“GOOD-MORNIN’, Mrs. Rhys,” said Megan Griffiths, as she stooped to save her high beaver.
“ ’T is kind of ye to come,” answered Nance.
“How is Mr. Rhys?”
“Och, he’s no —” Nance began, but she was hindered by a merry voice singing in the next room.
“Dear, dear, I can’t hear ye. Did ye say he is the same ? ”
“Aye, he’s no better.”
“Is that him singin’?”
“Aye,” admitted Nance.
“He’s no got any cause to sing, I’m thinkin’. ’T is a pity,” she continued significantly, “ye could n’t attend Hari James’s funeral. ’T was grand. They had beautiful black candles with scripture words written on them.”
Chuckles and a protesting bark followed this observation. Megan stiffened.
“Such a funeral, Mrs. Rhys,” she snapped, “is an honor to Rhyd Ddu! An’ such loaves as she handed over the bier to that hungry Betsan! An’ the biggest cheese in the parish, with a whole guinea stuck in it! At every crossin’ they rung the bell an’ we knelt down to pray in all that drenchin’ wet.”
“’T is seldom Rhyd Ddu sees black candles with scripture words on them,” assented Nance.
“Pw, the candles, they was nothin’ to the cards Mrs. James had had printed for him — nothin’. Here’s mine. They have his last words.”
Nance looked eagerly towards the card.
“Scripture words, too,” added Megan. “ ’T is sanctifyin’ how many people in Rhyd Ddu die repeatin’ such words.”
“What was they, Mrs. Griffiths?” asked Nance, her eagerness turning into trembling.
Megan opened the large card with its wide border of black and inner borders of silver and black, and read the words. The verses were long, and during their reading no sound came from the adjoining room. Then, aloud, Megan counted off on her fingers neighbors who had left life in this approved fashion, while the excitement in Nance’s eyes was deepening and her cheeks were quivering.
“Show it me,” she said.
“Indeed, ’t is a safe way to —” Megan commenced speaking, but commands and a sudden breaking forth of song interrupted her.
“ ’T is the dog takin’ him his slippers,” Nance apologized,
“Na, a safe way to die,” concluded Megan testily.
In the midst of a blithe refrain of “Smile again, lovely Jane” she rose to go, muttering as she repocketed the card.
In Rhyd Ddu the rush of the modern world had not cut up the time of the folk into a fringe of unsatisfying days. With these Welsh mountain people from sunrise to sunset was a good solid day, full of solid joys and comforts or equally solid woes and sorrows. In Rhyd Ddu a man might know the complete tragic or joyous meaning of twenty-four hours, with solemn passages from starlight to dawn and manifold song from sunrise to dusk. There was no illusion in such a day, so that when he came to the Edge of the Great Confine, sharper than the ridge of his own thatched roof, that, too, seemed merely a part of the general illusion. Rather, he knew that step from the green and gold room of his outdoor world with its inclosed hearth of daily pleasures was a step into another room not known to him at all. But he said to himself, especially when he had spent his days among the hills and amid mountain winds and valleys, that he could not get beyond the love in the room he knew well, so, trusting what he could not see, he stepped forward quietly. And the deep waters of an infinite space closed over his head. One soul after another came to the Great Edge. There were no outcries, no lamentations over lost days, no shattering questions, no wail to trouble the ears of those who made grave signs of farewell. But there was a pang, part of the pang of birth and of love, and taken as the workman takes the ache in his crushed finger — silently. So simple were they that the coming and going of the mown grass was as an allegory of their own days, and the circumstance of death was as natural to them as the reaping of their abundant valley fruit, or the dropping of a leaf from a tree.
In Rhyd Ddu, however, the acceptance of death differed from life in one respect, for the simple pride of life was as nothing compared with the pride centring about some incident of death. They honored dying with the frank, unhushed voice with which they praised a beautiful song or the narration of some stirring tale. They discussed it freely at a knitting-night or a merry-making; even at the “bidding” of a bride the subject was accepted of discourse. The ways of their living taught them no evasion of this last moment. To Nance the little old man in the next room, with his arched eyebrows, delicate features, and whimsical, sprightly look, had been more than life itself, and, more completely than she had words to express, her hero. The one object through the years of living that seemed worth remembering at all — those with Silvan — had been to Nance the glorification of this husband about whom the Rhyd Ddu folk were by no manner of means in concord, for pranks of speech and hand are disconcerting to the slow-moving wits of the average human being. Now in the end Nance foresaw wrested away from Silvan the last of the distinctions she had hoped to win for him.
When she entered the room revolving these ambitions, beautiful only because love was their source, Silvan was shaking his finger at Pedr and taking advantage of his good-humor.
“Och, mam, this poor dog has had nothin’ to eat. Ye ’re pinchin’ him, whatever.”
“Pinchin’ him!” exclaimed Nance. “Twt, he’ll no be gettin’ in an’ out’n the door much longer, an’ I see the neighbors a-laughin’ now when they look at him. He’ll die with overfeedin’, he will.”
