Flemish Legend Smetse Smee by Charles de Coster Chapter 16

Wherein Smetse beholds on the River Lys a most marvellous sight

When the devil had gone Smetse was almost off his head with joy, and ran to his wife, who had come to the door of the kitchen, and thumped her for joy, seized her, kissed her, hugged the good woman, shook her, pressed her to him, ran back to his men, shook them all by the hand, crying: “By Artevelde! I am quits, Smetse is quits!” And he seemed to have a tongue for nothing else but that he was quits! And he blew in his wife’s ear, into his workmen’s faces, and under the nose of a bald and wheezing old cat who sat up in one corner and got quit with him by a scratch in the face.

“The rascal,” said Smetse, “does not seem glad enough at my deliverance.

Is he another devil, think you? They say they disguise themselves in every kind of shape. Ho,” said he to the cat, who was arching her back in annoyance, “hast heard, listened, and understood, devil cat? I am quit and free, quit and franked, quit and happy, quit and rich! And I have made fools of all the devils. And from now on I will live gaily as becomes a quit smith. Wife, I will send this very day a hundred philipdalers to Slimbroek, so that that poor sinner may also rejoice at Smetse’s quittance.”
But his wife said nothing, and when Smetse went to look for her he found her on the stair with a great bowl of holy water in her hands, in which she was dipping a fair sprig of palm branch.

Coming into the smithy she began to sprinkle with the palm her man and the workmen, and also the hammers, anvils, bellows, and other tools.

“Wife,” said Smetse, trying to escape the wetting, “what art thou at?”

“I am saving thee,” said she, “presumptuous smith. Dost verily think that, being freed of devils, thou hast for thine own the chattels that come from them? Dost think that though they have lost the soul which was to be their payment they will leave thee thy riches. Ho, the good fool! They will come back again, yes; and if I do not sprinkle thee with this holy water, and myself likewise, and all these good men, who knows with what evils they may not torment us, alas!”

And the good wife was working away with her palm-branch when suddenly a great thunder rumbled under the earth, shaking the quay, and the stones cracked, the panes shivered in the windows, all the doors and casements in the smithy opened of themselves, and a hot wind blew.

“Ah,” said she, “they are coming; pray, my man!”

And suddenly there appeared in the sky the figure of a man, naked and of marvellous beauty. He was standing in a chariot of diamond, drawn by four flaming horses. And he held in his right hand a banner, whereon was written: “More beautiful than God.” And from the body of this man, whereof the flesh shone brightly, came golden rays which lit up the Lys, the quay and the trees like sunlight. And the trees began to sway and swing their stems and branches, and all the quay seemed to roll like a ship upon the sea, and thousands of voices called out together: “Lord, we cry hunger and thirst; Lord, feed us; Lord, give us to drink.”

“Ah,” said the good wife, “here is my Lord Lucifer and all his devils!”

And when the voices had ceased the man made a sign with his hand, and of a sudden the waters of the Lys rose as if God had lifted up the river-bed. And the river became like a rough sea; but the waves did not roll on the quay, but each lifted separately, bearing on its crest a foam of fire. Then each of these flames rose into the air, drawing up the water like a pillar, and there seemed to poor Smetse and his wife and the men to be hundreds of thousands of these pillars of water, swaying and foaming.

Then each pillar took on the form of a fearful animal, and suddenly there appeared, mingled together, striking and wounding one another, all the devils whose work was to torment poor damned souls. There were to be seen, crawling over crooked and shivering men’s legs, monstrous crabs, devouring those who were servile in their lives. Near these crabs were ostriches bigger than horses, who ran along flapping their wings. Under their tails they had laurel-wreaths, sceptres, and crowns, and behind their tails were made to run those men who in our world spent all their time running after vain honours, without a care for doing good. And the ostriches went quicker than the wind, while the men ran without respite behind them in the effort to get the wreaths, crowns, and sceptres; but they could never reach them. In this way they were led to a treacherous pond full of loathsome mud, wherein they fell shamefully and stayed stuck for all eternity, whilst the mocking ostriches walked up and down on the bank dangling their bawbles.

Among the ostriches were squadrons of many-coloured apes, diapered like butterflies, whose concern was with miserly Jewish and Lombard usurers. These men, when they entered hell, looked round them carefully, screwing up their eyes under their spectacles, collected from the ground divers rusty nails, old breeches, filthy rags, buttons showing the wood, and other old stuff, then dug a hole hastily, hid their treasures in it and went off to sit down some way away. The apes, seeing this, would leap on the hole, empty out its content, and throw it into the fire. Then the misers would weep, make lamentations, and be beaten by the apes, and at last go off to find some more secret place, hide there once again their new depredations, and see once again the hole emptied and the apes coming once again to beat them, and so on for all eternity.

In the air, above the apes, soared eagles, who had, instead of a beak, four-and-twenty matchlock barrels firing together. These eagles were called Royal, because their concern was with conqueror princes, who were too fond in their lifetime of the sounds of war and cannon. And for their punishment these matchlocks were fired off in their faces again and again throughout eternity.

Besides the ostriches, apes, and eagles, reared up a great serpent with a bear’s coat, who writhed and twisted this way and that. He was of great length and breadth, beyond all measure, and had a hundred thousand hairy arms, in each of which he held an iron pike as sharp as a razor. He was called the Spaniards’ Serpent, because in hell it was his task to gash about with his pikes without mercy all the bands of traitor pillagers who had despoiled our good country.

