EAR THE BORDERS of a large forest dwelt in olden times a poor wood-cutter, who had two children—a boy named Hansel, and his sister, Grethel. They had very little to live upon, and once when there was a dreadful season of scarcity in the land, the poor wood-cutter could not earn sufficient to supply their daily food.
One evening, after the children were gone to bed, the parents sat talking together over their sorrow, and the poor husband sighed, and said to his wife, who was not the mother of his children, but their stepmother, "What will become of us, for I cannot earn enough to support myself and you, much less the children? what shall we do with them, for they must not starve?"
"I know what to do, husband," she replied; "early to-morrow morning we will take the children for a walk across the forest and leave them in the thickest part; they will never find the way home again, you may depend, and then we shall only have to work for ourselves."
"No, wife," said the man, "that I will never do. How could I have the heart to leave my children all alone in the wood, where the wild beasts would come quickly and devour them?"
"Oh, you fool," replied the stepmother, "if you refuse to do this, you know we must all four perish with hunger; you may as well go and cut the wood for our coffins." And after this she let him have no peace till he became quite worn out, and could not sleep for hours, but lay thinking in sorrow about his children.
The two children, who also were too hungry to sleep, heard all that their stepmother had said to their father. Poor little Grethel wept bitter tears as she listened, and said to her brother, "What is going to happen to us, Hansel?"
"Hush, Grethel," he whispered, "don't be so unhappy; I know what to do."
Then they lay quite still till their parents were asleep.
As soon as it was quiet, Hansel got up, put on his little coat, unfastened the door, and slipped out The moon shone brightly, and the white pebble stones which lay before the cottage door glistened like new silver money. Hansel stooped and picked up as many of the pebbles as he could stuff in his little coat pockets. He then went back to Grethel and said, "Be comforted, dear little sister, and sleep in peace; heaven will take care of us." Then he laid himself down again in bed, and slept till the day broke.
As soon as the sun was risen, the stepmother came and woke the two children, and said, "Get up, you lazy bones, and come into the wood with me to gather wood for the fire." Then she gave each of them a piece of bread, and said, "You must keep that to eat for your dinner, and don't quarrel over it, for you will get nothing more."
Grethel took the bread under her charge, for Hansel's pockets were full of pebbles. Then the stepmother led them a long way into the forest. They had gone but a very short distance when Hansel looked back at the house, and this he did again and again.
At last his stepmother said, "Why do you keep staying behind and looking back so?"
"Oh, mother," said the boy, "I can see my little white cat sitting on the roof of the house, and I am sure she is crying for me."
"Nonsense," she replied; "that is not your cat; it is the morning sun shining on the chimney-pot."
Hansel had seen no cat, but he stayed behind every time to drop a white pebble from his pocket on the ground as they walked.
As soon as they reached a thick part of the wood, their stepmother said:
"Come, children, gather some wood, and I will make a fire, for it is very cold here."
Then Hansel and Grethel raised quite a high heap of brushwood and faggots, which soon blazed up into a bright fire, and the woman said to them:
"Sit down here, children, and rest, while I go and find your father, who is cutting wood in the forest; when we have finished our work, we will come again and fetch you."
Hansel and Grethel seated themselves by the fire, and when noon arrived they each ate the piece of bread which their stepmother had given them for their dinner; and as long as they heard the strokes of the axe they felt safe, for they believed that their father was working near them. But it was not an axe they heard—only a branch which still hung on a withered tree, and was moved up and down by the wind. At last, when they had been sitting there a long time, the children's eyes became heavy with fatigue, and they fell fast asleep. When they awoke it was dark night, and poor Grethel began to cry, and said, "Oh, how shall we get out of the wood?"
But Hansel comforted her. "Don't fear," he said; "let us wait a little while till the moon rises, and then we shall easily find our way home."
Very soon the full moon rose, and then Hansel took his little sister by the hand, and the white pebble stones, which glittered like newly-coined money in the moonlight, and which Hansel had dropped as he walked, pointed out the way. They walked all the night through, and did not reach their father's house till break of day.
They knocked at the door, and when their stepmother opened it, she exclaimed: "You naughty children, why have you been staying so long in the forest? we thought you were never coming back," But their father was overjoyed to see them, for it grieved him to the heart to think that they had been left alone in the wood.
Not long after this there came another time of scarcity and want in every house, and the children heard their stepmother talking after they were in bed. "The times are as bad as ever," she said; "we have just half a loaf left, and when that is gone all love will be at an end. The children must go away; we will take them deeper into the forest this time, and they will not be able to find their way home as they did before; it is the only plan to save ourselves from starvation." But the husband felt heavy at heart, for he thought it was better to share the last morsel with his children.