Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter IV.: THE WIFE'S RETURN. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Chapter IV.: THE WIFE'S RETURN. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 5.
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.
THE WIFE'S RETURN.
Even the journey was less dreary than the arrival. Hester had hoped that Edgar would be out, that she might settle herself, and be ready to give him a wife-like greeting on his entrance. She trusted much to this for forgiveness for having come home without leave and without warning.
The house door was open, and there were pails and trestles in the passage, and a strong smell of paint. Remorse struck instantly upon Hester's heart. Edgar was making the house neat and pretty to surprise her on her return, and she was rewarding him with suspicion and disappointment.
For one moment she glanced in thought at the possibility of going back as quietly as she might, and keeping her trip a secret: but this would have been loo remarkable a proceeding to escape painful remark. She must go on now, and make the best of it.
The first person she met was a foot-boy, who said he belonged to the house, but who was a stranger to her. It occurred to her that Edgar might have removed, and she had perceived that a new. stout, oaken-door had been put up some feet within the passage; an alteration scarcely likely to occur as desirable to a man so perpetually absent from home as Edgar, and who lived up stairs. The boy, however, declared that his master's name was Morrison, and that he was now in the house, taking his wine with a gentleman, after dinner.
“Philip, no doubt,” thought Hester, hastily dismissing the porter, and running up to the dining-room before her courage failed. She was not sorry that Philip would be there to act as a restraint on their meeting. Edgar's back was towards her as she softly opened the door; and as he concluded it could be nobody but the boy, he did not dislodge his legs from the chair on which they reposed, or cease picking his strawberries. Opposite to him, sitting bolt upright, and his little face looking fierce in a pair of huge black whiskers, sat Cavendish! His start and stare first roused Edgar.
“W hat the deuce——” he began. “Did not you get my letter? You must have got my letter, bidding'you—telling you that you might stay longer.”
“I did; but .... I will tell you all about it by and by. I beg your pardon for bursting in: but I did not know you had any one With you, except Philip. I will go up stairs till you are at liberty.?”
Before the door was well shut, however, she was called back and told that she would scarcely know her away about the house after all that the work-people had been doing. She had better come in and sit down till she could be instructed how to turn herself about in her own home. She sat down accordingly by the window, thinking it would best please Edgar that she should not be in full view of Cavendish's face. When she had been offered wine and strawberries, and accepted the latter in consideration of her burning thirst, the two at the table seemed to have nothing more to say to each other. They dropped a few words now and then, which each left it to Hester to answer; and, in a quarter of an hour, Cavendish rose to go. Edgar whispered with him for some time outside the door, and then, to his wife's terror, came in and shut it. She could not help fixing her eyes upon his, though there was anger in his face.
“You are displeased with me for “coming home,” said she. “And I dare say it was very foolish, and you will think me very unkind: but O ! Edgar, you cannot think how uneasy I have been since yesterday morning! Those banknotes——”
“What of them?” asked Edgar, looking steadily at her.
“Mr. Pye said they were bad: that is, he said that one of them was bad——”
Edgar laughed violently. “So you have taken a journey——”
“I know what you will say..... I know how easy it is to make a laugh of it,” said Hester, sinking into tears: “but Mr. Pye showed me,——Edgar!” and she put a strong momentary control upon her convulsive sobs, “Edgar, they are all bad,—all that I have left.”
“And who gave you leave to show off your money to Mr. Pye, or Mr. Any-body? A pretty scrape you have brought me into !”
When Hester explained how she had kept her cares to herself, and Mr. Pye had seen only one note, her husband attempted to ridicule her out of the notion that had taken possession of her; but this was attempting too much. For once, the gentle, tractable Hester appeared sullen. She sat looking out of the window, and twisting the corner of her handkerchief, till Edgar was tired of talking to her.
“Well, Madam,” said he at length: “you do not seem disposed to make any answer. What would you have now ‘?”
