MANY years ago, a woodcutter and his wife, with their two children, Hansel and Gretel, lived upon the outskirts of a dense wood. They were very poor, so that when a famine fell upon the land, and bread became dear, they could no longer afford to buy sufficient food for the whole family.
One night, as the poor man lay tossing on his hard bed, he cried aloud in his grief and anguish:
“Alas! what will become of us? How can I feed my hungry little ones when we have no food for ourselves?”
“Listen to me, good-man,” answered his wife, who was stepmother to the children. “As it is no longer possible for us to keep our children, we will take them into the wood with us tomorrow, light a fire for them, and give each a piece of bread and leave them. They will not easily find their way back, and so we shall be rid of the burden of them.”
But the father said: “No, no! I could not find it in my heart to leave my darlings to perish. The wild beasts would tear them limb from limb.”
“Then,” answered the wife, “we must all four die of hunger.” She gave her husband no peace until he promised to do as she wished, and at last, very unwillingly, he consented.
Now, the two children had been too hungry to go to sleep that night, and so it happened that they overheard all that their parents were saying. Gretel wept bitterly, but brave little Hansel did his best to comfort her. “Don’t be afraid,” he said; “I will take care of you.”
As soon as his father and stepmother were asleep, he slipped on his coat, and-opening the door softly, went out into the garden. The moon was shining brightly, and by its light he could see the little white pebbles that lay scattered in front of the house, shining like little pieces of silver. He stooped and filled his pockets as full as he could, and then went back to Gretel, and once more bidding her be comforted, for God would be sure to watch over them, he jumped into bed, and they both fell fast asleep.
Early in the morning, before the sun had risen, the stepmother came and wakened the children. “Rise, little lie-a-beds,” she said, “and come with us into the wood to gather fuel.”
She gave them each a piece of bread for their dinner, and told them to be sure not to eat it too soon, for they would get nothing more.
Gretel carried the bread in her pinafore, because Hansel had his pockets full, and then they all set out upon their way to the wood.
As they trudged along, the father noticed that his little son kept turning back to look at the house. “Take care, my boy,” he said, “or you will slip. What are you looking at so earnestly?”
“I am watching my kitten, father: she is sitting on the roof to bid me good-by.”
“Silly little lad, that is not your cat,” said the stepmother; “it is only the morning sun shining on the chimney.”
But Hansel had not been watching his cat at all; he had stayed behind to drop the pebbles upon the path.
When they reached the thickest part of the forest, the father bade the children gather wood, that he might kindle a fire for them, so that they might rest beside it and warm themselves whilst he and his wife were cutting the fuel. So they gathered a pile of brushwood and twigs, and as soon as it was well alight, the parents left them, promising to return as soon as they had finished their work.
Hansel and Gretel sat down by the fire, and when midday came they ate their bread and sat listening to the strokes of their father’s axe, thinking all the time that he was near to them. But what they heard was only a dry branch which the man had bound to a tree, so that the wind swung it hither and thither, and the noise it made deceived the children. At last the poor, tired, little eyelids closed, and, side by side, brother and sister fell asleep.
When they awoke, the night was very dark, and Gretel was frightened, and began to cry. Hansel put his arms around her and whispered. “Wait, dearie, till the moon rises; we shall soon find our way home then.”
As soon as the bright moon rose, Hansel took his little sister by the hand, and all night long they followed the track of the little white pebbles, until at daybreak they came to their father’s house.
They knocked at the door, and no sooner did the stepmother open it than she began to scold them for having stayed out so long in the wood; but the father greeted them kindly, for he had grieved sorely for his little ones.
In a short time they were as badly off as ever, and one night they again heard their mother trying to persuade her husband to take them out into the wood and lose them. “There is nothing left in the house but half a loaf of bread,” she said; “for our own sakes it is better to get rid of the children; but this time we will lead them farther away, so that they will not be able to find their way home.”
But the man would not agree. “Better to divide our last morsel with them,” he said, “and then die together.”
