THIS is a very strange tale I have got to tell you to-day. It is about a mysterious well—a deep, deep well which lay in the centre of a dark forest. It is also a Christmas tale. No one knew why that well was there, nor who had dug it, nor how old it was.
The peasants from the villages around stood in great awe of this well, because from its depth a weird sound could be heard, a sort of moan, half sob, half gurgle, and sometimes a sound as though someone were knocking against its sides, which made you think of a lost soul in distress, perhaps held captive down there and unable to get out.
The village nearest the forest was called Galea. It was a very poor little village, its cottages small and miserable, with tiny gardens in which the flowers always looked sad and anæmic, for the ground was stony and unfruitful.
In the centre of the village stood a little wooden church. It was ancient and rather shaky, its huge roof looked too big for it, but the passing seasons had toned it down to a rich brown with a grey shimmer, which was pleasant to the eye.
Old stunted lilac bushes clustered round it, protecting the humble graves which lay scattered about beneath their shade, like a forlorn flock of sheep.
The peasants were rather ashamed of their tiny dilapidated church, and dreamed of building a fine edifice, all white with a tin roof, that would shine like silver in the sun, and not let the rain nor the snow through in the bad seasons, a church with stout columns in front, all decorated in bright colours, and with God's eye painted over the door.
You and I would probably have infinitely preferred the crooked little wooden church with its over-large roof, but then you see, each community has its ambition and its pride, and does not want to Stand behind other communities. Bostea, the village on the other side of the forest, had a beautiful new big church of the kind that Galea coveted. But Galea was a much, much poorer village than Bostea, and it sadly felt its inferiority.
But it was about the mysterious well I was going to tell you, was it not?
The villagers for some reason had conceived the idea that the unknown being who was held captive in that well, could become a danger to the country-side if it ever managed to get out, and that the only way to keep it contented was by throwing small offerings down into its depth.
The poor often think that they must make sacrifices to God or to any power greater than themselves, it is a sort of way of keeping off ill-luck from their thresholds. And yet God knows their lives are full enough of sacrifices from beginning to end.
There were certain feast-days on which the villagers had the habit of taking their offerings to the dreaded well, and these were especially St. Maria Mare and St. Dumitru.
The moment Mass was over, before any dancing or drinking could begin, they would collect in groups and Start off into the forest with their queer little offerings.
Some brought flowers or coloured eggs, others flat breads sprinkled with poppy seeds; some brought bunches of corn tied with bright ribbons. Little children would sacrifice their first ripe plums, cherries, or nuts, also the precious little pebbles picked up in the river-bed, and which became a lovely bright pink when you licked them.
The maidens made sacrifice of beads from their girdles and little painted cards with pictures of the saints or small holy medals, or of trinkets bought at the" moshi." The young men would throw down small coins, buttons from their military tunics, or the bright red carnation they so fondly wore stuck behind their left ear.
Even quite old women would go limping through the sunshine, distaff in hand. Quite exhausted they would sink down on the well's edge and pronounce Strange wishes over the water, throwing in wisps of wool or flax, whilst they murmured prayers, watching the while with one eye what the young ones were doing, always ready to criticize or to disapprove.
But in winter the well was almost quite forsaken, for no one particularly cared to go through the forest in that season. Right on the outskirts of Galea, lived a widow in a cottage so small and humble that it was really hardly more than a hut. In all the village she was known as poor Maria, and she had but one little boy, Petru, who had large grey eyes set in a pale, anxious small face.
Petru had had two little sisters, but both of them lay under the lilac bushes of the churchyard, and so poor was Maria that she had not even been able to mark the spot with crosses, and this made Petru very sad.
Petru was pious and an ardent believer. He faithfully observed all the precepts of the Church; he was a conscientious faster, though verily at all times Petru had but little to eat.
He would devoutly listen to all that old Popa Toader had to say, though sometimes he did not properly understand what it meant, and certain scraps of his exhortations would remain Sticking in his mind, taking undue proportions.
Amongst others, Petru had conceived an uncomfortable belief that because the church of Bostea was larger and newer than their poor little wooden church, it was, therefore, also a holier place.
This idea had come to him because, on Easter Sunday, Popa Toader had spoken about collecting money for building a new church, and had held up as example the Bostea church which God would surely bless, as it had been erected by sacrifices made by every inhabitant, who each year had offered part of his hard-earned economies for the honour of God.
Petru of course had no money, not even the poorest little farthing; certainly if he had, he would have gladly given it for the building of the new church.
