Newtown, or Franchville, as is was called before, is a sleepy little town upon the Solent shore. Sleepy as it is now, it used to be noisy enough, and what made the noise was—rats. The place was so infested with them that it was not worth living in the town. There wasn’t a barn or a corn-rick, a storeroom or a cupboard, that they didn’t eat their way into it. Not a cheese that they didn’t gnaw hollow, not a sugar puncheon that they didn’t clear out. Why even the mead and beer in the barrels was not safe from them. They would make a hole in the top of the tunnel, and down would one master rat’s tail go, and when he brought it up round would crowd all the friends and cousins, and each would have a suck at the tail.
Had they stopped here it might have been better. But the squeaking and shrieking was disturbing as well as the hurrying and scurrying. So bad that you could neither hear yourself speak nor get a wink of good sleep during the night! Not to mention that, Mamma must sit and keep watching over her baby’s cradle, otherwise there would have been a big ugly rat running across the poor little fellow’s face and doing who knows what mischief.
Why didn’t the good people of the town have cats? Well they did, and there was a fair fight, but in the end the rats were too many, and the cats were regularly driven from the field. Poison, I hear you say? Why, they poisoned so many that it created an infestation. Rat-catchers! Why there wasn’t a rat-catcher from John o’ Groat’s house to the Land’s End that hadn’t tried his luck. But do what they might, cats or poison, terrier or traps, there seemed to be more rats than ever, and every day a fresh rat was cocking his tail or pricking his whiskers.
The Mayor and the town council didn’t know what to do anymore. As they were sitting one day in the town hall racking their poor brains, who should run in but the town beadle. “Please your Honor,” says he, “here is a strange fellow who came into town. I don’t really know what to make of him.” “Show him in,” said the Mayor, and in he stepped. A strange fellow, really. There wasn’t a color of the rainbow but you might find it in some corner of his dress, and he was tall and thin, and had piercing eyes.
“My name is Pied Piper,” he began. “How much will you pay me, if I get rid of every single rat in the town?”
Well, much as they feared the rats, they feared losing their money more. But the Piper was not a man to stand nonsense, and fifty pounds were promised him (and it meant a lot of money in those old days) as soon as not a rat was left to squeak in Franchville.
Piper stepped out of the hall, and as he walked, he put his pipe to his lips and started playing a shrill tune through streets and houses. And as each note pierced the air you might have seen a strange sight. Out of every hole the rats came tumbling. There were old ones and young ones, big ones and little ones, all went to crowd at the Piper’s heels and with eager feet and upturned noses to patter after him as he paced the streets. The Piper even kept mindful of the little toddling ones. He would stop every fifty yards and give an extra flourish on his pipe just to give them time to keep up with the older and stronger of the band.
Up Silver Street he went, and down Gold Street, and at the end of Gold Street is the harbor and the broad Solent beyond. And as he paced along, slowly, the townsfolk flocked to door and window, and they blessed him for his miracle.
As there were too many rats near him and he was getting to the water edge, , he stepped into a boat. And as he shoved off into the water, all the rats followed him happily, sqeaking and wagging their tails in delight. He continued playing on and on, until the tide went down, and each master rat sank deeper and deeper in the slimy water until they all disappeared.
The tide rose again, and the Piper stepped on shore, but not a rat followed. You may imagine that the townsfolk had been throwing up their hats and hurrahing. But when the Piper stepped ashore and not so much as a single squeak was heard, the Mayor and the Council, and the townsfolk generally, began to hum and shake their heads.
The town money chest had been sadly emptied lately, and where would the fifty pounds come from? It was such an easy job, too! Just getting into a boat and playing a pipe! Why, the Mayor himself could have done that if only he had thought of it.
So, he hummed and at last he said, “Come, my good man,” he said, “you see how poor we are; how can we manage to pay you fifty pounds? Will you not take twenty? When all is said and done, it will be good pay for the trouble you have taken.”
“Fifty pounds was what I was promised,” said the piper shortly; “and if I were you, I would pay it quickly. For I can pipe many kinds of tunes, as people sometimes discover to their loss.”
“Would you threaten us, you wandering vagabond?” screamed the Mayor, and at the same time he winked to the Council; “the rats are all gone,” he muttered; and so “You may do your worst, my good man,” and with that he turned short upon his heel.
“Very well,” said the Piper, and he smiled. With that he laid his pipe to his lips again, but now there was no shrill notes. Instead, the tune was joyous and resonant, full of happy laughter and merry play. And as he paced down the streets the elders mocked, but from every school classrooms and playrooms, from all nursery and houses, all the children ran out with glee and shouted following the Piper cheerfully. Dancing, laughing, joining hands and tripping feet, they moved along up Gold Street and down Silver Street, and beyond Silver Street lay the cool green forest full of old oaks and wide-spreading beeches. In and out among the oak-trees you might catch glimpses of the Piper’s many-colored coat. You might hear the laughter of the children break and fade and die away as deeper and deeper into the lone green wood the stranger went and the children followed.
All the while, the elders watched and waited. They were no longer mocking the Piper and they were no longer happy and cheerful. They watched and waited, but they never did see the Piper in his parti-colored coat again. And their hearts were never delighted by the song and dance of the children running amongst the old oaks of the forest.