O you, my Mother, my Native Land,
Why is your cry so sad and heart-rending!
And you, O Raven, accursed bird,
On whose grave croak you of ill impending?”
Hristo Botev, The Hanging of Vassil Levski
“THERE ARE NO OTHERS. JUST ME”
Ali Saib Pasha looked up and gazed inquisitively at the chained giaour.
Not that the man could escape. No living creature could escape from the old fortified prison and its armed-to-the-teeth guards.
Not that Ali Saib Pasha was afraid of the man. He was not simply afraid; he was terrified by the mere mention of the rebel’s name.
“The Flying Dervish”, “Jingibi”, “The Elusive” - he was known by so many names. They said no bullet could hit him, not could a sword hurt him. One day he was in Tarnovo, establishing clandestine committees; the next day he was in Sofia, muddling the subjects’ minds; a day later, he was in Philippopolis, teaching the local rebels how to load their flintlocks and how to cut the Turks’ heads like cabbage.
The ex-grand vizier had sent many men to the gallows or into exile in Diyarbakir, never hesitating for a second. If one asked him about the names or the faces of those he had sentenced to death, he would simply grunt. The Deacon’s face, however, would be engraved on his memory forever.
Ali Saib Pasha crossed his hands behind his back and slowly approached the Apostle.. The infidel’s face was pale and unshaven. A dirty bright-coloured rag was bandaging his right ear. Seen from the side, one would say he had toothache, but a closer look revealed a dried streak of blood on his neck and his blood-soaked hair. The enemy bullet had reached him by the Kakrino Inn. The strings of his oxhide leggings got caught on the fence, leaving him to the mercy of his enemies. Some treacherous soul had tipped the Turks that the Deacon would be there, and they captured him.
When they told the sultan about it, he rubbed his hands contentedly and immediately dispatched his ex-grand vizier Ali Saib Pasha, the mayor from the General Staff and ex-aide de camp to Mithad Pasha Shakir Bey, and the Bulgarian member of the State Council Haji Ivancho Hajipenchovich. The sinister trinity were acting as judges, prosecutors and investigators - all in one. To give the court an impression of greater authority, Ali Saib Pasha added six jury members from Sofia: the Bulgarians Haji Marko Stoyanov, Mityo Karamakchiisky and Pesho Zhelyavsky, and the Turks Dervish Mustafa, Mehmed Salih and Sadullah Sarri.
The sultan’s orders were clear: “Do as you please, just get the rebel hanged as quickly as possible.”
“Who are you,” Shakir Bey asked dryly and gave the prisoner a stern look. The Apostle did not hear him. His right ear had developed an inflammation from the wound and the cold, and he was nearly deaf.
The guard kicked the Deacon viciously.
“Answer the great bey’s question, s*****!”
Levski’s grey eyes stared at his face, and the guard stepped back in panic.
“He’s the devil himself,” he mumbled, and instinctively reached for the amulet protecting him from ill luck and evil spells.
“What’s you name, scoundrel?” Haji Ivancho Hajipenchovich raised his voice. “Rebels like you make me feel ashamed that I’m Bulgarian!”
“Don’t worry, Haji Ivancho, no one questions your loyalty,” smiled Ali Saib Pasha.
Haji Ivancho smiled back obsequiously and clattered his string of beads.
“Now tell me,” the ex-grand vizier stepped closer to the chained prisoner, “what’s your name?”
This time the Deacon understood his question and met his gaze.
“Vassil Ivanov Kunchev. My friends call me Deacon.”
“Deacon, ah!” Ali Saib Pasha turned to avoid the Apostle’s intense gaze. “Is it true that you are muddling the subjects’ minds?”
“Where injustice reigns, revolts are inevitable.” The Apostle coughed and his chains rattled. “Yes, it is true!”
Haji Ivancho gave a sigh of relief and looked triumphantly at Shakir Bey.
“The scoundrel confessed, Shakir By. He’s sure to go to the gallows!”
The Turk shook his head and frowned.
“There’s no haste, Haji Ivancho, no haste…”
The six jury members in the background murmured quietly. They had heard the Apostle’s words.
