It was about midway in its career that it fell with all its wrath upon Master Lake’s windmill.
The mill stood in a healthy position, but the dwelling room was ill-ventilated, and there were defective sanitary arrangements, which Master Swift had anxiously pointed out to the miller. The plague had begun in the village, and the schoolmaster trembled for Jan. But Master Lake was not to be interfered with, and, when the schoolmaster spoke of poison, thought himself witty as he replied, —
“It be a uncommon slow pison then, Master Swift.”
It must also be allowed that such epidemics, once started, do havoc in apparently clean houses and amongst well-fed people.
It was a little foster-sister of Jan’s who sickened first. She died within two days. Her burial was hasty enough, but Mrs. Lake had no time to fret about that, for a second child was ill. Like many another householder, the poor windmiller was now ready enough to look to his drains, and so forth; but it may be doubted if the general stirring up of dirty places at this moment did not do as much harm as good. It was hot,—terribly hot. Day after day passed without a breeze to cool the burning skins of the sick, and yet it was not sunshiny. People did say that the pestilence hung like a murky vapor above the district, and hid the sun.
Trades were slack, corn-grinding amongst the rest, and Master Lake did the housework, helped by Jan and Abel. He was stunned by the suddenness and the weight of the calamity which had come to him. He was very kind to Mrs. Lake, but the poor woman was almost past any feeling but that which, as a sort of instinct or inspiration, guided a constant watching and waiting on her sick children. She never slept, and would not have eaten, but that Master Lake used his authority to force some food upon her. At this time Jan’s chief occupations were cookery and dish-washing. His constant habit of observation made all the experiences of life an education for him; he had often watched his foster-mother prepare the family meals, and he prepared them now, for Abel and the windmiller could not, and she was with the sick children.
Before the second child died, two more fell ill on the same day. Only Abel and Jan were still “about.” The mother moved like an automaton, and never spoke. Now and then a deep sigh or a low moan would escape her, and the miller would move tenderly to her side, and say, “Bear up, missus; bear up, my lass,” and then go back to his pipe and his cherry-wood chair, where he seemed to grow gray as he sat.
Master Swift came from time to time to the mill. He was everywhere, helping, comforting, and exhorting. Some said his face shone with the light of another world, for which he was “marked.” Others whispered that the strain was telling on him, and that it wore the look it had had in the brief insanity which followed his child’s death. But all agreed that the very sight of him brought help and consolation. The windmiller grew to watch for him, and to lean on him in the helplessness of his despair. And he listened humbly to the old man’s fervid religious counsels. His own little threads of philosophy were all blowing loose and useless in this storm of trouble.