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Chapter VI.: DISASTERS. - 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 change of times of which Mr. Wallace was ever mindful came at last. At the end of three years the price of bar-iron was just half what it had been in the days we have described. There were many perceivable reasons for this change. The political state of various countries was unsettled, and trade in general, therefore, disturbed. The quantity of iron produced by the flow of capital and labour to that department had more than met the immediate demand, and there was a glut in the market, It was hoped that this glut was only temporary; but there was much doubt whether the demand for bar-iron from South Wales would ever again be as extensive as formerly, for the Welsh iron-masters had now rivals abroad. In America and in various parts of Europe, establishments for the preparation of iron were beginning to flourish at the expense of those of longer standing in our own country. Where the iron-stone, coal, and limestone were of good quality, and the works were situated near some navigable river, their produce could be brought into the market at little more than half the price for which the Welsh iron-masters could afford to sell theirs.
This circumstance seemed to destroy the hope that the works in which we are interested could ever more enjoy the prosperity which had been their lot for a few years. Many a sigh escaped from their masters as they were obliged to diminish their profits again and again; and many a curse did the least wise amongst their people vent upon the French or the Americans who took their trade from them; forgetting that as nature had scattered her mineral treasures over various regions of the earth, all their inhabitants have an equal right to use those treasures as the interest of society may prompt. What men have to do is not to refrain, or to expect others to refrain, from using the materials put within the reach of all; but by industry and ingenuity so to improve the resources of art as that the greatest possible number of men may share the benefit; in other words, that the produce may be made as excellent and as cheap as possible. To render any article of production more and more cheap, and more and more excellent, is the only way to create a permanent demand; as the competition among producers which has always subsisted, and always will and ought to subsist, can only be met by bringing the article into more general use. So that Mr. Wallace's labourers, instead of cursing their competitors on the other side of the water, had better have aided their employer in devising means for improving his manufacture, and thus becoming better able to stand a competition which could not be prevented.
The affairs of the concern underwent perpetual and anxious consideration by the partners. They thought apart, they consulted together, they exercised the greatest possible care to promote the interest of all concerned in all their measures. Knowing that it is an unfounded prejudice that the interests of the two parties united in production can be opposed to each other, they wished that their men should understand the reasons of their measures and approve of them, and were therefore ever ready to converse with such as made their complaints or proposed their doubts in a reasonable manner. Some such there were, and some had already informed themselves sufficiently respecting the fluctuations to which trade is liable, to be more sorry than surprised at the present state of things; but there were many more who were ignorant enough to suppose that their earnings were never to be lessened, however the fortunes of their masters might be suffering; and who made as heavy complaints at every mention of a reduction of wages as if they had been treated with injustice. It was hard for the partners, who were as benevolent as they were discreet, to bear these complaints in addition to their own change of fortune; but they would willingly have listened to them, if the grumblers would in turn have heard their reply. This, however, the men were unwilling to do. If they had chosen, they might have known that the affairs of the concern stood thus.
The capital employed in this iron-work was made up, as we have seen, of three parts,—the implements of labour, the material on which labour was to be employed, and the subsistence, or wages, of labourers.—Of these three parts, the first, comprehending the buildings, machinery, and tools, came under the head of fixed capital. The second and third, comprehending the mineral material of the manufacture and the wages of the work-people who carried it on, constituted the reproducible capital of the concern. The fixed capital had not itself brought in any profit; its purpose had been to enable the reproducible capital to bring in a profit: that is, the furnaces and steam-engine had yielded no money themselves, but were necessary to bring the iron-stone into a saleable shape. When the bar-iron sold well, it not only paid the owners the interest of the money they had laid out as fixed capital, and whatever they had spent in iron-stone and in wages, but a great deal over for profit. This profit was called their revenue, and out of it they paid the expenses of living, and then added what remained to their capital, which enabled them to employ more labour, to produce more iron, and therefore to increase again their revenue and their capital. If all had proceeded smoothly, if there had been a continually increasing demand and no foreign competition, it is clear that the wealth of the partners and the prosperity of the concern would have gone on continually increasing; but as it did not, a change in the employment of the capital became necessary.
