Once upon a time, so long ago that everybody has forgotten the date, there was a little boy whose name was Jean. He lived with his aunt in a tall old house in a city whose name is so hard to pronounce that nobody can speak it. He was seven years old, and he could not remember that he had ever seen his father or his mother.
The old aunt who had the care of little Jean was very selfish and cross. She gave him dry bread to eat, of which there was never enough; and not more than once in the year did she speak kindly to him.
But the poor boy loved this woman, because he had no one else to love; and there was never a day so dark that he did not think of the sunlight.
Everybody knew that Jean's aunt owned a house and had a stocking full of gold under her bed, and so she did not dare to send the little boy to the school for the poor, as she would have liked to do. But a schoolmaster on the next street agreed to teach him for almost nothing; and whenever there was work he could do, he was kept at home.
The schoolmaster had an unkind feeling for Jean, because he brought him so little money and dressed so poorly. And so the boy was punished very often, and had to bear the blame for all the wrong that was done in the school.
The little fellow was often very sad; and more than once he hid himself where he could not be seen and cried as though his heart would break. But at last Christmas came.
The night before Christmas there was to be singing in the church, and the schoolmaster was to be there with all his boys; and everybody was to have a very happy time looking at the Christmas candles and listening to the sweet music.
The winter had set in, very cold and rough, and there was much snow on the ground; and so the boys came to the schoolhouse with fur caps drawn down over their ears, and heavy coats, and warm gloves, and thick high-topped boots.
But little Jean had no warm clothes. He came shivering in the thin coat which he wore on Sundays in summer; and there was nothing on his feet but coarse stockings very full of holes, and pair of heavy wooden shoes.
The other boys made many jokes about his sad looks and his worn-out clothes. But the poor child was so busy, blowing his fingers and thumping his toes to keep them warm, that he did not hear what was said. And when the hour came, the whole company of boys, with the schoolmaster at the front started to the church.
It was very fine in the church. Hundreds of wax candles were burning in their places, and the air was so warm that Jean soon forgot his aching fingers. The boys sat still for a little while; and then while the singing was going on and the organ was making loud music, they began in low voices to talk to one another; and each told about the fine things that were going to be done at his home on the morrow.
The mayor's son told of a monstrous goose that he had seen in the kitchen before he came away; it was stuffed, and stuck all over with cloves till it was as spotted as a leopards. Another boy whispered of a little fir tree in a wooden box in his mother's parlor.; its branches were full of fruits and nuts and candy and beautiful toys. And he said that he was sure of a fine dinner, for the cook had pinned the two strings of her cap behind her back, as she always did when something wonderfully good was coming.
Then the children talked of what Santa Claus would bring them, and of what he would put in their shoes, which, of course, they would leave by the fireplace when they went to bed. And the eyes of the little fellows danced with joy, as they thought of the bags of Candy and the lead soldiers, and the grand jumping jacks which they would draw out in the morning.
But little Jean said nothing. He knew that his selfish old aunt would send him to bed without any supper, as she always did. But he felt in his heart that he had been all the year as good and kind as he could be; and so he hoped that kind Santa Claus would not forget him nor fail to see his wooden shoes to which he would put in the ashes in the corner of the fireplace.
At last the singing stopped, the organ was silent, and the Christmas music was ended. The boys arose in order and left the church, two by two, as they had entered it; and the teacher walked in front.
Now, as he passed through the door of the church little Jean Saw a child sitting on one of the stone steps and fast asleep in the midst of the snow. The child was thinly clad, and his feet, cold as it was, were bare.
In the pale light of the moon, the face of the child, with its closed eyes, was full of a sweetness which is not of this earth, and his long locks of yellow hair seemed like a golden crown upon his head. But his poor bare feet, blue in the cold of that winter were sad to look upon.
The scholars; so warmly clad, passed before the strange child, and did not so much as glance that way. But little Jean, who was the last to come out of the church, stopped, full of pity, before him.
"Ah, the poor child !" he said to himself. "How sad it is that he must go barefoot in such weather as this! And what is still worse, he has not a stocking, nor even a wooden shoe, to lay before him while he sleeps, so that kind Santa Claus can put something in it to make him glad when he wakens."
Little Jean did not stand long to think about it; but in the goodness of his heart, he took off the wooden shoe from his right foot and laid it by the side of the sleeping child. Then, limping along through the snow, and shivering with cold, he went down the street till he came to his cheerless home.
"You worthless fellow !" cried his aunt. "Where have you been ? What have you done with your other shoe?"
Little Jean trembled now with fear as well as with the cold; but he had no thought of deceiving his angry aunt. He told her how he had given the shoe to a child that was poorer than himself. The woman laughed an ugly, wicked laugh.
"And so," she said, "our fine young gentleman takes off his shoes for beggars! He gives his wooden shoe to a barefoot! Well, we shall see. You may put the shoe that is left in the chimney, and, mind what I say! If anything is left in it, it will be a switch to whip you with in the morning. To-morrow, for your Christmas dinner, you shall have nothing but a hard crust of bread to eat and cold water to drink. I will show you how to give away your shoes to the first beggar that comes along!" ·
The wicked woman struck the boy upon the cheek with her hand, and then made him climb up to his bed in the loft. Sobbing with grief and pain, little Jean lay on his hard, cold bed, and did not go to sleep till the moon had gone down and the Christmas bells had rung in the glad day of peace and good will.
In the morning when the old woman arose grumbling and went downstairs, a wonderful sight met her eyes. The great chimney was full of beautiful toys and bags of candy and all kinds of pretty things; and right in the midst of these was the wooden shoe which Jean had given to the child, and near it was its mate in which the wicked aunt had meant to put a strong switch.
The woman was so amazed that she cried out and stood still as if in a fright. Little Jean heard the cry and ran downstairs as quickly as he could to see what was the matter. He, too, stopped short when he saw all the beautiful things that were in the chimney. But as he stood and looked, he heard people laughing in the street. What did it all mean?
By the side of the town pump many of the neighbors were standing. Each was telling what had happened at his home that morning. The boys who had rich parents and had been looking for beautiful gifts, had found only long switches in their shoes.
But, in the meanwhile, Jean and his aunt stood still and looked at the wonderful gifts around the two wooden shoes. Who had placed them there ? And where now was the kind, good giver?
Then as they still wondered, they heard the voice of some one reading in the little chapel over the way: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these --" And then, in some strange way, they understood how it had all come about; and even the heart of the wicked aunt was softened. And their eyes were filled with tears and their faces with smiles, as they knelt down together and thanked the good God for what he had done to reward the kindness and love of a little child.
Francois Coppee (1890)