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The Washer at the Well, A Breton Legend

by Kate Putnam Osgood

 

Nigh a league to the castle still:
Twelve! booms the bell from the old clock-tower.
Now, brave mare, for the stretch up the hill,
Then just a gallop of half an hour.

Half an hour, and home and rest!
Is she watching for him on the oriel stair,
Or cradling the babe on her silken breast
In the hush of the drowsy chamber there?
Holà! steady, good Bonnibelle!
Scared at the wind, or the owlet's flight?
Ha! what stirs by the Washing Well?
Who goes there at the dead of night?
Over the stream below the slope,
Where the women wash their webs at noon,
A form like a shadow seems to grope,
Doubtful under the doubtful moon.
 
Good mother, your task is late and lone.
All goes well at the castle? say!—
Not a word speaks the withered crone,
Gray as a ghost in the moonlight gray.
Stone-still over the running stream,
Steadily, swiftly, round and round,
Plying her web through gloom and gleam,
Out and in, with never a sound—
Never a sound save the blasted oak
That shakes in the wind, and the bubbling well:
This is no face of the peasant-folk!—
With the sign of the cross he bars the spell.
Slowly, slowly she turns about:
Oh the creeping horror that chokes his breath
As slowly she draws the linen out,
And fashions its folds in guise of death—
Long and loose like a winding-sheet!
So sharp he pulls at the bridle-rein
The mare stands straight on her trembling feet
Before she cowers to the ground again.
Now he knows, with a shudder of dread,
The Ghost of the Well he has looked upon
Washing the shroud for some one dead—
Some one dear to him, dead and gone!
Well and washer and funeral-pall
Swim under his sight in pale eclipse.
The good God send that the shroud be small!—
He bites the words in his bloodless lips.
Over the lonely moor alone,
Praying a prayer for the dearest life,
Stifling a cry for the dead unknown,
Child or wife: is it child or wife?
Over the threshold and up the stair,
And into the hush of the deathly room,
To a motionless form in the midnight there
Under the tapers' glimmering gloom;
And the babe on her bosom—child and wife!
Child and wife! and his journey done.
Hark! overhead, with a sullen strife,
The bell in the old clock-tower booms—One!

Kate Putnam Osgood.