Charles de Coster.
The Legend of Ulenspiegel. Volume 1 of 2
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“There, woman, keep his old skin: it will serve you to patch up the new one when it will have holes in it.”
On that Sunday at Bruges was held the procession of the Blessed Blood. Claes said to his wife and to Nele to go to see it and that mayhap they might find Ulenspiegel in the town. As for himself, said he, he would keep the cottage if the pilgrim should perchance return thither.
The two women went off together; Claes, remaining at Damme, sate on the doorstep and found the town very empty and deserted. He heard nothing except the crystalline chime of some village bell, while from Bruges there came to him by fits and starts the music of the carillons and a great din of falconets and fireworks let off in honour of the Blessed Blood.
Claes, looking pensively for Ulenspiegel along the roads, saw nothing, only the sky pure and blue and cloudless, a few dogs lying tongue out in the sun, bold sparrows bathing and twittering in the dust, a cat spying after them, and the sunlight entering every house like a friend and making the brass kettles and pewter tankards on every dresser glisten and shine.
But Claes was downcast amid all this glee, and looking for his son he sought to see him behind the gray mist along the meadows, to hear him in the glad rustling of the leaves and the gay concert of the birds in the trees. Suddenly he saw on the road from Maldeghem a man of great stature, and knew it was not Ulenspiegel. He saw him pause at the edge of a field of carrots and eat eagerly.
“There’s a man mightily an-hungered,” said Claes.
Having lost sight of him for a moment, he saw him reappear at the corner of the street of the Heron, and he recognized the messenger from Josse who had brought him the seven hundred gold carolus. He went to him in the highway and said:
“Come to my house.”
The man replied:
“Blessed are they that are kind to the wandering travelling man.”
On the outer sill of the cottage window there was crumbled bread that Soetkin kept for the birds of the neighbourhood. Here they came in the winter to find their food. The man caught up these crumbs and ate them.
“You are hungry and thirsty,” said Claes.
The man replied:
“Since I was stripped by robbers a week past, I have lived only on carrots from the fields and roots in the woods.”
“It is then,” said Claes, “time to indulge in feasting. And here,” said he, opening the cupboard, “here is a full bowlful of peas, eggs, black puddings, hams, sausage of Ghent, waterzoey: hotchpotch of fish. Below, in the cellar, sleeps Louvain wine, made in the manner of the wines of Burgundy, red and clear as a ruby; it asks but the awakening of glasses. Come, now, let us put a faggot on the fire. Do you hear the black puddings sizzling on the grid? ’Tis the song of good feeding.”
Claes, turning them over, said to the man:
“Have you not seen my boy Ulenspiegel?”
“Nay,” he answered.
“Do you bring me any tidings of my brother Josse?” said Claes, putting upon the table grilled puddings, an omelette of fat ham, cheese, and great tankards, and red clear wine of Louvain sparkling in the flasks.
The man replied:
“Thy brother Josse died upon the rack at Sippenaken, near Aix.And that was for having borne arms, being a heretic, against the Emperor.”
Claes was as one beside himself, and said, trembling in every limb, for his wrath was extreme:
“Evil murderers! Josse! my poor brother!”
The man said then in no gentle tone:
“Our joys and our woes are not of this world.”
And he began to eat. Then he said:
“I gave thy brother help in his prison, passing myself off for a countryman from Nieswiller, a relation of his. I have come hither because he said to me: ‘If thou dost not die for the faith as I do, go to my brother Claes; enjoin upon him to live in the Lord’s peace, doing the works of mercy, rearing his son in secret in the law of Christ. The money I gave him was taken from the poor and ignorant people; let him use it to bring Thyl up in the knowledge of God and the word.’”
Having said this, the messenger gave Claes the kiss of peace.
And Claes, lamenting:
“Died on the rack,” said he, “my poor brother!”
And he could not recover himself out of his great sorrow. All the same, as he saw that the man was thirsty and held out his glass, he poured wine for him, but he ate and drank joylessly.
Soetkin and Nele were away during seven days; during this time the messenger from Josse lived under Claes’s roof.
Every night they heard Katheline crying terribly in the cottage:
“The fire, the fire! Make a hole: the soul would fain escape!”
And Claes would go to her, and calm her with soothing speech, then come back into his own house.
At the end of seven days the man departed and would accept no more from Claes but two carolus to feed and shelter him upon his way.
