Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter I

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

Book VII

Chapter I

THE SPRING had commenced in all its brilliancy; a storm, that had been lowering all day, went fiercely down upon the hills; the rain drew back into the country; the sun came forth in all its splendour, and upon the dark vapour rose the lordly rainbow. Wilhelm was riding towards it: the sight made him sad. “Ah!” said he within himself, ‘do the fairest hues of life appear, then, only on a ground of black? And must drops fall, if we are to be charmed? A bright day is like a dim one, if we look at it unmoved; and what can move us but some silent hope that the inborn inclination of our soul shall not always be without an object? The recital of a noble action moves us; the sight of everything harmonious moves us: we feel then as if we were not altogether in a foreign land; we fancy we are nearer the home, towards which our best and inmost wishes impatiently strive.”

Meanwhile a pedestrian overtook him, and walking with a stout step by the side of the horse, began to keep him company. After a few common words, he looked at the rider and said: “If I am not mistaken, I must have already seen you somewhere.”

“I too remember you,” said Wilhelm: “had we not some time ago a pleasant sail together?” “Right!” replied the other.

Wilhelm looked at him more narrowly; then, after a pause, observed: “I do not know what alteration has occurred in you; last time we met, I took you for a Lutheran clergyman, you now seem rather like a Catholic one.”

“Today at least you are not wrong,” replied the other, taking off his hat and showing him the tonsure. “Where is your company gone? Did you stay long with them?”

“Longer than was good; on looking back upon the period which I passed in their society, it seems as if I looked into an endless void; nothing of it has remained with me.”

“Here you are mistaken,” said the stranger; “everything that happens to us leaves some trace behind it, everything contributes imperceptibly to form us. Yet often it is dangerous to take a strict account of that. For either we grow proud and negligent, or downcast and dispirited; and both are equally injurious in their consequences. The safe plan is, always simply to do the task that lies nearest us; and this in the present case,” added he with a smile, “is to hasten to our quarters.”

Wilhelm asked how far Lothario’s house was distant; the stranger answered that it lay behind the hill. “Perhaps I shall meet you there,” continued he; “I have merely a small affair to manage in the neighourhood. Farewell till then!” And with this, he struck into a steep path, that seemed to lead more speedily across the hill.

“Yes, the man is right!” said Wilhelm to himself as he proceeded; “we should think of what is nearest: and for me at present there is nothing nearer than the mournful errand I have come to do. Let me see whether I can still repeat the speech, which is to put that cruel man to shame.”

He then began reciting to himself this piece of oratory: not a syllable was wanting; and the more his recollection served him, the higher grew his passion and his courage. Aurelia’s sorrows and her death were vividly present to his soul.

“Spirit of my friend!” exclaimed he, “hover round me; and if thou canst, give some sign to me that thou art softened, art appeased!”

Amid such words and meditations, he had reached the summit of the hill; and near the foot of its declivity, he now beheld a curious building, which he at once took to be Lothario’s dwelling. An old irregular castle, with several turrets and peaked roofs, appeared to have been the primitize erection; but the new additions to it, placed near the main structure, looked still more irregular. A part of them stood close upon the main edifice; others, at some distance, were combined with it by galleries and covered passages. All external symmetry, every shade of architectural beauty, appeared to have been sacrificed to the convenience of the interior. No trace of wall or trench was to be seen; none of avenues or artificial gardens. A fruit and potherb garden reached to the very buildings; and little patches of a like sort showed themselves even in the intermediate spaces. A cheerful village lay at no great distance: the fields and gardens everywhere appeared in the highest state of cultivation.

Sunk in his own impassioned feelings, Wilhelm rode along, not thinking much of what he saw: he put up his horse at an inn; and not without emotion, hastened to the Castle.

An old serving-man received him at the door; and signified, with much good-nature, that today it would be difficult to get admission to his Lordship; who was occupied in writing letters, and had already refused some people that had business with him. Our friend became more importunate; the old man was at last obliged to yield, and announce him. He returned, and conducted Wilhelm to a spacious ancient hall; desiring him to be so good as wait, since perhaps it might be some time before his Lordship could appear. Our friend walked up and down unrestfully; casting now and then a look at the knights and dames, whose ancient figures hung round him on the walls. He repeated the beginning of his speech: it seemed, in presence of these ruffs and coats of mail, to answer even better. Every time there rose any stir, he put himself in posture to receive his man with dignity; meaning first to hand him the letter, then assail him with the weapons of reproach.

More than once mistaken, he was now beginning to be really vexed and out of tune, when at last a handsome man, in boots and light surtout, stept in from a side-door. “What good news have you for me?” said he to Wilhelm, with a friendly voice; “pardon me, that I have made you wait.”

So speaking, he kept folding a letter, which he held in his hand. Wilhelm, not without embarrassment, delivered him Aurelia’s paper, and replied: “I bring you the last words of a friend, which you will not read without emotion.”

