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J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Book IV

Chapter I

LAERTES was standing at the window in a thoughtful mood resting on his arm, and looking out into the fields. Philina came gliding towards him, across the large hall; she leant upon him, and began to mock him for his serious looks.

“Do not laugh,” replied he; “it is frightful to think how Time goes on, how all things change and have an end. See here! A little while ago there was a stately camp: how pleasantly the tents looked; what restless life and motion was within them; how carefully they watched the whole enclosure! And behold, it is all vanished in a day! For a short while, that trampled straw, those holes which the cooks have dug, will show a trace of what was here; and soon the whole will be ploughed and reaped as formerly, and the presence of so many thousand gallant fellows in this quarter will but glimmer in the memories of one or two old men.”

Philina began to sing, and dragged forth her friend to dance with her in the hall. “Since Time is not a person we can overtake when he is past,” cried she, “let us honour him with mirth and cheerfulness of heart while he is passing.”

They had scarcely made a step or two, when Frau Melina came walking through the hall. Philina was wicked enough to invite her to join them in the dance, and thus to bring her in mind of the shape to which her pregnancy had reduced her.

“That I might never more see a woman in an interesting situation!” said Philina, when her back was turned.

“Yet she feels an interest in it,” said Laertes.

“But she manages so shockingly. Didst thou notice that wabbling fold of her shortened petticoat, which always travels out before her when she moves? She has not the smallest knack or skill to trim herself a little, and conceal her state.”

“Let her be,” said Laertes; “time will soon come to her aid.”

“It were prettier, however,” cried Philina, “if we could shake children from the trees.”

The Baron entered, and spoke some kind words to them, adding a few presents, in the name of the Count and the Countess, who had left the place very early in the morning. He then went to Wilhelm, who was busy in the side chamber with Mignon. She had been extremely affectionate and taking; had asked minutely about Wilhelm’s parents, brothers, sisters and relations; and so brought to his mind the duty which he owed his people, to send them some tidings of himself.

With the farewell compliments of the family, the Baron delivered him an assurance from the Count, that his Lordship had been exceedingly obliged by his acting, his poetical labours and his theatrical exertions. For proof of this statement, the Baron then drew forth a purse, through whose beautiful texture the bright glance of new gold coin was sparkling out. Wilhelm drew back, refusing to accept of it.

“Look upon this gift,” said the Baron, “as a compensation for your time, as an acknowledgment of your trouble, not as the reward of your talents. If genius procures us a good name and good-will from men, it is fair likewise that, by our diligence and efforts, we should earn the means to satisfy our wants; since, after all, we are not wholly spirit. Had we been in town, where everything is to be got, we should have changed this little sum into a watch, a ring, or something of that sort; but as it is, I must place the magic rod in your own hands; procure a trinket with it, such as may please you best and be of greatest use, and keep it for our sakes. At the same time, you must not forget to hold the purse in honour. It was knit by the fingers of our ladies; they meant that the cover should give to its contents the most pleasing form.”

“Forgive my embarrassment,” said Wilhelm, “and my doubts about accepting this present. It as it were annihilates the little I have done, and hinders the free play of happy recollection. Money is a fine thing, when any matter is to be completely settled and abolished; I feel unwilling to be so entirely abolished from the recollection of your house.”

“That is not the case,” replied the Baron; “but feeling so tenderly yourself, you could not wish that the Count should be obliged to consider himself wholly your debtor; especially when I assure you, that his Lordship’s highest ambition has always consisted in being punctual and just. He is not uninformed of the labour you have undergone, or of the zeal with which you have devoted all your time to execute his views; nay he is aware that, to quicken certain operations, you have even expended money of your own. With what face shall I appear before him, then, if I cannot say that his acknowledgment has given you satisfaction?”

“If I thought only of myself,” said Wilhelm; “if I might follow merely the dictates of my own feelings, I should certainly, in spite of all these reasons, steadfastly refuse this gift, generous and honourable as it is: but I will not deny, that at the very moment when it brings me into one perplexity, it frees me from another, into which I have lately fallen with regard to my relations, and which has in secret caused me much uneasiness. My management, not only of the time, but also of the money, for which I have to give account, has not been the best; and now, by the kindness of his Lordship, I shall be enabled, with confidence, to give my people news of the good fortune to which this curious bypath has led me. I therefore sacrifice those feelings of delicacy, which like a tender conscience admonish us on such occasions, to a higher duty; and, that I may appear courageously before my father, I must consent to stand ashamed before you.”

“It is singular,” replied the Baron, “to see what a world of hesitation people feel about accepting money from their friends and patrons, though ready to receive any other gift with joy and thankfulness. Human nature manifests some other such peculiarities, by which many scruples of a similar kind are produced and carefully cherished.”

“Is it not the same with all points of honour?” said our friend.

“It is so,” replied the Baron; “and with several other prejudices. We must not root them out, lest, in doing so, we tear up noble plants along with them. Yet I am always glad when I meet with men, that feel superior to such objections, when the case requires it; and I think with pleasure on the story of that ingenious poet, which I dare say you have heard of. He had written several plays for the court-theatre, which were honoured by the warmest approbation of the monarch. ‘I must give him a distinguished recompense, said the generous prince: ‘ask him whether he would choose to have some jewel given him; or if he would disdain to accept a sum of money.’ In his humorous way the poet answered the inquiring courtier: ‘I am thankful, with all my heart, for these gracious purposes; and as the Emperor is daily taking money from us, I see not wherefore I should feel ashamed of taking some from him.’”

