The next morning, at an early hour, there was a great stir in the house of the Baroness. The whole family was assembled at sunrise in the great parlour, which led immediately into the garden. The walls were hung with festoons of flowers, an ornamented table stood at one door, covered with clothes, books, and various keepsakes, and they were now only waiting for the eldest daughter Dorothea, who was in the habit of visiting the garden every day at a very early hour, in order, with these presents, and this festive show, to give her an agreeable surprize. It was her birthday, and the mother and daughters had been able to arrange every thing without her observing it, as she never concerned herself particularly about the almanack. She now came down the garden, and saw from a distance her assembled sisters. When she entered the room in astonishment, and they all kindly surrounded her, offering their respective presents, and her sisters and mother showed themselves so unusually loving, she was deeply affected, and her agitation was the greater, the less she had expected this festival of love.
— How new is this to me! she exclaimed. Alas! how little have I been able to deserve this of you! Do you then indeed love me so? All these presents, this brilliant display, this kind attention, how can I requite it? I am so surprized, that you should all think so of a poor thing like me, that I cannot even find words to thank you.
— Only love us with sincere affection, said her mother, cordially embracing her, do not keep so much apart from us, meet more tenderly all our advances, do justice to our intentions and strive to enter into our feelings and views; for we surely seek only what is good, we surely wish only what is right. These humours of yours, my beloved child, your froward temper, which estranges you from your friends and sisters, and carries you into the arms of trifling persons, is a disease and perversion of your character. You may and will perceive the truth as soon as it is your serious purpose.
— I will amend, said the weeping daughter. I promise it you from this very hour, which so infinitely affects me.
All embraced and kissed her, and Dorothea, who had been long as it were a stranger in her family, felt as if a new life had begun for her. She looked searchingly at all, she caressed every one, she let the presents be shown and explained to her; it seemed as though she had returned from a long journey, and were now greeting her family after a painful separation.
— If I could but do anything for you all! she exclaimed.
— If it is your serious will, answered her mother, it is in your power to-day to make all of us, and especially me, indescribably happy.
— Name it, cried Dorothea, say what I am to do.
— If on this solemn day, proceeded the Baroness, you would at last give your long-refused consent, if you would this day bless with your plighted word our friend Wallen, whom you yesterday mortified in so improper a manner.
Dorothea turned pale, and shrank back aghast.
— Is this what you require? said she faultering; I thought on that subject I had once for all made my declaration.
— Your passionate mood, said the mother, cannot pass for a rational resolution. You love no man, as you have often said, you scarcely know one whom you could esteem; this generous friend is devoted to you with a noble ardour, he proposes to you a lot, fairer than will ever again present itself to you, should you now reject it; you know the situation of your family, the critical state of our property; it is in your power to become the benefactress of your mother, the protectress of your sisters. Have you well reflected, my dear child, how cheerless your own future prospects will be, if you should persist in your obstinacy? Forsaken by men and women, in discord and enmity with your family, lonely and utterly lost in a cold, insulting world, poor and without succour! Will you not then review your youth with regret, and in bitter anguish repent, that you so wantonly, so thoughtlessly, rejected all happiness for yourself and your family? Does this generous man then require from you love and passion, as they are described in our perverse books? Does he wish for more than friendship and esteem? And can you refuse him this? He is ready for all sacrifices, which our pressing situation requires, and which his great wealth enables him to make. But if you treat him with such cold scorn, and he withdraws offended and affronted — who knows where your sisters or your mother, and you yourself, at some time or other in your old age, may be forced to beg a pitiful alms, where I may lay my head sick and helpless? and then will your weeping eye cast back a look of vain regret upon these days, which will be then for ever past.
— Say no more, my dearest mother! cried Dorothea in the greatest distress. Oh, unhappily, unhappily, the right is all on your side, and the wrong entirely on mine. No, I never yet loved, and never shall, my heart is locked against that feeling; the men, with whom I have been acquainted, inspire me all with a feeling of dislike, many with one of pity, not to say contempt. I perceive that a marriage founded on reason, which places us in a state or opulence and independence, must be a desirable thing; that it is in my power to make you and all of us happy by a single word, that it is certainly generous to speak it, that it is perhaps forced from me by necessity, by filial duty, and the noblest motives—and yet—why do my feelings shudder at it?—Ah, my dear mother, if it were not for just one thing,—may I say it? Will you not quite misunderstand me? O certainly! for I really do not understand myself.
— Speak, my beloved child, said her mother in the kindest tone, I shall feel your heart, though I do not quite comprehend your words.
Dorothea hesitated, looked at her beseechingly, and said at last, in embarrassment, and with a beseeching voice:
— Often have I put the question to myself, in hours of solitude I have earnestly examined myself, and then it appeared to me, as if I could join hands with the worthy man, whom you all, whom all the world respects, were he only not——
— Well? cried the mother.