“Why is he doing this!” Mityo Karamakchiisky’s face was worried. “He’s sentencing himself to death!”
“Please God,” Haji Marko Stoyanov whispered, “Save the Apostle’s life! Don’t take away our hope!” He leaned forward and furtively made the sign of the cross.
“So you admit, ah?” Ali Saib Pasha smiled mockingly and went on. “Is it true that you have founded clandestine committees in each and every town and village?”
“Yes, it is true. I even founded one in Istanbul.” The Apostle smiled so widely that his molars could be seen. “Pity I didn’t have time; I would have paid a call to the sultan… and would have saved you the trouble to come all the way here!”
“Shut up, giaour!” The Turk slapped him across the face with his gloves. The Apostle’s eyes were glowing angrily, and he rattled his chains.
“Aman!” Shakir Bey screamed and jumped in his seat. “He’s a dervish!”
The giaour had swung his chain and if Ali Saib Pasha had not been quick enough, he would probably be lying dead with his scull smashed.
“What are you waiting for,” Haji Ivancho screamed to the guards. “Get the scoundrel under control, damn you! What help are you, standing there like logs!”
Four guards rushed towards the Apostle and pounded him with the stocks of their rifles.
“You dare attack the Great Pasha! The gallows for you!”
“Dirty giaour! Wait until we lay our hands on you!”
The Deacon curled up, struggling to protect his face.
“That’s enough,” Shakir Bey stood up. “We need the giaour alive, not dead!”
Gritting their teeth, the guards stepped back.
“Scoundrel!” Ali Chaush gazed viciously at the infidel. “My time will come…”
The Deacon struggled to his feet and looked firmly into his torturers’ eyes.
“Tell me,” Ali Saib Pasha went on, standing at a safe distance, several steps from the Apostle. “What was in the instructions of the Central Committee and in the papers you distributed? Is it true that you are instigating the subjects to rebel against the sultan?”
The Deacon gave the Pasha a disdainful look. ”What sultan? The sultan is the master of the faithful, not of the slaves.”
“What did those papers say,” shouted Shakir Bey, waving triumphantly a sheet of paper. “You think we’re stupid, do you?” You think we haven’t got those papers?”
“The papers I got from the Committee were sealed,” the Apostle answered simply. “I don’t know what was in them.”
“Oh, didn’t you?” Ali Saib Pasha smiled mockingly. He had regained his composure and the supercilious look was back on his face. “You probably don’t know the members of the Central Committee, either.”
“No I don’t. I have a bad memory for names.”
“What about friends?” Haji Ivancho stood up and went to the Apostle. “Everyone’s got friends, you have to admit. Who was hiding you? Didn’t you have friends in those places you went, weren’t you meeting with anyone?”
“There are no others. Just me,” the Apostle said firmly. “It is all my fault.”
“Is it?” Shakir Bey beckoned Ali Chaush to come closer. “Tell the executioner to get the irons ready… He’ll have plenty of work tonight.”
“When he sees the irons, he’ll change his tune, ”Haji Ivancho put in. “He’ll cough up his mother’s milk.”
Levski straightened his back and rattled his chains.
“You can kill me but you cannot exterminate a whole people! Europe watches!”
“Europe…” Ali Saib Pasha smiled mockingly and spitted on the floor. “Europe… has no say here. No one can deliver you from the gallows, rebel! Bring in the defendants,” he shouted to the guards.
Levski felt a chill in his heart but his face remained as hard as stone. Not a wince.
There was a clatter of chains and the defendants filed into the room. A long chain was attached to their ankles, and another to their arms.
Some of the jury members stood up to take a better look at them.
“So these are the wild rebels?” Shakir Bey laughed. “So, you’ve decided to destroy the empire, ah?”
“And you boasted that you were stronger than the Cossacks?” Haji Ivancho came closer to take a better look at them. “And where’s that strength of yours?”
The last prisoners filed into the room and the guards slammed the door behind them. They dragged their chain with a clatter that filled the hearts with hopelessness and a sense of doom.
