by Emile Zola
My name is Louis Roubien. I am seventy years old. I was born in the
village of Saint-Jory, several miles up the Garonne from Toulouse.
For fourteen years I battled with the earth for my daily bread. At
last, prosperity smiled on we, and last month I was still the richest
farmer in the parish.
Our house seemed blessed, happiness reigned there. The sun was our
brother, and I cannot recall a bad crop. We were almost a dozen on the
farm. There was myself, still hale and hearty, leading the children to
work; then my young brother, Pierre, an old bachelor and retired
sergeant; then my sister, Agathe, who came to us after the death of her
husband. She was a commanding woman, enormous and gay, whose laugh
could be heard at the other end of the village. Then came all the
brood: my son, Jacques; his wife, Rosie, and their three daughters,
Aimee, Veronique, and Marie. The first named was married to Cyprica
Bouisson, a big jolly fellow, by whom she had two children, one two
years old and the other ten months. Veronique was just betrothed, and
was soon to marry Gaspard Rabuteau. The third, Marie, was a real young
lady, so white, so fair, that she looked as if born in the city.
That made ten, counting everybody. I was a grandfather and a
great-grandfather. When we were at table I had my sister, Agathe, at my
right, and my brother, Pierre, at my left. The children formed a
circle,seated according to age, with the heads diminishing down to the
baby of ten months, who already ate his soup like a man. And let me
tell you that the spoons in the plates made a clatter. The brood had
hearty appetites. And what gayety between the mouthfuls! I was filled
with pride and joy when the little ones held out their hands toward me,
“Grandpa, give us some bread! A big piece, grandpa!”
Oh! the good days! Our farm sang from every corner. In the evening,
Pierre invented games and related stories of his regiment. On Sunday
Agathe made cakes for the girls. Marie knew some canticles, which she
sang like a chorister. She looked like a saint, with her blond hair
falling on her neck and her hands folded on her apron.
I had built another story on the house when Aimee had married
Cyprien; and I said laughingly that I would have to build another after
the wedding of Veronique and Gaspard. We never cared to leave each
other. We would sooner have built a city behind the farm, in our
enclosure. When families are united, it is so good to live and die
where one has grown up!
The month of May had been magnificent that year. It was long since
the crops gave such good promise. That day precisely, I had made a tour
of inspection with my son, Jacques. We started at about three o'clock.
Our meadows on the banks of the Garonne were of a tender green. The
grass was three feet high, and an osier thicket, planted the year
before, had sprouts a yard high. From there we went to visit our wheat
and our vines, fields bought one by one as fortune came to us. The
wheat was growing strong; the vines, in full flower, promised a superb
vintage. And Jacques laughed his good laugh as he slapped me on the
“Well, father, we shall never want for bread nor for wine. You must
be a friend of the Divine Power to have silver showered upon your land
in this way.”
We often joked among ourselves of our past poverty. Jacques was
right. I must have gained the friendship of some saint or of God
himself, for all the luck in the country was for us. When it hailed the
hail ceased on the border of our fields. If the vines of our neighbors
fell sick, ours seemed to have a wall of protection around them. And in
the end I grew to consider it only just. Never doing harm to any one, I
thought that happiness was my due.
As we approached the house, Rose gesticulated, calling out:
One of our cows had just had a calf, and everybody was excited. The
birth of that little beast seemed one more blessing. We had been
obliged recently to enlarge the stables, where we had nearly one
hundred head of animals—cows and sheep, without counting the horses.
“Well, a good day's work!” I cried. “We will drink to-night a bottle
of ripened wine.”
Meanwhile, Rose took us aside and told us that Gaspard, Veronique's
betrothed, had come to arrange the day for the wedding. She had invited
him to remain for dinner.
Gaspard, the oldest son of a farmer of Moranges, was a big boy of
twenty years, known throughout the country for his prodigious strength.
During a festival at Toulouse he had vanquished Martial, the “Lion of
the Midi.” With that, a nice boy, with a heart of gold. He was even
timid, and he blushed when Veronique looked him squarely in the face.
I told Rose to call him. He was at the bottom of the yard, helping
our servants to spread out the freshly-washed linen. When he entered
the dining room, where we were, Jacques turned toward me, saying:
“You speak, father.”
“Well,” I said, “you have come, my boy, to have us set the great
“Yes, that is it, Father Roubien,” he answered, very red.
