The Washerwoman and The Count

A Lithuanian fairy tale, this version is from Tales of The Amber Sea, compiled and translated by Irina Zheleznova in 1974.

One day some washerwomen from a count’s estate were out on the lake rinsing their washing, and they began talking amongst themselves.

“I will only marry a man who is tall and has blue eyes,” said one.

“And I’ll only marry a man who is rich,” said another.

“I don’t care if I’m showered with gold and dressed in silks, I’ll never marry an old man and one I don’t love,” said the youngest and prettiest of them.

“Catch us believing you! ” laughed her friends. “What if the count should ask you to marry him? “

“I’d rather die than live with that old fossil. I don’t need his riches! “

Now, as fate would have it, the count happened to be walking along the lake just then together with his steward. Hearing what the washerwomen were saying, he said to him:

“Tomorrow you will bring the third of those maids to my palace. She is far too proud for one so poor.”

On the following day the count opened his late wife’s wardrobe and took out her best gowns and dresses of silk, her amber necklaces and her gold bracelets and earrings. His servants laid out all these riches in the large hall of the palace and it was there that the steward brought the young washerwoman. The count showed her the silks and jewels and said:

“That is your dowry. Will you marry me? “

The girl burst into tears.

“No, sir, I will only marry a man I love,” said she.

The count was very angry that a simple girl, a bondswoman of his, should turn him down despite his riches and high birth.

“You will knit me three waistbands by morning,” said he, “the first as bright as the sun, the second as bright as the moon, and the third as bright as the stars. If you fail to do this in time I will have your head chopped off.”

The girl left the palace and went to the lake, weeping bitterly.

The laumes or witches who lived beyond the lake heard her and ran up to her.

“Why do you cry, pretty maid? ” asked they. “Why do you sigh so heavily? “

The girl told them of her sorrow and the laumes began trying to comfort her.

“Here is a soft pillow for you,” said they, “and a quilt and a shift. Do not grieve and go to sleep.”

One of the laumes made a bed for her, another sang her a song and between them they lulled the girl to sleep.

She slept very sweetly, and in the morning when she opened her eyes what did she see hanging on a tree branch and gleaming in the sunshine but three waistbands, their brilliance set off by the morning rays. One of the waistbands was as bright as the sun, the second, as bright as the moon, and the third, as bright as the stars.

The girl was overjoyed and took the waistbands to the count who, though he admired their beauty, was too hard of heart to be moved by it.

“You must bring me a coach by morning which can be hidden away in a nut-shell,” said he. “When I ride in it there must be bright day ahead of me and dark night behind me. If you fail to do this in time I will have your hands chopped off.”

Off went the girl to the lake again, even heavier of heart than before, wringing her hands and sighing.

“0 my white hands, o my quick-fingered hands! ” cried she. “I am to part with you tomorrow. Without you I’ll not be able to plait my hair or to water flowers.”

The laumes heard her sighs, they surrounded the girl and asked her why she was weeping and wringing her hands.

The girl told them of her sorrow, and the laumes combed out her hair, laid her down on a soft bed and lulled her to sleep with their songs.

In the morning when she opened her eyes what did she see but a rich coach standing before her. There were two horses harnessed to it and they were stamping the ground with their golden shoes. The girl felt something in her hand, she opened it, and there in her palm lay an empty nut-shell.

Just then a sun-beam fell on the nut-shell, and at once the coach and the horses rolled into it!

Overjoyed, the girl rushed to the count. She opened her hand and the coach and horses rolled out of the nut-shell. The count got into the coach and rode off in it, and it was bright day ahead of him and dark night behind him.

Said the count to the girl:

“All this is simple witchcraft. But if you are really clever you will bring me a magic mirror in which I will see both my past and my future.”

What was there to be done?

The girl went to the lake again and she wept and sighed as before. The laumes heard her, they came sliding over the water as over ice, and, surrounding the girl, began trying to comfort her.

The girl told them of her sorrow and of the count’s whim, and the laumes said:

“It is a difficult task that your master has set us this time. But never you fear. We will fix it so that after this he will stop plaguing you.”

The laumes put the girl to sleep, and when she rose in the morning what should she see lying beside her but a beautiful mirror in which the sun and the stars were reflected in all their brilliance.

The girl took the mirror to the count who stared in it greedily, and, gluing his nose to it, cried:

“Ha! There’s my uncle playing cards with the king and my brother talking to the queen! Why, I can see my whole noble family in this mirror! Now I’d like to see my future.”

But no sooner were the words out of his mouth than he saw himself in the mirror hanging from a treo.

So enraged was he by this that he flung the mirror down on a stone and shattered it to bits.

And from that day on he left the washerwoman in peace and never plagued her any more.

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