Flemish Legend Smetse Smee by Charles de Coster Chapter 15

Of the Bloody King

When the last night of the seventh year was come Smetse was in his smithy, looking at the enchanted sack, and asking himself with much anxiety how he could make the devil get into it.

While he was wondering, the smithy suddenly became filled with an evil stench of the most putrid, offensive and filthy kind. Innumerable lice swarmed over the threshold, ceiling, anvils, sledges, bars and bellows, Smetse and his men, who were all as if blinded, for these lice were as thick in the smithy as smoke, cloud, or fog.

And a melancholy but imperative voice spoke, saying: “Smetse, come with me; the seven years have struck.”

And Smetse and his workmen, looking as well as they could in the direction whence the voice came, saw a man coming towards them with a royal crown on his head, and on his back a cloak of cloth-of-gold. But beneath the cloak the man was naked, and on his breast were four great abscesses, which formed together a single wide sore, and from this came the stench which filled the smithy, and the clouds of lice which swarmed round about. And he had on his right leg another abscess, more filthy, rank, and offensive than the rest. The man himself was white-faced, auburn-haired, red-bearded, with lips a little drawn, and mouth open somewhat. In his grey eyes were melancholy, envy, dissimulation, hypocrisy, harshness, and evil rancour.

When the older workmen saw him they cried out in a voice like thunder: “Smetse, the Bloody King is here, take care!”

“Silence,” cried the smith, “peace there, silence and veneration! Let every man doff his bonnet to the greatest king that ever lived, Philip II by name, King of Castile, Leon, and Aragon, Count of Flanders, Duke of Burgundy and Brabant, Palatine of Holland and Zeeland, most illustrious of all illustrious princes, great among the great, victorious among victors. Sire,” said he to the devil, “you do me unparalleled honour to come hither in person to lead me to hell, but my humble Ghentish lowness makes bold to suggest to your Royal and Palatine Highness that the appointed hour has not yet struck. Therefore if it pleases your Majesty I will pass on earth the brief time which is still left to me to live.”

“I allow it,” said the devil.

Meanwhile Smetse seemed unable to take his eyes off the devil, and showed himself very sorrowful and heavy, nodding his head, and saying several times:

“Alas, alas! cruel torment! evil hour!”

“What ails thee?” said the devil.

“Sire,” said Smetse, “nothing ails me but the great sorrow which I have at seeing how harsh God has been towards you, leaving you to bear in hell the malady whereof you died. Ah, ’tis a most pitiful sight to see so great a king as you consumed by these lice and eaten up with these abscesses.”

“I care nothing for thy pity,” answered the king.

“Sire,” said Smetse further, “deign to think no evil of my words. I have never been taught fine ways of speech; but notwithstanding this I make bold to sympathize with your illustrious sufferings, and this the more in that I myself have known and suffered your ill, and you can still see, Sire, the terrible marks on my skin.” And Smetse, uncovering his breast, showed the marks of the wounds which he had received from the traitor Spanish when he sailed the seas with the men of Zeeland.

“But,” said the devil-king, “thou seemest well enough cured, smith! Wast thou verily as sick as I?”

“Like you, Sire,” said Smetse, “I was nothing but a heap of living filth; like you I was fetid, rank, and offensive, and every one fled from me as they fled from you; like you I was eaten up with lice; but what could not be done for you by the most illustrious doctor Olias of Madrid, a humble carpenter did for me.”

At these words the devil-king cocked his ear. “In what place,” said he, “does this carpenter dwell, and what is his name?”

“He dwells,” said Smetse, “in the heavens, and his name is Master St. Joseph.”

“And did this great saint appear to thee by especial miracle?”

“Yes, Sire.”

“And by virtue of what didst thou merit this rare and blessed favour?”

“Sire,” answered Smetse, “I have never by my own virtue merited so much as the shadow of a single grain of particular grace, but in my sufferings I prayed humbly and with faith to my blessed patron, Master St. Joseph, and he deigned to come to my succour.”

“Tell me of this happening, smith.”

“Sire,” said Smetse, holding up the sack, “this was my remedy.”

“This sack?” asked the devil.

“Yes, Sire; but will your Majesty deign to look closely at the hemp whereof it is woven. Do you not think its quality altogether strange! Alas,” said Smetse, running on with his talk, and appearing to go into an ecstasy, “’tis not given to us poor men to see every day such hemp as this. For this is not earthly hemp, but hemp of heaven, hemp from the good Paradise, sown by my master St. Joseph round about the tree of life, harvested and woven under his especial orders to make sacks wherein the beans are stored which my masters the angels eat on fast-days.”

“But,” asked the devil, “how did this sack come into thy hands?”

