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'ill-steekit' Ephraim






'About the middle of the night
The cocks began to craw:
And at the dead hour o' the night
The corpse began to thraw.'

Ballad of Young Benjie.


We--that is, the four members of our Oxford reading party--were bathing
in a deep pool in many-terraced Tees, and I was seated on a rock's edge,
drying in the September sunshine, and quoting from Clough's 'Bothie of
Tober-na-Vuolich':

'How to the element offering their bodies, down shooting the fall,
They mingled themselves with the flood and the force of imperious
water,'

when from the central black cauldron immediately below me appeared the
face of Sandie--our best diver--with a most curiously perturbed
expression on his countenance. I had been watching a little circlet of
foam that eddied round on the outskirts of the current, and seemed to
wink at me with a hint of hidden and evasive mystery.

Then it vanished, for Sandie's head had shattered it.

'Hello, Sandie!' I cried to him, 'what's up? It's not cramp, is it?'

He climbed out and up to where I sat on the rock above, and shook the
water from his hair.

'Ugh!' he said in disgust. 'I've just been to the bottom, and there I
swear I came across a drowned body; I felt a corpse and touched long
hair. I believe it was a woman's.' He looked at his hands in disgust,
and perceptibly shivered.

'Nonsense!' said I. 'It must have been a drowned cow or sheep, or
possibly a pony.'

'Go down and look, or rather feel for yourself,' he retorted.

'How deep down was it?' I inquired.

'Twenty feet, perhaps,' he said, 'for it's a deep pool, and I believe
the poor thing's tethered--sunk with a stone tied to her feet.'

'Surely not,' I exclaimed, 'for if it was a case of murder it would be
known.'

'Go down and see for yourself,' cried Sandie testily. 'I've had enough
of it.' Calling our other two companions I told them of Sandie's
discovery, and we came to the conclusion that it was our duty to try to
verify or disprove Sandie's assertion.

These two dived, but did not get down far enough in the water; it seemed
to me as I watched their attempts that the stream carried them too
swiftly forward, so when my turn came I dived in somewhat higher up, and
got as far down as I could in my dive, and kept on striking downwards
till I calculated I was close to the spot Sandie had indicated. Treading
the water I felt about in the amber swirl for Sandie's gruesome find,
but the circling eddy swept me onward.

Knowing my breath was all but exhausted I made a final effort, sank a
little deeper, striving against the current, and spread my hands abroad.
I touched something--surely it was hair! Kicking against the stream I
felt again.

Yes, it was hair floating in the current--the hair of a woman. I touched
with a shrinking hand a human head, then almost suffocated, I rose to
the surface and slowly regained the shore.

'Well?' interrogated Sandie, watching my face closely.

'I believe you're right,' I said faintly, still short of breath. 'Yes, I
believe it's some poor woman, for I could just touch the skull, and the
hair was long and floating in the current.'

'Good Lord!' exclaimed the two others. 'Can she have got wedged in
between two rocks?'

'I think she's been thrown in,' said Sandie gloomily. 'I felt her body
swaying to the stream. Some ruffian's knocked her on the head, tied a
stone to her feet, and flung her in.'

'No more bathing for me,' I said, shivering. 'We'll just have to dress
and go back and report to "the Dean."'

When we had returned to the inn where we were lodging we reported our
discovery to our tutor, 'the Dean,' and asked his advice. 'Granted that
you have "viewed the corpse," as coroners insist, I suppose you should
report it to the Inspector of Police,' said he thoughtfully, 'but
perhaps I might find out first from our landlord if there has been any
story about of a woman being missed. Possibly a "village tragedy" may
come to light. When we've had tea I will have a pipe and a "crack," as
they call it here, with our landlord. Perhaps at supper I may have
something to report.'

We were well content to leave it in 'the Dean's' hands, for he was most
astute in management of men, and loved to fathom a mystery.

