her feet again. He lifted his whip. “The creed—quick!” he said to her.

“Mother, please—God will forgive you—father is in heaven and he will understand!” I cried to her.

Mother was too weak to speak aloud, but her lips moved in a whisper: “God of St. Gregory, Thy will be done!”

The zaptieh’s heavy whip descended. Mother sank to the ground. I tried to reach her, but the zaptiehs held me. I fought them, but they held me fast. Again and again the whip fell. Mardiros screamed and tried to save her with his weak little hands. Another zaptieh caught him by the arm and killed him with a single blow from his whip handle. When they flung him aside Mardiros’s body fell almost at my feet.

Hovnan wrapped his arms around the zaptieh who was beating my mother, but his strength was too feeble. The zaptieh did not even notice him until my mother’s body relaxed and I knew she was dead. Then he drew his knife and plunged it into little Hovnan.

It was only a little while—two minutes, perhaps, or three, that I stood there, held by the zaptieh. But in those short minutes all that belonged to me in this world was swept away—my mother, Mardiros and Hovnan, and Sarah. Their bodies were at my feet. Both mother and Hovnan died with their eyes turned to me, looking into mine! My eyes see them now, every day and every night—every hour, almost—when I look out into the new world about me. I must keep them closed for hours at a time to shut the vision out.

I heard Nazim Bey give an order to his zaptiehs. Some of them picked up the bodies of my dear ones and carried them away, I do not know where. The others lifted me off the ground—I could not walk—and carried me to the house and back to the room where the divan was. For two days and nights no one came near me but the slave girls. All that time I cried; I could not keep the tears from coming. That was when my eyes gave way; that is why I cannot see very well now without glasses.

On the third day Nazim, accompanied by his father, Ahmed, came to my room. Ahmed spoke with the same cruel gentleness. “What is past is gone, little one; it is time your thoughts should turn to the future. Nazim desires you. You are honored. He has punished you for your stubbornness, and he would forgive you and take you to his heart. That is as it must be. Your people are gone. There is none to give you mistaken counsel. You will now accept the favor of Allah and enter into a state of true righteousness.”

“I want to die—kill me! I will never listen to your son nor to your Allah,” I said.

They took me into another wing of the house, to a dungeon room, with just one iron-barred window looking out into the courtyard. There was no divan or cushions, just the floor and the walls. The window was high in the wall. I could not look out at anything but the sky—that same sky which covered so much of tragedy in my ravished Armenia.

Day after day, night after night, went by. Each day the alaiks came and brought me bread, berries and milk. And each day the hodja, a teacher-priest, came to ask me if I were ready to accept Islam. But each day God took me closer into His heart, for I kept up my courage by talking to Him.

And then one night, after so many days had passed I had lost count of them, God reached in through my dungeon window. I was awakened by a commotion
Roadside of awful despair.jpg
THE ROADSIDE OF AWFUL DESPAIR

First the children died, and then the parents, and uncles and aunts. The grieving parents wrapped the little ones in the sheets they had brought along, and then lay down beside them to starve. It was a common scene in the deserts and along the sandy roads over which the exiles travelled.

in the courtyard, where, on other nights, it had been very quiet. Soon I understood what was happening—sheep were being driven in through the gate. Ahmed’s flock was coming in from the hill pastures, driven in, perhaps, by military conditions.

I heard the yard gates swing shut. Then, above the bleating of the excited, restless sheep, I heard the shepherd whistle his call to quiet them. I jumped to my feet, my heart throbbing. Breathlessly I listened for the shepherd to repeat the call. Then I was sure—it was the same peculiar call, sharp and shrill, which my father always taught his own shepherds, the call which he had been taught by his own father when, as a little boy, he learned the ways of his father’s sheep on the great pastures of Mamuret-ul-Aziz. When I was very young our shepherds used to laugh at me when I tried to imitate them. I had been a very happy little girl when, one day, I succeeded so well that suddenly the sheep in our flock turned away from their grass and came toward me.

No other shepherds than ours or, at least, one who had come from Tchemesh-Gedzak, would know that call, I was certain. Ahmed’s sheep were tired and nervous. The unknown shepherd remained among them, every now and then repeating that same whistle, softer and softer. I went close to the window, lifted my face toward the iron-barred window and repeated the call. Even the sheep seemed to sense something unusual. They were suddenly quiet. Again I whistled, this time with more courage. Instantly the shepherd answered—I could almost detect his note of wonder.

I had learned that by leaping as high as I could I could catch the window bars with my hands and lift myself until my face reached above the window-sill. Often I had caught glimpses of the yard in this way. But I was not strong enough to hold myself up more than a few seconds at a time.

Now I tried this, hoping to catch a glimpse of the shepherd in the moonlight. As I pulled myself up, I whistled again. Many times I tried before I attracted his attention to the window. When I had succeeded and he understood that behind that window there was a captive who was trying to signal him, he made me understand by repeating his whistle three times in quick succession directly under the window.

I dared not call out to him. I tore a great piece of cloth from the dress that had been given me. I rolled this into a ball and threw it out. He saw and answered by whistling softly. I hoped he would understand the torn cloth as a symbol of my imprisonment—and of my hope that he would save me. I could hardly believe that even an Armenian shepherd would be left alive, yet it seemed to be so.

In the morning when the sheep were taken out the shepherd whistled again under my window and I knew he was trying to attract my attention. I answered as softly as I could. All that day a new hope gave me courage. I was sure deliverance was at hand, though I could not explain why.

I did not even attempt to sleep that night. The sheep came in early and the shepherd whistled. An hour later I heard the call again—the shepherd still was in the yard. It must have been near midnight when I heard a rattling at the window bars. I looked, and there, framed in the moonlight, was a face I knew—the face of Old Vartabed, who had come to our house that Easter morning with his prophecy of ill—the prophecy that came true. God had sent him to me and had made me to hear and understand that familiar, whistled call!

Old Vartabed whispered: “Who is here who comes from the Mamuret-ul-Aziz?”

“It is Aurora, the daughter of the Mardiganians of Tchemesh-Gedzak. You are Old Vartabed, and I am the Aurora you loved so much.”

Old Vartabed tried to speak, but his voice shook so I could not understand him. I told him all that I could, quickly. How I had come to be a captive of Ahmed and why I was in the dungeon. Tears came into Old Vartabed’s ancient eyes when I told him how all my people were dead. I asked him how it was that he had been saved. “Old Vartabed is not worth the slaughter,” he said. “I am of much value, since I have taught the sheep of Ahmed to behave only for me. Ahmed has forgotten I am an Armenian, since I bend my knees for every prayer to Allah and thus prolong my days.” He told me to be patient. He would find a way to save me.