Gateway to the Classics: A Child's Book of Stories by Penrhyn W. Coussens
A Child's Book of Stories by  Penrhyn W. Coussens

The Fir Tree

F AR away in the forest stood a pretty little fir tree. The warm sun shone upon it, the fresh breeze blew about it, but the fir tree was not happy. All about it were many tall companions, pines and firs, and the little fir tree wanted to be tall like them. So it did not heed the warm sunlight, or the soft air which fluttered its leaves, or even the little pleasant children who passed by, prattling merrily. Sometimes the children would bring a basketful of raspberries or strawberries, and seat themselves near the fir tree, saying of the tree, "What a pretty little one this is!" which made it feel more unhappy than ever.

And yet, all this time, the tree grew a whole joint or ring taller every year, for by the number of rings on the trunk of a fir tree we can tell its age.

Still, as it grew, it complained, "Oh, if I were only as tall as the other trees! then I should spread out my branches on every side, and my crown would overlook the wide world. The birds would build their nests in my branches, and when the wind blew, I should bow with stately dignity like the others."

So discontented was the tree that it took no pleasure in the sunshine, or in the birds, or in the rosy clouds that floated over it morning and evening.

Sometimes in winter, when the snow lay white and sparkling on the grounds, a hare would come leaping along and jump right over the little tree's head; then how mortified it felt!

Two winters passed, and when the third came, the tree had grown so tall that the hare was obliged to run round it.

"Ah, to grow and grow! To become tall and old! That is the only thing in the world worth caring for," the fir tree sighed.

In the autumn the woodcutters always came and cut down several of the tallest trees, and the young fir, which had now grown to a very good height, shuddered as the noble trees fell to the ground with a crash. After the branches were lopped off, the trunks looked so slender and bare that they could scarcely be recognized. Then the trees were placed one upon another, on wagons, and dragged by horses out of the forest. "Where were they going? What was going to become of them?" The young fir tree wondered a great deal about it.

So in the spring when the swallows and the storks came, it asked them: "Do you know where those trees were taken? Did you meet them?"

The swallows knew nothing about them, but the stork, after a little reflection, nodded his head and said: "Yes, I think I know. As I flew from Egypt I met several new ships, and they had fine masts that smelt like fir. These must have been the trees, and I assure you they were most stately and grand; they towered majestically."

"Oh, how I wish I were tall enough to go on the sea!" said the fir tree. "Tell me what is the sea, and what does it look like?"

"It would take too much time to explain,—a great deal too much," said the stork, flying quickly away.

"Rejoice in thy youth," said the sunbeam, "rejoice in the fresh growing time, and in the young life that is within thee!"

And the wind kissed the tree, and the dew wept tears over it; but the fir tree did not understand.

Christmas time drew near, and many young trees were cut down, some that were even smaller and younger than the fir tree, which had no peace or rest from its longing to leave the forest. These young trees which were chosen for their beauty, kept their branches, but were also laid on wagons and drawn by horses out of the forest.

"Where are they going?" asked the fir tree. "They are not taller than I am; indeed, one was not so tall. And why do they keep all their branches? Where are they going?"

"We know! we know!" sang the sparrows. "We have looked in at the windows of the houses in town and we know what is done with them. Oh, you cannot think what honor and glory they receive! They are dressed up in the most splendid manner. We have looked in and seen them standing in the middle of a warm room, adorned with all sorts of beautiful things,—gilded apples, sweetmeats, playthings, and hundreds of candles."

"And then," asked the fir tree, trembling in all its branches, "and then what happens?"

"We did not see any more," said the sparrows; "but indeed it was simply wonderful!"

"I wonder whether anything so brilliant will ever happen with me," thought the fir tree. "That would be even better than sailing over the sea. Oh, when will Christmas be here! I am now as tall and well grown as those who were taken away last year. O that I were now laid on the wagon or standing in the warm room with all that brightness and splendour about me! Something better and more beautiful is sure to follow, or the trees would not be so decked out. Yes, something better, something still more splendid must follow—but what can it be? I am weary with longing. I scarcely know myself what is the matter with me."

"Rejoice in our love," said the air and the sunlight; "rejoice in thine own bright life in the fresh air."

But the tree would not rejoice though it grew taller every day, and, winter and summer, its evergreen foliage might be in the forest, and passers-by would say, "What a beautiful tree!"

A short time before the next Christmas this discontented fir tree was the first to fall. As the ax cut sharply into its trunk, deep in through the pit, the tree fell to the ground with a groan, conscious only of pain and faintness, and forgetting all its dreams of happiness in the sorrow of leaving its home in the forest. It knew it would never again see its dear old companions the trees, nor the little bushes, nor the flowers that had grown by its side—perhaps not even the birds.

Nor was the journey at all pleasant. The tree first recovered itself while it was being unloaded, with several other trees, in the courtyard of a house; and it heard a man say, "We want only one and this is the prettiest. This one is beautiful."

