Fiction > Harvard Classics > J. W. von Goethe > Egmont
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832).  Egmont.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Act II
Scene II
Egmont’s residence

His SECRETARY  (at a desk with papers. He rises impatiently)
  Secretary.  Still he comes not! And I have been waiting already full two hours, pen in hand, the paper before me; and just to-day I was anxious to be out so early. The floor burns under my feet. I can with difficulty restrain my impatience. “Be punctual to the hour.” Such was his parting injunction; now he comes not. There is so much business to get through, I shall not have finished before midnight. He overlooks one’s faults, it is true; methinks it would be better though, were he more strict, so he dismissed one at the appointed time. One could then arrange one’s plans. It is now full two hours since he left the Regent; who knows whom he may have chanced to meet by the way?  2
  Egmont.  Well, how do matters look?  4
  Secretary.  I am ready, and three couriers are waiting.  5
  Egmont.  I have detained you too long; you look somewhat out of humour.  6
  Secretary.  In obedience to your command I have already been in attendance for some time. Here are the papers!  7
  Egmont.  Donna Elvira will be angry with me, when she learns that I have detained you.  8
  Secretary.  You are pleased to jest.  9
  Egmont.  No, no. Be not ashamed. I admire your taste. She is pretty, and I have no objection that you should have a friend at the castle. What say the letters?  10
  Secretary.  Much, my lord, but withal little that is satisfactory.  11
  Egmont.  ’Tis well that we have pleasures at home, we have the less occasion to seek them from abroad. Is there much that requires attention?  12
  Secretary.  Enough, my lord; three couriers are in attendance.  13
  Egmont.  Proceed! The most important.  14
  Secretary.  All is important.  15
  Egmont.  One after the other; only be prompt.  16
  Secretary.  Captain Breda sends an account of the occurrences that have further taken place in Ghent and the surrounding districts. The tumult is for the most part allayed.  17
  Egmont.  He doubtless reports individual acts of folly and temerity?  18
  Secretary.  He does, my lord.  19
  Egmont.  Spare me the recital.  20
  Secretary.  Six of the mob who tore down the image of the Virgin at Verviers have been arrested. He inquires whether they are to be hanged like the others.  21
  Egmont.  I am weary of hanging; let them be flogged and discharged.  22
  Secretary.  There are two women among them; are they to be flogged also?  23
  Egmont.  He may admonish them and let them go.  24
  Secretary.  Brink, of Breda’s company, wants to marry; the captain hopes you will not allow it. There are so many women among the troops, he writes, that when on the march, they resemble a gang of gypsies rather than regular soldiers.  25
  Egmont.  We must overlook it in his case. He is a fine young fellow, and moreover entreated me so earnestly before I came away. This must be the last time, however; though it grieves me to refuse the poor fellows their best pastime; they have enough without that to torment them.  26
  Secretary.  Two of your people, Seter and Hart, have ill-treated a damsel, the daughter of an inn-keeper. They got her alone and she could not escape from them.  27
  Egmont.  If she be an honest maiden and they used violence, let them be flogged three days in succession; and if they have any property, let him retain as much of it as will portion the girl.  28
  Secretary.  One of the foreign preachers has been discovered passing secretly through Comines. He swore that he was on the point of leaving for France. According to orders, he ought to be beheaded.  29
  Egmont.  Let him be conducted quietly to the frontier, and there admonished that, the next time, he will not escape so easily.  30
  Secretary.  A letter from your steward. He writes that money comes in slowly, he can with difficulty send you the required sum within the week; the late disturbances have thrown everything into the greatest confusion.  31
  Egmont.  Money must be had! It is for him to look to the means.  32
  Secretary.  He says he will do his utmost, and at length proposes to sue and imprison Raymond, who has been so long in your debt.  33
  Egmont.  But he has promised to pay!  34
  Secretary.  The last time he fixed a fortnight himself.  35
  Egmont.  Well, grant him another fortnight; after that he may proceed against him.  36
