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Seumas MacManus

The Apprentice Thief

It was a lee long time ago when ould Ireland was happy and contented, with lavin's and lashin's—plenty to ait and little to do; and we had our own kings—half-a-dozen of them in every county—and our own Parlymint, and we had mines of all sorts and descriptions, both coal and copper and silver and goold—and, more betoken, the guineas was as common as tenpennies; and the farmers had fields of wheat that it was a day's journey to walk over, and the smell of them was a'most enough to satisfy a hungry man, if the like could be found in the kingdom—but that would be onpossible, barrin' on a fast day, when (the ould sinners that they were!) they used to schame it by goin' out and sniftherin' up the smell of the wheat, and fillin' themselves (the villains!) that way, till their fren's would a'most have to sweel some of them (the rascals) with ropes, for feared they'd bust; and the blight or the rot was nivir known on the praties, and they had tatties that big (the Cups, they called them) that I heerd me gran'father say that he heered his gran'father say that he heerd his great gran'father (I wish him rest!) tellin' him, that in the harvest time they often scooped wan of them out, and put to say in it to fish for mackerel—and more betoken, the say in them days swarmed with every description of fish that ever put a fin in wather, and the fishermen never used hook or net, but just baled the fishes into their boats with an ould bucket. Well, howandivir, it was in them glor'us days of full and plenty that Billy Brogan lived as a sort of a cotthar to the King of Ballyshanny, and Billy had one son, Jack, that turned out to be very handy like with his fingers when he wanted anything that didn't belong to him. Well, that fared well till Jack grew up to be a stout, strappin', able lump of a garsun, when the king comes to ould Billy, his father, to make complaints on Jack, seein' that he wasn't leaving a movable thing about his castle or grounds but he was hoising off wid him.

"Now, Billy Brogan," says the king, says he, "what is your son Jack going to turn his hands to?"

"Why, yer highness," says Billy, that way, back to him, "throgs, I think he'll turn his hand to anything you laive in his way."

"Och! I know that," says the king, says he, "to my own cost; but I mean to say it's near time you were thinkin' of givin' him a thrade, for the short and the long of it is, that I won't have him about my house or place, longer. I caught him," says he, "only last night thrying to carry off the best mare I have in my stables, Light-o'-foot, and that, you know, is high thrayson; and ye know that the lightest punishment for high thrayson is to be burned, beheaded and hung. But I'll pardon him on conditions that you put him to a thrade at wanst, and that at the end of three years he'll be so parfect at the thrade that I can't puzzle him in any three things I'll put afore him to do; but if there's any one of them he can't do, he'll have to suffer his fate for high thrayson."

"Why, yer kingship," says Billy, "the tarms is mortial hard, stillandiver we'll have to do our best, and sure the best can do no more. But what thrade will I 'prentice him to?"

"As for that," says the king, says he, "plaise yourself, only mind my conditions."

"Well," says Billy, says he, in a brown study that way, "I think the only thrade that ever I could make an honest thradesman of him at, would be a thief, for I think it's the only one he has the inclinations for."

"Plaise yerself, Billy," says the king back to him again, "only mind my conditions."

To make a long story short, Billy thramped off and found Jack, and tould him what the king of the castle was afther saying.

"Well, father," says Jack, says he, "what can't be cured must be indured, so you'd betther be up betimes in the mornin', an' come along with me till we meet some daicent thief that's masther of his thrade that you'll 'prentice me to, for between ourselves I was long switherin' to go an' larn the thrade properly anyhow, for though they say that a self-made man is the best, still in this back'ard place one has to work under a great many disadvantages in the uphill part of the business, so that there's often I would have given my one eye for a couple of good hints from a purficient in the thrade."

No sooner said than done. Jack and his father took the road early next mornin', and a weary travel they had of it that day through a strange country till tor'st night they come to an inn where there was entertainment for man and baste—and for boys too—and they put up there that night, and slept sound I can tell ye, and, moreover, when Billy payed the landlord the damage next mornin', doesn't my brave Jack stale twicet as much back again out of the till before he left. Well they started that morning again and travelled on, and on, of a hot summer's day, when tor'st evening who did they meet but the mastherman thief of all that counthry, and there and then Billy bound over Jack to him for three years; and he gave Jack his blissin' and told him make the most of his opportunities, and to always keep before his eyes the fear of what he'd meet with from the King of Ballyshanny when he'd come back if he wasn't masther of his trade. Jack promised faithfully that it wouldn't be his fault or he'd know the ins and the outs of the business so far as the ould buck that he was 'prenticed to could put him. Billy then set out for home again, and there was nothing more heerd of me brave Jack till the three years was up.

They weren't long in passing, and on the day afther the end of the three years Jack comes steppin' into his father's house; and Billy, I can tell you, was delighted to see him. He hardly knew him, for he had grown to be as fine and able lookin' a man as you'd meet in the longest day in summer.

"Jack," says his father, says he, throwin' his arms about him, "have ye larned yer thrade?"

"I hope I have, father," says he.

"Jack, ahaskey," says the father, "you know what the king has promised if ye're not able to do the three things he puts afore ye?"

