street, and trip, trip, trip, begin to run in file towards the front of the town hall, so squeezed together that they covered the pavement like the waves of flooded torrent.
When the square was quite full the bagpiper faced about, and, still playing briskly, turned towards the river that runs at the foot of the walls of Hamel.
Arrived there he turned round; the rats were following.
' Hop ! hop !' he cried, pointing with his finger to the middle of the stream, where the water whirled and was drawn down as if through a funnel. And hop! hop ! without hesitating, the rats took the leap, swam straight to the funnel, plunged in head foremost and disappeared.
The plunging continued thus without ceasing till midnight.
At last, dragging himself with difficulty, came a big rat, white with age, and stopped on the bank.
It was the king of the band.
'Are they all there, friend Blanchet ? ' asked the bagpiper.
' They are all there,' replied friend Blanchet.
' And how many were they ? '
' Nine hundred and ninety thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine.'
' Well reckoned ? '
' Well reckoned.'
' Then go and join them, old sire, and au revoir.'
Then the old white rat sprang in his turn into the river, swam to the whirlpool and disappeared.
When the bagpiper had thus concluded his business he went to bed at his inn. And for the first time during three months the people of Hamel slept quietly through the night.
The next morning, at nine o'clock, the bagpiper repaired to the town hall, where the town council awaited him.
' All your rats took a jump into the river yesterday,' said he to the counsellors, ' and I guarantee that not one of them comes back. They were nine hundred and ninety thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine, at one gros a head. Beckon !'
' Let us reckon the heads first. One gros a head is one head the gros. Where are the heads ? '
The ratcatcher did not expect this treacherous stroke. He paled with anger and his eyes flashed fire.
' The heads !' cried he, ' if you care about them, go and find them in the river.'