Once I made a pleasure trip to a country called Germany; and I went to a funny little town, where all the streets ran uphill. At the top there was a big mountain, steep like the roof of a house, and at the bottom there was a big river, broad and slow. And the funniest thing about the little town was that all the shops had the same thing in them; bakers' shops, grocers' shops, everywhere we went we saw the same thing,—big chocolate rats, rats and mice, made out of chocolate. We were so surprised that after a while, "Why do you have rats in your shops?" we asked.
"Don't you know this is Hamelin town?" they said. "What of that?" said we. "Why, Hamelin town is where the Pied Piper came," they told us; "surely you know about the Pied Piper?" "What about the Pied Piper?" we said. And this is what they told us about him.
It seems that once, long, long ago, that little town was dreadfully troubled with rats. The houses were full of them, the shops were full of them, the churches were full of them, they were everywhere. The people were all but eaten out of house and home. Those rats,
They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats!
At last it got so bad that the people simply couldn't stand it any longer. So they all came together and went to the town hall, and they said to the Mayor (you know what a mayor is?), "See here, what do we pay you your salary for? What are you good for, if you can't do a little thing like getting rid of these rats? You just go to work and clear the town of them; find the remedy that's lacking, or—we'll send you packing!"
Well, the poor Mayor was in a terrible way. What to do he didn't know. He sat with his head in his hands, and thought and thought and thought.
Suddenly there came a little rat-tat at the door. Oh! how the Mayor jumped! His poor old heart went pit-a-pat at anything like the sound of a rat. But it was only the scraping of shoes on the mat. So the Mayor sat up, and said, "Come in!"
And in came the strangest figure! It was a man, very tall and very thin, with a sharp chin and a mouth where the smiles went out and in, and two blue eyes, each like a pin; and he was dressed half in red and half in yellow—he really was the strangest fellow!—and round his neck he had a long red and yellow ribbon, and on it was hung a thing something like a flute, and his fingers went straying up and down it as if he wanted to be playing.
He came up to the Mayor and said, "I hear you are troubled with rats in this town."
"I should say we were," groaned the Mayor.
"Would you like to get rid of them? I can do it for you."
"You can?" cried the Mayor. "How? Who are you?"
"Men call me the Pied Piper," said the man, "and I know a way to draw after me everything that walks, or flies, or swims. What will you give me if I rid your town of rats?"
"Anything, anything," said the Mayor. "I don't believe you can do it, but if you can, I'll give you a thousand guineas."
"All right," said the Piper, "it is a bargain."
And then he went to the door and stepped out into the street and stood, and put the long flute-like thing to his lips, and began to play a little tune. A strange, high, little tune. And before
three shrill notes the pipe uttered,
You heard as if an army muttered;
And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling!
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
Brown rats, black rats, gray rats, tawny rats,
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,
Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,
Families by tens and dozens,
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives—
Followed the Piper for their lives!
From street to street he piped, advancing, from street to street they followed, dancing. Up one street and down another, till they came to the edge of the big river, and there the piper turned sharply about and stepped aside, and all those rats tumbled hurry skurry, head over heels, down the bank into the river and—were—drowned. Every single one. No, there was one big old fat rat; he was so fat he didn't sink, and he swam across, and ran away to tell the tale.
Then the Piper came back to the town hall. And all the people were waving their hats and shouting for joy. The Mayor said they would have a big celebration, and build a tremendous bonfire in the middle of the town. He asked the Piper to stay and see the bonfire,—very politely.
"Yes," said the Piper, "that will be very nice; but first, if you please, I should like my thousand guineas."
"H'm,—er—ahem!" said the Mayor. "You mean that little joke of mine; of course that was a joke." (You see it is always harder to pay for a thing when you no longer need it.)
"I do not joke," said the Piper very quietly; "my thousand guineas, if you please."
"Oh, come, now," said the Mayor, "you know very well it wasn't worth sixpence to play a little tune like that; call it one guinea, and let it go at that."
"A bargain is a bargain," said the Piper; "for the last time,—will you give me my thousand guineas?"
"I'll give you a pipe of tobacco, something good to eat, and call you lucky at that!" said the Mayor, tossing his head.
Then the Piper's mouth grew strange and thin, and sharp blue and green lights began dancing in his eyes, and he said to the Mayor very softly, "I know another tune than that I played; I play it to those who play me false."
"Play what you please! You can't frighten me! Do your worst!" said the Mayor, making himself big.
Then the Piper stood high up on the steps of the town hall, and put the pipe to his lips, and began to play a little tune. It was quite a different little tune, this time, very soft and sweet, and very, very strange. And before he had played three notes, you heard
a rustling, that seemed like a bustling
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling;
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,
And like fowls in a farmyard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.
All the little boys and girls,
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.
"Stop, stop!" cried the people. "He is taking our children! Stop him, Mr Mayor!"
"I will give you your money, I will!" cried the Mayor, and tried to run after the Piper.
But the very same music that made the children dance made the grown-up people stand stock-still; it was as if their feet had been tied to the ground; they could not move a muscle. There they stood and saw the Piper move slowly down the street, playing his little tune, with the children at his heels. On and on he went; on and on the children danced; till he came to the bank of the river.
"Oh, oh! He will drown our children in the river!" cried the people. But the Piper turned and went along by the bank, and all the children followed after. Up, and up, and up the hill they went, straight toward the mountain which is like the roof of a house. And just as they got to it, the mountain opened,—like two great doors, and the Piper went in through the opening, playing the little tune, and the children danced after him—and—just as they got through—the great doors slid together again and shut them all in! Every single one. No, there was one little lame child, who couldn't keep up with the rest and didn't get there in time. But none of his little companions ever came back any more, not one.
But years and years afterward, when the fat old rat who swam across the river was a grandfather, his children used to ask him, "What made you follow the music, Grandfather?" and he used to tell them, "My dears, when I heard that tune I thought I heard the moving aside of pickle-tub boards, and the leaving ajar of preserve cupboards, and I smelled the most delicious old cheese in the world, and I saw sugar barrels ahead of me; and then, just as a great yellow cheese seemed to be saying, 'Come, bore me'—I felt the river rolling o'er me!"
And in the same way the people asked the little lame child, "What made you follow the music?" "I do not know what the others heard," he said, "but I, when the Piper began to play, I heard a voice that told of a wonderful country hard by, where the bees had no stings and the horses had wings, and the trees bore wonderful fruits, where no one was tired or lame, and children played all day; and just as the beautiful country was but one step away—the mountain closed on my playmates, and I was left alone."
That was all the people ever knew. The children never came back. All that was left of the Piper and the rats was just the big street that led to the river; so they called it the Street of the Pied Piper.
And that is the end of the story.