CHAPTER XIV. HIS MAJESTY'S REPRESENTATIVE.
A British Consulate Described - Comfort the Triumph of English Civilisation - Home Thoughts - England Honoured in the BalkansIN the hazy distance he sees himself a full Consul, earning £800 a year, or even rising to the dignity of a Consul-General with £1,000. At present he is Acting Vice-Consul in his Britannic Majesty's Levant Consular Service, and his income is £400.
It is not likely you ever heard of the quaint, rickety, ramshackle Turkish town where it is his duty to represent British interests. As a matter of fact, there are no British interests, as the phrase is usually understood. No Britons live in the place. Whatever British trade there was has been bulged aside by energetic Austrians or accommodating Germans. Yet he writes to the Foreign Office voluminous reports, which occasionally find quotation in podgy Blue Books that nobody reads, or which are dumped into the vaults of Whitehall to mould and rot. Still, he is a cheerful young fellow. His greeting may be of the chill, official English kind, yet there is a sterling grip in his handshake. Later he tells you a visitor is a godsend.
The British Vice-Consulate in an out-of-the-way Turkish town is a poor reflex of the glory of the British Empire. The taxpayer at home is ever grumbling about increased expenditure, and the
gentlemen in Whitehall, who have to account for the farthings, have hearts adamant to consular appeals. A small contribution called "office allowance" is made towards the rent and the wages of the kavass, or messenger; but the chief burden falls on his Majesty's youthful representative. So when he has paid his rent, perhaps £40, perhaps £90 a year, furnished his house, provided himself with two horses, hired a cook and a personal servant, paid the wages of the kavass, fed himself and his household, made the innumerable presents associated with official life in the East, there is not much balance out of his salary.
The Consulate is a dingy, melancholy-looking building, possibly up a side street that is pungent with strange, unappetising odours, and the shrill cries of fantastic-garbed itinerant merchants. Over the door is a large, yellowish, lozenge-shaped, and cheap enamelled tin showing the royal arms - tawdry, and evidently supplied, under contract, by the hundred. If there be an adjoining slab of garden a flagstaff stands with the hoist-ropes impatiently slapping its side, and if the garden be absent then the flagstaff is attached to the small but inevitable balcony over the doorway. On the King's birthday and every Sunday, a crumpled Union Jack shakes its folds and takes an airing.
The entrance hall is bare. Heavy boots on the bare boards make that rowdy, hollow, echoing sound you hear when tramping an empty house. The walls, tinted with crude blue colour wash, are unadorned, save possibly for a pasted bill bluntly
informing you that British subjects abroad may register the birth of their children at the Consulate, for which service the Consul is entitled to charge a fee of two shillings. On one side you catch a glimpse, through a door ajar, of a dejected apartment with a bed in a corner (the private room of the kavass); on another is a drear "chancery "the official part of the Consulate; a cheap table, with wheezy pens on a blotting pad it would be dangerous to use, an unpainted cupboard, an iron safe, where the papers are kept, a pile of dusty and dishevelled London, Paris, and Constantinople newspapers in a corner; a map of the Balkan Peninsula on one of the walls. Here sits the dragoman, the interpreter, a quick-witted, European-clad but fez-wearing Armenian, who learnt his English at Robert College, on the banks of the Bosphorus, and finds it profitable to give his services in return for the protection of living under the British flag.
But there is the Vice-Consul's own room. Consuls-General and full Consuls, especially if there is a wife, make the home in a foreign land like an English home. But the young Vice-Consul, with maybe only half a dozen years in the Levant Service, is a bachelor. His instructions from the Ambassador at Constantinople are of the "come-here, go-there" order. His stay may be for a couple of months, it may be for two years. Severe and frugal are his wants, with no accumulation of "truck " to cost much money carting about from one part of Turkey to another.
Some day, when the British taxpayer allows the Foreign Office to be generous, a Consulate will be provided by the home Government, and perhaps £100 will be spent in supplying a few necessaries available for the resident Consul, whoever he may be: a carpet or two, half a dozen chairs, a couple of tables, some pots and pans, an iron bedstead, a wardrobe, a bath.
Till that time comes his Majesty's representative must fend for himself. He may have been hurriedly transferred from a distant post. He arrives with a couple of trunks. He stays at a Turkish inn till he has been through the bazaars and bought or hired some furniture, and written to the English stores at Constantinople for a frying-pan and a teapot. He tries to keep his expenses down. Why spend money on furnishing when in a month or two he may be hustled off elsewhere, necessitating the sale of his possessions at a sacrifice? - for he does not know who his successor is likely to be, or whether he would be inclined to buy his belongings.
