a ghost cavalry for a ghost army
Under her breath Mariam began humming a pulpy tune, the wind howling across a mountaintop, a child’s lullaby: “Linum e, chi linum, There was and there was not” …
… a mountain and not just any mountain but the mountain – the mountain where all this began. The Turks called it Ağrı Dağı, which literally means “pain” in their language. “The Painful Mountain.” The wild horsemen, the Kurds, called it Çîyaye Agirî, “The Fiery Mountain.” It is both of those things for those people but perhaps it was known best throughout the world by what the Armenians called it, Masis, which translates into Ararat. The very Ararat which, the people say, Noah came down from after the Flood. And out of all Noah’s children, it was his great-grandson, Hayk, who settled in the valley to the east and it is from Hayk that the Armenian people claim their ancestry and name.
But this story does not concern itself with that valley far to the east. Not just yet. This story is about the wild lands to the west of Ararat where the city and the lake of Van dwell, perched on the edge of greater Anatolia. Remember that name, it will be on the test later, the one which was once called Tushpa by the Urartians in the 9th century B.C. and fought over by none less than Alexander the Great in his great sweep across Asia Minor. A city of white walls and mosques and temples and churches. If you stood in one of those towers or climbed to the nearby cliffs overlooking the lake’s purple waters you would see the rocky wilderness rolling away to the east and the south, an unbroken sweep of dark silver peaks and valleys with grasses rippling and sighing as the wind passes over.
What you cannot see by walking away from Van, however, along the shore or into the hills and mountains where Mariam rides, is that Van is a city of politics for the Ottoman Empire. The Silk Route, the Spice Route, its borders with the Persian and Russian empires, the marching of troops, the ships crossing the choppy waters, the hauling of supplies by oxen and cart, the constant pulse of the Sultan’s veins, all passed through Van. If you turn to the north you can see the path an army might take, perhaps even the same path Alexander chose, marching along the shore, passing villages like Çitören and Bardakçı and Kalecik, all the way up to the tall pockmarked walls that fortify the city.
“Linum e, chi linum, There was and there was not.”
Nothing moved but the Armenian woman sat in the dark for a long time, reclining on the rocky scarp.
Mariam stretched out her toes as far as the confines of her boots let her and closed her eyes for a moment or two. The rain had stopped but the clouds hid the full moon hung low over the peaks, giving the night an otherworldly bite, a scent of some forgotten mountain god: bitter with waiting.
Her horse stood a few yards away, quietly chewing and shifting his weight from one leg to the next.
While Mariam lay, she thought she saw darker shadows moving among the nightfall on a nearby hill. She gazed through half closed eyes and counted ten shapes, all following one another in single file, hunchbacked and nocturnal.
She saw by the riders’ figures, short and stocky in the saddle, that they were Kurds, but nobody she knew personally. These men were not from her village. They were from someplace else.
They moved with purpose which meant they were organized. Which meant they were working as raiders, the first that anyone had seen in the Ottoman mountains since the departure of the Tzar’s Army.
Mariam did not attempt to move. Her horse made no noise as the two of them watched the shadows pass out of sight. She had not heard the sound of horseshoes on rock or voices beyond her in the dark. A ghost cavalry for a ghost army.
Finally, after a long pause, she stood and went to her horse.
“Thank you, Old Tigran,” she murmured, using the name of the Armenian warlord who had once taken on all of the Roman empire during his prime. Old Tigran whinnied softly and rubbed his nose against the woman’s sleeve. Quickly packing her blanket, Mariam mounted and rode off the scarp, pausing for a long look in every direction. There was no noise save for the wind that blew from the south as the last clouds fluttered away. The tart moon appeared to Mariam poised directly overhead with all the ancient stars spreading out around.
Could the old priest, Der Topalian, been right? Mariam wondered, letting her horse pick his way along. Or were they simply scouts passing through? But if they were, whom were they scouting for? Who would be interested in this part of the world? The Russians hadn’t, they had abandoned the mountains months ago.
Whoever the horsemen were they were heading south, toward Lake Van.
Mariam rode almost due north for more than two hours until, right before dawn, she saw a parcel of trees rising high and dark upon a hill. She rode with an easy gait that told of a familiarity with life in and among the peaks and saddles, wearing boots that were thickly sewn with little beads of yellow and blue and green hidden among the lacing.
Though she had been raised in the mountains she was not “of the blood,” as the Kurds would say. Perhaps it was her height or the way she held herself erect while riding. Possibly it was her uncanny familiarity with rifles and horses. Then again it could be the manner in which she dressed with robes that had seen both blizzard and sand storm. Or perhaps it was something else, the way she combined so many contradictory elements. Turkish silver adorned her forehead, earrings, on her belt and in chunky rings on each finger. She had wrapped her hair under a headdress her people favored and she carried over her shoulder the long slender rifle of the Kurdish horsemen carved with an image of Ararat on the stock.
There is a legend, though the elders of Bardakçı swear it is true, of the famous Kurdish bandit Musa Beg, who once plundered an Armenian village in 1889 and kidnapped a young Armenian girl named Gulizar. That had been only twenty-six years ago, when Mariam had been six years old. Who knows what happened to Gulizar? Her kidnapped twin, she was told as a child, must be living a life just like hers: somewhere in a remote village without church or mosque where the Kurds and the Armenians and the Turks lived, if not comfortably, then at least tolerably.
The Armenian paused a moment in the vale only to swing the butt of her rifle from her back, leaned upon the saddle and listened.
The summit was bare and the woman saw far. It was a splendid mountain country, dotted here and there with sage-blue shrub and twisted oak and evergreen pine. By ten in the morning skylarks and warblers filled the world with movement. Mariam might travel full hundred miles to the north or east and find no villages — Turkish, Kurdish or Armenian — while to westward and south the earth was torn apart with farmland that made up the backbone of the empire. Here, though, on all sides of her, stretched the vast maze of peaks and hills through which roamed only lonely animals and lonely men.
A faint smile passed over the Armenian’s face. There was nothing in the wide open sky save the song of the grass and that was heard at a great distance. She was satisfied. In a world forever at war the absence of sound proved no evil was occurring. Travelers pass quietly, she had been taught, soldiers make noise. She swung the rifle back to its resting place and rode to the crest of a nearby ridge.
In the late afternoon Mariam stopped to cook her small meal. While the coals of her fire smoldered, sending a thin column of smoke rising to the sky, she scrutinized the mountainside. Today was the agreed upon day. Today it was vital that she was seen. Today.
It was around an hour later that Mariam uttered a low cry of pleasure. Gazing back upon her own trail, she rose to her feet and stood peering over the mountainside. With no undergrowth here she could see far to a pair of figures approaching. Both horses and riders were outlined in black against the sun now setting in the west. Mariam knew them, although the distance was far too great to reveal any face, any body parts, any curve of the hand. They came on swiftly and silently, much in the same manner as the Armenian herself.
After a while she swung herself up onto Old Tigran and rode up the slope to greet Ashtî and Hayran with outstretched hands.
“Ah! it’s you, Mariam-jan,” said Hayran, his eyes glistening. “Until we saw your fire we were afraid that you might have stumbled into the shadowland and that’s a tedious story old people tell us that has no happy ending. But here we are, all three of us, alive; as well as ever.”
“That’s so,” Ashtî nodded but said no more.
Mariam regarded her two friends with admiration. Ashtî wore a ferace, a large outer coat as prescribed by the Koran, the sleeves of which were so long that only the tips of her fingers could be seen. Her plumed turban, her hotoz, was pushed back on her head and the traditional long veil that began under the eyes and covers nose and mouth had been pulled down as she went north. She rode a great black horse with a flowing mane.
“These mountains are quiet,” Hayran said.
“We’ve been traveling three days and have seen no sign of anyone,” Ashtî said. Hayran nodded.
“I did,” Mariam put in. “I saw something pass by at two in the morning at a spot I was resting at. Perhaps eight, ten horsemen.”
“Who were they?” Hayran asked.
“Raiders? Kurds I guess by the way they rode by. They were heavily armed and looked like they were going some place, not just rambling.”
“Jevdet Bey uses Kurdish scouts but if that is the case then someone is gathering soldiers on this side of the Lake Van,” said Ashtî thoughtfully.
“I’m not surprised. Our brothers in Van have rejoiced too early. We have not seen the end of the Young Turks’s rage.”
“Van was a fortress long before it was a city,” Hayran said. “With warning they can defend themselves against anything the Young Turks can mount.”
Ashtî shook her head: “We could if we were united, but the villages will not come to our aide and our city’s leaders have fallen to squabbling. I tell you the truth, I’m afraid of the Ottomans’ advance.”
“If they were scouts then I think they probably belong to Ivedik’s division,” said Hayran.
“Very likely,” said Miriam. “He’s one of the most energetic of Jevdet Bey’s officers.”
“Plus he is a native of Van,” Mariam pointed out. “He knows the mountains better than we do. The villages are gravely mistaken to think they can somehow avoid his Raiders because of their isolation. I fear it is exactly because they are isolated that Ivedik will choose them as easy spoil.”
“It’s pretty far west for the Ottomans,” said Ashtî. “We’re on the edge of the Russian country here.”
“Which is why, if it is Ivedik,” Mariam replied, “He’ll bring his horsemen around and strike from the west at the one direction that would be the least suspected. That’s what I would do.”
The three held a brief discussion and soon came to an agreement. They rode side by side as they examined the blank expanses they passed through. They would turn and retrace their steps south to Van while attempting to track the Kurd’s trail. However, the further they went the scarcer became the trees and before night they disappeared entirely.
They camped in a dip and did not light any fire, lying side by side and wrapping themselves in their own horse blankets. They deemed it wise now to keep a watch, for Ivedik was near and anything might happen.
Ashtî, who said she was not sleepy, took the first watch. Mariam, exhausted from the long ride, fell into a deep sleep and did not dream.
The last object that she saw was Ashtî standing on the crest of the hill just beyond them, rifle on shoulder, watching the moonlit valley.
Ashtî walked back and forth a few times and glanced at her sleeping friends. A dreamless sleep was a good thing. It meant the djinn who haunt guilty sleepers were somewhere else. She turned away and scanned the dark sky.
An hour later a light wind sprang up. Ashtî’s first impulse was to awaken her friends but she hesitated a moment. As she stood Mariam and Hayran rose and came to stand beside her.
“Isn’t that a light?” said Mariam. A glowing spark was just visible over the mountain. It neither moved or went out.
“I think it’s in scrub-bush or among trees,” Hayran suggested. “It’s big enough to keep a whole division warm.”
“I suppose,” said Ashtî. “We might as well ride toward it and find out.”
The fire was more than a mile away and they advanced slowly, seeing it grow in size and intensity.
Dismounting they left their horses tethered to a tree and advanced on foot. If it was indeed Ivedik and his men they would probably be sleeping soundly, not expecting any enemy to be wandering the rainy mountains like night ghasts, creations of ill dreams.
They saw an extensive growth of bush rise before them and beyond that the light. When they came to the edge they knelt among and listened. They heard the occasional movement of horses and saw the dusky outlines of several figures move before the fire.
“They look like your ghost Kurds,” whispered Ashtî, “But we’re going to have to get closer if we want to know any more.”
Ashtî crept forward among the thorny bushes with her friends close behind. Mariam could hear the stamp of horses’ feet clearly now and both to left and right she caught glimpses of beasts tethered in their thickets. Her comrades stopped at last. They were not more than a hundred yards from the fire and the space in front of them was mostly open. Ashtî, crouching, raised her finger slowly and pointed toward the fire.
Mariam followed and saw Hassan Ivedik Bey himself. He was the dominant figure in a group of six or seven gathered about the flames. He wore an officer’s tattered uniform of green and silver, a brilliant red fez perched on his head with a small rapier hanging limply by his side.
Whatever the men were talking about appeared animated enough for first Ivedik and then another to raise their hands and make sweeping gestures as if calling on all the mountains to come and bear witness.
“Look beyond the fire … to the figures by the trees,” whispered Ashtî.
Mariam squinted in the dark. She had not noticed at first, but now she saw a dozen or so men, arms bound tightly behind them, leaning against distant trees. She knew that they were Armenians and a shiver of recognition passed through her. While the Ottoman army had arrested thousands and thousands of Greeks, Assyrians, Jews but mainly Armenians, in the villages and cities around Anatolia, they did not keep them very long. The mountains were full of their bones. Some had been executed as traitors, some executed out of boredom, but all of them who were killed were Dhimmi, the lowly non-believers whose lives were forever forfeit at the whims of the master race.
“What shall we do?” Mariam whispered back.
“Nothing now,” replied Ashtî, in the same soft tone, “but maybe we can do something soon. It’s likely that Ivedik will come down out of the mountains north of Van to meet Jevdet Bey.”
There was a sudden gust of wind at that moment and the light of the fire sprang higher.
The flames threw a glow across the faces of the prisoners. Most of them were asleep, but Mariam saw each distinctly. One was a boy, his face pale and bloodied. Near him was an older man, plump, his cheeks were hollow and thick white hair fell across his brow.
Ivedik rose presently and went to look at the prisoners. The firelight shown on his face. There was a gleam of savage exultation in those eyes. Of the many men in the Ottoman empire who saw advancement and glory by executing the undesirables for the Young Turks here was a formidable enemy.
Ivedik said a few words to his men and then withdrew into a small tent set apart from the others. The Kurds, who were obviously Hamidiye cavalry, lay down in their blankets, but there were sentinels who walked here and there. The two older women and the young man slowly crept slowly back into the dark.
“What is our best plan, Ashtî-jan?” whispered Hayran, when they could talk.
“We can’t do anything yet but wait and watch and follow. The bush runs along for a mile or two. We can hide until they set off in the morning.”
“But what if they decide that hauling prisoners across the mountains is a waste of their time?” asked Mariam. “What if they shoot them at sun up?”
Ashtî pursed her lips and said grimly, “then we’ll try something different, won’t we?”
They made their way back to where they had left their horses and then rode a mile to the north, remaining among dense bush until dawn.
“Looks like they are cooking breakfast,” said Hayran, as they ate their own cold rations at day break, pointing to a column of smoke rising from Ivedik’s camp.
After a couple of hours smoke drifted away and so the three packed up and followed, stopping on a summit to peer over the long scarp of the mountain. Far ahead could be seen the Ottoman troops and tied to each Hamidiye horse a prisoner hurried along, his bound arms often pulled up roughly over his heads by the ropes.
“They haven’t shot anyone yet,” Hayran observed, “and now we’ll follow and we can see if, with Allah’s mercy, we can help them out.”
“They’ll be coming out of the mountains in two days time,” said Ashtî. “I am sure now that they’re bound for Lake Van. It’s just as well. They’re less likely to be watchful the closer they get to Jevdet Bey.”
The Ottoman division maintained a steady pace all that day and the three friends were forced to follow at some distance. The Ivedik’s strength, as nearly as they could judge, numbered about fifty, with foot soldiers as well as the Kurdish Hamidiye on horseback.
It was only a half hour past noon when Ivedik’s men reached a deep canyon cut by a stream and were forced to travel far to the east looking for a low passage over. The three trackers watched them until they passed down into the canyon and disappeared from sight. Waiting until they were certain that the troops were five or six miles ahead, the they followed.
“We can’t lose them now,” said Hayran. “What goes down in the ground must come up at some point.”
“That is how it normally works,” Ashtî agreed. “Unless they bury themselves for good.”
They found the spot in the canyon wall the troops had used to descend. They rode more briskly through the afternoon and at darkness saw the Turkish camp fires glimmering ahead of them. But the night was not favorable to their plans. The sky was the usual cloudless black-blue of the Caucasus, the moon was at the full and all the stars were out. What they wanted was cloud coverage, anything that would help them advance and at the same time prevent the execution of the prisoners until a little while more.
They made their own camp a full two miles from Ivedik’s and Hayran took the first watch.
Ivedik started early the next morning. The dawn was gray and the breeze at the bottom of the canyon chill. As they rode on, the day remained cold, but the air undoubtedly had a touch of damp to it. Seasons were changing.
“It will rain and I’m sure the night will be dark,” said Hayran. “We may have our chance.”
By noon the troops had found a passage up and out of the canyon. Then they turned their heads back toward the south to retrace all the distance lost with the fording. Near night drops of rain began to fall in their faces and the sun set among clouds. Hayran and Mariam wrapped blankets around their shoulders. Bad weather, Mariam noted while looking at Ashtî, did not seem to bother her much. However she did take a cloth from somewhere in her possessions and wrap up her rifle least the rain spoil her weapon. They tethered their horses among thorn bushes about a mile from Ivedik’s camp and advanced on foot.
They saw the camp fire glimmering feebly through the night. The ground was damp and the clouds rolled down off the mountains, looking like ancient things alive, dragons of night mist. Nevertheless they saw on their right a field which showed a few signs of cultivation.
They surmised that Ivedik had made his camp at the lone abode of some blighted hermit.
As they came to clumps of trees they faced an enclosure bordered by a low stone hut and from its open door a light shone. Ivedik and his officers must have taken refuge there from the rain and cold and, under the boughs of the gnarled fruit trees or beside the fire, they saw the rest of the soldiers sheltering as best they could. Order and discipline was lacking. Men came and went as they pleased. Fully twenty of them were making a shelter of canvas and leaves beside the hut. Others began to build the fire higher in order to fend off the wet and cold.
The prisoners, their hands bound, sat off to one side in the dark. The camp fire made unearthly shadows across their faces which were partly obscured by the chill rain that steadily fell upon them.
Mariam did not see how the chance of rescue was improved, but Ashtî pointed in the dark at a rough shed stood at the edge of the bracken. Gesturing for her friends to follow she made her way deeper into the night.
“What do you think we’d better do?” asked Hayran when they could talk.
“Nothing now, but in an hour or two all these Ottomans will be asleep. Likely as not the sentinels, if they post any, won’t even leave the fire.”
They withdrew deeper into the thicket where they saw the fire die in the Turkish camp. After a while all sounds there ceased and again they crept near. Ivedik’s men, having finished their shelters, were now asleep and of the two sentries their backs were to the dark and they talked softly as they warmed themselves. It was unnaturally dark and the rain fell with steady insistence.
The two sentinels were now some distance from the dark little shed toward which Ashtî was leading her friends and their attention was absorbed in an endeavor to light two cigarettes to soothe and strengthen their spirits as they kept their rainy, useless watch.
The little group had reached the shed and grim joy showing in Ashtî’s face as she pointed. The Ottomans had stacked almost every rifle and pistol they had here where they would be protected from the mountain damp.
“It’s foolish to do things like this when danger is all around,” whispered Hayran. “Whom Allah would destroy He first deprives of sight and reason.”
“If we approach this shed from the rear, the sentinels, even if they look, will not be able to see us,” said Ashtî.
A few trips apiece and all the rifles with their ammunition were carried deep into the scrub. Not a sign had come meanwhile from the two soldiers on the far side of the camp. Mariam once or twice saw the lighted ends of their cigarettes glow like spirits in the dark, but the outlines of the their figures remained by the fire.
“And now for the hard part,” said Ashtî. “Let’s go look at the prisoners.”
The captives were lying under the boughs of some trees about twenty yards from the spot where the fire had been built. The rain beat upon them. As far as Mariam could judge they had gone to sleep.
Ashtî outlined her plan of action, which as always was to the point and simple. She would sit on the edge of the clearing in the dark while Hayran and Mariam went in to free the men and simply shoot every soldier who left the safety of the firelight if the alarm was raised.
“That doesn’t take into account any of the Hamidiye who weren’t fools and still have their rifles with them,” Hayran pointed out.
“That’s true.” Ashtî shrugged. “So let’s not make a lot of noise in that case.”
As Ashtî hunkered in the dark the two slipped forward and approached the dark figures of bound men lying in the rain. Mariam remembered the boy and search for him. As she approached she made out his figure lying in a strained position. She touched him on the shoulder, whispering into his ear;, with one sweep of her knife, released his arms.
“Crawl to the bush there,” instructed Mariam, pointing the way. “Another friend is waiting.”
Without a word the boy began to creep forward, stiff and awkward. Mariam turned to the next prisoner. It was the portly man whom she had seen earlier. He was wide awake, staring intently at her.
“Are you a devil or angel?” he whispered. “Am I dead? Is this salvation?”
“Turn a little to one side and I will cut you free,” Mariam replied by way of answering. She assisted the man to partly rise, but he soon staggered. It was evident that he could not walk.
“Wait a moment,” she whispered and she cut the bonds of another man. “Help your friend there.”
She saw the two going away together and she turned back to the others. She and Hayran worked fast and within five minutes the last man was released. But as they crept back toward the bush someone with a fez caught sight of the figures retreating in the rain. Two rifle shots were fired and from all around there were shouting in Turkish. Mariam and Hayran rose to their feet. Herding the escaped prisoners before them they ran for the thickets.
As the first Ottoman jumped to his feet a burst of rifle fire from the edge of dark cut him down and the troops’ horses and mules, driven into a panic, stampeded into the clearing. Ashtî must have armed several of the escaped prisoners, Mariam thought. Turks and Kurds yelled and tried to keep themselves from being trampled to under foot and hoof. In the firelight she saw Ivedik Bey, fezless, making an attempt to organize his men and see to the nature of their enemy. Soon he too was caught up in the frantic mob of soldiers and animals rushing across the bare side of the mountain.
As soon as they could Mariam and Hayran joined the fugitives by the little shed and when every single man was armed they took the rest and smashed the weapons by breaking them on the rocks. Hayran hurried into the dark and presently came back with their horses. Mariam helped the crippled man upon Old Tigran and the strange party started southward, leaving the bush, the still burning campfire and the bodies of the fallen Turks behind.
It was a slow march and for a long time nothing was said. The sound of the Turkish stampede could still be heard, moving off to the west, but the Armenians and their rescuers walked in silence save for the sound of horses crossing the rocky hills.
Mariam looked curiously at the faces of those whom they had saved, but the night sky had not lightened and she could discern little. They went this way for a full quarter of an hour and finally the noise of the stampede sank away in the south; then Ashtî laughed. It was a laugh of joy, relief and triumph and when it ceased and Ashtî drew a deep breath and spoke her mind: “Well … that seemed to work.”
“Allah certainly worked for us,” said Hayran.
“I can think of no words to describe my gratitude,” said the crippled man on Old Tigran. “We were told by Ivedik that we were Russian traitors and were to be executed. These men,” and he waved his hand at his rescued comrades, “their only crime was they tried to defend their village when the Hamidiya began attacking it. They would kill even this boy, Diradour, simply because of his blood.”
The men on foot were silent, save one with a black eye and walked carefully holding his side, who said, “I was surprised at my farm and told as Kurd der vourar goes I had no right to try and defend my family. But right or wrong,” he added grimly, “they are going to pay for what they did to my wife and daughters.”
Ashtî and Hayran now began to seek a place for a camp. They knew that too much haste would mean exhausting these men who had so little strength as it was. But the mountain was bare of trees that might offer some temporary shelter and the stone was cold and wet with rain. Finally Hayran spied a grove of dwarf oaks and with much exertion the party climbed the steep hillside and found dry ground to sit down and rest.
They could not risk building a fire even though most of the rescued men wore nothing more than rags. Still, no one complained and even the farmer with the broken ribs simply grimaced as he lay down. Mariam sat down near the crippled man who had been helped off her horse and the surprise that she had felt at first her glimpse of him bound to a tree increased.
