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The mighty reflux, which, after a short struggle, overpowered the rush of water from the windows, and carried Grace Carden's helpless body away from the tree, drove her of course back toward the houses, and she was whirled past Little's window with fearful velocity, just as he was going to leap into the flood, and perish in an insane attempt to save her. With a loud cry he seized her by her long floating hair, and tried to draw her in at the window; but the mighty water pulled her from him fiercely, and all but dragged him in after her; he was only saved by clutching the side of the wall with his left hand: the flood was like some vast solid body drawing against him; and terror began to seize on his heart. He ground his teeth; he set his knee against the horizontal projection of the window; and that freed his left hand; he suddenly seized her arm with it, and, clutching it violently, ground his teeth together, and, throwing himself backward with a jerk, tore her out of the water by an effort almost superhuman. Such was the force exerted by the torrent on one side, and the desperate lover on the other, that not her shoes only, but her stockings, though gartered, were torn off her in that fierce struggle.
He had her in his arms, and cried aloud, and sobbed over her, and kissed her wet cheeks, her lank hair, and her wet clothes, in a wild rapture. He went on kissing her and sobbing over her so wildly and so long, that Coventry, who had at first exulted with him at her rescue, began to rage with jealousy.
"Please remember she is my wife," he shrieked: "don't take advantage of her condition, villain!"
"Your wife, you scoundrel! You stole her from me once; now come and take her from me again. Why didn't you save her? She was near to you. You let her die: she lives by me, and for me, and I for her." With this he kissed her again, and held her to his bosom. "D'ye see that?--liar! coward! villain!"
Even across that tremendous body of rushing death, from which neither was really safe, both rivals' eyes gleamed hate at each other.
The wild beasts that a flood drives together on to some little eminence, lay down their natures, and the panther crouches and whimpers beside the antelope; but these were men, and could entertain the fiercest of human passions in the very jaws of death.
To be sure it was but for a moment; a new danger soon brought them both to their senses; an elm-tree whirling past grazed Coventry's plane-tree; it was but a graze, yet it nearly shook him off into the flood, and he yelled with fear: almost at the same moment a higher wave swept into Little's room, and the rising water set every thing awash, and burst over him as he kneeled with grace. He got up, drenched and half-blinded with the turbid water, and, taking Grace in his arms, waded waist-high to his bed, and laid her down on it.
It was a moment of despair. Death had entered that chamber in a new, unforeseen, and inevitable form. The ceiling was low, the water was rising steadily; the bedstead floated; his chest of drawers floated, though his rifle and pistols lay on it, and the top drawers were full of the tools he always had about him: in a few minutes the rising water must inevitably jam Grace and him against the ceiling, and drown them like rats in a hole.
Fearful as the situation was, a sickening horror was added to it by the horrible smell of the water; it had a foul and appalling odor, a compound of earthiness and putrescence; it smelt like a newly-opened grave; it paralyzed like a serpent's breath.
Stout as young Little's heart was, it fainted now when he saw his bedstead, and his drawers, and his chairs, all slowly rising toward the ceiling, lifted by that cold, putrescent, liquid death.
But all men, and even animals, possess greater powers of mind, as well as of body, than they ever exert, unless compelled by dire necessity: and it would have been strange indeed if a heart so stanch, and a brain so inventive, as Little's, had let his darling die like a rat drowned in a hole, without some new and masterly attempt first made to save her.
To that moment of horror and paralysis succeeded an activity of mind and body almost incredible. He waded to the drawers, took his rifle and fired both barrels at one place in the ceiling bursting a hole, and cutting a narrow joist almost in two. Then he opened a drawer, got an ax and a saw out, and tried to wade to the bed; but the water now took him off his feet, and he had to swim to it instead; he got on it, and with his axe and his saw he contrived to paddle the floating bed under the hole in the ceiling, and then with a few swift and powerful blows of his ax soon enlarged that aperture sufficiently; but at that moment the water carried the bedstead away from the place.
He set to work with his saw and ax, and paddled back again.
Grace, by this time, was up on her knees, and in a voice, the sudden firmness of which surprised and delighted him, asked if she could help.
"Yes," said he, "you can. On with my coat."
It lay on the bed. She helped him on with it, and then he put his ax and saw into the pockets, and told her to take hold of his skirt.
He drew himself up through the aperture, and Grace, holding his skirts with her hands and the bed with her feet, climbed adroitly on to the head of the bed--a French bed made of mahogany--and Henry drew her through the aperture.
