Some Curiosities of Diplomatic Life

Herbert H. D. Peirce November 1 1908

Some Curiosities of Diplomatic Life

Herbert H. D. Peirce November 1 1908

Some Curiosities of Diplomatic Life

By Herbert H. D. Peirce in Atlantic Monthly

EVERY diplomatic officer encounters many appeals for advice and assistance of one sort or another, not only from his own compatriots but often from foreigners, sometimes simply curious, and sometimes pathetic and deeply appealing. The appeals which the American diplomat receives from his own nationals are perhaps more frequent than those made to similar officials of other nations, for the reason that it is generally understood by citizens of other countries who find themselves in distressed circumstances in foreign lands, that the medium of governmental relief, if such can be extended, is the consular, not the diplomatic, officer of their country.

Most governments permit their consular officers to extend some measure of relief to such of their nationals as become stranded in a foreign country and desire to return to their own homes. Our own principle of individual independence, a principle which has done much to foster that spirit of self-reliance which plays so large a part in the national character, is opposed to anything that might encourage citizens in the belief that in distress they can confidently apply to the government for relief; and, conformably to this spirit of our institutions, neither our diplomatic nor our consular officers are provided with means of pecuniary relief for American citizens who may become stranded abroad, however much they may desire to return to their own land, except, under certain circumstances, in the case of American seamen. As a consequence, both the diplomatic and the consular officers of the United States frequently find themselves confronted with cases of such an appealing nature that, in common charity, they cannot refrain from offering relief from their own pockets.

Take, for instance, the case of the American who by adverse circumstances is stranded abroad, longing for nothing so much as to return to his or (harder

still) her native land; speaking at most but little of the language of the country ; debarred both by nationality and by language from either earning a livelihood or seeking any but the most humiliating charity; willing but unable, in a foreign country, to exercise those means of breadwinning which in America might be reasonably relied upon for support. In the face of such an appeal, what can the diplomatic officer do but lend this aid to send the applicant home? Nor are such cases rare. They constitute a considerable tax upon the slender remuneration of the office. A generous charity toward his own nationals, tempered only by his personal means and due circumspection to provide against that imposition which is ever alert to impose on the unwary, becomes, therefore, one of the functions of the American diplomat.

It is, however, no part of the purpose of this article to rehearse the harrowing details of life’s harsh discipline to the needy, but rather to relate some curious phases of those conditions which bring persons to an American legation for assistance by advice or for pecuniary aid.

That meanest of social parasites, the bogus-claim-agent, meanest because he preys, not upon the rich, but above all upon those struggling poor who strive to keep head above water in that sea of overwhelming expense, the imagined social requirements of a position which their means are inadequate to maintain, —this wretched bloodsucker plies his nefarious calling in every land.

One bitter winter’s night in St. Petersburg, early in my first service as charge d’affaires, there came to me a poor colonel of infantry, whose meagre pay would hardly suffice to put bread in the youths of his numerous family and maintain with decency his rank in the Russian army.

The well-brushed but threadbare uniform, the tarnished lace, the boots well

polished but split, all proclaimed the struggle, while the thin hand he gave me and the sallow sunken cheek betrayed the physical privation. He had traveled from his post, some seven hundred miles distant, full of expectation, to ask information of me regarding the alleged fortune of a mythical millionaire in one of our southern states, by whose reputed death a claim-agent, to whom he had paid a hardly-spared bonus for the information, had told him, he had become his heir. Never shall I forget the fall of the poor gentleman’s countenance as I explained to him the improbability of the truth of his information. Needless to say, my inquiries proved my predictions correct. How dastardly the act of the vampire who had sucked from him his poor savings and entailed upon him the expense of the long journey!

There is a story of a vast fortune, the existence of which an American, dying in a Spanish prison, revealed to a priest", which periodically comes to light—always with a demand for a bonus before the secret can be divulged—with such regularity of reappearance, though with slight differences in dress, that it is known in the Department of State as “the Spanish story.”

Marital relations are a prolific cause of appeal to the American diplomat. It is dangerous ground, of course, but the diplomatic officer must patiently listen to the recital of rights and wrongs on both sides, and finally do what he best may to promote domestic harmony. The marriage laws of the different civilizer! countries differ materially, and indeed perhaps there is no question of socalled “private international law,” unless it be that of citizenship, which plays a larger part in the whoie question of what is known as the international “conflict of laws.” An American citizen married to a foreigner might, under certain circumstances, find his status in this regard quite different in his own country and in that of his wife.

A natuialized American of Russian birth who bad, for sufficient reason, procured a divorce from In's first wife, had married, as his second venture, a Russian lady of the Orthodox faith. Now the

Russian Church and State, while thev 80 ■'

grant divorce, do not easily recognize the remarriage of divorced people. Indeed, these two people certainly could not have been legally married in Russia. Both knowing the facts, they went to another country and there became man and wife by English law. Relations becoming strained, they both came to me, the husband to induce me to get the marriage dissolved, as invalid under Russian law, and the wife to insist upon her husband being held to his proper obligations under our laws. By dint of salutary advice, I brought matters to a satisfactory agreement, which, however, proved to be of brief duration; for, shortly afterwards, the wife appeared before me to request my good offices to get the marriage dissolved as invalid under Russian law; and she had hardly gone when the husband appeared to demand recognition of his marital rights under our laws, his wite having left him and being engaged in an attempt to remove the furniture from the house as her property.

