Gateway to the Classics: The Seasons: Autumn by Jane Marcet
The Seasons: Autumn by  Jane Marcet

The Fall of the Leaf

Willy's Mamma very often took a book, and went to read, seated on a bench near the house. It was shaded by a large horse-chestnut tree, and Willy played about under the tree, whilst his Mamma was reading. For some time past she observed, that whenever she came to the bench she found it covered with the withered leaves of the horse-chestnut.

"How tiresome these leaves are," said Willy; "always falling! I saw Johnny clean the bench this morning, and now it is covered again."

"We cannot prevent the leaves from falling in autumn," replied his Mother: "at this time of the year they wither and die; and then the slightest wind blows them off the branch."

"But if there were no wind, Mamma, would they stay on it?"

"No; the stalk, when it was quite dry, would snap, and the leaf would fall."

"But all leaves do not fall in autumn, Mamma; look at that laurel, it is quite fresh and green."

"The leaves of laurel, and all other evergreens, live throughout the winter, and that is the reason they are called evergreens."

"Then do their leaves last for ever? do they never die?" asked Willy with some surprise.

"Oh no, they begin to wither and grow yellow in the spring, and fall off just when the new leaves are coming out; sometimes it is the young leaf budding, which pushes off the old leaf; just as if it said, 'Go away, you old dry leaf, you are good for nothing now; let me have your place; I am young and healthy, and can do the work better than you.' "

"But do the leaves do any work, Mamma?"

Certainly; whatever God Almighty has created is made to do some good and useful work. They do not work with a needle and thread, as Ann does; nor do they work like the labouring men in the fields. The work they have to do, is to help the water that the roots suck up to feed the plant. Some day or other you will learn how they do this, but it is too difficult for me to explain to you now."

"I think, Willy," added she, "if you had a little broom, you might help to keep this bench clean for me. Come with me, and let us see if we cannot get one."

"There are no shops here in the country to buy a broom, Mamma."

"No, but we can contrive to make one."

They then went to the wood-house, and got Mark to choose a stick out of the faggots, of a proper size to make a broom-stick for Willy. He afterwards cut a number of small twigs from the faggots, and tied them round one end of the stick to make a broom. Willy looked on very earnestly, and every now and then gave a jump for joy, when he found that the great stick in the middle, and the little twigs round it, began to look like a broom.

"See, Mamma," cried he, when Mark had finished it, and given it to him, "now it is quite turned into a broom;" and off he ran towards the bench: but he had not gone far when he turned about, came back a few steps, and when he thought he was within hearing, hallooed out,—

"Oh, Mark! I forgot to thank you; but I cannot go back now."

As soon as he reached the horse-chestnut tree he set to work, and swept all the leaves from the bench, and away from under his Mamma's feet. He afterwards fetched his rake, and raked a great many together in a heap.

"Look, Mamma," said he, "is not it like a haycock?"

"Yes," replied she; "but I do not think the horses would like it so well to eat."

"But how can I carry it away, and where shall I take it?"

"Try to think for yourself, Willy, and do not interrupt the pretty story I am reading."

"Is it very pretty, Mamma? do pray read it to me."

"It is pretty to me, but you would not understand it."

"O yes, if it is pretty, I dare say I should."

His Mother smiled, and read aloud:—

"It gave Mr. Wallace great pleasure to go round the works, and see how the employment of this capital afforded subsistence to nearly three hundred people, and to remember, that the productions of their labour would promote the comfort and convenience of many hundreds or thousands more, in the distant places to which the iron of this district was carried."

Willy listened attentively, and his face lengthened as he listened; at last he exclaimed,—

"Well, Mamma, that's enough, thank you; it is something about a hundred men, but I am sure I cannot tell what."

Willy was then obliged to think for himself what he should do with his heap of dry leaves—and he thought of his wheelbarrow. He soon filled it, and wheeled it away to a little wood close by, where he emptied the barrow, and then returned for more leaves. All at once he called out,—

"Well, what can that be! something has fallen from the tree that I am sure is not a leaf, for it hit my head as hard as if it was a stone!"

"There are no stones in trees," said his Mother; "it is much more likely that it was some of the seeds of the horse-chestnut."

"Oh, Mamma! seeds are not so hard and heavy as that."

"Seeds are of very different sizes in different plants; but look among the dead leaves for what it was that hurt you; if it was so large and so hard, it will not be very difficult to find."

Willy sought, and found a couple of horse-chestnuts, in their prickly shell, which was half open, and he soon picked them out.

"Are these large shining brown things seeds, Mamma?"

"Yes, they are; the seeds of the horse-chestnut tree. You remember the flower, do not you? We saw one first in the bud which we cut open in the spring."

"Oh yes! that was the beginning of the flower before it grew large, and looked so beautiful as it did afterwards."

"Yes," replied his Mother, "when the leaves of the tree were all come out, and grown to their full size, the flowers came into blossom. That was a long time ago."

