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Habetrot The Spinstress

from The Scottish Fairy Book





In byegone days, in an old farmhouse which stood by a river, there lived
a beautiful girl called Maisie. She was tall and straight, with auburn
hair and blue eyes, and she was the prettiest girl in all the valley.
And one would have thought that she would have been the pride of her
mother's heart.

But, instead of this, her mother used to sigh and shake her head
whenever she looked at her. And why?

Because, in those days, all men were sensible; and instead of looking
out for pretty girls to be their wives, they looked out for girls who
could cook and spin, and who gave promise of becoming notable
housewives.

Maisie's mother had been an industrious spinster; but, alas! to her sore
grief and disappointment, her daughter did not take after her.

The girl loved to be out of doors, chasing butterflies and plucking wild
flowers, far better than sitting at her spinning-wheel. So when her
mother saw one after another of Maisie's companions, who were not nearly
so pretty as she was, getting rich husbands, she sighed and said:

"Woe's me, child, for methinks no brave wooer will ever pause at our
door while they see thee so idle and thoughtless." But Maisie only
laughed.

At last her mother grew really angry, and one bright Spring morning she
laid down three heads of lint on the table, saying sharply, "I will have
no more of this dallying. People will say that it is my blame that no
wooer comes to seek thee. I cannot have thee left on my hands to be
laughed at, as the idle maid who would not marry. So now thou must work;
and if thou hast not these heads of lint spun into seven hanks of thread
in three days, I will e'en speak to the Mother at St. Mary's Convent,
and thou wilt go there and learn to be a nun."

Now, though Maisie was an idle girl, she had no wish to be shut up in a
nunnery; so she tried not to think of the sunshine outside, but sat down
soberly with her distaff.

But, alas! she was so little accustomed to work that she made but slow
progress; and although she sat at the spinning-wheel all day, and never
once went out of doors, she found at night that she had only spun half a
hank of yarn.

The next day it was even worse, for her arms ached so much she could
only work very slowly. That night she cried herself to sleep; and next
morning, seeing that it was quite hopeless to expect to get her task
finished, she threw down her distaff in despair, and ran out of doors.

Near the house was a deep dell, through which ran a tiny stream. Maisie
loved this dell, the flowers grew so abundantly there.

This morning she ran down to the edge of the stream, and seated herself
on a large stone. It was a glorious morning, the hazel trees were newly
covered with leaves, and the branches nodded over her head, and showed
like delicate tracery against the blue sky. The primroses and
sweet-scented violets peeped out from among the grass, and a little
water wagtail came and perched on a stone in the middle of the stream,
and bobbed up and down, till it seemed as if he were nodding to Maisie,
and as if he were trying to say to her, "Never mind, cheer up."

But the poor girl was in no mood that morning to enjoy the flowers and
the birds. Instead of watching them, as she generally did, she hid her
face in her hands, and wondered what would become of her. She rocked
herself to and fro, as she thought how terrible it would be if her
mother fulfilled her threat and shut her up in the Convent of St. Mary,
with the grave, solemn-faced sisters, who seemed as if they had
completely forgotten what it was like to be young, and run about in the
sunshine, and laugh, and pick the fresh Spring flowers.

"Oh, I could not do it, I could not do it," she cried at last. "It would
kill me to be a nun."

"And who wants to make a pretty wench like thee into a nun?" asked a
queer, cracked voice quite close to her.

Maisie jumped up, and stood staring in front of her as if she had been
moonstruck. For, just across the stream from where she had been sitting,
there was a curious boulder, with a round hole in the middle of it--for
all the world like a big apple with the core taken out.



Maisie knew it well; she had often sat upon it, and wondered how the
funny hole came to be there.

It was no wonder that she stared, for, seated on this stone, was the
queerest little old woman that she had ever seen in her life. Indeed,
had it not been for her silver hair, and the white mutch with the big
frill that she wore on her head, Maisie would have taken her for a
little girl, she wore such a very short skirt, only reaching down to her
knees.

