This tale is a favourite from my childhood. I first read this in the library in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where I spent my childhood summers. Their shelves were chock-full-o' great children's stories and dusty, old-smelling, wonderfully-ragged cloth and leather-bound books with colourful illustrations to set the mind a-wandering.
|Stockbridge Main Street and Town Library|
I don't own a copy of this wonderful book, and alas, it is extremely difficult to find, especially on this side of the pond, so this will be purely from memory. Forgive me if I get it wrong, it's a long time since I've read it...
|Illustration: Anita Lobel. Cover of The Seamstress of Salzburg|
Long ago, there lived a young seamstress named Anna, who loved sewing and embroidering more than anything else in the world. She delighted in making dresses and skirts, blouses and shirts, and bonnets for her parents and little brother and sister, and even small hats for her little black cat.
Everyone in the village remarked on the fineness of her handiwork, and before long, Anna was receiving orders for dresses and frocks, and her parents encouraged her to take on the work, as they needed the money. Anna's time became more and more taken-up by these paid sewing projects, and she had to work late into the night, for nights on end.
Soon, the Queen heard of Anna's skill and invited the young seamstress to court. Anna was entrusted with the work of making the Queen splendid gowns and capes in rich fabrics, adorned with ribbons and jewels and fine embroidery in threads of gold and silver. The ladies of the court, wishing to emulate the Queen's splendour, wanted equally fine dresses, and poor Anna worked day and night to create more ornate and splendid garments; all along wishing that she could return to the days when she only made clothes for herself and her family and her little black cat.
The ladies of the court demanded finer and more elaborate costumes, and soon Anna's fingers and eyes were sore from all the fine needlework she had to do well into the night. Just as Anna thought she could not work any harder, the Queen called Anna to her. Her son, the Prince, was returning after a long absence, and she wanted to greet him in the most splendid dress ever made. The Ladies in Waiting all demanded dresses too.
Poor Anna! Already exhausted from months of sewing for the Queen and her Ladies every day and night, she was now faced with making dresses for the whole court in two days, all with cloth-covered buttons, interwoven ribbons, and plumes, and frog ties, and slashed sleeves, sewn-in lace petticoats and skirts lined with silk, and ruffled hems, embroidered with flowers and birds... it was all too much, yet the Queen and her ladies kept demanding more embellishments to the garments.
All too soon, the day arrived for the Prince's return. The Queen and her retinue assembled before the Palace to greet the Prince. Poor Anna could hardly stand up, but the dresses were truly the most splendid (if somewhat outrageous) creations ever seen in Salzburg. But the weight of the cloth and the buttons and bows and embroidered skirts and quilted shoulders were too much for the fast stitches that Anna had sewn to finish them in time. Slowly the seams began to give way as the Prince approached. When he arrived at the gates of the Palace, a great cheer went up and the Queen and the Ladies' dresses all burst at the seams at once, leaving them standing in their naughties before a bewildered Prince, with a splendidly floral carpet of fabric around them. There was a moment of stunned silence, then chaos erupted as the Ladies snatched up their fallen garments and made haste to their rooms.
The Queen was furious. "BRING ME THE SEAMSTRESS ANNA!" She shouted. "I WANT HER HEAD!"
Poor Anna was roughly seized and brought before the Queen.
"You miserable wretch! You've RUINED EVERYTHING! You will pay for this WITH YOUR LIFE!"
Anna was distraught and tried to explain that she was tired and worked far beyond her abilities but the Queen was adamant, and ordered her to be thrown in a dungeon cell while they prepared for her execution.
Once some semblance of calm was restored (and the Queen and her Ladies clothed in Anna's earlier, more durable creations), the Prince asked the Queen to tell him the whole story. He took pity on the poor girl, as he knew what demanding, petty, and vain women the Queen had surrounded herself with (which somewhat explains his absence from the court). The more the Prince learned about the whole affair, and how his mother and the women of the court had treated her, the more concern he felt for the young seamstress.
He visited Anna in her cell and learned her side of the story. He was immediately taken with her; he dried her tears and vowed to her that he would do everything to see that she would be spared.
Although he tried to reason with the Queen, her pride had been bruised and she was set on punishing the seamstress. He looked at the fine dresses she had made, and found it difficult to believe how one woman could produce such fine and glorious clothing. Soon, he felt his compassion give way to other feelings, and an idea occurred to him that would save Anna's life.
"Mother," he said to the Queen, "you cannot kill the young seamstress Anna."
The Queen and her Ladies laughed. "Oh? And why not?"
"I am in love with her, and I intend to make her my Princess."
The Queen sat up, aghast. "I forbid it!"
"Then I shall ride from here and never return!"
The Queen, for all her faults, adored her son and could not bear the thought of him leaving forever. She had Anna brought from the dungeons to kneel before her and explain herself.
"My Queen," Anna said in tears, "I tried so hard. Please believe me - I wanted to make the most wonderful dresses for you all! I knew how important it was, but I couldn't do it all without help. I am your only seamstress and could not sew fast enough to keep up with all the demands of your ladies. Forgive me. Please spare me."
When the Queen saw the poor girl cowering, her cold heart was moved, ever so slightly, to pity.
"Besides," added the Prince, "With all those baubles and beads, the fabric would never have held together. Honestly, I don't know what you were all thinking. But I am honoured that you wanted to make such a show for my return. Please, mother, be merciful and let Anna live and become my wife."
The Queen soon not only forgave young Anna, and consented to the marriage, but moved Anna's family into the Palace, giving them all titles and riches of their own. Even Anna's little black cat was made a Marquess, and given a staff to see to her needs. The Prince and Anna were soon married, and Anna happily sewed her own simple (but nonetheless beautiful) gown.
In the months that followed the honeymoon, Anna taught all the Queen's Ladies to sew, and the Kingdom became known for it's fine needlework and fortnightly sewing bees.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Main Source: Lobel, Anita. 1970. The Seamstress of Salzburg. New York: Harper Collins.