Open main menu



ONE of the curious points about the nature of man is that we do not respond to the same stimulus in the same way each time. Repeatedly apply any stimulus and we respond less and less. This is not always true of an irritation that gets on our nerves. But with calls on our sympathies, the law of diminishing returns always works. If your fiancée bumps her head, you feel sorry indeed—the first time. If she bumps it again the next morning, you may again be compassionate. But if she is constantly bumping her head, you get so you don't mind at all; and, in order to arouse as much tenderness in you as the first time it happened, she might have to go so far—with some men—as to break both her legs.

Everlasting Armenians 1--Harper's 1920.png

(You soon don't mind at all)

This is true of much more serious shocks. In the old frontier days, for example, suppose I had heard that one of my relatives in Nebraska had been scalped by an Indian. I should have felt upset and sorry and should have helped his poor family. But suppose the next week another relative had met the same fate, and so on until half my second cousins and aunts had been scalped. I couldn't have kept on shuddering and weeping. It would have soon ceased to move me. Instead of exclaiming, "Oh, horror!" I should probably have muttered, "Oh, pshaw! I wish those tiresome cousins of mine would move away from Nebraska."

The great modern instance of this is that of the Armenians. We were horrified by the first massacres. But as time has gone on, and as the calls of these people for sympathy and funds have continued, a secret annoyance with them has begun to appear. It's an awful thing to say, but they have asked for help so much they are boring us.

When I was a boy and used to be taken to summer hotels in vacation, there was usually an Armenian prowling around the piazza. He would pick out some fellow's mother as she sat taking a much-needed rest, and invite her to look at his perfumes and silks. "Not buy, madam! Just look!" She would say no, but he would tell her they were so beautiful, and offer to give her some perfume, until finally, if it were a dull afternoon, she would roll up her knitting and saunter down to the end of the hall, where his dark little room was. My own mother, who had a kind heart as well as a weakness for rugs, would occasionally be snared in this fashion and be shown some bargain, some rug that was intrinsically priceless and could never be duplicated, but which could be had for a few hundred dollars, as it happened, that morning. The crisis that made such a price possible would to-morrow be gone, but to-day it was here and a wise and clever woman would seize it. Whoever did would be helping a most grateful young man get through college. He was no dealer; he was just a poor student with a few priceless rugs, and if the lady would only make him an offer she could buy at her own figure. She could,make him an offer, surely, some offer; let it be what it might.

Everlasting Armenians 2--Harper's 1920.png

(He was just a poor student)

It began to seem unreasonable to my mother not to make him some offer, especially as he was trying to get through college and it might be a bargain. So she silently tried to figure how much she'd have had to pay on Fifth] Avenue; and then she took a lot off; and then she felt a little ashamed at taking so much off—she didn't wish to cheat the young man. He seemed to mean well, poor creature. So she worked her price up a little, in her mind, and then got a bit frightened because, after all, it was a good deal of money—though it did seem perfectly safe to pay that much, since a Fifth Avenue dealer would have charged more. Still, you never could tell about a rug, because it might not be genuine, and she wished the young man had let her alone and could get through college without her, though he didn't much look as though he would manage it; he could hardly speak English—and how could the poor thing talk to the professors, or the professors to him, when even on the subject of rugs he had to use a sort of sign language which consisted of hunching his shoulders till she feared he would dislocate them, and picking out sums on his fingers in the most confusing manner. However, she had better make him an offer, she felt, and then perhaps he'd stop smiling, which no doubt he intended as pleasant, but his breath was so bad.

So she finally said, fingering the rug in a dissatisfied way, that she supposed she could give him a hundred for it. The Armenian's smile at once disappeared, of course. He walked off in gloom. Then he rushed back, most excited and jerky, and began a long, rapid expostulation that threatened to deafen us. My mother then reluctantly raised her bid to a hundred and twenty, whereupon it suddenly appeared that he had misunderstood her first offer. He had supposed it to be two hundred, not one. She meant two hundred and twenty? My mother said, No, one hundred and twenty was all she had offered. The Armenian then tottered around, sank into a chair, and sort of hissed through his teeth, which made my mother so nervous she felt she had probably killed him. It began to seem advisable to her to do anything she could to get out of it, and then never buy anything again for the rest of her life. So she miserably and angrily said she would make it one-fifty. She had to say it several times, however, before he seemed to hear her, and even then he received it only with low shrieks and groans in Armenian, and said that now he would have to give up college, because he could not bear such losses. All he had ever hoped of America, he said, was that he wouldn't lose too much money here, but he had found that no one cared how badly he ruined himself, nor did they understand rugs. My dear mother, half dismayed, half indignant, said she did not want the rug; she had only made him as offer because he asked it, and she would now like to go. This brought on a frightful collapse, so full of despair it seemed mortal. He was heard, however, to murmur what she took to be a dying request that she would take the rug with her and split the difference and leave him alone in his agony.

