From Tales of Humour, Anonymous, London: Burns and Oates; New York: Benzigers; undated (c. 1890); pp. 233-246.
BALDWIN THE NINTH
IT was in the year 1198; and Baldwin the Ninth, Count of Flanders, while meditating that crusade which ultimately raised him to the throne of Constantinople, was at the same time earnestly occupied in the enactment of wholesome laws for the government of his people.
This wise prince was fully aware that the human race was in a state of progress, and that civilization advanced in proportion as the tenets of the Gospel gained ground.
The Flemings had obtained many privileges and franchises from his predecessors, and he resolved to give them complete charters which should assure their rights; he gave great encouragement to commerce, and may fairly be regarded as the father of his country’s prosperity.
It was a precept often repeated by him, “That, according to the dictates of sound reason, princes ought to be assisted and honoured by their subjects; but that, on the other hand, the rights of the subject ought to be sacredly respected and supported by the prince.” On his part, so far from attempting to curb and limit those rights, he augmented them, and had his reign been longer, Flanders would have outstripped all the neighbouring nations in the march of improvement. He endeavoured to 236 strengthen the laws, regulated the weights and measures, and made a uniform coinage; he thought, indeed, only of amending the condition of his people, and improving the state of his dominions. It was, as it is said, his constant practice to sally forth alone and in disguise, and traverse the country, or visit the assemblies of the people in the towns, where he mingled with them, shared their beer with them, and passing himself off for a merchant of Artois or Liege, conversed freely with them upon their customs, their wishes, and their tastes, collected their observations and remarks, studied their manners, took note of the defects in the administration of justice which they pointed out to him, and made himself acquainted with the encroachments and tyrannies in which the nobles and baillies sometimes indulged themselves. Thus it often happened, that without their understanding how their griefs had become known to their sovereign, the victims of oppression found their wrongs repaired, and had justice rendered to them without having solicited it.
There are many legends of the adventures of Baldwin the Ninth, but that which we are about to relate is not, perhaps, of the class that may be expected from the nature of our preamble. It refers only to the people whom Baldwin watched over and protected so carefully. But we have indulged in this little preface in order to render homage to the private life of the great prince who was the hero of the following story.
It happened one day that Baldwin the Ninth, — he was not then called Baldwin of Constantinople, — being at his good city of Bruges with a few of his courtiers, took a fancy, after dinner, to indulge in one of his solitary rambles among the villages in the environs of the city. Bruges was already a rich and beautiful town; but in that commercial city the 237 population was so dense, that the Count of Flanders contemplated increasing its extent, — a project which was not executed till the second half of the following century.
Baldwin quitted the Bourg, or castle of the Counts, by a little door in the garden; he was modestly habited in a doublet of grey cloth, with leathern hose. He was armed only with a short sword, such as was worn by the merchants; he was on foot, and held in his hand a solid staff of whitethorn hardened in the fire.
He traversed Bruges, noticing everything, but himself avoiding notice, reached the gate of the Sablon, passed through some hamlets, and was overtaken by night in a wayside public-house, where he conversed with some people who had been attending a wedding; this place was at no great distance from the city, and Baldwin set out on his return. It was nearly dark when he came in sight of the Flemish gate.
In consequence of the troubles and intestine wars of the preceding reigns, there were then in Flanders a great many adventurers who lived by rapine, as indeed was at that time the case in every country of Europe. These men were, for the most part, disbanded soldiers, who lived by highway robbery when peace deprived them of their customary sources of plunder.
The Crusades had in a great measure delivered Europe from these brigands; but many still remained; besides that, new bands were formed with the less scruple, that the legitimacy of the right of force was as yet scarcely questioned. Since kings themselves, stopping and pillaging the merchants who passed through their dominions, had set the example of robbery to the armed hand, and held it as a chivalrous exploit, many of the nobles laid wait in their forests and plundered the people who ventured 238 to journey through them. Thus it happened a little later that the French King St. Louis compelled his barons to swear upon the holy relics to certain stipulations, by which they agreed not to coin false money, or rob the passengers on the highway.
