by Keith Azariah-Kribbs
The candle guttered, and the cold draft brought with it the taste of sulfur, the stone that burns, the sound of claws grating on the dank crypt floor where Faustus had left the circle where he had made the marks and said the words and, the rite completed, he then turned away.
The doctor did not turn from the table at the sound of his visitor, did not remove the stylus from the vellum before him, but continued to write until the nib was dry. Only then did he lay the pen down, powder the manuscript, blow on it gently to remove the excess, tilt the vellum toward the glare of the candle, and assured that the ink was dry, he rang the tiny silver bell at his elbow, closed the book, quenched the candle, and turned to greet his visitor.
Mephistopheles’ claws wrung for Faustus, scarcely inches from their appetite, but confined within the magical circle. Faustus regarded Mephistopheles in his aspect as a blind dragon, his tongue bloody with champing, red froth pooling between his two scaled feet, claws on his clenching toes digging grooves in the flagstones, the granite paving ground to damp, moldy powdered rock.
“Mephistopheles, I see that I must school thee. Change thy form to that of a scholar or maiden, whichever suits thee best, knowing our purpose here is seduction.”
A momentary flicker, and then the devil returned in the form of a holy friar, still confined to the conjurer’s circle, robed arms no longer extended but clasped humbly before him, his face a pool of shadow punctuated with two embers under the hooded monk’s cowl, the scent of sulfur tanged with the odor of wet, charred wool.
Faustus laughed. “More to my liking. Now, Mephistopheles, have you brought answer from your master regarding the bargain we propose, namely, that in exchange for your service for a certain time, and in exchange for your servitude, to do as Faustus wills and to be subject to Faustus, Faustus will tender up his soul?”
“I have, Faustus.”
“And what wilt thou requite Faustus, seeing the value of my soul to your kingdom?”
Mephistopheles gestured soundlessly toward the floor.
Faustus reached forward with the tip of his shoe and broke the continuity of the circle. “Exunt, Mephistopheles. I have no fear of thee, knowing thy business here is to defer your pleasure to some unknown future, but instead to serve me yet a while, if I will but command it.”
The hooded and cloaked figure slipped through the gap in the circle. “The terms are these, wise Faustus. That first, henceforth, and in exchange for your immortal soul at the end of four and twenty years, during the time that thou abidest on Earth, thou shalt know no need. When thou dost hunger, thou hast but to put forth thine hand and say to a stone, ‘Be thou bread,’ and so it shall be. Whatever delicacy Faustus desirest, it is his, if he but name it. This is the first gift with which we compensate thee for thine eternal soul.”
Faustus gave the appearance of mulling this offer at length. “It was God’s curse upon Adam that he must earn his food by the sweat of his brow,” Faustus mused, toying with a golden compass. “Have you the power to subvert God’s curse?”
“No, Faustus. That curse is but deferred to some unknown future,” the spirit replied. “Yet for a time, in this our first service to Faustus, we will delay His Holy will. Thus, we do outrage to both Him and thee, Faustus.”
“I like thy wit,” Faustus said. “It is an economy of outrage.”
Mephistopheles bowed simply. “Husbandry is a virtue, and even in Hell, Faustus, it must needs be that we are wise stewards.”
Faustus nodded briefly in thought, half turned from the monk-like figure on the flags before him, and then gestured to a manuscript laying flat on a shelf. “Writ there, Brother Mephistopheles, I have obtained a treatise from the East, and it is revealed to us by the Greeks that, through an application of husbandry, there are methods for combining or enhancing the traits of edible plants into new herbs bearing an hundredfold greater than the parent plant. And the seed thereof is better to eat. They call this wisdom, ‘horticulture,’ and the fruit thereof, a ‘hybrid.’ This practice of the East will produce food for man undreamt of yet. But what do you give me, except only what I know to ask for? You would give me a surfeit of bread? This new wisdom will give me the manna of heaven, once I have created it. Nay, tempter. I shall have better than the stale loaf thou canst provide. Say on, what else dost thou offer that is worth the price of Faustus’s immortal soul?”
The dark figure scarcely stirred, hooded face still turned to the moldering slabs at Faustus’s feet. “Henceforth, Faustus, thou shalt know no harm. ‘Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy left, but it shall not come nigh thee.’ ”
“Here is a devil knows his scripture,” Faustus said.
Mephistopheles bowed. “Thou shalt be immune from disease, accident, and proof against any assassin or other villainy, but that thou shalt consign thy soul to my master upon the end of your tenure, wise Faustus.”
Faustus raised his hand to his mouth, touched his lip, took up a skull hidden in a recess of his desk and considered the dark and empty sockets of the eyes, the lipless grin of the eternal jest of mortality.
