Frederick the Great and His Family

Author: Luise Mühlbach

Chapter V. The Prisoner.

Two years had passed since Frederick von Trenck entered the fortress of Magdeburg. Two years! What is that to those who live, work, strive, and fight the battle of life? A short space of time, dashing on with flying feet, and leaving nothing for remembrance but a few important moments.

Two years! What is that to the prisoner? A gray, impenetrable eternity, in which the bitter waters of the past fall drop by drop upon all the functions of life, and hollow out a grave for the being without existence, who no longer has the courage to call himself a man. Two years of anxious waiting, of vain hopes, of ever-renewing self-deception, of labor without result.

This was Trenck’s existence, since the day the doors of the citadel of Magdeburg closed upon him as a prisoner. He had had many bitter disappointments, much secret suffering; he had learned to know human nature in all its wickedness and insignificance, its love of money and corruption, but also in its greatness and exaltation, and its constancy and kindness.

Amongst the commandants and officers of the fortress whose duty it was to guard Trenck, there were many hard and cruel hearts, which exulted in his tortures, and who, knowing the king’s personal enmity to him, thought to recommend themselves by practising the most refined cruelties upon the defenceless prisoner. But he had also found warm human souls, who pitied his misfortunes, and who sought, by every possible means, to ameliorate his sad fate. And, after all, never had the night of his imprisonment been utterly dark and impenetrable. The star of hope, of love, of constancy, had glimmered from afar. This star, which had thrown its silver veil over his most beautiful and sacred remembrances, over his young life of liberty and love, this star was Amelia. She had never ceased to think of him, to care for him, to labor for his release; she had always found means to supply him with help, with gold, with active friends. But, alas! all this had only served to add to his misfortunes, to narrow the boundaries of his prison, and increase the weight of his chains.

Treachery and seeming accident had, up to this time, made vain every attempt at escape, and destroyed in one moment the sad and exhausting labors of many long months. The first and seemingly most promising attempt at flight had miscarried, through the treason of the faithless Baron Weingarten, who had offered to communicate between Trenck and the princess.

For six long months Trenck had worked with ceaseless and incomparable energy at a subterranean path which would lead him to freedom; all was prepared, all complete. The faithful grenadier, Gefhart, who had been won over by the princess, had given him the necessary instruments, and through the bars of his prison had conveyed to him such food as would strengthen him for his giant task.

Nothing was now wanting but gold, to enable Trenck, when he had escaped, to hire a little boat, which would place him on the other side of the Elbe—gold, to enable him to make a rapid flight.

Gefhart had undertaken to deliver Trenck’s letter to the princess, asking for this money. This letter, written with his own blood upon a piece of linen, had been forwarded through Gefhart’s mistress, the Jewess Rebecca, to Weingarten. He delivered it to the princess, and received, through Pollnitz, two thousand thalers, which he did not hand over to Rebecca, but retained for himself, and betrayed to the king Trenck’s intended flight.

This was but a short time before Weingarten’s own flight; and while he was enjoying the fruit of this base fraud in security and freedom, poor Trenck was forced to descend still lower in the citadel, and take possession of that frightful prison which, by special command of the king, had been built and prepared for him, in the lowest casemates of the fortress.

The king was greatly exasperated at these never-ending attempts of Trenck to escape; his courage and endurance made him an interesting and admired martyr to the whole garrison at Magdeburg.

Frederick wished to give to this garrison, and to all his soldiers, a terrible example of the relentless severity with which insubordination should be punished, to prove to them that mortal daring and mortal energy were vain to escape the avenging hand of royal justice.

Trenck, who, in the beginning, had only been condemned to arrest in Glatz for six months, had, by his constant attempts at escape, and the mad and eloquent expression of his rage, brought upon himself the sentence of eternal imprisonment, in a subterranean cell, which, by express command of the king, was so prepared, that neither guards nor soldiers were necessary to his detention. A jailer only was needed, to lock the four doors of the corridor which led to Trenck’s cell. It was as little dangerous to guard this poor prisoner as to approach the lion bound by chains and hemmed in by iron bars.