He appeared asleep but even with closed eyes he looked vaguely familiar as if she had seen a photograph of him once, perhaps in a newspaper when she was in the city of Van. It was impossible to remember but the feeling of surprise stayed with her. His thick gray hair surmounted a broad brow. His clothing, torn and burned by white-hot bayonet blades pressed to his legs and arms, was of fine quality. Unlike the other sun-browned farmers the skin on this one was chubby and pale as if he had spent most his life locked away from sun and sky.
It took a few moments to realize the man was staring back at her. He appeared neither excitable nor resigned, simply curious. When he raised a hand to brush his wet hair away Mariam noted his hands were broad and smooth. Teacher’s hands, she guessed. He then attempted to arrange his legs which lay broken on the cold rocks and it was apparent he was still in a great deal of pain though he had yet to utter a word. Though he must be only a few years older than Mariam herself what with his graying hair and paralyzed legs he looked ancient.
“Do I know you?” Mariam asked.
The man thought this over but did not shrug his shoulders. All did was say, “I do not know. I was traveling from Constantinople to Van when Kurds attacked our wagon. My name is Yarjanian, Atom Yarjanian.”
“I see that you have heard of my name or at least my poetry,” continued the stranger, but without vanity. “Yes, I am a poet from Constantinople, one of many. I was seized by Ivedik while on the way to Van. Everywhere I have traveled in our empire I have found our people being rounded up like animals, our men executed in mass graves, our women raped and marched out into the desert to die. The wastes of Der Zor are scattered with our bones. He knew who I was and he sought to silence all I had seen.”
Hayran, who had been sitting near by, nodded his head.
“Rumor in Van was that the Sultan ordered all Armenian priests and writers and teachers in Constantinople executed.”
“Ah. Yes, in this case rumors did not lie.”
“What about the Holy Father, the Catholicos?” Mariam asked.
Yarjanian shook his head.
“I do not know. I was already caught when I heard news through Ivedik’s spies that all my friends in the capital city were dead.”
Mariam shuddered and walked a little space out of the grove to steady her nerves. She had never deceived herself about the dangers that her people were facing, but it seemed that they would have to fight every kind of atrocity. When she returned she found Hayran and Ashtî spreading a blanket on the ground onto which they helped lay the wounded man who soon fell asleep. After a while others followed.
Morning came, pouring a thin light over the desolate mountainside. Mariam, Hayran and Ashtî were up though some of the rescued men still slumbered. At the suggestion of Ashtî, Mariam mounted Old Tigran and rode up the embankment to a point that offered a view of the surrounding mountains. When she returned she said no matter which way she searched she saw only a lonesome rocky slopes and trees shivering in the wind.
“Then we’ll just take our time. There is no point pushing our new friends past the point of exhaustion,” said Ashtî. “Considering they are already there.”
As she made her way through the knots of sitting men, Mariam saw Mr. Yarjanian awake and able to pull himself to his feet and limp about a little. Now that she saw him in the full daylight Mariam understood why he had appeared so familiar to her the night before. Those brows and eyes belonged to a photo that graced the cover of a book of his verse sold in nearly every Armenian enclave in the Empire. They had a celebrity with them.
As she passed by the older man looked at her and said, “Is it hard to live among such dangers on a daily basis? Why do you not go to Moscow or Paris where life is safe?”
“Paris?” Mariam echoed, as if the word were totally alien to her mind. “Why would I go abroad when my people are here? I belong here with my friends. Those two,” and she nodded at Ashtî and Hayran who were sitting some distance away talking in low voices, “have saved my life more than once and are likely to do so again.”
The Kurd, with her feline broad face and snub nose and almond-shaped eyes, was dressed in travel robes that might not look out of place on a farmer’s wife. Hayran, in contrast, was small and thin and reminded Mariam of the curved knife butchers used to gut animals.
“They are uncommon, no doubt,” said Yarjanian. “Please, if you can, tell me: are they Muslim?”
“Then; here I must admit my own ignorance, why are they fighting for us?”
“Because it is the right thing to do.”
Yarjanian nodded but said no more.
“It’s time to start,” said Ashtî as she stood and faced the small camp.
Yarjanian again mounted one of the horses and the group set off, heading south. The boy, Diradour, appeared fresh and strong after a good night rest. He and Mariam walked side by side for a while.
“How long have you three been friends?” Diradour asked Mariam, looking at Hayran and Ashtî.
“I first met Ashtî when we were both prisoners together in the dungeon of Dalan Gez, near the city of Kars. I’d never have escaped without her. I’ve known Hayran ever since he was this tall,” and she indicated a height near the boy’s shoulders, “back when I was his nurse maid.”
Diradour looked incredulous. He looked at Mariam’s scarred hands and the long rifle on her back.
“You? A nurse maid to that boy?”
“Yes; whole lot more.”
They were compelled to stop at noon for rather a long rest, as walking was tiresome. Mariam went back up onto the ridges to look for pursuers, but announced that she saw none;, after an hour, they started again.
“It would seem that if Ivedik has already organized pursuit he won’t waste the element of surprise by being caught following us,” Ashtî said several hours later. “If I were him I’d wait until night and attack while we sleep.”
“It’s likely that you’re right,” agreed Hayran, “and besides the boy and Mr. Yarjanian everyone here has a rifle. We’ll make it costly for anything that Ivedik might try against us.”
As the afternoon wore on, they began to search for some spot to camp, something that would provide them with a bit of protection them in the dark. Finally they found an old creek bed cut in the rock, five or six feet high and a mile or so up it they came upon a small grove of shrub and thorn that grew near its banks. It was there they made their camp.
That night half the group of men remained on guard while the other half tried to sleep. As Mariam, intending to take a position by the bank of the dry stream bed, passed Yarjanian, the old man regarded her attentively.
“I judge from what Ashtî said that you are expecting an attack?” asked the poet.
“If anyone can second-guess Ivedik it is Ashtî,” replied Mariam.
“Of course, then,” said Yarjanian, “we can use the high sides of the bank to our advantage. The Ottomans can come up it and yet we will be protected by height and dark.”
“Most of the boys Ivedik has brought with him,” Mariam said, “are from the lowlands, farm boys who never been in rocky mountains like this before. Hayran, Ashtî and I were all raised around here and we’re all fighting for something the Ottomans aren’t: survival. Even our poets, like you, are part of the fight, Mr. Yarjanian.”
“I’m afraid I won’t count for much if running around is required,” he said, smiling, “but, if you will kindly give me a rifle I can sit here with my back to this tree and shoot.”
“I think that can be arranged,” Mariam nodded.
Presently she brought him a rifle and bullets. Guards were placed at the edge of the grove and Ashtî and Mariam sat on opposite side of the high bank overlooking the dry bed below. Mariam found a large boulder, blown down off the mountain by some ancient tremor and as there was a comfortable seat on one side where she remained there a long time. The bed itself was about ten feet wide and in the dark she was looking toward the east, about two hundred yards or more down the rocky ground to a point where it curved. The air was full of movement and Mariam began to walk up and down again in order to keep awake. She retraced her steps back to Yarjanian and found the man still sitting with eyes wide open and the rifle across his lap.
“I hear,” he said, “that you have met Jevdet Bey.”
“Met? Yes, more than once. Several times when I was a prisoner in the castle the Turks call Dalan Gez and again when I was recaptured.”
“What do you think of him?”
“To call him an evil man is to underestimate him,” Mariam said, thinking for a moment. “Ottoman promotion is measured in infidel blood, as they say, but as governor Jevdet Bey wants to not just destroy any resistance but wipe all Armenians off the map utterly. What can you say about such a man that doesn’t sound like banality?”
Yarjanian looked away and interlaced his fingers thoughtfully.
“I do not know,” he said finally. “Is this a new breed of man who revels in barbarous action? Or is this an old breed, a race traced down from Cain who lives among us but we insist does not exist? My friends and I would argue late into the night on the nature of evil. How could such a thing even be defined since it is always possible, no matter what atrocity a person can dream up, to go one further by being even more atrocious, to the point such terms as ‘evil’ loses all meaning?”
“But that doesn’t take into consideration what is happening around us now,” Mairam said, shrugging. “The Ottomans have always been a combination of greatness and vanity and corruption. That is the building blocks of the Sultans’ reigns.”
“And don’t forget paranoid, too,” the poet nodded, “the sad irony is that all my friends who could not come to an agreement as to the nature of evil are now dead, executed, even while we argued.” Yarjanian lifted the rifle, put its stock to his shoulder and drew a bead in the dark. “I do not think I shall make that mistake. Evil is evil because I say it is and I think I could hit a man like Jevdet Bey at forty or fifty yards in this good moonlight and believe I am still doing good in this world.”
He replaced the rifle across his knees and sighed.
Mariam nodded and moved away. She sat on her rock and kept her eyes on the deep shadows. The rocks were dark and still in the night but it seemed to her that they were darker than they had been before. Mariam could feel her scalp tingle. She looked attentively and saw figures moving in the dry river bed, keeping close against the sides. She waited only a moment longer to assure herself that the dark moving line was not some trick of the moonlight. She could not see faces or uniforms but she had no doubt that these were Ivedik’s Hamidiya. Taking up her rifle, she found the foremost shape in her sights and fired.
“Down by the gulch! Ivedik is here!”
A volley of bullets came from the shadows but with nothing to aim at fell far to one side or the other. In an instant Ashtî, Hayran, Diradour and two of the farmers were by Mariam’s side.
“So they thought they could sneak around the grove in the dark and come down upon us with our backs turned?” Ashtî murmured. “We’ll pick them off as they run, they’ve trapped themselves down there.”
The rifle shot flashed and the dark line in the creek bed now broke into a frantic rush. Three Hamidiya fell in the first burst of gunfire, but the rest ran, tripping and stumbling through the sand and rocks, until they turned the curve.
Even as the small company began to reload they could hear shots and someone screaming in pain in the dark. Ashtî, calling to the others, hurried to the other side of the grove, where they were confronted by a second attack, led by Ivedik himself. Here Kurds on horseback charged directly at the Armenians, but they were met by a broadside which knocked more than two from their saddles.
Much of the charge was a blur to Mariam, a smudge of fire and smoke, of beating hoofs and of cries of pain. Glancing around her she saw Yarjanian sitting with his back against a tree calmly firing a rifle
at the invaders. The poet had time for only two shots, but when he reloaded the second time he placed the rifle across his knees as before and smiled.
As the Ottoman troops turned in their charge Mariam saw a figure waving a sword and urging his men on. Mariam fired but could not tell if her bullet found its target in the dark. The next moment the horseman was lost in the shadows. Turning, she saw second assault charge up the dry gulch but the quickness of Hayran and several of the men who had been sleeping defeated their aim, leaving several soldiers to bleed and die in the dark along side the bodies of their earlier companions.
When this charge was driven back and the horses were silenced Ashtî and Hayran combed rocks and grove, in case any Ottoman sharpshooter should lie hidden among the rocks.
Nobody slept any more that night. Mariam, Diradour and Ashtî kept a sharp watch upon the bed of the creek, the moon and stars aiding them. But Ivedik did not venture again by that perilous path, although toward an hour or so before morning his men opened a scattering fire in the gloom from below at the base of the mountain, many of their bullets whistling at random among the rocks. Some of the Armenians, crawling to the edge of the grove, replied, but they seemed to have little effect, as the Ottoman Turks lay hidden behind a ridge. The attackers soon grew tired and after a while silence settled once again.
Three of the Armenians had suffered slight wounds, but Hayran bound them up skillfully. Mariam saw that several of the men had, on their own initiative, been rolling all the fallen rocks that they could move to the edge of the clearing to form a more natural defense. The rough work and in their exhausted state they were only able to turn over half a dozen. Once that was over they lay down and slept.
Mariam and Ashtî could not sleep, though. They went to to the edge of the gulch and together watched the dawn. They saw the dim sun rise over the mountain ridges and the dew sparkle for a little while on the clumps of scrub and rock. They saw nothing but the empty mountain side. But the three friends discerned six bodies lying on the sand down the bed of the creek and they knew that they were the men who had fallen during the night. With the three shot from their saddles in Ivedik’s charge and the two that Yarjanian shot there were eleven less Ottoman soldiers in the world to bother them as they made their escape. Perhaps more, depending on the wounded and what little medical assistance Ivedik had to offer.
At the suggestion of Ashtî they lit a fire and were able to warm the last of the food and coffee they had among the group, thus putting heart into all the defenders. Then Ashtî sent Mariam out for a little scouting work on horseback. Mariam found Old Tigran seeking blades of grass within the limits allowed by his lariat.
Mariam rode boldly out of the scrub and advanced a short distance upon the mountainside. Two or three shots were fired from a point behind the first ridge but the bullets fell short.
“Count on them wasting many of their bullets on you,” Ashtî said to her. “If an Ottoman is given a gun it’s mighty hard for him to keep from firing it. All we want to do is to uncover their position. Don’t be a hero, Mariam-jan.”
Mariam sat on her horse and looked at the world around her. Presently a man on horseback, waving a large white handkerchief, appeared on the crest of the ridge and rode toward her. Mariam raised one eyebrow upon seeing it was Ivedik Bey himself. He looked rested and amiability, rode with confidence and saluted Armenian woman in a light easy fashion.
Mariam simply stared and waited gravely.
“We can be polite, woman, even if we are enemies,” said Ivedik in Turkish.
“I have no friendship with butchers,” growled Mariam.
“I am only a minor servant of the Young Turks and serve my fatherland in the way I think best,” said Ivedik, “and you must remember that in our view you are a rebel and traitor.”
“Since when have mothers and children and grandfathers been considered rebels? Since when has a couple of heated young men in Constantinople warranted the rape and murder of every Armenian in Anatolia?”
Ivedik flushed all the way up to his rakish fez.
“We will not argue the point any further,” he said dismissively, “but come at once to the business before us. First, I will admit several things. Your rescue of the prisoners was very clever. Also you beat us off last night, but I now have a hundred men with me and we have plenty of weapons. We are bound to take you sooner or later.”
“Then why talk to us about it?” said Mariam.
“Because I wish to save bloodshed.”
Mariam made a noise half way between a laugh and a snort.
“Really? The mighty Ivedik Bey, Butcher of Kars, wants to avoid shedding Armenian blood?”
“Yes, give us the man, Yarjanian; the rest of you can go free.”
“Why are you so anxious to have Yarjanian?”
Mariam awaited the answer. It was obvious that Yarjanian had rather minimized his own importance. Ivedik flicked the mane of his chestnut mustang with a small whip and replied: “Our Governor and General, the illustrious Jevdet Bey, is extremely anxious to see him. Secrets of state are not for me. I merely follow my orders.”
“Then you take this from me,” said Mariam, “my comrades and I do not buy our lives at the price of another’s.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so. How can any Armenian trust the word of either you or your Jevdet Bey? Within days you’d be on our trail again, trying to wipe us off the face of the map.”
Ivedik flushed again.
“I shall not notice your insults, woman.” he said. “They are beneath me. I am an Ottoman officer and you are merely a goat herder at best. In war one cannot choose his enemies. I make you the proposition once more. Give us Yarjanian and go. If you do not accept we shall nevertheless take him and hang your bodies from the cliff for the vultures to eat. Remember that you are rebels and Russian traitors and that you will certainly be shot or strung up.”
“I don’t remember any of those things,” said Mariam grimly. “What I do remember is that we were citizens just like everyone else until you decided it would be easier to blame each blunder the Young Turks committed against your own people. And we were loyal, the most loyal of millet. Now look where that got us. But if you want to hang me you first got to catch me and if you want to shoot me you first got to hit me. That is something no Turk or Kurd seems capable of doing, despite all your bragging. And with that I reckon we’ll bid you good day, Ivedik Bey.”
When Mariam returned to the grove she found that Yarjanian was able to stand, leaning against a tree.
“May I ask the result of your conference?” he inquired.
“There’s no secret,” replied Mariam, “Ivedik said that all of us could go if we would give up you.”
“And your answer?”
Mariam leaned forward a little on her horse.
“You know something about the Young Turks, don’t you, Mr. Yarjanian?”
“I have recently had an opportunity to observe and study them, yes.”
“As long as they have a rifle and the strength to aim they will continue to hunt us down,” Hayran said.
“I tend to agree with that assessment, my friend,” the older man replied.
“Nonetheless,” said Ashtî. “We can’t stay where we are. We must find a way of getting off this side of the mountain.”
As the hours passed all was quiet. It was warmer than usual and bright with sunshine. The Ottoman Turks appeared on some of the knolls, far enough away to be out of rifle shot.
“Ivedik must be thinking he has all the time in the world,” said Mariam to Diradour as the two of them stood on the edge of the grove.
“Do you think they will attacks us again?” asked the boy anxiously.
“I don’t plan to be around here tonight to find out. Do you notice, Diradour-jan, that it’s beginning to cloud up again? I think we’re going to have a dark night and it’s given me an idea,” Mariam said.
“What is it?”
Mariam smiled and said, “Just wait, dear; find out. It all depends upon what kind of night we have.”
The clouds came heavy and sun did not return. All that afternoon Mariam, Hayran and Ashtî talked together, looking frequently at the skies. Later that day they entered the dry creek bed and examined it critically. Night fell. At nine o’clock the group stood and began leading the horses up the side of the mountain, toward a cut that would double back and lead them to the gulch’s floor. It would take them at least an hour of hiking and another hour traveling back down the path they had just gone. But there was no moon and Ashtî did not believe that the Turks or Kurds, no doubt on all sides of the canyon, would venture down into it owing to their embarrassing defeat the night before. The greatest difficulty would be with the horses. Mariam, holding the reigns of Old Tigran, led the way.
The poet found he could keep a slow pace at the back of the group, his beaten legs shuffling along and supporting his weight. Their journey met with no resistance and at the cut Old Tigran made the descent without slipping and in a few minutes the entire party stood upon the sand.
“Now Mr. Yarjanian,” whispered Ashtî to the poet, “you need to get on Mariam’s horse and we’ll be off.”
Yarjanian sighed but mounted in silence. Then they moved slowly over the soft sand. Ashtî and Hayran led and Mariam took the rear. They went very slowly in order to keep the horses’ feet from making any sound that listening Hamidiya might hear.
It was odd to Mariam that the world was so quiet. She had suspected the soldiers would have by this time discovered the grove was empty but apparently Ivedik had yet to send any snipers or sharpshooters in to pick off a stray Armenian. A careless footstep or a snort or stumble by one of the horses might bring the whole Ottoman army down upon them at any moment. It was impossible to know where they were, up on the lip of the canyon or a hundred miles away, as they made their way along the dry river bed.
As they passed the place the grove stood Mariam felt a prickling along her scalp. So far there had been no noise from the men nor did any horse stumble. As the silent procession moved on Ashtî suddenly raised a warning hand as she neared the curve in the bed of the creek.
Ivedik Bey had surrounded the grove completely. His men were on both sides of the canyon but kept their distance in the shadows, having developed a healthy respect for the Armenian rifles. Having no choice but pushing on the small group made its way until they passed the curve of the cliff and increased their speed slightly.
Looking up Mariam could see the dim shape of a sharpshooter sitting near the edge of the canyon, rifle held loosely in his hands, his head turning in every direction save down. The Armenians were now a full four hundred yards from the grove.
By her side she could feel the boy Diradour whimpering slightly in the dark. She reached out her hand and found his and squeezed it. When they were a full mile from the grove she bent her head and whispered in his ear, “We’ve made it.”
“I hope they don’t discover we are missing for a while,” whispered Diradour as a reply.
“Of course,” Mariam smiled, “I don’t want to die in battle just now or get executed for being a Russian spy.”
As they pushed forward the walls of the canyon decreased in height. Finally, when it became apparent that the canyon offered no more protection, Ashtî called a halt and they listened. They heard no sound but the faint moaning of the wind among the rocks.
“Perhaps we escaped, perhaps the Ottomans know exactly what we’re doing, I can’t tell. Anyone who isn’t anxious to be a running target stay here and take their chances. But one thing is for certain, as soon as Ivedik realizes we slipped past him he’ll send his Hamidiya after us and then we’ll have a real race to see who can make it to Lake Van first.”
Ashtî turned and began walking out into the open and all the others followed. Now men and horses made some noise but having put almost two miles between themselves and the grove they simply hoped their sounds would not travel far. In fact, Ashtî urged them to greater speed, careless of the sounds; they kept the pace for another full mile. By that time they had quit the dry stream bed and stood for a little while at the base of the mountain, resting and looking about. They were in a long valley snaking its way between the cliffs. What surrounded them none could say, the moon still lay hidden in the clouds. Then, as soon as the could, they began to push across the flat land, heading toward the city on the edge of the lake called Van.
They left the canyon behind and the small group of Armenians made their way across the empty valley floor. They walked slowly, making frequent stops to listen for pursuers. Their pace became slower and slower and presently the late twilight of spring was coming. A wind moaned and they made their way across the desolate plain to a distant clump of trees that, hopefully, signaled water.
“Van is on the other side of these mountains,” Ashtî said, “if we are lucky we’ll get there tomorrow. We’ll sheltered here and we’d better wait a while while everyone rests up.”
Agreeing to this plan the company relaxed, stretching and easing weary muscles. Old Tigran and the other horses hunted for grass. They remained several hours among the trees. Dawn would be with them soon in the east but as they sat Mariam noticed a scarlet flush under the southwestern peaks which was not a part of the night nor of the new day. Ashtî noted it as well and her face darkened. She turned to the small group.
“You see it, don’t you Hayran-jan? What do you think it is?”
The young man looked back at his friends for a moment and then said said in a small voice, “Camp fires, I think. Fires that come from a massive army.”
The dawn came and the small group of survivors rested in the shadows of the valley. The day progressed slowly but the Armenians saw neither sign of Ivedik the Young Turk nor his Kurdish horsemen. When dusk fell Mariam approached her two friends.
“How far off would you say that light is, Ashtî?” asked Hayran.
“Where? Down by the lake?”
“That’s my thinking. Perhaps in an hour or so the three of us can ride and see.”
“It looks like another dark night. What about Ivedik? Won’t he be taking the same route we are?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Ashtî replied. “If I were him I would rejoin the main army. For all his talk of recapturing the esteemed Mr. Atom Yarjanian I suspect that he’d rather not have another fiasco like last night, being so close to his master, Jevdet Bey.”
The night deepened and many of the stars the night before were now hidden by floating wisps of cloud. The increased darkness, though, only made the scarlet glow over the peaks intensify. Soon the whole horizon, it seemed, was awash in flame.
“That army gets bigger and bigger as the night goes on,” Hayran joked, as the three mounted their horses and rode cautiously toward the light. It had been agreed upon that the farmers and the poet Yarjanian, as well as the boy, Diradour, would stay behind. Most of the men were still exhausted from their flight and with only three horses it seemed pointless to take extra bodies along on their scouting mission that would slow them down and draw attention.
The Caucasus landscape rolled away in swells and dips for the most part. The valley was flat and the red glow was always in sight, deepening fast as they advanced. Finally they came to where the mountains opened and the whole of Lake Van spread out before them. They stopped at last on a little hill. It would take some time for an army of that size to make its way to the city, which shown in the far distance as fireflies on the edge of the lake.
They saw fires spread before them, a giant curve that stretched a mile in either direction though the nearest campfire was only four or five hundred yards away. They listened to the confused murmur of thousands of men at ease and now and then the musical cry of a wooden flute or stringed instrument came to them. They began counting the dark outlines of cannons in the firelight but soon stopped. It was impossible to guess how much weaponry sat in the dark.
