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


Chapter II

SCARCELY was the letter gone, when Lothario returned, Every one was gladdened at the prospect of so speedily concluding the important business which they had in hand: Wilhelm waited with anxiety to see how all these many threads were to be loosed, or tied anew, and how his own future state was to be settled. Lothario gave a kindly salutation to them all: he was quite recovered and serene; he had the air of one who knows what he should do, and who finds no hindrance in the way of doing it.

His cordial greeting Wilhelm could scarcely repay. “This,” he had to own within himself, “is the friend, the lover, bridegroom of Theresa; in his stead thou art presuming to intrude. Dost thou think it possible for thee to banish, to obliterate an impression such as this?” Had the letter not been sent away, perhaps he would not have ventured sending it at all. But happily the die was cast: it might be, Theresa had already taken up her resolution, and only distance shrouded with its veil a happy termination. The winning or the losing must soon be decided. By such considerations, he endeavoured to compose himself; and yet the movements of his heart were almost feverish. He could give but little attention to the weighty business, on which in some degree the fate of his whole property depended. In passionate moments, how trivial do we reckon all that is about us, all that belongs to us!

Happily for him, Lothario treated the affair with magnanimity, and Werner with an air of ease. The latter, in his violent desire of gain, experienced a lively pleasure in contemplating the fine estate which was to be his friend’s. Lothario, for his part, seemed to be revolving very different thoughts. “I cannot take such pleasure in the acquirement of property,” said he, “as in the justness of it.”

“And, in the name of Heaven,” cried Werner, “is not this of ours acquired justly?”

“Not altogether,” said Lothario.

“Are we not giving hard cash for it?”

“Doubtless,” replied Lothario; “and most probably you will consider what I am now hinting at as nothing but a whim. No property appears to me quite just, quite free of flaw, except it contribute to the state its due proportion.”

“How!” said Werner: “You would rather that our lands, which we have purchased free from burden, had been taxable?”

“Yes,” replied Lothario, “in a suitable degree. It is only by this equality with every other kind of property, that our possession of it can be made secure. In these new times, when so many old ideas are tottering, what is the grand reason why the peasant reckons the possession of the noble less equitable than his own? Simply that the noble is not burdened, and lies a burden on him.”

“But how would the interest of our capital agree with that?” said Werner.

“Perfectly well,” returned the other: “if the state, for a regular and fair contribution, would relieve us from the feudal hocus-pocus; would allow us to proceed with our lands according to our pleasure: so that we were not compelled to retain such masses of them undivided, so that we might part them more equally among our children, whom we might thus introduce to vigorous and free activity; instead of leaving them the poor inheritance of these our limited and limiting privileges, to enjoy which we must ever be invoking the ghosts of our forefathers. How much happier were men and women in our rank of life, if they might with unforbidden eyes look round them, and elevate by their selection, here a worthy maiden, there a worthy youth, regarding nothing farther than their own ideas of happiness in marriage! The state would have more, perhaps better citizens, and would not so often be distressed for want of heads and hands.”

“I can assure you honestly,” said Werner, “I never in my life thought about the state: my taxes, tolls and tributes I have paid because it was the custom.”

“Still, however,” said Lothario, “I hope to make a worthy patriot of you. As he alone is a good father, who at table serves his children first, so is he alone a good citizen, who, before all other outlays, discharges what he owes the state.”

By such general reflections their special business was accelerated rather than retarded. It was nearly over, when Lothario said to Wilhelm: “I must send you to a place where you are needed more than here. My sister bids me beg of you to go to her as soon as possible. Poor Mignon seems to be decaying more and more: and it is thought your presence might allay the malady. Besides telling me in person, my sister has dispatched this note after me: so that you perceive she reckons it a pressing case.” Lothario handed him a billet. Wilhelm, who had listened in extreme perplexity, at once discovered in these hasty pencil-strokes the hand of the Countess, and knew not what to answer.