At supper, which was an informal meal, whereat we waited on ourselves,
he told us that he had found out nothing in course of his 'crack' with
the landlord, for the simple reason that he had only been a month in
possession, and nothing eventful had occurred in that time.

'I think,' suggested 'the Dean,' 'that you two divers should run down on
your bikes to-morrow to the Inspector of Police at Middleton, and tell
him privately of your discovery.'

This Sandie and I willingly agreed to, and started off after breakfast
down the valley. We found on arrival that the Inspector was away at the
county town attending the Assizes, and was not expected back till the
end of the week.

We got back just in time to escape a drenching, for a 'thunder plump'
broke in the heaven above the moors as we ascended the last rise to the
inn, which effectually prevented all thought of further investigation of
the Black Lynn pool.

The next morning was brilliant after the storm, and naturally suggested
an expedition.

'Let's go for a walk right across the moors,' said Sandie to me; 'the
other two want to work, but I've turned restless.'

I agreed at once, for I was restless also in disappointment of our
errand. We ordered sandwiches, obtained leave from 'the Dean,' and
prepared to start off at once.

'Don't fret if we don't get back to-night,' cried Sandie, the
'second-sighted,' to our tutor as we departed; 'we may get lost, Ted may
break down under his weight of learning, or one of Saint Cuthbert's
Cross Fell fiends may "lift" him.'

We wanted to get as far as Brough under Stanemoor, and back by the great
'Nick,' and then athwart Cross Fell's desolate moor, but we had not
taken the weather into our consideration, nor thought of possible
sopping peat-hags on our return journey.

Thus when we had toiled up 'the Nick' by a narrow path from Brough to
the wild moorland we found our track across the waste very difficult to
follow. By six o'clock the clouds had gathered black above us, and
another thunderstorm grew imminent.

Suddenly the lightning flared through the serrated gloom, and thunder
reverberated over the heather.

The rain descended javelin-like upon us as we struggled through the
heavy peat-hags; we lost our bearings and determined to make for any
light that we might descry in lonely farm or shepherd's sheil on this
forsaken waste. We had almost given up hope when we saw a faint glimmer
through the increasing gloom three-quarters of a mile away, perhaps, on
our left hand.

We made for our beacon as straightly as we could; then in a dip we lost
sight of it, but eventually succeeded in discovering it again, and
judged the light to proceed from the window of a small farm, as indeed
proved to be the case when we had traversed another mile of broken
moorland.

After knocking on the door repeatedly, we heard some one moving within.
We went up to the window, and asked for shelter from the storm, as we
were strangers who had lost our way.

The door slowly opened, and a man bearing a tallow dip in a battered
sconce showed himself in the entry.

'We've little accommodation here the night,' he said, as he looked at us
somewhat suspiciously; 'the goodman has died and lies steekit in his
coffin, but ye can come in for shelter if ye have a mind.'

This did not sound very inviting, but any shelter was preferable to a
night in a peat-hag; so we accepted his offer, and followed the man
within.

It was a strange scene that met our eyes in the little kitchen. On
trestles in the middle of the room stood the coffin; in a box-bed to
one side of the hearth an old woman in a white mutch or cap sat up
against pillows; on the farther side of the hearth sat an untidy,
foolish-faced girl who peeled potatoes with an uncanny disconcern.

The old woman, on the contrary, had exceedingly bright eyes, and seemed
to note everything with extraordinary interest. 'Wha's there?' she
asked, as we bowed in a hesitating manner to our hostess.

Sandie explained who we were and how we had chanced to intrude upon her
in such an untimely hour.

'Ay,' she replied, 'the goodman's dead, and is to be lifted the morn,
but ye can bide the night; and if ye dinna mind such company,' she
pointed contemptuously at the man who had let us in, 'ye can sleep wi'
him i' the room above.'

'Whisht, mother, whisht wi' yer talk afore strange gentlemen,' said he,
and he seemed to be very uneasy beneath her scorn.

'Why should I whisht?' she said angrily. 'Why hae na ye brocht my
daughter Jean to her father's burying?'

