Extract from Michael Mitchell's translation

Goethe's The German Refugees

‘I just do not understand what has happened to us,’ the Baroness went on, ‘where all our social decorum has suddenly gone. In society people used to take great care not to touch on matters which someone else might find unpleasant. In the presence of Catholics, a Protestant would avoid making fun of any ceremony, and even the most zealous of Catholics would not hint to a Protestant that the old religion offered greater certainty of eternal salvation. One avoided talking about what a delight one's children were, when there was a mother in the company who had lost her son, and one felt embarrassed if one let slip an inadvertent remark like that; everyone there would try to make up for the lapse. And is not what we have been doing here precisely the opposite of that? We have actually been seeking out any opportunity to say something that annoys the one we are talking to and makes him lose his equanimity. O my friends, let us return to our former mode of behaviour. We have already been through enough sad experiences—and soon, perhaps, the smoke by day and flames by night will signal the destruction of our homes and the property we left behind. Let us not allow that news to arouse passions within our company again; it will cause us enough pain within our hearts, let us not increase it by frequent public repetition.

‘Let us come to an agreement that when we are gathered together we will ban all conversation on matters of topical interest. How long we have had to do without instructive and stimulating discussions! How long it is since you, dear Karl, told us about distant countries, about whose situation, inhabitants, customs and traditions you know so much. And how long it is since you’ —she was addressing the tutor — ‘talked about ancient and modern history, comparing different centuries and historical figures. What has happened to those lovely, elegant poems which so often used to appear from our young ladies' pocket-books to delight the company? What has happened to those free-ranging philosophical reflections? Have you completely lost the pleasure you used to take in bringing back from your walks an unusual stone, an unknown plant — at least to us — a strange insect, which gave us the opportunity of pleasant dreams, if nothing more, of the grand design uniting all creatures. Let us make an agreement, a resolution, a rule to resume all these amusements, which used to arise so spontaneously, to make every effort to be instructive, useful and, especially, sociable, for we shall need to be all of that, far more than now, even if everything should collapse around us. Promise me that, my friends.’

In the evening after dinner the Baroness withdrew early to her room, but the others stayed up together talking about news that had just arrived and rumours that were going round. As was usual at such times, they were unsure what to believe and what not. To that the old priest said, ‘I think the best thing to do is to believe what we are happy with, simply reject what we are unhappy with and leave the truth to look after itself.’ Somebody remarked that that was what people usually did anyway and, after a few twists and turns, the conversation came round to our innate propensity to believe in the supernatural. They talked about romances and ghost stories, and when the old priest promised to tell them a few good tales of that kind at some future date, Fräulein Luise said, ‘Since we are in the right mood, you would be doing us a kindness to tell us one now; we would be extremely grateful.’

The priest did not need much pressing and started as follows: ‘When I was staying in Naples I came across a story there which caused a great stir and great differences of opinion. Some claimed it was a complete invention, others that it was true, but that there was some deception behind it…’