Once on a time there was a queen who owned a lovely cat with china-blue eyes. The cat was always with her and ran after her wherever she went, and even sat up proudly by her side when she drove out in her fine glass coach.
"Oh, pussy," said the queen one day, "you're happier than I am! For you have a dear kitten just like yourself, and I have nobody to play with but you."
"Don't cry," answered the cat, laying her paw on her arm. "Crying never does any good. I'll see what can be done about it."
As soon as the cat returned from her drive, she trotted off to the forest to consult a fairy who lived there. And soon after the queen had a little girl. The girl seemed made out of snow and sunbeams. The queen was delighted.
And soon the baby began to take notice of the kitten as she jumped about the room, and would not go to sleep at all unless the kitten lay curled up beside her.
Two or three months went by, and though the baby was still a baby, the kitten was fast becoming a cat, and one evening when the nurse came to look for her as usual to put her in the baby's cot, she was nowhere to be found.
What a hunt there was for that kitten! Every servant was anxious to find her, for the queen was certain to reward the lucky man. So they searched in the possible places and many others. Boxes were opened and taken from bookshelves to check if the kitten had got behind them. Drawers were pulled out, for perhaps the kitten might have got shut in. But it was all no use. The kitten had run away, and nobody could tell if it would ever come back.
Years passed away. One day, when the princess was playing ball in the garden, she happened to throw her ball farther than usual, and it fell into a clump of rose-bushes. The princess ran after it at once. She was stooping down to feel if it was hidden in the long grass when she heard a voice calling,
"Loreli! Loreli! Have you forgotten me? I'm Kisa, your sister!"
"But I never had a sister," answered Loreli. She was very much puzzled; for she knew nothing of what had taken place so long ago.
"Don't you remember how I always slept in your cot beside you, and how you cried till I came? But girls have no memories at all! Why, I could find my way straight up to that cot this moment, if I was once inside the castle."
"Why did you go away then?" asked the princess. But before Kisa could answer, Loreli's attendants came to the spot. They were so many that Kisa plunged into the bushes and went back to the forest.
The princess was vexed with her ladies-in-waiting for frightening away her old playfellow, and in the evening she told her mother about what had happened and asked if it was true what the cat had told.
"Yes, it's quite true," answered the queen; "I should have liked to see her again. Perhaps some day she'll return. Then you must bring her to me."
Next morning it was very hot. The princess said she wanted to go and play in the forest where it was shady and cool in many places under the big trees. Her attendants let her do anything she pleased as usual, and sat down on a mossy bank where a little stream tinkled by. Soon they were asleep.
The princess saw with delight that they would pay no heed to her, and wandered gaily on and on among the trees and plants. Then a giant came out of a cave and ordered her to follow him. The princess felt much afraid, for he was so big and ugly, but there was no use in disobeying. They went a long way, and Loreli grew very tired, and at last began to cry.
"I don't like girls who make horrid noises," said the giant, turning round. "But if you want to cry, I'll give you something to cry for." Then took one of her shoes and went away for the time being.
The girl tried to run away but her shoeless foot got bleeding sores and was sprained - Gasping she lay on the grass and wondered if she would have to stay there till the giant found her, or maybe she would die of hunger before she found the way out of the forest.
How long it was since she had set out in the morning she could not tell, but the sun was still high in the heavens when she heard the sound of wheels. Then she gave a shout.
"I'm coming!" was the answer; and in another moment a cart made its way through the trees. It was driven by Kisa, who used her tail as a whip to urge the horse to go faster. Directly Kisa saw Loreli lying there, she jumped quickly down, and lifting the girl carefully in her two front paws, laid her on some soft hay, and drove back to her own little hut.
In the corner of the room was a pile of cushions, and Kisa arranged them as a bed. Loreli, who by this time was nearly fainting from all she had gone through, drank greedily some milk while Kisa fetched dried herbs from a cupboard and boiled some of them to put on her foot under a cloth, and then she boiled some others and let her have them along with the milk.
The girl felt how the swelling stopped. She smiled thankfully at Kisa.
