Our Young Folks
Did you ever notice the queer fancies that birds have about their houses? Town-bred birds like them of wire, gilded, or trig little cottages on the stable-roof; but the houses of country birds are quite another thing. They are plain brown generally, made of grass or moss, with white wool carpets inside. But I have seen birds dig them out of the hot sand, or, down by the sea, build them of great branches, plastered with mud. It would take a cart to carry one of them. Very fierce birds those are, however, —quite tigers of birds.
A charitable person once put up some houses, for birds that could not afford to pay their rent, on the back roof of a house we used to live in. I wondered that the birds came there, even rent-free, for the house was in a mill town, and the smoke was going up night and day to the sky, and falling back in oily soot over the streets and gardens, and in the river where the boys fished, and on the babies’ faces. It was very disagreeable. For a good while I thought no birds at all would come, on that account.
But one day two very old and feeble pigeons arrived. Afterwards we knew them to be Senor and Senora Ruta Max. It was easy to see at a glance that they were good and gentle people, and, besides that, they were great travellers; the old lady was a West-Indian, and spoke Spanish much better, I dare say, than you or I could. When the nights grew cold, and they were hungry, you could hear them talking to each other of the court-balls which they had attended.
Their house commanded a view of a village of chicken-houses and the coal-house, in which lived a little brown mouse, —a busy, cheerful little body, the best friend they had. But when the poor old Senora would come down in the morning to pick up some scattered grains of corn, the chickens would cackle and laugh at her till the tears filled her eyes.
“Pray, Madam, where did you get the fashion of your gown?” they would ask.
Those were well-meaning chickens, however, working hard to bring up their families. One must be just to everybody.
Sometimes, when Senor Ruta Max was in low spirits, his wife would try to cheer him up a little, talking of old times. When the canaries sang in the parlor window, she would say, “So the birds sang in Martinique, my dear!” Then she would go in, and put on her old state-dress of faded drab and gold, and sit where he only could see her, and sing for him. Her voice was cracked, and she only knew one song. But he never tired of listening, nodding his head to keep time, like a courtly old fellow as he was.
Down below the chickens, who were always cackling politics, would cry out, “Down with the aristocrats!” But the little mouse would say, “Dear! dear! there are my neighbors in trouble again!” So she would go trotting up with her work, and sit looking so friendly and comfortable that it was a real pleasure to see her.
So she and the Senora would talk themselves sleepy, and old Ruta Max would be left alone. That was the time he and I became acquainted. When we had grown to be friends he told me one night the story of his child Wild Wing and Old Thorny. I wrote it down for you young folks.
White Wing had been a beauty of a bird. Pure white, with a golden tinge about her neck. They meant to bring her to court, as is usual with Spanish families of good birth. But times changed. They brought her instead to this mill town, to the loft of an old hut down by the creek bridge, —a tumbledown place, full of rats in the cellar, and the windows stuffed with rags and old hats. At first she sang the old songs cheerfully enough; but as time went on she grew silent, sitting for hours looking into the dingy sky, her head on her white breast. Now, down in the lower room of the house she found one day an old bush in a box, so thorny and covered with dust and looking forlorn that White Wing sat softly down beside it. The old bush rattled her dry branches cheerfully.
“I’m sorry you’ve come to this place,” she said. “Strangers don’t find it pleasant.”
“It’s miserable,” said White Wing. “How long have you been here?”
“Hundreds of years, I believe. A boy found me on the levee at New Orleans and brought me up the river on a raft. He is a gray-headed man now. I had a long Latin name then, but now I’m ‘Old Thorny.’ Titles are troublesome things, anyhow,” said the bush, laughing.
Now, when White Wing found that Old Thorny was so old and wisely patient, she asked her a great many questions, and found her very entertaining. “What flowers do you bear in spring-time?” she asked.
Then the old Thorn was silent, but a great Stramonium weed close by flaunted its rank blossoms, and said, “No flowers; in all her life nothing but thorns and dust.”
