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.’