The Northern Way

Popular Tales From the Norse

The Master Thief - Cont'd

"If he asks by what trade I get my living, you can say I'm a Master Thief."

"I think you've lost your wits," said the man, "for you can't be in your right mind when you think of such stuff."

No, he had not lost his wits; his father must and should go to the Squire and ask for his daughter.

"Nay, but I tell you, I daren't go to the Squire and be your spokesman; he who is so rich, and has so much money," said the man.

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Yes, there was no help for it, said the Master Thief;

he should go whether he would or no; and if he did not go by fair means, he would soon make him go by foul. But the man was still loath to go; so he stopped after him, and rubbed him down with a good birch cudgel, and kept on till the man came crying and sobbing inside the Squire's door.

"How now, my man! what ails you?" said the Squire.

So he told him the whole story; how he had three sons who set off one day, and how he had given them leave to go whithersoever they would, and to follow whatever calling they chose. "And here now is the youngest come home, and has thrashed me till he has made me come to you and ask for your daughter for him to wife; and he bids me say, besides, that he's a Master Thief." And so he fell to crying and sobbing again.

"Never mind, my man," said the Squire laughing; "just go back and tell him from me he must prove his skill first. If he can steal the roast from the spit in the kitchen on Sunday, while all the household are looking after it, he shall have my daughter. Just go and tell him that."

So he went back and told the youth, who thought it would be an easy job. So he set about and caught three hares alive, and put them into a bag, and dressed himself in some old rags, until he looked so poor and filthy that it made one's heart bleed to see; and then he stole into the passage at the back-door of the Squire's house on the Sunday forenoon, with his bag, just like any other beggar-boy. But the Squire himself and all his household were in the kitchen watching the roast. Just as they were doing this, the youth let one hare go, and it set off and ran round and round the yard in front of the house.

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"Oh, just look at that hare!" said the folk in the kitchen, and were all for running out to catch it.

Yes, the Squire saw it running too. "Oh, let it run," said he; "there's no use in thinking to catch a hare on the spring."

A little while after, the youth let the second hare go, and they saw it in the kitchen, and thought it was the same they had seen before, and still wanted to run out and catch it; but the Squire said again it was no use. It was not long before the youth let the third hare go, and it set off and ran round and round the yard as the others before it. Now, they saw it from the kitchen, and still thought it was the same hare that kept on running about, and were all eager to be out after it.

"Well, it is a fine hare," said the Squire; "come, let's see if we can't lay our hands on it."

So out he ran, and the rest with him--away they all went, the hare before, and they after; so that it was rare fun to see. But meantime the youth took the roast and ran off with it; and where the Squire got a roast for his dinner that day I don't know; but one thing, I know, and that is, that he had no roast hare, though he ran after it till he was both warm and weary.

Now it chanced that the Priest came to dinner that day, and when the Squire told him what a trick the Master Thief had played him, he made such game of him that there was no end of it.

"For my part," said the Priest, "I can't think how it could ever happen to me to be made such a fool of by a fellow like that."

"Very well--only keep a sharp look-out," said the p. 242 Squire; "maybe he'll come to see you before you know a word of it." But the priest stuck to his text,--that he did, and made game of the Squire because he had been so taken in.

Later in the afternoon came the Master Thief, and wanted to have the Squire's daughter, as he had given his word. But the Squire began to talk him over, and said, "Oh, you must first prove your skill a little more; for what you did to-day was no great thing after all. Couldn't you now play off a good trick on the Priest, who is sitting in there, and making game of me for letting such a fellow as you twist me round his thumb?"

"Well, as for that, it wouldn't be hard," said the Master Thief. So he dressed himself up like a bird, threw a great white sheet over his body, took the wings of a goose, and tied them to his back, and so climbed up into a great maple which stood in the Priest's garden. And when the Priest came home in the evening, the youth began to bawl out--

"Father Laurence! Father Laurence!"--for that was the Priest's name.

"Who is that calling me?" said the Priest.

"I am an angel," said the Master Thief, "sent from God to let you know that you shall be taken up alive into heaven for your piety's sake. Next Monday night you must hold yourself ready for the journey, for I shall come then to fetch you in a sack; and all your gold and your silver, and all that you have of this world's goods, you must lay together in a heap in your dining-room."

