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Chapter VI.: OBSERVING AFAR. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 4 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 4.
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The old sexton pursued his way to the church without looking behind him, though made aware by the bustle around that strangers were in his rear. It was not old Joel's way to alter his pace or his purposes for man or woman, be they who they might. Children only had any power over him: and they only as long as they were unconscious of it.
“is the sexton one of the equality folks?” asked Letitia of White.
“What, old Joel? Really, madam, there is no saying what he is, further than that he is discontented with everybody's ways of thinking in turn.—Joel! Joel!” he cried, as the sexton was busied in unlocking the white gate of the churchyard, “my lady asks if you are an equality man”.
The old man muttered something unintelligible while engaged with the lock; but when he looked up and met Letitia's eye, her countenance,—not its beauty, but the sincerity of its expression,— acted as a charm upon his reserve, They exchanged smiles, and understood one another immediately. Joel did not, like Nanny White, congratulate himself aloud on having met with a congenial, companion, but he felt himself happy in having done so.
“Will you please to tell me, madam, what you are here for?”
“To see the church, and to make acquaintance with you, Joel.”
“Because you are curious about my way of thinking?”,
“I have no idea what your way of thinking is; but I should certainly like to know, because it is the first tiling I try to find out when I make new acquaintances.”
“Then, madam, you and I shall suit. If such is your custom, you will not do as the world for the most part does; you will not first suppose that a man must be wise for having gone through all the chances and changes that can be crowded into a long life, and then think his opinions very wicked or very foolish because they may be such as you did not look for. Why, say I, should I feel and think like you.? Have you been first young and then old? Have you been looked upon as a scholar in your prime and an oddity in old age? Have you been on the other half of the world, and have you now only the sunny side of a churchyard for your range? Have you had ten children round your table, and do you now come to eat your solitary crust upon their graves? If not, why should you expect me to think like you? And how will you dare to point at me and pity me because pain and pleasure have sharpened my mind's sight to pierce further into things than you, who, may be, see only the outsides of them, or, may be, only the mists that cover them? Follow me, madam, unless your limbs are more feeble than all old man's, as many a fine lady's are.”
As Joel turned to lead the way, White ventured upon a sly wink to the lady, but presently fell behind, abashed by the steady gravity with which it was met.
The church stood on a mound, and its tower, therefore, though of moderate height, rose conspicuously above the trees which belted the churchyard; and from its parapet might be obtained a glorious view of the surrounding country. Joel did not pause or speak till he had conducted Letitia and Thérèse out upon the leads. —Instead of fixing her attention on the nearer beauties of the park and village which lay stretched beneath, the uplands that rose beyond, and the towers and spires of the great city which might just be discerned on the western horizon, Letitia gazed eagerly towards the south, where a dim haze stained the blue of an autumn sky.
“It is .... is it possible? .... yes, it must be the sea!”
“What is it you see, my lady?”
“I see a faint yellow strip of beach, and an even grey line which must be the ocean. O yes! there is a sparkle, and no other light or motion can be seen so far.”
“Aye,” said Joel, laughing, “that is ever the way those pronounce who have seen little. What think you of volcano fires, my lady, quivering over two hundred miles of a midnight sea? What think you of an avalanche sparkling as it slides from the highest pinnacle of the Andes? There are things, for that matter, that you have seen. What think you of the northern lights, or of our own shining, changing moon? Is she not so far off as yonder sea?”
“I was rash in what I said, Joel. But I wish that mist was away that I might find a sail. Look, look, Thérése! Is there anything?. . . . Do you see any form come out from amidst the haze?”
Théèse not having fixed her sight so long, could discern nothing; but her mistress satisfied herself that a vessel was visible, and at length, by dint of attention, could make out first the hull, then the sails, then one, then two more vessels in its train, and at last, a whole fleet.
“Why do you not insist on your servant seeing them too?” asked the old philosopher. “‘Twould be just as reasonable as quarrelling, as the people do down below, about what they see with their minds’ eyes. Bring them up here. One will say that yonder haze is nothing more than a blotch upon a bright sky; another won't trouble himself to look, but believes it is a mountain, or a city, or whatever other folks tell him it is. You, madam, see that within the mist which interests you more than the whole landscape besides; but, depend upon it, you will find plenty of people to assure you that 'tis all fancy that you perceive anything.”— Turning to Thérèse, he said, “Now you believe the lady that she sees a fleet, I dare say?”
“I do. Madame is not apt to see vision, and she ever speaks truth. Do not you believe?”
“I do. What a world of trouble it would save if we had a few people that could discern as far off, and tell what they saw as faithfully about things that will outlast the sea; or even about some notions that will pass away long before yon fleet has all been sunk, or beaten to pieces, or decayed!”
