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By Emile Zola, Anthony Cummins
Hesperus Press LimitedCopyright © 2013 Hesperus Press
All rights reserved.
My name is Louis Roubieu. I am seventy. I was born in Saint-Jory, a village several miles up the Garonne from Toulouse. For fourteen years I fought with the earth to keep bread on the table. Then the good times came; last month, I was still the richest farmer in the village.
It was as if we were blessed. We had a happy home; the sun was on our side, and I don't remember one bad harvest. There were nearly a dozen of us at the farm, living in this bliss: I was leading the young ones to work, still able to hold my own; my younger brother Pierre, who never married – he was a retired sergeant; and my sister Agathe, who moved in with us after her husband died – a formidable woman, stout, carefree, with a laugh you'd hear from the other side of the village. Then there was the whole gang: my son Jacques, his wife Rose, and their three girls Aimée, Véronique and Marie. Aimée was married to Cyprien Bouisson, a great strapping fellow who was the father of her two little boys; one aged two, the other ten months. Véronique was only just engaged; she was going to marry Gaspard Rabuteau. And Marie, she was quite the young lady – so fair, so blonde, she looked like a city girl. That was ten, counting everyone. I was a grandfather and a great-grandfather. At mealtimes, I had my sister Agathe to my right and my brother Pierre to my left; the children closed the circle, sitting oldest to youngest, their heads decreasing in size, right down to the ten-month-old who was already tucking in to his food like a grown man. All you'd hear would be the sound of spoons scraping plates! The kids could eat all right. Mealtimes were always great fun. 'Give us some bread then, granddad!' I felt a surge of pride and joy whenever the little ones reached their hands out to me. 'A big slice, granddad!'
Those were the days! We all worked hard. Then in the evenings Pierre invented games and told us stories about his regiment. On Sundays Aunt Agathe made pancakes for the girls. Marie sang hymns like a choirgirl; with her blonde hair falling around her shoulders, hands clasped to her pinafore, she looked like a saint. When Aimée married Cyprien, I added another floor to the house; laughing, I said we'd need to raise it again once Véronique and Gaspard got married. If we'd kept building an extension for every new couple, the house would have ended up in the heavens. We didn't want to move out. We'd more likely have built an entire town on our own land! When the different generations get along so well, it's nice to be able to live and die in the place where you grew up.
We had a gorgeous May this year. The crops hadn't promised so much in a long time. One day I did the rounds with my son Jacques. We were gone for nearly three hours. Our pale green meadows stretched out along the banks of the Garonne; the grass was a good three feet tall, and already there were shoots a yard long on the willow bed that we planted last year. We checked on the fields that we had bought up one by one as the money rolled in; the wheat grew plentifully, and our vines were flourishing. It would be a great vintage. Jacques laughed, poking me in the shoulder.
'Well, we'll not be wanting for bread and wine any more, eh? You must have cut a deal with the good Lord himself for him to decide to rain money on us like this!'
We often joked about the bad old days. Jacques was right. I must have made friends in high places – some saint, or, indeed, the good Lord himself – because we were having all the luck in the world. Whenever it hailed, the hail stopped just at the edge of our fields. Whenever disease struck neighbours' vineyards, it was as if some kind of wall protected our own. After a while, I thought it was only fair. I never hurt anybody; I felt that I was owed this happiness.
On the way back, we crossed the land that we owned on the other side of the village. The plantations of mulberry trees were coming on like a dream, and the almond trees had a full yield. We chatted away, making plans. Once we had enough money, we'd buy up all the pieces of land that connected our fields, and then we would be the owners of an entire area of the village. If this year's crops lived up to their promise, our dreams were about to come true.
We were nearly home when we saw Rose calling out to us, agitated. 'Quick, hurry!'
One of our cows had just had a calf, causing something of a stir. Aunt Agathe was palpating its massive belly while the girls peered at the newborn. It seemed yet another blessing. We owned nearly a hundred animals – cows and sheep, mostly, not counting the horses – and recently we had needed to extend our stables.
'Time to celebrate!' I said. 'A bottle of fortified wine for us tonight.'
But Rose took us to one side and explained that Véronique's fiancé, Gaspard, had come to set a date for the wedding. He was staying for dinner. Gaspard was the eldest son of a farmer from Moranges. He was a big lad of twenty, renowned for his amazing strength; once, he defeated Martial, The Lion of the South, at a fair in Toulouse. For all that, he was very shy. He was an honest young man with a heart of gold; he blushed whenever Véronique looked him in the eye.
I asked Rose to call him. He was out in the courtyard helping our servants hang the washing. We were in the dining room; when he came up, Jacques turned to me. 'Say something, father.'
'So,' I asked, 'you've come to set a date for the big day?'
'Yes, Monsieur Roubieu.' His cheeks were very red.
'Don't blush, my boy. If you want, let's do it on the 10th of July. That's St Félicité's Day. It's the 23rd of June today, so you've barely two weeks to wait. Félicité was my wife's name. It will bring you happiness. So, all set eh?'
'St Félicité's Day, Monsieur Roubieu.'
