Charles de Coster.

The Legend of Ulenspiegel. Volume 1 of 2

Returning, Soetkin took a piece of red silk and a piece of black silk; with these she made a sachet, and then put the ashes in it, and to the sachet sewed two ribbands, so that Ulenspiegel could always wear it on his neck. When she was putting the sachet in its place on him, she said to him:

Let these ashes, that are the heart of my man, this red that is his blood, this black that is our mourning, be ever on thy breast, like the fire of vengeance upon the murderers.

I would have it even so, said Ulenspiegel.

And the widow embraced the orphan, and the sun arose.


On the morrow came the constables and criers of the commune to Claess house to set all its plenishing in the street and proceed to the sale by law appointed. Soetkin from Kathelines saw them bring down the brass and iron cradle which from father to son had always been in the house of Claes where the poor dead man had been born, where Ulenspiegel also had been born. Then they brought down the bed where Soetkin had conceived her son and where she had spent such good nights on her husbands shoulder. Then came, too, the cupboard where she put away her bread, the press in which, in good times, meats were kept, pans, kettles, and cooking pots no longer shining and scoured as in the good days of happiness, but sullied with the dust of neglect. And they recalled to her the family feasts when the neighbours used to come drawn to the good savours.

Then came, too, a cask and a little cask of simpel and dobbel-cuyt, and, in a basket, flasks of wine, of which there were at least thirty; and all was set down upon the street, down to the last nail the poor widow heard them dragging noisily out of the walls.

Sitting, she looked on without uttering cry or complaint, and all heartbroken, beholding these humble riches carried off. The crier having lighted a candle, the things were sold by auction. The candle was near its end when the dean of the fishmongers had bought all for a miserable price to sell again; and he seemed to be as pleased as a weasel sucking the brain of a hen.

Ulenspiegel said in his heart: Thou shalt not laugh long, murderer.

The sale ended, meanwhile, and the constables who were searching everywhere did not find the carolus. The fishmonger exclaimed:

Ye search ill: I know that Claes had seven hundred six months ago.

Ulenspiegel said in his heart: Thou shalt not be the heir to them, murderer.

Suddenly Soetkin turning towards him:

The informer! said she, showing him the fishmonger.

I know that, said he.

Would you suffer him, said she, to inherit from the fathers blood?

Rather would I endure a whole day on the torture bench, replied Ulenspiegel.

Quoth Soetkin:

I, too, but do not give me away for pity, whatever torment you may see me enduring.

Alas! you are a woman, said Ulenspiegel.

Poor lad, said she, I brought you into the world, and know how to suffer.

But you, if I saw you Then growing pale: I will pray Madame the Virgin, who saw her son upon the cross.

And she wept, caressing Ulenspiegel.

And thus was made between them a pact of hate and force.


The fishmonger need pay only one half of the price of his purchase, the other half serving to pay him the reward of his informing, until they should have recovered the seven hundred carolus that had impelled him to his villainy.

Soetkin spent the nights in weeping and the day in the tasks of housekeeping. Often Ulenspiegel heard her talking all alone and saying:

If he inherits, I shall kill myself.

Knowing that she would indeed do as she said, Nele and he did all they could to get Soetkin to retire to Walcheren, where she had kinsfolk. Soetkin would by no means do this, saying she had no need to run away from the worms that would soon eat her widowed bones.

In the meanwhile, the fishmonger had gone afresh to the bailiff and had told him that the defunct had inherited seven hundred carolus but a few months before, that he was a niggardly man and living on little, and therefore had not spent all that large amount, which was doubtless hidden away in some corner.

The bailiff asked him what harm had Ulenspiegel and Soetkin done him that having robbed one of a father and the other of her husband, he still racked his wits to harass them cruelly.

The fishmonger replied that being a leading burgess of Damme, he desired to have the laws of the empire respected and thus to deserve His Majestys clemency.

Having said so much, he deposited in the bailiffs hands a written charge, and brought forward witnesses who, speaking in all truth and sincerity, must certify reluctantly that the fishmonger was no liar.

The members of the Chamber of Aldermen, having heard the testimony of the witnesses, declared the indications of guilt sufficient to warrant the application of torture. They sent, therefore, to have the house thoroughly searched once again by sergeants who had full powers to fetch the mother and the son to the town gaol, where they were detained until the executioner should come from Bruges, whither they sent to summon him immediately.

When Ulenspiegel and Soetkin passed along the street, their hands tied behind them, the fishmonger was posted on the threshold of his house, to look at them.

And the citizens of Damme, men and women, were on the thresholds of their houses also. Mathyssen, a near neighbour of the fishmonger, heard Ulenspiegel say to the informer:

God will curse thee, tormentor of widows!

