Christmas tree land, p.9
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       Christmas-Tree Land, p.9

           Mrs. Molesworth
 
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  CHAPTER IX.

  A COMMITTEE OF BIRDS.

  'Then a sound is heard, A sudden rushing sound of many wings.'

  Nothing was asked of the children as to where or how they had spenttheir day. Lady Venelda looked at them kindly as they took their placesat the supper-table, and she kissed them when they said good-night as ifshe were quite pleased with them. They were not sorry to go to bed; forhowever delightful squirrel gymnastics are, they are somewhat fatiguing,especially to those who are not accustomed to them, and I can assure youthat Rollo and Maia slept soundly that night; thanks to which, no doubt,they woke next morning as fresh as larks.

  Their lessons were all done to the satisfaction of their teachers, sothat in the afternoon, when, as they were setting off with Nanni fortheir usual walk, they met the old doctor on the terrace, he nodded atthem good-humouredly.

  'That's right,' he said; 'holidays do you no harm, I see.'

  'And we may have another before very long, then, mayn't we?' said Maia,whose little tongue was always the readiest.

  'All in good time,' said the old man, and as they had found his memoryso good hitherto, the children felt that they might trust him for thefuture.

  They did not go in the direction of the cottage to-day. Though they hadnot exactly been told so, they had come to understand that whengodmother wanted them, or had arranged some pleasure for them and herforest children, she would find some means of letting them know, and thesort of desire to please and obey her which they felt seemed evenstronger than if her wishes had been put down in plain rules. And whenNanni was with them they now took care not to speak of the cottage ortheir friends there, for she could not have understood about them, andshe would only have been troubled and frightened. But yet the thought ofWaldo and Silva and godmother and the cottage, and all the pleasure andfun they had had, seemed never quite away. It hovered about them likethe impression of a happy dream, which seems to make the whole daybrighter, though we can scarcely tell how.

  The spring was now coming on fast; and what _can_ be more delightfulthan spring-time in the woods? With the increasing warmth and sunshinethe scent of the pines seemed to waft out into the air, the primrosesand violets opened their eyes, and the birds overhead twittered andtrilled in their perfect happiness.

  'How can any one be so cruel as to shoot them?' said Maia one afternoonabout a week after the visit to the squirrels.

  'I don't think any one would shoot these tiny birds,' said Rollo.

  'I am afraid they do in some countries,' said Maia. 'Not here; I don'tthink godmother would let them. I think nobody can do anything in thesewoods against her wishes,' she went on in a lower tone, glancing inNanni's direction. But that young woman was knitting away calmly, withan expression of complete content on her rosy face.

  'Rollo,' Maia continued, 'come close to me. I want to speak in awhisper;' and Rollo, who, like his sister, was stretched at full lengthon the ground, thickly carpeted with the tiny dry-brown spikes whichhad fallen from the fir-trees during the winter, edged himself along byhis elbows without getting up, till he was near enough to hear Maia'slowest murmur.

  'Lazy boy,' she said, laughing. 'Is it too much trouble to move?'

  'It's too much trouble to stand up any way,' replied Rollo. 'What is ityou want to say, Maia? I do think there's something in these woods thatputs one to sleep, as Nanni says.'

  'So do I,' said Maia, and her voice had a half sleepy sound as shespoke. 'I don't quite know what I wanted to say, Rollo. It was onlysomething about _them_, you know.'

  'You needn't be the least afraid--Nanni can't hear,' said Rollo, withoutmoving.

  'Well, I only wanted to talk a little about them. Just to wonder, youknow, if they won't soon be sending for us--making some new treat. Itseems such a long time since we saw them.'

  'Only a week,' said Rollo, sleepily.

  'Well, a week's a good while,' pursued Maia; 'and I'm sure we've doneour lessons _very_ well all this time, and nobody's had to scold us foranything. _Rollo_----'

  'Oh, I do wish you'd let me take a little sleep,' said poor Rollo.

  'Oh, very well, then! I won't talk if you want to go to sleep,' saidMaia, in a slightly offended tone; 'though I must say I think it is verystupid of you when we've been shut up at our lessons all the morning,and we have only an hour to stay out, to want to spend it all insleeping.'

