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Zuider Zee

Nach einen Stich von Holbein

     A strange story is still told about the city of Stavoren on the Zuider Zee. It was a wondrous town, but like Vineta on the Baltic Sea it vanished from the earth.

     The merchants of Stavoren were the rulers of the Ocean, and the treasures of all known countries were lying in their port. The houses were lovely palaces, furnished in their interior like the marvellous abodes of the Sultan Haroun Al Rachid, in the "Arabian Nights".

     Of all the wealthy people of the town, there was nobody so much blessed with riches as Richberta, a proud and beautiful lady. Smiling fortune had lavishly poured its gifts upon her, and threw fresh treasures daily at her feet. She seemed to own everything beautiful that this life can bestow, but one thing she did not possess, and that was the soft fire of woman's kindness which lightens and warms the soul, and throws on all its surroundings a mild reflecting gleam. Richberta was cold and indifferent to either the pleasures or sorrows of her fellow-men. When night casts her shades upon the earth, all the sweet bright birds and butterflies hide and make room for a host of ghastly animals like owls and bats. So in Richberta's soul all her soft qualities had gone to sleep for want of the tender gleam of love, and only dark and harsh feelings haunted her soul. Immense pride in her own wealth, a bitter envy towards those who possessed more than she did, were her ruling passions.

     Once Richberta gave a grand feast. While the luxurious meal was being served, a stranger entered, who had come from far away to see the wonders of Stavoren with his own eyes. "I have seen" said he, bowing low to the lovely hostess, "many countries and many a princely court, but I confess that Stavoren surpasses them all in splendour."

     Highly flattered the proud lady bade him welcome to her table. According to the customs of the Orient whence he came, he begged for some bread and salt. Richberta ordered her servants to bring both, but it was useless to look for such simple fare in her house where only the most luxurious food was to be had.

     Without making any remarks however the stranger sat down and partook of the costly dishes. Then he began to relate his journeys, his success and his failures in life, and dwelt with great eloquence on the instability of earthly fortunes. All the guests listened with interest to what he said. Only Richberta sat gloomily at the head of her table. She felt angry that the stranger dared in her very presence to find fault with wealth and splendour, and to predict its probable destruction. Moreover she thought it rude in him that he had no word of praise for her own brilliant beauty, nor a glance of astonishment for her gorgeous palace. Her offended vanity induced her at last to force from him the praise he so obstinately withheld. "O, gracious Lady," said he rather reluctantly, "marvellous indeed is your home and fit for a queen. If you travelled far and near, you could not find its equal. But, my lady, among your treasures I miss one thing, and that is the noblest that the earth produces."

     Richberta was very anxious to learn what it was, that she might get it, and entreated her guest to name the precious thing. But he avoided any direct answer to her impetuous questions, and soon afterwards took his leave under a slight pretext.

     On the open sea, a proud fleet was sailing. Its commander, strange to say, did not himself know the aim of his journey. His mistress Richberta of Stavoren, had directed him to travel to all parts of the world to find out and bring home the most costly treasure.

     According to her command he set out, cruised the ocean to the East, and to the West, and searched everywhere for the unknown gift.

     In doing so it happened one day that sea-water spoiled a part of the provisions of one of the ships. It was the flour and bread, the want of which was keenly felt by the whole crew. In this necessity the captain saw clearly that neither gold nor pearls could outweigh the value of bread, and the meaning of the mysterious words the stranger from the Orient had spoken to Richberta, dawned upon him.

    He steered to the coast and took a large cargo of the finest wheat aboard his ships. Full of joy at having at last found what he deemed the most costly thing on earth, he sailed towards Stavoren, Where he arrived safely.

     When Richberta learned of the common merchandise her captain had brought home, she summoned him before her and asked him contemptuously: "On which side of the vessel has the cargo of corn been taken in ?.... On the right, mistress, answered the faithful servant, doubtful of what she meant. "Then," continued she coldly, "throw it from the left into the sea again."

     The day after the return of the fleet an animated scene was witnessed in the port of Stavoren.

     The numerous poor people of the town on hearing of the wicked command of Richberta, had come to beg of her not to spoil the precious wheat, but to divide it among those who were so much in want of it.

    The proud lady appeared herself to see that her will was executed. It was a touching spectacle to see how the crowd of miserable women and children surrounded the noble lady in her costly garments. The sight of so much misery would have moved many a cold heart, but Richberta showed no pity. She moved forward impatiently as if she heard not the supplications. But the crowd of women stopped her. They fell on their knees and entreated her with uplifted hands and tears in their eyes for the preservation of God's precious gift. Richberta heard but remained unrelenting. Her command was fulfilled, and the golden wheat was thrown into the sea.

     A storm of reproaches rose from the poor on the shore, and many a mother prayed to God on her knees to revenge this wickedness.

     The curses of the hungry people were fulfilled, far sooner than they expected.

     In the same year innumerable earless blades of wheat rose from the bottom of the sea like a forest, catching up mud, mire, weed, and remains of animals, so that by and by a dune rose under waver which stopped the ships from entering the port of Stavoren.

     The inhabitants of the town who had principally lived by commerce, suddenly found the source of their wealth stopped. Want and poverty took possession of the once rich city. Richberta, in whom everybody recognised the author of this misfortune, lost everything in the general impoverishment, and was driven by the enraged populace from the town. The once proud and rich lady had now to beg for her bread. She walked wearily from village to village, curses following her wherever she went. She died in utter destitution.

     The sea that had for so many years been the blessing of Stavoren was now the destruction of the voluptuous city. One night it rose with immense power against the dunes, burst through them, and flooding the town with huge waves, buried it forever.

     To this day, the fishermen on the Zuider Zee relate the story of the wonderful sunken city that once towered high into the air. When the water is clear they imagine they can see the high steeples of Stavoren's churches and the towers of her palaces shimmering up from the bottom of the sea.

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