Princess-, peace be to her and to

her name—a name associated with some of the highest dignities of the Empire, but which I will not repeat in this place, for obvious reasons—held weekly a salon in St. Petersburg where one met the very elect of every walk in Russian life, and to which none might obtain access without the passport of culture and good breeding. She had long passed the period of feminine charm when I knew her, except that she remained grande dame, in the highest acceptation of the phrase. Her dress, though somewhat eccentric, was of a character to emphasize the dignity of a truly noble bearing. No one understands this better than the Russian lady of high birth; she can even smoke her ever-burning cigarette with an air of supreme dignity.

As I sat one evening at work in my study, my servant brought me the card of a gentleman, well known in the Imperial Court, who awaited me in the salon. My visitor handed me a note from

Princess-, which requested me to

come to see her at once, at a certain house, not her own, on a matter of great importance. Laying the note down upon the table near me, I begged my visitot to say to the Princess that I would go

to her as quickly as I could make some necessary changes in my toilet. The moment I put it down he seized the note and tore it into a thousand pieces, which he crammed-into his pocket, explaining with breathless haste that the matter would permit of no delay, and begging me to go with him at once. A short drive brought us to a house I frequently passed in my daily comings and goings, and here a sign to the concierge and an evident signal at the doorbell caused the door to be quickly opened. As it closed behind me, I found myself in an apartment filled with white-frocked monks of the Roman church, an unusual enough sight in Orthodox Russia, where, of all religions, that of Rome is looked upon with most suspicion. By a tortuous and narrow passage, my guide led me to a back room illuminated only by a single lamp, and this heavily shaded, except for a square opening in the lamp-shade emitting a comparatively brilliant stream of light in the darkened room in which .sat my summoner, clothed in her habitual flowing black robe. Upon my entrance she rose and, still standing in the stream of light, introduced to me a young man of a well-known family who, she dramatically informed me, had committed what in Russia is regarded as a high political crime, though under our system it would be regarded as the exercise of a natural right. He had been concealed from the police for thirty days in that same apartment. Now an opportunity offered for sending him out of Russia through Finland, and her purpose in requesting my presence was to ask from me an American passport in his favor. Of course it was utterly impossible to comply with such a demand, and, very shortly after, my new acquaintance took his departure in company with a party of these Carmelite monks.

The penalty for the political crime of which he was confessedly guilty was deportation to Siberia for life. My sympathies were therefore keenly aroused, although it was quite impossible for me to assist him ; and it was with no small feeling of anxiety that I saw him depart upon his journey, which might very likely be interrupted by the police with disastrous resultsVery shortly afterward

my friend the Princess was taken seriously ill and died. I never saw her again, and it was not until five years later that I learned, by chance, that the young political offender had escaped safely.

Some of the applicants in Russia presented interesting claims. One, a native of Vermont, told me that he had come so far from the home of his Yankee birth to play in the Roumanian gypsy orchestra in one of the restaurants in St. Petersburg. Another, who received each year a special form of recommendation to the authorities as a “ward of the United States,” was a true Sioux Indian who had come to Russia in Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show,” and had been left behind owing to his love for Russian “firewater.” Physically, he was a fine specimen of the race of which his features and bearing were the very type; and, with the mass of coarse black hair hanging down on the massive shoulders from beneath the broad sombrero, it was curious to find him transplanted into Russian soil and speaking the language of that country about as well as he did English.

It is a just interpretation of our country’s liberal laws, based upon the principle of the right of the individual to change his national allegiance at will, that abandonment of country and permanent residence in a foreign land, without intention to return to the United States to reside, and to perform there those duties of citizenship which should be performed for the state in return for the advantages and protection which citizenship confers, should be construed as indicating a purpose to abandon citizenship itself. For, that the mere claim of nationality, and .demand for the national protection abroad, should give to the individual immunity from those claims upon him which the citizens or subjects of the countrv of his residence must meet, and that at the same time he should be enabled to avoid, by his absence, his duties and obligations to his own country, is a one-sided arrangement, out of consonance with the true and underlying principles of the mutual rights and obligations of communities and individuals. Moreover, there has been no little abuse of our naturalization laws by

foreigners, who, desiring to escape military service in the country of their origin, emigrate to America just before they can, by their laws, be called upon for such service, and, remaining just long enough in our country to obtain their papers as American citizens, return to the land of their birth, with no intention of ever coming back to the United States, but demanding of our government immunity, by virtue of their newly acquired allegiance, from all of those obligations which the country of their residence requires of its nationals, while enjoying all the advantages of its social organization and escaping the performance of every duty to their new allegiance.

