Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VII.: THE BREAKING UP. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 7
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Chapter VII.: THE BREAKING UP. - 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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THE BREAKING UP.
Kay was indeed one of the many to whom a temporary relie, from the bread-tax came too late. Five years before, no man could be found more eager m the statement of his case of hardship: five months before, he had still some hope that a perpetuation of the then ample supply of food might yet avail to restore his domestic peace. His wife might struggle through her difficulties, and be once more a mother to his children, and in aspect and mind something like the woman he married. Now, however, all hope of this was over, and Kay had had no heart to attend the meeting in the wood, or to mix with his former companions more than could not be avoided. He went straight from the foundry to the side of his wife's chair, as long as she was able to sit up, and to nurse her when she at length took to her bed. He owed her the exemplary attention she received from him; for the same poverty which had seduced her into a fatal habit had embittered his temper, and they had need of mutual forgiveness. Since the noble effort each had made,—he to warn his children against her example, and she to break away from the indulgence which had become necessary,—neither had sinned against the other. No rough word was heard from his lips, and self-denial, by Mary's help, never failed. Mrs. Kay sank slowly and very painfully. She well knew that she must sink, either way, and to this she had no objection; but often and often, in the solitude of her daily sufferings and the restlessness of her nightly dozings, she thought that every body was hard upon her; that they might have let her sink a little more rapidly, and give her what she longed for. They did not seem to feel for her as she thought they might, or they would indulge her without letting the children perceive it. Mary must know sometimes, when she saw her very low, what it must be that she wanted; but instead of taking any notice, she only began to talk about any thing that would win away her mind for a while. Then all these secret complainings were thrust away as if they were suggestions of the devil, and a throng of reproachful recollections would come,—of her husband's patience in smoothing her pillow twenty times in a night, and holding her head for hours when her startings had frightened her; and of Mary's never seeming tired, with all that was upon her, or saving a word about what she gave up for her in keeping Chatham waiting so long. She knew that it was only on her account that they were not married yet, and she hoped she should soon be under the sod, and no hinderance to any body; meanwhile, nobody but she would perceive, so much as Mary had to say now, and so cheerfully as she spoke, that she was giving up any thing for a sister who had deserved so little from her.
Mrs. Kay expressed all this so fully and forcibly to her husband one day, that he told Mary he really believed it would make all parties happier if she would marry Chatham at once. The affair was soon settled, and every body concerned was so evidently satisfied, that very few neighbours ventured to pronounce above their breath how shocking it was to marry from a house where there must soon be a death.
Mrs. Skipper, who had throughout been profuse of neighbourly attentions, came to sit with Mrs Kay while the party were gone to church on the Sunday morning when the marriage took place. She was far trom being the most considerate and judicious of nurses; but Mrs. Kay did not seem so alive to this as her husband and Mary, and appeared to like that she should occasionally supply their place. This morning she showed herself with eves more red and swollen than a nurse should ever exhibit. Mrs. Kay directly perceived this.
“O dear, Mrs. Skipper, what has happened to you? I am sure some misfortune has happened. Tell me! Tell us at once.”
“Why, love, tis no misfortune of mine particularly, but every body's misfortune.”
“Why, that is worse still! Nothing has come in the way of the wedding?” And she tried to start up in her bed.
“Bless you, no! Lie still. The wedding is likely to go on well enough; and in my opinion it is high time they were off to church. No, no. It is only that the Fergussons are gone.”
“Gone!” cried every voice in the house.
“Yes. Just slipped away quietly on a Sunday morning, when nobody was suspecting, that they might not have their hearts halt broke, I suppose——”—A loud sob stopped the good woman's utterance.
“Well, I am sure, Mrs. Skipper, it gives us all much concern,” said Kay. “They are good people,—the Fergussons,—and of great consequence to all the people about them: and it will e a sad thing to see the Abbey shut up, and the grounds left to themselves. It is not the less melancholy” for our having looked forward to it this long while.”
“Why no, but rather the more,” said Chatham, “because we know what misfortune sent them away. When the wind has torn the linnets' nest, we know that they will fly away; and the wood will miss them the more, and not the less, for the fear that they will not venture to build in the same place again.”
“And 'tis six years, come Michaelmas,” said Mrs. Skipper, “that they have had hot bread from me every morning, except while they were just gone to London. They have been the best customers that ever I had. and now there is no knowing——They looked very grave, every one of them that I could see, as they whisked}l past. I wonder whether they saw how I cried. I hope they did. I am sure I don't care who saw, for I am not ashamed of being sorry for such as they.”
“I thought they would have stayed till harvest,” said Mary. “Such a beautiful harvest as it will be this Year. I have been telling my sister, Mrs. Skipper, what a fine promising season it is. “John and I shall manage a better gleaning this year.”
