And when the spring came the grass stood green, and the birds began singing where they left off last. The flowers came up in multitudes from the earth, and everything looked fresh and gay. The Oak Trees alone stood with leafless boughs.
"It is the most dignified thing to come last!" they said to one another. "The kings of the wood do not come till the whole company is assembled."
But at last they came. All the leaves burst forth from the swollen buds, and the Trees looked at one another and complimented one another on their beauty. The Little Oak had grown ever so much. He was very proud of it, and he thought that he had now the right to join in the conversation. "Nothing has come yet of the Bear's Beech Trees," he said jeeringly, at the same time glancing anxiously up at the Old Oak, who used to give him one on the head.
The Old Oak heard what he said very plainly, and the other Trees also; but they said nothing. Not one of them had forgotten what the Bear had told them, and every morning when the sun came out they peeped down to look for the Beeches. They were really a little uneasy, but they were too proud to talk about it.
And one day the little shoots did at last burst forth from the earth. The sun shone on them, and the rain fell on them, so it was not long before they grew tall.
"Oh, how pretty they are!" said the Great Oak, and stooped his crooked boughs still more, so that they could get a good view of them. "You are welcome among us," said the Old Oak, and graciously inclined his head to them. "You shall be my foster--children, and be treated just as well as my own."
"Thanks," said the Little Beeches, and they said no more.
But the Little Oak could not bear the strange Trees. "It is dreadful the way you shoot up into the air," he said in vexation.
"You are already half as tall as I am. But I beg you to take notice that I am much older, and of good family besides."
The Beeches laughed with their little, tiny green leaves, but said nothing.
"Shall I bend my branches a little aside so that the sun can shine better on you?" the Old Tree asked politely.
"Many thanks," answered the Beeches. "We can grow very nicely in the shade."
And the whole summer passed by, and another summer after that, and still more summers. The Beeches went on growing, and at last quite overtopped the Little Oak.
"Keep your leaves to yourself," cried the Oak; "you overshadow me, and that is what I can't endure. I must have plenty of sunshine.
Take your leaves away or I perish."
The Beeches only laughed and went on growing. At last they closed together over the Little Oak's head, and then he died. "That was a horrid thing to do," a great Oak called out, and shook his boughs in terror.
But the Old Oak took his foster-children under his protection. "It serves him right," he said. "He is paid out for his boasting. I say it, though he is my own flesh and blood. But now you must behave yourselves, Little Beeches, or I will give you a clout on the head."
Years went by, and the Beeches went on growing, and they grew till they were tall young Trees, which reached up among the branches of the Old Oak.
"You begin to be rather pushing," the Old Tree said. "You should try to grow a little broader, and stop this shooting up into the air. Just see where your branches are soaring. Bend them properly, as you see us do. How will you be able to hold out when a regular storm comes? I assure you the Wind gives one's head a good shaking.
My old boughs have creaked many a time; and what do you think will become of the flimsy finery that you stick up in the air?"
"Every one has his own manner of growth, and we have ours,"
answered the young Beeches. "This is the way it's done where we come from, and we are perhaps as good as you are."
"That is not a polite way of speaking to an old Tree with moss on his boughs," said the Oak. "I begin to repent that I was so kind to you. If you have a spark of honourable feeling alive in you, be good enough to move your leaves a little to one side. There have been scarcely any buds on my lowest branches this year, you overshadow me so."
"I don't quite understand how that concerns us," answered the Beeches. "Every one has quite enough to do to look after himself.
If he is equal to his work, and has luck, it turns out well for him; if not, he must be prepared to go to the wall. That is the way of the world."
Then the Oak's lowest branch died, and he began to be seriously alarmed. "You are pretty things," he said, "if this is the way you reward me for my hospitality. When you were little I let you grow at my feet, and sheltered you against the storm, I let the sun shine on you as much as ever he would, and I treated you as if you were my own children. And in return for all this you stifle me."
"Stuff and nonsense!" said the Beeches. So they put forth flowers and fruit, and when the fruit was ripe the Wind shook the boughs and scattered it round far and wide.
"You are quick people like me," said the Wind. "I like you for it, and am glad to do you a good turn." And the Fox rolled on the ground at the foot of the Beech Trees and got his fur full of the prickly fruits, and ran with them far out into the country. The Bear did the same, and grinned into the bargain at the Old Oak while he lay and rested in the shadow of the Beeches. The Field Mouse was beside himself with joy over his new food, and thought that Beech nuts tasted much nicer than acorns. All round new little Beech Trees shot up, which grew just as fast as their parents, and looked as green and as happy as if they did not know what an uneasy conscience was.
