A Leak in the Dike

A Story of Holland

Original Text: 
The Poetical Works of Alice and Phoebe Cary (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1882): 210-12. PS 1263 A1 1882 Robarts Library.
1The good dame looked from her cottage
2    At the close of the pleasant day,
3And cheerily called to her little son
4    Outside the door at play:
5"Come, Peter, come! I want you to go,
6    While there is light to see,
7To the hut of the blind old man who lives
8    Across the dike, for me;
9And take these cakes I made for him--
10    They are hot and smoking yet;
11You have time enough to go and come
12    Before the sun is set."
13Then the good-wife turned to her labor,
14    Humming a simple song,
15And thought of her husband, working hard
16    At the sluices all day long;
17And set the turf a-blazing,
18    And brought the coarse black bread;
19That he might find a fire at night,
20    And find the table spread.
21And Peter left the brother,
22    With whom all day he had played,
23And the sister who had watched their sports
24    In the willow's tender shade;
25And told them they 'd see him back before
26    They saw a star in sight,
27Though he would n't be afraid to go
28    In the very darkest night!
29For he was a brave, bright fellow,
30    With eye and conscience clear;
31He could do whatever a boy might do,
32    And he had not learned to fear.
33Why, he would n't have robbed a bird's nest,
34    Nor brought a stork to harm,
35Though never a law in Holland
36    Had stood to stay his arm!
37And now, with his face all glowing,
38    And eyes as bright as the day
39With the thoughts of his pleasant errand,
40    He trudged along the way;
41And soon his joyous prattle
42    Made glad a lonesome place--
43Alas! if only the blind old man
44    Could have seen that happy face!
45Yet he somehow caught the brightness
46    Which his voice and presence lent;
47And he felt the sunshine come and go
48    As Peter came and went.
49And now, as the day was sinking,
50    And the winds began to rise,
51The mother looked from her door again,
52    Shading her anxious eyes;
53And saw the shadows deepen
54    And birds to their homes come back,
55But never a sign of Peter
56    Along the level track.
57But she said: "He will come at morning,
58    So I need not fret or grieve--
59Though it is n't like my boy at all
60    To stay without my leave."
61But where was the child delaying?
62    On the homeward way was he,
63And across the dike while the sun was up
64    An hour above the sea.
65He was stopping now to gather flowers,
66    Now listening to the sound,
67As the angry waters dashed themselves
68    Against their narrow bound.
69"Ah! well for us," said Peter,
70    "That the gates are good and strong,
71And my father tends them carefully,
72    Or they would not hold you long!
73You 're a wicked sea," said Peter;
74    "I know why you fret and chafe;
75You would like to spoil our lands and homes;
76    But our sluices keep you safe!"
77But hark! Through the noise of waters
78    Comes a low, clear, trickling sound;
79And the child's face pales with terror,
80    And his blossoms drop to the ground.
81He is up the bank in a moment,
82    And, stealing through the sand,
83He sees a stream not yet so large
84    As his slender, childish hand.
85'T is a leak in the dike! He is but a boy,
86    Unused to fearful scenes;
87But, young as he is, he has learned to know
88    The dreadful thing that means.
89A leak in the dike! The stoutest heart
90    Grows faint that cry to hear,
91And the bravest man in all the land
92    Turns white with mortal fear.
93For he knows the smallest leak may grow
94    To a flood in a single night;
95And he knows the strength of the cruel sea
96    When loosed in its angry might.
97And the boy! He has seen the danger,
98    And, shouting a wild alarm,
99He forces back the weight of the sea
100    With the strength of his single arm!
101He listens for the joyful sound
102    Of a footstep passing nigh;
103And lays his ear to the ground, to catch
104    The answer to his cry.
105And he hears the rough winds blowing,
106    And the waters rise and fall,
107But never an answer comes to him,
108    Save the echo of his call.
109He sees no hope, no succor,
110    His feeble voice is lost;
111Yet what shall he do but watch and wait,
112    Though he perish at his post!
113So, faintly calling and crying
114    Till the sun is under the sea;
115Crying and moaning till the stars
116    Come out for company;
117He thinks of his brother and sister,
118    Asleep in their safe warm bed;
119He thinks of his father and mother,
120    Of himself as dying--and dead;
121And of how, when the night is over,
122    They must come and find him at last:
123But he never thinks he can leave the place
124    Where duty holds him fast.
125The good dame in the cottage
126    Is up and astir with the light,
127For the thought of her little Peter
128    Has been with her all night.
129And now she watches the pathway,
130    As yester eve she had done;
131But what does she see so strange and black
132    Against the rising sun?
133Her neighbors are bearing between them
134    Something straight to her door;
135Her child is coming home, but not
136    As he ever came before!
137"He is dead!" she cries; "my darling!"
138    And the startled father hears,
139And comes and looks the way she looks,
140    And fears the thing she fears:
141Till a glad shout from the bearers
142    Thrills the stricken man and wife--
143"Give thanks, for your son has saved our land,
144    And God has saved his life!"
145So, there in the morning sunshine
146    They knelt about the boy;
147And every head was bared and bent
148    In tearful, reverent joy.
149'T is many a year since then; but still,
150    When the sea roars like a flood,
151Their boys are taught what a boy can do
152    Who is brave and true and good.
153For every man in that country
154    Takes his son by the hand,
155And tells him of little Peter,
156    Whose courage saved the land.
157They have many a valiant hero,
158    Remembered through the years:
159But never one whose name so oft
160    Is named with loving tears.
161And his deed shall be sung by the cradle,
162    And told to the child on the knee,
163So long as the dikes of Holland
164    Divide the land from the sea!
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 2000.