The Master Thief – Pre-Intermediate Level

Once upon a time there was a poor farmer who had three sons. He was very worried about their future. He had no land of his own that they could farm after he died. Also, he had no money to send them to school so that they could get a good job. He decided that they must leave his house and set out to make their way in the world. He said they could go anywhere they wanted in the kingdom, and learn any trade they wished.

He walked with his sons until they came to a place where three roads met. There, he wished them well and sent each on his way down a different road. Then he returned home again. What became of the two older sons I have never been able to find out. But the youngest, who was not much more than a boy, traveled both far and wide.

One night, as the boy was going through a great wood, a terrible storm came on. The wind blew so hard and it rained so heavily that he could not see where he was going. Before he knew of it, he had lost his way among the trees and could not find the road or even a path to follow. But he went on, and at last saw a light far away among the trees. He thought he must try and find where the light was coming from. After a long time he came to a large house. A fire was burning so brightly inside that he knew that the people inside could not be in bed. He was very cold and wet, so he went up to the house and knocked on the door. An old woman opened it.

‘Good evening, mother!’ said the boy.

‘Good evening!’ said the old woman.

‘Oh! It is terrible weather outside tonight,’ said the boy.

‘It certainly is,’ said the old woman.

‘Can I sleep in your house for the night, to get out of the wind and rain?’ asked the boy.

‘It would not be good for you to sleep here,’ said the old woman. ‘If the people of the house come home and find you, they may kill both you and me.’

‘What kind of people are they then, that live here?’ said the boy.

‘They are robbers, and bad men of that sort,’ said the old woman. ‘They took me away from my family when I was young. I have had to keep house for them ever since.’

‘I think I will stay all the same,’ said the boy. ‘No matter what happens, I’ll not go out again tonight in such bad weather as this.’

‘All right! As long as you know that things might turn out badly for you,’ said the old woman.

The boy lay down in a bed which stood near the fire, but he did not go to sleep. And it was better that he didn’t, because the robbers soon came home. The old woman told them that a young stranger had come to the door, and she had not been able to get him to go away again.

‘Did you see if he had any money?’ asked one of the robbers.

‘He looks so poor that he surely has no money. All he has are clothes on his back.’

Then the robbers began to talk quietly to each other about what they should do with the boy. Some wanted to kill him, others wanted to let him be. As they were doing this the boy got up and began to talk to them. He told them that he would be happy to work for them all for free. All he asked in return was that he could learn their work.

‘If you are happy to work for free and want to learn to be robber,’ said their leader, ‘we might have a place here.’

‘It’s all the same to me what trade I follow,’ said the boy. ‘When I came away from home, my father said that I could take up any kind of work I wished.’

‘Do you think you would be good at stealing?’ asked one of the robbers.

‘Yes,’ said the boy. ‘I don’t think stealing is a trade which will take long to learn.’ The robbers laughed, and decided to put the boy to a test to see if he would make a good thief.

Not very far off there lived a farmer who had three oxen. The robbers had heard that the next day he was going to take the largest ox to the town to sell. They told the boy that they would let him stay with them if he could steal the ox. But he must do this without the farmer knowing, and without hurting him in any way.

So the boy set off, taking with him a beautiful shoe made from expensive leather that he found lying about in the house. He put this on the road by which the farmer must go with his ox. He then went into the wood and hid himself under a bush to watch.

When the farmer came up, he saw the shoe. That’s a beautiful shoe,’ her said, ‘and it looks very expensive. If I had the one that goes with it, I could take them home with me. That would make my wife happy with me for once.’ For his wife never seemed to have a kind word for him. She was always angry with him about something, and the time between the beatings she gave him was very short. But then the farmer thought to himself that he could do nothing with just one shoe. It seemed silly to carry it all the way to the town and then back home again home for nothing. So he left the shoe where it was and continued on towards the town.

When the farmer had gone, the boy came out from where he was hiding and picked up the shoe. He then ran off through the wood as fast as he could. When he was in front of the farmer once more, he put the shoe on the road before him again.