Nele and Soetkin being come back from Bruges, Claes, in his kitchen, seated on the floor after the fashion of tailors, was putting buttons on an old pair of breeches. Nele was close by him tarring on against the stork Titus Bibulus Schnouffius who, dashing at the bird and retreating by turns, was yelping in the shrillest voice. The stork standing on one foot, looking at him gravely and pensively, withdrew her long neck into the feathers on her breast. Titus Bibulus Schnouffius, seeing her so pacific, yelped more and more terribly. But all of a sudden the bird, tired and sick of this music, lashed out her bill like an arrow on the back of the dog, who fled yelling:
Claes laughed, Nele, too, and Soetkin never ceased looking into the street, seeking if she could not see Ulenspiegel coming.
Suddenly she said:
“Here is the provost and four constables. It cannot surely be us they want. There are two of them turning behind the cottage.”
Claes lifted his nose from his task.
“And two that are stopping in front,” went on Soetkin.
Claes got up.
“Who are they going to arrest in this street?” said she. “Jesus God! my husband, they are coming in here.”
Claes leaped from the kitchen into the garden, followed by Nele.
He said to her:
“Save the carolus, they are behind the chimney-back.”
Nele understood, then seeing that he was making through the hedge, that the constables seized him by the collar, that he was fighting to get loose from them, she cried and wept:
“He is innocent! he is innocent! do not hurt Claes, my father! Ulenspiegel, where art thou? Thou wouldst kill both of them!”
And she threw herself upon one of the constables and tore his face with her nails. Then crying out “They will kill him!” she fell down on the sward of the garden and rolled about on it, distraught.
Katheline had come at the noise, and standing straight and motionless, was contemplating the sight, saying as she shook her head from side to side: “The fire! the fire! Make a hole! the soul would fain escape!”
Soetkin saw nothing, and speaking to the constables that had come into the cottage:
“Sirs, whom seek ye in our poor dwelling? If it is my son, he is far away. Are your legs long ones?”
Saying so, she was full of mirth.
At this moment Nele, crying out for help, Soetkin ran into the garden, saw her husband seized by the collar and struggling on the highway close to the hedge.
“Strike!” she said. “Kill! Where art thou, Ulenspiegel?”
And she would have gone to help her husband, but one of the constables seized her round the body, not without peril.
Claes struggled and struck so hard that he might well have escaped, if the two constables to whom Soetkin had spoken had not come to the help of the two that were holding him.
They brought him with both his hands tied into the kitchen where Soetkin and Nele were weeping and sobbing.
“Messire provost,” said Soetkin, “what hath my poor man done then, that you should bind him thus with ropes?”
“Heretic,” said one of the constables.
“Heretic?” returned Soetkin, “thou a heretic, thou? These devils have lied.”
“I place myself in God’s keeping.”
He went out; Nele and Soetkin followed him weeping and believing that they also were to be brought before the judge. Men and women came to them; when they knew that Claes was going thus bound because he was suspect of heresy, they were so sore afraid that they went back into their homes in haste, and shut all the doors behind them. Only a few girls dared go to Claes and say to him:
“Whither goest thou thus bound, coal man?”
“To the grace of God, my girls,” he replied.
They brought him to the prison of the commune; Soetkin and Nele sat down upon the threshold. Towards evening, Soetkin bade Nele leave her and go to see if Ulenspiegel was not coming back.
Soon the news ran abroad through the villages round about that a man had been cast into prison for heresy and that the inquisitor Titelman, the dean of Renaix, nicknamed the Inquisitor Pitiless, would conduct the interrogatories. Ulenspiegel was then living at Koolkerke, in the most private favours of a pretty farmer, an amiable widow that denied him nothing that was hers. There he was very well off, spoiled and caressed until the day when a treacherous rival, the sheriff of the commune, lay in wait for him one morning as he came out of the tavern and would fain have rubbed him down with an oaken towel. But Ulenspiegel, to cool his anger, cast him in a pond whence the sheriff crept out as best he could, green as a toad and steeped full as a sponge.
Ulenspiegel for this high feat, must leave Koolkerke and set off with all speed towards Damme, fearing the sheriff’s vengeance.
The evening was falling cool, Ulenspiegel ran swiftly; fain would he have been at home already, in his mind’s eye he saw Nele sewing, Soetkin preparing supper, Claes binding faggots, Schnouffius gnawing on a bone and the stork knocking with her bill on the housewife’s front to have some scraps of food.
A pedlar afoot said to him as he passed:
“Whither away in such hurry?”
“To Damme, to my own home,” replied Ulenspiegel.
The pedlar answered:
“The town is not safe now by reason of the folk of the reformed faith that are being arrested there.”
And he went on his way.
Arrived before the inn of the Roode-Schildt, Ulenspiegel went in to drink a glass of dobbel-cuyt. The baes said to him:
“Are not you the son of Claes?”
“I am,” answered Ulenspiegel.
“Make haste, then,” said the baes, “for the ill hour has struck for your father.”
