Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, May 4, 2021


 " 'I'll-Steekit' Ephraim" by Howard Pease (from his 1919 collection Border Ghost Stories)

An Oxford reading party, along with their Dean, are vacationing in Northern England by the river Tees.  Four of the students go swimming in a nearby "deep pool" when one of them, Sandie, rises to the surface, visibly shaken.  He said he had dove to the bottom of the pool -- some twenty feet -- and touched something with long, flowing hair.  He was afraid it might have been a body.  His companions scoffed t he idea, saying it must have been some sort of drowned animal or, perhaps, his imagination.  Nonetheless they decide to check it out.  Our narrator dives down to the bottom, searching where the visibility is nil.  He touches hair and, reaching further, he could feel a woman's head.

What to do?  They decide to report this matter to their Dean.  The Dean decides that the police must be informed, but first there's tea, and the Dean will question one of the locals and see is anyone had been reported missing.  He questions the owner of the inn, but that man had only owned the place for a month and knew nothing about any disappearances.  Their tea completed, two of the students hop on their bicycles and pedal to the nearest police office only to find that the officer was in a different part of the county attending assizes and would not be back for a week.  So they pedal back figuring they would report the body when the officer came back.  (A somewhat laissez faire attitude if you ask me, but then I've never been an Oxford student; maybe they do things differently.)

Anyway, the next day the narrator and Sandie decide to go on a long hike, expecting to be back by nightfall.  They get a bit lost, end up in the moor studded with treacherous "peat-hags" (very soft areas of peat), and then it began to rain fiercely.  They determine to find shelter.  But where?  After stumbling around for a while, they see a light about a mile away.  They make their clumsy way to an old house and ask for shelter.  A man answers the door and admits them, but warns them that his father-in-law had just died and was laid out in the parlor.  Sure enough, there's a coffin, and in front of it, woman.  Beside her, an obviously retarded girl peeling potatoes and oblivious to her father laying in the coffin.  The woman asks the man why he had not brought Jean (his wife, her daughter) to the viewing.  The man ignores the old lady and tells the girl to prepare supper.

The supper is welcomed to the two students:  bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, bannocks (a type of fried bread), honey and milk, followed by a relaxing smoke.  Alas, there is nothing relaxing from then on.

The lid to the coffin is pushed away and a skeletal dead man sits up in the coffin.  The son-in-law reacts in terror. He kneels before the corpse and tells it no to accuse him.  "Poor Jean just happened an accident -- fell and was drowned in the river."  Sandie then jumps up and points to the man, crying, "She lies in the Black Linn pool -- her head knocked in -- a stone fast to her feet."   The man, still on his knees, crawls quickly to the door and escapes.  The widow locks the door to prevent him from reentering.  She said she had suspected that he had killed her daughter.

She then said he husband Ephraim was "i'll-steekit," meaning that his body had sat up when rigor mortis had set in.  She had the two students push him back into the coffin.  It was a difficult job.

Was Ephraim i'll-steerkit?  Or did his spirit sit up to accuse his daughter's murderer?  We never find out,  Nor do we find out the fate of the son-in-law.  The following day a wagon came to pick up Ephraim's body and the two students endeavored to rise Jean's body from its watery grave.  Whether they reported the incident to the police, I can't say.

Howard Pease (1863-1928) was a British banker, author, and editor who wrote extensively about Northumbria, both fiction and nonfiction.  He served briefly as editor of  Northern Counties Magazine at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The Library of congress notes the he was Lord of the Manor at Otterburn and (in 1913) was High Sheriff of Northunberland.  He published five fiction collections:  Borderland Studies (1893), The Mark O' the Deil... (1894), The White-Faced Priest... (1896), Tales of Northumbria (1898), and Border Ghost Stories (1919).  Among his other books were With the Wardens of the Marches (1909), Memoir of Sir David Dale (1911). The Lord Wardens of the Marches of England and Scotland (1913), The History of the Northunberland-Hussars-Yeomanry, 1819-1919 (1924), and Northumbria's Decameron 1927).

He is not be confused wit the American writer Howard Pease (1894-1974) who wrote the very popular adventure and mystery stories featuring Tod Moran, a young merchant mariner who eventually works his way up from wiper to first mate.  There were twelve novels and one collection of short stories about Moran.  (As a kid, I seem to remember the Scholastic Book Club seemed to offer a new Tod Moran adventure every  month.  It probably wasn't every month but to my ten-year-old brain it was.)

Border Ghost Stories is available to read on the internet.


  1. I am assuming the writing is good enough to carry this somewhat improbable story along.
    My great uncles, as children, rigged a body to sit up at a funeral once. One of the few stories my mother ever told about her childhood.

  2. When I was a kid, I read a ton of Howard Pease books, mostly Tod Moran stories. I dreamed about becoming a sailor. Then I went to High School where we were required to take a SWIM class and I learned I'm not that fond of water.

  3. Like George, I assumed you were writing about the Yank Howard Pease at first, though I thought--was he That old? Tanks for this and the disambiguation!

  4. Patti--your great-uncles were cut-ups, clearly, or at least pop-ups. I have to wonder how unliked a relative has to be before the kids manage to actually go through with such a prank...