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Chapter VI.: TOO LATE. - 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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On a bright morning of the following May, the stroke of the wood-cutter's axe had resounded through Fergusson's woods from day-break till the sun was high. More than one fine young tree which had shaken off the gathered dews at the first greeting of the morning light, now lay prostrate, no more to be refreshed by midnight dews, no more to uprear its leafy top in the early sunshine. Such seemed to meet with little pity in their fail. The very men whose hands had felled them sat down on their horizontal trunks, and kicked the bark with their clownish heels, while they munched their bread and cheese. Children dropped into the green recess from all quarters, to pluck oak boughs and leaves from the fallen stem, wherewith to ornament their hats, and lead a procession to the neighbouring Whit Monday fair. These trees should have flourished twenty, fifty, seventy years longer, if the affairs of their owner had gone on in a steady and natural course. When Mr. Fergusson had walked round his plantations to see these oaks put into the ground, his thoughts had glanced forward to the time when his descendants might give a last mournful look at the doomed trees, towering stately before their fall; and now he was compelled himself to sentence them to the axe before they had attained nearly the fullness of their massive growth, Frequent and sudden losses during the last few months and the prospect of more had obliged Mr. Fergusson to collect all his resources, or surrender some of his domestic plans. He must sacrifice either a portion of his woods or the completion of the new buildings at the Abbey. His oaks must be felled, or his sons give up some of the advantages of education that he had promised them. It was found impossible to collect two-thirds of the rent due to him; and the condition of his farms foretold too plainly that further deficiencies would ensue. Poppies flourished more luxuriantly than ever this season among the thin-springing cora in Anderson's new fields. The sheep had returned to their old haunts, and could not be kept out by the untended walls and ricketty gates which reminded the passenger of the field of the slothful. When Mr. Fergusson was disposed to stop in his walks for purposes ot meditation, he could hardly, choose his station better than within sight of one of Anderson's enclosures when any rapacious sheep happened to covet what was within. It was a sight of monotony to behold one sheep after another follow the adventurous one, each in turn placing its fore-feet on the breach in the fence, bringing up its hind legs after it, looking around for an instant from the summit, and then making the plunge into the dry ditch, tufted with locks of wool. The process might have been more composing if the field had been another man's property, or if the flock had been making its way out instead of in; but the recollection of the scene of transit served to send the landowner to sleep more than once, when occurring at the end of the train of anxious thoughts which had kept him awake. There, was little sleepiness, however, in the tone with which he called his tenant to account for letting his property thus go to destruction. Mr. Fergusson was as near losing his temper as he ever was, when he pointed out to Anderson a ditch here that was choked up in one part and overflowing in another; a gate, whose stuffing of briars was proved a mockery by the meddling children who had unhooked it from its lower hinge, and the groping swine which enlarged the gap thus made; and the cattle-sheds, roofless and grass-grown, which should be either pulled down or repaired. Anderson's tone was also high, as he declared that a half-ruined man could not keep his farm in as thrifty a manner as a prosperous one; and that if, as soon as he began to improve the property he held, his funds melted away beneath the fluctuations of the corn-market, it was unreasonable to expect him to spend his capital in repairs till he should see whether government would or would not do something to protect agriculture from the consequences of vicissitude. Fergusson thought it useless to wait, on this ground. Government had been protecting agriculture for some hundreds of years, and vet fluctuations there had always been, and fluctuations there would, always be, to judge by all experience. Anderson was not for this the less resolved to let his roofless cow-sheds and crumbling fences stand,—to be rebuilt if government should. extend its protecting care,—to stand as monuments, if agriculture should be neglected.
Monuments of what?—Anderson was a proud man, building for his own and his family's honour and glory when he was in prosperity, and finding something to be proud of in adversity;—Anderson would therefore have replied— ‘monuments of injury.’ Injury from an act of government by which the starving were rescued from destitution, and the oppressed allowed one more chance of the redemption of their fortunes. That act which all other classes received as one of tardy justice,— of absolute necessity,—Anderson complained of as an act of injury to himself, so deep that he left certain wrecks of his property to serve as tokens to a future race of the wrongs he had suffered.
And the fortunes of Anderson were injured,—and injured by the acts of government, though not, as his wisest friends thought, so much by the permission of importation as by the preceding restrictions. They rightly called his wrecks and ruins monuments of his ill-luck in speculation, as their poorer neighbours called them monuments of the injustice done to the productive classes by encouraging or compelling the disadvantageous investment of capital. Both parties were right: but Anderson was induced to speculate by acts of protection which failed in the proof; and the disadvantageous application of capital, originating in the same acts, issued in disaster to all parties. If the interests of Anderson were placed in apparent or real temporary opposition to those of his neighbours, the blame rested, not with him, but with the legislation which bad interfered to derange the natural harmonies of social interests; which had impaired the loyalty and embittered the spirits of artizans, curtailed the usefulness and enjoyments of manufacturers, puffed up the farmer with the pride, first of ostentation and then of injury, and compelled the landowner to lay low his young woods before they had attained half their growth.
