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Chapter IV.: A CONVERSATION UNDER THE LIMES. - 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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A CONVERSATION UNDER THE LIMES.
Sergeant Rayne was a happy old man. Every body loved him for his kindness of heart, and looked up to him with respect for the simplicity of his character, and for the wisdom he had gained by his travels abroad and his meditations at home. The labourers of the village were always ready to stand and chat with him when he had inquiries to make about their families. The housewives invited him in as he passed their doors, and wiped down a chair for him. The children brought him nosegays as he sat beneath the elm; and it was his delight to take one on his knee and collect the others round him, while he told long stories of his adventures on land and sea. It was amusing to witness the eagerness of the little creatures—one holding his face between both her hands lest he should look away before the tale was ended,—another crowding question upon question faster than they could be answered—a third uttering an impatient “hush!” at each interruption. He allowed them to do what they liked with him; and one little rogue used to creep up behind him on the bench to peep into the pocket which sometimes contained apples and nuts, while another amused himself with buttoning and unbuttoning the empty sleeve which the sergeant was wont to consider his most honourable badge of service. When my mother and I went to a shop, we often found him seated beside the counter, reading the news to two or three listeners; and more frequently, as we passed through the churchyard, he was to be seen on the bench in the lime walk, with spectacles on nose, intently reading one of the good books which he valued more than newspapers, chat, or child's-play, dearly as lie loved them all. When so engaged, no one interrupted him, and he took notice of nobody but the clergyman, to whom he never failed to offer his best bow. They usually entered into conversation on the subject of his reading or on the results of his meditation; and the clergyman has more than once told me that he owes to Sergeant Rayne many a topic for a sermon, and many a hint which he afterwards found valuable in his intercourse with his flock.
On one occasion, he conversed as freely with me as if I had been the clergyman. His spirit was moved, and it was a relief to him to express his feelings where he knew he might look for sympathy.
He was sitting in the churchyard, one bright, mild noon of a late autumn day. He had been reading, but had put down his book with his finger between the leaves, while he watched the motions of the sexton who was digging a grave near him. When he heard the rustling of my little dog among the fallen leaves, he turned and saw me approaching from the stil. I thought there was a look of invitation in his eye; and when he brushed a few dead leaves from the bench, I took my seat beside him.
“That grave is for old John Williams, I suppose?” said I.
“It is; and I was just grieving in myself that he who is about to be laid there should have gone down to the grave in sorrow, after a life of usefulness and honour.”
“You mean on account of the ill-doing of his son Hal?”
“Yes, miss: and not only that, but of the change in the family altogether, and of the difference in their prospects from what his were at their time of life. I remember what a happy family they were fifteen years ago, when he owned his little farm here in the neighbourhood. His sons in the field and his daughters in the dairy were as fine a set of lads and lasses as could be seen. And now to think how some are dead and others dispersed, and the favourite of all likely to come on the parish through his own imprudence,—it does make one's heart ache.”
“And the poor old man himself,” said I, “was supported by the parish during his time of infirmity.”
“Yes, miss; and that of itself would have brought him to the grave if his childishness had not saved him that pain. He deserved better from his favourite son than that he should marry before he could afford it, and turn over his old father to be maintained by the parish.”
“Did you ever tell the young man so?”
“Why, miss, I thought if his own natural affections and sense of duty were not enough to guide him, there was little use in my saying any thing. But this much I did tell him: that I had more pleasure in making my old mother comfortable with my pay than I could ever have had in indulging my own wishes; and that I am happier in my old. age without wife or children than I could have been under the thought that she had died in the workhouse.”
“And what did he say?”
“He smiled and said I had never been in love; but—” the old man sighed and shook his head.
“I am afraid,” said I, “Hal has not much comfort in his wife; for they seem to have gone down in the world sadly since they married.”
“True, miss: and the old man knew this before he died; for he became sensible both of this and of his son Richard's death. Richard, you know, miss, was a seaman, and was supposed to be at the other side of the world at this time; but a week ago, a letter came to say that he was dead; and it enclosed twelve pounds, which he had saved from his pay and left to his aged father. I told Williams all about it, and shewed him the letter and the money; but his memory so failed him, that he did not know who I was speaking of: and he forgot the whole the next minute. But O! miss, it all came back upon him at the last; and I shall ever bless God that I heard him speak rationally once more. He grew weaker every hour; and there he sat crying and wailing like a child, or talking so foolishly that one did not know how to answer him. But I have heard him speak like a man again, as sensibly as ever in his life, and with far more dignity than his son knew how to face.”
