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The Mysterious Stranger

Chapter 6

In a moment we were in a French village. We walked through a great
factory of some sort, where men and women and little children were
toiling in heat and dirt and a fog of dust; and they were clothed in
rags, and drooped at their work, for they were worn and half starved, and
weak and drowsy. Satan said:

"It is some more Moral Sense. The proprietors are rich, and very holy;
but the wage they pay to these poor brothers and sisters of theirs is
only enough to keep them from dropping dead with hunger. The work-hours
are fourteen per day, winter and summer--from six in the morning till
eight at night--little children and all. And they walk to and from the
pigsties which they inhabit--four miles each way, through mud and slush,
rain, snow, sleet, and storm, daily, year in and year out. They get four
hours of sleep. They kennel together, three families in a room, in
unimaginable filth and stench; and disease comes, and they die off like
flies. Have they committed a crime, these mangy things? No. What have
they done, that they are punished so? Nothing at all, except getting
themselves born into your foolish race. You have seen how they treat a
misdoer there in the jail; now you see how they treat the innocent and
the worthy. Is your race logical? Are these ill-smelling innocents
better off than that heretic? Indeed, no; his punishment is trivial
compared with theirs. They broke him on the wheel and smashed him to
rags and pulp after we left, and he is dead now, and free of your
precious race; but these poor slaves here--why, they have been dying for
years, and some of them will not escape from life for years to come. It
is the Moral Sense which teaches the factory proprietors the difference
between right and wrong--you perceive the result. They think themselves
better than dogs. Ah, you are such an illogical, unreasoning race! And
paltry--oh, unspeakably!"

Then he dropped all seriousness and just overstrained himself making fun
of us, and deriding our pride in our warlike deeds, our great heroes, our
imperishable fames, our mighty kings, our ancient aristocracies, our
venerable history--and laughed and laughed till it was enough to make a
person sick to hear him; and finally he sobered a little and said, "But,
after all, it is not all ridiculous; there is a sort of pathos about it
when one remembers how few are your days, how childish your pomps, and
what shadows you are!"

Presently all things vanished suddenly from my sight, and I knew what it
meant. The next moment we were walking along in our village; and down
toward the river I saw the twinkling lights of the Golden Stag. Then in
the dark I heard a joyful cry:

"He's come again!"

It was Seppi Wohlmeyer. He had felt his blood leap and his spirits rise
in a way that could mean only one thing, and he knew Satan was near,
although it was too dark to see him. He came to us, and we walked along
together, and Seppi poured out his gladness like water. It was as if he
were a lover and had found his sweetheart who had been lost. Seppi was a
smart and animated boy, and had enthusiasm and expression, and was a
contrast to Nikolaus and me. He was full of the last new mystery, now--
the disappearance of Hans Oppert, the village loafer. People were
beginning to be curious about it, he said. He did not say anxious--
curious was the right word, and strong enough. No one had seen Hans for
a couple of days.

"Not since he did that brutal thing, you know," he said.

"What brutal thing?" It was Satan that asked.

"Well, he is always clubbing his dog, which is a good dog, and his only
friend, and is faithful, and loves him, and does no one any harm; and two
days ago he was at it again, just for nothing--just for pleasure--and the
dog was howling and begging, and Theodor and I begged, too, but he
threatened us, and struck the dog again with all his might and knocked
one of his eyes out, and he said to us, 'There, I hope you are satisfied
now; that's what you have got for him by your damned meddling'--and he
laughed, the heartless brute." Seppi's voice trembled with pity and
anger. I guessed what Satan would say, and he said it.

"There is that misused word again--that shabby slander. Brutes do not
act like that, but only men."

"Well, it was inhuman, anyway."

"No, it wasn't, Seppi; it was human--quite distinctly human. It is not
pleasant to hear you libel the higher animals by attributing to them
dispositions which they are free from, and which are found nowhere but in
the human heart. None of the higher animals is tainted with the disease
called the Moral Sense. Purify your language, Seppi; drop those lying
phrases out of it."

He spoke pretty sternly--for him--and I was sorry I hadn't warned Seppi
to be more particular about the word he used. I knew how he was feeling.
He would not want to offend Satan; he would rather offend all his kin.
There was an uncomfortable silence, but relief soon came, for that poor
dog came along now, with his eye hanging down, and went straight to
Satan, and began to moan and mutter brokenly, and Satan began to answer
in the same way, and it was plain that they were talking together in the
dog language. We all sat down in the grass, in the moonlight, for the
clouds were breaking away now, and Satan took the dog's head in his lap
and put the eye back in its place, and the dog was comfortable, and he
wagged his tail and licked Satan's hand, and looked thankful and said the
same; I knew he was saying it, though I did not understand the words.
Then the two talked together a bit, and Satan said:

"He says his master was drunk."

