The Woman with Three Hundred and Sixty Six
by William Elliot Griffis
Long, long ago, before the oldest stork was young and big deer and
little fawns were very many in the Dutch forests, there was a pond,
famous for its fish, which lay in the very heart of Holland, with woods
near by. Hunters came with their bows and arrows to hunt the stags. Or,
out of the bright waters, boys and men in the sunshine drew out the fish
with shining scales, or lured the trout, with fly-bait, from their
hiding places. In those days the fish-pond was called the Vijver, and
the woods where the deer ran, Rensselaer, or the Deer's Lair.
So, because the forests of oak, and beech, and alder trees were so fine,
and game on land and in water so plentiful, the lord of the country came
here and built his castle. He made a hedge around his estate, so that
the people called the place the Count's Hedge; or, as we say, The Hague.
Even to-day, within the beautiful city, the forests, with their grand
old trees, still remain, and the fish-pond, called the Vijver, is there
yet, with its swans. On the little island, the fluffy, downy cygnets are
born and grow to be big birds, with long necks, bent like an arch. In
another part of the town, also, with their trees for nesting, and their
pond for wading, are children of the same storks, whose fathers and
mothers lived there before America was discovered.
By and by, many people of rank and fortune came to The Hague, for its
society. They built their grand houses at the slope of the hill, not far
away from the Vijver, and in time a city grew up.
It was a fine sight to see the lords and ladies riding out from the
castle into the country. The cavalcade was very splendid, when they went
hawking. There were pretty women on horseback, and gentlemen in velvet
clothes, with feathers in their hats, and the horses seemed proud to
bear them. The falconers followed on foot, with the hunting birds
perched on a hoop, which the man inside the circle carried round him.
Each falcon had on a little cap or hood, which was fastened over its
head. When this was taken off, it flew high up into the air, on its hunt
for the big and little birds, which it brought down for its masters.
There were also men with dogs, to beat the reeds and bushes, and drive
the smaller birds from shelter. The huntsmen were armed with spears,
lest a wild boar, or bear, should rush out and attack them. It was
always a merry day, when a hawking party, in their fine clothes and gay
trappings, started out.
There were huts, as well as palaces, and poor people, also, at The
Hague. Among these, was a widow, whose twin babies were left without
anything to eat—for her husband and their father had been killed in the
war. Having no money to buy a cradle, and her babies being too young to
be left alone, she put the pair of little folks on her back and went out
Now there was a fine lady, a Countess, who lived with her husband, the
Count, near the Vijver. She was childless and very jealous of other
women who were mothers and had children playing around them. On this
day, when the beggar woman, with her two babies on her back, came along,
the grand lady was in an unusually bad temper. For all her pretty
clothes, she was not a person of fine manners. Indeed, she often acted
more like a snarling dog, ready to snap at any one who should speak to
her. Although she had cradles and nurses and lovely baby clothes all
ready, there was no baby. This spoiled her disposition, so that her
husband and the servants could hardly live with her.
One day, after dinner, when there had been everything good to eat and
drink on her table, and plenty of it, the Countess went out to walk in
front of her house. It was the third day of January, but the weather was
mild. The beggar woman, with her two babies on her back and their arms
round her neck, crying with hunger, came trudging along. She went into
the garden and asked the Countess for food or an alms. She expected
surely, at least a slice of bread, a cup of milk, or a small coin.
But the Countess was rude to her and denied her both food and money. She
even burst into a bad temper, and reviled the woman for having two
children, instead of one.
"Where did you get those brats? They are not yours. You just brought
them here to play on my feelings and excite my jealousy. Begone!"
But the poor woman kept her temper. She begged piteously and said: "For
the love of Heaven, feed my babies, even if you will not feed me."
"No! they are not yours. You're a cheat," said the fine lady, nursing
"Indeed, Madame, they are both my children and born on one day. They
have one father, but he is dead. He was killed in the war, while serving
his grace, your husband."
"Don't tell me such a story," snapped back the Countess, now in a fury.
"I don't believe that any one, man or woman, could have two children at
once. Away with you," and she seized a stick to drive off the poor
Now, it was the turn of the beggar to answer back. Both had lost their
temper, and the two angry women seemed more like she-bears robbed of
"Heaven punish you, you wicked, cruel, cold-hearted woman," cried the
mother. Her two babies were almost choking her in their eagerness for
food. Yet their cries never moved the rich lady, who had bread and good
things to spare, while their poor parent had not a drop of milk to give
them. The Countess now called her men-servants to drive the beggar away.
