Part 2: Ancestral Voices

Chapter 8. Cwmystradllyn 1859

John slept off his weariness. As Rowland joined him in bed on the evening of St Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of their ffolant, they both found themselves in desperate need of breaking their enforced month-long abstinence. Rowland might still have much ground to make up in other departments, but in this one, they discovered to their relief, his recovery was complete. The following evening, John’s seventeenth birthday, they celebrated similarly.

Rowland no longer needed full-time nursing, but Daniel allowed John to stay with him during the day. He knew loyalty when he saw it, and approved. Simple loyalty to a friend and team-mate, he thought. And even less now did he dare leave a virile and handsome young man alone with his womenfolk. So the boys remained together for another month, bringing back strength to Rowland’s body. Gentle exercises helped his abdomen. Walks restored power to his legs, walks that progressed from a few steps along the street to ever higher up the mountain. Constant massaging all over his body quietened the complaining muscles. Ordeal had matured their love into a greater depth and thoughtfulness. Youthful ecstasy had mellowed into more adult fulfilment. The light of their heaven was restored, and indeed enhanced.

William Jones, Rowland’s father, was an assistant overseer and not exactly on the breadline. But with his large family he could not have carried the whole of the doctor’s fees, though he contributed what he could. He knew full well that without Daniel’s financial help and John’s unremitting care his own son would have died. What token, he asked when he visited Rowland one weekend, could they give to mark their gratitude? Rowland’s suggestion, after due thought, surprised him: a pair of photographs, of Daniel with John and of Rowland with John.

Photographers were still a great rarity in North Wales. A few had passed through, one or two had set up shop in Bangor and Carnarvon. But now John Williams, son of one of the publicans in Tremadoc, had just started in the business. No ordinary quarryman would contemplate having his photograph taken. He simply could not afford it. But Rowland and William agreed to share the cost, and next Saturday Rowland persuaded a reluctant and apprehensive Daniel and John to climb into their best clothes. To save Rowland’s legs they travelled down by tram. All three did their best to hold their pose for the excruciatingly long exposures, and the resulting prints were distributed among the four of them.

It was the middle of March when Dr Roberts examined Rowland for the last time. He was pleased, indeed astonished.

“Well, your face has healed well, ngwas, though you’ll have that slight patchiness from the burns for the rest of your days. And those small scars. But you’re ready for work again now. Both of you. You’ll be going back to your tad’s gang, John?”

“Yes.” It would be a wrench, but it was inevitable.

“But not you, Rowland. Bruised joints and torn ligaments mend slow, and the longer you protect your mesentery from strain the better. So it’s light work only for you, for the foreseeable future. I’ve been talking to Thomas. He tells me you’ve been practising carving in your convalescence, and he’s offering you a job as assistant to Ellis Jones. In Ty Mawr, decorating chimney pieces. Your tad agrees, and so does Daniel. Iawn?

Iawn. That’s a relief, in a way, though I’ll miss the gang. Thank you, doctor. I’m grateful for that. And deeply in your debt for saving my life.”

“Nonsense. No debt to me. You owe your life to God and to John. Dare I say it, especially to John.”

The new work suited Rowland. He came home from Ty Mawr not unduly tired, and Ellis spoke well of his carving. John found his feet again in the mining gang. On the face of it, all was well. But, after the doctor’s last visit, the light of their heaven began to dim.

Rowland’s cheerful self gradually evaporated. In the evenings he spent hours lost in a brown study, and at night his lovemaking grew half-hearted. John became increasingly worried.

Cariad, what’s wrong?”

For several days the only reply was a monosyllable or a grunt. But eventually, as John’s tone changed from puzzlement to frustration, Rowland did attempt an answer.

“I’m thinking of what the doctor said. ‘You owe your life to God and to John,’ remember? I know I owe my life to you. Without your love and your care I’d have died. You saved me because you loved me. You loved me just as I loved you. I do know that. What I’m thinking about is … what I owe to God. He saved me too, so he must love me. And I feel that I ought to love him in return. But can I love you both? Loving God must be right. So is loving you wrong?”

John saw a wedge being driven into a crack, and his heart faltered.

“But Rowland. If God had disapproved of you loving me, he could have let you die. But he didn’t. Of course he loves you. And it seems to me that’s a sign that he approves of our love.”

“Or does he love me despite our love? Did he save me to give me a chance to love him back?”

“We agreed, didn’t we, that he made us the way we are. So he must approve.”

“Or did he make us the way we are so that we can prove ourselves by changing into something better?”

“Why can’t you love us both?”

“I can love you if God doesn’t come into the picture. But if he does, I’ve got a horrible feeling that loving you is a sin. I’m sorry, John. I just don’t know.”

Their simple theologies could take them no further. So things continued for another unhappy week. Unhappy for Rowland, wrestling with his conscience, unhappy for John, cast half-adrift. Until at the end of the month their conundrum was brutally resolved and the light of their heaven was extinguished for ever.

Religious revival was already sweeping the United States. Thence it crossed to Ulster, and moved on to Britain. In Wales the movement was led by Humphrey Jones, recently active in America and now returned to spread the gospel in his native land. He toured the country with his convert the Rev David Morgan. Both were Calvinistic Methodists but, in the fervour of their preaching, denominations hardly mattered. At Gorseddau the schoolmaster and unofficial chaplain to the quarry was an Independent named Edward James. At the end of March, concerned at the moral state of his flock, he persuaded the revivalists to hold a cymanfa bregethu, a preaching meeting, at the quarry. Not in company time; but they were given permission to address the men — the men who wanted to be addressed — when work stopped at noon on Saturday. A couple of hundred assembled on the flat ground beyond the barracks and office, and Jones and Morgan stood looking down at them from a few yards up the incline.

