When Charles River was lined with groves and marshes there lived in a cabin, near Brighton, Massachusetts, an ill-fed rascal named Tom Walker. There was but one in the commonwealth who was more penurious, and that was his wife. They squabbled over the spending of a penny and each grudged food to the other. One day as Tom walked through the pine wood near his place, by habit watching the ground—for even there a farthing might be discovered—he prodded his stick into a skull, cloven deep by an Indian tomahawk. He kicked it, to shake the dirt off, when a gruff voice spake: “What are you doing in my grounds?” A swarthy fellow, with the face of a charcoal burner, sat on a stump, and Tom wondered that he had not seen him as he approached.
He replied, “Your grounds! They belong to Deacon Peabody.”
“Deacon Peabody be damned!” cried the black fellow; “as I think he will be, anyhow, if he does not look after his own sins a little sharper and a little less curiously after his neighbors’. Look, if you want to see how he is faring,” and, pointing to a tree, he called Tom to notice that the deacon’s name was written on the bark and that it was rotten at the core. To his surprise, Tom found that nearly every tree had the name of some prominent man cut upon it.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I go by different names in different places,” replied the dark one. “In some countries I am the black miner; in some the wild huntsman; here I am the black woodman. I am the patron of slave dealers and master of Salem witches.”
“I think you are the devil,” blurted Tom.
“At your service,” replied his majesty.
Now, Tom, having lived long with Mrs. Walker, had no fear of the devil, and he stopped to have a talk with him. The devil remarked, in a careless tone, that Captain Kidd had buried his treasure in that wood, under his majesty’s charge, and that whoever wished could find and keep it by making the usual concession. This Tom declined. He told his wife about it, however, and she was angry with him for not having closed the bargain at once, declaring that if he had not courage enough to add this treasure to their possessions she would not hesitate to do it. Tom showed no disposition to check her. If she got the money he would try to get a share of it, and if the devil took away his helpmate—well, there were things that he had made his mind to endure, when he had to. True enough, the woman started for the wood before sundown, with her spoons in her apron. When Tom discovered that the spoons were gone he, too, set off, for he wanted those back, anyway; but he did not overtake his wife. An apron was found in a tree containing a dried liver and a withered heart, and near that place the earth had been trampled and strewn with handfuls of coarse hair that reminded Tom of the man that he had met in the woods. “Egad!” he muttered, “Old Nick must have had a tough time with her.” Half in gratitude and half in curiosity, Tom waited to speak to the dark man, and was next day rewarded by seeing that personage come through the wood with an axe, whistling carelessly. Tom at once approached him on the subject of the buried treasure—not the vanished wife, for her he no longer regarded as a treasure.
After some haggling the devil proposed that Tom should start a loan office in Boston and use Kidd’s money in exacting usury. This suited Tom, who promised to screw four per cent. a month out of the unfortunates who might ask his aid, and he was seen to start for town with a bag which his neighbors thought to hold his crop of starveling turnips, but which was really a king’s ransom in gold and jewels—the earnings of Captain Kidd in long years of honest piracy. It was in Governor Belcher’s time, and cash was scarce. Merchants and professional men as well as the thriftless went to Tom for money, and, as he always had it, his business grew until he seemed to have a mortgage on half the men in Boston who were rich enough to be in debt. He even went so far as to move into a new house, to ride in his own carriage, and to eat enough to keep body and soul together, for he did not want to give up his soul to the one who would claim it just yet.
The most singular proof of his thrift—showing that he wanted to save soul and money both—was shown in his joining the church and becoming a prayerful Christian. He kept a Bible in his pocket and another on his desk, resolved to be prepared if a certain gentleman should call. He buried his old horse feet uppermost, for he was taught that on resurrection day the world would be turned upside down, and he was resolved, if his enemy appeared, to give him a run for it. While employed one afternoon in the congenial task of foreclosing a mortgage his creditor begged for another day to raise the money. Tom was irritable on account of the hot weather and talked to him as a good man of the church ought not to do.
“You have made so much money out of me,” wailed the victim of Tom’s philanthropies.
“Now, the devil take me if I have made a farthing!” exclaimed Tom.
At that instant there were three knocks at the door, and, stepping out to see who was there, the money lender found himself in presence of his fate. His little Bible was in a coat on a nail, and the bigger one was on his desk. He was without defence. The evil one caught him up like a child, had him on the back of his snorting steed in no time, and giving the beast a cut he flew like the wind in the teeth of a rising storm toward the marshes of Brighton. As he reached there a lightning flash descended into the wood and set it on fire. At the same moment Tom’s house was discovered to be in flames. When his effects were examined nothing was found in his strong boxes but cinders and shavings.