From Supernatural Stories 37 - 1960
THE SECRET OF THE LAKE
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“Darkness and mystery lay beneath the turgid surface . . .”
A casual observer might have thought that the young and singularly handsome couple in the sports car were no more than tourists in this tourists’ paradise of northeast Norfolk. The casual observer would have been as wrong as it is possible for the casual observer to be. And that, as life’s ironies have often shown, is very, very wrong indeed. . . .
The man was thirty-ish, tall and broad-shouldered. Curling dark hair, and dark flashing eyes, that could on occasion freeze into steely chips, glowing like gun-barrels. The woman was of indeterminate age. She could have been a mature twenty or a Marlene Dietrich forty. Her hair was so black as to almost have a suspicion of blue in it. Her eyes, too, were very dark, deep mystic pools of feminine mystery and allure. Her hair was cut short in the classic Egyptian or Grecian style of two thousand years ago. She might have been a Cleopatra in modern dress. Her face was breath-taking in its loveliness. It matched the classic beauty of her figure, and yet, despite the obvious prosperity which the flashy new sports car indicated, the Saville Row and Bond Street cut of the clothes, Val Stearman and his wife La Noire were not the idle rich they appeared to be. Beneath that svelt exterior, Val was as tough as steel, and beneath the forty-guinea tailoring of his holiday suit, rippled muscles which could bend a two-inch iron bar. . . . There was a depth in his eyes that matched the depth in the woman’s face. It was a depth that told of adventure, adventure that had at times been grim and gory. Adventure in which the lives of both had very often hung by the slenderest thread. Adventures which had not been confined to the everyday dangers of the everyday world. Val Stearman and his wife were two of the people who did not dismiss the tales of the occult as fantasy or nonsense, for they knew. They had seen things in Central Europe, they had seen things on Himalayan heights and in the Rocky Mountains. In deserted graveyards, and in forbidden tombs in Egyptian valleys. They had had more than enough evidence to convince them that the physical and material world was really no more than Plato’s World of Shadows.
Behind it, below it, around it, invisible, inexorable, lies a greater spiritual world, compared to which this world of man is nothing more than a Shakespeare stage, where we, the players, have our exits and our entrances. Where it seems that weird cosmic forces control the scenery, forces which at times appear to have purpose and direction and which at other times appear to be as blind and as purposeless and as wandering as the wind. Things that less-informed men call destiny, and fate and chance, had a meaning and a place in the minds of Val Stearman and La Noire, for they had seen only too well, behind the apparent ordinariness of everyday life, behind the common street scenes, with which man defends himself from the unknown, behind omnibuses, newsboys, fish-and-chips, and pubs, and bicycles, and motor-cars, and gay colour, and laughter.
There is something else, which is in one sense unreal and unsubstantial, and yet, in another sense, is the only reality.
But a casual observer would not see all this.
The casual observer would have seen a handsome young couple in a fast new car, driving into the entanglement of maze-like roads which constituted Broadland.
Val Stearman turned off the Norwich by-pass and consulted the ordnance survey map in the front locker of his powerful car.
“Well,” said La Noire, “and where has Master Mind got us to now?”
Val scratched his head and went back to survey the signpost.
“According to this map I think we’re at a little place called Spixworth. The last place we came through was Catton, and there is a signpost up there pointing to Beeston St. Andrew, which I think we should have taken.”
“Very well, O Wise One,” smiled La Noire, “let us turn this monster around and see whether we can find the way back.” Val backed expertly and efficiently into the drive leading up to Spixworth Hall, spun the car around, and turned into the first left-hand bend that he encountered.
“Beeston St. Andrew on that signpost,”‘ said La Noire.
“Good,” returned Val, “now let’s see where we are heading.” The next signpost said “Crostwick.”
“Do we want Crostwick?” asked La Noire.
“I thought Wroxham would be a better place to head for,” answered Val.
“In that case we’re probably going in completely the wrong direction,” laughed his wife. “But of course, you know!”
“Sarcasm will get you nowhere,” retorted Val, and put his foot down.
“This is interesting,” he said as they passed the next junction. The road forked, the right-hand fork said “Rackheath Salhouse”, the left was unmarked. Val looked at the left fork longingly. He had a strange affinity for cart tracks, and Norfolk abounded in them. Sometimes they were called “major roads” out here!
“I think we’ll try this,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
“Let’s not break the springs, we’ve hardly had the car a month!” protested La Noire ruefully.
“Come on!” coaxed Val. Easing down to second gear the powerful sports chugged over the rough road at about twenty-five. They passed a cross-roads, but carried on straight. About a mile further on a post to the left said Wroxham Hall.
“We must be somewhere near,” said Val with a delighted grin, “and you thought we were lost!”
“Never ‘Halloo’ till you are out of the wood,” cautioned La Noire. “There may be some long way to go yet. This road probably stops in a dead end, or in the middle of a Broad or something!”
They carried on a bit further, and then, “Major Road Ahead” read Val in triumph. “That’ll be the main Wroxham Road, the A1151 that we missed when we came out of Norwich.”
“You would insist on going on that blessed by-pass, instead of going through the city like I said.”
“It isn’t a very easy city to drive in,” protested Val. “I was trying to cut out that St. Andrew’s bottleneck that we got mixed up in last time we went through.”
“I only hope it is that major road,” answered La Noire, changing the subject. Val halted. His keen eyes flashed across to the signpost on the other side.
“There we are,” he said, “sharp left for Wroxham and we’re straight through, one and a half miles. How about that?”
“How about it?” said La Noire. “We must write this one down in letters of gold in the ancient family diary.”
