Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter IV

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

Book VII

Chapter IV

THE PHYSICIAN came: it was the good, old, little Doctor whom we know already, and to whom we were obliged for the communication of the pious Manuscript. First of all, he visited the wounded man; with whose condition he appeared to be by no means satisfied. He had next a long interview with Jarno: but they made no allusion to the subject of it when they came to supper.

Wilhelm saluted him in the kindest manner, and inquired about the Harper. “We have still hopes of bringing round the hapless creature,” answered the Physician. “He formed a dreary item in your limited and singular way of life,” said Jarno. “How has it fared with him? Tell me.”

Having satisfied Jarno’s curiosity, the Physician thus proceeded: “I have never seen another man so strangely circumstanced. For many years, he has not felt the smallest interest in anything without him, scarcely paid the smallest notice to it: wrapped up in himself, he has looked at nothing but his own hollow empty Me, which seemed to him like an immeasurable abyss. It was really touching, when he spoke to us of this mournful state. ‘Before me,’ cried he, ‘I see nothing; behind me nothing but an endless night, in which I live in the most horrid solitude. There is no feeling in me, but the feeling of my guilt: and this appears but like a dim formless spirit, far before me. Yet here there is no height, no depth, no forwards, no backwards; no words can express this never-changing state. Often in the agony of this sameness, I exclaim with violence: Forever! forever: and this dark incomprehensible word is clear and plain to the gloom of my condition. No ray of a Divinity illuminates this night, I shed all my tears by myself and for myself. Nothing is more horrible to me than friendship and love; for they alone excite in me the wish that the Apparitions which surround me might be real. But these two Spectres also have arisen from the abyss to plague me, and at length to tear from me the precious consciousness of my existence, unearthly though it be.’

“You should hear him speak,” continued the Physician, “when in hours of confidence he thus alleviates his heart. I have listened to him often with the deepest feelings. When pressed by anything, and as it were compelled for an instant to confess that a space of time has passed, he looks astounded, then again refers the alteration to the things about him, considering it as an appearance of appearances, and so rejecting the idea of progress in duration. One night he sung a song about his gray hairs; we all sat round him weeping.”

“O get it for me!” cried Wilhelm.

“But have you not discovered any trace of what he calls his crime?” inquired Jarno: “nor found out the reason of his wearing such a singular garb; of his conduct at the burning of the house; of his rage against the child?”

“It is only by conjectures that we can approximate to any knowledge of his fate: to question him directly, contradicts our principle. Observing easily that he was of the Catholic religion, we thought perhaps confession might afford him some assuagement; but he shrinks away, with the strangest gestures, every time we try to introduce the priest to him. However, not to leave your curiosity respecting him entirely unsatisfied, I may communicate our suppositions on the subject. In his youth, we think, he must have been a clergyman: hence probably his wish to keep his beard and long cloak. The joys of love appear to have remained for many years unknown to him. Late in life, as we conceive, some aberration with a lady very nearly related to him; then her death, the consequence of an unlucky creature’s birth, have altogether crazed his brain.

“His chief delusion is a fancy that he brings misfortune everywhere along with him; and that death, to be unwittingly occasioned by a boy, is constantly impending over him. At first he was afraid of Mignon, not knowing that she was a girl; then Felix frightened him; and as, with all his misery, he has a boundless love of life, this may perhaps have been the origin of his aversion to the child.”

“What hopes have you of his recovery?” inquired our friend.

“It advances slowly,” answered the Physician; “yet it does advance. He continues his appointed occupations: we have now accustomed him to read the newspapers; he always looks for them with eagerness.”

“I am curious about his songs,” said Jarno.

“Of these I can engage to get you several,” replied the Doctor. “Our parson’s eldest son, who frequently writes down his father’s sermons, has, unnoticed by the Harper, marked on paper many stanzas of his singing; out of which some songs have gradually been pieced together.”

Next morning Jarno met our friend, and said to him: “We have to ask a kindness of you. Lydia must, for some time, be removed: her violent unreasonable love and passionateness hinders the Baron’s recovery. His wound requires rest and calmness, though with his healthy temperament it is not dangerous. You see how Lydia tortures him with her tempestuous anxieties, her ungovernable terrors, her never-drying tears; and—Enough!” he added with a smile, after pausing for a moment, “our Doctor expressly requires that she must quit us for a while. We have got her to believe that a lady, one of her most intimate friends, is at present in the neighbourhood, wishing and expecting instantly to see her. She has been prevailed upon to undertake a journey to our lawyer’s, which is but two leagues off. This man is in the secret; he will wofully lament that Fräulein Theresa should just have left him again; he will seem to think she may still be overtaken. Lydia will hasten after her; and if you prosper, will be led from place to place. At last, if she insist on turning back, you must not contradict her; but the night will help you; the coachman is a cunning knave, and we shall speak with him before he goes. You are to travel with her in the coach, to talk to her, and manage the adventure.”

