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Adapted from The French Story By
^ fp^,]\'CE 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 ten, while the youngest was seven. As the woodcutter was very poor, his children were a great burden to him, for no 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 was 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 boy 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 become 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 in his head, but listened intently all the time.
At last there came a year when little rain fell and the fields produced 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 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.
Xot 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.