Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter V.: TAKING COUNSEL. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 7
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Chapter V.: TAKING COUNSEL. - 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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As there was sufficient evidence, in the magistrate's opinion, of Chatham's having been once present at the midnight drill, and active among the crowd by the river-side the night before, he was committed to prison, it being left to himself to prove, at the time of trial, for what purposes he had mixed himself up with the rioters. As he was a very important personage in his village, his jeopardy excited much speculation and interest. For the first two or three days, there was much curiosity among the neighbours to see Mary, in order to observe how she took it. Mary was somehow always busy with her sister and the children; but when a gossip or two had become qualified to testify to her aspect—that she looked just as usual,—and when the children were found to have nothing particular to tell about her, everybody was vexed at having been troubled on behalf of a person who was never put out, happen what might.
Times were so flat this autumn that there was abundance of leisure for talking about whatever might turn up, and no lack of tongues to treat thereof. Some of the foundry-men were turned off, as it had been necessary to raise the wages of those who remained. As there was no in-crease of business at the time this rise of wages took place, and as Oliver himself was living at a larger expense as provisions became dearer, there was no alternative for him but to turn off some of his men, contract his business, and be as content as he could with smaller profits than he had ever before made. By the rise of wages, his remaining men were, for a short time, relieved from the extreme of misery they had endured in the interval between the great increase in the cost of provisions and the raising of their wages; but they were no richer than they had formerly been with two thirds of the nominal amount of the present recompense of their labour. Want still pressed, and must still press, up to the point of Oliver having no more wages to give, unless the deficiencies of the harvest might be supplied by large importations from abroad. In the uncertainty whether this would be done, and with the certainty before their eyes that there had not been food enough in the country for three years past, Anderson and the neighbouring farmers took in more and more land. and flung about the abundance of money they received for their dear corn.
This money was not the less buried in the inferior new land for its being passed from hand to hand among the labourers. The guinea that came out of Anderson's profits of the preceding year, to be paid to Kay as wages, was spent in buying a third less bread of Mrs. Skipper than might have been had in better years. The baker, in her turn, bought less flour of Warden with it than in former times; and Warden used it for a dear bargain with Kirkland, ad Kirkland with Anderson for wheat. Anderson paid it to the ploughman of his new fields, for less labour than the same sum had procured for better land, and with the prospect of a less return to the labour employed. The guinea would then go again into Mrs. Skipper's till for still less bread than before; while Anderson was making answer to all com-plaints about this waste, that he should not long be the better for it, as the taking in of every new field would oblige him to pay his landlord more of the produce of every superior field at the expiration of his lease.
The circulation of this morsel of wealth, dwindling on every transfer, was easily traceable in a small society like that of the village. The waste could be detected in every direction, and the landlord stood marked as the focus of it. Whether Mr. Fergusson was the better for the waste incurred on his account was a separate question; and, till it was decided, he stood in a remarkable relation to the people about him: he was their injurer and their benefactor;—their injurer, in as far as he was one of the persons for whose sake a bad system was upheld;—their benefactor, in his capacity of a wealthy and benevolent resident among them. He was taunted with being the landowner, and was offered obeisance as Mr. Fergusson. All were complaining that he received an unconscionable share of the fruits of their labour: but there was not one who would not have grieved at any misfortune that might befall him. They talked loudly against him and his class for narrowing the field of their exertions, and praised the pains and good-nature with which he devised employment for those who were perpetually being turned out of work.
The fact that he must have supported these extra labourers as paupers, if he had not rather chosen to get some work out of them in return for the cost of their subsistence, made no difference in the kindness with which Mr. Fergusson attended to their interests, and endeavoured to preserve in them a spirit of independence till better times. The effort was vain under a system which authorized men to say that they had not surrendered their independence, but that it had been taken from them, and that those who took it away might make the best they could of its absence. Notwithstanding all that Fergusson could do, paupers increased in the parish: and while a few stout men, who were turned off from the various works in the neighbourhood, were taken on by Anderson, to try their hands at a new kind of labour, many more lay about asleep on the moors, or gathered in knots to gossip, in the intervals of being worse employed.
