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It was an April day, and Haarlem, an old Dutch town near Amsterdam was gay with tulips, for there in Haarlem are grown the most famous tulips in all the world, as well as hyacinths, and if you had driven through the country roads on that April day, you would have seen the meadows and roadsides overspread with a brilliant carpet of the vari-coloured flowers, while the air was full of the sweet perfume of the hyacinths, and you could have carried away with you as many flowers as you had time and patience to pick.
Holland and its provinces and towns are famous for many other things, as well as for tulips and hyacinths, for it is a country quite different from the others which we visit and study about more often, and although it is a small country in comparison to others which are so vast in territory, yet there has been none more celebrated for courage than brave little Holland, and its fight for independence has made it famous in the historical annals of the world. Sturdy and plucky are the Dutch, and quaint and curious are the customs and manners still prevailing in many of the country districts. Every district has its own costume peculiar to its inhabitants, and the many colours of these costumes, the curious caps worn with them, the heavy wooden shoes, or sabots, which all true Dutch people wear, and the clothes worn by the men, so different from the conventional dress of men of other nations, make a picturesque and interesting sight when the Dutch people are gathered together on the day of a "Pardon" or religious fete day.
Their homes, too, are quaint and strange in appearance to our conventional eyes, and it has been said that the Dutch people dressed up like quaint dolls, with their colourful little homes and their little canals, which cut up their bright green fields into many sections, live in a country which is like a charming, attractive toy, it is so clean, so tidy and so bright, and it seems a natural thing that the gorgeous tulip should be their favourite flower. And that brings us back to the old town of Haarlem in whose roads we were wandering on an April day.
Now one of the greatest differences between Holland and other countries, is that it lies below the level of the sea, and so has to be very carefully guarded from the surging flood at its very door, or it would be either swept bare by the relentless sea, or entirely wiped out of existence. To prevent this calamity the patient Dutchmen have built wonderful dykes which guard their little country and keep the tyrant sea in check. These dykes are huge banks of earth which tower high above the lowlands and are the only safeguards of the country. Of course, these dykes could only be made gradually, as the sea was turned from one spot to another by dams and locks, and no greater proof of Dutch industry and patience is shown than the way they have protected their land from the sea.
When a dyke has been built, then on the edge of it, a windmill is erected, which works a pump, and as the windmill draws up the water from the sea, it is discharged into a canal. These canals which flow through all Holland in a network of winding ways, run to the sea, and where they meet the sea, in the dykes, great oaken gates, called sluices are placed across the entrance to the canals, to regulate the amount of water which shall flow into the canals, from the sea. These gates are in charge of men called _sluicers_ whose duty it is, when water is needed, to open the gates more or less, according to the amount of water required, and then to close them carefully at night, so that too much water may not flow into the canals, overflow them, and flood the whole country. Even the smallest child in Holland is brought up with a keen knowledge of the grave importance of a sluicer's duty and of the danger to the country if he should neglect it, and the men chosen for that position are always those whose reputation for faithful service is unchallenged.
Naturally, a country lying as Holland lies is very damp and misty, and its entire surface is covered with the network of canals running through the meadows to the sea. If you could stand on a hill and look down on it, it would look like an enormous puzzle, consisting of hundreds of small vivid green pieces cut apart by the canals and decorated by the quaint red-roofed houses of which we have spoken.
Through all the canals flows the same water, and all of them are connected with each other, and are so very wide in some places that there is much traffic on them. Then, too, through miles of the green fields flow the narrower canals, draining the pasturelands, and everywhere one feels the nearness and the menace of the everlasting sea, and the protection of the dykes rearing the huge bulwarks between the peaceful country and its treacherous enemy.
And that brings us back again to Haarlem on that April day when the quaint little town was filled with the red and yellow tulips and the air sweet with the scent of hyacinths.
On that bright spring day a little boy whose name is said to have been Peter, and whose father was a sluicer, had for his dinner some cakes of which he was very fond, and which his mother had baked because she knew how much Peter liked them.
Peter was a very unselfish boy, and whenever he had anything he liked, his first thought always was to share it with someone else. So, as soon as he had finished his meal, he jumped up from the table and begged his mother to let him go to see a poor blind man who lived not far away, and to let him carry with him those cakes which had not been eaten.
His mother was pleased with this thought of Peter's for the poor old man, and at once brought a basket and filled it with cakes for him to carry to the invalid, while Peter's father was making him promise not to stay out too late, and soon the boy was on his way to his friends, happy in the beauty of the day, and in the thought of the pleasure his present would give the blind man.
And he was not mistaken, the old man was delighted with the cakes, and at once broke and ate one, while he began to tell Peter one of the stories for which he was famous, and which he knew Peter loved to hear. But Peter suddenly remembered his promise not to stay out late, and finally became so uneasy that he told the old man he must not wait to hear the end of the story, and, hastily bidding him farewell, started towards home.