Well, Father Laurence fell on his knees before the angel, and thanked him; and the very next day he preached a p. 243 farewell sermon, and gave it out how there had come down an angel unto the big maple in his garden, who had told him that he was to be taken up alive into heaven for his piety's sake; and he preached and made such a touching discourse, that all who wore at church wept, both young and old.

So the next Monday night came the Master Thief like an angel again, and the Priest fell on his knees and thanked him before he was put into the sack; but when he had got him well in, the Master Thief drew and dragged him over stocks and stones.

"OW! OW!" groaned the Priest inside the sack, "wherever are we going?"

"This is the narrow way which leadeth unto the kingdom of heaven," said the Master Thief, who went on dragging him along till he had nearly broken every bone in his body. At last he tumbled him into a goose-house that belonged to the Squire, and the geese began pecking and pinching him with their bills, so that he was more dead than alive.

"Now you are in the flames of purgatory, to be cleansed and purified for life everlasting," said the Master Thief; and with that he went his way, and took all the gold which the Priest had laid together in his dining-room. The next morning, when the goose-girl came to let the geese out, she heard how the Priest lay in the sack, and bemoaned himself in the goose-house.

"In heaven's name, who's there, and what ails you?" she cried.

"Oh!" said the Priest, "if you are an angel from heaven, do let me out, and let me return again to earth, for it is worse here than in hell. The little fiends keep on pinching me with tongs."

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"Heaven help us, I am no angel at all," said the girl, as she helped the Priest out of the sack; "I only look after the Squire's geese, and like enough they are the little fiends which have pinched your reverence."

"Oh!" groaned the Priest, "this is all that Master Thief's doing. All my gold and my silver, and my fine clothes." And he beat his breast, and hobbled home at such a rate that the girl thought he had lost his wits all at once.

Now when the Squire came to hear how it had gone with the Priest, and how he had been along the narrow way, and into purgatory, he laughed till he wellnigh split his sides. But when the Master Thief came and asked for his daughter as he had promised, the Squire put him off again, and said--

"You must do one masterpiece better still, that I may see plainly what you are fit for. Now, I have twelve horses in my stable, and on them I will put twelve grooms, one on each. If you are so good a thief as to steal the horses from under them, I'll see what I can do for you."

"Very well, I daresay I can do it," said the Master Thief; "but shall I really have your daughter if I can?"

"Yes, if you can, I'll do my best for you," said the Squire.

So the Master Thief set off to a shop,and bought brandy enough to fill two pocket-flasks, and into one of them he put a sleepy drink, but into the other only brandy. After that he hired eleven men to lie in wait at night behind the Squire's stableyard; and last of all, for fair words and a good bit of money, he borrowed a ragged gown and cloak from an old woman; and so, with a staff in his hand, and p. 245 a bundle at his back, he limped off, as evening drew on, towards the Squire's stable. Just as he got there they were watering the horses for the night, and had their hands full of work.

"What the devil do you want?" said one of the grooms to the old woman.

"Oh, oh! hutetu! it is so bitter cold," said she, and shivered and shook, and made wry faces. "Hutetu! it is so cold, a poor wretch may easily freeze to death;" and with that she fell to shivering and shaking again.

"Oh! for the love of heaven, can I get leave to stay here a while, and sit inside the stable door?"

"To the devil with your leave," said one. "Pack yourself off this minute, for if the Squire sets his eye on you, he'll lead us a pretty dance."

"Oh! the poor old bag of bones," said another, whose heart took pity on her; "the old hag may sit inside and welcome; such a one as she can do no harm."

And the rest said, some she should stay and some she shouldn't; but while they were quarrelling and minding the horses, she crept farther and farther into the stable, till at last she sat herself down behind the door; and when she had got so far, no one gave any more heed to her.

As the night wore on, the men found it rather cold work to sit so still and quiet on horseback.

"Hutetu! it is so devilish cold," said one, and beat his arms crosswise.

"That it is," said another; "I freeze so that my teeth chatter."

"If one only had a quid to chow," said a third.

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Well! there was one who had an ounce or two; so they shared it between them, though it wasn't much, after all, that each got; and so they chewed and spat, and spat and chewed. This helped them somewhat; but in a little while they were just as bad as ever.

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