Flemish Legend The Brotherhood of the Cheerful Countenance by Charles de Coster Chapter 11

In which it is seen how bravely the good wives of Uccle did the duty of men.

It came about that one night when only a few stars were showing, and the moon shining a little, there came to Uccle a certain Master André Bredael, running as hard as he could and quite out of breath.

He brought this news: that being by chance behind a bush on the road to Paris, he had seen a troop of men go past, whom he thought to be the Irontooth’s, for he had seen among them a spiked casque like that which the great brigand was wont to wear.

While these men were halted by the roadside, and munching some food, he overheard them say that they were bound that night for Uccle, where they hoped to get good sport and fair plunder, but they said also that they must leave the high road and travel by small lanes, so that their passage should not be discovered. Master Bredael thought it most likely that they would debouch behind the church.

Having learned so much he had hurried to Uccle by the Paris road, outdistancing the brigands by a good half-league, so that he might warn the townsmen to arms, and prepare a strong reception for these unwelcome travellers.

And arriving there he hastened to the door of the prefecture and knocked loudly, so that the warning bell might be set ringing at once; but none came to open to him, for the good reason that the custodian, being one of the Brothers of the Cheerful Countenance, was fast asleep, like all the other drinkers. André Bredael then sought other means of alarum, and shouted out so loudly: “Fire! fire! Brand! brand!” that all the women and old men, and children who were too young to drink, leapt out of bed and ran to their windows to see what was going forward.

André Bredael made himself known to them and begged them to come down into the square, which they did with all dispatch. When they were all gathered round him he told them of the coming of Irontooth, and bade them go and wake their husbands.

At these words the older women began to shout as if mad: “Welcome to Irontooth, God’s tooth in good deed, come to rip them all open! Ha, drinkers! now we shall see you, as a punishment from heaven, either hanged short or burnt alive or drowned without respite; and ’tis no more than your sins deserve!” Then, as if they had wings to their feet, they flew into their houses, and there Master Bredael, who stayed with the younger women in the square, heard the enraged old hags shouting, whining, weeping, vociferating, thumping on chests and frying-pans, in an attempt to awaken their good men. At the same time they cried in their ears: “Scoundrels, wake up! Sweet friends, come and protect us! Drunkards, do your duty for once in your accursed lives! Dear fellows, do you wish to find us dead by morning? Bear us no malice for our talk of thrashing you. We were foolish just then, and too hasty; ye were wise. But save us in this pass!” And so on, mixing together smooth and bitter words, like milk and vinegar.

But none of the men stirred.

“What is this?” said Master Bredael.

“Alas, master,” said the young women, “’tis as you see; they are as good as dead the night through, and so has it been a while past. If the angel of God himself were to come he would scarce be able to rouse them. Ah, must it be that after having left us lonely so long these wicked husbands will now leave us to die!” 

“Do not weep,” said André Bredael, “this is no time for that. Do you love these husbands of yours?”

“Yes,” said they.

“And your sons?”

“Yes,” said they.

“And your little daughters, so sweet and winsome?”

“Yes,” said they.

“And you are ready to defend them as best you can?”

“Yes,” said they.

“Well, then,” said Bredael, “go and fetch your men’s bows and come back here with them as quickly as you can. We will think of some way to defend ourselves.”

Soon enough the women were back again, armed with bows which they had taken from their husbands, brothers, or sweethearts. These bows of Uccle were of great renown throughout the land, for they were as strong as steel, and winged their arrows with very great speed.

With them came certain boys of twelve years old, or not much more, and one or two brave old men, but the women sent them back again indoors, saying that they must stay behind and look to the village.

The good womenfolk then collected in a bunch in the square, talking with great ardour and courage, but not too much bragging withal. Every one was clad in a white gown, jacket, or shift, as is the customary night apparel of women. But on this occasion it was by the special favour of God that they were so clad, as you shall see by and by.

Wantje, who was one of their number, standing very bold and calm, said suddenly that they must pray. Thereupon they all knelt devoutly, and the maid spoke thus:

“Madam Mary the Virgin, who art queen of heaven as Madam the Duchess is queen of this country, give an ear to these poor wives and maids, humbly kneeling before you, who by reason of the drunkenness of their husbands and brothers must needs take on themselves men’s duty and arm themselves to fight. If you will but make a small prayer to My Lord Jesus to give us his aid we shall be sure enough of victory. And we will give you as thanksgiving a fair crown of gold, with rubies, turquoises and diamonds in its rim, a fair golden chain, a fair robe of brocade spangled over with silver, and the same to My Lord your son. Therefore pray for us, Madam Mary.”

And all the other good maids and wives said after Wantje: “Pray for us, Madam Mary.”

Suddenly, as they were rising from their knees, they saw a beautiful bright star shoot from heaven to earth, not far from where they were. This was, no doubt, an angel from the good God, who came down from Paradise in this guise, to stand beside them and help them the more surely.

Seeing the sign the good women took heart of grace, and Wantje spoke further, saying:

“Madam the Virgin hearkens to us, ’tis certain. Let us now proceed to the gate of the village, beside the church of Our Lord, who dwells therein”—here all crossed themselves—“to await with confidence the coming of the Irontooth and his men. And when we see them near at hand let every woman draw her bow, without speaking, nor moving in any way. Madam the Virgin will guide the arrows.”

“Well spoken, brave maid,” said Master Bredael. “Come, I see in those eyes of thine, so bright in the darkness, the breath of God, which is a flame, alight in thy maid’s heart. We must do as she says, good wives.”

“Yes, yes,” said they.

This woman’s army took up its place in line in the alley behind the church.

After a while of waiting, wherein was much perplexity and anxiety, they heard the sound of footfalls and voices, growing louder as they listened, as of men on the march.

And Wantje said: “Madam Mary, they are coming; have pity on us!”

Then a large body of men appeared before them, carrying lanterns. And they heard a monstrous, husky, devil’s voice crying: “Out, friends, out upon them! Loot for the Irontooth!”

But here suddenly all these good women let fly their arrows with great precision, for though they themselves remained in darkness they could see the brigands, all lit up by their lanterns, as clearly as in daylight. Two hundred of the men fell at the first volley, some with arrows in their skulls, others in their necks, and several with them in their bellies.

The Irontooth himself was among the first that the good women heard fall with a great thud, from an arrow let fly by Wantje, which pierced him through the eyeball neatly.

Some were not wounded at all, but, having troubled conscience, thought when they saw all these white figures that ’twas the souls of those whom they had made pass from life into death, come back by God’s grace to avenge themselves upon them. So they fell on their faces in the dust, as if dead from fear, crying out in a most piteous manner: “Mercy, Lord God! send back to hell all these ghosts, we pray you.”

But when they saw the good wives bearing down on them fear put strength into their legs, and they made off as fast as they would carry them.