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Chapter VII.: DISCONTENTS. - 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 delusion that the improvement in machinery was the cause of a change in the times, and not the consequence of the future remedy for such a change, had become too general and too firmly established in this society to be removed by a few explanations or strong impressions here and there. Discontent grew hourly; and the complaints which had before been divided between the American and French iron-works, the rivals in the neighbourhood, the government of the country, and the whole body of customers who would not give so high a price as formerly for their iron, were now turned full upon the new machinery and those who had set it up. Growlings met the ears of the partners wherever they turned; the young men had to keep a constant restraint upon their tempers, and the ladies directed their walks where they might be out of hearing of threats which alarmed or murmurings which grieved them.
Two days after Mrs. Wallace's adventure, her husband, on rising from the breakfast-table, saw Armstrong coming in at the gate.
“It is a sign of the times that you are here,” said he, as he shook hands with the old man. “How are we to read it?”
“As your discretion may direct when you have heard my story.,” replied the old man gravely.
Mr. Wallace looked doubtfully at him, as if to ask whether they had not better save his wife from alarm by being private. Armstrong understood him.
“Sit down, madam, if you please,” said he. “Women are not often so cowardly as they are said to be, if they are but treated fairly, and given to understand what they are to expect. It is too much to look for courage from such as know that the worst they have to dread is often kept from them. So you shall hear, ma'am, and judge for yourself. Only do not turn pale before I begin, or you will make me look ashamed of having so little to tell.”
Comforted by the end of this speech as much as she had been alarmed by the beginning, Mrs. Wallace smiled in answer to her husband's anxious looks, and drew her chair to listen.
Armstrong related that he had observed from his garden, after working hours the evening before, an unusual number of people sauntering about a field at a considerable distance from his dwelling. He had called his housekeeper out to look and guess what it might be. She had once seen Punch in a field with a crowd; and her only idea, therefore, was that it might be Punch; and when her master sent her for his telescope, she fixed it at the window before she brought it, and was almost sure she saw a stand with a red curtain such as she had seen when Punch appeared to her. Her master, however, who was not apt to see visions through his glass, could make out nothing but that all the people in the field seemed to be now collected in one place, and that one man was raised above the rest, and apparently haranguing them. He instantly resolved to go, partly from curiosity, and partly because he expected to hear complaints of the management of the neighbouring concern, complaints which, kind-hearted as he was, he loved to hear, because they confirmed his prejudices, which were dearer to him than even his friend Mr. Wallace or Mr. Wallace's gentle wife. He did not give the account of his motives exactly as we have given it; but he conveyed it clearly enough by what he said to make Mr. and Mrs. Wallace glance at each other with a smile.
He arrived on the spot only in time for the conclusion of the last speech, from which he gathered that the object of the meeting was to consider what measures should be taken with their employers to induce them to alter such of their plans as were displeasing to their men; and that it was determined that a deputation should wait upon the partners to demand that the quantity of labour which was displaced by machinery should be restored to human hands. In order to try the disposition of the masters, it was also to be demanded that every man, woman, and child in the society, except the few necessary to attend to the furnaces, should be allowed to follow the funeral of the deceased boy the next day. If both requests were refused, the people were to take their own way about attending the funeral, and another meeting was to be held round the boy's grave, as soon as the service was over. Armstrong's description of the vehemence with which this last resolution was agreed to, convinced Mr. Wallace that it was time to take more decided measures for keeping the peace than he had yet thought would be necessary. While he was musing, Armstrong continued,—
“I hate your iron-work, and everything (not everybody) belonging to it, as you know; but I had rather see it quietly given up than pulled to pieces. So, if you will let me, I will go and tell the magistrates in the next town the condition you are in, and bid them send a sufficient force for your safety. I am afraid there is no chance of your giving up your new-fangled machinery.”
“No chance whatever,” replied Mr. Wallace decidedly. “If we give up that we give up the bread of the hundreds who depend on us for employment. By means of this machinery, we can just manage to keep our business going, without laying by any profit whatever. If we give up any one of our measures of economy, the concern must be closed and all these people turned adrift. I shall tell them so, if they send a deputation to-day.”