His wife would not listen to what he said, but scolded him for his want of thought for her; and at last the poor man gave way a second time, just as he had done at first.
But the children had overheard all that was said, and as soon as the mother and father were asleep, Hansel stole down to the door, meaning to go and collect pebbles as he had done before; but the door was locked and bolted, and he could not get out. “Never mind, Gretel,” he said consolingly, “the good God will surely help us.”
Early in the morning the woman wakened the children, and, giving them a small piece of bread, bade them follow her and their father into the wood. As they went, Hansel crumbled his morsel of bread in his pocket and strewed the crumbs upon the path.
“Come, Hansel,” said the father, “don’t loiter so, sonny. What can you see to stare at so often?”
“My little dove, father. It is sitting on the housetop, bidding me good-by.”
“Nonsense,” said the woman, “it is not your dove; it is only the rising sun shining upon the chimney.”
Hansel did not answer, but he went on strewing his crumbs carefully until the last morsel of bread was gone.
Deeper and deeper into the wood they went, where the children had never been before. There a great fire was kindled, and the mother said: “Stay here, children, whilst your father and I go to cut wood. If you are tired you may sleep a while, and we will fetch you when it is time to go home.”
When dinner-time came, Gretel divided her piece of bread with Hansel, because he had scattered all his share upon the road; and then they went to sleep. The evening shadows fell, but still no one came to fetch the poor children, and it was not until midnight that they awakened.
Hansel put his arms round his sister and told her not to fear, for when the moon rose they would easily be able to see the crumbs, and so find their way home again.
So when the moon rose they set out upon their way; but alas! there were no crumbs to be seen, for the little birds that lived in the green wood were as hungry as the children, and had eaten them all up.
“We will find the way somehow,” cried cheerful little Hansel; but though they traveled all night long, and the next day too, they could not find it. Poor little mites, how tired and hungry they were, for they had nothing to eat but the berries that grew by the roadside!
When at length the weary little feet could go no farther, the children lay down beneath a tree and slept.
On the third day they were still as far away as ever, and it seemed to them that the longer they walked the deeper they got into the wood, and they began to be afraid that they would die of cold and hunger.
But presently, when the midday sun was shining brightly, they noticed a little snow-white bird singing so sweetly that they could not help but stay to listen. When the birdie’s song was ended, he spread his wings and flew away.
The children followed him until they reached a little house, on the roof of which he perched. Then the children saw with surprise that the strange little house was built entirely of bread, roofed with cakes, and with windows of barley sugar.
“See, Gretel,” cried Hansel joyfully, “there is food for us in plenty. I will take a piece of the roof, and you shall have one of the windows.”
He stretched out his hand to help himself, and Gretel had already begun to nibble one of the window-panes, when suddenly they heard a voice call from within:—
“Nibbly, nibbly, mouse!
Who’s nibbling at my house?”
The children answered quickly:—
“‘Tis my Lady Wind that blows,
As round about the house she goes.”
And then they went on eating as though nothing had happened for the cake of which the roof was made just suited Hansel’s taste, whilst the barley-sugar window-panes were better than any sweetmeat Gretel had ever tasted before.
All at once the door of the cottage flew wide open, and out came an old, old woman, leaning upon a crutch. The children were so frightened that they dropped their food and clung to each other.
The old woman nodded her head to them, and said: “Who brought you here, my pets? Come inside, come inside; no one will hurt you.”
She took their hands and led them into the house, and set before them all kinds of delicious foods, milk, sugared pancakes, apples, and nuts. When they had finished their meal she showed them two cosy little white beds, and as Hansel and Gretel lay snugly tucked up in them, they thought to themselves that surely they had now found the most delightful place in the whole wide world.
But the old woman had only pretended to be friendly and kind, for she was really a wicked old witch, who was always lying in wait to catch little children, indeed, she had built the little house of bread and cakes especially to entice them in. Whenever anyone came into her power, she cooked and ate him, and thought what a fine feast she had had.
Witches have red eyes and cannot see far, but they have keen scent, like animals, and can tell at once when a human being is near to them.
