T HERE was once a wood-cutter and his wife who had seven children, all boys. The eldest was only twelve years old, and the youngest was five, and none of them was large enough to do much toward earning a living, so that their parents had to work very hard to get food and clothing for them. What made matters worse was that the youngest child was sickly and weak, and he was so small that his father and mother called him Hop-o'-my-Thumb. Yet the little, weak boy was gifted with a great deal of sense, and though he never had much to say, he noticed all that went on around him. The year that he was five the harvest failed and the wood-cutter and his wife found it more and more difficult to supply their large family with food. Finally they had spent their last penny and there was only a single loaf of bread left in the house, and when that was eaten they knew they must starve.
That evening, after the children were all in bed, the father and mother sat by the fire thinking sadly of the dismal fate that awaited them. "My dear wife," said the wood-cutter at length, "I have something to propose to you. It is plain that we must perish, but I cannot bear to see our children die of hunger, and I am resolved to lose them to-morrow in the forest. They cannot be worse off than they are at home, and perhaps the fairies will take care of them. We will go very deep into the woods, and while the children are busy tying up fagots we will slip away and leave them."
"No, no," said the wife, "I could never do such a thing."
"But if we don't do that," said the wood-cutter, "they will die here before our eyes, crying with hunger," and he argued until his wife consented to his plan, and then she went weeping to bed.
The parents thought the children were all asleep while they talked. However, Hop-o'-my-Thumb was wide awake and he heard what was said and he never slept any that night for thinking of what he should do. Early in the morning he crept out of bed and ran to a brook near the house and filled his pockets with small white pebbles. Then he went back indoors, and by and by the family ate half of the one loaf of bread and started as usual for their day's work in the forest.
The father led the way and Hop-o'-my-Thumb, who came along behind all the others, dropped the white pebbles one by one from his pockets. The wood-cutter kept on into the very thickest of the woods, and then he began chopping with his ax, and the mother and children picked up the brush and tied it into bundles. They worked thus until toward nightfall, when the parents stole away, and as soon as they were out of their children's sight they hurried back to their home. There they sat silent in the lonely house for a long time, and the sun went down and it was getting dark. Then came a rap at the door, and in walked a man who had been sent by the lord of the manor with a present of ten crowns and a haunch of venison.
"My lord, the baron, is sorry for the distress of his people," said the man, "and he is going to help them, and those who have large families like you are to get the most."
The man then departed to convey assistance to another suffering household. "Oh!" cried the wife, "if only our children were here to eat of this good food. Let us go to the forest and find them."
"No," responded the husband sorrowfully, "it would do no good to seek them now. If the fairies have not taken care of them they must have been eaten by wolves before this time."
Then the mother wept and would not be comforted. "I want my children," she wailed.
But the children had not been eaten by wolves. As soon as they discovered that they were alone, Peter, the oldest boy, began to call, "Father and mother, where are you?"
No voice answered him, and then he and all the little boys except Hop-o'-my-Thumb ran hither and thither shouting for their parents and crying. Hop-o'-my-Thumb waited until he could make himself heard, and then said, "Fear not, brothers, our father and mother have left us here, but I will lead you safely home."
"And why did they leave us?" asked Peter.
Hop-o'-my-Thumb told them what he had overheard and how he had strewed the white pebbles to guide them back. "Just follow me," said he; "and let us start at once, for it will soon be dark."
So keeping his eyes on the line of pebbles, he hurried along, and the others followed him. They reached home, but because their parents had abandoned them they were afraid they would not be welcome, and instead of going in they huddled under a window at the back of the house to listen. They heard the man come with the money and the venison, and when their mother began to cry they ran around to the front of the house and in at the door, shouting, "Here we are, mother!"
She hugged them every one, and now, instead of crying for sorrow, she cried for gladness. The wood-cutter was rejoiced, too, and he helped start a fire, and soon some slices of venison were broiling before the flames and the family was presently eating the best supper they had had for a long time.
