The Hohenzollerns in America
By Stephen Leacock
Public Domain Books
Uncle’s art has failed. It was only yesterday that I was writing in my memoirs of how cheerful and glad I felt to think that Uncle William was going to be able to make his living by art, and now everything is changed again. All the time that Uncle was out on his visit to the picture dealers, I was making plans and thinking what we would do with the money when it came in, so it is very disappointing to have it all come to nothing. I don’t know just what happened because Uncle William never gives any details of things. His mind moves too rapidly for that. But he came home with his pictures still under his arm in a perfect fury and raged up and down his room, using very dreadful language.
But after a little while when he grew calmer he explained to me that the Americans are merely swineheads and that art, especially art such as his, is wasted on them. Uncle says that he has no wish to speak harshly of the Americans, but they are pig-dogs. He bears them no ill-will, he says, for what they have done and his heart is free of any spirit of vengeance, but he wishes he had his heel on their necks for about half a minute. He said this with such a strange dreadful snarl that for the moment his face seemed quite changed. But presently when he recovered himself he got quite cheerful again, and said that it was perhaps unseemly in him, as the guest of the American people, to say anything against them. It is strange how Uncle always refers to himself as the guest of the American people. Living in this poor place, in these cheap surroundings, it seems so odd. Often at our meals in the noisy dining-room down in the basement, in the speeches that he makes to the boarders, he talks of himself as the guest of America and he says, “What does America ask in return? Nothing.” I can see that Mrs. O’Halloran, the landlady, doesn’t like this, because we have not paid her anything for quite a long time, and she has spoken to me about it in the corridor several times.
But when Uncle William makes speeches in the dining-room I think the whole room becomes transformed for him into the banquet room of a palace, and the cheap bracket lamps against the wall turn into a blaze of light and the boarders are all courtiers, and he becomes more and more grandiloquent. He waves his hand towards Uncle Henry and refers to him as “my brother the Admiral,” and to me as “the Princess at my side.” Some of the people, the meaner ones, begin to laugh and to whisper, and others look uncomfortable and sorry. And it is always on these occasions that Uncle William refers to himself as America’s guest, and refers to the Americans as the hospitable nation who have taken him to their heart. I think that when Uncle says this he really believes it; Uncle can believe practically anything if he says it himself.
So, as I say, when he came home yesterday, after failing to sell his pictures, he was at first furious and then he fell into his other mood and he said that, as the guest of a great people, he had found out at last the return he could make to them. He said that he would organise a School of Art, and as soon as he had got the idea he was carried away with it at once and seized a pencil and paper and began making plans for the school and drawing up a list of the instructors needed. He asked first who could be Principal, or President, of the School, and decided that he would have to be that himself as he knew of no one but himself who had the peculiar power of organisation needed for it. All the technical instructors, he said, must be absolutely the best, each one a master in his own line. So he wrote down at the top of his list, Instructor in Oils, and reflected a little, with his head in his hand, as to who could do that. Presently he sighed and said that as far as he knew there was no one; he’d have to do that himself. Then he wrote down Instructor in Water Colour, and as soon as he had written it he said right off that he would have to take that over too; there was no one else that he could trust it to. Then he said, “Now, let me see, Perspective, Freehand, and Crayon Work. I need three men: three men of the first class. Can I get them? I doubt it. Let me think what can be done.”
He walked up and down the room a little with his hands behind his back and his head sunk in thought while he murmured, “Three men? Three men? But Ha! why THREE? Why not, if sufficiently gifted, ONE man?”
