The Hereditary Cleaner
The Hereditary Cleaner
BY J. STORER CLOUSTON
Extracted from the Memoirs of Sir Hugo Fugle, Plenipotentiary to the Regalian Court
NOTHING in my long diplomatic career has given me a more sensible satisfaction than my appointment as Plenipotentiary to the Court of Regalia. This flourishing state, as most of my readers are doubtless aware, occupies that exact position in the map of Europe most liable to remarkable and romantic occurrences, surpassing even the far-famed Ruritania or the territories of Prince Otto. But my own curiosity was chiefly excited by the speculations that were rife concerning the character and policy of the young King who had just ascended the Regalian throne—a monarch of whom I heard it confidentially asserted in a London club that his education had been modelled on that of Marcus Aurelius, and his policy would probably be inspired by the example of the third Napoleon.
It was immediately after hearing this promising account that my eye caught the graceful figure of Count Seraphin Zonnbiem, who happened at that moment to be entering the room.
"Ah, Zonnbiem!" I cried. "You are the very man I want to see. I am going to Regalia next week."
"Regalia?" said he, with an air of great indifference.
"That is your native land, is it not?" I asked.
"I believe it is," he smiled; "but for Heaven's sake, my dear Fugle, don't ask me for any information about it! I feel bored already by the very mention of the name."
"You never live there?"
"Live in Regalia! I live in the world; I do what amuses me—and they still talk of a nobleman's duties in Regalia; figurez-vous!"
And with a gesture of simulated horror the Count turned towards the card-room.
"Then I shall not see you there?" I asked, as he left me.
"If the whim seizes me, you may see me in Timbuctoo—or even in church," he laughed.
Little thinking how soon and under what strange circumstances I was to meet Count Seraphin again, I took my departure for Regalia a week later, and arrived in the capital city of Büngen late in the evening, to find the town still en fête in honor of his Majesty's coronation, which had taken place a few days previously. At the station I was met by an officer of the Guards, with an escort of soldiers suitable to my rank and mission. Lieutenant Adolph von Gammelstein, as this officer was called, proved an obliging and agreeable young gentleman, and as our carriage pushed its way through the dense crowds who had come out to enjoy the decorations and illuminations, he said to me:
"His Majesty gave orders that no expense was to be spared to make his coronation impressive and memorable. He believes that the loyalty of his subjects will be much increased when they are presented with the bill for this dazzling spectacle."
"Evidently he is a discerning and enlightened prince," I replied.
"He must be," said he.
My curiosity was roused by this somewhat ambiguous—or at least guarded—answer and the tone in which it was made, but with an admirable sense of discipline my conductor courteously evaded all further inquiries concerning his royal master, and very shortly we arrived at the magnificent mansion destined for my residence.
Visibly pleased with the gratification I expressed, Lieutenant von Gammelstein bade me good night and withdrew; but it was not to leave me alone for long, for very shortly afterwards his Excellency the Baron von Spank, Vice-Chancellor of Regalia, was announced. This eminent statesman was at that time seventy-eight years of age—or possibly seventy-nine; I cannot be perfectly certain which,—yet I could see at once that his spirit was as high and his intellect as acute as those of many of our own politicians of his age and eminence. Out of compliment to my country he was dressed in the uniform of an English admiral, and the heartiness of his welcome was modelled, he afterwards told me, on what he had heard of our national gayety and charm.
After we had exchanged the customary compliments I ventured to express my growing desire to learn something of his young monarch, King Fido the Fourteenth.
"I myself have but a very brief acquaintance with his Majesty," said he. "I saw him for the first time at his coronation."
"You fill me with curiosity!" I exclaimed. "It sounds almost incredible."
"His late Majesty, King Fido the Thirteenth," explained the Baron, "held the most original and admirable views on all matters connected with sovereignty, and one of these was that the life frequently led by an heir presumptive is an exceedingly bad preparation for the duties and responsibilities of monarchy. Accordingly he kept his son Fido in the very strictest seclusion from his birth upwards, supplying him with the best tutors and the most hygienic diet, but entirely prohibiting any admixture with or contamination from the world. Up to the day he came to the throne he had seen no women and only nine men in the whole course of his life."
