Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VI.: A DREARY PROSPECT. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter VI.: A DREARY PROSPECT. - 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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A DREARY PROSPECT.
A time of leisure, as grievous to the most reckless and indolent as to the superior members of the society, came round ere long. First appeared hardship in the shape of an average crop; for the people having increased their consumption up to the amount of a remarkably abundant harvest, were of course stinted when the soil yielded only the usual return. No very disastrous consequences followed at first. There was much complaint and a little dismay when it was found that supplies must not be looked for from the neighbouring districts, since there also the season had been only moderately favourable, and there were mouths enough to feed in each place to leave no supplies over for Garveloch. The Garveloch people therefore were obliged to eat some of their fish instead of selling it, and to pay a very high price for their barley and oatmeal. Those who were able to give this price were willing to do it, seeing that the rise of price was a necessary consequence of the comparative scarcity; that farmer Duff must pay himself for the outlay on his land, whether its produce were ample or scanty; and that its dearness alone could make the supply last till the next harvest came round. Those who were too poor to buy abused the farmer, saying that his crop was not scantier than it had been in many former years when he had sold it much cheaper, and that he was making use of a dispensation of Providence to fill his own pocket. They were slow to perceive that it was themselves and not the farmer who had made the change; that they had caused the increase of demand and the consequent rise of price.
It would have been well if nothing worse than the occurrence of an average season had happened. The number of people brought by a sudden. demand for labour might have lessened. Some might have departed elsewhere, and others have devised plans for a new introduction or better economy of food; and after a short period of hardship, the demand for food might have gradually accommodated itself to the supply; for their society was not like the population of an overgrown district, where there may be mistakes in ascribing effects to causes, and where the blame of hardship may be laid in the wrong place. The people of Garveloch might survey their little district at a glance, and calculate the supply of provision grown, and count the numbers to be fed by it, and by this means discern, in ordinary circumstances, how they might best manage to proportion their resources of labour and food. But if any had endeavoured to do this, their expectations would have been baffled by the event, unless they had taken into the account the probability of bad seasons—a probability which the truly wise will never overlook.
A few seasons after the period of prosperity of which we have spoken, the dawn of a June morning broke as gloomily as if it had been November. Scudding clouds, from which came gushes of hail, swept over the sky and brushed the tallest points of rock as they passed. The wind came in gusts as chill as the wintry blasts, and before it the vexed ocean swelled and heaved, while its tumbling mass of waters seemed to forbid man to approach, much more to trust the frail workmanship of his hands to its overwhelming power. The night-light still glimmered from some of the dwellings in Garveloch, the islands of the Sound were not yet visible from the heights, and the peaks of Lorn were but beginning to show themselves against the eastern sky, when Angus came out stealthily from his dwelling, softly closed the door, drew his plaid about him, and paced down to the beach. He was proceeding to get out his boat, when his son Kenneth approached.
“Father,” said he, “you are not going to trust yourself at sea to-day?”
“Help must be had, Kenneth. I must cross at the risk of my own life, or more will be lost. I have here the last of my savings; and since money is worth no more than pebbles in Garveloch, I must carry it where it may buy us food.”
“And my mother——”
“Your mother is in the inner room, where she has been up with Jamie all night. I heard him very loud just now. His fever runs high, so that she will not miss me perhaps for hours. She neither saw nor heard me come out.—Now, Kenneth, say nothing about going instead of me. You know that my experience of the sea is greater than yours, and the best skill is little enough for such a voyage as mine is like to be”
“But my mother must soon know,” urged Kenneth.
“Surely. Tell her that I hope to be back to-morrow night, with that which may ease her nursing. Farewell, my boy.”
Kenneth was a brave, high-spirited youth. His heart was full when he saw his father put off among the stormy breakers, and he therefore said nothing. He helped to guide the boat to the last moment, wading as deep and struggling with the waves as long as he possibly could, till his father made a commanding sign that he should return. There was no use in speaking amidst the thunder of the waters. Kenneth wrung out his plaid, and climbing the rock, sat down, unheeding the wind, to watch his father's boat, scarcely visible in the grey light, as it won its weary way among the billows. Bitter thoughts rose fast within him;—his father in peril at sea; his mother worn with care and watching; his beloved little Jamie, the youngest of the large family, and their darling, sinking under the fever; all the others changing from what they had been, some in health, some in spirits, some in temper, and he unable to do anything to help them. Dismissed with others from the station because his labour was not now worth the food he consumed, he had come home to be, as he thought, a burden, but as his parents declared, a comfort, to his family amidst their cares, and daily looked round, and ever in vain, for some means of assisting them. As he now thought of the fruitlessness of all his efforts, tears rose and blinded him so that he could no longer discern any object at sea. As fast as he dashed them away they rose again, till he no longer resisted them, but let them flow as they had never flowed since childhood.