— Were he only not pious, said the daughter hastily.
A long pause of embarrassment ensued. Dorothea's face had turned of a glowing red, the sisters shrank back in affright, the mother cast a look downwards, and then turned it with the severer scrutiny on the poor girl, who seemed to all, and to herself, almost a monster. At last the mother said:
— Well, really, I cannot help feeling surprized at this, and if I understand what you have expressed, it would be enough to fill me with horror. So then you make open profession of your apostasy from God? You are conscious then, that every thing holy is an offence and an abomination to you? You cannot love what is love itself? Go then and deny every thing divine, live a reprobate and die forsaken by heaven.
— You do not understand me, cried Dorothea with deep indignation: it is the very misfortune of my life, that every thing is misunderstood in me, however well I mean it. Perhaps M. von Wallen would be quite to my mind, if only I did not know that he is so pious, perhaps even I might then think him pious.
— Excellent! said the mother in a painful state of irritation: when we are ourselves depraved, it is certainly most convenient to doubt the virtue of persons of worth. Herein at the same time you express, what you think of me, and what I have to expect from your filial affection!
— You must, you shall find your error! cried Dorothea, almost angry: I will do more for love of you, than I can justify to myself. I will this evening, I give you my word, betroth myself to Baron von Wallen.
A general burst of joy, tears, embraces and sobbings, interrupted and filled up the place of conversation. The dispute changed into the loudest and most joyous hubbub; all had lost their composure, and expressed love and rapture in vehement and exaggerated terms. Only Dorothea, after her last words, had suddenly grown quite cool again, and gave herself up quietly without any return to their caresses.
— Oh, my beloved child! said the mother when she had at last recovered her composure, yes, I misunderstood you, and you will excuse me; this unexpected voluntary declaration sets all right again. And now I may add to those gifts of love the most beautiful and costly present, these ornaments, which the Baron sends you. I kept it back, because I really doubted of your noble feelings.
The daughter stared at her mother, then cast a cold glance at the precious stones, and laid them calmly down by the flowers on the table. Breakfast was served, and after the loud scene followed the deeper calm; no conversation could be brought to bear. The bell rang for church, and the servants brought the cloaks and books. Dorothea laid her prayer-book down, and said:
— You will excuse me, dear mother, if I do not to-day accompany you to church, I am too much excited; I will endeavour, in the meanwhile, to collect myself here, and prepare for our dinner-party, and still more for the evening.
— As you will, my sweet child, answered the Baroness. It is true that the church, and the discourse of our pious pastor, would certainly be the most natural place and occasion for collecting your thoughts; nevertheless you have a way and fashion of your own, keep it then wholly uncriticized. It is evidently Heaven itself, which leads you, my love, who are most in need of it, to our dear friend Wallen; by his side you will learn to think differently, and perhaps I may still live to see you shame us all, and shine before us in a superior lustre.
When Dorothea saw herself alone, she examined, almost unconsciously, the presents. The glittering richly bound books were of that modern religious class in which she had never been able to take an interest.
— What matters it? said she to herself: is the earth itself then, is the sum of life so much worth the talking of? Why do I persist in playing the part assigned to me with so much reluctance? What in earlier days I thought and planned, is to be sure only a dream and empty fancy! I see indeed how all men, all, do but act and counterfeit an elevation of soul, from which they afterwards willingly and placidly sink into common-place. If it is the universal destiny, why do I persist in struggling so vehemently against it? Horrible it is! But at last, sooner or later, death is sure to unravel this tangled net of life, and on the other side the grave there surely will be freedom.
With her mood the heavens too grew more gloomy. Dark massy clouds rolled along, and seemed to be bringing a storm with them. A tall man came up the garden and approached the parlour. As he was on the point of stepping in, she advanced to meet the stranger, who seemed to be a person of condition. They exchanged compliments, and the stranger begged leave to stay; he had given his horse to a servant in the avenue, and had then stepped into the garden which he found open; he regretted not finding the rest of the family; whereupon Dorothea invited him to wait in the parlour till the storm had past, and to stay till her mother and sisters returned from church.
— You seem not to be alarmed at the storm; observed the stranger.
— Yes indeed, replied Dorothea, when it comes too near, and the flash and the stroke are one. I believe too that all men then are more or less afraid; for where there is no possibility of resistance, where a sudden unforeseen moment might snatch me away, I am uneasy precisely because I cannot be on my guard. In these moments nothing gives tranquillity but the belief in an inevitable fate, and the reflexion that I am no better than the thousands of my fellow-men who are exposed to the same danger.
