The Most Precious Thing in the World

Having written up the previous story for Helen, it occured to me that I don't have a folktale from Holland on this page. So here is one that I like a lot. I hope you do too:

THE MOST PRECIOUS THING IN THE WORLD.

On the western coast of the Dutch province of Friesland, sits Stavoren. Now a popular holiday yacht haven and marina, visited by holidaymakers from many lands.

In the 14th and 15th. Century however, Stavoren was one of the great trading ports of Europe. A member of the Hanseatic League, its ships travelled the world and brought great prosperity to the merchants who lived there. But for the pride and arrogance of a very rich lady, who’s statue to this day gazes out over the harbour, Stavoren might still be welcoming the world’s great merchant ships and ocean going liners.

The lady in question was the widow of a successful merchant who had died, leaving her his fleet of trading vessels. In the years following her husband’s death she had vastly increased the wealth of the business until she had now become by far the richest in the city.

She enjoyed her status and her wealth. She was forever giving parties and banquets, inviting her rivals to view the many treasures that she had amassed. Human nature being as it is, they tried to copy her and match her possessions with treasures of their own. Sometimes they succeeded and this caused her some irritation.

One day she sent for her most experienced captain. “I have a special commission for you”, she said. “I want you to prepare your ship as quickly as you can. Set sail and bring me back, ‘The most precious thing in the world!’ “Yes madam”, replied the captain, “and what would that be?” “If I knew that”, she said icily, “I would already have bought it! You are my most experienced captain, you must have many contacts throughout the world. I don’t care how much it costs, just find 'The most precious thing in the world' and bring it to me. You will be well rewarded for your search” The captain left somewhat confused. However his employer was not one with whom he wished to argue.

The following day he began to prepare his ship for the long voyage ahead. News of the mission quickly spread, in the way that gossip does and by the time the ship was ready, a large crowd had gathered at the quayside to see it set sail. Much was the speculation as to what the captain would bring back. “A religious icon!”, suggested one. “A pearl as big as an egg!” suggested another. “Perhaps a golden statue from Egypt!” thought someone else. None of them course had any idea as they watched the ship slip away.

The rich widow was delighted at the interest being displayed. She was sure that when her captain returned with ‘The most precious thing in the world’, that would surely establish her superiority in the town.

Time passed. The days turned into weeks The weeks became months and there was no sign of the captain’s return. A year went by and people had begun to forget about the quest. And then, fifteen months after the ship had sailed away, A cry went out that it had been sighted entering the harbour!

Once again a huge crowd gathered to welcome the ship’s return. The rich lady put on her finest dress to meet her captain when the ship docked. “Madam" he said, "I have done as you requested. I visited many lands, met and spoke with many influential people. Many were the suggestions and much advice did I receive. But none of it convinced me and there were several times when I was on the point of giving up the search. Then suddenly I realised what it was! I immediately knew what was, ‘The most precious thing in the world!’" “Yes, yes!” said the lady with some impatience. “And have you brought it?” “I have madam, indeed I have!” “Well, and what is it?”

“Wheat”, said the captain. “I have brought a cargo of wheat.” “Wheat? You have brought me wheat?” She nearly choked with rage” “Yes ma'am, what could be more precious than wheat? Without bread, half the world would starve!” The lady heard one or two sniggers of laughter from the people in the crowd. “And is this wheat all mine, to do with what I will?” she said quietly.

“Of course ma’am, I have brought it for you”. “Then pour it into the sea!” she said. “Pour it into the sea?” The captain couldn’t believe his ears. “But there is enough grain here to feed all the poor in the province. Why not give it to them – after all, you may be poor yourself one day!”

“I poor? How dare you!” She pulled a large diamond ring from her finger. “This ring will return to my hand before I am ever poor!” She turned and threw the ring far out into the harbour. “Now do as I ask” she continued, “Pour your wheat into the sea and then take yourself out of my sight!”

The captain himself was now angry, “Cast off!” he shouted to his crew and the crowd watched as the ship slowly moved away from the dock. The vessel sailed to the mouth of the harbour where the captain gave instructions to drop anchor and ordered his crew to shovel the grain overboard into the sea. Once done, the anchor was raised and the ship sailed away, never to return.

Two days later, the rich widow, keen to show that she was not at all put out by the set back, sent out invitations to all her wealthy rivals to attend a banquet at her palatial residence. The day of the banquet arrived and all were seated. A silver salver was placed before the rich lady and the cover removed to reveal a roasted sea bass. She picked up a knife to cut into the fish and as she sliced through the meat, the knife struck something solid. She cut the fish open, gasped and turned pale. There, laid in the flesh of the fish was her diamond ring. The one that she had hurled into the sea four days earlier!

Worse was to follow. After a few weeks, the wheat that had been tossed from the captain’s ship took root and began to grow on the sea bed, where it had fallen. Soon the sand, which had freely flowed back and forth with the water, began to clog and pile up among the growing stems of wheat. Within a year a sandbank had grown across the harbour mouth to such proportions that large ships were no longer able to enter the harbour. And so a once prosperous merchant shipping town went steadily into decline.

The rich merchants, now unable to trade went out of business, including of course, the rich lady who’s greed, pride and arrogance had caused the town’s ruin.

The sandbank that still lies across harbour entrance, is known appropriately as, 'Lady’s Sand'.

And the statue of ‘The Lady of Stavoren’ remains to remind people to be grateful for what they have and to remember how easy it is to lose everything.


This story can be heard along with many others on my C.D."The Legend of the Bell Rock - and Other Tales of the Sea": CLICK HERE for more information

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