Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter IV

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


Chapter IV

THEY had often spoken of Theresa, often mentioned her in passing; and Wilhelm almost every time was minded to confess that he had offered her his heart and hand. A certain feeling, which he was not able to explain, restrained him; he paused and wavered, till at length Natalia, with the heavenly modest cheerful smile she often wore, said to him: “It seems, then, I at last must break silence, and force myself into your confidence! Why, my friend, do you keep secret from me an affair of such importance to yourself, and so closely touching my concerns? You have made my friend the offer of your hand: I do not mix uncalled in the transaction: here are my credentials; here is the letter which she writes to you, which she sends you through my hands.”

“A letter from Theresa!” cried he.

“Yes, mein herr! Your destiny is settled; you are happy. Let me congratulate my friend and you on your good fortune.”

Wilhelm spoke not, but gazed out before him. Natalia looked at him; she saw that he was pale. “Your joy is strong,” continued she; “it takes the form of terror, it deprives you of the power to speak. My participation is not the less cordial that I show it you in words. I hope you will be grateful: for I may say, my influence on the decision of your bride has not been small: she asked me for advice; and as it happened, by a singular coincidence, that you were here just then, I was enabled to destroy the few scruples she still entertained. Our messages went swiftly to and fro: here is her determination; here is the conclusion of the treaty! And now you shall read her other letters, you shall have a free clear look into the fair heart of your Theresa.”

Wilhelm opened the letter which she handed him unsealed. It contained these friendly words:

“I am yours, as I am and as you know me. I call you mine, as you are and as I know you. What in ourselves, what in our connexion wedlock changes, we shall study to adjust, by reason, cheerfulness and mutual goodwill. As it is no passion, but trust and inclination for each other that is leading us together, we run less risk than thousands of others. You will forgive me, will you not, if I still think often and kindly of my former friend; in return, I will press your Felix to my heart, as if I were his mother. If you choose to share my little mansion straightway, we are lord and master there, and in the mean while the purchase of your land might be concluded. I could wish that no new arrangements were made in it without me. I could wish at once to prove that I deserve the confidence which you repose in me. Adieu, dear, dear Friend! Beloved Bridegroom, honoured Husband! Theresa clasps you to her breast with hope and joy. My friend will tell you more, will tell you all.”

Wilhelm, to whose mind this sheet recalled the image of Theresa with the liveliest distinctness, had now recovered his composure. While reading, thoughts had rapidly alternated within his soul. With terror, he discovered in his heart the most vivid traces of an inclination to Natalia: he blamed himself, declaring every thought of that description to be madness; he represented to himself Theresa in her whole perfection; he again perused the letter, he grew cheerful, or rather he so far regained his self-possession that he could appear cheerful. Natalia handed him the letters which had passed between Theresa and herself: out of Theresa’s we propose extracting one or two passages.

After delineating her bridegroom in her own peculiar way, Theresa thus proceeded:

  • “Such is the notion I have formed of the man who now offers me his hand. What he thinks of himself thou shalt see by and by, in the papers he has sent me, where he altogether candidly draws his own portrait; I feel persuaded that I shall be happy with him.”
  • “As to rank, thou knowest my ideas on this point long ago. Some people look on disagreement of external circumstances as a fearful thing, and cannot remedy it. I wish not to persuade any one, I wish to act according to my own persuasion. I mean not to set others an example, nor do I act without example. It is interior disagreements only that frighten me: a frame that does not fit what it is meant to hold; much pomp and little real enjoyment; wealth and avarice, nobility and rudeness, youth and pedantry, poverty and ceremonies,—these are the things which would annihilate me, however it may please the world to stamp and rate them.”
  • “If I hope that we shall suit each other, the hope is chiefly founded upon this, that he resembles thee, my dear Natalia, thee, whom I so highly prize and reverence. Yes, he has thy noble searching and striving for the Better, whereby we of ourselves produce the Good which we suppose we find. How often have I blamed thee, not in silence, for treating this or that person, for acting in this or that case, otherwise than I should have done! and yet in general the issue showed that thou wert right. ‘When we take people,’ thou wouldst say, ‘merely as they are, we make them worse; when we treat them as if they were what they should be, we improve them as far as they can be improved.’ To see or to act thus, I know full well is not for me. Skill, order, discipline, direction, that is my affair. I always recollect what Jarno said: ‘Theresa trains her pupils, Natalia forms them.’ Nay once he went so far as to assert that of the three fair qualities, faith, love and hope, I was entirely destitute. ‘Instead of faith,’ said he, ‘she has penetration, instead of love she has steadfastness, instead of hope she has trust.’ Indeed I will confess that till I knew thee, I knew nothing higher in the world than clearness and prudence: it was thy presence only that persuaded, animated, conquered me; to thy fair lofty soul I willingly give place. My friend too I honour on the same principle; the description of his life is a perpetual seeking without finding; not empty seeking, but wondrous generous seeking; he fancies others may give him what can proceed from himself alone. So, love, the clearness of my vision has not injured me, on this occasion, more than others: I know my husband better than he knows himself, and I value him the more. I see him, yet I see not over him; all my skill will not enable me to judge of what he can accomplish. When I think of him, his image always blends itself with thine: I know not how I have deserved to belong to two such persons. But I will deserve it, by endeavouring to do my duty, by fulfilling what is looked for from me.”
  • “If I recollect Lothario? Vividly and daily. In the company which in thought surrounds me, I cannot want him for a moment. O, what a pity for this noble character, related by an error of his youth to me, that nature has related him to thee! A being such as thou, in truth, were worthier of him than I. To thee I could, I would surrender him. Let us be to him all we can, till he find a proper wife; and then too let us be, let us abide together.”
  • “But what shall we say to our friends?” began Natalia.—“Your brother does not know of it?”—“Not a hint; your people know as little: we women have, on this occasion, managed the affair ourselves. Lydia had put some whims into Theresa’s head concerning Jarno and the Abbé. There are certain plans and secret combinations, with the general scheme of which I am acquainted, and into which I never thought of penetrating farther. With regard to these, Theresa has, through Lydia, taken up some shadow of suspicion: so in this decisive step she would not suffer any one but me to influence her. With my brother it had been already settled, that they should merely announced their marriages to one another, not giving or asking counsel on the subject.”

