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The Wrack of the Storm Part 11

THE MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS

_The Massacre of the Innocents_ appeared for the first time in 1886, in a little periodical called _La Pleade_ which some friends and I had founded in the Latin Quarter and which died of inanition after its sixth number. My reason for making room in the present volume for these pages marking a very modest start--they were the first that found their way into print--is not that I am under any delusion as to the merits of this youthful work, in which I had simply aimed at reproducing as best I could the different episodes of a picture in the Brussels Museum, painted in the sixteenth century by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. But it appeared to me that circumstances had made of this humble literary effort a sort of prophetic vision; for it is but too likely that similar scenes must have been repeated in more than one of our unhappy Flemish or Brabant villages and that to describe them as they were lately enacted we should have only to change the name of the butchers and probably, alas, to accentuate their cruelty, their injustice and their hideousness!--M. M.

It was close upon supper-time, that Friday the twenty-sixth day of the month of December, when a little shepherd-lad came into Nazareth, sobbing bitterly.

Some peasants drinking ale in the Blue Lion opened the shutters to look into the village orchard and observed the child running over the snow. They saw that he was Korneliz' boy and cried from the window:

"What's the matter? Get home with you to bed!"

But he replied in terror that the Spaniards were come, that they had set fire to the farm, hanged his mother among the walnut-trees and bound his nine little sisters to the trunk of a big tree.

The peasants rushed out of the inn, gathered round the child and plied him with questions. Then he also told them that the soldiers were on horseback and wore mail, that they had driven away the cattle of his uncle Petrus Krayer and that they would soon be entering the forest with the cows and sheep.

All ran to the Golden Sun, where Korneliz and his brother-in-law were also drinking their pot of ale; and the inn-keeper sped into the village, shouting that the Spaniards were at hand.

Then there was a great din in Nazareth. The women opened the windows and the peasants left their houses with lights which they put out as soon as they reached the orchard, where it was bright as midday, because of the snow and the full moon.

They crowded round Korneliz and Krayer in the market-place, in front of the two inns. Several had brought their pitchforks and their rakes and consulted one another, terror-stricken, under the trees.

But, as they knew not what to do, one of them went to fetch the parish-priest, who owned Korneliz' farm. He came out of his house with the sacristan, bringing the keys of the church. All followed him into the churchyard; and he shouted to them from the top of the tower that he could see nothing in the fields nor in the forest, but that there were red clouds in the neighbourhood of his farm, though the sky was blue and full of stars over all the rest of the country.

After deliberating for a long time in the churchyard, they decided to hide in the wood through which the Spaniards would have to pass and to attack them if they were not too many, so as to recover Petrus Krayer's cattle and the plunder which they had taken from the farm.

They armed themselves with pitchforks and spades; and the women remained near the church with the priest.

Seeking a suitable spot for their ambuscade, they came to a mill on the skirt of the forest and saw the farm burning amid the starlight.

Here, under some huge oaks, in front of a frozen pool, they took up their position.

A shepherd whom they called the Red Dwarf went up the hill to warn the miller, who had stopped his mill when he saw the flames on the horizon. He invited the fellow in, however; and the two of them placed themselves at a window to watch the distance.

In front of them the moon was shining over the burning farm; and they saw a long host marching over the snow. When they had taken stock of it, the Dwarf went down to those in the forest; and presently they descried four horsemen above a herd of animals that seemed to be cropping the grass.

As the men, in their blue hose and their red cloaks, were looking around them on the edge of the pool and under the snow-lit trees, the sacristan pointed to a box-hedge; and they went and hid behind it.

The cattle and the Spaniards came over the ice; and the sheep on reaching the hedge were already beginning to nibble at the leaves, when Korneliz broke through the bushes; and the others followed with their pitchforks into the light. Then there was a great slaughter on the pond, while the huddled sheep and the cows gazed at the battle in their midst and at the moon above them.

When the men and the horses had been killed, Korneliz ran into the meadows towards the flames; and the others stripped the dead. Then they went back to the village with the herds. The women watching the gloomy forest from behind the walls of the churchyard saw them approaching through the trees and, with the priest, hurried to meet them; and they returned dancing gleefully all amongst the children and the dogs.

While they made merry under the pear-trees in the orchard, where the Red Dwarf hung up lanterns as a sign of kermis, they consulted the priest as to what they were to do.

They at last resolved to put a horse to a cart and fetch the bodies of the woman and her nine little daughters to the village. The dead woman's sisters and the other peasant-women of her family climbed into it, as did the priest, who was not well able to walk, being advanced in years and very stout.

They entered the forest once more and arrived in silence at the dazzling white plain, where they saw the naked men and the horses lying on their backs upon the gleaming ice among the trees. Then they went on to the farm, which they could see burning in the distance.

