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ONCE upon a time a parson was looking out for a servant who would undertake to toll the church bell at midnight in addition to his other duties. Many men had already made the attempt, but whenever they went to toll the bell at night, they disappeared as suddenly as if they had sunk into the ground, for the bell was not heard to toll, and the bell-ringer never came back. The parson kept the matter as quiet as possible, but the sudden disappearance of so many men could not be concealed, and he could no longer find anybody willing to enter his service.
The more the matter was talked about, the more seriously it was discussed, and there were even malicious tongues to whisper that the parson himself murdered his servants. Every Sunday the parson proclaimed from the pulpit after the sermon, “I am in want of a good servant, and offer double p. 211 wages, good keep,” &c.; but for many months no one applied for the post. However, one day the crafty Hans1 offered his services. He had been last in the employment of a stingy master, and the offer of good keep was therefore very attractive to him, and he was quite ready to enter on his duties at once. “Very well, my son,” said the parson, “if you are armed with courage and trust in God, you may make your first trial to-night, and we will conclude our bargain to-morrow.”
Hans was quite content, and went into the servants’ room without troubling his head about his new employment. The parson was a miser, and was always vexed when his servants ate too much, and generally came into the room during their meals, hoping that they would eat less in his presence. He also encouraged them to drink as much as possible, thinking that the more they drank, the less they would be able to eat. But Hans was more cunning than his master, for he emptied the jug at one draught, saying, “That makes twice as much room for the food.” The parson thought this was really the case, and no longer urged his p. 212 people to drink, while Hans laughed in his sleeve at the success of his trick.
It was about eleven o’clock at night when Hans entered the church. He found the interior lighted up, and was rather surprised when he saw a numerous company, who were not assembled for purposes of devotion. The people were sitting at a long table playing cards. But Hans was not a bit frightened, or, if he secretly felt a little alarm, he was cunning enough to show nothing of it. He went straight to the table and sat down with the players. One of them noticed him, and said, “Friend, what business have you here?” Hans gave him a good stare, and presently answerd, “It would be better for a meddler like you to hold his tongue. If anybody here has a right to ask questions, I think I’m the man. But if I don’t care to avail myself of my right, I certainly think it would be more polite of you to hold your jaw.” Hans then took up the cards, and began to play with the strangers as if they were his best friends. He had good luck, for he doubled his stakes, and emptied the pockets of many of the other players. Presently the cock crew. Midnight must have come; and in a moment the lights were extinguished, p. 213 and the players, with their table and benches, vanished. Hans groped about in the dark church for some time before he could find the door which led to the belfry.
When Hans had nearly reached the top of the first flight, be saw a little man without a head sitting on the top step. “Oho, my little fellow! what do you want here?” cried Hans, and, without waiting for an answer, he gave him a good kick and sent him rolling down the long flight of stairs. He found the same kind of little sentinel posted on the top stair of the second, third, and fourth flights, and pitched them down one after another, so that all the bones in their bodies rattled.
At last Hans reached the bell without further hindrance. When he looked up, to make sure that all was right, he saw another headless little man sitting crouched together in the bell. He had loosened the clapper, and seemed to be waiting for Hans to pull the bell-rope, to drop the heavy clapper on his head, which would certainly have killed him. “Wait a while, my little friend,” cried Hans; “we haven’t bargained for this. You may have seen how I rolled your little comrades downstairs without tiring their own legs! You yourself p. 214 shall follow them. But because you sit the highest, you shall make the proudest journey. I’ll pitch you out of the loophole, so that you’ll have no wish to come back again.”
As he spoke, he raised the ladder, intending to drag the little man out of the bell and fulfil his threat. The dwarf saw his danger, and began to beg, “Dear brother, spare my wretched life, and I promise that neither my brothers nor I will again interfere with the bellringer at night. I may seem small and contemptible, but who knows whether I may not some day be able to do more for your welfare than offer you a beggar’s thanks?”
