Read CHAPTER TWENTY ONE - THE STORY TOLD. of Will of the Mill , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on

The alarm had so spread, carried as the disaster was by the galloping messenger from the mill, as well as by the flood itself, that help was pouring in from all quarters, and as soon as the sufferers were borne dripping and senseless from the water, scores of hands were ready to bear them into shelter, where doctors soon declared that there was no further danger to fear.

John Willows, as he lay on a couch grasping his son’s hand, hurriedly explained his action when he had dashed into the flood, for he had caught sight of Drinkwater for a moment, and seen that he was in peril of his life, but it was only to nearly lose his own, for he had been caught between two heavy beams sailing with the rapid current, and been so crushed that insensibility came on.

As for Drinkwater, he lay calm and sensible, like a man just recovering from some long illness, and there was a look of pathetic wonder in his eyes that he was still alive which was pitiful to see.

“No wonder,” said one of the doctors; “he’s been within an inch of losing his life; but in a few days he will be all right again;” and his words proved true.

That same afternoon the man was carried by friendly hands up to his own cottage, which, of course, lay high above the broken dam, while others formed a kind of litter upon which Mr Willows was borne up to the Vicarage, which he was bidden to consider his home.  So that, after the horrors of the morning, as the various employes found shelter or returned to their uninjured homes, a strange feeling of peace began to reign.

It was quite evening when Josh and Will descended to Drinkwater’s cottage, Will having declared himself none the worse for all that he had gone through, and, as his father was sleeping calmly, and the boy was looking strained and white, Mr Carlile agreed that the fresh air would do him good.

“Tell Mr Manners,” he said, “that we have plenty of room here, and that I should be glad if he will join us, and so leave the cottage to its owner, and his wife’s hands tree.  You understand, Josh.  Be insistent, and tell him that if he does not come I shall feel quite hurt.”

“Yes, father, I understand,” cried Josh, and the boys set off.  “I wonder,” said Josh, “that old Toadstool has not been up.”

“Oh, he meant kindly,” said Will.  “He was afraid of disturbing us, for I heard the doctor tell him that father must be kept very quiet for a day or two.”

They reached the cottage, which looked as attractive as ever in its nest of flowers; but, as they approached, they saw no sign of the artist, and they were about to go up to the door when they heard a voice from one of the open bedroom windows, and both stopped short as the words struck their ears.

It was Mrs Drinkwater speaking, and her voice was half-choked with sobs, so that her words were indistinct.  But Will caught this ­

“Don’t, don’t say more.  I have nothing to forgive you.  It is enough for me that you are your own dear self again.”

The boys stole away on tiptoe, Will saying, huskily:  “We can’t disturb them now.  Let’s go and look at the broken dam.”

Josh stopped short to peer into his companion’s face.

“Can you stand it, Will?” he said.

The boy was silent for a few moments, and then, after making an effort to clear his voice ­

“Yes,” he said, but very huskily.  “Everybody has been saved, and I am going to try and bear it like ­well, like a man.”

“Hooray!” cried Josh, softly.  “But I say, what can have become of old Manners?” And then, with a hearty laugh, “I say!  Oh, just look there!”

He pointed in the direction of a verdant shelf overlooking the clean-swept vale; and there, beneath his white umbrella, sat the object of their search, calmly smoking his big black briar pipe, contemplating the ruins of the dam and a small pile of stones, the only vestige of the vanished mill.

“Why, here you are,” cried Josh.

“Ah, boys,” he said, sadly.  “But you, Will, ought not you to be in bed?”

“Bed?” cried the boy, scornfully.  “What for?  Josh lent me a suit of his clothes, and I’m quite dry now.”

“Oh, yes,” said Manners; “so am I, but I feel as if I could make a handkerchief precious wet by blubbering like a great, weak girl.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” cried Will.  “Think how we’ve all been saved.  Father’s in the best of heart, and he says as soon as he’s well that he’ll set to and build the whole place up bigger and better than it was before.”

“Yes,” said Josh, “I heard him; and he said, too, that he could do it with a better heart in his thankfulness that not a life was lost.”

“Ah, yes,” said Manners, sadly, “that’s quite right, boys; but when you came I wasn’t thinking about that, but about my own loss.”

“Oh,” said Will.  “You mean about the place being so spoiled?”

“No, I don’t,” said the artist, gruffly.  “I was thinking about my pictures ­twelve canvases, a whole year’s work, washed right away, dead, as it were, and buried under some heap of stones.  Ah, boys, they were only so much painted cloth, and I’m afraid they were very bad, but it was all so much work that was somehow very dear to me, and ­bah!  Never say die!  I’ll begin again like your father, and build up something fresh.”

For some days Will paced about the devastated scene, looking white and strange ­like one who had a burden on his mind.

The Vicar noticed it, and spoke to the doctor when he came to see his patient.

“Oh, yes,” said the doctor; “I saw it at once.  Shock, my dear sir ­ shock!  The poor boy has a deal to bear, but a young, elastic, healthy chap like that will soon come round.”

Josh mentioned it, too, in confidence to his father, saying ­

“I don’t like poor Will’s looks.  He’s so white and strange.”

But, on hearing the doctor’s words, he said ­

“Well, he ought to know.  We must wait.”

He had not long to wait.  A few days later, Will was himself again, for the burden was off his mind.  He had rested till he thought that his father was well enough to hear what he had to say, and then, alone by his bedside, he repeated almost word for word the confession Drinkwater had made.

Mr Willows listened silently right to the end, and then, after a long silence, he lay holding his son’s hand clasped between his own.

“Horrible, indeed, my boy,” he said, gently.

“Yes, horrible, indeed, father.  What shall you do?”

There was another spell of silence before Mr Willows spoke again.

“Forgive, my boy,” he said, “as I hope to be forgiven.  What did he say when he believed he was a dying man ­that he was mad?  Those must have been the words of truth.”

They were, for the time passed on, and as the new mill rose, James Drinkwater was one of the busiest hands, restoring the place to its old working state, a man completely changed, the most faithful worker about the establishment.

“It is our joint secret, Will, my boy,” said his father.  “Let it rest.”

And it has rested until now, when, long years after the Drinkwaters have been laid to their rest, and Manners, the artist, has ceased to visit the beautiful vale, the story of Will of the Mill is told.