A MYSTERIOUS TALE
Alf began the tale, sitting back and closing his eyes. “I can assure you this tale is completely true, and it is set here in Lowfell about one hundred years ago when my great-grandfather was alive. He was a shepherd and lived here on Lowfell Hill, in a hut just like this one, with a view of the marsh.” He paused, then took a great big handkerchief out of his pocket and rubbed his great big red nose with it. The children waited impatiently.
“He were alive when it ’appened.”
“When what happened?” Lucy-Ann asked cautiously. Her eyes were big and wide, with a scared expression in them.
“When the smugglers came.” Alf replied looking grave.
“The marsh hasn’t always been marsh land, you know. Once it were part of the sea, its tide lapping against the rocks. Was a little harbour and all, ‘me grandfather always went fishing out there…until it ‘appened.”
He looked down at his feet as he said this and frowned. “The smugglers, they came right here, up into the hills on one cold stormy night. It were raining and thundering. Here was ‘me grandfather, sittin’ in his ‘ut and then two shadows fell across the room. He caught the sight of two men creeping up further into the ‘ill.”
The children listened in excitement. Lucy-Ann felt a little shiver creep up her spine. Alf certainly could tell a story well! All the time, he looked at them, his small glassy eyes rolling from side to side.
“Twas the night when the wind howled and the lightning tore the sky in two. Twas the night when a ship was on its way to deliver some valuable cargo to Lowfell. Dunno what it was exactly, but it was important it was delivered safely. Of course, the marsh was sea back then, and all the ship had to do was to drop the bundles of cargo off at the little harbour.”
Alf chewed his pipe for a moment, shifting it about his mouth. It settled at the side of his mouth again and rested on his chin. The children watched, itching the hear the rest of the story. “But ‘o course it wouldn’t be as easy as that, not when two very dangerous smugglers were on the loose anyway. The pair ‘ad smuggled before, but had been planning this one for months. Lou and Joe they were called, big men, quite famous. Were burly, muscular fellows, rather forbidding to look at. So on the night, the ship approached carrying hundreds of bundles of this cargo. Apparently, twas not all they were carrying, apparently they had treasure aboard. That’s just what the people believed, but apparently, twas quite true. This is what the smugglers were after, anyway.”
The children were rather annoyed at Alf’s unexpected intervals as they were eager to hear the story and Dinah sighed purposely loudly when he came to his next one. Alf appeared quite unaware of his and ignored her. Philip sent her an alarming glare and she immediately sat up and did not sigh again!
Alf shuffled about in his chair, trying to get comfortable. “So they caught word that a ship, ferrying a load of precious cargo and treasure was coming into land at Lowfell, at mebbe’…say midnight…” Alf began again, “what smuggler could resist? The plans were made carefully and the uncanny pair crept right up this ‘ill to the very top, right past me grandfather’s ‘ut. Me’ grandfather watched, the shadows pass and blew out ‘is candles and hid under the bed! ‘E was the only one who saw them, ‘me great grandfather was. None of the other villagers did.”
The children imagined the men prowling round the top of Lowfell Hill in the middle of the night watching for the ship coming into land at the little Harbour that was apparently called; Lowfell Harbour.
Alf went on, talking in his mysterious voice, sometimes only in a whisper, as if the smugglers were listening in at the window! “The ship came in at last, sometime after midnight, I think. It were called The Forester and was a very big famous ship belonging to a big fella’ called Captain John, a man with a wooden leg and a glass eye. He were in charge of the ship that night and ‘e ‘ad forty men aboard with him. They were approaching Lowfell and everythin’ was going well. The storm had damaged it a bit, but other than that all was great. The storm was raging and Jo and Lou were almost blown off the ‘ill. There they lurked in the darkest of shadows. When they saw the ship, one of them ran down the hill to a rocky part of the shore. He then lit a lantern and the ship steered towards it, thinking it was a light at the ‘arbour. The smugglers knew there were rocks between the land and where the ship was.”
The children listened in horror, Lucy-Ann clutching Jack tightly. Jack pushed her off and she snuggled into Dinah instead.
Alf took no notice of any of them and went on as if he was telling himself the tale. “So in came the ship, heading straight for the jagged rocks between the land and itself. Captain John shouted to his men and the rain lashed down. The smugglers were wet through and the smuggler holding the lantern had to try and keep the rain out of it. It did go out a few times and had to be relit. And then, there were the mightiest crash you ever ‘eard. The ship ran straight into the rocks and down she went. The villagers were awoken and clamoured from their beds to see what was goin’ on. Me’ great grandfather got our from under the bed and watched from the window. Even the smugglers got a shock, that crash were so tremendous.”
The children imagined it, the ship crashing against the rocks, the noise echoing about Lowfell and awakening the babies and the families. The dogs barking and growling.
“The smugglers ‘ad their plans made carefully. They were to now get out their paddle boat and row over to the sinkin’ ship and quickly get tha’ loot before the ship sunk. So in they got and started paddlin’. By this time, the villagers were out watchin’ the mamas with their babies in their arms and the fathers with their arms around their frightened wives. The children cryin’ and being comforted by the village teacher.
Everyone ‘ad seen Jo and Lou rowing away into the night and could hear the distant splash, splash of the oars. They had seen somethin’ else too. The barrels of cargo ‘ad began to roll out of the ship as the ship sunk and the liquid was splashing out into the sea. The sea around the ship began to go a peculiar grey colour and it was blotchy and sticky. It began to spread and get thicker and thicker turning the sea into a kind of marsh land! Jo and Lou had seen it and began to get frightened. The marshland was almost touching them now, and they were too far away from the land to row back safely. They watched The Forester slowly sink into the marshland along with Captain John and his forty men.”
Alf paused and stared coldly at the children. “And then, it sunk the two wretched smugglers, the villagers watching in horror from the top of Lowfell Hill. Nobody tried to save them, they just watched.”
Nobody knew quite what to say when Alf’s rather frightening tale was over. They just stared into Alf’s glassy eyes. Lucy-Ann suddenly gave an unexpected sob and Jack put his arm around her. “It probably isn’t true Lucy. Just a tale the villagers believe might have happened hundreds of years ago. Anyhow, I don’t believe a word of it.”
“Oh, it’s true alright.” Alf chimed in gruffly, “And you can see the ship’s mast sticking out from the marsh’s surface from one point in the hill. You run along now and have a look for it. I’ve got work to do.”
The children got up reluctantly, Scamp jumping up off Philip’s toes. Alf saw them out and then fetched his stick. It was time he went and saw to his sheep!
The children walked up to the top of the hill and looked at the marsh, searching for the mast sticking up out of the marsh, but they couldn’t seem to see anything that looked like a mast. Jack watched out for a few more birds for a minute and then they all raced off down the hill back to the inn. It was two o’clock! The children had missed lunch by a long way and were welcomed by a good ticking off from Mrs Jordans. They had lunch in the kitchen with the maids that day because Mrs Jordans refused to clean the dining room twice a day, “For naughty children or otherwise!” she added as she announced that they would be eating in the kitchen. None of them told her why Alf had kept them so long, not even Lucy-Ann.