The old sea captain was not sure he had heard right. “What did you say, my Lady?”
The Lady stopped pacing about her parlor and looked at the captain in annoyance. Many were the merchants rich and proud in this great port city of Stavoren. But this woman, called by everyone “the Lady of Stavoren,” was richest and proudest of them all.
“I said I want to hire you and your ship to bring me the most precious thing in the world.”
“But what is the most precious thing?” asked the captain. “And where do I find it?”
“If I knew,” said the Lady coldly, “I would already have obtained it. I ask you to discover and bring it to me. I will make sure you have ample gold to buy it, whatever it turns out to be.”
“Forgive me, my Lady,” said the captain, “but I still don’t understand.”
The Lady sat facing him. “Look around you, Captain. Have you seen a more magnificent mansion?”
“Never, my Lady.”
“I spared no expense to build it, and I have filled it with the most costly items from all the ports visited by my ships. Yet whatever I do, my rival merchants find a way to copy me.
“I must show them once and for all that I am their better. That is why you must bring me the most precious thing in the world. I’ve chosen you for the job because it needs someone of your experience. Of course, I will pay you handsomely.”
“Thank you, my Lady. I will do my best.”
“You had better, dear Captain. If you fail, you and your ship will never find work in Stavoren again.”
The next day, the captain sailed from Stavoren, in search of the most precious thing in the world.
Months passed. Everyone in Stavoren knew of the captain’s quest. Wherever the Lady went, she heard people guessing what the most precious thing would be.
“A pearl as big as an egg,” said one.
“No, a magnificent gown,” said another.
“No, a marvelous statue,” said still another.
The Lady was delighted at the stir she was causing. “And how they will envy me,” she said to herself, “when they see what the captain brings!”
At long last, the captain’s ship was sighted entering the harbor. The people of Stavoren streamed to the dock. When the Lady arrived, dressed in her finest, they made way for her.
The captain’s ship was just docking. “My Lady,” he called, “I have brought what you desired! The most precious thing in the world!”
“What is it, Captain?” called back the Lady, barely able to hold in her excitement.
“I visited many ports in many lands,” said the captain. “I saw many wonderful things. None could I say was the most precious of all. But at last, in the city of Danzig, I came across it. Then I laughed at myself! I should have known it from the first!”
“But what is it?” said the Lady impatiently.
“Wheat!” cried the captain. “My ship is filled with wheat!”
“Wheat?” said the Lady. Her face grew white. Behind her, she heard murmurs from the crowd, and laughing. “Did you say wheat?”
“Yes, my Lady,” said the captain joyously. “What could be more precious, more valuable, than wheat? Without our daily bread, what good are all the treasures of the world?”
The Lady was silent for a moment, listening to the whispers and snickers of the crowd. “And this wheat is all mine, is it not? To do with as I like?”
“Of course, my Lady,” said the captain.
“Then,” said the Lady, “pour it into the harbor.”
“What?” said the captain. Now his own face was white.
“Pour it into the harbor! Every grain of it!”
Murmurs of horror and approval both rose up behind her.
“My Lady,” said the captain, “please consider what you say. There is wheat enough here to feed a city! If you have no use for it, then give it to the poor and hungry. After all, you too may someday be in need!”
“I?” shrieked the Lady. “In need?”
She plucked from her finger a ruby ring and held it high. “This ring will return to my hand before I am ever in need!”
With all her might, she flung it far into the harbor.
The captain stared at the Lady on the dock, her face red with rage. Then he called to his men.
When the ship reached the harbor mouth, the captain ordered his men to pour all the wheat overboard. Then he sailed from the harbor, never to return.
The next day, the Lady held a grand feast for all the richest merchants of Stavoren. She spared no expense, to show that she still had every cause for pride.
A huge roast fish was set before her for carving. As she was about to cut into it, the Lady noticed a glint from something in the fish’s mouth. She pulled out the object and held it up.
The diners gasped. The Lady turned pale.
It was the ruby ring.
A few weeks later, fishermen found that a sand bar was building beneath the water at the harbor’s mouth. The discarded wheat had sprouted and grown, and was catching the sand that before had drifted freely.
Soon, the tall ships could not enter. The harbor was ruined, and with it went the fortunes of the city. Many of the merchants lost everything.
Among them was the Lady of Stavoren.
Today, Stavoren is known mainly as a ferry landing. The sand bar that keeps tall ships from the harbor is still called “Lady’s Sand”—a reminder how the Lady of Stavoren scorned the most precious thing in the world.
About the Story
My retelling of this legend is based largely on “The Lady of Stavoren: A Tale from the Province of Friesland,” in Tales Told in Holland, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller, The Book House for Children, Chicago, 1926. Other versions consulted were found in Dutch Fairy Tales for Young Folks, by William Elliot Griffis, Crowell, New York, 1918; The Golden Cat Head and Other Tales of Holland, by Marian King, Whitman, Chicago, 1933; The Owl’s Nest: Folktales from Friesland, by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, Coward-McCann, New York, 1954; and The Sunken City and Other Tales from Around the World, by James McNeill, Henry Z. Walck, New York, 1959.
For help and comments, I thank Coby and Hans Siegenthaler in Los Angeles, and Claire Metz and her mother in Charlottesville, Virginia.
How to Say the Name
Stavoren ~ stah-VOR-en