“It is a great consolation,” said I, “when the mind which has been long clouded becomes clear at the last.”
“A great consolation, miss; and never so much to me as in this case. He was too weak to be got up, the last morning; and when I went, he was either asleep or so quiet that we thought him so. I offered to sit by him till his son came from work; and I was reading in the armchair by the bedside when he raised his head and said, quite in his natural voice, ‘is that you, sergeant?’ I saw at once that he was quite, sensible. He asked who that woman was at the fire; and when I told him it was his daughter-in law, Ann, his son Hal's wife, he repeated the words to himself, and mused for a while, and then asked for Hal. Hal came in at the moment, and his father spoke to him as if they had not met for years. ‘So you are married, Hal,’ said he, ‘and I did not know it till now. Well, that is no fault of yours. But where's Richard now? Has he been to see us, and I did not know that either? O, but surely I remember something about him. Did not you tell me, sergeant, that he died? My poor son! But he only went a little while before me.’ And so he ran on till we told him he had better not exhaust himself with talking, and I drew the curtain that he might try to sleep again. He lay very quiet till his son and daughter left the room; and then, opening the curtain, he beckoned me close to him, and said he was sure I would tell him the truth, and that he wanted to know whether Hal was not very, very poor, as he observed that the best furniture was gone, and that the room looked comfortless. I could not deny that they were poor. He went on to ask how they had supported him; and his look and manner were so earnest, and he did so insist upon his right to be told the whole, and it was so clear that he had some notion of the parish allowance, that I could not keep the fact from him. As soon as he had made out that he had been a burden on the parish, he turned away and hid his face under the clothes. I did not, for some time, venture to take any notice; but at last I said, as gently as I could, that there would never again be such a necessity, as he was now well supplied with money. He soon recalled the circumstance of his son Richard's legacy, and then made me tell him how many weeks he had received an allowance from the parish. ‘Forty-nine weeks, at four and sixpence a week; how much is that? More than I can pay, I am afraid. But I can't reckon it; will you?—Eleven pounds and sixpence, is it? Well, I am thankful I have the money; and I beg, sergeant, you will write a letter from me to the over seers.— now, before Hal comes in. Sit by me, and I'll tell you what to say.’ So, miss, he told me clearly what he wished me to say; and his letter was so proud and yet so humble! He said he hoped he could submit to be a burden at the last, if it should be God's will; but that he had never intended to be so, and would not while he could raise a shilling by other means; and so he begged to send back all they had allowed him. Hal looked surprised and vexed, when he came back, to hear what had been done; and he whispered to me that I knew very well how long his father had been superannuated, and that he hoped I should not fling away the money in any such manner, though it was very well to humour the old man by pretending to do as he wished. I made no answer, but I have the money and the letter safe, and they shall go to-night; for my good friend was as much in his right mind as you or I, miss; and more, I should say, than his son Hal. ‘There is but little left, Hal,’ said he; ‘but it will be more than I shall want; for I am just going. I wish I could have left you something more than my love and thanks for what you have done for me. I am afraid I have Been a sad trouble to you; but good children find all this trouble turned into pleasure when they look back upon it in after times.’ He went on speaking for some time; but his speech became less clear and his countenance altered, till he sunk back and breathed his last. I have thought of little else, ever since, Miss Lucy; and between joy to think how he recovered himself after being so long childish, and sorrow that he will never speak to me again, my heart is quite full still.”
The sergeant seemed so much affected, that I tried to divert his attention by inquiring into the beginnings of poor William's troubles.
“Why, miss, he and I were never agreed about matters of that kind. I always took a different view of his difficulties from what he did; and I should have tried a different way to get out of them, As soon as the war ended, his reverses began; and like all the rest of the farmers, he complained of the hardships of the agricultural classes, and that they had not fair play. It was of no use my reminding him that the farmers made enormous profits during the war, which could not in the nature of things be kept up for any long time: he was still crying out for higher duties on the importation of corn, and complaining of the prosperity of manufactures: just as if the welfare of the one class did not depend on that of the other. Then Mr. Malton's taking several farms into his own hands was a great grievance to him. When I saw what was doing, I advised him to keep no more land than he had capital to make the most of, and to send his children into the world, or let them provide for themselves under Mr. Malton; but he would do no such thing. So, from keeping more land than he could cultivate properly, his capital was returned in less and less proportions, and he went down in the world, and his children with him, till ruin overtook most of them.”
