Another half-promise he kept was that of seeing more of Charlotte von Moltke. Unlike the Fraeulein, she was relaxed company, smiled readily, and had no nervous oddities of behaviour to be humoured. Not least, she had a complete absence of irritating habits. Karelius still found his thoughts returning to the Fraeulein, but a little of her hold over him had been loosened.
In mid-December came further disaster for the Prussian court, when an outbreak of fever attacked many of the royal retinue and caused half a dozen deaths. The symptoms were a rash, vomiting, dysentery and a burning sensation in the head. Typhus, probably; above all others the disease of war. And amongst those most seriously affected was the warlike Queen.
Karelius, occasionally prey to gloomy thoughts, found himself imagining her death. The tearful children and ladies-in-waiting: the small coffin draped with the Black Eagle: the muffled drums, and military escort with muskets reversed. The King, already severely depressed, would suffer a complete collapse; the spirit of the Prussian people would die with her. For it was she, not the King, to whom they looked as the symbol of their resistance to the invader. As for himself, it would hit him hard – harder perhaps than the death of anyone else he could think of, save one. Or perhaps two; but somehow he never thought of Charlotte von Moltke in association with death. With the Fraeulein it was all too easy.
Every day for a fortnight he visited the castle first thing. Every day, as he set out, he prepared himself for the worst. And every day, as he emerged from the pine-forest to the south, he held his breath. For here the castle came into view, and he had to steel himself to look at the tower. But every bleak December morning, beyond the spires of Koenigsberg pointing the way to heaven, the Black Eagle still fluttered at full mast against the iron sky. Finally, three days before Christmas, she was pronounced out of danger.
This year Frederick William had announced that in view of the war there should be no undue celebration or exchange of presents, but the rule was relaxed for the royal children, and Karelius was amongst the select few invited to a family party in the Queen’s bedroom, for she was still too weak to rise. Her bed was strewn with toys, and despite her frailty she seemed in good spirits.
Karelius preferred German Christmases to those of his homeland. In England the festival was little more than an excuse for drunkenness and riotous living, of which both by upbringing and temperament he was inclined to disapprove. In Prussia it was more of a family occasion, and they had the pleasing habit of adorning miniature fir trees with tinsel, baubles and presents for the children. It would be nice to see the practice introduced to England one day.
Family events sometimes served to remind Karelius of his own lack of a wife and children. This Christmas he thought about such things more than usual. Yet for some reason he found it practically impossible to imagine ever being married to the Fraeulein. The girl standing beside him in his reveries of Christmases to come was invariably Charlotte von Moltke.
It was on the morning of the twenty-eighth, halfway through the no-man’s land between Christmas and the New Year. Snow still lay on the roofs and treetops, but the main roads had been churned into a grubby mixture of mud and melting slush. The weather remained grey and chilly, with the promise of further falls to come.
Karelius, cape thrown back around his shoulders, climbed the steep stone steps to the castle, as he had every day for the past three weeks. Again he glanced at the flagstaff for the reassuring glimpse of the royal banner he had last seen but minutes before.
It was a Sunday morning, and the castle was quiet, save for the occasional sentry or servant going about his duties. Descending the steps towards him, however, was Charlotte von Moltke, cloak and bonnet black against the ashen background of the fortress. Every time he saw her he was conscious of a greater sensation of pleasure. And relief too, for the pestilence was at its height, and Charlotte in constant attendance upon the sick.
‘How is the Queen?’ he asked at once.
‘Continuing to improve. The royal children are to depart to Memel to escape the fever, and Her Majesty hopes to be well enough to follow them within the week.’
‘Good. And Fraeulein Schadow?’ For the Queen’s ladies had not been immune, and Gretel one of the most severely affected.
‘She is out of danger, but still very shaky. Perhaps as well that your friend Peter Furman is not here. He would only have worried about her, unnecessarily as it turns out.’
This served to confirm that the relations between Furman and Fraeulein Schadow were pretty well known. Karelius simply said, ‘Good. And how about yourself?’
‘No need to worry about me,’ Charlotte assured him cheerfully, albeit in a tone suggesting that she would not mind too much if he did worry about her a little. ‘I’ve always been disgustingly healthy.’
So she was, he thought, and not only physically. Nothing ever disturbed her too deeply. She was in love with him, and disappointed that he could not respond, but would not let it ruin her life. She could make jokes about it at her own expense, and remain free from bitterness or self-pity. Karelius admired her very much. Nor was admiration all he felt for her by now. Is it possible, he wondered, to love two women at once? Am I becoming unfaithful to you, Fraeulein, at least in thought? Forgive me if I am; but I think you would like her, everyone does. Certainly I do; and liking is perhaps not so far from loving as romantics seem to imagine.