The Red Coats by Gail Hamilton

There was commotion in Leafland. All the cities of the Great Republic were smitten with sudden dismay. Oakwich, Mapleton, Ashby, Elmthorpe, Beechworth, Sumachford, Nutham, trembled from centre to circumference. There were hurried consultations, desperate resolutions rejected as soon as adopted, eager inventories taken of domestic property, and a fearful looking-for of coming calamity. For, on the fine September morning when the sun poured out golden showers, and Leafland sat fair and smiling in robes of green, and so the whole universe was golden-green, there came a messenger flying from the North country,—a wandering Wood-thrush, deserted, draggled, and forlorn, faltering on weary wing through the lovely lanes of Leafland. The men begged him to tarry; the women promised him the daintiest tidbit in the sweetest bower on the sunniest bough; and the little Leaf-people clapped their tiny hands, and danced on the tips of their tiny toes for glee. For so admirably managed in Leafland are the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Foreign Affairs, that you might think the Leaflanders had solved the great problem of universal brotherhood. The stranger that is within their gates is all one with him who is bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. No sooner does a foreigner enter their borders, than he is presented with the freedom of all their cities. They provide for his wants, protect him from danger, and cherish his home as tenderly as if he were one of themselves. Robin the Red-breast and shy little Veery, Pewee the plaintive and cheerful Chewink, Long-sparrow, Bluebird, and sweet Chickadee, all glide freely in and out of their green and golden halls, flit through their winding streets, and take part in all their delights. Nor have the Leaflanders any trouble to understand bird-language. They have not, like the old Ger-men, eaten the hearts of birds, but by a more excellent way have they entered into all their secrets. Through long summer days and the silence of dewy nights, they lean so lovingly over them, they stir so softly around the still bird-cradles, they coo so tenderly to the sweet egg-nestlings and the helpless baby-birds, that one heart-language springs up between them, and shines familiarly through all foreign phrase. Nor is it the birds alone who take out naturalization-papers in Leafland. All manner of nations and peoples partake of its hospitalities and remember it for blessing. You have only to be pure-hearted, and you may become at once a Leaflander.

So it came to pass that the Leaflanders were sore grieved at heart to see the weary Wood-thrush deaf to all their entreaties, and bent alone on pursuing his solitary way. But as he wheeled slowly above their heads, as he seemed just about to vanish into the blue distance, they heard his faint voice—whether in terror or weakness they could not tell—only the words fell distinctly on their ears,—

I see! I see! I see! The Red-coats are coming!

Faint and far and clarion-clear, it trembled through Leafland, low but ominous. Mapleton heard it and wondered; Elmthorpe and Ashby and Nutham repeated it, looking into one another's eyes for a meaning. Proud old Oakwich tried to assume a grave aspect, but was inwardly at her wits' end. “The Red-coats are coming.” All the ancient men and women, great-great-great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers, whose childhood lay wellnigh lost in the infinite past of April days, said it over to each other with thin, quavering voices; but all their experience gave them no key to the mysterious message. Then the post-riders were brought into requisition. The whole corporation of Gale, Breeze, Zephyr, & Co., Express Company, all their clerks, agents, and errand-boys, were sent to and fro through the Commonwealth, to see if any one anywhere had a little light to bestow upon the subject. Alas! the light came all too soon, and brought infinite sighing and sobbing. A thought suddenly broke loose in Oakwich, and up spake an old Oakwichian. “Oh! and oh! and woe is me for my miserable land now, now about to be bereft of her children! All her strength destroyed, all her loveliness laid desolate!”

Straightway throughout Leafland rose the voice of wailing, “Woe! woe! woe! for the miserable land!” but none of them knew what they were crying for; only the Oakwichian began it, and nothing better occurred to them to do than to join in; which soon made the sunny day overcast, and all the people walking in Netherworld where it approaches Leafland wrapped their old cloaks about them, and said spitefully, “What a disagreeable, raw east-wind it is, to be sure!”

