Flemish Legend Smetse Smee by Charles de Coster Chapter 5

Of the flaming ball, of the forge relit, and of the terrible great buffet which the man with the lantern gave to Smetse’s wife

Smetse, greatly amazed, rubbed his eyes, thinking he was dreaming. Suddenly shaking himself: “This devil,” said he, “was he not making fun of me after all? Have I verily gotten my good forge back again? I will go and see.”

Having said this he started running in haste, and from far away saw a great light reddening the sky above the houses, and it seemed to him that the fire sending up this light was on the Quai aux Oignons; and he said to himself: “Could that be my forge?” And he ran the faster.

Coming to the quay he found it lit up as if by a sun, from the paving-stones up to the tops of the trees which stood alongside, and he said to himself: “It is my forge.”

Then he was seized and shaken with joy, his legs failed him, and his breath grew short; but he kept running as hard as he could, and coming at last to his house he saw his smithy wide open as in the daytime, and at the back of it a great bright fire.

Unable to contain himself at this sight he fell to dancing, leaping, and bursting out into laughter, crying: “I have my forge, my own forge! Ghent is mine!” Then he went in. Inspecting, examining, touching everything, he saw at the sides, laid out in good order, iron of all kinds: armour-iron, iron bars, plough-iron. “By Artevelde!” he said, “the devil was not lying!” And he took up a bar, and having made it red with the fire, which was done quickly, started beating it, making the hammer ring on the anvil like thunder, and crying: “Ha, so I have my good tools back again, and hear once more this good music which has so long been silent!” And while he was wiping away a tear of joy, which gave an unaccustomed wetness to his eye, he saw on a chest near by a good pewter pot standing, and beside it a fine mug, and he filled up the mug several times and drank it down with relish: “Ah,” he said, “the good bruinbier, the drink which makes men! I had lost the taste for it! How good it is!” Then he went back to hammering the iron bar.

While he was making all this noise, he heard himself called by name, and looking to see whence the voice came he perceived his wife in the half-open door which led from the kitchen, thrusting through her head and looking at him with a startled face.

“Smetse,” she said, “is it thou, my man?”

“Yes, wife,” said he.

“Smetse,” she said, “come close to me, I dare not set foot in this forge.”

“And why not, wife?” said he.

“Alas,” she said, clinging to him and gazing into the forge, “wert thou alone there, my man?”

“Yes,” said he.

“Ah,” she said, “Smetse, while you were away there were strange happenings!”

“What happenings, wife?”

“As I was lying in bed,” she said, “suddenly the house trembled, and a flaming ball passed across our room, went out through the door, without hurting anything, down the stairs, and into the forge, where, bursting, as I suppose, it made a noise like a hundred thunder-claps. Suddenly all the windows and doors were thrown open with a great clatter Getting out of bed, I saw the quay all lit up, as it is now. Then, thinking that our house was on fire, I came down in haste, went into the forge, saw the fire lit, and heard the bellows working noisily. In each corner the iron of different kinds arranged itself in place according to the work for which it was used; but I could see no hands moving it, though there must have been some for sure. I began to cry out in a fright, when suddenly I felt, as it were, a glove of hot leather pressed against my mouth and holding it shut, while a voice said: ‘Do not cry out, make no sound, if thou wilt not have thy husband burnt alive for the crime of sorcery.’ Nevertheless he who thus ordered me to keep silent made himself more noise than I should ever have dared, but by a miracle none of our neighbours heard it. As for me, my man, I had no more heart to make a sound, and I fled back hither into the kitchen, where I was praying to God when I heard thy voice, and dared to open the door a crack. Oh, my man, since thou art here, explain, if thou can, all this tumult.”

“Wife,” answered Smetse, “we must leave that to those more learned than ourselves. Think only to obey the order of the voice: keep thy mouth shut, speak to no one of what thou hast seen to-night, and go back to thy bed, for it is still pitch-dark.”

“I go,” she said, “but wilt thou not come also, my man?”

“I cannot leave the forge,” said he.

While he was speaking thus there came towards them, one after another, a baker carrying new-baked bread, a grocer carrying cheeses, and a butcher carrying hams.