“Ah, Sire, by great marvel. One night I was in my bed, suffering twenty deaths from my ulcers, and almost at the point of giving up my soul. I saw my good wife weeping; I heard my neighbours and workmen, of whom there were many, saying round about my bed the prayers for the dying; my body was overcome with pain and my soul with despair. Nevertheless I kept praying to my blessed patron and swore that if he brought me out of that pass, I would burn to his honour in the church of St. Bavon such a candle as the fat of twenty sheep would not suffice to make. And my prayers were not in vain, Sire, for suddenly a hole opened in the ceiling above my head, a living flame and a celestial perfume filled the room, a sack came down through the hole, a man clothed in white followed the sack, walked in the air to my bed, pulled down the sheets which covered me, and in the twinkling of an eye put me in the sack and drew the strings tight round my neck. And then, behold the miracle! No sooner was I wrapped about with this good hemp than a genial warmth passed through me, my ulcers dried up, and the lice all perished suddenly with a terrible noise. After that the man told me with a smile about the hemp of heaven and the angelic beans, and finished his discourse by saying: ’Keep safe this remedy, ’tis sent thee by my master St. Joseph. Whosoever shall use it shall be cured of all ills and saved for all eternity, if in the meantime he do not sell his soul to the devil!’ Then the man went away. And what the good messenger told me was true, for by means of this sack from heaven, I cured Toon, my workman, of the king’s evil; Pier of fever, Dolf of scurvy, Hendrik of the phlegm, and a score of others who owe it to me that they are still alive.”

When Smetse had finished his speech the devil-king seemed lost in deep reflection, then suddenly lifted his eyes to heaven, joined his hands, crossed himself again and again, and, falling to his knees, beat upon his breast, and with most lamentable cries prayed as here follows: “Ah, my Master St. Joseph, sweet Lord, blessed saint, immaculate husband of the Virgin without stain, you have deigned to make whole this smith, and he would have been saved by you for all eternity had he not sold his soul to the devil. But I, Master, I, a poor king, who pray to you, do you disdain to make me whole also, and to save me as you would have saved him? You know well, sweet Lord, how I devoted my life, my person, my goods and those of my subjects to the defence of our blessed religion; how I hated, as is right, the freedom to believe other things than those which are ordained for us; how I combated it by steel, stake, and live burial; how I saved in this wise from the venom of reform Brabant, Flanders, Artois, Hainault, Valenciennes, Lille, Douai, Orchies, Namur, Tournai, Tournaisie, Malines, and my other lands. Nevertheless I have been thrown into the fires of hell, and there suffer without respite the unutterable torment of my consuming ulcers and my devouring vermin. Ah, will you not make me whole, will you not save me? You are able, my Master. Yes, you will perform again for the sorrowing king the miracle which saved the smith. Then shall I be able to pass into paradise, blessing and glorifying your name through centuries and centuries. Save me, Master St. Joseph, save me. Amen.”

And the devil-king, crossing himself, beating his breast, and babbling paternosters turn by turn, rose to his feet and said to Smetse: “Put me in the sack, smith.”

This Smetse did gladly, rolled him into the sack, leaving only his head thrust out, drew tight round his neck the stout cords, and placed the devil on an anvil.

At this spectacle the workmen burst out laughing, clapping their hands together, and saying a hundred merry things to one another.

“Smith,” asked the devil, “are these Flemings laughing at me?”

“Yes, Sire.”

“What are they saying, smith?”

“Oh, Sire, they are saying that horses are caught by means of corn; dogs by liver; asses by thistles; hogs by swill; trout by curdled blood; carp by cheese; pike by gudgeon; and a humbug of your kidney by tales of false miracles.”

“Ho, the traitor smith,” howled the devil, grinding his teeth, “he has taken in vain the name of my Master St. Joseph, he has lied without shame.”

“Yes, Sire.”

“And thou wilt dare to beat me as thou didst Jacob Hessels and my faithful duke?”

“Even more heartily, Sire. Nevertheless ’tis only if you so wish it. You shall be set free if you please. Free if you give me back the deed; beaten if you are fixed in your idea of carrying me off to hell.”

“Give thee back the deed! “roared the devil, “I would rather suffer a thousand deaths in a single moment.”

“Sire King,” said Smetse, “I pray you to think of your bones, which seem to me none too sound as it is. Consider also that the opportunity is a good one for us to avenge on your person our poor Flanders, so drenched in blood at your hands. But it displeases me to pass a second time where has passed already the wrath of the very just God. So give me back the deed; grace, Sire King, or ’twill begin raining presently.”