No place could be obtained for Kay's boy, John, who pleased himself with looking about him while he had no business to do, and amusing himself as he best could. The less objection was made to this at home, as it was hoped that his curiosity might now and then make him forget the time, and justify his going without a meal—a consideration which was becoming of more and more importance in Kay's family. It happened that Bill Hookey, the shepherd-lad, was one day leaning against the door of a cutler's workshop, when his old companion. John, ran up, pushing back his hair from his hot forehead.
“I'd be glad to be as cool as you,” said John, “standing gaping here. I have been at the forge: crept in when they did not see me, and got behind the bellows. I gave them such a puff when they were not expecting it,—I nearly got flogged. They let me off for blowing for them till there was no more breath in my body than in the empty bellows. But I don't half like standing here: come to the other side: you will see just as well.”
Bill stuck out his legs colossus-fashion, and yawned again.
“'Twas just where you are standing that Brett was when the grindstone flew; and those grindstones make ugly splinters, I can tell you.”
“I a'n't afraid.”
“No, because you've been in the moors all your days, and have not seen mishaps with grindstones and such. You should have seen Duncan. The knife he was grinding flew up, and it was a done thing before he knew what he was about. The cut was only across the wrist; but the whole arm was perished, and good for nothing, just in that minute. The Duncans are all off to Scotland, with nothing to look to, after having had fine wages all this time—for he was a capital workman; but, as Anderson says, we have too many folks out of work here already to be expected to keep a Scotchman. What accidents do happen to people, to be sure!”
“Aye, they do.”
“Then I wonder you put yourself in the way of one, when you would be quite safe by just crossing over.”
“Oh! grindstones very often don't fly, nor knives either.”
“But they very often do.”
“He a'n't afraid,” observed Bill, nodding towards the cutler.
“No, because he is paid high for the risk. Well, I wonder any wages will tempt a man to have such a cough as that. I suppose, however, he don't believe where it will end, as we do. I often think, if several were to take turns, and change their work about, there would be a better chance. If ever I am a cutler, I will try that way, if I can get anybody else of the same mind.”
“Not you,” said Bill; “you will do like the people before you.”
“Perhaps I may, when the time comes, I may no more like to try my hand at a new thing than you. Have you asked anybody for work hereabouts?”
“The flock is all sold, higher up the country,” replied Bill. “They would not let me stay on the walk when the flock was gone.”
“I know that; and how you got it into your head that you might go on sleeping in the hut just the same when the place was a field as when it was a sheep-walk. They say they had to take you neck and heels to turn you out, if you would not have the roof down over your head. Why did not you bestir yourself in time, and get work from Anderson, before others stepped before you?”
“There are no sheep now for anybody to keep.”
“Well; if you have no mind to do anything but keep sheep cannot you go higher up, among the graziers, and offer yourself?”
“I don't know anybody thereabouts, nor yet the walks.”
“No, nor ever will, of your own accord,” thought John. “What would you be now, Bill, if you might never be a shepherd again?”
Bill only rubbed his hand over the back of his head, and shifted his weight from both legs to one. Few things could daunt John's love of talk.
“What became of the poor little lamb you were nursing that night that I was on the moors? It was too tender, surely, to walk up into the hills with the rest.”
“It be well if he be not dead by this time,” replied Bill. “I carried him full two miles myself, and I told 'em how to feed him and when; and, for all I could say, they minded no more when he complained—O, they don't understand him no more than if he was a puppy-dog. When I bid him good-bye, he looked up at me, though he could scarce speak to me. He did speak, though, but he would not so much as look at the new shepherd, and if it was not for the ewe——”
“What's coming?” cried John, interrupting his companion's new loquacity. “Let us go and see. I dare say it is somebody fresh taken up. Do you know, I went to see Chatham's jail, the other day. Father locked doors against me because l came home so late; but I had a mind to see what sort of a place it was. I may be in it some day. I should not mind being anywhere that Chatham has been.”
“You that can't stand being flogged!”
“Chatham is not going to be flogged. They say it will be ‘Death Recorded.’”
“Why can't they say so at once?”
“I don't know: but they often speak in the same way. I have heard Chatham say that they talk of ‘agriculture,’ and nobody means just the same as they do by it. Some say 'tis farmers, and some say 'tis landlords, and some that 'tis having corn.”
“I think it is keeping sheep.”
“No, no: the Parliament does not meddle with keeping sheep. When they are asked to ‘protect agriculture,’ Chatham says, Anderson understands, ‘take care of the farmer,’ and Mr. Fergusson, ‘have an eye to the landlords,’ and all the rest of us,—except you, you say.—‘let us have corn.’