  Secretary.  You do well. His non-payment of the money proceeds not from inability, but from want of inclination. He will trifle no longer when he sees that you are in earnest. The steward further proposes to withhold, for half a month, the pensions which you allow to the old soldiers, widows, and others. In the meantime some expedient may be devised; they must make their arrangements accordingly.  37
  Egmont.  But what arrangements can be made here? These poor people want the money more than I do. He must not think of it.  38
  Secretary.  How then, my lord, is he to raise the required sum?  39
  Egmont.  It is his business to think of that. He was told so in a former letter.  40
  Secretary.  And therefore he makes these proposals.  41
  Egmont.  They will never do;—he must think of something else. Let him suggest expedients that are admissible, and, before all, let him procure the money.  42
  Secretary.  I have again before me the letter from Count Oliva. Pardon my recalling it to your remembrance. Before all others, the aged count deserves a detailed reply. You proposed writing to him with your own hand. Doubtless, he loves you as a father.  43
  Egmont.  I cannot command the time;—and of all detestable things, writing is to me the most detestable. You imitate my hand so admirably, do you write in my name. I am expecting Orange. I cannot do it;—I wish, however, that something soothing should be written, to allay his fears.  44
  Secretary.  Just give me a notion of what you wish to communicate; I will at once draw up the answer, and lay it before you. It shall be so written that it might pass for your hand in a court of justice.  45
  Egmont.  Give me the letter. (After glancing over it.) Dear, excellent, old man! Wert thou then so cautious in thy youth? Didst thou never mount a breach? Didst thou remain in the rear of battle at the suggestion of prudence?—What affectionate solicitude! He has indeed my safety and happiness at heart, but considers not, that he who lives but to save his life, is already dead.—Charge him not to be anxious on my account; I act as circumstances require, and shall be upon my guard. Let him use his influence at court in my favour, and be assured of my warmest thanks.  46
  Secretary.  Is that all? He expects still more.  47
  Egmont.  What can I say? If you choose to write more fully, do so. The matter turns upon a single point; he would have me live as I cannot live. That I am joyous, live fast, take matters easily, is my good fortune; nor would I exchange it for the safety of a sepulchre. My blood rebels against the Spanish mode of life, nor have I the least inclination to regulate my movements by the new and cautious measures of the court. Do I live only to think of life? Am I to forego the enjoyment of the present moment in order to secure the next? And must that in its turn be consumed in anxieties and idle fears?  48
  Secretary.  I entreat you, my lord, be not so harsh towards the venerable man. You are wont to be friendly towards every one. Say a kindly word to allay the anxiety of your noble friend. See how considerate he is, with what delicacy he warns you.  49
  Egmont.  Yet he harps continually on the same string. He knows of old how I detest these admonitions. They serve only to perplex and are of no avail. What if I were a somnambulist, and trod the giddy summit of a lofty house,—were it the part of friendship to call me by my name, to warn me of my danger, to waken, to kill me? Let each choose his own path, and provide for his own safety.  50
  Secretary.  It may become you to be without a fear, but those who know and love you—  51
  Egmont  (looking over the letter). Then he recalls the old story of our sayings and doings, one evening, in the wantonness of conviviality and wine; and what conclusions and inferences were thence drawn and circulated throughout the whole kingdom! Well, we had a cap and bells embroidered on the sleeves of our servants’ liveries, and afterwards exchanged this senseless device for a bundle of arrows;—a still more dangerous symbol for those who are bent upon discovering a meaning where nothing is meant. These and similar follies were conceived and brought forth in a moment of merriment. It was at our suggestion that a noble troop, with beggars’ wallets, and a self-chosen nickname, with mock humility recalled the King’s duty to his remembrance. It was at our suggestion too—well, what does it signify? Is a carnival jest to be construed into high