As soon as Hansel and Gretel came into her neighborhood she laughed to herself and said mockingly: “Ha, ha! they are mine already; they will not easily escape me.”
Early in the morning, before the children were awake, she stood beside them and admired their rosy cheeks and soft round limbs.
“What nice tit-bits for me,” murmured she. Then, seizing Hansel by the hand, she led him to a little stable, and, in spite of his cries and screams, shut him up and left him. Then she shook Gretel until she was awake, and bade her get up at once and carry food and drink to her brother, and it must be of the best too, for she wished to fatten him.
“When he is nice and plump, I shall eat him,” said the cruel old witch. Gretel wept bitterly, but it was quite in vain, for she was obliged to do the witch’s bidding; and every day she cooked the choicest food for her brother, while she herself lived upon nothing but oyster-shells.
Day by day the old woman visited the stable and called to Hansel to put his finger through the window bars, that she might see if he were getting fat; but the little fellow held out a bone instead, and as her eyes were dim with age, she mistook the bone for the boy’s finger, and thought how thin and lean he was. When a whole month had passed without Hansel becoming the least bit fatter, the old witch lost patience and declared she would wait no longer. “Hurry, Gretel,” she said to the little girl, “fill the pot with water, for to-morrow, be he lean or fat, Hansel shall be cooked for my dinner.”
The tears chased each other down Gretel’s cheeks as she carried in the water, and she sobbed aloud in her grief. “Dear God,” she cried, “we have no one to help us but Thou. Alas! if only the wild beasts in the wood had devoured us, at least we should have died together.”
“Cease your chattering,” cried the old witch angrily. “It will not help you, so you may as well be still.”
The next morning poor Gretel was forced to light the fire and hang the great pot of water over it, and then the witch said: “First we will bake. I have kneaded the dough, and heated the oven; you shall creep inside it to see if it is hot enough to bake the bread.”
But Gretel guessed that the old witch meant to shut the door upon her and roast her, so she pretended that she did not know how to get in.
“Silly goose,” said the witch. “The door is wide enough, to be sure. Why, even I could get inside it.” As she spoke, she popped her head into the oven. In a moment Gretel sprang towards her, pushed her inside, shut the iron door, and shot the bolt. Oh! how she squealed and shrieked, but Gretel ran off as fast as she could, and so there was an end of the cruel old witch.
Quick as thought, Gretel ran to her brother. “We are saved, Hansel,” she cried, opening the door of the stable, “the wicked old witch is dead.”
Hansel flew from his prison as a bird from its cage, and the two happy little children kissed each other and jumped for joy. No longer afraid of the old witch, they entered the house, hand in hand, and then they saw that in every corner of the room were boxes of pearls and diamonds, and all kinds of precious gems.
“Ah!” said Hansel merrily, “these are better than pebbles, Gretel,” and he stuffed his pockets with the jewels, whilst Gretel filled her pinafore. “Now,” said Hansel, “we will leave the witch’s wood behind us as fast as we can.”
So off they ran, and never stopped until they came to a lake, upon which swam a large white duck.
“How can we cross,” said Hansel, “for there is no bridge anywhere?”
“And no ship either,” Gretel answered; “but we will ask the pretty white duck to carry us over.” So they cried aloud:—
“Little duck, little duck,
With wings so white,
Carry us over
The waters bright.”
The duck came at once, and, taking Hansel upon her back, carried him over to the other side, and then did the same for Gretel. They went merrily on their way, and very soon they found themselves in a part of the wood they knew quite well.
When they saw the roof of their father’s house in the distance they began to run, and, breathless with haste, half laughing and half crying, they rushed into the cottage and flung themselves into their father’s arms.
Oh! how pleased he was to see them once again, for he had not known a happy hour since he had left them alone in the wood. Gretel shook out her pinafore, and Hansel emptied his pockets, and the floor of the little room was quite covered with glittering precious stones.
So now their troubles were at an end, for the cruel stepmother was dead, and Hansel and Gretel and their father lived together happily ever after.