Bill yawned, and supposed it was all one. John being of a different opinion, and seeing that a very knowing personage of the village, who vouchsafed him a word or two on occasion, was flourishing a newspaper out of the window of the public-house, ran off to try whether the doubtful definition was likely to be mended by the wise men of the Cock and Gun.
He found that there was a grand piece of news going from mouth to mouth, and that everybody seemed much pleased at it. He did not know, when he had heard it, what it meant; but as the hand which held the newspaper shook very much, and two or three men waved their hats, and women came running from their doors, and even the little children clapped their hands and hugged one another, he had no doubt of its being a very fine piece of news indeed. Bill had slowly followed, and was now watching what John meant to do next.
“I don't believe they have heard it at the foundry yet,” thought John. “I'll be the first to tell it them.”
And off he ran, followed by Bill, and gradually gained upon bv him. Now, Bill's legs were some inches longer than little John's, and, if he had the mind, there was no doubt he might be the first at the foundry to tell the news. This would have been very provoking, and the little runner put out all his strength, looking back fearfully over his shoulder, stumbling in consequence, and falling; rising as cold with the shock as he was warm when he fell, and running on again, rubbing his knee, and thinking how far he should be from hobbling like Bill, (with head hung back, bent knees, and dangling arms,) if he had Bill's capacity of limb. What Bill wanted was the heart to use his capacities. He soon gave over the race, even against his little friend John, first slackening his speed, and then contriving to miss the bustle both before and behind him by stopping to lean over a rail which looked convenient for a lounge.
John snapped his fingers triumphantly at the lazy shepherd-boy on reaching the foundry gate. He rushed in, disregarding all the usual decorums about obtaining entrance. Through the paved yard ran John, and into the huge vault where the furnaces were roaring, and where all the workmen looked so impish that it was no wonder he did not immediately discover his father among them. He nearly ran foul of one who was bearing a ladle of molten metal of a white heat, and set his toot on the exquisitely levelled sand-bed which was prepared to from the plate. Scolded on one side, jostled on another, the breathless boy could only ask eagerly for his father.
“Let go the lad's collar,” cried one of the workmen to another, adding in a low voice, “'Tis some mishap about his poor mother. Can't ye help him to find his father?”
Kay was roasting and fuming in the red glare of one of the furnaces when his boy's wide eves looked up in his face, while he cried,
“There's such news, father! The greatest news there has been this many a day. There's an Order in Council, father; and the people are all about the Cock and Gun, and the newspaper is bring read, and everybody coming out of their houses. Only think, father! It is certainly true. There is an Order in Council.”
“An Order in Council! Well, what of that? What is the Order about?”
“About? O, they did not Say what it is about,—at least, nobody that I heard speaking. But I'll run back and ask, directly.”
“You will do no such thing. You would bring back only half your story. What should a child know about an Order in Council?” he asked of his fellow-workmen, who began to gather round. “Can't one of you go and learn what it is he means?—for I suppose some news is really come; and I can't leave the furnace just now.”
John slunk away mortified to a corner where he could spread wet sand. in case any passing workman should be bountiful enough to spare him the brimmings of some overflowing ladle. It was very odd that his father did not seem to understand his news when everybody, down to the very babies, seemed to be so glad of it at the Cock and Gun.
The messenger soon returned, and then the tidings produced all the effects that the veriest newsmonger could have desired. John ceased his sand-levelling to creep near and listen how there had been issued an Order in Council for opening the ports, and allowing the importation of foreign grain. There was a great buzz of voices, and that of the furnace was the loudest of all.
“Now you hear, lad,” said one of the boy's tormentors. “The Order is for the importation of foreign grain.”
“Just as if I did not know that half-an-hour ago,” said John solemnly. “Why, I was at the Cock and Gun the minute after the news came.”
And the lad rescued himself from the man's grasp; and went in search of some one else whom he might throw into a state of admiration. He met Mr. Oliver himself, saying,
“What is all this about? The people stand in the heat as if it was no more than a warm bath; and my work is spoiling all the time, I suppose.”
“They are talking about the news, sir,—the great news that is just come.”
“News? What news?”
“The King is going to unbar the forts, sir; and he allows the importance of foreign grain.”
