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Chapter I.: EVERY MAN HIS WHIM. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 1 (Life in the Wilds, Hill and the Valley, Brooke and Brooke Farm) 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 1.
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EVERY MAN HIS WHIM.
Among the hills, in a wild district of South Wales, stood a dwelling, known to few and avoided by most of those whose curiosity had led them to inquire concerning the inmates. This cottage was too humble in its appearance to attract frequent notice, and there was so much difficulty in reaching it, that no call but that of business was likely to bring any stranger to its threshold. A narrow path led up the hills to the foot of a steep flight of steps, made of rude stones, placed not very securely. At the top of a slippery bank above these steps was a gate, too high to be easily climbed, and too well tethered to be quickly opened. When one or the other difficulty, however, was overcome, the path lay direct to the porch of the cottage, on the bench of which lay sometimes a newspaper or a tobacco-pipe, and sometimes a ricketty work-basket, full of undarned stockings, according as the master or mistress of the cottage had been sitting there to enjoy the air. No place could be more retired than this porch, for it was nearly surrounded by garden and orchard ground, and was screened by a thick hedge of elder on the side where the gate was placed.
The master of this abode was John Armstrong, a hale man of seventy-nine. Its mistress was Margaret Blake, his housekeeper, a middle-aged woman, but as old-fashioned in her habits and appearance as her venerable companion. They were both very strange people in the eyes of everybody who knew them, being not only unsociable with strangers, but preserving, as it appeared, an almost perpetual silence toward each other. They never sat in the same room, except at meal-times. Old Armstrong avoided the porch unless Margaret was busy within; and she looked out to see that he was gardening, before she brought her work-basket out into the sunshine. It was reported by the only person who had the opportunity by invitation of witnessing their domestic habits, that Armstrong always read the newspaper at breakfast, mused at dinner-time, and studied the Farmer's Journal at supper: so that Margaret did not forget her own language was a wonder to everybody; especially as it was known that she had parted with her parrot because Armstrong had as great a dislike to tame birds as to dogs and cats. There was music enough, however, to break the silence which Margaret's own voice seldom disturbed. The little orchard was full of singing-birds, whose notes were far pleasanter than those of any chattering parrot. Armstrong played the flute too; and it whiled away the time to hear him play airs that she was taught to sing when a child on her mother's knee. Then there were other sounds as agreeable as music—the clinking of the chain when her master was letting down his bucket into the well; and the creaking of the roller on the smooth grass, and the whetting of the scythe in the early morning. Now and then, too, Margaret had to go to the next town for groceries and other things which were wanted; and then it was necessary that she should speak and that people should speak to her; and this practice, though it came very seldom, was enough to prevent her growing dumb.
She generally went twice a year to the town, which was four miles off. By her master's desire, she kept so large a stock of all necessaries by her, that there was no occasion to go oftener. He would not allow the name of “necessary” to whatever would not keep so long as six months. As to their food—he had the baking, and churning, and the rearing and killing of fowls, done at home, that no baker or market-man need come near his dwelling. His garden supplied his table, except that he regularly brought home a joint of meat after morning service on Sundays, the meat having been left for him at the house of an acquaintance on the Saturday. He sometimes went out fishing, and thus varied his fare quite enough for his own satisfaction: for he used to declare to a friend whom he saw occasionally, that he knew not what a prince could have better than good milk in the morning, potatoes, artichokes, peas and cabbages, with sometimes fish, flesh, or fowl for dinner, and a well-seasoned basin of gruel at night.
He was as easily satisfied as to clothing. The same blue coat with its large yellow buttons, the same leather breeches, mottled stockings, shoe-buckles, and cambric stock, had lasted him for many years, for he only wore them on Sundays; and it was quite enough for Margaret to buy his linen and the materials for his labourer's frock when she purchased her own stuff petticoat in the fall of the year, and laid in her stock of winter oil. He would not even have more frequent intercourse with the shoemaker, though he wore many shoes. He sent his worn shoes to town twice a year, and new ones were always ready to be sent back by the same messenger.
