Read CHAPTER NINETEEN - THE GREAT PERIL. of Will of the Mill , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

The Vicar had no chance to ask Josh what he had heard, for the boy had rushed on to the dam, regardless of any danger that might be near, to reach Mr Willows, to whom he clung breathless and exhausted from his efforts to answer the summons of the bell.

“Where’s Will?” he cried, earnestly.  “Where’s Will?”

“Safe, boy, safe,” replied Willows, huskily.  “Back to the side.  It’s dangerous here.”

“I only wanted to know where Will was.  I don’t mind now.  I’m going to stop and help.”

“Ahoy, there!  Drinkwater!” shouted the north-country man.  “Come on!  Here’s lots to do.  This is bigger job than putting t’fire oot.”

The man addressed heard the appeal, shaded his eyes for a moment with his hand, and as if influenced by the strong man’s words, came slowly down from his place of vantage to join the group, which now set to work loosening the stones near the top of the dam, to carry them to the wall end and pitch or roll them down into the weakened part.

For a full half-hour all worked as men had never worked before, conscious the while that those they loved were gathered at each end of the threatened wall high up in safely, and watching their efforts to save the mill.  But at the end of that half-hour Willows suddenly stepped to where the Vicar and Manners were toiling like the rest, the latter, with dripping face, displaying his giant strength.

“Stop!” he cried.  “The dam is bound to go!  Labour in vain!  We are sure to have some warning.  All follow to the mill.  Let’s save there all we can.”

There was a hearty cheer at this, and the jocose weaver shouted ­

“Now, them’s the words I like.  We’d have stopped till the old dam burst, but speaking for self and family, ah’d say I’d reather not.”

There was another good-humoured roar at this, but it was mingled with a sigh of relief, and a swift walk was soon hastened into a run, till all were gathered in a fairly safe position above the mill, where they paused to breathe.

Willows and his friends came last, the former standing smiling to see the stack of household treasures Will and his helpmates had piled up.

“Well done, my lads!” he cried.  “We’ve come to help you now.”

“Have you saved the dam, father?” cried Will, excitedly.

There was a look of resignation on the father’s face, as he gazed in his son’s eyes and slowly shook his head.

“Ahoy, there!  Drinkwater!  Ahoy!  What are you hinging back there for?” shouted the north-country man.  “More wuck to do.  Come on and help.”

All eyes were directed now to a solitary figure standing on the top of the great stone wall as if inspecting the damaged spot.

“What’s he stopping there for?” cried the Vicar, excitedly.

“Why, Drinkwater, my lad,” shouted Willows, between his hands, “you can’t stay there.  Come over to us here.  Quick, man!  Quick!”

The old fellow turned and shaded his eyes again, gazing fiercely at the speaker, and, as he lowered his hand and came slowly towards them, Will noticed that across his white brow there was a broad mark of blood.

“Father, look,” he whispered, hoarsely; “what does that mean?”

“A mark from his hands, my boy.  He must have worn them raw.  Poor fellow!  He has been like a hero in this strife.”

The man came down, still slowly, and then ascended to where the group were awaiting further orders; but when these orders came, and with a rush the workers formed a line from the mill up to a shelf-like path where by no possibility could the pent-up water rise if the dam gave way, and began handing up rapidly bale after bale of finished silk, and mighty skeins of twisted thread, he did not stir a hand, but stood with the stain upon his brow, leaning against a corner of the mill, apparently exhausted, and never once taking his eyes from his master.

For a full hour the men worked on, cheering loudly as the announcement was made that the wareroom was empty; and then a rush was made for the Mill House, where in turn all that was portable and good was borne away.  Then came the end.

For a long while past Willows and his friends had ceased to give any thought to the worldly goods, standing together intently watching for the danger they felt must come, and watching as it were in vain; for, save its ragged edge, from whence stones had been torn, the green and mossy old wall stood intact.  The sluices still roared; along the great chute a solid-looking mass of crystal water rushed and gleamed and flashed before it bent over in a glorious curve to plunge on to the wheel and break in spray, while the men laughed and joked merrily, as they made a play of their heavy toil and shouted gaily to the two groups of watchers ­their wives and children and work-mates ­who shouted encouragingly back.

And all at once, as if hoping to lighten their labours ­lovers of music as these people are ­a shrill, musical, woman’s voice arose, starting a familiar chorus, which was taken up directly by the young, to rise and fall and swell along the valley, the sweet soprano tones supported by the roaring waters’ heavy bass.

“Bravo!  Bravo!” shouted the Vicar, huskily, and as he spoke Will noticed that his voice sounded strange, and in the glance he obtained he noted that his eyes were filled with tears.

The next minute he was hurrying up towards his people, walking-stick in hand, to leap upon a stone where he could be well seen by the choral singers on either side of the vale, and there for about a minute he stood, waving his baton-like stick, conducting his strange double choir, who sang more loudly their cheery mill-song, and at their best, till in an instant, like a thunderclap, there was a sharp report, the song became a wail of agony, and the voice of the master was heard above all, crying ­

“For your lives, men, run!”

It could only have been for a few seconds, during which nothing seemed to happen save that there was the patter and scramble of many feet as with one accord all seemed to have made for safety, while, as that haven was reached, all turned their eyes towards the dam, to look in wonder, seeking as they did in vain for the cause of that sharp report.

Another or two of those strangely drawn-out seconds passed, and then the watchers had their reward.  The great, green, mossy wall, with all its luxuriance of orange-tinted bracken and golden fern, seemed to shiver as if touched by a passing wind.  Then the quivering motion ceased, the whole centre crumbled softly down, and it was as if some huge, hoary monster, a living earthquake, had leaped from the prison in which it was bound, to spring upon its prey ­the great mill buildings below.

One moment all were there intact; the next they were gone, and in their place a mighty river of water was tearing down the vale with a hiss and roar that struck the gazers dumb; and then a great gap was visible where the vast dam-wall had been, the pool was empty, there was little more than a stream, and the roaring monster that had swept all before it could be heard gnashing, raging and destroying, far away below.