Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XII. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
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CHAPTER XII. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities) 
Goethe’s Works, illustrated by the best German artists, 5 vols. (Philadelphia: G. Barrie, 1885). Vol. 5: W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities.
Part of: Goethe’s Works, 5 vols.
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By a short and pleasant road, Wilhelm had reached the town to which his letter was addressed. He found it cheerful and well built; but an appearance of newness betrayed only too clearly that it must have recently suffered from fire. The address of his letter took him to the last, small portion of the town that had escaped, to a house of an ancient, solemn style of architecture. Colored window-panes, strangely combined together, gave indication of a cheerful wealth of color within. And the interior really corresponded with the outside. In the sombre rooms were seen on all sides pieces of furniture that might have served several generations already, interspersed with but few modern ones. The master of the house received him kindly, in an apartment similarly furnished. Many an hour of birth and death had these clocks already struck, and all that stood around called to mind that the past could flow on into the present. The visitor delivered his letter, but his host laid it aside without opening it, and in a cheerful conversation essayed in a direct way to become acquainted with his guest. They soon grew confidential, and when Wilhelm, contrary to his usual habit, allowed his glances to run observantly about the room, the kind old man said: “My surroundings awaken your interest. You see here how long a thing can last. And one must, too, look on such things as the counterpoise of what changes and alters so rapidly in the world. This tea-kettle before now served my parents, and was a witness of our evening family gatherings. This copper fire-screen still continues to protect me from the fire, which this strong old poker stirs up, and so it is with everything. I have consequently been able to devote sympathy and activity to many other subjects because I have not troubled myself further about the changing of these external requirements that expend the time and strength of so many people. A loving attention to what man possesses makes him rich while he thereby amasses for himself a wealth of memories in unimportant things. I have known a young man, who, in taking leave of his sweetheart, stole from her a pin, with which he used daily to pin on his cravat, and actually brought home from a distant journey of many years’ length this cherished and carefully preserved object. To us other petty human beings this may well be reckoned as a virtue.”
“Many also,” added Wilhelm, “perhaps bring back from a like long journey a thorn in the heart, that probably they would rather be free of.”
The old man seemed to know nothing about Lenardo’s circumstances, although he had in the meantime opened and read the letter, for he again returned to his former reflections.
“Attachment to what we possess,” he continued, “in many instances gives us the greatest energy. To this kind of selfishness I owe the saving of my house. When the town was on fire, those too, who were with me, wanted to run away and escape. I forbade it, ordered windows and doors to be shut, and with several of my neighbors turned to deal with the flames. Our efforts were successful in saving unscathed this corner of the town. The next morning everything in my house stood as you see it, and as it has stood almost a hundred years.”
“With all that,” said Wilhelm, “you will confess that man cannot resist changes that time brings about.”
“Granted,” said the old man; “but still he who has kept himself longest has also achieved something. Nay, we are even able to preserve and make sure beyond the term of our existence: we hand down knowledge, we transfer tastes just as well as property; and as it is for me chiefly a question of the latter, I have on this account for a long time been wonderfully cautious, and hit on quite peculiar expedients; but only of late have I succeeded in seeing my desire fulfilled. Usually the son scatters abroad what the father has collected, collects something different, or in different manner. But if we are able to wait for the grandson, for the new generation, then the same inclinations, the same objects come to light. And thus at last through the interest of our pedagogue-friends, I have got hold of a fine young man, who if possible is more tenacious of heirlooms than myself, and feels a strong bent for curious things. He has entirely gained my confidence through the strenuous efforts by which he succeeded in averting the fire from our house; he has doubly and trebly earned the treasure, the possession of which I think of bequeathing to him; nay, it is already handed over to him, and since that time our store has been increased in a wonderful way. Yet not all that you see here is ours; rather, just as at a pawnbroker’s you behold many an alien jewel, so I can also point out to you some valuables, which under the most diverse circumstances have been deposited here for better keeping.”
Wilhelm thought of the splendid casket, which in any case he did not like to carry about with him on journeys, and he did not refrain from showing it to his friend. The old man looked at it attentively, named the time when it must have been made, and showed him something similar. Wilhelm then mooted the point whether it might be opened.
The old man thought not.
“I believe indeed,” he said, “that it could be done, without any particular damage; but, since you have obtained it by such a strange accident, you ought to try your fortune with it. For if you are born to good luck, and if this casket betokens anything, then in time the key must be found for it, and just where you expect it least.”
“There are probably such cases,” replied Wilhelm.
“I have myself experienced several,” answered the old man, “and here you see the most remarkable one before you. For thirty years I possessed the body of this ivory crucifix with head and feet all of one piece; for its subject, as well as its most exquisite art, it was carefully locked up in my most precious drawer. About ten years ago, I received the cross belonging to it, with the inscription, and I let myself be persuaded to have the arms put on, by the cleverest carver of our time; yet how far was the good man behind his predecessor! Still, it might pass, more for edifying contemplation than for admiration of the workmanship. Now, only think of my delight! A short time ago I received the original, genuine arms, as you here see them, fitted on in the loveliest accord! And in my rapture at so happy a coincidence, I cannot refrain from recognizing in this the destinies of the Christian religion, which, often enough divided and scattered, must yet at last meet again at the cross.”
Wilhelm admired the image and its strange recombination. “I shall follow your advice,” he added; “let the casket remain shut, until the key has been found, even if it should lie by to the end of my life.”
“He who lives long,” said the old man, “sees many things gathered together, and many dispersed.”
The young joint-owner just then entered, and Wilhelm declared his intention of intrusting the casket to their keeping. A large book was now brought, and the property intrusted was entered; a receipt was made out with the observance of many ceremonies and stipulations. It was, in point of fact, expressed in favor of anyone who presented it, but would be honored only on a special sign agreed upon with the receiver.
When this was all completed, the contents of the letter were considered, the reception of the good Felix being first discussed, in which matter the elderly friend, without more ado, propounded certain maxims, which ought to form the basis of education.
“All life, all activity, all art must be preceded by handiwork, that can only be acquired in a limited sphere. A correct knowledge and practice give a higher culture than half-knowledge in hundredfold. In the place that I have indicated to you all activities have been isolated; the pupils are tested at every step; thereby a man finds out whither his nature really tends, or if he is turning with confused wishes, now this way, now that. Wise men allow the boy to find at hand what suits him; they cut off the by-roads along which men will only too easily stray away from their vocation.
“In the next place,” he continued, “I venture to hope that, from that grandly based centre, they will guide you upon the road to where that good girl will be found, who has made such a wonderful impression upon your friend, who by dint of moral feeling and reflection has so highly enhanced the value of an innocent, unfortunate creature that he has been compelled to make her existence the end and aim of his life. I hope that you will be able to set him at rest; for Providence possesses a thousand means of raising the fallen, and setting up those bowed down. Our destiny often looks like a fruit-tree in winter. Who would think from its pitiable aspect that those rigid boughs, those rough twigs could next spring again be green, bloom, and even bear fruit? Yet we hope it, we know it.”