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THE CHRISTMAS CUCKOO
BY FRANCES BROWNE (ADAPTED)
ONCE upon a time there stood in the midst of a bleak moor,
in the North Country, a certain village. All its inhabitants
were poor, for their fields were barren, and they had little
trade; but the poorest of them all were two brothers called
Scrub and Spare, who followed the cobbler's craft. Their hut
was built of clay and wattles. The door was low and always
open, for there was no window. The roof did not entirely
keep out the rain and the only thing comfortable was a wide
fireplace, for which the brothers could never find wood
enough to make sufficient fire. There they
 worked in most brotherly friendship, though with little
On one unlucky day a new cobbler arrived in the village. He
had lived in the capital city of the kingdom and, by his own
account, cobbled for the queen and the princesses. His awls
were sharp, his lasts were new; he set up his stall in a
neat cottage with two windows. The villagers soon found out
that one patch of his would outwear two of the brothers'. In
short, all the mending left Scrub and Spare, and went to the
The season had been wet and cold, their barley did not ripen
well, and the cabbages never half-closed in the garden. So
the brothers were poor that winter, and when Christmas came
they had nothing to feast on but a barley loaf and a piece
of rusty bacon. Worse than that, the snow was very deep and
they could get no firewood.
Their hut stood at the end of the village; beyond it spread
the bleak moor, now all white and silent. But that moor had
once been a forest; great roots of old trees were still to
be found in it, loosened from the soil and laid bare by the
winds and rains. One of these, a rough, gnarled log, lay
hard by their door, the half of it above the snow, and Spare
said to his brother:—
"Shall we sit here cold on Christmas while the great root
lies yonder? Let us chop it up for firewood, the work will
make us warm."
 "No," said Scrub, "it's not right to chop wood on Christmas;
besides, that root is too hard to be broken with any
"Hard or not, we must have a fire," replied Spare. "Come,
brother, help me in with it. Poor as we are there is nobody
in the village will have such a yule log as ours."
Scrub liked a little grandeur, and, in hopes of having a
fine yule log, both brothers strained and strove with all
their might till, between pulling and pushing, the great old
root was safe on the hearth, and beginning to crackle and
blaze with the red embers.
In high glee the cobblers sat down to their bread and bacon.
The door was shut, for there was nothing but cold moonlight
and snow outside; but the hut, strewn with fir boughs and
ornamented with holly, looked cheerful as the ruddy blaze
flared up and rejoiced their hearts.
Then suddenly from out the blazing root they heard: "Cuckoo!
cuckoo!" as plain as ever the spring-bird's voice came over
the moor on a May morning.
"What is that?" said Scrub, terribly frightened; "it is
"Maybe not," said Spare.
And out of the deep hole at the side of the root, which the
fire had not reached, flew a large, gray cuckoo, and lit on
the table before them. Much
 as the cobblers had been surprised, they were still more so
when it said:—
"Good gentlemen, what season is this?"
"It's Christmas," said Spare.
"Then a merry Christmas to you!" said the cuckoo. "I went to
sleep in the hollow of that old root one evening last
summer, and never woke till the heat of your fire made me
think it was summer again. But now since you have burned my
lodging, let me stay in your hut till the spring comes
round,—I only want a hole to sleep in, and when I go on
my travels next summer be assured I will bring you some
present for your trouble."
"Stay and welcome," said Spare, while Scrub sat wondering if
it were something bad or not.
"I'll make you a good warm hole in the thatch," said Spare.
"But you must be hungry after that long sleep,—here is a
slice of barley bread. Come help us to keep Christmas!"
The cuckoo ate up the slice, drank water from a brown jug,
and flew into a snug hole which Spare scooped for it in the
thatch of the hut.
Scrub said he was afraid it would n't be lucky; but as it
slept on and the days passed he forgot his fears.
So the snow melted, the heavy rains came, the cold grew
less, the days lengthened, and one sunny morning the
brothers were awakened by
 the cuckoo shouting its own cry to let them know the spring
"Now I'm going on my travels," said the bird, "over the
world to tell men of the spring. There is no country where
trees bud, or flowers bloom, that I will not cry in before
the year goes round. Give me another slice of barley bread
to help me on my journey, and tell me what present I shall
bring you at the twelvemonth's end."
