Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VIII.: THE DISCIPLINE OF THE UNTEACHABLE. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter VIII.: THE DISCIPLINE OF THE UNTEACHABLE. - 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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THE DISCIPLINE OF THE UNTEACHABLE.
Angus was restored safe to his home; but his return was melancholy enough. He was blown over the Sound by a storm, and landed at the moment that the funeral train who bore the bodies of Fergus's two children were winding up the rocks to the burial-place. The anxious father was naturally possessed with the idea that this was the funeral of the child he had left so ill; and be was confirmed in the supposition by seeing none of his family on the beach to await his arrival. Kenneth and his brothers were among the mourners, and Angus therefore found his wife and the girls alone when, with a throbbing heart, he entered his own dwelling. Ella met him with a calm but sad countenance, which, together with the silent awe with which the children looked up to him, answered but too plainly the question he would have asked. Little Jamie had died a few hours before in his mother's arms. The last words he spoke had been to call for his father.
“O, why was I not here?” exclaimed the mourning parent, laying his cheek to that of his boy, as if the cold body could be conscious of the caress. “It must have been an evil spirit that decoyed me away.”
“Alas, then, your voyage has been in vain!” said Ella. “You have brought no bread.”
Angus shook his head mournfully, and cast down the pouch of useless money that came back as full as it went out. The scarcity extended through all the neighbourhood, and no food was to be bought at any price. Ella saw her husband's look of despondency, and rallied. She reminded him that they had a stock of meal, though a scanty one, and she held out the hope, suggested by Ronald's information, that a sloop would soon arrive with food enough to afford a temporary supply to all the inhabitants.
It had been agreed between Fergus and his sister that a constant watch for this vessel should be kept from daybreak till dark by the elder children of each family. Annie was now at the post in the absence of Kenneth, and Ella tempted her husband out with her, to pronounce whether the look-out was well chosen. She saw that his grief was too new to allow him to receive the condolence of neighbours who might step in on their return from the funeral She was glad she had done so when she saw Annie putting back the hair which the stormy wind blew over her face, and evidently straining her sight to discern some object at sea. Angus had his glass with him, and in the intervals of the driving mists, he plainly perceived a sloop coming up from the south.
“Away with you, with me for your helper!” cried Ella. “We will be at sea before any one knows what is coming; and then we shall escape contention, and the sight of contention. And you, Annie, tell none but your uncle and Kenneth where we are gone. If it should not be the right sloop, it would be cruel to raise false hopes.”
“Besides, mother, the people would tear ye to pieces, or at least the boat—they are grown so savage.”
“They would very likely fancy we were going to snatch their share, instead of to receive a regular purchase. Farewell, my lass,” she continued, as they reached the boat; “Kenneth will soon be with you, and ye may give us a smile when we land, if yon be the vessel we take her for.”
“But, O father, the squalls are so rough! I fear to let you go.”
“Never fear, Annie. The Flora knows the greeting of a summer squall. She will win her way out hardly enough; but you will see her bounding back as if she was racing with the gale.”
There were many loungers on the beach when Angus and Ella cleared out. Some were invalids, who could not be kept within their cheerless homes even by the chill and boisterous weather. Many were idlers; and all made sport of what they thought the useless toil of going to sea at such a time. Their jokes would have been painful and perhaps irritating to Angus if he had not had reason to hope that relief was on the way to himself and them.
“Did ye bring home such a cargo this morning that ye are tempted to try your luck again?” cried one.
“Make haste!” exclaimed another, “or ye'll scarcely find the shoal. It's a brave summer day for casting a net.”
“Or for angling,” observed a third. “Where are your lines, neighbour? Nothing like a smooth sea for ladies' fishing.”
“Ye must treat us each with a supper when you come back, Angus,” said a fourth, “unless indeed the, fishes should make a supper of you.”
“I trust there may be a supper for every one in Garveloch this night,” observed Ella, as one final shout reached the rolling and pitching vessel; and these cheering words were the last she she spoke, as all her husband's attention and her own was required to direct their rough and somewhat perilous course.
Never was such a commotion excited in Garveloch as upon the spread of the tidings that a vessel had arrived at the quay with a certain quantity of grain and an ample supply of pease. The eagle was startled from her nest by the uproar. The more shrill grew the blast, the louder rose the voices; the higher swelled the tide over the bar, the greater was the eagerness to cross it as the shortest way to the quay. The men sent their wives home for whatever little wealth they had to offer in exchange, in case the food was to be purchased and not given, while they themselves hastened to secure the point whence they might best bid or entreat. Here a poor invalid, putting forth his utmost power to keep up with his competitors, was jostled aside or thrown down by the passers by. There a band of children were beginning a noisy rejoicing for they scarcely knew what; some among them half-crying in the midst of their shouting from hunger and pain, which would not be forgotten. The only quiet people in the island were Angus's family, and their ill-thriving neighbours round the point.
