Papa's Christmas Story

by Caroline Stewart

Papa, do please tell us one of your nice stories," said Clement Percival to his father, as the family drew their chairs round the fire after dinner one bitterly cold winter's evening just before Christmas Day.

"Oh, do, do!" struck in a chorus of youthful voices.

"I should like a funny tale," said Clement.

"I don't mind rather a sad one," said Lucy. "I mean one about naughty children."

"I like just what Papa likes to tell," said George, who had set himself down on a footstool at his father's feet.

"Mamma, dear," said little Nelly, the youngest of the party, "do please shut your eyes and go to sleep, that you mayn't be able to say, 'Nelly, it's time for you to go to bed' just in the middle."

"Well," said Mr. Percival laughing, "I will try what I can do to please you all. Let me think a minute. Oh, I know!

"Once upon a time—"

"Once upon a time! That is the way you always begin, Papa," said Lucy.

"Well, then, will this do for you, young lady?"

It was getting dusk on a September evening when a young traveller entered the village of Seely. Foot-sore and weary, he sank upon a grassy bank to rest.

He had not been there long before a strange sound met his ears. At first it seemed to be nothing but one continued buzz. He listened closely.

What could it be?

The noise came from behind a garden wall at his back. He rose quietly, and climbing up into an oak-tree from which he could look over into that garden, he seated himself safely amongst the branches and held his breath, for—the fruit-trees and vegetables were talking! and he wished to hear what they could be saying.

"It is no use asking me this evening," said a portly Cauliflower. "My head is so heavy I cannot take my turn. Ask the Scarlet-runner."

"Me!" said the Scarlet-runner. "Don't ask me! I've been running all day, and have got to run all night, to get up to the top of these sticks. You may see by the colour of my flowers how hot and tired I am! Try the Parsley."

"I'm sure I have not a moment to tell a tale," said the Parsley. "I'm so busy curling my leaves ready to make the dishes to-morrow, for I heard the gardener tell the cook I should have a place on the table, and I like to be pretty."

"Vain creature!" said the Cauliflower. "Black Currant! what say you to taking your turn now?"

"Better not ask me," drawled the Black Currant. "You see by my dress how dismal my story would be, and as for my sisters Red and White, the birds have been pecking at them all day, till there is nothing but their stalks left. It is no use to ask them."

"I would take my turn," said a large Pear hanging against the brick wall, "but I'm so sleepy I am sure I should fall down with the exertion."

"I am longing to speak," cried a Potato from under the ground, "but I can't make my voice heard through the mould. There are many wonderful things going on down here which I, with eyes about me, can see, that you have no idea of, but I must wait till I am dug up to take my turn."

"You are all very tiresome to-night," said the Cauliflower. "I would ask the Cabbage, because I know it has a good heart, but I heard the Fig-tree say the other day it wouldn't give a fig for its stories, they are so vulgar. Who is that coughing?"

"I," said the Artichoke. "I was thinking I might be the speaker to-night; but you see I could only get half through what I had to say before I was stopped by coughing, so it's no use my trying."

"French Bean! could not you oblige us?"

"If so, I must speak in French," said the French Bean.

"Oh, that will never do!" cried several voices at once; "we cannot understand that language."

The French Bean hung its head and was silent.

"Did I not see a head peeping from that tall red pot?" said the Cauliflower. "Sea-kale! is that you? Come! it is really your turn to-night."

"No, no!" said the Sea-kale. "The gardener can force me to grow; but you can't force me to tell a story. My stories are only fit for the shells and fishes to listen to. None of you land creatures would understand them."

"I could, for I—I have relations amongst the shells," said the Crab-apple proudly.

"And I'm sure I'm well known to one of the fishes," said the Fennel, "for whenever the Mackerel comes to dinner I'm always asked to meet him."

"I see we must fall back upon the Mustard and Cress," said the Cauliflower.

"Us, indeed!" cried hot angry voices from a box in a corner, "what could we tell of, who live only for a few days, and can never look over the wall? Surely the old Apple-tree who has lived for so many years, and can stretch out its branches far enough to see what is going on outside, is the one to tell us something worth listening to."

"Yes! yes! the Apple-tree!" cried all the vegetables at once, making a very loud confused noise.

"My friend," said the Apple-tree, "my fruit is blushing rosy red with the compliment you pay me. What the Mustard and Cress say is quite true. I can see the world beyond, and I have a tale to tell. It is not a merry one; but if you like to hear it you shall."

