A VERY long time ago the town of Hamel in Germany was invaded by bands of rats, the like of which had never been seen before nor will ever be again.
They were great black creatures that ran boldly in broad daylight through the streets, and swarmed so, all over the houses, that people at last could not put their hand or foot down anywhere without touching one. When dressing in the morning they found them in their breeches and petticoats, in their pockets and in their boots; and when they wanted a morsel to eat, the voracious horde had swept away everything from cellar to garret. The night was even worse. As soon as the lights were out, these untiring nibblers set to work. And everywhere, in the ceilings, in the floors, in the cupboards, at the doors, there was a chase and a rummage, and so furious a noise of gimlets, pincers, and saws, that a deaf man could not have rested for one hour together.
Neither cats nor dogs, nor poison nor traps, nor prayers nor candles burnt to all the saints–nothing would do anything. The more they killed the more came. And the inhabitants of Hamel began to go to the dogs (not that THEY were of much use), when one Friday there arrived in the town a man with a queer face, who played the bagpipes and sang this refrain:
‘Qui vivra verra:
Le preneur des rats.’
He was a great gawky fellow, dry and bronzed, with a crooked nose, a long rat-tail moustache, two great yellow piercing and mocking eyes, under a large felt hat set off by a scarlet cock’s feather. He was dressed in a green jacket with a leather belt and red breeches, and on his feet were sandals fastened by thongs passed round his legs in the gipsy fashion.
That is how he may be seen to this day, painted on a window of the cathedral of Hamel.
He stopped on the great market-place before the town hall, turned his back on the church and went on with his music, singing:
‘Who lives shall see:
This is he,
The town council had just assembled to consider once more this plague of Egypt, from which no one could save the town.
The stranger sent word to the counsellors that, if they would make it worth his while, he would rid them of all their rats before night, down to the very last.
‘Then he is a sorcerer!’ cried the citizens with one voice; ‘we must beware of him.’
The Town Counsellor, who was considered clever, reassured them.
He said: ‘Sorcerer or no, if this bagpiper speaks the truth, it was he who sent us this horrible vermin that he wants to rid us of to-day for money. Well, we must learn to catch the devil in his own snares. You leave it to me.’
‘Leave it to the Town Counsellor,’ said the citizens one to another.
And the stranger was brought before them.
‘Before night,’ said he, ‘I shall have despatched all the rats in Hamel if you will but pay me a gros a head.’
‘A gros a head!’ cried the citizens, ‘but that will come to millions of florins!’
The Town Counsellor simply shrugged his shoulders and said to the stranger:
‘A bargain! To work; the rats will be paid one gros a head as you ask.’
The bagpiper announced that he would operate that very evening when the moon rose. He added that the inhabitants should at that hour leave the streets free, and content themselves with looking out of their windows at what was passing, and that it would be a pleasant spectacle. When the people of Hamel heard of the bargain, they too exclaimed: ‘A gros a head! but this will cost us a deal of money!’
‘Leave it to the Town Counsellor,’ said the town council with a malicious air. And the good people of Hamel repeated with their counsellors, ‘Leave it to the Town Counsellor.’