When the farmer came with the ox and saw the shoe, he was quite angry at himself. How could he have been so stupid as to leave the other shoe lying where it was, and not brought it with him? ‘I will just run back and get it now,’ he said to himself, ‘and then I shall have two good shoes to show to my wife.’ So he went back and searched and searched for a long, long time. But he could not find the other shoe, and at last was forced to go back with the one shoe that he had.

While he was gone the boy had taken the ox and gone off with it. When the farmer returned and found that his ox was gone, he sat down beside the road and began to cry. He knew that his wife would give him a good beating when she saw how careless he had been. Then the idea came into his head to go home and get another ox, without his wife knowing. So he did this. He went home and took the next largest ox, and set off with it towards the town.

The robbers had expected that he might do this. They told the boy that if he could take this ox also, he could become one of them. But again, he must do this without the farmer knowing, and without hurting him in any way.

‘Well, that will not be a very hard thing to do,’ thought the boy.

This time he took with him a rope and went to the road that the farmer would have to take. He tied one end of the rope under his arms and threw the other end over the branch of a tree which grew out over the road. Then he pulled himself up, so that he looked like the dead body of man who had hung himself.

The farmer came with his ox and stopped when he saw the body hanging there. ‘What a hard life yours must have been to make you hang yourself!’ he said. ‘Ah, well! You’ll just have to stay there, for there is nothing that I can do to bring you back to life again.’ So on he went with his ox.

When he had gone, the boy jumped down from the tree. He ran by a short way through the wood and got in front of the farmer again. Once more he hung himself up on the branch a tree across the road.

Again the farmer stopped when he saw the body. ‘How I should like to know if you were also so sick at heart that you hanged yourself there,’ he said. ‘Or are you the work of a witch trying to make trouble for me! Ah, well! You can hang there for as long as you like, for I am not going to stop.’ And on he went with his ox.

Once more the boy did as he had done twice already. He jumped down, ran through the wood, and hung himself up in the middle of the road.

When the farmer saw this third body he became worried. ‘What a bad business this is!’ he said to himself. ‘Can they all have been so sad that they hung themselves on this road? That seems hard to believe. If it is the work of a witch, it is not safe for me to go on. But I have to know the truth.’ He decided that the best thing to do was to go back and look for the other two bodies. ‘If they are still hanging there,’ he thought, ‘they are men. But if they are gone, it must be some kind of witchcraft.’

So he tied up his ox and ran back to see if the other bodies were still in the trees. While he was gone the boy jumped down, took the second ox and went off with it. When the farmer came back and saw that this ox was gone, he was very angry with himself. Again, he sat down beside the road and began to cry. He decided that the only thing to do was to go home and bring the third ox without his wife knowing. He would then try to sell it for such a good price that he could say he had sold all three oxen.

So he went home and got the third ox. But the robbers were also expecting this. They told the boy that if he could steal this ox as he had taken the other two, he could be their leader. So the boy set out and went into the wood. When the farmer was coming along with the ox he began to make loud noises. They sounded just like the cry of a great ox somewhere deep inside the wood. When the farmer heard this he was very happy. He thought it must be the call of his biggest ox, and that the second ox was sure to be with it. So he tied up the third ox and ran off into the wood to look for the others. While he was away, the boy ran off with the last ox.

The farmer returned and found that he had now lost all three oxen. He could not think what to do and sat sadly by the side of the road. As well as being angry with himself for his foolishness, he was frightened of what his wife would do to him. In fact he was so scared, that he decided not to go home again for three days.

The robbers were also not very happy, because they were forced to make the boy their leader. One day soon after this the robbers decided that they wanted to change back to the old leader. But, under their rules, he could only get the job back if was able to steal something more difficult than the boy had. So they went off together to find such a thing, and left the boy alone at home.

When they were well out of the house, the first thing that the boy did was to drive the three oxen out on the road. As soon as he did this, they all ran off toward home. The farmer, who was also on his way home after waiting by the road for three days, was very happy to see them.

Then the boy brought out all the horses the robbers had. He went through the house and took out all the most valuable things that he could find. There were bags of gold and silver, rich clothes and other beautiful things. He tied these on the horse’s backs.

‘Say goodbye to the robbers for me,’ he said to the old woman. ‘Thank them for what I have taken. And tell them not to come looking for me, as they will never find me.’

