Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter III.: FASTERS AND FEASTERS. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 7
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Chapter III.: FASTERS AND FEASTERS. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 7 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 7.
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FASTERS AND FEASTERS.
There were two opposite lights on the horizon that night, to those who looked out from the village. While the moon sank serenely behind the dark western hills, a red flame shot up, amidst volumes of wreathing smoke, in the direction of Sheffield. Some persons were trying the often-repeated experiment of gaining bread by the destruction of that by which bread is gained. A metal-mill was gutted, its machinery broken, and its woodwork burned, because the sea water had got to Kirkland's corn; and more mills were threatened in case the price of bread did not fall within a few days. As no one could answer for the price of bread falling within the time specified, the only thing done was to take measures to avert the promised destruction. For this purpose, strict inquiries were made as to what the habitants of the district had been about the preceding evening: who had gone home from the harvest-field; who attended the arrival of Kirkland's corn: and how many there were who could give no good account of themselves. Early in the morning the officers of justice were abroad, and Mr. Fergusson and his sons were seen riding about, greeted not the less respectfully wherever they went from its being known that their object was to bring some of their neighbours to justice. Mr. Fergusson's character stood too high among his tenants to allow of their thinking the worse of him under any misfortunes that might happen. Let him do what he might in his character of magistrate, he was trusted to do what was right, as he showed himself, on all occasions, not only compassionate to the sufferings of the people, but as wise in discerning the causes of the suffering as anxious to relieve it when relief was in his power. Accordingly, hats were touched when he looked in the faces of those whom he met this morning, and ready answers given to his inquiries where the innocent were called upon to speak, and respectful ones from the guilty, when the necessity came upon them of making out a case. All the complaisance that there was, however, was engrossed by the Mr. Fergussons. The constables got only sneers and short answers, and men and women looked suspiciously on one another all through the district, none knowing what a neighbour might have the power to tell. Perhaps so many cross words were never spoken in one day in the vale, as the day after the burning of Halsted's mill. “What do you look at me for? You had better look to yourself,” was the common sentiment at the forge, in the field, and on the alehouse bench. As for the children, they were so perplexed with instructions what they were to say, that It was only to be hoped no one would ask them any questions.
It was not to be supposed that Mrs. Skipper could stay quietly at home while strangers were passing up and down the street about whom her journeyman could give her no information, and while reports were travelling round of one neighbour and another being compromised. She burst in at Kay's, just after he was gone to his work, when his wife was preparing to put away breakfast, and Mary was beating out the corn which she had gleaned the evening before, and which was destined to the mill this day.
“I have not brought you a hot roll this morning, Mrs. Kay; no, nor so much as a crust. I cannot afford any more of that at present; and so you will not look for it from me.”
“What do you speak in that way to me for? I don't know what you mean,” said Mrs. Kay, with an angry, puzzled stare.
“Nor I what you would be at, I'm sure,” replied Mrs. Skipper. “One would not believe you were the soft-spoken Mrs. Kay, now-a-days. You can be sharper in your speech than ever I am, let me tell you.”
“That is the more reason why you should be soft in yours,” said. Mary. “She has borne with you sometimes, when you have been better in health than she is now.”
“Well; that is true: and she does look so poorly. . . . . Ah! now, there's master John coming out with a speech about my fresh colour again.”
John was not thinking about anybody's colour. He wanted to know whether it was not true that he had had eleven-pence change from her the night before.
“To be sure you had, after taking a penny roll.”
John called his mother to witness. that she might tell his father, that he was in possession of a shilling before the troubles began at Kirkland's; to say nothing of those farther on. His father had doubted his getting that shilling honestly, and had desired his mother to take possession of the eleven pence till the whole was unquestionably accounted for; and now John wanted his money back again. Mrs. Kay did not, however, heed his request; and the matter ended in Mary's. persuading the boy that if he had the money by the time he was at liberty to go out, it would do very well, instead of pressing for it now that his mother was busy thinking of something else.
“Why, take care, Mrs. Kay!” cried her neighbour. “Your hand shakes so, you will certainly let the dish down, and that will cost you more than a meal of my best bread would have done. Well! that is a beautiful potato to have left among the peelings. And here's another! I wonder you let the children scatter their food about in that manner.”
“'Tis not the children,” observed Mary. “They have not more than they are very willing to eat, poor things! Their mother has but little appetite, and she is apt to slip her food back into the dish, that it may not make her husband uneasy.—I want, your help more than she does,” she continued, seeing that Mrs. Skipper's officious assistance was obstinately refused by the poor woman. “Will you step behind, and help me to beat and winnow my corn, if you have a minute to spare?”
