Flemish Legend Smetse Smee by Charles de Coster Chapter 10

Of the Bloody Councillor

At length the day came on which the good smith was due to hand over his soul to the devil, for the seventh year had run out, and plums were once again ripe.

At nightfall, when certain workmen were busy on a grating for the Franciscan brothers which was to be done that night, and had stayed behind with Smetse for that purpose, there came into the forge an evil-looking fellow, with greasy white hair, a rope round his neck, his jaw dropped, his tongue hanging out, and dressed in an ill-found habit like a nobleman’s servant fallen on evil days.

This fellow, without being heard by any one there as he walked across the floor, came quickly up to Smetse and put his hand on his shoulder. “Smetse,” he said, “hast packed thy bundle?”

Hearing this the smith swung round. “Packed,” he said, “and how does my packing concern thee, master bald-pate?”

“Smetse,” replied the fellow in a harsh voice, “hast forgotten thy restored fortunes, and the good times thou hast enjoyed, and the black paper?”

“No, no,” said Smetse, doffing his bonnet with great humility, “I have not forgotten; pardon me, my lord, I could not call to mind your gracious countenance. Will you be pleased to come into my kitchen, and try a slice of fat ham, taste a pot of good bruinbier, and sip a bottle of wine? We have time enough for that, for the seven years are not yet struck, but want, if I am not mistaken, still two hours.”

“That is true,” said the devil; “then let us go into thy kitchen.”

So they entered in and sat down to the table.

The good wife was greatly astonished to see them come in. Smetse said to her: “Bring us wine, bruinbier, ham, sausages, bread, cakes, and cheeses, and the best of each that we have in the house.”
“But, Smetse,” said she, “you waste the good things which God has given you. ’Tis well to come to the help of poor folk, but not to do more for one than another. Beggar-men are beggar-men, all are equal!”

“Beggar-men!” exclaimed the devil, “that I am not and never was. Death to the beggar-men! To the gallows with the beggar-men!”

“My lord,” said Smetse, “I beg you not to be angry with my good wife, who knows you not at all. Wife, consider and look at our guest with great attention, but greater respect, and afterwards thou mayest tell thy gossips that thou hast seen my Lord Jacob Hessels, the greatest reaper of heretics that ever was.

“Ah, wife, he mowed them down grandly, and had so many of them hanged, burnt, and tortured in divers ways, that he could drown himself a hundred times in the blood of his dead. Go, wife, go and fetch him meat and drink.”

While he was munching, Smetse said: “Ah, my lord, I soon recognized you by your particular way of saying: ‘To the gallows!’ and also by this rope which finished off your life in so evil a manner. For Our Lord said: ‘Whoso liveth by the rope shall perish by the rope.’ My Lord Ryhove was harsh and treacherous toward you, for besides taking your life he took also your beard, which was a fine one.

“Ah, that was an evil trick to play on so good a councillor as you were in those days when you slept so quietly and peaceably in the Bloody Council – I should say the Council of Civil Disorders, speaking respectfully – and woke up only to say: ’To the gallows!’ and then went to sleep again.”

“Yes,” said the devil, “those were good times.”

“So they were,” said Smetse, “times of riches and power for you, my lord. Ah, we owe you a great deal: the tithe tax, dropped by you into the ear of the Emperor Charles; the arrest of my lords of Egmont and Hoorn, whereof the warrant was written in your own fair hand, and of more than two thousand persons who perished at your command by fire, steel, and rope!”

“I do not know the number,” said the devil, “but it is large. Give me, Smetse, some more of this sausage, which is excellent.”

“Ah,” said the smith, “’tis not good enough for your lordship. But you are drinking nothing. Empty this tankard, ’tis double bruinbier.”