"You go to sleep now," said the cat.
Then the cat got into the cart who was at the door. She drove at once to the giant's cave. There she crept gently up to the open door, and, crouching down, saw that the giant was at supper with his wife. The giants didn't notice Kisa stealing into a dark corner and upsetting a whole bag of salt into the great pot before the fire.
"Dear me, how thirsty I am!" cried the giant by-and-by.
"So am I," answered the wife. "I wish I had not taken that last spoonful of broth; I'm sure something was wrong with it."
"If I don't get some water I shall die," went on the giant. Rushing out of the cave, followed by his wife, he ran down the path which led to the river.
Then Kisa entered the hut, and found the missing slipper. Putting it in her cart, drove back again to her own hut.
Loreli was thankful to see her.
"Is it you?" she cried joyfully. The cat came in, holding up the silver slipper.
"You won't be able to wear it for some time; you must not expect that till the sores are healed and the swelling has subsided," she continued. "But in some days I can take you you home again."
And so she did.
When the cat drove the cart up to the castle gate, the king and queen declared that no reward could be too great for the person who had brought back their missing daughter.
"We'll talk about that later," said the cat. Then she drove off to the forest again.
The princess was very unhappy when Kisa left her. She would neither eat nor drink, nor delight in the lovely dresses her parents had bought her.
"Perhaps she'll die unless we can make her laugh," one whispered to the other. "Is there anything in the world that we have left untried?"
"Nothing except marriage," answered the king.
He invited all the handsome young men he could think of to the castle, and bade the princess choose a husband. It took her some time to decide, but at last she fixed on a young prince. His eyes were like forest pools, and his hair shone in the sun like gold.
The king and the queen were much pleased, for the young man was the son of a neighbouring king. A splendid marriage feast was given. When it was over, Kisa the cat suddenly stood before them. The newly wed princess rushed forward and clasped her in her arms.
"I have come to claim my reward," said the cat. "Let me sleep for this night at the foot of your bed."
"Is that all?" asked Loreli.
"It's enough," said the cat.
When the morning dawned, it was no cat that lay on the bed, but a beautiful princess.
"My mother and I were both enchanted by a spiteful fairy," said the cat. "We could not free ourselves till we had done some very rare kindly deed for cats. My mother died without finding a chance of doing anything new. But I looked into the herbs. And one day I could help you. And now your foot is as healthy as ever."
The princess who had been a cat lived in the court till she, too, married, and went away to govern a kingdom of her own.
[Icelandic - adapted]
ONCE on a time there lived an old man who lived with his son in a small hut on the edge of the plain. He was very old, and had worked very hard, and when at last he was struck down by illness he felt that he should never rise from his bed again.
So, one day he bade his wife summon their son when he came back from his journey to the nearest town, where he had been to buy bread.
"Come here, my son," said he; "I know myself well to be dying, and I have nothing to leave you but my falcon, my cat and my dog. But if you make good use of them you'll never lack food. Be good to your mother, as you have been to me. And now farewell!"
Then he turned his face to the wall and died.
There was great mourning in the hut for many days, but at length the son rose up, and calling to his dog, his cat and his falcon, he left the house saying that he would bring back something for dinner. Wandering over the plain, he noticed a troop of deer, and pointed to his dog to give chase. The dog soon brought down a fine fat beast, and slinging it over his shoulders, the young man turned homewards. On the way, however, he passed a pond, and as he approached a cloud of birds flew into the air. Shaking his wrist, the falcon seated on it darted into the air, and swooped down on the grouse he had marked, which fell dead to the ground. The young man picked it up, and put it in his pouch and then went towards home again.
Near the hut was a small barn in which he kept the produce of the little patch of corn, which grew close to the garden. Here a rat ran out almost under his feet, followed by another and another; but quick as thought the cat was on them and not one escaped her.
When all the rats were killed, the young man left the barn. He took the path leading to the door of the hut, but stopped on feeling a hand laid on his shoulder.
