Maître Cornille’s secret

Alphonse Daudet




  Franc and Mamaï, an old fife player who sometimes spends the evening with me at my house to drink fortified wine, told me the other night about a little tragedy my windmill witnessed some twenty years ago. I was moved by the old man’s story and I am going to try to tell it to you as faithfully as I can:

Just imagine, dear readers, that you’re sitting with a carafe of fragrant wine in front of you, and that it’s an old fife player who tells you this story.

Our region, my dear sir, hasn’t always been a dead, renownless place as it is today.

A long time ago, flour trade held a very important place here, and people from miles around were coming to grind their wheat… All around the village, the hills were covered with windmills. Everywhere, one could  see their wings agitated  by the Mistral wind above the pine trees, as well as lines of little donkeys loaded with bags of wheat, walking up and down the paths. And all week long, it was delighting to hear the sound of whips and the creak of the canvas coming from the hills, and the “Dia hue!” of the millers… On Sundays, we used to go to the mills in groups. Up there, the millers offered Muscat wine. Their wives were as pretty as queens with their lace fichus and their golden crosses. I always brought my fife there and we danced farandoles til dark. Those mills, you see, were bringing both joy and prosperity to our region.

Unfortunately, French people from Paris thought about establishing a steam flour-mill on the road to Tarascon.

As novelty attracts people, they started to send their wheat there. The poor windmills had no more wheat to grind. They tried to fight for some time but steam was victorious and they had to close one after the other, the poor of them! The little donkeys did not come anymore… the pretty wives of the millers sold their golden crosses… No more Muscat wine! No more farandoles! No matter how much the Mistral wind was blowing, the wings stayed still. Then, one day, the villagers decided to destroy the windmills and to plant vineyards and olive trees in their place.

However, amid the disaster, a windmill was still alive on its hill and bravely kept on agitating its wings under the steam mill’s nose. It was Maître Cornille’s windmill, the very windmill we are in right now.

Maître Cormille was an old quick-tempered miller who had been living in wheat for more than sixty years. The settlement of steam mills made him crazy. For eight days, people saw him hurrying along the streets of the village, gathering people around him shouting as loud as he could that Provence was being poisoned by the steam mill’s wheat. “Don’t go there” he said, “these twisters use steam to make your bread. It’s a creation of the devil whereas I work with Mistral wind and tramontana which are God’s breath!”. He thus found masses of  sweets words to make the apology of the windmills but no one listened to him.

So, mad with anger, the old man locked himself in his windmill and lived alone like a wild animal. He even refused to keep his grand-daughter Vivette with him . As her parents had died, the old man was all that  remained of her family. The poor girl had to support herself, to work as a servant in mas houses during harvest times. Yet, her grand-father seemed to like her a lot. He often happened to walk his four miles under the oppressive sun to see her at the mas where she worked. When he was near her, he could spend whole hours just looking at her, crying…

In the region, people thought of the old miller as a greedy man because he refused to keep the girl with him. They said it was not to his credit to let his grand-daughter wander from farms to farms,  exposed to the brutality of men,  and to the miseries of this job. It was also poorly considered that a man as popular as Maître Cornille, a man who had had until then a lot of consideration towards himself, now wander about the streets like a gypsy, barefoot, his hat with holes in it, his belt tattered… The thing is that on Sundays, when we saw him entering the church, we felt pity for him, we, I mean the old people of the village; and Cornille felt it so well that he did not dare to sit on the pew anymore.

He always stayed at the back of the church, near the stoup, with poor people. Something was not clear in Maître Cornille’s life. No one in the village had taken wheat to his windmill in a long time and yet, the wings were still in motion. At night, on the paths, one could meet the old miller pushing his donkey loaded with heavy bags of flour.

« Good vespers, Maître Cornille » the farmers shouted. “How’s your business? Is it still going well?”

“Yes, my friends” the old man answered merrily. “Thank God, we’ve got a lot of work!”.

Then, when someone asked him where the devil he could find so much work, he would put a finger on his mouth and gravely answered:

“ssh…I work for foreign countries…exportation, you know”. No one could ever learn more about it.

As to entering his windmill, no need to think of it. Little Vivette herself did not go inside of it.