  But she said no more, for by this time Rollo was quite asleep, and theclick-click of Nanni's knitting-needles grew fainter and fainter, tillMaia, looking round to see why she was stopping, discovered that Nannitoo had given in to the influence of the woods. She was asleep, anddoubtless dreaming pleasantly, for there was a broad smile on hergood-natured face.

  'Stupid things!' thought Maia to herself. And then she began wonderingwhat amusement she could find till it was time to go home again. 'For_I'm_ not sleepy,' she said; 'it is only the twinkling way the sunshinecomes through the trees that makes my eyes feel rather dazzled. I may aswell shut them a little, and as I have no one to talk to I will try tosay over my French poetry, so that I shall know it _quite_ well forMademoiselle Delphine to-morrow morning.'

  The French poetry was long and dull. The complaint of a shepherdess forthe loss of her sheep was the name of it, and Maia had not found it easyto learn, for, like many things it was then the custom to teachchildren, it was neither interesting nor instructive. But if it did hergood in no other way, it was a lesson of patience, and Maia had workedhard at it. She now began to say it over to herself from the beginningin a low monotonous voice, her eyes closed as she half lay, half sat,leaning her head on the trunk of one of the great trees. It seemed toher that her poetry went wonderfully well. Never before had it soundedto her so musical. She really felt quite a pleasure in softly murmuringthe lines, and quite unconsciously they seemed to set themselves to anair she had often been sung to sleep to by her nurse when a very littlegirl, till to her surprise Maia found herself singing in a low butexquisitely sweet voice.

  'I _never_ knew I could sing so beautifully,' she thought to herself; 'Imust tell Rollo about it.' But she did not feel inclined to wake him upto listen to it. She had indeed forgotten all about him being asleep ather side--she had forgotten everything but the beauty of her song andthe pleasure of her newly-discovered talent. And on and on she sang,like the bewitched Princess, though what she was singing about she couldnot by this time have told, till all of a sudden she became aware thatshe was not singing alone--or, at least, not without an accompaniment.For all through her singing, sometimes rising above it, sometimes gentlysinking below, was a sweet trilling warble, purer and clearer than thesound of a running brook, softer and mellower than the music of anyinstrument Maia had ever heard.

  'What can it be?' thought Maia. She half determined to open her eyes tolook, but she refrained from a vague fear that if she did so it mightperhaps scare the music away. But unconsciously she had stopped singing,and just then a new sound as of innumerable wings close to her made herforget all in her curiosity to see what it was. She opened her eyes intime to see fluttering downwards an immense flock of birds--birds ofevery shape and colour, though none of them were very big, the largestbeing about the size of a parrot. There lay Rollo, fast asleep, in themidst of the crowd of feathered creatures, and something--an instinctshe could not explain--made Maia quickly shut her eyes again. She wasnot afraid, but she felt sure the birds would not have come so near hadthey not thought her asleep too. So she remained perfectly still,leaning her head against the trunk of the tree and covering her facewith her hand, so that she could peep out between the fingers while yetseeming to be asleep.

  The flutter gradually ceased, and the great flock of birds settledsoftly on the ground. Then began a clear chirping which, to Maia'sdelight, as she listened with all her ears, gradually seemed to shapeitself into words which she could understand.

  'Do you think they liked our music?' piped a bird, or several birdstogether--it was impossible to say which.

  'I think so,' answered s
ome other; '_he_'--and Maia understood that theywere speaking of Rollo--'has heard it but dimly--he is farther away. But_she_ was nearer us and will not forget it.'

  'They seem good children,' said in a more squeaky tone a black and whitebird, hopping forward a little by himself. He appeared to Maia to besome kind of crow or raven, but she disliked his rather patronisingtone.

  'Good children,' she said to herself. 'What business has an old crow totalk of us as good children!'

  'Ah, yes!' replied a little brown bird which had established itself ona twig just above Rollo's head. 'If they had not been so, you may besure _she_ would have had nothing to do with them, instead of makingthem as happy as she can, and giving orders all through the forest thatthey are to be entertained. I hear they amused themselves very well atthe squirrels' the other day.'

  'Ah, indeed! A party?'

  'Oh, no--just a simple gambolade. Had it been a party, of course _our_services would have been retained for the music.'

  'Naturally,' replied the little brown bird. 'Of course no musicalentertainment would be complete without _you_, Mr. Crow.'

