The Shifty Lad – Pre-Intermediate Level

Long ago in the land of Erin there lived a woman whose husband had died. She had a son who was very clever and was always playing tricks on people. Because of this, the neighbours called him ‘Shifty Lad’. As soon as the boy was old enough, she wanted him to learn some kind of trade so that he would have a good future. But when the time came, he said that he did not want to learn a trade. He wanted to become a thief.

His mother was very sad when she heard this. However, she knew quite well that if she tried to stop him having his own way he would only try harder to get it. So the only answer she gave was that the end of thieves was hanging at the bridge of Dublin. Then she left him alone, hoping that when he was older he might think more clearly.

One day she was going to church to hear a talk from a visiting priest. She asked the Shifty Lad to come with her. But he only laughed and said that he did not like going to church. ‘However, I will make you a promise,’ he said. ‘The first trade you hear someone name after you come out from church shall be my trade for the rest of my life.’

These words made the poor woman happy. Her heart was much lighter than before as she left for the church.

The Shifty Lad stayed at home until the time that his mother said the church service would finish. Then he went out and hid himself in some bushes in the little path that led from the church to his mother’s house. 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 hidden himself so well that, though she looked all around her, she could see no one. As soon as she had turned the corner the Shifty Lad came out of hiding. By running very fast through the wood he was able to reach home before his mother. She found him lying down happily in front of the fire.

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

‘No, nothing. I left the church at once, and did not stop to speak to anyone.’

‘Oh, then no one has said anything to you about a trade?’ he asked.

‘Well… yes,’ she answered slowly. ‘At least, as I walked down the path a voice cried out “Robbery! Robbery! Robbery!” but that was all.’

‘And quite enough too,’ said 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,’ she said. 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 after all, he had better be a good one. And who is there that can teach him?’ the mother asked herself. Then an idea came to her. She woke up early the next morning, before the sun was up, and set off for the home of a man who went by the name of the Black Rogue. He was such a wonderful thief that, although many people had been robbed by him, no one could catch him.

‘Good morning to you,’ the woman said as she reached the place where the Black Rogue lived when he was not away on his business. ‘My son has wishes to learn your trade. Will you be kind enough to teach him?’

‘If he is clever, I don’t mind trying,’ answered the Black Rogue. ‘And, of course, if any one can turn him into a top class thief, it is I. But if he is stupid, it is no use at all. I can’t bear stupid people.’

‘No, he isn’t stupid,’ said the woman sadly. ‘So tonight, after dark, I will send him to you.’

The Shifty Lad was very happy when his mother told him where she had been.

‘I will become the best thief in all Erin!’ he cried. He was not listening when his mother looked at him sadly and said something about the bridge of Dublin.

Every evening after dark the Shifty Lad went to the home of the Black Rogue. He learned many new tricks and soon was allowed to go out with the Black Rogue to watch him at work. At last there came a day when his teacher thought that he was good enough to help in a big robbery.

‘There is a rich farmer up there on the hill. He has just sold all his fat cows for a lot of money, and has bought some thin ones which will cost him little. He has been paid the money for the fat cows, but has not yet paid for the thin ones, which are in his barn. Tomorrow he will go to the market to pay for the thin cows. So tonight we must take all the money. He keeps it locked in a box somewhere in his house. We will hide in the hay loft above the barn and come down when all is quiet.’

It was the night of an important holiday and there were many people in the farmhouse. They were cooking, eating nuts and playing party games. The Shifty Lad grew quite tired of waiting for the party to finish. The Black Rogue, who was more used to the business, lay down on the hay to sleep. He told the boy to wake him when the party was over and the people had gone home.

But the Shifty Lad could not keep still. He went quietly down into the barn and untied the ropes keeping the cattle in place. They began to kick each other and cry out. They made such a noise that the people in the farmhouse ran out to tie them up again. As they were doing this, the Shifty Lad went inside and picked up the big bag with all the nuts. He then 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. He took a long piece of string from his pocket. He tied one end of the string to the Black Rogue’s belt, and the other to a heavy piece of leather that was hanging behind him. By this time the cattle were all tied up again. As the people could not find their nuts, they sat round the fire and began to tell stories.

‘I think I will break open a nut,’ said the Shifty Lad.

Hearing this, the Black Rogue woke up with a start. ‘You shall not,’ he cried; ‘they will hear you.’

‘I don’t care,’ answered the Shifty Lad, ‘I have always eaten nuts on this holiday.’ He broke one open.

‘Some one is eating nuts outside,’ shouted one of the people in the farmhouse. ‘Come quickly, and we will see who it is.’

