Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter III

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


Chapter III

NEXT morning, while all was yet quiet, he went about viewing the house. It was the purest, finest, stateliest piece of architecture he had ever seen. “True art,” cried he, “is like good company: it constrains us in the most delightful way to recognise the measure by which, and up to which, our inward nature has been shaped by culture.” The impression which the busts and statues of his grandfather made upon him was exceedingly agreeable. With a longing mind, he hastened to the picture of the sick king’s son; and he still felt it to be charming and affecting. The servant opened to him various other chambers: he found a library, a museum, a cabinet of philosophical instruments. In much of this he could not help perceiving his extreme ignorance. Meanwhile Felix had awakened, and come running after him. The thought of how and when he might receive Theresa’s letter gave him pain; he dreaded seeing Mignon, and in some degree Natalia. How unlike his present state was his state at the moment when he sealed the letter to Theresa, and with a glad heart wholly gave himself to that noble being!

Natalia sent for him to breakfast. He proceeded to a room, where several tidy little girls, all apparently below ten years, were occupied in furnishing a table, while another of the same appearance brought in various sorts of beverage.

Wilhelm cast his eye upon a picture, hung above the sofa; he could not but recognise in it the portrait of Natalia, little as the execution satisfied him. Natalia entered, and the likeness seemed entirely to vanish. To his comfort, it was painted with the cross of a religious order on its breast; and he now saw another such upon Natalia’s.

“I have just been looking at the portrait here,” said he; “and it seems surprising that a painter could have been at once so true and so false. The picture resembles you in general extremely well, and yet it neither has your features nor your character.”

“It is rather matter of surprise,” replied Natalia, “that the likeness is so good. It is not my picture; but the picture of an aunt, whom I resembled even in childhood, though she was then advanced in years. It was painted when her age was just about what mine is: at the first glance every one imagines it is meant for me. You should have been acquainted with that excellent lady. I owe her much. A very weak state of health, perhaps too much employment with her own thoughts, and withal a moral and religious scrupulosity, prevented her from being to the world what, in other circumstances, she might have become. She was a light that shone but on a few friends, and on me especially.”

“Can it be possible,” said Wilhelm, after thinking for a moment, while so many circumstances seemed to correspond so well, “can it be possible that the fair and noble Saint, whose meek Confessions I had liberty to study, was your aunt?”

“You read the manuscript?” inquired Natalia.

“Yes,” said Wilhelm, “with the greatest sympathy, and not without effect upon my life. What most impressed me in this paper was, if I may term it so, the purity of being, not only of the writer herself, but of all that lay round her; that self-dependence of nature, that impossibility of admitting anything into her soul which would not harmonise with its own noble lovely tone.”

“You are more tolerant to this fine spirit,” said Natalia, “nay I will say more just, than many other men, to whom the narrative has been imparted. Every cultivated person knows how he has had to strive against a certain rudeness both in himself and others; how much his culture costs him; how apt he is, after all, in certain cases, to recollect himself alone, forgetting what he owes to others. How often has a worthy person to reproach himself for having failed to act with proper delicacy! And when a fair nature too delicately, too conscientiously cultivates, nay, if you will, overcultivates itself, there seems to be no toleration, no indulgence for it in the world. Yet such persons are, without us, what the ideal of perfection is within us: models not for being imitated, but for being aimed at. We laugh at the cleanliness of the Dutch: but would our friend Theresa be what she is, if some such notion were not always present to her in her housekeeping?”

“I see before me then,” cried Wilhelm, “in Theresa’s friend, the same Natalia whom her amiable relative was so attached to; the Natalia, who from her youth was so affectionate, so sympathising and helpful! It was only out of such a line that such a being could proceed. What a prospect opens before me, while I at once survey your ancestors, and all the circle you belong to!”

“Yes,” replied Natalia, “in a certain sense, the story of my aunt would give you the faithfulest picture of us. Her love to me, indeed, has made her praise the little girl too much: in speaking of a child, we never speak of what is present, but of what we hope for.”

