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Berlin and Sans-Souci; or Frederick the Great and his friends online

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The face of Frederick remained calm and clear. He did not feel that
he was a mighty king and ruler, injured by the fault-finding of a
common man. He was the pupil, with his accomplished teacher; and as
he really wished to learn, he was indifferent as to the mode by
which his stern master would instruct him.

After this they read together a chapter from the king's "Higtoire de
Mon Temps." A second edition was about to appear, and Voltaire had
undertaken to correct it. He brought his copy with him, in order to
give Frederick an account of his corrections.

"This book will be a masterwork, if your majesty will only take the
pains to correct it properly? But has a king the time and patience?-
-a king who governs his whole kingdom alone? Yes, it is this thought
which confounds me! I cannot recover from my astonishment; it is
this which makes me so stern in my judgment of your writings. I
consider it a holy duty."

"And I am glad you are harsh and independent," said the king. "I
learn more from ten stern and critical words, than from a lengthy
speech full of praise and acknowledgment! But tell me, now, what
means this red mark, with which you have covered one whole side of
my manuscript?"

"Sire, this red mark asks for consideration for your grandfather,
King Frederick the First; you have been harsh and cruel with him!"

"I dared not be otherwise, unless I would earn for myself the charge
of partiality," said the king. "It shall not be said that I closed
my eyes to his foolishness and absurdity because he was my
grandfather. Frederick the First was a vain and pompous fool; this
is the truth!"

"And yet I entreat your grace for him, sire. I love this king
because of his royal pomp, and the beautiful monument which he left
behind him."

"Well, that was vanity, that posterity might speak of him. From
vanity he protected the arts; from vanity and foolish pride he
placed the crown upon his head. His wife, the great Sophia
Charlotte, was right when she said of him on her death-bed: 'The
king will not have time to mourn for me; the interest he will take
in solemnizing my funeral with pomp and regal splendor will
dissipate his grief; and if nothing is wanting, nothing fails in the
august and beautiful ceremony, he will be entirely comforted.'
[Footnote: Thiebault.] He was only great in little things, and
therefore when Sophia Charlotte received from her friend Leibnitz
his memoir 'On the Power of Small Things,' she said, smiling:
'Leibnitz will teach me to know small things; has he forgotten that
I am the wife of Frederick the First, or does he think that I do not
know my husband?'" [Footnote: Ibid.]

"Well, I pray for grace for the husband on his wife's account.
Sophia Charlotte was an exalted and genial woman; you should forgive
her husband all other things, because he was wise enough to make her
his wife and your grand-mother! And if your majesty reproaches him
for the vanity of making himself king, that is a vanity from which
his descendants have obtained some right solid advantages."

"The title appears to me not in the least disagreeable! The title is
beautiful, when given by a free people, or earned by a prince.
Frederick the First had done nothing to stamp him a king, and that
condemns him."

"So let it be," said Voltaire, shrugging his shoulders, "he is your
grandfather, not mine. Do with him as you think best, sire; I have
nothing more to say, and will content myself with softening a few
phrases." [Footnote: This conversation of the king and Voltaire is
historic. Voltaire tells it in a letter to Madame Denis.]

When he saw that Frederick's brow clouded at these words, he said,
with a sly laugh: "Look you, how the office of a teacher, which your
majesty forced upon me, makes me insolent and haughty! I, who would
do well to correct my own works, undertake to improve the writings
of a king. I remind myself of the Abbot von Milliers, who has
written a book called 'Reflections on the Faults of Others.' On one
occasion he went to hear a sermon of a Capuchin. The monk addressed
his audience, in a nasal voice, in the following manner: 'My dear
brothers in the Lord, I had intended to-day to discourse upon hell,
but at the door of the church I have read a bill posted up,
"Reflections on the Faults of Others." "Ha! my friend," thought I,
"why have you not rather made reflections over your own faults?" I
will therefore speak to you of the pride and arrogance of men!'"

"Well, make such reflections always when occupied with the History
of Louis the Fifteenth," said the king, laughing; "only, I beseech
you, when you are with me, not to be converted by the pious
Capuchin, but make your reflections on the faults of others only."



Voltaire enjoyed the rare privilege of speaking the truth to the
king, and he made a cruel and bitter use of his opportunities in
this respect. He was jealous and envious of the king's fame and
greatness, and sought to revenge him-self by continual fault-finding
and criticism. He sought to mortify the great Frederick, who was
admired and wondered at by all the world; to make him feel and
confess that he could never equal the renowned writer Voltaire.