“Alas,” Mephistopheles said, “Thou, too, art mortal, Faustus.”
“Not so,” Faustus said. “For if it were true, my merely mortal soul would have no value to thee. Your own desire for it gives the lie to that. And as to healing, . . .” Faustus drew a vial from the shelf before him and extended it to the demon. “Examine this unguent, Mephistopheles, if its healing virtue will not injure the hand of him who might well start a plague with a gesture. For this tincture, lately out of Cathay, hath virtue against a weakening of the pulse, and yet it might be prepared from the humble foxglove in my own garden. And I myself have seen a distillation prepared of this wood . . .” and Faustus took up a length of gray willow bark, “. . . stop pain as though it were no more. The Arabs themselves can cure the plague. I have seen it done. No, Mephistopheles, the arts of cirurgie and skill at pharmacopoeia will heal all ills. Moreover, there are preparations out of India which make a man better than he was made by God. I have seen teas which make one more alert, herbs to smoke which make one stronger, herbs to eat which make one wiser than the common lot of fallen man. Dost thou recall God’s fear that we should eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life and become like gods?”
“I do recall it, Faustus. For it was thus we tempted the first and the best of you.”
“I fear it will work less well to tempt the last and the worst of us. For what do you offer me, except only what I have now, mere health? This new wisdom of men will perfect my body as it has not been since Adam was cast out of Eden. And all this from an herb! Nay, tempter. Thou offerest mere . . . continuation. I say that man, with his own arts, will improve his body beyond that limit permitted by God since the Fall. Say on, what canst thou offer that is worth the price of Faustus’s soul?”
Mephistopheles placed his hands together and touched the tips of his fingers to his lips.
“What is this?” Faustus asked. “Does grave Mephistopheles pray?”
“Thou forgettest,” Mephistopheles said, “that I was once a citizen of brave Heaven, and was perfect myself, and made perfect by God. If I appear to Faustus to mimic the perfect, dost thou wonder? It was, of a time, my custom. I was never a man, made of malleable clay, as thou art.”
“As I am, but for a time.” Faustus replied. “Man was created only a little less than the angels. Consider these arts I have shown you tonight. Soon, we will surpass even thee. But to your task, Mephistopheles. Your last offer.”
Mephistopheles raised his hands and formed of them an arch over his head, and through the arch Faustus saw the kingdoms of the world in all their glory. “I cannot tempt Faustus with Faustus. But all these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
Faustus gazed through the arch at the vision long, his eye straying to each pleasure the mind of man had conceived, delights of wisdom, women, art, power. But he turned at last from the figure of the dark monk, and the image beyond the arched arms shrank from sight.
“Thou hast lost, Mephistopheles,” Faustus said. “What canst thou offer me? Rule over men? Consider what I have shown you tonight, Mephistopheles. Men learn to cure, to feed, to perfect, and all by the cunning of their own hand. What have you offered me? Mere wealth and power? Mere continuance? And now, my neighbor’s house?”
Faustus shook his head in the direction of the demon’s face, still downcast to the floor, the interior of the black hood scarcely illuminated by the glimmer of his eyes.
“Attend to me, and I will show you a new thing. I will take these gifts of food, medicine—my arts, which I alone possess, to my fellow man, who possesseth them not, and exchange it with him for all his goods, then I shall own his house, for he shall give it to me in exchange for the corn that will feed him which he cannot grow for himself, because he knoweth it not. I shall own his city, for he shall give it to me in exchange for the herb that will heal his weakened heart, which he cannot grow himself, because he knoweth it not. I shall own his women, for his women shall give themselves to me for the great wealth and power I shall have from selling ease to their husbands and fathers and brothers and sons. What do you offer me? Rule? Through the art of Economy, I cannot help but rule. None shall have aught except they purchase it from me. And so I shall have all.”
Faustus took his finger, knelt down before the figure of the monk, and redrew the circle until it was closed about the demon. Mephistopheles was silent.
“Get you gone, Mephistopheles. Thou hast nothing to offer that man cannot provide for himself, and better. Henceforth we will not weary your ears with conjurings and sorceries, to be tempted by you for a trifle, and at so great a price. But with science, medicine, and economy do we tempt ourselves, and to a greatness that you cannot imagine.”
And with that, the tempter was gone.
“And how did you fare?” Satan asked.
“Faustus refuses us, my Lord” Mephistopheles said. “He has no need of us, with the arts he has learned and the skill with which he will exercise them.”
They stood silent in the atrium of Hell, most of history wailing at the threshold of hearing down the long, faintly echoing halls.
“The first time, we had to succeed in tempting at least one of them,” Satan said.
“As students, they are indeed wonderful,” Mephistopheles agreed.
© 2012 by Keith Azariah-Kribbs
All rights reserved.