Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 93

Tregaron Church — The Minister — Good Morning — Tom Shone’s Disguises — Tom and the Lady — Klim and Catti.

I EXPERIENCED very good entertainment at the Tregaron Inn, had an excellent supper and a very comfortable bed. I arose at about eight in the morning. The day was dull and misty. After breakfast, according to my usual fashion, I took a stroll to see about. The town, which is very small, stands in a valley, near some wild hills called the Berwyn, like the range to the south of Llangollen. The stream, which runs through it and which falls into the Teivi at a little distance from the town, is called the Brennig, probably because it descends from the Berwyn hills. These southern Berwyns form a very extensive mountain region, extending into Brecon and Carmarthenshire, and contain within them, as I long subsequently found, some of the wildest solitudes and most romantic scenery in Wales. High up amidst them, at about five miles from Tregaron, is a deep, broad lake which constitutes the source of the Towy, a very beautiful stream, which after many turnings and receiving the waters of numerous small streams discharges itself into Carmarthen Bay.

I did not fail to pay a visit to Tregaron church. It is an antique building with a stone tower. The door being open, as the door of a church always should be, I entered, and was kindly shown by the clerk, whom I met in the aisle, all about the sacred edifice. There was not much to be seen. Amongst the monuments was a stone tablet to John Herbert, who died 1690. The clerk told me that the name of the clergyman of Tregaron was Hughes; he said that he was an excellent, charitable man, who preached the Gospel, and gave himself great trouble in educating the children of the poor. He certainly seemed to have succeeded in teaching them good manners: as I was leaving the church, I met a number of little boys belonging to the church school: no sooner did they see me than they drew themselves up it, a rank on one side, and as I passed took off their caps and simultaneously shouted, “Good-morning!”

And now something with respect to the celebrated hero of Tregaron, Tom Shone Catti, concerning whom I picked up a good deal during my short stay there, and of whom I subsequently read something in printed books. 14

