October 27th, 1814, and the wind blowing over the clouded northern moors had winter on its breath and darkness in its heart. Rustling over the heather, hissing through the bracken before moaning down the slopes of the natural bowl which couched the still waters of the small lake. The smooth surface of water heaved and tossed at the arrival of the devil’s wind, as the villagers called it. They knew it was the early herald of winter.
But Elsie Kinder, at seventeen, loved it. Wrapped up in scarf and shawl she pushed her face into the wind and enjoyed the wild tossing of her auburn hair. When the occasional burst of the sun cast her shadow it was that of a madwoman and she would laugh her glee. She did not like the way the wind howled at the few sycamore trees bordering the lake, stripping them of leaves, which flew and fluttered down like brown and red ghosts.
Elsie had made this stroll most summer days since she was fourteen. One and a half miles from their small farmhouse below which, heathland gave way to lush grass where her father’s sheep grazed. Beyond school now, Elsie carried out various chores around the farm. She swept the barn, fed the two dogs, Chief and Barney before walking among the flock ensuring no problems had occurred overnight.
Her passion was this walk over the ups and downs of the heath before following the trampled path down to the lakeside. The sheer wildness of this marvellous land freed her spirit. Ahead, rising from the lakeside, the purple heather glowed in wondrous curves.
As she approached the age of seventeen her father had expressed his concern at his daughter developing into a nubile young woman. “You shouldn’t walk alone,” he’d warned her.
“I rarely meet a soul,” Elsie reassured him.
Her aproned mother was kneading dough on the table, and she made her point, “Don’t stop to talk to any man. Nor goblins Not even Mick Denver.”
“Huh, Mick Denver, I could fettle him with one hand tied behind my back, “ Elsie snorted, and knew she could. She was no frail lass.
But to reassure them she agreed to carry the hefty stick which she now used as a walking prop dropping down to the lakeside.
Her walks would soon be curtailed by winter, so she was determined to enjoy them while she could. About half a mile ahead the first sycamore tree stood at the beginning of a short promontory that jutted out into the lake.
But what was this? Her heart pounded as she saw the mist that swirled over and around the tree. Mist? How could there be mist in a wind like this? Then she saw the figure of a man, looking, for all the world, as though he had walked out of the lake. He was soon enveloped by the mist.
Her hand tightened on the stick. Would he come this way? At that moment, a large rabbit took her attention as it scuttled from the reeds and across the path immediately in front of her. Eagerly she swung her stick. Food for tea. But she missed by a mile and the rabbit was into the heather and gone.
Elsie returned her gaze to the tree. There was no mist and there was no man. Like the rabbit, they were gone. She was positive that she had not been seeing things. How could he have disappeared so quickly? Even if he had run up the heather slope he would still be in view. Was he lying in wait for her behind the tree? She should go back.
But no, she was too curious. She had to know. By moving up the slope and ploughing through the undergrowth helped by the stick she was able to get a certain reassurance that there was no one behind the tree.
So, where had he gone?
Moving back to the path she cautiously approached the tree. All clear as more leaves fluttered down. Elsie walked tentatively over the muddy promontory towards the lake. There were no footprints other than her own. But there seemed to be a chillier feel to the air here.
Another look around revealed nothing. She was positive about what she had seen. But the cool clamminess of the air made her shiver and drove her to make her way back to the farmhouse. All the way her mind was full of the old wife’s tales of dangerous elves and goblins. One girl even claimed she was pregnant because of a mad goblin.
“A likely story,” Elsie’s mother had snorted. “Probably Jackie Fisher behind the Inn, “
As soon as she entered she found her mother and father sitting facing each other across the table. Her father looked up at her and said, “Bernie Fetters is dead.”
Elsie knew old Bernie from seeing him shakily sipping ale outside the village inn. “Fell from his barn onto a pitchfork. Silly old beggar, climbing up there at his age.”
Sad about that, but she was too eager to tell them about the man who disappeared.
She caught the quick glance her parents exchanged before her father demanded, “What did he look like, this disappearing man?” His tone was slightly mocking, and her mother gave a nervous chuckle.
“Too far away,” Elsie told them, “Tall, thin, maybe ragged.”
“Too far away to tell, but he looked like he had come from the lake.”
She told of how the rabbit had distracted her. And how quickly the man had disappeared. When her father made a comment about how folk around the village were always reporting seeing strange things. “Imagination, mostly,” he added. Expecting some derision, Elsie decided to say nothing about the lack of footprints and the mist.