The Black Rogue heard this and ran down from the loft. He was pulling the big piece of leather that the Shifty Lad had tied to his belt after him.

‘He is running away with my leather!’ shouted the farmer, and they all ran after the Black Rogue. But he was too fast for them. At last he managed to tear the leather from his belt.Then he ran like the wind till he reached his hiding place. All this took a long time. As it was happening the Shifty Lad came down from the loft. He searched the house till he found the box with the money. It was hidden in the kitchen under some bread and a great cheese. The Shifty Lad threw the money bags around his shoulders and took the bread and the cheese under his arm. Then he set out quickly for the Black Rogue’s house.

‘There you are at last, you terrible boy!’ cried the Black Rogue angrily when he saw the Shifty Lad. ‘I will give you a good beating for what you have done tonight.’

‘It is all right,’ said the boy calmly. ‘Look! I have brought what you wanted.’ He laid the things he was carrying down on the ground.

‘Ah! you are the better thief tonight,’ laughed the Black Rogue’s wife.

To which the Black Rogue added, ‘Yes, you are a clever boy.’ They shared the money. The Black Rogue had one half and the Shifty Lad the other half.

A few weeks after that the Black Rogue had news of a wedding that was to be held near the town. The man who was getting married had many friends. Every one of them was sending him a present. A rich farmer who lived far from the town also wanted to send a present. He thought that nothing was more useful to a man and woman when they first began to keep house than a fine fat sheep. So he told his shepherd to go off to the mountain where his sheep were feeding, and bring him back the best he could find. The shepherd chose the largest and fattest of the sheep and the one with the whitest wool. Then he tied its feet together and put it across his shoulders, for he had a long way to carry it.

That day the Shifty Lad happened to be out walking. He saw the man with the sheep on his shoulders coming along the road which led past the Black Rogue’s house. The sheep was heavy and the man was walking very slowly. The boy ran back to the house and got there well before the shepherd.

‘I will make you a bet,’ he said to the Black Rogue, as they watched from the bushes which hid the house from the road. ‘I bet that before that man passes here I can take the sheep without him knowing it.’

‘Really?’ said the Black Rogue. ‘I will bet you a hundred silver pieces that you can do nothing of the sort.’

‘Well, I will try it, anyway,’ said the boy, and disappeared in the bushes. He ran fast till he entered a wood through which the shepherd must go. He stopped, took off one of his shoes, covered it in mud and left it on the path. When this was done he hid behind a rock and waited.

Very soon the man came up. Seeing the shoe lying on the path, he stopped and looked at it closely. ‘It is a good shoe,’ he said to himself, ‘but very dirty. Still, if I had the other, I would go to the trouble of cleaning it’. He threw the shoe down again and went on.

The Shifty Lad smiled as he heard him. Picking up the shoe, he went on by a short way and laid the other shoe on the path. A few minutes after this, the shepherd came along and saw the second shoe lying on the path.

‘Why, that is the shoe that goes with the dirty one!’ he said to himself when he saw it. ‘I will go back and pick up the other, and then I shall have two good shoes.’ He put the sheep on the grass and returned to get the first shoe. Then the Shifty Lad put on his shoes, picked up the sheep, and carried it home. The Black Rogue paid him the hundred marks of his bet.

When the shepherd reached the farmhouse that night he told his story. The farmer was angry with him for being stupid and careless. He told him go the next day to the mountain and bring him a young goat, which he would send that as a wedding present. But the Shifty Lad was hiding in the wood, waiting. The moment the man drew near with the goat on his shoulders, he began to make a sound like a sheep. No one, not even the sheep’s own mother, could have told the difference.

‘Why, it must have somehow got free and ran off after all,’ thought the man. He put the young goat on the grass and set off toward where he thought he heard the sheep noises. Then the boy ran back, picked up the young goat, and took it to the Black Rogue.

The shepherd could not believe his eyes when he returned from looking for the sheep and found that the young goat had disappeared. He did not want to have to go home and say that he had lost another animal. He searched the wood through and through until it was nearly dark. Then he felt that there was no help for it. He went home and told all to the farmer.

Of course, the farmer was very angry at this second piece of bad luck. This time he told the shepherd to drive one of the big bulls from the mountain, and told him that if he lost that he would also lose his job.

Again the Shifty Lad, who was on the watch, saw him pass by. When he saw the man returning with the great bull, he called to the Black Rogue for help. ‘Be quick and come into the wood,’ he cried. ‘We will try and get the bull also.’

