Charles de Coster.
The Legend of Ulenspiegel. Volume 1 of 2
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“I am the corn under the millstone: God and a robber devil strike me at the same time,” said Soetkin.
“Robber, do not say so,” rejoined Katheline; “he is a devil, a devil. And for proof, I will show you the parchment he left in the yard; there is written upon it: ‘Never forget to do my service. In thrice two weeks and five days I shall return thee the twofold of the treasure. Have no doubt, else thou shalt die.’ And he will keep his word, I am convinced and sure.”
“Poor witless one!” said Soetkin.
And that was her last word of reproach.
The two weeks having thrice passed by and the five days as well, the lover devil never came back. And still Katheline lived without despairing of it.
Soetkin, never working now, remained continually in front of the fire, coughing and bent. Nele gave her the best and most fragrant herbs: but no remedy had power upon her. Ulenspiegel never left the cottage, fearing that Soetkin might die while he was abroad.
Then it came that the widow could neither eat nor drink without vomiting. The barber surgeon came and bled her; the blood being taken from her, she was so weak that she could not leave her stool. At length, withered up with sorrow and pain, she said one evening:
“Claes, my husband! Thyl, my son! I thank thee, God who takest me away!”
And she died on a sigh.
Katheline not daring to watch by her, Ulenspiegel and Nele did it together, and all night long they prayed for the dead woman.
At dawn there entered by the open window a swallow.
“The bird of souls, ’tis a good omen: Soetkin is in heaven.”
The swallow flew round the chamber thrice and went off with a cry.
Then there entered a second swallow, bigger and blacker than the other. It circled around Ulenspiegel, and he said:
“Father and Mother, the ashes beat against my breast, I shall do what ye ask.”
And the second went away crying shrill like the first. The day showed brighter; Ulenspiegel saw thousands of swallows skimming the meadows, and the sun arose.
And Soetkin was buried in the field of the poor.
After Soetkin’s death, Ulenspiegel, dreamy, sorrowful, or angry, wandered about the kitchen, hearing nothing, taking what food or drink was given him, without choosing. And he often rose at night.
In vain did Nele with her soft voice exhort him to hope. Vainly did Katheline tell him that she knew Soetkin was in paradise with Claes. To all Ulenspiegel replied:
“The ashes are beating.”
And he was as a man distraught, and Nele wept to see him in this plight.
Meanwhile, the fishmonger remained in his house alone like a parricide, and dared not go forth save by night; for men and women, passing near him, hooted him and called him murderer, and children fled before him, for they had been told that he was the executioner. He wandered alone and solitary, not daring to go into any of the three taverns of Damme; for he was pointed at in them, and if he merely remained standing for a minute inside, the drinkers went away.
Hence it came that the baesen wished not to see him again, and if he presented himself, shut their door to him.Then the fishmonger would offer a humble remonstrance: they would reply that it was their right and not their obligation to sell.
Tired of the struggle, the fishmonger used to go to drink in ’t Roode Valck, at the Red Falcon, a little wine shop away from the town on the edge of the Sluys Canal. There they served him; for they were grubbing folk to whom any money was welcome. But the baes of the Roode Valck never spoke a word to him nor did his wife. There were two children and a dog in the house: when the fishmonger would have caressed the children, they ran away; and when he called the dog, the dog tried to bite him.
One evening Ulenspiegel stood on the threshold: Mathyssens the cooper, seeing him so pensive and dreaming, said to him:
“You should work with your hands and forget this sad blow.”
“The ashes of Claes beat against my breast.”
“Ah,” said Mathyssens, “he leads a sadder life than thou, the wretched fishmonger. No man speaks to him, and everyone flees from him, so that he is driven to go among the poor ragamuffins at the Roode Valck to drink his quart of bruinbier by himself. ’Tis a sore punishment.”
“The ashes beat!” said Ulenspiegel again.
That same evening, while the clock on Notre Dame was striking the ninth hour, Ulenspiegel went towards the Roode Valck, and seeing that the fishmonger was not there, he went wandering under the trees on the edge of the canal. The moon was shining bright and clear.
He saw the murderer coming.
As he passed before him, he could see him near at hand, and heard him say, speaking aloud like those who live alone:
“Where have they hidden these carolus?”
“Where the devil has found them,” answered Ulenspiegel striking him full in the face with his fist.
“Alas!” said the fishmonger, “I know thee who thou art, thou art the son. Have pity, I am old and weak. What I did, it was not for hate, but to serve His Majesty. Deign to pardon me. I wilt give thee back the furniture I purchased, thou wilt not have to pay me one single patard for it. Is not that enough? I paid seven gold florins for them. Thou shalt have all and a demi-florin to boot, for I am not rich, it must not be imagined.”
