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The Stories Mother Nature Told Her Children by  Jane Andrews

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HOW QUERCUS ALBA WENT TO EXPLORE THE UNDER-WORLD: WHAT CAME OF IT

[101] QUERCUS ALBA lay on the ground, looking up at the sky. He lay in a little brown, rustic cradle which would be pretty for any baby, but was specially becoming to his shining, bronzed complexion; for although his name, Alba, is the Latin word for white, he did not belong to the white race. He was trying to play with his cousins Coccinea and Rubra; but they were two or three yards away from him, and not one of the three dared to roll any distance, for fear of rolling out of his cradle: so it wasn't a lively play, as you may easily imagine. Presently Rubra, who was a sturdy little fellow, hardly afraid of any thing, summoned courage to roll full half a yard, and, having come within speaking distance, began to tell how his elder brother had, that very morning, started on the grand [102] underground tour, which to the Quercus family is what going to Europe would be for you and me. Coccinea thought the account very stupid; said his brothers had all been, and he should go too sometime, he supposed; and, giving a little shrug of his shoulders which set his cradle rocking, fell asleep in the very face of his visitors. Not so Alba: this was all news to him,—grand news. He was young and inexperienced, and, moreover, full of roving fancies: so he lifted his head as far as he dared, nodded delightedly as Rubra described the departure, and, when his cousin ceased speaking, asked eagerly, "And what will he do there?"

"Do?" said Rubra, "do? Why, he will do just what everybody else does who goes on the grand tour. What a foolish fellow you are, to ask such a question!"

Now, this was no answer at all, as you see plainly; and yet little Alba was quite abashed by it, and dared not push the question further for fear of displaying his ignorance,—never thinking that we children are not born with our heads full of information on all subjects, and that the only way to fill them is to push our questions until we [103] are utterly satisfied with the answers; and that no one has reason to feel ashamed of ignorance which is not now his own fault, but will soon become so if he hushes his questions for fear of showing it.

Here Alba made his first mistake. There is only one way to correct a mistake of this kind; and it is so excellent a way, that it even brings you out at the end wiser than the other course could have done. Alba, I am happy to say, resolved at once on this course. "If," said he, "Rubra does not choose to tell me about the grand tour, I will go and see for myself." It was a brave resolve for a little fellow like him. He lost no time in preparing to carry it out; but, on pushing against the gate that led to the underground road, he found that the frost had fastened it securely, and he must wait for a warmer day. In the mean time, afraid to ask any more questions, he yet kept his ears open to gather any scraps of information that might be useful for his journey.

Listening ears can always hear; and Alba very soon began to learn, from the old trees overhead, from the dry rustling leaves around him, and from [104] the little chipping-birds that chatted together in the sunshine. Some said the only advantage of the grand tour was to make one a perfect and accomplished gentleman; others, that all the useful arts were taught abroad, and no one who wished to improve the world in which he lived would stay at home another year. Old grandfather Rubra, standing tall and grand, and stretching his knotty arms, as if to give force to his words, said, "Of all arts, the art of building is the noblest, and that can only be learned by those who take the grand tour; therefore, all my boys have been sent long ago, and already many of my grandsons have followed them."

Then there was a whisper among the leaves: "All very well, old Rubra; but did any of your sons or grandsons ever come back from the grand tour?"

There was no answer; indeed, the leaves hadn't spoken loudly enough for the old gentleman to hear, for he was known to have a fiery temper, and it was scarcely safe to offend him. But the little brown chipping-birds said, one to another, "No, no, no, they never came back! they never came back!"

[105] All this sent a chill through Alba's heart, but he still held to his purpose; and in the night a warm and friendly rain melted the frozen gateway, and he boldly rolled out of his cradle forever, and, slipping through the portal, was lost to sight.

His mother looked for her baby; his brothers and cousins rolled over and about, in search for him. Rubra began to feel sorry for the last scornful words he had said, and would have petted his little cousin with all his heart, if he could only have had him once again; but Alba was never again seen by his old friends and companions.

THE UNDER-WORLD

[106] "HOW dark it is here, and how difficult for one to make his way through the thick atmosphere!" so thought little Alba, as he pushed and pushed slowly into the soft mud. Presently a busy hum sounded all about him; and, becoming accustomed to the darkness, he could see little forms moving swiftly and industriously to and fro.

You children who live above, and play about on the hillsides and in the woods, have no idea what is going on all the while under your feet; how the dwarfs and the fairies are working there, weaving moss carpets and grassblades, forming and painting flowers and scarlet mushrooms, tending and nursing all manner of delicate things which have yet to grow strong enough to push up and see the outside life, and learn to bear its cold winds, and rejoice in its sunshine.

While Alba was seeing all this, he was still struggling on, but very slowly; for first he ran [107] against the strong root of an old tree, then knocked his head upon a sharp stone, and finally, bruised and sore, tired, and quite in despair, he sighed a great sigh, and declared he could go no farther. At that, two odd little beings sprang to his side; the one brown as the earth itself, with eyes like diamonds for brightness, and deft little fingers, cunning in all works of skill. Pulling off his wisp of a cap, and making a grotesque little bow, he asked, "Will you take a guide for the under-world tour?"—"That I will," said Alba, "for I no longer find myself able to move a step."—"Ha, ha!" laughed the dwarf, "of course you can't move in that great body, the ways are too narrow; you must come out of yourself before you can get on in this journey. Put out your foot now, and I will show you where to step."—"Out of myself?" cried Alba. "Why, that is to die! My foot, did you say? I haven't any feet; I was born in a cradle, and always lived in it until now, and could never do any thing but rock and roll."