“This is the same army that lay siege on Kars and slaughtered thousands of my people,” Mariam stated in a whisper. “There is only one reason why they are heading to Van. Now that the Tzar’s army has retreated back to St. Petersburg there is no power in all of Europe strong enough to break the Sultan’s advance.”
Ashtî said nothing but Hayran nodded in the dark and added: “The Armenians in Van have no idea the kind of strength that is about to be unleashed upon them.”
Finally Ashtî spoke her mind with a shake of her head: “I do not know how we could even begin to form a defense. The men of Van are content to squabble and argue. Some even think the Sultan will spare them if they expose those among their own people trying to mount a resistance.”
“Don’t you think,” said Mariam, “that we ought to find out just exactly what we are dealing with?”
“You mean simply walk into camp and pretend we’re part of the army?” Hayran asked and Ashtî nodded in agreement.
They rode to a group of trees they had passed leaving the valley. Mariam was quite confident that Old Tigran and the others would remain there, hunting for sparse grass, until their return.
They agreed Mariam would go her own way, while Ashtî would take Hayran with her, posing as her son. An army of this size was sure to be full of “camp followers,” a small army themselves of Dhimmi women — Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks — bound into servitude, doing everything from emptying latrine buckets to acting as the officers’ personal harem. An older Kurdish woman and her son would not stick out and if Mariam was able she could pass unnoticed in the shadows, listening and watching. They agreed to meet back at the trees an hour before sunrise.
The three parted and Mariam turned away to the right. After a hundred yards or so she suddenly found herself stopped by small fissure in the ground, five or six feet wide, with deep walls. She looked about, her friends had already disappeared and before her glowed the red light and the distant sound of voices. She was well armed under her robes and with her knowledge of various dialects of Turkish Mariam believed that she could sit in the dark and listen to what was being said.
The fissure led straight down toward the edge of the lake upon which the Ottomans were encamped and when she emerged from it she was surrounded by scores of camp fires and thousands and thousands of men. Sentries were posted here and there but they kept little watch within the massive army. Why should they? They knew of no foe other than a couple of Kurdish tribes that had sided with the Tzar when the war broke out and they were hundreds and hundreds of miles away.
Mariam’s heart sank as she beheld the extent of the Ottoman arrangement. The little band of Armenians left in the valley, the Armenians in the city of Van, in fact even if they gathered every last man, woman and child in the entire region, could be no match for such an army as this.
Nevertheless, the only way her people in Van would believe and prepare for such a battle facing them was if she brought detailed accounts of their strength and numbers. She pulled the edges of her robe closer to her and walked forward to sit in the dark just outside the nearest campfire. From there she was just one more aimless spot of darkness in a night full of shifting shadows.
The men that sat near Mariam were from the far south — small and lean and rather bedraggled in the cold mountain night. Though it was late most remained awake with little to do but stare into the flames. One had brought out a little wooden flute and would play a rough tune and then sing snatches of a child’s fairy tale about a dreadful ghost all clad in red who would visit the guilty as they slept. It seemed an odd choice to sing on the eve of a major assault upon one of their own cities.
Mariam sat and listened. No one said much. An air of fatigue hung over the campfire.
Two other men, smoking their own Murad cigarettes, listened dog-tiredly but attentively. Mariam imitated them, felt the influence of the music, so scared and remorseful, speak of the crimes war brings. It was hard to look at these beaten men and see anything of the monstrous spirit that had laid the city of Kars to waste. In fact, take away their tattered uniforms and these might be goat herders found anywhere in Anatolia. Their uniforms and rifles and ever present Murad cigarettes spoiled the image for her, though.
Around her Mariam studied the figures that passed back and forth between the tents. She noticed the signs of nervous bustle and expectancy about the camp, as if waiting for some prearranged sign. In the darkness no one seemed to have noticed an extra figure has joined the circle. The men close to her rested their heads upon pillows made of their packs and blankets. Mariam remained invisible.
“Wala, we had a hard march,” someone finally said, using a Kurdish term, as if agreeing to a conversation she had not been privy to.
“It was,” said the man next on her right. “By the Prophet’s beard, they have been driving us forward, haven’t they, Yajub?”
Yajub, the man with the flute who had been singing, replied in the affirmative: “You speak the great truth, Kylych. For hundreds of miles we have tramped in our bare feet, across mountains, after such a defeat at Tabriz. And for weeks ice and the snow beating in our faces. How I shivered, Kylych! I thought I should never feel the sun again.”
The others nodded and seemed to Mariam to move a little closer to the fire, driven by the memory of the icy trek.
“Wala,” the first man replied to this. “Poor Anshargal, freezing to death even as we marched. There is no honor for a man to die like that. Left behind in the mountains, with that look on his face.”
“And so many of us coming down with typhus,” another voice broke in. “Poor Hafiz Hakki, coughing up so much blood.”
“But it was the will of the great Jevdet Bey that we push on,” said Kylych. “They say that his wrath was terrible when he heard how the Armenian bandits and traitors had taken up arms in Kars. Truly, I am glad that I was not one of his officers he shot for being sons of a mangy dog. I think it is sometimes better to be a foot soldier die honorably than to have command and be shot for foolishness.”
Men in the dark all nodded in agreement.
“Wala, the great Jevdet Bey will finish what the Tzar has started,” the first man put in. “He has defeated all the enemies of the Young Turks and now he advances to crush these insolent and miserable Armenians. As I have said, he will finish it. The Ottoman’s sword will be busy. In six months there will be no Armenians left in the entire empire.”
Mariam shivered in the dark as she looked around at the camp fires of the great army. Kylych’s eyes flashed. He had excited himself by his own tale of the coming slaughter. It was that strain of cruelty she could not understand. It crossed all nations and lay in the hearts of so many people. It seemed to be a primal part of the human condition.
“We are the greatest army in the world,” a younger voice piped in.
Some of the older veterans made coughing noises but no one commented on the observation.
“Everyone of us who dies in battle is a martyr,” said Yajub proudly, “We will take ten times the numbers of the Armenians in Van than we did in Kars. They are only farmers and bandits and sell their honor cheap to that bastard the Tzar.”
“And we have the tricksy Kurd on our side,” the young voice added.
“Ah yes, the Kurds. I can never imagine a better comrade. For being savages they serve the Young Turks well.”
“Hush, some of them are true Believers, it is not right you talk of them as such.”
“Wala, he speaks the truth. I have marched with them and witnessed them in battle. They have an apatite for savagery I have never seen before. It is good they are our friends, I would not like to think what would happen if we ever betrayed them.”
As they spoke men came and went from the fire. At one point a fellow foot soldier sat down and asked, “Have you heard when we march?”
“As soon as the great Jevdet Bey arrives, no doubt,” said Yajub.
Mariam’s heart gave a leap. So Jevdet Bey himself would be arriving. Now she was very glad that she had entered the Ottoman camp. She stood up in the dark and and sauntered off. It was easy enough for her to do so without attracting attention, what with her robes about her and her rifle on her shoulder she blurred into the background like so many of the others doing the same thing. Discipline seldom amounted to much in the Ottoman army and so confident were both officer and soldier alike of an overwhelming victory that they preserved scarcely any at all. Yet the under the expectant feeling that pervaded the whole camp was another, a more somber mood. It was, Mariam realized, fear.
But what did these soldiers have to fear? Jevdet Bey was the greatest man in the world to them. He had triumphed over everything set against him. He was the Horseshoe Master, after all; showed no mercy to those he felt beneath him. Mariam felt more than once a little shiver at his name. These were just men around her, undependable and error-prone like every other man she had ever known, regardless of which gods they worshiped. But Jevdet Bey was something more. He was a symbol of Ottoman will and might and everyone who benefited from his campaign of terror and rape and slaughter would see him in a holy light and everyone who suffered would recognize a devil.
Mariam walked on, from fire to fire, until hers attention was arrested suddenly by one at which only officers sat. It was not so much the group sitting and talking in hushed tones as it was one among them who drew hers attention. Ivedik Bey sat on the far side of the fire, every feature thrown into clear relief by the bright flames. The other officers were sitting close together, watching one of their number spin a clay top upon a flat rock. In contrast to the rest of the camp they were evidently in high good humor, as they laughed low but frequently.
Mariam sat down just within the shadow of a tent wall, drew hers robes higher about her face and rested her head upon hers arm. She would be one more sleeping shade of night to an ordinary observer, but she was near enough to hear what Ivedik and his friends were saying.
“You lose, Muwakkil,” said one of the men as the top evidently had fallen off the stone. “What was it that you were saying about the Bey?”
“That I expect an early advance, Raaghib,” replied the one called Muwakkil, “a brief campaign and a complete victory. I hate these Armenians. I shall be glad to see them exterminated.”
The young officer whom he called Raaghib laughed.
“Don’t hold back, my friend.”
Ivedik Bey turned and stared at the lounging officers, saying darkly: “A lowly race, beneath our dignity to even recognize. All they do is spin tall tales about our Sultan’s generous love.”
“If what I hear be true, Ivedik,” Muwakkil said, “you have cause to hate them. Imagining, having a whole handful of ripe Armenians in your hand and a sly fox comes and steals them all away as you sleep.”
Ivedik flushed but controlled his temper.
“Yes, yes, Allah bless our poor Ivedik,” another chimed in. “And stolen by the very fox you failed to kill in Kars. That must hurt, especially an Armenian female fox locked up in your very own private dungeon.”
“It is true, Qasim,” Ivedik replied, gritting his teeth. “Those …” and he paused as if the words hurt his mouth to say, “women are clever. I hate them.”
“Allah blesses only the faithful, Ivedik,” said the man called Qasim, “but they are nothing. Women are women. Men look for conquest with honor, like Van. There are thousands of Armenian women there and then you can have all the revenge you wish.”
“I count upon it, Qasim,” Ivedik said, smiling. “The only thing that galls me is the loss of that rat Yarjanian. Imagine, a French journalist trying to say he was on holiday, heading to Van. Who would believe such a lie? No, I know of no one who would go to Van on holiday. Yarjanian is a spy, a French spy for the Tzar, reporting on our movement. Jevdet Bey himself said he’d rather have Yarjanian than a thousand Armenian prisoners.”
“Which is good,” Muwakkil said. “When we are done I doubt there be even that many Armenians in the whole empire left alive.”
The small group laughed, a laugh that made Mariam, lying in the shadow, shiver all over. The attention of Ivedik and his comrades soon became absorbed in the clay top once again. Mariam could hear the gravelly noise of clay on stone and the sharp little sound began to rankle her nerves. Mariam rose by and by and walked on. What were they to do? The Armenians of Van were so few and poor. The Ottoman Turks were limitless and they had the resources of an empire more than seven centuries old.
Presently officers threw down cards and dice. Men straightened their uniforms and Raaghib and Muwakkil began to form companies into lines. More fuel was thrown on the fires, which sprang up, suffusing all the night with color-shadows and bright pockets of darkness. In the excitement of the moment Mariam wondered about Ashtî and Hayran and what they were witnessing.
A thrill seemed to run through the whole Ottoman force. Their leader, a godhead, was coming to teach the Armenians a lesson once and for all. Was not the will of the Young Turks? to purge the lands of non-believers and bring dawn out of the dark into the light?
The torches grew brighter. The Ottoman lines became silent save for a deep murmur. In the dark they heard the rapid beat of hoofs and then Jevdet Bey appeared, galloping at the head of fifty Kurdish horsemen. Many of the younger officers called for order in the ranks though no one had moved. Others held up torches and the Governor rode in on a blaze of flame and smoke.
Mariam looked once more upon that audacious and cruel face. In the saddle he was an imposing figure. His eyes were blazing with triumph as he passed down rank after rank of soldiers. Leo Tolstoy’s Napoleon might have looked this way on the night before Austerlitz, Mariam thought. But the comparison ended with the eyes, Jevdet Bey would never be a Napoleon of the Islamic world regardless of how many cities he sacked and how many people he put to sword and flame. And yet here he was, the gold braid on his uniform and gorgeous fez reflected in the firelight.
A mighty cheer from thousands of throats ran along the Ottoman line. Jevdet Bey lifted his hand and nodded three times in salute. Again the Ottoman cheer rolled to right and to left. Jevdet, still sitting on his horse, spread out his hands. The army fell silent.
“My İttihad-ı Osmanî Cemiyeti soldiers,” he cried. “I have come to sweep away these miserable Armenians who have dared to raise the rebel flag against us. We will punish them all and make their women feel our justice. When we finish our march over the empire it shall be as if a great fire had passed cleansing the world of the non-believer. I am Jevdet Bey. I have spoken.”
The thunderous cheer broke forth again. A young officer rushed forward and held his stirrup as the Governor dismounted. Then the generals, including those who had come with him, crowded around. It was a brilliant company and even in the shadows Mariam was able to recognize many faces: Zafar, Abdul-Qahaar, Rustam, Garsiyya, Tayyib, Nangishlishma and, standing off by himself, a man dressed in the uniform of the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte, the Imperial German Air Service. This was Hans-Joachim Buddecke, a German officer who had been lent to the Young Turks in their organization of army against the Tzar.
Mariam watched them as they talked together and occasionally the crowd parted enough for her to see Jevdet Bey, who laughed and gestured with zest. The foot soldiers had been drawn away by the junior officers and were now dispersing back to their places by the fires. Here and there a Kurdish Raider sat, seemingly obvious to the racket around him.
Jevdet Bey went presently to a great pavilion that had been prepared for him, while the other generals retired elsewhere into the night. Soon the camp quickly sank into silence. Mariam sat in the dark and
watched the camp fires die slowly. Most of the men were asleep now, their figures were growing indistinct in the shadows. Rising, Mariam crept forward, very little escaped hers notice. She went along the entire Ottoman line and then back again and she saw that their original estimate of 10,000 for the Ottoman army was too few. The number was twice that, perhaps more. She saw many cannons and the horses for a great cavalry force.
On her last trip along the line Mariam began to look for Ashtî and Hayran, but she saw no shadows resembling theirs and hoped that they were safely away, back at where they left their horses waiting for her return. Suddenly, striding out of the darkness, Mariam was nearly trampled upon by roiled figure of Ivedik Bey himself.
The Ottoman captain was not lacking in vigilance and forcefulness and even at that late hour he was seeing that all was well in the camp of Jevdet Bey. Mariam was truly thankful now that Islamic custom permitted her to cover hers face with hers robes and veils.
“Harlot! Camp woman! why are you walking here?” demanded Ivedik.
“I’ve just come from the tent of General Garsiyya,” replied Mariam, having heard the commander of the artillery’s boasting apatite for women. Mariam’s tone was courteous and apologetic and she hoped Ivedik would be satisfied with an impatient word or two but he was in a most vicious temper. Perhaps he had been rebuked by Jevdet Bey for allowing the escape of Atom Yarjanian.
“Why don’t you speak up?” the irritable man exclaimed. “Why do you mumble your words, stupid woman!”
When Mariam simply bobbed her head in what she hoped would be seen as submission Ivedik’s face flushed. He carried in his hand a small riding whip, which he switched occasionally across the tops of his tall, military boots.
“Bawd! Cyprian!” he cried. “You hear me!”
Suddenly the Turk lashed Mariam across the face with the riding whip. The blow fell on her robes but the viciousness of it caught her by surprise and she leaped upon the astonished officer, wrenching the
whip from his hands, slashed him across the cheeks with it until the blood ran in streams, then broke it in two and threw the pieces in his face. Mariam’s veils fell away. Ivedik had clasped his hands to his cheeks that ran red with his own blood and in shock cried out, recognizing the woman.
The sharp exclamation brought Mariam back to the danger she was in. Already Ottoman soldiers were stirring. Dropping the pieces of the whip she stumbled backwards into the dark.
Blinded by his own blood, Ivedik had drawn a pistol and was shouting Turkish oaths. The soldiers, some of them just awakened from sleep, dazed, had gathered in a huddle, unable to fathom what their officer was shouting about. More Turks were gathering and there was great confusion. Everybody was asking what was the matter. By the time Ivedik Bey was on his feet Mariam was gone.
In the dark she worked her way steadily toward the canyon and soon she left behind her the lights and the noise. Passing beyond the Ottoman lines, she entered the cut in the earth down which she had
come. She was exhausted and her heart was beating heavily. She thought of Ashtî and Hayran, but she could do nothing for them. She must trust to meeting them again at the place appointed.
Mariam looked at the Ottoman camp. The fires had burned up again there for a minute or two, but as she looked they sank once more. The noise also decreased. Evidently they were giving up the pursuit.
Mariam rose and walked slowly up the canyon. She became aware that the night was cold and she pulled her robes tighter around her. She stopped at intervals to search the darkness with hers eyes and to listen for noises, but she saw nothing but the faint glow on the southern horizon that marked the Ottoman camp where she had met her enemy.
Hurrying forward she made her way to where the three of them had left their horses. Old Tigran seemed happy to she her with a soft whinny. She waited a full half hour until first Ashtî and then Hayran rejoined the group.
“It will soon be day,” Ashtî said. “We’d better clear out. We can tell about what we’ve seen and done when we’re two or three miles away.”
They were in the saddle at once, rode swiftly northward, none of them speaking for a half hour. When a faint tinge of gray appeared on the eastern rim of the world Ashtî said: “My story is short and to the point. I spent most the night sitting behind a canon. The fires were too bright and men too close to go anywhere without being seen. I have counted thousands of troops, though. Whatever the Ottomans plan it is going to be violent and bloody.”
“I got into the camp,” said Hayran, after a minute of silence, “I hung around; I saw just what Ashtî saw, no more and no less. It was long, but it’s a long watch that didn’t tell me as much as we already knew.”
“Well, as for myself” said Mariam, after another wait of a minute, “I was able to go about in the Ottoman camp without any notice being taken of me. I saw Jevdet Bey arrive to make a pretty speech.”
“Jevdet Bey is here?” exclaimed Ashtî.
“Yes, Jevdet Bey is here. And I met our old friend Ivedik. He mistook me for a working girl and tried to give me a whipping for being a woman.”
Ashtî and Hayran had turned in their saddles to stare at their friend aghast.
“And what did you do?” exclaimed Hayran.
“Oh, I took the whip away from him and lashed his face with it until I was recognized but in the turmoil and confusion I escaped.”
As they headed back up the valley they made plans. Every one of the three knew that the need was great. They knew how divided counsels had scattered the Armenians of Van and with it any hope of gathering together an army of partisans. Messengers would have to be sent with the news that Jevdet Bey was advancing with an immense force with plans to burn the city to the ground.
“What do you see?” Ashtî asked her friend.
Mariam peered up the side of the mountain they were ascending. The road was narrow, cut into the rock and zigzagged back and forth as it climbed. She remained quiet for a moment, squinting up at the clouds.
“Do you see that black speck there, up on the saddle where the two peaks come together?” she asked. “If you’ll watch it you’ll see that it’s moving. And look! There’s another! and another! and another!”
Ashtî and Hayran now saw the black specks as well, high up where the road disappeared into the hidden valley they were making for. The three stopped on the crest of a swell and watched them attentively.
“One … two … seven … eight … twelve … thirteen …” Mariam mused, counting to herself.
“Now who do you suppose they are?” Hayran said.
“Not Kurds, riding like that in the open for anyone with eyes to see,” Ashtî replied.
“Some of Ivedik’s men late for the party?” Hayran suggested.
“I’ve an idea that those are not Turks. They look too big and tall and they sit too straight up in their saddles for Turks.”
“We’ll soon see,” said Ashtî and urged her horse forward.
The rode in silence for another half an hour, climbing steadily all the while. Soon there could be no further doubt that the thirteen were foreigners. They were not in uniform but rode as cavalry officers ride, with authority and self-assurance. They were mounted on large horses. One rode a little ahead of the others who moved in an even single file. He was tall and thin, his hair wavy and black like an Armenian’s. His features were angular and tanned by winds and storms and across his shoulder lay a rifle with a barrel of unusual length.
As the drew near the rider in front held up a hand as a sign of cordiality.
The man spoke with a deep Russian accent, using the Armenian word for friend. This brought the three women up short.
“What in the world are they doing here?” Mariam heard Ashtî ask herself but said no more.
“We have traveled through these mountains for two weeks and run across many Kurds and their guns but so far they have all been men and horses. Here we have three horses, but you appear to be women, dressed for war. no less.”
No one replied so the rider spoken on.
“Would you three be Armenian?”
“One of us is,” Ashtî replied curtly. “But if I were a betting woman I would wager you are neither a Turk like me nor a Kurd like my friend here which would make you Russian, an officer in the Tzar’s army, are you not?”
“Some of us are Russian by choice, we are all Armenian by birth and … no, none of us here are any longer in the pay of the Tzar.”
“Is that so?” said Ashtî.
“News, I find, travels slower in these parts than elsewhere. Have you not heard of the civil war that is breaking out in Saint Petersberg?”
The three women look at each other, amazed.
“Yes, there are factions within the empire that wish to topple the Tzar. Permit me to introduce myself, I am Colonel Artyom Hovanessian, part of Major General Movses Silikyan’s former Russian Caucasus Army, at your service.”
“The Russian Caucasus Army?!” Ashtî speaks louder than she intended. “We have not seen them for months. It is because the Army is gone the Young Turks have been flexing their muscles.”
“Have things really gotten so bad that the Armenians are sending their own wives out to fight the Turks?”
“Mister Colonel Hovanessian, if you boys really have been wandering about these mountains for two weeks you must have been lost for most of it. If riding with women-folk is so far below you then please continue down this mountain and get wiped out by the army we’ve just left. The world will be a happier place with less foolish men in it.”
“Oh! No, please forgive what I just said,” Hovanessian replied. “It is just that I’ve never heard of women leading charges into battle.”
“Of course not, nor you can’t find your way out of the Caucasus mountains either.”
The man nodded. Nobody said anything for a few moments.
“There is an army down below in the valley, you say?”
“What would you say?” asked Ashtî, “if we told you that Jevdet Bey and 5000 men were on the north side of the lake ready to march on Van?”
“If you told me that and I was using an adjective I’d call it alarming.”
“And what would you say if I told you there wasn’t a hundred Armenian partisans in Van right now to meet those five thousand Turks?”
“If you told me that and I was still using adjectives I’d call it very alarming.”
“But the state of affairs in Van can’t be as bad as that?”
“You remember what they did to Kars? The Young Turks will stop at nothing until every Armenian in the empire is dead.”
It was obvious that the man was moved deeply by these blunt statements.
“May I ask you, Colonel Hovanessian,” Hayran inquired, “which way you are going?”
“We had an idea that we would go to Van,” the man replied, “it is the last stronghold the Armenians have, but I’m never above changing my opinion if there is a better way to help out.”
“What do you wish us to do?” he asked Ashtî.
“You and your friends come with us. We’ve got some good men in a valley near by that we can reach tonight. We’ll join with them, raise as many more as we can, spread the alarm everywhere; do everything possible for the defense of Van.”
The agreed to this and the long line of silent Russians turned back the way they had come and began to retrace their steps up the mountain.
The two women and young boy rode on without another word and the party, now raised from three to sixteen, followed. Hovanessian fell in by the side of Mariam and soon showed that he was not averse to talking.
“A good country,” he said, nodding at the landscape, “but it ain’t like the mountains of the Ural where I was born.”
“The older I get,” replied Mariam, “the more I realize mountains are mountains. But all the same it’s a grand country to fight for.”
“It was, at one time, perhaps in 500 AD.”
“Perhaps,” Mariam smiled.