With all her heart, Mrs. Skipper said; but she had an errand, though it was not to bring cider or hot bread. She had learned the secret of making potato-bread: not the doughy, distasteful stuff that many people were eating, but light, digestible, palatable bread. She would not tell the secret to everybody,—giving away her own trade; but when she saw a family of old friends eating potatoes, morning, noon, and night, she could not help telling them how they might get something better.
Mary thanked her, and observed that she did not know how she could put her gleaned corn to a better use than in making the experiment of a batch of mixed flour and potato-bread.
“Ah! do; and I will treat you to the baking, and look well to it myself. For my credit's sake, you know; having set you to try. Come, let us have the corn beat out.”
They went to the back of the house to thresh and winnow, and then the widow's first exclamation was about how sadly out of sorts Mrs. Kay seemed to be.
“These are not times for her,” replied Mary. “They bear harder upon such as she was than upon anybody. Who could have thought, you know, when she was an only child, brought up delicately for a poor man's daughter, that she would come to loathe a potato breakfast, and have no other?”
“Bless you! I know,” whispered the widow, with a wise look. “People may take things over-night that leave them no sense, nor temper, nor appetite in the morning. My dear, I see how it is.”
Mary was apparently too busy with the wheat to take any notice of this intimation. The next thing she said was,
“Where are all the potatoes to come from that will be wanted if people take to this new sort of bread? and indeed whether they do or not; for potatoes they must eat, either by themselves or made into bread. How are we to get enough?”
“The price is rising, they say; faster than the price of anything else, except corn: and if you go up yonder towards the moors, you will see what a quantity of new ground is being taken up for growing potatoes. I have had half a mind to try what I could do with a bit of a field myself. Anderson knows what he is about, generally; and what he tries in a large way might be safe for such as we in a small.”
“I would not try,” replied Mary.
“No, not if yon were me, because you think I fly from one thing to another, and do myself harm.”
“Besides.” said Mary, attempting no denial, “how will it be with you next year, if there should chance to be a fine wheat and barley crop? People do not live on potatoes when they can get bread; and I am sure it is not to be wished that they should. I hope there will be much less demand for potatoes next year; and it is likely there will. We have had so many bad seasons, it cannot be long before a good one comes.”
“And then what a pity it will be that so much money has been spent in fencing and managing these potato-grounds! It may chance to come to be worth while to turn the sheep on again. That would be a pity.”
“Say rather it is a pity they were ever turned off. The land on the moors is much more fit for them than for us to feed off; and leaving them there would leave the money that is spent on the land (more than it is worth, if matters went on in their usual course) to be used in a more profitable way.”
“In what way?”
“Why; take your own case. If you pay so much for hedging and ditching, and draining, and manuring the potato-ground you have a mind for, and the crop brings you no more next year than the same plot now brings as a sheep-feed, is not the money just lost that was laid out in making a field of it? My opinion is that it would bring less; and if it does not, it ought to do. Our people will be badly off indeed if food is so high next year as to make them take your potatoes at a price that would make your bargain a good one; and if they are obliged to do so, they will be eating up in those potatoes the money that should have set some of them to work at weaving or cutlery-employment. Better buy corn of Kirkland when we can, and let the sheep graze on.”
“Ay, when we can. There is the very thing. If we could always do that, as much as we pleased, we should not spend much of our money on the moors; but it is because it is all a chance whether we shall be buying of Kirkland next year, that one thinks of taking the chance of potatoes selling well.”
“I would not.”
“No, not you. You would spend your money, if you had any, in a little bargain of grindstones, for the sake of a certain person.”
“That would depend on the price of potatoes,” replied Mary, smiling, “for they would depend on the price of corn; and on the price of corn mainly depends the cutlery trade; and where is the use of grindstones unless the cutlery business flourishes?”
“There is another thing to be looked to; and that is, that those you help in cutting grindstones do not get themselves into trouble;—ay, by being abroad at night, and having the constables after them in the day, I would have you consider that, my dear. Merey! how frightened you look,—as white as my apron! Now, don't push me away because I let out a thing that made you frightened.”
“Angry—very angry,” said Mary.
“Not with me, to be sure; for I did not make it, be it true or not true; though I need not have cast it in your teeth as I did. It was Dick Rose told me; and he said he knew it from——”
“Do get me a little vinegar, Mrs. Skipper. I never pinched my finger so smartly before. I shall not be able to get my thimble on this week.”
“Well, now, it was that made you turn white, while you pretended to be so angry with me that you made my heart beat in my throat. I shall know you now another time, mistress Mary.”
“Not you,” thought Mary, as her giddy companion bustled into the house for vinegar.
