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The Seven Good Years by August Strindberg

 

Monsieur Voltaire, gentleman-in-waiting to Frederick the Great, possessor of the much prized Order Pour Le Merite, Academician, and many other things besides, had been for three years a guest at Sans-Souci, near Potsdam. He was sitting this beautiful evening in the wing of the castle where he lived, busy writing a letter. The air was still and warm, so that the sensitive Frenchman, who was always shivering, could leave the window open.

His letter, only half written, was directed to the Marquise, the friend of Cardinal Fleury, who carried on a sort of superior spy-service by means of correspondence with foreign countries.... “Everything is transitory,” he wrote, “and it was plain that this would not last. I have to act as a tutor and correct his bad verses, though he knows neither German nor French properly. Malicious as an ape he has written satires on all the ruling heads of Europe which are certainly not fit for printing, but are quite vulgar and unjust. With a view to the future dear friend, I have caused his pamphlet to be copied, and at the moment when he strikes, I shall strike back. If you only knew what this Prussia is, and threatens to become! It is an eagle sketched in outline with the tip of one wing resting on the Rhine, and the other on the Russian frontier. There are gaps here and there in the outline, but when they are filled up the whole of North Germany will hang like a vulture over Austria's two-headed imperial eagle. France must control her hatred against the House of Hapsburg, and not compromise with the Hohenzollerns, for you know not what you do. One hears much talk of plans here, but I dare not write them all down, for he is not to be jested with.”

At this point there was heard from the castle the penetrating sound of a flute, which executed trills and shakes. The old man (for he was now in his sixtieth year) first put his fingers in his ears, but then continued to write.... “And then his confounded flute! He is playing on it just now ... that means we are all to dance to his piping. But still worse than the flute is something which they call a fugue; I do not know whether one can call it music, but yesterday Sebastian Bach was here—'the great Bach' of course—and had his son Philipp Emanuel with him. The whole afternoon they played so-called fugues, so that I had to go to bed and take medicine. As regards his plans, I will only indicate some of them. One plan is to divide Austria between France and Prussia, but he is too cunning to do so, for he needs Austria to help him against France. A second plan is, to divide Prussia between Russia and Austria, and I have heard rumours of a third to divide Poland between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. (The flute is silent, and a heavenly stillness spreads over Sans-Souci, which for the future I shall write 'Cent-Soucis,' for a hundred petty vexations threaten to shorten my life here.) Our Round Table, which hitherto only consisted of men of talent, Maupertuis, La Mettrie, Algarotti, D'Argens, and their like, is now recruited by guardsmen from Potsdam, and is in course of degenerating into a tobacco-club. Ziethen and his Dessauers wear greasy leather boots, and brag of their 'five victories.' The day before yesterday they took liberties, silenced all intelligent conversation, and finally tried to make me the butt of their jests. What annoyed me the most was that he could not hide his pleasure at it. Altogether, the procession of the leather boots means war—as might be expected —against the lady Maria Teresa. The other lady, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, he denotes by another uglier name.... He has become a women's hero, the nasty woman-hater. His wife, Elizabeth Christine, is still confined in Schonhausen.”

A head looked in at the window, and the King greeted him, “Good evening, Monsieur; so busy?”

Like a boy surprised in cribbing, the writer threw his papers into disorder, and drew half a sheet of Dutch vellum over them.

“Yes, sire, I have just finished a poem to the Emperor Kian-Loung, which is an answer to his 'Eloge de Mukden.'“

“To the Emperor of China! You have grander acquaintances than I.”

“But you have me, sire.”

This he said with a superior air of satirising himself, as though he would make game of his own notorious vanity.

The King took the jest as it was intended. “Yes, Monsieur Voltaire belongs to my most honourable acquaintances, but I would not say to the grandest.”

“May I now read my poem to the Chinese Emperor? Do you allow me, sire?”

“Would it be any use, if I did not allow it, you pushing man?”

“Very well:

     “'Recois mes compliments, charmant roi de la Chine.'“

“But he is an Emperor.”

“Yes, but that is a politeness towards you, sire, who are only a King!”

“Only!”

“I continue:

     “'Ton trone est done place sur la double colline
     On sait dans l'Occident, que malgre mes travers
     J'ai toujours fort aime les rois qui font des vers!'“

“Thank you.”

     “'O toi que sur le trone un feu celeste enflamme
     Des moi si ce grand art don't nous sommes epris,
     Est aussi difficile a Pekin qu'a Paris.

