A certain regiment had for its drummer an old man named Donatus. He was a good-for-nothing rascal, who spent most of his time in the tavern drinking and playing cards, but he was an excellent drummer for all that, and it was a fine sight to see him on parade days, marching along with the band, and playing on his drum with a flourish that was the envy of all the boys in the town.
None of his companions in the regiment liked Donatus, because of his fondness for playing practical jokes. There was hardly one of them whom at some time or another he had not hoaxed, and as most of his jokes were spiteful ones, nobody pretended to be sorry when one day the drummer was found cheating at cards, and being brought before the captain, was dismissed from the regiment.
It was in vain that he pleaded for mercy, with the tears running down his face. The captain had forgiven him many times, and was determined not to do so again
"Well," said Donatus at last, "if I must go, I beg you, captain, to let me keep my drum. I have played on it since I was a lad of fourteen, and I know no other trade. If you take it away from me, I don't know how I am going to live, but with it I may perhaps manage to turn an honest penny or two."
"Very well, you old scoundrel," answered the captain. "Keep your drum and get off; only be quick about it, or you shall be soundly thrashed."
So away went Donatus with his drum on his back. Not having any particular place to go to, he just took the first road that came, and marched along it all day until he was forced to rest because his legs were so tired. Setting his drum down in the middle of the road he sat on it and began to wonder what he should do for food and a bed for the night. First of all he turned out his pockets to see what he could find, but there was nothing there except two sous and a pack of very greasy playing cards. Donatus put them back again, with a sigh, and fell again to wondering how he was going to fare.
Now the road along which he had been walking was bordered by a dense forest, and suddenly Donatus thought that if he were to get among the trees he could at least find shelter. So he shouldered his drum again and entered the wood. Hardly had he done so than he heard a loud humming noise, and proceeding in the direction from which it came, he saw a swarm of bees hanging to the branch of a big tree.
"Here's fine fruit!" said he to himself, laughing. I'll pluck them. They may come in useful one of these days! So he took off the top skin of his drum, and having skilfully caused the swarm to drop inside the instrument, replaced the skin and went on his way.
Presently he came to a little house in the wood, and knocked at the door to ask for shelter for the night. The door was opened by a farmer woman of comely appearance, but with a very disagreeable expression of face. She looked the drummer up and down very sourly. "Be off with you!" she said, "we want no soldiers here. We have seen your kind before, my man, and do not like them." And so saying, she very rudely shut the door in his face.
"Now what am I to do?" thought Donatus ruefully. "Night has fallen, and I am too weary to wander any farther. A plague take that hard-hearted woman, who will not take pity on my misfortunes!"
Thus reflecting, he cast his eye about to look for a corner in which he might rest, and suddenly spied a heap of faggots piled up against the cottage wall. Climbing to the top of the heap, he found that it was possible to reach the window of the attic, which fortunately stood open, so he lost no time in crawling inside, where he stretched himself out on the planks to sleep.
Now the attic happened to be directly above the kitchen, and as there was a knot-hole in the wooden floor, the drummer could see everything that was going on in the room below. There was the farmer-woman busily preparing the supper, and the fragrant fumes which rose from the viands tickled the drummer's nose, and made the water run out of the corners of his mouth.
After a time there was a loud knock at the house door, and the woman hurried to open it, admitting a man dressed in a long cloak. He was the village beadle, and a nephew of the woman's husband, but that good man had such a hatred of beadles that he could not bear to look at one, and his nephew never dared to come to the house while the husband was at home. His visits therefore were few and far between, but when he did come his aunt always feasted him right royally. This time she bade him welcome with great tenderness, helped him off with his cloak and sat him down at the table, on which she placed a fine roast fowl, with a gammon of bacon and a bottle of wine.
"Ha, ha!" cried the beadle, rubbing his hands. "You are a famous hostess, aunt! My walk has given me an appetite, and I am just in a condition to do justice to your good cooking. Here's health! And he filled a glass with wine and drained it to the dregs.
"Gr-r, you greedy fellow!" muttered the drummer, who was lying full length in the attic above with his eye to the knot-hole. "I hope it may choke you!" And he watched eagerly while the beadle began to fall to on the roast fowl.
