Flemish Legend Smetse Smee by Charles de Coster Chapter 13

Of the Bloody Duke

The end of the seventh year came again in its turn, and on the last evening there crossed the threshold of Smetse Smee’s dwelling a man with a sharp and haughty Spanish face, a nose like a hawk’s beak, hard and staring eyes, and a white beard, long and pointed. For the rest he was dressed in armour finely worked and most richly gilt; decorated with the illustrious order of the Fleece; wore a fine red sash; rested his left hand on the hilt of his sword, and held in his right the seven years’ pact and a marshal’s wand.

Coming into the forge he walked straight towards Smetse, holding his head loftily and without deigning to notice any of the workmen.

The smith was standing in a corner, wondering how he could make the devil who was sent for him sit down in the arm-chair, when Flipke ran quickly up to him and said in his ear: “Baes, the Bloody Duke is coming, take care!”

“Woe!” said Smetse, speaking to himself, “’tis all up with me, if d’Alva has come to fetch me.”

Meanwhile the devil approached the smith, showed him the pact, and took him by the arm without a word to lead him off.

“My Lord,” said Smetse in a most sorrowful manner, “whither would you take me? To hell. I follow you. ’Tis too great honour for one so mean as I to be ordered by so noble a devil as yourself. But is it yet the appointed time? I think it is not, and your highness has too upright a soul to take me off before the time written in the deed. In the meantime I beg your highness to be seated: Flipke, a chair for My Lord; the best in my poor dwelling, the large, well-padded arm-chair which stands in my kitchen, beside the press, near the chimney, beneath the picture of my master St. Joseph. Wipe it well, lad, so that no dust may be left on it; and quick, for the noble duke is standing.”

Flipke ran into the kitchen and came back, saying: “Baes, I cannot lift that arm-chair alone, ’tis so heavy.”

Then Smetse feigned great anger and said to his workmen: “Do ye not hear? He cannot lift it alone. Go and help him, and if it takes ten of you let ten go. And quick now. Fie! the blockheads, can ye ’not see that the noble duke is standing?”

Nine workmen ran to obey him and brought the chair into the forge, though not without difficulty. Smetse said: “Put it there, behind My Lord. Is there any dust on it? By Artevelde! they have not touched this corner. I will do it myself. Now ’tis as clean as new-washed glass. Will your highness deign to be seated?”

This the devil did, and then looked round him with great haughtiness and disdain. But of a sudden the smith fell at his feet, and said with mocking laughter: “Sir duke, you see before you the most humble of your servants, a poor man living like a Christian, serving God, honouring princes, and anxious, if such is your lordly pleasure, to continue in this way of life seven years more.”

“Thou shalt not have one minute,” said the devil, “come, Fleming, come with me.”

And he tried to rise from the chair, but could not. And while he was struggling with might and main, making a thousand vain efforts, the good smith cried joyously: “Would your highness get up? Ah, ’tis too soon! Let your highness wait, he is not yet rested after his long journey; long, I make bold to say, for it must be a good hundred leagues from hell to my smithy, and that is a long way for such noble feet, by dusty roads. Ah, My Lord, let yourself rest a little in this good chair. Nevertheless, if you are in great haste to be off, grant me the seven years and I will give you in return your noble leave and a full flask of Spanish wine.”

“I care nothing for thy wine,” answered the devil.

“Baes,” said Flipke, “offer him blood, he will drink then.”

“My lad,” said Smetse, “thou knowest well enough we have no such thing as blood in our cellars hereabouts, for that is no Flemish drink, but one that we leave to Spain. Therefore his highness must be so good as to excuse me. Nevertheless, I think he is thirsty, not for blood, but for blows, and of those I will give him his illustrious fill, since he will not grant me the seven years.”

“Smith,” said the devil, looking at Smetse with great contempt, “thou wouldst not dare beat me, I think?”

“Yes, My Lord,” said the good man. “You would have me dead. For my part I hold to my skin, and this not without good reason, for it has always been faithful to me and well fastened. Would it not be a criminal act to break off in this sudden fashion so close a partnership? And besides, you would take me off with you to hell, where the air is filled with the stench of the divers cookeries for damned souls which are set up there. Ah, rather than go thither I would beat your highness for seven years.”

“Fleming,” said the devil, “thou speakest without respect.”

“Yes, My Lord,” said Smetse, “but I will hit you with veneration.”

