HODGE AND HIS MASTERS
Author of 'The Gamekeeper at Home,' 'Wild Life in a Southern County,' 'The Amateur Poacher,' 'Round About A Great Estate,' Etc.
The papers of which this volume is composed originally appeared in the Standard, and are now republished by permission of the Editor.
In manners, mode of thought, and way of life, there is perhaps no class of the community less uniform than the agricultural. The diversities are so great as to amount to contradictions. Individuality of character is most marked, and, varying an old saw, it might be said, so many farmers so many minds.
Next to the tenants the landowners have felt the depression, to such a degree, in fact, that they should perhaps take the first place, having no one to allow them in turn a 20 per cent, reduction of their liabilities. It must be remembered that the landowner will not receive the fruits of returning prosperity when it comes for some time after they have reached the farmer. Two good seasons will be needed before the landowner begins to recoup.
Country towns are now so closely connected with agriculture that a description of the one would be incomplete without some mention of the other. The aggregate capital employed by the business men of these small towns must amount to an immense sum, and the depreciation of their investments is of more than local concern.
Although the labourer at the present moment is a little in the background, and has the best of the bargain, since wages have not much fallen, if at all; yet he will doubtless come to the front again. For as agriculture revives, and the sun shines, the organisations by which he is represented will naturally display fresh vigour.
But the rapid progress of education in the villages and outlying districts is the element which is most worthy of thoughtful consideration. On the one hand, it may perhaps cause a powerful demand for corresponding privileges; and on the other, counteract the tendency to unreasonable expectations. In any case, it is a fact that cannot be ignored. Meantime, all I claim for the following sketches is that they are written in a fair and impartial spirit.
I. THE FARMERS' PARLIAMENT
II. LEAVING HIS FARM
III. A MAN OF PROGRESS
IV. GOING DOWNHILL
V. THE BORROWER AND THE GAMBLER
VI. AN AGRICULTURAL GENIUS—OLD STYLE
VII. THE GIG AND THE FOUR-IN-HAND. A BICYCLE FARMER
VIII. HAYMAKING. 'THE JUKE'S COUNTRY'
IX. THE FINE LADY FARMER. COUNTRY GIRLS
X. MADEMOISELLE, THE GOVERNESS
XI. FLEECEBOROUGH. A 'DESPOT'
XII. THE SQUIRE'S 'ROUND ROBIN'
XIII. AN AMBITIOUS SQUIRE
XIV. THE PARSON'S WIFE
XV. A MODERN COUNTRY CURATE
XVI. THE SOLICITOR
XVII. 'COUNTY COURT DAY'
XVIII. THE BANK. THE OLD NEWSPAPER
XIX. THE VILLAGE FACTORY. VILLAGE VISITORS. WILLOW-WORK
XX. HODGE'S FIELDS
XXI. A WINTER'S MORNING
XXII. THE LABOURER'S CHILDREN, COTTAGE GIRLS
XXIII. THE LOW 'PUBLIC' IDLERS
XXIV. THE COTTAGE CHARTER, FOUR-ACRE FARMERS
XXV. LANDLORDS' DIFFICULTIES, THE LABOURER AS A POWER. MODERN CLERGY
XXVI. A WHEAT COUNTRY
XXVII. GRASS COUNTRIES
XXVIII. HODGE'S LAST MASTERS, CONCLUSION
THE FARMERS' PARLIAMENT
The doorway of the Jason Inn at Woolbury had nothing particular to distinguish it from the other doorways of the same extremely narrow street. There was no porch, nor could there possibly be one, for an ordinary porch would reach half across the roadway. There were no steps to go up, there was no entrance hall, no space specially provided for crowds of visitors; simply nothing but an ordinary street-door opening directly on the street, and very little, if any, broader or higher than those of the private houses adjacent. There was not even the usual covered way or archway leading into the courtyard behind, so often found at old country inns; the approach to the stables and coach-houses was through a separate and even more narrow and winding street, necessitating a detour of some quarter of a mile. The dead, dull wall was worn smooth in places by the involuntary rubbings it had received from the shoulders of foot-passengers thrust rudely against it as the market-people came pouring in or out, or both together.
Had the spot been in the most crowded district of the busiest part of the metropolis, where every inch of ground is worth an enormous sum, the buildings could not have been more jammed together, nor the inconvenience greater. Yet the little town was in the very midst of one of the most purely agricultural counties, where land, to all appearance, was plentiful, and where there was ample room and 'verge enough' to build fifty such places. The pavement in front of the inn was barely eighteen inches wide; two persons could not pass each other on it, nor walk abreast. If a cart came along the roadway, and a trap had to go by it, the foot-passengers had to squeeze up against the wall, lest the box of the wheel projecting over the kerb should push them down. If a great waggon came loaded with wool, the chances were whether a carriage could pass it or not; as for a waggon-load of straw that projected from the sides, nothing could get by, but all must wait—coroneted panel or plain four-wheel—till the huge mass had rumbled and jolted into the more open market-place.
But hard, indeed, must have been the flag-stones to withstand the wear and tear of the endless iron-shod shoes that tramped to and fro these mere ribbons of pavements. For, besides the through traffic out from the market-place to the broad macadamised road that had taken the place and the route of an ancient Roman road, there were the customers to the shops that lined each side of the street. Into some of these you stepped from the pavement down, as it were, into a cave, the level of the shop being eight or ten inches below the street, while the first floor projected over the pavement quite to the edge of the kerb. To enter these shops it was necessary to stoop, and when you were inside there was barely room to turn round. Other shops were, indeed, level with the street; but you had to be careful, because the threshold was not flush with the pavement, but rose a couple of inches and then fell again, a very trap to the toe of the unwary. Many had no glass at all, but were open, like a butcher's or fishmonger's. Those that had glass were so restricted for space that, rich as they might be within in the good things of the earth, they could make no 'display.' All the genius of a West-end shopman could not have made an artistic arrangement in that narrow space and in that bad light; for, though so small below, the houses rose high, and the street being so narrow the sunshine rarely penetrated into it.
But mean as a metropolitan shopman might have thought the spot, the business done there was large, and, more than that, it was genuine. The trade of a country market-town, especially when that market-town, like Woolbury, dates from the earliest days of English history, is hereditary. It flows to the same store and to the same shop year after year, generation after generation, century after century. The farmer who walks into the saddler's here goes in because his father went there before him. His father went in because his father dealt there, and so on farther back than memory can trace. It might almost be said that whole villages go to particular shops. You may see the agricultural labourers' wives, for instance, on a Saturday leave the village in a bevy of ten or a dozen, and all march in to the same tradesman. Of course in these latter days speculative men and 'co-operative' prices, industriously placarded, have sapped and undermined this old-fashioned system. Yet even now it retains sufficient hold to be a marked feature of country life. To the through traffic, therefore, had to be added the steady flow of customers to the shops.
On a market-day like this there is, of course, the incessant entry and exit of carts, waggons, traps, gigs, four-wheels, and a large number of private carriages. The number of private carriages is, indeed, very remarkable, as also the succession of gentlemen on thoroughbred horses—a proof of the number of resident gentry in the neighbourhood, and of its general prosperity. Cart-horses furbished up for sale, with straw-bound tails and glistening skins; 'baaing' flocks of sheep; squeaking pigs; bullocks with their heads held ominously low, some going, some returning, from the auction yard; shouting drovers; lads rushing hither and thither; dogs barking; everything and everybody crushing, jostling, pushing through the narrow street. An old shepherd, who has done his master's business, comes along the pavement, trudging thoughtful and slow, with ashen staff. One hand is in his pocket, the elbow of the arm projecting; he is feeling a fourpenny-piece, and deliberating at which 'tap' he shall spend it. He fills up the entire pavement, and stolidly plods on, turning ladies and all into the roadway; not from intentional rudeness, but from sheer inability to perceive that he is causing inconvenience.
Unless you know the exact spot it is difficult in all this crowd and pushing, with a nervous dread of being gored from behind by a bull, or thrown off your feet by a sudden charge of sheep, to discover the door of the Jason Inn. That door has been open every legitimate and lawful hour this hundred years; but you will very likely be carried past it and have to struggle back. Then it is not easy to enter, for half a dozen stalwart farmers and farmers' sons are coming out; while two young fellows stand just inside, close to the sliding bar-window, blocking up the passage, to exchange occasional nods and smiles with the barmaid.