"I'm quite ready to cry," said the Onion, "so pray begin."

The Apple-tree shook off a few dead leaves and two over-ripe apples, and began as follows:—

"The earliest thing that I can remember is standing in a neat row of young apple-trees in a nursery-garden. An old gentleman came and bought me, carried me off in his carriage and had me planted here. He lived in the house you see over the wall. No, by the by, you can hardly any of you see the house till your heads are cut off and the gardener carries you through the gate; but there is a house, and I will tell you what it is like.

"It is a large white house, with a roof of gray slates. There are only three windows on this side, but then this is not the grand side. I only saw the other sides once, and that was when I was taken out of the carriage and brought round here, and I passed plenty of windows and a large house-door then. Well, for many a long year I lived a dull quiet life, seeing nobody but the gardener. When first I had apples, beautiful rosy apples, I was in hopes the old gentleman would come and see them, but no—as soon as they were ripe the gardener took them all from me, or else they fell upon the grass below, and the slugs came and ate them. At last the old gentleman died.

"I heard the gardener tell the bees this one fine morning, and he wiped the corner of his eyes with his coat sleeve as he did so, which showed he had been a good master to him. After this the place looked very lonely, with the windows of the house closed and not a creature to be seen about except the gardener, and he seldom appeared.

"A fine battle with the wind now and then was the only fun I had. It would come gently at first and rock me to and fro as if it would lull me to sleep, then, suddenly it would rush at me in all its fury and try to tear me to pieces; but although it used to bend me down almost to touch the ground, I would start up again as if I didn't mind it a bit. Somehow or other I always gained the victory, for the poor wind died away while I was the stronger and better for the fight.

"In course of time I became so stout and firm it couldn't shake me at all. When it did rise up and try to do its worst, it could only whistle round me and make my branches dance. Late one evening I was surprised by seeing a small head peering over the wall. At first there was only a pair of eyes, presently the whole head, and then the body of a small boy, who scrambled over and crept up to me.

"He got up into my branches and filled his pockets as full as they could hold. Then he slid down and climbed back over the wall by which he came.

"The next day the gardener happened to pay me a visit."

"'Holloa! who's been here?' he said; 'this won't do!' and he went to his toolhouse and took out something which he laid in the grass at my roots, and went away.

"When night came the same small head appeared again, and the boy was close upon me, when suddenly he was brought to a stand-still, and uttered a loud cry. He had been caught in a trap, and the harder he tried to get out the faster he was held, and there he stayed till the gardener came and gave him a good thrashing. You may be sure I never saw that little boy again!

"Autumn, winter, and spring, all passed away very quietly, and then came a stir in the place. Windows were opened; workmen began to hammer and paint; the gardener made the walks and borders all so neat and trim; and one fine afternoon a carriage covered with boxes drove up to the door. Then the bustle was greater than ever. Servants ran about, horses clattered in the yard, dogs barked, and children's voices were louder than all. The next morning the garden gate opened and a lady and gentleman walked in, arm in arm, followed by two fine-grown lads.

"They paced round the gravel walks, then came up to me and admired my beautiful blossoms. Then and there the gentleman told the boys they should each have a garden of their own, and he pointed to the piece of ground by the Sweet-brier, and made the gardener divide it into two equal portions. After this the boys seemed to live out of doors.

"I soon found out that their names were 'Richard' and 'Joe,' although they called one another 'Dick' and 'Joey.' They dug, and planted, and sowed, and watered from morning till evening. The poor little trembling plants did not know what to be about. If they came above the ground, as often as not they were plucked up and thrown upon the dirt-heap as weeds. If they stayed below, the mould was grubbed up to see why they were so long coming. These boys often quarrelled, but their quarrels did not last long. They would begin with hard words, then go on to throwing mud and stones upon one another's ground; at last it would come to fighting, till Joey burst out crying, when they made up and were good friends again.

"What I did feel pity for was that poor old Pump at the end of the terrace walk. She was once a tidy-looking, green-coloured, upright Pump, with a stone basin to catch the water.

"See what she is now—a broken-down, good-for-nothing ruin! The boys were for ever filling their watering-pots and soaking their flower-beds with water. Then they must needs sink wells made of large flower-pots with the hole at the bottom stopped up with clay. These they filled and refilled till they overflowed and made the gravel-walk a pond.

"The gardener often got angry with them, and they begged pardon, but went on the same as ever.

