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The Master Thief
from Europa's Fairy Book
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,
"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
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 bypath got again in front of
the farmers and hung himself up as before on a tree by the side of the
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
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 is 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 resemblance 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
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 being 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 to-night."
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
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
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
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 to-night. But, look out, if you come near my
bedroom 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
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
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
"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 bunghole. 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."
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