A TURN OF THE ROAD
It was a typical July day in a large seaport town of South Wales. There had been refreshing showers in the morning, giving place to a murky haze through which the late afternoon sun shone red and round. The small kitchen of No. 2 Bryn Street was insufferably hot, in spite of the wide-open door and window. A good fire burnt in the grate, however, for it was near tea-time, and Mrs. Parry knew that some of her lodgers would soon be coming in for their tea. One had already arrived, and, sitting on the settle in the chimney corner, was holding an animated conversation with his landlady, who stood before him, one hand akimbo on her side, the other brandishing a toasting fork. Her beady black eyes, her brick-red cheeks and hanks of coarse hair, were not beautiful to look upon, though to-day they were at their best, for the harsh voice was softened, and there was a humid gentleness in the eyes not habitual to them. Her companion was a young man about twenty-three years of age, dark, almost swarthy of hue, tanned by the suns and storms of foreign seas and many lands, As he sat there in the shade of the settle one caught a glance of black eyes and a gleam of white teeth, but the easy, lounging attitude did not show to advantage the splendid build of Gethin Owens. One of his large brown fists, resting on the rough deal table, was covered with tattooed hieroglyphics, an anchor, a mermaid, and a heart, of course! Anyone conversant with the Welsh language would have divined at once, by the long-drawn intonation of the first words in every remark, that the subject of conversation was one of sad or tender interest.
“Well, indeed,” said Mrs. Parry, “the-r-e’s missing you I’ll be, Gethin! We are coming from the same place, you see, and you are knowing all about me, and I about you, and that I supp-o-s-e is making me feel more like a mother to you than to the other lodgers.”
“Well, you have been like a mother to me, mending my clothes and watching me so sharp with the drink. Dei anwl! I don’t think I ever took a glass with a friend without you finding me out, and calling me names. ‘Drunken blackguard!’ you called me one night, when as sure as I’m here I had only had a bottle of gingerpop in Jim Jones’s shop,” and he laughed boisterously.
“Well, well,” said Mrs. Parry, “if I wronged you then, be bound you deserved the blame some other time, and ’twas for your own good I was telling you, my boy. Indeed, I wish I was going home with you to the old neighbourhood. The-r-e’s glad they’ll be to see you at Garthowen.”
“Well, I don’t know how my father will receive me,” said her companion thoughtfully. “Ann and Will I am not afraid of, but the old man—he was very angry with me.”
“What did you do long ago to make him so angry, Gethin? I have heard Tom Powell and Jim Bowen blaming him very much for being so hard to his eldest son; they said he was always more fond of Will than you, and was often beating you.”
“Halt!” said Gethin, bringing his fist down so heavily on the table that the tea-things jingled, “not a word against the old man—the best father that ever walked, and I was the worst boy on Garthowen slopes, driving the chickens into the water, shooing the geese over the hedges, riding the horses full pelt down the stony roads, setting fire to the gorse bushes, mitching from school, and making the boys laugh in chapel; no wonder the old man turned me away.”
“But all boys are naughty boys,” said Mrs. Parry, “and that wasn’t enough reason for sending you from home, and shutting the door against you.”
“No,” said Gethin, “but I did more than that; I could not do a worse thing than I did to displease the old man. I was fond of scribbling my name everywhere. ‘Gethin Owens’ was on all the gateposts, and on the saddles and bridles, and once I painted ‘G. O.’ with green paint on the white mare’s haunch. There was a squall when that was found out, but it was nothing to the storm that burst upon me when I wrote something in my mother’s big Bible. As true as I am here, I don’t remember what I wrote, but I know it was something about the devil, and I signed it ‘Gethin Owens,’ and a big ‘Amen’ after it. Poor old man, he was shocking angry, and he wouldn’t listen to no excuse; so after a good thrashing I went away, Ann ran after me with my little bundle, and the tears streaming down her face, but I didn’t cry—only when I came upon little Morva Lloyd sitting on the hillside. She put her arms round my neck and tried to keep me back, but I dragged myself away, and my tears were falling like rain then, and all the way down to Abersethin as long as I could hear Morva crying and calling out ‘Gethin! Gethin!'”
“There’s glad she’ll be to see you.”
“Well, I dunno. She was used to be very fond of me; she couldn’t bear Will because he was teazing her, but I was like a slave to her. ‘I want some shells to play,’ sez she sometimes, and there I was off to the shore, hunting about for shells for her. ‘Take me a ride,’ sez she, and up on my shoulder I would hoist her, as happy as a king, with her two little feet in my hands, and her little fat hands ketching tight in my hair, and there’s galloping over the slopes we were, me snorting and prancing, and she laughing all the time like the swallows when they are flying.”
