Owen Wynne Jones (also known as Glasynys, 1828-1870), was born in Rhostryfan, the same parish as Richard Hughes Williams (1878-1919), and worked in a quarry at the age of ten. In 1855 he began work as a teacher, and in 1860 he was ordained. He was an eisteddfotwr, journalist, folklorist and writer, whose stories were published in a selection edited by Saunders Lewis (1948).
Many tedious years ago, before a blazing fire of peat at the warm hearth of a house called Tŷ’n y Ddôl in Blaenau Ffestiniog one long winter’s night, I heard the tales and reminiscences of a simple old Welshman, who was known to his fellow guests as the old man of the Hill.
His perennial favourite was the one that I now intend to lay before the reader. But it would not be unprofitable, perhaps, to say what kind of person that old man was. A small, hard, industrious man, his mind full of the diverting stories he had heard as a young servant in Dolwyddelan, and I believe there was nothing more dear to him than hearing those strange, fantastic tales – those innocent and delightful stories that consecrated the mountain hearths, and instilled such special yearnings in the minds of those who sat and heard them. Once the labour of the day was done, surrounded by the coiling smoke from his pipe, he would be happier in his old armchair under the mantel than any prince or ruler of the world on his fine upholstered throne. His legs crossed and his arms folded, and with his eyes half-closed, he began like this:
Once upon a time there lived a man and a woman in a little place in the vale of Llanrwst called Cae’r Melwr, the Bee-Keeper’s Field. The estate, which was home to a few cottages and huts, was their own property, and there was much speculation in the area about this couple’s wealth. They had only one daughter to inherit their fortune, and there was no end to the tenderness and affection that they lavished on the girl as their pride and joy. This girl was also uncommonly beautiful, and her sweet kindness and tractable spirit adorned her as much as the purity of her skin and the delicate blush of her cheeks. A poor widow lived in one of the cottages on the estate with one ruddy, lively, mischievous lad. The children played together daily, and there was no one more highly thought of in Cae’r Melwr than Jack, the widow’s son. But the time for games passed, and it was necessary to think of sending Elen to a school in Llanrwst run by a certain gentlewoman who had fallen on hard times.
Since Elen was rather retiring by nature, and more refined than other girls her age, it occurred to her father to secure Jack a place in the charity school as company to the girl in her comings and goings. So the two were sent away, and for some years continued to see each other in school; but in due course Jack’s education came to an end. He was taken on as a farm hand by the master of Cae’r Melwr, and employed as such for some years, receiving a raise at the end of each season. He progressed from being a farm hand to being a responsible servant, and by the time he was a grown man twenty years old, he had been appointed the bailiff of Cae’r Melwr. The old widow was overjoyed that her son was rising so quickly in the world; and to see him become a bailiff so young seemed to her as great a thing as if he had won half a kingdom. Elen was sent over the border to learn English, and by the time she came back at the end of the year, Jack was greatly valued by her father and mother, and was considered one of the most clear-headed and capable men in the Conwy valley. He was the best husbandman in the district, and it would have been hard to find anyone to better him in trade. It was the old man’s delight to broadcast his praises, on Sundays and on holidays alike, and he would not allow that the country contained his equal. The old woman too was markedly fond of speaking of ‘our Jack.’ She too, on her visits to Llanrwst, would proclaim Jack the best young man between Chester and Conwy.
Elen thought him her dearest friend, and it would not have been hard to imagine that there was more between the two. The poor widow in her shabby cottage nearby often enjoyed the girl’s company, and not infrequently the talk turned to Jack. The local people were also beginning to gossip, and what in the world is more talkative than a country that has committed itself to the task? There was a hint of envy mixed up in it all, and no weapon is sharper or more venomous than the speech of hell. It was openly claimed that Jack was in love with Elen, and the rumour reached the ears of the old people. They had no idea in the world how to respond. It would hardly do for their daughter, the most beautiful and accomplished young lady in the district, to marry the lad. They secretly cherished the hope that some gentleman would come and set his eye on their daughter, so that before they went to their final home they would see their beloved Elen a great lady. Her beauty and wealth, as well as her intelligence, seemed to them an earnest that such things would take place. The gossip increased, and the old man was asked daily whether the girl had married the lad yet. It angered him deeply to hear it mentioned, and it was often mentioned, to mock him.
