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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Irrepressible King
By Voltaire (1694–1778)
 
From the ‘History of Charles XII., King of Sweden’

TO complete the misfortunes of Sweden, her King persisted in remaining at Demotica, and still lived on the hope of aid from Turkey which he was never to receive.  1
  Ibrahim-Molla, the haughty vizier who decreed the war against the Muscovites, against the wish of the sultan’s favorite, was suffocated between two doors. The place of vizier had become so dangerous that no one dared fill it; it remained vacant for six months: at last the favorite, Ali Coumourgi, took the title. Then all the hopes of the King of Sweden were dashed: he knew Coumourgi the better because that schemer had served him when their interests accorded with his own.  2
  He had been eleven months at Demotica, buried in idleness and neglect; this extreme inertia, following the most violent exertions, had at last given him the malady that he feigned. All Europe believed him dead; the council of regency at Stockholm heard no news of him. The senate came in a body to entreat his sister, Princess Ulrica Eleonora, to assume the regency during his prolonged absence. She accepted it; but when she saw that the senate would constrain her to make peace with the Czar Peter the Great, and with the King of Denmark, who were attacking Sweden on all sides, she, rightly thinking that her brother would never consent, resigned her office, and sent to Turkey a detailed account of the affair.  3
  The King received the packet from his sister at Demotica. His inborn spirit of despotism made him forget that formerly Sweden had been free, and that the senate had governed the realm conjointly with the kings. He regarded this body as a troop of servants who aspired to rule the house in their master’s absence; and wrote them that if they pretended to govern, he would send them one of his boots to convey his orders!  4
  To forestall therefore these supposed attempts to defy his authority in Sweden, and to defend his country,—as he hoped nothing further from the Ottoman Porte, and could count only on himself,—he informed the grand vizier that he wished to depart, and to return home by way of Germany.  5
  M. Désaleurs, the French ambassador, who had taken the affairs of Sweden in hand, made the request in his own person. “Very good,” said the vizier to Count Désaleurs: “did I not rightly say that before the year was out, the King of Sweden would ask leave to depart? Tell him to go or stay, as he chooses; but let him come to a decision, and fix the day of his departure, lest he plunge us a second time into the embarrassment he caused us at Bender.”  6
  Count Désaleurs softened this harsh message to the King. The day was set; but Charles wished, before leaving Turkey, to display the pomp of a great king, although he lived in the squalor of a fugitive. He gave to Grothusen the title of ambassador extraordinary, and sent him to take leave in due form at Constantinople, followed by eighty persons all superbly attired.  7
  The secret springs which he touched to obtain the money for this outlay were more humiliating than the embassy was magnificent. Count Désaleurs lent the King forty thousand pieces; Grothusen had agents in Constantinople, who borrowed of a Jew at fifty per cent. interest a thousand pieces, a hundred thousand pieces of an English merchant, a thousand francs of a Turk.  8
  Thus were brought together the means of playing before the divan the brilliant comedy of the Swedish embassy. Grothusen received all the honors that the Porte is wont to show ambassadors extraordinary on their day of audience. The purpose of all this performance was to obtain money from the grand vizier; but that minister was inexorable.  9
  Grothusen proposed to borrow a million from the Porte: the vizier answered dryly that his master knew how to give when he pleased, and that it was beneath his dignity to lend; that the King would be abundantly furnished with whatever was necessary for his journey, in a manner worthy of the giver; perhaps the Porte would even make him some present in uncoined gold, but he must not count upon it.  10
  At last, on the 1st of October, 1714, the King of Sweden started on his journey: a grand chamberlain with six Turkish officers came to escort him from the castle of Demirtash, where he had passed several days; he was presented in the name of the Sultan with a large tent of scarlet embroidered in gold, a sabre with precious stones set in the hilt, and eight perfect Arab steeds, with superb saddles and spurs of massive silver. Let history condescend to observe that the Arab groom in charge related their genealogy to the King: this is a long-established custom with these people, who seem to pay far more attention to the high breeding of horses than of men; and perhaps not altogether without reason, since animals that receive care and are without mixture never degenerate.  11
  Sixty chariots filled with all sorts of provisions, and three hundred horses, formed the procession. The Turks, to show greater regard for their guest, made him advance by brief stages; but this respectful rate of speed exasperated the King. He rose during the journey at three o’clock in the morning, according to his custom; as soon as he was dressed he himself awoke the chamberlain and the officers, and ordered the march resumed in complete darkness. Turkish conventionality was disturbed by this new way of traveling; but the King enjoyed the discomfort of the Turks, and said that he was avenging in a measure the affair of Bender.  12
