An Old English Home and Its Dependencies/Chapter 8
EVERY manor had its mill, and consequently there is hardly a village without one. The lord of the manor had certain rights over the mill and over his tenants, who were required to go to his mill and to no other.
The mill is usually a very picturesque adjunct to the scenery. It is frequently an old building; it has ancient trees standing round it; there is the mill-pool, the sluice, the wheel, and the foaming waters discharged over it.
The miller himself is a genial figure, dusted with flour, his face lighted up with the consciousness that though all the rest of the parish may starve, that will not he.
And the miller's cottage is almost always scrupulously clean and well–kept. I have known many mills, but I never knew a slattern among miller's wives, never saw a hug-a-mug condition of affairs in the miller's home.
The miller anciently did not stand over-well with the rest of the villagers. He ground the corn of the farmer and the gleanings of the poor, and took his toll from each sack, his fist full and more than his due, so it was said. The miller's thumb was a big thumb, and his fist had a large grip.
But it was not only that the miller was supposed to take more than his due of grain, he was suspected of taking what was not his from the lips of the girls and wives who came with their sacks of corn to the mill to have it ground. The element of jealousy of the miller breaks out in a great many country songs. The good nature, the joviality, the cleanness of the miller, no doubt made him a persona grata to the fair sex in a village, and those who could not rival him revenged themselves in lame poems and halting song.
But for all that he was regarded with suspicion, there was a sense of something picturesque, romantic about the miller. He was a type of the genial, self-reliant Englishman; and the writer of the well-known song of the Miller of Dee hit him off to a nicety:—
"There was a jolly miller once lived by the River Dee;
He worked and sang from morn till night; no lark more blithe than he;
And this the burden of his song for ever used to be,
I care for nobody, no, not I, if nobody cares for me."
That the miller is esteemed to be a shrewd man appears from such songs and plays as the "Miller of Mansfield."
So also the miller's daughter forms a topic for many a story, play and song, never with a sneer, always spoken of with admiration, not only because she is goodly, but a type of neatness, and "cleanliness comes next to goodliness." The new machinery and steam are fast displacing the old mills that were turned by water, and the old dusty miller is giving place to the trim gentleman who does most of the work in the office, without whitening his coat.
I know an aged miller and his wife who had been for years occupying a quaint old-fashioned mill of the simplest construction, and which answered all purposes required in the village. But a few years ago a new venture was started—a great mill worked by steam, and with electric lighting through it, and now no corn is sent to the ancient mill that is crumbling and rotting away, and the old people are decaying within it.
"Thomas," said I one evening over the fire to this miller, "how long have you been married?"
"Fifty years next Michaelmas."
"And when did you court your wife? When did you find the right one?"
"Lor bless y', sir, I can't mind the time when we weren't courting each other. I b'lieve us began as babbies. Us knowed each other as long as us knowed anything at all. Us went to school together—us larned our letters together, us was vaccinated together, her was took from my arm; and us growed up together."
"And when did you first think of making her yours?" "Bless y', sir, I never first thought on it at all; I never thought other from the time I began to think but that it must be—it wor ordained so."
"Have you children?"
"Yes; they be all out in the world and doing well. We haven't to blush for any of them—men and maids all alike—respectable."
"Then you ought to be very happy."
"I reckon us ought, and us should be but for that new mill."
"It is spoiling your custom?"
"It is killin' of us old folks out. It isn't so much that us gets no grinding I mind, but it leaves me and my Anne with no means in our old age, and us don't like to go on to the childer, and us don't like to go into the work'us. There it is. Us did reckon on being able honestly to get our bread for ourselves and ax nobody for nothing. But now this ere new mill wi' the steam ingens and the electric light—someone must pay for all that, and who is that but the customers? I've no electric light here, water costs nothing. Coals costs twenty-one shillings a ton, and it takes a deal o' coals to make the ingen march. Who pays for the coals? Who pays for the electric light? The customers get the flour at the same price as I send it out with none of them jangangles. How do they manage it? I reckon the corn is tampered with—there's white china-clay or something put wi' the flour. It can't be done otherwise. But I reckon folk like to say, 'Our flour comed from that there mill worked wi' steam and lighted by electric light,' and if they have those things, then, I say they can't have pure flour. So it must be, I think, but folk say that I am an old stoopid and don't understand nothing. All I can say is I can turn out wholesome flour, and niver put nothing in but corn grains, and niver turned out nothing but corn flour, wheat and oat and barley."
On the day of the golden wedding of the old couple I visited them. I made a point of this, and brought them some little comfort.
I found them very happy. A son and a daughter had taken a holiday to see their parents and congratulate them. The parson's wife had sent in a plum pudding, the squire a bottle of old port. Several friends had remembered them—even the miller in the new style, who had electric light and steam power, had contributed a cake. There were nuts and oranges—but perhaps the present which gave most gratification was a doll, a miller with a floured face, sent by a grandchild with a rough scrawl. I supply the stops to make it intelligible.
"Dear Grandada and Granny,—At skool, teacher said old pipple go into a sekond childood. So has you be so tremenjous old you must be orful babies. I think you will want a doll, so i sends you wun, with mutch love, and i drest the doll myself as a miller. Hever yors, dear grandada and granny.—Rosie."
Though the village mill usually—almost always—presents a pleasant picture in one's memory, a picture of cheerfulness and content, of good nature and neatness, it is not always so. I remember one mill which carries with it a sadness whenever I recall it. Not that the mill was gloomy in itself, but that the story connected with it was such as to make one sad.
