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The Tree and the Forest by Unknown


'What splendid trees!' said Monsieur D'Ambly, as he was passing by a fine forest of oaks.

'What a splendid fire they would make!' replied his son Eugene. Eugene had read a few days before in a book of travels the description of a wood on fire, and he could think of nothing else. He was an admirer of everything that was uncommon, everything that produced an effect or a commotion, and, like most children, he seldom carried his ideas beyond what he saw.

'If it would not injure any person,' said he, 'I would be very glad this forest would take fire; it would be a glorious sight. I am sure, papa, that its light would extend as far as the château.'

'Would it then be such a pleasant thing to see a tree burning?'

'Oh, a tree,' said Eugene, 'that would be hardly worth the trouble; but a forest would be magnificent.'

'Since we are on the subject of burning,' said Monsieur D'Ambly, 'I think it would be well to cut down that young lime-tree on the lawn opposite the château; it grows too fast; and if it should spread much more, it would quite intercept our view; I will therefore cut it down for fuel.'

'Oh, papa,' exclaimed Eugene, 'that lime-tree that has grown so beautiful since last year! I was looking at it the other day, and I saw shoots of this year as long as my arm.'

At this moment they came to a young poplar which had been blown down by a storm the preceding day. Its leaves were not yet withered, but its young shoots, though still green, began to lose their vigour; they were soft and weak, as if drooping from want of water; but in that case a refreshing shower would have restored it to health and freshness, whereas now it was beyond recovery. Eugene stopped before the poplar, and lamented it.

'Such,' said Monsieur D'Ambly, 'will in two days more be the state of our lime-tree.'

'Ah!' cried Eugene, 'can you have the heart to say so?'

'Why not? A lime is not more valuable than a poplar, or an oak; and you would like to see this whole forest in a blaze.'

'Indeed, papa, that is a very different thing.'

'Yes; there is certainly a vast difference between a person cutting down a tree that incommodes him, and that he would then make use of for fuel, and fourteen or fifteen thousand that you would burn for your pleasure.'

'But I do not know those trees.'

'Neither do you know this poplar that you have just been lamenting.'

'But at least I see it.'

'You can as easily see all those that surround it. Look at this one, how strong and how straight it is!'

'Oh, what a fine oak! I do not think my arms could reach round it. See, papa, how high it is, and those three great branches which grow from it look like large trees.'

'It must be sixty or seventy years old: it will grow at least twenty more.'

'How enormous it will be then! I hope I shall see it.'

'But if it should be burned in the meantime?'

'I should be very sorry, now that I know it.'

'You would, then, only spare those trees from the fire which have come under your own particular notice: this is too common a case. Would it give you more pleasure to see this one burning?' said Monsieur D'Ambly, as he showed him another, divided into four enormous trunks, which shot from the same root.

'No, indeed. Look, it makes quite an arbour. Papa, some day when we have more time we will come and sit here, shall we not?'

'So, then, here are two that you would spare from the conflagration of the forest.'

'Oh, if I could but see it on fire, what a fine effect it would have from the windows of the château; I should think only of my two favourite oaks that I should be so sorry to see burning.'

'But all those you see equally deserve to become favourites, and those you cannot see are quite as fine; they have each in their different forms something that would interest you as much as your two favourite oaks, the poplar, or our lime-tree.'

'I do believe that if I were to think of every particular tree that composed a forest, it would take away all wish to see it burned.'

'That shows the necessity of consideration, my son, to avoid the risk of forming unreasonable wishes, to put them in practice, perhaps, when you grow up. You will probably never have a forest to burn, but you may have men to conduct: just think what might be the consequence of your forgetting that a district, a town, a community, is composed of individuals, as you just now forgot that a forest is composed of trees.'

'Ah, papa, in such a case I could not forget myself.'