Hester turned full round upon him to ask if he really wished to know what she would have. Edgar could only look rather silly, and ay “To be sure.”
“I would have your confidence, Edgar, as a wife should have. I have kept your secrets (those that you could not help my knowing) long enough, I am sure, to show that I may be trusted. Let you have done what you may, I am the one who ought to know all; for I may screen you from shame, and I must share your shame when it comes. I am not one to betray you, Edgar. I am your wife, and far more ready to excuse and forgive your—your—ways than you yourself will one day be to excuse them.”
“Women do not know what they ask for when they seek their husbands' confidence,” said Edgar. “As soon as they have got it, they would be glad enough to have been less curious.”
“Curious!” repeated Hester, offended at the word. “If it were curiosity, I might get the Newgate calendar, or set Philip talking, as he likes to do, by the three hours together about making money in an unlawful way.”—(She could not bring herself to utter the word “forgery.”) —“You think, I suppose, that it is curiosity that brought me home to-day.”
It was some damned troublesome thing, whether it was curiosity or anything else, Edgar swore. Hester trembled while she said that she could go back again, if he chose it; but that she had much rather stay and help him.
“Help me!” exclaimed Edgar. “What do you mean by helping me ?”
“Is it such a very new thing for wives to help their husbands?” Hester asked. “I mean, however, that whatever you are concerned in, I wish to be concerned in too. I do not want to be a spy. I want to be your wife. Let me help you to make notes, or send me quite away. I cannot bear to be in the house, and know what you are doing, and have none of your confidence, and no one to open my mind to.”
As it was evidently too late to attempt to conceal the fact from her, Edgar saw at once that it would be the safest plan to keep her at home.; and to implicate her so far as to secure her fidelity. He drew a chair beside her, preparatory to giving what he called “a candid explanation.”
“You must see, my love, that it is not for my own sake that I have placed myself in the circumstances you have unfortunately become acquainted with.”
“O, certainly. It was not for your own sake that you took a sudden fit of affection for me lately, and remembered that I had not breathed country air for four years. It was not for your own sake that you pressed your money upon me, and wished that I should spend it among my old friends. O no; this was all for my sake, and for the good of the Haleham people. I understand it all quite well,” said the miserable wife.
“If you looked about you while you were at Haleham, you must have understood,” said Edgar, “that there is no way of doing so much good just now as by putting cut money. Did you not find a terrible want of it every where? especially of small notes?—Well. Everybody sees and feels the same thing; and the country is full of discontent at the currency being so deplorably contracted as it is now. Of course, this discontent will be listened to in time, and the bank will meet the popular demand. In the mean while, those are benefactors to society who supply the want as far as they can. It is a dangerous service, Hester; but it is a very important one, I assure you.”
Hester was not to be quite so easily taken in; but she would not check her husband's communication by raising any objections. He went on.
“You must have seen, if you spent the notes as I desired, how acceptable they were at Haleham; how brisk they made the business there; how——”
“Just like tlie first issue of Cavendish's notes,” observed Hester.
“But there is this difference, my dear. Our notes are not those of a bank that will break. There will not be a crash——-”
“No; only a dead loss to the holders who present them at the Bank of England, or who find them out on going home from shopping or market. Only a stain upon commercial character,—a shock to commercial credit. Only a gain to us of whatever is lost by these holders or by the Bank of England. Only a robbery of them to enrich ourselves. I understand.”
“I am sure you do not, if you talk of my gains,” replied Edgar. “Why, my dear, the wealth of the Bank would not make up to me for the risk and trouble of passing notes. And when you see what we have been doing upstairs, you will be convinced that our expenses——”
“Very well,” said Hester, quietly; “I do not want convincing. Tell me what part I am to take. You may trust me for being very careful; for I am as well aware as you what is at stake. I do not know whether my being able to draw will be of any use to you.”
