Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter XV

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

Book V

Chapter XV

UNDETERMINED what to do with this unhappy man, who displayed such indubitable symptoms of madness, Wilhelm would have been in great perplexity, had not Laertes come that very morning, and delivered him from his uncertainty. Laertes, as usual, rambling everywhere about the town, had happened, in some coffee-house, to meet with a man who, a short time ago, had suffered under violent attacks of melancholy. This person, it appeared, had been intrusted to the care of some country clergyman, who made it his peculiar business to attend to people in such situations. In the present instance, as in many others, his treatment had succeeded: he was still in town; and the friends of the patient were showing him the greatest honour.

Wilhelm hastened to find out this person: he disclosed the case to him, and agreed with him about the terms. The Harper was to be brought over to him, under certain pretexts. The separation deeply pained our friend; so used was he to see the man beside him, and to hear his spirited and touching strains. The hope of soon beholding him recovered, served in some degree to moderate this feeling. The old man’s harp had been destroyed in the burning of the house: they purchased him another, and gave it him when he departed.

Mignon’s little wardrobe had in like manner been consumed. As Wilhelm was about providing her with new apparel, Aurelia proposed that now at last they should dress her as a girl.

“No! no! not at all!” cried Mignon; and insisted on it with such earnestness, that they let her have her way.

The company had not much leisure for reflection: the exhibitions followed close on one another.

Wilhelm often mingled with the audience, to ascertain their feelings; but he seldom heard a criticism of the kind he wished; more frequently the observations which he listened to distressed or angered him. Thus, for instance, shortly after Hamlet had been acted for the first time, a youth was telling, with considerable animation, how happy he had been that evening in the play-house. Wilhelm hearkened; and was scandalised to learn that his neighbour had, on that occasion, in contempt of those behind him, kept his hat on, stubbornly refusing to remove it till the piece was done; to which heroical transaction he still looked back with great contentment.

Another gentleman declared that Wilhelm played Laertes very well; but that the actor who had undertaken Hamlet did not seem too happy in his part. This permutation was not quite unnatural; for Wilhelm and Laertes did resemble one another, though in a very distant manner.

A third critic warmly praised his acting, particularly in the scene with his mother; only he regretted much, that in this fiery moment a white strap had peered out from below the Prince’s waistcoat, whereby the illusion had been greatly marred.

Meanwhile, in the interior of the company, a multitude of alterations were occurring. Philina, since the evening subsequent to that of the fire, had never given our friend the smallest sign of closer intimacy. She had, as it seemed on purpose, hired a remote lodging; she associated with Elmira, and came seldomer to Serlo, an arrangement very gratifying to Aurelia. Serlo continued still to like her; and often visited her quarters, particularly when he hoped to find Elmira there. One evening he took Wilhelm with him. At their entrance, both of them were much surprised to see Philina, in the inner room, sitting in close contact with a young officer. He wore a red uniform with white pantaloons; but his face being turned away, they could not see it. Philina came into the outer room to meet her visitors, and shut the door behind her. “You surprise me in the middle of a very strange adventure,” cried she.

“It does not appear so strange,” said Serlo: “but let us see this handsome, young, enviable gallant. You have us in such training, that we dare not show any jealousy, however it may be.”

“I must leave you to suspicion for a time,” replied Philina, in a jesting tone; “yet I can assure you, the gallant is a lady of my friends, who wishes to remain a few days undiscovered. You shall know her history in due season; nay, perhaps you shall even behold the beautiful spinster in person; and then most probably I shall have need of all my prudence and discretion, for it seems too likely that your new acquaintance will drive your old friend out of favour.”

Wilhelm stood as if transformed to stone. At the first glance, the red uniform had reminded him of Mariana; the figure too was hers, the fair hair was hers; only the present individual seemed to be a little taller.

“For Heaven’s sake,” cried he, “let us know something more about your friend; let us see this lady in disguise! We are now partakers of your secret: we will promise, we will swear; only let us see the lady!”

