Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter I: VINE-GROWING. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 4
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Chapter I: VINE-GROWING. - 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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It was on a glorious afternoon in July, 1788, that an Englishman, named Steele, landed on the banks of the Garonne, a few miles south of Bordeaux, whence he had come up in a boat on an excursion of part business, part pleasure. Steele was settled as a factor at Bordeaux, and his business was to purchase wines from the growers, and ship them to his employers in England. His occupation had brought him acquainted with almost every vine-grower within fifty leagues of Bordeaux; and in the case of one of these, Antoine Lnyon, the acquaintance had ripened into a friendship. Antoine was part owner of some vineyards on the western bank of the Garonne, one of which produced claret of a singular'y, fine quality,—too good to command an advantageous sale at Paris, where second and third-rate wines are in nearly equal esteem with the first. The produce of this small and rich vineyard was therefore set apart for English sale, and had been bargained for by the house which Steele represented, and the terms agreed upon for the vintage of the five next seasons. Other vineyards belonging to the same parties touched upon this peculiarly favoured one; but not all the care and pains that could be taken availed to make their produce better than second or third rate. Their aspect was a little more to the east and less to the south; they were not so perfectly sheltered behind; and no art could temper their soil to the exact point of perfection enjoyed by La Haute Favorite, as this distinguished vineyard was called. Their produce was, however, as valuable as that of most of the estates around, and was in good esteem at Paris, where Antoine's partner, his brother Charles, was settled as a wine-merchant; and where he bestowed as much pains on the maturing of the stock in his cellars as Antoine did on its first ripening in the form of grapes, or their friend Steele on the processes of fining, racking, and mixing, which were carried on at his employers' depôt at Bordeaux. Much care and skill were required in all these departments of business; and the young men were exemplary in both, pursuing their occupation as a matter of taste as well as of necessity. Steele watched the thermometer in his cellars as carefully as Antoine observed winds and clouds; and their common interest in the welfare of Favorite quickened their friendship, in one way among many, by occasioning more frequent meetings than, they would otherwise have thought practicable. Many a trip to Bordeaux did Antoine contrive to ascertain the effects of heat or cold on the wines in their third or fourth season; or to give the alarm if he heard rumours of buildings being pulled down or erected so near the premises as to have any influence over the temperature within: and during the summer, Steele was wont to go up the river on Saturdays, and spend the Sunday with his friend Antoine for the avowed purpose of paying his devoirs to La Favorite.—There was much to tempt him to these excursions, if wine had made no part of his interest, for a fairer territory than that through which the Garonne held its course was seldom seen. There were harvests of a more picturesque growth than even those which embellished the vineyards. Interspersed with the meadows which sloped down to the river, were groves of olives and forests of chestnuts, and in due season, the almond trees put forth their pink blossoms amidst the dark shadows of the evergreen woods. Boats heavily laden with the merchandise of the Levant, brought hither by means of the grand Languedoc canal, passed down the blue and brimming river, or returned, borne rapidly on the tide, and empty of all but the boatmen in their red jackets, whose snatches of song reached the shore on the fragrant breeze. The cottages of the peasantry were indeed few, and comfortless in appearance; but the chateaux of the gentry arose here and there, not half buried in woods, like English mansions, but conspicuous on terraces, and rendered in some degree imposing by the appliances of art, which did not, however, in the eye of the Englishman, compensate for the natural attractions which a fine taste would have gathered round them. Even stone balustrades and fountains, and artificial terraces, however, as long as they were intermixed with corn-fields and olive groves, had charms for one whose residence was commonly in the city; and in process of time, he began to contemplate the chateau of the marquis de Thou, which commanded the vicinity of Antoine's residence, with something of the admiration, though with nothing of the awe, with which it was regarded by the peasantry round.
