Once on a time there was a charcoal-burner, who had a son, who was a charcoal-burner too. When the father was dead, the son took him a wife; but he was lazy and would turn his hand to nothing. He was careless in minding his pits too, and the end was no one would have him to burn charcoal for them.
It so fell out that one day he had burned a pit full for himself, and set off to the town with a few loads and sold them; and when he had done selling, he loitered in the street and looked about him. On his way home he fell in with townsmen and neighbours, and made merry, and drank, and chattered of all he had seen in the town. 'The prettiest thing I saw,' he said, 'was a great crowd of priests, and all the folks greeted them and took off their hats to them. I only wish I were a priest myself; then maybe they would take off their hats to me too. As it was they looked as though they did not even see me at all.'
'Well, well!' said his friends, 'if you are nothing else, you can't say you're not as black as a priest. And now we are about it, we can go to the sale of the old priest, who is dead, and have a glass, and meanwhile you can buy his gown and hood.' That was what the neighbours said; and what they said he did, and when he got home he had not so much as a penny left.
'Now you have both means and money, I dare say,' said his goody, when she heard he had sold his charcoal.
'I should think so. Means, indeed!' said the charcoal-burner, 'for you must know I have been ordained priest. Here you see both gown and hood.'
'Nay, I'll never believe that,' said the goody, 'strong ale makes big words. You are just as bad, whichever end of you turns up. That you are,' she said.
'You shall neither scold nor sorrow for the pit, for its last coal is quenched and cold,' said the charcoal-burner.
It fell out one day that many people in priests' robes passed by the charcoal-burner's cottage on their way to the king's palace, so that it was easy to see there was something in the wind there. Yes! the charcoal-burner would go too, and so he put on his gown and hood.
His goody thought it would be far better to stay at home; for even if he chanced to hold a horse for some great man, the drink-money he got would only go down his throat like so many before it.
'There are many, mother, who talk of drink,' said the man, 'who never think of thirst. All I know is, the more one drinks the more one thirsts;' and with that he set off for the palace. When he got there, all the strangers were bidden to come in, and the charcoal-burner followed with the rest. So the king made them a speech, and said he had lost his costliest ring, and was quite sure it had been stolen. That was why he had summoned all the learned priests in the land, to see if there were one of them who could tell him who the thief was. And he made a vow there and then, and said what reward he would give to the man who found out the thief. If he were a curate, he should have a living; if he was a rector, he should be made a dean; if he were a dean, he should be made a bishop; and if he were a bishop, he should become the first man in the kingdom after the king.
So the king went round and round among them all, from one to the other, asking them if they could find the thief; and when he came to the charcoal-burner, he said,
'Who are you?'
'I am the wise priest and the true prophet,' said the charcoal-burner.
'Then you can tell me,' said the king, 'who has taken my ring?'
'Yes!' said the charcoal-burner; 'it isn't so right against rhyme and reason that what has happened in darkness should come to light; but it isn't every year that salmon spawn in fir-tree tops. Here have I been a curate for seven years, trying to feed myself and my children, and I haven't got a living yet. If that thief is to be found out, I must have lots of time and reams of paper; for I must write and reckon, and track him out through many lands.'
'Yes! he should have as much time and paper as he chose, if he would only lay his finger on the thief.'
So they shut him up by himself in a room in the king's palace, and it was not long before they found out that he must know much more than his Lord's Prayer; for he scribbled over so much paper that it lay in great heaps and rolls, and yet there was not a man who could make out a word of what he wrote, for it looked like nothing else than pot-hooks and hangers. But, as he did this, time went on, and still there was not a trace of the thief. At last the king got weary, and so he said, if the priest couldn't find the thief in three days he should lose his life.
'More haste, worse speed. You can't cart coal till the pit is cool,' said the charcoal-burner. But the king stuck to his word--that he did; and the charcoal-burner felt his life wasn't worth much.
