day an old man and his wife were sitting in front of a miserable house
resting a while from their work.
Suddenly a splendid carriage with four black horses came driving up,
and a richly- dressed man descended from it.
The peasant stood up, went to the great man, and asked what he wanted,
and in what way he could be useful to him?
The stranger stretched out his hand to the old man, and said, "I want
nothing but to enjoy for once a country dish; cook me some potatoes, in
the way you always have them, and then I will sit down at your table
and eat them with pleasure."
The peasant smiled and said, "You are a count or a prince, or perhaps
even a duke; noble gentlemen often have such fancies, but you shall
have your wish."
The wife went into the kitchen, and began to wash and rub the potatoes,
and to make them into balls, as they are eaten by the country-folks.
Whilst she was busy with this work, the peasant said to the stranger,
"Come into my garden with me for a while, I have still something to do
He had dug some holes in the garden, and now wanted to plant some trees
"Have you no children," asked the stranger, "who could help you with
"No," answered the peasant, "I had a son, it is true, but it is long
since he went out into the world.
He was a ne'er-do-well; sharp, and knowing, but he would learn nothing
and was full of bad tricks, at last he ran away from me, and since then
I have heard nothing of him."
The old man took a young tree, put it
in a hole, drove in a post beside it, and when he had shovelled in some
earth and had trampled it firmly down, he tied the stem of the tree
above, below, and in the middle, fast to the post by a rope of
"But tell me," said the stranger, "why you don't tie that crooked
knotted tree, which is lying in the corner there, bent down almost to
the ground, to a post also that it may grow straight, as well as
The old man smiled and said, "Sir, you speak according to your
knowledge, it is easy to see that you are not familiar with
That tree there is old, and mis-shapen, no one can make it straight
Trees must be trained while they are young."
"That is how it was with your son," said the stranger, "if you had
trained him while he was still young, he would not have run away; now
he too must have grown hard and mis-shapen."
"Truly it is a long time since he went away," replied the old man, "he
must have changed."
"Would you know him again if he were to come to you?" asked the
"Hardly by his face," replied the peasant, "but he has a mark about
him, a birth-mark on his shoulder, that looks like a bean."
When he had said that the stranger pulled off his coat, bared his
shoulder, and showed the peasant the bean.
"Good God!" cried the old man, "thou art really my son!" and love for
his child stirred in his heart.
"But," he added, "how canst thou be my son, thou hast become a great
lord and livest in wealth and luxury? How hast thou contrived to do
"Ah, father," answered the son, "the young tree was bound to no post
and has grown crooked, now it is too old, it will never be straight
How have I got all that?
I have become a thief, but do not be alarmed,
I am a master-thief.
For me there are neither locks nor bolts, whatsoever I desire is
Do not imagine that I steal like a common thief, I only take some of
the superfluity of the rich.
Poor people are safe, I would rather give to them than take anything
from them. It is the same with anything which I can have without
trouble, cunning and dexterity I never touch it."
"Alas, my son," said the father, "it still does not please me, a thief
is still a thief, I tell thee it will end badly."
He took him to his mother, and when she heard that was her son, she
wept for joy, but when he told her that he had become a master-thief,
two streams flowed down over her face.
At length she said, "Even if he has become a thief, he is still my son,
and my eyes have beheld him once more."
They sat down to table, and once
again he ate with his parents the wretched food which he had not eaten
for so long.
The father said, "If our Lord, the count up there in the castle, learns
who thou art, and what trade thou followest, he will not take thee in
his arms and cradle thee in them as he did when he held thee at the
font, but will cause thee to swing from a halter."
"Be easy, father, he will do me no harm, for I understand my
I will go to him myself this very day."
When evening drew near, the master-thief seated himself in his
carriage, and drove to the castle.
The count received him civilly, for he took him for a distinguished
When, however, the stranger made himself known, the count turned pale
and was quite silent for some time.
At length he said, "Thou art my godson, and on that account mercy shall
take the place of justice, and I will deal leniently with thee. Since
thou pridest thyself on being a master-thief, I will put thy art to the
proof, but if thou dost not stand the test, thou must marry the
rope-maker's daughter, and the croaking of the raven must be thy music
on the occasion."
"Lord count," answered the master-thief, "Think of three things, as
difficult as you like, and if I do not perform your tasks, do with me
what you will."
