Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

The traveller is caught in his own net. He has talked too much, his old fault, against which John Wesley himself has warned him. He will have to pray hard for correction of that flaw in his nature. Meanwhile he must keep his hold over these troglodytes, if he hopes to preach God’s Word to them before the night is over. He temporizes.

“For a truly Welsh curse, a curse uttered before there was any knowledge of the Curse of Cain in this land, I should have to go back very far into history,” he says.

“Go back as far as you please and we shall be at ease wherever you lead us. We are Welsh history, preacher.”

“You are? What do you mean?”

“You have not recognized us?” says the harper.”You have not seen that we are the living Gwylltiaid Cochion Mawddwy? You must have heard of us. We are very famous. Even in England we are known.”

“The Red Banditti?” says the traveller.”I did not know that I had fallen into such distinguished company. But surely that was in olden times.”

“It was in the days of King Henry the Eighth — and that was a very, very long time ago — that we were heard of in England. The King sent his black devil Lewis Owen to hunt us down and it was on a very famous Christmas Eve he seized eighty of us, and hanged us from trees like the carcasses of sheep. It was then that we forswore Christmas and all it means, because it is the worst day in the year for us. But it was many months after that those who had escaped met with him on the road to Mallwyd — the road you are taking, preacher — and they dragged him from his horse and put more than thirty stabs into him. They still call that place The Baron’s Gate, and indeed it was his gate to hell. We are the blood of those men, and we are as good as those men.”

“And as red-headed as those men,” says the traveller, and wished he had not, because the silent red-haired men give him a look of unpleasant consideration.

“Yes, as red-headed as those men,” says the harper.”And as apt for history as those men. So tell us of this Welsh curse, traveller, and be warned that we expect a good story.”


“You shall have one,” says the traveller, “and from much further back into the antiquity of this land than Henry the Eighth, who was a Welshman too, and a scourge to us, God forgive him! What I tell you goes far, far back to the time of the great princes, and the old gods. And one of these princes was a mighty magi­cian, and his name was Math fab Mathonwy, and he was a strange one indeed. Only when he was at war would he stand upright, and then he was invincible. But when he was not at war he lay at his ease, and for his greater ease he decreed that his feet must always nestle in the lap of a virgin. There were many of these royal virgins, and when the time came for them to marry, Royal Math would give them fine dowries.

“Now it came to pass that the loveliest of these foot-holders was a maiden called Goewin, and she was of royal blood, the daughter of Pebin, who was a king.”

“By God, if I had my feet in a virgin’s lap they would not linger there long,” says Cursing Jemmy.”I have a better thing for a virgin’s lap than my feet, boys, isn’t it?”

“Silence!” says the harper, who seems to have more authority than could be justified by his miserable body.”Let us hear this story. It has weight.”

“But Jemmy has spoken well,” says the traveller, “for there were men like him at Math’s court, and they lusted as Jemmy lusts. Like Jemmy they were great cursers and fighters but there was no light in their souls, not so much as a candle. It is about them you shall hear, and what their fighting and lusting brought to them. Do you want to hear, or will you listen to what Jemmy thinks he would do with the lovely Goewin?”

These men are true Welshmen. They want the story. Lust can always wait and be enjoyed for itself, but stories like this come rarely.

“At Math’s court were two trusted warriors of the King; their names were Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, and they had their magic, too. Now Gilfaethwy was a loving man, and he yearned for the beautiful Goewin, as she lay at the foot of the King’s bed, doing her duty by his royal feet. ‘How may I win this lovely maid?’ he cries, and his brother Gwydion hears his moan and he vows to help him. So — to rouse the King from his bed he contrives a war between Math’s kingdom and that of his neighbour, and the King rouses himself and puts on his armour and takes his sword and goes off to fight. So — what follows?”

Without anyone having said a word the pot-boy has put a big jug of ale at the traveller’s side; he pauses to take a long, refreshing pull at it. The red-haired men are leaning forward now, for they can guess what is coming, but they want to hear it from the lips of the story-teller.

“Very good drinking, that is,” says the traveller.”And more than welcome to a wet and weary man. So — as soon as the King has gone to war Gilfaethwy goes to the royal bed, where Goewin still lies, and in his terrible lust he takes her. She shrieks, but there is no one to hear. Gilfaethwy is very rough, for his lust is his master. He forgets his love, and a very bloody deflowering it is, and when that is done his love-talk is of no help at all, for the girl weeps and will not be consoled. Gwydion, dirty dog that he is, stands by the bed and feasts his eyes on the terrible scene. Ah, a painful tale, my red-haired friends, and it is no pleasure to me to tell it.”

The traveller pauses again, for the pot-boy has brought him a big hunk of bread and some cold mutton, and he sinks his teeth into the rude sandwich with the pleasure of a starving man. His hearers must wait until he has satisfied his hunger.

“King Math is victorious, and he returns triumphant, and he sees what has happened. Indeed, he sees it as clearly as I see the bottom of this empty tankard,” says the traveller. Jemmy gives a jerk to his great red head, and the pot-boy hastens to refill it.

“That is more like it,” says the traveller, and takes a long swig.”Now, I suppose you want to know what the great King does.”

The outcry from the men, so silent until now, is loud and eager.

“Well — here comes the great curse. As I told you, King Math is a mighty sorcerer, and when he sees the wretched maid and the bloody sheets, he is cold with rage. Does he rave and scream and strike at Gwydion and Gilfaethwy with his sword? He does not. Unbridled rage is for fools. He lifts his staff, and holds it over the two evil brothers, who are valiant no longer, for what is valour against magic? — I could eat more of this meat, and not so much of the fat this time, if you please.”

The excitement of the red banditti is intense, but they must wait until more bread and meat is brought, and the traveller has munched a large chaw.

“Very good meat, this is. Stolen, I suppose? Such sweet flesh is not from any creature on this slatey mountain. — Now, let me think. Where was I? Ah, yes, King Math lifted his wand. ‘Now,’ says he, ‘I do not mean to kill you, traitors and ravishers that you are, so you need not cringe at my feet. I have other plans for you. Let me arrange my thoughts. First, I shall take this poor girl into my bed, not as my foot-warmer, but as my wife, and as my Queen her honour is restored and the evil seed of Gilfaethwy dies in her, and her maidenhead is as it was before.’ ”

Ah, that was noble. That was indeed royal, murmur the red-headed men, and the harper cries that it was great magic as well, for who can mend a torn virginity but a great sor­cerer?

” ‘My judgement on you, evil brothers, is this. And hear me well, for nothing can recall my curse, once spoken. Behold, I turn you into deer. You Gilfaethwy a hind, and you, Gwydion, a stag, and you shall flee to the forest and there you shall mate all day and all night until Gilfaethwy is big with young. Red deer you are from this time forward. Return to me in a year and a day.’

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Categories: Davies, Robertson