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Queen Louise Of Prussia
There is at Paretz, near Potsdam, a flower-bordered walk leading from a grotto overlooking the Havel to an iron gate, above which is inscribed "May 20, 1810" and the letter "L." Within the grotto an iron table bears in golden characters, "Remember the Absent."
Queen Louise visiting the Poor.
At Dantzic she constantly wore an amber necklace, because it had been the gift of the townsfolk. The voice which in childhood had pleaded for the panting footman running beside her grandmother's coach, might still be heard interceding, for when the royal carriage was overturned near Warsaw, and the Oberk of Messterin rated the servants, Louise interposed: "We are not hurt, and our people have assuredly been more alarmed than we."
Sometimes the midday meal was spread beneath a forest tree, and from far and near the peasants flocked to get "even a glimpse of her lovely face." They followed in crowds while she and the king climbed the Schneekoppe on foot, but loyal shouts died into awed silence when, at the summit, Friedrich Wilhelm bared his head, and the two standing side by side gazed at the glorious view. "That was one of the most blessed moments of my life," Louise said afterward; "we seemed lifted above this earth and nearer our God."
They entered the mines at Woldenberg by a swift-flowing stream, and twenty years afterward the steersman of their boat was fond of telling how, in the dark cavern--"The Foxes' Hole"--he saw her well by the torchlight. "In all my life I never saw such a face. She looked grand, as a queen should look, but gentle as a child. She gave me with her own hands two Holland ducats. My wife wears them when she goes to church, for what she touched is holy."
Louise had never meddled in foreign politics. She had been, she designed to be, only the "Landesmutter," and even when the murder of the Duc d'Enghien, seized on Prussian soil, aroused in Berlin a storm of indignation, in which she fully shared, she yet sympathized in the mental distress which found vent in her husband's often-repeated words, "I cannot decide for war."
At last he did decide. In October, 1805, Napoleon ordered Bernadotte to march his army corps through Anspach. This contemptuous comment on Prussia's ten-years' forbearance was too much for the king's pride. Armies were raised in Franconia, Saxony, Westphalia, and while the excitement was at fever point the czar came to Berlin. All his rare charm of manner was brought to bear, and at midnight, in the presence of Louise, the two monarchs, standing with clasped hands beside the tomb of the great Friedrich, solemnly pledged themselves to a close alliance.
Alexander departed to lead his Russians to Moravia, and Friedrich Wilhelm despatched a protest to the French camp; but the envoy, Haugwitz, arriving on the eve of Austerlitz, waited the issue of the battle, and then, withholding his packet, proposed to the victor a fresh treaty with Prussia. There was wrath in Berlin when his doings became known. The king at first disowned the disgraceful compact, but Austerlitz had just taught him what Napoleon's enemies might expect. French troops were already massing on his frontier, and in an evil hour he broke faith with the czar! To Louise, who neither feared foe nor deserted friend, that was a bitter time--doubly sad, indeed, since most of the long winter was spent by the dying bed of her youngest child. When she lost him her own strength broke down, and the doctors ordered her away to drink the Pyrmont waters. In the late summer she was able to rejoin her husband, and he had startling news to tell, for war with France was close at hand.
Since Haugwitz's fatal agreement Napoleon had heaped injuries on Prussia. Now, at least, king and people were of one mind. The young Prussian officers sharpened their swords on the French ambassador's window-sills, patriotic songs were hailed with thunders of applause in street and theatre, and when the queen, clad in the uniform of her own Hussars, rode at their head through the city, she was greeted with passionate loyalty.
Unhappily, Friedrich Wilhelm, hitherto too tardy, was now too precipitate. He had been passive while France crushed Austria, and Austria, suspicious and disabled, neither could nor would assist him. Russia, with better reason for distrust, responded generously to his appeal, but he did not wait for her promised aid. For all his haste, Napoleon, with 180,000 men, was nearing the Thuringian Forest before the Prussian troops left Berlin. They were very confident, those Prussian troops, and the shouting multitudes who watched the well-trained artillery and cavalry defiling by, hardly dreamed of disaster; yet it came almost at once. The Saxon corps, led by the king's cousin, Prince Louis, pushing on too fast, was surprised and surrounded, and the gallant young commander, the queen's dear friend, the idol of the army, fell while rallying his men.
Louise, who had hurriedly joined the king from Weimar, could hardly be persuaded to leave him, but on the evening of October 13th he confided her to a cavalry escort, promising speedy tidings of the coming battle. As she threaded the lonely passes of the Hartz Mountains she heard the distant cannonading, and a broken sentence now and again fell from her lips: "We know that all things work together for good." Late in the misty October twilight she drove into Brunswick. At Brandenburg a courier brought the news her trembling heart awaited. All was lost! Twenty thousand Prussians lay on the fields of Auerstadt and Jena, and the French were already in Weimar. The king was alive, but two horses had been killed under him. Grief-stricken, travel-worn as she was, Louise must not halt. Before she reached Berlin her children had been sent to Schwedt-on-Oder. She followed thither, almost terrifying them by her changed, despairing looks. As soon as she could check her weeping, she told her boys all she knew about Prince Louis's death. "Do not only grieve for him. Be ready for Prussia's sake to meet death as he met it," and then, in burning, never-forgotten words, she bade them one day free their country and break the power of France.