There was but little prospect of improvement in Anderson's affairs for a long time to come. There had been enormous importations of corn during the winter,—importations which in the end proved as ruinous to the corn-dealer as to the farmer at home. The bargain with foreign corn-growers having been made in a panic was agreed upon at a panic price. The foreigners had naturally laid heavy duties on corn, both because it was known how much the English wanted food, and because what they bought was not a surplus regularly grown for sale, but a part of the stock of the countries they bought of. In the midst of a panic, and in entire uncertainty how long the ports might be open, the corn importers could not possibly calculate how much would be wanted, any more than the people ascertain how much was brought in. While all were thus in the dark, prices fell in the home market, till wheat which sold at all sold at 50s. per quarter, and much was left which was not even bid for. The importer's foreign debts must, however, be paid. He was unwilling to ware house his wheat, because there was promise of a fine home harvest for this year, and the perishable nature of his commodity rendered it unwise for him to store it against some future contingency. The only thing for him to do, therefore, was to obtain a drawback on what he had imported, and to export it at a lower price than be had paid for it, pronouncing himself and every body else a fool that had entered upon so ruinous a branch of commerce.
This resource of exportation would fail in Anderson's ease, if his harvest should prove never so flourishing. The high average price at home, caused by dependence on home growth, disables the home producer for competition in a foreign market, even if the uncertainty of a sale attending so irregular a commerce did not deter him from the attempt. A capricious demand abroad is the necessary consequence of alternate monopoly and relaxation at home; and when to this uncertainty is added the impediment of a higher average price, and the disadvantage of the known desire of the seller to sell, so small a chance of remuneration is left, that Anderson could not look with any confidence to this mode of disposing of the superabundance of his next crop. No great increase of demand at home was to be expected in the course of one season, as people cannot eat much more bread immediately because there happens to be a good supply, however certain an ultimate increase of demand may be, as the consequence of a single fruitful year. All that Anderson could look forward to, therefore, was waiting in hope of future temporary high prices, unless, indeed, all parties should grow so wise as to agree upon a freedom of trade which should secure permanent good profits to the farmers. Meantime, as capital invested in agricultural improvements is much less easily withdrawn and converted to other purposes than capital applied in manufactures, it was but too probable that the profits of Anderson's prosperous years were buried in useless drains and fences, and in stony soils, while he was burdened with an increased rent and a family now accustomed to a lavish expenditure. It was to be feared that more of Fergusson's young oaks must be brought low to supply the deficiencies of the tenant's half-yearly payments to his landlord.
The woodmen who sat on the fallen trunks thought little, while enjoying their meal and their joke, of all that was included in the fact of these trees having fallen.
Some talked of the work done and to be done this day. Others had thoughts at liberty for the fair to which so many persons within view were hastening; and yet others had eyes wherewith to look beyond the green slope where they were sitting, and to mark signs of the times in whatever they saw;—the whirling mill, with one or two additional powdered persons on the steps, or appearing at the windows;—the multiplication of the smokes of Sheffield;—the laden lighters below Kirkland's granaries;—Anderson's fields, waving green before the breeze;—sheep and cows grazing where there was to have been corn;—and, above all, Chatham taking his way to the accustomed quarry, in a very unaccustomed manner.
“Do look at that fellow, walking as if he was mazed,” said Jack to Hal. “He is not like one bound for the lair. He is on his way to work, seemingly; but what a lagging step for one going to his work!”
“Don't you see 'tis Chatham?”
“No more like Chatham than you. And yet it is,—yes,—that it is! You may know by the way his arm is stuck in his side. But that is not the gait Chatham used to have.”
“No, because he never took such a queer walk before. Don't you know he has been between four walls all these many months, and has but just got out? I have heard a man say that knew well. that the blue sky is a new sky when you have been shut out from it for a long while: and the grass seems really alive; and as for such boughs as this that dance in the wind, you could almost think they were going to speak to you.”
“Chatham seems to be fancying some such thing, he pays so little heed. If he is not going to pass without seeing us!—without once looking up into the wood! His thoughts are all in the middle of the vale. I'll step down, and have a chat with him.”
Before the last mouthful was stuffed into the mouth of the speaker, however, in preparation for descending to the road, livelier sounds than any that it was in his power to make, roused Chatham from his reverie. A train of little boys and girls, who bad disappeared a few minutes before, issued from the neighbouring sawpit, and from behind the piles of planks which lay around, their hats and bonnets stuck round With oak-leaves, aud their procession of boughs arranged in boy and girl style. As each one scrambled out of the pit, there was a shout; as they ranged themselves, there was more shouting; and as they marched down the green slope on their way to the fair, there was the most shouting of all.