The man turned to us eagerly, evidently anxious to divert our
attention.

'Be seated, gentlemen,' he said, drawing up two chairs to the fire;
'ye'll be ready for something to eat belike. Mary can give ye some bacon
and eggs and potatoes for supper whilst ye dry your coats.'

'Ay,' interrupted the old lady, 'ye shall have meat and drink. Nane
shall come to a burying at my hoose and no have meat and drink before
they gang awa. Set oot the bannocks and honey and milk, Mary, for the
lads, then mak ready the bacon and eggs.'

Mary with a strange disordered giggle that brought a chill to my bones,
looked up at this and half spoke, half sang, aloud to herself by way of
reply. 'Meat and drink for Dad's burying. But wherefore not for Jean's?
Puir lassie, she was aye kind to me, was Jeannie.'

'Don't heed her, gentlemen,' said the man in a husky voice, 'she's a
bit daft, poor girl,' and as he spoke he trod noisily on the stone
floor, evidently trying to drown her voice, and forthwith dragged a
table that stood in the window somewhat nearer the hearth.

Mary had now finished with her potatoes, and was cutting rashers of
bacon which were soon sizzling delightfully in the pan. Meantime Sandie
was talking to our bedridden hostess, whom he had discovered to be of
Scottish extraction, and I was conversing with the son-in-law about the
danger of being lost on Cross Fell.

There was a lull in the storm at this time, but one could hear the long
lances of rain striking on the stone tiles above; it was good to be
within doors, and to dry one's coat by the peat embers. We insisted on
our hostess partaking of supper, which we served up to her in bed; then
Sandie and I, the girl and the man, set ourselves down by the table and
stretched forth our hands, in the Homeric phrase, 'to the good things
set before us.'

Sandie and I had our backs to the coffin, and had forgotten all about it
and the 'goodman,' its occupant; Mary and her brother-in-law sat at the
corners of the table, and their features were lit up by the flickering
peats. The man had shifty, furtive eyes, set rather deep beneath an
overhanging forehead, lined cheeks, and a clean-shaven heavy jaw; Mary,
with sallow face, light eyes, and disordered hair sat opposite him,
evidently apprehensive.

A strange party amid strange surroundings, thought I, for a moment, as I
framed an etching of the black coffin, the bright-eyed old woman in the
night mutch abed, the daft girl and dour man and two Oxford
undergraduates eating heartily amid the flickering light of the dip and
the peat flames.

But what a splendid moorland supper it was! Bacon and eggs and fried
potatoes, bannocks with butter, heather honey and milk.

'What luck!' I murmured in Sandie's ear, 'to be hopelessly lost, and to
find this!' and I stretched forth my legs at glorious ease. 'Shifty
eyes' now produced a 'cutty' and suggested a smoke, which Sandie and I
were thinking was the one thing left to complete our satisfaction.
Suddenly and without warning I heard a creak behind my chair, but I took
no heed. Then a further creaking and a grinding noise--and I looked
round. I saw the coffin-lid lift upward and a white shroud show below.
Slowly the shrouded corpse rose with creaking bones before my staring
eyes--rose to a sitting posture, and sat still. The coffin-lid clanged
to the ground; then all was still, an awful silence filled the room. A
moment more, and a cry of terror rose to the roof, for the man beside me
was down on his knees before the corpse in an ecstasy of terror. 'Never
accuse me, Ephraim! Dinnot terrify us that gate, feyther!' he cried in
anguish. 'Poor Jean just happened an accident--fell and was drowned in
the river.' The man's face held me rigid. Never had I seen mortal fear
like this. Suddenly I heard a louder voice beside me, for Sandie--moved
by an uncontrollable impulse--shot forth an accusing arm, and cried
accusingly, 'She lies in the Black Linn pool--her head knocked in--a
stone fast to her feet.' The man's face turned to ashes. Awfully he
twisted his head about to the voice. He could not remove his eyes from
Sandie's accusing countenance, spittle dropped from his bloodless lips,
his eyes were like to pillars. Then he began to shuffle off--still upon
his knees--away from Sandie and towards the door--with his face twisted
over his shoulder as if it were made of stone.