Then came two servants in grand livery, and carried the fir tree into a large and beautiful room. Pictures hung on the walls, and near the large stove stood great china jars with lions on the lids. There were rocking-chairs, silken sofas, large tables, with picture books and toys that had cost a hundred times a hundred dollars—at least so the children said.

Then the fir tree was placed in a large tub full of sand, but no one could see it was a tub, for it was hung with green cloth, and it stood on a very handsome carpet. Oh, how the tree trembled! What was going to happen to it now? Some young ladies came, and the servants helped them to adorn the tree.

On some branches they hung little bags cut out of colored paper, and each bag was full of sweetmeats; from other branches there hung gilded apples and walnuts, as if they had grown there; and above and all around were hundreds of red, blue, and white candles, which were fastened upon the branches. Dolls, exactly like real men and women, were placed under the green leaves,—the fir tree had never seen any before,—and at the very top was fastened a glittering star, made of gold tinsel. Oh, it was very beautiful!

"This evening," they all exclaimed; "this evening, how bright it will be!"

"Oh, that evening were come," thought the tree, "and the candles were lighted! Then I should know what else is going to happen. Will the trees come from the forest to see me? Will the sparrows peep in the windows, I wonder? Shall I grow faster here, and keep on all these ornaments during summer and winter?"

But guessing was of very little use. Its back ached with trying; and this pain is as bad for a slender tree as headache is for us.

At last the candles were lighted, and then what a shining blaze of splendor the tree presented! It trembled so with joy in all its branches that one of the candles fell on a green twig and set fire to it. "Help! Help!" exclaimed the young ladies, and they quickly extinguished the fire.

After this the tree did not dare even to tremble (though the fire frightened it), it was so anxious not to hurt any of the beautiful ornaments which so dazzled and bewildered it by their brilliance.

And now the folding doors were thrown open, and a troop of children rushed in as if they intended to upset the tree. They were followed more slowly by the older people. For a moment the little ones stood silent with delight, and then they shouted for joy till the room rang; and they danced merrily round the tree, and snatched off one present after another.

"What are they doing?" thought the tree. "What will happen next?"

The candles burned down to the branches and were put out one by one. Then the children were given permission to plunder the tree. Oh, how they rushed upon it. Its branches creaked with the strain, and if it had not been fastened by the gold star to the ceiling, it must have been thrown down.

Then the children danced about their pretty toys, and no one paid any attention to the tree except the old nurse, who came and peeped among the branches to see if any apple or fig had been forgotten.

"A story! a story!" cried the children, and dragged a little stout man toward the tree.

"Now we are in the greenwood," said the man, as he sat down beneath it, "and the tree will have the pleasure of hearing, too. But I am going to tell only one story. What shall it be? Henny Penny? or Humpty Dumpty, who fell downstairs, but soon got up again, and at last married a princess?"

"Henny Penny!" cried some. "Humpty Dumpty!" cried others; and there was a great uproar. But the fir tree kept silent and thought. "What am I supposed to do now? Have I nothing to do with all this?" But it had already been in the entertainment, and had played out its part.

Then the old man told the story of Humpty Dumpty,—how he fell downstairs, but soon got up again, and married a princess. And the children clapped their hands and cried, "Another! another!" for they wanted to hear the story of Henny Penny, too; but this time they had only Humpty Dumpty. The fir tree stood quiet and thoughtful. The birds in the forest had never told anything like that,—how Humpty Dumpty fell downstairs, and yet married a princess.

"Ah, yes, that is the way it happens in the world, I suppose," thought the fir tree. And it believed the story because such a nice man told it.

"Well," it thought, "who knows? Perhaps I shall fall downstairs, too, and marry a princess," and it looked forward eagerly to the next evening, expecting to be again decked out with candles and toys, tinsel and fruit. "To-morrow I will not tremble," thought the tree; "I will enjoy to the full all my splendor, and I shall hear the story of Humpty Dumpty again, and perhaps Henny Penny, too." And the tree stood silent and lost in thought all night.

In the morning the servants came in. "Now," thought the tree, "all the decking me out will begin again." But they dragged it out of the room and upstairs to the garret, and threw it on the floor in a dark corner where no daylight shone, and there they left it. "What does this mean?" thought the tree. "What am I to do here? What is there for me to hear in a place like this?" and it leaned against the wall and thought and thought.

And it had time enough to think, for days and nights passed and no one came near it; and when at last some one did come, it was only to put some great boxes in the corner. So the tree was completely hidden from sight; it seemed as if it had been quite forgotten.

"It is winter now out of doors," thought the tree. "The ground is hard and covered with snow, so that the people cannot plant me yet. That is doubtless why I am left here under cover till the spring comes. How thoughtful and kind everybody is to me! Still, I wish it were not so dark here, and so terribly lonely, with not even a hare to look at. How pleasant it was out in the forest, while the snow lay on the ground, when the hare would run by—yes, and jump over me, too; but I did not like it at all then. Oh, it is terribly lonely here!"

