"Once on a time there was a clerk in our parish, who was very sharp set after all that was nice and good. All the parish said his brains were in his belly, for though he was very fond of pretty girls and buxom wives, still he liked good meat and drink even better.
"'Aye, aye,' said our clerk; 'one can't live long on love and the south wind.' That was his motto, and that was why he kept company most with well-to-do-house-wives, with those who were new wedded, or with pretty lasses who were sure to marry rich husbands, for there you were sure to find titbits both of beauty and food. That was what our clerk thought. It wasn't every one, indeed, who thought it so fine to have such a cupboard lover, but yet there were some who looked on it as fine enough for them, for, after all, a parish clerk stands a little higher than a farmer.
"Now it fell out there was a rich young lass who had married our clerk's next-door neighbour. There he crept in and out, and soon got good friends with the husband, and better friends still with his wife. When the husband was at home all went well between them, but as soon as he was away at the mill, or in the wood, or at floating timber, or at a meeting, the goody sent word to the clerk, and then the two spent the day in revelling and mirth. There was no one who found this out, before the ploughboy got wind of it, and he thought he would just speak of it to his master; but, somehow or other, he couldn't find a fitting time till one day when they were together in the outfield gathering leaves for litter. There they chatted this and that about lasses and wives, and the master thought he had made a lucky hit in marrying such a rich and pretty wife, and he said as much outright.
"'Thank God, she is both good and clever.'
"'Aye, aye,' said the lad; 'every man is welcome to believe what he likes, but if you knew her as well as I do, you wouldn't say such words at random. Pretty women are like wind in warm summer weather.
'And love is such that, willy, nilly,
It takes up with a clerk as well as a lily.'
"'What's that you say?' said the man.
"'I have long thought I would tell you that there's a black bull that walks hoof to hoof and horn to horn with that milk-white cow in your mead, master--that's what I wanted to say.'
"'One can say much in a summer day,' said the man; 'but I can't understand what this points to.'
"'Is it so?' said the lad. 'Well, I have long thought of telling you that our clerk is often and ever in our house with the mistress, and how they lived as though there was a bridal every day, while we scarce get so much as the leavings of their good cheer.'
"'He who will ever taste and try,
Will burn his fingers in the pie,'
said his master. 'I don't believe a word of what you say.'
"'It's a strange ear that will never hear,' said the lad; 'but seeing is believing, and if you will listen to me, I'm ready to wager ten dollars that you shall soon have the proof in your own hands.'
"'Done,' said the master; 'he would bet ten dollars; nay, for that matter, he would bet horse and farm, and a hundred dollars into the bargain.'
"Well, that wager was to stand. 'But an old fox is hard to hunt,' said the lad, and so his master must say and do all that his ploughboy wished. When they got home he was to say they must set off for the river and land timber, and his wife must put up some food for them in hot haste; it was best to look out while the weather was fine, it might turn to storm in a trice. Yes! That was what the husband said, and the food was ready to the minute. The lad put the horses to the timber drags, and off they went, but no farther than half a mile; there they put the horses up at a farm, and turned in themselves. As the night came on they went back, and when they got home, the door was locked fast.
"'Now we have him,' said the lad; 'it's hard to keep off the field to which one is wont.'
"So they went by the back way from the garden, and so through a trap-door in the cellar into the kitchen. Then they struck a light and went into the parlour, and saw what they saw. Well! our clerk had eaten so well that he lay snoring with his mouth open and his nose in the air; as for the goody, she was not awake either.
"'Now you see I was right; seeing is believing, master,' said the lad.
"'May I never speak the truth again,' said the man, 'if I would have believed ten men telling it.'
"'Hush, be still,' said the lad, and took him out again.
"'Man's law is not land's law,' said the lad; 'but even a bear can be tamed if you know how to deal with him. Have you any lead, master?
"Yes! He had, he was sure, more than seventy bullets in his pouch. Then it was all right. They took a sauce-pan, and melted the lead on the spot, and ran it down our clerk's throat.
"'Every man has his own taste,' said the lad, 'and that's why all meat is eaten,' as he heard the molten lead bubbling and frizzling in our clerk's throat.
