The Brothers Grimm – The Master-Thief

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One day an old man and his wife were sitting in front of a
miserable house resting a while from their work. Suddenly
a splendid carriage with four black horses came driving up,
and a richly-dressed man descended from it. The peasant stood
up, went to the great man, and asked what he wanted, and in what
way he could serve him. The stranger stretched out his hand to
the old man, and said, I want nothing but to enjoy for once a
country dish, cook me some potatoes, in the way you always have
them, and then I will sit down at your table and eat them with
pleasure. The peasant smiled and said, you are a count or a
prince, or perhaps even a duke, noble gentlemen often have such
fancies, but you shall have your wish. The wife then went into
the kitchen and began to wash and rub the potatoes, and to make
them into balls, as they are eaten by the country-folks. Whilst
she was busy with this work, the peasant said to the stranger,
come into my garden with me for a while, I have still something
to do there. He had dug some holes in the garden, and now
wanted to plant trees in them. Have you no children, asked the
stranger, who could help you with your work. No, answered the
peasant, I had a son, it is true, but it is long since he went
out into the world. He was a ne'er-do-well, clever and knowing,
but he would learn nothing and was full of bad tricks. At last
he ran away from me, and since then I have heard nothing of him.
The old man took a young tree, put it in a hole, drove in a post
beside it, and when he had shovelled in some earth and had
trampled it firmly down, he tied the stem of the tree above,
below, and in the middle, fast to the post by a rope of straw.
But tell me,
said the stranger, why you don't tie that crooked knotted tree,
which is lying in the corner there, bent down almost to the ground,
to a post also that it may grow straight, as well as these. The
old man smiled and said, sir, you speak according to your knowledge,
it is easy to see that you are not familiar with gardening. That
tree there is old, and mis-shapen, no one can make it straight now.
Trees must be trained while they are young. That is how it was
with your son, said the stranger, if you had trained him while
he was still young, he would not have run away. Now he too must
have grown hard and mis-shapen. Truly it is a long time since he
went away, replied the old man, he must have changed. Would you
know him again if he were to come to you, asked the stranger.
Hardly by his face, replied the peasant, but he has a mark about
him, a birth-mark on his shoulder, that looks like a bean. When
he had said that the stranger pulled off his coat, bared his
shoulder, and showed the peasant the bean. Good God, cried the
old man, you are really my son, and love for his child stirred
in his heart. But, he added, how can you be my son, you have
become a great lord and live in wealth and luxury. How have you
contrived to do that. Ah, father, answered the son, the young
tree was bound to no post and has grown crooked. Now it is too
old, it will never be straight again. How have I come by all this.
I have become a thief, but do not be alarmed, I am a master-thief.
For me there are neither locks nor bolts, whatsoever I desire is
mine. Do not imagine that I steal like a common thief, I only
take some of the superfluity of the rich. Poor people are safe,
I would rather give to them than take anything from them. It is
the same with anything which I can have without trouble, cunning,
and dexterity - I never touch it. Alas, my son, said the father,
it still does not please me, a thief is still a thief, I tell you
it will end badly. He took him to his mother, and when she heard
that was her son, she wept for joy, but when he told her that he
had become a master-thief, two streams flowed down over her
face. At length she said, even if he has become a thief, he is
still my son, and my eyes have beheld him once more.
They sat down to table, and once again he ate with his parents
the wretched food which he had not eaten for so long. The father
said, if our lord, the count up there in the castle, learns who
you are, and what trade you follow, he will not take you in his
arms and cradle you in them as he did when he held you at the font,
but will cause you to swing from a halter. Be easy, father, he
will do me no harm, for I understand my trade. I will go to him
myself this very day. When evening drew near, the master-thief
seated himself in his carriage, and drove to the castle. The
count received him civilly, for he took him for a distinguished
man. When, however, the stranger made himself known, the count
turned pale and was quite silent for some time. At length he
said, you are my godson, and on that account mercy shall take
the place of justice, and I will deal leniently with you. Since
you pride yourself on being a master-thief, I will put your art
to the proof, but if you do not stand the test, you must marry
the rope-maker's daughter, and the croaking of the raven must be
your music on the occasion. Lord count, answered the
master-thief, think of three things, as difficult as you like,
and if I do not perform your tasks, do with me what you will.