treason? Are we to be grudged the scanty, variegated rags, wherewith a youthful spirit and heated imagination would adorn the poor nakedness of life? Take life too seriously, and what is it worth? If the morning wake us to no new joys, if in the evening we have no pleasures to hope for, is it worth the trouble of dressing and undressing? Does the sun shine on me to-day, that I may reflect on what happened yesterday? That I may endeavour to foresee and control, what can neither be foreseen nor controlled,—the density of the morrow? Spare me these reflections, we will leave them to scholars and courtiers. Let them ponder and contrive, creep hither and thither, and surreptitiously achieve their ends.—If you can make use of these suggestions, without swelling your letter into a volume, it is well. Everything appears of exaggerated importance to the good old man. ’Tis thus the friend, who has long held our hand, grasps it more warmly ere he quits his hold.  52
  Secretary.  Pardon me, the pedestrian grows dizzy when he beholds the charioteer drive past with whirling speed.  53
  Egmont.  Child! Child! Forbear! As if goaded by invisible spirits, the sun-steeds of time bear onward the light car of our destiny; and nothing remains for us but, with calm self-possession, firmly to grasp the reins, and now right, now left, to steer the wheels here from the precipice and there from the rock. Whither he is hasting, who knows? Does any one consider whence he came?  54
  Secretary.  My lord! my lord!  55
  Egmont.  I stand high, but I can and must rise yet higher. Courage, strength, and hope possess my soul. Not yet have I attained the height of my ambition; that once achieved, I will stand firmly and without fear. Should I fall, should a thunder-clap, a storm-blast, ay, a false step of my own, precipitate me into the abyss, so be it! I shall lie there with thousands of others. I have never disdained, even for a trifling stake, to throw the bloody die with my gallant comrades; and shall I hesitate now, when all that is most precious in life is set upon the cast?  56
  Secretary.  Oh, my lord! you know not what you say! May Heaven protect you!  57
  Egmont.  Collect your papers. Orange is coming. Dispatch what is most urgent, that the couriers may set forth before the gates are closed. The rest may wait. Leave the Count’s letter till to-morrow. Fail not to visit Elvira, and greet her from me. Inform yourself concerning the Regent’s health. She cannot be well, though she would fain conceal it.  [Exit SECRETARY.  58
  Egmont.  Welcome, Orange; you appear somewhat disturbed.  60
  Orange.  What say you to our conference with the Regent?  61
  Egmont.  I found nothing extraordinary in her manner of receiving us. I have often seen her thus before. She appeared to me to be somewhat indisposed.  62
  Orange.  Marked you not that she was more reserved than usual? She began by cautiously approving our conduct during the late insurrection; glanced at the false light in which, nevertheless, it might be viewed: and finally turned the discourse to her favourite topic—that her gracious demeanour, her friendship for us Netherlanders, had never been sufficiently recognized, never appreciated as it deserved; that nothing came to a prosperous issue; that for her part she was beginning to grow weary of it; that the king must at last resolve upon other measures. Did you hear that?  63
  Egmont.  Not all; I was thinking at the time of something else. She is a woman, good Orange, and all women expect that every one shall submit passively to their gentle yoke; that every Hercules shall lay aside his lion’s skin, assume the distaff, and swell their train; and, because they are themselves peaceably inclined, imagine forsooth, that the ferment which seizes a nation, the storm which powerful rivals excite against one another, may be allayed by one soothing word, and the most discordant elements be brought to unite in tranquil harmony at their feet. ’Tis thus with her; and since she cannot accomplish her object, why she has no resource left but to lose her temper, to menace us with direful prospects for the future, and to threaten to take her departure.  64
  Orange.  Think you not that this time she will fulfill her threat?  65
  Egmont.  Never! How often have I seen her actually prepared for the journey? Whither should she go? Being here a stadtholder, a queen, think you that she could endure to spend her days in insignificance at her brother’s court, or to repair to Italy, and there drag on her existence among her old family connections?  66