Wilhelm, in the mean time, was rapidly reflecting that Lothario’s parentage and early youth were now likewise known to him. The fair Countess, too, appeared before him in her childhood, with the aunt’s pearls about her neck: he himself had been near those pearls, when her soft lovely lips bent down to meet his own. These beautiful remembrances he sought to drive away by other thoughts. He ran through the characters to whom that manuscript had introduced him. “I am here then,” cried he, “in your worthy uncle’s house! It is no house, it is a temple, and you are the priestess, nay the Genius of it: I shall recollect for life my impression yesternight, when I entered, and the old figures of my earliest days were again before me. I thought of the compassionate marble statues in Mignon’s song: but these figures had not to lament about me; they looked upon me with a lofty earnestness, they brought my first years into immediate contact with the present moment. That ancient treasure of our family, the joy of my grandfather, I find here placed among so many other noble works of art; and myself, whom nature made the darling of the good old man, my unworthy self I find here also, Heavens! in what society, in what connexions!”

The girls had by degrees gone out to mind their little occupations. Natalia, left alone with Wilhelm, asked some farther explanation of his last remark. The discovery, that a number of her finest paintings and statues had at one time been the property of Wilhelm’s grandfather, did not fail to give a cheerful stimulus to their discourse. As by that manuscript he had got acquainted with Natalia’s house, so now he found himself too, as it were, in his inheritance. At length he asked for Mignon. His friend desired him to have patience till the Doctor, who had been called out into the neighbourhood, returned. It is easy to suppose that the Doctor was the same little active man, whom we already know, and who was spoken of in the Confessions of a Fair Saint.

“Since I am now,” said Wilhelm, “in the middle of your family circle, I presume the Abbé, whom that paper mentions, is the strange inexplicable person, whom, after the most singular series of events, I met with in your brother’s house? Perhaps you can give some more accurate conception of him?”

“Of the Abbé there might much be said,” replied Natalia: “what I know best about him is the influence which he exerted on our education. He was, for a time at least, convinced that education ought in every case to be adapted to the inclinations: his present views of it I know not. He maintained that with man the first and last consideration was activity, and that we could not act on anything, without the proper gifts for it, without an instinct impelling us to it. ‘You admit,’ he used to say, “that poets must be born such; you admit this with regard to all professors of the fine arts; because you must admit it, because those workings of human nature cannot very plausibly be aped. But if we consider well, we shall find that every capability, however slight, is born with us: that there is no vague general capability in men. It is our ambiguous dissipating education that makes men uncertain: it awakens wishes, when it should be animating tendencies; instead of forwarding our real capacities, it turns our efforts towards objects which are frequently discordant with the mind that aims at them. I augur better of a child, a youth who is wandering astray on a path of his own, than of many who are walking aright upon paths which are not theirs. If the former, either by themselves, or by the guidance of others, ever find the right path, that is to say, the path which suits their nature, they will never leave it; while the latter are in danger every moment of shaking off a foreign yoke, and abandoning themselves to unrestricted license.”’

“It is strange,” said Wilhelm, “that this same extraordinary man should likewise have taken charge of me; should, as it seems, have, in his own fashion, if not led, at least confirmed me in my errors, for a time. How he will answer to the change of having joined with others, as it were, to make game of me, I wait patiently to see.”

“Of this whim, if it is one,” said Natalia, “I have little reason to complain: of all the family I answered best with it. Indeed I see not how Lothario could have got a finer breeding: but for my sister, the Countess, some other treatment might have suited better; perhaps they should have studied to infuse more earnestness and strength into her nature. As to brother Friedrich, what is to become of him cannot be conjectured: he will fall a sacrifice, I fear, to this experiment in pedagogy.”

“You have another brother, then?” cried Wilhelm.

“Yes,” replied Natalia; “and a light merry youth he is; and as they have not hindered him from roaming up and down the world, I know not what the wild dissipated boy will turn to. It is a great while since I saw him. The only thing which calms my fears is, that the Abbé, and the whole society about my brother, are receiving constant notice where he is and what he does.”

