Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter XIII

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

Book V

Chapter XIII

NEXT morning, Wilhelm started up with an unpleasant feeling, and found himself alone. His head was still dim with the tumult, which he had not yet entirely slept off; and the recollection of his nightly visitant disquieted his mind. His first suspicion lighted on Philina; but, on second thoughts, he conceived that it could not have been she. He sprang out of bed, and, while putting on his clothes, he noticed that the door, which commonly he used to bolt, was now ajar; though whether he had shut it on the previous night or not, he could not recollect.

But what surprised him most was the Spirit’s veil, which he found lying on his bed. Having brought it up with him, he had most probably thrown it there himself. It was a gray gauze; on the hem of it he noticed an inscription broidered in dark letters. He unfolded it, and read the words: “FOR THE FIRST AND THE LAST TIME! FLY, YOUTH! FLY!” He was struck with it, and knew not what to think or say.

At this moment Mignon entered with his breakfast. The aspect of the child astonished Wilhelm, we may almost say frightened him. She appeared to have grown taller overnight: she entered with a stately, noble air; and looked him in the face so earnestly, that he could not endure her glances. She did not touch him, as at other times, when, for morning salutation, she would press his hand, or kiss his cheek, his lips, his arm, or shoulder; but having put his things in order, she retired in silence.

The appointed time of a first-rehearsal now arrived: our friends assembled, all of them entirely out of tune from yesternight’s debauch. Wilhelm roused himself as much as possible, that he might not at the very outset violate the principles of diligence, which he had preached so lately with such emphasis. His practice in the matter helped him through: for practice and habit must, in every art, fill up the voids, which genius and temper in their fluctuations will so often leave.

But in the present case, our friend had especial reason to admit the truth of the remark, that no one should begin with a festivity any situation that is meant to last, particularly that is meant to be a trade, a mode of living. Festivities are fit for what is happily concluded: at the commencement, they but waste the force and zeal which should inspire us in the struggle, and support us through a long-continued labour. Of all festivities, the marriage-festival appears the most unsuitable: calmness, humility and silent hope befit no ceremony more than this.

So passed the day, which to Wilhelm seemed the most insipid he had ever spent. Instead of their accustomed conversation in the evening, the company began to yawn: the interest of Hamlet was exhausted; they rather felt it disagreeable than otherwise that the piece was to be given again next night. Wilhelm showed the evil which the Royal Dane had left; it was to be inferred from this, that he would not come again. Serlo was of that opinion; he appeared to be deep in the secrets of the Ghost; but, on the other hand, the inscription, “Fly, youth! Fly!” seemed inconsistent with the rest. How could Serlo be in league with any one whose aim it was to take away the finest actor of his troop?

It had now become a matter of necessity to confer on Boisterous the Ghost’s part, and on the Pedant that of the King. Both declared that they had studied these sufficiently: nor was it wonderful; for, in such a number of rehearsals, and so copious a treatment of the subject, all of them had grown familiar with it; each could have exchanged his part with any other. Yet they rehearsed a little here and there, and prepared the new adventurers as fully as the hurry would admit. When the company was breaking up at a pretty late hour, Philina softly whispered Wilhelm as she passed: “I must have my slippers back: thou wilt not bolt the door?” These words excited some perplexity in Wilhelm, when he reached his chamber: they strengthened the suspicion that Philina was the secret visitant: and we ourselves are forced to coincide with this idea; particularly as the causes, which awakened in our friend another and a stranger supposition, cannot be disclosed. He kept walking up and down his chamber, in no quiet frame: his door was actually not yet bolted.

On a sudden, Mignon rushed into the room; laid hold of him, and cried: “Master! save the house! It is on fire!” Wilhelm sprang through the door; and a strong smoke came rushing down upon him from the upper story. On the street he heard the cry of fire; and the Harper, with his instrument in his hand, came down-stairs breathless through the smoke. Aurelia hurried out of her chamber, and threw little Felix into Wilhelm’s arms.

“Save the child!” cried she; “and we will mind the rest.”

Wilhelm did not look upon the danger as so great; his first thought was to penetrate to the source of the fire, and try to stifle it before it reached a head. He gave Felix to the Harper; commanding him to hasten down the stone stairs, which led across a little garden-vault out into the garden, and to wait with the children in the open air. Mignon took a light to show the way. He begged Aurelia to secure her things there also. He himself pierced upwards through the smoke; but it was in vain that he exposed himself to such danger. The flame appeared to issue from a neighbouring house; it had already caught the wooden floor and staircase: some others, who had hastened to his help, were suffering like himself from fire and vapour. Yet he kept inciting them; he called for water; he conjured them to dispute every inch with the flame; and promised to abide by them to the last. At this instant, Mignon came springing up, and cried: “Master! save thy Felix! The old man is mad! He is killing him.” Scarcely knowing what he did, Wilhelm darted down-stairs, and Mignon followed close behind him.