“We haven’t got a family diary,” grinned Val. “None of our misdeeds are recordable in ordinary print, they should all be written in Greek, Urdu and Gum Arabic! And locked in the deepest vault of the Bank of England, only to be opened a thousand years from now by the bravest of the brave.”
Beneath the banter a slight frown creased his face, for beneath the banter there was just a soupçon of the truth. They drove into Wroxham across the narrow hump-backed bridge over the river and pulled up a yard to the right of it.
“Here we are!” said Val. “Wroxham, King of the Broads!”
“Is it?” said La Noire. “By the state of that bridge I don’t think very much of it!”
“Oh well, you can’t have old-world charm and Broads and good roads, all in the same place,” said Val. “It depends which you want most.”
They got out of the car and strolled back towards the bridge.
Flotillas of launches, gay yachts and rowing boats were plying their way up and back. . . .
“Well, what do you think about getting a launch out for a couple of days?” said Val as they looked down into the water.
“What are those things with a sort of cabin built on?” asked La Noire.
“I think they call them cruisers,” he replied. “I gather the general principle is to get one for a week and potter about these two hundred miles of waterways!”
“I rather like the look of them,” said La Noire. Val shrugged his shoulders in mock resignation.
“If you like the look of them, it looks as if we’re going to get saddled with one, doesn’t it? All right! Let’s go and see one of these panjandrums around here who distribute the things. I bet they’re a price!” They walked across to the nearest boatyard. An ancient gnome with a thick Norfolk accent, a wrinkled face like tree bark and a complexion that matched the river mud, greeted them.
“What can I do for yer?” he asked. He had a deep, throaty voice that rumbled up from somewhere well below his stomach. His breath was distinctly alcoholic. Val took to him at once — he was a “character”. A character with a capital “C”. A character of the type which was becoming all too rare. He was more like the novelist’s conception of the “local yokel” than any local yokel ever has the right to be.
Being a writer himself, Val Stearman liked characters which lived up to their novelist’s conception of them.
“We’re interested in hiring one of those big boats.” The brown-skinned wonder wrinkled its face into a huge smile.
“Wal, yar werry lucky ol’ partner! I jus’ got one left thass the bes’ o’ the lot, an’ that wunt a’ bin here. Only there’s a cancellation or suffin. Somebody was a goin’ to have it, an’ then did’n, as it were!”
“I see,” said Val, when he had done a rapid mental interpretation of the Norfolk-ese. “How much do you charge for these things?”
“Wal, dew yew want it by the week, or by the day, or by the hower?” demanded the ol’ man. “It’ll cum cheaper by the week, if yew foller me, if yew see my meanin’ bor.” Val saw his meaning only too well.
“Shall we have it for the day or for a week?” he whispered to La Noire.
“Shan’t see much in a day, shall we?” she said. “I don’t suppose they’re very fast.”
“That’s a point,” said Val aloud, turning to the ancient Norfolk gnome. “About how far can I expect to cover in a day in one of these?”
“Wal, she won’ dew above six or seven mile an hour, an’ thass fairly fast,” returned the ancient one. “They would dew more, o’ course, but we ha’ tew goven ‘em down.”
“What on earth for?” demanded Val.
“Wal, tha wash, bor, that ruin the banks, ye see, an’ if yew go fast past anybody what a’ got a yacht, or dinghy or rowin’ boat or anythin’, well bor, yew’d ha’ ‘em into the mud as soon as look at ‘em ! So that won’ dew, yew see. Yew mustn’t go too fast. Thass cuttin’ all the banks away now, thass all agettin’ silted up. All these taxes I ha’ to keep payin’ to the River Board, an’ what do the River Board ever do for me, I should like ter know. They ain’t even put me a new front on my yard . . .”
Val interrupted the flow.
“Yes, I quite understand,” he said. “That means that running ten hours a day we could do something like seventy miles. Maybe Yarmouth and back, perhaps?”
“That ‘ud be about it,” agreed the old man. “That’d be nice goin’ in a day, takin’ it fairly easy.”
“I see,” said Val, “and, there’s two hundred miles of waterways altogether?”
“Ay, there’s well over that, well over.”
“So we should want at least thirty hours cruising . . . we should want it at least three days without stopping any where?”
“Pretty well,” said the old fellow. “Thass about it and if you want to allow yourself a few nice times stoppin’ and having a look around . . . well, bor . . . you want it fer a week. Some people have it fer a fortnight. That ‘ud come cheaper still fer a fortnight,” he added eagerly.
“I dare say it does,” said Stearman. “I think a week’ll be plenty.” He pulled out a wallet that was well stacked with notes of the right denomination.
The old man’s eyes opened in ecstasy.
“You ain’t one o’ these here gentlemen what pay by cheque, I can see that!” he said with a grin. “I don’t like them very much, I had one or two o’ them go wrong. . . . I don’t know how it is but they come back with a funny stamp on, say ‘no funds’ or ‘refer to drawer’. I don’t like that at all.”
Val grinned. Norfolk was as rural as all that, was it? he thought. Not only suspicious of banks, suspicious of cheques. It was a good job he had stacked up with the ready before he came out.
“All right,” he said, smiling. “How much do you want for this Noah’s Ark of yours?”
The old fellow grinned.
“You’ll find thass more comfortable than what Noah’s Ark was, bor,” he said. “Lot more comfortable, thass got everything in. All conveniences. Thass got its own cutlery, its own crockery, we provide you with ten gallons o’ the petrol. Thass a full tank, later you’ll ha’ to buy your own.”
