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Coster Charles de
Flemish Legends

The Brotherhood of the Cheerful Countenance

I. Of the sorrowful voice which Pieter Gans heard in his garden, and of the flame running over the grass

In the days when the Good Duke ruled over Brabant, there was to be found at Uccle, with its headquarters in the tavern of The Horn, a certain Brotherhood of the Cheerful Countenance, aptly enough so named, for every one of the Brothers had a wonderfully jolly face, finished off, as a sign of good living, with two chins at the least. That was the young ones; but the older ones had more.

You shall hear, first of all, how this Brotherhood was founded:

Pieter Gans, host of this same Horn, putting off his clothes one night to get into bed, heard in his garden a sorrowful voice, wailing: “My tongue is scorching me. Drink! Drink! I shall die of thirst.”

Thinking at first that it was some drunkard below, he continued to get into bed quietly, notwithstanding the voice, which kept crying out in the garden: “Drink! Drink! I shall die of thirst.” But this persisted so long and in so melancholy a manner that at last Pieter Gans must needs get up and go to the window to see who it might be making so much noise. Thence he saw a long flame, of great brightness and strange upstanding shape, running over the grass; and, thinking that it must be some poor soul from purgatory in need of prayers, he set about repeating litanies, and went through above a hundred, but all in vain, for the voice never ceased crying out as before: “Drink! Drink! I shall die of thirst.”

After cock-crow he heard no more, and looking out again he saw with great satisfaction that the flame had disappeared.

When morning came he went straightway to the church. There he told the story of these strange happenings to the priest, and caused a fair mass to be said for the repose of the poor soul; gave a golden peter to the clerk so that others might be said later, and returned home reassured.

But on the following night the voice began its wailing anew, as lamentably as if it were that of a dying man hindered from dying. And so it went on night after night.

Whence it came about that Pieter Gans grew moody and morose.

Those who had known him in former days, rubicund, carrying a good paunch and a joyous face, wont to tell his matins with bottles and his vespers with flagons, would certainly never have recognized him.

For he grew so wizened, dried up, thin, and of such piteous appearance that dogs used to start barking at the sight of him, as they do at beggars with their bundles.

II. How Jan Blaeskaek gave good counsel to Pieter Gans, and wherein covetousness is sadly punished

It so happened that while he was moping after this fashion, passing his days in misery and without any joy of them, alone in a corner like a leper, there came to the inn a certain Master Jan Blaeskaek, brewer of good beer, a hearty fellow, and of a jovial turn of mind.

This visitor, seeing Pieter Gans looking at him nervously and shamefacedly, wagging his head like an old man, went up to him and shook him: “Come,” said he, “wake up, my friend, it gives me no pleasure to see thee sitting there like a corpse!”

“Alas,” answered Pieter Gans, “I am not worth much more now, my master.”

“And whence,” said Blaeskaek, “hast thou gotten all this black melancholy?”

To which Pieter Gans made answer: “Come away to some place where none will hear us. There I will tell thee the whole tale.”

This he did. When Blaeskaek had heard to the end he said: “’Tis no Christian soul that cries in this manner, but the voice of a devil. It must be appeased. Therefore go thou and fetch from thy cellar a good cask of ale, and roll it out into the garden, to the place where thou didst see the flame shining.”

“That I will,” said Pieter Gans. But at vespers, thinking to himself that ale was precious stuff to set before devils, he put instead in that place a great bowl of clear water.

Towards midnight he heard a voice more sorrowful than ever, calling out: “Drink! Drink! I shall die of thirst.”

And he saw the bright flame dancing furiously over the bowl, which was suddenly broken with a loud report, and this in so violent a manner that the pieces flew up against the windows of the house.

