Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter IX

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

Book VII

Chapter IX

ON returning to Lothario’s Castle, Wilhelm found that changes had occurred. Jarno met him with the tidings, that Lothario’s uncle being dead, the Baron had himself set out to take possession of the heritage. “You come in time,” said he, “to help the Abbé and me. Lothario has commissioned us to purchase some extensive properties of land in this quarter: he has long contemplated the bargain, and we have now got cash and credit just in season. The only point which made us hesitate was, that a distant trading house had also views upon the same estates; at length we have determined to make common cause with it, as otherwise we might outbid each other without need or reason. The trader seems to be a prudent man. At present we are making estimates and calculations: we must also settle economically how the lands are to be shared, so that each of us may have a fine estate.” The papers were submitted to our friend; the fields, meadows, houses, were inspected; and though Jarno and the Abbé seemed to understand the matter fully, Wilhelm could not help desiring that Theresa had been with them.

In these labours several days were spent, and Wilhelm had scarcely time to tell his friends of his adventures and his dubious fatherhood. This incident, to him so interesting, they treated with indifference and levity.

He had noticed, that they frequently in confidential conversation, while at table or in walks, would suddenly stop short and give their words another application, thereby showing, at least, that they had on the anvil many things which were concealed from him. He bethought him of what Lydia had said; and he put the greater faith in it, as one entire division of the Castle had always been inaccessible to him. The way to certain galleries, particularly to the ancient tower, with which externally he was so well acquainted, he had often sought, and hitherto in vain.

One evening Jarno said to him: “We can now consider you as ours, with such security, that it were unjust if we did not introduce you deeper into our mysteries. It is right that a man, when he first enters upon life, should think highly of himself, should determine to attain many eminent distinctions, should endeavour to make all things possible; but when his education has proceeded to a certain pitch, it is advantageous for him that he learn to lose himself among a mass of men, that he learn to live for the sake of others, and to forget himself in an activity prescribed by duty. It is then that he first becomes acquainted with himself; for it is conduct alone that compares us with others. You shall soon see what a curious little world is at your very hand, and how well you are known in it. Tomorrow morning before sunrise be dressed and ready.”

Jarno came at the appointed hour: he led our friend through certain known and unknown chambers of the Castle, then through several galleries; till at last they reached a large old door, strongly framed with iron. Jarno knocked; the door went up a little, so as to admit one person. Jarno introduced our friend, and did not follow him. Wilhelm found himself in an obscure and narrow stand; all was dark round him: and when he tried to go a step forward, he found himself hemmed in. A voice not altogether strange to him cried: “Enter!” and he now discovered that the sides of the place where he was were merely hung with tapestry, through which a feeble light glimmered in to him. “Enter!” cried the voice again: he raised the tapestry and entered.

The hall, in which he now stood, appeared to have at one time been a chapel; instead of the altar he observed a large table raised some steps above the floor, and covered with a green cloth hanging over it. On the top of this, a drawn curtain seemed as if it hid a picture; on the sides were spaces beautifully worked, and covered-in with fine wire netting, like the shelves of a library; only here, instead of books, a multitude of rolls had been inserted. Nobody was in the hall, the rising sun shone through the window, right on Wilhelm, and kindly saluted him as he came in.

“Be seated!” cried a voice, which seemed to issue from the altar. Wilhelm placed himself in a small arm-chair, which stood against the tapestry where he had entered. There was no seat but this in the room; Wilhelm had to be content with it, though the morning radiance dazzled him; the chair stood fast, he could only keep his hand before his eyes.

But now the curtain, which hung down above the altar, went asunder with a gentle rustling; and showed, within a picture-frame, a dark empty aperture. A man stept forward at it, in a common dress; saluted the astonished looker-on, and said to him: “Do you not recognise me? Among the many things which you would like to know, do you feel no curiosity to learn where your grandfather’s collection of pictures and statues are at present? Have you forgot the painting which you once so much delighted in? Where, think, you, is the sick king’s son now languishing?” Wilhelm, without difficulty recognised the stranger, whom, in that important night, he had conversed with at the inn. “Perhaps,” continued his interrogator, “we should now be less at variance in regard to Destiny and Character.”

Wilhelm was about to answer, when the curtain quickly flew together. “Strange!” said Wilhelm to himself: “Can chance occurrences have a connexion? Is what we call Destiny but Chance? Where is my grandfather’s collection; and why am I remembered of it in these solemn moments?”

He had not leisure to pursue his thoughts: the curtain once more parted; and a person stood before him, whom he instantly perceived to be the country clergyman, that had attended him and his companions on that pleasure sail of theirs. He had a resemblance to the Abbé, though he seemed to be a different person. With a cheerful countenance, in a tone of dignity, he said: “To guard from error, is not the instructor’s duty; but to lead the erring pupil; nay, to let him quaff his error in deep satiating draughts, this is the instructor’s wisdom. He who only tastes his error, will long dwell with it, will take delight in it as in a singular felicity: while he who drains it to the dregs will, if he be not crazy, find it out.” The curtain closed again; and Wilhelm had a little time to think. “What error can he mean,” said he within himself, “but the error which has clung to me through my whole life; that I sought for cultivation where it was not to be found; that I fancied I could form a talent in me, while without the smallest gift for it.”

