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Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Haensel and the girl Grethel. He had little to bite and to break, and once, when great scarcity fell on the land, he could no longer procure daily bread. Now when he thought over this by night in his bed, and tossed about in his anxiety, he groaned and said to his wife, “What is to become of us? How are we to feed our poor children when we no longer have anything even for ourselves?” “I’ll tell you what, husband,” answered the woman, “early tomorrow morning we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest, and there we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one piece of bread more; then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them.” “No, wife,” said the man, “I will not do that; how can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest? The wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.” “O, thou fool!” said she, “then we must all four die of hunger and thou mayest as well plane the planks for our coffins;” and she left him no peace until he consented. “But I feel very sorry for the poor children, all the same,” said the man.
[Illustration: HAeNSEL AND GRETHEL Ludwig Richter]
The two children had also not been able to sleep for hunger, and had heard what their step-mother had said to their father. Grethel wept bitter tears, and said to Haensel, “Now all is over with us.” “Be quiet, Grethel,” said Haensel. “Do not distress thyself, I will soon find a way to help us.” And when the old folks had fallen asleep, he got up, put on his coat, opened the door below, and crept outside. The moon shone brightly and the white pebbles which lay in front of the house glittered like real silver pennies. Haensel stooped and put as many of them in the little pocket of his coat as he could possibly get in. Then he went back and said to Grethel, “Be comforted, dear little sister, and sleep in peace; God will not forsake us;” and he lay down again in his bed. When day dawned, but before the sun had risen, the woman came and awoke the two children, saying, “Get up, you sluggards! we are going into the forest to fetch wood.” She gave each a little piece of bread, and said, “There is something for your dinner, but do not eat it up before then, for you will get nothing else.” Grethel took the bread under her apron, as Haensel had the stones in his pocket. Then they all set out together on the way to the forest. When they, had walked a short time, Haensel stood still and peeped back at the house, and did so again and again. His father said, “Haensel, what art thou looking at there and staying behind for? Mind what thou art about, and do not forget how to use thy legs.” “Ah, father,” said Haensel, “I am looking at my little white cat, which is sitting upon the roof, and wants to say good-bye to me.” The wife said, “Fool, that is not thy little cat; that is the morning sun which is shining on the chimneys.” Haensel, however, had not been looking back at the cat, but had been constantly throwing one of the white pebble-stones out of his pocket on the road.