But by and by, when their throats were quite dry and sore with wailing, one of the Mapletonians, a very sensible young woman, quite famous indeed for her wisdom, bethought herself to inquire what it was all about. Then there was a very pretty outburst of indignation. For a moment they forgot their grief, and, what was still worse, their good manners, and turned upon the unfortunate young woman.

“And so you set yourself above your betters, and fiddle while Leafland is burning!” cried one.

“And pray, Miss Wiseacre,” asked another, “how came you to know so much more than any one else? Who told you that nothing was the matter?”

“Oh! if women would only mind the house, and not meddle with what does not belong to them!” exclaimed a third.

All very unjust as you see, for surely the destruction of Leafland concerned the women as much as the men, and poor “Miss Wiseacre” had not so much as made an assertion,—only asked a question. However, the Leaflanders must be excused, because they were quite beside themselves with terror, and, moreover, a question is sometimes more exasperating than fire and sword.

But the old Oakwichian was more reasonable, and, ever glad, even in the article of death, to disseminate useful knowledge, interposed. “I will tell you what the matter is,” he said. “Well I remember in the far-away past, in the sunny summer-days that will return, alas! no more,”—here a burst of sorrow prevented speech, but he presently recovered himself,—“how a little maid used to walk in Netherworld, and rest under the shadow of our greatness, toying with the light. She was a favorite with every one hereabouts. Gold was her hair like a spun sunbeam, blue her eyes like our own June sky, and her voice might sing the lowest lullaby of the Red Mavis, or his song to his love in her nest. Sometimes the little maiden looked up wistfully to us, her eyes all a-gleam with her glowing fancies. Then we pelted her with sunshine, and caressed her with shade, and then she was happiest of all. But sometimes she brought with her hateful things, tasks and tools, useless, awkward, bungling, sharp weapons, that hurt her tender fingers, long cords that she pulled aimlessly back and forth, huge books with harsh names, that blurred her dear eyes and gloomed her bright face. First we tried to shame and then to woo her away from them, but some invisible old dragon stood over her, and forced her on; and so we learned at length to watch and wait till the hated task was over. Thereby we learned many strange and wonderful things; but this alone is to the purpose, that I surely recall how for many days she kept reading about the Red-coats, and I peeped down over her shoulder, as we swayed in the dance one afternoon, and saw pictures of these same Red-coats, a great destroying army, fierce and fell, who burn villages, and talk piously, and slay men, women, and children. Them has friend Wood-thrush verily seen, and against them he strove to warn us. But, ah! what avails it? What can we do, or whither shall we flee! Can a nation take wing like a Wood-thrush? Can Leafland flit about like a Swallow? And who should warrant us that the Red-coats should not pursue us to remotest fastnesses? Nay, they may be even now upon us. Woe! woe is me! We were Leaflanders; Oakwich was, and the great glory of the Elmthorpians! But now we be all dead men!”

At this, the Leaflanders only paused long enough to upbraid the young woman. “See now whether anything is the matter!” and immediately fell to upon their despair.

“A nation in ruins!” cried the statesman. “Leafland falls from its lofty summit, and I live to see the day.”

“I behold the gods departing from Leafland,” spake the scholar. “This is the end of the fates of Leafland.”

“Now I do not care for your gods and your fates and your what-all,” sobbed a nervous little lady. “I never could see that they were of any use in housekeeping; but who shall watch over the tender birdlings when we are gone?”

“And never any more dances! Forever, never, never, forever!” You may know it was a belle said that.

“Dances are but the vanity of this world,” moaned a sedate matron; “but woe for my dear pet Aphides, with their six hundred thousand children, who will be dead before they are born!”

“Bother your six hundred thousand children!” growled a crusty philosopher. “If they are dead, it is the only good thing ever I heard about them. It might be worth while to have one's country crashing about one's ears occasionally, for the sake of being well rid of such trash. Here are all our laboratories broken up, and the sun's occupation gone, and you making a to-do about a parcel of babies!”

“O the sweet sunshine!” wept a poet, but most musically,—“the warm, delicious sunshine, that our hungry souls can feed upon no more, nor ever fill our drinking-cups with nectared dew!”