Meantime Baldwin the Ninth was about two hundred paces from the Flemish gate, and distinctly perceived, through the loopholes in one of the great towers that flank the gate, a man descending the staircase with a lamp; at the same moment five armed desperadoes, rushing from behind a large tree that stood beside the road, placed themselves before the Count of Flanders, whom they took for a merchant, and brandishing their long swords demanded his purse. Baldwin replied only by making a step toward the boldest of these brigands, then by a vigorous blow of his staff he broke his sword, which flew in pieces; then as if regretting having made use only of his cudgel, which was called the weapon of the serfs, he drew his sword, and shouting the cry for help then in use, “For me, by the peace of God!” he put himself on his guard.
He stood with his back against the great tree, and raised his staff in his left hand, making it serve the purpose of a buckler to parry the blows of his assailants. The five brigands fell furiously upon him, — nobody in the city had heard his cry. Notwithstanding his strength and courage, Baldwin alone would not have been able to make head against so many antagonists, if Heaven had not sent him assistance.
A peasant, who had been threshing corn in a neighbouring barn, took a little cross road, and hastened, repeating the cry of alarm, to the help of his sovereign, whom he was far from suspecting as such. He was armed only with his flail; but that in the hands of the rustics was a terrible weapon, and had decided the fate of several great battles. The 239 countryman, who according to the tradition was named Ely, made his flail play so effectively round the heads of the brigands, while Baldwin defended himself like a lion, that in a few minutes two of the cut-throats were extended half dead upon the ground, and the other three took to flight.
To have done with these miscreants, we add at once that the two who were wounded having made known the resort of their comrades who had escaped, when the gatekeepers took them up, the five rogues were hanged. Baldwin, finding himself in safety, thanked the man who had so bravely rescued him, and inquired his name; when he found that Ely was a poor man who lived decently with his wife upon the humble produce of his daily labour, he took an interest in him.
“I have a place at Court,” he said; “can I not be of use to you?”
The Prince felt that it was not by the offering of a mere sum of money that a great service can be requited.
“Certainly,” replied Ely, “you can oblige me, if you have credit with my Lord the Count, in which case, blessed be the occasion which called me to your assistance. Nevertheless, though,” he added, “it would be a great kindness on your part. We should all help each other as Christians; I did but do my duty, Sir, and doubtless if you had seen me in a like strait, you would have aided me.”
“Certes, by the holy cross, I should!” answered Baldwin.
“By the holy cross!” repeated Ely with a smile; “that is a fine oath; it is easy to be seen that you are in the train of the Lord Count of Flanders, for that is his oath!”
Baldwin bit his lips; he did not wish as yet to make himself known.240
“That ought to induce you,” he said, “to confide to me what you require to make you happy; I promise not to forget you.”
“Oh, but I am ambitious!” said the villager as he walked beside his lord; “that which I should ask of you is perhaps too difficult to obtain!”
“Who knows?” returned the Count, “speak out!”
“Well, sir, since I must speak out,” said the countryman; “the farm I came from, is seven and twenty bonniers.* Since the days of the Lord Baldwin of the Iron Arm (glory to his name and peace to his soul,) — you see that this is a long time back, — this farm has belonged to my Lord the Count of Flanders. I am fifty years old, and for thirty years I have threshed corn and other grain. This farm is a fine property, and I should like — But no, it is too much; you will say that I abuse your kindness!”
“No! by the Saviour! I shall not say that,” said the Count. “Speak to me with confidence.”
“By the Saviour!” murmured Ely, “another oath of the Lord Count; it is astonishing how these people of the Court learn good manner.” Then he added in a louder tone, “Well, then, Sir, I should ask, — but you wish me to speak? — Well, then, I should wish to be for the rest of my life, — for all my life — the farmer of the farm where I am the thresher! It would not displace anybody, for the last farmer is dead.”
“But this is no impossibility!” said Baldwin.
“Do you think not?” exclaimed Ely, with his heart bounding.
“Come to me to-morrow,” said the Count.
“Where shall I see you?” inquired Ely.
“Here, in this castle.”
“In this castle!” exclaimed the countryman.241
“Yes; in this castle.”
“But they will not let me pass,” said Ely.
“Oh!” said Baldwin; “you must ask for the Count’s secretary.”
“Well, then,” said Ely, “I will come.”
And thus the two friends separated.
On his return home the good man Ely related to his wife, how he had encountered on the road, and in sight of the city gates, a man assailed by five brigands; how he had assisted the man who was attacked, and put the robbers to flight with his flail; and how the person whom he had saved had promised him his support.
“He is,” added the countryman, “the secretary of my Lord the Count.”