“I thought there was a catch in it,” said Val. “By the way, talking about petrol reminds me of my car, Is there a garage anywhere handy where I can stash it while we’re on the boat? I don’t suppose I can get it on board!” The old man thought he meant it for a moment.
“Gor bless you, sir, don’ ee put a car on board, dew yew’ll go down wallop! Thass wery deep in one or two parts here. In fact they do say in some places thass deep enough to take three boats standing end on end. But I don’ know about that meself. Cos thass why they call them the Broads, because they’re broad and flat rather than narrow and deep . . . they used to be peat cuttings many years ago. . . .”
“Oh, did they?” said Val.
“Well, thass what’s said, but I believe some on ‘em is a lot older than that. They say these peat cuttings go back to tenth of eleventh century, some on ‘em. Some on ‘em a lot before that. Prehistoric peat cuttings, some people reckon they are! But goin’ back further still, you know, they do say that in Roman times there weren’t no Broads here at all, well, you heard the story o’ Wroxham Broad, I daresay?”
“Something to do with the Romans?” asked Val.
“Yes, bor, that is, thass everything to do with the Romans, That would appear that sometime during the second or third century there was a big Roman sort o’ circus there.”
“You mean an arena or an amphitheatre?” said Val.
“I believe thass the word the arkollologist uses, but I don’t know it meself,” said the old fellow. “Yess, thass what I heard, I heard that was a big old place there. You know there’s a funna legend attached to it. There’s one or tew people dew say that at the right time o’ the year — towards the end o’ the summa, when the nights begin to pull in a bit, there’s some great Roman festival — I dunno what that be, but that was held in there. And there was a story about tew men what swummed acrost there once, and suddenly” — he paused and glanced from one to the other —”Ah, but yew don’ want to hear nuthin’ ‘bout that I don’ s’pose. People aren’t int’rested in ghosts and legends these days . . . thass all cars an’ telewision. People don’ like a good ol’ fashioned ghost story no more!”
“You’re wrong,” said Val, “I think a lot of people do. We both do!”
La Noire nodded.
“Yew’re sure yewed like to hear the tale?” he said. “Ah wel, come an’ sit here alongo me on this bench an’ I’ll tell ee. You aren’t in a hurry for a minute or tew if yew’re on holiday.”
They sat beside the ancient Norfolk gnome. It was a strange setting — the lapping of the water a few yards away, against the wooden piles driven into the holes of the muddy banks, the water and the faint, yet unmistakable smell of the river. The bright summer sun, shining like a huge gold eye looking out of a blue face.
The sun, and the water, and the gay flotillas of holiday boats drifting past. Trees moving in a gentle breeze. One or two fleecy clouds drifting lazily across the sky as though pausing in their flight to eavesdrop. . . . The quiet noises of the water fowl on the opposite bank. The occasional pukka-puk of launch engines, travelling slowly and quietly along the river.
The old man paused to light his pipe, drew a deep breath, applied a match to the stubby old briar clenched between the remnants of brown teeth, and with one eye on the water, the other on his visitors began the tale.
“Wall, that happened like this . . . ‘twas in the year 16-hundred-and-something, I can’t ‘xactly mind the date — but we’re an old Wroxham family. We had boats here since there were boats at Wroxham. My father sailed on a wherry and so did his grandfather before him. Proper river men they were. Great grandfather was a wild fowler, and so was his father afore him, and his father afore him — thatchers and reed cutters, and wild fowlers, river men, Broad men, wherry men . . . we are an old water family, we are. Born and bred to it, born and bred to it . . . anyhow, this is how it was — there must have been one o’ my ancestors about here at the time, because the story was handed down in the family. We were here abouts ever since the river has been here . . . about the year sixteen hundred these two young visitors come. Two young men, they were, come from Lunnon way . . . they had a look round, did a bit o’ shootin’ and then decided they were going to have a swim. River waren’t so datty in those days . . . there wunt the number o’ boats on it, an’ it was sailing, not petrol engines. . . . So they set off acrost the Broad . . .”
“Which Broad?” said Val.
“Why, Wroxham Broad, thass what I’m tellin’ you about,” said the old man aggressively, as though he didn’t appreciate the interruption. “They set off acrost Wroxham Broad, they got about half-way acrost,” he paused dramatically and sucked hard at his pipe, leaving Val and La Noire in suspense — “about halfway acrost they wuz, and then —”
“Go on,” urged La Noire.
“You’ll find this hard to believe, but I do believe it to be the truth myself — they wuz jus about midway when what should happen, but suddenly there wun’t no water unner them no more. . . . They felt land beneath their feet. . . .”
“Land?” exclaimed La Noire, “in the middle of the Broads — they look so deep.”
“Ah, an’ so they are, my dear,” said the old man, “so they are — well I mean in comparison wi’ man. They aren’t deep in comparison wi’ the sea but they’re deeper than what you or I could walk acrost. There’s thirty or forty feet in Wroxham Broad . . . howsumever, thass what happened, they suddenly felt dry land beneath their feet . . . and the nex’ minnit, there weren’t no water in Wroxham Broad.”
“What?” gasped Val.
“There waren’t no water, that’ wuz dry as a bone. That had all gone. Not a drop . . .” He had a very annoying habit of breaking off at an interesting part of his narrative. “There were these two young men, you see, sir, halfway acrost the Broad, and suddenly that wan’t a Broad no more, that had dried up, and there they were, standin’ in the centre of a great wide semicircular space.”
“You mean a Roman arena?” said Val.
