THE LIGHTNING-ROD MAN
BY HERMAN MELVILLE
What grand irregular thunder, thought I,
standing on my hearth-stone among the
Acroceraunian hills, as the scattered bolts
boomed overhead, and crashed down among
the valleys, every bolt followed by zigzag
irradiations, and swift slants of sharp
rain, which audibly rang, like a charge
of spear-points, on my low shingled roof.
I suppose, though, that the mountains
hereabouts break and churn up the thunder,
so that it is far more glorious here than
on the plain. Hark!--someone at the door.
Who is this that chooses a time of thunder
for making calls? And why don't he,
man-fashion, use the knocker, instead of
making that doleful undertaker's clatter
with his fist against the hollow panel?
But let him in. Ah, here he comes. "Good day,
sir:" an entire stranger. "Pray be seated."
What is that strange-looking walking-stick
he carries: "A fine thunder-storm, sir."
"You are wet. Stand here on the hearth
before the fire."
"Not for worlds!"
The stranger still stood in the exact middle
of the cottage, where he had first planted
himself. His singularity impelled a closer
scrutiny. A lean, gloomy figure. Hair dark
and lank, mattedly streaked over his brow.
His sunken pitfalls of eyes were ringed by
indigo halos, and played with an innocuous
sort of lightning: the gleam without the
bolt. The whole man was dripping. He stood
in a puddle on the bare oak floor: his
strange walking-stick vertically resting
at his side.
It was a polished copper rod, four feet
long, lengthwise attached to a neat wooden
staff, by insertion into two balls of greenish
glass, ringed with copper bands. The metal
rod terminated at the top tripodwise, in
three keen tines, brightly gilt. He held
the thing by the wooden part alone.
"Sir," said I, bowing politely, "have I the
honor of a visit from that illustrious god,
Jupiter Tonans? So stood he in the Greek
statue of old, grasping the lightning-bolt.
If you be he, or his viceroy, I have to
thank you for this noble storm you have
brewed among our mountains. Listen: that
was a glorious peal. Ah, to a lover of the
majestic, it is a good thing to have the
Thunderer himself in one's cottage. The
thunder grows finer for that. But pray be
seated. This old rush-bottomed arm-chair,
I grant, is a poor substitute for your
evergreen throne on Olympus; but, condescend
to be seated."
While I thus pleasantly spoke, the stranger
eyed me, half in wonder, and half in a
strange sort of horror; but did not move
"Do, sir, be seated; you need to be dried
ere going forth again."
I planted the chair invitingly on the broad
hearth, where a little fire had been kindled
that afternoon to dissipate the dampness,
not the cold; for it was early in the month
But without heeding my solicitation, and
still standing in the middle of the floor,
the stranger gazed at me portentously and
"Sir," said he, "excuse me; but instead of
my accepting your invitation to be seated
on the hearth there, I solemnly warn you, that
you had best accept mine, and stand with me in
the middle of the room. Good Heavens!" he
cried, starting--"there is another of those
awful crashes. I warn you, sir, quit the
"Mr. Jupiter Tonans," said I, quietly rolling
my body on the stone, "I stand very well here."
"Are you so horridly ignorant, then," he cried,
"as not to know, that by far the most dangerous
part of a house, during such a terrific tempest
as this, is the fire-place?"
"Nay, I did not know that," involuntarily
stepping upon the first board next to the
The stranger now assumed such an unpleasant
air of successful admonition, that--quite
involuntarily again--I stepped back upon the
hearth, and threw myself into the erectest,
proudest posture I could command. But I said
"For Heaven's sake," he cried, with a strange
mixture of alarm and intimidation--"for Heaven's
sake, get off the hearth! Know you not, that
the heated air and soot are conductors;--to
say nothing of those immense iron fire-dogs?
Quit the spot--I conjure--I command you."
"Mr. Jupiter Tonans, I am not accustomed to
be commanded in my own house."
"Call me not by that pagan name. You are
profane in this time of terror."
"Sir, will you be so good as to tell me your
business? If you seek shelter from the storm,
you are welcome, so long as you be civil; but
if you come on business, open it forthwith.
Who are you?"
"I am a dealer in lightning-rods," said the
stranger, softening his tone; "my special
business is--Merciful Heaven! what a
crash!--Have you ever been struck--your
premises, I mean? No? It's best to be
provided;"--significantly rattling his
metallic staff on the floor;--"by nature,
there are no castles in thunder-storms; yet,
say but the word, and of this cottage I can
make a Gibraltar by a few waves of this wand.
