Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VIII.: UPSHOT OF FEUDALISM. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 4
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Chapter VIII.: UPSHOT OF FEUDALISM. - 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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UPSHOT OF FEUDALISM.
The hopeful disposition of both Charles and Antoine was remarkable at all times, and in whatever society they were. When they were together, it became well nigh excessive, and occasioned no little amusement to their friends in happy times, and much sighing from the apprehensive Marguerite in such evil days as they were now fallen upon. Each excited the other to perceive bright specks on the dark horizon, aud neither would lag behind the other in discerning cause for encouragement, and in pointing out that, as good had issued from apparent evil in some former analogous instance, it would be a sin to doubt that the same thing might happen again. Marguerite was almost offended that, while she looked tremblingly around as the dancing waters of the Garonne first flashed upon their sight under the gleam of an October sun, her husband encouraged the joyous gestures of the children standing on his knee, and burst out singing one of the popular provincial airs to which the banks of that river so often echo. But when Antoine came forth to meet them as they alighted, in high spirits, though he had actually nothing good to tell them, however disposed to hope for everything blissful, Marguerite turned from him to her father, as the most reasonable personage of the two.
Antoine was beginning a laugh at his brother's first choice of the luxury of a valet, but checked himself instantly on hearing who it was, and wherefore.
“Do you suppose tie may safely dress himself, and appear to arrive at his chateau to-morrow?”
“Why, scarcely yet, perhaps,” replied Antoine, gravely. “The peasantry are in an uncomfortable, irascible state, and the poor man would hardly have fair play among them; but it cannot last long, and then we shall have him trampling our crops again as solemnly as ever; perched, like a wax figure, on horseback, and utterly unable to comprehend such a thing as a curse against himself; or to bestow a thought as to whose ground he is trespassing upon.”
“Let us hope he has learned more consideration by his misfortunes,” said Charles. “At any rate, he may yet learn it by using his eyes and ears in the interval between this hour and his restoration to his honours and privileges,— which I suppose will happen by the time he has learned to tie his own queue according to his own fancy. Meanwhile, how is Favorite?”
“O, our beauty! She has rather languished this season; but she will be all the more brilliant next year; for two bad seasons give a pretty fair security that the third will be good. It is as if the steam of blood had come from your city, Charles, like a blight, and shrivelled her swelling fruit. The crisis is come, you say. There will soon be no more blood, and wine will gush instead. Yes, yes, next season all will be well.”
“But our peasant neighbours, Antoine. Has their condition improved as you were confident it would?”
“How should it yet? the time is not come. They have not vet got over the scarcity of last year. But the woodcocks will soon be here; and the lady Alice's doves multiply all the faster now they are left to themselves; and in the spring, there will be a greater resource of cattle, and of their milk; and the bad seasons have not destroyed our fish. We are planning to get larger and larger supplies from Bordeaux, as well as to send out more boats upon the river.”
“Corn is too dear, at present, I suppose, for the poor, if indeed, you have enough for the rich?”
“We are all somewhat better off in that respect than we were; but a great part of the discontent arises from the incessant changes in the value of whatever we get to eat, as long as the supply is turned out of its usual course. When we can no longer depend on an article whose supply is usually pretty regular, and its price not very variable, we are subject to a perpetual rise and fall which we cannot calculate, and which brings disappointments to the people which they are ill able to bear.”
“How do you mean? I thought our poor helped out their subsistence by nettle broth and frog stew; and for these, I suppose, they pay neither labour nor money?”
“No; but they must have something in addition. Presently it will be woodcocks—the most uncertain article of food that can be. If there should be a fine flight of them to be had for the killing, labour will become cheaper to us capitalists, while the labourers will be better rewarded: that is, it will cost us less to feed our labourers, while they will get more food for an equal quantity of labour. This, while it lasts, lessens the cost of production, and if it went on a whole year, would cheapen our corn considerably next harvest. But the resource lasts a very short time, and the reduction of the price of corn, therefore, is only of that temporary kind which proceeds from a relaxation of demand. Before the people well understand how this is, the cattle begin to come in from the woods,—more numerous than ever, from so much arable land having, since the storm, yielded a kind of rude pasture. This is a some what less uncertain resource than the woodcocks, and lowers the value of corn for a longer period. What I want, to fill up the intervals of these uncertain supplies, is a permanent provision of fish.”
“How strangely the values of things are turned topsy-turvy!” exclaimed Charles. “Time was when our peasantry would no more have thought of dining off woodcocks than I of giving my servants a daily dessert of pine-apples. Dainty game of that sort is commonly thought to rise in value with the progress of improvement.”
