The Shifty Lad

: The Lilac Fairy Book

In the land of Erin there dwelt long ago a widow who had an only

son. He was a clever boy, so she saved up enough money to send

him to school, and, as soon as he was old enough, to apprentice

him to any trade that he would choose. But when the time came, he

said he would not be bound to any trade, and that he meant to be

a thief.

Now his mother was very sorrowful when she heard of this, but she

> knew quite well that if she tried to stop his having his own way

he would only grow more determined to get it. So all the answer

she made was that the end of thieves was hanging at the bridge of

Dublin, and then she left him alone, hoping that when he was

older he might become more sensible.

One day she was going to church to hear a sermon from a great

preacher, and she begged the Shifty Lad, as the neighbours called

him from the tricks he played, to come with her. But he only

laughed and declared that he did not like sermons, adding:

'However, I will promise you this, that the first trade you hear

named after you come out from church shall be my trade for the

rest of my life.'

These words gave a little comfort to the poor woman, and her

heart was lighter than before as she bade him farewell.

When the Shifty Lad thought that the hour had nearly come for the

sermon to be over, he hid himself in some bushes in a little path

that led straight to his mother's house, and, as she passed

along, thinking of all the good things she had heard, a voice

shouted close to her ear 'Robbery! Robbery! Robbery!' The

suddenness of it made her jump. The naughty boy had managed to

change his voice, so that she did not know it for his, and he had

concealed himself so well that, though she peered about all round

her, she could see no one. As soon as she had turned the corner

the Shifty Lad came out, and by running very fast through the

wood he contrived to reach home before his mother, who found him

stretched out comfortably before the fire.

'Well, have you got any news to tell me?' asked he.

'No, nothing; for I left the church at once, and did not stop to

speak to anyone.'

'Oh, then no one has mentioned a trade to you?' he said in tones

of disappointment.

'Ye--es,' she replied slowly. 'At least, as I walked down the

path a voice cried out "Robbery! Robbery! Robbery!" but that was


'And quite enough too,' answered the boy. 'What did I tell you?

That is going to be my trade.'

'Then your end will be hanging at the bridge of Dublin,' said

she. But there was no sleep for her that night, for she lay in

the dark thinking about her son.

'If he is to be a thief at all, he had better be a good one. And

who is there that can teach him?' the mother asked herself. But

an idea came to her, and she arose early, before the sun was up,

and set off for the home of the Black Rogue, or Gallows Bird, who

was such a wonderful thief that, though all had been robbed by

him, no one could catch him.

'Good-morning to you,' said the woman as she reached the place

where the Black Gallows Bird lived when he was not away on his

business. 'My son has a fancy to learn your trade. Will you be

kind enough to teach him?'

'If he is clever, I don't mind trying,' answered the Black

Gallows Bird; 'and, of course, if ANY one can turn him into a

first-rate thief, it is I. But if he is stupid, it is of no use

at all; I can't bear stupid people.'

'No, he isn't stupid,' said the woman with a sigh. 'So to-night,

after dark, I will send him to you.'

The Shifty Lad jumped for joy when his mother told him where she

had been.

'I will become the best thief in all Erin!' he cried, and paid no

heed when his mother shook her head and murmured something about

'the bridge of Dublin.'

Every evening after dark the Shifty Lad went to the home of the

Black Gallows Bird, and many were the new tricks he learned. By-

and-by he was allowed to go out with the Bird and watch him at

work, and at last there came a day when his master though that he

had grown clever enough to help in a big robbery.

