Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVIII. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
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CHAPTER XVIII. - 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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It may easily be supposed that the strange, busy gentleman, whose acquaintance we have already made—Mittler—as soon as he received information of the disorder which had broken out among his friends, felt desirous, though neither side had as yet called on him for assistance, to fulfil a friend’s part towards them, and do what he could to help them in their misfortune. He thought it advisable, however, to wait first a little while; knowing too well, as he did, that it was more difficult to come to the aid of cultivated persons in their moral perplexities, than of the uncultivated. He left them, therefore, for some time to themselves; but at last he could withhold no longer, and he hastened to seek out Edward, on whose traces he had already lighted. His road led him to a pleasant, pretty valley, with a range of green, sweetly-wooded meadows, down the centre of which ran a never-failing stream, sometimes winding slowly along, then tumbling and rushing among rocks and stones. The hills sloped gently up on either side, covered with rich corn-fields and well-kept orchards. The villages were at proper distances from each other. The whole had a peaceful character about it, and the detached scenes seemed designed expressly, if not for painting, at least for life.
At last a neatly-kept farm, with a clean, modest dwelling-house, situated in the middle of a garden, fell under his eye. He conjectured that this was Edward’s present abode; and he was not mistaken.
Of this our friend in his solitude we have only thus much to say—that in his seclusion he was resigning himself utterly to the feeling of his passion, thinking out plan after plan, and feeding himself with innumerable hopes. He could not deny that he longed to see Ottilie there; that he would like to carry her off there, to tempt her there; and whatever else (putting, as he now did, no check upon his thoughts) pleased to suggest itself, whether permitted or unpermitted. Then his imagination wandered up and down, picturing every sort of possibility. If he could not have her there, if he could not lawfully possess her, he would secure to her the possession of the property for her own. There she should live for herself, silently, independently; she should be happy in that spot—sometimes his self-torturing mood would lead him further—be happy in it, perhaps, with another.
So days flowed away in increasing oscillation between hope and suffering, between tears and happiness—between purposes, preparations, and despair. The sight of Mittler did not surprise him; he had long expected that he would come; and now that he did, he was partly welcome to him. He believed that he had been sent by Charlotte. He had prepared himself with all manner of excuses and delays; and if these would not serve, with decided refusals; or else, perhaps, he might hope to learn something of Ottilie,—and then he would be dear to him as a messenger from heaven.
Not a little vexed and annoyed was Edward, therefore, when he understood that Mittler had not come from the castle at all, but of his own free accord. His heart closed up, and at first the conversation would not open itself. Mittler, however, knew very well that a heart that is occupied with love has an urgent necessity to express itself—to pour out to a friend what is passing within it; and he allowed himself, therefore, after a few speeches backwards and forwards, for this once to go out of his character, and play the confidant in place of the mediator. He had calculated justly. He had been finding fault in a good-natured way with Edward, for burying himself in that lonely place, upon which Edward replied:
“I do not know how I could spend my time more agreeably. I am always occupied with her; I am always close to her. I have the inestimable comfort of being able to think where Ottilie is at each moment—where she is going, where she is standing, where she is reposing. I see her moving and acting before me as usual; ever doing or designing something which is to give me pleasure. But this will not always answer; for how can I be happy away from her? And then my fancy begins to work; I think what Ottilie should do to come to me; I write sweet, loving letters in her name to myself, and then I answer them, and keep the sheets together. I have promised that I will take no steps to seek her; and that promise I will keep. But what binds her, that she should make no advances to me? Has Charlotte had the barbarity to exact a promise, to exact an oath from her, not to write to me, not to send me a word, a hint, about herself? Very likely she has. It is only natural; and yet to me it is monstrous, it is horrible. If she loves me—as I think, as I know that she does—why does she not resolve, why does she not venture to fly to me, and throw herself into my arms? I often think she ought to do it; and she could do it. If I ever hear a noise in the hall, I look towards the door. It must be her—she is coming—I look up to see her. Alas! because the possible is impossible, I let myself imagine that the impossible must become possible. At night, when I lie awake, and the lamp flings an uncertain light about the room, her form, her spirit, a sense of her presence, sweeps over me, approaches me, seizes me. It is but for a moment; it is that I may have an assurance that she is thinking of me, that she is mine. Only one pleasure remains to me. When I was with her I never dreamed of her; now when I am far away, and, oddly enough, since I have made the acquaintance of other attractive persons in this neighborhood, for the first time, her figure appears to me in my dreams, as if she would say to me, ‘Look on them, and on me. You will find none more beautiful, more lovely than I.’ And so she is present in every dream I have. In whatever happens to me with her, we are woven in and in together. Now we are subscribing a contract together. There is her hand, and there is mine; there is her name, and there is mine; and they move one into the other, and seem to devour each other. Sometimes she does something which injures the pure idea which I have of her; and then I feel how intensely I love her, by the indescribable anguish which it causes me. Again, unlike herself, she will rally and vex me; and then at once the figure changes—her sweet, round, heavenly face draws out; it is not her, it is another; but I lie vexed, dissatisfied and wretched. Laugh not, dear Mittler, or laugh on as you will. I am not ashamed of this attachment, of this—if you please to call it so—foolish, frantic passion. No, I never loved before. It is only now that I know what to love means. Till now, what I have called life was nothing but its prelude—amusement, sport to kill the time with. I never lived till I knew her, till I loved her—entirely and only loved her. People have often said of me, not to my face, but behind my back, that in most things I was but a botcher and a bungler. It may be so; for I had not then found in what I could show myself a master. I should like to see the man who outdoes me in the talent of love. A miserable life it is, full of anguish and tears; but it is so natural, so dear to me, that I could hardly change it for another.”
