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).
A Wedding at Nant Gwrtheyrn
If anyone would care to see nature in its rude and untamed majesty, let him stand on the summit of Craig y Llam, a massive crag in the mountains of Snowdonia that recklessly thrusts its nose into the Irish Sea. Let him stand facing that sea, with the high bare peaks of Yr Eifl behind him, its three summits often wrapped in cloud, and in front of him, the wide ocean, losing itself in the distant horizon. Beneath him will lie a terrifying abyss, scores of yards deep, and narrow ledges running across the cliffs where seabirds in their mating season lay and hatch, where many a poor creature has fallen to his death trying to despoil the foolish creatures of their treasures. If he can steal a glimpse over the edge of that terrible brink, or listen for five minutes without fear to the roar of the waves in the great caverns they have gouged from the rocks, then he will have a view to envy. On one hand are the endless rivers and hills, hills and rivers of the untamed county of Caernarfon, and on the other a deep rift, as though in some earlier epoch elements beneath the earth had uprooted a volcano from its place, and hurled it, roots and all, into the heart of the sea, leaving Nant Gwrtheyrn as a sign of the Almighty Hand that rules them.
Nant Gwrtheyrn stands about half way between Clynnog Fawr and Nefyn. It is surrounded on both sides by steep rocky ascents, where nothing grows but straggly heath, half-withered gorse, and outcrops of hazel, whose roots cling for life to the rock beneath them to stop them tumbling into the valley, and on the two other sides by Craig y Llam and the sea, which drinks and washes its skirts in its little brook. There, as the story goes, the old king of Britain, Gwrtheyrn, retreated for fear of his vassals, after treacherously allowing the marauding Saxons to seize the government of Britain. Since then the valley has been named after him, and here he lived out his wretched life under the curse which had struck his castle and cast him down into ruin. As Nennius says, throughout his dissolute life he drew the ill looks of the monks, who resolved to deny him the natural death of mortals, and so he passed away beneath unpropitious signs of the wrath of Heaven. In the middle of the valley, close to the sea, is a small natural mound, though its head and sides bear the signs of industry, and here, tradition has it, ancient defences once stood. Here also a mound of stones was once laid in the turf, to be known from age to age by the name Gwrtheyrn’s Grave, and the inquisitive people of the region, at the start of the last century, excavated the cairn, and revealed a coffin containing a man’s skeleton, remarkably tall, which they concluded belonged to none other than that ancient king. The truth of the old legend seemed confirmed, and many came to see the grave, and to gaze reverently on that remote and secluded spot.
Not far from the grave, two families once lived, in two cottages facing each other on either side of the stream – whitewashed with thatched roofs, and with an ancient look, in whose little front gardens the assiduous bees of summer gathered provisions for the coming of winter, of potato blossoms, cowslips and violets. And the inhabitants of those cottages took lessons from the bees. The houses, the gardens, the little fields – all were neat and cared for, and industry and foresight were their watchwords. Their oak dressers and pewter dishes, in one cottage as much as in the other, shone as brightly as the stream; and the gardens, and the little ricks of hay and peat, were admirably tidy, although there was almost no one to admire them but the people of Nant Gwrtheyrn themselves. By the side of the main road and the public footpath the farmers love to show their husbandry, where their diligence will win the respect of passers by.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the cottages were inhabited by two families named Meredydd: one of them by Rhys Meredydd and his two sisters, motherless girls; and the other by Ifan Meredydd, an elderly widower, and his only daughter, Meinir. The fathers of these children were brothers, and these brothers had inherited the whole of Nant Gwrtheyrn, with its wheat fields and little pastures. Rhys was a handsome, upright, red-headed young man, yet as modest as a child; and Meinir was a comely, shapely girl, prudent and wise. The quiet loneliness of their surroundings had made an idol of them in her thoughts – the great wastes of the sea on the one hand, and the rugged peaks of the hills on the other, without companionship but her two cousins, who were sickly: together, all these things had influenced the tender mind of the young girl, until she felt herself as it were in a convent among the mountains with its sober music and pale sisterhood.
