Read CHAPTER XXII of Cleek: the Man of the Forty Faces, free online book, by Thomas W. Hanshew, on ReadCentral.com.

It is strange how, in moments of stress and trial, even in times of tragedy, the most commonplace thoughts will intrude themselves and the mind separate itself from the immediate events. As Merode put the cold muzzle of the revolver to Ailsa’s temple and she ought, one would have supposed, to have been deaf and blind to all things but the horror of her position, one of these strange mental lapses occurred, and her mind, travelling back over the years of her early schooldays, dwelt on a punishment task set her by her preceptress the task of copying three hundred times the phrase “Discretion is the better part of valour.”

As the recollection of that time rose before her mental vision, the value of the phrase itself forced its worth upon her and, huddling back in the corner of the limousine, she clutched the frightened child to her and gave implicit obedience to Merode’s command to make no effort to attract attention either by word or deed. And he, fancying that he had thoroughly cowed her, withdrew the touch of the weapon from her temple, but held it ready for possible use in the grip of his thin, strong hand.

For a time the limousine kept straight on in its headlong course, then, of a sudden, it swerved to the left, the gleam of a river all silver with moonlight struck up through a line of trees on one side of the car, the blank unbroken dreariness of a stretch of waste land spread out upon the other; and presently, by the slowing down of the motor, Ailsa guessed that they were nearing their destination. They reached it a few moments later, and a peep from the window, as the vehicle stopped, showed her the outlines of a ruined watermill ghostly, crumbling, owl-haunted looming black against the silver sky.

A crumbled wheel hung, rotten and moss-grown, over a dry water-course, where straggling willows stretched out from the bank and trailed their long, feathery ends a yard or so above the level of the weeds and grasses that carpeted the sandy bed of it, and along its edge once built as a protection for the heedless or unwary, but now a ruin and a wreck a moss-grown wall with a narrow, gateless archway made an irregular shadow on the moon-drenched earth. She saw that archway and that dry water-course, and a new, strong hope arose within her. Discretion had played its part; now it was time for Valour to take the stage.

“Come, get out this is the end,” said Merode, as he unlatched the door of the limousine and alighted. “You may yell here until your throat splits, for all the good it will do you. Lanisterre, show us a light; the path to the door is uncertain, and the floor of the mill is unsafe. This way, if you please, Miss Lorne. Let me have the boy I’ll look after him!”

“No, no! not yet! Please, not yet!” said Ailsa, with a little catch in her voice as she plucked his little lordship to her and smothered his frightened cries against her breast. “Let me have him whilst I may let me hold him to the last, Monsieur Merode. His mother trusts me. She will want to know that I I stood by him until I could stand no longer. Please! we are so helpless I am so fond of him, and he is such a very little boy. Listen! You want me to write to Mr. Cleek; you want me to ask something of him. I won’t do it for myself no, not if you kill me for refusing. I’ll never do it for myself; but but I will do it if you won’t separate us until he has had time to say his prayers.”

“Oh, all right, then,” he agreed. “If it’s any consolation doing a fool’s trick like that, why do it! Now come along, and let’s get inside the mill without any more nonsense. Lanisterre, bring that lantern here so that mademoiselle can see the path to the door. This way, if you please, Miss Lorne.”

“Thank you,” she said as she alighted and moved slowly in the direction of the door, soothing the child as they crept along almost within touch of the crumbling wall. “Ceddie, darling, don’t cry. You are a brave little hero, I know, and heroes are never afraid to die.” From the tail of her eye she watched Merode. He seemed to realise from these words to the child that she was reconciled to the inevitable, and with an air of satisfaction he put the pistol back into his pocket and walked beside her. She kept straight on with her soothing words; and, in the half-shadow, neither Merode nor Lanisterre could see that one hand was lost in the folds of her skirt.

“Ceddie, darling, let Miss Lorne be able to tell mummie that her little man was a hero; that he died, as heroes always die, without a fear or a weakening to the very last. I’ll stand by you, precious; I’ll hold your hand; and, when the time comes ”

It came then! The gateless archway was reached at last; and the thing she had been planning all along now became possible. With one sudden push she sent the boy reeling down the incline into the dry water-course, flashed round sharply, and before Merode really knew how the thing happened, she was standing with her back to the arch and a revolver in her levelled hand.

“Throw up your arms throw them up at once, or, as God hears me, I’ll shoot!” she cried. “Run, Ceddie run, baby! He shan’t follow you I’ll kill him if he tries!”

“You idiot!” began Merode, and made a lurch toward her. But the pistol barked, and something white-hot zigzagged along his arm and bit like a flame into his shoulder.

“Up with your hands up with them!” she said in a voice that shook with excitement as he howled out and made a reeling backward step. “Next time it will be the head I aim at, not the arm!” Then, lifting up her voice in one loud shriek that made the echoes bound, she called with all her strength; “Help, somebody for God’s sake help! Scream, Ceddie scream! Help! Help!”