Scarcely had the Baron left the room, when Wilhelm eagerly began to count the cash, which had come to him so unexpectedly, and, as he thought, so undeservedly. It seemed as if the worth and dignity of gold, not usually felt till later years, had now, by anticipation, twinkled in his eyes for the first time, as the fine glancing coins rolled out from the beautiful purse. He reckoned up, and found that, particularly as Melina had engaged immediately to pay the loan, he had now as much or more on the right-side of his account, as on that day when Philina first asked him for the nosegay. With a little secret satisfaction, he looked upon his talents; with a little pride, upon the fortune which had led him and attended him. He now seized the pen, with an assured mind, to write a letter, which might free his family from their anxieties, and set his late proceedings in the most favourable light. He abstained from any special narrative; and only by significant and mysterious hints, left them room for guessing at what had befallen him. The good condition of his cash-book, the advantage he had earned by his talents, the favour of the great and of the fair, acquaintance with a wider circle, the improvement of his bodily and mental gifts, his hopes from the future, altogether formed such a fair cloudpicture, that Fata Morgana itself could scarcely have thrown together a stranger or a better.

In this happy exaltation, the letter being folded up, he went on to maintain a conversation with himself, recapitulating what he had been writing, and pointing out for himself an active and glorious future. The example of so many gallant warriors had fired him; the poetry of Shakespeare had opened a new world to him; from the lips of the beautiful Countess he had inhaled an inexpressible inspiration. All this could not and would not be without effect.

The Stallmeister came to inquire whether they were ready with their packing. Alas! with a single exception of Melinda, no one of them had thought of it. Now, however, they were speedily to be in motion. The Count had engaged to have the whole party conveyed forward a few days’ journey on their way: the horses were now in readiness, and could not long be wanted. Wilhelm asked for his trunk: Frau Melina had taken it to put her own things in. He asked for money; Herr Melina had stowed it all far down at the bottom of his box. Philina said she had still some room in hers; she took Wilhelm’s clothes, and bade Mignon bring the rest. Wilhelm, not without reluctance, was obliged to let it be so.

While they were loading, and getting all things ready, Melina said: “I am sorry we should travel like mountebanks and rope-dancers; I could wish that Mignon would put on girl’s clothes, and that the Harper would let his beard be shorn.” Mignon clung firmly to Wilhelm and cried, with great vivacity: “I am a boy; I will be no girl!” The old man held his peace; and Philina, on this suggestion, made some merry observations on the singularity of their protector the Count. “If the Harper should cut off his beard,” said she, “let him sew it carefully upon a ribbon, and keep it by him, that he may put it on again whenever his Lordship the Count falls in with him in any quarter of the world. It was this beard alone that procured him the favour of his Lordship.”

On being pressed to give an explanation of this singular speech, Philina said to them: “The Count thinks it contributes very much to the completeness of theatrical illusion if the actor continues to play his part, and to sustain his character, even in common life. It was for this reason that he showed such favour to the Pedant; and he judged it, in like manner, very fitting that the Harper not only wore his false beard at nights on the stage, but also constantly by day; and he used to be delighted at the natural appearance of the mask.”

While the rest were laughing at this error, and the other strange opinions of the Count, the Harper led our friend aside, took leave of him, and begged with tears that he would even now let him go. Wilhelm spoke to him, declaring that he would protect him against all the world, that no one should touch a hair of his head, much less send him off against his will.

The old man seemed affected deeply; an unwonted fire was glowing in his eyes. “It is not that,” cried he, “which drives me away. I have long been reproaching myself in secret for staying with you. I ought to linger nowhere; for misfortune flies to overtake me, and injures all that are connected with me. Dread everything, unless you dismiss me; but ask me no questions; I belong not to myself; I cannot stay.”

“To whom dost thou belong? Who can exert such a power on thee?”

“Leave me my horrid secret, and let me go! The vengeance which pursues me is not of the earthly judge. I belong to an inexorable Destiny; I cannot stay, and I dare not.”

“In the situation thou art now in, I certainly will not let thee go.”

“It were high treason against you, my benefactor, if I should delay. I am secure while with you, but you are in peril. You know not whom you keep beside you. I am guilty, but more wretched than guilty. My presence scares happiness away; and good deeds grow powerless, when I become concerned in them. Fugitive, unresting I should be, that my evil genius might not seize me, which pursues but at a distance, and only appears when I have found a place, and am laying down my head to seek repose. More grateful I cannot show myself, than by forsaking you.”

“Strange man! Thou canst neither take away the confidence I place in thee, nor the hope I feel to see thee happy. I wish not to penetrate the secrets of thy superstition; but if thou livest in belief of wonderful forebodings and entanglements of Fate, then, to cheer and hearten thee, I say, unite thyself to my good fortune, and let us see which genius is the stronger, thy dark or my bright one.”

Wilhelm seized this opportunity of suggesting to him many other comfortable things; for of late our friend had begun to imagine that this singular attendant of his must be a man who, by chance or destiny, had been led into some weighty crime, the remembrance of which he was ever bearing on his conscience. A few days ago, Wilhelm, listening to his singing, had observed attentively the following lines:

  • For him the light of ruddy morn
  • But paints the horizon red with flame;
  • And voices, from the depths of nature borne,
  • Woe! woe! upon his guilty head proclaim.
  • But, let the old man urge what arguments he pleased, our friend had constantly a stronger argument at hand. He turned everything on its fairest side; spoke so bravely, heartily and cheerily, that even the old man seemed again to gather spirits, and to throw aside his whims.