Rhys and Meinir were about the same age, though he was one year older. They had played together along the hedgerows and grown up together, firm friends while they were children, and once the days of childhood were past, gradually and instinctively their friendship had ripened into love – a love as immoveable as Craig y Llam, as pure as the breeze on its summit, and as strong as the tempestuous sea at its foot. In their little world there was no one to come between their love, nowhere for jealousy to place its abhorrent foot, and everything foretold that their love would be fulfilled in the holy state of matrimony. There was no doubting the sincere intentions of the couple, nor the satisfaction of their relatives as to their engagement: the matter was entirely settled. In each other’s company the lovers found a heaven that stretched as far as the surrounding hills: throwing pebbles on the beach; slowly rowing a boat together along the shore on still evenings at dusk; sitting together on the open hill slope, gazing at the sun as it set below the horizon, and then pouring forth their affection into each other’s souls, until their little troubles were dead, the future lay bright before them, and bleak and lonely Nant Gwrtheyrn became a paradise about them. Under the influence of their love, the valley was transformed with flowing streams; the birds sang like birds of paradise, and the little woods and fields acquired the bloom of immortality. Indeed, it seemed that their love was of such intensity that it could not fire in the misty air of this world without burning itself out in coldness and hate, or dying away into embers in the customary union of marriage.
Rhys and Meinir’s love was of the second kind. The day was appointed, and preparations begun on their behalf. At that time, the office of gwahoddwr had not yet died out, nor the old Welsh wedding customs vanished from the country, although a great class of people, the young especially, had begun to tire of them. Rhys, out of natural modesty, and Meinir, because of her innate prudence, would have preferred to dispense with the revelry, but the old man would not hear of a wedding without the old customs, so out of kind-heartedness, the wedding was arranged in the traditional way, and Ifan y Ciliau, a fluent and entertaining young man, the son of the nearest farm on the other side of the mountain, was chosen for the rôle of gwahoddwr. And in that vital and responsible office, he was welcomed everywhere he went, and promised generous gifts for the pwyddion.* Such gifts were normally presented the day before the wedding – most often on a Friday, since Saturday was the most customary day in those times for the service of Hymen at the altars of Wales.
It was a busy time, that Friday in Nant Gwrtheyn. Everyone was busy preparing for the pwyddion, when their neighbours would arrive, and even the sickly old man crawled from his corner to help the girls cook and make everything tidy. Then it was time for the guests to arrive, and it was a pleasure to watch from the bottom of the valley as they made their way down the steep descents. The young helping the old across the crags, and the old entertaining the young with stories and amusing, innocent sayings; all of them, rich and poor alike, in their Sunday best. The cambric caps with the full lace frills, the beaver hats, black and gleaming like crows’ wings, often part concealing the prettiest of faces. The red skirts and the blue jackets moving down the slope between the yellow-flowering gorse and the red rock roses, and the midsummer afternoon sun smiling on it all, until the whole scene gained the beauty of enchantment. Here, a friend of the bride brimming with health and good humour, bearing her gift of a hen and a basket of chicks; there, an old woman bent over her stick, hobbling under the weight of a cheese. Some bringing strips of homespun cloth, others stooping under sacks of oatmeal; the miller’s daughter skipping down the path with her crock of butter; the carpenter’s daughter tripping along with a three-legged stool under her arm; and the blind girl from the village of Llithfaen being led by the hand with her basket of wild flowers, which she had picked, guided by her sense of smell, from the nearby meadows to decorate the bridal chamber. Everyone full of cheer, as happy as the cuckoo calling from the nearby wood, as beautiful as the flowers in the blind girl’s basket.
Meanwhile it was very busy in Nant Gwrtheyrn. Meinir was carrying the few pieces of furniture she had bought with her savings to Rhys’s house, and one of his sisters was taking her clothes across to her uncle’s house, since she would be taking care of her uncle from then on. Then the bride made haste to dress her father – to buckle his shoes, and to comb the silver threads of his hair. While she was doing so, she raised her pretty blue eyes, and gazed anxiously into his noble face, and she caught the gravity in his look, for this was the last day that they would spend beneath the same roof. And a huge tear tear fell on her new apron as she considered her father’s helplessness, and her task of dressing and undressing him, onerous yet joyfully borne, that was coming to an end. ‘Father,’ she said, ‘don’t be sad. I’ll often come to see you, and I’ll always be in reach of your call.’
