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Now read the story and answer the questions that follow.
We were a fashionable and highly cultured party. We had on our best clothes, and we talked pretty, and were very happy – all except two young fellows, students, just returned from Germany, commonplace young men, who seemed restless and uncomfortable, as they found the proceedings slow. The truth was, we were too clever for them. Our brilliant but polished conversation, and our high-class tastes, were beyond them. They were out of place, among us. They never ought to have been there at all. Everybody agreed upon that, later on.
We played morceaux from the old German masters. We discussed philosophy and ethics. We flirted with graceful dignity. We were even humourous – in a high-class way.
Somebody recited a French poem after supper, and we said it was beautiful; and then a lady sang a sentimental ballad in Spanish, and it made one or two of us weep – it was so pathetic.
And then those two young men got up, and asked us if we had ever heard Herr Slossen Boschen (who had just arrived, and was then down in the supper-room) sing his great German comic song.
None of us had heard it, that we could remember.
The young men said it was the funniest song that had ever been written, and that, if we liked, they would get Herr Slossen Boschen, whom they knew very well, to sing it. They said it was so funny that, when Herr Slossen Boschen had sung it once before the German Emperor, he (the German Emperor) had had to be carried off to bed.
They said nobody could sing it like Herr Slossen Boschen; he was so intensely serious all through it that you might fancy he was reciting a tragedy, and that, of course, made it all the funnier. They said he never once suggested by his tone or manner that he was singing anything funny – that would spoil it.
We said we yearned to her it, that we wanted a good laugh, and they went downstairs and, and fetched Herr Slossen Boschen.
He appeared to be quite pleased to sing it, for he came up at once, and sat down to the piano without another word.
“Oh, it will amuse you. You will laugh,” whispered the two young men as they passed through the room, and took up an obtrusive position behind the Professor’s back.
Herr Slossen Boschen accompanied himself. The prelude did not suggest a comic song exactly. It was a weird, soulful air. It quite made one’s flesh creep; but we murmurmed to one another that it was the German method, and prepared to enjoy it.
I don’t understand German myself. I learned it at school but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since. Still, I didn’t want the people there to guess my ignorance; so I hit upon what I thought to be rather a good idea. I kept my eye on the two young students, and followed them. When they tittered, I tittered; when they roared, I roared; and I also threw in a little snigger all by myself now and then, as if I had seen a bit of humour that had escaped the others. I considered this particularly artful on my part.
I noticed, as the song progressed, that a good many other people seemed to have their eyes fixed on the two young men, as well as myself.
These other people also tittered when the young men tittered, and roared when they young men roared; and as the young men tittered and roared and exploded with laughter pretty continuously all through the song, it went exceedingly well.
And yet that German Profesor did not seem happy. At first, when we began to laugh the expression of his face was one of intense surprise, as if laughter were the very last thing he had expected to be greeted with. (…) As we continued to laugh, his surprise gave way to an air of annoyance and indignation, and he scowled fiercely round upon us all (except upon the two young men who, being behind him, he could not see). Than sent us into convulsions. We told each other that it would be the death of us, this song. The words alone, we said, were enough to send us into fits, but added to his mock seriousness – oh, it was too much!
(…) He finished amid a perfect shriek of laughter. We said it was the funniest thing we had ever heard in all our lives. And we asked the Professor who he didn’t translate the song into English, so that the common people could understand it, and hear what a real comic song was like.
Then Herr Slossen Boschen got up and went on awful. He swore at us in German (which I should judge to be a singularly effective language for that purpose), and he danced, and shook his fists, and called us all the English he knew. He said he had never been so insulted in all his life.
It appeared that the song was not a comic song at all. (…) It was something very sad, I know. Herr Slossen Boschen said he had sung it once before the German Emperor, and he (the German Emperor) had sobbed like a little child. He (Herr Boschen) said it was generally acknowledged to be one of the most tragic and pathetic songs in the German language.
(…)That was the end of that party. I never saw a party break up so quietly, and with so littlefuss.
(…) I have never taken much interest in German songs since then.
From “Three Men in a Boat”
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