This they did, most brutally. They pushed the poor woman outside the
garden gate and closed it behind her. As she turned away, the poor
mother, taking each of her children by its back, one in each hand, held
them up before the grand lady and cried out loudly, so that all heard
"May you have as many children as there are days in the year."
Now with all her wrath burning in her breast, what the beggar woman
really meant was this: It was the third of January, and so there were
but three days in the year, so far. She intended to say that, instead of
having to care for two children, the Countess might have the trouble of
rearing three, and all born on the same day.
But the fine lady, in her mansion, cared nothing for the beggar woman's
words. Why should she? She had her lordly husband, who was a count, and
he owned thousands of acres. Besides, she possessed vast riches. In her
great house, were ten men-servants and thirty-one maid-servants,
together with her rich furniture, and fine clothes and jewels. The lofty
brick church, to which she went on Sundays, was hung with the coats of
arms of her famous ancestors. The stone floor, with its great slabs, was
so grandly carved with the crests and heraldry of her family, that to
walk over these was like climbing a mountain, or tramping across a
ploughed field. Common folks had to be careful, lest they should stumble
over the bosses and knobs of the carved tombs. A long train of her
servants, and tenants on the farms followed her, when she went to
worship. Inside the church, the lord and lady sat, in high seats, on
velvet cushions and under a canopy.
By the time summer had come, according to the fashion in all good Dutch
families, all sorts of pretty baby clothes were made ready. There were
soft, warm, swaddling bands, tiny socks, and long white linen dresses. A
baptismal blanket, covered with silk, was made for the christening, and
daintily embroidered. Plenty of lace, and pink and blue ribbons—pink
for a girl and blue for a boy—were kept at hand. And, because there
might be twins, a double set of garments was provided, besides baby
bathtubs and all sorts of nice things for the little stranger or
strangers—whether one or two—to come. Even the names were chosen—one
for a boy and the other for a girl. Would it be Wilhelm or Wilhelmina?
It was real fun to think over the names, but it was hard to choose out
of so many. At last, the Countess crossed off all but forty-six; or the
following; nearly every girl's name ending in je, as in our
Magtel Catharyna Gerrit Gysbert
Nelletje Alida Cornelis Jausze
Zelia Annatje Volkert Myndert
Jannetje Christina Kilian Adrian
Zara Katrina Johannes Joachim
Marytje Bethje Petrus Arendt
Willemtje Eva Barent Dirck
Geertruy Dirkje Wessel Nikolaas
Petronella Mayken Hendrik Staats
Margrieta Hilleke Teunis Gozen
Josina Bethy Wouter Willemtje
But before the sun set on the expected day, it was neither one boy nor
one girl, nor both; nor were all the forty-six names chosen sufficient;
for the beggar woman's wish had come true, in a way not expected. There
were as many as, and no fewer children than, there were days in the
year; and, since this was leap year, there were three hundred and
sixty-six little folks in the house; so that other names, besides the
forty-six, had to be used.
Yet none of these wee creatures was bigger than a mouse. Beginning at
daylight, one after another appeared—first a girl and then a boy; so
that after the forty-eighth, the nurse was at her wit's end, to give
them names. It was not possible to keep the little babies apart. The
thirty-one servant maids of the mansion were all called in to help in
sorting out the girls from the boys; but soon it seemed hopeless to try
to pick out Peter from Henry, or Catalina from Annetje. After an hour or
two spent at the task, and others coming along, the women found that it
was useless to try any longer. It was found that little Piet, Jan and
Klaas, Hank, Douw and Japik, among the boys; and Molly, Mayka, Lena,
Elsje, Annatje and Marie were getting all mixed up. So they gave up the
attempt in despair. Besides, the supply of pink and blue ribbons had
given out long before, after the first dozen or so were born. As for
the, baby clothes made ready, they were of no use, for all the garments
were too big. In one of the long dresses, tied up like a bag, one might
possibly, with stuffing, have put the whole family of three hundred and
sixty-six brothers and sisters.
It was not likely such small fry of human beings could live long. So,
the good Bishop Guy, of Utrecht, when he heard that the beggar woman's
curse had come true, in so unexpected a manner, ordered that the babies
should be all baptized at once. The Count, who was strict in his ideas
of both custom and church law, insisted on it too.
