Richard Hughes Williams (a.k.a. Dic Tryfan; b. Rhostryfan, Gwynedd, 1878; d. Tregaron, Ceredigion, 1919) was a writer and journalist and an early innovator and populariser of the short story in Welsh. His short stories were published in a range of Welsh magazines and newspapers during his lifetime, and in two volumes of short stories, Straeon y Chwarel (Cwmni y Cyhoeddwyr Cymreig, 1914) and Tair Stori Fer (Hughes a’i Fab, 1916). A collection of his work, Storïau Richard Hughes Williams, was published postumously (Cardiff: Hughes a’i Fab, 1932/1994); while an individual short story, ‘The Wastrel,’ was translated by Dafydd Rowlands as ‘Good-for-Nothing,’ and appears in Alun Richards (ed), The Second Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994).
The following is found in my own translation of the short stories of Richard Hughes Williams, Going South (Cockatrice, 2015).
The Scholar: A Short Story by Richard Hughes Williams
About ten years ago, a smart young man came to Chwarel y Banc, looking for work. No one knew him, or knew where he was from, so naturally there was much speculation about him.
Labourers were very scarce in the quarries at the time, and it was easy for anyone to get work.
‘What can you do?’ asked Huws, the steward, when the stranger asked for a job.
‘What have you got?’ asked the stranger.
‘A lot of things you can’t do, my lad. Do you think you can load a wagon?’
‘With your hat, of course.’
‘With my hat?’
‘Yes, or if you’ve got a teaspoon in your pocket, better still. Come with me, we’re going to see Robin Ifan.’
The two men went to the top, where an old man was loading sand onto a wagon.
‘How many slates did you get today, Robin?’ asked the steward mockingly.
‘You what?’ asked the old man fiercely.
‘How many slates did you get?’ said Huws.
‘I got one,’ said Robin, more angry than ever.
‘Where’s Elis today?’
‘I don’t know where that layabout’s gone.’
‘When was he here last?’
‘Some time before Christmas.’
‘Well, you’ll be needing a partner, then. What do you think of this young man?’
‘What can he do, sir?’
‘I don’t know; you can ask him yourself. Do you have a spade here?’
‘Elis’s spade is in the cabin, if the boys haven’t walked off with it. But sir, does this fine gentleman know what to do with a spade?’
‘Yes, he knows where to put it if you don’t shut your mouth.’
‘He looks like a shop-keeper, sir.’
‘Even better. He’ll know all about sand.’
‘Look at his hands. They’re like the minister’s wife’s! It’s a fat lot of use bringing me a scarecrow like this as a partner, when I’ve been working beside this wagon for over forty years. Can’t you find him something to do in the office? I dare say he can sweep the floor or put coal on the fire.’
‘Who’s the steward, Robin, you or me?’
‘Well, you, I suppose, sir.’
‘Then stop telling me how to do my job, or you’ll start getting ideas above your station.’
‘Very well, sir.’
‘Run and get that spade.’
‘Why can’t he go, sir? he’s younger than me.’
‘He’s never seen a spade before.’
‘Well, I must say he’s the funniest creature I ever set eyes on. Does he know how to eat his dinner, then?’
‘Well, provided you’re not too hard on him, I might let on he doesn’t know the first thing about it.’
Robin went off towards the cabin, muttering loudly to himself.
‘Well, Robin Ifan,’ he said, ‘you’ve gone down in the market. You’re not worth a groat, it seems. You’ll be lucky to earn your tobacco next month with an old pussy-cat like that.’
He found the spade under a pile of sacks, and having sneaked a short smoke from Harri the Weight-taker, who had gone out for a breath of fresh air, he went back to the wagon.
‘What took you so long?’ demanded Huws.
‘Someone had hidden the spade up the chimney, sir.’
‘So I suppose you went up after it? Well, it’s the best place for you.’
I should say that Robin had a dangerous temper, and that was the reason Elis, his partner, was spending the day in bed. The two had come to blows, and Robin had struck Elis in the back with his spade. Huws knew that, and decided it would be wise to make sure that nothing of the same sort happened to the stranger. So he called Robin aside.
‘Robin,’ he said, ‘take care how you talk to this man.’
‘Why, sir? Bit of a prig, is he?’
‘Yes, he is. You know what he was before he came here?’
‘If he wasn’t a baker or tailor, no.’
‘No, nothing like that.’
‘What was he, then?’
‘He was a soldier.’
‘Yes, boy, a soldier.’
‘And he’s just got back from a long way away.’
‘And left his backbone behind him.’
‘Don’t fool yourself. There’s more to him than meets the eye.’
‘Has he been in any battles?’
‘Yes, many times.’
‘Well, somebody’s kind to the poor.’
‘What are you talking about, Robin?’
‘Harri the Flea’s dog.’
‘What about it?’
‘It wasn’t worth a penn’orth of powder to shoot, so the boys drowned it. Obviously someone thought the same about him.’
‘Well, do what you like; but I’ve warned you, and if they’re holding your inquest by the end of the week, don’t you dare put the blame on me. This boy knows what’s what, and the best thing for you to do is be as nice to him as you can. Now, get on with your work, and if this boy doesn’t know what he’s doing, mind you help him out.’
Robin went back to the wagon, muttering louder than ever.
‘If he can use a gun,’ he said, ‘I can use a spade, and there’s no way I’m going down on my knees to some redcoat.’
He put a plug of tobacco in his mouth and went over to the stranger, still trying to shut his tobacco tin.
‘Well, mate,’ he said, ‘what’s your name?’
