The Miller's Dance

By: Winston Graham



Chapter One

I



On a grey day early in February, 1812, a convoy was anchored off Hendrawna Beach on the northwest coast of Cornwall. One of the vessels was a brig called Henry, and another a sloop Elizabeth. Between them floated a lighter with a massive piece of metal lying upon it and protruding over each end like a stranded whale. There were also half a dozen row-boats and a couple of gigs, one of them Nampara Girl. The beach was black with helpers and spectators.

February was no safe time normally for any master to hazard his vessel so close upon an inhospitable stretch of tidal sand; but after gales and half-gales succeeding each other through November, December and January, a frost had fallen on the land. It was a light frost, disappearing each midday and coming down again at night - which was the norm for this area - but it meant that the wind had at last dropped and the sea was quiet. For a time it had even been feared they were to be frustrated by the sudden lack of that element of which they had for so long had too much; but after a couple of days the lightest of breezes had sprung up from the north-east and before dawn this Monday morning the convoy had set out from Hayle. It had taken them until noon to get here, which was full tide - though a neap tide, leaving a wide expanse of beach uncovered and much of the sand soft and yielding. The sea was very slight, its hair at the edge in little rolls of curlers hardly big enough to disturb a child.

The distance overland from Hayle, where the parts of the engine had been built, to Nampara was no greater than by sea; but to transport this heavy equipment through the miry lanes and over the rutted moorlands would have taken three times as long and with every possibility of getting bogged down. By sea was quicker and easier - always supposing the right moment was chosen.

The brig had been the first to discharge; since she drew the most water she had to be unloaded into rowing-boats and on to rafts well out; mostly this was the smaller stuff: the brasses, the safety-valves, the piston and piston rod, the cylinder covers, the reduction valves, the catch-pins, the flange bolts and all the working gear of a 45-inch steam engine. The sloop Elizabeth had been brought along mainly to carry the boiler, with which she could come closer inshore. Indeed she deliberately ran aground, even on a tide just beginning to turn, confident that when she was the lighter by seven tons she would refloat herself easily.

Ross Poldark, pausing a moment to bite a fish pie that his wife had brought him, stared at the scene and said: 'I have never seen so many people on the beach since the wrecks after Julia died.'

'Don't speak of it,' said Demelza. 'That time...'

"Well, then we were young. Now we are not so young. But I wouldn't have it back.'

'Not that. Nor all that followed. But I'd like to be twenty again.'

'Well, now we have a son older than that. And working like one demented today.'

- Demelza said: 'Julia would have been twenty-two? No, twenty-one. Twenty-two this May.'

Ross swallowed his pie. Since the sloop came in, a broad pathway of sleepers consisting of old pit props had been laid from the bottom of the cliff out to the sloop - not separated as in a tramway, but one sleeper touching the next. The great boiler had been winched down until it rested on a timber frame, which itself stood on eight or nine smooth wooden rollers laid over the sleepers. Immediately it came to rest men had leapt upon the frame and flung ropes over the boiler, securing it to prevent lateral swaying; then they were off and away, manhandling it up the pathway, four men a side while others constantly rescued the rollers from the back and inserted them at the front again. It was not just a question of strength but of delicate balance, for if the rollers were not replaced exactly parallel the whole thing could slew off course and go tumbling into the sand.

Ross looked at the sky. It was leaden and would give them no stars tonight The sea of course was unpredictable; a heavy swell might develop at any time, presaging wind, not succeeding it. But there were two hours of daylight yet, and once the stuff was unloaded and brought to the foot of the cliff there was no haste. It would be at least two days more before the rising tides reached their piece of cliff. They had all that time to haul it up to its destined site.

'Before you run away, drink this ale,' said Demelza, observing him already fidgeting to be gone.

'Where is Clowance?'

'Down among the others. You could not keep her out of it today. There... see her fair head.'

'I see another fair head beside her.'

'Yes, they are often together again these days...'

For the moment Ross's mind and memory was still back in that day and night of the 7th January, 1790, when two vessels had been blown in on this beach in a storm and when almost a thousand people, most of them miners, had stripped them in a single tide. The seamen, washed ashore, had barely escaped with their lives, and preventive men and a platoon of soldiers had-not been sufficient to halt the wrecking. Desperate with hunger and crazed with the drink they had found, the miners carried all before them, and those who got in the way of their loot did so at their own peril. Great bonfires raged on the beach and drunken figures danced round them like demons from a pit. The sea had been awash with rigging, sails, spars, bales of silk and kegs of brandy, and fighting, struggling men and women. Was it the same people - or some of the same people — who were peacefully unloading an engine for the mine Wheal Leisure which was being restarted on the edge of the cliff? And the hundreds of others who had drifted down from little hamlets around to watch? Ross himself that night so long ago had been half crazed with grief at the death of his only child; and his wife, herself sick to death's point, a waif with wasted cheeks watching him hollow-eyed from her bed.

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