Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

The Leak in the Dike

A GREAT part of the land of Holland is lower than the level of the sea about its shores. For this reason that country and the provinces that adjoin it gained the name of "The Low Countries," or "The Netherlands." In order to keep the sea from flooding their homes the Hollanders built great walls of earth, called dikes, and spent large sums of money in repairing them. The smallest leak was a tremendous danger. In a very short time it would cause a break in the dike and let the ocean in to sweep across farms and cities. Sometimes, when the country was at war with Spain, or some of the other great powers that tried to conquer it, the people of Holland would break the dikes themselves, and flood their country in order to defeat the invaders. This was a very costly method of defense, but several times the brave people had to resort to it.

Phœbe Cary, an American poet, wrote this poem of a Dutch boy named Peter. His mother sent him at sunset one day to carry some cakes to an old man who lived near the dike. He did the errand, and turned homeward, stopping to pick some flowers on the way. As he walked along he heard the angry sea dashing against the wall that kept it out, and he thought it was well that the wall was strong and that his father and other men watched it carefully.

Presently he heard a trickling noise. He looked for it, and saw a small stream, not as large as his hand, coming through the dike. He knew what that meant. If it was not stopped the leak would tear down the wall, the sea would sweep in, and destroy hundreds of villages. No one was there to help him, and there was no time to lose. So he pressed his hand to the crack and held it there while he called again and again for aid.

No one came, and Peter had to stay, holding back the sea, while the night passed. His mother wondered what had happened to him, and was up at dawn looking across the fields for him. After a while she saw some neighbors coming toward her, carrying some one. They had found the boy at his post of duty, and they brought him back alive to his mother. By holding the sea outside the dike he had saved his country.

This story has been told many times in prose and poetry. It is one of the legends of Holland that fathers tell their sons when the boys are old enough to understand how the dikes divide the land from the sea.

The Leak in the Dike

by Phœbe 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 the 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 home 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,

As 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 wind 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 yester-eve 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!

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