The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

Spanish and American Legends

The Devil and the Broker

A Mediaeval Legend

Bret Harte

THE CHURCH clocks in San Francisco were striking ten. The Devil, who had been flying over the city that evening, just then alighted on the roof of a church near the corner of Bush and Montgomery streets. It will he perceived that the popular belief that the Devil avoids holy edifices, and vanishes at the sound of a credo or paternoster, is long since exploded. Indeed, modern skepticism asserts that he is not averse to these orthodox discourses, which particularly bear reference to himself, and in a measure recognize his power and importance.

I am inclined to think, however, that his choice of a resting-place was a good deal influenced by its contiguity to a populous thoroughfare. When he was comfortably seated, he began pulling out the joints of a small rod which he held in his hand, and which presently proved to be an extraordinary fishing-pole, with a telescopic adjustment that permitted its protraction to a marvelous extent. Affixing a line thereto, he selected a fly of a particular pattern from a small box which he carried with him, and, making a skillful cast, threw his line into the very centre of that living stream which ebbed and flowed through Montgomery Street.

Either the people were very virtuous that evening, or the bait was not a taking one. In vain the Devil whipped the stream at an eddy in front of the Occidental, or trolled his line into the shadows of the Cosmopolitan; five minutes passed without even a nibble. “Dear me!” quoth the Devil, “that’s very singular; one of my most popular flies, too! Why, they’d have risen by shoals in Broadway or Beacon Street for that. Well, here goes another.” And fitting a new fly from his well-filled box, he gracefully recast his line.

For a few moments there was every prospect of sport. The line was continually bobbing and the nibbles were distinct and gratifying. Once or twice the bait was apparently gorged and carried off to the upper stories of the hotels, to be digested at leisure. At such times the professional manner in which the Devil played out his line would have thrilled the heart of Izaak Walton. But his efforts were unsuccessful; the bait was invariably carried off without hooking the victim, and the Devil finally lost his temper. “I’ve heard of these San Franciscans before,” he muttered. “Wait till I get hold of one, that’s all!” he added malevolently, as he rebaited his hook. A sharp tug and a wriggle followed his next trial, and finally, with considerable effort, he landed a portly two-hundred-pound broker upon the church roof.

As the victim lay there gasping, it was evident that the Devil was in no hurry to remove the hook from his gills; nor did he exhibit in this delicate operation that courtesy of manner and graceful manipulation which usually distinguished him.

“Come,” he said gruffly, as he grasped the broker by the waistband, “quit that whining and grunting. Don’t flatter yourself that you’re a prize, either. I was certain to have had you. It was only a question of time.”

“It is not that, my lord, which troubles me,” whined the unfortunate wretch, as he painfully wriggled his head, “but that I should have been fooled by such a paltry bait. What will they say of me down there? To have let ‘bigger things’ go by, and to be taken in by this cheap trick,” he added, as he groaned and glanced at the fly which the Devil was carefully rearranging, “is what,—pardon me, my lord,—is what gets me!”

“Yes,” said the Devil philosophically, “I never caught anybody yet who didn’t say that; but tell me, ain’t you getting somewhat fastidious down there? Here is one of my most popular flies, the greenback,” he continued, exhibiting an emerald-looking insect, which he drew from his box. “This, so generally considered excellent in election season, has not even been nibbled at. Perhaps your sagacity, which, in spite of this unfortunate contretemps, no one can doubt,” added the Devil, with a graceful return to his usual courtesy, “may explain the reason or suggest a substitute.”

The broker glanced at the contents of the box with a supercilious smile. “Too old-fashioned, my lord,—long ago played out. Yet,” he added, with a gleam of interest, “for a consideration I might offer something—ahem!—that would make a taking substitute for these trifles. Give me,” he continued, in a brisk, business-like way, “a slight percentage and a bonus down, and I’m your man.”

“Name your terms,” said the Devil earnestly.

“My liberty and a percentage on all you take, and the thing’s done.”

The Devil caressed his tail thoughtfully for a few moments. He was certain of the broker anyway, and the risk was slight. “Done!” he said.

“Stay a moment,” said the artful broker. “There are certain contingencies. Give me your fishing-rod and let me apply the bait myself. It requires a skillful hand, my lord: even your well-known experience might fail. Leave me alone for half an hour, and if you have reason to complain of my success I will forfeit my deposit,—I mean my liberty.”

The Devil acceded to his request, bowed, and withdrew. Alighting gracefully in Montgomery Street, he dropped into Meade & Co.’s clothing store, where, having completely equipped himself a la mode, he sallied forth intent on his personal enjoyment. Determining to sink his professional character, he mingled with the current of human life, and enjoyed, with that immense capacity for excitement peculiar to his nature, the whirl, hustle, and feverishness of the people, as a purely aesthetic gratification unalloyed by the cares of business. What he did that evening does not belong to our story. We return to the broker, whom we left on the roof.

When he made sure that the Devil had retired, he carefully drew from his pocketbook a slip of paper and affixed it on the hook. The line had scarcely reached the current before he felt a bite. The hook was swallowed. To bring up his victim rapidly, disengage him from the hook, and reset his line, was the work of a moment. Another bite and the same result. Another, and another. In a very few minutes the roof was covered with his panting spoil. The broker could himself distinguish that many of them were personal friends; nay, some of them were familiar frequenters of the building on which they were now miserably stranded. That the broker felt a certain satisfaction in being instrumental in thus misleading his fellow-brokers no one acquainted with human nature will for a moment doubt. But a stronger pull on his line caused him to put forth all his strength and skill. The magic pole bent like a coach-whip. The broker held firm, assisted by the battlements of the church. Again and again it was almost wrested from his hand, and again and again he slowly reeled in a portion of the tightening line. At last, with one mighty effort, he lifted to the level of the roof a struggling object. A howl like Pandemonium rang through the air as the broker successfully landed at his feet—the Devil himself!

The two glared fiercely at each other. The broker, perhaps mindful of his former treatment, evinced no haste to remove the hook from his antagonist’s jaw. When it was finally accomplished, he asked quietly if the Devil was satisfied. That gentleman seemed absorbed in the contemplation of the bait which he had just taken from his mouth. “I am,” he said finally, “and forgive you; but what do you call this?”

“Bend low,” replied the broker, as he buttoned up his coat ready to depart. The Devil inclined his ear. “I call it WILD CAT!”

The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales

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