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Chapter III.: THE HARM OF A 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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THE HARM OF A WHIM.
The report that Mr. Wallace was going to be married was true. He disappeared in course of time; and when his agent said he was gone to London on business and would soon be back, everybody guessed that he would not return alone. It was observed that the house appeared to be very elegantly furnished, and the garden laid out as if for a lady's pleasure; and the curricle and pair of ponies, which took their place in the coach-house and stables, were luxuries which Mr. Wallace would not have procured for himself.
A murmur of surprise and pleasure ran through the place one Sunday morning when this curricle was seen standing at Mr. Wallace's door. Nobody knew that he was home except the agent, who was now remembered to have been particularly strict the previous night about having the whole establishment in good order. Before many gazers could gather round the carriage, Mr. Wallace appeared with a lady on his arm. She looked young and elegant, to judge by her figure, but she was closely veiled, and never once looked up to make any acknowledgment of the bows of the men who stood hat in hand, or of the curtseys of the women. Mr. Wallace spoke to two or three who stood nearest, and nodded and smiled at the others, and then drove off, fearing that they should be late for church.
When a turn in the road had hid from them all traces of human habitation, the lady threw back her veil and began to look about her, and to admire the charms of hill, dale, and wood, which her husband pointed out to her. She had much taste for natural beauties of this kind; and to this her husband trusted for the removal of a set of prejudices which gave him great concern. She was very amiable when among persons of her own rank of life; but, from having associated solely with such, she felt awkward and uncomfortable when obliged to have communication with any others. The poor in her neighbourhood, who saw her beautifully dressed and surrounded with luxuries, while she never bestowed a word or a look on them, supposed her to be very proud, and did not love her the more for all the money she gave away in charity; but she was not proud,—only shy. This her husband knew; and as he liked to keep up a good understanding; with everybody about him, and was familiar with the ways of his neighbours, whether high or low, he trusted to bring her round to habits of intercourse with all in turn, and to relieve her from an awkwardness which must be more distressing to herself than to anybody else. While she was standing up in the carriage, pointing out with eagerness the beauty of the situation of the town, her husband checked the horses, and held out his hand to somebody whom they had overtaken on the road. Mrs. Wallace instantly sat down, and drew her veil round her face, and put but little grace into her manner when her husband introduced his friend and neighbour, Mr. Armstrong, to whom he had promised on her behalf that she should pay a visit to his cottage some day. Mr. Armstrong replaced his hat when aware of the coldness of the lady's behaviour, and after one or two civil inquiries about her journey, begged he might not detain her, and returned to the pathway. She was considerably surprised to learn that she should see him again presently at church, as he sat in the same pew. There was a corner in this pew which had been his own for some years; and it was not the intention of Mr. Wallace, or the desire of his lady when she heard the circumstances, that he should be put out of his accustomed place for the sake of a new comer.
The new comer scarcely knew, however, what to think or do when Armstrong took his seat beside her after the service had begun. The clatter of his hob-nailed shoes as he entered, the ease with which he flung down his hat, and then stood a minute to smooth his hair and look round upon the congregation before he composed himself in his snug corner, were all strange to her: but she was most startled by the strength with which he put forth his tremulous voice in the psalm. He was heard far above all the other singers which would have been very well if he had been thirty years younger, for he understood music and bad a good ear; but considering that his voice was cracked and quavering with age, it was desirable that lie should now moderate its power. When the psalm was over, Mrs. Wallace drew a long breath, and hoped that she should grow accustomed to this sort of music in time.
“I wish somebody would give Mr. Armstrong a hint not to sing so loud,” said she, when again in the curricle, after having undergone some bridal introductions.
“It does not disturb those who are used to it, as I am afraid it did you to-day. I should have prepared you for it, but I forgot to mention it. When you hear him play the flute you will pardon his singing.”
“What a wonderful thing for a man of eighty to have breath to play the flute!”
“Every thing belonging to him is extraordinary, as you will see when we pay him a visit, which we will do to-morrow.”
“Why not this evening? The sooner it is over the better, if we must go.”
“He will not be at home till dark this evening; and besides, I want you to visit him and his housekeeper in the midst of their week-day business. You can form no idea of his usual appearance from seeing him in his Sunday trim.”
