Charles de Coster.
The Legend of Ulenspiegel. Volume 1 of 2
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The bailiff asked him if he did not wish to retract the evil thought that had made him break up the images and the impious error that by reason whereof he had uttered words opprobrious to His Divine Majesty and His Royal Majesty.
Claes answered that his body was His Royal Majesty’s but that his conscience was Christ’s, whose law he meant to follow. The bailiff asked him if this law was that of our Mother Holy Church. Claes made answer:
“It is contained in the holy Gospel.”
Called upon to answer the question whether the Pope is the representative of God upon earth:
“No,” said he.
Asked if he believed it was forbidden to worship the images of Madame the Virgin and Messieurs the Saints, he replied that it was idolatry. Questioned on the point as to whether auricular confession be a good and salutary thing, he replied:
“Christ said: ‘Confess yourselves one to another’.”
He was valiant and stout in his answers, though he seemed sorely troubled and affrighted at the bottom of his heart.
Eight o’clock having struck, and the night falling, the members of the court withdrew, deferring till the morrow their final judgment.
In Katheline’s cottage Soetkin wept distraught with anguish. And she said over and over again:
“My husband! my poor husband!”
Ulenspiegel and Nele embraced her with utmost tenderness. Then taking them into her arms she wept in silence. And then she signed to them to leave her alone. Nele said to Ulenspiegel:
“Let us leave her there, it is her own wish: let us save the carolus.”
They went away together; Katheline kept moving round Soetkin, saying:
“Make a hole: the soul would fain escape!”
And Soetkin, with fixed eyes, looked at her without seeing her.
The cottages of Claes and Katheline touched, that of Claes set back with a little garden in front, Katheline’s had a patch of ground planted with beans giving upon the street. This patch was surrounded with a green hedge in which Ulenspiegel to get to Nele’s and Nele to get to Ulenspiegel’s, had made a big hole in their childish days.
Ulenspiegel and Nele came into this garden patch, and from there saw the trooper who with head wagging spat into the air, but the spittle fell back on his doublet. A wicker flask lay by his side:
“Nele,” said Ulenspiegel, in a whisper, “this drunken trooper has not drunk out his thirst; he must drink more still. We shall then be his master. Let us take his flask.”
At the sound of their voices, the lansquenet turned his heavy head in their direction, hunted for his flask, and not finding it, he went on spitting into the air and tried to see his spittle falling back in the moonlight.
“He is full of brandy to the teeth,” said Ulenspiegel; “do you hear how he can hardly spit?”
However, the trooper, having spit and stared in the air a long while, put out his arm again to get his hand on the flask. He found it, put his mouth to its neck, threw his head back, turned the flagon upside down, tapped on it to make it give up all its juice and sucked at it like a babe at its mother’s breast.Finding nothing in it, he resigned himself, put the flask down beside him, swore a little in high German, spat again, waggled his head to right and left, and went to sleep muttering inarticulate and unintelligible paternosters.
Ulenspiegel, knowing that this sleep would not last, and that it must be thickened further, slipped through the hole in the hedge, took the trooper’s flask, and gave it to Nele, who filled it with brandy.
The trooper did not cease to snore; Ulenspiegel passed again through the hole in the hedge and put the full flask between his legs, came back into Katheline’s bean patch and waited behind the hedge with Nele.
Because of the chill of the newly drawn liquor the trooper awoke a little, and with his first movement sought what was making him cold under the doublet.
Judging with drunken intuition that this might well be a full flask, he put his hand to it. Ulenspiegel and Nele saw him, in the light of the moon, shake the flask to hear the lap of the liquor, taste it, laugh, marvel that it should be so full, drink a mouthful, then a good gulp, put it down on the ground, take it up again and drink once more.
Then he sang:
To high Germans, dame Zee, which is the sea, is the wife of Seigneur Maan, which is the moon and the master of women. And so he sang:
Then drinking and singing a quatrain turn and turn about, he went to sleep. And he could not hear Nele saying: “They are in a pot behind the chimney-back”; nor see Ulenspiegel go through the stable into Claes’s kitchen, lift the slab of the chimney-back, find the pot and the carolus, come back into Katheline’s garden, hide the carolus there beside the well wall, knowing full well that if they were searched for it would be inside and not outside.
Then they returned to Soetkin and found the sad wife weeping and saying:
“My husband! My poor husband!”
Nele and Ulenspiegel watched by her until morning.
On the morrow, the Borgstorm summoned with loud peals the judges to the court of the Vierschare.
When they were seated on the four benches, about the tree of justice, they interrogated Claes afresh and asked him if he wished to recant his errors.