"Young man," said the ogre (for such was the stranger), "you have been a good son, and you deserve the piece of luck which has befallen you this day. Come with me to that shining lake over there, and fear nothing."
Wondering a little at what might be going to happen to him, the youth did as the ogre bade him, and when they reached the shore of the lake, the ogre turned and said to him:
"Step into the water and shut your eyes! You'll find yourself sinking slowly to the bottom; but take courage, all will go well. Only bring up as much silver as you can carry, and we will divide it between us."
So the young man stepped bravely into the lake, and felt himself sinking, sinking, till he reached firm ground at last. In front of him lay four heaps of silver, and in the middle of them a curious white shining stone, marked over with strange characters, such as he had never seen before. He picked it up in order to examine it more closely, and as he held it the stone spoke.
"As long as you hold me, all your wishes will come true," it said. "But hide me in your cap, and then call to the ogre that You're ready to come up."
In a few minutes the young man stood again by the shores of the lake.
"Well, where is the silver?" asked the ogre, who was awaiting him.
"Ah, my father, how can I tell you! So bewildered was I, and so dazzled with the splendours of everything I saw, that I stood like a statue, unable to move. Then hearing steps approaching I got frightened, and called to you, as you know."
"You're no better than the rest," cried the ogre, and turned away in a rage.
When he was out of sight the young man took the stone from his cap and looked at it. "I want the finest horse that can be found, and the most splendid garments," said he.
"Shut your eyes then," replied the stone. And he shut them; and when he opened them again the horse that he had wished for was standing before him, while the robes of a prince hung from his shoulders. Mounting the horse, he whistled the falcon to his wrist, and, followed by his dog and his cat, he started homewards.
His mother was sewing at her door when this magnificent stranger rode up. Filled with surprise she bowed before him.
"Don't you know me, mother?" he said with a laugh. And on hearing his voice the good woman nearly fell to the ground with astonishment.
"How have you got that horse and those clothes?" asked she. "Can a son of mine have committed murder in order to possess them?"
"Do not be afraid; they are quite honestly come by," answered the youth. "I will explain all by-and-by; but now you must go to the castle and tell the king I wish to marry his daughter."
At these words the mother thought her son had certainly gone mad, and stared blankly at him. The young man guessed what was in her heart, and replied with a smile:
"Fear nothing. Promise all that he asks; it will be fulfilled somehow."
So she went to the castle, where she found the king sitting in the Hall of Justice listening to the petitions of his people. The woman waited till all had been heard and the hall was empty, and then went up and knelt before the throne.
"My son has sent me to ask for the hand of the princess," said she.
The king looked at her and thought that she was mad; but, instead of ordering his guards to turn her out, he answered gravely:
"Before he can marry the princess he must build me a castle of ice, which can be warmed with fires, and wherein the rarest singing-birds can live!"
"It shall be done," said she, and got up and left the hall.
Her son was anxiously awaiting her outside the castle gates, dressed in the clothes that he wore every day.
"Well, what have I got to do?" he asked impatiently, drawing his mother aside so that no one could overhear them.
"Oh, something quite impossible; and I hope you'll put the princess out of your head," she replied.
"Well, but what is it?" persisted he.
"Nothing but to build a castle of ice wherein fires can burn that shall keep it so warm that the most delicate singing-birds can live in it!"
"I thought it would be something much harder than that," exclaimed the young man. "I will see about it at once." And leaving his mother, he went into the country and took the stone from his cap.
"I want a castle of ice that can be warmed with fires and filled with the rarest singing-birds!"
"Shut your eyes, then," said the stone; and he shut them, and when he opened them again there was the castle, more beautiful than anything he could have imagined, the fires throwing a soft pink glow over the ice.
"It's fit even for an eskimo - and the princess," he thought to himself.
As soon as the king awoke next morning he ran to the window, and there across the plain he saw the castle.
"That young man must be a great wizard; he may be useful to me." And when the mother came again to tell him that his orders had been fulfilled he received her with great honour, and bade her tell her son that the wedding was fixed for the following day.