However, by degrees you shuffle along the sanded passage, and past the door of the bar, which is full of farmers as thick as they can stand, or sit. The rattle of glasses, the chink of spoons, the hum of voices, the stamping of feet, the calls and orders, and sounds of laughter, mingle in confusion. Cigar-smoke and the steam from the glasses fill the room—all too small—with a thick white mist, through which rubicund faces dimly shine like the red sun through a fog.
Some at the tables are struggling to write cheques, with continual jogs at the elbow, with ink that will not flow, pens that scratch and splutter, blotting-paper that smudges and blots. Some are examining cards of an auction, and discussing the prices which they have marked in the margin in pencil. The good-humoured uproar is beyond description, and is increased by more farmers forcing their way in from the rear, where are their horses or traps—by farmers eagerly inquiring for dealers or friends, and by messengers from the shops loaded with parcels to place in the customer's vehicle.
At last you get beyond the bar-room door and reach the end of the passage, where is a wide staircase, and at the foot a tall eight-day clock. A maid-servant comes tripping down, and in answer to inquiry replies that that is the way up, and the room is ready, but she adds with a smile that there is no one there yet. It is three-quarters of an hour after the time fixed for the reading of a most important paper before a meeting specially convened, before the assembled Parliament of Hodge's masters, and you thought you would be too late. A glance at the staircase proves the truth of the maid's story. It has no carpet, but it is white as well-scrubbed wood could well be. There is no stain, no dust, no foot-mark on it; no heavy shoe that has been tramping about in the mud has been up there. But it is necessary to go on or go back, and of the two the first is the lesser evil.
The staircase is guarded by carved banisters, and after going up two flights you enter a large and vacant apartment prepared for the meeting of the farmers' club. At the farther end is a small mahogany table, with an armchair for the president, paper, pens, ink, blotting-paper, and a wax candle and matches, in case he should want a light. Two less dignified chairs are for the secretary (whose box, containing the club records, books of reference, &c., is on the table), and for the secretary's clerk. Rows of plain chairs stretch across the room, rank after rank; these are for the audience. And last of all are two long forms, as if for Hodge, if Hodge chooses to come.
A gleam of the afternoon sun—as the clouds part awhile—attracts one naturally to the window. The thickness of the wall in which it is placed must be some two or three feet, so that there is a recess on which to put your arms, if you do not mind the dust, and look out. The window is half open, and the sounds of the street come up, 'baaing' and bellowing and squeaking, the roll of wheels, the tramp of feet, and, more distant, the shouting of an auctioneer in the market-place, whose stentorian tones come round the corner as he puts up rickcloths for sale. Noise of man and animal below; above, here in the chamber of science, vacancy and silence. Looking upwards, a narrow streak of blue sky can be seen above the ancient house across the way.
After awhile there comes the mellow sound of bells from the church which is near by, though out of sight; bells with a soft, old-world tone; bells that chime slowly and succeed each other without haste, ringing forth a holy melody composed centuries ago. It is as well to pause a minute and listen to their voice, even in this railroad age of hurry. Over the busy market-place the notes go forth, and presently the hum comes back and dwells in the recess of the window. It is a full hour after the time fixed, and now at last, as the carillon finishes, there are sounds of heavy boots upon the staircase. Three or four farmers gather on the landing; they converse together just outside. The secretary's clerk comes, and walks to the table; more farmers, who, now they have company, boldly enter and take seats; still more farmers; the secretary arrives; finally the president appears, and with him the lecturer. There is a hum of greeting; the minutes are read; the president introduces the professor, and the latter stands forth to read his paper—'Science, the Remedy for Agricultural Depression.'
Farmers, he pointed out, had themselves only to blame for the present period of distress. For many years past science had been like the voice crying in the wilderness, and few, a very few only, had listened. Men had, indeed, come to the clubs; but they had gone away home again, and, as the swine of the proverb, returned to their wallowing in the mire. One blade of grass still grew where two or even three might be grown; he questioned whether farmers had any real desire to grow the extra blades. If they did, they had merely to employ the means provided for them. Everything had been literally put into their hands; but what was the result? Why, nothing—in point of fact, nothing. The country at large was still undrained. The very A B C of progress had been neglected. He should be afraid to say what proportion of the land was yet undrained, for he should be contradicted, called ill names, and cried down. But if they would look around them they could see for themselves. They would see meadows full of rank, coarse grass in the furrows, which neither horse nor cattle would touch. They would see in the wheat-fields patches of the crop sickly, weak, feeble, and altogether poor; that was where the water had stood and destroyed the natural power of the seed. The same cause gave origin to that mass of weeds which was the standing disgrace of arable districts.
But men shut their eyes wilfully to these plain facts, and cried out that the rain had ruined them. It was not the rain—it was their own intense dislike of making any improvement. The vis inertiae of the agricultural class was beyond the limit of language to describe. Why, if the land had been drained the rain would have done comparatively little damage, and thus they would have been independent of the seasons. Look, again, at the hay crop; how many thousand tons of hay had been wasted because men would not believe that anything would answer which had not been done by their forefathers! The hay might have been saved by three distinct methods. The grass might have been piled against hurdles or light frame-work and so dried by the wind; it might have been pitted in the earth and preserved still green; or it might have been dried by machinery and the hot blast. A gentleman had invented a machine, the utility of which had been demonstrated beyond all doubt. But no; farmers folded their hands and watched their hay rotting.
As for the wheat crop, how could they expect a wheat crop? They had not cleaned the soil—there were horse-hoes, and every species of contrivances for the purpose; but they would not use them. They had not ploughed deeply: they had merely scratched the surface as if with a pin. How could the thin upper crust of the earth—the mere rind three inches thick—be expected to yield crop after crop for a hundred years? Deep ploughing could only be done by steam: now how many farmers possessed or used steam-ploughs? Why, there were whole districts where such a thing was unknown. They had neglected to manure the soil; to restore to it the chemical constituents of the crops. But to speak upon artificial manure was enough to drive any man who had the power of thought into temporary insanity. It was so utterly dispiriting to see men positively turning away from the means of obtaining good crops, and then crying out that they were ruined. With drains, steam-ploughs, and artificial manure, a farmer might defy the weather.
Of course, continued the professor, it was assumed that the farmer had good substantial buildings and sufficient capital. The first he could get if he chose; and without the second, without capital, he had no business to be farming at all. He was simply stopping the road of a better man, and the sooner he was driven out of the way the better. The neglect of machinery was most disheartening. A farmer bought one machine, perhaps a reaping-machine, and then because that solitary article did not immediately make his fortune he declared that machinery was useless. Could the force of folly farther go? With machinery they could do just as they liked. They could compel the earth to yield, and smile at the most tropical rain, or the most continuous drought. If only the voice of science had been listened to, there would have been no depression at all. Even now it was not too late.
Those who were wise would at once set to work to drain, to purchase artificial manure, and set up steam power, and thereby to provide themselves with the means of stemming the tide of depression. By these means they could maintain a head of stock that would be more than double what was now kept upon equal acreage. He knew full well one of the objections that would be made against these statements. It would be said that certain individuals had done all this, had deep ploughed, had manured, had kept a great head of valuable stock, had used every resource, and yet had suffered. This was true. He deeply regretted to say it was true.
But why had they suffered? Not because of the steam, the machinery, the artificial manure, the improvements they had set on foot; but because of the folly of their neighbours, of the agricultural class generally. The great mass of farmers had made no improvements; and, when the time of distress came, they were beaten down at every point. It was through these men and their failures that the price of stock and of produce fell, and that so much stress was put upon the said individuals through no fault of their own. He would go further, and he would say that had it not been for the noble efforts of such individuals—the pioneers of agriculture and its main props and stays—the condition of farming would have been simply fifty times worse than it was. They, and they alone, had enabled it to bear up so long against calamity. They had resources; the agricultural class, as a rule, had none. Those resources were the manure they had put into the soil, the deep ploughing they had accomplished, the great head of stock they had got together, and so on. These enabled them to weather the storm.
