England furnished him with a subsidy of about four million dollars. He immediately melted this coin, gold and silver, and adulterated it with about half copper, thus converting his four476 millions into nominally eight millions. But a few weeks of such operations as he was engaged in would swallow up all this. The merciless conscription, grasping nearly every able-bodied man, destroyed nearly all the arts of industry. The Prussian realms, thus impoverished by war’s ravages and taxation, could furnish the king with very meagre supplies. When the king invaded any portion of the territory of the allies, he wrenched from the beggared people every piece of money which violence or terror could extort. Wealthy merchants were thrown into prison, and fed upon bread and water until they yielded. The most terrible severities were practiced to extort contributions from towns which had been stripped and stripped again. Still violence could wrench but little from the skinny hand of beggary. These provinces, swept by war’s surges year after year, were in the most deplorable state of destitution and misery.
Voltaire made himself very merry over the dying scene of Maupertuis. There was never another man who could throw so much poison into a sneer as Voltaire. It is probable that the conversion of Maupertuis somewhat troubled his conscience as the unhappy scorner looked forward to his own dying hour, which could not be far distant. He never alluded to Maupertuis without indulging in a strain of bitter mockery in view of his death as a penitent. Even the king, unbeliever as he was in religion or in the existence of a God, was disgusted with the malignity displayed by Voltaire. In reply to one of Voltaire’s envenomed assaults the king wrote:“I observed that the king took a pinch of snuff as the sound of each discharge reached him. And even through that air of intrepidity, which never abandoned this prince, I could perceive the sensations of pity toward that unfortunate town, and an eager impatience to fly to its relief.”
The queen was at this time in a delicate state of health, and anxiety and sorrow threw her upon a sick-bed. The king, who felt as much affection for “Phiekin” as such a coarse, brutal man could feel for any body, was alarmed; but he remained obdurate. He stormed into her room, where, in the fever of her troubles, she tossed upon her pillow, and obstreperously declared that Wilhelmina should be married immediately, and that she must take either Weissenfels or Schwedt. As both mother and daughter remained firm in their refusal to choose, he resolved to decide the question himself.
“The slow fever,” he wrote, “which consumes me, has not thrown any disorder into my understanding. Condescend to listen to me, sire, now that I can not be suspected of any illusion or deceit. There is an end to the house of Prussia if you continue to brave all Europe confederated against you. You force all Europe to arm to repel your encroachments. The princes of Europe are leagued against your majesty by justice and by interest. Their subjects regard your ruin as essential to the re-establishment of peace and the safety of monarchical government. They read in your success the slavery of the human race, the annihilation of laws, the degradation of society.”
Late in the fall of 1739 the health of Frederick William was so rapidly failing that it became manifest to all that his days on earth would soon be ended. He sat joylessly in his palace, listening to the moaning of the wind, the rustle of the falling leaves, and the pattering of the rain. His gloomy spirit was in accord with the melancholy days. More dreary storms darkened his turbid soul than those which wrecked the autumnal sky.On the 25th of October a courier arrived, direct from Vienna, with the startling intelligence that the Emperor Charles VI. had died five days before. The king was at the time suffering from a severe attack of chills and fever. There was quite a long deliberation in the court whether it were safe to communicate the agitating intelligence to his majesty while he was so sick. They delayed for an hour, and then cautiously informed the king of the great event. Frederick listened in silence; uttered not a word; made no sign.36 Subsequent events proved that his soul must have been agitated by the tidings to its profoundest depths. The death of the emperor, at that time, was unexpected. But it is pretty evident that Frederick had, in the sombre recesses of his mind, resolved upon a course of action when the emperor should die which he knew would be fraught with the most momentous results. In fact, this action proved the occasion of wars and woes from which, could the king have foreseen them, he would doubtless have shrunk back appalled.
The king was a very busy man. In addition to carrying on quite an extensive literary correspondence, he was vigorously engaged in writing his memoirs. He was also with great energy developing the wealth of his realms. In the exercise of absolute power, his government was entirely personal. He had no constitution to restrain him. Under his single control were concentrated all legislative, judicial, and executive powers. There was no senate or legislative corps to co-operate in framing laws. His ministers were merely servants to do his bidding. The courts had no powers whatever but such as he intrusted to them. He could at any time reverse their decrees, and flog the judges with his cane, or hang them.“In a word, I see all black, as if I were at the bottom of a tomb. Have some compassion on the situation I am in. Conceive that I disguise nothing from you, and yet that I do not detail to you all my embarrassments, my apprehensions, and troubles. Adieu, my dear marquis. Write to me sometimes. Do not forget a poor devil who curses ten times a day his fatal existence, and could wish he already were in those silent countries from which nobody returns with news.”Frederick affected great contempt for public opinion. He wrote to Voltaire:
“Certainly, certainly,” exclaimed the king.On the 20th of April, Frederick, having secretly placed his army in the best possible condition, commenced a rapid march upon Prague, thus plunging into the very heart of Bohemia. He advanced in three great columns up the valley of the Elbe and the Moldau. His movements were so rapid and unexpected that he seized several Austrian magazines which they had not even time to burn. Three months’ provisions were thus obtained for412 his whole army. The first column, under the king, was sixty thousand strong. The second column, led by General Bevern, numbered twenty-three thousand, horse and foot. The third, under Marshal Schwerin, counted thirty-two thousand foot and twelve thousand horse. On the 2d of May the banners of Frederick were seen from the steeples of Prague. They appeared floating from the heights of the Weissenberg, a few miles west of the city. At the same time, the other two columns, which had united under Marshal Schwerin, appeared on the east side of the Moldau, upon both banks of which the city is built.“Cüstrin, November 19, 1730.
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