The millstones, four feet across and a foot thick, rumbled as they rotated one upon the other, the bed stone fixed and the runner stone in motion. The trickle of wheat fell into a hole in the centre of the runner stone and traveled outwards to the skirt, being ground as it went. Flour dust leaked from a thousand imperfections in the wooden enclosure, rising like smoke through the shafts of sunlight slanting through the windows. The meal was warm to my touch as it left the stones and slithered down a wooden spout into a jute bag strapped to a packing ring on the floor below. My fingers told me it was fine enough and would make a proper loaf, there’d be no complaints.
The apprentice, Tommy, bagged off the meal and sewed up the jute sacks with needle and twine. He’s a slight lad and manhandling the heavy sacks of meal had tested him at first but he’d the knack of it now and could swing the full sack clear of the spout using his thigh. After he’d sewn the bag he tipped it onto the hand barrow and trundled it off to join the others at the sack hoist, ready to be taken down to the warehouse. I’d do that tonight before I left.
Stepping outside, I took my pipe from my pocket and walked down to the sluice. The Stour was high, we’d had plentiful rain this summer and we’d not had to shut for lack of water. The great wheel trundled round, the river driving it with unimaginable energy. The wheel, in turn, drove the heavy axle which, through a devilish complexity of cogs and gears and flat leather belts, gave the mill its life.
I leaned against the wall and pulled on my pipe, drawing deeply; an agreeable Virginia. Across the mill pond, the painter cleaned his brushes and folded his easel, his day’s work done. His time was his own, being a son of the mill’s owner. I’d seen him in the Crown once or twice but hadn’t approached for he was with gentry and I was in my dusty smock and didn’t want to cause annoyance. I was told by some that know these things, his work was highly revered and sold for tidy sums. They said he painted at Flatford, too, to give variety, I suppose. I thought he lived in East Bergholt with his father but I hadn’t seen him for many months before he’d appeared this past week.
I finished my smoke, tapped out my pipe and went back inside to send the apprentice home and then count up the production, drop the sacks down the hoist and be away myself. The painter might make a handy income but there’s nothing like an honest day’s work to provide proper contentment. As I walked through the village the sun fell behind the church spire and shadows reached like fingers across the gravestones. I wondered briefly if I should call into the inn, perchance the painter would be there and I’d address him, but it was a grand evening for a stroll.
In the morning, when I’d recounted seeing the painter once again at the mill, Mollie said:
“That’ll be John, of course, Abram’s older brother.” It was to Abram that I made my weekly reports. “I heard he moved away from his father’s house and he’s married Maria. “
“Well he seems to be back. Maria, did you say?”
“Yes, his childhood sweetheart. They say her granny didn’t approve of the family and said there’d be no inheritance if she married John. P’raps the old cow’s gone to her maker and true love has triumphed.” She batted her eyelids in a most comical fashion and I laughed.
“I don’t know where you hear this gossip, my love.” I said, “Anyway, I’ll be off now.”
“All right then, Frank. I’ve put an extra wedge of cheese in your lunch bag for Tommy. That boy needs fattening up.”
Leaving the mill well set and running smoothly, I crossed the river at the lock, skirted the pond and approached the painter:
“Forgive me if I’m disturbing you, sir.”
“Not at all,” the painter said, turning on his stool to face me. He put out his hand, “John Constable.”
“I’m Frank Wells, miller over yonder.”
“Yes, Abram speaks highly of you, my father too. Did you know I once worked at that mill? Before your time, nearly twenty years ago now. Just labouring, really, sewing sacks and such. My father liked his boys to get their hands dirty.”
“I’ve been here nine years, now,” I said, “I was the apprentice and then assistant at Flatford mill, then this mill came free and your father gave me the chance.”
“Well, pleased to meet you, Frank. And I’m glad of your interruption for I’ve come to a halt with this damn work. I had a bad feeling after I’d done the sketch and putting the paint on hasn’t made it any better. Come and look here; the mill and the lock on the left are alright but this right-hand side with the trees is just a muddle.”
“I must say, sir, it all looks exceptionally fine to me. The only thing I can paint is a wall.” This raised a smiled.
“I suppose in the mill you have times when things don’t seem quite right? It’s like black magic to me, the way you millers set the stones to make the flour just right, but there must be occasions when you wish you were a cowherd or a clerk.”
“Oh yes, there are those times alright and they’ll have you scratching your head or kicking the cat. I find the best way is to go back to the beginning. If the wheat’s not right, nothing will be right. So, I check the wheat and if it’s too dry or too wet I’ll open a new sack. Then I’ll set the runner stone and if I still can’t get the grind, well that’s a worry because I’ll need to dress the stones. Whenever I need to do that I curse myself for the lost time and must make it up by milling into the night. Better to keep the stones in tip top condition. Mister Abram’s good with that, he lets me bring in the millwright regular and not wait ‘till the stones are hopelessly blunt, but sometimes it happens.”
“Hmm. I think I might need to check the wheat, reset the runner and dress the stones on this painting.” He seemed to ponder this idea and then said,” Yes, you’ve made up my mind for me, Frank, I’m going to start again with a clean canvas.”
The original “Dedham Mill and Lock” painted c1817 was never finished.