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The Lochmaben Harper

from Tales From Scottish Ballads





"Oh, heard ye of a silly harper,
Wha lang lived in Lochmaben town,
How he did gang to fair England,
To steal King Henry's wanton brown?"


Once upon a time, there was an old man in Lochmaben, who made his
livelihood by going round the country playing on his harp. He was very
old, and very blind, and there was such a simple air about him, that
people were inclined to think that he had not all his wits, and they
always called him "The silly Lochmaben Harper."

Now Lochmaben is in Dumfriesshire, not very far from the English border,
and the old man sometimes took his harp and made long journeys into
England, playing at all the houses that he passed on the road.

Once when he returned from one of these journeys, he told everyone how
he had seen the English King, King Henry, who happened to be living at
that time at a castle in the north of England, and although he thought
the King a very fine-looking man indeed, he thought far more of a frisky
brown horse which his Majesty had been riding, and he had made up his
mind that some day it should be his.

All the people laughed loudly when they heard this, and looked at one
another and tapped their foreheads, and said, "Poor old man, his brain
is a little touched; he grows sillier, and sillier;" but the Harper only
smiled to himself, and went home to his cottage, where his wife was busy
making porridge for his supper.

"Wife," he said, setting down his harp in the corner of the room, "I am
going to steal the King of England's brown horse."

"Are you?" said his wife, and then she went on stirring the porridge.
She knew her husband better than the neighbours did, and she knew that
when he said a thing, he generally managed to do it.

The old man sat looking into the fire for a long time, and at last he
said, "I will need a horse with a foal, to help me: if I can find that,
I can do it."

"Tush!" said his wife, as she lifted the pan from the fire and poured
the boiling porridge carefully into two bowls; "if that is all that thou
needest, the brown horse is thine. Hast forgotten the old gray mare thou
left at home in the stable? Whilst thou wert gone, she bore a fine gray
foal."

"Ah!" said the old Harper, his eyes kindling. "Is she fond of her foal?"

"Fond of it, say you? I warrant bolts and bars would not keep her from
it. Ride thou away on the old mare, and I will keep the foal at home;
and I promise thee she will bring home the brown horse as straight as a
die, without thy aid, if thou desire it."

"Thou art a clever woman, Janet: thou thinkest of everything," said her
husband proudly, as she handed him his bowlful of porridge, and then sat
down to sup her own at the other side of the fire, chuckling to herself,
partly at her husband's words of praise, and partly at the simplicity of
the neighbours, who called him a silly old harper.

Next morning the old man went into the stable, and, taking a halter from
the wall, he hid it in his stocking; then he led out his old gray mare,
who neighed and whinnied in distress at having to leave her little foal
behind her. Indeed he had some difficulty in getting her to start, for
when he had mounted her, and turned her head along the Carlisle road,
she backed, and reared, and sidled, and made such a fuss, that quite a
crowd collected round her, crying, "Come and see the silly Harper of
Lochmaben start to bring home the King of England's brown horse."

At last the Harper got the mare to start, and he rode, and he rode,
playing on his harp all the time, until he came to the castle where the
King of England was. And, as luck would have it, who should come to the
gate, just as he arrived, but King Henry himself. Now his Majesty loved
music, and the old man really played very well, so he asked him to come
into the great hall of the castle, and let all the company hear him
play.

At this invitation the Harper jumped joyously down from his horse, as if
to make haste to go in, and then he hesitated.

"Nay, but if it please your Majesty," he said humbly, "my old nag is
footsore and weary: mayhap there is a stall in your Majesty's stable
where she might rest the night."

Now the King loved all animals, and it pleased him that the old man
should be so mindful of his beast; and seeing one of the stablemen in
the distance, he turned his head and cried carelessly, "Here, sirrah!
Take this old man's nag, and put it in a stall in the stable where my
own brown horse stands, and see to it that it has a good supper of oats
and a comfortable litter of hay."

Then he led the Harper into the hall where all his nobles were, and I
need not tell you that the old man played his very best. He struck up
such a merry tune that before long everybody began to dance, and the
very servants came creeping to the door to listen. The cooks left their
pans, and the chambermaids their dusters, the butlers their pantries;
and, best of all, the stablemen came from the stables without
remembering to lock the doors.

After a time, when they had all grown weary of dancing, the clever old
man began to play such soft, soothing, quiet music, that everyone began
to nod, and at last fell fast asleep.

He played on for a time, till he was certain that no one was left awake,
then he laid down his harp, and slipped off his shoes, and stole
silently down the broad staircase, smiling to himself as he did so.

