Once upon a time there lived in a forest a woodcutter and his family, a wife and seven children. These seven children were all boys, and the oldest of them was only 10, while the youngest was seven. As the woodcutter was very poor, his children were a great burden to him, for not one of them could do anything to earn a living.
To make it worse, the youngest boy was a puny little fellow who hardly ever spoke a word, and who was thought very stupid by his brothers and even by his parents. Really, this silence with a mark of his good sense, but his father and mother could think of him as only silly and good for nothing, and they were sure he would turn out a fool.
This will play was not only very delicate; he was extremely small, for when he was born he was scarcely bigger than your thumb, and so they called him little Hop-o’-my-thumb.
Naturally, everything that went wrong in the house was blamed upon this little boy, and he became the drudge of everybody. Nevertheless, he was much sharper and wiser than all his brothers, and while they were chattering away he kept a still tongue up but in his head, but listened intently all the time.
At last there came a year when little rain fell and the fields produced and it that much less than ever before, and the woodcutter grew poorer and poorer until it was almost impossible to get food for himself and his wife. One evening when the children had gone to bed, the woodcutter sat down by the fire with his wife and to talk the matter over.
“I do not know what I can do,” he said. “We have had nothing but bread and potatoes for a long time, and now they are both gone. I cannot bear to see the boys starve before my eyes, so I think we must take them out into the woods to-morrow and lose them there. We can do this very easily, for while they are playing about we can slip away without being seen.”
“O husband! You surely can never consent to the death of your own children. I cannot believe that you mean it. I never will agree to such a thing.”
“Well,” said the father, with a breaking heart, “it is either do that or all starve here together; and perhaps if we take them out into the woods and leave them the Lord will provide for them.”
It was a long time before the wife would consent to this, for she was the children’s mother and loved them all; but finally, weeping as though her heart would break, she gave her consent and went sobbing to bed.
Now when his parents began to talk about this matter, little Hop-o’-my-thumb had not yet gone to sleep; and hearing his mother weeping, he crept softly away from the bed where he slept with his brothers, and hid himself under his father’s chair that he might listen closely to every word they spoke. When they went off to bed he crept back into his warm place and spent the rest of the night thinking of what he had heard.
Next morning as soon as it began to grow light he got out of bed and went to a brook that flowed near the house, where he filled his pockets with small white pebbles, and then ran back to the house.
Not long after this the father called the children about him and set out for the woods. When they came to a very dense place in the forest, the father and mother left the boys to gather twigs and tie them in bundles while they went a little farther into the woods. The trees grew so thick that when they were a few yards away from the children they could not be seen, and so it was not at all difficult for them to leave the children without being discovered.
Little Hop-o’-my-thumb had said nothing to any of the boys about what he knew, but he had taken good pains to drop his white pebbles in the path over which they had come, so that he knew very well he could find his way home again.
After a while the boys grew tired of their work and began to look about for their parents. When they could find them nowhere, they began to cry loudly, and Hop-o’-my-thumb let them cry on till they were weary. Then he said, “never mind, my lads. Do not be afraid. Father and mother have left us here, but you follow me and I will lead you back home again.”
This cheered them mightily, and they set off through the woods, following their little brother as confidently as though he were ten times his size. The white pebbles showed the way, and it was not so very long before they came to their cabin. At first they did not dare to go in, but stood by the door listening to what their parents were talking about.
Now it happened that while they were gone a rich man in the village had sent them two sovereigns that he had owed them for some time but had forgotten to pay. They were delighted with the money, and the husband’s first thought was of something to eat, so he sent his wife out to the butcher’s to buy meat.
Driven by the pain of her hunger, and forgetting for a time that her children were not at home, she bought two or three times as much meat as was needed for herself and her husband. While she was returning to the house she remembered what had happened to the children, and by the time she opened the door she was weeping bitterly.
“What is the matter? Haven’t we money enough and food enough now?” asked her husband.