Trenck was indeed manacled like a wild beast. A chain clanked upon his feet, an iron girdle was around his waist, to which hung a heavy chain, fastened to a thick iron bar built in the wall; manacles were made fast to each end of an iron bar, to which his hands were bound. The most cruel wild beast would not have been so tortured; some one would have had pity on him, and mercifully ended his life. But this creature, thus tortured, groaning and clanking his heavy chains— this creature was a man, therefore there was no pity. It would have been considered a crime to put an end to his life; but slowly, day by day, to murder him, was only justice.

The king had made it the personal duty of the commandant, Bruckhausen, to guard Trenck. He declared that if he allowed Trenck to escape, he should not only lose his place and rank, but take Trenck’s place in his fearful cell. This was a frightful menace to the ambitious and harsh commandant, Bruckhausen, and, of course, led him to take the severest precautions. It was he, therefore, who had bound Trenck, and, whenever he visited the poor prisoner in his cell, he rejoiced in the artistic construction of his chains, and looked proudly upon his work. He saw with delight that Trenck was scarcely able to drag his heavy chains two feet to the right or left, or to raise the tin cup to his parched lips, with his hands thus fastened to an iron bar; and as often as he left the cell, he exclaimed, with an expression of malicious joy:

"I have tamed him forever! he will not escape me!"

But Trenck was not tamed, his courage was not broken. In this crushed and wasted form dwelt a strong soul, a bounding heart; he had been bound in chains thought to be indissoluble. Trenck alone did not believe this; he trusted still in the magic power of his will, in his good star, which had not yet been quenched in darkness.

In the wall to which the chain was fastened, his name was built, in red tiles; a gravestone marked the spot upon which his feet moved, upon which a death’s head and the name of Trenck was engraved. Under this stone there was a vault, and when one looked at the moist walls, from which the water constantly trickled, and at the dark cell, which for six months had not been cheered by one ray of light, they might well suppose that the gravestone would soon be lifted, and the vault opened to receive the poor prisoner, upon whose grave no other tears would flow. These dark walls were, as it appeared, softer and more pitiful than the hearts of men.

Trenck was not subdued; the death’s head and his name upon the gravestone did not terrify him! It was nothing more to him than a constant reminder to collect his courage and his strength, and to oppose to his daily menace of death a strong conviction of life and liberty.

If his prison were dark, and warmed by no ray of sunshine, he leaned his head against the wall, closed his eyes, and his vivid imagination and glowing fancy was the slave of his will, and painted his past life in magic pictures.

The prisoner, clad as a convict, with his hands and feet chained, became at once the child of fortune and love; the exalted favorite of princes, the admired cavalier, the envied courtier, and the darling of lovely women.

When hunger drove him to eat the coarse bread which was his only nourishment, and to satisfy his thirst with the muddy water in the tin pitcher at his side, he thought of the meals, worthy of Lucullus, of which he had partaken, at the Russian court, by the side of the all-powerful Russian minister Bestuchef; he remembered the fabulous pomp which surrounded him, and the profound reverence which was shown him, as the acknowledged favorite of the prime minister of the empress.

When no one whispered one word of consolation or of sympathy, for all trembled at the ceaseless watchfulness of the commandant—when the rude silent jailer came daily and placed his bread and water before him and left him without word or greeting—then Trenck recalled the sacred, consecrated hours in which love had whispered sweet names and tender words. This love still lived—it watched over and shone down upon him—it was a star of hope. Why should Trenck despair, when love lived and lived only for him? No, he would not die—he would never be buried under this gravestone. Beyond these thick, damp walls lay the world—the living, active, blooming world. It was only necessary to break these chains, to open the five heavy doors which confined him to his dark prison, and life, liberty, the world, honor, love, belonged to him!

"Is not my will stronger than chains and bolts?" he said. "Has not the spirit wings by which she can take flight, mocking at prisons and at torture?"

His spirit was free, for he believed in freedom: when his chains clanked around him, it seemed to him as if they whispered of speedy liberty—as if they exhorted him in soft, harmonious tones, to cast them off and become a free and happy man.

