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

Book IV

Chapter XIV

SEVERAL people entering interrupted the discussion. They were musical dilettanti, who commonly assembled at Serlo’s once a week, and formed a little concert. Serlo himself loved music much: he used to maintain, that a player without taste for it never could attain a distinct conception and feeling of the scenic art. “As a man performs,” he would observe, “with far more ease and dignity, when his gestures are accompanied and guided by a tune; so the player ought, in idea as it were, to set to music even his prose parts, that he may not monotonously slight them over in his individual style, but treat them in suitable alternation by time and measure.”

Aurelia seemed to give but little heed to what was passing; at last, she conducted Wilhelm to another room, and going to the window, and looking out at the starry sky, she said to him:

“You have still much to tell us about Hamlet; I will not hurry you; my brother must hear it as well as I; but let me beg to know your thoughts about Ophelia.”

“Of her there cannot much be said,” he answered; “for a few master-strokes complete her character. The whole being of Ophelia floats in sweet and ripe sensation. Kindness for the Prince, to whose hand she may aspire, flows so spontaneously, her tender heart obeys its impulses so unresistingly, that both father and brother are afraid; both give her warning harshly and directly. Decorum, like the thin lawn upon her bosom, cannot hide the soft, still movements of her heart; it on the contrary betrays them. Her fancy smit; her silent modesty breathes amiable desire; and if the friendly goddess Opportunity should shake the tree, is fruit would fall.”

“And then,” said Aurelia, “when she beholds herself forsaken, cast away, despised; when all is inverted in the soul of her crazed lover, and the highest changes to the lowest and instead of the sweet cup of love he offers her the bitter cup of woe—”

“Her heart breaks,” cried Wilhelm; “the whole structure of her being is loosened from its joinings; her father’s death strikes fiercely against it; and the fair edifice altogether crumbles into fragments.”

Our friend had not observed with what expressiveness Aurelia pronounced those words. Looking only at this work of art, at its connexion and completeness, he dreamed not that his auditress was feeling quite a different influence; that a deep sorrow of her own was vividly awakened in her breast by these dramatic shadows.

Aurelia’s head was still resting on her arms; and her eyes, now full of tears, were directed to the sky. At last, no longer able to conceal her secret grief, she seized both hands of her friend, and exclaimed, while he stood surprised before her:

“Forgive, forgive a heavy heart! I am girt and pressed together by these people; from my hard-hearted brother I must seek to hide myself; your presence has untied these bonds. My friend!” continued she, “it is but a few minutes since we saw each other first, and already you are going to become my confidant.” She could scarcely end the words, and sank upon his shoulder. “Think not worse of me,” she said with sobs, “that I disclose myself to you so hastily, that I am so weak before you. Be my friend, remain my friend; I shall deserve it.” He spoke to her in his kindest manner: but in vain; her tears still flowed, and choked her words.

At this moment Serlo entered, most unwelcomely; and most unexpectedly, Philina with her hand in his. “Here is your friend,” said he to her; “he will be glad to make his compliments to you.”

“How!” cried Wilhelm in astonishment: “are you here?” With a modest settled mien, she went up to him; bade him welcome; praised Serlo’s goodness, who, she said, without merit on her part, but purely in the hope of her improvement, had agreed to admit her into his accomplished troop. She behaved, all the while, in a friendly manner towards Wilhelm, yet with a dignified distance.

But this dissimulation lasted only till the other two were gone. Aurelia having left them, that she might conceal her trouble, and Serlo being called away, Philina first looked very sharply at the doors, to see that both were really out; then began skipping to and fro about the room, as if she had been mad; at last dropt down upon the floor, like to die of giggling and laughing. She then sprang up, patted and flattered our friend; rejoicing above measure that she had been clever enough to go before, and spy the land get herself nestled in.

“Pretty things are going on here,” she said; “just of the sort I like. Aurelia has had a hapless love-affair with some nobleman, who seems to be a very stately person, one whom I myself could like to see, some day. He has left her a memorial, or I much mistake. There is a boy running about the house, of three years old or so: the papa must be a very pretty fellow. Commonly I cannot suffer children, but this brat quite delights me. I have calculated Aurelia’s business. The death of her husband, the new acquaintance, the child’s age, all things agree.

“But now her spark has gone his ways; for a year she has not seen a glimpse of him. She is beside herself and inconsolable, on this account. The more fool she! Her brother has a dancing girl in his troop, with whom he stands on pretty terms; an actress to whom he is betrothed; in the town, some other women whom he courts; I too am on his list. The more fool he! Of the rest thou shalt hear tomorrow. And now one word about Philina, whom thou knowest: the arch-fool is fallen in love with thee.” She swore that it was true, and a proper joke. She earnestly requested Wilhelm to fall in love with Aurelia; for then the chase would be worth beholding. “She pursues her faithless swain, thou her, I thee, her brother me. If that will not divert us for a quarter of a year, I engage to die at the first episode which occurs in this four-times complicated tale.” She begged of him not to spoil her trade, and to show her such respect as her external conduct should deserve.