A GAME OF SLICED BIRDS

TRUE to her word, Aunt Amelia carried Marian’s breakfast to her room.
But for the interference of Uncle George his little niece would have
been given bread and water; it was all an impertinent child deserved.
Uncle George, however, insisted that the One who was born on Christmas
Day was a friend to sinners great and small. Out of respect to His
memory, Marian should have her breakfast. Lala offered to take the tray
up-stairs when it was ready, but Aunt Amelia said it was her duty to
take it herself: so there was no one to speak a word of comfort to the
little black sheep outside the fold.

It had been a dark, cloudy morning, but curiously enough, the moment
the door closed behind Aunt Amelia, the sun came out bright and warm,
and shone straight through Marian’s window. The child raised her head,
wiped her eyes and finally sat up. She wouldn’t eat any breakfast of
course, how could she? No one loved her and what was the use of eating?
The tray looked tempting though and the breakfast smelled good. The big
orange seemed rolling toward her and Uncle George must have poured the
cream on her oatmeal. No one else would have given her so much. The
omelet was steaming, and even Lala never made finer looking rolls.

Marian moved a little nearer and a little nearer to the tray until
the next thing she knew she was sitting in a chair, eating breakfast.
Everything tasted good, and in a little while Marian felt better. Out
of doors, the icy trees sparkled in the sunshine and all the world
looked clean and new. Oh, how the little girl longed for a mother that
Christmas morning. Some one who would love her and say “Dear little
Marian,” as Nanna once did.

Thinking of Mrs. Moore brought back to the child’s memory that last
day in the Home. Mrs. Moore had said, “Be brave, be good and never
forget the Father in heaven.” Marian had not been brave nor good; and
she had forgotten the Father in heaven. Suddenly the child looked
around the room, under the bed everywhere. She was certainly alone. It
seemed strange to say one’s prayers in the daytime, but Marian folded
her hands and kneeling in the flood of sunshine beneath the window,
confessed her sins. She felt like a new born soul after that. The
despairing, rebellious little Marian was gone, and in her place was a
child at peace with herself and the world. Without putting it in words,
Marian forgave Aunt Amelia: more than that, she felt positively tender
towards her. She would tell her she was sorry for her impertinence and
promise to be a good child. It would be so easy to do right. She would
set Ella a good example. Not for anything would Marian ever again do
what was wrong. In time Uncle George and Aunt Amelia would love her
dearly.

Marian smiled thoughtfully as she gazed down the straight and perfect
path her little feet would travel from thenceforth forevermore. The
child’s meditations were interrupted by a remembrance of the potatoes.
There they were, her Christmas presents, trying to hide under the bed,
under the chairs, beneath the bureau. She stared at them but a moment
when a happy smile broke over her face.

Marian was a saint no longer; only a little girl about to play a new
game.

“Why, it’s a circus!” she exclaimed, and straightway seizing the
potatoes and breaking the switches into little sticks, she transformed
the unwelcome gift into a circus parade. The elephant came first. His
trunk was a trifle too stiff as the switches were not limber. The camel
came next and if his humps were not exactly in the right place, he was
all the more of a curiosity. Then followed the giraffe with sloping
back and no head worth mentioning because there was nothing to stick on
the piece of switch that formed his long neck. Marian did wish she had
a bit of gum to use for a head. The giraffe would look more finished.
The lion and the tiger were perfect. Marian could almost hear them
roar. Nobody could have found any fault with the kangaroo except that
he would fall on his front feet. The hippopotamus was a sight worth
going to see. So was the rhinoceros. The zebras almost ran away, they
were so natural.

Marian searched eagerly for more potatoes. A peck would have been none
too many. “I’ll have to play the rest of the animals are in cages,” she
said with a sigh. “Too bad I didn’t get more potatoes. Wish I had the
other stocking.”

When Marian was tired of circus, she played concert. Bingen on the
Rhine came in for its share of attention, but school songs were just as
good and had ready-made tunes.

