Part 2: Ancestral Voices

Chapter 6. Cwmystradllyn 1858-59

Against illicit sexual encounter, the Griffiths household had strict precautions in place. With good reason, Elizabeth, now fourteen and youthfully attractive, was carefully protected against randy males. She was not allowed outside the house unless accompanied by her mother, father or brother. Even Rowland, by himself, was not trusted as an escort. Nor, indoors, could she be alone with any male other than Daniel and John. Ellen too lived under some restrictions. Like many a man who is less than faithful to his wife, Daniel was jealous of her fidelity to him. He viewed with suspicion every greybeard gaffer who called to have his trousers mended. Leaving handsome young men like Rowland alone in her company would tempt providence beyond the limit. In practice, therefore, mother and daughter formed an almost inseparable pair and, in Daniel’s absence, John was their custodian.

In June, one of the Gorseddau company directors was prosecuted in Manchester on a charge of buggery. The jury refused to believe that so respectable a member of society could have committed so unspeakable a crime and, in the teeth of the evidence, acquitted him. In September, the mere rumour that two young men in the slate town of Bethesda had indulged in carnal sin together was enough to set every pulpit thundering and to lose them their jobs at Penrhyn quarry. The sheriff’s officers investigated and found the rumour groundless. But the supposed sinners were not given their jobs back. Their ostracism continued, and their families’ too.

John and Rowland, when they heard, heeded the lesson and were more careful than ever. But it simply never entered Daniel’s head, nor his wife’s, that such a thing might be happening under their own roof. Nor did it enter anyone else’s. It was no secret that the boys shared a house, alone. But since it was by parental consent it must be above board. They could hardly have been luckier in their way of life, and their way of love.

After the ffolant, their idyll continued for nearly another year, until January.

The miners were removing a large piece of dyke on Floor 4, an igneous intrusion that interrupted the slate vein. They had bored a deep hole with the Dixon drill, dismantled and removed the machine, poured in a whole keg of powder from the magazine, tamped it, inserted the fuse and stemmed it with care. They had blown the bugle to signal that a blast was imminent, and all the other quarrymen had dropped their tools and taken refuge in their blast shelters. Rowland lit the fuse and rejoined his colleagues, who disdained shelters but had retreated out of danger behind a spur of rock.

They waited, and waited, and nothing happened.

“Shall I go and look, Daniel?” asked Rowland.

The current contract was almost completed, and Daniel’s mind was miles away, planning his next randy to Portmadoc.

“Mmmm,” he said.

Rowland went. He was abreast of the charged hole before Daniel came back to the present and the reality sank in.

“Rowland, tyrd yn ôl!” he bellowed — come back! — and dashed out from behind the spur. John, suddenly awake to imminent disaster, was at his heels.

Too late. In that instant the reluctant spark reached the charge, and the dyke erupted. Aghast, they saw the searing shock wave, accompanied by a hail of rock fragments, hit Rowland full in the front, carry him diagonally up into the air, and drop him vertically beyond the lip of the floor and out of sight. Small pieces rained down round them, while the larger chunks of displaced rock slumped ponderously to the ground, accompanied by deep rumbles and a massive cloud of dust and smoke. Father and son did not wait to see it. They were already racing round to the incline, the nearest way down to Floor 5.

John, heart in mouth, expected to see a lifeless distorted wreck. But they found Rowland curled on his side in a foetal position, teeth clenched, his cut and scorched face grimacing in agony, and twitching. He was not yet dead. At the same time a crowd of Floor 5 men arrived from their shelters, but Daniel yelled at them to stand back. Not for nothing had he been a miner for twenty years, and he knew all too well the procedure for handling blasting casualties.

“You!” he ordered one of them, “Find Thomas Evans and tell him what’s happened! You and you! Fetch a door from the stable!” The quarry possessed no stretcher.

John was on his knees, finding Rowland’s hand, which seemed uninjured, and pressing it gently.