According to the tradition of the country, he was the illegitimate son of Sir John Wynn of Gwedir, by one Catherine Jones of Tregaron, and was born at a place called Fynnon Lidiart, close by Tregaron, towards the conclusion of the sixteenth century. He was baptised by the name of Thomas Jones, but was generally called Tom Shone Catti, that is Tom Jones, son of Catti or Catherine. His mother, who was a person of some little education, brought him up, and taught him to read and write. His life, till his eighteenth year, was much like other peasant boys; he kept crows, drove bullocks, and learned to plough and harrow, but always showed a disposition to roguery and mischief. Between eighteen and nineteen, in order to free himself and his mother from poverty which they had long endured, he adopted the profession of a thief, and soon became celebrated through the whole of Wales for the cleverness and adroitness which he exercised in his calling; qualities in which he appears to have trusted much more than in strength and daring, though well endowed with both. His disguises were innumerable, and all impenetrable; sometimes he would appear as an ancient crone; sometimes as a begging cripple; sometimes as a broken soldier. Though by no means scrupulous as to what he stole, he was particularly addicted to horse and cattle stealing, and was no less successful in altering the appearance of animals than his own, as he would frequently sell cattle to the very persons from whom he had stolen them, after they had been subjected to such a metamorphosis, by means of dyes and the scissors, that recognition was quite impossible. Various attempts were made to apprehend him, but all without success; he was never at home to people who particularly wanted him, or if at home he looked anything but the person they came in quest of. Once a strong and resolute man, a farmer, who conceived, and very justly, that Tom had abstracted a bullock from his stall, came to Tregaron well armed in order to seize him. Riding up to the door of Tom’s mother, he saw an aged and miserable-looking object, with a beggar’s staff and wallet, sitting on a stone bench beside the door. Does Tom Shone Catti live here?” said the farmer. “Oh yes, he lives here,” replied the beggar. “Is he at home?” “Oh yes, he is at home.” “Will you hold my horse whilst I go in and speak to him?” “Oh yes, I will hold your horse.” Thereupon the man dismounted, took a brace of pistols out of his holsters, gave the cripple his horse’s bridle and likewise his whip, and entered the house boldly. No sooner was he inside than the beggar, or rather Tom Shone Catti, for it was he, jumped on the horse’s back, and rode away to the farmer’s house which was some ten miles distant, altering his dress and appearance as he rode along, having various articles of disguise in his wallet. Arriving at the house he told the farmer’s wife that her husband was in the greatest trouble, and wanted fifty pounds, which she was to send by him, and that he came mounted on her husband’s horse, and brought his whip, that she might know he was authorised to receive the money. The wife, seeing the horse and the whip, delivered the money to Tom without hesitation, who forthwith made the best of his way to London, where he sold the horse, and made himself merry with the price, and with what he got from the farmer’s wife, not returning to Wales for several months. Though Tom was known by everybody to be a thief, he appears to have lived on very good terms with the generality of his neighbours, both rich and poor. The poor he conciliated by being very free of the money which he acquired by theft and robbery, and with the rich he ingratiated himself by humorous jesting, at which he was a proficient, and by being able to sing a good song. At length, being an extremely good-looking young fellow, he induced a wealthy lady to promise to marry him. This lady is represented by some as a widow, and by others as a virgin heiress. After some time, however, she refused to perform her promise and barred her doors against him. Tom retired to a cave on the side of a steep wild hill near the lady’s house, to which he frequently repaired, and at last, having induced her to stretch her hand to him through the window bars, under the pretence that he wished to imprint a parting kiss upon it, he won her by seizing her hand and threatening to cut it off unless she performed her promise. Then, as everything at the time at which he lived could be done by means of money, he soon obtained for himself a general pardon, and likewise a commission as justice of the peace, which he held to the time of his death, to the satisfaction of everybody except thieves and ill-doers, against whom he waged incessant war, and with whom he was admirably qualified to cope, from the knowledge he possessed of their ways and habits, from having passed so many years of his life in the exercise of the thieving trade. In his youth he was much addicted to poetry, and a great many pennillion of his composition, chiefly on his own thievish exploits, are yet recited by the inhabitants of certain districts of the shires of Brecon, Carmarthen, and Cardigan.

Such is the history or rather the outline of the history of Twm Shone Catti. Concerning the actions attributed to him, it is necessary to say that the greater part consist of myths, which are told of particular individuals of every country, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic: for example, the story of cutting off the bull’s tail is not only told of him but of the Irish thief Delany, and is to be found in the “Lives of Irish Rogues and Rapparees;” certain tricks related of him in the printed tale bearing his name are almost identical with various rogueries related in the story-book of Klim the Russian robber, 15 and the most poetical part of Tom Shone’s history, namely, that in which he threatens to cut off the hand of the reluctant bride unless she performs her promise, is, in all probability, an offshoot of the grand myth of “the severed hand,” which in various ways figures in the stories of most nations, and which is turned to considerable account in the tale of the above-mentioned Russian worthy Klim.

14 Amongst others a kind of novel called “The Adventures of Twm Shon Catty, a Wild Wag of Wales.” It possesses considerable literary merit, the language being pure, and many of the descriptions graphic. By far the greater part of it, however, would serve for the life of any young Welsh peasant, quite as well as for that of Twm Shon Catti. Its grand fault is endeavouring to invest Twm Shon with a character of honesty, and to make his exploits appear rather those of a wild young waggish fellow than of a robber. This was committing a great mistake. When people take up the lives of bad characters the more rogueries and villainies they find, the better they are pleased, and they are very much disappointed and consider themselves defrauded by any attempt to apologise for the actions of the heroes. If the thieves should chance to have reformed, the respectable readers wish to hear nothing of their reformation till just at the close of the book, when they are very happy to have done with them for ever.

15 Skazka O Klimkie. Moscow, 1829.

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