“Smith,” said the devil, “it is good also, but I tasted better at Pierkyn’s tavern one day when five girls of the Reformed Faith were burnt together in the market-place. That frothed better. While we were drinking we heard these five maids singing psalms in the fire. Ah, we drank well that day! But think, Smetse, of the great perversity of those maids, all young and strong, and so fast set in their crimes that they sang their psalms without complaint, smiling at the fire and invoking God in a heretical fashion. Give me more to drink, Smetse.”

“But,” said Smetse, “King Philip asked for your canonization at Rome, for having served Spain and the Pope so well; why then are you not in paradise, my lord?”

“Alas,” wept the devil, “I had no recognition of my former services.

Those traitors of Reformers are with God, while I burn in the bottom of the pit. And there, without rest or respite, I have to sing heretical psalms; cruel punishment, unspeakable torment! These chants stick in my throat, scrape up and down in my breast, tearing my inner flesh like a bristling porcupine with iron spines. At every note a new wound, a bleeding sore: and always, always I have to keep singing, and so it will go on through all the length of eternity.”
At these words Smetse was very much frightened, thinking how heavily God had punished Jacob Hessels.

“Drink, my lord,” he said to him; “this bruinbier is balm to sore throttles.”

Suddenly the clock struck.

“Come, Smetse,” said the devil, “’tis the hour.”

But the good smith, without answering, heaved a great sigh.

“What ails thee?” said the devil.

“Ah,” said Smetse, “I am grieved at your incontinence. Have I welcomed you so ill that you will not let me go, before I leave here, to embrace my wife a last time and bid farewell to my good workmen, and to take one more look at my good plum-tree whose fruits are so rich and juicy? Ah, I would gladly refresh myself with one or two before I go off to that land where there is always thirst.”

“Do not think to escape me,” said the devil.

“That I would not, my lord,” said Smetse. “Come with me, I pray you most humbly.”

“Very well,” said the devil, “but not for long.”

In the garden Smetse began to sigh afresh.

“Ah,” he said, “look at my plums, my lord; will you be pleased to let me go up and eat my fill?”

“Go up then,” said the devil.

Up in the tree Smetse began to eat in a most greedy manner, and suck in the juice of the plums with a great noise. “Ah,” cried he, “plums of paradise, Christian plums, how fat you are! Princely plums, you would solace a hundred devils burning in the lowest parts of hell. By you, sweet plums, blessed plums, is thirst driven out of my throat; by you, adorable plums, gentle plums, is purged from my stomach all evil melancholy; by you, fresh plums, sugary plums, is diffused in my blood an infinite sweetness. Ah, juicy plums, joyous plums, faery plums, would that I could go on sucking you for ever!”

And while he was saying all this, Smetse went on picking them, eating them and sipping the juice, without ever stopping.

“Pox!” said the devil, “it makes my mouth water; why dost not throw me down some of these marvellous plums?”

“Alas, my lord,” said Smetse, “that I cannot do; they would melt into water on their fall, so delicate are they. But if you will be pleased to climb up into the tree you will find much pleasure in store for you.”

“Then I will,” said the devil.

When he was well settled on a stout branch and there regaling himself with plums, Smetse slipped down, picked up a stick lying on the grass and fell to belabouring him with great vigour.

Feeling the stick on his back the devil would have leapt down on the smith, but could not move, for the skin of his seat held fast to the branch. And he snorted, ground his teeth, and foamed at the mouth with great rage, and also by reason of the pain which his tender skin caused him.

Meanwhile Smetse gave him a good drubbing, caressed with his stick every quarter of his body in turn, bruised him to the bone, tore his habit, and gave him as strong and straight a beating as was ever given in the land of Flanders. And he kept saying: “You say not a word about my plums, my lord; they are good, none the less.”

“Ah,” cried Hessels, “why am I not free!”

