Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER X. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
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CHAPTER X. - 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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The visitors were welcomed and brought in. They were delighted to find themselves again in the same house and in the same rooms where in early times they had passed many happy days, but which they had not seen for a long time. Their friends too were very glad to see them. The count and the baroness had both those tall fine figures which please in middle life almost better than in youth. If something of the first bloom had faded off them, yet there was an air in their appearance which was always irresistibly attractive. Their manners too were thoroughly charming. Their free way of taking hold of life and dealing with it, their happy humor, and apparent easy unembarrassment, communicated itself at once to the rest; and a lighter atmosphere hung about the whole party, without their having observed it stealing on them.
The effect made itself felt immediately on the entrance of the new-comers. They were fresh from the fashionable world, as was to be seen at once, in their dress, in their equipment, and in everything about them; and they formed a contrast not a little striking with our friends, their country style, and the vehement feelings which were at work underneath among them. This, however, very soon disappeared in the stream of past recollection and present interests, and a rapid, lively conversation soon united them all. After a short time they again separated. The ladies withdrew to their own apartments, and there found amusement enough in the many things which they had to tell each other, and in setting to work at the same time to examine the new fashions, the spring dresses, bonnets, and such like; while the gentlemen were employing themselves looking at the new travelling chariots, trotting out the horses, and beginning at once to bargain and exchange.
They did not meet again till dinner; in the meantime they had changed their dress. And here, too, the newly-arrived pair showed to all advantage. Everything they wore was new, and in a style which their friends at the castle had never seen, and yet, being accustomed to it themselves, it appeared perfectly natural and graceful.
The conversation was brilliant and well sustained, as, indeed in the company of such persons everything and nothing appears to interest. They spoke in French that the attendants might not understand what they said, and swept in happiest humor over all that was passing in the great or the middle world. On one particular subject they remained, however, longer than was desirable. It was occasioned by Charlotte asking after one of her early friends, of whom she had to learn, with some distress, that she was on the point of being separated from her husband.
“It is a melancholy thing,” Charlotte said, “when we fancy our absent friends are finally settled, when we believe persons very dear to us to be provided for for life, suddenly to hear that their fortunes are cast loose once more; that they have to strike into a fresh path of life, and very likely a most insecure one.”
“Indeed, my dear friend,” the count answered, “it is our own fault if we allow ourselves to be surprised at such things. We please ourselves with imagining matters of this earth, and particularly matrimonial connections, as very enduring; and as concerns this last point, the plays which we see over and over again help to mislead us; being, as they are, so untrue to the course of the world. In a comedy we see a marriage as the last aim of a desire which is hindered and crossed through a number of acts, and at the instant when it is reached the curtain falls, and the momentary satisfaction continues to ring on in our ears. But in the world it is very different. The play goes on still behind the scenes, and when the curtain rises again we may see and hear, perhaps, little enough of the marriage.”
“It cannot be so very bad, however,” said Charlotte, smiling. “We see people who have gone off the boards of the theatre, ready enough to undertake a part upon them again.”
“There is nothing to say against that,” said the count. “In a new character a man may readily venture on a second trial; and when we know the world we see clearly that it is only this positive eternal duration of marriage in a world where everything is in motion, which has anything unbecoming about it. A certain friend of mine, whose humor displays itself principally in suggestions for new laws, maintained that every marriage should be concluded only for five years. Five, he said, was a sacred number—pretty and uneven. Such a period would be long enough for people to learn one another’s character, bring a child or two into the world, quarrel, separate, and what was best, get reconciled again. He would often exclaim, ‘How happily the first part of the time would pass away!’ Two or three years, at least, would be perfect bliss. On one side or other there would not fail to be a wish to have the relation continue longer, and the amiability would increase the nearer they got to the parting time. The indifferent, even the dissatisfied party, would be softened and gained over by such behavior; they would forget, as in pleasant company the hours pass always unobserved, how the time went by, and they would be delightfully surprised when, after the term had run out, they first observed that they had unknowingly prolonged it.”
