The Chimney Sweep’s Boy

Even in the darkest moments, the light of kindness shines through.

Jo Snivelly drew his cart to a halt outside the thick iron gates and looked at the great house that was just visible down the snow-covered drive. Two sets of horses’ hooves and deeply imprinted wheel marks told of the residents’ recent departure for Toronto.

Jo drew his right sleeve under his nose and rubbed it against his coat. He turned and poked his stick at the roll of floor cloths among the brushes and the wheelbarrow behind him. “Giddown,” he growled. A thin, large-eyed little boy with soot-smudged skin and matted hair crawled out from the pile of cloths where he’d been trying to keep warm and jumped down from the cart. He walked through the snow in his skimpy shoes and tugged on the gates. They were heavy for the undersized seven-year-old, but they opened after a few heaves. Jo whacked his horse over the rump and she trotted through, pausing just beyond the gates as the boy closed them and clambered back up onto the cart. Sammy had never seen a house so big before. The great front door had steps leading up to it and a huge knocker in the centre. Two immense columns on each side of the door rose up to the roofline, and to the left and right the house seemed to stretch out forever. The cart turned off into the tradesmen’s lane that led to the yard behind the house. Jo got down, walked over to the door and tugged the bell pull. The door opened after a minute and a woman who could only be the housekeeper appeared. Sammy shrank back into his roll of floor cloths and watched her from its safety.

The woman surveyed the air two feet above Jo’s head. “Yes?” she said. It was a voice designed to carry down long passages.

“It’s the sweep, ma’am,” said Jo. The housekeeper had arranged for the chimneys to be cleaned while the family was gone for the holidays.

“Right,” she said. “Unload here. I’ll show you the rooms to be done and you can get on with it.” Jo stepped inside and the door closed behind him. Sammy climbed down and unlatched the back of the cart. Lifting a wide plank from the cart’s floor, he propped it at an angle to the ground and ran the wheelbarrow down it. Then he heaved the brushes, poles, shovel, buckets and floor cloths into it. Soon after, he heard the voices returning. “Now you know what to do,” boomed the housekeeper’s voice through the door. “I’ll be down the hall. Knock when you’ve finished.” Sammy heard feet departing and a door slam.

Jo came back outside; he picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow and wheeled it in the door, which Sammy held open for him. He didn’t thank Sammy, nor had he ever thanked him in the entire year since he’d fetched him from the Kingston orphanage. Jo had needed a boy to help him and to go up chimneys where the brushes wouldn’t go, but he complained loudly and bitterly about having to pay for the child’s upkeep. And here it was Christmas and still not a kind word.

Sammy trotted behind as Jo led the way inside, first through an enormous kitchen, then along a dark passage. They were going to do the large chimneys on the main floor first before ending with the children’s and nurse’s bedrooms upstairs. These smaller rooms often shared a common chimney into which their fireplaces fed and could be more difficult.

The first chimney was in the dining room. Sammy’s grey eyes opened very wide as they entered it. What a dining table! The entire orphanage could have been seated around it. Overhead was a great light that sparkled like thousands of frozen water drop – lets. He gazed at it, enchanted.

“Stop gogglin’ like an idjit,” grumbled Jo. “Here, help with the cloths.” Sammy scuttled to spread out the cloths around the fireplace to protect the shining floor. Then he shovelled the ash from the dead fire into one of the buckets. Jo constructed a tentlike structure in front of the fireplace to prevent soot escaping into the room and crawled inside it.

Sammy fastened the largest round brush onto the end of a pole and handed it in to Jo, who started to force it upwards. Large chimneys were relatively easy to clean, though the great height of this one meant Sammy had to pass many pole sections to Jo.

A lot of soot had come down by the time Jo finished, which Sammy swept up. Then the makeshift tent was dismantled, everything packed up, and the surrounding floor scrutinized. (If Sammy failed Jo’s inspection, he would be struck hard with a pole.) They moved on to the drawing room, with its huge mirror above the fireplace, and its glorious furniture. The drawing room chimney was quickly finished, but the three small rooms still remained upstairs. Out they went into a large hall and up a massive staircase, Jo hauling the wheelbarrow and Sammy pushing from behind. At the top they walked along an upper hall to the children’s quarters.

Jo opened the door into the boys’ room. Twin beds were placed opposite the fireplace. Sammy sucked in his breath at the sight of the rocking horse with its red saddle and long tail and mane, and on a shelf a toy castle with its soldiers and guns! How was it possible for anyone to have such wondrous things? With Jo scowling, Sammy quickly laid out the floor cloths. As he shovelled up the ash from the fireplace he noticed chunks of brick in the bucket but made no comment. Then he screwed a pole into a smaller brush and passed it to Jo. It went up at an angle, and at about twelve feet it stuck. Jo pushed and shoved but the brush would go no farther. Cursing, he pulled it back down.