When people live so retired as Armstrong and his housekeeper, it is always supposed that they have some reason for dreading intercourse with their neighbours. It was believed, in the present case, that Armstrong was a miser, and that he kept a quantity of gold by him, of which he was afraid of any body getting a sight. It was prophesied, many a time, that he and Margaret would be found some day with their throats cut for the sake of this wealth. This was partly reasonable and partly false. Armstrong did keep money by him, and it was therefore likely that he would be robbed, if not murdered, living in so defenceless a way as his appeared to be. But he was no miser. He had been in trade in early life, and had lost money through the knavery of his partner. He immediately took a disgust to business, turned all he had into hard gold, bought this lone cottage and two acres of ground, and laid by two hundred guineas in a chest which he kept under his bed. Not all the reasonings of his friends about the uselessness of cash thus locked up, not all the hints that his life was not safe, not all the petitions of his only daughter that her husband might be allowed the use of the cash at a fair rate of interest, could induce him to unlock his chest. He declared that he would be cozened out of no more money; that he was resolved to leave his child two hundred guineas, and would not put it into the power even of her husband to lessen the sum; and as for thieves, he knew how to fire a pistol as well as any man, and could undertake to defend himself and Margaret and the cash-chest against more thieves than were likely to attack him. Of course, this was taken to be avarice; but he was by no means so careful in his expenditure as he might have been: he allowed two-thirds of his fruit and vegetables to rot, rather than sell them or let off any of his land; and what was more, he paid a boy for bringing a newspaper every morning as far as the foot of the steps, where he went to fetch it as soon as the lad had turned his back. No miser would have done this. A small yearly income arose from some commercial concern which was charged with an annuity to him. If any of this remained after the expenses of repairs, clothing, &c., were defrayed, he gave it all away the next Sunday to the poor whom he met in his way to the place of worship, except a few shillings which he put into Margaret's hands to answer any sudden occasion.
One fine summer morning Armstrong went to his arbour at the bottom of the garden to read the newspaper, preferring the smell of the honeysuckles to the heat of the porch, where the sun was shining in. He had left Margaret busy within doors, as usual at that time of day; and was surprised, when he had done reading and went in for his fishing-tackle, to find her dressed in her best, with her mob-cap and beaver, such as the Welsh women wear, of the shape of a man's hat. She was putting a clean cloth into the basket which hung on her arm, and preparing to set out.
“Why, Peg, is this the first of the month?”
“What has come to you, John Armstrong, not to know that?” said Margaret, looking alarmed for her master's senses. “That with the almanack hanging there, and the newspaper in your hand, you should not know that it is the first of the month!”
“I've mistaken a day, and I am sorry for it, for I had set my mind on fishing to-day. It is too hot for work, and just the day for good luck beside the pool yonder. You will have a cooler day and be more fit for walking to-morrow, Peg. Suppose you let me go fishing to-day?”
Margaret stared more than ever.
“Did I ever hear such a thing before?” cried she: “I that have never missed the first of the month since I kept your house, John Armstrong! And what will the people in the town think? I shall have them up here to see whether we are murdered; for they will say nothing else would keep me at home on the first of this month. And me to have to tell them that it is all because you have a fancy to go a fishing! And I have never been used to be dressed this way for nothing; but it must be as you please, John Armstrong.”
Margaret stopped to take breath; for she had not made so long a speech since she was in the town six months before. On her master's muttering something about losing such a season for a good bite, she made the exertion, however, to continue.
“If you must fish to-day, you need not keep me at home. You can lock the door and put the key in yon corner of the porch; and then, if I come back first, I shall know where to find it. It was my grandmother taught me that way, when she went out and I did not want to be left behind; for I was not fond of being lonesome then. Says she, ‘Stay at home as your grandfather bids you, like a good girl: but if you must go out, be sure you leave the key in the thatch.’ And so I did often and often, till grandfather came home one day and found out my trick, and then——”
“Ay, Peg; somebody will find out our trick too; and if you come back and find the chest gone, what will you say then? Off with you! but you will have no fish when you come back, that's all.”
Margaret smiled and shook her head and departed.
When she was out of sight, the old man felt restless and uncomfortable. He was not accustomed to be crossed and put out of his way, and he always accomplished, every day, exactly what he planned before breakfast. He had never given up an intention of fishing before. He wandered about the cottage. The beds were made, wand everything was left in such order that he could see nothing to find fault with, which would have been a great relief. He sauntered about the garden, and cut off some faded flowers, and tied up a few more, and wished it was evening, that he might water such as looked drooping. He wiped his brows and said to himself again that it was too hot to work. He got his telescope, and looked seaward; but a haze hung on the horizon, and he could discern no vessels. After a yawn, and a sudden thought that he could not dine for two hours later than usual on account of Margaret's absence, he began to think of taking her advice and going to fish after all. He locked the door, put the key into the hiding-place in the porch, walked round the cottage to see that the windows were fast, tethered the gate doubly, and marched off with his fishing-tackle. He turned to look back two or three times; but no one was in sight the whole length of the little valley. There was no sound of horse or carriage on the road below; and the stream looked so clear and cool as it splashed among the pebbles, that he was tempted to hasten on towards the pool above, where there was shade and an abundance of fish. He thought no more of the heat now that he had let himself have his own way; and proceeded whistling at a pace which would have done credit to a man of half his years. Once more he turned—at the top of the hill which was now to hide his dwelling from him—and fixing his telescope, saw to his great satisfaction that all was quiet; for the poultry were picking their food in a way which they would not have done if a footstep had been within hearing.