Charming and pleasant as all this sounded, and deep (Charlotte felt it to her soul) as was the moral significance which lay below it, expressions of this kind, on Ottilie’s account, were most distasteful to her. She knew very well that nothing was more dangerous than the licentious conversation which treats culpable or semi-culpable actions as if they were common, ordinary, and even laudable, and of such undesirable kind assuredly were all which touched on the sacredness of marriage. She endeavored, therefore, in her skilful way, to give the conversation another turn, and when she found that she could not, it vexed her that Ottilie had managed everything so well that there was no occasion for her to leave the table. In her quiet observant way a nod or a look was enough for her to signify to the head-servant whatever was to be done, and everything went off perfectly, although there were a couple of strange men in livery in the way, who were rather a trouble than a convenience. And so the count, without feeling Charlotte’s hints, went on giving his opinions on the same subject. Generally, he was little enough apt to be tedious in conversation; but this was a thing which weighed so heavily on his heart, and the difficulties which he found in getting separated from his wife were so great that it had made him bitter against everything which concerned the marriage bond,—that very bond which, notwithstanding, he was so anxiously desiring between himself and the baroness.
“The same friend,” he went on, “has another law which he proposes. A marriage shall only be held indissoluble when either both parties, or at least one or the other, enter into it for the third time. Such persons must be supposed to acknowledge beyond a doubt that they find marriage indispensable for themselves; they have had opportunities of thoroughly knowing themselves; of knowing how they conducted themselves in their earlier unions; whether they have any peculiarities of temper, which are a more frequent cause of separation than bad dispositions. People would then observe one another more closely; they would pay as much attention to the married as to the unmarried, no one being able to tell how things may turn out.”
“That would add no little to the interest of society,” said Edward. “As things are now, when a man is married nobody cares any more either for his virtues or for his vices.”
“Under this arrangement,” the baroness struck in, laughing, “our good hosts have passed successfully over their two steps, and may make themselves ready for their third.”
“Things have gone happily with them,” said the count. “In their case death has done with a good will what in others the consistorial courts do with a very bad one.”
“Let the dead rest,” said Charlotte, with a half serious look.
“Why so,” persevered the count, “when we can remember them with honor? They were generous enough to content themselves with less than their number of years for the sake of the larger good which they could leave behind them.”
“Alas! that in such cases,” said the baroness, with a suppressed sigh, “happiness is only bought with the sacrifice of our fairest years.”
“Indeed, yes,” answered the count; “and it might drive us to despair, if it were not the same with everything in this world. Nothing goes as we hope. Children do not fulfil what they promise; young people very seldom;—and if they keep their word, the world does not keep its word with them.”
Charlotte, who was delighted that the conversation had taken a turn at last, replied cheerfully,
“Well, then, we must content ourselves with enjoying what good we are to have in fragments and pieces, as we can get it; and the sooner we can accustom ourselves to this the better.”
“Certainly,” the count answered, “you two have had the enjoyment of very happy times. When I look back upon the years when you and Edward were the loveliest couple at the court, I see nothing now to be compared with those brilliant times, and such magnificent figures. When you two used to dance together, all eyes were turned upon you, fastened upon you, while you saw nothing but each other.”
“So much has changed since those days,” said Charlotte, “that we can listen to such pretty things about ourselves without our modesty being shocked at them.”
“I often privately found fault with Edward,” said the count, “for not being more firm. Those singular parents of his would certainly have given way at last; and ten fair years is no trifle to gain.”
“I must take Edward’s part,” struck in the baroness. “Charlotte was not altogether without fault—not altogether free from what we must call prudential considerations; and although she had a real, hearty love for Edward, and did in her secret soul intend to marry him, I can bear witness how sorely she often tried him; and it was through this that he was at last unluckily prevailed upon to leave her and go abroad, and try to forget her.”
Edward bowed to the baroness, and seemed grateful for her advocacy.
“And then I must add this,” she continued, “in excuse for Charlotte. The man who was at that time suing for her, had for a long time given proofs of his constant attachment to her; and, when one came to know him well, was a far more lovable person than the rest of you may like to acknowledge.”