Lothario took it, and returned to his chamber with it; where, as Wilhelm through the open door could very easily observe, he addressed and sealed some letters, before opening Aurelia’s. He appeared to have perused it once or twice; and Wilhelm, though his feelings signified that the pathetic speech would sort but ill with such a cool reception, girded up his mind, went forward to the threshold, and was just about beginning his address, when a tapestry door of the cabinet opened, and the clergyman came in.

“I have got the strangest message you can think of,” cried Lothario to him. “Pardon me,” continued he, addressing Wilhelm, “if I am not in a mood for speaking farther with you at this moment. You remain with us tonight: you, Abbé, see the stranger properly attended to.”

With these words, he made his guest a bow: the clergyman took Wilhelm by the hand, who followed, not without reluctance.

They walked along some curious passages, in silence, and at last reached a very pretty chamber. The Abbé led him in; then left him, making no excuses. Ere long, an active boy appeared; he introduced himself as Wilhelm’s valet; and brought up his supper. In waiting, he had much to say about the order of the house, about their breakfasting and dining, labours and amusements; interspersing many things in commendation of Lothario.

Pleasant as the boy was, Wilhelm endeavoured to get rid of him as soon as possible. He wished to be alone; for he felt exceedingly oppressed and straitened, in his new position. He reproached himself with having executed his intentions so ill, with having done his errand only half. One moment, he proposed to overtake next morning what he had neglected tonight; the next, he saw that by Lothario’s presence he would be attuned to quite a different set of feelings. The house, too, where he was, seemed very strange to him: he could not be at home in his position. Intending to undress, he opened his travelling-bag: with his night-clothes, he took out the Spirit’s veil, which Mignon had packed in along with them. The sight of it increased the sadness of his humour. “Fly! youth, fly!” cried he: “What means this mystic word? What am I to fly, or whither? It were better had the Spirit called to me: Return to thyself!” He cast his eyes on some English copperplates, hung round the room in frames; most of them he looked at with indifference: at last he met with one, in which a ship was represented sinking in a tempest; a father with his lovely daughters was awaiting death from the intrusive billows. One of the maidens had a kind of likeness to the Amazon: an indescribable compassion seized our friend; he felt an irresistible necessity to vent his feelings; tears filled his eyes, he wept, and did not recover his composure, till slumber overpowered him.

Strange dreams arose upon him towards morning. He was in a garden, which in boyhood he had often visited; he looked with pleasure at the well-known alleys, hedges, flowerbeds: Mariana met him, he spoke to her with love and tenderness, recollecting nothing of any bygone grievance. Ere long his father joined them, in his week-day dress; with a look of frankness that was rare in him, he bade his son fetch two seats from the garden-house; then took Mariana by the hand, and led her into a grove.

Wilhelm hastened to the garden-house, but found it altogether empty; only at a window in the farther side he saw Aurelia standing. He went forward and addressed her, but she turned not round; and though he placed himself beside her, he could never see her face. He looked out from the window; in an unknown garden, there were several people, some of whom he recognised. Frau Melina, seated under a tree was playing with a rose, which she had in her hand; Laertes stood beside her, counting money from the one hand to the other. Mignon and Felix were lying on the grass; the former on her back, the latter on his face. Philina came and clapped her hands above the children; Mignon lay unmoved; Felix started up and fled. At first he laughed while running, as Philina followed: but he screamed in terror, when he saw the Harper coming after him with large, slow steps. Felix ran directly to a pond; Wilhelm hastened after him: too late; the child was lying in the water! Wilhelm stood as if rooted to the spot. The fair Amazon appeared on the other side of the pond; she stretched her right hand towards the child, and walked along the shore. The child came through the water, by the course her finger pointed to; he followed her as she went round; at last she reached her hand to him, and pulled him out. Wilhelm had come nearer: the child was all in flames; fiery drops were falling from his body. Wilhelm’s agony was greater than ever; but instantly the Amazon took a white veil from her head, and covered up the child with it. The fire was at once quenched. But when she lifted up the veil, two boys sprang out from under it, and frolicsomely sported to and fro; while Wilhelm and the Amazon proceeded hand in hand across the garden; and noticed in the distance Mariana and his father walking in an alley, which was formed of lofty trees, and seemed to go quite round the garden. He turned his steps to them, and with his beautiful attendant was moving through the garden, when suddenly the fair-haired Friedrich came across their path, and kept them back with loud laughter and a thousand tricks. Still, however, they insisted on proceeding; and Friedrich hastened off, running towards Mariana and the father. These seemed to fly before him; he pursued the faster; till Wilhelm saw them hovering down the alley almost as on wings. Nature and inclination called on him to go, and help them; but the hand of the Amazon detained him. How gladly did he let himself be held! With this mingled feeling he awoke; and found his chamber shining with the morning beams.