Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter VI

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


Chapter VI

THE COMPANY had met again; the conversation of our friends was necessarily interrupted. Ere long a courier was announced, as wishing to deliver with his own hand a letter to Lothario. The man was introduced: he had a vigorous sufficient look; his livery was rich and handsome. Wilhelm thought he knew him: nor was he mistaken; for it was the man whom he had sent to seek Philina and the fancied Mariana, and who never came back. Our friend was about to address him, when Lothario, who had read the letter, asked the courier with a serious, almost angry tone: “What is your master’s name?”

“Of all questions,” said the other with a prudent air, “this is the one which I am least prepared to answer. I hope the letter will communicate the necessary information: verbally I have been charged with nothing.”

“Be it as it will,” replied Lothario with a smile; “since your master puts such trust in me as to indite a letter so exceedingly facetious, he shall be welcome to us.”—“He will not keep you long waiting for him,” said the courier with a bow, and withdrew.

“Do but hear the distracted stupid message,” said Lothario.

“‘As of all guests, Good Humour is believed to be the most agreeable wherever he appears, and as I always keep that gentleman beside me by way of travelling companion, I feel persuaded that the visit I intend to pay your noble Lordship will not be taken ill; on the contrary, I hope the whole of your illustrious family will witness my arrival with complete satisfaction; and in due time also my departure; being always, et cetera, Count of Snailfoot.’”

“’Tis a new family,” said the Abbé.

“A vicariat count, perhaps,” said Jarno.

“The secret is easy to unriddle,” said Natalia: “I wager it is none but brother Friedrich, who has threatened us with a visit ever since my uncle’s death.”

“Right! fair and skilful sister!” cried a voice from the nearest thicket; and immediately a pleasant, cheerful youth stept forward. Wilhelm could scarcely restrain a cry of wonder. “How?” exclaimed he: “Does our fair-haired knave, too, meet me here?” Friedrich looked attentively, and recognising Wilhelm, cried: “In truth it would not have astonished me so much to have beheld the famous Pyramids, which still stand fast in Egypt, or the grave of King Mausolus, which, as I am told, does not exist, here placed before me in my uncle’s garden, as to find you in it, my old friend, and frequent benefactor. Accept my best and heartiest service!”

After he had kissed and complimented the whole circle, he again sprang towards Wilhelm, crying: “Use him well, this hero, this leader of armies, and dramatical philosopher! When we became acquainted first, I dressed his hair indifferently, I may say execrably; yet he afterwards saved me from a pretty load of blows. He is magnanimous as Scipio, munificent as Alexander; at times he is in love, yet he never hates his rivals. Far from heaping coals of fire on the heads of his enemies,—a piece of service, I am told, which we can do for any one,—he rather, when his friends have carried off his love, dispatches good and trusty servants after them, that they may not strike their feet against a stone.”

In the same style, he ran along with a volubility which baffled all attempts to restrain it; and as no one could reply to him in that vein, he had the conversation mostly to himself. “Do not wonder,” cried he, “that I am so profoundly versed in sacred and profane writers: you shall hear by and by how I attained my learning.” They wished to know how matters stood with him, where he had been; but crowds of proverbs and old stories choked his explanation.

Natalia whispered to Theresa: “His gaiety afflicts me; I am sure at heart he is not merry.”

As, except a few jokes which Jarno answered, Friedrich’s merriment was met by no response from those about him, he was obliged at last to say: “Well, there is nothing left for me, but among so many grave faces to be grave myself. And as in such a solemn scene, the burden of my sins falls heavy on my soul, I must honestly resolve upon a general confession; for which, however, you, my worthy gentlemen and ladies, shall not be a jot the wiser. This honourable friend already knows a little of my walk and conversation; he alone shall know the rest; and this the rather, as he alone has any cause to ask about it. Are not you,” continued he to Wilhelm, “curious about the how and where, the when and wherefore? And how it stands with the conjugation of the Greek verb /??/ and the derivatives of that very amiable part of speech?”

He then took Wilhelm by the arm, and led him off, pressing him and skipping round him with the liveliest air of kindness.

Scarcely had they entered Wilhelm’s room, when Friedrich noticed, in the window, a powder-knife, with the inscription, Think of me. “You keep your valuables well laid up!” said he: “This is the powder-knife Philina gave you, when I pulled your locks for you. I hope, in looking at it, you have diligently thought of that fair damsel: I assure you, she has not forgotten you; if I had not long ago obliterated every trace of jealousy from my heart, I could not look on you without envy.”