“He will,” mocked Silvan, “die of overfeedin’, he will.”
“Lad, Mrs. Griffiths’s been here.”
“Na, dearie, do ye think I did n’t know Megan Griffiths was here? She’d crack the gates of heaven with that voice. Was she tellin’ ye everythin’ that did n’t happen, now was she?”
“Tad, what will ye say such things about Megan for? She was tellin’ of Hari James’s funeral.”
“Nance, she’s a bell for every tooth, an’ they jingle, jingle, jingle, jingle.”
Nance’s eyes filled.
“Och, mam, I’m just teasin’ ye; an’ ye were thinkin’ of me the while, now were n’t ye ?”
“Aye, father. ’T was a grand funeral, an’ he died with them wonderful verses on his lips.”
“ Did he so! ” exclaimed Silvan. “Well, the man had need to, drinkin’ as he did.”
“But, lad, there’s been others, too.”
“Aye, dearie, I heard Megan shoutin’ them for my entertainment. I’m no deaf. But, mam,” he continued, the merriment leaving his eyes, “ye’re ambitious for me? Aye?”
“Aye, lad, I am,” she whispered, looking away from Silvan. “I am, lad, for ye have been so long the cleverest man in Rhyd Ddu an’ the handsomest an’ the kindest, an’ nothin”s too fine for ye. There’s no woman ever had a better man nor I have, lad.”
“Na, Pedr, these girls—”
Nance put up her hand.
“ Lad, lad, I cannot stand it, I cannot,”
“Och, dearie, I’m just teasin’ ye; come here.”
She went over to him and sat beside him, her head turned away from the bright eyes.
“Father, have ye thought of what’s comin’, have ye ?”
“Nance, I’m thinkin’ of it all the while, but I’m no afraid, only for ye. Dearie, ye’re no to believe everythin’ ye hear; Megan has a good memory an’ it takes a good memory to tell lies. ’T is n’t everybody dies repeatin’ Bible verses.”
“Aye, but father, Hari James did say those words on the card, an’ all the time he never was a good man, swearin’ an’ drinkin’ so, an’ ye’ve been so good, tad, for all your teasin’ an’ fun.”
“Twt, mam, ye’re just wantin’ to spoil me, a-makin’ out I’m the best man in Rhyd Ddu. An’ ye’re wantin’ me to have more honor among the neighbors nor any one else when I ’m gone, now is n’t that it? ”
“Aye,” she whispered.
“An’ ye’re wishin’ me to promise to say some text ? Would it comfort ye, mam?”
“Aye,” she answered.
Nance thought, and repeated some verses.
“No, I can’t,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t. They’re sad an’ I’ve always been merry-like.”
In the silence that followed these words Silvan turned to Nance.
“I might, if ’t would please ye, say these words.” Silvan repeated a verse. “But I cannot promise even these.”
As she listened Nance’s face fell.
“Aye, wel, tad darlin’,” she said as bravely as she could, " they ’re good words indeed; over-cheerful I’m thinkin’, but Holy Writ, aye, Holy Writ.”
Whatever happened in the luxuriant green of the Rhyd Ddu valley, which the bees still preferred to Paradise, and the flowers to the Garden of Eden itself, whatever happened in this valley — some phenomenal spring season, the flood that swept away their plots of midsummer marigolds, the little life that suddenly began to make its needs felt, or the life with its last need answered — was adjudged with the most primitive wisdom and philosophy.
Megan Griffiths lost no time in distributing the gleanings from her visit with Nance, information that was often redistributed and to which new interest accrued daily as the end of Silvan Rhys’s life drew near.
“Twt,” said Megan, “she’s that ambitious for him, it fairly eats her up. ’T was always so from the day of their biddin’, an’ here ’t is comin’ his funeral, an’ he’ll never end with a word of Holy Writ on his lips, that he won’t.”
“Na, na,” Doli Owen objected compassionately, her motherly face full of rebuke.
“Aye, he won’t, that he won’t,” affirmed Morto Roberts, wagging his head, and sniffing the pleasant odors from the browning light-cakes.
Doli made no reply, but turned a cake with a dexterous flip, and pulled forward the teapot to fill it with hot water. The quiet glow from the fire mirrored itself equally in her kind eyes and in the shining brass pots and kettles of the flanking shelves, and was multiplied in a thousand twinkles on the glistening salt of the flitches hanging above her head. The table was already spread with a gayly patterned cloth and set with china bright as the potted fuschias and primroses blooming in the sunshine of her windows. There was nothing garish about this humble dwelling of Doli’s, yet everywhere it seemed as if sunshine had been caught and were in process. Warmth, odor, gleam, color, and the soft heavy wind traveling by outside, made this the workroom of a golden alchemy. Doli smiled with benevolence as she piled up the light-cakes.
“The fat’s snappish to-day; it sputtered more nor usual,” she said to Megan, who was seated in the shadow of the high settle.
“Aye,” responded Megan in an irritable voice. “When I went by the house this mornin’,” she persisted, “I heard him singin’ some gay thing, a catch, singin’ in bed, indeed, an’ dyin’.”
