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- The Flood - 4/5 -
people of Saintin, who owned boats, must have been surprised before us.
Gaspard continued to wander over the Roof. Suddenly he called us.
"Look!" he said. "Help me--hold me tight!"
He had a pole and be was watching an enormous black object that was gently drifting toward the house. It was the roof of a shed, made of strong boards, and that was floating like a raft. When it was within reach he stopped it with the pole, and, as he felt himself being carried off, he called to us. We held him around the waist.
Then, as the mass entered the current, it returned against our roof so violently that we were afraid of seeing it smashed into splinters.
Gaspard jumped upon it boldly. He went over it carefully, to assure himself of its solidity. He laughed, saying joyously:
"Grandfather, we are saved! Don't cry any more, you women. A real boat! Look, my feet are dry. And it will easily carry all of us!"
Still, he thought it well to make it more solid. He caught some floating beams and bound them to it with a rope that Pierre had brought up for an emergency. Gaspard even fell into the water, but at our screams he laughed. He knew the water well; he could swim three miles in the Garonne at a stretch. Getting up again, he shook himself, crying:
"Come, get on it! Don't lose any time!"
The women were on their knees. Gaspard had to carry Veronique and Marie to the middle of the raft, where he made them sit down.
Rose and Aunt Agathe slid down the tiles and placed themselves beside the young girls. At this moment I looked toward the church. Aimee was still in the same place. She was leaning now against a chimney, holding her children up at arm's length, for the water was to her waist.
"Don't grieve, grandfather," said Gaspard. "We will take her off on the way."
Pierre and Jacques were already on the raft, so I jumped on. Gaspard was the last one aboard. He gave us poles that he had prepared and that were to serve us as oars. He had a very long one that he used with great skill. We let him do all the commanding. At an order from him, we braced our poles against the tiles to put out into the stream. But it seemed as if the raft was attached to the roof. In spite of all our efforts, we could not budge it. At each new effort the current swung us violently against the house. And it was a dangerous manoeuvre, for the shock threatened to break up the planks composing the raft.
So once again we were made to feel our helplessness. We had thought ourselves saved, and we were still at the mercy of the river. I even regretted that the women were not on the roof; for, every minute, I expected to see them precipitated into the boiling torrent. But when I suggested regaining our refuge they all cried:
"No, no! Let us try again! Better die here!"
Gaspard no longer laughed. We renewed our efforts, bending to our poles with redoubled energy. Pierre then had the idea to climb up on the roof and draw us, by means of a rope, towards the left. He was thus able to draw us out of the current. Then, when he again jumped upon the raft, a few thrusts of our poles sent us out into the open. But Gaspard recalled the promise he had made me to stop for our poor Aimee, whose plaintive moans had never ceased. For that purpose it was necessary to cross the street, where the terrible current existed. He consulted me by a glance. I was completely upset. Never had such a combat raged within me. We would have to expose eight lives. And yet I had not the strength to resist the mournful appeal.
"Yes, yes," I said to Gaspard. "We can not possibly go away without her!"
He lowered his head without a word, and began using his pole against all the walls left standing. We passed the neighboring house, but as soon as we emerged into the street a cry escaped us. The current, which had again seized us, carried us back against our house. We were whirled round like a leaf, so rapidly that our cry was cut short by the smashing of the raft against the tiles. There was a rending sound, the planks were loosened and wrenched apart, and we were all thrown into the water. I do not know what happened then. I remember that when I sank I saw Aunt Agathe floating, sustained by her skirts, until she went down backward, head first, without a struggle.
A sharp pain brought me to. Pierre was dragging me by the hair along the tiles. I lay still, stupidly watching. Pierre had plunged in again. And, in my confused state, I was surprised to see Gaspard at the spot where my brother had disappeared. The young man had Veronique in his arms. When he had placed her near me he again jumped in, bringing up Marie, her face so waxy white that I thought her dead. Then he plunged again. But this time he searched in vain. Pierre had joined him. They talked and gave each other indications that I could not hear. As they drew themselves up on the roof, I cried:
"And Aunt Agathe? And Jacques? And Rose?"
They shook their heads. Large tears coursed down their cheeks. They explained to me that Jacques had struck his head against a beam and that Rose had been carried down with her husband's body, to which she clung. Aunt Agathe had not reappeared.