“Thass jus’ what I mean. They’d been carried back hundreds of years in time, or else the Past had come and caught up with them . . . thass what had happened, and as they stood a-watchin’ and a-lookin’ to see what was goin’ to happen next,” went on the old man, his ancient eyes glittering with enthusiasm, “they saw a great procession a-comin’, but they didn’t take no notice of them, and they heard the heralds a-shoutin’ and yellin’ and a-hollerin’ and the trumpets was a-blowin’ and there was slaves bein’ put to death . . . in front of a great statue, and there was incense — you know, that smellin’ stuff-burnin’ away in brass jars, and everybody was shoutin’ Crusus, or Crassus, or Crowfoot, or something like that — that was this here Roman Emperor’s name, and in he come, and then there was men with bundles of axes, tied up, and there was other men what come, an’ they yere floggin’ the crowd and drivin’ them back, and this old Emperor fella he come thru’ in his chariot and everybody shoutin’ ‘Hail Crowsfeet’, or whatever his name was, sounded something like Robinson Crusoe to me, when my grandfather told me the tale. But I know that warn’t him, cos he was the man that was on that little old island. . . .”
Val Stearman couldn’t help smiling at the old man’s attempts to pronounce the Roman Emperor’s name. . . .
“Anyhow,” went on the ancient, “arter a few minutes that all disappeared again, and they found theirsells back in the water swimmin’ for dear life towards the opposite bank, and they made it! Then one say to th’ other, ‘did you see what I saw?’ ‘Did you hear what I heard?’ And they both seen it and they both heard it. That’s what prove that couldn’t ha’ bin a dream. No two people ever dream the same thing without there being some meaning to it. Thass like the Pedlar of Swaffham — Ha’ yew ever heard about him?”
“Where’s Swaffham?” asked Val.
“Wal, I should think yew ha’ cum thru’ it if yew ha’ cum down from the Midlands. . . .”
“We came up from London.”
“Ah, wal, then, yewed miss it if yew came up from Lunnon. You probably cum thru’ Watton, and East Dereham, an’ that way!”
“Yes, that’s the way we did come.”
“Wal, yew miss Swaffham then, Swaffham is the King’s Lynn side, if yew’re goin’ straight acrost to the Midlands, as it were. Yew could go Lonnun Swaffham, but thass better to come the way what yew cum, yew safed a mile or tew. But if yer got another minute or tew to spare, bor, I’ll soon tell yer about the old Pedlar o’ Swaffham. Wal, thet turned out thet there wuz a Pedlar lived in that there town, I can’t remember his name, but that were durin’ the Middle Ages ‘fore the railways come,” Again Val grinned at the old man’s rudimentary teleological sense of historical chronology. . . .
“— this ol’ Pedlar he had a dream,” went on the ancient boat owner, “an’ in his dream he was standin’ by the side o’ a bridge. He never bin there afore, but somehow he knew that were Lunnon Bridge. An’ he knew he had to go there and he’d see a man, an’ the man ‘ud tell him suffin, an’ that ‘ud help him. So orf he went —” the old man suddenly snapped his fingers — “I believe his name was John Chapman, this ‘ere Pedlar, I’m sure that wuz John Chapman” — Val wondered as the old man spoke whether the name “Chapman” was really the old, general name for a pedlar, and whether it was used in this sense of “John Chapman” to represent just a particular pedlar, but a prototype pedlar — pedlars in general, just as the name “John Citizen” is read to represent a typical Englishman, and “Joe Dokes” a typical American, and “Jacques Bonhomme” a typical Frenchman. It was a possibility. Many folk lore tales gave the hero a name which really stood for “Everyman” — but the old man was continuing his story.
“— so John Chapman went up to Lunnon, d’ye see.” He pointed with his pipe in the direction in which he fondly believed London lay. . . .
“When he got up there he stood on the Bridge all day, an’ he was jus’ about to set out for home when he come acrost a man, an’ this fella said, ‘I see you’ve bin hangin’ about here all day, so’ve I, but yew ha’nt noticed me, I felt I jus’ wanted to come acrost and talk to yew, as I shan’t be able to sleep comfortable at nights. Now you may think I’m sorft’ — words to that effect, thass what he implied — ‘but I had a dream the other night’ — wel, bor, when Chapman heard that he pricked his ears up. So this other fella went on to tell ‘un about his dream, an’ what that amounted to was this — he had dreamed about a pedlar who lived in a little town called Swaffham in Norfolk, he ha’nt never been there — and he dreamt he dug in his garden and found a bag o’ gold under his apple tree. Wel, bor, that Chapman hurried off home, as quick as his ol’ legs ‘ud take him, an’ all the way he was a sweatin’ an’ a-worritin lest somebody else had got to his apple tree fust. So down the bottom o’ his ol’ garden he go; out wi’ his spade, an’ his lantern, ‘cos he didn’t want anyone else ter know — yer never know who’s about do yer — there was highwaymen in Brandon in them days, Dick Turpentine and all them other fellers — and Tom King — aah, I know all about them! I got a great uncle, he’m 97-year-old, an’ he’s the last o’ the Brandon flint knappers, an’ he can mind the time when he was still making flints for flint lock guns what was in use in Turkey . . . now thass a lot o’ years back — but I’m gettin’ off the track, yew’ll ha’ to excuse me . . . my mind do wander a bit sometimes . . . howsumever,” he drew on his pipe, lookin’ at the water and the sky, then his eyes flashed back to Stearman and La Noire, “there was a pot o’ gold under his apple tree, an’ that wuz worth a lot more in them days than it is now. If you had two or three gold pieces yew wuz a rich man, and he’d got a whole pot full . . . and he never had to work nor want agin — now thass a case o’ tew men dreamin’ the same thing. . . . Now, let’s go back to this here Wroxham yarn, what I wuz a’tellin’ yew. Tew men wouldn’t ha’ imagined the same thing, unless there wuz suffin in it. But that ain’t the end o’ the matter.
