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Faust in Poland by E. C. R.

1875

Nowhere do we see the genuine soul and character of a people so distinctly as in its myths, legends, popular songs and traditions. They reflect faithfully, though—perhaps we should say, because—unconsciously, the deeds, aspirations and beliefs of the earlier ages, and not only afford to our own precious material for philological and ethnological study, but still exert, in many instances at least, considerable influence over the ideas and feelings of men. The Faust legend will never lose its mysterious fascination: many poets have felt it, but Goethe's insight penetrated all its depth of meaning, and his marvelous poem is for us the supreme expression of it.

But it is interesting to find the same legend in Poland, with characteristic variations from the German conception, illustrative of the hospitality and chivalry and the dominant influence of woman which are such marked features in Polish history. Twardowsky (the Doctor Faustus of Poland) lived in the sixteenth century, in the time of Sigismund Augustus. He studied at the University of Cracow, rose to the rank of doctor, and devoted himself especially to chemistry and physics, having a secret laboratory in a vast cavern of Mount Krzemionki. Science in those days was regarded as intimately associated with the black arts, and it was not surprising that Twardowsky's contemporaries added the title of sorcerer to those of doctor and professor, supposed he had made an alliance with Satan, and fancied an army of demons always waiting to do his bidding. All this did not prevent his enjoyment of the king's favor. Sigismund had married, against his mother's wish, Barbara Radziwill, the beautiful daughter of a Polish magnate. The nobles, probably influenced by Bona, the mother of the king, demanded that Barbara should be repudiated: he indignantly refused, and shortly afterward she was poisoned. The grief and rage of Sigismund were without bounds: he exiled his mother, wore black all the rest of his life, and had the apartments of his palace hung with it. His melancholy gave him new interest in the occult sciences, and he became more than ever intimate with Twardowsky, sometimes visiting him in his cavern, sometimes receiving him secretly in his palace. At first, he was satisfied with the chemical experiments which the populace regarded as supernatural, but after a while he urgently desired Twardowsky to produce for him a vision of Barbara. Twardowsky appointed a night for the exhibition of his skill, and after drawing a magic circle and pronouncing some mysterious words, he called Barbara thrice by name, and she appeared—not as a spectre risen from the tomb, but in all the beauty and freshness which had been the king's delight. He fainted at the sight, and his regard for the magician increased greatly. But one fatal evening he found the door of the cavern shut. Twardowsky, not expecting him, was not there. After some delay the door was opened by a beautiful young woman. "Barbara!" exclaimed Sigismund. "Barbara is my name, but I am alive, not dead," was her reply. Twardowsky's device was now exposed. He had created an illusion for the satisfaction of Sigismund by employing this substitute for his lost Barbara. She was a girl named Barbara Gisemka, whom Twardowsky had rescued from the hands of a furious mob, had concealed in his cavern, and initiated into the sciences to which he devoted himself. She became his adept and his mistress. But the king, furious at the imposition which had been practiced upon him, and desirous of making this beautiful creature his own, had Twardowsky murdered, and gave out that the devil had carried him off. Barbara Gisemka acquired immense influence over the mind of her royal lover, which lasted while he lived. When he was ill she suffered no physician to approach him, and was with him when he died in 1572.

So much for history. Tradition has transformed Twardowsky into a gay and brilliant gentleman, who, in order to gain all the pleasures of life, sold his soul to the devil, engaging on his honor to give it up to him whenever he (the devil) should enter the city of Rome. Twardowsky now enjoyed to the full his new power, reveling in luxury himself, and lavishing gifts and banquets on his friends. The populace also shared his generosity—all the more, too, from the strange manner of it. On one occasion, we are told, he pierced three holes in a shoemaker's nose with his own awl, and caused a tun of brandy to flow from it for the refreshment of the crowd. One day he was informed that a stranger who was at the inn called the "City of Rome" wished to see him. He went at once to the place with no misgivings, but on his arrival there found the devil, who had come to claim the fulfillment of the contract. Provoked at the quibble, he resolved to employ a ruse himself, and just as the devil was about to take possession of him he seized the infant child of the innkeeper from its cradle and held it up before him, its innocence being a sure defence against Satan's power. He, however, demanded what had become of his plighted word. The honor of the Polish gentleman could not resist this appeal. He put down the child and rose into the air with Satan. But while they were still hovering over Cracow the sound of church-bells awoke in Twardowsky's recollection a hymn to the Virgin, which he forthwith sang, and the devil could hold him no longer. Twardowsky, however, could not get down again, but remains suspended in the air, only receiving news from the earth by means of a spider which happened to be on the tail of his coat, and which occasionally spins a thread and goes down, for a while, returning with whatever it may have picked up for his information and amusement.

No Polish story would be complete without a woman, and so we find that Twardowsky had a wife, beautiful, witty and imperious, with all the fascinations universally conceded to the Polish women. Madame Twardowsky is said to have ruled her husband just as he ruled the devil during the time of that personage's subjection; and there is a second version of the story which makes her too much for Satan himself. According to this account, Twardowsky was entertaining a number of friends at the "City of Rome," when suddenly the devil appeared. While Twardowsky, to gain time, was reading over the compact, his wife, looking over his shoulder, suddenly laughed, and addressing the devil, told him there were still three conditions for him to fulfill, on failure of which the parchment should be torn up, and asked whether she might impose them. The devil politely replied in the affirmative. "Here, then," said she, "see this horse painted on the wall of the inn: I wish to mount him, and you must make me a whip of sand and a staple of walnuts." The devil bowed, and in a moment the horse was prancing before their eyes. The lady now had a large tub of holy water brought in, and invited the devil, as his second task, to plunge into it and refresh his weary limbs. He coughed, shivered, then went in resolutely, coming out again as quickly as possible, and shaking himself well. "The third task will be a pleasant one," said the lady with her most bewitching smile: "The first year my husband passes in hell you shall spend with me, swearing to me love, fidelity and implicit obedience. Will you?" The devil rushed toward the door, but she was too quick for him, and succeeded in locking it and putting the key into her pocket. Satan, resolved to escape from the servitude in store for him, could only do so by going through the keyhole, which has been black ever since.

E. C. R.