Such an abuse was, of course, never contemplated in framing our immigration laws, nor in defining the principle of the inalienable right of the individual to change his allegiance. It is a simple measure of self-protection for our government to say that, while it does not undertake to deprive any citizen of his lawful rights, it is fair to assume that, when he abandons, permanently, his residence in this country, thereby avoiding all those duties of citizenship which the state may justly require, he has abandoned, in real truth, American allegiance.

Yet, as no general precept can meet every case, this just and equitable interpretation of our laws works hardships in some cases, which come with pathetic appeal to the attention of the American diplomat. A combination of untoward circumstances may leave a whole family stranded in a foreign countrv. The death of the parents may throw the children, altogether unprepared, upon their own resources, and, with the most earnest longing to return to America, they may be unable to find the means to do so. Each year cuts them off more entirely from home lies, and makes the possibility of their earning a living in America more remote, and yet there remains the same intense desire to claim and retain American citizenship. I remember several such familie^ in Russia, who had come out with their parents at the time of the building, by American contractors, of the railway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and who, their parents having died,

leaving them penniless, had become Rus82

sian in everything but in name and in their intense sentiment of patriotism toward the country they could only dimly remember from childhood.

Of stranded Americans in Russia, I recall, among many others, the case of a troupe of eleven colored “vaudeville’’ performers, whose manager had left them in the lurch. To assist so many at one and the same time was quite beyond the means at my personal disposal, so I was obliged to have resource to a benevolent society, to which I was a subscriber, to borrow aid for them. It is a pleasure to be able to recall that these people repaid the loan voluntarily and without any steps, on my part, to require it.

Needless to say, the diplomatic officer encounters his full share of impostors. My last in this line was an amiable and adroit humbug, but he did a fair day’s work for every krone I gave him, and, but for his final abuse of my confidence, I should feel that I bad not suffered in anything but the imposition on my credulity, and this so cleverly done as to amuse rather than annoy me.

He came just as I was getting settled in my house in Christiania ; my garden was full of the boxes in which my furniture had been packed, and which must be broken up and stored before the rapidly approaching winter set in. He represented himself to be a discharged American seaman, but without papers—as such sea-tramps often are—or other means of identification than his knowledge of City Point, South Boston—which seemed accurate enough—where he represented himself to have been born, although, as he said, he had been at sea most of his life. Curiously enough, though, he knew City Point so well, he knew nothing about Boston or even South Boston. He could not tell me even where the State House stands, nor what it looks like. Yet he spoke English without other accent than that which is common enough in certain parts of our country, a slight Irish brogue. The sole wish of his heart was to get back once more to City Point, to his dear old mother, whom he would never, never leave again, once he was at her side. Giving him a crown for his supper and night’s lodging, I told him to call on me the next day.

Meanwhile, I arranged with a steamship line to give my American sailor transportation to Boston, for a sum within my means, and engaged him to work for me at fair wages until sailing day. I never got better labor for the wages than this delightful humbug gave me. The day before the sailing of his steamer he disappeared, but the ship had hardly left port when he turned up again with a story of unavoidable detention. Two weeks later, another was to sail, and again I arranged for his passage, still employing his services about the place, where his diligence and intelligent labor accomplished wonders in getting things to rights. Sailing day came again, and again my American was missing; but the following day up he bobbed with a story of a row and arrest by the police—a story which, on investigation, proved to be pure fiction.

I yielded to his importunities to give him a little more work, and set him at splitting kindling in the cellar.

The next morning, my servant came to me, saying, “If the Minister pleases, the American is drunk.” — “Well, send him away,” said I. — “I can’t, sir. He will not go; I did lock him in the winecellar.” — “Why? Why did you lock a drunken man in my wine-cellar?” — ‘T did find him in the wine-cellar, drunk. He did get in with a false key. It is here,” handing me a regular burglar’s skeleton key. There was nothing to do but to hand him over to the police, who informed me that he was a Swede and “wanted” in Stockholm on a criminal charge.

There comes to me frequently, at this Legation, a poor demented old man, who fancies that he has some grievance

against the Norwegian Government. He clearly is not an American citizen, but he alleges that he served in the Confederate Army. He carries always the same bundle of papers, which I have read many times, and which have no sort of bearing on the claim that he thinks they establish.

As I try to make him comprehend this, he dives down into all his pockets, fishing out other equally irrelevant scraps, until every chair is the repository for some of these poor worthless bits of paper. He stands and looks at them all with despairing eyes, then puts his hand to his head, saying, “There is something, but I can't remember. My head is bad.” It is a sad and oft-repeated scene. All I can do is to give him a little charity and send him away.

These are but a few of the curiosities of diplomatic life, taken, at random, out of my experience. Many others crowd in upon my memory, but the foregoing will serve to show how varied are the appeals for assistance, in one form and another, which come to the American diplomat.

Of the tragedies of life which one encounters, where often a few dollars would go so far to relieve distress, I have said but little. One often longs for means to dispense a more generous charity. Our national government could hardly undertake to provide such means, and it is only a few of our diplomatic officials whose circumstances enable them adequately to meet all the calls upon them. But the relief of worthy Americans in distress abroad, through our embassies and legations, offers a wide field for private charity, which would be subject to but little if any imposition, in view of the ability of the officials to investigate.