Once upon a time there lived within the dominions of the Emperor of China three very clever Thieves. These men, owing to their skill and cunning, were quite at the head of their profession, and by sleight of hand and dexterity were able to accomplish feats of trickery which the ordinary thieves could not emulate. The first was so clever that he was able to withdraw eggs from under a sitting hen without in any way disturbing her, and without her being aware that the theft had been accomplished. The second was able to cut the soles off a man’s boots as he walked along the road without the victim knowing that he had been robbed. And the third was able to eat his fill off a man’s plate during dinner without the man who was robbed, or his friend opposite, being able to detect where the victuals had gone to.
Now it happened one day that these three Thieves met together in a country inn, and entering into conversation with one another, began to exchange confidences.
“May I ask what you do for a living?” asked the first Thief of the second.
“Oh, I am a Thief,” answered the man who was addressed.
“Very good,” replied the other men, “we also are Thieves. Can you tell us, please, if there is any particular line in which you excel?”
“Yes,” said the second Thief; “I am able to cut the soles off a man’s boots as he walks across the road without his being aware of what has happened. What can you two do, pray?”
“I,” replied the first Thief, “can withdraw the eggs from under a sitting hen without disturbing her.”
“And I,” said the third, “can steal another man’s dinner from off his plate, and eat my fill as he sits at table, without the victim, or the man sitting opposite, being able to detect me.”
So the three Thieves, having struck up a friendship on the ground of their unusual skills, set off together to the court of the Emperor of China, in order to see whether they could not succeed in making their fortunes there.
On arriving at the court they consulted together and came to the conclusion that in order to make any headway in China it was necessary to attract the attention of the Emperor. So they agreed to separate for twenty-four hours, and to meet next day in the courtyard of the palace, each bringing some gift to the Emperor which would please him, and prove to him that they were men of no usual calibre. Accordingly, they parted in different directions, and the following day at noon, they met together in the courtyard of the palace, and each one proceeded to relate his adventures during the preceding twenty-four hours.
“As soon as I left you yesterday,” began the first Thief, “I went into the royal farm adjoining the palace, and there I found one of the Emperor’s pea-hens sitting on her nest and hatching a clutch of eggs, which was calculated to produce a breed of the very finest peacocks. By the Emperor’s orders this nest was watched by an attendant night and day, in order that no one should interfere with the eggs, and the pea-hen herself was so cross that she would not allow anyone to approach her except the man who fed her. But such obstacles as these were nothing to me, and I had no difficulty in evading the watchers and abstracting the eggs from under the hen, without even disturbing her, or her being aware of the loss. Now here they are in my wallet, and when the loss is discovered presently, as it is sure to be, and a reward offered for their discovery, I propose to present them to the Emperor.”
The other two Thieves applauded their comrade for his skill and ingenuity, and the second Thief then proceeded to relate his story as follows:
“When we separated yesterday, I at once entered the Emperor’s antechamber, and mingled with the nobles and officials who were awaiting an audience with His Majesty, and amongst the others I soon noticed the Prime Minister. He was a very stout man, dressed in his finest robes, and with a new pair of boots on his feet. As he passed to and fro in the crowd, I succeeded in cutting the soles off his new boots without his having any idea of what had happened. Shortly afterwards he was summoned to the Emperor’s presence, and when he knelt down to kow-tow before His Majesty, it was observed that he had no soles to his boots.
The Emperor, thinking that the Minister had committed this serious breach of etiquette on purpose, fell into a violent passion, and ordered him to be imprisoned at once. It was no use for the wretched man to protest his innocence or to plead for mercy. The Emperor’s orders are that, unless a satisfactory explanation is given to him before six o’clock this evening and the missing soles produced, the Minister is to be beheaded. Here are the soles of the Prime Minister’s boots in my wallet, and I propose to present them to His Majesty this afternoon during his public audience. I shall thus earn the gratitude of the Prime Minister and appease the wrath of the Emperor.”
The other two Thieves, On hearing this story, congratulated their comrade on his successful manoeuvre, and the third Thief proceeded to relate his adventures as follows:
“When we parted yesterday,” said he, “I entered the palace, and after wandering about for some time I found myself in the chamber where the Emperor’s dinner was being prepared, and where all the chief officials of the palace were assembled to superintend the arrangements for the royal meal. There were the Head Chamberlain and the Under Chamberlains, the Head Usher and the Under Ushers, the Head Waiter and the Under Waiters, and many other officials of minor degree. I mingled with the servants, who were standing about, without attracting any attention, and I remained in the room until the Emperor himself entered and seated himself with great ceremony to partake of his mid-day meal. The Chief Cook and the Chief Chamberlain placed themselves in front of the Emperor, in order to see that the service of his food was properly conducted, whilst the other high officials took their stand on either side of his chair and assisted in bringing in the dishes.
