THE OAK AND THE SNAIL

By Mrs. Alfred Gatty

The trunk of the Oak Tree in the corner of the timber yard lay groaning under the plank, which a party of children had thrown across him to play see-saw upon.

Not that the plank was so heavy, even with two or three little ones sitting on each end, nor that the Oak was too weak to hold it up—though, of course, the pressure was pretty strong just at the centre, where the plank balanced. But it was such a use to be put to!

The other half of the Tree had been cut into beautiful even planks, some time before, but this was the root end, and his time had not yet come, and he was getting impatient.

"Here we go up, up, up!" cried the children, as the plank rose into the sky on one side. "I shall catch the tree-tops—no! the church steeple—no! the stars."

Or, "Here we go down, down, down!" cried the others. "Safe and snug on the ground—no! right through the world—no! out at the other side. Ah! steady there, stupid old stump!" This was because the plank had swerved, not the Tree.

And so the game went on; for the ups and downs came in turns, and the children shrieked with delight, and the poor Tree groaned loudly all the time.

"And I am to sit here; and bear not only their weight but their blame, and be called stupid and be told to keep steady, when it is they who are giddy and can't be depended upon; and to be contented, while they do nothing but play pranks and enjoy themselves," said he; but he said it to himself, for he did not know which to complain to—the children or the plank. As he groaned, however, he thought of the time when he was king of the little wood, where he had grown up from the acorn days of his babyhood, and it broke his heart to be so insignificant now.

[Illustration: THEY LEARNT FROM THEIR FATHER TO HUNT THE STAG IN HIS COVERT From the painting by John Hassall]

"Why have they not cut me into planks like the rest?" continued he, angrily. "I might have led the see-saw myself then, as this fellow does, who leans so heavily on my back, without a thought that I am as good or better than himself. Why have they not given me the chance of enjoying myself like these others—up in the sky at one end, down on the ground at the other, full of energy and life? The whole timber yard, but myself, has a chance. Position and honour, as well as pleasure, are for everybody except me. But I am to stick in a corner merely for others to steady themselves upon—unthought of or despised, made a tool of—Miserable me!"

Now this groaning was so dreadful, it woke the large Garden Snail in the grass hard by, whose custom it was to come out from his haunt under the timber-yard wall every morning at sunrise, and crawl round and round the Oak trunk to see the world come to life, leaving a slimy track behind him on the bark wherever he moved. It was his constitutional stroll, and he had continued it all the season, pursuing his morning reflections without interruption, and taking his nap in the grass afterwards, as regularly as the day came round.

But napping through such lamentation was impossible, and accordingly he once more began to crawl up the side of the Oak trunk, his head turning now to one side, now to the other, his horns extended to the utmost, that, if possible, he might see what was the matter.

But he could not make out, though he kept all his eyes open: so by-and-by he made the inquiry of his old friend the Tree.

"What is the matter, do you ask?" groaned the Oak more heavily than ever—"you who can change your position and act independently when you wish; you who are not left a useless log as I am, the scorn and sport of my own kith and kin? Yes, the very planks who balance themselves on my body, and mock me by their activity, have probably come from my own side, and once hung on me as branches, drinking in life from the life I gave. Oh miserable me! miserable, despised, useless!"

Now there may be plenty of animals to be found with more brilliant abilities and livelier imagination than the Snail, but for gravity of demeanour and calmness of nerve who is his equal? And if a sound judgment be not behind such outward signs, there is no faith to be put in faces!

Accordingly, Sir Helix Hortensis—so let us call him, for that is his scientific name—made no answer at first to the wailings of the Oak. Three times he crawled round it, leaving three fresh traces of his transit, before he spoke, his horns turning hither and thither as those wonderful eyes at the end strove to take in the full state of the case. And his are not the eyes, you know, which waste their energies in scatter-brained staring. He keeps them cool in their cases till there is something to be looked at, and then turns them inside out to do their work.

And thus he looked, and he looked, and he looked, while the children went on shouting, and the plank went on see-sawing, and the Tree went on groaning; and as he looked, he considered.

"Have you anything to say?" at last inquired the Oak, who had had long experience of Sir Helix's wisdom.

"I have," answered the Snail. "You don't know your own value, that's all."

"Ask the see-sawers my value!" exclaimed the prostrate Tree, bitterly. "One up at the stars, another beyond the world! What am I doing meanwhile?"

"Holding them both up, which is more than they can do for themselves," muttered the Snail, turning round to go back to the grass.

"But—but—stop a moment, dear Sir Helix; the see-sawers don't think that," argued the Tree.

"They're all light-minded together, and don't think," sneered the Snail. "Up in the sky one minute, down in the dust the next. Never you mind that. Everybody can't play at high jinks with comfort, luckily for the rest of the world. Sit fast, do your duty, and have faith. While they are going flightily up and down, your steady balance is the saving of both."