With that he went off with the horses. After a long journey he came to the road he was travelling on when the terrible storm forced him into the wood. Soon he was very near to where he had once lived and could see his father’s house. He put on some fine clothes from among the things he had taken from the robbers. Then he rode up to the house as if he were a rich and powerful man. He asked his father, who was standing near the door, if he could have a bed for the night.

‘I am sorry, but I cannot have you stay here!’ said his father. ‘How could I possibly find a bed good enough for such a grand man as you? It is all that I can do to find clothes and bedding for myself, and very poor they are.’

‘You were always a hard man,’ said the boy. ‘And hard you still are if you will not let your own son come into your house.’

‘Are you my son?’ said the man.

‘Don’t you remember me then?’ said the boy.

Then his father knew him and said, ‘But what trade have you taken to that has made you such a great man in so short a time?’

‘Oh, that I will tell you,’ answered the boy. ‘You said that I could do anything I liked, so I became part of a group of robbers. I learned to steal and became their leader, and now I am a Master Thief.’

Now, the Governor of that part of the country lived near his father’s house. This Governor had a large house and so much money that he did not even know how much it was. He also had a beautiful daughter, who the Master Thief decided that he wanted for a wife.

He told his father that he was to go to the Governor and ask for his daughter to marry him. ‘If he asks what trade I follow, you may say that I am a Master Thief,’ he said.

‘I think you must be mad,’ said the father. ‘I have never heard of anything so foolish in my life.’

‘You must go to the Governor and ask for his daughter to be my wife. I will not take no for an answer,’ said the Master Thief.

‘But I can not go to the Governor and say this. He is so rich and important, he would laugh at me,’ said the father.

‘I am telling you again that I will not take no for an answer,’ said the Master Thief. ‘You must go, whether you like it or not. If I can’t get you to go by using good words, I will soon make you go with bad ones.’

But the father still did not want to go. The Master Thief followed him, carrying a great stick, till he went crying through the Governor’s door.

‘Now, my man, and what’s wrong with you?’ said the Governor.

So he told him how he had three sons who had gone away one day. He told how he had said they should go where they wanted, and take to whatever kind work they wished. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘the youngest of them has come home. He has forced me to come to you to ask for your daughter to marry him. And if you ask about his work, I am to say that he is a Master Thief.’ Again the man fell to crying.

‘Do not worry yourself,’ said the Governor, laughing. ‘You may tell him from me that he must first show me what he can do. If he can steal the meat cooking in my kitchen on Sunday, when every one of us is watching it, he shall marry my daughter. Will you tell him that?’

The Master Thief’s father did tell him, and the boy thought it would be easy enough to do. First, he set himself to work to catch three large rabbits alive. He put them in a bag, and then dressed himself in some old clothes so that no one would know him. Dressed like this, on Sunday morning he made his way to the beggar’s door of the Governor’s house.

The Governor and all the other people in the house were in the kitchen keeping watch over the meat. While they were doing this the boy let one of the rabbits out of his bag. Off it went and began to run around outside the kitchen window.

‘Just look at that rabbit,’ said the people in the kitchen, who all wanted to go out and catch it.

The Governor saw it too, but said, ‘Oh, let it go! It’s no use trying to catch a rabbit when it will only run away.’

It was not long before the boy let the second rabbit out of the bag. The people in the kitchen saw this one too, and thought that it was the same rabbit. Again they wanted to go out and catch it, but the Governor told them a second time that it was of no use to try.

Very soon afterwards, the boy let the third rabbit go. It set off and ran round and round outside the kitchen. When the people in the kitchen saw this, they again believed that it was the same rabbit running about. ‘It is a very fine rabbit!’ said the Governor. ‘Come and let us see if we can get hold of it.’ So out he went, and the others went with him. Away ran the rabbit, and they after it.

While they were gone, the Master Thief took the meat that was cooking in the kitchen and went home with it. Whether the Governor got any meat for his dinner that day I do not know. But I do know that he had no rabbit, although he ran after it till he was hot and tired.

In the early afternoon the local priest, Father Lawrence, came to visit. When the Governor told him of the trick played by the Master Thief, he made much fun of the Governor for being so foolish.