The woman, who, like her husband, could neither read nor write, inquired what a secretary might be.
“Oh!” replied Ely; “he is more than a thresher, or even a farmer; he must be something like a bailiff. For this person, though he was plainly dressed, and not at all proud, talked like a priest.”
“And do you think, Ely,” said the woman, “that he will help you?”
“Yes; I believe he will,” answered Ely; “he lives at my Lord’s castle, and he has asked me to go and see him to-morrow.”
“And are you going?” inquired the woman.
“Yes; I shall go. I have asked him to obtain the farm for me.”
“Oh, that is too much, Ely!” said the woman. “Those who try for so much get nothing.”
“Bah!” said Ely; “leave me alone. My Lord the Count of Flanders is a worthy prince. He will not refuse so much to his Secretary, who, without my flail, had been done for. I am of opinion, my dear, that to-morrow you will be a farmer’s wife!”
The married couple went to bed with these agreeable 242 thoughts. The poor woman abandoned herself to the hopes of her husband. She joined him in his projects. In imagination she beheld her children in comfort; she had flocks of chickens, and troops of little pigs; she had beautiful cows in her cow-house, and plenty of corn in the granary; her chimney hung with hams and brawn; while in her cellars she had ample provisions, of walnuts and butter, of beer and apples. She slept, cradled by these pleasing dreams.
She waked the first in the morning, assisted Ely to dress in his best, and followed him in fancy, while with a beating heart he directed his steps toward the palace of his sovereign.
Meanwhile, on his reaching the gate of the palace, the appearance of two guards armed with halberds inspired him with a certain degree of terror.
“They will not let me pass!” he said to himself. Under this apprehension, then, he approached timidly, doffed his blue woollen cap, and inquired of one of the porters, if he could not speak with my Lord’s secretary.
The guards having been instructed how to act, —
“Are you the man of the flail? Is your name Ely?” they inquired, and on receiving an affirmative answer, with much respect they bade him enter.
A massive door was opened, and the villager found himself in a vast armoury, hung with sabres, bucklers, cuirasses, and lances.
Several pages were waiting in the armoury, and as soon as Ely was named by the guard, one of these youths hastened to inform the Count of his arrival. Baldwin presently appeared, attired in the same garb as he had worn on the preceding evening; he took the good man by the hand, and said to him, —
“I thank you for the confidence you have placed in me.”
Ely, who did not altogether comprehend the meaning 243 of this address, replied, “Oh! I have hardly slept, for the hopes you gave me; it would be a real bounty of heaven if you could succeed!”
Then approaching nearer to his valuable acquaintance, and speaking in a lower tone, so as not to be heard by the pages, who, without his observing it, stood apart in a respectful attitude, he continued, —
“Have you had the opportunity of saying a word to my Lord about our affair?”
“Certainly!” answered the Count; “he knows all about it; and there are good hopes for you. But in the meantime, would you not like to see the castle?”
“I am quite dazzled by it, Sir,” said Ely. “Is there any other chamber to equal this?”
Ely fancied that the brilliant saloon in which he stood was the whole palace. Baldwin smiled. At that period, in consequence of the numerous expeditions of the crusaders, the taste for luxury and art had greatly increased. The Count took pleasure in leading the good man through the long suite of apartments in which the Count resided: in showing him the saloons, the baths, and the sumptuous bed-chambers. At every step, Ely broke out into exclamations of surprise. One pair of eyes seemed scarcely sufficient for him, as he gazed around upon the painted walls, upon the gorgeous furniture, upon the ceilings where the rafters were gilded and ornamented with arabesques. He thought himself in an abode of fairy land.
“Oh! how beautiful it is!” he exclaimed.
Baldwin was amused with this simple admiration. Accustomed to the grandeur which surrounded him, he contrasted his own position with that of the poor man, who, having inhabited only a hut, thought himself very ambitious in desiring a farm.
“Well,” said he, as he observed the countryman absorbed in contemplating the decorations that surrounded 244 him. “Instead of your farm should you not like to live here?”
“Perhaps, Sir, if I were the master!” answered Ely, smiling. “But this is a palace of the sovereign. Before raising our eyes so much, we must look to our feet. What should I do here? I was not born to step upon gold, and my eyes would ill support so much splendour!”
“So you will be happy then with the little farm?” said the Count.
