The Beech and the Oak

by Carl Ewald

1

It was in the old days.

There were no towns with houses and streets and towering church-steeples. There were no schools. For there were not many boys; and those there were learnt from their fathers to shoot with a bow and arrow, to hunt the deer in his hiding-place, to kill the bear in order to make clothes of his skin and to get fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together. When they knew all this thoroughly, their education was completed.

Nor were there any railways, or tilled fields, or ships on the sea, or books, for there was nobody who could read them.

There was hardly anything but trees.

But then of trees there were plenty. They stood everywhere from coast to coast, mirrored themselves in every river and lake and stretched their mighty branches up into the sky. They stooped over the sea-shore, dipped their branches in the black water of the marshes and looked haughtily over the land from the tall hills.

They all knew one another, for they belonged to one big family and they were proud of it:

"We are all oak-trees," they said and drew themselves up. "We own the land and we govern it."

And they were quite right, for there were only very few people at that time. Otherwise there was nothing but wild animals. The bear, the wolf and the fox went hunting, while the deer grazed by the edge of the marsh.

The wood-mouse sat outside her hole and ate acorns and the beaver built his ingenious house on the river-bank.

2

Then, one day, the bear came trudging along and lay down at full length under a great oak-tree.

"Are you there again, you robber?" said the oak and shook a heap of withered leaves over him.

'YOU REALLY OUGHT NOT TO BE SO WASTEFUL WITH YOUR LEAVES,
OLD FRIEND,' SAID THE BEAR, LICKING HIS PAWS. 'YOU REALLY OUGHT NOT TO BE SO WASTEFUL WITH YOUR LEAVES, OLD FRIEND,' SAID THE BEAR, LICKING HIS PAWS.

"You really ought not to be so wasteful with your leaves, old friend," said the bear, licking his paws. "They are the only thing you have to keep off the sun with."

"If you don't like me, you can go," replied the oak, proudly. "I am lord of the land and, look where you may, you will find none but my brothers."

"True enough," growled the bear. "That's just the tiresome part of it. I've been for a little trip abroad, you see, and have been a bit spoilt. That was in a country down south. I took a nap under the beech-trees there. They are tall, slender trees, not crooked old fellows like you. And their tops are so dense that the sunbeams can't pierce through them at all. It was a real delight to sleep there of an afternoon, believe me."

"Beech-trees?" asked the oak, curiously. "What are they?"

"You might wish that you were half so handsome as a beech-tree," said the bear. "But I'm not going to gossip with you any more just now. I've had to trot over a mile in front of a confounded hunter, who caught me on one of my hind-legs with an arrow. Now I want to sleep; and perhaps you will be so kind as to provide me with rest, since you can't provide me with shade."

The bear lay down and closed his eyes, but there was no sleep for him this time. For the other trees had heard what he said and there came such a chattering and a jabbering and a rustling of leaves as had never been known in the forest:

"Heaven knows what sort of trees those are!" said one.

"Of course, it's a story which the bear wants us to swallow," said another.

"What can trees be like whose leaves are so close together that the sunbeams can't pierce them through?" asked a little oak who had been listening to what the big ones were saying.

But next to him stood an old, gnarled tree, who slapped the little oak on the head with one of his lower branches:

"Hold your tongue," he said, "and don't talk till you have something to say. And you others need not believe a word of the bear's nonsense. I am much taller than you and I can see a long way over the forest. But as far away as I can see there is nothing but oak-trees."

The little oak remained shamefaced and silent and the other big trees whispered softly to one another, for they had a great respect for the old one.

But the bear got up and rubbed his eyes:

"Now you have disturbed my afternoon nap," he growled, angrily, "and I shall have my revenge on you, never fear. When I come back, I shall bring some beech-seed with me and I'll answer for it that you will all turn yellow with envy when you see how handsome the new trees are."

Then he trotted away.

But the oaks talked to one another for days at a time of the queer trees which he had told them of:

"If they come, we'll do for them!" said the little oak-tree.

But the old oak gave him one on the head:

"If they come," he said, "you'll be civil to them, you puppy. But they won't come."

3

But this was where the old oak was wrong, for they did come.

In the autumn, the bear returned and lay down under the old oak:

"I am to give you the kind regards of the people down below there," he said and picked some funny things off his shaggy coat. "Just look what I've got for you."

"What's that?" asked the oak.

"That's beech," replied the bear. "Beech-seed, as I promised you."

Then he trampled the seed into the earth and prepared to leave again:

"It's a pity I can't stay to see how annoyed you will be," he said, "but those dashed human beings have become so troublesome. They killed my wife and one of my brothers the other day and I must look out for a place where I can dwell in peace. There is hardly a spot left for an honest bear to live in. Good-bye, you gnarled old oak-trees!"

When the bear had jogged off, the trees looked at one another seriously:

"Let's see what happens," said the old oak.

And, when the spring came, the grass was green and the birds began to sing where they last left off. The flowers swarmed up from the ground and everything looked fresh and vigorous.

The oaks alone still stood with leafless branches:

"It is very distinguished to come last," they said to one another. "The king of the forest does not arrive before the whole company is assembled."

