Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter XII

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

Book III

Chapter XII

MEANWHILE the Baroness had spent several days disquieted by anxious fears and unsatisfied curiosity. Since the late adventure, the Count’s demeanor had been altogether an enigma to her. His manner was changed; none of his customary jokes were to be heard. His demands on the company and the servants had very much abated. Little pedantry or imperiousness was now to be discerned in him; he was silent and thoughtful; yet withal he seemed composed and placid; in short, he was quite another man.

In choosing the books which now and then he caused to be read to him, those of a serious, often a religious cast were pitched upon; and the Baroness lived in perpetual fright lest, beneath this apparent serenity, a secret rancour might be lurking; a silent purpose to revenge the offence he had so accidentally discovered. She determined, therefore, to make Jarno her confidant; and this the more freely, as that gentleman and she already stood in a relation to each other, where it is not usual to be very cautious in keeping secrets. For some time Jarno had been her dearest friend; yet they had been dextrous enough to conceal their attachment and joys from the noisy world in which they moved. To the Countess alone this new romance had not remained unknown; and very possibly the Baroness might wish to get her fair friend occupied with some similar engagement, and thus to escape the silent reproaches she had often to endure from that noble-minded woman.

Scarcely had the Baroness related the occurrence to her lover, when he cried out, laughing: “To a certainty the old fool believes that he has seen his ghost! He dreads that the vision may betoken some misfortune, perhaps death to him, and so he is become quite tame, as all half-men do, in thinking of that consummation which no one has escaped, or will escape. Softly a little! As I hope he will live long enough, we may now train him at least, so that he shall not again give disturbance to his wife and household.”

They accordingly, as soon as any opportunity occurred, began talking, in the presence of the Count, about warnings, visions, apparitions, and the like. Jarno played the sceptic, the Baroness likewise; and they carried it so far, that his Lordship at last took Jarno aside, reproved him for his freethinking, and produced his own experience to prove the possibility, nay actual occurrence, of such preternatural events. Jarno affected to be struck; to be in doubt; and finally to be convinced: but in private with his friend, he made himself so much the merrier at the credulous weakling, who had thus been cured of his evil habits by a bugbear, but who, they admitted, still deserved some praise for expecting dire calamity, or death itself, with such composure.

“The natural result, which the present apparition might have had, would possibly have ruffled him!” exclaimed the Baroness, with her wonted vivacity; to which, when anxiety was taken from her heart, she had instantly returned. Jarno was richly rewarded; and the two contrived fresh projects for frightening the Count still farther; and still farther exciting and confirming the affection of the Countess for Wilhelm.

With this intention, the whole story was related to the Countess. She, indeed, expressed her displeasure at such conduct; but from that time she became more thoughtful, and in peaceful moments seemed to be considering, pursuing and painting out that scene which had been prepared for her.

The preparations, now going forward on every side, left no room for doubt that the armies were soon to move in advance, and the Prince at the same time to change his headquarters. It was even said that the Count intended leaving his Castle, and returning to the city. Our players could therefore, without difficulty, calculate the aspect of their stars; yet none of them, except Melina, took any measures in consequence: the rest strove only to catch as much enjoyment as they could from the moment that was passing over them.

Wilhelm, in the mean time, was engaged with a peculiar task. The Countess had required from him a copy of his writings; and he looked on this request as the noblest recompense for his labours.

A young author, who has not yet seen himself in print, will, in such a case, apply no ordinary care to provide a clear and beautiful transcript of his works. It is like the golden age of authorship: he feels transported into those centuries when the press had not inundated the world with so many useless writings, when none but excellent performances were copied, and kept by the noblest men; and he easily admits the illusion, that his own accurately ruled and measured manuscript may itself prove an excellent performance, worthy to be kept and valued by some future critic.

The Prince being shortly to depart, a great entertainment had been appointed in honour of him. Many ladies of the neighbourhood were invited; and the Countess had dressed herself betimes. On this occasion, she had taken a costlier suit than usual. Her head-dress, and the decorations of her hair, were more exquisite and studied: she wore all her jewels. The Baroness, too, had done her utmost to appear with becoming taste and splendour.

Philina, observing that both ladies, in expectation of their guests, felt the time rather tedious, proposed to send for Wilhelm, who was wishing to present his manuscript, now completed, and to read them some other little pieces. He came; and on his entrance was astonished at the form and the graces of the Countess, which her decorations had but made more visible and striking. Being ordered by the ladies, he began to read; but with so much absence of mind, and so badly, that had not his audience been excessively indulgent, they would very soon have dismissed him.

Every time he looked at the Countess, it seemed to him as if a spark of electric fire were glancing before his eyes. In the end, he knew not where to find the breath he wanted for his reading. The Countess had always pleased him; but now it appeared as if he never had beheld a being so perfect and so lovely. A thousand thoughts flitted up and down his soul; what follows might be nearly their substance.

