Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 81

The Mining Compting Room — Native of Aberystwyth — Story of a Bloodhound — The Young Girls — The Miner’s Tale — Gwen Frwd — The Terfyn.

I FOLLOWED the young man with the glazed hat into a room, the other man following behind me. He of the glazed hat made me sit down before a turf fire, apologising for its smoking very much. The room seemed half compting-room, half apartment. There was a wooden desk with a ledger upon it by the window, which looked to the west, and a camp bedstead extended from the southern wall nearly up to the desk. After I had sat for about a minute, the young man asked me if I would take any refreshment. I thanked him for his kind offer, which I declined, saying, however, that if he would obtain me a guide I should feel much obliged. He turned to the other man and told him to go and inquire whether there was any one who would be willing to go. The other nodded, and forthwith went out.

“You think, then,” said I, “that I could not find the way by myself?”

“I am sure of it,” said he, “for even the people best acquainted with the country frequently lose their way. But I must tell you, that if we do find you a guide, it will probably be one who has no English.”

“Never mind,” said I, “I have enough Welsh to hold a common discourse.”

A fine girl about fourteen now came in, and began bustling about.

“Who is this young lady?” said I.

“The daughter of a captain of a neighbouring mine,” said he; “she frequently comes here with messages, and is always ready to do a turn about the house, for she is very handy.”

“Has she any English?” said I.

“Not a word,” he replied. “The young people of these hills have no English, except they go abroad to learn it.”

“What hills are these?” said I.

“Part of the Plynlimmon range,” said he.

“Dear me,” said I, “am I near Plynlimmon?”

“Not very far from it,” said the young man, “and you will be nearer when you reach Pont Erwyd.”

“Are you a native of these parts?” said I.

“I am not,” he replied; “I am a native of Aberystwyth, a place on the sea-coast about a dozen miles from here.”

“This seems to be a cold, bleak spot,” said I; “is it healthy?”

“I have reason to say so,” said he; “for I came here from Aberystwyth about four months ago very unwell, and am now perfectly recovered. I do not believe there is a healthier spot in all Wales.”

We had some further discourse. I mentioned to him the adventure which I had on the hill with the fellow with the donkey. The young man said that he had no doubt that he was some prowling thief.

“The dogs of the shepherd’s house,” said I, “didn’t seem to like him, and dogs generally know an evil customer. A long time ago I chanced to be in a posada, or inn, at Valladolid in Spain. One hot summer’s afternoon I was seated in a corridor which ran round a large open court in the middle of the inn; a fine yellow, three-parts-grown bloodhound was lying on the ground beside me with whom I had been playing, a little time before. I was just about to fall asleep, when I heard a ‘hem’ at the outward door of the posada, which was a long way below at the end of a passage which communicated with the court. Instantly the hound started upon his legs, and with a loud yell, and with eyes flashing fire, ran nearly round the corridor, down a flight of steps, and through the passage to the gate. There was then a dreadful noise, in which the cries of a human being and the yells of the hound were blended. I forthwith started up and ran down, followed by several other guests, who came rushing out of their chambers round the corridor. At the gate we saw a man on the ground and the hound trying to strangle him. It was with the greatest difficulty, and chiefly through the intervention of the master of the dog, who happened to be present, that the animal could be made to quit his hold. The assailed person was a very powerful man, but had an evil countenance, was badly dressed, and had neither hat, shoes nor stockings. We raised him up and gave him wine, which he drank greedily, and presently, without saying a word, disappeared. The guests said they had no doubt that he was a murderer flying from justice, and that the dog by his instinct, even at a distance, knew him to be such. The master said that it was the first time that the dog had ever attacked any one or shown the slightest symptom of ferocity. Not the least singular part of the matter was, that the dog did not belong to the house, but to one of the guests from a distant village; the creature therefore could not consider itself the house’s guardian.”

I had scarcely finished my tale when the other man came in and said that he had found a guide, a young man from Pont Erwyd, who would be glad of such an opportunity to go and see his parents, that he was then dressing himself, and would shortly make his appearance. In about twenty minutes he did so. He was a stout young fellow with a coarse blue coat, and coarse white felt hat; he held a stick in his hand. The kind young book-keeper now advised us to set out without delay, as the day was drawing to a close and the way was long. I shook him by the hand, told him that I should never forget his civility, and departed with the guide.

The fine young girl, whom I have already mentioned, and another about two years younger, departed with us. They were dressed in the graceful female attire of old Wales.

We bore to the south down a descent, and came to some moory, quaggy ground intersected with water-courses. The agility of the young girls surprised me; they sprang over the water-courses, some of which were at least four feet wide, with the ease and alacrity of lawns. After a short time we came to a road, which, however, we did not long reap the benefit of, as it only led to a mine. Seeing a house on the top of a hill, I asked my guide whose it was.

“Ty powdr,” said he, “a powder house,” by which I supposed he meant a magazine of powder used for blasting in the mines. He had not a word of English.. If the young girls were nimble with their feet, they were not less so with their tongues, as they kept up an incessant gabble with each other and with the guide. I understood little of what they said, their volubility preventing me from catching more than a few words. After we had gone about two miles and a half, they darted away with surprising swiftness down a hill towards a distant house, where, as I learned from my guide, the father of the eldest lived. We ascended a hill, passed between two craggy elevations, and then wended to the south-east over a strange, miry place, in which I thought any one at night not acquainted with every inch of the way would run imminent risk of perishing. I entered into conversation with my guide. After a little time he asked me if I was a Welshman. I told him no.