— This is a frame of mind, said the stranger, which I cannot but call courageous, contrasting it with that weak one which is not uncommon among ladies, when they almost faint for fear, lose all composure, and weep and wail, if but the most distant flash of lightning does but gleam across.
— Yes, said Dorothea, and indeed I am apprehensive about my mother and sisters, who are but too susceptible of alarm. I would not blame it, because like many other nervous fears, it may be a disorder of the body.
— That is a point not so easily decided, observed the stranger, because it would be first necessary to make a serious trial, what strength of will is able to effect, and whether, when the soul puts a constraint upon itself, the body does not also take some steps with it, and health does not arise of itself where nothing but a wilful mood has engendered the disease.
— That leads to the question, said Dorothea, how far we are free, and what we are able to effect by resolution in mind and body.
— Certainly, replied the other, and not only this, but all serious reflexions lead to the great question. Without having answered this to ourselves, we can take an interest in nothing, and can believe neither in ourselves nor in others.
— Freedom! sighed Dorothea, as if in a reverie, You believe in it then? I did so too formerly, when I was younger.
— Younger, my young lady? That sounds strange from your lovely lips. I doubted as a youth, and have only learnt to form this conviction in later years.
— Excuse me, cried Dorothea confused, for losing myself with you on such topics, as I—
The stranger interrupted her:
— Do not treat me as a young man, of whom you know nothing, and who is only at liberty to take notice of your presence, in order to say some obliging things to you. You met me with a noble and serious confidence, and I know that I am not undeserving of it.
And really it seemed as if Dorothea was speaking with an old acquaintance or a brother, so little was this man—whose name even she forgot to inquire—strange to her. It was long since she had experienced this feeling, of venturing to express her thoughts without fear of being misunderstood; it gave her so much satisfaction that she paid but little regard to the storm, and even forgot the evening, which just before she could only think of with horror. In the course of the conversation the stranger gave an account of his travels and several of his vicissitudes; he recalled the remembrance of his youth, and at last acknowledged, that he had often seen the house in which they were, and particularly the young lady's father, who had been many years dead.
— You are wonderfully like your father, he concluded, and from the very first I could not contemplate those mild lineaments without emotion.
Dorothea was taken by surprize, when she saw the family already returned from church. On saluting the stranger, the mother stepped back almost in terror, and Dorothea turned pale when she heard him called Count Brandenstein. He was politely invited to dinner, and old Baron Wallen likewise made his appearance, as well as Alfred and the young officer; both had ridden over from town. The family went to dress, and Dorothea alone in her chamber was lost in deep thought. The world lay in a more singular shape than ever before her mind; she could scarcely recover herself sufficiently to arrange her simple attire, and when she afterwards returned as in a dream to the company, all their faces seemed to her in a manner hard and strained, nay even strange, but especially the soft, sanctimonious countenance of the Baron looked like a hideous caricature, and a sensation, as if she were on the point of laughing, took possession of her whole frame like a shivering fit, when she remembered that this was the man to whom that same evening she was to plight her troth. As the young officer and the counsellor were revolting to her, just so familiar, open and benign, was the expression which beamed upon her in the looks of the Count, whom but the day before she had heard described as a bad and dangerous man.
He seemed the only person at table who was unconcerned. He spoke with satisfaction of the affairs he was transacting on behalf of his American friend; he mentioned the estates he had already purchased, or for which he was in treaty; and much surprize was excited by the wealth of the stranger, who was able to consolidate the finest estates in the country in one large domain. By the Count's address the conversation soon became more free, and the Baron, who seemed to be resisting with violence the feeling which pressed upon him, endeavoured to engross and command it, principally no doubt that the young people and the lady of the house might not slacken in their wonted homage.
But as it often happens, that conversation, if it is not conducted with easy unconcern and delicate tact, is led, by arrogance and vehemence, to assume a polemical character, such was the case here; for the speeches and expressions of the Baron were all disguised attacks on the Count and his opinions, such as he conceived them from the description he had heard of him. The Count took little notice at first of these intimations; he conversed principally with Dorothea, who sat by his side, spoke of his affairs, and at last said as if in jest, that he had at the same time received a commission from his American friend to look out for a wife for him.
— That you cannot surely either of you mean in earnest, said the Baroness.
— And why not? answered the Count in a sprightly humour; My friend in this only imitates the custom of sovereign princes, to treat by ambassadors, and according to political considerations. He is now no longer young, and cannot expect to excite passion; he has had in his youth a great deal of melancholy experience, and his own misfortune, as well as the fate of many of his friends, has convinced him, that what men call love, is but an unmanly craving, often vanity, sometimes even infatuation, and that most marriages which are contracted in seeming passion, bring on but a joyless, most fretful life, often wretchedness. I am his most intimate friend, and he calculates on my knowledge of mankind for drawing him a lot which will suit him.