'There is a rich farmer up there on the hill, who has just sold

all his fat cattle for much money and has bought some lean ones

which will cost him little. Now it happens that, while he has

received the money for the fat cattle, he has not yet paid the

price of the thin ones, which he has in the cowhouse. To-morrow

he will go to the market with the money in his hand, so to-night

we must get at the chest. When all is quiet we will hide in the


There was no moon, and it was the night of Hallowe'en, and

everyone was burning nuts and catching apples in a tub of water

with their hands tied, and playing all sorts of other games, till

the Shifty Lad grew quite tired of waiting for them to get to

bed. The Black Gallows Bird, who was more accustomed to the

business, tucked himself up on the hay and went to sleep, telling

the boy to wake him when the merry-makers had departed. But the

Shifty Lad, who could keep still no longer, crept down to the

cowshed and loosened the heads of the cattle which were tied, and

they began to kick each other and bellow, and made such a noise

that the company in the farmhouse ran out to tie them up again.

Then the Shifty Lad entered the room and picked up a big handful

of nuts, and returned to the loft, where the Black Rogue was

still sleeping. At first the Shifty Lad shut his eyes too, but

very soon he sat up, and taking a big needle and thread from his

pocket, he sewed the hem of the Black Gallows Bird's coat to a

heavy piece of bullock's hide that was hanging at his back.

By this time the cattle were all tied up again, but as the people

could not find their nuts they sat round the fire and began to

tell stories.

'I will crack a nut,' said the Shifty Lad.

'You shall not,' cried the Black Gallows Bird; 'they will hear


'I don't care,' answered the Shifty Lad. 'I never spend

Hallowe'en yet without cracking a nut'; and he cracked one.

'Some one is cracking nuts up there,' said one of the merry-

makers in the farmhouse. 'Come quickly, and we will see who it


He spoke loudly, and the Black Gallows Bird heard, and ran out of

the loft, dragging the big leather hide after him which the

Shifty Lad had sewed to his coat.

'He is stealing my hide!' shouted the farmer, and they all darted

after him; but he was too swift for them, and at last he managed

to tear the hide from his coat, and then he flew like a hare till

he reached his old hiding-place. But all this took a long time,

and meanwhile the Shifty Lad got down from the loft, and searched

the house till he found the chest with the gold and silver in it,

concealed behind a load of straw and covered with loaves of bread

and a great cheese. The Shifty Lad slung the money bags round his

shoulders and took the bread and the cheese under his arm, then

set out quietly for the Black Rogue's house.

'Here you are at last, you villain!' cried his master in great

wrath. 'But I will be revenged on you.'

'It is all right,' replied the Shifty Lad calmly. 'I have brought

what you wanted'; and he laid the things he was carrying down on

the ground.

'Ah! you are the better thief,' said the Black Rogue's wife; and

the Black Rogue added:

'Yes, it is you who are the clever boy'; and they divided the

spoil and the Black Gallows Bird had one half and the Shifty Lad

the other half.

A few weeks after that the Black Gallows Bird had news of a

wedding that was to be held near the town; and the bridegroom had

many friends and everybody sent him a present. Now a rich farmer

who lived up near the moor thought that nothing was so useful to

a young couple when they first began to keep house as a fine fat

sheep, so he bade his shepherd go off to the mountain where the

flock were feeding, and bring him back the best he could find.

And the shepherd chose out the largest and fattest of the sheep

and the one with the whitest fleece; then he tied its feet

together and put it across his shoulder, for he had a long way to


That day, the Shifty Lad happened to be wandering over the moor,

when he saw the man with the sheep on his shoulder walking along

the road which led past the Black Rogue's house. The sheep was

heavy and the man was in no hurry, so he came slowly and the boy

knew that he himself could easily get back to his master before

the shepherd was even in sight.

'I will wager,' he cried, as he pushed quickly through the bushes

which hid the cabin--'I will wager that I will steal the sheep

from the man that is coming before he passes here.'

'Will you indeed?' said the Gallows Bird. 'I will wager you a

hundred silver pieces that you can do nothing of the sort.'

'Well, I will try it, anyway,' replied the boy, and disappeared

in the bushes. He ran fast till he entered a wood through which

the shepherd must go, and then he stopped, and taking off one of

his shoes smeared it with mud and set it in the path. When this

was done he slipped behind a rock and waited.

