The Wrack of the Storm Part 12

Next they went to the inn owned by the Hunchback of St. Nicholas. Here also the door was opened directly, to appease them; but they reappeared amid a great outcry, with three children in their arms and surrounded by the Hunchback, his wife and his daughters, clasping their hands in token of entreaty.

On reaching the old man, the soldiers put down the children at the foot of an elm, where they remained, sitting on the snow in their Sunday clothes. But one of them, who wore a yellow frock, rose and toddled towards the sheep. A man ran after it with his naked sword; and the child died with its face in the grass, while the others were killed not far from the tree.

All the peasants and the inn-keeper's daughters took to flight, shrieking as they went, and returned to their homes. The priest, left alone in the orchard, besought the Spaniards with loud cries, going on his knees from horse to horse, with his arms crossed upon his breast, while the father and mother, sitting in the snow, wept piteously for the dead children that lay in their laps.

As the soldiers ran along the street, they remarked a big blue farm-house. They tried to break down the door, but it was of oak and studded with nails. Then they took some tubs that were frozen in a pool in front of the house and used them to climb to the upper windows, through which they made their way.

There had been a kermis at this farm; and kinsfolk had come to eat waffles, ham and custards with their family. At the sound of the broken panes, they had assembled behind the table covered with jugs and dishes. The soldiers entered the kitchen and, after a desperate struggle, in which many were wounded, they seized the little boys and girls, as well as the hind, who had bitten a soldier's thumb. Then they left the house, locking the door behind them to prevent the inmates from going with them.

Those of the villagers who had no children slowly left their homes and followed them from afar. When the soldiers carrying their victims came to the old man, they threw them on the grass and deliberately killed them with their spears and their swords, while all along the front of the blue house the men and women leant out of the windows of the upper floor and the loft, cursing and rocking wildly in the sunshine at the sight of the red, pink and white frocks of their little ones lying motionless on the grass among the trees. Then the soldiers hanged the hind from the sign of the Half Moon on the other side of the street; and there was a long silence in the village.

The massacre now began to spread. Mothers ran out of the houses and tried to escape to the open country through the gardens and kitchen-plots; but the horsemen scoured after them and drove them back into the street. Peasants, holding their caps in their clasped hands, followed upon their knees the men who were dragging away their children, among the dogs which barked deliriously amid the din. The priest, with his arms raised aloft, ran along the houses and under the trees, praying desperately, like a martyr; and soldiers, shivering with cold, blew on their fingers as they moved about the road, or, with their hands in the pockets of their trunks and their swords tucked under their arms, waited beneath the windows of the houses that were being scaled.

On seeing the grief-stricken terror of the peasants, they entered the farm-houses in little bands; and in like fashion they acted throughout the length of the street.

A woman who sold vegetables in the old red-brick cottage near the church seized a chair and ran after two men who were carrying off her children in a wheel-barrow. When she saw them die, a sickness overcame her; and she suffered the folk to press her into the chair, against a tree by the road-side.

Other soldiers climbed up the lime-trees in front of a house painted lilac and removed the tiles in order to enter the house. When they came out again upon the roof, the father and mother, with outstretched arms, also appeared in the opening; and they pushed them down repeatedly, cutting them over the head with their swords, before they could descend into the street.

One family, which had locked itself into the cellar of a rambling cottage, cried through the grating, where the father stood madly brandishing a pitchfork. An old, bald-headed man was sobbing all alone on a dung-heap; a woman in yellow had fainted in the market-place and her husband was holding her under her arms and moaning in the shadow of a pear-tree; another, in red, was kissing her little girl, who had lost her hands, and lifting first one arm and then the other to see if she would not move. Yet another ran into the country and the soldiers pursued her through the hayricks that bounded the snow-clad fields.

Beneath the inn of the Four Sons of Aymon there was a tumult as of a siege. The inhabitants had barred the door; and the soldiers went round and round the house without being able to make their way in.

They were trying to clamber up to the sign by the fruit-trees against the front wall, when they caught sight of a ladder behind the garden-door. They set it against the wall and mounted one after the other. Thereupon the landlord and all his household hurled tables, chairs, dishes and cradles at them from the windows. The ladder upset and the soldiers fell down.

