Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter III.: DUMB DUTY. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 6 (Messrs. Vanderput and Snoek, The Loom and the Lugger Parts 1 & 2)
Return to Title Page for Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 6 (Messrs. Vanderput and Snoek, The Loom and the Lugger Parts 1 & 2)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Chapter III.: DUMB DUTY. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 6 (Messrs. Vanderput and Snoek, The Loom and the Lugger Parts 1 & 2) 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 6.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Cooper had good reason for doubting his capability of teaching Nicholas to weave, and for thinking such a task the worst consequence that could result to him from the abolition or reduction of the Coast Guard. There were, indeed, few things that Nicholas could learn to do, and it was therefore a happy circumstance for himself and his mother that his present appointment had been obtained for him. He had good eyes, and a set of strong limbs, so that he stood as fair a chance as a brighter man of seeing a boat on the waves, and of sustaining his six hours' watch to the satisfaction of his officer, in ordinary times. How he might conduct himself at any crisis,—whether he would do what he ought on seeing a suspicious vessel near the coast, or whether any human power could prevail with him to alter the periods or the mode of his watch with-out deranging all his faculties,—was another question: but no emergency having arrived since his appointment, Nicholas was, as yet, in very good repute with everybody about him. Lieutenant Storey had never found fault with him; and Mrs. Storey had more than once bestowed a word and a smile on him, in answer to his reverential salutation, and the open-mouthed admiration with which he was perceived to regard his officer's young bride. His mates let him alone except at those lounging times when one person did as well as another to make remarks to about the state of the weather and the water, and the prospects of the fishing below. As for the villagers, they were, from some cause or other, more civil to Nicholas than they usually were to men of his calling; so that he determined, at least once a day, that he was a favourite of fortune, and had uncommon reason to be grateful to Providence. At least once a day;—for so often did he usually rest his knee against a certain big stone on the beach, and look seaward through his telescope: on the first occasion of doing which, it had entered his mind that his mother admired him very much, and that everybody was very kind to him. Each time afterwards that he used the same action, he thought that everybody was very kind to him, and that his mother admired him very much; and he grew fond of this stone, and of using his telescope in that particular place. By a sort of instinct, he rose from his knee, and shot his instrument into its case, as soon as any annoyance was suspected to be approaching; so that he was pretty sure of keeping his periodical mood in its primitive state.
This method of his,—of having a particular time and place fixed in which to enjoy, and another in which to endure,—was vexatious to those who delighted in teasing. The children of the village could never fix Nicholas to his stone; and when he was upon his watch he would bear anything. This being considered a settled matter, they left off attacking him at such times, leaving it to the wind and rain to overthrow his tranquillity if they could. Nicholas was not destined, however, to be always so favoured above his more irritable companions, as he found one bitter February day, when the hardships of the watch were quite enough of themselves for an ordinary stock of patience.
A dense fog hung so low that there was no use in keeping watch on the heights, and the Coast Guard were therefore stationed along the margin, in the exact position for being drenched by the spray, nipped by the wind, and stifled by the fog, as they looked with anxious gaze over the dull sea, which appeared more like a heaving expanse of oil than a congregation of waters. There was small use in peering abroad; for the mist hung like a curtain till within a furlong of the beach. As little comfort was there in looking inland. The near cliffs of Beachy Head seemed icy, and the sea-birds that dwelt there appeared to be cowering in their holes from the cold. The fishermen's huts bore the comfortless aspect that wooden houses always do when their roofs are loaded with snow; and even the station-house, perched on the highest point of the cliffs, seemed deprived for the time of its air of cleanliness and comfort. Just at the moment when the fog fell most chilly, and the spray flew most searchingly, and the rattle of the waves on the shingle sounded most dreary, a troop of children came wandering by, some of the little ones threatening to cry with cold, but the elder ones not having had the spirit of mischief yet starved out of them. They were pupils of Mr. Pin, the village schoolmaster, and were on their way to their several homes from his well-warmed schoolroom. One of the troop, a brown, handsome, roguish-looking boy, ran up to Nicholas with—
“I say, Mister, sir, what's your name?—what's o'clock?”
Of course, Nicholas made no answer; and the question was put in all forms which could be expected to provoke a reply,—all to no purpose.
“I say, master, let me hold your spy-glass while you blow upon your fingers; you can't hold it. There! bang it goes! Lord! look, there it goes again! He can't hold his spy-glass no more than a baby.”