When the Flora, dimly seen in the twilight, came bounding in as her master had foretold, no one awaited her on the beach but those who had watched the whole expedition, Fergus, Kenneth, and his sister. The expected supply of meal was safe, and Fergus lost no time in conveying it out of sight, and into a place of safety.
“I brought down the money', father,” said Kenneth, producing the pouch, “that you might buy more at the quay, if you wish it, before it is all gone.”
“No, my boy,” said Angus. “We have enough for the present, and I will neither take what others want more than we, nor raise the price by increasing the demand.”
The Murdochs and O'Rorys were the last to know what had happened, as little was heard of the tumult beyond the point. They were extremely and almost equally wretched, and were far from attempting to soften their distresses by sympathy and neighbourly offices. Those who are most heedless of adversity in prospect, do not usually bear it best when it comes; and so it proved in the instance of both these families. Murdoch, who, when he might have been prosperous, was too lazy to do more than trust he should get through well enough, now cast all the blame of his destitution on Dan's assurances that it would be the easiest thing in life to live, if he would only grow potatoes. Dan, who was content any way when causes of discontent were only in prospect, forgot there was such a thing as content when the natural consequences of his recklessness came upon him. It had been a terrible day when the absolute want of food had driven both to dig up their seed potatoes. Murdoch had foresight enough to be appalled at the prospect of the long destitution which this measure must cause. Dan laughed at him for supposing that anything better could be done in a season so wet that every root would rot in the ground instead of growing; but he did not the less grumble at “the powers” for giving him nothing better to eat than half-rotten roots, that afforded no more strength than his own puny infant had and was losing day by day. Noreen often looked rueful with two black eyes, and did not insist so vehemently as formerly on her Dan being “the beautifullest husband in nature;” and as for the child, its best friends could only hope it would follow Noreen's former dangling “babbies,” and be laid in peace under the sod.
The first news these neighbours had of the arrival of the vessel from the station was from Kenneth, who goodnaturedly remembered to run and give them the information in time to afford them a fair chance in the scramble. Murdoch seized his staff and was off in an instant.
“Stay, neighbour,” cried Kenneth, who was not aware of the extent of Murdoch's poverty; “the buyers have the first chance you know. Better not go empty-handed.”
Murdoch thought he was jeering, and shook his stick at him with a gesture of passion, which Kenneth could not resent when he saw how the old man's limbs shook, and how vain were his attempts at unusual speed.
Dan jumped up at the news, snatched his baby, and gave it a toss which was enough to shake its weak frame to pieces, seized upon Noreen for a kiss in answer to the shriek with which she received the child, snatched the pot in which the last batch of rotten potatoes was boiling, and threw out its contents into the puddle beside the door, and ran off, laughing at his wife's lamentations for the only bit of food she had had to put between her teeth this day. Kenneth now perceived that Dan could bestir himself upon occasion; and indeed the Irishman's glee was so obstreperous, that it might have been supposed his mirth was owing to his favourite “sperits,” if it had not been known that he had been long without the means of procuring himself that indulgence.
Such a man's mirth is easily turned to rage. On reaching the sloop, which was fast emptying of its contents, Dan found that he stood a worse chance of a supply than anybody in Garveloch, except Murdoch, who still lagged behind. To come empty-handed and to come late was a double disqualification; and to be kept at a distance by force put Dan into a passion which was only equalled by his neighbour's, when he also arrived at the scene of action. It was the policy of the bystanders to turn their rage upon each other. As soon as an opening appeared among the group on the quay, through which the sloop might be approached, they pushed the old man forward, and held Dan back, urging that a hearty youth like him, and a stranger, would not surely force his way before an old man, who had been born and bred in the place; but Dan kicked, struggled, dealt his blows right and left, and at last sprang upon Murdoch, snatched off his bonnet, and buffeted him about the face with it.
“You graceless wretch!” exclaimed all who were at leisure to look on.
“Let him uncover gray hairs that helped to make them gray,” said Murdoch, in a voice of forced calmness. “It was he that lured me to poverty, and now let him glory in it.”
“It's owing to your gray hairs I did not beat you blind this minute,” cried Dan. “I'd have you keep a civil tongue in your head, if you'd have your eyes stay there too.”