     Ton peuple est-il soumis a cette loi si dure,
     Qui vent qu'avec six pieds d'une egale mesure

     De deux Alexandrins, cote a cote marchants
     L'un serve pour la rime, et l'autre pour le sens?
     Si bien que sans rien perdre, en bravant cet usage,
     On pourrait retrancher la moitie d'un ouvrage.'“

“Bravo! Very good!” broke in the King, who felt the sting of the satire but could control himself.

“But do you think that the Emperor will understand that—at any rate as you intend it?”

“If he does not understand it, then he is a blockhead....”

“But if he does, you may expect a declaration of war.”

“China against Voltaire!”

“What would you do then?”

“I would beat them, as you do, with my troops, of course.”

“But if the Emperor has more troops than you?”

“Then I should flee, of course, like you do, sire, or I let myself be put to flight, and so save my honour as a soldier.”

The King was accustomed to Voltaire's impertinences, and he pardoned them for the moment, but stored them in his memory.

“But now, don't stick poking about in your room, Monsieur. Come out for a walk with me. We will philosophise in the cool of the evening. I have so much to say, and must put my thoughts in order for the great work.”

“Sire, I will come immediately.”

“No, now; I am waiting.”

Monsieur Voltaire became nervous, and began to tidy his desk; he pulled out drawers, and protracted the business. But the King stood as if on guard, and watched him. At last the old man had to stop tidying up and come out, but his limbs twitched, and he shook himself, as though he wished to shake off something. The King led him down the third terrace, and turned to the right into the park, where they found a long avenue which led to a small circular open space. Here there stood the Temple of Friendship.

There was an embarrassing silence between them, but Frederick, who had learnt self-control, was the first to find the thread which they had lost. But he had to introduce the conversation by commencing with their present surroundings.

“What a peaceful evening, Monsieur! Peace in nature and in human life! Have you noticed that there has been no war in the world for seven years—that is, since the Peace of Aachen?”

“Now I have not thought about it. Well, you can now expect the seven lean kine—I mean years.”

“Who knows! You spoke just now of Kian Loung, the peaceful prince who philosophises and writes verses on tea-plant blossoms; who serves his people and makes them happy. His neighbour Japan has enjoyed peace for a hundred years. In India the French and English are rivalling each other in trade. That is the great East, which we shall soon have to take into account—. If we consider our portion of the world, with which I reckon Egypt, the latter lies asleep under Pashas and Mamelukes. Greece, our motherland, has entered its last sleep. The Athens of Pericles is an appendage of the Sultan's harem, and is ruled by black eunuchs. Rome, or rather Italy, is parcelled out between Lorraine, the House of Bourbon, and Savoy. But in Rome is my friend Benedict XIV; he is also a man of peace, and the first Pope, moreover, who acknowledges the King of Prussia. He tolerates Protestants, helps forward science, and has allowed latitude and longitude to be measured....”

“And expelled the Jesuits, whom you, sire, have received. You ought not to have done that.”

“What do you know of the Jesuits? In Spain we have Ferdinand VI, who encourages mining, combats the Inquisition, fosters the sciences.”

“The itch for writing seems to be spreading over the earth like a pestilence.”

“In England my uncle George, the pupil of Adam Smith, is working solely for the commercial prosperity of his country. The others we know. But we ought to remember the great discoveries of our century —fire-machines, thermometers, lightning-conductors, anchor-watches. In fact it is the Golden Age which has returned at this late epoch.”

“Think only of the fire-machines which they now call steam-engines. And of the telegraphs! What may we not next expect!”

“War, of course.”

“I have never loved war, as you know, but I have been driven to it.”

“With the stick.”

The King was not angry, but he was troubled that a remarkable man, who had been his friend and teacher, should commit such a betise.

“You are right; it was my father's stick, and I bless it. But although I do not believe that the Golden Age is before the door, yet I do see a brighter future in the distance.”

“I see only clouds which foretell earthquakes. France is undermined; America is moving; all Europe is prepared to discard Christianity as a crab its shell; Economics are reduced to a science; nature is ransacked; we are on the verge of something novel and tremendous; I feel it already in my corns.”

“I also! My leisure-time is drawing to an end, my Tusculum will be closed, and dreadful things are about to happen.”

On the King's face at this moment there was such an indescribable expression of pain, as though he had foreseen the Seven Years' War which followed immediately on the seven years' of peace, and he seemed to be bowed to the earth bearing the destiny of his country and the future on his shoulders.

