Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 52

The Treachery of the Long Knives — The North Briton — The Wounded Butcher — The Prisoner.

ON the tenth of September our little town was flung into some confusion by one butcher having attempted to cut the throat of another. The delinquent was a Welshman, who it was said had for some time past been somewhat out of his mind; the other party was an Englishman, who escaped without further injury than a deep gash in the cheek. The Welshman might be mad, but it appeared to me that there was some method in his madness. He tried to cut the throat of a butcher: didn’t this look like wishing to put a rival out of the way? and that butcher an Englishman: didn’t this look like wishing to pay back upon the Saxon what the Welsh call bradwriaeth y cyllyll hirion, the treachery of the long knives? So reasoned I to myself. But here perhaps the reader will ask what is meant by “the treachery of the long knives?” whether he does or not I will tell him.

Hengist wishing to become paramount in Southern Britain thought that the easiest way to accomplish his wish would be by destroying the South British chieftains. Not believing that he should be able to make away with them by open force he determined to see what he could do by treachery. Accordingly he invited the chieftains to a banquet to be held near Stonehenge, or the Hanging Stones, on Salisbury Plains. The unsuspecting chieftains accepted the invitation, and on the appointed day repaired to the banquet, which was held in a huge tent. Hengist received them with a smiling countenance and every appearance of hospitality, and caused them to sit down to table, placing by the side of every Briton one of his own people. The banquet commenced, and all seemingly was mirth and hilarity. Now Hengist had commanded his people that when he should get up and cry “nemet eoure saxes,” that is, take your knives, each Saxon should draw his long sax, or knife, which he wore at his side, and should plunge it into the throat of his neighbour. The banquet went on, and in the midst of it, when the unsuspecting Britons were revelling on the good cheer which had been provided for them, and half-drunken with the mead and beer which flowed in torrents, uprose Hengist, and with a voice of thunder uttered the fatal words “nemet eoure saxes:” the cry was obeyed, each Saxon grasped his knife and struck with it at the throat of his defenceless neighbour. Almost every blow took effect; only three British chieftains escaping from the banquet of blood. This infernal carnage the Welsh have appropriately denominated the treachery of the long knives. It will be as well to observe that the Saxons derived their name from the saxes, or long knives, which they wore at their sides, and at the use of which they were terribly proficient.

Two or three days after the attempt at murder at Llangollen, hearing that the Welsh butcher was about to be brought before the magistrates, I determined to make an effort to be present at the examination. Accordingly I went to the police station and inquired of the superintendent whether I could be permitted to attend. He was a North Briton, as I have stated somewhere before, and I had scraped acquaintance with him, and had got somewhat into his good graces by praising Dumfries, his native place, and descanting to him upon the beauties of the poetry of his celebrated countryman, my old friend, Allan Cunningham, some of whose works he had perused, and with whom as he said, he had once the honour of shaking hands. In reply to my question he told me that it was doubtful whether any examination would take place, as the wounded man was in a very weak state, but that if I would return in half-an-hour he would let me know. I went away, and at the end of the half-hour returned, when he told me that there would be no public examination, owing to the extreme debility of the wounded man, but that one of the magistrates was about to proceed to his house and take his deposition in the presence of the criminal and also of the witnesses of the deed, and that if I pleased I might go along with him, and he had no doubt that the magistrate would have no objection to my being present. We set out together; as we were going along I questioned him about the state of the country, and gathered from him that there was occasionally a good deal of crime in Wales.

“Are the Welsh a clannish people?” I demanded.

“Very,” said he.

“As clannish as the Highlanders?” said I.

“Yes,” said he, “and a good deal more.”

We came to the house of the wounded butcher, which was some way out of the town in the north-western suburb. The magistrate was in the lower apartment with the clerk, one or two officials, and the surgeon of the town. He was a gentleman of about two or three and forty, with a military air and large moustaches, for besides being a justice of the peace and a landed proprietor, he was an officer in the army. He made me a polite bow when I entered, and I requested of him permission to be present at the examination. He hesitated a moment and then asked me my motive for wishing to be present at it.

“Merely curiosity,” said I.

He then observed that as the examination would be a private one, my being permitted or not was quite optional.

“I am aware of that,” said I, “and if you think my remaining is objectionable I will forthwith retire.” He looked at the clerk, who said there could be no objection to my staying, and turning round to his superior said something to him which I did not hear, whereupon the magistrate again bowed and said that he should he very happy to grant my request.

We went upstairs and found the wounded man in bed with a bandage round his forehead, and his wife sitting by his bedside. The magistrate and his officials took their seats, and I was accommodated with a chair. Presently the prisoner was introduced under the charge of a policeman. He was a fellow somewhat above thirty, of the middle size, and wore a dirty white frock coat; his right arm was partly confined by a manacle. A young girl was sworn, who deposed that she saw the prisoner run after the other with something in his hand. The wounded man was then asked whether he thought he was able to make a deposition; he replied in a very feeble tone that he thought he was, and after being sworn deposed that on the preceding Saturday, as he was going to his stall, the prisoner came up to him and asked whether he had ever done him any injury? he said no. “I then,” said he, “observed the prisoner’s countenance undergo a change, and saw him put his hand to his waistcoat-pocket and pull out a knife. I straight became frightened, and ran away as fast as I could; the prisoner followed, and overtaking me, stabbed me in the face. I ran into the yard of a public-house and into the shop of an acquaintance, where I fell down, the blood spouting out of my wound.” Such was the deposition of the wounded butcher. He was then asked whether there had been any quarrel between him and the prisoner? He said there had been no quarrel, but that he had refused to drink with the prisoner when he requested him, which he had done very frequently, and had more than once told him that he did not wish for his acquaintance. The prisoner, on being asked, after the usual caution, whether he had anything to say, said that he merely wished to mark the man but not to kill him. The surgeon of the place deposed to the nature of the wound, and on being asked his opinion with respect to the state of the prisoner’s mind, said that he believed that he might be labouring under a delusion. After the prisoner’s bloody weapon and coat had been produced he was committed.

It was generally said that the prisoner was disordered in his mind; I held my tongue, but judging from his look and manner I saw no reason to suppose that he was any more out of his senses than I myself, or any person present, and I had no doubt that what induced him to commit the act was rage at being looked down upon by a quondam acquaintance, who was rising a little in the world, exacerbated by the reflection that the disdainful quondam acquaintance was one of the Saxon race, against which every Welshman entertains a grudge more or less virulent, which, though of course, very unchristianlike, is really, brother Englishman, after the affair of the long knives, and two or three other actions of a somewhat similar character of our noble Anglo–Saxon progenitors, with which all Welshmen are perfectly well acquainted, not very much to be wondered at.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50