Scrub would have been angry with his brother for cutting so
large a slice, their store of barley being low, but his mind
was occupied with what present it would be most prudent to
"There are two trees hard by the well that lies at the
world's end," said the cuckoo; "one of them is called the
golden tree, for its leaves are all of beaten gold. Every
winter they fall into the well with a sound like scattered
coin, and I know not what becomes of them. As for the other,
it is always green like a laurel. Some call it the wise, and
some the merry, tree. Its leaves never fall, but they that
get one of them keep a blithe heart in spite of all
misfortunes, and can make themselves as merry in a hut as in
"Good master cuckoo, bring me a leaf off that tree!" cried
"Now, brother, don't be a fool!" said Scrub; "think of the
leaves of beaten gold! Dear master cuckoo, bring me one of
 Before another word could be spoken the cuckoo had flown out
of the open door, and was shouting its spring cry over moor
The brothers were poorer than ever that year. Nobody would
send them a single shoe to mend, and Scrub and Spare would
have left the village but for their barley-field and their
cabbage-garden. They sowed their barley, planted their
cabbage, and, now that their trade was gone, worked in the
rich villagers' fields to make out a scanty living.
So the seasons came and passed; spring, summer, harvest, and
winter followed each other as they have done from the
beginning. At the end of the latter Scrub and Spare had
grown so poor and ragged that their old neighbors forgot to
invite them to wedding feasts or merrymakings, and the
brothers thought the cuckoo had forgotten them, too, when at
daybreak on the first of April they heard a hard beak
knocking at their door, and a voice crying:—
"Cuckoo! cuckoo! Let me in with my presents!"
Spare ran to open the door, and in came the cuckoo, carrying
on one side of its bill a golden leaf larger than that of
any tree in the North Country; and in the other side of its
bill, one like that of the common laurel, only it had a
 "Here," it said, giving the gold to Scrub and the green to
Spare, "it is a long carriage from the world's end. Give me
a slice of barley bread, for I must tell the North Country
that the spring has come."
Scrub did not grudge the thickness of that slice, though it
was cut from their last loaf. So much gold had never been in
the cobbler's hands before, and he could not help exulting
over his brother.
"See the wisdom of my choice," he said, holding up the large
leaf of gold. "As for yours, as good might be plucked from
any hedge, I wonder a sensible bird would carry the like so
"Good master cobbler," cried the cuckoo, finishing its
slice, "your conclusions are more hasty than courteous. If
your brother is disappointed this time, I go on the same
journey every year, and for your hospitable entertainment
will think it no trouble to bring each of you whichever leaf
"Darling cuckoo," cried Scrub, "bring me a golden one."
And Spare, looking up from the green leaf on which he gazed
as though it were a crown-jewel, said:—
"Be sure to bring me one from the merry tree."
And away flew the cuckoo.
"This is the feast of All Fools, and it ought to be your
birthday," said Scrub. "Did ever man
 fling away such an opportunity of getting rich? Much good
your merry leaves will do in the midst of rags and poverty!"
But Spare laughed at him, and answered with quaint old
proverbs concerning the cares that come with gold, till
Scrub, at length getting angry, vowed his brother was not
fit to live with a respectable man; and taking his lasts,
his awls, and his golden leaf, he left the wattle hut, and
went to tell the villagers.
They were astonished at the folly of Spare, and charmed with
Scrub's good sense, particularly when he showed them the
golden leaf, and told that the cuckoo would bring him one
The new cobbler immediately took him into partnership; the
greatest people sent him their shoes to mend. Fairfeather, a
beautiful village maiden, smiled graciously upon him; and in
the course of that summer they were married, with a grand
wedding feast, at which the whole village danced except
Spare, who was not invited, because the bride could not bear
his low-mindedness, and his brother thought him a disgrace
to the family.
As for Scrub he established himself with Fairfeather in a
cottage close by that of the new cobbler, and quite as fine.