“Sire, at such moment, you need some religion.”

“My duty is my religion. My God is the Providence which guides the destinies of the nations but leaves individuals to themselves! What are men that you should take notice of these ants?”

The conversation was interrupted by a person who appeared in the background and resembled a judicial official. Voltaire saw who it was, and became furious: “Your Majesty, how can you allow this rag-tag and bob-tail to enter the castle-park? Why do you not enclose it with iron gates and railings?”

“No,” answered the King; “I am not the master of my own person, still less of this castle, but all have rights over me!”

“But this is atrocious! Can I not drive him away?”

“No, you cannot!”

The King beckoned, and the stranger approached with his hat in his hand.

“What do you want, my friend?” asked the King.

“Only to deliver a document to Monsieur Voltaire, your Majesty.”

“Then do your duty.”

The man handed the document to Voltaire, and retired. When the old man had opened and read it, he fell on his knees before the King and exclaimed, “Save me, sire!”

“That is your law-suit with Hirschel about the Saxon state papers. You thought to deceive each other and the public, but the Jew did not let you lead him by the nose, Monsieur, and now you are exposed as a falsifier!”

“Save me, your Majesty!”

“How can I?”

“With a word—a single good word before the court....”

“For shame, old man! Do you think I can bend the law? Do you want me to bribe the judges? No, Monsieur, there are judges in Berlin who cannot be bribed! My word counts as little as that of the meanest. Stand up, go to your room, and meet me at supper.”

“Sire, I beg to be excused coming to supper this evening.”

“Good! then we will meet to-morrow.”

       * * * * *

When Voltaire reached his room, he began to search through his papers which he had left in disorder. He looked for a whole hour for the letter he had written to the Marquise, without being able to find it. Then he perceived that the letter had been seized, and he conceived a suspicion against the King. He stormed about in the room till it had become dark outside. He felt that it was all over with friendship and hospitality, with high position and honour, and that he must depart—perhaps by flight.

Accordingly he closed the window-shutters, and made a fire in the stove in order to burn dangerous papers. When he had finished, he went to bed, and rang for a servant: “Ask Monsieur La Mettrie to come; I am ill,” he ordered.

La Mettrie, the author of L'Homme Machine, a most rigorous materialist and atheist, enjoyed Frederick's favour on account of his writings. After his death the King himself delivered a funeral oration over him in the Academy. Voltaire was jealous of him, as he was of everyone who stood in his way, but La Mettrie was a physician, and Voltaire could be amiable to anyone of whom he stood in need.

The doctor came, not out of philanthropy, but from curiosity and a certain malicious satisfaction at seeing the favourite in disgrace.

“My dear friend,” said the old man, “I am sick in body and soul.”

“You haven't got a soul.”

“But the trouble is in the heart.”

Cor, cordis, the heart; then you have eaten too much. Take a purge, Monsieur; then you will be lighter than lightmindedness itself.”

“Prescribe me some proper medicine, man; I am dying.”

“Then go to a watering-place.”

“Like a minister who is in disgrace; no, thank you.”

“Go home to your own country; you are suffering from homesickness.”

“Yes, there you are right! The air here does not suit me.”

“You are beginning to get stout.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“And the Marquises are longing for you.”

“Are they? What nonsense you talk! But I must have a watering-place.”

“Well, take Plombieres! There you will meet the court.”

“That is an excellent idea! Plombieres! But I will return, of course.”

“Of course!”

“I will be back in three weeks—let us say a month. If only the King will not be vexed....”

“Let me assure you, the King will console himself.”

“Yes, yes, I will consider the matter. But say—he is not angry with me?”

“Who?”

“The King!”

“He is not angry with you, otherwise he would have been so long ago! No, you are belated in thinking that.”

“Give me a sleeping powder, and then you can go.”

The doctor took the powder, and poured it in a glass of water.

The old man drank, but his large eyes followed the changing expressions of the doctor's face, who looked very amused. He did not altogether trust him.

“Monsieur Voltaire,” said the doctor, “when you make a fire in the oven, draw up the small oven-shutters, else there is too much smoke. The Potsdam fire-engines would very likely be summoned.”

“Oh! That too! Well! La comedia e finita! Good-night!”

Sic transit gloria mundi! Sleep well!”