“It is high time he should. Your father and I have seen the importance you speak of, this long while.”
“I'll warrant you have, sir. And now, perhaps, father will let me go and see it, if you speak a word to him.”
Mr. Oliver laughed, and told him he would probably see more of it than he liked as he grew up. John thought he had rather not wait till then to see the sight; besides that he thought it hardly likely that the King should go on unlocking forts all that time. The fort that he could just remember to have seen, when his grandfather once took him a journey, might, he believed, be unlocked in five minutes. The young politician proceeded on his rounds, hoping to find a dull person here and there, who had rather go on with his castings, and be talked to, than flock with the rest round the main furnace.
“Well, good fellows,” said Mr. Oliver, “what is your opinion of this news?”
“That it is good, sir, as far as it goes; and that it will be better, if it teaches some folks to make such laws as will not starve people first, and then have to be broken at last.”
“The laws chop and change so that it seems to me overhard to punish a man for breaking them,” observed another. “That law against buying corn when it is wanted is bad enough in the best times, as we can all tell; but if you want damning proof, look to the fact that they are obliged to contradict it upon occasion;—not once only, but many times;—as often as it has wrought so well as to produce starvation.”
Kay thought, that putting out a little temporary law upon a great lasting one, was like sending a messenger after a kite,—which proves it ill-made and unlikely to sustain itself. Somebody wondered what Fergusson would think of the news.
“What matters it to us what he thinks?” answered another. “He has stood too long between us and our food;—not knowingly, perhaps; but not the less certainly for that.”
Mr. Oliver wished that his men could talk over their own case without abusing their neighbours. He would not stand and hear a word against Mr. Fergusson on these premises.
“Then let us say nothing about Mr. Fergusson, sir, for whom, as is due, I have a high respect. When I mentioned him, I meant him as the receiver of a very high rent; and I maintain that if we make corn by manufacturing, with fire and water, what will buy corn, we are robbed if we have not bread. Deny that who can.”
And the speaker brandished his brawny arm, and thrust forward his shining face in the glowing light, to see if any one accepted his challenge. But all were of the same mind.
Mr. Oliver, however, observed that, though he had as little cause as any one to relish the disproportionate prosperity of the landlords in a time of general distress, he wished not to forget that they were brought up to look to their rent as he to look to the returns of his capital, and his men to their wages.
“That is the very thing I complain of,” said Kay; “that is, I complain of the amount of rent thus looked for. In as far as a landowner's property is the natural fruit of his own and his ancestors' labour and services,—or accidents of war and state, if you will,—let him have it and enjoy it, so long as it interferes with no other man's property, held on as good a claim. But if by a piece of management this rent is increased out of another man's funds, the increase is not property,'—I take it,—but stolen goods. If a man has a shopkeeping business, with the capital, left him, the whole is his property, as long as he deals fairly; but if he uses any power be may have to prevent people buying of his neighbours, and thus puts any price he pleases upon his goods, do you mean to say that his customers may not get leave if they can to buy at other shops, without any remorse as to how the great shopkeeper may take such meddling with his ‘property?’ Give us a free trade in corn, and our landowners shall be heartily welcome to the best rents they can get. But, till that is done, we will not pretend to agree in making them a present of more of the fruits of our labour the more we want ourselves. The fruits of our labour are as much our property as their rents are theirs, to say the least; and if it was anything but food that was in question we would not be long in proving it; but food is just the thing we cannot do without, and we cannot hold out long enough to prove our point.”
“They will find it all out soon,” replied Mr. Oliver.” Whatever is ruinous for many of us must be bad for all, and such men as Fergusson will see this before long.”
“They will not see it, sir, till they feel it; and what a pass we must have crone to before they will feel enough to give up a prejudice some hundred years old!”
“Before we can ask them to give up the point entirely, we must relieve them of some ot the taxes which bear particularly upon them. Their great cry is about the weight of their taxation. They must first be relieved in that respect.”
“With all my heart. Let them go free of taxation as great folks, in the same way that my wife and Mary are let off free at cards on Christmas night, because they are women. This was the case with the old French nobility, I have heard. They paid no taxes: and so let it be with our landowners, if they choose to accept the favour of having their burdens borne by the sweating people to whom they would not own themselves obliged in respect of money matters if they met in the churchyard, though the time may not be far off when they must he side by side under the sod.”
