Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 82

Consequential Landlord — Cheek — Darfel Gatherel — Dafydd Nanmor — Sheep Farms — Wholesome Advice — The Old Postman — The Plant de Bat — The Robber’s Cavern.

MY guide went to a side door, and opening it without ceremony went in. I followed and found myself in a spacious and comfortable-looking kitchen: a large fire blazed in a huge grate, on one side of which was a settle; plenty of culinary utensils, both pewter and copper, hung around on the walls, and several goodly rows of hams and sides of bacon were suspended from the roof. There were several people present, some on the settle and others on chairs in the vicinity of the fire. As I advanced, a man arose from a chair and came towards me. He was about thirty-five years of age, well and strongly made, with a fresh complexion, a hawk nose, and a keen grey eye. He wore top-boots and breeches, a half jockey coat, and had a round cap made of the skin of some animal on his head.

“Servant, sir!” said he in rather a sharp tone, and surveying me with something of a supercilious air.

“Your most obedient humble servant!” said I; “I presume you are the landlord of this house.”

“Landlord!” said he, “landlord! It is true I receive guests sometimes into my house, but I do so solely with the view of accommodating them; I do not depend upon innkeeping for a livelihood. I hire the principal part of the land in this neighbourhood.”

“If that be the case,” said I, “I had better continue my way to the Devil’s Bridge; I am not at all tired, and I believe it is not very far distant.”

“Oh, as you are here,” said the farmer-landlord, “I hope you will stay. I should be very sorry if any gentleman should leave my house at night after coming with an intention of staying, more especially in a night like this. Martha!” said he, turning to a female between thirty and forty — who I subsequently learned was the mistress — “prepare the parlour instantly for this gentleman, and don’t fail to make up a good fire.”

Martha forthwith hurried away, attended by a much younger female.

“Till your room is prepared, sir,” said he, “perhaps you will have no objection to sit down before our fire?”

“Not the least,” said I; “nothing gives me greater pleasure than to sit before a kitchen fire. First of all, however, I must settle with my guide, and likewise see that he has something to eat and drink.”

“Shall I interpret for you?” said the landlord; “the lad has not a word of English; I know him well.”

“I have not been under his guidance for the last three hours,” said I, “without knowing that he cannot speak English; but I want no interpreter.”

“You do not mean to say, sir,” said the landlord, with a surprised and dissatisfied air, “that you understand Welsh?”

I made no answer, but turning to the guide thanked him for his kindness, and giving him some money asked him if it was enough.

“More than enough, sir,” said the lad; “I did not expect half as much. Farewell!”

He was then about to depart, but I prevented him saying:

“You must not go till you have eaten and drunk. What will you have?”

“Merely a cup of ale, sir,” said the lad.

“That won’t do,” said I; “you shall have bread and cheese and as much ale as you can drink. Pray,” said I to the landlord, “let this young man have some bread and cheese and a large quart of ale.”

The landlord looked at me for a moment, then turning to the lad he said:

“What do you think of that, Shon? It is some time since you had a quart of ale to your own cheek.”

“Cheek,” said I— “cheek! Is that a Welsh word? Surely it is an importation from the English, and not a very genteel one.”

“Oh come, sir!” said the landlord, “we can dispense with your criticisms. A pretty thing indeed for you, on the strength of knowing half-a-dozen words of Welsh, to set up for a Welsh critic in the house of a person who knows the ancient British language perfectly.”

“Dear me!” said I, “how fortunate I am! a person thoroughly versed in the ancient British language is what I have long wished to see. Pray what is the meaning of Darfel Gatherel?”

“Oh sir!” said the landlord, “you must answer that question yourself; I don’t pretend to understand gibberish!”

