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- The Flood - 3/5 -
"The water is rising; the water is rising!" repeated my brother Pierre, still crunching the stem of his pipe between his teeth.
The water was within a yard of the roof. It was losing its tranquility; currents were being formed. In less than an hour the water became threatening, dashing against the house, bearing drifting barrels, pieces of wood, clumps of weeds. In the distance there were attacks upon walls, and we could hear the resounding shocks. Poplar trees fell, houses crumbled, like a cartload of stones emptied by the roadside.
Jacques, unnerved by the sobs of the women, cried:
"We can't stay here. We must try something. Father, I beg of you, try to do something."
I stammered after him:
"Yes, yes; let us try to do something."
And we knew of nothing. Gaspard offered to take Veronique on his back and swim with her to a place of safety. Pierre suggested a raft. Cyprien finally said:
"If we could only reach the church!"
Above the waters the church remained standing, with its little square steeple. We were separated from it by seven houses. Our farmhouse, the first of the village, adjoined a higher building, which, in turn, leaned against the next. Perhaps, by way of the roofs, we would be able to reach the parsonage. A number of people must have taken refuge there already, for the neighboring roofs were vacant, and we could hear voices that surely came from the steeple. But what dangers must be run to reach them!
"It is impossible," said Pierre. "The house of the Raimbeaus is too high; we would need ladders."
"I am going to try it," said Cyprien. "I will return if the way is impracticable. Otherwise, we will all go and we will have to carry the girls."
I let him go. He was right. We had to try the impossible. He had succeeded, by the aid of an iron hook fixed in a chimney, in climbing to the next house, when his wife, Aimee, raising her head, noticed that he was no longer with us. She screamed:
"Where is he? I don't want him to leave me! We are together, we shall die together!"
When she saw him on the top of the house she ran over the tiles, still holding her children. And she called out:
"Cyprien, wait for me! I am going with you. I am going to die with you."
She persisted. He leaned over, pleading with her, promising to come back, telling her that he was going for the rescue of all of us. But, with a wild air, she shook her head, repeating "I am going with you! I am going with you!"
He had to take the children. Then he helped her up. We could follow them along the crest of the house. They walked slowly. She had taken the children again, and at every step he turned and supported her.
"Get her to a safe place, and return!" I shouted.
I saw him wave his hand, but the roaring of the water prevented my hearing his answer. Soon we could not see them. They had descended to the roof of the next house. At the end of five minutes they appeared upon the third roof, which must have been very steep, for they went on hands and knees along the summit. A sudden terror seized me. I put my hands to my mouth and shouted:
"Come back! Come back!"
Then all of us shouted together. Our voices stopped them for a moment, but they continued on their way. They reached the angle formed by the street upon which faced the Raimbeau house, a high structure, with a roof at least ten feet above those of the neighboring houses. For a moment they hesitated. Then Cyprien climbed up a chimney pipe, with the agility of a cat. Aimee, who must have consented to wait for him, stood on the tiles. We saw her plainly, black and enlarged against the pale sky, straining her children to her bosom. And it was then that the horrifying trouble began.
The Raimbeau house, originally intended for a factory, was very flimsily built. Besides, the facade was exposed to the current in the street. I thought I could see it tremble from the attacks of the water; and, with a contraction of the throat, I watched Cyprien cross the roof. Suddenly a rumbling was heard. The moon rose, a round moon, whose yellow face lighted up the immense lake. Not a detail of the catastrophe was lost to us. The Raimbeau house collapsed. We gave a cry of terror as we saw Cyprien disappear. As the house crumbled we could distinguish nothing but a tempest, a swirling of waves beneath the debris of the roof. Then calm was restored, the surface became smooth; and out of the black hole of the engulfed house projected the skeleton of its framework. There was a mass of entangled beams, and, amongst them, I seemed to see a body moving, something living making superhuman efforts.
"He lives!" I cried. "Oh, God be praised! He lives!"
We laughed nervously; we clapped our hands, as if saved ourselves.
