— I Have been long waiting for you, cried young Ferdinand, as his friend came towards him.
— You know, replied the other, that it is impossible to get away in a hurry from our corpulent friend the Baron, when he begins to relate anecdotes of his life.
— If you were an officer like myself, answered Ferdinand, you would nevertheless have found it possible to be punctual; that at least one learns in the service. They are all assembled in the walks yonder, let us make haste, that I may introduce you to this respectable family.
The young friends turned the corner of a rock, and enjoyed the clear view along the rushing stream, which gleamed as it passed by the side of the woods and hills. The spring had this year displayed peculiar luxuriance.
— How grateful is it to the man of business, said Alfred, on a day like this, to leave behind him the city and his spiritless occupations, to feel, after long exertion and privation, this blissfulness of nature, and to hear her sacred voice! And how thankful am I to you, my dear friend, for proposing to introduce me into the circle of the best and noblest of men. For however we may strive to form ourselves, however earnestly we may be resolved to study, to collect knowledge, and to enlarge our hearts and affections, still it is intercourse with the pure specimens of human nature, that throws life into this dead, plodding, and rude endeavour, and converts our acquirements into a real treasure. But to the tender sex it is reserved to give to man that degree of cultivation, of which his powers and talents render him capable.
The young officer looked at his friend with a shake of the head, stood still a moment, and then said, as they walked on:
— These phrases, which one has been forced to hear thousands of times, how unable am I to join in them! According to this, it would be the great world, or what is called good company, which a man should seek, in order to attain, under the influence of paltry wit, coquetry, scandal and babble, that maturity which solitude cannot afford us. Though in most things I am of your opinion, yet on this point I must directly differ from you. Women! They it is precisely who seem to have been stationed by a malignant destiny, for the very purpose of reducing man, if he is sufficiently weak, under their dominion; of stripping him of every thing manly, noble, vigorous, and ingenuous, and transforming him, as far as possible, into his opposite, that he may be just good enough to serve them as a contemptible toy. What you were just now expressing, is a mode of thinking which belonged to an age that has now almost gone by, an age, which stood in hostile opposition to truth, but particularly to religious feeling. I must also inform you, that you will not find that style of behaviour, by which our young gentlemen formerly thought they improved themselves, in the society of these women, because with them all is sacred truth, innocence and genuine piety.
His friend endeavoured to justify his opinion and himself, as in animated conversation they briskly pursued their way. They now saw before them the garden, where, in the cool walks, the Baroness, with her family and some select friends, was awaiting their arrival. All felt refreshed and at ease amid the verdant scene.
Only the young counsellor Alfred found a difficulty, at first, in adapting himself to the tone and topics of the company. He was, as is frequently the case, too much on the stretch, to give himself up with ease to the conversation; he had also too much at his heart, which he strove to bring forward with a timidity, by means of which he often confused himself, and was put out by others; for by the time he had digested his thoughts into a speech, the proper moment for introducing it had gone by; and, among the new subjects of conversation, there occurred a multitude of things which seemed to him unintelligible, and on which he was too bashful to beg more particular information. In addition to this, he was in a manner dazzled by the charms of the ladies; the married daughter Kunigunde was a brilliant beauty; still more radiant was the loveliness of her younger sister Clementine, to which the light complexion and girlish physiognomy of the youngest, miss Clara, formed a sweet contrast; the mother herself might still make pretensions to a pleasing person, and it was evident that she had been in her youth a beautiful woman. Dorothea, the eldest daughter, attracted the least attention in this circle, beautiful as was her eye, and delicate as was her shape; she herself shrank back, and kept still and shy; she seemed even to take but little interest in the animated conversation of her sisters, and it was remarkable that no speech or question was addressed to her, notwithstanding the pains which all the men in the company took to ingratiate themselves with the other daughters or the mother.
Among the men, there distinguished himself an elderly person, who generally took the lead in the conversation, gave information to every body, and decided all disputed or doubtful cases. Even the officer treated him with submissive humility, and this friend of the family addressed himself with kindness and condescension to all, asking them questions, setting them right, animating them, and endeavouring, in his way, to encourage or enlighten every one. He succeeded too at last in drawing the embarrassed Alfred into the conversation, and his gratitude vented itself in a glowing speech, which he now found an opportunity of introducing, and in which he unfolded his wish for improvement, his reverence for domestic happiness, and his hope that the genuine religious temper and true piety would diffuse themselves throughout Germany, with general approbation and to his own satisfaction.
The most attentive of all had been the fair Kunigunde, and she it was who most loudly expressed her approbation.