“I would peril my eyes to say it again,” cried the old man. “It was you that lured me to poverty with saying that Ireland was the brightest and merriest land under the sun, and the only country where a man may live and be content without trouble.”
“By the holy poker, so it is, barring such reprobates as you are in it.”
“You told me that I spent my labour for nothing, and worse than nothing, when I grew oats and barley. You told me that I might get three times as much food out of the ground, by growing potatoes instead. You—”
“All true, by the saints, villain as you are to doubt my word! There's three times the victuals in an Irishman's field, and three times the childer in his cabin, and three times the people on the face of the blessed land, that there is where the folks are so mighty high that they must have bread.”
“And three times the number die,” said a voice near, “when a bad season comes.”
“And what if they do?” cried Dan: “tis a blessed land for all that, with a golden sun to live under, and a green turf to lie under.”
“It's a vile country,” cried Murdoch, emboldened by hope of support from the bystanders. “Your children are as hungry as cannibals, and as naked as savages. When the sun shines, you thank the powers and lie still in your laziness—”
“There's reason for that,” interrupted Dan. “There are so many to do the work, we can't settle who is to begin; and so we're content to take no trouble; and this is the most your Rob and Meg have learned of me.”
“And then when there comes a blank harvest, you fight over one another's graves.”
“Sure the powers forgive the sin,” cried Dan.
“Craving stomachs drive to blows, and then the priest is merciful.”
“More merciful than you are to one another when the fever comes, cruel savages as you are! If your own mother took the fever, you would turn her into a shed by the road side, and let her tend herself. You would go quietly smoking your pipe past the very place where your own father lay dying, and never speak a word or move a finger for him.”
“Tis false as to not speaking a word. We pray for them in the fever day and night; and many's the mass I have vowed against I grow richer. The fever is a judgment of Heaven, and where is the good of catching it if we can help it? They that sent it will take care of them that have it, and what is our care to theirs?”
“Shame! shame!” was the cry from all sides; and some who were on their way home with a pan full of meal or a basket full of pease, stopped to listen why.
“Shame! shame!” cried Dan, mimicking the shouters. “You just don't know what you're talking about; for them that have the fever don't cry shame.”
“Not in their hearts?”
“Never a bit;—and don't I know that had an uncle in the fever twice, and moved him for fear we should fall down in it too? Didn't he come crawling out the first time when we were bringing a coffin and supposing him dead, and did not he help the wail for himself before we saw him among us? and would he have wailed in a joke, if he had cried ‘shame!’ in his heart? and who such a judge as himself?”
“What happened the next time, Dan?”
“The next time 'twas his ghost in earnest that went to the burial; and a pretty burial it was. O, there's no place like old Ireland for care of the dead! We beat you there entirely, you unnatural ruffians, that never give so much as a howl to your nearest flesh and blood!”
The listeners thought it better and more natural to help the living than to honour the dead. It did not seem to occur to either party that it was possible to do both, The dispute now ran higher than ever, Murdoch laying the blame on Dan of having made all his resources depend on a favourable season, and Dan defending everything Irish, down to poverty, famines, and pestilential fevers; the first a perpetual, and each of the others a frequent evil. A fight was beginning, when order was restored by an authority which might not be resisted. Mr. Mackenzie was on board, having taken this opportunity of visiting several islands which were under his charge as a magistrate. Seeing the uproar on the quay likely, to increase every moment, he stepped on shore, ordered two or three stout men to part the combatants, and gave poor old Murdoch into the care of Angus, who was standing by, desiring that his wants should be supplied, and that he should be sent home out of the reach of provocation from Dan. Angus looked kindly after the interests of his old master, now so humbled as not to resist his help; and then sent a neighbour with him to guard him from robbery on his way home. It might have been thought that Rob would have been the fittest person to undertake this natural duty; but Rob was nowhere to be seen. He had appeared one of the first on the quay, and had bought a supply of food with a little silver crucifix which he had contrived to steal from Noreen, and which she had kept, through all her distresses, as a sort of charm. Rob was now hidden in a snug corner, eating a portion of his provision, and drinking the whiskey for which he had exchanged the rest.
Mr. Mackenzie accepted Angus's invitation to spend the night under his roof. He agreed all the more readily from perceiving that he could gratify the feelings of the parents by taking part in the funeral of their child the next day; by carrying his head to tile grave, as the expression is.
Mr. Mackenzie would know from Angus all that he could tell of Murdoch's history, and of what had happened to Dan since he settled in Garveloch. The present state of the island was a subject which always made Angus melancholy. The place was so changed, he said; there were many people that you would scarcely believe to be the same as before their distresses began.
