Can And Could

Can and Could use with examples within a short narrative. A short story of Can and Could to help children to understand the different meanings of the words, including examples and use. This short narrative is from a collection of short stories by Jean Ingelow, an English author and poet and was originally published in 1865. With the addition of some illustrations, and only a few – slight – changes to enhance a more modern reading experience, we hope you enjoy this short and pleasant tale.


Onc upon a time, Could went out to take a walk on a winterly morning; he was very much out of spirits, and he was made more so by the necessity under which he found himself to be frequently repeating his own name. ‘O, if I could,’ and ‘O that I were rich and great, for then I could do so and so.’

About the tenth time that he said this, Can opened the door of her small house, and set out on an errand. She went down a back street and through a poor neighbourhood; she was not at all a grand personage, not nearly so well dressed, or lodged, or educated, as Could; and, in fact, was altogether more humble, both in her own esteem and that of others. She opened her door and went down the street, neither sauntering nor looking about her, for she was in a hurry.

All on a sudden, however, this busy little Can stopped and picked up a piece of orange peel. ‘A dangerous trick,’ she observed, ‘to throw orange peel about, particularly in frosty weather, and in such a crowded thoroughfare;’ and she bustled on till she overtook a tribe of little children who were scattering it very freely; they had been bargaining for oranges at an open fruit stall, and were eating them as they went along. ‘Well, it’s little enough that I have in my power,’ thought Can, ‘but certainly I can speak to these children, and try to persuade them to leave off strewing orange peel.

Can and Could meaningful short narrative for children, short story

Can stopped. ‘That’s a pretty baby that you have in your arms,’ she said to one of them; ‘how old is he.’

‘He’s fourteen months old,’ answered the small nurse, ‘and he begins to walk; I teach him, he’s my brother.’

‘Poor little fellow,’ said Can, ‘I hope you are kind to him; you know if you were to let him fall he might never be able to walk any more.’ ‘I never let him drop,’ replied the child, ‘I always take care of my baby.’

‘And so do I;’ ‘And so do I,’ repeated other shrill voices, and two more babies were thrust up for Can’s inspection.

‘But if you were to slip down yourselves on this hard pavement you would be hurt, and the baby would be hurt in your arms. Look! how can you be so careless as to throw all this peel about; don’t you know how slippery it is?’

‘We always fling it down,’ said one.

‘And I never slipped down but once on a piece,’ remarked another.

‘But was not that once too often?’

‘Yes; I grazed my arm very badly, and broke a cup that I was carrying.’

‘Well, now, suppose you pick up all the peel you can find, and then go down around about the streets and see how much you can get; and to the one who finds most, when I come back, I shall give a penny.’

So after making the children promise that they would never commit this fault again, Can went on; and it is a remarkable circumstance, that just at that very moment, as Could was walking in quite a different part of London, he also came to a piece of orange peel which was lying across his path.

‘What a shame!’ he said, as he passed on; ‘what a disgrace it is to the city authorities, that this practice of sowing seed, which springs up into broken bones, cannot be made a punishable offence; there is never a winter that one or more accidents do not arise from it! If I could only put it down, how glad I should be! If, for instance, I could offer a bribe to people to abstain from it; or if I could warn or punish; or if I could be placed in a position to legislate for the suppression of this and similar bad habits. But, alas! my wishes rise far above my powers; my philanthropic aspirations can find no—’

‘By your leave,’ said a tall strong man, with a heavy coal sack on his shoulders.

Could, stepping aside, permitted the coal porter to pass him. ‘Yes,’ he continued, taking up his soliloquy where it had been interrupted, ‘it is strange that so many anxious wishes for the welfare of his species should be implanted in the breast of a man who has no means of gratifying them.’ The noise of a thundering fall, rushing down as of a great shower of stones, made Could turn hastily round. Several people were running together, they stooped over something on the ground, it was the porter; he had fallen on the pavement, and the coals lay in heaps about his head; some people were clearing them away, others were trying to raise him. Could advanced and saw that the man was stunned, for he looked about him with a bewildered expression, and talked incoherently. Could also, observed that a piece of orange peel was adhering to the sole of his shoe.

‘How sad!’ said Could; ‘now, here is the bitter result of this abuse. If I had been in authority I could have prevented this; how it chafes the spirit to perceive, and be powerless! Poor fellow! he is evidently stunned, and has a broken limb—he is lamed, perhaps for life. People are certainly very active and kind on these occasions: they seemed to be preparing to take him to the hospital. Such an accident as this is enough to make a man wish he could be a king or a lawgiver; what the poet says may be true enough:—

“Of all the ills that humankind endure,
Small is that part which laws can cause or cure.”

And yet I think I could have framed such a law, that this poor fellow might now have been going about his work, instead of being carried to languish for weeks on a sickbed, while his poor family are half-starved, and must perhaps receive him at last, a peevish, broken-spirited cripple, a burden for life, instead of a support; and all because of a pitiful piece of scattered orange peel!’