‘For my part,’ said Father Lawrence, ‘I could never see myself being tricked so easily!’

‘I think you should be careful what you say,’ said the Governor. ‘The Master Thief may try to trick you before you know it.’

But the priest simply laughed again, and said how silly he thought the Governor had been.

While the priest was still there, the Master Thief came to the kitchen door. He told the Governor that he was ready to marry his daughter, as promised.

‘You must first give me some more examples of how good you are,’ said the Governor. ‘What you did today was not such a great thing after all. Could you play a really good trick on the priest, Father Lawrence? He is sitting inside my house as we speak, calling me a fool for having let myself be tricked by you earlier.’

‘Well, it wouldn’t be very hard to do that,’ said the Master Thief. So he dressed himself up like a bird, throwing a great white sheet over himself and tying goose wings to his back. Then he climbed a great tree which stood in the priest’s garden and waited. When the priest returned home in the evening the Master Thief began to call out: ‘Father Lawrence! Father Lawrence!’.

‘Who is calling me?’ said the Priest.

‘I am an angel from heaven,’ said the Master Thief. ‘I have been sent to tell you that God is pleased because you have been such a good priest. He has said that you do not have to wait to die, but may be taken away alive into heaven. Please be ready to travel with me next Monday night. I shall come to get you and carry you to heaven in a sack. You must lay all of your gold and silver, and any other riches you have, on the floor of your bedroom.’

Father Lawrence fell down on his knees before the angel and thanked him. The following Sunday he said goodbye to all the people who came to church. He told how an angel had come down into the large tree in his garden. ‘Because I have been such a good priest,’ he said, ‘I am to be taken up alive into heaven.’ His words were so moving that everyone in the church, old and young, cried.

On Monday night the Master Thief once more came as an angel. Before the priest was put into the sack, he again fell on his knees and thanked the angel. But as soon as the priest was safely inside the sack, the Master Thief began to pull him along the ground over rocks and stones.

‘Oh! oh! ‘cried the priest in the sack. ‘Where are you taking me?’

‘This is the way to heaven. Have you not heard that the way to heaven is not an easy one,’ said the Master Thief. He pulled him along in the sack until his whole body hurt. Finally he threw the sack into the Governor’s goose house. The geese began to make terrible noises and bite the priest until he felt more dead than alive.

‘Oh! oh! oh! Where am I now?’ asked the priest.

‘This is not heaven’ said the Master Thief, ‘but the place where people like you go when they have lived a bad life.’ He left the priest tied up in the sack and went back to the priest’s bedroom. He took all the gold, silver and other valuable things that the priest had laid out on the floor and went off home.

Next morning, the girl who took care of the geese came to let them out. She heard the priest crying to himself as he lay in the sack. ‘Oh, dear! Who is that, and what is wrong with you?’ she said.

‘Oh,’ said the priest, ‘if you are an angel from heaven, please let me out and send me back to earth again. For no place was ever so bad as this. The little devils stuck me so with their forks.’

‘I am no angel,’ said the girl as she helped the priest out of the sack. ‘I only look after the Governor’s geese. And they are the little devils which have been attacking you.’

‘This is the Master Thief’s doing! Oh, my gold and my silver and my best clothes!’ cried the priest. Wild with anger, he ran home so fast that the girl thought he had suddenly gone mad. And when the Governor learnt what had happened to the priest, he laughed so much that he nearly died.

Soon after this, the Master Thief came again and asked to marry the Governor’s daughter. Once more the Governor gave him nothing but fine words. ‘You must do one more thing to show that you really are a Master Thief,’ he said. ‘I have twelve horses in my stable. Tonight I will put twelve stable boys inside, one on each horse. If you are clever enough to steal the horses from under them, I will see what I can do for you.’

‘What you set me to do can be done,’ said the Master Thief. ‘But am I certain to marry your daughter when it is?’

‘Yes; if you can do that I will do my best for you,’ said the Governor.