"Yes, he was," said we.

"And an hour later he fell over the precipice there beyond the Cliff

"We know the place; it is three miles from here."

"And the dog has been often to the village, begging people to go there,
but he was only driven away and not listened to."

We remembered it, but hadn't understood what he wanted.

"He only wanted help for the man who had misused him, and he thought only
of that, and has had no food nor sought any. He has watched by his
master two nights. What do you think of your race? Is heaven reserved
for it, and this dog ruled out, as your teachers tell you? Can your race
add anything to this dog's stock of morals and magnanimities?" He spoke
to the creature, who jumped up, eager and happy, and apparently ready for
orders and impatient to execute them. "Get some men; go with the dog--he
will show you that carrion; and take a priest along to arrange about
insurance, for death is near."

With the last word he vanished, to our sorrow and disappointment. We got
the men and Father Adolf, and we saw the man die. Nobody cared but the
dog; he mourned and grieved, and licked the dead face, and could not be
comforted. We buried him where he was, and without a coffin, for he had
no money, and no friend but the dog. If we had been an hour earlier the
priest would have been in time to send that poor creature to heaven, but
now he was gone down into the awful fires, to burn forever. It seemed
such a pity that in a world where so many people have difficulty to put
in their time, one little hour could not have been spared for this poor
creature who needed it so much, and to whom it would have made the
difference between eternal joy and eternal pain. It gave an appalling
idea of the value of an hour, and I thought I could never waste one again
without remorse and terror. Seppi was depressed and grieved, and said it
must be so much better to be a dog and not run such awful risks. We took
this one home with us and kept him for our own. Seppi had a very good
thought as we were walking along, and it cheered us up and made us feel
much better. He said the dog had forgiven the man that had wronged him
so, and maybe God would accept that absolution.

There was a very dull week, now, for Satan did not come, nothing much was
going on, and we boys could not venture to go and see Marget, because the
nights were moonlit and our parents might find us out if we tried. But
we came across Ursula a couple of times taking a walk in the meadows
beyond the river to air the cat, and we learned from her that things were
going well. She had natty new clothes on and bore a prosperous look.
The four groschen a day were arriving without a break, but were not being
spent for food and wine and such things--the cat attended to all that.

Marget was enduring her forsakenness and isolation fairly well, all
things considered, and was cheerful, by help of Wilhelm Meidling. She
spent an hour or two every night in the jail with her uncle, and had
fattened him up with the cat's contributions. But she was curious to
know more about Philip Traum, and hoped I would bring him again. Ursula
was curious about him herself, and asked a good many questions about his
uncle. It made the boys laugh, for I had told them the nonsense Satan
had been stuffing her with. She got no satisfaction out of us, our
tongues being tied.

Ursula gave us a small item of information: money being plenty now, she
had taken on a servant to help about the house and run errands. She
tried to tell it in a commonplace, matter-of-course way, but she was so
set up by it and so vain of it that her pride in it leaked out pretty
plainly. It was beautiful to see her veiled delight in this grandeur,
poor old thing, but when we heard the name of the servant we wondered if
she had been altogether wise; for although we were young, and often
thoughtless, we had fairly good perception on some matters. This boy was
Gottfried Narr, a dull, good creature, with no harm in him and nothing
against him personally; still, he was under a cloud, and properly so, for
it had not been six months since a social blight had mildewed the family
--his grandmother had been burned as a witch. When that kind of a malady
is in the blood it does not always come out with just one burning. Just
now was not a good time for Ursula and Marget to be having dealings with
a member of such a family, for the witch-terror had risen higher during
the past year than it had ever reached in the memory of the oldest
villagers. The mere mention of a witch was almost enough to frighten us
out of our wits. This was natural enough, because of late years there
were more kinds of witches than there used to be; in old times it had
been only old women, but of late years they were of all ages--even
children of eight and nine; it was getting so that anybody might turn out
to be a familiar of the Devil--age and sex hadn't anything to do with it.
In our little region we had tried to extirpate the witches, but the more
of them we burned the more of the breed rose up in their places.