They were now on the false ceiling, and nearly jammed against the roof: Little soon hacked a great hole in that just above the parapet, and they crawled out upon the gutter.
They were now nearly as high as Coventry on his tree; but their house was rocking, and his tree was firm.
In the next house were heard the despairing shrieks of poor creatures who saw no way of evading their fate; yet the way was as open to them as to this brave pair.
"Oh, my angel," said Grace, "save them. Then, if you die, you go to God."
"All right," said Henry. "Come on."
They darted down the gutter to the next house. Little hacked a hole in the slates, and then in the wood-work, and was about to jump in, when the house he had just left tumbled all to pieces, like a house of sugar, and the debris went floating by, including the bedstead that had helped to save them.
"O God!" cried Little, "this house will go next; run on to the last one."
"No, Henry, I would rather die with you than live alone. Don't be frightened for me, my angel. Save lives, and trust to Jesus."
"All right," said Little; but his voice trembled now.
He jumped in, hacked a hole in the ceiling, and yelled to the inmates to give him their hands.
There was a loud cry of male and female voices.
"My child first," cried a woman, and threw up an infant, which Little caught and handed to Grace. She held it, wailing to her breast.
Little dragged five more souls up. Grace helped them out, and they ran along the gutter to the last house without saying "Thank you."
The house was rocking. Little and Grace went on to the next, and he smashed the roof in, and then the ceiling, and Grace and he were getting the people out, when the house they had just left melted away, all but a chimney-stack, which adhered in jagged dilapidation to the house they were now upon.
They were now upon the last. Little hacked furiously through the roof and ceiling, and got the people out; and now twenty-seven souls crouched in the gutter, or hung about the roof of this one house; some praying, but most of them whining and wailing.
"What is the use of howling?" groaned Little.
He then drew his Grace to his panting bosom, and his face was full of mortal agony.
She consoled him. "Never mind, my angel. God has seen you. He is good to us, and lets us die together."
At this moment the house gave a rock, and there was a fresh burst of wailing.
This, connected with his own fears, enraged Henry.
"Be quiet," said he, sternly. "Why can't you die decently, like your betters?"
Then he bent his head in noble silence over his beloved, and devoured her features as those he might never see again.
At this moment was heard a sound like the report of a gun: a large tree whirled down by the flood, struck the plane-tree just below the fork, and cut it in two as promptly as a scythe would go through a carrot.
It drove the upper part along, and, going with it, kept it perpendicular for some time; the white face and glaring eyes of Frederick Coventry sailed past these despairing lovers; he made a wild clutch at them, then sank in the boiling current, and was hurried away.
This appalling incident silenced all who saw it for a moment. Then they began to wail louder than ever.
But Little started to his feet, and cried "Hurrah!"
There was a general groan.
"Hold your tongues," he roared. "I've got good news for you. The water was over the top windows; now it is an inch lower. The reservoir must be empty by now. The water will go down as fast as it rose. Keep quiet for two minutes, and you will see."
Then no more was heard but the whimpering of the women, and, every now and then, the voice of Little; he hung over the parapet, and reported every half-minute the decline of the water; it subsided with strange rapidity, as he had foreseen.
In three minutes after he had noticed the first decline, he took Grace down through the roof, on the second floor.
When Grace and Henry got there, they started with dismay: the danger was not over: the front wall was blown clean out by the water; all but a jagged piece shaped like a crescent, and it seemed a miracle that the roof, thus weakened and crowded with human beings, had not fallen in.
"We must get out of this," said Little. "It all hangs together by a thread."
He called the others down from the roof, and tried to get down by the staircase, but it was broken into sections and floating about. Then he cut into the floor near the wall, and, to his infinite surprise, found the first floor within four feet of him. The flood had lifted it bodily more than six feet.
He dropped on to it, and made Grace let herself down to him, he holding her round the waist, and landing her light as a feather.
Henry then hacked through the door, which was jammed tight; and, the water subsiding, presently the wrecks of the staircase left off floating, and stuck in the mud and water: by this means they managed to get down, and found themselves in a layer of mud, and stones, and debris, alive and dead, such as no imagination had hitherto conceived.
Dreading, however, to remain in a house so disemboweled within, and so shattered without, that it seemed to survive by mere cohesion of mortar, he begged Grace to put her arm round his neck, and then lifted her and carried her out into the night.
"Take me home to papa, my angel," said she.