While Could was still moralizing thus, he got into an omnibus, and soon found himself drawing near one of the suburbs of London, turning and winding among rows of new houses with heaps of bricks before them, and the smell of mortar in their neighbourhood; then among railway excavations and embankments, and at last among neat villas and cottages standing in gardens, with here and there a field behind them. Presently they passed a large building, and Could read upon its front, ‘Temporary Home for Consumptive Patients.’ ‘An excellent institution,’ he thought to himself; ‘here a poor man or woman can have a few weeks of good air, good food, and good nursing, the best things possible for setting them up, at least for a time. I have often thought that these remedial institutions do more good, on the whole, than mere hospitals; and, if I could afford it, I would rather be the founder of one of them than of places with more ambitious aims and names. It is sad to think how much consumption is on the increase among the poor; bad air, and the heated places where so many of them work, give these winterly blasts a terrible power over them. But it is my lot to sigh over their troubles without being able to soften them. A small competence, a fixed income, which does no more than provide for my own wants, and procure those simple comforts and relaxations which are necessary to me, is of all things least favourable for the realizing of my aspirations. I cannot gratify my benevolent wishes, though their constant presence shows how willingly I would if I could.’

The omnibus stopped, and a man, in clean working clothes, inquired whether there was an inside place.

‘No, there is not one,’ said the conductor, and he looked in; most of the passengers were women.

‘Would any gentleman like to go outside?’

‘Like!’ thought Could with a laugh; ‘who would like in such a wind as this, so searching and wild? Thank Heaven, I never take cold, but I don’t want a blast like this to air the lining of my paletôt, make itself acquainted with the pattern of my handkerchief, and chill the very shillings in my waistcoat pocket.’

‘Because,’ continued the conductor, ‘if any gentleman would like to go outside, here is a person who has been ill, and would be very glad of a place within.’

He looked down, as he spoke, upon the man, whose clothes were not well calculated to defend him against the weather, and who looked sickly, and had a hollow cough. No answer came from within.

‘I must get outside, then,’ said the man, ‘for I have not much time for waiting,’ so he mounted, and the driver spread part of his own wrapper over his legs, another passenger having lent a hand to help him up.

‘Thank you, sir,’ said the man; ‘I am but weak; but I am sorry to give you the trouble.’

‘No trouble, no trouble,’ answered the outside passenger; and he muttered to himself, ‘You are not likely to trouble anyone long.’

‘That’s where you come from, I suppose,’ said the driver, pointing with his whip towards the house for consumptive patients.

‘Yes,’ said the man, ‘I have been very ill indeed; but I am better now, wonderfully better. They say I may last for years with proper attention, and they tell me to be very careful of weather; but what can I do?’

‘It’s very cold and windy for you up here,’ said the driver.

The man shivered, but did not complain; he looked about him with a bright glitter in his eyes, and every time he coughed he declared that he was much better than he had been.

After telling you so much about Could, his kind wishes, projects, and aspirations, I am almost ashamed to mention Can, to you again; however, I think I will venture, though her aspirations, poor little thing, are very humble ones, and she scarcely knows what a project means.

So, you must know that having concluded most of her business, she entered a shop to purchase something for her dinner; and while she waited to be served a child entered, carrying a basket much too heavy for her strength, and having a shawl folded upon her arm.

‘What have you in your basket?’ asked Can.

‘Potatoes for dinner,’ said the child.

‘It’s very heavy for you,’ remarked Can, observing how she bent under the weight of it.

‘Mother’s ill, and there’s nobody to go to the shop but me,’ replied the child, setting it down, and blowing her numbed fingers.

‘No wonder you are cold,’ said Can; ‘why don’t you put your shawl on instead of carrying it so?’

‘It’s so big,’ said the child, in a piteous voice. ‘Mother put a pin in it, and told me to hold it up, but I can’t, the basket’s so heavy, and I trod on it and fell down.’

‘It’s enough to give the child her death of cold,’ said the mistress of the shop, ‘to go crawling home in this bitter wind, with nothing on but that thin frock.’ ‘Come,’ said Can, ‘I’m not very clever, but, at least, I know how to tie a child’s shawl so as not to throw her down.’ So she made the little girl hold, out her arms, and drawing the garment closely round her, knotted it securely at her back. ‘Now, then.’ she said, having inquired where she lived, ‘I am going your way, so I can help you to carry your basket.”

Can and the child then went out together, while Could, having reached his comfortable home, sat down before the fire and made a great many reflections; he made reflections on baths and -wash-houses, and wished he could advance their interests; he made reflections on model prisons and penitentiaries, and wished he could improve them; he made reflections on the progress of civilization, on the necessity for some better mode of educating the masses; he thought of the progress of the human mind and made grand projects in his benevolent head whereby all the true interests of the race might be advanced, and he wished he could carry them into practice; he reflected on poverty and made castles in the air as to how he might mitigate its severity, and then having in imagination made many people happy, he felt that a benevolent disposition was a great blessing, and fell asleep over the fire.

Can only made two things. When she had helped to carry the child’s basket, she kindly made her sick mother’s bed, and then she went home and made a pudding.

illustration of a little girl to say finish

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Original short story by Jean Ingelow

Retold by A Moffat

Illustrations by

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Special thanks to Buntysmum for image of oranges