Their message was non-denominational. It was a very simple message, even simplistic, designed for simple people. Jones had his say first, holding forth about salvation in general. Then Morgan took over, working his way systematically through a short list of the more generous sins. He reached his final category.

“And there are fornicators here among you today. And adulterers. And yes, even some guilty of the sins of Sodom. I won’t name you, but God knows you. You are there, and there” — he stabbed his finger indiscriminately at the crowd, safe in the knowledge that the guilty would feel personally accused — “and your name is Fornicator. You have been lying in filth, and unless you repent, you will lie for ever in the filth of everlasting death. But, glory to God, my Jesus is the saviour of fornicators, and his blood can wash you clean. If you will commit yourself to him, his holy spirit will cleanse you, just like that” — he snapped his fingers — “and make you honest men, and heirs of his eternal glory. And then you will not desire to fornicate, for as sure as God gives you life in your soul, he’ll give you a bodily life which is more satisfying than all the sins of the flesh. But those who do not repent — mark this — those who do not repent will end as carcasses in the pit of hell. Eu pryf ni bydd marw, a’u tân ni ddiffydd. Their worm will not die, nor their fire be quenched.”

Daniel and Thomas Evans were listening morosely from the back of the throng. The rhetoric washed over their hard-bitten heads without touching them. Not far off, John was lounging beside Rowland. It washed over his head too. Bombast, he thought. Sure, there were plenty here who had been unfaithful, who had hurt others, in the flesh or in the heart. But they did not include him, or Rowland. His own God, the God that he understood, had made them. He had made them the way they were. Their love hurt neither of them. Nor did it hurt anybody else. Nor, seeing that he was responsible for it, did it hurt God. Their love was good, and God would punish neither of them for it.

He turned to Rowland with a rueful and deprecating smile, only to see him transfixed, face bright red, eyes wide, and mouth agape. Even before Morgan had thundered to his conclusion, Rowland was haring round the outskirts of the crowd to be the first to accost him with a quick question. He was succeeded by scores of others, some of them on their knees. On the way back, he had a word with Thomas and Daniel. And then John’s world finally collapsed.

“John, I’ve seen the light. This is my road to Damascus. I have sinned, I know it now. Heaven knows I’ve sinned, and I repent. God gave me my life, and now I must give it back to him. I’m going home to tell my family, and I won’t be coming back. I’ve told your tad. I’ve told Thomas too. He’s off to Carnarvon now in his trap, and he’s giving me a lift home. And you repent too, John, or you’ll end up in hell.”

In a state of deep shock, John watched him run off down the tramway and up to Treforys to collect his possessions. Thomas and Daniel followed more slowly, Thomas continuing to Plasllyn, Daniel turning up to the village. After a short time Rowland came down to Plasllyn, bag over shoulder, to meet up with Thomas. John suddenly awoke, and began to sprint. There was something he had to say, something he had to affirm, before it was too late. When he reached Plasllyn the trap had gone. It would be on the road, so he followed the tramway which was more direct. When he reached Tyddyn Mawr the trap was just visible ahead of him. It would stop at Ty Mawr to let Rowland collect his tools. 

When he ran gasping along the embankment into the top floor, he found that Rowland was indeed there, packing his tools into a sack.

“John! Are you coming with me, then? Have you repented?”

“No … I haven’t … because … I love you!” he panted. “There’s nothing … to repent … in our love.”

“You’re wrong. Only God loves me, properly. Our love was impure. Goodbye, then, John.”

He swung the sack over his shoulder, and abruptly disappeared down the stairs. His eyes were focussed wholly and brutally on the present and the future, not on the past. Never a word of thanks, of friendship, of love.

Wounded to the core, shattered, bewildered, numbed, John continued to mouth the words, time after time, “Nothing to repent in our love.” Uselessly, for nobody heard. Slowly he went down to the ground floor. He had saved Rowland’s body, but at the snap of a revivalist’s fingers he had lost his soul. What was there left to live for? The maintenance men had lifted some of the planks covering the wheel-pit, and he could see the top of the great wheel as it churned below. It was a tight fit against the end of the pit. It would act like a mangle. He had only to jump down on to it to put an end to everything. A year or so ago someone had fallen in by mistake and the tailrace, they reported, had literally run blood. The temptation was strong.

But he wouldn’t, he couldn’t. It would be selfish. Rowland was acting on impulse. Impulsive decisions, made at the snap of a finger, were likely to be wrong decisions. He would regret it. He might even come back. When he came back, if he came back, he would need John to come back to.

In blank uncomprehending misery he returned to Treforys. Daniel was standing outside Number 19, puffing angrily at his clay pipe.

“So Rowland’s gone, has he? Did he say goodbye to anyone? Thank you to anyone? There’s ingratitude. Another so-called man of God, huh? Namby pamby. That preacher wasn’t getting at him — he hasn’t even bedded a girl yet, has he? So why’s he suddenly seen what he calls the light?”

This was getting too close to the bone. He would soon be asking, since Rowland was not guilty of traditional fornication, if he was guilty of the sins of Sodom instead. John had to protect himself. And Rowland too.

“He thinks he owes his life to God for saving him in the accident. So he’s giving it back to him.”

“Nonsense. Everyone knows he owes his life to you. Don’t grieve for his going. You’re well rid of him. He was a bad influence — you still haven’t bedded a girl either, as far as I know.” Daniel went indoors, fuming. “Pair of milksops,” he added over his shoulder. “I had my first girl when I was fourteen.”

All very well for him. He must never know exactly what his son had lost, what his son could only grieve for. John ran his hand over the disguised ffolant. He could not bear to pull it out to look. It would be too painful. The love that it carried came from a true lover, and therefore from God. Not from a now-false lover who had deserted him, from a so-called man of God.