Hark, what Himalayas of concussions!"
"You interrupted yourself; your special
business you were about to speak of."
"My special business is to travel the
country for orders for lightning-rods. This
is my specimen-rod;" tapping his staff; "I
have the best of references"--fumbling in
his pockets. "In Criggan last month, I
put up three-and-twenty rods on only five
"Let me see. Was it not at Criggan last week,
about midnight on Saturday, that the steeple,
the big elm, and the assembly-room cupola
were struck? Any of your rods there?"
"Not on the tree and cupola, but the steeple."
"Of what use is your rod, then?"
"Of life-and-death use. But my workman was
heedless. In fitting the rod at top to the
steeple, he allowed a part of the metal to
graze the tin sheeting. Hence the accident.
Not my fault, but his. Hark!"
"Never mind. That clap burst quite loud
enough to be heard without finger-pointing.
Did you hear of the event at Montreal last
year? A servant girl struck at her bed-side
with a rosary in her hand; the beads being
metal. Does your beat extend into the Canadas?"
"No. And I hear that there, iron rods only
are in use. They should have mine, which are
copper. Iron is easily fused. Then they draw
out the rod so slender, that it has not body
enough to conduct the full electric current.
The metal melts; the building is destroyed.
My copper rods never act so. Those Canadians
are fools. Some of them knob the rod at the
top, which risks a deadly explosion, instead
of imperceptibly carrying down the current into
the earth, as this sort of rod does. Mine is the
only true rod. Look at it. Only one dollar a foot."
"This abuse of your own calling in another
might make one distrustful with respect to
"Hark! The thunder becomes less muttering. It
is nearing us, and nearing the earth, too.
Hark! One crammed crash! All the vibrations
made one by nearness. Another flash. Hold!"
"What do you?" I said, seeing him now
instantaneously relinquishing his staff,
lean intently forward towards the window,
with his right fore and middle fingers on
his left wrist.
But ere the words had well escaped me,
another exclamation escaped him.
"Crash! only three pulses--less than a
third of a mile off--yonder, somewhere
in that wood. I passed three stricken
oaks there, ripped out new and glittering.
The oak draws lightning more than other
timber, having iron in solution in its
sap. Your floor here seems oak.
"Heart-of-oak. From the peculiar time of
your call upon me, I suppose you purposely
select stormy weather for your journeys.
When the thunder is roaring, you deem it
an hour peculiarly favorable for producing
impressions favorable to your trade."
"For one who would arm others with fearlessness,
you seem unbeseemingly timorous yourself.
Common men choose fair weather for their
travels: you choose thunder-storms; and
"That I travel in thunder-storms, I grant;
but not without particular precautions,
such as only a lightning-rod man may know.
Hark! Quick--look at my specimen rod. Only
one dollar a foot."
"A very fine rod, I dare say. But what are
these particular precautions of yours? Yet
first let me close yonder shutters; the
slanting rain is beating through the sash.
I will bar up."
"Are you mad? Know you not that yon iron
bar is a swift conductor? Desist."
"I will simply close the shutters, then,
and call my boy to bring me a wooden bar.
Pray, touch the bell-pull there."
"Are you frantic? That bell-wire might
blast you. Never touch bell-wire in a
thunder-storm, nor ring a bell of any sort."
"Nor those in belfries? Pray, will you
tell me where and how one may be safe
in a time like this? Is there any part
of my house I may touch with hopes of my
"There is; but not where you now stand.
Come away from the wall. The current will
sometimes run down a wall, and--a man
being a better conductor than a wall--it
would leave the wall and run into him.
Swoop! That must have fallen very nigh. That
must have been globular lightning."
"Very probably. Tell me at once, which is,
in your opinion, the safest part of this
"This room, and this one spot in it where
I stand. Come hither."
"The reasons first."
"Hark!--after the flash the gust--the
sashes shiver--the house, the house!--Come
hither to me!"
"The reasons, if you please."
"Come hither to me!"
"Thank you again, I think I will try my old
stand--the hearth. And now, Mr. Lightning-rod man,
in the pauses of the thunder, be so good as
to tell me your reasons for esteeming this
one room of the house the safest, and your
own one stand-point there the safest spot
There was now a little cessation of the
storm for a while. The Lightning-rod man
seemed relieved, and replied:--
"Your house is a one-storied house, with
an attic and a cellar; this room is between.