"Yes, and it is a long time since they have been all dead and gone!" replied Willy.

"You did not observe," said his Mother, "that they left something behind, on the branch where the flower grew."

"I know," said Willy, "that the fruit comes after the flower; but these are only seeds, Mamma."

"This prickly shell or husk," said his Mother, "is the only fruit the horse-chestnut bears."

"But how can we eat it, Mamma? it has pricked my fingers already, in getting out the seeds, and I am sure it would prick my tongue."

"It is not good to eat, nor the seeds either."

"But they will make nice little balls to play with."

While he was speaking, another fell at his feet; and as the wind was rising, it soon blew off a great number, which fell fast around him. This delighted Willy.

"There's another, and another, Mamma!" cried he, springing first on one side, then on the other, trying to catch them as they fell. He scratched his hands a little in getting some of them out of their prickly husk, but most of them were dashed out of it in falling. Willy worked no more at the dry leaves, the remainder of the heap was left where it had been raked up, for he could think of nothing but his horse-chestnuts; and before they returned to the house he had half filled his little wheel-barrow with them.

"Why are these seeds called horse-chestnuts, Mamma?"

"To distinguish them from another sort of chestnut, which is called sweet chestnut, because it is good to eat."

"Then it has not a prickly husk, like these."

"Yes it has, but it is not the husk you eat, but the seed. They are not ripe yet; when they are, you shall taste them."

When his Mamma went into the house, Willy asked whether he might carry his horse-chestnuts into the nursery to play with.

"I am sure," said he, "Mark will not want all these seeds to sow."

"You may take as many as you please; Mark does not want to sow any this year."

"Then how will he do to get new horse-chestnut trees?

"When he wants any," replied she, "he transplants young trees, which have grown from seeds he sowed some years ago; and are already tall, though the stems are not very thick. There is Mark yonder; go and ask him to show you the place where the young trees grow."

Willy ran to Mark, who said,

"Come along with me, Sir, and I will show you my nursery."

And he took him to the place where a number of young trees, of different sorts, were growing in rows, close by one another. Willy thought that Mark was joking when he called this a nursery. But he told him it was really called a nursery for young plants.

"Why should not baby trees have a nursery, as well as baby children?" said he.

"But," replied Willy, "there are no walls, and no ceiling; and a nursery is a room."

"For children it is," said he, "but trees would not grow in a room."

"And have they any nurse to take care of them?" asked Willy.

"I am head nurse," said Mark, "and Johnny sometimes helps me. Look, I tie the young trees to stakes of wood stuck into the ground to prevent their falling, for, poor little dears! they are not yet strong enough to stand upright by themselves."

"Just like sister Sophy," said Willy; "she cannot stand alone, and would fall down directly, if nurse did not hold her up when she tries to walk."

"Nurse is the stake that supports her," said Mark.

"Ha, ha, ha, ha!" said Willy, laughing at nurse being called a stake.

"But does it not hurt the young trees to tie them so tight?"

"I take care to do it carefully," said Mark; and he began tying up one that had got loose.

"Look, I put a whisp of straw round the tree, to prevent the bark from being hurt by the string, then I do not tie them quite tight, that the wind may blow them about a little; for it is good for young trees to have a little exercise as well as for young children."

"Like Sophy," said Willy; "when nurse dances her; because she cannot run about like me."

"Yes," replied Mark; "so you see, Master Willy, that the wind helps me to nurse my young trees; but I do not trust them entirely to its care, for fear it should blow them down, for it is sometimes very boisterous; so I keep them tied to the stake long after they are strong enough to stand alone, and then the wind can do them no harm."

Willy was very much pleased with Mark's nursery. "May I sow one of my horse-chestnuts in it?" said he; "and then when it comes up and grows into a little tree like these, I shall call it my child; and put a stake into the ground, and tie the baby tree to it, and water it, and take care of it all by myself, except when the wind helps me to nurse it."

He then made a hole in the ground, put one of the horse-chestnuts into it, and covered it over. Mark took a small stick, which had a little paper stuck in a slit at the top. He wrote something on it, and then stuck it in the ground, close by the spot in which the seed was sown.

"This is to mark the place," said he, "that you may know where to look for it when it comes up."

"How long will that be?"

"Oh, you will see nothing of it before next spring; winter will soon be here, and the weather is already too cold for it to sprout now."

"I was going to sow one of these seeds in my own garden," said Willy, "but I thought it would make such a great tree, that I should not have room for any thing else next summer."

"Oh! there's no fear for next summer," said Mark, laughing: "it will not be so tall as you are next summer."

"Indeed," cried Willy; "why I thought it would grow as big as the great tree that shades the bench."

"So it would in time; but it will take many years to get to that size. I dare say that tree is nearly a hundred years old."

"A hundred years!" exclaimed Willy, "why, that is older than Papa or Mamma."

"Yes, by a great deal," said Mark; "if you will come with me, I will show you a horse-chestnut tree that is just as old as you are."

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