The Three Sisters (Flemish Legends) By Charles de Coster
I. Of the three noble ladies and their great beauty.
In the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ 690, lived three maidens, descended, by male issue, from the noble line of the great emperor Octavian.
Their names were Blanche, Claire, and Candide.
Though they had dedicated the flower of their maidenhead to God, it is not to be supposed that this was for lack of lovers.
For, on every day that passed, a crowd of people used to collect for nothing else than to see them go by on their way to church, and onlookers would say of them: “See what gentle eyes, see what white hands!”
More than one, besides, with his mouth watering to look at them, would say sorrowfully: “Must it be that such sweet maids as these should dedicate themselves to God, who has eleven thousand or more in his Paradise already.”
“But none so fair,” answered an old wheezing merchant behind them, who was drinking in the fragrance of their dresses.
And going off on his way, if the old man saw any young fellow loafing by the roadside, or lying on his belly in the grass to warm his back in the sun, he would give him a kick in the ribs, saying: “Well now, dost thou care nothing to see the finest flowers of beauty that were ever blowing?”
II. How a prince of Araby was taken with love for the youngest sister, and what came of it.
Not a few young men tried to win them in marriage, but failing in this endeavour, turned moody and pined visibly away.
Among them was a certain prince of Araby, who had himself baptized with great ceremony. And this for the sake of the youngest sister solely.
But, failing to attain his end, either by pleading or by force, set himself one morning before her door, and there let himself fall on his sword.
The maid, hearing this fair lord cry out, came down in haste and had him carried in and laid on her own bed; whereat (for he was not quite dead) he found great solace.
And when she bent over him to bathe and dress his wound, he roused what force he had left in him, kissed her on her red mouth, sighed like a man delivered from torment, and so gave up his soul happily.
But the maid was not at all pleased at this kiss, for she considered it a dishonour to her divine husband Jesus. Nevertheless she wept for the fair lord, a little.
III. Wherein it is seen how Satan persecutes those ladies who seek to escape from the world.
There were oftentimes a great crowd of suitors before the dwelling of the three ladies, some of them sighing laments, others prancing up and down on fine horses, others without uttering a word, but only looking up at the windows all the day long.
And oftentimes these men would fight together and kill one another, from jealousy. At this the ladies were saddened exceedingly.
“Ah,” said the two elder to their sister, “pray for us, white Blanche, white of soul and white of body, pray for us, little one. Jesus listens readily to the prayers of such maids as thou art.”
“My sisters,” answered she, “I am less worthy than you, but I will pray, if you so wish it.”
“Yes,” said they.
Then the three sisters knelt down, and the youngest prayed in this manner:
“Kind Jesus, we have sinned against you assuredly, else you would not have let our beauty so touch these wicked men. Yes, we have indeed sinned, but, weaklings that we are, despite ourselves, Lord. Ah, grant us pardon for our great sorrow. You would have us for your own, and so indeed we have kept ourselves: our youth and beauty, mirth and sadness, vows and prayers, souls and bodies, thoughts and deeds, everything. In the morning, at noon, and at vesper-time, at all hours and all moments, do we not have you in our minds? When your bright sun rises, O beloved, and no less when your bright stars shine in your heaven, they can see us at prayer, and offering to you, not gold, frankincense, or myrrh, but our humble loves and our poor hearts. That is not enough, we know well. Dear one, teach us to do more.”
Pausing here they sighed sorrowfully, all three.
“Kind Jesus,” went on the youngest sister, “we know well enough the desire of these men. They think themselves brave and handsome, and hope on this account to capture our love, but they are neither handsome, nor brave, nor good, as you are, Jesus. And yours we are and shall be always, and theirs never. Will you please to love us also a little, for you alone are our comfort and joy in this sad world, Jesus? We will not be unfaithful to you in anything. Ah, let us rather die quickly, for we hunger and thirst for you. If you will, let these evil men continue to pursue us with their loves, ’twill be but delight to suffer it for your sake. Nevertheless, the mortal husband leaves not his wife in danger, nor the betrothed his bride. Are you not better than they, and will you not keep us also from the snares of the enemy? If it be not pleasing to you, do nothing, but then it may be that one day some one will steal from us our virginity, which is yours only. Ah, dear beloved, rather let us pass our lives old, ugly, leprous, and then descend into purgatory, among devils, flame, and brimstone, there to wait until you deem us pure enough at length to take us into your Paradise, where we shall be allowed to see you and love you for ever. Have pity upon us. Amen.”