But the Old Oak gazed sadly out over the wood. The light-green Beech leaves were peeping out everywhere, and the Oaks were sighing and bewailing their distress to one another. "They are taking our strength out of us," they said, and shook as much as the Beeches around would let them. "The land is ours no longer." One bough died after another, and the Storm broke them off and cast them on the ground. The Old Oak had now only a few leaves left at the very top.
"The end is near," he said gravely.
By this time there were many more human beings in the land than there were before, and they made haste to hew down the Oaks while there were still some remaining.
"Oak timber is better than Beech timber," they said.
"At last we get a little appreciation," said the old Oak, "but we have to pay for it with our lives."
Then he said to the Beech Trees,--"What was I thinking of when I helped you on in your young days? What an old stupid I was! Before that, we Oak Trees were lords in the land; and now every year I see my brothers around me perishing in the fight against you. It will soon be all over with me, and not one of my acorns has sprouted under your shade. But before I die I should like to know the name you give to such conduct."
"That will not take long to say, old friend," answered the Beeches.
"We call it _competition,_ and that is not any discovery of our own. It is competition which rules the world."
"I do not know these foreign words of yours," said the Oak. "I call it mean ingratitude." And then he died.
THE OAK AND THE SNAIL
By Mrs. Alfred Gatty
The trunk of the Oak Tree in the corner of the timber yard lay groaning under the plank, which a party of children had thrown across him to play see-saw upon.
Not that the plank was so heavy, even with two or three little ones sitting on each end, nor that the Oak was too weak to hold it up--though, of course, the pressure was pretty strong just at the centre, where the plank balanced. But it was such a use to be put to!
The other half of the Tree had been cut into beautiful even planks, some time before, but this was the root end, and his time had not yet come, and he was getting impatient.
"Here we go up, up, up!" cried the children, as the plank rose into the sky on one side. "I shall catch the tree-tops--no! the church steeple--no! the stars."
Or, "Here we go down, down, down!" cried the others. "Safe and snug on the ground--no! right through the world--no! out at the other side. Ah! steady there, stupid old stump!" This was because the plank had swerved, not the Tree.
And so the game went on; for the ups and downs came in turns, and the children shrieked with delight, and the poor Tree groaned loudly all the time.
"And I am to sit here; and bear not only their weight but their blame, and be called stupid and be told to keep steady, when it is they who are giddy and can't be depended upon; and to be contented, while they do nothing but play pranks and enjoy themselves," said he; but he said it to himself, for he did not know which to complain to--the children or the plank. As he groaned, however, he thought of the time when he was king of the little wood, where he had grown up from the acorn days of his babyhood, and it broke his heart to be so insignificant now.
[Illustration: THEY LEARNT FROM THEIR FATHER TO HUNT THE STAG IN HIS COVERT _From the painting by John Hassall_]
"Why have they not cut me into planks like the rest?" continued he, angrily. "I might have led the see-saw myself then, as this fellow does, who leans so heavily on my back, without a thought that I am as good or better than himself. Why have they not given me the chance of enjoying myself like these others--up in the sky at one end, down on the ground at the other, full of energy and life? The whole timber yard, but myself, has a chance. Position and honour, as well as pleasure, are for everybody except me. But I am to stick in a corner merely for others to steady themselves upon--unthought of or despised, made a tool of--Miserable me!"
Now this groaning was so dreadful, it woke the large Garden Snail in the grass hard by, whose custom it was to come out from his haunt under the timber-yard wall every morning at sunrise, and crawl round and round the Oak trunk to see the world come to life, leaving a slimy track behind him on the bark wherever he moved. It was his constitutional stroll, and he had continued it all the season, pursuing his morning reflections without interruption, and taking his nap in the grass afterwards, as regularly as the day came round.
But napping through such lamentation was impossible, and accordingly he once more began to crawl up the side of the Oak trunk, his head turning now to one side, now to the other, his horns extended to the utmost, that, if possible, he might see what was the matter.
But he could not make out, though he kept all his eyes open: so by-and-by he made the inquiry of his old friend the Tree.
"What is the matter, do you ask?" groaned the Oak more heavily than ever--"you who can change your position and act independently when you wish; you who are _not_ left a useless log as I am, the scorn and sport of my own kith and kin? Yes, the very planks who balance themselves on my body, and mock me by their activity, have probably come from my own side, and once hung on me as branches, drinking in life from the life I gave. Oh miserable me! miserable, despised, useless!"