Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VII.: WHAT COMES OF PARISH CHARITIES. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3
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Chapter VII.: WHAT COMES OF PARISH CHARITIES. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 3.
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WHAT COMES OF PARISH CHARITIES.
It was not long before Ned accomplished an interview with his giddy sister, and bitterly was he disappointed at her appearing not altogether glad to see him. Each time that they conversed, she seemed more constrained, and insisted further on the danger of his being discovered and incurring the displeasure of the superiors of the workhouse. Ned would listen to no hints about going up the country or back into the town: he chose to remain where he could keep an eye on Jane, and where moreover his own labour sup-plied him with necessaries, and enabled him to lay by a few pence now and then. The first of these reasons for keeping his place was soon removed, to the dismay and grief of all connected with Jane.
After having tried in vain for a fortnight to catch a sight of her, and afflicted himself perpetually with the thought of her depression of spirits the last time they met, Ned took the resolution of walking up to farmer Dale's door and asking to speak to Jane Bridgeman. The farmer happened to be within hearing, and came forward to give the answer .
“Bless me, is it you? After the character your master gave me of you, I should not have thought of finding you asking after Jane Bridgeman. But you are all alike, paupers or no paupers, as long as there are paupers among us to spread corruption. Off with you, if you want to find the person you ask for! She is not here, thank God! and never shall she enter these doors again. It was a great folly ever to take her in, only that another might have been as bad.— Where is she!—-Nay; that is no concern of mine. I suppose she will lie in in the workhouse she came from; but whether she went straight there, or where she went, I neither know nor care. Off with you from my premises, if you please!”
And the farmer shut the door in Ned's face. His wife had more compassion. She saw Ned turn red and pale and look very wretched, and she knew him for the same lad who had many months before asked work in a tone that pleased her. She now went out at the back gate, and met him in the farm-yard. Ned at once owned, in answer to her enquiries, that Jane was his sister, and by this means learned much of her history. She had never settled well to her business from the day of her arrival, and had seemed far more bent on being admired than on discharging her duty. Her mistress was pleased to observe, however, after a time, that she grew graver in her deportment, though she became more careless than ever about her work. It was true, she forgot everything that was said to her, and gave much trouble by her slovenliness; but she no longer smiled at compliments from the farm-servants, or acted the coquette in her necessary intercourse with them. Mrs. Dale thought her patience with the girl strangely rewarded when Jane came one day to give her warning that she wished to leave her present service at the earliest term. She would neither give a reason nor say where she meant to go. When the day arrived, she waited till her master went out, and then appeared, to bid her mistress farewell. In answer to repeated questions about where she was going, she at length sank down on a chair, sobbed convulsively, and owned that she had neither protection nor home in prospect; that she had been cruelly deceived, and that she meant to find some hiding-place where she might lie down and her shame die with her. It was some time before she would give any hint who it was that had deceived and who seduced her, and she never revealed his name; but Mrs. Dale believed it to be a pauper labourer who had disappeared a few days before, probably to avoid being obliged to marry Jane when their guilt should be discovered. On ascertaining that the girl had relations, Mrs. Dale recommended that she should go to her cousin Marshall, open her whole heart to her, and follow her advice as to what should next be done; but Jane's sobs be came more violent than ever at this suggestion. “They will tear me to pieces!” she cried. “They will never put up with disgrace; and I am the first that has disgraced them. I can never look cousin Marshall in the face again!”—Neither would she go to the workhouse. She loathed the idea of Mrs. Wilkes as much as she dreaded that of cousin Marshall; and Mrs. Dale was much perplexed, not daring to keep her another day, and not choosing to turn her out wholly destitute. After a long conversation, which served to soften the poor girl's heart and win her confidence, Mrs. Dale proposed a plan which was adopted,—that she should write a letter to cousin Marshall, urging that what was done could not be undone, and that the most likely way to make Jane's penitence real and lasting was to look to her present safety instead of driving her to desperation. Mrs. Dale expressed in very strong terms her concern that the respectability of the family should have been thus stained; and took the liberty of declaring her admiration of the parental kindness with which the poor orphans had been treated, and her earnest wishes that it might be better rewarded in the instance of the others than in that of poor Jane. With this letter in her hand, Jane was put into the carrier's cart, leaving as a last request to Ned that lie would not follow her or give up his place on her account; and, partly for his sake, she promised that no persuasion should prevent her going straight to her cousin Marshall's, and following the advice of her friends in every particular. Mrs. Dale had since ascertained that she was received at her cousin's; and had remained in their house up to the last market-day, when the inquiry was made: but the farmer's wife did not know what sad circumstances the family were in when Jane arrived to add to their sorrow.
