Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter XIV

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

Book II

Chapter XIV

ACCORDINGLY, in walking back, he began to think with greater earnestness than ever on his present situation: he had reached home with the firm purpose of altering it, when the landlord disclosed to him, by way of secret, that Mademoiselle Philina had made a conquest of the Count’s Stallmeister; who, after executing his commission at his master’s Estate, had returned in the greatest haste, and was even now partaking of a good supper with her up in her chamber.

At this very moment Melina came in with a notary: they went into Wilhelm’s chamber together, where the latter, though with some hesitation, made his promise good; gave a draught of three hundred crowns to Melina, who, handing it to the lawyer, received in return a note acknowledging the sale of the whole theatrical apparatus, and engaging to deliver it next morning.

Scarcely had they parted, when Wilhelm heard a cry of horror rising from some quarter of the house. He caught the sound of a young voice, uttering menacing and furious tones, which were ever and anon choked by immoderate weeping and howling. He observed this frantic noise move hastily from above; go past his door, and down to the lower part of the house.

Curiosity enticing our friend to follow it, he found Friedrich in a species of delirium. The boy was weeping, grinding his teeth, stamping with his feet, threatening with clenched fists; he appeared beside himself from fury and vexation. Mignon was standing opposite him, looking on with astonishment. The landlord, in some degree, explained this phenomenon.

The boy, he said, being well received at his return by Philina, seemed quite merry and contented; he had kept singing and jumping about, till the time when Philina grew acquainted with the Stallmeister. Then, however, this half-grown younker had begun to show his indignation, to slam the doors, and run up and down in the highest dudgeon. Philina had ordered him to wait at table that evening; upon which he had grown still sulkier and more indignant; till at last, carrying up a plate with a ragout, instead of setting it upon the table, he had thrown the whole between Mademoiselle and her guest, who were sitting moderately close together at the time; and the Stallmeister, after two or three hearty cuffs, had then kicked him out of the room. He, the landlord, had himself helped to clean both of them, and certainly their clothes had suffered much.

On hearing of the good effect of his revenge, the boy began to laugh aloud, whilst the tears were still running down his cheeks. He heartily rejoiced for a time, till the disgrace which he had suffered from the stronger party once more came into his head, and he began afresh to howl and threaten.

Wilhelm stood meditating, and ashamed at this spectacle. It reflected back to him his own feelings, in coarser and exaggerated features: he too was inflamed with a fierce jealousy; and had not decency restrained him, he would willingly have satisfied his wild humour; with malicious spleen, would have abused the object of his passion, and called out his rival: he could have crushed in pieces all the people round him; they seemed as if standing there but to vex him.

Laertes also had come in, and heard the story; he roguishly spurred on the irritated boy, who was now asserting with oaths that he would make the Stallmeister give him satisfaction; that he had never yet let any injury abide with him; that should the man refuse, there were other ways of taking vengeance.

This was the very business for Laertes. He went upstairs, with a solemn countenance, to call out the Stallmeister in the boy’s name.

“This is a pleasant thing,” said the Stallmeister: “such a joke as this I had scarcely promised myself to-night.” They went down, and Philina followed them. “My son,” said the Stallmeister to Friedrich, thou art a brave lad, and I do not hesitate to fight thee. Only as our years and strength are unequal, and the attempt a little dangerous on that account, I propose a pair of foils in preference to other weapons. We can rub the buttons of them with a piece of chalk; and whoever marks upon the other’s coat the first or the most thrusts, shall be held the victor, and be treated by the other with the best wine that can be had in town.”

Laertes decided that the proposition might be listened to: Friedrich obeyed him as his tutor. The foils were produced; Philina took a seat, went on with her knitting, and looked at the contending parties with the greatest peace of mind.

The Stallmeister, who could fence very prettily, was complaisant enough to spare his adversary, and to let a few chalk-scores be marked upon his coat; after which the two embraced, and wine was ordered. The Stallmeister took the liberty of asking Friedrich’s parentage and history; and Friedrich told him a long story, which had often been repeated already, and which, on some other opportunity, we purpose communicating to our readers.

To Wilhelm, in the mean time, this contest completed the representation of his own state of mind. He could not but perceive that he would willingly have taken up a foil against the Stallmeister; a sword still more willingly, though evidently much his inferior in the science of defence. Yet he deigned not to cast one look on Philina; he was on his guard against any word or movement that could possibly betray his feelings; and after having once or twice done justice to the health of the duellists, he hastened to his own room, where a thousand painful thoughts came pressing round him.