His path lay beside the dyke, and along its grassy banks grew beautiful wild flowers of many varieties, so numerous and attractive that Peter decided to pick a bunch of them to carry home to his mother, who was so much of an invalid that she was seldom out of the house. So he picked a few here and a few there--blue and yellow and pink, until he had a handful of those varieties of which he knew his mother was most fond, and as he walked on, to keep himself from feeling lonesome, he hummed a happy little song.
Presently, he stopped, and neither sang nor smiled, as he looked at a slender thread of water trickling through the grass. Where did it come from? Surely not from the canal, and there was nowhere else for it to come from unless it came from the dyke itself.
The thought was enough to make even a child turn pale and tremble. Only the dykes stood between the boundless sea and the safety of little Holland. He looked again, and to his imagination, the stream seemed greater already. What could he do? Night was coming on, the road was a solitary one. There was only the barest chance of anyone passing that way whom he might hail, or of whom he could ask advice.
Then came a quick recollection of his promise to his father, and he started homeward again, but a force as mighty as a giant's grasp, made him turn back again to watch that trickling stream of water.
He was near one of the great oaken sluices, and bounding up beside it he carefully examined the dyke. There, as small as his finger, was a hole--strange and unaccountable happening,--and through that little hole was flowing the stream of water at his feet.
Like lightning the flash of intuition came to Peter, if that hole were not stopped up instantly, the force of the flow through it would rapidly increase from the pounding of that mighty sea behind it. In a night the flood would break through the dyke and perhaps destroy all the homes in Holland.
What could he do? No stone would fit the hole, no amount of earth packed into the crevice could resist the pressure of the water. Peter was desperate. Forgotten now were his bunch of flowers which fell unheeded from his hand. He strained his eyes in a vain search for travellers on that lonely road, vainly he shouted out for help until his throat was hoarse. What could he do? It was no common instinct that came in that lightning flash to Peter. Climbing again up the steep bank, from stone to stone, he thrust his finger in the hole and, oh, joy, it fitted! It stopped the trickling water for the moment, but, oh, what would happen when he took it out?
Ah, it was as clear as daylight, what to do. He would not take it out until someone should come to relieve him. Forgetful of what this idea might bring to him, if carried out, he chuckled with a boyish delight in this real adventure.
"Ha, ha!" he said to himself. "The water can't come down now. Haarlem shall not be drowned while I am here to keep the flood back."
For awhile excitement kept him warm and fearless. Then the chill darkness of the night surrounded him. All sorts of strange noises fell upon his unaccustomed ears, he seemed to see giants and demons lurking near, ready to pounce upon him and kill him. Although he was a sturdy lad, tears came at last, when he could no longer keep back thoughts of his comfortable bed at home, of the parents who might be even then worrying about his safety, although as he before remained over night with the old man, Jansen, he felt that his mother and father had probably gone to bed and to sleep, while he was out in the dark night alone and in such a misery of pain. The pain grew greater, the misery harder to bear every moment now, and still Peter kept his finger in that dangerous hole.
He tried to whistle, hoping to attract the attention of some straggling traveller, but his teeth chattered so much that he gave it up, and then he remembered what he had been taught at his mother's knee, and Peter prayed to the great God who could control the surging sea and protect a boy who was doing his best. Peter was only a child, but if he ever prayed with his whole heart, he prayed so that night in the darkness, with his numbed finger thrust through that hole in the dyke, and when his prayer was said he somehow felt braver, stronger and older than before, and in his heart he said:
"I will not take it out till someone comes. I will stay till morning."
Longer and longer grew the hours, the minutes, the seconds, and yet he never moved--there were strange noises in his head, his thoughts were confused, pictures of his playmates, of events long ago forgotten danced before his eyes. He was not sure he could draw his finger out of the hole even if he wished to do so, it felt so strangely numb. What did it mean that knives seemed to be cutting, and pins pricking him from head to foot? What would happen if no one ever found him--no one ever came to help?
At last the rose and silver of the dawn flushed the sky. Day had come and along that lonesome road came the first traveller in all the hours of Peter's vigil.
A clergyman whose night had been spent by the bedside of a sick parishioner, hurrying homeward on the path beside the dyke, heard a groan, a feeble sound of one in mortal agony. Turning, he glanced, first here and there, and looking up, at last, he saw beside the dyke, the figure of a child writhing in agony.
In a single bound, the clergyman stood beside him exclaiming:
"In the name of wonder, boy, what are you doing here?"
"I am keeping the water from running out," said Peter. "Oh, can't you ask them to come quick."
And they did. The town of Haarlem, even Holland itself, had been saved, through the courage of a little boy who did his duty, and from that day to this there has never been a child in Holland who has not heard the stirring story of Peter, whose pluck was worthy of a sluicer's son, and whose name will never be forgotten, or effaced from the page of historic legend.
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