“I cannot tell what to expect, then, for I am sure he is like nobody else to-day. But what a pleasant countenance he has, when one has presence of mind to observe it!”
“I hoped you would think so.”
“But where will he be this afternoon?”
“Worshipping God after his own fashion, as he says. In the morning he pays his devotions after the manner of society,—the last social custom he has retained. In the afternoon, when the weather is fine, he climbs yonder peak, with a microscope in his pocket and his telescope in his hand, and there he by turns examines the heaths and mosses under foot, and looks out for fleets on the far horizon, repeating at intervals with the full power of his voice, the hundred and fourth-—his favourite psalm.”
“That is beautiful!” cried Mrs. Wallace. “O let us go to-morrow. Let us go very often if he will let us.”
On the next evening, accordingly, they went. Armstrong was employed in his garden, looking less like the owner of so beautiful a spot of ground than the humblest of labourers. His hat was brown and unshapely, and his frock earth-stained. He stretched out his hard hand to the lady when she appeared, and bade her welcome. The housekeeper did not show herself, as her maxim was, that it was time enough to come when she was called.
As Mrs. Wallace was not tired, and as she perceived that the old man was happier in his garden than any where else, she proposed that he should show her on what plan he arranged and tilled it. It proved very unlike any garden she had ever seen, having all the beauty of wildness, but poorly cultivated and laid out in a wasteful manner. It consisted of three distinct portions,— one, half-orchard, half-shrubbery, where lilacs grew luxuriantly out of the turf, and fruit-trees bordered the green walks; another half potato-field, half kitchen-plot; and a third which might have been a lady's pleasure-garden. This part was better taken care of than the rest, and was the old man's pride. It sloped towards the south, and was hedged in so securely that none could overlook it, and it was no easy matter to find its entrance. A well in the midst of a plot of turf, was as picturesque an object as could have been placed in the nook near the entrance. Strawberry beds occupied the sloping bank, and borders crowded with rich flowers completed the beauty of the whole.
“These gravel walks suit a lady's feet better than the grass in the orchard,” said Armstrong. I must find time to mow those paths some day soon.”
“I should think you must be at a loss sometimes,” observed Mrs. Wallace, “to know what task to set about first, as you will let nobody help you.”
“I assure you, madam, I often think of Eve's dilemma of the same kind. But if men had no worse perplexities than how to choose between a variety of pleasant tasks, ours would be a very happy world.”
“But Eve would have been glad of help if she could have had it as easily as you. She would have set one to train the branches, and another to remove the fallen blossoms, and another to water the young shoots, while she tied up the roses as before.”
“Not if she had known, as I know, the mischief that arises as soon as people begin to join their labours. There is no preserving peace and honesty but by keeping men's interests separate. When I look down, sir, upon your establishment there, I say to myself that I had rather live where I am if I had only a tenth part of this ground and one room in my cottage, than own youder white house and be master of three hundred labourers.”
Mr. Wallace smiled, and would have changed the conversation, knowing the uselessness of reasoning about the advantages of society with one whose passion was for solitude; but his wife's curiosity and the old man's love of the subject soon caused them to return to the topic.
“I should like to know,” said Mrs. Wallace, “what is it that shocks you so much in our doings below.”
She could not have made a more welcome inquiry. Armstrong was eloquent upon the inelegance of smoke, and rows of houses, and ridges of cinders, and all the appearances which attend an iron-work, and appealed to his guest as a lady of taste, whether such a laying waste of the works of nature was not melancholy. Mrs. Wallace could not agree that it was. It was true that a grove was a finer object at this distance than a. cinder-ridge, and that a mountain-stream was more picturesque than a column of smoke; but there was beauty of a different kind which belonged to such establishments, and to which she was sure Mr. Armstrong would not be blind if he would only come down and survey the works. There was in the first place the beauty of the machinery. She thought it could not but gratify the taste to see how men bring the powers of nature under their own control by their own contrivances; how the wind and the fire are made to act in the furnace so that the metal runs out in a pure stream below; how, by the application of steam, such a substance as iron is passed between rollers, and compressed and shaped by them as easily as if it were potter's clay, and then cut into lengths like twigs.