“I don't think Chatham seems to relish his walk so much as you thought for,” said Jack to Hal. “He looks mighty melancholy.”
“What! laughing at the brats. And look! he is nodding to one and another.”
“Melancholy enough, for all that. For such a fine-made man, he is a hollow-faced, poor-looking fellow.”
“Just now. When he has been three mouths at his work, you will see the difference.”
“It is a lucky thing for him to have stepped into his work so naturally, as if he had only left it just from Saturday night till Monday morning. That is more than happens to many men who have been in prison. There was Joe Wilson never got the better of it, though he was only in a month. Not a stroke more of work did he get.”
“Because his was for stealing, and nobody could trust him afterwards. In Chatham's case, no one thinks he did or meant any harm, considering what the pressure of the times was. And if the masters believed that he had really broken the law, they would have had no objection to take him on again, in consideration of the cause, which they view as in some measure their own, against the farmers and landlords. Chatham is pretty sure of work at all times; but if he had been the, worst workman in all Yorkshire, he would have had plenty of masters courting him for having been punished for helping to bring in corn. It pleases him best, however, to bo going back to his old perch, so as to get the matter dropped as soon as possible.”
“Ay, ay, for more reasons than one.”
“Not only for the sake of Mary Kay, but because the mischief that he wanted to set right is over. It cannot be said now that our people hereabouts want bread; and so the sootier all ill-will is forgotten, the better. Hoy, oy! how does your dame get you such a wedge of cold meat as that? She must be a thriftier body than mine.”
“No thrift in the world served to get me cold meat six months ago; but times have changed since; and, as my wife says, it is mortal hard work I have to do here.”
“Mortal hard work,—swinging your heels, and looking at people going to the fair! Mine is as toilsome as yours, neighbour; and yet I have only a lump of hard cheese with my bread, while droves and droves of bullocks and sheep are passing within sight to the fair, making one think of mottled beef and juicy mutton. I wonder when the day will come for the working man to have his fill of meat, like him that does not work.”
“Chatham will tell you the very day;—whenever this vale, and all our others vales, are portioned out for the purposes they are most fit for,—thc choice parts for corn, and the meadows for pasture, and the heights for sheep-walks, and so on; instead of our insisting on growing wheat at all costs, and so preventing our having as much meat and cheese and butter and milk as we should like. If we could get our corn where we please, we should soon find other food growing more plentiful.”
“And a few things besides food. I suppose the Leeds men would take off all the wool we could grow?”
“Yes; and without bating an ounce of what they get already from abroad; for where we get corn, there we must carry cloth, among other things.”
“And then we must get more houses run up for our new weavers. By the way, if our landlords let more land to be built upon, that would fully make up for any difference from the fields being turned back into sheep-walks.”
“And with a much better chance of the rents being paid regularly for ten years together;— which is no small consideration to such men as Fergusson just now. There's Chatham walking away without speaking to one of us. Call him; your voice is loudest. Well done! You make the very cows turn and tow at us. He won't come. How he points towards his work, as much as to tell us we ought to be going to ours! All in good time, friend Chatham. We have not been shut up for months, with our hands before us, like you.”
“Nor yet been much busier than he, for that matter 'Tis a pity this fair did not fall on our idle time. There go the folks in a train, while we are dawdling here——
“Then don't let us dawdle. Off with you, children! We are going to lop the branches, and you may chance to get an ugly cut it you don't keep clear of the. hatchet. Come. neighbour.”
“In a minute, neighbour. Bless us! look at that monkey, down in the road! How the creature dances, like any Christian! And the music sounds prettily, does not it? 1 am just like a child for wanting to be off to the just Who is that rogue of a boy plaguing the beast? I think it is John Kay.”
“Not it. John is in your predicament,— can't go to the fair till night. It does seem hard to keep so young a lad sweating does those furnaces all the week, and on a holyday especially; but he is proud of being on full work, like a man, and left with the few in charge of the furnaces; and they say his parents have comfort of him, in respect of his carrying home his wages.”
That is very well; for they want all they can get, while that poor woman goes on pining as she does. She has got very feeble lately.”
“And well she may, taking nothing stronger than tea, after having lived so differently. She made the change suddenly too. 'Tis not six weeks since I saw her as bad as she ever was,— trying to reach home.”
“Ay; after striving and striving all the winter to get the better of it, poor soul! But that falling back seemed to be the finishing of her. She has never held up her head since, nor ever will, in my opinion, though she has more reason to hold up her head than for these five years past; as they say her family are for ever trying to make her think.”
“Poor Kay finds full work and cheap food come too late for him; for whatever fails to do his wife good brings little comfort to him. For all he used to do in the way of light words and silly fun, he has made a good husband; and no man can be more down-hearted than he is to see his wife in this way. No: that is not his boy John below. He would not let him be abroad plaguing monkeys when he may be called for any minute to see his mother die.—Bravo, boy, whoever you be! Little John Kay could not have done the thing more cleverly.”
