Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Olive Thorne Miller

The Birds' Christmas Tree

T HE younger daughter of the house was very ill, and so the usual Christmas tree was put off, but Santa Claus slipped in quietly and brought presents to the other children, among the rest to Grace, the elder daughter, what she liked best of everything, three or four new books.

After breakfast she started off, meaning to have a long delightful day, curled up in a big blue chair in the library, reading. This pleasant picture Mamma spoiled, as Grace started off with her books after breakfast.

"My dear," she said, "I shall have to depend on you to keep the twins quiet to-day."

"Where's Mary?" said Grace, pausing with her hand on the door-knob, all the sunshine going out of her face.

"Mary had to go home to-day," said Mamma, "and you know, dear, it is the critical day with Bessie. I shall not leave her, and the house must be kept very still."

"Well; I suppose they can stay with me," said Grace, rather ungraciously, adding: "Boys, bring your playthings into the library."

"But, my dear," said Mamma, hesitating, "I hate to spoil your pleasure to-day; but you know if you open a book, you will forget your charge."

"Not look at my new books!" exclaimed Grace. "Oh, I couldn't possibly help it! I won't forget."

"Grace," said her mother gravely, "I know you too well, and it is my particular request that you do not even open one of your books to-day. I know it's hard," she went on, seeing the look in Grace's face, "but the life of your sister may be the forfeit."

"Hard!" cried Grace hotly, "I think it's horrid!" and she rushed out of the room before her mother could say another word. She hurried into the library, flung herself into the blue chair, and burst into angry tears.

"I think it's just horrid!" she sobbed violently. "It's bad enough to take care of those two young ones without giving up my books!"

"But you know, Grace Houghton," said something within, "you know  you'd forget them."

"What if I did for a tiny minute," she burst out in reply to her own thoughts; "they couldn't turn the house over in a minute."

"No; but they could throw down a table, as they did yesterday," suggested the monitor within; "and a sudden shock, the doctor says, might kill Bessie."

"There's one good thing," said Grace suddenly, sitting up and looking fondly at the books she still held in her arms, "she didn't say I should not; she only 'requested' me not to."

"But you wouldn't disobey a request of Mamma's," was the next thought, on which Grace turned red and looked very sulky indeed.

Just then the door opened, and the two boys and a load of playthings were brought in and deposited, with the message:—

"Your mother said I was to bring these to you, Miss Grace."

Well; that was not a very promising opening for Christmas morning, to be sure, and it stayed dismal for some time. Grace sat in the blue chair, very cross and sulky, and the twins, five years old and very lively, played with their toys on the floor. Every few minutes Grace had to interfere with a sharp "Boys, do be still!"  "Harry, stop dragging that train across the floor!"  "Willie, don't climb on that table!" and so on; but in spite of these efforts, a good deal of noise was made in the room.

The fall of a chair at last fully aroused her; she sprang up.

"Grace Houghton," she said warmly, "I'm ashamed of you! Do you want never to see your sister again? Do you care more for a story-book than you do for Bessie?" Resolutely she crossed the room, opened a drawer in a book-case, laid her precious books in, shut it and locked it, put the key in her pocket, and turned to the twins, who had just arranged a street-car with chairs, and were ready for a lively time.

"Dear! dear! what shall I do with them?" she thought, glancing out of the window as she passed it. "I must get up something quiet to amuse them," and vacantly her eyes wandered over the scene outside, the whole world covered with snow, and glittering in the warm sunshine. Something she saw gave her the idea.

"I know!" she suddenly exclaimed, "that'll do, I'm sure! Boys, let's have a Christmas party."

"When? where? Who'll we invite?" came quickly from the pair, who left their own play at once.

"We'll have it as soon as we can get ready," said Grace, lively enough now, "and we'll invite—let me see," she hesitated,—"all the Grays, and the Browns, the Big Blue, and the two Topknots, and—"

"Oh, I know!" shouted Harry, "the birds!"

"Yes, the birds!" said Grace. "You see, the snow has covered up everything they have to eat, and I'm sure they'll come here on the lawn where we always feed them. There's one now—see him?"

"I do!" cried Willie, "A robin! He's waiting for crumbs."

"Well, now, Bobby," speaking to the bird perched on a low tree, and evidently looking at them in the window, "we'll invite you to dinner, and all the rest of the birds out there,"—waving her hand toward the woods, which came quite near the house,—"in about an hour. Please tell everybody to come."

"Tut! tut!" said the robin, with a flirt of his tail.

"Hear him answer you!" cried Harry, laughing.

"Peep! tut! tut! tut!" went on the robin.

"Yes; you'll have to wait till the table's set," said Grace in reply. "We'll—boys!" with a sudden thought, "we'll make them a Christmas tree! You know John got one for us, that we couldn't use because of Bessie. I'll get him to cut it off, and we'll fix it up for the birds."

"Oh, what a funny tree!" cried the boys; "what'll we put on?"

"You'll see," said Grace. "I don't know myself yet, but something they'll like! Now will you sit still as two mice while I go and see if we can have the tree?"