Edward had relieved himself slightly by this violent unloading of his heart. But in doing so every feature of his strange condition had been brought out so clearly before his eyes, that, overpowered by the pain of the struggle, he burst into tears, which flowed all the more freely as his heart had been made weak by telling it all.
Mittler, who was the less disposed to put a check on his inexorable good sense and strong, vigorous feeling, because by this violent outbreak of passion on Edward’s part he saw himself driven far from the purpose of his coming, showed sufficiently decided marks of his disapprobation. Edward should act as a man, he said; he should remember what he owed to himself as a man. He should not forget that the highest honor was to command ourselves in misfortune; to bear pain, if it must be so, with equanimity and self-collectedness. That was what we should do, if we wished to be valued and looked up to as examples of what was right.
Stirred and penetrated as Edward was with the bitterest feelings, words like these could but have a hollow, worthless sound.
“It is well,” he cried, “for the man who is happy, who has all that he desires, to talk; but he would be ashamed of it if he could see how intolerable it was to the sufferer. Nothing short of an infinite endurance would be enough, and easy and contented as he was, what could he know of an infinite agony? There are cases,” he continued, “yes, there are, where comfort is a lie, and despair is a duty. Go, heap your scorn upon the noble Greek, who well knows how to delineate heroes, when in their anguish he lets those heroes weep. He has even a proverb, ‘Men who can weep are good.’ Leave me, all you with dry heart and dry eye. Curses on the happy, to whom the wretched serve but for a spectacle. When body and soul are torn in pieces with agony, they are to bear it—yes, to be noble and bear it, if they are to be allowed to go off the scene with applause. Like the gladiators, they must die gracefully before the eyes of the multitude. My dear Mittler, I thank you for your visit; but really you would oblige me much, if you would go out and look about you in the garden. We will meet again. I will try to compose myself, and become more like you.”
Mittler was unwilling to let a conversation drop which it might be difficult to begin again, and still persevered. Edward, too, was quite ready to go on with it; besides that of itself, it was tending towards the issue which he desired.
“Indeed,” said the latter, “this thinking and arguing backwards and forwards leads to nothing. In this very conversation I myself have first come to understand myself; I have first felt decided as to what I must make up my mind to do. My present and my future life I see before me; I have to choose only between misery and happiness. Do you, my best friend, bring about the separation which must take place, which, in fact, is already made; gain Charlotte’s consent for me. I will not enter upon the reasons why I believe there will be the less difficulty in prevailing upon her. You, my dear friend, must go. Go, and give us all peace; make us all happy.”
Mittler hesitated. Edward continued:
“My fate and Ottilie’s cannot be divided, and shall not be shipwrecked. Look at this glass; our initials are engraved upon it. A gay reveller flung it into the air, that no one should drink of it more. It was to fall on the rock and be dashed to pieces; but it did not fall; it was caught. At a high price I bought it back, and now I drink out of it daily—to convince myself that the connection between us cannot be broken; that destiny has decided.”
“Alas, alas!” cried Mittler, “what must I not endure with my friends? Here comes superstition, which of all things I hate the worst—the most mischievous and accursed of all the plagues of mankind. We trifle with prophecies, with forebodings and dreams, and give a seriousness to our every-day life with them; but when the seriousness of life itself begins to show, when everything around us is heaving and rolling, then come in these spectres to make the storm more terrible.”