Very soon the man came up, and seeing the shoe lying there, he

stooped and looked at it.

'It is a good shoe,' he said to himself, 'but very dirty. Still,

if I had the fellow, I would be at the trouble of cleaning it';

so he threw the shoe down again and went on.

The Shifty Lad smiled as he heard him, and, picking up the shoe,

he crept round by a short way and laid the other shoe on the

path. A few minutes after the shepherd arrived, and beheld the

second shoe lying on the path.

'Why, that is the fellow of the dirty shoe!' he exclaimed when he

saw it. 'I will go back and pick up the other one, and then I

shall have a pair of good shoes,' and he put the sheep on the

grass and returned to fetch the shoe. Then the Shifty Lad put on

his shoes, and, picking up the sheep, carried it home. And the

Black Rogue paid him the hundred marks of his wager.

When the shepherd reached the farmhouse that night he told his

tale to his master, who scolded him for being stupid and

careless, and bade him go the next day to the mountain and fetch

him a kid, and he would send that as a wedding gift. But the

Shifty Lad was on the look-out, and hid himself in the wood, and

the moment the man drew near with the kid on his shoulders began

to bleat like a sheep, and no one, not even the sheep's own

mother, could have told the difference.

'Why, it must have got its feet loose, and have strayed after

all,' thought the man; and he put the kid on the grass and

hurried off in the direction of the bleating. Then the boy ran

back and picked up the kid, and took it to the Black Gallows


The shepherd could hardly believe his eyes when he returned from

seeking the sheep and found that the kid had vanished. He was

afraid to go home and tell the same tale that he had told

yesterday; so he searched the wood through and through till night

was nearly come. Then he felt that there was no help for it, and

he must go home and confess to his master.

Of course, the farmer was very angry at this second misfortune;

but this time he told him to drive one of the big bulls from the

mountain, and warned him that if he lost THAT he would lose his

place also. Again the Shifty Lad, who was on the watch, perceived

him pass by, and when he saw the man returning with the great

bull he cried to the Black Rogue:

'Be quick and come into the wood, and we will try to get the bull


'But how can we do that?' asked the Black Rogue.

'Oh, quite easily! You hide yourself out there and baa like a

sheep, and I will go in the other direction and bleat like a kid.

It will be all right, I assure you.'

The shepherd was walking slowly, driving the bull before him,

when he suddenly heard a loud baa amongst the bushes far away on

one side of the path, and a feeble bleat answering it from the

other side.

'Why, it must be the sheep and the kid that I lost,' said he.

'Yes, surely it must'; and tying the bull hastily to a tree, he

went off after the sheep and the kid, and searched the wood till

he was tired. Of course by the time he came back the two thieves

had driven the bull home and killed him for meat, so the man was

obliged to go to his master and confess that he had been tricked


After this the Black Rogue and the Shifty Lad grew bolder and

bolder, and stole great quantities of cattle and sold them and

grew quite rich. One day they were returning from the market with

a large sum of money in their pockets when they passed a gallows

erected on the top of a hill.

'Let us stop and look at that gallows,' exclaimed the Shifty Lad.

'I have never seen one so close before. Yet some say that it is

the end of all thieves.'

There was no one in sight, and they carefully examined every part

of it.

'I wonder how it feels to be hanged,' said the Shifty Lad. 'I

should like to know, in case they ever catch me. I'll try first,

and then you can do so.'

As he spoke he fastened the loose cord about his neck, and when

it was quite secure he told the Black Rogue to take the other end

of the rope and draw him up from the ground.

'When I am tired of it I will shake my legs, and then you must

let me down,' said he.

The Black Rogue drew up the rope, but in half a minute the Shifty

Lad's legs began to shake, and he quickly let it down again.

