On the borders of a dark forest, far away, there once lived a woodcutter with his wife and two children. The woodcutter was very poor indeed, and the children, who were called Hansel and Gretel, had often not enough bread to eat. Their mother had died when they were very little and the woodcutter's new wife did not care for children, so times were hard for Hansel and Gretel.
As winter came on they grew poorer and poorer, until at last one night the poor woodcutter said to his wife, "What are we to do? There is only one loaf of bread left and I fear we shall starve."
We must get rid of the children," answered his wife. "Tomorrow we will take them into the wood and leave them there. They will never be able to find their way home."
"Oh no!" said the father, "I could not leave them there to starve." "Well, we shall all starve together if they stay with us," answered his wife, "so it will come to the same thing in the end."
And she talked to her husband until she made him promise to do as she had said.
Now, although it was late, Hansel and Gretel were wide awake, for they were too hungry to sleep, and they could not help hearing all the plans that were made.
"Oh!" sobbed Gretel, "we shall be lost in the dark wood, and the wild beasts will eat us."
"Do not cry, little sister," said Hansel. "I will take care of you." And he slipped out of bed and put on his coat.
Then he softly unbarred the door and stepped out on the garden path. The moon was
shining brightly, and the white pebbles on the path shone like new pennies. Hansel stooped down and filled his pockets with as many pebbles as they would hold. Then he went in and crept back into bed again.
The next morning the wife came and woke the children very early. She told them they must get up and dress themselves quickly.
"You shall go with us to the forest today, while your father cuts wood," she said.
Then she gave them each a thick slice of bread for their dinner, and they all set out together. Gretel carried both slices of bread in her apron, for Hansel's pockets were full of pebbles.
Now, as they went along, the father noticed that Hansel stopped and looked back every few minutes.
"Why do you look back so often, my son?" he asked. "If you do not take care you will stumble and fall."
"I only looked back to see my little white cat who is sitting on the roof," answered Hansel. "She wants to say good-bye to me."
"Nonsense!" cried the woodcutter's wife. "There is no cat. It is only the morning sun shining on the wet roof."
But Hansel was not really looking at the cat, for each time he turned around he dropped a white pebble on the road to mark the way which they were taking.
As they went farther and farther into the wood, the road grew more and more difficult. At last the woodcutter stopped and told the children to gather some sticks and make them into a heap.
"I am going to light a fire to warm you," he said, "and then you can rest here until I return."
So Hansel and Gretel sat and warmed themselves at the fire and ate their slices of bread quite happily, for they thought they heard their father chopping wood close by. But the sound they heard was only the dead branch of a tree swinging in the wind. Then, felling very tired after their long walk, they curled themselves up on the dry leaves and fell fast asleep.
When they awoke it was quite dark and the fire was out. The only sound they heard was the hooting of the owls overhead.
"Oh Hansel, what shall we do?" sobbed Gretel. "We are lost in the wood and we shall never be able to find our way home."
"Only wait until the moon rises, little sister," said Hansel. "Give me your hand and I will take you safely home."
And when the moon began to rise and send silver moonbeams to light up the dark forest, the children set out, hand in hand, and found the white pebbles shining like little lamps all the way to the cottage.
"You bad children!" cried the woodcutter's wife, when she opened the door to let them in. "We thought you were never coming home." But their father took them up in his arms and kissed them over and over again in his joy, for he had been afraid that he would never see them again.
Not long after this there came a day when there was only half a loaf of bread left in the little hut. The wife said to her husband, "We are even poorer t}lan we were before. Must we all starve together or shall we take the children once more to the forest, where they cannot possibly find their way home?"
The woodcutter was very unhappy at the thought, but because he had once said "Yes," it was now twice as difficult to say "No."
The children lay trembling in their beds as they listened to these plans, and poor little Gretel was terribly frightened. But Hansel comforted her again and slipped out of bed to fill his pockets with the white pebbles. This time, however, the door was locked and barred. Hansel could not get out and he had to creep back to bed again and think of some other plan.