Lala in the kitchen, heard the operatic singing and laughed. Aunt
Amelia caught a few strains, frowned and closed the hall doors. Uncle
George smiled behind his newspaper: but Ella, tired of her toys, pouted
and said she wished she could ever have any fun. Marian always had a
good time. Mrs. St. Claire reminded her of the sleigh ride with the
seven little girls in the afternoon and Ella managed to get through the
morning somehow, even if it was dull and Christmas joy was nowhere in
the house except in the little room off the back hall up-stairs.

At one o’clock Lala was sent to tell Marian she might come down to
dinner if she would apologize to Aunt Amelia for her impertinence.
Lala was forbidden to say more, but nobody thought to caution her not
to laugh, and what did Lala do when she saw Marian playing the piano
beside the circus parade, but laugh until the tears ran down her
cheeks. Worst of all she waited on table with a broad smile on her
face that made Aunt Amelia quite as uncomfortable as the mention of a
pelican. Nor was it possible for Aunt Amelia to understand how a child
who had been in disgrace all the forenoon, could be cheerful and ready
to laugh on the slightest provocation. She thought it poor taste.

After dinner Ella thrust a repentant looking stocking in Marian’s hand.
“Papa says the things are yours and you must have them,” she explained.

“What makes the stocking look so floppy?” asked Marian.

“Because,” Ella went on, “papa made me take all the potatoes out and
there wasn’t much left. You’ve got a handkerchief in the stocking from
me and one from mamma, and—-”

“Please don’t tell me,” protested Marian. “I want to be s’prised.”

“Like the selfish child you are,” put in Aunt Amelia, “unwilling to
give your cousin a bit of pleasure.”

“And a box of dominoes from papa and a doll’s tea set Lala gave you,”
finished Ella.

“She’ll expect a doll next,” observed Aunt Amelia.

“I did think Santa Claus would give me one,” admitted the child, “but
I had rather have the beautiful tea set. Help me set the table on this
chair, Ella, and we’ll play Christmas dinner. I’ll let you pour the tea
and—-”

“Ella has no time to play,” her mother interrupted. “Come, little
one, help mamma finish packing the baskets of presents for the poor
children.”

“But I had rather play with Marian’s tea set,” pouted Ella.

“You have one of your own, dearest.”

“It isn’t as nice as Marian’s, though, and I want to stay here and
play.”

“Now you see, George,” and Mrs. St. Claire turned to her husband, “now
you see why I cannot allow these children to play together. You can see
for yourself what an influence Marian has over our little Ella. Come,
darling, have you forgotten the sleigh ride? It is time to get ready.”

“Me too?” questioned Marian, springing to her feet, “shall I get ready?”

The child knew her mistake in less than a minute, but forgetting the
uselessness of protest, she begged so earnestly to be taken with
the children Aunt Amelia called her saucy, and as a punishment, the
Christmas gifts, tea set and all, were put on a high shelf out of sight.

Marian was allowed to stand in the parlor by the window to see the
sleigh-load of noisy children drive away. When they were gone, the
parlor seemed bigger than usual and strangely quiet. Uncle George,
with a frown on his face, was reading in the sitting-room. He didn’t
look talkative and the clock ticked loud. Marian turned again to the
parlor window. Across the street was the rich man’s house, and in the
front window of the rich man’s house was a poor little girl looking
out–a sad little girl with big eyes and a pale face. Marian waved her
hand and the little girl waved hers–such a tiny, white hand. A new
idea flashed into Marian’s mind. She had often seen the little girl
across the way and wondered why she never played with Ella. At last she
thought she knew. The rich man’s wife probably went to a hospital after
the little girl, and took her home to get well just as Janey Clark was
taken home, only Janey was never thin and delicate and Janey never
stared quietly at everything as the little girl did who lived in the
rich man’s house.

