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 VII

Chapter VII

ON arriving at the Castle, Wilhelm found its noble owner in the way of full recovery: the Doctor and the Abbé had gone off; Jarno alone was there. It was not long till the patient now and then could ride; sometimes by himself; sometimes with his friends. His conversation was at once courteous and earnest, instructive and enlivening: you could often notice in it traces of a tender sensibility, although he strove to hide it, and almost seemed to blame it, when in spite of him it came to view.

One evening while at table he was silent, though his look was very cheerful.

“Today,” said Jarno, “you have met with an adventure; and a pleasing one?”

“I give you credit for your penetration!” said Lothario. “Yes, I have met with a very pleasing adventure. At another time, perhaps I should not have considered it so charming as to-day, when it came upon me so attractively. Towards night, I rode out beyond the river, through the hamlets, by a path which I had often visited in former years. My corporeal sufferings must have reduced me more than I supposed: I felt weak; but as my strength was reawakening, I was as it were new-born. All objects seemed to wear the hues they had in earlier times; all looked graceful, lovely, charming, as they have not looked to me for many years. I easily observed that it was mere debility; yet I continued to enjoy it: I rode softly onwards, and could now conceive how men may grow to like diseases, which attune us to those sweet emotions. You know, perhaps, what used of old so frequently to lead me that way?”

“If I mistake not,” answered Jarno, “it was a little love concern you were engaged in with a farmer’s daughter.”

“It might be called a great one,” said Lothario: “for we loved each other deeply, seriously and for a long time. Today, it happened, everything combined to represent before me in its liveliest colour the earliest season of our love. The boys were again shaking maybugs from the trees; the ashen grove had not grown larger since the day I saw her first. It was now long since I had met with Margaret. She is married at a distance; and I had heard by chance, that she was come with her children, some weeks ago, to pay a visit to her father.”

“This ride, then, was not altogether accidental?”

“I will not deny,” replied Lothario, “that I wished to meet her. On coming near the house, I saw her father sitting at the door; a child of probably a year old was standing by him. As I approached, a female gave a hasty look from an upper window; and a minute afterwards, I heard some person tripping down-stairs. I thought surely it was she: and I will confess, I was flattering myself that she had recognised me, and was hastening to meet me. But what was my surprise and disappointment, when she bounded from the door, seized the child, to which the horses had come pretty close, and took it in! It gave me a painful twinge: my vanity, however, was a little solaced, when I thought I saw a tint of redness on her neck, and on the ear, which was uncovered.

“I drew up, and spoke a little with the father, glancing sideways, in the mean time, over all the windows, to observe if she would not appears at some of them: but no trace of her was visible. Ask I would not; so I rode away. My displeasure was a little mollified by wonder: though I had not seen the face, it appeared to me that she was scarcely changed; and ten years are a pretty space! Nay she looked even younger, quite as slim, as light of foot; her neck if possible was lovelier than before; her cheeks as quick at blushing; yet she was the mother of six children, perhaps of more. This apparition suited the enchantment which surrounded me so well, that I rode along with feelings grown still younger: and I did not turn till I was at the forest, when the sun was going down. Strongly as the falling dew, and the prescription of our Doctor, called upon me to proceed direct homewards, I could not help again going round by the farmhouse. I observed a woman walking up and down the garden, which is fenced by a light hedge. I rode along the footpath to it; and found myself at no great distance from the person whom I wanted.

“Though the evening sun was glancing in my eyes, I saw that she was busy with the hedge, which only slightly covered her. I thought I recognised my mistress. On coming up, I halted, not without a palpitation at the heart. Some high twigs of wild roses, which a soft air was blowing to and fro, made her figure indistinct to me. I spoke to her, asked her how she was. She answered in an undertone, ‘Quite well.’ In the mean time I perceived a child behind the hedge, engaged in plucking roses, and I took the opportunity of asking where the other children were. ‘It is not my child,’ said she: ‘that were rather early!’ And at this moment, it happened that the twigs were blown aside, and her face could be distinctly seen. I knew not what to make of the affair. It was my mistress, and it was not. Almost younger, almost lovelier than she used to be ten years before. ‘Are not you the farmer’s daughter, then?’ inquired I, half confused. ‘No,’ said she: ‘I am her cousin.’