"Ha, ha, ha!" again laughed the dwarf, "hear him talk! This is the way with all of them. No [108] feet, does he say? Why, he has a thousand, if he only knew it; hands too, more than he can count. Ask him, sister, and see what he will say to you."

With that a soft little voice said cheerfully, "Give me your hand, that I may lead you on the upward part of your journey; for, poor little fellow, it is indeed true that you do not know how to live out of your cradle, and we must show you the way!"

Encouraged by this kindly speech, Alba turned a little towards the speaker, and was about to say (as his mother had long ago taught him that he should in all difficulties), "I'll try," when a little cracking noise startled the whole company; and, hardly knowing what he did, Alba thrust out, through a slit in his shiny brown skin, a little foot reaching downward to follow the dwarf's lead, and a little hand extending upward, quickly clasped by that of the fairy, who stood smiling and lovely in her fair green garments, with a tender, tiny grass-blade binding back her golden hair. Oh, what a thrill went through Alba as he felt this new possession,—a hand and a foot! A [109] thousand such, had they not said? What it all meant he could only wonder; but the one real possession was at least certain, and in that he began to feel that all things were possible.

And now shall we see where the dwarf led him, and where the fairy, and what was actually done in the underground tour?

The dwarf had need of his bright eyes and his skilful hands; for the soft, tiny foot intrusted to him was a mere baby, that had to find its way through a strange, dark world; and, what was more, it must not only be guided, but also fed and tended carefully: so the bright eyes go before, and the brown fingers dig out a roadway, and the foot that has learned to trust its guide utterly follows on. There is no longer any danger: he runs against no rocks; he loses his way among no tangled roots; and the hard earth seems to open gently before him, leading him to the fields where his own best food lies, and to hidden springs of sweet, fresh water.

Do you wonder when I say the foot must be fed? Aren't your feet fed? To be sure, your feet have no mouths of their own; but doesn't [110] the mouth in your face eat for your whole body, hands and feet, ears and eyes, and all the rest? else how do they grow? The only difference here between you and Alba is, that his foot has mouths of its own, and as it wanders on through the earth, and finds any thing good for food, eats both for itself and for the rest of the body; for I must tell you, that, as the little foot progresses, it does not take the body with it, but only grows longer and longer and longer, until, while one end remains at home fastened to the body, the other end has travelled a distance, such as would be counted miles by the atoms of people who live in the under-world. And, moreover, the foot no longer goes on alone: others have come by tens, even by hundreds, to join it; and Alba begins to understand what the dwarf meant by thousands. Thus the feet travel on, running some to this side, some to that; here digging through a bed of clay, and there burying themselves in a soft sand-hill, taking a mouthful of carbon here, and of nitrogen there. But what are these two strange articles of food? Nothing at all like bread and butter, you think. Different, indeed, [111] they seem; but you will one day learn that bread and butter are made in part of these very same things, and they are just as useful to Alba as your breakfast, dinner, and supper are to you. For just as bread and butter, and other food, build your body, so carbon and nitrogen are going to build his; and you will presently see what a fine, large, strong body they can make. Then, perhaps, you will be better able to understand what they are.

Shall we leave the feet to travel their own way for a while, and see where the fairy has led the little hand?

QUERCUS ALBA'S NEW SIGHT OF THE UPPER-WORLD

[112] IT was a soft, helpless, little baby hand. Its folded fingers lay listlessly in the fairy's gentle grasp. "Now we will go up," she said. He had thought he was going down, and he had heard the chipping-birds say he would never come back again. But he had no will to resist the gentle motion, which seemed, after all, to be exactly what he wanted: so he presently found himself lifted out of the dark earth, feeling the sunshine again, and stirred by the breeze that rustled the dry leaves that lay all about him. Here again were all his old companions,—the chipping-birds, his cousins, old grandfather Rubra, and, best of all, his dear mother. But the odd thing about it all was, that nobody seemed to know him: even his mother, though she stretched her arms towards him, turned her head away, looking here and there for her lost baby, and never seeing how [113] he stood gazing up into her face. Now he began to understand why the chipping-birds said, "They never came back! they never came back!" for they truly came in so new a form that none of their old friends recognized them.

Every thing that has hands wants to work; that is, hands are such excellent tools, that no one who is the happy possessor of a pair is quite happy until he uses them: so Alba began to have a longing desire to build a stem, and lift himself up among his neighbors. But—what should he build with? Here the little feet answered promptly, "You want to build, do you? Well, here is carbon, the very best material; there is nothing like it for walls; it makes the most beautiful, firm wood. Wait a minute, and we will send up some that we have been storing for your use."

And the busy hands go to work, and the child grows day by day. His body and limbs are brown now, but his hands of a fine shining green. And, having learned the use of carbon, these busy hands undertake to gather it for themselves out of the air about them, which is a great [114] storehouse full of many materials that our eyes cannot see. And he has also learned that to grow and to build are indeed the same thing: for his body is taking the form of a strong young tree; his branches are spreading for a roof over the heads of a hundred delicate flowers, making a home for many a bushy-tailed squirrel and pleasant-voiced wood-bird. For, you see, whoever builds cannot build for himself alone: all his neighbors have the benefit of his work, and all enjoy it together.

What at the first was so hard to attempt, became grand and beautiful in the doing; and little Alba, instead of serving merely for a squirrel's breakfast, as he might have done had he not bravely ventured on his journey, stands before us a noble tree, which is to live a hundred years or more.

Do you want to know what kind of a tree?

Well, Lillie, who studies Latin, will tell you that Quercus means oak. And now can you tell me what Alba's rustic cradle was, and who were his cousins Rubra and Coccinea?


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