The princess was delighted with her new home, and with her husband also; and several days slipped happily by, spent in turning over all the beautiful things that the castle contained. But at length the young man grew tired of always staying inside walls, and he told his wife that the next day he must leave her for a few hours, and go out hunting. "You'll not mind?" he asked. And she answered as became a good wife:
"Yes, of course I shall mind; but I will spend the day in planning out some new dresses; and then it will be so delightful when you come back, you know!"
So the husband went off to hunt, with the falcon on his wrist, and the dog and the cat behind himfor the castle was so warm that even the cat did not mind living in it.
No sooner had he gone, than the ogre who had been watching his chance for many days, knocked at the door of the castle.
"I have just returned from a far country," he said, "and I have some of the largest and most brilliant stones in the world with me. The princess is known to love beautiful things, perhaps she might like to buy some?"
Now the princess had been wondering for many days what trimming she should put on her dresses, so that they should outshine the dresses of the other ladies at the court balls. Nothing that she thought of seemed good enough, so, when the message was brought that the ogre and his wares were below, she at once ordered that he should be brought to her chamber.
Oh! what beautiful stones he laid before her; what lovely rubies, and what rare pearls! No other lady would have jewels like thoseof that the princess was quite sure; but she cast down her eyes so that the ogre might not see how much she longed for them.
"I fear they are too costly for me," she said carelessly; "and besides, I have hardly need of any more jewels just now."
"I have no particular wish to sell them myself," answered the ogre, with equal indifference. "But I have a necklace of shining stones which was left me by father, and one, the largest engraven with weird characters, is missing. I have heard that it's in your husband's possession, and if you can get me that stone you shall have any of these jewels that you choose. But you'll have to pretend that you want it for yourself; and, above all, do not mention me, for he sets great store by it, and would never part with it to a stranger! Tomorrow I will return with some jewels yet finer than those I have with me today. So, farewell!"
Left alone, the princess began to think of many things, but chiefly as to whether she would persuade her husband to give her the stone or not. At one moment she felt he had already bestowed so much on her that it was a shame to ask for the only object he had kept back. No, it would be mean; she could not do it! But then, those diamonds, and those string of pearls! After all, they had only been married a week, and the pleasure of giving it to her ought to be far greater than the pleasure of keeping it for himself. And she was sure it would be!
Well, that evening, when the young man had supped off his favourite dishes which the princess took care to have specially prepared for him, she sat down close beside him, and began stroking his head. For some time she did not speak, but listened attentively to all the adventures that had befallen him that day.
"But I was thinking of you all the time," said he at the end, "and wishing that I could bring you back something you would like. But, alas! what is there that you do not possess already?"
"How good of you not to forget me when you're in the middle of such dangers and hardships," answered she. "Yes, it's true I have many beautiful things; but if you want to give me a presentand tomorrow is my birthdaythere's one thing that I wish for very much."
"And what is that? Of course you shall have it directly!" he asked eagerly.
"It's that bright stone which fell out of the folds of your cap a few days ago," she answered, playing with his finger; "the little stone with all those funny marks on it. I never saw any stone like it before."
The young man did not answer at first; then he said, slowly:
"I have promised it, and therefore I must do so. But will you swear never to part from it, and to keep it safely about you always? More I cannot tell you, but I beg you earnestly to take heed to this."
The princess was a little startled by his manner, and began to be sorry that she had every listened to the ogre. But she did not like to draw back, and pretended to be immensely delighted at her new toy, and kissed and thanked her husband for it.
"After all I needn't give it to the ogre," thought she as she dropped off to sleep.
Unluckily the next morning the young man went hunting again, and the ogre, who was watching, knew this, and did not come till much later than before. At the moment that he knocked at the door of the castle the princess had tired of all her employments, and her attendants were at their wits' end how to amuse her, when a tall negro dressed in scarlet came to announce that the ogre was below, and desired to know if the princess would speak to him.
"Bring him here at once!" cried she, springing up from her cushions, and forgetting all her resolves of the previous night. In another moment she was bending with rapture over the glittering gems.