The cry for a reduction of rent was an irresistible proof of what he had put forth—that it was the farmers themselves who were to blame. This cry was a confession of their own incompetency. If you analysed it—if you traced the general cry home to particular people—you always found that those people were incapables. The fact was, farming, as a rule, was conducted on the hand-to-mouth principle, and the least stress or strain caused an outcry. He must be forgiven if he seemed to speak with unusual acerbity. He intended no offence. But it was his duty. In such a condition of things it would be folly to mince matters, to speak softly while everything was going to pieces. He repeated, once for all, it was their own fault. Science could supply the remedy, and science alone; if they would not call in the aid of science they must suffer, and their privations must be upon their own heads. Science said, Drain, use artificial manure, plough deeply, keep the best breed of stock, put capital into the soil. Call science to their aid, and they might defy the seasons.
The professor sat down and thrust his hand through his hair. The president invited discussion. For some few minutes no one rose; presently, after a whispered conversation with his friend, an elderly farmer stood up from the forms at the very back of the room. He made no pretence to rounded periods, but spoke much better than might have been expected; he had a small piece of paper in his hand, on which he had made notes as the lecture proceeded.
He said that the lecturer had made out a very good case. He had proved to demonstration, in the most logical manner, that farmers were fools. Well, no doubt, all the world agreed with him, for everybody thought he could teach the farmer. The chemist, the grocer, the baker, the banker, the wine merchant, the lawyer, the doctor, the clerk, the mechanic, the merchant, the editor, the printer, the stockbroker, the colliery owner, the ironmaster, the clergyman, and the Methodist preacher, the very cabmen and railway porters, policemen, and no doubt the crossing-sweepers—to use an expressive Americanism, all the whole "jing-bang"—could teach the ignorant jackass of a farmer.
Some few years ago he went into a draper's shop to bring home a parcel for his wife, and happened to enter into conversation with the draper himself. The draper said he was just going to sell off the business and go into dairy farming, which was the most paying thing out. That was just when there came over from America a patent machine for milking cows. The draper's idea was to milk all his cows by one of these articles, and so dispense with labour. He saw no more of him for a long time, but had heard that morning that he went into a dairy farm, got rid of all his money, and was now tramping the country as a pedlar with a pack at his back. Everybody thought he could teach the farmer till he tried farming himself, and then he found his mistake.
One remark of the lecturer, if he might venture to say so, seemed to him, a poor ignorant farmer of sixty years' standing, not only uncalled-for and priggish, but downright brutal. It was that the man with little capital ought to be driven out of farming, and the sooner he went to the wall the better. Now, how would all the grocers and other tradesmen whom he had just enumerated like to be told that if they had not got 10,000l. each they ought to go at once to the workhouse! That would be a fine remedy for the depression of trade.
He always thought it was considered rather meritorious if a man with small capital, by hard work, honest dealing, and self-denial, managed to raise himself and get up in the world. But, oh no; nothing of the kind; the small man was the greatest sinner, and must be eradicated. Well, he did not hesitate to say that he had been a small man himself, and began in a very small way. Perhaps the lecturer would think him a small man still, as he was not a millionaire; but he could pay his way, which went for something in the eyes of old-fashioned people, and perhaps he had a pound or two over. He should say but one word more, for he was aware that there was a thunderstorm rapidly coming up, and he supposed science would not prevent him from getting a wet jacket. He should like to ask the lecturer if he could give the name of one single scientific farmer who had prospered?
Having said this much, the old gentleman put on his overcoat and busted out of the room, and several others followed him, for the rain was already splashing against the window-panes. Others looked at their watches, and, seeing it was late, rose one by one and slipped off. The president asked if any one would continue the discussion, and, as no one rose, invited the professor to reply.
The professor gathered his papers and stood up. Then there came a heavy rolling sound—the unmistakable boom of distant thunder. He said that the gentleman who had left so abruptly had quite misconstrued the tenour of his paper. So far from intending to describe farmers as lacking in intelligence, all he wished to show was that they did not use their natural abilities, from a certain traditionary bowing to custom. They did not like their neighbours to think that they were doing anything novel. No one respected the feelings that had grown up and strengthened from childhood, no one respected the habits of our ancestors, more than he did; no one knew better the solid virtues that adorned the homes of agriculturists. Far, indeed, be it from him to say aught—[Boom! and the rattling of rain against the window]—aught that could—but he saw that gentlemen were anxious to get home, and would conclude.
A vote of thanks was hurriedly got over, and the assembly broke up and hastened down the staircase. They found the passage below so blocked with farmers who had crowded in out of the storm that movement was impossible. The place was darkened by the overhanging clouds, the atmosphere thick and close with the smoke and the crush. Flashes of brilliant lightning seemed to sweep down the narrow street, which ran like a brook with the storm-water; the thunder seemed to descend and shake the solid walls. 'It's rather hard on the professor,' said one farmer to another. 'What would science do in a thunderstorm?' He had hardly spoken when the hail suddenly came down, and the round white globules, rebounding from the pavement, rolled in at the open door. Each paused as he lifted his glass and thought of the harvest. As for Hodge, who was reaping, he had to take shelter how he might in the open fields. Boom! flash! boom!—splash and hiss, as the hail rushed along the narrow street.
LEAVING HIS FARM
A large white poster, fresh and glaring, is pasted on the wall of a barn that stands beside a narrow country lane. So plain an advertisement, without any colour or attempt at 'display,' would be passed unnoticed among the endless devices on a town hoarding. There nothing can be hoped to be looked at unless novel and strange, or even incomprehensible. But here the oblong piece of black and white contrasts sufficiently in itself with red brick and dull brown wooden framing, with tall shadowy elms, and the glint of sunshine on the streamlet that flows with a ceaseless murmur across the hollow of the lane. Every man that comes along stays to read it.
The dealer in his trap—his name painted in white letters on the shaft—pulls up his quick pony, and sits askew on his seat to read. He has probably seen it before in the bar of the wayside inn, roughly hung on a nail, and swaying to and fro with the draught along the passage. He may have seen it, too, on the handing-post at the lonely cross-roads, stuck on in such a manner that, in order to peruse it, it is necessary to walk round the post. The same formal announcement appears also in the local weekly papers—there are at least two now in the smallest place—and he has read it there. Yet he pauses to glance at it again, for the country mind requires reiteration before it can thoroughly grasp and realise the simplest fact. The poster must be read and re-read, and the printer's name observed and commented on, or, if handled, the thickness of the paper felt between thumb and finger. After a month or two of this process people at last begin to accept it as a reality, like cattle or trees—something substantial, and not mere words.
The carter, with his waggon, if he be an elderly man, cries 'Whoa!' and, standing close to the wall, points to each letter with the top of his whip—where it bends—and so spells out 'Sale by Auction.' If he be a young man he looks up at it as the heavy waggon rumbles by, turns his back, and goes on with utter indifference.
The old men, working so many years on a single farm, and whose minds were formed in days when a change of tenancy happened once in half a century, have so identified themselves with the order of things in the parish that it seems to personally affect them when a farmer leaves his place. But young Hodge cares nothing about his master, or his fellow's master. Whether they go or stay, prosperous or decaying, it matters nothing to him. He takes good wages, and can jingle some small silver in his pocket when he comes to the tavern a mile or so ahead; so 'gee-up' and let us get there as rapidly as possible.
An hour later a farmer passes on horseback; his horse all too broad for his short legs that stick out at the side and show some inches of stocking between the bottom of his trousers and his boots. A sturdy, thick-set man, with a wide face, brickdust colour, fringed with close-cut red whiskers, and a chest so broad he seems compelled to wear his coat unbuttoned. He pulls off his hat and wipes his partly bald head with a coloured handkerchief, stares at the poster a few minutes, and walks his horse away, evidently in deep thought. Two boys—cottagers' children—come home from school; they look round to see that no one observes, and then throw flints at the paper till the sound of footsteps alarms them.
Towards the evening a gentleman and lady, the first middle-aged, the latter very young—father and daughter—approach, their horses seeming to linger as they walk through the shallow stream, and the cool water splashes above their fetlocks. The shooting season is near at hand, Parliament has risen, and the landlords have returned home. Instead of the Row, papa must take his darling a ride through the lanes, a little dusty as the autumn comes on, and pauses to read the notice on the wall. It is his neighbour's tenant, not his, but it comes home to him here. It is the real thing—the fact—not the mere seeing it in the papers, or the warning hints in the letters of his own steward. 'Papa,' is rather quiet for the rest of the ride. Ever since he was a lad—how many years ago is that?—he has shot with his neighbour's party over this farm, and recollects the tenant well, and with that friendly feeling that grows up towards what we see year after year. In a day or two the clergyman drives by with his low four-wheel and fat pony, notes the poster as the pony slackens at the descent to the water, and tells himself to remember and get the tithe. Some few Sundays, and Farmer Smith will appear in church no more.