“Poor little fellow!” laughed Hans. “Your ransom wouldn’t be worth a gnat. But as I’m in a good humour just now, I’m willing to spare your life. But take care not to come in my way again, for I might not be inclined to trifle with you another time.”
The headless dwarf gave him his humble thanks, clambered down the bell-rope like a squirrel, and bolted down the belfry-stairs as if he was on fire, while Hans tolled the bell to his heart’s content. When the parson heard the bell tolling at midnight he was surprised and pleased at having at last found a servant who had withstood the ordeal.
After Hans had finished his work he went into the hayloft, and lay down to sleep.
The parson was in the habit of getting up early in the morning, and going to see whether his people were about their work. All were in their places except the new servant, and nobody had seen anything of him. When eleven o’clock came, and Hans still made no appearance, the parson became anxious, and began to fear that the bell-ringer had met his death like those before him. But when the rattle was used to call the workmen to dinner, Hans likewise appeared among them.
“Where have you been all morning?” asked the parson.
“I’ve been asleep,” answered Hans, yawning.
“Asleep?” cried the parson in amazement. “You don’t mean that you sleep every day till this hour?”
“I think,” answered Hans, “it’s as clear as spring-water. Nobody can serve two masters. He who works at night must sleep during the day, for night was meant for labourers to rest. If you relieve me from tolling the bell at night, I’m quite ready to set to work at daybreak. But if I have to toll the bell at night, I must sleep in the daytime, at any rate till mid-day.”
After disputing over the matter for some time, they finally agreed on the following conditions:—Hans was to be relieved of his nocturnal duties, and was to work from sunrise to sunset. He was to be allowed to sleep for half-an-hour after nine o’clock in the morning, and for a whole hour after dinner, and was to have the whole of Sunday free. “But,” said the parson, “you might sometimes help with odd jobs at other times, especially in winter, when the days are short, and the work would then last longer.”
“Not at all,” cried Hans, “for that’s why the days are longer in summer. I won’t do any more than work from sunrise to sunset on week-days, as I promised.”
Some time afterwards the parson was asked to attend a grand christening in town. The town was only a few hours from the parsonage, but Hans took a bag of provisions with him. “What’s that for?” said the parson. “We shall get to town before evening.” But Hans answered, “Who can foresee everything? Many things may happen on the road to interfere with our journey, and you know that our bargain was that I am only obliged to serve you till sunset. If the sun sets before we reach town, you’ll have to finish your journey alone.”
They were in the middle of the forest when the sun set. Hans stopped the horses, took up his provision-bag, and jumped out of the sledge. “What are you doing, Hans? Are you mad?” asked the pastor of souls. But Hans answered quietly, “I’m going to sleep here; for the sun has set, and my time of work is over.” His master did his utmost to move him with alternate threats and entreaties, but it was all of no use, and at last he promised him a good present and an increase in his wages. “Are you not ashamed, Mr. Parson?” said Hans. “Would you tempt me to stray from the right way and break my agreement? All the treasures of the earth would not induce me, for you hold a man by his word, and an ox by his horns. If you want to go to town to-night, travel on alone, in God’s name; for I can’t go any farther with you, now that my hours of service have expired.”
“But, my good Hans, my dear fellow,” said the parson, “I really can’t leave you here all alone by yourself. Don’t you see the gallows close by, with two evil-doers hanging on it, whose souls are now burning in hell? Surely you wouldn’t venture to pass the night in the neighbourhood of such company?”
“Why not?” said Hans. “These gallows-birds are hanging up in the air, and I shall sleep on the ground below, so we can’t interfere with each other.” As he spoke he turned his back to his master and went off with his provision-bag.
If the parson would not miss the christening, it was necessary for him to go to town alone. The people were much astonished to see him arrive without a coachman; but when he had related his astonishing altercation with Hans, they could not make up their minds whether the master or the servant was the biggest fool of the two.