“You mustn't blush, my boy,” I continued. “It will be, if you wish,
on Saint- Felicite day, the 10th of July. This is the 23rd of June, so
you will have only twenty days to wait. My poor dead wife was called
Felicite, and that will bring you happiness. Well? Is it understood?”
“Yes, that will do—Sainte-Felicite day. Father Roubien.”
And he gave each of us a grip that made us wince. Then he embraced
Rose, calling her mother. This big boy with the terrific fists loved
Veronique to the point of losing his appetite.
Now,” I continued, “you must remain for dinner. Well, everybody to
the table. I have a thundering appetite, I have.”
That evening we were eleven at table. Gaspard was placed next to
Veronique, and he sat looking at her, forgetting his plate, so moved at
the thought of her belonging to him that, at times, the tears sprang to
his eyes. Cyprien and Aimee, married only three years, smiled. Jacques
and Rose, who had had twenty-five years of married life, were more
serious, but, surreptitiously, they exchanged tender glances. As for
me, I seemed to relive in those two sweethearts, whose happiness seemed
to bring a corner of Paradise to our table. What good soup we had that
evening! Aunt Agathe, always ready with a witticism, risked several
jokes. Then that honest Pierre wanted to relate his love affair with a
young lady of Lyons. Fortunately, we were at the dessert, and every one
was talking at once. I had brought two bottles of mellowed wine from
the cellar. We drank to the good fortune of Gaspard and Veronique. Then
we had singing. Gaspard knew some love songs in dialect. We also asked
Marie for a canticle. She stood up and sang in a flute-like voice that
tickled one's ears.
I went to the window, and Gaspard joined me there.
“Is there no news up your way?” I asked him.
“No,” he answered. “There is considerable talk about the heavy rains
of the last few days. Some seem to think that they will cause trouble.”
In effect, it had rained for sixty hours without stopping. The
Garonne was very much swollen since the preceding day, but we had
confidence in it, and, as long as it did not overflow its banks, we
could not look on it as a bad neighbor.
“Bah!” I exclaimed, shrugging my shoulders. “Nothing will happen. It
is the same every year. The river puts up her back as if she were
furious, and she calms down in a night. You will see, my boy, that it
will amount to nothing this time. See how beautiful the weather is!”
And I pointed to the sky. It was seven o'clock; the sun was setting.
The sky was blue, an immense blue sheet of profound purity, in which
the rays of the setting sun were like a golden dust. Never had I seen
the village drowsing in so sweet a peace. Upon the tiled roofs a rosy
tint was fading. I heard a neighbor's laugh, then the voices of
children at the turn in the road in front of our place. Farther away
and softened by the distance, rose the sounds of flocks entering their
sheds. The great voice of the Garonne roared continually; but it was to
me as the voice of the silence, so accustomed to it was I.
Little by little the sky paled; the village became more drowsy. It
was the evening of a beautiful day; and I thought that all our good
fortune—the big harvests, the happy house, the betrothal of
Veronique—came to us from above in the purity of the dying light. A
benediction spread over us with the farewell of the evening.
Meanwhile I had returned to the center of the room. The girls were
chattering. We listened to them, smiling. Suddenly, across the serenity
of the country, a terrible cry sounded, a cry of distress and death:
“The Garonne! The Garonne!”
We rushed out into the yard.
Saint-Jory is situated at the bottom of a slope at about five
hundred yards from the Garonne. Screens of tall poplars that divide the
meadows, hide the river completely.
We could see nothing. And still the cry rang out:
“The Garonne! The Garonne!”
Suddenly, on the wide road before us, appeared two men and three
women, one of them holding a child in her arms. It was they who were
crying out, distracted, running with long strides. They turned at
times, looking behind with terrified faces, as if a band of wolves was
“What's the matter with them?” demanded Cyprien. “Do you see
“No,” I answered. “The leaves are not even moving.”
