T HE people of Hamelin had much to make them happy—a pleasant town, with a deep green river running through it, cosy gabled houses, fair churches of carven stone, flowering meadows, and plenty of rosy-cheeked little boys and girls to go and pick the flowers on fine days. But the people of Hamelin had also something to make them very far from happy, and that was the terrible multitude of rats which insisted upon sharing their shops and houses with them. These rats were of all colours and sizes that rats can be, black, white, brown, and grey; some no bigger than mice and some as large as puppies.
And they did a tremendous amount of damage, for they nibbled and munched everything they could reach, and the luckless people of Hamelin never succeeded in a single one of the attempts which they made to get rid of these unwelcome guests. They tried putting down traps, and they tried putting down poison; in vain! They tried terriers, and they tried pussy-cats, and they tried burning candles to the patron-saint of Hamelin, but all in vain!
Then one fine day the sound of a pipe was heard in the great open market-square before the principal church, and the merchants who ran out to hear the music saw that the piper was a very queer-looking fellow indeed, long and lank, with a swarthy skin and mysterious, mocking green eyes. But the oddest thing about him was his dress, which was of two colours, scarlet and yellow, like the dress of some court fool.
As the people gathered round him, the piper stopped piping and began to sing,
"Who lives shall see
That I am he,
The man who can catch rats!"
When they heard the words of the song the people were much excited.
"Take him to the Mayor and the Town Council!" they cried all together. Now at that very moment the Mayor and the Town Council happened to be holding yet another meeting to discuss the plague of rats with which Hamelin was afflicted. The piper, escorted by the chattering crowd, was brought before them.
"Are you a ratcatcher?" asked the Mayor.
"I am he who can catch rats," returned the stranger, speaking with a strong foreign accent.
"You have come to the right place, if you want a job," said the Councillors.
"So I understand. And I am willing to clear your town of every rat that is in it before the sun sets to-night."
"Sorcery, sorcery!" cried the crowd. "He is a wizard—let us have nothing to do with him!"
"Peace!" said the Mayor, looking very big. "Leave it to the Mayor—leave it to me."
"Leave it to the Mayor," murmured all the Councillors.
"I am willing," repeated the stranger, "to clear Hamelin of rats before sunset. But you must pay me a silver florin for every rat."
"A silver florin for every rat," cried the crowd. "Why that would mean millions of florins! He is mad!"
"A florin a head," said the pied piper. "Those are my terms."
"Done!" quoth the Mayor, finely. "A bargain's a bargain. You shall receive a florin a head."
"So be it. The deed will be done at moonrise. I advise the people of Hamelin to remain within doors while I am at work. But there is no reason why they should not look out of their windows. Till moonrise, good sirs! And I will now go to my inn, and refresh myself, for I have travelled many leagues since dawn."
When the piper had retired to his room at the inn, the people of Hamelin began to discuss the Mayor's bargain with great energy. Some said that a florin a head would come to a terribly big sum of money. Some said the piper was an impostor. Others said that he was Satan himself. But the Councillors wagged their heads very wisely, and said, "Leave it to the Mayor!"
At moonrise the piper appeared in the market-place again, and at the sound of his pipe heads were thrust from every window for a mile round. At first he played slowly and softly, but soon the tune became swift and gay, the sort of tune that sets people tapping their heels and longing to dance. Then the people heard another sound beside the music of the pipe—a pattering, creaking, scampering sound, that grew louder and louder the longer the piper played. And from every house and cellar and barn, from every cupboard and garret and bin, a great army of rats came pouring into the market-place, all the rats of Hamelin. The piper looked round, and saw that they were all there. Then, still piping, he set off toward the deep green river that runs through the town. The rats followed hard upon his heels.
On the brink of the river he paused, removed his pipe from his lips, and pointed to the middle of the flood, where the current ran strongest.
"In you go!" said he to the rats.
And in they went, one after another, by dozens, by scores, by hundreds. It was after midnight when the last rat of all reached the river's brink, and he was the first to pause before plunging in. An aged rat was he, the chieftain of the rats of Hamelin.
"Are all your tribe there, Master Whiteskin?" asked the piper.
"They are all there," answered Master Whiteskin. "How many of them?"
"Nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine."
"Did you count carefully, Master Whiteskin?"
"I counted carefully," answered Master Whiteskin.
"In you go, then, my friend—and good luck to you!"
So Master Whiteskin leapt into the river, and vanished at the same spot where the rest of his tribe had gone down. The piper thereupon returned to his inn, and the townspeople to their beds.
There was peace in Hamelin that night—no crunching, no scuffling, no pattering, no creaking under the floor or behind the wainscot.