“Such is always the case, Angus, where there are more people than can live without jostling. People act upon opposite maxims according to their circumstances. If there is abundance for every body, they are very ready to cry, ‘The more the merrier;’ if the provision is scanty, they mutter, ‘The fewer the better cheer,’ and each snatches what he can for himself.”
Ella was at this moment distributing the evening meal. At these very words she placed before her son Kenneth a barley-cake,—the first he had tasted for some time,—with a smile which he well understood. He had known something of the sufferings his mother had described as the consequence of their mutual resolution not to touch the food on which they usually subsisted; but, till this evening, he had supposed the trial only begun, and felt almost ashamed to be released so soon. As he broke his bread, a blush overspread his whole face; and when he next looked up, he met Ella's eyes filled with tears. Mr. Mackenzie observed, but did not understand; and Angus himself would have found it difficult to explain, though Kenneth's altered looks caused a suspicion that he had exercised more than his share of self-denial.
“I have seen so much of the snatching you speak of, and of defrauding too,” said Angus, when all but himself and his guest had withdrawn, “as to make me think we are now little better off than in cities, compared with which I used to think our island a paradise. There has, I believe, been crime enough committed within the circuit of a mile from this place, to match with the alleys and cellars of a manufacturing city. The malice of the people in their speech, the envy in their countenances, the artifices in their management, the violence of their actions, are new to this place and these people, I hoped to have kept my children out of sight and hearing of these things for ever.”
“Never nourish such a hope, friend,” said Mr. Mackenzie, “unless you can keep want out of sight and hearing too. Virtue and vice depend not on place, but on circumstance. The rich do not steal in cities, any more than the starving respect property in a retired island like this. lf we could increase our supply of necessaries and comforts in proportion to the wants and reasonable desires of all, there would be little vice; and if we did no more than rightly estimate and administer the resources we already possess, we might destroy for ever the worst evils of which society complains.”
“Surely, Sir, it might be done, if society were but animated with one mind. It is in the power of few, I suppose, to increase the supply of necessaries and comforts perpetually and very extensively; and no power on earth can do it so as to keep pace with the constant demand for them.”
“Certainly, if that demand be unchecked.”
“I was going to say, Sir, that it is in the power of every one to help to equalize the demand. It seems to me, that whoever acts so as to aggravate want, becomes answerable for the evils caused by want, whether he injures his neighbour's capital, or neglects to improve his own, or increases a demand upon it which is already overwhelming.”
“You will be told, friend, if you preach your doctrine to unwilling ears, that one set of vices would rage only the more fiercely for those which result from want being moderated.”
“I know,” replied Angus, “that some are of opinion that there is always a balance of vices in society; that, as some are extinguished, others arise. This seems to me a fancy that nobody can prove or show to be reasonable.”
“I am quite of your opinion, Angus; and if I were not, I am sure I should find it difficult to assert that any set of vices could be more to be dreaded than those which arise from extreme poverty. I would not draw a comparison in favour of any acknowledged vice over any other; but I can conceive of no more dreadful degradation of character, no more abundant sources of misery, than arise out of the overpowering temptations of want. You have seen instances, I doubt not, among the lower, as I among the higher classes, of the regular process by which honourable feelings are blunted, kindly affections embittered, piety turned into blasphemy, and integrity into fraud and violence, as the pressure of poverty becomes more and more galling.
“I have seen so much of this, Sir, as to make me believe that very few, if any, pass through the trial of squalid and hopeless poverty with healthy minds. Moreover, I believe such poverty to be the hot-bed of all vices. I shall never be convinced, unless I see it, that any vice in existence will be aggravated by the comforts of life being extended to all, or that there is any which is not encouraged by the feelings of personal injury, of hatred towards their superiors, or recklessness concerning their companions and themselves, which are excited among the abject or ferocious poor.”
“Evil seems to be an admonition of Providence to men to change that part of their conduct which brings on that evil,” observed Mr. Mackenzie; “and happy are they who take the warning in time, or remember it for their future guidance. Extensive fires warn men not to build houses of wood; pestilence may teach cleanliness and ventilation; and having thus given their lesson, these evils become rare, or cease. What, therefore, may famine teach?”
“Care not to let eaters multiply beyond the ordinary supply of food. I hope we people of Garveloch shall take the warning. I am sure it is distinct enough.”
“Yes, Angus. You ate up the unusual supply of two abundant seasons. An average one produced hardship. An unfavourable one has brought you to the brink of a famine. This is Providence's way of admonishing.”