Whether this admiration was increased or lessened by the glimpses he occasionally obtained of its inhabitants, he could himself have hardly determined. The first time he saw the marquis he was moved to laughter; but then the marquis was alone (except the laquais in his rear) sitting bolt upright on his horse, with his enormous qucue reaching down to the little skirts of his coat, and his large light blue eyes and pursed-up mouth giving a ludicrous mixture of vacancy and solemnity to his countenance. But when the marquis de Thou was seen parading the terrace with his beautiful daughter, the lady Alice, by his side, or following the sports of the field with a train of the noblesse, assembled in all the grandeur of feudal array, he who looked insignificant in his individuality gathered some advantage from the grace or splendour around him. He was regarded as the father and protector of the fair creature who seemed to tread on air within the vast circumference of her hoop, and whose eyes shone forth from beneath her enormous headdress like glow-worms in a thicket; and again, the marquis was the host of the wealthy and the gay who held sway in the land which was for ever boasting its own likeness to Paradise: so that, in time, the marquis became mixed up with his connexions even in the mind of the Englishman; and instead of laughing, Steele learned to uncover and bow low at the approach of the great man, in the same manner as Antoine. If he had known as much as the natives of the territory of certain deeds which were done, and certain customs which were prevalent there, his English heart might have forbidden his raising his hand to his head in token of respect; but though he disliked the French peasantry, he was not fully aware how many of their bad qualities were directly attributable to the influence of the order of which the marquis de Thou was one of the representatives.
On the present occasion, Antoine awaited on the bank the landing of his friend.
“Ah ha!” cried the Frenchman, as soon as he could make himself heard; “you look up into our blue sky with the same admiration as when you first saw it, four seasons ago. Well; even Bordeaux has its smoke, and now and then a sea haze.”
“So thick an one this morning,” replied Steele, “that I could have fancied myself in an English port.”
“Do the captains foretell a change of wind?” inquired Antoine. “I rather apprehend one; and it is a pity that Favorite should risk losing a particle of her beauty. Come and see her,—as bright as a May morning; as rich and mellow as an autumn noon. It would grieve my soul if an unkind wind should hurt her; but there are signs of a change.”
The young men turned their steps towards the vineyards, instead of to Antoine's dwelling, as Steele needed no refreshment but that of seeing how his dearly-beloved vines flourished, and enjoying the beautiful walk which led to the enclosures. On this occasion, he looked about him more than usual as he passed, as the peasantry were abroad, and evidently in a state of excitement and uneasiness. One and another stopped the young men to ask if they knew what direction the hunt had taken, and whether it could be conjectured how long a chase the boar might cause the gentry. Steele now learned for the first time, how eminently a boar hunt was an occasion of terror and hardship to the country people. He saw them mount the highest trees to look out, and lay their ears to the ground to detect the distant tread of horses. He heard them mutter prayers that their fences might remain unbroken, and their crops untrodden.
“I should not have thought your peasants could be so anxious about their little harvests,” he observed to Antoine. “Judging from the state of their plots of land, I should suppose them careless about their tillage. How weedy this field is! And the hay in that meadow was, as I remember, not cut for weeks after the proper time.”
“It is no fault of theirs,” replied Antoine.” The law forbids hoeing and weeding, lest the young partridges should be hurt; and the hay must not be cut before a certain day, let the season be what it will, lest the game should be deprived of shelter. Many crops are thus spoiled.”
“What tyranny!” exclaimed the Englishman. “But some fault seems still to remain with the cultivators. They do not use half the manure at their disposal, while their land evidently wants it much. Yonder field is an instance.”
“Certain sorts of manure are thought to give an unpleasant flavour to the birds which subsist on the grain which springs from them,” replied Antoine. “Such manure is not allowed to be used.”
On Steele's exclaiming again that such prohibitions were too arbitrary to be endured, Antoine laughed, and wondered what he would say to certain other regulations, in comparison with which these were trifles. What did he think of the lot of those who were sent to the galleys for having entered or approached the groves where the wild pigeons of the marquis were appointed to breed undisturbed; or of such as were ruined by being taken from their tillage to make for him ornamental roads which led nowhere; or by the fines which they had to pay in commutation of the service of keeping the frogs quiet by night? On one side the chateau, a marsh extended for some distance, and its frogs greatly annoyed a former marquis by their croaking. His peasantry were employed to beat the ponds. By degrees, as the nuisance decreased, this service was commuted for a fine,—and a very oppressive one it was found at this day. Antoine was proceeding to describe another grievance of great magnitude, when his description was superseded by an example.