The master of Cae’r Melwr was in the habit of going to Gwydir now and then to dine. At about this time it happened that a gentleman from England was there, and he insisted on taking the bailiff of Cae’r Melwr back home with him, since the richness of the harvest he had seen in their fields had driven him mad with envy. Furthermore he had caught sight of Jack whilst hunting, and he insisted that he had never seen such a personable young man in his life. The master of Cae’r Melwr would not hear of letting the lad go, but the squire and Baron Gwydir pressed him without mercy. He promised to discuss the matter with Jack, and give them an answer the following day. As he was leaving Gwydir that night, it occurred to him that this was what he had been hoping for. ‘If Jack leaves,’ he thought, ‘I can break all contact between him and Elen. He has always been a good servant, and his departure will be a huge loss to me, but what if the rumours about him and Elen are true? Something has to be done.’ Thus he reasoned with himself, arriving home when all but Jack had gone to bed. He wished him good night, and went inside to have a talk with his wife, and after much plotting and scheming they resolved to put the Englishman’s proposal to Jack the following day. Jack said at once that he would be delighted to accept such an offer, and thanked his master warmly for his good will.
The old man returned to Gwydir at once to inform the Englishman that the lad was at his service. There were only two days to make ready for his departure. It was widely reported that Jack was leaving, and all that his widowed old mother could do was to plead for his protection before the court of the One who hears the sighs of the faithful from the depths of adversity and the misty places of tribulation. His heart was broken. His face was drenched in the tears of a pure and sacred love. A myriad of doubts and worries danced before his eyes like gnats in June. And the heart of another who lived not far away was like a spring in winter, steaming when the snow lies thick around it, and when the still lakes are locked beneath the dark sheen of ice. Such was Elen’s heart: although the winter of love had come to her, the bright flame of desire was as bright and clear as ever. And so Jack left Cae’r Melwr. His absence was greatly mourned, yet not a word on the matter passed the lips of the daughter of the house.
Once Jack had reached his new home and settled into his position, he sent his mother a letter filled with warm greetings to his friends, though Elen was not mentioned. Sitting by the fire one evening, the master said to his wife: ‘That story about Jack and Elen being in love had no truth in it, or he wouldn’t have left as he did. It was just some spiteful gossip making trouble between us.’
‘Yes indeed,’ she replied. ‘And it upset the young people so much that Elen never says a word about him, and he didn’t even mention her in his letter, although he remembered us.’
‘Very strange. Very strange indeed,’ said the old man: ‘clearly it was nothing but a bare-faced lie. There’s no doubt in my mind that Dafydd Siôn Rhys at Pen Isaf y Dref is behind it all.’
Time went by. Before long Jack had been forgotten, except by his mother and… and who? We shall see in the end.
After several years – let us say seven years – the son of the Earl of Northampton came to Gwydir for a visit. There were banquets every night, and all the neighbouring gentry were invited, male and female, including Elen, the heiress of Cae’r Melwr. Late in the evenings there was singing and dancing, and none of the other guests could compare with that beautiful young lady. There was as much difference between her and the other ladies in the house as there is between a crab apple bush and a sweet apple tree. The Englishman was enamoured of her. He spoke to her, and her replies were like the sweet showers of May on the clusters of half-wilted primrose in the meadows. To be close to her was his benediction; to hear her voice was his melody; and to look on her lovely figure was his highest joy. His eyes lapped up her beauty even as his heart drank in her sweetness, and no seer would have been required to divine the loving feelings of the gentleman.
By noon the following day it was widely known that Elen of Cae’r Melwr and the Earl of Northampton’s son were engaged. The old man was astonished, and the old woman delighted to hear their neighbours greeting them with the good news. The young man rode to Cae’r Melwr each day, and when her father visited Llanrwst the people took more than usual care to treat him with respect. There was much speculation as to the wedding day, and before long speculation turned to fact. The day had been chosen. The gentleman returned to England to visit his family and friends before undertaking this great step, and also to make those necessary arrangements for the happy day – that radiant day when Elen of Wales would be a flower in the garden of that noble Englishman. The time drew near, as surely as the time drew steadily nearer when they would sleep gently before the parish altar.