He called to memory the time when his spirit, rich in hope, and full of boundless aims, was raised aloft, and encircled with the liveliest enjoyments of every kind as with its proper element. He now clearly saw, that of late he had fallen into a broken wandering path, where, if he tasted, it was but in drops what he once quaffed in unrestricted measure. But he could not clearly see what insatiable want it was that nature had made the law of his being; and how this want had been only set on edge, half satisfied, and misdirected by the circumstances of his life.

It will not surprise us, therefore, that, in considering his situation, and labouring to extricate himself, he fell into the greatest perplexity. It was not enough, that, by his friendship for Laertes, his attachment to Philina, his concern for Mignon, he had been detained longer than was proper in a place and a society where he could cherish his darling inclination, content his wishes as it were by stealth, and without proposing any object, again pursue his early dreams. These ties he believed himself possessed of force enough to break asunder: had there been nothing more to hold him, he could have gone at once. But, only a few moments ago, he had entered into money-transactions with Melina; he had seen that mysterious old man, the enigma of whose history he longed with unspeakable desire to clear. Yet of this too, after much balancing of reasons, he at length determined, or thought he had determined, that it should not keep him back. “I must go,” he exclaimed; “I will go.” He threw himself into a chair; he felt greatly moved. Mignon came in, and asked, Whether she might help to undress him? Her manner was still and shy; it had grieved her to the quick to be so abruptly dismissed by him before.

Nothing is more touching than the first disclosure of a love which has been nursed in silence, of a faith grown strong in secret, and which at last comes forth in the hour of need, and reveals itself to him who formerly has reckoned it of small account. The bud, which had been closed so long and firmly, was now ripe to burst its swathings, and Wilhelm’s heart could never have been readier to welcome the impressions of affection.

She stood before him, and noticed his disquietude. “Master!” she cried, “if thou art unhappy, what will become of Mignon?” “Dear little creature,” said he, taking her hands, “thou too art part of my anxieties. I must go hence.” She looked at his eyes, glistening with restrained tears; and knelt down with vehemence before him. He kept her hands; she laid her head upon his knees, and remained quite still. He played with her hair, patted her, and spoke kindly to her. She continued motionless for a considerable time. At last he felt a sort of palpitating movement in her, which began very softly, and then by degrees with increasing violence diffused itself over all her frame. “What ails thee, Mignon?” cried he; “what ails thee?” She raised her little head, looked at him, and all at once laid her hand upon her heart, with the countenance of one repressing the utterance of pain. He raised her up, and she fell upon his breast; he pressed her towards him, and kissed her. She replied not by any pressure of the hand, by any motion whatever. She held firmly against her heart; and all at once gave a cry, which was accompanied by spasmodic movements of the body. She started up, and immediately fell down before him, as if broken in every joint. It was an excruciating moment! “My child!” cried he, raising her up, and clasping her fast; “my child, what ails thee?” The palpitations continued, spreading from the heart over all the lax and powerless limbs; she was merely hanging in his arms. All at once she again became quite stiff, like one enduring the sharpest corporeal agony; and soon with a new vehemence all her frame once more became alive; and she threw herself about his neck, like a bent spring closing; while in her soul, as it were, a strong rent took place, and at the same moment a stream of tears flowed from her shut eyes into his bosom. He held her fast. She wept, and no tongue can express the force of these tears. Her long hair had loosened, and was hanging down before her; it seemed as if her whole being was melting incessantly into a brook of tears. Her rigid limbs were again become relaxed; her inmost soul was pouring itself forth; in the wild confusion of the moment, Wilhelm was afraid she would dissolve in his arms, and leave nothing there for him to grasp. He held her faster and faster. “My child!” cried he, “my child! Thou art indeed mine, if that word can comfort thee. Thou art mine! I will keep thee, I will never forsake thee!” Her tears continued flowing. At last she raised herself; a faint gladness shone upon her face. “My father!” cried she, “thou wilt not forsake me? Wilt be my father? I am thy child!”

Softly, at this moment, the harp began to sound before the door; the old man brought his most affecting songs as an evening offering to our friend, who, holding his child ever faster in his arms, enjoyed the most pure and undescribable felicity.