Suddenly the feast was interrupted by another loud knock at the door.
"My husband! cried the woman in great agitation. "He has come back unexpectedly. If he finds you here, something terrible will happen, for he cannot bear the sight of a beadle. Quick! Jump into this chest and pull down the lid, while I clear away all signs of the supper!"
The beadle, who was just as frightened as his hostess, lost no time in doing as she bade him. He hopped into the chest and pulled down the lid, while she hurried to clear the table. All this time the husband was thundering at the door, very impatient at being kept waiting. When at last his wife let him in, he flew into a temper and began to scold her.
"I am very sorry, good man," she answered, "but I did not hear you knock, I was hard at work in the scullery."
"Bring me something to eat!" growled the man.
"Just as you like," answered his wife. "But if I were you I would not sup so late you know how it always gives you indigestion. Wouldn't it be better to go straight to bed?"
"Hold your peace, woman," said her spouse. "I am not sleepy!" And he sat himself down at the table.
Hardly had he done so than there came a loud knocking on the floor of the attic above his head.
"What is that?" he cried, jumping up. "Is there somebody in the attic?"
"Not that I know of," answered his wife. "Nobody has been here all day except a soldier with a most villainous face, who came begging. I sent him away with a flea in his ear, I assure you."
"Did you so?" said her husband. "Well, I believe he has managed to get into the attic. I remember now that I forgot to fasten the window." Off he went upstairs to see, and sure enough, there was the drummer, who was not slow in explaining how he had got there.
"Well, come along downstairs and warm yourself," said the farmer. My wife is just about to get my supper, and I expect there will be enough for two."
Without hesitation the drummer accompanied his host to the kitchen, and sat down at the table. He paid no heed to the venomous glances that the woman of the house cast at him as she slammed down a loaf of black bread and a bowl of milk.
"Ho, ho," said the drummer to himself. "There is fowl for the beadle and dry bread for the good man and his guest. Well, we shall see! And he gave a kick with his foot to the drum which was under the table.
"What have you got there?" asked the farmer, starting up at the sound.
"Oh, that is my oracle," answered the drummer coolly. "Your oracle! Does he speak to you, then?"
"Well," answered the drummer. "He speaks to me three times a day."
"I should very much like to hear him," said the farmer.
The drummer picked up his drumsticks and beat a lively tattoo on the drum, and, aroused by the noise and vibration, the swarm of bees within began to buzz about in great commotion.
"Wonderful! Wonderful!" cried the farmer delightedly, as he listened to the humming. "Do you really understand that language? What does the oracle say?"
"He says," answered the farmer, "that there is no need for us to drink sour milk, for there is a bottle of wine standing by the wall, just behind the big chest."
"Ha, ha, ha! That is a good joke!" roared the farmer. "Wine in my house! I only wish it were true!"
"Tell your wife to look behind the chest, and I'll guarantee she will find it."
Very unwillingly the wife went to the place indicated, and came back with the bottle of wine. She tried to look as surprised as her husband, but only succeeded in pulling a very wry mouth.
"Bring glasses, wife!" cried the farmer in great good humour. "We must drink the health of this famous oracle. Do you think you can make him speak again, friend?"
"Certainly," said the drummer, beating another tattoo on the drum. Once again the bees began to hum loudly, and he leant down, pretending to listen to what they had to say.
"Well?"Well?" cried the farmer impatiently.
"He says that if your wife will look in the cupboard, she will find a roast fowl and a gammon of bacon that we can eat instead of this dry bread."
"On my word, that is a wonderful oracle!" cried the farmer. "Make haste, wife, and look in the cupboard."
The wife could not refuse to obey, so she brought the good things and set them on the table, but if looks could have killed anybody the drummer would have been a dead man that day. He paid little heed to her evil glances, however, but applied himself to the food with a good appetite. Before very long, between the two of them, there was nothing left of the chicken but the bones, and of the gammon but the lean, bony part.
"Oh yes," said the farmer, unbuttoning his waistcoat, "that was a better meal than I expected to get tonight. Has your oracle any more agreeable surprises for us, good sir? I pray you, make him speak again."