  Arrived on the borders of Germany, the King of Sweden learned that the Emperor had ordered him to be received with suitable magnificence in all lands under his authority; the towns and villages where the sergeants had marked out his route in advance made preparations to receive him. All these people looked forward with impatience to seeing the extraordinary man whose victories and misfortunes, whose least actions and very repose, had made such a stir in Europe and in Asia. But Charles had no wish to wade through all this pomp, nor to furnish a spectacle as the prisoner of Bender; he had even determined never to re-enter Stockholm without bringing better fortunes. “I have left,” he remarked to his intimates, “my dressing-gown and slippers at Stockholm; I wish to buy no others till I return there.”  13
  When he reached Tergowitz on the Transylvanian frontier, after bidding farewell to his Turkish escort he assembled his suite in a barn; and told them all to take no trouble for his person, but to make their way to Stralsund in Pomerania, on the Baltic Sea, about three hundred leagues from the place where they were.  14
  He took with him only Düring, and gayly left all his suite plunged in astonishment, terror, and sadness. He used a black perruque for a disguise, as he always wore his own hair, put on a hat embroidered with gold, a rough gray coat and a blue cloak, took the name of a German officer, and made a rapid journey on horseback with his traveling companion.  15
  He avoided in his route as far as possible the soil of his enemies, open and secret, going by way of Hungary, Moravia, Austria, Bavaria, Würtemberg, the Palatinate, Westphalia, and Mecklenburg; thus making almost the circuit of Germany, and prolonging his journey by half. At the end of the first day, having galloped without respite, young Düring, who, unlike the King of Sweden, was not inured to such excessive fatigue, fainted in dismounting. The King, unwilling to waste a moment on the road, asked Düring, when he came to his senses, how much money he had. Düring replying that he had about a thousand pieces in gold, the King said, “Give me half: I see clearly that you are in no state to follow me, and that I must finish the journey alone.” Düring besought him to condescend to take at least three hours’ rest, assuring him that he himself could then mount again and follow his Majesty. The faithful fellow entreated him to think of the risk he must run; but the King, inexorable, made him hand over the five hundred pieces, and demanded his horses. Then the terrified Düring devised an innocent stratagem: he drew aside the master of the stables, and indicating the King of Sweden, “That man,” said he, “is my cousin; we are traveling together on the same business: he sees that I am ill, and will not wait for me three hours; give him, I pray you, the worst horse in your stable, and find me some chaise or post-carriage.”  16
  He put two ducats into the master’s hand, and all his requests were fulfilled to the letter. A lame and balky horse was given to the King. Thus mounted, he set off alone, at ten o’clock at night, in utter darkness, with wind, snow, and rain beating on him. Düring, having slept several hours, began the journey in a carriage drawn by vigorous horses. At the end of a few miles he overtook the King traveling on foot to the next post, his steed having refused to move further.  17
  He was forced to take a seat in Düring’s carriage, where he slept on the straw. Afterwards they continued their journey, racing their horses by day, and sleeping on a cart at night, without stopping anywhere.  18
  After sixteen days of rapid travel, not without danger of arrest more than once, they at last arrived at the gates of the town of Stralsund, an hour after midnight.  19
  The King called to the sentinel that he was a courier dispatched from Turkey by the King of Sweden; and that he must speak at once with General Düker, the governor of the place. The sentinel replied that it was late; the governor had retired, and he must wait till daybreak.  20
  The King rejoined that he came on important business, and declared that if they did not wake Düker without delay, they would all be punished next morning. The sergeant finally woke the governor. Düker thought that one of the King’s generals might have arrived: the gates were thrown open, the courier was brought to his room.  21
  Düker, half asleep, asked him for news of the King. Charles, taking him by the arm, replied, “Well, well, Düker, have my most faithful subjects forgotten me?” The general recognized him: he could not believe his eyes; he threw himself from the bed, embracing the knees of his master, and shedding tears of joy. Instantly the news spread through the town: everybody got up; the governor’s house was surrounded with soldiers, the streets filled with residents asking each other, “Is the King really here?” Windows were illuminated; wine ran in the streets by the light of a thousand torches; there was an incessant noise of artillery.  22
  Meanwhile the King was conducted to his room. For sixteen days he had not slept in a bed; his legs were so badly swollen from extreme fatigue that his boots had to be cut off. He had neither underwear nor overgarments; a wardrobe was improvised from the most suitable materials the town afforded. After a few hours’ sleep he rose, only to review his troops, and visit the fortifications. The same day he sent orders everywhere to renew more hotly than ever the war against all his enemies.  23
 
 
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