The curtain dashed asunder faster than before; an officer advanced, and said in passing: “Learn to know the men who may be trusted!” The curtain closed; and Wilhelm did not long consider, till he found this officer to be the one who had embraced him in the Count’s park, and had caused his taking Jarno for a crimp. How that stranger had come hither, who he was, were riddles to our friend. “If so many men,” cried he, “took interest in thee, knew thy way of life, and how it should be carried on, why did they not conduct thee with greater strictness, with greater seriousness? Why did they favour thy silly sports, instead of drawing thee away from them?”

“Dispute not with us!” cried a voice: “Thou art saved, thou art on the way to the goal. None of thy follies wilt thou repent; none wilt thou wish to repeat; no luckier destiny can be allotted to a man.” The curtain went asunder; and in full armour stood the old King of Denmark in the space. “I am thy father’s spirit,” said the figure, “and I depart in comfort, since my wishes for thee are accomplished, in a higher sense than I myself contemplated. Steep regions cannot be surmounted save by winding paths; on the plain, straight roads conduct from place to place. Farewell, and think of me, when thou enjoyest what I have provided for thee.”

Wilhelm was exceedingly amazed and struck: he thought it was his father’ voice; and yet in truth it was not: the present and the past alike confounded and perplexed him.

He had not meditated long, when the Abbé came to view, and placed himself behind the green table. “Come hither!” cried he to his marvelling friend. He went, and mounted up the steps. On the green cloth lay a little roll. “Here is your indenture,” said the Abbé: “take it to heart; it is of weighty import.” Wilhelm lifted, opened it, and read:

  • Art is long, life short, judgment difficult, opportunity transient. To act is easy, to think is hard; to act according to our thought is troublesome. Every beginning is cheerful; the threshold is the place of expectation. The boy stands astonished, his impressions guide him; he learns sportfully, seriousness comes on him by surprise. Imitation is born with us; what should be imitated is not easy to discover. The excellent is rarely found, more rarely valued. The height charms us, the steps to it do not: with the summit in our eye, we love to walk along the plain. It is but a part of art that can be taught; the artist needs it all. Who knows it half, speaks much, and is always wrong; who knows it wholly, inclines to act, and speaks seldom or late. The former have no secrets and no force: the instruction they can give is like baked bread, savoury and satisfying for a single day; but flour cannot be sown and seed-corn ought not to be ground. Words are good, but they are not the best. The best is not to be explained by words. The spirit in which we act is the highest matter. Action can be understood and again represented by the spirit alone. No one knows what he is doing, while he acts aright; but of what is wrong we are always conscious. Whoever works with symbols only, is a pedant, a hypocrite, or a bungler. There are many such, and they like to be together. Their babbling detains the scholar: their obstinate mediocrity vexes even the best. The instruction which the true artist gives us, opens the mind; for where words fail him, deeds speak. The true scholar learns from the known to unfold the unknown, and approaches more and more to being a master.

    “Enough!” cried the Abbé; “the rest in due time. Now, look round you among these cases.”

    Wilhelm went, and read the titles of the rolls. With astonishment, he found Lothario’s Apprenticeship, Jarno’s Apprenticeship, and his own Apprenticeship placed there, with many others whose names he did not know.

    “May I hope to cast a look into these rolls?”

    “In this chamber there is now nothing hid from you.”

    “May I put a question?”

    “Without scruple; and you may expect a positive reply, if it concerns a matter which is nearest your heart, and ought to be so.”

    “Good then! Ye marvellous sages, whose sight has pierced so many secrets, can you tell me whether Felix is in truth my son?”

    “Hail to you for this question!” cried the Abbé, clapping hands for joy. “Felix is your son! By the holiest that lies hid among us, I swear to you, Felix is your son; nor, in our opinion, was the mother that is gone unworthy of you. Receive the lovely child from our hands; turn round, and venture to be happy.”

    Wilhelm heard a noise behind him: he turned round, and saw a child’s face peeping archly through the tapestry at the end of the room; it was Felix. The boy playfully hid himself, so soon as he was noticed. “Come forward!” cried the Abbé; he came running; his father rushed towards him, took him in his arms, and pressed him to his heart. “Yes! I feel it,” cried he, “thou art mine! What a gift of Heaven have I to thank my friends for! Whence, or how, comest thou, my child, at this important moment?”

    “Ask not,” said the Abbé. “Hail to thee, young man! Thy Apprenticeship is done; Nature has pronounced thee free.”