The shadows were lying dark and cool upon the water; the trout were unusually ready to be caught, and Armstrong had time for a comfortable nap after he had caught the number he had fixed upon beforehand as good sport. When he awoke, he resolved to hasten home that he might arrive before Margaret and surprise her with a dish of trout, while she supposed he had been at home all the morning. From the top of the hill he looked again through his telescope, and saw a sight which made his limbs tremble under him. The fowls were scudding about the yard in terror of a dog which was pursuing them; which dog was called off by a man who was making the circuit of the house, looking in at the windows and trying at the door. Armstrong threw down all that he was carrying, put his hands to his mouth and hallooed with all his might. But the attempt was absurd. In the stillest midnight, no human voice could have been heard from such a distance. Armstrong was soon sensible of this, and cursing himself for all the follies he had been guilty of that day, he snatched up his goods and ran down the steep path as fast as his old legs would carry him. He caught a glimpse of the man and the dog leisurely descending the steps, but when he arrived there himself, all was as vacant as when he departed. As he stood hesitating whether to follow the enemy, or go home and see what mischief was done, Margaret appeared below. While she toiled up the steps, her master reproached her bitterly with her morning's advice, and said that if his money was gone he should lay the loss to her charge. In the midst of her terrors, Margaret could not help observing that it was rather hard to have one's advice laughed at, and then to be blamed for the consequences of following it. She thought her master should either not have laughed at her, or not have changed his mind; and then she should not have wasted her money in buying him fish that he did not want. Armstrong was duly ashamed when he saw how his housekeeper had tried to console him for being left at home by bringing a dainty for bis dinner. He helped her to open the gate, her trembling bands being unable to untwist the rope, and carried her heavy basket into the porch. The key was safe in its hiding-place, as was the precious chest; and all within doors was in perfect order, No fowls were missing; no flower-beds were trampled; but it was certain that the newspaper had been moved from one bench to the other of the arbour.
“How you flurry yourself for nothing!” said the housekeeper. “I dare say it was nobody but Mr. Hollins come to play the flute with you.”
“He always comes in the evening; and besides he has no dog.”
“He is a likely man to read the newspaper, however, and I do not know anybody else that would sit here and wait for you, as some one seems to have done. Suppose it was your son-in-law come to ask for the money again?”
“He would not have gone away without his errand,” answered the old man with a sour smile; “and besides, you would have met him.”
“That puts me in mind, John Armstrong, I certainly saw a gentleman in the wood just down below, and I remember he whistled to his dog that was rustling among the bushes. A smart, pleasant-looking gentleman he was too; and when I turned to remark him again, he seemed to be watching where I was going.”
“A gentleman! Well, he is the first that ever came here to see me. except Hollins. But now, Peg, what do you mean by a gentleman?”
“A gentleman? Why, you always know a gentleman, do not you? A gentleman looks like a man — like a person — like a gentleman.”
“No doubt,” said Armstrong laughing. “But tell me now, would you call me a gentleman?”
“Why, in as far as you are beholden to no one for your living——”
“No, no, I do not mean that. Look at me and say if I look like a gentleman.”
Margaret hesitated while she said that she did not think any gentleman commonly wore frocks of that sort; but that on Sundays, when she brushed his coat before he went to the town, she always thought he looked very genteel: but that this gentleman was dressed rather differently.
“Differently enough, I dare say,” said Armstrong. “I am sure I hope my best suit will last my time; for there is not a shop within twenty miles that would furnish me with such a waistcoat-piece as I should choose to wear; and I like to button my coat with buttons that one can take hold of, instead of such farthing-pieces as your Birmingham folks make now.”
“It is a pity,” said Margaret as she moved towards the cottage, “that the gentleman did not stay to take a bit of fish, for we have more than we can eat while it is good.”
For a month afterwards, Margaret's prevailing idea was a superfluity of fish. She had great pleasure in making an acceptable present; but she could not bear to throw away money.
So much breath had been spent this day, that the inhabitants of the cottage felt quite weary before night, and scarcely opened their lips for many days, during which there was no further alarm.
One morning early, however, the sound of wheels was heard in the road below—a rare sound; for though the road was good and had formerly been much frequented when there were iron-works a few miles farther on, it was now seldom used but by a solitary traveller. The astonishment of Armstrong and his housekeeper was great to observe that carts laden with materials for building, and attended by a number of workmen, were passing by, and presently stopped at a level place at the foot of a hill full in sight of Armstrong's dwelling. He now, for the first time, perceived that the ground was marked out by stakes driven in at certain distances. Armstrong brought his basin of milk out of doors that he might watch what was doing; and the whole day was one of idleness and lamentation; for it was very evident, from the way that the labourers set to business, that an iron-work was about to be established where the wild heath and the green woods had flourished till now.
