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The Last Dream Of The Old Oak

from Hans Andersens Fairy Tales





IN THE forest, high up on the steep shore and not far from the open
seacoast, stood a very old oak tree. It was just three hundred and
sixty-five years old, but that long time was to the tree as the same
number of days might be to us. We wake by day and sleep by night, and
then we have our dreams. It is different with the tree; it is obliged to
keep awake through three seasons of the year and does not get any sleep
till winter comes. Winter is its time for rest--its night after the long
day of spring, summer, and autumn.

During many a warm summer, the Ephemeras, which are flies that exist for
only a day, had fluttered about the old oak, enjoyed life, and felt
happy. And if, for a moment, one of the tiny creatures rested on the
large, fresh leaves, the tree would always say: "Poor little creature!
your whole life consists of but a single day. How very short! It must be
quite melancholy."

"Melancholy! what do you mean?" the little creature would always reply.
"Why do you say that? Everything around me is so wonderfully bright and
warm and beautiful that it makes me joyous."

"But only for one day, and then it is all over."

"Over!" repeated the fly; "what is the meaning of 'all over'? Are you
'all over' too?"

"No, I shall very likely live for thousands of your days, and my day is
whole seasons long; indeed, it is so long that you could never reckon it
up."

"No? then I don't understand you. You may have thousands of my days, but
I have thousands of moments in which I can be merry and happy. Does all
the beauty of the world cease when you die?"

"No," replied the tree; "it will certainly last much longer, infinitely
longer than I can think of."

"Well, then," said the little fly, "we have the same time to live, only
we reckon differently." And the little creature danced and floated in
the air, rejoicing in its delicate wings of gauze and velvet, rejoicing
in the balmy breezes laden with the fragrance from the clover fields and
wild roses, elder blossoms and honeysuckle, and from the garden hedges
of wild thyme, primroses, and mint. The perfume of all these was so
strong that it almost intoxicated the little fly. The long and beautiful
day had been so full of joy and sweet delights, that, when the sun sank,
the fly felt tired of all its happiness and enjoyment. Its wings could
sustain it no longer, and gently and slowly it glided down to the soft,
waving blades of grass, nodded its little head as well as it could, and
slept peacefully and sweetly. The fly was dead.

"Poor little Ephemera!" said the oak; "what a short life!" And so on
every summer day the dance was repeated, the same questions were asked
and the same answers given, and there was the same peaceful falling
asleep at sunset. This continued through many generations of Ephemeras,
and all of them felt merry and happy.

The oak remained awake through the morning of spring, the noon of
summer, and the evening of autumn; its time of rest, its night, drew
near--its winter was coming. Here fell a leaf and there fell a leaf.
Already the storms were singing: "Good night, good night. We will rock
you and lull you. Go to sleep, go to sleep. We will sing you to sleep,
and shake you to sleep, and it will do your old twigs good; they will
even crackle with pleasure. Sleep sweetly, sleep sweetly, it is your
three hundred and sixty-fifth night. You are still very young in the
world. Sleep sweetly; the clouds will drop snow upon you, which will be
your coverlid, warm and sheltering to your feet. Sweet sleep to you, and
pleasant dreams."

And there stood the oak, stripped of all its leaves, left to rest during
the whole of a long winter, and to dream many dreams of events that had
happened, just as men dream.

The great tree had once been small; indeed, in its cradle it had been an
acorn. According to human reckoning, it was now in the fourth century of
its existence. It was the largest and best tree in the forest. Its
summit towered above all the other trees and could be seen far out at
sea, so that it served as a landmark to the sailors. It had no idea how
many eyes looked eagerly for it. In its topmost branches the wood pigeon
built her nest, and the cuckoo sang his well-known song, the familiar
notes echoing among the boughs; and in autumn, when the leaves looked
like beaten copper plates, the birds of passage came and rested on the
branches before beginning their flight across the sea.

But now that it was winter, the tree stood leafless, so that every one
could see how crooked and bent were the branches that sprang forth from
the trunk. Crows and rooks came by turns and sat on them, and talked of
the hard times that were beginning, and how difficult it was in winter
to obtain a living.

It was just at the holy Christmas time that the tree dreamed a dream.
The tree had doubtless a feeling that the festive time had arrived, and
in its dream fancied it heard the bells of the churches ringing. And yet
it seemed to be a beautiful summer's day, mild and warm. The tree's
mighty summit was crowned with spreading, fresh green foliage; the
sunbeams played among its leaves and branches, and the air was full of
fragrance from herb and blossom; painted butterflies chased each other;
the summer flies danced around it as if the world had been created
merely that they might dance and be merry. All that had happened to the
tree during all the years of its life seemed to pass before it as if in
a festive pageant.

It saw the knights of olden times and noble ladies ride through the wood
on their gallant steeds, with plumes waving in their hats and with
falcons on their wrists, while the hunting horn sounded and the dogs
barked. It saw hostile warriors, in colored dress and glittering armor,
with spear and halberd, pitching their tents and again taking them down;
the watchfires blazed, and men sang and slept under the hospitable
shelter of the tree. It saw lovers meet in quiet happiness near it in
the moonshine, and carve the initials of their names in the
grayish-green bark of its trunk.


moonshine....]