‘Yes, my dear. Yes, my dear girl; the heavens reward you for your kindness to your old defenceless father. I’ll be leaving you soon, very soon, but may the blessings of heaven be on your head forever, my dear daughter.’ And thinking about his daughter’s marriage, and his own grave, he let the tears fall freely down his kingly cheeks. Then the voices of newcomers pierced their ears, and the old man proceeded to dry his eyes and smarten himself up as quickly as he could.
It is not hard to imagine the joy which accompanied the giving and receiving of gifts. Lamb and bread and brimming mugs of flavoured mead were placed before the visitors. The young couple were toasted with long and happy lives, and – it was hinted – a large family. As this last toast was given, all of Meinir’s modesty rose like a flame to her face. Is there anything more becoming than unfeigned bashfulness? It is always a sign of faithfulness and purity. Towards six o’clock the guests began to think of heading home, and set off with the warmest and kindest good will.
Rhys’s shyness had kept him from taking any part in the day’s activities. But after he had finished with the hay, and stacked it neatly until the following day; and after Meinir had milked the goats and cows, and driven the two orphaned lambs home from the mountain; before it was time for her to change her father for bed, the lovers took half an hour to spend in each other’s company. They walked hand in hand down the mountainside until they came to a hollowed oak which stood on a grassy hillock overlooking the sea. They often frequented the place to sit on a boulder which stood like a throne beneath the tree. There they sat down to chat about the day’s events, and as they were sitting there, Meinir gazed at her name, which Rhys had carved into the bark of the tree, and under it, the words: ‘Married July 5th.’ But instead of rejoicing to see her sweetheart’s handiwork, she regarded the inscription as a tempting of providence, according to the country speech of the time. ‘But, Rhys,’ she said, ‘after all, it may not happen.’
‘What? My dear girl, the wedding’s tomorrow!’ he replied, laughing.
‘Oh, but anything could happen between now and then. Remember when my father promised to take us to the saint’s day fair in Nefyn, and on Saturday before the fair he had a stroke? Now he can’t even turn over in bed.’
Rhys saw that it would be foolish to continue such a morbid discussion the night before such a joyful day, and quickly the subject was forgotten in loving glances, in the holding of hands to breasts, and in hopeful predictions concerning the morrow. And yet Meinir stayed after Rhys by the tree, and changed the word ‘Married’ to ‘Buried.’
And after a short night, during which neither Meinir nor Rhys slept a wink for thinking and worrying about the wedding, the day of all days, with its bustle and distractions, came upon them. The dawn was clear, and the day seemed set to be warm and fair. The sun on a wedding ring and the rain on a coffin, as the old people say.
By ten o’clock the next morning, the preparations were complete, and Meinir stood pale with anxiety by her father’s chair. She gazed at the path over the crest of the hill, along which she expected any minute to see the gwŷr o wisgi oed, the men of lively age, coming to take her to church. The men in this case were friends of the groom, and were coming according to custom to drive the bride to church, and according to custom she was expected to outrun and escape them. She and Rhys had already decided how she was to evade her pursuers, and meet him on the woodland path that led to the back of the church.
And here they were at last, a dozen young men in rude good health, racing down the hillside, and the moment they came into view, Meinir had fled as if in fear for her life to her hiding place. They were not long reaching the valley floor, but by that time their bird had flown. And so they began a search, looking in the barn and the little rickyard, behind the peat stack, and in the bracken field behind the house, checking the breach in the rock beyond that – they searched thoroughly, but in vain, and just as they were about to admit defeat, one of them just chanced to see a pair of feet poking out from under one of the haystacks nearby, and the whole company let out a roar of triumph at the discovery. And that was a hint to Meinir that it would be folly to stay in her hiding place further. She leapt up, and the hay and the clover slipped from her dress; she gazed at her pursuers a moment, half afraid, half wanting to be pursued, and with a mocking smile she ran down an unfrequented path between the trees, disappearing like some wood nymph, or like a dream.
