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Mark Twain > The Mysterious Stranger > Chapter 1

The Mysterious Stranger

Chapter 1


It was in 1590--winter. Austria was far away from the world, and asleep;
it was still the Middle Ages in Austria, and promised to remain so
forever. Some even set it away back centuries upon centuries and said
that by the mental and spiritual clock it was still the Age of Belief in
Austria. But they meant it as a compliment, not a slur, and it was so
taken, and we were all proud of it. I remember it well, although I was
only a boy; and I remember, too, the pleasure it gave me.

Yes, Austria was far from the world, and asleep, and our village was in
the middle of that sleep, being in the middle of Austria. It drowsed in
peace in the deep privacy of a hilly and woodsy solitude where news from
the world hardly ever came to disturb its dreams, and was infinitely
content. At its front flowed the tranquil river, its surface painted
with cloud-forms and the reflections of drifting arks and stone-boats;
behind it rose the woody steeps to the base of the lofty precipice; from
the top of the precipice frowned a vast castle, its long stretch of
towers and bastions mailed in vines; beyond the river, a league to the
left, was a tumbled expanse of forest-clothed hills cloven by winding
gorges where the sun never penetrated; and to the right a precipice
overlooked the river, and between it and the hills just spoken of lay a
far-reaching plain dotted with little homesteads nested among orchards
and shade trees.

The whole region for leagues around was the hereditary property of a
prince, whose servants kept the castle always in perfect condition for
occupancy, but neither he nor his family came there oftener than once in
five years. When they came it was as if the lord of the world had
arrived, and had brought all the glories of its kingdoms along; and when
they went they left a calm behind which was like the deep sleep which
follows an orgy.

Eseldorf was a paradise for us boys. We were not overmuch pestered with
schooling. Mainly we were trained to be good Christians; to revere the
Virgin, the Church, and the saints above everything. Beyond these
matters we were not required to know much; and, in fact, not allowed to.
Knowledge was not good for the common people, and could make them
discontented with the lot which God had appointed for them, and God would
not endure discontentment with His plans. We had two priests. One of
them, Father Adolf, was a very zealous and strenuous priest, much
considered.

There may have been better priests, in some ways, than Father Adolf, but
there was never one in our commune who was held in more solemn and awful
respect. This was because he had absolutely no fear of the Devil. He
was the only Christian I have ever known of whom that could be truly
said. People stood in deep dread of him on that account; for they
thought that there must be something supernatural about him, else he
could not be so bold and so confident. All men speak in bitter
disapproval of the Devil, but they do it reverently, not flippantly; but
Father Adolf's way was very different; he called him by every name he
could lay his tongue to, and it made everyone shudder that heard him; and
often he would even speak of him scornfully and scoffingly; then the
people crossed themselves and went quickly out of his presence, fearing
that something fearful might happen.

Father Adolf had actually met Satan face to face more than once, and
defied him. This was known to be so. Father Adolf said it himself. He
never made any secret of it, but spoke it right out. And that he was
speaking true there was proof in at least one instance, for on that
occasion he quarreled with the enemy, and intrepidly threw his bottle at
him; and there, upon the wall of his study, was the ruddy splotch where
it struck and broke.

But it was Father Peter, the other priest, that we all loved best and
were sorriest for. Some people charged him with talking around in
conversation that God was all goodness and would find a way to save all
his poor human children. It was a horrible thing to say, but there was
never any absolute proof that Father Peter said it; and it was out of
character for him to say it, too, for he was always good and gentle and
truthful. He wasn't charged with saying it in the pulpit, where all the
congregation could hear and testify, but only outside, in talk; and it is
easy for enemies to manufacture that. Father Peter had an enemy and a
very powerful one, the astrologer who lived in a tumbled old tower up the
valley, and put in his nights studying the stars. Every one knew he
could foretell wars and famines, though that was not so hard, for there
was always a war, and generally a famine somewhere. But he could also
read any man's life through the stars in a big book he had, and find lost
property, and every one in the village except Father Peter stood in awe
of him. Even Father Adolf, who had defied the Devil, had a wholesome
respect for the astrologer when he came through our village wearing his
tall, pointed hat and his long, flowing robe with stars on it, carrying
his big book, and a staff which was known to have magic power. The
bishop himself sometimes listened to the astrologer, it was said, for,
besides studying the stars and prophesying, the astrologer made a great
show of piety, which would impress the bishop, of course.

But Father Peter took no stock in the astrologer. He denounced him
openly as a charlatan--a fraud with no valuable knowledge of any kind, or
powers beyond those of an ordinary and rather inferior human being, which
naturally made the astrologer hate Father Peter and wish to ruin him. It
was the astrologer, as we all believed, who originated the story about
Father Peter's shocking remark and carried it to the bishop. It was said
that Father Peter had made the remark to his niece, Marget, though Marget
denied it and implored the bishop to believe her and spare her old uncle
from poverty and disgrace. But the bishop wouldn't listen. He suspended
Father Peter indefinitely, though he wouldn't go so far as to
excommunicate him on the evidence of only one witness; and now Father
Peter had been out a couple of years, and our other priest, Father Adolf,
had his flock.

Those had been hard years for the old priest and Marget. They had been
favorites, but of course that changed when they came under the shadow of
the bishop's frown. Many of their friends fell away entirely, and the
rest became cool and distant. Marget was a lovely girl of eighteen when
the trouble came, and she had the best head in the village, and the most
in it. She taught the harp, and earned all her clothes and pocket money
by her own industry. But her scholars fell off one by one now; she was
forgotten when there were dances and parties among the youth of the
village; the young fellows stopped coming to the house, all except
Wilhelm Meidling--and he could have been spared; she and her uncle were
sad and forlorn in their neglect and disgrace, and the sunshine was gone
out of their lives. Matters went worse and worse, all through the two
years. Clothes were wearing out, bread was harder and harder to get.
And now, at last, the very end was come. Solomon Isaacs had lent all the
money he was willing to put on the house, and gave notice that to-morrow
he would foreclose.

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