  Orange.  She is held incapable of this determination, because you have already seen her hesitate and draw back; nevertheless, it lies in her to take this step; new circumstances may impel her to the long-delayed resolve. What if she were to depart, and the king to send another?  67
  Egmont.  Why, he would come, and he also would have business enough upon his hands. He would arrive with vast projects and schemes to reduce all things to order, to subjugate and combine; and to-day he would be occupied with this trifle, to-morrow with that, and the day following have to deal with some unexpected hindrance. He would spend one month in forming plans, another in mortification at their failure, and half a year would be consumed in cares for a single province. With him also time would pass, his head grow dizzy, and things hold on their ordinary course, till instead of sailing into the open sea, according to the plan which he had previously marked out, he might thank God, if, amid the tempest, he were able to keep his vessel off the rocks.  68
  Orange.  What if the king were advised to try an experiment?  69
  Egmont.  Which should be—?  70
  Orange.  To try how the body would get on without the head.  71
  Egmont.  How?  72
  Orange.  Egmont, our interests have for years weighed upon my heart; I ever stand as over a chess-board, and regard no move of my adversary as insignificant; and as men of science carefully investigate the secrets of nature, so I hold it to be the duty, ay, the very vocation of a prince, to acquaint himself with the dispositions and intentions of all parties. I have reason to fear an outbreak. The king has long acted according to certain principles; he finds that they do not lead to a prosperous issue; what more probable than that he should seek it some other way?  73
  Egmont.  I do not believe it. When a man grows old, has attempted much, and finds that the world cannot be made to move according to his will, he must needs grow weary of it at last.  74
  Orange.  One thing has yet to be attempted.  75
  Egmont.  What?  76
  Orange.  To spare the people, and to put an end to the princes.  77
  Egmont.  How many have long been haunted by this dread? There is no cause for such anxiety.  78
  Orange.  Once I felt anxious; gradually I became suspicious; suspicion has at length grown into certainty.  79
  Egmont.  Has the king more faithful servants than ourselves?  80
  Orange.  We serve him after our own fashion; and, between ourselves, it must be confessed that we understand pretty well how to make the interests of the king square with our own.  81
  Egmont.  And who does not? He has our duty and submission, in so far as they are his due.  82
  Orange.  But what if he should arrogate still more, and regard as disloyalty what we esteem the maintenance of our just rights?  83
  Egmont.  We shall know in that case how to defend ourselves. Let him assemble the Knights of the Golden Fleece; we will submit ourselves to their decision.  84
  Orange.  What if the sentence were to precede the trial? punishment, the sentence?  85
  Egmont.  It were an injustice of which Philip is incapable; a folly which I cannot impute either to him or to his counsellors.  86
  Orange.  And how if they were both unjust and foolish?  87
  Egmont.  No, Orange, it is impossible. Who would venture to lay hands on us? The attempt to capture us were a vain and fruitless enterprize. No, they dare not raise the standard of tyranny so high. The breeze that should waft these tidings over the land would kindle a mighty conflagration. And what object would they have in view? The king alone has no power either to judge or to condemn us and would they attempt our lives by assassination? They cannot intend it. A terrible league would unite the entire people. Direful hate and eternal separation from the crown of Spain would, on the instant, be forcibly declared.  88
  Orange.  The flames would then rage over our grave, and the blood of our enemies flow, a vain oblation. Let us consider, Egmont.  89
  Egmont.  But how could they effect this purpose?  90
  Orange.  Alva is on the way.  91
  Egmont.  I do not believe it.  92
  Orange.  I know it.  93
  Egmont.  The Regent appeared to know nothing of it.  94
  Orange.  And, therefore, the stronger is my conviction. The Regent will give place to him. I know his blood-thirsty disposition, and he brings an army with him.  95
