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Fiction #260
(published January 5, 2006)
The Cobbler's Children
by Lucy Clifford
Long years ago, my children, all through a dreary afternoon a child sat in a garret working a sampler. Do you know what a sampler is? It is a bit of canvas on which are worked in cross-stitch some words, and now and then some little pictures. Long ago children were always taught to make them, so that when they became women they might know how to mark their table-cloths and pillow-cases and all the linen of the house, for in those days no tidy housewife had thought of writing her name in ink upon her belongings.

The child's brother was busy at the other end of the garret making a table. At Christmas time a great lady sent him a box of tools; so with some bits of wood his uncle the carpenter had given him he set to work to make her a little table, just as a mark of his gratitude, and to show her how useful the tools would be and how well he meant to work with them. And all the time he was cutting and fitting and measuring the little bit of wood, he was thinking of a book his father had once read to him. The book was written by a wise man, and the wise man had said that he who made the first perfect thing of its kind, no matter how small or simple the thing might be, had worked not merely for himself but for the whole world. He left off for a moment to wonder how this might be, and to think how grand a thing it was to work for the world. "It is a beautiful place," his father said on the day they had read the book together, "and a grand thing to think we have all of us the making of its furniture." Then the boy looked up at the window and at the shoemaker's bench that stood by it, and at an unfinished shoe, a little child's shoe, that was on the bench. "Father takes so much trouble to work well," he said to himself. "He often says that when one does well, one does some good to the whole world, for one helps to make it better; and that when one does badly or does wrong, one does it to the whole world and helps to make it worse than one found it. But," he added, "that cannot be so always. How, for instance, can the whole world know about a little shoe?" Suddenly he looked at his sister and noticed that the tears were stealing down her face, though she tried to hide them, and went bravely on with her sampler, working the figures that made her name and age thus—


He watched her and wondered. "If she works her sampler well, will it be good for the whole world?" And then he saw her tears again, and in a moment it seemed as if, of their own accord, his arms had twined round her neck.

"What is the matter?" he asked softly. "You dear little sister, why are you grieving?"

"Daddy is so ill," she sobbed. "He will never be well again."

"I will love you for him when he is gone," he said. "I will take care of you just as he did; I will tears flowed faster, she was comforted.

"Oh, but I wish I could do something for him, because I love him," she cried.

The boy was silent for a few minutes, and stood thinking of all that their father had been to them. Then he said—

"We can't do anything for him now, but we will do things all our lives for him."

Then while the children stood still close together a woman entered. "You may come and see your father," she said. "You must tread softly; he is very ill." She looked round the room and saw the chips of wood upon the floor.

"I put the room tidy; you needn't have made such a mess," she grumbled; "I am tired enough." But the boy only heard her as if in a dream, and as if in a dream thought, "I will gather up all the bits by and by, and put the room neat and straight;" and then with soft steps and grave faces the brother and sister went to their father. He was lying on a little bed in the back garret. The children looked round at the whitewashed walls, then up at the little shelf of books above their father's head, then down at their father's face.

"My lass, is that you?" the cobbler said. "And what have you been doing?"

"I have been making this," she answered, and held up the sampler.

"And I have been making the little table," the boy said, answering his father's look; "it is a deal of trouble to get the bits to fit in and lie flat."

"Never mind the trouble, dear lad," the cobbler said gently, looking up at his boy's face; it always told him what was in the boy's heart just as the hands of a clock told him the time that ticked and ticked repeated; "it's because you are sorry a bit to-day you can only do a thing as well as it can be done—that is all the great men do."

"It's no use wasting his time over that table; it is sure to be covered by a cloth," the woman said. "It would do just as well if he were quicker about it," and she left the room. She was a lodger in the same house with the cobbler, and was often puzzled at his ways.

When she had gone, the cobbler turned to his son again. "Don't heed her, lad," he said. "Do your best; do it, lad, don't dream of doing it—good work lives for ever. It may go out of sight for a time; you mayn't see it or hear of it once it leaves your hand; you may get no honour by it, but that's no matter; good work lives on; it doesn't matter what it is, it lives on." And then, tired out, the cobbler closed his eyes and slept—so sweet a sleep, my children, that he never knew walking more....

The children were weary of sitting alone in the twilight. They had nothing to say to each other; they could not see to work, and the sister's eyes ached with crying, and the boy's heart ached with a still sorer pain.

"Let us go to the garden," he said; and hand in hand they went down the stairs, treading softly and slowly lest they should wake the cobbler from his sleep. They sat on the stone steps that led to the garden—an untidy garden, in which nothing grew save a little creeper planted in a painted wooden box. They looked at the creeper; they could dimly see the tendrils struggling to grow up and up just a little way towards the garret window. They wondered if it would grow as high as the shoemaker's bench in the front room, and they thought of the little shoe their daddy had begun to make for the child whose name they did not know. The stars came out one by one; the little sister's eyes filled with tears when she saw them, for it seemed to her that they had changed since she had seen them last, or else that she knew them better. They looked so soft and kind, as if they saw her and were sorry, perhaps as if they loved her just a little bit; and oh, they looked so wise, as if in that great far-off from which they shone all things were known and understood.

"Dear brother," she whispered, "I wonder if they see the little shoe, and Daddy's face and Daddy's books just above his head?"

"I can't tell," the boy answered softly, "but I think they know about them."

"Perhaps they knew Daddy loved us," she whispered again.

"Perhaps they did," he answered with a sigh, and then he said suddenly, "We have so many things to do; we must make a great many things and send them into the world, because he loved us."

"Wouldn't it have mattered about them if he had not loved us?" she asked.

"Oh yes, it would have mattered, he answered; "but I don't think we could have done them, love makes one so strong; it helps one to do and to bear so many things."

"Yes," she said softly, as they turned to leave the garden, "we must make the world a great many things and tell it Daddy sent them." She saw the wind stir the creeper in the painted box, and she said to herself, "Perhaps the little leaves can hear," and as she stood on the top of the steps looking up at the sky once more before she followed her brother into the house, she thought, "Perhaps the dear stars know."

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