The Baron replied, that he still thought such an undertaking a critical one, and that the stranger was certainly placing the happiness of his life at stake.
— Happiness? the Count repeated the word: certainly, if he had conceived that idea of something unqualified, infinite, and inexpressible, which young people usually associate with the word. Where do you find this? Whoever does not know how to confine himself will attain nothing, least of all what lies beyond all bounds. Resignation may seem bitter at first, but without it no state of life is endurable; for, if we would but deal ingenuously with ourselves, all raptures must, in the first instance, make way for melancholy, nay they are identical with it; and Beauty, Art, Enthusiasm, every thing, exists for us earthly perishable men, only so far as it is perishable, though the root of every thing that is divine rests in eternity.
— Singular! said the Baron: according to this even devotion and piety, the perception of heavenly things, would be subject to this change?
— I believe, said the Count, whoever will not stoop to earth, cannot soar to heaven; night and day, sleep and waking, elevation and indifference, must take their turns. We complain with reason that it is and must be so; it cannot however be helped; but one who should make the influxes of devotion, the raptures of celestial love, a standing article in his heart, is probably in one of the most dangerous positions on which a man can venture.
— You are notorious as a freethinker, answered the mother, and you will not succeed in clouding our clear conviction.
Kunigunde said with a melting accent:
— You think then that it is dangerous to love the Lord?
Brandenstein could not help smiling:
— Dangerous like all love, fair lady, replied he playfully, especially if one does not know the object one undertakes to love, or conceives an incorrect notion of it; still worse, if we form out of it a phantom, that is to strengthen all our prejudices, justify us in our weaknesses and sanction our faults and errors. In that case we might perhaps be giving away our foolish hearts to a spectre, such as some of the old legends tell of, and be struck with horror, when, in a moment of illumination, the real form of divinity appeared to us.
Dorothea listened with attention, and the Baron said with some ill humour:
— Love cannot err; where else should we seek a guide for our path?
— If it is the true love, it cannot, replied the Count; but in this we too easily deceive ourselves; for if our passions were not sophists, they would in fact not be passions.
— So then doubt, said the Baron angrily, is the only thing we can gain.
— Let it be considered as our servant, answered the Count, who explores our road; our fool, to warn us with his dry jest against excess and precipitation. Children and fools, the popular proverb says, speak the truth; sometimes at least, if not often and always.
— A mother, said the Baroness, knows what love is; a man retains perhaps always but a dim dubious conception of its power. The act too is always more than the word, and so have I brought up my children and lived with them, wholly in love, requiring from them no blind obedience, never anything unreasonable; I have ever sacrificed myself to them; but even in their lispings they have recognized and returned my love; they have only needed to follow their hearts, and rigour, fear, and every thing of that sort, has been always wholly unknown to them.
The daughters looked tenderly at their mother, the mother had tears in her eyes, only Dorothea looked timidly downwards, and the Baron said in a fit of rapture:
— All the world knows and reveres this model of education, and if any one doubts the power of love, let him come and see this family circle.
— Far be from me, said Brandenstein, turning himself to Dorothea, the rudeness of feeling which would refuse to acknowledge this tender love; I only think, when I recall to mind my happy childhood, that love to parents, and a certain religious and liberal fear of them should be one and the same thing; for by means of the latter alone my childish love acquired, I think, its true force and intensity; it is this holy awe too of something incomprehensible in the parents, that should produce that blind unqualified obedience, which is the very thing wherein the child feels itself so happy; for without this obedience, it appears to me, neither education nor love are possible.
The mother looked apprehensively at her eldest daughter, who seemed to be of the same opinion, and then said with a rather pointed tone:
— I preferred convincing my children at an early age, and where that was impossible, I so disposed them, that they did for my sake what they could not perceive to be proper.
— I respect your mode of education, said the Count, for who in this lovely circle could have the heart to impugn it? Yet perhaps these expedients may be rather too costly substitutes for that plain and cheap obedience.
The Baron addressed himself in ill humour to Alfred, and the conversation took a different turn. The young officer related with self-complacency, that he had lately declined a party, to which he had been invited by a lady, without any apology, as it appeared to him sinful to pretend indisposition or an engagement. The company praised this love of truth, and were of opinion that this fashion and habit must become universal in society, if it was ever to be delivered from empty affectation, hypocrisy, and continual petty falsehood. The mother also hesitatingly joined in these assertions, though she feared such a line of conduct might be difficult to pursue, without entirely dissolving the delicate ties of society; but that on this very account the virtue of the individual, who has the courage to overlook these considerations, was the more praiseworthy.