"And may I ask how old he is?" I said.
"Thirty-five last month."
"What!" I cried.
"Yes," said the Vice-Chancellor. "It is unusual, is it not? But, on the other hand, think of all the things he must have learned! I assure you we anticipate the very best results from this experiment."
"What has he learned?" I inquired.
"As much as possible of everything; except of course such studies as would wake indecorous or unsuitable desires and ideas. His reading has been carefully selected to avoid such a catastrophe. Thus the last volume but one of the Encyclopedia Regalia had to be removed from his library, as it contained articles on 'Sapho' and 'Socialism.' But you will see him for yourself to-morrow: in the mean time, my dear Sir Hugo, I must bid you good night."
As can readily be imagined, this conversation filled me with even greater curiosity than ever to meet this remarkable prince. On the next morning my desire was gratified. I was conducted by von Spank to one of his private apartments, and there for the first time had the gratification of seeing and conversing with Fido the Fourteenth. Profound as are my feelings of respect for royalty (in which I yield to nobody), I cannot say that I was so much impressed with his Majesty at the first glance as I afterwards became on a fuller knowledge of his character. In figure he was short and inclined towards stoutness, while his countenance, though open and kindly, could scarcely be termed handsome in the usual sense. Moreover, his secluded way of life was hardly calculated to stimulate a young man to embellish nature by the aid of art and array his person to the greatest advantage. I do not wish to lay emphasis on these points, though I cannot help noting them.
His Majesty's mind, I found, was stored with the most amazing quantities of both facts and theories, while his principles were the loftiest imaginable. So far no breath of worldly wisdom, much less of cynicism, had come to ruffle his ideals, and with the utmost candor and simplicity he discoursed to me on the whole duty of a king. Of this conversation that morning I shall, however, only quote such portions as bore upon the dramatic incident I am about to narrate.
"This is an almost ideal kingdom," said his Majesty, in reply to some observation of mine. "Everything is arranged on the best principles. So many offices of state are hereditary, or practically hereditary, that they are always in the hands of the best men possible."
"Does that invariably follow, your Majesty?" I ventured to ask.
"Of course," he replied. "Is it not evident that a thing must be much better and much more conscientiously done by a man whose ancestors have always been in the habit of doing it? That is my own idea, founded on thirty-five years' secluded study, and I think it is an improvement even on Darwin's. He says most things are hereditary; I say still more things ought to be."
His Majesty paused to receive my congratulations. Having respectfully tendered them, I further ventured to suggest,
"Your Majesty, then, assumes that your hereditary office-bearers inherit both conscience and ability?"
"Naturally. A nobleman—as most of mine are—would be ashamed to hold a position without doing the work to the very best of his ability. That is so, Baron von Spank?"
"Your Majesty, I trust, cannot be mistaken," replied the Vice-Chancellor discreetly.
"In any case," said King Fido, "I shall see that they do it. Fido insists upon every man doing his duty—an improvement on somebody else's idea."
After again complimenting his Majesty on the felicity of his utterances, my audience came to an end, and I withdrew, greatly gratified by my reception.
[Here follow in the original memoirs two more passages of Sir Hugo Fugle's observations on sovereignty in general and King Fido in particular, which, with all deference to that distinguished diplomatist, we take the liberty of omitting.]
A few days later I was pleasantly surprised to find the card of Count Seraphin Zonnbiem left at my residence, and as I had known him intimately when he was living in London, I hastened to return his call. Furthermore, I remembered him to be one of the wealthiest nobles in Regalia, and descended from a particularly ancient house, so I was sure that any attentions I had shown him in England would be amply repaid now.