The count reflected for some minutes,
and then said, "Well, then, in the first place, thou shalt steal the
horse I keep for my own riding, out of the stable; in the next, thou
shalt steal the sheet from beneath the bodies of my wife and myself
when we are asleep, without our observing it, and the wedding-ring of
my wife as well; thirdly and lastly, thou shalt steal away out of the
church, the parson and clerk. Mark what I am saying, for thy life
depends on it."
The master-thief went to the nearest
town; there he bought the clothes of an old peasant woman, and put them
Then he stained his face brown, and painted wrinkles on it as well, so
that no one could have recognized him.
Then he filled a small cask with old Hungary wine in which was mixed a
He put the cask in a basket, which he took on his back, and walked with
slow and tottering steps to the count's castle. It was already dark
when he arrived.
He sat down on a stone in the court-yard and began to cough, like an
asthmatic old woman, and to rub his hands as if he were cold. In front
of the door of the stable some soldiers were lying round a fire; one of
them observed the woman, and called out to her, "Come nearer, old
mother, and warm thyself beside us.
After all, thou hast no bed for the night, and must take one where thou
canst find it."
The old woman tottered up to them, begged them to lift the basket from
her back, and sat down beside them at the fire.
"What hast thou got in thy little cask, old lady?" asked one.
"A good mouthful of wine," she answered.
"I live by trade, for money and fair words I am quite ready to let you
have a glass."
"Let us have it here, then," said the soldier, and when he had tasted
one glass he said,
"When wine is good, I like another glass," and had another poured out
for himself, and the rest followed his example.
"Hallo, comrades," cried one of them to those who were in the stable,
"here is an old goody who has wine that is as old as herself; take a
draught, it will warm your stomachs far better than our fire."
The old woman carried her cask into
One of the soldiers had seated himself on the saddled riding-horse,
another held its bridle in his hand, a third had laid hold of its
She poured out as much as they wanted until the spring ran dry. It was
not long before the bridle fell from the hand of the one, and he fell
down and began to snore, the other left hold of the tail, lay down and
snored still louder.
The one who was sitting in the saddle, did remain sitting, but bent his
head almost down to the horse's neck, and slept and blew with his mouth
like the bellows of a forge.
The soldiers outside had already been
asleep for a long time, and were lying on the ground motionless, as if
When the master-thief saw that he had succeeded, he gave the first a
rope in his hand instead of the bridle, and the other who had been
holding the tail, a wisp of straw, but what was he to do with the one
who was sitting on the horse's back?
He did not want to throw him down, for he might have awakened and have
uttered a cry.
He had a good idea, he unbuckled the girths of the saddle, tied a
couple of ropes which were hanging to a ring on the wall fast to the
saddle, and drew the sleeping rider up into the air on it, then he
twisted the rope round the posts, and made it fast. He soon unloosed
the horse from the chain, but if he had ridden over the stony pavement
of the yard they would have heard the noise in the castle.
So he wrapped the horse's hoofs in old rags, led him carefully out,
leapt upon him, and galloped off.
When day broke, the master galloped
to the castle on the stolen horse.
The count had just got up, and was looking out of the window.
"Good morning, Sir Count," he cried to him, "here is the horse, which I
have got safely out of the stable! Just look, how beautifully your
soldiers are lying there sleeping; and if you will but go into the
stable, you will see how comfortable your watchers have made it for
The count could not help laughing,
then he said, "For once thou hast succeeded, but things won't go so
well the second time, and I warn thee that if thou comest before me as
a thief, I will handle thee as I would a thief."
When the countess went to bed that night, she closed her hand with the
wedding-ring tightly together, and the count said, "All the doors are
locked and bolted, I will keep awake and wait for the thief, but if he
gets in by the window, I will shoot him."
The master-thief, however, went in the dark to the gallows, cut a poor
sinner who was hanging there down from the halter, and carried him on
his back to the castle.
Then he set a ladder up to the bedroom, put the dead body on his
shoulders, and began to climb up.
When he had got so high that the head
of the dead man showed at the window, the count, who was watching in
his bed, fired a pistol at him, and immediately the master let the poor
sinner fall down, and hid himself in one corner.
The night was sufficiently lighted by the moon, for the master to see
distinctly how the count got out of the window on to the ladder, came
down, carried the dead body into the garden, and began to dig a hole in
which to lay it.