But at last they did arrive. All the leaves burst forth from the fat buds and the trees looked at one another and complimented one another on their good appearance. The little oak had grown a decent bit. This made him feel important and think that he now had a right to join in the conversation:

"There's not much coming of the bear's beech-trees," he said, mockingly, but at the same time glanced up anxiously at the old oak who used to slap his head.

The old oak heard what he said and so did the others. But they said nothing. None of them had forgotten what the bear had said and, every morning, when the sun shone, they peeped down stealthily to see if the beeches had come. At bottom, they were a little uneasy, but they were too proud to talk about it.

And, one day, at last, the little sprouts shot up from the ground. The sun shone upon them and the rain fell over them, so that it was not long before they grew to a good height.

"I say, how pretty they are!" said the great oaks and twisted their crooked branches still more, so as to see them better.

"You are welcome among us," said the old oak and gave them a gracious nod. "You shall be my foster-children and have just as good a time as my own."

"Thank you," said the little beeches and not a word more.

But the little oak did not like the strange trees:

"It's awful, the way you're shooting up," he said, in a vexed tone. "You're already half as tall as I am. May I beg you to remember that I am much older than you and of a good family besides?"

The beeches laughed with their tiny little green leaves, but said nothing.

"Shall I bend my branches a little to one side, so that the sun may shine on you better?" asked the old tree, politely.

"Much obliged," replied the beeches, "but we can grow quite nicely in the shade."

4

And all the summer passed and another summer and still more. The beeches kept on growing steadily and at last grew right over the little oak's head.

"Keep your leaves to yourselves," cried the oak. "You're standing in my light; and that I can't endure. I must have proper sunshine. Take your leaves away, or else I shall die."

The beeches only laughed and went on growing. At last they met right over the little oak's head and then he died.

"That was ill done," roared the big oaks and shook their branches in anger.

But the old oak stood up for his foster-children:

"Serve him right!" he said. "That's his reward for bragging. I say it, though he is my own flesh and blood. But you must be careful now, you little beeches, or else I shall slap you on the head too."

5

The years passed and the beeches kept on growing and gradually became slim young trees that reached right up among the old oak's branches.

"You're beginning to be rather intrusive for my taste," said the old oak. "You should try to grow a bit thicker and stop this shooting into the air. Just look how your branches stick out. Bend them decently, as you see us do. How will you manage when a regular storm comes? Take it from me, the wind shakes the tree-tops finely! He has many a time come whistling through my old branches; and how do you think that you'll come off, with that flimsy finery which you stick up in the air?"

"Every one grows in his own manner and we in ours," replied the young beeches. "This is the way it's done where we come from; and we daresay we are quite as good as you."

"That's not a polite remark to make to an old tree with moss on his branches," said the oak. "I am beginning to regret that I was so kind to you. If you have a scrap of honour in your composition, just have the goodness to move your leaves a little to one side. Last year, there were hardly any buds on my lower branches, all through your standing in my light."

"We can't quite see what that has to do with us," replied the beeches. "Every one has enough to do to look after himself. If he is industrious and successful, then things go well with him. If not, he must be content to go to the wall. Such is the way of the world."

And the oak's lower branches died and he began to be terribly frightened:

"You're nice fellows, you are!" he said. "The way you reward me for my hospitality! When you were little, I let you grow at my foot and sheltered you against the storm. I let the sun shine on you whenever he wanted to and I treated you as if you were my own children. And now you choke me, by way of thanks."

"Fudge!" said the beeches. Then they blossomed and put forth fruit; and, when the fruit was ripe, the wind shook their branches and scattered it all around.

"You are active people like myself," said the wind. "That's why I like you and will gladly give you a hand."

And the fox rolled at the foot of the beech and filled his coat with the prickly fruit and ran all over the country with it. The bear did the same and moreover laughed at the old oak while he lay and rested in the shadow of the beech. The wood-mouse was delighted with the new food which she got and thought that beech-nuts tasted much better than acorns.

New little beeches shot up around and grew just as quickly as their parents and looked as green and happy as if they did not know what a bad conscience was.

And the old oak gazed out sadly over the forest. The bright-green beech-leaves peeped forth on every hand and the oaks sighed and told one another their troubles:

"They are taking our power from us," they said and shook themselves as well as they could for the beeches. "The land is no longer ours."

One branch died after the other and the storm broke them off and flung them to the ground. The old oak had now only a few leaves left in his top:

"The end is at hand," he said, gravely.

But there were many more people in the land now than there had been before and they hastened to cut down the oaks while there were still some left:

"Oak makes better timber than beech," they said.

"So at last we get a little appreciation," said the old oak. "But we shall 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 youth? What an old fool I have been! We oak-trees used to be lords in the land; and now, year after year, I have had to see my brothers all around perish in the struggle against you. I myself am almost done for; and not one of my acorns has sprouted, thanks to your shade. But, before I die, I should like to know what you call your behaviour."

"That's soon said, old friend!" answered the beeches. "We call it competition; and it's no discovery of ours. It's what rules the world."

"I don't know those outlandish words of yours," said the oak. "I call it base ingratitude."

Then he died.