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Old Fritz and the New Era By L. Muhlbach Characters: 23626

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02

Long after nightfall the nurse heard her mistress rapidly pacing her room, and talking aloud to herself. Soon, however, Sleep spread her soothing wings over Louisa, and she heard no more the rapid steps and loud talking of her mistress, nor the rolling of a carriage which stopped before the door, and the quick, vigorous steps of a man mounting the stairs. But Wilhelmine heard them. Breathless she stood, listening to the approaching footsteps, for she felt that they had to decide her future-the weal and woe of her children! Was it he, her beloved, the father of her children? or was it the king's bailiff who had followed her, and came to seize her?

Nearer they came; the bell was hastily, violently rung. Wilhelmine uttered a cry of delight. She recognized the voice, the commanding manner, and rushed through the anteroom to open the door. The prince encircled her in his arms, pressed her to his beating heart, and, lifting her up, bore her into the room.

"Why did you leave Potsdam, Wilhelmine? Tell me quickly, why did you do it?" asked the prince, tenderly kissing her, as he sat her upon the divan at his side. Overcome with her tears, she could not answer. "What mean these tears? Has any one dared to wound your feelings or injure you?"

"Yes, Frederick, and he who injures me hazards nothing-for it is the king! I met him in the park at Potsdam this morning. He has crushed me with his scorn and anger. He has threatened me with a fearful punishment-no less than the house of correction at Spandau! He has told me that the spinning-wheel is in readiness for me if I excite his further contempt."

A cry of fury escaped the prince. Springing up, he paced the room with rapid strides. Wilhelmine remained upon the divan, but her tears did not prevent her following the prince with a searching glance-to read his face, pale with rage. "I must bear it," he cried, beating his forehead. "I cannot protect those that I love!"

A ray of joy lighted up Wilhelmine's face as she listened, but it disappeared with the tears which flowed afresh. "I am a poor, unfortunate child," she sobbed, "whom every one despises, and fears not to injure, who has no one to counsel or protect her, and who is lost if God does not have compassion upon her."

The prince rushed to her, seizing both hands. "Wilhelmine, do not drive me mad with sorrow," he cried, trembling with excitement and anger. "Is it my fault that I cannot protect you against him? Have I not defended you from all the rest of the world? Have I ever allowed any one to treat you with contempt?"

"I have never given occasion for it, dearest. I have studiously avoided all men, to escape their contempt and scorn. Shame is hard to bear, fearfully hard. I felt it today, as his beautiful eyes flashed upon me with contempt, as his haughty language crushed me to the earth. This is the yoke, Frederick William, that I and my children must bear to our graves!"

"No, Wilhelmine, not as long as we live-only while he lives! Wait, only wait; let me rise from want and slavery; let the day come which makes me free-which exalts me: my first act will be to lift the yoke from you and our children, and woe to those-a thousand times woe to those who would hold it fast! Only be patient, Wilhelmine, submit, and bear with me the hard and distressing present. Tell me, my child, my loved one, why did you leave Potsdam so suddenly?"

"I was afraid, Frederick. A kind of madness seized me at the thought of the king's bailiffs carrying me off to Spandau; a nameless anxiety confused my mind, and I only realized that I must escape-that I must conceal myself. I felt in greater security here than at Potsdam for the night."

"And you fled without leaving me any sign or message to tell me whither you had gone! Oh, Wilhelmine, what if I had not divined your hiding-place, and had awaited at Potsdam in painful anxiety?"

"Then I should have fled from here at daybreak, leaving my children, and in some quiet, obscure retreat have concealed myself from every eye-even your own."

"Would you have hidden yourself from me?" cried the prince, encircling her in his arms, and pressing her to his heart.

"Yes, Frederick, when your heart did not prompt you where to find me, then it would have been a proof that you were indifferent to me. When I cannot lean upon your love, then there is no longer any protection or abiding-place for me in the world, and the grave will be my refuge."

"But you see my heart revealed you to me, and I am here," said the prince, smiling.

