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 Wastrel: A Short Story by Richard Hughes Williams
How he had found his way to this hole at the bottom of the quarry when he was so drunk it is hard to tell; but there he was, in the level they had opened a few months back.
‘I’m a bad lot,’ he said mournfully, holding his parched mouth under the little spring that ran from a cleft in the rock.
It was only five o’clock in the morning, and there was no one on the level beside himself. Even he should not even have been there, but when a man wakes up from a drunken sleep on the roadside, before the rest of the world is awake, he naturally goes to the place he loves most. And heaven to Harri Huws was the bottom level of Chwarel y Coed.
After knocking his head sore in his attempt to cool his throat, he lay down on a heap of rubble. ‘I’m a bad lot,’ he said again, more seriously than before, and a minute later he was sleeping the alcohol out of his system.
He was almost completely sober when a lad of fifteen arrived at the level with a candle in his hand. He was singing at the top of his voice, as a young lad does in the morning, but when he saw his partner on the slag-heap in his best suit, a cloud crossed his cheerful features.
‘You’ve been at it again, haven’t you?’ said the boy sternly.
‘Yes, Dic bach,’ answered Harri, with a hint of regret in his voice.
‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’
‘You’re worse than a pig.’
‘I know I am.’
‘Go home and get changed. You’ve ruined your coat. Your mother will be out of her mind.’
‘She will, won’t she?’
‘Very well. Go home, and come back quickly.’
Harri went, keeping his eye on the chink of light that showed him the mouth of the tunnel. But he hadn’t gone ten yards when he heard a sound like the sound of an earthquake in another world, and the level shook as though falling in pieces about him. His mind cleared at once, and a fire came to his eyes. But he could no longer see the glimmer of light that had been dancing so merrily a moment ago. The fall had frightened it away, leaving Dic and Harri prisoners in the dark tunnel.
Harri let out a whistle and went back to Dic, and re-lit the candle that the boy had dropped in his fright. Then he returned to the mouth of the tunnel, with Dic whimpering at his heels.
An experienced quarryman can judge the extent of a fall from the sound, and Harri realised there were at least five thousand tonnes between himself and daylight. But he gave no thought to dying. Wasn’t he as strong as the rock that was gradually settling in the mouth of the tunnel?
He struck it once, twice with his hammer. It was as sound as a bell – the best slate he’d seen for days. But he would have to drill through it. He would have to bore through to its core so he could fire it when his fellow quarrymen came to save him and Dic.
But would they come in time? He broke a piece of tobacco, stuffing it carefully in the side of his mouth. Yes, would they come it time? – that was the question. How many days would it take them to clear five thousand tonnes? – no, six, the sound hadn’t finished yet. Could they clear it in a week? If they worked day and night – and they would, for Dic’s sake – they could do it.
‘Yes, Dic bach?’
‘Yes. We can go, can’t we, Harri?’
‘Of course, just as soon as they shift this boulder.’
‘But I want to go now, Harri. Can’t you move it? Push.’
‘No use, Dic.’
‘I’ll help you. Now, push your hardest. One, two, three. Why aren’t you pushing, Dic?’
‘I am pushing. There you are. We’ve moved it a little bit. Now it’ll be easier for them when they move it tomorrow.’
‘No, I meant tonight.’
‘But it didn’t budge an inch, Harri; I’m sure it didn’t. Do you really think we’ll be out tonight?’
‘Yes, of course we will.’
‘Yes, Dic bach?’
‘Do you think I should pray?’
‘I don’t know what good it’ll do, lad.’
‘But they’re bound to find us. Dad wouldn’t let me die. Tell me I’m not going to die, Harri. Maybe I’d better pray. They’re bound to come, aren’t they? Where are you, Harri? Don’t go away. Listen! Someone’s coming!’
‘Yes, they’ll be here very soon. We’d better get on with our work. Come on. Slowly now. Where are you? Are you sitting down?’
‘Aren’t you feeling all right?’
‘Not really, Harri.’
‘A little heavy, perhaps?’
‘Are you sleepy?’
‘Sit down, then. There you are. I’ll look for another candle. Where’s your food?’
‘Under my coat.’
‘You’re a big eater, lad. Six pitchers of bread and butter, a huge chunk of cheese, and an egg. You’re gentry, Dic.’
‘Mum put them in. She says I’m skinny, I’m shooting up too fast. I’m not going to die, am I, Harri?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Can I eat now?’
‘No, not yet.’
‘We’ll have to work all night to make up for the time we’ve been idling… Thank God I’ve got my tobacco… Where’s your tea?’
‘I don’t have any tea, Harri, only milk. Mum says I’m–’
‘So you were saying. Give me the pitcher. It’ll be safer on this ledge. Can you reach it?’
‘The rats can’t get at it now. They’d rather have milk than cheese.’
‘But they can’t chew through the tin, Harri.’
‘Don’t you believe it! They’ll eat the slate in here when they’re hungry.’
‘They might eat us, Harri.’
‘And we might eat them. They know that well enough, you see, and they’ll stay out of our way. You needn’t be afraid of them.’
‘I’m sleepy. Can I sleep in here?’
‘Sleep? Of course, just like in your bed at home.’
‘But will I wake up after?’
‘Yes, of course you will.’
