The Miller

Chapter One

Joseph Goss slipped out of bed as quietly as he could and shivered as he felt his way along the cold, dark, flagstone passage to the kitchen. He pulled on his thick flannel shirt, tugging it tightly about his wiry body. All the while he was very careful not to wake anyone, least of all the old mother-in-law, whose snores he could hear coming from the snug attic room.

With the kitchen door closed behind him, he opened the stove wide and with a practised hand, he stoked the fire, at first encouraging just a few eager flames from some shavings and fresh kindling. But before he had finished pulling on his breeches and heavy, wooden soled boots, the kitchen was alive with a flickering, warm amber glow.

While the kettle heated on the blackened iron hob, Joe stepped outside and, with an urgent stride, he headed along the bank of the small river that ran through their boundary to check the weather, but more urgently, to relieve his aching bladder. He must get to work as soon as he can today, there’s a lot to get through he thought, and already the eastern sky is well alight and a steady westerly breeze was rising with the sun.

The chill of the fresh morning air soon took its effect, helping Joe to wake up properly and concentrate on his plans for the coming day. He glanced to the hilltop above the house and smiled as he sensed the quivering of the wind in the worn sails of the mill.

On his way back to the house he noticed that the water level in the river was rather better than of late, perhaps the dam that the old Lord of the manor, Sir Jeremy Wyke had set up, had sprung some leaks. Or better yet, maybe it had burst. But Jo knew better, old man Wyke wouldn’t let that happen, the miserable old sod had been happy enough waiting for the old, worn out windmill to collapse, so he could close them down and have the Navy’s press gang take Jo for service. But, when he discovered that they had a new project, a twin wheeled watermill, which was well under way, he’d gone mad. He’d tried legal manoeuvres to get it taken down, and when that had failed, he’d engaged a well known gardener to make him an ornamental lake to divert the course of the river. But even that had failed because, as is often the case, the flow eventually found its way back into its original bed a half mile or so up the valley from the new mill.

With an angry glance up the valley towards the manor, Jo thought that if he could get away with it, he would cheerfully kill the miserable old bastard. Not just for the watermill affair, though that was bad enough. No, they shared a wicked, dark secret, something that had happened almost six years ago. Old Wyke ignored it of course, pretended that it never happened, but he had committed the ultimate crime. He’d ripped apart a young woman’s trust and stolen her very innocence.

She’d been a pretty young woman in a strikingly petite way, although really she had been scarcely more than a girl. Sarah went to the manor house twice a week for music lessons with the Lady Wyke, they used their beautiful old piano and Sarah practised her singing. The old lady often said that Sarah had the voice of an angel and had her come up to the house several times to entertain her guests during their elaborate dinner parties. But this particular day, the Lady of the manor had been called away unexpectedly and old man Wyke had raped the young woman on the floor of the music parlour. The servants of the household had ignored her pleading calls for help because they feared the vicious temper of the old devil.

Eventually Wyke had sent Sarah home, with no more thought than he would have had, if he’d dismissed a servant, except that he’d promised her that they’d do it again!

Two months after this episode, old Mary, Sarah’s mother, had called Joseph into her parlour and had made him an amazing proposition. After swearing him to absolute secrecy, she’d outlined the very recent events at the hall. Jo, who’d been fond of the pretty Sarah for years, immediately wanted to go and take a revenge on the lord of the manor. The old woman sneered and laughed at him before pushing him into a chair with incredible strength. He remembered her exact words quite clearly, she’d thrust her craggy, wrinkled face to within inches of his own, he could smell her stale sweat and her hair as she spoke.

‘If I thought for one moment that you were as stupid as you’re sounding, I’d not have called you in here! Now sit! Control yourself, and listen smartly. I shall want your answer immediately.’

Then she’d sat back into her high-backed overstuffed chair and, with a sigh of commitment, she sketched her plan.

Sarah was, she announced, expecting and needed an understanding husband who would care for her, care for the business and not least, for the unborn child. And he would have to be prepared to do this as he would for his own baby. For that service the old lady had offered him the position of Master Miller and a proper station in the family. Joe knew of course, that in all but appearances, old Mary would always remain at its head.

Jo remembered now, how he’d sunk back into the chair and, with his hands clasped to control the trembling, he’d agreed to everything, telling her that he’d gladly do it without any payment. She’d looked at him in astonishment, before telling him in her low, powerfully threatening voice.

‘It’s not for you…Fool. You are convenient. It’s to make sure of Sarah’s future and her security, and dare we hope, for her happiness!’ then she’d dismissed him. ‘Off you go, take my pretty daughter for a walk and propose to her. Gently though, for god’s sake. Gently.’

