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- The Flood - 2/5 -
sprang up from all directions, waves crowding waves, a helter-skelter of masses of foaming water, shaking the sod with the rumbling gallop of their hordes.
It was our turn to send forth the despairing cry:
"The Garonne! The Garonne!"
The two men and the three women were still running on the road. They heard the terrible gallop gaining on them. Now the waves arrived in a single line, rolling, tumbling with the thunder of a charging battalion. With their first shock they had broken three poplars; the tall foliage sank and disappeared. A wooden cabin was swallowed up, a wall was demolished; heavy carts were carried away like straws. But the water seemed, above all, to pursue the fugitives. At the bend in the road, where there was a steep slope, it fell suddenly in an immense sheet and cut off retreat. They continued to run, nevertheless, splashing through the water, no longer shouting, mad with terror. The water swirled about their knees. An enormous wave felled the woman who was carrying the child. Then all were engulfed.
"Quick! Quick!" I cried. "We must get into the house. It is solid--we have nothing to fear."
We took refuge upstairs. The house was built on a hillock above the road. The water invaded the yard, softly, with a little rippling noise. We were not much frightened.
"Bah!" said Jacques, to reassure every one, "this will not amount to anything. You remember, father, in '55, the water came up into the yard. It was a foot deep. Then it receded."
"It is disastrous for the crops, just the same," murmured Cyprien.
"No, it will not be anything," I said, seeing the large questioning eyes of our girls.
Aimee had put her two children into the bed. She sat beside them, with Veronique and Marie. Aunt Agathe spoke of heating some wine she had brought up, to give us courage.
Jacques and Rose were looking out of a window. I was at the other, with my brother Pierre, Cyprien and Gaspard.
"Come up!" I cried to our two servants, who were wading in the yard. "Don't stay there and get all wet."
"But the animals?" they asked. "They are afraid. They are killing each other in the barn."
"No, no; come up! After a while we'll see to them."
The rescue of the animals would be impossible, if the disaster was to attain greater proportions. I thought it unnecessary to frighten the family. So I forced myself to appear hopeful. Leaning on the windowsill, I indicated the progress of the flood. The river, after its attack on the village, was in possession even to the narrowest streets. It was no longer a galloping charge, but a slow and invincible strangulation. The hollow in the bottom of which Saint-Jory is built was changed into a lake. In our yard the water was soon three feet deep. But I asserted that it remained stationary--I even went so far as to pretend that it was going down.
"Well, you will be obliged to sleep here to-night, my boy," I said, turning to Gaspard. "That is, unless the roads are free in a couple of hours--which is quite possible."
He looked at me without answering, his face quite pale; and I saw him look at Veronique with an expression of anguish.
It was half-past eight o'clock. It was still daylight--a pale, sad light beneath the blanched sky. The servants had had the forethought to bring up two lamps with them. I had them lighted, thinking that they would brighten up the somber room. Aunt Agathe, who had rolled a table to the middle of the room, wished to organize a card party. The worthy woman, whose eyes sought mine momentarily, thought above all of diverting the children. Her good humor kept up a superb bravery; and she laughed to combat the terror that she felt growing around her. She forcibly placed Aimee, Veronique, and Marie at the table. She put the cards into their hands, took a hand herself with an air of intense interest, shuffling, cutting, dealing with such a flow of talk that she almost drowned the noise of the water. But our girls could not be diverted; they were pale, with feverish hands, and ears on the alert. Every few moments there was a pause in the play. One of them would turn to me, asking in a low voice:
"Grandpa, is it still rising?"
"No, no. Go on with the game. There is no danger."
Never had my heart been gripped by such agony. All the men placed themselves at the windows to hide the terrifying sight. We tried to smile, turned toward the peaceful lamps that threw discs of light upon the table. I recalled our winter evenings, when we gathered around the table. It was the same quiet interior, filled with the warmth of affection. And while peace was there I heard behind me the roaring of the escaped river, that was constantly rising.
"Louis," said my brother Pierre, "the water is within three feet of the window. We ought to tell them."
I hushed him up by pressing his arm. But it was no longer possible to hide the peril. In our barns the animals were killing each other. There were bleatings and bellowings from the crazed herds; and the horses gave the harsh cries that can be heard at great distances when they are in danger of death.