On arriving at his hotel I found that he and his retinue occupied the whole of the first floor, and that he had fortunately just emerged from his Turkish bath, and would be ready to receive me within a quarter of an hour. The interval I spent in examining his collection of miniatures and photographs, which included most of the handsomest women in Europe, who had at one time or other succumbed to his attractions. These delightful trophies he always carried with him, keeping the seven most recent conquests in his bedroom, and displaying the rest for the envy and admiration of his friends.
When at last the Count entered, he greeted me with the well-bred cordiality so characteristic of him. In spite of the extraordinary successes which, as I have said, had attended him, Count Zonnbiem was at that time little more than twenty-five years of age; though from a suggestion of fashionable ennui in his voice and manner you would probably have taken him for more. He had a beautifully pink and white complexion, hair that was almost golden in its brightness and trained to wave naturally over a low white forehead, small and elegant hands and feet, and a soft and melodious voice. It is needless to say that these natural advantages were enhanced by the employment of the best tailors and the exercise of the most fastidious taste.
He spoke the most perfect English; and not only so, he had even acquired our manners and idioms to the life, which doubtless was what made him so popular wherever he went.
"Ah, my dear Fugle," he said, "so you really have come to bore yourself in Büngen?"
"I have my diplomatic duties," I told him. "But what has brought you from London in the height of the season?"
"I left," he replied, "partly because I was satiated already. A duchess, a marchioness, and a prima donna all at once is really rather too much of a good thing. There are limits even to my good-nature."
I admitted that this was indeed expecting a good deal from a young man.
"There is also another reason," he continued, carelessly: "I have come to exercise my privileges as Hereditary Cleaner to the Regalian Court."
"May I ask what are the duties—and the privileges of this office?" I inquired, with a smile.
He laughed in the agreeably modest way I have frequently noted in young men who affect to underrate what they value highly.
"The office of Hereditary Cleaner—or, in full, Window-Cleaner—to the Kings of Regalia was instituted about the time when windows were first invented," he replied, "and it has always been in my family. In those barbarous times we used, I believe, to actually superintend the work, but nowadays the duties consist in cleaning one pane of glass with a silk handkerchief, or in default presenting his Majesty with an embroidered duster. The privileges include the right to ask any woman in Regalia to dance without waiting for an introduction, and to shoot bears in the royal preserves. I have brought my duster with me, and I mean to take full advantage of my privileges, I assure you."
"Did you claim them under the late King?" I asked.
"Lord! no. Old Fido's court was too devilish dull, my dear fellow. I should have let the Hereditary Cleanership go to the deuce so long as he reigned. Tell me what sort of a man our new little Fido is. I hear you are a first favorite already. Good sportsman, is he?"
"Scarcely in the English sense," I answered, with that caution and respect I always considered it right to display even behind his Majesty's back. "He is perhaps a little unsophisticated, but full of kingly qualities, I assure you."
"If he bores me with them, I shall leave him," said the Count, with a smile. "If he is amusing, I shall stay."
I was not present on the following morning when Count Zonnbiem presented himself before his Majesty, but I have obtained from eye-witnesses the fullest particulars. It appears that the young Count arrived at court faultlessly attired in the most perfectly fitting knee-breeches and gold-laced coat, and carrying in a jewelled box the embroidered duster which he intended to present to King Fido in lieu of service. When his name was announced, his Majesty showed the liveliest interest and pleasure, and before receiving him insisted on obtaining the fullest particulars of the historic office he had come to claim.
"I am overjoyed to see you, my dear Count," he exclaimed when they met, at the same time smiling in the most gracious fashion. "You have come not a moment too soon, I assure you; it was only this morning that I noticed one-sixteenth of an inch of dust upon several of the state bedroom windows. You had better begin at once."
The Count, with a smile at what he considered to be his Majesty's pleasantry, bowed low, and in a neat speech (talking Regalian with an agreeable English accent) asked his Majesty's permission to hand him the duster instead. But imagine the unfortunate young nobleman's feelings when his Majesty peremptorily refused to accept it!