The joke now was to twitch his coat-tail, or otherwise startle Nicholas, so as to cause him to drop his glass as often as his benumbed fingers raised it to the level of his eye.
“Look, look! if his eyes be not running over every time the wind blows. Look! how he blinks away from the fog, every puff that comes! A pretty watch he makes! I say, what is that black thing yonder, sir? It is a boat, as sure as I am alive. You had better look sharp, sir.”
“No, not that way,” said another; “more to the right, near to that cliff. No, no; this way, to the left. Why, man, you have lost your eyes!”
The rogues were delighted to see that, though Nicholas made no reply, his head wagged from right to left, and from left to right, as they chose to turn it. When he had gazed till the fog had drawn closer round the nearer headlands, and when he wiped his eyes in the cutting wind with his coat-sleeve, till they watered faster than ever, the joke was improved upon. The children crowded together in a sheltered corner, and invited Nicholas to come too, and be comfortable, instead of standing to be buffeted like a sea-gull that knew no better. They tantalized him with accounts of what they were going to do at home,—with mention of hot broth and potatoes, of fire, of shelter, and of everything comfortable that he was not likely to have for nearly six hours to come. Nicholas was immoveable; and when they were tired of plaguing him, and ran off with expressions of insulting pity, he paced his allotted walk without any sign of anger or discontent. His first token of emotion of any kind was a vehement laugh, when he saw what next befel the little brown boy who had begun the attack on him.
The boy's companions had warned him of the uselessness of trying to provoke Nicholas, and had recommended Brady in preference,—Brady, the Irishman, who was known to find it necessary to keep the thought of punishment before him, in order to hold his tongue when jeered by those who would take advantage of his not being able to answer. About Brady, therefore, gathered the small fry; and they pestered him till he turned suddenly round, seized Uriah Faa, the gipsy boy, and laid him sprawling, just in advance of a ninth wave, as it was rolling on. The boy yelled, Brady resumed his walk, the other children scampered off, full of fear and wrath, and Nicholas laughed aloud.
“Really now, I call that very cruel,” said a sweet voice behind him. “I would not do such a thing as that for the world; and I should be very sorry to laugh at it. Would not you, Elizabeth?”
“O, yes; but what can you expect from a set of creatures like this Coast Guard, that are put here to plague the people?” replied Elizabeth.
Overwhelmed with grief and shame stood Nicholas, tongue-tied under a charge which wounded him keenly. Elizabeth's contempt did not trouble him very much, though a stranger might have pronounced her a more particular-looking lady than her companion, from her being more gaily dressed, and carrying more grandeur in her air. His grief was that the tender-hearted, sweet-spoken little lady, who never bore ill-will to anybody, should think him cruel. It was his duty to seem to take no notice, and to go on looking out for vessels; but Nicholas could not so play the hypocrite when Mrs. Storey was in question. An observer might have been amused at the look of misery with which he seemed about to ask leave to go down on his knees on the wet shingle, and must have been convinced that no thought of contraband traders was in his mind as he turned to watch the ladies proceeding on their bleak way. Nicholas's only resource was to resolve to speak in defence of his comrade and himself, as soon as his watch should be ended.
In a very short time, it appeared as if the lady's words, as well as the boy's cries, had made themselves heard up the country. From one recess or another of the cliff's dropped picturesque forms, in gipsy guise, all directing their steps towards that part of the beach where Brady and Nicholas were stationed on the margin of the tide. A fisherman or two looked out lazily from the cottages; and their more active wives drew their cloaks about them, and hastened down to see what would ensue on the ducking of a mischievous boy.
“Goodness, Matilda!” cried Elizabeth, “they are coming this way. Mercy! they are going to speak to us. Which way shall we run? What shall we do?”
And without waiting for an answer to her questions, the lady took to flight, and scudded towards the cliff path as fast as her trembling limbs would carry her, screaming by the way, as often as any one person came nearer to her than another. Matilda, not quite foolish enough to follow at the same rate, but very much alarmed, was immediately surrounded by gipsies, vociferating in a language which she did not understand, and pointing so angrily towards the guard, that it was plain she would be safer without their protection than with it. The state of affairs was not improved by the junction of the fishermen's wives.
“O, Mrs. Alexander,” cried the lady, addressing the best known face among the latter,” what do these people want with me? What are they going to do?”
“They want you to bear witness, my lady, how the boy Uriah has been used by these cruel-hearted, thieving rogues, that don't care what mischief they do with their hands, while they have never a tongue in their heads, but creep about like spies.”
