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The Wooden Shoes Of Little Wolff

from Good Stories For Great Holidays - CHRISTMAS DAY





BY FRANCOIS COPPEE (ADAPTED)

Once upon a time,--so long ago that the world has forgotten the
date,--in a city of the North of Europe,--the name of which is so hard
to pronounce that no one remembers it,--there was a little boy, just
seven years old, whose name was Wolff. He was an orphan and lived with
his aunt, a hard-hearted, avaricious old woman, who never kissed him but
once a year, on New Year's Day; and who sighed with regret every time
she gave him a bowlful of soup.

The poor little boy was so sweet-tempered that he loved the old woman in
spite of her bad treatment, but he could not look without trembling at
the wart, decorated with four gray hairs, which grew on the end of her
nose.

As Wolff's aunt was known to have a house of her own and a woolen
stocking full of gold, she did not dare to send her nephew to the school
for the poor. But she wrangled so that the schoolmaster of the rich
boys' school was forced to lower his price and admit little Wolff among
his pupils. The bad schoolmaster was vexed to have a boy so meanly clad
and who paid so little, and he punished little Wolff severely without
cause, ridiculed him, and even incited against him his comrades, who
were the sons of rich citizens. They made the orphan their drudge and
mocked at him so much that the little boy was as miserable as the
stones in the street, and hid himself away in corners to cry--when the
Christmas season came.

On the Eve of the great Day the schoolmaster was to take all his pupils
to the midnight mass, and then to conduct them home again to their
parents' houses.

Now as the winter was very severe, and a quantity of snow had fallen
within the past few days, the boys came to the place of meeting warmly
wrapped up, with fur-lined caps drawn down over their ears, padded
jackets, gloves and knitted mittens, and good strong shoes with thick
soles. Only little Wolff presented himself shivering in his thin
everyday clothes, and wearing on his feet socks and wooden shoes.

His naughty comrades tried to annoy him in every possible way, but
the orphan was so busy warming his hands by blowing on them, and was
suffering so much from chilblains, that he paid no heed to the taunts of
the others. Then the band of boys, marching two by two, started for the
parish church.

It was comfortable inside the church, which was brilliant with lighted
tapers. And the pupils, made lively by the gentle warmth, the sound of
the organ, and the singing of the choir, began to chatter in low tones.
They boasted of the midnight treats awaiting them at home. The son of
the Mayor had seen, before leaving the house, a monstrous goose larded
with truffles so that it looked like a black-spotted leopard. Another
boy told of the fir tree waiting for him, on the branches of which hung
oranges, sugar-plums, and punchinellos. Then they talked about what the
Christ Child would bring them, or what he would leave in their shoes
which they would certainly be careful to place before the fire when they
went to bed. And the eyes of the little rogues, lively as a crowd of
mice, sparkled with delight as they thought of the many gifts they
would find on waking,--the pink bags of burnt almonds, the bonbons, lead
soldiers standing in rows, menageries, and magnificent jumping-jacks,
dressed in purple and gold.

Little Wolff, alas! knew well that his miserly old aunt would send him
to bed without any supper; but as he had been good and industrious all
the year, he trusted that the Christ Child would not forget him, so he
meant that night to set his wooden shoes on the hearth.

The midnight mass was ended. The worshipers hurried away, anxious to
enjoy the treats awaiting them in their homes. The band of pupils, two
by two, following the schoolmaster, passed out of the church.

Now, under the porch, seated on a stone bench, in the shadow of an
arched niche, was a child asleep,--a little child dressed in a white
garment and with bare feet exposed to the cold. He was not a beggar, for
his dress was clean and new, and--beside him upon the ground, tied in a
cloth, were the tools of a carpenter's apprentice.

Under the light of the stars, his face, with its closed eyes, shone
with an expression of divine sweetness, and his soft, curling blond hair
seemed to form an aureole of light about his forehead. But his tender
feet, blue with the cold on this cruel night of December, were pitiful
to see!

The pupils so warmly clad and shod, passed with indifference before
the unknown child. Some, the sons of the greatest men in the city, cast
looks of scorn on the barefooted one. But little Wolff, coming last
out of the church, stopped deeply moved before the beautiful, sleeping
child.

"Alas!" said the orphan to himself, "how dreadful! This poor little one
goes without stockings in weather so cold! And, what is worse, he has no
shoe to leave beside him while he sleeps, so that the Christ Child may
place something in it to comfort him in all his misery."

And carried away by his tender heart, little Wolff drew off the wooden
shoe from his right foot, placed it before the sleeping child; and as
best as he was able, now hopping, now limping, and wetting his sock in
the snow, he returned to his aunt.

"You good-for-nothing!" cried the old woman, full of rage as she saw
that one of his shoes was gone. "What have you done with your shoe,
little beggar?"

Little Wolff did not know how to lie, and, though shivering with terror
as he saw the gray hairs on the end of her nose stand upright, he tried,
stammering, to tell his adventure.

But the old miser burst into frightful laughter. "Ah! the sweet young
master takes off his shoe for a beggar! Ah! master spoils a pair of
shoes for a barefoot! This is something new, indeed! Ah! well, since
things are so, I will place the shoe that is left in the fireplace, and
to-night the Christ Child will put in a rod to whip you when you wake.
And to-morrow you shall have nothing to eat but water and dry bread, and
we shall see if the next time you will give away your shoe to the first
vagabond that comes along."

And saying this the wicked woman gave him a box on each ear, and made
him climb to his wretched room in the loft. There the heartbroken little
one lay down in the darkness, and, drenching his pillow with tears, fell
asleep.

But in the morning, when the old woman, awakened by the cold and shaken
by her cough, descended to the kitchen, oh! wonder of wonders! she
saw the great fireplace filled with bright toys, magnificent boxes of
sugar-plums, riches of all sorts, and in front of all this treasure, the
wooden shoe which her nephew had given to the vagabond, standing beside
the other shoe which she herself had placed there the night before,
intending to put in it a handful of switches.

And as little Wolff, who had come running at the cries of his aunt,
stood in speechless delight before all the splendid Christmas gifts,
there came great shouts of laughter from the street.

The old woman and the little boy went out to learn what it was all
about, and saw the gossips gathered around the public fountain. What
could have happened? Oh, a most amusing and extraordinary thing! The
children of all the rich men of the city, whose parents wished to
surprise them with the most beautiful gifts, had found nothing but
switches in their shoes!

Then the old woman and little Wolff remembered with alarm all the riches
that were in their own fireplace, but just then they saw the pastor of
the parish church arriving with his face full of perplexity.

Above the bench near the church door, in the very spot where the night
before a child, dressed in white, with bare feet exposed to the great
cold, had rested his sleeping head, the pastor had seen a golden
circle wrought into the old stones. Then all the people knew that the
beautiful, sleeping child, beside whom had lain the carpenter's tools,
was the Christ Child himself, and that he had rewarded the faith and
charity of little Wolff.





Next: The Pine Tree

Previous: The Christmas Rose



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