The miller, whom we will call Pike, was unhappily somewhat inclined to drink. He was not an intemperate man at home, far from it; and in his mill, at his work, he was always sober. But when he went to market, when he got among boon companions, he was unable to resist the temptation of taking more than was good for his head. He did a very respectable business, and turned over a good deal of money, and was altogether a "warm" man. One day he went to market and gathered in there several debts that were owing him, and put all his money, amounting to twenty-five pounds seventeen and sixpence, in a pouch of leather, tied a bit of string round the neck, put it in his pocket—that of his overcoat as it happened, and not in his trousers or his breast pocket and, mounting his tax cart, drove home.
The evening had closed in, and part of his way was through a wood, where the shadows lay thick and inky. Whether it were that he had drunk too much or that the road was too dark to see his way well, I cannot say, but it is certain that the miller was upset and flung into the hedge.
Just then up came a workman, a man named Richard Crooke, who caught the horse, righted the cart, and helped Pike, the miller, into his seat again. Pike was shaken but not hurt.
He was confused in his mind, not, however, so much so as to fail to know who had assisted him, and to thank him for it.
On reaching home he at once put up his horse, and entering his house, and going upstairs, took off his overcoat, found it was torn and in a shocking condition of dirt, wherefore he threw it aside and went to bed.
He slept till late next morning, and when he woke he remembered but uncertainly the events of the previous evening. However, after he had had a cup of strong tea made for him by his mother—he was a widower without children, and his mother kept house for him—he began to recall events more distinctly, and then, with a start, he remembered his money bag. He hastily ran upstairs to the torn and soiled overcoat and felt in all the pockets. The bag of gold and silver was gone.
In a panic Pike rushed out of the house and ran to the scene of his accident. He searched there wherever there were tokens of the upset, and they were plain in the mud and the bruised twigs of the bushes. Not a trace of the bag that contained so much money could he find, not one ha'penny out of the twenty-five pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence did he recover.
He went to Crooke's cottage to question him. The man was out. He was horseman to one of the farmers, so Pike pursued him to the farm and found him ploughing. He asked him if he had seen picked up anything. No—Crooke had not observed anything. Indeed, as he remarked, the night was too dark, and the blackness under the trees was too complete for him to have seen anything that had been dropped. Crooke seemed somewhat nettled at being questioned. Of course, had he noticed anything belonging to the miller fallen out of his trap, or out of his pockets, he would have handed it to the owner.
Pike was not satisfied. He was convinced that no one had been over the by-road that morning before he examined it, as it led only to the mill and to the farm where Crooke worked.
What had become of the money? Had anyone retained it?
Not long afterwards, to the astonishment of the miller and some of the farmers, Crooke bought a little property, a cottage and a couple of fields. There was no doubt that he had borrowed some of the money requisite; he said he had saved the rest. Was that possible? From that moment a strong and ineradicable conviction formed in Pike's mind that he had been robbed by Richard Crooke.
With envy and rage he watched the husbandman move into his little tenement, and begin to till his field. Pike considered that this tenement was his own by rights. Crooke had bought it with the miller's money taken from him on the night when he was upset. Crooke had taken advantage of his being a little fresh, and a little confused by the fall, to purloin the bag containing twenty-five pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence.
From this time all joy, all cheeriness was gone from the life of the miller; his heart turned bitter as gall, and all his bitterness was directed against Richard Crooke. He brooded over his wrong. He did not venture openly to accuse the man he suspected, but he dropped hints which prejudiced opinion against Crooke. But everyone knew that this Richard had been a careful man, saving his money.
Pike watched the corn grow on Crooke's field; he wished a blight might fall upon it. But it throve, the ears were heavy, it was harvested in splendid condition, and stacked in the corner of the field.
Then, one night the corn rick was on fire. This was the work of an incendiary. It must have been done wilfully, and by someone who bore Crooke a grudge. Richard had not insured, and the loss to him was a very serious matter. It might have been ruin had not a "brief" been got up and some pounds subscribed to relieve him.
No one could say who had done the deed. Yet nobody doubted who the incendiary had been. Nothing could be proved against anyone.
A twelvemonth passed. A malevolent pleasure had filled the heart of the miller when he had heard that Crooke's stack was consumed, and he somewhat ostentatiously gave half a sovereign to the brief. He was angry and offended when the half-sovereign was returned him. Richard Crooke declined to receive his contribution.
During the year Pike's character deteriorated; he went more frequently to the public-house, he neglected his work, and what he did was done badly.
Then one morning—on opening his eyes in bed, they fell on a little recess in the wall, high up beyond most people's reach, a place where he had been wont to put away things he valued and did not desire should be meddled with. A sudden thought, a suspicion, flashed across his mind. He started from bed, put his hand into the recess, and drew forth his money bag, opened it and counted out twenty-five pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence.
On returning home, the night of his accident, he had taken the bag out of his torn and sullied overcoat pocket, had put it in this hiding-place, and forgotten all about it. He hastily dressed himself—he would eat no breakfast, but drank brandy, several glasses full—went out, and when next seen was a corpse, dragged out of his mill-pond, hugging his money bag.
Not till then were mouths unlocked, and men said that Pike, angered at his loss, believing that Crooke had robbed him, had fired the stack; and that when he found out his mistake, in shame and remorse, and uncertain how he could remedy the wrong done—he had destroyed himself.