Chapter XLIX. Echoes of a Past Storm

Miss Hargrove returned to dine with them, and as they were lingering over the dessert and coffee Webb remarked, "By the way, I think the poet Willis has given an account of a similar, or even greater, deluge in this region." He soon returned from the library, and read the following extracts: "'I do not see in the Tribune or other daily papers any mention of an event which occupies a whole column on the outside page of the highest mountain above West Point. An avalanche of earth and stone, which has seamed from summit to base the tall bluff that abuts upon the Hudson, forming a column of news visible for twenty miles, has reported a deluge we have had--a report a mile long, and much broader than Broadway.'"

"Certainly," said Mr. Clifford, "that's the flood of which I spoke yesterday. It was very local, but was much worse than the one we have just had. It occurred in August of '53. I remember now that Mr. Willis wrote a good deal about the affair in his letters from Idlewild. What else does he say?"

Webb, selecting here and there, continued to read: "'We have had a deluge in the valley immediately around us--a deluge which is shown by the overthrown farm buildings, the mills, dams, and bridges swept away, the well-built roads cut into chasms, the destruction of horses and cattle, and the imminent peril to life. It occurred on the evening of August 1, and a walk to-day down the valley which forms the thoroughfare to Cornwall Landing (or, rather, a scramble over its gulfs in the road, its upset barns and sheds, its broken vehicles, drift lumber, rocks, and rubbish) would impress a stranger like a walk after the deluge of Noah.

"'The flood came upon us with scarce half an hour's notice. My venerable neighbor, of eighty years of age, who had passed his life here, and knows well the workings of the clouds among the mountains, had dined with us, but hastened his departure to get home before what looked like a shower, crossing with his feeble steps the stream whose strongest bridge, an hour after, was swept away. Another of our elderly neighbors had a much narrower escape. The sudden rush of water alarmed him for the safety of an old building he used for his stable, which stood upon the bank of the small stream usually scarce noticeable as it crosses the street at the landing. He had removed his horse, and returned to unloose a favorite dog, but before he could accomplish it the building fell. The single jump with which he endeavored to clear himself of the toppling rafters threw him into the torrent, and he was swept headlong toward the gulf which it had already torn in the wharf on the Hudson. His son and two others plunged in, and succeeded in snatching him from destruction. Another citizen was riding homeward, when the solid and strongly embanked road was swept away before and behind him, and he had barely time to unhitch his horse and escape, leaving his carriage islanded between the chasms. A man who was driving with his wife and child along our own wall on the river-shore had a yet more fearful escape: his horse suddenly forced to swim, and his wagon set afloat, and carried so violently against a tree by the swollen current of Idlewild Brook that he and his precious load were thrown into the water, and with difficulty reached the bank beyond. A party of children who were out huckleberrying on the mountain were separated from home by the swollen brook, and one of them was nearly drowned in vainly attempting to cross it. Their parents and friends were out all night in search of them. An aged farmer and his wife, who had been to Newburgh, and were returning with their two-horse wagon well laden with goods, attempted to drive over a bridge as it unsettled with the current, and were precipitated headlong. The old man caught a sapling as he went down with the flood, the old woman holding on to his coat-skirts, and so they struggled until their cries brought assistance.' Other and similar incidents are given. One large building was completely disembowelled, and the stream coursed violently between the two halves of its ruins. 'I was stopped,' he writes in another place, 'as I scrambled along the gorge, by a curious picture for the common highway. The brick front of the basement of a dwelling-house had been torn off, and the mistress of the house was on her hands and knees, with her head thrust in from a rear window, apparently getting her first look down into the desolated kitchen from which she had fled in the night. A man stood in the middle of the floor, up to his knees in water, looking round in dismay, though he had begun to pick up some of the overset chairs and utensils. The fireplace, with its interrupted supper arrangements, the dresser, with its plates and pans, its cups and saucers, the closets and cupboards, with their various stores and provisions, were all laid open to the road like a sliced watermelon.'"

"Well," ejaculated Leonard, "we haven't so much cause to complain, after hearing of an affair like that. I do remember many of my impressions at the time, now that the event is recalled so vividly, but have forgotten how so sudden a flood was accounted for."

