ARLY IN THE morning, before the children were awake, she was up, standing by their beds; and when she saw how beautiful they looked in their sleep, with their round rosy cheeks, she muttered to herself, "What nice tit-bits they will be!" Then she laid hold of Hansel with her rough hand, dragged him out of bed, and led him to a little cage which had a lattice-door, and shut him in; he might scream as much as he would, but it was all useless.
After this she went back to Grethel, and, shaking her roughly till she woke, cried: "Get up, you lazy hussy, and draw some water, that I may boil something good for your brother, who is shut up in a cage outside till he gets fat; and then I shall cook him and eat him!" When Grethel heard this she began to cry bitterly; but it was all useless, she was obliged to do as the wicked witch told her.
For poor Hansel's breakfast the best of everything was cooked; but Grethel had nothing for herself but a crab's claw. Every morning the old woman would go out to the little cage, and say: "Hansel, stick out your finger, that I may feel if you are fat enough for eating." But Hansel, who knew how dim her old eyes were, always stuck a bone through the bars of his cage, which she thought was his finger, for she could not see; and when she felt how thin it was, she wondered very much why he did not get fat.
However, as the weeks went on, and Hansel seemed not to get any fatter, she became impatient, and said she could not wait any longer. "Go, Grethel," she cried to the maiden, "be quick and draw water; Hansel may be fat or lean, I don't care, to-morrow morning I mean to kill him, and cook him!"
Oh! how the poor little sister grieved when she was forced to draw the water; and, as the tears rolled down her cheeks, she exclaimed: "It would have been better to be eaten by wild beasts, or to have been starved to death in the woods; then we should have died together!"
"Stop your crying!" cried the old woman; "it is not of the least use, no one will come to help you."
Early in the morning Grethel was obliged to go out and fill the great pot with water, and hang it over the fire to boil. As soon as this was done, the old woman said, "We will bake some bread first; I have made the oven hot, and the dough is already kneaded." Then she dragged poor little Grethel up to the oven door, under which the flames were burning fiercely, and said: "Creep in there, and see if it is hot enough yet to bake the bread." But if Grethel had obeyed her, she would have shut the poor child in and baked her for dinner, instead of boiling Hansel.
Grethel, however, guessed what she wanted to do, and said, "I don't know how to get in through that narrow door."
"Stupid goose," said the old woman, "why, the oven door is quite large enough for me; just look, I could get in myself." As she spoke she stepped forward and pretended to put her head in the oven.
A sudden thought gave Grethel unusual strength; she started forward, gave the old woman a push which sent her right into the oven, then she shut the iron door and fastened the bolt.
Oh! how the old witch did howl, it was quite horrible to hear her. But Grethel ran away, and therefore she was left to burn, just as she had left many poor little children to burn. And how quickly Grethel ran to Hansel, opened the door of his cage, and cried, "Hansel, Hansel, we are free; the old witch is dead." He flew like a bird out of his cage at these words as soon as the door was opened, and the children were so overjoyed that they ran into each other's arms, and kissed each other with the greatest love.
And now that there was nothing to be afraid of, they went back into the house, and while looking round the old witch's room, they saw an old oak chest, which they opened, and found it full of pearls and precious stones. "These are better than pebbles," said Hansel; and he filled his pockets as full as they would hold.
"I will carry some home too," said Grethel, and she held out her apron, which held quite as much as Hansel's pockets.
"We will go now," he said, "and get away as soon as we can from this enchanted forest."
They had been walking for nearly two hours when they came to a large sheet of water.
"What shall we do now?" said the boy. "We cannot get across, and there is no bridge of any sort."
"Oh! here comes a boat," cried Grethel, but she was mistaken; it was only a white duck which came swimming towards the children. "Perhaps she will help us across if we ask her," said the child; and she sung, "Little duck, do help poor Hansel and Grethel; there is not a bridge, nor a boatówill you let us sail across on your white back?"
The good-natured duck came near the bank as Grethel spoke, so close indeed that Hansel could seat himself and wanted to take his little sister on his lap, but she said, "No, we shall be too heavy for the kind duck; let her take us over one at a time."
The good creature did as the children wished; she carried Grethel over first, and then came back for Hansel. And then how happy the children were to find themselves in a part of the wood which they remembered quite well, and as they walked on, the more familiar it became, till at last they caught sight of their father's house. Then they began to run, and, bursting into the room, threw themselves into their father's arms.
Poor man, he had not had a moment's peace since the children had been left alone in the forest; he was full of joy at finding them safe and well again, and now they had nothing to fear, for their wicked stepmother was dead.
But how surprised the poor wood-cutter was when Grethel opened and shook her little apron to see the glittering pearls and precious stones scattered about the room, while Hansel drew handful after handful from his pockets. From this moment all his care and sorrow was at an end, and the father lived in happiness with his children till his death.