Old Thorny looked up mildly. “All through my life I’ve wished to thank God for the sun and rain in beautiful blossoms. But he knows! Some time that day will come,—some time!”
“Suppose we sing a little,” said White Wing, for her heart was full. But hardly had she begun one of her Spanish songs when…
“Who is that?” said somebody within. And out hobbled a little boy, dressed in a fireman’s old suit, miles too big. He was dreadfully sick and lame. His name was John. “Who is that?” said he, watering the Thornbush.
“That is a new friend I have,” said Old Thorny, all in a quiver. “We’re going to have a new friend, eh, John? Always something pleasant turning up for you and me, old fellow. Only hear her sing!”
Then White Wing discovered that the Thorn was the only friend John had in the whole world. But he asked her in, and invited her to call the next day. So, when she found how agreeable they were, and delighted to have her, she went down every day, until at last the three were always together. John was very lame, and could not walk abroad far; but on sunny days he would crawl out to the end of the bridge, and sit there. “Perhaps you knew him? “ said Ruta Max to me.
“Yes, Ruta Max,” I said. And so I did.
“Well,” said the Senor, “then you know that no pain ever could make him cry and be cross. He used to lean on his crutch, looking down into the water, and laugh at the other boys playing on the bank. Old Thorny would look sad because he could not jump or skate with them, and then White Wing would sing songs of the great forests and the bright sea and sunshine of Martinique, to entertain them. But sometimes the Thorn-bush would tremble when she heard them, and say,—
“Surely, I remember such forests and hot sunshine long ago. And it hurts me to remember.”
Then John would console the poor old thing, and say, “Keep up heart. The good time is sure to come.”
The White Wing saw all that he himself suffered, and in the evenings would stay in the hot air of his room to sing to him.
“O White Wing!” then he would say, “some day I shall be gone, and then you will fly back to Martinique.”
“Never, master,” she would say. “I never will leave you again.”
Now you shall hear how she kept her word. When it grew cold in winter, John was not able to leave his room any more, but lay most of the time on a heap of rags and straw in the corner. Old Thorny stood near by. When she went in, the mullein and iron-weed outside said to her, “Next spring we shall be covered with purple and yellow blossoms; but you, miserable old creature, you will tell your tiresome stories, and bear no flowers but mud and dust.”
“That is true,” said the Thorn-bush. But she got into the sunniest corner she could find, and was very cheerful all winter. You have n’t the least idea of the good times those three cronies used to have! White Wing sat on a chest by the fire and sang, and John told riddles; but Old Thorny knew a great many most remarkable stories, and when she began, they enjoyed even the coldest and hungriest days.
One very cold night she had told a long story, and sat silent in her corner.
“Poke the fire with my crutch,” said John.
White Wing could not manage that conveniently, but she fanned it with her wings, which did just as well. It was a very low fire, for the coal was all gone.
“White Wing!” said John.
“Well,” said she.
“I wish those things were true. I wish I was a prince going out to seek my fortune. I wish I had a bean plant or an ogre to fight.”
“Some day,” said Old Thorny, “all good wishes will come, if one is patient.”
“I wish—” said John. “What is that?” he cried, starting up. In the middle of the room, just at the foot of the bed, stood a fair, happy child. John pinched his arm, to see if he were awake. Yes, he certainly was awake. Here was White Wing and his crutches, and the soft light about innocent child, and the duller moon looking in at the window. John whispered to the bird to wake up Old Thorny, for fear she should miss the sight.
“I am the Christmas-Child,” said the fairy. “And my gift to each of you shall be to grant your wish. Now, consider.”
Just then Old Thorny woke up, quite shaking with fear. But when she found that it was a real live fairy, and that things generally were going on well, she was glad to her roots, and began to consider what her wish would be.
“I am ready,” said White Wing at last. Then they all looked around. “Let me stay with John,” she said. “Everybody has friends but John; let me stay with him always.”
