Gateway to the Classics: Jan of the Windmill by Juliana Horatia Ewing
 
Jan of the Windmill by  Juliana Horatia Ewing

Passing of the Storm

The Miller's Calculations—His Hopes and Fears—The Nurse‑Boy—Calm


T HE windmiller went back to his work. He had risked something over this business in leaving the mill in the hands of others, even for so short a time.

Then the storm abated somewhat. The wind went round, and blew with less violence a fine steady breeze. The miller began to think of going into the dwelling-room for a bit of supper to carry him through his night's work. And yet he lingered about returning to his wife in her present mood.

He stuck the sharp point of his windmiller's candlestick into a sack that stood near, and drawing up a yellow canvas "sample bag"—which served him as a purse—from the depths of his pocket, he began to count the coins by the light of the candle.

He counted them over several times with increasing satisfaction, and made several slow but sure calculations as to the sum of ten shillings a week by the month, the quarter, the half, and the whole year. He then began another set of calculations of a kind less pleasant, especially to an honest man—his debts.

"There's a good bit to the doctor for both times," he murmured; "and there's the coffin, and something at the Heart of Oak for the bearers, and a couple of bottles of red wine there, too, for the missus, when she were so bad. And both the boys had new shoes to follow in—she would have it they should follow—" and so on, and so on, the windmiller ran up the list of his petty debts, and saw his way to paying them. Then he put the money back into the sample bag, and folded it very neatly, and stowed it away. And then he drew near the inner door and peeped into the room.

His poor wife seemed to be in no better case than before. She sat on the old rocking-chair, swinging backwards and forwards, and beating her hands upon her knees in silence, and making no movement to comfort the wailing little creature on the bed.

For the first time there came upon the windmiller a sense of the fact that it is an uncertain and a rather dangerous game to drive a desperate woman into a corner. His missus was as soft-hearted a soul as ever lived, and for her to sit unmoved by the weeping of a neglected child was a proof that something was very far wrong indeed. One or two nasty stories of what tender-hearted women had done when "crazed" by grief haunted him. The gold seemed to grow hot at the bottom of his pocket.

He wished he had got at the stranger's name and address, in case it should be desirable to annul the bargain. He wished the missus would cry again—that silence was worse than anything. He wished that it did not just happen to come into his head that her grandmother went "melancholy mad" when she was left a young widow, and that she had had an uncle in business who died of softening of the brain.

He wished she would move across the room and take up the child, with an intensity that almost amounted to prayer. And in the votive spirit which generally comes with such moments, he mentally resolved that if his missus would but "take to" the infant, he would humour her on all other points just now to the best of his power.

A strange fulfilment often treads on the heels of such vows. At this moment the wailing of the baby disturbed the miller's eldest son as he lay in the press-bed. He was only seven years old, but he had been nurse-boy to his dead sister during the brief period of her health—the more exclusively so, that the miller's wife was then weakly—and had watched by her sick cradle with a grief scarcely less than that of the mother. He now crept out and down the coverlet to the wailing heap of clothes, with a bright, puzzled look on his chubby face.

"Mother," he said, "mother! Is the little un come back?"

"No, no!" she cried, "that's not our'n. It's—it's another one."

"Have the Lord sent us another?" said the boy, lifting the peak of the little hood from the baby's eye, into which it was hanging, and then fairly gathering the tiny creature, by a great effort, into his arms, with the daring of a child accustomed to playing nurse to one nearly as heavy as himself. "I do be glad of that, mother. The Lord sent the other one in the night, too, mother; that night we slept in the round-house. Do 'ee mind? Whishty, whishty, love! Eh, mother, what eyes! Whishty, whishty, then! I'm  seeing to thee, I am."

There was something like a sob in the miller's own throat, but his wife rose, and, running to the bed, fell on her knees, and with such a burst of weeping as is the thaw of bitter grief, gathered her eldest child and the little outcast together to her bosom.

At this moment another head was poked up from the bedclothes, and the second child began to say its say, hoping, perhaps, thereby to get a share of attention and kisses as well as the other.

"I see'd a lady and genle'm," it broke forth, "and was feared of un. They was going out of doors. The genle'm looked back at us, but the lady went right on. I didn't see her face."

Matters were now in a domestic and straightforward condition, and the windmiller no longer hesitated to come in. But he was less disposed to a hard and triumphant self-satisfaction than was common with him when his will ended well. An unsuccessful career had, indeed, something to do with the hardness of his nature, and in this flush of prosperity he felt softened, and resolved inwardly to "let the missus take her time," and come back to her ordinary condition without interference.

"Shall un have a bit of supper, missus?" was his cheerful greeting on coming in. "But take your time," he added, seeing her busy with the baby, "take your time."

By-and-by the nurse-boy took the child, and the woman bustled about the supper. She was still but half reconciled, and slapped the plates on to the table with a very uncommon irritability.

The windmiller ate a hearty supper, and washed it well down with home-made ale, under the satisfactory feeling that he could pay for more when he wanted it. And as he began to plug his pipe with tobacco, and his wife rocked the newcomer at her breast, he said thoughtfully,

"Do 'ee think, missus, that woman 'ud be the mother of un?"

"Mother!" cried his wife scornfully, "she've never been a mother, maester; of this nor any other one. To see her handle it was enough for me. The boy himself could see she never so much as looked back at un. To bring an infant out a night like this too, and leave it with strangers. Mother, indeed, says he!"

"Take your time, missus, take your time!" murmured the miller in his head. He did not speak aloud: he only puffed his pipe.

"Do you suppose the genle'm be the father, missus?" he suggested, as he rose to go back to his work.

"Maybe," said his wife briefly; "I can't speak one way or another to the feelings of men-folk."

This blow was hit straight out, but the windmiller forbore reply. He was not altogether ill pleased by it, for the woman's unwonted peevishness broke down in new tears over the child, whom she bore away to bed, pouring forth over it half inarticulate indignation against its unnatural parents.

"She've a soft heart, have the missus," said the windmiller thoughtfully, as he went to the outer door. "I'm in doubts if she won't take to it more than her own yet. But she shall have her own time."

The storm had passed. The wolds lay glistening and dreary under a watery sky, but all was still. The windmiller looked upwards mechanically. To be weatherwise was part of his trade. But his thoughts were not in the clouds to-night. He brought the sample bag, without thinking of it, to the surface of his pocket, and dropped it slowly back again, murmuring, "ten shillin' a week."

And as he turned again to his night's work he added, with a nod of complete conviction, "It'll more'n keep he."


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