"Is this the way you would do me service?" he asked. "Handing me a duster in return for all the privileges your family have enjoyed for centuries—and especially with the windows in their present state!"
"Does your Majesty, then, require me, Count Seraphin Zonnbiem, to clean a pane of glass with a silk handkerchief?" exclaimed the Count.
"I expect you to clean thoroughly every pane in the palace that requires it."
"But, your Majesty, that has never been the custom. The office has been merely honorary for centuries."
"When your ancestors first undertook this duty, there was no mention of anything honorary," replied the King, "and I am astonished that a perfectly healthy young man like you should make such an excuse.
And thereupon he commanded two gentlemen ushers to conduct the Count to the state bedrooms and provide him with the implements necessary for his honorable employment.
"To think of my Hereditary Cleaner refusing to clean!" he said to the Baron von Spank.
The hapless Count had already turned to the Vice-Chancellor for assistance, but unluckily von Spank happened to nurse a private grievance against the house of Zonnbiem, which rendered him suddenly blind to Seraphin's imploring glances, and without more ado the Hereditary Cleaner was hurried off to do his duty for the first time in three hundred and fifty years.
Armed with a pail of water, an assortment of serviceable dusters, and a patent apparatus for preventing window-cleaners from falling into the area, this noble of seventy-two quarterings and the politest upbringing in Europe was left to the company of his own reflections and thirty-nine sheets of soiled glass eight feet by five in dimensions.
In a short time, however, he heard a great bustle coming along the corridors, and presently his Majesty, accompanied by several officers of state and a company of life-guards, came round on a tour of inspection.
"Is this all you know about cleaning windows?" exclaimed the King, after an indignant glance at the partially wiped pane of glass.
"If it please your Majesty, I am unused to this form of labor," said the Count, in a haughty tone.
"To what kind are you used, then?" asked the King.
The Count reflected for a moment.
"I can ride, your Majesty, and play bridge," he replied; "and if your Majesty would allow me to supervise the royal tailors I am certain my experience would be useful."
"Your experience of riding or of bridge?" asked the King.
"My taste, I mean," answered the Count.
"But you profess to clean windows," insisted his Majesty, "just as I profess to govern this kingdom. Well, I am governing it, and you have got to clean these windows."
"Will your Majesty direct me how to perform this honorable duty?" said the Count.
"Certainly," replied his Majesty, with perfect simplicity and candor. "Take off your coat to begin with. You cannot work in a gold-laced coat like that."
And the Count, with, I fear, a rueful air, removed his coat.
"Possibly the Count requires some assistance," suggested the Vice-Chancellor. "Your Majesty might spare a practical housemaid."
"Send one immediately," said his Majesty, with royal generosity. "And now, Count Zonnbiem, you will have no excuse."
Now, it so happened that Gretchen Kopp, the maid who was sent to assist the Count, was not only of an unusually attractive appearance, but possessed a heart so warmly susceptible to the attractions of the opposite sex that on several occasions she had only been able to retain her position in the royal household through the influence of gentlemen at court, whose names I shall not mention, and through her own solemn promises to be good.
The Count speedily found his labors lightened in the most astonishing way, while Gretchen would have scrubbed all day in order to remain in the company of so fine a gentleman. As I do not profess to know what passed between these fellow laborers, I shall now return to my own share in this romantic adventure.
Hardly had I entered the palace that morning when I happened to meet the Count Rassel-Dassel, who forthwith gave me a most entertaining and ludicrous account of what had befallen his fellow nobleman; though I could see that he was not a little apprehensive that his own neglect of some hereditary duty might by chance be discovered.
"Remember, my dear Sir Hugo, not a word to his Majesty about the absurd condition of washing the feet of ten beggars a year, on which I hold the lands of Rassel!" he said to me as we parted, and them as my discretion would place him under some obligation to myself, I promised to make no allusion.
His Majesty, I found, was willing, even anxious, to discuss the incident.
"Did you ever hear of anything so preposterous as a man refusing to perform his hereditary duty?" he said. "I never have, and I have read a great many books on a great many subjects."