After a rest of a half hour for the horses they started riding rapidly. After a while they struck the belt of valley and soon the camp they had left the men they had rescued was not more than a mile away.
Yarjanian and the others were happy to see them and delighted at the sight of the Russians. Mariam outlined what had occurred the night before and the plans of the Young Turks.
“We look like a proper army now,” the poet declared excitedly.
The Russians had brought with them two cannons, a twelve-pounder and a six-pounder, being pulled by mules.
“We have not been lax ourselves,” he went on. “The farmers were eager, naturally, to return to their village, but someone had to wait for your return so we sent the boy here, Diradour, to act as a spy.”
“And we found that the Ottoman army was quicker than we excepted. They have already sent a small detachment to Bahcesaray and hold control of it. A certain young lieutenant, Abdul-Qahaar, I believe, is in command. They have set up a cannon in the market square. As to the villagers we can’t say.”
“The Turks are in Bahcesaray?” Hayran asked in alarm. He had passed through that town and it was position was a key stratagem if they wanted to get to Van along the mountain roads before the slow Army made its way around the lake.
“Then it is settled,” Ashtî said. “We take back Bahcesaray and then move on to Van. There is no way around the village except through it and even if we sent messengers ahead to warn the people of Van they’d have to somehow sneak through the army which stretches from the mountain cliffs to the water’s edge. No, the only way this is going to work is if we go straight through the center of town.”
Mariam listened as Hovanessian gave the directions. Between the Russians and Armenians there were twenty-eight fighters, twenty-nine if one counted the boy Diradour. They were to be divided into two forces. One under Hovanessian was to enter the town by the road called Ishq-e Haqiqi. The other, under Pypina Rabinovich, was to penetrate by Kuruntu Street. When Ashtî heard who would be in command she raised one eyebrow in irritation but said nothing.
The little Russian Sergeant, Averbuch Bachrach, who knew nothing of the town, approached Ashtî and in haltingly bad Turkish asked if she would consent to lead Pypina Rabinovich’s column. Ashtî nodded and Mariam and Hayran fell into step just behind her.
The houses of the town rose out of the darkness. Mariam saw off to right and left fresh earthworks and rifle pits, but either no men were stationed there or they slept. The figure of Averbuch Bachrach led steadily on. Moments passed and now they were actually at the edge of the town, which seemed deserted, each house they passed dark and closed.
Now they were in it, going up the narrow Kuruntu Street between the low buildings directly toward the main market square, which was fortified by barricades and artillery. A faint glimmer of dawn was just beginning to appear in the east.
A dusky figure suddenly appeared in a doorway in front of them and gave a shout of alarm. Averbuch Bachrach lifted his rifle and fired, leaving the stranger lying face up in the middle of the street. A series of shouted orders from the market square and a cannon was fired down the street, the ball whistling over the heads of the Russians and Armenians. In an instant the garrison of lieutenant Abdul-Qahaar was awake and the alarm sounded throughout Bahcesaray. Lights flashed, arms rattled and men called to one another.
“Into this house” cried Averbuch Bachrach.
They were now within a hundred yards of the market square, but as more and more Turks poured into the open they dashed into the large, solid house. Just as the last of the Armenians sprang through the doors another cannon ball whistled down the street.
Hovanessian’s division, meanwhile, had rushed into the house of Dermovsesian, near by.
“To the roof!” cried Averbuch Bachrach. “We can meet the attack from there.”
The doors and windows were already manned, but Averbuch Bachrach and many others rushed to the flat roof and looked over the low stone lip. It was not yet day and they could not see well. Despite the lack of light, the Turks opened fire with their cannon and rifles. The whole town resounded with the roar and the crash and the shouting.
The Armenians and Russians, meanwhile, held their fire and waited for day. Mariam, Averbuch Bachrach and the others on the roof lay down behind the stone lip. The faint light in the east deepened and the sun flashed out. The full dawn was at hand and finally Mariam peeped over the edge of the roof. She saw many flashes down the street toward the market square and she heard the whine of bullets.
The May sun, clear and warm, bathed the whole town in light. Houses, whether of stone or wood, were tinted a while with gold, but everywhere in the streets and over the roofs floated white puffs of smoke from the firing, which had never ceased on the part of the Turks. The crash of rifles and muskets was incessant, every minute or two came the heavy boom of the cannon with which Abdul-Qahaar swept the streets.
Mariam and hers comrades still lay on the roof of the Fanoosian house. Fom the other side of the town came the rattle of rifle fire. She knew that it was the detachment from Zhalobovskaian but presently the sounds there died.
“They are drawing off,” said Hayran, “I wish we hadn’t had to abandon our cannons.”
Below them their twelve-pounder lay shattered by the overpowering Ottoman fire;, without protection, they were unable to use the six-pounder, which they had drawn into the courtyard.
Mariam from her corner could see the mouths of the guns in the heavy Ottoman battery at the far end of the street; she watched the flashes of flame as they were fired one by one. In the intervals she saw a lithe, strong figure appear on the breastwork. She was quite sure that it was Abdul-Qahaar.
An hour of daylight passed. From the house of Dermovsesian the other division began to fire, the sharp lashing of their rifles sounding clearly amid the duller crash of musketry and cannon from the Turks.
The Armenians in the lower part of the Fanoosian house were also at work with their rifles. Several of the men were sharpshooters. Whenever an Ottoman came from behind a barricade he was picked off. But the Turks had also taken possession of houses and they were firing with rifles from windows and loopholes.
“We must stop those cannons,” shouted Ashtî to Averbuch Bachrach.
The little Sargent was on Mariam’s right and ordered everyone to devoted their whole attention to the battery. As he leaned forward to pick off a gunner he had lifted his head and shoulders above the stone lip of the roof. A figure rose up behind the Ottoman barricade and fired in return. Averbuch Bachrach uttered a cry and clapped his hand to his face.
The bullet had gone nearly through the side of his head. Ashtî grabbed the man and pulled him back from the edge of the roof. Mariam, although it was only a fleeting glimpse, had recognized the marksman. It was Abdul-Qahaar who was proving himself a formidable foe.
But the men on the roof continued their sharpshooting; now the battery, probably at Abdul-Qahaar’s orders, began to turn its attention to them. Mariam was seized suddenly by Hayran and pulled flat.
There was a roaring and hissing sound over her head as a twelve pound cannon ball passed. The cannon shot was followed by a storm of bullets and then by more cannon shots. The stone lip slowly began to be shot away and the men on the roof covered their faces as flying rock shards went everywhere. Balls, shells and bullets swept the roof without ceasing.
Mariam lay on her side and listened to the ugly hissing and screaming over head until it became unbearable. She turned over on hers other side and looked at Averbuch Bachrach, their leader. Most of his face was missing. Mariam turned away in a hurry.
“I hate to say it,” Ashtî said, “but we can’t hold this roof. I never knew the Turks to shoot so well before and their numbers and cannon give them a great advantage.”
They left Averbuch Bachrach’s body where it was and crept down the stairway, finding that the house itself was suffering from the Ottoman cannon. Holes had been smashed in the walls, but here and there the Armenians and Russians were always replying with their rifles. Mariam, exhausted, sat down on a willow sofa. Her hands were trembling and her face was wet with perspiration. Ashtî sat down beside her.
“Good plan to rest a little, Mariam-jan,” she said and then after a pause, “Listen to that, will you!”
A cannon ball smashed through the wall, passed through the room in which they were sitting; dropped spent in another room beyond. Hayran joined them on the sofa. The battle was increasing in heat. The Turks, despite their artillery and their heavy barricades, were losing heavily at the hands of the sharpshooters. The Russians and Armenians, sheltered in the buildings, were suffering little, but their position was growing more dangerous every minute. They were inside the town, but the force of Zhalobovskaian outside was unable to come to their aid.
Mariam, tense and restless, was unable to remain more than a few minutes on the sofa. She wandered into another room and saw a large table spread with food. Bread and meat were in the dishes and there were pots of coffee. All was now cold. Evidently they had been making ready for early breakfast in the Fanoosian house when the attack came. Mariam called to hers friends.
“Why shouldn’t we eat this!” she said, “even if it is cold?”
“Yes, why shouldn’t we?” agreed Hayran.
In ones and twos the men drifted into the room to take food and coffee, cold as it was, eagerly. Then Mariam and Hayran searched everywhere and found large supplies of provisions in the house, so much, in fact, that Ashtî growled very pleasantly between her teeth.
“There’s enough here,” she said, “to last two or three days.”
Some of the men now left the windows and loopholes to get a rest and Mariam found a place at one of them. Peeping out she saw the bare street, torn by shot and shell. She saw the flash of the Russian rifles from the Dermovsesian house and she saw the blaze of the Ottoman cannon in the market square. Clouds of smoke drifted over the city.
Hayran was just behind Mariam. She was seeking a glimpse of Abdul-Qahaar, but she did not get it. Mariam was watching for a shot at the gunners.
While Mariam was at the window, a second cannon ball smashed through the wall of the Fanoosian house; debris rained down upon them. Once the Turks under the cover of their artillery undertook to charge down the street, but the sharpshooters in the houses quickly drove them back. The cannon gave the Turks an immense advantage and they were now using it to the utmost. The house would be battered down over the heads of Mariam and her friends. A third ball crashed through the wall and demolished the willow sofa on which the three had been sitting. Plaster rained down upon them. They looked at one another. They could not stay in the house nor could they go out.
The day wore on and all through the afternoon intermittent firing went on. The Turks increased their fortifications. They threw up new earthworks and loopholed many of the houses that they held. Abdul-Qahaar, his dark face darker with rage and fury, went among them, urging them to renewed efforts, telling them that they were bound to take prisoners all the Armenians whom they did not slay in battle; that they should hang every prisoner.
Mariam was worn to the bone. The smoke stung hers eyes and nostrils and hers limbs ached. She felt that she must rest or die;, seeing two men sound asleep on the floor of one of the rooms, she flung herself down beside them. In a few minutes she was hard asleep and Hayran and Ashtî, seeing her there, did not disturb her.
“If any Armenian has been through more than she has,” said Hayran, “I haven’t heard of her.”
Mariam awoke later that afternoon with the taste of gunpowder in her mouth. Neither side made any decided movement. There was occasional firing, but they rested chiefly on their arms.
The Armenians now began to grow restless. Cooped up in two houses they were in the way of one another. Komarov suggested that they break into another house closer to the market square.
Hovanessian consented and, followed closely by Mariam, Hayran, Ashtî and three others, he dashed out, smashed in the door of the house and were inside before the astonished Turks could open an accurate fire upon them. Here they at once secured themselves and their bullets began to rake the market square. The Turks were forced to throw up more and higher fortifications.
Again the combat became intermittent. There were bursts of rifle fire and occasional shots from the cannon;, now and then, short periods of almost complete silence. Night came on and Mariam, watching from the window, saw Colonel Hovanessian dash across the market square of the Fanoosian house. At the door he stood a moment, looking at the Ottoman position. A rifle cracked and the Russian, throwing out his arms, fell, the ball striking him in the center of the forehead.
Mariam uttered a cry of grief and it was taken up by all the Russians who had seen their leader fall. A half dozen men rushed forward and dragged the body away. That night they buried it behind the house. As soon as his burial was finished they rushed another house in their slow advance, one belonging to a merchant named Ma’alot-Tarshiha, a solid structure only one block from the great market square. It now being midnight they concluded to rest until the dawn. Meanwhile, they had elected Pypina Rabinovich their leader.
From an upper window she watched the summer sun creep over the horizon once more and the dawn brought with it the usual stray rifle and cannon shots. Both Russian and Ottoman sharpshooters were watching at every loophole and whenever they saw a head they fired at it.
Presently a strong body of the Russians and Armenians gathered on the lower floor, many carrying, in addition to their weapons, heavy iron crowbars. The doors were suddenly thrown open and they rushed out into the cool morning air, making for a series of stone houses the farthest of which opened upon the main market square, where the Turks were fortified. Scattering shots from pistols and rifles greeted them, but as usual, when any sudden movement occurred, the defenders fired wildly; the Armenians broke into the first of the houses, before any of the Ottoman soldiers could take good aim.
Mariam was one of the last inside. She had lingered with the others to repel any rush that the Turks might make. She was watching the Ottoman barricade and she saw heads rise above it. One rose higher than the rest and she recognized Abdul-Qahaar. The Ottoman saw Mariam also and the eyes of the two met. Abdul-Qahaar’s were full of anger and malice and raising his rifle he fired straight at the woman. Mariam felt the bullet graze hers cheek; instantly she fired in reply. But whether she hit Abdul-Qahaar or not she could not tell. Without waiting Mariam rushed into the house.
They broke through partition wall after wall with their powerful picks and crowbars. Stones fell about them. Plaster and dust rained down, but the men relieving one another, the work with the heavy tools was never stopped until they penetrated the interior of the last house in the row. Then the Armenians looked from the narrow windows directly over the main market square and their rifles covered the Ottoman barricades. The Turks tried to drive them out of the houses with the guns, but the solid stone walls resisted balls and shells and the Russian rifles shot down the gunners.
Then ensued another silence, broken by distant firing, caused by another attack upon Zhalobovskaian’s men on the outskirts of the town.
Later that day reports began to filter down the row of houses to Mariam and her friends that Colonel Tayyib, with six hundred men had arrived from the Lake Van army to help Abdul-Qahaar. But why such an overwhelming force did not immediately sweep through the village and burn it to the ground none could say.
“Perhaps they don’t know how few of us there really are?” suggested Hayran.
“Perhaps they don’t care,” Ashtî said. “They’ve lost a lot of men and bullets in the last twenty four hours. And defending this village was never part of Jevdet Bey’s plan. In fact he’ll be upset if he finds out one of his officers wasted so much over a bunch of Armenian huts.”
That night, the Russians and Armenians, Mariam with them, seized another large building called the Priests’ House, which looked directly over the market square and now their command of the Ottoman situation was complete. But by the next morning Mariam saw the Turks had withdrawn, leaving their cannon behind.
Hayran peered out a window, marveling.
“The Turks have all gone across the mountain to the Van,” said the Kurdish woman. “Bahcesaray is ours.”
“Most of the population has fled when the Ottoman first took control of the town,” said Hayran.
The market square and Kuruntu Street presented a somber picture. The Ottoman dead, abandoned by their comrades, lay everywhere. Mariam poked around for a bit until she found the body she was looking for. Abdul-Qahaar lay face down, abandoned the moment Mariam’s bullet had struck him down. Even in death he seemed swaggering and haughty.
“We must make haste,” Ashtî said.
Later that afternoon Mariam and her friends talked with the surviving Russians and Armenians who had helped route the Ottomans from the village of Bahcesaray. There was disagreement as to what to do next.
Pypina Rabinovich, who was practically a stranger to Van, gave his opinion with hesitation. There was not one among them who did not understand its significance, but it was hard to agree upon a policy.
“I shall be compelled to leave you,” said the poet Atom Yarjanian finally. “Please do not think it’s because I’m afraid to fight the Turks. But, as I told you before, I can do far greater good for the Armenian cause elsewhere. As I am now as well as ever and I am able to take care of myself, I think I shall leave at once.”
“Is that’s so?” said Ashtî. “We shall miss you, Mr. Yarjanian. I am glad I can now say even a poet can stand up and do what is right when the time is right.”
“It doesn’t happen often,” the older man nodded with a smile. “But when it does it is extraordinary.”
A spare horse, saddled and bridled; rifle and ammunition, were given to Yarjanian. Then he bade them farewell. When he was about twenty yards away he beckoned to Mariam and when the woman stood at his saddle bow he said very earnestly: “If you fall again into the hands of Jevdet Bey and are in danger of your life, use my name with him. It is perhaps a more potent weapon than you think. Do not forget.”
“I will not,” said Mariam, “and I thank you very much, Mr. Yarjanian. But I hope that no such occasion will arise.”
“So do I,” said Yarjanian with emphasis. Then he rode away, a square, bearded figure and never looked back.
“What was he saying, Mariam-jan?” asked Diradour when his friend returned.
“Promising help if we should need it.”
“He looks like a man who would give it.”
After some further talk it was decided that Mariam, Diradour, Hayran and Ashtî should ride south to watch the advance of Jevdet Bey, while the Russians, Pypina Rabinovich, Zhalobovskaian and the remaining Armenians should go to Van and raise as many troops as they could.
“If you don’t mind my saying it to you, Sergeant Pypina Rabinovich,” said Ashtî, “keep telling them over and over again that they have need to beware. Tell them that Jevdet Bey, with all the power of the Young Turks at his back, is coming.”
“We all understand,” was the reply and then Pypina Rabinovich rode away at the head of the little troop. Mariam’s eyes followed his figure as long as he was out of sight.
“A staunch man,” said Hayran. “He will be a great help to Van if he stays alive long enough.”
Then they turned their horses and rode southward in the dusk. They went on steadily down the mountains. But before long they turned almost due west. It was their intention to intersect the settlements that lay between them and Van and give warning of the approach of Jevdet Bey.
It was a few hours before midnight when they left the mountain and began making their way south along the coast of Lake Van. As they passed they saw evident that the army had been through here. It was not twenty minutes later they saw far off a small bands of horsemen.
“Who do you say they are?” asked Ashtî. “Kurds?”
Mariam looked long before returning an answer: “Turks or Kurds. The two men in the rear have rifles of a sort I have never seen before.”
The Ottoman horsemen were on their left and the four continued their steady course to the south. They were reassured by the fact that the soldiers were likely to take them for comrades in the distance. It became evident now that Jevdet Bey was taking every precaution. He was sending out scouts and skirmishers in force, seeing what resistance, if any, they could find.
“He’s pressing forward fast,” said Ashtî, “and his Kurds are hunting both the ways ahead and behind.”
The rode on until the found another clump of trees four or five hundred yards further south. Here they saw the red glow of camp fires more plainly. It could not be more than two miles away. Beyond the little grove they saw the lake rolling away on every side to the horizon. Mariam rode to the western edge of the grove in order to get a better view. She searched the coast carefully but could find no sign of life visible in the darkness.
She turned Old Tigran in order to rejoin her comrades, when she suddenly heard a low sound from the east. She listened a moment; then, hearing it distinctly, she knew it. It was the thud of hoofs; the horsemen were coming straight toward the grove. Owing to the darkness and the foliage Mariam could not see her comrades, but she started toward them at once.
Then came a sudden cry, the rapid beat of hoofs, the crack of rifle shots. Several Ottoman horsemen dashed into the wood directly between the Armenian and her comrades. She heard the shout of Ashtî and the wild Kurdish yells. Two horsemen fired at her and a third rode at her with extended saber.
It was Old Tigran that saved Mariam’s life. The woman was so startled that her brain was in a paralysis for a moment. But the horse shied suddenly away from the head of the sword flashing in the moonlight. Mariam retained both her head and her rifle. She fired at the nearest of the Turks, who fell from his saddle and then, seeing that there was but one alternative left to her, she gave Old Tigran the reins and galloped from the grove toward the south.
She turned her attention to her own escape. Two more shots were fired at her, but in both cases the bullets went wide. Amid all the rush and terrific excitement of the moment, Mariam thought of her comrades, they were three together and they might escape. Ashtî was a wonderful hunter and Hayran was not far behind in skill. But now it was not possible for her to join them now, she heard the thud of hoofs and the pursuing horsemen were near.
She looked back. They numbered seven or eight; they were certainly gaining. They had spread out a little and whenever Old Tigran veered a yard or two from the pursuers some one gained. As Mariam’s rifle was empty; she could not reload it at such speed, they seemed to fear nothing for themselves. She was still lying forward on her horse’s neck; now she began to talk to her.
Old Tigran stretched out his long neck and became a streak in the darkness. They were far down the coast now, where the moonlight revealed everything; the horse’s sure instinct would guide. Mariam felt Old Tigran beneath her. She stole a glance over her shoulder. All the Turks were there and several of them were trying to reload their weapons. Mariam knew that if they succeeded she would be in great danger. No matter how badly they shot a chance bullet might hit her or her horse.
Once more the woman leaned far over on her horse’s neck and whispered in his ear: “On, Old Tigran, on! Show to them what a good horse you are!”
And again the great horse responded. Fast as he was going it seemed to Mariam that he now lengthened his stride. His long head was thrust out almost straight; his great body fairly skimmed the earth. But the Turks hung on with grim doggedness. Their ponies were tough and enduring;, spread out like the arc of the crescent moon, they continually gained ground as Old Tigran raced on in a straight line. Aware of this danger herself, Mariam, nevertheless, was unable to tell whether the horse was going in a direct course or not but at this speed there was little she could do.
A rifle shot cracked out and the bullet sang past Mariam’s face. It grazed Old Tigran’s ear, drawing blood. The horse uttered an angry snort and fairly leaped forward. Mariam looked back again. Another man had succeeded in loading his rifle and was about to fire. Then the woman remembered the pistol at her belt. Snatching it out she fired at the fellow with the loaded gun.
The Ottoman reeled forward on his horse’s neck and his weapon dropped to the ground. Whether the man herself fell also Mariam did bother checking. She quickly thrust the pistol back in her belt and once more was looking straight ahead. Now confidence swelled again in her heart. She had escaped all their bullets so far; she was still gaining.
In the gloom Mariam saw just ahead of her one of the clumps of trees that dotted the coast. Several of the Turks, their ponies spent, were dropping out of the race, but enough were left to make the odds far too great. Mariam now skimmed along the edge of the grove; when she passed it she turned her horse a little, so the trees were between her and her nearest pursuers. Then she urged Old Tigran to his last ounce of speed. The dark waters of the lake raced along with her; fortunate clouds, too, now came, veiling the moon and turning the dusk into deeper darkness. Mariam heard one disappointed cry behind her and then no sound but the flying beat of her own horse’s hoofs.
When she pulled rein and brought Old Tigran to a walk she could see or hear nothing of the Turks. The great horse was a lather of foam, her sides heaving and panting; Mariam sprang to the ground. She reloaded her rifle and pistol and then walked toward the east toward the mountains, leading Old Tigran by the bridle. She reckoned that the Turks would go toward the south, thinking that she would naturally ride for Van; hence she chose a different direction.
She walked a long time and presently she felt the horse rubbing his nose gently against her arm.
Mariam stroked the soft muzzle.
“You’ve saved my life once more, Old Tigran,” she said.
They stopped at times, but the Turks had melted away completely in the night. She considered sleeping, resting, letting both herself and Old Tigran a chance to recover. She could direct her course by the sun, of course, if she waited until the dawn, but she intended to go straight to Van. She only hoped that she might get there before the arrival of Jevdet Bey and his army. She could not spare the time to seek her comrades. Mariam felt much apprehension for them, but she yet had the utmost confidence in the skill of Ashtî and Hayran.
It was about two hours before dawn when Mariam set out again down the coast. She passed by only one village but it was utterly deserted, looted and left like some dead animal by the side of the road. It was altogether likely, too, so Mariam thought, that the Ottoman army was now nearer than to Van than she was. Her flight had taken her to the east while Jevdet Bey was moving straight toward the Armenian city. But she believed that by steady riding she could reach Van within four or five hours time.
The morning came and passed without event. Mariam had hoped that by some chance she might meet with her comrades, but there was no sign of them; she fell back on her belief that their skill and great courage had saved them. Seeking to dismiss them from her thoughts for the time in order that she might concentrate all her energies on Van, she rode on.