— How fortunate are we, she at last concluded, to assemble in our dear circle more and more of those spirits, who aim at what is good and noble; who have a perception of something above the earthly, and to whom the world, with all its alluring treasures, appears but vanity. But it is the property of truth and goodness to attract better natures, and to sublimate the weak. While social intercourse has this happy effect in a larger sphere, it is, in the confined domestic circle, the blissfulness of wedlock, that kindles in the souls which it unites a still more fervent enthusiasm for every thing divine, which here still more powerfully raises the weaker spirit to the love of the infinite Being.
— Yes indeed, said a young man, who sat by the elderly gentleman, this is what I feel every day more intensely and thankfully.
He sighed and looked at the clouds, and the counsellor learnt upon inquiry, that this was the husband of the lovely and pious Kunigunde.
The mother took up the theme and said, not without emotion:
— How happy I needs must feel, thus to have found in the circle of my children the highest end of life, and to have enabled them also to attain the noblest acquisition this earth can yield. How utterly unable I am to take an interest in the pursuits of the generality of mankind! Nay, I rather feel my pity moved by the various turns of their enthusiasm, than could find, in that multiplicity of exertions to attain what they call a good, any thing that claims our respect. So they run after art, or philosophy; suppose that the eternal light is to dawn upon them in science, or in colour and sound; weary themselves with history and the perplexed affairs of life; and in their eagerness neglect the one thing needful, which supplies and makes up for all beside. Since I have found this spring which so sweetly satiates every thirst of the soul, I have had no sense left for that motley variety of objects, towards which in my youth I myself turned many a longing look.
— How you force my admiration! exclaimed the counsellor: with what eagerness have I sought life, and grasped only an empty shadow! And yet how easy is it, to find that truth, which never deceives us, never slips away from us, which fills every desire of the heart, that in which alone we have real life and being.
— I understand you, answered the Baroness, You belong to our circle; it is a blessed thing to feel, that the communion of pious and heavenly-minded spirits is constantly increasing.
— We have a prospect of the most glorious times! exclaimed the young officer in a rapture. And how blest we must feel ourselves, since that which elevates us above the stale routine of life, is eternal truth itself; since this it is which rules us, and under its control we can never miscarry, never err; for we surrender ourselves to love, to work in us and reveal its mysteries to our hearts.
— Precisely so, concluded the dignified elderly gentleman; this it is, which gives us that assurance which distinguishes us from ordinary enthusiasts or fanatics. You have spoken a great truth, my dear Ferdinand, and it is on this account I value you so highly. No one finds the right point by so direct a road as yourself, and no one can then express it so clearly and simply.
He embraced the young man, looked towards heaven, and a big tear sparkled in his fine dark eye. The Baroness rose, and joined the group; all were moved, only Miss Dorothea turned away, and seemed to be searching for something she had lost in the shrubbery.
It did not escape Alfred's attention, that the mother looked with an expression of pain towards her eldest child, who seemed strangely excluded from this circle of sympathy and love. Baron Wallen, that was the name of the elderly friend of the house, with an air of melting benignity approached the young lady, who timidly cast her eyes to the ground, and whose cheeks at the same instant were flushed with a crimson glow. He spoke to her in an under-tone and with great emotion, but in her embarrassment she seemed not to pay particular attention to his words; for a lady now coming along the walk towards the party, she went hastily to meet her, and folded her in her arms with the greatest cordiality and joy.
The mother slightly shook her head, and looked at Baron Wallen with an inquiring eye; he smiled, and the conversation of the party turned to quite different and commonplace topics; for Madame von Halden, who now came up, chattering loudly, laughing and telling news, made all flights of rapture, every communication of sentiment perfectly impossible, so that all but Miss Dorothea were rather disconcerted; she, as if she was relieved and cheered, hung with her looks on the speaker's lips, and now paid still less attention to the rest of the company.
— Who then is this retailer of news? asked Alfred, displeased, that, like a wild bird, flies into our quiet circle, and scares away all delicate feelings?
— A neighbour of our honoured Baroness, answered Baron von Wallen: she has gained an incomprehensible influence over the mind of Miss Dorothea, which we all cannot but lament. Even in her earlier years, her excellent governess, Miss von Erhard, a relative of the family, endeavoured to prevent this intimacy from stifling the lovely girl's better capacities; but from first to last all her pains have been unavailing.
