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.
It’s a bitter cold night and the first snow of the year. So if that’ll just plunge that poker in the ale to warm it, I’ll tell you a tale to make you smile. Aye, that’s better, and good health to you and your’n.
A long time ago – the way I heard it, it wasn’t long after the French came over here and that’s many hundreds of years back – there were a priest up in Norham. That’s on the River Tweed, right up agin Scotland, and I heard all about it where I were up that way. Now he kept a school in his church, and there were one young lad who were allus getting into trouble.
One morning the lad knew he were on to a hiding from the parson, so he got up early, went to the church and took the key from inside the lock. Back outside he turned it so no-one could get it, because that’s where ‘t parson kept the rod he used for beating. Then the lad tossed the key into the river, thinking no one would ever find it.
But this parson, he were a right holy fellow, and when he took his road and went down to the water to catch summat for his supper, God directed him to a certain spot and told him to cast his line. He did as the Good Lord wanted, and afore he knew it, he had a bite on his line.
He pulled it out and he’d caught hissen a plump, juicy salmon. But when he cut if open to get it ready to cook, what did he find inside but the church key. So he was able to get into the church.
I’ll not bother telling you what happened to the young lad. I daresay you can guess it all already.