Armstrong contented himself with shaking his head, as he had nothing wherewith he could gainsay Mr. Wallace. At length he asked what Mr. Wallace chose to do.
“To refuse both demands, stating my reasons. I am sure my partner will act with me in this. As to your kind offer of going to the magistrates, I will, if you please, consult him, and let you know in an hour or two. I have little doubt we shall accept your services; hut I can do nothing so important without Mr. Bernard's concurrence. Where will my messenger find you?”
“At home in my garden. But take care how you choose your messenger. Some of the people saw me in the field last night, and if anybody goes straight from you to me to-day, they may suspect something. I took care to come by a round-about way where nobody could see me; and by the same way I shall go back.”
“But why go back? Why not stay where nobody will be looking for you?”
“Because home is one stage of my journey to the town, and I can slip away quietly from my own gate. By the way, your messenger must be one who will not blab his errand to my housekeeper or to any one he may meet. Peg is silent enough when there is no one for her to speak to; but we cannot tell in these strange days who may cross her path.”
Who should the messenger be? Mrs. Wallace offered her services, thinking that a lady would hardly be suspected; but her husband would not hear of her stirring out that day.
“Why not use a signal?” asked Armstrong at length. “A white handkerchief tells no tales, and I can see your windows plainly enough with any glass from my garden hedge. So hang out your flag and I shall know.”
This was at once pronounced the best plan; and it was agreed that at three o'clock precisely (by which time the temper of the deputation would be known) Armstrong should watch for the signal. If he saw a white handkerchief, all would be well, and he might stay at home; if a red, he was to go to the magistrates and state the case, and leave them to judge what force should be provided for the defence of the works. Mr. Wallace furnished the old man with a written certificate that he was authorised by the firm, and then bidding his wife hope for the best, hastened away to business. Armstrong also took his leave; and the three meditated, as they pursued their different occupations, on the ignorance and weakness through which members of the same society, who ought to work together for the good of each and all, are placed in mutual opposition, and waste those resources in contest which ought to be improved by union.
During the whole morning the partners remained on the spot in expectation of the message they were to receive from the great body of their work people; but none came. All went quietly on with their business as if no unusual proceeding was meditated; so that when two o'clock came, Mr. Wallace went home to comfort his wife with the tidings that she might hang out a white flag. There was no use in speculating on what had changed the plan of the discontented; it was certain that no pretence remained for sending for civil or military protection. Relieved, for the present, of a load of anxiety, the lady ran up stairs to prepare her signal with a step as light as any with which she had ever led off a dance; while, on the distant height, Margaret wondered what had possessed John Armstrong that he could not mind his work this day, but must be peering through his glass every minute, till, after a long, low whistle, he laid it aside and looked no more. She was almost moved to ask him what he had seen; but habit was stronger than impulse with her, and she held her peace.
When Mr. Wallace went down to the works again, he observed that Paul, who, as furnace-keeper, was accustomed to keep his eye on his work as steadily as an astronomer on a newly-discovered star, looked up as his employer's step drew near, and met his eye with a glance full of meaning. Mr. Wallace stopped; but as several people were by, explanation was impossible. “Paul, I want to know——but there is no use in asking you a question while you are busy. You will be meddled with by nobody at this time of day.”
“I had rather be questioned in broad day, when I am about my work,” replied Paul with another quick glance, “than at night when I am snug at home and think it is all over till the next day.”
“O ho!” thought Mr. Wallace, “I understand. Well, but,” he continued, “the question I was going to ask is not about your furnace-work, but one of your other trades. If I came to you in the evening, I suppose you would bolt your door and send me away without an answer.”
“Not so,” said Paul; “for I think every man that asks a fair question should have a plain answer. Such a one I would give with all civility; but when that was done, I should say this was no time for talk, and wish you good evening.”
“And if I would not go till I had got all I wanted, would you call Jones and his lads to turn me out by force?”
