Author’s note: This is a continuation of The Pied Harpist of Nashville story. Click here to go to the first installment.
The Devil and Daniel Webster
By L. Stewart Marsden
Terry sat as Sheila paced about the small apartment living room. Her voice and her mannerisms highlighted the story of how she came to know Coleridge – and when.
“I was a barmaid in a small New England town,” she began. “King George still held reign over America, and it was a bit before colonists began to brood about how the Motherland treated them. There was more concern then over the Indians than England.
Terry tried to dig up what little knowledge he had about the time. He knew it was at least in the 1700s, but not exactly when. He didn’t want to interrupt her with stupid questions.
“Those days tavern keepers bought a variety of drink from local sources. Beer, wine, rum, and some whiskey. Some bottled. Some in barrels. So food and drink and good company was the draw.
“The tavern was the hub of the community. There you found out anything and everything that was important to know. And after the sun set, ribaldry was the order of the night.”
Terry didn’t know exactly what ribaldry meant, but he could guess.
She walked into the kitchen and poured water into a teapot from the sink, then set the pot on a stove burner to boil. She opened a cabinet and retrieved a teacup, looking towards Terry, who shook his head ‘no.’
Leaning back against the counter to wait for the water to boil, she continued, arms crossed.
“I was young and foolish. I came from a poor home. My father was a drunkard, and used to drag me to the tavern nearly every night. That’s how I came to be a barmaid there. You could say I grew into the position.
“Along the way I picked up the fiddle from one of the regulars who came to the tavern and played. He was a grizzled old man – a trapper – from France. He was happy to show me how to play all the popular tunes and reels. And I was a natural. Like you with the harmonica.
“Ebenezer, owner of the tavern, encouraged me, and was kind enough to support me in lessons, so I could learn the instrument properly. He was a fine man of the community, despite some of the goings on in his establishment.
“His son, Daniel, would come in from time to time, and part of my agreement for the lessons was to teach Daniel the fiddle – which I did. He was not very good at it, though. He excelled in his letters, and he spent time reading to me from all of the classics – Chaucer and Shakespeare. I believe he was taken with me.”
The teapot began to whistle, breaking what was a brief reverie on Sheila’s part. She opened a jar and picked out a teabag which she put into the teacup, pouring hot water over it.
“Daniel’s last name was Webster.”
“Daniel Webster,” Terry mulled. “The dictionary Webster?”
“One and the same,” replied Sheila, stepping back into the living room.
“Which led to my meeting Coleridge. Do you remember the story of the Devil and Daniel Webster?”
“I think so.”
“It wasn’t a story. It really happened. Old Jabez Stone really was a farmer. And he was truly plagued by bad luck. I actually heard him say he’d sell his soul to the devil if it would turn his luck. Under the weight of a couple of pints, I’d say.
“And no sooner was it out of his mouth when Coleridge steps through the door of the tavern.”
“Coleridge is the devil?” blurted Terry in horror.
“He is a devil, but not the Devil. He’s a minion. But a very high-ranking one. By now he’s probably a couple of tiers away from Satan. And back then he was still an apprentice. You know – under the guidance of another demon.
“Anyway, he takes Stone aside, and after a couple of more pints the two erupted in laughter and shook hands, and out walked the pair as if they were age-old buddies.
“Well, Stone’s luck changed immediately. He discovered gold on his land while plowing one day. Not a nugget or two, but a whole vein. And gold-diggers from miles around gathered like flies on a carcass, begging to buy parts of his land.
“He didn’t sell the piece where he discovered gold of course, but parceled up his land bit by bit – demanded an unbelievable sum for each acre sold. But people didn’t care. They paid for the potential, and according to what Stone mined, the potential was great.
“But no one else struck gold. And a rumor began to circulate he had salted his land with gold, and his claim was fake. It wasn’t. The gold he found made him one of the richest men in Cross Corners. But, the sale of his land? He more than doubled his worth.
“Angry by not finding gold on their land purchases, those who felt hoodwinked got together and demanded their money back. He refused. One night they gathered outside his home with long rifles and torches, and threatened to string him up, shoot him, and burn down his house and barns.”
“Wow. But where does Coleridge come in?”
“Right then. Coleridge intervened, and offered to pay off each buyer a percentage of their purchase price. He told them Stone had no cash – just assets – and they were unlikely to get anything out of him. He said something is better than nothing. I think he made deals with each of those men which had nothing to do with gold or land, if you know what I mean.”
