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Johann Wolfgang Goethe

German Writer

1849-1832

A selection from
AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Narrated by Grover Gardner

Download mp3 file: Autobiography

This file is 7.7 MB; running time is 8 minutes
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During my residence in Frankfort I was quite cut off from pleasures; but in Strasburg, with other enjoyments of life, there soon arose in my limbs the faculty of keeping time. On Sundays and week-days one sauntered by no pleasure-ground without finding there a joyous crowd assembled for the dance, and for the most part revolving in the circle. Moreover, there were private balls in the country houses; and people were already talking of the brilliant masquerades of the coming winter. Here, indeed, I should have been out of my place, and useless to the company, when a friend, who waltzed very well, advised me to practise myself first in parties of a lower rank, so that afterwards I might be worth something in the highest. He took me to a dancing-master, who was well known for his skill. This man promised me, that, when I had in some degree repeated the first elements and made myself master of them, he would then lead me farther. He was one of your dry, ready French characters, and received me in a friendly manner. I paid him a month in advance, and received twelve tickets, for which he agreed to give me certain hours' instruction. The man was strict and precise, but not pedantic; and, as I already had some previous practice, I soon gave him satisfaction, and received his commendation.

One circumstance, however, greatly facilitated the instruction of this teacher: he had two daughters, both pretty, and both not yet twenty. Having been instructed in this art from their youth upwards, they showed themselves very skilful, and might have been able, as partners, soon to help even the most clumsy scholars into some cultivation. They were both very polite, spoke nothing but French; and I, on my part, did my best, that I might not appear awkward or ridiculous before them. I had the good fortune that they likewise praised me, and were always willing to dance a minuet to their father's little violin, and, what indeed was more difficult for them, to initiate me by degrees into waltzing and whirling. Their father did not seem to have many customers, and they led a lonely life. For this reason they often asked me to remain with them after my hour, and to chat away the time a little, which I the more willingly did, as the younger one pleased me well; and generally they both altogether behaved very becomingly. I often read aloud something from a novel, and they did the same. The elder, who was as handsome as, perhaps even handsomer than, the second, but who did not correspond with my taste so well as the latter, always conducted herself towards me more obligingly, and more kindly in every respect. She was always at hand during the lesson, and often protracted it: hence I sometimes thought myself bound to offer back a couple of tickets to her father, which, however, he did not accept. The younger, on the contrary, although never showing me any ill will, was more reserved, and waited till she was called by her father before she relieved the elder.

The cause of this became manifest to me one evening; for when, after the dance was done, I was about to go into the sitting-room with the elder, she held me back, and said, "Let us remain here a little longer; for I will confess to you that my sister has with her a woman who tells fortunes from cards, and who is to reveal to her how matters stand with an absent lover, on whom her whole heart hangs, and upon whom she has placed all her hope. Mine is free," she continued, "and I must accustom myself to see it despised." I thereupon said sundry pretty things to her, replying that she could at once convince herself on that point by consulting the wise woman likewise; that I would do so myself, for I had long wished to learn something of the kind, but lacked faith. She blamed me for this, and assured me that nothing in the world was surer than the responses of this oracle; only it must be consulted, not out of sport and mischief, but solely in real affairs. However, I at last compelled her to go with me into that room, as soon as she had ascertained that the consultation was over. We found her sister in a very cheerful humor: and even towards me she was kinder than usual, sportive, and almost witty; for, since she seemed to be secure of an absent friend, she may have thought it no treachery to be a little gracious with a present friend of her sister's, which she thought me to be. The old woman was now flattered, and good payment was promised her if she would tell the truth to the elder sister and to me. With the usual preparations and ceremonies she began her business, in order to tell the fair one's fortune first. She carefully considered the situation of the cards, but seemed to hesitate, and would not speak out what she had to say. "I see now," said the younger, who was already better acquainted with the interpretation of such a magic tablet, "you hesitate, and do not wish to disclose any thing disagreeable to my sister; but that is a cursed card!" The elder one turned pale, but composed herself, and said, "Only speak out: it will not cost one's head!" The old woman, after a deep sigh, showed her that she was in love; that she was not beloved; that another person stood in the way; and other things of like import. We saw the good girl's embarrassment. The old woman thought somewhat to improve the affair by giving hopes of letters and money. "Letters," said the lovely child, "I do not expect; and money I do not desire. If it is true, as you say, that I love, I deserve a heart that loves me in return."—"Let us see if it will not be better," replied the old woman, as she shuffled the cards and laid them out a second time; but before the eyes of all of us it had only become still worse. The fair one stood, not only more lonely, but surrounded with many sorrows. Her lover had moved somewhat farther, and the intervening figures nearer. The old woman wished to try it a third time, in hopes of a better prospect; but the beautiful girl could restrain herself no longer,—she broke out into uncontrollable weeping, her lovely bosom heaved violently, she turned round, and rushed out of the room. I knew not what to do. Inclination kept me with the one present: compassion drove me to the other. My situation was painful enough. "Comfort Lucinda," said the younger: "go after her." I hesitated. How could I comfort her without at least assuring her of some sort of affection? and could I do that at such a moment in a cool, moderate manner? "Let us go together," said I to Emilia. "I know not whether my presence will do her good," replied she. Yet we went, but found the door bolted. Lucinda made no answer, we might knock, shout, entreat, as we would. "We must let her have her own way," said Emilia: "she will not have it otherwise now." And, indeed, when I called to my mind her manner from our very first acquaintance, she always had something violent and unequal about her, and chiefly showed her affection for me by not behaving to me with rudeness. What was I to do? I paid the old woman richly for the mischief she had caused, and was about to go, when Emilia said, "I stipulate that the cards shall now be cut for you too." The old woman was ready. "Do not let me be present," cried I, and hastened down stairs.

