Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter V.: TRAFFIC IN THE WILDS. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5
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Chapter V.: TRAFFIC IN THE WILDS. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 5.
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TRAFFIC IN THE WILDS.
There was a very good reason for the merchants turning back when they discovered whither they were being conducted. They had not only made an enormous profit of their traffic in the little settlement during the absence of the young sportsmen, and the employment of the rest of the men in the mine, but had carried off nearly all the skins they could lay their hands on. They had frightened Clara, and cheated Sophia, out of their respective stocks, and fairly robbed Lenore: so that, with the exception of half a dozen skins, too much worn to be saleable, and therefore left behind, the little company was once more moneyless. Some of them looked rather grave upon the discovery of this new inconvenience, and not the less because the weather was now of the dubious kind which sets in at the end of autumn, and renders the pursuit of game impracticable for a few weeks. But nobody looked so dismal as Andreas, who could not hold up his head for some days after this new misfortune. The loss of anything once possessed was to him the most intolerable of evils; and it certainly seemed to be the one from which he was to have no rest. “I would be deaf, dumb, and blind to be rich,” was the sentiment which had been heard to escape from him in his agony. He was not deaf, dumb, or blind; but neither was he rich.
“I would live directly under the sun in the Sandy Desert, or burrow in the snow at the North Pole, if I could get gold there,” was another of his aspirations, He was fixed among the snows, but not, alas ! so as to get gold: and he considered himself a much-tried man, and appeared with a countenance of great dejection when the next time of meeting their neighbours for the purpose of making purchases came round.
This little market presented a curious scene. It was held near the mouth of the mine, and either on holidays, or at leisure hours; so that groups of grim-faced miners stood to look on, or took part in the traffic, if they chanced to have anything wherewith to conduct it. It seemed remarkable that there should be an unbounded store of what is commonly considered wealth beneath their feet, and piles of bars of shining silver in the smelting-house at hand, while the traffickers were exchanging their goods laboriously, and with perpetual disputes, for one another, or for some common commodity which bore a different value according as it was wanted for use or to serve as a circulating medium. Andreas, and some others cast longing glances towards the store-houses of the metals procured bv their labour; but there was always an ample array of green coats and red collars,—of sabres and fire-arms,—and, above all, a full exhibition of the knout: in the face of which terrors, no one could dream of fingering his Majesty's mineral wealth, coined or uncoined.
The next was a somewhat awkward market-day for the Polish settlers. Having been disappointed of getting game, they had nothing to sell; and, having been robbed, they had no purchase-money but five or six clipped and worn skins. They were some time in perceiving the advantage this gave them as to the quantity of goods they might obtain in return; but the discovery, when made, helped to raise the spirits even of Andreas himself; as did another circumstance, which acted in some degree as a remedy of their new inconvenience,—the increased rapidity of the circulation of their money.
Sophia could never bring herself to take part in any social business or amusement, and regularly walked off into solitude when there was a congregation of numbers. To-day, she wanted to have Clara with her, and contented, though unwillingly, to wait on a sheltered ledge of rock near, till the little girl should have made a purchase for her father with her little mouse's skin, the only one she had.
The article she wanted was a pair of pattens for her father;—broad sandals of light wood, tied on with leather thongs, to prevent the feet from sinking in the snow before il was frozen into a hard surface. The right time for chasing the elk is when the snow is in this state; for the elk, wearing no pattens, sinks m the snow at every step, while the shod hunter gains upon him in the open plain. Clara thought the possession of a fine elk would comfort her father for his losses sooner than any other consolation she could devise; so into the market she went, to look for a pair of pattens. There were several to be sold; but, at first, the holders laughed at the little girl for offering so Iowa price; and only laughed again When she made melancholy signs that she had no move money to offer. When they found, however, that nobody could give more, they began to be afraid of having to carry their wares home again, and grudgingly offered the worst pair in ihe market. There was a very suspicious crack in one patten, and the thongs of the other were a good deal worn; but Clara thought they would last till one elk was caught, and then her father would be rich enough to buy a better pair. So she untied her precious mouse-skin from about her neck, gave one more look at it, and paid it away. She wondered whether she should ever see it again, and was sure she should know it by the little hole she had burned in one corner to pass a string through.
Seeing that Sophia looked in a reverie, and in no hurry, she thought she would stand a minute or two to see what became of her mouse-skin.
She had not to wait long. The five who held money were by far the most important people in the market, where money was the scarcest commodity of all; and this importance shifted from one to another more quickly as the exchanges became more brisk.
