The Old Woman of Wesel
Sabine Baring-Gould, 1905
(First published in Cornhill Magazine, Volume 18, 1905.)
[Old Woman Reading, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. A Book of Ghosts by Sabine Baring-Gould: cover photo source: Abe Books.]
One lovely day in autumn I was sitting under a trellis of vines at Capeln above Coblenz, a little place dominated by the absurd Cockney-Gothic castle of Stolzenfels. I was alone, and was drinking half a bottle of Rhenish wine. At another table hard by was a gentleman, similarly engaged. Of what nationality he was I knew not. After a while he tendered me his snuff-box.
‘Herzlichen Dank,’ said I, taking a pinch.
‘You are heartily welcome,’ he replied.
‘So ho!’ I exclaimed. ‘We both hail from the right and tight little island.’
‘Yes,’ he answered; ‘and I have found my own companionship dull, and possibly it may be the same with you.’
‘It is so, indeed; so now let us sit at the same table. Kellner!’ I called; ‘eine Flasche Zeltinger.’
We talked of this and that, and finally I observed, for want of something else to say, ‘Alack, the bloom of the year is passing away. The grapes have been gathered, and the sun is leaving us to give warmth to the antipodes, and to ripen the Australian vines.’
‘Why not?’ asked he; ‘we must not grudge it them. It is the law of the ecliptic.’
‘Of course it is. But one looks at things from a selfish point of view.’
‘The law of the ecliptic is the law of life.’
‘I do not understand that.’
‘All life, all progress, is in curves,’ said he. ‘Look at those men rowing: the boat is propelled in a vibratory course. The fish swims by a series of sweeps from side to side; nothing goes directly to its point. What is light but a series of undulations, and colour is the breaking of these waves on the retina. We all advance by ups and downs, by swerves to the right and to the left. You cannot even walk in any other fashion. The whole social and political progress of the world is undulatory.’
‘What an idea!’
‘So said I when it was first propounded to me. But I have come to see that so it is, and so it must be. Are you idle or busy?’
‘The former, or I would not be here.’
‘Can you spare me half an hour?’
‘An hour and a half if you will favour me. I have absolutely nothing to do.’
‘If so, I will tell you how I came by this theory of life. I did not originate it; it came to me from the Old Woman of Wesel.’
‘A woman at Wesel, not Ober Wesel, but the other place on the Lower Rhine. Listen, and you shall hear the story:
‘Wesel is perhaps the most depressing place on earth. At least, so I thought one October day, when I visited it. A cold wind blew, rain fell, the streets were sloppy, my hotel was uncomfortable. There was no warmth in my bedroom; in the Speise Saal hung a smell of stale tobacco and beer. There was no company there; there was not even the Kölnische Zeitung to peruse. I had no books with me. I had no arrears of correspondence to make up. There was nothing for me to do but to go forth in my overcoat and with my umbrella, and see the sights of the town before night closed in. But the sights of Wesel are not many. The great church of St. Willibrod is regarded as the finest specimen of Late Gothic on the Rhine. It is built of small blocks of tufa, the colour of which is that of London clay bricks; and it has been so scraped and sandpapered that all the mellowness of age has been removed. The church in position and proportion reminds one of a squatting goose, turning its plucked rear to the town, thrusting it inconveniently upon the small market-place. Beyond the west front, dominated by the lanky spire, is a great void—a blank space looking like a military exercising-ground.
‘After I had studied the church I sauntered across the bleak square to the ancient ramparts, now planted with trees in a hobbledehoy condition, not yet grown to maturity and stateliness. The bastions command no view, not even of the Rhine, which has retreated from them; and all that can be seen from them is the huge iron arches that hold up the railway bridge, curving over the roadway.
‘The rain had ceased; I seated myself on a damp bench and lighted a cigar. Then I drew from my pocket a little red-covered Hermann’s “Fahrplan Buch,” to discover by what train, next morning, I could get away from this wretched place.
‘Whilst thus engaged, I heard a moaning as of someone in pain at a little distance from me to the right in the thicket. I listened attentively, and when I had located the spot whence the sound issued, I rose in search of the sufferer.
‘I speedily came on an elderly woman lying under some bushes. Her garments were excessively shabby, and were drenched with rain.
‘“What is the matter with you? Can I assist you?” I asked in German, which I can speak with some fluency, as I knelt by the poor creature, and raised her head and shoulders in my arms.
‘“Oh, good sir, I am down, down to the lowest point of my curve,” she said. “If you will have the charity, help me to reach the hospital.”