“Their pride must be pretty well humbled before they would accept of that kind of obligation. They had need go to church, in those days, to learn to bear the humiliation.”
“Perhaps that is what they go to church for now, sir; for they are now taking much more from us than they would in the case I have mentioned. I don't say they all do it knowingly,— nor half of them. There are many of our rich men who would be offended enough at being told, ‘Your eldest son's bills at Eton were paid last year by contributions from three hedgers, and five brass-founders, and seven weavers, all of whom have families only half-fed.’ ‘Miss Isabella's beautiful bay mare was bought for her by the knife-grinder, who has gone to bed supperless, and the work-woman who will have no fire next winter, and the thirty little children who are kept from school that Miss Isabella's bay mare may be bought.’ O yes; there are many who are too proud to bear this being said to them, true though it be.”
“They would call you a leveller, Kay, if they could hear you.”
“Then I should beg leave to contradict them; for a leveller I am not.—I have no objection on earth to young gentlemen going to Eton, or young ladies riding bay mares, if these things are paid for by the natural rent which a free trade in corn would leave. If we have that free trade, and workpeople still go to bed supperless and sit up without fire, still let young gentlemen go to Eton, and young ladies ride bay mares. In that case, the landlords will be absolved, and the hardship must go to the account of imprudence in some other quarter. O, I am no leveller? Let the rich keep their estates, as long as they will let them find their own value in comparison with labour. It is the making and keeping up laws which make land of more and more value, and labour of less and less, that I complain of.”
“But you did not really mean, Kay,” said a bystander, “that you would let off every man that has land from paying taxes? It is the most unfair thing I ever heard of.”
“It is unfair enough, but much less unfair and ruinous than the present plan. It is better worth our while to pay the landowners' taxes than to lose ten times the amount to enable the landowners to pay them; and that is what we are doing now.”
“Ten times as much as the landlords pay in taxes?”
“Yes,” replied Oliver. “We pay, as a nation, 12,500,000l. more for corn than we should pay if our ports were open to the world. Of this, not more than one-fifth goes into the pockets of the landowners, the rest being, for the most part, buried in poor soils. Now if the landlords pay one-half of this fifth in taxes, it is as much as their burden can be supposed to be. And now, which of you would not be glad to take his share of this one-tenth, to get rid of the other nine?”
“Every one of us would go down on his knees to pray the landlords to permit us to pay their taxes, if we could but tell how to get at the gentlemen.”
“The landlords would need no such begging and praying, I trust,” said Mr. Oliver, “it they saw the true state of the case. I hope and believe they would be in a hurry to surrender their other tenth, if they could see at what an expense to the people it was raised.”
Some heartily believed it, but Kay asked why the landowners did not see the state of the case; —a question which it was not easy to answer, unless it was that they did not attend to it. And why did they not attend to it?—attend to it, not merely so far as to sanction an Order in Council for the admission of food when the people were on the brink of starvation, but so as to calculate justly how much corn we grow, how many of our people are properly fed upon that corn, how we may most cheaply get more corn, and—— (but that is a matter beyond human calculation) —how many more busy and happy people might live within our borders if we and the other parts of the earth had free access to each other. If our rich men once attended to this large question, they would see what we see; and seeing, they would surrender, and——”
“And be far richer, as well as happier, than they are now. But, never fear! They will feel soon; and feeling helps seeing marvellously.
“It was found so in the case of the bounty on the exportation of corn. The landowning legislators thought they saw plainly enough, once upon a time, that it was a capital thing for all parties to give a present to every man who would sell corn abroad:—it would employ more hands in tillage than were employed before; it would secure a supply in case of scarcity; it would increase the value of landed property by causing the greatest possible quantity of land to be cultivated. This is what they saw in vision,—or rather through a pair of flawed spectacles. It ended in the labourers producing only half as much wealth in a forced tillage as they might have made in manufactures, if food had been free; in exposing us to the danger of famine, as often as the deficiency of the crops exceeded what we sent out of the country, (no other nation being prepared to send us corn in a burry, as if we were regular buyers:) and lastly, in sending a great deal of capital out of this country into others where living was cheaper. At first, no doubt, tillage was brisk, and some of the objects seemed to be answered: but this that I have described was the end. Then the landlords saw, for the first time, that, in giving the bounty to our corn-sellers, they had been offering a bribe to foreigners to buy our corn cheaper than we could afford to sell it. A pretty bargain for us! So that pair of flawed spectacles broke to pieces on being examined, and——”
“And now they must break another pair before they will learn that they can see best with the eyes God gave them, if they will but put them to the right use. I am not for spectacles, unless there is something the matter with the eyes. And, in the same way, I am not for any man helping himself with the opinions of a class because he belongs to a class, unless he has such a faulty reason of his own that he would do worse if left to judge for himself. Let such of our landowners as are incompetent go on upholding the corn laws because their class has always done so; but let such of them as are men stand out, and judge for themselves, after looking the case plainly in the face. I am not afraid of what their judgment would be, especially as some of the richest and wisest have done so already. Honour be upon them!”
