Thomas Owen Jones (1875-1941), also known as Gwynfor, was a playwright, actor, producer and broadcaster, and the author of a volume of short stories which reflect the nautical heritage of his native town, Pwllheli, and neighbouring Caernarfon. ‘Gelynion’ was published in Straeon (1931), and the translation is my own.
While the religious background of the story — its emphasis on sin and repentance, and the power of the Methodist chapel to act as a court of honour over its members — will be familiar to readers of the novels and of Daniel Owen, the eccentricity of the protagonists and the immediacy of their interactions suggest that Gwynfor is writing in the same vein as , and the introduction of a homodiegetic narrator in the slightly macabre final paragraph implies a last-minute resistance to the expectations of Welsh readers. The negative effect of the Welsh religious revival on the mental health of its participants, alluded to by Gwynfor in this story, is the subject of my own contribution to the anthology, Dangerous Asylums, published by the North Wales Mental Health Research Project.
The two men sat on a piece of old mast on the Quay. The sound of hammers from the smiths and the sound of the shipwrights’ mallets stopped. On the fringes of their activity, the Jane and Ann lay, almost ready to take to the waves, in her berth, beyond which the two men chatted in the quietness of that summer noon. Ifan Ifans and Robert Owen were both well-known in the town, but it was seldom that anyone referred to them by the proper names. Trefaig was well known for its use of nicknames, not in recognition of status or habit, but according to the genius of its inhabitants. A descriptive nickname was bestowed on almost every one of its inhabitants, whether native or not, and that name stuck to him throughout his life, and to his children.
Ifan Ifans was proprietor of a timber yard, and was known by everyone as Ifan Coal Tar, not because he happened to sell such a product, but because he believed that there was nothing else like it. A coat of coal tar was his seal of authority on every door, window frame, shed and roof in his yard. As for Robert Owen, he was a seaman who had left the sea, and was privileged to hold two names, namely ‘Little Captain’ and ‘Pitch Cask’ — the additional name being necessary to distinguish him from the other Little Captains in the town. No one could say for certain how he had come by the name, though it was claimed that he had fallen into a cask of pitch when he was a boy. Be that as it may, it was Pitch Cask and Coal Tar who were sitting on the piece of mast.
The talk between them began affably, but then the two began to give their verdicts on the Sunday evening sermon, as the custom was in that time. Ifan Ifans held the same views as the preacher, but the Captain was emphatically opposed.
‘I’d never heard such nonsense in my life,’ said the Captain.
‘That’s your opinion,’ replied Ifan Ifans.
‘It’s as good as yours,’ retorted the Captain.
‘Indeed? You may have travelled the world, but you left your brain behind you.’
‘What do you mean? Explain yourself!’
‘Well, what I want to know is whether you read a word from a book from one weekend to the next.’
‘And what do you read, I’d like to know?’
‘More than you, lad.’
‘So you’re calling me ignorant?’
‘No, I’m not calling you ignorant, but—’
‘But what? Out with it!’
‘You’re a blockhead, and you always were.’
‘And what are you? What are you?’ asked the Captain, beginning to lose his cool.
‘Better than you, any time,’ said Ifan Ifans, as hot-tempered as the other.
‘And anyway, what made your upbringing so special? Answer me!’
‘At least I wasn’t half starved, like you were.’
‘Oh, is that it? And at least my father stayed out of court—’
‘He deserved to go there enough times.’
‘He deserved nothing of the sort. He kept his character to the grave, something you’ll never—’
‘Get out of my sight, you fool, before I plant this fist in your face—’
‘Go on, then! Do it!’
By this time both men were on their feet, glaring at each other in a fury, and there was spittle on the Pitch Cask’s jaw.
‘Keep your filthy hands off me,’ he said, ‘and take this—’
‘You devil—’ retorted the other, and then both men closed in. No blood was shed, but they wrestled with each other until a number of bystanders intervened, by which time the fight had played out.
‘Shame on you both — old friends like you,’ said one of the men.
‘Let me go! I’ll deal with him,’ cried the captain, but he was held back.
‘What was all that about, Ifan Ifans?’ asked one of the men.
‘Nothing, as far as I know. Nothing until we got onto Sunday night’s sermon, and it all went from bad to worse. The old scoundrel. I’ll never speak to him again, I swear.’ The Little Captain swore in the same vein, and since both men were known for their stubbornness and vindictiveness, this was considered the final word.
