Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter XVII

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

Book I

Chapter XVII

IT seemed as if the day would never end, while Wilhelm, with the letter beautifully folded in his pocket, longed to meet with Mariana. The darkness had scarcely come on, when, contrary to custom, he glided forth to her house. His plan was, to announce himself for the night; then to quit his mistress for a short time, leaving the letter with her ere he went away; and, returning at a late hour, to obtain her reply, her consent, or to force it from her by the power of his caresses. He flew into her by arms, and pressed her in rapture to his bosom. The vehemence of his emotions prevented him at first from noticing that, on this occasion, she did not receive him with her wonted heartiness; yet she could not long conceal her painful situation, but imputed it to slight indisposition. She complained of a headache, and would not by any means consent to his proposal of coming back that night. Suspecting nothing wrong, he ceased to urge her; but felt that this was not the moment for delivering his letter. He retained it, therefore; and as several of her movements and observations courteously compelled him to take his leave, in the tumult of unsatiable love he snatched up one of her neckerchiefs, squeezed it into his pocket, and forced himself away from her lips and her door. He returned home, but could not rest there; he again dressed himself, and went out into the open air.

After walking up and down several streets, he was accosted by a stranger inquiring for a certain inn. Wilhelm offered to conduct him to the house. In the way, his new acquaintance asked about the names of the streets, the owners of various extensive edifices, then about some police-regulations of the town; so that by the time they reached the door of the inn, they had fallen into quite an interesting conversation. The stranger compelled his guide to enter, and drink a glass of punch with him. Ere long he had told his name and place of abode, as well as the business that had brought him thither; and he seemed to expect a like confidence from Wilhelm. Our friend, without any hesitation, mentioned his name and the place where he lived.

“Are not you a grandson of the old Meister, who possessed that beautiful collection of pictures and statues?” inquired the stranger.

“Yes, I am. I was ten years old when my grandfather died, and it grieved me very much to see those fine things sold.”

“Your father got a fine sum of money for them.”

“You know of it, then?”

“O yes; I saw that treasure ere it left your house. Your grandfather was not merely a collector, he had a thorough knowledge of art. In his younger happy years he had been in Italy; and had brought back with him such treasures as could not now be got for any price. He possessed some exquisite pictures by the best masters. When you looked through his drawings, you would scarcely have believed your eyes. Among his marbles were some invaluable fragments; his series of bronzes was instructive and well chosen; he had also collected medals, in considerable quantity, relating to history and art; his few gems deserved the greatest praise. In addition to all which, the whole was tastefully arranged, although the rooms and hall of the old house had not been symmetrically built.”

“You may conceive,” said Wilhelm, “what we young ones lost, when all these articles were taken down and sent away. It was the first mournful period of my life. I cannot tell you how empty the chambers looked, as we saw those objects vanishing one by one, which had amused us from our earliest years, and which we considered equally unalterable with the house or the town itself.”

“If I mistake not, your father put the capital produced by the sale into some neighbour’s stock, with whom he commenced a sort of partnership in trade.”

“Quite right; and their joint speculations have prospered in their hands. Within the last twelve years, they have greatly increased their fortunes, and are now the more vehemently bent on gaining. Old Werner also has a son, who suits that sort of occupation much better than I.”

“I am sorry the place should have lost such an ornament to it as your grandfather’s cabinet was. I saw it but a short time prior to the sale: and I may say, I was myself the cause of its being then disposed of. A rich nobleman, a great amateur, but one who, in such important transactions, does not trust to his own solitary judgment, had sent me hither, and requested my advice. For six days I examined the collection; on the seventh, I advised my friend to pay down the required sum without delay. You were then a lively boy, often running about me; you explained to me the subjects of the pictures; and in general, I recollect, could give a very good account of the whole cabinet.”

“I remember such a person; but I should not have recognised him in you.”

“It is a good while ago, and we all change more or less. You had, if I mistake not, a favourite piece among them, to which you were ever calling my attention.”

“O yes; it represented the history of that king’s son dying of a secret love for his father’s bride.”

