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

Book III

Chapter X

PHILINA now succeeded in insinuating farther every day into the favour of the ladies. Whenever they were by themselves, she was wont to lead the conversation on the men whom they saw about the Castle; and our friend was not the last or least important that engaged them. The cunning girl was well aware that he had made a deep impression on the Countess; she therefore talked about him often, telling much that she knew or did not know; only taking care to speak of nothing that might be interpreted against him; eulogising, on the contrary, his nobleness of mind, his generosity, and more than all, his modest and respectful conduct to the fair sex. To all inquiries made about him she replied with equal prudence; and the Baroness, when she observed the growing inclination of her amiable friend, was likewise very glad at the discovery. Her own intrigues with several men, especially of late with Jarno, had not remained hidden from the Countess, whose pure soul could not look upon such levities without disapprobation, and meek though earnest censures.

In this way, both Philina and the Baroness were personally interested in establishing a closer intercourse between the Countess and our friend. Philina hoped, moreover, that there would occur some opportunity, when she might once more labour for herself, and, if possible, get back the favour of the young man she had lost.

One day his Lordship with his guests had ridden out to hunt, and their return was not expected till the morrow. On this, the Baroness devised a frolic, which was altogether in her way; for she loved disguises; and in order to surprise her friends, would suddenly appear among them as a peasant girl at one time, at another as a page, at another as a hunter’s boy. By which means she almost gave herself the air of a little fairy, that is present everywhere, and exactly in the place where it is least expected. Nothing could exceed this lady’s joy, if, without being recognised, she could contrive to wait upon the company for some time as a servant, or mix among them anyhow, and then at last in some sportful way disclose herself.

Towards night, she sent for Wilhelm to her chamber; and, happening to have something else to do just then, she left Philina to receive him and prepare him.

He arrived, and found to his surprise, not the honourable lady, but the giddy actress in the room. She received him with a certain dignified openness of manner, which she had of late been practising, and so constrained him likewise to be courteous.

At first she rallied him in general on the good fortune which pursued him everywhere, and which, as she could not but see, had led him hither, in the present case. Then she delicately set before him the treatment with which of late he had afflicted her; she blamed and upbraided herself; confessed that she had but too well deserved such punishment; described with the greatest candour what she called her former situation; adding, that she would despise herself, if she were not capable of altering, and making herself worthy of his friendship.

Wilhelm was struck with this oration. He had too little knowledge of the world to understand that persons, quite unstable and incapable of all improvement, frequently accuse themselves in the bitterest manner, confessing and deploring their faults with extreme ingenuousness, though they possess not the smallest power within them to retire from that course, along which the irresistible tendency of their nature is dragging them forward. Accordingly, he could not find in his heart to behave inexorably to the graceful sinner; he entered into conversation, and learned from her the project of a singular disguisement, wherewith it was intended to surprise the Countess.

He found some room for hesitation here; nor did he hide his scruples from Philina; but the Baroness, entering at this moment, left him not an instant for reflection; she hurried him away with her, declaring it was just the proper hour.

It was now grown dark. She took him to the Count’s wardrobe; made him change his own coat with his Lordship’s silk night-gown; and put the cap with red trimmings on his head. She then led him forward to the cabinet; and bidding him sit down upon the large chair, and take a book, she lit the Argand’s lamp, which stood before him, and showed him what he was to do, and what kind of part he had to play.

They would inform the Countess, she said, of her husband’s unexpected arrival, and that he was in very bad humour. The Countess would come in, walk up and down the room once or twice, then place herself beside the back of his chair, lay her arm upon his shoulder, and speak a few words. He was to play the cross husband as long and as well as possible; and when obliged to disclose himself, he must behave politely, handsomely and gallantly.

Wilhelm was left sitting, restlessly enough, in this singular mask. The proposal had come upon him by surprise; the execution of it got the start of the deliberation. The Baroness had vanished from the room, before he saw how dangerous the post was which he had engaged to fill. He could not deny that the beauty, the youth, the gracefulness of the Countess had made some impression on him; but his nature was entirely averse to all empty gallantry, and his principles forbade any thought of more serious enterprises; so that his perplexity at this moment was in truth extreme. The fear of displeasing the Countess, and that of pleasing her too well, were equally busy in his mind.

Every female charm, that had ever acted on him, now showed itself again to his imagination. Mariana rose before him in her white morning-gown, and entreated his remembrance. Philina’s loveliness, her beautiful hair, her insinuating blandishments, had again become attractive by her late presence. Yet all this retired as if behind the veil of distance, when he figured to himself the noble blooming Countess, whose arm in a few minutes he would feel upon his neck, whose innocent caresses he was there to answer.

The strange mode, in which he was to be delivered out of this perplexity, he certainly did not anticipate. We may judge of his astonishment, nay his terror, when the door opened behind him; and at the first stolen look in the mirror, he quite clearly discerned the Count coming in with a light in his hand. His doubt what he should do, whether he should sit still or rise, should fly, confess, deny, or beg forgiveness, lasted but a few instants. The Count, who had remained motionless standing in the door, retired and shut it softly. At the same moment, the Baroness sprang forward by the side-door, extinguished the lamp, tore Wilhelm from his chair, and hurried him with her into the closet. Instantly, he threw off the night-gown, and put it in its former place. The Baroness took his coat under her arm, and hastened with him through several rooms, passages and partitions, into her chamber; where Wilhelm, so soon as she recovered breath, was informed that on her going to the Countess, and delivering the fictitious intelligence about her husband’s arrival, the Countess had answered: “I know it already: what can have happened? I saw him riding in, at the postern, even now.” On which the Baroness, in an excessive panic, had run to the Count’s chamber to give warning.

“Unhappily you came too late!” said Wilhelm. “The Count was in the room before you, and saw me sitting.”

“And recognised you?”

“That I know not. He was looking at me in the glass, as I at him; and before I could well determine whether it was he or a spirit, he drew back, and closed the door behind him.”

The anxiety of the Baroness increased, when a servant came to call her, signifying that the Count was with his lady. She went with no light heart; and found the Count silent and thoughtful indeed, but milder and kinder in his words than usual. She knew not what to think of it. They spoke about the incidents of the chase, and the causes of his quick return. The conversation soon ran out. The Count became taciturn; and it struck the Baroness particularly, when he asked for Wilhelm, and expressed a wish that he were sent for, to come and read something.

Wilhelm, who had now dressed himself in the Baroness’s chamber, and in some degree recovered his composure, obeyed the order, not without anxiety. The Count gave him a book; out of which he read an adventurous tale, very little at his ease. His voice had a certain inconstancy and quivering in it, which fortunately corresponded with the import of the story. The Count more than once gave kindly tokens of approval; and at last dismissed our friend, with praises of his exquisite manner of reading.