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Children Of Kings
Haensel And Gretel
Lohengrin The Knight Of The Swan
Tannhaeuser The Minstrel Knight
The Flying Dutchman
The Master Singers

Great Opera Stories

Haensel And Gretel


Long ago, in half-forgotten days, a little hut stood at the edge of a
great forest. It was rather a meek, shamefaced little hut, for the
forest was great and beautiful, and the hut was small and ugly. Still,
it had a glowing fireplace inside, and a brick chimney on top, and it
was somebody's home, which--after all--is the principal thing.

A broom-maker named Peter lived there with his wife Gertrude and their
two children, Haensel and Gretel. The broom-maker was poor, oh, very,
very poor, and that is why his home was not beautiful to see. But he was
an honest, upright man who loved his family, and had he been able, I am
sure, he would have housed them in a marble palace. Unfortunately,
however, the broom-making business had been unusually poor that year.

Indeed, on the very day that our story begins, Peter and his wife were
both away from home in quest of work, and only Haensel and Gretel were
to be seen inside the hut.

Lest you should not know, it might be well to mention that Haensel was
the boy. He was busily engaged--or, at least, he was supposed to be--in
making brooms, while Gretel, the girl, had her knitting in hand. But it
was extremely difficult to keep their thoughts or their eyes, either,
upon such stupid work. Each breeze that blew in through the open window
brought an invitation from the fascinatingly sunlit grassy spot before
the door. Even the trees in the forest beyond beckoned to them with
their tall branches.

Besides, there was another cause for rebellion on that particular
afternoon. To tell the truth, the children were hungry. Moreover, since
there seemed to be absolutely nothing in the house to eat, it was quite
likely that they would remain hungry, which was the worst part of all.

Haensel, after the manner of boys, threw his work into the farthest
corner of the room and fairly shouted:

"I just wish Mother would come home! I'm hungry, that's what I am. For a
week I've eaten nothing but bread, and little of that. Oh, Gret, it
would be such a treat if we had something good to eat!"

Now Gretel, as it happened, was every bit as hungry as he, but, after
the manner of girls, she sought to comfort him.

"Don't be an old crosspatch," she said. "If you'll stop complaining,
I'll tell you a secret. But you must smile first!"

Haensel smiled.

She went on:

"Do you see that jug over there on the table? Well--it's full of milk.
Somebody left it here. And if you're good, Mother will stew rice in it
when she comes home."

Haensel had heard such stories before.

"Don't believe it," said he. "It's too good to be true."

Nevertheless he went to see. And when his eyes assured him that what was
in the jug really looked like milk, he was overcome with the temptation
to find out whether it tasted like milk, also. First he gave a sly
glance at Gretel and then down went his forefinger into the jug!

"Haensel! aren't you ashamed, you greedy boy? Out with your finger!" For
Gretel had caught him in the act.

"Get back to your work in a hurry, for you know if Mother comes before
we've finished, there'll be trouble."

Haensel, however, was not inclined toward work that afternoon. In fact,
he was in a very rebellious mood, altogether.

"Don't let's work," suggested he. "Let's dance."

Now you must remember that Gretel was only a little girl with twinkling
feet that loved to dance and a merry voice that loved to sing. So do not
judge her too harshly, even though she quickly dropped her tiresome

Their wooden shoes--for they were the style in those days--clattered
over the board floor; they clapped their hands, their childish voices
rang out, and they had, all in all, a most beautiful time. They forgot
their empty stomachs; they forgot their aching fingers. Gretel, who was
clever in such things, taught Haensel some new steps. And he, less
awkward than usual, learned them so quickly that Gretel praised him for
his aptness. Her words made him as proud as a peacock. He seized her
hands in both of his own. Round and round they whirled, faster and
faster, until suddenly, losing their balance, they fell, laughing
loudly, in one heap on the floor.

And then--the door opened.

"Gracious goodness!" they cried. "It's Mother!" And up they jumped in
double-quick time.

Yes, it was Mother, and an angry Mother at that.

"What does this mean?" she exclaimed, "all the noise and clatter? Where
is your work, you good-for-nothing children?"