As he sat with his face hid in his plaid, he was roused by the pressure of his mother's hand upon his shoulder. She had spoken from a distance, but the roaring of wind and waters and the screaming of sea-fowl were more powerful than her voice, and her appearance took Kenneth by surprise—a surprise at which she smiled.
“Mother!” he cried, as he started up, and a burning blush overspread his face; “if I were a good son, it would be my part to smile when I found you with sinking spirits.”
Ella smiled again as she answered—
“And when my spirits sink, I will look to you for cheer. Meantime, never fancy that tears are unworthy a brave man, or always a sorrowful sight to a mother. It is God's will, Kenneth, that there is cause for tears; and since there is cause, it is no pain to me to see them fall. If God calls you and me hither to look out upon a second year's storms, he knows that it is as natural for the heart as for the cloud to drop its rain; and never think, my boy, that I shall be a harder judge than he.”
“But what brought ye out, mother, so early, into the cold?”
“I came to seek the cooling wind. Jamie fell asleep, and Annie came to take her turn beside him; and finding Angus gone, take and my head hot and weary, I thought I should find more rest on the rock than in my bed. I see the boat, Kenneth. I know your father's purpose, and I guess you were praying just now for his safe return.”
“And, O mother! I had some distrustful thoughts in the midst of my prayer. If he should not return, and even while he is gone, I can do nothing. Here I am, eating my daily portion, which I never helped to earn; being a burden when I thought—proud as I was—that I should be your main joy and help. O mother! this humbles one sadly. I never thought to be so humbled.”
“Who that is humbled ever sees the stroke before it comes, Kenneth? Look round, and mark. Where many a smoke rose, only a short year since, from those cottages below, the fires are quenched, and with them is quenched the pride of those who revelled in plenty. Now, many are gone, and have left but four bare walls for us to remember them by. Some are gone to lie cold under yonder gray stones, and some few have found their way back over the sea. Those that remain have lost their pride: it was blown away with the cold ashes of their last fire; and it will not come back while they sit hungry and shivering. Which of these thought any more than you that they should be so humbled? When I gloried in my Jamie, as the brightest and handsomest of my children, I did not expect that he would be the first I should lay in the grave.”
“Must he die, mother?”
“I take such to be God's will, Kenneth; but I once had a lesson, as you know, against reading his pleasure too readily. They that I thought lost came to dry land, and another lay under the water when I thought him safe on the hard rock. Since that day, I have ever waited for the issue; and so I will now. We will hope that Jamie may live, and we will be ready to part with any who were but just now in life and strength.”
“It is but little we know, indeed,” replied Kenneth. “It seems but yesterday that yon sea was almost as busy as a thronged city, with a hundred vessels following the shoals, and then crowding homewards with a full cargo; and now this year and last, not a boat has gone out, not a gleam of sun, not a blink of moonlight has been upon the sea; and as to the land, it is more changed still. Where the barley-fields were as green as a rich pasture three years ago, there are only a few straggling blades, just enough to tempt a man with thoughts of what a harvest is. This is a change we little feared to see.”
“And yet,” said Ella, “many did foresee, and all might have foreseen. When was there ever a time that the seasons did not change? Here we have been too slow to learn God's will. We knew that the same storms that took away our occupation must cut off our harvest; we knew that such stormy seasons come from time to time; and yet we acted as if we were promised plenty for ever. Our children look up to us for food, because we have given them no warning that it should cease; and they are right. But if we look up to God in the same manner we are wrong; for the warning was given long ago.”
“I have heard uncle Ronald speak of it,” replied Kenneth. “He has often feared that scarcity would come; but he told me that father, and widow Cuthbert, and the Duffs, would never be taken by surprise.”
“If it had not been for our savings,” replied Ella, “we should have had worse things to undergo than may be in store for us. Instead of trembling for Jamie, I might have been mourning the half of my children. Instead of grieving to see you wasting, Kenneth—how thin ye are grown!—I might have been— ” She stopped.
“If I am thin, mother,” Kenneth replied, “it is with care; and my care is that I can do nothing for bread for myself and you.”
“I will take you at your word,” replied his mother, with a smile. “We will try whether you will grow stouter for your conscience being at rest. But, mind, it shall be but a moderate trial, and I will share it with you.”
