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.
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.
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?’
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.’
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.
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?’
`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.
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.
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.