By special arrangement the wedding was due to take place in Clynnog Fawr, where Meinir’s mother and father had married, and it had been the old man’s special desire to see his daughter married there also. And a wedding in a small, sleepy mountain parish is an event to watch! Everyone comes to his door to watch the procession go past, and the children are out of their minds with excitement. The woods and gardens pay tribute to honour the event. The children had strewn branches and flowers on the path between the lych gate and the church, and were confident of some reward for doing so. Dafydd the Cripple, the harpist, with the same commendable expectation, had placed himself on a gravestone with his instrument in his hand, ready to strike a tune as the company came past. Filled with mischief, the children were almost deafening him with their pleas for a tune, the most wayward of them venturing to touch the strings in the hope of stealing a note, whilst Dafydd kept the others at bay with his stick. Some of his tormentors had climbed a tree, from where they could see a mile down the road, and their fellows on the ground called up, ‘Can you see them yet, lads? Are they coming?’ But there was no sign of the wedding party. And one of the lads, a halfwit, had scattered rue and bitter herbs along the path – those herbs which are strewn by ill-wishers and rivals as auguries of misfortune and regret. It was an insignificant event, yet in the minds of the superstitious among the expectant crowd it was a portent that something was wrong.
And in the meantime, where was Rhys? He was at the meeting place he had arranged with Meinir, dripping with sweat in his anxiety, unable to guess at or comprehend what could be keeping her so long. He paced up and down, he stabbed at the ground with his toes, and the longer he waited, the more his disquiet grew. The sun had reached its zenith, and in all probability the priest had grown tired of waiting, and gone home. And when his companions returned, and Meinir not with them, he called out, ‘In God’s name, where is she?’
‘Isn’t she with you, Rhys?’ asked one.
‘She’s played some trick on us,’ Rhys said. ‘She’s in the valley somewhere. Back, lads; run for your lives, or it’ll be too late!’
‘Where to? There’s not a living soul there except your uncle, and he’s not seen her since she escaped from the haystack this morning.’
Rhys stood like a statue, at a loss what to do. But laughing a hollow kind of laugh, he said, ‘She must have hidden behind the church, but I’ll head back to the valley to check. Run!’ and off he went like a breath of wind.
The young men searched everywhere round the church and cemetery, but found neither sight not sound of her. There was no doubt in Rhys’s mind that she was in one of these two places, but when he reached home he could only gaze stupidly at the old man, while he gave him to understand that he had seen no sign of her, dashing one of his two hopes. Then he sat down beside his uncle, and lulled himself into a calmness while thinking how little danger could have overtaken her in such a short space of time. It was broad daylight, with neither pit nor precipice on the way; no ill-wishers who would hurt her in a country where there had been no highwaymen or murderers in living memory; he had come back by the same path she would have taken, and if she had suffered some accident on the way, he would have found her. In short, it was impossible that any harm could have come to her, and he composed himself with such reflections into a sort of peace. But the next moment he jumped up. ‘Good heavens!’ he cried, ‘why am I sitting here?’ As the mystery rushed back upon his thoughts, he saw that the time for the wedding had passed, and he, who should have been married an hour ago, was sitting so idly exchanging useless words with his uncle – and as for Meinir, who knew where she was?
Once again he started up the hill, heading towards the church, in the hope that his last expectation of finding her might be fulfilled. But he had not gone far before he met his friends, and their wretched, disappointed faces betrayed forever the comforting hope that his lover had been found. There was no need to ask; the mournful fact was loud on their faces. They gazed at each other dumbly. Rhys looked from one side to the other, scowling, like someone trying to escape from death, with nowhere to run or hide; like someone caught out in a storm he threw himself on the ground, and was in a faint when they reached him, and carried him, still insensible, to his home.