The next morning the Town Council assembled in the Town Hall, rejoicing loudly at the success of the pied piper's stratagem. A few of the Councillors looked rather grave; they were thinking of the silver florins! But most of them believed in the wisdom of the Mayor, and you may be sure that he believed in it himself, most firmly. "Trust to me!" he said, whenever anyone seemed anxious.
The Council had not long been met together when the piper presented himself before them.
The rats of Hamelin are gone," declared he, "I could tell you whither, but I will not tell. It is enough for you to know that there were nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine, and that not one of them will return. Now let us settle the score. You know our bargain."
"Of course I do," said the Mayor. "A silver florin a head. By all means. Certainly. But where are the heads?"
"The heads!" repeated the piper, angrily. "The heads! If you want them you can go and look for them. I have told you how many there were. That is all that concerns you and me now."
"Dear me, no!" cried the Mayor, "A bargain is a bargain, Master Piper!"
And all the Councillors repeated after him, "A bargain is a bargain, you know!"
"You have broken your part of the agreement;" said the Mayor, "so, of course, you cannot hold us to ours. But we do not wish to appear ungrateful. Here are fifty florins."
"I will not take your fifty florins," returned the piper, in a stern voice, while his green eyes glinted fiercely. "You shall pay me yet—but not in money. Fare ye well, ye wise Councillors of Hamelin!"
With these words he stalked out of the Town Hall, and back to his inn.
"Ha, ha!" laughed the Councillors, "what a foolish fellow! We have got rid of our rats, and we have saved fifty florins! Ha, ha!"
"I told you to leave it to me!" said the Mayor, puffing with pride.
The next day was a Sunday, and all the townsfolk set off betimes for church. They did not take their children with them to the first service of the day, but they looked forward to being welcomed by their rosy-cheeked little boys and girls on their return, and to eating their first Sunday dinner for many years which had not been nibbled beforehand by those wretched rats.
The service was over and all the fathers and mothers went rustling home in their Sunday clothes, but their houses seemed strangely dull and quiet. No little faces peeping out of the windows, no little feet scampering down the stairs, no little voices calling to them to make haste, for it was almost dinner time!
"Where are our children?"
Soon all the people were running to and fro, asking each other that question, and hunting high and low, and calling the children by name to come forth from their hiding-places, for their joke had lasted long enough.
But the children were not hiding, nor were they playing a trick upon their parents. They had vanished, and no trace of them remained.
Presently some of the people who had gone to seek for the lost children in the meadows at the foot of a great hill on the outskirts of the town met a little lame boy, limping homeward on his crutches, and weeping bitterly. And from him they learned what had befallen the rest.
While all the grown-ups were at church, he said, the children heard the sound of the pied piper's pipe in the market-place, and ran out so that they might hear the better. Never was such sweet music! Soon they all began to dance and sing, crowding round the piper, and clinging to his scarlet and yellow sleeves.
When he began to march toward the meadows at the foot of the great hill, they all followed him, skipping and jumping, and keeping time to the merry airs he played.
But when he reached those meadows, he did not stop. He went straight on toward the mountain, and all the children followed. And when he reached the mountain, he did not stop. He went straight on, and the mountain opened, and he walked into the mountain, and all the children followed.
All, that is to say, except the little cripple. He could not run as fast as the others, and by the time he reached the mountain, the gap had closed again.
On hearing these things the people of Hamelin seized crowbars and mattocks and hurried to the mountain in the hope that they might find some crack or seam, and open it up, and so follow and find the piper and the children. Foremost among them was the Mayor, who had lost three dear little daughters and two handsome little sons. Poor man, never was he heard to say again, "Leave it to the Mayor!" For the children did not come back. And what befell them, or where they went, nobody can tell for certain.
Long years after, a company of merchants from Bremen chanced to visit Hamelin, and there they were told the story which you have just read here. These merchants were on their homeward way from a journey across Hungary and Transylvania. And when they heard the story of the pied piper, they looked at one another, and nodded, and said, "Surely it must be so!"
The people of Hamelin asked them what they meant. And their leader then explained that far away in the Transylvania mountains they had come across a village where the inhabitants spoke nothing but German, though everyone else in the land spoke Hungarian. These villagers were also much fairer than their neighbours, and different from them in various little ways. They themselves were not quite sure how they came to this strange land, but there was a tradition among them that their forefathers had come from Germany in some mysterious way, long, long years before.
"Now," said the merchants of Bremen, "is it not quite clear that those fair-haired Transylvanians are the descendants of those children whom the pied piper led into yonder mountain?"
"It must be so," said the people of Hamelin.