In the early 18th century, at the time when Turlough O’Carolan the famous Irish harpist was composing his Italianate tunes and a little before Robert ap Huw of Wales was writing down those of his Welsh counterparts, a household harper was one of those ‘must have’ accessories.
Every Big House in Wales had its own resident harper. So, if you wanted to keep up with the Jones’s, and couldn’t afford to keep a harper yourself, you would at least try to rent one for big occasions.
Being in short supply, the professional harper could command high prices and would often be booked up for months ahead. So when one young harper was offered a booking for the weekend after next, he was a little surprised. The fee they were offering was double the going rate.
Perhaps his client had found it hard to get someone to play?
The party was at one of the new houses set on its own in valley on the other side of the mountain. When he saw who the Squire was, our harper began to wonder if he wanted to go there either.
Rumour had it the Squire had got his land by raising the rents, evicting the tenants who couldn’t pay and claiming the commons and woodlands as his own. It was even said that less than 3 months after one of his workmen had died in a farming accident, he had turned the weeping widow and five young children out of their tied cottage so he could rent it for five times the price to one of his fancy English friends.
Being short of cash himself, our harper decided in the end to go. But being wise to the ways of the rich, he asked for his fee in advance and only when the gold was safe in his purse did he play his first set of tunes.
Our harper had two sets to play, one over lunch and one in the evening. It was a beautiful August day so, having finished his first set and had something to eat, he thought he would go for a short walk. He asked one of the servants to mind his harp and went out into the garden, through a little wicket gate, and took the path along the field’s edge up the hillside to a high point from where he could look down at the house where it nestled at the bottom of a green valley.
Lying in the sunshine he listened to the white wheat rustling, now almost dry enough to harvest. He heard a little bird singing. Payback time. It was a curious note and, like all musicians, he tried to capture the tune. Payback time.
“Strange little bird”, he thought, as he dozed. “But if it was singing ‘Payback time’ I’d understand why. That Squire is a rotter” (yawn).
Our harper’s drowsy rest on the sunny hillside did not last. He woke with a start as huge raindrops splashed on his upturned nose. It was one of those torrential summer storms that blow up in a minute. He ran for shelter to a nearby farm-shed and waited for the rain to blow over.
The hot, summer rainstorm seemed to go on forever. He fell asleep again, this time on some old sacks.
By the time he awoke it was morning. He had missed his second set. And, worse, his harp was still in the Big House. Boy, was he in trouble.
He set off back down the hill.
He must have missed his way. He didn’t remember a lake. He turned to go back, then looked again. In the middle of the lake was a weather vane. The very one that had topped the Big House. A house that now was utterly drowned.
Along with his beloved harp!
Of so he thought. He sat by the lake, head in hands. The little birds were singing again ‘Pay back time’
Imagine how his despair turned to joy when he looked up to see his very own harp, floating towards him on the still surface of the new lake.
Pulling his beloved harp out of the water, he wiped it dry, checked the strings, then picked out a tune ‘Pay back time’
To his even greater surprise, everything was in good order. So he slung his faithful instrument over his back and began the long walk home.