The next day made all clear. As the old man was drawing water for his plants at sunset, two gentlemen approached the gate. As one of them was Mr. Hollins, Armstrong advanced to welcome them.
“I have not brought my flute,” said Mr. Hollins, “for I am come on quite a new errand, this evening—to introduce to you a future neighbour, Mr. Wallace, who wishes for the pleasure of your acquaintance.”
Mr. Wallace, the same whom Margaret had seen in the wood, explained that he was a partner in the new iron-work, and that as his business would lead him to be every day within a stone's cast of Armstrong's dwelling, though he was at present inhabiting a house a little way off, he wished to be on a neighbourly footing at once, and had therefore called the week before, and was sorry to find the house shut up.
“I did not believe him at first,” said Mr. Hollins, “when he told me that he read the newspaper for an hour in your arbour, in the hope of somebody appearing. I never knew you and Mrs. Blake both absent at once. How happened it?”
When the story was told, Mr. Wallace praised the garden and the situation of the dwelling to the heart's content of the owner, who was always made eloquent by any allusions to his singular mode of life.
“Sir,” said he, “this plot of ground has produced to me something more valuable than ever grew out of a garden soil. It has gives me health, sir. My own hands have dug and planted and gathered, and see the fruits of my labour! Here I am, at seventy-nine, as strong as at forty. Not a grain of any drug have I swallowed since I came here; not a night's rest have I lost; not a want have I felt: for I pride myself on having few wants which my own hands cannot satisfy. I find no fault with other men's ways while they leave me mine. Let them choke one another up in towns if they choose, and stake their money, and lose their peace in trade. I did so once, and therefore I do not wonder that others try the experiment; but I soon had enough of it. I am thankful that I found a resting-place so early as I did.”
“You are very right, sir,” replied Mr. Wallace, “to judge for yourself only; for while men have different tempers and are placed in different circumstances, they cannot all find happiness in the same way. Even supposing every man possessed of the means of purchasing such an abode as this, your way of life would not suit persons of social dispositions, or those who wish to rise in the world, or those who have families to educate and provide for. I am glad to see you enjoy life; and I am glad that you allow others to enjoy it in a different way.”
“As long as they let me alone, I said, sir. I own I cannot look with any pleasure on what you are doing below; and I never shall, sir. It is very hard that we tenants of the wilderness cannot be left in peace. The birds will be driven from yonder wood, the fishes will be poisoned in the streams, and where my eye has rested with pleasure on the purple heath, I shall see brick walls and a column of smoke. I call this very hard; and though I mean no offence to you, sir, personally, I must say I wish you had carried your schemes anywhere else.”
“I am sorry our undertaking is so offensive to you,” said Mr. Wallace: “but I trust, when you see some hundreds of human beings thriving where there are now only woodcocks and trout, you will be reconciled to the change.”
“Never, sir, never. Let your gangs of labourers go where there is no beauty to be spoiled and no peaceable inhabitants to be injured. There is space enough in the wide world where they will be welcome.”
Mr. Hollins touched the arm of the stranger as a hint to vex the old man no further by opposition. Mr. Wallace therefore changed the course of conversation, and soon won the regard of his host by admiring his flowers and shrubs, and remarking on the fine promise of fruit, all which he could do with perfect sincerity. When he went away, Armstrong invited him to come whenever he liked, if—and here he sighed—he should remain in the neighbourhood.
“What do you think of my old friend?” asked Mr, Hollins, as he descended the hill with his companion.
“It gives one pleasure to see so fine an old man, and there are few who enjoy life so much at his age: but it would not do to have many fall in love with his way of living.”
“O no,” replied Mr. Hollins: “it is very well for one here and there who can afford it to indulge his own fancy as to his mode of life: but I do not know what the world would come to if our young men did no more for society than Armstrong. He takes up more room to much lees purpose than could be afforded to people in general. I really grudge the quantity of food I see rotting in his garden every year; and I am sure if he was aware how many thousands are in want of it, he would give up his peace and quiet for the sake of sharing it among them.”
“It would also be a great misfortune to any but so old a man to be cut off from all the advantages of society. The young would be ignorant and the aged prejudiced in such a state.”
“He is prejudiced,” said Mr. Hollins, “as you perceive. But we must make allowance for him.”
“I can do more than make allowance,” replied his friend. “I sincerely admire the activity and cheerfulness which are so unlike the temper we often meet with at so advanced an age. But while we account for your friend's prejudices by the circumstances of his life, it is no less true that men are not living in the right way who live to themselves alone.”