‘I drew her to an upright position. In leaving the path she had stumbled over a root and had fallen headlong among the bushes down the slope of the glacis, and had consequently been unable to raise herself unassisted. She must have lain long in this position, for her clothing was sopping, and as I raised her, water oozed from it.
‘“Can you walk?” I inquired.
‘“If you will help me—to the bench; I must rest there for a few minutes. Then, with your gracious assistance, I will proceed on my way.”
‘I supported her tottering limbs to the seat I had so recently vacated.
‘“You must be bitterly cold,” I said, “drenched to the skin as you are. Take this.” I drew off my great-coat and insisted on thrusting her arms into the sleeves; then I wrapped it about her.
‘“Ach, but you are a good man,” she said, “and I give you my hearty thanks. I have been down to the lowest depth in the great revolution of Life and soon shall be mounting again. See you that bird?” she asked, pointing to a water-wagtail that was skimming over the moat. “That bird advances in a series of curves, now up and then down, but ever forwards. That is Life. But look yonder”—she indicated the railway arches—“there you have all the curves broken and discontinued, all are upwards, none reversed. In God’s work all is continuous, the other is the way with men.”
‘The woman surprised me beyond expression. I was unable to follow the current of her thoughts.
‘“Now,” she said, “if you will be so kind as to let me lean on you, and if you will put an arm about me, I think I shall be able to proceed to the hospital.”
‘I lifted her to her feet, and we made our way to the town. As we paced along slowly she continued talking, some while distinctly and connectedly, but next moment she muttered to herself sentences that were unintelligible to me. Encountering a policeman, I summoned him to my assistance, and between us we conveyed her to the hospital, and committed her to the charge of a Sister of Mercy. Before leaving I asked permission to call again in a couple of hours to learn how the poor creature was, and to see her once more, as I purposed quitting Wesel on the morrow. Leave was readily granted.
‘Accordingly I returned to the Hostel Dolorous, and ordered supper. The principal meal with Germans is at half-past twelve in the day, and for Abendessen one orders by the carte. I chose out a couple of portions from the list shown me, and ordered a bottle of Mosel wine. In waiting, I turned over in my head what had happened, and the words of the old woman; but of them I could make neither heads nor tails.
‘When I revisited the hospital I was taken to the ward where the old creature lay, comfortably in bed. She had been looking forward to my return, and her face brightened when I took a seat by her side. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes blazed with a feverish light.
‘“I am glad that you are come,” she said, “you have been so good to me, and I have been desirous of telling you many things, as some return for your assistance. That which I said to you is true. Life is curvilinear, and it is interminable in its undulations. We pass along waves, now we are at the apex, then are in the trough. I am in the latter now, but it will not be so for long, then I shall mount again. That is one great verity that I have communicated to you. But there is another, unsuspected by you, unknown to others. But I will confide this truth to you. It is that to every man or woman living there is given a double. You have your double—I have mine. Whilst the one is up the other is down, but carries on its predestined progress in the great succession of curves. At a certain moment the lines of life cross, and when they cross, then all the past is forgotten by each. But life does not end, it proceeds in an upward or in a downward sweep. Only at the moments of birth and death do the lines intersect. Now I must tell you about my double. She is a great singer and actress at St. Petersburg. She is thought much of and is highly paid; the Prince Vladimirski is her most devoted slave. Indeed, it is whispered that they have been privately married; I do not think that. They say that he would willingly withdraw her from the stage and perhaps acknowledge her as Princess Vladimirski. But she is vain, not ambitious; she loves flattery and adulation and admiration. She thinks, perhaps, as a great lady she would be looked down upon and be cold-shouldered by those greater than herself. She loves the flare of the footlights, the paint and the spangles and the gauze, and she stays on in defiance of the Prince’s wishes. See!” she drew her hand from under the bedclothes, raised it aloft, and let it waver down to the coverlet; then drew it under again. “There,” said she, “so will my double decline, and as she descends I shall rise. When our life-lines cross, we shall each die, but life goes on, a new life begins.”
‘“Stay,” I said; “this is incredible. She, I suppose, must be young and handsome, and you are old.”
‘“Old,” laughed the woman. “We are the same age—to a day, but I am broken and withered with poverty and labour and suffering, and she is well conserved in her bloom. But tell me now, is there anyone you would desire to see?”
‘“Yes,” said I; “just at this moment, there is borne in on my mind a friend in London, Lady Destrier. I wonder whether she has a double, and of what sort this double may be.”
‘As I spoke the woman was biting her wrist, and her teeth brought out blood. Dipping her finger in it, she drew it suddenly across my eyes.
‘“Now,” she said, “let me take your hand, and do you close your eyes.”
‘She gripped my hand. Her skin was burning. As she had desired, I let my eyelids fall.