The next chapter consisted of her interview with my father, to whom the news had to be broken that he was now the owner of a rare Eastern rug. Nervous attempts to convey this to him with smiles and gay congratulations were never received in this spirit, or anything like it. He began by not believing his ears till it had been loudly repeated: "Rug? Rug? You say you've bought a rug? Nonsense! Pooh! Don't be ridiculous!" And when he found that the story seemed true and that he couldn't shout it away, he would end by turning black and giving vent to a terrific explosion. He would roar that he had only just arrived from hard toil in the city, in search of "a little damned peace," that was all that he asked, instead of which, before he had had time to smoke one cigar, he was harried and tortured and victimized by a pack of low swindlers, with whom his own family had leagued themselves, to render him penniless. He urgently demanded to see the rug so that he could throw it out of the window, and the Armenian after it. He swore he'd break every bone in his body. All reports as to the rarity and value of the rug he discredited, declaring he could buy better for fifty cents a barrel on Front Street. He then marched to the Armenian's parlor, with vague but violent intentions, only to find that that astute sufferer had closed his place up. The door was shut and locked and a sign was on it:




"What's this gibberish?" my father demanded. "You said his name was Dourbabian." And we had to explain to him that the sign wasn't meant as a name, but as the Armenian's way of indicating that he would return in a few days.

Poor old downtrodden, fawning Dourbabian—or whatever his name was. (I don't mean "old" literally, because he was young—a boy almost.) Blue-black hair, dark skin, gleaming eyes, a hooked nose, perfect teeth. I suppose the missionaries had helped him and other promising youths of Armenia to come over here to be educated, and he had to try to earn his expenses selling the goods he knew most about. I dare say his things were good value, too. They at least have become so. The rugs and the sofa-cushion covers and great squares of silk that my mother bought in the eighteen-eighties would cost her a lot more to-day. But, in spite of all the rightness which these transactions may have had back of them, they had this other element, this snaring of an unwary buyer, this half-disguised plunder of an unwilling and inexperienced lady, this warfare of prices and shrieks, in which young Dourbabian was a Ludendorff outmaneuvering corporals.

Everlasting Armenians 3--Harper's 1920.png

(He said that all he wanted was "a little damned peace")

Years afterward, when we first began to hear of Armenian massacres, I thought of how my father had wished to massacre Dourbabian often, and I reminded him of it. Though older and calmer on most subjects, he was still resentful on this. He said that everybody was too ready to sympathize with those fellows, without even asking first what they might have done to the Turks. He seemed to think they might have been selling the Turks too many rugs.

"Here's a book of Claude Farrère's," he said. "Read it. Turks and Armenians in it. These simple-minded Turkish peasants get so deep in debt to Armenian peddlers that it's probably massacre or nothing; that's my theory about it. They tell me the Armenians are Christians and I ought to help them. I tell you I strongly suspect they are Christians for profit. They are a greedy, quarrelsome lot, and I see that even the Kurds can't get on with them; and it's my opinion they are getting themselves massacred too often entirely. And I don't like the way they use every massacre as a scheme to get money out of me. Other peoples all over the world kill one another without coming to me about it, but the Armenians imagine they have a special claim on my pocket, and that whenever any one hits them I ought to mail them some biscuits and bandages."

You may not look at this like my father, yet is he wholly wrong? There is a saying in the East that it takes two Jews to get the best of a Syrian, and four Syrians to get the best of an Armenian; they are an acquisitive people. According to Professor Breasted and others, they have a lot of the Hittite in them, and the Hittites were an extraordinary race. It was from the Hittites that our friends the Jews got their prominent aquiline noses, which are not a Semitic feature at all. Other Semitic races, like the Arabs, haven't them; they did not intermarry with Hittites, but the Armenians did. Perhaps William the Conqueror, too, and the Normans, had some Hittite blood in [them! At all events, any ordinary race needs to look out for those Hittites, and I wish I had had one for a grandfather, that's all I can say.

The Armenians have other strong qualities. They are obstinate fighters. When I think of that side of their nature, I admit I admire them. I suppose we don't half realize what determination they have shown in their wars. Instead of submitting to Turkish misrule, they have boldly resisted it. They could have kept out of trouble and led peaceful lives by submitting. But no, they have risked everything to free themselves; and after each slaughter the survivors have fled to the mountains and sturdily recovered from discouragement and planned new resistance. I wonder why, when we are called on to help them, we are asked to give just from pity, instead of from admiration of their indomitable spirit and pluck. When I get those awful circulars of corpses strewn over the desert, and starved living skeletons glaring at me, it is too much; I feel stunned. But it would stir us if we were reminded that those who remained wanted help, not simply as wreckage, but as warriors, ready to keep right on fighting. And with the hope, too, of winning, and thus at last ending these massacres. The Armenians aren't a slumpy lot of invalids; with all their faults, they're brave men.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1935, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.