It is common to speak of two kinds of revenue. That which we have mentioned,—the profits of capital,—is called neat revenue; while the name of gross revenue is given to the whole return made to the capitalist; that is, his reproduced capital and his profits together make his gross revenue, and his profits alone make his neat revenue.
When the price of bar-iron fell, the gross revenue was of course less than it had been; so that when the capital was replaced, a smaller neat revenue than usual remained. The partners immediately did what all wise men do in such a case,—they diminished the expenses of living. Mr. Bernard dismissed two of his household servants, and did not indulge his children with a journey that year, and bought very few books, and left off many luxuries. Mr. Wallace laid down his curricle; and his lady sent away her maid and got her hand in again, as Paul would have said, to dress her hair. These retrenchments did not effect all the partners wished, and, for the first time since they opened their concern, they added nothing to their capital at the end of the year. The next year, though they retrenched still further, their neat revenue was not enough for their family expenses, and they were compelled to consider what retrenchments they could carry into their business as well as their domestic management. They knew that the grand point they must aim at, for the sake of all, was to keep their capital entire; for the less capital they laid out, the less labour they could employ, and the less iron they would send into the market, and their gross and neat revenue would dwindle away year by year.
It was evident that their fixed capital must be left as it was. Whenever any change was made in that department, it must be to add to it; not by building more furnaces, but by substituting machinery,—hoarded labour,—for the labour which demanded wages; but this would not be done till the effect of a reduction of wages had been tried. Whatever change was made, therefore, must be with respect to the reproducible capital. Could any economy be carried into the preparation of the iron-stone? The different parts of the process were pondered frequently with this view; and the result was, that no change could at present be made in the first fusion of the metal, but that the cinder which came from the refinery and the forge might, by being mixed with a particular kind of earth, be made to produce an inferior sort of iron which would sell well for certain purposes. The experiment was tried and succeeded to some extent, though not so triumphantly as was expected by Francis and his brother, who had turned their attention long and industriously to this point. They had hoped that the piles of cinder which formed so ugly an object in their view would disappear by degrees under their new process; but they were obliged to be content with using up that which was daily thrown off in the manufacture of the superior kinds of iron.
What was to be done besides? The outlay of reproducible capital in wages must be lessened. It was so. The first reduction was taken quietly; the second excited murmurs among the ignorant, and fear and sorrow among the clear-sighted of the sufferers; the third occasioned threats of actual rebellion. Some of the men refused to work for such wages. Their masters explained to them the necessity of keeping the works going, and continuing to produce as much iron as possible, at however low a price, in order to retain their stand in the market as long as their capital could be returned entire. The men once more submitted, but were not long quiet.
It became necessary to diminish the cost of production still further, as prices continued to fail. It was found that parts of the work which were now done by hand could be done more cheaply by mechanical contrivances; and some new machinery was therefore introduced, and some men and boys dismissed. This created an outcry; but how could it be helped? There was no other way of preserving the capital of the concern, and on that capital every man belonging to it depended as much as the partners. The work-people to be dismissed were, of course, chosen from among the least industrious and able. It was hoped by their masters and neighbours that they would carry their labour where it was more wanted, and leave the place in peace; but instead of this they remained till their last farthing was spent, trying to persuade others to throw up their work unless higher wages were given, and swearing at the machinery, and abusing the owners, to the great annoyance of all sober people. Some who went away to find work, returned continually to spread discontent wherever they could, and to aggravate the existing distress by adding ill-will to poverty and anxiety. On pay-days especially, they gathered round the doors when the people went to receive their wages, and laughed at them for the smallness of their earnings, and tried to exasperate them by reminding them how much was now done by wood and iron that was till lately wrought by human labour, and how prosperous they had all been once when less machinery was in use. Some were too wise to be taken in by all this, and answered, that the new machinery was the consequence and not the cause of the change of times; and that prosperous as they were three years before, they might have been more so if these mechanical improvements had been then in use. But many more, who were ignorant or so dispirited as to be ready to take up any cause of complaint, allowed themselves to be deceived and persuaded that their employers were conspiring to oppress them.