John Marshall had died after a few days' illness; and it was on the very night of his funeral that Jane alighted at his widow's door. Her first feeling on hearing of the event was joy that one person the less,—and he one whom she much respected,—would know of her disgrace. The next moment she felt what a wretch she must be,—what a state she must be reduced to, —to rejoice in the death of one who had been like a parent in tenderness, where no parental duty enjoined the acts of kindness he had done. She hastily bade Ann not tell her cousin of her arrival, and said she would beg a shelter for the night at her aunt Bell's: but she was told that aunt Bell was in great distress too, and could not possibly receive her; so there was no escape, and Jane was led in, trembling like a criminal under sentence, and pulling her cloak about her, to meet the kind-hearted cousin who had never frowned upon her. Her agitation was naturally misunderstood at first; but, after some time, her refusal even to look up, and the force with which she prevented their relieving her of her cloak made her cousin suspect the fact, and dismiss the young people, in order to arrive at an explanation.—She could not read the letter, and Jane would not hear of Ann being called in to do it, but made an effort to get through it herself. Cousin Marshall said nothing for some time; not even the thought which was uppermost in her mind—how glad she was that the fact never reached her husband's ear! At last, she merely assured Jane that she should be taken care of, and advised her to go to bed, and leave everything to be settled when there had been more time for thought.
“I cannot go,” said Jane. “I will not leave you while you look so cold upon me, cousin.”
“I will go with you, then,” said Mrs. Marshall calmly. “We” must “have the same bed, and I am ready.”
“You said you forgave me,” cried the weeping Jane; “and I am sure this is not forgiving me. I never saw you look so upon anybody!”
“I never had reason, Jane; nobody belonging to me ever had to make such a confession as yours to-night. I pity you enough, God knows! for you must be very miserable; but I cannot look upon you as I do upon your innocent sisters; how should I?—Poor Sally! I remember her great comfort about being blind was that it was not Ann; and if you have any comfort at all, I suppose it must be that.”
“Indeed, indeed, I had rather be anybody than what I am. I had rather be drowning this minute, or even on the gallows: I had rather die any how than be as I am. I hope I shall die when my time comes.”
Cousin Marshall quietly represented the sin fulness of this thought, and Jane tempted her to say more and more, being able to bear anything better than the silence of displeasure. What, her cousin asked, could bring her to this pass? What madness could make her plunge herself into this abyss of distress after all the warning
and watching, all the——But it was foolish to
say more, Mrs. Marshall continued, when she might be led to say what would do no good and would be therefore unkind.
Jane would not let it drop. She laid much of the blame on the workhouse, where it was a common boast among the women how early they had got married, being so far better off than honester people that they need not trouble themselves about what became of themselves and their children, since the parish was bound to find them. It was considered a kind of enterprise among the paupers to cheat their superiors, and to get the the girl early married by rendering marriage desirable on the score of decency, and of the chance of the mall being able to support his children hereafter. Jane's leading idea was the glory of getting married at sixteen; and the last thing she thought of was the possibility of being deceived; and now that her intended husband was gone nobody knew whither, she was as much astonished and terrified at her own position as any of her friends could be. This explanation caused some inward relentings towards her; but cousin Marshall thought it too early yet to show them; and to avoid the danger of doing so, insisted on both going to bed, where neither of them slept a wink or exchanged a word during the whole night.
Before morning, Mrs. Marshall had arranged her plan. Jane's arrival was on no account to be mentioned, and she was to be kept entirely out of sight for the three months which were to pass before her confinement. By these means, the persecution of parish officers might be avoided, and an opportunity afforded for observing whether the shock had really so sobered Jane as to render her more fit to take care of herself than she was before. If she appeared truly penitent, Mrs. Marshall would try to obtain a service for her at some distance, where her disgrace would not follow her, and would also take charge of the infant, with such help as Jane could spare out of her wages; and then the parish need never know anything about the matter. Jane was most happy to agree to these terms, and settled herself in this bedroom for three long months, intending to work diligently for her infant, and to take all the needle-work of the family off her cousin's hands, with as much of the charge of the children as was possible within so confined a space. What more she wanted of exercise was to be taken with Mrs. Marshall very early in these spring mornings, before their neighbours should be stirring. The young people were so trained to obedience, that there was no fear of their telling anything that they were desired to keep to themselves.