That night, lights were seen moving up and down the valley, and voices were heard calling Meinir’s name, which was echoed by the cliffs and answered by the owls, or by weary fishermen in their boats; every possible place was searched, and every impossible one – every hill, every ridge, but in vain; the peaks of the untamed mountains and the bottoms of the remotest valleys were searched, but there was not the least sign of her:
Searching for her everywhere;
Searching, without finding her.
Meinir never came again to delight the eyes of her crippled father, nor to comfort the careworn spirit of her cousin and lover, for nothing was seen or heard of her, as though the earth itself had killed her and buried her by night – buried her on her wedding day, as she had jokingly foretold to Rhys the previous day by the oak tree.
When Rhys recovered consciousness that evening, his eyes roamed wildly about the room, and saw the preparations for the wedding still adorning it, until everything ran through his mind a second time. The setting sun shone brightly through the small window on his ashen face, and he knew that the day was coming to an end – so pleasant and familiar such a view would have been to a man just married, so comfortless to him in his painful predicament: it warned him that night was coming, that the tranquil hours of twilight had spread their cool and golden wings over the earth – and he in a fever, with his head on fire, lay languishing in bed, his own bridal bed, alone – and where was Meinir?
In accordance with the customs of that superstitious time, there were immediate enquiries about magical aid. While one of the sisters watched the bed of the sick man, the other hastened as soon as she could to a certain familiar woman who lived in a small, plain cottage high, high on one of the slopes of Yr Eifl – far above the common paths of men, in the world of rocks and cloud and ravens. Hideous and melancholy, her behaviour half-crazed by her solitude, she had driven the ordinary people of those parts to believe that she knew all secrets through her relationship with the Evil One. The young girl from Nant Gwrtheyrn presented herself before this anchoress, and her answers, like the answers of other oracles, were a riddle, yet a consolatory one.
‘Will we find her?’
‘Yes, she will be found.’
‘Who will find her? Where and how?’
The wise woman shook her head.
‘Will the groom find his beloved?’
‘In heaven or on earth?’
‘Thank God!’ cried the credulous girl, turning the whites of her eyes to heaven, and pressing her hands together and weeping for joy. ‘But when? Oh, when?’
‘A light will come from heaven, and she will be revealed. Look for her no further, for heaven will reveal her to him – they will stand face to face in the light of heaven.’
‘How long will she be gone from us?’
‘She isn’t gone.’
After this the wise woman would say nothing further, and so the young girl returned home.
She told her sister what had taken place, and the words the wise woman had spoken, and although the two weighed them carefully in the scales of their understanding, they could find no sense in them, and so they decided to keep her words secret and wait for time to explain them, if indeed they could be explained.
Yet Rhys still lay in a sullen torpor, his eyes like fixed stars in his head; he took notice of no one, and his jaw clenched shut when speech was offered him. He did not even ask the outcome of the visit to the wise woman, as though in fear of quenching what little hope remained in his breast. It was hard at times for the most unobservant not to see in him the foreshadowings of madness, for his brain was already giving way in the heat of his misfortune and anxiety. He was in this state for a day and a night, sometimes better and sometimes worse, though his worse times were lengthening and his better times becoming more rare; and when the shadows of the second day were advancing, he leapt up, put on his wedding suit, grasped his sister by the arm with a terrible strength, and cried out the question: ‘Have they found her?’
The poor girl could not break his heart again with a denial; neither could she deceive him; she looked in his face with a pitying gaze, and turned her face to hide her tears.
‘Have they found her? Have they found her?’
She spoke the dread word in a high plaintive cry, until the surrounding crags echoed with it. Then, standing on the threshold of the little bridal room, newly painted, newly decorated with little pictures and bridal bouquets, with the colourful patchwork counterpane on the bed, the handiwork of the missing bride, he whispered: ‘It is night! It is night! And she with no roof over her head! May I never sleep under shelter until she is found!’ And tearing himself from his terrified sister’s arms, he fled towards the woods and the mountains. He took not the slightest notice of the most desperate cries of his sisters behind him; and so their worst fears were realised: Rhys had gone mad.
