The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

Ch. 6

There we were, a french village factory. Fog and dirt, dusty hot, ragged women, children chained to their workstations.

“So much for human kindness!” noted Satan.

“The proprietors are rich, sure, but just look at every one else! Miserable wretches, hungry, overworked, six in the morning til eight at night. Rain or sleet, snow or storm, four hours of sleep at best, filth, disease.”

“And what is their crime? None other than to be born into the human race.”

“We’ve seen the evils done in jail, but look at what happens to the innocent! At least there, one is soon put out of his misery, but here women and children toil – dying their whole lives.”

“Kings and heroes. Wars and fame. It is all shadows, short-lived childish games.”

“So much for human morality!”

Back in town, Hans Oppert, the village loafer went missing. He had beaten his dog.

“What a heartless brute!” There’s that word again. Brutes don’t act that way, only men.

The dog came forth, and Satan talked with it. Hans had been drunk, he fell off a cliff. The dog called out for help, but the people didn’t listen. Man can’t understand dog language. Doesn’t want to.

The man lay dead. The dog mourned, he forgave him.

Who will go to heaven?

There was Ursula, looking fine. New clothes. Cat nip coming in handy. Marget visits her uncle, they both desire to see “Philip” again.

Ursula hired a new servant. A boy, Gottfried, from a family of witches. His grandma had been burnt at the stake.

Before, a group of girls with red marks on their backs were determined to be witches of course. They were given black water and bread for ten days, until they agreed to having flown around on broomsticks, the usual such things. They knew just what to say, they were told.

They burned too. I had known one of them, she was pretty. It was sad.

When Gottfried’s grandma had been burned it was cold outside. She snuggled close to the fire. Someone threw an egg, it hit her in the eye. They laughed.

I told Satan about these things. He knew. It did not affect him.

“That is what humans do,” he said.

“Would a bull call his fellow bulls witches and burn them? No, for they have not your Moral Sense.”

The city folk became intrigued that a boy from a witch’s family should be hired by Marget and Ursula. And where did they get the money?

“Money!” said he, “They’ve got plenty of it. Two grochen a week I’ve being paid.”

The astrologer soon found out, and told Father Adolf. “This must be looked into.” Yes, there must be a witch at the bottom of this.

Marget found new company. Warm shoulders, burning hot. New visitors came and dined, eager to learn about this new trinity.

Ursula’s cat provided food for all the visitors, glorious feasts. Marget wondered all this was possible, but Ursula put her at ease. “It’s God’s way.”

Providence, maybe – doubts subdued. Don’t jinx it! Witchcraft? No, Ursula wasn’t into that sort of thing. Dignified cat.

The people of Eseldorf spied on Marget and Ursula, foolish princess, happy prancing soon end. They went to Father Adolf and showed them their treats, but where were the tricks? Sorcery to be sure, but yet no evidence.

Yet.

Ch. 7

Party for 40. Special caterer.

Father Adolf and the astrologer joined, but no one saw food enter the house. Witchcraft!

“Bring me what you will,” Father Adolf said, soon receiving wine and bread.

And there was Satan. The young stranger, brought in as “Philip Traum.”

The astrologer was getting drunk. He poured a bottle of wine into a bowl, filling it up. “Look, the bottle is still full!”

Father Adolf cried “Witchcraft!” Everyone ran.

Satan had entered the astrologer’s body. He then took the bowl, and funneled the wine back in the bottle, though it had already been full.

Possessed! Run for the exits!

We knew what was happening, but couldn’t say anything. We petted Agnes, she liked things without a Moral Sense.

Outside, the guests were frantic. Panic. Father Adolf strode through, parting the crowd – Red Sea. The astrologer followed.

Noticing a juggler, he took his balls. Brass! Poor clown, ignorant of his own art.

“Watch an expert at work! said the astrologer-possessed Satan. He juggled the three balls until they were twenty, a hundred, spinning in the air.

