The Hohenzollerns in America
By Stephen Leacock
Public Domain Books
It is a long time–nearly three months–since I have added anything to my memoirs. The truth is I find it very hard to write memoirs here. For one thing nobody else seems to do it. Mrs. O’Halloran tells me that she never thinks of writing memoirs at all. At the Potsdam palace it was different. We all wrote memoirs. Eugenia of Pless did, and Cecilia did, and I did, and all of us. We all had our memoir books with little silver padlocks and keys. We were brought up to do it because it helped us to realise how important everything was that we did and how important all the people about us were. It was wonderful to realise that in the old life one met every day great world figures like Prince Rasselwitz-Windischkopf, the Grand Falconer of Reuss, and the Grand Duke of Schlitzin-Mein, and Field Marshall Topoff, General-in-Chief of the army of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt. There are no such figures as these in America.
But another reason for not writing has been that things have been going so badly with us. Uncle William still has no work and he seems to be getting older and more broken and stranger in his talk every day. He is very shabby now in spite of all I can do with my needle, but he becomes more grandiloquent and consequential all the time. Some of the mean looking young men at this boarding house have christened him “The Emperor"–which seems a strange thing for them to have picked upon, and they draw him out in his talk, and when they meet him they make mock salutes to him which Uncle returns with very great dignity. Quite a lot of the people on the nearby streets have taken it up and when they see Uncle come along they make him military salutes. Uncle gets quite pleased and flushed as he goes along the street and answers the salutes with a sort of military bow.
He is quite happy when he is out of doors explaining to me with his stick the plans he has for rebuilding New York and turning the Hudson River to make it run the other way. But when he comes in he falls into the most dreadful depression and sometimes at night I hear him walking up and down in his room far into the night. Two or three times he has had the same dreadful kind of seizures that he had on board the ship when we came over, and this is always when there is a great wind blowing from the ocean and a storm raging out at sea.
Of course as Uncle has not any work or any position, we are getting poorer and poorer. Cousin Willie has been sent to the fortress at Sing-Sing and Cousin Ferdinand of Bulgaria refuses to know us any more, though, from what we hear, he is getting on wonderfully well in the clothing business and is very soon to open a big new store of which he is to be the general manager. Cousin Karl is now the Third Assistant Head-Waiter at the King George Hotel, and in the sphere in which he moves it is impossible for him to acknowledge any relationship with us. I don’t know what we should do but that Uncle Henry manages to give us enough of his wages to pay for our board and lodging. Uncle Henry has passed his Naval Examination and is now appointed to a quite high command. It is called a Barge Master. They refused to accept his certificate of a German Admiral, so he had to study very hard, but at last he got his qualification and is now in charge of long voyages on the canals.
I am very glad that Uncle Henry’s command turned out to be on canals instead of on the high seas, as it makes it so much more German. Of course Uncle Henry had splendid experience in the Kiel Canal all through the four years of the war, and it is bound to come in. So he goes away now on quite long voyages, often of two or three weeks at a time, and for all this time he is in chief charge of his barge and has to work out all the navigation. Sometimes Uncle Henry takes bricks and sometimes sand. He says it is a great responsibility to feel oneself answerable for the safety of a whole barge-full of bricks or sand. It is quite different from what he did in the German navy, because there it was only a question of the sailors and for most of the time, as I have heard Uncle William and Uncle Henry say, we had plenty of them, but here with bricks and sand it is different. Uncle Henry says that if his barge was wrecked he would lose his job. This makes it a very different thing from being a royal admiral.
But Uncle William all through the last three months has failed first at one thing and then at another. After all his plans for selling pictures had come to nothing he decided, very reluctantly that he would go into business. He only reached this decision after a great deal of anxious thought because, of course, business is a degradation. It involves taking money for doing things and this, Uncle William says, no prince can consent to do. But at last, after deep thought, Uncle said, “The die is cast,” and sat down and wrote a letter offering to take over the presidency of the United States Steel Corporation. We spent two or three anxious days waiting for the answer. Uncle was very firm and kept repeating, “I have set my hand to it, and I will do it,” but I was certain that he was sorry about it and it was a great relief when the answer came at last–it took days and days, evidently, for them to decide about it–in which the corporation said that they would “worry along” as they were. Uncle explained to me what “worrying along" meant and he said that he admired their spirit. But that ended all talk of his going into business and I am sure that we were both glad.
