Around the Hearth: Strange Memories
We sat there in the evening twilight around the fire. It was one of those wonderful autumn nights, when something sweet and something sad hovers over all things, tenderly and quietly moving.
In the great fireplace the peat fire burned brightly and the water in the kettle sang a dreamy song of old times. The flames filled the large room with strange glows and shadows.
My old, octogenarian friend sat in the corner next to the fire.
Speaking there so quietly to himself, in a voice weakened by old age, his life seemed so fragile to me, as if he could let go of it any time now, and I truly felt that the fact that he was still alive was a miracle. His old eyes stared, as if already looking at this world from another, one he would enter very soon.
His children and grandchildren huddled around him and listened quietly, the youngest ones open-mouthed and with attentive eyes. He was speaking from memory.
‘Certainly,’ he said, ‘there is more around us than most people think, and though I don’t believe everything I hear, I won’t say that there’s nothing in it, either. It’s just that not everyone can see it, and not all of the time.
For example, the old Gerrits here, who died last year, always knew in advance who would die. He was never wrong. In the middle of the night there’d be a knocking on his door, and it wouldn’t stop until he got out of bed.
Then when he stood at the side of the road, he’d see the funeral pass by.
He would stay there, standing still with his cap in his hands, until the sight had passed, and the next day he would tell the neighbours what he’d seen and who would die. He said it of Geurt’s daughter and of missus Zandhuus and there had been nothing wrong with either of them at the time.
Fourteen days later they were buried, exactly as he’d seen it.
Gerrits lived on a deathroad, and people who live there always see such things1.
Happens to horses too, especially young ones. Sometimes they suddenly stand still, looking at something. You mustn’t hit them when that happens, that’s wrong. Just let them stand there ‘till it’s over.
On the Amersfoort’s road, one of those black ladies used to roam. Came from the Doelboom, went past the Black board, then followed the road, past the Echoput2 to Kampstee, and there disappeared. The people usually call her the black lady or the ghost of the Black board, as that’s where they saw her most often, where the King’s road comes out on the Amersfoort’s road3.
It happened to my father that he, coming from Elspeet with the wagon and two horses, met the black lady near the Black board. The horses couldn’t go forward. ‘Twas as if the wagon was held back by an invisible force. You can understand how my father was afeared. But fortunately, he was sensible enough to say the exorcisation: “In name of our Saviour, go forth in peace and do not return until I call thee.” The ghost departed then, letting the wagon pass, but other people have been thrown off the road there.
Many terrible things must’ve happened there in the past, you can safely count on that; so many people have seen the ghost.
Only twice in my life have I been through such a thing myself. I’ll never forget it, no matter how old I get. And I’m not the only one who’s seen it, you can ask the people of Elspeet.
The first time, as a young lad, I went in the evening from Elspeet to Staveren with two horses. I rode one horse and held the other by the bridle. I was about halfway, when a light approached from the right and crossed the road right in front of the horses. It looked very much like a flame and for a long time I could still see it, rising and falling in the distance.
Such things happen often here. Those lights won’t harm you, as long as you don’t mock them.
It happened once, that a few lads from Elspeet, who’d been out betting, returned homewards late in the evening. They’d had quite a lot to drink. Near Elspeet on the heath, one of those lights approached them and they called out: “Ho! He! Come here so I can light the pipe!”
They came to regret it, as some terrible things happened to them then. They arrived home more dead than alive. You must never mock it, for you don’t know what it is.
The second time I saw something myself, was near Staveren.
Just on the border between Elspeet and Leuvenum, to the right of the old cart road from Elspeet to Harderwijk, stood a small grove of elm trees. Later one elm after another died, until there was only one left.
People said a treasure lay buried there. Things were always happening at that spot and several people have seen a fire burning there at night.
One evening, when it was so dark that I couldn’t even see my own had in front of my eyes, I travelled to a homestead near that place.
Suddenly I saw a ball of fire, as big as an iron pot, rise up from the foot of the elm tree, until it reached the top and disappeared.
That fireball gave so much light, that I could see the handle of the homestead’s door, even though I was at least a hundred paces away from it. O! Many people have seen it there at night.
My brother, whom I’d told, went there the following night to keep watch. He didn’t believe a word of it and wanted to see whether any of the things people spoke of really happened.