— There is nothing, she continued, which I have sought so much to awaken and keep alive in my children, as the sacred instinct of truth; I have been on my guard to prevent them from ever permitting themselves the smallest untruth, even in jest. I have myself always endeavoured to answer all their questions with truth, to remove out of their course of instruction every thing which could not be made clear and plain; but above all I avoided those absurd legends and lying stories, which cherish fear and superstition, and tend certainly, more than any thing else, to estrange the minds of children from truth.
The Baron enlarged upon these positions, and all the rest concurred, except the Count, who expressed his opinion, that it might be one of the most difficult of answers to say, what truth, truth properly so called, was.
— Men, said he, have been seeking it in all directions for thousands of years, and in this, as in almost all things, good will, the intention of being veracious, must but too often supply the place of the thing itself. If I would constantly tell the truth to children or imbecile persons in answer to all questions, I run in danger of being unable to speak truth any longer; for the last answer at least rests upon a mystery which I am as little at liberty to deny, as I am able to explain it. And to this invisible region we are impelled at a very early age by imagination and feeling, and the teacher, who would keep youthful impatience aloof from it, is only obliged to have recourse to a different lie, which perhaps, in its false philosophy, is as bad as that of superstition. So likewise it appears to me injudicious to avoid cultivating the imagination of children, even in that singular power, which seeks horror, and devises blind and wild terrors. This impulse is in us, it stirs itself early; and if one aims at keeping it under, if one strives to destroy it, which is impossible, it grows on darkling and deepening, and gains in strength, what it loses in shape. I have known women, who in an over-enlightened education had been kept even from the most innocent fairy tale, and who, in their riper years, could not summon courage to go even through the next room of an evening, so tyrannized were they by a nameless, absolutely childish panic, so that they impotently trembled at every sound and every shadow. If, on the contrary, that element in the imagination of children, which delights in the prodigious and fearful, is reduced to shape, if it is softened in legends and stories, then this world of shadows blends even with humour and drollery, and itself, the most intricate labyrinth of our minds, may become a magic mirror of truth. By means of this phantasmagoria, we may catch glimpses of far distant and yet friendly spirits, which but very seldom pass across us in visible approximation.
— That you are such a friend to superstition, answered the Baroness, is what I now learn for the first time.
Dorothea seemed not to lose a word of this singular conversation; she looked at Kunigunde, whom this description of an irrational alarm, to which she was often subject even in the day time, literally fitted; the other sisters too were at times childish enough, and were afraid of every walk in the evening. Kunigunde was sensitive; she thought the stranger was acquainted with her weakness, and meant only to describe her. The mother could hardly conceal her embarrassment.
— I cannot always approach society, proceeded Brandenstein, with the naked truth, for this is what it does not require or expect from me. I may not throw into it the virtues of solitude, if I would not destroy the charm by which it is so attractive to the man of cultivated mind. One finds every where bad society, which I certainly do not mean to praise; but when polished life, the delicate links of the educated world, the graceful relation of the sexes, the forms contrived by wit and good breeding, have been so often compared in contempt to the laws and conditions of an ingenious game of cards, I have thought the simile not unappropriate, but the contempt singular, and have been at a loss to conceive that any one should have been blind to the variety of life and its necessary forms. A man should only have lived for a time with rustics, who so often want to pass off their rude bluntness for manly virtue, who violate all decencies, who acknowledge no mystery, no delicate relation, but nick-name every thing at all refined, affectation and hypocrisy; a man should have been exposed for weeks together to this rude pawing and grasping, and the oppressive weariness it occasions, to value once more the dignity of a polished intellectual intercourse. In that indeed a bare yea and nay will not always pass; and to wish to overthrow, by what we call truth, the conventional forms, by which alone this phenomenon admits of being exhibited, is just as unreasonable as if I should call the laws which regulate a game of chess a lie, move with my pawns into my antagonist's last row, and declare my game won.
— You are a tolerable sophist, said the Baron. All that is still wanting is an encomium on the calumny and slander, the envy and intrigue, of great societies; it would then only remain to throw contempt upon the quiet virtue, the beautiful civic plainness, the childlike innocence and noble simplicity of the unfashionable world.
— You cannot possibly have so misunderstood me, said the Count; I only mean that one ought not to confound the conditions which are requisite to every game and every work of art (and good and polite society ought certainly to partake of the nature of both) with untruths; for even in dancing there is no truth, if the straight-forward bustling step of business is to be called by that name, and even the promenade might from this point of view be exposed to no inconsiderable conscientious scruples.
— Worse and worse! cried the Baron: happily, my ingenious Count, you are saying all this in company, on which you cannot produce a pernicious impression.