Giving me and Jacques a friendly tap – he could have floored a bull – he kissed Rose, calling her Mother. He might have been a bruiser, with thumping great fists, but he was so much in love with Véronique that he couldn't eat nor drink. He admitted that he would have been ill if we had refused to let her marry him.
'Now, let's eat – you'll stay for food, won't you? I know I'm starving!'
There were eleven of us at the table that evening. We sat Gaspard down next to Véronique. He was so overwhelmed that he didn't even touch his plate, staring at her with tears in his eyes. Cyprien and Aimée smiled; they'd only been married for three years. Jacques and Rose looked more serious – they'd been together for a quarter of a century – but they still gave each other sly little looks full of love. I felt that I was living my life all over again in our two young lovers. Their happiness brought a corner of paradise to our table. We had a terrific meal that night. Aunt Agathe tried out some jokes – she always knew how to make you laugh – and Pierre, bless him, wanted us to know all about his fling with some young Lyonnaise. It was a good thing that we were having dessert, and that everyone talked over each other. I had two bottles of fortified wine fetched from the cellar; we drank to Gaspard and Véronique's future happiness. In our home a toast went like this: 'Don't fight – have lots of children – and make lots of money – good luck!' Then we sang. Gaspard knew some love songs in patois. We asked Marie to sing us a hymn. She stood up; her delicate voice tickled your ears like a tin whistle.
I had gone to stand at the window. Gaspard joined me. 'Nothing new round your way?'
'No,' he said. 'But they reckon all this rain we've been having could well mean trouble.'
It had rained for nearly sixty hours without a break. The Garonne was very full from the day before. But we trusted her. That smooth broad expanse was so bountiful that, as long as she didn't overflow, we couldn't call her a bad neighbour. What's more, if you're from the country, you don't leave your home on just any old whim – not even when the roof's about to cave in.
'Well,' I shrugged. 'It'll amount to nothing. It's the same every year. She rears up, raging, then she settles down overnight, meek as a lamb. You'll see, lad; we'll be laughing about it just like we always do. The weather's fine, see!'
It was seven o'clock; the sun was setting. The sky was so blue! It was like a velvety blue blanket, sprinkled with flecks of gold from the setting sun. I had never seen the village drift off into so sweet a sleep. The rosy tint faded from the rooftiles. I heard a neighbour laughing, then I heard some children at the nearby bend in the road; further away, there was the vague noise of distant herds trooping back to their stables. The Garonne rumbled on all the while, but I was so used to it that it sounded just like silence. The sky turned pale; the village drifted further into sleep. It was the kind of evening that you get after a fine day. All of our good fortune, I thought – our excellent crops, our happy home, Véronique's engagement – was raining down on us from the heavens. We were being blessed.
I went back to the table where the girls were busy gossiping. We were listening to them, smiling, when, in the peace and quiet of the countryside, we heard a sudden scream. It was a scream of distress – and death.
'The Garonne! The Garonne!'
We rushed to the yard.
Saint-Jory lies at the bottom of a hill half a kilometre from the Garonne; tall poplars on the meadows hide the river from view.
We saw nothing. Still the cry rang out:
'The Garonne! The Garonne!'
Suddenly two men and three women came running out onto the road in front of our house; one of the women had a child in her arms. They were the ones doing the screaming. They ran as fast as they could, terrified. They kept looking round nervously, as if chased by a pack of wolves.
'What's up with them?' asked Cyprien. 'See anything, granddad?'
'No. Even the leaves on the trees are perfectly still.'
It was true. There was nothing to be seen on the sleepy horizon. But I was still speaking when the others cried out; the people were running away from what looked like a pack of grey, yellow-spotted beasts, rushing over the long grass through the poplar trees. They sprang up from all sides, wave upon wave: it was a foaming, earth -shaking stampede of water.
Now we were the ones screaming.
'The Garonne! The Garonne!'
The two men and the three women were still running. They heard the terrible rushing sound get closer. The rolling waves massed together and then crashed in like troops on the charge. The first strike smashed three poplars, sweeping away leaves and swallowing up branches. It demolished a wood cabin. A wall crumbled. Unhitched carts flew away as if they were made of straw. But the water seemed to be after people most. It swirled around the steep bend in the road and flooded the plain, cutting off their escape. They kept trying to get away, splashing about, mad with fear. Now nobody screamed. The water was up to their knees. A giant wave flung itself over the woman who carried the child, and everyone disappeared.
'Come on! Come on!' I shouted. 'Get inside! The house can take it. There's nothing to worry about.'
We ran upstairs, just in case. We sent the girls up first; I insisted on being the last to go. The house was built on a mound up above the road. Though we could hear the faint sound of water creeping into the yard, we weren't very scared.
'This'll be nothing,' Jacques assured us. 'In '55, the water came in just like it's doing now; a foot of it, then it cleared up, remember?'
'Bad news for the crops, all the same,' Cyprien murmured.
'No, no, it will be nothing,' I said, seeing the girls and their big pleading eyes.
Aimée had put her two children to sleep in her bed, staying at their side together with Véronique and Marie. Aunt Agathe talked about heating the wine that she had brought up; it would give us all courage. Jacques and Rose were looking out of the window. I was at another window with Cyprien, Gaspard and my brother.
