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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesJan Of The Windmill - Chapter 1. The Windmiller's Wife...
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Jan Of The Windmill - Chapter 1. The Windmiller's Wife... Post by :Keyser Category :Long Stories Author :Juliana Horatia Ewing Date :May 2012 Read :2698

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Jan Of The Windmill - Chapter 1. The Windmiller's Wife...

CHAPTER I. THE WINDMILLER'S WIFE.--STRANGERS.--TEN SHILLINGS A WEEK.--THE LITTLE JAN

Storm without and within?

So the windmiller might have said, if he had been in the habit of putting his thoughts into an epigrammatic form, as a groan from his wife and a growl of thunder broke simultaneously upon his ear, whilst the rain fell scarcely faster than her tears.

It was far from mending matters that both storms were equally unexpected. For eight full years the miller's wife had been the meekest of women. If there was a firm (and yet, as he flattered himself, a just) husband in all the dreary straggling district, the miller was that man. And he always did justice to his wife's good qualities,--at least to her good quality of submission,--and would, till lately, have upheld her before any one as a model of domestic obedience. From the day when he brought home his bride, tall, pretty, and perpetually smiling, to the tall old mill and the ugly old mother who never smiled at all, there had been but one will in the household. At any rate, after the old woman's death. For during her life-time her stern son paid her such deference that it was a moot point, perhaps, which of them really ruled. Between them, however, the young wife was moulded to a nicety, and her voice gained no more weight in the counsels of the windmill when the harsh tones of the mother-in-law were silenced for ever.

The miller was one of those good souls who live by the light of a few small shrewdities (often proverbial), and pique themselves on sticking to them to such a point, as if it were the greater virtue to abide by a narrow rule the less it applied. The kernel of his domestic theory was, "Never yield, and you never will have to," and to this he was proud of having stuck against all temptations from a real, though hard, affection for his own; and now, after working so smoothly for eight years, had it come to this?

The miller scratched his bead, and looked at his wife, almost with amazement. She moaned, though he bade her be silent; she wept, in spite of words which had hitherto been an effectual styptic to her tears; and she met the commonplaces of his common sense with such wild, miserable laughter, that he shuddered as he heard her.

Weakness in human beings is like the strength of beasts, a power of which fortunately they are not always conscious. Unless positively brutal, you cannot well beat a sickly woman for wailing and weeping; and if she will not cease for any lesser consideration, there seems nothing for an unbending husband to do but to leave her to herself.

This the miller had to do, anyhow. For he could only spare a moment's attention to her now and then, since the mill required all his care.

In a coat and hat of painted canvas, he had been in and out ever since the storm began; now directing the two men who were working within, now struggling along the stage that ran outside the windmill, at no small risk of being fairly blown away.

He had reefed the sails twice already in the teeth of the blinding rain. But he did well to be careful. For it was in such a storm as this, five years ago "come Michaelmas," that the worst of windmill calamities had befallen him,--the sails had been torn off his mill and dashed into a hundred fragments upon the ground. And such a mishap to a seventy feet tower mill means--as windmillers well know- -not only a stoppage of trade, but an expense of two hundred pounds for the new sails.

Many a sack of grist, which should have come to him had gone down to the watermill in the valley before the new sails were at work; and the huge debt incurred to pay for them was not fairly wiped out yet. That catastrophe had kept the windmiller a poor man for five years, and it gave him a nervous dread of storms.

And talking of storms, here was another unreasonable thing. The morning sky had been (like the miller's wedded life) without a cloud. The day had been sultry, for the time of year unseasonably so. And, just when the miller most grudged an idle day, when times were hard, when he was in debt,--for some small matters, as well as the sail business,--and when, for the first time in his life, he felt almost afraid of his own hearthstone, and would fain have been busy at his trade, not a breath of wind had there been to turn the sails of the mill. Not a waft to cool his perplexed forehead, not breeze enough to stir the short grass that glared for miles over country flat enough to mock him with the fullest possible view of the cloudless sky. Then towards evening, a few gray flecks had stolen up from the horizon like thieves in the dusk, and a mighty host of clouds had followed them; and when the wind did come, it came in no moderate measure, but brought this awful storm upon its wings, which now raged as if all the powers of mischief had got loose, and were bent on turning every thing topsy-turvy indoors and out.