“Not the first time; but if you grew angry at being sent away, I should take good care how I let you come near me again in a passion. If you put a finger on my work-bench, I should call the Joneses to rap your knuckles and cry ‘Hands off!’ So you see, sir, what you have to expect.”
“You are a strange fellow,” said Mr. Wallace; “but I thank you for warning me how to behave.”
“It would be well if he behaved himself a little more mannerly,” said one of the workpeople near. “If any of us were to threaten a gentleman in that manner, what an outcry there would be about it!”
“Paul is an oddity, and does not mind being thought so,” observed Mr. Wallace. “But he shows us the respect of doing our work well, and taking as much care of our interests as if they were his own. Blunt speech and fair deeds for me, rather than fair words and rough deeds.”
“What do you think of rough words and deeds together?” said another workman. “They seem likely to be the order of the day.”
“No man is bound to put up with them,” replied his employer. “Here, at least, they shall not be borne.”
The man's companion jogged his elbow, and he said no more.
The partners, in communicating with each other, agreed that it was probable, from what Paul had said, that a tumultuous demand for leave to attend the next day's funeral would be made that night. As it was scarcely likely that the people would proceed to violence before the churchyard meeting they had appointed, it was determined that their absurd demand should be refused.
The gates of both dwellings were early closed that evening, and the doors well fastened. The ladies were not kept in ignorance of what was expected; for their companions had confidence in their courage, and remembered besides that it would add much to whatever confusion might occur to have consternation within the house, at the same time as tumult without.
It must be owned that Mrs. Wallace fell into a reverie more than once while her husband read to her; and that the young ladies at Mr. Bernard's played their duet more by rote than con amore this night. In all the pauses they listened for shouting or the trampling of feet; and when they had done, their father himself opened the shutters, and looked out and commanded silence. The moon had not risen, and there was no light but from the furnace-fires below, which sent up a red cloud into the sky; and there was no sound but the distant roar and rumble of the works. It was a warm evening, and the family stood for some time at the open window, talking little, but some trying to distinguish the stars through the columns of smoke, and others wondering what would have happened by the same hour the next night, while the little ones kept as quiet as possible in the hope that their papa and Mrs. Sydney would forget to send them to bed.
“Father!” cried Frank, “I saw a man leap the hedge,—there,—in that corner.” All had heard the rustling among the shrubs.
” Who is there?” demanded Mr. Bernard.
“Shut your shutters, Sir, I advise you,” said Jones in a low voice. “They are near, and they should not see your lights as they turn the corner. I ran on first, and Paul is gone with the party to Mr. Wallace's. I must make haste and join them again before I am missed. I only came to see that you were fast.”
“Will they proceed to violence to-night?” asked Mr. Bernard before he closed the window.
“No fear if you are decided and civil-spoken; but I won't answer for so much for to-morrow.”
So saying, Jones ran off and climbed the hedge again, that he might drop in at the rear of the party, the glare of whose torches began to appear at the the turn of the road.
“Upstairs, all of you, and let nobody appear at the windows but my lads and myself,” said Mr. Bernard. “And do not be afraid. You heard that there is no fear of violence to-night.”
There was a tremendous knocking and ringing at the door before all the family were up stairs.
“What do you want with me?” asked Mr. Bernard, throwing up a sash of the second story.
“We want, in the first place, your promise to take to pieces the new machinery, which keeps so many people out of work, and never to use it again without the consent of all parties concerned.”
“A reasonable request, truly! I believe there is more to be said, to bring us into the same mind on that point, than can be got through in a short summer's night.”
“Answer us Yes or No,” cried the speaker.
“Tell him the conditions,” said the man next to him. “Let him know what he has to expect either way.”
“No; tell me of no conditions,” said Mr. Bernard; “I deny your right to impose any, and I will Dot hear them. As long as my partners and I are in business, we will keep the management of our own concerns. So say nothing of conditions.”
“Answer us Yes or No, then,” repeated the first speaker. “Will you pull down the machinery, or will you not?”
“I will not. So you have my answer. My reasons are at your service whenever you choose to ask for them in a proper time and manner.”