So the Master Thief went to a shop, and bought enough brandy to fill two small bottles. In one he put brandy only, in the other mixed brandy with a sleeping drink. Then he paid eleven men to lie that night in hiding behind the Governor’s stable. After this, he borrowed some old clothes and a coat from an aged woman. Then, with a walking stick in his hand and a bag on his back, he went off as evening came on towards the Governor’s stable. The stable boys were very busy watering the horses and getting them ready for the night.

‘What on earth do you want here?’ said one of them to the old woman.

‘Oh dear! oh dear! How cold it is!’ she said, crying, and shivering with cold. ‘Oh dear! oh dear! it’s cold enough to be the death of a poor old body like mine!’ She shivered and shook again. ‘For love of God,’ she said, ‘please let me stay here and sit just inside the stable door for the night.’

‘You will do nothing of the kind! Be off this moment!’ said one. ‘If the Governor were to see you here, he would beat us.’

‘Oh! What a poor helpless old woman!’ said another, who felt sorry for her. ‘She can not hurt anyone. Let her be welcome and sit there.’

The stable boys began to argue among themselves about whether she must go or could stay. As they were doing this and looking after the horses, she quietly went inside the stable and sat down behind the door. Once she was there, no one took any more notice of her.

As the night wore on the stable boys found it very cold work to sit still on the horses.

‘Brrrrr! But it is frightfully cold!’ said one, and began to beat his arms across his chest.

‘Yes, I am so cold that I can’t stop shivering,’ said another.

‘Brrrrr!’ said the old woman finally. Then she got out the bottle which contained nothing but brandy, and as she drank it made a great noise in her mouth.

‘What is that you have in your bottle, mother?’ asked one of the stable boys.

‘Oh, it’s only a little drop of brandy,’ she said.

‘Brandy! What! Let me have a drop! Let me have a drop!’ cried all twelve of them at once.

‘Oh, but what I have is so little,’ said the old woman. ‘It will not even wet your mouths.’

But they all wanted some, and there was nothing to be done but give it to them. She took out the bottle with the sleeping drink and put it to the lips of the first of them. Now she shook no more, but guided the bottle so that each of them got just as much as he should. The twelfth had not done drinking before the first was already sleeping on his horse. The Master Thief then threw off his old woman’s clothes. He took one stable boy after another, and carefully sat them on the low walls between the horses. Then he called his eleven men who were waiting outside, and they rode off with the Governor’s horses.

In the morning when the Governor came to look for his stable boys they were just beginning to wake up. Some of them had fallen off the wall, and some still sat there looking like fools. ‘Ah, well,’ said the Governor, ‘it is easy to see who has been here. What a poor set of stable boys you must be to sit here and let the Master Thief steal the horses from under you!’ And they all got a beating for not having kept better watch.

Later in the day the Master Thief came and told what he had done. He then asked for the Governor’s daughter as had been promised. But the Governor gave him a hundred dollars, and said that he must do something that was harder still.

‘Do you think you can steal my horse from under me when I am out riding on it?’ he said.

‘Well, it might be done,’ said the Master Thief, ‘if I were sure that I should marry your daughter.’

Again, the Governor said that he would see what he could do. Then he told the Master Thief that on a certain day he would ride out to a great field where he trained the king’s soldiers.

The Master Thief got hold of an old, slow horse and cart with a great wine barrel set upon it. Then he told a poor woman that he would give her ten dollars for a few hours of work. All she had to do was to hide in the wine barrel and keep her mouth open under the hole where the tap should be. He said that he would put his finger in the tap hole, while she was driven about a little. He told her that if he took his finger out more than once, he would pay her ten dollars more. He then dressed himself in old clothes, painted his skin black, and put on a wig and long beard made of horse hair. It was impossible for anyone to know who he was. He then went to the field, where the Governor had already been riding about a long time.

When the Master Thief got there his old horse went along very slowly and seemed to pull the cart with great difficulty. The horse pulled it a little forward, and then let it roll a little back, and then pulled it a little forward again. The Governor had not the least idea that this was the Master Thief. He rode straight up to him, and asked if he had seen anyone hiding anywhere about in the nearby wood.

‘No,’ said the Master Thief, ‘I have not seen anyone.’

‘Listen,’ said the Governor. ‘I want you to ride into that wood and search it carefully to see if you can see a man who is hiding there. I will lend you my horse and give you a a lot of money for your trouble.’