“It is a strange and dubious commission that you give me,” answered Wilhelm: “How painful is the sight of true love injured! And am I to be the instrument of injuring it? I have never cheated any person so; for it has always seemed to me that if we once begin deceiving with a view to good and useful purposes, we run the risk of carrying it to excess.”

“Yet you cannot manage children otherwise,” said Jarno.

“With children it may do,” said Wilhelm; “for we love them tenderly, and take an open charge of them. But with our equals, in behalf of whom our heart is not so sure to call upon us for forbearance, it might frequently be dangerous. Yet do not think,” he added, after pausing for a moment, “that I intend to decline the task on this account. Honouring your judgment, as I do, feeling such attachment to your noble friend, such eagerness to forward his recovery by whatever means, I willingly forget myself and my opinions. It is not enough that we can risk our life to serve a friend; in the hour of need we should also yield him our convictions. Our dearest passions, our best wishes we are bound to sacrifice in helping him. I undertake the charge; though it is easy to foresee the pain I shall have to suffer from the tears, from the despair of Lydia.”

“And for this, no small reward awaits you,” answered Jarno: “Fräulein Theresa, whom you get acquainted with, is a lady such as you will rarely see. She puts many a man to shame: I may say, she is a genuine Amazon; while others are but pretty counterfeits, that wander up and down the world in that ambiguous dress.”

Wilhelm was struck: he almost fancied that in Theresa he would find his Amazon again; especially as Jarno, whom he importuned to tell him more, broke off abruptly, and went away.

The new, near hope of once more seeing that beloved and honoured being, awoke a thousand feelings in his heart. He now looked upon the task, which had been given him, as the intervention of a special Providence; the thought that he was minded treacherously to carry off a helpless girl from the object of her sincerest warmest love, dwelt but a moment in his mind, as the shadow of a bird flits over the sunshiny earth.

The coach was at the door; Lydia lingered for a moment, as she was about to mount. “Salute your lord again for me,” said she to the old servant; “tell him that I shall be home before night.” Tears were standing in her eyes, as she again looked back when the carriage started. She then turned round to Wilhelm; made an effort to compose herself, and said: “In Fräulein Theresa you will find a very interesting person. I wonder what it is that brings her hither: for, you must know, Lothario and she once passionately loved each other. In spite of the distance, he often used to visit her: I was staying with her then; I thought they would have lived and died for one another. But all at once it went to wreck, no creature could discover why. He had seen me, and I must confess that I was envious of Theresa’s fortune; that I scarcely hid my love from him; that when he suddenly appeared to choose me in her stead, I could not but accept of him. She behaved to me beyond my wishes; though it almost seemed as if I had robbed her of this precious lover. But ah, how many thousand tears and pains that love of his has cost me! At first we met only now and then, and by stealth, at some appointed place; but I could not long endure that kind of life; in his presence only was I happy, wholly happy! Far from him, my eyes were never dry, my pulse was never calm. Once he stayed away for several days: I was altogether in despair; I ordered out my carriage, and surprised him here. He received me tenderly; and had not this unlucky quarrel happened, I should have led a heavenly life with him. But since the time when he began to be in danger and in pain, I shall not say what I have suffered: at this moment I am bitterly reproaching myself, that I could leave him for a single day.”

Wilhelm was proceeding to inquire about Theresa, when they reached the lawyer’s house. This gentleman came forward to the coach, lamenting wofully that Fräulein Theresa was already gone. He invited them to breakfast; signifying, however, that the lady might be overtaken in the nearest village. They determined upon following her: the coachman did not loiter; they had soon passed several villages, and yet come up with nobody. Lydia now gave orders for returning; the coachman drove along, as if he did not understand her. As she insisted with redoubled vehemence, Wilhelm called to him, and gave the promised token. The coachman answered, that it was not necessary to go back by the same road; he knew a shorter, and at the same time greatly easier one. He now turned aside across a wood, and over large commons. At last, no object they could recognise appearing, he confessed that unfortunately he had lost his way; declaring at the same time that he would soon get right again, as he saw a little town before him. Night came on; the coachman managed so discreetly that he asked everywhere, and nowhere waited for an answer. He drove along all night: Lydia never closed an eye; in the moonshine she was constantly detecting similarities, which as constantly turned out to be dissimilar. In the morning, things around seemed known to her, and but more strange on that account. The coach drew up before a neat little country-house; a young lady stepped out, and opened the carriage-door. Lydia looked at her with a stare of wonder; looked round; looked at her again; and fainted in the arms of Wilhelm.