N THE DAYS of King Alfred, there lived a poor woman whose cottage was situated in a remote country village, a great many miles from London. She had been a widow some years, and had an only child named Jack, whom she indulged to a fault. The consequence of her blind partiality was, that Jack did not pay the least attention to any thing she said, but was indolent, careless, and extravagant. His follies were not owing to a bad disposition, but that his mother had never checked him. By degrees she disposed of all she possessed—scarcely any thing remained but a cow. The poor woman one day met Jack with tears in her eyes; her distress was great, and for the first time in her life she could not help reproaching him, saying, "Oh! you wicked child, by your ungrateful course of life you have at last brought me to beggary and ruin. Cruel, cruel boy! I have not money enough to purchase even a bit of bread for another day—nothing now remains to sell but my poor cow! I am sorry to part with her; it grieves me sadly, but we must not starve." For a few minutes, Jack felt a degree of remorse, but it was soon over, and he began teasing his mother to let him sell the cow at the next village, so much, that she at last consented. As he was going along, he met a butcher, who inquired why he was driving the cow from home? Jack replied, he was going to sell it. The butcher held some curious beans in his hat; they were of various colours, and attracted Jack's attention. This did not pass unnoticed by the butcher, who, knowing Jack's easy temper, thought now was the time to take an advantage of it; and determined not to let slip so good an opportunity, asked what was the price of the cow, offering at the same time all the beans in his hat for her. The silly boy could not conceal the pleasure he felt at what he supposed so great an offer, the bargain was struck instantly, and the cow exchanged for a few paltry beans. Jack made the best of his way home, calling aloud to his mother before he reached home, thinking to surprise her.
When she saw the beans, and heard Jack's account, her patience quite forsook her. She kicked the beans away in a passion—they flew in all directions—some were scattered in the garden. Not having any thing to eat, they both went supperless to bed. Jack woke early in the morning, and seeing something uncommon from the window of his bed-chamber, ran down stairs into the garden, where he soon discovered that some of the beans had taken root, and sprung up surprisingly: the stalks were of an immense thickness, and had so entwined, that they formed a ladder nearly like a chain in appearance. Looking upward, he could not discern the top, it appeared to be lost in the clouds: he tried it, found it firm, and not to be shaken. He quickly formed the resolution of endeavouring to climb up to the top, in order to seek his fortune, and ran to communicate his intention to his mother, not doubting but she would be equally pleased with himself. She declared he should not go; said it would break her heart if he did—entreated, and threatened—but all in vain. Jack set out, and after climbing for some hours, reached the top of the bean-stalk, fatigued and quite exhausted. Looking around, he found himself in a strange country; it appeared to be a desert, quite barren, not a tree, shrub, house, or living creature to be seen; here and there were scattered fragments of stone; and at unequal distances, small heaps of earth were loosely thrown together.
Jack seated himself pensively upon a block of stone, and thought of his mother—he reflected with sorrow upon his disobedience in climbing the bean-stalk against her will; and concluded that he must die with hunger. However he walked on, hoping to see a house where he might beg something to eat and drink; presently a handsome young woman appeared at a distance: as she approached, Jack could not help admiring how beautiful and lively she looked; she was dressed in the most elegant manner, and had a small white wand in her hand, on the top of which was a peacock of pure gold. While Jack was looking with great surprise at this charming female, she came up to him, and with a smile of the most bewitching sweetness, inquired how he came there. Jack related the circumstance of the bean-stalk. She asked him if he recollected his father; he replied he did not; and added, there must be some mystery relating to him, because if he asked his mother who his father was, she always burst into tears, and appeared violently agitated, nor did she recover herself for some days after; one thing, however, he could not avoid observing upon these occasions, which was that she always carefully avoided answering him, and even seemed afraid of speaking, as if there was some secret connected with his father's history which she must not disclose. The young woman replied, "I will reveal the whole story; your mother must not. But, before I begin, I require a solemn promise on your part to do what I command; I am a fairy, and if you do not perform exactly what I desire, you will be destroyed," Jack was frightened at her menaces, but promised to fulfil her injunctions exactly, and the fairy thus addressed him:
"Your father was a rich man, his disposition remarkably benevolent: he was very good to the poor, and constantly relieving them. He made it a rule never to let a day pass without doing good to some person. On one particular day in the week, he kept open house, and invited only those who were reduced and had lived well. He always presided himself, and did all in his power to render his guests comfortable; the rich and the great were not invited. The servants were all happy, and greatly attached to their master and mistress. Your father, though only a private gentleman, was as rich as a prince, and he deserved all he possessed, for he only lived to do good. Such a man was soon known and talked of. A giant lived a great many miles off: this man was altogether as wicked as your father was good; he was in his heart envious, covetous, and cruel; but he had the art of concealing those vices. He was poor, and wished to enrich himself at any rate. Hearing your father spoken of, he formed the design of becoming acquainted with him, hoping to ingratiate himself into your father's favour. He removed quickly into your neighbourhood, caused to be reported that he was a gentleman who had just lost all he possessed by an earth-quake, and found it difficult to escape with his life; his wife was with him. Your father gave credit to his story, and pitied him, gave him handsome apartments in his own house, and caused him and his wife to be treated like visitors of consequence, little imagining that the giant was meditating a horrid return for all his favours.