Smetse knew well enough that they were devils, from their white faces, hollow eyes, scorched hair, twisted fingers, and also from the fact that they walked with so little sound.

His wife, amazed to see them coming into her house with all this food, would have stopped them, but they slipped between her hands like eels, and went into the kitchen, walking straight and silently.

There, without a word spoken, the baker arranged his loaves in the pan, while the butcher and grocer put their cheeses and hams in the cool-of the cellar. And they finished their work, taking no notice of the smith’s wife, who kept crying: “’Tis not here you must bring these things; you have made a mistake, I tell you, my good men. Go elsewhither.”

But they, notwithstanding her voice, arranged the loaves, meat, and cheeses quietly.

This made the good woman more than ever put out, and she grew angry: “I tell you,” she exclaimed, “you have made a mistake; do you not hear me? You have made a mistake, ’tis not here you should be; I say here, with us, in this place, in the house of Smetse the beggar, who has not a farthing to his name, who will never pay you. Alas, they will not listen to me!”

And crying out at the top of her voice: “Masters, you are at Smetse’s, do you not understand? Smetse the beggar! Do I not say it loud enough? Jesus, Lord, God! Smetse the needy! Smetse the ragged! Smetse the starved! Smetse who is rich in nothing but lice! Who will pay you nothing: do you hear me? Who will pay you nothing, nothing, nothing!”

“Wife,” said the smith, “you are losing your head, my dear. ’Tis I who sent for these good men.”

“Thou!” said his wife, “thou! but thou art mad, my man; yes, he is mad, my masters, altogether mad. Ah, ’tis thou who sent for them! ’Tis thou who sendest for loaves, hams, and cheeses in this profusion, like a rich man, when thou knowest well enough we cannot pay for them, and so showest thy bad faith!”

“Wife,” answered Smetse quietly, “we are rich, and will pay for everything.”

“We rich?” she said, “ah, poor beggar-man. Do I not know what is in our chest? Hast ever put thy nose in to see, any more than in the bread-pan? Art thou become the housewife? Alas, my man is mad, God help us!”

Meanwhile the three men came back into the smithy.

Seeing them again, the wife ran to them: “Master trades-men,” said she, “you heard me well enough, for you are not deaf, I believe; we have nothing, we can pay you nothing; take back your provisions.”

But without looking at her, nor seeming to hear her, the three went off, walking stiff and silently.

No sooner had they gone out than a brewer’s cart drew up at the door, and the brewer’s men came into the smithy carrying between them a great barrel full of bruinbier.

“Smetse,” said his wife, “this is too much! Master brewers, this is not for us; we do not like beer at all, we drink water. Take this barrel to one of our neighbours, it is no concern of ours, I tell you.”

None the less the brewer’s men took down the barrel of bruinbier into the cellar, came up again, and went out to fetch others, and placed them alongside the first to the number of twenty. The good wife, trying to stop them, was pushed aside, while Smetse could not speak for laughing, and could only draw her to his side, and so prevent her from hurting herself on the barrels, which the men were carrying from street to cellar with marvellous speed and dispatch.

“Oh,” she wailed, “let me be! This is too much, Smetse! Alas! Now we are worse than beggars, we are debtors, Smetse: I shall go and throw myself into the river, my man. To run up debts to fill a famished stomach, that is shame enough; but to do so from simple gluttony, that is unbearable deceit. Canst thou not be content with bread and water got honestly with thy two hands? Art thou then become such a delicate feeder that thou must have cakes, fine cheeses, and full barrels? Smetse, Smetse, that is not like a good man of Ghent, but rather like a Spanish rogue. Oh, I shall go and drown myself, my man!”

“Wife,” said Smetse, troubled at seeing her in such distress, “do not weep. ’Tis all ours, my dear, duly, and by right.”

“Ah,” she said moaning, “’tis an ill thing to lose in this wise in your old age that honesty which was your only crown.”

While the smith was endeavouring, but in vain, to console her, there entered a vintner followed by three-and-thirty porters, each carrying a basket full of bottles containing precious wines of great rarity, as was shown by the shape of those said bottles.