— You have drawn me in for once, replied Brandenstein, and so you may hear my whole confession of faith. I believe there never was a man (and there never will come one), who did not at some time or other in his life consciously lie, whether it were a forced shift or weakness, fear, selfishness, or vanity, or any of the other stains of our nature; perhaps even merely to follow the spirit of falsehood which but too temptingly allures us. And we need only take a look at the sublime apostles, to learn, that they had not always strength sufficient to be faithful to their model, the eternal divine truth. Many instances of this sort I should be inclined to call innocent lies, which, for the very reason that they are so decided, a man of a better nature can soon avoid. But how stands the case then with that varnished self-love, that parading egoism, that finished hypocrisy, which form the entire life of many men into one single lie? I have known some, at least, who were sunk so deep in the spirit of lying, that there no longer existed for them such a thing as truth. And these men passed for virtuous, they esteemed themselves chosen vessels, they could even keep up their part of hypocrisy on their death-bed.
— Such a case is impossible! exclaimed the Baron, and all agreed with him; only Alfred expressed his opinion, that a depravity of this sort might exist, whereupon Dorothea stared at him with surprize.
— You are speaking, in fact, continued the Baron, of a former world; during your absence every thing has changed with us so, that if you are only now beginning to renew your acquaintance with our country, you will scarcely find a trace of its former state. The old irreligion, that empty scepticism which called itself philosophy, is, heaven be thanked, pretty well gone by; the germs of a genuine religious temper are unfolding themselves from day to day in greater beauty, one is no longer ashamed of being a Christian, of believing in the Lord, and elevating one's self to him in fervent prayer. The churches are once more filled, the higher classes do not disdain any longer the communion of their fellow-Christian, books of devotion have supplanted frivolous reading on the tables of our wives and daughters; purified souls, instead of entertaining themselves with theatrical gossip, converse upon the bible, animate each other to penitence and devotion, communicate the experience of their hearts, mutually strengthen one another, and the spirit of the Lord speaks more and more distinctly in these exalted affections. All this, my sceptical friend, you will at least be forced to allow its value and its weight, for here is truth and love, here no mistake is possible.
He had said all this with great unction. The Count was silent a moment, before he said:
— Our table-talk has assumed so serious a turn and so grave an import, that it would certainly be more proper to break off, and either to reserve these explanations for a calmer hour, or wholly drop them, since on these important subjects one is most easily misunderstood.
— Because you now feel yourself completely defeated, said the Baron, you wish at all events to provide yourself with a safe retreat. I should have thought it now became your duty, openly to confess, that you have nothing to say on this point, unless you would undisguisedly avow, that the almost forgotten scepticism of former times is dearer to you than our holy religion.
— O speak! cried Dorothea, forgetting herself.
— You see how pressingly you are called upon, said the mother, darting a long and threatening look at Dorothea. Alfred too requested the Count to explain how far he coincided with the opinions of the age on this point.
— As I cannot entirely avoid it, said he, I will briefly hint what I have been able to observe; for as I have been now a year again in Germany, every thing is not so strange to me as you suppose, though it is but a short time back that I came to revisit my birthplace here. I only wish I could divest you all of the prejudice with which, I observe, you consider me, as a profane infidel. No, that is really not my character; but I must reserve to myself the incontestable right of being a Christian after my own manner. That there are now, as at all times, really pious and enlightened spirits, and that these deserve our respect, who would doubt? The need of faith has again proclaimed itself, the spirit has knocked at almost every heart, and admonitions have been heard, of various kinds, and from all quarters. A clear fresh stream has once more poured from the eternal hills along the thirsty plain, and the things and beings overtaken by it follow the force of its waves: all feel irresistibly hurried along, and great and small, strong and weak, are forced down with its current. Genuine as is the enthusiasm which this has occasioned, yet has it happened here, as in all historical events, that this phenomenon likewise has been clouded by the multitude, by vanity and human weakness, and as it was once the fashion to play the freethinker and the esprit fort, though many were weak and superstitious, so it has now become the custom to seem religious, though many are frivolous and lukewarm enough at heart.
— Desinit in atrum piscem, said the Baron warmly, your beginning promised something better.
— How many persons, proceeded Brandenstein calmly, have fallen in my way, who almost at the first bow gave me to understand that they were extraordinary Christians. Others, at every third word, and upon the most indifferent subjects, make mention of the Saviour; upon every occasion, however trifling, they fall a praying, and tell us of it; nay, I have read romances, in which the author said in his preface, that he never wrote without praying first, and that every thing good contained in his book was immediate inspiration; the shortest way of rebutting all criticism, and setting the romance close by the side of revealed Writ. In company people take every opportunity to talk of repentance, penance, devotion and redemption, and profane, according to my feeling, what is sacred, forgetting that it has a resemblance to love, the feelings and confessions of which the true lover will be unwilling to expose to a stranger's ear.
