M ANY years ago there lived a gentleman and his lady. The gentleman was brave and good, and the lady was gentle, beautiful, and virtuous. They were much beloved by all who knew them, for they were always trying to do good to others.
This lady and gentleman lived together very happily for many years, for they loved each other most tenderly. They had two children, who were both very young, the boy, who was the eldest, was about three years old, and the youngest, who was a girl, not quite two years old. The boy was very much like his father and the girl was like her mother. By the end of this time the gentleman fell sick, and day after day he grew worse. His lady was so much grieved by his illness that she fell sick too. No physic, nor anything else, was of the least use to them, for they grew worse and worse; and they saw that they would soon be taken away from their little ones, and be forced to leave them in the world without father or mother.
They bore this cruel thought as well as they could, and trusted that after they were dead, their children would find some kind friend to look after them. They talked to one another tenderly about them, and at last agreed to send for the gentleman's brother, and give their darlings into his care.
As soon as the gentleman's brother heard this news he made all the haste he could to the bedside of the father and mother. "Ah! brother," said the dying man, "you see how short a time I have to live, yet neither death nor pain can give me half so much grief as the thought of what these dear babes will do without a parent's care. Brother, brother," continued the gentleman, putting out his hand as well as he could, and pointing to the children, "they will have none but you to be kind to them, to see them clothed and fed, and teach them to be good and happy."
"Dear, dear brother," said the dying lady, "you must be father, mother, and uncle too, to these little lambs. First let William be taught to read; and then he should be told how good his father was. And little Jane,—oh! brother, it wrings my heart to talk of her: think of the gentle usage she will stand in need of, and take her fondly on your knee, brother, and she and William, too, will repay your care with love."
The uncle then answered: "Oh! how it grieves my heart to see you, my dearest brother and sister, in this sad state! but take comfort, there may still be hope of your getting well: yet if we should happen to lose you, I will do all you can desire for your darling children. In me they shall find a father, mother, and uncle. William shall learn to read, and shall be told how good his father was, that he may turn out as good himself when he grows up to be a man. Jane shall be used with the most tender care, and shall be fondled on my knee. But, dear brother, you have said nothing of the wealth you must leave behind. I am sure you know my heart too well to think that I speak of this for any other reason than your dear children's good, and that I may be able to make use of your money only for their sake."
"Pray, brother," said the dying man, "do not grieve me with talking of any such thing; for how could you, who will be their father, mother, and uncle, once think of wronging them? Here, here, brother, is my will. You will see how I have done the best I could for my babes."
A few moments after the gentleman had said these words he pressed his cold lips to his children; the lady did the same, and in a short time they both died. The uncle shed a few tears at this sad sight, and then broke open the will, in which he found that his brother had left the little boy, William, the sum of three hundred pounds a year, when he should be twenty-one years old, and to Jane, the girl, the sum of five hundred pounds in gold, to be paid to her on the day of her marriage. But if the children should happen to die before coming of age, then all the money was to belong to their uncle. The will of the gentleman next ordered that he and his dear wife should be buried side by side in the same grave.
The two little children were now taken home to the house of their uncle, who, for some time, did just as their parents had told him upon their death-bed, and used them with great kindness. But when he had kept them about a year he forgot by degrees to think how their father and mother looked when they gave their children to his care, and how he himself had made a promise to be their father, mother, and uncle all in one. After a little more time had passed, the uncle could not help thinking that he wished he could get rid of the children, for then he should have all the money for himself; and when he had once begun to think this, he went on till he could hardly think of anything else.
At last he said to himself: "It would not be very hard for me to get rid of them so that nobody should know anything about the matter, and then the money will be mine at once."
When the cruel uncle had once made up his mind to get rid of the helpless little creatures, he was not long in finding a way to bring it about. He hired two sturdy ruffians, who had already held up many travelers in a dark, thick wood, some way off, for the sake of robbing them of their money. These two wicked men agreed with the uncle for a large sum of money to do the most cruel thing that was ever heard of; and so the uncle began to get everything ready for them.
He had told an artful story to his wife of what good it would do the children to put them forward in their learning; and how he had a friend in London who would take care of them. He then said to the poor little things: "Should you not like to see the famous town of London, where you, William, can buy a fine wooden horse to ride upon all day long, and a whip to make him gallop, and a fine sword to wear by your side? And you, Jane, shall have pretty playthings, and a nice gilded coach shall take you there."