Farmer Smith this beautiful morning is looking at the wheat, which is, and is not, his. It would have been cut in an ordinary season, but the rains have delayed the ripening. He wonders how the crop ever came up at all through the mass of weeds that choked it, the spurrey that filled the spaces between the stalks below, the bindweed that climbed up them, the wild camomile flowering and flourishing at the edge, the tall thistles lifting their heads above it in bunches, and the great docks whose red seeds showed at a distance. He sent in some men, as much to give them something to do as for any real good, one day, who in a few hours pulled up enough docks to fill a cart. They came across a number of snakes, and decapitated the reptiles with their hoes, and afterwards hung them all up—tied together by the tail—to a bough. The bunch of headless snakes hangs there still, swinging to and fro as the wind plays through the oak. Vermin, too, revel in weeds, which encourage the mice and rats, and are, perhaps, quite as much a cause of their increase as any acts of the gamekeeper.
Farmer Smith a few years since was very anxious for the renewal of his lease, just as those about to enter on tenancies desired leases above everything. All the agricultural world agreed that a lease was the best thing possible—the clubs discussed it, the papers preached it. It was a safeguard; it allowed the tenant to develop his energies, and to put his capital into the soil without fear. He had no dread of being turned out before he could get it back. Nothing like a lease—the certain preventative of all agricultural ills. There was, to appearance, a great deal of truth in these arguments, which in their day made much impression, and caused a movement in that direction. Who could foresee that in a few short years men would be eager to get rid of their leases on any terms? Yet such was the fact. The very men who had longed so eagerly for the blessing of security of tenure found it the worst thing possible for their interest.
Mr. Smith got his lease, and paid for it tolerably stiffly, for at that period all agricultural prices were inflated—from the price of a lease to that of a calf. He covenanted to pay a certain fixed rental for so many acres of arable and a small proportion of grass for a fixed time. He covenanted to cultivate the soil by a fixed rotation; not to sow this nor that, nor to be guided by the change of the markets, or the character of the seasons, or the appearance of powerful foreign competitors. There was the parchment prepared with all the niceties of wording that so many generations of lawyers had polished to the highest pitch; not a loophole, not so much as a t left uncrossed, or a doubtful interlineation. But although the parchment did not alter a jot, the times and seasons did. Wheat fell in price, vast shipments came even from India, cattle and sheep from America, wool from Australia, horses from France; tinned provisions and meats poured in by the ton, and cheese, and butter, and bacon by the thousand tons. Labour at the same time rose. His expenditure increased, his income decreased; his rent remained the same, and rent audit came round with the utmost regularity.
Mr. Smith began to think about his lease, and question whether it was such an unmixed blessing. There was no getting out of it, that was certain. The seasons grew worse and worse. Smith asked for a reduction of rent. He got, like others, ten per cent, returned, which, he said looked very liberal to those who knew nothing of farming, and was in reality about as useful as a dry biscuit flung at a man who has eaten nothing for a week. Besides which, it was only a gracious condescension, and might not be repeated next year, unless he kept on his good behaviour, and paid court to the clergyman and the steward. Unable to get at what he wanted in a direct way, Smith tried an indirect one. He went at game, and insisted on its being reduced in number. This he could do according to the usual terms of agreement; but when it came to the point he found that the person called in to assess the damage put it at a much lower figure than he had himself; and who was to decide what was or was not a reasonable head of game? This attack of his on the game did him no good whatever, and was not unnaturally borne in mind—let us not say resented.
He next tried to get permission to sell straw—a permission that he saw granted to others in moderation. But he was then reminded of a speech he had made at a club, when, in a moment of temper (and sherry), he had let out a piece of his mind, which piece of his mind was duly published in the local papers, and caused a sensation. Somebody called the landlord's attention to it, and he did not like it. Nor can he be blamed; we none of us like to be abused in public, the more especially when, looking at precedents, we do not deserve it. Smith next went to the assessment committee to get his taxes reduced, on the ground of a loss of revenue. The committee sympathised with him, but found that they must assess him according to his rent. At least so they were then advised, and only did their duty.
By this time the local bankers had scented a time of trouble approaching in the commercial and agricultural world; they began to draw in their more doubtful advances, or to refuse to renew them. As a matter of fact, Smith was a perfectly sound man, but he had so persistently complained that people began to suspect there really was something wrong with his finances. He endeavoured to explain, but was met with the tale that he had himself started. He then honestly produced his books, and laid his position bare to the last penny.
The banker believed him, and renewed part of the advance for a short period; but he began, to cogitate in this wise: 'Here is a farmer of long experience, born of a farming family, and a hardworking fellow, and, more than that, honest. If this man, who has hitherto had the command of a fair amount of capital, cannot make his books balance better than this, what must be the case with some of our customers? There are many who ride about on hunters, and have a bin of decent wine. How much of all this is genuine? We must be careful; these are hard times.' In short, Smith, without meaning it, did his neighbours an immense deal of harm. His very honesty injured them. By slow degrees the bank got 'tighter' with its customers. It leaked out—all things leak out—that Smith had said too much, and he became unpopular, which did not increase his contentment.
Finally he gave notice that unless the rent was reduced he should not apply to renew the lease, which would soon expire. He had not the least intention in his secret mind of leaving the farm; he never dreamed that his notice would be accepted. He and his had dwelt there for a hundred years, and were as much part and parcel of the place as the elm-trees in the hedges. So many farms were in the market going a-begging for tenants, it was not probable a landlord would let a good man go for the sake of a few shillings an acre. But the months went by and the landlord's agents gave no sign, and at last Smith realised that he was really going to leave.
Though he had so long talked of going, it came upon him like a thunderbolt. It was like an attack of some violent fever that shakes a strong man and leaves him as weak as a child. The farmer, whose meals had been so hearty, could not relish his food. His breakfast dwindled to a pretence; his lunch fell off; his dinner grew less; his supper faded; his spirits and water, the old familiar 'nightcap,' did him no good. His jolly ringing laugh was heard no more; from a thorough gossip he became taciturn, and barely opened his lips. His clothes began to hang about him, instead of fitting him all too tight; his complexion lost the red colour and became sallow; his eyes had a furtive look in them, so different to the old straightforward glance.
Some said he would take to his bed and die; some said he would jump into the pond one night, to be known no more in this world. But he neither jumped into the pond nor took to his bed. He went round his fields just the same as before—perhaps a little more mechanically; but still the old routine of daily work was gone through. Leases, though for a short period, do not expire in a day; after awhile time began to produce its usual effect. The sharpness of the pain wore off, and he set to work to make the best of matters. He understood the capacity of each field as well as others understand the yielding power of a little garden. His former study had been to preserve something like a balance between what he put in and what he took out of the soil. Now it became the subject of consideration how to get the most out without putting anything in. Artificial manures were reduced to the lowest quantity and of the cheapest quality, such as was used being, in fact, nothing but to throw dust, literally, in the eyes of other people. Times were so bad that he could not be expected, under the most favourable circumstances, to consume much cake in the stalls or make much manure in that way.
One by one extra expenditures were cut off. Gates, instead of being repaired, were propped up by running a pole across. Labour was eschewed in every possible way. Hedges were left uncut; ditches were left uncleaned. The team of horses was reduced, and the ploughing done next to nothing. Cleaning and weeding were gradually abandoned. Several fields were allowed to become overrun with grass, not the least attention being paid to them; the weeds sprang up, and the grass ran over from the hedges. The wheat crop was kept to the smallest area. Wheat requires more previous labour and care as to soil than any other crop. Labour and preparation cost money, and he was determined not to spend a shilling more than he was absolutely compelled. He contrived to escape the sowing, of wheat altogether on some part of the farm, leaving it out of the rotation. That was a direct infringement of the letter of the agreement; but who was to prove that he had evaded it? The steward could not recollect the crops on several hundred acres; the neighbouring tenants, of course, knew very well; but although Smith had become unpopular, they were not going to tell tales of him. He sold everything he dared off the farm, and many things that he did not dare. He took everything out of the soil that it was possible to take out. The last Michaelmas was approaching, and he walked round in the warm August sunshine to look at the wheat.