The next day I had not courage to go there. The third day, early in the morning, Emilia sent me word by a boy,—who had already brought me many a message from the sisters, and had carried back flowers and fruits to them in return,—that I should not fail that day. I came at the usual hour, and found the father alone, who, in many respects, improved my paces and steps, my goings and comings, my bearing and behavior, and, moreover, seemed to be satisfied with me. The younger daughter came in towards the end of the hour, and danced with me a very graceful minuet, in which her movements were extraordinarily pleasing, and her father declared that he had rarely seen a prettier and more nimble pair upon his floor. After the lesson, I went as usual into the sitting-room; the father left us alone; I missed Lucinda. "She is in bed," said Emilia, "and I am glad of it: do not be concerned about it. Her mental illness is first alleviated when she fancies herself bodily sick: she does not like to die, and therefore she then does what we wish. We have certain family medicines which she takes, and reposes; and thus, by degrees, the swelling waves subside. She is indeed too good and amiable in such an imaginary sickness; and as she is in reality very well, and is only attacked by passion, she imagines various kinds of romantic deaths, with which she frightens herself in a pleasant manner, like children when we tell them ghost-stories. Thus, only last night, she announced to me with great vehemence, that this time she should certainly die; and that only when she was really near death, they should bring again before her the ungrateful, false friend, who had at first acted so handsomely to her, and now treated her so ill; she would reproach him bitterly, and then give up the ghost."—"I know not that I am guilty," exclaimed I, "of having expressed any sort of affection for her. I know somebody who can best bear me witness in this respect." Emilia smiled, and rejoined, "I understand you; and, if we are not discreet and determined, we shall all find ourselves in a bad plight together. What will you say if I entreat you not to continue your lessons? You have, I believe, four tickets yet of the last month: and my father has already declared that he finds it inexcusable to take your money any longer, unless you wish to devote yourself to the art of dancing in a more serious manner; what is required by a young man of the world you possess already."—"And do you, Emilia, give me this advice, to avoid your house?" replied I. "Yes, I do," said she, "but not of myself. Only listen! When you hastened away, the day before yesterday, I had the cards cut for you; and the same response was repeated thrice, and each time more emphatically. You were surrounded by every thing good and pleasing, by friends and great lords; and there was no lack of money. The ladies kept themselves at some distance. My poor sister in particular stood always the farthest off: one other advanced constantly nearer to you, but never came up to your side; for a third person, of the male sex, always came between. I will confess to you that I thought that I myself was meant by the second lady, and after this confession you will best comprehend my well-meant counsel. To an absent friend I have promised my heart and my hand; and, until now, I loved him above all: yet it might be possible for your presence to become more important to me than hitherto; and what kind of a situation would you have between two sisters, one of whom you had made unhappy by your affection, and the other by your coldness, and all this ado about nothing and only for a short time? For, if we had not known already who you are and what are your expectations, the cards would have placed it before my eyes in the clearest manner. Fare you well!" said she, and gave me her hand. I hesitated. "Now," said she, leading me towards the door, "that it may really be the last time that we shall speak to each other, take what I would otherwise have denied you." She fell upon my neck, and kissed me most tenderly. I embraced her, and pressed her to my bosom.

At this moment the side-door flew open; and her sister, in a light but becoming night-dress, rushed out and cried, "You shall not be the only one to take leave of him!" Emilia let me go; and Lucinda seized me, clung close to my heart, pressed her black locks upon my cheeks, and remained in this position for some time. And thus I found myself between the two sisters, in the dilemma Emilia had prophesied to me a moment before. Lucinda let me loose, and looked earnestly into my face. I was about to grasp her hand and say something friendly to her; but she turned herself away, walked with violent steps up and down the room for some time, and then threw herself into a corner of the sofa. Emilia went to her, but was immediately repulsed; and here began a scene which is yet painful to me in the recollection, and which, although really it had nothing theatrical about it, but was quite suitable to a lively young Frenchwoman, could only be properly repeated in the theatre by a good and feeling actress.

Lucinda overwhelmed her sister with a thousand reproaches. "This is not the first heart," she cried, "that was inclining itself to me, and that you have turned away. Was it not just so with him who is absent, and who at last betrothed himself to you under my very eyes? I was compelled to look on; I endured it; but I know how many thousand tears it has cost me. This one, too, you have now taken away from me, without letting the other go; and how many do you not manage to keep at once? I am frank and good natured; and every one thinks he knows me soon, and may neglect me. You are secret and quiet, and people think wonders of what may be concealed behind you. Yet there is nothing behind but a cold, selfish heart that can sacrifice every thing to itself; this nobody learns so easily, because it lies deeply hidden in your breast: and just as little do they know of my warm, true heart, which I carry about with me as open as my face."

Emilia was silent, and had sat down by her sister, who became constantly more and more excited in her discourse, and let certain private matters slip out, which it was not exactly proper for me to know. Emilia, on the other hand, who was trying to pacify her sister, made me a sign from behind that I should withdraw; but, as jealousy and suspicion see with a thousand eyes, Lucinda seemed to have noticed this also. She sprang up and advanced to me, but not with vehemence. She stood before me, and seemed to be thinking of something. Then she said, "I know that I have lost you: I make no further pretensions to you. But neither shall you have him, sister!" So saying, she took a thorough hold of my head, thrusting both her hands into my locks and pressing my face to hers, and kissed me repeatedly on the mouth. "Now," cried she, "fear my curse! Woe upon woe, for ever and ever, to her who kisses these lips for the first time after me! Dare to have any thing more to do with him! I know Heaven hears me this time. And you, sir, hasten now, hasten away as fast as you can!"

I flew down the stairs, with the firm determination never again to enter the house.

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