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4. The Barcelona Conference

One day, working at my Peking office on my usual problems, I found I could not concentrate, and there was a dull pain at the back of my head. There had been no leading up to it; I had been quite well the day before. It affected my work only — nothing else; but my doctor took a very serious view of it, ordered me to stop all work and go home at once on six months' leave. That was in May 1920. As soon as I had left Peking the complaint fell off me like a cloak and passed completely out of mind yet it was really the beginning of the end for me.

After three months at home I started back again — alone- via New York, and eager for my job. But at that city I received a cable from the Ministry, asking would I act as technical delegate to a sub-meeting of the League of Nations, which was to be held at Barcelona in the following spring to deal with the matter of Transit and Communications, left over from the Versailles Treaty; if so, I should return to England and work up the subject. It chiefly concerned, as I later found, access to the sea by inland states. I ought not to have accepted it, but of course I did; I should have realized I had already strained myself and have fought shy of new adventures; but I did not give that view of things a thought. Instead — apart from the Barcelona business — I saw another chance to occupy myself. While in England I had tried to see Sir Leslie Scott, the expert on Maritime Law, to get his view about Limitation of Liability for Chinese shipping; but I failed. Now, I thought I would have a shot at American authorities. So I visited a friend at Providence, told him what I wanted, and asked if he could help me. ' Why, that ought to be quite easy. The Judge here is a friend of mine. I'll' take you round to see him at the Court.'

As a result of that visit, where the Judge was very kind and helpful, I got half a dozen introductions to judges and lawyers at New York and Washington, and at the former I did as I was told. I got Judge Hough on the telephone, and said I had an introduction from Judge so-and-so; and his answer was ` Come round right now; I shall be very pleased to see you.'

There now occurred a curious little incident. When I saw the name-plate on the door of the Judge's chambers I wondered whether he pronounced that name as we do; so I stopped a passing man who looked like a lawyer and told him of my doubt.

To my astonishment he showed an air of strong resentment —

` Who put you up to asking me that question? ' — and, when I had satisfied him that I had no bad intention, he said, ` Well, I guess I 've got to believe you; but really it is some coincidence.

You see, yesterday I came along as you are doing to call upon the Judge; I too had a doubt about how he called himself; I too stopped and asked a man right here the question that you asked me, and the damn fool said, " Why, it's an English name, he comes from Boston, and he calls it Haff "; but when I saw the Judge and called him by that name he showed annoyance and told me it was Huff. And now the story has got around, and everywhere I go I am ragged about it; so is it a wonder that I thought you had been put up to getting one on me? '

I saw the Judge and he was charming. ` Your aim has my highest commendation. The diversity of law on Limitation of Liability, when quite obviously it should be universal, is a scandal. China, with her clean slate, has an opportunity which no other country has. Get her to adopt a wise mean in this affair, and the result may be epochal — the world may follow you. I'll' call a meeting of the Maritime Law Association at once to consider the matter.' It was a glorious opportunity; and it is among the saddest of my thoughts that I never had the chance to use it.

So I returned to England and started studying the two conventions which had been framed at Versailles and, because of the complication of the subject, had been left to another time. They were nightmares of presentation and of unintelligibility, and one was contradictory of the other. I told the chief of another delegation that if I were encouraged I would codify the thing so that as far as possible its meaning would be clear. But to this the experienced man replied,
For God's sake do nothing of the sort. It is most important that a convention be agreed upon. From the nature of the subject and the situation, if we know exactly what it means, there won't be a dog's chance of it going through. The one chance for it is that each delegation hopes that the wording can be held to include their needs without being certain of it.'

That is what is meant by a formula.

The Chinese delegation met at Paris for a month's study before the Barcelona meeting. And now I met Tsangou, the Chief Delegate. He was French educated and had absorbed French characteristics in a caricatural form. He was vastly voluble, curiously emphatically pointless, and very excitable.

I think he had had experience of the League before; the chicaneries of the business were like good wine to him — he loved it; obviously he was very clever; equally obviously he was appallingly ignorant on matters concerning the interests of China which would come before the meeting. And that of course is where I came in. My instructions from the Ministry were to report direct should I think it necessary — a delicate authority, which I had no intention of acting on except for urgent reasons.

Tsangou and I were at loggerheads at once. I considered he was playing into the hands of the Japanese; I feared his attitude in that connection; and eventually I told him of my right and threatened to exercise it. Of course it was wildly indiscreet from the standpoint of my interests; but I had never exercised discretion of that kind. Always I had done the job that lay in front of me without regard to praise or blame.

The Barcelona meeting! Those men of world-wide reputation! Their speeches almost indicated the millennium in their tone; and yet I knew quite well — I had it on the best of evidence — that there was hardly one who would give up five per cent of the interests he represented for an advantage to the world at large of ninety-five per cent. That word-juggling in the formulae! The use of language to bewilder and deceive, with a special brand of expert on the job — highly paid and greatly valued for their skill; and I wondered whether they were not manufacturing trouble for the future. The bare truth about a question — unadorned, uncamouflaged — would be viewed as an exposure that was quite indecent. I said to a member of another delegation that Barcelona was no place for a simple-minded sailor man, and he replied, ` Nor for any honest man.'

Yet in spite of these strong strictures I know quite well that we cannot do without the League. It is rather like religion in the genuine need for it and in the mixture of good and evil that permeates it.

The delegates were invited to Madrid to see the King and Queen — in that palace that Napoleon said was the finest in the world; and the halberdiers thumped their staves upon the floor in salutation. We stood up in a row, and the King and Queen and the Queen Mother passed down the line to receive the presentations, and here and there they stopped to have a talk. Among the group of Chinese my wife and I would be conspicuous, so the King talked to me for a quarter of an hour or so about China and the war of '94, and he made me do the talking; then came the Queen — and here a very sad affair — it was plain she was embarrassed by not knowing who I was among that group and did not like to ask. I felt so sorry for being the cause of that pretty Queen being bored while the King was talking to my wife; I ought to have broken through convention to help her, but I failed to do so; and after her the Queen Mother, who chatted as easily and pleasantly as any other hostess at a party.

At Barcelona the work went on. Although I criticize the methods of the League it was most interesting to see what they did and how they did it and what they did not do, and the relations between the delegations. I thoroughly enjoyed my work; I never felt more fit or more certain of myself. Tsangou's mixture of antagonism and appreciation of my value was but an added spice to this new experience.

Then one morning when I had started work I found that I really could not stand the tap-tap-tap of my stenographer, which in all those years had never troubled me and which had not troubled me the day before; and very soon the fact was forced on me that I was badly punctured — that the virtue had gone out of me.

Mine was essentially a one-man job, requiring the fullest vigour to keep it going; and the long period needed for being pumped up again — it took four years — was not available. My career was ended, and thus, also, is my story.