‘Are you sure we can’t leave? You didn’t push hard enough, Harri; I’m sure you didn’t. I think I’ll sleep now. Do you want to sleep?’
‘No, not yet. It’s too early for me, Dic, far too early. Do you have a cold?’
‘I thought so. Lie down and I’ll put my coat over you… No, I don’t want it. There you are; are you comfy?’
‘I’m all right, Harri.’
Five minutes went by, and Dic was sleeping comfortably. And as his slumber deepened, the look of fear drained out of his pale face. Harri watched him intently, chewing his tobacco.
‘I’d far rather the boy were on the other side of that fall,’ he said. ‘Hello! Have you turned up already? Get back to your hole, or by God, I’ll smash your skull in. There, told you so… Don’t worry, I’ll break the news to your family soon enough.’
He picked up the hammer, and with the candle in his other hand, he went to hunt out the rest of the rats. In the weak candle light he saw another one bashing itself uncontrollably against the side of the tunnel in its struggle to escape from the light. The silence was broken by a sudden squeak. More rats came to light, and in half an hour there was a line of bodies on the tunnel floor.
‘There you are,’ said Harri. ‘You’re better off than the boy and me. No pain, nothing. Now for the mourners.’
He took a lump of cheese from Dic’s lunch tin, and put it on a slate in a prominent place where none of the rats could fail to find it. For Dic’s sake, he was resolved to destroy them.
Rat after rat came out of the darkness, standing within a few inches of the bait. Harri watched them intently, and he couldn’t understand why their bodies trembled when their eyes were aflame. But a man can never understand a rat. He only need kill every one. The hammer came down on rat after rat, and their fiery eyes were dulled suddenly. And the hammer did its work so well that there wasn’t a squeak to warn the living that it was all nothing more than a deadly trap.
And then the last rat came. Harri knew it was the last one because it was crippled. And a crippled rat must always stand back. It dragged itself painfully over the rubble, and for an instant Harri felt pity for the ‘destitute creature.’ But even a crippled rat can do great harm, and the hammer came down once more.
Three days had gone by. Harri shook himself out of an uneasy sleep. He had dreamed a huge rat was chewing his face. The pain was terrible. He felt with his fingers, and his face was wet. He couldn’t understand it at all. He lit the candle. Yes, it was blood. His hands were covered with it, and it was dripping down his chin. Had they attacked Dic bach as well? He dragged himself over on his hands and knees. He made no attempt to get up, for something told him that he couldn’t, that he was too weak. But he could not understand this weakness he felt. No, Dic was asleep, with no injuries he could see. Strange! He crawled back to his corner, and put his hand in blood. He paused. Perhaps it was his blood? Yes, and he was weak from the loss of it. But how had he lost it? He didn’t understand it at all, and for several minutes he stared in bemusement at the congealing blood. It had dripped down a piece of slate. At last, he understood. He had slept with his head on the slate, and the sharp end had sunk into his flesh.
Gradually his senses returned, and his legs recovered a little of their strength. The pain retreated from his face, to settle in his stomach. He remembered he had not eaten – since when? He had eaten nothing the day before the fall. He’d been drinking for a week; and now, when his belly was crying for food, he’d forgotten that his tin, behind the rock that had cut his face so cruelly, was full of it. He seized it eagerly.
He shook the lad tenderly.
Dic rubbed his heavy eyes, looking about him in bewilderment.
‘You’d better have something to eat.’
The look of bewilderment went from Dic’s eyes, and he started to cry.
‘Haven’t they come yet?’
‘Not yet, lad.’
‘But they will come?’
‘Yes, yes. Here, take this.’
‘That’s not mine, Harri. Have you eaten yet?’
‘Yes, I’ve had all I want.’
‘They’ll come soon, won’t they?’
‘I’m expecting them any minute.’
‘You ought to eat, then.’
‘No hurry. If you’ve finished, I’ll put the rest of it here. Lie down now. I’ll wake you up when they come.’
He put the tin in reach of Dic’s right hand, where he would find it if by God’s will he woke up. The candle was burning dimly on the rock; there was only an inch of it left. Harri lit another. Dic was sleeping heavily again, but his breath was becoming more laboured every minute.
Harri tried to get up. Something was vexing him. It was the sound of water dripping from the top of the tunnel. Until now, he’d paid no attention to it, but now it was making the sound of a waterfall, and the sound was affecting him strangely. He felt he’d go mad if it didn’t stop, but he didn’t move an inch to stop it. Why wouldn’t it stop? But it was doing so. It grew quieter and quieter until it ceased altogether, and Harri slept.
On the fifth day, a shaft of light penetrated the darkness, and when the mouth of the tunnel was clear, four quarrymen entered slowly. They knew they were entering a grave, and had no reason to hurry. And a sad scene met their eyes. In one corner, stripped to his waist, lay Harri, with a dead rat in his hand. In another corner, wrapped from his head to his feet in Harri’s clothes, Dic was crying, with two empty lunch tins at his side.
‘Harri’s gone,’ said one of the men, shaking the Bad Lot. ‘Strange he died before Dic bach.’
But he looked at the half-naked corpse and the two tins, and he understood. It was not so strange after all, but it was strange that the greatest sinner in the quarry had given his life for another.
But when the drinking was forgotten, everyone agreed that it was just like Harri.