LADY OF STAVOREN
Adapted/based on Olive Bupree Millers ‘Lady of Stavoren’ and ‘When Wheat Worked Woe’ By William Elliot Griffis
Friesland ~ FREEZ-lund
Stavoren ~ stah-VOR-en
Zuider Zee ~ ZI-der ZEE
In distant ages of ice and stone, when the long, high glaciers of Norway poked their cold noses into Friesland, the shrine of Stavo the storm-god stood, in the city of Stavoren.
These were poor times for the people of Stavoren. But many pilgrims came to worship at Stavo’s alters and new religion entered the land, and in time trade paths opened, to the warm lands of the south. Ships sailed out and brought back wealth, and a great, prosperous city sprang up to which the counts of Holland granted privileges, second to none. And the city glistened on the banks of the Zuider Zee for quite some time – but not forever.
Many a day in more recent times, the storyteller has wandered along the dykes which overlook the Zuider Zee, where fertile fields and scores of towns once lay, and bright, beautiful cities dotted the shores. Those were days when church bells merrily chimed over bridal bliss, or tolled in sympathy for the sorrowing. And fleets of ships sailed on the bosom of Lake Flevo, as the Zuider Zee was then called, and coursed the river to the mighty North Sea.
Today, deep waters roll over the place where the ‘Dead Cities of Zuider Zee’ have long become a legend. Yet all are not dead, in one and the same sense.
Some, indeed, lie far beneath the waves, their very names are forgotten since the ocean rose countless centuries ago and in one night destroyed them, in a powerful, devastating, flood. Still, others perished soon after when great wealth no longer came with the ships that had sailed into flourishing seaports, which now lay dry and still.
And one more city, yes – one more – which once held many thousands of homes and people but lies reduced today to a tiny fragment of its former, opulent, self. The once-grand city of Stavoren is now but a humble village, nestled behind the dykes with a few hundred people at best, on a shrunken plot of land. All because of a certain foolish woman’s pride and greed, in the days of the Golden Age of Holland.
The Zuider Zee has flooded numerous times throughout the ages, with cities and thousands of people lost forever. In the course of storms and a human battle with nature, over thousands of years, the lake has gone from fresh-water to saltwater, to fresh, again. In this latter state, it is now contained by a series of dams declared so grand a feat of engineering, as to be counted amongst the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
But that is today, and this story begins at an earlier time; with the foolish widow, we spoke of before, in the Golden Age of Holland.
THE LADY OF STAVOREN
In days long ago, when the fair green meadows of Friesland were yet untied with Holland, Stavoren was one of the mightiest cities in that province. Its towers and spires rose about the Zuider Zee in majestic splendor just at the point where its gray waters open out into the vast North Sea.
Ah! There was a city for you – a city of stately palaces and splendid public buildings, of rich burghers and strutting nobles.
The reason for all the prosperity was that Stavoren had a beautiful harbor, one of the finest in Friesland. Its ships, without number, spread their proud sails to the wind and rode all the seven seas.
As time passed, Stavoren became so rich through its merchant vessels that its burghers began to put gold handles on their doors, and golden hinges on their windows.
They went even further: they built before their houses stoops of pure gold, fenced in with golden railings.
And then they began to throw out their chests and to step very high, and they tilted their noses in the air and pointed across the Zuider Zee to where the lantern in the white cupola of the great Dromedaris Tower kept guard over the fortifications and harbor of Enkhuisen, in Holland.
“Over there in Holland,” the burghers would say, “they have no such city as Stavoren. Enkhuisen has no citizens who can afford to build stoops of solid gold.” And, having said that, they strutted more proudly, than ever before.
Now of all of the vain and haughty people of Stavoren none was vainer or more haughty than a certain rich widow. Her husband had been a shipowner, and he had left her a treasure so immense that none knew its real extent.
She would pass through the streets with jewels glittering on her long, white fingers and all over her splendid robes, and she held her head so high that she scarcely even saw the poorer folk, who bobbed little curtsies as she passed and paid humble respect to such a mighty display. There were few in the city who did not stand in awe of her.
