Date: 08 Mar 01 - 05:45 AM
THE LOCHMABEN HARPER
Once upon a time, my dear friends, there was a harper who lived near the town of Lochmaben, which might---at first glance---not seem so extraordinary. He was blind as well. . . but of course, there were quite a few blind musicians about at the time. He was called John Harper because of his occupation; like many other people at the time, he used his calling as his family name. One evening, he was drinking with several nobles for whom he had played music and, when he was quite drunk, he began bragging, making more and more preposterous claims and ended by saying:
". . . and if I wanted to, I could even steal the king's stallion, the Wanton Brown!"
"Oh, do you think so?" interrupted one of the nobles, "You'll excuse me, but I don't believe you! I'll wager a house and land that you can't do it."
"And I," laughed another, "I'll wager five thousand pounds that you couldn't even steal a dried out crust of bread let alone the Wanton Brown!"
Is there someone amongst us who amongst us can say that he or she hasn't ever made a stupid bet in his or her life, dear friends? Let me tell you that John wasn't any different than any of us and said:
As drunk as he was, John soon began to regret his foolish wager. He went staggering home and told his wife what had happened.
"I'm terribly sorry, my dear. I shouldn't have been drinking and I certainly shouldn't ever have said such a ridiculous thing!"
But, surprisingly enough, his wife laughed and said: "I have an idea. . . you'll go see the king and try to steal his stallion anyway. Take the grey mare who foaled last week and leave her colt here with me. I'm sure you'll find a way to spirit the Wanton Brown out of the stable without anyone realising he's gone. . ."
So John Harper took his harp and the grey mare, went to the centre of Lochmaben town and played the most beautiful airs he knew until finally the king noticed him.
"Come to the castle, harpist", said the king. "You play so well that we would like to hear more of this marvellous music!"
"Yes, of course, your Highness; the pleasure of playing for your Majesty is too great a favour for such as myself! I have just one very small service to ask you before I play for your Majesty. . . I need a place to shelter my grey mare for the night."
"Why, that's the very least I can do!" said the king. "You can put her in my stables at the bottom of town next to my own stallion."
John Harper went to the king's stables at the bottom of town, where the Wanton Brown was stabled. With the help of several lumps of sugar, he put a halter on the stallion's head then attached the halter to his grey mare's tail with a rope. Then he went back to the castle and played as he had never before played in his life, so well indeed that the king and all his court fell fast asleep.
As soon as they had fallen asleep, John Harper quietly left the castle and went back to the stables. He led his out grey mare, with the Wanton Brown still attached to her tail and said, "Go find your foal and take this handsome stallion home with you. . . the future of our household depends on you!"
The grey mare trotted down the road and headed straight for her own stable and foal, followed by the Wanton Brown. John Harper went back to his blankets on the floor in the king's castle and slept soundly until morning, when he was awakened by the king, who said:
"Wake up, now, harper! We've slept long enough and would like to hear more of your music at present! Get up and play for us some more!"
"Yes, certainly, your Highness, nothing could possibly make me more happy! I would only like to ask your Majesty if I might go and care for my grey mare before I begin to play?"
"Of course, of course!" said the king, "But don't linger too long; we are quite impatient to hear more of your music!"
John Harper then went back to the king's stables, but this time came right back to the castle crying, "Woe is me, someone's stolen my grey mare! I'm ruined! What shall I do now?"
"If someone's stolen your grey mare, they've surely also stolen my stallion," said the king. Now, harpist, if you play for me, I'll pay you not only for your songs but three times the value of your grey mare as well!"
Thus, John Harper played and was generousely paid for his music and three times the value of his supposedly stolen grey mare, all without having the king suspect him of having stolen his stallion, the Wanton Brown.
As he left the town, he met two of the nobles with whom he'd made his ridiculous wager.
"How is it that you're on your way home so early and on foot, John Harper?" asked the noble who had wagered a house and land, "You don't even have your grey mare and I don't see the Wanton Brown either!"
My friends, they laughed so hard they nearly wept, those two nobles, thinking that they'd won their wager so easily. But John Harper just smiled and said: "Before you laugh too long and loud, I'd first like to tell you that I was not only generously paid for my music but also three times the value of my stolen grey mare and now I've something else to show you!"
He then invited them to follow him to his house and opened the stable door, where they saw the grey mare, her foal and. . . the king's stallion, the Wanton Brown.
I know it's a bit longer than most of the stories I've been posting, but it's one I had also translated into French for storyteller friends of mine using Martin Carthy's version of this amusing tale (on his album entitled "Li