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The Headless Dwarfs

from The Violet Fairy Book





There was once a minister who spent his whole time in trying to
find a servant who would undertake to ring the church bells at
midnight, in addition to all his other duties.

Of course it was not everyone who cared to get up in the middle
of the night, when he had been working hard all day; still, a
good many had agreed to do it. But the strange thing was that no
sooner had the servant set forth to perform his task than he
disappeared, as if the earth had swallowed him up. No bells were
rung, and no ringer ever came back. The minister did his best to
keep the matter secret, but it leaked out for all that, and the
end of it was that no one would enter his service. Indeed, there
were even those who whispered that the minister himself had
murdered the missing men!

It was to no purpose that Sunday after Sunday the minister gave
out from his pulpit that double wages would be paid to anyone
that would fulfil the sacred duty of ringing the bells of the
church. No one took the slightest notice of any offer he might
make, and the poor man was in despair, when one day, as he was
standing at his house door, a youth known in the village as
Clever Hans came up to him. 'I am tired of living with a miser
who will not give me enough to eat and drink,' said he, 'and I am
ready to do all you want.' 'Very good, my son,' replied the
minister, 'you shall have the chance of proving your courage this
very night. To-morrow we will settle what your wages are to be.'

Hans was quite content with this proposal, and went straight into
the kitchen to begin his work, not knowing that his new master
was quite as stingy as his old one. In the hope that his
presence might be a restraint upon them, the minister used to sit
at the table during his servants' meals, and would exhort them to
drink much and often, thinking that they would not be able to eat
as well, and beef was dearer than beer. But in Hans he had met
his match, and the minister soon found to his cost that in his
case at any rate a full cup did not mean an empty plate.

About an hour before midnight, Hans entered the church and locked
the door behind him, but what was his surprise when, in place of
the darkness and silence he expected, he found the church
brilliantly lighted, and a crowd of people sitting round a table
playing cards. Hans felt no fear at this strange sight, or was
prudent enough to hide it if he did, and, going up to the table,
sat down amongst the players. One of them looked up and asked,
'My friend, what are you doing here?' and Hans gazed at him for a
moment, then laughed and answered, 'Well, if anybody has a right
to put that question, it is I! And if I do not put it, it will
certainly be wiser for you not to do so!'

Then he picked up some cards, and played with the unknown men as
if he had known them all his life. The luck was on his side, and
soon the money of the other gamblers found its way from their
pockets into his. On the stroke of midnight the cock crew, and
in an instant lights, table, cards, and people all had vanished,
and Hans was left alone.

He groped about for some time, till he found the staircase in the
tower, and then began to feel his way up the steps.

On the first landing a glimmer of light came through a slit in
the wall, and he saw a tiny man sitting there, without a head.
'Ho! ho! my little fellow, what are you doing there?' asked
Hans, and, without waiting for an answer, gave him a kick which
sent him flying down the stairs. Then he climbed higher still,
and finding as he went dumb watchers sitting on every landing,
treated them as he had done the first.

At last he reached the top, and as he paused for a moment to look
round him he saw another headless man cowering in the very bell
itself, waiting till Hans should seize the bell-pull in order to
strike him a blow with the clapper, which would soon have made an
end of him.

'Stop, my little friend!' cried Hans. 'That is not part of the
bargain! Perhaps you saw how your comrades walked down stairs,
and you are going after them. But as you are in the highest
place you shall make a more dignified exit, and follow them
through the window!'

With these words he began to climb the ladder, in order to take
the little man from the bell and carry out his threat.

At this the dwarf cried out imploringly, 'Oh, brother! spare my
life, and I promise that neither I nor my comrades will ever
trouble you any more. I am small and weak, but who knows whether
some day I shall not be able to reward you.'

'You wretched little shrimp,' replied Hans, 'a great deal of good
your gratitude is likely to do me! But as I happen to be feeling
in a cheerful mood to-night I will let you have your life. But
take care how you come across me again, or you may not escape so
easily!'

The headless man thanked him humbly, slid hastily down the bell
rope, and ran down the steps of the tower as if he had left a
fire behind him. Then Hans began to ring lustily.