“Perhaps it is very well that the tongues are all on one side,” said the trembling lady; “there is no saying how quarrels might otherwise issue, Mrs. Alexander.”
“Bless us! how you shake with cold, my lady! Only think what it must be to be laid flat in the water, as Uriah was by yon villain's hands. If they had been frozen off by the wrists, it would only have served him right. One would think you had been in the water too, Ma'am, by your shaking.”
“I am in hot water just now,” declared Matilda, half laughing. “Cannot you call off these rude people, and prevent their pressing round me? You seem to know them.”
“O yes, sure, Ma'am; and you would know them too, if you had been a little longer in this place. It is only old Faa, the gipsy, and his tribe, that come here every winter. The lady that was with you just now knows very well who they are, and where they live, for all her running away so fast.”
“I wish she would come back then, for I cannot tell what in the world to say to them. Mr. Faa! Which is Mr. Faa?”
A grisly-looking old gipsy stepped forward.
“You do not suspect me of having Caused your boy to be dipped, I hope?”
All bowed, and vociferated their horror at such an idea.
“Neither must you expect me to bid you duck those men. It is a very cold day; and I am so sorry to have witnessed one ducking, that I should be very unwilling to see anybody else laid under water.”
This was perhaps the most foolish speech she could have made, as it put into their heads the idea of summary vengeance. She saw her mistake in the increased rage of the people, and the look of defiance that Brady put on. There was little use now in saying that there might have been fault on both sides, and that it was best to forgive and forget. There was no use in offering to tell the Lieutenant what had happened, and in answering for it that such an offence should not happen again; the people were determined to make the most of having the officer's lady on their side, and of the present opportunity of gratifying their hatred of the Coast Guard. All the ungracious acts ever committed there by a coast guard rushed into their remembrance; how one neighbour had been stopped and searched on the beach, and the fire of another put out on the cliff, under the suspicion of its being a signal; how the boat of a third could never come home without being entered by these spies; and how, once upon a time, a person had been shot by a choleric member of the Preventive Force. All these sins seemed likely to be now visited on the heads of Brady and Nicholas, when a mediator appeared in the shape of Pim, the schoolmaster, the most potent personage between the martello towers and Parson Darby's Hole,—a so-called cavern in the cliffs of Beachy Head.
Mr. Pim owed his influence, not to any physical force, though he was the tallest and stoutest man within five miles; nor to wealth, for he professed to have nothing but his village day-school to support his family upon; nor to any connexion with the great, for he was a bluff, homely personage, who did not want or care for anybody's favours; nor to his own superior wit, for no one was aware of his being remarkably endowed in this way. It was partly that he had given to his neighbours all the book-learning that they could boast of, and the little religion that they professed. It was yet more that he had been a long resident with his family, after having early buried his wife among them. But, above all, it was his merry heart, making itself understood by a voice mighty enough to out-bellow the waves at Beachy Head, that was the charm of Mr. Pim. He liked to be told that he should have been a preacher, with such a voice as his, and would forthwith enact the reverend gentleman for a minute or two; but he could never make his splendid voice bring out any thing but little jokes with small wit in them; for the good reason that his brain would supply nothing else. Nothing more was necessary, however, to constitute him the most popular man within his sphere.
“Hi, hi! what is all this about?” was the question that came travelling through the air, as soon as his tall form became visible, approaching from the houses. “What are you buzzing about here for, when your young one is toasting at home, as dry as the cod-sounds that hang over his head? Toasting! aye, at my fire. I met him dripping like a duck, and he would have slunk away; but it was up with him this way;” and he seized upon a boy standing near, and threw him across his shoulder, twisting him about with one hand as if he had been a doll. “This way I carried him home, unwilling enough, to my Rebecca. ‘ Here, Beck,’ says I, ‘ take him and toast him till I come back to give him a flogging.’ And now he is expecting me, so I must be off, as soon as you will please to give over quarrelling, and march home. Flog him! ay, to be sure, for disturbing these men at their duty. It is a fine thing, you gipsy gentlemen, to have put your young folks under the rod; and it would be a thousand pities not to use it. You can't get the impish spirit out of them all in a day.”
“But has the boy done wrong?” inquired Mrs. Storey. “Even if he has, he has surely been punished enough.”
“Not while ill blood is left, my lady. I never leave off punishing my boys till they laugh with me, and it is all right again. If Mr. Faa will undertake to make his boy laugh as much as he cried half an hour ago, he is welcome to go and fetch him away. But then there must be an end of this silly business. You, sir,” to Brady, “thrust your pistol into your pocket, or I will help you to chuck it deeper into the sea than you can go to fetch it.”