"Yes, Heaven be praised, you have come to me," she cried, exultingly, throwing her arms about his neck, and kissing him passionately. "You are here; I no longer dread the old king's anger, and his fearful words fall as spent arrows at my feet. You are here, king of my heart; now I have only one thing to dread."

"What is that, Wilhelmine?"

She bent close to his ear, and whispered: "I fear that you are untrue to me; that there is some ground for truth in those anonymous letters, which declare that you would discard me and my children also, for you love another-not one other, but many."

"Jealousy, again jealous!" the prince sighed.

"Oh, no," said she, tenderly, "I only repeat what is daily written me."

"Why do you read it?" cried the prince, vehemently. "Why do you quaff the poison which wicked, base men offer you? Why do you not throw such letters into the fire, as I do when they slander you to me?"

"Because you know, Frederick," she answered, proudly and earnestly-"you must know that that which they write against me is slander and falsehood. My life lies open before you; every year, every day, is like an unsullied page, upon which but one name stands inscribed-Frederick William-not Prince Frederick William. What does it benefit me that you are a prince? If you were not a prince, I should not be despised, my children would not be nameless, without fortune, and without justice. No, were you not a prince, I should not have felt ashamed and grief-stricken, with downcast eyes, before the lady who drove past in her splendid carriage, while I was humbly seated in a miserable wagon. No, were not my beloved a prince, he could have made me his wife, could have given me his name, and I should to-day be at his side with my children. Then, what benefit is it to me that you are a prince? I love you not that you are one, but notwithstanding it. And if I love you in spite of all this, you must know that my affection is ever-enduring and ever-faithful-that I can never forget you, never abandon you."

"And do you believe, Wilhelmine, that I could ever abandon or forsake you? Is it not the same with me?"

She shook her head, sadly answering: "No, Frederick, it is unfortunately not the same. You have loved me, and perhaps you love me still, but with that gentle warmth which does not hinder glowing flames to kindle near it, and with their passionate fire overpower the slight warmth."

"It may be so for the moment, I grant it," the prince answered, thoughtfully; "but the quick, blazing fire soon consumes itself, leaving only a heap of ashes; then one turns to the gentle warmth with inward comfort, and rejoices in its quiet happiness."

"You confess loving another?" said Wilhelmine, sorrowfully.

"No, I do not grant that," the prince cried; "but you are a sensible, clever woman, and you know my heart is easily excited. It is only the meteoric light of the ignis fatuus, soon extinguished. Let it dance and flicker, but remember that the only warmth which cheers and brightens my heart is your love and friendship. You are my first and only love, and you will be my last-that I swear to you, and upon it you can rely. Every thing is uncertain and wavering in life. They have ruined me, lacerated my heart, and there is nothing more in the world which I honor. Only sycophants and hypocrites surround me, who speculate upon my future greatness; or spies, who would make their fortune today, and therefore spy and hang about me, in order to be paid by the reigning king, and who slander me in order to be favorites of his. No one at court loves me, not even my wife. How should she? She is well aware that I married her only at the command of my royal uncle, and she accepted me almost with detestation, for they had related to her the unhappiness of my first marriage, and the happiness of my first love! She has learned the story of my first wife, Elizabeth von Braunschweig, and that of my only love, Wilhelmine Enke! She obeyed, like myself, the stern command of another, and we were married, as all princes and princesses are, and we have had children, as they do. We lead the life of a political marriage, but the heart is unwed. We bow before necessity and duty, and, believe me, those are the only household gods in the families of princes. Happy the man who, besides these stern divinities, possesses a little secret temple, in which he can erect an altar to true love and friendship, and where he can enjoy a hidden happiness. This I owe to you, Wilhelmine; you are the only one in whom I have confidence, for you have proved to me that you love me without self-interest and without ambition. You have said it, and it is true, you love me, notwithstanding I am a prince. I confess to you, there are many lovely women of the court who are your rivals, and who would try to separate us in order to attract me to themselves. They are beautiful and seductive, and I am young and passionate; and if these lovely women have no respect for my dignity as a married man, how then should I have it, who married for duty, not for love? But there is one whom I respect for disinterestedness and fidelity! Do you not know who alone is disinterested and faithful?-who has never seen in me the prince, the future king-only the beloved one, the man-one who has never wavered, never counted the cost?-that you are, Wilhelmine Enke, therefore we are inseparable, and you have not to fear that I can ever forsake you, even if I am sometimes entangled in the magic nets of other beautiful women. The chains which bind us together cannot be torn asunder, for a wonderful secret power has consecrated them with the magic of true love-of heart-felt friendship."