“They might ha’ bin tew young fellas havin’ a bit o’ foolery, if that had jus’ bin them tew, cos there wuz some bright lads about in them days — you know — cock-fighting, and bear-baitin’ and bare-fist boxing, and they used to run hundred-mile road races. There was one man run from Cromer to Lunnon once, he was the last o’ the runnin’ footmen. I mind my grandfather talkin’ about him, in the Regency days, that wuz. No that ‘ud be my great grandfather — I told yew wrong there, bor. That there runnin’ footman, he wuz in a race from Lunnon, and he run all the way up from Lunnon or Cromer — or Sheringham — I can’t remember which, now — he just got there, an’ won a very substantial wager for his master, an’ he dropped down dead. So that din’t do him no good, did it? There wuz some funny people about, they’d go in for all them queer things, an’ gambling an’ horse racing . . . but that wun’t jus’ the tew of them, d’yew see, about 50 or 60 years later there were a family — quite a respectable family, a clergyman, or a dean, out o’ Norwich Cathedral, come out o’ somewhere like that . . . respectable people, he was a magistrate at least. . . . Not the sort o’ man to go in for no foolery when he had his family with ‘im, respectable types. They sat there havin’ a picnic on the side o’ the Broad, when all of a sudden that wun’t a Broad no more — just like them other young men. And they seed the Roman procession going through, and they heard the trumpets a-blarm’ and the people marchin’ and they seed the great stone altars, and they heard everybody a-shoutin’, Caruso — or whatever it wuz. I can’t get that name right, but as I wuz sayin’ it don’ matter werry much, I dare say you’ll come acrost it somewhere. You may meet one of these arkollologist blokes what know more about it than I do. The name ain’t important, it’s the story what’s important . . . this family seed this here strange transformation taking place, and as it took place they looked about them and heard the music, and saw the crowds, and then that slowly turned back again . . . into a Broad, and it wuz all gone as though it had never bin. . . . About a hundred years afterwards there was another family picnickin’ there and they heard it . . . jus’ afore this last war thass been seen again. Thass bin seen so orf an’ on in part by many people. Holiday makers like yourselves . . . I mind a young fellow tellin’ me last year that he never seed nuthin’, but as he was drivin’ acrost the Broad late one night he heard from under the water a sound like a faraway trumpet peal. He almost fancied he could feel the water vibratin’ as though it was bein’ stirred by the passage of many people.” The old man’s voice grew low as he talked. “Ah but thass a funny thing to talk about, a nice bright day like this here,” he said suddenly. “Come on now tergether, before you change yewr mind about this here boat. I musn’t tell yew any more ghost stories or yew won’ want to have a look at our Broads!”
“On the contrary,” said Val, “it will make me more keen than I was when we came.”
“Oh, I’m glad o’ that, then,” said the old man. “Thass good for trade, then, in’t it?”
“I daresay it is — like the Loch Ness monster . . .”
“Aar, bor, we could do with one o’ them about here! That’d bring the Yanks down! Hundreds on ‘em ‘ud come to see that! We han’t got one though! I wish we had! I keep tryin’ to get a cuttin’ off that one in Loch Ness — but he won’t sell me one!”
Val grinned at the Norfolkman’s dry humour.
“What d’yew say to thirty pound for the week for that boat?”
Val looked at it for the moment. “Bit steep, isn’t it?” he asked. The old man cast his eyes longingly towards the big journalist’s bulging wallet. “Twenty-five?” he said quietly.
“That’s more like it, but I’m still not too keen . . .”
“Orl right,” said the old fellow. “My final offer twenty — and I’m only putting it in as cheap as that because I had a cancellation, and I don’ want to lose the money altogether — but I’d sooner that stood there empty than went for less than twenty!”
“Twenty’s fair enough,” said Val. It was, he reflected, about what a hire car would cost for a week, and there was as much mechanism and rather more convenience in the boat than there would have been in a car. He shelled out four crisp, new fivers and handed them across to the ancient boat owner.
“Do you know anything about the controls?” asked the old man.
“Quite a bit,” said Val.
“Wal, let’s go and have a look. If you can drive a car, you can drive one o’ these here without difficulty,” said the old boat owner, “but there’s just one thing you gotta bear in mind, mister, an’ thass this — when yew’re drivin’ one o’ these here, that don’ turn from the front and follow its nose, that sort o’ pivot from a point about three-quarter o’ the way through — if you see what I mean. Yew know when yew’re drivin’ a car and yew spin yewr steerin’ wheel? Well your wheels are right under yew, but these here steer from the back, d’yew see? Yew’ve got yewr steerin’ wheel at the front, but she actually swing from an inwisible point . . .”
“I see,” said Val, “I have had some experience of launches but not quite like this.”
Val’s experience of “launches” had been in MGB boats during the war, but he was not the kind of man to boast about his Service days, even though they had been quite distinguished ones.
“Yew’re all away then,” said the old man as he familiarised Val with the rest of the controls, and La Noire with the contents of the minute “kitchen” or galley as he preferred to call it.
“There’s plenty o’ little riverside shops an’ that, as yew go down. Any village ‘ull set yew up wi poisons.”
“Okay,” said Val. “I’ll see you a week from now, all being well.”