“And so it does; and that it now exchanges for less either of money or bread, than the commonest sorts of meat did three years ago, is a proof that our condition has gone back instead of improving. It is a proof that the produce of our toil is scantier than it was; that the produce which we cannot command—that which comes and goes without our will and pleasure—exchanges for less when there are more to demand it.”
“We may say the same of cattle.”
“Just at present; because our cattle is for the most part wild, having got abroad into the woods at the time of the hurricane. But when we have collected our flocks and herds again, and can attend to their breeding, so as to proportion the supply to the demand, we shall find their value permanently depend, like that of the crops with which they will then be fed, on the cost of production.”
“Of course, if they feed on crops grown for their use. At present, when they pasture them-selves on land which would otherwise lie waste, they are cheap when there happens to be, a sufficient supply of fish and woodcocks, because there is little cost of production;—no rent, little capital, and less labour. Any sudden rise of value proceeds from a temporary increase of demand. It is to equalize the demand for butcher's meat, that I and some of my neighbours want to procure a regular supply of fish.”
“Yet fish is an article whose value rises with the progress of improvement. It must do so in proportion as more labour is required to procure an equal supply for an extended market. As years pass on, Antoine. we shall have to fit out more boats for the river, and to build them larger, and man them better, as we have to send them out farther. But then there will be more of other things to give in exchange for fish.”
“True; but at present we cannot give our fishermen what they think a fair premium upon their cost of production, because our cost of production, the cost of the labour we give in exchange, is extraordinarily high.”
“Do they complain of the price you give?”
“Very much, but that cannot be helped. We complained of their social price in old days,—of having to pay, not only the profits and wages necessary to procure the article, but the market dues, which were very oppressive. They answered that they did not pocket the dues, and could not help the high price. Now they complain that (the dues being lately remitted) they cannot even secure their natural price,—that is, a reasonable profit in addition to the cost of the labour.”
“If they cannot do this, why do they supply you? They will not surely go on furnishing the market with fish at prime cost.”
“Certainly not, for any length of time; but, till the woodcocks come, they must submit to wear out their boats a little, without an equivalent, looking forward to the time when we may again afford them a fair market price,—which will, by that time, be a money price; for then we shall be able to get out of our present inconvenient state of barter, and the coin which has disappeared will have found its way back.”
“Meanwhile, the people, you say, are discontented as much at the fluctuations in their affairs as at their absolute want of many comforts.”
“Yes; we hear perpetual complaints that no man can now calculate how much his labour is worth. So many hours' work will one week bring him two good meals, and at another, not half an one. If they go into the woods for game, so many head may to-day exchange for a coat,—to-morrow for a house.”
“Much of this hap-hazard must also be owing to the uncertainty of public affairs. If we could but foresee whether we really have arrived at the crisis,—whether trade will probably flow into its natural channels again after a certain fixed period, our condition would immediately improve. There is no other such effectual regulator of price as clear anticipation, because it enables us to calculate the ultimate cost of production, on which exchangeable value finally depends.”
Antoine observed, in a low voice, that the most suffering of his poor neighbours had lately begun to indulge in a new sort of anticipation. They had been told,— and nobody was aware whence the report arose, that there was a room full of coin in the chateau of the marquis de Thou. Their own coin had somehow gone away from them, and they fancied that, if they could but get any instead of it, all their woes would immediately cease. Antoine had reason to believe that the chateau would soon be attacked, unless some means of undeceiving the poor creatures could be discovered.
The brothers comforted themselves, according to their wont, that such means could not fail soon to present themselves. It was impossible that so gross an error could long subsist. Their confidence did not make them the less watchful to aid the enlightenment of the people around them; for their hopefulness was of that kind which stimulates instead of superseding exertion. La Favorite experienced this; for, amidst all their hopes of what her beauty would be next year, they toiled to repair her losses and renovate her vegetative forces. Charles could not have brought himself to return to Paris till this was done, even if he had been satisfied to leave Marguerite in charge of the marquis.
This gentleman chose soon to free the family from his presence, against their advice; even in the face of their strong remonstrances. Like many who are deficient in physical courage and mental strength, he was rash and obstinate. As soon as he had recovered from his astonishment at not being killed on the day of his arrival, he began to be certain that there was no further danger, and, blind to the manifold tokens of his extreme unpopularity, which might have greeted his senses and understanding at any hour of any day, he determined on secretly quitting his disguise, without troubling his kind friends to reason any further with him. One morning, accordingly, his valet's dress was found on the floor of his chamber, and on his table, a note of ample, though haughty thanks to his preservers; and by noon, the marquis's old steed, bearing a rider whose skirts, blue eyes, and entire deportment could not be mistaken, was seen to trample new ploughed fields, and give promise of riding over heedless children, as before.