'You can't imagine what a funny feeling hanging gives you,'

murmured the Shifty Lad, who looked rather purple in the face and

spoke in an odd voice. 'I don't think you have every tried it, or

you wouldn't have let me go up first. Why, it is the pleasantest

thing I have ever done. I was shaking my legs from sheer delight,

and if you had been there you would have shaken your legs too.'

'Well, let me try, if it is so nice,' answered the Black Rogue.

'But be sure you tie the knot securely, for I don't want to fall

down and break my neck.'

'Oh, I will see to that!' replied the Shifty Lad. 'When you are

tired, just whistle, and I'll let you down.'

So the Black Rogue was drawn up, and as soon as he was as high as

the rope would allow him to go the Shifty Lad called to him:

'Don't forest to whistle when you want to come down; but if you

are enjoying yourself as I did, shake your legs.'

And in a moment the Black Rogue's legs began to shake and to

kick, and the Shifty Lad stood below, watching him and laughing


'Oh, how funny you are! If you could only see yourself! Oh, you

ARE funny! But when you have had enough, whistle and you shall be

let down'; and he rocked again with laughter.

But no whistle came, and soon the legs ceased to shake and to

kick, for the Black Gallows Bird was dead, as the Shifty Lad

intended he should be.

Then he went home to the Black Rogue's wife, and told her that

her husband was dead, and that he was ready to marry her if she

liked. But the woman had been fond of the Black Rogue, thief

though he was, and she shrank from the Shifty Lad in horror, and

set the people after him, and he had to fly to another part of

the country where none knew of his doings.

Perhaps if the Shifty Lad's mother knew anything of this, she

may have thought that by this time her son might be tired of

stealing, and ready to try some honest trade. But in reality he

loved the tricks and danger, and life would have seemed very dull

without them. So he went on just as before, and made friends whom

he taught to be as wicked as himself, till they took to robbing

the king's storehouses, and by the advice of the Wise Man the

king sent out soldiers to catch the band of thieves.

For a long while they tried in vain to lay hands on them. The

Shifty Lad was too clever for them all, and if they laid traps he

laid better ones. At last one night he stole upon some soldiers

while they were asleep in a barn and killed them, and persuaded

the villagers that if THEY did not kill the other soldiers before

morning they would certainly be killed themselves. Thus it

happened that when the sun rose not a single soldier was alive in

the village.

Of course this news soon reached the king's ears, and he was very

angry, and summoned the Wise Man to take counsel with him. And

this was the counsel of the Wise Man--that he should invite all

the people in the countryside to a ball, and among them the bold

and impudent thief would be sure to come, and would be sure to

ask the king's daughter to dance with him.

'Your counsel is good,' said the king, who made his feast and

prepared for his ball; and all the people of the countryside were

present, and the Shifty Lad came with them.

When everyone had eaten and drunk as much as they wanted they

went into the ballroom. There was a great throng, and while they

were pressing through the doorway the Wise Man, who had a bottle

of black ointment hidden in his robes, placed a tiny dot on the

cheek of the Shifty Lad near his ear. The Shifty Lad felt

nothing, but as he approached the king's daughter to ask her to

be his partner he caught sight of the black dot in a silver

mirror. Instantly he guessed who had put it there and why, but he

said nothing, and danced so beautifully that the princess was

quite delighted with him. At the end of the dance he bowed low to

his partner and left her, to mingle with the crowd that was

filling the doorway. As he passed the Wise Man he contrived not

only to steal the bottle but to place two black dots on his face,

and one on the faces of twenty other men. Then he slipped the

bottle back in the Wise Man's robe.

By-and-by he went up to the king's daughter again, and begged for

the honour of another dance. She consented, and while he was

stooping to tie the ribbons on his shoe she took out from her

pocket another bottle, which the Wizard had given her, and put a

black dot on his cheek. But she was not as skilful as the Wise

Man, and the Shifty Lad felt the touch of her fingers; so as soon

as the dance was over he contrived to place a second black dot on

the faces of the twenty men and two more on the Wizard, after

which he slipped the bottle into her pocket.