"Have you got it?" asked the ogre in a whisper, for the princess's ladies were standing as near as they dared to catch a glimpse of the beautiful jewels.
"Yes, here," she answered, slipping the stone from her sash and placing it among the rest. Then she raised her voice, and began to talk quickly of the prices of the chains and necklaces, and after some bargaining, to deceive the attendants, she declared that she liked one string of pearls better than all the rest, and that the ogre might take away the other things, which were not half as valuable as he supposed.
"As you please, madam," said he, bowing himself out of the castle.
Soon after he had gone a curious thing happened. The princess carelessly touched the wall of her room, which was wont to reflect the warm red light of the fire on the hearth, and found her hand quite wet. She turned round, andwas it her fancy? or did the fire burn more dimly than before? Hurriedly she passed into the picture gallery, where pools of water showed here and there on the floor, and a cold chill ran through her whole body. At that instant her frightened ladies came running down the stairs, crying:
"Oh, what has happened? The castle is disappearing under our eyes!"
"My husband will be home very soon," answered the princesswho, though nearly as much frightened as her ladies, felt that she must set them a good example. "Wait till then, and he will tell us what to do."
So they waited, seated on the highest chairs they could find, wrapped in their warmest garments, and with piles of cushions under their feet, while the poor birds flew with numbed wings here and there, till they were so lucky as to discover an open window in some forgotten corner. Through this they vanished, and were seen no more.
At last, when the princess and her ladies had been forced to leave the upper rooms, where the walls and floors had melted away, and to take refuge in the hall, the young man came home. He had ridden back along a winding road from which he did not see the castle till he was close on it, and stood horrified at the spectacle before him. He knew in an instant that his wife must have betrayed his trust, but he would not reproach her, as she must be suffering enough already. Hurrying on he sprang over all that was left of the castle walls, and the princess gave a cry of relief at the sight of him.
"Come quickly," he said, "or you'll be frozen to death!" And a dreary little procession set out for the king's castle, the dog and the cat bringing up the rear.
At the gates he left them, though his wife besought him to allow her to enter.
"You have betrayed me and ruined me," he said sternly; "I go to seek my fortune alone." And without another word he turned and left her.
With his falcon on his wrist, and his dog and cat behind him, the young man walked a long way, inquiring of everyone he met whether they had seen his enemy the ogre. But nobody had. Then he bade his falcon fly up into the skyup, up, and upand try if his sharp eyes could discover the old thief. The bird had to go so high that he did not return for some hours; but he told his master that the ogre was lying asleep in a splendid castle in a far country on the shores of the sea. This was delightful news to the young man, who instantly bought some meat for the falcon, bidding him make a good meal.
"Tomorrow," said he, "you'll fly to the castle where the ogre lies, and while he is asleep you'll search all about him for a stone on which is engraved strange signs; this you'll bring to me. In three days I shall expect you back here."
"Well, I must take the cat with me," answered the bird.
The sun had not yet risen before the falcon soared high into the air, the cat seated on his back, with his paws tightly clasping the bird's neck.
"You had better shut your eyes or you may get giddy," said the bird; and the cat, you had never before been off the ground except to climb a tree, did as she was bid.
All that day and all that night they flew, and in the morning they saw the ogre's castle lying beneath them.
"Dear me," said the cat, opening her eyes for the first time, "that looks to me very like a rat city down there, let us go down to it; they may be able to help us." So they alighted in some bushes in the heart of the rat city. The falcon remained where he was, but the cat lay down outside the principal gate, causing terrible excitement among the rats.
At length, seeing she did not move, one bolder than the rest put its head out of an upper window of the castle, and said, in a trembling voice:
"Why have you come here? What do you want? If it's anything in our power, tell us, and we will do it."
"If you would have let me speak to you before, I would have told you that I come as a friend," replied the cat; "and I shall be greatly obliged if you would send four of the strongest and most cunning among you, to do me a service."
"Oh, we shall be delighted," answered the rat, much relieved. "But if you'll inform me what it's you wish them to do I shall be better able to judge who is most fitted for the post."
