It was Christmas Eve in Rheims, France, nearly five hundred years ago. The spires of the great cathedral towered high in the sky over a throng of people who had gathered in a square before the church, celebrating the joyous Noel. Laughing children darted through the crowd as groups of youths and maidens sang carols and danced to the music of a lute and tambourine. Everywhere faces shone with such happiness, it did not seem possible there could be, in all of Rheims, one sad and lonely heart.
Yet there were four. Three of them lived in a squalid old shed by the river. Though its outward appearance was dismal, the inside was neat and clean. Its one room served as living room, dining room, bedroom and kitchen for three people, but the rough stone floor was carefully swept, and the patched covers on the straw mattresses in the corner were spotlessly clean. A rough table, broken chair, stool and rickety bench were the only furniture in the room. In a far corner stood a small charcoal brazier whose weak flame served not only to cook the meals but to warm the hut.
The one touch of beauty in the little room was supplied by a tiny shrine, built on a shelf at the rear wall. A few field flowers in a bowl stood in front of it, and from the shelf hung a heavily embroidered scarlet sash which had once held a knights' shield.
A young woman was bending over a small spinning wheel, a boy of seven was setting the table with their few cracked dishes, and a girl a year or so older was stirring a kettle over the brazier. The lady, whose beauty shone through in spite of her ragged clothing, was Madame la Contesse Marie de Malincourt, and the boy and girl, her son and daughter, Louis and Jeanne.
As she worked, the lady was thinking sadly of Christmas only a year before, when everything had been so different. Then she had lived in a great castle, and as on every Christmas Eve, she and her husband and children had gone down to the castle gate to greet the crowd assembled. The old, the ailing, and the poor would gather there, and the Malincourts would go into the crowd giving to each villager gifts of warm clothing, healing herbs and food. Even Louis and Jeanne would give something from their own toys to the village children.
Then war had swept over their happy valley; the castle had been attacked and robbed. Lady Marie's husband had been led away in chains while she and the children had fled down a secret passageway out in the night and away to the village. She found it deserted, the villagers frightened away by the attackers.
During the months that followed, the three had wandered along the highway trading away their belongings bit by bit in return for food and lodging. Even Lady Mari's coat had gone to the wife of a rich merchant, and the pretty clothing of Louis and Jeanne had been replaced by coarse peasant wear. Only one thing remained of their belongings - the cover of her husband's shield, which little Louis had brought from the castle that dreadful night. "Father gave it to me to keep until he comes back," he said and through all the terrors of their flight he had clung to it. It was dear to all of them, for it was their only reminder of their father and the life they had shared together.
"Mother," said Jeanne suddenly, interrupting her mother's thoughts, "it is Christmas tonight."
"Yes, sighed Lady Maire, "but there will be no toys or sweets for you and little Louis the Noel."
"We don't need them," the children answered. "We have you, Mother, and we can keep Christmas in our heart.
Their mother looked up at them and smiled. "Yes, though life is hard," she said, "we still have each other, and even though we miss your father, I'm sure there are others in Rheims tonight that miss their lived ones also. I just wish we had something to give the poor as we once did..." A thoughtful silence filled the room.
"Mother," Jeanne said excitedly, "I know something we can give." As she talked she picked up the small tallow candle from the table and hurried to one window of the hut.
"See," she went on, "I will put it on the sill and perhaps someone who passes, someone like ourselves, will be happier because of this little gift of light. There - see how it shines out on the snow," and she stood back to survey her work.
"You are a good child, Jeanne," said Lady Marie, then smiling gently, she resumed her work.
Down in the great square, among all the lights and gaiety, was another sad heart. It beat in the breast of a little lad of nine, a boy in ragged clothes whose bare feet were thrust into clumsy wooden clogs. He was utterly alone in the world, without money or friends, cold hungry and miserable. When he tried to tell his story to some of the milling people around him, no one took any interest in him, other than to frown at him or elbow him out of the way.
At last, in utter despair, he began to tramp the streets, stopping now and then to gaze at the splendid houses and to seek help. But there was no welcome in any of them for the poor lonely child.
It was dark in the streets of Rheims now, and the air was growing colder, but the little child trampled on, trying desperately to find shelter before the night closed in. At last, far off down by the river, he saw a tiny gleam of light appear suddenly at a window and he hurried toward it. As he neared it, the boy saw it was only a small tallow candle at the window of a hovel, the poorest hut in all Rheims, but the steady light brought a sudden glow to his heart and he ran forward and knocked at the door.
It was quickly opened by a little girl, and at once two other people had risen to greet him. In another moment he found himself seated on a stool beside the charcoal brazier. The little girl was warming one of his cold hands in her palms, while her brother was holding the other, and a beautiful woman, kneeling at his feet, drew off the wooden shoes and rubbed his icy feet. When he was thoroughly warmed, the little girl dished up into three bowls and a cracked cup the stew which had been simmering on the fire. There was only a little of it, but she passed the fullest bowl to the stranger.
After a word of blessing, they ate their stew, and never had the thick soup tasted so rich and so satisfying. As they finished, a sudden flowing light filled the room, greater than the brightness of a thousand candles. There was a sound of angel voices, and the stranger had grown so radiant they could hardly bear to look at him.
"Thou, with thy little candle, have lighted the Christ child on his way to Heaven," said their guest, his hand on the door latch. "This night your dearest prayer shall be answered," and in another instant he was gone.
The countess and her children fell to their knees and prayed, and there they still were many minutes later when a knight in armor gently pushed open the door and entered the hut.
"Mari! Jeanne! Louis!" he cried in a voice of love. "Don't you know me after all these weary months of prison and barrel? How I have searched for you!"
Immediately his family clustered around him with embraces and kisses.
"But, Father, how did you find us here?" cried little Louis at last.
"A ragged lad I met on the highway told me where you live," answered the knight.
"The Christ child," said Marie reverently, and told him the story.
And so, forever after, they and all their descendants, have burned a candle in the window on the eve of Noel, to light the solitary Christ child on his way.