"It is no use grumbling, good woman," said John one day, when his wife was complaining of the difficulty of keeping her children decently clothed, or tolerably fed, "I shall go to the Fairy no more; for she never did us any good, and always proved me to be a fool, and that you know is no satisfaction."
"Well, but it is very hard," replied his wife, "that I who have brought sixteen children into the world, and worked, as one may say, day and night for them, should not be able to give them clothes to their backs, or a hearty meal of wholesome food, no, nor a bit of learning to give them a lift in the world. You know what a hard matter we have had to place out Dick and Nance, and now that I am looking out for Jenny, there is nothing to be had. I sent her after Farmer Wilkin's place, but there were no less than six girls about it already, so they underbid each other, and one of them got it, who offered to go for nothing more than her board and a pair of shoes a year."
"That is because there are more girls than places for them," said John.
"Well, and what is to be done with them at home is more than I can tell! Why there's Jenny gets such an appetite now a day, there is no satisfying her. She would be willing enough to earn the bread she eats if she knew but how; but they won't take her in at the mills, and there is no want of hands at the manufactory."—"That is because there are more hands to work than work to be done,"—" replied her husband. "Don't be telling me of your 'cause this, and 'cause t'other," cried the impatient wife, "but tell me what is much more to the purpose, how am I to get bread to put in my children's mouths?" But John said with a sigh, that was more than he could tell.
"But I suppose you can tell the cause," retorted his discontented wife?"—"Yes, that is easy enough, replied John, "there are more mouths to be fed than there is bread to feed them."—"Well, and where is the remedy?"—"That is a harder matter, wife. Now we have got the children we must make the best of it we can, and divide what we have among them; but if you had not had such a swarm of brats, we should all have fared better. Look at neighbour Fairburn, why they never want for any thing!"—"Aye, that is true enough," replied his wife; "why there was his Sukey at Church last Sunday in as neat a cotton gown as I would wish to set eyes on; and, God forgive me! I could not but cast a look of envy on it when I compared it with our poor girls' patched rags.—Well I remember the time when Patty there was but a little one, she had as good a gown to her back as Sukey Fairborn; but times are sadly changed now a day!"—"As for that matter, Dame," cried John, "cotton gowns are a deal cheaper now than they were then; but you have had thirteen children since Patty, so it is no wonder you can't give them a new gown so often, even though you may buy the cotton at half price. When we had only three children, why it was natural we should do as well as Fairborn does with his three, for both he and I get the same wages; but when you come to divide among three or among sixteen, there is a wide difference."—"Nay, but you know, John we never had sixteen alive at once, nor near, cried the wife."That is true," said he, "but so many dying is but a proof we had more than we could rear. If you and I had not married till the time of life Fairburn and his wife did, we should not have been troubled with such a monstrous family." The good Dame, who could not bear any reflection to be cast on the number of her children, and yet was at a loss for an argument in its favour, said coaxingly to her husband, "Well but, John, you know the proverb says, 'The more the merrier.' "—"But you forget what follows, wife, 'The fewer the better cheer.' "
John then went on to show that if the labourers took care to have small families, they would gain another and a still greater advantage; not only would they have fewer children to clothe and feed, and therefore their money would go farther, but also their wages would necessarily be higher. The rich, instead of having too many workmen, would have too few. His wife thought that this would not mend matters, for that the fewer the labourers, the more work would each have to do. But John replied very properly, "Nay, nay, we are not slaves, and cannot be forced to work more than we are willing. Now," continued he, "if we were fewer in number, the rich would be looking out for workmen, instead of workmen looking out for employers, as is the case now. And if there was a want of hands instead of a want of work, those who wanted work to be done would be ready enough to pay higher wages. We might say to our employers, if you do not choose to give us a better price for our labour, we will go elsewhere to others who will. But if any of us were to say that now, when there are so many all wanting work, we should starve in idleness, for others would consent to work at the low prices which we had refused."
