The Miller at the Professor’s Examination
THERE once came to England a famous foreign professor, and before he came he gave notice that he would examine the students of all the colleges in England. After a time he had visited all but Cambridge, and he was on his road thither to examine publicly the whole university. Great was the bustle in Cambridge to prepare for the reception of the professor, and great also were the fears of the students, who dreaded the time when they must prove their acquirements before one so famous for his learning. As the period of his arrival approached their fears increased, and at last they determined to try some expedient which might avert the impending trial, and for this purpose several of the students were disguised in the habits of common labourers, and distributed in groups of two or three at convenient distances from each other along the road by which the professor was expected.
He had in his carriage arrived at the distance of a few miles from Cambridge when he met the first of these groups of labourers, and the coachman drew up his horses to inquire of them the distance. The professor was astonished to hear them answer in Latin. He proceeded on his way, and after driving about half a mile, met with another group of labourers at work on the road, to whom a similar question was put by the coachman. The professor was still more astonished to hear them give answer in Greek. “Ah,” thought he, “they must be good scholars at Cambridge, when even the common labourers on the roads talk Latin and Greek. It won’t do to examine them in the same way as other people.” So all the rest of the way he was musing on the mode of examination he should adopt, and just as he reached the outskirts of the town, he came to the determination that he would examine them by signs. As soon, therefore as he had alighted from his carriage, he lost no time in making known this novel method of examination.
Now the students had never calculated on such a result as this from their stratagem, and they were, as might well be expected, sadly disappointed. There was one student in particular who had been studying very hard, and who was expected by everybody to gain the prize at the examination, and, as the idlest student in the university had the same chance of guessing the signs of the professor as himself, he was in very low spirits about it. When the day of examination arrived, instead of attending it, he was walking sadly and mournfully by the banks of the river, near the mill, and it happened that the miller, who was a merry fellow, and used to talk with this student as he passed the mill in his walks, saw him, and asked him what was the matter with him. Then the student told him all about it, and how the great professor was going to examine by signs, and how he was afraid that he should not get through the examination. “Oh! if that’s all,” said the miller, “don’t be low about the matter. Did you never hear that a clown may sometimes teach a scholar wisdom? Only let me put on your clothes, with your cap and gown, and I’ll go to the examination instead of you; and if I succeed you shall have the credit of it, and if I fail I will tell them who I am.” “But,” said the student, “everybody knows that I have but one eye.” “Never mind that,” said the miller; “I can easily put a black patch over one of mine.” So they changed clothes, and the miller went to the professor’s examination in the student’s cap and gown, with a patch on his eye.
Well, just as the miller entered the lecture-room, the professor had tried all the other students, and nobody could guess the meaning of his signs or answer his questions. So the miller stood up, and the professor, putting his hand in his coat pocket, drew out an apple, and held it up towards him. The miller likewise put his hand in his pocket and drew out a crust of bread, which he in like manner held out towards the professor. Then the professor put the apple in his pocket and pointed at the miller with one finger: the miller in return pointed at him with two: the professor pointed with three; and the miller held out his clenched fist. “Right!” said the professor; and he adjudged the prize to the miller.
The miller made all haste to communicate these good tidings to his friend the student, who was waiting at the mill; and the student, having resumed his own clothes, hastened back to hear the prize given out to him. When he arrived at the lecture-room the professor was on his legs explaining to the assembled students the meaning of the signs which himself and the student who had gained the prize made use of.
“First,” said he, “I held out an apple, signifying thereby the fall of mankind through Adam’s sin, and he very properly held up a piece of bread, which signified that by Christ, the bread of life, mankind was regenerated. Then I held out one finger, which meant that there is one God in the Trinity; he held out two fingers, signifying that there are two; I held out three fingers, meaning that there are three; and he held out his clenched fist, which was as much as to say that the three are one.”
Well, the student who got the prize was sadly puzzled to think how the miller knew all this, and as soon as the ceremony of publishing the name of the successful candidate was over he hastened to the mill, and told him all the professor had said. “Ah!” said the miller, “I’ll tell you how it was. When I went in, the professor looked mighty fierce, and he put his hand in his pocket, and fumbled about for some time, and at last he pulled out an apple, and be held it out as though he would throw it at me. Then I put my hand in my pocket, and could find nothing but an old crust of bread, and so I held it out in the same way, meaning that if he threw the apple at me I would throw the crust at him. Then he looked still more fiercely, and held out his one finger, as much as to say he would poke my one eye out, and I held two fingers, meaning that if he poked out my one eye I would poke out his two, and then be held out three of his fingers, as though he would scratch my face, and I clenched my fist and shook it at him, meaning that if he did I would knock him down. And then he said I deserved the prize.”
[‘English Fairy and Other Folk Tales’ (1890) by Edwin Sidney Hartland]