Once upon a time there lived near a large wood a poor woodcutter, with his wife and two children by his former marriage, a little boy called Hansel, and a girl named Gretel. He had little enough to break or bite; and once, when there was a great famine in the land, he could not procure even his daily bread; and as he lay thinking in his bed one evening, rolling about for trouble, he sighed, and said to his wife, “What will become of us? How can we feed our children, when we have no more than we can eat ourselves?”
“Know, then, my husband,” answered she, “we will lead them away, quite early in the morning, into the thickest part of the wood, and there make them a fire, and give them each a little piece of bread; then we will go to our work, and leave them alone, so they will not find the way home again, and we shall be freed from them.” “No, wife,” replied he, “that I can never do. How can you bring your heart to leave my children all alone in the wood, for the wild beasts will soon come and tear them to pieces?”
“Oh, you simpleton!” said she, “then we must all four die of hunger; you had better build the coffins for us.” But she left him no peace till he agreed, saying, “Ah, but I shall regret the poor children.”
The two children, however, had not gone to sleep for very hunger, and so they overheard what the stepmother said to their father. Gretel wept bitterly, and said to Hansel, “What will become of us?” “Be quiet, Gretel,” said he; “do not cry— I will soon help you.” And as soon as their parents had fallen asleep, he got up, put on his coat, and, unlocking the back door, slipped out. The moon shone brilliantly, and the white pebbles which lay before the door seemed like silver pieces, they glittered so brightly. Hansel stooped down, and put as many into his pocket as it would hold; and then going back, he said to Gretel, “Be comforted, dear sister, and sleep in peace; God will not forsake us.” And so saying, he went to bed again.
The next morning, before the sun arose, the wife went and awoke the two children. “Get up, you lazy things; we are going into the forest to chop wood.” Then she gave them each a piece of bread, saying, “There is something for your dinner; do not eat it before the time, for you will get nothing else.” Gretel took the bread in her apron, for Hansel’s pocket was full of pebbles; and so they all set out upon their way. When they had gone a little distance, Hansel stood still, and peeped back at the house; and this he repeated several times, till his father said, “Hansel, what are you peeping at, and why do you lag behind? Take care, and remember your legs.”
“Ah, father,” said Hansel, “I am looking at my white cat sitting upon the roof of the house, and trying to say good-bye.” “You simpleton!” said the wife, “that is not a cat; it is only the sun shining on the white chimney.” But in reality Hansel was not looking at a cat; but every time he stopped, he dropped a pebble out of his pocket upon the path.
When they came to the middle of the forest, the father told the children to collect wood, and he would make them a fire, so that they should not be cold. So Hansel and Gretel gathered together quite a little mountain of twigs. Then they set fire to them; and as the flame burnt up high, the wife said, “Now, you children, lie down near the fire, and rest yourselves, while we go into the forest and chop wood; when we are ready, I will come and call you.”
Hansel and Gretel sat down by the fire, and when it was noon, each ate the piece of bread; and because they could hear the blows of an axe, they thought their father was near: but it was not an axe, but a branch which he had bound to a withered tree, so as to be blown to and fro by the wind. They waited so long that at last their eyes closed from weariness, and they fell fast asleep. When they awoke, it was quite dark, and Gretel began to cry, “How shall we get out of the wood?” But Hansel tried to comfort her by saying, “Wait a little while till the moon rises, and then we will quickly find the way.”
The moon soon shone forth, and Hansel, taking his sister’s hand, followed the pebbles, which glittered like new-coined silver pieces, and showed them the path. All night long they walked on, and as day broke they came to their father’s house. They knocked at the door, and when the wife opened it, and saw Hansel and Gretel, she exclaimed, “You wicked children! Why did you sleep so long in the wood? We thought you were never coming home again.” But their father was very glad, for it had grieved his heart to leave them all alone.
Not long afterward there was again great scarcity in every corner of the land; and one night the children overheard their stepmother saying to their father, “Everything is again consumed; we have only half a loaf left, and then the song is ended: the children must be sent away. We will take them deeper into the wood, so that they may not find the way out again; it is the only means of escape for us.”
But her husband felt heavy at heart, and thought, “It were better to share the last crust with the children.” His wife, however, would listen to nothing that he said, and scolded and reproached him without end.
Given he agreed the first time it was now harder for him to refuse again, so in the end he consented, but with a heavy heart.
The children, however, had heard the conversation as they lay awake, and as soon as the old people went to sleep Hansel got up, intending to pick up some pebbles as before; but the wife had locked the door, so that he could not get out. Nevertheless, he comforted Gretel, saying, “Do not cry; sleep in quiet; the good God will not forsake us.”
Early in the morning the stepmother came and pulled them out of bed, and gave them each a slice of bread, which was still smaller than the former piece. On the way, Hansel broke his in his pocket, and, stooping every now and then, dropped a crumb upon the path. “Hansel, why do you stop and look about?” said the father; “keep in the path.”
“I am looking at my little dove,” answered Hansel, “nodding a good-bye to me.” “Simpleton!” said the wife, “that is no dove, but only the sun shining on the chimney.” But Hansel still kept dropping crumbs as he went along.
The mother led the children deep into the wood, where they had never been before, and there making an immense fire, she said to them, “Sit down here and rest, and when you feel tired you can sleep for a little while. We are going into the forest to hew wood, and in the evening, when we are ready, we will come and fetch you.”
When noon came Gretel shared her bread with Hansel, who had strewn his on the path. Then they went to sleep; but the evening arrived and no one came to visit the poor children, and in the dark night they awoke, and Hansel comforted his sister by saying, “Only wait, Gretel, till the moon comes out, then we shall see the crumbs of bread which I have dropped, and they will show us the way home.” The moon shone and they got up, but they could not see any crumbs, for the thousands of birds which had been flying about in the woods and fields had picked them all up.
Hansel kept saying to Gretel, “We will soon find the way”; but they did not, and they walked the whole night long and the next day, but still they did not come out of the wood; and they got so hungry, for they had nothing to eat but the berries which they found upon the bushes. Soon they got so tired that they could not drag themselves along, so they lay down under a tree and went to sleep.
It was now the third morning since they had left their father’s house, and they still walked on; but they only got deeper and deeper into the wood, and Hansel saw that if help did not come very soon they would die of hunger. At about noonday they saw a beautiful snow-white bird sitting upon a bough, which sang so sweetly that they stood still and listened to it. It soon stopped, and spreading its wings flew off; and they followed it until it arrived at a cottage, upon the roof of which it perched; and when they went close up to it they saw that the cottage was made of bread and cakes, and the window-panes were of clear sugar.
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