The Bargain – A Cautionary Fable for Our Times

Once upon a time, there was a scholar named Faust. He was a professor and teacher, reasonably successful, intelligent, maybe even could be considered handsome, who lived in snug – but small – stone house in a little village in Germany. Over the years, Herr Professor Faust grew more and more dissatisfied with his life, his tiny house, his increasingly shabby clothing and frayed cuffs. He longed for power and riches. One cold, dark and stormy night, as the professor sat by his fireplace dreaming of wealth, a mysterious cloaked stranger pounded on the door. Faust opened his door a tiny crack, and the cloaked stranger pushed his way inside and stood, dripping on Herr Faust’s slate floor.

Herr Faust was understandably terrified; the stranger loomed over him, and it seemed to Herr Faust that his eyes glowed red inside the black hole of his hooded cloak. Nevertheless, even though he was terrified, Herr Faust, ever the gentleman and scholar, shook off his terror and offered the hooded stranger a seat at his fire and a cup of hot broth.

The stranger accepted and seated himself in the worn and shabby chair across the hearth from Herr Faust. He pulled back his dripping hood to reveal a darkly handsome face, sculpted with high cheekbones and deeply set, burning dark eyes framed by black curling hair. The stranger was richly dressed in velvet and furs, and wearing soft leather boots. Around his neck, he wore an intricately worked and jeweled gold chain and a heavy ring on the first finger of his left hand, set with a glowing faceted ruby so large that it looked, noted the bemused Herr Faust, to be the size of a hen’s egg. The stranger introduced himself as Mephistopheles, a fellow scholar and traveler of the realms of man.

Herr Faust and Mephistopheles chatted amiably for a few moments as the stranger finished his broth. Finally, Mephistopheles looked directly into Faust’s eyes. Faust found himself unable to look away as the stranger’s eyes began to glow with an eerie red light. In a deep voice, Mephistopheles began to speak. He spoke to Herr Faust of his life, how small, how squalid it was. He spoke to Herr Faust of his unappreciative students and the townspeople who laughed at him behind his back and scorned him as a puffed up pretender who had nothing worth having. He told Herr Faust the he deserved so much more. As he listened to the dark stranger’s voice, Herr Faust grew more and more angry at those who thought so little of him, and in his heart grew a desire for a means to exact his revenge on those who had wronged him.

No one knows just exactly how long the dark stranger continued to speak in his deep voice or the words he used, as the coal fire in the hearth slowly burned down to embers and Herr Faust continued to listen. Finally, the dark stranger ceased speaking. The silence deepened, punctuated only by the occasional crackle of the dying fire and the sound of rain hitting the shuttered windows. Herr Faust, still in the grip of the anger and desire for revenge that was now blooming like a dark, thorny rose in his heart, found himself staring directly into the stranger’s hypnotic eyes, unable to do anything but feel the power of the stranger’s gaze.

Finally, the dark stranger spoke again, and wonder of wonders, he offered Herr Faust exactly what he had been dreaming of for years: unlimited wealth and power. Faust had only a moment of doubt before he accepted the dark stranger’s offer – even before he asked the price. A gleam of satisfaction sparked in the dark eyes of Mephistopheles as he assured Herr Faust that the price he would have to pay would be a tiny one, a miniscule item, a trifle that Herr Faust would never miss: his soul.

Again, Herr Faust had a momentary pang of doubt, but, mesmerized by the flashing gleam from the giant ruby on the finger of his visitor, he accepted the offer. The stranger reached into the leather bag at his feet and pulled out a rolled parchment, a capped bottle of ink and a quill pen. The stranger stood. Herr Faust stood as well, and they walked together a few steps across the small room to the cluttered desk in what passed as Herr Faust’s “library,” a single shelf crammed with books and papers.

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With an impatient arm, Mephistopheles swept the clutter to the floor, leaving only a single candlestick containing a stub of a candle. Mephistopheles made a single careless gesture and a flame sparked to life. Herr Faust’s eyes grew round in astonishment and he opened his mouth to speak… when in a series of flowing motions, the stranger opened the rolled parchment, smoothed it with his hand, uncapped the ink bottle, dipped the quill pen into the bloodred ink and handed it to Herr Faust. The stranger gestured to the parchment, and Herr Faust dazedly signed his name at the bottom. The stranger muttered a few words in a language Faust did not understand, and he saw the letters of his name glow with a red light which then faded into the parchment. A curl of smoke rose into the air, and Faust imagined that he caught the whiff of brimstone.

With a small sound of satisfaction, Mephistopheles rolled up the parchment and replaced it in his leather bag. He nodded once at Herr Faust, and with a wink, pulled up the hood on his cloak, turned to the door and was gone before Herr Faust could say a single word of thanks or goodbye.

In the years following that fateful night, Herr Faust rose in the world. He became a very wealthy and powerful man, respected far and wide in the village and the cities of Germany. He dressed in furs and jewels, ate delicious food and slept in a featherbed with silk sheets. His house was large and beautiful, filled with intricately carved furniture made of rare woods, and he ate on silver plates and drank from crystal goblets. Fountains played in the beautiful gardens behind the high walls of his house, which the poor could only admire from outside the ornate wrought iron gates. He forgot about that cold winter night when the stranger came to visit.

After many years, Herr Faust found himself growing old and increasingly frail. He began to imagine that he saw movement in the shadowy corners of his large house and heard footsteps in the middle of the night. He grew more and more afraid and hid himself behind the locked and bolted doors of his mansion. He began to obsess over his memories of the dark stranger with his parchment and quill pen.

Finally, on another dark and stormy night, as the aged, frail and stooped Herr Faust sat wrapped in his velvet robe and slippers by his fireplace, a mysterious cloaked stranger pounded on the door. In a quavering voice, Herr Faust told whoever was there to go away and not come back. The pounding came again, louder, and then in a burst of cold wind and rain, the door burst open and slammed against the wall. Once again, the cloaked stranger pushed his way inside and stood, dripping on Herr Faust’s now marble floor.

Herr Faust trembled in fear as the stranger pulled back the hood of his cloak to reveal the same gauntly handsome face, curling black hair and gleaming dark eyes of Mephistopheles. In his gloved hand, he held the rolled up parchment bearing Herr Faust’s signature.

“It is time,” he said.