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Old Time Tales by  Lawton B. Evans

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THE MOUSE TOWER

HATTO was the bishop of Fulda. Now, by all rules, a bishop should be a good man and kind to his people, but not so this bishop. By all sorts of knavery he contrived to become bishop of Mayence, though there were many candidates for that office much more deserving than he.

"What matters it how you obtain an office, just so you succeed in getting it?" asked the bishop.

Having become bishop of Mayence he began to oppress his people in all kinds of ways. He levied taxes upon them so that he might build large buildings and satisfy his own love of splendor. Tolls were laid upon all vessels passing by his castle on the Rhine so that he could raise still more money.

"I shall not rest satisfied until I am the richest [150] bishop along this river, and besides, what are the people for if not to pay money to their rulers?" With that the people had to be content.

Near Bingen, on the Rhine river, he built a strong tower, in the very middle of the foaming waves, so that all ships in passing could be easily stopped and made to pay heavy tolls to the agents of the greedy bishop. For a long time the ships were arrested, and the captains paid what was demanded of them. The bishop grew very rich, very arrogant, and very cruel.

After awhile there was a scarcity of food in the country. A long drought had parched the fields, rats and other vermin had eaten much of the grain, hail stones had beaten down the crops, and a general famine threatened the people.

When the bishop heard of this distress he called his servants about him and said to them, "I hear that food is scarce in the land, and the people are already beginning to feel the want of it. Before it gets scarcer, you will buy all you can get, and store it in my barns, near the tower on the Rhine."

Then the bishop gave them money, and with it the agents went through the country buying all the grain and paying for it whatever the people demanded. Great wagon loads went through the [151] land hauling the grain into the barns of the bishop until they were quite full.

"Now," said the bishop to himself, when he saw his pile of grain, "I have enough for myself and my friends for many years. No matter what happens to the people, I shall not suffer," and he ordered his servants to bring him food and wine, and lay back on his couch with feelings of great satisfaction.

In a short while the dreaded misfortune of hunger and starvation was upon the poor people. There was no grain left anywhere, and they remembered with consternation how much they had foolishly sold to the bishop. "Let us go to the bishop and buy back the food we sold him," said one to another.

But the bishop charged them the very highest prices, three or four times as much as he had paid for it, and even then would sell but a small quantity, just the contents of one barn. The other barns he would not allow to be opened.

The poor people were reduced to dreadful extremities. They ate roots and berries, and even their own cats and dogs to keep themselves alive. "Let us go again to the bishop, and pray him to give us food, lest we die," they cried in despair.

The bishop sat with his friends around a table eating and drinking. His cooks had prepared a feast of bread and cakes with game from the bishop's [152] forest and fish from the river. There were also rare wines from the grapes that grew in the bishop's vineyards on the slopes of the hills. A great noise was heard outside the bishop's castle, as of people clamoring.

"What noise is that I hear outside the walls?" the bishop asked of one of his servants.

"It is the people, my lord," was the reply. "They pray you to give them food for themselves and their families, lest they all die of starvation."

"Send the beggars away. I have no food for them. If they starve, so much the better, for there will be fewer mouths to feed," and the bishop laughed.

But the servant replied, "My lord, the people will not be sent away until they see your lordship, and present their prayers to you. They wish to enter into your presence and tell their story."

"Well, let them come in then; the sooner I see them, the sooner I shall be rid of them," was the gruff answer.

The gate of the castle was opened, and the hungry men, women and children crowded in. Their faces were gaunt with hunger, and the children had to be carried from weakness. The crowd went along the corridors, up the stairs, and into the place where the bishop and his friends sat at their feast.

Here they told their pitiable story. They said that [153] their crops had failed, and there was no corn in the land. They begged the bishop to let them have a little of the great store in his barns, or to sell it to them at any price. The bishop listened, and then thought of a cruel joke to play upon the poor people who were bothering him with their woes. "Very well," said he smiling and bowing low in mockery. "You shall enter one of my barns and are welcome to all you can find there and to all you can take away."

The bishop told his servants to bring him the keys to his barns. The people shouted with joy and blessed the good bishop for what they thought he was going to do. He led them along a path, and when he reached the empty barn, he ordered the door to be opened, so that the people could go in.

Once in, however, the bishop ordered the door to be shut and securely bolted on the outside. With cruel malice he said, "Now, I have the rats in a trap. Let us be rid of them at once," and he made his servants set fire to the building.

Returning to his friends at the feast, he bade them hear the flames roar and the people cry. "Hear the corn-mice squeal," said he. "I always burn rats when I catch them."

But now hear the end of the story. Out of the burning building crept thousands and thousands [154] of real live rats. They were big and fierce, and angered by the flames which had driven them forth. Like a wave of the sea they rolled out from the building, down to the path, over the walls, and right into the bishop's castle. They rolled up the steps, down the corridors, and into the room where the bishop sat with his friends.

The bishop's friends rose and fled in terror. The bishop cried out, "Save me! Save me! How shall I get rid of these rats?" But his friends were now out of reach and the bishop was left to himself.

With glaring eyes and hungry teeth they attacked the trembling man. The bishop leaped from a window, ran down the river bank and jumped into a boat, the rats after him. He rowed across the river, but the rats swam behind him. He landed on the island where he had built his tower to collect tolls from passing ships. The rats landed also. He ran up the tower and slammed the door behind him. The rats gnawed holes in the door and came in by hundreds.

At last they had caught the bishop in his own tower. They fell upon him and devoured him, until there was nothing left but his bones. And those who came the next day could not find a single rat anywhere, nor could they find the bishop, only some bones scattered around the floor.

[155] And to this very day they call the place the Mouse-Tower, and the people still tell the story of the cruel bishop and how he was devoured by rats.


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