  Egmont.  To harass the provinces anew? The people will be exasperated to the last degree.  96
  Orange.  Their leaders will be secured.  97
  Egmont.  No! No!  98
  Orange.  Let us retire, each to his province. There we can strengthen ourselves; the duke will not begin with open violence.  99
  Egmont.  Must we not greet him when he comes?  100
  Orange.  We will delay.  101
  Egmont.  What if, on his arrival, he should summon us in the king’s name?  102
  Orange.  We will answer evasively.  103
  Egmont.  And if he is urgent?  104
  Orange.  We will excuse ourselves.  105
  Egmont.  And if he insist?  106
  Orange.  We shall be the less disposed to come.  107
  Egmont.  Then war is declared; and we are rebels. Do not suffer prudence to mislead you, Orange. I know it is not fear that makes you yield. Consider this step.  108
  Orange.  I have considered it.  109
  Egmont.  Consider for what you are answerable if you are wrong. For the most fatal war that ever yet desolated a country. Your refusal is the signal that at once summons the provinces to arms, that justifies every cruelty for which Spain has hitherto so anxiously sought a pretext. With a single nod you will excite to the direst confusion what, with patient effort, we have so long kept in abeyance. Think of the towns, the nobles, the people; think of commerce, agriculture, trade! Realize the murder, the desolation! Calmly the soldier beholds him comrade fall beside him in the battlefield. But towards you, carried downwards by the stream, shall float the corpses of citizens, of children, of maidens, till, aghast with horror, you shall no longer know whose cause you are defending, since you shall see those, for whose liberty you drew the sword, perishing around you. And what will be your emotions when conscience whispers, “It was for my own safety that I drew it”?  110
  Orange.  We are not ordinary men, Egmont. If it becomes us to sacrifice ourselves for thousands, it becomes us no less to spare ourselves for thousands.  111
  Egmont.  He who spares himself becomes an object of suspicion ever to himself.  112
  Orange.  He who is sure of his own motives can, with confidence, advance or retreat.  113
  Egmont.  Your own act will render certain the evil that you dread.  114
  Orange.  Wisdom and courage alike prompt us to meet an inevitable evil.  115
  Egmont.  When the danger is imminent the faintest hope should be taken into account.  116
  Orange.  We have not the smallest footing left; we are on the very brink of the precipice.  117
  Egmont.  Is the king’s favour on ground so narrow?  118
  Orange.  Not narrow, perhaps, but slippery.  119
  Egmont.  By heavens! he is belied. I cannot endure that he should be so meanly thought of! He is Charles’ son, and incapable of meanness.  120
  Orange.  Kings of course do nothing mean.  121
  Egmont.  He should be better known.  122
  Orange.  Our knowledge counsels us not to await the result of a dangerous experiment.  123
  Egmont.  No experiment is dangerous, the result of which we have the courage to meet.  124
  Orange.  You are irritated, Egmont.  125
  Egmont.  I must see with my own eyes.  126
  Orange.  Oh that for once you saw with mine! My friend, because your eyes are open, you imagine that you see. I go! Await Alva’s arrival, and God be with you! My refusal to do so may perhaps save you. The dragon may deem the prey not worth seizing, if he cannot swallow us both. Perhaps he may delay, in order more surely to execute his purpose; in the meantime you may see matters in their true light. But then, be prompt! Lose not a moment! Save,—oh, save yourself! Farewell!—Let nothing escape your vigilance:—how many troops he brings with him; how he garrisons the town; what force the Regent retains; how your friends are prepared. Send me tidings—Egmont—  127
  Egmont.  What would you?  128
  Orange  (grasping his hand). Be persuaded! Go with me!  129
  Egmont.  How! Tears, Orange!  130
  Orange.  To weep for a lost friend is not unmanly.  131
  Egmont.  You deem me lost?  132
  Orange.  You are lost! Consider! Only a brief respite is left you. Farewell.  [Exit.  133
  Egmont  (alone). Strange that the thoughts of other men should exert such an influence over us. These fears would never have entered my mind; and this man infects me with his solicitude. Away! ’Tis a foreign drop in my blood! Kind nature, cast it forth! And to erase the furrowed lines from my brow there yet remains indeed a friendly means.  134


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