A Modern Mephistopheles – Louisa May Alcott
“A Modern Mephistopheles” was one of the best novels in that remarkable collection of American fiction known as the ‘No Name’ series. Miss Alcott’s name has long been associated with it, because she never made any special effort to conceal the authorship. It is in many respects her most noteworthy effort, and by it her qualities as a writer may safely be judged. The novel is distinctly poetical in motive and the imaginative power displayed in the working out of the plot is to be classed with that of the creative artists of literature. Three souls-nay, four-are here unveiled to us, and while all are brought into bold relief, the true strength of the book undoubtedly lies in the portrayal of Gladys, who is a genuine woman of a fresh and original type. Helwyze is, of course, frankly impossible, and Canaris is only probable, while Olivia is a picturesque foil; but in Gladys there is no incredible or superfluous trait: she is thoroughly and deliciously feminine. The moral lesson is not to be ignored. Like the evil genius of Faust, Helwyze sought to work evil, but the forces that made for righteousness were against him and he was defeated in the very hour of his triumph. It is the recognition of the higher law controlling human deeds that gives “A Modern Mephistopheles” its hold upon popular esteem.
A Modern Mephistopheles.
Excerpt from the text:
A haggard youth knelt before a little furnace, kindling a fire, with an expression of quiet desperation on his face, which made the simple operation strange and solemn.
A pile of manuscript lay beside him, and in the hollow eyes that watched the white leaves burn was a tragic shadow, terrible to see,—for he was offering the first-born of heart and brain as sacrifice to a hard fate.
Slowly the charcoal caught and kindled, while a light smoke filled the room. Slowly the youth staggered up, and, gathering the torn sheets, thrust them into his bosom, muttering bitterly, “Of all my hopes and dreams, my weary work and patient waiting, nothing is left but this. Poor little book, we’ll go together, and leave no trace behind.”
Throwing himself into a chair, he laid his head down upon the table, where no food had been for days, and, closing his eyes, waited in stern silence for death to come and take him.
Nothing broke the stillness but the soft crackle of the fire, which began to flicker with blue tongues of flame, and cast a lurid glow upon the motionless figure with its hidden face. Deeper grew the wintry gloom without, ruddier shone the fateful gleam within, and heavy breaths began to heave the breast so tired of life.
Suddenly a step sounded on the stair, a hand knocked at the door, and when no answer came, a voice cried, “Open!” in a commanding tone, which won instant obedience, and dispelled the deathful trance fast benumbing every sense.
“The devil!” ejaculated the same imperious voice, as the door swung open, letting a cloud of noxious vapor rush out to greet the new-comer,—a man standing tall and dark against the outer gloom.
“Who is it? Oh! come in!” gasped the youth, falling back faint and dizzy, as the fresh air smote him in the face.
“I cannot, till you make it safe for me to enter. I beg pardon if I interrupt your suicide; I came to help you live, but if you prefer the other thing, say so, and I will take myself away again,” said the stranger, pausing on the threshold, as his quick eye took in the meaning of the scene before him.
“For God’s sake, stay!” and, rushing to the window, the youth broke it with a blow, caught up the furnace, and set it out upon the snowy roof, where it hissed and glowed like an evil thing, while he dragged forth his one chair, and waited, trembling, for his unknown guest to enter.
“For my own sake, rather: I want excitement; and this looks as if I might find it here,” muttered the man with a short laugh, as he watched the boy, calmly curious, till a gust of fresh air swept through the room, making him shiver with its sharp breath.
“Jasper Helwyze, at your service,” he added aloud, stepping in, and accepting courteously the only hospitality his poor young host could offer.
The dim light and shrouding cloak showed nothing but a pale, keen face, with dark penetrating eyes, and a thin hand, holding a paper on which the youth recognized the familiar words, “Felix Canaris.”
“My name! You came to help me? What good angel sent you, sir?” he exclaimed, with a thrill of hope,—for in the voice, the eye, the hand that held the card with such tenacious touch, he saw and felt the influence of a stronger nature, and involuntarily believed in and clung to it.
“Your bad angel, you might say, since it was the man who damned your book and refused the aid you asked of him,” returned the stranger, in a suave tone, which contrasted curiously with the vigor of his language. “A mere chance led me there to-day, and my eye fell upon a letter lying open before him. The peculiar hand attracted me, and Forsythe, being in the midst of your farewell denunciation, read it out, and told your story.”
“And you were laughing at my misery while I was making ready to end it?” said the youth, with a scornful quiver of the sensitive lips that uttered the reproach.
“We all laugh at such passionate folly when we have outlived it. You will, a year hence; so bear no malice, but tell me briefly if you can forget poetry, and be content with prose for a time. In plain words, can you work instead of dream?”
“Good! then come to me for a month. I have been long from home, and my library is neglected; I have much for you to do, and believe you are the person I want, if Forsythe tells the truth. He says your father was a Greek, your mother English, both dead, and you an accomplished, ambitious young man who thinks himself a genius, and will not forgive the world for doubting what he has failed to prove. Am I right?”
