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

Book IV

Chapter IV

OUR friends had to continue in the place for a day or two; and it was not long till sundry of them got engaged in adventures of a rather pleasant kind. Laertes in particular was challenged by a lady of the neighbourhood, a person of some property; but he received her blandishments with extreme, nay unhandsome coldness; and had in consequence to undergo a multitude of jibes from Philina. She took this opportunity of detailing to our friend the hapless love-story which had made the youth so bitter a foe to womankind. “Who can take it ill of him,” she cried, “that he hates a sex which has played him so foul, and given him to swallow, in one stoutly concentrated potion, all the miseries that man can fear from woman? Do but conceive it: within four and twenty hours he was lover, bridegroom, husband, cuckold, patient and widower! I wot not how you could use a man worse.”

Laertes hastened from the room half-vexed, half-laughing; and Philina in her sprightliest style began to relate the story: how Laertes, a young man of eighteen, on joining a company of actors, found in it a girl of fourteen on the point of departing with her father, who had quarrelled with the manager. How, on the instant, he had fallen mortally in love; had conjured the father by all possible considerations to remain, promising at length to marry young woman. How, after a few pleasing hours of groomship, he had accordingly been wedded, and been happy as he ought; whereupon, next day, while he was occupied at the rehearsal, his wife, according to professional rule, had honoured him with a pair of horns; and how as he, out of excessive tenderness, hastening home far too soon, had, alas, found a former lover in his place, he had struck into the affair with thoughtless indignation, had called out both father and lover, and sustained a grievous wound in the duel. How father and daughter had thereupon set off by night, leaving him behind to labour with a double hurt. How the leech he applied to was unhappily the worst in nature; and the poor fellow had got out of the adventure with blackened teeth and watering eyes. That he was greatly to be pitied, being otherwise the bravest young man on the face of the earth. “Especially,” said she, “it grieves me that the poor soul now hates women; for, hating women, how can one keep living?”

Melina interrupted them with news, that all things being now ready for the journey, they would set out tomorrow morning. He handed them a plan, arranging how they were to travel.

“If any good friend take me on his lap,” said Philina, “I shall be content, though we sit crammed together never so close and sorrily: ’tis all one to me.”

“It does not signify,” observed Laertes, who now entered. “It is pitiful,” said Wilhelm, hastening away. By the aid of money he secured another very comfortable coach, though Melina had pretended that there were no more. A new distribution then took place; and our friends were rejoicing in the thought that they should now travel pleasantly, when intelligence arrived that a party of military volunteers had been seen upon the road, from whom little good could be expected.

In the town, these tidings were received with great attention, though they were but variable and ambiguous. As the contending armies were at that time placed, it seemed impossible that any hostile corps could have advanced, or any friendly on hung arear, so far. Yet every man was eager to exhibit to our travellers the danger that awaited them as truly dangerous; every man was eager to suggest that some other route might be adopted.

By these means, most of our friends had been seized with anxiety and fear; and when, according to the new republican constitution, the whole members of the state had been called together to take counsel on this extraordinary case, they were almost unanimously of opinion that it would be proper either to keep back the mischief by abiding where they were, or to evade it by choosing another road.

Wilhelm alone, not participating in the panic, regarded it as mean to abandon, for the sake of mere rumours, a plan which they had not entered on without much thought. He endeavoured to put heart into them; his reasons were manly and convincing.

“It is but a rumour,” he observed; “and how many such arise in time of war! Well-informed people say that the occurrence is exceedingly improbable, nay almost impossible. Shall we, in so important a matter, allow a vague report to determine our proceedings? The route pointed out to us by the Count, and to which our passport was adapted, is the shortest and in the best condition. It leads us to the town, where you see acquaintances, friends before you, and may hope for a good reception. The other way will also bring us thither; but by what a circuit, and along what miserable roads! Have we any right to hope, that, in this late season of the year, we shall get on at all; and what time and money shall we squander in the mean while!” He added many more considerations, presenting the matter on so many advantageous sides, that their fear began to dissipate, and their courage to increase. He talked to them so much about the discipline of regular troops, he painted the marauders and wandering rabble so contemptuously, and represented the danger itself as so pleasant and inspiring, that the spirits of the party were altogether cheered.

Laertes from the first had been of his opinion; he now declared that he would not flinch or fail. Old Boisterous found a consenting phrase or two to utter, in his own vein; Philina laughed at them all; and Madam Melina, who, notwithstanding her advanced state of pregnancy, had lost nothing of her natural stout-heartedness, regarded the proposal as heroic. Herr Melina, moved by this harmonious feeling, hoping also to save somewhat by travelling the short road which had been first contemplated, did not withstand the general consent; and the project was agreed to with universal alacrity.

They next began to make some preparations for defence at all hazards. They bought large hangers, and slung them in well-quilted straps over their shoulders. Wilhelm, farther, stuck a pair of pistols in his girdle. Laertes, independently of this occurrence, had a good gun. They all took the road in the highest glee.

On the second day of their journey, the drivers, who knew the country well, proposed to take their noon’s rest in a certain woody spot of the hills; since the town was far off, and in good weather the hill road was generally preferred.

The day being beautiful, all easily agreed to the proposal. Wilhelm on foot went on before them through the hills; making every one that met him stare with astonishment at his singular figure. He hastened with quick contented steps across the forest: Laertes walked whistling after him; none but the women continued to be dragged along in the carriages. Mignon too ran forward by his side, proud of the hanger, which, when the party were all arming, she would not go without. Around her hat she had bound the pearl necklace, one of Mariana’s reliques, which Wilhelm still possessed. Friedrich, the fair-haired boy, carried Laertes’ gun. The Harper had the most pacific look; his long cloak was tucked up within his girdle, to let him walk more freely; he leaned upon a knotty staff; his harp had been left behind him in the carriage.

Immediately on reaching the summit of the height, a task not without its difficulties, our party recognised the appointed spot, by the fine beech-trees which encircled and screened it. A spacious green, sloping softly in the middle of the forest, invited one to tarry; a trimly-bordered well offered the most grateful refreshment; and on the farther side, through chasms in the mountains, and over the tops of the woods, appeared a landscape distant, lovely, full of hope. Hamlets and mills were lying in the bottoms, villages upon the plain; and a new chain of mountains, visible in the distance, made the prospect still more significant of hope, for they entered only like a soft limitation.

The first comers took possession of the place; rested a while in the shade, lighted a fire, and so awaited, singing as they worked, the remainder of the party; who by degrees arrived, and with one accord saluted the place, the lovely weather, and the still lovelier scene.