“Rowland, it’s John. It’ll be all right.” He was rewarded by a hint of recognition showing through the grin of pain, and by his hand being gripped tight. “Rowland, where does it hurt most?”

Bol,” he muttered through his teeth. Stomach.

Daniel heard it too, and sighed inwardly. He knew that, whatever bones might be broken, the real danger was internal injury. He took off his filthy neckerchief, rolled it into a sausage, and thrust it between Rowland’s teeth.

“Bite on that, lad! It’ll help!”

He noted the shattered clogs and delicately felt the feet and legs, but found no obviously broken bones. Suddenly Rowland began to heave, and John whipped out the neckerchief before he vomited profusely. Praise be, there was no blood in it. As John was wiping his mouth for him, Thomas Evans arrived hotfoot from the office, his little emergency pouch of medicines in his hand. He took one glance.

“Laudanum,” he said. It was not only the best narcotic there was, but the only one he had. “Half a drachm, I’d say. A good teaspoonful.”

He looked at John, who removed the neckerchief again and whispered in Rowland’s ear, “Open your mouth, cariad. This’ll help the pain.”

With an effort, Rowland obliged, swallowing automatically as the laudanum was dripped from the spoon on to his tongue. It took effect surprisingly fast, and he slowly relaxed into a half-conscious haze, gripping John’s hand less tightly now.

Thomas sent all the men back to work except for half a dozen who might be needed. Vital decisions had to be made, and he drew Daniel aside to confer.

“Nhad! Thomas!” pleaded John, not leaving Rowland’s side. “Don’t send him away! If he’s going to die, let him die here. If he’s going to live, let me look after him.”

They understood. The nearest public hospital was in Bangor, many hours away at a gentle rate: a rough high-speed journey would finish him off. If they followed normal practice and sent him home to Llanllyfni, the same might well apply, and they knew the Jones household was too overcrowded to offer the care he needed. If he was going to live, he would have to stay in Treforys. Always provided the doctor agreed, of course, for medical advice was essential. But which doctor? The nearest ones were in Tremadoc and Portmadoc, but they had little experience of injuries like these, while those in Penygroes, on the doorstep of the Nantlle quarries, dealt with such patients aplenty. So Thomas ordered a man to take a horse from his stable, gallop to Penygroes, summon Dr Roberts, and inform Rowland’s parents.

“Who’s going to pay Dr Roberts’ fee?,” asked Thomas. “I can’t.”

He meant that the company could not, or would not. Only the largest quarries took any responsibility for their men’s injuries.

“I’ll pay,” decided Daniel.

He knew he was largely to blame for allowing Rowland into danger, and the guilt was heavy on him. If it scuppered his coming randy, so be it. That would be his punishment.

“If Rowland’s tad can chip in, fine. But I’ll underwrite it.”

Iawn. That’s good of you, Daniel. So who’ll look after him?”

It was usually a woman’s job. “Not Ellen,” said Daniel quickly. He couldn’t risk it. “John’s offered. Let him.”

“And the quarry loses another pair of useful hands?”

“He’s in my employ, Thomas, not yours,” Daniel reminded him. “And they’re cyfeillion mynwesol.” Bosom friends: he had no idea that they were anything more. 

“True. Iawn.” Thomas called across, “John, you’ve got a new job. You’re now a nurse. Right, let’s get him to Treforys.”

The door had been taken off its hinges and brought up to Floor 5. They gently lifted Rowland, slid it under him, and lowered him on to it on his back. Four men carried it by the corners. John walked alongside still holding his hand, and Thomas and Daniel followed behind. Like a funeral cortege they made their slow way down the incline, along the tramway and up to Number 20 where equally gently they lifted Rowland on to the straw mattress.

“Clean up his face, ngwas,” said Daniel. “Very carefully, with water. Keep him warm. Don’t do anything else till the doctor comes. Iawn?

He clapped him on the shoulder, nodded at the others, and they all left. Work had to go on. Rowland was still half asleep, eyes almost closed, moaning occasionally.

