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Little Gretchen And The Wooden Shoe






ELIZABETH HARRISON


THE following story is one of many which has drifted down to us from the
story-loving nurseries and hearthstones of Germany. I cannot recall when
I first had it told to me as a child, varied, of course, by different
tellers, but always leaving that sweet, tender impression of God's
loving care for the least of his children. I have since read different
versions of it in at least a half-dozen story books for children.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, far away across the great ocean, in a
country called Germany, there could be seen a small log hut on the edge
of a great forest, whose fir-trees extended for miles and miles to the
north. This little house, made of heavy hewn logs, had but one room in
it. A rough pine door gave entrance to this room, and a small square
window admitted the light. At the back of the house was built an
old-fashioned stone chimney, out of which in winter usually curled a
thin, blue smoke, showing that there was not very much fire within.

Small as the house was, it was large enough for the two people who
lived in it. I want to tell you a story to-day about these two people.
One was an old, gray-haired woman, so old that the little children of
the village, nearly half a mile away, often wondered whether she had
come into the world with the huge mountains, and the great fir-trees,
which stood like giants back of her small hut. Her face was wrinkled all
over with deep lines, which, if the children could only have read
aright, would have told them of many years of cheerful, happy,
self-sacrifice, of loving, anxious watching beside sick-beds, of quiet
endurance of pain, of many a day of hunger and cold, and of a thousand
deeds of unselfish love for other people; but, of course, they could not
read this strange handwriting. They only knew that she was old and
wrinkled, and that she stooped as she walked. None of them seemed to
fear her, for her smile was always cheerful, and she had a kindly word
for each of them if they chanced to meet her on her way to and from the
village. With this old, old woman lived a very little girl. So bright
and happy was she that the travellers who passed by the lonesome little
house on the edge of the forest often thought of a sunbeam as they saw
her. These two people were known in the village as Granny Goodyear and
Little Gretchen.

The winter had come and the frost had snapped off many of the smaller
branches from the pine-trees in the forest. Gretchen and her Granny were
up by daybreak each morning. After their simple breakfast of oatmeal,
Gretchen would run to the little closet and fetch Granny's old woollen
shawl, which seemed almost as old as Granny herself. Gretchen always
claimed the right to put the shawl over her Granny's head, even though
she had to climb onto the wooden bench to do it. After carefully pinning
it under Granny's chin, she gave her a good-bye kiss, and Granny started
out for her morning's work in the forest. This work was nothing more nor
less than the gathering up of the twigs and branches which the autumn
winds and winter frosts had thrown upon the ground. These were carefully
gathered into a large bundle which Granny tied together with a strong
linen band. She then managed to lift the bundle to her shoulder and
trudged off to the village with it. Here she sold the fagots for
kindling wood to the people of the village. Sometimes she would get only
a few pence each day, and sometimes a dozen or more, but on this money
little Gretchen and she managed to live; they had their home, and the
forest kindly furnished the wood for the fire which kept them warm in
cold weather.

In the summer time Granny had a little garden at the back of the hut
where she raised, with little Gretchen's help, a few potatoes and
turnips and onions. These she carefully stored away for winter use. To
this meagre supply, the pennies, gained by selling the twigs from the
forest, added the oatmeal for Gretchen and a little black coffee for
Granny. Meat was a thing they never thought of having. It cost too much
money. Still, Granny and Gretchen were very happy, because they loved
each other dearly. Sometimes Gretchen would be left alone all day long
in the hut, because Granny would have some work to do in the village
after selling her bundle of sticks and twigs. It was during these long
days that little Gretchen had taught herself to sing the song which the
wind sang to the pine branches. In the summer time she learned the chirp
and twitter of the birds, until her voice might almost be mistaken for a
bird's voice; she learned to dance as the swaying shadows did, and even
to talk to the stars which shone through the little square window when
Granny came home too late or too tired to talk.

Sometimes, when the weather was fine, or her Granny had an extra bundle
of newly knitted stockings to take to the village, she would let little
Gretchen go along with her. It chanced that one of these trips to the
town came just the week before Christmas, and Gretchen's eyes were
delighted by the sight of the lovely Christmas-trees which stood in the
window of the village store. It seemed to her that she would never tire
of looking at the knit dolls, the woolly lambs, the little wooden shops
with their queer, painted men and women in them, and all the other fine
things. She had never owned a plaything in her whole life; therefore,
toys which you and I would not think much of, seemed to her to be very
beautiful.

That night, after their supper of baked potatoes was over, and little
Gretchen had cleared away the dishes and swept up the hearth, because
Granny dear was so tired, she brought her own small wooden stool and
placed it very near Granny's feet and sat down upon it, folding her
hands on her lap. Granny knew that this meant she wanted to talk about
something, so she smilingly laid away the large Bible which she had been
reading, and took up her knitting, which was as much as to say: "Well,
Gretchen, dear, Granny is ready to listen."