“Somethin’s stickin’ it. You’ll ’ave to go up,” he said. Sammy always dreaded these words. At the beginning, when he had been terrified of going up, Jo had thrashed him till he was weeping and covered with bruises, so now he did as he was told. He put a small brush inside his jacket and climbed into the flue. Peering up the chimney he could see no daylight spilling in – it was pitch black. The flue ran at an angle and obviously joined a wider vertical chimney higher up. Sammy reached upward, found a projecting brick and pulled himself up. At twelve feet he arrived at the blockage. In the darkness he probed it and realized it was caused by a pile of broken bricks. He bashed at the bricks repeatedly with the brush handle till they gave way and showered down into the fireplace. Below, he heard Jo swear furiously. Sammy brushed the area clear and climbed higher, emerging into the wider, vertical chimney. Now the going was easier, and high above he could see daylight. He kept climbing and brushing till the stifling air was thick with soot, which filled his nose and eyes and ears and caked his lips. Then, about ten feet from the top he noticed a hole on one side of the chimney where bricks had been dislodged and realized that their removal must have caused the blockage.

He had barely passed the hole and was aching to reach the fresh air and daylight at the top when suddenly everything went dark. He looked up and froze in terror. Something above him was blocking the way … something that snarled ferociously. Terrified, Sammy froze against the chimney wall. In the half light he saw that he was face to face with a very large and angry raccoon, which must have made the hole in hopes of finding a place to nest. He started to creep back down the chimney. Below he heard Jo’s voice shouting up to him. “Wot you doin’? Keep goin’ you li’l good-fer-nothin’. I’m gonna light a fire down here an’ tha’ll tickle your toes.”

Immediately Sammy smelled burning paper. Jo was lighting newspapers in the grate to force him upwards. Soon after, suffocating smoke, heat and fragments of burning paper started to float up around him. Pieces landed on his trousers and legs and he cried out as they burned his skin. Sobbing in pain and despair he climbed into the hole on the side of the chimney. He pushed himself through and tumbled down about four feet onto a hard floor.

He was in a huge room filled with stacks of boxes and old furniture. But for a small window, the room was gloomy. Very faintly he could hear Jo shouting up the chimney and cursing loudly. Sammy decided then and there: he would never go back to Jo – never, never, never – though he didn’t know what he would do instead. Exhausted, cold and sore, he curled up on an old sofa in a corner and closed his eyes.

A noise somewhere above his head woke him. Looking through the window Sammy could tell it was dark outside. It seemed like the sounds of Jo’s shouting had ceased.

It hurt to move his burned leg and chilled muscles, but thirst and hunger prompted Sammy to make a decision. He put a chair against the wall, pushed himself into the hole and squeezed through. After climbing to the top of the chimney, he scrambled out and dropped onto the roof. The air was cold and clean and the sky was lit by a million stars. On the ground far below, the moonlight revealed that Jo’s horse and wagon were gone. Sammy suspected the surly chimney sweep would just write him off as a runaway and go back to the orphanage for another child. Looking around the roof, he noticed what looked like a tank to catch rainwater nearby. Desperate with thirst Sammy walked towards it.

Suddenly he froze in fear. A creature, far, far larger than any he had ever seen was standing there. Its head, crowned with great antlers, was deep in the tank, drinking. The creature raised its dripping mouth from the tank and gazed at him incuriously. Then he heard a man’s deep voice.

“Child, what are you doing up here at this time of night? Why aren’t you in bed?”

Sammy’s pounding heart nearly burst out of his chest. Turning, he saw a tall man in a rust-coloured leather coat and fur-lined boots standing beside a sleigh. He had a grizzled beard, and on his head he wore an odd cap of the same rust-coloured leather.

“I-I was stuck in the ch-chimney,” stammered Sammy.

“Don’t be frightened, child,” said the man. “I won’t hurt you.” He came up closer. “But you’re filthy. What were you doing in the chimney?” Sammy somehow felt this strange man would understand, and he blurted out his whole story. The man’s face creased with compassion.

“Here, child, let’s get you clean and see to your burn.” He fished a cloth out of the sleigh, dipped it into the rainwater, and proceeded to clean the boy off. After a minute or two Sammy’s attractive little face and chestnut hair emerged from the soot and dirt. The man produced a tin of something and rubbed a little onto the burn, which began to feel much better. But Sammy’s teeth were now chattering with cold. The man retrieved a buffalo robe, wrapped it around Sammy and lifted him onto the seat at the front of the sleigh, which seemed to be crammed full of bags.