"I thank you," said the cat. "Well, what they have to do is this: To-night they must burrow under the walls of the castle and go up to the room were an ogre lies asleep. Somewhere about him he has hidden a stone, on which are engraved strange signs. When they have found it they must take it from him without his waking, and bring it to me."
"Your orders shall be obeyed," replied the rat. And he went out to give his instructions.
About midnight the cat, who was still sleeping before the gate, was awakened by some water flung at her by the head rat, who could not make up his mind to open the doors.
"Here is the stone you wanted," said he, when the cat started up with a loud mew; "if you'll hold up your paws I will drop it down." And so he did. "And now farewell," continued the rat; "you have a long way to go, and will do well to start before daybreak."
"Your counsel is good," replied the cat, smiling to itself; and putting the stone in her mouth she went off to seek the falcon.
Now all this time neither the cat nor the falcon had had any food, and the falcon soon got tired carrying such a heavy burden. When night arrived he declared he could go no further, but would spend it on the banks of a river.
"And it's my turn to take care of the stone," said he, "or it will seem as if you had done everything and I nothing."
"No, I got it, and I will keep it," answered the cat, who was tired and cross; and they began a fine quarrel. But, unluckily, in the middle of it, the cat raised her voice, and the stone fell into the ear of a big fish which happened to be swimming by, and though both the cat and the falcon sprang into the water after it, they were too late.
Half drowned, and more than half choked, the two faithful servants scrambled back to land again. The falcon flew to a tree and spread his wings in the sun to dry, but the cat, after giving herself a good shake, began to scratch up the sandy banks and to throw the bits into the stream.
"What are you doing that for?" asked a little fish. "Do you know that you're making the water quite muddy?"
"That doesn't matter at all to me," answered the cat. "I am going to fill up all the river, so that the fishes may die."
"That is very unkind, as we have never done you any harm," replied the fish. "Why are you so angry with us?"
"Because one of you has got a stone of mine a stone with strange signs on itwhich dropped into the water. If you'll promise to get it back for me, why, perhaps I will leave your river alone."
"I will certainly try," answered the fish in a great hurry; "but you must have a little patience, as it may not be an easy task." And in an instant his scales might be seen flashing quickly along.
The fish swam as fast as he could to the sea, which was not far distant, and calling together all his relations who lived in the neighbourhood, he told them of the terrible danger which threatened the dwellers in the river.
"None of us has got it," said the fishes, shaking their heads; "but in the bay over there there's a tunny who, although he is so old, always goes everywhere. He will be able to tell you about it, if anyone can." So the little fish swam off to the tunny, and again related his story.
"Why I was up that river only a few hours ago!" cried the tunny; "and as I was coming back something fell into my ear, and there it's still, for I went to sleep, when I got home and forgot all about it. Perhaps it may be what you want." And stretching up his tail he whisked out the stone.
"Yes, I think that must be it," said the fish with joy. And taking the stone in his mouth he carried it to the place where the cat was waiting for him.
"I am much obliged to you," said the cat, as the fish laid the stone on the sand, "and to reward you, I will let your river alone." And she mounted the falcon's back, and they flew to their master.
Ah, how glad he was to see them again with the magic stone in their possession. In a moment he had wished for a castle, but this time it was of green flintstone; and then he wished for the princess and her ladies to occupy it. And there they lived for many years, and when the old king died the princess's husband reigned in his stead.
A VERY long time ago the town of Hamel in Germany was invaded by bands of rats, the like of which had never been seen before nor will ever be again.
They were great black creatures that ran boldly in broad daylight through the streets, and swarmed so, all over the houses, that people at last couldn't put their hand or foot down anywhere without touching one. When dressing in the morning they found them in their breeches and petticoats, in their pockets and in their boots; and when they wanted a morsel to eat, the voracious horde had swept away everything from cellar to garret. The night was even worse. As soon as the lights were out, these untiring nibblers set to work. And everywhere, in the ceilings, in the floors, in the cupboards, at the doors, there was a chase and a rummage, and so furious a noise of gimlets, pincers, and saws, that a deaf man couldn't have rested for one hour together.