Her face, inside the frill of her cap, was round, and her cheeks were
rosy, and she had little black eyes, which twinkled merrily as she
looked at the startled maiden. On her shoulders was a black and white
checked shawl, and on her legs, which she dangled over the edge of the
boulder, she wore black silk stockings and the neatest little shoes,
with great silver buckles.

In fact, she would have been quite a pretty old lady had it not been for
her lips, which were very long and very thick, and made her look quite
ugly in spite of her rosy cheeks and black eyes. Maisie stood and looked
at her for such a long time in silence that she repeated her question.

"And who wants to make a pretty wench like thee into a nun? More likely
that some gallant gentleman should want to make a bride of thee."

"Oh, no," answered Maisie, "my mother says no gentleman would look at me
because I cannot spin."

"Nonsense," said the tiny woman. "Spinning is all very well for old
folks like me--my lips, as thou seest, are long and ugly because I have
spun so much, for I always wet my fingers with them, the easier to draw
the thread from the distaff. No, no, take care of thy beauty, child; do
not waste it over the spinning-wheel, nor yet in a nunnery."

"If my mother only thought as thou dost," replied the girl sadly; and,
encouraged by the old woman's kindly face, she told her the whole story.

"Well," said the old Dame, "I do not like to see pretty girls weep; what
if I were able to help thee, and spin the lint for thee?"

Maisie thought that this offer was too good to be true; but her new
friend bade her run home and fetch the lint; and I need not tell you
that she required no second bidding.

When she returned she handed the bundle to the little lady, and was
about to ask her where she should meet her in order to get the thread
from her when it was spun, when a sudden noise behind her made her look
round.

She saw nothing; but what was her horror and surprise when she turned
back again, to find that the old woman had vanished entirely, lint and
all.

She rubbed her eyes, and looked all round, but she was nowhere to be
seen. The girl was utterly bewildered. She wondered if she could have
been dreaming, but no that could not be, there were her footprints
leading up the bank and down again, where she had gone for the lint, and
brought it back, and there was the mark of her foot, wet with dew, on a
stone in the middle of the stream, where she had stood when she had
handed the lint up to the mysterious little stranger.

What was she to do now? What would her mother say when, in addition to
not having finished the task that had been given her, she had to confess
to having lost the greater part of the lint also? She ran up and down
the little dell, hunting amongst the bushes, and peeping into every nook
and cranny of the bank where the little old woman might have hidden
herself. It was all in vain; and at last, tired out with the search, she
sat down on the stone once more, and presently fell fast asleep.

When she awoke it was evening. The sun had set, and the yellow glow on
the western horizon was fast giving place to the silvery light of the
moon. She was sitting thinking of the curious events of the day, and
gazing at the great boulder opposite, when it seemed to her as if a
distant murmur of voices came from it.

With one bound she crossed the stream, and clambered on to the stone.
She was right.

Someone was talking underneath it, far down in the ground. She put her
ear close to the stone, and listened.

The voice of the queer little old woman came up through the hole. "Ho,
ho, my pretty little wench little knows that my name is Habetrot."

Full of curiosity, Maisie put her eye to the opening, and the strangest
sight that she had ever seen met her gaze. She seemed to be looking
through a telescope into a wonderful little valley. The trees there were
brighter and greener than any that she had ever seen before and there
were beautiful flowers, quite different from the flowers that grew in
her country. The little valley was carpeted with the most exquisite
moss, and up and down it walked her tiny friend, busily engaged in
spinning.

She was not alone, for round her were a circle of other little old
women, who were seated on large white stones, and they were all spinning
away as fast as they could.

Occasionally one would look up, and then Maisie saw that they all seemed
to have the same long, thick lips that her friend had. She really felt
very sorry, as they all looked exceedingly kind, and might have been
pretty had it not been for this defect.