He said he would; and tried to find his way to the road which he knew led up the hill to Woodbine Villa. But all landmarks were gone; houses, trees, hedges, all swept away; roads covered three feet thick with rocks, and stones, and bricks, and carcasses. The pleasant valley was one horrid quagmire, in which he could take few steps, burdened as he was, without sticking, or stumbling against some sure sign of destruction and death: within the compass of fifty yards he found a steam-boiler and its appurtenances (they must have weighed some tons, yet they had been driven more than a mile), and a dead cow, and the body of a wagon turned upside down: [the wheels of this same wagon were afterward found fifteen miles from the body].
He began to stagger and pant.
"Let me walk, my angel," said Grace. "I'm not a baby."
She held his hand tight, and tried to walk with him step by step. Her white feet shone in the pale moonlight.
They made for rising ground, and were rewarded by finding the debris less massive.
"The flood must have been narrow hereabouts," said Henry. "We shall soon be clear of it, I hope."
Soon after this, they came under a short but sturdy oak that had survived; and, entangled in its close and crooked branches, was something white. They came nearer; it was a dead body: some poor man or woman hurried from sleep to Eternity.
They shuddered and crawled on, still making for higher ground, but sore perplexed.
Presently they heard a sort of sigh. They went toward it, and found a poor horse stuck at an angle; his efforts to escape being marred by a heavy stone to which he was haltered.
Henry patted him, and encouraged him, and sawed through his halter; then he struggled up, but Henry held him, and put Grace on him. She sat across him and held on by the mane.
The horse, being left to himself, turned back a little, and crossed the quagmire till he got into a bridle-road, and this landed them high and dry on the turnpike.
Here they stopped, and, by one impulse, embraced each other, and thanked God for their wonderful escape.
But soon Henry's exultation took a turn that shocked Grace's religious sentiments, which recent acquaintance had strengthened.
"Yes," he cried, "now I believe that God really does interpose in earthly things; I believe every thing; yesterday I believed nothing. The one villain is swept away, and we two are miraculously saved. Now we can marry to-morrow--no, to-day, for it is past midnight. Oh, how good He is, especially for killing that scoundrel out of our way. Without his death, what was life worth to me? But now--oh, Heavens! is it all a dream? Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!"
"Oh, Henry, my love!" said Grace imploringly; "pray, pray do not offend Him, by rejoicing at such a moment over the death, perhaps the everlasting death, of a poor, sinful fellow-creature."
"All right, dearest. Only don't let us descend to hypocrisy. I thank Heaven he is dead, and so do you."
"Pray don't SAY so."
"Well, I won't: let him go. Death settles all accounts. Did you see me stretch out my hand to save him?"
"I did, my angel, and it was like you: you are the noblest and the greatest creature that ever was, or ever will be."
"The silliest, you mean. I wondered at myself next minute. Fancy me being such an idiot as to hold out a hand to save him, and so wither both our lives--yours and mine; but I suppose it is against nature not to hold out a hand. Well, no harm came of it, thank Heaven."
"Let us talk of ourselves," said Grace, lovingly. "My darling, let no harsh thought mar the joy of this hour. You have saved my life again. Well, then, it is doubly yours. Here, looking on that death we have just escaped, I devote myself to you. You don't know how I love you; but you shall. I adore you."
"I love you better still."
"You do not: you can't. It is the one thing I can beat you at and I will."
"Try. When will you be mine?"
"I am yours. But if you mean when will I marry you, why, whenever you please. We have suffered too cruelly, and loved too dearly, for me to put you off a single day for affectations and vanities. When you please, my own."
At this Henry kissed her little white feet with rapture, and kept kissing them, at intervals, all the rest of the way: and the horrors of the night ended, to these two, in unutterable rapture, as they paced slowly along to Woodbine Villa with hearts full of wonder, gratitude, and joy.
Here they found lights burning, and learned from a servant that Mr. Carden was gone down to the scene of the flood in great agitation.
Henry told Grace not to worry herself, for that he would find him and relieve his fears.
He then made Grace promise to go to bed at once, and to lie within blankets. She didn't like that idea, but consented. "It is my duty to obey you now in every thing," said she.
Henry left her, and ran down to the Town Hall.
He was in that glorious state of bliss in which noble minds long to do good actions; and the obvious thing to do was to go and comfort the living survivors of the terrible disaster he had so narrowly escaped.
He found but one policeman there; the rest, and Ransome at their head, were doing their best; all but two, drowned on their beat in the very town of Hillsborough.
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