Many a day has the story-teller wandered along the dykes, which overlook the Zuyder Zee. Once there were fertile fields, and scores of towns, where water now covers all. Then fleets of ships sailed on the bosom of Lake Flevo, and in the river which ran into the sea. Bright and beautiful cities dotted the shores, and church bells chimed merrily for the bridal, or tolled in sympathy for the sorrowing. Many were the festal days, because of the wealth, which the ships brought from lands near and far.
But to-day the waters roll over the spot and “The Dead Cities of the Zuyder Zee” are a proverb. Yet all are not dead, in one and the same sense. Some lie far down under the waves, their very names forgotten, because of the ocean’s flood, which in one night, centuries ago, rushed in to destroy. Others languished, because wealth came no longer in the ships, and the seaports dried up. And one, because of a foolish woman, instead of holding thousands of homes and people, is to-day only a village nestling behind the dykes. It holds a few hundred people and only a fragment of land remains of its once great area.
In the distant ages of ice and gravel, when the long and high glaciers of Norway poked their cold noses into Friesland, Stavoren held the shrine of Stavo, the storm-god. The people were very poor, but many pilgrims came to worship at Stavo’s altars. After the new religion came into the land, wealth increased, because the ships traded with the warm lands in the south. A great city sprang up, to which the counts of Holland granted a charter, with privileges second to none. It was written that Stavoren should have “the same freedom which a free city enjoys from this side of the mountains (the Alps) to the sea.”
Then there came an age of gold in Stavoren. People were so rich, that the bolts and hinges and the keys and locks of their doors were made of this precious yellow metal. In some of the houses, the parlor floor was paved with ducats from Spain.
Now in this city lived a married couple, whose wealth came from the ships. The man, a merchant, was a simple hearted and honest fellow, who worked hard and was easily pleased.
But his wife was discontented, always peevish and never satisfied with anything. Even her neighbors grew tired of her whining and complaints. They declared that on her tombstone should be carved these words:
“She wanted something else”
Now on every voyage, made by the many ships he owned, the merchant charged his captains to bring home something rare and fine, as a present to his wife. Some pretty carving or picture, a roll of silk for a dress, a lace collar, a bit of splendid tapestry, a shining jewel; or, it may be, a singing bird, a strange animal for a pet, a barrel of fruit, or a box of sweetmeats was sure to be brought. With such gifts, whether large or small, the husband hoped to please his wife.
But in this good purpose, he could never succeed. So he began to think that it was his own fault. Being only a man, he could not tell what a woman wanted. So he resolved to try his own wits and tastes, to see if he could meet his wife’s desires.
One day, when one of his best captains was about to sail on a voyage to the northeast, to Dantzig, which is almost as far as Russia, he inquired of his bad-tempered vrouw what he should bring her.
“I want the best thing in the world,” said she. “Now this time, do bring it to me.”
The merchant was now very happy. He told the captain to seek out and bring back what he himself might think was the best thing on earth; but to make sure, he must buy a cargo of wheat.
The skipper went on board, hoisted anchor and set sail. Using his man’s wits, he also decided that wheat, which makes bread, was the very thing to be desired. In talking to his mates and sailors, they agreed with him. Thus, all the men, in this matter, were of one mind, and the captain dreamed only of jolly times when on shore. On other voyages, when he had hunted around for curiosities to please the wife of the boss, he had many and anxious thoughts; but now, he was care-free.
In Dantzig, all the ship’s men had a good time, for the captain made “goed koop” (a fine bargain). Then the vessel, richly loaded with grain, turned its prow homeward. Arriving at Stavoren, the skipper reported to the merchant, to tell him of much money made, of a sound cargo obtained, of safe arrival, and, above all, plenty of what would please his wife; for what on earth could be more valuable than wheat, which makes bread, the staff of life?
At lunch time, when the merchant came home, his wife wanted to know what made him look so joyful. Had he made “goed koop” that day?
Usually, at meal time, this quiet man hardly spoke two words an hour. To tell the truth, he sometimes irritated his wife because of his silence, but to-day he was voluble.
The man of wealth answered, “I have a joyful surprise for you. I cannot tell you now. You must come with me and see.”
After lunch, he took his wife on board the ship, giving a wink of his eye to the skipper, who nodded to the sailors, and then the stout fellows opened the hatches. There, loaded to the very deck, was the precious grain. The merchant looked up, expecting to see and hear his wife clap her hands with joy.
But the greedy woman turned her back on him, and flew into a rage.
“Throw it all overboard, into the water,” she screamed. “You wretch, you have deceived me.”
The husband tried to calm her and explain that it was his thought to get wheat, as the world’s best gift, hoping thus to please her.
At that moment, some hungry beggars standing on the wharf, heard the lady’s loud voice, and falling on their knees cried to her:
“Please, madame, give us some of this wheat; we are starving.”
“Yes, lady, and there are many poor in Stavoren, in spite of all its gold,” said the captain. “Why not divide this wheat among the needy, if you are greatly disappointed? You will win praise for yourself. In the name of God, forgive my boldness, and do as I ask. Then, on the next voyage, I shall sail as far as China and will get you anything you ask!”
