It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire.
Yes, Dan’l Webster’s dead—or, at least, they buried him. But every time there’s a thunderstorm around Marshfield, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky. And they say that if you go to his grave and speak loud and clear, “Dan’l Webster—Dan’l Webster!” the ground’ll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a while you’ll hear a deep voice saying, “Neighbor, how stands the Union?” Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible, or he’s liable to rear right out of the ground. At least, that’s what I was told when I was a youngster.
You see, for a while, he was the biggest man in the country. He never got to be President, but he was the biggest man. There were thousands that trusted in him right next to God Almighty and they told stories about him that were like the stories of patriarchs and such. They said when he stood up to speak, stars and stripes came right out in the sky, and once he spoke against a river and made it sink into the ground. They said when he walked the woods with his fishing rod, Killall, the trout would jump out of the streams right into his pockets, for they knew it was use putting up a fight against him; and, when he argued a case, he could turn on the harps of the blessed and the shaking of the earth underground. That was the kind of man he was, and his big farm up at Marshfield was suitable to him. The chickens he raised were all white meat down through the drumsticks, and the cows were tended like children, and the big ram he called Goliath had horns with a curl like a morning-glory vine and could butt through an iron door. But Dan’l wasn’t one of your gentlemen farmers; he knew all the way of the land, and he’d be up by candlelight to see that the chores got done. A man with a mouth like a mastiff, a brow like a mountain and eyes like burning anthracite—that was Dan’l Webster in his prime. And the biggest case he argued never got written down in the books, for he argued it against the devil, nip and tuck and no holds barred. And this is the way I used to hear it told.
There was a man named Jabez Stone, lived at Cross Corners, New Hampshire. He wasn’t a bad man to start with, but he was an unlucky man. If he planted corn, he got borers; if he planted potatoes, he got blight. He had good enough land, but it didn’t prosper him; he had a decent wife and children, but the more children he had, the les there was to feed them. If stones cropped up in his neighbor’s field, boulders boiled up in his; if he had a horse with spavins, he’d trade it for one with the staggers and give something extra. There’s some folks bound to be like that, apparently. But one day Jabez Stone got sick of the whole business.
He’d been plowing that morning and he’d just broke the plowshare on a rock that he could have sworn hadn’t been there yesterday. And, as he stood looking at the plowshare, the off horse began to cough—that ropy kid of cough that means sickness and horse doctors. There were two children down with the measles, his wife was ailing, and he had a whitlow on his thumb. It was about the last straw for Jabez Stone. “I vow,” he said, and he looked around him kind of desperate—”I vow it’s enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the devil! And I would, too, for two cents!”
Then he felt a kind of queerness come over him at having said what he’d said; though, naturally, being a New Hampshireman, he wouldn’t take it back. But, all the same, when it got to be evening and, as far as he could see, no notice had been taken, he felt relieved in his mind, for he was a religious man. But notice is always taken, sooner or later, just like the Good Book says. And, sure enough, next day, about suppertime, a soft-spoken, dark-dressed stranger drove up in a handsome buggy and asked for Jabez Stone.