“Hair’s a mess, pet. Put a brush through it,” her mother urged, and the incident was closed. But, as she lay in her bed, that night, Elsie convinced herself that it had not been an illusion she’d seen. The mist, the absence of footprints bothered her, but she would not allow anyone to think she was just seeing things. She slept fitfully that night.
Next day was fair, with intermittent sun, but little wind. Elsie diligently completed all of her tasks, had a small lunch of bread and cheese, before picking up the stick she’d carried the previous day. She called a farewell to her parents, but her father appeared in the doorway, a half-smile on his face.
“Take Chief with you. He’ll enjoy the walk and will give short shrift to any weird character. He’ll make sure he disappears.”
Elsie didn’t mind her father’s rough humour. Taking Chief for a walk was no hardship. He was a seven-year-old border collie, and he would certainly take care of her if required, But how long had she been taking this walk unscathed?
Out over the vast moorland, Chief bounded happily in the heather, sniffing at taller undergrowth, but no rabbits would venture out when he was about. Elsie enjoyed seeing him loving this freedom.
Soon she was picking her way down towards the lakeside trail. Chief never let her get far ahead of him. There was nothing strange about the distant sycamore and the land that jutted out beyond it. As always the rising purple beyond the lake was a joy.
Chief was now tracking faithfully behind her as they moved closer to the first sycamore.
Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, the dog gave a low growl. Chief rarely growled, and never needed to with sheep. When the growl became a snarl, Elsie turn to see why. What she saw shocked her. His teeth were bared in that snarl, and the hair between his ears was up. But worse, in Elsie’s eyes, was the fact that, although he looked ready for attack, Chief was shuffling backward.
Elsie had never seen this behaviour from him. She stooped and although, he didn’t stop snarling and wriggling away, he allowed her to smooth the hair between his ears. That was when she noticed how cool the air had become. Glancing at the sky she saw it blue as ever, but the shirt she was wearing was inadequate as she witnessed goosebumps on her arms.
Elsie turned her attention away from Chief. Next second she gasped in fear and staggered back as the dog had done. Nothing touched her but it was as though a dead hand had closed on her throat.
A swirling mist was almost upon her. She tried to catch her breath. This was no ordinary static fog that frequently gathered in the valleys. This mist, coming no closer, twisted and curled like the clouds of smoke that issued from her grandfather’s clay pipe.
It was wide enough to prevent her from seeing around it. But it did remain a foot away from her and there was no attempt to envelop her. She would have poked at it with her stick, but that had fallen from her trembling hands. Her fevered mind was telling that the man-figure must be involved somewhere. As she stared into the smoky mist she detected a vague shadowy shape.
At the same moment there came a voice, low at first, a deep sepulchral voice, like someone calling down a hollow tube, “Help me!”
Elsie’s fear increased as the voice got louder, “Help me.”
Regaining some modicum of sensibility, she was able to assess the chances of turning and fleeing where the air was clear. Then the voice came again, a different plea, “Where is John Farrow? Please, please find me John Farrow.”
Would she get away if she responded? “Yes, I’ll find him. I will,” Elsie offered, frantically. She had heard the name before, but she couldn’t recall when.
Bending, she urged Chief to stand. Her dog licked her hand, as she struggled to turn him, ready for flight. Regaining her feet, she found that mist, figure, and voice were gone. She had no breath. For a few seconds she breathed in deeply and then she hastened for home, covering the distance faster than she ever had before. But not as fast as Chief, who was standing open-mouthed and panting out in the yard beside her father when she arrived.
“Thank God,” her father gasped. “I shouldn’t have let you go. Are you all right? Your face is whiter than those sheets on the line. What happened?”
Elsie was so out of breath that she could not speak.
Her father took her arm gently and led her to the bench outside the front door. “Come, I’ve something you need to know.”
As they sat, Elsie’s mother came to the door. “Your father thinks you may have seen—”
“Silence, Bella. Our lassie needs caring. Look at the state she’s in.” He put a comforting arm around her shoulders. It had been many years since he had been so supportive of her, and she appreciated that. Her shaking had stopped, but she had to ask, “What is it I need to know?”
Her father rubbed his raspy chin before asking, “First, why are you so pale?”
It was unavoidable, she had to tell him the truth, or at least most of it. As soon as she mentioned the effect on Chief, his mouth tightened, and he glanced towards her mother, who immediately murmured, “Lakeman.”