Then he began to sweat with terror and weep aloud, saying: “Now ’tis all over, dear God, all over with me. Oh, that I had followed the advice of the wise Blaeskaek, for he is a man of good counsel, of excellent counsel! Master Devil, who are so thirsty, do not kill me to-night; to-morrow you shall drink good ale, Master Devil. Ah, ’tis ale of fair repute throughout the land, this ale, fit for kings or for good devils like yourself!”

Nevertheless the voice continued to wail: “Drink! Drink!”

“There, there! Have a little patience, Master Devil; to-morrow you shall drink my best ale. It cost me many a golden peter, my master, and I will give you a whole barrelful. Do you not see that you must not strangle me to-night, but rather to-morrow if I do not keep my word.”

And after this fashion he wept and cried out until cock-crow. Then, finding that he was not dead, he said his matins with a better heart.

At sun-up he went down himself to fetch the cask of ale from his cellar, and placed it in the middle of the grass, saying: “Here is the freshest and the best drink I have; I am no niggard. So have pity on me, Master Devil.”

III. Of the songs, voices, mewlings, and sounds of kisses which Pieter Gans and Blaeskaek heard in the garden, and of the brave mien wherewith Master Merry-face sat on the cask of stone

At the third hour Blaeskaek came down and asked for news. Pieter Gans told his tale, and as he was about to go away again drew him aside and said: “I have kept this secret from my servants, lest they should go and blab about it to the priests, and so I am as good as alone in the house. Do not therefore leave me, for it may happen that some evil will come of the business, and ’twould be well to have a good stomach in case of such event. Alone I should certainly have none, but together we shall have enough for both. It would be as well, then, to fortify ourselves against this assault on our courage. Instead of sleeping we will eat and drink heartily.”

“For that,” said Blaeskaek, “I am as ready as thou.”

Towards midnight the two comrades, tippling in a low room, fortified with good eating, but not without some apprehension nevertheless, heard the same voice outside, no longer sorrowful, but joyous, singing songs in a strange tongue; and there followed divers sweet chants, such as angels might sing (speaking with proper respect to them all), who in Paradise had drunken too much ambrosia, voices of women celestially soft, mewlings of tigers, sighs, noise of embraces and lovers’ kisses.

“Ho, ho!” cried Pieter Gans, “what is this, dear Jesus? They are devils for a certainty. They will empty my cask altogether. And when they find my ale so good they will want more of it, and come crying every night and shouting louder than ever: ’Drink! Drink!’ And I shall be ruined, alas, alas! Come, friend Blaeskaek” – and so saying he pulled out his kuyf, which is, as you may know, a strong knife well sharpened – “Come, we must drive them off by force! But alone I have not the courage.”

“I will come with you,” said Blaeskaek, “but not until a little later, at cock-crow. They say that after that hour devils cannot bite.”

Before the sun rose the cock crew.

And he had, that morning, so martial a tone that you would have thought it a trumpet sounding.

And hearing this trumpet all the devils suddenly put a stop to their drinking and singing.

Pieter Gans and Blaeskaek were overjoyed at that, and ran out into the garden in haste.

Pieter Gans, hurrying to look for his cask of ale, found it changed into stone, and on top of it, sitting horseback fashion, what seemed to be a young boy, quite naked, a fair, sweet little boy, gaily crowned with vine-leaves, with a bunch of grapes hanging over one ear, and in his right hand a staff with a fir-cone at the tip, and grapes and vine-branches twined round it.

And although this little boy was made of stone, he had all the appearance of being alive, so merry a countenance had he.

Greatly alarmed were Gans and Blaeskaek at the sight of this personage.

And fearing both the wrath of the devil and the punishment of the Church, and swearing together to say no word about it to any one, they put the figure (which was but a few thumbs high) in a dark cellar where there was no drink kept.