“Alas, yes,” she replied. “We have food enough, but where are our poor children? How they would feast on what we shall have left! It is all your fault; it is just as I told you over and over again, that we should repent the hour we left them to starve in the forest. Oh mercy, perhaps they have already been eaten by hungry wolves! I told you how it would be, I told you how it would be!”
At last the woodcutter grew very angry with his wife, for she would not cease her reproaches.
“If you don’t hold your tongue I will give you a good beating,” he said, although in his heart he was just as sorry as she was that the children were not there. The woodcutter was like many another husband: he knew that his wife was right, but he did not like to be told so.
The threat quieted her somewhat, but every few minutes she would cry out, “Alas, alas, what has become of my dear children!”
One time she said it so loud that the boys, who were clustered around the door, heard her, and they cried out, “Here we are, mother; here we are.”
She flew like lightning to let them in and kissed them all as fast as she could.
“Oh you rogues! How glad I am to see you. Why, Peter, you are all dirt. Let me wash your face. Bobby, you have torn your coat; I must mend it right away.”
This Bobby was next to the youngest, and as he had red hair like his mother’s, he was always her favorite. After a little washing and brushing, but before any mending was done, the boys sat down at the table and ate as heartily as though they were grown men. Talking and eating at the same time, they all together told how frightened they had been in the woods, and how Hop-o’-my-thumb had led them safely home.
It was a happy evening, and the joy of the family lasted until the money was exhausted and they found themselves near starving again.
By degrees the parents came again to think of leaving the children in the woods, and this time they intended to take them farther away; but no matter how slyly they talked about it, Hop-o’-my-thumb was always listening and laying plans for escaping as he had done before.
At last one night the parents agreed to take their children away the very next morning.
As soon as it was light, Hop-o’-my-thumb was up again in order to get out and pick up some more white pebbles, but when he reached the door he found it was locked and bolted, so he was unable to get out at all. He was much puzzled as to what to do until it become time for breakfast and he was given his share of the last loaf of bread. Then he thought that he might drop the crumbs on the way and mark it as well as with the white pebbles. So instead of eating his bread he slyly dropped it into his pocket, and on the way he scattered the crumbs as he had intended.
This time they were taken much farther into the woods and left as before, but Hop-‘o-my-thumb was not disturbed, for he knew how to find his way. When the time came, however, for him to lead his weeping brothers home, he could not find a trace of his bread crumbs. The birds had eaten them all.
Then, indeed, were the children in great distress. They wandered about, but only buried themselves deeper in the forest. When night came a great wind arose and frightened them terribly. On all sides it seemed as though they could hear the hungry wolves howling on their way to eat them. The boys did not dare to speak, or even to turn their heads. Rain began to fall, and soon they were wet to the skin. With almost every step they slipped and fell to the ground and got so covered with mud that they could hardly move their hands, and the little ones were continually crying to their big brothers to help them on.
When they were nearly worn out, Hop-o’-my-thumb told them to wait while he climbed to the top of a tree to see if he could discover anything. After he had looked about on all sides, and was nearly discouraged, he at last saw a little gleam of light like that from a candle, but it was very far away beyond the edge of the forest. However, when he climbed down to the ground and tried to go toward the light he could not see it and became more confused even than before. Yet he happened to choose the right direction, and the children walked on as fast as they could.
Finally they came out of the woods and saw the light ahead of them. As they ran toward it, however, it would disappear now and then when they sent into a little hollow, and each time they thought it had disappeared forever. Nevertheless, they did at last reach the house, and Hop-o’-my-thumb knocked loudly for admission.
The door was quickly opened by a nice-looking woman, who said to them, “What do you want here?”
Hop-o’-my-thumb replied, “We are poor children who have been lost in the forest, and we beg of you for sweet charity’s sake to give us something to eat and a place to sleep.”
As the lady looked at them she saw that they had very sweet faces, and she at once became interested in them.
“Alas, poor little ones,” she said, with tears in her eyes; “from what place have you come, and why do you come here? Do you not know this is the house of an Ogre, who eats little children?”
