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Insofar as Washington Irving was reputed to have adapted Christopher Marlowe’s 16th Century legend of Dr. Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil in return for infinite wisdom and knowledge and the material benefits that accrue from a pact with Satan, then it can logically be presumed that Irving’s protagonist, Tom Walker, has similarly bargained away his soul in exchange for wealth. One condition, therefore, imposed by the devil, described by Irving’s narrator as “a great black man . . . neither Negro nor Indian” who prowls the woods awaiting victims, is that the devil, “Old Scratch,” be bequeathed Tom’s soul in exchange for the lost treasure of Captain Kidd.
Initially, Irving is circumspect regarding the agreement negotiated between Satan and Tom Walker, noting that the riches desired by Tom “were to be had only on certain conditions. What these conditions were may be easily surmised, though Tom never disclosed them publicly.” That his soul was part of the deal, however, is never in doubt, as the narrator notes at one point that “[h]owever Tom might have felt disposed to sell himself to the devil, he was determined not to do so to oblige his wife,” and, toward the story’s climax, the now-materially comfortable Tom is having the inevitable second thoughts regarding the bargain now well in the past:
“As Tom waxed old, however, he grew thoughtful. Having secured the good things of this world, he began to feel anxious about those of the next. He thought with regret on the bargain he had made with his lack friend, and set his wits to work to cheat him out of the conditions.”
Irving’s story, however, does not rest solely on the convenient quid pro quo of money for soul. The devil and Tom are not done with each other following that initial encounter in the woods and the discovery of the skull with a hatchet embedded in it. On the contrary, Satan is clearly determined to wrought the maximum degree of discomfort on humanity he possibly can, towards which end he encourages Tom to begin business as what is commonly known as a “loan-shark” or “usurer,” a proposal to which Tom is eager to conceded. Irving describes the agreement, which immediately succeeded an aborted proposition regarding the slave trade, as follows:
“[The devil] proposed, instead, that he should turn usurer; the devil being extremely anxious for the increase of usurers, looking upon them as his peculiar people. To this no objections were made, for it was just to Tom’s taste.
“You shall open a broker’s shop in Boston next month,” said the black man.
“I’ll do it tomorrow, if you wish,” said Tom Walker.
“You shall lend money at two percent a month.”
“Egad, I’ll charge four!” replied Tom Walker.
“You shall extort bonds, foreclose mortgages, drive the merchants to bankruptcy—”
“I’ll drive them to the d——l,” cried Tom Walker.
“You are the usurer for my money!” said blacklegs with delight. “When will you want the rhino?”
“This very night.”
“Done!” said the devil.
Tom’s greed as resulted in his consummation of an arrangement designed to maximize human misery while further cementing the devil’s claim on his eager servant’s soul. One condition, then, in addition to the core agreement of immediate wealth in exchange for one’s soul in the afterlife, involves Tom’s operation of a black-market loan business that will facilitate the increase in human souls available as Tom’s inevitably destitute customers also sell their souls for the riches they cannot otherwise attain.
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