Ulenspiegel asked what he meant.
The baes replied that he would know all too soon.
And Ulenspiegel continued to run.
As he was at the entrance to Damme, the dogs that were on the doorsteps jumped out at his legs yelping and barking. The goodwives came out at the noise and said to him, all talking at once:
“Whence come you?” “Have you news of your father?” “Where is your mother?” “Is she with him in prison, too?” “Alas! if only they do not burn him!”
Ulenspiegel ran the harder.
He met Nele, who said to him:
“Thyl, do not go to your house: the town governors have put a guard in it on behalf of His Majesty.”
“Nele,” said he, “is it true that my father Claes is in prison?”
“Yea,” said Nele, “and Soetkin weeps on the threshold.”
Then the heart of the prodigal son was swollen with anguish and he said to Nele:
“I am going to see them.”
“That is not what you should do,” said she, “but you should obey Claes instead, who said to me before he was taken: ‘save the carolus, they are behind the chimney-back.’ They are what you must save first and foremost, for it is the inheritance of Soetkin, the poor woman.”
Ulenspiegel, listening no whit, ran to the gaol. There he saw Soetkin seated on the threshold; she embraced him with tears, and they wept together.
The people assembling, because of these two, in a crowd in front of the gaol, the constables came and told Ulenspiegel and Soetkin that they were to be off out of that and at the speediest possible.
Mother and son went away to Nele’s cottage, next door to their own home, before which they saw one of the lansquenet troopers summoned from Bruges through fear of the troubles that might arise during the trial and during the execution. For the folk of Damme loved Claes greatly.
The trooper was sitting on the pavement, before the door, busy sucking the last drop of brandy out of a flask. Finding nothing more in it, he flung it some paces away, and drawing his dagger, he amused himself in digging up the paving stones.
Soetkin, all tears, entered Katheline’s house.
And Katheline shaking her head: “The fire! Make a hole, the soul would fain escape,” said she.
The bell that is called Borgstorm – the storm of the burg – having summoned the judges to the tribunal, they met in the Vierschare, at the stroke of four, about the linden tree of judgment.
Claes was brought before them and saw seated beneath the canopy the bailiff of Damme, and beside him and opposite him the mayor, the aldermen, and the clerk.
The people flocked up at the sound of the bell in great multitude. Many said:
“The judges are not there to do the works of justice, but of imperial serfdom.”
The clerk announced that the tribunal having first met in the Vierschare, around the linden tree, had decided that, considering the denunciations and testimonies before it, there had been good ground for seizing the body of Claes, coal vendor, native of Damme, husband of Soetkin, the daughter of Joostens. They would now, he added, proceed to the hearing of the witnesses.
Hans Barbier, a neighbour of Claes, was the first heard. Having taken the oath, he said: “Upon my soul’s salvation, I affirm and asseverate that Claes, present before this court, has been known to me for almost seventeen years, that he has always lived honestly and decently, and according to the laws and rules of our holy mother the Church, has never spoken opprobriously of her, nor to my knowledge harboured any heretic, nor hidden Luther’s book, nor spoken of the said book, nor done anything that could bring him into suspicion of having transgressed the laws and regulations of the empire. So help me God and all His saints.”
Jan Van Roosebekke was next heard, and said “that during the absence of Soetkin, Claes’s wife, he had often thought he heard in the accused man’s house the voices of two men, and that often at night, after the curfew, he had seen in a small chamber beneath the roof a light, and two men, one of them was Claes, conversing together. As for saying whether the other man was heretic or no, he could not, having only seen him at a distance. As for what concerns Claes,” he added, “I will say, speaking in all truth, that since I have known him, he always kept his Easter regularly, communicated on the principal feast days, went to mass every Sunday, except that of the Blessed Blood and those following. And I know nothing further but this. So help me God and all His saints.”
Questioned if he had not seen Claes in the tavern of the Blauwe Torre selling indulgences and mocking at purgatory, Jan Van Roosebekke replied that in fact Claes had sold indulgences, but without contempt or mockery, and that he, Jan Van Roosebekke, had bought even as also was fain to do Josse Grypstuiver, the dean of the fishmongers, who was there present among the crowd.
Thereafter the bailiff said he would proclaim the actions and conduct for the which Claes was brought before the court of the Vierschare.