The children, half penitent, wholly frightened, looked at each other.
Haensel blamed Gretel, Gretel blamed Haensel.

The Mother blamed them both. She scolded, she raged, she brandished a
stick, and I confess I am afraid to think of what her anger might have
led her to do next. But just at that moment, in her excitement, she gave
the milk jug a push, and down it went, breaking into a thousand pieces,
with the precious milk running in little streams all over the floor.
That was the last straw! What was there left to be cooked for supper?

The furious woman snatched a basket from a nail on the wall. She thrust
it into Gretel's hand.

"Off with you both to the wood!" she cried. "And hurry up, too! Pick
strawberries for supper! If the basket isn't full, you'll get a
whipping. Yes, that's what you'll get." She shook her fist to make the
admonition more impressive.

Scarcely had they gone, however, when the woman, completely exhausted,
sat down by the table and began to weep and moan. You see, she was
really not an ill-natured woman at all. Poverty had embittered her, and
the mere thought that her children might be starving, caused her to lose
entire control of her feelings. It had been a long, wearisome, and
disappointing day, and now, even at its end, her own irritability had
caused another calamity. Angry with herself, the world, and everything,
she rested her head on her arms and sobbed herself to sleep.

Do you know the old verse, "It is always darkest just before dawn"? Now,
if the mother had been patient only a little longer, all would have
been well. But then there would have been no story to tell.

The mother was still sleeping when the father came home. He was singing
joyfully, and he awoke her with a kiss.

"See," he cried happily, "my brooms are all sold. There was a festival
in the town to-day, and every one must needs be clean. Such a sweeping
and a dusting and a cleaning! I drove a roaring trade, I tell you. So,
here's butter and eggs and ham and sausage. And tea, too. Hurry up, good
wife, and get supper ready!"

The mother packed away the things. She lighted the fire. She hustled and
bustled about. Suddenly the father, missing the children, inquired:

"Where are Haensel and Gretel?" He went to the door to call.

"Don't call," answered the mother. "They were naughty, and I sent them
to the woods in disgrace."

"The woods!" exclaimed the father, and his voice was full of horror.

"It is growing dark," he said, "and my children are in those gloomy
woods without stars or moon to guide them! Don't you know that there is
enchantment in those woods? Don't you know that the Witch walks there?"
His voice sank to a whisper.

"Which witch?" asked the woman, thoroughly alarmed.

"The Crust Witch, the gobbling Witch! She who rides on a broomstick at
the midnight hour, when no one is abroad, over hill and vale, over moor
and dale!"

"Oh! Oh! Oh! but what does she gobble?"

"Have you never heard? All day long, she stalks around, with a
crinching, crunching, munching sound and lures little children with
gingerbread sweet. She lures little children, the poor little things,
into her oven, all red-hot; then she shuts the lid down, pop,
pop!--until they're done brown."

"Oh, horror!" cried the mother, wringing her hands. "Oh, what shall we

"Go seek them!" said the father.

And in another moment without hats, shawl, anything, they had run out of
the hut.


The sunset glow lighted the forest. It bathed the stately trees in rose
and gold. It shone on the cool carpet of leaves and wild flowers, and
played with the garlands of bright-colored vines.

But the purple mist of twilight that hung over the distant fir-colored
hill sent gray shadows down. They crept behind the hedges and bushes,
warning the birds, the bees, and the flowers that night was drawing

One lingering ray of sunshine lit the mossy rock upon which Gretel sat.
She was weaving a wreath of wild flowers and singing a little song,
while Haensel ran hither and thither, filling his basket with red

So, if you have imagined that they were at all unhappy, you see you were
quite mistaken. Indeed, they were entirely, wonderfully, breathlessly
happy. I doubt if they gave their mother's scolding a single thought. As
for their home, they had quite forgotten all about it, which, for aught
I know, may have been part of the enchantment. At any rate, they had
never had a better time.

