Madame von Halden was sitting comfortably in her little parlour, while the storm shook the trees out of doors, and the rain pattered against the windows. Her heart was perfectly at ease; for she had sold her estate at an unexpectedly high price, all was concluded, and Count Brandenstein with counsellor Alfred had that very evening brought every thing into due form. The two gentlemen were upstairs asleep, for it was near midnight, and she was herself on the point of retiring to her chamber, when she was alarmed by a violent loud knocking at the house door, and a plaintive suppliant voice. She rang the bell, a servant was sent to open the door, and with her clothes dripping, trembling and pale as death, Dorothea rushed in, threw herself immediately with violence upon her bosom, and cried with a hoarse voice:
— Save me, save me!
— For God's sake! said her friend in extreme terror, is it you, my dear girl? And so, in this state? I cannot trust my eyes.
Notwithstanding her fright however, she immediately with the most friendly alertness fetched linen and clothes, helped the chilled girl to change her dress, cheered her laughingly and kindly, and then forced her to take some mulled wine which she had got ready with the utmost haste, to guard against the bad effects of the chill. She at the same time embraced her so cordially, drying the tears from her eyes, and kissing her cheeks which began now to recover their colour, that Dorothea felt herself almost as happy as in the arms of a mother. After many cheering and playful words, Madame von Halden said at last:
— Now tell me briefly, how you came to this mad resolution, and then go to bed and sleep all off.
— You must protect me, said Dorothea, you must not refuse me shelter, otherwise I must run in despair into the wide world, or madness will drive me into a mill-pool.
— Calm yourself, child, said her friend soothingly; you must of course return home. But tell me: what has befallen you all of a sudden?
— Only do not laugh, cried Dorothea, keep serious, my good dear friend, for I am in despair. This morning I let myself be persuaded, from weakness, from emotion, they had celebrated my birthday so unexpectedly, to promise to betroth myself this evening to Baron von Wallen. This was now to take place, and that is why I have run away, because I abhor him, because I cannot live any longer at home with my sisters and my mother.
— I am well aware, replied her friend, that you cannot love the Baron, that injustice was often done you in the family; but this expression of horror in you, as you seemed so used to every thing, is still incomprehensible to me.
— I do not yet understand it myself, answered Dorothea; I do not know how I am to relate it to you. That I was not happy, you must of course have seen, though I never said a word to you on the subject. Alas, the origin of that dates itself from my beloved father's death. You know I was scarcely thirteen years old when he died. O heaven, what a man! I could not at that time estimate his value, but the older I grew, the more he bloomed in my remembrance as the bright object of my love. That benign gentle spirit, that cheerfulness, humanity, quiet piety, that delight in nature and art, that active, admirable intellect—alas! and he was not happy either! I saw, I observed it well, when I came to distinguish a little, he was not happy in his marriage; he and my mother were too unlike one another, they were often at variance with each other. He was then at times deeply dejected, infinite sorrow would speak out of his fine dark eyes, as he bent them silently to the ground. And now on a sudden he was gone! He must have learnt and felt on the other side the grave how my heart's love followed him. O my friend, there are moments of pain, when nothing but the cold dull stupor into which our whole being sinks, rescues us from frenzy and madness. So I grew up in pain and regret, which no one shared, no one understood. And what an alteration took place in the life of our family! Instead of the cheerful conversations, instead of the lively parties, a serious solemn parade. My younger sisters were educated in a spirit quite opposite to that which my father had wished. Prayers, books of devotion, religious conversation, filled up the intervals of the day; and my heart grew more and more vacant; I could not sympathize in their devotion, could not even believe in its existence. My books, which were my father's presents too, I no longer ventured to shew; all was worldly and offensive. I was frightened at the constructions put on passages, which were my greatest favorites, which I knew by heart. Even Goethe's heavenly nature, his noble elevation, was seductive sensuality; and a refined prudery, which to me was in the highest degree disgusting, was to assume the name of virtue. My sisters, as they came to the age of reflexion, considered me as a degenerate creature, unsusceptible of any thing good; it was what they heard every hour, they could not help believing it. Between them and my mother there sprang a relation, which kept me at an equal distance from both parties, but for which I could not envy them; an overstrained love, a delicate tenderness, a soothing and fondling which often cut me to the heart; nay my mother went so far as to idolize her younger daughters, to adore them, and to tell them she did so. My sisters treated my mother nearly in the way that one would hold intercourse with a departed saint, if she were to return to us; but this was what I could not carry on for above a day; I was then under the necessity of seeking a more cheerful intimacy with her, or avoiding her altogether. I still well remembered how often my father had said, that in early youth children must learn to obey blindly, in order that, when grown up, they may be capable of freedom. This freedom of the mind and heart, which makes man an independent being, which is the indispensable condition of love, of a free devotion, found however no room in this close union, nay, whenever it attempted to shew itself, it was treated as the worst of sins. Not the least weakness, not the slightest prejudice of my mother was to be touched; even in trifles, on the subject of an indifferent book, the character of a man, nay even on the colour of a ribbon, no one was to entertain a different opinion from her. If but a walk was proposed only to a neighbour's house, nay in the garden, she forbad it, unless she could or chose to join in it, not directly, but she would say; Go, if you can be without me; I indeed cannot live without you, but if you can, I will not disturb you; I am accustomed indeed to make every sacrifice to you. Of course the thing was not done, and my sisters gave their vexation the air of devotion, and I, who did not belong to the compact, was forced to pay for their humours. My courage failed me. I endured to be taken to task even by my youngest sister. O my friend! when I observed all this, which appeared to me unnatural and wrong, I would then go into the most solitary corner of the garden, and give my hot tears their course; for I seemed to myself vile and reprobate to confess all this to myself, and to be unable to stifle my sense of truth, which had been awakened and formed by my father. I was often so inexpressibly miserable that I prayed for death. There would come times too, when, as I could not help seeing how every body that came to our house paid respect and homage to my sisters, and avoided me, I appeared to myself vile and despicable. But when I struggled to be like the others, all my strength failed me, and my arms dropped unnerved by my side.—But did you not hear a noise in the next room?