"At last the weather became very hot and sultry, and the Pump would only give a thin stream of water and that only with hard pumping. The boys couldn't stand this. They got upon the stone basin, lifted off her head, and threw a stone down to hear how much water there was in the well. The sound of the splash was so charming to their ears that nothing would satisfy them but that they must needs go on throwing in stone after stone, till the poor thing was quite choked and could only give a drop at a time, and that with a gurgle.

"And then, what do you think they did? Why, they lifted up her handle as high as it could go and let it fall again with a sudden jerk. That almost shook the poor thing to pieces. At last, her arm slipped quite out of its socket, and dropped down useless!

"No wonder that the Willow sprang up by her side to cry over her, and has been weeping there ever since, for she has never been pumped again.

"The gardener became furious, and I think he must have had the boys punished, for it was weeks before they came to work in their little gardens again, and the weeds had a fine time of it then. They ran in and out, and up and down, and round and round about the plants just as they liked.

"The Sweet-brier was of no sort of use in keeping them in order. She only looked down, and smiled to see them so wild.

"As the boys grew bigger I saw less of them. They went away for long seasons, and only came home now and then.

"I must say they always let me know directly they did return. I think they liked me the best of all the trees in the garden."

"You think so," said a voice from behind a netting on the wall; "but that is because we wall-fruit are so rich and rare, young fingers are forbidden to touch us, while they are allowed to play with you; and besides, we keep a large army of wasps, in bright yellow uniforms, to protect us against thieves. Late one evening Master Richard came into the garden. He crept up to me and stared me full in the face. 'I know what you want, my young man,' thought I; and I gently dropped one of my very ripest to the ground. He looked round to see that no one was watching, then he made a dart forward; but no sooner had he picked it up than a wasp flew out and stung his hand so sharply he let it fall, and went back yelling into the house. But I beg your pardon, Apple-tree. Pray, go on with your story, for we are much interested in all you are telling us."

"Yes, I must make haste," said the Apple-tree, "for the night is passing away very rapidly. Well, one bright afternoon the boys came with their books in their hands and threw themselves on the grass under me to learn their holiday tasks, which I heard them say must be perfect before they left home the next day.

"They had not been there long before two splendid blackbirds flew up into the tree at the bottom of the garden. Every now and then they dived down into the gooseberry bushes and then flew back again, chattering to one another in a language which I did not understand, but which sounded very pretty and joyous.

"'Oh!' exclaimed Dick, 'how I should like to have a shot at those birds! Wouldn't they be nice in a pie?'

"'I'll set a trap,' said Joe.

"'A trap?' said Dick. 'They won't be caught in a trap at this time of year. If I had only a gun I could pick them off so easily,' and he made as though he was holding a gun and pointing at them.

"'I say, Joey, I'll go and get father's gun and have a shot,' he added.

"'You mustn't,' said Joe. 'Father said we were never to touch his gun, or go out shooting without him.'

"'Why, he taught me to shoot,' said Dick; 'and he says I'm a very good shot. I'm not a child now. I understand all about a gun, and I'm very careful. Besides, father is out for the whole day, and he won't know anything about it, if you don't tell, for I can load it again and put it back just as it was before. Oh, I must have those birds!' and saying this he got up.

"'Pray, pray, don't!' said Joe.

"But Richard did go, and came back with the loaded gun.

"'Now, Joe,' said he, 'keep out of the way. Get behind the tree and you'll be quite safe.'

"Joe ran behind me, and Dick fired. One of the blackbirds fell into the bushes.

"'Here, Joe,' said Dick, 'just hold the gun while I go and look for the bird. Wasn't it a fine shot! Take care, for the other barrel is loaded! Don't move an inch for fear you should pull the trigger, and I'll be back in one minute!' Joe came forward and took the gun from his brother. Away ran Dick, and there sat poor Joe, afraid almost to breathe for fear of what might happen. Presently Dick appeared at the end of the walk holding up the unfortunate blackbird by its extended wings.

"Joe jumped up and went down to meet him. I couldn't see how it happened, but as they met there was a loud report, and I heard Dick call out, 'Oh, Joey, you have killed me!'

"Joe threw away the gun which he had been carrying, and ran screaming into the house.

"Then there was a hubbub! All the servants ran out. The gardener picked up Dick, the footman picked up the gun, the housekeeper scolded at the pitch of her voice, and the housemaid shrieked, while Joe himself shed bitter tears of grief and wrung his hands in despair.

