‘My little vineyard house sits on the brow of its hill, overlooking the watery meadows of Potsdam. Terraces of vine, fig and fragrant citrus descend the hillside. My pastoral retreat, “Quand je serai là, je serai Sans, Souci.” No-one understands the comma.’

‘It’s hot today, the sun warming my worthless old bones, through my old uniform – I recollect I wore this coat at the battle of Thorgau. The birds are fluting, accompanied by the hum of insects. Amongst the susurration of the leaves I hear the whispering of the dead. Those I loved are dead, and I am alone here with my hussars, waiting for nothing but to be buried, here under this terrace, to rest.’

‘This whispering is the voice of Orzelska, husky like a youth whose voice is about to break. Orzelska is still alive, in my memory. A strange, exciting creature, who in a military uniform appeared feminine, but in diamonds and a gown, resembled a man, her face heavily painted and her hair powdered and frizzed like a court dandy. I have always thought it was a mistake on Father’s part to order me to accompany him on his state visit to Dresden. The court of Augustus, King of Poland, was as licentious and extravagant as ours was militaristic and austere. It was the Versailles of Saxony. Scandalously, Orselzska was said to be both the natural daughter and the paramour of the Polish king, and her face was just like her sire’s, with heavy dark brows, a nose too long for a woman, and full, greedy, smiling lips.’

‘The first time I saw Orzelska, I was only just sixteen. Augustus decided to test Father’s claims of virtue, and pretended to show us his palace. We followed him through the glittering gilded rooms, and mirrored halls of treasures, lit by hundreds of candles. Then he suddenly drew back a red velvet curtain that concealed a couch. There Orzelska lay, in a pose of abandonment, naked under drapes of the thinnest fabric imaginable. Her hair was tied with a black ribbon and her cheek decorated with a beauty spot. She was as slender as a boy. She looked into my eyes with pure provocation, and raised a thick black eyebrow. I was transfixed, open mouthed, and then Father shoved his hat in front of my face, and bundled me from the room. “She is most handsome,” he called back over his shoulder, as he marched me off, muttering angrily about Augustus, and his debaucheries and unnecessary luxuries. I could not remove this vision from my head, nor take my eyes off Orzelska later at dinner. Wearing the thousands of diamonds which the King had given her, she smoked and drank, her conversation, though not educated, was as sharply, ribaldly witty as a man’s. She was very affectionate with her half brother, Count Rutowski, who was said to also be her lover. I remember seeing them riding together in the palace grounds dressed as hussars, her breeches fitting without a wrinkle. Seeing her in military uniform took my breath away. Shortly after she seduced me, Father took me back to Berlin, and I nearly died from unsatisfied passion and a surfeit of sentimental poetry.’

‘But, a few months later, she came to Berlin in the retinue of the King of Poland. Five hundred people accompanied him, and in the tumult I could not be subject to the usual surveillance. That night, I heard a knock at the door of my apartment, and a slender figure stood there, Orzelska disguised as a page boy.’

‘I heard she ended up in Venice, divorced, still adventuring, and scandalous to the end of her life.’

‘So – my physician arrives, it is time to complain to him. He cannot profess to heal me of old age, but he is a kind man and means well. I pay his fees, but refuse his potions. ‘Just make sure they bury my old bones here,’ I remind him as he retreats, bowing. ‘Without pomp, and by night, remember!’

‘The sun is westering now behind the trees and the water meadows, and soon they will wheel my chair inside for my supper. I remember Father being drawn about on an armchair with castors, when he had the gout. How bad tempered it made him! He would often lash out with his cane at Wilhelmine and I, but we would run to Mother’s apartments for refuge and his attendants would not push so fast, so that we could get away.’