Brady looked as angry now as the gipsies had done when they heard that Uriah was to be flogged; but neither party could long withstand Pim's authoritative style of good humour. He ended with making every body laugh, turning the attention of the guard seawards, dispersing the group of complainers in different directions, and adjourning the quarrel, if he could not dissolve it. As he attended the lady to the station-house, he explained to her the little hope there was of establishing a good understanding between the Coast Guard and the country people.
“I pity the poor fellows down below, with all my heart,” said he, turning from the first point of the ascent to observe the guard, now again loitering along the margin. “Not so much for being out in the cold, though they slap themselves with their swinging arms like yon flag in a high wind. It is not for the cold I pity them, since a young lady keeps them company in it.”
“I seldom stay within all day, especially when Miss Storey is with me,” replied Matilda; “but I would not promise to bear this cold for six hours; and I do pity those poor men very much.”
“So do I, madam, because they moreover meet cold looks at every turn; which you, not being a spy, will never do.”
“But these men are spies only upon those who break the laws. You do not mean that the innocent are not glad to be watched?”
Pim looked sly while he said he knew but of one innocent in all the neighbourhood, and he happened to be among the spies, and so was very popular. Mrs. Storey would go deeper than the pun, however, and asked whether the neighbours generally had need to fear the enforcement of the law.
“I bring up all my scholars so religious, it would do your heart good to see them,” replied Pim. “They know the Bible all through, and understand the whole of the Church Catechism, as you will find, if you will give us the honour of a visit some day.”
“I will, to morrow, Mr. Pim.”
“Suppose we say the end of the week, ma'am, when they are furbished up for the parson. You will be more sure of being pleased towards the end of the week. I make my scholars very moral.”
“Then they have no reason to fear spies, I should think.”
“Why, as to that, ma'am, it all depends on people's notions of what it is to be moral; and when there is so much difference of opinion on that, it seems natural enough that each party should settle the point as seems most agreeable.
I wonder, now, what you think of the gentlefolks that come to Hastings and Brighton, and all the bathing places along this coast.”
“I suppose they are much like other gentlefolks, are they not? How do their morals affect those of your scholars?”
“Why, just this way. If ladies in their walks make acquaintance with the fishermen's children, and use that as a pretence for calling on their mothers, and letting drop that they would be glad of a lot of gloves or silk hose from over beyond there, is not it natural for the cottage-girls to think the bargain a very pretty and proper one, when they see the goods brought out of the cupboard? And if gentlemen drop in here and there, as they saunter about, to taste French brandy, or pocket a few cigars, is it not likely that the lads hereabouts, who are fond of adventure at all times, will take the hint, and try their luck at sea on dark nights?”
“But are such practices common among visiters to the coast?”
“Are they not?—And those who do not care to step across a poor man's threshold themselves are ready enough to buy of such as will; of the shop-keepers at Brighton, and others that import largely. Now all this is what the law calls immoral, while the people see no reason to think so.”
“And which side do you take,—you who make your scholars so moral?”
“I take neither side in my teaching, but leave the matter to be settled according as the cliildren have friends among the cottagers, or in the coast guard, or the law, or the custom-house. But there is one thing I do try to teach them,—not to quarrel with other people about the right and the wrong, nor to hate anybody, but let the whole thing go on quietly. God knows, it is hard work enough; but I do try. It is hard work; for they hate each of those watchers as if he had cloven feet and a long tail.”
“How do you set about making the guard beloved?”
“Nay, nay, that is too much to try. And it is doubly difficult to me from my having a son in the custom-house; which exposes me to be called partial; but I always say, ‘ Hate them in your hearts as much as you will; but you owe it to your king and country not to show it. Be as civil to the king's servants as you would to his majesty himself.’”
“I am afraid you do not always succeed; I should as soon think of telling a man that he need not mind having a fever; but he must take particular care that his hands be not hot.”
“Where we cannot do every thing, ma'am, we must do what we can. How should I prevent the guard being unpopular, when they act as spies every hour of the day and night? And would you have me declare them always in the right when it is their very business to prevent people getting the goods that they want and will have? As long as people will drink brandy, and smoke tobacco, and wear silks and laces, I see no use in preaching to them to buy dear when they can buy cheap. All I pretend to is to make as little harm come of it as possible; to persuade the people to sell their spirits instead of drinking them, and avoid brawls with the enemy they must submit to have set over them.”