“Well, where’s your strength now,” Haji Ivancho repeated. “You conspired against His Majesty the Sultan, and now you’re standing here, down in the mouth. Why are you so silent?”
One of the prisoners straightened his back and spit in Haji Ivancho’s face.
“Traitor! It is because of your like that we’re suffering under Turkish yoke!”
Haji Ivancho’s face was furious. He jumped like a viper that been trodden upon.
“Traitor, ah? At the gallows you’ll be dancing like a scalded rooster. Then we’ll see who’s the traitor!”
Haji Ivancho muttered something under his nose and returned to his seat.
“Well, Deacon,” Ali Pasha went on. “I thought I might refresh your memory. Do you know any of these bandits?”
“No I don’t,” smiled Levski. “I have nothing to do with enemies of the empire. I don’t know any of them.”
There was a whisper among the convicts.
“Oh my God! It’s Levski,” someone sobbed. “So they caught him, too?”
“Levski, ah?” Shakir Pasha smiled. “So this is your other name? We heard you could jump as a lion, so they called you Levski.”
“Yes, this is true,” Levski admitted. “Some jump like lions, others run like deer.”
Levski looked calmly at his fellow prisoners and they felt more courage. They straightened their backs and looked into their oppressors’ eyes.
“You time is coming, beasts,” Kara Ivan of Kovacha cried out. “Russia will…”
He could not finish because the guard slammed his rifle on his face, and he collapsed on the floor.
“You’ll speak only when you’re asked a question,” Ali Chaush barked. “Damned giaours!”
“Take a good look at them,” Shakir Bey went on. “Don’t you know any of them?”
“No,” said Levski firmly. “I never met with anyone; they did not trust me.”
That Haji Ivancho could not swallow.
“Listen,” he put in, “we don’t care about those who rejected you; we want to know about those who gave you shelter!”
“There were a few guys but I can’t remember their names,” the Deacon shrugged. “Honestly, I can’t.”
“You don’t remember anyone, ah?” The Turk signed to the two guards who grabbed the Deacon by the arms and dragged him along. “What about this one? Or that one over there? You don’t know him, either?”
“No,” shook his head the Apostle. “I don’t know anyone here.”
Tears were rolling down the defendant’s cheeks. Some were sobbing. Poor souls! They would gladly sacrifice their lives for the Apostle, but instead he was sacrificing his life for them! What a noble soul! Somebody back in the row could not stand it any longer and sobbed aloud like a child.
“God,” someone moaned. “I can’t stand this any more. Please take my life!”
Ali Saib Pasha turned towards the voice and smiled menacingly.
“Your time will come, don’t you worry. You will all be flying like birds. Each and every one of you. And your beloved Deacon goes first!”
“You can take his life,” shouted Kara Ivan bravely, “but nothing can erase him from the memory of the Bulgarian people!”
“If you love your leader so much, you’ll be right next to him at the gallows! Tomorrow morning, early…” and he made a gesture showing clearly what would happen to them.
“Pasha efendi,” Haji Ivancho spoke uncertainly, “we need to find out all about the rebels’ plans. What if…”
“Haji Ivancho is right,” added Shakir Bey and stood up. “The infidels won’t get away so easily. As for the gallows, it can wait a while.”
“So be it,” snapped Ali Saib Pasha. “You have six days to get what you can out of them. And don’t waste time. His Majesty the Sultan is impatient…”
“Sure, Pasha,” Haji Ivancho bowed and the jury members stood up. “We’ll continue tomorrow at dawn.”
“What happened? Did you get anything out of him,” Shakir Bey asked, coughing. The smoke was irritating his eyes and he was nearly crying.
“Nope,” shook his head the executioner. His name was Sali the One-Eyed, he came from the wild Tatar tribes in Asia Minor. A long time ago he had lost an eye and was since hating the whole world. “They’re all very brave the first day…”
Sali waved the red-hot irons.
“The next day, though, they can’t stop talking.”
“Hurry,” frowned Shakir Bey. “The Grand Vizier only gave us six days. If the rebel gives away his cronies, His Majesty the Sultan will make me pasha…”
“And what shall I get?” grinned Sali the One-Eyed, revealing his uneven yellow teeth.
