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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Death of William I. of Germany
By Melchior de Vogüé (1848–1910)
 
Translation of Grace Elizabeth King

WILLIAM I lies beneath the dome in the centre of the cold bare edifice in which the Lutherans of Prussia pray. In the empty temple there is only death and God—unless those four statues with fixed gaze, as rigid beneath their armor, as immovable as he over whom they watch, be men. Let us suppose—the impossible—a stranger ignorant of the whole history of our times; he visits this monument, raises the military cloak, and asks who is this officer who sleeps here in the uniform of the First Regiment of the Grenadier Guards. Let us suppose—again the impossible—that one of these fixities should open his mouth in reply, and simply repeat what his schoolmaster had taught him of the Emperor’s life. The ignorant visitor would smile at these fantastic words: he would think the sergeant was reciting some marvelous fable of old Germany. For the real of to-day will become the marvelous of to-morrow; future ages will be found admiring but incredulous, as we now are for that which was the real in the olden times: for we do not know how to look at the dream moment in which fate makes us live; habit and the use of each day blind our moral sight.  1
  That which the soldier would have said to the stranger has been repeated to satiety for a week past. The history of William I. has been given in summary in all the papers, given in detail in books which are in everybody’s hands. There is nothing for us to add; and if there were, should we have the power to do it? To dwell upon certain pages, the most necessary, the hand would tremble and the eye no longer see with clearness. A few words will suffice to recall the events of that long life, before we essay to judge it. Born in the decline of the other century,—days already so far distant from us that they are already the days of our ancestors,—a little cadet in a little State, this child of feeble health grew up on the steps of a crumbling throne. His eyes opened to see increasing upon the country and upon the world the oppressive shadow of Napoleon; they learned to weep over his country cut into pieces, over the agony of a mother a fugitive and mendicant in her own domains; his cradle is tossed about among the baggage of defeated armies: upon leaving this cradle he is dressed in the clothes of a soldier, to replace those whom the incessant war around him has mowed down; hussar, Uhlan, cornet, his little uniforms change as do the swaddling-clothes of other children; as soon as he can hold a weapon, at fifteen years of age, he is thrown into the conflict: and this is at the hour of fortune’s turn against us; the reflux of Europe throws him upon France with the pack of kings and princes called together for the quarry: he fights—this living one of a week ago—amid those phantoms vanished into the depths of history; at the side of Blücher, Schwartzenberg, Barclay; against Oudinot and Victor: he enters Paris, and he probably dreams one of those foolish dreams of first youth, as did every officer of Napoleon’s time; he sees himself—the Prussian captain, suddenly promoted generalissimo—taking as his share the glorious city, deciding upon the fate of the captive Emperor: and no doubt he laughs over his dream on waking; for the world is tired of war,—universal peace condemns the soldier to repose. William re-enters obscurity for a long time; his life disappears like those long rivers whose course we ignore between their source and their mouth, where they change name: he reappears a half-century later; at the moment where all generally ends with old men, he takes up the crown from the altar of Königsberg, and finding it too narrow for his head, he reforges it by sword-strokes over the fire of battles for seven prodigious years; he extends his kingdom as quickly and as far as the tenfold increased reach of his shells; he makes of his puny hereditary guard-house the vastest barracks that exist on the globe. After trying his strength on a defenseless neighbor, he fells with one hand the Holy Roman Empire, with the other the French power. He no longer counts his victories,—armies taken in nets, kings swept away before him: a second Napoleon, prisoner at the door of his tent, recalls to him the fall of the first which happened under his eye; and the old dream of the young captain is surpassed, when, encamped before a Paris surrounded by his troops and bombarded by his cannon, in the palace of Louis XIV., where his camp bed is placed, the princes of Germany bring the imperial crown to the new Cæsar. It would seem that this septuagenarian needs only to end in this apotheosis. But long days of glory and happiness are still reserved for him; while below him all other thrones change occupants, he remains incontestably the chief and patriarch of all kings, dictating to them his wishes, calling them by a nod to his court. His gorged eagle soars tranquilly above all reach; God protects him, he is invulnerable; twice assassins strike and twice he is healed, at an age when a mere nothing kills. People grow accustomed to think him immortal, like his predecessor Barbarossa. Death grows impatient and prowls timidly about his chamber, but dares not strike; each morning is seen again the familiar head straight and smiling at the historic window, where he is interrogated to know whether nations will be permitted to live that day in peace. He is said to be ill: the following morning he holds a review; convokes a congress; goes to his frontiers to preside at an interview of sovereigns: he is said to be dead, and the world, told of his end, refuses to believe it. It is hardly longer ago than yesterday that the people were convinced that the Emperor of Germany, vanquished at last, slowly overcome by the eternal sleep, had finally submitted to the common law and consented to die….  2
  At this hour the judgments of men are indifferent to him. Their praise is worth just so much as those brilliant orders pinned to the tunic of death; just so much as the wax, the flowers, that die on his coffin. The Emperor is before his God. He meets accusing witnesses, many and redoubtable. It would be presumption to seek to divine the sentence of the Sole Judge, who alone has the right to pronounce it. Let us hope for him who sued for grace yesterday, as well as for all of us, that man is judged by the God in whom he believed—which does not mean that there are many. There is but one: but being infinite intelligence, he manifests himself under different aspects as diverse as our needs; he measures himself to the extent of our vision; being infinite justice and mercy, he holds a soul to account only for the manifestation made….  3
  The Emperor has gone forth through the Brandenburg gate; kings and princes have abandoned him, the people have dispersed, his escort has broken ranks. The Emperor continues alone through the Alley of Victory. He passes along the foot of a tower. We know of what it is made,—this fateful tower of bronze; the cannon still show their mute mouths jutting forth over the periphery in symmetric crowns; their souls are prisoners in the melted mass. They have waited long, these servitors of death, for William; they knew that death loved to change his trophies: they watch him as he passes. The horses hurry their steps toward Charlottenburg. Do they fear that in the solitary alleys of the forest, in the mournful fog of the winter’s day, another cortége will form to replace the princely escort which no longer follows the car? A cortège of phantoms waits its chance in the shadow of the heavy pyramid from which it has come forth. Innumerable spectres: young men mutilated, mothers in mourning, every form of suffering and misery; and princes too, but despoiled, without diadems, led by an old blind king, who has gathered them up on all the roads of exile to come, the last to testify—the last of all, on the edge of the imperial tomb—to the other side of this glorious history. But why should we call up imaginary phantoms? There was one only too real that awaited the Emperor on the threshold of the mausoleum of Charlottenburg: destiny never devised a meeting more tragic. For one instant he appeared behind the window-panes of the palace: for the first and last time he saluted from afar the mortal body of his father; his eyes followed it as it went to the bed of rest of the Hohenzollerns. Then all vanished,—the fugitive apparition which had reaped empire as it passed, and the dead who slipped from the hands of his guards into the deep vault. One last salvo from all the cannon around, dogs barking after their masters, and the noise of his little day is finished.  4
 
 
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