Keeping clear of this serpent with great prudence, darted about mischievous little winged pigs whose tails were eels. These tails were designed for the perpetual teazing of such gluttons as came to hell. For the pig would come up to such a one, hold the eel close to his mouth, and, when he tried to bite it, suddenly fly away from him, and so on throughout eternity.

There were to be seen also, marching up and down in their gorgeous feathers, monstrous peacocks. Whenever some vain dandy came their way, giving himself airs in his fine clothes, one of these peacocks would go to him and spread its tail, as if inviting him to pluck out a fine feather for his bonnet. But as soon as the dandy approached to take his feather, Master Peacock would let fly in his face with filthy and evil-smelling water, which spoilt all his fine clothes. And throughout eternity the dandy would try to get the feather, and throughout eternity be so swilled down.

Among these fearful animals, wandered two by two male and female grasshoppers as big as a man, the one playing on a pipe, and the other brandishing a great knotted stick. Whenever they saw a man who, in his lifetime, leapt, by cowardice, from good to evil, from black to white, from fire to water, always on the side of the strongest, these grasshoppers would go to him, and one would play the pipe, while the other, leaning on his stick with great dignity, would say: “Leap for God,” and the man would leap; “Leap for the Devil,” and the man would leap again; “Leap for Calvin, leap for the Mass, leap for the goat, leap for the cabbage,” and the man would keep leaping. But he never leapt high enough for the liking of the grasshopper with the stick, and so he was each time belaboured in a most pitiless manner. And he leapt without ceasing and was belaboured without respite, while the pipe made continual pleasant music, and so on throughout eternity.

Farther on, naked and lying on cloths of gold, silk, and velvet, covered with pearls and a thousand resplendent gems, more beautiful than the most beautiful ladies of Ghent, Brussels, or Bruges, lascivious and smiling, singing, and playing on sweet instruments, were the wives of the devils. These dealt out punishment to old rakes, corrupters of youth and beauty. To them these she-devils would call out amorously, but they could never get near them. Throughout eternity these poor rakes had to look at them without being able to touch them even with the tip of the nail of their little finger. And they wept and made lamentation, but all in vain, and so on through centuries and centuries.

There were also mischievous little devils with drums, made of the skins of hypocrites, whose masks hung down over the drum case as ornament. And the hypocrites to whom they belonged, without their skins, without their masks, in all their ugliness, ashamed, hooted, hissed, spat at, eaten up by horrible flies, and followed by the little devils beating their drums, had to wander up and down hell throughout eternity.

It was good to see also the devils of conceited men. These were fine great leathern bottles full of wind, finished off with a beak, at the end of which was a reed. These bottles had eagle’s feet and two good little arms, with fingers long enough to go round the widest part of the bottle. When the conceited man came into hell, saying: “I am great, I am grand, strong, beautiful, victorious, I will overcome Lucifer and marry his dam Astarte,” the leathern bottles would come up to him and say, with a deep reverence: “My lord, will you be pleased to let us speak a word to you in secret, touching your high designs?” “Yes,” he would say. Then two bottles would stuff their reeds into his ears in such a manner that he could not get them out again, and begin to press in their bellies with their long fingers, so as to force wind into his head, which thereupon swelled up, large and always larger, and Master Self-Conceit rose into the air and went off to wander throughout eternity, with his head bumping the ceiling of hell, and his legs waving in the air in the efforts to get down again; but all in vain.

Marvellous devils were certain apes of quicksilver, always running, tumbling, leaping, coming, and going. These devils bore down on the lazy fellows who were thrown to them, gave them a spade to dig earth with, a sword to polish, a tree to trim, or a book to con. The lazybones would look at the task set him, saying: “To-morrow,” and would stretch his arms, scratching and yawning. But as soon as he had his mouth wide open the ape would stuff into it a sponge soaked in quintessence of rhubarb. “This,” he would say mockingly, “is for to-day; work, slug, work.” Then, while the lazybones was retching, the devil would thump him, shake him a hundred different ways, giving him no more peace than a gadfly gives a horse, and so on throughout eternity.

Pleasing devils were pretty little children very wide-awake and mischievous, whose concern was to teach learned orators to think, speak, weep, and laugh according to common nature. And when they did otherwise the little devils would rap them sharply on the knuckles. But the poor pedants could no longer learn, being too heavy, old, and stupid; so they had a rap on the knuckles every day and a whipping on Sundays.

And all these devils cried out together: “Master, we are hungry; Master, give us to eat, pay somewhat for the good services we render thee.”

And suddenly the man in the chariot made a sign, and the good River Lys threw all these devils on the quay, as the sea splashes on the shore, and they hissed loud and terribly at landing.

And Smetse, his wife, and the workmen heard the doors of the cellars open with a loud noise, and all the casks of bruinbier came hissing up the stairs, and hissing across the floor of the forge, and still hissing described a curve in the air and fell among the crowd of all the devils. And so also did the bottles of wine, so also the hams, loaves, and cheeses, and so also the good crusats, angelots, philipdalers, and other moneys, which were all changed into meat and drink. And the devils fell over one another, fought, scrambled, wounded themselves, forming only one great mass of battling monsters, howling and hissing, and each trying to get more than the others. When there was left neither drop nor crumb, the man in the chariot made another sign, and all the devils melted into black water and flowed into the river, where they disappeared. And the man vanished from the sky.

And Smetse Smee was as poor as before, save for one little bag of golden royals, which his wife had by chance sprinkled with holy water, and which he kept, although it came from the devil. But this, as you shall see, did not profit him at all. And he lived with great content until he died suddenly one day in his smithy, at the great and blessed age of ninety-three years.