“What’s your name child?”

“Sammy, sir.”

“Samuel,” repeated the man thoughtfully. “‘Name of God.’ A fine name. Well Samuel, my name is Nicholas. I was once the bishop of Myra, but now I take gifts to children all around the world.” Sammy wondered who these children could be, as he’d never gotten a gift in his life. “We stop at this place every year. It’s the largest roof for miles around and has a water tank. I check the animals’ harnesses and we have something to eat and drink.” He smiled. “I rather suspect you could do with a little to eat and drink too?”

Sammy nodded, unable to speak.

Nicholas reached into the sleigh and handed him some bread and cheese, and some strange creamy milk. “Reindeer milk,” Nicholas explained. He regarded Sammy with a slight frown on his face. “So, what are we going to do with you, Samuel?”

“Could I come along with you, if you please, sir?” Sammy asked hopefully.

“Oh, no, no, no,” said Nicholas, chuckling and shaking his head. “That would never work. You wouldn’t be at all happy with me.”

“Oh,” said Sammy. His head drooped.

A sudden thought struck Nicholas and his face lit up. “I know what we’ll do. I know just what we’ll do.” And he smiled to himself.

“Time we were off.”

Nicholas hitched the reindeer to the sleigh and clicked his tongue. The deer leaned into their head collars and suddenly they were off, rising up into the air – up, up high above the huge house, flying through the sky with its millions of stars and its enormous moon. Sammy gasped with disbelief. Far below the landscape sped by lakes and forests, fields and hills. Although he tried to take in this new adventure, Sammy, well-fed but exhausted, warm under the buffalo robe and secure beside Nicholas, very soon fell asleep.

It was six in the morning when Martha Toebes entered the store room of the Port Hope Bakery. She and her husband Albert wouldn’t be making bread this Christmas Day. Instead, around the walls on high shelves were six huge turkeys, intended for those villagers who didn’t have the means to buy their own. Martha loved seeing the children’s faces light up as they came with their parents to claim their turkey, roasted rich mahogany brown. On the shelf below there was a line of gingerbread men that she and Albert had baked as a gift for each child. She always felt sad when the last turkey was borne away by a happy family, faces radiant, chattering with excitement, the children clutching their gingerbread men, and she and Albert returned to the quietness of their house. Oh, they were a happy couple. Yes, indeed they were. And yet … it was always just the two of them.

Martha lit the lantern from her candlestick. Rolling up her sleeves, she moved over to lift the turkeys down from their shelves and arrange them accordingly when they would go into the oven. Then she drew back with a gasp of astonishment as something caught her eye. There on top of the bags of flour was a little boy, sound asleep.

“Good heavens,” said Martha and turned and rushed for the door. “Albert! Albert!” Albert came in, looking sleepy.

“What is it, my dear?”

“Look!” cried Martha. At this point Sammy awoke and looked up at the two wide-eyed adults staring at him with astounded faces. He was suddenly very wide awake.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?”

Shock sharpened Martha’s voice.

Poor frightened Sammy looked around him and frankly had no idea what he was doing there. He had fallen asleep in a sleigh and awakened in the warm bakery.

“I’m Sammy. Someone brought me here.”

Martha’s heart melted. An unwanted child, on Christmas of all days. Then she noticed his dirty, singed clothing, and the burn on his leg.

“But how did you get so filthy? And where did you get that burn?”

Sammy once again stammered out the story of his life as a chimney sweep’s boy and of meeting the kind old man named Nicholas on the roof. The faces of the kindly Toebeses changed from outrage to pity, and lastly, as Sammy got to the end of his tale, to joy.

“Aaah,” said Martha. “The miraculous Saint Nick. He has brought you to us. Sammy, you are our very special Christmas gift. Oh, how lucky we are.” And bending down she picked him up and hugged him.

There followed the most wonderful day Sammy had ever known.

Somehow the Toebeses got all the turkeys roasted on time, and when the families arrived, there was much gathering around of excited children, thrilled to meet the shy new arrival; and much running back home to fetch outgrown clothing that might fit, and shoes and blankets. And of course, toys. One little girl even pressed her gingerbread man upon Sammy, but Martha told her he would get his own.

From that day onward, Sammy lived with the Toebeses, who found it very difficult not to spoil him. And every Christmas, the Kingston-bound stage coach delivered a huge Christmas cake to the orphanage.

And for each child, a gingerbread man.


Story by:
Patsy Beeson

Illustration by:
Shelagh Armstrong

[Winter 2021/2022 features]