And Soetkin saying to him:

Thou wilt come to an ill end, persecutor of orphans!

The folk of Damme having thus learned that it was upon a second denunciation by Grypstuiver that the widow and the orphan were thus being haled off to prison, hooted the fishmonger, and that night flung stones through his windows. And his door was covered with filth.

And he no longer dared to leave his own house.


Towards ten oclock in the forenoon Ulenspiegel and Soetkin were brought into the torture chamber.

There were the bailiff, the clerk and the sheriffs, the executioner from Bruges, his assistant and a barber surgeon.

The bailiff asked Soetkin if she was not holding back goods that belonged to the Emperor. She replied that having nothing, she could hold back nothing.

And thou? asked the bailiff, speaking to Ulenspiegel.

Seven months since, said he, we inherited seven hundred carolus; some of these we ate. As for the others, I cannot tell where they are; I think indeed that the traveller on foot that stayed in our house, for our undoing, took the rest away, for I have seen nothing since then.

The bailiff asked again if both persisted in declaring themselves innocent.

They answered that they were holding back nothing that belonged to the Emperor.

The bailiff then said gravely and sadly:

The charges against you being serious and the accusation well sustained, you must needs, if you do not confess, undergo the question.

Spare the widow, said Ulenspiegel. The fishmonger has bought up everything.

Poor lad, said Soetkin, men cannot endure pain as women can.

Seeing Ulenspiegel pale as the dead because of her, she said again:

I have hate and force.

Spare the widow, said Ulenspiegel.

Take me in his stead, said Soetkin.

The bailiff asked the executioner if he had in readiness the implements and all things needful to discover the truth.

The executioner replied:

They are all here.

The judges, having consulted, decided that, in order to come at the truth, they should begin with the woman.

For, said one of the sheriffs, there is no son so cruel or hard hearted as to see his mother suffer without making confession of the crime and so to deliver her; the same will do any mother, were she a tigress at heart, for her offspring.

Speaking to the executioner, the bailiff said:

Make the woman sit in the chair and put the baguettes on her hands and her feet.

The executioner obeyed.

Oh, do not do that, Messieurs Judges! cried Ulenspiegel. Bind me in her place, break my fingers and my toes, but spare the widow.

The fishmonger, said Soetkin. I have hate and force.

Ulenspiegel seemed livid pale, trembling, beside himself, and held his peace.

The baguettes were little rods of boxwood, placed between each finger and toe, touching the bone, and joined together with strings by an instrument so craftily designed that the executioner could, at the behest of the judge, squeeze all the fingers together, strip the bones of their flesh, grind them terribly, or give the victim only a slight pain.

He put the baguettes on Soetkins hands and feet.

Tighten, said the bailiff.

He did so cruelly.

Then the bailiff, addressing himself to Soetkin:

Discover to me, said he, the place where the carolus are hidden.

I do not know it, she replied, groaning.

Harder, said he.

Ulenspiegel twisted his arms that were bound behind his back to be rid of the rope and so come to Soetkins aid.

Do not tighten them, messieurs judges, said he, do not tighten them, these be but womans bones, thin and brittle. A bird could break them with its beak. Do not tighten them, sirs master executioner, I do not speak to you, for you must needs be obedient to these gentlemens orders. O do not bid him tighten them; have pity!

The fishmonger, said Soetkin.

And Ulenspiegel held his peace.

However, seeing that the executioner was locking the baguettes tighter still, he cried out again:

Pity, sirs! he said. Ye are breaking the widows fingers that she needeth to work withal. Alas! her feet! Will she never walk again now? Pity, sirs!

Thou shalt come to an ill end, fishmonger, cried Soetkin.

And the bones crackled and the blood from her feet fell in little drops.

Ulenspiegel looked at all this, and trembling with anguish and with rage, he said:

A womans bones, do not break them, sirs!

The fishmonger, groaned Soetkin.

And her voice was low and stifled like the voice of a ghost.

Ulenspiegel trembled and cried out:

Master judges, her hands are bleeding and her feet, too. The widows bones are broken, broken!

The barber surgeon touched them with his finger, and Soetkin uttered a loud scream.

Confess for her, said the bailiff to Ulenspiegel.

But Soetkin looked at him with eyes like the eyes of the dead, wide open and staring. And he knew he could not speak, and he wept and said nothing.

But the bailiff said next:

Since this woman is gifted with a mans fortitude, we must try her courage before the torments of her son.

Soetkin heard nothing, for she had lost her senses by reason of the great agony she had suffered.

