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

Book III

Chapter VIII

AT length the Prince arrived, with all his generals, staff-officers and suite accompanying him. These, and the multitude of people coming to visit or do business with him, made the castle like a bee-hive on the point of swarming. All pressed forward to behold a man no less distinguished by his rank than by his great qualities; and all admired his urbanity and condescension; all were astonished at finding the hero and the leader of armies also the most accomplished and attractive courtier.

By the Count’s orders, the inmates of the Castle were required to be all at their posts when the Prince arrived; not a player was allowed to show himself, that his Highness might have no anticipation of the spectacle prepared to welcome him. Accordingly, when at evening he was led into the lofty hall, glowing with light, and adorned with tapestries of the previous century, he seemed not at all prepared to expect a play, and still less a prelude in honour of himself. Everything went off as it should have done: at the conclusion of the show, the whole troop were called and presented individually to the Prince, who contrived with the most pleasing and friendly air to put some question, or make some remark, to every one of them. Wilhelm, as author of the piece, was particularly noticed, and had his tribute of applause liberally paid him.

The prelude being fairly over, no one asked another word about it; in a few days, it was as if it never had existed, except that occasionally Jarno spoke of it to Wilhelm, judiciously praised it, adding however: “It is pity you should play with hollow nuts, for a stake of hollow nuts.” This expression stuck in Wilhelm’s mind for several days; he knew not how to explain it, or what to infer from it.

Meanwhile the company kept acting every night, as well as their capacities permitted; each doing his utmost to attract the attention of spectators. Undeserved applauses cheered them on: in their old Castle they fully believed that the great assemblage was crowding thither solely on their account; that the multitude of strangers was allured by their exhibitions; that they were the centre round which, and by means of which, the whole was moving and revolving.

Wilhelm alone, discovered, to his sorrow, that directly the reverse was true. For although the Prince had waited out the first exhibitions, sitting on his chair, with the greatest conscientiousness, yet by degrees he grew remiss in his attendance, and seized every plausible occasion of withdrawing. And those very people whom Wilhelm, in conversation, had found to be the best informed and most sensible, with Jarno at their head, were wont to spend but a few transitory moments in the hall of the theatre; sitting for the rest of their time in the ante-chamber, gaming, or seeming to employ themselves in business.

Amid all his persevering efforts, to want the wished and hoped-for approbation grieved Wilhelm very deeply. In the choice of plays, in transcribing the parts, in numerous rehearsals, and whatever farther could be done, he zealously coöperated with Melina, who, being in secret conscious of his own insufficiency, at length acknowledged and pursued these counsels. His own parts Wilhelm diligently studied; and executed with vivacity and feeling, and with all the propriety which the little training he had yet received would allow.

At the same time, the unwearied interest which the Baron took in their performances, obliterated every doubt from the minds of the rest of the company: he assured them that their exhibitions were producing the deepest effect, especially while one of his own pieces had been representing; only he was grieved to say, the Prince showed an exclusive inclination for the French theatre; while a part of his people, among whom Jarno was especially distinguished, gave a passionate preference to the monstrous productions of the English stage.

If in this way the art of our players was not adequately noticed and admired, their persons, on the other hand, grew not entirely indifferent to all the gentlemen and all the ladies of the audience. We observed above, that from the very first our actresses had drawn upon them the attention of the young officers; in the sequel they were luckier, and made more important conquests. But omitting these, we shall merely observe, that Wilhelm every day appeared more interesting to the Countess, while in him too a silent inclination towards her was beginning to take root. Whenever he was on the stage, she could not turn her eyes from him; and ere long he seemed to play and to recite with his face towards her alone. To look upon each other was to them the sweetest satisfaction; to which their harmless souls yielded without reserve, without cherishing a bolder wish, or thinking about any consequence.

As two hostile outposts will sometimes peacefully and pleasantly converse together, across the river which divides them, not thinking of the war in which both their countries are engaged, so did the Countess exchange looks full of meaning with our friend, across the vast chasm of birth and rank, both believing for themselves that they might safely cherish their several emotions.

The Baroness, in the meantime, had selected Laertes, who, being a spirited and lively young man, pleased her very much; and who, woman-hater as he was, felt unwilling to refuse a passing adventure. He would actually on this occasion have been fettered, against his will, by the courteous and attractive nature of the Baroness, had not the Baron done him accidentally a piece of good, or if you will, of bad service, by instructing him a little in the habits and temper of this lady.

Laertes happening once to celebrate her praises, and give her the preference to every other of her sex, the Baron with a grin replied: “I see how matters stand; our fair friend has got a fresh inmate for her stalls.” This luckless comparison, which pointed too clearly to the dangerous caresses of a Circe, grieved poor Laertes to the heart; he could not listen to the Baron without spite and anger, as the latter continued without mercy:

“Every stranger thinks he is the first, whom this delightful manner of proceeding has concerned; but he is grievously mistaken; for we have all, at one time or another, been trotted round this course. Man, youth, or boy, be who he like, each must devote himself to her service for a season, must hang about her, and toil and long to gain her favour.”

