Title: The art of falling off a horse
Characters: Prussia & Friedrich II
Rating: R for violent images
In this exchange
Despite his gut reaction of almost animal possessiveness towards the Crown Prince, Prussia couldn’t help but like Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte — he was the model soldier, loyal, brave, true to king and country. What happened in August of 1730 went against all of his personal values. His love for the Prince was simply greater than all that. The Prince made mistakes out of desperation, and Katte — Katte followed him out of love.
Prussia decided he wanted to hate Lieutenant von Katte when someone remarked in passing, “They carry on together like a lover with his mistress.” This thought was uttered quite independently of his own thoughts and sneaking suspicious, but spoke to them so directly that it made him paranoid about his own transparency.
Lieutenant von Katte, Friedrich’s very close friend. Prussia watched, and squirmed, as Friedrich leaned into Katte while they discussed music, or as Friedrich’s leg pressed against the other young man’s leg while they read verses together. Most terribly did Prussia writhe when the door would close in his face (Friedrich had become smart enough not to stand before keyholes anymore), and he would be left alone to his imagination.
It wasn’t that Prussia was selfish. He just wanted everything that he felt was entitled to him.
For all the jealousy he tried and failed to deny to himself, Prussia had all but forgotten about the sad and funny, pathetic and terrifying behavior of his current king. The great big man, bloated with illness, tortured by terrible pains that came and went with little warning, was going mad with it. And in his madness he demanded love, demanded it in a way that ensured no one around him dared give it.
“Love me!” he had screamed at a helpless passer by (Prussia had happened upon this scene from the other side of a bush). The man, quite taken aback by this unusual outburst, had been at a loss. To Prussia’s great surprise and amusement and horror, King Friedrich Wilhelm had leapt onto the man and caned him angrily. Just as he caned his firstborn son and his other children and various court members, often quite without provocation, on a near-daily basis.
Prussia was at times amused, at times perturbed. At times, too, on the receiving end. He took it in stride, though, because he dodged well and smoked a mean tobacco. His king approved especially of his raunchy jokes.
His sad and funny king, how angry and impatient he grew with Friedrich. And how angry and impatient Friedrich grew with his father. If Prussia had known what the young man was planning with his friend. They went about it so obviously. So foolishly. Prussia didn’t see it for maddening love. While he stood in a palace corner feverish with desire and jealousy, the crown prince pressed his face to Lieutenant Katte’s chest and begged him for help. To run.
It happened far from Potsdam when they were caught. Trying to run away. Treason against the crown. King and Country. Friedrich was locked up. No word was to be spoken to the prince. Silence. Lights out at seven.
Von Katte, sentenced to life. King Friedrich Wilhelm changed the sentence.
All fall down
Prussia could see Friedrich’s face in the window, pressed to the bars by two guards like the king had ordered.
Before. Friedrich had done something he would have never before. He had screamed out to Prussia. From behind the bars. “Prussia! Prussia, I know you’re out there – you’ve got to help me! Prussia—they’re going to kill him! Help me!”
Or had Prussia imagined it?
Katte knelt on the small mound of sand. His last words were just a buzz in Prussia’s ears. The executioner lifted his sword. Prussia thought he could hear the sound of the hilt being gripped tight. It came down. Katte’s head came away from his body.
Prussia leaned over and emptied his stomach onto his own boots.
Katte’s body and head, now two separate entities divided by entire meters, were to remain as they had fallen until two o’clock in the afternoon. King’s orders. What followed were some of the longest, most nauseatingly unpleasant hours of Prussia’s life.
He would’ve gladly left were it not for the empty window facing the severed young officer. The gaping black rectangular hole with bars. Prussia couldn’t abandon it. Now, after having abandoned it. Now, when it was no longer asking for his help, the least he could do was stay.
For the first period of time, the small bustle of spectators and assorted useless holy men gave Prussia something to keep his eyes on. No one noticed him. Or tried not to, just as he tried not to notice the body. And the head. As the crowd began to thin, Prussia began to grow paranoid. They were avoiding looking at him. He deliberately stared at each person who deliberately failed to stare at him.
He looked down at the vomit-splashed tips of his boots and saw what they saw. He was Friedrich Wilhelm’s reign. He was his penny-pinching. He was his cane. He was his sword. He was the terror of his children. The tyrant of his house.
Prussia looked up and the courtyard was empty.
He began to pace it. But no matter what corner he found himself in, Katte’s severed head was still facing him. Prussia suddenly wasn’t sure that he’d moved at all. He noticed he was standing in the same spot.
When he remembered himself next, he was sitting beneath the window with his back to the wall and his eyes staring at, but not seeing, Katte’s body. The head was somewhere to the right. He thought he heard a sound in the window. Or it was the buzzing in his ears.
The next few hours were the worst by far. Prussia lost control of his imagination. He hallucinated that Katte, eyes rolling wildly, was opening and closing his mouth like a fish on a table. He heard a child screaming his queen’s name, though there weren’t any children in the fortress.
Later, Prussia learned that Friedrich had fainted before the sword had struck and that he’d spent the next few days coming in and out of feverish hallucinations. When he’d composed his own self enough, Prussia looked towards his future.
Friedrich sat on his bed, struggling and failing to remember a tune whose name escaped him. Everything he grasped after in his mind escaped him. It all went galloping out the window and into the air. He’d fallen off and his horse was long gone.
He did not feel sorry for himself. Just scared. He did not know what of.
Friedrich looked up and there he was. Prussia stood before him like a painted Greek statue, only paler. His eyes were very serious. Friedrich forgot to screw up his face in a frown. What was it the religious said about holy apparitions?
“How did you get in here?”
Prussia’s silence was grave.
Friedrich wondered if he was hallucinating. Prussia just stared at him, like an image on a canvas.
“But you will stay a while.” Friedrich’s question was asked as a statement. Out of fear.
“Not yet.” Prussia said. It wasn’t a tone Friedrich recognized. The Prussia he knew was all jokes and compensatory bravado. This Prussia made him want to sit up straight.
“Not yet,” Friedrich repeated, to remind himself. “Maybe never.” Friedrich heard the sadness in his own voice only after he had spoken.
Friedrich did not notice when Prussia disappeared, because at that moment, he remembered the song whose name he’d forgotten.
Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia would emerge from his fortress prison with an unexpected devotion to duty and a novel wish to rule his country. King Friedrich Wilhelm I would one day lie on his deathbed. His son would be there. In the pale face of the new king, a fire would burn in his eyes. Prussia would feel a spark ignite in his heart, and his own eyes would take on the gleam of a raging flame.
I didn’t have to make up anything for this, except Gil’s part in it, Fritz’s youth is so juicy it writes itself.
Notes, in reverse-order: “In the pale face of the new king, a fire burned in his eyes,” is a direct quote from an eye-witness at the deathbed of the king.
There are multiple accounts of how Katte’s execution transpired, down to how his body twitched after the head fell away. What I like best are the following parting words between the two: Friedrich: “Forgive me, my dearest Katte.” Katte: “For such a gentle prince, death is sweet.” There are many other versions too, maybe even better ones.
The thing with the caning of a passer-by and the screaming of “LOVE ME!” actually happened.
“They carry on like a lover and his mistress,” was also said by an eyewitness; most people apparently agreed with him, as there are multiple accounts of the same thing.
Finally, here are two pictures I found especially nice, the one of Fritz being read his sentence, the other of Katte being led to his execution and looking up towards his prince’s window.