I was still talking when an exclamation burst from us. Behind the
fugitives there appeared, between the trunks of the poplars, amongst
the large tufts of grass, what looked like a pack of gray beasts
speckled with yellow. They 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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
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,
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
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
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
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 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,
“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
“Don't grieve, grandfather,” said Gaspard. “We will take her off on
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
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
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
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
“I like this better!” Gaspard called to me. “Now, I can answer for
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 at times. But he advanced, swimming with
superhuman strength. I was no longer in doubt. He had traversed a third
of the distance when he struck against something submerged. The shock
was terrible. Both disappeared. Then I saw him reappear alone. The rope
must have snapped. He plunged twice. At last, he came up with
Veronique, whom he again took on his back. But without the rope to hold
her, she weighed him down more than ever. Still, he advanced. A tremor
shook me as I saw them approaching the church. Suddenly, I saw some
beams bearing down upon them. A second shock separated them and the
waters closed over them.
From this moment, I was stupefied. I had but the instinct of the
animal looking out for its own safety. When the water advanced, I
retreated. In that stupor, I heard someone laughing, without explaining
to myself who it was. The dawn appeared, a great white daybreak. It was
very fresh and very calm, as on the bank of a pond, the surface of
which awakens before sunrise. But the laughter sounded continually.
Turning, I saw Marie, standing in her wet clothes. It was she who
Ah! the poor, dear child! How sweet and pretty she was at that early
hour! I saw her stoop, take up some water in the hollow of her hand,
and wash her face. Then she coiled her beautiful blonde hair.
Doubtless, she imagined she was in her little room, dressing while the
church bell rang merrily. And she continued to laugh her childish
laugh, her eyes bright and her face happy.
I, too, began to laugh, infected with her madness. Terror had
destroyed her mind; and it was a mercy, so charmed did she appear with
the beauty of the morning.
I let her hasten, not understanding, shaking my head tenderly. When
she considered herself ready to go, she sang one of her canticles in
her clear crystalline voice. But, interrupting herself, she cried, as
if responding to someone who had called her:
“I am coming, I am coming!”
She took up the canticle again, went down the roof, and entered the
water. It covered her softly, without a ripple. I had not ceased
smiling. I looked with happiness upon the spot where she had just
Then, I remembered nothing more. I was alone on the roof. The water
had risen. A chimney was standing, and I must have clung to it with all
my strength, like an animal that dreads death. Then, nothing, nothing,
a black pit, oblivion.
Why am I still here? They tell me that people from Saintin came
toward six o'clock, with boats, and that they found me lying on a
chimney, unconscious. The water was cruel not to have carried me away
to be with those who were dear to me.
All the others are gone! The babes in swaddling clothes, the girls
to be married, the young married couples, the old married couples. And
I, I live like a useless weed, coarse and dried, rooted in the rock. If
I had the courage, I would say like Pierre:
“I have had enough! Good night!” And I would throw myself into the
I have no child, my house is destroyed, my fields are devastated.
Oh! the evenings when we were all at table, and the gaiety surrounded
me and kept me young. Oh! the great days of harvest and vintage when we
all worked, and when we returned to the house proud of our wealth! Oh!
the handsome children and the fruitful vines, the beautiful girls and
the golden grain, the joy of my old age, the living recompense of my
entire life! Since all that is gone, why should I live?
There is no consolation. I do not want help. I will give my fields
to the village people who still have their children. They will find the
courage to clear the land of the flotsam and cultivate it anew. When
one has no children, a corner is large enough to die in.
I had one desire, one only desire. I wished to recover the bodies of
my family, to bury them beneath a slab, where I should soon rejoin
them. It was said that, at Toulouse, a large number of bodies carried
down the stream, had been taken from the water. I decided to make the
What a terrible disaster! Nearly two thousand houses in ruins; seven
hundred deaths; all the bridges carried away; a whole district razed,
buried in the mud; atrocious tragedies; twenty thousand half-clad
wretches starving to death; the city in a pestilential condition;
mourning everywhere; the streets filled with funeral processions;
financial aid powerless to heal the wounds! But I walked through it all
without seeing anything. I had my ruins, I had my dead, to crush me.
I was told that many of the bodies had been buried in trenches in a
corner of the cemetery. Only, they had had the forethought to
photograph the unidentified. And it was among these lamentable
photographs that I found Gaspard and Veronique. They had been clasped
passionately in each other's arms, exchanging in death their bridal
kiss. It had been necessary to break their arms in order to separate
them. But, first, they had been photographed together; and they sleep
together beneath the sod.
I have nothing but them, the image of those two handsome children;
bloated by the water, disfigured, retaining upon their livid faces the
heroism of their love. I look at them, and I weep.