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The Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs

The Master Thief

Return to European Folk and Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

THERE was once a farmer who had a son named Will, and he sent him out in the world to learn a trade and seek his fortune.

Now he hadn't gone far when he was stopped by a band of robbers who called out to him:

"Your purse or your life!"

And he gave them his purse and said: "That is an easy way of getting money, I'd like to be a robber myself."

So they agreed to take him into their band if he could show he was able to do a robber's work. And the first person who went through the wood again they sent Will to see if he could rob him. So he went up to the man and said to him:

"Your purse or your life!"

The man gave him his purse, whereupon Will took all the money out of it and gave it back to the man and took the purse back to the robbers, who said:

"Well, what luck?"

"Oh, I got his purse from him quite easily; here it is."

"Well, what about the money?" said they.

"Well, that I gave back to him. You only asked me to say, 'Your purse or your life."

At that the robbers roared with laughter and said: "You'll never be a thief."

Will was quite ashamed of making such a fool of himself and determined he would do better next time.

So one day he saw two farmers driving a herd of cattle to market, and told the robbers that he knew a way to take the cattle from them without fighting for them.

"If you do that," said they, "you will be a Master Thief."

Then Will went a little way ahead of the robbers with a stout cord, which he tied under his armpits and then fixed himself upon a branch of a tree over the road so that it looked as if he had been hanged.

When the farmers came with their cattle they said: "There's one of the robbers hung up for an example," and drove their cattle on farther.

Then Will got down, and running across a by path got again in front of the farmers and hung himself up as before on a tree by the side of the road.

When the farmers came up to him one of them said: "Goodness gracious me, why there's the same robber hanged up here again."

"Oh, that's not the same robber," said the other.

"Yes, it is," said the first, "for I noticed he had a white horn button on his coat, and see, there it is. It must be the same man."

"How could that be?" said the other. "We left that one hanging up dead half a mile back."

"I am sure it is."

"I am certain it isn't."

"Well, give a good look at him, and we'll go back and see if it isn't the same."

So the farmers went back to look, and Will took their cattle and drove them back to the robbers, who agreed that he was a Master Thief.

He stopped with them for several years and made much money, and then drove back in a carriage and pair to his father's farm.

When he came there his father came to the carriage and bowed to him and asked him, "What's your pleasure, sir?"

"Oh I want to make some inquiries about a young fellow named William who used to be on this farm. What has become of him?"

"Oh, I don't know; he was my son and I have not heard from him for many years; I am afraid he has come to no good."

"Look at me closely and see if you see any re semblance to him."

Then the farmer recognized Will and took him into the farmhouse and called Will's mother to come and welcome him back.

"So, Will, you've come back in a carriage and pair," said she. "How have you earnt so much money?"

So Will told his mother that he had become a Master Thief but begged her not to mention it to any one, but to tell them that he had been an explorer and had found gold.

Well, the very next day a neighbouring gossip called in upon Will's mother and asked her to tell her the news about Will and what he had been doing.

So she said: "Oh, Will has been an exploiter, I mean explorer, but he really was a Master Thief. But you mustn't tell anybody; you'll promise, won't you?"

So the gossip promised, but of course the moment she got home she told all about Will I a Master Thief.

Now the lord of the village soon heard of this, and he called Will up to him and said: "I hear you are a Master Thief. You know that you deserve death for that. But if you can prove that you are really a master in your thievery I will let you go free. First let us see whether you can steal my horse out of my stable tonight."

To prevent his horse being stolen, the lord ordered it to be saddled and put a stable boy on it, telling him to stop there all night.

Will took two flasks of brandy into one of which he had poured a drug, and dressing himself as an old woman he went to the lord's stable late at night and asked to rest there as it was so cold and she was so tired.

The stable boy pointed to some straw in the corner and told the woman she might rest there for a time.

When she sat down she took one of the brandy flasks out of her pocket and drank it off, saying, "Ah, that warms one! Would you like to have a drink?"

And when the stable boy said "Yes," Will gave him the other flask, and as soon as he had drunk it he fell dead asleep.

So Will lifted him off of the horse and put him on the cross-bar of the stable as if he were riding, and then he got on the horse and rode away.

In the morning the lord went down to the stable and there he saw the stable boy riding the cross bar and his horse gone.

Then Will rode up to the stable on the lord's horse and said: "Am I not a Master Thief?"

"Oh, stealing my horse was not so hard. Let us see if you can steal the sheet from off my bed tonight. But, look out, if you come near my bed room I shall shoot you."

That night Will took a dummy man and propped it up on a ladder, which he put up to the lord's bedroom.

And when the lord saw the dummy coming in at the window he shot his pistol at it and it fell down. He rushed downstairs and out into the open air looking to see if he had shot Will.

Meanwhile Will went up to the lord's bedroom and, speaking in the lord's voice, said to his wife: "Give me the sheet, my dear, to wrap the body of that poor Master Thief in."