Clouds came off the lake and a storm grew. Even though it was spring it brought chill rain and the late morning darkened greatly. Mariam began to fear that she would get lost. It was almost impossible to keep the true direction in such weather. Both woman and animal were soaked to the skin and freezing. She had no landmarks to guide her and was compelled to rely wholly upon instinct. Sometimes Mariam was in woods, sometimes upon the coast; once or twice she crossed creeks coming down from the mountains, the waters of which were red, swollen and muddy.
Lost in the storm Mariam began to panic. She might be going directly away from Van, while Jevdet Bey, with countless guides, would easily reach there that day. She prayed now that the storm would cease, but the world simply whistled and moaned about her; rain was continually driven in her face. It was torture to be so near the end of her task and then to fail.
She was compelled to stop at last under a thick cluster of oaks, where she was somewhat sheltered from the wind and rain. Here she dismounted again, stamped her feet vigorously for warmth and also brushed the water from her faithful horse. Old Tigran, as usual, rubbed his nose against the woman’s arm. They would wait out the bad weather and resume once they got their strength back.
A half hour’s rest; remounting Mariam resumed her slow progress down the lake shore.
It was probably an hour before noon when she heard a sound which was not that of the storm, a sound which she knew instantly. It was the dull clank of metal against metal, leather creaking and wagon wheels turning. Jevdet Bey, or one of his generals, despite the storm, was advancing with the army, or a part of it. Mariam shivered; now not from the wet and cold.
The Armenians of Van did not understand the fervent energy of this man. They would learn of it too late, unless she told them; it might be too late even then. Surly by now Pypina Rabinovich, Zhalobovskaian and the others had reached Van, had warned the local militia, had a plan in action. But what if they never made it that far? What if they had been ambushed in the mountains, where every canyon offered concealment and a handful of well placed sharpshooters could hold off an enemy forever if need be? She pressed on with as much increase of speed as the nature of the ground would allow.
A heavy fog began to rise from the lake and wet earth. She could not see far in front of her, but she believed that the city was now only a mile or two away. Soon a low, heavy sound, a measured stroke, came out of the fog. It was the tolling of the church bells in Van. A strange chilly sensation ran down her spine.
As Mariam turned the curve in the coast the wind grew much stronger. The tolling of the bell had now ceased and the bank of fog was split asunder and then floated swiftly away in patches and streamers. On her right beyond the lake Mariam saw the roofs of the town, now glistening in the clear morning air; on her right, only four or five hundred yards away, she saw a numerous troop of Ottoman cavalry. In the figure at the head of the horsemen she was sure that she recognized Ivedik Bey.
Mariam’s first emotion was a terrible sinking of the heart. After all that she had done, after hardships and dangers, she was to fail with the towers and roofs of Van in sight. All that separated herself and the Turks from the city was a deep irrigation channel running down to the lake’s edge. The city lay beyond on the edge of a steep hill. It was the triumphant cry of the Ottoman horsemen that startled her into life again. They had seen the lone rider by the lake and they galloped at once toward her. Mariam had made no mistake. It was Ivedik, pressing forward ahead of the others, fumbling with the pistol at his belt.
With the cry of the Turks ringing in Mariam’s ears, the woman shouted to Old Tigran and the two began to race once more along the side of the lake. But now the great horse was laboring hard and the Ottoman cavalry, comparatively fresh, was coming on fast. They were rapidly running out of places to run, the land ended abruptly at the edge of the channel. There were no bridges, no rafts, nothing to cross it and the water ran fast and deep. It was evident that she would soon be overtaken; so sure were the Turks of it that they did not fire.
Without pausing Mariam pressed her horse forward and the two sprang from the high bank far out into the deep water.
Mariam felt her robes fly around her and her rifle dropped from her hand. Then the dark waters closed over both her and Old Tigran. They came up again, Mariam still on the horse’s back, but with an icy chill through all her veins. She could not see for a moment or two, as the water was in her eyes, but she heard dimly the shouts of the Turks and several shots. Two or three bullets splashed the water around her and another struck her robes, which were floating away on the surface of the stream.
The horse, turning somewhat, swam powerfully in a diagonal course across the channel. Mariam, dazed for the moment by the shock of the plunge from a height into the water, clung tightly to his back. More shots were fired, but again she was untouched; then the horse was feeling with his forefeet in the muddy bank for a hold. The next instant, with a powerful effort, he pulled himself upon the shore. The violent shock nearly threw Mariam from his back, but the woman seized his mane and hung on.
The Turks shouted, but Mariam, still clinging to Old Tigran for all she was worth, raced for Van, only a mile away.
Most of the people in Van were asleep when the dripping figure of a half unconscious woman on the back of a great horse galloped toward them in that momentous afternoon. She was bareheaded and her rifle was gone and shivering uncontrollably. She tried to shout, “Up! Up! Jevdet Bey and the Ottoman army are at hand!” but her voice was choked and hoarse so that she could not be heard as she entered the city.
Pypina Rabinovich and several other of the Russians were standing in the main square of the Armenian Quarter of Van, arguing with the city’s council men. Among them was a man of commanding proportions. He was a full six feet in height, erect and muscular, with a full beard of black hair. He was younger than the others, not more than twenty-eight, but this was Colonel Aram Avietissian, a Constantinople lawyer, who was now in command of the few Armenian partisans left in Van.
The men were talking very anxiously. Pypina Rabinovich had brought word that the army of Jevdet Bey was on the north side of the Lake Van, but it had seemed impossible to rouse the Armenians to a full sense of the impending danger. Many remained at their homes. Dissensions were numerous in the councils of the city government and their leaders could agree upon nothing.
Avietissian and Pypina Rabinovich were aware of the great danger, but even they did not believe it was so near. Nevertheless they were full of dread. Among them was a former Ottoman lieutenant, Hassan Pashaian, who had fled the army when the order to arrest all Ottoman soldiers of Armenian birth had been given. They were discussing now the possibility of getting help.
“We might send messengers to the towns further south,” said Avietissian, “and at least get a few men here in time.”
“We need a good many,” said Pashaian. “According to Pypina Rabinovich the Young Turks’ army is huge and the population here is vulnerable.”
“That is so,” said Avietissian, “we have our women and children to protect.”
It was when he spoke the last words that they heard the clatter of hoofs and saw Mariam dashing down the narrow street toward the square. They heard her trying to shout, but her voice was now so hoarse that she could not be understood.
But Mariam, though growing weaker fast, recognized at least the swarthy Pypina Rabinovich and she galloped straight toward him. Then she pulled up her horse and half fell, half leaped to the ground.
Holding Old Tigran’s mane she pulled herself up, the water still falling from her wet hair and dripping from her clothing. Her face was plastered with mud.
“Jevdet Bey’s army, five thousand strong, is not two miles away!” she said.
“Good God!” cried the Russian. “It’s the woman, Mariam. I know her well. What she says must be truth.”
“Every word!” croaked Mariam. “I was pursued by their vanguard! My horse swam the channel with me!”
Then she fell forward onto the ground. Pashaian seized her and between them they carried her into one of the houses, where women stripped her of her wet clothing and wrapped her in blankets. Pashaian and the others hurried out into the square. Pypina Rabinovich and Avietissian at once began to arrange the few men they had for defense.
Many of the Armenians would still not believe. So great had been their confidence in the Sultan’s protection that they had sent out no scouting parties. Only a day or two before they had been enjoying themselves at a great dance. The woman who had come with the news that Jevdet Bey was at hand must be amok. Certainly she had looked like a maniac.
A loud cry suddenly came from the roof of the church of Van. Two sentinels posted there had seen the edge of a great army appear upon the coast and then spread rapidly over it. Jevdet Bey’s force had come at last. Two horsemen sent out to reconnoiter had to race back for their lives. The Turks had built numerous wooden bridges to cross the deep water channel and now wave after wave of Ottoman soldiers, Kurdish horsemen, cannon and machines of war were approaching the city walls of Van.
Mariam’s loss of consciousness was short. She remembered putting on clothing and robes, wrapping her long hair up under a scarf, securing a rifle and ammunition and then she ran out onto the street and headed for the square. From many windows she saw the worried faces of men and women looking out, but she paid no attention to them. In the face of the imminent and deadly peril Avietissian, Pypina Rabinovich, Pashaian and the others were level-headed and calm. The Armenians who could fight were gathering in a body. They all had their long rifles. Others were preparing to flee. Mariam saw a young lieutenant named Nazarian catch up his wife and child on a horse, made sure they were safely away and join a group of men getting cannons readied.
She gained a wall and looked out. To her left lay a sea of mist, rising to a bleak shadow in the east; but to her right great mountains reared their heads, ranging from the west to a steep and sudden end, forming a pleasant and fertile land on the long slopes and terraces falling to the deep levels of the Tigris in the south. Where the Caucasus mountains swept by she saw the dark mass of the Ararat highlands, the distant purple shadows of the lake in the morning sun.
Upon an out-thrust knee of land sat the city of Van, that which Armenians had called Vaspurakan, with its walls of stone so strong and old that it seemed to have been built not by human hand but by Milton’s fallen angels from the very bones of the earth. In peaceful times men had made their defenses high and strong. Here and there overlooking the great lake that bore its name the road came in from the Roman-era fords and bridges and passed under an embattled gate. The walls had held back Persian archers and Mongolian horsemen and Roman centurions but in the 1895-96 blood bathes when the Armenians of Van had resisted massacre for a short time before the Turks slaughtered more than twenty thousand of them the walls were left with vast holes peppering its surface where Turkish cannons had sent broadside after broadside against it.
Even as Mariam gazed in wonder the walls passed from looming gray to white, blushing faintly in the dawn. Suddenly the sun broke through the storm clouds and sent forth a shaft that set the face of the city alight.
Then Mariam smiled in delight, for on the summit of a great rock, the Tilkitepe Mound, a citadel stood that shone out against the sky, ruined but still glimmering, a broken spike of stone and shell, squat and ancient, its surface on fire as if it were hammered out of pearl and banners could be seen fluttering from its walls in the morning breeze some three hundred feet above the city.
“Is it old?” She had asked Ashtî once when the two paid a visit to the city.
“Old enough that when Xerxes the Great came through he left a stone inscription of his exploits carved into the wall. All of this was known as Urartu back then but of course your people and my people have a hard time conceiving of anything not mentioned in the Bible or Koran.”
As she progressed up the high street curious on-lookers stuck their heads from windows and doors. Relatively affluent and urban, the Armenians of the city were used Kurds and Turks among them though they were twice their number combined. They dressed like Europeans, standing out against their country-bred Muslim neighbors.
“Daughter, what is the word?” an old man with a long beard called.
“Father, a great army is upon you,” shouted Mariam. “Whatever befalls our people, we have come to the end of the empire that we have known!”
It baffled Mariam that even at this late date, even after everything the Ottoman Armenians had suffered, there were citizens who still could not bring themselves to fully believe the Young Turks had plans to annihilate them. As she entered the city’s main square and took her place with the others a kindly hand fell upon her shoulder and a Russian voice spoke in her ear.
“I was going to send for you, Mariam-jan,” said Pashaian, “but you’ve come. Perhaps it would have been better for you, though, if you were still up in the mountains.”
Mariam turned and stared at the man for a second. Then she smiled.
“And miss all of this? Nonsense. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Pashaian said nothing more. Much of Mariam’s courage and spirit returned, but she saw how pitifully small their numbers were. The little band that was mounting a defense for the city numbered less than one hundred and fifty men and many of them were shop keepers and farmers without experience in guns or cannons.
Mariam and several others climbed a tower and looked out over the coast. The Ottoman army was slowly advancing, already many were at the outer stone walls of the ancient city. Mariam also saw not far away the Ottoman cavalry en masse. The foremost groups were riflemen and the sun glittered on the metal of their long weapons.
Order were given and the great gates of Van were closed and barred. For the moment they were safe. The doors were made of very heavy oak and it would require immense force to batter them in. It was evident that the Ottoman horsemen on the shore did not intend to make any such attempt, as they drew off hastily, out of range for the Armenian rifles.
“Well, here we are, Mariam,” said the cheerful voice of Pypina Rabinovich, joining the group in the tower, “and if we want to win glory in fighting for our people it seems that we’ve got the biggest chance that was ever offered to anyone. I guess when old Jevdet Bey comes up he’ll say: ‘By the Prophet’s beard we’ll trample the walls.’ Still these walls will help a little to make up the difference between fifty to one.”
As he spoke he tapped the stone of the tower with the butt of his rifle.
“No Ottoman on earth,” he said, “has got a tough enough head to butt through this. At least I hope not Now what do you think, Mariam-jan?”
His tone was so capricious that Mariam was compelled to laugh despite their terrible situation.
“It’s a pity, though,” continued Pypina Rabinovich, “that we’ve got such a big place here to defend. Sometimes you’re the stronger the less ground you spread over.”
Mariam glanced around. She had been to Van before, visiting friends, but she took only a vague look then. Now she saw in a few minutes all the details of the area they were called to defend. She knew already its history. The buildings of the ancient city were numerous, their windows, cut for the needs of an earlier time, were high and narrow in order that attacking Romans might not pour in flights of arrows upon those who should be inside.
Mariam climbed upon the wall. Pashaian, who was behind one of the cannon, beckoned to her. Mariam joined him and leaned upon the gun as Pashaian pointed toward the north.
“Mariam-jan,” he said, “you were a most timely herald. If it had not been for you our surprise would have been total.”
The army of Jevdet Bey filled the coast and was spread out far and wide. The sun glittered on bayonets and rifles; brightened the bronze barrels of cannons. The jubilant notes of a trumpets came across the intervening space; when the notes ceased an Ottoman band began to play. Several of the men around Mariam stopped at their tasks to listen. Nobody said a word. She looked around at the strong stone walls; then at the resolute faces of the men near her. They were tough but the garrison was small, pitifully small.
Mariam left the walls and ate a little food. Then she wandered about the place looking at the buildings and architecture. Van was so extensive that she knew Avietissian would be compelled to concentrate his defense about the northern wall, but she wanted to examine as much as she could anyhow.
She went into a small courtyard where a fountain bubbled. The water was greenish in tint, but it was water, water which would keep the life in their bodies while they fought off the hosts of Jevdet Bey.
The sun was now starting to descend and since the storm had ceased to blow there was warmth in the air. Mariam, conscious now that she was stained with the dirt and mud of flight and haste, bathed her face and hands in the water of the fountain and combed her thick brown hair as well as she could with her fingers.
“Good work, Mariam-jan,” said a hearty voice beside her. “It shows that you have a cool brain and an orderly mind.”
Pypina Rabinovich, who was always neat, also bathed his own face and hands in the fountain.
“Now I feel a lot better,” he said, “and I want to tell you, Mariam, that it’s lucky the Turks built so massively. Look at this church. It’s got walls of hewn stone, five feet through; back in Saint Petersberg we build them of planks a quarter of an inch thick. Why, these walls would turn the biggest cannon balls.”
“It surely is mighty lucky,” said Mariam. “What are you going to do next, Pypina Rabinovich?”
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll wait on the Turks to open the battle. There, do you hear that trumpet blowing again? I reckon it means that they’re up to something.”
“I think so, too,” said Mariam. “Let’s go back upon the walls and see for ourselves just what it means.”
The two climbed upon the great stone wall, which was in reality a parapet. Avietissian and Pashaian, who was second in command, were there already. Mariam looked toward the north and she saw Turks
everywhere. Ottoman flags, hoisted by the soldiers, were floating from the roofs of the houses they had already captured, signs of their exultation at the coming massacre of the Armenians by Jevdet Bey.
The trumpet sounded again and they saw three officers detach themselves from the Ottoman lines and ride forward under a white flag. Mariam knew that one of them was Ivedik Bey.
“Now what can they want?” growled Pypina Rabinovich. “There can be no talk or truce between us and Jevdet Bey. If all that I’ve heard of him is true I’d never believe a word he says.”
Avietissian called two of his officers, Major Mkrtchyan and Captain Hagopoff; directed them to go out and see what the Turks wanted. Then, meeting Mariam’s eye, he recalled something.
“Er, you speak Ottoman Turkish perfectly,” he said. “will you go along, too?”
“Gladly,” said Mariam.
“And Mariam-jan,” said Pypina Rabinovich, in his whimsical tone, “if you don’t tell me every word they said when you come back I’ll keep you on bread and water for a week. There are to be no secrets to be kept from me.”
“I promise, Pypina Rabinovich,” said Mariam, smiling.
The heavy oaken doors were thrown open and the three went out on foot to meet the Ottoman officers who were riding slowly forward. The afternoon air was now soft and pleasant, a light, soothing wind was blowing from the south. The sky was a vast dome of brilliant blue and gold.
The Turks halted in the middle of the flat land and the three Armenians met them but they did not dismount. Ivedik was slightly in advance of the other two, who were older men in brilliant uniforms,
generals at least. Mariam saw at once that they meant to be haughty and arrogant. It was evident that Ivedik Bey would be the chief spokesman; his manner indicated that it was a part he liked. He, too, was in a fine uniform, sinfully neat, his handsome olive face flushed.
“And so,” he said, in an undertone and in Armenian to Mariam, “we are here face to face again. You have chosen your own trap, woman; not even the Prophets would be able to escape from it now.”
His taunt stung, but Mariam merely replied: “We shall see.”
Then Ivedik said aloud, speaking in Turkish and addressing himself to the two officers: “We have come by order of Governor Jevdet Bey, Commander-in-Chief of the glorious Young Turks, to make a demand of you.”
There was a pause as Mariam translated this.
“A conference must proceed on the assumption that the two parties to it are on equal terms,” said Major Mkrtchyan, in civil tones, once he understood the nature of the message.
“Under ordinary circumstances, yes,” said Ivedik, without abating his haughty manner one bit, “but this is a demand by a predominate authority given to rebels and traitors.”
He paused that his words might sink home.
“What is it that you wish to say to us?” continued Major Mkrtchyan, speaking through the Armenian woman. “If it is anything we should hear we are listening.”
“As you may see for yourselves,” Ivedik said, unable to subdue his love of the grandiose theatrics. “Governor Jevdet Bey has returned to Van with an overpowering force of brave Ottoman troops. He can take Van in a day. In two days not an Armenian will be left in the empire to dispute his authority.”
“These are statements most of which can be disputed,” said Major Mkrtchyan. “What does Jevdet Bey demand of us?”
Even in translation his quiet manner had its effect upon Ivedik.
“He demands your unconditional surrender,” the Turk snapped.
“And does he say nothing about the lives and good treatment of all our people in the city?” continued the Major, in the same quiet tones.
“He does not,” replied Ivedik emphatically. “If you receive any mercy it will be due solely to the clemency of Jevdet Bey toward rebels.”
“I am not empowered to accept or reject anything,” continued Major Mkrtchyan. “Colonel Avietissian is the commander of our force, but I am quite positive in my belief that he will not surrender.”
“We must carry back our answer in either the affirmative or the negative,” replied Ivedik Bey.
“I shall confer with my leaders,” said Major Mkrtchyan, “ if the answer is a refusal to surrender a single cannon shot will be fired from the wall of the city.”
“Very well,” said Ivedik, “and since that is your arrangement I see nothing more to be said.”
“Nor do we,” said Mariam, speaking for both Major Mkrtchyan and the defenders of Van.
The Turks saluted in a perfunctory manner and rode toward their lines. The three Armenians went slowly back to Van. Mariam walked behind the two men. She hoped that the confidence of Major Mkrtchyan was justified. She knew Jevdet Bey too well. She believed that the Armenians had more to fear from surrender than from cannon fire.
They entered Van and once more the great doors were shut and heavily barred. They climbed upon the wall and Major Mkrtchyan and Captain Hagopoff went toward Avietissian, Pashaian and Pypina Rabinovich, who stood together waiting. Mariam paused a little distance away. She saw them talking together earnestly, but she could not hear what they said.
Presently Pashaian detach himself from the other two and advance toward a cannon. A moment later a flash came from its muzzle, a heavy report rolled over the shoreline; then came back in faint echo.
Van had sent its answer and a deep cheer came from the Armenians.
The woman looked back toward the enemy lines and her eyes were caught by something red that was being hoisted up on a crudely built flagpole. It rose, expanded swiftly; then burst out in great folds: a blood-red flag fluttering in the wind. The flag of no quarter. No Armenian would be spared, down to the last elder and child.
Mariam gazed long at the great red flag as it waved in the wind. They were a tiny islet there amid an Ottoman sea which threatened to roll over them. But the signal of the flag, she realized, merely told her that which she had expected all the time. She knew Jevdet Bey. He would show no quarter to those who had humbled Abdul-Qahaar and his forces at Bahcesaray.
The woman was not assigned to the watch that night, but she could not sleep for a long time. Among these defenders there was discipline, but it was discipline of their own kind, not that of the military authoritarian. Mariam was free to go about as she chose; she went to the great market square into which some supplies had been gathered for them. Going on she climbed upon the portion of the wall which ran close to the channel. Some distance to her right and an equal distance to her left were sentinels. But there was nothing to keep her from leaping down from the wall or the outside and disappearing. The Ottoman investment was not yet complete and her best friends, Ashtî and Hayran and the boy Diradour were out there somewhere, if they were still alive, but her heart was now here in Van with her blood folk.
She listened intently but she heard no sound of any Ottoman advance. It occurred to her that a formidable attack might be made here, particularly under the cover of darkness. A raffish leader like Ivedik Bey might attempt a surprise.
She dropped back inside and went to one of the guards who was standing on an abutment with his head just showing above the wall. He was a young man and glad to have company.
“Have you heard or seen anything?” asked Mariam.
“No,” replied the sentinel, “but I’ve been looking for ’em down this way.”
Mariam wandered back toward the center of the city. It was now late, but a clear moon was shining. She saw the figures of the sentinels clearly on the walls, but she was confident that no attack would be made by the Turks that night. Her great tension and excitement began to relax and she felt that she could sleep.
She decided that the old hospital would be a good place. She entered the long room of that building where only the moonlight shone and stretching out on one of the empty beds she quickly went to sleep, sleeping the night through without a dream. She awoke early, took a breakfast of flat bread and hard cheese with the men on the wall; then, rifle in hand, she took her place as guard and sentinel.
Looking out she saw great activity in the Ottoman lines. Three or four batteries were being placed in position and Ottoman officers, evidently messengers, were galloping about. She recognized Jevdet Bey
himself riding in his crouched manner upon a great white horse, passing from battery to battery and hurrying the work. There was proof that his presence was effective, as the men always worked faster when he came.
Earthworks had been thrown up to protect the Ottoman batteries and the Armenian cannons were posted for reply. Mariam saw all the Armenian leaders, Avietissian, Pashaian, Pypina Rabinovich and Sybian, watching the enemy. The whole Armenian force was now manning the walls but Mariam saw that for the present all their dealings would be with the cannons.
Even as she watched a gush of smoke and flame came from one of the cannon. There was a great shout in the Ottoman lines, but the round shot spent itself against the massive stone walls of the ancient city.
“They’ll have to send out a stronger call than that,” said Pypina Rabinovich contemptuously, “before these Jericho walls come tumbling down.”
Avietissian went along the wall, saw that the Armenians were sheltering themselves; waited. There was another heavy report and a second round shot struck harmlessly upon the stone. Then the full
bombardment began. A half dozen batteries rained shot and shell upon Van. The roar was continuous like the steady roll of hell dust. They beat upon Mariam’s skull until she thought she would become deaf.
She was crouched behind the stone parapet but looked up often enough to see what was going on. Mariam saw a vast cloud of smoke gathering over the Ottoman lines, rent continually by flashes of fire from the muzzles of cannon. The air was full of hissing metal, shot and shell poured in a storm upon Van. Now and then the Armenian cannon replied, but not often.