“There runs the monkey! Look ye! Through the gap! over the slope in no time! He will be up in the tree before they can catch him. Did you ever see man in such a passion as his master? I don't wonder, having got within a mile of the fair, and full late too.”
“Ah! but you missed seeing how the lad slipped the chain the very moment the man beat the poor animal over the nose. Trust the beast for running away at the first hint! A fine time it will lake to get him back again!”
“Look at his red jacket, showing so unnatural on the tree top! Down he comes again.1 No, not he! it is only to get farther out on the branch.”
“That is a marked tree that he is upon. Suppose we cut it down next. It joins no other, and monkey must come down with it or without it.”
The harassed owner of the monkey received this proposal as a very bright thought. The monkey seemed to be of the same opinion, though not so fully approving of the idea. He chattered, screamed, whisked the skirts of his red coat and clapped his paws together as he saw the workmen gathering round the tree with shouts, leaving neglected nice bits of food winch monkey would fain have had the benefit of, and shaking their tools at him in token of what he had shortly to expect.
At the first shock, monkey became perfectly quiet, squatting with his fore paws clapped together, and looking down, like an amateur observer, on the progress of the work. In proportion as there was any movement below, he descended a little way, to look into the matter more closely, and then returned to his place on the fork of the branch. By the time it began to totter, a new ecstacy seemed to seize the beast. Again he mounted to the topmost bough that was strong enough to bear his weight; and when there, he again jabbered and screamed. Some thought this was terror at his approaching downfall, and others took it for delight at seeing the circle divide to leave room for the tree to fall. The master, however, believed that he saw some object which excited him on the road, which was hidden by the trees from less exalted spectators.
The master was right. There was a crowd gathering at a short distance, as was shortly made known by the busy hum which came upon the ears of those who were standing among the trees on the slope. From end to end of England was such a tumult of many voices heard when the news arrived which caused the present assemblage. The agricultural districts took it very quietly, to be sure; but the manufacturing towns and villages were all in a ferment throughout the island. Meetings were convened at the moment of the arrival of the newspapers; and while manufacturers assembled in town halls, or addressed the people from the balconies of inn-windows, workmen of all classes met on the green, in the wood, about the public house, or wherever they could most numerously collect, for the purpose of declaring their opinions to the government.
The intelligence which caused all this bustle related to what the House of Commons had been doing and planning about the corn-laws—a House of Commons which had the year before barely managed to retain the confidence of the manufacturing classes by throwing out the suggestion of a Committee of its own, that the prices to which corn must arrive at home before importation was permitted should be very much raised. A proposal like this, made at a time when the home price was at least 112s. per quarter, showed so determined an intention on the part of the proposers to render their country wholly self-dependent in the article of food, (i. e. to limit the population and wealth of the country to a certain bound, which should be agreeable to the landowners,) that the only chance the House of Commons had of preserving the allegiance of the bulk of the people was by rejecting the proposal; and the proposal had been accordingly rejected. The watchfulness of the people had not, however, been lulled. Their subsequent brief enjoyment of cheap food had strengthened their vigilance over the operations of the Commons' House; and they were the more intent as they knew that the landowners were suffering cruelly from the reduction of their rents and the deterioration of their estates; and that these landlords would probably attribute their losses to the late admission of foreign corn, rather than to the true cause,—the previous system of restriction. The event proved such vigilance to be very needful The late fall of prices had disclosed an appalling prospect to the owners of land. They found that their extraordinary methods of legislation had exposed their country to a much more extensive dependence on foreign supplies than they had attempted to obviate, and that they had been working hard to reduce their own rents, and hurt their own estates, by the very means they had taken to enrich themselves. During such a remarkably fruitful season as the present (the natural follower of several bad seasons) the supply would be so plentiful as to cause the poorer soils to be thrown back into pasturage, the demand meantime increasing (as it had been for some time increasing) up to the maximum supply; so that on the first occurrence of a merely average season, the nation would be more dependent on a foreign supply than it had ever been before. Under this panic, the House voted a series of resolutions, declaring it expedient to let exportation alone, and to impose very high duties on importation. The news of the passing of these resolutions, and of the preparation of two bills founded upon them, was that which stirred up all England to remonstrance, and occasioned the Yorkshire graziers to leave their droves in the fair, and the corn-dealers to quit their resort in the market, to hear what would be said by the manufacturers who came forth from their desks, the artificers who poured in from the enjoyment of their holyday, and the country labourers who dropped down from among the hills, or converged to the point of meeting from the wide-spreading fields.