“My dear friend,” the count replied, a little pointedly, “confess, now, that he was not altogether indifferent to yourself, and that Charlotte had more to fear from you than from any other rival. I find it one of the highest traits in women, that they continue so long in their regard for a man, and that absence of no duration will serve to disturb or remove it.”
“This fine feature, men possess, perhaps, even more,” answered the baroness. “At any rate, I have observed with you, my dear count, that no one has more influence over you than a lady to whom you were once attached. I have seen you take more trouble to do things when a certain person has asked you, than the friend of this moment would have obtained of you, if she had tried.”
“Such a charge as that one must bear the best way one can,” replied the count. “But as to what concerns Charlotte’s first husband, I could not endure him, because he parted so sweet a pair from one another—a really predestined pair, who, once brought together, have no reason to fear the five years, or be thinking of a second or third marriage.”
“We must try,” Charlotte said, “to make up for what we then allowed to slip from us.”
“Aye, and you must keep to that,” said the count; “your first marriages,” he continued, with some vehemence, “were exactly marriages of the true detestable sort. And, unhappily, marriages generally, even the best, have (forgive me for using a strong expression) something awkward about them. They destroy the delicacy of the relation; everything is made to rest on the broad certainty out of which one side or other, at least, is too apt to make their own advantage. It is all a matter of course; and they seem only to have got themselves tied together, that one or the other, or both, may go their own way the more easily.”
At this moment, Charlotte, who was determined once for all that she would put an end to the conversation, made a bold effort at turning it, and succeeded. It then became more general. She and her husband and the captain were able to take a part in it. Even Ottilie had to give her opinion; and the dessert was enjoyed in the happiest humor. It was particularly beautiful, being composed almost entirely of the rich summer fruits in elegant baskets, with epergnes of lovely flowers arranged in exquisite taste.
The new laying-out of the park came to be spoken of; and immediately after dinner they went to look at what was going on. Ottilie withdrew, under pretence of having household matters to look to; in reality, it was to set to work again at the transcribing. The count fell into conversation with the captain, and Charlotte afterwards joined them. When they were at the summit of the height, the captain good-naturedly ran back to fetch the plan, and in his absence the count said to Charlotte,
“He is an exceedingly pleasing person. He is very well informed, and his knowledge is always ready. His practical power, too, seems methodical and vigorous. What he is doing here would be of great importance in some higher sphere.”
Charlotte listened to the captain’s praises with an inward delight. She collected herself, however, and composedly and clearly confirmed what the count had said. But she was not a little startled when he continued:
“This acquaintance falls most opportunely for me. I know of a situation for which he is perfectly suited, and I shall be doing the greatest favor to a friend of mine, a man of high rank, by recommending to him a person who is so exactly everything which he desires.”
Charlotte felt as if a thunderstroke had fallen on her. The count did not observe it: women, being accustomed at all times to hold themselves in restraint, are always able, even in the most extraordinary cases, to maintain an apparent composure; but she heard not a word more of what the count said, though he went on speaking.
“When I have made up my mind upon a thing,” he added, “I am quick about it. I have put my letter together already in my head, and I shall write it immediately. You can find me some messenger, who can ride off with it this evening.”
Charlotte was suffering agonies. Startled with the proposal, and shocked at herself, she was unable to utter a word. Happily, the count continued talking of his plans for the captain, the desirableness of which was only too apparent to Charlotte.
It was time that the captain returned. He came up and unrolled his design before the count. But with what changed eyes Charlotte now looked at the friend whom she was to lose. In her necessity, she bowed and turned away, and hurried down to the summer-house. Before she was half way there the tears were streaming from her eyes, and she flung herself into the narrow room in the little hermitage, and gave herself up to an agony, a passion, a despair, of the possibility of which, but a few moments before, she had not had the slightest conception.
Edward had gone with the baroness in the other direction towards the ponds. This ready-witted lady, who liked to be in the secret about everything, soon observed, in a few conversational feelers which she threw out, that Edward was very fluent and free-spoken in praise of Ottilie. She contrived in the most natural way to lead him out by degrees so completely, that at last she had not a doubt remaining that here was not merely an incipient fancy, but a veritable, full-grown passion.