‘Instantly I was out of Wesel, and in a box at Her Majesty’s Theatre in town. In the box sat Lady Destrier, Sir Michael was sitting back, half asleep, and Charles Cordwallis was talking eagerly to the lady. At the same time that I saw this, I felt the hand of the old woman clasping and scorching mine.
‘“Dear Lady Destrier,” said Cordwallis, “I do so wish that I could interest you in the wrongs and the agonies of the Macedonians.”
‘“I fear that you cannot,” she replied.
‘“But surely you should; you ought to be interested in a people striving to free their necks from a hated and a galling yoke. If there be any manhood in them, they must rise. Only slaves will lie down and allow themselves to be kicked and spat upon. How would you feel, Lady Destrier, if you were spurned and insulted?”
‘“I cannot conceive of such an eventuality. My dear Charlie, we are not the knights errant of Christendom whose romantic function it is to redress the wrongs of humanity—or supposed wrongs. As to these Macedonians, they are not such ill-used creatures as you suppose. From all I hear, the Turks are the most affable and gentlemanly beings, and the Bulgarians are a set of cut-throats who must be suppressed with a strong hand.”
‘“You are misinformed,” said Cordwallis. “Dear Lady Destrier, I wish you would read the reports of those who have been through the country, have visited them, their burned villages, and know what is the real condition of affairs.”
‘“No, no, Charlie, I cannot wade through all that stuff. It may be as you say. It may be that there is gross exaggeration, a partisan-coloured report.”
‘“I assure you,” urged Cordwallis vehemently, “this is not the case. The reports of our committee are genuinely true. What is more, I have it on good authority that the Foreign Office did receive accounts of the most harrowing description relative to the horrors perpetrated by the Turks in Macedonia, and word was sent to the Embassy at Constantinople that no more of this nature were to be transmitted to London; so that should a question be raised in the House, it might be safely answered that no such information had been received.”
‘“And rightly so,” said Lady Destrier. “We do not want to sup full of horrors, and that concerning people in whom we have no concern.”
‘“But we ought to have concern, for it was we who thrust them back into chains by the Treaty of Berlin, with promises of redress that have never been fulfilled.”
‘“Come, come, I will give you a guinea towards the relief fund; and now let us change the subject. Look at Lady Haverford. What a mass of diamonds is she encased in! But I suspect paste, as she would hardly run the risk of wearing so many real stones at the opera.”
‘The fiery hand that gripped mine was relaxed for a moment, and then closed on mine tighter than before. I opened my eyes.
‘“Well,” said the Old Woman of Wesel, “have you seen her?”
‘“And have heard what was said?”
‘“Shut your eyes again and see her double.”
‘I did as I was bidden, and lo! I was in a strange land; everything about me was indeed strange. There was a village in ruins, with smoke rising from it. A church, very mean, with a dome battered and half broken down. I saw sacred pictures lying scattered about, trampled into the dirt. A smell of blood and burning filled the air; on all sides lay heaps of tumbled clothes covering motionless human forms—dead doubtless.
‘Against the wall of a house, the rafters of which had fallen in, and were smouldering, and from which occasionally leaped up a flame, sat a woman. Good heavens! It was Lady Destrier—the face was hers, the full eyes hers—but this face and these eyes had not in them the lady’s expression of listlessness. It was Lady Destrier, but in Bulgarian costume: the same woman, the same colouring, the same profile; but not the same in everything else. A poor creature with dishevelled hair, with a horrible wound in her throat, clasping a baby in her arms, and her bosom dabbled with the child’s blood. She swayed herself, the agony of despair in her eyes; she kissed, she hugged her babe; and when for a moment she loosed it, or laid it on her lap, I saw that the child was dead, it had been transfixed by a bayonet.
‘“My dove, my white lily,” she cried, “open your eyes, look on your mother, my soul! my precious pearl! Thy father has been killed, thy mother outraged, thy house burnt. May the curse of God rest on the hated Turks and blight them! My soul! my idol! Light of my eyes! put up thy dear lips and kiss thy mother, if but for once, only once more, that I may die content!”
‘Then she laid the dead infant upon the ground before her, and, with outstretched arms, cried, “O thou! the All Holy, the Mother of Sorrows! Thou hadst thy little one, thy Jesus! He lay at thy breast, He wept, and thou didst comfort Him with a lullaby and kisses! Hear me from Heaven above! Give me back, give me back for one hour, for one minute, my little babe, my angel!”