The day being warm and the road dusty, it was natural that the sounds of the wood-cutters' labour should suggest to the gathering crowd the idea of meeting on the grass, in the outskirts of Fergusson's wood. Mr. Fergusson and his sons were found in the fair, and they gave permission, and promised to come presently and hear what was going on. Chatham was met on the road, just about to turn up towards the quarry; but he was easily persuaded to go back and help; and the whole party was approaching when Monkey offered them his uncouth welcome from the top of the tree.
This tree was left slanting to its fall when the people began to pour in from the road, and to possess themselves of the trunks which lay about, in order to pile them into a sort of hustings. The organ-man could find no one to assist him in catching his monkey, in case the rogue should vouchsafe to descend from his high place. Nobody could attend to the monkey now; and if he chose to run off from one side of the tree while his master was at the other, and lead the chase as far as Sheffield, he might, for any thing the woodmen seemed to care. Flinging down their tools, or resting them against their shoulders, they threw themselves along on the carpet of wild anemones which stretched beneath the trees; while the more restless mechanics flitted about among the stems, looking, with their smutted faces and leathern aprons, very unnatural inhabitants of such a place. Long after Chatham and others began to enlarge upon the matter which had brought them together, the frowning brows and eager gesticulations of these men, as they talked low with one another, showed that they had their own thoughts, and were not met merely to have notions put into their heads.
“Is it possible to mistake what these men arc thinking and feeling?” asked Chatham of Mr. Fergusson. “If the House of Commons could for once take their sitting here, with the Speaker on yon bit of grey rock, and the members on these trunks or on the flowery ground, like the Indians when they hold a council, they would legislate for these listeners after another fashion than they now do.”
“Why so? I see, as well as you, that these men are thinking and feeling strongly; but are they thinking that which should change the policy of a nation?”
“That which will change the policy of a nation, though not so soon as if the National Council could for once come here to legislate. Friends!” he said to some near him, whose sudden silence called the attention of others beyond them,— “I am telling this gentleman that I believe there is one thought in the minds of us all, though that thought might be spoken in many ways. One might say, that he felt himself injured by the high price of bread last year, and another by the falling off of work—one might point to the grave of his spirit-broken brother, and another hold up before us his pining child— one might be angry with our masters for altering our wages, so that we never know what to depend upon, and another may be grieved that Anderson should have sharpened his speech, and that Mr. Fergusson should come among us with so grave a countenance as this; but there is one plain thought at the bottom of all this,—that the prime necessary of life is the last thing that should be taxed. I should not wonder if Mr. Fergusson himself agrees with us there.”
“It depends upon what the object of the tax is,” replied Mr. Fergusson. “If the corn-tax be laid on to swell the revenue of the state, I grant that it is the very worst that could be imposed; because, while it presses so heavily on all as to cramp immeasurably the resources of the nation, it presses most on those who have little but the prime necessary of life, and the harder in proportion as they possess little else.”
“In what case will you then justify a corntax?”
“When it is laid on to balance an excess of taxes laid on the agriculturists over those laid on other classes.”
A confusion of voices here arose, in cries of—
“We will take them on ourselves!”
“You and yours shall live duty-free, if you give us corn free.”
“We pay your taxes many times over already.”
“I will work one day in the week for you for nothing but a free corn trade.”
“I will give you a share of my wages every Saturday night, and my vote, if you'll go up to Parliament, and speak our minds there.”
And many a black hand was held out to see if Mr. Fergusson would say “Done.” He did not quite say this, but he went on,—
“I am sure I can have no objection to a change in our system; for I have suffered as well as you.”
“Ay, and you would make it up by having corn dearer than ever,” cried one of the discontented.
“No, I would not, because I am convinced that this would only bring on a repetition of the same evils some time hence, and in an aggravated form. I dread, as much as you can do, further fluctuations of this kind, Which have injured us all in turn. More bad seasons followed by plenty, with a fickle legislation, and those of you who have pined will die; the masters who have ceased to be rich will be ruined; the farmers who have now buried some of their capital will find that they have got back a part only to lose the whole; and, as for me and mine, I should expect the gates that are now unhinged to be broken up for fuel, and the stones of my crumbling fences to be used for knocking me off my horse. If in those days I should go abroad, it would be to rescue my life from your rage, and not, as now, to economise the income which I can no longer spend among you. No, no; we must have no more mismanagement like that which has well nigh ruined us all.”
“What does he mean? Where is he going? Won't he live at the Abbey any more?” were the questions which went round, and caught Mr. Fergusson's ear.
