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

Book II

Chapter X

WHEN our friends began to think of going home, they looked about them for their clergyman; but he had vanished, and was nowhere to be found.

“It is not polite in the man, who otherwise displayed good breeding,” said Madam Melina, “to desert a company that welcomed him so kindly, without taking leave.”

“I have all the time been thinking,” said Laertes, “where I can have seen this singular man before. I fully intended to ask him about it at parting.”

“I too had the same feeling,” said Wilhelm, “and certainly I should not have let him go, till he had told us something more about his circumstances. I am much mistaken if I have not ere now spoken with him somewhere.”

“And you may in truth,” said Philina, “be mistaken there. This person seems to have the air of an acquaintance, because he looks like a man, and not like Jack or Kit.”

“What is this?” said Laertes. “Do not we two look like men?”

“I know what I am saying,” cried Philina; “and if you cannot understand me, never mind. In the end my words will be found to require no commentary.”

Two coaches now drove up. All praised the attention of Laertes, who had ordered them. Philina, with Madam Melina, took her place opposite to Wilhelm; the rest bestowed themselves as they best could. Laertes rode back on Wilhelm’s horse, which had likewise been brought out.

Philina was scarcely seated in the coach, when she began to sing some pretty songs, and gradually led the conversation to some stories, which she said might be successfully treated in the form of dramas. By this cunning turn she very soon put her young friend into his finest humour: from the wealth of his living imaginative store, he forthwith constructed a complete play, with all its acts, scenes, characters and plots. It was thought proper to insert a few catches and songs; they composed them; and Philina, who entered into every part of it, immediately fitted them with well-known tunes, and sang them on the spot.

It was one of her beautiful, most beautiful days; she had skill to enliven our friend with all manner of diverting wiles; he felt in spirits such as he had not for many a month enjoyed.

Since that shocking discovery had torn him from the side of Mariana, he had continued true to his vow to be on his guard against the encircling arms of woman, to avoid the faithless sex, to lock up his inclinations, his sweet wishes in his own bosom. The conscientiousness with which he had observed this vow gave his whole nature a secret nourishment; and as his heart could not remain without affection, some loving sympathy had now become a want with him. He went along once more, as if environed by the first cloudy glories of youth; his eye fixed joyfully on every charming object, and never had his judgment of a lovely form been more favorable. How dangerous, in such a situation, this wild girl must have been to him, is but too easy to conceive.

Arrived at home, they found Wilhelm’s chamber all ready to receive them; the chairs set right for a public reading; in midst of them the table, on which the punch-bowl was in due time to take its place.

The German chivalry-plays were new at this period, and had just excited the attention and the inclination of the public. Old Boisterous had brought one of this sort with him; the reading of it had already been determined on. They all sat down: Wilhelm took possession of the pamphlet, and began to read.

The harnessed knights, the ancient keeps, the true-heartedness, honesty and downrightness, but especially the independence of the acting characters, were received with the greatest approbation. The reader did his utmost; and the audience gradually mounted into rapture. Between the third and fourth act, the punch arrived in an ample bowl; and there being much fighting and drinking in the piece itself, nothing was more natural than that, on every such occurrence, the company should transport themselves into the situation of the heroes, should flourish and strike along with them, and drink long life to their favourites among the dramatis personæ.

Each individual of the party was inflamed with the noblest fire of national spirit. How it gratified this German company to be poetically entertained, according to their own character, on stuff of their own manufacture! In particular, the vaults and caverns, the ruined castles, the moss and hollow trees, but above all the nocturnal gipsy-scenes, and the Secret Tribunal, produced a quite incredible effect. Every actor now figured to himself how, ere long, in helm and harness; every actress how, with a monstrous spreading ruff, she would present her Germanship before the public. Each would appropriate to himself without delay some name taken from the piece, or from German history; and Madam Melina declared, that the son or daughter she was then expecting should not be christened otherwise than by the name of Adelbert or of Mathilde.

Towards the fifth act the approbation became more impetuous and louder; and at last, when the hero actually trampled down his oppressor, and the tyrant met his doom, the ecstasy increased to such a height, that all averred they had never passed such happy moments. Melina, whom the liquor had inspired, was the noisiest; and when the second bowl was empty, and midnight near, Laertes swore through thick and thin, that no living mortal was worthy ever more to put these glasses to his lips; and, so swearing, he pitched his own right over his head, through a window-pane, out into the street. The rest followed his example; and notwithstanding the protestations of the landlord, who came running in at the noise, the punch-bowl itself, never after this festivity to be polluted by unholy drink, was dashed into a thousand sherds. Philina, whose exhilaration was the least noticed, the other two girls by that time having laid themselves upon the sofa in no very elegant positions, maliciously encouraged her companions in their tumult. Madam Melina recited some spirit-stirring poems; and her husband, not too amiable in the uproar, began to cavil at the insufficient preparation of the punch, declaring that he could arrange an entertainment altogether in a different style; and at last becoming sulkier and louder as Laertes commanded silence, till the latter, without much consideration, threw the fragments of the punch-bowl about his head, and thereby not a little deepened the confusion.

Meanwhile the town-guard had arrived, and were demanding admission to the house. Wilhelm, much heated by his reading, though he had drunk but little, had enough to do with the landlord’s help to content these people by money and good words; and afterwards to get the various members of his party sent home in that unseemly case. On coming back, overpowered with sleep and full of chagrin, he threw himself upon his bed without undressing; and nothing could exceed his disgust, when, opening his eyes next morning, he looked out with dull sight upon the devastations of the bygone day, and saw the uncleanness, and the many bad effects, of which that ingenious, lively and well-intentioned poetical performance had been the cause.