The Legend of Ulenspiegel by Charles de Coster Book I Chapter 74

On the morrow, which was the day of execution, the neighbours came and in pity shut up Ulenspiegel, Soetkin, and Nele, in Katheline’s house.

But they had not thought that they could hear from afar the cries of the victim, and through the windows see the flame of the fire.

Katheline went roaming about the town, nodding her head and saying:

“Make a hole, the soul would fain come forth!”

At nine o’clock Claes was brought out from the prison, in his shirt, his hands bound behind his back. In accordance with the sentence, the pyre was prepared in the street of Notre Dame around a stake set up before the doors of the Townhall. The executioner and his assistants had not yet made an end of piling up the wood.

Claes, in the midst of his gaolers, waited patiently till this task was finished, while the provost, on horseback, and the liveried men of the bailiwick, and the nine lansquenets summoned from Bruges, could barely keep within bounds of respect the people growling and unruly.

All said, it was sheer cruelty to murder thus in his old age, unjustly, a poor fellow so kind hearted, compassionate, and stout hearted in toil.

Suddenly they all knelt down and prayed. The bells of Notre Dame were tolling for the dead.

Katheline also was in the crowd of the common people, in the first row, and all beside herself. Looking at Claes and the pyre, she said, nodding her head:

“The fire! the fire! Make a hole; the soul would fain escape!”

Soetkin and Nele, hearing the bells tolling, both crossed themselves. But Ulenspiegel did not, saying that he would no longer worship God after the fashion of murderers. And he ran about the cottage, seeking to break down doors and to leap out through windows; but all were guarded.

Suddenly Soetkin cried out, hiding her face in her apron:

“The smoke!”

The three afflicted ones saw indeed in the sky a great whirl of smoke, all black. It was the smoke of the pyre on which was Claes bound to a stake, and which the executioner had just set fire to in three places in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Claes looked about him, and not perceiving Soetkin and Ulenspiegel in the crowd, he was glad, thinking they would not behold him suffering.

No other sound was to be heard but the voice of Claes praying, the wood crackling, men growling, women weeping, Katheline saying: – “Take away the fire, make a hole: the soul would fain escape.” – and the bells of Notre Dame tolling for the dead.

Suddenly Soetkin became white as snow, shuddered in all her body without weeping, and pointed with her finger to the sky. A long narrow flame had just spouted up from the pyre and rose at moments above the roofs of the low houses. It was cruelly tormenting to Claes, for according to the whims of the wind it gnawed at his legs, touched his beard and made it frizzle and smoke, licked at his hair and burned it.

Ulenspiegel held Soetkin in his arms and would have dragged her away from the window. They heard a piercing cry, it came from Claes whose body was burning on one side only. But he held his tongue and wept, and his breast was all wet with his tears.

Then Soetkin and Ulenspiegel heard a great noise of voices. This was the citizens, women and children, crying out:

“Claes was not condemned to burn by a slow fire, but by a great one. Executioner, make the pyre burn up!”

The executioner did so, but the fire did not catch quickly enough.

“Strangle him,” they cried.

And they cast stones at the provost.

“The flame! The great flame!” cried Soetkin.

In very deed, a red flame climbed up the sky in the midst of the smoke.

“He is about to die,” said the widow. “Lord God, have pity upon the soul of the innocent. Where is the king, that I may rip out his heart with my nails?”

The bells of Notre Dame were tolling for the dead.

Soetkin heard Claes again utter a loud cry, but she saw not his body writhing from the torment of the flame, nor his face twisting, nor his head that he turned every way and beat against the wood of the stake. The people continued to cry out and to hiss; women and boys threw stones, and all heard Claes saying, from the midst of the flame and the smoke:

“Soetkin! Thyl!”

And his head fell forward on his breast like a head of lead.

And a lamentable shrill and piercing cry was heard coming from out of Katheline’s cottage. Then none heard aught else, save the poor witless woman nodding her head and saying: “The soul would fain escape!”

Claes was dead. The pyre having burned out sank down at the foot of the stake. And the poor body, all blackened, stayed on it hanging by the neck.

And the bells of Notre Dame tolled for the dead.