There he mended shoes to everybody's satisfaction, had a
scarlet coat and a fat goose for dinner on holidays.
 had a crimson gown, and fine blue ribbons; but neither she
nor Scrub was content, for to buy this grandeur the golden
leaf had to be broken and parted with piece by piece, so the
last morsel was gone before the cuckoo came with another.
Spare lived on in the old hut, and worked in the
cabbage-garden. (Scrub had got the barley-field because he
was the elder.) Every day his coat grew more ragged, and the
hut more weather-beaten; but people remarked that he never
looked sad or sour. And the wonder was that, from the time
any one began to keep his company, he or she grew kinder,
happier, and content.
Every first of April the cuckoo came tapping at their doors
with the golden leaf for Scrub, and the green for Spare.
Fairfeather would have entertained it nobly with wheaten
bread and honey, for she had some notion of persuading it to
bring two golden leaves instead of one; but the cuckoo flew
away to eat barley bread with Spare, saying it was not fit
company for fine people, and liked the old hut where it
slept so snugly from Christmas till spring.
Scrub spent the golden leaves, and remained always
discontented; and Spare kept the merry ones.
I do not know how many years passed in this manner, when a
certain great lord, who owned that village, came to the
 castle stood on the moor. It was ancient and strong, with
high towers and a deep moat. All the country as far as one
could see from the highest turret belonged to its lord; but
he had not been there for twenty years, and would not have
come then only he was melancholy. And there he lived in a
very bad temper. The servants said nothing would please him,
and the villagers put on their worst clothes lest he should
raise their rents.
But one day in the harvest-time His Lordship chanced to meet
Spare gathering water-cresses at a meadow stream, and fell
into talk with the cobbler. How it was nobody could tell,
but from that hour the great lord cast away his melancholy.
He forgot all his woes, and went about with a noble train,
hunting, fishing, and making merry in his hall, where all
travelers were entertained, and all the poor were welcome.
This strange story spread through the North Country, and
great company came to the cobbler's hut,—rich men who had
lost their money, poor men who had lost their friends,
beauties who had grown old, wits who had gone out of
fashion,—all came to talk with Spare, and, whatever their
troubles had been, all went home merry.
The rich gave him presents, the poor gave him thanks. Spare's coat ceased to
be ragged, he had bacon with his cabbage, and the villagers
began to think there was some sense in him.
 By this time his fame had reached the capital city, and even
the court. There were a great many discontented people
there; and the king had lately fallen into ill humor because
a neighboring princess, with seven islands for her dowry,
would not marry his eldest son.
So a royal messenger was sent to Spare, with a velvet
mantle, a diamond ring, and a command that he should repair
to court immediately.
"To-morrow is the first of April," said Spare, "and I will
go with you two hours after sunrise."
The messenger lodged all night at the castle, and the cuckoo
came at sunrise with the merry leaf.
"Court is a fine place," it said, when the cobbler told it
he was going, "but I cannot come there; they would lay
snares and catch me; so be careful of the leaves I have
brought you, and give me a farewell slice of barley bread."
Spare was sorry to part with the cuckoo, little as he had of
its company, but he gave it a slice which would have broken
Scrub's heart in former times, it was so thick and large.
And having sewed up the leaves in the lining of his leather
doublet, he set out with the messenger on his way to court.
His coming caused great surprise there. Everybody wondered
what the king could see in such a common-looking man; but
scarcely had His
 Majesty conversed with him half an hour, when the princess
and her seven islands were forgotten and orders given that a
feast for all comers should be spread in the banquet hall.
The princes of the blood, the great lords and ladies, the
ministers of state, after that discoursed with Spare, and
the more they talked the lighter grew their hearts, so that
such changes had never been seen at court.
The lords forgot their spites and the ladies their envies,
the princes and ministers made friends among themselves, and
the judges showed no favor.
As for Spare, he had a chamber assigned him in the palace,
and a seat at the king's table. One sent him rich robes, and
another costly jewels; but in the midst of all his grandeur
he still wore the leathern doublet, and continued to live at
the king's court, happy and honored, and making all others
merry and content.