“Alas, yes! why are you not free!” answered Smetse, “you would give me to some little butcher among your friends who would cut me up freely into slices like a ham, under your learned instruction, for you are, as I know well, a doctor of torment. But are you not being well tormented in turn by my stick? Alas, yes! why are you not free! You would hoist me up on some blessed gallows, and every one would see me hanging in the air, and freely would Master Hessels laugh. And so he would have his revenge on me for this excellent drubbing which I am giving him with such freedom. For nothing in this world is so free as a free stick falling freely on an unfree councillor. Alas, yes! why are you not free! You would free my head from my body, as you did with such satisfaction to my masters of Egmont and Hoorn. Alas, yes! why are you not free! then we should see Smetse in some good little fire, which would roast him freely, as was done to the poor maids of the reformed faith; and Smetse, like them, would be heard singing with a free soul to the God of free believers, and with a free conscience stronger than the flame, while Master Hessels drank bruinbier and said that it frothed nicely.”

“Oh,” said the devil, “why beat me so cruelly, without pity for my white hairs?”

“As for thy white hair,” said Smetse, “’tis the hair of an old tiger who ate up our country. For this reason it gives me sweet pleasure to beat thee with this oaken stick; and also in order that thou mayst give me permission to stay another seven years on this earth, where I find myself so well content, if it so please thee.”

“Seven years!” said the devil, “do not count on that; I would rather bleed under thy stick.”

“Ah,” said Smetse, “I see that your skin is fond of good blows. These are tasty ones, it is true. But the best of cheer is unwholesome if taken in excess. So when you have had enough of them, be so good as to tell me. I will put a stop to this feast, but for that I must have the seven years.”

“Never,” said Hessels; and lifting his snout into the air like a baying dog, he cried out: “Devils to the rescue!” But this he did so loudly, and in such screeching wise, that at the sound of his cracked voice blaring out like a trumpet, all the workmen came to see what it was about.

“You do not shout loud enough,” said Smetse, “I will help you.” And he beat him the harder, so that the devil cried the louder.

“See,” said Smetse, “how well this stick makes the little nightingale sing in my plum-tree. He is saying over his lied of love to call hither his fair mate. She will come by and by, my lord; but come down, I pray you, and await her below, for they say that the night dew is deadly at a height from the ground.”

“Baes,” said certain workmen, “is it not my lord Jacob Hessels, the Bloody Councillor, who is perched up there in thy plum-tree?”

“Yes, lads,” answered Smetse, “’tis indeed that worthy man. He seeks high places now as he did all his life, and so also at the end of it, when he swung in the air, putting out his tongue at the passers-by. For that which is of the gallows returns to the gallows, and the rope will take back its own. ’Tis written.”

“Baes,” said they, “can we not help to bring him down?”

“Yes,” said he. And the workmen went off to the smithy.

Meanwhile the devil said nothing, trying all the time to get his seat away from the branch. And he struggled, wriggled about, twisted himself a hundred different ways, and used as levers, to lift himself up, feet, hands, and head, but all in vain.

And Smetse, belabouring him well, said to him: “My lord Councillor, you are fast stuck, it seems, to the saddle; but I will have you out of it, have you out as fast as I can, for if I do not so, beating you with all my strength, you will tear up out of the ground the tree and its roots, and the good folk will see you walking along, dragging a plum-tree from your seat like a tail, which would be a piteous and laughable spectacle for such a noble devil as yourself to make. Give me rather the seven years.”

“Baes,” said the workmen, who had returned from the smithy with hammers and iron bars, “here we are at your orders; what shall we do?”

“Well,” said Smetse, “since I have combed him down with oaken staves we will now louse him with hammers and bars.”

“Mercy, Smetse, mercy!” cried the devil; hammers and bars, this is too much; thou hast the seven years, smith.”

“Make haste,” said Smetse, “and write me the quittance.”

“Here it is,” said he.

The smith took it, saw that it was in good order, and said: “I desire that thou come down.”

But the devil was so weak and enfeebled by the blows he had had that when he tried to leap he fell on his back. And he went off limping, shaking his fist at Smetse, and saying: “I await thee, in seven years, in hell, smith.”

“So you may,” said Smetse.