‘Well, Father, your treatment of me was too severe. It became worse as I grew to be of age. Perhaps you loved me in your stern fashion, but to you, love meant control, and control was done by violence. The court was full of spies who set you against me. I could not read Latin, or practise the flute, without it being reported and stopped. You wanted me only to be a soldier, and I was to drill with my regiment, and always wear my uniform. I defied you only in the privacy of my room, where I would throw off my coat and wear a dressing gown. And when your spies remarked that I was becoming too familiar with Peter Keith, your page, you sent him away to a regiment at Wesel.’

‘And then I met Katte. Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte. I could not bear to be apart from him. My greatest love, my greatest loss, my greatest regret. Katte, you were so perfect, so tall and strong and fine-featured. You had studied at Königsberg and Utrecht, you had such exquisite manners and such beautiful French, you loved music, poetry, the writings of Bayle and Voltaire, and in everything your mind was superior to mine, yet your love for me was profound. You risked everything for me.’

‘I remember you once ran to my room while I was having a flute lesson, shouting ‘Your father is coming!’ You hid with my flute teacher in my wardrobe, while Father threw my dressing gowns angrily into the fire, gave me an interminable lecture, and ordered all my books to be sent back to the bookseller. I secretly purchased them back in small quantities.’

‘It is easy now to see what should and should not have been done. But I was young, just eighteen, and imagined myself to be in a desperate position – I had yet to learn the true nature of despair. After finding I was in debt, Father became more violent towards me, and would cane me until I bled. He made sure that I received very little to eat. I will never forget the day he beat me and tried to strangle me with a window cord, and only his valet saved me. I really did fear for my life, and the mental restrictions which were put on me were intolerable. So I determined to run away, although Mother and Wilhelmine begged me to stay. Katte opposed me at first, but I begged and pleaded, and seduced, and persuaded him, and eventually he agreed. We would flee to England, and take refuge at the court of my uncle George, who wanted me to marry his daughter Amelia.’

‘Poor Amelia, you were a lovely girl, clever and funny, and tolerably fond of me, and Mother desired us to be married, but the Austrians had set Father against the idea and created a row between him and the English. They did not want an alliance of Prussia and England, which might threaten their own ascendancy. Now you are an old maid, wearing a miniature of me at your breast.’

‘Katte and I became so excited about our plans, and Wilhelmine warned me that we would soon be discovered, for Katte was gossiping all over town.’

The clear grey eyes of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, fill with tears as he regards the stone staircase in front of him, descending between the vine and fig laden terraces of his estate which tumble down the hill to a pastoral glory of water, gardens and meadows. The air is sweet with birdsong and orange blossom, and the fountains that never really worked create a minor turbulence beneath the surface of the ponds. ‘Der Alte Fritz’, the recluse loved by his people, has no more to do but sit and think, and wait. And he wears, despite the sweltering summer heat, a cape decorated with the Star of the Order of the Black Eagle, a military cocked hat, an old soldier’s uniform with a stained blue coat with red facings, and carpet slippers. He smells of Spanish snuff and old age. He still prefers to wash and clothe himself, and resists the ministrations of his valet. His feet rest on a velvet cushion, a huge soft pillow is stuffed at his back, and he sits in the rococo armchair in which he will one day, soon, die. He hunches forward, brooding over his walking stick where he rests a gloved hand. A chamber hussar, in a red gilded coat and blue breeches, stands attentive, sweating, at his back. Behind him is the ornamented glory of his precious retreat, the strangely punctuated words- SANS, SOUCI.– cut high into the stone. The long yellow walls with their arched windows, and green cupola with its frivolous sculptures, a profusion of cherubs and urns, tritons and caryatids, grapevines and fig leaves, defy the severe life that had been his inheritance.

‘I was going on one of Father’s tours. He liked to check on the loyalty of the petty nobility. We would stay in the most awful accommodation, he often made me sleep in a barn rather than in the noble house he was visiting, and his retinue was often spread over a number of outbuildings. I felt it might be easier to slip away then from the palace where everything was watched. I obtained a grey coat in the French fashion with silver lace. Katte remained in Berlin, with a sum of money and some jewels, and should have met me at Leipzig, whence we would escape into Holland, and Keith would meet us.’