“Darfel Gatherel,” said I, “is not gibberish; it was the name of the great wooden image at Ty Dewi, or Saint David’s, in Pembrokeshire, to which thousands of pilgrims in the days of popery used to repair for the purpose of adoring it, and which at the time of the Reformation was sent up to London as a curiosity, where it eventually served as firewood to burn the monk Forrest upon, who was sentenced to the stake by Henry the Eighth for denying his supremacy. What I want to know is, the meaning of the name, which I could never get explained, but which you who know the ancient British language perfectly can doubtless interpret.”

“Oh, sir,” said the landlord, “when I said I knew the British language perfectly, I perhaps went too far there are, of course, some obsolete terms in the British tongue, which I don’t understand. Dar, Dar — what is it? Darmod Cotterel amongst the rest; but to a general knowledge of the Welsh language I think I may lay some pretensions; were I not well acquainted with it, I should not have carried off the prize at various eisteddfodau, as I have done. I am a poet, sir — a prydydd.”

“It is singular enough,” said I, “that the only two Welsh poets I have seen have been innkeepers — one is yourself, the other a person I met in Anglesey. I suppose the Muse is fond of cwrw da.”

“You would fain be pleasant, sir,” said the landlord; “but I beg leave to inform you that I am not fond of pleasantries; and now, as my wife and the servant are returned, I will have the pleasure of conducting you to the parlour.”

“Before I go,” said I, “I should like to see my guide provided with what I ordered.” I stayed till the lad was accommodated with bread and cheese and a foaming tankard of ale, and then bidding him farewell, I followed the landlord into the parlour, where I found a fire kindled, which, however, smoked exceedingly. I asked my host what I could have for supper, and was told that he did not know, but that if I would leave the matter to him he would send the best he could. As he was going away, I said: “So you are a poet? Well, I am very glad to hear it, for I have been fond of Welsh poetry from my boyhood. What kind of verse do you employ in general? Did you ever write an awdl in the four-and-twenty measures? What are the themes of your songs? The deeds of the ancient heroes of South Wales, I suppose, and the hospitality of the great men of the neighbourhood who receive you as an honoured guest at their tables. I’ll bet a guinea that however clever a fellow you may be you never sang anything in praise of your landlord’s housekeeping equal to what Dafydd Nanmor sang in praise of that of Ryce of Twyn four hundred years ago:

‘For Ryce if hundred thousands plough’d The lands around his fair abode; Did vines of thousand vineyards bleed, Still corn and wine great Ryce would need; If all the earth had bread’s sweet savour, And water all had cyder’s flavour, Three roaring feasts in Ryce’s hall Would swallow earth and ocean all.’

Hey?”

“Really, sir,” said the landlord, “I don’t know how to reply to you, for the greater part of your discourse is utterly unintelligible to me. Perhaps you are a better Welshman than myself; but however that may be, I shall take the liberty of retiring in order to give orders about your supper.”

In about half-an-hour the supper made its appearance in the shape of some bacon and eggs. On tasting them I found them very good, and calling for some ale I made a very tolerable supper. After the things had been removed I drew near to the fire, but as it still smoked, I soon betook myself to the kitchen. My guide had taken his departure, but the others whom I had left were still there. The landlord was talking in Welsh to a man in a rough great-coat, about sheep. Setting himself down near the fire I called for a glass of whiskey and water, and then observing that the landlord and his friend had suddenly become silent, I said: “Pray go on with your discourse; don’t let me be any hindrance to you.”

“Yes, sir!” said the landlord snappishly, “go on with our discourse for your edification, I suppose?”

“Well,” said I, “suppose it is for my edification; surely you don’t grudge a stranger a little edification which will cost you nothing?”

“I don’t know that, sir,” said the landlord; “I don’t know that. Really, sir, the kitchen is not the place for a gentleman.”

“Yes, it is,” said I, “provided the parlour smokes. Come, come, I am going to have a glass of whiskey and water; perhaps you will take one with me.”

“Well, sir!” said the landlord, in rather a softened tone, “I have no objection to take a glass with you.”