“So that was it?”
“Nope. Coleridge told Stone the Boss wanted his due, and it was time for him to pay up — which meant,” Sheila slid her index finger along her neck. “Stone went to Webster, now a prominent lawyer, who agreed to take up his case.”
“So there actually was a trial?”
“There was. And when Coleridge was defeated, oh – the celebration at the tavern was incredible! Coleridge was madder than hell. And that’s when he took notice of me.”
“Ah, and what happened?”
“I was playing the fiddle in the tavern. Years had passed and my youthful looks were taking a beating. Life was at a standstill for me. And Coleridge knew all about me.
“He says to me, he says ‘How’d you like to be young and beautiful forever?’ Who is going to say no to beautiful forever? So I asked him what I had to do.”
“And he told you.”
“And he told me. And so, through the years, I’ve done whatever has been necessary. Coleridge has been good to me – but stern. I’m not proud of everything by a long shot.”
“And the men’s shelter? He ask you to do it?”
“I didn’t know what was going to happen. He gave me certain powers – like the ability to transform. I was at the café the night you and Melvin met early in the morning.”
“The old woman!”
“You have to understand, Terry. When he assigned me to you, it was just only an assignment. But now? This has never happened to me before.”
“What hasn’t happened?”
“Feelings. Over the centuries and decades, I’ve pretty much stayed out of things emotionally. I could always remove myself from each situation.”
“What other situations have you had?”
“You don’t want to know. You’d recognize some of the people. Mostly they’re dead. And Coleridge has collected his due which he delivered up the line.”
Sheila nodded gravely.
“But why me?”
“Because you have a talent Coleridge wants.”
“More. You can make people do things.”
“Because of the harp Coleridge gave me.”
“No. It isn’t.”
“What’re you saying?”
“Your harmonica is like a placebo. Like when people take a fake medication for an illness, and improve despite it. That harmonica has nothing special about it at all. And Coleridge never wants you to know that. That’s his leverage over you: you thinking it’s special. It’s not.”
“You mean – ”
“Everything you are able to do on harmonic comes from you.”
“But changing keys?”
“Making people do things?”
Terry was stunned at the news.
“What about your abilities? I mean, are you a witch, or aren’t you? Didn’t you destroy the shelter and kill Melvin and those other men?”
“I’m a vessel. I don’t consider myself a witch. Although they do exist. Technically I did those things, but in reality? Coleridge.”
“So – how? You were hypnotized or something?”
“Not hypnotized. I was aware what was going on. I allowed it. The power – the evilness – is Coleridge.”
“And that’s your excuse?”
“Terry, we wouldn’t be having this discussion if I didn’t know it was wrong!”
“Murder is a bit more than wrong, don’t you think!”
“I know! I know. And if I could change it I would. If there were some magic I could conjure, I would do it. Just by telling you this I’ve put everything in jeopardy. Coleridge finds out? He’ll demand payment.”
“And by ‘payment,’ you mean – ” Terry thumped on his chest with his finger.
“Not just my life,” she said, nodding.
“Your soul, too?”
She nodded again.
“I love you, Terry,” she said softly, sitting down beside him. He stiffened. “I don’t expect you to understand all this.”
“Yeah, I don’t understand this. None of it! It makes me want to scream and run away! Go back home and pretend none of this happened! I don’t get what Coleridge wants from me. Do you know? Do you have any idea? I mean, you’re his right-hand – what shall I call you – demoness?”
“I’m not sure what he wants, but I can tell you, he wants it very badly. And whatever it is – you’re the key to him getting it.”
“Great! So who the hell can I go to with this? Who would believe me? And how can I trust you! I mean, who are you going to bring fire down on next? Me?”
“No one, Terry! I’m done with Coleridge! After more than two hundred years, I cannot go another day like this. You’re the reason why! I love you! And I know now I should never have listened to Coleridge years ago. There’s no hope for me. But there is for you! You don’t have to go another day longer. And I’m going to help you, Terry. By God and all things holy, I am going to help you defeat Coleridge.”
Terry stopped and looked at Sheila, who had stood, arms to her side, a look of misery on her face.
“At what cost, Sheila?”
“Whatever it takes, Terry. Whatever it takes.”
* * * * *