The young man stopped rowing; his arms were tired and so he paused in the centre of the lake to rest and admire the view. A low-lying mist covered the water but beyond that he could see the rest of the park with its soft, undulating mounds and its protective ring of trees – sentinels spreading their arms, providing shade and security. It was a peaceful spot. A curlew called forlornly. The water patted the side of the boat, like a dog lapping from a bowl. The young man dipped his hand below the surface, enjoying the cool respite for his aching palm. He felt he could stay out there all day.
A grip of ice seized his wrist. The young man had to hold onto the rowlocks to prevent himself from being pulled overboard. The boat rocked alarmingly; he feared capsize.
At last his hand was released. A ripple disturbed the surface, dispersing the mist as something travelled quickly away. The young man realised he was holding his breath. Composing himself, he rowed back to shore and clambered from the boat. He tore across the grass, towards the shelter of the trees. To feel the solidity of the trunk in his embrace! He threw his arms around a sturdy oak and pressed his face against the rough and craggy bark, gulping in air.
His hand still felt cold.
“Ah,” said the park keeper, happening along. “You’ve been out on the lake. You’ve seen Myrtle.”
“I have seen no one, sir,” the young man gasped.
“She has touched you then? Myrtle’s icy fingers!” The park keeper was no longer cheerful. The young man edged around the tree but the park keeper followed. “You must get yourself away from here. Not just the park, my boy, and not just the city. Go inland – where it’s dry. Keep you away from bodies of water. And wear a glove at all times.”
The young man looked at the park keeper as though he were insane. The park keeper reached for his arm and offered to accompany him to the gate. As they walked, the park keeper explained.
“Long ago, a sailor was marooned. He was the only survivor of a wreck and he washed up on a tiny island in the very middle of the ocean. Without human company, the fellow thought he would soon run mad but at night his sleep was disturbed by singing from the shore. The third time this happened he went to investigate and he discovered a young woman on a rock, combing her long tresses with a twig. She sensed his approach but carried on singing. The sailor was captivated. He had never seen or heard anything so beautiful.
““I am Myrtle,” she sang. “Bring me fresh twigs and I shall be your lover.”
“In a trance, the sailor plodded off in search of what she required.
“They spent happy years together until at last rescue came. The sailor could not bear to be parted from his mermaid bride and Myrtle begged him not to leave. But the pull of the land was too much. The sailor longed for home.
““Come with me, my love,” he implored. Myrtle said she would follow.
“For years, their love continued in secret. At night, the sailor would slip down to the beach and in a secluded cove they would be reunited. The arrangement was less than satisfactory and inevitably someone found out and threatened to expose the mermaid to all the world. Myrtle screamed at the intruder until his ears bled and his heart gave way. The sailor knew he must get his bride away from there and protect her at all costs.
“He bought this estate and installed a lake surrounded by a wall of trees. And here he lived out the rest of his days. After his death, the estate was given over to the public, and Myrtle pined away. Or so it seems. Now, she seeks a new companion to replace the love she lost. Therefore flee, I beseech you, before she casts her spell on you and drags you to the bottom of the lake.”
The young man baulked at so fantastical a tale but his hand still felt like ice. The curlew cried again. The park keeper listened. “No, my love,” he murmured.
“Go!” he said, turning the young man out of the gate.
The young man noticed then that the keeper was wearing gloves – thick, oilskin gloves – and through them his touch was like winter.