The fairy child smiled and nodded, and John stroked her white head softly. Then the fairy looked at Old Thorny, to know what she would choose. The poor old bush rattled her dry branches for fear, but she said, “I want to be made patient. I don’t think I shall live until the next summer. I want to be cheerful with John and White Wing, and not worry the whole world with my grumbling.”
“That is a good wish,” said the Christmas-Child. Then he went to Old Thorny and put his hand on her dry trunk, holding it there still awhile, until the old boughs grew warm and throbbed with pleasure, through the bark, and kept the warmth and light about them through all of that winter night. Then the fairy looked at John.
But the boy, just when he was going to wish, stopped short, looking into the child’s happy, loving eyes, and smiled,—such a bright, cheery smile as Old Thorny never had seen upon his face before. “I will not wish,” he said. “I will trust to you to give me the best gift for me.”
The Christmas-Child bowed its head gravely. “It shall be so,—on Christmas morning. Now shall I sing for you a Christmas song?”
“Yes, yes!” they all cried; and then began the song.
It was a wonderful music which they heard, —low and clear, but filling the whole frosty night. Yet—would you believe? —they all went to sleep. It had charmed them, you understand. So when they were asleep the fairy went away. The light faded out, the room grew dark; nothing was left but the low fire and the moon dimly shining in at the patched window.
The next morning they all awoke in high good-humor. But it was a bitter cold day, and they had but some scraps of meat for breakfast. “Perhaps, John,” said White Wing, thoughtfully, “the Christmas-Child will bring you coal and something to eat.”
“Perhaps he will,” said John; but his eyes shone as if he looked for more than that.
About noon came along a little girl, who stopped to speak to John. “Ah, here is Old Thorny!” she said, kindly. “I wish I had her out in the country! Perhaps then she would bloom.”
Old Thorny looked up pleasantly, but shook her head.
“Here are some brown buds all over the stem,” said she; “but they are only gum, I see”; and she bade them good by and went on.
The day grew colder. “The Christmas-Child,” said White Wing, “does not know what you suffer. In that beautiful fairy-land it is never cold, I think.”
“No,” said John, his pinched face shining at the very thought of it, “there is no cold nor hunger there. Only such children as He who comes to us on Christmas live here.”
“Then how can they know what we want in a mill town?” said the bird, and hid her head under her wing to try and find a warm place.
“Let us wait a little longer,” said Old Thorny.
It was not easy to wait. The next day was colder than before. They sat at the door, and when anybody went by, John held out his hand to beg. But it was of no use. It began to snow. The wind cut their faces, it was so cold and keen.
Now, there lived a boy close by name Peter; a wicked boy, who never had been kind to John. To-day he came and sat down beside him, however, and began to talk.
John knew what sort of boy he was, but Peter talked so pleasantly that he had not the heart to drive him away. He was hungry for a kind word, —poor John!
“Hard times these, hey, John?” said Peter. “Hungry times?”
“Yes,” said John, “right hard.”
“Hoh!” said Peter. “You don’t beg loud enough. Listen to me!” and he began calling out to the people to look at John and give him something to keep him from starving. One old gentleman turned around, and threw some money on the ground.
“It’s for that lame boy,” said he, and went on.
Peter grabbed at it, and put it in his pocket.
“That is mine,” said John.
“You wicked, wicked boy!” said White Wing.
“Don’t you hope you may get it?” he said, and ran off as fast as he could. John was angry, and White Wing was much angrier; but that did not make the day warmer. O, how cold and hungry they were! How long the day was! How fiercely the night-wind came blowing down the chimney of the old house, and driving in at the windows! The fairy did not come that night.
Christmas morning came, bright and frosty. John was not able to leave his bed, but lay on the straw looking out. Presently Peter came by, and put his head in at the door.
“John,” said he, “I’m sorry about that. It was a mean job for me. But I mean to make it up now. I’ll get you some bread.”
So he waited quietly at the door. After a while a lady came along, and he begged from her, but she would not listen. “Begging’s slow work,” he said. “I know a better trick than that.”