    Natalia wrote a letter to her brother; she invited Wilhelm to subjoin a word or two, Theresa having so desired it. They were just about to seal, when Jarno unexpectedly sent up his name. His reception was of course as kind as possible: he wore a sportful merry air; he could not long forbear to tell his errand. “I am come,” said he, “to give you very curious and very pleasing tidings: they concern Theresa. You have often blamed us, fair Natalia, for troubling our heads about so many things; but now you see how good it is to have one’s spies in every place. Guess, and let us see your skill for once!”

    The self-complacency with which he spoke these words, the roguish mien with which he looked at Wilhelm and Natalia, persuaded both of them that he had found their secret. Natalia answered smiling: “We are far more skilful than you think: before we even heard your riddle, we had put the answer to it down in black and white.”

    With these words, she handed him the letter to Lothario; satisfied at having met, in this way, the little triumph and surprise he had meant for them. Jarno took the sheet with some astonishment: ran it quickly over: started; let it drop from his hands, and stared at both his friends with an expression of amazement, nay of fright, which on his countenance was rare. He spoke no word.

    Wilhelm and Natalia were not a little struck; Jarno stept up and down the room. “What shall I say?” cried he: “Or shall I say it at all? But it must come out; the perplexity is not to be avoided. So secret for secret; surprise against surprise! Theresa is not the daughter of her reputed mother! The hindrance is removed: I came to ask you to prepare her for a marriage with Lothario.”

    Jarno saw the shock which he had given his friends; they cast their eyes upon the ground. “The present case,” said he, “is one of those which are worse to bear in company. What each has to consider in it, he considers best in solitude: I at least require an hour of leave.” He hastened to the garden; Wilhelm followed him mechanically, yet without approaching near.

    At the end of an hour, they were again assembled. Wilhelm opened the conversation: “Formerly,” said he, “while I was living without plan or object, in a state of carelessness, or I may say of levity, friendship, love, affection, trust came towards me with open arms, they pressed themselves upon me; but now when I am serious, destiny appears to take another course with me. This resolution, of soliciting Theresa’s hand, is probably the first that has proceeded altogether from myself. I laid my plan considerately; my reason fully joined in it; by the consent of that noble maiden all my hopes were crowned. But now the strangest fate puts back my outstretched hand; Theresa reaches hers to me, but from afar, as in a dream; I cannot grasp it; and the lovely image leaves me forever. So fare thee well, thou lovely image! and all ye images of richest happiness that gathered round it!”

    He was silent for a moment, looking out before him: Jarno was about to speak. “Let me have another word,” cried Wilhelm, “for the lot is drawing which is to decide the destiny of all my life. At this moment I am aided and confirmed by the impression which Lothario’s presence made upon me at the first glance, and which has ever since continued with me. That man well merits every sort of friendship and affection; and without sacrifices friendship cannot be imagined. For his sake, it was easy for me to delude a hapless girl; for his sake it shall be possible for me to give away the worthiest bride. Return, relate the strange occurrence to him, and tell him what I am prepared for.”

    “In emergencies like this,” said Jarno, “I hold that everything is done, if one do nothing rashly. Let us take no step till Lothario has agreed to it. I will go to him: wait patiently for my return, or for his letter.”

    He rode away; and left his friends in great disquiet. They had time to reconsider these events, to think of them maturely. It now first occurred to them, that they had taken Jarno’s statement simply by itself, and without inquiring into any of the circumstances. Wilhelm was not altogether free from doubts: but next day, their astonishment, nay their bewilderment, arose still higher, when a messenger arriving from Theresa, brought the following letter to Natalia.

    “Strange as it may seem, after all the letters I have sent, I am obliged to send another, begging that thou wouldst dispatch my bridegroom to me instantly. He shall be my husband, what plans soever they may lay to rob me of him. Give him the enclosed letter; only not before witnesses, whoever they may be!”