When the minister heard the sound of the midnight bells he
wondered greatly, but rejoiced that he had at last found some one
to whom he could trust this duty. Hans rang the bells for some
time, then went to the hay-loft, and fell fast asleep.

Now it was the custom of the minister to get up very early, and
to go round to make sure that the men were all at their work.
This morning everyone was in his place except Hans, and no one
knew anything about him. Nine o'clock came, and no Hans, but
when eleven struck the minister began to fear that he had
vanished like the ringers who had gone before him. When,
however, the servants all gathered round the table for dinner,
Hans at last made his appearance stretching himself and yawning.

'Where have you been all this time?' asked the minister.

'Asleep,' said Hans.

'Asleep!' exclaimed the minister in astonishment. 'You don't
mean to tell me that you can go on sleeping till mid-day?'

'That is exactly what I do mean,' replied Hans. 'If one works in
the night one must sleep in the day, just as if one works in the
day one sleeps in the night. If you can find somebody else to
ring the bells at midnight I am ready to begin work at dawn; but
if you want me to ring them I must go on sleeping till noon at
the very earliest.'

The minister tried to argue the point with him, but at length the
following agreement was come to. Hans was to give up the
ringing, and was to work like the rest from sunrise to sunset,
with the exception of an hour after breakfast and an hour after
dinner, when he might go to sleep. 'But, of course,' added the
minister carelessly, 'it may happen now and then, especially in
winter, when the days are short, that you will have to work a
little longer, to get something finished.'

'Not at all!' answered Hans. 'Unless I were to leave off work
earlier in summer, I will not do a stroke more than I have
promised, and that is from dawn to dark; so you know what you
have to expect.'

A few weeks later the minister was asked to attend a christening
in the neighbouring town. He bade Hans come with him, but, as
the town was only a few hours' ride from where he lived, the
minister was much surprised to see Hans come forth laden with a
bag containing food.

'What are you taking that for?' asked the minister. 'We shall be
there before dark.'

'Who knows?' replied Hans. 'Many things may happen to delay our
journey, and I need not remind you of our contract that the
moment the sun sets I cease to be your servant. If we don't
reach the town while it is still daylight I shall leave you to
shift for yourself.'

The minister thought he was joking, and made no further remark.
But when they had left the village behind them, and had ridden a
few miles, they found that snow had fallen during the night, and
had been blown by the wind into drifts. This hindered their
progress, and by the time they had entered the thick wood which
lay between them and their destination the sun was already
touching the tops of the trees. The horses ploughed their way
slowly through the deep soft snow and as they went Hans kept
turning to look at the sun, which lay at their backs.

'Is there anything behind you?' asked the minister. 'Or what is
it you are always turning round for?'

'I turn round because I have no eyes in the back of my neck,'
said Hans.

'Cease talking nonsense,' replied the minister, 'and give all
your mind to getting us to the town before nightfall.'

Hans did not answer, but rode on steadily, though every now and
then he cast a glance over his shoulder.

When they arrived in the middle of the wood the sun sank
altogether. Then Hans reined up his horse, took his knapsack,
and jumped out of the sledge.

'What are you doing? Are you mad?' asked the minister, but
Hans answered quietly, 'The sun is set and my work is over, and I
am going to camp here for the night.'

In vain the master prayed and threatened, and promised Hans a
large reward if he would only drive him on. The young man was
not to be moved.

'Are you not ashamed to urge me to break my word?' said he. 'If
you want to reach the town to-night you must go alone. The hour
of my freedom has struck, and I cannot go with you.'

'My good Hans,' entreated the minister, 'I really ought not to
leave you here. Consider what danger you would be in! Yonder,
as you see, a gallows is set up, and two evil-doers are hanging
on it. You could not possibly sleep with such ghastly
neighbours.'

'Why not?' asked Hans. 'Those gallows birds hang high in the
air, and my camp will be on the ground; we shall have nothing to
do with each other.' As he spoke, he turned his back on the
minister, and went his way.

There was no help for it, and the minister had to push on by
himself, if he expected to arrive in time for the christening.
His friends were much surprised to see him drive up without a
coachman, and thought some accident had happened. But when he
told them of his conversation with Hans they did not know which
was the most foolish, master or man.