“It was not, certainly, the best picture; badly grouped, of no superiority in colouring, and executed altogether with great mannerism.”

“This I did not understand, and do not yet; it is the subject that charms me in a picture, not the art.”

“Your grandfather seemed to have thought otherwise. The greater part of his collection consisted of excellent pieces; in which, represent what they might, one constantly admired the talent of the master. This picture of yours had accordingly been hung in the outermost room, a proof that he valued it slightly.”

“It was in that room where we young ones used to play, and where the piece you mention made on me a deep impression; which not even your criticism, greatly as I honour it, could obliterate, if we stood before the picture at this moment. What a melancholy object is a youth that must shut up within himself the sweet impulse, the fairest inheritance which nature has given us, and conceal in his own bosom the fire which should warm and animate himself and others, so that his vitals are wasted away by unutterable pains! I feel a pity for the ill-fated man that would consecrate himself to another when the heart of that other has already found a worthy object of true and pure affection.”

“Such feelings are, however, very foreign to the principles by which a lover of art examines the works of great painters; and most probably you too, had the cabinet continued in your family, would by and by have acquired a relish for the works themselves; and have learned to see in the performances of art something more than yourself and your individual inclinations.”

“In truth, the sale of that cabinet grieved me very much at the time; and often since I have thought of it with regret; but, when I consider that it was a necessary means of awakening a taste in me, of developing a talent, which will operate far more powerfully on my history than ever those lifeless pictures could have done, I easily content myself, and honour destiny, which knows how to bring about what is best for me, and what is best for every one.”

“It gives me pain to hear this word destiny in the mouth of a young person, just at the age when men are commonly accustomed to ascribe their own violent inclinations to the will of higher natures.”

“Do you, then, believe in no destiny? No power that rules over us, and directs all for our ultimate advantage?”

“The question is not now of my belief; nor is this the place to explain how I may have attempted to form for myself some not impossible conception of things which are incomprehensible to all of us: the question here is: What mode of viewing them will profit us the most? The fabric of our life is formed of necessity and chance; the reason of man takes its station between them, and may rule them both: it treats the necessary as the groundwork of its being; the accidental it can direct and guide and employ for its own purposes; and only while this principle of reason stands firm and inexpugnable, does man deserve to be named the god of this lower world. But woe to him who, from his youth, has used himself to search in necessity for something of arbitrary will; to ascribe to chance a sort of reason, which it is a matter of religion to obey! Is conduct like this aught else than to renounce one’s understanding, and give unrestricted scope to one’s inclinations? We think it is a kind of piety to move along without consideration; to let accidents that please us determine our conduct; and finally, to bestow on the result of such a vacillating life the name of providential guidance.”

“Was it never your case that some little circumstance induced you to strike into a certain path, where some accidental occurrence ere long met you, and a series of unexpected incidents at length brought you to some point which you yourself had scarcely once contemplated? Should not lessons of this kind teach us obedience to destiny, confidence in some such guide?”

“With opinions like these, no woman could maintain her virtue, no man could keep the money in his purse; for occasions enough are occurring to get rid of both. He alone is worthy of respect, who knows what is of use to himself and others, and who labours to control his self-will. Each man has his own fortune in his hands; as the artist has a piece of rude matter, which he is to fashion to a certain shape. But the art of living rightly is like all arts: the capacity alone is born with us; it must be learned, and practised with incessant care.”

These discussions our two speculators carried on between them to considerable length; at last they parted, without seeming to have wrought any special conviction in each other, but engaging to meet at an appointed place next day.

Wilhelm walked up and down the streets for a time; he heard a sound of clarionets, hunting-horns and bassoons; it swelled his bosom with delightful feelings. It was some travelling showmen that produced this pleasant music. He spoke with them: for a piece of coin they followed him to Mariana’s house. The space in front of the door was adorned with lofty trees; under them he placed his artists; and himself resting on a bench at some distance, he surrendered his mind without restraint to the hovering tones which floated round him in the cool mellow night. Stretched out beneath the kind stars, he felt his existence like a golden dream. “She, too, hears these flutes,” said he within his heart; “she feels whose remembrance, whose love of her it is that makes the night full of music. In distance even, we are united by these melodies; as in every separation, by the ethereal accordance of love. Ah! two hearts that love each other are as two magnetic needles; whatever moves the one must move the other with it; for it is one power that works in both, one principle that pervades them. Can I in her arms conceive the possibility of parting from her? And yet I am soon to be far from her; to seek out a sanctuary for our love, and then to have her ever with me.