— But what harm does it, said the Baron, if pious spirits do perhaps speak even too often of the object of their love?
— It cannot be love, replied Brandenstein, it is vanity, arrogance, that affects to be better than other men. Just like that of the period of sentimentalism or philosophism, it is a sickly craving, that seeks nourishment every where, that flatters and humours itself into deeper and deeper disease, looks intolerantly and contemptuously on our fellow men, who are often better and more pious, because they will not precisely chime in with the given tone.
— You are painting the excess, faultered the Baroness in a kind of uneasiness.
— Nothing else, honoured madam, answered the Count; only that it has frequently fallen under my notice. I have seen too books of edification, that seem to be very much in fashion, old and new, which really can only serve completely to distract men of moderate intellects, who are already infected with this vanity, in which the Creator, the essence of love, is represented like a capricious old humourist, that for want of employment has taken a fancy to weave the most complicated destinies, and again, in a subtle and extraordinary manner, to extricate this or that individual out of their misery, though many at the same time are lost. Others convert religion into magic and enchantment, or harden the hearts of wives so that they feel themselves infinitely exalted above their husbands, and keep them, if they do not quite adopt their own devotional twattle, in a state of purgatory, and in the feeling, how low they have themselves descended, to be the saintly wives of such ordinary sinners. I knew a poor girl of moderate capacity, who esteemed herself happy in becoming the wife of a young man in thriving circumstances, but who, by the end of half a year, became likewise a saint, and now juggles herself into the belief, that her christian virtue consists in enduring her husband; she seems to herself super-human if she does not quite despise him, but however she says this every day to herself and her religious playmates, who confirm her in this exercise of piety. Is not this now sin?
— Ay surely! suddenly sighed Kunigunde's husband; and the mother, who saw the prop of her family visibly breaking down, repented having begun this conversation, and was angry with her worthy friend the Baron, for having stirred it into a blaze.
Brandenstein however, who was now at last in full career, was likewise unable to rest in his spiritual ardour, till he had brought his whole philippic to bear.
— How elevating a spectacle is it, he proceeded more loudly, to see pious men, in order to devote themselves entirely to things sacred, turn their backs on the world and all its treasures, to live in still seclusion to one great feeling only! I will not censure particular fraternities, when in a like spirit they immure themselves, and will have no concern with art and history, philosophy and the world. But when these narrow-minded devotees, who remain in the world, who have enjoyed the same education with the rest of mankind, and profess themselves people of cultivated minds, call out to us over and over again, that there is only One Thing Needful, that painting, music and poetry are not only superfluous, but even sinful, and that prayer, the inward light and penitence, is all that ought to interest the heart of man,—I should be inclined to ask these persons, of what narrow feeling that which they call their religion is composed, that it cannot and ought not to admit of love, truth, reason and the lovely forms of the imagination? Is it then no longer true, that to the pure all things are pure? The man to whom God no longer appears in nature and history, is to be considered as dead; that man is lost, who no longer sees his lofty presence in the strength of reason. He too is pious on whom a picture flashes rapturous delight, and who, while he reads Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, feels blest and in paradise. For even mirth, humour and wit are of divine original, and we grow the purer and the more refined, the more we learn to perceive the ray of divinity in these delicate sports of the fancy.
— It is true indeed, said the Baron, who had observed the Baroness's obvious dissatisfaction, we cannot to-day bring this interesting conversation to an end.
— Impossible, answered the Count, who seemed himself surprized at his own warmth, else I should be glad to be informed why these pious spirits do not submit with more humility to the church? Why they require, that all men should see things in their way? How it happens that no doubts cross them too, and enable them to conceive, that they may themselves be in an error? Whether it is not more christian to pray, rather according to the gospel with closed doors, than pharisaically to proclaim their much praying to the world? I might also observe, that this spiritual vertigo combines itself strikingly enough with a political one, and that this morbid mood, which is spreading over all Germany, has rendered it possible for an excessively confused and feeble book to gain the applause of a crowd, which now at last evinces, how little it ever comprehended our great poet, at the time when it was shouting his praises. It may be considered as an outrage to this great man, if we would not rather view it as ludicrous, that he should be so schooled and catechized, that his works should be charged with immorality, and deficiency in idealism, because he never condescended to the miserable wants of this spokesman. That all this has been possible, has shown me how little true intellectual culture has taken root among us, and how easy it is therefore for giddy heads to perplex with half-notions the bawling crowd.
— You mean Goethe, said the Baron, and what are called the spurious Wanderjahre. Well, we have now rambled sufficiently wide of our original argument.