“In this uncertainty of life,” cried Edward, “poised as it is between hope and fear, leave the poor heart its guiding-star. It may gaze towards it, if it cannot steer towards it.”
“Yes, I might leave it; and it would be very well,” replied Mittler, “if there were but one consequence to expect; but I have always found that nobody will attend to symptoms of warning. Man cares for nothing except what flatters him and promises him fair; and his faith is alive exclusively for the sunny side.”
Mittler, finding himself carried off into the shadowy regions, in which the longer he remained in them, the more uncomfortable he always felt, was the more ready to assent to Edward’s eager wish that he should go to Charlotte. Indeed, if he stayed, what was there further which at that moment he could urge on Edward? To gain time, to inquire in what state things were with the ladies, was the best thing which even he himself could suggest as at present possible.
He hastened to Charlotte, whom he found as usual, calm and in good spirits. She told him readily of everything which had occurred; for from what Edward had said he had only been able to gather the effects. On his own side, he felt his way with the utmost caution. He could not prevail upon himself even cursorily to mention the word separation. It was a surprise, indeed, to him, but from his point of view an unspeakably delightful one, when Charlotte, at the end of a number of unpleasant things, finished with saying:
“I must believe, I must hope, that things will all work round again, and that Edward will return to me. How can it be otherwise, as soon as I become a mother?”
“Do I understand you right?” returned Mittler.
“Perfectly,” Charlotte answered.
“A thousand times blessed be this news!” he cried, clasping his hands together. “I know the strength of this argument on the mind of a man. Many a marriage have I seen first cemented by it, and restored again when broken. Such a good hope as this is worth more than a thousand words. Now indeed it is the best hope which we can have. For myself though,” he continued, “I have all reason to be vexed about it. In this case I can see clearly no self-love of mine will be flattered. I shall earn no thanks from you by my services; I am in the same case as a certain medical friend of mine, who succeeds in all cures which he undertakes with the poor for the love of God; but can seldom do anything for the rich who will pay him. Here, thank God, the thing cures itself, after all my talking and trying had proved fruitless.”
Charlotte now asked him if he would carry the news to Edward: if he would take a letter to him from her, and then see what should be done. But he declined undertaking this. “All is done,” he cried; “do you write your letter—any messenger will do as well as I—I will come back to wish you joy. I will come to the christening!”
For this refusal she was vexed with him—as she frequently was. His eager impetuous character brought about much good; but his over-haste was the occasion of many a failure. No one was more dependent than he on the impressions which he formed on the moment.
Charlotte’s messenger came to Edward, who received him half in terror. The letter was to decide his fate, and it might as well contain No as Yes. He did not venture, for a long time, to open it. At last he tore off the cover, and stood petrified at the following passage, with which it concluded:
“Remember the night-adventure when you visited your wife as a lover—how you drew her to you, and clasped her as a well-beloved bride in your arms. In this strange accident let us revere the providence of heaven, which has woven a new link to bind us, at the moment when the happiness of our lives was threatening to fall asunder and to vanish.”
What passed from that moment in Edward’s soul it would be difficult to describe! Under the weight of such a stroke, old habits and fancies come out again to assist to kill the time and fill up the chasms of life. Hunting and fighting are an ever-ready resource of this kind for a nobleman; Edward longed for some outward peril, as a counterbalance to the storm within him. He craved for death, because the burden of life threatened to become too heavy for him to bear. It comforted him to think that he would soon cease to be, and so would make those whom he loved happy by his departure.
No one made any difficulty in his doing what he purposed—because he kept his intention a secret. He made his will with all due formalities. It gave him a very sweet feeling to secure Ottilie’s fortune—provision was made for Charlotte, for the unborn child, for the captain, and for the servants. The war, which had again broken out, favored his wishes: he had disliked exceedingly the half-soldiering which had fallen to him in his youth, and that was the reason why he had left the service. Now it gave him a fine exhilarating feeling to be able to rejoin it, under a commander of whom it could be said, that under his conduct death was likely, and victory was sure.
Ottilie, when Charlotte’s secret was made known to her, bewildered by it, like Edward, and more than he, retired into herself—she had nothing further to say: hope she could not, and wish she dared not. A glimpse into what was passing in her we can gather from her diary, some passages of which we think to communicate.