Popular Tales From the Norse
The Master Thief
Once upon a time there was a poor cottager who had three sons. He had nothing to leave them when he died, and no money with which to put them to any trade, so that he did not know what to make of them. At last he said he would give them leave to take to anything each liked best, and to go whithersoever they pleased, and he would go with them a bit of the way; and so he did. He went with them till they came to a place where three roads met, and there each of them chose a road, and their father bade them good-bye, and went back home. I have never heard tell what became of the two older; but as for the youngest, he went both far and long, as you shall hear.
So it fell out one night as he was going through a great wood that such bad weather overtook him. It blew, and
p. 233 sleeted, and drove so that he could scarce keep his eyes open; and in a trice, before he knew how it was, he got bewildered, and could not find either road or path. But as he went on and on, at last he saw a glimmering of light far far off in the wood. So he thought he would try and get to the light; and after a time he did reach it. There it was in a large house, and the fire was blazing so brightly inside that he could tell the folk had not yet gone to bed; so he went in and saw an old dame bustling about and minding the house.
"Good evening!" said the youth.
"Good evening!" said the old dame.
"Hutetu! it's such foul weather out of doors to-night," said he.
"So it is," said she.
"Can I get leave to have a bed and shelter here to-night?" asked the youth.
"You'll get no good by sleeping here," said the old dame; for if the folk come home and find you here, they'll kill both me and you."
"What sort of folk, then, are they who live here?" asked the youth.
"Oh, robbers! And a bad lot of them too," said the old dame. "They stole me away when I was little, and have kept me as their housekeeper ever since."
"Well, for all that, I think I'll just go to bed," said the youth. "Come what may, I'll not stir out at night in such weather."
"Very well," said the old dame; "but if you stay, it be the worse for you."
With that the youth got into a bed which stood there, p. 234 but he dared not go to sleep, and very soon after in came the robbers; so the old dame told them how a stranger fellow had come in whom she had not been able to get out of the house again.
"Did you see if he had any money?" said the robbers.
"Such a one as he money!" said the old dame, "the tramper! Why, if he had clothes to his back, it was as much as he had."
Then the robbers began to talk among themselves what they should do with him; if they should kill him outright, or what else they should do. Meantime the youth got up and began to talk to them, and to ask if they didn't want a servant, for it might be that he would be glad to enter their service.
"Oh," said they, "if you have a mind to follow the trade that we follow, you can very well get a place here."
"It's all one to me what trade I follow," said the youth; "for when I left home father gave me leave to take to any trade I chose."
"Well, have you a mind to steal?" asked the robbers.
"I don't care," said the youth, for he thought it would not take long to learn that trade.
Now there lived a man a little way off who had three oxen. One of these he was to take to the town to sell, and the robbers had heard what he was going to do, so they said to the youth, if he were good to steal the ox from the man by the way without his knowing it, and without doing him any harm, they would give him leave to be their serving-man.
Well, the youth set off, and took with him a pretty shoe with a silver buckle on it, which lay about the house; and p. 235 he put the shoe in the road along which the man was going with his ox; and when he had done that, he went into the wood and hid himself under a bush. So when the man came by he saw the shoe at once.
"That's a nice shoe," said he. "If I only had the fellow to it, I'd take it home, with me, and perhaps I'd put my old dame in a good humour for once." For you must know he had an old wife, so cross and snappish, it was not long between each time that she boxed his ears. But then he bethought him that he could do nothing with the odd shoe unless he had the fellow to it; so he went on his way and let the shoe lie on the road.
Then the youth took up the shoe, aud made all the haste he could to get before the man by a short cut through the wood, and laid it down before him in the road again. When the man came along with his ox, he got quite angry with himself for being so dull as to leave the fellow to the shoe lying in the road instead of taking it with him; so he tied the ox to the fence, and said to himself, "I may just as well run back and pick up the other, and then I'll have a pair of good shoes for my old dame, and so, perhaps, I'll get a kind word from her for once."
So he set off, and hunted and hunted up and down for the shoe, but no shoe did he find; and at length he had to go back with the one he had. But, meanwhile, the youth had taken the ox and gone off with it; and when the man came and saw his ox gone, he began to cry and bewail, for he was afraid his old dame would kill him outright when she came to know that the ox was lost. But just then it came across his mind that he would go home and take the second ox, and drive it to the town, and not let his old p. 236 dame know anything about the matter. So he did this, and went home and took the ox without his dame's knowing it, and set off with it to the town. But the robbers knew all about it, and they said to the youth, if he could get this ox too, without the man's knowing it, and without his doing him any harm, he should be as good as any one of them. If that were all, the youth said, he did not think it a very hard thing.
