The Captain’s Well by John Greenleaf Whittier
The story of the shipwreck of Captain Valentine Bagley, on the coast of Arabia, and his sufferings in the desert, has been familiar from my childhood. It has been partially told in the singularly beautiful lines of my friend, Harriet Prescott Spofford, an the occasion of a public celebration at the Newburyport Library. To the charm and felicity of her verse, as far as it goes, nothing can be added; but in the following ballad I have endeavored to give a fuller detail of the touching incident upon which it is founded.
From pain and peril, by land and main,
The shipwrecked sailor came back again;
And like one from the dead, the threshold cross’d
Of his wondering home, that had mourned him lost.
Where he sat once more with his kith and kin,
And welcomed his neighbors thronging in.
But when morning came he called for his spade.
“I must pay my debt to the Lord,” he said.
“Why dig you here?” asked the passer-by;
“Is there gold or silver the road so nigh?”
“No, friend,” he answered: “but under this sod
Is the blessed water, the wine of God.”
“Water! the Powow is at your back,
And right before you the Merrimac,
“And look you up, or look you down,
There ‘s a well-sweep at every door in town.”
“True,” he said, “we have wells of our own;
But this I dig for the Lord alone.”
Said the other: “This soil is dry, you know.
I doubt if a spring can be found below;
“You had better consult, before you dig,
Some water-witch, with a hazel twig.”
“No, wet or dry, I will dig it here,
Shallow or deep, if it takes a year.
“In the Arab desert, where shade is none,
The waterless land of sand and sun,
“Under the pitiless, brazen sky
My burning throat as the sand was dry;
“My crazed brain listened in fever dreams
For plash of buckets and ripple of streams;
“And opening my eyes to the blinding glare,
And my lips to the breath of the blistering air,
“Tortured alike by the heavens and earth,
I cursed, like Job, the day of my birth.
“Then something tender, and sad, and mild
As a mother’s voice to her wandering child,
“Rebuked my frenzy; and bowing my head,
I prayed as I never before had prayed:
“Pity me, God! for I die of thirst;
Take me out of this land accurst;
“And if ever I reach my home again,
Where earth has springs, and the sky has rain,
“I will dig a well for the passers-by,
And none shall suffer from thirst as I.
“I saw, as I prayed, my home once more,
The house, the barn, the elms by the door,
“The grass-lined road, that riverward wound,
The tall slate stones of the burying-ground,
“The belfry and steeple on meeting-house hill,
The brook with its dam, and gray grist mill,
“And I knew in that vision beyond the sea,
The very place where my well must be.
“God heard my prayer in that evil day;
He led my feet in their homeward way,
“From false mirage and dried-up well,
And the hot sand storms of a land of hell,
“Till I saw at last through the coast-hill’s gap,
A city held in its stony lap,
“The mosques and the domes of scorched Muscat,
And my heart leaped up with joy thereat;
“For there was a ship at anchor lying,
A Christian flag at its mast-head flying,
“And sweetest of sounds to my homesick ear
Was my native tongue in the sailor’s cheer.
“Now the Lord be thanked, I am back again,
Where earth has springs, and the skies have rain,
“And the well I promised by Oman’s Sea,
I am digging for him in Amesbury.”
His kindred wept, and his neighbors said
“The poor old captain is out of his head.”
But from morn to noon, and from noon to night,
He toiled at his task with main and might;
And when at last, from the loosened earth,
Under his spade the stream gushed forth,
And fast as he climbed to his deep well’s brim,
The water he dug for followed him,
He shouted for joy: “I have kept my word,
And here is the well I promised the Lord!”
The long years came and the long years went,
And he sat by his roadside well content;
He watched the travellers, heat-oppressed,
Pause by the way to drink and rest,
And the sweltering horses dip, as they drank,
Their nostrils deep in the cool, sweet tank,
And grateful at heart, his memory went
Back to that waterless Orient,
And the blessed answer of prayer, which came
To the earth of iron and sky of flame.
And when a wayfarer weary and hot,
Kept to the mid road, pausing not
For the well’s refreshing, he shook his head;
“He don’t know the value of water,” he said;
“Had he prayed for a drop, as I have done,
In the desert circle of sand and sun,
“He would drink and rest, and go home to tell
That God’s best gift is the wayside well!”