“I don't see your sister,” said she, returning, “but I guessed 'where to look for the vinegar. Is the pain going? Well, only do you. ask Dick Rose about how the folks were seen creeping out of the quarry, one by one,—those that worked there, and some strangers that came to visit them; and how——”
“I shall not ask Dick Rose any such thing, when there is a person that can tell me so much better,” said Mary.
“Ay, if he will.”
“John, fetch me the large blue apron,” cried Mary; “and bring out Nanny with you. I promised she should lend a hand, and see the chaff fly.”
Before John could reach the door, a sharp scream,—the scream of a child,—was heard from within. Mary flew to see what had happened, but just as she was entering, her brother, seeing that some one was behind her, slammed the door in her face, and was heard to bolt it. Mrs. Skipper would not listen to what she had to say about the child having a fall, but exclaimed,
“Well, I should not have thought Mr. Kay could have behaved in that manner to you; and he looked at me quite fierce, so as I thought had not been in his nature.”
And she stepped to the window to tap, and ask an explanation: but she caught a glimpse of something that quieted her, and sent her to stoop down over the wheat again, without looking at Mary, or speaking another word. Kay was carrying his wife up stairs. The helpless arm, hanging over his shoulder, was just visible, and the awe-struck children, suspending their crying, moved Mrs. Skipper to concern too deep to be expressed in her usual giddy speech.
“Which way are you going?” asked Mary at length. “I am off for the mill, as soon as I can get in to take the children with me.”
“And I home; and you may depend on me, you know for what. My tongue does run too fast sometimes, I know; but you may depend on me, as it was only by a chance that I was here.”
“Thank you!” replied Mary, warmly. “And I will take it kindly of you to show me the way about the bread, as soon as my corn is ground.”
By the united resources of the children within, the door was unbolted, and the party allowed egress into the street, when Mrs. Skipper turned down, and Mary up; the children asking her, one to go out of the way for the sake of the pond on the heath, and another hoping to jump down five steps of the mill-ladder, four having been achieved last time. Mary would have been glad to forget their mother as easily as they.
When Warden saw her toiling up the slope on the top of which the mill stood, her bundle on her head, and a child tugging at each side of her gown, he civilly came down to relieve her, and told her that she was more welcome than on the occasion of her last visit. It was a fine breezy day, he observed, and perhaps she might like to look about her from the top of the mill, if she did not mind the shaking that there always was in a wind. Mary thanked him, but dared not leave the children, lest they should put themselves in the way of the sails. This difficulty was soon obviated by the miller's taking the girl upon his shoulder, and calling to his man to bring up the boy, and let him play among the sacks in the first story, or climb higher, as he liked.
“I suppose you saw the fire finely from here, if you chanced to be looking out last night,” Mary observed.
“My man did, as he stayed to take advantage of the wind. He says it lighted up every turn of the river between this and Sheffield. You may see the smoke still, among the other smoke. Half the country has flocked there this morning, my father-in-law told me just now, as the passed on his way to pay his rent. It is a good time to choose to pay his rent, when every body is thinking of something else than emptying” his pockets. Otherwise, it is not the safest and pleasantest thing in the world to be carrying money over the by-road between this and Fergusson's. Yonder he goes, continued the miller, stooping to the little girl whom he was keeping steady with his arm round her waist. “Yonder goes Mr. Anderson, on his black mare. You may see him trotting along the lane between those young oaks.”
“He will come back slower in the evening when he has left his money behind him,” observed Mary.
“He will not wait till evening. He will just finish with the steward, and come home again, for the Mr. Fergussons are abroad over the country to-day; and besides, my father-in-law is wanted at home every hour of the day while the improvements are going on. Look how busy he is thereabouts.”
“I see; they drive the poor sheep higher and higher up the moors, with their walls and their ditches.”
“Yes, year by year.“ Before these many bad ”seasons, the sheep used to browse on this very slope where my mill stands. I used to come up among the bleaters every morning.”
“You speak as if the bad seasons were the cause of the change.”
“And so they are, mainly. Where numbers increase as they have done here in my time, more food will be wanted at all events, be the seasons what they may. But when the soil yields scantily, for years together, the inclosing will go on faster, from the cry for food. Yonder field, red even now with poppies, would never have been sown if the nine-acres in the bottom had yielded as they ought. The nine-acres used to yield as much as was reaped this year in itself and the poppy-field together.”
“And there has been all the cost of taking it in besides.”
“Yes. and my father-in-law does wisely to pay that cost (if he must pay it) before his rent is raised. He and the steward will have an argument about that rent to-day, I fancy. The lease will be up soon now, and rents are rising every where; and I suppose my father-in-law is content to let his mount up too. He would not otherwise be carrying on all these works.”