At length the ball came to an end, and then the king ordered all

the doors to be shut, and search made for a man with two black

dots on his cheek. The chamberlain went among the guests, and

soon found such a man, but just as he was going to arrest him and

bring him before the king his eye fell on another with the same

mark, and another, and another, till he had counted twenty--

besides the Wise Man--on whose face were found spots.

Not knowing what to do, the chamberlain hurried back with his

tale to the king, who immediately sent for the Wise Man, and then

for his daughter.

'The thief must have stolen your bottle,' said the king to the


'No, my lord, it is here,' answered the Wise Man, holding it out.

'Then he must have got yours,' he cried, turning to his daughter.

'Indeed, father, it is safe in my pocket,' replied she, taking it

out as she spoke; and they all three looked at each other and

remained silent.

'Well,' said the king at last, 'the man who has done this is

cleverer than most men, and if he will make himself known to me

he shall marry the princess and govern half my kingdom while I am

alive, and the whole of it when I am dead. Go and announce this

in the ballroom,' he added to an attendant, 'and bring the fellow


So the attendant went into the ballroom and did as the king had

bidden him, when, to his surprise, not one man, but twenty,

stepped forward, all with black dots on their faces.

'I am the person you want,' they all exclaimed at once, and the

attendant, as much bewildered as the chamberlain had been,

desired them to follow him into the king's presence.

But the question was too difficult for the king to decide, so he

called together his council. For hours they talked, but to no

purpose, and in the end they hit upon a plan which they might

just as well have thought of at the beginning.

And this was the plan. A child was to be brought to the palace,

and next the king's daughter would give her an apple. Then the

child was to take the apple and be led into a room where the

twenty men with the black dots were sitting in a ring. And to

whomsoever the child gave the apple, that man should marry the

king's daughter.

'Of course,' said the king, 'it may not be the right man, after

all, but then again it MAY be. Anyhow, it is the best we can do.'

The princess herself led the child into the room where the twenty

men were now seated. She stood in the centre of the ring for a

moment, looking at one man after another, and then held out the

apple to the Shifty Lad, who was twisting a shaving of wood round

his finger, and had the mouthpiece of a bagpipe hanging from his


'You ought not to have anything which the others have not got,'

said the chamberlain, who had accompanied the princess; and he

bade the child stand outside for a minute, while he took away the

shaving and the mouthpiece, and made the Shifty Lad change his

place. Then he called the child in, but the little girl knew him

again, and went straight up to him with the apple.

'This is the man whom the child has twice chosen,' said the

chamberlain, signing to the Shifty Lad to kneel before the king.

'It was all quite fair; we tried it twice over.' In this way the

Shifty Lad won the king's daughter, and they were married the

next day.

A few days later the bride and bridegroom were taking a walk

together, and the path led down to the river, and over the river

was a bridge.

'And what bridge may this be?' asked the Shifty Lad; and the

princess told him that this was the bridge of Dublin.

'Is it indeed?' cried he. 'Well, now, many is the time that my

mother has said, when I played her a trick, that my end would be

that I should hang on the bridge of Dublin.'

'Oh, if you want to fulfil her prophecies,' laughed the princess,

'you have only to let me tie my handkerchief round your ankle,

and I will hold you as you hang over the wall of the bridge.'

'That would be fine fun,' said he; 'but you are not strong enough

to hold me up.'

'Oh, yes, I am,' said the princess; 'just try.' So at last he let

her bind the handkerchief round his ankle and hang him over the

wall, and they both laughed and jested at the strength of the


'Now pull me up again,' called he; but as he spoke a great cry

arose that the palace was burning. The princess turned round with

a start, and let go her handkerchief, and the Shifty Lad fell,

and struck his head on a stone, and died in an instant.

So his mother's prophecy had come true, after all.

West Highland Tales.