Wilhelm was about to ask Natalia her opinion more precisely on the Abbé’s paradoxes, as well as to solicit information about that mysterious society; but the Physician entering changed their conversation. After the first compliments of welcome, he began to speak of Mignon.

Natalia then took Felix by the hand, saying she would lead the child to Mignon, and prepare her for the entrance of her friend.

The Doctor, now alone with Wilhelm, thus proceeded: “I have wondrous things to tell you; such as you are not anticipating. Natalia has retired, that we might speak with greater liberty of certain matters, which, although I first learned them by her means, her presence would prevent us from discussing freely. The strange temper of the child seems to consist almost exclusively of deep longing; the desire of revisiting her native land, and the desire for you, my friend, are, I might almost say, the only earthly things about her. Both these feelings do but grasp towards an immeasurable distance, both objects lie before her unattainable. The neighbourhood of Milan seems to be her home: in very early childhood she was kidnapped from her parents by a company of rope-dancers. A more distinct account we cannot get from her, partly because she was then too young to recollect the names of men and places; but especially because she has made an oath to tell no living mortal her abode and parentage. For the strolling party, who came up with her when she had lost her way, and to whom she so accurately described her dwelling, with such piercing entreaties to conduct her home, but carried her along with them the faster; and at night in their quarters, when they thought the child was sleeping, joked about their precious capture, declaring she would never find the way home again. On this, a horrid desperation fell upon the miserable creature; but at last the Holy Virgin rose before her eyes, and promised that she would assist her. The child then swore within herself a sacred oath, that she would henceforth trust no human creature, would disclose her history to no one, but live and die in hope of immediate aid from Heaven. Even this, which I am telling you, Natalia did not learn expressly from her; but gathered it from detached expressions, songs and childlike inadvertencies, betraying what they meant to hide.”

Wilhelm called to memory many a song and word of this dear child, which he could now explain. He earnestly requested the Physician to keep from him none of the confessions or mysterious poetry of this peculiar being.

“Prepare yourself,” said the Physician, “for a strange confession; for a story with which you, without remembering it, have much to do; and which, as I greatly fear, has been decisive for the death and life of this good creature.”

“Let me hear,” said Wilhelm; “my impatience is unbounded.”

“Do you recollect a secret nightly visit from a female,” said the Doctor, “after your appearance in the character of Hamlet?”

“Yes, I recollect it well,” cried Wilhelm blushing, “but I did not look to be reminded of it at the present moment.”

“Do you know who it was?”

“I do not! You frighten me! In the name of Heaven, not Mignon surely? Who was it? Tell me, pray.”

“I know it not myself.”

“Not Mignon, then?”

“No, certainly not Mignon: but Mignon was intending at the time to glide in to you: and saw, with horror, from a corner where she lay concealed, a rival get before her.”

“A rival!” cried our friend: “Speak on, you more and more confound me.”

“Be thankful,” said the Doctor, “that you can arrive at the result so soon through means of me. Natalia and I, with but a distant interest in the matter, had distress enough to undergo, before we could thus far discover the perplexed condition of the poor dear creature, whom we wished to help. By some wanton speeches of Philina and the other girls, by a certain song which she had heard Philina sing, the child’s attention had been roused; she longed to pass a night beside the man she loved, without conceiving anything to be implied in this beyond a happy and confiding rest. A love for you, my friend, was already keen and powerful in her little heart; in your arms, the child had found repose from many a sorrow; she now desired this happiness in all its fulness. At one time she proposed to ask you for it in a friendly manner; but a secret horror always held her back. At last, that night and the excitement of abundant wine inspired her with the courage to attempt the adventure, and glide in to you on that occasion. Accordingly she ran before, to hide herself in your apartment, which was standing open; but just when she had reached the top of the stairs, having heard a rustling, she concealed herself, and saw a female in a white dress slip into your chamber. You yourself arrived soon after, and she heard you push the large bolt.