In spite of all these precautions, however, I was able by my skill to take the food from each dish as it was placed upon the table, before the Emperor had time to partake of more than a very few mouthfuls. As the meal proceeded the Emperor grew more and more annoyed, and complained of the insufficiency of the food which had been prepared for him. Such a thing as this had never occurred before in the palace. The Head Cook and all the Under Cooks, the Head Chamberlain and all the Under Chamberlains, the Head Usher and all the Under Ushers, and all the officials of lower degree, were thrown into a dreadful state of confusion and alarm at the event. They rushed hither and thither, between the kitchens and dining-halls, upbraiding the scullions and other domestics for their carelessness, and preparing the most elaborate and copious dishes for the Emperor’s table. But after some time the Emperor, wearied by the confusion, and unable, in spite of everything, to make a satisfactory meal, gave orders that the whole of the Cooks and other attendants responsible for his table-service should be imprisoned, and that unless a satisfactory explanation of their negligence could be given before this evening they should be beheaded.
I have here, in my wallet, the whole of the viands which yesterday were placed before the Emperor for his consumption, and I propose at the audience to present them to him, and inform him what really happened. He will undoubtedly pardon me when he hears the story, and I shall earn the undying gratitude of all the disgraced officials by procuring their release.”
The other two Thieves, on hearing this story, congratulated their comrade warmly upon his daring and success, and the three entered the Emperor’s antechamber together, and awaited the time for public audience.
A few minutes later the great doors leading to the audience chamber were thrown open, and a herald appearing upon the threshold proclaimed “Silence!” He then gave notice that, on the previous day, the eggs had all been stolen from under the Emperor’s favourite pea-hen, and that any person who could find the eggs or give any information concerning their loss should receive a reward; secondly, that for a breach of etiquette the Prime Minister had been imprisoned, and that unless he could explain his offence before six o’clock that evening he was to be beheaded, and that any person who could offer assistance in the matter would be well paid and otherwise rewarded by the Emperor; thirdly, that owing to bad attendance during the Emperor’s repast the previous day, all the domestic officials of the palace had been imprisoned, and would be beheaded at six o’clock that evening unless they could give a satisfactory explanation; and that any person who could assist in the matter would be well rewarded for his pains.
So saying the Herald retired, and the public audience began. When the three Thieves were admitted to the Emperor’s presence, they went in together and made a simultaneous obeisance before the Emperor’s throne.
“Who are you three men?” asked the Emperor, “and what do you want from me?”
“May it please Your Majesty,” replied the first Thief, “I have ventured to bring a small gift for you.”
And so saying he took from his wallet the pea-hen’s eggs, and laid them on the throne. When the Emperor heard that these were his pea-hen’s eggs he was very much pleased, and gave orders that they should at once be taken back to the nest, and the hatching continued; and telling the first Thief to stand back, he enquired of the second what he wished to say.
“May it please Your Majesty,” replied the second Thief, “I also have a small gift to make to you.” And so saying he took the soles of the Prime Minister’s boots out of his wallet and laid them on the steps of the throne.
When the Emperor found that these were the soles of his Prime Minister’s boots, and how they had been removed, he was very much amused, and laughed heartily. He at once sent orders for his Prime Minister to be released, and handed over to him the soles of his boots, and told him to watch them more carefully for the future. The Prime Minister was delighted at being reinstated in the royal favour, and expressed his gratitude to the Thief for his services in the matter.
When the third Thief was asked what he had to say he replied:
“I, too, have a small gift for Your Majesty.”
And so saying he produced a plate from his wallet, and laid upon it the various viands which had been cooked for the Emperor’s dinner the previous day.
When the Emperor understood that this was the dinner which had been prepared for him, and which he ought to have eaten, he was greatly astonished; but seeing that it was no fault of his Cooks, Chamberlains, or other servants, he ordered them all to be released, and to resume their former functions.