— No, my sweet girl, said Madame von Halden: every body is asleep, it cannot be any thing more than a cat.
— Kunigunde married, proceeded Dorothea; the men who paid their addresses to me, only teazed me by their coxcombry, or shocked me by their ill breeding. I could not conceive that any one could love me, without my most fervently loving him, and on that account their affected hyperbolical phrases appeared to me so insipid, and I could not possibly believe in their passion. All however was still tolerable, till Baron Wallen came to our house; he soon gained possession of my mother's affections, and the slavery now grew quite insupportable. Now began a parade to be made on a great scale with the love which my sisters bore each other and my mother; it was the talk of the whole province; when strangers came, it was like a drama in which all the virtues were displayed. O forgive me! you and the lonely night will not carry my words farther; you have yourself indeed seen their way, and heaven must alter my feelings, or pardon them. But what was truly alarming was, that in this smooth Baron there moves a very satyr under the priestly robe. He took a liking to Clara, to Clementine too; but the girls, great as was the reverence which they could not help feeling for him, were still terrified at the thought of being forced to adore him as a husband. They were however soon released; for the lot, for which they felt themselves too good, was imperceptibly and artfully shifted upon me. I now heard perpetually how noble, nay how necessary it was, to sacrifice one's self, how wretched a thing the mere passion of love appeared, how much a prudent marriage surpassed all other happiness on earth. Believe me, I should have given way, my life had lost all its bloom, I should have fallen a victim, and become utterly wretched, if——
— Well, my child? asked her friend on the stretch.
— If it had not been, that to-day, she proceeded in her melodious tone, on this very day, the day on which I was born, and on which I have returned to life again, a man appeared, who was an abomination to our family, with whom, from the descriptions I had heard, I was myself violently angry, a man, who has made a total revolution in my heart, indeed has regenerated it, and whose mere presence, even if he had not spoken, would have rendered it impossible for me to marry the Baron, or indeed any man whatever.
— Wonderful! cried Madame von Halden.
— Call it so, said the maiden: indeed it is so, O, and yet again so natural, so necessary! In him, in his mild look, which inspires confidence (believe me I had really quite forgotten there were such things as eyes) in his intelligent discourse, in every one of his gestures, there appeared to me once more that truth which had now become a fable to me, my youthful days, the blessed time of my father. I never could conceive that which men call love; in the Poets indeed I may have caught a glimpse of it, but I always believed that this heavenly feeling was not made for a poor outcast like me; but now I know, it must be that which I experience towards this excellent man, for I could not imagine that such a being really moved upon the earth.
— Poor girl! said her friend; he is a ruined man, without property, and besides who knows whether he may feel the same sentiments for you, for he is no longer young. Now go to bed, to-morrow morning early we will consult rationally on the means of soothing the Baroness, and making the Baron leave you in peace.
— I never will return! cried Dorothea with renewed vehemence. I would rather be a servant-maid in a distant land.
A noise was now heard more distinctly in the adjoining room, the ladies started, the door opened, a ray of light gleamed through and Count Brandenstein presented himself to them.
— O my God! cried Dorothea, the Count himself!
— I had not gone to bed, answered he; but was still busy, when this unexpected visit——
— O you sly creature! cried Madame von Halden; and so you have heard of course every thing that my friend has been telling?
— I cannot deny it, said the Count; the wainscot and door are so thin, that not a word escaped me. (Dorothea trembled violently.) And so, my lovely, generous, and inexpressibly dear young lady, you would not disdain me, if I could lay a fortune at your feet?
— O how you confound me! said she; am I to say still more?
— Take this letter, proceeded the Count; these few lines will ensure you perfect security at home.
He cast a thrilling glance at Dorothea and lingeringly withdrew. She was so agitated and shattered, that her slumbers were broken and afforded her but little refreshment.