Flemish Legend Smetse Smee by Charles de Coster Chapter 8

How there came a ragged, wayfarer to Smetse’s door, and with him, on an ass, a sweet wife and a little child

On the two hundred and forty-fifth day of the seventh year, when the plum-trees were in bloom, Smetse, dumb as a stone, was taking a little noonday rest. He sat on a wooden bench opposite his door, and with melancholy mien looked at the trees planted all along the quay, and the small birds playing among the branches or squabbling and pecking one another over some morsel of food, and blinked in the bright sun which made these birds so merry, and heard at his back the goodly sounds of his forge, his wife preparing dinner, and his workmen hurrying at their work so that they might be off to their meal, for it was nearing the time; and he said to himself that in hell he would see neither the sun, nor the birds, nor the trees with their load of green leaves, nor hear any more the sounds of his forge, nor the smiths hurrying, nor his good wife preparing dinner.

By and by the workmen came out, and Smetse was left sitting alone on his bench, pondering in his mind whether there were not some way whereby he might outwit the devil.

Suddenly there drew up at his door a man of piteous appearance, with brown hair and beard, dressed like a ragged townsman, and carrying a great staff in his hand. He was walking beside an ass, and leading it along by a rein. On the ass rode a sweet and beautiful young woman with a noble mien, suckling a little child, who was quite naked, and of such gentle and winsome countenance that the sight of it warmed Smetse’s heart.

The ass stopped at the door of the smithy and began to bray loudly.

“Master smith,” said the man, “our ass has cast one of his shoes on his way hither, wilt thou be pleased to give orders that another should be given him?”

“I will do it myself,” said Smetse, “for I am alone here.”

“I should tell thee,” said the man, “that we are beggars, without money.”

“Have no care for that,” said Smetse, “I am rich enough to be able to shoe in silver without payment all the asses in Flanders.”

Hearing this the woman alighted from the ass and asked Smetse if she might sit down on the bench.

“Yes,” said he.

And while he was fastening up the beast, paring his hoof and fitting the shoe, he said to the man: “Whence come you, with this woman and this ass?”

“We come,” said the man, “from a distant country, and have still far to go.”

“And this child whom I see naked,” said Smetse, “does he not oftentimes suffer from the cold?”

“Nay,” said the man, “for he is all warmth and all life.”

“Well, well,” said Smetse, “you do not cry down your own children, master. But what is your meat and drink while you are travelling in this manner?”

“Water from streams,” said the man, “and such bread as is given us.”

“Ah,” said Smetse, “that is not much, I see, for the ass’s panniers are light. You must often go hungry.”

“Yes,” said the man.

“This,” said Smetse, “is displeasing to me, and it is most unwholesome for a nursing mother to suffer hunger, for so the milk turns sour, and the child grows in sickly wise.” And he called out to his wife: “Mother, bring hither as many loaves and hams as will fill the panniers of this beast. And do not forget some double bruinbier, ’tis heavenly comfort for poor travellers. And a good peck of oats for the ass.”

When the panniers were filled and the beast shod, the man said to Smetse: “Smith, it is in my mind to give thee some recompense for thy great goodness, for such as thou seest me I have great power.”

“Yes,” said Smetse, with a smile, “I can see that well enough.”

“I am,” said the man, “Joseph, nominal husband of the very blessed Virgin Mary, who is sitting on this bench, and this child that she has in her arms is Jesus, thy Saviour.”

Smetse, dumbfounded at these words, looked at the wayfarers with great astonishment, and saw about the man’s head a nimbus of fire, a crown of stars about the woman’s, and, about the child’s, beautiful rays more brilliant than the sun, springing from his head and girdling him round with light.

Thereupon he fell at their feet and said: “My Lord Jesus, Madam the Virgin, and my Master St. Joseph, grant me pardon for my lack of understanding.”

To this St. Joseph replied: “Thou art an honest man, Smetse, and righteous as well. For this reason I give thee leave to make three requests, the greatest thou canst think of, and my Lord Jesus will listen to them favourably.”

At these words Smetse was filled with joy, for it seemed to him that in this way he might perhaps escape the devil; but at the same time he did not dare to avow that he had traded his soul away. So he remained in silence for a few moments, thinking of what things he could ask, then suddenly said, with great respect: “My Lord Jesus, Madam St. Mary, and you, Master St. Joseph, will you please to enter my dwelling? There I can tell you what boons I ask.”

“We will,” said St. Joseph.

“Mother,” said Smetse to his wife, “come hither and look to the ass of these noble lords.”

And Smetse went in before them, sweeping the threshold so that there should be no dust to touch the soles of their feet.

And he took them into his garden, where there was a fine plum-tree in full blossom. “My Lord, Madam, and Sir,” said Smetse, “will it please you to order that whosoever shall climb up into this plum-tree shall not be able to come down again unless I so desire?”

“It will,” said St. Joseph.

Thence he led the way into the kitchen, where there stood a great and precious arm-chair, well padded in the seat, and of enormous weight.

“My Lord, Madam, and Sir,” said Smetse, “will it please you that whosoever shall sit in this chair shall not be able to rise unless I so desire?”

“It will,” said St. Joseph.

Then Smetse fetched a sack, and, showing it to them, said: “My Lord, Madam, and Sir, will it please you that, whatsoever his stature, man or devil shall be able to get into this sack, but not out again, unless I so desire?”

“It will,” said St. Joseph.

“My Lord, Madam, and Sir,” said Smetse, “thanks be unto you. Now that I have made my three requests I have naught else to ask of your goodness, save only your blessing.”

“We will give it,” said St. Joseph.

And he blessed Smetse, and thereafter the holy family went upon their way.