"Granny," said Gretchen slowly, "it's almost Christmas time, isn't it?"

"Yes, dearie," said Granny, "only five more days now," and then she
sighed, but little Gretchen was so happy that she did not notice
Granny's sigh.

"What do you think, Granny, I'll get this Christmas?" said she, looking
up eagerly into Granny's face.

"Ah, child, child," said Granny, shaking her head, "you'll have no
Christmas this year. We are too poor for that."

"Oh, but, Granny," interrupted little Gretchen, "think of all the
beautiful toys we saw in the village to-day. Surely Santa Claus has sent
enough for every little child."

"Ah, dearie," said Granny, "those toys are for people who can pay money
for them, and we have no money to spend for Christmas toys."

"Well, Granny," said Gretchen, "perhaps some of the little children who
live in the great house on the hill at the other end of the village
will be willing to share some of their toys with me. They will be so
glad to give some to a little girl who has none."

"Dear child, dear child," said Granny, leaning forward and stroking the
soft, shiny hair of the little girl, "your heart is full of love. You
would be glad to bring a Christmas to every child; but their heads are
so full of what they are going to get that they forget all about anybody
else but themselves." Then she sighed and shook her head.

"Well, Granny," said Gretchen, her bright, happy tone of voice growing a
little less joyous, "perhaps the dear Santa Claus will show some of the
village children how to make presents that do not cost money, and some
of them may surprise me Christmas morning with a present. And, Granny,
dear," added she, springing up from her low stool, "can't I gather some
of the pine branches and take them to the old sick man who lives in the
house by the mill, so that he can have the sweet smell of our pine
forest in his room all Christmas day?"

"Yes, dearie," said Granny, "you may do what you can to make the
Christmas bright and happy, but you must not expect any present
yourself."

"Oh, but, Granny," said little Gretchen, her face brightening, "you
forget all about the shining Christmas angels, who came down to earth
and sang their wonderful song the night the beautiful Christ-Child was
born! They are so loving and good that they will not forget any little
child. I shall ask my dear stars to-night to tell them of us. You
know," she added, with a look of relief, "the stars are so very high
that they must know the angels quite well, as they come and go with
their messages from the loving God."

Granny sighed, as she half whispered, "Poor child, poor child!" but
Gretchen threw her arm around Granny's neck and gave her a hearty kiss,
saying as she did so: "Oh, Granny, Granny, you don't talk to the stars
often enough, else you wouldn't be sad at Christmas time." Then she
danced all around the room, whirling her little skirts about her to show
Granny how the wind had made the snow dance that day. She looked so
droll and funny that Granny forgot her cares and worries and laughed
with little Gretchen over her new snow-dance. The days passed on, and
the morning before Christmas Eve came. Gretchen having tidied up the
little room--for Granny had taught her to be a careful little
housewife--was off to the forest, singing a birdlike song, almost as
happy and free as the birds themselves. She was very busy that day,
preparing a surprise for Granny. First, however, she gathered the most
beautiful of the fir branches within her reach to take the next morning
to the old sick man who lived by the mill.

The day was all too short for the happy little girl. When Granny came
trudging wearily home that night, she found the frame of the doorway
covered with green pine branches.

"It's to welcome you, Granny! It's to welcome you!" cried Gretchen;
"our old dear home wanted to give you a Christmas welcome. Don't you
see, the branches of evergreen make it look as if it were smiling all
over, and it is trying to say, 'A happy Christmas' to you, Granny!"

Granny laughed and kissed the little girl, as they opened the door and
went in together. Here was a new surprise for Granny. The four posts of
the wooden bed, which stood in one corner of the room, had been trimmed
by the busy little fingers, with smaller and more flexible branches of
the pine-trees. A small bouquet of red mountain-ash berries stood at
each side of the fireplace, and these, together with the trimmed posts
of the bed, gave the plain old room quite a festival look. Gretchen
laughed and clapped her hands and danced about until the house seemed
full of music to poor, tired Granny, whose heart had been sad as she
turned toward their home that night, thinking of the disappointment
which must come to loving little Gretchen the next morning.

After supper was over little Gretchen drew her stool up to Granny's
side, and laying her soft, little hands on Granny's knee, asked to be
told once again the story of the coming of the Christ-Child; how the
night that he was born the beautiful angels had sung their wonderful
song, and how the whole sky had become bright with a strange and
glorious light, never seen by the people of earth before. Gretchen had
heard the story many, many times before, but she never grew tired of
it, and now that Christmas Eve had come again, the happy little child
wanted to hear it once more.

When Granny had finished telling it the two sat quiet and silent for a
little while thinking it over; then Granny rose and said that it was
time for them to go to bed. She slowly took off her heavy wooden shoes,
such as are worn in that country, and placed them beside the hearth.
Gretchen looked thoughtfully at them for a minute or two, and then she
said, "Granny, don't you think that somebody in all this wide world
will think of us to-night?"

