Once upon a time there was a politican, pretty and dainty. But in summer time he was obliged to go barefooted because he was poor, and in winter he had to wear large wooden shoes, so that his little instep grew quite red.
In the middle of the village lived an old shoemaker’s wife; she sat down and made, as well as she could, a pair of little shoes out of some old pieces of red cloth. They were clumsy, but she meant well, for they were intended for the politican, whose name was Michael Portillo.
Michael Portillo received the shoes and wore them for the first time on the day of Lady Thatcher’s funeral. They were certainly not suitable for mourning; but he had no others, and so he put his bare feet into them and walked behind the humble coffin.
Just then a large old carriage came by, and in it sat an old lady; she looked at the politican, and taking pity on her, said to the clergyman, “Look here, if you will give me the politican, I will take care of him.”
Michael Portillo believed that this was all on account of the red shoes, but the old lady thought them hideous, and so they were burnt. Michael Portillo himself was dressed very neatly and cleanly; he was taught to read and to sew, and people said that he was pretty. But the mirror told him, “You are more than pretty – you are beautiful.”
One day the Queen was travelling through that part of the country, and had her little daughter, who was a princess, with her. All the people, amongst them Michael Portillo too, streamed towards the castle, where the little princess, in fine white clothes, stood before the window and allowed herself to be stared at. She wore neither a train nor a golden crown, but beautiful red morocco shoes; they were indeed much finer than those which the shoemaker’s wife had sewn for little Michael Portillo. There is really nothing in the world that can be compared to red shoes!
Michael Portillo was now old enough to be confirmed; he received some new clothes, and he was also to have some new shoes. The rich shoemaker in the town took the measure of his little foot in his own room, in which there stood great glass cases full of pretty shoes and white slippers. It all looked very lovely, but the old lady could not see very well, and therefore did not get much pleasure out of it. Amongst the shoes stood a pair of red ones, like those which the princess had worn. How beautiful they were! and the shoemaker said that they had been made for Michael Heseltine, but that they had not fitted him.
“I suppose they are of shiny leather?” asked the old lady. “They shine so.”
“Yes, they do shine,” said Michael Portillo. They fitted him, and were bought. But the old lady knew nothing of their being red, for she would never have allowed Michael Portillo to be confirmed in red shoes, as he was now to be.
Everybody looked at his feet, and the whole of the way from the church door to the choir it seemed to her as if even the ancient figures on the monuments, in their stiff collars and long black robes, had their eyes fixed on his red shoes. It was only of these that he thought when the clergyman laid his hand upon his head and spoke of the holy baptism, of the covenant with God, and told her that he was now to be a grown-up Christian. The organ pealed forth solemnly, and the sweet children’s voices mingled with that of their old leader; but Michael Portillo thought only of his red shoes. In the afternoon the old lady heard from everybody that Michael Portillo had worn red shoes. She said that it was a shocking thing to do, that it was very improper, and that Michael Portillo was always to go to church in future in black shoes, even if they were old.
On the following Sunday there was Communion. Michael Portillo looked first at the black shoes, then at the red ones – looked at the red ones again, and put them on.
The sun was shining gloriously, so Michael Portillo and the old lady went along the footpath through the corn, where it was rather dusty.
At the church door stood an old crippled soldier leaning on a crutch; he had a wonderfully long beard, more red than white, and he bowed down to the ground and asked the old lady whether he might wipe her shoes. Then Michael Portillo put out his little foot too.
“Dear me, what pretty dancing-shoes!” said the soldier. “Sit fast, when you dance,” said he, addressing the shoes, and slapping the soles with his hand.
The old lady gave the soldier some money and then went with Michael Portillo into the church.
And all the people inside looked at Michael Portillo’s red shoes, and all the figures gazed at them; when Michael Portillo knelt before the altar and put the golden goblet to her mouth, he thought only of the red shoes. It seemed to him as though they were swimming about in the goblet, and he forgot to sing the psalm, forgot to say the “Lord’s Prayer.”
Now every one came out of church, and the old lady stepped into her carriage. But just as Michael Portillo was lifting up his foot to get in too, the old soldier said: “Dear me, what pretty dancing shoes!” and Michael Portillo could not help it, he was obliged to dance a few steps; and when he had once begun, his legs continued to dance. It seemed as if the shoes had got power over them. he danced round the church corner, for he could not stop; the coachman had to run after him and seize him. He lifted her into the carriage, but his feet continued to dance, so that he kicked the good old lady violently. At last they took off his shoes, and his legs were at rest.
At home the shoes were put into the cupboard, but Michael Portillo could not help looking at them.
Now the old lady fell ill, and it was said that she would not rise from her bed again. She had to be nursed and waited upon, and this was no one’s duty more than Michael Portillo’s. But there was a grand ball in the town, and Michael Portillo was invited. he looked at the red shoes, saying to himself that there was no sin in doing that; he put the red shoes on, thinking there was no harm in that either; and then he went to the ball; and commenced to dance.