“Take Felix with you,” said Lothario: “the little ones will cheer each other. You must be upon the road tomorrow morning early: my sister’s coach, in which my people travelled hither, is still here: I will give you horses half the way; the rest you post. A prosperous journey to you! Make many compliments from me, when you arrive; tell my sister I shall soon be back, and that she must prepare for guests. Our granduncle’s friend, the Marchese Cipriani, is on his way to visit us: he hoped to find the old man still in life; they meant to entertain each other with their common love of art, and the recollection of their early intimacy. The Marchese, much younger than my uncle, owed to him the greater part of his accomplishments. We must exert all our endeavours to fill up in some measure the void which is awaiting him; and a larger party is the readiest means.”

Lothario went with the Abbé to his chamber; Jarno had ridden off before; Wilhelm hastened to his room. There was none to whom he could unbosom his distress; none by whose assistance he could turn aside the project, which he viewed with so much fear. The little servant came, requesting him to pack: they were to put the luggage on tonight, meaning to set out by daybreak. Wilhelm knew not what to do; at length he cried: “Well, I shall leave this house at any rate; on the road I may consider what is to be done; at all events I will halt in the middle of my journey; I can send a message hither, I can write what I recoil from saying; then let come of it what will.” In spite of this resolution, he spent a sleepless night: a look on Felix resting so serenely was the only thing that gave him any solace. “O! who knows,” cried he, “what trials are before me; who knows how sharply bygone errors will yet punish me; how often good and reasonable projects for the future shall miscarry! But this treasure, which I call my own, continue it to me, thou exorable or inexorable Fate! Were it possible that this best part of myself were taken from me, that this heart could be torn from my heart, then farewell sense and understanding; farewell all care and foresight; vanish thou tendency to perseverance! All that distinguishes us from the beasts, pass away! And if it is not lawful for a man to end his heavy days by the act of his own hand, may speedy madness banish consciousness, before Death, which destroys it forever, shall bring on his own long night.”

He seized the boy in his arms, kissed him, clasped him and wetted him with plenteous tears.

The child awoke: his clear eye, his friendly look, touched his father to the inmost heart. “What a scene awaits me,” cried he, “when I shall present thee to the beautiful unhappy Countess, when she shall press thee to her bosom, which thy father has so deeply injured! Ought I not to fear that she will push thee from her with a cry, when the touch of thee renews her real or fancied pain!” The coachman did not leave him time for farther thought or hesitation; but forced him into the carriage before day. Wilhelm wrapped his Felix well; the morning was cold but clear; the child, for the first time in his life, saw the sun rise. His astonishment at the first fiery glance of the luminary, at the growing power of the light; his pleasure and his strange remarks rejoiced the father, and afforded him a glimpse into the heart of the boy, before which, as over a clear and silent sea, the sun was mounting and hovering.

In a little town the coachman halted; unyoked his horses, and rode back. Wilhelm took possession of a room, and asked himself seriously whether he would stay or proceed. Thus irresolute he ventured to take out the little note, which hitherto he had never had the heart to look on: it contained the following words: “Send thy young friend very soon; Mignon for the last two days has been growing rather worse. Sad as the occasion is, I shall be happy to get acquainted with him.”

The concluding words Wilhelm, at the first glance, had not seen. He was terrified on reading them, and instantly determined not to go. “How?” cried he, “Lothario, knowing what occurred between us, has not told her who I am? She is not, with a settled mind, expecting an acquaintance, whom she would rather not see: she expects a stranger; and I enter! I see her shudder and start back, I see her blush! No, it is impossible for me to encounter such a scene!” Just then his horses were led out and yoked: Wilhelm was determined to take off his luggage and remain. He felt extremely agitated. Hearing the maid running up-stairs to tell him, as he thought, that all was ready, he began on the spur of the instant to devise some pretext for continuing; his eyes were fixed, without attention, on the letter which he still held in his hand. “In the name of Heaven!” cried he, “what is this? It is not the hand of the Countess, it is the hand of the Amazon!”

The maid came in; requested him to walk down, and took Felix with her. “Is it possible,” exclaimed he, “is it true? What shall I do? Remain, and wait, and certify myself? Or hasten, hasten and rush into an explanation? Thou art on the way to her, and thou canst loiter? This night thou mayest see her, and thou wilt voluntarily lock thyself in prison? It is her hand; yes, it is hers! This hand calls thee; her coach is yoked to lead thee to her! Now the riddle is explained: Lothario has two sisters; my relation to the one he knows; how much I owe to the other is unknown to him. Nor is she aware that the wounded stroller, who stands indebted to her for his health, if not his life, has been received with such unmerited attention in her brother’s house.”