IV. Wherein the two worthy men set out for Brussels, capital city of Brabant, and of the manners and condition of Josse Cartuyvels the Apothecary

Having done so much they set out together for Brussels, there to consult an old man, apothecary by trade, something of a glutton, but liked well enough by the common folk on account of a certain hotch-potch he made, well seasoned with rare herbs, for which he asked a not unreasonable price. He was reputed by the devout to have commerce with the devil, on account of the miraculous cures which he effected in both man and beast by means of his herbs. Furthermore, he sold beer, which he bought from Blaeskaek. And he was hideous to look at, gouty, wizened, yellow as a guinea, wrinkled as an old apple, and with carbuncles on his neck.

He lived in a house of mean appearance, in that part where you may now see the brewery of Claes van Volxem. Gans and Blaeskaek, coming thither, found him in his kitchen, making up his stews.

The apothecary, seeing Gans in such a piteous melancholy state, asked him if he had some ill whereof he wished to be cured.

“He has nothing to be cured of,” said Blaeskaek, “save an evil fear which has been tormenting him for a week past.”

Thereupon they told him the whole story of the chubby-faced image.

“Dear God!” said Josse Cartuyvels, for such was the name of this doctor of stews, “I know this devil well enough, and will show you his likeness.” And taking them up to the top of his house, into a small room which he had there, he showed them a gallant image of that same devil, making merry with pretty maids and gay goat-foot companions.

“And what is the name,” said Blaeskaek, “of this merry boy?”

“I have no doubt it is Bacchus,” said Josse Cartuyvels. “In olden times he was a god, but at the gracious coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ” – here all three crossed themselves – “he lost at once his power and his divinity. He was, in his time, good company, and more particularly notable as the inventor of wine, beer, and ale. It may be, on that account, that instead of hell he is only in purgatory, where no doubt he has become thirsty, and by God’s permission was allowed to return to earth, once only, no more, and there sing this lamentable song which you heard in your garden. But I suppose that he was not allowed to cry his thirst in countries where wine is chiefly drunk, and that he came accordingly to Master Gans, knowing well enough that with him he would find the best ale in all Brabant.”

“True,” said Gans, “true, friend Cartuyvels, the best in the duchy; and he drank up, if you please, a whole barrelful, without paying me so much as the smallest gold piece, nor silver, nor even copper. That is not the conduct of an honest devil.”

“Ah!” said Cartuyvels, “there you are in error, and do not perceive what is for your good and what for evil. But if you will take the advice I am about to give you, you may find a way whereby you can make clear profit from this Bacchus, for he is, you must know, the god of jolly drinkers and good innkeepers, and I am disposed to think that he will do you a good turn.”

“Well, then,” asked Blaeskaek, “what must we do now?”

“I have heard that this devil loves warmth and sunlight. So take him out, first of all, from this dark cellar. Then put him in some place whither the sun reaches, such as on top of the tall press which stands in the room where your customers sit and drink.”

“Sweet Jesus!” exclaimed Pieter Gans, “this is idolatry.”

“In no wise,” said the apothecary. “I mean only this; that, put up where I tell you, sniffing the good smell of stoups and flagons, and hearing jolly talk, he will grow altogether frolicsome and happy. So may you bring Christian comfort to poor dead souls.”

“But if,” said Pieter Gans, “the priests should get wind of this statue, so shamelessly set up for all to see?”

“They cannot find you guilty of sin, for innocence keeps nothing secret. You will show this Bacchus openly to all your friends and relatives, and say that you found him buried under the earth in a corner of your garden. Thus you will make him seem an ancient relic, as indeed he is. Only take care to forget his name when you speak of him to any one, and, entitling him, as in jest, Master Merry-face, use this name for him always, and institute in his honour a jolly brotherhood.”

“So we will,” answered Pieter Gans and Blaeskaek together, and they then departed, not without having given the apothecary two large coins for his trouble.

He did his best, however, to keep them back, so that they might partake of some of his heavenly hotch-potch, but Pieter Gans turned him a deaf ear, saying to himself that it was devil’s cooking, unwholesome for a good Christian stomach. So they left him and set out again for Uccle.

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