Gabrielle van Hessel
By Dave Potter
My name is Wihelm van Wettering and I come from the small port town of Zierikzee. I say that I come from there, but that is about all. The truth is, that although I am a native of that town it has been many a year since I have set foot in her. My trade is that of a sailor, and merchant and it is for that reason that I do not live in my native place. Instead, I dwell in one of His Royal Dutch Majesty’s Colonies, that of the East Indies, in the fair town of Batavia where I am a young, hard-working, and I am pleased to say, ever-rising official with the magnificent Dutch East India Company, the pride of our land.
A proud young man I may be, and a successful one, and what is more largely happy, Thank the Lord, but alas, also unmarried. Not that Batavia does not have its members of the fairer sex whom have tickled my fancy, indeed there have been far too many. Batavia is, in my opinion, one of the finest hunting grounds for those rakish young men of the globe who wish to find an exotic beauty who knows what she is doing just as much as she looks like she knows. Many a night have I lain by some brown-skinned Venus, my heart and mind in ecstasy after the performance of tropical lovemaking that I have just been subjected to. But alas, pleasurable as these ladies are, they are not suitable candidates for a marriage, society dictating quite rightly that a wife must be white, Protestant and wholly inexperienced between the bedsheets, until that is, her husband has chance to act as a teacher to her.
But whilst fair Batavia might abound in even fairer native wenches, even more alas, the pick of Netherlandish girls there is quite lamentable. The girls of my own stock to be found are but few and far between and the Lord it seems, was not at his most benevolent in handing out charms on the sad days when they entered this Life. On top of that, all are either prudish pastor’s daughters or well-protected by their fathers, who, like myself, having lived for most of their lives in sunnier climes, know what the tropical heat can do to even the most upstanding of young men.
So it is that I, Wilhelm van Wettering am unmarried at twenty-six, and in full realisation of the need to rectify this woeful situation. And so it is, that I, Wilhelm van Wettering, am stood in the Year of Our Lord 1832, aboard the good ship Groningen bound for my native land for the first time in a decade where I hope to sort out some financial affairs, see my kinsfolk and more importantly, find myself a wife to bring back with me to Batavia.
I disembarked at the port of Rotterdam and went straightaway to the offices of the company where I had some business, before finding myself a lodging for the night and then going out onto the town to sample the delights for which she is famous, wrongly so I may add, for after having enjoyed the pleasures of the Oriental Angel for years upon end, those of even the finest trained of my own stock were sadly lacking and I must admit that the coming prospect of finding a permanent soul and bedmate from amongst them did not exactly fill me with glee. But nonetheless, the tensions of those long months on board the Groningen were somewhat relieved and it was with a clearer mind and emptier body that I left the following day for Zierikzee aboard the daily stagecoach.
My family were glad to see me, and I them of course, catching up on new cousins and learning of those who had sadly departed to the Other World. However, after several days of such activities I began to felt the pressing need to make some headway with the true reason for my journey home, that being the acquisition of a wife. And so it was that I was sat in the drawing room of my father’s house, whilst that said man and two friends of his puffed on pipes and sipped port wine when I decided to breach the subject.
“Father,” I said, “As you know, I am as yet unmarried.”
“Aye, so,” replied he, “But you should be thinking of rectifying that woeful situation and finding yourself a good God-Fearing woman to be your lifetime soul mate.”
“Well Father, to be fair, I am. But in Batavia the wenches are few and far between, leastways those of our race and creed and thus it is that one of my objectives in returning to this good land of ours is to procure for myself a spouse.”
“Tis good thinking my son.”
“But Father, I am at a loss. For where am I to look? I know the Netherlands not these days and where to find a suitable lady whose family and standing fit my requirements, well… I know not where to start searching.”
“You could try young Wilhelm, by visiting my home for a spot of coffee one afternoon.”
The man who spoke was one Jacob van Hessel, a merchant of Zierikzee and a long-standing friend of my father. He was a man whom the town held in high respect due to his wealth and I also, though for different reasons. During his younger days he had spent many-a-year on board ships and had sailed the Seven Seas, visiting Batavia amongst other exotic destinations. The other night we had been sat smoking and drinking and my father had been called away on some business. Alone in the drawing room, van Hessel had started to ask me about Batavia, my life there, and then tactfully he had moved onto the subject of the Batavian lasses and my exploits with them. It was not long before we had both become deep involved in a riotous discussion of my current and his former encounters with the whores of the world’s ports and his views on the weaker sex. “Control ‘em! Control ;em my lad!” he’d cried. “They need discipline, my, and a good lesson now and again!”
“Who do?” That had been my father, who had re-entered the room after having returned from his business.