“You could teach many a Welshman,” said he.

“Why do you think so?” said I.

“Because many of your words are quite above my comprehension,” said he.

“No great compliment,” thought I to myself; but putting a good face upon the matter I told him that I knew a great many old Welsh words.

“Is Potosi an old Welsh word?” said he.

“No,” said I; “it is the name of a mine in the Deheubarth of America.”

“Is it a lead mine?”

“No!” said I, “it is a silver mine.”

“Then why do they call our mine, which is a lead mine, by the name of a silver mine?”

“Because they wish to give people to understand,” said I, “that it is very rich — as rich in lead as Potosi in silver. Potosi is, or was, the richest silver mine in the world, and from it has come at least one half of the silver which we use in the shape of money and other things.”

“Well,” said he, “I have frequently asked, but could never learn before why our mine was called Potosi.”

“You did not ask at the right quarter,” said I; “the young man with the glazed hat could have told you as well as I.” I inquired why the place where the mine was bore the name of Esgyrn Hirion or Long Bones. He told me that he did not know, but believed that the bones of a cawr or giant had been found there in ancient times. I asked him if the mine was deep.

“Very deep,” he replied.

“Do you like the life of a miner?” said I.

“Very much,” said he, “and should like it more, but for the noises of the hill.”

“Do you mean the powder blasts?” said I.

“Oh no!” said he, “I care nothing for them; I mean the noises made by the spirits of the hill in the mine. Sometimes they make such noises as frighten the poor fellow who works underground out of his senses. Once on a time I was working by myself very deep underground, in a little chamber to which a very deep shaft led. I had just taken up my light to survey my work, when all of a sudden I heard a dreadful rushing noise, as if an immense quantity of earth had come tumbling down. ‘Oh God!’ said I, and fell backwards, letting the light fall, which instantly went out. I thought the whole shaft had given way, and that I was buried alive. I lay for several hours half stupefied, thinking now and then what a dreadful thing it was to be buried alive. At length I thought I would get up, go to the mouth of the shaft, feel the mould, with which it was choked up, and then come back, lie down, and die. So I got up and tottered to the mouth of the shaft, put out my hand and felt — nothing; all was clear. I went forward, and presently felt the ladder. Nothing had fallen; all was just the same as when I came down. I was dreadfully afraid that I should never be able to get up in the dark without breaking my neck; however, I tried, and at last, with a great deal of toil and danger, got to a place where other men were working. The noise was caused by the spirits of the hill in the hope of driving the miner out of his senses. They very nearly succeeded. I shall never forget how I felt when I thought I was buried alive. If it were not for those noises in the hill, the life of a miner would be quite heaven below.”

We came to a cottage standing under a hillock, down the side of which tumbled a streamlet close by the northern side of the building. The door was open, and inside were two or three females and some children. “Have you any enwyn?” said the lad, peeping in.

“Oh yes!” said a voice — “digon! digon!” Presently a buxom, laughing girl brought out two dishes of buttermilk, one of which she handed to me and the other to the guide. I asked her the name of the place.

“Gwen Frwd — the ‘Fair Rivulet,’” said she.

“Who lives here?”

“A shepherd.”

“Have you any English?”

“Nagos!” said she, bursting into a loud laugh. “What should we do with English here?” After we had drunk the buttermilk I offered the girl some money, but she drew back her hand angrily, and said: “We don’t take money from tired strangers for two drops of buttermilk; there’s plenty within, and there are a thousand ewes on the hill. Farvel!”

“Dear me!” thought I to myself as I walked away; “that I should once in my days have found shepherd life something as poets have represented it!”

I saw a mighty mountain at a considerable distance on the right, the same I believe which I had noted some hours before. I inquired of my guide whether it was Plynlimmon.

“Oh no!” said he, “that is Gaverse; Pumlimmon is to the left.”

“Plynlimmon is a famed hill,” said I; “I suppose it is very high.”

“Yes!” said he, “it is high; but it is not famed because it is high, but because the three grand rivers of the world issue from its breast, the Hafren, the Rheidol, and the Gwy.”

Night was now coming rapidly on, attended with a drizzling rain. I inquired if we were far from Pont Erwyd. “About a mile,” said my guide; “we shall soon be there.” We quickened our pace. After a little time he asked me if I was going farther than Pont Erwyd.

“I am bound for the bridge of the evil man,” said I; “but I daresay I shall stop at Pont Erwyd to-night.”

“You will do right,” said he; “it is only three miles from Pont Erwyd to the bridge of the evil man, but I think we shall have a stormy night.”

“When I get to Pont Erwyd,” said I, “how far shall I be from South Wales?”

“From South Wales!” said he; “you are in South Wales now; you passed the Terfyn of North Wales a quarter of an hour ago.”

The rain now fell fast and there was so thick a mist that I could only see a few yards before me. We descended into a valley, at the bottom of which I heard a river roaring.

“That’s the Rheidol,” said my guide, “coming from Pumlimmon, swollen with rain.”

Without descending to the river, we turned aside up a hill, and, after passing by a few huts, came to a large house, which my guide told me was the inn of Pont Erwyd.

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