He then saw a tight-rope walker. “That’s not how its done!” He performed somersaults and backflips. The crowd stood in awe.

“Is this real? Am I dreaming?”

Witchcraft, to be sure.

Eseldorf was a mess, oppression, foreboding. The whole town was distressed, to say the least.

Marget told Wilhelm to leave and save himself, for surely they would be after her now. Such witchcraft cannot stand.

But he would not.

Satan came in, fresh and in good cheer. He sang and read poetry, Marget was happy. Wilhelm not so much.

“Come with me” Satan said.

“This is China.” Wow, what an empire. We sat atop a great mountain, he and I, and watched the rivers and city in the sunlight. Tranquility, dreamy, beautiful. Spirits at rest.

I asked Satan to stop doing such disruptive things around town.

“Disruptive!” he proclaimed. “Man is a machine of happiness and unhappiness. For every hour he is happy, he must suffer years of misery. The people of your village are nothing to me, how can they be? The space between us is unfathomable, an abyss.”

“Man has no intelligence, other than his Moral Sense. And we’ve seen how far this has got him. We are like a spider and an elephant. I no more care about the affairs of man than the elephant cares about the spider. We are on such different levels.”

“Mankind fills his life with vanities, ambition, concern for affairs and careers, envious enemies. Does an elephant have such concerns? Of course not.”

“We angels do not care to cause men harm, such trivial things. The difference is astronomical. I create with my thoughts, just like that. I think of a poem, it is there. I glance at a book, it is mine. An elephant never forgets.”

“We cannot love you, our love would burn you to ashes. I do like you boys, and Father Peter, and that’s why I have done these things in your village.”

“But then why–”

“Your race knows not good from ill, you cannot see into the future. You do not realize your lives are just one possibility, a small change and everything is new. Butterflies need not always have wings.”

“Columbus discovered America, but what if he didn’t? He was merely a prisoner of life, as all men are, destiny leading one foot in front of the other.”

“But I can set man free! I have changed the fortunes of a number of your villagers.”

“Thank you?” I thought.

“And I will make more changes too!”

“Your friend Nicky’s life was to be 62 years. Lisa’s 36. In a moment a wind will blow into Nicky’s house. He would have turned over, and continue sleeping, as was his destiny. But wait! Instead I will make him get up and close the shutter, and so his life will be forever changed. There will be consequences.”

“In seven days Nikolaus would have saved Lisa from drowning, having arrived at just the right moment – 4 past 10. But now, he will arrive a bit too late, and they shall both be drowned.”

“Why would you do that!” I cried.

“Well, if I had not made this small change,” Satan explained, “Nikolaus would have saved Lisa, but caught a cold from his drenching. He would have remained a prisoner to his bed for the next 46 years, deaf dumb and blind, praying for death’s embrace. Shall I change it back?”

“Heavens no! It is charity – pity, I see that now.”

“Of course, all of Nikolaus’s possibilities were bad. I knew this, and so I saved him from himself.”

“But what did Lisa’s death save her from?”

“From 10 years of pain and slow recovery, then 19 years turned to crime, depravity, ending with her execution. Indeed, am I not kinder than her mother?”

“Yes, and wiser too!”

“Father Peter will soon be acquitted, innocent of his case.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I know it. His good name will be restored, and he will live the rest of his life in happiness.”

“What about the astrologer?”

“He I have put on the moon, the cold side of it I’m afraid. Still, a pleasant place for his star studies. He has a cruel life ahead of him, but I will change that. I have nothing against him. He will be burned.”

Strange notion of kindness. The moon, why not Germany? It is far enough. But he is an angel.

“The moon is a mere hundred miles away, I can make the trip with just a thought, if I so desire.”

Ch. 8

My mind was filled with thoughts of Nikolaus, long lost days of summer, playing and skating in winter’s past. But no sooner would he be a corpse, though he did not know it. If only I could apologize for the times I had wronged him, but that would be queer.