And he would have gone on his knees before him.
Ulenspiegel, seeing him so ugly, so trembling, and so cowardly and mean, flung him into the canal.
And he went away.
On the doomfires smoked the fat of the victims. Ulenspiegel, thinking of Claes and Soetkin, wept in solitude.
One night he went to find Katheline and ask her for a remedy and for vengeance.
She was alone with Nele sewing beside the lamp. At the noise he made on coming within, Katheline dully lifted up her head like a woman awakened out of a heavy slumber.
He said to her:
“The ashes of Claes beat upon my breast; I would fain save the land of Flanders. I asked the Great God of heaven and earth, but He gave me no answer.”
“The Great God could not hear you: first you must address yourself to the spirits of the elemental world, which being of double nature, celestial and terrestrial, receive the complaints of poor humankind, and transmit them to the angels, which after bear them to the throne.”
“Help me,” said he, “in my design; I will pay thee with my blood if need be.”
“I will help thee, if a girl that loveth thee would bring thee with her to the sabbath of the Spirits of the Springtide, which is the Easter of the Sap.”
“I will bring him,” said Nele.
Katheline poured into a crystal goblet a grayish coloured mixture of which she gave them both to drink; with this mixture she rubbed their temples, their nostrils, palms of the hand and wrists, made them swallow a pinch of a white powder, and bade them look at the other, that their two souls might become as but one.
Ulenspiegel looked at Nele, and the kind soft eyes of the girl lit up a great fire within him; then by reason of the mixture he felt as it might have been a thousand crabs tearing at him.
Then they took off their clothes, and they were beautiful thus in the lamplight, he in his proud strength, she in her delicious grace; but they could not see one another, for already they were as though in sleep. Then Katheline laid Nele’s neck upon Ulenspiegel’s arm, and taking his hand put it upon the maiden’s heart.
And they remained thus naked and lying one beside the other.
It seemed to them twain that their bodies touching each other were of fire soft as the sun in the month of roses.
They rose up, as they told later, mounted upon the window sill, launched themselves thence into void space, and felt the air bear them up as the water bears the ships.
Then they perceived nothing any more, neither the earth where poor men were sleeping, nor the heavens where but now the clouds were rolling beneath their feet. And they set their feet on Sirius, the Cold Star. Then from there they were cast upon the pole.
There they saw, not without fear, a naked giant, the Giant Winter, with tawny hair, seated upon ice mounds and against a wall of ice. In shallow pools bears and seals were moving hither and thither, a bellowing flock, all about him. In a hoarse voice, he called up hail and snow and cold floods and gray clouds and red and foul-smelling fogs, and the winds, among which the bitter north wind hath the strongest blast. And all raged together at once in this deadly place.
Smiling upon these horrors, the giant was lying upon a bed of flowers faded by his hand, upon leaves withered at his breath. Then leaning over and scratching the earth with his nails, biting it with his teeth, he delved a hole to seek for the heart of the earth; to devour it, and also to put black coal in the place where shady forests were, straw where the corn was, sand in the room of the fertile earth. But the heart of the earth being of fire, he dared not touch it and recoiled abashed and afraid.
He was throned like a king, draining his cup of oil, in the midst of his bears and his seals, and of the skeleton bones of all those whom he had killed upon the sea, upon land, and in the cottages of poor folk. He listened with delight to the roaring of the bears, the bellowing of the seals, and the dry rattling of the bones of the skeletons of men and beasts under the claws of vultures and ravens seeking a last rag of flesh on them, and the sound of ice lumps dashed one against the other by the gloomy water.
And the voice of the giant was like the roar of hurricanes, the clamour of wintry storms, and the wind howling in chimneys.
“I am acold and am afeard,” said Ulenspiegel.
“He hath no power against spirits,” answered Nele.
Suddenly there was a great stir among the seals, which dashed in haste into the water, the bears, which laying their ears flat with fright, roared lamentably, and the ravens, which lost themselves in the clouds with agonized croakings.
And lo, Nele and Ulenspiegel heard the dull thudding blows of a ram upon the wall of ice that served as a support to the Giant Winter. And the wall split and cracked and shook to and fro on its foundations.
But the Giant Winter heard nothing, and he went on howling and shouting in glee, filling and draining his cup of oil; and he went on searching for the heart of the earth to freeze it, and not daring to lay hold of it.
Meantime, the blows re?choed louder and harder, and the wall cracked more and more, and the rain of icicles flying in splintered pieces ceased not to fall about him.
And the bears roared lamentably and without ceasing, and the seals complained in the leaden gloomy water.
The wall crumbled and fell, and it became light in the sky; a man descended therefrom, naked and beautiful, leaning one hand upon a golden axe. And this man was Lucifer, King Springtide.