From that moment on he lived as a vagrant. He would not return among human company except when hunger pressed on him, like some wild beast urged by want in the winter storms to prowl among the haunts of men. In the untamed woods and the dank caves of the mountains he dreamed his life away, until he became the image of pity and fear to all who saw him. His beard was long, and soon turned grey, and his nails were like the talons of some bird of prey. And in his self-neglect, his long starvation, and his wild, unruly life, his face turned wizened like the leaves in October, which were his couch during the day and his bed at night. At times he would howl until the echo resounded from cliff to cliff that word which was the root of all his suffering, No, and the unreasoning creatures came to fear him, and the shepherds in their summer pastures looked on him with horror. Sometimes also he would he would race to and fro along the margin of the wild December sea, whose white-tipped waves threatened to engulf the lonely outcast in their icy grasp. Then he would stand drenched beneath the spume, and howl his blasphemous rage as though with his harsh cries he might drown out the crash of the waves, challenging the harsh fate that had stolen his beloved. He never entered his house again; neither would he suffer the furniture to be moved, nor the building to be maintained, and so it fell into silent dereliction, an image of husbandry debased, until the strong sea winds drove a large part of its thatched roof away, and the clean white walls turned green with decay, and in the end, the owls and bats made their home in its rooms, and the foxes and wildcats in their turn barked and tended their young in the marriage bed.
Yet although he followed the life of a lunatic, to his sorrow, his mind was fully alert to the pity of his condition, and it is this that makes insanity the most agonising sorrow that can reach a man. This insanity, that crushes the natural feelings, the affections, the passions and the habits, yet with minimal impairment of the understanding, is known to some doctors by the name moral madness, and its qualities are those of a drunk on the edge of a cliff – who sees that terrifying abyss, yet is powerless to avoid it, because he has lost control of his motions. The connection that exists between the reason and the members becomes deranged, and although the mind is unimpaired, the behaviour is irrational and uncontrolled. Despair, like the grave, opens its jaws to engulf the soul, and the understanding is conscious of this, yet unable to avoid the destruction of being buried alive. This is the face of horror and insanity, and Rhys was falling from sickness into the teeth of this fate.
For some months he said nothing except to his dog. This was a kind of corgi that had been used to herd the sheep, from a pedigree famous for their faithfulness to their masters, and their intuitive understanding. When Rhys was in his senses, this fierce little dog had been in the habit of following him along the fields when he was ploughing, and into the mountains when he was tending the sheep. The dog was seldom seen without his master, or the master without his dog. And even when Rhys lost his senses, he did not lose the company of Cidwm. By day this faithful beast would follow him in all his fickle unplanned roaming, and sleep at his feet at night. Once the old man tried to wean him off his affection for his afflicted master, shutting him up in a stall in the cowshed, but clearly he would have passed away in captivity, so despairing and listless was his look. The old man set him free, and he searched the woods again until he found his master. Rhys would speak to him as though to a man and a Christian, telling him all his bitter experiences and his weary troubles, and all in such a dolorous tone, that the creature would look in the quick of his eyes, and give a heart-rending howl as though he understood it all. But when cold winter came, and the white frost covered the ground each morning, when hardship had only a little effect on the constitution of the madman, made stronger by his lunacy, the poor dog wasted away, and died of hunger and cold, a sacrifice to his outstanding quality – faithfulness.
The death of his dog was another blow to Rhys’s afflicted mind, for he had lost his only companion on the face of the earth. His treatment of the dead body was the most tumultuous display of madness that we have ever heard of, and a pitiful example of the abjection and suffering of a man deprived of his senses. He watched over the corpse constantly, he embraced it and carried it in his arms for days, pouring forth the complaints of his spirit over it until Ifan y Ciliau, who had been his gwahoddwr, along with two other strong men, tackled him out of genuine pity for him, and buried the corpse in a hidden grave.
