Project Canterbury

Tales Illustrative of the Apostles' Creed

By John Mason Neale

London: Masters, 1885.

VII. The Little Sisters of Brotteaux
"He descended into Hell."

I ONCE told you how, nearly seventeen hundred years ago, in the very first ages of the Church, the grace of GOD was mighty in the amphitheatre of Lyons, when S. Pothinus and S. Blandina, with her companions, received the crown of martyrdom. It is of the same grace that I am going to speak now; it is to the same city that I am going to take you; but the ancient Lugdunum has become the modern Lyons, and the Arar is called the Saone. The times of persecution have long since passed away, for it is of only last year that I am going to tell you: but instead of the heroism of women in the amphitheatre, it will be the heroism of sisters in a convent.

If you were now to travel in the centre and south-east of France, every now and then you would see the ruins of a bridge, and be told that it was swept away in the great inundation of 1856; a deserted mill, and hear that it was destroyed, and the miller and his family drowned in the flood; a once fruitful field, covered with shingle, the relics of the rivers that then burst their bounds; gaps in the lower streets of cities, where houses gave way before the force of the waters: all these, sad remembrances of the most fearful visitation from the hand of GOD, that ever befell France.

It was about the middle of May: the weather which had been unusually mild through the month of April became much colder towards its conclusion. A great deal of snow fell on the mountains: and when the temperature again rose, very heavy rains set in at the same time that the increasing heat caused a rapid thaw on the higher ground. All the 14th of May it seemed as if, as of old time, the windows of heaven were opened: such torrents fell without intermission from morning till night, as no living man remembered; and as night itself set in, and the rain poured more heavily than ever, there was great terror in every city and town along the banks of the larger rivers, but more especially the Rhone, the Saone, and the Loire.

Morning came. The sky was still as black as on the preceding evening; the rain fell as ceaselessly; and the miserable inhabitants along the river streets began to make preparations for removing what they might of their goods, and to look out for places where they might bestow them. As the forenoon advanced, and still no change in the weather, telegraphic messages began to pass between the prefects of the different departments, especially from those who were situated nearer to the source of the streams, and who could thus give the earliest notice of what might be expected further clown. As thus for example:

"The Prefect de la Nievre to the Prefects of Loiret, Loire et Cher, Maine et Loire, and Loire Inférieure. Nevers, May 14, 1.5 p.m. The Loire is rapidly rising. No news of the Allier or the Rhone."

"4 p.m. The same to the same. The Loire has risen 5 inches since my last. All the tributary streams have overflowed their banks."

"8 p.m. The Loire is rising faster than ever. The embankment between Vierzon and Bourges has given way: all traffic on the line is suspended."

Or again, such a message as this:

"The Mayor of Valence to the Mayor of Lyons. Valence, May 16th, i p.m. Three barges have been carried away into the fields: on one of them four bargemen. The dyke of the canal has burst in seven or eight places."

While the rain was thus pouring, and the rivers continuing to rise, the terror, if great everywhere, was greater at Lyons than anywhere else. Lyons, you know, is situated at the confluence of two great rivers, the Rhone and the Saone: both receiving many a tributary stream, both, like their tributaries, liable to be swollen by the melting of the mountain snow; the Rhone by the Alps, the Saone by the high hills of Burgundy and Beaujolois. There was a fearful inundation on the i6th of May; but in the evening, the clouds began to disperse, the sun shone out, and by midnight, both rivers had sunk an inch or two. So by a gradual decrease, day after day, they returned more and more to their beds; and by the end of the month, there was nothing beyond an ordinary spring flood.

But on the 27th, the rain began again with more fury than ever before; and all through the day the authorities received fearful telegraphic messages from the towns all along the Saone, from Dijon, from Chalons, from Macon, from Trevoux: telling every hour of a fresh rise in the waters, of fresh mischief and ruin; of haystacks, barns, cottages, droves of oxen and sheep, trees and piles of timber, swept away by the flood, and hurried down, in one vast wreck, towards Lyons. Along the banks of the Rhone there is no electric telegraph; but the rapid rise of that river told its own tale. Of the two streams, the Rhone rises by far the more rapidly and more threateningly, but sinks as quickly: the Saone, without half as much turbulence, is the more dangerous enemy of the two,--rising slowly, and as it were stealthily, and seeming to be less influenced by the changes of the weather, and to have greater difficulty in returning to its bed.

Accordingly, on the afternoon of this day, the Prefect of the department placarded the city with notices, to the effect that, from the information he had received, there was every reason to dread an inundation beyond any within the memory of man; and calling on all persons whose houses were in the lower part of the city, to be ready to leave them, with such of their goods as they could carry, at half an hour's notice.