And lo! as she called, as if a miracle had been wrought, out of the darkness an answering voice called back to her, and the wild, swift notes of a motor horn bleated along the lonely road.

“I’m coming I Cleek!” that voice rang out. “Hold your own hold it to the last, Miss Lorne, and God help the man who lays a finger on you!”

“Mr. Cleek! Mr. Cleek, oh, thank God!” she flung back with all the rapture a human voice could contain. “Come on, come on! I’ve got him got that man Merode, and the boy is safe, the boy is safe! Come on! come on! come on!”

“We’re a-comin’, miss, you gamble on that and the lightnin’s a fool to us!” shouted Dollops in reply. “Let her have it, Gov’nor! Bust the bloomin’ tank. Give her her head; give her her feet; give her her blessed merry-thought if she wants it! Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!”

And then, just then, when she most needed her strength and her courage, Ailsa’s evaporated. The reaction came and with the despairing cries of Merode and Lanisterre ringing in her ears, she sank back, weak, white, almost fainting and, leaning against the side of the archway, began to laugh and to sob hysterically. Merode seized that one moment and sprang to the breach.

Realising that the game was all but up, that there was nothing for him now but to save his own skin if he could, he called out to Lanisterre to follow him, then plunged into the mill, swung over the lever which controlled the sluice gates, and, darting out by the back way, fled across the waste.

But behind him he left a scene of indescribable horror, and the shrill screaming of a little child told him when that horror began. For as the sluice gates opened a sullen roar sounded; on one side the diverted millstream, and on the other the river, rose as two solid walls of water, rushed forward and met; and in the twinkling of an eye the old water-course was one wild, leaping, roaring, gyrating whirlpool of up-flung froth and twisting waves that bore in their eddying clutch the battling figure of a drowning child.

Even before he came in sight of it the roaring waters and the fearful splash of their impact told Cleek what had been done. He could hear Ailsa’s screams; he could hear the boy’s feeble cries, and a moment later, when the whizzing motor panted up through the moonlight and sped by the broken wall, there was Ailsa, fairly palsied with fright, clinging weakly to the crumbling arch and uttering little sobbing, wordless, incoherent moans of fright as she stared down into the hell of waters; and below, in the foam, a little yellow head was spinning round and round and round, in dizzying circles of torn and leaping waves.

“Heavens, Gov’nor!” began Dollops in a voice of appalling despair; but before he could get beyond that, Cleek’s coat was off, Cleek’s body had described a sort of semi-circle, and the child was no longer alone in the whirlpool!

Battling, struggling, fairly leaping, as a fish leaps in a torrent, one moment half out of the water, the next wholly submerged, Cleek struck from eddy to eddy, from circle to circle; until that little yellow head was within reach, then put forth his hand and gripped it, pulled it to him, and in another moment he was whirling round and round the whirlpool’s course with the child clutched to him and his wet, white face gleaming wax-like over the angle of his shoulder.

They had not made the half of the first circle thus before Dollops had leaped to the bending willows, had scrambled up the rough trunk of the nearest of them, and, pushing his weight out upon a strong and supple bough, bent it downward until the half of its strongest withes were deep in the whirling waters.

“Grab ’em, Gov’nor grab ’em when you come by!” he sang out over the roar of the waters. “They’ll hold you, sir hold a dozen like you; and if Well played! Got ’em the first grab! Hang on! Get a tight grip! Now then, sir, hand over hand till you’re at the bank! Good biz! Good biz! Blest if you won’t be goin’ in for the circus trade next! Steady does it, sir steady, steady! Goal, by Jupiter! Now then, hand me up the nipper I should say the young gent and in two minutes’ time Right! Got him! ’Ere you are, Miss Lorne lay hold of his little lordship, will you? I’ve got me blessed hands full a keepin’ to me perch whilst the guv’nor’s a-wobbling of the branch like this. Good biz! Now then, sir, another ’arf a yard. That’s the call! Hands on this bough and foot on the bank there. One, two, three knew you’d do it! Safe as houses, Gawd bless yer bully heart!”

And then as Cleek, wet, white, panting, dragged himself out of the clutch of the whirlpool and lay breathing heavily on the ground:

“By gums, Gov’nor,” Dollops added as he looked down on the whirling waters, “what an egg-beater it would make, wouldn’t it, sir? Ain’t got such a thing as a biscuit about yer, have you? Me spine’s a rasping holes in me necktie, and I’m so flat you could slip me into a pillar box and they’d take me home for a penny stamp.”

But Cleek made no reply. Wet and spent after his fierce struggle with the whirling fury he had just escaped, he lay looking up into Ailsa’s eyes as she came to him with the sobbing child close pressed to her bosom and all heaven in her beaming face.

“It is not the ‘funeral wreath’ after all, you see, Miss Lorne,” he said. “It came near to being it; but it is not, it is not. I wonder, oh, I wonder!”

Then he laughed the foolish, vacuous laugh of a man whose thoughts are too happy for the banality of words.