They brought her back to consciousness with much vinegar. Then Ulenspiegel was stripped naked before the widows eyes. The executioner shaved his head and his whole body, so as to spy that he had no wicked spell on him. Then he perceived on his back the little black mark he carried from his birth. He thrust a long needle into it several times; but as the blood came, he decided that there was no sorcery in the mark. At the bailiffs order, the hands of Ulenspiegel were tied with two cords running over a pulley fixed to the roof so that the executioner at the judges pleasure could hoist him up and let him drop with a brutal jerk; which he did nine times, having first hung a weight of twenty-five pounds on each foot.

At the ninth time, the skin of his wrists and ankles tore, and the bones of his legs began to come out of their sockets.

Confess, said the bailiff.

No, replied Ulenspiegel.

Soetkin looked at her son and could find no strength either to cry out or to speak; only she stretched forth her arms, fluttering her bleeding hands and showing thus that they must make an end of this torment.

The executioner ran Ulenspiegel up and down yet again. And the skin of his wrists and ankles was torn still more; and the bones of his legs came out of their sockets further still; but he uttered no cry.

Soetkin wept and fluttered her bleeding hands.

Confess the concealment, said the bailiff, and you shall have pardon for it.

The fishmonger hath need of pardon, answered Ulenspiegel.

Wilt thou mock thy judges? said one of the sheriffs.

Mock? Alas! replied Ulenspiegel, I but feign to mock, believe me.

Soetkin then saw the executioner, who, at the bailiffs order, was blowing up a brazier of red coals, and an assistant who was lighting two candles. She would fain have risen up on her murdered feet, but fell back to a sitting posture, and exclaiming:

Take away that fire! she cried. Ah! master judges, spare his poor youth. Take away the fire!

The fishmonger! cried Ulenspiegel, seeing her weakening.

Raise Ulenspiegel a foot above the ground, said the bailiff; set the brazier underneath his feet and a candle under either armpit.

The executioner obeyed. What hair was left in his armpits crackled and smoked in the flame.

Ulenspiegel cried out, and Soetkin, weeping, said:

Take the fire away!

The bailiff said:

Confess the concealment and thou shalt be set at liberty. Confess for him, woman.

And Ulenspiegel said: Who will throw the fishmonger into the fire that burneth for ever?

Soetkin made sign with her head that she had nothing to say. Ulenspiegel ground and gnashed his teeth, and Soetkin looked at him with haggard eyes and all in tears.

Nevertheless, when the executioner, having blown out the candles, set the burning brazier under Ulenspiegels feet, she cried:

Master judges, have pity upon him: he knows not what he saith.

Why doth he not know what he saith? asked the bailiff, craftily.

Do not question her, master judges; ye see full well that she is out of her wits with torment. The fishmonger lied, said Ulenspiegel.

Wilt thou say the same as he, woman? asked the bailiff.

Soetkin made sign with her head to say yes.

Burn the fishmonger! cried Ulenspiegel.

Soetkin held her peace, raising her clenched fist into the air as though to curse.

Yet seeing the brazier burn up more fiercely under her sons feet, she cried:

O Lord God! Madame Mary that art in heaven, put an end to this torment! Have pity! Take the brazier away!

The fishmonger! groaned Ulenspiegel again.

And he vomited blood in great gushes through nose and mouth, and letting his head fall, hung suspended above the coals.

Then Soetkin cried:

He is dead, my poor orphan! They have killed him! Ah! him, too. Take away this brazier, master judges! Let me take him into my arms to die also, I, too, to die with him. Ye know I cannot flee on my broken feet.

Give the widow her son, said the bailiff.

Then the judges deliberated together.

The executioner unbound Ulenspiegel, and laid him all naked and covered with blood upon Soetkins knees, while the barber surgeon put back his bones in their sockets.

All the while Soetkin embraced Ulenspiegel, and said, weeping:

Son, poor martyr! If the judges will, I shall heal thee, I; but awaken, Thyl, my son! Master judges, if ye have killed him on me, I shall go to His Majesty; for ye have done contrary to all laws and justice, and ye shall see what one poor woman can do against wicked men. But, sirs, leave us free together. We have nothing but our two selves in the world, poor wretches on whom the hand of God has been heavy.

Having deliberated, the judges gave out the following sentence:

Inasmuch as you, Soetkin, lawful widow of Claes, and you, Thyl, son of Claes, and called Ulenspiegel, having been accused of fraudulently withholding the goods that by confiscation were the property of His Majesty the King, maugre all privileges contrary to this, despite severe torture and adequate ordeal, have confessed to nothing:

The court, considering the absence of sufficient proofs, and in you, woman, the piteous condition of your members, and in you, man, the harsh torment you have undergone, declares you both at liberty, and accords you permission to take up your abode in the house of him or her who may please to give you lodging, in spite of your poverty.