The last thing that entered the old man's head was altering his modes of procedure in any one respect. He could not escort lady Alice, because she was not there; but he paced the terrace, in an afternoon, with his head half turned, as if he saw her ghost beside him. He could not lead a long train of hunters, because some of them were in Austria, some in England, and one or two already laid headless in a bloody grave; but he galloped forth on the same routes, making the most of the two or three servants who followed him still, and returning in state to sit solitary at the head of a long table, and toast his own loyal sentiments. What was worse,—he trampled his poor neighbours when they came in his way, and overlooked them when they did not, as if he had never been branded by a poissarde, or hunted in the avenue at Versailles.
All this, it may be supposed, soon came to an end,—and by means which proved the error of the popular belief about the chamber full of gold at the chateau. Out of pure humanity, Charles repeatedly vanquished his resentment at the marquis's supercilious treatment of him, and offered warnings of the blackening gloom which settled in the faces of the peasantry when the little great man came in sight; but the marquis had got it into his head that Charles had an interest in frightening him. He thought he had been more frightened than most men al ready, and wisely determined to be so no more. He bowed, laid his hand on his heart, disengaged his rein from the friendly grasp, and passed on.
“My hopefulness is nothing to his, Marguerite, after all,” observed Charles. “You say I hope against hope. He hopes against reason. The difference is that the one hope will vanish when most wanted, and the other, I trust, never wear out.”
One night, when there was no moon,—one of the longest winter nights,—no moon was wanted for a space of some miles on the banks of the Garonne. Instead of the boats sailing black in the silver beam, they passed crimson in the fiery glare. The sheeted snow glittered and sparkled as if it had been noon instead of midnight: the groves dropped their melted burden, and stood stiff and stark in wintry bareness, stripped of the feathery lightness in which they had risen against the evening sky. Cries which ill beseem the hour of sleep roused the night-birds, and volumes of red smoke spread themselves abroad to eclipse the stars. Charles's steps were directed towards the chateau before he had received any notice, but from his own apprehensions, whence the fire proceeded which had scared his children from their beds. He arrived in the court-yard,—not in time to save the marquis, but to speak with him once more.
The old man was bound to the balustrade of his own terrace; and an executioner stood beside him with an upraised and gleaming sword. His appearance was much what it had been on a nearly similar occasion before. He attempted to spring forward, and a gleam of hope shot across his countenance when the brothers appeared: but there was a something in their faces which checked the emotion, and his jaw dropped once more.
All efforts, all stratagems were vain. The people declared themselves unpitying to tyrants, and resolved to do away with despotism in their quarter of the land, in like manner with their brethren in Paris. Five minutes for preparation was all they would allow, and even Charles at length despaired of further favour. He approached the victim with a calm and serious countenance. The old man looked up.
“Is there no hope?”
“There is always hope. Let us hope that in another state we shall better know how to love and forgive one another. Here, we have a poor understanding of this; but even here we can forgive. They will not now forgive you; but you will leave them that which will make them do so hereafter. Leave them your pardon.”
“O, Alice,—my daughter! Not if they murder Alice.”
“They shall not. I promise you——”
“But I did not expect this,” uttered the shivering prisoner. “I went to bed——”
“Then collect yourself now. A few minutes' resolution.—One effort at calmness——”
“But is there no hope?”
“None whatever. Settle your mind to your fate. There is only misery in struggling against it.”
“I will. I will. Only stay by me.”
“What a confidence for such a moment!” thought Charles, as he saw the tractable expression which the countenance assumed. It was some comfort, however, that there was any confidence which could give decency to his dying deportment.
The people around grew impatient. The executioner lifted his sword. The victim looked up at it, half fearfully, half meekly, like a penitent child at the impending rod. He fell, without a sign or a cry; and at the moment, the flames burst forth from the lower windows, as if to lick up, in as summary a vengeance as they had been guilty of, the perpetrators of this murder. All rushed from the terrace, with a yell of consternation, leaving the body alone, its unclosed eyes shining in the glare, as if gazing unmoved on that violence which could no longer reach it in the shape of injury.—When the gust fell, and the flames retired some space, the ruffian who held the sword returned to the place of execution, severed the head, tossed the body into the flames, and returned with his trophy to the cheering mob.
There was nothing for Charles and Antoine to stay for. They could neither save property, nor prevent crime. There was no purpose to be answered by an attempt to do the first; for the lady Alice could never return hither, or probably find any corner of her native land in which to dwell in peace. Any endeavour to check the people's rage would only have brought on more murders. It was better that they should occupy themselves with destroying inanimate things than have their wrath directed upon human objects. The brothers therefore left them endeavouring to discover the treasure-chamber, and paced silently homewards, trying whether, after such a spectacle, as this, their hopefulness could get the better of their heart-sickness.