Once he had lost that companion, the hollowed old oak on the edge of the sea became his closest friend. ‘It is just like me,’ he would say. ‘It endures all the rage of the storm in solitude, and so do I; it wastes away, and so do I; it shakes defiant branches at the sea into which it must fall, and so do I; it and I will soon be gone, and before twenty years have passed (oh, it’s strange to think such things!) a new generation will rise, and say, “That’s where that old hollowed oak once stood! And that’s where Rhys Meredydd paid a terrible price for his nature!” And it is to you I pour out the bitterness of my spirit. You heard the pleasantries of my love; now hear the complaints of my desertion! And if you cannot hear me, well, you cannot mock me; if you cannot feel for me, neither can you betray me. And do you also have some spring of tears to empty? a breast to tear asunder with your sighs? a heart to rend in two under the blows of disappointment? If not, then you are blessed indeed! Under your loving wing I will take shelter at night and dream of my beloved Meinir.’
And there he would stay day and night, leaping and resting, singing and crying, praying and blaspheming, in turn. His sisters quickly came to understand where to find him, and often put down food before him, which he would eat with the voracity of one near starvation, but without saying a word, not even of thanks. For many weeks this glowering dumbness continued, and not even his sisters’ kindness could reduce it, though they continued to serve his needs with the most laudable self-denial. Nevertheless, eventually they saw signs of cheerfulness in his grim face; once he warmly thanked one of the sisters, and gradually he began to speak more freely. They asked him why he stayed by the hollow tree more often than anywhere else. He replied, ‘Because I’ve known it for so many years, and I’ve seen Meinir in my dreams here more often than anywhere else.’ And bit by bit he was persuaded to come as far as the house of Ifan Meredydd, although he would not sit down or eat during his visits. Instead he would stay standing or pacing back and forth for hours, and when night fell he would say, ‘I must go. She’ll be expecting me soon… Do you have any messages for her, uncle?’
‘No, lad, but I’ll be in the same place as she is very soon.’
In this way, Rhys’s sickening mind conceived the insane idea that he was seeing and speaking to his fiancée at night, until he thought himself happy for a time; but it was only a fantasy, that kept his deluded mind as tormented as ever.
Neither would he stay in the house during storms. As soon as he heard the wind rising, and saw the black clouds piling up overhead, away he would go, with the words, ‘She’ll be out under all the rage of the storm, and it would be a cruelty in me to stay inside.’ In truth, the storm was fair weather to him; he felt happier in the roar of thunder and the clash of lightning, when he was soaked by the rain, than when the sun was shining and the whole of nature smiling around him. The former was more in keeping with the tumult in his spirit. One afternoon, when nature was showing portents of a terrible thunderstorm, he stood in the doorway of the house, about to set out for the place he had chosen under the hollow old tree, and Gwyneth came and pleaded with him for the sake of his life not to remain without shelter.
‘Where would I stay, you foolish girl?’ he asked her. ‘I am so familiar with horror that not even death itself can frighten me. A storm like this is less than nothing compared with the constant battle between hope and despair in this breast. Sometimes I would sooner have death than life, but when I am about to perform the evil deed, it comes to my mind that she might still be alive, and I would be leaving her behind me; then I choose life, and the world seems cold and empty without her. I am like a partridge in the evening croaking for her mate, who has fallen by some unknown hand during the day. At other times I call on God in His mercy to rend the veil that covers my eyes and reveal her fate, her remains, her grave. I don’t wish for happiness, for the time for happiness has departed from me forever. Oh, cruel fate that robbed me of it! I have prayed for certainty, even if only the certainty of despair; despair would be better than this will-o’-the-wisp of hope that drives my tortured thoughts along the brink of death and the marshes of pity. No, the storm for me! And perhaps it will cast some flash of light on her fate, and then I can die in peace.’ And he tore himself away from her companionship, and away he went at a gallop to the oak tree. It would be easier to stop the stork from obeying its invincible instinct to migrate than to stop Rhys from going to that place during the storm.
