Nathan in the Well

THREE years ago, we moved permanently into the real country, taking with us as our most valuable asset, a fresh, city eye which we had unconsciously been cultivating all our lives. To a man born and brought up in the city, the commonest things in the country seem marvelous.

In my college days in the city, having read somewhere of caged crickets, I remember asking a classmate who hailed from the suburbs, what crickets looked like, and whether they were easy of capture. At the time, I could not understand his broad, suburban grin. This naïveté of the city man was exemplified by a friend, who averred that no one could raise good vegetables in the country. I gathered that one’s radishes would be tough and one’s lettuce bitter unless subjected to some mysterious city process, grafting perhaps. But since living at Half Acre, I have learned that some vegetables are raised in the country, after all, and very good ones, too. Another friend, on moving to the country, wanted a field of clover, and asked the local storekeeper to quote lowest prices on clover plants. I believe this was the man who sowed clipped oats, expecting to raise a crop of oats already clipped. Like most humorous things, this has its elements of the pathetic; city people transplanted to the country always remind me, in their eagerness and ignorance, of slum children in Central Park; but, personally, I would not purchase immunity from rural ridicule by the surrender of the privileges given me by my fresh city eye.

For instance, after three years of living in the county, I never draw a pail of water from the well without an appreciation of its charm such as a country-bred man, I imagine, could never feel. He might gape at open plumbing, looking at it with his fresh country eye, where I should simply take it for granted; but I am afraid he never could fully experience what might be called the sentiment of a well, that delightful, inverted tower of darkness and dampness and coolth. If there is n’t such a word as coolth there ought to be.

Our tower, if turned skyward, would rival Pisa’s leaning miracle; and it is surmounted by a well-curb resembling a miniature judge’s stand at a country fair, so that an involuntary exclamation of a visitor might naturally be, ‘How many laps to the mile?’ It has no primitive, picturesque sweep: but, on the other hand, there is no modern contraption such as a chain pump; and the old oaken bucket, made of ash, fastened to a romantic rope such as sailors use at sea, descends and ascends the cylinder of greened granite boulders worn smooth, ages back, in some terminal moraine. The source of our drink, strangely enough, is also the conservator of our food-supply. In early spring and late fall, before and after the capricious visits of the ice-man, a small flotilla of pails rides safely in the land-locked harbor, moored with marline twisted around tiny cleats. No danger of anything being tainted by anything else in those separate compartments; no trouble but a hearty heave ho! of hunger, and the food of our selection appears before us, cool and sweet in its receptacle of frosted silver. Our subterranean, superaqueous refrigerator is simple, sanitary, and as inexpensive as the sky.

To my city consciousness, it’s wonderful to draw water from the ground. Pipes, conduits, bottles, I can understand; it’s difficult for me to apprehend that simply by digging anywhere, if you dig deep enough, you can get living water filtered by the earth. I knew a man before the days of aeroplanes, who took delight in kite-flying. As the string ran out and the kite soared, he felt an exalting of his spirit, as if, in some vicarious way, he, himself, were piercing the empyrean; similarly, when I go to nature’s bounteous breast, I feel that I am drawing up more than water in my bucket. This is sometimes literally true; sometimes, a new-frog, disdaining the time-honored method of three feet up and two feet down again, steps into my elevator, and regards me placidly with his complacent, human countenance.

Less attractive, are the pale, amorphous earthworms, sprawling lifelessly in the bucket after a rain-storm; and, two years ago, some inspired person suggested that we get a trout to eat the earthworms. We immediately took fire at the idea; we could n’t understand why we had n’t thought of a trout before; we remembered that every well-regulated well had a trout in it. With some difficulty, a man was found who could find a trout. He found it; and the trout duly arrived in state one morning in a gypsy kettle.

He was a trout of size and substance; he was evidently a trout of the world. He bore his honors calmly, with neither pride nor meekness; he was reserved without being taciturn. He was a New England trout. Something in his grave demeanor, the light of experience and sagacity glowing in his eye, caused us to divine his name; for if a well is nothing without a trout, what is a trout without a name? Slowly, solemnly, the gypsy kettle was lowered into the well; and Nathan the Wise officially became a member of our family.

For weeks afterward, I drew water very gingerly, and then I grew careless; but apparently I never hurt Nathan with the bucket, and on the other hand, he was evidently too contented to make use of the frog-elevator. The rainworms disappeared; and whenever we felt too weak to walk by faith alone, we dropped a grasshopper or a cricket, with which I have become tolerably familiar, into the well; and the miniature sea was stirred as by the surge of a mighty leviathan. Even when we were n’t feeding him, and after we failed to notice the absence of rainworms as one forgets pain that is past, the fact that Nathan was in the well was a pleasant part of our subconsciousness. It’s wonderful how much affection can be inspired by a fish. If we inspired affection in Nathan’s breast, he concealed it like a true New Englander. He showed his affection by his faithfulness, by remaining at his post in the well, by not forsaking us during the long, inclement winter, by greeting our first vernal bug with a stupendous splash.