Once, he had visited the fruiterer and brought back a nice big apple. I met him and took it, throwing him the core. He said it was for his sister, who was overcome with illness. I was ashamed, but instead said something rude and mean.

In school, I spilt ink on a couple books, danger imminent, I blamed him. He was whipped.

Then, only last year, I cheated him in a trade. I gave him a large fish-hook, though broken. His fish escaped. I tried to give him another, but he said:

“A trade is a trade; the hook was bad, but that was no fault of yours.”

That killed me.

I told Seppi what would happen. Twelve days.

Just then, Nicky appeared. “Hi! What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

Nikolaus had heard about our trip to China. Satan had agreed to take him on a trip of his own.

Little did he know.

We lavished him with gifts, to make up for our past indiscretions, though surely they had been forgotten. He was overjoyed, he knew we loved him. He was so happy!

How little we realized how much we cared for him, till now when he was almost gone.

He tried to make us happy, but it was no use. We told him lies, we could do no other. Worst of all, he kept making plans for after the 13th, that fateful day. Our spirits groaned.

He suggested we go and dance in the woods, where we first met Satan, for no other than the 14th! His funeral day, we couldn’t tell him.

We clung to the hour, such comradery like we had never felt before. We kept him late. He returned home and received the mandatory paternal beating, if only they knew!

The next day, we did not see Nicky as usual. We went to his house, his mom was there. She said she had overseen the beating.

“I wish you would have saved him just this once,” I said, voice trembling, “it would have eased your heart.”

“Why is that?” she asked.

But I could not tell. Instead, Seppi said “It just so happens we were out late last night because Nicky was telling us how good his parents were to him. And we were all so enthralled, we lost track of time.”

She cried.

“Poor dumb beasts, us all!” There’s that word again.

Seppi asked if he could come out and play, but his father would not permit it. Good! He can’t drown if he doesn’t leave the house. We went up to his room.

Quarter to 10. Can that be so? Only a few minutes left for our dear friend? Nicky was in good spirits, planning his party. He had made a kite.

Two minutes. He will be saved! His mother came up holding the kite.

“Where is Nicky?” we exclaimed.

“Oh, he just ran outside for a quick second. Lisa’s mother came by and said she had wandered off, so I told Nikolaus to pay your father no mind, go and find her would you. Why, you two look as white as a ghost!”

“It’s all over, poor Nikolaus! And there it was.

The people came running, carrying the two drowned bodies to the mother’s doorstep.

“Oh, my God!” she cried, falling on her knees, “If only I hadn’t sent him. This is my punishment, for he cried to me for mercy last night, but I did not help him.”

How silly, she was not to blame. As Satan says, it is all inevitable anyway.

Frau Brandt came, too mourning her child’s death. “I prayed night and day for nothing to happen to my poor Lisa, and this is God’s answer!” Lisa was safe now, she didn’t know.

She spoke bitterly, “In his hard heart there is no compassion. I will never pray again.”

Ah, that poor woman! It is as Satan said, we do not know good fortune from bad.

Satan went to the funeral. Properly so. He gave the money needed for Nikolaus’s purgatory, though he said it wasn’t needed. Money didn’t cost him anything.

Lisa’s body had been seized by a carpenter to whom Frau Brandt owed 50 groschens. Unpaid, the carpenter took the little girl’s corpse and kept it in his cellar for 4 days. He then buried it in his brother’s cattle-yard, without religious ceremony. The mother went mad.

We asked Satan to do something. But he said it was only natural for humans to act this way. If a horse acted like this, of course we should tell him, since a horse does not do such things. But humans, it is only natural.

Her madness saddened us dearly, we pleaded with Satan to give her a better life. He examined her possibilities, and said he could make a change in just three minutes, if we so desired.

“We do!” And it was done.

And so, just then, instead of going around the corner, Frau Brandt turned back. Her life was changed forever.

“What happens now?” we asked.

“The Frau will run into Fischer, the weaver. And this will make him angry, and he will soon betray her. She will be burned.”