Kenneth looked eagerly to his mother for an explanation of what was in her mind. Ella told him that there was positively no more grain to be bought before harvest. Farmer Duff had very wisely kept back enough for seed-corn, in case of the crop failing utterly, and had very reasonably laid up a sufficient store for his own household; and none was now left over. Ella's remaining store was not sufficient to afford even a stinted allowance to the whole family for the three months still to come; and she now, therefore, proposed that neither she nor her son should touch barley or oatmeal, but give up their share to the younger and tenderer members of the family.
Kenneth was grateful to his mother for her confidence. She had hitherto concealed the fact of the supply being nearly exhausted, in the hope that Kenneth, like the rest, would eat and think little of the future; but she now saw that ne would be made happier by being allowed to share her sacrifices, and she therefore called upon him to do so.
Kenneth was not yet satisfied. It was not enough to be permitted to save food; he must find out how to obtain it.
” Not enough!” exclaimed his mother, mournfully. “My boy, ye little know what it is, and ye never can till the trial is made. Ye little know what it is to lie down at night cold and aching, and to toss about unable to sleep, when sleep seems the one thing that would give ye ease, since ye cannot have food. Ye little think what sleep is when it comes,—how horrible fancies are ever rising up to steal away the sweetness of rest-—how all that ye see and all that ye touch turns to food, alland that turns back again before ye can get it to your mouth; or, worse still, to fancy ye are driven by some evil power to strangle and devour whatever is most precious to you. Ye little think what it is to wake with a parched mouth and hands clenched, so that they are like an infant's all the day after, and the limbs trembling and the sight dim, as if fifty years had come over ye in a night. Ye little know, Kenneth, what it will be to loathe the food you and I shall have, and to see the thoughtless little ones crumbling the bannocks and eating them as if they were to be had as easily as the hailstones that have beat down the crops. Wait a while, my boy, before you say all this is not enough.” “You know too well, mother, what it is. Can it be that you have been fasting alone already?”
“I learned all this,” said Ella, evading the question, “when I was nearly as young as you. There was a scarcity then, and we had a sore struggle. My father was never well after that season. There was no need, thank God, to stint the lads as we stinted ourselves; and, as for me, the only harm,” she continued, smiling, “was, that your father found me less comely when he came back than I had been when he went away. There is also this good,—that there is one among us who has gone through evil times, and knows how to abide them.”
“Teach me, mother. How shall I get such food as we may live on?”
“There will be no positive want of food yet, my boy, though it will be such as will not nourish us like that we have been used to. We must try shell-fish, without bannocks or potatoes; merely shell-fish, day after day; and the strongest soon grow weak on such diet.”
“I would rather give up my share, sometimes,” said Kenneth, “than gather them at the cost of what I see. I have been glad you were at home when the tide went down, and I would not let the little ones come and help, lest they should learn to fight like the hungry people on the shore. Dan, that ever kept his eyes half-shut at noon, now watches the first falling of the water, and builles every one, if it be Noreen herself, that sees a shell before he snatches it.”
“Their potatoes have not come up,” observed Ella, “and they begin to be pinched the very first, because they had nothing to give for meal.”
“And then,” continued Kenneth, “the Murdochs have got the ill-will of all the neighbours, by their stripping every child they meet of whatever he may be carrying home. The very babies are learning to curse Meg Murdoch.”
“And so you took their part,” said Ella, smiling, “and let them strip you in turn. You are right not to let your little brothers go down with you to learn theft and covetousness; but you must not go on giving away your own share, now that you will have no bread at home.”
“Then there are the fowl,” said Kenneth. “They are not food for the delicate, to be sure, at this season; but we must try whether they will not nourish us till better days come. The worst of it is that very few are left, and those are the oldest and toughest.”
“The neighbours that are poorer than we have been everywhere before us,” said Ella. “But they are welcome. Since they trusted to chance, the first chances are their due. My eyes are dim with watching yon boat, and I can see nothing: is it still there, or has the mist come over it?”
Ella had scarcely withdrawn her gaze for a moment from her husband's struggle with the winds and waves. Kenneth, who had not thus strained his sight, could just discern the speck rising and falling on the dreary waste of waters.
“I see her still winning her way, mother; but you will scarce make her out again.”
“I will not try now, but go home.”
“And to bed,” said Kenneth. “You are weary and half-frozen, standing on this point as if ye came to meet the storm. Promise me you will rest, mother!”
“Perhaps I will if Jamie is still asleep. And do you hasten down, Kenneth, and gather whatever the tide may have thrown up. Now, don't part with all you get for your own share. I have called upon you for self-denial; and part of that self-denial must be not to give all the help you have been accustomed to yield.”