Now there were three of the king's servants who waited on the charcoal-burner day by day, in turn, and these three fellows had stolen the ring between them. So when one of these servants came into the room and cleared the table when he had eaten his supper, and was going out again, the charcoal-burner heaved a deep sigh as he looked after him, and said,
'THERE GOES THE FIRST OF THEM!' but he only meant the first of the three days he had still to live.
'That priest knows more than how to fill his mouth,' said the servant, when he was alone with his fellows; for he said, I was the first of them.'
The next day, the second servant was to mark what the prisoner said when he waited on him, and sure enough when he went out, after clearing the table, the charcoal-burner stared him full in the face and fetched a deep sigh, and said,
'THERE GOES THE SECOND OF THEM!'
So the third was to take heed to what the charcoal-burner said on the third day, and it was all worse and no better; for when the servant had his hand on the door as he went out with the plates and dishes, the charcoal-burner clasped his hands together, and said, with a sigh as though his heart would break,
'THERE GOES THE THIRD OF THEM!'
So the man went down to his fellows with his heart in his throat, and said it was clear as day the priest knew all about it; and so they all three went into his room and fell on their knees before him, and begged and prayed he would not say it was they who had stolen the ring. If he would do this, they were ready to give him, each of them, a hundred dollars, if he would not bring them into trouble.
Well, he gave his word, like a man, to do that and keep them harmless, if they would only give him the money and the ring and a great bowl of porridge. And what do you think he did with the ring when he got it? Why, he stuffed it well down into the porridge, and bade them go and give it to the biggest pig in the king's stye.
Next morning the king came, and was in no mood for jokes, and said he must know all about the thief.
'Well! well! now I have written and reckoned all the world round,' said the charcoal-burner, 'but it is no child of man that stole your majesty's ring.'
'Pooh!' said the king; 'who was it, then?'
'It was the biggest pig in your stye,' said the charcoal-burner.
Yes! they killed the pig, and there the ring was inside it; there was no mistake about that; and so the charcoal-burner got a living, and the king was so glad he gave him a farm and a horse, and a hundred dollars into the bargain.
You may fancy the charcoal-burner was not slow in flitting to the living, and the first Sunday after he got there he was going to church to read himself in; but before he left his house he was to have his breakfast, and so he took the king's letter and laid it on a bit of dry toast and then, by mistake, he dipped both toast and letter into his brose, and when he found it tough to chew, he gave the whole morsel to his dog Tray, and Tray gobbled up both toast and letter.
And now he scarce knew what to do, or how to turn. To church he must, for the people were waiting; and when he got there, he went straight up into the pulpit. In the pulpit he put on such a grave face that all thought he was a grand priest; but as the service went on, it was not so good after all. This was how he began:
'The words, my brethren, which you should have heard this day have gone, alas! to the dogs; but come next Sunday, dear parishioners, and you shall hear something else; and so this sermon comes to an end. Amen!'
All the parish thought they had got a strange priest, for they had never heard such a funny sermon before; but still they said to themselves, 'He'll be better perhaps by-and-by, and if he isn't better we shall know how to deal with him.'
Next Sunday, when there was service again, the church was so crowded full with folk who wished to hear the new priest that there was scarce standing-room. Well, he came again, and went straight up into the pulpit, and there he stood awhile and said never a word. But all at once he burst out, and bawled at the top of his voice--
'Hearken to me, old Nannygoat Bridget! Why in the world do you sit so far back in the church?'
'Oh, your reverence,' said she, 'if you must know, it's because my shoes are all in holes.'
'That's no reason; for you might take an old bit of pig-skin and stitch yourself new shoes, and then you could also come far forward in the church, like the other fine ladies. For the rest, you all ought to bethink yourselves of the way you are going; for I see when ye come to church, some of you come from the north and some from the south, and it is the same when you go from church again. But sometimes ye stand and loiter on the way, and then it may well be asked, What will become of you? Yea! who can tell what will become of every one of us? By the way, I have to give notice of a black mare which has strayed from the old priest's widow. She has hair on her fetlocks and a falling mane, and other marks which I will not name in this place. Besides, I may tell you, I have a hole in my old breeches-pocket, and I know it, but you do not know it; and another thing you do not know, and which I do not know, is whether any of you has a bit of cloth to patch that hole. Amen.'