The season brought its multitudinous glories, feathered friends and friends in silk and linens, a thousand new flowers looking up at us each morning with their innocent faces, trees as murmurous as the sea, a sea which had put on its softer summer colors and had grown less imperious in its surge. Enemies, too, came in their appointed time, bugsof every ingenuity of shape and dye, fogs, chilling and mysterious, long droughts, black blights. In the activities of what is supposed to be too quiet a life, welcoming the coming guest, speeding the departing bug, emptying the cistern on the flowerbeds, we forgot the faithful friend who, during the winter of outdoor inactivity and social vacuity, had been so often in our thoughts and talk. One day, a wayfaring friend of ours, who is quite the reverse of a fool, inquired, in the interest he feels in all created things, ‘How’s Nathan in the well, these days ?’

Our hearts smote us. Poor Nathan!

‘Oh, I hope he is n’t dead! There was only eight inches of water in the well last Saturday, and we have n’t been able to drink of it for weeks.’

‘Have you looked down lately?’

We hastened to the curb, and peered over; but all we could make out was darkness, with an ambiguous gleam at the bottom. A smile came to our wayfaring friend’s face, which is as granitic and lined as the glacier-scored ledges he loves to fish from.

‘I mean with a mirror.’

Mystified, we brought our friend a hand-mirror; and with the precision of a navigator taking an observation, he caught the sun, swept it through an arc of half the heavens, and shot it into the depths of the well. Alas, the shaft of sunlight was as disillusioning as a searchlight of truth would probably be if flashed into one’s character. The cylinder of greened granite boulders was dry and dun-colored; the water of our well, which before the drought had sparkled a veritable blue in our whiteenamel drinking-pail, had shrunk to a yellow puddle. The puddle was ringed with mud; exactly in the middle of it, we could see the olive back of a fish, apparently no bigger than a minnow. It was Nathan, patient, imperturbable even in the surprise of sudden sunlight, wasted, but evidently alive.

I eagerly volunteered as a rescue party of one, as if present solicitude could atone for past neglect. We got our longest ladder, our wayfaring friend steadied the top, and down I went, the gypsy kettle which had been Nathan’s triumphal chariot now serving as his ambulance. In my hurry, I forgot what I had read about noxious gases in well-bottoms; but I did take time to glance upward at the firmament. The roof of that pesky judge’s stand hid the heavens, like many other ugly, ostentatious impedimenta of so-called civilized life. I determined to take the well-curb down, and substitute one open to the sky; then I continued the work of rescue. Nathan’s nose was buried in the mud; he was struggling for breath like an entombed miner; and when I had brought him to the surface and the sunlight, the ravages of his ordeal were painfully apparent to us. He had become the diaphanous wraith of a fish; his emaciated body was almost translucent; there was nothing left of him except head, speckles, and indomitable spirit.

I have always been an advocate of open plumbing, and my advocacy was now justified. We carried our bathtub outdoors. We filled it with pure water from a neighbor’s well that never goes dry. Tenderly, we placed Nathan in his new ocean; we gave him a whole fleet, of crickets and grasshoppers that worked their walking-beams with provocative, propulsive force; but Nathan the Wise, with slowly moving fins and weakly pulsing gills, took no notice of them; and we decided that it was part of his wisdom not to gorge himself on an empty stomach, or perhaps he was delicate about eating before so large an audience.

We, however, suffered no such scruples; and, leaving Nathan with high hopes, we dressed to attend a large supper-party at an opulent neighbor’s who has an artesian well on his place, a ridiculous affair that you could n’t hang even a cream-jar in. Afterwards, we walked home under the stars; and by their dim light, we could descry Nathan, still breathing in the depths of his sea. In the fleet, of crickets and grasshoppers, anchored close together, there was now no motion of walkingbeam or paddle-wheel. Fires were evidently banked, and steam was down for the night. Next morning, we found that the vital steam was down in Nathan’s breast, that his fires were out forever, unless, if the hope be not impious, they are rekindled in some Devonian Paradise.

Poor Nathan, stiff, stark, was lying in the bottom of the bath-tub, with his pale, pathetic belly turned uppermost in an attitude that I am sure he would have considered indecorous. He had made no outcry; no one heard his last words, if he spoke any. Personally, I believe he did not speak any. I believe that he died as he had lived, inarticulate, a martyr to duty, like a true New Englander. And the pity of it is that if we had been a tithe as faithful to him as he was to us, he would be living now, developing into the very patriarch of trout, with an ever increasing stock of experience which he would distill into an ever-deepening silence.

Of course, soon after Nathan’s death the rain descended, the floods came, and our well filled again with living water, living in more senses than one; for we again found pale, amorphous rain-worms in our water-bucket. We accepted these meekly, however, as less than the just punishment for our neglect. They will be a continuing punishment and a continuing reminder of Nathan. We have resolved never to have another fish.

Weeks afterward, it suddenly flashed across us that we had missed an unexampled opportunity to turn defeat into a glorious victory. While I was fruitlessly rescuing Nathan from the bottom of the well, right under my nose, right before my eyes, right within my grasp, there was something more precious and more fabulous than the pot of gold at the rainbow’s foot. Truth was at the bottom of the well; but I failed to spy it out or smell it out or grasp it. A single thought, a single movement, and I could have come up that ladder laden with a heritage richer than Plutus’ mine. Poor, panting man was never so near Eternal Verity before. And now, it’s under thirty feet of water! All we can do is live in the hope that there may be another drought this summer.