Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 78

Welsh Poems — Sessions Business — The Lawyer and his Client — The Court — The Two Keepers — The Defence.

DURING supper I was waited upon by a brisk, buxom maid who told me that her name was Mary Evans. The repast over, I ordered a glass of whiskey and water, and when it was brought I asked the maid if she could procure me some book to read. She said she was not aware of any book in the house which she could lay her hand on except one of her own, which if I pleased she would lend me. I begged her to do so. Whereupon she went out and presently returned with a very small volume, which she laid on the table and then retired. After taking a sip of my whiskey and water I proceeded to examine it. It turned out to be a volume of Welsh poems entitled “Blodau Glyn Dyfi”; or, Flowers of Glyn Dyfi, by one Lewis Meredith, whose poetical name is Lewis Glyn Dyfi. The author indites his preface from Cemmaes, June, 1852. The best piece is called Dyffryn Dyfi, and is descriptive of the scenery of the vale through which the Dyfi runs. It commences thus:

“Heddychol ddyffryn tlws,” Peaceful, pretty vale,

and contains many lines breathing a spirit of genuine poetry.

The next day I did not get up till nine, having no journey before me, as I intended to pass that day at Machynlleth. When I went down to the parlour I found another guest there, breakfasting. He was a tall, burly, and clever-looking man of about thirty-five. As we breakfasted together at the same table we entered into conversation. I learned from him that he was an attorney from a town at some distance, and was come over to Machynlleth to the petty sessions, to be held that day, in order to defend a person accused of spearing a salmon in the river. I asked him who his client was.

“A farmer,” said he, “a tenant of Lord V-, who will probably preside over the bench which will try the affair.”

“Oh,” said I, “a tenant spearing his landlord’s fish — that’s bad.”

“No,” said he, “the fish which he speared, that is, which he is accused of spearing, did not belong to his landlord but to another person; he hires land of Lord V-, but the fishing of the river which runs through that land belongs to Sir Watkin.”

“Oh, then,” said I, “supposing he did spear the salmon I shan’t break my heart if you get him off: do you think you shall?”

“I don’t know,” said he. “There’s the evidence of two keepers against him; one of whom I hope, however, to make appear a scoundrel, in whose oath the slightest confidence is not to be placed. I shouldn’t wonder if I make my client appear a persecuted lamb. The worst is, that he has the character of being rather fond of fish, indeed of having speared more salmon than any other six individuals in the neighbourhood.”

“I really should like to see him,” said I; “what kind of person is he? — some fine, desperate-looking fellow, I suppose?”

“You will see him presently,” said the lawyer; “he is in the passage waiting till I call him in to take some instructions from him; and I think I had better do so now, for I have breakfasted, and time is wearing away.”

He then got up, took some papers out of a carpet bag, sat down, and after glancing at them for a minute or two, went to the door and called to somebody in Welsh to come in. Forthwith in came a small, mean, wizzened-faced man of about sixty, dressed in a black coat and hat, drab breeches and gaiters, and looking more like a decayed Methodist preacher than a spearer of imperial salmon.

“Well,” said the attorney, “This is my client, what do you think of him?”

“He is rather a different person from what I had expected to see,” said I; “but let us mind what we say or we shall offend him.”

“Not we,” said the attorney; “that is, unless we speak Welsh, for he understands not a word of any other language.”

Then sitting down at the further table he said to his client in Welsh: “Now, Mr So-and-so, have you learnt anything more about that first keeper?”

The client bent down, and placing both his hands upon the table began to whisper in Welsh to his professional adviser. Not wishing to hear any of their conversation I finished my breakfast as soon as possible and left the room. Going into the inn-yard I had a great deal of learned discourse with an old ostler about the glanders in horses. From the inn-yard I went to my own private room and made some dottings in my note-book, and then went down again to the parlour, which I found unoccupied. After sitting some time before the fire I got up, and strolling out, presently came to a kind of marketplace, in the middle of which stood an old-fashioned-looking edifice supported on pillars. Seeing a crowd standing round it I asked what was the matter, and was told that the magistrates were sitting in the town-hall above, and that a grand poaching case was about to be tried. “I may as well go and hear it,” said I.