The young men were now in a chestnut grove, within which the distant sounds of the hunt were beginning to be heard. A figure of a peasant crossed the glades at intervals, and an occasional voice hailed them from overhead, where lookers out were perched on the loftiest trees to watch what course the devastation of the boar and its hunters would take. After a few moments of quiet, a cry burst forth, and was echoed from mouth to mouth through the wood, a heavy plunging tread was heard, and a rushing and crashing in the thicket, which warned Steele to fly to the protection of the largest trunk at hand, while Antoine climbed a tree as nimbly as a squirrel. The ferocious, clumsy animal immediately appeared, its small eyes red and flaming, its coarse hide bristling, and its terrific tusks looking as if they could plough up the very ground over which it rushed headlong. The moment the danger was past, Antoine descended, and followed at full speed to see the issue of the chase; Steele keeping up with his companion as well as he could, but not without some qualms lest the beast should be met at the extremity of the wood, and driven back upon his steps. The hunt was a little too late, however, to accomplish this manoeuvre, and Steele began to feel himself somewhat more comfortable, when a cry of horror from Antoine, who was a little way in advance, renewed all his fears.
“O, Favorite! O La Haute Favorite!” cried he. “She is spoiled,—she will be wholly desolated by the monster and the hunters!” And poor Antoine threw himself down at the foot of a tree, and would look no more. His companion saw one horseman after another leap the fence which had been kept in such perfect repair, watched them wheeling round and round among the choice vines, which they must be treading like so much common grass, and finally follow the boar out at the opposite side, while the servants who attended in the rear wantonly rode over the same ground, when they might just as easily have kept the road. In a great passion, Steele flew to warn, and threaten, and scold; but before he had time to commit himself, Antoine was at hand to interpose, and silence the indignant Englishman.
“I cannot conceive what you mean, Antoine,” cried Steele, the moment they had the place to themselves. “You flung yourself upon the ground in as great an agony as if your bride had been snatched from you; and presently you come to speak these rascals as fair as if they had done you a favour!”
“It is the only way to keep what we have left,” replied Antoine, mournfully. “There is no use, but much peril, in complaint. Redress there is none; and ill-will towards the lord's pleasure is resented more deeply and lastingly than injury to his property. You may rob his chateau of its plate, and be more easily forgiven than for repining at anything which happens in the course of his sports.”
Steele was ready to burst with indignation against the people which permitted such usages to endure. He was answered by a reference to the cruel old forest laws of England, and certain national blemishes of an analogous character which still remained; and the friends were in danger of quarrelling, for the first time, when they remembered that it would be more to the purpose to contemplate the present than the past and the absent, and to help one another under the vexatious event which had befallen them.
It was mournful to look around, and see what had been done within a few minutes;—the clean soil trodden and strewed, the props thrown down, the laden branches snapped off, the ripening fruit crushed and scattered, and the whole laid open to intruders; whether men to steal, or troops of deer to browze. If, by any exertion, these intruders could be kept out, there was hope that some, even a considerable portion, of the expected vintage might be saved, as some rows of vines had not been touched, and others had fallen merely from their supports being removed. Antoine set off in search of labourers. Not one would follow him till the issue of the hunt was known, and it became certain whose fields would be devastated before the sun went down, and whose not; but when the boar's head was at length carried towards the chateau, with the usual honours, and the proud train returned to their stately festivities, a gang of peasants, safe for this bout, set to work, under Antoine and Steele, to stop up the fences till they could be properly repaired; while their less fortunate neighbours hid themselves to groan over the destroyed harvests which were their only hope; —hid themselves, because if their own little children had spoken of their grief, the galleys would infallibly be their destination ere long. Neither those who chaunted over their work, however, nor those who brooded over wrongs within, nor the two young men who toiled, went home, and retired to rest in gloomy silence, anticipated what would be their relative position at the same hour the next evening. Nothing could now appear more certain to Antoine than that he and his brother had sustained a great loss in the destruction of half the crop of their best vineyard, or to Steele than that it would be a misfortune to his employers to be disappointed of half the quantity of that superlative wine which they were to have on favourable terms, and might sell at almost any price they might choose to set upon it: yet another turn of fortune happened within a few hours which promised to do more than repair the pecuniary damage, though it still remained to be lamented that La Haute Favorite should have been exposed to wanton devastation.
