The Children in the Wood

Joseph Jacobs May 1, 2015
5 min read
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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 with 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 lands 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 blessèd 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.

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