Ascending a flight of steps I found myself in the hall of justice, in the presence of the magistrates and amidst a great many people, amongst whom I observed my friend the attorney and his client. The magistrates, upon the whole, were rather a fine body of men. Lord V— was in the chair, a highly intelligent-looking person, with fresh complexion, hooked nose, and dark hair. A policeman very civilly procured me a commodious seat. I had scarcely taken possession of it when the poaching case was brought forward. The first witness against the accused was a fellow dressed in a dirty snuff-coloured suit, with a debauched look, and having much the appearance of a town shack. He deposed that he was a hired keeper, and went with another to watch the river at about four o’clock in the morning; that they placed themselves behind a bush, and that a little before day-light they saw the farmer drive some cattle across the river. He was attended by a dog. Suddenly they saw him put a spear upon a stick which he had in his hand, run back to the river, and plunging the spear in, after a struggle, pull out a salmon; that they then ran forward, and he himself asked the farmer what he was doing, whereupon the farmer flung the salmon and spear into the river and said that if he did not take himself off he would fling him in too. The attorney then got up and began to cross-question him. “How long have you been a keeper?”

“About a fortnight.”

“What do you get a week?”

“Ten shillings.”

“Have you not lately been in London?”

“I have.”

“What induced you to go to London?”

“The hope of bettering my condition.”

“Were you not driven out of Machynlleth?”

“I was not.”

“Why did you leave London?”

“Because I could get no work, and my wife did not like the place.”

“Did you obtain possession of the salmon and the spear?”

“I did not.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“The pool was deep where the salmon was struck, and I was not going to lose my life by going into it.”

“How deep was it?”

“Over the tops of the houses,” said the fellow, lifting up his hands.

The other keeper then came forward; he was brother to the former, but had much more the appearance of a keeper, being rather a fine fellow, and dressed in a wholesome, well-worn suit of velveteen. He had no English, and what he said was translated by a sworn interpreter. He gave the same evidence as his brother about watching behind the bush, and seeing the farmer strike a salmon. When cross-questioned, however, he said that no words passed between the farmer and his brother, at least, that he heard. The evidence for the prosecution being given, my friend the attorney entered upon the defence. He said that he hoped the court were not going to convict his client, one of the most respectable farmers in the county, on the evidence of two such fellows as the keepers, one of whom was a well-known bad one, who for his evil deeds had been driven from Machynlleth to London, and from London back again to Machynlleth, and the other, who was his brother, a fellow not much better, and who, moreover, could not speak a word of English — the honest lawyer forgetting no doubt that his own client had just as little English as the keeper. He repeated that he hoped the court would not convict his respectable client on the evidence of these fellows, more especially as they flatly contradicted each other in one material point, one saying that words had passed between the farmer and himself, and the other that no words at all had passed, and were unable to corroborate their testimony by anything visible or tangible. If his client speared the salmon and then flung the salmon with the spear sticking in its body into the pool, why didn’t they go into the pool and recover the spear and salmon? They might have done so with perfect safety, there being an old proverb — he need not repeat it — which would have secured them from drowning had the pool been not merely over the tops of the houses but over the tops of the steeples. But he would waive all the advantage which his client derived from the evil character of the witnesses, the discrepancy of their evidence, and their not producing the spear and salmon in court. He would rest the issue of the affair with confidence, on one argument, on one question; it was this. Would any man in his senses — and it was well known that his client was a very sensible man — spear a salmon not his own when he saw two keepers close at hand watching him — staring at him? Here the chairman observed that there was no proof that he saw them — that they were behind a bush. But my friend the attorney very properly, having the interest of his client and his own character for consistency in view, stuck to what he had said, and insisted that the farmer must have seen them, and he went on reiterating that he must have seen them, notwithstanding that several magistrates shook their heads.

Just as he was about to sit down I moved up behind him and whispered: “Why don’t you mention the dog? Wouldn’t the dog have been likely to have scented the fellows out even if they had been behind the bush?”

He looked at me for a moment and then said with a kind of sigh: “No, no! twenty dogs would be of no use here. It’s no go — I shall leave the case as it is.”

The court was cleared for a time, and when the audience were again admitted Lord V— said that the Bench found the prisoner guilty; that they had taken into consideration what his counsel had said in his defence, but that they could come to no other conclusion, more especially as the accused was known to have been frequently guilty of similar offences. They fined him four pounds, including costs.

As the people were going out I said to the farmer in Welsh: “A bad affair this.”

“Drwg iawn” — very bad indeed, he replied.

“Did these fellows speak truth?” said I.

“Nage — Dim ond celwydd” — not they! nothing but lies.

“Dear me!” said I to myself, “what an ill-treated individual!”


Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50