Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter VII

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

Book III

Chapter VII

THE INTEREST in his undertakings, which the Countess and her friend expressed and felt so warmly, quickened Wilhelm’s faculties and zeal: the plan of his piece, which the process of describing it had rendered more distinct, was now present in the most brilliant vividness before his mind. He spent the greater part of that night, and the whole of next morning, in the sedulous versification of the dialogue and songs.

He had proceeded a considerable way, when a message came requiring his attendance in the Castle; the noble company, who were then at breakfast, wished to speak with him. As he entered the parlour, the Baroness advanced to meet him; and, under pretext of wishing him good-morning, whispered cunningly: “Say nothing of your piece, but what you shall be asked.”

“I hear,” cried the Count to him, “that you are very busy working at my prelude, which I mean to present in honour of the Prince. I consent that you introduce a Minerva into it; and we are just thinking beforehand how the goddess shall be dressed, that we may not blunder in costume. For this purpose I am causing them to fetch from the library all the books that contain any figures of her.”

At the same instant, one or two servants entered the parlour, with a huge basket full of books of every shape and appearance.

Montfaucon, the collections of antique statues, gems and coins, all sorts of mythological writings, were turned up, and their plates compared. But even this was not enough. The Count’s faithful memory recalled to him all the Minervas to be found in frontispieces, vignettes, or anywhere else; and book after book was, in consequence, carried from the library, till finally the Count was sitting in a chaos of volumes. Unable at last to recollect any other figure of Minerva, he observed with a smile: “I durst bet, that now there is not a single Minerva in all the library; and perhaps it is the first time that a collection of books has been so totally deprived of the presence of its patron goddess.”

The whole company were merry at this thought; Jarno particularly, who all along been spurring on the Count to call for more and more books, laughed quite immoderately.

“Now,” said the Count, turning to Wilhelm, “one chief point is: Which goddess do you mean? Minerva or Pallas? The goddess of war or of the arts?”

“Would it not be best, your Excellency,” said Wilhelm, “if we were not clearly to express ourselves on this head; if since the goddess plays a double part in the ancient mythology, we also exhibited her here in a double quality? She announces a warrior, but only to calm the tumults of the people; she celebrates a hero by exalting his humanity; she conquers violence, and restores peace and security.”

The Baroness, afraid lest Wilhelm might betray himself, hastily pushed forward the Countess’s tailor, to give his opinion how such an antique robe could best be got ready. This man, being frequently employed in making masquerade dresses, very easily contrived the business; and as Madam Melina, notwithstanding her advanced state of pregnancy, had undertaken to enact the celestial virgin, the tailor was directed to take her measure: and the Countess, though with some reluctance, selected from the wardrobe the clothes he was to cut up for that purpose.

The Baroness, in her dextrous way, again contrived to lead Wilhelm aside, and let him know that she had been providing all the other necessaries. Shortly afterwards, she sent him the musician, who had charge of the Count’s private band; and this professor set about composing what airs were wanted, or choosing from his actual stock such tunes as appeared suitable. From this time, all went on according to the wishes of our friend: the Count made no more inquiries about the piece; being altogether occupied with the transparent decoration, destined to surprise the spectators at the conclusion of the play. His inventive genius, aided by the skill of his confectioner, produced in fact a very pretty article. In the course of his travels, the Count had witnessed the most splendid exhibitions of this sort; he had also brought home with him a number of copper-plates and drawings, and could sketch such things with considerable taste.

Meanwhile Wilhelm finished the play; gave every one his part, and began the study of his own. The musician also, having great skill in dancing, prepared the ballet; so that everything proceeded as it ought.

Yet one unexpected obstacle occurred, which threatened to occasion an unpleasant gap in the performance. He had promised to himself a striking effect from Mignon’s egg dance; and was much surprised when the child, with her customary dryness of manner refused to dance, saying she was now his, and would no more go upon the stage. He sought to move her by every sort of persuasion, and did not discontinue his attempt till she began weeping bitterly, fell at his feet, and cried out, “Dearest father! stay thou from the boards thyself!” Little heeding this caution, he studied how to give the scene some other turn that might be equally interesting.

Philina, whose appointment was to act one of the peasant girls, and in the concluding dance to give the single-voice part of the song, and lead the chorus, felt exceedingly delighted that it had been so ordered. In other respects too, her present life was altogether to her mind; she had her separate chamber; was constantly beside the Countess, entertaining her with fooleries, and daily receiving some present for her pains. Among other things, a dress had been expressly made for her wearing in this prelude. And being of a light imitative nature, she quickly marked in the procedure of the ladies whatever would befit herself: she had of late grown all politeness and decorum. The attentions of the Stallmeister augmented rather than diminished; and, as the officers also paid zealous court to her, living in so genial an element, it came into her head for once in her life to play the prude, and, in a quiet gradual way, to take upon herself a certain dignity of manner to which she had not before aspired. Cool and sharp-sighted as she was, eight days had not elapsed till she knew the weak side of every person in the house; so that, had she possessed the power of acting from any constant motive, she might very easily have made her fortune. But on this occasion, as on all others, she employed her advantages merely to divert herself, to procure a bright today, and be impertinent, wherever she observed that impertinence was not attended with danger.

The parts were now committed to memory; a rehearsal of the piece was ordered; the Count purposed to be present at it; and his lady began to feel anxious how he might receive it. The Baroness called Wilhelm to her privately: the nearer the hour approached, they all displayed the more perplexity; for the truth was, that of the Count’s original idea nothing whatever had been introduced. Jarno, who joined them while consulting together, was admitted to the secret. He felt amused at the contrivance, and was heartily disposed to offer the ladies his good services in carrying it through. “It will go hard,” said he, “if you cannot extricate yourselves without help from this affair; but, at all events, I will wait as a body of reserve.” The Baroness then told them how she had on various occasions recited the whole piece to the Count, but only in fragments and without order; that consequently he was prepared for each individual passage, yet certainly possessed with the idea that the whole would coincide with his original conception. “I will sit by him,” she said, “tonight at the rehearsal, and study to divert his attention. The confectioner I have engaged already to make the decoration as beautiful as possible, but as yet he has not quite completed it.”

“I know of a Court,” said Jarno, “where I wish we had a few such active and prudent friends as you. If your skill tonight will not suffice, give me a signal; I will take out the Count, and not let him in again till Minerva enter, and you have speedy aid to expect from the illumination. For a day or two, I have had something to report to him about his cousin, which for various reasons I have hitherto postponed. It will give his thoughts another turn, and that none of the pleasantest.”

Business hindered the Count from being present when the play began; the Baroness amused him after his arrival; Jarno’s help was not required. For, as the Count had abundance of employment in pointing out improvements, rectifying and arranging the detached parts, he entirely forgot the purport of the whole; and as at last Madam Melina advanced and spoke according to his heart, and the transparency did well, he seemed completely satisfied. It was not till the whole was finished, and his guests were sitting down to cards, that the difference appeared to strike him, and he began to think whether after all this piece was actually of his invention. At a signal from the Baroness, Jarno then came forward into action; the evening passed away; the intelligence of the Prince’s approach was confirmed; the people rode out more than once to see his vanguard encamping in the neighbourhood; the house was full of noise and tumult; and our actors, not always served in the handsomest manner by unwilling servants, had to pass their time in practisings and expectations, at their quarters in the old mansion, without any one particularly taking thought about them.