“Quite right. Add also that I am friendless, penniless, and hopeless at nineteen.”
A brief, pathetic story, more eloquently told by the starvation written on the pinched face, the squalor of the scanty garments, and the despair in the desperate eye, than by the words uttered with almost defiant bluntness.
The stranger read the little tragedy at a glance, and found the chief actor to his taste; for despite his hard case he possessed beauty, youth, and the high aspirations that die hard,—three gifts often peculiarly attractive to those who have lost them all.
“Wait a month, and you may find that you have earned friends, money, and the right to hope again. At nineteen, one should have courage to face the world, and master it.”
“Show me how, and I will have courage. A word of sympathy has already made it possible to live!” and, seizing the hand that offered help, Canaris kissed it with the impulsive grace and ardor of his father’s race.
“When can you come to me?” briefly demanded Helwyze, gathering his cloak about him as he rose, warned by the waning light.
“At once, to-night, if you will! I possess nothing in the world but the poor clothes that were to have been my shroud, and the relics of the book with which I kindled my last fire,” answered the youth, with eager eyes, and an involuntary shiver as the bitter wind blew in from the broken window.
“Come, then, else a mightier master than I may claim you before dawn, for it will be an awful night. Put out your funeral pyre, Canaris, wrap your shroud well about you, gather up your relics, and follow me. I can at least give you a warmer welcome than I have received,” added Helwyze, with that sardonic laugh of his, as he left the room.
Before he had groped his slow way down the long stairs the youth joined him, and side by side they went out into the night.
A month later the same pair sat together in a room that was a dream of luxury. A noble library, secluded, warm, and still; the reposeful atmosphere that students love pervaded it; rare books lined its lofty walls: poets and philosophers looked down upon their work with immortal satisfaction on their marble countenances; and the two living occupants well became their sumptuous surroundings.
Helwyze leaned in a great chair beside a table strewn with books which curiously betrayed the bent of a strong mind made morbid by physical suffering. Doré’s “Dante” spread its awful pages before him; the old Greek tragedies were scattered about, and Goethe’s “Faust” was in his hand. An unimpressive figure at first sight, this frail-looking man, whose age it would be hard to tell; for pain plays strange pranks, and sometimes preserves to manhood a youthful delicacy in return for the vigor it destroys. But at a second glance the eye was arrested and interest aroused, for an indefinable expression of power pervaded the whole face, beardless, thin-lipped, sharply cut, and colorless as ivory. A stray lock or two of dark hair streaked the high brow, and below shone the controlling feature of this singular countenance, a pair of eyes, intensely black, and so large they seemed to burden the thin face. Violet shadows encircled them, telling of sleepless nights, days of languor, and long years of suffering, borne with stern patience. But in the eyes themselves all the vitality of the man’s indomitable spirit seemed concentrated, intense and brilliant as a flame, which nothing could quench. By turns melancholy, meditative, piercing, or contemptuous, they varied in expression with startling rapidity, unless mastered by an art stronger than nature; attracting or repelling with a magnetism few wills could resist.
Propping his great forehead on his hand, he read, motionless as a statue, till a restless movement made him glance up at his companion, and fall to studying him with a silent scrutiny which in another would have softened to admiration, for Canaris was scarcely less beautiful than the Narcissus in the niche behind him.
An utter contrast to his patron, for youth lent its vigor to the well-knit frame, every limb of which was so perfectly proportioned that strength and grace were most harmoniously blended. Health glowed in the rich coloring of the classically moulded face, and lurked in the luxuriant locks which clustered in glossy rings from the low brow to the white throat. Happiness shone in the large dreamy eyes and smiled on the voluptuous lips; while an indescribable expression of fire and force pervaded the whole, redeeming its beauty from effeminacy.
A gracious miracle had been wrought in that month, for the haggard youth was changed into a wonderfully attractive young man, whose natural ease and elegance fitted him to adorn that charming place, as well as to enjoy the luxury his pleasure-loving senses craved.
The pen had fallen from his hand, and lying back in his chair with eyes fixed on vacancy, he seemed dreaming dreams born of the unexpected prosperity which grew more precious with each hour of its possession.
“Youth surely is the beauty of the devil, and that boy might have come straight from the witches’ kitchen and the magic draught,” thought Helwyze, as he closed his book, adding to himself with a daring expression, “Of all the visions haunting his ambitious brain not one is so wild and wayward as the fancy which haunts mine. Why not play fate, and finish what I have begun?”
A pause fell, more momentous than either dreamed; then it was abruptly broken.
“Felix, the time is up.”
“It is, sir. Am I to go or stay?” and Canaris rose, looking half-bewildered as his brilliant castles in the air dissolved like mist before a sudden gust.
“Stay, if you will; but it is a quiet life for such as you, and I am a dull companion. Could you bear it for a year?”