Things went on as quietly as could be looked for in such unhappy circumstances. No difficulties arose for some time, and Jane bad only to struggle with her inward shame, her grief at witnessing Ann's sorrow, her terror at the risks which must be daily run, and her inability to get rest of body or mind. She could scarcely be persuaded to come down in the evening when the door was shut and the window curtain drawn: she started at every noise, and could not get rid of a vague expectation that her lover would find her out and come to comfort her;— an expectation which made her turn pale whenever she heard a man's voice under the window, or a tap at the door below. Besides these fears, circumstances happened now and then to try her to the utmost.
Early one morning, before Jane was up, and while Mrs. Marshall and her young people were dressing, a step was heard slowly ascending the stairs, the door opened, and Sally appeared with a smiling countenance and the question,
“Are you awake yet, cousin Marshall, and all of you?”
Mrs. Marshall made a sign to the children by putting her finger on her lip, and pointing to Jane. She bad no intention that Sally should be made unhappy by knowing the truth at present, and was besides afraid to trust her with such a secret among her companions“at the Asylum, who were all accustomed to have no concealments from one another.
“Why don't you answer?” said Sally, groping for the bed. I do believe you are all asleep, though I thought I heard you moving, and the door was on the latch belows.”
“We are all awake, my dear, and one or two gone out; but we are surprised to see you so early. What brings you at such a time, and who came with you?”
Sally explained that the ward of the Asylum in which she worked was to be whitewashed this day; and she and a few others whose friends lived near had leave to enjoy a long holiday. Three of them had taken care of one another, the streets being clear at this hour; and she had found her way easily for the short distance she had to come alone. While she spoke, Jane was gazing at her, tearful, and longing to throw herself on her sister's neck. The temptation became almost irresistible when Sally, feeling for a place on which to sit down, moved herself within reach.
“Take care where you sit, my dear,” said Mrs. Marshall. “Here, I will give you a seat on my chest.”
This chest was directly opposite the bed, so that Jane could see the face under the black bonnet, and convince herself that the old womanish little figure in brown stuff gown and white kerchief was really the sister Sally she had last seen in blue frock and pinafore. During the whole day, Jane sat on the stairs behind the half-shut door, listening to Sally's cheerful tales about the doings at the Asylum, and to her frequent inquiries about both her sisters, and trembling when any of the little ones spoke, lest they should reveal her presence. Many perplexing and dangerous questions too were asked.
“Which of you sighs so? I should not ask if it could be you, cousin; but it comes from the other side.”
Again, when Jane's dinner was being carried to her.
“Ah, we are not allowed to move at dinnertime, happen what will: and you used not to let us either; and now Ann has gone upstairs twice since we sat down.” Again,
“I have” leave to knit what I please on Saturdays; so I am knitting a pair of mittens for Jane, against she comes to see me, which I hope she will one day; but be sure you none of you tell her about the mittens. I spoiled two pair in trying, and she would be so sorry to know how I wasted my time and the cotton.”
“Poor dear!” said Mrs. Marshall at night, when Sally was gone; “it seems wicked to take advantage of her infirmity to deceive her; but it is all for her good, placed where she is by her blindness. It would be far more cruel to tell her all, when it may be that she need never know it.”
Jane took all this upon herself; but, while she blamed herself for having caused this new practice of concealment, she was far more grieved at it in John Marshall's case. She did not strictly owe any confidence to Sally, but she did to John Marshall; and the idea that he had left her the same blessing with the rest of her family when he died, gave her far more pain than any tears or reproaches from Sally could ever do.
