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


Chapter VIII

THE ABBÉ called them, in the evening, to attend the exequies of Mignon. The company proceeded to the Hall of the Past; they found it magnificently ornamented and illuminated. The walls were hung with azure tapestry almost from ceiling to floor, so that nothing but the friezes and socles, above and below, were visible. On the four candelabra in the corners, large wax-lights were burning; smaller lights were in the four smaller candelabra placed by the sarcophagus in the middle. Near this stood four Boys, dressed in azure with silver; they had broad fans of ostrich feathers, which they waved above a figure that was resting upon the sarcophagus. The company sat down: two invisible Choruses began in a soft musical recitative to ask: “Whom bring ye us to the still dwelling?” The four Boys replied with lovely voices: “Tis a tired playmate whom we bring you; let her rest in your still dwelling, till the songs of her heavenly sisters once more awaken her.”

  • Firstling of youth in our circle, we welcome thee! With sadness welcome thee! May no boy, no maiden follow! Let age only, willing and composed, approach the silent Hall, and in the solemn company, repose this one dear child!

  • BOYS
  • Ah, reluctantly we brought her hither! Ah, and she is to remain here! Let us too remain; let us weep, let us weep upon her bier!

  • Yet look at the strong wings; look at the light clear robe! How glitters the golden band upon her head! Look at the beautiful, the noble repose!

  • BOYS
  • Ah! the wings do not raise her; in the frolic game, her robe flutters to and fro no more; when we bound her head with roses, her looks on us were kind and friendly.

  • Cast forward the eye of the spirit! Awake in your souls the imaginative power, which carries forth, what is fairest, what is highest, Life, away beyond the stars.

  • BOYS
  • But ah! we find her not here; in the garden she wanders not; the flowers of the meadow she plucks no longer. Let us weep, we are leaving her here! Let us weep and remain with her!

  • Children, turn back into life! Your tears let the fresh air dry, which plays upon the rushing water. Fly from Night! Day and Pleasure and Continuance are the lot of the living.

  • BOYS
  • Up! Turn back into life! Let the day give us labour and pleasure, till the evening brings us rest, and the nightly sleep refreshes us.

  • Children! Hasten into life! In the pure garments of beauty, may Love meet you with heavenly looks and with the wreath of immortality!

    The Boys had retired; the Abbé rose from his seat, and went behind the bier. “It is the appointment,” said he, “of the Man who prepared this silent abode, that each new tenant of it shall be introduced with a solemnity. After him, the builder of this mansion, the founder of this establishment, we have next brought a young stranger hither: and thus already does this little space contain two altogether different victims of the rigorous, arbitrary, and inexorable Death-goddess. By appointed laws we enter into life; the days are numbered which make us ripe to see the light; but for the duration of our life there is no law. The weakest thread will spin itself to unexpected length; and the strongest is cut suddenly asunder by the scissors of the Fates, delighting, as it seems, in contradictions. Of the child, whom we have here committed to her final rest, we can say but little. It is still uncertain whence she came; her parents we know not; the years of her life we can only conjecture. Her deep and closely-shrouded soul allowed us scarce to guess at its interior movements: there was nothing clear in her, nothing open but her affection for the man, who had snatched her from the hands of a barbarian. This impassioned tenderness, this vivid gratitude, appeared to be the flame which consumed the oil of her life: the skill of the physician could not save that fair life, the most anxious friendship could not lengthen it. But if art could not stay the departing spirit, it has done its utmost to preserve the body, and withdraw it from decay. A balsamic substance has been forced through all the veins, and now tinges, in place of blood, these cheeks too early faded. Come near, my friends, and view this wonder of art and care!”

    He raised the veil: the child was lying in her angel’s-dress, as if asleep, in the most soft and graceful posture. They approached, and admired this show of life. Wilhelm alone continued sitting in his place: he was not able to compose himself: what he felt, he durst not think; and every thought seemed ready to destroy his feeling.

    For the sake of the Marchese, the speech had been pronounced in French. That nobleman came forward with the rest, and viewed the figure with attention. The Abbé thus proceeded: “With a holy confidence, this kind heart, shut up to men, was continually turned to its God. Humility, nay an inclination to abase herself externally, seemed natural to her. She clave with zeal to the Catholic religion, in which she had been born and educated. Often she expressed a still wish to sleep on consecrated ground: and according to the usage of the church, we have therefore consecrated this marble coffin, and the little earth which is hidden in the cushion that supports her head. With what ardour did she in her last moments kiss the image of the Crucified, which stood beautifully figured on her tender arm, with many hundred points!” So saying, he stripped up her right sleeve, and a crucifix, with marks and letters round it, showed itself in blue upon the white skin.

    The Marchese looked at this with eagerness, stooping down to view it more intensely. “O God!” cried he, as he stood upright, and raised his hands to Heaven: “Poor child! Unhappy niece! Do I meet thee here! What a painful joy to find thee, whom we had long lost hope of; to find this dear frame, which we had long believed the prey of fishes in the ocean, here preserved, though lifeless! I assist at thy funeral, splendid in its external circumstances, still more splendid from the noble persons who attend thee to thy place of rest. And to these,” added he with a faltering voice, “so soon as I can speak, I will express my thanks.”

    Tears hindered him from saying more. By the pressure of a spring, the Abbé sank the body into the cavity of the marble. Four Youths, dressed as the Boys had been, came out from behind the tapestry; and lifting the heavy, beautifully ornamented lid upon the coffin, thus began their song:

  • Well is the treasure now laid up; the fair image of the Past! Here sleeps it in the marble, undecaying; in your hearts too it lives, it works. Travel, travel, back into life! Take along with you this holy Earnestness;—for Earnestness alone makes life eternity.

    The invisible Chorus joined in with the last words: but no one heard the strengthening sentiment; all were too much busied with themselves, and the emotions which these wonderful disclosures had excited. The Abbé and Natalia conducted the Marchese out; Theresa and Lothario walked by Wilhelm. It was not till the music had altogether died away, that their sorrows, thoughts, meditations, curiosity again fell on them with all their force, and made them long to be transported back into that exalting scene.