And so saying he gave him with his clenched fist a terrible great blow on the nose, whereat the devil seemed astonished, dazed, and angry, like a powerful king struck by a low-born servant. And he tried to leap upon the smith, clenched his fists, ground his teeth, and shot out blood from his nose, his mouth, his eyes, and his ears, so angry was he.
“Ah,” said Smetse, “you seem angry, My Lord. But deign to consider that since you will not listen to my words, I must speak to you by blows. By this argument am I not doing my best to soften your heart to my piteous case? Alas, deign to consider that my humble fist is making its supplication as best it can to your illustrious eyes, begs seven years from your noble nose, implores them from your ducal jaw. Do not these respectful taps tell your lordly cheeks how happy, joyous, and well-liking I should be during those seven years? Ah, let yourself be convinced. But, I see, I must speak to you in another fashion, with the words of iron bars, the prayers of tongs, and the supplications of sledge-hammers. Lads,” said the smith to his workmen, “will you be pleased to hold converse with My Lord?”

“Yes, baes,” said they.

And together with Smetse they chose their tools. But it was the oldest who picked the heaviest ones, and were the hottest with rage, because it was they who in former days had lost, through the duke’s doing, many friends and relatives by steel, by stake, and by live burial, and they cried: “God is on our side, he has delivered the enemy into our hands. Out upon the Bloody Duke, the master-butcher, the lord of the axe!”

And all of them, young and old, cursed the devil with a thunder of cries; and they came up to him menacingly, surrounding the chair and raising their tools to strike.

But Smetse stopped them and spoke again to the devil. “If your highness,” he said, “is minded to hold to his noble bones, let him deign to grant me the seven years, for the time for laughter is past, let me tell you.”

“Baes,” said the workmen, “whence comes to thee this kindness beyond measure? Why hold so long and fair parley with this fellow? Let us first break him up, and then he will offer thee the seven years of his own accord.”

“Seven years!” said the devil, “seven years! he shall not have so much as the shadow of a minute. Strike, men of Ghent, the lion is in the net; ye who could not find a hole deep enough to hide yourselves in when he was free and showed his fangs. Flemish cowards, see what I think of you and your threats.” And he spat on them.

At this spittle the bars, hammers, and other tools fell on him thick as hail, breaking his bones and the plates of his armour, and Smetse and his workmen said as they beat to their hearts’ content:

“Cowards were we, who wished to worship God in the sincerity of our hearts; valiant was he who prevented us with steel, stake, and live burial.

“Cowards were we for having always laughed readily and drunk joyously, like men who, having done what they had to do, make light of the rest: valiant was this dark personage when he had poor men of the people arrested in the midst of their merrymaking at Kermis-time and put death where had been laughter.

“Cowards were the eighteen thousand eight hundred persons who died for the glory of God; cowards those numberless others who by the rapine, brutality and insolence of the fighting men, lost their lives in these lands and others.

Valiant was he who ordained their sufferings, and more valiant still when he celebrated his own evil deeds by a banquet.
“Cowards were we always, we who, after a battle, treated our prisoners like brothers; valiant was he who, after the defeat in Friesland, had his own men slaughtered.

“Cowards were we, who laboured without ceasing, spreading abroad over the whole world the work of our hands; valiant was he when, under the cloak of religion, he slew the richer among us without distinction between Romans and Reformers, and robbed us by pillage and extortion of thirty-six million florins. For the world is turned upside down; cowardly is the busy bee who makes the honey, and valiant the idle drone who steals it away. Spit, noble duke, on these Flemish cowards.”

But the duke could neither spit nor cough, for from the roughness of the blows they had given him he had altogether lost the shape of a man, so mingled and beaten together were bones, flesh, and steel. But there was no blood to be seen, which was a marvellous thing. Suddenly, while the workmen, wearied with beating, were taking breath, a weak voice came out from this hotch-potch of bones, flesh, and steel, saying:

“Thou hast the seven years, Smetse.”

“Very well then, My Lord,” said he, “sign the quittance.”

This the devil did.

“And now,” said Smetse, “will your highness please to get up.”

At these words, by great marvel, the devil regained his shape. But while he was walking away, holding up his head with great haughtiness and not deigning to look at his feet, he tripped over a sledge lying on the ground, and fell on his nose with great indignity, thereby giving much occasion for laughter to the workmen, who did not fail to make use of it. Picking himself up he threatened them with his fist, but they burst out laughing more loudly than ever. He came at them, grinding his teeth; they hooted him. He tried to strike with his sword a short and sturdy little workman; but the man seized the sword from his hands and broke it in three pieces. He struck another in the face with his fist, but the man gave him so good and valiant a kick as to send him sprawling on the quay with his legs in the air. There, flushing with shame, he melted into red smoke, like a vapour of blood, and the workmen heard a thousand joyous and merry voices, saying: “Beaten is the Bloody Duke, shamed is the lord of the axe, inglorious the prince of butchers! Vlaenderland tot eeuwigheid! Flanders for ever!” And a thousand pairs of hands beat applause all together. And the dawn broke.