He sat down on an old roller that lay in the corner of the field, and thought over the position of things. He calculated that it would cost the incoming tenant an expenditure of from one thousand two hundred pounds to one thousand five hundred pounds to put the farm, which was a large one, into proper condition. It could not be got into such condition under three years of labour. The new tenant must therefore be prepared to lay out a heavy sum of money, to wait while the improvement went on, must live how he could meanwhile, and look forward some three years for the commencement of his profit. To such a state had the farm been brought in a brief time. And how would the landlord come off? The new tenant would certainly make his bargain in accordance with the state of the land. For the first year the rent paid would be nominal; for the second, perhaps a third or half the usual sum; not till the third year could the landlord hope to get his full rental. That full rental, too, would be lower than previously, because the general depression had sent down arable rents everywhere, and no one would pay on the old scale.
Smith thought very hard things of the landlord, and felt that he should have his revenge. On the other hand, the landlord thought very hard things of Smith, and not without reason. That an old tenant, the descendant of one of the oldest tenant-farmer families, should exhaust the soil in this way seemed the blackest return for the good feeling that had existed for several generations. There was great irritation on both sides.
Smith had, however, to face one difficulty. He must either take another farm at once, or live on his capital. The interest of his capital—if invested temporarily in Government securities—would hardly suffice to maintain the comfortable style of living he and his rather large family of grown-up sons and daughters had been accustomed to. He sometimes heard a faint, far off 'still small voice,' that seemed to say it would have been wiser to stay on, and wait till the reaction took place and farming recovered. The loss he would have sustained by staying on would, perhaps, not have been larger than the loss he must now sustain by living on capital till such time as he saw something to suit him. And had he been altogether wise in omitting all endeavours to gain his end by conciliatory means? Might not gentle persuasion and courteous language have ultimately produced an impression? Might not terms have been arranged had he not been so vehement? The new tenant, notwithstanding that he would have to contend with the shocking state of the farm, had such favourable terms that if he only stayed long enough to let the soil recover, Smith knew he must make a good thing of it.
But as he sat on the wooden roller under the shade of a tree and thought these things, listening to the rustle of the golden wheat as it moved in the breeze, he pulled a newspaper out of his pocket, and glanced down a long, long list of farms to let. Then he remembered that his pass-book at the bank showed a very respectable row of figures, buttoned up his coat, and strolled homeward with a smile on his features. The date fixed for the sale, as announced by the poster on the barn, came round, and a crowd gathered to see the last of the old tenant. Old Hodge viewed the scene from a distance, resting against a gate, with his chin on his hand. He was thinking of the days when he first went to plough, years ago, under Smith's father. If Smith had been about to enter on another farm old Hodge would have girded up his loins, packed his worldly goods in a waggon, and followed his master's fortunes thither. But Smith was going to live on his capital awhile; and old Hodge had already had notice to quit his cottage. In his latter days he must work for a new master. Down at the sale young Hodge was lounging round, hands in pocket, whistling—for there was some beer going about. The excitement of the day was a pleasurable sensation, and as for his master he might go to Kansas or Hong-Kong.
A MAN OF PROGRESS
The sweet sound of rustling leaves, as soothing as the rush of falling water, made a gentle music over a group of three persons sitting at the extremity of a lawn. Upon their right was a plantation or belt of trees, which sheltered them from the noonday sun; on the left the green sward reached to the house; from the open window came the rippling notes of a piano, and now and again the soft accents of the Italian tongue. The walls of the garden shut out the world and the wind—the blue sky stretched above from one tree-top to another, and in those tree-tops the cool breeze, grateful to the reapers in the fields, played with bough and leaf. In the centre of the group was a small table, and on it some tall glasses of antique make, and a flask of wine. By the lady lay a Japanese parasol, carelessly dropped on the grass. She was handsome, and elegantly dressed; her long drooping eyelashes fringed eyes that were almost closed in luxurious enjoyment; her slender hand beat time to the distant song. Of the two gentlemen one was her brother—the other, a farmer, her husband. The brother wore a pith helmet, and his bronzed cheek told of service under tropical suns. The husband was scarcely less brown; still young, and very active-looking, you might guess his age at forty; but his bare forehead (he had thrown his hat on the ground) was marked with the line caused by involuntary contraction of the muscles when thinking. There was an air of anxiety, of restless feverish energy, about him. But just for the moment he was calm and happy, turning over the pages of a book. Suddenly he looked up, and began to declaim, in a clear, sweet voice:
'He's speaking now, Or murmuring, "Where's my serpent of old Nile?" For so he calls me. Now I feed myself With most delicious poison!'
Just then there came the sharp rattle of machinery borne on the wind; he recollected himself, shut the volume, and rose from his seat. 'The men have finished luncheon,' he said; 'I must go and see how things are getting on.' The Indian officer, after one glance back at the house, went with him. There was a private footpath through the plantation of trees, and down this the two disappeared. Soon afterwards the piano ceased, and a lady came slowly across the lawn, still humming the air she had been playing. She was the farmer's sister, and was engaged to the officer. The wife looked up from the book which she had taken from the table, with a smile of welcome. But the smile faded as she said—'They have gone out to the reapers. Oh, this farm will worry him out of his life! How I wish he had never bought it! Don't let Alick have anything to do with farms or land, dear, when you are married.'
The girl laughed, sat down, took her hand, and asked if matters were really so serious.
'It is not so much the money I trouble about,' said the wife. 'It is Cecil himself. His nature is too fine for these dull clods. You know him, dear; his mind is full of art—look at these glasses—of music and pictures. Why, he has just been reading "Antony and Cleopatra," and now he's gone to look after reapers. Then, he is so fiery and quick, and wants everything done in a minute, like the men of business in the "City." He keeps his watch timed to a second, and expects the men to be there. They are so slow. Everything agricultural is so slow. They say we shall have fine seasons in two or three years; only think, years. This is what weighs on Cecil.'
By this time the two men had walked through the plantation, and paused at a small gate that opened on the fields. The ground fell rapidly away, sloping down for half a mile, so that every portion of the fields below was visible at once. The house and gardens were situate on the hill; the farmer had only to stand on the edge to overlook half his place.
'What a splendid view!' said the officer. The entire slope was yellow with wheat—on either hand, and in front the surface of the crop extended unbroken by hedge, tree, or apparent division. Two reaping-machines were being driven rapidly round and round, cutting as they went; one was a self-binder and threw the sheaves off already bound; the other only laid the corn low, and it had afterwards to be gathered up and bound by hand-labour. There was really a small army of labourers in the field; but it was so large they made but little show.
'You have a first-rate crop,' said the visitor; 'I see no weeds, or not more than usual; it is a capital crop.'
'Yes,' replied the farmer, 'it is a fine crop; but just think what it cost me to produce it, and bear in mind, too, the price I shall get for it.' He took out his pocket-book, and began to explain.
While thus occupied he looked anything but a farmer. His dress was indeed light and careless, but it was the carelessness of breeding, not slovenliness. His hands were brown, but there were clean white cuffs on his wrist and gold studs; his neck was brown, but his linen spotless. The face was too delicate, too refined with all its bronze; the frame was well developed, but too active; it lacked the heavy thickness and the lumbering gait of the farmer bred to the plough. He might have conducted a great financial operation; he might have been the head of a great mercantile house; he might have been on 'Change; but that stiff clay there, stubborn and unimpressionable, was not in his style.
Cecil had gone into farming, in fact, as a 'commercial speculation,' with the view of realising cent. per cent. He began at the time when it was daily announced that old-fashioned farming was a thing of the past. Business maxims and business practice were to be the rule of the future. Farming was not to be farming; it was to be emphatically 'business,' the same as iron, coal, or cotton. Thus managed, with steam as the motive power, a fortune might be made out of the land, in the same way as out of a colliery or a mine. But it must be done in a commercial manner; there must be no restrictions upon the employment of capital, no fixed rotation of crops, no clauses forbidding the sale of any products. Cecil found, however, that the possessors of large estates would not let him a farm on these conditions. These ignorant people (as he thought them) insisted upon keeping up the traditionary customs; they would not contract themselves out of the ancient form of lease.
But Cecil was a man of capital. He really had a large sum of money, and this short-sighted policy (as he termed it) of the landlords only made him the more eager to convince them how mistaken they were to refuse anything to a man who could put capital into the soil. He resolved to be his own landlord, and ordered his agents to find him a small estate and to purchase it outright. There was not much difficulty in finding an estate, and Cecil bought it. But he was even then annoyed and disgusted with the formalities, the investigation of title, the completion of deeds, and astounded at the length of a lawyer's bill.