“Why, yes, Mrs. Kay,” observed the widow, “I could not help thinking, when I saw the sun shining, and the fields waving, and the people all abroad in their best, that it is hard upon you to be lying here, so dull, when you have not seen a green field, nor a number of people, for I don't know when. well, I must tell you all about It, instead, when they are gone. Now, Mary, what are you going in that way for, as grave as a quaker, and more so than the quaker I saw married once? I know you have a gown more fit to be married in than that. Go and put it on in a minute,—your light green one, I mean, and I will lend you my pink handkerchief. I will step for it, and bring it before you have got your gown on. And you shall have this cap,—the ribbon is pink, you see; and mv other better one will do just as well for me. Come! Make haste!”
Such was not Mary's will, however: and as her brother declared it quite time to be gone, she proceeded at once to the altar in her dark-coloured gown, thus leaving a fruitful topic for Mrs. Skip-per to enlarge upon to her patient, as soon as the party had closed the door behind them. Before they went out, Mary offered a smiling hint to the widow not to cry any more about the Fergussons, or any thing else, if she could help it, while they were away; and to keep her charge as cheerful, if she could, as she had been for the last few hours; hours of more ease than she had known lot some time past.
On their return, they found Mrs. Skipper,—not crying,—but in great trouble,—in far too deep a trouble for tears. She was leaning over the bed, looking aghast, when Chatham and Mary entered, arm in arm, with Kay and his two elder children following.
“Why, Mrs. Skipper, what have yon. been doing to my wife?” cried Kay, seeing that the sick woman's eves were fixed, and her whole countenance quite different from what he had ever seen it before.
“Nothing, Mr. Kay; but I thought you never would have come back. She took such a strange way the minute you were gone, 1 had the greatest mind to call you back.”
“I wish you had,” said Mary, who had already thrown off her bonnet, and was chafing the cold hands that lay helpless on the bed clothes.
“Ah! she has changed much within a few minutes too. Her hand lies still now; but I had to put it down several times. She kept stretching it out as if she thought to reach something; and I supposed she was thirsty, but——”
A mournful shake of the head from Kay stopped her. He said she had often done this when she was not quite herself.
“Yes: often and often,” said Mary; “and I have seen her as bad as this before. Look, she is coming about. She sees us now.”
“If she be not trying to speak!” whispered Mrs. Skipper.
Mrs. Kay spoke, but she was wandering. She told Mary that next Sunday should be the day for Chatham and her to be married, as she herself should be buried out of their way by that time. Then perceiving Chatham, she tried to give him some advice incoherently, and far too painfully to be ever referred to after that day by any of them, about not letting his wife come to poverty,—extreme poverty: and about distrusting her in such a case, if she were an angel from heaven.
“For God's sake stop her!” cried Kay, taking a sudden turn through the room; and Mary stopped her by a kiss, though her own tears were dropping like rain. Mrs. Kay proceeded with her self:-accusations, however, as long as she could speak at all; and the awe-struck children were taken out of the room by Chatham.
“No, no!” said Mary, whispering her emphatic contradictions into the ear of the dying woman, as soon as she could command her voice. “You have done the noblest——you have gone through the hardest trial God will not forget your struggles as you forget them yourself, your children shall never forget them. Well, well. It was suffering,—it was hunger that did all that! Don't dwell upon that! All that was over long ago; and now the pain is over,—just over; and we know what the promises are. If we deserved them as well——”
“Bless you! Bless you, Mary!” cried the husband, in a broken voice.
But the painful impression of his wife's words remained as strong as ever when the restless eyes were finally closed, and a faint smile rested on the lips whence the breath had departed. John was terrified by his father's manner of fetching him into the room, and saying, as he showed him the corpse.
“You heard her say that she had been wicked. You heard her say——but never mind all that. You will not know for this many a year how noble a woman your mother was, and what she did for your sake. And if I ever hear you say a word', —if I see you give the lease look against her——”
John slunk away as Mary took her brother's arm, and led him beside Chatham, while she hung up a curtain before the bed, and made Mrs. Skipper somewhat ashamed of being so much less able to exert herself than the nearer connexions of the dead. The widow presently slipped out to consult with her neighbours on the necessary arrangements, and to express the most vehement admiration for the departed, while preserving the strictest honour respecting the particulars of the closing scene.
Since that day, the curse of the bread-tax has alighted again and again on that busy vale. Again has the landowner had the painful choice of sinking from his rank at home or going abroad to preserve it. Again has the farmer found himself, now marvellously rich, and now unaccountably poor. Again has the manufacturer repined at having to surrender his resources to support the burden of factitious pauperism,—to take too low a place in the markets abroad in order that his agricultural neighbour may be upheld in too high an one at home. Again has the corn-dealer staked his all upon the chances of man's caprice, with about as much confidence as he would upon the cast of the die. Again gloom has brooded over the dwellings of the poor, and evil passions have wrought there, in proportion to the pressure of want,—the main spring of the vast machinery of moral evil by which society is harrowed and torn. And as often as a gleam of hope and present plenty has visited the cottage of a long-suffering artizan, it has been clouded by the repinings of some neighbour whose adversity has been, by ingenious methods of misrule, made coincident with his prosperity. In this busy vale, as in every valley of England inhabited by thinking men, there is one question still for ever rising through the night air, and borne on the morning breeze,—” How long? “—and on many a hill there are thinking men to take up the inquiry, and echo “How long?”