Armstrong shook his head, and said this was all too artificial for him; and that granting (as he did not deny) that nature worked as much as man in these processes, she worked in another way which was not so beneficial,— in men's hearts, making them avaricious, deceitful, and envious,”
“I was going to say,” replied Mrs. Wallace, “that there is another sort of beauty in such establishments, which I prefer to that I was speaking of. I know nothing more beautiful than to see a number of people fully employed, and earning comforts for themselves and each other. If people obtain their money as they want it, they are less likely to be avaricious than if it came to them without exertion on their part; because the energy which they give to the pursuit in the one case is likely to fix itself upon its rewards in the other. I do not know of any particular temptation to deceit or envy where all have their appointed labour and a sufficient reward without interfering with one another.”
“I have seen enough of the tricks of trade,” said the old man.
“You have been unfortunate, as I have understood,” said Mr. Wallace; “but it does not follow that there is knavery wherever there is social industry, any more than that every one has such a pretty place as this to retire to in case of disgust with the world. But as I was going to add to my wife's description, there appears to me not less beauty in the mechanism of society than in the inventions of art.”
“That is you being a master, like to survey the ranks of slaves under you.”
“Not so,” said Mr. Wallace mildly, for he was not inclined to resent the petulence of the old man. “There is no slavery, no enforced labour, no oppression, that I am aware of, in our establishment. Masters and men agree upon measures of mutual service, and the exertions of each party are alike necessary to the success of their undertaking.”
“It may be so just now, because your trade is flourishing more than it ever was before, and labour is scarce, and your people are well paid; but they will not be long contented. When prices fall and wages must come down, they will discover that they are slaves.”
“Never,” replied Mr. Wallace, “for this reason: there is no bond of mutual interest between master and slave, as there is between the capitalist and the free labourer. It matters nothing to the slave whether his master employs his capital actively or profitably or not; while this is the all-important consideration between the free labourer and his employer. It is the interest of our men and ourselves that the productiveness of our trade should be increased to the utmost; that we should turn out as much work as possible, and that therefore we should improve our machinery, divide our labour to the best advantage, and bring all our processes to the greatest possible perfection. All our labourers there fore, who understand their own interest, try to improve their industry and skill: while, if they were slaves and their lot did not depend on their own exertions, they would probably be careless and indolent. In such a case, 1 should have no more pleasure than you in surveying our establishment, if indeed such an one could exist.”
“You are the first iron-master, the first master of any kind, whom I ever heard declare that both parties in such a concern had a common interest.”
“I am surprised at that,” replied Mr. Wallace, “for no truth appears to me more evident. How many classes have you been accustomed to consider concerned in production?”
Armstrong laughed, while he pointed significantly to himself, and then looked about him.
“You unite in yourself the functions of Capitalist and Labourer,” replied Mr. Wallace; “but yours is, I am happy to say, an uncommon case.”
“You are happy to say?”
“Yes; for if all men had followed your mode of life to this day, there would have been no iron-work nor any other sort of manufacture in existence, and life would have been barbarous in comparison with what it is, and there would have been few in comparison born to enjoy it. You would yourself have been a sufferer. You would have had no spade and no scythe, no bucket for your well, no chain for your bucket, no newspaper in the morning, and no Farmer's Journal in the afternoon. Since you owe all these things and a thousand others to the co-operation of capitalists and labourers, my dear sir, it seems rather ungracious to despise such a union.”
“Well, sir, you shall have it your own way. How many classes of producers do you reckon?”
“Speaking of manufacturing produce, I reckon two,—the two I have mentioned; and I never listen to any question of their comparative value, since they are both necessary to production.”
“I should have thought Labour more valuable than Capital,” said Mrs. Wallace, “because it must have been in operation first. The first material must have been obtained, the first machine must have been made, by labour.”
“True. Capital owes its origin to labour; but labour is in its turn assisted and improved by capital to such a degree that its productiveness is incalculably increased. Our labourers could no more send ship-loads of bar-iron abroad without the help of the furnace and forge and machinery supplied by their masters, than their masters without the help of their labour.”