Being at last established in possession Cecil set to work, and at the same time set every agricultural tongue wagging within a radius of twenty miles. He grubbed up all the hedges, and threw the whole of his arable land into one vast field, and had it levelled with the theodolite. He drained it six feet deep at an enormous cost. He built an engine-shed with a centrifugal pump, which forced water from the stream that ran through the lower ground over the entire property, and even to the topmost storey of his house. He laid a light tramway across the widest part of his estate, and sent the labourers to and fro their work in trucks. The chaff-cutters, root-pulpers, the winnowing-machine—everything was driven by steam. Teams of horses and waggons seemed to be always going to the canal wharf for coal, which he ordered from the pit wholesale.
A fine set of steam-ploughing tackle was put to work, and, having once commenced, the beat of the engines never seemed to cease. They were for ever at work tearing up the subsoil and bringing it to the surface. If he could have done it, he would have ploughed ten feet deep. Tons of artificial manure came by canal boat—positively boat loads—and were stored in the warehouse. For he put up a regular warehouse for the storage of materials; the heavy articles on the ground floor, the lighter above, hoisted up by a small crane. There was, too, an office, where the 'engineer' attended every morning to take his orders, as the bailiff might at the back-door of an old farmhouse. Substantial buildings were erected for the shorthorn cattle.
The meadows upon the estate, like the corn-fields, were all thrown together, such divisions as were necessary being made by iron railings. Machines of every class and character were provided—reaping-machines, mowing-machines, horse-hoes, horse-rakes, elevators—everything was to be done by machinery. That nothing might be incomplete, some new and well-designed cottages were erected for the skilled artisans—they could scarcely be called labourers—who were engaged to work these engines. The estate had previously consisted of several small farms: these were now thrown all into one, otherwise there would not have been room for this great enterprise.
A complete system of booking was organised. From the sale of a bullock to the skin of a calf, everything was put down on paper. All these entries, made in books specially prepared and conveniently ruled for the purpose, came under Cecil's eye weekly, and were by him re-entered in his ledgers. This writing took up a large part of his time, and the labour was sometimes so severe that he could barely get through it; yet he would not allow himself a clerk, being economical in that one thing only. It was a saying in the place that not a speck of dust could be blown on to the estate by the wind, or a straw blown off, without it being duly entered in the master's books.
Cecil's idea was to excel in all things. Some had been famous for shorthorns before him, others for sheep, and others again for wheat. He would be celebrated for all. His shorthorns should fetch fabulous prices; his sheep should be known all over the world; his wheat should be the crop of the season. In this way he invested his capital in the soil with a thoroughness unsurpassed. As if to prove that he was right, the success of his enterprise seemed from the first assured. His crops of wheat, in which he especially put faith, and which he grew year after year upon the same land, totally ignoring the ancient rotations, were the wonder of the neighbourhood. Men came from far and near to see them. Such was the effect of draining, turning up the subsoil, continual ploughing, and the consequent atmospheric action upon the exposed earth, and of liberal manure, that here stood such crops of wheat as had never previously been seen. These he sold, as they stood, by auction; and no sooner had the purchasers cleared the ground than the engines went to work again, tearing up the earth. His meadow lands were irrigated by the centrifugal pump, and yielded three crops instead of one. His shorthorns began to get known—for he spared no expense upon them—and already one or two profitable sales had been held. His sheep prospered; there was not so much noise made about them, but, perhaps, they really paid better than anything.
Meantime, Cecil kept open house, with wine and refreshments, and even beds for everybody who chose to come and inspect his place. Nothing gave him such delight as to conduct visitors over the estate and to enter into minute details of his system. As for the neighbouring farmers they were only too welcome. These things became noised abroad, and people arrived from strange and far-off places, and were shown over this Pioneer's Farm, as Cecil loved to call it. His example was triumphantly quoted by every one who spoke on agricultural progress. Cecil himself was the life and soul of the farmers' club in the adjacent market town. It was not so much the speeches he made as his manner. His enthusiasm was contagious. If a scheme was started, if an experiment was suggested, Cecil's cheque-book came out directly, and the thing was set on foot without delay. His easy, elastic step, his bright eye, his warm, hearty handshake, seemed to electrify people—to put some of his own spirit into them. The circle of his influence was ever increasing—the very oldest fogeys, who had prophesied every kind of failure, were being gradually won over.
Cecil himself was transcendently happy in his work; his mind was in it; no exertion, no care or trouble, was too much. He worked harder than any navvy, and never felt fatigue. People said of him—'What a wonderful man!' He was so genuine, so earnest, so thorough, men could not choose but believe in him. The sun shone brightly, the crops ripened, the hum of the threshing-machine droned on the wind—all was life and happiness. In the summer evenings pleasant groups met upon the lawn; the song, the jest went round; now and then an informal dance, arranged with much laughter, whiled away the merry hours till the stars appeared above the trees and the dew descended.
Yet to-day, as the two leaned over the little gate in the plantation and looked down upon the reapers, the deep groove which continual thought causes was all too visible on Cecil's forehead. He explained to the officer how his difficulties had come about. His first years upon the farm or estate—it was really rather an estate than a farm—had been fairly prosperous, notwithstanding the immense outlay of capital. A good percentage, in some cases a high-rate of percentage, had been returned upon the money put into the soil. The seasons were good, the crops large and superabundant. Men's minds were full of confidence, they bought freely, and were launching out in all directions.
They wanted good shorthorn cattle—he sold them cattle; they wanted sheep—he sold them sheep. They wanted wheat, and he sold them the standing crops, took the money, and so cleared his profit and saved himself trouble. It was, in fact, a period of inflation. Like stocks and shares, everything was going up; everybody hastening to get rich. Shorthorns with a strain of blue blood fetched fancy prices; corn crops ruled high; every single thing sold well. The dry seasons suited the soil of the estate, and the machinery he had purchased was rapidly repaying its first cost in the saving of labour. His whole system was succeeding, and he saw his way to realise his cent. per cent.
But by degrees the dream faded. He attributed it in the first place to the stagnation, the almost extinction, of the iron trade, the blowing out of furnaces, and the consequent cessation of the demand for the best class of food on the part of thousands of operatives and mechanics, who had hitherto been the farmers' best customers. They would have the best of everything when their wages were high; as their wages declined their purchases declined. In a brief period, far briefer than would be imagined, this shrinking of demand reacted upon agriculture. The English farmer made his profit upon superior articles—the cheaper class came from abroad so copiously that he could not compete against so vast a supply.
When the demand for high-class products fell, the English farmer felt it directly. Cecil considered that it was the dire distress in the manufacturing districts, the stagnation of trade and commerce and the great failures in business centres, that were the chief causes of low prices and falling agricultural markets. The rise of labour was but a trifling item. He had always paid good wages to good men, and always meant to. The succession of wet seasons was more serious, of course; it lowered the actual yield, and increased the cost of procuring the yield; but as his lands were well drained, and had been kept clean he believed he could have withstood the seasons for awhile.
The one heavy cloud that overhung agriculture, in his opinion was the extraordinary and almost world-spread depression of trade, and his argument was very simple. When men prospered they bought freely, indulged in luxurious living, kept horses, servants, gave parties, and consumed indirectly large quantities of food. As they made fortunes they bought estates and lived half the year like country gentlemen—that competition sent up the price of land. The converse was equally true. In times of pressure households were reduced, servants dismissed, horses sold, carriages suppressed. Rich and poor acted alike in different degrees but as the working population was so much more numerous it was through the low wages of the working population in cities and manufacturing districts that the farmers suffered most.
It was a period of depression—there was no confidence, no speculation. For instance a year or two since the crop of standing wheat then growing on the very field before their eyes was sold by auction, and several lots brought from 16l. to 18l. per acre. This year the same wheat would not fetch 8l. per acre; and, not satisfied with that price, he had determined to reap and thresh it himself. It was the same with the shorthorns, with the hay, and indeed with everything except sheep, which had been a mainstay and support to him.