But just when he was saying this there was a knock at the door and Mrs. O’Halloran came in. I knew at once what she had come for, because she had been threatening to do it, and so I felt dreadfully nervous when she began to say that our bill at the house had gone unpaid too long and that we must pay her at once what we owed her. It took some time before Uncle William understood what she was talking about, but when he did he became dreadfully frigid and polite. He said, “Let me understand clearly, madame, just what it is that you wish to say: do I apprehend that you are saying that my account here for our maintenance is now due and payable?” Mrs. O’Halloran said yes, she was. And Uncle said, “Let me endeavour to grasp your meaning exactly: am I correct in thinking that you mean I owe you money?” Mrs. O’Halloran said that was what she meant. Uncle said, “Let me try to apprehend just as accurately as possible what it is that you are trying to tell me: is my surmise correct that you are implying that it is time that I settled up my bill?”
Mrs. O’Halloran said, “Yes,” but I could see that by this time she was getting quite flustered because there was something so dreadfully chilling in Uncle’s manner: his tone in a way was courtesy itself, but there was something in it calculated to make Mrs. O’Halloran feel that she had committed a dreadful breach in what she had done. Uncle William told me afterwards that to mention money to a prince is not a permissible thing, and that no true Hohenzollern has ever allowed the word “bill” to be said in his presence, and that for this reason he had tried, out of courtesy, to give the woman every chance to withdraw her words and had only administered a reprimand to her when she failed to do so. Certainly it was a dreadful rebuke that he gave her. He told her that he must insist on this topic being dismissed and never raised again: that he could allow no such discussion: the subject was one, he said, that he must absolutely refuse to entertain: he did not wish, he said, to speak with undue severity, but he had better make it plain that if there were any renewal of this discussion he should feel it impossible to remain in the house.
While Uncle William was saying all this Mrs. O’Halloran was getting more and more confused and angry, and when Uncle finally opened the door for her with cold dignity, she backed out of it and found herself outside the room without seeming to know what she was doing. Presently I could hear her down in the scullery below, rattling dishes and saying that she was just as good as anybody.
But Uncle William seemed to be wonderfully calmed and elevated after this scene, and said, “Princess, bring me my flute.” I brought it to him and he sat by the window and leaned his head out over the back lane and played our dear old German melodies, till somebody threw a boot at him. The people about here are not musical. But meantime Uncle William had forgotten all about the School of Art, and he said no more about it.
To-day a dreadful thing has happened. The police have come into the house and have taken Cousin Willie away. He is now in a place called The Tombs, and Mr. Peters says that he will be sent to the great prison at Sing-Sing. He is to be tried for robbery and for stabbing with intent to kill.
It was very dreadful when they came to take him. I was so glad that Uncle William was not here to see it all. But it was in the morning and he had gone out to see a steamship company about being president of it, and I was tidying up our rooms, because Mrs. O’Halloran won’t tidy them up any more or let the coloured servant tidy them up until we pay her more money. She said that to me, but I think she is afraid to say it to Uncle William. So I mean to do the work now while Uncle is out and not let him know.
This morning, in the middle of the morning, while I was working, all of a sudden I heard the street door open and slam and some one rushing up the stairway: and then Cousin Willie broke into the room, all panting and excited, and his face grey with fright and gasping out, “Hide me, hide me!” He ran from room to room whining and hysterical, and his breath coming in a sort of sob, but he seemed incapable of deciding what to do. I would have hidden him if I could, but at the very next moment I heard the policemen coming in below, and the voice of the landlady. Then they came upstairs, big strong-looking men in blue, any one of whom could have choked Cousin Willie with one hand. Cousin Willie ran to and fro like a cornered rat, and two of the men seized him and then I think he must have been beside himself with fear for I saw his teeth bite into the man’s hand that held him, and one of the policemen struck him hard with his wooden club across the head and he fell limp to the floor. They dragged him down the stairway like that and I followed them down, but there was nothing that I could do. I saw them lift Cousin Willie into a closed black wagon that stood at the street door with quite a little crowd of people gathered about it already, all excited and leering as if it were a show. And then they drove away with him and I came in and went upstairs and sat down in Uncle’s room but I could not work any more. A little later on Mr. Peters came to the house,–I don’t know why, because it was not for the ice as he had his other clothes on,–and he came upstairs and sat down and told me about what had happened. It seemed a strange thing to receive him upstairs in Uncle’s bedroom like that, but I was so upset that I did not think about it at the time. Mr. Peters had been on our street with his ice wagon when the police came, though I did not see him. But he saw me, he said, standing at the door. And I think he must have gone home and changed his things and come back again, but I did not ask him.