When Haensel's basket was full, Gretel's wreath was finished. So they
played at being king and queen of the wood, and Gretel wore the wreath,
and Haensel knelt in homage before her, presenting her with the basket
of berries. Whereupon, as a reward, she gave him some of the ripest ones
to taste. Soon tiring of this they went on to another game. A cuckoo
called from a tree near by, and they imitated his call, seeking each
other behind tall tree trunks. But saddest of all to tell, they ate the
strawberries while they played--yes, every single one.

When they attempted to find fresh ones, they discovered that it had
grown too dark. There were black shadows under the hedges and bushes
now. A gray blanket of clouds was spread over the sky.

Then fear came. For they could not find their way. Gretel saw strange
figures glimmering behind the birches. She saw strange faces grinning at
her from every mossy tree stump. Now it was Haensel who sought to
comfort her. A mist arose and shut them in. Advancing dimly through it,
they spied a lantern. Haensel said it was a will-o'-the-wisp. They heard
a call. He said it was the echo.

When Gretel began to whimper and cry, Haensel held her fast in his arms.
But the shadows of strange things continued to nod and beckon. One
shadow grew and grew and grew. It moved toward them, and both children
cowered down in fear. Their eyes never left it.

Suddenly the shadow took shape, and there stood an odd little gray man.
He had a long white beard. He leaned on a staff, and he carried a sack
on his back. Strange to say, the moment that the children saw his calm
smile and his friendly gestures they were not afraid any more. He came
toward them, chanting a quiet song about restful sleep and happy dreams.
Before they knew what he was about, he had sprinkled sand into their
tired eyes. Then Haensel and Gretel folded their hands and sleepily
whispered their evening prayer. With their arms about each other's necks
they sank slowly into the soft moss and soon were fast asleep.

The little man disappeared as he had come, into the mist. But the mist
became roseate. It rolled itself into a fleecy cloud, which mounted
higher and higher until it touched the sky. What magic was this? It
changed again into a marvelous golden stairway! And down the stairway
floated beautiful guardian angels with dazzling wings and golden wands.
They grouped themselves about the sleeping children, at their heads, at
their feet, all about them. Waving their golden wands, they sent down
showers of wonderful dreams. Oh, such gleaming, glistening, unutterable


Scarcely had the sun peeped over the eastern horizon than the Dew Fairy
came fluttering into the woodland. Her wings were tinged with the first
blush of dawn and her garments were tipped with rosy light. She carried
armfuls of bluebells, and as she flitted lightly about, sweet music
rippled on the air. How she smiled when she saw Haensel and Gretel
asleep under the tall fir tree!

"Up, ye sleepers! Awake! Awake!" she sang. Then, sprinkling dew from the
bluebells into their eyes, she vanished into the sunlit air.

Gretel rubbed her eyes sleepily and raised herself from the moss. Was
she still in the beautiful greenwood? Ah, yes, she must be there. For
birds were merrily chirping overhead. There were glimpses of bright blue
sky between the leaf-laden branches.

"Wake up, lazy bones!" she called to Haensel.

He jumped up with a start, stretched himself, yawned once or twice,
looked about. Oh, the wonderful, wonderful forest!

The sun had mounted higher in the sky. The woods were filled with a
mellow radiance. The morning mists had cleared away. And, most
astonishing of all, on the very hill so lately hidden by dark trees and
fleecy clouds, they beheld a most entrancing sight.

A house stood there. But such a house! It was as beautiful--as
beautiful,--in short, I am afraid to tell you how undescribably
beautiful it was. The walls were of sweetest sugar candy, glistening
like diamonds in the sun; the roof was of chocolate cake, all soft and
creamy; and the gables were ornamented with raisins, like little eyes.
On one side there was a strange-looking cage; on the other, a huge,
strange-looking oven; and both were joined to the house by a fence made
of the daintiest gingerbread figures imaginable.

"Oh," cried Haensel, "did you ever see anything so wonderful?"

"No, I never did," answered Gretel. "A princess must live in that."

They stared and stared, while their mouths watered and their fingers
itched prodigiously.

Haensel wished to go boldly inside, but the mere thought of doing
anything so rash frightened Gretel.

"Well, the angels led us here," reflected Haensel.

"Ye-es, that's true, they did," conceded Gretel.