“A piece of gold for every rebel he gives away!”
“May Allah give you health and a long life!” The executioner threw himself in the bey’s feet and chattered on: “May Allah bless you with sons…”
Five days had passed since the beginning of Levski’s trial. The executioner had tried all he could think of: he had driven splinters under his nails, he had torn his flesh with red-hot pincers, he had pulled him on the metal table, he had even placed a wreath of thorns on his head that made him look like Jesus, but the damned man said nothing. As if he was made of stone…
Two guards were holding Levski on both sides. He was exhausted from the torture and could hardly stand on his feet.
“Well, rebel,” spoke Ali Saib Pasha, “you look a little discouraged?”
The Apostle’s grey eyes flashed for a second, but he said nothing.
“Still resisting like a wild cat?” Haji Ivancho went up to him and inspected him with contempt. “Why are you so obstinate? Tell us who your cronies were, and save yourself more torture.”
“I can’t promise much,” spoke Ali Saib Pasha, “but I can promise you a quick death…”
“I am not afraid to die,” the Apostle spoke quietly. “I am betrothed to Bulgaria. We can never part.”
“Take him out of here,” waved Ali Saib Pasha and straightened his golden epaulets. He could be sitting on a soft pillow in Istanbul, drinking sherbet with the Sultan and the empire’s noblest men, and instead he had been sent there to deal with the damned rebel… “Let Sali make some more effort.”
It was the end of the week, and the ex-grand vizier was sick and tired to death. He decided firmly to put an end to the ridiculous trial. Despite all torture, the damned rebel had not given away a single name, and all they had achieved was to become laughing-stock in the eyes of the guards and the jury members from Sofia.
Ali Saib Pasha stood up and coughed dryly. The room became very quiet and everyone waited impatiently.
“Nothing but the gallows,” spoke the chief prosecutor and looked mockingly in the Apostle’s eyes. “Now you can finally marry your fiancée, your Mother Bulgaria.”
“Pasha efendi,” Mehmed Salih stood up uncertainly. “Our court is not authorized to sentence the defendants to death. Only the Svishtov Criminal Court…”
The other jury members jumped up and supported him loudly.
Ali Saib Pasha ignored their protest and went on reading:
“The court including: chairman and chief prosecutor, Ali Saib Pasha, ex-grand vizier and chief commander of the land forces of His Majesty the Sultan, and the members: Shakir Bey, Mayor of the General Staff of His Majesty the Sultan, chief investigator; and Haji Ivancho Hajipenchovich, member of the State Council and personal friend to His Majesty the Sultan, president of the jury, having taken into consideration all evidence…”
Ali Saib Pasha stopped for a second to signal to the guards to bring in the defendants, and went on:
“…reached the following conclusion. Under Articles 55 and 56 of the sheriat, for conspiracy, the penalty is unanimously: death! Under Article 65, for robbing the imperial treasury at Arabakonak and killing three guards - also death! Under Article 174, for conspiracy against His Majesty the Sultan - death! The execution will be carried out upon confirmation from Istanbul.”
Ali Saib Pasha put the paper on the table and turned to the Deacon.
“Is there anything you want to say?”
“If I lose, I only lose my own life; if I win, the whole people wins!” the Apostle declared proudly. “My only regret is that I’ll never see Bulgaria liberated…”
“Take him away…” waved Ali Saib Pasha. He was bored by the obstinate Bulgarian. One could never cope with them. Too bad he was an infidel. With a few like him the Sultan could conquer the world
“Move, giaour!” Ali Chaush poked the Apostle in the ribs.
“Where are you taking me?” the Deacon asked.
“Remember what I told you a few days ago? My time has come. Now we’ll see you swinging!”
Levski stood up and staggered. Exhausted by the torture and the wound, he felt like a very old man.
“So you can’t stand on your feet, ah?” Ali Chaush mocked and pushed him into the rug-covered cart. “Get in, ***** giaour!”
