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A short story by Elizabeth Rundle Charles

The Acorn

Title:     The Acorn
Author: Elizabeth Rundle Charles [More Titles by Charles]

"When will my training begin?" said the acorn to itself, as it unfolded its delicately-carved cup and saucer on the branch of an old oak on the edge of a forest. "I understand I am to be an oak one day, like my father. All the acorns say that is what we are to be, but there certainly seems little chance of it at present. I have been sitting here for no one knows how many days, and I feel no change, except that I look less pretty than I did when I was young and green, and begin to feel rather dry, and shrivelled, and old. At this rate, I do not see much chance of my becoming an oak, or anything else but an old, dry acorn. When will my training begin?"

As it meditated thus, a strong breeze sighed mournfully through the autumn woods, and shook down many brown leaves from the old oak, and with them the acorn.

"This will hinder my progress again," thought the acorn; "for it is evident such a downfall as this can have nothing to do with my education. When will my training begin?"

A day or two afterwards a drove of hogs was turned into the forest, and they began grunting and grubbing among the dead leaves for acorns. Many of its brethren did our acorn see ruthlessly hurried into those voracious snouts. It kept very quiet under the dead leaves to avoid a similar fate, but it thought--"This is a sad delay. It is too plain that being trampled on and tossed about in this way can teach no one anything. When will my training begin?"

Meanwhile, the swine rummaged among the dead leaves, and trod them under foot, and tossed the decaying mould hither and thither with their snouts and feet, until one of them by accident rolled our acorn down a little hill, where it lay buried under some stray leaves many yards from the edge of the forest, in the outskirts of a park. There it lay unobserved all the rest of the winter. Even this was a pleasant change after having been tossed about and trodden under foot so long; but in its fall its shrivelled brown skin had cracked, and the acorn thought--"This is a sad disaster. How ever am I to grow into an oak when I am so crushed and cracked that scarcely any one would recognize me for an acorn? When will my training begin?"

All the winter the rain pattered on it, and sank it deeper and deeper under the dead leaves and under the earth-clods, until all its acorn beauty was marred and crushed out of it, and it fell asleep in the dark, under the cold, damp earth; and the snows came and folded it in under their white eider-down pillows. At last, the warm touch, that comes to all sleeping nature in the spring, came softly on it, and it awoke.

"What a pity," it said, "I should have lost so much time by falling asleep! I can scarcely make out what I am like, or where I am. What a sad waste of time! It is clear no one can go on with his education in sleep. When will my training begin?"

With these thoughts, it stretched out two little green things on each side of it, which felt like wings; and tried to peep out of its hole, and, to its delight, it succeeded, and, with a few more efforts, even contrived to keep its head steadily above ground, and look around it.

"There is my father, the old oak," it said. "He looks quite green again. But I am a long way off from him, and how very small and close to the ground! When shall I begin to be like him?"

But meantime it was very happy. It felt so full of life, although so small; and the sun shone so graciously on it, and all the showers and dews seemed so full of kindly desires to help and nourish it; and more and more little green leaves expanded from its sides, and more and more little busy roots shot down into the earth; and the leaves breathed and drank in the sunshine, and the roots were great chemists and cooks, and concocted a perpetual feast for it out of the earth and stones. But it thought sometimes, "This is all exceedingly pleasant, and I am very happy; but, of course, this is not education; it is only enjoying myself. When will my training begin?"

The next spring the early frosts had much more power over it, in its detached, exposed situation, than over the saplings in the shelter of the forest, and it saw the trees in the wood growing green, and tempting the song-birds beneath their leafy tents, whilst the sap still flowed feebly upward through its tiny cells, and its twigs and leaf-buds were still brown and hard.

"This must be a great hindrance to me," it thought--"this, no doubt, will retard my education considerably. What a pity I stand here so detached and unprotected! When will my training begin?"

But in the late spring came some days of bitter east wind and black frost, and it saw the more forward leaves in the wood turn pale and shrivel before they unfolded, and then fall off, nipped and lifeless, to join the old dead leaves of the past autumn, whilst its own little buds lay safe within their hard and glossy casings, protected by one enemy against a worse. And when the east wind and the black frosts were gone, the little sapling shot up freely. In that summer, and the next, and the next, it made great progress; but in the fourth autumn a great disappointment awaited it. The owner of the park in which it grew came by, and stood beside it, and said to his forester,--

"That sapling is worth preserving, it is so vigorous and healthy; and, standing in this detached position, it will break the line of the wood, and look well from my house. We will watch it, and set a fence around it to guard it from the cattle. But it has thrown out a false leader. Take your knife and cut this straggling shoot away, and next year, I have no doubt, it will grow well."

Then the forester applied his knife carefully to the false leader, and cut it off. But the sapling, not having understood the master's words, nor observed with what care and design the knife was applied, felt wounded to the core.

"My best and strongest shoot," it sighed to itself. "It was a cruel cut. It will take me a long time to repair that loss. I am afraid it has lost me at least a year. When will my training begin?"

But the next year the master's words were fulfilled.

Thus years passed on. And slowly, twig by twig, and shoot by shoot, the sapling grew. Sunbeams expanded its leaves; rains nourished its roots; frosts, checking its early buds, hardened its wood; winds swaying it hither and thither, as if they were determined to level it, only rooted it more firmly. And year by year the top grew a little higher, and the wood a little firmer, and the trunk a little thicker, and the roots a little deeper; but so slowly, that summer by summer it said,--

"This is very pleasant; but it is only breathing, and being happy. It certainly cannot be the discipline which forms the great oaks. When will my training begin?"

And autumn by autumn, as the sap flowed downward, and the buds ceased to expand, and the branches grew leafless and dry, it thought,--

"This is a sad loss of time. Now I am falling into torpor again, and shall make not an inch of progress for six long months. When will my training begin?"

And winter by winter, as the winds bent it to and fro, and made its branches creak, and threatened its very existence, and the heavy snows sometimes broke its boughs,--

"These are sore trials. I may be thankful if I barely struggle through them! In days like these existence is an effort, and endurance the utmost one can attain. When will my training begin?"

And in the spring, when the frosts nipped its finest buds,--

"These little nips and checks are very annoying; but one must bear them patiently. They are certainly hindrances; and it is disheartening, when one does one's best, to be continually thrown back by these trifling checks. When will my training begin?"

But, one summer day, a little girl and an old man came and seated themselves under its shade. By this time it had seen some generations of men, and had learned something of human language.

The old man said--"I remember, when I was a very little boy, my grandfather telling me how, when he was young, he had marked this tree, then a mere sapling, and pruned it of a false shoot, which would have spoiled its beauty, and had it fenced and preserved. And now my little grand-daughter and I sit under its shade! The fence has long since decayed; but it is not needed. The cattle come and lie under its shadow, as we do. It is a noble oak-tree now, and gives shelter instead of needing it."

Then the oak rustled above them; and the old man and the child thought it was a summer breeze stirring the branches. But in reality it was the oak laughing to itself, as it thought,--

"Then I am really a tree! and, whilst I was wondering when my training would begin, it has been finished, and I am an oak after all!"

[The end]
Elizabeth Rundle Charles's short story: Acorn