The next day was the day of the extraordinary hurricane which spread affright through various regions of France, where there was want and woe enough before to shake the courage and perplex the judgment of rulers, and to appal the hearts of the ruled. The timid had long been inquiring how the national burdens were to be borne for the future, and the popular discontents much longer soothed. When this dreadful tempest came, extinguishing the light of day like an eclipse, changing the aspect of the scenery like an earthquake, and convulsing the atmosphere like a hurricane, mere timidity became deepened into a superstitious horror, and the powers of hell were thought to be let loose against the devoted land. Few could wonder much at this who knew the people in their state of ignorance and hardship, and who witnessed the ravages of the storm.
The morning had risen fair and bright, though cold, from the change of wind which Antoine had predicted. The clouds soon began to gather, with an appearance of unusual blackness; but this did not prevent the country people from setting out for church, and making their way thither in defiance of the rising blasts. When assembled, however, they found it perilous to remain under the shelter of a roof which threatened to fall in upon them; and they rushed out into the road, where, carefully avoiding the neighbourhood of trees, they supported one another during the dreadful hour that the storm lasted. Cries of grief and despair broke from them at every step as they returned homewards. Drifts of hail stopped up their path. The corn-fields were one vast morass. The almond groves were level with the ground; and of the chestnut woods nothing remained but an assemblage of bare poles. The more exposed vineyards were so many quagmires, and many dwellings were mere heaps of ruins. All who witnessed were horror-struck at the conviction of general, immediate, pressing want; and the more thoughtful glanced forwards in idea to the number of seasons that must pass away before all this damage could be repaired. Not a few, in the midst of their own distress, however, jested on the fate of the marquis's partridges, and consoled one another with the certainty that it would be long before the lord's game could trouble them again.
As for Antoine, he hurried past his ruined garden to La Favorite, gloomily followed by the Englishman, who could not be comforted by his companion's suggestion, that, at the worst, the soil would be finely manured by its produce being beaten into it. This was not exactly the object for which Steele had anticipated the fine crop would be used, and he could not, so rapidly as a Frenchman, acquiesce in so complete a change of purposes. It would be difficult to say which was the most astonished and the most joyful when they found their beloved Favorite smiling amidst the general devastation, and scarcely more injured than when they had left her the night before. Sheltered by the hill behind, and by a wood on the side whence the hurricane approached, she had escaped its worst fury; and a few torn branches, a few scattered hailstones, were the only witnesses of the storm which had passed over her.
“My beauty! My beloved!” exclaimed Antoine; “though man and beast have dared to insult thee, the elements have known how to respect thy beauty. They just paid thee a gentle homage as they passed, and left thee serene and verdant, while all besides is prostrated before them. My homage shall restore the few charms that have been defaced.”
And, somewhat to Steele's surprise, Antoine began the homage he spoke of, reverentially lifting the trailing branches, coaxing the battered bunches of grapes, and restoring props with a sort of joyful solemnity, as if rendering service to one who could appreciate his devotion. The cooler Englishman meanwhile looked abroad into the neighbouring vineyards, and saw with concern that the losses of Antoine and his brother must be great. Antoine would scarcely allow this, however, not only because the safety of Favorite had filled him with joy, but because he believed that his fortunes would be rather amended than the contrary by what had happened.
“How should that be?” inquired Steele. “The enormous rise in value of the produce of this vineyard will not benefit you, but my employers, as our terms are fixed for five years to come. How can you gain by being deprived of the rest of your vintage?”
“We shall gain by others being deprived of theirs Vast labour will be required to render these lands productive once more, and the price of wines will therefore be much raised.”
“But you will have to employ and pay for this labour as well as others.”