Petru had never been to Bostea, and just because of that, he had created in his imagination a wonderful vision of its church, which must have all the beauties and qualities Galea's poor little sanctuary never possessed.
Petru was about seven years old when his mother fell very ill indeed; it was just at the beginning of winter, which that year had set in with' unusual severity. Petru loved his mother beyond all things on earth, and his poor little heart was wrung with terrible grief, seeing her thus pining away, and he so utterly helpless before her suffering.
Maria was a very patient woman, she never complained; it was from her that Petru had his big grey eyes and pathetic face.
There was no real bed in Maria's hovel; she lay on a sort of wooden bench over which a few ragged rugs had been spread, and upon this miserable pallet she lay all shaken by fever, her lips blue and cracked. A large earthen oven took up part of the hut; it had all sorts of shapes so as to fit into the crooked little room. Maria lay behind this oven, which Petru tried to keep as warm as he could by going each day to fetch wood on the outskirts of the forest, whence he would wearily return carrying on his back as many dry branches as he could. Petru was small, so that the weight was almost too much for him, and would quite bend him in two until he looked like a giant porcupine crawling home through the snow.
Petru would also try to cook. A few strings of dry onions hung against the wall behind the oven, and in a wooden bowl on the floor was their meagre provision of" malaiu."1
Probably Petru was not a very successful cook; anyhow Maria turned away with a weary sigh from the daily mess he so anxiously offered her.
This made Petru terribly unhappy and great round tears would roll down his pinched little face. He would hide away in a corner and say his prayers over and over again, all the prayers Popa Toader had ever taught him, even if they had no connexion with his trouble—but they were prayers, therefore of course acceptable to God.
After that the little boy would crawl on to the wooden pallet beside his mother, nestling close up to her, hoping to keep her warm with the embrace of his skinny little arms.
Alas, God did not seem to listen to Petru's prayers, because his mother grew worse and worse instead of better, till Petru began tormenting himself, imagining that he must have displeased God in some way. Yet worry his head as he would, he could not remember a single occasion upon which he had broken the law, for Petru was an almost painfully well-behaved little boy, who never had any time to enjoy life or to be naughty, having had to work and make himself useful, ever since he had been able to stand on his feet. He had always been an anxious little soul, ever ready to carry burdens too heavy for his frail shoulders.
It was Christmas Eve, and still poor Maria lay on her pallet, sick unto death, when an idea came into Petru's head.
Petru had ideas sometimes, but they would not always work out, because no one had ever time to bother about his mind, nor to help it to expand. But this idea had grown and grown till it had become a fixture, and then, when it was quite ripe, Petru set about carrying it out, and this is what it was:
He knew that when one desires something very, very much, one must offer a taper to some blessed image, more especially to that of the Mother of God. Those little lights have a wonderful way of reinforcing prayer. Now Petru had obtained one of these little tapers from the old village chanter, as recompense for small services rendered last Sunday during Mass. It was certainly a very thin, fragile-looking little taper, a thing to be treated with infinite care, but the old man had also given him a smashed old match-box, in which there were Still five unused matches, and if he could keep them from the damp, they certainly would light his little taper for him when he placed it before the icon of his choice.
All might have been quite simple, had not Petru been possessed with the idea that he must carry his candle to the Bostea church, for,with the other villagers, he shared the mistaken idea that their own old wooden church was not quite an entirely worthy House of God—poor dear crooked little church.
Now to get to Bostea, you had either to make a very, very long road, or you had to take the short-cut through the dark forest where the mysterious well stood.
Even in summer-time Petru dreaded the groaning, moaning well; how much more, therefore, in winter, when the forest was all black and when wolves might be prowling about. Yet he dare not remain away too long from his mother's bedside, so in spite of his fear he made up his mind that he must face that grim path through the wood.
Petru put on his rough, well-used "suman"2 and the old "caciula"3 which had once been his father's, and which gave him the quaint appearance of a wandering fungus, slipped on his fingerless gloves, which were so much darned that there was more darn about them than glove, and having hidden the precious taper and matches in his pocket, he was ready to start.
Before slipping outside, however, he did not forget to pile all the reserve of dried sticks upon the fire, and to place a small mug of water beside his mother, who lay with her face turned to the wall, mumbling all sorts of strange things which had no sense and which filled poor little Petru's soul with dread.
Dusk was already gathering, but Petru had not been able to get off sooner. He felt nervous, but now that his mind was made up he meant to carry out his plan, never matter what the effort might cost him.
Soon he reached the edge of the forest and bravely plunged into its shade, but his heart beat like a heavy hammer in his breast.
