Herr von Revanne, a rich private gentleman, possesses the finest estates in his province. Together with his son and sister, he inhabits a château that would be worthy of a prince; and, in fact, as his park, his water-works, his farms, his manufactures, and his household, support one-half the inhabitants for six miles round, he is, by his high repute and by the good that he causes, a prince in reality.
A few years ago he was walking along the walls of his park out towards the public road, and it pleased him to rest himself in a little plantation in which travellers are fond of stopping awhile. Tall trees rear their tops above the young dense undergrowth; provision is made against sun and wind, and a modestly-fitted fountain gives forth its water over the roots, stones, and turf.
The pedestrian, according to his wont, carried with him a book and gun. Now and
then he attempted to read, but often the song of the birds, and sometimes the steps of a traveller, pleasantly interrupted and disturbed him.
A beautiful morning was fast advancing, when a youthful and amiable-looking young lady appeared walking towards him. She left the road, seeming to promise herself rest and refreshment at the cool spot where he was. This wanderer, who had the loveliest eyes in the world, and a face pleasingly animated by expression, was also distinguished to such a degree by figure and demeanor, that he involuntarily got up from his seat and looked towards the road to see if the attendants, whom he supposed to be behind her, were coming. As she bowed towards him with dignity, her figure again attracted his attention, and he respectfully answered her greeting. The beautiful wayfarer sat down on the margin of the fountain with a sigh, without uttering a word.
“Strange effect of sympathy!” exclaimed Herr von Revanne, as he told me the event: “in the stillness this sigh was echoed by me. I remained standing, without knowing what I ought to say or do. My eyes did not avail me to take in all her perfections. Lying thus reclined and resting on her elbow, she was the most beauteous female form one could imagine! Her shoes gave occasion for special observation on my part: all covered with dust, they bore witness to her having walked a long distance; and still her silken stockings were as shining as if they just then had been taken from beneath the smoothing-stone. Her fastened-up dress was not rumpled; her hair seemed to have been curled that very morning; fine linen, fine lace: she was dressed as if she were going to a ball. Nothing betrayed in her the vagabond; and yet she was one, but one to be pitied and revered.
At last I took advantage of certain glances which she cast towards me, to ask if she were travelling alone.
‘Yes, sir,’ said she, ‘I am alone in the world.’
How, madam? Can you be without parents, without acquaintances?
‘I should not exactly say that, sir; parents I have, and acquaintances enough, but no friends.’
That, I continued, cannot possibly be your own fault. You possess an outward form, and surely too a heart, to which much would be forgiven.
She felt the kind of reproof which was hidden beneath my compliment, and I formed a favorable idea of her good-breeding. She opened towards me two heavenly eyes of the most perfect and purest azure, transparent and sparkling; then she said in a dignified tone, that she could not blame a gentleman, as I seemed to be, for looking with some degree of suspicion on a young girl whom he met alone on the high road; that had often happened to her already; still, although entirely a stranger, although nobody had any right to cross-question her, she nevertheless begged him to believe that the object of her journey was consistent with the strictest decorum. Certain causes, of which she owed nobody an account, compelled her to carry her grief about in the world. She had found that the dangers that people used to fear for her sex were purely imaginary, and that the honor of a woman even among highwaymen only ran a risk through weakness of heart or of principles. Moreover, she only walked at hours and on roads where she thought herself safe; that she did not speak to everybody, and often stayed at respectable places, where she could earn her maintenance by services of any sort consistent with her education. Here she lowered her voice; she dropped her eyelids, and I saw a few tears steal down her cheek.
To this I replied that I by no means doubted her gentle extraction, and still less her honorable conduct. I only regretted that any necessity should compel her to serve other people, since she seemed so worthy of having servants herself; and that notwithstanding a lively curiosity, I would not further press her; that I wished rather by knowing her better to convince myself that she was in all respects as anxious about her reputation as her virtue. These words seemed again to offend her, for she answered that she concealed her name and her country precisely on account of her reputation, which after all generally comprises less of reality than of supposition. When she offered her services she showed testimonials from the last houses in which she had served, and did not conceal that she wished not to be asked about her country or her family. To this people accommodated themselves, and left to Heaven or to her own word the innocence of her whole life, and her honesty. Expressions of this kind did not cause a suspicion of any mental derangement on the part of the beautiful adventuress.”