  The old black bird giggled. He seemed quite flattered, and was evidentlyon the point of replying to his small brown friend by some amiablespeech, when a soft cooing voice interrupted him. It was that of awood-pigeon, who, with two or three companions, came hopping up to them.

  'What are we to do?' she said. 'Shall we warble a slumber-song for them?They are sleeping still.'

  The old crow glanced at the children.

  'I fancy they have had enough music for to-day,' he said. 'I think weshould consult together seriously about what we can do for theirentertainment. It won't do to let the squirrels be the only ones to showthem attention. Besides, children who come to our woods and amusethemselves without ever robbing a nest, catching a butterfly, or causingthe slightest alarm to even a hare--such children _deserve_ to berewarded.'

  'What can we do for them?' chirruped a brisk little robin. 'We havegiven them a concert, which has had the effect'--and he made apatronising little bow in the direction of Rollo and Maia--'theeffect--of sending them to sleep.'

  'I beg your pardon,' said a sparrow pertly. 'They were asleep before ourserenade began. It was _intended_ to lull their slumbers. That was _her_desire.'

  'Doubtless,' said the crow snappishly. 'Mr. Sparrow is always the bestinformed as to matters in the highest quarters. And, ofcourse--considering his world-wide fame as a songster----'

  'No sparring--no satirical remarks, gentlemen,' put in a bird who hadnot yet spoken. It was a blackbird, and all listened to him withrespect. 'We should give example of nothing but peace and unity tothese unfeathered visitors of ours, otherwise they might carry away amost mistaken idea of our habits and principles and of the happiness inwhich we live.'

  'Certainly--certainly,' agreed the crow. 'It was but a little amiablerepartee, Mr. Blackbird. My young friend Sparrow has not quite thrownoff the--the slight--sharpness of tone acquired, almost unconsciously,by a long residence in cities.'

  'And you, my respected friend,' observed the sparrow, 'arenaturally--but we can all make allowance for each other--not altogetherindisposed to croak. But these are trifling matters in no wayinterfering with the genuine brotherliness and good feeling in which weall live together in this favoured land.'

  A gentle but general buzz, or twitter rather, of applause greeted thisspeech.

  'And now to business,' said the robin. 'What are we to arrange for theamusement of our young friends?'

  'A remark reached my ears--I may explain, in passing, that some membersof my family have a little nest just under the eaves of the castle,and--and--I now and then hear snatches of conversation--not, of course,that we are given to _eavesdropping_--of course, none of my family couldbe suspected of such a thing--but, as I was saying, a remark reached myears that our young friends would like to visit what, in human language,would be called our king's palace--that is to say, the eyrie of thegreat eagle at the summit of the forest,' said a swallow, posing hisawkward body ungracefully on one leg and looking round for approval.

  'Nothing easier,' replied the robin. 'We are much obliged to you for thesuggestion, Mr. Swallow. If it meets with approval in the highestquarters, I vote that we should carry it out.'

  Another twitter of approval greeted this speech.

  'And when shall the visit take place?' asked the wood-pigeon softly,'and how shall it be accomplished?'

  'As to _when_, that is not for us to decide,' said the robin. 'As to_how_, I should certainly think a voyage through the air would be farthe greatest novelty and amusement. And this, by laying our wings alltogether, we can easily arrange. The first thing we have to do is tosubmit the idea for approval, and then we can all meet together againand fix the details. But now I think we should be on the wing to regainour nests. Besides, our young friends will be awaking soon. It would notdo for them to see us here assembled in such numbers. It might alarmthem.'

  'That is true,' said the crow. 'Their education in some respects hasbeen neglected. They have not enjoyed the unusual advantages of Waldoand Silva. But still--they are very good children, in their way.'

  This last speech made Maia so angry that, forgetting all pretence ofbeing asleep, she started up to give the old crow a bit of her mind.

  'You impertinent old croaker,' she began to say, but to her amazementthere was neither crow nor bird of any kind to be seen! Maia rubbed hereyes--was she, or had she been dreaming? No, it was impossible. But yet,how had all the birds got away so quickly, without the least flutter orbustle, and in less than half a second? She turned to Rollo and gave hima shake.

  'Rollo,' she said, 'do wake up, you lazy boy. Where have they all goneto?'

 
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