With noiseless footsteps he crept to the stable door, which, as he
expected, he found unlocked, and entered, and for one moment he stood
looking about him in wonder, for it was the most splendid stable he had
ever seen, with thirty horses standing side by side, in one long row.
They were all beautiful horses, but the finest of all, was King Henry's
favourite brown horse, which he always rode himself.

The old Harper knew it at once, and, quick as thought, he loosed it,
and, drawing the halter which he had brought with him out of his
stocking, he slipped it over its head.

Then he loosed his own old gray mare, and tied the end of the halter to
her tail, so that, wherever she went, the brown horse was bound to
follow. He chuckled to himself as he led the two animals out of the
stable and across the courtyard, to the great wrought-iron gate, and
when he had opened this, he let the gray mare go, giving her a good
smack on the ribs as he did so. And the old gray mare, remembering her
little foal shut up in the stable at home, took off at the gallop,
straight across country, over hedges, and ditches, and walls, and
fences, pulling the King's brown horse after her at such a rate that he
had never even a chance to bite her tail, as he had thought of doing at
first, when he was angry at being tied to it.

Although the mare was old, she was very fleet of foot, and before the
day broke she was standing with her companion before her master's
cottage at Lochmaben. Her stable door was locked, so she began to neigh
with all her might, and at last the noise awoke the Harper's wife.

Now the old couple had a little servant girl who slept in the attic, and
the old woman called to her sharply, "Get up at once, thou lazy wench!
dost thou not hear thy master and his mare at the door?"

The girl did as she was bid, and, dressing herself hastily, went to the
door and looked through the keyhole to see if it were really her master.
She saw no one there save the gray mare and a strange brown horse.

"Oh mistress, mistress, get up," she cried in astonishment, running into
the kitchen. "What do you think has happened? The gray mare has gotten a
brown foal."

"Hold thy clavers!" retorted the old woman; "methinks thou art blinded
by the moonlight, if thou knowest not the difference between a
full-grown horse and a two-months'-old foal. Go and look out again and
bring me word if 'tis not a brown horse which the mare has brought with
her."

The girl ran to the door, and presently came back to say that she had
been mistaken, and that it was a brown horse, and that all the
neighbours were peeping out of their windows to see what the noise was
about.

The old woman laughed as she rose and dressed herself, and went out with
the girl to help her to tie up the two horses.

"'Tis the silly old Harper of Lochmaben they call him," she said to
herself, "but I wonder how many of them would have had the wit to gain a
new horse so easily?"

Meanwhile at the English castle the Harper had stolen silently back to
the hall after he had let the horses loose, and, taking up his harp
again, he harped softly until the morning broke, and the sleeping men
round him began to awake.

The King and his nobles called loudly for breakfast, and the servants
crept hastily away, afraid lest it might come to be known that they had
left their work the evening before to listen to the stranger's music.

The cooks went back to their pans, and the chambermaids to their
dusters, and the stablemen and grooms trooped out of doors to look after
the horses; but presently they all came rushing back again,
helter-skelter, with pale faces, for the stable door had been left open,
and the King's favourite brown horse had been stolen, as well as the
Harper's old gray mare. For a long time no one dare tell the King, but
at last the head stableman ventured upstairs and broke the news to the
Master-of-the-Horse, and the Master-of-the-Horse told the Lord
Chamberlain, and the Lord Chamberlain told the King.

At first his Majesty was very angry, and threatened to dismiss all the
grooms, but his attention was soon diverted by the cunning old Harper,
who threw down his harp, and pretended to be in great distress.

"I am ruined, I am ruined!" he exclaimed, "for I lost the gray mare's
foal just before I left Scotland, and I looked to the price of it for
the rent, and now the old gray mare herself is gone, and how am I to
travel about and earn my daily bread without her?"

Now the King was very kind-hearted, and he was sorry for the poor old
man, for he believed every word of his story, so he clapped him on the
back, and bade him play some more of his wonderful music, and promised
to make up to him for his losses.

Then the wicked old Harper rejoiced, for he knew that his trick had
succeeded, and he picked up his harp again, and played so beautifully
that the King forgot all about the loss of his favourite horse.

All that day the Harper played to him, and on the morrow, when he would
set out for home, in spite of all his entreaties that he would stay
longer, he made his treasurer give him three times the value of his old
gray mare, in solid gold, because he said that, if his servants had
locked the stable door, the mare would not have been stolen, and,
besides that, he gave him the price of the foal, which the wicked old
man had said that he had lost. "For," said the King, "'tis a pity that
such a marvellous harper should lack the money to pay his rent."

Then the cunning old Harper went home in triumph to Lochmaben, and the
good King never knew till the end of his life how terribly he had been
cheated.





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