What made the winds and clouds so perverse, the clerk of the weather best knows; but there was a reason for the unreasonableness of the windmiller's wife.

She had lost her child, her youngest born, and therefore, at present, her best beloved. This girl-babe was the sixth of the windmiller and his wife's children, the last that God gave them, and the first that it had pleased Him to take away.

The mother had been weak herself at the time that the baby fell ill, and unusually ill-fitted to bear a heavy blow. Then her watchful eyes had seen symptoms of ailing in the child long before the windmiller's good sense would allow a fuss to be made, and expense to be incurred about a little peevishness up or down. And it was some words muttered by the doctor when he did come, about not having been sent for soon enough, which were now doing as much as any thing to drive the poor woman frantic. They struck a blow, too, at her blind belief in the miller's invariable wisdom. If he had but listened to her in this matter, were it only for love's sake! There was something, she thought, in what that woman had said who came to help her with the last offices,--the miller discouraged "neighbors," but this was a matter of decency,--that it was as foolish for a man to have the say over babies and housework as it would be for his wife to want her word in the workshop or the mill.

Perhaps a state of subjection for grown-up people does not tend to make them reasonable, especially in their indignations. The windmiller's wife dared not, for her life, have told him in so many words that she thought it would be for their joint benefit if he would give a little more consideration to her wishes and opinions; but from this suppressed idea came many sharp and peevish words at this time, which, apart from their true source, were quite as unreasonable and perverse as the miller held them to be. Nor is being completely under the control of another, self-control. It may be doubted if it can even do much to teach it. The thread of her passive condition having been, for the time, broken by grief, the bereaved mother moaned and wailed, and rocked herself, and beat her breast, and turned fiercely upon all interference, like some poor beast in anguish.

She had clung to her children with an almost morbid tenderness, in proportion as she found her worthy husband stern and cold. A hard husband sometimes makes a soft mother, and it is perhaps upon the baby of the family that her repressed affections outpoured themselves most fully. It was so in this case, at any rate. And the little one had that unearthly beauty which is seen, or imagined, about children who die young. And the poor woman had suffered and striven so for it, to have it and to keep it. The more critical grew its illness, the intenser grew her strength and resolution by watchfulness, by every means her instinct and experience could suggest, to fight and win the battle against death. And when all was vain, the maddening thought tortured her that it might have been saved.

The miller had made a mistake, and it was a pity that he made another on the top of it, with the best intentions. He hurried on the funeral, hoping that when "all was over" the mother would "settle down."

But it was this crowning insult to her agony, the shortening of the too brief time when she could watch by all that remained to her of her child, which drove her completely wild. She reproached him now plainly and bitterly enough. She would neither listen to reason nor obey; and when--with more truth than taste--he observed that other people lost children, and that they had plenty left, she laughed in his face that wild laugh which drove him back to the mill and to the storm.

How it raged! The miller's wife was an uneducated, commonplace woman enough, but, in the excited state of her nervous system, she was as sensible as any poet of a kind of comforting harmony in the wild sounds without; though at another time they would have frightened her.

They did not disturb the children, who were in bed. Four in the old press-bed in the corner, and one in a battered crib, and one in the narrow bed over which the coverlet was not yet green.

The day's work was over for her, though it was only just beginning for the miller, and the mother had nothing to do but weep, and her tears fell and fell, and the rain poured and poured. That last outburst had somewhat relieved her, and she almost wished her husband would come back, as a flash of lightning dazzled her eyes, and the thunder rattled round the old mill, as if the sails had broken up again, and were falling upon the roof of the round-house. All her senses were acute to-night, and she listened for the miller's footsteps, and so, listening, in the lull after the thunder, she heard another sound. Wheels upon the road.

A pang shot through her heart. Thus had the doctor's gig sounded the night he came,--alas, too late! How long and how intensely she had listened for that! She first heard it just beyond the mile- stone. This one must be a good bit on this side of it; up the hill, in fact. She could not help listening. It was so like, so terribly like! Now it spun along the level ground. Ah, the doctor had not hurried so! Now it was at the mill, at the door, and--it stopped.