“Talk no more of that creature,” answered Wilhelm. “I confess, it was a while before I could get rid of the impression, which her looks and manner made on me; but that was all.”

“Fy! fy!” cried Friedrich: “would any one deny his deary? You loved her as completely as a man could wish. No day passed without your giving her some present; and when a German gives, you may be sure he loves. No alternative remained for me but whisking her away from you; and in this the little red officer at last succeeded.”

“How! You were the officer whom we discovered with her, whom she travelled off with?”

“Yes,” said Friedrich, “whom you took for Mariana. We had sport enough at the mistake.”

“What cruelty,” cried Wilhelm, “to leave me in such suspense!”

“And besides to take the courier, whom you sent to catch us, into pay!” said Friedrich. “He is a very active fellow; we have kept him by us ever since. And the girl herself I love as desperately as ever. She has managed me in some peculiar style: I am almost in a mythologic case; every day I tremble at the thought of being metamorphosed.”

“But tell me, pray,” said Wilhelm, “where have you acquired this stock of erudition? It surprises me to hear the strange way you have assumed of speaking always with a reference to ancient histories and fables.”

“It was by a pleasant plan,” said Friedrich, “that I got my learning. Philina lives with me at present: we have got a lease of an old knightly castle from the farmer in whose ground it is: and there we live, with the hobgoblins of the place, as merrily as possible. In one of the rooms, we found a small but choice library, consisting of a folio Bible, Gottfried’s Chronicle, two volumes of the Theatrum Europœum, an Acerra Philologica, Gryphius’ Writings, and some other less important works. As we now and then, when tired of romping, felt the time hang heavy on our hands, we proposed to read some books; and before we were aware, the time hung heavier than ever. At last, Philina hit upon the royal plan of laying all the tomes, opened at once, upon a large table: we sat down opposite to one another: we read to one another; always in detached passages, first from this book, then from that. Here was a proper pleasure! We felt now as if we were in good society, where it is reckoned unbecoming to dwell on any subject, or search it to the bottom; we thought ourselves in witty gay society, where none will let his neighbour speak. We regularly treat ourselves with this diversion every day; and the erudition we obtain from it is quite surprising. Already there is nothing new for us under the sun; on everything we see or hear, our learning offers us a hint. This method of instruction we diversify in many ways. Frequently we read by an old spoiled sandglass, which runs in a minute or two. The moment it is down, the silent party turns it round like lightning, and commences reading from his book; and no sooner is it down again, than the other cuts him short, and starts the former topic. Thus we study in a truly academic manner: only our hours are shorter, and our studies are extremely varied.”

“This rioting is quite conceivable,” said Wilhelm, “when a pair like you two are together: but how a pair so full of frolic stay together, does not seem so easily conceivable.”

“It is our good fortune,” answered Friedrich, “and our bad. Philina dare not let herself be seen, she cannot bear to see herself, she is in the family way. Nothing ever was so ludicrous and shapeless in the world. A little while before I came away, she chanced to cast an eye upon the lookingglass in passing. ‘Faugh!’ cried she, and turned away her face: ‘the living picture of the Frau Melina! Shocking figure! One looks entirely deplorable!’”

“I confess,” said Wilhelm with a smile, “it must be rather farcical to see a father and a mother such as you and she together.”

“’Tis a foolish business,” answered Friedrich, “that I must, at last, be raised to the paternal dignity. But she asserts, and the time agrees. At first that cursed visit which she paid you after Hamlet gave me qualms.”

“What visit?”

“I suppose you have not quite slept off the memory of it yet? The pretty, flesh-and-blood spirit of that night, if you do not know it, was Philina. The story was in truth a hard dower for me; but if we cannot be content with such things, we should not be in love. Fatherhood at any rate depends entirely upon conviction: I am convinced, and so I am a father. There, you see, I can employ my logic in the proper season too. And if the brat do not laugh itself to death so soon as it is born, it may prove, if not a useful, at least a pleasant citizen of this world.”

Whilst our friends were talking thus of mirthful subjects, the rest of the party had begun a serious conversation. Scarcely were Friedrich and Wilhelm gone, when the Abbéled his friends, as if by chance, into a garden-house; and having got them seated, thus addressed them:

“We have in general terms asserted that Fräulein Theresa was not the daughter of her reputed mother: it is fit that we should now explain ourselves on this matter, in detail. I shall relate the story to you, which I undertake to prove and to elucidate in every point.