Marian wondered why Aunt Amelia didn’t leave her some of the presents
in the baskets. Perhaps nobody loved the little girl: maybe her father
and mother were dead and Santa Claus didn’t know where to find her.
Marian wished she had something to take to the poor thing. She would
have given away her tea set that minute had it been within reach.
Just then a long-legged horse went by, a horse that looked so queer
it reminded Marian of her potato menagerie. The child smiled at the
thought. Perhaps the little girl in the rich man’s house never saw a
potato animal and would like to see one. Perhaps she would like two or
three for a Christmas present. Why not? It was all Marian had to give
and the animals were funny enough to make any poor little girl laugh.
Up-stairs Marian flew, returning with the elephant, the rhinoceros, the
hippopotamus and two zebras packed in a pasteboard box.

“Please, Uncle George,” she asked, “may I go and visit the poor little
girl that lives in the rich man’s house? I want to say ‘Wish you a
merry Christmas’ to her, and—-”

“Run along, child,” interrupted Uncle George, the frown smoothing
out as he spoke, “go where you will and have a good time if it is
possible–bless your sunny face.”

Uncle George had heard of the rich man’s house and he smiled a broad
smile of amusement as he watched Marian climb the steps and ring the
bell. “What next?” he inquired as the door closed behind the child. In
a short time he knew “What next.” One of the rich man’s servants came
over with a note from the neighbor’s wife, begging Uncle George to
allow Marian to stay and help them enjoy their Christmas dinner at six.
The permission was gladly given and at eight o’clock Marian came home
hugging an immense wax doll and fairly bubbling over with excitement.

“I never had such a good time at the table in my life,” she began, “as
I did at the rich man’s house. They asked me to talk, just think of
it–asked me to, and I did and they did and we all laughed. And the
poor little girl isn’t poor, only just sick and she belongs to the
folks. The rich man is her father and her name is Dolly Russel and she
was gladder to see me than she ever was to see anybody in her life and
she wants me to come again, and—-”

“And I suppose you told all you knew,” snapped Aunt Amelia.

“Yes, most, ‘specially at the table,” admitted the child.

MARIAN was so happy with her doll and teaset the following day she was
blind and deaf to all that happened in the house outside her little
room. She didn’t know that Mrs. Russel made her first call upon Aunt
Amelia in the afternoon, nor that company was expected in the evening.
Ella’s mysterious airs were lost upon her. The child was accordingly
surprised when she met the company at breakfast.

Aunt Hester, Mrs. St. Claire’s younger sister, was a pleasant surprise
because she was good-looking and agreeable. She returned Marian’s smile
of greeting with interest. Marian hoped she had found a friend and
hovered near the welcome stranger until sent to her room. During the
rest of the week she and Aunt Hester exchanged smiles when they met at
the table, and to win a few kind words from her became Marian’s dream.
New Year’s Day brought an opportunity. Mrs. Russel sent a box of sliced
birds to Marian and her cousin, and as the gift came while the family
were at breakfast, Marian knew all about it. At last she and Ella owned
something in common and might perhaps be allowed to play together. She
could hardly wait to finish her breakfast.

“What are sliced birds and how do you play with them?” she asked Aunt
Hester, who carried the box into the sitting-room.

“Well,” began Aunt Hester, “can you read, Marian?”

“Yes, auntie, I can read pretty near anything I try to, but I can’t
write very good, not a bit good. Do you have to write in sliced birds?”

“No,” was the laughing reply, “if you can spell a little that is all
that is necessary. Here is a paper with a list of birds on it we can
put together. Now here is the word jay. A picture of a jay is cut in
three pieces, on one piece is ‘J,’ on another is ‘A’ and on the third
is ‘Y.’ Now hunt for ‘J.'”

“Ella knows her letters,” Marian suggested. “Come, Ella, hunt for ‘J,’
that piece would have a blue jay’s head on it, I guess.” Marian waited
until Ella found the letter and together they finished the blue jay.
Both children were delighted with the result.

“Oh, what fun!” cried Marian. “We’ll make all the birds, Ella. I’ll
read a name and tell you what letters to hunt for.”

