The Thieves Who Couldn't Help Sneezing
by Thomas Hardy [1840-1928]
Page 3 of 4
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 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 menservants 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 at all.
"Wait a while," said Hubert to himself. "You'll have
adventure enough by-and-by, ladies."
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 Sir Simon.
"That's a likely story," said one of the gentlemen-guests,
"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 themselves.
"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 story. "
The feast then proceeded; and Hubert, now at liberty, was not
at all sorry to join in. The more they ate 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
neighbors. 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 country.
"Thank you," said Hubert, accepting a pinch.
"Tell the ladies who you are, what you are made of, and what
you can do," the young man continued, slapping Hubert upon the
"Certainly," said our hero, drawing himself up, and thinking
it best to put a bold face on the matter. "I am a traveling
"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 seen."