“It seems a hard thing,” said I, “that these large farmers should ruin their humbler neighbours; and why need it happen now more than formerly?”
“Changes are always going on in society, Miss Lucy, and there are usually some who suffer, and many who are benefited by these changes. Whenever such a change takes place, we hear a cry in favour of old times, and complaints that we do not go back to the old ways. But, to say nothing of the good or evil of old ways, is it possible to go back to them? In the present case, for instance, is it possible to set back our population, our manufactures, our modes of tilling the ground, to what they were when small farms were not found fault with? Certainly not: so the question comes to this:—having a multitude more mouths to feed, and requiring more and more capital to make the ground yield its utmost, is it wiser to obtain an increased production by changing our farming system, or to let the poorer population starve, that a certain class may continue to be landed proprietors who cannot properly afford to be so?”
“It is clear,” replied I, “that the general good must be considered before the indulgence of any particular class. But to whom is this question referred?”
“That is another point to be considered, miss. All these great questions are decided by the public interest, (unless some meddling law is interposed,) and not by individuals. As long as more corn is wanted, there is no use in railing at large farmers, or at those who buy of them, or at anybody. The demand cannot be prevented, and the supply will follow of course. Seeing all this, I could not be discontented with Mr. Malton for improving his land and trying new methods by which more corn was brought to market and at a cheaper rate than formerly; though I was sorry for Williams and others who could not keep up with him. My poor old friend never could agree with me there; nor could he hear with patience of the inclosure of our common. He was always afraid of too much corn being grown, and would never believe that the more food is raised, the more would be wanted.”
“Did he not see that a multitude in this kingdom have not food enough?”
“That, miss, he could not dispute; but his argument was, that while farmers are poor, there must be too much corn in the market. I never could get him to tell me why, if that were the case, Mr. Malton and others were busy enlarging their farms and taking in waste land.”
“That is what I was going to ask,” said I. “How can Mr. Malton afford to lay out a great deal of money which the land cannot pay back for years, if the business of farming is an unprofitable one?”
“He knows very well that whatever may be the changes of prices and the rise and fall of profits at various times, there will be a lasting demand for the produce of the soil; and that therefore landed property, with a sufficiency of capital to lay out upon it, must be a safe and lasting possession in the long run. For that long run he, as a large capitalist, can afford to wait.”
“Then it is an advantage to the public whom he supplies, and to the labourers whom he supports, as well as to himself, that he should carry on the work he has begun?”
“Certainly. He is preparing to feed many hundred human beings where only a few lean cattle grazed before. He circulates money now among his poor neighbours whom he pays for making his inclosures. They are very glad of their increase of wages, (as you may see if you go among them,) however much they may mourn over the loss of their common. This winter he will turn in his large flocks of sheep to bite every blade of grass and manure the ground. In the spring he will plough up the land, and afterwards sow it with turnips. Next winter, his sheep will feed off the turnips and give the land another dressing; and, during all this time, he is laying out a great deal of money on his fields without any other return than the scanty feed of his flocks. But, after this time, his land will begin to pay him back the expense of the purchase, of the fences, of the use of the teams, of the seed, and of the human labour which has been employed; and when it is improved to the utmost, he will probably find, or his children after him, that it is well worth while thus to employ his capital, and thus to wait for his profits.”
“If, for many years,” said I, “there has been less food in this country than was wanted, how happens it that so many commons are still uninclosed?”
“Because it often answers better to improve land already cultivated than to spend money on wastes. Of late years, agriculture has been much studied in this country, and means have been discovered by which lands that have been under the plough for hundred of years have been made to produce more by half than in old times. This is the way that Mr. Malton grew rich. If there had been nothing more to be done with his fields than formerly, he would probably have taken in the common some years ago: but his time and money have been occupied in trying new methods of cultivation, which have answered very well and enabled him to increase his capital, notwithstanding the badness of the times, from which he was no more exempt than other people. Having brought his estate into a high degree of cultivation, he is now able to add to it.”