Hans cared nothing about what the people thought or said of him. He ate his supper, lit himself a pipe to warm his nose, made himself a bed under a great branching pine-tree, wrapped himself in his warm rug, and went to sleep. He might have slept for some hours when he was roused by a sudden noise. It was a bright moonlight night, and close by stood two headless dwarfs under the pine-tree exchanging angry words. Hans raised himself to look at them better, when they both cried out at once, “It is he! it is he!” One of them drew nearer to Hans’ sleeping place and said, “Old friend, we have met again by a lucky chance. My bones still p. 219 ache from the steps in the church tower, and I dare say you haven’t forgotten the story. We’ll deal with your bones now in such a fashion that you won’t forget our meeting for weeks. Hi! there, comrades; come on and set to work!”
Upon this a crowd of the headless dwarfs rushed together from all sides like a swarm of gnats. They were all armed with thick cudgels, bigger than themselves. The number of these little enemies threatened danger, for they struck as hard as any strong man could have done. Hans thought his last hour was come, for he could not make any defence against such a host of enemies. But by good luck another dwarf made his appearance, just as the blows were falling fastest. “Stop, stop, comrades!” he exclaimed. “This man has been my benefactor, and I owe him a debt of gratitude. He gave me my life when I was in his power. Although he pitched some of you downstairs, he didn’t cripple any of you. The warm bath cured your broken limbs long ago, and you had better forgive him and go home.”
The headless dwarfs were easily persuaded by their comrade, and went quietly away. Hans now recognised his deliverer as the apparition who had sat in the church-bell at night. The dwarf sat down p. 220 with Hans under the pine-tree, and said, “You laughed at me once when I said that a time might come in which I might be useful to you. That time has now arrived, and let it teach you not to despise even the smallest creature in the world.” “I thank you with all my heart,” returned Hans. “My bones are almost pulverised with their blows, and I should hardly have escaped with life if you had not arrived in the very nick of time.”
The headless dwarf continued, “My debt is now paid, but I will do more, and give you something to indemnify you for your thrashing. You need no longer toil in the service of a stingy parson. When you reach home to-morrow go straight to the north corner of the church, where you will find a great stone fixed in the wall, which is not secured with mortar like the others. It is full moon on the night of the day after to-morrow. Go at midnight, and take this stone out of the wall with a lever. Under the stone you will find an inestimable treasure, which many generations have heaped together; there are gold and silver church plate, and a large amount of money, which was once concealed in time of war. Those who hid the treasure have all died more than a hundred years ago, and not a living p. 221 soul knows anything about the matter. You must divide one-third of the money among the poor of the parish, and all the rest is yours, to do what you like with.” At this moment a cock crew in a distant village, and the headless dwarf vanished as if he had been wiped out.
Hans could not sleep for a long time for the pain in his limbs, and thought much of the hidden treasure, but he dropped asleep at last towards morning.
The sun was high in the heavens when his master returned from town. “Hans,” said the parson, “you were a great fool not to go with me yesterday. Look here! I’ve had plenty to eat and drink, and got money in my pocket into the bargain.” Meantime he jingled the money to vex him more. But Hans answered quietly, “Worthy Mister Parson, you have had to keep awake all night for that bit of money, but I’ve earned a hundred times as much in my sleep.” “Show me what you earned,” cried the parson. But Hans answered, “Fools jingle their copecks, but wise men hide their roubles.”
When they reached home, Hans did his duty zealously, unharnessed and fed the horses, and then walked round the church till he found the stone in the wall that was not mortared.
On the first night after the full moon, when everybody else was asleep, Hans crept quietly out of the house with a pickaxe, wrenched out the stone with much difficulty, and actually found the hole with the money, just as the dwarf had described it to him. Next Sunday he divided the third part among the poor of the parish, and gave notice to the parson that he was about to quit his service, and as he asked no wages for so short a time, he got his discharge without any demur. But Hans travelled a long way off, bought himself a nice farmhouse, married a young wife, and lived quietly and, comfortably for many years.
At the time when my grandfather was a shepherd-boy, there were many old people living in our village who had known Hans, and who bore witness to the truth of this story.
1 Hans is a generic term in Esthonia for the cunning fellow who always contrives to outwit the Devil, &c.