Our two maids were wading through the yard. I called down to them. 'Why aren't you up here? Don't stay there getting soaked.'
'But what about the animals? They're frightened. They're killing each other in there.'
'We'll see later. Come up, come on.'
Saving the livestock would be impossible if things got worse. But there was no point scaring everyone. I made an effort to sound optimistic. Leaning at the window sill I chattered on while observing the flood's progress. After the first wave of attacks, it occupied even the narrowest lanes. The water wasn't charging in any more; instead, it was going to strangle us, slowly. The dale on which Saint-Jory stood was turning into a lake. Soon the water in our yard was a metre deep. I watched it rise. But I insisted that it wasn't rising. I even said that it was receding.
'So there you are, young man.' I turned to Gaspard. 'You've no choice but to sleep here. Unless the roads clear up soon – it could well happen.'
He looked back at me, saying nothing. His face was white. I saw his eyes switch to Véronique's; the idea made him feel awkward.
It was half past eight, and it was still bright outside. The pale sky looked sad. Before they came upstairs, the servants had thought to fetch a couple of lamps. I lit them in the hope that they'd brighten up the darkening bedroom where we camped out. Aunt Agathe had wheeled out a table into the middle of the room; she wanted to get a round of cards going. She shot me a glance; she knew what she was up to – she was making sure that the children were distracted. Her cheerfulness masked great courage. She laughed in order to fight off the growing fear that she felt around her. The game started; Aunt Agathe bundled Aimée, Véronique and Marie into chairs, stuffing cards into their hands, playing as if she wanted to win, packing, cutting and dealing, talking so much that she nearly drowned out the noise of the water. But you couldn't fool our girls. They were keeping an ear out, pale, their hands restless. Every other minute, they paused. One of them turned to me and asked quietly:
'Granddad, is it still rising?'
It was, and at a frightening rate.
'Not at all. Enjoy your game. Nothing to see here.'
Never had I been so tormented as I was then. The men all stood in front of the windows, to block out the terrifying sight. We tried to smile. The lamps cast comforting haloes of light on the table, and I remembered our winter evenings gathered around it; the room was just as cosy now, warm from our love for one another. Inside, it was peaceful; behind me, I heard the roar of a river let loose, water rising all the time.
'The water is three feet from the window,' said my brother Pierre. 'We have to say something, Louis.'
I shushed him, grabbing his arm. But we couldn't pretend any more. We heard the maddened cattle shrieking and whining in the stables. The horses were bellowing; they knew that they were about to die. You would have heard those screams no matter how far away you were.
Aimée shot up, clutching her face, shaking all over. 'My God! My God!'
We couldn't stop the girls from running to the windows. They looked out, mute and rigid, their hair standing on end. It was getting dark now. The moon cast a dull light, floating over the yellow expanse of water. The pale sky was like a shroud thrown over the ground. Smoke trailed in the distance. It was getting foggy. A day of fear was fading into a night of death. And there wasn't a human sound to be heard; there was nothing but the roar of that sea, swollen to infinity, nothing but the bleating and braying of the animals!
'My God,' the women whispered, as if too frightened to speak. 'My God!'
A terrible crash silenced them. The animals, crazed, had burst through the stable doors. We saw them rolling along, carried in the current of the dirty water. The sheep were swept up like fallen leaves, in clumps, spinning in eddies; the cows and the horses fought to stay on their feet, then fell. Our big grey horse, especially, didn't want to die; it bucked, twisting its neck, snorting like a smithy, but the water wasn't going to let go. It snatched him up, rump first, and we watched him give in, defeated.
That was when we started crying. The tears welled up in our throats; we couldn't help it, we had to cry. We reached out to all our beloved animals, gone now; we had stayed calm, but now we wailed and bawled, mourning their death. We really were finished! The harvest was lost and the livestock had drowned. Our luck had changed in a matter of hours. God was unfair. We'd done nothing to Him, but He had taken it all away from us. I looked at the horizon and shook my fist. Our afternoon walk, the meadows, the wheatfields, the vines that we had believed were so full of promise – was all that a lie? Happiness is a con. The sun had set so softly and so peacefully on that mild evening. But it was a trick.
The water was still rising; Pierre was keeping an eye out. 'We must be careful, Louis – the water's touching the window!'
The warning lifted us from out of our gloom, and I snapped out of it.
'Money's nothing,' I shrugged. 'So long as we're all still here, there'll be no regrets. We'll be ready to get back to work.'
'You're right.' Jacques was fired up. 'And we won't be in danger. The walls are sound. Let's get to the roof.' It was the only safe place left. The water had lapped stubbornly step by step up the stairs; it was already coming in under the door. We hurried to the attic, afraid, needing to keep close together. Cyprien was gone. I called out to him; he came back from next door, looking upset. Like him I'd noticed that our two maids weren't with us, and I wanted to wait for them. Cyprien gave me an odd look.
Excerpted from The Flood by Emile Zola, Anthony Cummins. Copyright © 2013 Hesperus Press. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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