Herr von Revanne, who could not well understand this determination to wander about in the world, suspected now that there had been an intention of marrying her against her inclination. Thereupon the thought occurred to him, might it not be despair from love? and wonderfully enough, though such a thing has happened before, in giving her credit for loving another, he fell in love with her himself, and feared lest she might travel further away. He could not turn his eyes away from her fair face, the beauty of which was enhanced by the green half-light. Never, if ever there were nymphs, was a fairer one seen reclining on the green sward; and the somewhat romantic nature of this meeting endued it with a charm which he was unable to resist.
So, without considering the thing very carefully, Herr von Revanne induced the fair stranger to let him conduct her to the chateau. She makes no difficulty; she goes with him, and shows herself to be a person acquainted with the great world. Refreshments are brought, which she accepts without affected politeness and with the most graceful acknowledgments.
Whilst waiting for dinner she is shown over the house. She only remarks on what deserves special notice, whether in furniture or pictures, or in something pertaining to the convenient arrangement of the rooms. She finds a library: she knows the good books, she speaks about them with taste and modesty. No chattering, no embarrassment. At table, just the same high-bred and natural demeanor, and the most amiable style of conversation. So far, everything is rational in her speech, and her character seems as amiable as her person.
After dinner a little trait of self-will made her seem still prettier. Turning to Fräulein Revanne with a smile, she said that it was a custom of hers to pay for her mid-day meal with some work, and whenever money failed her, to ask her hostesses for needles. “Allow me, she added, “to leave a flower behind on your embroidery frame, so that in future the sight of it may remind you of the poor stranger.”
To this Fräulein Revanne replied, that she was very sorry that she had no pattern drawn, and should therefore be obliged to forego the pleasure of admiring her ability.
The wanderer immediately turned her glance towards the piano.
“Then I shall discharge my debt in wind-money,” she said, “as has been the fashion of other strolling minstrels before now.” She tried the instrument with two or three preludes that showed a well-practised hand. There was no longer any doubt but that she was a young lady of condition, endowed with all attractive accomplishments. At first her performance was lively and brilliant; then she passed into serious tones, to tones of deep melancholy, which was also visible in her eyes. They became wet with tears, her face was changed, her fingers stayed; but of a sudden she surprised every one by delivering merrily and laughingly a bantering song with the loveliest voice in the world. As there may be reason in the sequel for thinking that this burlesque ballad concerned herself more closely, I shall probably be pardoned for inserting it here: 
O thou in cloak, so speedy, whence! Ere scarce the day begins to break? A pilgrimage our friend, perchance, In this keen wind has vowed to make. Who of his hat has him deprived? Does he on purpose barefoot go? How has he in the wood arrived Across the hilly waste of snow? Right marvellous, from cosy nest, Which did to better cheer invite! And had he not this flowing vest, How terrible would be his plight! That rascal must have him betrayed, And taken all he had to wear; Our friend is piteously arrayed, Nigh like to Adam, stark and bare. Why did he, then, such ways pursue, To pluck an apple full of woe That in the mill plot — fair, "t is true, As erst in Paradise — did grow. Not soon again such sport he'll try: Forth from the house he quickly went, And, once beneath the open sky, Breaks out in loud and bitter plaint: "Amid her looks, so full of light, I read no syllable of guile; In me she seemed to have delight — And planned so black a deed the while! Could I divine, in her embrace, How treacherously her bosom moved? She called on Love to stay his pace, And kind enough to us he proved. Such pleasure in my love to take, Which ne'er did end the livelong night, Then call and bid her mother wake, Just at the dawn of morning light! A dozen round of kith and kind Burst in — a very human flood: Here brothers came, and aunts peeped in; There cousins or an uncle stood. What rage and madness on them came! A very beast each seemed to be: Then wreath and garland they did claim, With din most horrible, from me. 'Why do ye all, as if insane, Upon a guiltless youth so press? For such-like treasures to obtain, One needs, I trow, much more address. And Amor sure enough takes heed Of when to have his pretty will; And flowers of sixteen years indeed He leaves not standing at the mill." So did they him of clothing rob, And tried to take his cloak and all; How e'er did such a cursed mob Into the narrow dwelling crawl? So up I sprang, and raved and swore Through all, I wis, to force my way. I gave the mad girl one glance more, And ah, so lovely still she lay! Before my wrath they all were cowed, Yet many a wild word flew about; And so, with voice as thunder loud, The den at last I got without. You maidens, then, of rustic sort, Like city wenches, one must flee; Yet fooling lovers is a sport Best left to dames of high degree; And if to practise ye are fain, And know no gentle faith in love, Change lovers o'er and o'er again, But traitors must ye never prove!" So sings he in this wintry tide, When ne'er a sorry blade is green; His dire misfortunes I deride, For rightly is he served, I ween. So may it hap to every wight Who sweetheart true by day deludes, And all too recklessly by night Into love's treacherous mill intrudes.