“You mean,” said Letitia, anxious to prove the old man's scholarship, “what a pity it is that there is nobody to look out and tell us what truths there are holding their course within the mists in which our systems of religion, and politics, and science, and—above all—of society, are shrouded.”
“Yes, madam: but, after all, if there were such, would any believe them? Or, if some did and others did not, would there not follow a quarrel? Believe me, madam, (for I know every man, woman, and child, that lives beneath the roofs we are looking down upon,) there is not a spot beyond the belt of this churchyard,— bright and quiet as all looks, with not a leaf stirring in yonder woods,—there is not a spot where human beings are content with each other,—not a place above the sod where they can dwell side by side in perfect peace.—Some even quarrel about what is to become of themselves and their neighbours when they are laid under the sod. The children, indeed, tell one another such tales as it is pleasant to hear about the pretty place under ground, all cool and green and daisied, where they are to lie and sleep till all are gathered together; but as they grow up and are taken, one to Sir William's chapel on the hill there, and another to the meeting-house in the village below, and another here . . . .”
Letitia, perceiving that Thérèse began to look alarmed about what might be coming, interrupted Joel with the remark that it would be surprising if there were not difference of opinion on a subject so remote from human ken as the modes of future being. It was far more desirable that there should be agreement as to what should be done above ground to make life peaceful and happy; the most to be enjoyed in itself, and the fittest possible preparation for a higher and better.
“There is full as much quarrelling about this as about the other matter,” said old Joel. “There is your own mansion, madam. There, if I am rightly told, sits lord F—, sighing over the distresses-of thousands, and finding fault with the management of those that have held his office before him. In yonder new farm lives a man who is annoyed by the complaints of his neighbours on account of his having undertaken the tillage of some inferior lands, owing to which, the profits of their several occupations must fall. In the old abbey farm below, there is discontent at rents being raised by the same means. In our village shop, there is jealousy of the neighbouring co-operatives; and these co-operatives themselves, congratulating one another as they do on having found out the road to prosperity, shake their heads in a very melancholy way over the impiety of holding lands, and the injustice of rewarding labour in such a faulty manner as by paying coin. There are much worse things than these. There is life lost in smuggling contests on the coast you are looking at; and life wasted and worn in ill-paid labour in the rich fields below; and life embittered by hunger and cold in yonder hovels where the jolly hunt is now sweeping by. Everybody sees all this, and everybody boasts that he could cure it. All set about it in different ways, and nothing is done.”
“I would scarcely say that nothing is done,” said Letitia. “Though labour-notes may not prove so good a circulating medium as gold and silver, it is something done for any body of men to have become practically convinced that it is labour which gives value to what we would exchange. Though it is not at all likely that property in land will be given up because the Jews, peculiar in all their institutions, held theirs under a peculiar tenure, it is something gained that common attention is turned upon the tendency of our present system of land-holding, that so the causes of the increase of this species of property may be discovered in time to remove the impediments to a just distribution. Depend upon it, something is gained by these divisions of opinion; and the more various they become, the nearer we are to a better plan of society. The more quickly opponents demolish the hinderances set up by one another, the sooner will the natural laws of distribution be left free to work.”
“Why should they not do the thing more quickly still, madam, by watching the natural course of things? There might be an old man found in every village able to tell the changes that have come to pass since his boyhood in the value of the property, and the prosperity of the people around him, and wise enough to separate what belongs to the matter from what does not. I, for my part, can prove that our people here would not have been richer if they had paid one another ill labour-notes or goods, had instead of coin; and that if all the people within five miles round had made an agreement fifty years ago to have everything in common, there would now have been less wealth within these bounds, and far more people to consume it,—though we have too many already.”
“Point out to me, Joel, any spot within sight where you have watched the operation of the natural laws of distribution, of which we hear so much.”
“Alas! madam, there is no such spot in this kingdom. If there were, there would be abundance and content everywhere, instead of the differences we have been talking of. What is the first of these laws? That all labour should be free and voluntary.—Well; our people are not slaves, it is true; but can labour be called voluntary as to its amount, when a man must work sixteen hours a day to get just enough to keep him from starving?”
“This comes of there being more labour than food; and this therefore cannot be remedied by equalization of property, since the rich man consumes little more food than the poor man. It can be remedied only by bringing in more corn, or by sending out a portion of our surplus labour from among us.”
“True. Well; the second law is that all the fruits of labour should be secured to the producer. This is not done; for taxation swallows up a grievous portion of what is produced.”
“But the labourer chooses to exchange part of the fruits of his labour for the sake of protection of a government.”
“The third law,” interrupted Joel, “is that all exchanges of these fruits ought to be free and voluntary. Let our labourers give something in exchange for social protection, and welcome; but never tell me that they would willingly give as much as is now required from them in taxes, unless food was allowed so to abound as to afford a better recompense to their toil. While government checks tile supply of food, the labourer cannot think tiletile wealth he creates naturally distributed between the government and himself.”