Voltaire slept during the night, but not well, and was awakened on the following morning by the sound of salutes fired at Potsdam; from which he concluded that the King was holding manoeuvres. Neither did he see any sign of the King, but about noonday he received a letter bearing the royal arms which ran as follows:—

  “MONSIEUR,—Doctor La Mettrie has told me of your determination to
  travel to a watering-place. Although I shall miss your pleasant
  and instructive conversation, I will not resist your wish, since I
  am sure that a thorough course of treatment will benefit your
  nerves and the wretched state of your heart. Wishing you a good
  recovery, or at any rate hoping that you will not be worse than
  you are,

  “I am

  “F. R.”

That was his passport for the journey. The same evening Voltaire travelled to Leipzig, where he read extracts from Frederick's collection of satires which he also thought of having printed. But in Frankfurt he was arrested and deprived of the precious manuscripts, which might have made more enemies for Frederick than he actually did make later on. Rebuked, and again liberated, Voltaire fled at first to France, where he published in the Dictionnaire Historique the most abominable assertions regarding Frederick's private life.

Two years later he was settled at Ferney, on the Lake of Geneva, as a multi-millionaire, patriarch, and king.

       * * * * *

Many years passed, and still the old Voltaire reigned at his Sans-Souci called Ferney—just as energetic as ever, just as restless and vain.

His little chateau was a modest two-storied building in a circular enclosure, surrounded by a courtyard planted with trees. On the left of the entrance stood a small stone chapel. A tablet over the door bore the inscription, “Deo erexit Voltaire,” which roused the mirth of his literary friends and the hatred of the ecclesiastical party.

Below in the garden he had an arbour-walk of hornbeam covered in, and resembling a long hall with windows cut in the side, looking towards the lake. From thence he could see Mont Blanc, which especially at sunset showed all its splendour, and the blue levels of the lake stretching towards Clarens and the Rhone Valley, where the unfortunate Rousseau had wandered, loved, and suffered. Just now in the twilight, the old man sat in his arbour walk and played bezique with the local pastor, when the post arrived. There were many letters with shining seals.

“Excuse me, Abbe, I must read my letters!”

“Pray do so,” answered the priest, and stood up in order to promenade up and down the arbour walk.

After a while the old man called his friend back: “Come, Abbe, come! You must hear something!”

The Abbe, who, for the sake of his flock, kept on good terms with Voltaire, and humoured his whims, without, however, yielding to him in theological discussions, came at the summons.

“You must hear a letter from Frederick the Great, the Unique, the Incomparable. He has pardoned me, and I am ashamed. My last evening in Sans-Souci I was irritated, and in my cruelty I was mean enough to remind him of his father's stick. The moment that the word escaped, I felt his retort in the air, but he restrained it. He had only needed to return the thrust with a reference to the stick which had played a certain part in my youth, but he kept silent, whether out of regard for my years or for some other reason. (It is remarkable that the stick has also had an influence on the development of the great Shakespeare and others.) Excuse, Abbe, this garrulitas senilis—he has pardoned me, and writes, 'My old friend!'

“'The years have passed; to the seven good years which you shared with me succeeded the seven lean ones—the Seven Years' War and all that it brought with it. Friends have departed, and a great loneliness enfolds the ageing man, who now, among other things, begins to be far-sighted, after being formerly short-sighted. He sees life in a perspective where the apparently shorter lines are the longest. He knows that from experience, and therefore lets himself no longer be deceived. Standing on the height which he has gained, he is glad to look back, but he can also now see in front of him.

“'What is now impending? Who can say? This century, which has seen all the sovereigns leading revolutionary movements, is the strangest of all. We despots, who forced enlightenment and freedom on the peoples—we were the demagogues and they rewarded us with ingratitude. It was a perverse world! I have suffered for my doctrines and actions, but the fate of Joseph II is tragic. They are slowly but surely murdering him.

“'You do not love war: nor do I, but I was forced to it by Providence and solicitude for my country. What have I effected thereby? you ask. I have made a “re-distribution,” as land-surveyors call it, and out of scattered patches and scraps of territory I have woven together a Prussia, so that we can now walk on our own ground, without treading on our neighbour's. Do not fear Prussia; you need it as a bulwark against Russia, which now, since the time of the Czar Peter, has a voice and vote in the Council of Europe. You disapprove of my sharing in the partition of Poland, but I was obliged to do so; otherwise Russia would have taken all. Poland had lost its significance in the geographical economy of Europe; it was Russianised, and the role it had played was taken over by the Sarmatian.... Silesia was ours, and thank God that the Swedes did not obtain it, as they at first wished. Moreover, we have sent the Goths home to their own country, and look after our own affairs ourselves.'“

“And so on! Then he says something about Rousseau.”