“Natives, van Wettering,” van Hessel had explained. “Just telling the lad here about how the natives under you on the plantation and working as servants need control and teaching.”
“Aye,” said my father, comprehending nothing, and our conversation returned to its former subject, that being the price of coffee.
And now this van Hessel was suggesting I visit his house with regards to finding a wife. Was he about to offer more advice or tales? I knew not, but one thing was for certain. I would not let the good gent down. The very next day, a eleven sharp, I was stood on his doorstep.
I was shown in by a maid, tightly corsetted as was the current, (and indeed pleasing), fashion of the day, and told to wait in the drawing room. I was escorted to that said chamber and told to sit. “Mr. van Hessel is not here, sir,” the maid explained, but the ladies will see to you.”
I sat and waited. Waited for what seemed to be an age in fact, before the door opened and two ladies walked in, or perhaps shuffled as the speed of their movement could hardly be called walking. The first was obviously Mrs. van Hessel, a woman of around fifty or so whom in her day must have been quite something and indeed even now retained a good bone structure. Following her however, came the maiden who caught my attention. She was about seventeen, or perhaps eighteen, with blonde hair done up in the ringlets of the day, with piercing blue Dutch eyes, and a somewhat mournful yet strikingly beautiful visage. She wore a blue silk day dress, with huge ballooning Beret sleeves such as was the fashion then, her hands encased in tight-fitting matching gloves. What caught my attention however, was her waist, or more importantly, the lack of it. Both the servant and Mrs. van Hessel had been tightly corsetted which pleased me, as like van Hessel, I not only enjoyed seeing the contours of a constricted middle, but also knew that such garments restrict women and make them weaker and more dependent on us stronger creatures, and aid in the control and discipline that my father’s friend had earlier mentioned. There is however, a corsetted waist and a waist that defies the Laws of Anatomy, and Miss van Hessel’s, (for that is who I assumed her to be), was one of the latter, it circumference could not have measured forty centimetres and could have been easily surrounded and enclosed by my two hands. It must have been a trial to wear also, as I could see the girl’s face looking pleasingly flustered and her breasts heaved under that silken dress.
“Mrs. van Hessel.” I bowed.
“Mr. van Wettering I presume? My husband said that you may be honouring us with a call. So pleasant to meet you. Would you like coffee?”
I would have liked anything that would enable to stay in the presence of that delightful Dutch nymph sat across from her mother. “Yes, if it is no trouble.”
“None at all, Mr. van Wettering. But first, permit me to introduce my ward and niece, Gabrielle van Hessel.”
The girl, who had been staring vacantly into space, her mind seemingly kept busy with the effort of breathing, looked up and put on a smile that seemed delightfully false. I held out my hand, but she did not proffer hers, so a little surprised, I sat down again. “Mr. van Wettering,” she said, scarcely a whisper.
“Please, call me Wilhelm, ladies,” replied I.
We sat and talked. Mrs. van Hessel explained to me all about the girl, her ‘ward’ who sat through it all without saying a word. It turned out that she was the only daughter of her wayward brother, who had married a common actress and had lived a life of high living and moral laxity. “Well, that was until the judgment of the Good Lord came down upon them both, and they were alas killed in a fire which broke out in the tavern where they were staying at the time. The girl however, escaped, and came into my care. She was but thirteen years old, but a real urchin and ruffian.” Gabrielle looked downcast but still did not speak. “Thankfully for her, I and my husband have endeavoured hard and she is being raised as a lady.”
“That is good to hear,” said I politely, not interested in how she was raised, but more in how I could get that fair lass between the bedcovers.
We sipped coffee and the clock chimed.
“And you, Wilhelm. Why are you in the Netherlands this time?”
“Oh,” I replied. “To see my beloved family of course, to immerse myself in a good Protestant culture once more and also, to look for a wife.”
“A wife? You are not married?”
“Not yet, Madame.”
“But whyever not. Such a fine young man, and with wealth too.”
“Alas the opportunities for finding a bride are limited in Batavia,” I explained.
“Well, I wish you luck Wilhelm,” she said. “I know how important matrimonial issues are. We have been looking for a suitable match for young Gabrielle here, but no such man has yet located.”
The air was silent save for the creaking of corsets, but young Gabrielle’s face grew redder.
We left the subject at that.
That Friday van Hessel again came to my father’s house.
“How is the wife-hunting going my young sir?” asked he.
The answer was not favourable. I had seen three eligible maidens, but alas, it was only they who would describe themselves as eligible. One was too fat, another with a face akin to that of a mule and the third decidedly pretty – in her younger days. No, I was still at Square One.