Several weeks passed, and while the venison and the money lasted the wood-cutter got along very well, but the famine grew worse and worse, and the lord of the manor could not send his tenants any more supplies. So at last the wood-cutter thought his family must surely starve, and he and his wife talked the matter over late one night and decided they would take the children again into the forest and lose them.
They talked in whispers, that Hop-o'-my-Thumb might not know what they said even if he chanced to be awake, but he had very keen ears and he heard in spite of their caution. He thought he would get some more pebbles in the morning, but when morning came the parents kept a sharp watch of him and would not let him go out of the house. He was much troubled by this at first. However, the mother gave them each a slice of dry bread for their breakfast, and Hop-o'-my-Thumb said to himself, "I can use bread crumbs instead of pebbles," and he put his slice of bread into his pocket.
They went deeper than ever into the forest this time, and Hop-o'-my-Thumb followed behind the others and scattered bread crumbs all the way. The day was spent in working, as was their custom, but toward evening the father proposed the children should play a game of hide and seek, and while they were playing he and the mother hurried off and left them.
When the children found that they had been deserted again there was much bitter crying, but Hop-o'-my-Thumb said, "Do not weep, my dear brothers. I will take you home."
They then started to follow the trail of bread crumbs, but the birds had eaten them all up, and the children were very much distressed. "Well," said Hop-o'-my-Thumb after thinking a minute, "we must not waste the twilight in tears. Come along, and we will see if we can find some shelter for the night."
So Hop-o'-my-Thumb led the way. Night came on, and the wind among the trees seemed to them like the howling of wolves, so that every moment they thought they would be eaten up. They hardly dared speak a word. Presently Hop-o'-my-Thumb climbed to the top of a tall tree to look about for some path out of the forest. He saw no path, but far away was a light shining. "There must be a house where that light is," said he, and though he could not see the light when he returned to the ground, he knew which direction to take.
The little boys hurried along and by and by they came out of the forest, and there stood a great castle. The light Hop-o'-my-Thumb had seen shone through an open door. They went to the door and looked in and saw a woman busy at a fireplace roasting a whole sheep. Hop-o'-my-Thumb rapped to attract her attention.
"What do you want?" said she, turning and looking at them.
"We are poor children who have lost our way in the forest," replied Hop-o'-my-Thumb, "and we beg you for charity's sake to grant us a night's lodging."
"Alas! my little darlings," said the woman, "you do not know where you are come. This is the house of an ogre who would like nothing better than to eat you. I am the cook here and I know very well what he likes to eat."
"Then what can we do?" said Hop-o'-my-Thumb; "for if you refuse to give us shelter the wolves will tear us to pieces in the forest."
"Well, perhaps I can hide you," the old woman responded; "so you may come in," and as soon as they entered the room she shut the door.
The children went to the fire and sat down to warm themselves. Just as they were beginning to get warm they heard heavy footsteps outside.
"That is the ogre," said the woman in a whisper. "Make haste and crawl under the bed."
No sooner were they out of sight than the ogre walked in. "Is my supper ready?" he asked, and sat down at the table.
The old woman called in another servant and the two of them lifted the sheep that was roasting before the fire onto a great platter, and then took up the platter and placed it before the ogre. The sheep was half raw, but he liked it that way. When he had finished he began to sniff right and left. "I smell fresh meat!" he said.
"It must be the calf I have skinned and hung in the pantry for your breakfast," explained the old woman.
Then the ogre looked toward the fireplace and saw a little shoe lying there that one of the boys had taken off. The ogre stamped over to the fireplace and picked up the shoe. "What is this?" he asked in a terrible voice.
"Why, that must be a shoe which belongs to your oldest daughter's doll," said the cook.
At that moment poor Peter, who happened to have a bad cold, sneezed.
