The Massacre of the Innocents

by Maurice Maeterlinck

Translated by

Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

(From The Wrack of the Storm

Copyright 1916, Dodd, Mead, and Company)

[Author's note and Translator's note at end.]

[Online editor's notes]

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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 marketplace. 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.

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 overturned 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.


[Author's note:] The Massacre of the Innocents appeared for the first time in 1886, in a little periodical called La Pléïade 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 Breughel 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.

[Translator's note:] The present volume [The Wrack of the Storm] contains, in the chronological order in which they were produced, all the essays published and all the speeches delivered by M. Maeterlinck since the beginning of the war [World War I]. . . . I have also had M. Maeterlinck's leave to include in this volume his first published work, The Massacre of the Innocents. This powerful sketch in the Flemish manner saw the light originally in the Pléïade, in 1886, and may at the present time, to use the author's own words in a note to myself, be regarded as "a sort of vague symbolic prophecy." An English version by Mrs. Edith Wingate Rinder was printed in the Dome in 1899; another has since been issued by an English and by an American firm of publishers; but the only authorized translation to appear in book form is that now added as an epilogue to The Wrack of the Storm. [pages 303-330]

--Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

Chelsea, 1916.