“I am sorry to hear that,” he said. He took a puff of his pipe. “You paid a visit to my house, did you not?”
“That I did sir, but alas you were not at home.”
“Did you meet my good wife?”
“Aye, that I did.”
“And young Miss Gabrielle?”
“She is a handsome one, is she not?”
“Aye sir, that she is. She will make a good wife for one lucky man one day.”
“That I doubt not, but who? My wife and I are very particular as to the quality of men that we introduce her to.” He paused and puffed again. “Wilhelm, how do you feel that a wife should be treated?”
“With respect, courtesy, but also with discipline. She should know her place and know whom is Master.”
“Good lad.” He paused once more. “Visit my house again tomorrow at Eleven.”
I did so, and again was shown into that Drawing Room. Seated in there was Miss Gabrielle, again wearing a dress of high fashion with ballooning sleeves and a tiny waist, but this time, in pink. She was a vision of loveliness. She stood up when I entered and made a tiny curtsey. I bowed but she did not hold out her hand once more, so I sat. ‘Aye, to win this wench would be a prize,’ thought I. There was rebellion as well as sadness in her eyes. She would a package to open and no mistaking!
“Miss Gabrielle,” I said. “Are your mother and father not at home?”
“No sir, I am to entertain you, if I can?”
‘Oh, I’m sure you can,’ thought rakish old I.
“Well then Miss…” Her chest was heaving through a lack of air. Speaking was obviously a chore for her. “Well then, Miss, you are looking for a husband?”
“No, sir. They are looking for a husband for me.” She said ‘they’ with a vehemence. Like as if she hated her guardians.
“You do not want to marry?”
“Let me just say, that my choice and there’s would be different.”
“Oh. And what would your choice be?”
“A kind, gentle man, who respects his wife and lets her share in his life… A man like my father was to my mother.”
“And van Hessel disapproves of such men?”
“Let me just say that he has different values.”
‘Yet values that seem to coincide with mine,’ thought I. I had suspected that my father’s friend was interested in my becoming his ward’s suitor for some time. Now I was sure of it. And I was a forward man.
“Does he approve of me?”
“Yes, that he does.”
“But do you?”
She was silent. But I was not a man to wait for an answer. I leapt up out of my chair and grabbed her gloved hand and kissed it.
She started in shock and gave a little cry. Then her breasts started heaving nine to the dozen and she uttered the word, “Oh, sir!” before getting up out of her chair and mincing out of the room.
It was I however, who were in the greater shock of the two. For the hand that I had kissed had been cold and as hard as wood. In fact, I was convinced that that hand was actually made of wood, and no human hand at all. No wonder van Hessel could find no match for his ward. She was an amputee!
I called again that evening at the van Hessel’s, this time in a fouler mood. That my father’s friend had attempted to fool me into marrying an invalid had angered me. “Is Mr. van Hessel in?” asked I.
“Aye, sir, he be in the study,” said the wonderfully-corsetted young maid.
“Then I may I see him?”
I went in and ascended the stairs and knocked on the door. A voice bade me to enter and I did so. Van Hessel was sat inside the room, a smoky room full of books and souvenirs from his wandering days.
“Van Wettering!” he cried, raising himself. “Please take a seat.”
“No sir, I will not. For truth be known, I am angered at you at present!”
“Whyever is that? What have I done?”
“Oh Sir, you know what it is that you have done! Nothing more than attempt to dupe me into marrying a cripple, that is what!”
“Aye Sir, a cripple?”
“Never did I do such a thing!”
“Lie not Sir, for I know. Your Ward, Gabrielle. A pretty face indeed, but I cannot be fooled! I kissed her hand this afternoon, and found it to be no hand at all, but instead a wooden replacement.”
Then, instead of the look of guilt which I had expected to have seen, a smile spread across the face of the old man. “An invalid, eh? Ha! Ha! Oh Sir, you are confused! An invalid! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
His jesting irked me. “Do you do not deny that the hand that I kissed was wooden?”
He stopped laughing. “I am sorry, Wilhelm, it seems like I mock you. No Sir, I do not deny the fact. The hand was wooden. However, because you kissed a wooden hand, it does not mean that my ward is an amputee.”
Now I was confused. “I shall explain,” he said. Then, to my surprise, he got up and left the room. A moment later he returned carrying a box. “Open,” he said.
I did so and found inside, two beautifully sculpted wooden arms. “It was one of these that you touched this morning,” said van Hessel.
“But what of Gabrielle’s arms?” asked I.
“Oh they are still very much attached to her personage. Meet me in the park besides the church tomorrow at Eleven and you shall find that out for yourself.