It soon after happened, most unfortunately, that a boy, who had in charge the management of some part of the new machinery, was careless, and put himself in the way of receiving a blow on the head, which killed him on the spot. There was no more reason to complain of the new machinery than the old on account of this accident. If the filler had allowed himself to fall into the furnace, or the keeper had put himself in the way of being burned when he tapped the hearth, or the catcher had thrust his arm in the way of being crushed by the rollers, no one would have blamed anything but their own carelessness; and so it ought to have been in the present case. But the new invention was now to bear the blame of everything, and people were present when the accident happened, who took advantage of the occasion to work upon the feelings of the discontented. It was a sad scene.
A sudden cry brought the overlooker to the spot. He found four or five people gathered about the boy, who lay quite dead, with his skull fractured and his face distorted, so that he was a terrible object. One man was holding forth in a great passion, demanding whether their lives were to be sported with at the fancy of those who chose to enjoy their luxuries at the cost of the poor; if they must submit, not only to have their work done for them before their faces, but to be liable to be wounded and struck dead by a power which they could not resist? A cool, wary-looking man, who stood by, appeared to check the furious orator, but in reality inflamed his passion.
“You forget, my man,” said he, “that it must be a pleasant thing to our employers to have slaves that want nothing to eat and drink, and ask no wages and make no complaints. They find us very troublesome, because we tell them we and our wives and little ones must live. Wood and iron have no such tales to tell, so no wonder they are preferred to us.”
“They have no such tales to tell; and the saying is, that dead men tell no tales; but this boy,” cried the passionate man, pointing to the body, “shall tell a tale that shall rouse the spirit of all the oppressed within many a mile. I will carry him from one end of the district to the other; and all that want redress shall follow in his funeral train.”
“How will you frame your complaint?” asked the other quietly. “Our masters will laugh and ask if it is their fault that iron breaks bones. They will tell you that if the lad had been out of work, as they want us all to be, this would not have happened. They will tell you that if he had been loitering about the baker's door, longing for the food he could not buy, instead of being quietly at work—”
“O, my boy, my boy!” cried a dreadful voice at this moment. “I will see my boy, I will see who murdered him, I will have revenge on whoever murdered him,! O, you are cruel to keep me away! I will have revenge on ye all!”
It was the unhappy mother, who had heard that her son was killed, but did not know how. She was so possessed by the idea that he had been destroyed by human force, that when she saw him she was not undeceived, and continued to vow revenge.
“Revenge is not so easy to be had,” observed the quiet man. “You may pull the machine to pieces, but it will feel nothing, and so do you no good; and they that put up the machine are too high for the revenge of such as we are.”
“They are not,” cried the passionate man. “If we pull their works to pieces, we only take what is our right as wages; and do you think it will not gall our masters to see us take our own? If it did not, would they not give us our own? As for you, poor creature,” he continued, addressing the mother, who was passionately wailing over the the body, “take your own. Take the cold clay that should have been alive and strong before you this many a year. Close his eyes that always looked bright upon you. Nay, never grasp his hand in that manner. Those hands should have brought you bread when your own are feeble; they should have smoothed your pillow when you could only have raised yours to his head to bless him. Cover up his face, you that stand there! His mother will forget his pretty smile, and this ghastly look of his will haunt her, night and day, till she goes to her grave. It is well he cannot smile again; it would make her forget her revenge.”
“Who dares talk of revenge? Upon whom do you seek revenge? cried a powerful voice from the outskirts of the crowd, which had, by this time, assembled. It was Paul, who had arrived so as to hear the last words, and had more courage than the overlooker to interfere.
“I demand revenge,” shrieked the mother, starting up with clenched hands and glaring eyes, while her hair fell over her shoulders.