"Ah!" exclaimed the ogre shaking his fist at the cook, "you have been deceiving me, and I would eat you if you were not so old and tough."
Then he dragged the children from under the bed and never paid the least heed to their appeals for mercy. He would have eaten one or two of them that night, but the old woman said, "See how lean they are. They have been half starved. They will be much fatter if we feed them for a few days."
The ogre took up Hop-o'-my-Thumb and pinched his arms. "You are right," said he; "this child is nothing but bones."
Then the woman gave the boys a good supper and put them to bed, and they were so tired that they fell asleep at once and did not wake till morning. Hop-o'-my-Thumb was on the watch all that day for some chance to escape, but the ogre had seven daughters and he ordered them to keep the boys from straying. The daughters had small gray eyes and large mouths and long sharp teeth. They were young and not very vicious as yet; but they showed what they would be, for they had already begun to bite little boys, and their captives did not in the least enjoy their company.
When night came and all the family had gone to bed, Hop-o'-my-Thumb lay awake until every one else was asleep, and then he roused his brothers and whispered, "Come, we must be off."
They all dressed quickly and quietly and followed him, and he led the way downstairs and out a back door into the garden, and by climbing up some vines that grew on the wall they got outside. They did not dare go far for fear of wolves, and they crept into a heap of straw that lay beside the wall and waited for daylight. Hop-o'-my-Thumb thought he could find the way home by keeping along the edge of the forest, and as soon as there was light enough for them to see they started.
The ogre was not an early riser and he did not think of the boys until after he had eaten breakfast. He was very angry when they were not to be found. "Quick!" he shouted to his cook, "get me my seven-league boots, that I may go and catch them."
With those magic boots he could go a great distance at a single step, and he would have caught the little boys at once if he had known just where to look for them. As it was, he hunted in every direction. He strode from hill to hill and stepped over wide rivers as easily as if they had been brooks. Late in the afternoon the boys had arrived within about a mile of home, and they were hurrying along a hillside when they saw the ogre coming in their direction. Luckily he had not seen them and they scurried into a cave that chanced to be close by.
The ogre had done so much racing about that he was tired, and when he came to the hillside where the boys were he lay down over the very cave in which they had taken refuge, and there he went to sleep and snored with a sound like thunder that frightened the little boys very much. "Now," said Hop-o'-my-Thumb to his brothers, "the rest of you run away home. I'm going to see if I can get those boots."
When they had gone he crept up to where the ogre lay and gently pulled off his boots and got into them himself. The boots as worn by the ogre were very large and heavy, but they were magic boots that fitted themselves to whatever feet were put into them, and so they were just right for Hop-o'-my-Thumb.
The ogre had been partly awakened when his boots were pulled off, and Hop-o'-my-Thumb scarcely had time to get them on his own feet before the giant suddenly opened his eyes and sat up. He saw what had happened and he roared with anger. Off went Hop-o'-my-Thumb and the ogre jumped to his feet and gave chase. But he was no match for the speed of the little lad with the seven-league boots. Not far from where the giant had lain down was a precipice, and Hop-o'-my-Thumb stepped off this cliff to a hilltop opposite. The ogre, who was rushing after him, forgot that he did not have the boots on and must be cautious, and he fell from the cliff with a crash that made the rocks echo far and near, and that was the end of him.
While Hop-o'-my-Thumb had been at the ogre's house he had found out where the ogre kept his money, and there was a little window to the treasure-room too small for any ordinary person to get through, but which would admit Hop-o'-my-Thumb easily. "Unless I can get some of that money to buy food with," said he, "my father and mother and all the rest of us will starve;" and he decided he would go and see what he could do.
His boots took him to the ogre's house in a twinkling, and he slipped in at the little window of the treasure-room and loaded himself down with all the gold he could carry. Then he went home, and his father and mother were very happy to have their children all back, and with the money Hop-o'-my-Thumb brought they got all the food they needed and passed through the famine quite comfortably.