The telling of stories and anecdotes were a popular part of Victorian Society luncheons and doing the rounds in the 1870’s was an eerie tale of a night time occurrence in Lapford. It was reportedly introduced onto the social scene by Lord and Lady Portsmouth who may have heard the tale from one of their tenant farmers.
The story concerns a Lapford farmer who saves his maid from a murderous end having been forced out of bed in the middle of the night by a very vivid dream. Several similar versions of the story exist. This version was published in The Story of My Life, a 6-volume autobiography by a Victorian travel writer, Augustus Hare—
“On the railway which runs from Exeter to Barnstaple is a small station called Lapford. A farmer who lives in a farmhouse near that station awoke his wife one night, saying that he had had a very vivid dream which troubled him — that a very valuable cow of his had fallen into a pit and could not get out again. The wife laughed, and he went to sleep and dreamt the same thing. Then he wanted to go and look after the cow. But the wife urged the piercing cold of the winter night, and he went to sleep instead, and dreamt the same thing a third time. Then he insisted upon getting up, and, resisting his wife’s entreaties, he went out to look after the cow. It was with a sense of bathos that he found the cow quite well and grazing quietly, and he was thinking how his wife would laugh at him when he got home, and wondering what he should say to her, when he was aware of a light in the next field. Crawling very quietly to the hedge, he saw, through the leafless branches of the hawthorns, a man with a lanthorn and a spade, apparently digging a pit. As he was watching, he stumbled in the ditch and the branches crackled. The man, hearing a noise, started, threw down the spade, and ran off with the lanthorn.
The farmer then made his way round into the next field and came up to the place where the man had been digging. It was a long narrow pit like an open grave. At first he could make nothing of it, then by the side of the pit he found a large open knife. He took that and the spade, and began to set out homewards, but, with an indescribable shrinking from the more desolate feeling of the fields, he went round by the lane. He had not gone far before he heard footsteps coming towards him. It was two o’clock in the morning, and his nerves being quite unstrung, he shrank from meeting whoever it was, and climbed up into the hedge to conceal himself. To his astonishment, he saw pass below him in the moonlit road one of the maids of his own farmhouse. He allowed her to pass, and then sprang out and seized her. She was most dreadfully frightened. He demanded to know what she was there for. She tried to make some excuse. ” Oh,” he said, “there can be no possible excuse; I insist upon knowing the truth.” She then said “You know I was engaged to be married, and that I had a dreadful quarrel with the man I was engaged to, and it was broken off. Well, yesterday he let me know that if I would meet him in the middle of the night, he had got something to show me which would make up for all the past.” — ” Would you like to know what he had to show you ? It was your grave he had to show you,” said the farmer, and he led her to the edge of the pit and showed it to her. The farmer’s dream had saved the woman’s life.”
The following version of the story appeared in a local newspaper and, whilst much shorter, adds the detail that the maid’s deadly rendez-vous had been scheduled for 2 o’clock in the morning —
“A farmer living at Lapford, a little place between Barnstaple and Exeter, dreamed thrice in succession that he saw a pit dug in one of his fields, and some of his properly cast into it. At the third time of dreaming he got up, dressed, and went to his fields. All his stock was safe, and feeling rather an ass, he turned for home. As he did so he heard the thud, thud of a spade, and caught sight of a man digging by lantern-light. The digger ran away at his approach. It was a grave upon which he had been at work. By its brink lay a huge knife. On his way back the farmer met one of his maid-servants. She had had a desperate quarrel with the man whom she had been engaged, she said, but he had prevailed upon her to meet him for the last time at two o’clock that morning, when he had something to show her. ‘‘This is what he had to show you,” said the farmer, leading her to the grave which his dream had prevented her occupying.”