Frederick felt and acknowledged this frankly and without shame, but
with that smiling composure and great self-consciousness which is
ever ready to do justice to others, and demands at the same time a
just recognition of its own claims. Voltaire might exalt himself to
the clouds, he could not depreciate the king. He often made him
angry, however, and this gratified the malice of the great French

The other friends of Frederick looked upon this conduct of Voltaire
with regret; and the Marquis d'Argens, who was of a fine and gentle
nature, soon saw the daily discontent of the king, and the wicked
joy of Voltaire.

"My friend," said he, "the king wrote a poem yesterday, which he
read aloud to me this morning. He declares that there is one bad
rhyme in his poem, and that it tortures him. I tried in vain to
reassure him. I know that the rhyme is incorrect, but you will
provoke him beyond measure if you tell him so. He has tried in vain
to correct it, without impairing the sense of the passage. I have,
therefore, withheld all criticism, and read to him some verses from
La Fontaine, where the same fault is to be found. I have wished to
convince him that the poem is worthy of praise, although not exactly
conformed to rule. I beg of you, Voltaire, to follow my example."

"And why should I do that?" said Voltaire, in his most snarling

"Because, with your severe and continual criticisms you will disgust
the king, and turn him aside from his favorite pursuit. I think it
important to poetry and the fine arts that the great and powerful
sovereign of Prussia should love and cherish them; should exalt
those who cultivate them, and, indeed, rank himself amongst them.
What difference does it make, Voltaire, if a bad rhyme is to be
found in the poetry of the philosopher of Sans-Souci?" [Footnote:
Thiebault, vol. v., p. 337.]

"The king wishes to learn of me how to make good poetry, and my love
to him is not of that treasonable, womanly, and cowardly sort which
shrinks from blaming him because it fears to wound his self-love.
The king has read his poem to you, and it is your province to wonder
at and praise your friend. He will read it to me as 'Pedagogo de sua
Maesta.' I will be true and just, where you have dared to flatter

Never was Voltaire more severe in his criticism, more cutting in his
satire, than to-day. His eyes sparkled with malicious joy, and a
wicked smile played still upon his lip as he left the king and
returned to his own apartment.

"Ah," said he, seating himself at his writing-table, with a loud
laugh, "I shall write well to-day, for I have had a lesson.
Frederick does not know how far he is my benefactor. In correcting
him, I correct myself; and in directing his studies, I gain strength
and judgment for my own works. [Footnote: Voltaire's own words. -
Oeuvres, p. 363.] I will now write a chapter in my History of Louis
XIV. My style will be good. The chapter which I have read this
morning, in Frederick's 'Histoire de Mon Temps' has taught me what
faults to avoid. Yes, I will write of Louis XIV. Truly I owe him
some compensation. King Frederick has had the naivete to compare his
great grandfather, the so-called great Prince-Elector, to the great
Louis. I was amiable enough to pardon him for this little compliment
to his ancestors, and not to strike it from his 'Histoire.' And,
indeed, why should I have done that? The world will not be so
foolish as to charge this amusing weakness to me! After all, the
king writes but for himself, and a few false, flattering friends; he
can, therefore, say what he will. I, however, I write for France -
for the world! But I fear, alas, that fools will condemn me, because
I have sought to write as a wise man." [Footnote: CEuvres, p. 341.]

Voltaire commenced to write, but, he was soon interrupted by his
servant, Tripot, who announced that the Jew Hirsch, for whom
Voltaire had sent, was at the door. Voltaire rose hastily, and
called him to enter.

"I have business with you, my friend," said he to the Jew. "Close
the door, Tripot, and see that we are not disturbed."

Voltaire hastened with youthful agility through the saloon, and
beckoned to the Jew to follow him into his bedroom.

"First of all, friend, we will make a small mercantile operation."
So saying, he opened the door of a large commode. "See, here are
twelve pounds of the purest wax-lights. I am a poor man, with weak
eyes. I have no use for these lights; I can never hope to profit by
them. Here, also, are several pounds of sugar and coffee, the
savings of the last two months. You will buy all this of me; we will
agree upon a fixed price, and the last day of every month you will
come for the same purpose. Name your price, sir."