Neither cats nor dogs, nor poison nor traps, nor prayers nor candles burnt to all the saints - nothing would do anything. The more they killed the more came. And the inhabitants of Hamel began to go to the dogs (not that they were of much use), when one Friday there arrived in the town a man with a queer face, who played the bagpipes and sang this refrain:
"Qui vivra verra: Le voilą, Le preneur des rats."
He was a great gawky fellow, dry and bronzed, with a crooked nose, a long rat-tail moustache, two great yellow piercing and mocking eyes, under a large felt hat set off by a scarlet cock's feather. He was dressed in a green jacket with a leather belt and red breeches, and on his feet were sandals fastened by thongs passed round his legs in the gipsy fashion.
That's how he may be seen to this day, painted on a window of the cathedral of Hamel.
He stopped on the great market-place before the town hall, turned his back on the church and went on with his music, singing:
"Who lives shall see: This is he, The rat-catcher."
The town council had just assembled to consider once more this plague of Egypt, from which no one could save the town.
The stranger sent word to the counsellors that, if they would make it worth his while, he would rid them of all their rats before night, down to the very last.
"Then he is a sorcerer!" cried the citizens with one voice; "we must beware of him."
The Town Counsellor, who was considered clever, reassured them.
He said: "Sorcerer or no, if this bagpiper speaks the truth, it was he who sent us this horrible vermin that he wants to rid us of today for money. Well, we must learn to catch the devil in his own snares. You leave it to me."
"Leave it to the Town Counsellor," said the citizens one to another.
And the stranger was brought before them.
"Before night," said he, "I shall have despatched all the rats in Hamel if you'll but pay me a gros a head."
"A gros a head!" cried the citizens, "but that will come to millions of florins!"
The Town Counsellor simply shrugged his shoulders and said to the stranger:
"A bargain! To work; the rats will be paid one gros a head as you ask."
The bagpiper announced that he would operate that very evening when the moon rose. He added that the inhabitants should at that hour leave the streets free, and content themselves with looking out of their windows at what was passing, and that it would be a pleasant spectacle. When the people of Hamel heard of the bargain, they too exclaimed: "A gros a head! but this will cost us a deal of money!"
"Leave it to the Town Counsellor," said the town council with a malicious air. And the good people of Hamel repeated with their counsellors, "Leave it to the Town Counsellor."
Towards nine at night the bagpiper re-appeared on the market place. He turned, as at first, his back to the church, and the moment the moon rose on the horizon, "Trarira, trari!" the bagpipes resounded.
It was first a slow, caressing sound, then more and more lively and urgent, and so sonorous and piercing that it penetrated as far as the farthest alleys and retreats of the town.
Soon from the bottom of the cellars, the top of the garrets, from under all the furniture, from all the nooks and corners of the houses, out come the rats, search for the door, fling themselves into the street, and trip, trip, trip, begin to run in file towards the front of the town hall, so squeezed together that they covered the pavement like the waves of flooded torrent.
When the square was quite full the bagpiper faced about, and, still playing briskly, turned towards the river that runs at the foot of the walls of Hamel.
Arrived there he turned round; the rats were following.
"Hop! hop!" he cried, pointing with his finger to the middle of the stream, where the water whirled and was drawn down as if through a funnel. And hop! hop! without hesitating, the rats took the leap, swam straight to the funnel, plunged in head foremost and disappeared.
The plunging continued thus without ceasing till midnight.
At last, dragging himself with difficulty, came a big rat, white with age, and stopped on the bank.
It was the king of the band.
"Are they all there, friend Blanchet?" asked the bagpiper.
"They are all there," replied friend Blanchet.
"And how many were they?"
"Nine hundred and ninety thousand, nine hundred and ninety- nine."
"Then go and join them, old sire, and au revoir."
Then the old white rat sprang in his turn into the river, swam to the whirlpool and disappeared.
When the bagpiper had thus concluded his business he went to bed at his inn. And for the first time during three months the people of Hamel slept quietly through the night.