“Alas, madam,” answered Hop-o’-my-thumb, trembling all over as did his brothers, “what shall we do? If you do not give us shelter, the wolves will certainly eat us before morning. We would rather be eaten by the Ogre than by the wolves. But perhaps when he sees us he will take pity on us and let us go.”
The lady, who was the Ogre’s wife, thought she might conceal them in the house, so she brought them in and made them sit by the fire, where a whole sheep was roasting for the Ogre’s supper. Just as they were nicely warmed and had eaten the lunch the kind lady gave them, they heard four loud double knocks at the door. The woman caught the children up hastily and hid them under the bed, for she knew it was the Ogre returning. Then she opened the door and let her wicked husband into the house.
“Is supper ready, and is the wine drawn?” said the Ogre.
“Yes; everything is ready; sit down,” answered his wife.
You and I would not have thought supper was ready, for the mutton was not half cooked, but it suited the Ogre a great deal better than if it had been well done.
After he had eaten heartily he began to sniff about and said, “I think I smell fresh meat.”
“It must be the calf which I have just been dressing,” said his wife.
“No, I am sure I smell fresh meat,” said the Ogre. “You are concealing something from me.”
With these words he jumped from the table and went straight to the bed, where he found the seven little boys almost dead with terror.
“Is this the way you deceive me, you wicked woman?” said the Ogre. “I do not know what keeps me from eating you, too. But these boys will come very handy just now, for three other Ogres are coming to visit me in a day or two.”
Then one after another he dragged the little boys out from under the bed and set them on the table before him. Each boy knelt, folded his hands devoutly and prayed the Ogre to pardon them and let them go. But they were dealing with the fiercest and most wicked of all the Ogres, and he was deaf to their prayers.
As he felt their little limbs he said to his wife, “What delicate morsels these will make fried, if you can prepare a decent sauce for them.”
After devouring them with his eyes for a few moments he went to the cupboard and brought out his great knife, which he began to sharpen briskly on a stone which he held in his left hand.
As soon as the edge of the knife was fine enough to suit him he caught Peter, the eldest, by the arm and was about to slay him, when his wife called out, “Why do you begin killing them at this time of night? Why don’t you wait till to-morrow?”
“Be quiet,” said the Ogre; “I know what I am about. They will be much more tender if I kill them to-night.”
“But you have so much more meat on hand that they will spoil before you can get to them. Here are a calf, a sheep and half a pig all ready for cooking.”
“Well, perhaps you are right,” said the Ogre. “Feed them well and put them to bed, for I do not want them to get thin and poor.”
This pleased the good woman thoroughly, and she brought them a fine meal, which, however, they were all too frightened to eat.
The Ogre sat so long by the fire, drinking hard and thinking of the choice morsels he would have for his friends, that he quite forgot to count the cups he drank. So, early in the evening his wits were quite befuddled, and he had to go to bed long before his usual time.
Now there were also in the house the seven daughters of the Ogre, all very young and not very far from the age of Hop-o’-my-thumb and his brothers. These young Ogresses had fair complexions, because they lived on nearly raw meat, as did their father; but their eyes were little and gray and sunk quite deep in their heads. Their noses were hooked, and their wide mouths were filled with teeth that stood far apart from one another. The Ogresses enjoyed biting other children, but they were not so very bad, although it was certain that they would in time become as wicked as their father.
Before the boys came in they had been put together in one wide bed, each wearing a little golden crown. In the same room was another bed of about the same size, into which the lady put the seven little boys before she went to her own room. Hop-o’-my-thumb, who had been thinking very seriously all evening, had noticed the Ogresses with the golden crowns on their heads, and the more he thought about their terrible father the more decided he became that the Ogre would wake up in the night, change his mind, and kill the children before morning.
After much hard thinking he hit upon a plan which worked very well. Untying all the nightcaps from the heads of the brothers, and from his own, he went to the bed of the little Ogresses, took their crowns off gently and tied the nightcaps on in their places. Then he returned to his own bed and put a crown on the head of each of his brothers and one upon his own.