And having spoken thus, the poor child wept, and her sisters with her, saying: “Pity, Jesus, pity.”
IV. Of the voice of the divine bridegroom, and of the horseman in silvern armour.
Suddenly they heard a low voice saying: “Take heart.”
“Hark,” they said, “the husband deigns to speak to his brides.”
And presently the room was filled with a perfume more delicate than that of a censer burning finest frankincense.
Then the voice spake further: “To-morrow,” it said, “when dawn breaks, go out from the town. Mount your palfreys, and, riding without halt, follow the road without heeding whither it leads. I will guide you.”
“We will obey you,” they said, “for you have made us the happiest of the daughters of men.”
And rising from their knees, they kissed one another joyfully.
While the voice was speaking to them, there had come into the square a beautiful horseman in silvern armour, with a golden helm on his head, and, flying above that like a bird, a crest more brilliant than a flame. The horse whereon he rode was of pure white.
None of those there had seen him coming, and he was as if risen from the ground among the crowd of lovers, who, seized with fear, dared not look him in the face.
“Rascals,” quoth he, “take these horses away out of the square. Do you not know that the noise of their hooves troubles these three ladies in their prayers?”
And therewith he rode away towards the east.
“Ah,” said the lovers to one another, “saw you that silvern armour and that flaming crest? ’Twas an angel of God assuredly, come from Paradise for the sake of these three ladies.” The more insistent among them muttered: “He did not forbid us to stand on foot before the door, and in that wise we may yet remain with impunity.”
V. How, by the command of God, the three ladies rode to adventure.
On the morrow, therefore, before daylight, the suitors returned once again in great numbers, but first left their horses behind them in their stables. Soon after daybreak they saw the three ladies ride out from their courtyard, in obedience to the command which God had given them, each one mounted upon her palfrey. Supposing that they were but going out into the neighbouring meadows to take the clean air, they followed behind, one and all, singing merry carols in their honour.
For so long as they were in the streets of the town the palfreys moved slowly, but once out in the open country they began galloping.
The lovers tried still to follow them, but at last were forced to drop off, and fell one by one along the wayside.
When they had covered some miles the palfreys stood still; and the three ladies, seeing that they had come free of their pursuers, resolved to give honour to God for his aid, and to this end to build him a fair church.
Where? They did not know. But the thing was already decided in Paradise, as you shall see.
For as soon as they were once again on their horses, the animals, guided by God’s holy spirit, set off at a high trot.
And leapt rivers, threaded forests, passed through towns, whereof the gates opened of themselves to let them by, and closed again after, bounded over walls and like obstacles.
And startled every one they met, all amazed to see go by, quick as the wind, these three white horses and these three fair ladies.
And travelled in this way for a thousand leagues, or rather more.
VI. Of the diamond hammers, and foundations torn up from the ground.
At Haeckendover, in the duchy of Brabant, the palfreys stood still once again, and neighed.
And would not go one step forward, nor back.
For this was where God had chosen to have his church.
But the ladies, supposing that they had stopped there because they were tired, went on as far as Hoy-Bout on foot, and there determined to start building.
Therefore they sent for the most skilful workers in stone, and master-builders also, in so great number that at the end of one day the foundations were two hands’ breadth high in the lowest part.
And seeing this good beginning the ladies rejoiced greatly, and supposed their work agreeable to God.
But on the morrow, alas, found all the stones torn up out of the ground.
Thinking that by chance some traitor heretic had been buried in that place, who at night shook down the stones of their church with the trembling of his accursed bones, they removed to Steenen-Berg with their workmen, and there started afresh in the same manner as at Hoy-Bout.
But on the morrow morning found the walls once again out of the ground.