When the giant beheld him, he flung far away his cup of oil, and implored him not to slay him.
And at the warm breath of King Springtide, the Giant Winter lost all strength. Then the king took chains of diamonds, bound him with these, and tied him to the pole.
Then staying, he uttered a cry, but a tender, amorous cry. And from the sky came down a blonde woman, naked and beautiful. Placing herself beside the king, she said to him:
“Thou art my vanquisher, mighty man.”
He made answer:
“If thou art an-hungered, eat; if thou art athirst, drink; if thou art afraid, come close to me: I am thy male and thy mate.”
“I am,” said she, “hungry and athirst only for thee.”
The king shouted yet again seven times terribly. And there was a mighty din of thunder and lightning, and behind him there took shape a canopy of suns and of stars. And the twain sat them down upon thrones.
Then the king and the woman, without a movement of their noble faces, and without a gesture impairing their might and their calm majesty, cried aloud.
At these cries there was an undulating movement in the earth, the hard stone and the ice floes. And Nele and Ulenspiegel heard a noise such as might be made by gigantic birds seeking to break the shell of enormous eggs with blows of their beak.
And in this huge movement of the earth which rose and fell like the waves of the sea there were shapes like the shape of an egg.
Suddenly from everywhere came forth trees with their dry branches dovetailed and interlocked together, while their boles moved, swaying like drunken men. Then they drew apart, leaving between them a huge void space. From the stirring soil came forth the genii of the earth; from the deeps of the forest the woodland spirits; from the sea near by the genii of the water.
Ulenspiegel and Nele saw there the dwarfs that are the wardens of treasure, hunchbacked, hairy, clumsy-foot, ugly and grinning, princes of the stones, men of the woods living like trees, and, by way of mouth and stomach, having a tuft of roots at the lower part of their face, thus to suck up their food from the bosom of the earth; the emperors of mines, who cannot speak, have neither heart nor entrails, and move like bright automatons. There, too, were dwarfs of flesh and bone, with lizard tails, toads’ heads, and lantern for headgear, who leap by night upon the shoulders of drunken men afoot or timid travellers, leap down again and waving their lantern, lead into pools and bogholes the poor devils who imagine that this lantern is the candle burning in their homes.
There, too, were the flower-maidens, flowers of feminine strength and haleness, naked and not blushing, proud of their beauty, having for their only cloak their hair.
Their eyes shone with the wet lustre of mother of pearl in water; the flesh of their bodies was firm, white, and gilded by the light; from their red mouths partly open came a breath more sweet and fragrant than jasmine.
These are they that wander by eventide in parks and gardens, or in the deeps of the woods, in shady bridle ways, amorous and seeking some human soul to enjoy it. So soon as passeth before them a young man and a young maid, they seek to slay the maid, but when they cannot, they breathe into the sweetling, still reluctant, desires of love so that she may yield herself to the lover; for then the flower-maiden hath half of the kisses.
Ulenspiegel and Nele saw also coming down from the high heavens the guardian spirits of the stars, the genii of the winds, of the breeze and the rain, winged young men that make the earth fertile.
Then in every quarter of the sky appeared the birds of souls, the dear swallows. When they were come, the light appeared stronger. Flower-maids, princes of the stones, emperors of the mines, men of the woods, spirits of the water, of fire, and of the earth all cried out in unison: “Light! Sap! Glory to King Springtide!”
Although the sound of their unanimous outcry was greater than that of the raging sea, the thunder, and the unleashed tempest, it sounded as solemn music in the ears of Nele and of Ulenspiegel, who, silent and motionless, remained huddled together behind the rugged trunk of an oak tree.
But they were still more affrighted when the spirits, thousands upon thousands, took their places upon seats that were immense spiders, toads with elephants, trunks, interlacing serpents, crocodiles standing up on their tails and holding a band of spirits in their jaws, serpents carrying more than thirty dwarfs, both men and women, seated astraddle on their undulating bodies, and full a hundred thousand insects bigger than Goliaths, armed with swords, spears, jagged scythes, forks with seven tines, and every other kind of dreadful murdering implements. They fought together with tremendous din, the strong devouring the weak, growing fat upon them, and showing thus that Death is made from Life and that Life is made from Death.
And from among this crowd of spirits, swarming, shifting, dense, confused, there arose a noise like low thunder and a hundred weavers’ looms, fullers and locksmiths all working together.
Suddenly appeared the spirits of the sap, short, squat, round about the loins as big as the great Heidelberg tun, with thighs as big as hogsheads, and muscles so marvellously strong and powerful that one would have said their bodies were made up of large eggs and small eggs joined to one another and covered with a red, oily skin, shining like their sparse beard and their red hair; and they carried enormous tankards filled with a strange liquor.