One of the Spinstresses sat by herself, and was engaged in winding the
thread, which the others had spun, into hanks. Maisie did not think that
this little lady looked so nice as the others. She was dressed entirely
in grey, and had a big hooked nose, and great horn spectacles. She
seemed to be called Slantlie Mab, for Maisie heard Habetrot address her
by that name, telling her to make haste and tie up all the thread, for
it was getting late, and it was time that the young girl had it to
carry home to her mother.

Maisie did not quite know what to do, or how she was to get the thread,
for she did not like to shout down the hole in case the queer little old
woman should be angry at being watched.

However, Habetrot, as she had called herself, suddenly appeared on the
path beside her, with the hanks of thread in her hand.

"Oh, thank you, thank you," cried Maisie. "What can I do to show you how
thankful I am?"

"Nothing," answered the Fairy. "For I do not work for reward. Only do
not tell your mother who span the thread for thee."

It was now late, and Maisie lost no time in running home with the
precious thread upon her shoulder. When she walked into the kitchen she
found that her mother had gone to bed. She seemed to have had a busy
day, for there, hanging up in the wide chimney, in order to dry, were
seven large black puddings.

The fire was low, but bright and clear; and the sight of it and the
sight of the puddings suggested to Maisie that she was very hungry, and
that fried black puddings were very good.

Flinging the thread down on the table, she hastily pulled off her shoes,
so as not to make a noise and awake her mother; and, getting down the
frying-pan from the wall, she took one of the black puddings from the
chimney, and fried it, and ate it.

Still she felt hungry, so she took another, and then another, till they
were all gone. Then she crept upstairs to her little bed and fell fast
asleep.

Next morning her mother came downstairs before Maisie was awake. In
fact, she had not been able to sleep much for thinking of her daughter's
careless ways, and had been sorrowfully making up her mind that she must
lose no time in speaking to the Abbess of St. Mary's about this idle
girl of hers.

What was her surprise to see on the table the seven beautiful hanks of
thread, while, on going to the chimney to take down a black pudding to
fry for breakfast, she found that every one of them had been eaten. She
did not know whether to laugh for joy that her daughter had been so
industrious, or to cry for vexation because all her lovely black
puddings--which she had expected would last for a week at least--were
gone. In her bewilderment she sang out:

"My daughter's spun se'en, se'en, se'en,
My daughter's eaten se'en, se'en, se'en,
And all before daylight."

Now I forgot to tell you that, about half a mile from where the old
farmhouse stood, there was a beautiful Castle, where a very rich young
nobleman lived. He was both good and brave, as well as rich; and all
the mothers who had pretty daughters used to wish that he would come
their way, some day, and fall in love with one of them. But he had never
done so, and everyone said, "He is too grand to marry any country girl.
One day he will go away to London Town and marry a Duke's daughter."

Well, this fine spring morning it chanced that this young nobleman's
favourite horse had lost a shoe, and he was so afraid that any of the
grooms might ride it along the hard road, and not on the soft grass at
the side, that he said that he would take it to the smithy himself.

So it happened that he was riding along by Maisie's garden gate as her
mother came into the garden singing these strange lines.

He stopped his horse, and said good-naturedly, "Good day, Madam; and may
I ask why you sing such a strange song?"

Maisie's mother made no answer, but turned and walked into the house;
and the young nobleman, being very anxious to know what it all meant,
hung his bridle over the garden gate, and followed her.

She pointed to the seven hanks of thread lying on the table, and said,
"This hath my daughter done before breakfast."

Then the young man asked to see the Maiden who was so industrious, and
her mother went and pulled Maisie from behind the door, where she had
hidden herself when the stranger came in; for she had come downstairs
while her mother was in the garden.

She looked so lovely in her fresh morning gown of blue gingham, with her
auburn hair curling softly round her brow, and her face all over blushes
at the sight of such a gallant young man, that he quite lost his heart,
and fell in love with her on the spot.

