THE WATER OF THE WELL OF BETHLEHEM THAT IS BESIDE THE GATE
With that a kind of madness came over me and took possession of my mind and body. I cannot account for or excuse it, save that the sun had stricken me unawares and moidered my head.
I remember saying over and over to myself these words, which I had often heard my father read as he took the Book, ‘O that one would give me to drink of the water of the Well of Bethlehem that is beside the Gate.’ So I rose out of the lair where I was, took off my shoes and stockings, and went down to the river-side. Ken Water is very low at that season, and looking over I could see the fish lying in the black pools with their noses up stream, waiting for a spate to run into the shallows of the burns. I declare that had my mind not been set on the well-house, I should have stripped there and then for a plunge after them. But in a trice I had crossed the river, wading to my middle in the clear warm pool. I think it was surely the only time that man ever waded Ken to get a drink of spring water.
When I reached the farther side—the nearer to my mother—I lay for a long time on the bank overcome with the water and the sun. Now I was plainly to be seen from the house, and had the sentinel so much as looked my way, I could not have escaped his notice. But no one came near me or stirred me in any way. Then at last, after a long time, I roused myself, and betook me through the thick woods which lie on the side towards the Clachan of St. John. The wood here is composed of great oaks—the finest, as all allow, in Galloway—of which that wherein my brother Sandy was afterwards often concealed, is but one. Underneath was a thick growth of hazel and birch. The whole makes cover of the densest, through which no trooper could ride, and no seeing eye pierce.
So I was here upon well-kenned ground. Every tree-stem I knew by touch of hand, and in my youth I had creeped into every hidie hole that would hold a squirrel. Times without number had Sandy and I played at hide-and-seek in the woods. And there, at the back of one of the great trees, was where we had fought because he had called me ‘puny crowl.’ Whereat I bit him in the thumb till it bled grievously, to teach him not to call names, and also (more generally) for the health of his soul.
Now lying here in the Earlstoun wood, all this came back to me, and it seemed that Sandy and I were again playing at hiding. Nearly had I cried out the seeking signal; aye, and would have done it, too, but for the little rattle of arms when the sentry turned sharp at the corner of the house, with a click of his heels and a jingle of his spurs. The house of Earlstoun stands very near the water edge, with nothing about it save the green hawthorn-studded croft on the one hand, and the thick wood on the other.
I lay a long while watching the house to see if I could discover any one at the windows. But not even a lounging soldier could I discern anywhere, except the single clinking loon who kept the guard. Once Jean Hamilton, Sandy's wife, came to the window; and once her little daughter, Alison, shook a tablecloth over the sash—a sight which cheered me greatly, for by it I knew that there was still folk could eat a meal of meat within the towers of Earlstoun.
But more and more the desire for the sweet well water of the gateway tower, came to me as I lay parched with thirst, and more than the former yearning for home things. It seemed that no wine of sunny France, no golden juice of Zeres could ever be one-half so sweet as the water of that Earlstoun well, ‘that is beside the Gate.’
Aye, and I declare I would have grappled with the sentry for it, save that I had the remnants of some sense left about me, which told me that so I should not only bring destruction upon myself, but on others that were even more dear to me.
Presently I heard the voice of a serving lass calling from within the courtyard, and at the sound the sentry listened and waited. He looked furtively this way and that round the corners. He stood a moment in the shade of the archways and wiped his brow. Then he leaned his musket against the wall and went within. I thought to myself, ‘It is now or never, for he is gone to the kitchen for a bite-and-sup, and will be out again in a moment, lest his captain should return and find him gone from his post.’
So with that I made a rush swiftly round the corner, and entered the well-house. For a moment only, as I ran fleet-foot, was I bathed in the hot sunshine, then drenched again in the damp, cool darkness of the tower. Within there is an iron handle and chain, which are used to wrap up the great dipper over the windlass. There is also a little dipper which one may let down by a rope, when only a drink or a little household water is needed, and there is no servitor at hand to turn the crank. This last I let down, and in a moment after I was draining icy nectar from the cup, for which I had risked so much. Yet all I could do when I got it, was only to sip a little, and let the rest run back again into the well. While like the refrain of a weary song, over and over the words ran in his mind, ‘O that one would give me—of the water of the Well of Bethlehem—that is beside the Gate.’
Then, like a far-away voice calling one out of a dream, I heard the sound of the sentry returning to his post. Quite clearly I discerned him lifting his musket, shifting it from one side to the other, and so resuming his equal tramp. I heard everything, indeed, with a kind of acuteness beyond the natural. Yet all the while I was strangely without sense of danger. I thought how excellent a jest it would be, to shout out suddenly when the soldier came near, to see him jump; and but for the remembrance of my mother, I protest I had done it.
So there I lay on the margin of the well, just as at the first I had flung myself down, without so much as troubling thoroughly to shut the door. I am sure that from the corner where the sentry turned, he might have seen my boot-heel every time, had he but troubled to peep round the door. But he had been so often within the well-house during his time on guard, that he never once glanced my way. Also he was evidently elevated by what he had gotten within the house from the serving maid, whatever that might have been.
It was strange to hear his step alternately faint and loud as he came and went. He paced from the well-house to the great gate, and from thence to the corner of the tower. Back again he came, to-and-fro like the pendulum of a clock. Once he took the butt of his musket and gave the door, within which I lay, a sharp fling to. Luckily it opened from without, so that the hasp caught as it came and I was shut within.
So there I lay without power to move all that day, and no one came near me till late in the gloaming. For it was the custom at the Earlstoun to draw the water for the day in the early morning, and that for the night uses when the horses were suppered at bed-time. Sometimes my head seemed to swell to so great a size, that it filled the well-house and was pressed against the roof. Anon, to my thinking, it grew wizzened and small, waxing and waning as I sickened and the shoots of pain ran round my brows.
At last I heard feet patter slowly down the turret stair and out at the door. Through the courtyard I heard them come towards me, and of a sudden something sang in my heart, though I could have given no great reason therefor.
Softly the door of the well-house opened, and one came in, giving a little cry at so nearly stumbling over me. But no power had I to move or speak, even though it had been Clavers himself who entered. My visitor gently and lightly shut to the door, and knelt at my head.
‘William!’ said a voice, and I seemed in my phantasy to be running about among the flowers as a child again.
I opened my eyes, and lo! it was Maisie of the Duchrae—she that had been so kind to me. And the wonder of seeing her in my own house of Earlstoun, where the garrison was abiding, was a better incitement to renewed vigour than a double tasse of the brandy of France.
But there was no time for speech, so pulling me farther within, she bent and whispered:
‘William, I will go and bring your mother. The soldiers may not be long away!’
So she rose to go out with her pail full of the water, for which she had come.
Yet ere she went, she laid her hand upon my brow, and murmured very low, lest the sentry should hear,
‘My poor lad!’
Only that; but it was a thing which was mightily sweet to me.
Nor was she long gone before she returned with my mother. They had called the sentry in to his evening meal, and supplied him with something to drink. For they had had the garrison long enough with them to learn that all soldiers are great trenchermen, and can right nobly ‘claw a bicker’ and ‘toom a stoup’ with any man.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.