Once, in a school for girls only ten miles away, the teachers found that
the back of one of the girls was all red and inflamed, and they were
greatly frightened, believing it to be the Devil's marks. The girl was
scared, and begged them not to denounce her, and said it was only fleas;
but of course it would not do to let the matter rest there. All the
girls were examined, and eleven out of the fifty were badly marked, the
rest less so. A commission was appointed, but the eleven only cried for
their mothers and would not confess. Then they were shut up, each by
herself, in the dark, and put on black bread and water for ten days and
nights; and by that time they were haggard and wild, and their eyes were
dry and they did not cry any more, but only sat and mumbled, and would
not take the food. Then one of them confessed, and said they had often
ridden through the air on broomsticks to the witches' Sabbath, and in a
bleak place high up in the mountains had danced and drunk and caroused
with several hundred other witches and the Evil One, and all had
conducted themselves in a scandalous way and had reviled the priests and
blasphemed God. That is what she said--not in narrative form, for she
was not able to remember any of the details without having them called to
her mind one after the other; but the commission did that, for they knew
just what questions to ask, they being all written down for the use of
witch-commissioners two centuries before. They asked, "Did you do so and
so?" and she always said yes, and looked weary and tired, and took no
interest in it. And so when the other ten heard that this one confessed,
they confessed, too, and answered yes to the questions. Then they were
burned at the stake all together, which was just and right; and everybody
went from all the countryside to see it. I went, too; but when I saw
that one of them was a bonny, sweet girl I used to play with, and looked
so pitiful there chained to the stake, and her mother crying over her and
devouring her with kisses and clinging around her neck, and saying, "Oh,
my God! oh, my God!" it was too dreadful, and I went away.

It was bitter cold weather when Gottfried's grandmother was burned. It
was charged that she had cured bad headaches by kneading the person's
head and neck with her fingers--as she said--but really by the Devil's
help, as everybody knew. They were going to examine her, but she stopped
them, and confessed straight off that her power was from the Devil. So
they appointed to burn her next morning, early, in our market-square.
The officer who was to prepare the fire was there first, and prepared it.
She was there next--brought by the constables, who left her and went to
fetch another witch. Her family did not come with her. They might be
reviled, maybe stoned, if the people were excited. I came, and gave her
an apple. She was squatting at the fire, warming herself and waiting;
and her old lips and hands were blue with the cold. A stranger came
next. He was a traveler, passing through; and he spoke to her gently,
and, seeing nobody but me there to hear, said he was sorry for her. And
he asked if what she confessed was true, and she said no. He looked
surprised and still more sorry then, and asked her:

"Then why did you confess?"

"I am old and very poor," she said, "and I work for my living. There was
no way but to confess. If I hadn't they might have set me free. That
would ruin me, for no one would forget that I had been suspected of being
a witch, and so I would get no more work, and wherever I went they would
set the dogs on me. In a little while I would starve. The fire is best;
it is soon over. You have been good to me, you two, and I thank you."

She snuggled closer to the fire, and put out her hands to warm them, the
snow-flakes descending soft and still on her old gray head and making it
white and whiter. The crowd was gathering now, and an egg came flying
and struck her in the eye, and broke and ran down her face. There was a
laugh at that.

I told Satan all about the eleven girls and the old woman, once, but it
did not affect him. He only said it was the human race, and what the
human race did was of no consequence. And he said he had seen it made;
and it was not made of clay; it was made of mud--part of it was, anyway.
I knew what he meant by that--the Moral Sense. He saw the thought in my
head, and it tickled him and made him laugh. Then he called a bullock
out of a pasture and petted it and talked with it, and said:

"There--he wouldn't drive children mad with hunger and fright and
loneliness, and then burn them for confessing to things invented for them
which had never happened. And neither would he break the hearts of
innocent, poor old women and make them afraid to trust themselves among
their own race; and he would not insult them in their death-agony. For
he is not besmirched with the Moral Sense, but is as the angels are, and
knows no wrong, and never does it."

Lovely as he was, Satan could be cruelly offensive when he chose; and he
always chose when the human race was brought to his attention. He always
turned up his nose at it, and never had a kind word for it.

Well, as I was saying, we boys doubted if it was a good time for Ursula
to be hiring a member of the Narr family. We were right. When the
people found it out they were naturally indignant. And, moreover, since
Marget and Ursula hadn't enough to eat themselves, where was the money
coming from to feed another mouth? That is what they wanted to know; and
in order to find out they stopped avoiding Gottfried and began to seek
his society and have sociable conversations with him. He was pleased--
not thinking any harm and not seeing the trap--and so he talked
innocently along, and was no discreeter than a cow.

"Money!" he said; "they've got plenty of it. They pay me two groschen a
week, besides my keep. And they live on the fat of the land, I can tell
you; the prince himself can't beat their table."

