MANY, many years ago--well, it's so very, very long ago that no one can really tell how long ago it was--a number of grandees entered into a conspiracy against the king. But in spite of their power and arrogance he succeeded in laying them by the heels, and those who were not willing to swear submission to him there and then were all to lose their heads, which was only fair and just; for if one has not got more sense in one's head than to engage in such foolish undertakings, one may as well do without a head.
But since they were all such grand folks, the king himself wanted to see that everything was carried out properly; and so he set out for the spot where the execution was to take place, which was some distance away in the country. The executioner was, of course, going there as well; but he was not then such a great personage as he is now, and did not travel in such state, either at the public expense or at his own. Oh no, he had to trudge and plod along on his own legs, were the distance ever so great.
So it happened that he got into the middle of a big forest just as night was setting in, and as there was no sign of any house where he could get lodgings, he looked about for a place where he could lie down and rest. But while he was walking about looking for one, he saw some smoke rising out of the earth, and then he discovered in the ground a trap door covered with turf. If the smoke had not been coming out through the chinks he would never have noticed it.
While he stood wondering where the smoke came from, the trap door was lifted up, and the sooty and dishevelled head of a woman appeared in the opening.
"Bless the man!" said the woman, "have you lost your senses, standing there staring like that? The robbers will be home directly, and if they see you they'll pay you out for prying about here, and you'll never hear the cuckoo again," she said, and then she disappeared into the ground again.
The executioner was not easily frightened, but, 'he who does take care, will always safest fare;' and so he quietly slunk away.
But as he trudged along he marked the trees with his axe; for 'when one knows where the wolf lives, one need not go to the furrier for his skin,' he thought.
So by dint of walking and running he came at last to his destination; and what he had come there to do he did so satisfactorily that he was well rewarded, and the king himself thanked him for his able assistance. But since the king was so condescending as to speak to one whom other people would not be seen with, the executioner thought he might as well have his say also, and so he told the king what he had seen in the forest. The king was greatly pleased to hear of this, for these robbers had done so much mischief to him and other folks that he would like to get hold of them.
"If I could only get some people to come with me," said the executioner, "I should be sure to catch them, for now I know where they are."
"Yes, that was all very well," thought the king; but he wanted to do this business in his own way, for he was strong and bold beyond all bounds. He was so powerful, indeed, that no one ventured to wrestle with him, for he could throw one and all to the ground in less than no time.
"What do we want with people?" he said. "If you will only come with me and show me the way, I think we two might venture a bout with them," he said; "for you look no weakling either."
Well, the executioner had no objection to that, for it wasn't every day he was in such company, and so they settled how they should set about it.
The king took off his crown and all his finery, and then they dressed themselves up like the worst of tramps, and blackened their faces and tore their clothes into pieces, so that the rags hung and dangled about them. The king put a sword inside his trousers, and the executioner hid his axe under his jacket; and so they set out.
No sooner had they got into the forest than they met the robbers, of whom there were altogether twelve.
"Who are you?" asked he who seemed to be their chief.
"We are a couple of miserable wretches, who are obliged to beg our bread," said the executioner. "We haven't tasted a morsel the whole day, and don't know what we are going to do for the night either," he said.
"There isn't much to be got out of you, poor beggars!" said the robber; "but that makes no difference. Since you have got into the forest you'll have to die, and no mistake," he said.
"God bless you for your pretty speech!" said the executioner, looking as miserable as he possibly could. "How lucky we were to fall in with you, for you know very well it's no pleasure to live when your stomach groans for food, and when you cannot get a morsel to satisfy it with. But since you are such a mighty lord, you might give us a good feed first, for, after all, it's hard to die on an empty stomach."
This greatly amused the robber, who laughed; and then the others began to laugh, so that their laughter could be heard all over the forest.
"Have you never had a good feed, poor wretches?" he asked. "Well, I'll be extravagant for once in my life. So come along, and you shall have as much as you can put into your carcases. But to tell the truth, nobody who falls in with me, need trouble much about food for the rest of their life," he said; and so he laughed, and then the other robbers laughed till the forest trembled.
They then set out for the robbers' cave, and there they lifted up the trap-door, and slid down under the ground one after the other, and the two tramps as well.
There was a large room down there, and a long table in the middle, which stood ready laid. The woman with the sooty face carried in the food on silver dishes to the robbers, who sat side by side on the bench along the wall. They feasted and drank burnt brandy out of large chalices, and talked and bragged about all their valiant deeds, while they were having their fill.
When the robbers had had enough both of food and drink, the tramps were allowed to sit down to the table, but on the opposite side to the robbers.
The woman put both beef and pork before them, and each of them got his cup filled with brandy. But no sooner had she placed the food on the table than matters took quite a different turn. They planted their feet firmly on the ground, and pushed the table with such force against the robbers, that they were fixed against the wall as if they were nailed to it. Then they threw the brandy into the robbers' eyes, and the king drew forth his sword and the executioner his axe, and before the robbers could rub the brandy out of their eyes they were all killed.
This was a big capture, and no mistake; and the king was greatly pleased with it. All that was found in the robbers' cave he wanted to give to the executioner; but "no thank you," he answered, "there was something else he would like to have."
"Well, what might that be?" asked the king.
"Well, your majesty," he said, "if an executioner becomes ever so rich he's always looked upon as a butcher; and the people spit after him just as if he were a knacker or Old Nick himself, and he is hardly ever allowed to mix with respectable people, however honest he may be. I would therefore most humbly ask your majesty to ordain it so that an executioner shall be respected like other people," he said.
"Yes, that is fair and reasonable," said the king; "and so it shall be."
The king accordingly issued an edict that no one must dare to spit after the executioner, for his calling was just as respectable as any other; and in order that no one should be ashamed to be in his company he was to have the title of Assessor, and wear a three-cornered hat when he was in full dress. Such was the edict, and so it is to this day.
But as the executioner would not accept what the robbers had hoarded, the king gave it to the woman who had served with them; and when she had combed the hair away from her eyes and washed the soot off her face she turned out to be quite a handsome woman. The executioner then thought that as the king had been so generous to him he would not be behindhand either, and so he made her the Lady Assessor; and thus after all he became possessor of all that the robbers had hoarded up.