‘She clasped her hands, she stooped over the child, looking at the still face, listening for a breath from the lips. And all the while she gave not a thought to the awful gash in her own throat, from which the blood oozed. Then, from round the corner came an old man, with a scalp wound; he was in a flowing priest’s gaberdine, and he said: “Anoka, God has taken the child.”
‘“It was the Turks, may they be accursed of God! they ran him through with their bayonets. May the blight of Heaven rest on them all, and above all on their murderous-minded Sultan! My child!”—she returned to consideration of the silent figure before her—“Oh my child! Oh, Mother of Heaven! Oh, Queen of Sorrows, help me!”
‘“The Mother of Sorrows,” said the priest, who was himself dabbled with blood, “had to give up her Son to the murderers; and they crucified Him. But there is a turn in Life’s wheel, and they were cast down into Hell, and He and the Holy Mother are exalted to Heaven.”
‘I felt the hot hand that clutched mine relaxed, and I opened my eyes.
‘“Well,” said the Old Woman of Wesel, “have you seen your lady’s double?”
‘I remained silent, strange thoughts worked in my brain.
‘“Do you not see,” said she, “that everything in Life is double? That each life has its counterpart, but placed in precisely the opposite position to which it finds itself at the time? Presently the lower life mounts, and as it does so, the double descends. You cannot lift one bucket out of a well without lowering the other. Now it comes to the turn of Anoka to ascend; as she crosses the line of life of your lady all is changed. She will enter on a new condition, one of great prosperity. She will become the favourite of the Sultan, in his harem, and will have jewels and rich garments and slaves to wait on her.”
‘“And Lady Destrier?”
‘“As the lines cross, she will be born again and become a hand in a match factory, live in the London slums, and die of a rotted jaw, produced by the phosphorus with which she has worked. God is just! Why should your lady have all the good things and likewise Anoka evil things? It will be but just that the latter should be comforted and the former tormented in the new stage of curvilinear life.”
‘Then I said hesitatingly, “I suppose that I also have a double?”
‘“Certainly you have; would you like to see him?”
‘“I do desire it.”
‘“Then shut your eyes once more.”
‘She laid hold of my hand again.
‘I obeyed her; and saw a squalid room in the East-end of London. It reeked with human exhalations, fried bloaters, and the smell of leather.
‘The room was occupied by a lean pallid man, evidently a cobbler, who was sitting at a dingy window, engaged upon patching an old pair of boots. The apartment was tenanted as well by his wife, a slatternly woman, with a baby at her breast, by her girls, two daughters grown up, and by a son. Also by a lodger—good God! myself—my own very self, white, with hollow eyes, just recovered from a severe illness; myself seated half clothed on a burst and filthy mattress of straw placed on the floor; myself—greedily gnawing at a piece of bread on which was a shred of herring.
‘“It’s of no use, Garge,” said the woman. George is my Christian name; but she was addressing my double, not me. “We can’t keep you ’ere no longer, you ain’t done no work and brought us a penny not for a month.”
‘“How could I when I was ill?”
‘“That’s all fine enough, but we ain’t agoin’ to support you no longer. We can’t afford it.”
‘“You’ve sold my tools,” said my double, “and that’s paid yer ’andsome.”
‘“’Andsome ain’t the word. It’s just paid fer keepin’ yer alive. Now yer tools is gone. We ain’t lords and ladies nussed in the lap of haffluence as can afford to be charitable. We be poor folk, and hardly earn enough to keep our own bellies full.”
‘“I am not strong enough to look for work.”
‘“I can’t ’elp that. Out you must toddle into the street.”
‘“Gor’,” said the poor convalescent, “I’d sell my soul for a cup o’ milk. I feels a sort of a cravin’ as bread won’t fill.”
‘“Then you may lap the dirty water out of the gutter,” said the woman, “yer won’t get any milk from me; why, we ha’n’t got none for ourselves. Can’t afford it.”
‘“I don’t know what to do,” sighed my sick double.
‘“Look ’ere,” said the cobbler, turning round, “you go and commit a larceny; just steal something out of a shop and get committed, and they’ll make yer pretty comfortable in gaol.”
‘“Aye, I’ll do that. There’s nothing else left for me to do,” said the enfeebled wretch, rising with difficulty from his mattress.
‘The fiery hand that clasped mine was loosened. I opened my eyes.
‘“Have you seen your double?” the woman inquired.
‘“I have seen him,” I exclaimed; “and I must go.”
‘“Whither?” she inquired, with her burning eyes fixed on mine.
‘“To London. I must look for my brother—my double—and help him.”’
. . . . . . . .
‘And,’ said I, ‘did you find your double?’
‘My dear sir,’ said the stranger, ‘everyone may find his unfortunate double if he looks for him below the surface, among the submerged.’
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