“Then the more valuable this capital is, the more abundant the material wrought, the more perfect the machinery, the better for the labourer. And yet all do not think so.”
“Because those who object to machinery do not perceive its true nature and office. Machinery, as it does the work of many men, or that which it would take one man a long time to do, may he be viewed as. hoarded labour. This, being set to work in addition to natural labour, yields a greatly-increased produce; and the gains of the capitalist being thus increased, he employs a yet larger portion of labour with a view to yet further gains; and so a perpetual progress is made.”
“Not without drawbacks, however,” said Armstrong. “Do not forget the consequent failure of demand.”
“That is only a temporary evil: for when the market is overstocked, prices fall; and when the price has fallen, more people can afford to buy than bought before, and so a new demand grows up. If printing and paper-making, for instance, were still unknown, we should have no newspapers; if the machinery were very imperfect, they would be so expensive as to be within reach of none but the wealthy; but, as the produce of both arts is abundant and therefore cheap, we find newspapers in every alehouse, and if it were not for a duty which has nothing to do with their production, we should see them lying in many a cottage window. Thus the public are equally obliged to the owners of printing presses and their workmen. These workmen are obliged to the masters whose capital sets them to work; and the masters are obliged to their men for the labour which sets their presses going. All are gainers by the co-operation of Labour and Capital.”
“I was very near doing a thing the other day,” said Armstrong, “which would have made you suppose that I was going to adopt some of your notions. I had observed a man lingering about the hills———”
“Is his name Paul?”
“I never asked; but he was a beggar, covered with rags who used to sit for hours watching what went on below. I was so persuaded that he was of my opinion about your doings, that I became quite interested in him.”
“You liked him for being neither a labourer nor a capitalist?”
“Not quite so,” said Armstrong laughing; “for I would not have the poor become beggars. I was just going to ask him to help me to get my garden into winter order, when I found he had secured a cell in your hive. I was quite disappointed.”
“That the drone had become a busy bee, or that he had left you to gather in your own stores?”
“My hands are sufficient for my own business, as they have ever been,” said Armstrong. “But I was sorry that the man forfeited his independence, which was the very thing I liked in him.”
“Will you continue to pity him when you see his tatters exchanged for decent clothing, his bare head housed in a snug dwelling, and his independent tastes gratified by the beauty of his flower-beds and the luxury of a book to amuse his winter evenings? Paul seems to me a very extraordinary man. I expect soon to see him circumstanced as I have described, for he works with might and main, and I imagine has rather a different notion of independence from yours.”
In order to give Mrs. Wallace a distinct idea of what his own passion for independence was, Mr. Armstrong invited her into his house, and shewed her all his plans for waiting upon, and employing, and amusing himself. He was not satisfied with her admiring his fishing-tackle, his fowling-piece, his flute, and his books; he wanted her to acknowledge that there was more security and peace in his mode of life than any other;-—a somewhat unreasonable thing to expect from a bride whose husband was so differently engaged. She could not in this respect satisfy him; but she endeavoured to conquer the shyness she felt coming on when Margaret made her appearance, and to converse with her in her own style; and when the lady and gentleman at length departed, they expressed with equal warmth their hopes that the old man would long continue to find his mode of life secure and peaceful. They little imagined, at the moment, what was soon to happen,—they little knew when they discussed his favourite notions over their breakfast-table the next morning, what had already happened, to overthrow his sense of security for ever.
After parting with his guests, Armstrong stood for some time at the top of the rocky steps, watching the two figures winding down the hill in the twilight. Then he recollected that he had been interrupted in watering some choice plants, and hastened to finish his task. When he had hung up his bucket, and put away his tools, and seen that his gate was fastened, he leaned upon it, watching the last fading of the sky, and listening to the brook as it rippled along. His meditations took their character in part from the preceding conversation; for while he repeated to himself how much pleasanter it was to observe and love nature than to gather wealth, he could not drive from his mind the question which had been often asked him, of what use his gold was to him: and when he thanked God for having given him enough for his simple wants, it occurred to him whether he ought not to dispose of the wealth he did not use for the benefit of others; especially as there was a way of doing so,—by putting it out to circulate and bear interest,—by which it might be useful without losing any of its value. While so many were in want, could it be right in him to hoard? While so many could advantageously employ capital, could it be right that any should lie by idle?— Such thoughts were not at all out of place in a religious meditation; for the best part of religion is to imitate the benevolence of God to man; and every study to do this is a religious contemplation.