“I am not sure but it may,” replied Edgar. “Your best way of helping us, however, will be in doing our out-door work: in making our purchases; in——”
“In passing your notes, you mean. I am afraid,——I have so little presence of Mr. ind ——.” The sight of Edgar's grave looks reminded her to make no difficulties; and she went on. “However, I can plan what to say when they refuse a note; and when they make no difficulty, there is only the fear to go through: and that is not so bad as not being trusted. I can do anything, if I am trusted.”
“Had not you better go upstairs, and see what we have been doing ?” said Edgar. “And yet.—perhaps,—it may turn out a safer thing for you to be able to swear that you never saw our apparatus, or set foot on that floor, since——”
“I must know all now,” said Hester, rising: “and as for swearing,—when one is once in——”
“True, true,” replied her husband, astonished at her calmness, and beginning to think that he had mistaken his companion's capabilities all this while. “There are the keys. Go and look about you; and I will explain it all when you come down.”
“I suppose,” said Hester, returning from the door, “I suppose the gentleman who dined with you shares the office that I am to have. He does your out-door business too, does not he?”
“Who, Carter? What made you think so? He travels for a paper-maker.”
“Carter!” exclaimed Hester, reproachfully. “Edgar, you will gain nothing by such half-confidences as yours. You think because Cavendish now wears black whiskers, and because I sat behind him, that I should not know him. How blind you must think me !”
Edgar protested that he meant no deceit, but that he bad been so used of late to call Cavendish by his new name, as to forget that he had ever been known by any other. lie begged that Hester would be particularly careful to address him properly on all occasions, and also to spare his feelings by avoiding any allusion to Haleham and its inhabitants. Hester readily promised this, feeling that there would be little temptation to mention Rhoda and her lover, or any of their injured neighbours, in the presence of the swindler, whose sensibility had come somewhat too late to be of any advantage to them.
The rooms on the floor above were so altered that she could scarcely believe she was in the same house she had inhabited for years. The windows were blocked up, and each room lighted by a skylight, so built round, as she afterwards discovered, an to be nearly inaccessible from the roof; and when got at, so fenced with iron bars as to make entrance from above a work of considerable time and difficulty. There were new doors to both rooms, and another within a few feet of the head of the stairs; and all were of the same make with the strange door in the passage below;—thick oak doors, with abundance of bolts, and cross bars which slipped into holes in the solid walls. A new ladder, just long enough to reach the ceiling, stood in each room, which made Hester suppose that either the skylight could be opened from within, so as to afford a way of escape, or that there must be a concealed trap-door for the same purpose. The remaining furniture of the room would have told the most careless observer that no ordinary business was carried on there. There was a brick stove, built apparently to sustain a considerable heat: and there were rollers, such as are used in copper-plate printing. One of the keys on the bunch opened a closet wherein were iron frames, the size of bank-notes, with ivory numbers fixed in by a screw; copper-plates, with boards and cloths for taking: impressions, jars of printing ink, and the flannel jackets of those who were to use it. A recess which had formerly held lumber, had been emptied to make room for a store of coke. There was such completeness and such amplitude about the apparatus, that Hester was convinced a large gang must be implicated in her husband's proceedings. If it had not been for this, she would probably have turned fainthearted, and run away to Haleham after all:— faint-hearted, not on account of the danger, but of the guilt. But she felt something so imposing in the magnitude of these preparations for breaking the law, that, like too many people, she lost sight of much of the guilt in the feeling of extensive companionship. She had some dread of learning who the rest of the gang were; and did not at all like Cavendish being one of them, as she concluded he was.
Her husband made occasion to ask, the same evening, how she came to fancy that Carter had anything to do with his private affairs. He had told her that Carter travelled for a paper-making concern, and he now added that he lived in Yorkshire, and had merely taken a dinner in a friendly way while in town on one of his business journeys. This satisfied Hester, who did not remember at the moment what different kinds of paper are made; and that paper is one of the elements of a bank-note.