"Yes, father," says Jack; "and I'll do my best to do them, and, as yourself says, sure the best can do no more."

Well, that evening the father took Jack up to the castle, and when the king come out he told him that this was Jack come home again afther sarvin' his 'prenticeship, and he had the thrade back with him.

"Why, Jack," says the king, "it's welcome ye are, in troth—ceud mile failte romhat—and it's fresh and bloomin' ye're lookin'—what speed did ye come at yer thrade?"

"Why, thank ye kindly, yer highness," says Jack, "I can't complain at all; I think I done very fairly for my time—at laist, that was my masther's opinion, and he's not the worst judge;" for, ye see, Jack was modest and didn't care for puffin' and blowin' about himself.

"Well, it's well for ye, Jack," says the king back to him, "for the three thrials I'll put afore ye will be no miss, I assure ye."

"Well, yer kingship," says Jack, "I'll feel honoured to do what I can for ye. Would yer highness be plaised to let me know the first, for it's as well to get the onpleasant business over at wanst?"

"The first thing, Jack, you'll have to do," says the king, "is this: To-morrow morning I'll send out a plough and two horses to plough the tattie field at the back of the hill, and I'll send two men with them, armed to the teeth; and you'll have to stale the two horses out of the plough unknownst to the men, and if ye let to-morrow night fall on ye without having the horses stolen you'll undhergo the punishment for high thrayson—you'll be burned, beheaded and hung; and this time to-morrow I hope to be feasting my eyes on your head stuck on the porch of that gate there. Do you think will ye be able to succeed, Jack?" says he, laughing hearty.

"Why, yer highness," says Jack, "sure I'll do my best, and the best can do no more."

Jack and his father went home; the father very downhearted entirely, seein' that there didn't seem to be any chance for poor Jack at all; and he thought he'd see him burned, beheaded, and hung before his eyes the next night.

Jack didn't say much, but went to bed and slept sound. He was up with the lark next mornin', and away out through the fields. He searched the meadows till he come on a hare asleep, and catching it he broke one of its legs, and fetched it home with him. The king sent out the two horses according to his promise to plough the tattie field, and he sent with them two men armed to the teeth, who had sthrict ordhers that Jack Brogan would attempt to stale the horses out of the plough that day, but they weren't to allow him on the paril of their lives, but were to shoot him if he thried; and if they allowed him to stale the horses, they would be hung to the first bush themselves. Well, of course, they had their eyes about them, and ploughed, and ploughed away till evening, and no sign of Jack; so they agreed that Jack had too much wit to run the risk of gettin' shot, that he had given up the thing in despair, and had gone and dhrownded himself. With that they sees a hare with a broken leg coming over the ditch, and away limpin' across the field before them. Whirroo! both of them throws down their guns and swords and afther that hare for bare life. They didn't go far till they caught it, but when they come back the horses was gone, as clane as if they had nivir been there, and Jack was half roads to the castle with them. He met the king at the gate and handed him over his horses.

"Well, Jack," said the king—and I can tell you he opened his eyes wide when he sees Jack marchin' up to him with the horses—"well, Jack," says he, "ye done that cliverly, but them rascals have been too slack with ye, and I'll take ye in hands myself now. The second thing ye'll have to do—and it's no miss—is to steal the sheet that will be undher myself and the queen when we are sleeping to-morrow night. I'll keep my hand on a loaded gun all night, and the first man enthers my room I'll shoot him dead, and if ye don't succeed in stalin' it, ye know what'll happen ye. What do you think of that, Jack?"

"Well," says Jack, "I'll do my best, and sure ye know the best can do no more."

Then the king was off to ordher out his sojers to hang the two men, and away went Jack home, and you may be sure his father was proud to see him back safe, but when Jack tould him the second thrial, he got down-hearted again, and said he'd surely lose his boy this time.

Jack said nothin', but went to his bed and slept sound that night again; and the next night he went to the graveyard and dug up a fresh corp about the same age as himself, and taking it home he dhressed it in a shoot of his own clothes, and started for the castle in the middle of the night, and gettin' undher the king's bedroom window, he hoisted up the corp, and at the same time threw gravel again the panes.

"What's that?" says the king, jumping up in his bed; and seeing the head at the window he fired, and Jack, with that, let the corp fall.

"Ha, ha," says the king, "I was too able for ye, Jack, my boy; ye're done for at length, and it's yer desarvin'. Now, queen," says he to her ladyship, "I'll have to run out and bury this corp."

Jack waited till he saw the king safe away with the corp, and then he climbed in of the window.

"You weren't long away, king," says her ladyship from the bed.

"Oh," says Jack, purtendin' the king's voice, "I kem back for the sheet to wrap up the corp in an' carry him to the graveyard."

And sure enough, she hands it to him to wrap round the corp, and me brave Jack steps out of the window and away with him.

It wasn't long afther till the king come in with his teeth chattherin', and steps into bed.

"Where's the sheet?" he cried, jumpin' up as soon as he missed it.

"Why, ye amadan," says the queen, "didn't ye come back and say you wanted it to wrap up the corp and carry it to the graveyard."