Armstrong's mind was so full of this subject, that when the darkness sent him in doors, he could not settle, as usual, to the Farmer's Journal. He stirred his evening fire, and played the flute a little, and wound up his watch, and then, supposing he must be very tired with seeing company, he went early to bed. He did not sleep, directly, however; he heard Margaret for some time murmuring to herself, as she often did when darning stockings alone; then she tried the fastenings of the doors and windows, raked out the fire, and went into her own room, where he heard her slip the bolt, as usual. The boasted security of the master of this cottage did not prevent its inhabitants from using as many precautions against enemies as the richest merchant in London. Nor were these precautions needless.
About three hours after, when Armstrong was sound asleep, he began to dream very uncomfortably of strange noises which he took to proceed from the machinery of the iron-work, and of a cold blast which proceeded from the furnace when he expected a hot one. This dream appeared to last very long, though it had in reality passed through his brain in a few moments, at the end of which time he was completely roused by a creak and screech of the latticed window of his room, the cold air having blown upon him as it was opened. He started up and saw a man leaning in at the window as if on the point of entering Armstrong seized the pistol he always kept by him and fired. The man retreated, but apparently not wounded; for after some whisperings without, a dark form again appeared at the lattice, and others moved behind.
“I will shoot as many of you as dare to come to the window,” cried Armstrong with his loudest voice, “I am well armed, so shew yourselves at your peril.”
He fired again, but the figure had the instant before retreated. On listening for a moment, Armstrong thought the thieves were gone round to attack some other point of entrance. He hastily closed the window, and upreared the chimney hoard against it that he might at least hear if they returned to his chamber. He then thundered at Margaret's door; for which there was little occasion, as she was up and crying out to know what was the matter.
“Thieves; but not in the house; so make haste and get a light.”
This was presently done, and it then appeared that Margaret had as much courage as her master. She valiantly brandished the poker while he reloaded his pistols; and they both made so much noise in the intervals of listening, that unless the thieves were well informed that there were only two people in the house, they might have supposed there were half a dozen. It was impossible to find out whether they remained at hand or not. Windows and doors shook and rattled many times before daylight; but whether acted upon by human hands or by the autumn night-wind, was never known. “Hark!” was said by one or the other of the watchers perpetually, and they wandered from window to door and from door to window till dawn, and then very naturally started at their own shadows in the twilight.
Upon examination, which they ventured at sunrise, footsteps were visible all round the cottage; but there were no marks of blood, of which Armstrong was glad, among other reasons, because he detested the idea of a prosecution, and was willing that the thieves should escape punishment, provided he could get over the affair quietly.
“What do you mean to do next?” Margaret ventured to ask when he had done ruminating over his breakfast.
“I have made up my mind,” he replied, “and I do not mean to change it. We are neither of as to say a syllable of what has happened.”
Margaret nodded, for this was what she expected.
“Can you fire a pistol, Margaret?”
She had never tried, but she had no doubt she could.
“Very well; then you will do to stay with me, if you choose to comply with my conditions. If we tell what has happened, it will put it into other people's heads to attack us: and it will do no good to remove the chest, now that I have the reputation of having one. It must be for that they came. You and I will watch by turns this winter, one going to bed at dark to sleep till midnight, and then watching while the other sleeps till dawn. Now, Margaret, will you stay or go?”
Margaret asked a little time for consideration, which was of course given. By dinner-time she was ready with her assent to the plan. Not many women would have given it; but attachment to her master and her office prevailed over the few fears she had, and the condition of silence would not be difficult to observe if, as she expected, she should see nobody for some months, unless indeed it should be the thieves themselves.
Armstrong was again haunted with the idea that it would have been better to allow his gold to circulate so that it would be robbed of none of its value to himself, than to risk its being obtained by others in such a way as that he should lose the whole.