They set off down the river. It was far more interesting than Val had anticipated it would be. He was no fisherman and the thought of ploughing along through two hundred miles of waterways in a boat that was rather on the slow side, was not one that appealed to him as an ideal way of making a holiday, and yet, he was finding it more pleasant than he thought he would have done.
They turned at first and made their way up through Belaugh under Bridge Broad, headed past Grove’s End old Hall, through Belaugh Broad, past the Belaugh Inn, round the big curve of the river itself, and on towards Coltishall. They went through the reed-strewn waterway, watching it gradually narrow as they went — then trouble. The Bure, so far as navigation is concerned, ends at Coltishall lock, they could get no further. They could see the mill, the lock, and past the ancient Coltishall Manor House, turned and made their way back through Belaugh, to Hoverton, through Wroxham, and then, running with the current, made their way straight down the river.
“We can always explore the Broads themselves later,” said Val, “I want to just follow this river course first.”
“Suit yourself — you’re the Captain,” said La Noire, “I’m enjoying it.” She was lying back on the deck, watching the sky, basking in the late autumn sun.
They made their way past Wroxham Broad, past Hoverton Great Broad, past Salhouse Broad, they continued up past Hoverton Little Broad, the Decoy Broad, and Broad-waters into Horning itself. They stopped at the Ferry Inn for a drink, made their way past Horning Ferry, and on past the cut that led into the Ranworth Broad.
Ranworth Marshes lay to their right, and an unidentified waterway to their left, with Horning Hall just visible in the distance. The Fleet Dyke joined the Bure, and so did the Ant. At the other end of the Fleet Dyke, so a notice-board told them, lay the South Walsham Broads. They continued steadily on down the Bure, past the ruins of St. Benet’s Abbey, and on by Marsh Farm, until they arrived at the junction of the Thurne. They passed the meeting of the Thurne at Thurmnouth, went on through the hamlets of Ashby-with-Oby, through Acle Broad, past the old Inn that lies on the side of the A1064 main road to Billockby. By Stokesby to the hospitality of the Stracey Arms, which lies beside the main A47 straight to Yarmouth.
From there the river took them past marshy banks, by Heronby Hall, and Six Mile House. They passed the Five Mile House Ferry and Mortby Marsh Farm. From there they made their way to Stare Gap Farm, and after that there seemed to be nothing but mud and water till they arrived at Three Mile House. They came into the Yarmouth yacht station and tied up.
“Spend the night here, I think,” said Val. “It looks a reasonable place to berth.”
They lashed the cruiser up, and settled down for a night in Yarmouth.
The following day they made their way from Yarmouth across the five broad miles of Breydon Water, opening out from the Yare.
Val was getting a little tired of the scenery. Marsh and mud flat are uninteresting . . . but having left Breydon behind they made their way down the Yare. She is a wide river, almost as wide as a young Broad, and it was not long before they arrived at Reedham. They stopped to take on provisions and ploughed on through Norton Staithe Ferry, past Limpenhoe Marshes, until they arrived at Cantley and the Red House Inn. Stopping for a lunch-time drink, they pressed on until the picturesque old Inn at Lesingham came in sight. They stopped to explore Surlingham Broad, then via Whitlingham junction they made their way into the City of Norwich itself. There was not very much more of the river to explore. They followed it as far up as Old Lakenham and then, giving the reeds and mud the best of the battle, they turned and retraced their way to Yarmouth again. But just before making their way into Yarmouth, they decided to turn and try the Waveney, which runs almost due south past the famous old ruins of Burgh Castle. They went through the Belton Marshes, down past Fritton and St. Olaves, into Somerleyton, and as dusk was falling, they tied up and spent a warm and comfortable night in the picturesque old world Somerleyton Inn.
The following day they ran down as far as Beccles and Bungay, finishing at Flixton. Turning and making their way back along the Waveney again until they were once more in Yarmouth via Breydon Water. Strong tides were running, and it was not the best of days for crossing the wide stretch. Wind and tide were against each other, and three-foot waves were breaking doggedly across the stern of the big cruiser.
“I shouldn’t like to be here in a rowing boat when it’s like this,” said Val grimly. “I have known the open sea calmer.”
They made their way back from Yarmouth along the Bure, past Stokesby, until they found themselves at the junction of Muckfleet. They turned and negotiated the shallow and difficult waterway which ended on Filby Broad.
They cruised in a leisurely fashion from Filby through Rollesby, right up to the northernmost extent of the triple waterway, terminating in Ormesby Broad, then they made their way back down the Fleet, passing Thrigby, the ancient Hall of which was just visible in the distance. Back by the Fleet, and a sharp right turn, under Acle Bridge.
From Acle Bridge they made their way past the Ferry, connecting Targate Green with Ashby-with-Oby, then once more they were at Thurnemouth. This time they made their way up the Thurne, turning left they went to investigate the tiny stretch of water known as Womack Broad — there wasn’t very much to see, it was quiet and deserted, and the village of Ludham lay beyond it.