“Mignon’s agony was now unutterable: all the violent feelings of a passionate jealousy mingled themselves with the unacknowledged longing of obscure desire, and seized her half-developed nature with tremendous force. Her heart, which hitherto had beaten violently with eagerness and expectation, now at once began to falter and stop; it pressed her bosom like a heap of lead; she could not draw her breath, she knew not what to do; she heard the sound of the old man’s harp, hastened to the garret where he was, and passed the night at his feet in horrible convulsions.”

The Physician paused a moment; then, as Wilhelm still kept silence, he proceeded: “Natalia told me, nothing in her life had so alarmed and touched her as the state of Mignon while relating this: indeed, our noble friend accused herself of cruelty in having, by her questions and management, drawn this confession from her, and renewed by recollection the violent sorrows of the poor little girl.

“‘The dear creature,’ said Natalia, ‘had scarcely come so far with her recital, or rather with her answers to my questions, when she sank all at once before me on the ground and with her hand on her bosom piteously moaned that the pain of that excruciating night was come back. She twisted herself like a worm upon the floor; and I had to summon all my composure, that I might remember and apply such means of remedy for mind and body as were known to me.’”

“It is a painful predicament you put me in,” cried Wilhelm, “by impressing me so vividly with the feeling of my manifold injustice towards this unhappy and beloved being, at the very moment when I am again to meet her. If she is to see me, why do you deprive me of the courage to appear with freedom? And shall I confess it to you? Since her mind is so affected, I perceive not how my presence can be advantageous to her. If you, as a Physician, are persuaded that this double longing has so undermined her being as to threaten death, why should I renew her sorrows by my presence, and perhaps accelerate her end?”

“My friend,” replied the Doctor, “where we cannot cure. it is our duty to alleviate; and how much the presence of a loved object tends to take from the imagination its destructive power, how it changes an impetuous longing to a peaceful looking, I could prove by the most convincing instances. Everything in measure and with purpose! For, in other cases, this same presence may rekindle an affection nigh extinguished. But do you go and see the child; behave to her with kindness, and let us wait the consequence.”

Natalia, at this moment coming back, bade Wilhelm follow her to Mignon. “She appears to feel quite happy with the boy,” observed Natalia, “and I hope she will receive our friend with mildness.” Wilhelm followed, not without reluctance: he was deeply moved by what he had been hearing; he feared a stormy scene of passion. It was altogether the reverse that happened on his entrance.

Mignon, dressed in long white women’s clothes, with her brown copious hair partly knotted, partly clustering out in locks, was sitting with the boy Felix on her lap, and pressing him against her heart. She looked like a departed spirit, he like life itself: it seemed as if Heaven and Earth were clasping one another. She held out her hand to Wilhelm with a smile, and said: “I thank thee for bringing back the child to me: they had taken him away, I know not how, and since then I could not live. So long as my heart needs anything on earth, thy Felix shall fill up the void.”

The quietness, which Mignon had displayed on meeting with her friend, produced no little satisfaction in the party. The Doctor signified that Wilhelm should go frequently and see her; that in body as in mind she should be kept as equable as possible. He himself departed, promising to return soon.

Wilhelm could now observe Natalia in her own circle: one would have desired nothing better than to live beside her. Her presence had the purest influence on the girls, and young ladies of various ages, who resided with her in the house, or came to pay her visits from the neighbourhood.

“The progress of your life,” said Wilhelm once to her, “must always have been very even; your aunt’s delineation of you in your childhood seems, if I mistake not, still to fit. It is easy to see, that you never were entangled in your path. You have never been compelled to retrograde.”

“This I owe to my uncle and the Abbé,” said Natalia, “who so well discriminated my prevailing turn of mind. From my youth upwards, I can recollect no livelier feeling than that I was constantly observing people’s wants, and had an irresistible desire to make them up. The child that had not learned to stand on its feet, the old man that could no longer stand on his; the longing of a rich family for children, the inability of a poor one to maintain their children; each silent wish for some particular species of employment, the impulse towards any talent, the natural gifts for many little necessary arts of life, were sure to strike me: my eye seemed formed by nature for detecting them. I saw such things, where no one had directed my attention; I seemed born for seeing them alone. The charms of inanimate nature, to which so many persons are exceedingly susceptible, had no effect upon me; the charms of art, if possible, had less. My most delightful occupation was and is, when a deficiency, a want appeared before me anywhere, to set about devising a supply, a remedy, a help for it.