I did not ask his Majesty whether he had also met a great many men, but I endeavored to say what I could on the Count's behalf, pointing out his youth, his lack of experience in performing his functions, and the demoralizing influence of his residence in other countries ruled by less capable and conscientious sovereigns. This last argument seemed to affect the King considerably.
"That is certainly true," he admitted. "I suppose few monarchs have spent thirty-five years in complete seclusion studying the theory of life from the best authorities. And of course that is the only way to learn."
"There is no other way exactly like it," I agreed.
"Well," he said, "if the Count Zonnbiem performs his task well, I shall be inclined to overlook his unwillingness to undertake it, in consideration solely of his misfortune in not having enjoyed the benefit of my influence and example before."
"If your Majesty could see the ardor which I am sure the Count is throwing into his work, I am convinced you would regard him more leniently," I suggested. Nothing, surely, could have been more disinterested than the spirit in which I made this remark; but unluckily the best intentions do not always insure the happiest results, even in court circles.
"Let us go and have a look at him," said his Majesty. "I believe you are right, and that I shall come away with an entirely favorable impression of the young man, who, I am sure, is in any case a most modest and virtuous nobleman, and likely to become in time one of the brightest ornaments of my court."
Accordingly he led me to a turret window in the royal bedchamber, from which, without being observed himself, the King could command a view of all the other windows on that side of the palace. This turret, I was told, had been added to the bedchamber by one of King Fido's predecessors with this particular intention.
"Ah!" said his Majesty, with a smile of satisfaction. "There they are; hard at work, evidently."
I also perceived the Count and his assistant, but my conclusion was somewhat different from his Majesty's, and had it been possible I should have either signalled to the Count or persuaded his Majesty to withdraw, content with his first impression. The fair Gretchen was seated on the window-sill, with her back towards us, while the Count stood within the room; and whatever they were doing, they were certainly not removing the dust from the royal glass.
"I cannot see exactly the system on which they are working," said the King, who, owing to the severity of his studies, had become a little short-sighted, "but apparently he is cleaning the inside and the maid the outside of the pane; a very excellent arrangement, I should say."
His Majesty felt in his pocket for his spectacles, and for a moment I hoped that the unfortunate Count was saved.
"I have forgotten my spectacles," he exclaimed.
"Allow me to go and fetch them," I cried, but the next instant he drew the silver case from an inner pocket.
"I thought I could not possibly have mislaid them," said he. "I am particular in these matters—as an absolute sovereign ought to be. What!"
He paused in petrified astonishment, and then in a deep, deliberate voice said,
"Sir Hugo, there is no pane of glass between them."
"Is your Majesty certain?"
"Perfectly; the lower sash is raised as high as it will go. They cannot, then, be cleaning the window. What are they doing?"
"At this distance by my own eyesight—" I began, but his Majesty had now no longer any need to ask.
"His arm is round her—both arms!" he cried. "He is giving her—is that what is called a kiss, Sir Hugo?"
"Only a kiss, your Majesty," I assured him.
"Only!" he exclaimed, and with a gesture of horror turned from the window.
Hitherto, as I have previously stated, King Fido had remained entirely ignorant of the other sex; and even now, when he had mixed for a fortnight with the world, his innocence remained as complete and his principles as uncompromising as his austere father had intended they always should. Whether or not the spectacle of the amorous Count's embraces disturbed the serenity of this virtue, and thereby provoked his Majesty's resentment to an even higher pitch, I cannot pretend to say. Certainly his exasperation knew no bounds, and I even trembled for my friend's neck.
Summoning a strong escort of courtiers and life-guards, as well as the Vice-Chancellor and the royal executioner, his Majesty bade us all remove our shoes in order that Count Zonnbiem might be convicted by as many witnesses as possible, and placing himself at our head, he advanced, with his sword drawn, towards the state bedrooms.
