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

Book IV

Chapter XX

SHE was lying on the sofa; she seemed quiet. “Do you think you will be fit to act tomorrow?” he inquired. “O yes!” cried she with vivacity, “you know there is nothing to prevent me. If I but knew a way,” continued she, “to rid myself of those applauses! The people mean it well, but they will kill me. Last night, I thought my very heart would break! Once, when I used to please myself, I could endure this gladly: when I had studied long, and well prepared myself, it gave me joy to hear the sound, ‘It has succeeded!’ pealing back to me from every corner. But now I speak not what I like, nor as I like; I am swept along, I get confused, I scarce know what I do; and the impression I make is far deeper. The applause grows louder, and I think: Did you but know what charms you! These dark, vague, vehement tones of passion move you, force you to admire; and you feel not that they are the cries of agony, wrung from the miserable being whom you praise.

“I learned my part this morning; just now I have been repeating it and trying it. I am tired, broken down; and tomorrow I must do the same. Tomorrow evening is the play. Thus do I drag myself to and fro: it is wearisome to rise, it is wearisome to go to bed. All moves within me in an everlasting circle. Then come their dreary consolations, and present themselves before me; and I cast them out, and execrate them. I will not surrender, not surrender to necessity: why should that be necessary, which crushed me to the dust? Might it not be otherwise? I am paying the penalty of being born a German; it is the nature of the Germans that they bear heavily on everything, that everything bears heavily on them.”

“O my friend!” cried Wilhelm, “could you cease to whet the dagger wherewith you are ever wounding me! Does nothing then remain for you? Are your youth, your form, your health, your talents nothing? Having lost one blessing, without blame of yours, must you throw all the others after it? Is that also necessary?”

She was silent for a few moments, and then burst forth: “I know well it is a waste of time, nothing but a waste of time, this love! What might not, should not I have done! And now it is all vanished into air. I am a poor, wretched, lovelorn creature; lovelorn, that is all! O, have compassion on me: God knows I am poor and wretched!”

She sank in thought; then, after a brief pause, she exclaimed with violence: “You are accustomed to have all things fly into your arms. No, you cannot feel; no man is qualified to feel the worth of a woman that can reverence herself. By all the holy angels, by all the images of blessedness, which a pure and kindly heart creates, there is not anything more heavenly than the soul of a woman giving herself to the man she loves!

“We are cold, proud, high, clear-sighted, wise, while we deserve the name of women; and all these qualities we lay down at your feet, the instant that we love, that we hope to excite a return of love. O, how have I cast away my whole existence wittingly and willingly! But now will I despair, purposely despair. There is no drop of blood within me but shall suffer, no fibre that I will not punish. Smile, I pray you; laugh at this theatrical display of passion.”

Wilhelm was far enough from any tendency to laugh. This horrible, half-natural, half-factitious condition of his friend afflicted him but too deeply. He sympathised in the tortures of that racking misery: his thoughts were wandering in painful perplexities, his blood was in a feverish tumult.

She had risen, and was walking up and down the room. “I see before me,” she exclaimed, “all manner of reasons why I should not love him. I know he is not worthy of it: I turn my mind aside, this way and that; I seize upon whatever business I can find. At one time I take up a part, though I have not to play it; at another, I begin to practise old ones, though I know them through and through; I practise them more diligently, more minutely, I toil and toil at them—My friend, my confidant, what a horrid task is it to tear away one’s thoughts from oneself! My reason suffers, my brain is racked and strained: to save myself from madness I again admit the feeling that I love him. Yes, I love him, I love him!” cried she, with a shower of tears; “I love him, I shall die loving him!”

He took her by the hand, and entreated her in the most earnest manner not to waste herself in such self-torments. “O, it seems hard,” said she, “that not only so much that is impossible should be denied us, but so much also that is possible. It was not your lot to meet with a faithful heart that would have formed your perfect happiness. It was mine to fix the welfare of my life upon a hapless creature, whom by the weight of my fidelity I drew to the bottom like a reed, perhaps even broke in pieces!”

He had told Aurelia of his intercourse with Mariana, and could therefore now refer to it. She looked him intently in the face, and asked: “Can you say that you never yet betrayed a woman, that you never tried with thoughtless gallantry, with false asseverations, with cajoling oaths, to wheedle favour from her?”

“I can,” said Wilhelm, “and indeed without much vanity: my life has been so simple and sequestered, I have had but few enticements to attempt such things. And what a warning, my beautiful, my noble friend, is this melancholy state in which I see you! Accept of me a vow, which is suited to my heart; which, under the emotion you have caused me, has settled into words and shape, and will be hallowed by the hour in which I utter it: Each transitory inclination I will study to withstand; and even the most earnest I will keep within my bosom; no woman shall receive an acknowledgment of love from my lips, to whom I cannot consecrate my life!”

She looked at him with a wild indifference; and drew back some steps as he offered her his hand. “’Tis of no moment!” cried she: “so many women’s tears more or fewer; the ocean will not swell by reason of them. And yet,” continued she, “among thousands one woman saved; that still is something: among thousands one honest man discovered; this is not to be refused. Do you know then what you promise?”

“I know it,” answered Wilhelm with a smile, and holding out his hand.

“I accept it then,” said she, and made a movement with her right hand, as if meaning to take hold of his: but instantly she darted it into her pocket, pulled out her dagger quick as lightning, and scored with the edge and point of it across his hand. He hastily drew it back, but the blood was already running down.

“One must mark you men rather sharply, if one would have you take heed,” cried she with a wild mirth, which soon passed into a quick assiduity. She took her handkerchief, and bound his hand with it to stanch the fast-flowing blood. “Forgive a half-crazed being,” cried she, “and regret not these few drops of blood. I am appeased, I am again myself. On my knees will I crave your pardon: leave me the comfort of healing you.”

She ran to her drawer; brought lint, with other apparatus; stanched the blood, and viewed the wound attentively. It went across the palm, close under the thumb, dividing the life-lines, and running towards the little finger. She bound it up in silence, with a significant, reflective look. He asked once or twice: “Aurelia, how could you hurt your friend?”

“Hush!” replied she, laying her finger on her mouth: “Hush!”