The Thieves who Couldn't Stop Sneezing
by Thomas Hardy
Many years ago, when oak-trees now past their prime were
about as large as elderly gentlemen's walking-sticks, there
lived in Wessex a yeoman's son, whose name was Hubert. He
was about fourteen years of age, and was as remarkable for
his candour and lightness of heart as for his physical
courage, of which, indeed, he was a little vain.
One cold Christmas Eve his father, having no
other help at hand, sent him on an important errand to a
small town several miles from home. He travelled on
horseback, and was detained by the business till a late hour
of the evening. At last, however, it was completed; he
returned to the inn, the horse was saddled, and he started
on his way. His journey homeward lay through the Vale of
Blackmore, a fertile but somewhat lonely district, with
heavy clay roads and crooked lanes. In those days, too, a
great part of it was thickly wooded.
It must have been about nine o'clock when,
riding along amid the overhanging trees upon his
stout-legged cob Jerry, and singing a Christmas carol, to be
in harmony with the season, Hubert fancied that he heard a
noise among the boughs. This recalled to his mind that the
spot he was traversing bore an evil name. Men had been
waylaid there. He looked at Jerry, and wished he had been of
any other colour than light grey; for on this account the
docile animal's form was visible even here in the dense
shade. "What do I care?" he said aloud, after a
few minutes of reflection. "Jerry's legs are too nimble
to allow any highwayman to come near me."
"Ha! ha! indeed," was said in a
deep voice; and the next moment a man darted from the
thicket on his right hand, another man from the thicket on
his left hand, and another from a tree-trunk a few yards
ahead. Hubert's bridle was seized, he was pulled from his
horse, and although he struck out with all his might, as a
brave boy would naturally do, he was overpowered. His arms
were tied behind him, his legs bound tightly together, and
he was thrown into the ditch. The robbers, whose faces he
could now dimly perceive to be artificially blackened, at
once departed, leading off the horse.
As soon as Hubert had a little recovered
himself, he found that by great exertion he was able to
extricate his legs from the cord; but, in spite of every
endeavour, his arms remained bound as fast as before. All,
therefore, that he could do was to rise to his feet and
proceed on his way with his arms behind him, and trust to
chance for getting them unfastened. He knew that it would be
impossible to reach home on foot that night, and in such a
condition; but he walked on. Owing to the confusion which
this attack caused in his brain, he lost his way, and would
have been inclined to lie down and rest till morning among
the dead leaves had he not known the danger of sleeping
without wrappers in a frost so severe. So he wandered
further onwards, his arms wrung and numbed by the cord which
pinioned him, and his heart aching for the loss of poor
Jerry, who never had been known to kick, or bite, or show a
single vicious habit. He was not a little glad when he
discerned through the trees a distant light. Towards this he
made his way, and presently found himself in front of a
large mansion with flanking wings, gables, and towers, the
battlements and chimneys showing their shapes against the
All was silent; but the door stood wide open,
it being from this door that the light shone which had
attracted him. On entering he found himself in a vast
apartment arranged as a dining-hall, and brilliantly
illuminated. The walls were covered with a great deal of
dark wainscoting, formed into moulded panels, carvings,
closet-doors, and the usual fittings of a house of that
kind. But what drew his attention most was the large table
in the midst of the hall, upon which was spread a sumptuous
supper, as yet untouched. Chairs were placed around, and it
appeared as if something had occurred to interrupt the meal
just at the time when all were ready to begin.
Even had Hubert been so inclined, he could
not have eaten in his helpless state, unless by dipping his
mouth into the dishes, like a pig or cow. He wished first to
obtain assistance; and was about to penetrate further into
the house for that purpose when he heard hasty footsteps in
the porch and the words, "Be quick!" uttered in
the deep voice which had reached him when he was dragged
from the horse. There was only just time for him to dart
under the table before three men entered the dining-hall.
Peeping from beneath the hanging edges of the tablecloth, he
perceived that their faces, too, were blackened, which at
once removed any remaining doubts he may have felt that
these were the same thieves.
"Now, then," said the first--the
man with the deep voice--"let us hide ourselves. They
will all be back again in a minute. That was a good trick to
get them out of the house--eh?"