The men were perhaps the more disposed to give honour where honour was due from their notion on the smallness of the number of landowners in those days to whom they could award it. They gave three cheers to the Privy Council for having issued the present Order; and to the few landowners who advocated a free trade in corn. That done, they began to inquire what this order was to do for them, and found that it would just serve to avert the starvation of the people, now, and might probably lead to the rain of a good many farmers within a few months; which ruin must be ascribed, should it arrive, not to the Order in Council, but to the previous state of things which it was designed to repair. Prices had been rising so rapidly from week to week since the quarterly average had been taken, that there was no saying how far even oats might be out of the reach of the poorer classes, before the next quarterly average could be struck, and prices be proved to have risen to the point at which the law authorized the importation of corn. To save the people from perishing while waiting for the quarter to come round, this order was issued without leave of parliament; and, as it would have the effect of lessening the general panic, in the first, place, and also of bringing a large supply into the kingdom, the probability was that the farmers would find prices falling by spring-time, rapidly,—ruinously for them, calculating as they had done on high prices continuing till next harvest, and laying their plans of expense accordingly.
But all this would be a fine thing for Oliver, would not it?
In as far as cheaper living was a good to him and his people, and in as far as more manufactures would be wanted to go abroad, it would be a benefit; but fluctuations in the fortunes of any class of society,—be they farmers or any body else,—are bad for the rest of society. For every farmer that is ruined, the manufacturing and commercial world suffers; and Mr. Oliver would rather therefore,—not only that corn had not been so dear as it now was,— but that it should not be so cheap as it might now soon be, unless its cheapness could be maintained. Fluctuations apart, the cheaper the better; but it was a strange and unhappy way of going on, first to rain one class by high prices, and then to ruin another by low prices.
All this was allowed to be very true; yet the substantial fact remained, that the day of the manufacturer and mechanic was probably approaching, and that a season of cheap bread was in prospect, let what might follow in its train in the shape of disastrous consequence.
This was enough to proceed upon in rejoicing, and when the furnaces had been duly fed, by strong and willing hands, and a few plates cast amid more talking than was usual during so nice an operation, Oliver's day-men turned out like school-boys on a holiday morning, and tried which, could get first to the Cock and Gun. There they stood, regardless of the chill of the breeze after the heats of the foundry. How could they be sensible to it when they felt that the icy grasp of poverty on their heartstrings was relaxing, and the warm currents of hope had leave again to flow?
Kay was not one of the talkers at the public house. It was so long since he had bad any pleasant news to carry home, that he was impatient to lose no time about it.
This was one of Mrs. Kay's dismal days. She seldom made any complaints; but there were times when the tears would run down her face for hours together, while there appeared to be no particular reason: and she sometimes said she could not account for it herself. On those occasions, she was not moody, or disposed to speak by signs rather than words, as was often her way; she would speak, and move about, and even try to laugh; but still the tears would run down, and she was obliged to give the matter up. Thus it was to-day, though Mary had not yet parted with the hope that, between them, they might stop the tears.
“Which way did John run?” asked Mary. “Did you happen to see, sister?”
“Down by the coal wharf I think,” she replied, speaking rapidly. “O yes, it must have been by the coal wharf, because———No; it was not: that was yesterday. It could not have been to-day, because his father bade him go up the lane to gather acorns for the pig. That I should have forgot it was yesterday, he went to the wharf! But that is always the way with my head. It is so——”
“It will be better when you have tried the medicine from the dispensary a little longer. What a kind, pleasant gentleman that is at the dispensary! He told me he really believed you would be better directly, if———”
“I shall never be better,—never,—head nor heart, till I see these poor children of mine—— and my husband too——”
“Well well: cheer up! They will be better fed soon, please God. Don't let that trouble you. to night, when you feel yourself not strong.”