“True; but meanwhile, we have a large stock of wine at Paris and Bordeaux. For some little time there has been no demand; for the country is troubled, and no one will buy more than cannot be avoided. This has made Charles uneasy, and he has often lately complained of the largeness of our stock. Now that there will be a failure in the supply of wines, our stock will be in request, and at such prices as shall pay all the labour of repairs in our vineyards, and leave no small advantage besides. And then,—how our grounds are manured! What crops they will yield!”
“Aye; but when?—You never will see the dark side of an affair, Antoine. It will be three or four years before yon quagmires can become a firm soil, full of well-settled and bearing vines.”
“Meantime, things will become more tranquil at Paris, perhaps, so that people may enjoy their wine as formerly.”
“Some persons,” observed Steele, “would repine at the terms we have fixed beyond recall for the produce of Favorite; but I hear no complaints from you of the large profits which will be made by my employers.”
“Where would be the use?” replied Antoine. “Since the bargain is, as you say, beyond recall, it is no longer my affair. On the contrary, I congratulate your gentlemen with all my heart. —There is but one thing that I would suggest;— that if their gains prove great, they should purchase the blessing of heaven on them by devoting some small portion to the peasants here who are ruined by the same cause which brings your friends prosperity.”
“There will no doubt be a general subscription,” observed Steele; “and it is fitting that those foreigners should give who will profit by the disasters of your country.”
“If your gentlemen,” replied Antoine, “will do it in the form of remitting a portion of Favorite's wealth, they will add grace to their bounty. How graceful will it be in this, our beauty, to thank heaven for having spared her charms by giving in alms a portion of her dowry!”
“Will your people distinguish, think you,” asked Steele, laughing, “between alms issuing from an English merchant's pocket, in his own name and in the name of a personified vineyard?”
Antoine warmly replied that no people on earth had so nice a sense of the morally graceful and sublime as the French; and offered a wager that in the straightforward case, plain thanks in prose would be all that Messrs. Mason and Co. would receive; while, if the moral grace he recommended were put into the act, La Haute Favorite would be celebrated in song under many a clump of elms.
“Meanwhile,” said Steele, “what measures will you take about your private affairs, and how can I help you?”
“I will this day write to Charles tidings of what has happened. To-morrow I will see what portion of the crops out of this enclosure can be saved. The produce must be housed at Bordeaux, and no more transported to Paris this year.—You can aid me no otherwise than in the care of Favorite, and in soothing the poor whom I dread to meet on my way home. Exhort them, as I ever do, to make the best of inevitable evils.”
“Your example will do more than my exhortations. But what is left to make the best of?”
“The marquis and his daughter. They can no longer be a torment, and may be a help. The new works, for which he oppressed the people, are destroyed. His pigeons are blown away, and his partridges are drowned; and even the frogs may be found to be eternally silenced by this excessive beating of their ponds: while still the people have an equitable claim for food. Let us go and comfort them thus.”
And the good-natured Antoine carried his cheerful countenance among the shivering and dismayed peasantry who were waiting for advice and guidance, and led them to the chateau to ask for relief.
The marquis laid his hand upon his heart, and the lady Alice took trinkets from her hair to give to the hungry people before her, who were loud in their praises of her condescension; though, to be sure, as trinkets could not be eaten, and there was nothing eatable for them to be exchanged against, they only served at present to hush little crying babies for a minute or two. In time it was clearly conveyed to the lady that a more effectual measure would be to order the housekeeper to distribute the contents of the larder among the hungry; and to the gentleman, that now was the occasion for his steward to unlock the granary. These stores being soon exhausted, and no more being at once procurable, from the whole neighbouring country having been laid waste, the cottagers were obliged to subsist themselves as well as they could on boiled acorns, stewed nettles, and on the lord's frogs; a race which seemed destined to extermination, man and the elements having apparently combined against them.
As many of the sufferers as yet survive look back upon that dreadful time with a horror which is not lessened even by the political horrors which ensued. Throughout Guienne, the Orleannois, and other provinces, not a score of revolutions could efface the recollections and traditions of the hurricane of July, 1788. Perhaps it may be still a subject of dispute a century hence whether it was charged, in addition to the natural agents of destruction, with a special message to warn the French nation of their approaching social convulsion. Superstition has not yet been abolished in France, any more than in some other countries which have suffered less deplorably from its sway.