Some few of the hearers were very well pleased with this sermon. They thought it sure he would make a brave priest in time; but, to tell the truth, most of them thought it too bad, and when the dean came they complained of the priest, and said no one had ever heard such sermons before, and there was even one of them who knew the last by heart, and wrote it down and read it to the dean.
'I call it a very good sermon,' said the dean, 'for it was likely that he spoke in parables as to seeking light and shunning darkness and its deeds, and as to those who were walking either on the broad or the strait path; but most of all,' he said, 'that was a grand parable when he gave that notice about the priest's black mare, and how it would fare with us all at the last. The pocket with the hole in it was to show the need of the church, and the piece of cloth to patch it was the gifts and offerings of the congregation.' That was what the dean said.
As for the parish, what they said was, 'Ay! ay!' so much we could understand that it was to go into the priest's pocket.
The end was, the dean said, he thought the parish had got such a good and understanding priest, there was no fault to find with him, and so they had to make the best of him; but after a while, as he got worse instead of better, they complained of him to the bishop.
Well! sooner or later the bishop came, and there was to be a visitation. But, the day before, the priest had gone into the church, unbeknown to anybody, and sawed the props of the pulpit all but in two, so that it would only just hang together if one went up into it very carefully. So when the people were gathered together and he was to preach before the bishop, he crept up into the pulpit and began to expound, as he was wont; and when he had gone on a while, he got more in earnest, threw his arms about and bawled out,
'If there be any here who is wicked or given to ill deeds, it were better he left this place; for this very day there shall be a fall, such as hath not been seen since the world began.'
With that he struck the reading-desk like thunder, and lo! the desk and the priest and the whole pulpit tumbled down on the floor of the church with such a crash that the whole congregation ran out of church, as if Doomsday were at their heels.
But then the bishop told the fault-finders he was amazed that they dared to complain of a priest who had such gifts in the pulpit, and so much wisdom that he could foresee things about to happen. For his part, he thought he ought to be a dean at least, and it was not long either before he was a dean. So there was no help for it; they had to put up with him.
Now it so happened that the king and queen had no children; but when the king heard that, perhaps, there was one coming, he was eager to know if it would be an heir to his crown and realm, or if it would only be a princess. So all the wise men in the land were gathered to the palace, that they might say beforehand what it would be. But when there was not a man of them that could say that, both the king and the bishop thought of the charcoal-burner, and it was not long before they got him between them, and asked him about it. 'No!' he said, 'that was past his power, for it was not good to guess at what no man alive could know.'
'All very fine, I dare say,' said the king. 'It's all the same to me, of course, if you know it or if you don't know it; but, you know, you are the wise priest and the true prophet who can foretell things to come; and all I can say is if you don't tell it me, you shall lose your gown. And now I think of it, I'll try you first.'
So he took the biggest silver tankard he had and went down to the sea-shore, and, in a little while, called the priest.
'If you can tell me now what there is in this tankard,' said the king, 'you will be able to tell me the other also;' and as he said this, he held the lid of the tankard tight.
The charcoal-burner only wrung his hands and bemoaned himself.
'Oh! you most wretched crab and cripple on this earth,' he cried out, 'this is what all your backslidings and sidelong tricks have brought on you.'
'Ah!' cried out the king, 'how could you say you did not know?' for you must know he had a crab in the tankard. So the charcoal-burner had to go into the parlour to the queen. He took a chair and sat down in the middle of the floor, while the queen walked up and down in the room.
'One should never count one's chickens before they are hatched, and never quarrel about a baby's name before it is born,' said the charcoal-burner; 'but I never heard or saw such a thing before! When the queen comes toward me, I almost think it will be a prince, and when she goes away from me it looks as if it would be a princess.'
Lo! when the time came, it was both a prince and a princess, for twins were born; and so the charcoal-burner had hit the mark that time too. And because he could tell that which no man could know, he got money in carts full, and was the next man to the king in the realm.
Trip, trap, trill,
A man is often more than he will."