“I wonder at his being content to pay more rent after so many short harvests.”
“It is easier than after larger; for corn sells dear, more than in proportion to its scarcity. Nobody can tell you better than Anderson that a single short harvest makes a heavy pocket; much more a succession of short harvests.”
“Till the poor get a-head of the rate-payers, I suppose,—no longer. When Mr. Anderson has to maintain half of us down in the village, because we cannot buy food, he will find us lighten his pockets as fast as bad years can fill them.”
“The manufacturers must help him then. They must raise their people's wages——”
“And so must Anderson.”
“They must raise their people's wages, and maintain the poor in the towns, and in the working villages.”
“I wish the manufacturers joy of their good nature. They first pay dear for their own bread, and then pay dear for the labour which is to buy their workmen's bread, and then spend what profits are left in supporting those whose labour they cannot employ; and all to make Anderson's and other farmers' pockets heavy for a little while after bad seasons. I wish them joy of their patience.”
“Anderson will want patience too, when his turn comes. Depend upon it, as soon as he gets fairly saddled with a high rent and high rates, there will come a fine crop or two to make prices as low in proportion as they now are high. He cannot bring down his men's wages all in a day; much less can the rates be disburthened at once; and so it will be well if he makes ready beforehand for such a change.”
“I hope he does make ready; but what I see there looks little like it.”
“What, you mean the bay-window and balcony now making to my house, and the shrubbery he is laying out. All that was not wish of mine, for I thought the white house looked very neat as it was before; and the bit of garden behind was as much as my wife and I had time to attend to. But her father liked that his daughter's house should be improving while he was adding so much to his own, and he made us accept of the alteration, whether we would or no. He said, that while he was sending my wife's sister to Paris, and bringing up her brothers to look higher than he once thought of for them, he could not leave her neglected, as if he was ashamed of her having married more humbly than the other girls will do.”
“And his own house looks hardly like the same place. His having built up among all the rambling old parts gives it one face as a whole.”
“Yes; three more bad years, and it will look like a gentleman's mansion. Yes, yes; these are the joyous rent-days, when the steward gets every farthing, and pretends to shake his head because it is no more; and when the farmers try to look dismal about the short crops, and then sing merry songs over their ale,—such of them as have not taken to port. Well, the millers' day will come in time, it is to be hoped.”
“When will that be?”
“When the people are not setting their wits to work to make potato-bread, and eating every thing that grows rather than flour. We have had more going and coming, more watching and jealousy about waste, and more grumbling because we cannot grind for nothing,—more trouble of all sorts about a few trumpery bundles of gleanings this last week, than about fifty sacks when I first became a miller.”
“I will give you as little trouble as I can with mine,” said Mary; “but you must not call it a trumpery bundle, for it is worth much to me. If you knew how much, I might trust you not to waste any of it.”
“You would not dream of my wasting, if you saw how carefully I look to every grain. Why, I drive away the very birds themselves, if they light when the sails stop at any time. We do not leave the sweepings to them and the wind, as we used to do, but sift them as a housemaid sifts for pins. That is the reason why I do not offer your young master a handfull for the pigeons, as I used to do.”
“Don't think of it, pray. He is going to play with the ducks on the pond as we go home, and that will do as well: besides, I hear him laughing now, merry enough without the pigeons.”
“Playing hide and seek with Jerry among the sacks, I fancy.”
“Where he must have done playing for to-day,” observed Mary. “How quiet every place looks for a working day!” she continued, giving one more glance round the horizon before she descended. “Except the sheep, creeping like mites on the uplands, and the labourers gathering like ants about the new inclosures, I see nobody stirring.”
“I seldom see it so quiet, except on a starlight night, when there is no noise but the whizzing of the sails when they go by starts; or perhaps an owl from my gable. But you see the people in the quarries stick to their work, as if they had no share in what was doing last night.” And the miller looked full at Mary as he spoke. “I see a man or two with his pick in yonder stone-pit, hewing away as if nothing had happened. Cannot you see them? Well, it is a wonder your head has stood the shaking in this breeze for so long. Many people can fix their sight on nothing after the first two minutes.”
Mary was determined to see more of the quarries before she went home than could be discerned from the mill-top. She let one child peep into the hopper to see how the corn ran down to be ground, and the other to exhibit his jump of five steps, with a topple at the end of it, and then walked quickly away towards the part of the heath where bilberries were to be found, and where she thought she might leave her charge safely employed while she looked into the quarry to see whether Chatham was really there, and whether or not he had had any transactions with the constables since she saw him last.