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There is one thing that the Anglo-Saxon does better than the "French, or Turk, or Rooshian," to which add the German or the Belgian. When the Anglo-Saxon appoints an official, he appoints a servant: when the others put a man in uniform, they add to their long list of masters. If among your acquaintances you can discover an American, or Englishman, unfamiliar with the continental official, it is worth your while to accompany him, the first time he goes out to post a letter, say. He advances towards the post-office a breezy, self-confident gentleman, borne up by pride of race. While mounting the steps he talks airily of "just getting this letter off his mind, and then picking up Jobson and going on to Durand's for lunch."
He talks as if he had the whole day before him. At the top of the steps he attempts to push open the door. It will not move. He looks about him, and discovers that is the door of egress, not of ingress. It does not seem to him worth while redescending the twenty steps and climbing another twenty. So far as he is concerned he is willing to pull the door, instead of pushing it. But a stern official bars his way, and haughtily indicates the proper entrance. "Oh, bother," he says, and down he trots again, and up the other flight.
"I shall not be a minute," he remarks over his shoulder. "You can wait for me outside."
But if you know your way about, you follow him in. There are seats within, and you have a newspaper in your pocket: the time will pass more pleasantly. Inside he looks round, bewildered. The German post-office, generally speaking, is about the size of the Bank of England. Some twenty different windows confront your troubled friend, each one bearing its own particular legend. Starting with number one, he sets to work to spell them out. It appears to him that the posting of letters is not a thing that the German post-office desires to encourage. Would he not like a dog licence instead? is what one window suggests to him. "Oh, never mind that letter of yours; come and talk about bicycles," pleads another. At last he thinks he has found the right hole: the word "Registration" he distinctly recognizes. He taps at the glass.
Nobody takes any notice of him. The foreign official is a man whose life is saddened by a public always wanting something. You read it in his face wherever you go. The man who sells you tickets for the theatre! He is eating sandwiches when you knock at his window. He turns to his companion:
"Good Lord!" you can see him say, "here's another of 'em. If there has been one man worrying me this morning there have been a hundred. Always the same story: all of 'em want to come and see the play. You listen now; bet you anything he's going to bother me for tickets. Really, it gets on my nerves sometimes."
At the railway station it is just the same.
"Another man who wants to go to Antwerp! Don't seem to care for rest, these people: flying here, flying there, what's the sense of it?" It is this absurd craze on the part of the public for letter-writing that is spoiling the temper of the continental post-office official. He does his best to discourage it.
"Look at them," he says to his assistant--the thoughtful German Government is careful to provide every official with another official for company, lest by sheer force of ennui he might be reduced to taking interest in his work--"twenty of 'em, all in a row! Some of 'em been there for the last quarter of an hour."
"Let 'em wait another quarter of an hour," advises the assistant; "perhaps they'll go away."
"My dear fellow," he answers, "do you think I haven't tried that? There's simply no getting rid of 'em. And it's always the same cry: 'Stamps! stamps! stamps!' 'Pon my word, I think they live on stamps, some of 'em."
"Well let 'em have their stamps?" suggests the assistant, with a burst of inspiration; "perhaps it will get rid of 'em."
Why the Man in Uniform has, generally, sad Eyes.
"What's the use?" wearily replies the older man. "There will only come a fresh crowd when those are gone."
"Oh, well," argues the other, "that will be a change, anyhow. I'm tired of looking at this lot."
I put it to a German post-office clerk once--a man I had been boring for months. I said:
"You think I write these letters--these short stories, these three-act plays--on purpose to annoy you. Do let me try to get the idea out of your head. Personally, I hate work--hate it as much as you do. This is a pleasant little town of yours: given a free choice, I could spend the whole day mooning round it, never putting pen to paper. But what am I to do? I have a wife and children. You know what it is yourself: they clamour for food, boots--all sorts of things. I have to prepare these little packets for sale and bring them to you to send off. You see, you are here. If you were not here--if there were no post-office in this town, maybe I'd have to train pigeons, or cork the thing up in a bottle, fling it into the river, and trust to luck and the Gulf Stream. But, you being here, and calling yourself a post-office--well, it's a temptation to a fellow."
I think it did good. Anyhow, after that he used to grin when I opened the door, instead of greeting me as formerly with a face the picture of despair. But to return to our inexperienced friend.
At last the wicket is suddenly opened. A peremptory official demands of him "name and address." Not expecting the question, he is a little doubtful of his address, and has to correct himself once or twice. The official eyes him suspiciously.
"Name of mother?" continues the official.
"Name of what?"
"Mother!" repeats the official. "Had a mother of some sort, I suppose."
He is a man who loved his mother sincerely while she lived, but she has been dead these twenty years, and, for the life of him he cannot recollect her name. He thinks it was Margaret Henrietta, but is not at all sure. Besides, what on earth has his mother got to do with this registered letter that he wants to send to his partner in New York?
