Once upon a time there was a Woodcutter and his wife who had seven children, all boys; the eldest was but ten years old, and the youngest only seven. People wondered that the Woodcutter had had so many children in so short a time; but the fact is, that his wife not only had them very fast, but seldom presented him with less than two at a birth. They were very poor, and their seven children troubled them greatly, as not one of them was yet able to gain his livelihood. What grieved them still more was that the youngest was very delicate, and seldom spoke, which they considered a proof of stupidity instead of good sense. He was very diminutive, and, when first born, scarcely bigger than one’s thumb, which caused them to call him Little Thumbling.
This poor child was the scapegoat of the house, and was blamed for everything that happened. Nevertheless he was the shrewdest and most sensible of all his brothers, and if he spoke little, he listened a great deal. There came a very bad harvest, and the famine was so severe that these poor people determined to get rid of their children. One evening, when they were all in bed, and the Woodman was sitting over the fire with his wife, he said to her, with an aching heart, “Thou seest clearly that we can no longer find food for our children. I cannot let them die of hunger before my eyes, and I am resolved to lose them to-morrow in the wood, which will be easily done, for whilst they are occupied in tying up the faggots, we have but to make off unobserved by them.” “Ah!” exclaimed the Woodcutter’s wife, “Canst thou have the heart to lose thine own children?” Her husband in vain represented to her their exceeding poverty; she could not consent to the deed. She was poor, but she was their mother. Having, however, reflected on the misery it would occasion her to see them die of hunger, she at length assented, and went to bed weeping.
Little Thumbling heard everything they had said, for having ascertained, as he lay in his bed, that they were talking of their affairs, he got up quietly, and slipped under his father’s stool to listen, without being seen. He went to bed again, and slept not a wink the rest of the night, thinking what he should do. He rose early and repaired to the banks of a rivulet, where he filled his pockets with small white pebbles, and then returned home. They set out all together, and Little Thumbling said nothing of what he had heard to his brothers. They entered a very thick forest, wherein, at ten paces distant, they could not see one another. The Woodcutter began to cut wood, and his children to pick up sticks to make faggots with. The father and mother, seeing them occupied with their work, stole away gradually, and then fled suddenly by a small winding path. When the children found themselves all alone, they began to scream and cry with all their might. Little Thumbling let them scream, well knowing how he could get home again, for as he came he had dropped all along the road the little white pebbles he had in his pockets. He said to them then, “Fear nothing, brothers, my father and mother have left us here, but I will take you safely home, only follow me.” They followed him, and he led them back to the house by the same road that they had taken into the forest. They feared to enter immediately, but placed themselves close to the door to listen to the conversation of their father and mother.
Just at the moment that the Woodcutter and his wife arrived at home, the lord of the manor sent them ten crowns which he had owed them a long time, and which they had given up all hope of receiving. This was new life to them, for these poor people were actually starving. The Woodcutter sent his wife to the butcher’s immediately. As it was many a day since they had tasted meat, she bought three times as much as was necessary for the supper of two persons. When they had satisfied their hunger, the Woodcutter’s wife said, “Alas! where now are our poor children; they would fare merrily on what we have left. But it was thou, Guillaume, who wouldst lose them. Truly did I say we should repent it. What are they now doing in the forest! Alas! Heaven help me! the wolves have, perhaps, already devoured them! Inhuman that thou art, thus to have destroyed thy children!” The Woodcutter began to lose his temper, for she repeated more than twenty times that they should repent it, and that she had said they would. He threatened to beat her if she did not hold her tongue. It was not that the Woodcutter was not, perhaps, even more sorry than his wife, but that she made such a noise about it, and that he was like many other men who are very fond of women who can talk well, but are exceedingly annoyed by those whose words always come true. The wife was all in tears. “Alas! where are now my children, my poor children?” She uttered this, at length, so loudly, that the children, who were at the door, heard her, and began to cry altogether, “We are here! we are here!” She ran quickly to open the door to them, and, embracing them, exclaimed, “How happy I am to see you again, my dear children; you are very tired and hungry. And how dirty thou art, Pierrot; come here and let me wash thee.” Pierrot was her eldest son, and she loved him better than all the rest because he was rather red-headed, and she was slightly so herself. They sat down to supper, and ate with an appetite that delighted their father and mother, to whom they related how frightened they were in the forest, speaking almost always all together. The good folks were enchanted to see their children once more around them, and their joy lasted as long as the ten crowns; but when the money was spent they relapsed into their former misery, and resolved to lose the children again, and to do so effectually they determined to lead them much further from home than they had done the first time.
