Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VIII. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
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CHAPTER VIII. - 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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Amongst the papers which lie before us for editing, we find a conceit, which we insert here without further preliminary, because our affairs are getting more and more urgent, and we may not be able to find a place for such irregularities further on.
On the whole this story may not be unpleasing to the reader, as it was told by St. Christopher in the merry evening hours to a circle of jovial comrades assembled:—
The Hazardous Wager.
It is a well-known fact that people, as soon as they are in any degree getting on well and after their desires, are straightway at a loss to know what, in their pride of heart, they shall lay their hand to. And thus also mettlesome students were accustomed during the vacations to roam in flocks through the country, playing the fool after their kind, which, in fact, was not always followed by the best results. They were of very different sorts, such as student-life brings together and unites: unequal in birth, wealth, intellect and education, but all of them good company, leading and egging-on one another in merry mood. But they would often select me for a companion; for if I carried heavier burdens than any one of them, yet they must needs give me the honorary title of a great jester; and chiefly for this reason, that I played my pranks more seldom but so much the more effectually—to which the following story may bear witness.
We had arrived in our wanderings at a pleasant mountain village, which with an isolated situation had the advantage of a posting station, and a few pretty girls in great solitude, as inhabitants. Our object was to rest, kill time, flirt, live more cheaply for a while, and by that means waste more money.
It was just after dinner, when some were in an elevated, others in a depressed condition; some were lying sleeping away their over-indulgence, others would rather give it vent in some unrestrained way or other. We had a couple of large rooms in a side-wing towards the courtyard. A fine carriage which rattled in with four horses attracted us to the window. The servants jumped down from the box and helped out a gentleman of dignified and distinguished appearance, who notwithstanding his years still walked up vigorously enough.
His large and finely formed nose first caught my eye, and I know not what evil spirit was prompting me that in a moment I hit on the maddest scheme, and without further thought immediately began to put it in practice.
“What is your opinion of this gentleman?” I asked of the company.
“He looks,” said one, “as if he would not stand a joke.”
“Aye, aye,” said another, “he has quite the look of a distinguished ‘Meddle-not-with-me.’ ”
“And nevertheless,” said I quite confidently, “what do you bet that I will not tweak him by the nose without getting any harm from it myself! Nay, I will even get him to be a good patron to myself by doing it.”
“If you accomplish that,” said Swagger, “we’ll each give you a louis-d’or.”
“Pay in the money for me,” I exclaimed; “I rely upon you.”
“I had rather pluck a hair from a lion’s muzzle,” said the little one.
“I have no time to lose,” replied I, and rushed down-stairs.
On my first glance at the stranger I had noticed that he had a very strong beard, so I guessed that none of his attendants could shave. I now met the waiter, and asked, “Has not the stranger gentleman asked for a barber?”
“Indeed he has,” replied the waiter, “and with very good reason. The gentleman’s valet stopped behind two days ago. The gentleman wants to be rid absolutely of his beard; and our only barber—who can tell whereabouts in the neighborhood he has gone!”
“Then mention me,” replied I. “Only introduce me as a barber to the gentleman, and you will gain honor together with me.”
I took the shaving-tools that I found in the house, and followed the waiter. The old gentleman received me with great solemnity, and looked at me from top to toe, as if wanting to search out my dexterity from my physiognomy.
“Do you understand your trade?” he said to me.
“I am looking for my equal,” replied I, “without boasting of myself.”
I was also sure of my qualification, for I had at an early age practised the noble art, and was especially noted on this account, that I shaved with the left hand.
The room in which the gentleman made his toilet extended to the courtyard, and was situated exactly in such a manner that our friends could conveniently look in, especially when the windows were open. To the usual preparations nothing more was wanting: my patron had sat down and had had the towel put on.
I stepped very respectfully in front of him, and said: “Your excellency, in the practice of my art I have particularly noticed that I have always shaved common people better and more satisfactorily than the gentry. I have thought over this for a long time, and have tried to find the reason, now in this way, now in that, and at last I have discovered that I work much better in the open air than in closed rooms. Will your excellency allow me, therefore, to open the window, when you will soon experience the effect to your own satisfaction.”
