Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 99

Inn at Gutter Vawr — The Hurly-burly — Bara y Caws — Change of Manner — Welsh Mistrust — Wonders of Russia — The Emperor — The Grand Ghost Story.

THE old woman who confronted me in the passage of the inn turned out to be the landlady. On learning that I intended to pass the night at her house, she conducted me into a small room on the right-hand side of the passage, which proved to be the parlour. It was cold and comfortless, for there was no fire in the grate. She told me, however, that one should be lighted, and going out, presently returned with a couple of buxom wenches, who I soon found were her daughters. The good lady had little or no English; the girls, however, had plenty, and of a good kind too. They soon lighted a fire, and then the mother inquired if I wished for any supper.

“Certainly,” said I, “for I have not eaten anything since I left Llandovery. What can I have?”

“We have veal and bacon,” said she.

“That will do,” said I; “fry me some veal and bacon, and I shan’t complain. But pray tell what prodigious noise is that which I hear on the other side of the passage?”

“It is only the miners and the carters in the kitchen making merry,” said one of the girls.

“Is there a good fire there?” said I.

“Oh yes,” said the girl, “we have always a good fire in the kitchen.”

“Well then,” said I, “I shall go there till supper is ready, for I am wet to the skin, and this fire casts very little heat.”

“You will find them a rough set in the kitchen,” said the girl.

“I don’t care if I do” said I; “when people are rough I am civil, and I have always found that civility beats roughness in the long run.” Then going out I crossed the passage and entered the kitchen.

It was nearly filled with rough unkempt fellows, smoking, drinking, whistling, singing, shouting or jabbering, some in a standing, some in a sitting, posture. My entrance seemed at once to bring everything to a dead stop; the smokers ceased to smoke, the hand that was conveying the glass or the mug to the mouth was arrested in air, the hurly-burly ceased and every eye was turned upon me with a strange inquiring stare. Without allowing myself to be disconcerted I advanced to the fire, spread out my hands before it for a minute, gave two or three deep “ahs” of comfort, and then turning round said: “Rather a damp night, gentlemen — fire cheering to one who has come the whole way from Llandovery — Taking a bit of a walk in Wales, to see the scenery and to observe the manners and customs of the inhabitants — Fine country, gentlemen, noble prospects, hill and dale — Fine people too — open-hearted and generous; no wonder! descendants of the Ancient Britons — Hope I don’t intrude — other room rather cold and smoking — If I do, will retire at once — don’t wish to interrupt any gentleman in their avocations or deliberations — scorn to do anything ungenteel or calculated to give offence — hope I know how to behave myself — ought to do so — learnt grammar at the High School at Edinburgh.”

“Offence, intrusion!” cried twenty voices. “God bless your honour! no intrusion and no offence at all; sit down — sit here — won’t you drink?”

“Please to sit here, sir,” said an old grimy-looking man, getting up from a seat in the chimney-corner — “this is no seat for me whilst you are here, it belongs to you — sit down in it,” and laying hold of me he compelled me to sit down in the chair of dignity, whilst half-a-dozen hands pushed mugs of beer towards my face; these, however, I declined to partake of on the very satisfactory ground that I had not taken supper, and that it was a bad thing to drink before eating, more especially after coming out of a mist.

“Have you any news to tell of the war, sir?” said a large tough fellow, who was smoking a pipe.

“The last news that I heard of the war,” said I, “was that the snow was two feet deep at Sebastopol.”

“I heard three,” said the man; “however, if there be but two it must be bad work for the poor soldiers. I suppose you think that we shall beat the Russians in the end.”

“No, I don’t,” said I; “the Russians are a young nation and we are an old; they are coming on and we are going off; every dog has its day.”

“That’s true,” said the man, “but I am sorry that you think we shall not beat the Russians, for the Russians are a bad set.”

“Can you speak Welsh?” said a darkish man with black, bristly hair and a small inquisitive eye.

“Oh, I know two words in Welsh,” said I; “bara y caws.”

“That’s bread and cheese,” said the man, then turning to a neighbour of his he said in Welsh: “He knows nothing of Cumraeg, only two words; we may say anything we please; he can’t understand us. What a long nose he has!”

“Mind that he an’t nosing us,” said his neighbour. “I should be loth to wager that he doesn’t understand Welsh; and, after all, he didn’t say that he did not, but got off by saying he understood those two words.”