She was now uneasy until she should have discharged her mother's commission about the guineas. As a first step, she enquired of her husband whether Philip knew of all the proceedings that went on in his own house; and was told that he must be aware that there was something doing, about which it was better, for his own sake, not to ask, or to give any information; but that no confidence had been placed in him which could implicate him in any way. This determined Hester to trust him to value and exchange the guineas; and to delay speaking to him about it no longer than till her husband should be gone to business the next morning.
When Edgar had duly found fault with her for rising with red eyes, because it would prevent her going out to spend notes with the proper face of indifference; when he had looked to the fastenings of the new door above, and told her that nobody would be there till the white-washers had departed from below; when she had watched him along the street so as to be pretty sure that he would not return, she ventured down, and put her head in at the private door of the shop to see if Philip was alone. He was alone; and bending so intently over his work as to give his invariable start when spoken to.
“Are you too busy to let me speak with you?”
“Why, no: I cannot well say that I am; though many's the time I could have said so when you have come. But those were better days than we shall soon see again.”
“Is your business doing badly, like other people's? I thought you had got up a steady, flourishing business, that, depending on the wealthy, was not liable to be affected as inferior ones are.”
“There is no business that has not its bad times; and those of the goldsmiths are now coming; or rather, have come. It is not only that people have less money to spend on trinkets (which is true of the rich as well as others) but gold is so much dearer of late that the change of times tells both ways for those who deal in whatever is made of gold.”
“Aye, I see. If people could not now buy trinkets at your former prices, much less can they at a higher price.”
“And if the bank begins paying in cash,” resumed Philip, “I am afraid gold will be very scarce and dear for our handicraft purposes. One hears nothing now of buying and selling guineas. Do you know,” he continued, lowering his voice, “I have not had a single offer of coin to sell for months.”
“So much the better for one who wishes to deal with you in that way,” observed Hester.” If gold is scarce, you will give a good price for a batch of guineas.”
“That depends upon what commodity I pay in,” replied Philip. “If in goods, all very well: if in bank paper, you will remember that that is scarce too. Guineas are now worth only a trifle more than bank-notes; and since it is 0, I cannot but wonder that anybody has them to sell. Anybody that thought of doing so should have done it many months,—aye. full three years ago, to have made the best bargain.”
“My mother knows, that now. It is she that sends you this bag of coin,” said Hester, producing the treasure. “She must have notes for it, of course, and not goods, and I am sure. Philip, you will give her as much as you can afford, in consideration of her disappointment from having kept them too long.”
“That I will,” said Philip, “and more than I would give anybody else. It will be a good opportunity of giving her a present, which I was thinking of doing about this time. Which do you think she will like best,—to have as much as I suppose she expects for her guineas, or to have little above the same number of one pound notes, and a present of some pretty thing out of my stock?”
Hester rather thought her mother would prefer an exemption from disappointment to a testimony of remembrance from her son. All mothers would not have given cause to be thus judged; nor would all sons have received so mortifying an opinion with the indifference which Philip exhibited. The whole affair was to him a matter of business; the devising the present, the manner in which it should be bestowed, and finally, the way in which it would be accepted.
“Let me see,” said he, pondering his bargain. “What should I give to anybody else? Here is paper money now within 2 1/2 per cent, of gold: but likely to fall a bit, I fancy, before the Bank begins its cash payments, if it ever does such a thing.”
“And how low had paper fallen when guineas sold best.?” enquired Hester.
“Why, paper money is worth nearly 23 per cent, more now than it was in 1814. That was the year When my mother should have disposed of her hoard. Paper has risen so high, you see, that government thinks it a good time to fix its value by making Bank of England notes payable in cash. As far as the present value of paper is concerned, it may be a good time; but it is a bad time on other accounts.”
