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The Nettle Spinner

from The Red Fairy Book





I

ONCE upon a time there lived at Quesnoy, in Flanders, a great lord
whose name was Burchard, but whom the country people called
Burchard the Wolf. Now Burchard had such a wicked, cruel heart,
that it was whispered how he used to harness his peasants to the
plough, and force them by blows from his whip to till his land with
naked feet.

His wife, on the other hand, was always tender and pitiful to the
poor and miserable.

Every time that she heard of another misdeed of her husband's
she secretly went to repair the evil, which caused her name to be
blessed throughout the whole country-side. This Countess was
adored as much as the Count was hated.


II


One day when he was out hunting the Count passed through a
forest, and at the door of a lonely cottage he saw a beautiful girl
spinning hemp.

`What is your name?' he asked her.

`Renelde, my lord.'

`You must get tired of staying in such a lonely place?'

`I am accustomed to it, my lord, and I never get tired of it.'

`That may be so; but come to the castle, and I will make you
lady's maid to the Countess.'

`I cannot do that, my lord. I have to look after my grandmother,
who is very helpless.'

`Come to the castle, I tell you. I shall expect you this evening,'
and he went on his way.

But Renelde, who was betrothed to a young wood-cutter called
Guilbert, had no intention of obeying the Count, and she had,
besides, to take care of her grandmother.

Three days later the Count again passed by.

`Why didn't you come?' he asked the pretty spinner.

`I told you, my lord, that I have to look after my grandmother.'
`Come to-morrow, and I will make you lady-in-waiting to the
Countess,' and he went on his way.

This offer produced no more effect than the other, and Renelde
did not go to the castle.

`If you will only come,' said the Count to her when next he
rode by, `I will send away the Countess, and will marry you.'

But two years before, when Renelde's mother was dying of a
long illness, the Countess had not forgotten them, but had given
help when they sorely needed it. So even if the Count had really
wished to marry Renelde, she would always have refused.


III


Some weeks passed before Burchard appeared again.

Renelde hoped she had got rid of him, when one day he stopped
at the door, his duck-gun under his arm and his game-bag on his
shoulder. This time Renelde was spinning not hemp, but flax.

`What are you spinning?' he asked in a rough voice.

`My wedding shift, my lord.'

`You are going to be married, then?'

`Yes, my lord, by your leave.'

For at that time no peasant could marry without the leave of
his master.

`I will give you leave on one condition. Do you see those tall
nettles that grow on the tombs in the churchyard? Go and gather
them, and spin them into two fine shifts. One shall be your bridal
shift, and the other shall be my shroud. For you shall be married
the day that I am laid in my grave.' And the Count turned away
with a mocking laugh.

Renelde trembled. Never in all Locquignol had such a thing
been heard of as the spinning of nettles.

And besides, the Count seemed made of iron and was very
proud of his strength, often boasting that he should live to be a
hundred.

Every evening, when his work was done, Guilbert came to visit
his future bride. This evening he came as usual, and Renelde told
him what Burchard had said.

`Would you like me to watch for the Wolf, and split his skull
with a blow from my axe?'

`No,' replied Renelde, `there must be no blood on my bridal
bouquet. And then we must not hurt the Count. Remember how
good the Countess was to my mother.'

An old, old woman now spoke: she was the mother of Renelde's
grandmother, and was more than ninety years old. All day long
she sat in her chair nodding her head and never saying a word.

`My children,' she said, `all the years that I have lived in the
world, I have never heard of a shift spun from nettles. But what
God commands, man can do. Why should not Renelde try it?'


IV


Renelde did try, and to her great surprise the nettles when
crushed and prepared gave a good thread, soft and light and firm.
Very soon she had spun the first shift, which was for her own
wedding. She wove and cut it out at once, hoping that the Count
would not force her to begin the other. Just as she had finished
sewing it, Burchard the Wolf passed by.

`Well,' said he, `how are the shifts getting on?'

`Here, my lord, is my wedding garment,' answered Renelde,
showing him the shift, which was the finest and whitest ever seen.

The Count grew pale, but he replied roughly, `Very good.
Now begin the other.'

The spinner set to work. As the Count returned to the castle, a
cold shiver passed over him, and he felt, as the saying is, that some
one was walking over his grave. He tried to eat his supper, but
could not; he went to bed shaking with fever. But he did not sleep,
and in the morning could not manage to rise.

This sudden illness, which every instant became worse, made
him very uneasy. No doubt Renelde's spinning-wheel knew all
about it. Was it not necessary that his body, as well as his shroud,
should be ready for the burial?

The first thing Burchard did was to send to Renelde and to stop
her wheel.

Renelde obeyed, and that evening Guilbert asked her:

`Has the Count given his consent to our marriage?'

`No,' said Renelde.

`Continue your work, sweetheart. It is the only way of gaining
it. You know he told you so himself.'


V


The following morning, as soon as she had put the house in order,
the girl sat down to spin. Two hours after there arrived some
soldiers, and when they saw her spinning they seized her, tied her
arms and legs, and carried her to the bank of the river, which was
swollen by the late rains.