When the good wife saw them she was overcome with despair, and her courage failed her: “Come in,” she said in a piteous voice, “come in, master vintners; the cellar is below. You have there a goodly number of bottles, six score for certain. That is none too much for us who are wealthy, wealthy of misery, vermin, and lice; come in, my masters, that is the door of the cellar. Put them all there, and more besides if you will.”

And giving Smetse a push: “Thou art happy, no doubt,” said she, “for ’tis a fine sight for a drunkard, such as thou art, to see all this good wine coming into the house without payment. Ah, he laughs!”

“Yes, wife,” said Smetse, “I laugh with content, for the wines are ours, ours the meats, ours the loaves and cheeses. Let us make merry over it together.” And he tried to embrace her: but she, shaking herself free: “Oh, oh,” she said, “he runs up debts, he tells lies, he laughs at his shame: he has all the vices, none is wanting.”

“Wife,” said Smetse, “all this is ours, I tell thee again. To this amount am I paid in advance for certain large orders which have been graciously given me.”

“Art thou not lying?” said she, growing a little calmer.

“No,” said he.

“All this is ours?”

“Yes,” he said, “by the word of honour of a citizen of Ghent.”

“Ah, my man, then we are henceforward out of our trouble.”

“Yes, wife,” said he.

“’Tis a miracle from God.”

“Alas,” said he.

“But these men come hither by night, against the usual custom, tell me the reason of that.”
“He who knows the reason for everything,” said Smetse, “is an evil prier. Such a one am not I.”

“But,” said she, “they speak never a word.”

“They do not like to talk,” said Smetse, “that is clear. Or it may be that their master chose them dumb, so that they should not waste time chattering with housewives.”

“Yes, that may be,” she said, while the thirty-first porter was going past, “but ’tis very strange, I cannot hear their footfalls, my man?”

“They have for certain,” said Smetse, “soles to suit their work.”

“But,” she said, “their faces are so pale, sad, and motionless, that they seem like faces of the dead.”

“Night-birds have never a good complexion,” said Smetse.

“But,” said his wife, “I have never seen these men among the guilds of Ghent.”

“Thou dost not know them all,” said Smetse.

“That may be, my man.”

In this manner the smith and his wife held converse together, the one very curious and disturbed, the other confused and ashamed at his lies.

Suddenly, as the three-and-thirtieth porter of the master-vintner was going out of the door, there rushed in in great haste a man of middling height, dressed in a short black smock, pale-haired, large-headed, wan-faced, stepping delicately, quick as the wind, stiff as a poker; for the rest, smiling continually, and carrying a lantern.

The man came up to Smetse hurriedly, without speaking bade him follow, and seized him by the arm. When Smetse hung back he made him a quick sign to have no fear, and led him into the garden, whither they were followed by the good wife. There he took a spade, gave his lantern to Smetse to hold, dug in the earth rapidly and opened a great hole, pulled out of the hole a leathern bag, opened it quickly, and with a smile showed Smetse and his wife that it was full of gold coin. The good wife cried out at the sight of the gold, whereupon he gave her a terrible great buffet in the face, smiled again, saluted, turned on his heel and went off with his lantern.

The good wife, knocked down by the force of the blow, and quite dazed, dared not cry out again, and only moaned softly: “Smetse, Smetse,” said she, “where art thou, my man? my cheek hurts me sorely.”

Smetse went to her and picked her up, saying: “Wife, let this buffet be a lesson to thee henceforward to control thy tongue better; thou hast disturbed with thy crying all the good men who have come here this night for my good; this last was less patient than the rest and punished thee, not without good reason.”

“Ah,” she said, “I did ill not to obey thee; what must I do now, my man?”

“Help me,” said Smetse, “to carry the bag into the house.”

“That I will,” she said.

Having taken in the bag, not without some trouble, they emptied it into a coffer.

“Ah,” she said, seeing the gold run out of the bag and spread itself this way and that, “’tis a fine sight. But who was this man who showed thee this sack with such kindness, and who gave me this terrible great blow?”

“A friend of mine,” said Smetse, “a great discoverer of hidden treasure.”

“What is his name?” said she.

“That,” said Smetse, “I am not allowed to tell thee.”

“But, my man…”

“Ah, wife, wife,” said Smetse, “thou wilt know too much.

Thy questioning will be thy death, my dear.”
“Alas,” said she.