"Things went on in this way for some time, the giant becoming daily more impatient to put his plan into execution; at last a favourable opportunity presented itself. Your father's house was at some distance from the seashore, but with a glass the coast could be seen distinctly. The giant was one day using the telescope; the wind was very high; he saw a fleet of ships in distress off the rocks; he hastened to your father, mentioned the circumstance, and eagerly requested he would send all the servants he could spare to relieve the sufferers. Every one was instantly despatched, except the porter and your nurse; the giant then joined your father in the study, and appeared to be delighted—he really was so. Your father recommended a favourite book, and was handing it down: the giant took the opportunity, and stabbed him; he instantly fell down dead. The giant left the body, found the porter and nurse, and presently despatched them; being determined to have no living witnesses of his crimes. You were then only three months old; your mother had you in her arms in a remote part of the house, and was ignorant of what was going on; she went into the study, but how was she shocked, on discovering your father a corpse, and weltering in his blood! she was stupefied with horror and grief, and was motionless. The giant, who was seeking her, found her in that state, and hastened to serve her and you as he had done her husband, but she fell at his feet, and in a pathetic manner besought him to spare your life and hers.
"Remorse, for a moment, seemed to touch the barbarian's heart: he granted your lives; but first he made her take a most solemn oath, never to inform you who your father was, or to answer any questions concerning him: assuring her that if she did, he would certainly discover her, and put both of you to death in the most cruel manner. Your mother took you in her arms, and fled as quickly as possible; she was scarcely gone when the giant repented that he had suffered her to escape. He would have pursued her instantly; but he had to provide for his own safety; as it was necessary he should be gone before the servants returned. Having gained your father's confidence, he knew where to find all his treasure: he soon loaded himself and his wife, set the house on fire in several places, and when the servants returned, the house was burned quite down to the ground. Your poor mother, forlorn, abandoned, and forsaken, wandered with you a great many miles from this scene of desolation. Fear added to her haste. She settled in the cottage where you were brought up, and it was entirety owing to her fear of the giant that she never mentioned your father to you. I became your father's guardian at his birth; but fairies have laws to which they are subject as well as mortals. A short time before the giant went to your father's, I transgressed; my punishment was a suspension of power for a limited time—an unfortunate circumstance, as it totally prevented my succouring your father.
"The day on which you met the butcher, as you went to sell your mother's cow, my power was restored. It was I who secretly prompted you to take the beans in exchange for the cow. By my power, the bean-stalk grew to so great a height, and formed a ladder. I need not add that I inspired you with a strong desire to ascend the ladder. The giant lives in this country: you are the person appointed to punish him for all his wickedness. You will have dangers and difficulties to encounter, but you must persevere in avenging the death of your father, or you will not prosper in any of your undertakings, but will always be miserable. As to the giant's possessions, you may seize on all you can; for every thing he has is yours, though now you are unjustly deprived of it. One thing I desire—do not let your mother know you are acquainted with your father's history, till you see me again. Go along the direct road, you will soon see the house where your cruel enemy lives. While you do as I order you, I will protect and guard you; but, remember, if you dare disobey my commands, a most dreadful punishment awaits you."
When the fairy had concluded, she disappeared, leaving Jack to pursue his journey. He walked on till after sunset, when, to his great joy, he espied a large mansion. This agreeable sight revived his drooping spirits; he redoubled his speed, and soon reached it. A plain-looking woman was at the door—he accosted her, begging she would give him a morsel of bread and a night's lodging. She expressed the greatest surprise at seeing him; and said it was quite uncommon to see a human being near their house, for it was well known that her husband was a large and very powerful giant, and that he would never eat any thing but human flesh, if he could possibly get it; that he did not think any thing of walking fifty miles to procure it, usually being out the whole day for that purpose.
This account greatly terrified Jack, but still he hoped to elude the giant, and therefore he again entreated the woman to take him in for one night only, and hide him where she thought proper. The good woman at last suffered herself to be persuaded, for she was of a compassionate and generous disposition, and took him into the house. First, they entered a fine large hall, magnificently furnished; they then passed through several spacious rooms, all in the same style of grandeur; but they appeared to be quite forsaken and desolate. A long gallery was next; it was very dark—just light enough to show that, instead of a wall on one side, there was a grating of iron, which parted off a dismal dungeon, from whence issued the groans of those poor victims whom the cruel giant reserved in confinement for his own voracious appetite. Poor Jack was half dead with fear, and would have given the world to have been with his mother again, for he now began to fear that he should never see her more, and gave himself up for lost; he even mistrusted the good woman, and thought she had let him into the house for no other purpose than to lock him up among the unfortunate people in the dungeon. At the farther end of the gallery there was a spacious kitchen, and a very excellent fire was burning in the grate. The good woman bid Jack sit down, and gave him plenty to eat and drink. Jack, not seeing any thing here to make him uncomfortable, soon forgot his fear, and was just beginning to enjoy himself, when he was aroused by a loud knocking at the street-door, which made the whole house shake: the giant's wife ran to secure him in the oven, and then went to let her husband in. Jack heard him accost her in a voice like thunder, saying: "Wife, I smell fresh meat." "Oh! my dear," replied she, "it is nothing but the people in the dungeon." The giant appeared to believe her, and walked into the very kitchen where poor Jack was concealed, who shook, trembled, and was more terrified than he had yet been. At last, the monster seated himself quietly by the fire-side, whilst his wife prepared supper. By degrees Jack recovered himself sufficiently to look at the giant through a small crevice. He was quite astonished to see what an amazing quantity he devoured, and thought he never would have done eating and drinking. When supper was ended, the giant desired his wife to bring him his hen. A very beautiful hen was then brought, and placed on the table before him. Jack's curiosity was very great to see what would happen: he observed that every time the giant said "Lay!" the hen laid an egg of solid gold. The giant amused himself a long time with his hen; meanwhile his wife went to bed. At length the giant fell asleep by the fire-side, and snored like the roaring of a cannon.