“No, he doesn’t understand Welsh,” said the other; “no Sais understands Welsh, and this is a Sais. Now with regard to that piece of job-work which you and I undertook.” And forthwith he and the other entered into a disquisition about the job-work.

The company soon got into its old train, drinking and smoking and making a most terrific hullabaloo. Nobody took any farther notice of me. I sat snug in the chimney-corner, trying to dry my wet things, and as the heat was very great, partially succeeded. In about half-an-hour one of the girls came to tell me that my supper was ready, whereupon I got up and said:

“Gentlemen, I thank you for your civility; I am now going to supper; perhaps before I turn in for the night I may look in upon you again.” Then without waiting for an answer I left the kitchen and went into the other room, where I found a large dish of veal cutlets and fried bacon awaiting me, and also a smoking bowl of potatoes. Ordering a jug of ale I sat down, and what with hunger and the goodness of the fare, for everything was first-rate, made one of the best suppers I ever made in my life.

Supper over I called for a glass of whiskey-and-water, over which I trifled for about half-an-hour and then betook myself again to the kitchen. Almost as soon as I entered, the company — who seemed to be discussing some point, and were not making much hurly-burly — became silent, and looked at me in a suspicious and uneasy manner. I advanced towards the fire. The old man who had occupied the seat in the chimney-corner and had resigned it to me, had again taken possession of it. As I drew near to the fire he looked upon the ground, and seemed by no means disposed to vacate the place of honour; after a few moments, however, he got up and offered me the seat with slight motion of his hand and without saying a word. I did not decline it but sat down, and the old gentleman took a chair near. Universal silence now prevailed; sullen looks were cast at me, and I saw clearly enough that I was not welcome. Frankness was now my only resource. “What’s the matter, gentlemen?” said I; “you are silent and don’t greet me kindly; have I given you any cause of offence?” No one uttered a word in reply for nearly a minute, when the old man said slowly and deliberately: “Why, sir, the long and short of it is this: we have got it into our heads that you understand every word of our discourse; now, do you or do you not?”

“Understand every word of your discourse?” said I; “I wish I did; I would give five pounds to understand every word of your discourse.”

“That’s a clever attempt to get off, sir,” said the old man, “but it won’t exactly do. Tell us whether you know more Welsh than bara y caws, or to speak more plainly, whether you understand a good deal of what we say.”

“Well,” said I, “I do understand more Welsh than bara y caws — I do understand a considerable part of a Welsh conversation; moreover, I can read Welsh, and have the life of Tom O’r Nant at my fingers’ ends.”

“Well, sir, that is speaking plain, and I will tell you plainly that we don’t like to have strangers among us who understand our discourse, more especially if they be gentlefolks.”

“That’s strange,” said I; “a Welshman or foreigner, gentle or simple, may go into a public-house in England, and nobody cares a straw whether he understands the discourse of the company or not.”

“That may be the custom in England,” said the old man, “but it is not so in Wales.”

“What have you got to conceal?” said I; “I suppose you are honest men.”

“I hope we are, sir,” said the old man; “but I must tell you, once for all, that we don’t like strangers to listen to our discourse.”

“Come,” said I, “I will not listen to your discourse, but you shall listen to mine. I have a wonderful deal to say if I once begin; I have been everywhere.”

“Well, sir,” said the old man, “if you have anything to tell us about where you have been and what you have seen, we shall be glad to hear you.”

“Have you ever been in Russia?” shouted a voice, that of the large rough fellow who asked me the question about the Russian war.

“Oh yes, I have been in Russia,” said I.

“Well, what kind of a country is it?”

“Very different from this,” said I, “which is a little country up in a corner, full of hills and mountains; that is an immense country, extending from the Baltic Sea to the confines of China, almost as flat as a pancake, there not being a hill to be seen for nearly two thousand miles.”

“A very poor country isn’t it, always covered with ice and snow?”

“Oh no; it is one of the richest countries in the world, producing all kinds of grain, with noble rivers intersecting it, and in some parts covered with stately forests. In the winter, which is rather long, there is a good deal of ice and snow, it is true, but in the summer the weather is warmer than here.”

“And are there any towns and cities in Russia, sir, as there are in Britain?” said the old man who had resigned his seat in the chimney-corner to me; “I suppose not, or if there be, nothing equal to Hereford or Bristol, in both of which I have been.”