A shadow fell across the bright scene, caused by the entrance of Aunt
Amelia. “Go over there and sit down,” she said to Marian. “I came in to
help Hester divide the game.”

“Divide the game!” echoed both children.

“Oh, don’t do it, please don’t,” besought Marian, “we want to play with
all the birds together.”

“It seems a pity,” began Aunt Hester, but she gathered Ella in her arms
and helped form all the birds in two straight lines upon the floor as
her sister desired.

Marian watched with eager interest. She hoped when the birds were
divided a few of the pretty ones might be given to her. If she had her
choice she couldn’t tell whether she would take the peacock or the
bird of paradise–they were both gorgeous. The scarlet tanager and the
red-headed woodpecker were beautiful but of course it wasn’t fair to
wish for all the brightest birds. It was Aunt Hester who suggested a
way to divide the game.

“Let them take turns choosing,” she said. “It seems to me that will be
perfectly fair. The children might draw cuts for first choice.”

At that, Marian saw her opportunity. “Ella may be the first chooser,”
she declared, and was rewarded by a smile from Aunt Hester. Which would
Ella take? the bird of paradise or the peacock? Either would please
Marian, so it really made no difference which was left. Ella wanted
them both and said so.

“Hush,” whispered her mother, “if you keep still Marian won’t know
which birds are the prettiest. Aunt Hester and I will help you choose.”

“I guess I’ll take that,” Ella decided, pointing towards the bird of
paradise.

Marian was about to choose the peacock when a whispered word from Aunt
Hester caught her ear.

“I hope, Ella dear, that she won’t take the peacock.”

Marian hesitated a moment. She wanted the peacock with its gay,
spreading tail, but if Aunt Hester wished Ella to have it perhaps she
would love whoever helped her get it. “I’ll take the turkey,” said the
child, whereupon Ella gave a shout.

“She don’t know much, she took an old brown turkey. I’ll have the
peacock and I want the red bird and the redhead.”

Aunt Amelia laughed. “One at a time, you dear, impulsive child,” said
she, but Aunt Hester smiled across at Marian. “Your turn,” she said.

“I’ll take the owl,” Marian quietly replied.

“Oh, ho! an old owl!” laughed Ella, clapping her hands for joy. “Now
I’ll have the redhead! goody! And next time—-”

“Hush,” warned her mother. “You mustn’t let Marian know what you want
or she’ll take it.”

“I choose the wren,” came in low tones from Marian.

“My turn,” Ella called. “Give me the redhead.”

“Choose the flicker next,” advised her mother, so Marian, still hoping
to be loved, chose the robin.

Aunt Hester smiled again, but the smile was for Ella. “Take the parrot
next,” she whispered, so Marian chose the crow.

“Now, Ella, darling,” whispered her mother, “the oriole, after Marian
has her turn,” and Marian, taking the hint, motioned for the jay.

It was over at last and Marian was told to go to her room. As she was
leaving, Aunt Hester gave Ella a rapturous hug and said, “Our baby has
all the prettiest birds.” Aunt Hester didn’t know Marian heard the
remark until she saw the tears that could not be kept back, wetting the
rosy cheeks. “Oh, you poor young one!” she exclaimed, and but for the
presence of Aunt Amelia, she would have taken the sad little mortal in
her arms.

“She’s crying ’cause her birds are all homely,” said Ella.

“Of course, she always wants the best,” remarked Mrs. St. Claire, but
Aunt Hester and Ella both gazed after the retreating figure of little
Marian, with conscience-stricken faces. They had been three against
one, and that one didn’t know enough to take the choicest birds when
she had the chance. They hadn’t played fair.