“The informer,” said he, “having, as it happened, remained at Damme, so as not to go to Bruges to spend his money in riot and revelry, as is too often done at these holy times, was soberly taking the air on his own doorstep. Being there he saw a man walking in the street of the Heron. Claes, perceiving this man, went to him and saluted him. The man was arrayed in black cloth. He went into Claes’s house, and the door of the cottage was left ajar. Curious to know what this man might be, the informer went into the porch, heard Claes speaking in the kitchen with the stranger, of a certain Josse, his brother, who having been taken prisoner among the reformed troops, had been for this put to death on the rack not far from Aix. The stranger said to Claes that the money he had received from his brother being money gained through the ignorance of poor folk, he was to employ it in bringing up his son in the reformed religion. He had enjoined Claes also to leave the bosom of our Mother Holy Church, and uttered other impious words to which Claes made answer only with these words: ‘Cruel murderers! my poor brother!’ And the accused thus blasphemed against our Holy Father the Pope and his Royal Majesty, accusing them of cruelty because they most justly punished heresy as a crime, being treason divine and human. When the man had made an end of eating, the informer heard Claes cry aloud: ‘Poor Josse, may God have thee in His glory, they were cruel to thee!’ Thus he even accused God of impiety, deeming that He may receive heretics into His heaven. And Claes ceased not to say ‘My poor brother!’ The stranger, then entering into frenzy like a preacher in his preaching, cried: ‘She shall fall, great Babylon the Romish whore, and she shall become the habitation of demons and the haunt of every obscene bird!’ Claes said: ‘Cruel murderers! My poor brother!’ The stranger, continuing his discourse, said: ‘For the angel will take up that stone which is as great as a millstone. And it shall be cast into the sea, and he will say: ‘Thus great Babylon shall be cast out, and she shall no more be found.’ ‘Messire,’ said Claes, ‘your mouth is filled with anger, but tell me when shall come the reign when they that are meek and lowly of heart shall be able to live in peace upon the earth?’ ‘Never,’ replied the stranger, ‘so long as Antichrist, which is the Pope and the enemy of truth, reigneth.’ ‘Ah,’ said Claes, ‘you speak of our Holy Father without respect. Assuredly he knoweth naught of the cruel torments with which the poor reformers are punished.’ The stranger made answer: ‘He is not ignorant of these, for it is he that issueth the edicts, hath them enforced by the Emperor, now by the king, who hath the profit of confiscations, inherits from the dead, and readily brings suit for heresy against the rich.’ Claes replied: ‘These things are told in the country of Flanders, I must needs believe them; man’s flesh is weak, even when it is royal flesh. My poor Josse!’ And Claes by this signified that it was through base desire of lucre that His Majesty punished heresiarchs. The stranger, wishing to harangue further, Claes replied: ‘Be so good, messire, as to hold no more such discourses with me, for if they were overheard, they would stir up some grievous suit against me.’
“Claes arose to go to the cellar and came up thence with a jug of beer. ‘I will shut the door,’ said he then, and the informer heard no more, for he must needs lightly leave the house. The door that had been shut was nevertheless opened again at nightfall. The stranger came out, but went back speedily and knocked at it saying: ‘Claes, I am cold, I have nowhere to lodge: give me shelter, no one has seen me come in, the town is deserted and empty.’ Claes received him in his house, lighted a lantern, and was seen preceding the heretic, mounting the stairs and bringing the stranger underneath the roof to a little chamber whose window looked towards the country…”
“Who, then,” cried Claes, “who can have recounted all if not thou, vile fishmonger, whom I saw on that Sunday upon thy threshold, stiff as a post, hypocritically watching the swallows flying through the air?”
And with his finger he pointed to Josse Grypstuiver, the dean of the fishmongers, who showed his ugly face amid the crowd of the people.
The fishmonger smiled cruelly, seeing Claes betray himself in this fashion. All the people, men, women, and girls, said one to the other:
“The poor fellow, his words will past doubt cause his death.”
But the clerk continued his announcement:
“The heretic and Claes,” said he, “conversed together for long that night, and also during other nights, during which the stranger could be seen making many gestures of threatening or blessing, and lifting his arms to heaven as the manner is of his fellows in heresy. Claes seemed to approve of his words.
“Certes, during these days, evenings and nights, they talked opprobriously of the mass, of confession, of indulgences, and of His Royal Majesty…”
“No man hath heard it,” said Claes, “and I cannot be accused thus without proofs!”
The clerk continued:
“Another thing was heard. When the stranger came out from thy house, on the seventh day at the tenth hour, the night being fallen already, thou didst walk in the way with him as far as close to the boundary of the field of Katheline. There he asked what thou hadst done with the wicked idols” – and at that the bailiff crossed himself – “of Madame Virgin, Master Saint Nicholas, and Master Saint Martin. Thou didst answer that thou hadst broken them to pieces and cast them into the well. And they were in fact found in thy well last night, and the fragments are in the torture-chamber.”
At this word Claes appeared overwhelmed. The bailiff asked him if he had nothing to say in answer: Claes made a sign with his head to say no.
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