"Still they are chains, dearest," sighed Wilhelmine. "You have named them thus! The chains will at last oppress you, and you will forget the magic power which binds you, and will be free. No holy bond, no oath, no marriage tie-nothing but your love binds you to me. I rejoice in it, and so long as you do not forsake me, I am conscious that it is your own free choice and not force which retains you."

"I will give you an outward sign of our bond of union," cried the prince. "I will do it today, as a twofold danger hangs over us-the king menaces you, and war menaces me."

"Is it then true, do you go with the king to the field?" groaned Wilhelmine.

"Do you wish me to remain?" cried the prince, his eyes flashing. "Shall I here seek pleasure, with effeminate good nature, while the king, in spite of his age, exposes himself to all the fatigue of a campaign and the danger of battle? This war of the Bavarian succession is unfortunate, and no one knows whether the German empire will derive any important advantage from our sustaining by force of arms a little duchy. It is a question whether it would not be better to abolish the little principalities, in order to strengthen the greater German powers. The king will support Bavaria, because he envies Austria its possession, and, as he has decided upon war, it becomes his crown prince to yield to his decision without murmuring. Therefore, Wilhelmine, I will today witness to you the oath of fidelity. If God calls me to Him, if I fall in battle, this oath will be your legacy. I have nothing else

to leave you, thanks to the parsimony of my noble uncle. I am a very poor crown prince, with many debts and little money, and not in a condition to reward your love and fidelity otherwise than with promises and hopes, and letters of credit for the future. Such a bill of exchange I will write for you-a legacy for my dear Wilhelmine. Give me pen and paper."

Wilhelmine hastened to her writing table and brought him paper with writing materials. "There, my Frederick," said she, "there is every thing necessary-only the ink, I fear, may be dried."

The prince shook his head, smiling. "Such a lover's oath as I will transcribe for you can be written with no common ink. See, here is my ink!"

The prince had suddenly made a slight incision in his arm, and, as the blood gushed out, he dipped his pen in it, and wrote; then handed it to Wilhelmine, saying: "Read it here, in the presence of God and ourselves."

Wilhelmine pressed it to her lips, and read, with a solemn voice: "'By my word of honor as a prince, I will never forsake you, and only death shall separate you from me.-Prince Frederick William of Prussia.'" [Footnote: "Memoires of the Countess Lichtenau." p. 120.]

"By my word of honor as a prince, I will never forsake you, and only death shall separate me from you," repeated the prince, as he bent over Wilhelmine, lifting her in his arms and placing her upon his knee. "Take the paper and guard it carefully," said he. "When I die, and you have closed my eyes, as I trust you will, give this paper to my son and successor, for it is my legacy to you, and I hope my son will honor it and recognize in you the wife of my heart, and care for you."

"Oh! speak not of dying, Frederick," cried Wilhelmine, embracing him tenderly; "may they condemn me, and imprison me as a criminal, when you are no more! What matters it to me what befalls me, when I no longer possess you, my beloved one, my master? Not on that account will I preserve the precious paper, but for the love which it has given me, and of which it will one day be a proof to my children. This paper is my justification and my excuse, my certificate and my declaration of honor. I thank you for it, for it is the most beautiful present that I have ever received."

"But will you make me no return, Wilhelmine? Will you not swear to me, as I have sworn to you?"