"I can't think the rich would ever allow us to fix our own price," said the wife, "for they are wiser by far than we are, and they are mighty clever at having things their own way. They would get a law made to forbid the raising of wages mayhap? It is true, as you say, they can't oblige us to work, but they may oblige us by law to take low wages if we do work, and you know well enough we cannot live without it."—"That is so," says John, "and it reminds me that when I went to pay the last quarter's schooling, I found the master musing over an old book, and he bade me stop to hear what it said, for that it was a curious thing and concerned the labouring people; and moreover that it was true. Well, as far as I can recollect, he read that once upon a time there was a mortal disease fell upon the people of England called the plague, and that as many as half of them died of it."—"Poor creatures!" exclaimed the wife, with air accent of compassion, "how shocking!" Then after a little thought, she added, "Labourers must have been scarce enough then, God knows!"—"Well," continued John, "the book went on to say, that those who survived took advantage of their being so few to ask higher wages."—"Aye, but there is one thing I can't understand," said the wife, "why should there be a call for more labourers? for if there were fewer poor folks to labour, there were fewer rich folks to labour for; for the plague is no respecter of persons, and falls on the rich as well as the poor, as we read in the Bible it did in the time of Pharaoh."—"Sure enough," replied John, "but then the rich can pay for Doctor's stuff, and all manner of things to help them through it; so more of them are like to recover than of the poor folk, who are pent up in their small cottages, and have no money to pay nurses or doctors. However there is no doubt but that many of the rich died too. But look ye, wife, when they go down to the grave, their money is not buried with them; no, no, that remains above ground and goes to their friends and relations; so you see the plague did not take the money, and there was not less of that in the land though there were fewer people. Now mind ye, wife, it is money that sets the people to work. So if half the rich folk had died, others would have come in for their wealth, and becoming so much richer than they were before, would have wanted more people to work for them."
"They might want and welcome," said the wife; "but how could they get them if they were dead?—"And it is just because they cannot get them, that those they can get, (I mean those that survived) are sure to get higher wages; for as I said before, when labourers are scarce the rich are ready enough to pay them high wages. But the book went on to say, that when the King who reigned in those times heard that his subjects would not work without higher wages, he fell into a rage, and made a law such as you were thinking of, wife, to forbid under severe pains and penalties that the poor should take higher wages than they had before the plague."—"Why then, I think he was no better than a tyrant, to hinder the poor from getting what they fairly could: he must have been quite another sort of man from our good King William."—"That he was," said John, "but it would not do; and after a hard struggle, the King was obliged to give in, and the people got the wages they asked."
"Well, but I do not know how it is," said his wife, after a pause, "my mind sadly misgives me about high wages ever since the Fairy's wand brought on such a train of ill luck, that we so little looked for."—"That was because the high wages then was not the natural rate of wages, as one might say. The Fairy forced wages up, and had no better success than the King's law to force wages down; but you see, wife, that the nature of things is stronger than King's laws or Fairy's wands; and that when the number of labourers was so much lessened by the plague, it was quite natural that the wages should be high, and so they were without any ill luck coming of it."
"Well, for my part I can't see the difference," said the good Dame. "Why should not the manufacturers send away half their workmen when wages rise after the plague, just as they did when the Fairy's wand did the business."
"Mercy on me," cried John, "how thick headed you are, wife. Don't you see that half of them are sent away already by the plague, for good and all; so instead of discharging any more they must pay high wages if they wish to keep those that remain, for when labourers are scarce and there is a great call for them, they won't work without good pay."
"Then," said his wife, returning to her favourite subject "when the labouring people were so well off, they might marry young, for they could afford to provide for a large family if they chanced to have one?" John readily agreed to the truth of this, remarking at the same time, "that people must take care not to overshoot the mark, for that if they increased and multiplied so that in the end the market were to be overstocked with labourers, wages would naturally lower again, and they would be in no better plight than they were before the plague. And that is the plight we are in now," continued John. "But God forbid that a plague should ever come to thin our ranks."—"Heaven preserve us from it," cried his wife, "for though those that outlive it may fare the better, who knows John that you and I should escape with our lives; and I'll promise you," added she, with a look of affright, "it would snatch away some of the children that are still left to us."