"Come, get up, you lazy children!" cried the wife next morning. "You are going to the forest with us today. Here is your dinner."
And she gave them two small slices of bread. Gretel put her slice into her pocket, but Hansel crumbled his into small pieces, and these he dropped along the way as he had done with the pebbles. "What are you turning round to look at?" asked the woman. "Be quick and do not linger."
"I was only saying good-bye to my white pigeon who is sitting on the roof," said Hansel.
"Nonsense!" cried the woman. "There is no pigeon. It is only the morning sun shining on the wet roof."
But she did not see that every time Hansel stopped to look back he dropped a crumb to mark the way.
This time they went much farther into the heart of the wood. When the children were tired, their father told them to gather wood so he could make them a fire.
"You can rest until we come back," he said.
So they rested by the fire and Gretel shared her slice of bread with Hansel. Then they grew so tired of waiting for their father that they fell fast asleep.
It was quite dark when they woke. Gretel wept, for she was sure there were wild beasts prowling about ready to eat them up. But Hansel was quite brave.
"I will take care of you, little sister," he said. "And I can easily find my way home, for I marked the road with my breadcrumbs." But alas! The birds had eaten up every crumb and there was not one left to show them the way home. Still they wandered on and on, all that night and all next day, but they only seemed to get deeper and deeper into the forest. They had nothing to eat but a few berries which they found in the wood. When the third day dawned they were nearly starving.
"Oh Hansel!" said Gretel, "I think we shall be obliged to eat the fairy toadstools."
But Hansel held her hand tight and led her on. Suddenly they saw a beautiful white bird sitting on the branch of a tree overhead. It sang so sweetly that the children stopped to listen to it. When it spread its great white fluttering wings and flew off they ran after it as quickly as they could. It seemed to know that the children were following, for it circled slowly in front of them until it stopped over a tiny cottage in the heart of the wood.
And when the children came near they found it was the most wonderful cottage they had ever seen. It was built entirely of gingerbread and ornamented with cookies. The windows were made of transparent candy and the steps of toffee.
"What a feast we shall have!" cried Hansel, standing on tiptoe to break off a piece of the overhanging gingerbread roof. "Help yourself to a pane of candy, little sister, or a step of toffee."
Gretel took a piece of gingerbread in one hand and a pane of hard candy in the other, and sat down on a toffee step to enjoy herself. As they were both eating they heard a gentle voice from the inside of the cottage saying:
"Munching and crunching! Do I hear a mouse
Eating the walls of my gingerbread house?"
But the children answered quickly-
" 'Tis only the wind you mistake for a mouse, And no one is eating your gingerbread house."
Then, as the children went on eating, the cottage door opened and an old, old woman hobbled out.
Hansel dropped his square of gingerbread, and Gretel paused with a mouthful of candy. They were both so frightened they could not move.
"Dear little children," said the old woman, "do not be afraid of me. You are welcome to eat as much of my house as you like. But come inside and I will give you a nice dinner."
Then she led the children in and fed them on pancakes and apple tarts and cream. Afterwards she tucked them into two little white beds. The children felt as if they were in heaven.
But although the old woman seemed so kind and good, she was really a wicked old witch who loved to catch fat little children and kill and eat them.
She had red eyes, which didn't see very far, but she could smell things as quickly as a fox, and she knew when Hansel and Gretel were wandering in the forest. She had built the gingerbread house just to catch them.
Early next morning the old witch went in to look at the sleeping children. She rubbed her withered old hands with glee when she saw how tender and fresh they looked. She would have liked them to be plumper, but that was easily mended. So she seized Hansel with her bony hand, and before he was half awake she thrust him into a little iron cage and fastened the grating in front. Then she shook Gretel roughly by the shoulder.