“'You call Rousseau a swindler; that is a somewhat severe expression. Even if he did really steal a piece of ribbon, or a silver spoon, it is not worth talking about. I share his love for nature and his hatred of mankind. One evening lately, as the sun went down, I thought: “God! how beautiful are Thy natural creations, and how hideous are Thy human creatures!” We men, I mean—for I except neither myself nor you, Monsieur. This cursed race truly belongs to the Iron Age as described by Hesiod. And we are asked to believe that they are created after God's image! After the image of the Devil, I would rather say! Rousseau is right when he believes in a past Golden Age.'

“What do you say to that, Monsieur l'Abbe?”

“It is what the Church teaches regarding the lost Paradise and the Fall, and also agrees with the Greek legend of Prometheus, who ate of the tree of knowledge, and thereby brought misfortune on men.”

“Good heavens! Have you too become a freethinker? Shoemaker, stick to your last! If you are a priest, then be a priest, but don't try to make a botch of my work. And don't think you need to flatter me for an increase of wages. But let us return to Frederick:”

“'History rolls on like an avalanche; the race improves, the conditions of life become easier, but men are still the same —faithless, unthankful, criminal; and he just as well as the unjust go to hell. I do not dare to put down on paper the conclusions to be drawn from this observation, for that would be to acquit Lazarus, and to crucify Christ.... Great men have little weaknesses or rather great weaknesses. We, Monsieur, have been no angels, but Providence has used us for great objects. Is it a matter of indifference to Providence whom it takes in hand, or how we live in the flesh, provided we keep the spirit uppermost? Sursum corda!'“

“What do you say to that, Abbe?”

“The Law cannot be fulfilled, says St. Paul, but the Law rouses the sense of guilt, and therefore it is only imposed in order to drive us to grace.”

“That was not such a stupid remark of Paul's. But I should like to add,—in the prison of the flesh grows the longing for liberation: 'Who shall deliver me, wretched man, from this body of sin?' Yes, Abbe, Vanitas vanitatum! Vanitas! You are young, but you must not despise the old man when he turns round and spits behind him all the unpleasantness of his past life. Might but a generation be born which knew at once the value of life, as long as a mud-bath is not part of the treatment!”

Just then a dark lean man came tortuously along the garden path.

“See! there is my Jesuit!” said Voltaire.

The old man kept on friendly terms with a Jesuit, partly because the Pope had expelled them, partly because Frederick the Great had patronised them; but his chief object was to have someone to dispute with. Perhaps also he wished to show his freedom from prejudice, for he did not like the uncongenial man.

“Now, you child of Satan!” was the old man's greeting, “what mischief have you got in your mind? You look so maliciously pleased!”

“I come from Geneva,” answered the Jesuit with an evil smile.

“What are they doing there?”

“I saw the executioner burn Rousseau's Emile.”

“They may do that, as far as I am concerned, and throw the fool himself into the fire.”

“Monsieur Voltaire!”

“Yes: one cannot tolerate lunatics: there are limits!”

“Where?”

“Imposed by a sound intelligence.”

“Yes, and saw them burn the new edition of Monsieur Voltaire's Candide.”

“For shame! But it is merely a mob in Geneva.”

“A Protestant mob, with your permission.”

“Don't trouble yourself; I hate Protestants equally with Catholics! This terrible Calvin burnt his friend Servetus in Geneva, because he did not believe in the Trinity. And had Jean Calas in Toulouse been a Catholic, and his son a Protestant, I would still have attacked the judges, although I am nothing. I am nothing; only, what I write is something.”

“Then some day we will raise a monument to Monsieur Voltaire's writings—not to Voltaire.”

“You have no need; I have already raised my monument myself in the hundred volumes of my collected works. The world has nothing to do with how the old ass looked; there is nothing to see in that. We know my weaknesses; I have lied, I have stolen, I have been ungrateful; something of a scoundrel, something of a brute! That is the dirty part of me, and I bequeath it to Jesuits, pettifoggers, hair-splitters and collectors of anecdotes;—but my spirit to God who gave it, and to men an honest purpose to understand their Monsieur Voltaire.”

He rose, for the sun had descended.

“Good-night, Mont Blanc; you have a white head like myself, and stand with your feet in cold water, as I do! Now I go and lie down! Tomorrow I travel to Paris, where I will die.”

 
 
 

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