Hirsch named his price; but it seemed that the great poet understood
how to bargain better than the Jew. He knew exactly the worth of the
sugar and the coffee, he spoke so eloquently of the beauty and
purity of the thick white wax-lights, that the Hebrew increased his

"And now to more important business," said Voltaire. "You are going
to Dresden - you will there execute a commission for me. I wish to
invest eighteen thousand thalers in Saxon bonds. They can now be
purchased at thirty-five, and will be redeemed at a hundred."

"But your excellency knows that the king has forbidden his subjects
to buy these bonds. He demanded and obtained for his subjects a
pledge that they should be paid at par for the bonds they now hold,
while the subjects of the King of Saxony receive only their present
value. The king promised, however, that the Prussians should make no
further investments in these bonds. You see, then, that it is
impossible for me to fulfil this commission."

"I see that you are a fool!" cried Voltaire, angrily. "If you were
not a fool, you would know that Voltaire, the chamberlain of the
king, would not undertake a business transaction which would stain
his reputation or cast a shadow on his name. When Voltaire makes
this investment, you can understand that he is authorized to do so."

"That being the case," said Hirsch, humbly, "I am entirely
satisfied, and will gladly serve your excellency."

"If you fill this commission handsomely and promptly, you may feel
assured of a reward. Are you ambitious? Would you not like a title?"

"Certainly I am ambitious. I should be truly happy if I could obtain
the title of 'royal court agent.'"

"Well, buy these bonds for me in Dresden cheap, and you shall have
this coveted title," said the noble author of the "Henriade," and
other world-renowned works.

"I will buy them at thirty-five thalers."

"And you will invest eighteen thousand thalers at this rate. Our
contract is made; now we will count the gold. I have not the ready
money - I will give you drafts - come into my study. - There are three
drafts," said he, "one on Paris, one on your father, and one on the
Jew Ephraim. Get them cashed, good Hirsch, and bring me my Saxon

"In eight days, your excellency, I will return with them, and you
will have a clear profit of eleven thousand thalers."

Voltaire's eyes sparkled with joy. "Eleven thousand thalers!" said
he; "for a poor poet, who lives by his wits and his pen, that is a
considerable sum."

"You will realize that sum," said Hirsch, with the solemn
earnestness of a Jew when he has made a good trade.

Hirsch was about to withdraw, but Voltaire hastened after him, and
seizing his arm, he cried out threateningly: "You are not going
without giving me your note? You do not think that I am such a fool
as to give you eighteen thousand thalers, and have nothing to prove

"You excellency has my word of honor," said the Jew, earnestly.

Voltaire laughed aloud. "Your word! the honorable word of a man for
eighteen thousand thalers! My dear friend, we do not live in
paradise, but in a so-called Christian city - your worthy forefathers
obtained for us this privilege. Do you believe that I will trust one
of their descendants? Who will go my security that you will not,
nail my innocence and my confiding heart upon the cross, and slay
them if I should be unsuspicious enough to trust my money with you
in this simple way?"

"I will give you ample security," said Hirsch, taking a morocco case
from his pocket. "I did not know why your excellency sent for me. I
thought perhaps you wished to buy diamonds, and brought some along
with me. Look, sir! here are diamonds worth twenty-two thousand
thalers! I will leave them with you - I, the poor Jew, do not fear
that the great poet Voltaire will deceive and betray me."

"These diamonds are beautiful," said Voltaire - "very beautiful, and
perhaps if my speculation succeeds, I may buy some from you. Until
then, I will take care of them."

Voltaire was about to lock them up, but he paused suddenly, and
fixed his eyes upon the calm countenance of the Jew.

"How do I know that these are real diamonds?" he cried; and as
Hirsch, exasperated by this base suspicion, frowned and turned pale,
he exclaimed fiercely: "The diamonds are false! I know it by your
terror. Oh, oh, you thought that a poet was a good, credulous
creature who could be easily deceived. Ah! you thought I had heard
nothing of those famous lapidaries in St. Germain, who cut diamonds
from glass, and cook up in their laboratories the rarest jewels!
Yes, yes, I know all these arts, and all the brewing of St. Germain
will not suffice to deceive me."

"These diamonds are pure!" cried Hirsch.

"We will have them tested by a Christian jeweller," said Voltaire. -
"Tripot! Tripot! run quickly to the jeweller Reclam - beg him to come
to me for a few moments."