Raising myself, I looked toward the roof, where Aimee stood. The water was rising constantly. Aimee was now silent. I could see her upstretched arms holding her children out of the water. Then they all sank, the water closed over them beneath the drowsy light of the moon.
There were only five of us on the roof now. The water left us but a narrow band along the ridge. One of the chimneys had just been carried away. We had to raise Marie and Veronique, who were still unconscious, and support them almost in a standing position to prevent the waves washing over their legs. At last, their senses returned, and our anguish increased upon seeing them wet, shivering and crying miserably that they did not wish to die.
The end had come. The destroyed village was marked by a few vestiges of walls. Alone, the church reared its steeple intact, from whence came the voices--a murmur of human beings in a refuge. There were no longer any sounds of falling houses, like a cart of stones suddenly discharged. It was as if we were abandoned, shipwrecked, a thousand miles from land.
One moment we thought we heard the dip of oars. Ah! what hopeful music! How we all strained our eyes into space! We held our breath. But we could see nothing. The yellow sheet stretched away, spotted with black shadows. But none of those shadows--tops of trees, remnants of walls--moved. Driftwood, weeds, empty barrels caused us false joy. We waved our handkerchiefs until, realizing our error, we again succumbed to our anxiety.
"Ah, I see it!" cried Gaspard, suddenly. "Look over there. A large boat!"
And he pointed out a distant speck. I could see nothing, neither could Pierre. But Gaspard insisted it was a boat. The sound of oars became distinct. At last, we saw it. It was proceeding slowly and seemed to be circling about us without approaching. I remember that we were like mad. We raised our arms in our fury; we shouted with all our might. And we insulted the boat, called it cowardly. But, dark and silent, it glided away slowly. Was it really a boat? I do not know to this day. When it disappeared it carried our last hope.
We were expecting every second to be engulfed with the house. It was undermined and was probably supported by one solid wall, which, in giving way, would pull everything with it. But what terrified me most was to feel the roof sway under our feet. The house would perhaps hold out overnight, but the tiles were sinking in, beaten and pierced by beams. We had taken refuge on the left side on some solid rafters. Then these rafters seemed to weaken. Certainly they would sink if all five of us remained in so small a space.
For some minutes my brother Pierre had been twisting his soldierly mustache, frowning and muttering to himself. The growing danger that surrounded him and against which his courage availed nothing, was wearing out his endurance. He spat two or three times into the water, with an expression of contemptuous anger. Then, as we sank lower, he made up his mind; he started down the roof.
"Pierre! Pierre!" I cried, fearing to comprehend.
He turned and said quietly:
"Adieu, Louis! You see, it is too long for me. And it will leave more room for you."
And, first throwing in his pipe, he plunged, adding:
"Good night! I have had enough!"
He did not come up. He was not a strong swimmer, and he probably abandoned himself, heart-broken at the death of our dear ones and at our ruin.
Two o'clock sounded from the steeple of the church. The night would soon end-- that horrible night already so filled with agony and tears. Little by little, beneath our feet, the small dry space grew smaller. The current had changed again. The drift, passed to the right of the village, floating slowly, as if the water, nearing its highest level, was reposing, tired and lazy.
Gaspard suddenly took off his shoes and his shirt. I watched him for a moment as he wrung his hands. When I questioned him he said:
"Listen, grandfather; it is killing me to wait. I cannot stay here. Let me do as I wish. I will save her."
He was speaking of Veronique. I opposed him. He would never have the strength to carry the young girl to the church. But he was obstinate.
"Yes, I can! My arms are strong. I feel myself able. You will see. I love her--I will save her!"
I was silent. I drew Marie to my breast. Then he thought I was reproaching the selfishness of his love. He stammered:
"I will return and get Marie. I swear it. I will find a boat and organize a rescue party. Have confidence in me, grandfather!"
Rapidly, he explained to Veronique that she must not struggle, that she must submit without a movement, and that she must not be afraid. The young girl answered "yes" to everything, with a distracted look. Then, after making the sign of the cross, he slid down the roof, holding Veronique by a rope that he had looped under her arms. She gave a scream, beat the water with arms and legs, and, suffocated, she fainted.
"I like this better!" Gaspard called to me. "Now, I can answer for her!"
It can be imagined with what agony I followed them with my eyes. On the white surface, I could see Gaspard's slightest movement. He held the young girl by means of the rope that he coiled around his neck; and he carried her thus, half thrown over his right shoulder. The crushing weight bore him under
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