"They all passed through the gate. If you remember, I told you there were three windows on this side of the house. Well, one of the rooms seemed seldom used; but now I saw people moving about in it till the housekeeper came and drew down the blind.

"Then there was such a clattering of horses in the yard; the groom rode off in one direction, the coachman put the horses to and drove off in another, and then they all came back, and another carriage stood for ever so long at the door. I could just see the tips of the wheels round the corner till it got dusk.

"Then lights appeared in the room, and figures passed and repassed behind the blind.

"Now, the other windows belonged to the boys' rooms, and I thought I would just stretch out my highest branch and see if I could look into them. Richard's room was empty, but Joe was sitting in his.

"There he was, poor fellow, with his arms upon the table and his head resting upon them. A plate was near him, but he didn't seem to have tasted the food.

"While I was watching the door opened, and his mother came in. She leant over him and pointed to the bed. Then, putting down a candle, she left the room. Joe undressed and got into bed, but he seemed so restless he could not keep still for a minute. When the clock in the old church-tower struck ten I think he must have fallen asleep, for his mother crept in again softly, went up to him, and pushing back the hair from his forehead, gave him a kiss, and he didn't seem to notice it.

"The clock in the old church-tower struck eleven, and everything about the house was so quiet.

"The only light was in the room with the blind down, and on that blind the figure of the mother, sitting watching all through the long hours of the night, might be clearly seen.

"The clock in the old church-tower struck twelve! The glimmering of a light in Joe's room drew my attention. I peeped in again. He was out of bed, had lit his candle, and was putting on his clothes! As soon as he was dressed, he went to his chest of drawers, took out a pocket-handkerchief, and spread it upon the table. Into this handkerchief he put a pair of boots, a brush and comb, and a clean shirt; then he tied it up with two knots, and proceeded to take down a desk from a shelf. Out of this he took some money, counted it, and put it into his purse."

"I wonder how much he put in!" exclaimed the Mint from its bed of herbs.

"As much as he had got, and no more, you may be sure," answered the Sage.

"I hope it was not all silver," said the Pennyroyal.

"Oh, pray, don't interrupt!" cried the Thyme, "for the moments are flying, the minutes are running so fast, and the half-hours declare the hours are about to strike! Do, please, go on, Apple-tree!"

"Well, having put his purse in his pocket, Joe went to the fireplace, and unhooking a small picture from the wall, he wrapt it in a clean handkerchief and put it in another pocket. Then he came to the window, drew it gently up, and looked out. First, he threw his bundle down on the flower-border below, then he scrambled out upon the trellis-work and crept down by his hands and feet till he reached the ground. Picking up his bundle, he passed quietly through the gate into the yard, and going up to a rabbit-hutch, he took out a most beautiful large white rabbit. This he hugged in his arms and talked to, but I couldn't hear what he said. He rubbed his cheek several times up and down against its soft fur, then put it back, and taking his bundle under his arm, unlatched the gate leading into the fields, and set off running as fast as his legs could carry him.

"When he came to the stile he jumped over, and stood still to take one long last look at the old white house standing out so clear in the bright moonshine.

"I saw him kiss his hand towards it, then turn round and set off running again. He was soon quite out of sight, and from that day to this he has never been seen here again. And he needn't have gone after all. I heard the groom tell the gardener the foolish servants had frightened him by telling him 'he had murdered his brother, and must take the consequences.' But Dick wasn't killed. He got all right again, although he was ill for a very long time, and never looked the same bright lad he was before he lost his brother. But, hark! I hear a human being near—silence all!"

At that moment there was a crash as of a bough of a tree snapping, and the young traveller was over the wall with a bound.

"Tell me, tell me!" he cried, "are they all alive?"

There was a dead silence.

He stamped his foot, and implored the voices to speak once more, but no answer came.

"Can I," he said, striking his forehead with his hand—"can I have been dreaming?"

He rushed to the garden gate, passed through, and shut it with such a slam that the poor sleepy Pear fell at once to the ground.

A very short time after, the sun came laughing up from behind the horizon, the birds began to sing, smoke danced merrily out of the kitchen chimney, the church-bells rang out a merry peal, and all to celebrate Joey's return to his home!

That afternoon there was a grand feast in the old white house, to which all the fruit and vegetables were invited.

"What a very strange story, Papa!" exclaimed Clement.

"It is a very nice one," said Lucy; "only I suppose it isn't quite true."

"I wish I had got Joey's soft white rabbit," murmured George.

No words fell from little Nelly's lips, for she had fallen fast asleep on her mother's lap.