“And to fix his capital,” said I, “amt wait for returns in a way which is not practicable for a small capitalist. Poor Williams, if he had been alive now, must have had his capital reproduced immediately or have been at a stand.”
The sergeant smiled while he observed that he saw he was not the only person who had conversed with me on the employment of capital. I told him how often I bad listened to conversations between my father and his friends on the philosophy of the changes which were taking place in our village.
“There is another way,” said I, “in which it seems to me easy to prove that there is the best economy in large farms. If industry is limited by capital, and if a capital grows faster in proportion to its increase, a large capital must afford increased employment at a quicker rate than several small ones. Do you see what I mean?”
“Yes, miss; and I think you perfectly right, Here is a case. Mr. Malton began, we will say, with a farm of three hundred acres, and three neighbours with each a farm of one hundred, his capital being just equal to that of the three together. Mr. Malton would have the advantage, in the first place, of having his capital better invested. His one set of farm buildings would require less fixed capital than their three sets, though his might be treble the size. His fencing and the disposal of his fields might be managed to better advantage. He might proportion his stock and instruments more exactly than they could to the work to be performed—finding, for instance, that five horses could do the work which it would require a pair of horses on each of the three small farms to do. The fixed capital thus saved, Mr. Malton could employ at once in improving his land, and thus preparing for a further increase of capital; while his neighbours could only go on as they did before. When these improvements bring in their profits, he has a further sum to lay out in the employment of labour, and the fruits of that labour enrich him still more; and all this time, his three neighbours are left further and further behind, though their smaller capital may be growing in its due proportion. At the best, at the end of a few years, they can only make the most of their one or two or three hundred acres, while he supplies society with the produce of his one or two or three thousand.”
“Do you know,” I asked, “with how much land Mr. Malton began the world, and how much he has now?”
“I rather think he began upon six or seven hundred acres; and now he has some thousands under his own eye. One of his tenants holds a farm of fifteen hundred, and another of twelve hundred acres; and these men adopt all Mr. Malton's improvements that their capital will allow, and have so increased the productiveness of their land as to be truly public benefactors.”
“Poor Norton will hardly have any chance of improving his little fortune in such a neighbourhood,” said I.
The sergeant shook his head, and said that he had tried to explain to Norton that as industry is proportioned to capital, it must answer better to let the labour of a society like ours to a large capitalist than to split it into portions which could not yield so full an aggregate return; but that Norton liked the idea of being a proprietor, and would listen to no evil bodings.
“If you were to go abroad, again, sergeant,” said I, “what would you do for want of somebody to advise? I suppose you found no foreigners so ready to look up to you as we are in your native village?”
“My business abroad was not to teach but to learn,” he replied, smiling. “Yet there were some who used to ask me questions by the hour together about the ways of my own country. It was the examination that I was thus led into that induced me to consider the reasons and rules of our public and domestic economy in the way which makes my neighbours here come to me for advice.”
“What sort of people were they who used to question you?” I asked. “Soldiers do not generally study these matters much.”
“It is a pity they do not,” replied he, “so much opportunity as they have of observing the ways of different countries. Those that I speak of were mostly soldiers, however; they were my companions in the hospital where I lost my arm. I was confined there many weeks, and a prisoner too; so that I was glad to amuse my thoughts by conversation whenever I could get it.”
“You could speak Spanish, then?”
“I managed to pick up enough both of French and Spanish to make myself understood. If I bad not, I should have been forlorn indeed, for not an Englishman was in that hospital but myself. I think I hardly could have borne to lose my liberty, my limb, and all intercourse with my countrymen at once, if I had been unable to talk with the people of the place. As it was, it was sad enough.”
“I have always wished,” said I, with some hesitation, “to hear the history of that terrible time from yourself; but I never ventured to ask it.”
The sergeant smiled as he assured me that I need not have scrupled, as it was a pleasure to him to go back to the remembrance of old times.
“I will begin with telling you, miss, how I got my wound. It was the first wound I ever had, though I had been often in the very thick of the fight. It was strange enough that on this particular day——”
Just at this moment the clock struck one. A shade passed over the face of the old man, and he stopped short. Knowing his passion for punctuality, I started up with many apologies for having detained him so long, and promised to call on him one day for his story, which it really was no little disappintment to me to give up for the present.
Before I left the churchyard, I looked back and saw that, though he was late for dinner, the sergeant had paused to look once more into his old friend's grave.