Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter II.: NEIGHBOURLY CHAT. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter II.: NEIGHBOURLY CHAT. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 2.
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At a late hour of this night, the young widow Cuthbert was still busy, as she had been all day, at her employment of net-making. The song with which she lulled her infant to sleep had long ceased, and she pursued her work in perfect silence by the dim light of her solitary lamp; her thoughts were alternately with the children who lay sleeping around her, and with the husband whose place of long repose was beneath the waters. As often as a little hand stirred above the coverlid, or a rosy cheek was turned upon its pillow, the anxious mother gazed and watched, and as often as the gust swept past, or a larger billow broke upon the shingle, her heart throbbed as if she was still awaiting the return of him who should never more return. She started, at length, on hearing a tap at her door.
“It is only Ella,” said a voice from the outside; and the widow hastened to open the door. “Your husband, your husband!” she exclaimed; “no ill to him I trust. You are not in fear for him, Ella?”
“He is safe home, thank Him who guides the storms!” replied Ella: “but it is a gusty night.”
“Ye look cold and your plaid drips,” said the widow, setting down the lamp, and applying more fuel to her smouldering fire. “What brines ye here so late, Ella?”
“Only a message from Angus about the nets, which I should have left till the morn, but that Kenneth and I saw a glimmer beneath your door, and I knew I should find you at your occupation. We press you too close for your work, Katie. It's an ill thing for sad hearts to watch so late. Better that we should do without our nets, than that you should look as you do now.”
“'Tis for my bairns,” said Katie, “or I would not undergo it. O, Ella! I have been jealous of you these two hours past, if, as I supposed, you were on the rock looking out.”
“No wonder, Katie; and yet I could have found in my heart to be jealous of Fergus's wife, and all the wives that were serving their husbands by the fireside, instead of breasting the wind, and mistaking every jet of the surge for a sail, as I have been doing since the sun went down. But I had Kenneth to while away the time with, and help to keep in the light. He showed me how they hoist the lanterns at the station, and our signals will be better managed from this night forward. O Katie, you must see Kenneth, and I must tell you all that his uncle has done for him.”
“But your husband,” interrupted the widow; “how long was he? and in what style did his boat come ashore? and which of you first saw him? and——”
“Now, Katie, why will ye be ever asking such questions as you know it wounds me to answer? I have told you he is home safe. He has brought such a store of fish, that, busy as the curers have been on board, there is as much left for the lassies and me to do to-morrow as we can finish before the twenty-four hours are gone. And that reminds me of the nets: Angus must have those tie ordered within three days, he bids me tell you; but let us look about for some one to help you, instead of your toiling with your fingers, help and harassing your spirits through the night.”
“We must toil while the season lasts,” replied Katie; “and as for the wear of spirits,” she continued smiling, “that is all fancy, and must be got over. I have nothing now to tremble for—no need to listen and look out, and I must learn not to heed the storm further than to be thankful that my bairns have about them all that makes a storm harmless. If this was a time of hardship, Ella, like some that have been known here, how I might have envied some who were kept watching, not by cold or hunger, but only by having more employment than they could finish in the day!”
“It is a rich season, indeed,” said Ella. “The shoals are such as Angus never saw before, for the multitude and the quality of the fish; and what is more, the crops arc coming up kindly, and farmer Duff says that he reckons on the best harvest he has had since he took the farm.”
“Thank God!” exclaimed Katie. “This plenty may prevent the price from rising, and nothing else could. It almost frightens me sometimes when I see the numbers that are growing up, to think how we are to get oat and barley meal for them all.”
“If you had been here all the sixteen years since I first came to this bay,” said Ella, “you would wonder at the change, and be thankful to see how improvements have risen as wants increased. Now trim your lamp, and go on with your business; it will be some time yet before my husband and Kenneth have finished with the boat and come for me.—Surely you make your meshes more than an inch wide;—no, the exact measure.—Well, that is one of the improvements I speak of.”
“It was folly, indeed,” replied Katie, “to use such nets as I used to make—nets that caught the fry and let the full grown go free. That was the quickest way to make every season worse than the last. Then there are the boats, so much safer from having pumps, so much more favourable to the fish from be, ng cleaner, and so much better built, that our fishers need not lose their time in short trips, but can push out into the deep seas, and stay many days together. All these things, help to make fishing profitable.”
“Besides,” said Ella, “they help farming, which is of as much importance to us as the fishing. Corn from abroad is so dear, that we should be little better off than before, if farmer Duff did not grow more than Murdoch once did.”
“The people in the other islands and in Lorn want all they can grow as much as we,” replied Katie, “for their fishery grows with ours. bleat and bannocks are as dear in all the countries round as they were here last year.”
“Then we may thank farmer Duff for all the pains he has taken with the soil of his fields all the stock of his pastures. He reaps just double what he reaped fifteen years ago.”
“And so he had need, for there are more than double the number of mouths to feed. Besides the strangers that have come to settle, look at the families that have grown up. Where Mr. Callum used to spend a few days now and then, there is Mary Duff's husband and her five bairns; then there are your nine, Ella— how your household is increased!”
“There lies one brother under the gray stone,” said Ella, “and Ronald seeks his bannocks elsewhere; but there is Fergus's tribe as well as my own; and setting one against Murdoch's son that died, and another against his daughter that went off with the soldier, there is still more than double the number by far.”
“Even supposing,” added Katie, “that Murdoch's daughter does not come back upon her father with her children, which I have heard is likely. But, Ella, Duff's farm ought to yield double and double for ever, if it is to go on to feed us, for our children will marry and have their little tribes as we have. If you and I live to be like many grandmothers in these islands, we be shall see our twenty or thirty grand-children, and perhaps our eighty or ninety great-grand-children.”