“Oh no!” If only we hadn’t meddled with such affairs. Satan read our thoughts.

“What you are thinking is strictly human-like – that is to say, foolish. Frau was destined for heaven. To die now, she will gain 29 more blessed years, escaping 29 years more of misery here below.”

Killed her with kindness, so it seems.

“And the weaver? Is Fischer’s life too changed?” we asked.

“Certainly, for if Frau hadn’t turned around and met him, he would have died next year at the age of 34. But now, he will live to be 90 and quite prosperous, as far as humans go.”

We were overjoyed! “But, are there any negative consequences?”

“Well, unfortunately if he were to have died at 34, he would have gone to heaven. But now..”

“Oh no!”

“There, there. Don’t be distressed, you were acting out of kindness, let that be a comfort to you.”

“We didn’t know what we were doing!” Things sure are confusing.

No matter, Satan feels neither pain nor sorrow, he doesn’t know what they are anyway.

“Nevermind, in heaven he won’t be missed. There are plenty there already. There are plenty more Fischers in the world too.”

A crowd gathered around Frau, jeering “Blasphemer! Heretic!”

“Oh stop them, Satan!” we decried, before realizing what we had done.

He puffed some air in their direction, which broke their ribs, staggering them in all sorts.

“Will this change their lives too?” we inquired.

“Surely. Some will live longer, others shorter. The usual.”

We did not ask any more questions. We did not want to know. We fully believed in Satan’s desire to do us kindness, but we were losing confidence in his judgment.

Frau was convicted with ease. When asked whether she was responsible for breaking the men’s ribs, she explained “If I had the power to do that, you would all be dead right now. Sentence me and get on with it, I’m tired of your society.”

She was tied to the stake. She cast her gaze out into the crowd and said, “We played once together, in days long past. For this I forgive you.” She was burned.

A few days later, Satan came again, being boys we asked him to entertain us.

“Very well, would you like to see the history of the human race, and the progression of your most sublime product – Civilization?”

“Sure.”

We were then whisked away to the Garden of Eden, where we saw Abel praying, Cain approached him with his club. Crashes and blows, shrieks and moans. Silence. Abel lay dead, Cain full of vengeance, unrepentant.

Then there were a long series of wars and massacres, the Flood, the Ark, storms and mountains. Take two.

Noah was overcome with wine. Sodom, Gomorrah. Lot. More wars, victory massacring the survivors, and their cattle. Though not the girls, they come in handy.

Egyptian, Greek, Roman battles. Blood-stained earth, Roman escapades against the Carthaginians. Caesar invades Britain – to give them civilization of course!

Christianity, famine, death, desolation. “Signs of the progress of the human race.” Royal families, weak nations, wars fought for all sorts of purposeless.

“And now the future!” Satan proclaimed. More destruction. Lambs to slaughter.

“You see, mankind has made great progress. Cain first murdered Abel with the club, the Hebrews used javelins and swords, the Greek and Romans introduced armor and military organization, the Christians gunpowder, and soon, weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, all will confess, before Christianity wars were nothing but a trifle.”

“Is this not remarkable progress! Each civilization rising up, falling. Only now are we able to kill everyone! Soon, the Turk and the Chinaman will go to the Christian not for religion, but to learn how to kill better, true conversion.”

Again, he lay the theatre of war before our eyes. Death and blood, thunder and guns.

“And for what? Nothing at all. More people are born, more people will die. Do it yourselves, or let nature take its course. Either way. Who is profiting from all this mortal interventions? A monarch here, a despised noble there.”

“Slaves to those you despise the most. Support them with your alms, so they can look down their nose. Cowardness, Hypocrisy. Let us drink!”

Then he saw our faces and his demeanor changed. “No, let us drink to one another’s health, and let civilization go. We will drink of that divine wine, which knows nothing of this world.”

Shapely and beautiful, new goblets came, filled with explosions of enchanting colors. We drank heavenly, hoping for more.

“I hope we make it there,” thought Seppi.

Satan said nothing.