Having issued these various commands, the Emperor again summoned the three Thieves before him, and addressed them as follows:
“Although,” said he, “I am very pleased at finding such a satisfactory explanation for the disappearance of the eggs, the misdemeanour of my Prime Minister, and the insufficiency of my dinner, I cannot overlook the fact that you three men have behaved in a very unusual manner. So before rewarding you in accordance with my promise, I desire to put your skill to a further test. If you succeed in this trial to my satisfaction, you shall all three be well rewarded, and receive rank and lands in my country; but if you fail, you must take the consequences of your rashness, and you shall all three be put to death.”
When the three Thieves heard these words they were greatly frightened, and bowing down before the Emperor they awaited his commands.
“The test which I have in store for you,” continued the Emperor, “is as follows: you must know that in my Treasury I have a great number of jewels and precious objects of all kinds; and the Treasury is enclosed within a treble wall ten fathoms in height, closed by iron gates, and is guarded night and day by companies of my most faithful soldiers. If you can produce, before six o’clock to-morrow evening, three of the pearls from my Treasury, you shall be pardoned and rewarded; but if you fail to do so, you shall all three be put to death.”
On hearing these words the three thieves consulted together for a few moments, and replied as follows:
“We will do our best to carry out Your Majesty’s commands and to succeed in this test which you have given us, but we would call your royal attention to one matter; it is this: supposing we produce before tomorrow evening three pearls as you command, how shall we be able to satisfy you that they come from the Royal Treasury? All pearls look very much alike, and it would be impossible for us to prove to you whence they came. We would, therefore, venture to suggest that, before putting us to this test, you should have a complete enumeration made of all the jewels in your Treasury; then, when we produce the three pearls in question, it will be easy to ascertain whether there are in the Treasury three pearls less than there were when the enumeration was made.”
The Emperor, seeing that this was a reasonable request, agreed to act as the Thieves had suggested. So, summoning his Treasurer before him, he gave orders that a complete enumeration of all the jewels and other precious objects in his Treasury should be made before nightfall that evening; and having issued his commands, he dismissed the audience.
The Chief Treasurer was much perturbed on receiving these orders, for owing to the enormous quantity of jewels and other objects in the Treasury, he foresaw that it would be a difficult matter to have the enumeration complete before evening. The only way in which it could be done was to call in the assistance of all the officials of the palace, and having allotted a section of the Treasure Chamber to each, to order them to make a complete inventory each of his own part. Accordingly, he called together all the officials of the palace to the number of many hundreds, and they proceeded in a body to the Royal Treasury.
The three Thieves, who had anticipated this action on the part of the Treasurer, meanwhile dressed themselves up in the complete robes which are proper for a palace official, and mingling unnoticed in the crowd, they followed the Treasurer to the gates of the Royal Treasury. By the Treasurer’s orders, the gates were at once thrown open, and the officials, entering the treasury, began the enumeration. The three thieves, in common with the rest, were allotted each a section of the Treasury Chamber, of which they were to make a complete inventory, and whilst so employed they had no difficulty in each one secreting a large pearl after first placing it upon their list. By nightfall the enumeration was complete, the lists were all handed over to the Chief Treasurer, and the Treasury was left locked and guarded as before.
Next day, at six o’clock, the Emperor seated himself in his Hall of Audience, and summoned the three Thieves before him.
“Well,” said he, “have you been able to fulfil the conditions which I set you? If you can now produce three pearls from my Treasury, you shall be rewarded in accordance with my promise; but if you are unable to do so, you shall all three be put to death.”
The Thieves bowed themselves humbly before the Emperor, and without making any reply each one produced a pearl and laid it on the steps of the throne. When the Emperor saw these pearls he was much astonished; but in order to make certain that they came from his own Treasury, he summoned his Chief Treasurer before him, and ordered him to compare the jewels in the Treasury with the inventory which had been made on the previous evening. The Treasurer hurried off to do so, and after a short while he reappeared, and informed the Emperor that, having carefully counted all the jewels, and having compared the numbers in the Treasury with the numbers on the inventory, he found that three pearls were indeed missing.
On hearing this, the Emperor no longer hesitated in fulfilling his promise to the three Thieves. He raised them at once to high rank, and presented them with lands and money sufficient to uphold their new status, and they lived happily ever afterwards, enjoying the confidence of the Emperor and the friendship of the numerous officials whom they had saved from imprisonment and death.
[Collected from an unknown Tibetan informant, apparently sometime in 1904. Found in W. F. O’Conner, Folk Tales from Tibet, London (Hurst and Blackett), 1906.]