On the last steps, which led into the garden-vault, he paused with horror. Some heaps of fire-wood branches, and large masses of straw, which had been stowed in the place, were burning with a clear flame; Felix was lying on the ground and screaming; the Harper stood aside holding down his head, and leaned against the wall. “Unhappy creature! what is this?” said Wilhelm. The old man spoke not; Mignon lifted Felix, and carried him with difficulty to the garden; while Wilhelm strove to pull the fire asunder and extinguish it; but only by his efforts made the flame more violent. At last he too was forced to fly into the garden, with his hair and his eyelashes burnt; tearing the Harper with him through the conflagration, who, with singed beard, unwillingly, accompanied him.

Wilhelm hastened instantly to seek the children. He found them on the threshold of a summer-house at some distance: Mignon was trying every effort to pacify her comrade. Wilhelm took him on his knee; he questioned him, felt him; but could obtain no satisfactory account from either him or Mignon.

Meanwhile the fire had fiercely seized on several houses; it was now enlightening all the neighbourhood. Wilhelm looked at the child in the red glare of the flames; he could find no wound, no blood, no hurt of any kind. He groped over all the little creature’s body; but it gave no sign of pain; on the contrary, it by degrees grew calm, and began to wonder at the blazing houses, and express its pleasure at the spectacle of beams and rafters burning all in order, like a grand illumination, so beautifully there.

Wilhelm thought not of the clothes or goods he might have lost; he felt deeply how inestimable to him was this pair of human beings, who had just escaped so great a danger. He pressed little Felix to his heart with a new emotion; Mignon too he was about to clasp with joyful tenderness, but she softly avoided this; she took him by the hand and held it fast.

“Master,” said she,—(till the present evening she had hardly ever named him master; at first she used to name him sir, and afterwards to call him father)—“Master! we have escaped an awful danger; thy Felix was on the point of death.”

By many inquiries, Wilhelm learned from her at last, that when they came into the vault, the Harper tore the light from her hand, and set on fire the straw. That he then put Felix down; laid his hands with strange gestures on the head of the child, and drew a knife as if he meant to sacrifice him. That she sprang forward, and snatched it from him; that she screamed, and some one from the house, who was carrying something down into the garden, came to her help, but must have gone away again in the confusion, and left the old man and the child alone.

Two or even three houses were now flaming in a general blaze. Owing to the conflagration in the vault, no person had been able to take shelter in the garden. Wilhelm was distressed about his friends, and in a less degree about his property. Not venturing to quit the children, he was forced to sit, and see the mischief spreading more and more.

In this anxious state he passed some hours. Felix had fallen asleep on his bosom; Mignon was lying at his side, and holding fast his hand. The efforts of the people finally subdued the fire. The burnt houses sank, with successive crashes, into heaps; the morning was advancing; the children awoke, and complained of bitter cold; even Wilhelm in his light dress could scarcely brook the chillness of the falling dew. He took the young ones to the rubbish of the prostrate building; where, among the ashes and the embers, they found a very grateful warmth.

The opening day collected, by degrees, the various individuals of the party. All of them had got away unhurt, no one had lost much. Wilhelm’s trunk was saved among the rest.

Towards ten o’clock, Serlo called them to rehearse their Hamlet, at least some scenes of the piece, in which fresh players were to act. He had some debates to manage, on this point, with the municipal authorities. The clergy required, that after such a visitation of Providence, the playhouse should be shut for some time; and Serlo on the other hand maintained that, both for the purpose of repairing the damage he had suffered, and of exhilarating the depressed and terrified spirits of the people, nothing could be more in place than the exhibition of some interesting piece. His opinion in the end prevailed; and the house was full. The actors played with singular fire, with more of a passionate freedom than at first. The feelings of the audience had been heightened by the horrors of the previous night, and their appetite for entertainment had been sharpened by the tedium of a wasted and dissipated day; every one had more than usual susceptibility for what was strange and moving. Most of them were new spectators, invited by the fame of the piece; they could not compare the present with the preceding evening. Boisterous played altogether in the style of the unknown Ghost; the Pedant too had accurately seized the manner of his predecessor; nor was his own woful aspect without its use to him; for it seemed as if, in spite of his purple cloak and his ermine collar, Hamlet were fully justified in calling him a “king of shreds and patches.”

Few have ever reached the throne by a path more singular than his had been. But although the rest, and especially Philina, made sport of his preferment, he himself signified that the Count, a consummate judge, had at the first glance predicted this and much more of him. Philina, on the other hand, recommended lowliness of mind to him; saying she would now and then powder the sleeves of his coat, that he might remember that unhappy night in the Castle, and wear his crown with meekness.