The Grist Mill Secret: First Chapter
Tabitha Copley was supposed to be in bed. Mother had sent her upstairs to undress, but just as Tabby was putting on her nightgown she had heard her brother, Dan, open his bedroom door. Eager to know what was going on, Tabby followed Dan down the hall and sat beside him on the top step of the stairs.
“If that isn’t just like a girl!” whispered the boy. “Can’t you leave me alone? Always following me!”
There was a steady sound of voices in the parlor, but the children could not tell who was talking.
The wide front staircase turned twice as it led down into the front hall and by slipping down to the first landing Dan and Tabby could see into the parlor. The candlelight danced on the Turkey rug and on Mother’s new blue curtains, which were drawn across the shuttered windows.
There was a crackling fire in the fireplace, and around that fire had gathered the important men of the village—Squire Ashley, Deacon Hunter, Dr. Mason, Mr. Sheldon, the lawyer, and Mr. Valentine, the parson. Father added a log to the fire and then seated himself in his big wing chair.
In the wide front hall the grandfather clock slowly ticked the time away, but its solemn tick was not loud enough to drown the rise and fall of the men’s voices.
“I tell you, you’re the man to do it, Moses Copley,” said Dr. Mason.
“No,” Father said. “No, gentlemen, I don’t know any more about running a mill than—than—”
“Than King George knows about running his colonies,” Squire Ashley finished for him, and all the men laughed.
Lawyer Sheldon leaned forward, picked up the tongs, and lighted his pipe with a glowing coal.
“We must decide tonight,” he said. “We must have gunpowder and we must have muskets.”
“Gunpowder and muskets speak a strong language,” Parson Valentine sighed.
“ ‘Tis the only language the king understands,” said Father.
“Aye, and you’re the only man among us who can supply the need,” added the doctor. “I tell you, Copley, you must remove to the mill.”
Just then the dining-room door opened and Mother came into the hall.
“Children, are you sitting on the landing in your nightgowns again?” she said as she came up the stairs, a candle held high above her head. “Scoot, now! Back to your beds, and shame on you for eavesdropping.”
Old Sukey came lumbering up the stairs behind Mother, carrying the warming pan in her strong brown hands.
“Shame on you, Tabitha child, sitting here in your night rail,” she grumbled. “Into your room right smart and I’ll heat up your sheets real good. Catch your death of neverget-overs, that’s what you’ll do, settin’ out here in the cold.”
Tabby climbed into bed and snuggled down between the warm sheets that smelled faintly of lavender.
Mother tucked her under the blankets and bent to kiss her tumbled curls. Mother, too, smelled faintly of lavender. “Good night, my sweet.”
Tabby pushed back the blankets and threw her arms around her mother’s neck.
“What were the men talking about, Mother?” she whispered. “What did they mean about muskets?”
“Hush, child,” said Mother. “ ‘Tis nothing for little maids to bother their heads about. Good night, dear.”
“But what did it mean?” Tabitha persisted. “And why were they talking about a mill?”
“Never mind, Tabby. Go to sleep now like a good girl.”
Mother carried the candle away and Tabby was alone in the big bedroom. She lay awake for a long time. From the dark corner beyond the highboy seemed to echo the excited words of the men in the parlor—muskets, gunpowder, the king, a mill!
What did it all mean, Tabby wondered. Why were they talking about a mill? Why were they talking about muskets and gunpowder? What did Father have to do with muskets? What did muskets have to do with a mill? Tabby fell asleep with the words drifting through her dreams—muskets, gunpowder, a mill!
* * *
The next morning, as they walked across the village green to school, Tabitha asked Dan about the conversation they had overheard.
“What did Parson Valentine mean, Dan? Why does he want muskets?”
“Silly! If that isn’t just like a girl!” said Dan. “They need muskets for the Minute Men, to be sure—muskets and powder, too.”
Tabitha was silent as she trudged beside Dan through the fallen leaves. Of course, she had known about the Committee of Safety. All of the children had known that the wise men of the village had banded together to keep in touch with the Sons of Liberty in Boston. Tabby realized that it was these men who had been meeting in the parlor on the previous evening. Of course, she had known, too, about the company of Minute Men that had been raised in the village when King George’s Redcoats had caused so much trouble in Boston. Tabby had often seen the Minute Men drilling on the green, but for some reason she had never thought of them as actually loading and firing the muskets they shouldered as they marched and countermarched. Tabby had never dreamed that the Minute Men might actually be in a war. She had never thought that Father and Cousin Ebenezer and Uncle Hezekiah might go marching off to fight in some battle.
Dan left Tabitha at Mr. Valentine’s gate, for he was studying with the parson and preparing to take his college entrance examinations. Tabby walked slowly along the path toward Dame Noble’s school and then stood waiting for Priscilla Lathrop at the corner near Dr. Mason’s house. Ever since they were little girls, Prissy and Tabby had met at this corner and walked down together to Dame Noble’s school near the town brook.
Prissy came running down the street, her dark braids flying and her workbag swinging. “Can you come over to my house after school?” she panted, all out of breath. “Mother says you could stay for supper if your mother will let you. Then we could play with the new fashion doll Grandmother sent me from London. Can you come, Tabby?”
Tabby looked at Prissy’s dancing eyes but somehow she couldn’t talk about fashion dolls right now.
“Prissy,” she asked, “did you ever hear your father talking about muskets and powder?”
“Oh, hush, Tabby!” Prissy looked quickly about her at the quiet village street and then leaned close so that she could whisper. “Tabby, didn’t you know? Didn’t you know? The attic of the meetinghouse is full of gunpowder!”
Tabby looked across the green at the white meetinghouse with its stately pillars and its tall steeple. Gunpowder! Gunpowder in the attic of the meetinghouse! Oh, whatever had happened to their quiet little village! Muskets for the Minute Men and gunpowder in the meetinghouse!
Dan and Tabitha heard no more talk of muskets and Minute Men, but after breakfast, one bright autumn morning, Father called the children into the keeping room and shut the door.
“I have news for you both,” he began when he was seated in his big wing chair and the children had drawn their stools close to the fire. “I have news for you, my dears, and I hope you’ll be happy when you hear my plans. You children and Mother and I are going to move out to Nelson’s Mill corners, over beyond the mountain.”
“Live in the country?” asked Tabitha, eyes wide with astonishment. “You mean we’ll be farm people and ride to meeting?”
“And bring our lunches and eat in the nooning house with the farmers?” said Dan.
Tabby jumped up from her stool and walked over to one of the front windows with its many tiny panes. Here she could look across the green to the white meetinghouse. Tabitha had crossed that green with Prissy to attend Dame School and she had crossed the green with Father and Mother and Dan when the bell in the meetinghouse had tolled on Sunday mornings. How she and Dan had stared at the country people who tied their horses in the shed and carried their lunches to the warmth of the fire in the nooning house! Now she and her brother would be country people themselves and life would be so different. So very different.
Tabby roused from her dream of life in the country to hear Dan’s anxious question.
“Father, does it mean I can’t study with Parson Valentine this winter? However am I to pass my college examinations if I don’t keep on with my Greek?”
“I’m sorry, lad.” Father’s voice was sad. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you’ll have to postpone your studies for a year. Don’t grieve, though. College will wait. I shall need your help this winter. You see, I’m going to be a miller.”
“A miller?” Dan’s face showed his astonishment. “But you’re no miller, Father! You’re an iron master. Your work is at a forge, not a mill.”
“True, Dan, true. But 'twill take a knowledge of machinery to run a grist mill, I’m thinking.”
Tabitha turned from the window with a sigh. She was not at all sure that she was going to enjoy country life.