‘I am not sure that I can do it,’ said the Master Thief. ‘I have to take this barrel of wine to a party in the next village. The tap has fallen out on the way, so I have to keep my finger in the hole as I drive.’

‘Oh, just ride off,’ said the Governor, ‘and I will look after the barrel and your horse too.’

The Master Thief said that if the Governor would do that he would go. But he asked the Governor to put his finger into the tap hole the moment he took his out, and to keep it there. The Governor said that he would do his very best, so the Master Thief got on the Governor’s horse and rode off.

Time passed, and it grew later and later, and still the Master Thief did not come back with the Governor’s horse. At last the Governor grew tired of keeping his finger in the tap hole and took it out.

‘Now I shall have ten dollars more!’ cried the old woman inside the barrel. So the Governor soon saw what kind of wine it was, and set out walking home. When he had gone a very little way he met one of his men bringing his horse, which the Master Thief had left at his home.

The following day the Master Thief went to the Governor and asked to marry his daughter. But the Governor gave him three hundred dollars and once more put him off with fine words. ‘You must pass one final test,’ he said, ‘which will be more difficult than all the rest.’

The Master Thief thought he might if he could hear what it was.

‘Do you think you can steal the sheet off my bed, and my wife’s nightdress?’ said the Governor.

‘That is by no means impossible,’ said the Master Thief. ‘I only wish I could marry your daughter as easily.’

Late that night the Master Thief went and cut down the body of a thief who was hanging on the gallows. He carried it away with him to the Governor’s house and laid it on the ground. Then he got hold of a long ladder, which he set up against the Governor’s bedroom wall. He carried the dead body up the ladder until it was just below the window. He then moved the dead body up and down so that it could be seen inside. To the Governor in his bed, it looked just as if someone was standing outside looking into his room.

‘There’s the Master Thief, mother!’ said the Governor, waking his wife. ‘Now I’ll shoot him!’

He took up a gun which he had laid beside the bed.

‘Oh no, you mustn’t do that,’ said his wife. ‘You yourself told him that he was to come here.’

‘No, mother, I will shoot him and then we will be done with him for ever,’ he said. He lay there pointing the gun, and then pointing again. No sooner was the head up than it was gone again. At last he saw it clearly and fired. The Master Thief let the body fall noisily to the ground, and followed it down as fast as he could.

‘Now,’ said the Governor, ‘I make the law around here, but people will soon begin to talk. It would not very good if they were to see a dead man below my window. The best thing that I can do is to go out and bury him.’

‘Just do what you think best, dear,’ said his wife.

So the Governor got up and went downstairs. As soon as he had gone out through the door, the Master Thief came in and went straight upstairs to the woman.

‘Well, dear,’ she said, for she thought it was her husband. ‘Have you finished already?’

‘Oh yes, I only put him into a hole,’ he said, ‘and put a little earth over him. That’s all I have been able to do tonight, for it is terrible weather outside. I will bury him better afterwards. But for now please let me have the bed sheet to wipe myself with,. He was bleeding, and I have got covered with blood from carrying him.’

So she gave him the sheet.

‘You will have to let me have your nightdress too,’ he said. ‘I can see that the sheet won’t be enough.’ So she gave him her nightdress.

As she did so he said that he had forgotten to lock the door, and would go downstairs and do it before he came back to bed again. So off he went with the sheet and the nightdress.

An hour later the real Governor returned.

‘Well, what a time it has taken to lock the door, father!’ said his wife. ‘And what have you done with the bed sheet and my nightdress?’

‘What do you mean?’ asked the Governor.

‘I was asking you what you have done with the sheet and nightdress that you used to wipe the blood off yourself with,’ she said.

‘Good heavens!’ said the Governor, ‘has he actually got the better of me again?’

When day came the Master Thief came too, wanting to marry the Governor’s daughter. This time the Governor agreed and gave him much money as well. ‘If I don’t keep my promise,’ he said to his wife, ‘the Master Thief might steal the very eyes out of my head. And that would be spoken of badly by all men.’

The Master Thief lived well and happily from that time on. Whether he robbed anyone again I cannot tell you but, if he did, it was just for fun.