One Sunday, when cousin Marshall had gone to church in the morning with her family, and left her house apparently shut up, as usual; and when, moreover, it was so fine a day as to have taken almost all the neighbours from their homes, Jane came down to prepare the dinner, feeling quite secure from interruption. She was standing kneading the dumplings, when a noise was heard outside, and she had but a moment's time to escape upstairs before her aunt Bell lifted the latch and entered. Seeing the dough on the board and nobody there to knead it, she naturally proceeded to the bedroom, where she found Jane on the bed with coverings thrown over her. Questions and explanations followed.—How long had Jane been unwell, and did she expect to go back to her place when recovered? Why did she not let her aunt know of her arrival? though, to be sure, there was no use in expecting help from her, distressed as she was. Jane was really glad to turn the conversation away from her own troubles to those of Mrs. Bell, who was, as she herself said, as good as a widow, her husband having absconded. Dear! had not Jane heard of it? He had been advertised by the overseers in the newspapers, and a great fuss had been made about it; but, for her part, she was convinced it was the best thing he could do for her and the children, to go and find a settlement in a distant parish, leaving his family to be provided for by his own. Where had he gone?— Why, supposing she knew, was it likely she should tell before the year was out? However, he had made all safe by not giving a hint in which direction he should travel. Jane asked what was the necessity of keeping the secret for a year? He would surely be out of reach before the year was over, if at all. Mrs. Bell laughed and said she saw Jane did not know how to get a settlement; and explained to her that her husband's aim was to obtain a claim on a distant and prosperous parish, which must be done either by living forty days on an estate of his own, worth thirty pounds, or in a rented tenement of the yearly value of ten pounds, or by serving an apprenticeship, or by going through a year's service on a yearly hiring as an unmarried man. This last was, of course, the only means within his power; and to make sure of it, it was his part to keep to himself whence he had come, and that he had a wife and family; and her's to remain ignorant whither he had gone, and not to inquire for her husband for a year at least.
“Do you call this a cheat, my dear?” she went on. “Lord! what a tender conscience you have! It is no worse than what is done every day. Would you think it such a very wicked thing now,—suppose a young creature like you should have happened to have a misfortune, and should wish her infant to have a settlement in a particular parish,—would you think it such a very wicked thing to hide yourself and keep your condition a secret from the officers till your child was born?” And Mrs. Bell looked inquisitively in her niece's face.
“That would be telling no lie,” replied Jane, her face making the confession which she kept her tongue from uttering.
“Well; and whose fault is it, my dear, that lies are told about the matter? If the laws put such difficulty in the way of getting relief, we are driven to tell fibs; for relief we must have.”
Mrs. Marshall, who had overheard some of the conversation, and now came to Jane's assistance, observed that the fault seemed to her to be in the laws giving relief at all. Mischiefs out of number came of it, and no good that she saw. The more relief the law gave, the more it might give, to judge by the swarms of paupers; and all this made it the more difficult for honest and independent folks to get their bread. She thought her own experience, and Mrs. Bell's together, might be enough to show how bad the system was.
“Mine, I grant you,” cried Mrs. Bell; “but what have you had to do with it? You, that pride yourself on never having touched a penny of parish money.”
“Thanks, under God, to my husband, cousin Bell, we have been beholden to nobody but ourselves for our living. We have never had to bear the scornful glance from the rate-payers, nor the caprice of the overseer, nor any of the uncertainty of depending on what might fail us, nor the shame of calling our children paupers.— I say things freely, cousin Bell, because I know you have been too long used to them to mind them.—We have never crossed the threshold of the workhouse on our own account; nor ever been driven to expose our want when it was the greatest; or tempted to fib by word or act to get more than our share of other people's money. Yet, the worst things we have suffered have risen out of these poor-laws; and the worst thing about them is, that those suffer by them who desire to have nothing to do with them. They prevent people going where their labour is wanted, and would be well paid, and keep them in a place where there are far more hands than there is work for. Honest, hardworking men, like my husband, have always felt the hardship of either being obliged to stay where wages were low from the number of labourers, or to give up their settlements for the chance of work in some other place.”
“He had better have run off by himself, and left his settlement to you and the children,” observed Mrs. Bell.
“John Marshall was not the man to do that, cousin. But, as I was saying, many a time when we were brought very low, so much so that my husband had not had his pint, nor the children anything but bread for a week, and less of that than they could have eaten,—at many such times we have been told of this parish and that parish where there was plenty of work and good wages, and have had half a mind to go and try our fortune; but we always remembered that so many more needy people would be likely to do the same, that it would soon cease to be a good parish, and we might have left a place where we were known and respected, for what would prove to be no good. I have heard that these favourite parishes. are seldom long prosperous under the best management, for paupers contrive, by all sorts of tricks, to get a settlement in them.”