The governess, who had hitherto been little observed, now came up, seeing that she was the subject of remark, and joined in the conversation. She related how, in this affectionate and lofty-minded family, Dorothea had from her early youth led a secluded life, and among so many sisters had been in a manner quite alone. Miss Charlotte von Erhard told this with a rough and hoarse voice, but was so agitated that she could not refrain from tears. Alfred, who was already softened, in his exalted mood thought the elderly and rather ugly lady amiable and agreeable, and hearty disgust and vehement contempt were pointed against poor Dorothea, who now took leave of her gossiping friend, and returned to the rest of the party. She was evidently in a serener mood, but one could see what a struggle it cost her, again to take part in the serious conversation. She mentioned that Madame von Halden was in treaty, and would probably sell her estate.
— Sell her estate? asked the mother astonished, and she could nevertheless be so cheerful, nay, so gay?
— She thinks, replied Dorothea, she ought not to reject so advantageous a bargain on account of her infant children.
— Is there any advantage, said the mother, which can counterbalance to children the happiness of home? And she herself, your friend, who grew up here upon her estate, who lived here with parents and brothers and sisters, and afterwards with a beloved husband, how can she thus become a voluntary outcast, and turn her back upon these trees, banish herself from the rooms which she loved and was familiar with as a child? Again and again I am struck with observing how utterly unintelligible to me are the conduct and motives of the great majority of mankind.——And who, then, is the purchaser?
— The thing is odd enough, replied Dorothea; the purchaser will not have his name published; but one Count Brandenstein conducts the negotiation. My friend is eager and decided, for the foreigner from America is buying several other estates, so that she esteems it a privilege, as he does not look minutely at the price, to be able to dispose of hers to the stranger.
At the name of Brandenstein the mother turned pale. She endeavoured however to compose herself directly, and said after a little pause:
— Ay, that was the name which has been lying, for a week past, heavy upon my heart. I was already aware that this man is here, who will now for some time spoil our quiet enjoyment, and disturb the harmony of our circle. And I cannot avoid seeing him, for he is an old acquaintance of our family, and the custom of the world forces us, we know, to maintain a friendly intercourse even with persons whom we most heartily dislike, nay, whom, however candid may be our thoughts, we cannot help acknowledging to be bad and profligate men.
Dorothea was of opinion that, where so distinct a feeling prevailed, a man ought to put no constraint upon himself; and that particularly in the country, where they lived, it would be still easier than in town, to avoid such offensive intrusions. The mother however said:
— You do not understand this, my child. Were it not that an unconscientious unprincipled man might injure or mortify us in the most sensible manner; were it not that he had it in his power, by means of wit and frivolity, to embitter our whole existence, I would coldly repel him, and, with my love of truth, tell him without ceremony, that I would keep up no commerce with him; but as this is impossible, I must treat him with courtesy, endeavour to lay the evil spirit in him by delicacy and good-will, and afterwards, as imperceptibly as possible, withdraw from his pernicious influence.
The other daughters crowded round the mother and embraced her, as if to console her.
— If I had not you! sighed the Baroness: if it were not that I may calculate on the assistance of our generous friend, the visit of this godless man would make me still more uneasy.
— Who is he, after all? asked the Baron.
— A man, answered the mother, who, at an early age, ranged about in the world, and among its snares; who, taught by his own heart, vilely ridicules and persecutes all that bears the name of charity, meekness and piety, a gross self-seeker, incapable of loving any one, and whom the Holy, the Unearthly, wherever he perceives it, wherever he does but catch a glimpse of it, transports into a disgusting rage, which then inspires him with that frivolous wit, which we all so deeply despise. It was the misfortune of my life, that he formed an acquaintance with my good departed husband, who took a liking to him, and in many gloomy hours abandoned himself to his society and his melancholy philosophy.
— You are painting, honoured madam, said the officer, one of those characters, which, heaven be thanked, have already grown more rare.
— A profligacy, said the Baron, which rails at every thing spiritual, being grounded on self-contempt. You however, as well as all of us, are raised above this misery.
— His moderate fortune, proceeded the mother, was soon spent; he then quitted Europe, roamed about among heaven knows what savage hordes, and has now returned, I hear, as the agent of an immensely rich American, who will follow him in the course of a year, and who has taken the fancy of buying several estates in our neighbourhood, to form one large domain.