Two glasses of whiskey and water were presently brought, and the landlord and I drank to each other’s health.

“Is this a sheep district?” said I, after a pause of a minute or two.

“Yes, sir,” said the landlord; “it may to a certain extent be called a sheep district.”

“I suppose the Southdown and Norfolk breeds would not do for these here parts,” said I, with a regular Norfolk whine.

“No, sir, I don’t think they would exactly,” said the landlord, staring at me. “Do you know anything about sheep?”

“Plenty, plenty,” said I; “quite as much indeed as about Welsh words and poetry.” Then in a yet more whining tone than before, I said: “Do you think that a body with money in his pocket could hire a nice comfortable sheep farm hereabouts?”

“Oh, sir!” said the landlord in a furious tone, “you have come to look out for a farm, I see, and to outbid us poor Welshmen: it is on that account you have studied Welsh; but, sir, I would have you know — ”

“Come!” said I, “don’t be afraid; I wouldn’t have all the farms in your country, provided you would tie them in a string and offer them to me. If I talked about a farm, it was because I am in the habit of talking about everything, being versed in all matters, do you see, or affecting to be so, which comes much to the same thing. My real business in this neighbourhood is to see the Devil’s Bridge and the scenery about it.”

“Very good, sir,” said the landlord; “I thought so at first. A great many English go to see the Devil’s Bridge and the scenery near it, though I really don’t know why, for there is nothing so very particular in either. We have a bridge here too, quite as good as the Devil’s Bridge; and as for scenery, I’ll back the scenery about this house against anything of the kind in the neighbourhood of the Devil’s Bridge. Yet everybody goes to the Devil’s Bridge and nobody comes here!”

“You might easily bring everybody here,” said I, “if you would but employ your talent. You should celebrate the wonders of your neighbourhood in cowydds, and you would soon have plenty of visitors; but you don’t want them, you know, and prefer to be without them.”

The landlord looked at me for a moment, then taking sip of his whiskey and water he turned to the man with whom he had previously been talking and recommenced the discourse about sheep. I make no doubt, however, that I was a restraint upon them; they frequently glanced at me, and soon fell to whispering. At last both got up and left the room, the landlord finishing his glass of whiskey and water before he went away.

“So you are going to the Devil’s Bridge, sir!” said an elderly man, dressed in a grey coat, with a broad-brimmed hat, who sat on the settle smoking a pipe in company with another elderly man with a leather hat, with whom I had heard him discourse sometimes in Welsh, sometimes in English, the Welsh which he spoke being rather broken.

“Yes,” said I, “I am going to have a sight of the bridge and the neighbouring scenery.”

“Well, sir, I don’t think you will be disappointed, for both are wonderful.”

“Are you a Welshman?” said I.

“No, sir, I am not; I am an Englishman from Durham, which is the best county in England.”

“So it is,” said I— “for some things at any rate. For example, where do you find such beef as in Durham?”

“Ah, where indeed, sir? I have always said that neither the Devonshire nor the Lincolnshire beef is to be named in the same day with that of Durham.”

“Well,” said I, “what business do you follow in these parts? I suppose you farm?”

“No, sir, I do not; I am what they call a mining captain.”

“I suppose that gentleman,” said I, motioning to the man in the leather hat, “is not from Durham?”

“No, sir, he is not; he is from this neighbourhood.”

“And does he follow mining?”

“No, sir, he does not; he carries about the letters.”

“Is your mine near this place?”

“Not very, sir; it is nearer the Devil’s Bridge.”

“Why is the bridge called the Devil’s Bridge?” said

“Because, sir, ’tis said that the Devil built it in the old time, though that I can hardly believe; for the Devil, do ye see, delights in nothing but mischief, and it is not likely that such being the case he would have built a thing which must have been of wonderful service to people by enabling them to pass in safety over a dreadful gulf.”