“‘You resemble one another wonderfully,’ added I.

“‘Yes, so says every one that knew her half-a-score of years ago.’

“I continued putting various questions to her: my mistake was pleasant to me, even after I had found it out. I could not leave this living image of bygone blessedness, that stood before me. The child meanwhile had gone away; it had wandered to the pond in search of flowers. She took her leave, and hastened after it.

“I had now, however, learned that my former love was really in her father’s house: while riding forward, I employed myself in guessing whether it had been her cousin or she, that had secured the child from harm. I more than once, in thought, repeated all the circumstances of the incident: I can remember few things that have affected me more gratefully. But I feel that I am still unwell: we must ask the Doctor to deliver us from the remains of this pathetic humour.”

With confidential narratives of pretty love-adventures, it often happens as with ghost-stories; when the first is told, the others follow of themselves.

Our little party, in recalling other times, found numerous passages of this description. Lothario had the most to tell. Jarno’s histories were all of one peculiar character: what Wilhelm could disclose we already know. He was apprehensive they might mention his adventure with the Countess; but it was not hinted at, not even in the remotest manner.

“It is true,” observed Lothario, “there can scarcely any feeling in the world be more agreeable, than when the heart, after a pause of indifference, again opens to love for some new object; yet I would forever have renounced that happiness, had fate been pleased to unite me with Theresa. We are not always youths; we ought not always to be children. To the man, who knows the world; who understands what he should do in it, what he should hope from it, nothing can be more desirable than meeting with a wife who will everywhere cooperate with him, who will everywhere prepare his way for him; whose diligence takes up what his must leave; whose occupation spreads itself on every side, while his must travel forward on its single path. What a heaven had I figured for myself beside Theresa! Not the heaven of an enthusiastic bliss; for of a sure life on earth: order in prosperity, courage in adversity, care for the smallest, and a spirit capable of comprehending and managing the greatest. O! I saw in her the qualities, which, when developed, make such women as we find in history, whose excellence appears to us far preferable to that of men; this clearness of view; this expertness in all emergencies; this sureness in details, which brings the whole so accurately out, although they never seem to think of it. You may well forgive me,” added he, and turned to Wilhelm with a smile, “that I forsook Aurelia for Theresa: with the one I could expect a calm and cheerful life, with the other not a happy hour.”

“I will confess,” said Wilhelm, “that in coming hither, I had no small anger in my heart against you; that I proposed to censure with severity your conduct to Aurelia.”

“It was really censurable,” said Lothario: “I should not have exchanged my friendship for her with the sentiment of love; I should not, in place of the respect which she deserved, have intruded an attachment she was neither calculated to excite nor to maintain. Alas! she was not lovely when she loved; the greatest misery that can befall a woman.”

“Well, it is past!” said Wilhelm. “We cannot always shun the things we blame: in spite of us, our feelings and our actions sometimes strangely swerve from their natural and right direction; yet there are certain duties which we never should lose sight of. Peace be to the ashes of our friend! Without censuring ourselves or her, let us, with sympathising hearts, strew flowers upon her grave. But at the grave in which the hapless mother sleeps, let me ask why you acknowledge not the child; a son whom any father might rejoice in, and whom you appear entirely to overlook? With your pure and tender nature, how can you altogether cast away the instinct of a parent? All this while, you have not spent one syllable upon that precious creature, of whose attractions I could say so much.”

“Whom do you speak of?” asked Lothario: “I do not understand you.”

“Of whom but of your son, Aurelia’s son, the lovely child, to whose good fortune there is nothing wanting, but that a tender father should acknowledge and receive him.”