The count reflected for some minutes, and then said, well, then,
in the first place, you shall steal the horse I keep for my own
riding, out of the stable. In the next, you shall steal the
sheet from beneath the bodies of my wife and myself when we are
asleep, without our observing it, and the wedding-ring of my wife
as well. Thirdly and lastly, you shall steal away out of the
church, the parson and clerk. Mark what I am saying, for
your life depends on it.
The master-thief went to the nearest town, there he bought the
clothes of an old peasant woman, and put them on. Then he stained
his face brown, and painted wrinkles on it as well, so that no one
could have recognized him. Then he filled a small cask with old
hungary wine in which was mixed a powerful sleeping-drink. He
put the cask in a basket, which he took on his back, and walked
with slow and tottering steps to the count's castle. It was
already dark when he arrived. He sat down on a stone in the
court-yard and began to cough, like an asthmatic old woman, and to
rub his hands as if he were cold. In front of the door of the
stable some soldiers were
lying round a fire, one of them observed the woman, and called out
to her, come nearer, old mother, and warm yourself beside us.
After all, you have no bed for the night, and must take one where
you can find it. The old woman tottered up to them, begged them
to lift the basket from her back, and sat down beside them at the
fire. What have you got in your little cask, old hag, asked one.
A good mouthful of wine, she answered. I live by trade, for
money and fair words I am quite ready to let you have a glass.
Let us have it here, then, said the soldier, and when he had
tasted one glass he said, when wine is good, I like another glass,
and had another poured out for himself, and the rest followed his
example. Hallo, comrades, cried one of them to those who were in
the stable, here is an old girl who has wine that is as old as
herself, take a draught, it will warm your stomachs far better
than our fire. The old woman carried her cask into the stable.
One of the soldiers had seated himself on the saddled riding-horse,
another held its bridle in his hand, a third had laid hold of
its tail. She poured out as much as they wanted until the spring
ran dry. It was not long before the bridle fell from the hand of
the one, and he fell down and began to snore, the other left hold
of the tail, lay down and snored still louder. The one who was
sitting in the saddle, did remain sitting, but bent his head down
almost to the horse's neck, and slept and blew with his mouth like
the bellows of a forge. The soldiers outside had already been
asleep for a long time, and were lying on the ground motionless,
as if dead. When the master-thief saw that he had succeeded, he
gave the first a rope in his hand instead of the bridle, and the
other who had been holding the tail, a wisp of straw, but what was
he to do with the one who was sitting on the horse's back. He
did not want to throw him down, for he might have awakened and
have uttered a cry. He had a good idea, he unbuckled the girths
of the saddle, tied a couple of ropes which were hanging to a ring
on the wall fast to the saddle, and drew the sleeping rider up
into the air on it, then he twisted the rope round the posts, and
made it fast. He soon unloosed the horse from the chain, but if
he had ridden over the stony pavement of the yard they would have
heard the noise in the castle. So he wrapped the horse's hoofs in
old rags, led him carefully out, leapt upon him, and
galloped off.
When day broke, the master galloped to the castle on the stolen
horse. The count had just got up, and was looking out of the
window. Good morning, sir count, he cried to him, here is the
horse, which I have got safely out of the stable. Just look, how
beautifully your soldiers are lying there sleeping, and if you will
but go into the stable, you will see how comfortable your
watchers have made it for themselves. The count could not help
laughing. Then he said, for once you have succeeded, but things
won't go so well the second time, and I warn you that if you come
before me as a thief, I will handle you as I would a thief.
When the countess went to bed that night, she closed her hand
with the wedding-ring tightly together, and the count said, all
the doors are locked and bolted, I will keep awake and wait for
the thief, but if he gets in by the window, I will shoot him.
