Bertha’s Grave

The following tale appeared in an old volume of forgotten maritime lore.  Its author, the indefatigable historian Edward R. Snow, relates that he first heard in as a young man in Bristol, England.  He frankly notes the difficulty of substantiating its details, but suggests that, like many sea-yarns, it may contain the seeds of actual events.  The story remains, in any case, a powerful allegory of love, loss, and commitment.  The setting is the Isle of Wight.  The time is the end of the seventeenth century.

In the 1690s, there lived on the Isle of Wight a pair of lovers named Bertha and William.  William’s profession was the sea.  In those days it was an exceedingly dangerous one—we are told that three out of every five seamen lost his life—but it could also be very remunerative in the right circumstances.  Bertha fretted about the safety of her lover; she implored him to give up his maritime activities and find employment on land.  He eventually agreed to her wishes, but told her that he needed to make one final voyage, one that would bring him enough money to enable them to be married and start a family.  Bertha agreed to this arrangement, but not without a certain amount of apprehension.

We should note that open-ocean lighthouses did not exist in those days.  Mariners had to feel their way along coastlines, using their knowledge of tides, currents, and dangerous shoals; but this was never an exact science, and in a storm such knowledge could be useless.  William set out for his final voyage, confident that he would be able to earn a good sum of money.  He had everything planned out, down to the last detail.  But as so often happens in life, our plans come to naught when confronted by the Fate’s furies. 

Bertha saw her lover off and, from a hill overlooking the beach, watched the sails of his ship drift towards the horizon.  He told her he would be gone for some time.  She resolved to make the best use of her time as possible; she would learn a useful trade, and add to their joint savings.  In her imagination, she even began to plan their nuptials.  Time nevertheless passed with agonizing slowness.  Bertha had to endure the same anxiety and uncertainty suffered by all women of the sea:  the painful inability to know what was going on with their men on the other side of the world.  Yet this was a burden she bore patiently, as all such women did, since there was no alternative.  People in those days were made of stern stuff; they could adapt with equanimity to tragedies and hardships that would incapacitate the average person today.  They became what they had to be to survive.     

Bertha refurbished her lodgings in anticipation of his return, and planted a vegetable garden.  After a long passage of time, the storm season again arrived at the Isle of Wight.  Bertha hoped that William’s ship would return before the onset of winter, for navigation was especially difficult from December to February.  Directly offshore, there were numerous hidden rocks, ledges, and shoals that could surprise the unwary navigator.  One morning, Bertha was surprised by news from a neighbor that William’s ship was on its way back.  In fact, it would be in sight within a few hours.  Bertha, now finally close to being reunited with her lover, was beside herself with joy.  She spent the morning in prayer, hoping that nothing would impede William’s final approach to land. 

But as morning turned into afternoon, the winds picked up offshore.  These winds soon metamorphosed into a gale.  As a crowd of locals gathered on the beach to watch the approach of the ship, white-capped waves crashed against the scattered rocks near the shore.  From a bluff overlooking the beach, Bertha could see that the ship was in trouble.  It could not make progress in the high winds and waves; and when nightfall came, the vessel would be in greater difficulty still.  But there was nothing that the spectators could do beyond lighting a bonfire and praying for the ship’s safety.  There was no lighthouse that might be able to guide the ship through the rocks.

Night came, and reluctantly yielded to a somber grey dawn.  The troubled vessel was nowhere in sight.  Eventually, some sharp-eyed observers on the bluff overlooking the beach could see the ship’s masts poking out from the churning white surf.  The ship had struck an offshore ledge and gone down in the night.  A few bodies later washed up on shore, but William’s was not among these.  Bertha was in shock; she tried to put on a stoic demeanor, but inside she was nearly crippled with anguish.  As the weeks passed, her complexion grew more pale, and she lost much weight.  A visiting doctor cautioned her that unless she preserved her will to live, there was nothing he could do. 

Eventually, Bertha seemed to recover her old buoyancy.  Some sort of change overtook her countenance, one that was visible to all the townspeople who knew her.  But she did make of point of telling her friends that, had their been a proper lighthouse offshore, the tragedy might not have happened.  To her friends, she said this:  “From this time forward, there will be a proper structure offshore to warn approaching ships of the sunken ledges and rocks.  No family or lover should have to endure what I have endured.” 

She then visited a local clergyman, and had him draw up her will and testament.  In this document were words to this effect:

I hereby order and decree that I be interred at the top of the Caistor Church’s tower.  My tomb should be very high from the ground and shaped to a point, and lighted when necessary, so that it may function as a warning and prominent landmark for all approaching ships.  It is my wish that my tomb become a beacon for future navigation.  It is my desire that this tomb of mine be maintained in perpetuity for this purpose. 

The will was found legally binding, and the funds were available.  The conical grave was constructed at the top of the Caistor Church’s spire, and when lit by candles, it was visible for about twenty miles from shore.  This was Bertha’s final legacy, the lasting monument of her love, devotion, and commitment.     

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Read more about coping with sorrow in the new, original translation of Tusculan Disputations:

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