A pause ensued, all seemed out of tune, Dorothea was deeply agitated. As a servant was bringing in a dish of roast meat, the Baroness cried
— Oh! how could I forget the poor sick widow? John, carry this dish immediately to the unfortunate woman, with my hearty wishes. She is suffering incredibly, as I have been told to-day; she is besides poor, and her children are able to give her but little assistance.
— Ay, poverty, sickness! sighed the Baron. Oh heaven, what would become of this gloomy earth, if there were not still some tender, noble spirits, who endeavour to mitigate its enormous wretchedness!
— The poor woman, added Kunigunde, is supposed not to have been at all happy with her deceased husband, he was harsh and rough, and often treated her with insolence.
She darted at the same time at her husband, who sat at the other end of the table, a singular look, that was pregnant with meaning. The young man, roused by the conversation, had the unexampled boldness to reply, that it was often wives' own fault, if they were not happy in matrimony. The Count, to prevent more specific explanations, observed that, as the woman's complaint was not exactly known, it might perhaps do her harm, to eat meat without proper precaution. But the Baron, who anticipated a new hostile attack, spoke with pathos of the great beneficence of the Baroness, how she was a mother to the poor, and could not conceive, how there could be men so callous as to be unaffected by the misery of their fellow-creatures.
Now came John back with the roast meat, and brought word, that the widow returned her most dutiful thanks; but that she had been forbidden meat for the present in her fever by the physician, and that beside she had received from the chateau, for three weeks past, every thing she stood in need of, for which she could not sufficiently express her gratitude.
— A physician? said the Baroness, she has received already? and how?
— Oh, your ladyship, said the old servant confused, and in agitation, Miss Dorothea has for a long time past sent her every thing, she got the doctor for her too, and visits the sick woman herself every morning and evening.
— So! said the Baroness with a lengthened quivering tone, and a piercing look fell on her daughter, who in her confusion could make no reply; And why, my child, is this exercise of beneficence, this virtue, which is so new to me in you, kept so secret? Why not allow your mother a share in the merit, now that at last your heart inclines to such christian offices of love? My advice would make the act of charity a genuine one. But as it is, it looks as if waywardness, rather than compassion, guided your actions.
— Dear mother, begged Dorothea, spare me.
— It is to be lamented, proceeded the mother, when even that which in itself is virtue, by the mode in which it is exercised, transforms itself into a subject of censure. Above all I see pride and presumption in this mode of acting, in your undertaking to be wise and managing without me, when you cannot know whether by this means you are not causing more harm than good.
— It is too much! cried Dorothea, weeping aloud; she rose hastily, and with covered face left the room.
All stared, but the Count seemed most surprized; he said with emotion in his voice:
— Is not the censure that has been passed on the young lady really too much? She probably meant well; nor does it appear to me blameable, that she performs her charitable acts in secret, that she is perhaps a little too reserved about them, in order not to expose herself to the appearance of ostentation.
— Of a surety, your ladyship, said the grey-headed servant, my young lady is an angel, so all the people in the village think her; all that she can save out of her pocket-money, whatever she can spare of her clothes, she lays out upon the poor, but the most beautiful thing of all is the gracious quiet way she has, and how she calms the people, and comforts the sick, and admonishes the children to be obedient to their parents, who are often cross;—indeed we are to keep it a secret, for she gave us strict orders about that, and we have done so for years, but sooner or later a man will be caught tripping. Beg your ladyship's pardon.
This discourse passed as the company were rising: the Baroness was in a tremor. The Baron, with solemn face and air, kissed the mother's hand, and endeavoured to set matters right; the Count took his leave with few words, and Alfred accompanied him; the rest of the party went into the garden-parlour.
— It brings no good, said the mother, when wicked men cross our thresholds.
— No blessing of heaven follows them, added the Baron.
— What an afternoon! cried the Baroness, it will be long ere I forget it! Such men are all that is wanting in our neighbourhood, to plunge my poor rebellious child into total ruin. But you too, my son, took more interest in that godless man, than I or your pious Kunigunde could wish.
— I think though, said Kunigunde's husband, that he said many very sensible things; I am of opinion myself, that this piety is carried too far, and that there may be many women who think too much of themselves.
Upon this the Baron gave him a long reproving look, which the poor man could not stand; and when Kunigunde now began to weep aloud, and the mother likewise weeping folded her in her arms to comfort her, he was so much moved, that he could no longer restrain his repentant tears: he also threw himself on his wife's bosom, sobbing, and begging forgiveness.
— Be all composed, said the Baron in a solemnly consolatory tone, as he raised his eyes to heaven: the Lord will set every thing right, for this evening, as you have told me, that obdurate and yet dear heart pledges itself to me; through my weak co-operation the Spirit will then enlighten her, and we shall all be one heart and one love.