She took the knife from the table without answering, and pointing it to her left arm-

"Oh, not there!" cried the prince, as he sought to stay her hand. "Do not injure your beautiful arm, it would be a sacrilege."

Wilhelmine freed herself from him, as he sought to hold her fast, and in the mutual struggle the knife sank deep into her left hand, the blood gushing out. [Footnote: The scar of this wound remained her whole life, as Wilhelmine relates in her memoirs.-See "Memoires of the Countess Lichtenau."]

"Oh, what have you done?" cried the prince, terrified; "You are wounded!"

He seized her hand and drew the knife from the wound, screaming with terror as a clear stream of blood flowed over his own. "A physician! Send quickly for a physician," cried he. "Where are my servants?"

Wilhelmine closed his lips at this instant with a kiss, and forced herself to smile in spite of the pain which the wound caused her. "Dearest, it is nothing," she cried. "I have only prepared a great inkstand-let me write!"

She dipped her pen in the blood, which continued to flow, and wrote quickly a few lines, handing them to the prince.

"Read aloud what you have written. I will hear from your own mouth your oath. You shall write it upon my heart with your lips."

Wilhelmine read: "By my love, by the heads of my two children, I swear that I will never forsake you-that I will be faithful to you unto death, and will never separate myself from you; that my friendship and love will endure beyond the grave; that I will ever be contented and happy so long as I may call myself your Wilhelmine Enke."

"I accept your oath, dearest," said the prince, pressing her to his heart. "This paper is one of my choicest jewels, and I will never separate myself from it. We have now sealed our love and fidelity with our blood, and I hope that you will never doubt me again. Remember this hour!"

"I will," she earnestly promised, "and I swear to you never to torment and torture you again with my jealousy. I shall always know, and shall hold fast to it, that you will return to me."

A violent knocking on the house door interrupted the stillness of the night. A voice in loud, commanding tones called to the night-watch.

"Here I am!" answered the porter. "Who calls me? And what is the matter?"

"Open the door," commanded the voice again.

"It is our house," whispered Wilhelmine, who had softly opened the window. "It is so dark, I can only see a black shadow before the door."

"Do you belong to the house?" asked the night-watch. "I dare let no one in who does not belong there."

"Lift up your lantern, and look at my livery. It is at the king's order!"

Wilhelmine withdrew from the window, and hastened to the prince, who had retired to the back part of the room.

"It is Kretzschmar, the king's footman and spy," she whispered. "Hide yourself, that he does not discover you. Go there to the children."

"No, Wilhelmine, I will remain here. I-"

Wilhelmine pressed her hand upon his mouth, and forced him into the side-room, bolting the door.

"Now," said she, "I will meet my fate with courage; whatever may come, it shall find me firm and composed. My children are safe, for their father is with them."

She took the light, and hastened into the anteroom, which was resounding with the loud ringing.

"Who is there?" she cried. "Who rings so late at night?"

"In the name of the king, open!"

Wilhelmine shoved back the bolt, opening the door.

"Come in," she said, "and tell me who you are."

"I think you recognize me," said Kretzschmar, with an impudent smile. "You have often seen me at Potsdam in company with the king. I saw you this morning as the king did you the honor to speak with you, and I believe did not compliment you."

"Did his majesty send you here to say this to me?"

"No, not exactly that," answered he, smiling; "but, as you asked me, I was obliged to answer. I have come here with all speed as courier from Potsdam. I hope you will at least give me a good trinkgeld. I was commanded to deliver into your own hands this paper, for which I must have a receipt." He drew from his breast pocket a large sealed document, which he handed to Wilhelmine. "Here is the receipt all ready, with the pencil; you have only to sign your name, and the business is finished." He stretched himself with an air of the greatest ease upon the cane chair, near the door.

Wilhelmine colored with anger at the free conduct of the royal footman, and hastened to sign the receipt to rid herself of the messenger, and to read the letter.

"What will you give me for trinkgeld, Mamselle Enke?" asked the footman, as she gave him the receipt.