And in his sisters’ opinion he could have chosen nowhere as dangerous as that little spot, since the old oak had been struck by lightning three times during the last ten years. It stood on the edge of the sea on a tall cliff, and it was an obvious mark for the forces of destruction. Because of this, his sister hurried after him, determined to entice him home, or at least to get him away from the teeth of danger. When she reached him he was sitting there quite calmly, while nature writhed as though in agony, its face as black as midnight. When the first lightning tore the dark belly of the cloud, he laughed; and when she took him in her hand to urge him away, he threw her a loving, grateful look as though to acknowledge her diligent care, and kissed her hand, saying, ‘Dear Gwyneth!’ But when she begged him piteously to take shelter from the storm, ‘No, Gwyneth fach,’ he said. ‘You think this affects me the way it does you? Far from it. Go home, dear girl. Don’t come between me and the storm; weather like this is peace to me, because for a while it drowns out the sound of the storm in here–’ he pointed to his breast ‘–this endless storm, the thunderbolt that howls, howls! Oh, save me! Spare me from ever seeing again the blue sky and the clover fields! A storm for me.’ Just then there was a flash. ‘Run, girl, run! It’s dangerous.’
‘You must come with me. I tell you, I won’t leave you.’
‘That’s another bolt from heaven! That’s another shout loud enough to wake the dead,’ said Rhys, regaining his usual unconcern. ‘But this is the feeble thunder and lightning of our world. What about that day when when nature will be torn apart, and creation will come under fire like lightning, and all will come face to face? You, the One who knows all things, hear the broken-hearted sighing of a miserable wretch from the depths of woe and despair, my final prayer: tear that terrible secret open, as the lightning rends the darkness here – (go home, girl, go home). May this day be for me the day when all secrets are revealed. I bind the earth and its inhabitants, the sea and its dead, the heavens and their saints, to intercede on my behalf. Oh, wife, my Meinir, gone for ever! Out of those clouds, or out of the soil, whether as an angel or as dust, I entreat, I implore, I pray for one sight of you – if only for a second – a glimpse of you, and then I will lay my head on the cold earth to die.’
He had barely finished speaking when lightning with the tip of its wing struck him down at the base of the tree, and Gwyneth heard a terrible crash all about her, like the great crash of ice shattering into a million pieces, and when she opened her eyes, they met a sight that made her faint in horror. The tree had split open from top to bottom, revealing its rotten heart, never seen before; and through the fissure appeared a terrifying vision: a skeleton standing upright in the hollow – the fleshless skull turned green with damp, and the bones bleached by the weather, in the rotting wisps of a dress, Meinir’s wedding dress; and her fleshless arms reaching up in her struggles, all showing the terror of her death. This fated bride, after crossing where her father had last seen her, had climbed to the top of the tree in the hope of avoiding her harmless pursuers, and had fallen into the hollow; unable to climb out, she had stuck there till she died, as others stick in chimneys.
Gwyneth hoped to hide the sight from Rhys, who by now was stirring himself from his faint, but in vain. He came ahead to the place where he would see it all; he pushed her away, until at last that emaciated groom and that long-lost bride stood face to face, and the face of the living was no less changed than the face of the dead. The madman pointed at his grim reflection, and smiled at his sister with a ghastly smile, revealing his sense of her loveliness and his sorrow at meeting the one he had sought for so long – and what a meeting it was! The mystery was revealed at last, and what his feelings were remained unknown; he showed them only with that broken-hearted smile. Glancing once again at the remains of the one who had been missing so long, yet all the time so close, he fell to the ground, and within a few minutes his tortured spirit had left his wasted mortal part. Oh, to such as him, death is sweet! The unnatural smile remained on the face of his corpse, frozen in place by death. The two were buried in one coffin, and although separated in life, they were united in death.
The old man, Meinir’s father, only lingered a few months after the discovery of her body; the thing weighed so heavily on his frail tabernacle that he quickly gave way. Gwendolen, Rhys’s older sister, wasted away, and the grave opened for her as well. She was as sombre and wise as a willow tree. Only Gwyneth was left, the sole possessor of the valley. She became a blooming young woman despite all the insanity that had darkened her early life. She married Ifan Huws y Ciliau, the unfortunate Rhys’s gwahoddwr, and the two lived together to a great age and died in peace, and almond blossoms adorn their heads.