It was indeed ominous that she could forget herself in such a fashion; and this outbreak might have served for an indication of a head that was not at all times equal to itself.
“But,” said Herr von Revanne to me, “we also forgot all remarks that we might have made: I do not know how it came to pass. The unspeakable grace with which she performed these freaks must have prejudiced us. She played fantastically, but with understanding. She controlled her fingers completely, and her voice was really bewitching. When she had finished, she seemed as composed as before, and we thought that she had only wished to enliven the after-dinner interval.
Soon after she asked for permission to resume her journey; but at a sign from me my sister said that, if she was not in a hurry, it would be a treat to us to have her with us for several days. I thought of offering her some occupation, since for once she agreed to remain. Yet this first day and the following one we only took her about the place. She never belied herself for one single moment; she was Reason endued with every grace. Her mind was subtle and striking, her memory so well stored, and her disposition so beautiful, that she repeatedly aroused our admiration, and fettered all our attention. Moreover, she knew the rules of good behavior, and practised them towards every one of us, and no less towards certain friends who visited us, so perfectly, that we found it impossible to reconcile her singularities with such a degree of education.
I really no longer ventured to suggest any plans for household occupation with us. My sister, who was much pleased with her, likewise thought it her duty to spare the delicate feelings of this unknown. They managed the household affairs together, and with respect to these the good child would often condescend to perform manual work, and understood how to take her part in everything which required higher arrangement and calculation.
In a short time she established a degree of order, such as we had hitherto certainly not felt the want of in the château. She was a very sensible housekeeper; and, as she had commenced with sitting at table with us, she did not, from false modesty, withdraw herself now, but continued to dine with us without any hesitation; but she did not touch any cards or instrument before she had brought to an end the duties which she had undertaken.
Now, I must freely confess that the fate of this girl began to move me most profoundly. I pitied the parents, who probably would sorely miss such a daughter; I sighed that such gentle virtues and so many endowments should be lost. She had already lived several months with us, and I hoped that the confidence with which we sought to inspire her would at last bring the secret to her lips. If it were a misfortune, we might help; if a fault, it was to be hoped that our mediation, our testimony, might be able to gain forgiveness for her for any transient error; but all our assurances of friendship, our prayers even, were in vain. If she perceived an intention of winning an explanation from her, she would shelter herself behind general moralizations, in order to justify herself, without informing us. For instance, if we spoke to her about her ill-fortune: ‘Misfortune,’ she would say, ‘falls upon both good and evil. It is a potent medicine, which attacks the good juices along with the bad.’
If we tried to discover the reason of her flight from her paternal home: ‘If the deer
flies,’ she said, laughing, ‘it is not therefore guilty.’ If we asked whether she had suffered persecutions: ‘It is the fate of many girls of good birth to experience and endure persecutions. He who cries at an offence will meet with more.’ But how could she have made up her mind to expose her life to the roughness of the multitude, or at least to owe it often to its compassion? At this she would laugh again, and say, ‘The poor man who greets the rich at table does not lack sense.’ Once, as the conversation turned to jest, we spoke to her of lovers, and asked whether she did not know the chilly hero of her ballad. I still remember well how this word seemed to cut through her. She opened towards me a pair of eyes, so serious, so severe, that mine could not endure such a glance; and afterwards, too, whenever love was spoken of, one was sure to see the grace of her person and the vivacity of her spirit overclouded. She immediately fell into thoughtfulness, which we took for brooding, but which probably was only grief. Still, upon the whole, she remained cheerful, but without great liveliness; highbred, without giving herself importance; frank without communicativeness, reserved without sensitiveness; rather patient than meek, and more grateful than affectionate in return for all caresses and courtesies. She was certainly a lady, educated to preside over a large household; and yet she did not seem older than one-and-twenty. So did this incomprehensible young person, who had quite captivated me, show herself during the two years which it pleased her to stay with us; until she wound up with a piece of folly, which is all the more strange as her qualities were sterling and brilliant. My son, who is younger than I, will be able to console himself, but as concerns myself, I fear that I shall be weak enough to miss her always.