Thus decreed at Damme, the three and twentieth day of October in the year of Our Lord 1558.

Thanks be to you, master judges, said Soetkin.

The fishmonger! groaned Ulenspiegel.

And mother and son were taken to the house of Katheline in a cart.


In this year, which was the fifty-eighth of the century, Katheline went into Soetkins house, and said:

Last night, having anointed myself with a balsam, I was carried to the tower of Notre Dame, and I beheld the spirits of the element passing on to the angels the prayers of men who flying towards the farthest heavens, bore them to the throne. And the sky was all over sprinkled with radiant stars. Suddenly there rose up from a fire pile a shape that seemed all black and climbed up to set himself beside me on the tower. I recognized Claes as he was in life, clad in his coalmans attire. What dost thou, said he, on the tower of Notre Dame? But thyself, I replied, whither goest thou, flying through the air like a bird? I go, he said, to the judgment, dost thou not hear the angels trump? I was quite close to him, and felt that his spiritual body was not solid like the bodies of living men; but so tenuous that moving forward against him, I entered into it as into a hot vapour. At my feet, in all the land of Flanders, there shone a few lights, and I said to myself: Those who rise early and work late are the blessed of God.

And all the while I heard the angels trumpet sounding through the night. And I saw then another shade that mounted, coming out of Spain; this one was old and decrepit, had a chin like a slipper and preserve of quince on its lips. It wore on its back a cloak of crimson velvet lined with ermine, on its head a crown imperial, in one hand an anchovy which it was munching, in the other a tankard full of beer.

It came, doubtless for weariness, and sate down on the tower of Notre Dame. Kneeling down, I said to it: Crowned Majesty, I revere you, but I know you not. Whence come you and what do you in the world? I come, it said, from Saint Just in Estramadura, and I was the Emperor Charles the Fifth. But, said I, whither go you as now on this cold night, through these clouds laden with hail? I go, it said, to the judgment. Just as the Emperor was fain to finish his anchovy and to drink his beer from his tankard, the angels trumpet sounded, and he flew up into the air growling and grumbling at being thus interrupted in his meal. I followed His Sacred Majesty. He went through space, hiccoughing with fatigue, wheezing with asthma, and sometimes vomiting, for death had come on him during a spell of indigestion. We mounted continually, like arrows sped from a bow of cornelwood. The stars glided beside us, tracing lines of fire in the sky; we saw them break loose and fall. And still the trumpet of the angel kept a-sounding. What a mighty and sonorous blare! At every flourish, as it beat against the mists of the air, they opened up as though some hurricane blast had blown upon them from near at hand. And so was our path marked out for us. Having been borne away for a thousand leagues and more, we beheld Christ in his glory, seated on a throne of stars, and on his right hand was the angel that inscribes the deeds of men upon a brazen register, and on his left hand Mary his mother, entreating him without ceasing for sinners.

Claes and the Emperor Charles knelt down before the throne.

The angel cast the crown from off Charless head: There is but one emperor here, said he, that is Christ.

His Sacred Majesty seemed angry; nevertheless, speaking humbly: Might I not, said he, keep this anchovy and this tankard of beer, for this long journey made me hungry.

As thou wast all thy life long, rejoined the angel; but eat and drink none the less.

The Emperor drained the tankard of beer and munched at the anchovy.

Then Christ spake and said:

Dost thou offer a cleansed soul for judgment?

I hope as much, my sweet Lord, for I confessed myself, replied the Emperor Charles.

And thou, Claes? said Christ, thou dost not tremble as doth this emperor.

My Lord Jesus, answered Claes, there is no soul that is clean; I am not, therefore, afraid of Thee who art the supreme good and the supreme justice, but withal I fear for my sins that were many.

Speak, carrion, said the angel, addressing the Emperor.

I, Lord, replied Charles in an embarrassed voice, being anointed by the finger of Thy priests, I was consecrated King of Castile, Emperor of Germany, and King of the Romans. I had ever at heart the preservation of the power that cometh from Thee, and to that end I wrought by the rope, by the steel, by the pit, and by the fire against all them of the reform.

But the angel:

Belly-aching liar, said he, thou wouldst fain deceive us. Thou didst tolerate the reformers in Germany, because thou wast afeard of them, and had them beheaded, burned, hanged, and buried alive in the Low Countries, where thou hadst no fear save not to inherit enough from these toiling bees so rich in plenteous honey. A hundred thousand souls perished by thy doing, not because thou didst love Christ, monseigneur, but because thou wast a despot, tyrant, devourer of countries, loving but thyself, and after thyself, meats, fishes, wines, and beers, for thou wast as great a glutton as any dog, and thirsty as a sponge.

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