This astonishing statement was conveyed by the astrologer to Father Adolf
on a Sunday morning when he was returning from mass. He was deeply
moved, and said:

"This must be looked into."

He said there must be witchcraft at the bottom of it, and told the
villagers to resume relations with Marget and Ursula in a private and
unostentatious way, and keep both eyes open. They were told to keep
their own counsel, and not rouse the suspicions of the household. The
villagers were at first a bit reluctant to enter such a dreadful place,
but the priest said they would be under his protection while there, and
no harm could come to them, particularly if they carried a trifle of holy
water along and kept their beads and crosses handy. This satisfied them
and made them willing to go; envy and malice made the baser sort even
eager to go.

And so poor Marget began to have company again, and was as pleased as a
cat. She was like 'most anybody else--just human, and happy in her
prosperities and not averse from showing them off a little; and she was
humanly grateful to have the warm shoulder turned to her and be smiled
upon by her friends and the village again; for of all the hard things to
bear, to be cut by your neighbors and left in contemptuous solitude is
maybe the hardest.

The bars were down, and we could all go there now, and we did--our
parents and all--day after day. The cat began to strain herself. She
provided the top of everything for those companies, and in abundance--
among them many a dish and many a wine which they had not tasted before
and which they had not even heard of except at second-hand from the
prince's servants. And the tableware was much above ordinary, too.

Marget was troubled at times, and pursued Ursula with questions to an
uncomfortable degree; but Ursula stood her ground and stuck to it that it
was Providence, and said no word about the cat. Marget knew that nothing
was impossible to Providence, but she could not help having doubts that
this effort was from there, though she was afraid to say so, lest
disaster come of it. Witchcraft occurred to her, but she put the thought
aside, for this was before Gottfried joined the household, and she knew
Ursula was pious and a bitter hater of witches. By the time Gottfried
arrived Providence was established, unshakably intrenched, and getting
all the gratitude. The cat made no murmur, but went on composedly
improving in style and prodigality by experience.

In any community, big or little, there is always a fair proportion of
people who are not malicious or unkind by nature, and who never do unkind
things except when they are overmastered by fear, or when their self-
interest is greatly in danger, or some such matter as that. Eseldorf had
its proportion of such people, and ordinarily their good and gentle
influence was felt, but these were not ordinary times--on account of the
witch-dread--and so we did not seem to have any gentle and compassionate
hearts left, to speak of. Every person was frightened at the
unaccountable state of things at Marget's house, not doubting that
witchcraft was at the bottom of it, and fright frenzied their reason.
Naturally there were some who pitied Marget and Ursula for the danger
that was gathering about them, but naturally they did not say so; it
would not have been safe. So the others had it all their own way, and
there was none to advise the ignorant girl and the foolish woman and warn
them to modify their doings. We boys wanted to warn them, but we backed
down when it came to the pinch, being afraid. We found that we were not
manly enough nor brave enough to do a generous action when there was a
chance that it could get us into trouble. Neither of us confessed this
poor spirit to the others, but did as other people would have done--
dropped the subject and talked about something else. And I knew we all
felt mean, eating and drinking Marget's fine things along with those
companies of spies, and petting her and complimenting her with the rest,
and seeing with self-reproach how foolishly happy she was, and never
saying a word to put her on her guard. And, indeed, she was happy, and
as proud as a princess, and so grateful to have friends again. And all
the time these people were watching with all their eyes and reporting all
they saw to Father Adolf.

But he couldn't make head or tail of the situation. There must be an
enchanter somewhere on the premises, but who was it? Marget was not seen
to do any jugglery, nor was Ursula, nor yet Gottfried; and still the
wines and dainties never ran short, and a guest could not call for a
thing and not get it. To produce these effects was usual enough with
witches and enchanters--that part of it was not new; but to do it without
any incantations, or even any rumblings or earthquakes or lightnings or
apparitions--that was new, novel, wholly irregular. There was nothing in
the books like this. Enchanted things were always unreal. Gold turned
to dirt in an unenchanted atmosphere, food withered away and vanished.
But this test failed in the present case. The spies brought samples:
Father Adolf prayed over them, exorcised them, but it did no good; they
remained sound and real, they yielded to natural decay only, and took the
usual time to do it.

Father Adolf was not merely puzzled, he was also exasperated; for these
evidences very nearly convinced him--privately--that there was no
witchcraft in the matter. It did not wholly convince him, for this could
be a new kind of witchcraft. There was a way to find out as to this: if
this prodigal abundance of provender was not brought in from the outside,
but produced on the premises, there was witchcraft, sure.

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