"Your own rudeness and insult," answered Wilhelmine proudly, as she turned, without saluting him, to the sitting-room.

Kretzschmar laughed aloud. "She will play the great and proud lady," said he. "She will get over that when in prison. The letter is without doubt an order of arrest, for when the king flashes and thunders as he did this morning, he usually strikes. I hope it will agree with you." He slowly left the anteroom, and descended the stairs to mount his horse, which he had bound to a tree.

Wilhelmine hastened in the mean time to the prince. "Here is the letter addressed to me," said she, handing him the sealed envelope. "I beg you to open it; courage fails me, everything trembles and swims before my eyes. Read it aloud-I will receive my sentence from your lips."

The prince exclaimed, breaking the seal: "It is the handwriting of the secret cabinet secretary, Menken, and the message comes immediately from the king's cabinet. Now, Wilhelmine, do not tremble; lean your head upon me, and let us read."

"'In the name of his majesty, Wilhelmine Enke is commanded, under penalty of severe punishment, not to leave her room or her dwelling, until the king shall permit her, and send some one to take her and all that belongs to her to her place of destination. She shall receive this order with patience and humility, and consider her apartment as a prison, which she shall not leave under severe penalty, nor allow any one to enter it. Whoever may be with her at the time of receiving the order, who do not belong there, shall speedily absent themselves, and if the same ride or drive to Potsdam, they shall immediately take a message to his royal highness the Prince of Prussia, and announce to him that his majesty expects him at Sans-Souci at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. The Minister von Herzberg will be in waiting to confer with the prince. The above is communicated to Wilhelmine Enke for her strict observance, and she will act accordingly.'"

A long silence followed the reading of this letter. Both looked down, thoughtfully recalling the contents.

"A prisoner," murmured Wilhelmine, "a prisoner in my own house."

"And for me the peremptory command to leave immediately for Potsdam, in order to be at Sans-Souci early in the morning. What can the king mean?"

"He will announce to you my imprisonment, my exile," sighed Wilhelmine.

The crown prince shook his head. "No," said he, "I do not believe it. If the king would send you to prison, he would not make such preparation; he would not commence with the house arrest, as if you were an officer, who had been guilty of some slight insubordination, but he would act with decision, as is his wont. He would at once have sent you to Spandau or some other prison, and left it to me to have taken further steps. No-the more I think it over, the more evident it is to me that the king is not really angry; he will only torment us a little, as it pleases his teasing spirit. The chief thing now is to obey, and give him no further occasion for anger. You must be very careful not to leave your apartment, or to allow any one to enter it. I shall start without delay for Potsdam. There are spies posted as well for you as myself; our steps are watched, and an exact account of them given. I must away quickly."

"Must you leave me a prisoner? Oh, how hard and cruel life is!"

"Yes, it is, indeed, Wilhelmine. But I must also humbly submit and obey. Is not life hard for me, and yet I am crown prince, the heir to the throne! I shall be reprimanded and scolded like a footman. I must obey as a slave, and am not permitted to act according to my will. I am only a mere peg in the great machine which he directs, and the-"

"Hush! for mercy's sake be quiet! What if some one should hear you? You know not if the spies may not be at the door."

"True," said the prince, bitterly. "I do not know! The nurse even, who suckles our child, may be a paid spy. The owner of this house may be in the king's service, and creep to the door to listen. Therefore it is necessary, above all things, that we act according to the king's commands. Farewell, Wilhelmine, I must set off at once. Kretzschmar is no doubt at the corner of the street to see whether I, as an obedient servant of his master, leave here. If I do it, he will take the news to Sans-Souci, and perhaps the king will be contented. Farewell, I go at once to the palace, to start from there for Potsdam."

"Farewell, my beloved one! May God in heaven and the king upon earth be merciful to us! I will force myself to composure and humility. What I suffer is for you! This shall be my consolation. If we never meet again, Frederick William, I know you will not forget how much I have loved you!"

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