"Then they went out by the way they got in, and began to knock and thunder at the front door. The wife woke up and asked who was there.
"'It is I, open the door, I say,' said the husband.
"Then she gave our clerk a nudge in the ribs. 'It is the master; the master is back,' she said. But no! he did not mind her, and never so much as stirred. Then she put her knees to his side, and tumbled him on to the floor, and jumped up and took him by the legs, and dragged him to the heap of wood behind the stove, and there she hid him. Till she had done that she had no time to open the door to her husband.
"'Were you gone after christening water, that you were gone so long?' asked the man.
"'Oh!' she answered; 'I dozed off again to sleep, and I did not think it could ever be you either.'
"'Well!' said her husband; 'now you must bring out some food, for me and the boy, we are a'most starved.'
"'I've got no food ready,' said the goody. 'How can you think of such a thing? I never thought you would be back either to-day or to-morrow. Why you know you were to go to the river to land timber.'
"'One can't hang a hungry man up on the wall like a clock,' said the lad; 'and self-help is the best help; shall I bring in the food we packed up, master.'
"Yes; they did that, and they sat down to eat out of the knapsack; but when they got up to put a log or two on the fire, there lay our clerk among the pile of wood.
"'Why who in the world is this?' asked the man.
"'Oh! oh! It's only a beggar man who came here so late and begged for house-room; he was quite content if he might only lie among the firewood,' said the goody.
"'A pretty beggar,' said the man; 'why he has got silver buckles to his shoes, and silver buttons at his knees.'
"'All are not beggars who are tattered and torn,' said the lad; 'but I'm blessed if this isn't our parish clerk.'
"'What was he doing here, mistress,' asked her husband, who all the while kept on pulling and kicking at him. But our clerk never so much as stirred or lifted a finger, There stood the goody fumbling and stammering, and not knowing what to say. All she could do was to bite her thumb.
"'I see it in your face, what you have done, mistress,' said her husband. 'But life is hard to lose, and, after all, he was our parish clerk. If I did what was right, I should send off at once for the sheriff.'
"'Heaven help us,' said his wife; 'only get our clerk out of the way.'
"'This is your matter, and not mine,' said the man. 'I never asked him hither, nor sent for him; but if you can get any one to help you to get rid of him, I won't stand in your way.'
"Then she took the lad on one side, and said,--
"'I've laid up some woollen stuff for my husband, but I'll give it to you for clothes, if you'll only get our clerk buried, so that he shall never be seen or heard of again.'
"'There's no saying what one can do till one tries. If we drive in the frost, we shall find it slippery, to our cost. Have you ropes and cord, master? if so, I'll see if I can't cure this.'
"Well! he got our clerk fast in a slipknot, threw him on his back, caught up his hat as well, and away he went. But he hadn't gone far along the path in the meadow when he met some horses; so he caught one of these, and tied and bound our clerk fast on his back. He put his hat, too, on his head, and his hand down on his thigh, and there he sat upright, and jogged up and down just as a man on horseback.
"'One may kill trolls at any time of night,' said the lad, when he got home; 'who can say when a man is 'fey.' But he will never rise up who is safe buried under ground, and the cock that is slain crows never again.'
"Now, whether all this were true or no, there was a way from the meadow across the fields to a barn, and along it they had carted hay, and dropped it as they went along; so the horse went that way, picking up the hay as he went, and out in that barn were two men watching for thieves who used to steal the hay, for it had been a bad year for fodder.
"'Here comes the thief,' they said, when they heard the horse's hoofs; 'now we shall catch him.'
"'Who's there,' they called out, so that it rang against the hillside. No! there was no answer, the horse paid little heed, and our clerk less.
"'If you don't answer I'll send a bullet through your brains, you horse-thief,' they both called out, and then off went the gun, at which the horse gave such a sudden jump, that our clerk gave a bob, and fell bump on the ground.
"'I think,' said one of the watchers, as he jumped up to look, 'I think you've shot him dead as mutton;' and then, when he saw who it was, 'Oh Lord!' he said, 'if it ain't our parish clerk. You ought to have aimed at his legs, and not killed him outright.'