Back down the tiny waterway, and once more on the Thurne, they cruised past Pugstreet, from there they went under the proud bridge on the A149 leaving the village of Bastwick away on their right, with Potter Heigham to the north. A few miles more brought them to Candle Dyke, where they turned into the large and beautiful waterway known as Hickling Broad. Via Heigham Sound they ran into Hickling Broad itself, and on the way back, turned up to Horsey Mere with Breydon Marsh to the north-west of it. They could have explored the New Cut, running from Horsey Mere parallel with Hickling Wall, right up to the ancient Ingham Manor House, and so up to Lessingham, and Whinpwell Green, but it was narrow and did not portend much of interest, and so as dusk was falling on the fourth day of their holiday they anchored at Thurnemouth, having made their way back down the river. They stayed long and late at Thurnemouth and it was on the fifth day, having explored Ranworth Broad and spent a pleasant lunch hour with the excellent cuisine of the Horning Ferry Inn, having examined the Little Hoveton Broad, and the Great Hoveton Broad, having run across Salhouse Broad with the dusk just beginning to come across the marshy reeds, they made their way on to Wroxham Broad, and it was not until that moment that they remembered the old man’s strange story of the Romans. . . .
“I don’t like this place in the dark,” said La Noire suddenly, “it’s eerie, weird. . . .”
“I don’t, either,” said Val. “It must be a place of great beauty during the cool, clear light of day, but at night — ugh!” He shrugged his broad shoulders in a gesture of obvious distaste.
“Shall we try and push on to Wroxham,” said La Noire, “it’s only about twelve miles down the river.”
“It’s dusk now,” returned Val. “And I don’t want to risk running into any poor little mutt in a rowing boat. We should go clean through him in this walloper.”
“I suppose we should — does that mean we shall have to tie up here for the night?”
“I reckon so,” said Val. “Shall we go over there towards those reeds, or pull up where the other boats are?”
“I feel like a bit of company, let’s see if we can get across there.”
Night came much more swiftly than they had thought possible.
“I don’t fancy trying to tie up amongst that lot in the dark,” said Val.
“No, we don’t want to risk getting stove in, or stoving somebody else in,” said La Noire, looking at the broad, black expanse of water, its unknown depths stretching beneath the keel of the boat, its unknown width, its unknown magnitude, its unknown history. . . .
“I don’t think the Roman ghosts are likely to come,” said Val, reassuringly, “it’s just that —”
“I know.” La Noire squeezed his hand. “It’s just after what we have seen . . . and heard, the places that we’ve been. I suppose human nerves are like human muscles, they’ll only stand so much. After they have been abused to the limit they won’t take as much as they used to when they were new. . . .”
“It’s a long time since my nerves were new,” said Stearman with a grin. “All right, we’ll stay here.” They nosed into the reeds and dropped anchor. By the amount of chain used, they knew the water was pretty deep there, even though close to the bank.
La Noire cooked a meal, on the Calor gas cooker, and they sat, sipping coffee and looking out across the darkening Broad. Their portable radio was playing quietly in the cabin, as they sat looking at the stars, and the pale gleam of the reflected starlight on the back water. In a way it was romantic, in another way it was strangely frightening. Dimly they could see the lights of the other boats in the distance, on the far side of the Broad, they could hear the lapping of the water and the noises of the water fowl settling down to rest.
“Time seems to stand still here,” said La Noire softly. It was almost as though she had uttered some kind of magic incantation. Perhaps it was just that the phrase had focussed their thoughts in the right direction, perhaps . . . perhaps a thousand things . . . but be that as it may, whatever the reason, the result was the same.
The darkness began to fade, and as it faded it was replaced by a strange opalescent, grey-green light. A sickly light, an evil light. . . .
“By thunder, I don’t like this much,” exclaimed Stearman. La Noire didn’t like it either.
They had seen light of that kind only too often before. . . . It was an occult light, a weird, eerie light, that had no place in the world of gaiety and laughter and colour and human folk. An evil light, that showed that all was not well and that the natural laws were being circumvented and cast aside. Val made as though to start the engine. La Noire placed a restraining hand on his arm.
“Too late,” she whispered, “we should never make it across there before . . .” she broke off. There was no boat, there was no water, they were standing in the middle of an enormous Roman amphitheatre, and in the grey-green light which illuminated the place they could see row upon row of chairs, hundreds upon hundreds of faces.
“Ugh,” said Val, with a characteristic shudder. His hand snaked to the jacket pocket where he always kept a heavy Browning, a big Browning .45 — a gun that was not as other guns — for that Browning .45 was loaded with silver. And on more than one occasion, Val Stearman’s miracle gun, as he and La Noire dubbed it, had got them out of an extremely tight corner. Bullets from that gun had settled ghouls and werewolves. Bullets from that gun had ended the lives of vampires and zombies, and every kind of hideous, creeping crawling horror which assailed the dark watches of the night.
Every notch on the broad, deep butt represented one creature of evil the less, one more of Satan’s spawn that would do their evil work no more. Val’s fingers strayed to the butt of that great Browning and slid off the safety catch.
Memories were coming back to him now — swiftly — and then the light suddenly grew in intensity. Val gave a gasp of surprise. Something had happened to his clothes. His jacket was gone. His gun was gone. La Noire gasped too; they looked at one another.
“My God!” whispered Val, as he ran his hands over his own tunic. “A Roman uniform.” La Noire was wearing one of the fashionable, simple but graceful tunics of a Roman lady of rank of the period.
They looked at one another.
“Whatever dark forces are at work here, they’ve really gone to town on us! Others have just observed, we seem to have been caught in the vortex of the force and to have become involved in it. In some strange way we have exchanged personalities with whoever or whatever belongs in this strange time and place,” said Stearman quickly, and as he said the words, his mind seemed to fog over, he drew a deep breath and suddenly he was Allectus, Praefect of the Guards, and this was his noble lady.
“It is today,” she whispered swiftly, “today, when he comes to the games.”
“Very well,” answered Allectus and stood ready, his sword loose in its sheath.
There was a sudden fanfare of trumpets.
“This is no place for you — get yourself to safety.”