They were interrupted by a clatter of heavy shoes and a chorus of boisterous voices, as three sailors came in loudly calling for their tea.
“Hello, Gethin! not gone? Hast changed thy mind?”
“Not a bit of it,” said Gethin, pointing to his bag of clothes. “I have been a long time making up my mind, but it’s Garthowen and the cows and the cawl for me this time and no mistake.”
“And Morva,” said Jim Bowen, with a smile, in which lurked a suspicion of a sneer. “Thee may say what thee likes about the old man, and the cows, and the cawl, but I know thee, Gethin Owens! Ever since I told thee what a fine lass Morva Lloyd has grown thee’st been hankering after Garthowen slopes.”
There was a general laugh, in which Gethin joined good-humouredly, standing and stretching himself with a yawn. The evening sun fell full upon him, showing a form of sinewy strength, and a handsome manly face. His dark skin and the small gold rings in his ears, so much affected by Welsh sailors, gave him a foreign look, which rather added to the attractiveness of his personal appearance.
When the tea had been partaken of, with a running accompaniment of broad jokes and loud laughter, the three sailors went out, leaving Gethin still sitting on the settle. This was Mrs. Parry’s hour of peace—when her consumptive son came home from his loitering in the sunshine to join her at her own quiet “cup of tea,” while her rough husband was still engaged amongst the shipping in the docks.
“Well, what’ll I say to Nani Graig?” said Gethin.
“Oh, poor mother, my love, and tell her if it wasn’t for my boy Tom I’d soon be home with her again, for I’ll never live with John Parry when my boy is gone.”
“He’s not going for many a long year,” said Gethin, slapping the boy on the back, his more sensitive nature shrinking from such plain speaking.
But Tom was used to it, and smiled, shuffling uneasily under the slap.
“What you got bulging out in your bag like that?” he asked.
“Oh, presents for them at Garthowen; will I show them to you?” said the sailor awkwardly, as he untied the mouth of the canvas bag. “Here’s a tie for my father, and a hymn-book for Ann, and here’s a knife for Will, and a pocket-book for Gwilym Morris, the preacher who is lodging with them. And here,” he said, opening a gaily-painted box, “is something for little Morva,” and he gently laid on the table a necklace of iridescent shells which fell in three graduated rows.
“Oh! there’s pretty!” said Mrs. Parry, and while she held the shining shells in the red of the sun, again the doorway was darkened by the entrance of two noisy, gaudily-dressed girls, who came flouncing up to the table.
“Hello! Bella Lewis and Polly Jones, is it you? Where you come from so early?” said Mrs. Parry.
“Come to see me, of course!” suggested the sailor.
“Come to see you and stop you going,” said one of the girls. “Gethin Owens, you are more of a skulk than I took you for, though you are rather shirky in your ways, if this is true what I hear about you.”
“What?” said Gethin, replacing the necklace in the box.
“That you are going home for good, going to turn farmer and say good-bye to the shipping and the docks.” And as she spoke she laid her hand on the box which Gethin was closing, and drew out its contents. There was a greedy glitter in her bold eyes as she asked, “Who’s that for?” and she clasped it round her own neck, while Gethin’s dark face flushed.
“Couldn’t look better than there,” he answered gallantly, “so you keep it, to remember me,” and tying up his canvas bag he bade them all a hurried good-bye.
Mrs. Parry followed him to the doorway with regretful farewells, for she was losing a friend who had not only paid her well, but had been kind to her delicate boy, and whose strong fist had often decided in her favour a fight with her brutal husband.
“There you now,” she said, in a confidential whisper and with a nudge on Gethin’s canvas bag, “there you are now; fool that you are! giving such a thing as that to Bella Lewis! What did you pay for it, Gethin? Shall I have it if I can get it from her? Why did you give it to her? you said ’twas for little Morva—”
“Yes, it was,” he said; “but d’ye think, woman, I would give it to Morva after being on Bella Lewis’s neck? No! that’s why I am running away in such a hurry, to buy her another, d’ye see, and Dei anwl, I must make haste or else I’ll be late on board. Good-bye, good-bye.”
Mrs. Parry looked after him almost tenderly, but called out once more:
“Shall I have it if I can get it?”
“Yes, yes,” shouted Gethin in return, and as he made his way through the grimy, unsavoury street, he chuckled as he pictured the impending scrimmage.
Categories: English Literature