Back in the days when a man could wander free on the roads there lived a man called Old Jem. He’d always seemed ancient, with his beard slowly turning from brown to snowy, shaggy white and his hair hanging long over his shoulders.
His clothes were older than he was, and even in summer he wore a long coat that trailed almost to the ground. Its buttons were long gone, and in winter he held it together with a belt made from rope.
He’d been coming through Leeds even before Richard Nottingham was a boy, finding a place on Briggate to set down his pack, put out his hat and tell his stories for a penny or two. People would crowd around to listen, carried off by his voice and the magic of his words.
Jem would often stay with Richard and Mary Nottingham at the house on Marsh Lane, grateful for a bowl of stew and a place by the hearth to roll out his blanket for the night. He’d entertain Rose and Emily with his tales of kings and princesses and times when magic was still strong in the land.
This is one of the stories he used to tell.
Back when I were young, when Leeds were nothing more than a few houses and fields, I heard tell about a lord who had three daughters. Bonny lasses they were, and none of them wed. But this lord, he weren’t well and each day he grew more poorly. The doctor could do nowt to help him, and finally he was so desperate that he sent for a wise man who lived over near York. The wise man examined the lord from the top of his head to the soles of his feet and finally told him,
‘You need a drink of clear water from your own well to get you on your feet again.’
‘That’s all?’ the lord asked, scarcely believing it was that simple.
‘Aye,’ the wise man answered. ‘But one of your own daughters must draw the water.’
The lord called for his oldest lass and asked her to get him a drink of clear water from the well. She did as she was asked, let the bucket fall and pulled it up again. But the water was full of silt; it had never been that way before. She looked down and what did she see put a frog. Aye, a frog, like you’d see in a pond.
But this one jumped up until it was on the rim of the well, staring her in the eye, bold as brass.
‘Tell us you’ll be me sweetheart and you’ll be able to pull all the clear water you like,’ the frog said.
‘Give over,’ the girl said. ‘I’m not going to have a frog for me sweetheart.’
‘Are you sure?’ the frog asked.
‘Of course I’m sure. I’m a lord’s daughter, I can do better than a frog.’
‘Right, my girl,’ the frog said. ‘No clear water for you.’ And he jumped back down the well. Sure enough, as she pulled up three more buckets, all were cloudy.
‘You give it a try,’ the lord told his middle daughter. ‘I feel weaker, luv, and I don’t want to die.’
So she went to the well and pulled up a bucket of water. It was cloudy, and then the frog appeared, asking the same question. She gave it the same answer as her old sister and the water stayed cloudy.
Finally the youngest sister went to the well, drew another bucket of cloudy water and the frog was there, asking his question. At first all she could do was laugh, but when he asked again, she thought, ‘why not’ and said yes. It was a frog, she thought. It couldn’t be serious.
She dropped the bucket again and pulled it back – and this time the water was clear. She took it to her father who drank deep and felt better right away.
The lass was happy to see her father right as rain, and quickly forgot about the frog. But three nights later there was a tapping outside her chamber. She opened the door and the frog sat there.
‘Tha promised to be my sweetheart,’ he said, and she was an honest lass; she couldn’t deny the truth of it. She crept back under her covers and the frog perched on the end of the bed. When she woke in the morning it were gone. The same thing happened the next night, and she decided, if it returned, she make that the last time; this was getting daft.
The frog came back and that night it settled on the end of the bed again. But as the girl slept it moved up until it was on the pillow right by her face. It was still there when the lass opened her eyes in the morning. She screamed, picked up the frog and threw it on the floor.
But what does tha think happened next?
Right next to the bed a young man stood up, dusting himself off. Handsomest lad you’ve ever seen, he were, too, and dressed in clothes that cost more than any she could afford.
‘Who are you?’ the lord’s youngest daughter asked, She was right scared at having a young man here, but she couldn’t take her eyes off him.
‘You promised you’d be my sweetheart,’ the man told her. ‘Don’t you remember?’
‘That was a frog,’ she said, ‘not a man. ‘And I just said it to get some clear water for my da.’
‘But you said it. A witch had put me under her spell. Saying you’d be my sweetheart broke it. And in return I’ll marry you for your kindness.’ He smiled at her and it was like seeing the morning sun pop over the hills. ‘I’d better talk to your father.’
He does, telling the lord that he comes from a wealthy family that lives na more than twenty mile away, up in another of the dales.
‘That lass of yours saved my life,’ he said. ‘I could have spent eternity as a frog. I’d like to take her hand in marriage, to cherish her as long as we live.’
Her father gives his consent, but he wants to talk to the young man’s father first. He gives him a horse and sends him on home, but has one of his own servants follow, with orders to report on all he sees and return by nightfall.
When the servant returned, the lord questioned him closely.
‘They were happy as owt to see him again,’ the servant said. ‘Over t’moon. And afore I started back, the lad said to tell you that he and his father would be here tomorrow.’
They came, right enough, and after a long morning of haggling, everything was settled. The lord settled a powerful dowry on the daughter who’d saved his life, and the wedding were fixed for the next Sunday, wi’ all the quality folk for miles around invited. The feasting and the music and the dancing lasted all night, long after the bride and groom had slipped happily away.
Did the other daughters ever find husbands for theirselves? Well, that’s another story altogether.
Old Jem’s stories were told and re-told by others over the years. They must have travelled around England during the centuries, because some were collected and eventually printed in The Penguin Book of English Folktales, although by then Old Jem was long forgotten.