“I told you,” he said, “that we had all suffered in turn, though I am far from pretending that we have suffered equally. I assure you that I spend many an anxious day, and many a sleepless night, in planning how I may fulfil all my engagements as a member of society, and keep my promises to my children. These engagements were made when I was prosperous; and now I am no longer prosperous. My steward comes to me every quarter-day with a smaller handful of receipts, and a longer bill of arrears; and wherever I turn, I see with my own eyes, and find many comforters to tell me, that my property is wasting for want of care, and that I must sustain great losses hereafter for want of a small expenditure which cannot be afforded now. If I or my tenants could just spare a hundred pounds here, and fifty there, and two hundred somewhere else, it would save me a thousand or two that will have to be spent at last. But it cannot be done. My sons are entering upon a new stage of a very expensive but necessary education; and though my daughters have given up their usual journey to London, I have no hundreds to spare. My tenants cannot scrape their rent together, and it is folly to ask them for their fifties.”
“The papers say you have lowered your rents.”
“It is true that I have; and I am sorry the papers take upon themselves to praise me for it as for an act of generosity. You all know now that I cannot get my full rents, so that I do not in fact give up any thing that I might have: and I consider it no more than justice to reduce the claims which I made when the Farmers were in very different circumstances from those in which they are at present placed. I have no objection to the newspapers stating the fact, because it may lead others to follow my example, and may afford a useful lesson to all; but 1 do object to the act being lauded as one of generosity, as much as I should to the House of Commons being praised for giving up the bills now in question, in case the whole nation should prove to be of your mind about them.”
“Very fair! very good! Spoken like one of the people!”
“I am one of the people,—taxed as one of the people, I assure you,” continued Mr. Fergusson. “Yon offer,—very sincerely, I have no doubt,— to take the taxes of the landowners upon your selves, in return for a free trade in corn. But you know perfectly well that such all arrangement cannot be made, even if we chose to accept your kind offer.”
“Why not? What prevents, if we are all of a mind?”
Chatham thought that it would take so long to bring all people into one mind on the point that it would be a quicker and probably equally good method to allow such a duty on imported corn as would cover the landlords' peculiar liabilities. A small duty,—at the most 5s. or 6s. per quarter,— would be found sufficient, he believed, at the be ginning; and such a duty as this would not materially impede importation. Under such a system of regular supply, pauperism would decrease, or ought to decrease, year by year; this would lessen the burdens of the agriculturist, and open the way for a further reduction of the duty, which should expire when that equalization of taxation should take place which must arrive as nations grow wiser.
“Without committing myself as to the amount of duty,” replied Sir. Fergusson, “I may say that I should not object to some such plan as Chatham proposes: and I would insist that the duty should, above all things, be fixed. It a duty is imposed on the basis of the distresses of the country, it may be right enough that it should be graduated, the duty lessening as prices rise: hut m the case of such a duty as Chatham advocates,—a mere set-off against our excess of taxation,—it should be so far fixed as that every one might know beforehand how it would operate, and all classes be able to make their calculations.”
“Why, yes,” said Chatham. “If any corntax is, generally speaking, bad, none can be so bad as one that makes twice as much uncertainty as there is occasion for. To impose a duty on the basis, as you say, sir, of the distresses of the country, seems an odd way of raising money for the state; and to make such a duty a gambling matter seems to me more odd still. In the case of such a graduated duty as you speak of, failing as home prices rise, the corn-dealer's business becomes an affair of gambling speculation. He sends for corn when wheat is at one price, and brings it in when wheat is at another. If the price has fallen, he has so much more duty to pay that the speculation may ruin him. If the price has risen, he may make enormous profits that he did not expect. I may say this much for the corn-dealer, as Kirkland is not here to speak for himself, that he had much rather pay a constant duty which would leave him no uncertainties to manage but the supplies of corn at home and abroad, than take the chance of enormous occasional profits at the risk of ruinous occasional loss.”
“Ay, Chatham: there you come to a very important part of the question,—the uncertainty of supply. If you can answer for our having a regular and unfailing supply of food from abroad, when we have too little for our people at home, you can answer for more than the House of Commons can; for they adopt as their principle the safety of lessening our dependence on foreign countries for food.”
“When they can answer for our having a regular and constantly increasing supply at home,” replied Chatham, “I may perhaps yield the question to them. When you can find any member of their committee who will tell me, at any seed-time, what will be the produce of an average sowing, I will consent to his making the nation depend on that produce. When you can bring me proof that the rich harvests of one district are not of use in repairing the deficiencies of a less favoured district, I will own it to be as safe to depend for supply on our own little island as on the collective corn districts of the globe. When you can convince me that we buy as advantageously by fits and starts as under a system of regular commerce, I will grant that regularly importing countries have not the steadiest market.”
A listener observed that Kirkland had lately said, in reference to his having had to hunt up corn abroad during the scarcity, that there was a difference of ten per cent. between “Will you sell?” and “Will you buy?”
“Kirkland learned that saying from a greater man than any of us,” observed Mr. Fergusson. “It was Franklin who said that true saying. But there are other uncertainties to be considered, besides the variations of the seasons. Clouds gather over men's tempers as well as over the face of the sky. Tempests of passion sweep away the fruits sown between nations in a season of promise Springs of kindness are dried up, as well at fountains of waters. We have not considered the risks of war.”
