In 1817, a new water mill appears on the Po River, near the city of Ferrara. Its owner is young Lazzaro Scacerni, who has mysteriously become the miller. He is, however, no stranger to the river—his father was a ferryman at Ariano and died in the peasant uprising of 1807. Shortly afterward, the young Lazzaro was sent, along with other orphans, to serve as a cabin boy in the navy. When older, he became an army engineer who built pontoon bridges. Now, in 1812, he finds himself a part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated Russian campaign.
During the terrible 1812 retreat, a dying captain gives Lazzaro a mysterious receipt, which the illiterate young man cannot read. He guards it closely, however, as he straggles homeward from a debacle in which fourteen out of every fifteen Italian soldiers perish. Finally returning to the neighborhood of Ferrara, Lazzaro leads a life of struggle while waiting for a chance to make use of his one mysterious asset. He learns to read well enough to decipher the name and address attached to the receipt. His search leads him to a Jewish man in Ferrara’s ghetto. The receipt is for jewels, plundered from Spanish churches by Lazzaro’s benefactor. His windfall assured, Lazzaro cannily ponders how to apply it. Millers, he decides, are least affected by times of adversity, so he has a friendly old shipwright build him a floating mill. In due time it is finished and put into operation.
As the years pass, the miller prospers. As his trade grows, Lazzaro hires three boys as helpers. His success inspires more envy than affection among his neighbors, and a few wives and daughters succumb to his dashing gallantries. Nearly forty years old and wearying of bachelorhood, Lazzaro falls in love with Dosolina, poor but delicately beautiful and twenty years his junior. Lazzaro buys a house, marries Dosolina, and settles down to enjoy his prosperity.
Fate, however, does not always smile on Lazzaro and his mill. Floods come, the bane of the Po River millers. Smugglers, crossing between the Papal State and occupied Austria north of the River Po, insolently use his mill for a rendezvous. On the birth night of his son, Giuseppe, Lazzaro’s troubles reach a climax. While Dosolina is writhing in difficult labor, the desperate Lazzaro fights to save his mill from the swollen menace of the Po. Slipping on the wet deck, he breaks a leg but continues to direct his laborers, two of whom are strong workers. The third, Beffa, is malformed and secretly hates his master; he also has become a tool of the smugglers. Shedding all restraint, Beffa openly exults over his master’s plight and scornfully asserts that the miller has been cuckolded. Lazzaro, using his muscular arms, reaches out, seizes Beffa, and hurls him into the river.
Dosolina recovers, and the mill is saved, but Beffa’s dismissal causes Lazzaro to receive disturbing threats from Raguseo, leader of the smugglers. Soon afterward, however, a feud breaks out among the outlaws that disposes of Raguseo, after which Lazzaro breathes more easily. Some dangers are over, but others soon come. Intermittent floods continue to threaten the mill. One day a large mill washes ashore near Lazzaro’s own, its only occupant a girl named Cecilia, orphaned by the flood. To Cecilia, her mill...
(The entire section is 1339 words.)