“Well; that makes an end, however, of your complaint of there not being labour where labour is wanted.”
“Indeed it does not, cousin Bell; for they are mostly idle men and cheats that wander about making experiments on such places. Sober, good labourers, would be much more ready to go where they are wanted, if it were not for the fear of losing their settlements. Such end, as my husband did, by staying in their own parish to have their labour poorly paid, and to see rogues and vagabonds consuming what would have added to their wages, if labour had been left to earn its due reward.”
Mrs. Bell did not care about all this; all she knew was that people must live, and that she and her family could not have lived without the parish, and a deal of help besides.
“The very thing I complain of most, cousin Bell, is, that those who have the relief are those that know and care the least about the matter. It is they that are above taking the relief that have good reason to know, and much cause to care, that their labour cannot be properly paid, and that their children cannot have a fair chance in the world, while the money that should pay their wages is spent without bringing any more gain than if it was thrown into the sea. It is because such as you, cousin .Bell, care about nothing but getting relief, that such husbands as mine lose their natural rest through anxiety, and pinch themselves and work themselves into their graves, and die, not knowing but their families may come to be paupers after all.—I am warm, cousin, but you'll excuse me; nothing chafes me so easily as thinking of this; the more from remembering nearly the last words my husband spoke. ‘I hope,’ says he,—but I thought there was little hope in his tone, or in his face,— ‘I hope you and yours will be able to keep free of the parish. Get the boys into my club, if they live to be old enough; and then they will keep their mother and sisters free of the parish.’—I thank God! we can get on at present; but I sometimes think some of us will end our days in the workhouse, if idle and needy people go on to increase as they do, and to eat up the substance they never helped, as we have done, to make.”
“It will be some time yet, cousin Marshall, before your boys can belong to the club.”
“Yes; but in the meanwhile there is the Savings Bank, where the girls can put their little savings as well as the boys. Not that they have done anything in that way yet, except my eldest and Ann. But the others are earning their own clothes.”
Mrs. Bell asked Jane whether it was not a nice thing for her sister Ann to have a little money in the bank ready for such occasions as Jane's present illness? She supposed Jane was now using it up; and to be sure it was a charming thing to have such help at hand. Mrs. Marshall, who knew that one of Jane's griefs was depriving Ann of her little store, saved her the pain of replying by inviting Mrs. Bell down to dinner.
At the close of the meal, Mrs. Bell cast a longing eye on the few fragments she had left. Her children had only a crust of bread to eat this day; and she complained much of the hardships they were reduced to, showing how her only gown was wearing out, and relating that it was ruinous work to do as she was doing now, pawning her blanket in the morning to release her gown, and the gown in the evening to release the blanket. Cousin Marshall was grieved for the children, but, charitable as she was known to be, she offered no help. She had nothing to spare, and had done her utmost in giving a hearty dinner; and, if she had had the means, she would have bestowed them where they might have afforded real relief, which no charity ever did to Mrs. Bell.
This woman seldom visited her neighbours without leaving them cause to wish that she had staid away. This was the case in the present instance. She whispered her suspicions of Jane's situation, either to the parish officers, or to some one who carried it round to them; and the consequence was that the poor girl was hunted up, taken before a magistrate to be sworn, and removed to the workhouse to abide her confinement. In return to her bitter reproaches the next time they met, Mrs. Bell laughed, and said she thought she had done them all a great kindness.—Cousin Marshall ought to be very glad to be relieved of the charge, and Jane would be sure of a husband if her lover could be found up. Jane's views had, however, been altered by her intercourse with Mrs. Marshall. She would much rather have gone to service and tried to atone for what was done, than remain to be the pauper-wife of a man who had cruelly deceived her,—who would not marry unless he could be caught,—and who, being an unwilling, would be probably an unkind, husband. Her good cousin feared something worse for her than the misery of her lot: she feared that this misery might drive her to habitual vice; and that her re-entrance into the workhouse might prove the date from which she would become a castaway from her family for ever.