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Poem by Phoebe Cary

The Leak in the Dike

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 still 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 has 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 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,
    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 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 he lays his ear to the ground, to catch
    The answers 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 in 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 hold 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, 
The 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! 

Phoebe Cary

Phoebe Cary's other poems:
  1. Ballad of the Canal
  2. The Prairie on Fire
  3. When Lovely Woman
  4. Jacob
  5. Shakesperian Readings

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