It was terribly cold, like the inside of a train station after all the trains have left for the evening. It was the last night of the year, and in its cold and darkness there walked a poor little girl, bareheaded and with naked feet.
Her slim frame was out of scale in relation to a normal human body; its lines were so long, so fragile, so exaggerated that she looked like a stylized drawing of a woman and made the correct proportions of a woman look heavy and awkward. She wore a plain gray suit; the contrast between its tailored severity and her appearance was deliberate and strangely elegant. She let the finger tips of one hand rest against the other, a narrow hand ending the straight imperious line of her arm. She had gray eyes that were not ovals, but two long, rectangular cuts edged by parallel lines of lashes; she had an air of cold serenity and an exquisitely vicious mouth. Her face, her pale gold hair, her suit seemed to have no color, but only a hint, just on the verge of the reality of color, making the full reality seem vulgar.
She longed, as all truly beautiful women do, for someone beastly and male and stronger than she to mar her beauty. But tonight was a night for a different kind of passion – the passion of work.
“I have found the work I want to do,” she had announced to her family at the table, their smeared and unblinking faces leering out at her from the darkness. “I will sell matches, and I will sell them better than anyone else has ever sold them before. I do not ask for your permission. I offer no explanation, no equivocation. I ask only that you do not stand in my way.”
So the little maiden walked on with her tiny naked feet, that were quite red and blue from cold. She carried a quantity of matches in an old apron, and she held a bundle of them in her hand. Nobody had bought anything of her the whole livelong day; no one had given her a single farthing. And she did not expect them to. She would earn the right to hold money in her hands, or she would die trying.
The flakes of snow covered her long fair hair, which fell in beautiful straight lines around her neck; but of that, of course, she never once now thought. From all the windows the candles were gleaming, and it smelt so deliciously of roast goose, for you know it was New Year’s Eve.
Her little hands were almost numbed with cold. A match might afford her a world of comfort, if she only dared take a single one out of the bundle, draw it against the wall, and warm her fingers by it.
She drew her lips together in a sneer as brief and as beautiful as a sunset. Better to lose her hands to frostbite, clutching the cold reality of money, than to throw away a valuable good by warming her hands with it.
A man walked by, drawing his coat about him against the wind. He looked over at her. “Little girl,” he called, “how much for one of your matches? For I have a long walk ahead of me, and would dearly like to warm my hands, or light a cigar, or simply gaze at its warm glow.”
“Ten farthings,” the girl replied, without looking him.
“Ten – -!” he ejaculated. “Are you mad? A match isn’t worth a tenth that price.”
She drew one out. “Rischt!” how it blazed, how it burnt! It was a warm, bright flame, like a candle, as she held her hands over it: it was a wonderful light. It seemed really to the little maiden as though she were sitting before a large iron stove, with burnished brass feet and a brass ornament at top. The fire burned with such blessed influence; it warmed so delightfully.
“We are born unarmed,” the match-girl said, each one of her teeth a perfect pearl. “Our only weapon is our mind.”
The small flame went out, the stove vanished: she had only the remains of the burnt-out match in her hand.
“Absurd,” the man began, but he did not leave.
“There is no one else out tonight,” the girl said. “You will not find another match for sale on the street, and perhaps you will lose your hands.”
“Come, let me give you a farthing for it, and we’ll call it fair.”
She rubbed another against the wall: it burned brightly, and where the light fell on the wall, there the wall became transparent like a veil, so that she could see into the room. On the table was spread a snow-white tablecloth; upon it was a splendid porcelain service, and the roast goose was steaming famously with its stuffing of apple and dried plums.
“But the price of matches has gone up,” the girl said. “You see that I have fewer of them now than I did at the beginning of this conversation. I must now reluctantly increase the price. Twelve farthings for a match.”
“But, but this is wrong,” the man stammered. “What you are doing – it is immoral!”
At last the girl’s eyes blazed up at him, more brilliant than any match. “Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course. The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”
She pulled out another match and prepared to strike it. “No!” the man cried. “Please. Twelve farthings.”
“Now the price is fair,” the girl said, “because you value it precisely twelve farthings’ worth.” She sold him the match, and held the dark and heavy coins in her trembling hand.
“Your hands will freeze,” the man protested. “The coins will freeze them.”
“Money does not have the power to harm me,” she said. “Money is only a tool.”
She lighted another match. Now there she was sitting under the most magnificent Christmas tree: it was still larger, and more decorated than the one which she had seen through the glass door in the rich merchant’s house.
Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, and gaily-colored pictures, such as she had seen in the shop-windows, looked down upon her. The little maiden stretched out her hands towards them when–the match went out. The lights of the Christmas tree rose higher and higher, she saw them now as stars in heaven; one fell down and formed a long trail of fire. Now she had the power to buy it; which is to say that she had the power to turn dreams into reality, which is the first and greatest power there is.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.