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 be useful to 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 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 some 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; sharp, 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, “thou art really my son!” and love for his child stirred in his heart. “But,” he added, “how canst thou be my son, thou hast become a great lord and livest in wealth and luxury? How hast thou 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 got all that? 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 thee 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 thou art, and what trade thou followest, he will not take thee in his arms and cradle thee in them as he did when he held thee at the font, but will cause thee 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, “Thou art my godson, and on that account mercy shall take the place of justice, and I will deal leniently with thee. Since thou pridest thyself on being a master-thief, I will put thy art to the proof, but if thou dost not stand the test, thou must marry the rope-maker’s daughter, and the croaking of the raven must be thy 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, thou shalt steal the horse I keep for my own riding, out of the stable; in the next, thou shalt 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, thou shalt steal away out of the church, the parson and clerk. Mark what I am saying, for thy 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 thyself beside us. After all, thou hast no bed for the night, and must take one where thou canst 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 hast thou got in thy little cask, old lady?” 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 goody 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 almost down 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 thou hast succeeded, but things won’t go so well the second time, and I warn thee that if thou comest before me as a thief, I will handle thee 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, 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 favourable 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 bury him as a dog buries things by scratching.”
The countess gave him the sheet. “I tell you what,” continued the thief, “I have a fit of magnanimity on me, 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. “Art thou a wizard?” said he, “Who has fetched thee out of the grave in which I myself laid thee, and brought thee 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 thou hast not reached the end yet,” he added, “thou hast still to perform the third task, and if thou dost 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 churchyard, 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 hast thou 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, “Thou art an arch-thief, and hast won thy wager. For once thou escapest with a whole skin, but see that thou leavest my land, for if ever thou settest foot on it again, thou may’st count on thy 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.