When they reached the bank they flung her in, and watched her
sink, after which they left her. But Renelde rose to the surface,
and though she could not swim she struggled to land.

Directly she got home she sat down and began to spin.

Again came the two soldiers to the cottage and seized the girl,
carried her to the river bank, tied a stone to her neck and flung her
into the water.

The moment their backs were turned the stone untied itself.
Renelde waded the ford, returned to the hut, and sat down to spin.

This time the Count resolved to go to Locquignol himself; but,
as he was very weak and unable to walk, he had himself borne in
a litter. And still the spinner spun.

When he saw her he fired a shot at her, as he would have fired
at a wild beast. The bullet rebounded without harming the spinner,
who still spun on.

Burchard fell into such a violent rage that it nearly killed him.
He broke the wheel into a thousand pieces, and then fell fainting on
the ground. He was carried back to the castle, unconscious.

The next day the wheel was mended, and the spinner sat down
to spin. Feeling that while she was spinning he was dying, the
Count ordered that her hands should be tied, and that they should
not lose sight of her for one instant.

But the guards fell asleep, the bonds loosed themselves, and the
spinner spun on.

Burchard had every nettle rooted up for three leagues round.
Scarcely had they been torn from the soil when they sowed themselves
afresh, and grew as you were looking at them.

They sprung up even in the well-trodden floor of the cottage, and
as fast as they were uprooted the distaff gathered to itself a supply
of nettles, crushed, prepared, and ready for spinning.

And every day Burchard grew worse, and watched his end
approaching.


VI


Moved by pity for her husband, the Countess at last found out
the cause of his illness, and entreated him to allow himself to be
cured. But the Count in his pride refused more than ever to give
his consent to the marriage.

So the lady resolved to go without his knowledge to pray for
mercy from the spinner, and in the name of Renelde's dead mother
she besought her to spin no more. Renelde gave her promise, but
in the evening Guilbert arrived at the cottage. Seeing that the cloth
was no farther advanced than it was the evening before, he inquired
the reason. Renelde confessed that the Countess had prayed her not
to let her husband die.

`Will he consent to our marriage?'

`No.'

`Let him die then.'

`But what will the Countess say?'

`The Countess will understand that it is not your fault; the Count
alone is guilty of his own death.'

`Let us wait a little. Perhaps his heart may be softened.'

So they waited for one month, for two, for six, for a year. The
spinner spun no more. The Count had ceased to persecute her, but
he still refused his consent to the marriage. Guilbert became
impatient.

The poor girl loved him with her whole soul, and she was more
unhappy than she had been before, when Burchard was only tormenting
her body.

`Let us have done with it,' said Guilbert.

`Wait a little still,' pleaded Renelde.

But the young man grew weary. He came more rarely to
Locquignol, and very soon he did not come at all. Renelde felt as
if her heart would break, but she held firm.

One day she met the Count. She clasped her hands as if in
prayer, and cried:

`My lord, have mercy!'

Burchard the Wolf turned away his head and passed on.

She might have humbled his pride had she gone to her spinning-
wheel again, but she did nothing of the sort.

Not long after she learnt that Guilbert had left the country.
He did not even come to say good-bye to her, but, all the same, she
knew the day and hour of his departure, and hid herself on the road
to see him once more.

When she came in she put her silent wheel into a corner, and
cried for three days and three nights.


VII


So another year went by. Then the Count fell ill, and the
Countess supposed that Renelde, weary of waiting, had begun her
spinning anew; but when she came to the cottage to see, she found
the wheel silent.

However, the Count grew worse and worse till he was given up
by the doctors. The passing bell was rung, and he lay expecting
Death to come for him. But Death was not so near as the doctors
thought, and still he lingered.

He seemed in a desperate condition, but he got neither better
nor worse. He could neither live nor die; he suffered horribly,
and called loudly on Death to put an end to his pains.

In this extremity he remembered what he had told the little
spinner long ago. If Death was so slow in coming, it was because
he was not ready to follow him, having no shroud for his burial.

He sent to fetch Renelde, placed her by his bedside, and ordered
her at once to go on spinning his shroud.

Hardly had the spinner begun to work when the Count began
to feel his pains grow less.

Then at last his heart melted; he was sorry for all the evil he
had done out of pride, and implored Renelde to forgive him. So
Renelde forgave him, and went on spinning night and day.

When the thread of the nettles was spun she wove it with her
shuttle, and then cut the shroud and began to sew it.

And as before, when she sewed the Count felt his pains grow
less, and the life sinking within him, and when the needle made the
last stitch he gave his last sigh.


VIII


At the same hour Guilbert returned to the country, and, as he
had never ceased to love Renelde, he married her eight days later.

He had lost two years of happiness, but comforted himself with
thinking that his wife was a clever spinner, and, what was much
more rare, a brave and good woman.[24]

[24] Ch. Denlin.





Next: Farmer Weatherbeard

Previous: Rapunzel



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