The scuffle between Pitch Cask and Coal Tar was the subject of gossip and mockery for weeks on the Quay. Talk of it came to their families, and they would pass each other on the street with their noses upturned. Then the deacons heard of it, and one evening both men were hauled across the coals as being equally at fault, and they were ordered to shake hands and make up.
‘Make up?’ cried Ifan Ifans. ‘Never!’
‘Make up?’ said the Captain. ‘When hell freezes over! This is his fault, not mine.’
They were threatened with sanction, and it was agreed to place them both on probation for a month. Before their time was up, Mr Morys the minister went to visit both, and called on the Captain first.
‘Captain Owen,’ he said, ‘you’re the more educated man, and better travelled than Ifan Ifans, and I’ve often felt that the Gospel has softened your heart at least a little—’
‘Look here, Mr Morys; this is my affair. I won’t forgive him — neither religion nor gospel can force me to, either.’
Mr Morys left, astonished at the intransigence of the man, even though he knew from past experience that the Little Captain had no forgiveness in him. He called on Ifan Ifans next, and found the man more contrite. He was willing to forget the past, in the unlikely event that the Captain did the same, but when he learned that the Captain was still consumed with rage, things went from bad to worse between the two. They would snarl at each other on the Quay, on the street, or on the way to chapel. Although church discipline was strict at the time, Mr Morys did not venture to bring the two sinners’ case before the saints, and he persuaded himself that time would heal the rift between them. But although the years slipped away, there came no ebb to the tide of their anger. If a customer in Ifan Ifans’ yard happened to complain at the cost of his timber, he would be sent away with the curt advice to find a better price elsewhere; but if he first spoke of the Little Captain in negative terms, Ifan Ifans would be aroused, and his language would lose all restraint.
‘Indeed,’ he would say, ‘that old devil! Did you hear what happened in Hamburg?’
‘What happened there, Ifan Ifans?’ the customer would ask.
‘What happened there, you ask? Oh, I know all about him. Ask his crew; they’ll tell you about it. He calls himself a religious man, but he’s a crook — he’s as big a crook as his father. Did you hear about the time his father deserted his ship in London? Wretched family.’
‘Indeed, I don’t doubt a word of it, Ifan Ifans. How much per yard for that timber there?’
‘Oh, such and such, my lad; you can have it at cost. Now, you keep clear of that scoundrel, the Captain.’
‘I’ll be sure to, Ifan Ifans.’ And off the customer would go, well content with his bargain.
The Little Captain kept a grocer’s shop, although he visited it rarely: his daughter looked after it for him, but a number of the customers knew about his hatred of Ifan Ifans, and would look out for opportunities to exploit it. When he was on the premises, the conversation would wander from one subject to another until the moment when girl was cutting cheese or bacon for the customer, and then the customer would mention Ifan Ifans the Yard.
‘Who, old Coal Tar?’ the Captain would ask. ‘Worst man in the country.’
‘You’re not far wrong,’ the customer would say.
‘Not far wrong? You can take your oath on it. Do you know how old Coal Tar got his houses after Dafydd Dafis of the Orion died?’
‘I’ll tell you. He was keeping watch by his death bed, and he managed to get that old rogue, Powell the attorney, there, and between the two of them, they persuaded old Dafydd to make his will out to him. Old Powell’s gone to answer for his sins, but one of the witnesses he paid said that’s how it was. Accursed man.’
By this time the girl would have the customer’s purchase ready.
‘How much for the pound, Miss Owen?’
‘One and fourpence,’ the girl would reply.
‘That’s a bit pricey,’ the customer would remark.
‘He can have it for a shilling a pound, Nell.’
‘Thank you, Captain. You’re right about Coal Tar, by the way.’
‘Right? Yes indeed! You know, I’ve been wearing myself out to rid the Quay of him, and if it weren’t for all those other fools, I’d have done it.’
The Revival came to Wales, and the wave of its ardour swept every corner of the country and touched almost every heart. Praise and song filled the air, and every class flocked to the chapels. Dinner hours became prayer meetings. The Revival drove some to the point of insanity, but never was the eloquence of the preachers used to better effect in threatening judgement and warning of hell. But its waves broke in vain on the two stony hearts of Ifan Ifans and the Little Captain, who vied in their hatred as fiercely as before. Friends urged both to attend the meetings, and occasionally they would go. Ifan Ifans would look thoughtful during the evening sermon at chapel, but just when he was on the point of breaking out in prayer, his eye would come to rest on the Little Captain standing in the aisle, smirking in mockery of him. This would stop the flood in his heart, and he would stay in his seat in silence until the end.