The countryman who sold the pattens had not intended to purchase anything; but others who did, and who wanted money to do it with, came to him with so many offers of goods that at last he was tempted, and gave the mouse-skin for a quiverful of blunt arrows and a wooden bowl and platter.
“O dear!” thought Clara, “I have certainly made a very bad bargain; for the bowl and platter, without the arrows, are worth as much ab these trumpery pattens.”
She could not help following to see who would have her mouse-skin next. The woman who held it seemed to have a great wish for a hunting knife; for she passed by a variety of offered goods, and pushed through a group of eager sellers, to where Ernest stood leaning on his lance, and observing what was going forward. She seized the knife with one hand, as it was stuck in his belt, and proffered the money with the other; but Ernest smiled, and made signs that he had no wish to sell his knife.
“What have you to do with it, my dear?” he inquired, struck with Clara's look of anxiety. “You look as if you wished me to part with my knife.”
“This was my mouse-skin,” she replied, half crying, “and look,—this is all I got for it!”
“Indeed ! I could make a better bargain than that for you now. Let us try; and perhaps I may get both a better pair of pattens and my knife back again soon, if we manage cleverly; and if not, your father will lend me his knife till I can get another from Irkutsk.”
And the good-natured Ernest made the exchange for Clara's sake; and, moreover, bought the pattens, which he declared he wanted very much.
Clara had too much sense of justice not to insist on his taking something more; and Ernest promised to accept the first mat she should make.
“And now,” said he, “we will look out for the best pair of pattens in the market; but you must not be in a hurry to make your bargain this time. What else would you like to have .?”
There were so many tempting things in sight that it was somewhat difficult to choose: and she was half-frightened by the eagerness with which she was courted when she was perceived to be one of the favoured five money-holders. She grasped Ernest's band, and clutched her treasure, and saw nothing of Sophia's signs of impatience, while engaged in negociation. By Ernest's help, and to her own utter astonishment, she presently found herself mistress of a perfect pair of pattens of the finest wicker-work, a large package of tea which had just crossed the frontier, pepper enough to last the winter, and a vigorous young rein-deer. The rich little lady thought a scarcity of money a fine thing; and having thanked Ernest very gratefully, and given her wealth into the charge of her delighted father, she at length joined Sophia on the rock.
“I am glad you had a reason for staying,” said Sophia; “but I do not care now for going any farther. These people must soon have done now, I suppose, and leave us in peace.”
“O, I am sorry 1 kept you,” said Clara; “but yet,—I should like to see who has my moose-skin after all. I shall know it anywhere by the hole in the corner.”
“You need not move from where you are, child. You may see where money is passing from hand to hand, by the gathering of the people about the holder. Look how they run after the man with the Chinese belt who sold you the tea.”
“Will he carry it away, I wonder!”
“No. He is going back to China for more tea, I suppose; and your mouse-skin will be of no use to him there, or on the, road; so he will part with it in this neighbourhood, you will see.”
And so it proved; and the exchanges became quicker and quicker every moment till it began to grow dark, and it was necessary for the people to be going home. The five skins remained in the possession of three strangers; viz. one cultivator, one Russian soldier placed as a guard over the silver, and a travelling merchant, who held three out of the five skins.
“How busy they have been all day !” observed Clara, as she turned homewards, after seeing the last trafficker pack up and depart. “They seem to have had as much buying and selling to do as if everybody had had a purse full of money.”
“And so they have,” replied Paul, who was carrying his purchase home in the shape of as heavy a load of grain as a strong man's back would bear; and groaning under it all the more discontentedly for knowing that, if he had but waited till the close of the day, he might have had a sledge into the bargain, on which to convey his burdens, or be conveyed himself, whenever he should have a rein-deer, or dogs from Kamtchatka to draw it. “They have ag much buying and selling to do, my dear, with little money as with much. The difference is, that when there is much, some of it lies still in the purse, or moves into only one or two new hands; while, where there is little, it flies round and round the market as fast as it can go from hand to hand.”
It had never before struck Clara that any piece of money made move than one exchange. She thought that her mouse-skin was worth a pair of pattens, but forgot that if the person with whom she exchanged it did the same thing that she had done, it would become worth two pair of pattens; and if a third bargainer followed the example, it would become worth three pair. She now began to exclaim upon the prodigious value of money. Paul laughed at her for having fancied for a moment that there must be a piece of money for everything that is bought and sold.
“If,” said he, “it was necessary for us to have a skin for every individual thing we want to buy, there would soon be an end of all the poor animals in Siberia. And if it was necessary for everybody in Russia to have a piece of coin for every article purchased, the Emperor would have to collect all the gold and silver that were ever dug out of the ground, and to be always digging more at a great expense. And, after all, the value of the money of the kingdom would be no greater than if there was only a tenth part of all this existing.”
