We occupied a small hunting lodge on the outskirts of the estate. Our mutual friend had allowed us the liberty to use this place for some time of quiet to get over the hectic term. We were, and are, quiet chaps so we relished the retreat to the country despite that, in deep winter, there was no game to be hunted and away from the house there was a lack of festive camaraderie.
Termed ‘Scrooges’ from the recent story by Dickens we were at home and content. You could say that we were happy there. We would drink our sherry and bitters, smoke our pipes and relax in our respective books. The one drawback from being so far away from the main house was that the service was erratic. We were sympathetic even when we ran short of comestibles, like game pie, or the bare necessities like bitters or sherry and one night, not too far off Christmas Eve, inside we ran short of wood for the fire.
Hunter and I drew lots to see who would have to brave the cold dark night, there being no point for us both to freeze outside in the snow. But as I saw his face on realising he had the short straw, I relented. ‘Look, old chap, there’s no point in being frozen half to death as you might, and from your expression also be half shocked to death by the boogies, I’ll go and shall return only half dead. Now how’s that?’ I asked.
‘Morris, you’re a life saver, you won’t tell anyone when we get back, will you, that I was an awful coward?’ he asked.
‘Absolutely not, old chum,’ I lied. Believing the wood stack to be just around the corner from the back door, I merely tugged on my great coat and set off.
Round the corner I found a small fellow collecting the very last of the logs before making his way off, into the woods, ‘I say, good man,’ I thought I’d best be on good behaviour considering the season, despite the names the staff had given us, ‘we’ve use for that wood you’ve got there.’
With that he turned around and looked up at me, the night being well lit with the moon’s gentle rays being reflected by the deep snow, and said, ‘There’s them that ‘as greater need then yurselves.’
I looked at this misshapen figure, he was small with long arms and short legs and a face awfully wrinkled by age and he wore the merest of clothing, despite the temperature. Having been taken aback by his odd appearance, I challenged him, ‘Let me walk with you and if I agree then they may keep the wood.’
‘Very well, master,’ says he folding the meagre supply under one arm, ‘but best ye take my hand or you’ll never manage to follow where I go.’
By this time it was too late but to follow his lead and thinking that if worst came to the worst, I’d be able to deal with the impudent fellow so I took his hand. We plunged direct into the forest, following an old track, barely more than an animal’s trail. I kept being caught by branches whereas he was so short as to be able to walk unimpeded by obstacle.
Sometime after losing sight of the hunting lodge I spied a ramshackle cottage, plainly made from mud and sticks, it almost blended into the background even when I was on the doorstep.
‘My job’s done ‘ere,’ said my companion, ‘Ye can take the wood in yurself and decide the justice o’ the case.’
With that he dumped what was left of the wood stack and made his way further into the forest. I had barely picked up his load and then knocked on the door when, on sudden impulse, I looked around for the small fellow. Slightly discomforted at his disappearance, I had no time to look round properly as the door was promptly answered by an elderly figure who virtually pulled me inside.
‘Not a night to be outside, no sir,’ said my new companion once we were both inside and then, ‘thank you very much for this, not that it’ll do much good now, I reckon,’ he said in a mournful tone.
Drawn by his gaze, I looked beyond him to see a slight figure beneath the inadequate blankets, atop the pallet of straw that was leaking out onto the floor around it. As he was taking the wood from me, I was lost in speculation. I could remember no mention of anybody who still resided in the woods hereabouts I was so moved that I asked, ‘Is there anything else I can do for you?’
‘Why no sir, thank ye but, well,’ he carried on, hesitatingly, ‘if ye could but mention us in prayers come Christmas mornin’, we’d be awful grateful. I just ‘ope, sir, tis not too late.’
Well, I argued about sending the doctor or bringing the pair of them back to the hunting lodge there and then but to no avail and so, promising to do as asked of me, I turned around on the doorstep and asked, ‘And just how should I know you when I ask for prayers to be said on your behalf?’
‘Oh, they’ll know us, sir, at the Big ‘Ouse, just say tis for the auld couple by the well and that’ll do nicely sir and now you’d best be off back to your warmth,’ said the man, ushering me out.
Once outside, I could only see the set of footprints made by my heavy feet and when I asked my host about this, he replied, ‘Oh, that’ll of been the Gruagach who brought ye’, good sir. Now mind ye follow your own prints or ye might not find yer own way ‘ome.’ With that he shut the door as best he could and left me.
When I returned to Hunter and discussed the night’s weirdness, we concluded that if we only told the priest who came for the Christmas service to say a few words, I would have discharged my duty.
All seemed to go well on Christmas morn until we got to the prayers of intercession but when the priest mentioned my two new acquaintances the old lady of the house fainted straight off and there was much excitement. It was only later that I found that the old couple by the well had passed away one winter, many years ago.