"With all the will in the world," answered the drummer, "but this will be the last occasion, for he only speaks three times a day." Taking up his sticks, he played the war-march of Napoleon on the drum, and the bees accompanied him as before with their loud humming. The farmer leaned forward eagerly to listen, while his wife stood by trembling with fear.
"Ah," said the drummer at last, looking at them both with a grave face. "This time my oracle tells me of a very serious matter. He says that in the big chest over there a big black demon is hidden!"
"What! What!" cried the farmer, jumping up from his chair as though he had been stung. "A demon, you say?"
"Precisely," answered the drummer. "But don't be alarmed. I will get rid of him for you. Open the door and the windows and then place yourself here, by my side."
The farmer made haste to do what he was told, and marching boldly up to the chest, the drummer seized the heavy lid and threw it open. Immediately the beadle, who had heard everything and was not a little afraid of his own skin, jumped up, his figure entirely covered with the folds of his black mantle, and ran for the door. So sudden was his appearance, and so hasty his flight, that he ran with full force into the farmer, who had no time to get out of his way, and knocked that worthy man, flying head over heels. The beadle, too, stumbled and fell, but quickly recovering himself, made blindly for the door, fell over the folds of his cloak, and tumbled head foremost into the ditch by the side of the road. There was a sudden splashing sound, a muffled murmur, and then silence.
"Poof!" said the farmer, when he had picked himself up and rubbed his limbs. "That was a narrow escape! I saw the demon quite plainly he was all black, with fiery eyes, and a forked tail! Thank heaven that your oracle warned us, good sir, or he would have devoured us as we slept!"
Next morning, as the drummer and the farmer sat at breakfast, the farmer said:
"Will you sell me that oracle, drummer?"
"That depends," answered his guest. You know it is worth a great deal of money."
"I will give you a hundred crowns," said the farmer. "That is all I have in the world."
"Very well," said the drummer. "It is little enough for such a wonderful oracle as this is, but I won't refuse. Give me the money."
So the bargain was concluded. Donatus received the hundred crowns, and in return handed over the drum. Then he bade farewell to his host and was just going out of the door when the farmer called after him: "Stay a moment I have just thought of something. How am I to understand the language which the oracle speaks?
"Oh, that is easy enough," answered Donatus. "Listen carefully: At ten o'clock, go and plant your wife in the ground up to her armpits, then smear her face and shoulders with honey. That done, take the oracle with you into the attic where you found me, and having first bandaged your eyes, take the drum with you to the place where you left your wife and remove the top of the drum. In that moment the meaning will be revealed to you, and you will know!"
"Many thanks!" cried the farmer delightedly. "Good day to you, soldier, and good luck!"
"And to you!" answered the drummer, and he went away laughing up his sleeve.
About a mile farther along the road he saw a man working in the fields, and went up to him.
"How you toil, good fellow," said he, "I'll do a bit of that digging for you so that you can rest a little."
"How very kind of you!" answered the labourer, giving up his spade.
"Very well, but let us change clothes, for I do not wish to soil my uniform. Here is a crown for you. Go to the inn and buy yourself a glass of wine. When you return you will be surprised to see how much I have accomplished."
The exchange was made and the labourer departed. Less than half an hour afterwards the sound of hoofs was heard on the road, and looking up, the drummer saw his late host, mounted on horseback, spurring furiously towards him. The man's face was purple with fury and he was muttering threats as to what he would do to the drummer when he caught him. He had faithfully carried out all his instructions, and had truly enough learnt the meaning of the humming noise within the drum. So had his wife; for when he went to her in the garden, he found her with her face and shoulders black with bees.
Abreast of the place where the drummer was working the farmer reined in his horse, and cried out, "Hallo, have you seen a soldier pass by this way?"
"A man, master?" mumbled the drummer.
"I said a soldier! A man in a red coat with a most unpleasantface. Have you seen him, I say?"
"Why, yes," the drummer answered. "He went past here about a quarter of an hour ago, and made his way into the wood over there. But you'll never find him, master!" he added with a grin.
"And why won't I?"
"You would never overtake him; you would lose yourself in the wood."
