Once the king of a far country was sitting on his throne, listening to the complaints of his people, and judging between them. That morning there had been fewer cases than usual to deal with, and the king was about to rise and go into his gardens, when a sudden stir was heard outside, and his prime minister came in and asked if he would receive the ambassador of a powerful emperor who lived in the east and was greatly feared by the neighbouring sovereigns. The king was as afraid of the emperor as the rest, and they let in the envoy at once.
A banquet was speedily prepared. The king settled himself again on his throne and wondered what the envoy had to say. The envoy said nothing. He went up to the throne where the king was waiting for him and stooping down, traced a black circle on the floor with a rod. Then he sat down on a nearby seat and took no further notice of anyone there.
The king and his courtiers were mystified and enraged at the envoy's odd conduct, but now that he sat as calm and still as an image, it was plain that they would get no explanation from him. The ministers were hastily summoned, but not one of them could tell why that had happened. This made the king's anger grow, and he told them that unless they could find someone capable of solving the mystery before sunset, he would have them all hanged.
The ministers knew the king's word was to be trusted. Now they quickly mapped out the city into districts, so that they might visit house by house, and ask all who lived there if they could understand what the ambassador had meant by what he did. Most of them only got a puzzled stare.
But one of them entered an empty cottage where a swing was swinging of itself, so he began to think it might be worth while to see who owned it. He opened a door to another room, and there he found a second swing, swinging gently like the first, and from the window he beheld a patch of corn, and a willow which kept on moving without any wind blowing, just to frighten away sparrows. His curiosity grew, and he went down the stairs and found himself in a large light workshop where a weaver sat at his loom. But all the weaver did was to guide his threads, for the machine that he had invented to move the swings and the willow pole, made the loom work.
The minister sighed with relief when he saw the great wheel in the corner and had guessed the use of it: If the weaver could not guess the riddle, he might at least put the minister on the right track. So the minister told the story of the circle, and also told that a nice reward waited the one who could explain it.
"Come with me at once," he said. "The sun is low and there is no time to lose."
The weaver stood thinking for a moment and then walked across to a window. Outside it was a hen-coop with two knuckle-bones lying beside it. These he picked up, and taking the hen from the coop, he tucked it under his arm.
"I'm as ready as can be," he answered, turning to the minister.
In the hall the king still sat on his throne and the envoy on his seat. Giving signs to the minister to remain where he was, the weaver went up to the envoy and placed the knuckle-bones on the floor beside him. For answer, the envoy took a handful of millet seed out of his pocket and scattered it round. At this the weaver set down the hen, who ate it up in a moment. That made the envoy rise and leave without a word.
As soon as the envoy had left the hall, the king beckoned to the weaver.
"You alone seem to have guessed the riddle," said he, "and you will be handsomely rewarded. But tell me, what did it mean?"
"The meaning, king," replied the weaver, "is this:
The circle drawn by the envoy round your throne is the message of the emperor, and signifies, "If I send an army and surround your capital, will you lay down your arms?" The knuckle-bones which I placed before him told him, "You are but children compared to us. Toys like these are the only playthings you are fit for." The millet that he scattered was an emblem of the number of soldiers that his master can bring into the field; but by the hen which ate up the seed he understood that one of our men could destroy a host of theirs."
"I don't think the emperor will declare war," he added.
"You have saved me and my honour," said the king, "and wealth and glory shall be heaped on you. Name your reward, and you shall have it, even up to the half of my kingdom."
"All I ask is the small farm outside the city gates as a marriage portion for my daughter, sir," said the weaver, and it was all he would accept. "But please remember that weavers also are of value, and sometimes as clever as ministers, if not more so."
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)
There once 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.