Dorothea still persisted in her opinion, that people might and ought to avoid so bad a man, and that she herself would engage to make the house unapproachable to him, if her mother would give her the requisite powers for the purpose; the Baroness however grew displeased, and forbad the name of the peace-breaker to be mentioned that day any more. The carriages now drew up, the family meaning to return to their country-seat in the neighbourhood in the cool of the evening, when at the same moment a singular scene displayed itself. The old Baron had already several times approached Dorothea, who however had avoided him, but he took advantage of the moment when he was helping her into the carriage, to whisper some friendly words into her ear; she sprang back, got hastily away from the coach, and ran down the shaded walk. The Baron could not overtake her in spite of all his efforts; when he was at the bottom of the garden, she came back out of breath, threw her veil over her heated face, and wept bitterly as she timidly shrank from the interrogating and reproving glances of her more than astonished mother. The carriage drove rapidly off, and the Baron, after he had taken a confused and embarrassed leave of his young friends got into his own, severely mortified, as his looks shewed, notwithstanding his attempts at a forced composure.
When the young counsellor and the officer were on their way back to the city, the former said after a pause:
— What was that? I cannot recover from my surprize, that, among persons of such refinement and delicacy, so indecorous a scene could have occurred! In fact, how comes this girl, this singular, even repulsive character, into a family, which I should be almost inclined to call a holy one? Some deep culpability must bow her down, that she always shrinks timidly back, never takes a share in the conversation, and is treated too by all the rest with a condescending, almost a contemptuous pity, which is very striking to a stranger. One is forced into scandalous conjectures, however little one may be inclined to suspicion.
— You would however be mistaken, said his military friend, for no fault, no offence bows this being down. Among persons of such lofty character as all these are, a failure of that sort might perhaps be repaired without any great struggle, did there but subsist a harmony of soul, in other respects, between this sister and the rest. But the worst of all is, that she was born with a more groveling ignoble spirit, that does not comprehend the aim of all the rest, and still is forced to confess that it is something lofty and noble, only for her unattainable. This feeling of unworthiness depresses her more than the consciousness of a fault could do. She feels herself an alien among her nearest relations, a stranger in her own house; she seeks relief in the company of her unworthy acquaintances, of that pursy and gossiping neighbour for instance, and particularly shuns the Baron, whom we all so highly revere, and who condescends too much, with almost a degree of passion, to unfold her sensibilities for a higher state of being.
They now turned the corner of the rock, and saw the city lying before them. But to their horror they at the same time observed that corpulent Baron von Willen, from whom, in the afternoon, the young counsellor had with difficulty got away.
— Well, cried he as they came towards him, are you come back already out of heaven? Has there been a fine shower of ambrosial phrases? Did the nectarean sentiments take kindly? There was no scarcity, I hope, of seraphic feelings?
The friends, who amid the beauties of nature and in the lovely evening would have been glad to indulge their feelings in harmonious reminiscences, endeavoured to get rid of him, but as they were returning by the same road to the city, this was impossible.
— Not so fast! he exclaimed with a peremptory voice: we remain stedfast together, and at the spring below there we shall meet with another poor sinner, who is waiting for me.
The two young people saw themselves forced to make a virtue of necessity, particularly as the insensible Baron proceeded with a boisterous voice:
— I observe well enough, that you would like still to be sentimental in the environs here, particularly as the moon will soon make its appearance; but such disorders are not tolerated in my prosaic company. Take my word for it, young men, all that etherializing, and that luscious piety yonder, has no other object, than that you should bite at this tempting bait in the way of marriage, provided, that is, you have places and fortune. There are so many daughters there, and only the eldest, a wild thing, is mad enough to reject all offers. Ay, that it is, the dear, good, much-desired matrimony, the wooing, towards which all the telescopes are pointed, when such fine noble daughters are sitting in the family saloon, round and plump, red and white, comely and clever, full-grown and finished! And in the midst of them the prudent mother, on the alert, lurking and watching, her eyes turned in every direction, her feelers out, to try every one that enters, whether the fine coat is paid for, whether he that talks of his travels and balls, is in condition to maintain a wife suitably to her quality. Then drop from the good matron's tender lips such pious, soft, and perfectly undesigning phrases, her looks glance towards heaven, and to the right and left, and all the words and all the looks swim like a hundred hooks in the stream of the insipid conversation, and the youngsters shoot, now after this, now after that line, wriggling and playing, till, at last, though it be some weeks first, one or other of them is fastened. So they have hooked for Kunigunde that delicate whiting, and forthwith put it into his head that the plump girl is a great deal too good for him, so that he pulls like a repentant sinner at the car of matrimony, and cannot help feeling himself honoured, that the lofty being has stooped to him; now Clara, Clementine, and the earthly-minded Dorothea are still to be settled, nay I will not warrant, that the well-stricken proselyte-maker herself does not one of these days shape her a bridegroom out of some pious stripling, and shuffle a settlement into his hands instead of the catechism. Ay, ay! For better, for worse! How all the world scampers, as if they were blind and deaf, under the melancholy yoke, and sacrifice freedom and fancy to the evil genius, which almost always debases a man into a slave.