“With my husband and his men,” said Mrs. Storey, smiling at the idea of her husband's being any man's enemy. The notion was almost as absurd (in a different way) in relation to him as to Nicholas.
“You see, ma'am, it is not only that this Coast Guard is a terrible spoil-sport; it is a very expensive thing. When the people pay their taxes, and when they look at the nearest Custom-house,—aye, every time a Preventive officer has a new coat, they remember that they pay for keeping spies over themselves. This is provoking, you will allow; and many's the time they throw it in my teeth,—I having a son in the Custom-house, as I said.”
“Why do you not tell them that, if there were no duties, they would lose their trade at the same time that they got rid of their enemies? Do not they see that fishermen would no longer be employed in fetching silks and spirits, if there were no laws to hinder merchants from doing it as cheaply? I should like to see how your neighbours would look if every custom-house was pulled down throughout the country, and every man in the Preventive Service sent about other business.”
“Why, then, I suppose, fisherhad prospered since she men would be simply fishermen, and my son must come and help me to keep school,—if any school remained for me to keep.”
“How would such an arrangement interfere with your school?”
Mr. Pim mysteriously gave the lady to understand that fishermen cannot commonly afford schooling for their children, unless they have some resource beyond their boats and nets. Nobody knew how much of the money circulating in this neighbourhood came through the breach of the laws which some of it was employed to maintain. He went on,—
“It would be some comfort that there would be fewer taxes for us to pay; and if government kept up reasonable duties (which would be but fair) the burden would fall lightly upon all. Government would not be cheated; we should not be insulted with useless taxes and with spies, and——”
“And some of you would have your pockets lightened of much ill-gotten money, and your hearts of much hatred that it is shocking to think of,” replied the lady.
“Moreover, we should see less of the gipsies,” observed Mr. Pim. “Whether this would be a good or an evil, is a point that some of us might differ upon; but it is certain that they would not settle in bleak places like this in winter, if there were not something likely to happen in the long nights to repay them for the bitterness of the short days. They would not like our bare sandy levels and our cold caverns better than a snug London alley, if there were not good things to be had here that do not fall in their way there.”
“You would lose a scholar or two if the gipsies kept away. I cannot think how you persuaded such people to send their children to school.”
Pim laughed heartily, but gave no explanation. As they drew near the turf-fence of the station-house, he stopped to contemplate the place, and observed that it was a neat, tight little dwelling, and pleasanter, he should think, for a lady to live in than the martello towers farther on. There was something dreary-looking in those towers, as if they must be cold in winter and hot in summer, perched upon the bare sands, and made up of thick walls with few windows. Whereas, the white station-house seemed just the place which might suitably have plants trained against it now that a lady's fine taste reigned within (supposing the wind would let them grow); and as for its winter evening comforts,—when he saw gleams from the window piercing the darkness, like a lesser beacon, he could only be sorry for the Lieutenant that it was ever necessary to leave such a fire-side as there must be within, to go out amidst scenes where—where—
“Where he is much less welcome,” replied Matilda, smiling. “I dare say your people,—fishermen, gipsies, schoolmasters, and all,—would strongly recommend my husband staying where he is comfortable, let what will be doing on the beach.”
“And I am sure you should, my lady, as a good wife. If you knew——”
“Do not tell me,” replied Matilda, hastily. “I will hear of those things from nobody but my husband himself.”
While Mr. Pim was inwardly saying that the lady would scarcely hear from the Lieutenant the worst that could be told, Miss Storey came running to the gate, full of wonder whether all was safe, and what the gipsies had done to Matilda, and how her sister-in-law had prospered since she herself had so valiantly left her side. Matilda did not trouble herself to reply with more civility than Elizabeth deserved; but bestowed all the overplus on the schoolmaster, whom she invited in to enjoy the comforts of shelter and fire.
Mr. Pim could not stay to do more than compliment the lady on her endurance of the sharp cold of the sea-shore. He concluded she would scarcely pass her doors again till milder weather should come.
“O yes, I shall,” replied Matilda. “Be the weather what it may, I shall come and visit your daughter, and see how you make your scholars moral, gipsies and all.”
The gipsies were the most moral people in the world, to judge by the punctuality and liberality of their payments, Mr. Pim declared; and when the imp was whipped out of them, they made very good scholars. With this explanation, and something between a bow and a nod, the rosy schoolmaster took his leave, and, with his hands behind him, and beginning to whistle before the ladies had turned their backs, shuffled briskly down the slope to the sea-shore.