For the Lord Jesus was minded to be worshipped more particularly at Haeckendover.
And sent, therefore, his angels by night, with hammers of diamond from the workshops of Paradise.
And bade them tear down the work of the three ladies.
Therefore the sisters, greatly perplexed and wondering, went down on their knees, praying God that he would tell them where he wished to have his church.
VII. Of the youngest sister and the beautiful angel.
And suddenly they saw a young man, of a beauty more than earthly, clad in a robe of the colour of the setting sun.
Kindly he looked at them.
Knowing him for God’s angel, the three ladies fell on their faces before him.
But the youngest, bolder than the others, as is the way the children, dared to steal a look at the fair ambassador, and, seeing him so comely, took heart and smiled.
The angel took her by the hand, saying to her and to her sisters: “Come and follow me.”
This they did.
And thence they came to the spot where the church now stands, and the angel said to them: “This is the place.”
“Thank you, My Lord,” said the youngest joyously.
VIII. How the three ladies saw a green island, with sweet flowers and birds thereon.
At that time it was thirteen days past the feast of the Kings; snow had fallen heavily and set hard in frost after, by reason of a north wind which was blowing.
And the three ladies saw before them, among the snow, as it were a green island.
And this island was girt about with a cord of purple silk.
And upon the island the air was fresh as in spring, and roses were blowing, with violets and jessamine, whose smell is like balm.
But outside was naught but storm, north wind, and terrible cold.
Towards the middle, where now stands the grand altar, was a holm-oak, covered with blossom as if it had been a Persian jessamine.
In the branches, warblers, finches and nightingales sang to their hearts’ content the sweetest songs of Paradise.
For these were angels, who had put on feathered guise, carolling in this fashion in God’s honour.
One fair nightingale, the sweetest singer of them all, held in his right claw a roll of parchment, whereon was written in letters of gold:
“This is the place chosen by God and shown by him to the three maidens for the building of a church to the glory of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”Great was the joy of the ladies at that sight, and the youngest said to the angel:
“We see certainly that God loves us somewhat; what must we do now, My Lord Angel?”
“Thou must build the church here, little one,” answered the messenger, “and choose for this work twelve of the most skilled workmen, neither more nor less; God himself will be the thirteenth.”
And having said so much he returned to high heaven.
IX. Of the church of Our Lord at Haeckendover, and of the strange mason who worked there.
Then all three went off in haste to choose from among the others the twelve good workmen who should set up the foundations of the church where they had seen the cord of purple silk.
The work went on so well that it was a pleasure to see the stones mounting up, straight and quickly.
But the miracle was this, that during the hours of labour the masons were always thirteen in number, but at dinner and at paytime twelve only.
For the Lord Jesus was pleased to work with the others, but neither ate nor drank with them; he who in Paradise had such fine broth and such sweet fruits, and wine from the fountain of Saphir, which is a fountain giving forth without intermission wine of a richer yellow than liquid gold itself.
Nor did he suffer for want of money; for that is an evil reserved to us needy, piteous, and ill-faring mortals.
The building advanced so well that soon the bell was hung in the tower as a sign that the church was finished.
Then the three maids entered in together; and, falling on her knees, the youngest said:
“By whom, divine husband and beloved Jesus, shall we dedicate this church built for your service?”
To which the Lord Jesus replied: “It is I Myself who will consecrate and dedicate this church; let none come after me to consecrate it anew.”
X. Of the two bishops, and the withered hands.
By and by two venerable bishops passed through Haeckendover, and seeing the new church were minded to give it their blessing.
They knew nothing of the words of Jesus to the three ladies, or they would not have thought of such temerity.
But they were punished terribly none the less.
For as one of them was about to bless the water for this purpose he became suddenly blind.
And the other, who was holding the holy water brush, when he lifted his arms for the blessing, found them suddenly withered and stiffened, so that he could no longer move them.
And perceiving that they had sinned in some way the two bishops were filled with repentance and prayed to the Lord Jesus to pardon them.
And they were straightway pardoned, seeing that they had sinned in ignorance.
And thereafter they came oftentimes most devoutly to Haeckendover.