"Yes. You well imitated the cries of a
man in distress," said the second.
"Excellently," said the third.
"But they will soon find out that it was
a false alarm. Come, where shall we hide? It must be some
place we can stay in for two or three hours, till all are in
bed and asleep. Ah! I have it. Come this way! I have learnt
that the further closet is not opened once in a twelvemonth;
it will serve our purpose exactly."
The speaker advanced into a corridor which
led from the hall. Creeping a little farther forward, Hubert
could discern that the closet stood at the end, facing the
dining-hall. The thieves entered it, and closed the door.
Hardly breathing, Hubert glided forward, to learn a little
more of their intention, if possible; and, coming close, he
could hear the robbers whispering about the different rooms
where the jewels, plate, and other valuables of the house
were kept, which they plainly meant to steal.
They had not been long in hiding when a gay
chattering of ladies and gentlemen was audible on the
terrace without. Hubert felt that it would not do to be
caught prowling about the house, unless he wished to be
taken for a robber himself; and he slipped softly back to
the hall, out at the door, and stood in a dark corner of the
porch, where he could see everything without being himself
seen. In a moment or two a whole troop of personages came
gliding past him into the house. There were an elderly
gentleman and lady, eight or nine young ladies, as many
young men, besides half-a-dozen men-servants and maids. The
mansion had apparently been quite emptied of its occupants.
"Now, children and young people, we will
resume our meal," said the old gentleman. "What
the noise could have been I cannot understand. I never felt
so certain in my life that there was a person being murdered
outside my door."
Then the ladies began saying how frightened
they had been, and how they had expected an adventure, and
how it had ended in nothing after all.
"Wait a while," said Hubert to
himself. "You'll have adventure enough by-and-by,
It appeared that the young men and women were
married sons and daughters of the old couple, who had come
that day to spend Christmas with their parents.
The door was then closed, Hubert being left
outside in the porch.
He thought this a proper moment for asking
their assistance; and, since he was unable to knock with his
hands, began boldly to kick the door.
"Hullo! What disturbance are you making
here?" said a footman who opened it; and, seizing
Hubert by the shoulder, he pulled him into the dining-hall.
"Here's a strange boy I have found making a noise in
the porch, Sir Simon."
"Bring him forward," said Sir
Simon, the old gentleman before mentioned. "What were
you doing there, my boy?"
"Why, his arms are tied!" said one
of the ladies.
"Poor fellow!" said another.
Hubert at once began to explain that he had
been waylaid on his journey home, robbed of his horse, and
mercilessly left in this condition by the thieves.
"Only to think of it!" exclaimed
"That's a likely story," said one
of the gentleman-guests, incredulously.
"Doubtful, hey?" asked Sir Simon.
"Perhaps he's a robber himself,"
suggested a lady.
"There is a curiously wild wicked look
about him, certainly, now that I examine him closely,"
said the old mother.
Hubert blushed with shame; and, instead of
continuing his story, and relating that robbers were
concealed in the house, he doggedly held his tongue, and
half resolved to let them find out their danger for
"Well, untie him," said Sir Simon.
"Come, since it is Christmas Eve, we'll treat him well.
Here, my lad; sit down in that empty seat at the bottom of
the table, and make as good a meal as you can. When you have
had your fill we will listen to more particulars of your
The feast then proceeded; and Hubert, now at
liberty, was not at all sorry to join in. The more they eat
and drank the merrier did the company become; the wine
flowed freely, the logs flared up the chimney, the ladies
laughed at the gentlemen's stories; in short, all went as
noisily and as happily as a Christmas gathering in old times
possibly could do.
Hubert, in spite of his hurt feelings at
their doubts of his honesty, could not help being warmed
both in mind and in body by the good cheer, the scene, and
the example of hilarity set by his neighbours. At last he
laughed as heartily at their stories and repartees as the
old Baronet, Sir Simon, himself. When the meal was almost
over one of the sons, who had drunk a little too much wine,
after the manner of men in that century, said to Hubert,
"Well, my boy, how are you? Can you take a pinch of
snuff?" He held out one of the snuff-boxes which were
then becoming common among young and old throughout the
"Thank you," said Hubert, accepting
"Tell the ladies who you are, what you
are made of, and what you can do," the young man
continued, slapping Hubert upon the shoulder.
