A Leak in the Dike
A Story of Holland
by Phoebe Cary
THE good dame looked from her cottage
At the close of the pleasant day,
And cheerily called to her little son
Outside the door at play:
“Come, Peter, come! I want you to go,
While there is light to see,
To the hut of the blind old man who lives
Across the dike, for me;
And take these cakes I made for him —
They are hot and smoking yet;
You have time enough to go and come
Before the sun is set.”
Then the good-wife turned to her labor,
Humming a simple song,
And thought of her husband, working hard
At the sluices all day long;
And set the turf a-blazing,
And brought the coarse black bread;
That he might find a fire at night,
And find the table spread.
And Peter left the brother,
With whom all day he had played,
And the sister who had watched their sports,
In the willow’s tender shade;
And told them they’d see him back before
They saw a star in sight,
Though he wouldn’t be afraid to go
In the very darkest night!
For he was a brave, bright fellow,
With eye and conscience clear;
He could do whatever a boy might do,
And he had not learned to fear.
Why, he wouldn’t have robbed a bird’s nest,
Nor brought a stork to harm,
Though never a law in Holland
Had stood to stay his arm!
And now, with his face all glowing,
And eyes as bright as the day
With the thoughts of his pleasant errand,
He trudged along the way;
And soon his joyous prattle
Made glad a lonesome place —
Alas! if only the blind old man
Could have seen that happy face!
Yet he somehow caught the brightness
Which his voice and presence lent;
And he felt the sunshine come and go
As Peter came and went.
And now, as the day was sinking,
And the winds began to rise,
The mother looked from her door again,
Shading her anxious eyes;
And saw the shadows deepen,
And birds to their homes come back,
But never a sign of Peter
Along the level track.
But she said: “He will come at morning,
So I need not fret or grieve —
Though it isn’t like my boy at all
To stay without my leave.”
But where was the child delaying?
On the homeward way was he,
And across the dike while the sun was up
An hour above the sea.
He was stopping now to gather flowers,
Now listening to the sound,
As the angry waters dashed themselves
Against their narrow bound.
“Ah! well for us,” said Peter,
“That the gates are good and strong,
And my father tends them carefully,
Or they would not hold you long!
“You’re a wicked sea,” said Peter;
“I know why you fret and chafe;
You would like to spoil our lands and homes;
But our sluices keep you safe!”
But hark! ‘Through the noise of waters
Comes a low, clear, trickling sound;
And the child’s face pales with terror,
And his blossoms drop to the ground.
He is up the bank in a moment,
And, stealing through the sand,
He sees a stream not yet so large
As his slender, childish hand.
‘Tis a leak in the dike! He is but a boy,
Unused to fearful scenes;
But, young as he is, he has learned to know
The dreadful thing that means.
A leak in the dike! The stoutest heart
Grows faint that cry to hear,
And the bravest man in all the land
Turns white with mortal fear.
For he knows the smallest leak may grow
To a flood in a single night;
And he knows the strength of the cruel sea
When loosed in its angry might.
And the boy! He has seen the danger,
And, shouting a wild alarm,
He forces back the weight of the sea
With the strength of his single arm!
He listens for the joyful sound
Of a footstep passing nigh;
And lays his ear to the ground, to catch
The answer to his cry.
And he hears the rough winds blowing,
And the waters rise and fall,
But never an answer comes to him,
Save the echo of his call.
He sees no hope, no succor,
His feeble voice is lost;
Yet what shall he do but watch and wait,
Though he perish at his post!
So, faintly calling and crying
Till the sun is under the sea;
Crying and moaning till the stars
Come out for company;
He thinks of his brother and sister,
Asleep in their safe warm bed;
He thinks of his father and mother,
Of himself as dying — and dead;
And of how, when the night is over,
They must come and find him at last:
But he never thinks he can leave the place
Where duty holds him fast.
The good dame in the cottage
Is up and astir with the light,
For the thought of her little Peter
Has been with her all night.
And now she watches the pathway,
As yestereve she had done;
But what does she see so strange and black
Against the rising sun?
Her neighbors are bearing between them
Something straight to her door;
Her child is coming home, but not
As he ever came before!
“He is dead !” she cries; “my darling!”
And the startled father hears,
And comes and looks the way she looks,
And fears the thing she fears:
Till a glad shout from the bearers
Thrills the stricken man and wife —
“Give thanks, for your son has saved our land,
And God has saved his life!”
So, there in the morning sunshine
They knelt about the boy;
And every head was bared and bent
In tearful, reverent joy.
‘Tis many a year since then; but still,
When the sea roars like a flood,
Their boys are taught what a boy can do
Who is brave and true and good.
For every man in that country
Takes his son by the hand,
And tells him of little Peter,
Whose courage saved the land.
They have many a valiant hero,
Remembered through the years;
But never one whose name so oft
Is named with loving tears.
And his deed shall be sung by the cradle,
And told to the child on the knee,
So long as the dikes of Holland
Divide the land from the sea!
This poem seems to have been inspired by a small story told within Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge, a friend of Cary’s. The poem was published posthumously in 1873 in The Last Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary, edited by Mary Clemmer Ames.
Phoebe Cary (1824-1871) was a well-known American poet of the nineteenth century.
You may read A Memorial of Alice and Phoebe Cary With Some of Their Later Poems, compiled and edited by Mary Clemmer Ames, at Archive.org.