The miller's wife rose to run out, she hardly knew why. But in a moment she checked herself, and went back to her seat.

"I be crazed, surely," said the poor woman, sitting down again. "There be more gigs than one in the world, and folk often stops to ask their way of the maester."

These travellers were a long time about the putting of such a simple question, especially as the night was not a pleasant one to linger out in. The murmur of voices, too, which the woman overheard, betokened a close conversation, in which the familiar drawl of the windmiller's dialect blended audibly with that kind of clean-clipt speaking peculiar to gentlefolk.

"He've been talking to master's five minute an' more," muttered the miller's wife. "What can 'ee want with un?" The talking ceased as she spoke, and the windmiller appeared, followed by a woman carrying a young baby in her arms.

He was a ruddy man for his age at any time, but there was an extra flush on his cheeks just now, and some excitement in his manner, making him look as his wife was not wont to see him more than once a year, after the Foresters' dinner at the Heart of Oak. There was a difference, too. A little too much drink made the windmiller peevish and pompous, but just now he spoke in a kindly, almost conciliating tone.

"See, missus! Let this good lady dry herself a bit, and get warm, and the little un too."

A woman--ill-favored, though there was no positive fault to be found with her features, except that the upper lip was long and cleft, and the lower one very large--came forward with the child, and began to take off its wraps, and the miller's wife, giving her face a hasty wipe, went hospitably to help her.

"Tst! tst! little love!" she cried, gulping down a sob, due to her own sad memories, and moving the cloak more tenderly than the woman in whose arms the child lay. "What a pair of dark eyes, then! Is't a boy or girl, m'm?"

"A boy," said a voice from the door, and the miller's wife, with a suppressed shriek of timidity, became aware of a man whose entrance she had not perceived, and to whom she dropped a hasty courtesy.

He was a man slightly above the middle height, whose slenderness made him seem taller. An old cloak, intended as much to disguise as to protect him, did not quite conceal a faultlessness of costume beneath it, after the fashion of the day. Waistcoats of three kinds, one within the other, a frilled shirt, and a well-adjusted stock, were to be seen, though he held the ends of the old cloak tightly across him, as the wind would have caught them in the doorway. He wore a countryman's hat, which seemed to suit him as little as the cloak, and from beneath the brim his dark eyes glared with a restless, dissatisfied look, and were so dark and so fierce and bright that one could hardly see any other details of his face, unless it were his smooth chin, which, either from habit or from the stiffness of his stock, he carried strangely up in the air.

"Indeed, sir," said the windmiller's wife, courtesying, and setting a chair, with her eyes wandering back by a kind of fascination to those of the stranger; "be pleased to take a seat, sir."

The stranger sat down for a moment, and then stood up again. Then he seemed to remember that he still wore his hat, and removed it, holding it stiffly before him in his gloved hands. This displayed a high, narrow head, on which the natural hair was worn short and without parting, and a face which, though worn, was not old. And, for no definable reason, an impression stole over the windmiller's wife that he, like her husband, had some wish to conciliate, which in his case struggled hard with a very different kind of feeling, more natural to him.

Then he took out a watch of what would now be called the old turnip shape, and said impatiently to the miller, "Our time is short, my good man."

"To be sure, sir," said the windmiller. "Missus! a word with you here." And he led the way into the round-house, where his wife followed, wondering. Her wonder was not lessened when he laid his hand upon her shoulder, and, with flushed cheek and a tone of excitement that once more recalled the Foresters' annual meeting, said, "We've had some sore times, missus, of late, but good luck have come our way to-night."

"And how then, maester?" faltered his wife.

"That child," said the windmiller, turning his broad thumb expressively towards the inner room, "belongs to folk that want to get a home for un, and can afford to pay for un, too. And the place being healthy and out of the way, and having heard of our trouble, and you just bereaved of a little un" -

"No! no! no!" shrieked the poor mother, who now understood all. "I COULDN'T, maester, 'tis unpossible, I could NOT. Oh dear! oh dear! isn't it bad enough to lose the sweetest child that ever saw light, without taking in an outcast to fill that dear angel's place? Oh dear! oh dear!"

