Read CHAPTER TWENTY - FIGHTING THE DESTROYER. of Will of the Mill , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

An awful hush of silence.  It seemed as if it was too much for human brain to bear.  The breath was held pent-up in every breast, so that it might have been the dwelling-place of the dumb.

Then the Vicar’s voice was heard, and the sound thereof was like the key that opened a closed-up door.

“Where’s Mr Willows?” he shouted.

“Here!” came from close at hand, followed by, “And who has seen Will?”

“Here ­close by me,” cried Manners.

“Josh!  Josh!” shouted Will.

“Here!  Here!  All right!”

“Then everyone is safe,” cried the boy.  “No, no, no!” he shouted, in anguished tones.  “Where’s poor old Boil O?  He was there just now, standing by that corner.  No, no! there is no corner ­everything has gone.  Oh, surely he can’t be drowned!”

There was no reply, but, headed by Willows, a strong party of the men followed him and the boys down the track of the mighty torrent ­a clean-swept path of stone, for mill, house, sheds, cottages, the whole of the tiny village was not!

There was nothing to impede their way for fully half a mile, and there, in a deep curve down in the valley, in a turgid stream still running fast, lay in wild confusion, baulk and beam, rafter and mass of swept-down stone, the relics of the water’s prey.

In his excitement Willows was the first to reach this pool; but Will was close behind, near enough to stretch out a hand to try an check him as he tore off his coat, rushed to the edge, stepped on to one stone, and leaped to another and another projecting above the surface, before plunging in and swimming towards where a pile of timbers were crushed together with the water foaming by.

“What’s he going to do?” cried Manners, panting as he came up.

“I don’t know,” cried the boy, wildly.  “Oh, Mr Manners, help me ­he’ll be drowned!”

As the boy spoke he followed his father’s example, to leap from stone to stone and finally plunge in, trying almost vainly to swim, for the foaming water gave but the poorest support.  There were stones, too, everywhere, hewn blocks and others that had been torn from their native beds; but somehow, helped by the stream, Will reached the spot at length where he could see his father, apparently helpless, clinging to the naked roots of a swept-down tree as if for his very life.

“Father!” cried the boy, as he anchored himself in turn, and gazing in horror in the staring eyes that met his own.  “What shall I do?” he cried.

But help was near, and the despairing feeling that was overcoming poor Will died out as the gruff, familiar voice of Manners just behind cried ­

“Hold on, Will, lad!  That’s right!  I’ve got him tight!  Why, Willows, man, what’s gone wrong?”

He whom he addressed turned his eyes slowly to give the speaker an appealing look, and then they closed, the head dropped back, the surging waters swept over the face, and, but for the artist’s sturdy arm, it would have gone ill indeed; but the next moment the fainting man’s head was raised and rested on the artist’s shoulder.

“He must be badly hurt, Will.  But all right; I’ve got him safe, and I’ll soon take him to the shore.”

“Here, let me take one side,” cried Will.

“Nonsense, dear lad!  Stay as you are.”

“I can’t,” cried Will; “I must help.  He is my father, and I must and will!”

“That’s right, my boy, but on my word you can’t.  I am a strong man, I believe, but it is all I can do to hold my own.  If you leave go you’ll be swept away, and your father will be drowned; for I tell you now, I couldn’t stop by him and see you go.”

Will gazed at him blankly, and for a few moments that group in the midst of the tangle of broken timber and jagged root hung together, boy and man staring into each other’s eyes.

“Will, dear lad,” said the artist, at last, “we are good old friends.  Trust and believe in me.  I’ll save your father if I can.  If I don’t, it is because I can’t, and I’ve gone too.  Promise me you’ll hold on there till I come back, or some of your friends come down.  They must know how we are fixed.  Will you do what I say?  I am speaking as your father would.  Hold on where you are.”

“Would he say that?” gasped Will, faintly.

“He would, I vow.”

Will bowed his head, and the next moment he was clinging there, to the clean-washed roots of the uptorn tree, watching the heads of father and friend being rapidly swept-down the stream, while the waters were surging higher and higher about his breast, for the depression was being filled rapidly by the undammed stream.

“To be alone like this!” groaned Will.  “Why didn’t I swim with them and try to help?”

He spoke aloud, his words sounding like a long-drawn moan; and then he started, for an echo seemed to come from close at hand, heard plainly above the rushing of the stream.  His next thought was that it was fancy, but, as the idea flitted through his brain in silence, there was the moan again from somewhere at the back.

It was the faint cry of someone in grievous peril, and it drove out self from the generous boy’s breast.  Someone wanted help, and he was strong and hearty still.  It took but little time to find out whence the deep-toned moaning came.  It was from out of a jagged mass of broken timbers, whose ends were anchored among the stones, and through them the rising waters were rushing fast.

It was like turning from a great peril into dangers greater far, but the boy never thought of that.  He measured the distance with his eyes, and came to the conclusion that he could pass hand by hand through the waters, among the roots, till he was straight above the swaying timbers.  To swim would be impossible, he knew; but he felt that he could let himself go, be carried those few yards, catch at one or other of the timbers, and hold on there.

