A Book of New England Legends
(Excerpts In Prose and Poetry)
and Folk Lore
By Samuel Adams Drake
(From "The Heart of the White Mountains.")
The legendary hero of Hampton is General Jonathan Moulton. He is no fictitious personage, but one of veritable flesh and blood, who, having acquired considerable celebrity in the old wars, lives on through the medium of a local legend.
The General, says the legend, encountered a far more notable adversary than Abenaki warriors or conjurers, among whom he lived, and whom it was the passion of his life to exterminate.
In an evil hour, his yearning to amass wealth suddenly led him to declare that he would sell his soul for the possession of unbounded riches. Think of the Devil, and he is at your elbow. The fatal declaration was no sooner made -- the General was sitting alone by his fireside -- than a shower of sparks came down the chimney, out of which stepped a man dressed from top to toe in black velvet. The astonished Moulton noticed that the stranger's ruffles were not even smutted.
"Your servant, General!" quoth the stranger, suavely. "But let us make haste, if you please, for I am expected at the Governor's in a quarter of an hour," he added, picking up a live coal with his thumb and forefinger, and consulting his watch with it.
The General's wits began to desert him. Portsmouth was five leagues -- long ones at that -- from Hampton House, and his strange visitor talked, with the utmost unconcern, of getting there in fifteen minutes! His astonishment caused him to stammer out, --
"Then you must be the --"
"Tush! what signifies a name?" interrupted the stranger, with a deprecating wave of the hand. "Come, do we understand each other? Is it a bargain, or not?"
At the talismanic word "bargain" the General pricked up his ears. He had often been heard to say that neither man nor devil could get the better of him in a trade. He took out his jack-knife and began to whittle. The Devil took out his, and began to pare his nails.
"But what proof have I that you can perform what you promise?" demanded Moulton, pursing up his mouth and contracting his bushy eyebrows, like a man who is not to be taken in by mere appearances.
The fiend ran his fingers carelessly through his peruke, when a shower of golden guineas fell to the floor and rolled to the four corners of the room. The General quickly stooped to pick up one; but no sooner had his fingers closed upon it, than he dropped it with a yell. It was red-hot!
The Devil chuckled; "Try again," he said. But Moulton shook his head and retreated a step.
"Don't be afraid."
Moulton cautiously touched a coin; it was cool. He weighed it in his hand, and rung it on the table; it was full weight and true ring. Then he went down on his hands and knees, and began to gather up the guineas with feverish haste.
"Are you satisfied?" demanded Satan.
"Completely, your Majesty."
"Then to business. By the way, have you anything to drink in the house?"
"There is some Old Jamaica in the cupboard."
"Excellent! I am as thirsty as a Puritan on election day," said the Devil, seating himself at the table, and negligently flinging his mantle back over his shoulder, so as to show the jewelled clasps of his doublet.
Moulton brought a decanter and a couple of glasses from the cupboard, filled one, and passed it to his infernal guest, who tasted it, and smacked his lips with the air of a connoisseur. Moulton watched every gesture. "Does your Excellency not find it to your taste?" he ventured to ask; having the secret idea that he might get the Devil drunk, and so outwit him.
"H'm, I have drunk worse. But let me show you how to make a salamander," replied Satan, touching the lighted end of the taper to the liquor, which instantly burst into a spectral blue flame. The fiend then raised the tankard to the height of his eye, glanced approvingly at the blaze, -- which to Moulton's disordered intellect resembled an adder's forked and agile tongue, -- nodded, and said, patronizingly, "To our better acquaintance!" He then quaffed the contents at a single gulp.
Moulton shuddered; this was not the way he had been used to seeing healths drunk. He pretended, however, to drink, for fear of giving offence; but somehow the liquor choked him. The demon set down the tankard, and observed, in a matter-of-fact way that put his listener in a cold sweat: "Now that you are convinced I am able to make you the richest man in all the province, listen! Have I your ear? It is well! In consideration of your agreement, duly signed and sealed, to deliver your soul" -- here he drew a parchment from his breast -- "I engage, on my part, on the first day of every month, to fill your boots with golden elephants, like these before you. But mark me well," said Satan, holding up a forefinger glittering with diamonds, "if you try to play me any trick, you will repent it! I know you, Jonathan Moulton, and shall keep my eye upon you; so beware!"
