As his coach turned into Downing Street, Robert Whitfield looked at his pocket watch. It was shortly before 1 o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday the 20th of December 1853. Though he had returned from Berlin at the end of the previous week, he had delayed calling upon the Secretary of State in order to settle some investment matters requiring his urgent attention. Having done what was necessary and with his wife, Emily, and their son, Charles, already at Meltwater awaiting his arrival for Christmas and the New Year, he wished without further delay to tell the Minister of the outcome of his journey to Prussia and to seek endorsement of his decision to pursue reconciliation with the von Deppe family. The previous evening he had received word that the Foreign Secretary would see him this afternoon.
The coach drew to a halt. The street bustled. Amidst carriage wheels and horses’ hooves hawkers plied their wares, alongside pretty dressmakers, street singers, prostitutes and those already inebriated from early drinking at the nearby Cat and Bagpipes and the Rose and Crown. As he stepped down he caught sight to his right of two frock coated men emerging from the Prime Minister’s residence deep in whispered conversation lest they were overheard, though how that could possibly happen in such noise defeated him. To his left stood three black mud spattered carriages; perhaps they had brought the latest despatches from Her Majesty’s ambassadors in Paris, Vienna, St Petersburg or even Constantinople. Behind the conveyances was a shabby terrace of two storey dilapidated houses, some shored up by wooden posts to stop them sinking further into the boggy ground above an underground stream. He noticed that since his last visit to the street one post had finally succumbed to the weight of its load, allowing its structure to collapse. It was hard to imagine that this rickety line of failing houses comprised the premises of the Foreign Office.
Beyond the terrace and adjacent Fludyer Street lay the rest of Westminster – with its accretion of parliamentary power, its deepening crust of gilded splendour reflecting increasing and brash imperial swagger. Beyond Westminster to the east and north was a larger uncouth, dangerous and volatile London with its thievery, murder and filth, its opium dens and human misery – all so different from the smaller, industrious city he had recently seen – full of purpose, good order and strong commitment to the promotion of Prussia. Though he had only stayed a few days, he had nonetheless gained the impression of a self-confident Berlin, the hub of a new European power in the making. On the long journey home he had pondered how in the future it might view England. Would it be as a respectful friend and ally or as a competitor? There were historical similarities between the two nations that would suggest the continuation of natural friendship and a mutual alliance of opinions; Prussia had proved in the end a valiant opponent of Napoleon Bonaparte. But some forty years on would it continue to see its place in Europe as secondary power or might it seek a more selfish and prestigious role?
He had speculated what might best be done to ensure continued harmony between the two but had decided not to share his thoughts with Lord Clarendon – at least now. His present purpose was to thank him for the passport he had kindly provided and to tell him of his contacts in Berlin which he intended to cultivate for personal reasons and, if they flourished, for possible wider national benefit at a later stage. He also wished to demonstrate again his knowledge of European affairs; to show that he was more than just a wealthy landowner and successful investor but a man of skill with a contribution to make beyond England’s shores if he were given the opportunity. Tall, somewhat foppish, sometimes pompous like his father and with an extensive circle of friends and acquaintances, he longed to secure a baronetcy such as his grandfather had enjoyed. It would bring that extra measure of respect which money and land could not provide and such an honour would greatly please his wife, Emily, who would see the title ‘Lady’ as a just reward for her own social efforts. Perhaps a continuing and useful association with George Villiers, the 4th Earl of Clarendon, might advance the prospects of such recognition particularly if he could demonstrate that he could be of use in foreign affairs.
Whitfield climbed the staircase, decorated with unseemly cracks in the wall, to the Private Secretary’s office on the first floor. The din within the building was almost as loud as the noise outside in the street and he caught a faint whiff of a noxious odour from a broken sewer. He could even feel the vibration from a churning printing press somewhere in the attic. Surely his country’s foreign ministry deserved better, more impressive premises than these; premises that should display the true power and splendour of England? There had long been talk of a new building but so far words had not materialised into any firm plan.
“Robert, it is indeed good to see you back. Welcome home! How did you fare? And how is Monsieur le Baron, our esteemed Minister Plenipotentiary to His Majesty the King of Prussia?” Wreathed in cigar smoke, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs beckoned him to take a seat at a large polished table beneath a portrait of the Queen.
“His Excellency greatly flourishes, Secretary of State” replied Whitfield. “We had a long talk shortly after my arrival in Berlin; he arranged for me to meet Count von Deppe; he asked me to send you his best wishes; and to convey some despatches to you which I have left with your private secretary.”
“Bloomfield is a good man” replied Clarendon. “He did well in St Petersburg as our envoy. So he seemed a sound diplomatist to send to Berlin. The Prussians are habitually suspicious of the Russians and the Russians of them. His experience of both sides enables him to understand and interpret their respective motivations. The Prussians are an ambitious lot; always have been. Frederick the Great began it all; a brilliant opportunist at pinching other people’s territory, helped by an outstanding army. I am sure there will be a unified Germany one day if the Prussians have anything to do with it – with them as top dog. Bloomfield says there are already some strong voices for it, despite the King’s earlier decision to decline the monarchy of all Germany. But enough of my thoughts: tell me all. Did you find out about your intriguing ancestor, your father’s half-sister I think you said; about her life in Prussia; and who might be her descendants? I always like to get a flavour of what lies behind the scenes of some of our friends and foes; and to hear some gossip, which Lady Clarendon devours with alacrity.”