He apparently saw a lot, because he came home very frightened. He never wanted to talk about it, but he never again said he didn’t believe it, either.
The owner of the land knew a treasure was buried there, but left it at that. He didn’t dare dig it up, because you see, when it’s like that, you won’t reach it anyway.
“And why not?” I dared to ask.
“Well, as you won’t get it, anyhow. Something’ll happen, before you find it.”
The owner was sure there was a treasure there though, because it was written that one night, a horseman had arrived in Harderwijk, deathly ill.
He died a few days later, but on his deathbed he announced that he’d buried a large amount of gold in the direction between the towers of Elspeet and Ermelo, near a grove of elm trees.
How he’d acquired the gold? Who can tell?
There was much thieving and plundering around here in those days. The evil one must’ve had a hand in it.
The grove of elm trees is gone now, two pines grow there. But still no one has dared to dig at that spot.’
For a moment the room was quiet. The flames curled around the blackened kettle. Inside the old wall clock, the regular pace of time was ticking on.
Then the old weak voice continued:
‘Yes, wondrous things exist.
Once, a day labourer, Jongbier, was working in the coppice near Asselt, and while he was digging he found a large amount of money. Because of his mates, who were working a little farther along, he couldn’t risk digging it up. He closed the hole, marked it with a stick, and worked on. That evening he went back alone to collect it, but no matter how he searched, he couldn’t find the spot. He went back to look for it more than once, but never managed to find it and the money is still there.
More money must be lying around here and there.
In the old days, one of those very small men, a penny short of a pound, travelled from door to door selling scrubbers. He roamed across the whole Veluwe and there wasn’t a village or neighbourhood where they didn’t know him. With the one, he slept in the hay at night, with the other, he was invited to dinner.
He carried the scrubbers on his back to make himself look like a tradesman, otherwise he would’ve been arrested for begging. Because of that, he was unwilling to sell them, preferring to be given something, and most people did.
They called him Oart Scrubber or Burnt Oart, because his face and arm had been burned when he’d fallen into the fire as a child.
Behind Hoog Soeren now, before the Old Deeling, there’s a large pit, the “Cat’s pit”. In the old days when there were witches and warlocks, they changed themselves into cats at night and met there to dance with the evil one.
Now I’ve heard it said, that Oart Scrubber, passing the Cat’s pit one night, saw a host of beautifully dressed ladies and gentlemen dance around a big fire. He walked towards them, took his cap off and said: “Oh ladies and gentlemen, have a thought for a poor sinner. Give me a little something, please. I need it, too.”
Then each gave him a gold coin.
He put them in his pocket. Deeply moved and intensely grateful he spoke: “Thank you a thousand times, a thousand thanks. The Lord bless you and keep you and may he repay you.”
Suddenly, as if by magic, the entire feast disappeared and he stood there alone in the dark forest.
When he came out of the wood and sat down at the side of the road, filled with joy, to count his treasures, he discovered to his fright that instead of gold, he was carrying beech leaves in his pocket.
How much of it is true, I don’t know, but it’s certain that Scrubber Oart possessed more money than most of the people from whom he received alms.
Once it turned out that he buried money here and there.
It was near the toll of Staveren that people had repeatedly seen him rummaging around near the road in the forest. After he’d been busy there, the toll collector, who’d been keeping an eye on him, went to have a look.
Altogether he found six hundred guilders, all in rixdollars, some of them already weathered green. The finder was an honest man and he brought the money to the mayor of Putten.
Now Oart was called to the mayor and there he admitted he’d hidden the money so that he’d have a little something for his old age, when he wouldn’t be able to go from door to door anymore.
For that amount, the mayor bought him a place in the poorhouse in Harderwijk, but the unhappy man had been so upset by all this, that he soon became ill and died...’
The old man, worn out by all that talking, leaned back in his chair. It was late. The children had to go to bed and that night they dreamed of impossibly great treasures.
The saw ghostly figures and the glow of fires in the wood, but they could not reach the golden treasures.
From Legends of the Veluwe/Veluwsche Sagen by Gust van de Wall Perné, published in 1910-1912 by Scheltens & Giltay and translated by Eva Weggelaar
1. A deathroad was the name for roads where funerals often passed.
2. Echoput means Echo-well
3. Black ladies were usually seen as a bad omen, the sight of the mourning woman predicting death.