At last there came a day when he could no longer resist these alluring voices. If he could break these chains the first step was taken, and only the doors remained to be opened. By close observation, he had discovered that the inner door of his prison was of wood. The faithful Gefhart had managed to inform him that the other doors were also of wood. He had also conveyed to him a small, sharp knife, the most precious of all earthly treasures, for with this he hoped to obtain his freedom.

"But the chains!" First must the chains be broken—first must his right hand be free! And it was free. Although the blood was bursting from the nails Trenck forced his hand through the manacle. Freedom greeted him with her first rapturous smile. Alas, the handcuff upon the left hand was too narrow to be removed in this way. With a piece of his chain he broke off a fragment of stone which he used as a file, and in this way he liberated his left hand. The iron ring around his waist was fastened only by a hook to the chain attached to the wall. Trenck placed his feet against the wall, and bending forward with all his strength, succeeded in straightening the hook so far as to remove it from the ring. And now there only remained the heavy wooden chain fastened to his feet, and also made fast to the wall. By a powerful effort he broke two of the links of this chain.

He was free—free—at least to stand erect and walk around his miserable prison. With a feeling of inexpressible joy he raised himself to his full height—it enraptured him to move his arms, so long and painfully confined—he extended them widely and powerfully, as if he wished to clasp the whole outside world to his heart.

Could the commandant Bruckhausen have cast one glance into this horrible, noiseless cell, he would have trembled with rage and apprehension. The unchained giant stood with glad smiles, and flaming eyes, and outstretched arms, as if adjuring the spirits of the under-world to come to his assistance. But the commandant lay in careless security upon his soft, white couch; his eyes were closed; they could not pierce the dark cell where a fellow-man, with loudlybeating heart, but silent lips, called rapturously to the fair goddess Liberty, and hastened to clasp her in his arms.

Stepping forward, he sought the door of his prison, and kneeling before it, he took out his knife. He tried to cut out a small piece and to ascertain the thickness of the wall; this was short work—the door opened inside, and it was easy to cut around and remove the lock. It was made of simple oak boards. Once convinced of this, Trenck prudently sought his mattress in order to obtain rest and strength. It was impossible to commence his labor then. The night was far spent, and every morning at eight o’clock the jailer came to inspect him and bring his bread and water. His visit must be over before he could begin his work—he must possess his soul in patience. What were a few hours’ waiting to him who had waited long, dreary years?—a fleeting moment, scarcely sufficient to accustom him to his new happiness, to enable him to collect his thoughts and bear quietly the rapturous conviction of approaching freedom.

"Yes, I will be free; this is the last night of my imprisonment." But while waiting in this dreary prison he could enjoy one pleasure long denied him—he could stretch his limbs upon his bed without being martyred and crushed by his bonds—without hearing the clank of chains. With what gladness he now stretched himself upon his poor couch!—how grateful he was to God for this great happiness!—how sweet his sleep!—how glorious his dreams!

Trenck awaked in the early morning, revived and strengthened. It was time to prepare for the daily visitation—to replace his chains, and take possession of his gravestone. His eyes accustomed to the darkness soon discovered the broken link of the chain, which he hid in his mattress. With a piece of his hair-band he fastened the chain to his feet, hung the second chain to the ring upon his waist, and now it only remained to place his hands in the manacles fastened to the iron bar. He had filed the handcuff from his left hand and that was easy to resume, but it was impossible to force his right hand through the ring; he had succeeded in removing it by a mighty effort the evening before, but it was consequently greatly swollen. He took again his little piece of stone and tried to file it apart, but every effort was in vain. Nearer and nearer came the hour of visitation, and if his right hand were free when the jailer came, all would be discovered. It seemed to him as if he heard already the bolt of the first door. With a last, frightful effort, he forced his hand in the manacle; his fingers cracked as if the bones were broken; it was scarcely possible for him to suppress a shriek of anguish. But the danger was even at the door, and the blessing of freedom was not too dearly bought even by this anguish; he bore it with heroic fortitude, and though his whole figure trembled with pain, he conquered himself. He leaned back breathlessly and almost unconsciously against the wall; and now the bolt really moved, and the jailer, followed by two officers, entered.

