Mephistophelean

YOU have been, I presume, Madam, among the crowds of young and old, to the musical revival of the great wonder-work of the last century. You have heard the Frenchman’s musical expression of the German poet’s thought, uttered by the motley assemblage of nationalities which constitutes an opera troupe in these latter days. You have seen the learned Dr. Faustus’s wig and gown whisked off behind his easy chair, and the rejuvenated Doctor emerge from his antiquated apparel as fresh and sprightly as Harlequin himself, to make love in Do-di-pettos. You have seen the blonde young Gretchen, beauteous and pure at her spinningwheel, gay and frolicsome before that box looking-glass and that kitchen table,— have heard her tender vows of affection and her passionate outbursts of despair. You have heard the timid Siebel warble out his adolescent longings for the gentle maid in the very scantiest of tunics, as becomes the fair proportions of the stage girl-boy. You have seen the respectable old Martha faint at the news of her husband’s death, and forthwith engage in a desperate flirtation with the gentleman who brings the news. You have seen the gallant Valentin lead off the march of that band of stalwart warriors, who seem to have somehow lost the correct step in their weary campaigns. Your memory, even now, has a somewhat confused impression of Frederici, moonlight, Mazzoleni, Kermesse, Sulzcr, gardens, Kellogg, churches, Himmer, flaming goblets, Stockton, and an angelic host with well-rounded calves in pink tights, radiant in the red light that, from some hidden regions, illuminates the aforesaid scantily clad angels, as they hang, like Mahomet’s coffin, ’twixt heaven and earth.

But I question, Madam, whether the strongest impression which your memory retains be not exactly the one personage in the drama whom I have omitted to mention, — the red-legged, gleaming-eyed, loud-voiced gentleman who pulls the hidden wires which set all the other puppets in motion. — Mr. Mephistopheles himself. Marguerite, studied, refined, unimpassioned in the pretty Yankee girl,— simple, warm, outpouring in the sympathetic German woman, — and Faust, gallant, ardent, winning in the bright-eyed Italian,— thoughtful, tender, fervent in the intelligent German, — are background figures in the picture your memory paints ; while the ubiquitous, sneering, specious, cunning, tempting, leering, unholy .Mephistopheles is a character of himself, in the foreground, whose special interpreter you do not care to distinguish.

Ring down the curtain. Put out the lights. We will leave the mimic scene, and return to the broad stage of life, whereon all are actors and all are audience. There are Gretchens and Fausts everywhere,— American, English, French, German, Italian, — of all nations and tongues,—but there is only one Mephistopheles. They have lived and loved and fallen and died. But he, indestructible, lives on to flash fire in the cups of beings yet unborn, and lurk with unholy intent in hearts which have not yet learned to beat. There is only one Mephistopheles ; but he is protean in shape. The little gentleman in black, the hero of so many strange stories, is but the Teutonic incarnation of a spirit which takes many forms in many lands. Out of the brain of the great German poet he steps, in a guise which is known and recognized wherever the story of love and betrayal finds an echo in human hearts. Poor Gretchen ! She had heard of Satan, and had been rocked to sleep by tales of the Loreley, and knew from her Bible that there was an evil spirit in the world seeking whom he might devour. But little did she dream, when she stopped her spinning-wheel to think for a moment of the gallant young lover who wooed her so ardently, that the glance of his eye was lighted with the flame of eternal fire, and that the fond words of love he spoke were hot breathings from the regions of the accursed. Poor Gretchen !

But, my dear Madam, this is all a fable. Mephistopheles — the real, vital, moving Mephistopheles—-has outlived Goethe, and will outlast the very memory of the unhappy heroine of his noble poem. He walks the streets to-day as fresh and persuasive as when, in ophidian form, he haunted that lovely garden which is said to have once stood near the banks of the Euphrates, and there beguiled the mother of mankind. Your friend Asmodeus — albeit not the quondam friend of that name for whose especial amusement he unroofed so many houses in the last century, when he was suffering from severe lameness — has a discerning eye to pierce his many disguises. He does not walk our streets now-a-days in red tights or with tinsel eyes ; he does not limp about with a sardonic laugh ; nor could you see the cloven hoof which is said to betray his identity. Were such the case, the little street-boys would point him out, and the daily papers, with which his friend Dr. Faustus had so much to do in their origin, would record his movements with greater eagerness than they do the comings and goings of generals and governors. No, my dear Madam, he assumes no such striking costumes. But he brushes by you in your daily walks, he sits beside you in the car, the theatre, and even in the church, in respectable, fashionable attire. Frank dickers with him in his counting-room, Tommy chases him in the play-ground, Mrs. Asmodeus makes him a fashionable call, and — God help us all! — we sometimes find him sitting domiciliated at our hearthstones. He changes like the wizard we used to read of in our wonderful fairy books, who was an ogre one moment and a mouse the next. He is more potent than the philosopher’s stone ; for that changed everything into gold only, while he becomes, at will, all the ores and alloys of creation. Fortunatus's wishing-cap and Prince Hussein’s tapestry were baby toys to him. They whisked their owners away to the place where they wished, at the moment, to be. He is ubiquitous.

