Flemish Legend Smetse Smee by Charles de Coster Chapter 4

Of the two branches

In this wise Smetse had his revenge on Slimbroek, who thereafter dared not look him in the face, and hid when he passed.

But the good smith, nevertheless, had no more pleasure in anything than before, for with every passing day he became more and more needy, having already, with his wife, used up what help came to them from the guild, and also a small sum of silver from Middelburg in Walcheren.

Ashamed to get his living by begging and knavery, and knowing how to bear with his lot no longer, he resolved to kill himself.

So one night he left his house, and went out to the moats of the town, which are bordered by fine trees, forked and spreading down to the ground. There he fastened a stone to his neck, commended his soul to God, and, stepping back three paces to get a better start, ran and jumped.

But while he was in the very act he was caught suddenly by two branches, which, falling upon his shoulders, gripped him like man’s hands and held him fast where he was. These branches were neither cold nor hard, as wood naturally is, but supple and warm. And he heard at the same instant a strange and scoffing voice saying: “Where goest thou, Smetse?”

But he could not answer by reason of his great astonishment.

And although there was no wind the trunks and branches of the tree moved and swung about like serpents uncoiling, while all around there crackled above ten hundred thousand sparks.

And Smetse grew more afraid, and a hot breath passed across his face, and the voice, speaking again, but nearer, or so it seemed, repeated: “Where goest thou, Smetse?”

But he could not speak for fear, and because his throttle was dry and his teeth chattering.

“Why,” said the voice, “dost not dare answer him who wishes thee naught but well? Where goest thou, Smetse?”

Hearing so pleasant and friendly a speech, the good smith took heart and answered with great humility: “Lord whom I cannot see, I was going to kill myself, for life is no longer bearable.”

“Smetse is mad,” said the voice.

“So I am, if you will, Lord,” answered the smith; “nevertheless when my smithy is lost to me by the cunning of a wicked neighbour, and I have no way to live but by begging and knavery, ’twould be greater madness in me to live than to die.”

“Smetse,” said the voice, “is mad to wish himself dead, for he shall have again, if he will, his fair smithy, his good red fire, his good workmen, and as many golden royals in his coffers as he sees sparks in this tree.”

“I,” exclaimed the smith in great delight, “shall never have such fine things as that! They are not for such miserables as I.”

“Smetse,” said the voice, “all things are possible to my master.”

“Ah,” said the smith, “you come from the devil, Lord?”

“Yes,” answered the voice, “and I come to thee on his account to propose a bargain: For seven years thou shalt be rich, thou shalt have thy smithy the finest in the town of Ghent; thou shalt win gold enough to pave the Quai aux Oignons; thou shalt have in thy cellars enough beer and wine to wet all the dry throttles in Flanders; thou shalt eat the finest meats and the most delicate game; thou shalt have hams in plenty, sausages in abundance, mince-pies in heaps; every one shall respect thee, admire thee, sing thy praises; Slimbroek at the sight of it shall be filled with rage; and for all these great benefits thou hast only to give us thy soul at the end of seven years.”

“My soul?” said Smetse, “’tis the only thing I have; would you not, My Lord Devil, make me rich at a less price?”

“Wilt thou or wilt thou not, smith?” said the voice.

“Ah,” answered Smetse, “you offer me things that are very desirable, even, My Lord Devil (if I may say it without offence), more than I wish; for if I might have only my forge and enough customers to keep the fire alight I should be happier than My Lord Albert or Madam Isabella.”

“Take or leave it, smith,” said the voice.

“Lord Devil,” answered Smetse, “I beg you not to become angry with me, but to deign to consider that if you give me but my forge, and not all this gold, wine, and meats, you might perhaps be content to let my soul burn for a thousand years, which time is not at all to be compared with the great length of all eternity, but would seem long enough to whomever must pass it in the fire.”

“Thy forge for thee, thy soul for us; take or leave it, smith,” said the voice.

“Ah,” lamented Smetse, “’tis dear bought, and no offence to you, Lord Devil.”

“Well then, smith,” said the voice, “to riches thou preferest beggary? Do as thou wilt.

Ah, thou wilt have great joy when, walking with thy melancholy countenance about the streets of Ghent, thou art fled by every one and dogs snap at thy heels; when thy wife dies of hunger, and thou chantest mea culpa in vain; then when, alone in the world, thou beatest on thy shrunken belly the drum for a feast, and the little girls dancing to such music give thee a slap in the face for payment; then, at last, when thou dost hide thyself in thy house so that thy rags shall not be seen in the town, and there, scabby, chatter-tooth, vermin-fodder, thou diest alone on thy dung-hill like a leper, and art put into the earth, and Slimbroek comes to make merry at thy downfall.”
“Ah,” said Smetse, “he would do it, the knave.”