So nothing would do but to carry the tiny infants to church. How to get
them there, was a question. The whole house had been rummaged to provide
things to carry the little folks in: but the supply of trays, and mince
pie dishes, and crocks, was exhausted at the three hundred and sixtieth
baby. So there was left only a Turk's Head, or round glazed earthen
dish, fluted and curved, which looked like the turban of a Turk. Hence
its name. Into this, the last batch of babies, or extra six girls, were
stowed. Curiously enough, number 366 was an inch taller than the others.
To thirty house maids was given a tray, for each was to carry twelve
mannikins, and one the last six, in the Turk's Head. Instead of rich
silk blankets a wooden tray, and no clothes on, must suffice.
In the Groote Kerk, or Great Church, the Bishop was waiting, with his
assistants, holding brass basins full of holy water, for the
christening. All the town, including the dogs, were out to see what was
going on. Many boys and girls climbed up on the roofs of the one-story
houses, or in the trees to get a better view of the curious
procession—the like of which had never been seen in The Hague before.
Neither has anything like it ever been seen since.
So the parade began. First went the Count, with his captains and the
trumpeters, blowing their trumpets. These were followed by the
men-servants, all dressed in their best Sunday clothes, who had the
crest and arms of their master, the Count, on their backs and breasts.
Then came on the company of thirty-one maids, each one carrying a tray,
on which were twelve mannikins, or minikins. Twenty of these trays were
round and made of wood, lined with velvet, smooth and soft; but ten were
of earthenware, oblong in shape, like a manger. In these, every year,
were baked the Christmas pies.
At first, all went on finely, for the outdoor air seemed to put the
babies asleep and there was no crying. But no sooner were they inside
the church, than about two hundred of the brats began wailing and
whimpering. Pretty soon, they set up such a squall that the Count felt
ashamed of his progeny and the Bishop looked very unhappy.
To make matters worse, one of the maids, although warned of the danger,
stumbled over the helmet of an old crusader, carved in stone, that rose
some six inches or so above the floor. In a moment, she fell and lay
sprawling, spilling out at least a dozen babies. "Heilige Mayke" (Holy
Mary!), she cried, as she rolled over. "Have I killed them?"
Happily the wee ones were thrown against the long-trained gown of an old
lady walking directly in front of her, so that they were unhurt. They
were easily picked up and laid on the tray again, and once more the line
Happily the Bishop had been notified that he would not have to call out
the names of all the infants, that is, three hundred and sixty-six; for
this would have kept him at the solemn business all day long. It had
been arranged that, instead of any on the list of the chosen forty-six,
to be so named, all the boys should be called John, and all the girls
Elizabeth; or, in Dutch, Jan and Lisbet, or Lizbethje. Yet even to say
"John" one hundred and eighty times, and "Lisbet" one hundred and
eighty-six times, nearly tired the old gentleman to death, for he was
fat and slow.
So, after the first six trays full of wee folks had been sprinkled, one
at a time, the Bishop decided to "asperse" them, that is, shake, from a
mop or brush, the holy water, on a tray full of babies at one time. So
he called for the "aspersorium." Then, clipping this in the basin of
holy water, he scattered the drops over the wee folk, until all, even
the six extra girl babies in the Turk's Head, were sprinkled. Probably,
because the Bishop thought a Turk was next door to a heathen, he dropped
more water than usual on these last six, until the young ones squealed
lustily with the cold. It was noted, on the contrary, that the little
folks in the mince pie dishes were gently handled, as if the good man
had visions of Christmas coming and the good things on the table.
Yet it was evident that such tiny people could not bear what healthy
babies of full size would think nothing of. Whether it was because of
the damp weather, or the cold air in the brick church, or too much
excitement, or because there were not three hundred and sixty-six
nurses, or milk bottles ready, it came to pass that every one of the wee
creatures died when the sun went down.
Just where they were buried is not told, but, for hundreds of years,
there was, in one of The Hague churches, a monument in honor of these
little folks, who lived but a day. It was graven with portraits in stone
of the Count and Countess and told of their children, as many as the
days of the year. Near by, were hung up the two basins, in which the
holy water, used by the Bishop, in sprinkling the babies, was held. The
year, month and day of the wonderful event were also engraved. Many and
many people from various lands came to visit the tomb. The guide books
spoke of it, and tender women wept, as they thought how three hundred
and sixty-six little cradles, in the Count's castle, would have looked,
had each baby lived.