Claes raised his hand towards heaven:
“Christ, my Lord, seeth me from on high,” said he, “I looked upon his sun when my boy Ulenspiegel was born. Where is he now, the runagate? Soetkin, my gentle goodwife, wilt thou be brave against ill fortune?”
Then looking at the linden tree, he said, cursing it:
“Storm winds and drought! make all the trees of the land of our father die as they stand rather than see freedom of conscience condemned to death under their shade. Where art thou, my son Ulenspiegel? I was hard to thee. Messieurs, have pity upon me and judge me as Our Compassionate Lord would judge me.”
All that heard him wept, save the judges.
Then he asked if there was no pardon for him, saying:
“I toiled all my days, earning but little; I was good to the poor and comfortable to all men. I left the Romish Church to obey the spirit of God that spoke to me. I ask for no other boon than to commute the penalty of the fire into that of perpetual banishment for life from the land of Flanders, a penalty already full grievous.”
All that were present cried aloud:
“Pity, sirs! Mercy!”
But Josse Grypstuiver did not cry with them.
The bailiff signed to the people there to be silent and said that the edicts contained an express prohibition against asking mercy for heretics; but that if Claes would abjure his error, he should be executed by the rope instead of by fire.
And among the people ran the word:
“Fire or rope, it is death.”
And the women wept, and the men growled sullen and low.
Then said Claes:
“I will not abjure. Do with my body as your mercy pleases.”
The dean of Renaix, Titelman, cried out:
“It is intolerable to see such heretic vermin lift up its head before its judges; to burn their bodies is but a fleeting pain; we must save their souls and force them by the torment to deny their errors, that they may not give the people the dangerous spectacle of heretics dying in final impenitence.”
At this word the women wept more and more and the men said:
“Where confession is made, there is penalty, but no torture.”
The court decided that, torture not being laid down in the Ordinances, there was no ground for making Claes undergo it. Once more called upon to abjure he replied:
He was, in accordance with the edicts, declared guilty of simony, because of the sale of the indulgences, a heretic, harbourer of heretics, and as such, condemned to be burned alive until death ensued before the doors of the Townhall.
His body would be left for two days’ space fastened to the stake to serve as an example and warning, and thereafter interred in that place where the bodies of executed criminals are wont to be buried.
The court awarded to the informer, Josse Grypstuiver, who was not named, fifty florins on the first hundred florins of the inheritance, and a tenth part of the remainder.
Having heard this sentence, Claes said to the dean of the fishmongers:
“Thou shalt come to an ill death and a bad end, thou man of evil, who for wretched pelf dost make a widow of a happy wife, and an unhappy orphan of a lighthearted son.”
The judges had allowed Claes to speak, for they also, all but Titelman, held in scorn and loathing the informing of the dean of the fishmongers.
The latter appeared all livid with shame and rage.
And Claes was taken back to gaol.
On the morrow, which was the day before Claes was to die, the sentence was made known to Nele, to Ulenspiegel, and to Soetkin.
They asked the judges for permission to enter the prison, which was granted, but not to Nele.
When they went in, they saw Claes fastened to the wall with a long chain. A little wood fire was burning in the fireplace because of the dampness. For it is ordained by law and justice, in Flanders, to be indulgent with those that are to die, and to give them bread, meat or cheese, and wine. But the greedy gaolers often violate the law, and many of them eat the greater part and the best of the poor prisoners’ food.
Claes embraced Ulenspiegel and Soetkin weeping, but he was the first to dry his eyes, because such was his will, being a man and head of a family.
Soetkin wept and Ulenspiegel said:
“I will break these cruel irons.”
Soetkin wept, saying:
“I will go to King Philip, he will grant pardon.”
“The king inherits the goods of the martyrs.” Then he added: “Beloved wife and son, I am about to go sadly and dolorously out of this world. If I have some fear of suffering for my body, I am sore troubled also thinking that, when I am no more, ye will both be poor and in need, for the king will take all your goods.”
Ulenspiegel answered, speaking in a whisper:
“Nele saved all yesterday with me.”
“I am full glad of it,” replied Claes; “the informer will not laugh over my spoils.”
“Rather let him die first,” said Soetkin, her eye full of hate and without weeping.
But Claes, thinking of the carolus, said:
“Thou wast cunning, Thylken my dear boy; she will not be hungry then in her old age, Soetkin my widow.”
And Claes embraced her, pressing her body tightly to his breast, and she wept more, thinking that soon she must lose his sweet protection.
