The Legend of Ulenspiegel by Charles de Coster Book I Chapter 78

Towards ten o’clock in the forenoon Ulenspiegel and Soetkin were brought into the torture chamber.

There were the bailiff, the clerk and the sheriffs, the executioner from Bruges, his assistant and a barber surgeon.

The bailiff asked Soetkin if she was not holding back goods that belonged to the Emperor. She replied that having nothing, she could hold back nothing.

“And thou?” asked the bailiff, speaking to Ulenspiegel.

“Seven months since,” said he, “we inherited seven hundred carolus; some of these we ate. As for the others, I cannot tell where they are; I think indeed that the traveller on foot that stayed in our house, for our undoing, took the rest away, for I have seen nothing since then.”

The bailiff asked again if both persisted in declaring themselves innocent.

They answered that they were holding back nothing that belonged to the Emperor.

The bailiff then said gravely and sadly:

“The charges against you being serious and the accusation well sustained, you must needs, if you do not confess, undergo the question.”

“Spare the widow,” said Ulenspiegel. “The fishmonger has bought up everything.”

“Poor lad,” said Soetkin, “men cannot endure pain as women can.”

Seeing Ulenspiegel pale as the dead because of her, she said again:

“I have hate and force.”

“Spare the widow,” said Ulenspiegel.

“Take me in his stead,” said Soetkin.

The bailiff asked the executioner if he had in readiness the implements and all things needful to discover the truth.

The executioner replied:

“They are all here.”

The judges, having consulted, decided that, in order to come at the truth, they should begin with the woman.

“For,” said one of the sheriffs, “there is no son so cruel or hard hearted as to see his mother suffer without making confession of the crime and so to deliver her; the same will do any mother, were she a tigress at heart, for her offspring.”

Speaking to the executioner, the bailiff said:

“Make the woman sit in the chair and put the baguettes on her hands and her feet.”

The executioner obeyed.

“Oh, do not do that, Messieurs Judges!” cried Ulenspiegel. “Bind me in her place, break my fingers and my toes, but spare the widow.”

“The fishmonger,” said Soetkin. “I have hate and force.”

Ulenspiegel seemed livid pale, trembling, beside himself, and held his peace.

The baguettes were little rods of boxwood, placed between each finger and toe, touching the bone, and joined together with strings by an instrument so craftily designed that the executioner could, at the behest of the judge, squeeze all the fingers together, strip the bones of their flesh, grind them terribly, or give the victim only a slight pain.

He put the baguettes on Soetkin’s hands and feet.

“Tighten,” said the bailiff.

He did so cruelly.

Then the bailiff, addressing himself to Soetkin:

“Discover to me,” said he, “the place where the carolus are hidden.”

“I do not know it,” she replied, groaning.

“Harder,” said he.

Ulenspiegel twisted his arms that were bound behind his back to be rid of the rope and so come to Soetkin’s aid.

“Do not tighten them, messieurs judges,” said he, “do not tighten them, these be but woman’s bones, thin and brittle. A bird could break them with its beak. Do not tighten them, sirs – master executioner, I do not speak to you, for you must needs be obedient to these gentlemen’s orders. O do not bid him tighten them; have pity!”

“The fishmonger,” said Soetkin.

And Ulenspiegel held his peace.

However, seeing that the executioner was locking the baguettes tighter still, he cried out again:

“Pity, sirs!” he said. “Ye are breaking the widow’s fingers that she needeth to work withal. Alas! her feet! Will she never walk again now? Pity, sirs!”

“Thou shalt come to an ill end, fishmonger,” cried Soetkin.

And the bones crackled and the blood from her feet fell in little drops.

Ulenspiegel looked at all this, and trembling with anguish and with rage, he said:

“A woman’s bones, do not break them, sirs!”

“The fishmonger,” groaned Soetkin.

And her voice was low and stifled like the voice of a ghost.

Ulenspiegel trembled and cried out:

“Master judges, her hands are bleeding and her feet, too. The widow’s bones are broken, broken!”

The barber surgeon touched them with his finger, and Soetkin uttered a loud scream.

“Confess for her,” said the bailiff to Ulenspiegel.

But Soetkin looked at him with eyes like the eyes of the dead, wide open and staring. And he knew he could not speak, and he wept and said nothing.

But the bailiff said next:

“Since this woman is gifted with a man’s fortitude, we must try her courage before the torments of her son.”

Soetkin heard nothing, for she had lost her senses by reason of the great agony she had suffered.

They brought her back to consciousness with much vinegar. Then Ulenspiegel was stripped naked before the widow’s eyes. The executioner shaved his head and his whole body, so as to spy that he had no wicked spell on him. Then he perceived on his back the little black mark he carried from his birth. He thrust a long needle into it several times; but as the blood came, he decided that there was no sorcery in the mark. At the bailiff’s order, the hands of Ulenspiegel were tied with two cords running over a pulley fixed to the roof so that the executioner at the judges’ pleasure could hoist him up and let him drop with a brutal jerk; which he did nine times, having first hung a weight of twenty-five pounds on each foot.