“And there's Chatham too. That lies at my heart, Mary, more than you know. I must tell you so, for you have been a kind sister to me and mine.”
“I should be sorry it should lie so heavy at your heart,” said Mary, very quietly. “I thank you for him; but you must not make yourself unhappy about me. I am thinking your husband will be home soon. The sun has been down some good while.”
After a silence, she went on:—
“You should have seen Betsy this morning, how prettily she made the bed, though she could scarce reach up to the bolster. Did you happen to look how she set about it?”
“No. I have been thinking, Mary, how completely you and I are changed. It is not so long since you used to check me for talking; or rather, I used to check myself, seeing that you were no talker. You used to say that people were not all made talkers alike; and you went up and down, and about the house, just like a dumb person, and sometimes looking as dull too. And now——I say, Mary, when I don't answer you, you must not always think that I am thankless. And I know what it must cost yon to be for ever saying something cheerful and pleasant, when Chatham is in gaol, and the cupboard is so often empty, and I such a poor, good-for-nothing—— No, no! Don't try to persuade me. I tell you I can't bear myself, and I don't ask you or any body to bear with me. Mercy! now here's my husband! and I in this condition.”
“Heyday! it is time I was coming home, I see,” cried Kay, good humouredly, as he entered. “You too, Mary! Well, dear, you have cause, so don't turn away; I have only wondered to see none of this before; but I have something for you both. Something we have not had this many a-day. Something better than ever was in this or any other physic bottle,” he continued, shaking the dispensary phial and telling the news.
Mary had no sooner made herself mistress of it than she disappeared, probably to devise the means of getting the intelligence conveyed to her lover. As soon as she was gone, Kay drew a chair beside his wife, saying,—
“Now we are alone, Margaret, and times are like to change, so as to give one the heart to speak, I have something to say to you.”
“O, no, don't,” cried she, starting up. “I know “what you are going to say.”
“You do not;” and he obliged her to sit down. “Don't tremble so, for I am not going to find fault with you in any way.”
“Then you ought. I am a poor, lost——”
“Not lost, Margaret. We have all near lost ourselves in such times as we have had of late; except indeed Mary, who will never lose herself, it is my opinion, it has come across me, Margaret, that I may have hurt you sometimes, with-out thinking, with light talk when you had not spirits for it, (not that I had real spirits, for that matter,) and with saying silly, things to Mrs. Skipper, and the like. Ah! I see you felt it so; and it is no wonder you should. But you may take my word for if, I think nothing of Mrs. Skipper, nor ever did. Only, one is driven on, one does not know how, to behave foolishly when one is near desperate at heart.”
“And that's my fault.”
“Not altogether. No! not by any means. There were many things besides—besides one—to make me unwilling to look back to the time when we used to walk in Fergusson's oak copse, and say——Nay, Margaret, if you cannot hold up your head in thinking of that time, where should you rest it but upon our husband's shoulder, as you did then? How can you turn away so, as if I was your enemy? Well, I turned away too from the thought of those days, knowing, all the while, that it was a bad sign to turn away.”
“And to think of all that has happened since! Of all these children, and of my being such a bad mother—”
“It was the children I most wanted to speak about, especially John. But come, now, Margaret, open your mind to me, and don't be afraid. It was want and downright weakness that first led you into it. Was not it?”
“O, it began long and long ago. When I was weakly as a girl, they used to give me things, and that was the beginning of it all. Then when I grew weakly again, it seemed to come most natural, especially because it was cheaper than bread, and the children wanted all we could get of that.”
“So, often when you have pretended to have no appetite, it was for the children's sake and mine. Well, I half thought so all the time.”
“No, not often; only at the beginning. Afterwards it was true that I could not eat,—no, not if the king's dinner had been before me. I did try for long to get the better of the habit, and three times I thought I had; but a sinking came, and I could not bear it. That was twice; and the third time, it was your joking sharply about——But that was no reason. I don't mean to say it was. You don't know what the support is for the time, John, whatever comes after it. It raises one; and yet I remember times—many times—when I knew I could not speak sensibly if you spoke to me, and yet I prayed and prayed that I might die before the morning light.”
