The mean old lady of Stavoren


The town of Stavoren was an old seaport in Holland. A long time ago a merchant lived there, who had a fleet of ships that travelled the world buying goods to bring back to Holland for the merchant to sell. The merchant had become extremely rich, and had built himself a magnificent mansion right on the edge of the water. He was a kind and generous man, who treated his employees very well, and he was always ready to help the poor people in the town.

When he died, the whole town was in mourning for a month. The only person who was secretly glad that he had passed away was his wife. She was a very selfish person, and she had always been very upset whenever her husband had given any money, food or clothes to a poor person. Now she took over the running of the business, and without her husband there, she was able to do things her way. Whenever some poor person came knocking on her door to ask for some help, a bite to eat, or some change, she cursed them and sent them away. “Find some work! Get a job!” she shouted. “You lazy layabouts, you won’t get anything from me! I work hard for what I’ve got and I’m not sharing it with you workshy rabble!”

When she was not in her harbour office, dealing with buyers and her captains, she would be at home in her mansion, counting her money. She had everything she could ever have wished for: a beautiful place to live in, the finest furniture and clothes and all the money in the world. People said that she was richer than the royal household.

But she still wasn’t happy. Other rich people had beautiful mansions and fine furniture and silk clothes. She longed for something that nobody else in the world had. Only she didn’t know what that was. So one day she called her captains together and instructed them to travel to all the corners of the world and bring her back the most precious objects they could find.

The captains sailed away, and for many long months nothing was heard or seen from them. Then slowly they started returning. One had been to Africa and had found wonderful ivory carvings made from the tusks of elephants. Nobody in the whole town had ever seen such beautiful objects but the old lady was not satisfied.

Another had been all the way to China and brought back colourful silks and green and black jade. Still the old lady was not happy.

Another had been to the East Indies and brought back a variety of spices and herbs that nobody had tasted before, but the old lady dismissed the captain and told him to go out again. Others had been to Arabia, where they found white horses and beautifully crafted gold daggers inlaid with precious stones, to India, where they found tiger skins and fine silver jewellery, to Turkey and Greece, where they found handwoven silk rugs and painted vases. But always the old lady’s reaction was the same. She just could not be satisfied.

All the ships had returned except one. The old lady sat in her castle and waited. Then the ship appeared on the horizon. The old lady went down to the harbour to await its arrival. This captain had been around the world, looking for that special elusive something that might make his mistress happy. Then one day, on the Baltic coast, they had come across a warehouse full of the finest purest grain that anybody had ever laid eyes on. It was a wonderful golden colour, and each grain was perfectly shaped, full of the goodness of life. “I’ve never seen anything as precious as this in my whole life” the captain exclaimed, and all his crew agreed. So they filled the ships hold with this precious grain and set sail for home. But when the old lady boarded the ship, and saw the grain, she was furious. “How dare you!” she screamed. “What an insult, what a waste of money! What am I going to do with this useless grain?” In her fury she ordered the captain to tip his cargo into the sea. He protested that this was valuable grain which would feed the town for months, but she could not be reasoned with. One of the ship’s crew, a poor old man, begged her to save some of the grain to give to the poor people in the town. But she refused. “Don’t be so stupid”, she said, “The poor are poor because they refuse to work!” The old man cursed her; “You will regret this one day”, he said, “one day when you will be begging for a crust of bread!”

The old lady laughed dismissively. She pulled a large gold ring from her finger. “You see this ring?” she asked. “I’d rather throw this ring into the sea than give one handful of grain to those layabouts on the shore!” The old man shook his head in sorrow, and then, impetuously, shouting: “Watch me!” the old lady threw the ring into the sea, as far as she could.

The old man looked her in the eye. “One day this ring will come back to you”, he said, “and then you will beg!”

The old lady was unrepentant. She sent all her ships out again, with the same instructions, to bring her the most precious and rare objects money could buy.

One day she was at the harbour side, when a fishing boat was unloading its catch. Among the fish she spotted a particularly good looking sea bass. “I want that fish!” she shouted. She paid the fisherman a few coins and instructed him to bring the fish up to her castle. There she instructed her cook to bake it slowly in the oven with some herbs and new potatoes.

A little later she sat down at her dining table, and the cook brought in the fish on a gold platter. She cut the side of the fish, and separated the flesh from the bone. Then, to her horror, there inside the fish was the large gold ring she had thrown into the sea not so long ago. She screamed, and ordered the cook to take away the fish and to throw it out with the rubbish. She saw the image of that old man before her, telling her exactly what would happen. “Never!” she screamed, “I will never beg!”

At exactly that time, black clouds obscured the sky, a terrible storm got up, and it rained for days and days on end. There was so much water that first the mansion flooded, and then the whole town and all the surrounding fields. The power of the water and the wind combined to knock the castle down, and it disappeared into the sea, with all the old lady’s wonderful furniture, her fine silks and all her money. When the wind finally calmed, the rain stopped and the waters retreated, there was nothing left of her castle, and half the town was in ruins. The old lady had lost everything, except the clothes she wore. She was cold and hungry, and she suddenly felt very old. Where was she going to get some food? She started walking down the road, looking for a door to knock on. But all the people in the town remembered her meanness and her cruelty, and refused to help her. So she was forced to leave the town, and started roaming the countryside, begging for a crust where she could.

Frans Timmermans