“Singin’ in bed,” puffed Morto, “singin’ in bed whatever an’ dyin’. Up to the last a-caperin’ an’ a-dancin’ like a fox in the moonlight.”
“Na, na,” Doli objected, again, filling Morto’s plate with cakes ; “he’s been a kind man, a very kind man. There was Twm bach he put to school an’ clothed would follow him about like a puppy, an’ so would Nance, an’ so would his own dog.”
“Pw! what’s that?” asked Megan. “Mrs. Rhys has had the managin’ of most everythin’, I’m thinkin’, an’ his houses he’s been praised for keepin’ in such fine repair, an’ the old pastor’s stipend— aye, well, ask Nance,” ended Megan, with a shrug of her shoulder, and a gulp of hot tea.
“Aye, well, ask Mrs. Rhys,” echoed Morto, “an’ ye mind it was the same pastor’s coat-tails he hung the dog tongs to when he was some thirty years younger an’ by twenty too old for any such capers. He’s an infiddle, he is, a-doin’ such things.”
“An’ ’t was he, was n’t it,” Megan added, “who put that slimy newt in Sian Howell’s hat?”
“Aye, so ’t was, an’ she had a way of clappin’ her beaver on quick, an’ down came that newt on her white cap.”
“An’ he tied the two Janes’s capstrings together, the one who always prayed sittin’ straight up, an’ the other in the pew behind leanin’ forward, did n’t he?” demanded Megan. “They went quite nasty with him for that.”
“Well,” said Doli, cutting a generous slice of pound cake for Megan, “I’m thinkin’ it’s no just, talkin’ so; the lad was full of life. He could no more keep his feet on earth than the cricket in the field. ’T is come he’s old an’ dyin’ an’ I can see no harm in his havin’ had a little fun, an’ singin’ now an’ then.”
“Twt, now an’ then!” exclaimed Megan. “ ’T is over foolish he is, now is n’t he ?”
“Aye,” agreed Morto, “he’s light.”
“He’d have gone quite on the downfall years ago, had n’t it been for Nance.”
“Quite on the downfall,” echoed Morto.
“Aye, an’ there’ll be no word of Scripture crossin’ his lips,” concluded Megan.
Morto had his private reasons for losing no love upon Silvan, and Megan hers of a similar nature. Even the kindest villagers had taken to considering the words Silvan would or would not speak at the last. Rumor, peering into corners with antiquarian diligence and nodding his white head in prophecy, sat down by every fireside as much at home as the cottage cat or the fat bundle of babyhood that rolled upon the hearth. Wherever Rumor seated himself “he will” and “he won’t” was tossed about excitedly under thatched roofs. The very shepherd on the hills cast a speculative glance upon Nance’s cottage, and Mr. Shoni the coach added another question to his daily questionnaire. There was no begging the fact that precedent had begun to weigh heavily on the last moments of speech of the Rhyd Ddu inhabitants. A man of years thought anxiously, like one skating on thin ice, how far out he dare venture without some talismanic and now established words. There were neighbors in Rhyd Ddu, however, probably no more accomplished with their tongues than motherly Doli Owen, who speculated but little and whose hearts went out to Nance and Silvan. Although they had never seen the Silvan Nance saw, nevertheless they considered him a good neighbor, and the path to Nance’s cottage was much traveled by kindly thoughts and by helpful feet.
While the news, old Rumor panting in the rear, was running swiftly from door to door, Nance was watching Silvan with passionate devotion, no expression of the face that had lain close to her own for so many years escaping her. Rhyd Ddu must know at the last, must have some solemn sign of the eminent goodness he had meant to her. She could not let him go with one of his jests on his lips
— every day was fit enough for that, but not these minutes. Her thoughts clung even to the words of the over-cheerful verse she believed he would say. And yet there was a tantalizing merriness in his eyes.
“Father,” she said, “do ye mind ?” “Aye, dearie, I ’m to be sayin’ that ye
— have the faith an’ I — I have the works ? ”
“There, mam, I’m just teasin’ ye — just teasin’ ye.”
“But, lad, it’ll be soon.”
“Mam,” he whispered, “closer.”Nance bent her head.
“Mam — ye — are a darlin’, an’ —
I ’ll — no — forget.”
Every word came more faintly.
“Lad, lad,” pleaded Nance, “quick, now! ”
Silvan cast one imploring look at Nance and his lips struggled for speech ; then his gaze slipped away like a light withdrawing into deep woods.
Coming down the lane sounded the tread of many feet. Nance heard the steps approaching, she rose, shook the tears from her eyes, and closed the bedroom door behind her. Already the latch had been lifted and her neighbors were filing in, the men taking off their caps and making way for the women. Nance, confronting them, leaned against the door frame.
“Och, dear,” said Doli, compassionately, “he’s gone already.”
There wars no reply.
“Were his last words — ” asked Megan.
“Aye,” answered Nance, her voice courageous, proud, “aye, these words: ‘ In the shadow of thy wings I will rejoice.’ ”