This time he took with him a rope, and hung himself up under the armpits to a tree right in the man's way. So the man came along with his ox, and when he saw such a sight hanging there he began to feel a little queer.
"Well," said he, "whatever heavy thoughts you had who have hanged yourself up there, it can't be helped; you may hang for what I care! I can't breathe life into you again;" and with that he went on his way with his ox. Down slipped the youth from the tree, and ran by a footpath, and got before the man, and hung himself up right in his way again.
"Bless me!" said the man, "were you really so heavy at heart that you hanged yourself up there--or is it only a piece or witchcraft that I see before me? Ay, ay! you may hang for all I care, whether you are a ghost, or whatever you are." So he passed on with his ox.
Now the youth did just as he had done twice before; he jumped down from the tree, ran through the wood by a footpath, and hung himself up right in the man's way again. But when the man saw this sight for the third time, he said to himself,--
"Well, this is an ugly business! Is it likely now that they should have been so heavy at heart as to hang themselves p. 237 all these three? No! I cannot think it is anything else than a piece of witchcraft that I see. But now I'll soon know for certain; if the other two are still hanging there, it must be really so; but if they are not, then it can be nothing but witchcraft that I see."
So he tied up his ox, and ran back to see if the others were still really hanging there. But while he went and peered up into all the trees, the youth jumped down and took his ox and ran off with it. When the man came back and found his ox gone, he was in a sad plight, and, as any one might know without being told, he began to cry and bemoan; but at last he came to take it easier, and so he thought,--
"There's no other help for it than to go home and take the third ox without my dame's knowing it, and to try and drive a good bargain with it, so that I may get a good sum of money for it."
So he went home and set off with the ox, and his old dame knew never a word about the matter. But the robbers, they knew all about it, and they said to the youth, that if he could steal this ox as he had stolen the other two, then he should be master over the whole band. Well, the youth set off, and ran into the wood; and as the man came by with his ox he set up a dreadful bellowing, just like a great ox in the wood. When the man heard that, you can't think how glad he was, for it seemed to him that he knew the voice of his big bullock, and he thought that, now he should find both of them again; so he tied up the third ox, and ran off from the road to look for them in the wood; but meantime the youth went off with the third ox. Now, when the man came back and found he had lost this ox too, p. 238 he was so wild that there was no end to his grief. He cried and roared and beat his breast, and, to tell the truth, it was many days before he dared go home; for he was afraid lest his old dame should kill him outright on the spot.
As for the robbers, they were not very well pleased either, when they had to own that the youth was master over the whole band. So one day they thought they would try their hands at something which he was not man enough to do; and they set off all together, every man Jack of them, and left him alone at home. Now, the first thing that he did when they were all well clear of the house, was to drive the oxen out to the road, so that they might run back to the man from whom he had stolen them; and right glad he was to see them, as you may fancy. Next he took all the horses which the robbers had, and loaded them with the best things he could lay his hands on--gold and silver, and clothes, and other fine things; and then he bade the old dame to greet the robbers when they came back, and to thank them for him, and to say that now he was setting off on his travels, and they would have hard work to find him again; and with that, off he started.
After a good bit he came to the road along which he was going when he fell among the robbers, and when he got near home, and could see his father's cottage, he put on an uniform which he had found among the clothes he had taken from the robbers, and which was made just like a general's. So he drove up to the door as if he were any other great man. After that he went in and asked if he could have a lodging. No; that he couldn't at any price.
"How ever should I be able," said the man, "to make p. 239 room in my house for such a fine gentleman--I who scarce have a rag to lie upon, and miserable rags, too?"
"You always were a stingy old hunks," said the youth, "and so you are still, when you won't take your own son in."
"What, you my son!" said the man.
"Don't you know me again?" said the youth. Well, after a little while he did know him again.
"But what have you been turning your hand to, that you have made yourself so great a man in such haste?" asked the man.
"Oh, I'll soon tell you," said the youth. "You said I might take to any trade I chose, and so I bound myself apprentice to a pack of thieves and robbers, and now have served my time out, and am become a Master Thief."
Now there lived a Squire close by to his father's cottage, and he had such a great house, and such heaps of money, he could not tell how much he had. He had a daughter too, and a smart and pretty girl she was. So the Master Thief set his heart upon having her to wife, and he told his father to go to the Squire and ask for his daughter for him.