He told me that Cousin Willie had stabbed a man, or at least a boy, that was in charge of a jewelry shop, and that the boy might die. Cousin Willie, Mr. Peters says, has been stealing jewelry nearly ever since we came here and the police have been watching him but he did not know this and so he had grown quite foolhardy, and this morning in broad daylight he went into some sort of jewelry or pawn shop where there was only a boy watching the shop, and the boy was a cripple. Cousin Willie had planned to hide the things under his coat and to sneak out but the boy saw what he was doing and cried out, and when Cousin Willie tried to break out of the shop he hobbled to the door and threw himself in the way. And then it was that Cousin Willie stabbed him with his sheath-knife,–the one that I had seen in his room,–and ran. But already there was a great outcry and the people followed on his tracks and shouted to the police, and so they easily ran him down.
All of this Mr. Peters told me, but he couldn’t stay very long and had to go again. He says he is going to see what can be done for Cousin Willie but I am afraid that he doesn’t feel very sorry for him; but after Mr. Peters had gone I could not help going on thinking about it all and it seemed to me as if Cousin Willie had not altogether had a fair chance in life. Common people are brought up in fear of prison and punishment and they learn to do what they should. But Cousin Willie was brought up as a prince and was above imprisonment and things like that. And in any case he seemed, when the big men seized hold of him, such a paltry and miserable thing.
Later on in the day Uncle William came home and I had to tell him all about Cousin Willie. I had feared that he would be dreadfully upset, but he was much less disturbed than I had thought. Indeed it is quite wonderful the way in which Uncle can detach his mind from things.
I told him that Mr. Peters had said that Cousin Willie must go to Sing-Sing, and Uncle said, “Ha! a fortress?" So I told him that I thought it was. After that he asked if Cousin Willie was in his uniform at the time, and when I said that he was not, Uncle said “That may make it more difficult.” Of course Cousin Willie has no uniform here in America and doesn’t wear any, but I notice that Uncle William begins to mix up our old life with our life here and seems sometimes quite confused and wandering; at least other people would think him so. He went on talking quite a long time about what had happened and he said that there is an almost exact precedent for the “incident" (that’s what he calls it) in the Zabern Case. I don’t remember much about that, as it was years ago, before the war, but Uncle William said that it was a similar case of an officer finding himself compelled to pass his sword once through a cripple (only once, Uncle says) in order to clear himself a way on the sidewalk. Uncle quoted a good many other precedents for passing swords through civilians, but he says that this is the best one.
In the evening Cousin Ferdinand and Uncle Henry came over. Uncle Henry seemed very gloomy and depressed about what had happened and said very little, but Cousin Ferdinand was very much excited and angry. He said what is the good of all his honesty and his industry if he is to be disgraced like this: he asked of what use is his uprightness and business integrity if he is to have a first cousin in Sing-Sing. He said that if it was known that he had a cousin there it would damage him with his best trade to an incalculable extent. But later on he quieted down and said that perhaps with a certain part of his trade it would work the other way. Uncle Ferdinand has grown to be much interested in what is called here “advertising,"–a thing that he says all kings ought to study–and he decided, after he had got over his first indignation, that Cousin Willie being in Sing-Sing would be a very good advertisement for him. It might bring him, he said, quite a lot of new business; especially if it was known that he refused to help Cousin Willie in any way or to have anything more to do with any of the rest of us, and not to give us any money. He said that this was a point of view which people could respect and admire.
So before he went home he said that we must not expect to see or hear from him any more, unless, of course, things should in some way brighten up, in which case he would come back.