On another occasion the Captain was on the verge of addressing the meeting. He got to his feet, but on seeing Ifan Ifans standing by the steps to the sêt fawr, instead of going up, he turned back and left the chapel, and some who were in the doorway heard him muttering under his breath, ‘That damned Coal Tar.’
The Revival came to an end with no effect on these hardened sinners, and the rift between their families continued. No son of one family fell in love with a daughter of the other to heal their divisions, as romances and dramas depict.
One day, it came to the Little Captain’s notice that Ifan Ifans had bought a piece of land opposite his shop, and was planning to build a warehouse there. Enraged, he went to the estate agent at once with the intention of putting in a higher bid, but he was too late, and they told him that Ifan Ifans had already paid the money and closed the deal.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’ll get the better of that devil yet.’
Before the end of the month, two workmen were digging foundations for the warehouse. The following morning, when they arrived for work, they found the foundations kicked down the masonry scattered. One of them went to fetch Ifan Ifans, who came at once, and saw what had been done. He turned towards the Captain’s shop, and when a face appeared at the upstairs window, he shook his fist, and cried, ‘This is the work of that damned Pitch Cask! If I catch him, I’ll see him jailed.’
At this, the Captain came outside with a dangerous look on his face. ‘What did you say?’ he demanded. ‘What did you say?’ He rushed at Ifan, but the workmen leapt between them, and ended the fight before it had begun.
‘What gives you the right to defy me to my face, you scoundrel?’ cried the Captain.
‘It’s none of your business,’ retorted Ifan Ifans. ‘I own this land; I bought it with my own money!’
‘Be silent, you thief!’ shouted the Captain. ‘That’s Dafydd Dafis’s money — you and that fat attorney stole it off him.’
‘You’ll answer for that before your betters,’ said Ifan Ifans. ‘Boys, you heard him — you’re witnesses.’
‘I dare say they are,’ muttered the Captain. ‘You know more about appearing in court than me.’
‘Now, now,’ said one of the workmen. ‘That’s enough. Respectable gentlemen like yourselves, arguing like two tinkers. Shame on you both.’
Just then William Meredydd the constable came in view up the lane. The Captain slipped stealthily into his shop, and Ifan Ifans was silent.
In due course the warehouse was finished. Many times the Captain had amused the builders by satirising the weaknesses of their employer, and threatened the curse of heaven and earth on his head for ‘defying’ him to his face.
One day Ifan Ifans took one of his lads to the warehouse, and began painting it with coal tar from the foundation to the roof. The Captain stayed out of sight, and the work was completed. That night the Captain came home later than usual.
‘Where were you so late, dad?’ his daughter asked him. ‘It’s nearly midnight.’
‘Oh, I was held up at Siôn Huws the Coal’s house. I had supper there — go to bed, my girl. I’ll be up in a few minutes.’ The girl went to bed, and soon she heard her father’s footsteps as he climbed the stairs. She fell asleep, but awoke suddenly when the room was flooded with light. She leapt out of bed and went to the window, and saw that Ifan Ifans’s warehouse was in flames.
She ran to wake up her father. ‘What is it?’ he asked unconcerned.
‘Wake up! Wake up! Ifan Ifans’s warehouse is on fire!’
‘Let it burn,’ he replied. ‘Coal Tar can burn with it, for all I care.’ And he stayed in bed.
The girl went downstairs and left the house. By this time a few of the neighbours had gathered, and one of them ran to fetch Ifan Ifans, who came at once. It was useless to try to put out the fire, for the flames had taken hold of the timber. Ifan Ifans had the face of a madman. He said not a word, but from time to time he glanced at the shop, where he thought he saw the Little Captain laughing at him from the bedroom window. He shook his fist at the shop, and cried, ‘That damned Pitch Cask did this!’
But the cause of the fire remained undetermined, although extensive enquiries gripped the town.
Ifan Ifans did not attempt to rebuild the warehouse, and left the plot of land unused. He insisted to anyone who would listen that the fire was the work of Pitch Cask, and others were of the same opinion.
Winter passed. It was clear that Ifan Ifans was not the same man, and that something had taken hold of him. At the end of spring, it was known throughout the town that Ifan Ifans the Yard had ‘passed on.’
‘Oh, it must have been the shock of that fire,’ people said.
He was buried in the cemetery, and it was necessary for the mourners to pass the Little Captain’s shop. Some shook their heads as they passed the vacant plot, and others noticed that the blinds in the shop were drawn up.
One day, when I visited the cemetery, I saw a black gravestone standing among the blue and white ones. It was Ifan Ifans the Yard’s gravestone, and it had been painted with coal tar.
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