“Ah,” they would say, “she is the richest woman in Stavoren!” And alas, poor souls, they knew of nothing better than that to say about any living being. They held nothing else to be of value but riches, riches, riches. Many envied the rich widow, many feared her, and a few strove to outshine her.
One day a certain ship belonging to her was about to set sail with a rich cargo to trade in far ports of the world.
“Ha,” said the widow to herself, “its time I acquired something to startle those boorish burghers who think themselves so grand. Its time I made them see that their riches are but a pinch of sand compared to treasures such as mine!”
And she sent at once for the skipper who commanded the vessel.
When the honest old fellow stood respectfully before her, she said, “ I order you herewith to search the world and to bring back to me in your ship the richest, most beautiful, and most precious thing to be bought for gold.
“ Spare no money or pains,” she commanded. “I have ordered your vessel to be laden with gold coins. Exchange them for the most precious thing in the world.”
The old skipper stood for a moment, perplexed. How should he know what was the most beautiful and precious thing in the world? But he was a sturdy fellow with just respect for his own intelligence, so he answered, “I shall bring you back the richest, most beautiful, and most precious thing in the world.”
The very next day the ship set sail and glided out of Stavoren Harbor. For many a day thereafter the skipper pondered over the task his mistress had set him. In the rich and magnificent cities of the East, he saw scores of costly and splendid things – the noble work of goldsmiths, bracelets, rings, sparkling diamonds, embroidered cloths, Byzantine tapestry, gold brocade – but he was a simple man of the people, and their glitter had no charm for him and cast no spell on him whatever.
He had not been born in Stavoren. As a boy, he had lived among the rich green meadows of Friesland, with not a single golden stoop insight. How should such a man value ivory, or diamonds, or gold brocade? To him, they were nothing but vain things – toys that were neither precious nor beautiful.
No, in these magnificent Eastern cities, he could not find the most beautiful and precious thing in the world. Indeed, he had almost given up hope of ever finding it, when he chanced to sail into the harbor of Danzig.
As he was roaming about the streets of the city he passed a plain-looking building, and inside it, he saw something that set his heart leaping for joy, a beautiful hoard of golden treasure; bushels and bushels of golden wheat.
In all the world, what was more beautiful and precious than wheat? Wheat, whence came bread, the very staff of life, the gift whereby men renewed their strength for the joyous work of the day! Ivory and peacocks and diamonds might vanish from the earth and men be none the worse, but wheat they must-have for their comfort and happiness. The skipper’s face glowed.
“ Where have my wits been all these months?” he asked himself “Any simple Frisian knows there’s nothing more beautiful or precious in the world than wheat. At last, I have found what my mistress desires. I shall take it home to her.
And he loaded his vessel forthwith and set sail again, for Stavoren.
Meanwhile, the rich widow had been for months impatiently awaiting his return. Day in and day out she kept fancying what all the people in Stavoren would say when they saw the wondrous treasure her ship was to bring to her.
“And that fellow, Halbertsma, will stop trying to outshine me when he sees what I shall have then,” she said to herself “And Mevrou Cirksena will eat humble pie when she looks at me in my splendor!” She even boasted far and near of what her ship would bring home.
At length, the great day came. Children running through the streets shouted in great excitement that the ship was in harbor. The widow decked herself out in her costliest garments and off she went to the dock, scarcely able to wait ‘til the ship was made fast to the shore. No one indeed, stayed home that day. All of Stavoren hurried off to the wharf – men, women, and children, eagerly flocking to catch a glimpse of the widow’s much-vaunted treasure.
“It will be diamonds as big as eggs,” some people cried.
“It will be rubies the size of bricks, and turquoises as big as your head!” cried others.
The captain sprang ashore, his honest face glowing with joy.
“Well, “ said the lady, her voice trembling with expectancy. “What have you brought me?”
“The finest treasure in the world,” he replied.
“Yes, but what is it, what is it??”
“Wheat,” answered the captain, with quiet satisfaction. “A shipload of wheat!”
“Wheat?!” stammered the widow, horrified “You have brought me wheat?!”
“Wheat!” cried the crowd and they all began to snicker “Wheat! Her wonderful treasure is nothing but everyday wheat!?” Their snicker became a jeer. The rich woman who had lorded it over them so often and had boasted so haughtily – she had nothing to show them but wheat, common, everyday wheat! Did you ever hear the like?!