"I'll give you a crown if you'll help me to find the rascal," cried the farmer.
"A crown! You must want him badly!"
"I do, and I'll give him a beating when I catch him."
"Here, lend me your horse, master," said the drummer. "I'll catch him for you, and for nothing. I'd like to see him get a good thrashing. Get off the horse quickly or the scoundrel will get away. Wait here for me," he added, as he rode off, "I'll be back in less than half an hour."
Off he went at a gallop, smiling to himself. "First of all a hundred crowns, and now a fine steed," he thought. "Come Donatus, your luck is standing you in good stead!" He reached the wood, entered it, and the farmer waiting by the roadside, heard the sound of his horse's hoofs grow fainter and fainter until at last they died away.
A quarter of an hour passed, half an hour, an hour, but the labourer did not return. The farmer, fuming with impatience, strode up and down the road, slashing at the grass and bushes with his stick. Suddenly he heard footsteps, and saw a man in a red coat approaching It was the labourer dressed in the drummer's clothes, who had drunk, not one, but several glasses of wine, and was now returning very pleased with himself and all the world. As he came he trilled out a merry song.
"You knave! You villain!" cried the farmer, throwing himself on him. "Where are my hundred crowns? You would teach me the language of the bees, would you? And my poor wife is stung all over. Rascal! Scoundrel! Oh, you scum! Take that, and that, and that! And with each word, he lifted his heavy stick and brought it down heavily on the shoulders of the poor labourer.
"Hey, stop, master!" cried the man, twisting and turning to get away. "What's the meaning of this? I'll have the law on you if you don't leave me alone! Ouch, give over, I tell you! What do I know about your hundred crowns or your wife?"
"What!" cried the farmer, laying on harder than before. "Do you add lying to your other crimes? You will tell me next you have never seen a drum!" And with one last mighty cut he stretched the unfortunate fellow at his feet. Then, for the first time, he had a full view of his face, and saw that he was not the man he took him for.
"Oh no!" he moaned, as he turned wearily homeward, pursued by the curses and threats of the man he had beaten. "First I lose a hundred crowns, and then the love of my wife, who will never forgive me her injuries; and now, into the bargain, I have lost my horse! God protect that drummer if ever he falls into my hands!"
My story ends here, and I do not know for certain what happened to him, but people say that he never came out of the wood. If this is true, I am sure that nobody will be sorry!
It was the middle of winter and the ground was covered with snow. Along the high road came a well-known merchant, driving to the town with two immense casks of the liquor known as Hollands, for he traded in it.
All unknown to the merchant, one of the casks had a hole in it, and as he drove along the liquor leaked out and sank into the snow.
In a field close by the roadside were a flock of fifty rooks, who were eagerly turning up the snow and pecking at the ground beneath in search of food. Attracted by the strong smell of the spilt liquor, they flew across to investigate, and having tasted some of the gin-sodden snow, liked it so well that they followed in the train of the cart, eating more and more of it, until at last they were so drunk that they could hardly stand on their feet. Away they went to the fields again, and very soon afterwards the whole flock of them was fast asleep.
After a while Little Pol, a farmer who worked in the neighbourhood, happened to cross the field on his way homeward, and he saw the crows lying stiff and silent on the snow.
"Ah!" said he to himself. "Here is a funny sight! Fifty crows frozen to death in the cold. I'll take them home with me and pluck them. Rook-pie is good food, and such a find is welcome these hard times!" So, taking a cord from his pocket, he set to work to gather up all the rooks, and tie them together by the legs. This done, he walked on, dragging the rooks behind him on his way.
The rough motion and the friction of the snow very soon aroused the rooks from their slumber. They all woke up, and finding their legs tied, began to flap their wings together. Unfortunately for Little Pol, he had taken the precaution of fastening the cord to the belt round his middle, so when the fifty rooks began to fly he could not get free, and found himself being lifted into the air.
Up went the fifty rooks cawing and crying, and up too went Little Pol, calling in vain for help. They reached the clouds; they flew through the clouds; they disappeared from sight.
And since that day not a sign has ever been seen either of the fifty rooks or of Little Pol.