“Why, to be sure, a ruble that was used yesterday does just as well to use again to-day as a new one; and my mouse-skin bought as many things just now as twenty mouse-skins once used, would have done. But some people lay by their ducats and rubles, as father used to do in Warsaw. If some lie idle in this way, must others go round faster, or will there be more money made?”
“That depends upon whether money is easy or difficult to be had, and on whether people want to make many exchanges. To-day, money was very difficult to be had, and so it passed round very rapidly; which happened to be the only way in which we could manage to have money enough to carry on our dealings with any briskness. ‘Be quick, be quick,’ we said to one another, ‘for if we can make five pieces of money go through twenty bargains each, it will be nearly the same thing, as to the quantity of business done, as if ten pieces went through ten bargains each, or twenty pieces through five.?”
“It is not often that one of our skins belongs to five people in one day,” observed Clara.
“True; and we never before had any pieces go through twenty hands.”
“I think it is a fine thing to have very little money,” said Clara.
“I do not. Many of us would have been very glad, before the market was over, to have caught more mice and killed more hares. I wish I could do it now, before morning, to baulk that merchant who finished off with pocketing three skins out of five.”
“What did he do that for?”
“To make things cheaper than ever to morrow; fill his sledge at our expense; and travel elsewhere to sell his goods, where money is cheaper and goods are dearer than here.”
“How will he do so?”
“He will hide one of his skins; and then, when there will be only four in use, more goods still will be given for each, and he will be able to buy as much with two skins as he could buy to-night with three. Then he will begin to sell again; and, to raise the price of his goods, he will bring out the skin he laid by, and put it into circulation.”
“Then goods will be just the price they are to-night. But if he sells, the skins will come back to him.”
“Yes; and then if he chooses to lay by two, goods will be dearer than ever, and he may play the same trick over again with a larger profit, till he gets all our goods into his hands in return for one skin.”
“What a shame !” cried Clara. “People will not let him do so, to be sure .?”
“If they must have his goods, and cannot get any more money, they must submit; but it will not be for long. We must soon get more skins by some means or another. I do wish I had the fur cap they took from me when they gave me this horrible covering.” And he pulled off and threw away the badge cap which the tender mercy of the Emperor had allotted to him. His shaven head, however, could not bear the cold without it, and he was obliged to let Clara pick it up and put it on again.
“I always thought,” she said, “that it was a very fine thing for goods to be cheap,—and it has been a fine thing for father and me to-day; but yet it seems as if they ought to be dearer again to-morrow.”
“And they should be, if I could make them so. You see, my dear, there are two sorts of cheapness, one of which is a good thing, and the other not. When it costs less trouble and expense, for instance, to grow corn than it did before, people will exchange more corn for the same quantity of tea or cloth or money than they did before; and this cheapness is a good thing, because it is a sign of plenty. There is more corn, and no less tea or money. But when more corn is given for a less quantity of tea or money, not because there is more corn, but because the Emperor of China will not let us have so much tea, or the Emperor of Russia so much money as formerly, this kind of cheapness is a bad thing, because it is a token of scarcity. This was our case yesterday. We had a scarcity of skins, but no more goods of other kinds than usual.”
“And there was a scarcity of skins in two ways,” observed the thoughtful little girl. “When we have had more than we wanted to use as money, it answered very well to make leggings and mittens of them; but now we could not get mouse-skin mittens if we wished it ever so much.?
“Not without buying money with more goods than a pair of mittens can ever be worth.”
“I never heard of buying money before,” said Clara, laughing.
“Indeed ! In all money bargains, one party buys goods with money, and the other buys money with goods. How should countries that have no gold and silver mines procure their money in any other way? England buys gold and silver from South America with cotton goods; and the Americans get cotton goods by paying gold and silver, sometimes in coin, and sometimes in lumps of metal. These metals are sometimes, as you see, a commodity, and sometimes a medium of exchange, like our skins. If there happens to he plenty to be had, either of the one or the other, their value rises and falls, like the value of all other commodities,—according to the cost and trouble of procuring them, and a few other circumstances. If there happens to be a scarcity, their exchangeable value may be raised to any height, in proportion to the scarcity, and they cease to be commodities.”
“And just the same, 1 suppose, whether they are in good condition or in bad? My mouse-skin bought as many things to-day, worn and jagged as it was, as it would have bought if it had been new, and sleek, and soft.”
“Yes; but as a commodity it would now bear little value. If there were a hundred new ones in the market to-morrow, the old ones would scarcely sell for anything as mitten materials.”