“Was it you?” replied Paul in a gentle voice, as he made his way to her. “I thought it had been another voice. Come with me,” he added, drawing her arm within his own; “I will take you home. He will follow,”—seeing that she was going to lay hold of the body. “They will bring him home, and you will be quieter there.”
“Quieter! quiet enough when I shall have no son to speak to me night nor morning,” cried the woman, bursting into another passion of grief.
“She does not want quiet, she wants revenge, and it was my voice you heard say so,” exclaimed the passionate man.
“Then you did not know what you were saying,” replied Paul gravely.
“You shall say the same, you shall be one of us, or I will knock you down,” cried the man.
“I will not say so, for nobody has been injured that I know of—”
Paul could not proceed for the outcry. “Nobody injured! Was it no injury for a widow woman to have her son killed at his work by an unnatural accident like this? She was as much injured as if his throat had been cut before her eyes by the masters' own hands.” Inflamed more than ever by this outcry, the passionate man rushed upon Paul, and tried to knock him down. But Paul had the advantage of being cool, and was besides a very powerful man. He stood the attack, and then floored his adversary. It was a dreadful sight to see the mother, who should by this time have been hiding her grief at home, helping the fight. The flush and sneer of passion were on her face as she tried to raise and encourage the fallen man. Paul had nearly lost his temper on so unprovoked an attack; but one glance at the woman brought tears into his eyes.
At this moment the clatter of a horse's feet was heard, and Mr. Wallace, who had been absent from the works for some hours, rode up. The overlooker now seemed to recover the use of his limbs and his senses. He made way for his employer, who showed by his countenance more than by words how much he was shocked that such a scene should take place on such an occasion. He rode between the two fighters, and desired them to depart by opposite ways, gave the unhappy woman into the charge of the overlooker, and sent the bystanders about their business.
In half an hour, Mrs. Wallace, who had heard of the accident merely from common report, and knew none of the succeeding circumstances, was sitting beside the poor woman, endeavouring to comfort her and to keep her quiet from the intrusions of her neighbours. This was construed into a new offence by the discontented; and when the sufferer was found to have changed her tone, to speak calmly of her loss, and gratefully of the attentions that were paid to her, she was told that the lady only came to speak her fair and make her give up her revenge. One said they had got something by their discontent already, for it was a fine thing to see an elegant lady come on foot to a labourer's cottage and sit down as if she lived in a cottage herself; and another asked what sort of a story she had wheedled the mourner into believing about the new machinery.
The woman replied that it was not the first time by many that Mrs. Wallace had come down among them, to say nothing of the other ladies, who spoke with one or another every day of their live. Mrs. Wallace was a tender-hearted lady, she would say that for her, though she seemed high when nothing happened to make her take particular notice. She had never so much as mentioned the new machinery, and knew nothing about it, seemed. It was not to be supposed that ladies were told all that was going on at the works; and though the offence was not to be forgiven or forgotten, it was to be brought home to the partners and not to their families, to whom she, for one, should never mention it.
“'Tis all the lady's art,” cried one. “She has gained you over by a few soft words,” said another. “I wonder you let yourself be so taken in,” added a third; so that the poor woman, who was of a changeable temper at all times, and now weakened by what had happened, was persuaded to think as ill of Mrs. Wallace as her neighbours would have her.
When the lady came early after breakfast the next morning, she observed that the children ran out to stare at her, and that their mothers looked scornfully upon her from the windows. This was very painful to her; and she passed on quickly till she reached the house of the woman she came to seek. The door was locked, and when she tapped to ask admittance, a lattice above was flung open, and she was told by a saucy voice that the person she wanted did not wish to be interrupted.
“Will you come down, then, and let me speak a few words to you about the funeral?”