All the next day, both rivers continued to rise, the rain incessant as before. In the afternoon, the military authorities sent in large detachments of soldiers to work in raising a dyke along the Rhone quay, in the hope of confining the river in that quarter. In most of the churches there were litanies and processions: nevertheless, at eight o'clock that night the river passed the height it had attained in 1840,--the greatest height recorded by history. That was a night indeed of terror and distress. I have myself seen in a house at Avignon, one out of hundreds of houses equally devastated, the water mark of the river, some two or three feet from the ground in the second story. The whole valley of the Rhone was a perfect sea of dark, turbulent water; the wreck of every kind of property was whirled past the quay, assisting in its turn to destroy bridges and sweep away wharfs.

Hundreds and hundreds of the poor were homeless; the churches in the higher part of the city were thrown open to them: the merchants whose property was itself uninvaded, lent their stores and stables and lower stories; the convents, which were themselves safe, were crowded to overflowing. The soldiers employed on the dykes, after keeping up a kind of race with the rivers for several hours, were obliged to desist from their work, and, unless they had been speedily succeeded by a fleet of boats, must without fail have perished. The civil authorities established a kind of communication by barges between the most important points of the city; and organized, if I may use the expression, a sort of water patrol to give notice of any more especial danger. Many and many an act of heroism was performed that night, which is only written in heaven; many also were recorded at the time. They tell of one man who nine times swam across a street flooded to the second story, and every time returned with one of the inhabitants of a house that was about to give way. When he would have returned for the tenth time, he sat down to rest for a moment, but the exertion had been too great for him, and he died on the spot.

They tell of another man, whose wife and daughter were at the upper window of a cottage crumbling before the flood, and who with infinite difficulty and hazard, piloted a little boat, that would only hold one besides himself, to their assistance, calling out to them to decide for themselves which would go with him, for that the other must be left. While the mother and child were each insisting that the other should go, the cottage was carried away; but providentially they were both rescued by one of the city barges. Hundreds of scenes like these were passing that night; and over and over again a dull sound like distant thunder, now from this part of the city, now from that, gave notice that another house had fallen.

On the Friday morning, the lower fauxbourgs, the Brotteaux and Guillotierc were a prey to the water. Lyons was like a besieged city; none went out, and none came in. The roads covered eight feet deep; the railways impassable from shattered viaducts and destroyed embankments: on one or two of the lines, the electric telegraph itself useless.

Now, not on the immediate edge of the Rhone, but raised only slightly above it, was the convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Here they supported some thirty or forty aged men and women, and a few orphan children. They were well known through all that quarter of the city, as every morning, they went round with their baskets for the broken meat of the richer houses,--their only means, (except, as they would have said, what the good GOD might send them accidentally,) of support for themselves and their poor.

This house stood at angles, or as we should say in Sussex, catherwise, to the stream; and its strength to resist the flood was therefore immeasurably increased. Therefore, on the Thursday morning when the Sisters, aroused by their little bell, met in the Oratory at five, and saw that the water had surrounded the convent, they were no further disquieted than by the apprehension that if it continued to rise, there might be a difficulty in getting out to procure the provision of the day in its day. It so happened that on the Wednesday they had been more successful in their quest than usual, and so were well provisioned for the next four-and-twenty hours. But as hour after hour passed on, and by nightfall the stream that poured against the angle of the building was two feet deep, while all the houses in the narrow street were deserted, and there was no sound except the patter of the rain, the rush of the stream, and the distant shouting of the city, as soldiers and bargemen and hired workmen continued their various labours, or made their several efforts, I will not say but that there were some anxious hearts in the Oratory that night; more especially as those who had seen the inundation of 1840, could remember nothing like this, and provisions were beginning to run very short. The next morning,--which was Friday,--the stream, instead of two, was more than three feet deep; a strong man could not have forded the street, without imminent risk of being carried away; and as the hill rose steeply behind the convent, tier behind tier of rock and house, there was no possibility of succour from that quarter. The rain, if anything, was even heavier than the day before. The corner building, which met the first brunt of the stream, was not strictly speaking a part of the house, but a portion of the outbuildings; and it gave, by its shaking and tottering, evident proofs that it could not hold out much longer. The breakfast, though all but the children had little more than half an allowance, exhausted all their provisions; and they employed part of the forenoon in making signals of distress from the upper windows of the house. But at midday, and just as the Angelus was ringing, the wall fell in with a prodigious crash, and all the outhouses were in a moment filled with the torrent. Another moment, and the wood store was swept along in the bed of the river, and the full fury of the stream bore upon the house itself. The danger of those within it, now became considerable. Some went into the chapel to pray, some went to the roof of the house to try again for help. But as it happened in old times, "there was no voice, neither any that regarded."

As so often, those that prayed had better success than those that worked. Rather higher up the hill, and in one of the neighbouring streets, there was a house of Capuchins. These good men had always been noted for their kindness to the poor: and now--to use the words of a contemporary journal--they multiplied themselves so as to be everywhere present at once. Whilst they were receiving the endangered, housing the homeless, and feeding the starved, they heard in all quarters that nothing had been seen or was known of the Little Sisters of the Poor: that it was almost impossible they could have left their convent: and yet that it was still more impossible to approach it and learn the truth. As one after another returned to their house, the situation of the Sisters became the subject of great anxiety. One or two of the most active among the Brothers went out, and by passing as best they could from roof to roof, by climbing along walls and making long circuits to avoid the violence of the water, they satisfied themselves that the Sisters and all their charge were indeed still imprisoned within the convent.