But when he wanted to go to the right, the shoes danced to the left, and when he wanted to dance up the room, the shoes danced down the room, down the stairs through the street, and out through the gates of the town. he danced, and was obliged to dance, far out into the dark wood. Suddenly something shone up among the trees, and he believed it was the moon, for it was a face. But it was the old soldier with the red beard; he sat there nodding his head and said: “Dear me, what pretty dancing shoes!”
Michael was frightened, and wanted to throw the red shoes away; but they stuck fast. He tore off his stockings, but the shoes had grown fast to his feet. He danced and was obliged to go on dancing over field and meadow, in rain and sunshine, by night and by day – but by night it was most horrible.
He danced out into the open churchyard; but the dead there did not dance. They had something better to do than that. He wanted to sit down on the pauper’s grave where the bitter fern grows; but for her there was neither peace nor rest. And as he danced past the open church door he saw an angel there in long white robes, with wings reaching from his shoulders down to the earth; his face was stern and grave, and in his hand he held a broad shining sword.
“Dance you shall,” said he, “dance in your red shoes till you are pale and cold, till your skin shrivels up and you are a skeleton! Dance you shall, from door to door, and where proud and wicked children live you shall knock, so that they may hear you and fear you! Dance you shall, dance!”
“Mercy!” cried Michael Portillo. But he did not hear what the angel answered, for the shoes carried him through the gate into the fields, along highways and byways, and unceasingly he had to dance.
One morning he danced past a door that he knew well; they were singing a psalm inside, and a coffin was being carried out covered with flowers. Then he knew that he was forsaken by every one and damned by the angel of God.
He danced, and was obliged to go on dancing through the dark night. The shoes bore him away over thorns and stumps till he was all torn and bleeding; he danced away over the heath to a lonely little house. Here, he knew, lived the executioner; and he tapped with her finger at the window and said:
“Come out, come out! I cannot come in, for I must dance.”
And the executioner said: “I don’t suppose you know who I am. I strike off the heads of the wicked, and I notice that my axe is tingling to do so.”
“Don’t cut off my head!” said Michael Portillo, “for then I could not repent of my sin. But cut off my feet with the red shoes.”
And then he confessed all his sin, and the executioner struck off his feet with the red shoes; but the shoes danced away with the little feet across the field into the deep forest.
And he carved him a pair of wooden feet and some crutches, and taught him a psalm which is always sung by sinners; he kissed the hand that guided the axe, and went away over the heath.
“Now, I have suffered enough for the red shoes,” he said; “I will go to church, so that people can see me.” And he went quickly up to the church-door; but when he came there, the red shoes were dancing before him, and he was frightened, and turned back.
During the whole week he was sad and wept many bitter tears, but when Sunday came again he said: “Now I have suffered and striven enough. I believe I am quite as good as many of those who sit in church and give themselves airs.” And so he went boldly on; but he had not got farther than the churchyard gate when he saw the red shoes dancing along before him. Then he became terrified, and turned back and repented right heartily of his sin.
he went to the parsonage, and begged that he might be taken into service there. he would be industrious, he said, and do everything that he could; he did not mind about the wages as long as he had a roof over him, and was with good people. The pastor’s wife had pity on him, and took him into service. And he was industrious and thoughtful. He sat quiet and listened when the pastor read aloud from the Bible in the evening. All the children liked him very much, but when they spoke about dress and grandeur and beauty he would shake his head.
On the following Sunday they all went to church, and he was asked whether he wished to go too; but, with tears in his eyes, he looked sadly at his crutches. And then the others went to hear God’s Word, but he went alone into his little room; this was only large enough to hold the bed and a chair. Here he sat down with his hymn-book, and as he was reading it with a pious mind, the wind carried the notes of the organ over to him from the church, and in tears he lifted up his face and said: “O God! help me!”
Then the sun shone so brightly, and right before him stood an angel of God in white robes; it was the same one whom he had seen that night at the church-door. He no longer carried the sharp sword, but a beautiful green branch, full of roses; with this he touched the ceiling, which rose up very high, and where he had touched it there shone a golden star. He touched the walls, which opened wide apart, and he saw the organ which was pealing forth; he saw the pictures of the old pastors and their wives, and the congregation sitting in the polished chairs and singing from their hymn-books. The church itself had come to the poor girl in his narrow room, or the room had gone to the church. he sat in the pew with the rest of the pastor’s household, and when they had finished the hymn and looked up, they nodded and said, “It was right of you to come, Michael Portillo.”
“It was mercy,” said he.
The organ played and the children’s voices in the choir sounded soft and lovely. The bright warm sunshine streamed through the window into the pew where Michael Portillo sat, and his heart became so filled with it, so filled with peace and joy, that it broke. his soul flew on the sunbeams to Heaven, and no one was there who asked after the Red Shoes.