Personally, I think that Washington Irving is the best author that our country has produced. Perhaps others prefer Poe or Longfellow, but I prefer Irving because of his genial style, not only in his short stories, but also in other works, such as his humorous history of New York.
Among his short stories, my favorite is The Student of Salamanca. Others probably prefer The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Rip Van Winkle.
The Devil and Tom Walker is also interesting and deserves a wider audience than it currently enjoys. Besides its interesting style, it is an edifying tale.
Irving begins this tale by claiming that Captain Kidd buried his treasure a few miles from Boston. The devil became its guardian. Kidd never returned to retrieve his wealth because he was hanged for piracy soon thereafter.
Irving then introduces the heroes of the story: Tom Walker and his wife. Both were miserly people. They were so greedy that they cheated each other. They often argued, and the good lady’s face often showed that their disputes were not always confined to words.
One day, when Tom Walker was taking a shortcut home, he happened to arrive at the ruins of the fort in which the local Indians had made their last stand. He decided to rest there for a while.
Suddenly the devil appeared and asked Tom Walker what he was doing on his property. Tom thought that the land belonged to Deacon Peabody, but the devil claimed that the Indians had consecrated the area to him long before the palefaces had arrived on the scene.
The devil pointed out that all the trees on his land bore the name of a person. Tom recognized the names of many prominent citizens. All of them had been damaged by an axe. They were being chopped down by the devil, who carried an axe and was locally known as the black woodsman. As soon as a tree fell, the person whose name was carved on it would die.
The devil told Tom where the treasure of Captain Kidd was buried. He told Tom that he could have it if he agreed to certain conditions. The conditions were so severe that Tom did not accept them.
When he told his wife what happened, she urged him to agree to the conditions so that they could have the treasure. Tom flatly refused, partly because he was accustomed to oppose anything that his wife wanted.
Since her husband refused to come to terms with the devil, she decided to bargain with the black woodsman herself. Her first attempt saddened her. The devil insisted that she give him her silverware and other valuables that she possessed. She made a second trip to the old Indian fort with the desired offering, but she never came back.
After several days, Tom went to look for his wife, mainly because he wanted to recover the valuables that she had removed from the house. At the ruined fort, he found her heart and liver tied up in her apron. In the general area, there was ample evidence that she put up a terrific fight.
Tom felt grateful to the devil for taking his termagant wife, so he became more compliant when the devil bargained with him.
Tom readily agreed to the loss of his soul. However, the devil wanted Tom to use the treasure to engage in slave trade. Since Tom adamantly refused, the devil suggested usury as an alternative. Tom agreed, and the two shook hands.
So Tom became a usurer in Boston. A host of people borrowed money from him, only to be ruined by his ruthless business dealings. Tom became fabulously rich.
As Tom grew old, he began to worry about the bargain that he had made. He began to go to church. He prayed loudly and strenuously. He sternly censured the sins of his neighbors. He regularly carried a small Bible with him, and a large Bible adorned his desk in his place of business. He often read in this large Bible while waiting for his next victim to ruin himself by borrowing money at exorbitant rates of interest. [Obviously, his religion was a sham.]
The end came when Tom was foreclosing on the property of a landowner for whom he had professed friendship. The landowner asked Tom to wait a few months before foreclosing. He pointed out that Tom had already made a lot of money at his expense.
In reply, Tom said: “The devil take me if I have made a farthing!”
The black woodsman complied with Tom’s wish. He carried the usurer away on a black horse.
The Devil and Tom Walker is presented online by a website called Page by Page Books.