J.W. von Goethe (17491832). Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
THE CURTAIN fell; and rapturous applauses sounded out of every corner of the house. The four princely corpses sprang aloft, and embraced each other. Polonius and Ophelia likewise issued from their graves, and listened with extreme satisfaction, as Horatio, who had stept before the curtain to announce the following piece, was welcomed with the most thundering plaudits. The people would not hear of any other play, but violently required the repetition of the present.
We have won, cried Serlo: and so not another reasonable word this night! Every thing depends on the first impression: we should never take it ill of any actor that, on occasion of his first appearance, he is provident and even self-willed.
The box-keeper came and delivered him a heavy sum. We have made a good beginning, cried the Manager, and prejudice itself will now be on our side. But where is the supper that you promised us? Tonight we may be allowed to relish it a little.
It had been agreed that all the party were to stay together in their stage-dresses, and enjoy a little feast among themselves. Wilhelm had engaged to have the place in readiness, and Frau Melina to provide the victuals.
A room, which commonly was occupied by scene-painters, had accordingly been polished up as well as possible; our friends had hung it round with little decorations; and so decked and trimmed it, that it looked half like a garden, half like a colonnade. On entering it, the company were dazzled with the glitter of a multitude of lights, which, across the vapours of the sweetest and most copious perfumes, spread a stately splendour over a well-decorated and well-furnished table. These preparations were hailed with joyful interjections by the party: all took their places with a certain genuine dignity; it seemed as if some royal family had met together in the Kingdom of the Shades. Wilhelm sat between Aurelia and the Frau Melina; Serlo between Philina and Elmira; nobody was discontented with himself or with his place.
Our two theatric amateurs, who had from the first been present, now increased the pleasure of the meeting. While the exhibition was proceeding, they had several times stept round, and come upon the stage, expressing, in the warmest terms, the delight which they and the audience felt. They now descended to particulars; and each was richly rewarded for his efforts.
With boundless animation, the company extolled man after man and passage after passage. To the prompter, who had modestly sat down at the bottom of the table, they gave a liberal commendation for his rugged Pyrrhus; the fencing of Hamlet and Laertes was beyond all praise; Ophelias mourning had been inexpressibly exalted and affecting; of Polonius they would not trust themselves to speak.
Every individual present heard himself commended through the rest and by them; nor was the absent Ghost defrauded of his share of praise and admiration. He had played the part, it was asserted, with a very happy voice, and in a lofty style; but what surprised them most was the information which he seemed to have about their own affairs. He entirely resembled the painted figure, as if he had sat to the painter of it; and the two amateurs described, in glowing language, how awful it had looked when the spirit entered near the picture, and stept across before his own image. Truth and error, they declared, had been commingled in the strangest manner; they had felt as if the Queen really did not see the Ghost. And Frau Melina was especially commended, because on this occasion she had gazed upwards at the picture, while Hamlet was pointing downwards at the Spectre.
Inquiry was now made how the apparition could have entered. The stage-manager reported that a back-door, usually blocked up by decorations, had that evening, as the Gothic hall was occupied, been opened; that two large figures, in white cloaks and hoods, one of whom was not to be distinguished from the other, had entered by this passage; and by the same, it was likely, they had issued when the third act was over.
Serlo praised the Ghost for one merit; that he had not whined and lamented like a tailor; nay, to animate his son, had even introduced a passage at the end, which more beseemed such a hero. Wilhelm had kept it in memory; he promised to insert it in his manuscript.
Amid the pleasures of the entertainment, it had not been noticed that the children and the Harper were absent. Ere long they made their entrance, and were blithely welcomed by the company. They came in together, very strangely decked: Felix was beating a triangle, Mignon a tambourine; the old man had his large harp hung round his neck, and was playing on it whilst he carried it before him. They marched round and round the table, and sang a multitude of songs. Eatables were handed them; and the guests seemed to think they could not do a greater kindness to the children, than by giving them as much sweet wine as they chose to have. For the company themselves had not by any means neglected a stock of savoury flasks, presented by the two amateurs, which had arrived that evening in baskets. The children tripped about, and sang; Mignon, in particular, was frolicsome beyond all wont. She beat the tambourine with the greatest liveliness and grace; now, with her finger pressed against the parchment, she hummed across it swiftly to and fro; now rattled on it with her knuckles, now with the back of her hand; nay sometimes, with alternating rhythm, she struck it first against her knee and then against her head; and anon twirling it in her hand, she made the shells jingle by themselves; and thus, from the simplest instrument, elicited a great variety of tones. After she and Felix had long rioted about, they sat down upon an elbow-chair which was standing empty at the table, exactly opposite to Wilhelm.
I do not fear him, answered Mignon: if he comes, we can rise. He is my uncle, and will not harm me. To those who did not know that her reputed father had been named the Great Devil, this speech was unintelligible.
The party looked at one another; they were more and more confirmed in their suspicion that the Manager was in the secret of the Ghost. They talked and tippled, and the girls from time to time cast timid glances towards the door.
The children, who, sitting in the great chair, looked from over the table but like puppets in their box, did actually at length start a little drama in the style of Punch. The screeching tone of these people Mignon imitated very well; and Felix and she began to knock their heads together, and against the edges of the table, in such a way as only wooden puppets could endure. Mignon, in particular, grew frantic with gaiety; the company, much as they had laughed at her at first, were in fine obliged to curb her. But persuasion was of small avail; for she now sprang up, and raved and shook her tambourine, and capered round the table. With her hair flying out behind her, with her head thrown back, and her limbs as it were cast into the air, she seemed like one of those antique Mænads, whose wild and all but impossible positions still, on classic monuments, often strike us with amazement.
Incited by the talents and the uproar of the children, each endeavoured to contribute something to the entertainment of the night. The girls sang several canons; Laertes whistled in the manner of a nightingale; and the Pedant gave a symphony pianissimo upon the Jews-harp. Meanwhile the youths and damsels, who sat near each other, had begun a great variety of games; in which, as the hands often crossed and met, some pairs were favoured with a transient squeeze, the emblem of a hopeful kindness. Madam Melina in particular seemed scarcely to conceal a decided tenderness for Wilhelm. It was late; and Aurelia, perhaps the only one retaining self-possession in the party, now stood up, and signified that it was time to go.
By way of termination, Serlo gave a firework, or what resembled one; for the sound of crackers, rockets and firewheels with his mouth, in a style of nearly inconceivable correctness. You had only to shut your eyes, and the deception was complete. In the mean time, they had all risen; the men gave their arms to the women to escort them home. Wilhelm was walking last with Aurelia. The stage-manager met him on the stairs, and said to him: Here is the veil our Ghost vanished in: it was hanging fixed to the place where he sank; we found it this moment.
At this instant his left arm was laid hold of, and he felt a smart twinge of pain in it. Mignon had hid herself in the place; she had seized him, and bit his arm. She rushed past him, down-stairs, and disappeared.
The instant Wilhelm gained his room, he stripped, and extinguishing his candle, hastened into bed. Sleep was overpowering him without delay, when a noise, that seemed to issue from behind the stove, aroused him. In the eye of his heated fancy, the image of the harnessed King was hovering there; he sat up that he might address the Spectre; but he felt himself encircled with soft arms, and his mouth was shut with kisses, which he had not force to push away.