There was nobody else in either house. Ellen and Elizabeth were at Penmorfa market. So far, John had manfully bottled up his emotions. Now that he was alone he could let them out. His sobs penetrated even Rowland’s fuddled brain, and he perceptibly squeezed John’s hand. Each gave the other wordless comfort. After a while John pulled himself together. He had made his offer from the heart, and he must honour it. Everything was up to him. It was midwinter cold, and he kindled a fire in the little grate. From next door he collected warm water from the kettle on the hob, the cleanest rags he could find, and an oil lamp to give better light in the dim-lit room. Then he began with the utmost care to clean up Rowland’s face.

It was covered with blood from dozens of cuts, some of which were still oozing, but the eyes seem undamaged. Delicately, inch by inch, John wiped it, using a corner of the rag to tease out tiny fragments of rock lodged in the wounds. He saw that the skin, now that it was exposed, was scorched from the heat and the eyebrows were singed. But it was not raw. It would be tender for a while, but to his inexpert eye it did not look too bad. Rowland had been wearing a cap, so his hair was intact.

Then John turned his attention to the body. The hands were unmarked: perhaps he had had them in his pockets. He unbuttoned the jacket, shirt, vest, flies and pants, unbuckled the belt, and opened the clothes out to expose the torso from neck to crotch. What he saw made him catch his breath. No superficial damage was visible but, instead of the smooth muscular abdomen he knew and loved, there was a deep hollow below the ribs and a corresponding mound, like a grotesque little beer belly, rising above the pubic hair. The guts had shifted bodily. Cythraul diawl! What was he supposed to do about that? He was suddenly aware of something he had to do, at once. Slinging over Rowland all the blankets there were, he rushed outside to throw up.

On his knees, bent double, engrossed in his misery, he did not hear the horseman arrive.

“Not another patient for me, eh?” said a voice.

Dr Roberts turned out to be a brisk and jolly little man. In his relief at unloading his burden on to other shoulders, John could only babble.

“Calm down, young man! Wash your mouth out and drink some water. If we’re going to help your friend, we need cool heads.”

John obeyed the voice of authority and scooped from the water butt, while the doctor unbuckled his saddle-bag.

“He is your friend, I take it? Your name is? John Griffiths? And his name is Rowland, son of William Jones at Ty’nllwyn? And you have the task of nursing him? Iawn. Now, tell me what happened.”

John obliged, as coherently as he could.

“So he’s had half a drachm of laudanum, four hours ago.”

“Not that long. Two, maybe.”

“But I was told the accident happened at nine. It’s now after one.” Grief, how time had flown. “Right, let’s see him, then.”

He looked closely at Rowland’s face, felt his forehead, listened to his breathing, took his pulse.

“Hmmm. Cold sweat, shallow breath, slow pulse. Did you clean his face up?”

“Yes. Very carefully.”

“And a good job you’ve done.”

“But his belly, doctor!” Surely that was far more important. He pulled the blankets back.

“Hmmm. Has anyone tried to deal with this?”


“Good. If you don’t know what you’re doing it only makes it worse. But I’m going to need your help. Listen carefully, lad. You know about your intestines?” John nodded, hesitantly. “Twenty five feet of them. Coiled up tightly” — he demonstrated on his own round belly — “inside a bag called the peritoneum, which holds them in place but allows some movement. The peritoneum is anchored to the backbone by a membrane called the mesentery. When Rowland hit the ground, his body stopped but his guts carried on falling. Result, a prolapse. Enteroptosis, we call it. The mesentery was stretched or even, heaven forbid, ruptured. The intestines are sagging in a heap at the bottom of the abdomen. Our job is to get them back in place. You lift him from the hips, to let gravity help us, while I manipulate. As high as you can. Iawn?

John climbed on to the bed, managed to wriggle his shoulder under Rowland’s buttocks, and heaved them up until his body was at forty five degrees. The doctor purposefully kneaded the abdomen for a while with the heel of his hands.

Iawn. Best I can do. Lower him gently.”

The belly was now back to its normal contours. Rowland already seemed more at ease, or more accurately in less pain, and had slipped into a deeper sleep.