The handsome, polished and engaging Clarendon sat back in his large high backed chair, taking another deep puff on his cigar.
“My expedition, if I may call it that, went well, Sir, very well.”
“It is my opinion that Count Joseph von Deppe, a senior man at the parliament in Berlin, and his family including his brother, a courtier at the Royal palace, may not be averse to the prospect of restoring friendship with mine. If that were to prove possible it might bring other rewards and new connections. Of course, it may take time to heal the wounds of the deep rancour between the late Countess Arabella von Deppe and her father – my grandfather – and to remedy the subsequent bad feeling it caused between the two families throughout the remainder of her life. But nothing is impossible.”
“Intriguing” replied the Foreign Secretary. “Tell me more about the Countess.”
Robert Whitfield recounted what he had learnt about the Countess Arabella’s life in Prussia following her marriage, her musical achievements and her friendship with the late Prussian King and his wife, Queen Luise; and explained how he intended to begin his efforts towards reconciliation.
As he listened, Lord Clarendon was at first inclined to think this matter was most likely to prove inconsequential; just another family quarrel and attempted repair with no direct relevance to any affairs of state. Yet the more Whitfield went on the more he was struck by the unusual emotional link between two influential well-heeled families in two countries which might perhaps in due course, if there were reconciliation, be exploited to English advantage. He knew from his own time as Her Majesty’s representative in Spain of the damage that unchecked family emotions could cause. He had seen that all too well in the troubles of the Spanish royal family. Whitfield, while not always likeable, was still a man whose judgement he had come to trust. For that reason, though his effort at family reconciliation might come to nothing, he should perhaps after all encourage him to make it, not least on account of two members of the von Deppe family apparently holding influential positions in the Prussian hierarchy. If Whitfield did achieve success in creating some strong personal family ties in Berlin that could well provide in due course a potentially fascinating personal insight into Prussia’s aims which might in turn prove useful in building closer friendship with the Hohenzollerns once England’s likely war with Russia had ended. In any peace conference London would need all the allies it could muster to achieve a satisfactory treaty. To improve the cards in his hand it would be desirable to have Prussia on his side at the conference table. Why not begin the pursuit of that option now – but in the hands of an external self-appointed agent?
“Let me be frank with you Robert and by the way what I will say now you must not disclose to others.”
“You have my word, Sir. You can trust my discretion” replied Whitfield, relishing the prospect of being given confidential information.
“Good” responded Clarendon.
“I confess that when you asked me for your passport I had never heard of the English born Countess von Deppe, which was remiss of me. From what you have just told me she achieved much during her many years in Prussia, not least in music, and by all accounts remains a revered figure. However, despite my interest, this is not a matter of state – at least for now – and therefore, while you are right to seek a rapprochement of your family with the von Deppes, you should do so alone without my public encouragement. Our government is heavily preoccupied with the prospect of war against Russia. The Czar thinks the Ottomans are getting steadily weaker and therefore eyes some of their territory which we cannot allow him to acquire. Finding a peaceful solution that satisfies everyone takes up all my time daily. I fear however my efforts may fail and therefore we have to contemplate a military campaign. If there is war, it is paramount that I do whatever is necessary to ensure that we and the French stick together against the Czar, regardless of any views the Prince Consort down the road may have on the matter. At the same time we must be vigilant for other protagonists who may choose to take advantage of our preoccupations for their own ends – now or after the outbreak of war.”
“And Prussia?” interrupted Whitfield.
“Though I am optimistic they will not cross us if we go to war, our vigilance must indeed extend to them” replied Clarendon. “Berlin is neutral now but the question arises for how long? If they were to abandon their neutrality would they join us? I hope they would but we cannot be sure. For the present we should do what we can – discreetly – to be on good terms with the Prussians and to see as best we can that whatever interests they may have do not conflict with ours; that we tread the same road in harmony, though not forgetting the French do not like the Prussians. So Robert you have done well in your fortuitous personal quest. I repeat that you should proceed with your plan because any success may at some point later just be in our diplomatic interest. But there can be no personal fanfare from me or reference to our discussion. I know I can rely on your discretion. Please do let me know privately if the situation develops favourably. And of course you have my agreement to entrust to Bloomfield the conveyance of your correspondence with the von Deppe family. Now let us turn to some other matters on which I would welcome your view.”
After leaving Downing Street, Robert Whitfield returned to his house in the shadow of Westminster Abbey to write immediately to Count Joseph von Deppe. Though the broad fronted house was large and imposing for a man of his wealth and little changed from his grandfather’s time, he still considered it his family’s London pied-a-terre rather than a grand house. Meltwater Hall, the family country seat, remained his real home. Emily, his wife, preferred it too, though more in the summer than in the dismal chilling months of winter. After a late light lunch he retired to his study and before the afternoon had ended his letter to Joseph von Deppe was with Lord Clarendon’s Private Secretary for onward transmission to Baron Bloomfield. That evening, sitting alone by the fire in his library, he recorded in his diary what he had done. The die had been cast. Early the next day, the 21st of December he left for Meltwater to join his family and friends for Christmas.
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