"Ah," said he, "my dear mother always told me to try and find a wife who
was both pretty and useful, and I have succeeded beyond my expectations.
Do not let our marriage, I pray thee, good Dame, be too long deferred."

Maisie's mother was overjoyed, as you may imagine, at this piece of
unexpected good fortune, and busied herself in getting everything ready
for the wedding; but Maisie herself was a little perplexed.

She was afraid that she would be expected to spin a great deal when she
was married and lived at the Castle, and if that were so, her husband
was sure to find out that she was not really such a good spinstress as
he thought she was.

In her trouble she went down, the night before her wedding, to the great
boulder by the stream in the glen, and, climbing up on it, she laid her
head against the stone, and called softly down the hole, "Habetrot, dear
Habetrot."

The little old woman soon appeared, and, with twinkling eyes, asked her
what was troubling her so much just when she should have been so happy.
And Maisie told her.

"Trouble not thy pretty head about that," answered the Fairy, "but come
here with thy bridegroom next week, when the moon is full, and I warrant
that he will never ask thee to sit at a spinning-wheel again."

Accordingly, after all the wedding festivities were over and the couple
had settled down at the Castle, on the appointed evening Maisie
suggested to her husband that they should take a walk together in the
moonlight.

She was very anxious to see what the little Fairy would do to help her;
for that very day he had been showing her all over her new home, and he
had pointed out to her the beautiful new spinning-wheel made of ebony,
which had belonged to his mother, saying proudly, "To-morrow, little
one, I shall bring some lint from the town, and then the maids will see
what clever little fingers my wife has."

Maisie had blushed as red as a rose as she bent over the lovely wheel,
and then felt quite sick, as she wondered whatever she would do if
Habetrot did not help her.

So on this particular evening, after they had walked in the garden, she
said that she should like to go down to the little dell and see how the
stream looked by moonlight. So to the dell they went.

As soon as they came to the boulder Maisie put her head against it and
whispered, "Habetrot, dear Habetrot"; and in an instant the little old
woman appeared.

She bowed in a stately way, as if they were both strangers to her, and
said, "Welcome, Sir and Madam, to the Spinsters' Dell." And then she
tapped on the root of a great oak tree with a tiny wand which she held
in her hand, and a green door, which Maisie never remembered having
noticed before, flew open, and they followed the Fairy through it into
the other valley which Maisie had seen through the hole in the great
stone.

All the little old women were sitting on their white chucky stones busy
at work, only they seemed far uglier than they had seemed at first; and
Maisie noticed that the reason for this was, that, instead of wearing
red skirts and white mutches as they had done before, they now wore caps
and dresses of dull grey, and instead of looking happy, they all seemed
to be trying who could look most miserable, and who could push out their
long lips furthest, as they wet their fingers to draw the thread from
their distaffs.

"Save us and help us! What a lot of hideous old witches," exclaimed her
husband. "Whatever could this funny old woman mean by bringing a pretty
child like thee to look at them? Thou wilt dream of them for a week and
a day. Just look at their lips"; and, pushing Maisie behind him, he went
up to one of them and asked her what had made her mouth grow so ugly.

She tried to tell him, but all the sound that he could hear was
something that sounded like SPIN-N-N.

He asked another one, and her answer sounded like this: SPAN-N-N. He
tried a third, and hers sounded like SPUN-N-N.

He seized Maisie by the hand and hurried her through the green door. "By
my troth," he said, "my mother's spinning-wheel may turn to gold ere I
let thee touch it, if this is what spinning leads to. Rather than that
thy pretty face should be spoilt, the linen chests at the Castle may get
empty, and remain so for ever!"

So it came to pass that Maisie could be out of doors all day wandering
about with her husband, and laughing and singing to her heart's content.
And whenever there was lint at the Castle to be spun, it was carried
down to the big boulder in the dell and left there, and Habetrot and her
companions spun it, and there was no more trouble about the matter.





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