He gave his consent: I opened the window, gave my friends a nod, and fell to lathering the bristly beard with much grace. No less nimbly and lightly I mowed away the stubble from the field, and in doing so did not hesitate, when I came to the upper lip, to grasp my patron by the nose, and palpably bend it up and down, at the same time contriving to put myself in such positions that the wagerers, to their great delight, must needs see and confess that their side had lost.
With great dignity the old gentleman stepped up to the looking-glass: one could see that he looked at himself with some complacency, and in reality he was a very handsome man. Then he turned to me with a dark flashing but kindly look, and said: “You deserve, my friend, to be praised above many of your like, for I notice in you much less clumsiness than in others: you do not travel two or three times over the same place, but do it in one stroke, nor do you wipe the razor as so many do in the open hand, and flourish the wipings under the person’s nose. But your cleverness with your left hand is especially remarkable. Here is something for your trouble,” he resumed, handing me a florin; “only remember one thing—that people of quality are not taken hold of by the nose. If you will avoid this boorish custom for the future, you may yet make your fortune in the world.”
I bowed low, promised to do all I could, begged him, if he should chance to return, to honor me again, and ran as fast as I could to our youngsters, who at the last had caused me a good deal of anxiety. For they raised such roars of laughter and yells, leaped about like maniacs in the room, clapped their hands and shouted, woke the people who were asleep, and kept describing the affair with ever fresh laughter and madness, that I myself, as soon as I got into the room, shut the window at once, and begged them for God’s sake to be quiet; but at last I was forced to laugh with them at the look of an absurd affair that I had carried through with so much gravity.
When, after a time, the raging waves of laughter were somewhat subsided, I considered myself lucky: I had the gold pieces in my pocket, and the well-earned florin into the bargain, and looked upon myself as well provided, which was all the more satisfactory, as the party had decided to separate the next day. But we were not destined to part company with propriety and good order. The story was too taking for them to have been able to keep it to themselves, though I had begged and prayed them only to hold their tongues till the departure of the old gentleman. One of us, called Go-ahead, had a love affair with the daughter of the house. They met, and Heaven knows whether it was that he did not know how to amuse her better, at any rate he told her the joke, and they almost died with laughing together over it. That was not the end of it, for the girl laughingly repeated the story, and so at last, a little before bed-time, it reached the old gentleman.
We were sitting more quietly than usual, for there had been uproar enough all day, when all at once the little waiter, who was very much devoted to us, rushed in, crying, “Save yourselves!—you’ll be beaten to death!”
We jumped to our feet, and would have known more about it, but he was already out of the door again. I sprang up, and pushed-to the bolt, but already we heard a knocking and banging at the door, nay, we thought we heard it being split with an axe. We mechanically retreated into the second room, all struck dumb. “We are betrayed,” I exclaimed; “the devil has us by the nose!”
Swagger grasped at his sword; I however at this point showed my giant strength, and without assistance pushed a heavy chest of drawers before the door, which fortunately opened inwards; yet already we heard the hubbub in the other room, and the most violent blows at our door.
The baron seemed determined to defend himself; but I repeatedly called out to him and the others, “Save yourselves: you have not only blows to fear here, but disgrace, which is worse for noblemen.”
The girl rushed in, the same who had betrayed us, now desperate to find her lover in mortal peril.
“Away, away!” she cried, and seized hold of him; “away, away! I will take you through lofts, barns and passages. Come, all of you; the last must draw the ladder after him.”
They all rushed to the back-door and out of it. I just lifted a box upon the chest, in order to force back and keep firm the already broken lining of the besieged door, but my courage and daring had nearly been my ruin.
When I ran to join the others, I found that the ladder was already drawn up, and saw that all hope of saving myself was completely cut off. There stand I, the actual transgressor, having already resigned the hope of escaping with a whole skin and unbroken bones; and who knows—yet leave me standing there with my thoughts, since after all I am here to tell you the tale. Only hear still how this rash jest was lost in ill consequences.
The old gentleman, deeply hurt by this unavenged indignity, took it to heart, and it is said that this circumstance contributed to, if it did not immediately cause, his death. His son, trying to trace the perpetrators, unfortunately found out the baron’s participation, though only clearly after many years, called him out, and a wound by which the handsome man was disfigured troubled him for his whole life. For his adversary, too, this affair spoiled several fair years, through events accidentally connected with it.
Since every fable should, properly, teach something, what the present one is intended to teach is doubtless perfectly clear and evident to all.