“Indeed but we have, sir,” replied Chatham, “and we come to the conclusion that when we are at war with all the nations whom God has blessed with his sunshine and his rain, we shall not deserve to touch God's bounties, and it will be high time that we should be starved off God's earth. If we wanted to restrict our own trade, sir, instead of throwing it open,—if we wanted to forbid our merchants buying of more than one or two countries, we might believe that war would bring starvation; but never while our ships may touch at all ports that look out upon the seas.”
“We do not grow half our own hemp,” said a man with a coil of tow about his waist. “Has the British navy ever wanted for ropes? If our enemies at sea ever meant to hurt us. their readiest way would have been to stint us in cordage; and, since they have not done it during all this war, it must be, I take it, because they can't.”
“Certainly,” replied Chatham. “In cases like these, Mr. Fergusson, our conclusions about the choice of an evil or a danger must be compounded of the greatness and of the degree of probability. Now here is, under the old restrictive system, a vast amount of certain evil, which you and the House of Commons seem to think little of; in comparison with a much greater evil which it is barely within the tree of possibility to happen. Here are present labourers who have had their spirits bowed and their bodies worn by want, and who can look out from this green to the spot where their kindred are laid under the sod, mown down by this sharp law like meadow flowers under the scythe. Here are present the gentle who have been made fierce, the once loyal who were made rebels,—ay, and the proudly innocent who have been disgraced by captivity——”
While Chatham stopped tot breath, one and another cried out to Mr. Fergusson,
“If you think us rude in our speech to you, sir, you may lay it to the bread-tax.” “Get the bread-tax taken off, and you will hear no more of the midnight drill.” “Masters and men never would have quarrelled, sir, but for the bread-tax.”
“From this place, you may see,” Chatham went on, “not only poppies coming up instead of wheat, and stones strewed where lambs should have been browsing, but hovels with mouldering thatch where there should have been slated houses, and a waste wilderness stretching beyond where there might have been the abodes of thousands of busy, prosperous beings; and all through the pressure ot restrictive law.”
“And where there is not a waste, there will soon be a deserted mansion,” added Mr. Fergusson. “I told yon I was going away. My sons must finish their education abroad; and we all go together, that we may live within our means in a manner that we could not do at home. This is one consequence of the late fluctuations——”
“I can tell you, sir,” said Oliver, showing himself from behind a knot of his own men,— “I can tell you another consequence that would have happened if the late fluctuation had not taken place. If prices had not fallen, and fallen just when they did, I must have gone abroad to live, where 1 might work to some purpose,—where my. capital might have been employed in producing wealth, instead of being given to my workmen to buy dear food. Moreover, if prices now rise again so as to make you. change your mind and stay, I must go; so it comes just to the question, which of us can best be spared?”
“If it comes to that,” replied Mr. Fergusson, “it is clear that I can best be spared. Without saying anything about our respective characters and influence, it is plain that it signifies much less where I spend my revenue, than whether you invest your capital at home or abroad. If it must come to this, I am the one to go.”
“And what but a bad state of the law could have brought the matter to this point?” said Chatham. “What greater curse need a nation have than a legislation which condemns either the rent-receiver or the capitalist to banishment?”
Oliver's men proceeded to agree in whispers that he was not in earnest about going abroad; that it was only said to make the landlord wonder, and put the question in a strong light. A man must suffer much and long; before he would leave his own land, and the workmen that were used to his ways, and all that he had ever been accustomed to.
“True,” said Oliver, overhearing their remarks; “and I have suffered much and long. It is true that banishment is the last attempt that many a man will make to improve his fortunes; but it is an attempt which must and will be made, if the fortunes of our manufacturers continue to decline. I know all that you can tell me about the hardship to the workmen who are left behind to be goon driven into the workhouse. I feel how I should grieve to turn you all off, and shut up my foundry; but it is one of the natural consequences of a legislation like that which we have lived under. If our manufactures remain unsold on account of the cost of feeding the labourers, it is certain that the manufacturers will carry their capital,—the subsistence-fund of the people,—to some cheaper land.”
And how much was it supposed that the price of wheat would fall if the ports were opened? was the question proposed by the workmen, in their alarm at the idea of manufacturing capital being forced out of the country.
Six, seven, eight, or, at most, nine shillings, was the utmost fall, on the average of the last ten years, anticipated by Chatham, Oliver, and Fergusson,— a fall which, accompanied as it would be with regularity of supply, and freedom from panic and from the intolerable sense of oppression, would prove an all-important relief to the manufacturer and artisan, without doing the landlord and farmer any injury. Such a fall as this would drive out of cultivation none but the poorest soils, which ought never to have passed under the plough; there would be an end of the farmer's sufferings from vicissitude; and the small reduction of the landlords' rents would be much more than compensated by the advantages which must accrue to them from the growth of a thriving population within their borders.
