The story is set in Eseldorf, Austria in the year of 1590. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 9 where Theodor, the narrarator, and Satan, his mysterious new friend, are party to the stoning and hanging of a woman condemned of being a witch.
One day when our people were in such awful distress because the witch commission were afraid to proceed against the astrologer and Father Peter’s household, or against any, indeed, but the poor and the friendless, they lost patience and took to witch-hunting on their own score, and began to chase a born lady who was known to have the habit of curing people by devilish arts, such as bathing them, washing them, and nourishing them instead of bleeding them and purging them through the ministrations of a barber-surgeon in the proper way. She came flying down, with the howling and cursing mob after her, and tried to take refuge in houses, but the doors were shut in her face. They chased her more than half an hour, we following to see it, and at last she was exhausted and fell, and they caught her. They dragged her to a tree and threw a rope over the limb, and began to make a noose in it, some holding her, meantime, and she crying and begging, and her young daughter looking on and weeping, but afraid to say or do anything.
They hanged the lady, and I threw a stone at her, although in my heart I was sorry for her; but all were throwing stones and each was watching his neighbor, and if I had not done as the others did it would have been noticed and spoken of. Satan burst out laughing.
So we walked away, and I was not at ease, but was saying to myself, “He told them he was laughing at them, but it was a lie–he was laughing at me.”
That made him laugh again, and he said, “Yes, I was laughing at you, because, in fear of what others might report about you, you stoned the woman when your heart revolted at the act–but I was laughing at the others, too.”
“Because their case was yours.”
“How is that?”
“Well, there were sixty-eight people there, and sixty-two of them had no more desire to throw a stone than you had.”
“Oh, it’s true. I know your race. It is made up of sheep. It is governed by minorities, seldom or never by majorities. It suppresses its feelings and its beliefs and follows the handful that makes the most noise. Sometimes the noisy handful is right, sometimes wrong; but no matter, the crowd follows it. The vast majority of the race, whether savage or civilized, are secretly kind-hearted and shrink from inflicting pain, but in the presence of the aggressive and pitiless minority they don’t dare to assert themselves. Think of it! One kind-hearted creature spies upon another, and sees to it that he loyally helps in iniquities which revolt both of them. Speaking as an expert, I know that ninety-nine out of a hundred of your race were strongly against the killing of witches when that foolishness was first agitated by a handful of pious lunatics in the long ago. And I know that even to-day, after ages of transmitted prejudice and silly teaching, only one person in twenty puts any real heart into the harrying of a witch. And yet apparently everybody hates witches and wants them killed. Some day a handful will rise up on the other side and make the most noise–perhaps even a single daring man with a big voice and a determined front will do it–and in a week all the sheep will wheel and follow him, and witch-hunting will come to a sudden end.
“Monarchies, aristocracies, and religions are all based upon that large defect in your race–the individual’s distrust of his neighbor, and his desire, for safety’s or comfort’s sake, to stand well in his neighbor’s eye. These institutions will always remain, and always flourish, and always oppress you, affront you, and degrade you, because you will always be and remain slaves of minorities. There was never a country where the majority of the people were in their secret hearts loyal to any of these institutions.”