In a wooden hut, at the end of the village, another band found a peasant-woman bathing her children in a tub by the fire. Being old and almost deaf, she did not hear them come in. Two soldiers took the tub and carried it off; and the dazed woman went after them, with the children's clothes, wanting to dress them. But, when she came to the door and suddenly saw the splashes of blood in the village, the swords in the orchard, the cradles over-turned in the street, women on their knees and women waving their arms around the dead, she began to cry out with all her strength and to strike the soldiers, who put down the tub to defend themselves. The priest also came hastening up and, folding his hands across his vestment, entreated the Spaniards before the naked children, who were whimpering in the water. Other soldiers then came up and pushed him aside and bound the raving peasant-woman to a tree.

The butcher had hidden his little daughter and, leaning against his house, looked on in unconcern. A foot-soldier and one of the men in armour went in and discovered the child in a copper cauldron. Then the butcher, in desperation, took one of his knives and chased them down the street; but a band that was passing struck the knife from his grasp and hanged him by the hands to the hooks in his wall, among the flayed carcases, where he twitched his legs and jerked his head and cursed and swore till evening.

Near the churchyard, a crowd had assembled outside a long green farm-house. The farmer stood on his threshold weeping bitter tears; as he was very fat, with a face made for smiling, the hearts of the soldiers softened in some measure as they sat in the sun with their backs to the wall, listening to him and patting his dog the while. But the one who was dragging the child away by the hand made gestures as though to say:

"You may save your tears! It is not my fault!"

A peasant who was being hotly pursued sprang into a boat moored to the stone bridge and pushed across the pond with his wife and children.

The soldiers, not daring to venture on the ice, strode angrily through the reeds. They climbed into the willows on the bank, trying to reach them with their spears; and, when they failed, continued for a long time to threaten the family, where they all sat cowering in the middle of the water.

Meanwhile, the orchard was still full of people, for it was there that most of the children were slain, in front of the man with the white beard who directed the massacre. The little boys and girls who were big enough to walk alone also collected there and, munching their bread-and-butter, stood looking on curiously to see the others die or gathered round the village idiot, who lay upon the grass playing a whistle.

Then suddenly a movement ran through the length of the village. The peasants were turning their steps toward the castle, standing on a high mound of yellow earth at the end of the street. They had caught sight of the lord of the village leaning on the battlements of his tower, watching the massacre. And the men, women and old folk stretched out their arms to him where he sat in his cloak of purple velvet and cap of gold and entreated him as though he were a king in heaven. But he threw up his arms and shrugged his shoulders, to show his helplessness; and, when they implored him in ever-increasing anguish and knelt bareheaded in the snow, uttering loud cries, he turned back slowly into the tower; and in the hearts of the peasants all hope died.

When all the children were killed, the tired soldiers wiped their swords on the grass and supped under the pear-trees. Then the foot-soldiers mounted behind the others and they all rode out of Nazareth together, by the stone bridge, as they had come.

The setting sun lit the forest with a red light and painted the village a new colour. Weary with running and entreating, the priest had sat down in the snow in front of the church; and his servant-maid stood near him, looking around. They saw the street and the orchard filled with peasants in their holiday attire, moving about the market-place and along the houses. Outside the doors, families, with their dead children on their knees, whispered in amazement and horror of the fate wherewith they had been assailed. Others were still mourning the child where it had fallen, near a cask, under a barrow or at a puddle's edge, or were carrying it away in silence. Several were already washing the benches, chairs, tables and shirts all smirched with blood and picking up the cradles that had been flung into the street. But nearly all the mothers were kneeling on the grass under the trees, before the dead bodies, which they knew by their woollen frocks. Those who had no children were roaming about the market-place, stopping to gaze at the afflicted groups. The men who had done weeping took the dogs and started in pursuit of their strayed beasts, or mended their broken windows or gaping roofs, while the village grew hushed and still beneath the light of the moon as it rose slowly in the sky.


Chapter end

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