"Certainly," said our hero, drawing
himself up, and thinking it best to put a bold face on the
matter. "I am a travelling magician."
"What shall we hear next?"
"Can you call up spirits from the vasty
deep, young wizard?"
"I can conjure up a tempest in a
cupboard," Hubert replied.
"Ha--ha!" said the old Baronet,
pleasantly rubbing his hands. "We must see this
performance. Girls, don't go away: here's something to be
"Not dangerous, I hope?" said the
Hubert rose from the table. "Hand me
your snuff-box, please," he said to the young man who
had made free with him. "And now," he continued,
"without the least noise, follow me. If any of you
speak it will break the spell."
They promised obedience. He entered the
corridor, and, taking off his shoes, went on tiptoe to the
closet door, the guests advancing in a silent group at a
little distance behind him. Hubert next placed a stool in
front of the door, and, by standing upon it, was tall enough
to reach to the top. He then, just as noiselessly, poured
all the snuff from the box along the upper edge of the door,
and, with a few short puffs of breath, blew the snuff
through the chink into the interior of the closet. He held
up his finger to the assembly, that they might be silent.
"Dear me, what's that?" said the
old lady, after a minute or two had elapsed.
A suppressed sneeze had come from inside the
Hubert held up his finger again.
"How very singular," whispered Sir
Simon. "This is most interesting."
Hubert took advantage of the moment to gently
slide the bolt of the closet door into its place. "More
snuff," he said, calmly.
"More snuff," said Sir Simon. Two
or three gentlemen passed their boxes, and the contents were
blown in at the top of the closet. Another sneeze, not quite
so well suppressed as the first, was heard: then another,
which seemed to say that it would not be suppressed under
any circumstances whatever at length there arose a perfect
storm of sneezes.
"Excellent, excellent for one so
young!" said Sir Simon. "I am much interested in
this trick of throwing the voice--called, I believe,
"More snuff," said Hubert
"More snuff," said Sir Simon. Sir
Simon's man brought a large jar of the best scented Scotch.
Hubert once more charged the upper chink of
the closet, and blew the snuff into the interior, as before.
Again he charged, and again, emptying the whole contents of
the jar. The tumult of sneezes became really extraordinary
to listen to--there was no cessation. It was like wind,
rain, and sea battling in a hurricane.
"I believe there are men inside, and
that it is no trick at all!" exclaimed Sir Simon, the
truth flashing on him.
"There are," said Hubert.
"They are come to rob the house; and they are the same
who stole my horse."
The sneezes changed to spasmodic groans. One
of the thieves, hearing Hubert's voice, cried, "Oh!
mercy! mercy! let us out of this!"
"Where's my horse? said Hubert.
"Tied to the tree in the hollow behind
Short's Gibbet. Mercy! mercy! let us out, or we shall die of
All the Christmas guests now perceived that
this was no longer sport, but serious earnest. Guns and
cudgels were procured; all the men-servants were called in,
and arranged in position outside the closet. At a signal
Hubert withdrew the bolt, and stood on the defensive. But
the three robbers, far from attacking them, were found
crouching in the corner, gasping for breath. They made no
resistance; and, being pinioned, were placed in an out-house
till the morning.
Hubert now gave the remainder of his story to
the assembled company, and was profusely thanked for the
services he had rendered. Sir Simon pressed him to stay over
the night, and accept the use of the best bed-room the house
afforded, which had been occupied by Queen Elizabeth and
King Charles successively when on their visits to this part
of the country. But Hubert declined, being anxious to find
his horse Jerry, and to test the truth of the robbers'
statements concerning him.
Several of the guests accompanied Hubert to
the spot behind the gibbet, alluded to by the thieves as
where Jerry was hidden. When they reached the knoll and
looked over, behold! there the horse stood, uninjured, and
quite unconcerned. At sight of Hubert he neighed joyfully;
and nothing could exceed Hubert's gladness at finding him.
He mounted, wished his friends "Good-night!" and
cantered off in the direction they pointed out as his
nearest way, reaching home safely about four o'clock in the