‘Arthur Obadiah Huw Jones.’
‘Bloody hell, you’re gentry! Is there any more?’
‘Yes, two letters.’
‘What are they?’
‘Are you a preacher, then? My word, Huws is a lying bastard.’
‘Why, what did he say?’
‘He said you’re a soldier.’
‘Well, I’m a soldier as well.’
‘Have you been in any battles?’
‘Were you at Waterloo?’
‘Yes, I just got back from there last week.’
‘How was old Bony?’
‘Oh, he was in good form. No, I forget – he had a touch of tooth-ache.’
‘How many fleas – I mean men – have you killed?’
‘In my life?’
‘I couldn’t count them. I must have killed thousands.’
‘Where’s your gun?’
‘It’s at home. I’ll bring it tomorrow to show you.’
‘No, better leave it where it is. We’ll all be safer. Do you know how to load a wagon?’
‘With your hat, isn’t it?’
‘Get lost, you stupid fool.’
‘With a teaspoon, then?’
‘Well, God help me, I’ll starve at this rate. Do you know what a shovel is?’
‘Oh! So that’s a shovel, is it?’
‘Yes, very good, but what’s it for?’
‘For digging potatoes.’
‘Yes, but don’t you think you could load sand into this wagon with it?’
‘Maybe I could, but then what do we do with the sand?’
‘You can take it home in your pockets for all I care, so long as we get it through the machine.’
‘Through the machine!’
‘To weigh it, shop-keeper.’
‘What do you want to weigh it for?’
‘To find out how much money it’s worth.’
‘Oh, I get the idea.’
‘Well, I’m amazed.’
‘Yes, it is rather impressive, isn’t it? Right, let’s get to work, or we won’t have a penn’orth by evening.’
The strange young man grasped the spade, and started shovelling sand as though there were prizes for it. Soon his side of the wagon was full, while poor Robin’s side was still half empty, even though the old man was working harder than he’d worked for a decade.
‘Well, I’m damned,’ he said presently; ‘you’re a bloody good loader. If you can push as well as you can shovel, we’ll make our fortunes.’
‘No doubt about it.’
‘How much sand do we have to load to make our fortunes?’
‘Oh, about eighteen loads a day.’
‘I could do it single-handed.’
‘Well, you’ll only need to keep coming to the quarry for a couple of months.’
‘Then what’ll I do?’
‘Live on your money, lad, live on your money.’
The two began seriously loading, and soon the wagon was ready for them to take to the top of the pile.
‘You take that side and I’ll take this side. Now, are you ready?’
‘Look out for the points, or it’ll end up on the ground.’
‘What’ll end up on the ground?’
‘The wagon, stupid.’
‘It’s on the ground already.’
‘You don’t say. That’s bad news.’
‘It was on the ground from the start.’
‘Before we started loading?’
‘Well, why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I didn’t realise you needed to know.’
‘Where’s your common sense?’
‘In my boots.’
‘I think it must be. Which wheel is it?’
‘All four of them.’
Robin ran round the wagon, and let out a whistle.
‘Who taught you to tell lies?’
‘You told me the wagon was on the ground.’
‘Well, it is on the ground, as well.’
‘Don’t talk such rubbish.’
‘Where do you think it is? Hanging in mid air?’
Robin saw it was he who had no common sense, and kept his mouth shut. The two pushed the wagon hard, but as they were going over the points, Robin pushed one way and the stranger pushed against him, with the result that the two front wheels slipped off the rails, and the wagon up-ended with its load spilt out on the ground.
‘Well, you’re a right one,’ said Robin, scratching his head gravely.
‘What do we do now?’ asked the stranger
‘You can go home and see your granny for all I care, if you’ve got one.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m going to see Huws to ask if he’s got a wheel-barrow we can use. Maybe I can manage that much.’
In a while, the two had managed to lift the wagon back on the rails and reload it. Then they started off again towards the weighbridge.
When they got there, Robin whispered in the stranger’s ear:
‘Remember to stand on the machine when Harri the Weight-taker’s weighing the load.’
The stranger did as he was told, and went up greatly in Robin’s opinion.
‘They’re always cheating us as much as they can,’ the old man said, ‘so it’s only fair we should take a penn’orth or two back occasionally.’
The two worked solidly for the rest of the day, and in the evening Robin said to the stranger:
‘You’ll soon find your feet. You’re better than Elis already. He’s a lazy old dog, you see; he wouldn’t work to save his neck. Make sure you’re here at seven tomorrow morning.’
But the stranger didn’t come, even though Robin was looking out for him until after ten o’clock.
At about eleven, Huws the steward went past, and said:
‘Where’s your partner, Robin?’
‘I’ve no idea at all, sir.’
‘Have you killed him already?’
‘No. He said he’d be coming in at seven.’
‘Maybe he’ll come this afternoon.’
‘No, I don’t think so, sir.’
‘Why not, Robin?’
‘He was an incredible scholar, sir.’
‘Yes, a B. something.’
‘You mean a B. A.’
‘Yes, that’s it. He had all these books in his pocket as well, and he said the wagon was on the ground when it was on the rails, and by God, he made me believe him. I’ve no doubt at all he was a clever fellow.’
‘What was he like as a worker, Robin?’
‘Well, he was a damned good worker, and a decent fellow as well. I’m sure he was a scholar.’
The stranger never came come back to the quarry, even though Robin was looking out for him daily. The old man said his partner was a scholar without equal, until in the end he really believed it, and one day he told a colleague he’d ‘seen a story in the papers about some professor, who’d just spent some time in Wales.’