At the ninth time, the skin of his wrists and ankles tore, and the bones of his legs began to come out of their sockets.

“Confess,” said the bailiff.

“No,” replied Ulenspiegel.

Soetkin looked at her son and could find no strength either to cry out or to speak; only she stretched forth her arms, fluttering her bleeding hands and showing thus that they must make an end of this torment.

The executioner ran Ulenspiegel up and down yet again. And the skin of his wrists and ankles was torn still more; and the bones of his legs came out of their sockets further still; but he uttered no cry.

Soetkin wept and fluttered her bleeding hands.

“Confess the concealment,” said the bailiff, “and you shall have pardon for it.”

“The fishmonger hath need of pardon,” answered Ulenspiegel.

“Wilt thou mock thy judges?” said one of the sheriffs.

“Mock? Alas!” replied Ulenspiegel, “I but feign to mock, believe me.”

Soetkin then saw the executioner, who, at the bailiff’s order, was blowing up a brazier of red coals, and an assistant who was lighting two candles. She would fain have risen up on her murdered feet, but fell back to a sitting posture, and exclaiming:

“Take away that fire!” she cried. “Ah! master judges, spare his poor youth. Take away the fire!”

“The fishmonger!” cried Ulenspiegel, seeing her weakening.

“Raise Ulenspiegel a foot above the ground,” said the bailiff; “set the brazier underneath his feet and a candle under either armpit.”

The executioner obeyed. What hair was left in his armpits crackled and smoked in the flame.

Ulenspiegel cried out, and Soetkin, weeping, said:

“Take the fire away!”

The bailiff said:

“Confess the concealment and thou shalt be set at liberty. Confess for him, woman.”

And Ulenspiegel said: “Who will throw the fishmonger into the fire that burneth for ever?”

Soetkin made sign with her head that she had nothing to say. Ulenspiegel ground and gnashed his teeth, and Soetkin looked at him with haggard eyes and all in tears.

Nevertheless, when the executioner, having blown out the candles, set the burning brazier under Ulenspiegel’s feet, she cried:

“Master judges, have pity upon him: he knows not what he saith.”

“Why doth he not know what he saith?” asked the bailiff, craftily.

“Do not question her, master judges; ye see full well that she is out of her wits with torment. The fishmonger lied,” said Ulenspiegel.

“Wilt thou say the same as he, woman?” asked the bailiff.

Soetkin made sign with her head to say yes.

“Burn the fishmonger!” cried Ulenspiegel.

Soetkin held her peace, raising her clenched fist into the air as though to curse.

Yet seeing the brazier burn up more fiercely under her son’s feet, she cried:

“O Lord God! Madame Mary that art in heaven, put an end to this torment! Have pity! Take the brazier away!”

“The fishmonger!” groaned Ulenspiegel again.

And he vomited blood in great gushes through nose and mouth, and letting his head fall, hung suspended above the coals.

Then Soetkin cried:

“He is dead, my poor orphan! They have killed him! Ah! him, too. Take away this brazier, master judges! Let me take him into my arms to die also, I, too, to die with him. Ye know I cannot flee on my broken feet.”

“Give the widow her son,” said the bailiff.

Then the judges deliberated together.

The executioner unbound Ulenspiegel, and laid him all naked and covered with blood upon Soetkin’s knees, while the barber surgeon put back his bones in their sockets.

All the while Soetkin embraced Ulenspiegel, and said, weeping:

“Son, poor martyr! If the judges will, I shall heal thee, I; but awaken, Thyl, my son! Master judges, if ye have killed him on me, I shall go to His Majesty; for ye have done contrary to all laws and justice, and ye shall see what one poor woman can do against wicked men. But, sirs, leave us free together. We have nothing but our two selves in the world, poor wretches on whom the hand of God has been heavy.”

Having deliberated, the judges gave out the following sentence:

“Inasmuch as you, Soetkin, lawful widow of Claes, and you, Thyl, son of Claes, and called Ulenspiegel, having been accused of fraudulently withholding the goods that by confiscation were the property of His Majesty the King, maugre all privileges contrary to this, despite severe torture and adequate ordeal, have confessed to nothing:

“The court, considering the absence of sufficient proofs, and in you, woman, the piteous condition of your members, and in you, man, the harsh torment you have undergone, declares you both at liberty, and accords you permission to take up your abode in the house of him or her who may please to give you lodging, in spite of your poverty.

“Thus decreed at Damme, the three and twentieth day of October in the year of Our Lord 1558.”

“Thanks be to you, master judges,” said Soetkin.

“The fishmonger!” groaned Ulenspiegel.

And mother and son were taken to the house of Katheline in a cart.