56 The Devil and Daniel Webster
It's a story they tell in the border country, where
Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire.
Yes, Dan'l Webster's dead ----- or, at least, they buried him.
But every time there's a thunderstorm around Marshfield, they
say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky.
And they say that if you go to his grave and speak loud and
clear, "Dan'l Webster ----- Dan'l Webster!" the ground'll
begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a
while you'll hear a deep voice saying, "Neighbor, how stands
the Union?" Then you better answer the Union stands as she
stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible,
or he's liable to rear right out of the ground. At least,
that's what I was told when I was a youngster.
You see, for a while, he was the biggest man in the country.
He never got to be President, but he was the biggest man.
There were thousands that trusted in him right next to God
Almighty and they told stories about him that were like the
stories of patriarchs and such. They said when he stood up to
speak, stars and stripes came right out in the sky, and once
he spoke against a river and made it sink into the ground.
They said when he walked the woods with his fishing rod,
Killall, the trout would jump out of the streams right into
his pockets, for they knew it was use putting up a fight
against him; and, when he argued a case, he could turn on the
harps of the blessed and the shaking of the earth underground.
That was the kind of man he was, and his big farm up at
Marshfield was suitable to him. The chickens he raised were
all white meat down through the drumsticks, and the cows were
tended like children, and the big ram he called Goliath had
horns with a curl like a morning-glory vine and could butt
through an iron door. But Dan'l wasn't one of your gentlemen
farmers; he knew all the way of the land, and he'd be up by
candlelight to see that the chores got done. A man with a
mouth like a mastiff, a brow like a mountain and eyes like
burning anthracite --- that was Dan'l Webster in his prime.
And the biggest case he argued never got written down in the
books, for he argued it against the devil, nip and tuck and no
holds barred. And this is the way I used to hear it told.
There was a man named Jabez Stone, lived at Cross Corners, New
Hampshire. He wasn't a bad man to start with, but he was an
unlucky man. If he planted corn, he got borers; if he planted
potatoes, he got blight. He had good enough land, but it
didn't prosper him; he had a decent wife and children, but the
more children he had, the les there was to feed them. If
stones cropped up in his neighbor's field, boulders boiled up
in his; if he had a horse with spavins, he'd trade it for one
with the staggers and give something extra. There's some
folks bound to be like that, apparently. But one day Jabez
Stone got sick of the whole business.
He'd been plowing that morning and he'd just broke the
plowshare on a rock that he could have sworn hadn't been there
yesterday. And, as he stood looking at the plowshare, the off
horse began to cough ----- that ropy kid of cough that means
sickness and horse doctors. There were two children down with
the measles, his wife was ailing, and he had a whitlow on his
thumb. It was about the last straw for Jabez Stone. "I vow,"
he said, and he looked around him kind of desperate ----- "I
vow it's enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the
devil! And I would, too, for two cents!"
Then he felt a kind of queerness come over him at having said
what he'd said; though, naturally, being a New Hampshireman,
he wouldn't take it back. But, all the same, when it got to be
evening and, as far as he could see, no notice had been taken,
he felt relieved in his mind, for he was a religious man. But
notice is always take, sooner or later, just like the Good
Book says. And, sure enough, next day, about suppertime, a
soft-spoken, dark-dressed stranger drove up in a handsome
buggy and asked for Jabez Stone.
Well, Jabez told his family it was a lawyer, come to see him
about a legacy. But he knew who it was. He didn't like the
looks of the stranger, nor the way he smiled with his teeth.
They were white teeth, and plentiful----some say they were
filed to a point, but I wouldn't vouch for that. And he
didn't like it when the dog took one look at the stranger and
ran away howling, with his tail between his legs. But having
passed his word, more or less, he stuck to it, and they went
out behind the barn and made their bargain. Jabez Stone had
to prick his finger to sign, and the stranger lent him a
silver pin. The would healed clean, but it left a little
After that, all of a sudden, things began to pick up and
prosper for Jabez Stone. His cows got fat and his horses
sleek, his crops were the envy of the neighborhood, and
lightning might strike all over the valley, but it wouldn't
strike his barn. Pretty soon, he was one of the prosperous
people of the county; they asked him to stand for selectman,
and he stood for it; there began to be talk of running him for
state senate. All in all, you might say the Stone family was
as happy and contented as cats in a dairy. And so they were,
except for Jabez Stone.
The stranger came up through the lower field, switching his
boots with a cane ---- they were handsome black boots, but
Jabez Stone never liked the look of them, particularly the
toes. And after he'd passed the time of day, he said, "Well,
Mr. Stone, you're a hummer! It's a very pretty property
you've got here, Mr. Stone."
"Well, some might favor it and others might not," said Jabez
Stone, for he was a New Hampshireman.
"Oh, no need to decry your industry!" said the stranger, very
easy, showing his teeth in a smile. "After all, we know
what's been done, and it's been according to contract and
specifications. So when --- ahem ----- the mortgage falls due
next year, you shouldn't have any regrets."
"Speaking of that mortgage, mister," said Jabez Stone, and he
looked around for help to the earth and sky, "I'm beginning to
have one or two doubts about it."
"Doubts?" said the stranger, not quite so pleasantly.
"Why, yes," said Jabez Stone. "This being the USA and me
always having been a religious man." He cleared his throat
and got bolder. "Yes, sir," he said, "I'm beginning to have
considerable doubts as to that mortgage holding in court."
"There's courts and courts," said the stranger, clicking his
teeth. "Still, we might as well have a look at the original
document." And he hauled out a big black pocketbook, full of
papers. "Sherwin, Slater, Stevens, Stone," he muttered. "I,
Jabez Stone, for a term of seven years --------- Oh, it's
quite in order, I think."
But Jabez Stone wasn't listening, for he saw something else
flutter out of the black pocketbook. It was something that
looked like a moth, but it wasn't a moth. And as Jabez Stone
stared at it, it seemed to speak to him in a small sort of
piping voice, terrible small and thin, but terrible human.
"Neighbor Stone!" it squeaked. "Neighbor Stone! Help me!
For heaven's sake, help me!"
But before Jabez Stone could stir hand or foot, the stranger
whipped out a big bandanna handkerchief, caught the creature
in it, just like a butterfly, and started tying up the ends of
"Sorry for the interruption," he said, "As I was saying -----"
But Jabez Stone was shaking all over like a scared horse.
"That's Miser Stevens' voice!" he said, in a croak. "And
you've got him in your handkerchief!"
The stranger looked a little embarrassed.
"Yes, I really should have transferred him to the collecting
box," he said with a simper, "but there were some rather
unusual specimens there and I didn't want them crowded. Well,
well, these little contretemps will occur."
"I don't know what you mean by contertan," said Jabez Stone,
"but that was Miser Stevens' voice! And he ain't dead! You
can't tell me he is! He was just as spry and mean as a
"In the midst of life -----" said the stranger, kind of pious.
"Listen!" Then a bell began to toll in the valley and Jabez
Stone listened, with the sweat running down his face. For he
knew it was tolled for Miser Stevens and that he was dead.
"These long-standing accounts," said the stranger with a sigh;
"one really hates to close them. But business is business."
He still had the bandanna in his hand, and Jabez Stone felt
sick as he saw the cloth struggle and flutter.
"Are they all as small as that?" he asked hoarsely.