Leyden [the Netherlands] was besieged [by Spanish forces in 1574]. The town was well fortified. The Spaniards endeavored to starve the city into surrender. They swarmed about the outworks and taunted the famished people as "beggars." The contest grew daily more hopeless for the besieged. Hundreds were dead of starvation. But the survivors hurled defiance at the Spaniards. They were digging up every green thing, devouring roots of grass, old leather, offal, anything that could in the least aid to sustain life. But "so long as a dog barked in the city, the Spaniards might know they held out." A few faint-hearted ones pleaded with the burgomaster to yield. But the brave Van der Werff, gaunt, pale, wearied with care and watching, told them they could only surrender when they had eaten him; so long as he lived, the city should not yield.
It was a terrible time. Scores crept into out-of-the-way places to die, that their misery might not be seen by their friends. The Dutch without wished to help their friends within--but the lines of the enemy were too strong. As the last resort, the "Silent Man" ordered the dykes cut. It was done. The country folk abandoned their homes. A fleet of two hundred vessels sailed in over the land fifteen miles. They reached the Landscheiding, a great dyke five miles from the city. Three quarters of a mile nearer the town was a second dyke, the Greenway; within that was the Kirkway.
The rising water frightened the Spaniards. But at ten inches, it stopped. The Spaniards renewed their taunts. Again it rose two feet; the vessels drew nearer: then they lay aground in sight of the famished citizens. Then arose a strong southwest wind--and after days of weary waiting, the fleet was close on the last line of fortifications. It was the first of October. In the morning the "beggars" of the sea would make a desperate attack upon the Spanish hordes.
In the night there came a terrible crash. The sea had undermined the wall. The citizens were filled with panic, fearing an immediate irruption of the enemy. They stood under arms through the weary night.
The morning came. Not a Spaniard was in sight. Fearing a sortie of the hunger-maddened people, they had fled in the darkness. The city was saved by the drowning of the land.
A story is told of Frederick the Great, illustrative of the same indomitable spirit. After establishing the supremacy of Prussia, he was suspected of designs upon the independence of the Netherlands. The Dutch envoy at his court, newly appointed, Frederick endeavored to overawe by a display of his power. A great military review was held; and Frederick, who took a peculiar delight in tall men, caused troop after troop of his gigantic grenadiers to file before the weazened little Dutchman, and asked his opinion. Of each one the envoy said: "Very good, but not tall enough." Frederick, much nettled at this oft repeated criticism, asked the ambassador what he meant by it. "I mean," he retorted, "that we can flood our country twelve feet deep!" Frederick left the Dutch in peace.