    The enclosed letter was as follows: “What opinion will you form of your Theresa, when you see her all at once insisting passionately on a union which calm reason alone appeared to have appointed? Let nothing hinder you from setting out the moment you have read this letter. Come, my dear, dear friend; now three times dearer, since they are attempting to deprive me of you.”

    “What is to be done?” cried Wilhelm, after he had read the letter.

    “In no case that I remember,” said Natalia, after some reflection, “have my heart and judgment been so dumb as in the present one: what to do or to advise I know not.”

    “Can it be,” cried Wilhelm vehemently, “that Lothario does not know of it; or if he does, that he is but like us, the sport of hidden plans? Has Jarno, when he saw our letter, devised that fable on the spot? Would he have told us something different, if we had not been so precipitate? What can they mean? What intentions can they have? What plan can Theresa mean? Yes, it must be owned, Lothario is begirt with secret influences and combinations: I myself have found that they are active, that they take certain charge of the proceedings, of the destiny of several people, and contrive to guide them. The ulterior objects of these mysteries I know not; but their nearest purpose, that of snatching my Theresa from me, I perceive but too distinctly. On the one hand, this prospect of Lothario’s happiness which they exhibit to me may be but a hollow show; on the other hand, I see my dear, my honoured bride inviting me to her affection. What shall I do? What shall I forbear?”

    “A little patience!” said Natalia; “a little time for thought! In these singular perplexities, I know but this, that what can never be recalled should not be done in haste. To a fable, to an artful plan we have steadfastness and prudence to oppose: whether Jarno has been speaking true or false must soon appear. If my brother has actually hopes of a connexion with Theresa, it were hard to cut him off forever from that prospect, at the moment when it seems so kindly inviting him. Let us wait at least till we discover whether he himself knows anything of it, whether he believes and hopes.”

    These prudent counsels were confirmed by a letter from Lothario. “I do not send Jarno,” he wrote: “a line from my hand is more to thee than the minutest narrative in the mouth of a messenger. I am certain, Theresa is not the daughter of her reputed mother: and I cannot renounce hope of being hers, till she too is persuaded, and can then decide between my friend and me with calm consideration. Let him not leave thee, I entreat it! The happiness, the life of a brother is at stake. I promise thee, this uncertainty shall not be long.”

    “You see how the matter stands,” said she to Wilhelm with a friendly air; “give me your word of honour that you will not leave the house!”

    “I give it,” cried he, stretching out his hand; “I will not leave this house against your will. I thank Heaven, and my better Genius, that on this occasion I am led, and led by you.”

    Natalia wrote Theresa an account of everything; declaring that she would not let her friend away. She sent Lothario’s letter also.

    Theresa answered: “I wonder not a little that Lothario is himself convinced: to his sister he would not feign to this extent. I am vexed, greatly vexed. It is better that I say no more. But I will come to thee, so soon as I have got poor Lydia settled: they are treating her cruelly. I fear we are all betrayed, and shall be so betrayed that we shall never reach the truth. If my friend were of my opinion, he would give thee the slip after all, and throw himself into the arms of his Theresa, whom none shall take away from him. But I, as I dread, shall lose him, and not regain Lothario. From the latter they are taking Lydia, by showing him afar off the prospect of obtaining me. I will say no more: the entanglement will grow still deeper. Whether, in the mean time, these beautiful relations to each other may not be so pushed aside, or undermined and broken down, that when the darkness passes off, the mischief shall no longer admit of remedy, time will show. If my friend do not tear himself away, in a few days I myself will come and seek him out beside thee, and hold him fast. Thou marvelest how this passion can have gained the mastery of thy Theresa. It is no passion, but conviction; it is a belief that since Lothario can never be mine, this new friend will make me happy. Tell him so, in the name of the little boy that sat with him underneath the oak, and thanked him for his sympathy. Tell it him in the name of Theresa, who met his offers with a hearty openness. My first dream of living with Lothario has wandered far away from my soul; the dream of living with my other friend is yet wholly present to me. Do they hold me so light, as to think that it were easy to exchange the former with the latter?”

    “I depend on you,” said Natalia to Wilhelm, handing him the letter: “you will not leave me. Consider that the comfort of my life is in your hands. My being is so intimately bound and interwoven with my brother’s, that he feels no sorrow which I do not feel, no joy which does not likewise gladden me. Nay, I may truly say, through him alone I have experienced that the heart can be affected and exalted; that in the world there may be joy, love and an emotion which contents the soul beyond its utmost want.”

    She stopped; Wilhelm took her hand, and cried: “O continue! This is the time for a true mutual disclosure of our thoughts: it never was more necessary for us to be well acquainted with each other.”

    “Yes, my friend!” said she, smiling, with her quiet, soft, indescribable dignity; “perhaps it is not out of season, if I tell you that the whole of what so many books, of what the world holds up to us and names love, always seemed to me a fable.”

    “You have never loved?” cried Wilhelm.

    “Never, or always!” said Natalia.