Elsie told them about the vague shape in the mist and went on to the ghostly voice.
“Voice? What did it say?”
“Help me, really pleading, like.” Elsie was going to go on about John Farrow, but her father put his fingers under her chin, and turned her head until she was looking into his unusually serious face.
“Elsie, you’ve heard many of the wild tales that float from village to village in these parts. Werewolves, elves—”
“And goblins,” her mother broke in, “Don’t forget the goblins.”
Her father threw her a look of exasperation as he went on pointedly, “Most of them are rubbish. Wild imaginative dreams. But after what you told me yesterday, and Bernie Fetter’s accident I thought you’d be safe. There are usually huge gaps between--”
“But you sounded mocking.”
“Only to keep you from being fearful.”
“You think I wasn’t fearful this afternoon?” A wave of annoyance was overriding any fear.
“Elsie, there have been strange sightings, linked to horrible deaths in the village.” Her father sucked in a deep volume of air. “Early this afternoon I went down into the village, hoping to get some answers to this mystery.”
Her father held up a delaying hand, “Don’t stop me. I’ll forget the many details. You’ve heard of the witch hunts about fifty or sixty years ago?”
“Not at all. A terrible time it was. Especially for women. All over the country, innocent women were hanged, burned, or drowned for anything that hinted at special powers. But men didn’t always escape. And today the whole village has heard the solution to the mystery surrounding Peter Sim’s disappearance. My father told me how no one could explain it, just before he passed on.”
“Who was Peter Sim?
October 4th, 1765
Peter Sim sat in his usual corner table in the inn, slowly sipping his tankard of ale. Custom had been good, and there was a pile of coins on the table in front of him. That bolstered his money from farm labouring. It was mostly from the women who enjoyed hearing what their future was going to be. He tried to make his predictions true, possible, and pleasing.
“I predict you will have twins.”
Or, “I predict your husband will prosper.”
Or, it could be, “I predict that you will be married before you are forty.”
Always he started with the ‘I predict.’ They liked that. His gift, his father told him, came from his mother, a gipsy. “So clever,” his father had said bitterly, “but couldn’t foresee her own weak heart.” Peter had been only four years old when she was taken.
He was thirty years old and, unmarried, yet the heaviness remained in his heart for Lucy. Three years since she had fled the village without warning. Peter had loved her. Another mystery? Eventually, no.
Lucy had told him she thought she was pregnant. He had promised they’d marry once he’d made enough money. But the poor girl was so full of shame, so nervous and stressed normally that she fled the situation. After searching surrounding villages, Peter eventually found an old woman, who knew of ‘a dear young thing’ who arrived after much wandering, and sadly had died in childbirth
Peter had wept at that news. Even more so when he learned that passing gipsies had agreed to take care of the child. Was he now the father of a son or a daughter, he would never know?
Sitting at his table Peter wondered if he would ever lose the guilt of that time.
When the massive frame of Charlie Keeble, owner of one of the bigger flocks of sheep in the area, threw some coins across the table, and growled, “Come on, clever man. Tell me what’s good.” Peter felt a wave of dread pass over him.
Charlie was very drunk and extremely dangerous. He had been sitting with Gerald Hill and Fred Coopman, and they now watched gleefully. Cautiously, Peter took the proffered huge hand, and as soon as he studied it a sense of doom fell upon him.
Peter sat back, his breathing uneasy as he said, “You don’t want to know this.”
Inside a voice was screaming tell him a lie, tell him anything. More sensibly he thought he could give it as advice.
“What do you mean? Am I going to die?”
“No, nothing like that.”
Charlie was up on his feet now his face red with rage. “Tell me, you turnip head.”
Trembling Peter quietly said, “I predict that you should get the vet to look at your flock. They have an infection. They could be dead by the end of the month.”
To Peter’s surprise, Charlie threw back his head and laughed uproariously. “You bloody charlatan. Making up fables like that.” He rolled away to his grinning companions, muttering, “Bloody cheat.”
Peter was relieved that the evening went on without further trouble, but fewer people came to him for predictions.
The month rolled on. Peter did hear some talk about the Keeble flock. But it was only gossip. But then, on the 27th he learned that the whole Keeble flock had been slaughtered and buried to prevent the disease from spreading.
That evening, feeling uneasy, Peter took his customary evening stroll around the outskirts of the village. Suddenly, his stomach heaved when Bernie Fetters and John Farrow menacingly confronted him, he knew they were herders and had seen them many times.