After that Uncle William decided that it was necessary for me to marry in a way to restore our fortunes and he decided to offer me to a State Governor. He asked me if I had any choice of States, and I said no. Of course I should not have wished to marry a state governor, but I knew my duty towards Uncle William and I said nothing. So Uncle got a map of the United States and he decided to marry me to the Governor of Texas. He told me that I could have two weeks to arrange my supply of household linen and my trousseau to take to Texas, and he wrote at once to the Governor. He showed me what he wrote and it was a very formal letter. I think that Uncle’s mind gets more and more confused as to where he is and what he is and he wrote in quite the old strain and I noticed that he signed himself, “Your brother, William.” Perhaps it was on that account that we had no answer to the letter. Uncle seemed to forget all about it very soon and I was glad that it was so, and that I had escaped going to the court of Texas.
All this time Mr. Peters has been very kind. He comes to the house with his ice every day and sometimes when Uncle Henry is here he comes in with him and smokes in the evenings. One day he brought a beautiful bunch of chrysanthemums for Uncle William, and another day a lovely nosegay of violets for Uncle Henry. And one Sunday he took us out for a beautiful drive with one of his ice-horses in a carriage called a buggy, with three seats. Uncle William sat with Mr. Peters in the front seat, and Uncle Henry and Cousin Ferdinand (it was the last time he came to see us) sat behind them and there was a little seat at the back in which I sat. It was a lovely drive and Uncle William pointed out to Mr. Peters all the things of interest, and Cousin Ferdinand smoked big cigars and told Uncle Henry all about the clothing trade, and I listened to them all and enjoyed it very much indeed. But I was afraid afterwards that it was a very bold and unconventional thing to do, and perhaps Mr. Peters felt that he had asked too much because he did not invite me to drive again.
But he is always very kind and thoughtful.
One Sunday afternoon he came to see us, thinking by mistake that Uncle William and Uncle Henry were there, but they weren’t, and his manner seemed so strange and constrained that I was certain that there was something that he was trying to say and it made me dreadfully nervous and confused. And at last quite suddenly he said that there was something that he wanted to ask me if I wouldn’t think it a liberty. My breath stopped and I couldn’t speak, and then he went on to ask if he might lend us twenty-five dollars. He got very red in the face when he said it and he began counting out the money on the sofa, and somehow I hadn’t expected that it was money and began to cry. But I told Mr. Peters that of course we couldn’t think of taking any money, and I begged him to pick it up again and then I began to try to tell him about how hard it was to get along and to ask him to get work for Uncle William, but I started to cry again. Mr. Peters came over to my chair and took hold of the arm of it and told me not to cry. Somehow his touch on the arm of the chair thrilled all through me and though I knew that it was wrong I let him keep it there and even let him stroke the upholstery and I don’t know just what would have happened but at that very minute Uncle William came in. He was most courteous to Mr. Peters and expressed his apologies for having been out and said that it must have been extremely depressing for Mr. Peters to find that he was not at home, and he thanked him for putting himself to the inconvenience of waiting. And a little while after that Mr. Peters left.
The Next Day
Mr. Peters came back this morning and said that he had got work for Uncle William. So I was delighted. He said that Uncle will make a first class “street man,” and that he has arranged for a line of goods for him and that he has a “territory” that Uncle can occupy. He showed me a flat cardboard box filled with lead pencils and shoe-strings and little badges and buttons with inscriptions on them, and he says these are what is called a “line,” and that Uncle can take out this line and do splendidly. I don’t quite understand yet who makes the appointment to be a street man or what influence it takes or what it means to have a territory, but Mr. Peters explained that there is a man who is retiring from being a street man and that Uncle can take his place and can have both sides of the Bowery, which sounds very pretty indeed.
At first I didn’t understand–because Mr. Peters hesitated a good deal in telling me about it–that if Uncle gets this appointment, it will mean that he will sell things in the street. But as soon as I understood this I felt that Uncle William would scorn to do anything like this, as the degradation would be the same as being President of the Steel Corporation. So I was much surprised to find that when Uncle came in he didn’t look at it that way at all. He looked at the box of badges and buttons and things, and he said at once, “Ha! Orders of Distinction! An excellent idea.” He picked up a silly little white button with the motto “Welcome to New York,” and he said “Admirable! That shall be the first class.” And there was a little lead spoon with “Souvenir of the Bowery" that he made the second class. He started arranging and rearranging all the things in the box, just as he used to arrange the orders and decorations at the Palace. Only those were REAL things such as the Order of the Red Feather, and The Insignia of the Black Duck, and these were only poor tin baubles. But I could see that Uncle no longer knows the difference, and as his fingers fumbled among these silly things he was quite trembling and eager to begin, like a child waiting for to-morrow.