He lurks under the liberty-cap of the goddess whose features are stamped in the shining gold, and his laugh is the clink of the jingling pieces. He turns himself into a regal sceptre that sways the gaping crowd, and it becomes a magnet that draws with resistless power the outstretched, itching palms of men. He takes the witching form of woman, paints her pulpy cheek with peachy bloom, knots into grace her mass of wavy hair, lights in her sparkling eye the kindling flame, hangs on her pouting lip the expectant kiss, and bids her supple waist invite caress ; and more seductive far than gold or power are these cunning lures to win men to bow down in abject, grovelling worship of his might. My dear Madam, I would not imply that your beauty and grace are exhibitions of his skill. By no manner of means ! I faithfully believe that Frank was drawn to you by the holiest, purest, best of emotions. But then, you know, so many of your lovely sex are under the influence of that cunning gentleman while they least suspect it. When a poor girl who owns but one jewel on earth—the priceless one that adorns and ennobles her lowliness — barters that treasure away for tire cheap glitter of polished stones or the rustling sweep of gaudy silk, is not the basilisk gleam of the Mephistophelean eye visible in the sparkling of those gewgaws and the sheen of that stuff ? When your friend Asmodeus, honest in his modest selfrespect, is most ignominiously ignored by the stylish Mrs. Money, — her father was a cobbler, — more noted for brocades than brains,—or the refined Miss Blood, — her grandfather was thirdcousin to some Revolutionary major,— more distinguished for shallowness than for spirit, — does he not smile in his sleeve, with great irreverence for the brocades and the birth, at the easy way in which the old fellow has wheedled them into his power by tickling their conceit and vanity? He creeps into all sorts of corners, and lurks in the smallest of hiding-places. He lies perdu in the folds of the figurante’s gauze, nestles under the devotee’s sombre veil, waves in the flirt’s fan, and swims in the gossip’s teacup. He burrows in a dimple, floats on a sigh, rides on a glance, and hovers in a thought.

But I would not infer, Madam, that he is the particular pet of the fair, or that he specially devotes himself to their subjugation. It is certain that he employs them with his most cunning skill, and sways the world most powerfully by their regnant charms. But the lords of creation are likewise the slaves of his will and the dupes of his deception. He bestrides the nib of the statesman’s pen and guides it into falsehood and treason. He perches on the cardinal’s hat and counsels bigotry and oppression. He sits on the tradesman’s counter and bears down the unweighted scale. He hides in the lawyer’s bag and makes specious pleas for adroit rogues. He slips into the gambler’s greasy pack and rolls over his yellow dice. He dances on the bubbles of the drunkard’s glass, swings on the knot of the planter's lash, and darts on the point of the assassin’s knife. He revels in a coarse oath, laughs in a perjured vow, and breathes in a lie. He has kept celebrated company in times gone by. He was Superintendent of the Coliseum when the Christian martyrs were given to the wild beasts. He was long time a familiar in the Spanish Inquisition, and adviser of the Catholic priesthood in those days, and Governor of the Bastile afterwards. He was the king’s minister of pleasure in the days of the latter Louises. He was court chaplain when Ridley and Latimer were burned. He was Charles IX.’s private secretary at the time of the St. Bartholomew affair, and Robespierre’s right-hand man in the days of Terror. He was Benedict Arnold’s counsellor, Jefferson Davis’s bedfellow, and John Wilkes Booth’s bosom friend.

A personage, and yet none ever saw him. His cloven hoof, his twisted horns, his suit of black, his gleaming eyes, his limbs of flame, are but the poet’s dream, the painter’s color. Mephistopheles is but the creature of our fancy, and exists but in the fears, the passions, the desires of mankind. He is born in hearts where love is linked with license, in minds where pride weds with folly, in souls where piety unites with intolerance. We never meet the roaring lion in our path ; yet our hearts are torn by his fangs and lacerated by his claws. We never see the sardonic cavalier; yet we hear his specious whisperings in our ears. The sunlight of truth shines forever upon us ; yet we sit in the cold shadow of error. We put the cup of pleasure to our lips, and quaff, instead of cooling draughts, the fiery flashes of searing excess. We long for forbidden delights, and when the fiend Opportunity places them within our reach, we sign the compact of our misery to obtain them. The charmed circle this unholy spirit draws around his fatal power is traced along the devious line that marks our weakness and our ignorance. Storm as we may, he stands intrenched within our souls, defying all our wrath. But he shrinks and crouches before us when, bold and fearless, we lift the cross of truth, and bid him fly the upborne might of our intelligence. Mephistopheles is an unholy spirit, nestling in the hearts of myriads of poor human beings who never Heard of Goethe. Long after the mimic scene in which he shares shall have been forgot,— long after the sirens who have warbled poor Gretchen’s joys and sorrows shall have mouldered in their graves,— long after the witching beauty of the Frenchman’s harmony shall have been forever hushed, — long after the very language in which the German poet portrayed him shall have passed into oblivion,— will Mephistopheles carry his diabolisms into the souls of human kind, and hold there his mystic reign. Yet there are those, and you find Asmodeus is one, who dream of a day when the Mephistophelean dynasty is to be overthrown,— when the sappers and miners of the great army of human progress are to besiege him in his strong-holds, and to lead him captive in eternal bondage. Of all the guides who lead that mighty host, none rank above the Faust of whom tradition tells such wondrous tales. Not the bewigged and motley personage Gounod has sung, not the impassioned lover Goethe drew, but the great genius who first taught mankind to stamp its wisdom in imperishable characters, and to bequeath it unto races yet to rise. The Faust of history shall long outlive the Faust of wild romance. The victim in the transient poem shall be a conqueror in the unwritten chronicles of time.

My dear Madam, let us draw around us a charmed circle; not with the trenchant point of murderous steel, but with the type that Faust gave to the world. Within its bounds, intelligence and thought shall guard us safe from Mephistopheles. Come he in whatever guise he may, its subtile potency shall, like Ithuriel’s spegr, compel him to display his real form in all its native ugliness and dread. And we must pass away ; yet may we leave behind, secure in the defence we thus may raise, the dear ones that we love, to be the parents of an angel race that, in the distant days to come, shall tread the sod above our long-forgotten dust.