There was no disposable number of barges or boats in the neighbourhood; but with considerable difficulty a message was sent to the Prefect, acquainting him with the state of affairs, and urging him to take immediate steps for the relief of the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Prefect was a man of great energy and resolution. For the two preceding nights, he had not even lain down. In his parlour, at that moment, were the Mayor of the city, the general in command, and the engineer-in-chief, with several of the officials of the Paris and Lyons, and Lyons and Mediterranean railway companies. All these men, and especially the railway authorities, had done their duty most nobly: but the last telegraphic despatches had been worse than any that preceded. From Vienne especially, and Aries, lower down the river, the accounts were dreadful; and the greatest loss of life had occurred along the banks of the Durance, a river that, like our own Dart, has always possessed an evil reputation for its turbulence and danger. For thus runs the proverb, supposed to be addressed by the sister stream to this river at its cradle in the Alps:

"Adieu, ma soeur, la Durance:
Nous nous séparons sur ce mont;
Tu vas ravager la Provence;
Moi, feconder le Piedmont."

The only encouragement was, that now at ten o'clock, the rain had ceased; though the wilderness of the clouds augured no long continuance of fair weather. Besides which, they telegraphed from Chalons and other places higher up the Saone, that the waters were still rising there; and the flood must necessarily be on the increase at Lyons till several hours after it had begun to subside in the higher parts of the river.

The Prefect gave immediate directions that attention should be paid to the Little Sisters of Charity: but his orders were rendered somewhat ineffective by intelligence which arrived from two or three different quarters. A large dyke, called the Tete d'Or, gave way shortly afterwards, and two or three lives were lost; the fort called La Vitrioleric, which had been evacuated in great haste, had partly fallen in; while from Macon they telegraphed that the river Doubs had suddenly risen to an extraordinary height, and was pouring a fresh flood into the Saone. It is said that between two and three o'clock on the Saturday morning, from thirty to forty houses fell in. The general-in-command, the Marquis de Castillan, showed himself on horseback where-ever he could advise or encourage; but no serious attempt could be made for the relief of the Little Sisters till 8 or 9 o'clock on the Saturday morning. By that time the inundation was at its height. Every half-hour brought intelligence from out-lying towns. At Trevoux the Dheune, at Macon the Arivoux, at Valence the Isere, were all pouring in their respective floods; and some of the more skilful among the Lyonnese engineers began to fear the total destruction of all the lower suburbs.

At the time the first serious attempts were made to liberate the imprisoned Sisters, the water was rushing through the narrow street like a millstream, and with a depth of about four feet. It had been a terrible night within the convent. The utter ignorance of what was going on without, with a vague certainty that every hour some new and dreadful event was occurring,--the cries of the children,--the terror of the old men and women--the want of food, and the imminent danger.

As soon as ever it was certain that efforts were really making for their assistance, the Sisters crowded into their chapel to ask GOD'S help, and then prepared themselves to leave the convent at the very earliest possible moment.

It was utterly impossible to manage any boat in such a stream without external assistance. Two of the largest barges of which the street would admit the passage, were fastened together: a strong chain passed from house to house at the extremity of the street, and a body of men, soldiers and workers on the line, stationed so as to hold on to the ropes by which the barges themselves were permitted to descend the stream, and were to be held fast opposite the convent windows. Among those who exerted themselves in giving physical assistance or advice, the Capuchins were especially remarked. Six or eight picked bargemen, having been put on board, the two vessels descended the torrent, and were with a great effort moored in front of the convent. Then how gladly the windows were thrown open, child after child handed out, the aged people soothed, encouraged, compelled to make the effort, and last of all, the Sisters themselves received into the barges! All without one mistake,--all without one accident,--though the old house every moment threatened to fall in: except their charge and themselves, the Sisters could save nothing of all their little property.

With great difficulty the two vessels were navigated down to the Hotel Dieu,--then crowded with a multitude of starving and ruined and miserable creatures. Parents extricated from the water, with the loss of a child; labourers, injured by the ruins of the very buildings they were trying to save; women, with nothing on but the nightdress in which they had been snatched from their beds; children, without a parent or friend, and hardly old enough to be able to tell their names. You may easily imagine that as soon as ever they had seen their own poor in safety, and supplied with the provisions which the liberality of the Lyonnese was pouring into the Hotel Dieu, the Little Sisters found employment enough in soothing and attending to all their misery.

A few hours later, and there was a bright rainbow over the heights and the pilgrimage church of Fourvieres. Every heart seemed at once to take it as a sign that GOD had said to the enraged rivers, "Thus far,--but no farther!"

And accordingly, the next day, the leading newspaper began its principal article, "Thank GOD, we have seen the worst of our miseries!"

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