'Yet even now,' concluded Cecil, shutting his pocket-book, 'I feel convinced that my plan and my system will be a success. I can see that I committed one great mistake—I made all my improvements at once, laid out all my capital, and crippled my self. I should have done one thing at a time. I should, as it were, have grown my improvements—one this year, one next. As it was, I denuded myself of capital. Had the times continued favourable it would not have mattered, as my income would have been large. But the times became adverse before I was firmly settled, and, to be plain, I can but just keep things going without a loan—dear Bella will not be able to go to the sea this year; but we are both determined not to borrow.'
'In a year or two I am convinced we shall flourish again; but the waiting, Alick, the waiting, is the trial. You know I am impatient. Of course, the old-fashioned people, the farmers, all expect me to go through the Bankruptcy Court. They always said these new-fangled plans would not answer, and now they are sure they were right. Well, I forgive them their croaking, though most of them have dined at my table and drank my wine. I forgive them their croaking, for so they were bred up from childhood. Were I ill-natured, I might even smile at them, for they are failing and leaving their farms by the dozen, which seems a pretty good proof that their antiquated system is at best no better than mine. But I can see what they cannot see—signs of improvement. The steel industry is giving men work; the iron industry is reviving; the mines are slowly coming into work again; America is purchasing of us largely; and when other nations purchase of us, part, at least, of the money always finds its way to the farmer. Next season, too, the weather may be more propitious.
'I shall hold on, Alick—a depression is certain to be followed by a rise. That has been the history of trade and agriculture for generations. Nothing will ever convince me that it was intended for English agriculturists to go on using wooden ploughs, to wear smock-frocks, and plod round and round in the same old track for ever. In no other way but by science, by steam, by machinery, by artificial manure, and, in one word, by the exercise of intelligence, can we compete with the world. It is ridiculous to suppose we can do so by returning to the ignorance and prejudice of our ancestors. No; we must beat the world by superior intelligence and superior energy. But intelligence, mind, has ever had every obstacle to contend against. Look at M. Lesseps and his wonderful Suez Canal. I tell you that to introduce scientific farming into England, in the face of tradition, custom, and prejudice, is a far harder task than overcoming the desert sand.'
An aged man, coming out of an arable field into the lane, pauses to look back. He is shabbily clad, and there is more than one rent in his coat; yet it is a coat that has once been a good one, and of a superior cut to what a labourer would purchase. In the field the ploughman to whom he has been speaking has started his team again. A lad walks beside the horses, the iron creaks, and the ploughman holding the handles seems now to press upon them with his weight, and now to be himself bodily pulled along. A dull November cloud overspreads the sky, and misty skits of small rain sweep across the landscape. As the old man looks back from the gate, the chill breeze whistles through the boughs of the oak above him, tearing off the brown dry leaves, and shaking out the acorns to fall at his feet. It lifts his grey hair, and penetrates the threadbare coat. As he turns to go, something catches his eye on the ground, and from the mud in the gateway he picks up a cast horse-shoe. With the rusty iron in his hand he passes slowly down the lane, and, as he goes, the bitter wind drives the fallen leaves that have been lying beside the way rustling and dancing after him.
From a farmer occupying a good-sized farm he had descended to be a farmer's bailiff in the same locality. But a few months since he was himself a tenant, and now he is a bailiff at 15s. a week and a cottage. There is nothing dramatic, nothing sensational, in the history of his descent; but it is, perhaps, all the more full of bitter human experiences. As a man going down a steep hill, after a long while finds himself on the edge of a precipitous chalk pit, and topples in one fall to the bottom, so, though the process of going downhill occupied so long, the actual finish came almost suddenly. Thus it was that from being a master he found himself a servant. He does not complain, nor appeal for pity. His back is a little more bowed, he feels the cold a little more, his step is yet more spiritless. But all he says about it is that 'Hard work never made any money yet.'
He has worked exceedingly hard all his lifetime. In his youth, though the family were then well-to-do, he was not permitted to lounge about in idleness, but had to work with the rest in the fields. He dragged his heavy nailed shoes over the furrows with the plough; he reaped and loaded in harvest time; in winter he trimmed the hedgerows, split logs, and looked after the cattle. He enjoyed no luxurious education—luxurious in the sense of scientifically arranged dormitories, ample meals, and vacations to be spent on horseback, or with the breechloader. Trudging to and fro the neighbouring country town, in wind, and wet, and snow, to school, his letters were thrashed into him. In holiday time he went to work—his holidays, in fact, were so arranged as to fall at the time when the lad could be of most use in the field. If an occasion arose when a lad was wanted, his lessons had to wait while he lent a hand. He had his play, of course, as boys in all ages have had; but it was play of a rude character with the plough lads, and the almost equally rough sons of farmers, who worked like ploughmen.
In those days the strong made no pretence to protect the weak, or to abnegate their natural power. The biggest lad used his thews and sinews to knock over the lesser without mercy, till the lesser by degrees grew strong enough to retaliate. To be thrashed, beaten, and kicked was so universal an experience that no one ever imagined it was not correct, or thought of complaining. They accepted it as a matter of course. As he grew older his work simply grew harder, and in no respect differed from that of the labourers, except that he directed what should be done next, but none the less assisted to do it.
Thus the days went on, the weeks, and months, and years. He was close upon forty years old before he had his own will for a single day. Up to almost that age he worked on his father's farm as a labourer among the labourers, as much under parental authority as when he was a boy of ten. When the old man died it was not surprising that the son, so long held down in bondage—bondage from which he had not the spirit to escape—gave way for a short period to riotous living. There was hard drinking, horse-racing, and card-playing, and waste of substance generally.
But it was not for long, for several reasons. In the first place, the lad of forty years, suddenly broken forth as it were from school, had gone past the age when youth plunges beyond recall. He was a grown man, neither wise nor clever; but with a man's sedateness of spirit and a man's hopes. There was no innate evil in his nature to lead him into unrighteous courses. Perhaps his fault rather lay in his inoffensive disposition—he submitted too easily. Then, in the second place, there was not much money, and what there was had to meet many calls.
The son found that the father, though reputed a substantial man, and a man among farmers of high esteem and good family, had been anything but rich. First there were secret debts that had run on for fully thirty years—sums of from fifty to one hundred pounds—borrowed in the days of his youth, when he, too, had at last been released in a similar manner from similar bondage, to meet the riotous living in which he also had indulged. In those earlier days there had been more substance in cattle and corn, and he had had no difficulty in borrowing ready money from adjoining farmers, who afterwards helped him to drink it away. These boon companions had now grown old. They had never pressed their ancient comrade for the principal, the interest being paid regularly. But now their ancient comrade was dead they wanted their money, especially when they saw the son indulging himself, and did not know how far he might go. Their money was paid, and reduced the balance in hand materially.
Now came a still more serious matter. The old man, years ago, when corn farming paid so handsomely, had been induced by the prospect of profit to take a second and yet larger farm, nearly all arable. To do this he was obliged, in farming phrase, to 'take up'—i.e. to borrow—a thousand pounds, which was advanced to him by the bank. Being a man of substance, well reputed, and at that date with many friends, the thousand pounds was forthcoming readily, and on favourable terms. The enterprise, however, did not prosper; times changed, and wheat was not so profitable. In the end he had the wisdom to accept his losses and relinquish the second farm before it ate him up. Had he only carried his wisdom a little farther and repaid the whole of the bank's advance, all might yet have been well. But he only repaid five hundred pounds, leaving five hundred pounds still owing. The bank having regularly received the interest, and believing the old gentleman upright—as he was—was not at all anxious to have the money back, as it was earning fair interest. So the five hundred remained on loan, and, as it seemed, for no very definite purpose.
Whether the old gentleman liked to feel that he had so much money at command (a weakness of human nature common enough), or whether he thought he could increase the produce of his farm by putting it in the soil, it is not possible to say. He certainly put the five hundred out of sight somewhere, for when his son succeeded him it was nowhere to be found. After repaying the small loans to his father's old friends, upon looking round the son saw cattle, corn, hay, and furniture, but no five hundred pounds in ready money. The ready money had been muddled away—simply muddled away, for the old man had worked hard, and was not at all extravagant.