“Why? I should have thought it one of the best that could be chosen, There are no armies to be paid abroad. Think what a quantity of coin it must have taken to pay our soldiers on the continent during the war! Then there is, in the midst of all the distress that is complained of, some degree of that security and steadiness which follow upon a peace; and the gold that was hoarded is now brought out for use. All these circumstances seem likely to help the Bank to pay in specie. I should have thought this a particularly good time to begin again,”
“Aye; that is because you do not know. There has been a falling off from the mines lately; and this is just the time that several foreign states have chosen for calling in some of their paper currency. Gold would be getting dearer from these causes, even if we did not want “to buy more than usual of it. But wanting, as we do, thirty millions in gold, what can we expect but that it should be very dear !”
“Where are these thirty millions to come from?”
“Part from one place, and part from another. Here are some out of my mother's mattress, you see; and more will come from the mines, and the rest from various countries where we deal.”
“I could fancy thirty millions an immense sum to come from one place,—out of one market.” observed Hester: “but if it is to ba gathered together out of the whole world, I should think it would hardly be missed so as to raise the price of gold very much. It must be so little in comparison with the whole quantity that is in use !”
“I have heard that, supposing we look abroad for two-thirds of the metal wanted, (finding the other third at home,) we shall buy about one twenty-fifth part of what is in use. To be sure, this is not likely to raise the price very terribly; but there are people who say it will.”
“The same people, perhaps, who have always been very sure that the Bank never would pay in coin. These very persons are the most likely to be crying out, ten years hence, that the Bank had much better not have begun paying in coin.”
“O yes! They will go on complaining, as they do now, that the value of the currency has to be raised. But, for my part, I think that if we are ever to be made secure against the same troubles happening over again with the currency, it had best be when gold and paper have come within a little of the same value. I should not be afraid of fixing our paper when it comes within five percent, of gold, one way or the other; and, as I said, it is now within two and a half. Not that I would warrant our being safe yet, even if the Bank paid every note in gold to-morrow. There are people who think that more mischief will come yet.”
“Well; pray reckon my mother's money without taking any future mischief into the account.”
Philip nodded, and pursued his calculations. In due time, he made a declaration of the sum, in pounds, shillings, pence, and farthings, which he could afford for the gold. With a little stimulus from his sister, he came to a resolution to make it up such an even sum as might travel by post in the shape of a single bank-note; by which means Hester's mind would be eased of her commission, and Mrs. Parndon's relieved from suspense without delay.
“You are going out, I suppose,” said Philip. “You can get the note in ten minutes, if you like. I am always willing to pay ready money for what I buy, I am thankful to say.”
Hester would be obliged to him to procure the note, as she could not go out this morning. Meanwhile, she would just sit down at his desk, and write a few lines to her mother.
She did so, while Philip put on his hat and stepped to the Bank. She folded the note into the letter herself, sealed it, and committed it to the careful Philip to be carried to the post when his own letters should go. This done, she went slowly up to her parlour, drew her drawing-table listlessly into its accustomed light, and spent the rest of the morning in covering a sheet of paper with strokes which to any eye but her own would have meant nothing; but which, falling in her way more than a year afterwards., caused a cold shudder to run through her, by recalling tlie thoughts that were in her mind while her pencil was thus idly busy.
“My letter is gone, Philip, I suppose?” she enquired at dinner.
“Yes; and mother is saved the postage. I met Edgar just in time. He knew of somebody going through Haleham to-morrow.”
“You should always ask me,” observed Edgar, “when you have double letters to send. I generally know of somebody going to pass within a reasonable distance of any place you have to write to. I met Horace Berkeley; and he enquired if we had any commands, he intending to go down to-morrow. And if he had not, there is Williamson's traveller, setting off for D—— to-night. You should always give a double letter into my charge.”
Hester was not so grateful for such consideration as she would have been a few weeks before. She was vexed and alarmed at her letter having been thus intercepted; but two days set her at ease on this point, by bringing Mrs. Parndon's thankful acknowledgments of the receipt of the sum sent, and an answer, point by point, to what her daughter's letter contained. It had certainly arrived safe; and Hester reproached herself for suspecting her husband of more villainy than that of winch she had proof, and which he defended as being pursued on principle.