The visitation began. In this small cell, which held nothing but a mattress, a seat built in the wall, and a small table, there was but little to examine. A fleeting glance at Trenck’s chains, which were rattling around him, and the search was over, and the jailer and officers left the prison. Trenck listened in breathless silence till he heard the bolt of the fifth door rattling, and now life and movement were in his form and features. It was time to work. But alas! it was impossible. The swollen, blood-red, throbbing hand could not possibly be withdrawn from the handcuff. He must control himself—must wait and be patient. He resolved to do this with a brave heart, in the full conviction that he would attain his liberty.

At last, after three days, the swelling disappeared, and he found he could withdraw his hand without difficulty. The visit was no sooner over, than his chains fell off. For the last time! God grant that for the last time he had heard them clank!

A herculean work was before him, but Freedom was without and awaiting him, and he panted to embrace her. Seizing his little pocket-knife, he stepped to the door and commenced his labor. The first door was not difficult, it opened from within. In half an hour the work was done, and Trenck advanced and extended his hands before him till they encountered another obstacle. This was the second door. But here was indeed a weary task. The door opened on the outside and a heavy cross-bar besides the lock secured it. It was necessary to cut entirely through the door above the bar, and spring over it. Trenck did not dispair—bravely, unwearily, he went to work—the perspiration fell from his brow and mingled with the blood which trickled from his lacerated hands. Trenck did not regard it; he felt no pain, no exhaustion. Freedom stood before the frowning citadel, and awaited his coming. At last it was achieved; with trembling hands he lifted the upper part of the door from the hinges and sprang into the outer room.

Here light and sunshine greeted him. Weary months had gone by since he had seen the sun—the soft light of heaven on the fresh green of earth—and now all this was his once more. There was a small window in this corridor, and not too high for him to look abroad. He turned his eyes, filled with tears of the purest joy, upon the cloudless heavens; he followed with longing eyes the flight of the doves, who moved like a black cloud across the sky and disappeared on the horizon. He inhaled with long-drawn breath the fresh, glad air, which appeared to him laden with the fragrance of all the flowers of the world. He gave himself up for a few moments to this first rapturous enjoyment, then conquered himself and examined his surroundings with a thoughtful, searching eye.

He saw that his prison was built against the first wall of the fortress, and was exactly opposite an entrance, before which stood a high palisade; this he must climb before he could reach the outer wall. But the night was long, and he saw that the guard patrolling upon the wall disappeared from time to time for more than five minutes; he must therefore have some distance to walk before he returned to the same spot. While his back was turned, must Trenck climb the palisade and wall.

Trenck sprang back upon the floor with a glad and happy heart. What he had seen of the free, outer world had given him new life. With cheerful resolution he stepped to the third door. This was constructed like the first, and gave him but little trouble—it was soon opened, and Trenck passed on the other side.

The sun went down, and the twilight obscured his view, as this was completed. And now his strength was exhausted, and his swollen and bleeding hands, from which the flesh hung in shreds, refused their service. With inexpressible despair he looked at the fourth door, which opened from the outside, and it was again necessary to cut through the whole breadth of the door in order to advance.

Worn out and trembling, he seated himself near the door and leaned his aching head against the cool wood. He sat thus a long time, till he felt that his blood was flowing more calmly, and the wild, quick beating of his pulse had subsided—till the pain in his hands and limbs was quieted, and he had won new strength. He then rose from the floor, took his knife, and recommenced his work. He moved more slowly than before, but his work progressed. It could scarcely be midnight, and half the door was cut through. The moon shed her peerless rays through the little window and lighted his work, and showed him what remained to be done. In two hours he would finish, and then remained only the fifth door which opened on the wall, and which Gefhart assured him was not difficult. In three hours the work would be done—in three hours he might stand without, in the fresh, free air of heaven, himself a free and happy man.