Tripot soon returned with Reclam. The diamonds were pronounced pure
and of the first water; and the jeweller declared they were fully
worth twenty-two thousand thalers. Voltaire was now fully satisfied,
and, when once more alone, he looked long and rapturously upon these
glittering stones.

"What woman can boast of such dazzling fire in her eyes?" said he,
laughing; "what woman can say that their color is worth twenty-two
thousand thalers? It is true they glisten and shimmer in all lights
and shades - that is their weakness and their folly. With you,
beautiful gems! these changing hues are a virtue. Oh, to think that
with this handful of flashing stones I could buy a bag of ducats!
How dull and stupid are mankind - how wise is God! Sinking those
diamonds in the bowels of the earth was a good speculation. They are
truffles to tempt the snouts of men; and they root after them as
zealously as the swine in Perigord root after the true truffles.
Gold! gold! that is the magic word with which the world is ruled. I
will have gold - I will rule the world. I will not give place to
dukes or princes. I will have my seigneuries and my castles; my
servants in rich livery, and my obedient subjects. I will be a grand
seigneur. Kings and princes shall visit me in my castle, and wait in
my antechamber, as I have been compelled to wait in theirs. I will
be rich that I may be every man's master, even master of the fools.
I will enslave the wise by my intellect - I will reduce the foolish
to bondage with gold. I must be rich! rich! rich! therefore am I
here; therefore do I correct the poor rhymes of the king; therefore
do I live now as a modest poet, and add copper to copper, and save
my pension of five thousand thalers, and sell my wax-lights and my
coffee to the Jew. Let the world call me a miser. When I become
rich, I will be a spendthrift: and men who are now envious and angry
at my fame shall burst with rage at my fortune. Ah, ah, it is not
worth the cost to be a celebrated writer! There are too many
humiliations connected with this doubtful social position. It gives
no rank - it is a pitiful thing in the eyes of those who have actual
standing, and is only envied by those who are unnoticed and unknown.
For my own part, I am so exhausted by the discomforts of my
position, I would gladly cast it from me, and make for myself what
the canaille call a good thing - an enormous fortune. I will scrape
together all the gold that is possible. I will give for gold all the
honor and freedom and fame which come to me. I am a rich gainer in
all these things by my residence with King Frederick. He has this
virtue: he is unprejudiced, and cares nothing even for his own royal
rank. I will therefore remain in this haven, whither the storms,
which have so long driven me from shore to shore, have now safely
moored me. My happiness will last just as long as God pleases."
[Footnote: Voltaire's own words. - Oeuvres, p. 110.]

He laughed heartily, and took his cash-book, in which he entered
receipts and expenditures. It was Voltaire's greatest pleasure to
add up his accounts from time to time, and gloat over the growth of
his fortune; to compare, day by day, his receipts and expenses, and
to find that a handsome sum was almost daily placed to his credit.
The smallest necessary expenditure angered him. With a dark frown he
said to himself: "It is unjust and mean to require of me to buy
provender for my horse, and to have my carriage repaired; if the
king furnishes me with an equipage, he should not allow it to be any
expense to me. The major-domo is an old miser, who cheats me every
month out of some pounds of sugar and coffee, and the wax-lights are
becoming thinner and poorer. I will complain to King Frederick of
all this; he must see that order prevails in his palace."

Voltaire closed his account-book, and murmured: "When I have an
income of a hundred and fifty thousand francs, I will cease to
economize. God be praised, I have almost reached the goal! But,"
said he, impatiently, "in order to effect this, I must remain here a
few years, and add my pension to my income. Nothing must prevent
this - I must overcome every obstacle. What! who can hinder me? my
so-called friends, who naturally are my most bitter enemies? Ha, ha!
what a romantic idea of this genial king to assemble six friends
around him at Sans-Souci, the most of them being authors - that is to
say, natural enemies! I believe if two authors, two women, or two
pietists, were placed alone upon a desert isle, they would forget
their dependence upon each other, and commence intriguing at once.
This, alas! is humanity, and being so, one must withdraw from the
poor affair advantageously and cunningly. [Footnote: Voltaire,
Oeuvres, p. 375.] No one can live peacefully in this world; least of
all, in the neighborhood of a king. It is with kings as with
coquettes, their glances kindle jealousy - and Frederick is a great
coquette. I must, therefore, drive my rivals from the field, and
enjoy in peace the favor of the king. Now which of my rivals are
dangerous to me? All! all! I must banish them all! I will sow such
discontent and rage and malice and strife amongst them, that they
will fly in hot haste, and thank God if I do not bite off their
noses before they escape. I will turn this, their laughing paradise,
into a hell, and I will be the devil to chase them with glowing
pitchforks. Yes, even to Siberia will I drive this long-legged
peacock, Maupertius - him, first of all; then D'Argens, then
Algarotti, then this over-wise and good Lord Marshal, and all others
like him! When Voltaire's sun is in the ascendant, not even stars
shall glitter; It shall not be! I will prove to them that Voltaire's
fiery rays have burned them to ashes!" [Footnote: Voltaire, OEuvres,
p. 378.]