“And then,” replied Ella, “may God keep us from the poverty that weighs on such! May we never see our strong men wasting on shellfish and weeds, and our aged people dropping cold and hungry into their deathbeds, and our young mothers tending their sickly infants, knowing that food and warmth might save them, and unable to bring them either the one or the other!”
“Do not let us think of it,” said Katie, looking round upon her domestic comforts. “Providence has blessed us thus far, and let us not be too keen to foresee the evil day that man's power cannot remove.”
Ella was silent. Katie proceeded,—
“Surely man cannot remove that day, Ella, though you say nothing. Let farmer Duff' do all he can; let every foot of land be tilled that will nourish an ear of barley, still the day may come; and what else can man do?”
Ella made no direct reply. Presently she observed that Dan and his wife seemed not to care for thc evils of such a time, since they lived by choice on the poorest food, and provided themselves with nothing that they could lose in the worst of seasons.
“They are content, always content,” observed the widow; “and they say they have all that is necessary; and they wonder that we can trouble ourselves to obtain anything that is not necessary: but I tell them we do not; I think a chimney, and a window, and bedding, and decent clothes all necessary for the children.”
“Unless you would have them live like pigs in a sty,” observed Ella. “When God gave us the charge of these little ones, he gave us no leave that ever I heard of to expose them to sickness and hardship, and to corrupt them by letting them live like brutes. By making them helpless and quick in their feelings, he has shown as plainly as if he sent a prophet to tell us, that we are to tend them as carefully and keep them as innocent as ever our labour and forethought can help us to do. Whenever I see a little one grovelling in dirt, or pining in want, or given to vice such as it should not even have beard of, I always feel as if God's plain-spoken message had been at some time misunderstood; either that the trust has been wrongly undertaken or wrongly managed.”
“I knew you thought so, Ella; and yet what can we say when parents see and mourn all this, and cannot help themselves?”
“We can only say that if both father and mother have considered and judged for the bet, and worked hard, and denied themselves, no fault rests with them. Where the fault lies in such a case is a thing that Angus and I have talked over many a time. But such a case does not concern those we were speaking of—those who are content with destitution, when they might have comfort.”
The widow looked on her children and sighed.
“Nay,” said Ella, smiling, “there is no need for you to sigh. You might carry your bairns to Inverary, and match them with the duke's, and not a stronger, or fairer, or more innocent would you find among them all.”
“May it please Providence to keep them so!”
“Why should you fear? You have comfort about you, and a prospect of abundance. Keep your tears for a darker day, if there be such in the years to come.”
“Every day is dark to me now,” thought the widow; but she kept down a feeling that seemed ungrateful. Ella went on, anxious to cheer her.
“I watched your little Hugh this morning, as he and my younger ones were playing on the sands, and 1 thought he looked as if he was made to carry his own way through the world. You should have seen him managing the dragging of the pool with the ragged net Angus gave the children. You would have thought he had been to the station to take a lesson of the superintendent, by his direction of the rest.”
“Aye, I am afraid he is overbearing,” replied the mother.
“Not at all; only spirited. If you keep him innocent with such a spirit as he has, he may be anything; he may be like Ronald himself, who is so fond of him. O, he is not overbearing. I saw him let go the net the moment little Bessie was frightened at your dog that jumped upon her; and he carried her through the water that was too deep for her to wade, as soon as ever she began to cry for me. Now I think of it, Ronald did take him to the station once, surely.”
“Yes; not very long ago, the last time he was here; and Hugh saw the superintendent as you suppose, and has been full of imitation of all that he saw ever since.”
“He may be superintendent himself some day or other, Katie. But does not he love Ronald very much?”
“Very much; as he ought to do.”
“All my children do,” replied Ella. “It is always a happy time when uncle Ronald comes. The same man that the officers respect above all who are under them is as much beloved by the little ones as if he were a soft-hearted girl.”
“You had the making of Ronald, and I give you joy of your work,” said the widow.
“Ah, Katie, that is the way you always silence me about Ronald,” said Ella, smiling.
“Well, then, tell me about Fergus: he is your work too.”
“You know all I can say about him,” said Ella, sighing. “You know my pride in him, and that this very pride makes me the more grieved when I see hi's temper harassed and soured by care, as I feel it must go on to be, more and more. I am always in dread of a quarrel with one neighbour or another; and more than ever now, in the high fishing season.”
“Surely he has less care now than at other times,” observed the widow. “There is just now abundance for every body.”
“True; but this is the time for revenge. If Fergus has carried himself high towards any neighbour, or given the sharp words that are never forgotten, now is the time for his nets to be cut, or his boat set adrift, or what he has fished in the day carried off in the night.” “There are those in Garveloch, I know,” said Katie, “who can bring themselves to do such things.”
“Let us mention no names, Katie; but thus it is that men shame their race, and spurn the gilts they little deserve. To think that we cannot enjoy a plentiful season in peace and thankfulness, but that some must injure, and others complain! These are times when we should leave it to the osprey to follow a prey, and to the summer storms to murmur. Hark! there is Angus's step outside; and time it is, for it cannot be far from midnight.”
The widow invited Angus in to warm himself by her now bright fire; but it was time for rest. Kenneth had gone home an hour before.
“He would find supper on the board,” said Ella; “and now, Angus, you will be glad to do the same.”
Katie promised the nets within three days; and as soon as she had closed the door behind her guests, sat down again for one other hour to help the fulfilment of her promise, and then slept all the better for having watched till the wind went down.