Married women, if they have no particular love for one another, yet are silently in league together, especially against young girls. The consequences of such an inclination presented themselves only too quickly to her world-experienced spirit. Added to this, she had been already, in the course of the day, talking to Charlotte about Ottilie; she had disapproved of her remaining in the country, particularly being a girl of so retiring a character; and she had proposed to take Ottilie with her to the residence of a friend, who was just then bestowing great expense on the education of an only daughter, and who was only looking about to find some well-disposed companion for her,—to put her in the place of a second child, and let her share in every advantage. Charlotte had taken time to consider. But now this glimpse of the baroness into Edward’s heart changed what had been but a suggestion at once into a settled determination; and the more rapidly she made up her mind about it, the more she outwardly seemed to flatter Edward’s wishes. Never was there anyone more self-possessed than this lady; and to have mastered ourselves in extraordinary cases disposes us to treat even a common case with dissimulation—it makes us inclined, as we have had to do so much violence to ourselves, to extend our control over others, and hold ourselves in a degree compensated in what we outwardly gain for what we inwardly have been obliged to sacrifice. To this feeling there is often joined a kind of secret, spiteful pleasure in the blind, unconscious ignorance with which the victim walks on into the snare. It is not the immediately doing as we please which we enjoy, but the thought of the surprise and exposure which is to follow. And thus was the baroness malicious enough to invite Edward to come with Charlotte and pay her a visit at the grape-gathering; and, to his question whether they might bring Ottilie with them, to frame an answer which, if he pleased, he might interpret to his wishes.
Edward had already begun to pour out his delight at the beautiful scenery, the broad river, the hills, the rocks, the vineyard, the old castles, the water-parties, and the jubilee at the grape-gathering, the wine-pressing, etc., in all of which, in the innocence of his heart, he was only exuberating in the anticipation of the impression which these scenes were to make on the fresh spirit of Ottilie. At this moment they saw her approaching, and the baroness said quickly to Edward, that he had better say nothing to her of this intended autumn expedition—things which we set our hearts upon so long before, so often failing to come to pass. Edward gave his promise; but he obliged his companion to move more quickly to meet her; and at last, when they came very close, he ran on several steps in advance. A heartfelt happiness expressed itself in his whole being. He kissed her hand as he pressed into it a nosegay of wild flowers, which he had gathered on his way.
The baroness felt bitter to her heart at the sight of it. At the same time that she was able to disapprove of what was really objectionable in this affection, she could not bear to see what was sweet and beautiful in it thrown away on such a poor paltry girl.
When they had collected again at the supper-table, an entirely different temper was spread over the party. The count, who had in the meantime written his letter and dispatched a messenger with it, occupied himself with the captain, whom he had been drawing out more and more—spending the whole evening at his side, talking of serious matters. The baroness, who sat on the count’s right, found but small amusement in this; nor did Edward find any more. The latter, first because he was thirsty, and then because he was excited, did not spare the wine, and attached himself entirely to Ottilie, whom he had made sit by him. On the other side, next to the captain, sat Charlotte; for her it was hard, it was almost impossible, to conceal the emotion under which she was suffering.
The baroness had sufficient time to make her observations at leisure. She perceived Charlotte’s uneasiness, and occupied as she was with Edward’s passion for Ottilie, she easily satisfied herself that her abstraction and distress were owing to her husband’s behavior; and she set herself to consider in what way she could best compass her ends.
Supper was over, and the party remained divided. The count, whose object was to probe the captain to the bottom, had to try many turns before he could arrive at what he wished with so quiet, so little vain, but so exceedingly laconic a person. They walked up and down together on one side of the saloon, while Edward, excited with wine and hope, was laughing with Ottilie at a window, and Charlotte and the baroness were walking backwards and forwards, without speaking, on the other side. Their being so silent, and their standing about in this uneasy, listless way, had its effect at last in breaking up the rest of the party. The ladies withdrew to their rooms, the gentlemen to the other wing of the castle; and so this day appeared to be concluded.