Felix, who was swinging to and fro in the coach, cried up to him: “Father! Come, O come! Look at the pretty clouds, the pretty colours!” “Yes, I come,” cried Wilhelm, springing down-stairs; “and all the glories of the sky, which thou, good creature, so admirest, are as nothing to the moment which I look for.”

Sitting in the coach, he recalled all the circumstances of the matter to his memory. “So this is the Natalia, then, Theresa’s friend! What a discovery: what hopes, what prospects! How strange that the fear of speaking about the one sister should have altogether concealed from me the existence of the other!” With what joy he looked on Felix! He anticipated for the child, as for himself, the best reception.

Evening at last came on; the sun had set; the road was not the best; the postillion drove slowly; Felix had fallen asleep, and new cares and doubts arose in the bosom of our friend. “What delusion, what fantasies are these that rule thee!” said he to himself: “An uncertain similarity of handwriting has at once assured thee, and given thee matter for the strangest castles in the air.” He again brought out the paper; in the departing light he again imagined that he recognised the hand of the Countess: his eyes could no longer find in the parts what his heart had at once shown him in the whole. “These horses, then, are running with thee to a scene of terror! Who knows but in a few hours they may have to bring thee back again? And if thou shouldst meet with her alone! But perhaps her husband will be there; perhaps the Baroness? How altered will she be! Shall I not fail, and sink to the earth, at sight of her?”

Yet a faint hope that it might be his Amazon, would often gleam through these gloomy thoughts. It was now night: the carriage rolled into a courtyard, and halted; a servant with a link stept out of stately portal, and came down the broad steps to the carriage-door. “You have been long looked for,” said he, opening it. Wilhelm dismounted; took the sleeping Felix in his arms: the first servant called to a second, who was standing in the door with a light: “Show the gentleman up to the Baroness.”

Quick as lightning, it went through Wilhelm’s soul: “What a happiness! Be it by accident or of purpose, the Baroness is here! I shall see her first; apparently the Countess has retired to rest. Ye good spirits, grant that the moment of deepest perplexity may pass tolerably over!”

He entered the house: he found himself in the most earnest, and, as he almost felt, the holiest place that he had ever trod. A pendent dazzling lustre threw its light upon a broad and softly rising flight of stairs, which lay before him, and which parted into two divisions at a turn above. Marble statues and busts were standing upon pedestals and arranged in niches: some of them seemed known to him. The impressions of our childhood abide with us, even in their minutest traces. He recognised a Muse, which had formerly belonged to his grandfather; not indeed by its form or worth, but by an arm which had been restored, and some new-inserted pieces of the robe. He felt as if a fairy tale had turned out to be true. The child was heavy in his arms; he lingered on the stairs, and knelt down, as if to place him more conveniently. His real want, however, was to get a moment’s breathing time. He could scarcely raise himself again. The servant, who was carrying the light, offered to take Felix; but Wilhelm could not part with him. He had now mounted to an antechamber; in which, to his still greater astonishment, he observed the well-known picture of the sick king’s son hanging on the wall. He had scarcely time to cast a look on it; the servant hurried him along through two rooms into a cabinet. Here, behind a light-screen, which threw a shadow on her, sat a young lady reading. “O that it were she!” said he within himself at this decisive moment. He set down the boy, who seemed to be awakening; he meant to approach the lady; but the child sank together drunk with sleep; the lady rose, and came to him. It was the Amazon! Unable to restrain himself, he fell upon his knee, and cried: “It is she!” He seized her hand, and kissed it with unbounded rapture. The child was lying on the carpet between them, sleeping softly.

Felix was carried to the sofa: Natalia sat down beside him; she directed Wilhelm to the chair which was standing nearest them. She proposed to order some refreshments; these our friend declined; he was altogether occupied convincing himself that it was she, closely examining her features, shaded by the screen, and accurately recognizing them. She told him of Mignon’s sickness, in general terms; that the poor child was gradually consuming under the influence of a few deep feelings; that, with her extreme excitability, and her endeavouring to hide it, her little heart often suffered violent and dangerous pains; that any unexpected agitation of her mind, this primary organ of life would suddenly stop, and no trace of the vital movement could be felt in the good child’s bosom. That when such an agonising cramp was past, the force of nature would again express itself in strong pulses, and now torment the child by its excess, as she had before suffered by its defect.