"When did it die?" asks the official.
"When did what die? Mother?"
"No, no, the child."
"What child?" The indignation of the official is almost picturesque.
"All I want to do," explains your friend, "is to register a letter."
"This letter, I want--"
The window is slammed in his face. When, ten minutes later he does reach the right wicket--the bureau for the registration of letters, and not the bureau for the registration of infantile deaths--it is pointed out to him that the letter either is sealed or that it is not sealed.
I have never been able yet to solve this problem. If your letter is sealed, it then appears that it ought not to have been sealed.
If, on the other hand, you have omitted to seal it, that is your fault. In any case, the letter cannot go as it is. The continental official brings up the public on the principle of the nurse who sent the eldest girl to see what Tommy was doing and tell him he mustn't. Your friend, having wasted half an hour and mislaid his temper for the day, decides to leave this thing over and talk to the hotel porter about it. Next to the Burgomeister, the hotel porter is the most influential man in the continental town: maybe because he can swear in seven different languages. But even he is not omnipotent.
The Traveller's one Friend.
Three of us, on the point of starting for a walking tour through the Tyrol, once sent on our luggage by post from Constance to Innsbruck. Our idea was that, reaching Innsbruck in the height of the season, after a week's tramp on two flannel shirts and a change of socks, we should be glad to get into fresh clothes before showing ourselves in civilized society. Our bags were waiting for us in the post-office: we could see them through the grating. But some informality--I have never been able to understand what it was--had occurred at Constance. The suspicion of the Swiss postal authorities had been aroused, and special instructions had been sent that the bags were to be delivered up only to their rightful owners.
It sounds sensible enough. Nobody wants his bag delivered up to anyone else. But it had not been explained to the authorities at Innsbruck how they were to know the proper owners. Three wretched-looking creatures crawled into the post-office and said they wanted those three bags--"those bags, there in the corner"--which happened to be nice, clean, respectable- looking bags, the sort of bags that anyone might want. One of them produced a bit of paper, it is true, which he said had been given to him as a receipt by the post-office people at Constance. But in the lonely passes of the Tyrol one man, set upon by three, might easily be robbed of his papers, and his body thrown over a precipice. The chief clerk shook his head. He would like us to return accompanied by someone who could identify us. The hotel porter occurred to us, as a matter of course. Keeping to the back streets, we returned to the hotel and fished him out of his box.
"I am Mr. J.," I said: "this is my friend Mr. B. and this is Mr. S."
The porter bowed and said he was delighted.
"I want you to come with us to the post-office," I explained, "and identify us."
The hotel porter is always a practical man: his calling robs him of all sympathy with the hide-bound formality of his compatriots. He put on his cap and accompanied us back to the office. He did his best: no one could say he did not. He told them who we were: they asked him how he knew. For reply he asked them how they thought he knew his mother: he just knew us: it was second nature with him. He implied that the question was a silly one, and suggested that, as his time was valuable, they should hand us over the three bags and have done with their nonsense.
They asked him how long he had known us. He threw up his hands with an eloquent gesture: memory refused to travel back such distance. It appeared there was never a time when he had not known us. We had been boys together.
Did he know anybody else who knew us? The question appeared to him almost insulting. Everybody in Innsbruck knew us, honoured us, respected us--everybody, that is, except a few post-office officials, people quite out of society.
Would he kindly bring along, say; one undoubtedly respectable citizen who could vouch for our identity? The request caused him to forget us and our troubles. The argument became a personal quarrel between the porter and the clerk. If he, the porter, was not a respectable citizen of Innsbruck, where was such an one to be found?
The disadvantage of being an unknown Person.
Both gentlemen became excited, and the discussion passed beyond my understanding. But I gathered dimly from what the clerk said, that ill- natured remarks relative to the porter's grandfather and a missing cow had never yet been satisfactorily replied to: and, from observations made by the porter, that stories were in circulation about the clerk's aunt and a sergeant of artillery that should suggest to a discreet nephew of the lady the inadvisability of talking about other people's grandfathers.
Our sympathies were naturally with the porter: he was our man, but he did not seem to be advancing our cause much. We left them quarrelling, and persuaded the head waiter that evening to turn out the gas at our end of the table d'hote.
The next morning we returned to the post-office by ourselves. The clerk proved a reasonable man when treated in a friendly spirit. He was a bit of a climber himself. He admitted the possibility of our being the rightful owners. His instructions were only not to deliver up the bags, and he himself suggested a way out of the difficulty. We might come each day and dress in the post-office, behind the screen. It was an awkward arrangement, even although the clerk allowed us the use of the back door. And occasionally, in spite of the utmost care, bits of us would show outside the screen. But for a couple of days, until the British Consul returned from Salzburg, the post-office had to be our dressing room. The continental official, I am inclined to think, errs on the side of prudence.
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