The Greatest Gift By Philip Van Doren Stern

The Greatest Gift is a 1943 short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern which became the basis for the film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

It tells the story of George Pratt, a man who is dissatisfied with his life and  contemplates suicide. As he stands on a bridge on Christmas Eve 1943, he is approached by a strange, unpleasantly dressed but well-mannered man with a bag. The man strikes up a conversation, and George tells the man that he wishes he had never been born. The man tells him that his wish has been granted and that he was never born. ~Courtesy Wikipedia

Note: This is an Excerpt, for entire story visit: What So Proudly We Hail Library

The little town straggling up the hill was bright with colored Christmas lights. But George Pratt did not see them. He was leaning over the railing of the iron bridge, staring down moodily at the black water. The current eddied and swirled like liquid glass, and occasionally a bit of ice, detached from the shore, would go gliding downstream to be swallowed up in the shadows under the bridge.

The water looked paralyzingly cold. George wondered how long a man could stay alive in it. The glassy blackness had a strange, hypnotic effect on him. He leaned still farther over the railing. . .

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a quiet voice beside him said.

George turned resentfully to a little man he had never seen before. He was stout, well past middle age, and his round cheeks were pink in the winter air as though they had just been shaved.

“Wouldn’t do what?” George asked sullenly.
“What you were thinking of doing.”
“How do you know what I was thinking?”
“Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,” the stranger said easily.

George wondered what the man’s business was. He wore a moth-eaten old fur cap and a shabby overcoat that was stretched tightly across his paunchy belly. Nothing else about him was noteworthy. He wore a moth-eaten old fur cap and a shabby overcoat that was stretched tightly across his paunchy belly. He was carrying a small black satchel. It wasn’t a doctor’s bag—it was too large for that and not the right shape. It was a salesman’s sample kit, George decided distastefully. The fellow was probably some sort of peddler, the kind who would go around poking his sharp little nose into other people’s affairs.

“Looks like snow, doesn’t it?” the stranger said, glancing up appraisingly at the overcast sky. “It’ll be nice to have a white Christmas. They’re getting scarce these days— but so are a lot of things.” He turned to face George squarely. “You all right now?”

“Of course I’m all right. What made you think I wasn’t? I—”

George fell silent before the stranger’s quiet gaze.

The little man shook his head. “You know you shouldn’t think of such things—and on Christmas Eve of all times! You’ve got to consider Mary—and your mother too.”

George opened his mouth to ask how this stranger could know his wife’s name, but the fellow anticipated him. “Don’t ask me how I know such things. It’s my business to know ’em. That’s why I came along this way tonight. Lucky I did too.” He glanced down at the dark water and shuddered.

“Well, if you know so much about me,” George said, “give me just one good reason why I should be alive.”

The little man made a queer chuckling sound. “Come, come, it can’t be that bad. You’ve got your job at the bank. And Mary and the kids. You’re healthy, young, and—”

“And sick of everything!” George cried. “I’m stuck here in this mud hole for life, doing the same dull work day after day. Other men are leading exciting lives, but I—well, I’m just a small-town bank clerk that even the army didn’t want.

I never did anything really useful or interesting, and it looks as if I never will. I might just as well be dead. I might better be dead. Sometimes I wish I were. In fact, I wish I’d never been born!”

The little man stood looking at him in the growing darkness. “What was that you said?” he asked softly.

“I said I wish I’d never been born,” George repeated firmly. “And I mean it too.”

The stranger’s pink cheeks glowed with excitement. “Why that’s wonderful! You’ve solved everything. I was afraid you were going to give me some trouble. But now you’ve got the solution yourself. You wish you’d never been born. All right! OK! You haven’t!”

“What do you mean?” George growled.

“You haven’t been born. Just that. You haven’t been born. No one here knows you. You have no responsibilities—no job—no wife—no children. Why, you haven’t even a mother. You couldn’t have, of course. All your troubles are over. Your wish, I am happy to say, has been granted—officially.”

“Nuts!” George snorted and turned away.

The stranger ran after him and caught him by the arm. “You’d better take this with you,” he said, holding out his satchel. “It’ll open a lot of doors that might otherwise be slammed in your face.”

“What doors in whose face?” George scoffed. “I know everybody in this town. And besides, I’d like to see anybody slam a door in my face.”

“Yes, I know,” the little man said patiently. “But take this anyway. It can’t do any harm and it may help.” He opened the satchel and displayed a number of brushes. “You’d be surprised how useful these brushes can be as introduction—especially the free ones.

These, I mean.” He hauled out a plain little hairbrush. “I’ll show you how to use it.” He thrust the satchel into George’s reluctant hands and began: “When the lady of the house comes to the door you give her this and then talk fast. You say: ‘Good evening, Madam. I’m from the World Cleaning Company, and I want to present you with this handsome and useful brush absolutely free—no obligation to purchase anything at all.’ After that, of course, it’s a cinch. Now you try it.” He forced the brush into George’s hand.

George promptly dropped the brush into the satchel and fumbled with the catch, finally closing it with an angry snap. “Here,” he said, and then stopped abruptly, for there was no one in sight.

The little stranger must have slipped away into the bushes growing along the riverbank, George thought. He certainly wasn’t going to play hide-and-seek with him. It was nearly dark and getting colder every minute. He shivered and turned up his coat collar.

The streetlights had been turned on, and Christmas candles in the windows glowed softly. The little town looked remarkably cheerful. After all, the place you grew up in was the one spot on earth where you could really feel at home.

George felt a sudden burst of affection even for crotchety old Hank Biddle, whose house he was passing.

He remembered the quarrel he had had when his car had scraped a piece of bark out of Hank’s big maple tree.

George looked up at the vast spread of leafless branches towering over him in the darkness. The tree must have been growing there since Indian times.

He felt a sudden twinge of guilt for the damage he had done. He had never stopped to inspect the wound, for he was ordinarily afraid to have Hank catch him even looking at the tree. Now he stepped out boldly into the roadway to examine the huge trunk.

Hank must have repaired the scar or painted it over, for there was no sign of it. George struck a match and bent down to look more closely. He straightened up with an odd, sinking feeling in his stomach. There wasn’t any scar. The bark was smooth and undamaged.

He remembered what the little man at the bridge had said. It was all nonsense, of course, but the nonexistent scar bothered him. Go To:

Short Story THE GREATEST GIFT Courtesy of What So Proudly We Hail Library

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