He laughed aloud, and seated himself to write a poem. He was invited
that evening to a soiree by the queen-mother, where he wished to
shine as an improvisator. Above all other things, he wished to win
the heart of the Princess Amelia. Since she had played the part of
Aurelia, in "Rome Sauvee," he had felt a passion for the princess,
who had betrayed to the life the ardor and the pains of love, and
whose great flaming eyes seemed, from their mysterious depths, to
rouse the soul of the poet. Voltaire had promised the Princess
Amelia to improvise upon any subject she should select, and he
relied upon his cunning to incline her choice in such a direction as
to make the poem he was now writing appropriate and seem impromptu.

While thus occupied, his servant entered and announced a number of
distinguished gentlemen, who were in the parlor, and wished to make
the great author a morning visit. "Let them all wait!" said
Voltaire, angrily; declaring that this disturbance had cost him a
piquant rhyme.

"But, gracious sir," stammered the servant, "some of the most
distinguished men of the court and the oldest generals, are there!"

"What do I care for their epaulets or their excellencies? Let them
wait, or go to the devil - if they prefer it."

Well, the eminent gentlemen waited; indeed, they waited patiently,
until the great Voltaire, the favorite of the king, the universal
French author, in his pride and arrogance was graciously pleased to
show himself amongst the Dutch barbarians, and allow some rays of
his intellect to fall upon and inspire them!

The saloon was indeed crowded with princes, generals, and nobles.
Voltaire had just returned to Berlin from Potsdam, and all hastened
to pay their respects and commend themselves to his grace and favor.
[Footnote: Forney writes thus in his "Memoirs": "During the winter
months which Voltaire spent in the palace of Berlin, he was the
favorite of the court. Princes, ambassadors, ministers, generals,
nobles of the highest rank went to his morning receptions, and were
often received by him with contemptuous scorn. A great prince was
pleased to play chess with him, and allowed him every time to win
the stake of two louis d'or. It was declared, however, that
sometimes the gold disappeared before the end of the game, and could
not be found." - "Souvenirs d'un Citoyen."]

Voltaire was very gracious this morning. As he was to play the part
of improvisator that night, he thought it politic to make favor with
all those who would be present. He hoped that all the world would
thunder out their enraptured applause, and that Maupertius,
D'Argens, Algarotti, La Mettrie, and all other friends of the king,
would be filled with envy and rage. He smiled, therefore,
benignantly, and had kind and flattering words for all. His bon-mots
and piquant witticisms seemed inexhaustible.

Suddenly his servant drew near, and said it was necessary to speak
to him on a matter of great importance. Voltaire turned with a
winning smile to his guests, and, praying them to wait for his
return, entered his private room.

"Well, Tripot, what have you to say that is important?"

"Gracious sir, the court is in mourning."

Voltaire looked at him enraged. "Fool! what is that to me?"

"It is of the utmost importance to you, sir, if you are going this
evening to the soiree of the queen-mother."

"Will you run me mad, Tripot? What has the court mourning to do with
the queen's soiree?"

"Gracious sir, the explanation is very simple. When the court is in
mourning, no one can appear there in embroidered clothes; you must
wear a plain black coat."

"I have no plain black coat," said Voltaire, with a frowning brow.

"It is necessary, then, for you to order one, and I have sent
Monsieur Pilleneure to come and take your measure."

"Are you insane, Tripot?" cried Voltaire. "Do you regard me as so
vile a spendthrift, so brainless a fool, as to order a new coat for
the sake of one evening's amusement - a coat which will cost an

Online LibraryL. MühlbachBerlin and Sans-Souci; or Frederick the Great and his friends → online text (page 38 of 42)