“Oh yes,” said I, “there are plenty of towns and cities. The two principal ones are Moscow and Saint Petersburg, both of which are capitals. Moscow is a fine old city, far up the country, and was the original seat of empire. In it there is a wonderful building called the Kremlin, situated on a hill. It is partly palace, partly temple, and partly fortress. In one of its halls are I don’t know how many crowns, taken from various kings whom the Russians have conquered. But the most remarkable thing in the Kremlin is a huge bell in a cellar or cave, close by one of the churches; it is twelve feet high, and the sound it gives when struck with an iron bar, for there are no clappers to Russian bells, is so loud that the common Russians say it can be heard over the empire. The other city, Saint Petersburg, where the Court generally reside, is a modern and very fine city; so fine indeed, that I have no hesitation in saying that neither Bristol nor Hereford is worthy to be named in the same day with it. Many of the streets are miles in length, and straight as an arrow. The Nefsky Prospect, as it is called, a street which runs from the grand square, where stands the Emperor’s palace, to the monastery of Saint Alexander Nefsky, is nearly three miles in length, and is full of noble shops and houses. The Neva, a river twice as broad and twice as deep as the Thames, and whose waters are clear as crystal, runs through the town, having on each side of it a superb quay, fenced with granite, which affords one of the most delightful walks imaginable. If I had my choice of all the cities of the world to live in, I would choose Saint Petersburg.”

“And did you ever see the Emperor?” said the rough fellow, whom I have more than once mentioned, “did you ever see the Emperor Nicholas?”

“Oh yes: I have seen him frequently.”

“Well, what kind of a man is he? we should like to know.”

“A man of colossal stature, with a fine, noble, but rather stern and severe aspect. I think I now see him, with his grey cloak, cocked hat, and white waving plumes, striding down the Nefsky Prospect, and towering by a whole head over other people.”

“Bravo! Did you ever see him at the head of his soldiers?”

“Oh yes! I have seen the Emperor review forty thousand of his chosen troops in the Champs de Mars, and a famous sight it was. There stood the great, proud man looking at his warriors as they manoeuvred before him. Two-thirds of them were cavalry, and each horseman was mounted on a beautiful blood charger of Cossack or English breed, and arrayed in a superb uniform. The blaze, glitter and glory were too much for my eyes, and I was frequently obliged to turn them away. The scene upon the whole put me in mind of an immense field of tulips of various dyes, for the colours of the dresses, of the banners and the plumes, were as gorgeous and manifold as the hues of those queenly flowers.”

“Bravo!” said twenty voices; “the gentleman speaks like an areithiwr. Have you been in other countries besides Russia?”

“Oh yes! I have been in Turkey, the people of which are not Christians, but frequently put Christians to shame by their good faith and honesty. I have been in the land of the Maugrabins, or Moors — a people who live on a savoury dish called couscousoo, and have the gloomiest faces and the most ferocious hearts under heaven. I have been in Italy, whose people, though the most clever in the world, are the most unhappy, owing to the tyranny of a being called the Pope, who, when I saw him, appeared to be under the influence of strong drink. I have been in Portugal, the people of which supply the whole world with wine, and drink only water themselves. I have been in Spain, a very fine country, the people of which are never so happy as when paying other folks’ reckonings. I have been — but the wind is blowing wildly without, and the rain pelting against the windows; this is a capital night for a ghost story; shall I tell you a ghost story which I learnt in Spain?”

“Yes, sir, pray do; we all love ghost stories. Do tell us the ghost story of Spain.”

Thereupon I told the company Lope de Vega’s ghost story, which is decidedly the best ghost story in the world.

Long and loud was the applause which followed the conclusion of the grand ghost story of the world, in the midst of which I got up, bade the company good-night, and made my exit. Shortly afterwards I desired to be shown to my sleeping apartment. It was a very small room upstairs, in the back part of the house; and I make no doubt was the chamber of the two poor girls, the landlady’s daughters, as I saw various articles of female attire lying about. The spirit of knight-errantry within me was not, however, sufficiently strong to prevent me taking possession of the female dormitory; so, forthwith divesting myself of every portion of my habiliments, which were steaming like a boiling tea-kettle, I got into bed between the blankets, and in a minute was fast in the arms of Morpheus.

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