'I knew some years ago,' said Monsieur D'Ambly, 'a very good, but rather obstinate man, of the name of De Marne. He had a quarrel with the director of a hospital established in a small town on one of his estates. The greater part of the property of the hospital was situated on this estate, and dependent on it, as was then the custom—that is to say, the hospital only held these lands on condition of paying certain rents to Monsieur de Marne, and of receiving two patients at his option. This right he held in consequence of his ancestors having given these lands to the hospital, and it descended to all the proprietors of the estate. The director began to dispute with Monsieur de Marne about the payment of the rent, and maintained that he bad no right to send more than one patient to the hospital. Monsieur de Marne was exceedingly angry, and a lawsuit was the consequence; and it so happened that the person employed by Monsieur de Marne, in searching the papers which had been sent to him to prove his right, discovered, or thought he had discovered, that the ground which had occasioned the lawsuit belonged to Monsieur de Marne, and not to the hospital, because, said he, the ancestors of Monsieur de Marne only gave it for a certain time, and on certain conditions which had not been fulfilled; so that Monsieur de Marne ought to take possession of it. This would be the ruin of the hospital. The day Monsieur de Marne received this intelligence he was delighted; and the more so, as he had just learned that one of the patients whom he had sent to the hospital had died, in consequence of a relapse from having been discharged too soon. His widow, who was left destitute, travelled on foot to Paris, with her youngest child on her back, to implore the assistance of Monsieur de Marne. She cried bitterly as she related the last words of her husband, who said, when he was dying, "If Monsieur de Marne had been here, he would have had me kept in the hospital, and I should have recovered."

'As Monsieur de Marne listened, with tears in his eyes, to this recital, he exclaimed: "That villain of a director, I will be the ruin of him!" He forgot that it was the hospital he would ruin, and that he would thus put out perhaps a hundred patients, all as poor and as sick as poor Jacques, and whose condition, had he recollected it, would be equally grievous.

'The lawsuit was carried on with great vigour, not by Monsieur de Marne, who was detained by business in Paris, but by his law-agent, who, being interested in supporting what he had advanced, pursued it warmly; and fearing that Monsieur de Marne would relinquish his right, took care to keep back what was said in the country, of his folly and madness in trying to ruin a hospital which was such a public benefit, and the daily melancholy accounts of the state to which the patients were reduced, because the director, being obliged to give up a great deal of time and money to the lawsuit, had not enough for the necessary expenses of the hospital. Had Monsieur de Marne known all these particulars, his kindly feelings would have returned—he could not have endured the idea of causing so much evil; but instead of that, his agent only entertained him with accounts of the ill doings of the director, and of the designs he had against him. Every letter he received made him more and more angry; and his hatred of one man made him, forget the claims of a hundred others, on whom he should have had compassion.

'At length he gained his lawsuit. He had for some days been endeavouring to procure admission for a poor woman, into the hospital of incurables at Paris. "Here are two pieces of good news," said he, as he read the letters which announced the success of each of his undertakings; and he wrote immediately to his law-agent, expressing his satisfaction at the manner in which he had conducted his suit, and to the person who had procured admission for the poor woman into the hospital of incurables, thanking him for his kindness.

