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The Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs

The Children in the Wood

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Now ponder well, you parents dear,
These words which I shall write;
A doleful story you shall hear,
In time brought forth to light.
A gentleman of good account,
In Norfolk dwelt of late,
Who did in honour far surmount
Most men of his estate.

Sore sick he was and like to die,
No help his life could save;
His wife by him as sick did lie,
And both possest one grave.
No love between these two was lost,
Each was to other kind;
In love they lived, in love they died,
And left two babes behind.

The one a fine and pretty boy
Not passing three years old,
The other a girl more young than he,
And framed in beauty's mould.
The father left his little son,
As plainly did appear,
When he to perfect age should come,
Three hundred pounds a year;

And to his little daughter Jane
Five hundred pounds in gold,
To be paid down on marriage-day,
Which might not be controlled.
But if the children chanced to die
Ere they to age should come,
Their uncle should possess their wealth;
For so the will did run.

'Now, brother,' said the dying man,
'Look to my children dear;
Be good unto my boy and girl,
No friends else have they here;
To God and you I recommend
My children dear this day;
But little while be sure we have
Within this world to stay.

'You must be father and mother both,
And uncle, all in one;
God knows what will become of them
When I am dead and gone.'
With that bespake their mother dear;
'O brother kind,' quoth she,
'You are the man must bring our babes
To wealth or misery.

'And if you keep them carefully,
Then God will you reward;
But if you otherwise should deal,
God will your deeds regard.'
With lips as cold as any stone,
They kissed their children small:
'God bless you both, my children dear!'
With that the tears did fall.

These speeches then their brother spake
To this sick couple there:
'The keeping of your little ones,
Sweet sister, do not fear;
God never prosper me nor mine,
Nor aught else that I have,
If I do wrong your children dear
When you are laid in grave!'

The parents being dead and gone,
The children home he takes,
And brings them straight unto his house
Where much of them he makes.
He had not kept these pretty babes
A twelvemonth and a day,
But, for their wealth, he did devise
To make them both away.

He bargained with two ruffians strong,
Which were of furious mood,
That they should take these children young,
And slay them in a wood.
He told his wife an artful tale
He would the children send
To be brought up in London town
With one that was his friend.

Away then went those pretty babes,
Rejoicing at that tide,
Rejoicing with a merry mind
They should on cock-horse ride.
They prate and prattle pleasantly,
As they ride on the way,
To those that should their butchers be
And work their lives' decay:

So that the pretty speech they had
Made Murder's heart relent;
And they that undertook the deed
Full sore now did repent.
Yet one of them, more hard of heart,
Did vow to do his charge,
Because the wretch that hired him
Had paid him very large.

The other won't agree thereto,
So there they fall to strife;
With one another they did fight
About the children's life;
And he that was of mildest mood
Did slay the other there,
Within an unfrequented wood;
The babes did quake for fear!

He took the children by the hand,
Tears standing in their eye,
And bade them straightway follow him,
And look they did not cry;
And two long miles he led them on,
While they for food complain:
'Stay here,' quoth he, 'I'll bring you bread,
When I come back again.'

These pretty babes, with hand in hand,
Went wandering up and down;
But never more could see the man
Approaching from the town.
Their pretty lips from blackberries
Were all besmeared and dyed;
And when they saw the darksome night,
They sat them down and cried.

Thus wandered these poor innocents,
Till death did end their grief;
In one another's arms they died,
As wanting due relief:
No burial this pretty pair
From any man receives,
Till Robin Redbreast piously
Did cover them with leaves.

And now the heavy wrath of God
Upon their uncle fell;
Yea, fearful fiends did haunt his house,
His conscience felt an hell:
His barns were fired, his goods consumed,
His hands were barren made,
His cattle died within the field,
And nothing with him stayed.

And in a voyage to Portugal
Two of his sons did die;
And to conclude, himself was brought
To want and misery:
He pawned and mortgaged all his land
Ere seven years came about.
And now at last this wicked act
Did by this means come out.

The fellow that did take in hand
These children for to kill,
Was for a robbery judged to die.
Such was God's blessed will:
Who did confess the very truth,
As here hath been displayed:
The uncle having died in jail,
Where he for debt was laid.

You that executors be made,
And overseers eke,
Of children that be fatherless,
And infants mild and meek,
Take you example by this thing,
And yield to each his right,
Lest God with suchlike misery
Your wicked minds requite.

Jacobs' Notes and References

SOURCE Percy, Reliques. The ballad form of the story has become such a nursery classic that I had not the heart to 'prose' it. As Mr Allingham remarks, it is the best of the ballads of the pedestrian order.

PARALLELS The second of R. Yarrington's Two Lamentable Tragedies, 1601, has the same plot as the ballad. Several chap-books have been made out of it, some of them enumerated by Halliwell's Popular Histories (Percy Soc.) No. 18. From one of these I am in the fortunate position of giving the names of the dramatis personae of this domestic tragedy. Androgus was the wicked uncle, Pisaurus his brother who married Eugenia, and their children in the wood were Cassander and little Kate. The ruffians were appropriately named Rawbones and Woudkill. According to a writer in 3 Notes and Qyeries, ix, 144, the traditional burial-place of the children is pointed out in Norfolk. The ballad was known before Percy, as it is mentioned in the Spectator, Nos. 80 and 179.

REMARKS The only 'fairy' touch -- but what a touch ! -- the pall of leaves collected by the robins.

Jacobs, Joseph, ed. More English Fairy Tales. New York: G. P Putnam's Sons, 1894.
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Page created 4/15/05; Last updated 10/25/07