Yet this little sanctum of the Vice-Consul has a pleasant savour. You find there what you will find nowhere else in the city, not even in the home of the Vali himself: comfort. Comfort is the triumph of English civilisation. The people of other nations think they have it, but they lack the faculty of understanding what it is. In the United States you get an imitation of English comfort, pleasant but still an imitation. Compare a refined American home with a refined English home. As far as money goes the American home is more luxurious than the
English home. Luxury, however, is not comfort. So there is about the English home, appreciated by Americans as quickly as anybody, that "indefinable something" which is summed up in the one word - comfort.
And the young Englishman, because it is in his nature rather than from set purpose, makes himself comfortable. Though he went from the public school to the 'Varsity, and straight from the 'Varsity into the Levant Consular Service, he has with him the sense of comfort. During the half-dozen years he has been in Turkey he has learnt about prayer rugs, embroideries, tapestries. After much haggling in the bazaars he has purchased precious pieces, which hang upon his walls in lieu of pictures. He develops a pretty taste in ancient arms, flint-lock pistols chased in silver, sabres of Damascus steel, the blade inlaid with gold, the handle studded with coral and turquoise, the scabbard of embossed silver. He teaches a Turkish carpenter to make a lounge; he throws a Persian rug over it, and there is a divan comfortable indeed. He gets a couple of long-bodied, well-padded English easy chairs from Constantinople - things which the Turk insists throw the human body into most undignified and ungentlemanly postures. He has his stack of pipes, and he must have his English 'baccy. Pieces of embroidery hide the bare deal table where stand his photographs, some in little silver frames - not Turkish, but of the kind sold by the thousand in a hundred shops in Regent Street or Oxford Street - but most are unmounted. You need not
ask which are the photographs of the mother or the old dad. The position of the pictures tells you. There are groups of young fellows in cricketing flannels, taken before the Vice-Coinsul exchanged the pleasures of English sport for the work of representing his country in a Levantine town. Since he is a straight-built, healthy Englishman, you notice the photographs of sweet and smiling English girls, sisters, the friends of sisters, girls who possibly looked kindly into the eyes of the young Englishman, who maybe think of him as living in gorgeous Eastern style, or maybe have let him slip from memory altogether. And the Vice-Consul, sitting alone in that comfortable room - with no bright restaurant to dine at when he "gets the hump," no theatre nor music hall to fly to, no pal with whom to play billiards, no countryman to speak to - must let his thoughts wander to the old land, and if his thoughts make his heart a little sore and the things seen by his eyes a little blurred, he is none the less a strong man for that. Though when he finds himself at it he will probably swear, whistle, and load another pipe. He'll have out his horse in the morning, go off for a gallop, and shake up his mopish liver.
There are compensations. No Englishman is ever so much an Englishman as when away from England. In London he will abuse it; but let any man endeavour to abuse it in his presence in Constantinople! The Vice-Consul knows the name of England stands high in the Balkans. The Turk remembers that when the Russians were at San
Stefano it was England that prevented them entering Constantinople. To-day, when all the nations, except Germany, are worrying Turkey, and Austria and Russia are greedy to gobble up the Balkans, the Turk knows that England, though meddlesome, has no territorial hunger. At home the Vice-Consul would pass along the street unnoticed. In Turkey he never goes out without officials saluting him and the soldiers on guard at the Konak presenting arms.
He calls upon the Vali, the Governor. When the visit is official and not merely courteous, he puts on his frock coat and silk hat - articles he brought out from England six or eight years ago, and which are apt to look old-fashioned to the man fresh from London. As, among the half-dozen Consuls - Russian, French, Austrian, Italian, Greek, Servian - he is the only one who can speak freely in Turkish, he is appreciated by the Vali. He sips syrupy coffee, and puffs cigarettes, and complains that Christians in some adjoining village are being harshly treated by the authorities. The Vali is very sorry to hear it, promises to attend to the matter and have the Christians better treated - which they rarely are. The British representative formally calls on all his consular confreres, and within twenty-four hours they all formally return the call. But there is little friendship between the Consuls. They spend most of their time watching each other, spying upon one another through their dragomans, and writing reports.
The Vice-Consul keeps his eyes and his ears open. Much depends on himself and the faculty to
weigh the value of the prejudiced stories against the Turk told him furtively by Armenians or Bulgarians or Greeks. If he keeps pace with the times he will have a typewriter, so that his report may be manifolded. Otherwise he laboriously writes four copies - one for the Foreign Office, one for the Ambassador, one for his Consul-General, and a file copy for himself.
He is really an ambassador in miniature. His work is diplomatic rather
than consular. He has a hundred opportunities of showing what brains he
owns. Often he is little more than a boy, and his thoughts might yet be
in the cricket or football field. His countrymen scarcely know of his existence.
Yet he is one of the army of educated but expatriated Englishmen who sit
in lone houses in strange cities in far-off lands, and at fitting times
remind the Asiatics of the majesty of Britain.
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