Claes looked at Ulenspiegel and said:
“Son, thou didst often sin as thou didst run upon the highways, as do wicked lads; thou must do so no more, my child, nor leave the afflicted widow alone in her house, for thou owest her protection and defence, thou the male.”
“Father, this I shall do,” said Ulenspiegel.
“O my poor husband!” said Soetkin, embracing him. “What great crime have we committed? We lived by us two peaceably, an honest simple life, loving one another well, Lord God, thou knowest it. We arose betimes to labour, and at night, giving thee thanks, we ate our daily bread. I will go to the king and rend him with my nails. Lord God, we were not guilty folk!”
But the gaoler came in and they must needs depart.
Soetkin begged to remain. Claes felt her poor face burn his own, and Soetkin’s tears, falling in floods, wetting his cheeks, and all her poor body shivering and trembling in his arms. He begged that she might stay with him.
The gaoler said again that they must go, and took Soetkin from out of Claes’s arms.
Claes said to Ulenspiegel:
“Watch over her.”
Ulenspiegel said he would do this. Then he went away with Soetkin, the son supporting the mother.
On the morrow, which was the day of execution, the neighbours came and in pity shut up Ulenspiegel, Soetkin, and Nele, in Katheline’s house.
But they had not thought that they could hear from afar the cries of the victim, and through the windows see the flame of the fire.
Katheline went roaming about the town, nodding her head and saying:
“Make a hole, the soul would fain come forth!”
At nine o’clock Claes was brought out from the prison, in his shirt, his hands bound behind his back. In accordance with the sentence, the pyre was prepared in the street of Notre Dame around a stake set up before the doors of the Townhall. The executioner and his assistants had not yet made an end of piling up the wood.
Claes, in the midst of his gaolers, waited patiently till this task was finished, while the provost, on horseback, and the liveried men of the bailiwick, and the nine lansquenets summoned from Bruges, could barely keep within bounds of respect the people growling and unruly.
All said, it was sheer cruelty to murder thus in his old age, unjustly, a poor fellow so kind hearted, compassionate, and stout hearted in toil.
Suddenly they all knelt down and prayed. The bells of Notre Dame were tolling for the dead.
Katheline also was in the crowd of the common people, in the first row, and all beside herself. Looking at Claes and the pyre, she said, nodding her head:
“The fire! the fire! Make a hole; the soul would fain escape!”
Soetkin and Nele, hearing the bells tolling, both crossed themselves. But Ulenspiegel did not, saying that he would no longer worship God after the fashion of murderers. And he ran about the cottage, seeking to break down doors and to leap out through windows; but all were guarded.
Suddenly Soetkin cried out, hiding her face in her apron:
The three afflicted ones saw indeed in the sky a great whirl of smoke, all black. It was the smoke of the pyre on which was Claes bound to a stake, and which the executioner had just set fire to in three places in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Claes looked about him, and not perceiving Soetkin and Ulenspiegel in the crowd, he was glad, thinking they would not behold him suffering.
No other sound was to be heard but the voice of Claes praying, the wood crackling, men growling, women weeping, Katheline saying: – “Take away the fire, make a hole: the soul would fain escape.” – and the bells of Notre Dame tolling for the dead.
Suddenly Soetkin became white as snow, shuddered in all her body without weeping, and pointed with her finger to the sky. A long narrow flame had just spouted up from the pyre and rose at moments above the roofs of the low houses. It was cruelly tormenting to Claes, for according to the whims of the wind it gnawed at his legs, touched his beard and made it frizzle and smoke, licked at his hair and burned it.
Ulenspiegel held Soetkin in his arms and would have dragged her away from the window. They heard a piercing cry, it came from Claes whose body was burning on one side only. But he held his tongue and wept, and his breast was all wet with his tears.
Then Soetkin and Ulenspiegel heard a great noise of voices. This was the citizens, women and children, crying out:
“Claes was not condemned to burn by a slow fire, but by a great one. Executioner, make the pyre burn up!”
The executioner did so, but the fire did not catch quickly enough.
“Strangle him,” they cried.
And they cast stones at the provost.
“The flame! The great flame!” cried Soetkin.
In very deed, a red flame climbed up the sky in the midst of the smoke.
“He is about to die,” said the widow. “Lord God, have pity upon the soul of the innocent. Where is the king, that I may rip out his heart with my nails?”
The bells of Notre Dame were tolling for the dead.
Soetkin heard Claes again utter a loud cry, but she saw not his body writhing from the torment of the flame, nor his face twisting, nor his head that he turned every way and beat against the wood of the stake. The people continued to cry out and to hiss; women and boys threw stones, and all heard Claes saying, from the midst of the flame and the smoke:
And his head fell forward on his breast like a head of lead.