"Perhaps I shall be able to avoid the well," thought the boy. "I know there are two paths—one is a little longer, but it does not go past the well. . . ."
The wind was howling through the branches; in the stillness of the forest it sounded like an angry voice. Petru shivered, it was terribly cold. But luckily the snow was not very deep, except in places where it lay in drifts.
Hurry as he would, night seemed to be pursuing him, gaining on him, catching him up. His breath came in hard gasps which hurt him at the bottom of his throat. What a terribly big forest, and how tall the trees were! Never had poor Petru felt so small.
"I hope, oh, I do hope I am on the right road," said the child almost aloud, "I do not want to come past that terrible old well."
And just as he said this, thump, thump, he heard an uncanny sound that made his heart jump into his mouth.
Thump—thump, and then came another sound more like a moan rising from the very bosom of the earth.
Perspiration broke out on poor Petru's forehead in spite of the cold. How dark it was getting, the trees had become walls of darkness shutting him inon all sides. . . .
Thump—thump. . . oh, dear, oh, dear, that certainly was the sound of the well.
As though hypnotized, Petru advanced. He might have turned away, have slipped through the trees avoiding the place of dread, but he somehow never thought of this but advanced steadily, fascinated by the horror of the thing!
Yes, there stood the well, a dark, sinister object that he could not avoid.
In his anxiety Petru stumbled, tried to recover his footing, but fell with a little gasp at the very edge of the well!
For a moment he lay there, his face buried in the cold snow whilst great dry sobs tore his breast. But what was that? Someone else was weeping? He was not alone in his solitude, someone besides himself was in distress, and could he be mistaken? It seemed to be a child's voice, weeping, weeping.
Petru picked himself up. He was feeling less afraid now—why should he be afraid of a little child crying in the dark?
But then came again the sound he dreaded—thump, thump. Oh! That dreadful well! His knees shook beneath him, and yet he must look over the edge—some force stronger than himself seemed to oblige him to do so.
Petru had always hated looking down into the well, even in the day-time, when his mother had held his hand; for nights afterwards he could not sleep, always imagining that he was falling down that terrible black shaft. Now he was quite alone, it was almost night, nevertheless he must look over the edge.
Who could be down there? What secret could be hidden in that unknown depth?
Thump—thump—was it Petru's heart beating, or did the sound really come from the well?
Then suddenly a shrill child's voice cried, "Oh, let me out, let me out, throw me down your little taper—I am all alone here in the dark, and so cold, so cold."
"My little taper!" gasped Petru, forgetting his astonishment, his fear and everything else in the one desire of guarding that most precious of possessions. "Oh, I cannot throw you down my little taper, that I really cannot, cannot do."
"But I am cold down here," cried the child's voice, "I am cold and frightened, it is Christmas Eve, and I am all alone down here, and it is so dark."
"But my mother's ill, she is dying," answered Petru, now quite fearlessly leaning over the shaft. He did not pause to ponder about the extraordinary thing that was happening to him, instinctively his one thought was to cling to that precious taper which was to buy back his mother's health. "I cannot give you my taper"—there was anguish in his voice—"I must go to Bostea to light it in front of the Virgin's image, so that Mother may get well"
"There are many tapers lit before that image on Christmas Eve," answered the voice. "The Blessed One would not miss your poor little light, whilst down here I am cold and lost and forsaken; give me, give me your light."
"But all the other lights burning before the Queen of Heaven would not be my light," sobbed Petru, now entirely overcome by grief. "I'll never be able to get another taper, I am quite a poor little boy, and if Mother dies, I am alone upon earth, and I am too small to know how to live all alone!" and the little fellow sank to his knees, resting his forehead against the well's edge.
"In the name of the Holy Virgin's blessed Child, give me your taper," pleaded the voice. "This is the night of His Birth, can any prayer be refused if asked in His Name to-night?"
Still Petru wavered, soul torn in two—what was his duty? Both ways his religious convictions stood up to confront him; he had put all his hope in the lighting of this taper in the Bostea church.
"In the name of the Holy Child," repeated the voice which was becoming fainter. "On this night of His Birth, and in the name of His Mother—oh, I am so cold, so lonely, and I too am a child, a little child—oh, give me your light."
Petru was sobbing now, his soul seemed to be dissolving in the bitter grief. Grief for the captive child down there, grief for his mother, grief for himself, grief for the whole sad world where everything was sordid and miserable and poor—poor like their hut and like the little old wooden church with the over-large roof, and as he leaned there, all bent in two by grief, a vision of the Bostea church rose before him, that church he would now never reach. An impossible glory surrounded it, the glory of things one cannot touch, for now Petru knew that he would sacrifice his little taper—had it not been asked for in the name of the Blessed One whose birthday it was to-night?
