These past few weeks, we’ve suffered–vicariously or directly–from hurricanes Harvey and Irma. We’ve waited for news from friends and family, perhaps made our own plans for safety and resilience in the face of the storms’ fury.
A similar event inspired Emilie Loring’s Swift Water, the story of a flood in the wake of torrential rain and a dam that gives way. If you’ve thought of Emilie Loring as only a pleasure writer, all sunshine and gardens and lovely happenings, this story will broaden your view. Raw and real, she takes us into the darkness of rising waters:
She drew a long breath. The air was glorious, but it smelled of rain. More rain! There would be a deluge if the weather did not clear…
The water was higher on the banks than [Christopher] had ever seen it. Two weeks of rain had swollen the current…
“What kind of a day is it, Rosa?”
“Wet, vera wet. Rain come splosh against the windows.” …
She went to the window. Beastly day. A spongy sky. Last night’s mist had developed into a driving rain. Every bare branch and twig was beaded with crystal. Wet, bedraggled sparrows huddled under eaves. Lawns were sodden. The river, gun-metal gray, growled, muttered. Mists like furtive ghosts stole along its banks. White cottages gleamed like phantom houses behind the fog….
“You hadn’t oughter go out in this rain, Jean.”
“I’m neither sugar nor salt, Ezry. Put the bags in, please.” …
“Course I know you’re jest foolin’, but I don’t like your settin’ out in that spirit. The roads is afloat.”
How it rained! As she drove slowly across the bridge she glanced up and down the river. Oily, sullen, it had an ugly look. Its color was a shade deeper, duller than the soaked clouds above. The usually white water of the dam which plunged and thundered had the yellowed tint of snowy hair which has been waved with an overheated iron.
On and on through driving rain in the roadster… what a rush and roar that silly little brook was making… what river was she crossing. . . swollen, angry, snarling like a goaded beast. . . was she back in Garston. . . was that the roar of the dam above the bridge she heard. . . she was on the main street. . . how it rained. . . a cloudburst . . . the wheels of the roadster churned up fountains of water. . . where should she go. . . she couldn’t drive round and round forever. . . she was in the heart of the city. . . the smell of wet asphalt. . . stark naked trees. . .
The church! Sanctuary! Even the memory of it steadied her mind. She could think connectedly. She would go there.
She was caught in a stream of traffic. Never had she known the city so crowded. The atmosphere seemed electric. Cars crawled on, in obedience to the wink of a great green eye sending up a shower of spray with every revolution of the wheel. Halted when the signal flamed red. Crawled on. Halted. Crawled.
At the church, Christopher gives Jean crackers and hot chocolate to soothe her jangled nerves. When she leaves for home, Christopher goes with Carter to help in the village.
“Terrible night to drag you out. The streets are afloat. Floods north of us but we’re safe enough unless the dam should go. It’ll hold all right.”
Rain beat and slashed against the windows. From below the house rose the roar of the river clawing and tearing at its banks.
Where was [Jean]? Safe at home by this time. The roads had been dangerously slippery when he and Carter had sloshed along in the flivver.
The roar as of a Gargantuan bull loosed in the world’s arena after years of heckled captivity rocked the house…
“Cricks! What bust?” he ran to the hall, opened the door. Slammed it to shut out a stream of water. Christopher beside him whispered:
“The dam has gone. Get Lucy to the top floor. Quick! Water’s creeping in under the door! It’s rising! It’s reached the lower step.”
One arm about the man’s waist, he half lifted half dragged him up the first flight of stairs. He could hear rain pelting against the skylight in the roof. As the water below rose it made a curious sucking sound like a sea-monster licking its lips… He looked over the banister. The water was half way up to the second floor and steadily rising. He must get Sawyer up one more flight. They would be safe there, there was always the roof.
“We’ll stay on this floor as long as we can. If we take Lucy and Sawyer to the roof now they’ll be soaked by the rain, beaten by wind. We will keep them under cover as long as possible.”
The water must be rising fast. Would the skylight never open? The cords in his hands and forehead knotted as he pulled again. It moved! Another tug. The bolt shot back.
He stopped to draw a long breath before he raised the window. As though the fury outside had been cunningly lying in wait the wind banged it down upon his head with a force that caused him to see whirling suns and shooting stars innumerable.
The universe steadied. He pushed again. This time he thrust his shoulders through the opening… The roar of the river in front of the house was deafening. He pulled himself up.
Carter and Christopher get Lucy and Sawyer up the stairs to the second floor.
“We won’t signal for help yet, there are so many others in greater need of it. I hope that the flood will subside, but it’s still raining. You and I must face facts. We have two helpless persons on our hands.”