Chatham observed that many might object to the estimate just given of the probable fall of price on opening the ports,—and it was indeed a matter which required large observation and close calculation; but he, for one, was not disposed to rest the question on probabilities of this nature, but rather on the dilemma,—” If the price of corn is heightened by a restrictive system, why should the nation be taxed for the sake of the landlords? if not,—why do the landlords fear a free trade in corn?”
“There is yet another consideration,” observed Mr. Fergusson, “and a very important one, Chatham. You have said nothing of Ireland, while the fact is that Ireland sends us three times as much corn as she sent us ten years ago. There seems no reason why so fertile a country should not supply us with more and more till our prices fall the nine shillings per quarter we were talking, and even till we are able to export. What do you say to this?”
“That it is owing to the establishment of a free trade in corn between us and Ireland that we employ so much more than formerly of her industry, and enjoy so much more of its fruits. What has been proved so great a good in the experiment with one country, is the finest possible encouragement to extend the system to all. If you object, as I see you are ready to do, that this success with respect to Ireland renders a further emancipation of the trade unnecessary, I answer, that the corn-laws are by the same rule unnecessary, —an unnecessary mockery and irritation of the people. If they are not yet unnecessary because Ireland does not yet fully supply us,—in exact proportion as they are not unnecessary, they are hurtful. From this dilemma, Mr. Fergusson, you cannot escape, and you had best help us to press it upon the House of Commons. If you will join us, sir, in drawing up our address to Parliament on the principles we have been arguing about for this hour past, I rather think we ourselves may find, and may help to show the House, that landowners and their neighbours have the same interests, and are willing to be all happy together, if the legislature will let them. Whenever we see a wealthy and wise landowner taking up the question on its broad principles, land addressing the legislature, whether from his seat in the Lords or by petition to the Commons, as a citizen rather than as one of a protected class, I shall feel a joyful confidence that these broad principles will soon be recognized and acted upon by the loftiest members of the state.”
“It is time,” replied a voice from below, “for they have long been forced upon the lowliest.”
“This is one of the deep things that is better understood by many an one that has never learned his letters than by some who are boasted of for their scholarship,” observed another. “Wakeful nights and days of hardship drive some truths deep and firm into the minds of the veriest fool, which the wise man, in his luxury, finds it difficult to learn.”
“You say truly enough that it is time,” said a third, with sternness in his look and tone. “The charity comes too late which sticks bread between the teeth of a famished man; and the justice we seek will be a mockery if it does not come in time to prevent another such season of misery as we have endured, and as they threaten us with again. Yet they talk of playing the same game over again. Come, Chatham, make haste down, and draw up what we are to say, and let us sign before the sun goes down. We have not an hour to lose.”
“Not an hour to lose, as you say, neighbour, when for many it is already too late. Mend the system as fast as you will, there is many and many a home where there will never be comfort more.”
Several who were present knew that Chatham must be thinking of Kay's family when he said these words. He went on,
“You might as well hope to close up the clefts of yonder ash, and to make it rich with growing grafts, struck as it was by last year's lightning, as to heal the spirit of a man whose fortunes have been blighted by the curse of partial laws, and to repair his wrongs. For him it is too late. He stands the monument of social tyranny till his last hour of decay. For him it is too late; but not yet for others. There are thousands yet in infancy,—millions yet to be born whose lot depends on what is done with the corn-laws in our day.”
“Mine and that of my descendants does,” observed Oliver; “though, in one sense, it is also too late for me. I have lost my place in the market abroad; and for this my work-people are suffering and will suffer. But let no chance of recovery be lost through our delay. Come, Chatham; let us be gone, and give the people the opportunity of declaring their wishes before they disperse, and fancy that, because dispersed, they have no power. Let every man raise his voice so that the legislature may understand.”
All present were so eager to do this that no leisure seemed to be left for the follies which usually lurk in some corners of all popular assemblies, from the largest to the smallest. No monkey tricks were played by any but the monkey, though country clowns and many boys were present. When the animal, after being well nigh given up in despair by his irritated master, made a sudden descent on the head and shoulders of a listener, he was very quietly delivered over to his owner to receive the chastisement which was prepared for him, and which no one troubled himself to turn round to witness. All were too busy watching Chatham writing with a pencil and on paper furnished by Mr. Fergusson, who sat beside him on his woodland seat, now agreeing, now dissenting, but in no case desiring to hinder the full execution of the object for which his neighbours were assembled.
When a short petition to the Commons' House against the imposition of further restrictions on the foreign corn-trade had been drawn up, and fully agreed to by a large majority, it was carried away with all expedition to be copied and signed while the fair was yet thronged; and the wood was found by the noonday sun nearly as quiet as when visited by the midnight moon;—as nearly so as the blackbird and the linnet would permit.