With renewed courage and renewed strength, after a short rest, he went again to work. He thrust his knife into the opening and pressed powerfully against the wood. Suddenly his hand seemed paralyzed—on the other side of the door he heard a light clang, and with a hollow cry of woe, Trenck sank upon the floor. The blade of the knife was broken and had fallen on the other side. Now he was lost! There was no longer hope of escape! He rushed to the window; would it not be possible to escape in that way? No, no! It was not possible to pass through this small opening.

Trenck sank upon his knees before the window and stared into the heavens. His pallid lips murmured low words. Were they prayers?— were they curses?—or was it the death-rattle of dead hopes and dying liberty? At last he rose from his knees; his face, which had been that of a corpse, now assumed an expression of firm resolve. Staggering and creeping along by the wall, he returned to his prison, which he had left so short a time before full of happy hopes. He reached his bed and laid down upon it, holding the broken knife in his hand. Not to sleep, not to rest, but to die! He could think of no other hope—no other way than this. "Yes, I will die!" His life’s courage, his life’s energy, was exhausted. He had closed his account with the world. Slowly he raised his hand aloft with the broken knife, and collecting all his strength for one last, decisive blow, he bowed and cut the vein of his left foot, then raised his head with a smile of triumph, and stretching out his left arm he forced the stump of his knife deep into the large vein of his elbow. The deed was done! He felt the warm blood flowing from his veins—he felt that with it also was sweeping by the miserable remnant of his buried existence. His thoughts wandered, and a happy insensibility overpowered him, and now his blessed spirit floated chainless and free beyond this drear prison. The necessities of this poor life and its tortures were overcome.

But what was that? Who called his name lightly from without, and made the air of this living grave tremble with unwonted tones?

When this call was repeated the second time, Trenck felt a light trembling in his whole frame. The whisper of his name had called back his fleeting spirit. The godlike dream of release was at an end; Trenck lived again, a suffering, defenceless man. For the third time he heard his name called—for the third time a voice, as if from heaven, rang, "Trenck! Trenck!"

Trenck gathered all his little strength, and replied:

"Who calls me?"

"It is I," said the faithful Gefhart; "have I not sworn to bring you help? I have crept over the wall only to say to you that I think of you—that you must not despair—that help is nigh, even at the door. An unknown friend has sent you a greeting by me; he has given me a roll of gold to be useful in your flight. Come near, I will throw it to you through the window."

"It is too late, Gefhart, all is too late! I lie bathed in my blood; to-morrow they will find me dead!"

"But why die?" cried the fresh, strong voice of Gefhart; "why wish for death, now when escape is possible? Here there are no guards, and I will soon find a way to furnish you with tools. Try only to break your prison—for the rest I will remain responsible."

"Alas, I tried to-night and I failed!" said Trenck. A few tears stole from his eyes and rolled slowly over his hollow cheeks.

"You will succeed better another time, Baron Trenck; whenever I am on guard here I will seek an opportunity to speak with you, and we will arrange all. Do not despair. I must go, the sun is rising, and I may be seen. Do not despair! God will help you—trust fully in me." [Footnote: "Frederick von Trenck’ Important Memoire."]

The voice had long since died away, but Trenck listened still for those tones, which seemed like the greeting of one of God’s angels; they illuminated his prison and gave strength to his soul. No, no, now he would not die! He felt his courage revive. He would defy fate, and oppose its stern decrees by the mighty power of his will.


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Chicago: Luise Mühlbach, "Chapter V. The Prisoner.," Frederick the Great and His Family, ed. CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb and trans. Coleman, Chapman, Mrs., 1813-1891 in Frederick the Great and His Family (New York: The Modern Library Publishers, 1918), Original Sources, accessed August 7, 2022,

MLA: Mühlbach, Luise. "Chapter V. The Prisoner." Frederick the Great and His Family, edited by CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb, and translated by Coleman, Chapman, Mrs., 1813-1891, in Frederick the Great and His Family, New York, The Modern Library Publishers, 1918, Original Sources. 7 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Mühlbach, L, 'Chapter V. The Prisoner.' in Frederick the Great and His Family, ed. and trans. . cited in 1918, Frederick the Great and His Family, The Modern Library Publishers, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 7 August 2022, from