“Do not await this vile end,” said the voice, “it were better to die now: leap into the water, Smetse; leap, Smee.”

“Alas,” lamented he, “if I give myself to you, I shall burn for all eternity.”

“Thou wilt not burn,” said the voice, “but serve us for food, good smith.”

“I?” cried Smetse, much frightened at these words, “do you think to eat me down there? I am not good for eating, I must tell you. There is no meat more sour, tough, common, and vulgar than mine is. It has been at one time and another diseased with plague, itch, and other vile maladies. Ah, I should make you a shabby feast, you and the others, My Lord Devil, who have in hell so many souls which are noble, succulent, tasty, and well-fed. But mine is not at all good, I declare.”

“Thou art wrong, smith,” said the voice. “Souls of wicked emperors, kings, princes, popes, famous captains of arms, conquerors, slayers of men, and other brigands, are always as hard as an eagle’s beak; for so their omnipotence fashions them; we break our teeth off bit by bit in eating them. Others, having been eaten up beforehand by ambition and cruelty, which are like ravenous worms, give us hardly a crumb to pick. Souls of girls who, without want or hunger, sell for money what nature bids them give for nothing, are so rotten, putrid, and evil-smelling that the hungriest of devils will not touch them. Souls of vain men are bladders, and within there is nothing but wind; ’tis poor food. Souls of hypocrites, canters, liars, are like beautiful apples without, but beneath the skin are full of bile, gall, sour wine, and frightful poison; none of us will have any ado with them. Souls of envious men are as toads, who from spleen at being so ugly, run yellow spittle on whatever is clean and shining, from mouth, feet, and all their bodies. Souls of gluttons are naught but cow-dung. Souls of good drinkers are always tasty, and above all when they have about them the heavenly smell of good wine and good bruinbier. But there is no soul so tasty, delectable, succulent, or of such fine flavour as that of a good woman, a good workman, or a good smith such as thou. For, working without intermission, they have no time for sin to touch and stain them, unless it be once or twice only, and for this reason we catch them whenever we can; but ’tis a rare dish, kept for the royal table of My Lord Lucifer.”

“Ah,” said Smetse, “you have made up your mind to eat me, I see well enough; nevertheless ’twould not cost you much to give me back my forge for nothing.”

“’Tis no great discomfort,” said the voice, “to be so eaten, for My Lord and King has a mouth larger than had the fish whereby Jonah the Jew was swallowed in olden time; thou wilt go down like an oyster into his stomach, without having been wounded by his teeth in any wise; there, if it displease thee to stay, thou must dance with feet and hands as hard as thou canst, and My Lord will at once spit thee out, for he will not find it possible to stand for long such a drubbing. Falling at his feet thou wilt show him a joyous face, a steady look in his eyes, and a good countenance, and the same to Madam Astarte, who, without a doubt, will take thee for her pet, as she has done already to several; thereafter thou wilt have a joyous time, serving My Lady merrily and brushing his hair for My Lord; as for the rest of us, we shall be right glad to have you with us, for, among all these familiar vile and ugly faces of conquerors, plunderers, thieves, and assassins, ’twill do us good to see the honest countenance of a merry smith, as thou art.”

“My Lord Devil,” said Smetse, “I do not merit such honour. I can well believe, from what you tell me, that ’tis pleasant enough down there with you. But I should be ill at ease, I must tell you, being naturally uncouth in the company of strangers; and so I should bring no joy with me, and should not be able to sing; and therefore you would get but poor amusement from me, I know in advance. Ah, give me back rather my good forge and my old customers, and hold me quit; this would be the act of a royal devil and would sit well upon you.”

Suddenly the voice spoke with anger: “Smith, wilt thou pay us in such ape’s coin? Life is no longer of benefit to thee, death is abhorrent, and thou wouldst have from us without payment the seven full, rich and joyous years which I offer thee. Accept or refuse, thy forge for thee, thy soul for us, under the conditions I have told thee.”

“Alas,” said Smetse, “then I will have it so, since it must be, Lord Devil!”

“Well then,” said the voice, “set thy mark in blood to this deed.”

And a black parchment, with a crow’s quill, fell from the tree at the smith’s feet. He read on the parchment, in letters of fire, the pact of seven years, opened his arm with his knife, and signed with the crow’s quill. And while he was still holding the parchment and the quill, he felt them suddenly snatched from his hands with violence, but he saw nothing, and only heard a noise as of a man running in slipper-shoes, and the voice saying as it went into the distance: “Thou hast the seven years, Smetse.” And the tree ceased its swaying, and the sparks in the branches went out.