It would have mattered little to Hans had he known what they were
saying or thinking of him. He satisfied his hunger with the food
he had in his knapsack, lit his pipe, pitched his tent under the
boughs of a tree, wrapped himself in his furs, and went sound
asleep. After some hours, he was awakened by a sudden noise, and
sat up and looked about him. The moon was shining brightly above
his head, and close by stood two headless dwarfs, talking
angrily. At the sight of Hans the little dwarfs cried out:

'It is he! It is he!' and one of them stepping nearer
exclaimed, 'Ah, my old friend! it is a lucky chance that has
brought us here. My bones still ache from my fall down the steps
of the tower. I dare say you have not forgotten that night! Now
it is the turn of your bones. Hi! comrades, make haste! make
haste!'

Like a swarm of midges, a host of tiny headless creatures seemed
to spring straight out of the ground, and every one was armed
with a club. Although they were so small, yet there were such
numbers of them and they struck so hard that even a strong man
could do nothing against them. Hans thought his last hour was
come, when just as the fight was at the hottest another little
dwarf arrived on the scene.

'Hold, comrades!' he shouted, turning to the attacking party.
'This man once did me a service, and I am his debtor. When I was
in his power he granted me my life. And even if he did throw you
downstairs, well, a warm bath soon cured your bruises, so you
must just forgive him and go quietly home.'

The headless dwarfs listened to his words and disappeared as
suddenly as they had come. As soon as Hans recovered himself a
little he looked at his rescuer, and saw he was the dwarf he had
found seated in the church bell.

'Ah!' said the dwarf, seating himself quietly under the tree.
'You laughed at me when I told you that some day I might do you a
good turn. Now you see I was right, and perhaps you will learn
for the future not to despise any creature, however small.'

'I thank you from my heart,' answered Hans. 'My bones are still
sore from their blows, and had it not been for you I should
indeed have fared badly.'

'I have almost paid my debt,' went on the little man, 'but as you
have suffered already, I will do more, and give you a piece of
information. You need not remain any longer in the service of
that stingy minister, but when you get home to-morrow go at once
to the north corner of the church, and there you will find a
large stone built into the wall, but not cemented like the rest.
The day after to-morrow the moon is full, and at midnight you
must go to the spot and get the stone out of the wall with a
pickaxe. Under the stone lies a great treasure, which has been
hidden there in time of war. Besides church plate, you will find
bags of money, which have been lying in this place for over a
hundred years, and no one knows to whom it all belongs. A third
of this money you must give to the poor, but the rest you may
keep for yourself.' As he finished, the cocks in the village
crowed, and the little man was nowhere to be seen. Hans found
that his limbs no longer pained him, and lay for some time
thinking of the hidden treasure. Towards morning he fell asleep.

The sun was high in the heavens when his master returned from the
town.

'Hans,' said he, 'what a fool you were not to come with me
yesterday! I was well feasted and entertained, and I have money
in my pocket into the bargain,' he went on, rattling some coins
while he spoke, to make Hans understand how much he had lost.

'Ah, sir,' replied Hans calmly, 'in order to have gained so much
money you must have lain awake all night, but I have earned a
hundred times that amount while I was sleeping soundly.'

'How did you manage that?' asked the minister eagerly, but Hans
answered, 'It is only fools who boast of their farthings; wise
men take care to hide their crowns.'

They drove home, and Hans neglected none of his duties, but put
up the horses and gave them their food before going to the church
corner, where he found the loose stone, exactly in the place
described by the dwarf. Then he returned to his work.

The first night of the full moon, when the whole village was
asleep, he stole out, armed with a pickaxe, and with much
difficulty succeeded in dislodging the stone from its place.
Sure enough, there was the hole, and in the hole lay the
treasure, exactly as the little man had said.

The following Sunday he handed over the third part to the village
poor, and informed the minister that he wished to break his bond
of service. As, however, he did not claim any wages, the
minister made no objections, but allowed him to do as he wished.
So Hans went his way, bought himself a large house, and married a
young wife, and lived happily and prosperously to the end of his
days.

[Ehstnische Marchen.]





Next: The Young Man Who Would Have His Eyes Opened

Previous: The Monkey And The Jelly-fish



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