212 THE RATCATCHER
' So,' replied the Town Counsellor,' you refuse to hold to the terms of your agreement ? "We ourselves could refuse you all payment. But you have been of use to us, and we will not let you go without a recompense,' and he offered him fifty crowns.
' Keep your recompense for yourself,' replied the ratcatcher proudly. ' If you do not pay me I will be paid by your heirs.'
Thereupon he pulled his hat down over his eyes, went hastily out of the hall, and left the town without speaking to a soul.
When the Hamel people heard how the affair had ended they rubbed their hands, and with no more scruple than their Town Counsellor, they laughed over the ratcatcher, who, they said, was caught in his own trap. But what made them laugh above all was his threat of getting himself paid by their heirs. Ha ! they wished that they only had such creditors for the rest of their lives.
Next day, which was a Sunday, they all went gaily to church, thinking that after Mass they would at last be able to eat some good thing that the rats had not tasted before them.
They never suspected the terrible surprise that awaited them on their return home. No children anywhere, they had all disappeared !
' Our children ! where are our poor children ? ' was the cry that was soon heard in all the streets.
Then through the east door of the town came three little boys, who cried and wept, and this is what they told :
While the parents were at church a wonderful music had resounded. Soon all the little boys and all the little girls that had been left at home had gone out, attracted by the magic sounds, and had rushed to the great market-place. There they found the ratcatcher playing his bagpipes at the same spot as the evening before. Then the stranger had begun to walk quickly, and they had followed, running, singing and dancing to the sound of the music, as far as the foot of the mountain which one sees on entering Hamel. At their approach the mountain had opened a little, and the bagpiper had gone in with them, after which it had closed again. Only the three little ones who told the adventure had remained outside, as if by a miracle. One was bandy-legged and could not run fast enough ; the other, who had left the house in haste, one foot shod the other bare, had hurt himself against a big stone and could not walk without difficulty; the third had arrived in time, but in hurrying to go in with the others had struck so violently against the wall of the mountain that he fell backwards at the moment it closed upon his comrades.