Now I will relate this act of folly in a sensible woman, to show that folly often is nothing but reason under another exterior. It is true that one will find a strange contradiction between the noble character of the pilgrim and the comical cunning of which she availed herself; but we already know two of her inconsistencies — the pilgrimage itself and the ballad.”
It is probably clear that Herr von Revanne had fallen in love with the stranger. Now, he could not altogether rely upon his face, which was fifty years old, although he looked as fresh and robust as a man of thirty; but perhaps he hoped to please by his pure, childlike health, by the goodness, cheerfulness, gentleness, generosity of his character; perhaps also by his fortune, although he had delicacy enough to feel, that one does not buy what is priceless.
But the son, on the other hand, amiable, tender, high-spirited, without taking more
thought than his father, rushed headlong into the venture. First he tried prudently to win the unknown one who had first become really appreciated by him through the praise and the friendship of his father and aunt. He made sincere efforts to gain an amiable woman, whom his passion seemed to have raised far above her present condition. Her severity more than her merits and her beauty, inflamed his love; he ventured to speak, to undertake, to promise.
The father, without wishing it himself, always gave to his wooing a somewhat paternal aspect. He knew himself, and when he had become aware of his rival, he could not hope to conquer him, unless he were willing to adopt means which do not beseem a man of principle. Nevertheless he pursued his course, although it was not unknown to him that kindness, nay, even fortune, are only attractions to which a young woman yields herself with caution; but which remain ineffectual as soon as love reveals itself with the charms of, and accompanied by, youth. Herr von Revanne also made other mistakes, which he repented later. In the midst of a friendship full of esteem, he spoke of a lasting, secret, legal union. He even complained, and uttered the word ingratitude. Surely he did not know her whom he loved, when one day he said to her, that many benefactors received back evil for good. The Unknown answered him with frankness: “Many benefactors would like to acquire all the rights of their protégés at the price of a lentil.” The beautiful stranger, involved in the courtship of two rivals, induced by unknown motives, seems to have had no other intention but to spare herself and others any foolish pranks, and in these doubtful circumstances adopted a wonderful expedient. The son pressed her with the boldness of his age, and threatened, as usual, to sacrifice his life to the inexorable one. The father, somewhat less unreasonable, was still equally pressing; both were in earnest. This amiable creature might now probably have assured herself of a well-deserved position of life; for both the Herren von Revanne aver that it had been their intention to marry her.
But from the example of this girl let woman learn that an honest soul, even if the mind should have given way to vanity or to real derangement, does not cherish the wounds of the heart which it is not willing to heal. The pilgrim felt that she was standing at a critical point, where it would not be so easy for her to defend herself long. She was in the power of two lovers, who could excuse every pressure with the purity of their motives, inasmuch as they intended to justify their boldness by a sanctified tie. So it was, and so she understood it.
She could shelter herself behind Fräulein von Revanne; but she omitted to do so, no doubt from consideration, from esteem for her benefactors. She is not put out of countenance; she thinks out a method for preserving to each his virtue, whilst she allows her own to be suspected. She is mad with a fidelity which her lover certainly does not deserve, if he feels not all her sacrifices, even if they should remain unknown to him.
One day, as Herr von Revanne returned somewhat too impetuously the friendship, the gratitude, which she showed towards him, she assumed on a sudden a simple manner, which struck him. “Your goodness, sir, alarms me; and allow me frankly to confess why. I feel indeed that only to you I owe my whole gratitude; but in fact —”
“Cruel girl!” said Herr von Revanne. “I understand you; my son has touched your heart —”
“Alas! sir, it has not stopped there. I can only express by my confusion —”
“How? Mademoiselle, you would —”
“Indeed, I think so,” said she, as she bent low down and dropped a tear — for women are never at a loss for a tear in their artifices, nor for an excuse for their evil-doing.”
