The gift bottle arrived at the Maryland governor's mansion yesterday with a red bow tied around its neck and a cheery message.

Wishing you the best. We want you to have all the water you saved by turning off the recycling fountain. Happy Holidays -- Don.

And so with this parting gift of a half-liter bottle of mineral water to his political archenemy, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer sought to have the last word in his long-running spat with Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The gift was an allusion to Glendening's decision to start up the imposing, 12-foot, verdigrised bronze fountain that was commissioned by Schaefer's dearly departed sweetheart and decorates the side lawn of the governor's mansion. Glendening ordered the fountain shut down last year, citing a statewide drought. But Schaefer always maintained it was an act of political vengeance.

Yesterday, under gray skies and a curtain of rain, state workers cranked up the pump and watched as water slowly trickled from the top of the fountain and cascaded into a lower tier and then the trough below.

It might have gone unnoticed, for there was no ceremony, no triumphant pronouncement. Just the simple explanation later wrung from the governor's spokesman, Chuck Porcari: "The fountain was turned on because the statewide drought restrictions were lifted."

Nothing to do with Schaefer's accusation that the fountain, erected by his companion Hilda Mae Snoops, had fallen into disrepair in the months it stood dry?

"No comment," Porcari said.

No significance to the timing, which preempted Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s promise to start up the fountain for Schaefer? Nothing to read into the fact that until now, state maintenance officials have never seen any reason to test the fountain in the dead of winter?

"I will not answer any more questions about the fountain," Porcari said tersely.

Glendening's decision to turn off the fountain in May 2001 brought the feud between the current and former governor to a new intensity. At the time, Glendening aides said it symbolized efforts to conserve water. The fountain, they said, used 2,500 to 2,800 gallons of water daily and needed replenishment because of evaporation.

But Schaefer took the decision as an act of aggression and used it as a context to needle Glendening publicly about the governor's very private relationship with then-Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer Crawford. She is now his wife.

Yesterday, as workers watched water cascade over the black-eyed susans, rockfish and other Maryland flora and fauna embellishing the fountain, they contemplated the next step in this soggy saga.

"My guys are going to drain it, remove the pump and get back to our real work," said a state worker overseeing the fountain test. "For a little while, at least."

The fountain at the governor's mansion was built under Schaefer and turned off by his successor.