~ ~ ~ ~

Joe shook himself and his thoughts jerked him away from his memories and back to the present. There was so very much work still to be done to complete their flour order for the Army, and they’d arranged to send a military wagon to collect it today. Hopefully later on, maybe this afternoon he thought.

Joe headed back along the river bank towards the cottage, rubbing his chilled fingers together. He hurried up the short garden path and, in his haste stumbled as he came through the narrow doorway, cracking his shin against one of the logs stored in the porch. The curse was automatic and he froze, stood motionless, listening to hear if he had disturbed anyone, particularly the old’un, before closing the outside door extra carefully. The steamy heat in the kitchen made his face glow, and the ancient, smoke-blackened kettle had just begun to sing.

‘That was damned well timed.’ he muttered to himself, as he mechanically made a pot of tea and spread butter on a doorstep-sized wedge of yesterday’s bread. The tea was made with shavings from a hard block that was as black as tar. He’d bought it from a traveller who claimed to be a merchant, but everyone knew he was a smuggler. “Good China tea.” he’d said, “Come all the way from the low country…specially.”

He poured out two cups of the strong brew, one in a dainty flowered thing, complete with an almost matching saucer, the other in his large and battered tin mug, which could hold better than a pint if pressed.

Quietly, as their youngest son John would still be asleep, Jo took the cup and saucer to his wife. He set the cup down gently on the bedside locker and, after a quick, but loving kiss on her pretty cheek he went back to the kitchen where he collected his giant mug and slice of bread. Holding the wedge of bread between his teeth he closed the door without a sound and sipped the steaming brew as he strode purposefully along the well worn path up to the shoulder of the hill and the patched doors of the windmill’s tower.

Joe fondly remembered the days before the children, when Sarah would work alongside him for much of the day. He missed her sparkling company and skill, she could run the mill almost as good as he could and probably better than most other folk that he knew in the trade.

But now they had John and Peter and with another expected in a month or so, hopefully it’d be a daughter they’d agreed. John was nearly four and Peter, at five and as keen as he was, was not yet old enough to help.

Joe had been desperate for help in the mill and on Sarah’s obstinate insistence they had employed Ben, a poor young local lad who was seen as the village idiot, because he couldn’t speak. They’d talked it over. Joe was solidly against the idea because communication would have been very one-sided. Sarah had insisted though, telling him that she’d had what she ominously called, one of her feelings.

‘It’s a good job that we’re living in modern times.’ Joe had told her. ‘Or some folk would say that you’re a Witch.’

But he wouldn’t think of going against her, especially if she’d had one of her feelings.

It had started off as a temporary arrangement, just to see how Ben liked the mill and the work. It was an arrangement that Joe had almost terminated within hours of it starting. Poor Ben had misunderstood an instruction to wet the floor before sweeping out. It was shortly after the second bucketful of water that Joe’s angry bellow sounded across the valley.

Joe had hollered and shouted a lot at him at the beginning, and it had been Sarah who had patiently and quietly, shown him how to be useful. By cleaning up without causing a dust storm, or a minor flood, and to carefully stack the heavy sacks of grain in just the right spot ready to hoist to the milling floor high above. Ben quickly proved that he was no idiot, but he had lacked any sort of self-confidence and, especially when he was excited, he’d been the clumsiest, unfortunate being on legs that you could imagine.

And now they couldn’t be without him, he gave them his total commitment and an unquestioning, dog-like loyalty.

~ ~ ~ ~

As usual, the heavy old door to the mill tower was already open when Joe reached it, Ben’s habitual and tuneless whistle was sounding from the gloomy interior. No matter how early Joe arrived, Ben always seemed to be there just ahead of him.

Joe had had a suspicion for some weeks that his young helper was sleeping in the shed or maybe the grain store. He and Sarah had discussed it again only last evening and had decided that they must set aside some time today to find out for certain what was going on and help Ben to find somewhere better. There was a small storeroom on the back of the house which could do very nicely, with a bit of fixing up. But old Mary, Sarah’s mother, wouldn’t like that arrangement, she always complained that he was dirty and smelled as though he must be carrying all kinds of bugs.

No doubt about it, the old lady was a funny cuss, but she generally got her own way….eventually. Joe was quite certain that she could intimidate old Hobbs himself if it came to it. He would never admit it of course, but the old bird frightened him a bit too. She came from another class and another time. She’d been reasonably well-off once, her husband had been a young, daring Post-Captain in the Navy who’d done a good trade in contraband goods, but one day he didn’t come home and nothing was ever heard of him again.