The bank asked for the five hundred, but not in a pressing manner, for the belief still existed that there was money in the family. That belief was still further fostered because the old friends whose loans had been repaid talked about that repayment, and so gave a colour to the idea. The heir, in his slow way, thought the matter over and decided to continue the loan. He could only repay it by instalments—a mode which, to a farmer brought up in the old style, is almost impossible, for though he might meet one he would be sure to put off the next—or by selling stock (equivalent to giving up his place), or by borrowing afresh. So he asked and obtained a continuation of the loan of the five hundred, and was accommodated, on condition that some one 'backed' him. Some one in the family did back him, and the fatal mistake was committed of perpetuating this burden. A loan never remains at the same sum; it increases if it is not reduced. In itself the five hundred was not at all a heavy amount for the farm to carry, but it was the nucleus around which additional burdens piled themselves up. By a species of gravitation such a burden attracts others, till the last straw breaks the camel's back. This, however, was not all.
The heir discovered another secret which likewise contributed to sober him. It appeared that the farm, or rather the stock and so on, was really not all his father's. His father's brother had a share in it—a share of which even the most inquisitive gossips of the place were ignorant. The brother being the eldest (himself in business as a farmer at some distance) had the most money, and had advanced a certain sum to the younger to enable him to start his farm, more than a generation since. From that day to this not one shilling of the principal had been repaid, and the interest only partially and at long intervals. If the interest were all claimed it would now amount to nearly as much as the principal. The brother—or, rather, the uncle—did not make himself at all unpleasant in the matter. He only asked for about half the interest due to him, and at the same time gave the heir a severe caution not to continue the aforesaid riotous living. The heir, now quite brought down to earth after his momentary exaltation, saw the absolute necessity of acquiescence. With a little management he paid the interest—leaving himself with barely enough to work the farm. The uncle, on his part, did not act unkindly; it was he who 'backed' the heir up at the bank in the matter of the continuation of the loan of the five hundred pounds. This five hundred pounds the heir had never seen and never would see: so far as he was concerned it did not exist; it was a mere figure, but a figure for which he must pay. In all these circumstances there was nothing at all exceptional.
At this hour throughout the width and breadth of the country there are doubtless many farmers' heirs stepping into their fathers' shoes, and at this very moment looking into their affairs. It may be safely said that few indeed are those fortunate individuals who find themselves clear of similar embarrassments. In this particular case detailed above, if the heir's circumstances had been rigidly reduced to figures—if a professional accountant had examined them—it would have been found that, although in possession of a large farm, he had not got one scrap of capital.
But he was in possession of the farm, and upon that simple fact of possession he henceforth lived, like so many, many more of his class. He returned to the routine of labour, which was a part of his life. After awhile he married, as a man of forty might naturally wish to, and without any imputation of imprudence so far as his own age was concerned. The wife he chose was one from his own class, a good woman, but, as is said to be often the case, she reflected the weakness of her husband's character. He now worked harder than ever—a labourer with the labourers. He thus saved himself the weekly expense of the wages of a labourer—perhaps, as labourers do not greatly exert themselves, of a man and a boy. But while thus slaving with his hands and saving this small sum in wages, he could not walk round and have an eye upon the other men. They could therefore waste a large amount of time, and thus he lost twice what he saved. Still, his intention was commendable, and his persistent, unvarying labour really wonderful. Had he but been sharper with his men he might still have got a fair day's work out of them while working himself. From the habit of associating with them from boyhood he had fallen somewhat into their own loose, indefinite manner, and had lost the prestige which attaches to a master. To them he seemed like one of themselves, and they were as much inclined to argue with him as to obey. When he met them in the morning he would say, 'Perhaps we had better do so and so,' or 'Suppose we go and do this or that.' They often thought otherwise; and it usually ended in a compromise, the master having his way in part, and the men in part. This lack of decision ran through all, and undid all that his hard work achieved. Everything was muddled from morn till night, from year's end to year's end. As children came the living indoors became harder, and the work out of doors still more laborious.
If a farmer can put away fifty pounds a year, after paying his rent and expenses, if he can lay by a clear fifty pounds of profit, he thinks himself a prosperous man. If this farmer, after forty years of saving, should chance to be succeeded by a son as thrifty, when, he too has carried on the same process for another twenty years, then the family may be, for village society, wealthy, with three or even four thousand pounds, besides goods and gear. This is supposing all things favourable, and men of some ability, making the most of their opportunities. Now reverse the process. When children came, as said before, our hard-working farmer found the living indoors harder, and the labour without heavier. Instead of saving fifty pounds a year, at first the two sides of the account (not that he ever kept any books) about balanced. Then, by degrees, the balance dropped the wrong way. There was a loss, of twenty or thirty pounds on the year, and presently of forty or fifty pounds, which could only be made good by borrowing, and so increasing the payment of interest.
Although it takes sixty years—two generations—to accumulate a village fortune by saving fifty pounds a year, it does not occupy so long to reduce a farmer to poverty when half that sum is annually lost. There was no strongly marked and radical defect in his system of farming to amount for it; it was the muddling, and the muddling only, that did it. His work was blind. He would never miss giving the pigs their dinner, he rose at half-past three in the morning, and foddered the cattle in the grey dawn, or milked a certain number of cows, with unvarying regularity. But he had no foresight, and no observation whatever. If you saw him crossing a field, and went after him, you might walk close behind, placing your foot in the mark just left by his shoe, and he would never know it. With his hands behind his back, and his eyes upon the ground, he would plod across the field, perfectly unconscious that any one was following him. He carried on the old rotation of cropping in the piece of arable land belonging to the farm, but in total oblivion of any advantage to be obtained by local change of treatment. He could plan nothing out for next year. He spent nothing, or next to nothing, on improved implements; but, on the other hand, he saved nothing, from a lack of resource and contrivance.
As the years went by he fell out of the social life of the times; that is, out of the social life of his own circle. He regularly fed the pigs; but when he heard that the neighbours, were all going in to the town to attend some important agricultural meeting, or to start some useful movement, he put his hands behind his back and said that he should not go; he did not understand anything about it. There never used to be anything of that sort. So he went in to luncheon on bread and cheese and small ale. Such a course could only bring him into the contempt of his fellow-men. He became a nonentity. No one had any respect for or confidence in him. Otherwise, possibly, he might have obtained powerful help, for the memory of what his family had been had not yet died out.
Men saw that he lived and worked as a labourer; they gave him no credit for the work, but they despised him for the meanness and churlishness of his life. There was neither a piano nor a decanter of sherry in his house. He was utterly out of accord with the times. By degrees, after many years, it became apparent to all that he was going downhill. The stock upon the farm was not so large nor of so good a character as had been the case. The manner of men visibly changed towards him. The small dealers, even the very carriers along the road, the higglers, and other persons who call at a farm on petty business, gave him clearly to know in their own coarse way that they despised him. They flatly contradicted him, and bore him down with loud tongues. He stood it all meekly, without showing any spirit; but, on the other hand, without resentment, for he never said ill of any man behind his back.
It was put about now that he drank, because some busybody had seen a jar of spirits carried into the house from the wine merchant's cart. A jar of spirits had been delivered at the house at intervals for years and years, far back into his father's time, and every one of those who now expressed their disgust at his supposed drinking habits had sipped their tumblers in that house without stint. He did not drink—he did not take one-half at home what his neighbours imbibed without injury at markets and auctions every week of their lives. But he was growing poor, and they called to mind that brief spell of extravagance years ago, and pointed out to their acquaintances how the sin of the Prodigal was coming home to him.
No man drinks the bitter cup of poverty to the dregs like the declining farmer. The descent is so slow; there is time to drain every drop, and to linger over the flavour. It may be eight, or ten, or fifteen years about. He cannot, like the bankrupt tradesman, even when the fatal notice comes, put up his shutters at once and retire from view. Even at the end, after the notice, six months at least elapse before all is over—before the farm is surrendered, and the sale of household furniture and effects takes place. He is full in public view all that time. So far as his neighbours are concerned he is in public view for years previously. He has to rise in the morning and meet them in the fields. He sees them in the road; he passes through groups of them in the market-place. As he goes by they look after him, and perhaps audibly wonder how long he will last. These people all knew him from a lad, and can trace every inch of his descent. The labourers in the field know it, and by their manner show that they know it.
His wife—his wife who worked so hard for so many, many years—is made to know it too. She is conspicuously omitted from the social gatherings that occur from time to time. The neighbours' wives do not call; their well-dressed daughters, as they rattle by to the town in basket-carriage or dog-cart, look askance at the shabby figure walking slowly on the path beside the road. They criticise the shabby shawl; they sneer at the slow step which is the inevitable result of hard work, the cares of maternity, and of age. So they flaunt past with an odour of perfume, and leave the 'old lady' to plod unrecognised.