“Grace!” said the devil, “grace to a Fleming! perish Flanders rather! Ah, why have I not again, one single day, as much power, armies, and riches as I will; Flanders would give up her soul quickly. Then famine should reign in the land, parching the soil, drying up the water-springs and the life of plants; the last ghostly inhabitants of the empty towns would wander like phantoms in the streets, killing one another in heaps to find a little rotten food; bands of famished dogs would snatch newborn children from their mothers’ withered breasts and devour them; famine should lie where had been plenty, dust where had been towns, crows where had been men; and on this earth stripped naked, stony, and desolate, on this burial-ground, I would set up a black cross with this inscription: Here lies Flanders the heretic, Philip of Spain passed over her breast!”

So saying the devil foamed at the mouth with wrath, but scarce were his last words cold from his lips when all the hammers and bars in the smithy fell on him at once. And Smetse and his workmen, striking in turn, said: “This is for our broken charters and our privileges violated despite thine oath, for thou wast perjurer.

“This is for that when we called thee thou didst not dare come into our land, where thy presence would have cooled the hottest heads, for thou wast coward.

“This is for the innocent Marquess of Berg-op-Zoom, whom thou poisoned in prison, so that his inheritance might be thine; and for the Prince of Ascoly, whom thou madest to marry Dona Eufrasia, in child by thy seed, so that his wealth might enrich the bastard that was coming. The Prince died also, like so many others, for thou wert poisoner of bodies.

“This is for the false witnesses paid by thee, and thy promise to ennoble whomever would kill Prince William for money, for thou wast poisoner of souls.”

And the blows fell heavy, and the king’s crown was knocked off, and his body, like the duke’s, was no more than a hotch-potch of bones and flesh, without any blood. But the workmen went on with their hammering, saying:

“This is for thine invention of the Tourniquet, wherewith thou didst strangle Montigny, friend of thy son, for thou wast seeker of new tortures.

“This is for the Duke of Alva, for the Counts of Egmont and Hoorn, for all our poor dead, for our merchants who went off to enrich England and Germany, for thou wast death and ruin to our land.

“This is for thy wife, who died by thy deed, for thou wast husband without love.

“This is for thy poor son Charles, who died without any sickness, for thou wast father without bowels.

“This is for the hatred, cruelty, and slaughter with which thou didst make return for the gentleness, confidence, and goodwill of our land, for thou wast king without justice.

“And this is for the Emperor, thy father, who, with his execrable proclamations and edicts, first sounded for our land the stroke of the evil hour. Give him a good drubbing on our account, and tell us thou wilt give back the deed to the baes.”
Yes,” wept a melancholy voice, coming from the heap of bones and flesh, “thou hast everything, Smetse, thou art free.”

“Give me back the parchment,” said Smetse.

“Open the sack,” answered the voice.

“Ho,” cried Smetse, “yes, yes, indeed, I will open the sack wide, and Master Philip will leap out and take me off to hell with all speed. Oh, the good little devil! But ’tis not now the time for such high pranks. Therefore I make bold to beg your Majesty to give me first the parchment, which he may without difficulty pass up through this gap which is between his neck and the edge of the sacking.”

“I will not do it,” said the devil.

“That,” said Smetse, “is as it pleases your subtle Majesty. In the sack he is, in the sack he may remain; I make no objection. Every man his own humour. But mine will be to leave him in his sack, and in this wise carry him off to Middelburg in Walcheren, and there ask the prefect that leave be given me to build a good little stone box in the market-place and therein to place your Majesty, leaving outside his melancholy countenance. So placed he will be able to see at a close view the happiness, joy, and prosperity of the men of the reformed faith: that will be a fine treat for him, which might be added to, on feast-days and market-days, by an unkind blow or two which people would give him in the face, or some wicked strokes with a stick, or some spittle dropped on him without respect. You will have besides, Sire, the unutterable satisfaction of seeing many good pilgrims from Flanders, Brabant, and your other blood-soaked countries come to Middelburg to pay back with good coin of their staves their old debt to your Most Merciful Majesty.”

“Ah,” said the devil, “I will not have this shame put upon me. Take, smith, take the parchment.”

Smetse obeyed, and saw that it was indeed his own, then went and dipped it in holy water, where it turned into dust.

At this he was filled with joy and opened the sack for the devil, whose bones moved and became joined again to one another. And he took on again his withered shape, his hungry vermin, and his devouring sores.

Then, covering himself with his cloak of cloth-of-gold, he went out of the smithy, while Smetse cried after him: “Good journey to you, and a following wind, Master Philip!”

And on the quay the devil kicked against a stone, which opened of itself and showed a great hole, wherein he was swallowed suddenly up like an oyster.