“Tile co-operatives propose, I believe, to go on tilling more and more land as more food is wanted, and to give a sufficiency of its produce to every labourer.”
“Aye, madam, and many besides the co-operatives; but it would puzzle the wisest man among them to say where tile sufficiency is to come I?om, after a time; the return from land. being less and less as time passes on. Take the worst soil at present tilled. . . .”
“Or a better soil, subtracting the rent; for the return from all land is equal when the rent is deducted.”
“Very true, madam. Tile produce is to be shared between the cultivator and his labourers, rent having nothing to do with the profits of the one or the wages of the other,—being the consequence entirely of the different qualities of the land. Well; let this produce be divided into wages and profits ill what proportion you will, both decline as numbers increase and more food is wanted.”
“How is it then that farmers' labourers have many things in their possession that farmers' labourers used not to have? More shoes and stockings, and cloth coats, and other manufactured articles?”
“Because these things are more easily made, and cost less. A labourer may now have a pair of shoes for half as much corn, we will say, as he must have given for them some years ago. The same is the case with the farmer who employs him; so, though each may receive double the quantity of certain goods that they did some years ago, it does not follow that the rate of profits and wages is increased. If you reckoned the labourer's gains in shoes, you might say that his wages are doubled; but if you reckon them in relation to the farmers' profits, you may find them at the same time lowered; or that both wages and profits have in one sense increased; in another not. This blinds many people to the fact that wages and profits are continually declining.”
“Of course, if land produces less and less, there must be a smaller produce to divide between the capitalist and his labourers; and on the whole, they must share the decline pretty equally; since the farmer would not farm unless he could make some profit, and the labourers would not labour but for subsistence. But I am afraid this decline pulls down the profits of manufactures too; for farmers would turn manufacturers if they could make higher profits thereby; and then there would be a new demand for corn; the price would rise; farmers would return to farming, and would take in new land, the diminished produce of which would lower profits again.”
“Yes, madam: this is the way that agricultural profits determine all profits; and that all are perpetually sinking. You see labour becomes dearer when corn is; that is, the labour must have a certain quantity of corn in return for his labour, bc its price what it may; and these higher wages lessen profits again, without any advantage to the labourer.”
“Well, but the corn the farmer retains is higher in price.”
“But less in quantity, my lady; and he has the prospect of employing dearer labour for a less return.”
“It seems, then, as if wages determined profits, instead of profits determining wages. But I suppose it comes to the same thing where there are only two shares to depend on each other.”
“There are greater changes, madam, in the supply of labour than in the manner of using it; and while there are multitudes of eager, hungry labourers, they will take care that the profits of stock shall not commonly rise higher than just to make it answer to the capitalist to carry on his business.”
“But do these things actually take place? Do farmers turn manufacturers, and turn back again into farmers? and have you known any cases of their profits falling?”
“I am as sure of it, my lady, as the co-operatives themselves, whose theme it constantly is. As for farmers changing,—you must remember that almost all capitalists use borrowed capital, and that this capital floats about continually, and is taken in where it is most wanted: so that capital may be largely invested in one concern at one time, and another at another, without much visible change in the occupations of capitalists. As for the other matter,—I know a manufacturer in yon city, and the farmer in the abbey farm to have each employed ten men at 25l. wages per annum, the highest they could afford to give, they said, since they had now to pay 250l. instead of 200l., as formerly . A new man came and took new land of the old farmer's landlord; and he had to employ eleven men to raise the same produce as the abbey farm yielded, and the price of corn rose. When the old farmer's lease expired, he was charged 25l. more rent to make him equal with the new farmer.”
“So they paid 275l.,—one for wage only, and tile other for wages and the additional rent; while the manufacturer paid only 250l.”
“Yes; but it was made up to them by the increased price of their produce; so tile profits of all were still equal. When labour should become dearer in consequence of this rise of price, the profits of all three would fall together.”
“And the labourer would not be better off, after all, Joel: only the land-owner, whose rent is incessantly rising. All this is exactly what the co-operatives are complaining of, is it not?”
“Yes, madam. But how would co-operation mend the matter? However the total produce is divided, it still goes on lessening, while numbers increase. This is the point, my lady. Do away as you will with the very names of rent, profits, and wages,—throw all together in a lump into a public treasury,—and there will still be less and less return to capital, and more and more consumers to divide it. Co-operation, equalization, and all those things, cannot make all lands equally fertile, they cannot make capital grow as numbers grow; and unless they could do these things, they can make no permanent provision for unlimited numbers; they cannot prevent tile decline of profits, whether those profits are taken by individuals, or thrown into the common stock.”