“You mistake, my friend,” exclaimed Lothario: “Aurelia never had a son, at least by me: I know of no child, or I would with joy acknowledge it; and even in the present case, I will gladly look upon the little creature as a relic of her, and take charge of educating it. But did she ever give you to believe that the boy was hers, was mine?”

“I cannot recollect that I ever heard a word from her expressly on the subject: but we took it up so, and I never for a moment doubted it.”

“I can give you something like a clue to this perplexity,” said Jarno. “An old woman, whom you must have noticed often, gave Aurelia the child: she accepted it with passion, hoping to alleviate her sorrows by its presence: and, in truth, it gave her many a comfortable hour.”

This discovery awoke anxieties in Wilhelm; he thought of his dear Mignon and his beautiful Felix with the liveliest distinctness. He expressed his wish to remove them both from the state in which they were.

“We shall soon arrange it,” said Lothario. “The little girl may be committed to Theresa; she cannot be in better hands. As for the boy, I think you should yourself take charge of him: what in us the women leave uncultivated, children cultivate, when we retain them near us.”

“But first, I think,” said Jarno, “you will once for all renounce the stage, as you have no talent for it.”

Our friend was struck: he had to curb himself, for Jarno’s harsh sentence had not a little wounded his self-love. “If you convince me of that,” replied he, forcing a smile, “you will do me a service; though it is but a mournful service to rouse one from a pleasing dream.”

“Without enlarging on the subject,” answered Jarno, “I could merely wish you would go and fetch the children. The rest will come in course.”

“I am ready,” answered Wilhelm: “I am restless, and curious to see if I can get no farther knowledge of the boy: I long to see the little girl, who has attached herself so strangely to me.”

It was agreed that he should lose no time in setting out. Next day, he had prepared himself; his horse was saddled: he only waited for Lothario, to take leave of him. At the dinner hour, they went as usual to table, not waiting for the master of the house. He did not come till late; and then sat down by them.

“I could bet,” said Jarno, “that today you have again been making trial of your tenderness of heart; you have not been able to withstand the curiosity to see your quondam love.”

“Guessed!” replied Lothario.

“Let us hear,” said Jarno, “how it went: I long to know.”

“I confess,” replied Lothario, “the affair lay nearer my heart than it reasonably ought; so I formed the resolution of again riding out, and actually seeing the person, whose renewed young image had affected me with such a pleasing illusion. I alighted at some distance from the house, and sent the horses to a side, that the children, who were playing at the door, might not be disturbed. I entered the house; by chance she met me just within the threshold; it was herself; and I recognised her, notwithstanding the striking change. She had grown stouter, and seemed to be larger: her gracefulness was shaded by a look of staidness; her vivacity had passed into a calm reflectiveness. Her head, which she once bore so airily and freely, drooped a little; slight furrows had been traced upon her brow.

“She cast down her eyes on seeing me; but no blush announced any inward movement of the heart. I held out my hand to her, she gave me hers: I inquired about her husband, he was absent; about her children, she stept out and called them; all came in and gathered round her. Nothing is more charming than to see a mother with a child upon her arm; nothing is more reverend than a mother among many children. That I might say something, I asked the name of the youngest. She desired me to walk in, and see her father: I agreed; she introduced me to the room, where everything was standing almost just as I had left it; and what seemed stranger still, the fair cousin, her living image, was sitting on the very seat behind the spinning-wheel, where I had found my love so often in the self-same form. A little girl, the very figure of her mother, had come after us; and thus I stood in the most curious scene, between the future and the past, as in a grove of oranges, where, within a little circle, flowers and fruits are living, in successive stages of their growth, beside each other. The cousin went away to fetch us some refreshment; I gave the woman I had loved so much my hand, and said to her: ‘I feel a true joy in seeing you again.’ ‘You are very good to say so,’ answered she: ‘but I also can assure you I feel the highest joy. How often have I wished to see you once more in my life! I have wished it in moments, which I regarded as my last.’ She said this with a settled voice, without appearance of emotion, with that natural air which of old delighted me so much. The cousin returned; the father with her: and I leave you to conceive with what feelings I remained, and with what I came away.”