Somehow Petru never paused to consider how his one poor little taper could save the captive down there. In the confusion of his thoughts that one small candle had taken enormous proportions, had become the one important thing upon earth.
"Here is my little taper," he sobbed; "take it. And here are the five only matches I have—be sure and catch them before the water can damp them," he added with childish anxiety, "because if they get wet they will not light." And leaning over the shaft of the hated well, little Petru made sacrifice of all he possessed.
After that he fell with his forehead against the frozen edge, his face hidden in his hands, weeping as though his heart would break.
Suddenly he raised his head. What was that? Music? Was he dreaming? A sound of harps seemed to be throbbing in the air around him, the sound of many, many harps. And whence did that light come! That wonderful golden light?
Petru stumbled to his feet, his "caciula" falling from his head as he did so. Both the light and the rapturous music were mounting out of the well, out of that dreaded dark shaft. What was it? What was happening? Why had he suddenly the feeling that his heart was filled to overflowing with joy, with infinite joy?
"Oh!" gasped Petru, and as in church, when the Holy Mystery is being fulfilled, the ragged little fellow fell to his knees.
For now a wondrous child had stepped out of the well and stood before him, a child with golden curls and a beautiful face, a child who seemed all made of light.
"Thank you," said the bright vision to Petru. "You had pity on me, delivering me from the dark, you sacrificed to me what seemed your only hope, but see what glory your one little taper can shed around," and the child held up his hand and Petru saw how his one little taper had become as a light which could light the whole world!
"Go home to your mother, she is waiting for you," said the Wondrous One; "I am going to carry your taper to the little old wooden church, for verily it is just as holy as any great church ever built."
With trembling hands Petru picked up his "caciula," but he did not put it on his head, which he could not cover in a presence so holy, and as one walking in a dream he followed the Child of Light whose radiance filled the whole forest.
Petru felt neither cold nor fear, nor fatigue, and it was as though wings had grown on his feet.
When the village was reached, the Child of Light stood still for a moment, and with his hand pointed towards poor Maria's hut.
"She is waiting for you," he repeated; "then after you've seen her go to the old, old church."
Of course Petru obeyed the Wondrous One's bidding, and with beating heart hurried to his mother's dwelling. Tearing open the door and bursting into the room, "Mother, Mother!" he cried.
And there stood poor Maria with a smile on her face, all trace of illness wiped from her; she seemed suddenly to have become very beautiful, even the rags she wore had become lovely, so young did she look. Her arms were wide open, those arms that were the only soft place Petru had ever known upon earth. And into those arms did Petru take refuge, hiding his face upon her bosom, too overcome for speech.
Maria did not ask what had happened, she only knew that all sickness had gone from her, that it was Christmas Eve, and that Petru, her only child, was lying against her heart.
* * * * *
Later, Petru stole out of the hut towards the old wooden church as the Child of Light had bidden him do.
The stars were all out, but the village was fast asleep, everything was quite silent, the houses were but dark shadows on the white snow.
Generally the church was but a darker shadow amidst shadows, hardly more dignified than the peasants' dwellings, except that it possessed a small belfry. But to-night! oh! to-night, it had suddenly turned into a casket full of light!
Light streamed out through its windows, through the cracks of its beam-walls, through the chinks of the great roof; the much-despised little building had become a thing of radiance, casting long rays of light towards the heavens, and long rays of light over the frozen snow.
Hands folded, with faltering step, Petru approached God's House, like a pilgrim come from afar; with bent head he stepped over the threshold and there fell on his knees, overcome by wonder and joy. The three doors of the altar-screen stood wide open, and on the altar itself burned Petru's little taper; no other candle had been lit in all the church, and yet the light of that one little taper was strong enough to turn the lowly little sanctuary into a thing of beauty, a thing of radiance, a thing of peace and joy.
Surely even the church of Bostea could not be more beautiful than Galea's church was to-night!
Petru understood that a miracle had come to pass: his mother had been cured, the old well delivered of its curse, and although the Holy Child was nowhere to be seen, the Holy Child's hand it was which had placed Petru's humble offering upon the altar of God.
But one thing Petru had not realized: that it was his love which had brought about the miracle—his love and his faith.
And this strange thing came to pass one Christmas Eve—on the Birthday of Christ.
1 "Malaiu," meal, maize.