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

Book IV

Chapter V

IF our friends had frequently enjoyed a good and merry hour together while within four walls, they were naturally much gayer here, where the freedom of the sky and the beauty of the place seemed as it were to purify the feelings of every one. All felt nearer to each other; all wished that they might pass their whole lives in so pleasant an abode. They envied hunters, charcoal-men and woodcutters; people whom their calling constantly retains in such happy places: but, above all, they prized the delicious economy of a band of gipsies. They envied these wonderful companions, entitled to enjoy in blissful idleness all the adventurous charms of nature; they rejoiced at being in some degree like them.

Meanwhile the women had begun to boil potatoes; and to unwrap and get ready the victuals brought along with them. Some pots were standing by the fire. The party had placed themselves in groups, under the trees and bushes. Their singular apparel, their various weapons, gave them a foreign aspect. The horses were eating their provender at a side. Could one have concealed the coaches, the look of this little horde would have been romantic, even to complete illusion.

Wilhelm enjoyed a pleasure he had never felt before. He could now imagine his present company to be a wandering colony, and himself the leader of it. In this character he talked with those around him, and figured out the fantasy of the moment as poetically as he could. The feelings of the party rose in cheerfulness: they ate and drank and made merry; and repeatedly declared, that they had never passed more pleasant moments.

Their contentment had not long gone on increasing, till activity awoke among the younger part of them. Wilhelm and Laertes seized their rapiers, and began to practise, on this occasion with theatrical intentions. They undertook to represent the duel, in which Hamlet and his adversary find so tragical an end. Both were persuaded that, in this powerful scene, it was not enough merely to keep pushing awkwardly hither and thither, as it is generally exhibited in theatres: they were in hopes to show, by example, how, in presenting it, a worthy spectacle might also be afforded to the critic in the art of fencing. The rest made a circle round them. Both fought with skill and ardour. The interest of the spectators rose higher every pass.

But all at once, in the nearest bush, a shot went off; and immediately another; and the party flew asunder in terror. Next moment, armed men were to be seen pressing forward to the spot where the horses were eating their fodder, not far from the coaches that were packed with luggage.

A universal scream proceeded from the females: our heroes threw away their rapiers, seized their pistols, and ran towards the robbers; demanding, with violent threats, the meaning of such conduct.

This question being answered laconically, with a couple of musket-shots, Wilhelm fired his pistol at a crisp-headed knave, who had got upon the top of the coach, and was cutting the cords of the package. Rightly hit, this artist instantly came tumbling down: Laertes also had not missed. Both of them, encouraged by success. drew their side-arms; when a number of the plundering party rushed out upon them, with curses and loud bellowing; fired a few shots at them, and fronted their impetuosity with glittering sabres. Our young heroes made a bold resistance. They called upon their other comrades, and endeavoured to excite them to a general resistance. But ere long, Wilhelm lost the sight of day, and the consciousness of what was passing. Stupefied by a shot that wounded him between the breast and the left arm, by a stroke that split his hat in two, and almost penetrated to his brain, he sank down, and only by the narratives of others came afterwards to understand the luckless end of this adventure.

On again opening his eyes, he found himself in the strangest posture. The first thing that pierced the dimness, which yet swam before his vision, was Philina’s face bent down over his. He felt himself weak; and making a movement to rise, he discovered that he was in Philina’s lap; into which, indeed, he again sank down. She was sitting on the sward. She had softly pressed towards her the head of the fallen young man; and made for him an easy couch, as far as in her power. Mignon was kneeling with dishevelled and bloody hair at his feet, which she embraced with many tears.

On noticing his bloody clothes, Wilhelm asked, in a broken voice, where he was, and what had happened to himself and the rest. Philina begged him to be quiet: the others, she said, were all in safety, and none but he and Laertes wounded. Farther, she would tell him nothing; but earnestly entreated him to keep still, as his wounds had been but slightly and hastily bound. He stretched out his hand to Mignon, and inquired about the bloody locks of the child, who he supposed was also wounded.

For the sake of quietness, Philina let him know that this true-hearted creature, seeing her friend wounded, and in the hurry of the instant being able to think of nothing which would stanch the blood, had taken her own hair that was flowing round her head, and tried to stop the wounds with it; but had soon been obliged to give up the vain attempt: that afterwards they had bound him with moss and dry mushrooms, Philina herself giving up her neckerchief for that purpose.

Wilhelm noticed that Philina was sitting with her back against her own trunk, which still looked firmly locked and quite uninjured. He inquired if the rest also had been so lucky as to save their goods? She answered with a shrug of the shoulders, and a look over the green, where broken chests, and coffers beaten into fragments, and knapsacks ripped up, and a multitude of little wares, lay scattered all round. No person now was to be seen upon the place: this strange group formed the only living object in the solitude.

Inquiring farther, our friend learned more and more particulars. The rest of the men, it appeared, who at all events might still have made resistance, were struck with terror, and soon overpowered. Some fled, some looked with horror at the accident. The drivers, for the sake of their cattle, had held out more obstinately; but they too were at last thrown down and tied; after which, in a few minutes, everything was thoroughly ransacked, and the booty carried off. The hapless travellers, their fear of death being over, had begun to mourn their loss; and hastened with the greatest speed to the neighbouring village, taking with them Laertes, whose wounds were slight, and carrying off but a very few fragments of their property. The Harper having placed his damaged instrument against a tree, had proceeded in their company to the place; to seek a surgeon, and return with his utmost rapidity to help his benefactor, whom he had left apparently upon the brink of death.