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

Book V

Chapter XIV

OUR friends had sought out other lodgings, on the spur of the moment, and were by this means much dispersed. Wilhelm had conceived a liking for the garden-house, where he had spent the night of the conflagration: he easily obtained the key, and settled himself there. But Aurelia being greatly hampered in her new abode, he was obliged to retain little Felix with him. Mignon, indeed, would not part with the boy.

He had placed the children in a neat chamber on the upper floor: he himself was in the lower parlour. The young ones were asleep at this time: Wilhelm could not sleep.

Adjoining the lovely garden, which the full moon had just risen to illuminate, the black ruins of the fire were visible, and here and there a streak of vapour was still mounting from them. The air was soft, the night extremely beautiful. Philina in issuing from the theatre had jogged him with her elbow, and whispered something to him, which he did not understand. He felt perplexed and out of humour: he knew not what he should expect or do. For a day or two Philina had avoided him: it was not till tonight that she had given him any second signal. Unhappily the doors, that he was not to bolt, were now consumed; the slippers had evaporated into smoke. How the girl would gain admission to the garden, if her aim was such, he knew not. He wished she might not come; and yet he longed to have some explanation with her.

But what lay heavier at his heart than this, was the fate of the Harper, whom, since the fire, no one had seen. Wilhelm was afraid that, in clearing off the rubbish, they would find him buried under it. Our friend had carefully concealed the suspicion which he entertained, that it was the Harper who had fired the house. The old man had been first seen, as he rushed from the burning and smoking floor; and his desperation in the vault appeared a natural consequence of such a deed. Yet, from the inquiry which the magistrates had instituted touching the affair, it seemed likely that the fire had not originated in the house where Wilhelm lived, but had accidentally been kindled in the third from that, and had crept along, beneath the roofs, before it burst into activity.

Seated in a grove, our friend was meditating all these things, when he heard a low footfall in a neighbouring walk. By the melancholy song which arose along with it, he recognised the Harper. He caught the words of the song without difficulty: it turned on the consolations of a miserable man, conscious of being on the borders of insanity. Unhappily our friend forgot the whole of it except the last verse:

  • Wheresoe’er my steps may lead me,
  • Meekly at the door I’ll stay;
  • Pious hands will come to feed me,
  • And I’ll wander on my way.
  • Each will feel a touch of gladness,
  • When my aged form appears;
  • Each will shed a tear of sadness,
  • Though I reck not of his tears.
  • So singing, he had reached the garden-door, which led into an unfrequented street. Finding it bolted, he was making an attempt to climb the railing, when Wilhelm held him back, and addressed some kindly words to him. The old man begged to have the door unlocked, declaring that he would and must escape. Wilhelm represented to him, that he might indeed escape from the garden, but could not from the town; showing, at the same time, what suspicions he must needs incur by such a step. But it was in vain: the old man held by his opinion. Our friend, however, would not yield; and at last he brought him, half by force, into the garden-house, in which he locked himself along with him. The two carried on a strange conversation; which, however, not to afflict our readers with repeating unconnected thoughts and dolorous emotions, we had rather pass in silence than detail at large.