THE DEVIL AND THE BROKER
A MEDIAEVAL LEGEND
by 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 be
perceived that the popular belief that the Devil avoids holy edifices, and
vanishes at the sound of a Credo or Pater-noster, is long since exploded.
Indeed, modern scepticism 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 marvellous 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 skilful 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 in 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 foiled
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 any way, 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
skilful 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, bustle, 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
When he made sure that the Devil had retired, he carefully drew from his
pocket-book 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
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!"