The cannon fire was so great that for a time it shook Mariam’s nerves. It seemed as if nothing could live under such a rain of bombs and rockets, but when she looked along the parapet and saw all the Armenians unharmed.
Many of the balls were falling inside the walls now, crashing through roofs and windows. The cannonade continued for a full hour and then ceased abruptly. The great cloud of smoke began to lift and Van — lake and town — came again into the brilliant sunlight.
As the smoke rose higher Mariam saw Ottoman officers with glasses examining Van to see what damage their cannons had done. She hoped they would feel mortification when they found it was so little. Pypina Rabinovich knelt near her on the parapet and ran his hand along the barrel of his rifle.
Mariam watched with absorbed interest. Pypina Rabinovich’s eye was on the nearest battery and he was slowly raising the rifle to his eye.
The Turks had taken over a little outdoor market, the merchants shot or fled while their produce lay in forgotten heaps all around.
“Which is to be first?” asked Mariam.
“The one with the rammer in his hand.”
Pypina Rabinovich took a single brief look down the sights and pulled the trigger. The Turk with the rammer dropped to the earth and the rammer fell beside him. Pypina Rabinovich fired a second time. A loader fell on top of his comrade. A third rifle shot, almost as quick as a flash; a gunner went down, a fourth and a man at a wheel fell, a fifth and the unfailing bullet claimed a sponger, a sixth and an Ottoman just springing to cover was hit in the shoulder spinning him into a fruit cart.
But Pypina Rabinovich, kneeling on the parapet, the rifle cocked and his finger on the trigger, watched in case any of the Turks should expose himself again. The small, muscular figure was poised for instant action; all the whimsicality and humor were gone from the eyes.
A mighty shout of triumph burst from the Armenians. Many a good marksman was there, but never before had they seen such shooting. The crew of the gun had been annihilated in less than a minute.
For a while there was silence. Then the Turks, protected by the earthwork that they had thrown up, drew the battery back a hundred yards. Even in the farther batteries the men were very careful about exposing themselves. The Armenians, seeing no sure target, held their fire. The Turks opened a new cannonade and for another half hour the roar of the great guns drowned all other sounds. But when it ceased and the smoke drifted away the Armenians were still unharmed.
Mariam was now by the side of Pashaian, who showed great satisfaction.
“What will they do next?” asked Mariam.
“I don’t know, but you see now that it’s not the biggest noise that hurts the most. They’ll never get us with cannon fire. The only way they can do it is to attack the lowest part of our wall and make a bridge using their own bodies.”
“They are doing something now,” said Mariam, whose far-sighted vision served her well. “They are pulling down houses next to the channel.”
“Is that’s so?” said Pashaian, “but we won’t have to wait long to see what they’re about.”
Hundreds of Turks with wrecking tools had assailed three or four of the houses, which they quickly tore into pieces. Others ran forward with the timbers and began to build a bridge across the deep water.
“They want to cross over on that bridge and get into a position that’ll be closer,” said Pashaian, “but unless I’m mistaken those men yonder hard at work are already within range of our rifles. Shall we open fire, Colonel?”
He asked the question of Avietissian, who nodded. A picked band of Turks under General Jamshed were gathered in a mass and were rapidly fitting together the timbers of the houses to make the narrow bridge. But the reach of the Armenian rifles were far and Pypina Rabinovich was merely one among many sharpshooters.
The rifles began to flash and crack.
The Turks fell fast. In five minutes forty or fifty were killed, some of them falling into the channel; the rest, dropping the timbers, fled with shouts of horror from the fatal spot. General Jamshed, a brave man, sought to drive them back, but neither blows nor oaths availed. Jevdet Bey himself came and made many threats, but the men would not return. They preferred hanging as traitors to the muzzles of the Armenian rifles.
“That’s a bridge that will never be built,” said Pypina Rabinovich. “Live long enough to learn is a good way of going, I suppose, but a lot of those Turks neither learned long enough to live.”
“I think Jevdet Bey will realize now,” Avietissian said, “that he will have to bleed his men before a single one of them sets foot on these walls. Iif we only had six or seven hundred men, instead of less than a hundred and fifty!”
“We must send for help,” said Pashaian. “The numbers of Jevdet Bey continually increase, but we are not yet entirely surrounded.”
“I will send messengers tonight,” said Avietissian. “The Armenians are scattered, but it is likely that some will come.”
Jevdet Bey moved some of his batteries and also erected two new ones. When the work on the latter was finished all opened in another tremendous cannonade, lasting for fully an hour. The bank of smoke was heavier than ever and the roaring in Mariam’s ears was incessant, but while the fire was at its height she went down into the courtyard and cleaned her rifle. She took the precaution to remain in one of the covered doorways that opened up upon the square.
Soon Pypina Rabinovich joined her, busy with the same task. Before they finished a cannon ball dropped on the cobble stones, bounded against a wall and rebounded several times until it finally lay at rest.
Sybian called to them a few minutes later that the Turks seemed to be contemplating some movement on a lower wall that opened up upon the grand market square.
“Like as not you’re right,” said Pypina Rabinovich. “It would be the time to try it while our attention was attracted by the big cannonade.”
Pypina Rabinovich himself was detailed to meet the new movement and he led ten sharpshooters. Mariam went with him. Great quantities of smoke hung over Van and crept into Mariam’s throat and stung her eyes. They reached the low wall on a run, only to find that Sybian was right. A large force of Turks were approaching from that side, evidently expecting to make an opening under cover of the smoke.
The assailants were already within range; the deadly Armenian rifles began to crack at them once from the wall. The whole front line of the Ottoman column quickly disintegrated. The return fire of the Turks was hasty and irregular and they soon broke rank and fled.
“And that’s over,” said Pypina Rabinovich, as he sent a parting shot. “Mariam-jan, don’t let the idea that the Turks will always run every time we shoot at them. At some point soon they will have to try and storm the walls. Then our rifles won’t even act as good clubs at that range.”
“I understand, Pypina Rabinovich,” said Mariam. “You know that we may never get out of here alive.”
“You speak truth, au’cheek-jan,” said Pypina Rabinovich, soberly, using the Armenian term for my dear girl. “But remember that it’s a chance we take every day here in Turkey. And it’s pleasant to know that they’re all brave souls here together.”
“What are you going to do now?” asked Mariam.
“I’m going to eat dinner; after that I’ll take a nap. My advice to you is to do the same, ’cause you’ll be on watch tonight.”
She found that her appetite was all right; after dinner she lay down in the long room of the hospital. Here she heard the cannon of Jevdet Bey still thundering, but the walls softened the sound somewhat and made it seem much more distant. In a way it was soothing and Mariam slept. All that afternoon she was rocked into deeper slumber by the continuous roar of the Ottoman guns. Now and then a flash of rifle fire came from the Armenians in return. Smoke floated over the convent yard and through all the buildings, but it did not disturb her.
It was dark when she awoke. The fire of the cannon had now ceased and two or three lights were burning in the hospital. Pypina Rabinovich was already up; with some of the other men was eating at a table.
Mariam spent two-thirds of the night on the battlement wall. The Turks let the cannon rest in the darkness and only a few rifle shots were fired. But there were many lights in Van and on the outskirts two great bonfires burned. Jevdet Bey and his generals, feeling that their prey could not escape from the trap; caring little for the town folk who had been slain, were holding a festival.
That night Avietissian wrote a letter, an appeal to the Armenians of Ottoman Turkey for help. He stated that they had been under a continual bombardment for more than twenty-four hours many the number
of civilian casualties was not known but growing. “I shall never surrender or retreat,” he wrote. “Then I call on you in the name of brotherhood, of God and of everything dear to the Armenian soul, to come to our aid with all dispatch.”
At midnight Avietissian gave it to Kakig Kazandjian. Then he looked around for another messenger.
“Two should go in case of trouble,” he said.
His eyes fell upon Mariam.
“If you wish to go I will send you,” he said, “but I leave it to your choice. If you prefer to stay, you can.”
Mariam’s first impulse was to go. She might find Hayran, Diradour and Ashtî out there and bring them back with her, but her second impulse told her that it was only a chance and she would abide with Pypina Rabinovich and Pashaian.
“I thank you for the offer, but I think that I’ll stay,” she said.
She saw Pypina Rabinovich give her a swift approving glance. Another was quickly chosen in her stead and Mariam was there with them when they dropped over the low wall and disappeared in the darkness. Her comrades and she listened attentively a long time, but as they heard no sound of shots they were sure that they were now safe beyond the Ottoman lines.
“I don’t want to discourage anybody,” said Pashaian, “but I’m not hoping much from the messengers. We Armenians are scattered too widely.”
“No, they can’t bring many back,” agreed Pypina Rabinovich, “but every body counts. Sometimes it takes mighty little to turn the tale and we mean to turn it.”
“I hope so,” said Pashaian. “If Van falls there will be no power strong enough to stop the Sultan from wiping the last Armenian off the face of the earth.”
The Ottoman cannon were silent for the rest of that night and Mariam slept deeply, awaking only when the dawn of a clear day came. She ate breakfast with as good an appetite and she talked with her new comrades as if Jevdet Bey and his army were a thousand miles away.
But when she did go upon the city wall she saw that Jevdet Bey had begun work again and at a new place. The Ottoman general, having seen that his artillery was doing no damage, began making a great effort to get within much closer range. Men protected by heavy planking or advancing along trenches were seeking to erect a battery within less than three hundred yards of the entrance to the main gate. They had already thrown up a part of a breastwork. Meanwhile the Armenian sharpshooters were waiting for their chance.
Mariam took no part in it except that of a spectator. But Pypina Rabinovich, Pashaian and a dozen others were crouched on the wall with their rifles. Presently a lax Ottoman showed above the earthwork. It was Pypina Rabinovich who slew him, but Pashaian took the next. Then the other rifles flashed fast, eight or ten Turks were shot down and the rest fled. Once more the Armenian rifles had slowed the Bey’s plans down.
Mariam wondered why Jevdet Bey had endeavored to place the battery there in the daytime. It could be done at night, when it was impossible for the Armenians to aim their rifles so well. Knowing now what might be done at night, Mariam passed the day in a slow anxiety.
Unluckily for the Armenians, the night was the darkest of the month. No bonfires burned in camps; there were no sounds of music. It seemed to Mariam that the silence and darkness were sure indications of action on the part of the foe.
She felt more lonely and depressed than at any other time so far in the siege and she was glad when Pypina Rabinovich and a young Ottoman deserter called Constantine joined her. Pypina Rabinovich had not lost any of his whimsical good humor and when Mariam suggested that Jevdet
Bey was likely to profit by the dark he replied: “If he is the general I take him to be he will, or at least try, but meanwhile we’ll just wait; look; listen. That’s the way to find out if things are going to happen. We’ll just rest easy. If the Tzar taught me anything it is your enemies will come to you, why go out and look?”
“You’ve seen a lot in your life, Mr. Pypina Rabinovich,” said Mariam.
Pypina Rabinovich laughed low, but deep in his throat and with much pleasure.
“So I have!” he replied, “I’ve rambled pretty far from east to west and all the way from Budapest in the west to the islands in Greece and that must be some thousands of miles. And I’ve had some gay old times in Paris, too.”
“You’ve been in Paris?” said Mariam with quick interest. “The City of Lights!”
“And lovers,” the older Russian replied with a wink. “There are thousands and thousands of buildings for miles and miles. I saw the Notre Dame cathedral and it’s a mighty fine building, too, for a church.”
“I’d like to see that,” said Mariam.
“Maybe you will some day,” said Pypina Rabinovich, “If you go you have to go to the theaters. Au’cheek-jan, I saw the great Sarah Bernhardt play there and she is one of the finest women that ever walked onto a stage. I saw her first as Portia in that play of Shakespeare play where she was the woman lawyer. She was fine to see, the way she could change her voice and looks was a clean miracle. If ever I need a lawyer I want her to act for me.”
The three sat in the dark and thought for a while.
“I don’t like cities,” Mariam broke the silence. “They crowd in on me too much, but I think I would like the theater. We don’t have much chance to travel right now, do we, Constantine?”
The young Turk smiled in the dark.
“I come a small village by the sea,” he said. “I have never seen Paris or a theater. Or even Constantinople. We passed by it as we marched east, but it really isn’t the same.”
“Story telling time must be over soon,” said Pypina Rabinovich, “the Turks must be moving out there. Do you hear anything, Mariam?”
“Nothing but a little wind.”
“Then my ears must be deceiving me. I’ve used them such a long time that I guess they feel they’ve got a right to trick me once in a while.”
But Mariam was thinking just then of the great city which she wanted to see some day as Pypina Rabinovich had seen it. Her mind came back with a jerk. She did hear something in the dark, the tread of horses and the sound of wheels moving. She called the attention of Pypina Rabinovich to the noises.
“Huh,” said Pypina Rabinovich. “Jevdet Bey is planting his battery under the cover of the night and I don’t see how we’re going to keep him from doing that.”
The best of the Armenian sharpshooters lined the walls but the darkness was too great to reveal anything. Avietissian, Pashaian and Pypina Rabinovich considered the possibility of sending out a party
but they decided that it had no chance of success. The few Armenians would be overwhelmed along the coast by the thousands of Turks.
But all the leaders were uneasy. If the Ottoman batteries were brought much closer, protected as they were by earthworks and other fortifications, Van would be much more vulnerable. It was decided to
send another messenger for help and Mariam saw Sybian drop over the wall and slip away in the darkness. He was to go to Kars, where General Nazarbekian had over three hundred men and bring them in haste.
When Sybian was gone Mariam returned to her place on the wall. For hours she heard the distant sound of voices, the heavy clank of metal against metal and she knew full well that Jevdet Bey was planting his batteries. At last she went to her place in the long room of the hospital and slept.
When dawn came Mariam sprang up and rushed to the wall. There was the battery of Jevdet Bey only three hundred yards from the entrance to the main gate and to the southeast, but little further away, was another. The Turks had worked well during the night.
“They’re creeping closer, Mariam-jan,” said Pypina Rabinovich, who had come to the wall before her, “though at this range I don’t think their cannon will do us much harm.”
But even as he spoke the two batteries opened at the same time and the Ottoman soldiers in the rear, out of range, began a tremendous cheering. Many more of the balls and shells now fell inside the city, but the Armenian defenders stayed well under cover. The Ottoman gunners, in their turn, kept so well protected that the Armenian riflemen had little chance of hitting anything.
The great bombardment lasted an hour, but when it ceased and the smoke lifted, Mariam saw a heavy mass of Ottoman cavalry on the eastern road.
Both Mariam and Pypina Rabinovich took a long look at the cavalry, some carrying rifles and others simply with sabers. Mariam believed that she recognized Ivedik in the lead but the distance was too great for certainty. But when she spoke of it to Pypina Rabinovich he borrowed Avietissian’s field glasses.
“Take these,” he said, “and if it’s that beloved enemy of yours is out there I am sure you’ll soon tell.”
The woman, with the aid of the glasses, recognized Ivedik at once. The man was in the uniform of a Ottoman captain and with a cocked fez upon his head sat on his horse haughtily. Mariam knew that he, like Jevdet Bey, expected the siege to obliterate the little band of Armenians in a day or two.
“It is indeed Ivedik,” said Mariam. “Now what are they gathering cavalry out there for? They can’t expect to gallop over our walls.”
“They probably expect we will abandon Van and try to slip out. They’re throwing together what we might call roadblocks.”
“Pity,” said Mariam. “They’re almost within rifle shot now.”
“Wait here, Mariam-jan,”the Russian said suddenly, standing up, “I’ll have a talk with Avietissian and Pashaian.”
It was obvious to Mariam that Pypina Rabinovich’s talk with the commander and his second was satisfactory, because when he returned his face was in a broad grin. Pashaian, moreover, came with him; his brown eyes were lighted up with the fire of battle.
“It’s time we teach them some manners,”said Pypina Rabinovich, “Come along, Mariam-jan, I’ll watch over you.”
A force of seventy or eighty was formed quickly and, hidden from the view of the Turks, they rushed down the main city street and climbed the low walls. The Ottoman cavalry outnumbered them four or five to one, but the Armenians stayed close together.
“Now, up with your rifles!” cried their leader.
Pashaian was a product of the endless wars the Young Turks had fought and lost against a whole range of nations. It had created a hard-boiled and unhesitating man who shouted trigger-happy words of command to his men.
The sudden appearance of the Armenian riflemen outside the city walls took Ivedik by surprise, but he was quick of sense and action and his cavalrymen were the best in the Ottoman army. He wheeled them into line with a few words of command and shouted to them to charge. Pashaian’s men instantly stopped, forming a rough line, their rifles to their shoulders. Ivedik’s soldiers who carried rifles opened a hasty and excited fire at some distance away.
Mariam heard the bullets singing over her head to strike the wall or kick up dust in front of the Armenians, but only two of their fell. The Ottoman rifles now empty, the horsemen drew their sabers and charged in an almost solid group, the silver sunlight flashing across their long blades.
There was a moment of terrible waiting and then at the command of Pashaian their rifles flashed together in one tremendous explosion.
As soon as they had fired the Armenians drew back, ready for anything that might come galloping through the smoke. But nothing did. When the smoke lifted they saw that all of the Ottoman cavalry was gone. Fallen men were thick on the ground and long rifles lay across them. Some of the horses, riderless, were galloping away to right and left; unhorsed men were running to the rear. But Ivedik had escaped unharmed. Mariam saw him trying to reform his shattered force.
“Be ready for them before they come again!” shouted Pashaian.
These were skilled sharpshooters and every rifle was loaded when the second charge of Ivedik’s swept down upon them. No need of a command from Pashaian now. The Armenians picked their targets and fired straight into the dense group.
“At them with your knives and pistols!” shouted Pashaian. “Don’t give them another chance!”
The Armenians rushed forward and Mariam in the smoke became separated from her comrades. When she could see more clearly she beheld Ivedik wheeling his steed around.
The two recognized each other instantly. The Ottoman had the advantage. He was on horseback and the smoke was in Mariam’s eyes. With a shout of triumph, he rode straight at the woman and made a fierce sweep with his cavalry saber. Mariam ducked and dodged to one side and as she came up again she fired.
Ivedik was protected largely by his horse’s neck but the bullet struck and the horse fell. The man scrambled to his feet and, still holding the saber, sprang at his foe. Mariam snatched up her rifle, which lay on the ground at her feet; received the slash of the sword upon its barrel. The blade broke in two; then, swinging her now empty rifle, Mariam struck.
The Turk sprang back quickly, but the butt of the rifle grazed his face and drew blood. The next moment other combatants came between and Ivedik dashed away into the mists. Mariam, about to rush after him, felt Pashaian seize her arm and pulled her back.
“No further, Mariam!” he cried. “We’ve scattered their cavalry the whole Ottoman army will be upon us at any moment!”
Mariam heard far away the beat of flying hoofs. Pashaian quickly gathered together his men and carrying with them two who had been killed in the fight they retreated rapidly to the wall, the Armenian
cannon firing over their heads at the advancing Ottoman infantry. In three or four minutes they were inside the city again and with their comrades.
The Ottoman cavalry did not reappear upon the eastern road and the Armenians were exultant, yet they had lost two good men and their joy soon gave way to more solemn feelings. It was decided to bury the
slain at once in the court yard of the church and a common grave was made for them. It took only a few minutes to dig and the men, laid side by side, were covered with their cloaks. While the shovels were yet at work the Ottoman cannons opened anew upon Van. A ball fell in the church yard and burst, but too far away to hurt anybody.
Pypina Rabinovich said a few words and then they threw the dirt down on top of the fallen.
When Mariam walked away she felt to the full the deep solemnity of the moment. The death of the two men now cast an ominous light over the situation. The Ottoman lines were being drawn closer and closer about Van and she was compelled to realize the slenderness of their chances.
The woman resumed her place on the wall, remaining throughout the afternoon and watched the coming of the night. Pypina Rabinovich joined her and together they saw troops of Turks marching away from the main body, some to right and some to left.
“Stretching their lines around the Quarters,” said Pypina Rabinovich. “Jevdet Bey means to close us in entirely after a while”
Even as he talked a bullet sang by his head and flattened against the wall. He and Mariam dropped down just in time. Other bullets thudded against the stone. Nevertheless, Mariam lifted her head above the edge of the parapet and took a look. Her eyes swept a circle and she saw little puffs of smoke coming from newly established embankments and she knew at once that the best of the Ottoman sharpshooters had hidden themselves there. She called Pypina Rabinovich’s attention to this point of danger and the former Tzar officer grew very serious.
“We’ve got to get them out some way or other,” he said. “As I said before, the cannon balls make a big fuss, but they don’t come so often and they come at random. Mariam, we’ve got to drive those Turks out of there some way or other.”
The bullets from the shooters now swept the walls and the Armenian cannons fired upon the embankment, but the balls thudded into the earth and seemed to do no harm. Triumphant shouts came from the Turks. Their own batteries resumed the cannonade, while their sheltered riflemen sent in the bullets faster and faster.
Pypina Rabinovich tapped the barrel of his rifle significantly.
“We must get rid of those wasps.”
“How?” asked Mariam.
“You come along with me and I’ll show you,” said Pypina Rabinovich. “I’m going to have a talk with Avietissian and if he agrees with me we’ll soon wipe out that wasps’ nest.”
Pypina Rabinovich briefly announced his plan. They were to pick sixty riflemen, twenty of whom would bear torches. They would rush out at one of a side gate, storm the embankment, set fire to all that could burn and then rush back to Van.
Avietissian hesitated. The plan seemed impossible to execute in face of the great Ottoman force. But Pashaian had no doubts about his Russian seconded Pypina Rabinovich and at last the commander gave his consent. Mariam at once asked to go with the attack and the band gathered in a close body by one of the gates. The torches were long sticks lighted at the end and burned strongly. The men had already cocked their rifles and all were very quiet.
The Armenian cannons, to cover the movement, opened fire from the walls and the riflemen, posted at various points, shot at everything they could see. The Ottoman cannonade increased. When the thunder and crash were at their height the gate was suddenly thrown open and the sixty dashed out. Drifting smoke hid them partially and they were almost upon the embankment before they were discovered.
A great shout came from the Turks when they saw the Armenians outside once again and bullets from the attackers began to knock up grass and dust about them. But Pypina Rabinovich himself, waving a torch, led them on, shouting: “It’s only a step! It’s only a step! Now, let them have it!”
The Armenians fired as they rushed, but they took care to secure good aim. The Turks were driven back and then the Armenians carrying the torches dashed to the stores of ammunition left behind. Within seconds everything that could burn was and a light wind fanned the flames, which joined together and leaped up, a roaring pyramid.
Pypina Rabinovich, with a shout of triumph, flung down his torch.
“Now!” he cried. “Here’s the end of them sharpshooter.”
The little band wheeled for its homeward rush. Mariam heard a great shout from the Turkish lines and then the hissing and singing of shells and cannon balls over her head. She saw Turks running across the flat ground to cut them off and looking around Mariam realized a number of her comrades had been wounded. But nobody had fallen and they raced on in a close group for the gate, which seemed to recede as they moved.
“A few more steps, Mariam!” cried Pypina Rabinovich,
The Armenian cannons over their heads now fired into the pursuing Ottoman masses and the sharpshooters on the walls rained down deadly hail. The Turks recoiled once more and then Pypina Rabinovich’s party reached the gate.