To the happy man, just entering the garden of an enchantress, and welcomed by all the pleasures of an artificial spring, nothing can form a more unpleasant surprise, than if, while his ear is watching and drinking-in the music of the nightingales, some transformed predecessor on a sudden grunts at his feet.

After this discovery, Laertes felt heartily ashamed, that vanity should have again misled him to think well, even in the smallest degree, of any woman whatsoever. He now entirely forsook the Baroness; kept by the Stallmeister, with whom he diligently fenced and hunted; conducting himself at rehearsals and representations as if these were but secondary matters.

The Count and his lady would often in the mornings send for some of the company to attend them; and all had continual cause to envy the undeserved good fortune of Philina. The Count kept his favourite, the Pedant, frequently for hours together, at his toilette. This genius had been dressed-out by degrees; he was now equipt and furnished even to watch and snuff-box.

Many times, too, particularly after dinner, the whole company were called out before the noble guests; an honour which the artists regarded as the most flattering in the world; not observing, that on these very occasions the servants and huntsmen were ordered to bring in a multitude of hounds, and to lead strings of horses about the court of the Castle.

Wilhelm had been counselled to praise Racine, the Prince’s favourite, and thereby to attract some portion of his Highness’s favour to himself. On one of these afternoons, being summoned with the rest, he found an opportunity to introduce this topic. The Prince asked him if he diligently read the great French dramatic writers; to which Wilhelm answered with a very eager “Yes.” He did not observe that his Highness, without waiting for the answer, was already on the point of turning round to some one else: he fixed upon him, on the contrary, almost stepping in his way; and proceeded to declare, that he valued the French theatre very highly, and read the works of their great masters with delight; particularly he had learned with true joy that his Highness did complete justice to the great talents of Racine. “I can easily conceive,” continued he, “how people of high breeding and exalted rank must value a poet, who has painted so excellently and so truly the circumstances of their lofty station. Corneille, if I may say so, has delineated great men; Racine men of eminent rank. In reading his plays, I can always figure to myself the poet as living at a splendid court, with a great king before his eyes, in constant intercourse with the most distinguished persons, and penetrating into the secrets of human nature, as it works concealed behind the gorgeous tapestry of palaces. When I study his Britannicus, his Berenice, it seems as if I were transported in person to the court, were initiated into the great and the little, in the habitations of these earthly gods; through the fine and delicate organs of my author, I see kings whom a nation adores, courtiers whom thousands envy, in their natural forms, with their failings and their pains. The anecdote of Racine’s dying of a broken heart, because Louis Fourteenth would no longer attend to him, and had shown him his dissatisfaction, is to me the key to all his works. It was impossible that a poet of his talents, whose life and death depended on the looks of a king, should not write such works as a king and a prince might applaud.”

Jarno had stept near, and was listening with astonishment. The Prince, who had made no answer, and had only shown his approbation by an assenting look, now turned aside; though Wilhelm, who did not know that it was contrary to etiquette to continue a discussion under such circumstances and exhaust a subject, would gladly have spoken more, and convinced the Prince that he had not read his favourite poet without sensibility and profit.

“Have you never,” said Jarno, taking him aside, “read one of Shakspeare’s plays?”

“No,” replied Wilhelm: “since the time when they became more known in Germany, I have myself grown unacquainted with the theatre; and I know not whether I should now rejoice that an old taste, and occupation of my youth, has been by chance renewed. In the mean time, all that I have heard of these plays has excited little wish to become acquainted with such extraordinary monsters, which appear to set probability and dignity alike at defiance.”

“I would advise you,” said the other, “to make a trial, notwithstanding: it can do one no harm to look at what is extraordinary with one’s own eyes. I will lend you a volume or two; and you cannot better spend your time, than by casting everything aside, and retiring to the solitude of your old habitation, to look into the magic-lantern of that unknown world. It is sinful of you to waste your hours in dressing-out these apes to look more human, and teaching dogs to dance. One thing only I require; you must not cavil at the form; the rest I can leave to your own good sense and feeling.”

The horses were standing at the door; and Jarno mounted with some other cavaliers, to go and hunt. Wilhelm looked after him with sadness. He would fain have spoken much with his man, who, though in a harsh unfriendly way, gave him new ideas, ideas that he had need of.

Oftentimes a man when approaching some development of his powers, capacities and conceptions, gets into a perplexity, from which a prudent friend might easily deliver him. He resembles a traveller, who, at but a short distance from the inn he is to rest at, falls into the water; were any one to catch him then, and pull him to the bank, with one good wetting it were over; whereas though he struggles out himself, it is often at the side where he tumbled in, and he has to make a wide and weary circuit before reaching his appointed object.

Wilhelm now began to have an inkling that things went forward in the world differently from what he had supposed. He now viewed close at hand the solemn and imposing life of the great and distinguished; and wondered at the easy dignity which they contrived to give it. An army on its march, a princely hero at the head of it, such a multitude of coöperating warriors, such a multitude of crowding worshippers, exalted his imagination. In this mood, he received the promised books; and ere long, as may be easily supposed, the stream of that mighty genius laid hold of him, and led him down to a shoreless ocean, where he soon completely forgot and lost himself.