“Next thing is to check his bones.” Between them they removed Rowland’s clothes, and while John lifted where appropriate, Dr Roberts felt. He spent a long time on the feet. The ankles were a little swollen. “Extraordinary! He landed on his feet — the clogs testify to that — but his knees must have been bent. Otherwise his thigh bones would have ended up at his shoulders. We can’t be sure until he wakes up and tells us what hurts, but I can feel no fractures. Anyway, broken bones are less important than displaced guts. The same goes for strained joints and muscles. He’s bound to have those too.

“Now listen carefully again. This is what you must do, and must have him do.  He must rest, totally still, on his back. That’s to allow the mesentery to recover. With his legs drawn up. That’s to reduce tension in the abdomen. He may stretch them occasionally, one at a time, but only under your supervision. His diet must be light and fluid. Solid food will give his guts too much work to do. Understood?

“Now. Even if all goes well, he will have pain, for many days. To dull it, give him laudanum, twice a day. Not as much as he had this morning. I suggest a quarter of a drachm, that’s fifteen minims, at a time. You’ll have to be the judge: he needs enough to overcome the pain but not so much that it knocks him out. Give him more or less, as he needs it. It will also help keep his bowels at rest. But on no account more than a drachm at a time. Too much laudanum kills. You know what it is? Tincture of opium.” He handed over a bottle and measuring spoon.

For some time, John had had a question to ask, an urgent question but one he dreaded asking. “Is he going to live, then?”

The doctor looked him in the eye. “Hogyn, I don’t know. I just don’t know. He may — there’s plenty of room for hope. But we don’t know what the internal damage is. The mesentery contains lacteal vessels which convey nourishment from the intestines to the blood. If they are ruptured, or too many are, he will die in effect of starvation. If the mesentery is stretched beyond recovery, his intestines will continue to sag and will become blocked. And if internal inflammation sets in — peritonitis — it will probably kill him. That is the gravest danger. If it does, you will recognise it by rapid breathing, fast and feeble pulse, a cold sweat, and an acutely tender and much swollen abdomen. Give him the full dose of laudanum — a drachm — and send for me at once. In any event, I will come and see him three days from now.

“Whatever happens, apply hot fomentations to his abdomen — towels soaked in hot water. For his lesser problems, here is some ointment for his burns. For his joints and muscles, get some embrocation from Thomas and apply it. He’s bound to have some for his horses. All clear? Good luck then, lad!”

Off he rode to the quarry to talk to Thomas and Daniel about his fee.

Thus John was launched into a month-long nightmare. Regulating the dose of laudanum to the right level. Suppressing panic when fever briefly set in and peritonitis seemed imminent. Persuading Rowland to lie still in the right position. Cajoling him to drink broth and gruel aplenty. Discovering how to get him to pee into a bottle and crap into a makeshift bedpan with the least possible mess. Stopping him from scratching the blisters and itches on his face as his superficial wounds healed. Massaging his joints and muscles with embrocation. Soothing the bedsores which afflicted him. Tactfully keeping visitors at bay when Rowland’s parents, his own family, and half the workforce wanted to crowd in and give their good wishes. Keeping the laudanum out of Rowland’s reach as he recovered, for it proved very addictive. Dosing him with less noxious herbal remedies as his weaning from laudanum left him with nausea, headache and constipation. Learning, when the cuts and burns were healed enough, how to shave Rowland’s soft sparse stubble, for he had never wielded a razor before. Supporting him when he finally left his bed. Teaching him to walk again for, extraordinarily, the doctor had been right and no bones had been broken.

The women uncomplainingly kept up the supply of food, but rarely looked in. Daniel had made it plain that Rowland was John’s patient, not theirs. The nurse spent virtually every minute of every day and every night at the patient’s side. Never once did a carnal thought enter his head. His mind, like his body, was too weary. Then, on his sixth visit in four weeks, Dr Roberts found the nurse asleep in bed and the patient watching over him, and smiled.