Hence its comparative safety. Because
lightning sometimes passes from the clouds
to the earth, and sometimes from the earth
to the clouds. Do you comprehend?--and I
choose the middle of the room, because, if
the lightning should strike the house at
all, it would come down the chimney or
walls; so, obviously, the further you are
from them, the better. Come hither to me,
"Presently. Something you just said, instead
of alarming me, has strangely inspired
"What have I said?"
"You said that sometimes lightning flashes
from the earth to the clouds."
"Aye, the returning-stroke, as it is called;
when the earth, being overcharged with the
fluid, flashes its surplus upward."
"The returning-stroke; that is, from earth
to sky. Better and better. But come here on
the hearth and dry yourself."
"I am better here, and better wet."
"It is the safest thing you can do--Hark,
again!--to get yourself thoroughly drenched
in a thunder-storm. Wet clothes are better
conductors than the body; and so, if the
lightning strike, it might pass down the
wet clothes without touching the body. The
storm deepens again. Have you a rug in the
house? Rugs are non-conductors. Get one,
that I may stand on it here, and you, too.
The skies blacken--it is dusk at noon.
Hark!--the rug, the rug!"
I gave him one; while the hooded mountains
seemed closing and tumbling into the cottage.
"And now, since our being dumb will not
help us," said I, resuming my place, "let
me hear your precautions in traveling during
"Wait till this one is passed."
"Nay, proceed with the precautions. You
stand in the safest possible place
according to your own account. Go on."
"Briefly, then. I avoid pine-trees, high
houses, lonely barns, upland pastures,
running water, flocks of cattle and sheep,
a crowd of men. If I travel on foot--as
to-day--I do not walk fast; if in my buggy,
I touch not its back or sides; if on
horseback, I dismount and lead the horse.
But of all things, I avoid tall men."
"Do I dream? Man avoid man? and in
"Tall men in a thunder-storm I avoid. Are
you so grossly ignorant as not to know, that
the height of a six-footer is sufficient
to discharge an electric cloud upon him?
Are not lonely Kentuckians, ploughing,
smit in the unfinished furrow? Nay, if
the six-footer stand by running water,
the cloud will sometimes select him as its
conductor to that running water. Hark!
Sure, yon black pinnacle is split. Yes,
a man is a good conductor. The lightning
goes through and through a man, but only
peels a tree. But sir, you have kept me
so long answering your questions, that I
have not yet come to business. Will you
order one of my rods? Look at this specimen
one? See: it is of the best of copper.
Copper's the best conductor. Your house
is low; but being upon the mountains, that
lowness does not one whit depress it. You
mountaineers are most exposed. In mountainous
countries the lightning-rod man should have
most business. Look at the specimen, sir.
One rod will answer for a house so small as
this. Look over these recommendations. Only
one rod, sir; cost, only twenty dollars.
Hark! There go all the granite Taconics
and Hoosics dashed together like pebbles.
By the sound, that must have struck something.
An elevation of five feet above the house,
will protect twenty feet radius all about
the rod. Only twenty dollars, sir--a dollar
a foot. Hark!--Dreadful!--Will you order?
Will you buy? Shall I put down your name?
Think of being a heap of charred offal,
like a haltered horse burnt in his stall;
and all in one flash!"
"You pretended envoy extraordinary and
minister plenipotentiary to and from
Jupiter Tonans," laughed I; "you mere man
who come here to put you and your pipestem
between clay and sky, do you think that
because you can strike a bit of green
light from the Leyden jar, that you can
thoroughly avert the supernal bolt? Your
rod rusts, or breaks, and where are you?
Who has empowered you, you Tetzel, to
peddle round your indulgences from divine
ordinations? The hairs of our heads are
numbered, and the days of our lives. In
thunder as in sunshine, I stand at ease
in the hands of my God. False negotiator,
away! See, the scroll of the storm is
rolled back; the house is unharmed; and
in the blue heavens I read in the rainbow,
that the Deity will not, of purpose, make
war on man's earth."
"Impious wretch!" foamed the stranger,
blackening in the face as the rainbow
beamed, "I will publish your infidel
"Begone! move quickly! if quickly you
can, you that shine forth into sight in
moist times like the worm."
The scowl grew blacker on his face; the
indigo-circles enlarged round his eyes
as the storm-rings round the midnight
moon. He sprang upon me; his tri-forked
thing at my heart.
I seized it; I snapped it; I dashed it; I
trod it; and dragging the dark lightning-king
out of my door, flung his elbowed, copper
sceptre after him.
But spite of my treatment, and spite of
my dissuasive talk of him to my neighbors,
the Lightning-rod man still dwells in the
land; still travels in storm-time, and
drives a brave trade with the fears of man.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~