“How foolish is it in so many poets, and men of sentiment as they are called, to make war on pomp and decoration; requiring that women of all ranks should wear no dress but what is simple and conformable to nature! They rail at decoration, without once considering, that when we see a plain or positively ugly person clothed in a costly and gorgeous fashion, it is not the poor decoration that displeases us. I would assemble all the judges in the world, and ask them here if they wished to see one of these folds, of these ribbons and laces, these braids, ringlets and glancing stones removed? Would they not dread disturbing the delightful impression that so naturally and spontaneously meets us here? Yes, naturally I will say! As Minerva sprang in complete armour from the head of Jove, so does this goddess seem to have stept forth with a light foot, in all her ornaments, from t he bosom of some flower.”

While reading, he turned his eyes upon her frequently, as if he wished to stamp this image on his soul forever; he more than once read wrong, yet without falling into confusion of mind; though, at other times, he used to feel the mistaking of a word or a letter as a painful deformity, which spoiled a whole recitation.

A false alarm of the arrival of the guests put an end to the reading; the Baroness went out; and the Countess, while about to shut her writing-desk, which was standing open, took up her casket, and put some other rings upon her finger. “We are soon to part,” said she, keeping her eyes upon the casket: “accept a memorial of a true friend, who wishes nothing more earnestly than that you may always prosper.” She then took out a ring, which, underneath a crystal, bore a little plait of woven hair beautifully set with diamonds. She held it out to Wilhelm, who, on taking it, knew neither what to say nor do, but stood as if rooted to the ground. The Countess shut her desk, and sat down upon the sofa.

“And I must go empty?” said Philina, kneeling down at the Countess’s right hand. “Do but look at the man; he carries such a store of words in his mouth, when no one wants to hear them; and now he cannot stammer out the poorest syllable of thanks. Quick, sir! Express your services by way of pantomime at least; and if today you can invent nothing, then, for Heaven’s sake, be my imitator.”

Philina seized the right hand of the Countess, and kissed it warmly. Wilhelm sank upon his knee, laid hold of the left and pressed it to his lips. The Countess seemed embarrassed, yet without displeasure.

“Ah!” cried Philina, “so much splendour of attire I may have seen before; but never one so fit to wear it. What bracelets, but also what a hand! What a necklace, but also what a bosom!”

“Peace, little cozener!” said the Countess.

“Is this his Lordship then?” said Philina, pointing to a rich medallion, which the Countess wore on her left side, by a particular chain.

“He is painted in his bridegroom dress,” replied the Countess.

“Was he then so young?” inquired Philina; “I know it is but a year or two since you were married.”

“His youth must be placed to the artist’s account,” replied the lady.

“He is a handsome man,” observed Philina. “But was there never,” she continued, placing her hand on the Countess’s heart, “never any other image that found its way in secret hither?”

“Thou art very bold, Philina!” cried she; “I have spoiled thee. Let me never hear the like again.”

“If you are angry, then am I unhappy,” said Philina, springing up, and hastening from the room.

Wilhelm still held that lovely hand in both of his. His eyes were fixed on the bracelet-clasp; he noticed, with extreme surprise, that his initials were traced on it, in lines of brilliants.

“Have I then,” he modestly inquired, “your own hair in this precious ring?”

“Yes,” replied she, in a faint voice; then suddenly collecting herself, she said, and pressed his hand: “Arise, and fare you well!”

“Here is my name,” cried he, “by the most curious chance!” He pointed to the bracelet-clasp.

“How?” cried the Countess: “it is the cipher of a female friend!”

“They are the initials of my name. Forget me not. Your image is engraven on my heart, and will never be effaced Farewell! I must be gone.”

He kissed her hand, and meant to rise; but, as in dreams, some strange thing fades and changes into something stranger, and the succeeding wonder takes us by surprise; so, without knowing how it happened, he found the Countess in his arms; her lips were resting upon his, and their warm mutual kisses were yielding them that blessedness, which mortals sip from the topmost sparkling foam on the freshly-poured cup of love.

Her head lay on his shoulder; the disordered ringlets and ruffles were forgotten. She had thrown her arm round him; he clasped her with vivacity; and pressed her again and again to his breast. O that such a moment could but last forever! And woe to envious fate that shortened even this brief moment to our friends!

How terrified was Wilhelm, how astounded did he start from his happy dream, when the Countess, with a shriek, on a sudden tore herself away, and hastily pressed her hand against her heart.

He stood confounded before her; she held the other hand upon her eyes, and, after a moment’s pause, exclaimed: “Away! leave me! delay not!”

He continued standing.

“Leave me!” she cried; and taking off her hand from her eyes, she looked at him with an indescribable expression of countenance; and added, in the most tender and affecting voice: “Fly, if you love me.”

Wilhelm was out of the chamber, and again in his room, before he knew what he was doing.

Unhappy creatures! What singular warning of chance or of destiny tore them asunder?