“Hear about Charlie’s flock, all gone,” Bernie sneered.
“Yes,” Peter said nervously. “It’s awful what disease can—”
A blow to the back of his neck drove him to his knees, but he recognised the deep aggressive voice of Charlie Keeble as he snarled, “Disease? Disease, hell. More like a witch’s spell to make your prediction right.”
Peter tried to struggle to his feet, but another vicious blow drove him down as Keeble roared again, “Well, we’ve learned how to deal with witchery, haven’t we?”
Cries of agreement and the last images he saw were of Gerald Hills and Fred Coopman standing jeering before a third blow to the head sent him into blackness.
Elsie saw her father take in a deep breath before in a grim voice, he said, “They hanged him from that sycamore on the land that juts out into the lake.”
Now Elsie gasped, “That’s just where I first saw the figure. Oh, the poor man.”
“Lakeman,” her mother said, with a self-satisfied smirk towards her husband.
Her father nodded unwillingly, “Every time anyone saw this mysterious figure, he was given the name ‘Lakeman,’ one of Peter Sim’s executioners died, usually in a horrible way.” He paused to turn his weary eyes to Elsie before going on, “You thought you saw him yesterday, and Bernie fell onto his pitchfork. I only let you go today because these events have always been spaced out.”
Elsie felt a slight wave of horror at that news, “But, what about the nasty Charlie—what was it—Keeble?”
Her father nodded, “No one ever made the connection. Just an awful accident. He tried to climb a stile with a scythe in his grasp. Story goes, he slipped and the scythe near decapitated him.”
“Gerald Hill was a keen angler in the lake and was found floating face down as though a fish had dragged him there. Fred Coopman was trampled by a herd of wild ponies.”
Elsie was shaken. “A kind of rough justice it sounds like. Vengeance?”
Her father shrugged, “With each of those deaths, always in October, someone saw this mystery figure of a man. Two of them said he was dripping wet.”
“But father how do you have such detail now?”
“A dying confession just last night, of a guilty man, eager to make his peace with God.”
“A dying man?”
“John Farrow’s been ill in hospital for years They brought him home yesterday to die.”
Elsie’s heart leapt at the sound of that name, but she said nothing. Mad she was not. Brave? She wasn’t sure. A little scared perhaps, but if she could be the one to ease the awful pain of Peter Sim.
All she said was, “They were so cruel to him.”
“Everyone, your grandfather included, has said, what a kind gentle soul he was.”
He had a little more information which she desperately tried to memorise because the next morning her chores seemed to last forever. But at last full of a mix of determination, excitement, and not a little fear, she grabbed her stick and headed out onto the moor.
Clouds seemed to be parting overhead as, before dropping down to the lakeside, she saw the outline of the sycamore, looking skeletal with most of the leaves blown away. That tree now had a deeper effect on her.
Reaching the lakeside, she half-expected instant action. But there was nobody in sight. On the off chance she called out gently, “Peter Sim. Peter Sim.” Nothing. God, here she was hunting for a ghost.
As she reached the sycamore and the jutting land, her body shivered involuntarily as she recalled what had happened here all those years ago. Pointless to go further. She had always seen him in this area. Standing beyond the tree, facing out over the lake she called quietly, “I know of John Farrow. John Farrow, John Farrow.”
Only a moment’s delay before she thought a pair of arms had wrapped around her, seeing just mistiness on her waistline, she screamed. Instantly the voice was telling her, “Don’t be frightened, sweet lady. Excuse my impetuosity.”
Elsie turned, hoping to see more than just smoky mist, yet that’s all there was, but it was drawing back a little. “Are you Peter Sim?”
“You know that?”
“Through what John Farrow said.”
The mist seemed to bubble and just for a second Elsie thought she saw his shape. “Have you spoken to him?”
“He’s dead. Lengthy illness.”
There was a deep sigh, “Robbed of my final satisfaction. How did he die?”
“A form of consumption. Water on the lungs.”
Was that an actual chuckle, deep unnatural, “Fitting. Now they’re all dead. Oh, why is there no sense of satisfaction?”
Elsie wasn’t sure how to go on. “John Farrow confessed from his deathbed, that he was the one who waded into the lake with your body laid on a broken door. But they were all sworn to silence by Keeble. Everyone in the village now knows the truth about your disappearance ”
Elsie was panting after gabbling out the information so quickly.
