Friday, February 27, 2009

A New Friend

from "Frederick the Great" by Nancy Mitford Another new friend, who joined him at the beginning of 1758, was a Swiss, Henri de Catt. They had met two years before in Holland, where, anxious to see the picture galleries of various rich Dutchmen, Frederick had gone, in a round black wig, disguised as 'the King of Poland's finest musician'. This character does not seem to have inspired much confidence in the collectors, and doors remained shut, but on his way to Utrecht in a ship he picked up Catt and they had an interesting philosophical discussion. The next day Catt learnt that this musician who was so well-informed, lively, pugnacious, and sure of himself was the King of Prussia. Presently he got a letter from Potsdam saying that if he would like to renew acquaintance with the traveler who had made him so angry he would be very welcome. But Catt could not go; he was ill. 'One was kind enough to sympathize.' Now, having fallen out with his reader, Frederick remembered the young Swiss and engaged him. When he arrived the King said, 'Would you have recognized me?' 'Yes.' 'But how? I am so thin.' 'By your eyes.' He said he only asked for honesty and discretion—Eichel would see about Catt's salary. Catt was soon put in the picture. D'Argens: Our philosopher likes you very much—he makes up his mind about people once and for all. Don't get flustered or get involved with jokes and teasing, or seem too much interested when he talks about his family. Above all, don't criticize his writings. Never be familiar. Mitchell: The King likes you very much and I think you will like the post. You should talk chiefly about literature, philosophy, metaphysics, and French poets, but let him do most of the talking. Only criticize his verse if he asks you to. (Mitchell told Lord Holderness that, of all the authors he had met, the Philosopher of Sans Souci bore criticism the best.) Frederick gave his own advice: People will be after you the whole time to try and find out what I am saying. The A.D.C.s are all right but one is jealous, another bloody-minded, and the third discontented and gloomy. If they make trouble you must tell me. Don't lend them money or gamble with them or go to their wild parties if you can help it. Mitchell is perfect. He asked what impression he had made at their first meeting. Catt said he had thought he must be a French nobleman. Almost at once he was faced with a tricky situation. Frederick had been making unkind fun of Quintus Icilius and asked Catt what he thought of the absurd Major. Catt said he seemed learned. 'Yes, but he has no usage du monde.' 'But Your Majesty, who loves letters, ought to be indulgent to behavior which is not exactly that of high society.' Frederick went off at a tangent but no doubt felt the rebuke, as he always would when Catt scolded him. 'The greatest genius,' he said, 'is useless without virtue and good character—it is but sounding brass and tinkling cymbals (you see, I know the Scriptures). The world has never seen a greater genius than Voltaire, but I have a sovereign contempt for him because he is not honest." Then he showed Catt how to dance a minuet, saying he wished Daun and Prince Charles could see them now. Catt, who was a prig and had no sense of humor, felt sorry that the King should make such a fool of himself. But he came to love Frederick very much and his account of the next few years spent in his company throws a good deal of light on the nature of the King. When Catt became engaged to a girl in Berlin, Frederick told d'Argens that it seemed madness. D'Argens said he couldn't live without his wife. Then the King wrote love poems for Catt to give to his fiancée, as though they were his own.

No comments:

Post a Comment