"My God! My God!" cried Aimee, who stood up, pressing her hands to her temples.
They all ran to the windows. There they remained, mute, their hair rising with fear. A dim light floated above the yellow sheet of water. The pale sky looked like a white cloth thrown over the earth. In the distance trailed some smoke. Everything was misty. It was the terrified end of a day melting into a night of death. And not a human sound, nothing but the roaring of that sea stretching to infinity; nothing but the bellowings and the neighings of the animals.
"My God! My God!" repeated the women, in low voices, as if they feared to speak aloud.
A terrible cracking silenced the exclamations. The maddened animals had burst open the doors of the stables. They passed in the yellow flood, rolled about, carried away by the current. The sheep were tossed about like dead leaves, whirling in bands in the eddies. The cows and the horses struggled, tried to walk, and lost their footing. Our big gray horse fought long for life. He stretched his neck, he reared, snorting like a forge. But the enraged waters took him by the crupper, and we saw him, beaten, abandon himself.
Then we gave way for the first time. We felt the need of tears. Our hands stretched out to those dear animals that were being borne away, we lamented, giving vent to the tears and the sobs that we had suppressed. Ah! what ruin! The harvests destroyed, the cattle drowned, our fortunes changed in a few hours! God was not just! We had done nothing against Him, and He was taking everything from us! I shook my fist at the horizon. I spoke of our walk that afternoon, of our meadows, our wheat and vines that we had found so full of promise. It was all a lie, then! The sun lied when he sank, so sweet and calm, in the midst of the evening's serenity.
The water was still rising. Pierre, who was watching it, cried:
"Louis, we must look out! The water is up to the window!"
That warning snatched us from our spell of despair. I was once more myself. Shrugging my shoulders, I said:
"Money is nothing. As long as we are all saved, there need be no regrets. We shall have to work again--that is all!"
"Yes, yes; you are right, father," said Jacques, feverishly. "And we run no danger--the walls are good and strong. We must get up on the roof."
That was the only refuge left us. The water, which had mounted the stairs step by step, was already coming through the door. We rushed to the attic in a group, holding close to each other. Cyprien had disappeared. I called him, and I saw him return from the next room, his face working with emotion. Then, as I remarked the absence of the servants, for whom I was waiting,he gave me a strange look, then said, in a suppressed voice:
"Dead! The corner of the shed under their room caved in."
The poor girls must have gone to fetch their savings from their trunks. I told him to say nothing about it. A cold shiver had passed over me. It was Death entering the house.
When we went up, in our turn, we did not even think of putting out the lights. The cards remained spread upon the table. There was already a foot of water in the room.
Fortunately, the roof was vast and sloped gently. We reached it through a lid- like window, above which was a sort of platform. It was there that we took refuge. The women seated themselves. The men went over the tiles to reconnoitre. From my post against the dormer window through which we had climbed, I examined the four points of the horizon.
"Help cannot fail to arrive," I said, bravely. "The people of Saintin have boats; they will come this way. Look over there! Isn't that a lantern on the water?"
But no one answered me. Pierre had lighted his pipe, and he was smoking so furiously that, at each puff, he spit out pieces of the stem. Jacques and Cyprien looked into the distance, with drawn faces; while Gaspard, clenching his fists, continued to walk about, seeking an issue. At our feet the women, silent and shivering, hid their faces to shut out the sight. Yet Rose raised her head, glanced about her and demanded:
"And the servants? Where are they? Why, aren't they here?"
I avoided answering. She then questioned me, her eyes on mine.
"Where are the servants?"
I turned away, unable to lie. I felt that chill that had already brushed me pass over our women and our dear girls. They had understood. Marie burst into tears. Aimee wrapped her two children in her skirt, as if to protect them. Veronique, her face in her hands, did not move. Aunt Agathe, very pale, made the sign of the cross, and mumbled Paters and Aves.
Meanwhile the spectacle about us became of sovereign grandeur. The night retained the clearness of a summer night. There was no moon, but the sky was sprinkled with stars, and was of so pure a blue that it seemed to fill space with a blue light. And the immense sheet of water expanded beneath the softness of the sky. We could no longer see any land.
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