The master-thief, however, went in the dark to the gallows, cut a
poor sinner who was hanging there down from the halter, and
carried him on his back to the castle. Then he set a ladder up
to the bedroom, put the dead body on his shoulders, and began to
climb up. When he had got so high that the head of the dead man
showed at the window, the count, who was watching in his bed,
fired a pistol at him, and immediately the master let the poor
sinner fall down, descended the ladder, and hid himself in one
corner. The night was sufficiently lighted by the moon, for the
master to see distinctly how the count got out of the window on to
the ladder, came down, carried the dead body into the garden, and
began to dig a hole in which to lay it. Now, thought the thief,
the favorable moment has come, stole nimbly out of his corner, and
climbed up the ladder straight into the countess's bedroom. Dear
wife, he began in the count's voice, the thief is dead, but, after
all, he is my godson, and has been more of a scape-grace than a
villain. I will not put him to open shame, besides, I am sorry
for the parents. I will bury him myself before daybreak in the
garden, that the thing may not be known. So give me the sheet,
I will wrap up the body in it, and not bury him like a dog. The
countess gave him the sheet. I tell you what, continued the
thief, I have a fit of magnanimity, give me the ring too, - the
unhappy man risked his life for it, so he may take it with him
into his grave. She would not gainsay the count, and although
she did it unwillingly she drew the ring from her finger, and
gave it to him. The thief made off with both these things, and
reached home safely before the count in the garden had finished
his work of burying.
What a long face the count did pull when the master came next
morning, and brought him the sheet and the ring. Are you a
wizard, said he, who has fetched you out of the grave in which
I myself laid you, and brought you to life again. You did not
bury me, said the thief, but the poor sinner on the gallows,
and he told him exactly how everything had happened, and the count
was forced to own to him that he was a clever, crafty thief.
But you have not reached the end yet, he added, you have still to
perform the third task, and if you do not succeed in that, all is
of no use. The master smiled and returned no answer.
When night had fallen he went with a long sack on his back, a
bundle under his arms, and a lantern in his hand to the village
church. In the sack he had some crabs, and in the bundle short
wax-candles. He sat down in the churchyard, took out a crab, and
stuck a wax-candle on his back. Then he lighted the little light,
put the crab on the ground, and let it creep about. He took a
second out of the sack, and treated it in the same way, and so on
until the last was out of the sack. Hereupon he put on a long
black garment that looked like a monk's cowl, and stuck a gray
beard on his chin. When at last he was quite unrecognizable, he
took the sack in which the crabs had been, went into the church,
and ascended the pulpit. The clock in the tower was just striking
twelve, when the last stroke had sounded, he cried with a loud
and piercing voice, hearken, sinful men, the end of all things
has come. The last day is at hand. Hearken. Hearken.
Whosoever wishes to go to heaven with me must creep into the sack.
I am peter, who opens and shuts the gate of heaven. Behold how
the dead outside there in the chuchyard are wandering about
collecting their bones. Come, come, and creep into the sack, the
world is about to be destroyed. The cry echoed through the whole
village. The parson and clerk who lived nearest to the church,
heard it first, and when they saw the lights which were moving
about the churchyard, they observed that something unusual was
going on, and went into the church. They listened to the sermon
for a while, and then the clerk nudged the parson and said, it
would not be amiss if we were to use the opportunity together, and
before the dawning of the last day, find an easy way of getting
to heaven. To tell the truth, answered the parson, that is what I
myself have been thinking, so if you are inclined, we will set out
on our way. Yes, answered the clerk, but you, the pastor, have
the precedence, I will follow. So the parson went first, and
ascended the pulpit where the master opened his
sack. The parson crept in first, and then the clerk. The master
immediately tied up the sack tightly, seized it by the middle, and
dragged it down the pulpit-steps, and whenever the heads of the
two fools bumped against the steps, he cried, we are going over
the mountains. Then he drew them through the village in the same
way, and when they were passing through puddles, he cried, now
we are going through wet clouds. And when at last he was dragging
them up the steps of the castle, he cried, now we are on the
steps of heaven, and will soon be in the outer court. When he had
got to the top, he pushed the sack into the pigeon-house, and when
the pigeons fluttered about, he said, hark how glad the angels are,
and how they are flapping their wings. Then he bolted the door
upon them, and went away.
Next morning he went to the count, and told him that he had
performed the third task also, and had carried the parson and clerk
out of the church. Where have you left them, asked the Lord.
They are lying upstairs in a sack in the pigeon-house, and
imagine that they are in heaven. The count went up himself, and
convinced himself that the master had told the truth. When he had
delivered the parson and clerk from their captivity, he said, you
are an arch-thief, and have won your wager. For once you escape
with a whole skin, but see that you leave my land, for if ever you
set foot on it again, you may count on your elevation to the
gallows. The arch-thief took leave of his parents, once more
went forth into the wide world, and no one has ever heard of
him since.

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