“Truth will out,” came the voice, but was it more of a normal voice now. The mist was thinning. “I thank you, sweet lady.”
Elsie almost liked being called ‘sweet lady’ by a ghost.
“You have such wonderful hair.” How strange to say that? And for just a moment, she was sure an arm was reaching out from the mist, but it was quickly withdrawn. “I go to my genuine rest now.”
The mist had thinned sufficiently for Elsie to see the clear broad back of a man.
Then suddenly he turned back. Mist curled around him, like a shroud, so that only his head and face were visible. But he was noticeably clear as a ray of sunlight hit. Such a handsome face, with a strong jaw and blue eyes. His final words came, the voice was almost human, “I predict, you will marry well, and will enjoy a full and happy life.” Then the mist closed briefly around him before dispersing to reveal he had gone.
Elsie was feeling stupidly sad. Sad at losing a ghost? But it hung over her for a while as the sun clouded again. Then she hurried home to life on the farm, and as the years went by, her father entrusted her with greater responsibilities, and she loved that.
Life was always brightened by the village fair every July, but it became a major event when the local gentry took a greater interest, funded certain events, adding colour, so many banners, so many stalls, and so much food and drink, creating a carnival atmosphere. They joined in festivities but could always return to their own special tent.
Even the locals dressed up and displayed how many fine gowns had been hidden away. Events of seven years earlier, soon passed into village memory and folklore but never totally far from Elsie’s mind.
Elsie was twenty-three and standing among village fair spectators alongside the road down which the younger men of the gentry would race. She was feeling marvellous in the blue gown her parents had bought her, especially for this occasion. Banners, bunting, and raucous cheers and laughter were all around her. She was heartened by the whole situation.
Cheers went up, indicating the race had started. Elsie leaned forward as they raced towards where she viewed a tall young man running nearest to her was level with two other runners. Suddenly, he tripped on a raised cobblestone and fell full length. Shocked, as she felt the tug of his falling body catch the hem of her gown, Elsie quickly recovered and offered her hand,
“Are you all right?”
Ignoring her hand, he struggled to his feet grumbling, “I’ve missed the prize.”
Blue eyes looked into her face, and he gasped admiringly, “But look what I’ve found.”
Elsie’s parents had warned of the dubious intentions of the young elite. Yet there was such an air of honesty about this blue-eyed man that within only a few minutes he had persuaded her to join him in the elite tent. They sat and sipped tea from fine china cups, and he asked her name.
She told him and wasn’t at all shocked when he said, “I’m Peter.” She had encountered several Peters over the past few years. But when he added, “I’m really not trying to impress, but I’m Earl of Lansdowne, my father is Lord Lansdowne.”
He must have seen the surprise on her face as he explained, “I thought you needed to know that since I intend to win your hand in marriage.”
Shaken by his forthrightness? Elsie certainly was, but from that day, Peter courted her diligently yet always respectfully. Her parents, initially suspicious, were soon taken by his charm. His parents were surprisingly pleasant and greeted her with great heart. Elsie thought she was in some kind of heaven.
A wedding date was set for the last day of August. A furore of preparation followed and two weeks before the ceremony Peter, while they strolled the lavish gardens of his father’s mansion, said, “I have a confession that you need to know.”
Elsie’s heart pounded. Had he changed his mind? “What is it?” she asked.
“I’m not the natural son of my father.”
Elsie could only issue a weak, “Oh!”
“I was adopted, when I was barely a year old,“ he gave a short laugh, “My mother says that they stole me from a gipsy.”
“That must have been quite startling.”
“My father confirmed that the transaction was a little more honest than my mother’s joke, but you don’t mind a little gipsy blood do you?”
“I’d take you even if you were a goblin,” she replied, blaming her mother’s influence.
He laughed, then his face became more serious, “Strange though, maybe imagination after learning those facts, but I feel that I have some skill, some power that I should be using. I haven’t any idea what it is though.”
Elsie experienced a fresh wave of love for this dear man.
On their wedding night, she lay delicately gowned, her long auburn hair spread around her on the pillow. Peter looked lovingly at her and asked, “Has anyone ever told you that you have wonderful hair?” He reached out and stroked his fingers through it.
A strange time to feel sad, as she replied honestly, “Only one man. His name was Peter.”
Her new husband obviously thought she meant him, but it was all right as he kissed her warmly.
Drawing back, his blue eyes wide and honest he said, “I predict that we will have three children.”
They did. And together they led long and happy lives.