When one would pass by it, the door was always closed, the big wings always in motion, the old monkey grazing the grass of the platform, and a tall scraggy cat sitting under the sun on the windowsill, angrily looking at you.

Everything felt like mystery and would make people chat away. Everyone would interpret Maître Cornille’s secret in its own way but rumour had it that inside the mill, there were more bags full crowns than bags of wheat.

Yet, in the end, the secret was discovered. This is how it all happened:

While making young people dance thanks to my fife, I realised one day that my elder son and little Vivette were in love with each other. I was not really mad about it because after all the name “Cornille” was quite famous in the region and that I would have liked to see Vivette, this nice little bird trotting about my house. The only thing was that, as our sweethearts could see each other quite frequently, for fear of any incident, I decided to deal with it right away. So, I went up to the windmill to have a word with her grand-father about it…Ha! That confounded Cornille! You should have seen how he received me! I couldn’t persuade him to open his door. I explained him my reasons as well as I could, through the keyhole; and all along the conversation this damn scraggy cat was growling like a devil over my head.

The old man did not let me finish my explanations and shouted me back to my flute. He told me that if I was in a hurry to marry my son, I could go and find girls at the steam mills… Believe me when I say that hearing these ugly words made my blood rush to my face. But I was wise enough to contain myself and I came back to share my disappointment with the children, leaving the old mad man to his millstone… These dear innocent young people could not believe it. They asked me the permission to go to the mill as a favour, so they could talk to the grand-father… I did not have the heart to refuse and away they went.

As they reached the top of the hill, Maître Cornille had just gone. The door was locked but the old man had left his ladder outside; the sweethearts readily decided to enter the famous mill by the window to see what was going on inside…Weirdly enough, it was empty…Not one bag, not one grain of wheat, not the slightest trace of flour on the walls nor on the spiderwebs… One could not smell this delicious hot smell of crushed wheat which usually hang heavy in the air in the windmills…

The room downstairs looked as desert as the other one : a bad bed , a few rags, a loaf of bread on a step, and in a corner, three or four tore open bags  from which rubble and white soil were leaking.That was Maître Cornille’s secret! It was soil which he was carrying at night along the roads, to save the honour of his mill by making people think it was still grinding wheat!! Poor mill! Poor Cornille! It had been a long time since the steam mills hadrobbed them of their work. The wings were still moving but the millstone was empty.

The children came back crying and they told me what they had seen. I was heart-broken… Without losing a minute, I ran to the neighbours and told them everything. We agreed that everybody in the village should bring its wheat on the spot to Maître Cornille’s windmill…No sooner said than done. The village set off and arrived up there with a procession of monkey loaded with wheat – real wheat this time!

The mill was wide open… By the doorstep, Maître Cornille was crying, sitting on a bag full of white clay. He had just realised that someone had come into the mill when he was away and had discovered his sad secret.

“Poor me!” he said. “The only thing I have to do now is to die. The mill has been dishonoured”.

His sobs were heartbreaking. He was talking to his windmill as if it had been a real person, calling it with sweet names. At that time, the donkeys arrived on the platform et we began shouting very loudly as in the golden age of the millers:

“Hey, miller! Hey, Maître Cornille!”

The men began to pile up bags in front of the door and beautiful ginger wheat spread on the floor: Maître Cornille’s eyes were wide open. He had taken some wheat in the palm of his old hand and was crying and laughing at the same time, saying:

“Wheat! My goodness! Good wheat! Let me have a proper look at it!

Then, looking at us :

“I knew you would come back to me! All these steam mills are thieves!”

We wanted to carry him shoulder-high in triumph but he protested:

“No, children! I have to feed my mill first! It hasn’t eaten anything for such a long time!”

Everybody was deeply moved to see the old man acting as in a frenzy , tearing the bags open, keeping an eye on the millstone while the grain was being crushed and the light dust of wheat was flying to the ceiling. From that day on, the villagers never left the old miller without work. Then, one morning, Maître Cornille died and the wings of our last windmill stopped turning, this time forever… Once Cornille dead, no one took his place.

« That’s it Sir ! Everything’s got to end one day, and the time of the windmill had come, like the time of  the bells on the river Rhône, of the parliaments and of flower-printed jackets”.