"Oh, Jack—Jack," says the king, lying back in his bed again, "you have thricked me wanst more! But, plaise Providence, that will be the last time."

Next day Jack come to the castle with the sheet rowled up an' ondher his arm, and presented it to the king.

"Well, Jack," says the king, smilin', "ye done me again, but the third time, ye mind, is the charm. To-morrow night I'll sleep with all my clothes, as well as my shoot of mail, on me, and you're to steal this inside shirt (showing it to him) that has my name written on the inside of the breast of it, ye persave, off my back, and leave another shirt on me in its place, and I'll have a loaded gun in every hand all night, and there'll be a senthry at every window in my house, and two at every door, and my bedroom will be filled with sodgers; and if ye don't succeed, ye know what'll happen ye. Eh, what do you think of that, Jack?"

"Why," says Jack, says he, "sure I'll do my best, and the best, ye know, can do no more."

Now Jack's father was jumpin' out of his skin with delight when he found that Jack stole the sheet, but when Jack come home this night, an' tould his father that he had to steal the inside shirt, with the king's name on the inside of the breast, off the king's back, and leave another in its place unknownst to him, while he slept with all his clothes as well as a shoot of mail on him, and a loaded gun in every hand, and with a senthry at every window, and two at every door, and the room full of sodgers, faix Jack's father's heart gave way again entirely, and he said that Jack was as good as lost to him now, anyhow.

Jack said nothing but went to bed and slept sounder now than ever he did, and getting up betimes in the mornin' he went to a tailyer and got him to make a shirt of the same description, and of the very same cloth as the king's inside shirt; and he got the tailyer to prent something in the inside of the breast of it—but what it was we'll not say now. In the middle of the night he rowled up the shirt, and buttoning it up inside his coat, he stharted for the castle. When the senthries seen him comin', they ups with their guns to shoot him, when he shouted out not to mind, for that he was comin' to give himself up, seein' that it was no use in him endayvourin' to do what was onpossible to be done. So, they got round him, and takin' him into the castle, they fetched him to the king's bedroom, where they wakened the king, and told him that Jack had give in at last and couldn't do it.

"Why, Jack," said the king, laughin' hearty, "I knew I would be one too many for ye. Ordher up the hangman at once till we get through with this business."

"Oh, aisy, aisy, if ye plase," said Jack, "sure this was nothin' but a joke of me. I have the shirt already stolen off yer back, and another in its place."

The king swore this was onpossible, and the sojers till a man swore the same, but the king, knowin' Jack was so able, thought it betther not to shout till he was out of the wood; so he pulled off him till he reached the shirt.

"There it is yet, Jack, ye see," says he.

"Is that it?" says Jack. "Is yer name in it?"

"To be sure it is," says the king, readin' it.

"Show me," says Jack; and turnin' round to the light to read the name, purtindin', he slips it undher his coat in the winkin' of a midge's eye, and whips out the other shirt. "Ay, sure enough," says Jack, handin' back his own, "that's it all right. So I suppose ye may as well get up the hangman and let us finish off the business at wanst.

"Sartinly, Jack," says the king, gettin' himself into the shirt and clothes again, "sartinly; delays is dangerous."

But, lo and behould you! when the hangman was got and everything was prepared, the king asked Jack if he had anything to say before h'ed die.

"Why, yes, yer highness," says Jack, "I have a thriflin' wee word to say."

"An' what is it?" says the king. "Out with it, man, and don't be backward about it."

"Why," says Jack, pullin' out the king's shirt from undher his coat, "it's only this—there's yer shirt stolen off yer back, although ye slept in yer clothes and a shoot of mail, and with a senthry at ivery window, and two at ivery door, and yer bedroom filled with sojers, and I have left another shirt on yer back."

The king looked at the shirt and read his name on it, and, turnin' nine colours at wanst, he peeled off him again, and takin' off his inside shirt he read on the inside of the breast of it:—

"Sould again, ould brick!

This is my third thrick—

The shirt taken off yer back


The king was thundher-struck, and no wondher! He ups and he says at wanst, just as soon as he got his senses gathered:—

"Jack," says he, "you must lave my dominions, for I'm not sure but ye might stale the very teeth out of my head, if ye only took the notion. I'm sorry, indeed, Jack, but go ye must. At the same time I'll threat ye daicent—ye'll have as much gold with ye as yer pockets can hould."

"Thank ye for nothin'," says Jack back to him, "for I could have that if yer highness was to put it undher all the locks in the kingdom. But I have one requist to ask ye afore I go."

"Name it, Jack," says the king.

"Will ye see that me ould father nivir wants for anything while he lives?"

"Troth, I will that, Jack, for I'll take him up to the castle to live along with myself; he'll get aitin' and dhrinkin' of the best; he'll not be asked to do a hand's turn of work, and he'll be as happy as the day is long."

Jack thanked the king hearty, and set out on his thravels. He went back to the country he was 'prenticed in, and as his ould masther had just died, Jack was appointed Masther-man-thief of that whole counthry, and lived happy and well ivir afther.