"Oh, yes, we will go, uncle," said the children, and, with a heart as hard as stones, the uncle soon got them ready for the journey. The harmless little creatures were put into a fine coach a few days after, and along with them the two cruel wretches, who were soon to put an end to their merry prattle, and turn their smiles into tears. One of them drove the coach, and the other sat inside between little William and little Jane.
When they had reached the entrance to the dark thick wood, the two ruffians took them out of the coach, telling them they might now walk a little way and gather some flowers; and while the children were skipping about like lambs, the ruffians turned their backs to them, and began to talk about what they had to do.
"In good truth," said the one who had been sitting between the children all the way, "now I have seen their sweet faces and heard their pretty talk I have no heart to do the cruel deed: let us send the children back to their uncle."
"But, indeed, I will not," said the other; "what is their pretty talk to us?"
"Think of your own children at home," answered the first.
"Yes, but I shall get nothing to take back to them if I turn coward as you would have me do," replied the other. At last the two ruffians fell into such a passion about getting rid of the poor babes, that the one who wished to spare their lives took out the great knife he had brought to murder them with and stabbed the other to the heart, so that he fell down dead at his feet. The one who had killed him was quite at a loss what to do with the children; for he wanted to get away as fast as he could, for fear of being found in the wood.
At last he thought the only thing he could do was to leave them in the wood by themselves, and trust them to the kindness of anybody that might happen to pass by and find them there.
"Come here, my pretty ones," said he; "you must take hold of my hands and go with me." The poor children took each a hand and went on; but the tears burst from their eyes, and their little limbs shook with fear all the while.
In this way he led them for about two miles farther on in the wood, and then told them to wait there till he came back from the next town, where he would go and get them some food. William took his sister Jane by the hand, and they walked in fear up and down in the wood.
"Will the strange man come with some cakes, Billy?" said little Jane.
"By and by, dear Jane," said William.
And soon after, "I wish I had some cakes, Billy," said she.
They then looked about with their little eyes to every part of the wood; and it would have melted a heart as hard as stone to see how sad they looked, and how they listened to every sound of wind in the trees. After they had waited a very long time, they tried to stay their hunger with blackberries; but they soon ate all that were within their reach.
Night was now coming on; and William, who had tried all he could to comfort his little sister, at last wanted comfort himself; so when Jane said once more, "How hungry I am, Billy. I b-e-l-ieve—I cannot help crying—" William burst out a-crying too; and down they lay upon the cold earth; and putting their arms round each other's neck, there they starved, and there they died.
Thus were those two pretty harmless babes murdered; and as no one knew of their death, so there was no one to dig a grave and bury them. In the mean time the wicked uncle thought they had been killed as he ordered, so he told all the folks who asked about them an artful tale of their having died in London of the smallpox, and he then took all their fortune to himself, and lived upon it as if it had been his own by good right. But all this did him very little service; for soon after his wife died; and as he could not help being very unhappy, and was always thinking, too, that he saw the children before his eyes, he did not attend at all to his affairs; so that, instead of growing richer, he became poorer every day.
Besides this, his two sons had gone on board a ship to try their fortune abroad. They both were drowned at sea, and he became quite wretched, so that his life was a burden to him. When things had gone on in this manner for some years the ruffian who took pity on the children and would not kill them robbed some person in that very wood; and being pursued, he was caught and brought to prison, and soon after was tried before a judge and was found guilty; and sentenced to be hanged for the crime. As soon as he found what his death must be, he sent for the keeper of the prison, and told him all the crimes he had been guilty of.
Thus he made known the story of the two children; and at the same time told what part of the wood he had left them to starve in. The news of this matter soon reached the uncle's ears, who, already broken-hearted by many ills and worries, could not bear the load of public shame that must now fall on him, so he lay down upon his bed and died that very day.
As soon as the manner of the death of the two children was made public, proper persons were sent to search the wood for them; and after a great deal of trouble, the pretty babes were at last found stretched in each other's arms; with William's arm round the neck of Jane, his face turned close to hers, and his frock pulled over her body.
They were quite covered with leaves, which in all that time had not withered; and on a bush near this cold grave there sat a robin red-breast, watching and chirping: so that many gentle hearts still think it was this kind little bird that brought the leaves and covered the little babes over with them.