There seemed only a choice between utter destruction and utter submission, and yet when Napoleon demanded the cession of almost the whole kingdom, Friedrich Wilhelm and his wife agreed that "only determined resistance can save us." She was slowly rallying at Koenigsberg from a fever caught in the crowded city, when the cry was raised of the coming French. Propped by pillows, swathed in shawls, she drove through blinding sleet to Memel, the one fortress still left to the king. At her first halting-place the wind whistled in through a broken window, and the melting snow dripped from the roof on to her bed. Her companions trembled for her, but she, calm and trustful, hailed as a good omen the sunshine which welcomed them within the walls of Memel.
A week later Benningsen and his Russians, who had been wading knee-deep through Polish forests and fording swollen streams, always with 90,000 Frenchmen in hot pursuit, turned to bay amid the frozen lakes and drifted snows of Eylau. Next day those snows for miles around were red with blood. It was hard to tell with whom the costly victory lay, but Napoleon despatched Bertrand to the Russian outposts to propose an armistice, and Benningsen sent him on to Memel, reminding the Prussian king that it could not be their interest to grant what it was Napoleon's interest to ask. The terms were, indeed, far easier than those offered after June; but Friedrich Wilhelm, true to the ally who had held the field almost single-handed through that terrible winter, would make no separate agreement, nor did Louise receive more favorably a message to herself, conveying Napoleon's wish to pay his court to her in her own capital.
Though the piercing Baltic winds tried her strength greatly, she employed herself whenever able in reading and visiting the over-full hospitals. To a dear friend she said, "I can never be perfectly miserable while faith in God is open to me." "Only by patient perseverance," so she wrote to her father, "can we succeed. Sooner or later I know we shall do so."
It was not to be yet. On June 14, 1807, Napoleon annihilated the Russians at Friedland, and four days later Dantzic fell. Her tone grew sadder. "We are not yet bereft of peace. My great sorrow is being unable to hope."
As the czar could resist no longer and Napoleon desired peace, they met at Tilsit, and there, on a covered raft moored midway in the Niemen, arranged the outlines of a treaty. The next day Friedrich Wilhelm, yielding to stern necessity, accepted terms "to the last degree hard and overwhelming." The czar, believing that Louise might move even Napoleon to clemency, her husband begged her to join him at Tilsit. On reading this summons she burst into tears, declaring this the hardest task ever given her to do. "With my broken wing how can I succeed?" she pathetically asked.
Napoleon paid his respects soon after her arrival, and they met at the stairhead. Louise, for Prussia's sake, forced herself to utter courteous regrets that he should have to mount so steep a staircase. He answered blandly that no difficulties were feared when striving for a reward beyond. Then, touching her gauze robe, asked, "Is it crepe?"
"Shall we speak of such trifles at such a time?" was her only reply.
He was silent; then demanded, "How could you make war on me?"
She told him that they had overrated their strength.
"And relying on the great Friedrich's fame you deceived yourselves."
Louise's clear eyes met his steadily. "Sire, resting on the great Friedrich's fame, we might naturally deceive ourselves, if, indeed, we wholly did so."
Then she told him that she had come to entreat him to be generous to Prussia. He answered respectfully, but made no promise. Again, with exceeding earnestness, she implored at least for Magdeburg, just then Friedrich Wilhelm entered, and Napoleon abruptly took leave.
"Sire," said Talleyrand warningly to him, when they were alone, "shall posterity say that you threw away your great conquest for the sake of a lovely woman?"
Louise meanwhile dwelt again and again on Napoleon's words, "You ask a great deal, but I will think about it." Yet her heart was heavy, and when arrayed for the evening banquet in the splendid attire so long unworn, she likened herself sadly to the old German victims decked for sacrifice. Napoleon said of her afterward, "I knew I should see a beautiful and dignified queen; I found the most interesting woman and admirable queen I had ever known."
The treaty of Tilsit restored to Friedrich Wilhelm a fragment of his kingdom, but even this was to be held by the French till after the payment of a huge indemnity. Napoleon's threat that he would make the Prussian nobles beg their bread had hardly been a vain one, for the unhappy Prussians had to feed, lodge, and clothe every French soldier quartered in their land. Dark as was the outlook, Louise was upheld by loving pride in her husband. "After Eylau he might have deserted a faithful ally. This he would not do. I believe his conduct will yet bring good fortune to Prussia."