When the other spirits beheld them coming, a great tremor of joy ran among them; trees and plants moved and shook, and the earth opened up in cracks to drink.
And the spirits of the sap poured out the wine: and all things incontinently budded, were green, flourished; the sward was full of whispering insects, and the sky of birds and butterflies; the spirits poured on and on, and those below received the wine as best they might: the flower-maids, opening their mouths or leaping up upon their red cupbearers, and kissing them to have more; some, clasping their hands in sign of entreaty; others who, in ecstasy, let it rain over them; but all greedy or parched, flying, standing, running or motionless, seeking to have the wine, and more intensely alive with every drop they attained to receiving. And there were no oldsters there, but ugly or goodly, all were full of prime strength and keenest youth.
And they laughed, shouted, sang, pursuing one another upon the trees like squirrels, in the air like birds, every male seeking his female and under the skies of God falling to the holy deed of kind.
And the spirits of the sap brought to the king and the queen the great cup full of their wine. And the king and the queen drank and embraced one another.
Then the king, holding the queen in his arm, cast upon the trees, the flowers and the spirits, the dregs of his cup and cried aloud:
“Glory to Life! Glory to the free Air! Glory to Force!”
And all shouted:
“Glory to Nature! Glory to Force!”
And Ulenspiegel took Nele into his arms. Thus enlaced, a dance began: a round circling dance like a dance of leaves that a whirlwind swings together, where all was in motion, trees, plants, insects, butterflies, heaven and earth, king and queen, flower-maidens, emperors of mines, princes of stones, spirits of the waters, hunchback dwarfs, men of the woods, lantern bearers, guardian spirits of the stars, and the hundred thousand horrific insects mingling their spears, their saw-edged scythes, their seven-pronged forks; a giddy dance, swaying about in space and filling it, a dance in which the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars, the wind, the clouds, all took part.
And the oak to which Nele and Ulenspiegel were clinging rolled with the whirl, and Ulenspiegel said to Nele:
“Dear one, we are about to die.”
A spirit heard them and saw that they were mortals:
“Mankind,” he bawled, “mankind in this place!”
And he wrenched them from the tree and flung them in the crowd.
And Ulenspiegel and Nele fell soft and limp on the backs of the spirits, which bandied them about from one to another, saying:
“Hail to mankind! Welcome be the earth worms! Who would have the lad and lass? They come to visit us, the puny things.”
And Ulenspiegel and Nele flew from one to another, crying:
But the spirits paid no heed, and both went fluttering, legs in air, head down, turning and circling like feathers in the winter winds, while the spirits said:
“Glory to the manlings male and female, let them dance like us!”
The flower-maidens, wishing to sever Nele from Ulenspiegel, smote her and would have killed her, had not King Springtide, staying the dance with a gesture, cried out:
“Let these two lice be brought before me!”
And they were separated one from the other; and each flower-maiden said, endeavouring to take Ulenspiegel from her rivals:
“Thyl, wouldst thou not die for me?”
“I will do so in a moment,” said Ulenspiegel.
And the dwarf wood sprites that were carrying Nele said:
“Why art thou not a spirit like us, that we might take thee to us!”
Thus they arrived before the king’s throne; and they trembled sore seeing his golden axe and his iron crown.
And he said to them:
“What are ye come hither to do, ye puny things?”
They made no answer.
“I know thee, witches’ shoot,” added the King, “and thee too, sprout of the coalman; but having by the power of spells achieved the deed of penetrating to this laboratory of Nature, why have ye now your beaks locked like capons stuffed with crumb?”
Nele trembled, looking at the terrible demon; but Ulenspiegel, recovering his manly hardihood, replied:
“The ashes of Claes beat upon my heart. Divine Highness, death goeth throughout the land of Flanders, mowing down, in the Pope’s name, the strongest men, the sweetest women; her privileges are destroyed, her charters abolished, famine gnaweth her, her weavers and cloth merchants leave her to go to the foreigner seeking freedom for their work. She will die soon if no one comes to her help. Highness, I am but a poor mean fellow come into the world like any other, who have lived as I could, imperfect, limited, ignorant, not virtuous, in no wise chaste or deserving of any favour human or divine. But Soetkin died of the effects of the torture and her grief, but Claes burned in a terrible fire, and I was minded to avenge them, and did so once; I was minded also to see this poor soil happier, this poor soil in which their bones are sown, and I asked God for the death of the persecutors, but he did not hearken to me nor heed me. Weary and sick of complaints, I evoked thee by the potency of Katheline’s spell, and we come, I and my trembling she-comrade, to thy feet, to ask you, Divine Highnesses, to save this poor earth.”
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