But the angry woman would listen to no one. She stayed on the ship, urging on the sailors, with their shovels, until every kernel was cast overboard.
“Never again will I try to please you,” said her husband. “The hungry will curse you, and you may yet suffer for food, because of this wilful waste, which will make woful want. Even you will suffer.”
She listened at first in silence, and then put her fingers in her ears to hear no more. Proud of her riches, with her voice in a high key, she shouted, “I ever want? What folly to say so! I am too rich.” Then, to show her contempt for such words, she slipped off a ring from her finger and threw it into the waters of the harbor. Her husband almost died of grief and shame, when he saw that it was her wedding ring, which she had cast overboard.
“Hear you all! When that ring comes back to me, I shall be hungry and not before,” said she, loud enough to be heard on ship, wharf, and street. Gathering up her skirts, she stepped upon the gangway, tripping to the shore, and past the poor people, who looked at her in mingled hate and fear. Then haughtily, she strode to her costly mansion.
Now to celebrate the expected new triumph and to show off her wealth and luxury, with the numerous curiosities brought her from many lands, the proud lady had already invited a score of guests. When they were all seated, the first course of soup was served in silver dishes, which every one admired. As the fish was about to be brought in, to be eaten off golden plates, the butler begged the lady’s permission to bring in first, from the chief cook, something rare and wonderful, that he had found in the mouth of the fish, which was waiting, already garnished, on the big dish. Not dreaming what it might be, the hostess clapped her hands in glee, saying to those at the table:
“Perhaps now, at last, I shall get what I have long waited for—the best thing in the world.”
“We shall all hope so,” the guests responded in chorus.
But when the chief cook came into the banquet hall, and, bowing low, held before his mistress a golden salver, with a finger ring on it, the proud lady turned pale.
It was the very ring which, in her anger, she had tossed overboard the day before. To add to her shame, she saw from the look of horror on their faces, that the guests had recognized the fact that it was her wedding token.
This was only the beginning of troubles. That night, her husband died of grief and vexation. The next day, the warehouses, stored with valuable merchandise of all sorts, were burned to the ground.
Before her husband had been decently buried, a great tempest blew down from the north, and news came that four of his ships had been wrecked. Their sailors hardly escaped with their lives, and both they and their families in Stavoren were now clamoring for bread.
Even when she put on her weeds of grief, these did not protect the widow from her late husband’s creditors. She had to sell her house and all that was in it, to satisfy them and pay her debts. She had even to pawn her ring to the Lombards, the goldsmiths of the town, to buy money for bread.
Now that she was poor, none of the former rich folks, who had come to her grand dinners, would look at her. She had even to beg her bread on the streets; for who wanted to help the woman who wasted wheat? She was glad to go to the cow stalls, and eat what the cattle left. Before the year ended, she was found dead in a stable, in rags and starvation. Thus her miserable life ended. Without a funeral, but borne on a bier, by two men, she was buried at the expense of the city, in the potter’s field.
But even this was not the end of the fruits of her wickedness, for the evil she did lived after her. It was found that, from some mysterious cause, a sand bar was forming in the river. This prevented the ships from coming up to the docks. With its trade stopped, the city grew poorer every day. What was the matter?
By and by, at low tide, some fishermen saw a green field under the surface of the harbor. It was not a garden of seaweed, for instead of leaves whirling with the tide, there were stalks that stood up high. The wheat had sprouted and taken root. In another month the tops of these stalks were visible above the water. But in such soil as sand, the wheat had reverted to its wild state. It was good for nothing, but only did harm.
For, while producing no grain for food, it held together the sand, which rolled down the river and had come all the way from the Alps to the ocean. Of old, this went out to sea and kept the harbor scoured clean, so that the ships came clear up to the wharves. Then, on many a morning, a wealthy merchant, whose house was close to the docks, looked out of his window to find the prows, of his richly laden ships, poked almost into his bedroom, and he liked it. Venturesome boys even climbed from their cots down the bowsprits, on to the deck of their fathers’ vessels. Of such sons, the fathers were proud, knowing that they would make brave sailors and navigate spice ships from the Indies. It was because of her brave mariners, that Stavoren had gained her glory and greatness, being famed in all the land.
But now, within so short a time, the city’s renown and wealth had faded like a dream. By degrees, the population diminished, commerce became a memory, and ships a curiosity. The people, that were left, had to eat rye and barley bread, instead of wheat. Floods ruined the farmers and washed away large parts of the town, so that dykes had to be built to save what was left.
More terrible than all, the ocean waves rolled in and wiped out cities, towns, and farms, sinking churches, convents, monasteries, warehouses, wharves, and docks, in one common ruin, hidden far down below.
To this day the worthless wheat patch, that spoiled Stavoren, is called “Vrouwen Zand,” or the Lady’s Sand. Instead of being the staff of life, as Nature intended, the wheat, because of a power of evil greater than that of a thousand wicked fairies, became the menace of death to ruin a rich city.
No wonder the Dutch have a proverb, which might be thus translated:
“Peevishness perverts wheat into weeds
But a sweet temper turns a field into gold.”