So she gave him the sheet and he went away.

Next morning Will brought up the sheet to the lord, who said: "That was a good trick, I must confess. But if you want really to prove that you are a Master Thief bring to me the priest in a bag, and then I will own your mastery."

So that night Will took a number of crabs and tied candle ends upon them, and taking them to the cemetery lit the candle ends and let them loose.

When the priest of the village saw these lights moving over the cemetery he came to the door and watched them and called out:

"What is that?"

Now Will had dressed himself up like an angel.

"It is the last day of judgment, and I have come for thee, Father Lawrence, to carry thee to heaven. Come within this bag, and in a short time thou wilt be in thine appointed place."

So Father Lawrence crept within the bag, and Will dragged him along, and when he bumped against the ground Father Lawrence said:

"Oh, we must be going through purgatory."

And then Will took him to the hen-coops and threw him in among the chickens and ducks and geese, and Father Lawrence said:

"We must be getting near the angels for I hear the rustling of their wings."

So Will went up to the lord's house and made him come down to the hen-coops and there showed him the priest in the bag, and the lord said:

"I do not know how you do these things. I cannot tell if you are really a Master Thief unless you take my horse from under me. If you can do that I will call you the Master of all Master Thieves."

Well, next day, Will dressed himself up as an old woman, and taking a cart with an old horse put in it a cask of beer, and then went driving along with his thumb in the bunghole.

Soon after he met the lord on horseback who asked him if he had seen a man like Will lurking about there in the forest.

"I think I have," said Will, "and could bring him to you if you wanted. But I can't leave this cask before the taps come out; I have to keep my thumb in the bunghole."

"Oh, I will do that," said the lord, "if you will only go and get that man. Take my horse and run him down."

So Will got on the lord's horse and rode off, leaving the nobleman with his thumb in the bung hole. He waited and he waited and he waited till at last he drove in the cart back to his house, and there he saw no less a person than Will himself riding his horse.

Then the noble said unto Will: "You are indeed a Master Thief. Go your way in peace."

Jacobs' Notes and References

The sneaking regard of the folk-mind for the clever rogue who can outwit the guardians of order (the ever-present enemy of the folk) was shown in early days by the myth of Rhampsinitus in Herodotus, ii., 121, which is found to this day among the Italians (see Crane, No. 44, and S. Prato, La Leggenda del Tesoro di Rampsinite, Como, 1882). But the more usual European form is that I have chosen for the text, the formula of which might be summed up as follows:

Apprenticeship in thievery--Purse or life--Hanging "sell"--Master Thief--Three Tests--Horse from Stable--Sheet off bed--Priest in bag--Horse from under (Thumb-Bung).

Almost the whole of this is found as early as Straparola i., 2, where Cassandrino is ordered by the provost of Perugia to steal his bed and his horse and to bring to him in a sack the rector of the village.

The purse incident occurs in Brittany, Piedmont, Tuscany, and Tyrol; in Iceland (Arnason, p. 609) occurs the man twice hanged which also occurs in Norway, Ireland, Saxony, Tuscany, and in Germany (Kuhn and Schwartz, 362); in Servia (Vuk, 46) the Master Thief steals sheep by throwing two shoes successively in the road, which also occurs in Bengal (Day, xi.); the theft of the horse occurs in Brittany, Norway, Ireland, Tuscany, Scotland (Campbell, 40), Flanders, in Basque and Catalan, Russia and Servia. The third test of kidnapping the priest occurs in Brittany, Flanders, Norway, Basque, Catalan, Scotland, Ireland, Lithuania, Tuscany. In Iceland the persons carried away are a king and a queen.

The three tests of the Master Thief, the stealing of bed, horse, and priest, occur as early as Straparola, i., 2, who also has a somewhat similar story of the "Scholar in Magic," viii., 5, which contains the zigzag transformation of the Arabian Nights. Both forms occur in Grimm, 68, 192. While the three tests are fairly uniform throughout Europe, the introduction by which the lad becomes a thief and proves himself a Master Thief varies considerably; and I have had to make a selection rather than a collation.

In some forms the farmer has three sons, of whom the youngest adopts thievery as a profession, which indeed it was in the Middle Ages (as we know from the Cul-le-jatte of The Cloister and the Hearth). In Hahn, 3, the Master Thief has to bring a "Drakos" instead of a priest. Curiously enough, in Gonzenbach, 83, the Master Thief has to bring back a "dragu."

In many of the variants the Master Thief executes his tricks in order to gain the King's daughter by a sort of Bride Wager. But in most cases he does them in order to escape the natural consequences of his thievery.

Jacobs, Joseph, ed. European Folk and Fairy Tales. New York: G. P Putnam's Sons, 1916.

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Page created 4/15/05; Last updated 10/22/07