And a lamentable shrill and piercing cry was heard coming from out of Katheline’s cottage. Then none heard aught else, save the poor witless woman nodding her head and saying: “The soul would fain escape!”
Claes was dead. The pyre having burned out sank down at the foot of the stake. And the poor body, all blackened, stayed on it hanging by the neck.
And the bells of Notre Dame tolled for the dead.
Soetkin was in Katheline’s standing against the wall, her head hanging low and her hands joined together. She was holding Ulenspiegel in her embrace, neither speaking nor weeping.
Ulenspiegel also remained silent; he was terrified to feel the fire of fever with which his mother’s body burned.
The neighbours, being back from the place of execution, said that Claes had ended his sufferings.
“He is in glory,” said the widow.
“Pray,” said Nele to Ulenspiegel: and she gave him her rosary; but he would by no means make use of it, because, said he, the beads had been blessed by the Pope.
Night having fallen, Ulenspiegel said to the widow: “Mother, we must put you in bed: I shall watch beside you.”
But Soetkin: “I have no need,” said she, “that you should watch; sleep is good for young men.”
Nele made ready a bed for each in the kitchen, then she went away.
They stayed together as long as the remains of a fire of roots burned in the chimney place.
Soetkin went to bed, Ulenspiegel likewise, and heard her weeping beneath the coverlets.
Outside, in the silence of night, the wind made the trees by the canal complain with a sound as of the sea, and, harbinger of autumn, flung dust in whirlwinds against the cottage windows.
Ulenspiegel saw as it might be a man coming and going; he heard as it might be a sound of feet in the kitchen. Looking, he saw no man; hearkening, he heard nothing now but the wind soughing in the chimney and Soetkin weeping under her bedclothes.
Then he heard steps again, and behind him, at his head, a sigh… “Who is there?” he said.
None answered, but three knocks were given on the table. Ulenspiegel grew afraid, and trembling: “Who is there?” he said again. He received no answer but three knocks on the table and he felt two arms clasp and strain him, and a body lean upon his face, a body whose skin was wrinkled and that had a great hole in its breast and a smell of burning:
“Father,” said Ulenspiegel, “is it thy poor body that weighs thus upon me?”
He got no answer, and although the shade was beside him, he heard a cry without: “Thyl! Thyl!” Suddenly Soetkin rose and came to Ulenspiegel’s bed, “Dost thou hear naught?” said she.
“Aye,” said he, “the father calling on me.”
“I,” said Soetkin, “I felt a cold body beside me in my bed; and the mattresses moved, and the curtains were shaken and I heard a voice saying: Soetkin; a voice low as a breath, and a step light as the sound of a gnat’s wings.” Then speaking to Claes’s spirit: – “Husband,” she said, “if thou desirest aught in heaven where God keeps thee in his glory, thou must tell us what it is, that we may carry out thy will.”
Suddenly a blast blew the door open impetuously, filling the chamber with dust, and Ulenspiegel and Soetkin heard the far-off croakings of ravens.
They went out together and came to the pyre.
The night was black, save when the clouds, driven away by the sharp north wind and galloping like stags across the sky, left the face of the moon clear and shining.
A constable of the commune was patrolling, keeping guard on the pyre. Ulenspiegel and Soetkin heard the sound of his steps upon the hard ground and the voice of a raven, doubtless calling others, for from afar croakings answered him.
Ulenspiegel and Soetkin having drawn near to the dead fire, the raven alit upon Claes’s shoulder; they heard the blows of his beak upon the body, and soon other ravens arrived.
Ulenspiegel would have leaped upon the pyre and struck at the ravens: the constable said to him:
“Wizard, seekest thou hands of glory? Know that the hands of men burned do not render invisible, but only the hands of men hanged as thou shalt be one day.”
“Messire Constable,” answered Ulenspiegel, “I am no wizard, but the orphaned son of him who is there fastened, and this woman is his widow. We were but minded to kiss him once again and to have a little of his ashes in memory of him. Give us leave for this, messire, who art no trooper from a foreign country, but a very son of this land.”
“Be it as thou wouldst,” replied the constable.
The orphan and the widow, going over the burnt wood, came to the body; both kissed with tears the face of Claes.
Ulenspiegel took from the place of the heart, where the flames had made a great hole, a little of the dead man’s ashes. Then kneeling, Soetkin and he prayed. When the dawn appeared pallid in the heavens, they were both there still; but the constable drove them away for fear of being punished because of his good-will.
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