Joe arrived beside the heavy timber beam that operated the brake on the mill machinery, he called out a warning to Ben as he lifted and carefully pulled the beam into the mill’s running position. Slowly at first, driven by the wind on the lattice-work of the tall sails, the old machinery started to move.

Crossing the lower working floor, Joe put his mug of hot tea on a stained wooden ledge and put his dusty cap on top of it, he then engaged the two stone-nuts which, through their shafting, drove the two millstones on the upper floor. He then released the brake from the toothed spur wheel, and with a shuddering, a creaking and an almost reluctant groan, the fine old machinery began to move. Slowly the spur wheel started to gather speed and was soon spinning, driving all the machinery shafts and producing its familiar, clattering roar.

Finally, the main item of machinery before the day’s work could be started. Joe hefted a long, well-worn iron bar and smoothly moved a broad leather drive-belt onto a spinning pulley to supply power to the wooden flour dresser. As it whirled into life, it created an effective fog of white flour dust, making both the men cough and sneeze.

On his way up the narrow stairway to the next floor, Joe took his cap off the top of his tea mug and, knocking off the settled flour dust, took the remains of his breakfast with him to set the stones to grinding the last batch of grain.

It was a beautiful early autumn morning, he leaned out of a tall narrow window to look back at the cottage, hoping for a glimpse of his Sarah, but was only greeted by the blind stare of the still shuttered, cottage windows.

‘It’s alright for some of us, and that’s for sure.’ he mumbled and threw his last piece of crust to the family of swans that had taken to living on their newly dug mill pond far below.

Ben had already filled the grain hoppers, fixed above the spinning mill stones, and Joe had only to set the flow of shining cereal into the gaping mouth of the chutes. He took a couple of small brass bells that were tied securely with cord to the hopper and buried each of them in the grain. As the wheat emptied from the hopper, the little bell would fall clear and its jingling tune as it bounced on the vibrating, grain chute would warn Joe that more grain was needed.

Smoothly he slid down the stairwell, back to the floor below to check the quality of the milled grain that had started to be produced. The ground product from the whirling stone was just a little too course for their standards and brought a frown to Joe’s forehead.

He had been having trouble now and again with the machinery’s main shaft, thrust bearing. It would not be the easiest of jobs to repair because of the weight and the awkward height of the shaft and its active parts. He had tried a temporary arrangement using a hardwood wedge in the base of the shaft coupling, but it inevitably loosened after a while and allowed the gap between the mill stones to widen, which affected the quality of the product.

Grabbing a handy length of timber, Joe dodged under the beams and none too gently, gave the worn wedge a firm whack. With a sharp squeal that would be heard across the valley, the running note of the machinery altered and was just perceptible to their practised ears. Joe dodged out from under the bearing support, and lost his cap to one of the whirling iron balls on the speed governor. His, once blue, hat was whipped from his head in a flash and thrown into a corner of the machinery floor. Not for the first time, Joe thought that at the very next opportunity, he’d repair the broken safety guard and fix it back where it belonged around that thing, before it knocked someone’s head off.

A handful of the fresh, newly milled grain brought a smile to Joe’s soft brown eyes. He passed it to Ben, for his inspection. Ben nodded seriously and grunted, then with impressive agility, he dodged the governor’s whirling ball-weights and rescued Joe’s cap.

Joe was astonished. He had lectured Ben many, many times on the dangers that lurked in the mill’s machinery, and he was about to launch into the familiar scolding speech again, when he noticed a bright new confidence in Ben’s huge grin.

The lad had changed, almost beyond recognition in the last few months or so. He was still painfully unhappy in anyone else’s company, outside of the family that he’d adopted, but with Sarah, Joe, and with the children in particular he was a gentle giant.

So this time Joe just shrugged.

‘You win.’ he said and clapped Ben playfully on the shoulder. ‘Thank you.’

He knocked the dust from his old cap and pulled it back over his flour-whitened hair.

Ben warbled then laughed in embarrassment. They had both felt a subtle change in their relationship.

‘Right.’ said Joe. ‘That’s enough fooling. We must get on. Go get the clean sacks ready below the dresser, about a dozen should do it, I think.’

Joe slipped smoothly up the worn, narrow staircase to check the grain hoppers feeding the mill stones. They should be alright for a good while yet he decided.

In passing, he dipped his hand into the grain milled the day before and now lying in yet another bin that was fixed above the flour dresser. Just as he had estimated, it was cool enough to pass through to the next stage, that of grading by passing it through the sifting action of the dressing machine.