Smitten with love as Herr von Revanne was, still he was forced to wonder at this new kind of innocent sincerity in such circumstances, and he found the lowly posture very much in place.
“But, mademoiselle, it is quite incomprehensible to me.”
“To me too,” said she, and the tears flowed more abundantly. They flowed so long that at last Herr von Revanne, after a very unpleasant reverie, again broke silence with a quiet air, and said:
“This enlightens me! I see how ridiculous are my pretensions. I bestow on you no reproaches; and, as the only penalty for the grief which you cause me, I promise you so much of his inheritance as is necessary to show whether he loves you as much as I.”
“Alas, sir, have pity on my innocence, and tell him nothing about it.”
To ask for secrecy is not the means to obtain it. After these steps, the fair Unknown now expected to see her lover before her full of anger and highly incensed. He soon appeared with a look which augured annihilating words. However, he was choked, and could bring out no more than, “How, mademoiselle, is it possible?”
“Well, what is it, sir?” she said, with a laugh, which on such an occasion can provoke despair.
“How? What is it? Away! mademoiselle; you are a nice creature! But at least legitimate children are not to be disinherited; it is quite enough to accuse them. Yes, mademoiselle, I see through your conspiracy with my father. You two give me a son, and he is my brother. Of that I am certain.”
With the same quiet cheerful countenance the lovely unwise one answered him, “You are certain of nothing: it is neither your son nor your brother. Boys are naughty; I have never wanted one. It is a poor little girl that I will take away, far away, quite far from men — wicked, foolish, faithless men.”
Then, giving free vent to her heart: “Farewell,” she continued, “farewell, dear Revanne! From nature you have an honest heart; keep to the principles of uprightness. These are not dangerous with well-established wealth. Be kind towards the poor. He who despises the prayer of troubled innocence, will one day himself beg, and not be listened to. He who has no scruple in setting at naught the scruples of an unprotected girl, will himself become the victim of unscrupulous women. He who does not feel what a chaste girl must feel when she is being wooed, deserves not to gain her. He who, against all reason, against the intentions, against the design of his family, constructs schemes in behalf of his own passions, deserves to be deprived of the fruits of his passions, and to lose the esteem of his family. I believe indeed that you have loved me sincerely; but, my dear Revanne, the cat knows well whose beard it licks; and if you ever become the beloved of a worthy wife, then remember the mill of the unfaithful one. Learn from my example to rely on the constancy and discretion of your beloved. You know whether I am unfaithful; your father knows it also. I intended to roam through the world and to expose myself to all dangers; surely the greatest are those which threatened me in this house. But because you are young I tell it to you only and in confidence: men and women are only unfaithful of set purpose; and that I wanted to prove to the friend of the mill, who perhaps will see me again, when his heart will have become sufficiently pure to miss what he has lost.”
Young Revanne still listened, though she had finished speaking. He stood as if struck by lightning; tears at last unclosed his eyes, and in this state of emotion he ran to his aunt, his father, to tell them that mademoiselle was going away, that mademoiselle was an angel, or rather a demon, roaming about in the world in order to torture the hearts of everybody. But the wanderer had taken her measures so well that she was not found again; and when father and son had come to a mutual explanation, her innocence, her talents, and her insanity, were no longer doubted; and, great as were the pains that Herr von Revanne took from that time, he did not succeed in obtaining the least enlightenment in reference to this beautiful person, who had made her appearance as transiently and in as lovely a form as an angel.
[*] “Die pilgernde Thörinn,” first published in Johann Friedrich Cotta’s Taschenbuch für Damen auf das Jahr 1809 (Tübingen 1809), 252–66. Goethe himself translated this piece from the French and later inserted it into Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, oder die Entsagenden (Stuttgart 1821) as part of book 1, chap. 5.
The anonymous French original, “La folle en pélerinage,” had been published in the journal Cahiers de lecture 1 (n.p. [Gotha] 1789), 121–41, a journal edited by H. A. O. Reichard in Gotha.
Translation here from Goethe’s Works, vol. 5, trans. George Barrie (Philadelphia, New York 1885), 28–35; illustrations ibid., 28f. Back.
Translation © 2018 Doug Stott