When they came to the orchard and to the house all red with flames, they stopped at the gate to mark the great misfortune that had befallen the farmer in his garden. His wife was hanging all naked from the branches of a great walnut-tree; he himself was mounting a ladder to climb the tree, around which the nine little girls were waiting for their mother on the grass. Already he was walking among the huge boughs, when suddenly he saw the crowd, black against the snow, watching him. Weeping, he made signs to them to help him; and they went into the garden. Then the sacristan, the Red Dwarf, the landlord of the Blue Lion and he of the Golden Sun, the parish-priest, with a lantern, and many other peasants climbed into the snow-laden walnut-tree to cut down the corpse, which the women of the village received in their arms at the foot of the tree, even as at the descent from the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The next day they buried her; and nothing else out of the common happened at Nazareth that week. But, on the following Sunday, hungry wolves ran through the village after high mass and it snowed until noon; then the sun suddenly shone in the sky; and the peasants went in to dinner, as was their wont, and dressed for benediction.

At that moment there was no one in the market-place, for it was freezing cruelly. Only the dogs and hens remained under the trees, where some sheep were nibbling at a three-cornered patch of grass, while the priest's maid-servant swept away the snow from the presbytery-garden.

Then a troop of armed men crossed the stone bridge at the end of the village and halted in the orchard. Some peasants came out of their houses; but, on recognizing the Spaniards, they retreated in terror and went to their windows to see what would happen.

There were some thirty horsemen, clad in armour, around an old man with a white beard. Behind them they carried red and yellow foot-soldiers, who jumped down and ran over the snow to shake off their stiffness, while several of the men in armour also alighted and eased themselves against the trees to which they had fastened their horses.

Then they turned to the Golden Sun and knocked at the door. It was opened hesitatingly; and they warmed themselves at the fire and called for ale.

Next they came out of the inn, carrying pots and jugs and wheaten loaves for their comrades, who sat ranked around the man with the white beard, waiting in the midst of the lances.

As the street was empty, the commander sent horsemen to the back of the houses, to guard the village on its open side, and ordered the foot-soldiers to bring to him all the children of two years old and under, to be massacred, as is written in the Gospel according to St.

Matthew.

The soldiers went first to the inn of the Green Cabbage and to the barber's cottage, which stood side by side, midway in the street.

One of them opened a stable-door; and a litter of pigs escaped and scattered over the village. The inn-keeper and the barber came out and humbly asked the soldiers what they wanted; but the men knew no Flemish and went in to look for the children.

The inn-keeper had one, which sat crying in its little shirt on the table where they had just had dinner. A man took the child in his arms and carried it away under the apple-tree, while the father and mother followed him with cries of lamentation.

The soldiers also threw open the cooper's shed and the blacksmith's and the cobbler's; and the calves, cows, asses, pigs, goats and sheep strayed about the market-place. When the men broke the glass of the carpenter's windows, several of the peasants, including the oldest and richest farmers in the parish, assembled in the street and went towards the Spaniards. They doffed their hats and caps respectfully to the leader in his velvet cloak and asked him what he was going to do; but even he did not understand their language; and some one went to fetch the priest.

He was making ready for benediction and putting on a gold cope in the sacristy. The peasant called out:

"The Spaniards are in the orchard!"

Horrified, the priest ran to the church-door, accompanied by the serving-boys carrying tapers and censer.

Then he saw the animals released from their sheds roaming on the snow and the grass, the horsemen in the village, the soldiers outside the doors, the horses tied to the trees along the street and the men and women entreating him who was holding the child in its shirt.

He rushed to the churchyard; and the peasants turned anxiously to their priest, coming through the pear-trees like a god robed in gold, and stood around him and the man with the white beard.

He spoke in Flemish and Latin; but the commander shrugged his shoulders slowly up and down to show that he did not understand.

His parishioners asked him under their breath:

"What does he say? What is he going to do?"

Others, on seeing the priest in the orchard, came timidly from their farms; the women hurried up and stood whispering among the groups; while some soldiers who were besieging an inn ran back at the sight of the great crowd that was forming in the market-place.

Then the man who was holding by one leg the child of the landlord of the Green Cabbage cut off its head with his sword.

The head fell before their eyes and the body fell after it and lay bleeding on the grass. The mother picked it up and carried it away, leaving the head behind her. She ran towards the house, but stumbled against a tree and fell flat on the snow, where she lay in a swoon, while the father struggled between two soldiers.

Some of the younger peasants threw stones and blocks of wood at the Spaniards, but the horsemen all lowered their lances together, the women fled and the priest began to cry out in horror with his parishioners, all among the sheep, the geese and the dogs.

However, as the soldiers were once more moving down the street, the folk stood silent to see what they would do.

The band entered the shop kept by the sacristan's sisters and then came out quietly, without harming the seven women, who knelt on the doorstep praying.

Chapter end

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