"Willis speaks of it on another page," continued Webb, as 'the aggregation of extensive masses of clouds into what is sometimes called a "waterspout," by the meeting of winds upon the converging edge of our bowl of highlands. The storm for a whole country was thus concentrated.' I think there must have been yesterday a far heavier fall of water on the mountains a little to the southeast than we had here. Perhaps the truer explanation in both instances would be that the winds brought heavy clouds together or against the mountains in such a way as to induce an enormous precipitation of vapor into rain. Mr. Willis indicates by the following passage the suddenness of the flood he describes: 'My first intimation that there was anything uncommon in the brook was the sight of a gentleman in a boat towing a cow across the meadow under our library window--a green glade seldom or never flooded. The roar from the foaming precipices in the glen had been heard by us all, but was thought to be thunder.' Then he tells how he and his daughter put on their rubber suits and hastened into the glen. 'The chasm,' he writes, 'in which the brook, in any freshet I had heretofore seen, was still only a deep-down stream, now seemed too small for the torrent. Those giddy precipices on which the sky seems to lean as you stand below were the foam-lashed sides of a full and mighty river. The spray broke through the tops of the full-grown willows and lindens. As the waves plunged against the cliffs they parted, and disclosed the trunks and torn branches of the large trees they had overwhelmed and were bearing away, and the earth-colored flood, in the wider places, was a struggling mass of planks, timber, rocks, and roots--tokens of a tumultuous ruin above, to which the thunder-shower pouring around us gave but a feeble clew. A heavy-limbed willow, which overhung a rock on which I had often sat to watch the freshets of spring, rose up while we looked at it, and with a surging heave, as if lifted by an earthquake, toppled back, and was swept rushingly away.'"

"How I would have liked to see it!" exclaimed Miss Hargrove.

"I can see it," said Amy, leaning back, and closing her eyes. "I can see it all too vividly. I don't like nature in such moods." Then she took up the volume, and began turning the leaves, and said: "I've never seen this book before. Why, it's all about this region, and written before I was born. Oh dear, here is another chapter of horrors!" and she read: "Close to our gate, at the door of one of our nearest and most valued neighbors--a lovely girl was yesterday struck dead by lightning. A friend who stood with her at the moment was a greater sufferer, in being prostrated by the same flash, and paralyzed from the waist downward--her life spared at the cost of tortures inexpressible.'"

Webb reached out his hand to take the book from her, but she sprang aloof, and with dilating eyes read further: "'Misa Gilmour had been chatting with a handsome boy admirer, but left him to take aside a confidential friend that she might read her a letter. It was from her mother, a widow with this only daughter. They passed out of the gate, crossed the road to be out of hearing, and stood under the telegraph wire, when the letter was opened. Her lips were scarce parted to read when the flash came--an arrow of intense light-' Oh, horrible! horrible! How can you blame me for fear in a thunderstorm?"

"Amy," said Webb, now quietly taking the book, "your dread at such times is constitutional. If there were need, you could face danger as well as any of us. You would have all a woman's fortitude, and that surpasses ours. Take the world over, the danger from lightning is exceedingly slight, and it's not the danger that makes you tremble, but your nervous organization."

"You interpret me kindly," she said, "but I don't see why nature is so full of horrible things. If Gertrude had been bitten by the snake, she might have fared even worse than the poor girl of whom I have read."

Miss Hargrove could not forbear a swift, grateful glance at Burt.

"I do not think nature is full of horrible things," Webb resumed. "Remember how many showers have cooled the air and made the earth beautiful and fruitful in this region. In no other instance that I know anything about has life been destroyed in our vicinity. There is indeed a side to nature that is full of mystery--the old dark mystery of evil; but I should rather say it is full of all that is beautiful and helpful. At least this seems true of our region. I have never seen so much beauty in all my life as during the past year, simply because I am forming the habit of looking for it."

"Why, Webb," exclaimed Amy, laughing, "I thought your mind was concentrating on crops and subjects as deep as the ocean."

"It would take all the salt of the ocean to save that remark," he replied; but he beat a rather hasty retreat.

"Well, Amy," said Mr. Clifford, "you may now dismiss your fears. I imagine that in our tropical storm summer has passed; and with it thunder-showers and sudden floods. We may now look forward to two months of almost ideal weather, with now and then a day that will make a book and a wood fire all the more alluring."

The old gentleman's words proved true. The days passed like bright smiles, in which, however, lurked the pensiveness of autumn. Slowly failing maples glowed first with the hectic flush of disease, but gradually warmer hues stole into the face of Nature, for it is the dying of the leaves that causes the changes of color in the foliage.