They could not talk of this so privately, but that they were overheard by Little Thumbling, who reckoned upon getting out of the scrape by the same means as before; but though he got up very early to collect the little pebbles, he could not succeed in his object, for he found the house door double locked. He knew not what to do, when the Woodcutter’s wife, having given them each a piece of bread for their breakfast, it occurred to him that he might make the bread supply the place of the pebbles by strewing crumbs of it along the path as they went, and so he put his piece in his pocket. The father and mother led them into the thickest and darkest part of the forest; and as soon as they had done so, they gained a by-path, and left them there. Little Thumbling did not trouble himself much, for he believed he should easily find his way back by means of the bread which he had scattered wherever he had passed; but he was greatly surprised at not being able to find a single crumb. The birds had eaten it all up! Behold the poor children then, in great distress, for the further they wandered the deeper they plunged into the forest. Night came on, and a great wind arose, which terrified them horribly. They fancied they heard on every side nothing but the howling of wolves, hastening to devour them. They scarcely dared to speak or look behind them. It then began to rain so heavily that they were soon drenched to the skin; they slipped at every step, tumbling into the mud, out of which they scrambled in a filthy state, not knowing what to do with their hands. Little Thumbling climbed up a tree to try if he could see anything from the top of it. Having looked all about him, he saw a little light like that of a candle, but it was a long way on the other side of the forest. He came down again, and when he had reached the ground he could see the light no longer. This distressed him greatly; but having walked on with his brothers for some time in the direction of the light, he saw it again on emerging from the wood. At length they reached the house where the light was, not without many alarms, for they often lost sight of it, and always when they descended into the valleys. They knocked loudly at the door, and a good woman came to open it.
She asked them what they wanted. Little Thumbling told her they were poor children who had lost their way in the forest, and who begged a night’s lodging for charity. The woman, seeing they were all so pretty, began to weep, and said to them, “Alas! my poor children, whither have you come? Know that this is the dwelling of an Ogre who eats little boys!” “Alas, Madam!” replied Little Thumbling, who trembled from head to foot, as did all his brothers; “what shall we do? — It is certain that the wolves of the forest will not fail to devour us to-night, if you refuse to receive us under your roof, and that being the case, we had rather be eaten by the gentleman; perhaps he may have pity upon us, if you are kind enough to ask him.”
The Ogre’s wife, who fancied she could contrive to hide them from her husband till the next morning, allowed them to come in, and led them where they could warm themselves by a good fire, for there was a whole sheep on the spit roasting for the Ogre’s supper. Just as they were beginning to get warm, they heard two or three loud knocks at the door. It was the Ogre who had come home. His wife immediately made the children hide under the bed, and went to open the door.
The Ogre first asked if his supper was ready and if she had drawn the wine, and with that he sat down to his meal. The mutton was all but raw, but he liked it all the better for that. He sniffed right and left, saying that he smelt fresh meat.
“It must be the calf I have just skinned that you smell,” said his wife.
“I smell fresh meat, I tell you once more,” replied the Ogre, looking askance at his wife; “there is something here that I don’t understand.”
In saying these words, he rose from the table and went straight to the bed —
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “it is thus, then, thou wouldst deceive me, cursed woman! I know not what hinders me from eating thee also! It is well for thee that thou art an old beast! Here is some game, which comes in good time for me to entertain three Ogres of my acquaintance who are coming to see me in a day or two.”
And he dragged them from under the bed one after the other.
The poor children fell on their knees, begging mercy; but they had to deal with the most cruel of all the Ogres, and who, far from feeling pity for them, devoured them already with his eyes, and said to his wife they would be dainty bits, when she had made a good sauce for them. He went to fetch a great knife, and as he returned to the poor children, he whetted it on a long stone that he held in his left hand. He had already seized one, when his wife said to him, “What would you do at this hour of the night? will it not be time enough to-morrow?”
“Hold thy peace,” replied the Ogre, “they will be the more tender.”
“But you have already so much meat,” returned his wife; “Here is a calf, two sheep, and half a pig.”
“Thou art right,” said the Ogre; “give them a good supper, that they may not fall away, and then put them to bed.” The good woman was enchanted, and brought them plenty for supper, but they couldn’t eat, they were so paralysed with fright. As for the Ogre, he seated himself to drink again, delighted to think he had such a treat in store for his friends. He drained a dozen goblets more than usual, which affected his head a little, and obliged him to go to bed.
The Ogre had seven daughters who were still in their infancy. These little Ogresses had the most beautiful complexions, in consequence of their eating raw flesh like their father; but they had very small, round, grey eyes, hooked noses, and very large mouths, with long teeth, exceedingly sharp, and wide apart. They were not very vicious as yet; but they promised fairly to be so, for they already began to bite little children, in order to suck their blood. They had been sent to bed early, and were all seven in a large bed, having each a crown of gold on her head. In the same room was another bed of the same size. It was in this bed that the Ogre’s wife put the seven little boys to sleep, after which she went to sleep with her husband.