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THE LABOUREK’s RETURN. The much-abused climate of England has its advantages both in point of the picturesque and the agreeable. Not only have we an infinite variety, which in itself is one of the great sources of pleasure, but we have beauties which no other land possesses.
I have stood under the deep blue sky of Italy, longing more for a cloud than ever I did for sunshine, when, day after day, and week after week, and month after month, went by, without a film of vapour as big as a man's hand coming to relieve the monotony, or cast a fitting shadow on the earth. I have stood beneath the burning suns of Spain, and longed for a refreshing shower, or even a softening mist, while through the whole of a long summer not a drop has fallen to moisten the stones in the dry watercourses, or wet the crisp leaves of the cork tree. The cloud and the shower have all the time been giving beautiful variety to the English summer, and our own fair land has been alternately in shadow and in light, glittering with drops, or sparkling in the beams. There
may be a blaze of glory and a fiery power in southern countries which our island never knows; but where is the silvery light which so often at morning or at evening steals through the prospect, casting its gentle gleam upon the waters, the woods, and fields, like the blessed influence of a calm and gentle spirit upon all that it approaches.
One of the peculiar advantages of more northern lands is the long twilight which follows the close of day. There is certainly something grand and fine, in hotter climates, in the sudden plunge of the sun beneath the horizon, and the instantaneous darkness that succeeds, but it little compensates for the calm half hour of waning light, when the star of day seems to withdraw his beams as with regret, and to leave a blessing when he bids good night.
The sun had just sunk-indeed, I cannot be sure that he was absolutely below the horizon, for there were lines of black-blue cloud drawn across the
verge of the sky, and the lines were edged with gold. Above Jan.-VOL. LXXIX. NO. CCCXIII.
was a wide sheet of heavy cloud, low down and flat, like a ceiling of black marble, beneath, and confined by which, the whole rays poured on in horizontal lines, catching the edges of mountain and fell, and wood and moor, and casting long shadows from a solitary fir-tree and the finger-post with its long bare arms. That finger-post pointed, in one direction, to a small town in Cumberland, which I shall call Brownswick, and in the other, to a village, which probably would not have had the honour of being pointed out at all
, had not several gentlemen of the forementioned town thought fit to build themselves country-houses in its neighbourhood. The attraction was a little lake, much less in dimensions indeed than Windermere, but hardly less beautiful in the scenery which surrounded it. No indication of such scenery being in the vicinity was afforded from the spot where the finger-post was placed. It was a dull wide moor, covered with withered heath, and here and there patches of broom and gorse. On one hand you saw down a wide, broken slope, presenting nothing but irregular undulations for several miles, except a pit or a little pond, till, in the extreme distance, blue lines of wood and field were seen, not at all unlike those of the sky on which they rested, only broken by the spire of a church, and what seemed an old solitary tower. On the other hand the moor continued to rise, showing a high bank, which cut off the view of every thing beyond. It was a desolate scene and chill; heavy and hard, but not without its sublimity— from the extent, and the solitude, and the depth of the tones. Let the reader remark it, for we may have to do with it hereafter. At present, it is only necessary say that just when the sun was setting, if not quite set, as I have said, two labouring men walked along the road, under the fingerpost, taking a direction from the town and towards the village. It must be remembered that these two points were some nine miles apart, and that the finger-post stood about half-way.
Clothed in the common dress of the country, with smock-frocks upon their shoulders, and coarse leathern gaiters upon their legs, the aspect of the two labourers showed nothing more than that they were both stout fellows of about the middle age. One might be forty, the other fortytwo or three. They were both tall, as most Cumberland men are, but one had an inch or so the advantage of the other. Their pace was slow, as if they were somewhat weary, and their gait was heavy and awkward, such as is gained by walking over ploughed fields at the tail of a plough or harrow; yet they were neither of them stupid, nor altogether ignorant, men.
It has long been a common mistake, and even since the mistake must have been clearly perceived and corrected in the minds of most men, it has become a common party falsehood to draw comparisons disadvantageous to the agricultural classes, between them and the manufacturing class. Those whom it is intended to oppress, it is generally found necessary to calumniate, and the most popular means of promulgating a dangerous error, is to ridicule all those who oppose it. Such has been the case with the agricultural labourer and small farmer. In point of plain common sense, and natural strength of intellect, they are generally very far superior to parallel classes in the manufacturing districts. It is true they are practical more than theoretical in all their proceedings; that they are less quick, less ready, perhaps both in mind and body, than the artisan or shopkeeper of a town, but, at the same time, their notions
are sounder, firmer, more precise, as their bodies are more vigorous, healthy, and enduring; and no class of men have I ever met with more capable of arriving at a just opinion upon a plain proposition, than those classes which have been called stupid, ignorant, and prejudiced. Learning, perhaps, they do not possess. Scattered thinly over a wide tract of country, instead of gathered into the close communion of towns, they have few opportunities of expressing their sentiments as a body, or of uniting for one common object; but in those cottages, and there are many of them, where such excellent cheap publications as those of Chambers' and Knight have penetrated, I have heard reasonings on the subjects submitted, which, though the language might be rude, would not have disgraced, in point of intellect, any society in the world. I am convinced that if plain common sense be, as believe it, the most excellent quality of the mind, that quality is to be found more frequently than anywhere else in the yeoman and peasant class of England.