"Now," thought the thief, "the favourable moment has come," stole
nimbly out of his corner, and climbed up the ladder straight into the
"Dear wife," he began in the count's voice, "the thief is dead, but,
after all, he is my godson, and has been more of a scape-grace than a
I will not put him to open shame; besides, I am sorry for the parents.
I will bury him myself before daybreak, in the garden that the thing
may not be known, so give me the sheet, I will wrap up the body in it,
and bury him as a dog buries things by scratching."
The countess gave him the sheet. "I tell you what," continued the
thief, "I have a fit of magnanimity on me, give me the ring too, the
unhappy man risked his life for it, so he may take it with him into his
She would not gainsay the count, and although she did it unwillingly
she drew the ring from her finger, and gave it to him.
The thief made off with both these things, and reached home safely
before the count in the garden had finished his work of burying.
What a long face the count did pull
when the master came next morning, and brought him the sheet and the
"Art thou a wizard?" said he, "Who has fetched thee out of the grave in
which I myself laid thee, and brought thee to life again?"
"You did not bury me," said the thief, "but the poor sinner on the
gallows," and he told him exactly how everything had happened, and the
count was forced to own to him that he was a clever, crafty
"But thou hast not reached the end yet," he added, "thou hast still to
perform the third task, and if thou dost not succeed in that, all is of
The master smiled and returned no
When night had fallen he went with a long sack on his back, a bundle
under his arms, and a lantern in his hand to the village-church. In the
sack he had some crabs, and in the bundle short wax-candles.
He sat down in the churchyard, took out a crab, and stuck a wax-candle
on his back.
Then he lighted the little light, put the crab on the ground, and let
it creep about. He took a second out of the sack, and treated it in the
same way, and so on until the last was out of the sack.
Hereupon he put on a long black garment that looked like a monk's cowl,
and stuck a gray beard on his chin.
When at last he was quite unrecognizable, he took the sack in which the
crabs had been, went into the church, and ascended the pulpit. The
clock in the tower was just striking twelve; when the last stroke had
sounded, he cried with a loud and piercing voice, "Hearken, sinful men,
the end of all things has come!
The last day is at hand! Hearken! Hearken! Whosoever wishes to go to
heaven with me must creep into the sack.
I am Peter, who opens and shuts the gate of heaven.
Behold how the dead outside there in the churchyard, are wandering
about collecting their bones.
Come, come, and creep into the sack; the world is about to be
The cry echoed through the whole village. The parson and clerk who
lived nearest to the church, heard it first, and when they saw the
lights which were moving about the churchyard, they observed that
something unusual was going on, and went into the church.
They listened to the sermon for a while, and then the clerk nudged the
parson and said, "It would not be amiss if we were to use the
opportunity together, and before the dawning of the last day, find an
easy way of getting to heaven."
"To tell the truth," answered the parson, "that is what I myself have
been thinking, so if you are inclined, we will set out on our way."
"Yes," answered the clerk, "but you, the pastor, have the precedence, I
So the parson went first, and ascended the pulpit where the master
opened his sack.
The parson crept in first, and then the clerk.
The master immediately tied up the sack tightly, seized it by the
middle, and dragged it down the pulpit-steps, and whenever the heads of
the two fools bumped against the steps, he cried, "We are going over
Then he drew them through the village in the same way, and when they
were passing through puddles, he cried, "Now we are going through wet
clouds," and when at last he was dragging them up the steps of the
castle, he cried, "Now we are on the steps of heaven, and will soon be
in the outer court."
When he had got to the top, he pushed
the sack into the pigeon-house, and when the pigeons fluttered about,
he said, "Hark how glad the angels are, and how they are flapping their
Then he bolted the door upon them, and went away.
Next morning he went to the count,
and told him that he had performed the third task also, and had carried
the parson and clerk out of the church.
"Where hast thou left them?" asked the lord.
"They are lying upstairs in a sack in the pigeon-house, and imagine
that they are in heaven."
The count went up himself, and convinced himself that the master had
told the truth.
When he had delivered the parson and clerk from their captivity, he
said, "Thou art an arch-thief, and hast won thy wager.
For once thou escapest with a whole skin, but see that thou leavest my
land, for if ever thou settest foot on it again, thou may'st count on
thy elevation to the gallows."
The arch-thief took leave of his parents, once more went forth into the
wide world, and no one has ever heard of him since.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Household
Tales, trans. Margaret Hunt (London: George Bell, 1884),