“Frau von —— spent the first years of her wedlock in the utmost concord with her husband; only they had this misfortune, that the children she brought him came into the world dead; and on occasion of the third, the mother was declared by the Physicians to be on the verge of death, and to be sure of death if she should ever have another. The parties were obliged to take their resolution: they would not break the marriage; it was too suitable to both, in a civil point of view. Frau von —— sought in the culture of her mind, in a certain habit of display, in the joys of vanity, a compensation for the happiness of motherhood which was refused her.

She cheerfully indulged her husband, when she noticed in him an attachment to a young lady, who had sole charge of their domestic economy; a person of beautiful exterior, and very solid character. Frau von —— herself, ere long, assisted in procuring an arrangement; by which the lady yielded to the wishes of Theresa’s father; continuing to discharge her household duties, and testifying to the mistress of the family, if possible, a more submissive zeal to serve her than before.

“After a while, she declared herself with child: and both the father and his wife, on this occasion, though from very different causes, fell upon the same idea. Herr von —— wished to have the offspring of his mistress educated in the house as his lawful child; and Frau von ——, angry that the indiscretion of her Doctor had allowed some whisper of her condition to go abroad, proposed by a supposititious child to counteract this; and likewise to retain, by such compliance, the superiority in her household, which otherwise she was like to lose. However, she was more backward than her husband: she observed his purpose; and contrived, without any formal question, to facilitate his explanation. She made her own terms; obtaining almost everything that she required; and hence the will, in which so little care was taken of the child. The old Doctor was dead: they applied to a young, active and discreet successor; he was well rewarded; he looked forward to the credit of exposing and remedying the unskilfulness and premature decision of his deceased colleague. The true mother, not unwillingly, consented; they managed the deception very well; Theresa came into the world, and was surrendered to a stepmother, while her mother fell a victim to the plot; having died by venturing out too early, and left the father inconsolable.

“Frau von —— had thus attained her object; in the eyes of the world she had a lovely child, which she paraded with excessive vanity; and she had also been delivered from a rival, whose fortune she envied, and whose influence, at least in prospect, she beheld with apprehension. The infant she loaded with her tenderness; and by affecting, in trustful hours, a lively feeling for her husband’s loss, she gained mastery of his heart; so that in a manner he surrendered all to her; laid his own happiness and that of his child in her hands; nor was it till a short while prior to his death, and in some degree by the exertions of his grown-up daughter, that he again assumed the rule in his own house. This, fair Theresa, was in all probability the secret, which your father, in his last sickness, so struggled to communicate; this is what I wish to lay circumstantially before you, at a moment when our young friend, who by a strange concurrence has become your bridegroom, happens to be absent. Here are the papers, which will prove in the most rigorous manner everything that I have stated. You will also see from them how long I have been following the trace of this discovery, though till now I could never attain certainty respecting it. I did not risk imparting to my friend the possibility of such a happiness; it would have wounded him too deeply, had this hope a second time deceived him. You will understand poor Lydia’s suspicions: I readily confess, I nowise favoured the attachment of our friend to her, whenever I began to look for a connexion with Theresa.”

To this recital no one replied. The ladies, some days afterwards, returned the papers, not making any farther mention of them.

There were other matters in abundance to engage the party when they were together; and the scenery around was so delightful, that our friends, singly or in company, on horseback, in carriages, or on foot, delighted to explore it. On one of these of excursions, Jarno took an opportunity of opening the affair to Wilhelm: he delivered him the papers; not, however, seeming to require from him any resolution in regard to them.

“In the singular position I am placed in,” said our friend, “I need only repeat to you what I said at first, in presence of Natalia, and with the clear intention to fulfil it. Lothario and his friends may require of me every sort of self-denial: I here abandon in their favour all pretensions to Theresa; do you procure me, in return, a formal discharge. There requires no great reflection to decide. For some days, I have noticed that Theresa has to make an effort in retaining any show of the vivacity with which she welcomed me at first. Her affection is gone from me, or rather I have never had it.”

“Such affairs are more conveniently explained,” said Jarno, “by a gradual process, in silence and expectation, than by many words, which always cause a sort of fermentation and embarrassment.”

“I rather think,” said Wilhelm, “that precisely this affair admits of the most clear and calm decision on the spot. I have often been reproached with hesitation and uncertainty; why will you now, when I do not hesitate, commit against myself the fault you have often blamed in me? Do our neighbours take such trouble with our training, only to let us feel that they themselves are untrained? Yes, grant me soon the cheerful thought that I am out of a mistaken project, into which I entered with the purest feelings in the world.”

Notwithstanding this request, some days elapsed without his hearing any more of the affair, or observing any farther alteration in his friends. The conversation, on the contrary, was general and of indifferent matters.