The driver lashed the feeble old jade and the wooden cart creaked along. It was very early in the morning. Even the stray dogs were nowhere to be seen. Ali Chaush wrapped himself up in his overcoat and signalled to the soldiers to follow the cart. Damned giaours, they were capable of anything. The sultan’s court had left Sofia with explicit orders: the news of the terrible rebel’s death ought to meet them in Istanbul.
Ali Chaush was to carry out these orders. The wooden cart arrived in a small square with a solitary gallows in the middle and a long rope swinging.
“Get out,” ordered Ali Chaush. “It’s show time.”
The soldiers stood in two rows around the square, and waited.
The priest came out of the cart first, followed by Levski. He was still in chains - even at the execution site the Turks were terrified by the awe-inspiring rebel.
The Deacon looked around, sighed and a tear rolled down his face. To whom was he leaving his enslaved country?
He pulled himself together and walked towards the gallows. The two guards who were supporting him on both sides gaped. Where did his tortured body found the strength to do that? The executioner had crushed his bones, but there he was, walking resolutely ahead!
“Jesus! Jesus Himself!” the priest Todor murmured. He crossed himself and followed the Apostle. His shoes were immediately full of snow and mud. His eyes were red; it was evident he had been crying. He was supposed to be giving the Apostle courage, but it was the Apostle who was giving him courage…
Levski climbed the wooden steps and stood at the platform. Sali the executioner grinned and took of his chains. He then slowly placed the loop around his neck. Slowly, enjoying every second of it…
Once again he was disappointed. The Apostle’s face remained stone-hard.
“Off you go,” said Ali Chaush and kicked the barrel.
“God save Bul…” was all the Apostle of freedom managed to say…
Weep, Mother Bulgaria! This is a tragic day! Your beloved son is dead!
“Somebody’s coming!” The rebel stared ahead but the blizzard was blinding. “Let the guards come into the pass. We’ll hit them from both sides, as we decided. And remember! The Apostle of Freedom is there!”
“Levski himself taught me how to cut down the Turks,” someone boasted. “I’m ready.”
“Let those bastards come,” a huge man stood up. “I’ll strangle them with my bare hands.”
His friends called him the Old Nikola, and he was known to have strangled seven Turkish soldiers with his bare hands and buried them in his yard.
“There’s just one man,” someone spoke anxiously. “Could the Turks have guessed about the ambush? I can’t see any cart or guards!”
“Don’t shoot! It’s me!” the rider shouted.
The blizzard nearly muffled his voice, but his comrades recognized his bearskin hat.
“Stoyan Karpela of Sofia. What the hell is he doing here?”
The rebels rose, sensing something bad had happened.
Stoyan Karpela jumped off his horse and fell to his knees, throwing off his hat.
“God bless the Apostle’s soul,” he sobbed. “Levski is dead…”
He sobbed desperately.
“God, why are you punishing us!” The Old Nikola looked up to the sky. His eyes were full of reproach. “Why did you take away our Apostle!”
The rebels who had hoped to free the Deacon were paralyzed by the sinister news. One of them threw his rifle in the snow and curled up, hiding his face. Tears streamed down his cheeks. Suddenly, something miraculous happened. A tear fell on the deep snow, and turned into a snowdrop.
“This is a sign of God,” Nikola said and made the sign of the cross. “Tell everyone that God has not abandoned the Bulgarian people. There is hope…”
“The Deacon did not die for nothing. Rest in peace, Apostle. Your work will be continued,” another rebel added, still sobbing.
It was the 17th of February, 1873. The same night, the Apostle’s body vanished from the gallows. The priest Todor and a few rebels stole it and buried it secretly. When they told the commanding officer Osman Pasha the following day that the rebel’s dead body had disappeared, the pasha just waved:
“Doesn’t matter. Let them bury him. In a month or two he will be forgotten”
He was wrong. The Apostle lived on. As long as there is a living Bulgarian, as long as anyone speaks Bulgarian, he is immortal. Forever. For he is in each and every one of us. Each of us carries a fraction of the Apostle of Freedom!
“He who dies in the fight for liberty
Shall never die…”
February 17, 2003: 130 years after the death of the greatest of all Bulgarians
© Kolio Karpela Всички права запазени.
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