Because of family circumstances, the gentleman was prevented from returning from his own country as quickly as he had planned. But he sent his friends ahead of him, and they waited for him in Gwydir. Elen herself was hardly seen in public. At mid morning the day before the wedding, the earl of Northampton’s son set out from Llangollen accompanied by two servants, all on horseback. Just after leaving the town, they were overtaken by a nobleman riding the same way. They exchanged greetings, and the earl’s son asked the strange nobleman how far he was travelling. ‘To the end of the road,’ he replied. ‘Where?’ asked the earl’s son again. ‘To Capel Garmon, not far from Llanrwst.’ Then the earl’s son explained that he was heading for a place named Gwydir, and hoped they could travel together, and if necessary, join forces: ‘For there are highwaymen on the road,’ he said.
They rode along together, and in due course the Englishman began to tell his companion what crowded his thoughts: that he was on his way to marry one of the loveliest young ladies any man had set eyes on, and that the wedding was due to take place the next day. Not a word crossed his lips through long, wearying miles but praise for the lovely daughter of Cae’r Melwr, that chaste cowslip of the beautiful vale of Llanrwst. After he had grown tired of repeating her praises, he asked his companion whether he would care to say a little about his own affairs.
‘Willingly,’ he replied, ‘since I owe as much to the one who has been so open-hearted with me. Seven years ago I set a snare in a corner of the Conwy Valley, and I am going home to see if it has sprung.’ The earl’s son laughed at the man’s foolishness, and a part of him wondered whether he had taken leave of his senses. On they went, reaching Capel Garmon at nightfall. There they shook hands warmly and said farewell, wishing each other success. The earl’s son continued his journey to Gwydir, while his companion took a room at a small inn in the village. There he asked for a priest to attend him, who came and talked for an hour or so, mentioning the daughter of Cae’r Melwr’s marriage, and also mentioning someone called Jack. The gentleman told him that he wanted to be married before morning, and that he would pay ten gold guineas for the service. The old priest placed little value in rules, and agreed to marry the man without delay – that is, at six o’clock in the morning. Then they parted for the evening. The gentleman went out for an hour, returning briefly to leave a young lady at the inn before riding out again to Cae’r Melwr.
It was gone three o’clock in the morning. The master of the house heard his knock, and arose in great confusion, for he recognised the voice of his former servant, Jack. Jack told him at once that he had his master’s daughter with him in Capel Garmon, and since he intended to marry her that morning, he wondered whether his former master would consent to give her away. Oh, certainly! At once! The old man dressed himself very smartly, though not in the brand-new unfulled suit he had bought in preparation for Elen’s wedding. They left for Capel Garmon, and on the way, the old man had much to say about his daughter’s wedding, and invited Jack and his new bride to join them for the celebrations later.
They reached the inn, and by the time they went inside, the priest and the bell-ringer had been waiting for them for an hour or more. They had a drink, and proceeded at once to the church. The inn-keeper’s daughter was bridesmaid, the parson was best man, and the old man gave the bride away. Thus they were married. The old man even congratulated the two in broken English in front of the parson, before taking his leave to hasten home. But he begged Jack to be sure to come to the wedding feast. He went home, and told his wife how beautiful Jack’s bride was. But he had not seen her face, even though she had kissed him at the cemetery gate when he was setting out for home. She was an Englishwoman.
Cae’r Melwr was full of commotion that morning. Everyone was taken up with preparations for the wedding. It was a clear morning at the end of October, and the sun, shining brightly, was casting its rays on hill, valley and meadow. Elen was expected, but although they waited, she failed to appear. The bridesmaids arrived, six girls as pretty as had been seen in Gwynedd since the days of Morfudd, Dafydd ap Gwilym’s love, and since Elen had not emerged, the old people decided to look in on her in case she had it in mind to back out of the wedding. They went to her room, but she had vanished without trace. There was tremendous confusion, with some wailing and others shedding tears, and the old man and woman, on either side of the fire, struck dumb. ‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘I can see how it is. I gave away my daughter with my own hand this morning.’
‘Never mind,’ said the old woman. ‘If she’s lost the earl’s boy, she’s gained the man.’ They sent for Elen and Jack in Capel Garmon, and the unfortunate Englishman was forced to return to his country without Elen of Cae’r Melwr, for she was already married to Jack. And thus was explained that strange remark about the snare, which Jack had made to that hapless Englishman when they were travelling together. The two came boldly home now they had been invited, and no one was happier in the holy state of matrimony than that couple, and the old man did not regret giving his daughter to Jack.