“Oh!” exclaimed the peasant; “if I obtain it I shall be the happiest of men; and my wife, what a life of joy it will be for her! I shall have only the Count of Flanders for lord and master. I shall bless this palace as his abode; and if the day should come for me to see him with my own eyes, it will be a great honour and a happy remembrance.”
“You would then very much like to see your Prince?” said the Count.
“Who would not be rejoiced to see him, Sir!” cried the peasant; — “he who strives so constantly for the prosperity of the country, who watches over us to secure justice for us all, who lessens as much as possible the number of the unfortunate, and who seeks to establish good laws.”
“Well, then, if you love him so sincerely,” said Baldwin, greatly moved by these eulogiums, ‘I will enable you presently to appear before him.”
“Oh, excuse me!” exclaimed Ely, “I should not like to venture it just now. How should I behave myself before so great a sovereign?”
“Oh!” replied the Count, “he is a man with no more pride than myself. If you will follow me, I will show you an assembly of the courtiers, with Baldwin, Count of Flanders and Hainault, in the midst of them.”
“It makes my heart beat only to think of it,” 245 said the villager; “but no matter, I trust myself to you. I should be so delighted to see a Count; doubtless, my Lord the Count has his dress all glittering with gold.”
“Not at all,” answered Baldwin; “there is nothing in that respect to distinguish him from his courtiers; it is not often indeed that he is attired as splendidly as some among them!”
“Alas, Sir!” sighed the villager, suddenly pausing, “how then shall I recognize him?”
“By one circumstance!” returned the Count; ‘by the great respect that will be shown to him — every one will rise in his presence.”
Ely reflected for a moment, as if to consider the meaning of this indication, then he gave his hand to his guide, who suddenly opening a door, showed him into a vast and magnificent saloon where the whole Court was assembled. There were counts, barons, marquises, and knights, judges, and pages, and beautiful ladies. Gold, silk, velvet, and precious stones, glittered on the vestments of that numerous company. Everybody rose, all the men bowed profoundly, all the ladies made deep curtsies, on the appearance of Ely and his conductor.
The poor man turned pale in his confusion, and pressing closer to the pretended Secretary of the Count, looked eagerly round the noble assembly in search of the sovereign. But seeing that all this respect was directed to the spot where he himself stood, he was seized with a violent trembling, and casting his eyes upon the person who had introduced him, —
“By our Lady, it is!” he exclaimed, addressing Baldwin in a broken voice. “Is it you then, my Lord?”
Ely hesitated and his knees bent under him.246
“Yes, I am the Count of Flanders!” said Baldwin, taking him by the hand, while the poor man sunk upon his knees.
The Count raised him, and presenting him to the assembly, “My lords and knights,” said he, “behold the man who yesterday saved my life, and for whom I claim your consideration.”
The knights and ladies then approached Ely, shook him by the hand, and complimented him, while all the time the good villager was quite bewildered, and could scarcely help thinking that he was in a dream. The pages, by order of Baldwin, took him into another room, and attired him in a new cloth vest, with a good cap of red wool, after which he was again brought before the Count, who put into his left hand a pound of gold money, and in the right a parchment.
“What is this?” inquired Ely timidly.
It was then explained to him that it was the deed by which he was to become master of the little farm, not merely as the tenant, but as the proprietor, upon the sole condition of acknowledging himself the vassal of the Count, and of coming every year to do him homage with his flail upon his shoulder, on the anniversary of the event which had procured him the favour.
It would be difficult to paint the ecstasy of Ely; he returned in triumph to his cottage, escorted by four of the Count’s officers, who put him in immediate possession of the farm. As for his wife, she was almost wild with joy. She decorated with flowers her husband’s flail; and this, as the instrument of their good fortune, was ever after venerated as the most precious article on the farm.
1 This is an anonymous translation from the French tale number XXII, “Une aventure de Baudouin IX,” in Légendes du moyen âge, by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy, Henri Plon: Paris, 1863; pp. 213-228.
Plancy ends his story with the statement, pp. 227-228:
“Plusieurs princes ont eu des aventures qui ressemblent à celle-ci; Walter Scott en raconte une qui paraît copiée de cette légende, et qui est attribuée à un roi d’Écosse; mais Baudouin, a, je crois, la priorité de date.”
“Several princes have had adventures similar to the one here; Walter Scott related one that appears to be copied from this one, and which is attributed to a King of Scotland; but, Baldwin has, I believe, priority in date.”