"'What's done is done, and can't be helped,' said the other. 'Least said soonest mended. We must keep our ears close, and bury him for a little while among the hay in the barn.'
"Yes! They did that, and when it was over, they lay them down to rest. In a little while came some one puffing and stamping, that the field shook again. The two who lay among the hay nudged one another, for they thought it was thieves again. Close to the barn was a stepping-stone, and there the new-comer sat down with his load, and began to talk to himself. He had been killing pigs at a farm a few days before, and thought he had been paid too little for his work, too little pay and too little board, and so he had set off and stolen the biggest porker. 'He that swaps with a bear always comes worst off,' he said; 'and so it's best to help one's self to what is right, and a little share is better than a long law-suit. But, bitter death! If I haven't forgotten my gloves; if they find them at the farm, they'll soon find out who has inherited their porker.' And, as he said this, he bolted back after his gloves.
"The two who were in the barn lay and listened to all this.
"'He who lays traps for others, comes into the trap himself,' said one.
"'There's no sin in stealing from a thief,' said the other; 'and no one is hanged, save those who can't steal right. It would be fine fun to get rid of our clerk in an easy way, and get a fat pig instead. I think, old chap, we had better make a swap.'
"The other burst out laughing at this, and so they tumbled the pig out of the sack and tossed in our clerk, head foremost, hat and all, and tied up the mouth of the sack as tight as they could.
"Just as they had done, back came the thief flying with his gloves, snatched up the sack, and strode off home. There he cast the sack down on the floor at his goody's feet.
"'Here's what I call a porker, old lass,' he said.
"'How grand!' said the goody. 'Nothing is all very fine to the eye, but not to the mouth. One can't get on without meat, for meat is man's strength. Thank Heaven we have now a bit of meat in the house, and shall be able to live well awhile.'
"'I took the biggest I could,' said the man, who sat down in his armchair, and puffed and wiped the sweat off his brow. 'He had both breeches and drawers, he was well covered, that he was.' By which he meant the pig was well fed and fat. Then he went on, 'Have you any meat in the house, old lass?'
"'No,' she said; 'meat! where should I get meat?'
"'Make up the fire then,' said the man; 'and sharpen your knife, and cut off a wee bit, and fry it with salt, and let's have a pork chop.'
"She did as he bade, and tore open the mouth of the sack, and was just going to cut off a steak.
"'What's all this?' she cried. 'He has got his trotters on,' when she saw his shoes; 'and he's as black as a coal.'
"'Don't you know,' said her husband; 'all cats are grey in the dark, and all pigs black.'
"'I dare say,' she said; 'but black or white is always bright, and a fog is not like a bilberry. This pig has got breeches on.'
"'Plague take him!' said the man. 'I know well enough he is covered with fat all down his legs. Haven't I carried him till the sweat ran down my face?'
"'Nay, nay!' said the goody. 'He has silver buckles in his shoes, and silver buttons at his knees. My! if it isn't our Parish Clerk!' she screamed out.
"'I tell you it was a fat pig I took,' said the man, as he jumped up to see how things stood. 'Well! Well! Seeing is believing.' It was our clerk, both with shoes and buckles; but, for all, he stuck to it, it was the fattest pig he had put into the sack.
"'But what's done can't be undone,' he said; 'the best servant is one's own self; but, for all that, help is good, even if it comes out of the porridge-pot; wake up our Mary, old girl.'
"Now you must know Mary was their daughter, a ready and trusty lass; she had the strength of a man too, and always had her wits about her. So she was to take our clerk and bury him in an out-of-the-way dale, so that nothing should ever be heard of him. If she did this, she was to have a new suit of working clothes, which were meant for her mother.
"Well! The lassie took our clerk round the body, tossed him on her back, and strode off from the farm, not forgetting to take his hat. But when she had gone a bit of the way, she heard a fiddle going, for there was a dance at a farm near the road, and so she crept in and set our clerk down upright behind the back-stairs. There he sat with his hat between his hands, just as though he were begging an alms, and leaning against the wall and a post.