Marian, blinded by tears, stumbled over a rug at the door of her
room and the sliced birds slipped almost unheeded from her apron.
The nearest seat was the box she called her piano stool. She dropped
upon it and buried her face in her arms on the piano. The sheet music
tumbled forward upon her head, perhaps fearing it might be but an old
almanac forever after. Bitter thoughts filled the little soul. Why
would no one love her? Why did the sound of her voice annoy every one
so she feared to speak? What was the trouble? Was she so bad or so
homely that no one might love her? She had tried to be good and tried
to do right, but what difference had it made? Aunt Hester thought her
stupid because she allowed Ella to take what birds she would. Surely
Aunt Hester was the stupid one.

It was impossible for Marian to feel miserable long at a time. In a
few minutes she sat up and straightened her sheet music, whereupon the
almanac became a hymn-book. She turned the leaves slowly as did the
young lady who played the organ prayer-meeting nights. Then, addressing
the wax doll and the bed posts she announced in solemn tones, “We’ll
sing nineteen verses of number ‘leventy ‘leven.”

“Number ‘leventy ‘leven” happened to be “Come Ye Disconsolate,” a
hymn Marian was familiar with, as it was Aunt Amelia’s favorite. The
tune began dismally enough, but the disconsolate one took courage
on the third line and sang out triumphantly at last, with a great
flourish upon the piano, “‘Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot
heal.'” “Twenty Froggies Went to School” came next, and Marian was
herself once more, which is to say, she became at a moment’s notice,
a famous musician, a school-teacher, a princess, a queen or whatever
the occasion required, while the little room was easily changed into
anything from the Desert of Sahara to a palace.

The extent of Marian’s knowledge was the only limit to the games
she played. Pictures in the family Bible had given her many an hour
of entertainment in the little room, thanks to the fact that Uncle
George allowed Marian to look at the pictures on an occasional Sunday
afternoon. The doll almost broke her nose the day before playing
“Rebecca at the Well.” The “Marriage at Cana” was a safer game for a
wax doll that could not stand, especially as the doll made a beautiful
bride. Turning from her piano, Marian saw something that made her
laugh. The robin’s head and the duck’s feet had fallen one above the
other.

“Poor robin,” she said, “I guess you would rather have your own feet.
R-o-b-i-n, I know how to spell you, and I’ll put you on your own feet
and I’ll give the duck his own head so he can quack.” When the robin
was put together it looked like an old friend. “You’re nicer than the
bird of paradise, after all,” declared Marian, “because I know you so
well. You and I used to be chums because I didn’t have any little
girls to play with.”

It was something of a puzzle to put all of the birds together, but
when the work was finished Marian was pleased. “You’re all so nice and
common looking,” she said. “I never saw the owl bird, but we used to
hear him in the woods at night, didn’t we, blue jay? He used to go,
‘Who–who–whoo–whoo!’ We used to see you, old black crow, you always
said ‘Caw–caw–caw,’ and you dear little wren, how I would like to
hear you sing once more. Where are you all now? Somewhere way down
South, because our teacher says so and when the snow is gone, you’ll
come flying back.

“Oh, now we’ll play something. It is autumn over here on the rug, the
rug’s the orchard, and the leaves are falling and all the flowers are
fading and winter is coming. You see that sunshiny spot on the floor
over there under the windows, birdies? Well, that is down South where
you are going. I don’t remember who goes first but I guess the little
wren better fly away now, and we’ll have lots of fun.” One by one the
birds went south, owl and all, and one by one they flew back to the
orchard in the spring-time, where the wax doll welcomed them, listened
to their songs and scattered strings about for them to use in building
their nests.

It was a pleasant game and Marian was called to the dining-room before
she thought of putting the birds away.

“I wonder if I didn’t get the best half of the game after all,” she
suggested to the wax doll as she threw it a parting kiss.

Had Marian known that the bird of paradise, the peacock and the other
bright ones were laid upon a shelf as birds of no consequence and that
Ella had complained all the forenoon of having nothing to do, she would
have understood why Aunt Hester not only greeted her with a smile, but
said at the same time, “You dear, happy child.”

It was enough that Aunt Hester said it and smiled, without puzzling for
a reason. Surely Marian had chosen the better half of the game when
such loving tones were meant for her. It was wonderful.