And so in Mapleton and Sumachford and through all Leafland was nothing heard but the voice of lamentation, and nothing seen but floods of tears, and nothing thought of but how to avert or escape the threatened calamity; and, in their terror and trouble, the Leaflanders almost lost their fine tempers, and were often on the brink of quarrelling; and the people walking in Netherworld met each other under blue cotton umbrellas, and exclaimed, “What a spell of weather!” and altogether it was very uncomfortable, both in Leafland and Netherworld.

Just at this time a gay young Chipmonk appeared upon the scene,—a careless, dashing, saucy fellow, very popular among the young Leaflanders of the rapid sort. He came skipping and frisking into Nutham, as his manner was, both pockets full of corn which he had confiscated, he remarked significantly, from a field down yonder. He nodded jauntily right and left, and then disposed himself comfortably in a corner, and began cracking his dainties in a very free-and-easy manner, not noticing the woe-begone aspect of his friends. All at once, however, he awoke to a realizing sense of things, and showed his sympathy after his own fashion, by giving a sudden flirt with his tail, and calling out, irreverently, “What's the row?”

Amid tears and sighs, the sad story was related to him, in all its length and breadth and thickness; but, instead of the answering tear and sigh which his auditors expected, he only thrust his paws into his pockets, and whisked his tail over his back in frantic convulsions of laughter; muttering, as breath came to him in the pauses, “O, what a gony! For that matter, O, what a pack of gonies!”

Now the Leaflanders were quite too well-bred ever to have used or heard so barbarous a word as “gony.” Nevertheless, reason and instinct both taught them, as it will teach all people of refined sensibilities, that to be called a gony is to be called something very disagreeable; and if anything can heighten the unpleasant sensation, it is to be called “a pack of gonies.” Consequently the Leaflanders began to look at each other blankly, and even to suspect that possibly they had been making fools of themselves. But Chipmonk did not leave them long in suspense. “Your terrible Red-coats are your own selves,” he cried. “I have heard of people being frightened by their own shadow; but never, in all my born days, did I hear of any one being frightened by his own shine.”

“Now will you explain yourself?” cried one of the young ladies, her curiosity getting the better of her chagrin. All the old men and the young men were longing to know, but were too proud to ask; but the question being asked for them, they were glad enough to crowd in, and hear the answer.

“It is only this, and nothing more,” answered Chipmonk, ejecting a pine-seed from his mouth. “You are all going to have a new suit of clothes, more splendid than you ever saw in your lives,—yellow and brown and spotted, and all manner of magnificent colors, but chiefly red; and then you will be Red-coats, won't you? Wood-thrush came from north, where the tailoring began; and he saw it, and told you. It is a sign for him to be up and flying. He thought it would be his excuse for declining your invitation, instead of which you all went thrusting your heads into a bramble-bush. O my!”

“But say, Chipmonk, do you know this? Are you sure of it? It seems too good news to be true.”

“Well, all I can say is, I have lived here, man and boy, nigh on to forty months; and I know it always has happened about this time. I am young for a Chipmonk; but I was in full career long before the oldest crone among you was born; and if there is anything hereabouts that I don't know, you may take your affidavit it isn't worth knowing.” And he sat back, and betook himself once more to his “confiscated” corn with the most indifferent superiority.

Oh! but there was gladness then in Leafland, you may be sure. All their sadness was turned to rejoicing; and even then the work of transformation—called, in squirrelicular, “tailoring”—began. Old and young, men and maids, felt a glory in their blood. All the essence of the summer-long sunshine seemed to pour itself into their hearts. From one end of Leafland to another was only singing and dancing and delight. Mapleton crowned herself with a golden crown, and Oakwich wreathed her brows with the sunset. All the beauty of the past was dull and sombre to this new splendor, this royal magnificence, born of the ineffable light.

A poet and a publisher walked through the Essex woods one October afternoon; and they remarked that the foliage was very brilliant this year, which was quite true; but if I had not been born, you never would have known all about it.