The next morning, at nine o'clock, the bagpiper repaired to the town hall, where the town council awaited him.
"All your rats took a jump into the river yesterday," said he to the counsellors, "and I guarantee that not one of them comes back. They were nine hundred and ninety thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine, at one gros a head. Reckon!"
"Let's reckon the heads first. One gros a head is one head the gros. Where are the heads?"
The rat-catcher didn't expect this treacherous stroke. He paled with anger and his eyes flashed fire.
"The heads!" cried he, "if you care about them, go and find them in the river."
"So," replied the Town Counsellor, "you refuse to hold to the terms of your agreement? We ourselves could refuse you all payment. But you have been of use to us, and we won't let you go without a recompense," and he offered him fifty crowns.
"Keep your recompense for yourself," replied the rat-catcher proudly. "If you don't pay me I'll be paid by your heirs."
Thereupon he pulled his hat down over his eyes, went hastily out of the hall, and left the town without speaking to a soul.
When the Hamel people heard how the affair had ended they rubbed their hands, and with no more scruple than their Town Counsellor, they laughed over the rat-catcher, who, they said, was caught in his own trap. But what made them laugh above all was his threat of getting himself paid by their heirs. Ha! they wished that they only had such creditors for the rest of their lives.
Next day, which was a Sunday, they all went gaily to church, thinking that after Mass they would at last be able to eat some good thing that the rats had not tasted before them.
They never suspected the terrible surprise that awaited them on their return home. No children anywhere, they had all disappeared!
"Our children! where are our poor children?" was the cry that was soon heard in all the streets.
Then through the east door of the town came three little boys, who cried and wept, and this is what they told:
While the parents were at church a wonderful music had resounded. Soon all the little boys and all the little girls that had been left at home had gone out, attracted by the magic sounds, and had rushed to the great market-place. There they found the rat-catcher playing his bagpipes at the same spot as the evening before. Then the stranger had begun to walk quickly, and they had followed, running, singing and dancing to the sound of the music, as far as the foot of the mountain which one sees on entering Hamel. At their approach the mountain had opened a little, and the bagpiper had gone in with them, after which it had closed again. Only the three little ones who told the adventure had remained outside, as if by a miracle. One was bandy-legged and couldn't run fast enough; the other, who had left the house in haste, one foot shod the other bare, had hurt himself against a big stone and couldn't walk without difficulty; the third had arrived in time, but in harrying to go in with the others had struck so violently against the wall of the mountain that he fell backwards at the moment it closed on his comrades.
At this story the parents redoubled their lamentations. They ran with pikes and mattocks to the mountain, and searched till evening to find the opening by which their children had disappeared, without being able to find it. At last, the night falling, they returned desolate to Hamel.
But the most unhappy of all was the Town Counsellor, for he lost three little boys and two pretty little girls, and to crown all, the people of Hamel overwhelmed him with reproaches, forgetting that the evening before they had all agreed with him.
What had become of all these unfortunate children?
The parents always hoped they were not dead, and that the rat-catcher, who certainly must have come out of the mountain, would have taken them with him to his country. That's why for several years they sent in search of them to different countries, but no one ever came on the trace of the poor little ones.
It was not till much later that anything was to be heard of them.
About one hundred and fifty years after the event, when there was no longer one left of the fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters of that day, there arrived one evening in Hamel some merchants of Bremen returning from the East, who asked to speak with the citizens. They told that they, in crossing Hungary, had sojourned in a mountainous country called Transylvania, where the inhabitants only spoke German, while all around them nothing was spoken but Hungarian. These people also declared that they came from Germany, but they didn't know how they chanced to be in this strange country. "Now," said the merchants of Bremen, "these Germans can't be other than the descendants of the lost children of Hamel."
The people of Hamel didn't doubt it; and since that day they regard it as certain that the Transylvanians of Hungary are their country folk, whose ancestors, as children, were brought there by the rat-catcher. There are more difficult things to believe than that.
(Conte de Charles Marelles)