Once, but long years had passed since then, guitars and AEolian harps had
been hung on its boughs by merry travelers; now they seemed to hang
there again, and their marvelous notes sounded again. The wood pigeons
cooed as if to express the feelings of the tree, and the cuckoo called
out to tell it how many summer days it had yet to live.

Then it appeared to it that new life was thrilling through every fiber
of root and stem and leaf, rising even to its highest branches. The tree
felt itself stretching and spreading out, while through the root beneath
the earth ran the warm vigor of life. As it grew higher and still higher
and its strength increased, the topmost boughs became broader and
fuller; and in proportion to its growth its self-satisfaction increased,
and there came a joyous longing to grow higher and higher--to reach even
to the warm, bright sun itself.

Already had its topmost branches pierced the clouds, which floated
beneath them like troops of birds of passage or large white swans; every
leaf seemed gifted with sight, as if it possessed eyes to see. The stars
became visible in broad daylight, large and sparkling, like clear and
gentle eyes. They brought to the tree's memory the light that it had
seen in the eyes of a child and in the eyes of lovers who had once met
beneath the branches of the old oak.

These were wonderful and happy moments for the old oak, full of peace
and joy; and yet amidst all this happiness, the tree felt a yearning
desire that all the other trees, bushes, herbs, and flowers beneath it
might also be able to rise higher, to see all this splendor and
experience the same happiness. The grand, majestic oak could not be
quite happy in its enjoyment until all the rest, both great and small,
could share it. And this feeling of yearning trembled through every
branch, through every leaf, as warmly and fervently as through a human
heart.

The summit of the tree waved to and fro and bent downwards, as if in its
silent longing it sought something. Then there came to it the fragrance
of thyme and the more powerful scent of honeysuckle and violets, and the
tree fancied it heard the note of the cuckoo.

At length its longing was satisfied. Up through the clouds came the
green summits of the forest trees, and the oak watched them rising
higher and higher. Bush and herb shot upward, and some even tore
themselves up by the roots to rise more quickly. The quickest of all was
the birch tree. Like a lightning flash the slender stem shot upwards in
a zigzag line, the branches spreading round it like green gauze and
banners. Every native of the wood, even to the brown and feathery
rushes, grew with the rest, while the birds ascended with the melody of
song. On a blade of grass that fluttered in the air like a long green
ribbon sat a grasshopper cleaning its wings with its legs. May beetles
hummed, bees murmured, birds sang--each in its own way; the air was
filled with the sounds of song and gladness.

"But where is the little blue flower that grows by the water, and the
purple bellflower, and the daisy?" asked the oak. "I want them all."

"Here we are; here we are," came the reply in words and in song.

"But the beautiful thyme of last summer, where is that? And where are
the lilies of the valley which last year covered the earth with their
bloom, and the wild apple tree with its fragrant blossoms, and all the
glory of the wood, which has flourished year after year? And where is
even what may have but just been born?"

"We are here; we are here," sounded voices high up in the air, as if
they had flown there beforehand.

"Why, this is beautiful, too beautiful to be believed," cried the oak in
a joyful tone. "I have them all here, both great and small; not one has
been forgotten. Can such happiness be imagined? It seems almost
impossible."

"In heaven with the Eternal God it can be imagined, for all things are
possible," sounded the reply through the air.

And the old tree, as it still grew upwards and onwards, felt that its
roots were loosening themselves from the earth.

"It is right so; it is best," said the tree. "No fetters hold me now. I
can fly up to the very highest point in light and glory. And all I love
are with me, both small and great. All--all are here."

Such was the dream of the old oak at the holy Christmas time. And while
it dreamed, a mighty storm came rushing over land and sea. The sea
rolled in great billows toward the shore. A cracking and crushing was
heard in the tree. Its roots were torn from the ground, just at the
moment when in its dream it was being loosened from the earth. It fell;
its three hundred and sixty-five years were ended like the single day of
the Ephemera.

On the morning of Christmas Day, when the sun rose, the storm had
ceased. From all the churches sounded the festive bells, and from every
hearth, even of the smallest hut, rose the smoke into the blue sky, like
the smoke from the festive thank-offerings on the Druids' altars. The
sea gradually became calm, and on board a great ship that had withstood
the tempest during the night, all the flags were displayed as a token of
joy and festivity.

"The tree is down! the old oak--our landmark on the coast!" exclaimed
the sailors. "It must have fallen in the storm of last night. Who can
replace it? Alas! no one." This was the old tree's funeral oration,
brief but well said.

There it lay stretched on the snow-covered shore, and over it sounded
the notes of a song from the ship--a song of Christmas joy, of the
redemption of the soul of man, and of eternal life through Christ.

Sing aloud on this happy morn,
All is fulfilled, for Christ is born;
With songs of joy let us loudly sing,
"Hallelujahs to Christ our King."

Thus sounded the Christmas carol, and every one on board the ship felt
his thoughts elevated through the song and the prayer, even as the old
tree had felt lifted up in its last beautiful dream on that Christmas
morn.





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