“I have heard,” said the old postman with the leather hat, “that the Devil had no hand in de work at all, but that it was built by a Mynach, or monk, on which account de river over which de bridge is built is called Afon y Mynach — dat is de Monk’s River.”

“Did you ever hear,” said I, “of three creatures who lived a long time ago near the Devil’s Bridge, called the Plant de Bat?”

“Ah, master!” said the old postman, “I do see that you have been in these parts before; had you not, you would not know of the Plant de Bat.”

“No,” said I, “I have never been here before; but I heard of them when I was a boy, from a Cumro who taught me Welsh, and had lived for some time in these parts. Well, what do they say here about the Plant de Bat? for he who mentioned them to me could give me no further information about them than that they were horrid creatures who lived in a cave near the Devil’s Bridge several hundred years ago.”

“Well, master,” said the old postman, thrusting his forefinger twice or thrice into the bowl of his pipe, “I will tell you what they says here about the Plant de Bat. In de old time — two, three hundred year ago — a man lived somewhere about here called Bat or Bartholomew; this man had three children, two boys and one girl, who, because their father’s name was Bat, were generally called ‘Plant de Bat,’ or Bat’s children. Very wicked children they were from their cradle, giving their father and mother much trouble and uneasiness; no good in any one of them, neither in the boys nor the girl. Now the boys, once when they were rambling idly about, lighted by chance upon a cave near the Devil’s Bridge. Very strange cave it was, with just one little hole at top to go in by; so the boys said to one another: ‘Nice cave this for thief to live in. Suppose we come here when we are a little more big and turn thief ourselves.’ Well, they waited till they were a little more big, and then leaving their father’s house they came to de cave and turned thief, lying snug there all day and going out at night to rob upon the roads. Well, there was soon much talk in the country about the robberies which were being committed, and people often went out in search of de thieves, but all in vain; and no wonder, for they were in a cave very hard to light upon, having, as I said before, merely one little hole at top to go in by. So, Bat’s boys went on swimmingly for a long time, lying snug in cave by day and going out at night to rob, letting no one know where they were but their sister, who was as bad as themselves, and used to come to them and bring them food and stay with them for weeks, and sometimes go out and rob with them. But as de pitcher which goes often to de well comes home broke at last, so it happened with Bat’s children. After robbing people upon the roads by night many a long year and never being found out, they at last met one great gentleman upon the roads by night and not only robbed, but killed him, leaving his body all cut and gashed near to Devil’s Bridge. That job was the ruin of Plant de Bat, for the great gentleman’s friends gathered together and hunted after his murderers with dogs, and at length came to the cave, and going in, found it stocked with riches, and the Plant de Bat sitting upon the riches, not only the boys but the girl also. So they took out the riches and the Plant de Bat, and the riches they did give to churches and spyttys, and the Plant de Bat they did execute, hanging the boys and burning the girl. That, master, is what they says in dese parts about the Plant de Bat.”

“Thank you!” said I. “Is the cave yet to be seen?”

“Oh yes! it is yet to be seen, or part of it, for it is not now what it was, having been partly flung open to hinder other thieves from nestling in it. It is on the bank of the river Mynach, just before it joins the Rheidol. Many gentlefolk in de summer go to see the Plant de Bat’s cave.”

“Are you sure,” said I, “that Plant de Bat means Bat’s children?”

“I am not sure, master; I merely says what I have heard other people say. I believe some says that it means ‘the wicked children,’ or ‘the Devil’s children.’ And now, master, we may as well have done with them, for should you question me through the whole night, I could tell you nothing more about the Plant de Bat.”

After a little further discourse, chiefly about sheep and the weather, I retired to the parlour, where the fire was now burning brightly; seating myself before it, I remained for a considerable time staring at the embers and thinking over the events of the day. At length I rang the bell and begged to be shown to my chamber, where I soon sank to sleep, lulled by the pattering of rain against the window and the sound of a neighbouring cascade.

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