"Get up, you lazy little girl!" she cried. "You must light the fire and fill the big pot with water and help me to make the breakfast. For I have shut your brother up in a cage and I am going to fatten him until he is plump enough to cook for my supper."
So poor little Gretel was obliged to do as the old witch bade her. And while Hansel was fed on the choicest dainties, she had only shellfish and crabs' claws to eat. And every day the old witch would go to the little iron cage and say to Hansel, "Little boy, put out your finger that I may see how fat you are growing."
Hansel knew that she could not see with her red eyes, so he poked out a bone instead of his finger. And every day when she felt it, she grumbled fearfully because he never seemed to grow fatter.
At last she could wait no longer and she said to Gretel, "You must get up very early tomorrow morning, for there is plenty of work for you to do. I am going to cook your brother for dinner. You must light the fire, heat the oven, and help me prepare for the feast."
Poor Gretel cried as if her heart would break. "Oh, how I wish we had starved together in the wood, or been eaten up by the wild beasts!" she sobbed. "Anything would have been better than this."
"Wishing will not do you much good," said the wicked old witch, blinking her red eyes with glee. "And stop those foolish tears or you will put the fire out."
Gretel went about with a very heavy heart the next day as she lit the fire and filled the big pot with water and heated the great stone oven. And when it was all ready the old witch called to her and said, "I have kneaded the dough and the loaves are ready for baking. Come, little girl, creep into the oven and tell me if it is hot enough."
Now the old witch meant to shut the oven door as soon as the child was inside and bake her for dinner instead of the bread, but Gretel guessed what she meant to do.
"The door is too small and I don't know how to get in," she said. "What nonsense!" answered the witch. "See! It is quite big enough. You put your head in first, like this.
And the old witch stooped down and poked her head inside the oven.
Quick as thought Gretel ran behind and with all her might gave her a sudden push so that the old witch went headlong into the oven. Gretel banged the door shut and fastened it securely.
Then she found the key of Hansel's cage and ran quickly to let him out. "The old witch is safe in the oven," she cried, and they threw their arms round each other and danced for joy.
After that they went into the cottage and opened all the witch's treasure chests. Hansel filled his pockets with pearls and diamonds and rubies, while Gretel took as many jewels as her little apron would hold.
Then, hand in hand, they set out once more to try to find their way home, and very glad they were to leave the witch's cottage behind.
They had not gone far through the wood when they came to a great lake, so broad that it would be impossible to cross it without a boat.
"What shall we do?" said Hansel. "There is no bridge, and I can see no boat to carry us over."
"Look," said Gretel. "I see a white duck swimming out there. Perhaps she will help us."
And she began to sing:
"Little duck, little duck, help us, we pray.
We are two little children who've quite lost their way.
I know you are kind by your gentle quack, quack.
Will you carry us over upon your white back?"
Then the duck came swimming to her at once, quite ready to carry them across. Hansel climbed onto her back first and wanted Gretel to sit on his knee, but she was afraid they would be too heavy for the kind duck, so she waited until Hansel had crossed to the other side and the duck returned to carry her over, too.
And when they stood together on the opposite shore of the lake they found, to their joy, that it was a part of the wood which they knew quite well. They ran along quickly and at the next turning they came in sight of their own little hut and saw their father standing at the door.
The poor woodcutter was overjoyed when the children rushed into his arms. He had never known a moment's happiness since he had left the children in the wood. And now he was all alone, for his wife had died. He held the children in his arms and cried for joy. They told him all about their adventures and how they had escaped from the wicked witch.
"And see what we have brought home!" said Gretel, opening her apron and showing the glittering jewels.
"And look how full my pockets are!" said Hansel, turning them out, until the floor was covered with precious stones.
Now they had riches enough to last them all their days and they would never be hungry again. But though the diamonds and rubies were very precious, Hansel and Gretel thought they were not half as beautiful as the little white pebbles on the garden walk, which shone brightly when the moon came out and bathed them in silver light.