“If I saw a poor creature in rags, the superfluous clothes I had noticed hanging in the wardrobes of my friends immediately occurred to me; if I saw children wasting for want of care, I was sure to recollect some lady I had found oppressed with tedium amid riches and conveniences: if I saw too many persons crammed into a narrow space, I thought they should be lodged in the spacious chambers of palaces and vacant houses. This mode of viewing things was altogether natural, without the least reflection; so that in my childhood I often made the strangest work of it, and more than once embarrassed people by my singular proposals. Another of my peculiarities was this, I did not learn till late, and after many efforts, to consider money as a means of satisfying wants: my benefits were all distributed in kind, and my simplicity, I know, was frequently the cause of laughter. None but the Abbé seemed to understand me; he met me everywhere; he made me acquainted with myself, with these wishes, these tendencies, and taught me how to satisfy them suitably.”

“Do you then,” said Wilhelm, “in the education of your little female world employ the method of these extraordinary men? Do you too leave every mind to form itself? Do you too leave your girls to search and wander, to pursue delusions, happily to reach the goal, or miserably lose themselves in error?”

“No!” replied Natalia: “such treatment as that would altogether contradict my notions. To my mind, he who does not help us at the needful moment, never helps; he who does not counsel at the needful moment, never counsels. I also reckon it essential that we lay down and continually impress on children certain laws, to operate as a kind of hold in life. Nay, I could almost venture to assert that it is better to be wrong by rule, than to be wrong with nothing but the fitful caprices of our disposition to impel us hither and thither: and in my way of viewing men, there always seems to be a void in their nature, which cannot be filled up, except by some decisive and distinctly settled law.”

“Your manner of proceeding then,” said Wilhelm, “is entirely different from the manner of our friends?”

“Yes,” replied Natalia: “and you may see the unexampled tolerance of these men, from the fact, that they nowise disturb me in my practice; but leave me on my own path, simply because it is my own, and even assist me in everything that I require of them.”

A more minute description of Natalia’s plans in managing her children we reserve for some other opportunity.

Mignon often asked to be of their society; and this they granted her with greater readiness, as she appeared to be again accustoming herself to Wilhelm, to be opening her heart to him, and in general to have become more cheerful and contented with existence. In walking, being easily fatigued, she liked to hang upon his arm. “Mignon,” she would say, “now climbs and bounds no more; yet she still longs to mount the summit of the hills, to skip from house to house, from tree to tree. How enviable are the birds; and then so prettily and socially they build their nests too!”

Ere long it became habitual for her to invite her friend, more than once every day, into the garden. When Wilhelm was engaged or absent, Felix had to take his place; and if poor Mignon seemed at times quite loosened from the earth, there were other moments when she would again hold fast to father and son, and seem to dread a separation from them more than anything beside.

Natalia wore a thoughtful look. “We meant,” said she, “to open her tender little heart, by sending for you hither. I know not whether we did prudently.” She stopped, and seemed expecting Wilhelm to say something. To him also it occurred that by his marriage with Teresa, Mignon, in the present circumstances, would be fearfully offended: but in his uncertainty he did not venture mentioning his project; he had no suspicion that Natalia knew of it.

As little could he talk with freedom, when his noble friend began to speak about her sister; to praise her good qualities, and to lament her hapless situation. He felt exceedingly embarrassed when Natalia told him he would shortly see the Countess here. “Her husband,” said she, “has now no object but replacing Zinzendorf in the Community; and by insight and activity supporting and extending that establishment. He is coming with his wife, to take a sort of leave; he then purposes visiting the various spots where the Community have settled. They appear to treat him as he wishes: and I should not wonder if, in order to be altogether like his predecessor, he ventured, with my sister, on a voyage to America; for being already well-nigh convinced that a little more would make a saint of him, the wish to superadd the dignity of martyrdom has probably enough often flitted through his mind.”