(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Mysterious Stranger cover image

In sleepy Eseldorf, in the Middle Ages, three boys—Theodor, Nikolaus, and Seppi—meet a mysterious stranger who is young, handsome, beautifully dressed, and so charming that everything is more exciting in his presence— yet unknown to them, the dashing newcomer is Satan incarnate. With his breath he lights the pipes the boys are not supposed to be smoking and provides them each with the fruit of his choice. He entrances them by making a crowd of finger-sized men and women and a most cunning castle, but because the living figures are noisy, he crushes two of them heartlessly and then mashes the more than five hundred little people like flies.

Much as they plead with him to stay, they are troubled because everything is only entertainment to him; he has no feelings, and he constantly insults the human race. He says that man “begins as dirt and departs as stench.” He, by contrast, is an angel, immortal and totally without a moral sense. For example: He hides a wallet with 1,107 ducats for Father Peter to find; the priest pays off his debts with the gold, but since one townsman, the Astrologer, has lost exactly the same amount, the poor priest (suspected of stealing) is put in jail. Then Satan provides a housekeeper, Ursula, with a stray kitten whose owner will find four silver groschen in his or her pocket every morning. This “Lucky Cat” indeed brings prosperity, making it possible for Marget, Ursula’s mistress, to entertain the townspeople lavishly and to hire Gottfried Narr as a servant.

This is a time when witchcraft i$ much in evidence in the land; eleven schoolgirls have recently been burned at the stake. Gottfried’s own grandmother was burned as a witch. Thus, when Marget gives a great party for forty guests, suspicion of witchcraft is aroused against both Marget and Ursula. When Father Peter’s trial opens, however, Satan enters into the body of Wilhelm Meidling, the attorney for the defense, and proves that all the gold pieces but four were minted that very year, although the Astrologer claims to have lost the coins two years before. Father Peter is exonerated, but Satan hastens to tell him that he has been found guilty, thus...

(The entire section is 890 words.)