Moulton flinched a little at this plain speech; but a thought seemed to strike him, and he brightened up. Satan opened the scroll, smoothed out the creases, dipped a pen in the inkhorn at his girdle, and pointing to a blank space, said, laconically, "Sign!"
"If you are afraid," sneered Satan, "why put me to all this trouble?" and he began to put the gold in his pocket.
His victim seized the pen; but his hand shook so that he could not write. He gulped down a mouthful of rum, stole a look at his infernal guest, who nodded his head by way of encouragement, and a second time approached his pen to the paper. The struggle was soon over. The unhappy Moulton wrote his name at the bottom of the fatal list, which he was astonished to see numbered some of the highest personages in the province. "I shall at least be in good company," he muttered.
"Good!" said Satan, rising and putting the scroll carefully away within his breast. "Rely on me, General, and be sure you keep faith. Remember!" So saying, the demon waved his hand, flung his mantle about him, and vanished up the chimney.
Satan performed his part of the contract to the letter. On the first day of every month the boots, which were hung on the crane in the fireplace the night before, were found in the morning stuffed full of guineas. It is true that Moulton had ransacked the village for the largest pair to be found, and had finally secured a brace of trooper's jack-boots, which came nearly up to the wearer's thigh; but the contract merely expressed boots, and the Devil does not stand upon trifles.
Moulton rolled in wealth; everything prospered. His neighbors regarded him first with envy, then with aversion, at last with fear. Not a few affirmed that he had entered into a league with the Evil One. Others shook their heads, saying, "What does it signify? -- that man would outwit the Devil himself."
But one morning, when the fiend came as usual to fill the boots, what was his astonishment to find that he could not fill them. He poured in the guineas, but it was like pouring water into a rat-hole. The more he put in, the more the quantity seemed to diminish. In vain he persisted; the boots could not be filled.
The Devil scratched his ear. "I must look into this," he reflected. No sooner said, than he attempted to descend; but in doing so he found his progress suddenly stopped. A good reason. The chimney was choked up with guineas! Foaming with rage, the demon tore the boots from the crane. The crafty General had cut off the soles, leaving only the legs for the Devil to fill. The chamber was knee-deep with gold.
The Devil gave a horrible grin, and disappeared. The same night Hampton House was burned to the ground, the General only escaping in his shirt. He had been dreaming he was dead and in hell. His precious guineas were secreted in the wainscot, the ceiling, and other hiding-places known only to himself. He blasphemed, wept, and tore his hair. Suddenly he grew calm. After all, the loss was not irreparable, he reflected. Gold would melt, it is true; but he would find it all, -- of course he would, -- at daybreak, run into a solid lump in the cellar, -- every guinea. That is true of ordinary gold.
The General worked with the energy of despair, clearing away the rubbish. He refused all offers of assistance; he dared not accept them. But the gold had vanished. Whether it was really consumed, or had passed again into the massy entrails of the earth, will never be known. It is only certain that every vestige of it had disappeared.
When the General died and was buried, strange rumors began to circulate. To quiet them, the grave was opened; but when the lid was removed from the coffin, it was found to be empty.
Another legend runs to the effect that upon the death of his wife under -- as evil report would have it -- very suspicious circumstances, the General paid his court to a young woman who had been the companion of his deceased spouse. They were married. In the middle of the night the young bride awoke with a start. She felt an invisible hand trying to take off from her finger the wedding-ring that had once belonged to the dead and buried Mrs. Moulton. Shrieking with fright, she jumped out of bed, thus awaking her husband, who tried in vain to calm her fears. Candles were lighted and search made for the ring; but as it could never be found again, the ghostly visitor was supposed to have carried it away with her. This story is the same that is told by Whittier in the "New Wife and the Old."