Found out a lot about this book, Twain’s last. He actually started it, and wrote it, more or less, three times, near the end of his life. Luckily (and I keep getting luckier!), I got the Cincinnati Library’s version, which was from the Mark Twain Papers, edited and with an introduction by William M. Gibson.
The first version was called The Chronicle of Young Satan, the second was a short story called Schoolhouse Hill, and the third, No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, all included in this volume. That was Satan’s name in the story – Number 44, New Series 864,962, known by the folk in the medieval European castle as 44.
They seem to me to be Twain’s exploration of heaven, hell, the past and future – and the Hereafter. Satan is seldom sinister, always immensely powerful, and with an amoral sense of the world – creating what pleases him, stirring events up to see how they work out, but not really involved in planning the outcomes. Cruel and capricious, one might say – except that the humans in the stories (the first and last set in medieval Europe and featuring Catholic priests and bishops as the villains, except for one), and the middle one set in some version of Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Missouri. Some of those characters were evidently pretty identifiable.
All included Satan spending time with human boys. Satan himself is a young boy in all these stories – give or take few thousand years, and given immense intellectual gifts and understandings. He provides the boys various settings and experiences, getting their reactions, trying new ideas, using them as his foils, except that several times he is nearly kind. And he often demonstrates that what looks like a bad outcome may or may not be so.
These are all funny stories, outrageously so sometimes – but also sad and confounding. And the end of The Mysterious Stranger is written as though Twain was suddenly just tired of the entire question, and just wrapped it up in about 5 pages. Exactly what the Young Satan would have done in his place.