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

‘Oh, quite easily!’ said the boy. ‘You hide yourself on one side of the road and make a sound like a sheep. I will go on the other side and make a sound like a young goat. It will be all right, I promise you.’

The shepherd was walking slowly, driving the bull before him. Suddenly he heard the sound of a sheep amongst the bushes far away on one side of the road. Then he heard the sound of a goat answering it from the other side.

‘Why, it must be the sheep and the goat that I lost,’ he said. ‘Yes, surely it must’. Quickly tying the bull to a tree, he went off after the sheep and the goat. He searched the wood till he was tired. And of course by the time he came back the two thieves had driven the bull home and killed him for meat. So the man had no choice but to go to the farmer and tell him how he had been tricked again.

After this the Black Rogue and the Shifty Lad became the most famous thieves in Erin. They took many cattle and sold them. Soon they were quite rich. One day they were returning from the market with a lot of money in their pockets. The Shifty Lad stopped when they came to a gallows that stood on the top of a hill.

‘Let us stop and look at that gallows,’ said the Shifty Lad. ‘I have never seen one so close before. Yet some say that hanging from the gallows is the end of all thieves.’

There was nobody around, and they carefully examined every part of it.

‘I wonder how it feels to be hung,’ 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 tied the rope that hung down from the gallows about his neck. He then told the Black Rogue to take the other end of the rope and pull him up from the ground.

‘When I am tired of it I will shake my legs, and then you must let me down,’ he said.

The Black Rogue pulled upon the rope. In half a minute the Shifty Lad’s legs began to shake, and he was quickly let down again.

‘You can’t know what a wonderful feeling hanging gives you,’ said the Shifty Lad, who looked purple in the face and spoke in a strange voice. ‘I don’t think you have ever tried it, or you wouldn’t have let me go up first. Why, it is the most pleasant feeling I have ever had. I was shaking my legs from the enjoyment of it, and if you had been there you would have done the same.’

‘Well, let me try, if it is so nice,’ answered the Black Rogue. ‘But be sure you tie the rope well, for I don’t want to fall down and break my neck.’

‘Oh, I will see to that!’ said the Shifty Lad. ‘When you are tired, just whistle, and I’ll let you down.’

So the Shifty Lad pulled upon the rope. As soon as the Black Rogue was as high as the rope would allow him to go, the Shifty Lad called to him. ‘Don’t forget to whistle when you want to come down,’ he said. ‘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. The Shifty Lad stood below, watching him and laughing loudly.

‘Oh, how funny you are! If you could only see yourself! Oh, you are funny! But when you have had enough, whistle and I shall let you down.’ Then he laughed again loudly.

But no whistle came, and soon the legs stopped shaking and kicking. The Black Rogue was dead, as the Shifty Lad had meant him to be.

Then he went home to the Black Rogue’s wife. He told her that her husband was dead, and that he was ready to marry her if she liked. But the woman had loved the Black Rogue, even though he was a thief. She ran from the Shifty Lad, and set the Black Rogue’s friends after him. He had to go to another part of the country where none knew of his doings.

No one knows if the Shifty Lad’s mother knew anything of all this. She surely would have thought that by this time her son might be tired of being a thief, and ready to try some honest job. But in reality he loved the tricks and danger. Life would have seemed very boring without them. So he went on just as before.

He found new friends to help him, and soon they took to robbing the king’s stores. The king sent his soldiers to catch them, but the Shifty Lad was too clever. If the soldiers waited for him in one place, he would rob another. One night he heard about some soldiers who were hiding in a barn waiting for him to attack a nearby store. His men killed them all while they were asleep. Then he went to see the village head. He told him that if the villagers did not kill any the other soldiers hiding nearby before morning, they would certainly be killed themselves. So it happened that by morning not a single soldier was alive in the village.

Of course this news soon reached the king, who was very angry. There was a very clever man living in the kingdom who was known as the Wise One. Some people said that he even had magic powers and could see into the future. Whenever the king came across a difficult problem, he would talk with this man. The king asked the Wise One how he could catch the Shifty Lad.

‘You should hold a great ball,’ said the Wise One. ‘Send out a notice that all the important people in the kingdom are welcome to come. This thief is so sure of his ability to trick you that he is certain to be there. And it is also certain that he will try to show how clever he is by asking your daughter for a dance.’

‘Your idea is good,’ said the king. He sent out the notice and prepared for the ball. All the important people of the kingdom were there. And the Shifty Lad came with them.