“How often, when absent from her, and lost in thoughts about her, happening to touch a book, a piece of dress or aught else, have I thought I felt her hand, so entirely was I invested with her presence! And to recollect those moments which shunned the light of day and the eye of the cold spectator; which to enjoy, the gods might determine to forsake the painless condition of their pure blessedness! To recollect them? As if by memory we could renew the tumultuous thrilling of that cup of joy, which encircles our senses with celestial bonds, and lifts them beyond all earthly hindrances. And her form”—He lost himself in thoughts of her; his rest passed away into longing; he leaned against a tree, and cooled his warm cheek on its bark; and the winds of the night wafted speedily aside the breath, which proceeded in sighs from his pure and impassioned bosom. He groped for the neckerchief he had taken from her; but it was forgotten, it lay in his other clothes. His frame quivered with emotion.

The music ceased, and he felt as if fallen from the element in which his thoughts had hitherto been soaring. His restlessness increased, as his feelings were no longer nourished and assuaged by the melody. He sat down upon her threshold, and felt more peace. He kissed the brass knocker of her door; he kissed the threshold over which her feet went out and in, and warmed it by the fire of his breast. He again sat still for a moment, and figured her behind her curtains in the white nightgown, with the red ribbon round her head, in sweet repose; he almost fancied that he was himself so near her she must needs be dreaming of him. His thoughts were beautiful, like the spirits of the twilight; rest and desire alternated within him; love ran with a quivering hand, in a thousand moods, over all the chords of his soul: it was as if the spheres stood mute above him, suspending their eternal song to watch the low melodies of his heart.

Had he then had about him the master-key with which he used to open Mariana’s door, he could not have restrained himself from penetrating into the sanctuary of love. Yet he went away slowly; he slanted half-dreaming in beneath the trees, set himself for home, and constantly turned round again; at last, with an effort, he constrained himself, and actually departed. At the corner of the street, looking back yet once, he imagined that he saw Mariana’s door open, and a dark figure issue from it. He was too distant for seeing clearly; and, before he could exert himself and look sharply, the appearance was already lost in the night: yet afar off he thought he saw it again gliding past a white house. He stood and strained his eyes; but, ere he could arouse himself and follow the phantom, it had vanished. Whither should he pursue it? What street had the man taken, if it were a man?

A nightly traveller, when at some turn of his path he has seen the country for an instant illuminated by a flash of lightning, will, with dazzled eyes, next moment, seek in vain for the preceding forms and the connexion of his road: so was it in the eyes and the heart of Wilhelm. And as a spirit of midnight, which awakens unutterable terror, is, in the succeeding moments of composure, regarded as a child of imagination, and the fearful vision leaves doubts without and behind it in the soul: so likewise was Wilhelm in extreme disquietude, as, leaning on the corner-stone of the street, he heeded not the clear gray of the morning, and the crowing of the cocks; till the early trades began to stir, and drove him home.

On his way, he had almost effaced the unexpected delusion from his mind by the most sufficient reasons; yet the fine harmonious feelings of the night, on which he now looked back as if they too had been a vision, were also gone. To soothe his heart, and put the last seal on his returning belief, he took the neckerchief from the pocket of the dress he had been last wearing. The rustling of a letter which fell out of it took the kerchief away from his lips; he lifted and read:

“As I love thee, little fool, what ailed thee last night? This evening I will come again. I can easily suppose that thou art sick of staying here so long: but have patience; at the fair I will return for thee. And observe, never more put me on that abominable black-green-brown jacket; thou lookest in it like the witch of Endor. Did I not send the white nightgown that I might have a snowy little lambkin in my arms? Send thy letters always by the ancient sibyl; the Devil himself has selected her as Iris.”