A dull boom outside! The house shuddered. Christopher felt the color drain from his face. A landslide? A dam swept away? Would the water rise? Tense, breathless, motionless, flashlight trained on it, he waited… He bent forward. Rubbed his hands across his eyes again. He must be mistaken! It couldn’t have covered the second stair in so short a time. He looked again. Raced to Carter’s door. Thundered on the panels. Shouted:
“Wake up! We’ve got to get them to the roof. Water’s rising a foot a minute.”
With all his strength he pushed up the window. With all its fury the storm beat it back. For an instant his courage faltered. What could individual effort accomplish in the face of chaos? Carter and he were puppets. Puppets! Not while he had an ounce of strength in his body! He pushed again. Thrust shoulders through the opening. Clicked his heels. Luke boosted. He catapulted to the roof. Rain hissed, glittered like sheets of theatrical gauze…
The roof twists off its base and falls into the river. Lucy and Carter are rescued by air, but there is not enough room on the small plane for Christopher.
The roof split with a sound like the crack of doom. Sent him headfirst into the water. He came up gasping, caught a projecting shingle… He tried to pull himself up. He couldn’t make it… As he clung in a desperate attempt to keep his head above water his mind juggled thoughts as a prestidigitator juggles colored balls…
Jean isn’t safe at home, as Christopher thinks. The roads were flooded, so she turned around and returned to the church.
If the main street were submerged what had happened there? She mustn’t let her imagination loose. She must concentrate on getting above this flood. Then she might help others. The bell tower!
The water clutched at her feet. One hand guarding the slender flame of light she struggled on. She reached the stairs. Gripped the rail. Pulled herself above the water level.
Resolutely she gripped the rail. In pitch blackness mounted the remaining stairs, wet skirts swishing about her knees. She stopped to visualize the location of the iron steps. Slowly, gropingly found them. Crawled up.
She groped her way to the bell-chamber. Was it light enough to see the havoc the night had wrought? She found the field glasses. Raised them to her eyes… The search-light was gone! There it was again! If only she could see! Feverishly she adjusted the glasses… The floating roof! Two men on it! One was waving his arms!
Christopher! Carter! Christopher in horrible danger!… Thank God! The men were lifting something into the cockpit! … One man left on the raft. One man waving his arms. He was gone! Christopher in that furious river. Glasses at her eyes Jean petitioned fervently:
“O God, save him! Please! I’ll do the best I can all the rest of my life if you will only save him! This isn’t a bribe! Really it isn’t! I will try to be fine and worth-while whether you save him or not. Please! Please!”
A boat! Where had it come from? Could he keep up till it reached him? If only she could help. Help?
The word struck a spark. She raced and stumbled to the clavier. Steadied herself. With all her strength she set the bells to pealing:
“O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come.
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.”
Was this a boat bumping him? Was it worth the effort to lift himself? His breast seemed crushed in by the weight of the water. The carillon! Was he back in France or were the bells really singing “O God, our help in ages past?”
With the words, strength seemed to pour through his body. Muscles straining, heart pounding, he pulled himself up.
Her head fell forward in exhaustion. A long, long blank. Her senses stirred. Was she really hearing voices?
“Your bells gave me the strength to hold on–darling. Open your eyes, Jean!”
Hours later Jean stopped her yellow roadster on the bridge outside the city of Garston. Lights illuminated the devastation the flood had wrought. An iron trestle twisted as though it had been part of a boy’s toy railroad; a bush caught in the high branches of a tree, like a centipede trapped in a Gargantuan web; a shed leaning tipsily above the water; a crude fence to warn visitors away from the vicinity of the caved-in bank which was having its face lifted.
Never again could she be indifferent to spiritual values, deny their influence upon the conduct of her life. Never again be indifferent to spiritual values? Did that mean–?
[If you haven’t read the book yet, Jean has just realized she lost a bet.]
For the first time since the tragic night of the flood she laughed out loud. She patted the steering wheel with one gloved hand, confided with exaggerated sympathy: “Hope you will like your new green coat, old dear. Fanchon doesn’t care for you in yellow.”
Snow fell with feathery daintiness as she entered the city, drove along the hillside road. It lay like diamond dust on men’s shoulders. With fantastic convolutions it transformed wrought iron gates and balconies into marble carvings of amazing beauty. It capped chimneys. It lay like drifted, sparkling down on roofs and dormers. Everywhere trees had blossomed with crimson, green, gold and silver lights. An enchanted world.
Every day brings joy to some and sorrow to others in this great big world of ours. May you and yours be safe from these and coming storms. And when Swift Water comes, let’s have faith that a Fair Tomorrow is always up ahead.
Take care, everyone, and read Emilie Loring to keep your spirits up!