"Ah!" murmured the king, as he folded and addressed his poetical letter, "how lovely it must now be at Sans-Souci! Well, well! my grave shall be there, and D'Argens will cover it with flowers. And have I no other friends at Sans-Souci? My good old hounds, my crippled soldiers! They cannot come to me, but I will go to them."
The king then arose, opened the door, and asked if a messenger was in readiness; receiving an answer in the affirmative, he gave the three letters to the adjutant. "And now my work is finished," said he, "now I can die." He took from his breast-pocket a small casket of gold which he always carried with him, and which, in the late battle, had served him as a shield against the enemy's balls. The lid had been hollowed in by a ball; strange to say, this casket, which had saved his life, was now to cause his death. For within it there was a small vial containing three pills of the most deadly poison, which the king had kept with him since the beginning of the war. The king looked at the casket thoughtfully. "Death here fought against death; and still how glorious it would have been to die upon the battle-field believing myself the victor!" He held the vial up to the light and shook it; and as the pills bounded up and down, he said, smiling sadly, "Death is merry! It comes eagerly to invite me to the dance. Well, well, my gay cavalier, I am ready for the dance."
He opened the vial and emptied the pills into his hand. Then arose and approached the window to see once more the sky with its glittering stars and its brightly-beaming moon, and the battle-field upon which thousands of his subjects had this day found their death. Then raised the hand with the pills. What was it that caused him to hesitate? Why did his hand fall slowly down? What were his eyes so intently gazing on?
The king was not gazing at the sky, the stars, or the moon; but far off into the distance, at the Austrian camp-fires. There were the conquerors, there was Soltikow and Loudon with their armies. The king had observed these fires before entering the hut, but their number had now increased, a sign that the enemy had not advanced, but was resting. How? Was it possible that the enemy, not taking advantage of their victory, was not following the conquered troops, but giving them time to rally, to outmarch them, perhaps time to reach the Spree, perhaps Berlin?
"If this is so," said the king, answering his own thoughts, "if the enemy neglects to give me the finishing-blow, all is not lost. If there is a chance of salvation for my country, I must not die; she needs me, and it is, my duty to do all in my power to retrieve the past."
He looked again at the camp-fires, and a bright smile played about his lips.
"If those fires speak aright," said he, "my enemies are more generous--or more stupid--than I thought, and many advantages may still be derived from this lost battle. If so, I must return to my old motto that 'life is a duty.' And so long as good, honorable work is to be done, man has no right to seek the lazy rest of the grave. I must ascertain at once if my suspicions are correct. Death may wait awhile. As long as there is a necessity for living, I cannot die."
He returned the pills to the vial and hid the casket in its former resting-place. Then passing hastily through the room, he opened the door. The two adjutants were sitting upon the wooden bench in front of the hut; both were asleep. The grenadiers were pacing with even tread up and down before the house; deep quiet prevailed. The king stood at the door looking in amazement at the glorious scene before him. He inhaled with delight the soft summer air; never had it seemed to him so balmy, so full of strengthening power, and he acknowledged that never had the stars, the moon, the sky looked as beautiful. With lively joy he felt the night-wind toying with his hair. The king would not tire of all this; it seemed to him as if a friend, dead long since, mourned and bewailed, had suddenly appeared to him beaming with health, and as if he must open his arms and say, "Welcome, thou returned one. Fate separated us; but now, as we have met, we will never leave one another, but cling together through life and death, through good and evil report."