As the two yeomen plodded on towards the home of rest, they were evidently busy with some subject that interested them deeply. More than once they stopped, turned round towards each other, and spoke earnestly with more gesticulation, at least on one part than is common among the phlegmatic nations of the North.
Let us listen awhile to their conversation, for it may have its interest.
“'Fore half of them are paid for,” said the shortest of the two men, " they will have to pull them down, and then all the money is wasted.”
Money enough to feed half of the poor of the country if it were well managed,” said the other, jogging on by his companion's side; “but it is all a job, Ben. They wanted to put out the old rogues
and put in new ones, and so they made places for them. The gentlemen pretended when they got up this new law, that the poor's-rates were eating up all the property of the country. That was a lie, Ben, in the first place; but even if it were true, I wonder whose fault that was if not the magistrates that suffered it ?”
“ Part theirs, part other folks,” answered the man called Ben ; “but it was a queer way to begin their saving to pull down, or sell for an old song, or leave to rot by themselves, all the old houses, and build new ones upon the plan of costing as much as possible. Why I calculate that our own union-house will cost as much as a quarter of the poor’s-rates of all the parishes in the union for twenty years to come. They must pinch very close to save that, and something more into the bargain."
“I don't understand what you mean, Ben,” said the other man, “ about it's being only part the magistrates' fault ; I think it was their fault altogether. Why, when I lived over at Brownswick, I saw how the overseers and fellows used to go on. They had eleven parish dinners, as they called them, at the Sun, in the year, and each man of them was allowed a half-a-guinea for his dinner, and there were all kinds of other perquisites. Besides that, they were for ever making jobs for each other. There was Mr. Weston, the hatter, found out that the court-yard wanted paving, though it had only been paved twelve months before, and Mr. Greensides, another of the board, had the paving of it; but then as a match for that, Mr. Greensides found out that it would be much better for all the parish' boys to have hats instead of caps, and Mr. Weston had
the supplying of them. It was so well known a thing, that all the contracts for the workhouse went amongst themselves, that no one, unless he was one of the board, ever offered at all; so they got just what price they liked. Now what were the magistrates and gentlemen about not to stop such things ? It was a very good law, Ben, if it had been rightly worked, but those who were put to look after it either cheated themselves or let others cheat, and then cried out that the rates were eating up all the rents. I tell you what, Ben, I have often thought that old poor-law was a very safe thing in times of famine or want of work. Men won't stand and see their children starve. If people don't give them food, they will take it, and once they begin taking, will take something
I recollect hearing a lecturer man say, that the first duty of the soil was the support of every one upon it, and then I thought it was a very lucky thing that there was a law for making it do that duty in a regular sort of way, rnther than let those who wanted support take it where they could find it.” They would tell
that the same is the case now," answered Ben, “ though it is not, Jacob, for it was a very different case when a man who could get a little work, and was willing to do as much as he could get, went to the parish for a few shillings to eke it out. He could then always go on and look out for more to do. He had something to hold fast by, but now if he can get only five shillings a week, and his family cannot be kept upon
less than ten, he must either see some of them starve, or give up
his cottage, sell his goods, put himself out of the way of all work, and go as a pauper to the Union, where he is to be separated from his wife and children, and fed and treated worse than one of the prisoners in the gaol. Then when he comes out, he comes out as a pauper, and finds it ten times more difficult to get work than before, let his character be ever so good. A thousand to one he is a ruined man for ever, and has no spirit left but to hate those who have been ill-treating him. Many a man who has no religion, thinks he may just as well pilfer a bit, and take his chance of getting into gaol, where he is sure to be better treated than in the Union; and all that might be saved by giving a few shillings a week where it is really wanted. Besides, you see, Jacob, it was a great check upon masters, the only check, indeed, we had. One farmer did not like another giving too little wages, because his men were sure to get the rest from the parish, and then the rates rose--but that brings me to what you
asked ; I
say it was partly our own fault, Ben, that all these things have been changed in such a way-not mine, because I never had a sixpence of the parish in my life—but every blackguard used to go and cheat the magistrates through thick and thin. I recollect Jemmy Anderson, when he was getting sixteen or seventeen shillings a week as a carter's shoemaker, going out and getting ten shillings from one parish, and eight from another every
week of his life.” “From two parishes?” cried Jacob.
“Ay, he managed it," answered his companion, "by a little hard swearing, and there was many a one like him. Our officers found him out, and refused to give him any more, but the impudent varment went up before the magistrates and took his oath, and the magistrate made an order upon the parish. So he had it all his own way.”
“And was not that the magistrates' fault, Ben ?" asked his friend;