"Come on. Let's just nibble a little bit," tempted Haensel.

And so, hand in hand, they hopped along, like two little mice, toward
the magic house. Then they stole cautiously forward on tiptoe, until,
at length, they were within reaching distance. Haensel's hand went out.
He broke off a bit.

Quick as lightning came a squeaking voice from the inside:

"Nibble, nibble, mousekin,
Who's nibbling at my housekin?"

Haensel started back in fear.

"'Twas only the wind," said Gretel. "Let's taste it."

They did. Since it tasted better than anything they had ever eaten
before, they feasted merrily for a while, never heeding the voice of the
Witch or her ugly form, either, which, a little later, appeared at the
door. I have no doubt that they would be feasting yet, if the Witch had
not then and there stealthily stolen upon them. With a deft movement she
threw a rope about Haensel's neck and held him fast.

The children's delight turned to terror. For she was a loathsome sight
to see. Bent, toothless, with unkempt hair and clawlike hands, she
looked the picture of a Witch indeed.

In spite of her appearance, however, she spoke to them in a very kindly
manner. She called them pretty names, told them that they were nice and
plump, and that they would make excellent gingerbread. She even caressed
Haensel, which made him very angry. Wriggling and squirming, he managed
to loosen the rope and seizing Gretel by the hand, ran--alas! only a
short distance. For the Witch, holding aloft a juniper branch, circled
it in the air, repeating these strange words:

"Hocus, pocus, witch's charm,
Move not, as you fear my arm!"

The children stood stock-still. They were stiff from head to toe.
Fortunately, by this time they had undergone so many strange adventures
that they had learned fairly well how to conduct themselves.

"Watch carefully all she does!" whispered Haensel, as the Witch led him
away to the cage and gave him nuts and raisins to fatten him.

"I will," said Gretel.

Therefore, when, a few moments later, the Witch disenchanted her in
order that she might prepare the table, Gretel listened attentively to
the words:

"Hocus, pocus, elder bush,
Rigid body, loosen hush!"

No sooner had Gretel run into the house than the Witch was seized with a
fit of wild joy. She thrust more fagots into the fire, laughing wickedly
when the flames flared higher and higher. She mounted her broomstick and
rode about, shouting a weird song.

Gretel watched her from the doorway. That broomstick ride gave her an
opportunity. She stole to the cage, and, whispering,

"Hocus, pocus, elder bush,
Rigid body, loosen hush!"

she set Haensel free. But he did not move. No, not yet.

For the Witch had come back. She was rubbing her hands with glee. Her
face wore an evil smile. Oh, the fine meal she would have! Haensel was
not plump enough. Gretel must be eaten first. So, opening the oven door,
she called Gretel and told her to look inside. But clever Gretel
pretended not to understand. Would not the Witch show her how? Angry,
impatient, muttering to herself, the Witch crept nearer to the oven, and
when she was about to bend over it, Haensel and Gretel gave her one
good, hard push from behind. She toppled over and fell in. Bang! bang!
went the door. She was safe inside.

How the fire crackled and roared. A moment later there was a great crash
and the oven fell to pieces. Haensel and Gretel, much terrified, started
to run away, but found themselves, to their great surprise, entirely
surrounded by a troop of little children.

"It's the fence," exclaimed Haensel, "the gingerbread fence!"

And so it was. The gingerbread had fallen off, and real children stood
there, motionless, with closed eyes, murmuring softly:

"Oh, touch us, we pray,
That we may all awake!"

"Pooh! if that's all they want!" said Gretel, proudly, and she repeated:

"Hocus, pocus, elder bush,
Rigid body, loosen hush!"

Instantly life came back to the whole troop. They hurried toward Haensel
and Gretel from all sides. They danced, they sang! Two boys ran to the
oven and dragged out the Witch in the form of a big gingerbread cake.
Then the merrymaking began in earnest. They made a big circle, and round
and round it they danced. Last but not least, they ate up the candy
house. At any rate, that is what they were doing when their mothers and
fathers found them there that afternoon.

Next: The Master Singers

Previous: Children Of Kings

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