"I warn you, gentlemen," he said to us in a whisper, as we paused outside in the corridor, "you will probably witness something very wicked and very revolting, but you may support your resolution by the thought that your sovereign shares these trials with you."
Pushing the door gently open, he did indeed reveal such a spectacle as a prudent man would not show to a too young and imaginative daughter; yet I fear his Majesty was a trifle disappointed that it did not produce more potent symptoms of horror among his retinue.
For the housemaid Gretchen was seated upon the Count Seraphin Zonnbiem's knee.
"Traitor!" cried his Majesty, in a formidable voice, while with a scream of alarm Gretchen threw herself down before him—this time upon her own knees.
"Wicked young man, have you no sense of sin?" demanded the King of the unfortunate Count.
Truly the Hereditary Cleaner showed sufficient embarrassment, though whether this was more owing to the stings of conscience or to the unannounced presence of so many spectators I shall leave to the judgment of such of my readers as have been placed in similar predicaments.
"You have been guilty of the most immoral and traitorous conduct I have ever witnessed," continued his Majesty. "What have you to say for yourself?"
"Only that your Majesty's experience must have been extremely limited," replied the Count, who apparently could not yet realize the full gravity of his position.
"It is sufficient," said the King, sternly, "to tell me that I am speaking to the basest and most abandoned of mankind."
"Pardon me, your Majesty," interrupted the Vice-Chancellor, with a great air of gravity, "but perhaps you misjudge the Count. It is possible that he truly loves this maiden."
"Would he do—er—that if he did?" asked the King, with a simplicity that, though highly becoming, seemed to somewhat disconcert the Baron.
"I appeal to Sir Hugo Fugle," he replied.
"I am the last man to come to for any direct information on such a point," I answered, "but I understand that it might then be permissible."
"I am satisfied with your assurance," said his Majesty; and then, turning to the Count, "Do you love this girl, Count Zonnbiem?"
"Love?" exclaimed the Count. "Really, your Majesty, it is absurd to talk of love between a young man of birth and fashion and a girl of that station!"
"Then why did you do what you did?" asked the King.
"It is my custom," replied the Count, defiantly.
At this Gretchen burst into tears.
"What is the matter?" cried his Majesty, who had never witnessed such a phenomenon before and was naturally taken considerably back.
"Possibly she loves the Count," suggested the Vice-Chancellor.
"I sincerely hope so, for otherwise I shall have her severely punished," said the King. "Do you love the Count, young woman?"
"Indeed I do, your Majesty!" cried Gretchen—who, I am bound to say, could scarcely have answered anything else after the rather premature disclosure of his Majesty's intentions.
"Then," said the King, turning to the young nobleman, "you have deceived this unfortunate young woman, and you will have to marry her. That is the rule laid down in every treatise on the subject—is it not, Baron?"
"Certainly, your Majesty," replied the Vice-Chancellor.
"I'll be hanged if I do!" exclaimed the Count, impetuously.
"You'll be hanged if you don't," replied the King, with perfect sincerity and calmness.
On hearing these words, the royal executioner made an involuntary movement towards the front, and at the sight of this dreaded official the unfortunate Count realized for the first time how serious was the situation.
"I implore your Majesty to spare me this indignity!" he cried, falling upon one knee.
"Certainly," said his Majesty, in a kinder tone. "I have no wish to execute you, and if you are married by this time to-morrow I shall say no more about it. Only, you must get your wife to teach you to do your work properly."
"But, your Majesty, I mean—" began the Count.
"Silence!" interrupted the King. "I was going to give you some more advice, and now you have driven it out of my head. You must now consider yourself under arrest until your wedding is over. Come, gentlemen, let us return to our council-chamber."
Two days later a paragraph appeared in the Büngen papers announcing that a marriage had been solemnized between Count Seraphin Zonnbiem, Hereditary Cleaner to his Majesty King Fido of Regalia, and Gretchen Kopp, daughter of the late Johann Kopp, blacksmith in Büngen; and ever since then the palace windows have been kept in the very best of order.