To help forward that good fortune they sold most of the crown lands and the queen's jewels, and had the gold plate melted down. Amid their heavy anxieties and pains they were not wholly unhappy, these two, who loved each other so entirely. "My Louise," the king said to her one day, "you have grown yet dearer to me in this time of trouble, for I more fully know the treasure I possess."
She, too, could write of him, "The king is kinder to me than ever, a great joy and reward after a union of fourteen years." Still those about her told of sleepless nights when prayer was her only relief. Her eyes had lost their brightness, her cheeks were pale, her step languid. By the Christmas of 1808 the last French soldier had quitted Prussian soil; but it was not deemed safe for the royal family to return at once to Berlin, and they spent the summer at Hufen, near Koenigsberg. Parents and children were constantly together, and the mother taught herself to believe that the sharp trials of those years would tell for good on her boys and girls. "If they had been reared in luxury and prosperity they might think that so it must always be."
It was not till the end of 1809 that the exiles turned their faces homeward. They travelled slowly, for the queen was still feeble. Everywhere a glad welcome greeted them; and on December 23d, the day on which, sixteen years before, she had entered the capital a girl-bride, Louise drove through its familiar streets in a carriage presented to her by the rejoicing citizens. Her father was waiting at the palace gate. He helped her to alight and led her in. Three years had gone by since she last crossed the threshold of her home, and what years they had been! Nor was the return all joy, for she knew and dreaded the changes she would find there. Napoleon and his generals had not departed empty handed. They had stripped the rooms of paintings and statues, of manuscripts and antiquities.
As the doors closed a great shout arose from the vast crowd before the palace. Presently she appeared in the balcony, and all saw the traces of long anguish in the lovely face, now bright with grateful smiles.
After a solemn service in the Dom, the king and queen drove through the illuminated city to the opera-house. "The queen sat beside her husband"--so wrote Fouque afterward--"and as she talked she often raised her eyes to him with a very touching expression.... Our beloved queen has thanked us with tears. Bonaparte has dimmed those heavenly eyes ... and we must do all we can to make them sparkle again."
The bare walls, the empty cabinets of the palace, accorded with the almost ascetic habits now maintained there. Self-denial was made easy by one belief, that Prussia would arise from her great suffering stronger than before. The king and queen were not left to work alone toward that high end. Able generals replaced those who, through treachery or faint-heartedness, had surrendered the fortresses. Stein, now chief minister, curtailed the rights of the nobles, and gave the serfs an interest in guarding the soil they tilled; while Scharnhorst, by an ingenious evasion of Napoleon's edict limiting the Prussian army, contrived to have 200,000 men rapidly drilled and trained. The universities founded at Berlin and Breslau became the head-quarters of secret societies for the deliverance of the Fatherland. Princes and professors, merchants ruined by the Berlin decrees, and peasants ground down by French exactions, joined the Jugendbund, and implicitly obeyed the orders of its unseen heads. Through town and country spread that vast brotherhood, fired by the songs of Tieck and Arnim to live or die for Prussia.
And Louise watched thankfully the dawning promise of better days, "though, alas! we may die before they come."
Perhaps that sad presentiment haunted her husband too. If she jested with her children he would say wistfully, "The queen is quite herself to-day. What a blessing it will be if her mind recovers its joyous tone!"
That spring Louise was attacked by spasms of the heart. They did not last long, and when the court moved to Potsdam she seemed to regain strength, and showed much interest in discussing with Bishop Eylert how best to train her boys so that they might serve their country. Though very weak, she accompanied her family to Hohengieritz, the king perforce returning to Berlin. The loving eyes that watched her saw signs of amendment, but early on Monday, July 16th, the spasms recurred. For hours no remedies availed. She could only gasp for "Air! air!" and when the sharp pain had passed lay exhausted, now murmuring a few words of some hymn learnt as a child, faintly thanking God for each solace sent her, or entreating her grandmother to rest. No complaint passed her lips; she was only "very, very weary."
They told her that couriers had been despatched for the king, and she asked anxiously, "Will he soon come?" Before dawn he came, bringing the two elder boys. For those who tried to cheer him he had only one mournful reply: "If she were not mine she might recover." A gleam of joy lighted her pale face when he came to her bedside, but perceiving his emotion she asked, "Am I then so very ill?" Unable to reply, he hurriedly left the room, and she said to those standing by, "His embrace was so wild, so fervent, that it seemed as though he would take leave of me. Tell him not to do that, or I shall die at once."
He returned bringing in the children.
"My Fritz! my Wilhelm!" She had only time for one long gaze, and then the agonizing pain came again. One of the doctors tried to raise her, but she sank back. "Only death can help me;" and as all watched in breathless silence, she leaned her head against the shoulder of a faithful attendant, murmured, "Lord Jesus, shorten it!" and with one deep-drawn breath passed away.
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