She kissed him swiftly, lightly, and crossing the arena with lithe, graceful steps, was lost in the crowd lining its walls.
Allectus stood with his guardsmen behind him, trumpets blew. There was a great shout as the emperor approached. Allectus barked orders mechanically to the legionnaires behind him and they began marching swiftly forward. He called a halt and the Guard of Honour drew up as the Emperor Marcus, Aurelius Carausius, made his way in triumph across the arena.
And then, Allectus felt a sudden surge of blood stirring his veins and setting fire to them.
Carausius the Usurper must die!
It was the one thought in his mind. He drew the sword, and before the startled Emperor, or any of the Guards made a move, Allectus, Praefect of the Guards, had stepped forward and struck.
There was a deathly silence in the arena. A silence that was broken by a swelling cheer, the cry arose:
“Allectus, Allectus! Constantius Chlorus!” The words were loud, fantastically loud, deafening . . . they roared in his ears like water, like water, like water . . . and suddenly he wasn’t Allectus, he was in the water and swimming for his life.
He heard a cry for help, it was La Noire, where was he? What the devil had happened? Who was he? Darkness and water, and La Noire’s voice crying desperately for help. He struck off, swimming like an Olympic champion in the direction of the sound.
“Val, where are you?”
Val! That was his name! Of course it was! Val Stearman, but where had he been, what was he doing in the water? He couldn’t recall falling in. He reached her and his strong arm supported her as they struck back towards — towards — where? Was that the bank, that dark outline ahead of them? Something darker against the reeds, something higher against the night sky, something higher against the reeds.
That was a boat. Yes, of course it was a boat! They had been on a boat.
Somehow they scrambled aboard and made their way into the cabin, wringing out dripping wet clothing.
“What the devil happened?” asked Val. “Do you remember?”
“I’m confused,” said La Noire, “let’s have a hot drink.” She brewed up more coffee. In the sanity and the light of the boat things began making sense again. Once Val’s head had cleared he saw the whole fantastic picture.
“Do you remember the story the old man told us,” he began, “the story of the strange happenings on the Broad. And the shouts and the trumpets of the Romans’ Feast, and the name that he couldn’t remember. Well, that name was Carausius — Marcus Aurelius Carausius. As far as my history goes, Carausius was a tyrant, and a usurper, he began life as a Manapian from Belgic-Gaul, as a man of very low origin. But from AD 286-293 he was the Ruler of Britain. In the Roman Army he was rapidly promoted, and the Emperor Maximian stationed him at Gessoriacum which was otherwise known as Benonia, and is the modern Boulogne. His job there was supposedly to ward off Frankish and Saxon pirates. He was apparently in league with the Barbarians, and he was sentenced to death by the Emperor. But he escaped to Britain and proclaimed himself independent ruler. In 289 Maximian tried to recover the island, but his fleet was damaged by a storm and he was compelled to acknowledge the reign of Carausius in Britain. There are many coins, principally, I believe, in one of these local museums; at Norwich, which bear the heads of Carausius, Diocletian and Maximian, and they are engraved with the words ‘Carausius et fratres sui’ which means — if my Latin is any good —” he grinned, “‘Carausius and his brothers’. I don’t know how Diocletian and Maximian liked being linked in this filial way, but still — In 292 Constantius Chlorus captured Gessoriacum — or the modern Boulogne — which had up to that time been in the possession of Carausius. He then started making plans to reconquer Britain. And this is the strange part” — the memory of the weird experience in the ancient Roman arena was coming back to him — “before they were complete, Carausius was murdered by Allectus, Praefect of the Guards. Allectus was a loyal servant of Constantius Chlorus, and handed Britain back to the Emperor —”
“And you mean —” said La Noire.
“And I mean — whether it’s reincarnation or not, I can’t say, but it seems that tonight I re-lived the final dramatic action in the life of the Emperor Carausius — I was, for the moment of the murder, Allectus, secret agent of Constantius and a Praefect of the Guard. It was my hand tonight that drove the ghostly sword into the ghostly body of an emperor who has been dead for eighteen hundred years.”
“Strange, very strange,” said La Noire.
“I can understand the poor old man in the boatyard not getting the name right, and calling him Caruso and Crowsfeet . . .”
“I wonder if it was a dream?” said La Noire.
“You know better than that,” said Val. “These things aren’t dreams. There is some weird outworking of the metaphysical processes, and just now and again the veil lifts and we see through. Time is like a tangled ball of wool, the threads and fibres crossing and recrossing one another. If you travel along a fibre, today and yesterday are a long way apart. But if you leap from one fibre to another you could find yourself a thousand years in the future or a thousand years in the past in the twinkling of an eye.” La Noire was looking out across the dark waters of the Broad. “The Secret of the Lake,” she whispered to herself, “and what a strange, dark secret it is!”
“I wonder if I really was Allectus the Praefect of the Guard in the other life?” said Val. “I wonder if that was the link that brought me back? I wonder . . . oh, I wonder so many things.”
La Noire was looking out across the dark water again. “A thousand ages are like an evening gone,” she quoted. “It is strange. . . .”
“I know one thing,” said her husband, “at the risk of stoving anyone else’s boat in or not, I don’t want another ducking tonight, and I certainly don’t want to stab poor old Carausius again. . . .” He laughed. It was the way of him to laugh. It was the way in which he found relief from nervous tension.
He started the engine up, and they made their way slowly and very cautiously across the dark waters of the Broad. And with a sigh of thankful relief they tied up at last without mishap among the other boats, and the lights and the sounds of the people.
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