The neighbour above drew back as if to repeat what was said. In a moment the mourner (who could not be interrupted) took her place, and screamed out like a virago, as she looked,—
“Let alone me and mine at your peril. They that killed my boy shall not bury him.” And she continued to pour out such a torrent of abuse' that the lady, who had never before heard such language, was ready to sink to the ground. Her servant-boy, who bad stayed a little behind on an errand, now came up, and looked so fierce on those who dared to insult his lady, that her fear of the consequences recalled her presence of mind. When her spirit was once roused, no one had more courage or good sense. Determining instantly what to do, she held up her finger as a sign to John to be quiet, laid her commands on him to make no reply to anything that was said, and stood at the window-sill to write a few words on a slip of paper which she bade him carry to Mr. Bernard or one of his sons, absolutely forbidding him to let her husband know, even if he should meet him, how she was placed.
“I cannot leave you, ma'am, among these wretches,” cried John, looking round on the mob of women and children who were collecting.
“Do not call them wretches, or look as if there was anything to be afraid of,” said his mistress, “but make haste, and then come to me under that tree.”
What she had written was, “Say nothing to my husband, but come and help me to clear up a mistake of some consequence.” When John disappeared with the note, which everybody had seen her write, the cry of abuse rose louder than ever. It was hard to bear; but the lady felt that if she retreated now, she should lose her own and injure her husband's influence for ever among these people. The thought came across her, too, that she might owe some of this to the reserve of her usual demeanour; and as a punishment also she resolved to stand it well. She therefore only made her way to the tree she had pointed out, and sat down under it; a necessary proceeding, for she could scarcely stand. There she waited for John's return with Mr. Bernard, longing to look every instant whether they were coming, but carefully refraining from turning her head that way, lest the people should see her anxiety.
“What is all this?” cried Mr. Bernard, when at length he arrived breathless, with John at his heels, wiping his brows. “Have these people dared to hurt you?”
“No: they have only railed at me, so that I could not make myself heard; and I want you to help me to find out why. Keep your temper, I implore you. I sent for you instead of my husband, because I was afraid he would not command himself.”
John was eager to explain why he had been so long. Mr. Bernard was not at the office, as John expected. Mr. Wallace was, and John had much ado to avoid telling him; but he held his peace and went on his errand. It seemed as if he had been gone for hours, he said, for he did not know what might have happened in his absence.
Mr. Bernard knew more of the present disposition and complaints of the people than Mrs. Wallace, and—what was on this occasion of as much consequence—he had a stronger voice; so that he soon got to the bottom of the matter.
He showed them the folly of supposing that the lady's object was different now from what it had been in many former cases where she had shown kindness; and began to rate them soundly for their ingratitude and savage behaviour, when the lady interceded for them. When he stopped to listen to her, there was a dead silence. She said that she did not wish them to be reproached more than she was sure they would soon reproach themselves; that she did not come among them for the sake of making them grateful to her, but in order to show her good-will at times when good-will is worth more than anything else that can be given. As long as her neighbours were willing to accept this good-will as freely as it was offered, she should come among them, undeterred by the mistakes about her motives which a few might fall into; but that no person was called upon to encounter a second time such treatment as she had met with that day; and therefore, unless she was sent for, she should not appear among them again. If this should be the last time they should ever speak to one another, she hoped they would remember it was not by her wish, but their own.
The people were now in a condition to hear reason, and they believed the lady's assurance, that when she came down the day before, she knew nothing whatever of the cause of the boy's death, and was silent on the subject of the new machinery only because she had no idea how much the people were thinking and feeling on the subject. She was ready henceforth to talk about it as much as they pleased.
When she stood up and took Mr. Bernard's arm to go homewards, nothing could exceed the attention of the people—so changeable were they in their moods. One brought water, which the lady accepted with a kind smile; and glad she was of it, for she was very thirsty. The mourner's door was now wide open; and, with many curtseys, Mrs. Wallace was invited to enter and rest herself. This, however, she declined for the present day. The mothers called their children off as a huntsman calls off his dogs, and the hunted lady was at last left in peace with her friend and her servant. When Mr. Bernard had left her safe at home, her spirits sank. She did not fall into hysterics, nor alarm her household with an account of what she had gone through; but she sat alone in her dressing-room, dropping many a bitter tear over the blindness and folly of the people whose happiness seemed quite overthrown, and unable to keep down a thousand fears of what was to happen next.