And then came the news that brought all negotiations in Brighton, Windsor, London, Vienna and anywhere else in Europe to a standstill. On 1 March Napoleon had escaped from the island of Elba. He had landed in France. His old army was rallying round him.
The Congress of Vienna broke up. The nations of Northern Europe made ready to go back to war.
Amid the anxiety on every other front, the emergency brought one relief to Charlotte. Captain Hesse came home to rejoin his regiment. Mercer and her father found and confronted him. He convinced them that all letters had been burned. The trunk that contained them was empty. With but two exceptions, every present that he had ever received from Charlotte was returned to Mercer. One exception was a turquoise ring, which he first said was still in his baggage and then said had been lost when he was wearing it round his plume in battle. The other was the watch. But Charlotte did not think that either of these was significant enough to be incriminating. The matter was at an end. The little hussar was no longer a threat.
On 14 May Mercer received a letter from Leopold. It was the answer to the one she had sent him much earlier, but it had taken a long time to reach her. It had been written in Vienna on 28 April. Leopold had little hope of going back to England now. He was about to rejoin the Russian army and take up his old command. But if Mercer could assure him that he would be welcome to the Princess, he would do all that he could come.
Mercer wrote back. She did not dare to give him that assurance. Making suggestions was as much as she could risk. If she was caught negotiating a royal marriage, she would never be allowed to see Charlotte again.
But on 2 June, before her letter reached him, Leopold wrote another to Mercer. After thinking about it, he had decided not to risk coming to England uninvited. If he did, he might offend the Regent, and without the Regent’s goodwill, his dream could never be fulfilled.
But by then Leopold would not have been able to come to England anyway. Napoleon had assembled 125,000 men in northern France. Further north, along the border, the allies were waiting. In another two weeks they would be fully prepared for a combined invasion. Meanwhile, if Napoleon struck first, they were almost ready to receive him. The Austrians were to the east of Strasbourg, in a long line between Basle and Worms. The Russians were in the centre, north-west of Frankfort. The Prussians were south-west of them, below Namur and Liege. The British, Dutch, Hanoverians and Brunswickers were to the west between Brussels and the sea.
And most of the men who had played leading parts in Charlotte’s short life were with them. Leopold was with the Russians in the centre; August was with Blücher’s Prussians; Charles Hesse, George FitzClarence, the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Brunswick were with Wellington beyond Brussels.
No matter what route Napoleon chose, at least one of them would be in harm’s way.
[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]