The crowd murmured at the mention of reasons; but a man who flitted about among them, urged them to bring forward their second demand. This man was Jones; and his object was to shorten the scene, and get the people to disperse.
“Your reply is taken down, Sir——”
“Where it will never be forgotten,” growled a deep voice.
“And we proceed to request that all the people in the works may attend the funeral of James Fry to-morrow, and not return to work till the next day, with the exception of the smallest number necessary to keep the furnaces.”
“For what purpose?”
“For the purpose of expressing their abhorrence of the means by which the boy came by his death.”
“What could make you suppose my partner and I should grant your request?”
“Not any idea that you would like it, certainly. But what should hinder our taking leave, if you will not give it?”
“Hear my answer, and then spend to-morrow as you may choose. I refuse permission to any man to quit the work he has agreed to perform, with the exception of the four named by the boy's mother to attend the funeral. All besides who quit their work to-morrow, quit it for ever.”
“Suppose we make you quit your works?” cried an insolent voice.
“You have it in your power to do so by withdrawing your labour; but the day when yonder furnaces are out of blast will be the day of your ruin. If you force us to choose between two evils, we had rather close our concern, and go whence we came, than carry on the most prosperous business under the control of those who depend on our capital for subsistence,”
Another murmur arose at the last sentence.— “We will soon see what becomes of your capital!” “What is your capital to us, if you are so afraid of having anybody to touch it but yourselves?” “We will carry away our labour, and then much good may your capital do you!”
“Just as much, and no more,” said Mr. Bernard. “than your labour can do without our capital. Remember, it is not our wish that the two powers should be separated to the ruin of us all. If you throw up your work to-morrow, our concern is ruined. If you will have a little patience, and supply your share of our contract, we may all see better days. Judge for yourselves.”
He shut down the window and closed the shutters. The crowd below, after uttering various strange noises, and vehemently cheering sentiments proposed by their leaders, dispersed, and by midnight the shrubbery looked as still in the moonlight as if no intruder's step had been there.
A nearly similar scene, with a corresponding conclusion, had been exhibited at Mr. Wallace's. As soon as the people were gone, that gentleman determined to lose no time in communicating with Armstrong, as it was now evident that protection would be necessary if the people chose to gratify their passions by attending the funeral and subsequent meeting.
Mr. Wallace was little disposed for sleep, and thought a moonlight walk would refresh him, and remembered that he should be his own safest messenger; so when all was silent, he set forth, telling his wife that he should be back within two hours, when he hoped to inform her that Armstrong was gone to bespeak the necessary assistance.
It was just eleven when he reached the steps below Armstrong's gate. As he climbed the gate, the dog barked, growled, and made ready for a spring.
“How now, Keeper!” cried the master from within and his guest without, at the same moment. The dog knew Mr. Wallace's voice, hut was not sure enough of his man, muffled in a cloak as he was, to give over his alarm at once. He leaped and frisked about, still growling while the old man held forth a gleaming pistol in the moonlight from his lattice. “Stand off, or I'll fire,” cried he. But when he heard “Do not be in a hurry to shoot your friend Wallace,” he was in greater alarm than before. He hastened to let in his guest, that he might hear what had happened.
Mr. Wallace observed with some surprise that he had not called the old man from his bed. Armstrong had been sitting, with his labourer's dress on, beside the table, where lay his open Bible, his pistols, his spectacles, and the lamp. Before the visiter had time to ask what kept his friend up so late, the housekeeper put her night-capped head into the room.
“No thieves, Peg,” said her master, and the head withdrew; for Margaret did not see that she had any business with what brought Mr. Wallace there at so strange an hour. Her master was quite of her mind; for, when it was settled what he was to do, he tapped at her door and only said,
“I am going out, and if I should not be back till dinner to-morrow, don't be frightened. Keeper will take good care of you.”
And then he set off to rouse the magistrates, while Mr. Wallace proceeded homewards, pausing now and then to hear whether all was quiet below, and watching how the twinkling lights went out (so much later than usual) one by one in the cottage windows.