Everything happened just as Hop-o’-my-thumb expected. About midnight the Ogre waked up and repented that he had been so kind to the boys. “I will just see what the little brats are about and put them out of the way now while I am in the mood,” he said.
Taking his big knife he went into the room, which was quite dark, and came to the bed of the little boys. Just as he was about to strike the first one he happened to think that it was best to be certain, and putting out his hand he felt the gold crowns on the heads of the boys.
“Aha,” he said; “what a narrow escape from a terrible mistake! I had almost killed one of my own daughters.”
When he reached the bed of the girls he felt the coarse nightcaps on their heads, and without more ado he cut the throats of every one of them. After this bloody deed he went back to his bed and slept soundly till morning.
As soon as Hop-o’-my-thumb heard him snoring, he quietly awoke his brothers, made them all dress themselves, and together they stole down into the garden and jumped over the wall. All the rest of the night they ran as hard as they could, not knowing where they were going, but very much determined to get as far away from the Ogre as possible.
In the morning the Ogre said to his wife, “Come now, go and dress the young rogues I saw last night and bring them down to me.”
She was much surprised and pleased to hear the Ogre speak so, for she had little idea how he meant to have the boys dressed. Putting on her clothes and hastening up stairs, she was amazed to find her seven daughters lying in the bloody sheets with their throats cut from ear to ear. Overcome with horror at the sight, she fell to the floor and lay in a dead faint.
The Ogre waited for a while, and when his wife did not return he thought she was too slow with her work and went upstairs to find her. His astonishment was as great as hers at the fearful sight that lay before him.
“What have I done!” he cried. “How could I have slain my own daughters? But those little wretches shall pay for this, and without delay.”
He revived his wife by throwing a bucket of water in her face, and then called loudly for his seven-league boots.
“I will follow those boys to the ends of the earth, and bring them back,” said he.
He wasted no time in starting out, and rushed about first in one direction and then in another, until finally he came to the road where the boys were hurrying along not more than one hundred paces from their father’s house.
They had seen him coming with his long steps from mountain to mountain, and Hop-o’-my-thumb, seeing a hollow rock near where they were, hid himself and his brothers, while he watched carefully to see what became of the Ogre.
The Ogre himself was by this time tired from his exertions, and finally sat down upon the very rock under which Hop-o’-my-thumb and his brothers were concealed. The morning was warm, and the Ogre soon dropped off to sleep.
As soon as Hop-o’-my-thumb heard him snoring he crawled out from under the rock, drew his brothers out one by one and sent them on to his father’s house. When they were well on their way, Hop-o’-my-thumb crept very softly up to the Ogre, and drawing off the seven-league boots, put them on himself. You may think that these would not fit Hop-o’-my-thumb very well, but you must remember that they were fairy boots and fitted exactly to any feet that were put into them.
With the seven-league boots on his feet, Hop-o’-my-thumb was able to go very quickly to the Ogre’s house, where he rapped again at the door.
When the Ogress appeared he said to her, “Your husband, the Ogre, is in great trouble. He has been captured by a band of robbers, who say they will slay him at once unless you send to them all the gold and silver that he has in his chests. I was near when he was captured, and hoping that you would send him help quickly, he put his seven-league boots on me and asked me to deliver the message.”
Seeing the boots on Hop-o’-my-thumb, the Ogress suspected nothing, but gathered together all the Ogre’s gold and silver and gave it to Hop-o’-my-thumb, who sped away to his home, where he found his family united and happy. By the aid of the Ogre’s money they were able to live the rest of their lives in great comfort, and never again did any one say or think that Hop-o’-my-thumb was weak or stupid. Instead, they treated him as though he, and not his father, was the head of the family.
As for the Ogre, he did not awaken till late in the evening, and then without his boots he was almost helpless. As he was fat and unwieldy, he could scarcely walk without assistance, so he lay back upon the rock and soon fell asleep again. While he was in this condition robbers really did come, and setting upon him they beat him to death, which was surely no more than he deserved.