"Squeak! Squeak!" said a little mouse, stealing out of his hole and creeping cautiously toward the tree; then came another, and they both sniffed at the fir tree and crept in and out between the branches.

"Oh, it is very cold!" said the little mouse. "If it were not, we should be very comfortable here, should n't we, old fir tree?"

"I am not old at all," said the fir tree. "There are many who are much older than I am."

"Where do you come from?" asked the mice, who were full of curiosity; "and what do you know? What is the most beautiful place on earth that you know about? Do tell us all about it! Have you been in the storeroom, where cheeses lie on the shelves, and hams hang from the ceiling? One can run about the tallow candles there. Ah! that is a place where one goes in thin and comes out fat."

"I know nothing about that," said the fir tree; "but I know of the wood, where the sun shines and the birds sing."

And then the tree told the mice all about its youth. The mice had never heard anything like that before, and they listened with all their ears, and said: "How much you have seen! How happy you must have been!"

"Happy!" exclaimed the fir tree; and then, as it thought over what it had been telling them, it added, "Ah, yes, those were happy days."

But when it went on and told them about Christmas eve and how it had been adorned with sweetmeats and candles, the mice repeated once more, "How happy, how very fortunate you have been, you old fir tree!"

"I am not old at all," replied the tree. "I only came from the forest this winter. I am now checked in my growth."

"What splendid stories you do tell!" said the little mice. And the next night they came with four others, to have them hear what the tree had to tell. The more it talked the more it remembered, and then it thought to itself: "Yes, those were happy days, but they may come again. Humpty Dumpty fell downstairs and yet married a princess. Perhaps I, too, may marry a princess." And the tree thought of a pretty little birch tree that grew in the forest; she was a princess, a real princess, to the fir tree.

"Who is Humpty Dumpty?" asked the little mice. And then the tree told the whole story; it could remember every single word. And the little mice were so delighted with it that they were ready to jump with joy up to the very top of the tree. The next night a great many more mice made their appearance, and on Sunday two rats came; but they did not care about the story at all, and that troubled the mice, for it made them also think less of it.

"Is that the only story you know?" asked the rats.

"The only one," answered the tree. "I heard it on the happiest evening of my life; but I did not know I was so happy at the time."

"We think it is a very poor story," said the rats. "Don't you know any stories about bacon or tallow candles in the storeroom?"

"No," replied the tree.

"Then we are much obliged to you," said the rats, and they went their way.

The little mice also kept away after this, and the tree sighed and said: "Really it was very pleasant when the lively little mice sat round me and listened while I told them stories. Now that is all past, too. However, I shall consider myself happy when some one comes to take me out of this place."

But would this ever happen? Yes; one morning people came to clear up the garret; the boxes were moved aside and the tree was pulled out of the corner and thrown roughly on the floor; then the servants dragged it out to the stairs, where the daylight shone.

"Now life is beginning again," thought the tree, rejoicing in the sunshine and fresh air.

It was carried downstairs and put out in the yard so quickly that it forgot to look at itself, and gazed about it, for there was so much to be seen.

The yard opened into a garden where everything was blooming. Fresh and sweet roses hung over a little trellis; the linden trees were in blossom; and swallows flew here and there, calling, "Twit, twit, twit, my mate is coming"; but it was not the fir tree they meant.

"Now I shall live," thought the tree joyfully, stretching out its branches; but, alas! they were all withered and yellow, and it was lying in a corner among weeds and nettles.

The star of gold paper still stuck in the top of the tree and glittered in the sunshine. In the yard two of the merry children who had danced round the tree at Christmas were playing. One of them saw the gilded star, and ran up and tore it off.

"See what is sticking to the ugly old fir tree," he cried, and stamped on the boughs till they crackled under his boots.

And the tree saw all the fresh, bright flowers in the garden and looked at itself, and wished it had been left lying in the dark corner of the garret. It thought of its fresh youth in the forest, of the merry Christmas eve, and of the little mice that had listened so happily to the tale of Humpty Dumpty.

"Past! past!" said the poor tree. "O had I only enjoyed myself when I could! But now it is too late,—it is all past."

Then a lad came and chopped the tree into small pieces, till a large pile lay heaped on the ground. The pieces were placed in a fire, where they blazed up brightly, and the tree sighed so deeply that each sigh was like a pistol shot, and the children who were at play came and sat in front of the fire and looked at it, and cried, "Puff! puff!" But at each explosion, which was a deep sigh, the tree thought of a summer day in the woods, or of a winter night there, when the stars were bright; or of Christmas eve, or of Humpty Dumpty, the only story it had ever heard or knew how to tell,—and then the tree was burned.

The children played in the garden, and the youngest had on his breast the golden star which the tree had worn on its happiest evening. Now that was past, the tree's life was past, and this story is past, too, as all stories must come to an end.

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