"He is going to raise himself up," said Pierre.
"Yes, yes," said Gaspard, "he is trying to seize the beam on his left."
But our laugh ceased. We had just realized the terrible situation in which Cyprien was placed. During the fall of the house his feet had been caught between two beams, and he hung head downward within a few inches of the water. On the roof of the next house Aimee was still standing, holding her two children. A convulsive tremor shook her. She did not take her eyes from her husband, a few yards below her. And, mad with horror, she emitted without cessation a lamentable sound like the howling of a dog.
"We can't let him die like that," said Jacques, distracted. "We must get down there."
"Perhaps we could slide down the beams and save him," remarked Pierre.
And they started toward the neighboring roof, when the second house collapsed, leaving a gap in the route. Then a chill seized us. We mechanically grasped each other's hands, wringing them cruelly as we watched the harrowing sight.
Cyprien had tried at first to stiffen his body. With extraordinary strength, he had lifted himself above the water, holding his body in an oblique position. Rut the strain was too great. Nevertheless, he struggled, tried to reach some of the beams, felt around him for something to hold to. Then, resigning himself, he fell back again, hanging limp.
Death was slow in coming. The water barely covered his hair, and it rose very gradually. He must have felt its coolness on his brain. A wave wet his brow; others closed his eyes. Slowly we saw his head disappear.
The women, at our feet, had buried their faces in their clasped hands. We, ourselves, fell to our knees, our arms outstretched, weeping, stammering supplications.
On the other roof Aimee, still standing, her children clasped to her bosom, howled mournfully into the night.
I know not how long we remained in a stupor after that tragedy. When I came to, the water had risen. It was now on a level with the tiles. The roof was a narrow island, emerging from the immense sheet. To the right and the left the houses must have crumbled.
"We are moving," murmured Rose, who clung to the tiles.
And we all experienced the effect of rolling, as if the roof had become detached and turned into a raft. The swift currents seemed to be drifting us away. Then, when we looked at the church clock, immovable opposite us, the dizziness ceased; we found ourselves in the same place in the midst of the waves.
Then the water began an attack. Until then the stream had followed the street; but the debris that encumbered it deflected the course. And when a drifting object, a beam, came within reach of the current, it seized it and directed it against the house like a battering-ram. Soon ten, a dozen, beams were attacking us on all sides. The water roared. Our feet were spattered with foam. We heard the dull moaning of the house full of water. There were moments when the attacks became frenzied, when the beams battered fiercely; and then we thought that the end was near, that the walls would open and deliver us to the river.
Gaspard had risked himself upon the edge of the roof. He had seized a rafter and drawn it to him.
"We must defend ourselves," he cried.
Jacques, on his side, had stopped a long pole in its passage. Pierre helped him. I cursed my age that left me without strength, as feeble as a child. But the defense was organized--a drill between three men and a river. Gaspard, holding his beam in readiness, awaited the driftwood that the current sent against us, and be stopped it a short distance from the walls. At times the shock was so rude that he fell. Beside him Jacques and Pierre manipulated the long pole. During nearly an hour that unending fight continued. And the water retained its tranquil obstinacy, invincible.
Then Jacques and Pierre succumbed, prostrated; while Gaspard, in a last violent thrust, had his beam wrested from him by the current. The combat was useless.
Marie and Veronique had thrown themselves into each other's arms. They repeated incessantly one phrase--a phrase of terror that I still hear ringing in my ears:
"I don't want to die! I don't want to die!"
Rose put her arms about them. She tried to console them, to reassure them. And she herself, trembling, raised her face and cried out, in spite of herself:
"I don't want to die!"
Aunt Agathe alone said nothing. She no longer prayed, no longer made the sign of the cross. Bewildered, her eyes roamed about, and she tried to smile when her glance met mine.
The water was beating against the tiles now. There was no hope of help. We still heard the voices in the direction of the church; two lanterns had passed in the distance; and the silence spread over the immense yellow sheet. The
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