They both promised, but she took care to give them a new picture-book to look at while she was gone. Before they had exhausted their book she came back, and John behind her with the tree, or rather the top of it. He had sawed it off about four feet high, and fitted it into the standard made for it, so that it stood up nicely.

"Now, what shall we put on?" began Willie, tossing the book aside.

"Well, what do we give the birds?" asked Grace.

"Seeds," said Willie, "and crumbs—and—and—"

"And bones," burst in Harry.

"Yes, and meat," said Grace.

"Meat?" cried Harry.

"Why, yes! doesn't Bobby there eat worms all summer on the lawn, and aren't worms meat, I'd like to know?" said Grace; "and you know there's lots of little fellows eat meat. You remember little Quanky, who's always going round and round, knocking at the doors and jerking out the tiny grubs in the trees?"

"Yes," said Harry, with wide-open eyes, "and 'Boy Blue'! Don't you 'member what a long worm he had one day? longer 'n he was."

"An' 'Foxie,'  't used to jump so after grasshoppers," chimed in Willie.

These children knew so much about birds, you must know, because their mother was very fond of them, and told the boys their names, what they ate, and many things about them.

For half an hour there were three very busy pairs of feet in that house, as Grace and the boys collected their Christmas gifts; but at the end of that time everything was piled on the library table, and the work of decoration began. Little boxes made of paper were tightly tied on the branches in many places, to hold the seeds; stems of wheat and oats dried for winter bouquets were bound with thread on the ends of the twigs. Grace even added some heavy, drooping stems of rice in the shell, which Uncle Ben had brought her as a curiosity from Georgia, because she knew a certain fellow in a gay coat who especially delighted in that. Fresh raw beef that the cook good-naturedly cut from a steak was snipped with scissors into tiny strips a half-inch or more long, and not much bigger than a pin. Some of these imitation worms were wedged in among the leaves of the tree, and others tied loosely in a bundle and hung on a branch. Two bones out of the same steak were firmly fastened to the small trunk of the tree. Bunches of bitter-sweet with bright red berries were arranged among the branches. All this, though done by eager fingers, took a long time, and then Grace brought out a cupful of dried currants that had been soaking in hot water all this time. Now they were all plumped out and soft, and she set the happy and busy boys to sticking them onto the sharp, needle-like leaves of the tree.

This was a slow operation, and very droll that tree looked, I can tell you, all blossomed out with dried currants. The last thing was to fill the little boxes with hemp seed, cracked wheat, coarse oatmeal, canary and millet seed, and then, to their great surprise, it was time for luncheon.

When that was over John was called in, and the whole thing carefully carried out and placed on the lawn before the window, just where the birds were used to being fed. Then a dishful of water was set under the tree.

"Will they take a bath?" asked eager Harry.

"No, it's too cold," said Grace, "but they'll want a drink, you know; and now we'll sit in the window and see who comes to our party."

She placed a chair for each.

Hardly were they seated before the fun began.

"There comes Bobby!" from Willie, announced the first arrival. Sure enough, a robin, perhaps the one who had been invited, alighted on a shrub beside this strange new Christmas tree. He looked at it; he flirted his tail; he jerked his body and slapped his wings down on his sides, and at last came down on the snow to see what he could make of it. He ran all around it, in little short runs, stopping and lifting his head every minute to see if anything had happened while he was not looking. He came closer, then something caught his eye—a bone! yes; he knew a beefsteak bone; he'd seen them before; he boldly pounced on the lowest branch, and attacked that bone as if he had not eaten meat in a month. He shook the tree so that some of the seeds were spilled, but that didn't matter, the birds would like them just as well from the snow.

The boys were so taken up with Bobby's performances that they had not noticed another arrival, till Grace called "chick-a-dees!" and there they were, a little flock, all in black caps and white vests, as trim as dandies. They flew back and forth two or three times, then alighted on the snow around the tree, and devoted themselves to picking up what Master Bobby had scattered. Very busy and sociable they were too, chattering and eating as fast as they could and calling their thanks in lively "chick-a-dee-dee's," when they were ready to go.

"Oh, who's that?" cried the boys, as a stranger appeared on the lawn. He was dressed in a neat suit of bluish brown, and he gravely walked over the snow to see what the excitement was. He came on in a droll, little mincing way, bobbed his head at every step, and when he reached the tree he turned his funny little head up and looked at Bobby still working away at that bone, chuckling to himself as though this was the very oddest thing he had seen yet.

"That's a turtle-dove," said Grace, when she got a good sight of him; "isn't he pretty?"

"What'll he eat?" asked Bobby.

"I don't know; we'll see," said Grace. And they did; for he began to pick up the seeds from the snow in a doubtful way, as though he suspected they might be poisoned. But he did not stay long, for now came a very noisy party in rusty black, with faded red shoulder-straps. There were only three or four, but they made noise enough for a dozen. The dove walked off with great dignity, and Bobby took flight in a hurry.

One of the newcomers said "Chack! chack!" another uttered a loud scream, and a third said "Whew!" and they all bustled around as if they hadn't a minute to stay, and had a great deal to talk about. After some little study of the tree, they pounced on it in a body, and the way the eatables disappeared in those long, black bills was alarming.

"They won't leave a thing," said Willie.