Across the street was a cake-stand, which was kept by a poor old woman. Peter went over whistling, and lounged about until the baker’s cart stopped, and she began to buy some buns and cake from him. Then Peter slipped a big square of warm spice-cake off her stand under his coat, and ran over to John. He threw it on the bed.
“There, John,” said he, “now I’ve made up for yesterday.”
“Take it away!” cried John. “I will not be a thief.”
But Peter only laughed and strutted away.
The cake did smell so good, and John was so sick and hungry!
“I will not be a thief!” he said, shutting his eyes. But he opened them just to look at the cake. It seemed to come closer to him, and he heard Peter at the door.
“Eat it,” he said; “eat it. You are so hungry. Only smell it! How hot and spicy it is! What difference if you are a thief? Who knows or cares? Take it.”
But John heard a voice like that of the Christmas-Child. “A thief!” it cried. “A thief! It would be better to die first. It isn’t hard to die if you are brave. Do not look at it. Do not touch it.”
“Why, John!” cried Peter, “you are sick with hunger. Pick it up. It is so good and hot! Make haste.”
“Is this the boy,” said the Child’s voice, softly, “who wanted to fight giants, and cannot bear a little hunger!”
So they talked to him, and the pain grew sharper and the day colder. At last he gathered up all his strength and threw the cake away. “I will not be a thief!” he cried.
“Hoh, hoh!” shouted Peter, walking away. But John thought he felt a child’s hand laid softly on his forehead. He lay quite still there, with the poor bird folding its wings on his breast, as the day grew dark. The white snow glittered outside, and the gray sky looked heavy with cold. But the Christmas-Child stood quite still and shining in the middle of the room, while a strange warmth and color glowed about him.
“You talked,” he said, “of my home, where there is neither sickness nor cold. People call it by different names; it shall be fairy-land for you, if you choose. Look out; perhaps you can see it afar off.”
But John’s eyes were fixed on the beautiful Child. “Surely,” his dry lips whispered to White Wing, “God’s own angels are no better than this!”
But the poor bird only fluttered her wings feebly. She was dying, —poor White Wing! And she could not remember that she was only a bird, and that for her there was no heaven.
“Look up!” cried the Child. “Look up! And come to the far country.” Then John turned his face to the gray sky.
I cannot tell you what he saw; but his dim eyes shone as if some great light had touched them. For a moment he looked, then he wrapped the bird closer in his torn little coat over his breast.
“I cannot go alone,” he said, stoutly.
But she was cold and stiff, —poor White Wing!
Then the rising sun lighted up all the air like a crimson sea that rolled in great waves up into the shining gates of fairy-land. And John felt himself borne up, and floating on, on, over the sea and within the gates.
“But,” he cried, sharply, “I cannot leave my friend dead!”
Then the Christmas-Child beside him, smiling, pointed to where the white wings of a lovely bird fluttered before him joyfully.
All through the dingy town suddenly was heard a wonderful music, but only by the children. Some of them said, “It is Kriss Kringle singing,” and some of them thought, “It is Christmas morning coming in.” But Old Thorny, bowing his head in deep silence, thought that the windows of heaven had been opened a little way.
Later in the morning great crowds of people were gathered about the door of the little hut. A box stood there, in which bloomed a great and wonderful flower, such as no one had ever seen. It seemed to have gathered all the color and light of a hundred summers into its leaves and held them there.
Rough draymen and coal-diggers took of their hats as they came near, as if they had seen a royal lady. No one spoke in all the crowd. The very winter air breathed softly, and turned by on the other side. It is always so when anything truly beautiful is born into the world.
There were some children there with their father. One of them was the little girl I told you of.
“Father,” she whispered, “it is the Thorn-bush.”
“It is the century-plant, my child,” he said. “Such flowers as this bloom but once a hundred years.”
Inside of the hut they found a little boy quite still and cold, with a bird on his breast. There was a quiet smile on his face, and then they knew that John had taken his friend with him to the Christmas-Child in the warm sunny country far away.