“To be sure. They would make very shabby, rotten mittens. But it is a good thing that we have not always this rich merchant here, unless indeed we could always get what skins we want. He might play all kinds of tricks with us.”
“Like some foolish kings with their people, my dear; but kings are more sure to be punished for such tricks than this merchant. When he has ruined us all, he can travel away, and enjoy his profits elsewhere; but kings who have put bad money into the market under the name of good, or thought they could vary the quantity as they pleased for their own purposes, have found themselves in a terrible scrape at last. When there was too much coined money among the people, some of it was sure to disappear—”
“Where did it go to?”
“If the people could manage to send it abroad to where money prices were not so high, they did so. It not permitted to do this, it was easy to melt it down at home, and make cups and dishes, and chains and watches of it.”
“And then, it there was too little, I suppose they made their plate and chains into coins again. But could they do this without the king's leave?”
“The kings are not sorry to give leave, because the people pay governments something for having their metals coined. But whenever governments meddle to injure the coin, or to prevent its circulating naturally, they are sure to suffer; for violent changes of price make many poor, while they make a few rich; and the consequence of this is that the government is not well supported. The people are not only angry, but they become unable to pay their taxes.”
“Do people know directly when more money is sent out, or some drawn in?”
“Very soon, indeed; because great changes of price follow. In this place now, if we see the same quantity of poods brought for the same number of people to buy, and our skins generally changing hands five times in the day, and prices remaining the same, we are sure that the same quantity of money is in use. If prices remain the same, and skins change hands eight times a-day, we know that there must be fewer skins in the market; and if prices fall very much at the same time, we may be sure that there is very little money indeed, and that everybody will be on the look-out to make more. If prices rise in an equal degree, it will be quite as plain that there are more skins than we want as money; and, presently, some of them will be made into mittens.”
“But in such a place as this, it is very easy to count the skins, and observe who steals or hides, and who brings in a fresh supply.”
“True; but in the largest empire it may be just as certainly known as here when there is more or less money afloat, by the signs I have mentioned, without our being able to look into every hole and corner where people are melting coins to be made into dishes or thimbles, or looking out their bars of gold and silver to be coined. Though you may not see all that may be done in the darkness of this night, you may possibly perceive something to-morrow which will make you quite sure that there has been a change in the supply of money.”
Clara wished she might, since the cheapness of goods this day was not in reality an advantageous thing. She clearly saw that it was not so, though she herself happened to have secured a vast return for her small stock of money. She perceived that whenever she and her father wanted to sell (which all were obliged to do in turn) they would have as much more than usual to give of labour or goods as they had this day received, unless the quantity of money in circulation could be increased.
“I suppose,” sighed she, “if I could get at the little holes under those trees where the mice are asleep for the winter, I ought to kill as many of them as I could catch before morning. The snow is too deep, however. But I do wish we had something for money that might be had without killing such pretty little creatures.”
Paul explained, very sagely, how right it was to sacrifice the interior animals when man could be served by their deaths; and how much better it was that a score of field mice should be cut off in the midst of a deep sleep, than that there should be dispute and deprivation among a little society who had too many troubles already. He ended by asking on what terms Clara would part with her young rein-deer this night? On none whatever, she said at first. She had so pleased herself with the idea of feeding and training the animal; and her father was so delighted with her possession of it. But when she was reminded that money would at any time buy rein-deer, while it was an unique circumstance that a single reindeer should supply a whole society with money, she began to see Paul's object in wishing to possess the animal, and referred him, with some regrets, to her father for an arrangement of the terms of the bargain. They were soon settled. Paul did not want, for his own use, the money he meant to manufacture out of the hide in the course of the night. He only wished to prevent the rich merchant possessing himself of all the disposable goods of the settlement, and readily promised that Andreas should keep the carcase, and have half the funds provided out of the skin. Andreas heard slight sounds from one corner of the hut that night, which led him to think that his little daughter was crying herself to sleep, as quietly as she might, at the close of her day of trafficking; but he said to himself that children must learn to bear disappointments, whether about dolls or young rein-deer; and that it would have been a sin to deprive his neighbours of a stock of money, and himself of so fine a means of improving his resources, for the sake of a little girl's fancy to have a tame animal to play with. Clara would have said so too, if she had been asked; but her tears did not flow the less.
It was a busy night in Paul's hut. He put himself under the management of his wife, who was well skilled in handling hides; and before morning the skin was decently cleaned, and economically cut up, and a new supply of the circulating medium distributed among the dwellings of as many as chose to buy back of the merchant some of the articles he had obtained from them the day before; or, at least, to refuse him the power of making any more purchases on terms so ruinous to them.