“What a fire he is in!” cried Philina: “but be cool, be calm; for today there will nothing come of it.”

“Let us only know her name!” cried Wilhelm.

“It were a fine secret then,” replied Philina.

“At least her first name!”

“If you can guess it, be it so. Three guesses I will give you; not a fourth. You might lead me through the whole calendar.”

“Well!” said Wilhelm, “Cecilia, then?”

“None of your Cecilias!”


“Not at all! Have a care, I pray you; guess better, or your curiosity will have to sleep unsatisfied.”

Wilhelm paused and shivered: he tried to speak, but the sound died away within him. “Mariana?” stammered he at last, “Mariana!”

“Bravo!” cried Philina. “Hit to a hair’s-breadth!” said she, whirling round upon her heel, as she was wont on such occasions.

Wilhelm could not utter a word; and Serlo, not observing his emotion, urged Philina more and more to let them in.

Conceive the astonishment of both, when Wilhelm, suddenly and vehemently interrupting their raillery, threw himself at Philina’s feet, and with an air and tone of the deepest passion begged and conjured her: “Let me see the stranger,” cried he; “she is mine; she is my Mariana! She, for whom I have longed all the days of my life; she, who is still more to me than all the women in this world! Go in to her at least, and tell her that I am here; that the man is here who linked to her his earliest love, and all the happiness of his youth. Say that he will justify himself, though he left her so unkindly; he will pray for pardon of her; and will grant her pardon, whatsoever she may have done to him; he will even make no pretensions farther, if he may but see her, if he may but see that she is living and in happiness.”

Philina shook her head, and said: “Speak low! Do not betray us! If the lady is indeed your friend, her feelings must be spared; for she does not in the least suspect that you are here. Quite a different sort of business brings her hither: and you know well enough, one had rather see a spectre than a former lover, at an inconvenient time. I will ask her, and prepare her; we will then consider what is farther to be done. Tomorrow I shall write you a note, saying when you are to come, or whether you may come at all. Obey me punctually; for I protest that, without her own and my consent, no eye shall see this lovely creature. I shall keep my doors better bolted; and with axe and crow you surely will not visit me.”

Our friend conjured her, Serlo begged of her; but all in vain: they were obliged to yield, and leave the chamber and the house.

With what feelings Wilhelm passed the night is easy to conceive. How slowly the hours of the day flowed on, while he sat expecting a message from Philina, may also be imagined. Unhappily he had to play that evening: such mental pain he had never endured. The moment his part was done, he hastened to Philina’s house, without inquiring whether he had got her leave or not. He found her doors bolted: and the people of the house informed him that Mademoiselle had set out early in the morning, in company with a young officer; that she had talked about returning shortly; but they had not believed her, she having paid her debts, and taken everything along with her.

This intelligence drove Wilhelm almost frantic. He hastened to Laertes, that he might take measures for pursuing her, and, cost what it would, for attaining certainty regarding her attendant. Laertes, however, represented to him the imprudence of such passion and credulity. “I dare wager, after all,” said he, “that it is no one else but Friedrich. The boy is of a high family, I know; he is madly in love with Philina; it is likely he has cozened from his friends a fresh supply of money, so that he can once more live with her in peace for a while.”

These considerations, though they did not quite convince our friend, sufficed to make him waver. Laertes showed him how improbable the story was, with which Philina had amused them; reminded him how well the stranger’s hair and figure answered Friedrich; that with the start of him by twelve hours, they could not easily be overtaken; and what was more than all, that Serlo could not do without him at the theatre.

By so many reasons, Wilhelm was at last persuaded to postpone the execution of his project. That night Laertes got an active man, to whom they gave the charge of following the runaways. It was a steady person, who had often officiated as courier and guide to travelling parties, and was at present without employment. They gave him money, they informed him of the whole affair; instructing him to seek and overtake the fugitives, to keep them in his eye, and instantly to send intelligence to Wilhelm, where and how he found them. That very hour he mounted horse, pursuing this ambiguous pair; by which exertions Wilhelm was, in some degree at least, composed.