"After a while came a girl in a flurry.
"'I wonder whoever this can be,' she said. 'The master of the house is as grey as a goose, but this fellow is black as a raven. Halloa, you sir, why are you sitting there, blocking up the way? One can scarce get by.'
"But our clerk said never a word.
"'Are you poor? Do you beg for a penny for Heaven's sake? Ah! poor fellow! Here's two pence for you,' and as she said this she tossed them into his hat. Still our clerk said never a word. She waited a little, for she thought he would say 'Thank you,' but our clerk did not so much as nod his head.
"'No, I never,' said the girl, when she went back into the ball-room. 'I never did see the like of a beggar who sits out yonder by the staircase. He isn't at all like a starling on a fence,' she went on; 'for he won't answer, and he won't say "Thank you," and won't so much as lift a finger, though I did give him two pence.'
"'The least a beggar can do is to say "Thank you,"' cried a young sheriff's clerk who was of the party. 'He must be a pretty fellow whom I cannot get to speak, for I've made thieves and stiff-necked folk open their mouths wide before this.'
"As he said this he ran out to the stairs, and bawled out in our clerk's ear, for he thought he was hard of hearing.
"'What do you sit here for, you sir?' And then again, 'Are you poor? Do you beg?'
"No, our clerk said never a word. So he took out half-a-dollar, and threw it into his hat, saying, 'There's something for you.' But our clerk was still silent, and made no sign. So when he could get no thanks out of him, the sheriff's officer gave him a blow under the ear, as hard as he could, and down fell our clerk head over heels across the staircase. And you may be sure the girl Mary was not slow in running to the spot.
"'Are you in a swoon, or are you dead, father,' she screeched out, and then she went on screaming and bewailing herself.
"'It's quite true,' she said; 'there's no peace for the poor after all, but I never yet heard of any one laying themselves out to strike beggars dead.'
"'Hush! Hold your tongue,' said the sheriff's officer. 'Don't make a fuss. Here you have ten dollars, keep your peace and take him away. I only gave him a blow that made him swoon.'
"Well! She was glad enough. 'Money brings money,' she thought; 'with fair words and money, one can go far in a day, and one need never care for food with a purse full of pence.' So she took our clerk on her back again, and strode off to the nearest farm, and there she put him athwart the brink of the well. When our Mary got home she said she had borne him off to the wood, and buried him far far away in a side dale.
"'Thank Heaven,' said the goody. 'Now we are well quit of him, you shall have all I promised, and more besides. Be sure of that.'
"So there lay our clerk, as though he were peering down into the well, till at dawn of day the ploughboy came running up to draw water.
"'Why are you lying there, and what are you gazing at? Out of the way. I want some water,' said the lad.
"No! He neither stirred hand or foot. Then the lad let drive at him, so that it went plump, and there lay our clerk in the well. Then he must have help to get him out, but there was no help for it till the hind came with a boat-hook and dragged him out.
"'Why! it's our Parish Clerk!' they all bawled out, and they all thought he had eaten and drank so much at some feast, that he had fallen asleep by the well-side.
"But when the master of the house came and saw our clerk, and heard how it had all happened, he said,--
"'Harm watches while men sleep; but man's scathe is the worst scathe. When one pot strikes against another, both break. Take the saddle and lay it on Blackie, and ride to fetch the sheriff, my lad, and then we shall be out of harm's way, for our clerk's sake. Mishaps never come single, but it's hard to drown on dry land.' That was what the master said.
"Yes! The lad rode off to the sheriff, and after a while the sheriff came. But, as the saying is, more haste, worse speed, and work done in haste will never last. So it took time before they got the doctor and witnesses to come. Now you all know we owe a death to God; but then it was made as plain as day that our clerk had been killed three times before he tumbled into the well. First the ladle of lead had taken away his breath, next he had a bullet through his forehead, and third and last his neck was broken. Surely he was 'fey' when he set out to see the goody. It is hard to tell how all this was found out at last; but tongues will clack behind a man's back, and hard things are said of a man when he's dead."