“Does that mean that you were less afraid of God than of me?”
“No, I did not think of being afraid, exactly; but I wanted to be out of your way and the children's; and, for my own part, I should have been very glad to be at rest.”
After a long pause, John resumed.
“You said you tried three times to leave it off. Do you think you could try again?”
“No, John, I do not think I could.”
“Not for my sake,—as you say I drove you into it last time? Not for your own sake? for nobody knows but ourselves, I dare say. I have never breathed it, and Mary——”
“O, Mary has vexed me many a time,—taking such pains, and having so many reasons and excuses with the neighbours. Why,—do you sup pose I never met anybody? And then there was the night that Mrs. Skipper, of all people in the world, gave me her arm. I was forced to take it, but—”
“Mrs. Skipper! Really! She never breathed a word. Depend upon it, she never told any body.”
“If she did not, I am sure I have told plenty of people myself: so don't say any more about it, John.”
“I was just going to say, that now is the time for trying. We are going to have better living, I hope, which is what you will want; and I am sure Mary and I do not care what there is for us if we could see you recover. If you will only give us the word, we will watch and watch, night and day; and you shall have all manner of help, and comfort, and no more thoughts of cruel joking, or of Mrs. Skipper. O, Margaret, try!”
“I am almost sure I cannot,” muttered the poor woman; “but I will just try.”
“Ah! do, and I should not wonder.—You talk of being at rest; and it may be a rest in this very room,—on that very bed,—such as you little thought of when you wished your wish.”
Margaret shook her head. “If I go on, I die; if I leave off, I die; it is all one.”
“No, Margaret, it is not all one; for I have one more thing to say,—and the chief thing. The children do not fully understand yet, though I have seen John wonder-struck lately, and his aunt could not put him off.”
“Why should she?”
“Just because neither she nor I choose that the children should grow used to see drunkenness before their eyes indifferently. I speak plain, because it is about those who cannot speak for themselves. Do you know now what I mean to say?”
“I mean to say, (and to do it too,) that as often as I see you not yourself, I shall tell the children, not that their mother is ill, or low-spirited, or any thing else,—but what is really the case. Now, Margaret, how will you bear this? Remember I shall really do it, from this day.”
Margaret made no answer.
“You know I cannot let our children's morals get corrupted at home, and them ruined for here and hereafter by such a habit as this. I cannot, Margaret.”
“No; you cannot.”
“I am sure they have enough against them, at the best,—what with poverty, (temptation and no proper instruction,) and sometimes idleness, and sometimes over-work. They have enough before them at the best.”
“And who have they to look to but you and me? except Mary, and she would not set against your example. It goes against my heart more than you know to say an unkind word to you, and always did, when I seemed cruel. But I can say what you will think cruel, and I must, unless you take nay warning.”
“You do not know.”
“Yes, I know, down to the bottom of my soul, what the misery was, and how many, many excuses there are for you. But the children do not know this, and there is no making them understand, and I must think of them first. If it was only myself, I think I could sit up with you all night, and shield you all day, and even indulge you with the very thing itself, when I saw you sinking for want of it. But, as it is, whatever I may do when the children are out of the way, I will do as I said when they are by.”
“Do. I was not going to excuse myself when you stopped me just now,—but only to say you do not know how glad I should be to stop, if I could, though I shall never recover my head again now. It will go on roaring like the sea as long as ever I live.”
“No, no. With good food, you know——”
“I shall never relish food more; but I will try; and do you do as you said. I am not sure how I shall mind it in such a case: I never can tell any thing beforehand now. But you know your part: and if I fall back, you must all mind me as little as you can.”
“Only, don't think me less tender to you, Margaret.”
“No; O, no; you have given me warning, you know.”
“Your poor head! how it beats! You had better let me carry you to bed; you are not fit to sit up. Better let me lay, you on the bed.”
“Well, I can't go walking This is the sinking,—now.”
“And enough there has been to sink you. There! l'll stay beside you. Where's your apron to hang up before your eyes? Now, don't think of any thing but sleep.”
“O, but then I dream.”
“Well! I shall be here to wake you, in case of your starting. Only just give me the key of the cupboard, and do not ask Mary for it any more when I am away.”