"See how they shake the things out!" said Harry.

"And look at them stuffing themselves!" added Willie. "Let's scare 'em away!"

"Why, what for?" said Grace. "Didn't we invite them all? These redwings don't seem to have very fine table manners; but they're having a good time anyway, and we can fill up the boxes again."

The redwings ate their fill, sung a song or two, dipped freely into the water, and then left.

For a few minutes the tree was deserted, and then came a lisping group. They alighted on the Christmas tree without fear, they fell at once to eating of the feast found there, and had a good deal to say about it, but never a word above a soft, hissing whisper,—it was droll enough. They were very handsome in olive-colored dress with black spectacles, tall pointed caps, and brilliant red tags on their wing feathers.

"Cherry birds!" the boys cried.

"Cedar birds," said Grace.

While they were enjoying their silent luncheon, another guest came in, even more silent, for the three hosts in the window did not see him till he flashed around the trunk of the little tree, and gave a long, rattling knock as though he expected a door to open and a grub to walk out.

"Oh, there's Downy!" was announced, and just that minute he caught sight of one of the bits of meat cut to look like tiny worms. He helped himself, and liked it so well that he took another, and another, and then rapped his thanks and disappeared the way he had come.

Next came down a flock of sparrows, chirping and chattering like a party of school children off on a frolic,—tree sparrows with reddish caps, song sparrows with big black breast knots, fox sparrows that the boys called Foxie, white-throats with black half-mask and white bow at the throat, and all dressed in brown with streaks everywhere. They whirled around the tree as if to see it on all sides, and then settled on the ground and picked up the seeds. Then one spied the meat, and hopped up on the lowest branch, and another one did so because he did, and in about a minute the tree could hardly be seen for the sparrows all over it. Oh! but they had a good time, and they said so, too, in their way, chirping and talking and giving little snatches of song by way of thanks; and just as the boys began to think there wouldn't be a thing left, they all suddenly rose in a crowd, whirled once more around the tree, and were off out of sight in a minute.

The next guest alighted on the tree with a flutter, jerked his tail, which he held cocked up in the air, gave a loud call or two, then scolded all whom it might concern, and fell to eating.

"I know that's a wren; see his tail tipped up. Isn't he funny?"

"Yes," said Grace, "and there's some one who doesn't care for his scolding—see?" and she pointed to the lower part of the tree.

"Quanky! Quanky!" called the boys, and "Quank! quank!" said the little fellow, as he circled around the tree trunk and branches, till he found that food grew on the outside of this bark instead of inside, where he was used to finding it. He was all in dull blue, and Grace called him a nuthatch.

All the afternoon the party of three sat inside the library window and watched the visitors to the Christmas tree. Once or twice the boxes were replenished, and everybody that came seemed to get his fill. There were flocks of snowbirds in black and white, with tails opening and shutting like fans; a bluebird and his little mate picked away at the bones; purple finches all in red and brown, and summer yellowbirds in russet winter suits; a pair of cardinals, fashionably late, ate their fill of the rice, sitting in one place and dropping the shells all over the snow. Last of all, after everybody else had taken his Christmas present and gone, and the boys were beginning to be tired and wonder if supper wasn't ready, there arrived the oddest of all their guests. He was a big fellow all in blue and white and black, and he came around in the most wary fashion.

"See the blue jay!" said Grace, and the boys were at once interested. He was a long time making up his mind that the tree was not a new sort of trap. He went around it in long hops, turning his wise-looking head this way and that, and giving droll little hops up, if anything moved. But when he was satisfied it was all right he hopped to the lower branches and proceeded to have a good time in his own way. Some things he ate, but more he threw down; he seemed to regard it as his business to clear the table. Seed boxes were hammered off, currants—what few were left that he didn't eat—he filled his mouth with, flew down and hid them under one corner of the standard; the empty wheat-stalks he pulled off, likewise the bunches of bitter-sweet, from which the berries were eaten.

"Oh, he'll pull everything off!" cried the boys. "Well, what if he does?" said Grace; "the birds can eat from the snow, and he's so busy and funny I like to see him."

So they watched him a long time, for he had a pretty big job. You see he not only wanted to clear the tree completely, but his ardent wish was to carry off and hide every grain of rice, and every loose seed. He had to give it up though, for night came on quickly, as it does on Christmas day, you know. While they watched him Mamma came in and told them that the crisis was over and Bessie would get well.

"And what lovely boys you have been!" she added, as she took one in each arm and went out to supper. "And as for you, Grace," she said warmly, "it has been the most useful day of your life—if it was a hard one."

"It wasn't hard," said Grace honestly, "only at first. It's been a lovely day, Mamma."

"An' we've had a Christmas party, an' lots of folks came to it," broke in the boys together.

"To-morrow you shall tell me all about it," said Mamma.

"It seems to me," said Mr. Roberts, "that all these stories, good as they are, are about girls. Now I shall tell one about boys. I won't say it will be as fine, in fact the boy was very naughty, but it'll be a variety, and anyway it's the only one I can think of—"

"Oh!" interrupted Kristy, "any one who can tell such lovely stories as you, may tell just what he likes."