Wilhelm recollected one spasmodic scene of that description, and Natalia referred him to the doctor, who would speak with him at large on the affair, and explain more circumstantially why he, the friend and benefactor of the child, had been at present sent for. “One curious change,” Natalia added, “You will find in her: she now wears women’s clothes, to which she had once such an aversion.”

“How did you succeed in this?” said Wilhelm.

“If it was indeed a thing to be desired,” said she, “We owe it all to chance. Hear how it happened. Perhaps you are aware that I have constantly about me a number of little girls, whose opening minds I endeavour, as they grow in strength, to train to what is good and right. From my mouth they learn nothing but what I myself regard as true: yet I cannot and would not hinder them from gathering, among other people, many fragments of the common prejudices and errors which are current in the world. If they inquire of me about them, I attempt, as far as possible, to join these alien and intrusive notions to some just one, and thus to render them, if not useful, at least harmless. Some time ago, my girls had heard among the peasants’ children many tales of angels, of Knecht Rupert and such shadowy characters, who, they understood, appeared at certain times in person, to give presents to good children, and to punish naughty ones. They had an idea that these strange visitants were people in disguise: in this I confirmed them; and without entering into explanations, I determined on the first opportunity, to let them see a spectacle of that sort. It chanced that the birthday of two twin-sisters, whose behaviour had been always very good, was near; I promised that, on this occasion, the little present they had so well deserved should be delivered to them by an angel. They were on the stretch of curiosity regarding this phenomenon. I had chosen Mignon for the part; and accordingly, at the appointed day, I had her suitably equipt in a long light snow white dress. She was, of course, provided with a golden girdle round her waist, and a golden fillet on her hair. I at first proposed to omit the wings; but the young ladies who were decking her, insisted on a pair of large golden pinions, in preparing which they meant to show their highest art. Thus did the strange apparition, with a lily in the one hand, and a little basket in the other, glide in among the girls: she surprised even me. ‘There comes the angel!’ said I. The children all shrank back; at last they cried: ‘It is Mignon!’ yet they durst not venture to approach the wondrous figure.

‘Here are your gifts,’ said she, putting down the basket. They gathered around her, they viewed, they felt, they questioned her.

‘Art thou an angel?’ asked one of them.

‘I wish I were,’ said Mignon.

‘Why dost thou bear a lily?’

‘So pure and so open should my heart be; then were I happy.’

‘What wings are these? Let us see them!’

‘They represent far finer ones, which are not yet unfolded.’

“And thus significantly did she answer all their other child like, innocent inquiries. The little party having satisfied their curiosity, and the impression of the show beginning to abate, we were for proceeding to undress the little angel. This, however, she resisted: she took her cithern; she seated herself here, on this high writing-table, and sang a little song with touching grace:

  • Such let me seem till such I be;
  • Take not my snow-white dress away!
  • Soon from this dusk of earth I flee
  • Up to the glittering lands of day.
  • There first a little space I rest,
  • Then wake so glad, to scene so kind;
  • In earthly robes no longer drest,
  • This band, this girdle left behind.
  • And those calm shining sons of morn
  • They ask not who is maid or boy;
  • No robes, no garments there are worn,
  • Our body pure from sin’s alloy.
  • Through little life not much I toil’d,
  • Yet anguish long this heart has wrung,
  • Untimely woe my blossom spoil’d;
  • Make me again forever young!
  • “I immediately determined upon leaving her the dress,” proceeded Natalia; “and procuring her some others of a similar kind. These she now wears; and in them, I think, her form has quite a different expression.”

    As it was already late, Natalia let the stranger go: he parted from her not without anxiety. “Is she married or not?” asked he within himself. He had been afraid, at every rustling, that the door would open, and her husband enter. The serving-man, who showed him to his room, went off, before our friend had mustered resolution to inquire regarding this. His unrest held him long awake; he kept comparing the figure of the Amazon with the figure of his new acquaintance. The two would not combine: the former he had, as it were, himself fashioned; the latter seemed as if it would almost new-fashion him.