“All here!” cried Pypina Rabinovich, as the gates slammed shut, but his face fell when he saw Constantine stagger. Pypina Rabinovich caught him in his arms and bore him into the hospital. He and Mariam watched by his side until he died, spitting up blood.
They buried him that night beside the other two and Mariam was more solemn than ever when she sought her usual place in the hospital by the wall. It had been a day of victory for the Armenians, but the omens, nevertheless, seemed to her to be bad.
The next day she saw the Turks spreading further and further about Van and they were in such strong force that the Armenians could now no longer afford to go out and attack as they had the day before. A cold rain fell, not unusual for this time of year in the mountains, but as she was not on duty Mariam went back to the hospital, where she sat in silence.
The bombardment was renewed in the afternoon but Mariam stayed in her place in the hospital. After a while Pypina Rabinovich and several others joined her there. Pypina Rabinovich was his usual humorous self and told more stories of his trips to the cities of Europe.
“Au’cheek-jan,” he said, “The Ottoman circle around Van is almost complete. Isn’t that so?”
“Then I’ll say what we all know. Three or four days from now the chances will be a hundred to one against any of us ever getting out of here. And you’re the youngest of the defenders, Mariam, so I want you to slip out tonight while there’s yet time. Maybe you can round up someone to come to our help.”
Mariam looked straight at Pypina Rabinovich and the old man’s eyes wavered.
“If you think to get me out of the way,” Mariam replied, “Because I’m a woman so I ought to go off alone at night and save my own life you are wrong. I’m not going. I intend to stay here and fight it out with the rest of you.”
“I meant for the best,” said Pypina Rabinovich.
“Couldn’t think of it,” said Mariam lightly.
The two friends sat in the dark and stared at each other.
“Besides,” she answered, “I’ve got a password in case we run into Jevdet Bey.”
“What’s that?” asked Pypina Rabinovich curiously.
“It’s the single word ‘Yarjanian.’ Mr. Yarjanian told me if I were taken by Jevdet Bey to mention his name.”
“The poet that left us?” said Pypina Rabinovich musingly. “I’ve heard a lot of Atom Yarjanian but I have no idea how his name will be any use. Weren’t they going to shoot him? No matter, Mariam, if the time should ever come, don’t you forget to use that password.”
The next night was dark and chilly with gusts of rain. In the afternoon the Ottoman cannonade slowed and at night it ceased entirely. Van itself, except for a few small lights within various buildings, was kept entirely dark in order that Turkish sharpshooters might not find a target.
Mariam was on watch near one of the lower walls near the church. The time went on very slowly. She walked back and forth a long time, occasionally meeting other guards and exchanging a few words with them. As she paced she noticed the dim figure of one of the guards going toward the convent yard and the church.
Mariam took only a single glance at the man, but she rather envied him. The man was going off duty early; he would soon be asleep in a warm place under a roof. She did not think of him again until a full hour later, when she, too, going off duty; saw a figure in the dark passing along the inner edge of the market square. The walk and figure reminded her of the man whom she had seen an hour before and she wondered why anyone who could have been asleep under shelter should have returned to the cold and rain.
She decided to follow, but the figure flitted away before her down a street and toward the lowest part of the wall. This was doubly curious. Mariam followed swiftly and saw the figure mounting the wall, as if to take position there as a sentinel; then the truth came to her in a flash.
Mariam rushed forward, shouting. The man turned, snatched a pistol and fired. The bullet whistled past Mariam’s head. The next moment the Turk dropped over the wall and fled away in the darkness.
Mariam’s report created some alarm among the defenders of Van, but it passed quickly.
“I don’t see just how it can help them,” said Pypina Rabinovich. “He’s found out that we’re few in number. They already knew that. And so here we all are, Armenians on one side and Turks on the other, just where we stood before.”
Nevertheless, the onslaught rose to a fiercer pitch of intensity the next day. The Turks seemed to have an unlimited supply of ammunition and they rained balls and shells on Van. From the reports Mariam heard it seemed the civilian causalities were growing with each passing bombardment. The Armenians did not reply from the shelter of their walls for a long time.
At last the Turks came closer, emboldened perhaps by the thought that resistance was crushed; then the Armenian sharpshooters opened fire with their long-barreled rifles. So many of the Turks fell that
the remainder retreated with speed, leaving their fallen behind them. But when the smoke lifted others came forward under a white flag and the Armenians allowed them to take away their dead.
The cannonade now became sporadic. All the Ottoman cannons would fire continuously for a half hour or so; then would ensue a silence of perhaps an hour.
In the afternoon Avietissian was taken very ill to the point he could no longer stand so a bed was made for him in the hospital. Mariam sat there with him a while. The gentle mood that had distinguished the former lawyer throughout the siege was even more marked now.
“Mariam,” he said, “you ought to have gone out the other night when we wanted you to go. General Nazarbekian may come to our help or he may not, but even if he should come I don’t think his force is sufficient. It would merely increase the number of Armenians who are about to die.”
“I’ve quite made up my mind that I won’t go,” said Mariam.
“I’m sorry,” said Avietissian, sweating heavily even though the air was chill.
Mariam was on the watch again for part of the next night and she and Pypina Rabinovich were together. They heard sounds made by the besiegers on every side of them. Turks were calling to Kurds. Bridle bits rattled and metal clanked against metal.
“I suppose the circle is complete,” said Mariam.
“Looks like it,” said Pypina Rabinovich, “but we’ve got water to drink and only a direct attack in force could take us. They can bang away with their cannon till the Second Coming and they won’t shake our grip on Van.”
The night was fairly dark; an hour later Mariam heard a whistle. Pypina Rabinovich heard it, too; stiffened instantly into attention.
“Did that sound to you like a Ottoman whistling?” she asked.
“No, I’d say it came from Armenian lips; I’d take it also for a signal.”
Pypina Rabinovich emitted a whistle, low but clear and penetrating, almost like the song of a night bird and in a half minute came the rejoinder. He replied to it briefly; then they waited. Others had gathered at the low wall with them. They peered over the parapet.
They heard soft footsteps in the darkness and then dim forms emerged. Despite the darkness they knew them to be Armenians and Pypina Rabinovich spoke low: “Here we are waiting for you! This way and in a half minute you’re in Van!”
The men ran forward, scaled the wall and were quickly inside. They were only thirty-two. Mariam had thought that Ashtî, Hayran; Diradour might be among them, but they were not there. The new men were shaking hands with the others and were explaining that they had come from Erzurum with Captain Gorgodian at their head. They were all well armed, carried much ammunition; were sure that other parties would arrive from different points.
The thirty-two were full of rejoicings over their successful entry, but they were worn, nevertheless; they were taken into one of the buildings, where food and water were set before them.
“We had a hard time to get in here to you,” said Gorgodian, “and from the looks of things I reckon we’ll have as hard a time to get out. There must be half a million Turks around Van. We tried to get up a bigger force, but we couldn’t gather any more without waiting; we thought if you needed us at all you needed us in a hurry.”
“You’re right about the need of being in a hurry,” said Pypina Rabinovich.
“We couldn’t have gotten here any quicker. The wind was blowing our way; in the afternoon we heard the roaring of cannon a long distance off. The Turks had scouts and skirmishers everywhere so we hid up in the foothills and waited until dark. It was touch and go. Wherever we went we found Turks, thousands of them.”
“We’ve noticed a few ourselves,” said Pypina Rabinovich.
“We know that Jevdet Bey himself is out there,” replied Gorgodian gravely, “and that the Turks have got a big army. That’s the reason we came, Pypina Rabinovich, because the odds are so heavy against you.”
The new force was small but they brought with them encouragement. Mariam shared in the general uplift. These new faces gave fresh vigor to the little garrison and they brought news of that outside world from which she seemed to have been shut off so long. They told of numerous reinforcements sure to come to their relief, but she soon noticed that they could not elaborate on who might answer the call. She felt with now certainty that Van had all the defenders that it would ever have.
Repeated examinations from the walls of the city confirmed Mariam in her belief. The Ottoman circle was complete; their sheltered batteries were so near that they dropped balls and shells whenever they pleased inside the city. Duels between their cannons and the Armenian sharpshooters were frequent. The gunners as they worked their guns were forced to show themselves at times; every exposure was a signal for a Armenian bullet which rarely missed. But the Turks kept on. It seemed that they intended to wear out the defenders by the sheer doggedness of their cannon fire.
As she passed down the main street of the city she met Pypina Rabinovich and the two walked on together. Presently they entered an improvised armory where many Armenians sat, molding bullets. A fire had been built on the hearth and they made room for the two. Mariam knew that their supplies of bullets and cannon bombs were running low and that they must reduce their fire from the walls in order that they might have sufficient to meet an attack in force.
Mariam watched as a woman, a volunteer civilian, put a bar of lead into a ladle; held it over the fire until it became molten. Then she poured it into the mold, closed it; when she opened it again a slug dropped out. They worked hour after hour and the woman would give a smile every once in a while as she watched her heap of bullets grow.
Pypina Rabinovich at last said they had done enough for one day and Mariam was glad when they went outside and breathed the fresh air again. There was no firing at that time; they climbed once more upon the wall. Pashaian, who was further along the wall with a pair of strong field glasses, came back and joined Mariam and Pypina Rabinovich.
“If you would like to see Jevdet Bey you can,” he said to Mariam. “he is standing on one of the embankments they built now with his generals looking at us.”
Mariam took the glasses and there was Jevdet Bey standing directly in the middle of his army with his own glasses to his eyes, studying Van and its defenders. About him stood a half dozen generals. The man must feel secure, Mariam thought, in his overwhelming numbers. He would take the Armenians in his own good time, that is, whenever he felt like it.
Mariam handed the glasses to Pypina Rabinovich, who also took a long look.
“I’ve heard a lot of Jevdet Bey,” he finally said, “and maybe I’ll meet him one day eye to eye.”
Pashaian simply nodded and then said, “but we’ve got to wait on the Turks. It’s always for them to make the move; then we’ll meet it if we can. I wish we could hear from Sybian. I’m afraid he’s been taken.”
“Not likely,” said Pypina Rabinovich. “One man, all alone and as quick of foot as Sybian, would make his way safely, I am sure of it.”
Once again Pashaian simply nodded.
“If our family and friends are made to realize our situation they will surely come, no matter how far away they may be.”
“I hope they will,” said Pypina Rabinovich. But Mariam noticed that he did not seem to speak with any amount of confidence. The Armenian villages were tiny and for years the Ottomans had been rounding up as many Armenians as they could find. Those they did not shoot immediately were marched away. Mariam had no idea where they went but sufficient to say none ever came back. Whole villages disappeared this way and even if they were to raise fifty or sixty thousands they would still be against everything the Young Turks had at their disposal. Mariam did not believe that in any event they could gather a force great enough to cut their way through Jevdet Bey’s multitude.
The next night, about halfway between midnight and morning, in the darkest hour, a man scaled the wall and dropped inside the city. It proved to be Sybian himself, pale, worn, covered with mud and dust, but bringing good news. Mariam was present when he came into the church and was met by Pashaian, Pypina Rabinovich and Gorgodian.
“General Nazarbekian has left Kars with four hundred men and four cannon to join us,” Sybian explained. “He started five days ago and he should be here soon. With his rifles and big guns he’ll be able to cut his way through the Turks and enter Van.”
“At last!” said Pashaian, with enthusiasm.
But Mariam steadily watched Pypina Rabinovich. She noticed that he did not say anything and that he listened with a growing sense of disbelief.
The next day everybody in Van knew that Sybian had come from General Nazarbekian and the whole place was abuzz with talk. As Mariam reckoned, it was about one hundred and fifty miles from Van to Kars, but according to Sybian General Nazarbekian had already been five days on the way and they should hear soon the thunder of Turkish guns.
She went up on the wall and scanned the coast but the only thing she saw were Turks.
They watched that day and the next through all the bombardment but they heard no report of General Nazarbekian or his guns. The only flashes of fire they saw outside were those that came from the mouths of Ottoman cannons. The sun, huge, red and vivid, sank in the waters of the lake and, as the shadows crept over Van, Mariam was sure in her heart that General Nazarbekian would never come.
Night had come, Mariam sat once more with her friend, Pypina Rabinovich. The two heard outside the fitful crackle of rifle fire, but they paid no attention to it. Avietissian, shivering with fever, sat a table with a small tallow candle at his elbow, writing his last message.
Mariam was watching the commander as he wrote. But she saw no expression of despair or even discouragement on Avietissian’s face. The letter, which a messenger would carry once more through the lines, told again how few were his defenders and how the balls and bombs were raining almost continuously for days upon Van. Even as his pen was poised they heard the heavy thud of a cannon, but the pen descended steadily and he wrote:
“I shall continue to hold until we get relief or perish in its defense.”
He wrote on a little longer and once more came the heavy thuds of the great guns and a shell, falling in the church courtyard outside, burst with a great crash. Mariam went out and returned with a report that the roof of one of the houses nearby had caved in and was burning.
Avietissian closed the letter and addressed it. An hour later the messenger was beyond the Ottoman lines, but Avietissian sat for a long time at the table, unmoving and silent. Perhaps he was blaming himself for not having discovered the advance of Jevdet Bey sooner. But he had never been trained as a soldier and since the siege of Van had started he had done all that he could do.
He rose at last, despite the fever and went out. Then Pypina Rabinovich said to Mariam:
“He has given up all hope of help.”
“So have I,” said Mariam.
“But we can still fight,” said Pypina Rabinovich.
“Au’cheek-jan,” the Russian said, “I’ve never had a daughter. My wife died many years ago. But if God ever let me do this life over again I would have been a proud father if my daughter was anything like you.”
Mariam looked at the old man and now it was her turn to walk slowly toward the door. But this time it was not in despair but terrible wonder.
The day went on and Avietissian was again in the hospital, having been severely bruised in a fall from one of the walls, but his spirit was as audacious as ever.
“The assault by the Turks in full force cannot be delayed much longer,” he said to Mariam. “Jevdet Bey is impatient and I am sure he has brought up all his forces by this time.”
“Do you think we can hold them off?” asked Mariam.
Avietissian hesitated a little; then he replied frankly: “No. I do not. We have only one hundred and twenty or thirty men to guard the whole of the city.”
The Ottoman batteries fired very little that day and Jevdet Bey’s soldiers kept well out of range. The silence seemed ominous and brooding to Mariam. The day was bright; Mariam saw Turkish officers occasionally out on the giving orders, but she took little notice of them. She felt instinctively that the supreme crisis had not yet come. They were all simply waiting.
The afternoon drew its slow length in almost dead silence and the night came on rather blacker than usual. Then the word was passed for all to assemble in the courtyard. They gathered there, Avietissian dragging his sick body with the rest. The cannons and the walls were for a moment deserted. Every defender of Van was present.
Pashaian stood before them and spoke to them.
“Brothers and sisters,” he said, “all of you know what I know, that we stand alone. No help is coming for us. The Armenians cannot send it or it would have come. For ten days we have beaten off every attack of a large army. But another assault in much greater force is at hand. It is not likely that we can repel it.”
He paused and looked and the faces surrounding him. After a pause he said:
“Jevdet Bey never gives mercy. It is likely that we shall all fall, but, if anyone wishes to go, I, your leader, do not order you to stay. There still a chance to escape over the walls and in the darkness. Now go and save your lives if you can.”
Mariam mounted the wall once again. The deep silence which marked the beginning of the night still prevailed. After so much noise, it was ominous and oppressive. Fewer lights than usual burned in the city and in the Ottoman camp. They had not heard any shots and for that reason some felt that the messenger had got through with Avietissian’s last letter.
The evening wore on and at 11 o’clock she sought her usual place for sleep in the hospital. It was full now of wounded. Many had bled to death where they were place since the Turkish bombs were designed to explode and scatter white hot metal everywhere. Some were awake since there was no medicine left to give to them but most were now asleep, overpowered by exhaustion. Mariam crept into her own dark little corner and she, too, was soon asleep.
She was awakened about four hours later by someone pulling hard at her arm. She opened her eyes and stared sleepily. It was Pypina Rabinovich bending over her and, Avietissian lying on his sick bed ten feet away, had raised himself on her elbow. The light was so faint that Mariam could scarcely see Pypina Rabinovich’s face, but it looked very tense and eager.
“Get up, Mariam-jan! Get up!” said Pypina Rabinovich, shaking her again.
“Why, what is it?” exclaimed the woman, springing to her feet.
“It’s your friends, Yarjanian and that Turk woman, Ashtî,” replied Pypina Rabinovich in quick tones. “While you were asleep an Ottoman, friendly to us, sneaked a message over the wall saying that Yarjanian, Ashtî; others were laying to the east with a big force not more than twenty miles away.”
“General Nazarbekian has made it at last!”
“No, not Nazarbekian’s troops but some rough riders that come down from the north. They don’t know whether we’re holding out yet or not and do not want to attack the rear of the army if we are all dead. I need someone to go to Yarjanian with the news that we’re still fighting. Colonel Pashaian has chose you and you’ve got to go. You’re just to tell Yarjanian by word of mouth and then fight your way back.”
Mariam’s head spun for a moment. She did not have time to argue or ask questions. Avietissian also added with urgency. “Go, Mariam-jan, go at once!” he said. “You are chosen for a great service. It’s an honor to anybody!”
“It’s suicide anyway you look at,” said Pypina Rabinovich, “but if anyone can survive this you can, daughter.”
Mariam sagged for a moment. This was, in truth, a great honor if she could bring the help they desperately needed.
“Here’s your rifle,” said Pypina Rabinovich. “The night is at its darkest and you don’t have time to waste. Come!”
So swift was Pypina Rabinovich that Mariam was ready almost before she knew it. The Russian never ceased hurrying her. But as she started, Avietissian called to her: “Good-by, my dear Mariam.”
The woman turned back and offered her hand. The young lawyer shook it with unusual warmth and then lay back calmly on his blankets.
“We will meet again,” said Mariam. “We’ll fight our way back, just watch.”
“On with you!” cried Pypina Rabinovich.
Mariam wrapped her dark traveling robes around her and with her rifle over her shoulder Pypina Rabinovich escorted her into the church yard.
The soft wind from the lake blew upon their faces and from the high wall a sentinel called: “All’s well!” Mariam felt an extraordinary shiver, a premonition, but it passed, unexplained. She and Pypina Rabinovich reached the lowest part of the wall.
“It’s about three o’clock in the morning now,” her friend told her, “and you’ve got to slip through in two or three hours which will still be cutting it close. Now, Mariam, up with you and over.”
Mariam climbed to the summit of the wall. Beyond lay heavy darkness and she neither saw nor heard any human being. She looked back and extended her hand to Pypina Rabinovich as she had to Avietissian.
“Good-by, father,” she said, “I am about to make you proud of your daughter.”
The great hand of the Russian clasped onto hers. “You already have, my heart. You already have.”
“Good-by,” said Mariam and she dropped lightly to the ground.
In the dark she flattened herself against the wall and stood there for a minute or two, looking and listening. She thought she might hear Pypina Rabinovich again inside, but evidently the Russian had gone back at once. In front of her was only the darkness, pierced by a single light off toward the west.
Mariam hesitated. It was hard for her to leave Van and the friends, yet her mission was one of vital importance, it might save them all. She started across an open space, walking lightly.
As she advanced she heard voices and saw earthworks from which the muzzles of four cannons protruded. Behind the earthwork was a small fire and she knew that men would be sitting about it. She was in a fever of haste and she made for a point between two smoldering camp fires fifty or sixty yards apart. Boldness only would now avail and with her robes pulled together she began making her slow way through the enemy.
It struck her odd that no guards had been posted. Indeed, the lax state of affairs in the Ottoman encampment seemed singularly out of place considering their enemy was so near.
She had been slowly moving forward for over an hour and could feel the roar of blood in her ears. As she was passing a large collection of tents one of the flaps opened and out strode Ivedik Bey accompanied by two bulky guards. The two stopped short and stared at each other. A number of Ottoman soldiers were asleep around a nearby fire, but at least a half dozen men were awake.
Even as Mariam turned to run Ivedik’s bodyguards rushed forward and tackled her to the earth, pinning her until, at Ivedik’s command, her arms were tied and she was allowed to rise.
Mariam was in despair, not so much for herself but because there was no longer a chance that she could get through to Yarjanian. And to add insult to injury it had been by Ivedik himself. But she faced the Turk with an appearance of calmness.
“I see,” Mariam began, “that I am your prisoner.”
The black eyes of the officer regarded Mariam smugly. The woman knew that he could shoot her down at that moment but she recalled the words of Yarjanian. The poet had told her to use his name if she should ever fall again into the hands of the enemy.
“By the Prophet’s beard! Woman, you keep popping up in the worse of possible places,” the Turkish officer laughed.
“I am your prisoner,” she repeated, “and I demand to be taken before your Jevdet Bey. Whatever you assume now there are reasons why he will spare me.”
“I shall take you to the great Bey,” he said, “since his apatite for Armenian women is legendary. But I believe that before he takes you, you will be telling us all you know. We have ways of making even the hardest of our enemies talk.”
The Turk walked Mariam through the Ottoman camp. Already in the dim gray of morning Mariam could see the walls of the dark city walls from which she had slipped but a few hours before with such high hopes. She even saw the figures of the Armenian sentinels, moving slowly on the walls and her heart grew heavy within her.
“What exactly were you thinking of walking into our very arms?” asked the Ottoman. “If it had been anyone else I would have said trying to save your traitorous skin but if it had been anyone else I would have just shot you as you stood.”
Mariam said nothing but Ivedik, enjoying the moment, kept on: “What chance did you think you had here?”
He swept his right hand in a circle;, in the early dawn light, Mariam saw batteries and troops everywhere. She knew that the circle about Van was complete. Perhaps she would have failed in her mission even had she got by. It would require an army half a million strong to cut through to save Van; she knew Yarjanian could never have found such a miracle in the mountains of the Caucasus.
“I see that you look at Van,” said Ivedik ironically. “If only you traitorous Armenians had not sided with the Tzar and taken up arms against us none of this would have happened.”
Mariam’s color rose.
“You might think you’ve won,” Mariam replied quietly, “but no one will ever believe that a tenth of the Ottoman empire’s population suddenly decided to revolt after centuries of loyalty. The Young Turks have done everything in their power to massacre my people and the moment one of us cried out to stop you accuse all Armenians everywhere of being traitors. You will be known as a race of butchers.”
“Who cares about that, eh?” Ivedik replied. “Nobody cares about the fate of some miserable peasants. No, Europe will play along with everything we say since we will be busy fighting the Bolsheviks for
them. You will end up being just a smudged name on a map and people will ask, ‘who remembers the Armenians?’”
The woman had eyes and ears for everything around her. Out here with the Turks, where she could see all their overwhelming force and their extensive preparations, the chances of the Armenians looked worse than they did inside Van.
They entered the center of the encampment. The appearance of the young woman prisoner aroused curiosity among the soldiers. She heard often the word “Ermani.”
Mariam was silent. She was resolved not to ask Ivedik any questions or to give him a chance to show his triumph.
“My men will wait with you here in the courtyard,” Ivedik told her, “and I’ll see if our illustrious Bey is ready to receive you.”
Mariam waited patiently.
Ivedik was gone a full half hour, but when he returned he led the way into the biggest of the tents. Luxurious fittings had been put in, but many of the splits and scars from years of use out in foul weather were visible.
Jevdet Bey sat at a table, eating. He did not bother looking up when the Armenian was placed in front of him. Slowly he raised his eyes and the soldiers who had guarded Mariam stepped back, Ivedik stood by the wall and Mariam was left to meet the fixed gaze of her enemy.