As he finished thinking, he drew a deep breath, felt stronger than ever, and began to act.

Reaching out with his right hand, he got a grip of the nearest root, let go with his left, and in an instant, he felt as if the water had seized him, and was trying to tear his right arm out of the socket.  The jerk was numbing, but he got a grip with his left hand, and tried again and again, till he lay on his back, his arms outstretched above his head, his feet pointing straight at the chaos of timbers, took another deep breath, and then let go.

There was a quick, gliding motion, and his feet struck against one big beam, slipped right over it, and the next minute he was in the very centre of the tangle, while his progress was checked for a sufficiently long time for him to get a good hold, and feel that for the time being he was safe.  His breath was coming and going fast, though, from the excitement as well as exertion.  And then it was almost in horror that his heart seemed to stand still.  It was a momentary sensation, and it gave way to a feeling of joy, for there, close at his side, so near that he could touch, was the grim, upturned face of Drinkwater, with eyes staring wildly into his.  He, too, was clinging with all his might to one of the broken timber baulks, and, as his eyes met Will’s, he uttered a piteous, gasping cry, and murmured the one word ­


That appeal went straight to the boy’s heart, and seemed to nerve him for his task.

“Help?  Yes!” he cried.  “I’ve come to bring you help;” and then a pang shot through his breast as he spoke his next words.  “Mr Manners was here just now, and he’ll soon be back.”

Would, he asked himself, as he thought of his father, those words prove true?

“Cheer up, old fellow!” he cried, and he felt stronger still.

Here was something he could do.

“Can you raise yourself a little higher?” he said, for the rising water lapped in a wave nearly to the sufferer’s mouth.

“No, no,” said the man, faintly; “I’m gripped between two timbers fast by the legs.  There, I feel better now.  Ah, Will, lad, I am glad you have come!  I can think and see all now.  That burning pain has gone from my head, and it’s all quite clear.  And how just and right all is, if we could always only see.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” cried Will, cheerily; “but keep a good heart.  They’ll come and help us soon.  But I want to see you higher up; the water’s getting deeper, and you must raise your head.”

The man smiled softly in his face; his old grim and savage look had gone, and, after making a vain effort, his head sank back so low that the water swept right over his nostrils, and, fast held as he was, he must have drowned; but in an instant Will shifted his position, took another grip, and forced his legs beneath him till his knees were below the prisoner’s shoulders, wedging him up so that he could breathe freely once more.

“There, that’s better,” cried Will, hoarsely.  “You’ll be all right now.”

“Yes, for a few minutes, lad, but the end is near, and it’s all quite right.  Will, lad, I used to make toys for you, when you were a little child, and, when you grew bigger, I used to let you spoil my tools, for I never had bairn of my own, and, after my way, I somehow got to love you, lad.  And then, I must have gone kinder sorter mad.  That burning pain came in my head.  I can see it all clearly now, just at the last.  I got cursing the best of masters that ever stepped, and one night in a mad fit, I tried to burn him out of house and home; but when I saw the dear old mill a-fire, I couldn’t bear it, and fought, like the madman I was, to put it out ­and did.  Then it all came back again worse and stronger than before.  I felt that I must do it ­and did. `The fire fails,’ I said, `but the water wins.  It made him a rich man’ ­your good father, boy ­`and now it shall make him poor.  My revenge!’ I said.  Yes, my revenge!  Last night, Will ­tell him this when I am gone ­I got down by the bottom of the dam and worked with mallet and long crowbar, as I had worked night after night before, till the water began to run just in one little tiny trickle.  And then I stopped.  Water ­my slave then ­I knew would do the rest.  And it has, lad, just as I thought, given me my revenge, as I called it, but turned and slain me too.  Well, it was right it should be so.  I know it now.  Tell him ­my good old master ­all that I have said, and ask him to forgive me, if he can, for I know it now ­I must have been mad.”

He ceased speaking, and lay quite still with his eyes gazing sadly in the son’s face, while a feeling of horror and repulsion was gathering strongly in the lad’s breast, till the wretched being spoke again, with the water once more gathering closely about his lips.

“Now then,” he said, “you know the truth.  It’s all over Will, lad.  But for you, I should have been drowned before.  You are young and strong; I know you can swim.  This water’s nowt to you.  Go, dear lad, and save your life.  Don’t look back once to see me die.  It would come harder if I thought you did.  There,” he gasped, as a wave lapped close to his lips once more, “think of your own self now.  I have had my day, and ended badly.  Your time has all to come.  Will, lad, bad as I have been, can you grip my hand once more?”

“Only in my heart!  If I let go, we both shall drown.  There!  Cheer up!  Help must come soon.”

“Not for me.  Quick, swim for your life.  Good-bye!”

“What, and leave you here to drown?  Not if I know it!”

“What, after all that I have done?”

“Yes; I couldn’t leave you even now.  I tell you, help must come, and ­ there, what did I say?”

At that moment, the artist’s cheery voice sounded from close at hand, and, directly after, he and two more of the mill hands were helping to free the wretched prisoner from his wooden bonds.