'For some time he thought no more of the matter; however, he one day received a letter from his agent, telling him that the director had become a bankrupt, and had fled; that no one knew where he was; and to increase his dislike to the man, he added, that during three days that his flight was unknown, because he said he was only going into the country, the patients had neither bread nor broth, and that only for some charitable individuals in the neighbourhood who had sent them relief, most of them must have died; and that it was probable some of them would die from the effects of their sufferings, and from their dismay at hearing that the hospital was likely to fall to the ground. He said it had obtained some respite, as the gentry in the town and neighbourhood had given great assistance; but it was all insufficient, and they were obliged to discharge the least suffering; that they left the hospital in tears; and that several who lived in distant villages had fallen on the road from weakness and disappointment. All these details began to make Monsieur de Marne very uneasy. The agent added at the end of his letter: "Every one observed that the director had neither order nor economy: for a long time the affairs of the hospital have been in a bad state, and the loss of the suit has completed it." Then Monsieur de Marne felt his conscience reproach him for what he had done: he pictured to himself those unfortunate people leaving the hospital in tears, sinking with weakness and grief, and perhaps calling for curses upon him. He thought of the three days that they had been without either bread or broth, and he fancied he saw their pale and emaciated countenances, and began to consider each of them individually, as you just now began to consider the trees of the forest. There was not one of them that he would not have shed his blood to save. He could not endure the idea of all the evil which he had caused them, and endeavoured to throw all the blame upon the director. He wrote to his agent, desiring him to send relief to a considerable amount, and as soon as it was possible, he set off himself to this estate, where he had not been for a long time. On his arrival, he repaired to the town where the hospital had been: it was closed: the last patient had left it, and the house was to be sold to satisfy the creditors. Monsieur de Marne perceived that a great many people avoided him; the lawsuit had given them a very bad opinion of him, and the friends and relations of the director had contributed to increase it; indeed, the misery which had been caused to so many poor people had thrown an odium over the whole affair, and turned every person against him. The report spread that he was come to purchase the house and the rest of the hospital lands; and one day, as he was passing through the streets, the children threw stones at him. He began to feel all the injury he had done, and a thousand circumstances perpetually reminded him of it. The son of Jacques, the poor man whose widow he had assisted, had broken his leg, and it remained quite distorted. Monsieur de Marne told his mother that she ought to have had it set. "That would have been easy," she replied, "when there was an hospital here; but now"———and she stopped.

'He saw that the country people were neglecting to cultivate their gardens, which he knew had been profitable to them, and inquired the reason. "Oh," said they, "we used to sell our vegetables to the hospital; but now"———and they stopped; and Monsieur de Marne saw that every one's mind was filled with a subject which it would be impossible for him ever to forget. He was about to quit the country, and even to sell his estate, when an epidemical disease broke out in the next village. It was prevalent there almost every year; and it was for that reason especially that the hospital had been originally founded by a man of wealth, who, having been attacked by the disease, made a vow that, if he recovered, he would found an hospital, into which all the poor of the village, and of a certain distance round it, should be received and taken care of. "When his benevolent object was completed, all the poor, on the first symptom of disease, repaired to the hospital, where, from the care and attention they received, they in most cases soon recovered; and it was also a great means of preventing contagion. This year the disorder was particularly severe, and the ill feeling towards Monsieur de Marne rose to a great height. He sent large assistance to the village, and endeavoured to mitigate the sufferings of the poor people; but he still heard it said as he passed along: "There goes Monsieur de Marne, who has come to restore some small part of the hospital land." If he visited a sick person, and inquired after his health, he would say: "I thank you, sir; it is tolerable; but I should have recovered much sooner at the hospital." Overwhelmed with remorse, uneasiness, and fatigue, he took the disorder and died, chiefly of grief, for having at any time forgotten that a hospital is filled with individuals, as you just now forgot that a forest is composed of separate trees.'

'Ah, papa! how melancholy that was,' said Eugene, who had listened with the greatest attention.

'My son,' said Monsieur D'Ambly, 'when you grow up, you will see even worse consequences arise from that want of reflection which makes us regardless of everything that does not come under our own observation, so that when objects are too great for us to see their details, we think nothing about them.'

At that moment Eugene, in a musing mood, took up a stone, as was his custom, to throw among a flight of sparrows which had alighted near him: he paused. 'Papa,' said he, 'I will not throw a stone at those sparrows, for I remember how sorry I feel when any person torments my sister's canary bird, and when I see the poor little thing trying to save itself in every corner of the cage: it seems to me as if each of those sparrows, were I to frighten them, would feel just as my sister's bird does.'

'That is precisely, my son, what you ought to do if ever you are entrusted with the interests of a number of persons at once; and that you may be tempted to forget that the regiment you command, or the department you have to manage, is composed of men like yourself; and you should always put yourself, or those you love, in the place of each of them.'

They now reached home, and passed close by the lime-tree.

'Ah!' said Eugene, 'I must take my leave of you.'

'No,' said Monsieur D'Ambly smiling, 'it shall remain, provided you promise to remember, every time you look at it, that each tree in a forest is entitled to as much respect as your lime, and that in an assemblage of persons, whatever may be their denomination, each person's interest is of as much importance as your own.'