He shuffled a little faster--still upon his knees--his head still
twisted over his shoulder 'thrawn' in terror of Sandie and the accusing
corpse. He reached the door, groped for the handle, opened it, then
shambled to his feet, passed through the outer door, and so into the
black night.

I saw the lightning swoop down upon the moorland. I caught a glimpse of
a man running as one blinded--his hands above his head to protect
himself--vaguely through the inky peat-hags. Then I turned to look on
Sandie who was also gazing into the darkness--his face like the
archangel Michael's. I had not yet found my voice, and could not speak
for tension, when I heard a foolish titter from the girl beside me who
was suddenly overcome with laughter.

'Tee hee,' she went, 'tee hee! What a funny face Tom had on him. Tee
hee!'

Then I heard a voice from the bed speaking composedly. 'Ay, I aye kenned
he'd murdered puir Jeannie. Whaur wast ye fund my puir lassie?' she
asked Sandie.

As Sandie replied to her I looked at the fearful figure of the shrouded
corpse that sat upright facing the doorway, whence his son-in-law had
fled, and wondered if there could be any spark of life left within. As I
looked the composed voice spoke again, 'Dinna be fieyed! Puir Ephraim's
been ill-steekit. It's twa-three days since the doctor certifiedst
him; noo his muscles hae stiffened and raxed him up. Ye mun lay him doon
again, Maisters, for I'll no can sleep wi' him glowering that gate.'

The speaker in the night mutch was the only one of us who seemed
unaffected by the extraordinary events we had just witnessed. Her eyes
gleamed a trifle more brightly than before. That was the only
difference.

I looked at Sandie in dismay at the task assigned to us, but he had
risen, and now beckoned me to the coffin side. Handling the poor corpse
as reverently as we could we found it very difficult to re-confine it to
its resting-place, for the muscles had turned so stiff and rigid that we
had to exert force, and seek heavy stones from outside to keep the lid
shut down securely.

This done, and the door fastened against the return of the fugitive, at
the old woman's command, though I felt sure in my own mind that the man
would never come back again of his own accord, Sandie and I took the
battered sconce and dying wick and went up to the bedroom above.

We sat upon the bed, smoked another pipe and conversed about the
soul-stirring incidents we had just been witnesses of.

'Do you remember,' asked Sandie, 'the mediaeval legend of the dead man's
wounds bleeding afresh in the presence of his murderer? I believe that
the spirit of the dead man down below us must have been moved by the
presence of his daughter's murderer.'

'To think of our having come across in such a mysterious and fortuitous
way the poor daughter--Jean!' I said, occupied by another aspect of
these extraordinary occurrences.

As we smoked and talked thus our dip went out, which was an intimation
that we had better try to sleep.

We slept but fitfully, and rose early to help prepare our breakfast.
Scarcely had we finished our repast when a neighbour arrived with a cart
and horse wherewith he had promised to 'lift' the corpse and convey it
over the rough track down the valley to the spot where the hearse from
Middleton was to meet it.

We found a rope and bound the coffin-lid lightly down, and having given
our promise to our hostess to recover, if we could, the body of her
daughter Jean and give it proper burial, we bade her good-bye for the
present and set off to the inn where the 'Dean' would be anxiously
expecting us.

We related our experiences to the 'Dean,' we got the Inspector to come
up, but failed entirely to discover the body in the Linn. For my part I
thought the thunderstorm might be accountable for the disappearance, but
Sandie had his own opinion on this matter. As to the criminal, some say
he escaped the country, but I firmly believe he perished in a peat-hag,
and to this day haunts the bleak spaces of Cross Fell.





Next: The Cock-crow

Previous: By Peden's Cleuch



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