"And we behindhand in more quarters than one," continued the miller, prudently ignoring his wife's tears and remonstrances, "and a dear season coming on, and an uncertain trade that keeps a man idle by days together, and here's ten shillings a week dropped into our laps, so to speak. Ten shillings a week--regular and sartin. No less now, and no more hereafter, the governor said. Them were his words."

"What's ten shilling a week to me, and my child dead and gone?" moaned the mother, in reply.

"WHAT'S TEN SHILLINGS A WEEK TO YOU?" cried the windmiller, who was fairly exasperated, in tones so loud that they were audible in the dwelling room, where the stranger, standing by the three-legged table, stroked his lips twice or thrice with his hand, as if to smooth out a cynical smile which strove to disturb their decorous and somewhat haughty compression. "What's ten shilling a week to you? Why, it's food to you, and drink to you, and firing to you, and boots for the children's feet. Look here, my woman. You've had a sore affliction, but that's not to say you're to throw good luck in the dirt for a whimsey. This matter's settled."

And the miller strode back into the inner room, whilst his wife sat upon a sack of barley, wringing her hands, and moaning, "I couldn't do my duty by un, maester, I couldn't do my duty by un."

This she repeated at intervals, with her apron over her face, as before; and then, suddenly aware that her husband had left her, she hurried into the inner room to plead her own cause. It was too late. The strangers had gone. The miller was not there, and the baby lay on the end of the press bedstead, wailing as bitterly as the mother herself.

It had been placed there, with a big bundle of clothes by it, before the miller came back, and he had found it so. He found the stranger too, with his hat on his head, and his cloak fastened, glancing from time to time at the child, and then withdrawing his glance hastily, and looking forcedly round at the meagre furnishing of the miller's room, and then back at the little bundle on the bed, and away again. The woman stood with her back to the press-bed, her striped shawl drawn tightly round her, and her hands folded together as closely as her long lip pressed the heavy one below.

"Is it settled?" asked the man.

"It is, sir," said the miller. "You'll excuse my missus being as she is, but it's fretting for the child we've a lost" -

"I understand, I understand," said the stranger, hastily. He was pulling back the rings of a silk netted purse, which he had drawn mechanically from his pocket, and which, from some sudden start of his, fell chinking on to the floor. Whatever the thought was which startled him, he thought it so sharply that he looked up in fear that he had said it aloud. But he had not spoken, and the miller had no other expression than that of an eager satisfaction on his face as the stranger counted out the gold by the flaring light of the tallow candle.

"A quarter's pay in advance," he said briefly. "It will be paid quarterly, you understand." After which, and checking himself in a look towards the child, he went out, followed by the woman.

In the round-house he paused however, and looked back into the meagre, dimly lighted room, where the little bundle upon the bed lay weeping. For a moment, a storm of irresolution seemed to seize him, and then muttering, "It can't be helped for the present, it can't be helped," he hurried towards the vehicle, in the back seat of which the woman was already seated.

The driver touched his hat to him as he approached, and turned the cushion, which he had been protecting from the rain. The stranger stumbled over the cloak as he got in, and, cursing the step, bade the man drive like something which had no connection with driving. But, as they turned, the windmiller ran out and after them.

"Stop, sir!" he cried.

"Well, what now?" said the stranger, sharply, as the horse was pulled back on his haunches.

"Is it named?" gasped the miller.

"Oh, yes, all that sort of thing," was the impatient reply.

"And what name?" asked the miller.

"Jan. J, A, N," said the stranger, shouting against the blustering wind.

"And--and--the other name?" said the windmiller, who was now standing close to the stranger's ear.

"What is yours?" he asked, with a sharp look of his dark eyes.

"Lake--Abel," said the windmiller.

"It is his also, henceforth," said the stranger, waving his hand, as if to close the subject,--"Jan Lake. Drive on, will you?"

The horse started forward, and they whirled away down the wet, gray road. And before the miller had regained his mill, the carriage was a distant speck upon the storm.

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