“But how do you answer these co-operatives, Joel, “when their complaints of the distresses of our peasantry are undeniably true?”
“I answer by agreeing with them so far. Who can help it, for that matter? Where is the town in this wide kingdom where hunger does not stalk ferociously through the streets, and howl in the dark alleys? Where is the village where want does not wet the mother's pillow with tears, and open untimely graves for the gentle and the manly? No, no! I have seen too much to deny what so many are suffering: but this only makes me the more anxious that false means of relief should not be tried. W hen I hear some crying out for this park of yours, my lady, to be cut up into corn-fields and potato-gardens, or for cultivation to be carried to the tops of yonder hills, for all property to be held in common, I see that all this would only le ad to tenfold misery, and I cry,—but nobody listens to an old man,—get corn whence you can get it cheapest;—send away as maul: of your people as you do not want to where they are wanted;—and take care so to manage matters as that you may never be overburdened with numbers again.—Often as I have said this, madam, I never before said it with so much hope of being attended to. My lord can speak so as to be heard from one end of the empire to the other, and . . . .”
“And he likes to hear whatever is said from one end of the kingdom to the other on these matters, Joel. He would fain have a wise old man out of every town and village, as you say, to relate the changes he has seen from boyhood till now. You must come one day soon, when lord F—is at leisure, and tell us more of what you have seen at home and abroad.”
As they descended into the church, John White was seen standing at the entrance to the gallery in a state of great impatience. He had been kicking his heels, tapping the door-posts with his rule, and amusing himself in sundry such ways for half an hour, while waiting for the party, and now hastened forward to do the honours of her pew to lady F—, pointing out the comforts and elegancies of fire-place, cushioned chairs, curtain, &c.
“Is this our seat.?” said Letitia. “I do not like it at all.”
White stared in amazement. Thérèse was too busy remarking the bareness of a Protestant church to take notice of what was going on.
“It is a small, inconvenient church,” added Letitia, “and by no means made the most of, Where do the school children sit?—What! down in that narrow corner? This gallery is the proper place for them. After all your trouble, White, we must have another arrangement.”
“And where will your ladyship have all these things shifted?”
“Nowhere,” replied she, smiling. “If a fireplace is wanted here at all, it is for the half-clad, and not for those who can wrap themselves in furs; and this show of damask furniture does not beseem the place. I will speak to lord F— about a pew for us next that of the curate's family, and fitted up in the same way.”
“With matting underfoot, my lady, and dark green cushions, and below stairs too? Well to be sure! But your ladyship will have a curtain hung round?”
“I see no use in it. Lord F— does not sleep at church, or wish to be supposed present when he is not.”
“And the earl, and lady Frances,” said Joel, in a whisper. “What will they think, my lady?”
“They will, as our guests, be satisfied with our accommodations, Joel. And now show me down, that I may go and arrange this with lord F—, that our pew may be ready by Sunday.”
“The old family monuments, my lady.”
“I will wait to see monuments, those till lord F— is with me. We will call for you, the first morning he is at liberty. Meanwhile, there is much to study in the churchyard. We shall meet there sometimes, Joel.”
The lady and the old sexton did often meet there. Sometimes she went, sketch-book in hand, to sit in the porch or on the tombs; and then old Joel kept on the watch, just within sight, in hopes of being beckoned and invited to a conversation. At other times he would be there first in the performance of his duty; and the lady, warned by the passing bell, would come down and watch the process of grave-digging, gathering from him many a tale of joy and sorrow; many a touching notice of repented sin; many an animating narrative of struggling virtue. Severe as old Joel was on the follies of the pre sent times, no one could review the past more tenderly. It was soon perceived, however, that he became less reserved in his conduct, and less severe in his judgments towards the neighbours, as his friendship with lady F— ripened. By
the time he got to call her “my dear,” lie had grown so familiar with one and another as to express his admiration of her. It was a pretty sight, he observed, to see her out riding with a train of noble guests about her, and a pleasant thing to hear that she was the gayest and fairest at all the lordly festivals in the country round; but it did an old man's heart good to have her come and watch the opening of graves, in which she never forgot that the young and graceful are often laid before the old and weary. She ever kept herself in mind of this, by coming as she did, to mourn at every funeral. It was not idle curiosity, as some people might think. There was her face to read her thoughts in; and where were thoughts ever written plainer? Let the train behind the coffin be as long as it might, there was not a face more serious, there were not any tears more ready than hers. The very children that used to be sporting upon the graves at such times, had learned to he quiet without her even holding up her finger. Who should dig his grave, the old man did not know; but tie prayed his hour might come when the lady should be at the hall. She would see him laid under the sod, he was sure; and perhaps, at the moment, some things might come into her mind that they had said together at times when things are said that are worth remembering.