‘So many things went wrong. Suspicions of my escape had somehow reached Father, and I was closely watched. If only I had kept my mouth shut at Anspach, I should have got away in time, but I had foolishly confided my unhappiness to the margrave, and he refused to lend me horses. Then, at Steinsfurt, there was a horse market. I chose Robert to help me, as he was the most stupid of Father’s pages. It was a bad choice. I told Robert to wake me at four in the morning and procure two horses, as I was going to visit the young ladies in a nearby village. Certainly, he came to the barn where we were sleeping, but he woke my valet. I waited for a few minutes and then, as my valet did not stir, I put on my grey coat and crept cautiously from the barn. I hurried through the village down to the horse market. Robert was not there, and I was forced to wait. My valet must have raised the alarm, for in a very short time I was surrounded by Father’s staff. If I had only been armed, I would have fought them, but there was nothing I could do, and they urged me to take off my coat and return to my bed before my father found out. Robert finally appeared with the horses, and I would have mounted and escaped, but they constrained me and I was forced to return. I was held under guard, in anguish lest our schemes were all discovered and my friends were implicated. I got a note to Keith, at Wesel, and it was not until he deserted that his involvement was discovered.’

‘But my dearest Katte, you were unfortunate, for a letter I had sent you had gone astray – I had put the wrong address on it – and was given to Father. So we were both imprisoned at Küstrin, and accused of attempted desertion and high treason. One dreadful day they put me in a coarse prison dress and moved me to a new cell on the ground floor. Through the small window I saw a scaffold draped in black. I thought it was for my own execution, and spent the night in that miserable place in dread. But far worse, it was for you. They led you past my window in the brown rags of a prisoner, your hair in a white cap. I cried out to you in grief, and you assured me that you would die for me a thousand times over. At that, I swooned to the floor of my cell.’

‘The chaplain, Müller, told me afterwards that Katte had ascended the scaffold with dignity and had been beheaded by a single sword stroke. I never again uttered his name, and the wretchedness into which I descended was like death itself. I knew I could never love again. Thereafter I could not be frivolous, without my gaiety being tinged with sadness, and with grief unspoken for my beloved, who I had killed by my folly. Accusing me of a treason which would, so he said, have set the whole of Europe in flames, Father still wanted me tried and sentenced to death. The intercession of most of the monarchs of Europe, and my state of abject despair eventually calmed him, and, by self denial, religious piety and obedient behaviour I was finally restored to his favour.’

‘So, I had to wait for Father to die before I could become my own man. I soon separated from that ninny he had married to me, and built my pastoral retreat. My little vineyard house has been a refuge from the pomp of the court, and from the horrors and privations of war. I have lived here, sans femme, quietly with my friends, writing, philosophising, playing the flute. Still, no-one understands my punctuation! They think that I, who traded riddles with Voltaire, and wrote many volumes of works in French, could not punctuate a simple phrase. Sans, Souci. Without, Care. They all think I have forgotten.’

It is the early hours of an August morning, and the king dozes in his armchair by the window. As the pallid dawn edges upwards from the eastern trees, he hears delicate music. ‘Is that one of my sonatas?’ he wonders, and though his eyes are half closed, he sees a youth, fresh from the country, dark haired and milk skinned, dark eyebrows and eyelashes animating his luminous eyes. His embouchure so nearly caresses the silver flute, and he lovingly fingers the notes. The aged king’s heart is ready to break as the falsetto melody leaps through the air. Sunlight dissolves a wall of green leaves and the music, both sad and happy, ethereal and stately, leads him on into a world beyond dreams. The praying hands of the beloved separate, and stretch out with rippling fingers to embrace him.

Copyright © 2012

6 thoughts on “SANS, SOUCI.

  1. Hi. We met on Monday night.What a dramatic story and so nicely written.Hope to see you and your friends next time.

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