What a day for my lady, the widow! All those jibes and jeers from the very men, women, and children she had thought to overawe were like so many pins and needles stuck into her sides. Jab here, a jab there! Ah, well-a-day! And what hurts a vain woman more than mockery? When she could control her voice enough to speak, she cried in rage, “So! In return for my rich cargo, you have brought me back wheat?”
“Well, you can take the wretched stuff out to the entrance of the harbor and dump it into the sea!”
The Captain was struck dumb. She did not like his precious wheat – his beautiful, useful, golden wheat? To him, it was a sacred thing.
“No, no!” he cried, in great distress Don’t dump it in the sea!”
To throw away food, yes, even a crust or a few crumbs of bread, was that not a monstrous sin? Wheat was God’s precious gift to man, and man must treat it with reverence and gratitude.
“If you do not care to keep it,” he urged, “I pray you, give it to the poor. Many could be fed with that cargo. To throw it in the sea would be so great a sin that it might bring punishment on your head and reduce you to poverty, yes, even to dire distress!”
At this, the widow grew white with anger. Taking a beautiful ring from her finger, she threw it scornfully into the water and cried, “Do as you are bid! I fear neither punishment nor distress. As surely as I shall never see that ring again, surely can I never be poor and in want. Dump the wheat in the sea!”
Slowly and sadly the captain turned the vessel about, and returned to the harbor entrance.
Not a voice onshore called him back. Not a voice among all those burghers of Stavoren was raised in protest to save the wheat. One and all, they despised it. They had no respect save for things that glittered. They had forgotten the value and beauty of simple, homely wheat. They loved only idle show.
Had they not built stoops of pure gold with no other purpose than just to show off, to make all the world, understand how much greater they were, than the good folk of Enkhuisen, across the Zuider Zee?
It was a sad moment for the Captain – dumping his wheat in the sea. No more would he serve the Lady of Stavoren. There was an end of that! He must seek a master who understood what things were of true value in this world.
And what of the haughty widow? In deepest chagrin, she went back to her home, and scarce did she dare to show her nose out of doors again, for whenever she poked but the tip of it forth, some imp of a boy would jibe, “Say, Lady, when is your next treasure ship coming home?”
Worse than that, no more than two days later it chanced that she ordered fish to be served for her dinner. Suddenly, one of her servants came running into her presence, painfully excited and bearing a fish in his hand. What had he found in its stomach? Her ring! The ring that she had cast into the sea! She grew pale, for well she remembered her words: “As surely as I shall never see this ring again, so surely can I never be poor and in want! Dump the wheat in the sea!” And there was her ring, come back!
In that self-same hour, the widow received news that one of her ships had been lost in a storm, and during the months that followed, many such tidings reached her.
And those haughty burghers of Stavoren who thought they should never want…!!
The very next Spring, above the waves of the sea at the entrance to the city’s splendid harbor, an ominous green appeared. The wheat, which the burghers had so despised, had taken root and sprung up, only now it grew as a weed and bore no precious fruit, not a single golden grain.
As the days went by, the floating currents of sand which continually sweep around the Zuider Zee began to catch in the stalks of wheat and to stick there, until they had piled up a sandbank – a huge, immovable wall of sand, that closed in Stavoren’s harbor. No more could the great ships, which had once glided so easily into port, enter the bay at Stavoren. They could not pass the bar. Stavoren was shut in forever.
And so the city lost its harbor, the very source of its wealth. The proud lady’s ships could no longer sail the seven seas.
Slowly her treasures melted away; her gold, her jewels, her palaces, and the wealth of her neighbors likewise, vanished into nothing. There were no more golden stoops. Stavoren dwindled and dwindled. With each succeeding year, it grew smaller and less important, until by and by the world forgot it, shut in behind its sandbank.
And so it came about that where once a haughty city stood, there is now but a sleepy village – a few little gabled, red-roofed houses, half-hidden in broad old trees. But everyone remembers still, the story of the proud widow. And the sandbank, which spoiled the harbor is called to this very day, “Vrouwenzand,” or “Lady’s Sand.”