"Nay, Gretchen," said Granny, "I don't think any one will."

"Well, then, Granny," said Gretchen, "the Christmas angels will, I know;
so I am going to take one of your wooden shoes, and put it on the
windowsill outside, so that they may see it as they pass by. I am sure
the stars will tell the Christmas angels where the shoe is."

"Ah, you foolish, foolish child," said Granny, "you are only getting
ready for a disappointment. To-morrow morning there will be nothing
whatever in the shoe. I can tell you that now."

But little Gretchen would not listen. She only shook her head and cried
out: "Ah, Granny, you don't talk enough to the stars." With this she
seized the shoe, and, opening the door, hurried out to place it on the
windowsill. It was very dark without, and something soft and cold
seemed to gently kiss her hair and face. Gretchen knew by this that it
was snowing, and she looked up to the sky, anxious to see if the stars
were in sight, but a strong wind was tumbling the dark, heavy
snow-clouds about and had shut away all else.

"Never mind," said Gretchen softly to herself, "the stars are up there,
even if I can't see them, and the Christmas angels do not mind
snowstorms."

Just then a rough wind went sweeping by the little girl, whispering
something to her which she could not understand, and then it made a
sudden rush up to the snow-clouds and parted them, so that the deep,
mysterious sky appeared beyond, and shining down out of the midst of it
was Gretchen's favourite star.

"Ah, little star, little star!" said the child, laughing aloud, "I knew
you were there, though I couldn't see you. Will you whisper to the
Christmas angels as they come by that little Gretchen wants so very much
to have a Christmas gift to-morrow morning, if they have one to spare,
and that she has put one of Granny's shoes upon the windowsill ready for
it?"

A moment more and the little girl, standing on tiptoe, had reached the
windowsill and placed the shoe upon it, and was back again in the house
beside Granny and the warm fire.

The two went quietly to bed, and that night as little Gretchen knelt to
pray to the Heavenly Father, she thanked him for having sent the
Christ-Child into the world to teach all mankind how to be loving and
unselfish, and in a few moments she was quietly sleeping, dreaming of
the Christmas angels.

The next morning, very early, even before the sun was up, little
Gretchen was awakened by the sound of sweet music coming from the
village. She listened for a moment and then she knew that the choir-boys
were singing the Christmas carols in the open air of the village street.
She sprang up out of bed and began to dress herself as quickly as
possible, singing as she dressed. While Granny was slowly putting on her
clothes, little Gretchen, having finished dressing herself, unfastened
the door and hurried out to see what the Christmas angels had left in
the old wooden shoe.

The white snow covered everything--trees, stumps, roads, and
pastures--until the whole world looked like fairyland. Gretchen climbed
up on a large stone which was beneath the window and carefully lifted
down the wooden shoe. The snow tumbled off of it in a shower over the
little girl's hands, but she did not heed that; she ran hurriedly back
into the house, putting her hand into the toe of the shoe as she ran.

"Oh, Granny! Oh, Granny!" she exclaimed, "you didn't believe the
Christmas angels would think about us, but see, they have, they have!
Here is a dear little bird nestled down in the toe of your shoe! Oh,
isn't he beautiful?"

Granny came forward and looked at what the child was holding lovingly
in her hand. There she saw a tiny chick-a-dee, whose wing was evidently
broken by the rough and boisterous winds of the night before, and who
had taken shelter in the safe, dry toe of the old wooden shoe. She
gently took the little bird out of Gretchen's hands, and skilfully bound
his broken wing to his side, so that he need not hurt himself by trying
to fly with it. Then she showed Gretchen how to make a nice warm nest
for the little stranger, close beside the fire, and when their breakfast
was ready she let Gretchen feed the little bird with a few moist crumbs.

Later in the day Gretchen carried the fresh, green boughs to the old
sick man by the mill, and on her way home stopped to see and enjoy the
Christmas toys of some other children whom she knew, never once wishing
that they were hers. When she reached home she found that the little
bird had gone to sleep. Soon, however, he opened his eyes and stretched
his head up, saying just as plain as a bird could say,

"Now, my new friends, I want you to give me something more to eat."
Gretchen gladly fed him again, and then, holding him in her lap, she
softly and gently stroked his gray feathers until the little creature
seemed to lose all fear of her. That evening Granny taught her a
Christmas hymn and told her another beautiful Christmas story. Then
Gretchen made up a funny little story to tell to the birdie. He winked
his eyes and turned his head from side to side in such a droll fashion
that Gretchen laughed until the tears came.

As Granny and she got ready for bed that night, Gretchen put her arms
softly around Granny's neck, and whispered: "What a beautiful Christmas
we have had to-day, Granny! Is there anything in the world more lovely
than Christmas?"

"Nay, child, nay," said Granny, "not to such loving hearts as yours."





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