“That is the worst part of it,” said Kenneth; “but I remember, mother, that my first duty lies at home. O, if there were no hardship, how much less greedy and quarrelsome should we be! It is not in men's nature to quarrel for shell-fish every time the tide goes down.”
“Remember,” said Ella, “that better things also arise out of hardship. Do none learn patience? Do none practise self-denial?”
“But we have not known extreme hardship, mother.”
“True. May the day never come when I shall see my children looking with jealousy upon one another! The jealousy of the starving is a fearful sight.”
Kenneth's first trial of his new resolution awaited him when he went down to the shore to gather shell-fish. His appearance was usually a signal for the children, who were driven away by some one of the tyrants of the neighbourhood, to come down and put themselves under his protection. They had learned to reckon on his share being divided among them; for, while there was food at home, he could not find in his heart to refuse the little half-starved creatures their piteous requests. One found that some of her pickings were mere empty shells; another pleaded that she had no breakfast on the mornings when it was her turn to look for fish; and another declared that his father would beat him if he did not carry home his bonnetful. One or all of these pleas usually emptied Kenneth's store. One set of claimants had never yet been refused,— his cousins. Fergus's two eldest boys, who had earned good wages, and hoped to earn them again when the fishery should be resumed, were thrown back on their own resources in the interval. It was melancholy to see them wandering about the island in search of anything that might be rendered eatable, and at times reduced to beg of their cousin Kenneth as many shell-fish as he could spare. Kenneth felt that nothing but absolute famine could drive him to deny them; and he was therefore glad to perceive that they were not on the shore this morning. He gave notice to the little ones, who now gathered about him, that he could henceforth only help them by defending their right to whatever they could pick up. He must share equally with them from this day, and he hoped they would not ask that which he could no longer give. And now began the scenes which he was henceforth daily to witness among the children, and in time, upon a larger scale, among the parents. All the petty arts, all the violence, all the recklessness, to which the needy are tempted, began to show themselves first among those whose habits of self-control were weakest; and afforded a specimen of what might be looked for when the parents should be driven by want beyond the restraint of principles and habits which had been powerful in the absence of overwhelming temptation.
One of tile little boys uplifted a vehement cry. “Willie has snatched my bonnet! O, my bonnet, my bonnet! It was fuller to-day than it has ever been yet.”
“That is the very reason,” cried Willie, a stout lad, who felt that he could carry everything among the little ones by strength of arm. “You never had enough before to make it worth while taking them. Now I have got them, I will keep them.”
Kenneth, who was the representative of justice, struggled with Willie, and got back the property; but the lad vowed vengeance for his drubbing, especially against the complainant, who henceforth had no peace. All parties being left discontented, it was plainly a great evil that there had been temptation to recur to what Willie called the right of the strongest.
One of the little girls was found hidden behind a rock, eating all that had been collected for the family at home. Many cried “Shame!” and vowed she should never again be trusted within reach of more than her own share; to which she answered, that she should eat when she was hungry, and that those who had enough might supply her brothers and sisters. This child would have had a rate levied upon all the more provident, for the relief of her fellow-paupers.
Two lads having quarrelled about the share due to one, the most hungry threw the whole back into the sea, by way of revenge as he declared. One would have thought he had heard Mr. Mackenzie speak of the possible, though extreme, case of men burning stacks because there was not enough corn.
Even this reckless boy was less provoking than one party, pre-eminent in poverty and dirt, who could not be persuaded to give over their sport, happen what might. They called together whatever animals could eat small-fish, and put this food down the mouths of dogs and ponys,—both of which eat fish in the islands.
“How can you,” said Kenneth, “bring more eaters down to the shore when we have too many already?”
“We must have our play,” answered they. “Ours is the age for play, as we have heard our father say; and we are so cold and hungry almost all day, that it is very hard if we may not amuse ourselves when we can.”
There was no use in pointing out to them that they were doing all they could to increase their own hunger; they only answered that they would have their sport as long as they could get it, and immediately whistled for more dogs.
To judge by their acts, these children did not perceive that, though they could not determine the quantity of fish which should be within reach, it was their fault that tile number of eaters was needlessly increased. Tile half-starved multitudes of an over-peopled kingdom might take a lesson from their folly.
“Can this be the place,” thought Kenneth, “can this be the children, where and among whom there was so much cheerfulness but a few seasons ago? How happy we all used to be picking up our fish! And now, some still laugh louder than ever; but the mirth of the destitute is more painful to witness than the grave looks of more who have something left. O, for peace and plenty once more!”