— You are an abominable scoffer, said the officer; out of a libertine humour you hate marriage, and desire now that all men should live as licentious freethinking bachelors, and because your taste is not suited to that circle, you slander those persons, who are exalted above every calumny.
— Quite martial! cried the Baron. And yet I shall prove to be right, and perhaps you yourself, sooner or later, when you are forced, like a squirrel, to make the same orthodox springs over and over again at the end of your chain, in order to crack the nuts which your wife allows you, will sigh, Ah! had I but believed my resolute friend Willen!
— No, sir, said the counsellor with warmth, your view of the subject proceeds from nothing but despair: nay, you do not even believe yourself.
— For aught I care, cried the other, it may be that a creature totally different from myself is speaking out of me; for that is often the case in life, and, even among those apostolical folks themselves, there often peeps a something like an ape, out of their fringed and stiffened drapery. Is it not so? Especially out of that elderly maiden, the too unworldly Miss Erhard, that incomparable mistress of the art of education? She has set the pattern of a close cap of inward sentiment for the whole family, while for herself she has fitted a head-dress of religion after the most flourishing fashion. You think when she crows out her oracle, and twists her little eyes, we unbelievers must immediately truckle under. It is with her I am most out of patience, for she it is in fact that has radically ruined the whole family.
They were now standing at the spring. The sun had long set, and a man was seen winding out of the darkness from behind the willow bush.
— Ah! Michael! cried the Baron. May you have occasion, gentlemen, for an honest servant?
— Why, asked the officer, have you quitted the service of the excellent Baroness, who takes such maternal care of her people?
— Ah! your honour, said the servant, because the other day I told a little bit of a harmless fib, I was directly turned off.
— That is as it should be! cried the officer, there I recognize that noble-minded woman.
— All was but a plot, proceeded Michael, of that spiteful Miss Erhard: she cannot bear that man and maid should be kind to each other, because nobody will release her from her single life, and ever since she saw me give the housemaid a kiss, a month ago it was, she has borne me a grudge for it.
— How vulgar! exclaimed Alfred.
— Yes, your honour, said the man, she is not a fine lady, but she is pretty, and a kiss is a kiss after all. Now one day, that was on the maid's account too, I had forgotten to fetch a new book from town, it was one of the double-refined pious sort, I believe, and, in my quandary, I said the book was already lent, and it came out that I had not gone at all, and so, for that bit of a lie, I was immediately dismissed the service.
— Have you occasion for him? the Baron asked the two young people. They however protested, they would never have to do with a man, who could not even be endured in the most liberal and indulgent of families.
— Well then, stay in the mean time with me, concluded the Baron, but lie as little as possible.
— Certainly, your honour, cried the man, of set purpose never; there often comes across one in one's straits a forced lie, which the old priest in my village yonder himself thought excusable; but their honours, my mistresses, weigh every thing in scales of gold; and in a house where there is nothing to be seen but the quintessence of piety, and virtue in full trim, a poor ordinary servant does not get on at all. We have too much earth in us, my good sirs, the gentlefolk have easier work of it, that are always polishing and polishing at heart and soul, which is what we have no time for, by reason of knife-cleaning and other jobs. Miss Dorothy wanted to excuse me, and said it did not matter so much; but she came badly off, they all cried out together upon her, more than upon me. Her they all despise, and yet she is the best of the family, because she is not so highflown, for man after all was formed out of a lump of earth, and the old loam and clay will be stirring in him from time to time.
— You are well paired, you and Michael, said the officer laughing.
— But stop! cried the Baron, I have taken you into my service, and quite forgot, that tomorrow Miss Erhard is coming for some time to my house. Yes, my friends, she is a person whom I myself cannot endure; but as I live with a younger sister who is now grown up, and many men are going in and out of my house, and I am myself often from home, I am forced, as I have no mind to marry, to have company and superintendence for her. Now has the preposterous little woman resolved to make a trial with me, for she knows well enough that it is good quartering in my house, not so meagre as in the family yonder; besides I often see company, perhaps she thinks she may find a bosom companion more easily with me, than in the solitude there. So we are to make a trial for a month or so together.
— All construed with a very refinement of vulgarity! said the counsellor: if you can but find petty motives, you comprehend things.
— No help for it, said the Baron.
They parted, having just reached the city gate.