When everyone had eaten and drunk as much as they wanted, they were asked into the ballroom. There were many people, and the Wise One made sure that all had to enter through a single door. He stood at this door with one of the king’s men who knew what the thief looked like. Hidden in the Wise One’s pocket was a small bottle of black paint. As the Shifty Lad came through the door, the Wise One placed a tiny black dot on his cheek near the ear. The Shifty Lad felt nothing. However, there was a mirror hanging on the wall behind where the king’s daughter was standing. He saw the black dot in the mirror when he went up to the princess to ask her for a dance, and knew who must have put it there and why. But he said nothing, and danced so beautifully that the princess greatly enjoyed herself. At the end of the dance he quickly went to mix with the people standing near the door. As he passed the Wise One, he was able to take the bottle without him knowing. He then placed two black dots on the Wise One’s face, and one on the faces of twenty other men. Then he put the bottle back in the Wise One’s pocket.

By and bye the Shifty Lad went up to the king’s daughter to ask her for another dance. The Wise One had given the princess a second bottle of black paint to hide in her pocket. She agreed to another dance, and while the thief was bending to tie up one of his shoes, she put a second black dot on his cheek. But she was not as careful as the Wise One. The Shifty Lad felt the touch of her fingers. As soon as the dance was over he took her bottle without her knowing. He placed a second black dot on the faces of the twenty men, and two more on the Wise One. He then put the bottle back in her pocket.

At last the ball came to an end. The king ordered all the doors to be closed, and a search made for a man with two black dots on his cheek. The Captain of the Guards went among the people, and soon found such a man. But just as he was going to bring him before the king, his eye fell on another with the same mark, and another, and another. Soon he had counted twenty — as well as the Wise One upon whose face were found four dots.

Not knowing what to do, the Captain went back with the story to the king, who sent for the Wise One and his daughter.

‘The thief must have taken your bottle,’ said the king to the Wise One.

‘No, great king, it is here,’ answered the Wise One, holding it out.

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

‘No, father, it is safe in my pocket,’ she said, taking it out as she spoke.

All three looked at each other and tried to think of what to do.

‘Write this down,’ said the king to the Wise One at last. ‘The thief who has been robbing my stores is cleverer than most men. If he will make himself known to me, he may marry the princess and govern half my kingdom while I am alive, and the whole of it when I am dead.’ The king then signed the paper so that all who saw it would know that what it said was true. ‘Go and read this to the people in the ballroom,’ he said to the Wise One, ‘and bring the man here.’

So the Wise One went into the ballroom and did as the king had told him. But to his surprise, not one man, but twenty, stood up. All had black dots on their faces.

‘I am the person you want,’ they all called out at once. The Wise One could do nothing but call upon them all to follow him before the king.

The king, princess and Wise One talked for hours about what they should do. In the end, all they could come up with was a plan which they might just as well have thought of at the beginning.

And this was the plan. A young girl was to be found who did not know any of the men. The princess would give her an apple and take her into a room where the twenty men with the black dots were sitting in a circle. She would be told to give the apple to whichever man she wished. The king’s daughter would marry the man the child gave the apple to.

‘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 seated. The child stood in the centre of the circle for a moment, looking at one man after another. She then held out the apple to the Shifty Lad, who was playing with a piece of wool tied round his finger, and had a musical pipe hanging from his neck.

‘You should not be doing or wearing anything which the others are not,’ said the Wise One. He asked the child to stand outside for a minute, while he took away the wool and the pipe, and made the Shifty Lad change his place. Then he called the child in again. The little girl chose the Shifty Lad again. She went straight up to him with the apple.

‘This is the man whom the child has twice chosen,’ said the Wise One. ‘It was all quite fair; we did it twice over.’ In this way the Shifty Lad won the king’s daughter. They were married the next day.

A few days later the princess and Shifty Lad were taking a walk together. The path led down to the river, and over the river was a bridge.

‘And what bridge may this be?’ asked the Shifty Lad. The princess told him that this was the bridge of Dublin.

‘Really?’ he cried. ‘Many was the time that my mother talked of it when I played a trick on her’ he said. ‘She would tell me that my end would be that I should hang on the bridge of Dublin.’

‘I can help make you mother’s words come true if you wish,’ laughed the princess. ‘You have only to let me tie my scarf around your foot. I will hold you as you hang over the wall of the bridge.’

‘That would be fine fun,’ he said. ‘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 tie the scarf around his foot and hang him over the wall of the bridge. They both laughed and made fun of how strong the princess was.

‘Now pull me up again,’ he called. But as he spoke there was a great cry that the city was burning. The princess turned around in surprise, and accidentally let go of her scarf. The Shifty Lad fell, hit his head on a stone, and died.

So his mother was right, after all.