The man looked more like a banker than a warrior even in his splendid uniform. Jevdet Bey’s gaze was fixed and piercing, as if he would terrorize the soul of his enemy but Mariam simply stood silent and
stared back. Then Jevdet Bey smiled and looked her slowly up and down.
Finally he spoke: “One more morsel before the feast begins, eh?”
The fat man laughed and his generals laughed obediently as well. Mariam said nothing.
“I am informed by that most worthy young officer, Captain Ivedik,” continued Jevdet Bey, “that you were captured about three o’clock this morning trying to escape from Van.”
“That is correct,” said Mariam.
“Just like a rat, why were you running away in the dark?”
Mariam flushed but remained silent.
“Ah, good. You do not choose to answer me,” said Jevdet Bey, “it will mean I shall have some fun breaking you. Our cannons have blown Van half to waste. Most of your men are dead and the rest will gladly surrender should I give them the promise of mercy.”
Mariam checked her angry reply and simply said, “We are ready to fight to the last.”
There was a murmur among the generals, but Jevdet Bey raised his hand and they were silent again.
“I cannot believe anything you say,” he continued. “It is a boast. The Armenians are braggarts. Tomorrow they die, every one of them. But tell us the exact condition of everything inside Van; perhaps I may spare your life.”
Mariam simply stared back. A deep flush surged into the dark face of Jevdet Bey.
“You are stubborn. Do you know why I am called by my friends and foes the Horseshoe Vali? Because I have horseshoes nailed to the feet of anyone who gets me angry. Try fighting your traitorous war when you can’t even stand up. But I do not need any information from you. I shall crush Van and tonight when I return I shall have my fun with you.”
Mariam licked her dry lips and then said: “A great poet named Atom Yarjanian has been a good friend to me and he told me that if I should ever fall into your hands I was to mention his name to you; to say that he considered my life of value.”
The expression of the Turk’s changed. He frowned and then regarded Mariam intently, as if he would read some secret that the woman was trying to hide.
“So you know Yarjanian,” he said at length, “and he wishes you to say to me that your life is of value.”
Mariam glanced at the generals and saw a look of great curiosity on the face of every one of them.
“I know this Yarjanian,” said Jevdet Bey slowly, “and there is some … business between us. It may be to my advantage to spare you for a while.”
A sudden smile passed over his face.
“Yes, I will make you a spectator of the defeat of your fellow Armenians,” he said. “A great event needs spectators. We attack at dawn tomorrow and you shall miss nothing of it and until then Captain Ivedik, whose vigilance captured you, will keep guard over you.”
Ivedik smiled. He put a hand upon Mariam’s shoulder, but the woman shook it off.
“Don’t touch me,” said Mariam.
Jevdet Bey and his generals laughed.
“Feisty, let her have her way for the present, Captain,” the Bey said. “You can watch me break her later if you like.”
Ivedik and his soldiers saluted and took Mariam from the tent to another some distance away.
“You are fortunate, woman,” said Ivedik, “to have escaped immediate execution. I do not know why the name of Yarjanian was so powerful with our Bey, but it was.”
“It seemed to have the effect I was after,” said Mariam.
Ivedik led Mariam into a small tent and sat her on a stool. He cut the bonds on her wrists and said: “I shall leave you here with two guards. I shall give them instructions to kill you at the slightest attempt on your part to escape, but I fancy that you will have sense enough not to make any such foolish move.”
Ivedik departed, but the two sentinels sat by the entrance to the tent, rifles in hand. The heavy thud of a great gun presently drew her attention and she saw the black smoke from the discharge rising in the air through the open flaps of the tent. A second, a third and a fourth cannon shot were fired, but no answer came from the walls of Van. She watched for nearly an hour and she saw that the firing was haphazard
at best. Not more than a dozen cannon shots were fired during that time and only three or four rifles replied from Van. Toward noon the firing ceased entirely and Mariam knew that this was in very fact and truth the lull before the storm.
Ivedik came returned to the tent a little after the noon hour. He was not sneering or ironical and Mariam, who had no wish to quarrel at such a time, was glad of it.
“As Jevdet Bey told you,” the Turk said, “the assault is to be made in overwhelming force early in the morning. It will succeed, of course. Nothing can prevent it. Through the man Yarjanian, you have some claim upon the general, but it may not be strong enough to save you long. A service now might make his pardon permanent.”
“What do you mean by a service now?”
“A few words as to the weaker points of Van, the best places for our troops to attack. You cannot do anything for the defenders. You cannot alter their fate in any particular, but you might do something for yourself.”
Mariam simply raised one eyebrow and stared back at the Ottoman.
“Very well,” said Ivedik, “I made you the offer. It was for you to accept it or not as you wish.”
The rest of the afternoon passed in inaction. The sun was brilliant and toward evening turned to a deep, glowing red. It lighted up for the last time the dim figures that stood on the walls of Van. At some point food and water had been brought to her but Mariam could eat little and drink less. Despite the Bey’s threats of breaking her no one came to her tent that evening but the night was far too heavy for sleep. She heard the rumble of cannon wheels over the rough dirt, the shouts of men, the boots of soldiery passing, the brays of horses and mules and their cavalry.
She remained laying in the dark a long time listening to the sounds. Once she heard a trumpet and its note in the night was singularly piercing. She thought it might be a signal, probably for the moving of
a regiment still closer to Van. But there were no shots from either the Turks or the city. The night was clear with many stars.
After two or three hours of thinking Mariam tried to sleep on the floor. She lay down but she did not even close her eyes. She became so restless that at last she rose and went to the chair again. It must
have been then past midnight. The noises had ceased. Evidently the Turks had everything ready. The wind blew cold upon her face, but it brought her no news of what was passing without.
Mariam awoke after a feverish dream when there was yet but a strip of garden pink in the east. She found herself on the cold hard packed earth and dirt in her hair. Nevertheless the great pulse in her throat began to leap. The attack was about to begin.
The door of the room was unlocked and the two guards who had watched over her entered. Mariam saw in the half gloom that they appeared serious and grave.
“We are to take you to the noble Captain Ivedik who is waiting for you,” said one.
Mariam nodded and followed them out.
They found Ivedik and another young officer waiting nearby. Ivedik was in his best uniform and his eyes were very bright.
“The time is at hand,” he said, “and it will be your wonderful fortune to see how the Young Turks strike down their foe.”
Mariam said nothing.
The strip of pink in the east was broadening and she now saw that the whole camp was awake, although it was not yet full daylight. Jevdet Bey had been at work in the night, while Mariam lay in a feverish sleep. She heard everywhere now the sound of voices, the clank of arms and the beat of horses’ hoofs. The atmosphere was surcharged with excitement; the sense of coming triumph.
Mariam allowed herself a tiny sigh.
“What is the matter with you?” asked Ivedik, sharply. “Are you already weeping for the conquered? No matter, I am taking you now to the grand Bey now. Then I shall be leading the attack.”
Mariam saw the Ottoman cavalry were filing out in the dim dawn, troop after troop, the early light falling across their rifles, spurs and bridles jingling. All rode well and they made a thrilling picture, as they steadily advanced, curving about the old city walls.
Ivedik led the way to a fortified battery standing in front of the heart of the camp. A brilliant group stood behind an earthen wall and Mariam saw Jevdet Bey among them.
“I have brought the prisoner,” said Ivedik, saluting.
“Very good,” replied the Governor, “and now, Captain Ivedik, you can join your command. You have served me well and you shall have your share in the glory of this day.”
Ivedik bowed low. Then he hurried away to join the horses. Jevdet Bey turned and stared at Mariam.
“I have brought you here at this moment,” he said, “to give you a last chance. It is not due to any mercy for you, an Armenian, a woman and a rebel, but it is because you have been so long in Van that you must know it well. Point out to us its weakest places and you shall be free. You shall go north in safety. I promise it here, in the presence of my generals.”
“I have nothing to tell,” replied the Armenian.
“Are you sure?”
“Eh, no matter. You will stay with us and see my glorious hour and the fall of Van.”
The pink bar in the east broadened. A thin streak of shining silver cut through it; touched for a moment the city, the lake, the army and mountains. Mariam leaned against an edge of the earthwork; breathed laboriously, painfully.
Flies buzzed. Out on the field the cavalry were motionless. Mariam, straining her eyes toward Van, could see nothing. She put up her hand and wiped her forehead. Her fingers came away wet.
“Zafar, my brother,” said Jevdet Bey to the rotund general, “take your command. It was here that the Armenian rebels humiliated you and it is here that you shall have full vengeance.”
Zafar saluted and strode away. He was to lead one of the attacking columns.
“Colonel Rustam,” said Jevdet Bey to another officer, “you are to direct the attack on the northern wall and may Allah’s quick success go with you.”
Rustam glowed and he, too, strode away to the head of his column.
“Colonel Chaghatai,” said Jevdet Bey, “the third column is yours and the fourth is yours, Colonel Zulfiqar. Take your places and, at the signal agreed, the four columns will charge with all their strength. Let us see which will be the first in Van.”
The bar of pink in the east was still broadening, but the sun itself did not yet show. The walls of Van were still dim, Mariam could not see whether any figures were there. Jevdet Bey had put a pair of powerful field glasses to his eyes, but when he took them down he said nothing of what he had seen.
“Are all the columns provided?” he asked General Zafar, who stood beside him.
“They have everything, your excellency,” replied Zafar, “rifles, axes, scaling ladders. My lord, they cannot fail.”
“No, they cannot,” said Jevdet Bey exultingly. “These Armenian scum fight like demons, but we have now a net through which they cannot break. General Nangishlishma, see that the bands are ready and direct them to play the Hamidiye March when the signal for the charge is given.”
Mariam shivered again. The Hamidiye March had been the royal anthem for the last couple of years, written by a second-rate Italian aping the work of Giuseppe Donizetti who had written the stirring
“Mahmudiye” for Sultan Mahmud II way back in 1805. General Nangishlishma returned.
“The bands are ready, your excellency,” he said.
A soldier, trumpet in hand, was standing nearby. Jevdet Bey turned and said two words: “Blow hard!”
The Ottoman lifted the trumpet to his lips and blew a long note that swelled to its fullest pitch, then died away into soft echos.
The great circle of infantry shook their rifles until they glittered and a tremendous cry burst from the vast ring. As the shouting grew in intensity the bands began to play with their utmost vigor and then four columns of Ottoman troops, five thousand strong, rushed toward Van. Jevdet Bey and the generals around him were tremendously excited and shouted themselves.
Everywhere Mariam turned she could see Ottoman officers in advance, waving their swords and shouting to their men. Another silver gleam flashed through the pink light of the early morning, ran along the edges of swords and rifles and lingered for a moment over the dark walls of Van.
But no sound came from the city, not a single shot, not a cry. Were they asleep? Were they dead? Had they fled? Could such Pypina Rabinovich and Pashaian and Avietissian be blind to their danger Mariam felt a chill run down her spine.
“Nothing will stop them!” cried Jevdet Bey. “The Armenians cower before such a splendid force! They lay down their arms!”
The trumpet blew another signal and there was a cannon report so loud that it made Mariam jump. All the Ottoman batteries had fired at once over the heads of their own troops at Van. While the gunners reloaded the smoke of the discharge drifted away and Van still stood silent.
The Ottoman troops were coming close now. The bands playing the Hamidiye March swelled to greater volume and the ground shook again as the Ottoman artillery fired its second volley. When the smoke drifted away again Van itself suddenly burst into flame. The Armenian cannon at close range poured their shot and shell into the dense ranks of the Turks below and piercing through the heavy thud-thud of the cannons came the shriller and more deadly crackle of the rifles. The Armenians were there on the walls defending them to the last.
Jevdet Bey, Firouz, Garsiyya, Tayyib, Nangishlishma and the other generals were leaning against the earthwork, absorbed in the tremendous spectacle that was passing before them. The soldiers who were to guard their prisoner forgot her. She saw the Ottoman columns shiver when the first volley was poured down upon them from the walls. In a single glance she beheld the jubilant look on the faces of Jevdet Bey and his generals die away and she suddenly became conscious that the shrill notes of the bands had stopped as well. But the Ottoman cannons still poured a cloud of shell and lead over the heads of their men at Van and the Young Turks still pressed on.
Mariam listened to the crackle of the rifles, steady, incessant, as towers and spires of smoke rose, drifted and rose again. In the intervals she saw the walls of the city spit out tongues of flame and the Turks falling by dozens by the ancient walls.
“By Allah, how they fight!” she heard one of the generals exclaim.
The Armenian Quarter was a living flame. Everything that could burn seemed to be raging. Mariam saw Ottoman officers rushing about, shouting to the men, urging them on. The fire from Van seemed to Mariam to increase. Slowly Mariam became aware that the generals around her were talking to one another. Their words showed uneasiness. It was not the swift triumphal rush into Van that they had expected. Great swaths had been cut through the Ottoman army. Jevdet Bey paled more than once when he saw his men falling.
As they watched the column led by Colonel Rustam was now at the northern wall, his the men were rushing forward with the axes and scaling ladders. The Armenian rifles sent down a storm of bullets upon them and a score of men fell, Rustam among them, wounded terribly. The whole column broke and reeled away, carrying their officers with them.
Mariam saw the face of Jevdet Bey turn blotchy and purple with rage. He struck the earthwork furiously with his fists.
“Go! Go!” he cried to Nangishlishma and Tayyib. “Rally them! See that they do not run!”
Soon Rustam’s column rallied, but the column on the east and the column on the west were also driven back and Jevdet Bey rushed messenger after messenger, hurrying up fresh men, still driving the whole
Ottoman army against Van. Mariam saw the field covered with slain and the many wounded were crawling back to the shelter of the earthworks.
Mariam felt amazed. She had seen the attack beaten off at three points. A force of twenty to one had been compelled to fall back. But even now the Ottoman troops were reforming. Replacement officers were among them, driving them forward with threats and blows.
Mariam’s heart sank as the whole vast Ottoman army began its slow rush straight at the walls. Armenian fire from their rifles flashed down upon them once more and the whole battlefield disappeared into a sea of smoke.
There was a pause of a few moments. The Turkish camp had been silent for a long time and the Ottoman soldiers themselves ceased to shout. Clouds of smoke eddied and drifted about the buildings of Van. The light of the morning, first pink, then silver, turned to gold. The sun, now high above the mountain’s rim, poured down upon the ruin.
Everything stood out in sharp, clear relief. Mariam saw the buildings of the city dark against the sun and she saw men on the walls. She saw the Ottoman columns pressed together in one great force and even saw the still faces of many who lay on the battlefield.
She knew that the Turks were about to charge again and her feeling of exultation passed. She no longer had any hope that the defenders of Van could beat back so many. She thought again how few, how very few, the Armenians were.
The silence endured but a moment or two. Then the Turks rushed forward in a mighty group at the low northern wall, the front lines firing as they went. Flame burst from the wall and Mariam heard once more the deadly crack of the Armenian rifles. The ground was littered with Ottoman dead, but, driven by fear and their officers, they pressed on.
Mariam saw them reach the wall and scaling ladders swung high into the air. Scores of men swarmed up the ladders and over the wall. A heavy division forced its way through the city’s front gates and as Mariam saw this she uttered a deep groan. She knew that Van was doomed. And the Turks knew it, too; shouts burst from the army.
“We have them! We have them!” cried Jevdet Bey, exultant and excited once more.
Sheets of flame burst from Van, rifles poured bullets down on the swarming Ottoman troops, but the breach had been made. The Turks went over the low wall in an unbroken stream and they crowded through the ruined gates by hundreds. They were inside now, rushing upon the little garrison. They seized the Armenian cannons, cutting down the gunners with rifles and sabers and then turned the captured weapons upon the defenders.
Many of the buildings inside the Armenian Quarters were of wood and these were soon shattered by the cannon balls. The Armenians, covered with smoke and dust and the sweat of battle, were forced back by the press of numbers into the main square and then into the church and hospital.
The smoke rose far above the mountains and caught by a light wind drifted away to the east. The Ottoman generals brought up fresh forces and drove them at Van. A heavy column, attacking on the south side, where no defenders were now left, managed to pull down a section of the ancient wall using grappling irons and horses.
Somewhere in there, Mariam knew, Pypina Rabinovich and Avietissian and Pashaian, their faces all black with gun powder, were using their rifles like clubs in a world seething with fire and smoke.
The Turks, pressing forward in dense masses, poured in cannon balls and rifle shot at every opening. Half the Armenian defenders were gone and within that raging inferno they could hardly see one another for the smoke.
It was five o’clock in the afternoon and Van had fallen. The defenders were less than a hundred and fifty and they had died to the last. A messenger rushed away at once to Jevdet Bey with the news of the triumph. The Bey came from the shelter elated and crying that he had destroyed the Armenians.
The shooting had stopped save for the odd rifle shot. As in a daze Mariam felt herself being pushed forward. Jevdet Bey, his generals, even the guards assigned to guard the lone Armenian woman, all rushed forward. They passed through the shattered gates and Mariam stumbled, aghast. The Ottoman dead, not yet picked up, were strewn everywhere. They had fallen in dozens. The nearer buildings were smashed by cannon balls and shells. The earth was cratered and torn. Smoke from so much firing drifted about in banks and clouds and gave forth the pungent odor of burned gunpowder and burning flesh.
She was not noticed in the excitement. Jevdet Bey and his generals were running into the church and she followed them. Here she saw the Armenian dead and she saw also a curious crowd standing around a fallen form. It was Pypina Rabinovich, lying upon his back, his body pierced by many wounds.
Mariam made no attempt to escape. She knew that she might go about as she chose in this crowd of soldiers, a single woman in a riot of disarray. She wandered out of the church where the curious still crowded. Many soldiers simply milled about, wishing to see the terrible Armenians who lay as they had fallen. Some spoke scornful words, but most regarded them with awe. Mariam looked back at Pypina
Rabinovich through the church door and a hand touched her on the shoulder. It was Ivedik.
“Where are your Armenians now?” he asked.
“They are gone,” replied Mariam, “but they will never be forgotten.”
“I suppose,” said the Ottoman thoughtfully. “The history books might make a footnote of this, but I doubt it. In a hundred years time who will remember the name of this one?” and he pointed at Pypina
Rabinovich, “who swung his rifle like a club so fiercely that none dared come within his reach so I shot him.”
“You?” exclaimed Mariam.
“Yes, I! Why should I not? I fired two pistol bullets into him and he fell.”
He spoke with pride.
“The great Bey, engrossed in much more important matters, has doubtless forgotten all about you,” continued the Ottoman, “but I will see that you do not escape. Why he spares you I do not know, but it is his wish and his wish is law.”
He called to two soldiers whom he detailed to follow Mariam and see that she made no attempt to escape. The woman was yet so deeply absorbed in the ruin about her that no room was left in her mind for anything else. Nor did she care to talk further with Ivedik so she remained in the crowd until Jevdet Bey ordered that all but the troops be cleared from Quarters.
Dusk was falling as she walked gloomily toward the camp, the two soldiers who had been detailed as guards following close behind her. Her mind raged against everything, against the cruelty of Jevdet Bey, who had allowed so many brave women and men to perish and against the overwhelming numbers that the Turks could always bring against the Armenians. She looked back, saw the heavy bank of smoke hang over the city, shuddered and walked on.
The effects of the great calamity remained with her. She was on the battle line, she saw what they had done. She resolved that now that it was her time to escape and in the great turmoil caused by the excitement and rejoicing she by the Ottoman troops did not believe that it would be difficult.
Finally the Turks had something to celebrate over. Defeat after defeat had followed the Ottoman army everywhere they had gone. They lost heavily at the Battle of Kara Killisse, Koprukoy and Sarikamish. They had been humiliated during the Gallipoli Campaign and the Suez Offensives. They had started with nearly a 900,000 strong army and now they were reduced down to almost 60,000. The Battles of Gaza had been an utter defeat. So had the Battle of Magdhaba, Rafa, Mughar Ridge, Jerusalem and the Fall of Damascus. But now the terrible Armenians of Van were gone, annihilated and Jevdet Bey was responsible for it all. One more step toward the Young Turks’ dream for a Pan-Turkish empire to be realized.
All around them bonfires sprang to life. Men were cheering and laughing, dancing and recounting their exploits from earlier that day. Mariam watched the two young men guarding her. The three of them stood on the edge of the firelight, the Turks clapping hands in time with the singing. One officer was in the center of the crowd, dancing and kicking in a parody of the Russian Kozachok dance. Just as the crowd burst out cheering Mariam turned and rushed into the dark.
The men cried out behind her but whether it was that none around the fire noticed or simply failed to care it was a good thirty seconds or more of running and dodging behind and around tents before Mariam could hear any pursuit at all and then it was just the two young guards and no one more.
Crouching in the dark she paused to listen and she heard the two soldiers muttering and breathing heavily nearby. They complained loudly about having to be deprived of their part in the festival to follow up a woman and an Armenian? Even if she escaped now, one said, the great, the illustrious Jevdet Bey would capture her later on when he swept all the few and scattered Armenians into his trap.
Mariam went from tent to tent, occasionally she heard her pursuers slouching along and grumbling. Finally she entered one that seemed quiet and deserted. It had been a make-shift hospital during the siege and was filled with cot after cot of dead Ottoman soldiers. Rigamortis had set in one many and the cast dim ghastly silhouettes against the fabric of the tent. Without pause Mariam lay down and rolled under one of the nearest cots.
The man had apparently bled heavily in the end since the cot’s canvas and the ground under it were dried and caked with blood. The body sagged heavily inches above her face. She held her breath and listened.
Mariam knew that if the soldiers came into the tent they would find her, but she relied upon their fear of the dead and their lack of zeal. She heard them once tramping about nearby and then she heard nothing more.
Mariam remained all the rest of the afternoon in the tent, not daring to leave her cramped position under the cot. Now and then celebratory shouts came from the dark. The Turks of the fallen House of Omen were disturbed little by the great numbers of their fellow soldiers who had fallen at Van.
Mariam afterward thought that she must have slept a little toward twilight, but she was never sure of it. she saw the sun set; the gray and silent Van sink away into the darkness. Then she slipped from the roof, anxious to be away before the camp was illuminated. She had no difficulty at all in passing unnoticed through the dark and she made her way straight for Van.
She was reckoning very shrewdly now. Mariam knew that the superstitious Turks would avoid the ruined part of the city at night as a place thronged with new ghosts, with devils that killings always brought, with Al Basti, the Red Mother, who visited the guilty in their dreams. Jevdet Bey would not need to post any guard within the walls. She would pass through the enclosures, then over the lower walls and roadblocks by which the Turks had entered and then into the darkness beyond.
It seemed to her the best road to escape but it was with misery and fear that she entered Van and looked about. The bloodstained and bodies still lay everywhere. In a recess of the church which had been used as a little storage place by herself and Pypina Rabinovich she found an excellent rifle of the long-barreled design and a bandolier full of bullets. She crossed the empty main square, dropped over the low wall and quickly disappeared in the dusk.
Mariam scarcely knew in what direction she was going, but she was anxious to get away. As she hurried along, the horror still upon her, the thought of vengeance swelled into a passion. The Armenians must strike back for what had been done in Van. Surely all would come when they heard the news that she was bringing.
She believed that the Armenians being forced out of the empire would be toward the south or the southeast, in Der Zor or east in Yerevan or some other place. She would find them and liberate them as soon as she could. She slackened her pace to a walk. She was too good a mountain guide now to exhaust herself when she had so far to go.