On any given summer’s day with a cloudless sky and a bright sun, one could stand at the tall windows of the Tremontaine House library and admire the order and beauty of the gardens below, with their neat ranks of angular boxwood hedges and the delicate disarray of just-budded roses over the arches and along the grass. Beyond them, the eye could trace a dancing line of willow trees down the grand, green slope to the river where the swan barge lay at dock, awaiting her owner’s command. Languid day-cruises and not-so-genteel night revelry—the windows, the gardens, and the river’s banks had seen it all.
It was sunny, it was summer, and just the night before there had been revelry indeed, but the view from the windows was unlike anything that had been seen for a generation or more.
The swan barge no longer lay tethered at the bank; in fact, all evidence of a bank had vanished. Muddy waters curled and oozed through the gardens to such a height that the lower hedges had become waterweed, dimly visible beneath the clay-tinted, soil-tainted water. The tops of the rosebushes still showed, trailing their petals in the drink, and there, amid their drenched and crumpled glory, bobbed the swan barge, an unwilling interloper. The barge’s lines had been tied to the willows with untidy haste and the unsettled currents nudged it from trunk to trunk in a dull, bumping rhythm.
Currents at the fringe remained gentle, but in deeper water, nearer the spine of the river, the lie of the relatively placid surface was revealed by the speed of several floating objects—a large branch, a section of wooden fence with a thick clog of grass and mud tilting it sideways, the stiff legs and bloated barrel-belly of a dead cow, and many more that could not be identified. The river was sweeping into the City, pushing before it the waste and soil of the northern farmlands, moving with inexorable purpose.
Passing the high, dry residences of the Hill, the river took a light tithe of one or two poorly secured skiffs and any vegetation or fence post surrendered by the sodden earth. The Middle City below would pay a higher price, according to the dictates of topography. The City Academy was close to Ambassador House, and both were a safe distance from the rising waters. The Fenton residence was situated in a district that was near to the river, but it was saved by having been built on a slightly elevated ridge of hard, impermeable rock. Many others were either too close to the riverbank, or set low on some half-sunken street whose slope welcomed new distributaries and eagerly poured the river’s bounty over thresholds, through courtyards, and down cellar steps.
Some fled to upper floors and higher ground, carrying what dry clothing and essentials they could snatch from the waters. Others fought back with elevated walkways of planks on rough trestles, dams of loose stone and brick to channel the flow away from doorways; rope lines for hands to grasp were strung from tree to tree in avenues whose torrents had become too high and strong for safe passage.
Unsurprisingly, a few took it as an opportunity to make money. Two men lifted a woman, gown, petticoats, and all, with a chaste but firm grip at her elbows and set her down on her destination’s doorstep with all her garments dry, for which service she handed over a few minnows. Those who cared to spend a little more could commission a boat with one or two men to take it through the flood with pole or oars. Several kinds of craft plied their new trade on the City’s temporary waterways, from the sturdy rowboats for hire that had once been docked by the riverbank to cobbled creations, like the raft that looked as if half a barn door had been lashed to four small ale barrels.
The promenade along the riverbank was now a drowned marsh of mud and floating foliage surrounding a lonely, marooned bandstand. The bridge to the University was barely visible, almost covered in an accidental dam of flood-chased debris. Crossing was possible, but the process was dangerous and difficult, with large and small pieces of flotsam being constantly swept over the road’s surface.
The University was suffering the same plight as the Middle City. Pie shops and taverns near the river took a foot or more of water. Booksellers had already moved their stock out to drier lodgings, being more alert than the average shopkeeper to the risks that weather and river posed to their livelihood. Students made a game of the rising flood. There was a group on short stilts clomping through the streets in an impromptu carnival. One small but intrepid scholar had liberated a large tin washbasin to serve as a coracle, and closer inspection revealed his paddle to be a baker’s peel. He spun in rudderless spirals and made little actual progress, but this did not dampen his enthusiastic efforts. Most of the young men simply splashed through the flooded streets without a care. These...