"Aye, I trust the plague will never return, but we may learn a lesson from that which is past, though it be so many years back. For we may be sure that if we have but small, or at least moderate sized families, in the course of a few years it will bring about the same good to the working people."
"To be sure," said his wife, "if there had been only one or two girls after Farmer Wilkin's place, Jenny would have stood a much better chance of getting it, and perhaps have had two or three guineas wages; for if girls were scarce, they would not be so simple as to be satisfied with their board and a pair of shoes."
"Well, Dame, the country is like our family, there are too many of them for every one to get a livelihood."—"God help the country!" cried the wife, "it is more than we can do to help ourselves. Why what is a country made up of, but of families like ours? and if every family had taken care of themselves there would have been no distress in the country. When God has given us hands to labour with, and heads with common sense to teach us what we ought to do, we have no ground for complaint, and it is our own fault if we do not by prudence and saving guard against poverty."
"We ought not to have married so young," replied John, "and then we should not have been troubled with so large a family. But what is done can't be undone, only it should serve as a warning against another time."
"We are little likely to marry again either of us," cried the good wife, "and it we did, such enough it would not be over young."
"I was not thinking of you and me, wife," said Joint, "but of the young ones. There is our boy, George, who is but two and twenty, and he is hankering after Betsey Bloomfeld, and she is but nineteen. Now George has not a farthing more than the labour of his hands to support her and the dozen of children they are likely to have at those years. I say I will not hear of it. George must work hard and lay up something before he marries the girl. And let her go to service and get something to lay by too; and then they may come together when they have a little money in hand, and a few more years over their heads."
"Mercy on us! what will they say to that," cried his wife, "it will be a hard thing upon them, John." "But it would be harder still upon their children if we let them marry so young. They would be half starved, and ricketty and breed all sorts of distempers, and so they would die off and be an affliction instead of blessing to their parents."
"Ah!" cried the good woman, heaving a sigh, "like our poor babes." Then after a pause of painful remembrance, she added, "But one of them, you know, John, was carried off by the measles, and that is not bred by lack of good food, but comes of the will of God."—"Yes," returned John, "but if it had not been a poor weakly thing, it might have got through the measles as well as the rest of them. Why to be sure they none of them died of starvation; but who knows but that they might all have lived had they been reared in plenty."—"Alack!" said the poor woman, drawing the back of her hand across her eyes; "it was not so much their deaths I minded, for I knew they would want for nothing in a better world; but it was their puling and crying as if they had no peace of their lives, poor babes! They were a sore trouble to me, for the more I loved them the harder it was to bear. One while," continued the poor woman, "we lost our children by the shall pox; and when the cow pox was found out, I thought they would be safe, but they went off the same, one by one sickness, another by another! so I can't but think, husband, that it is the will of God that poor babes should often drop off, as the blossom drops from the trees, for it never all comes to fruit."—"It is the will of God," answered John, "that children should die if their parents do not provide for them so that they may live. And when there is no more small pox, why the sickly ones fall victims to the measles, or hooping cough, nay, even a cold will carry them off, for die some of them must when there is not good food to rear them all."
"Nay, John," cried the wife "I can't bear to hear you talk after that fashion. It seems for all the world as if you thought their dying a good riddance."
"No," replied her husband," but I think it a sin and a shame, to bring children into the world just to suffer and send them out of it—first a cradle and then a coffin, and little else between than fretting. Ah! I would not have married so young if I had known that all this trouble would have come upon us! but let us have no grand children born to die off in that way at least; we must live and learn, or we shall live to little purpose. So get Betsey Bloomfield a service as soon as you can."
"Well," said Dame Hopkins, after a little thought, "There is the Squire's Lady was here last week in want of a girl for her nursery. I begged hard for our Jenny, it would have been the making of her; but it was lost labour, for she would have it she was too young. She cast an eye upon Patty there," added she in a half whisper, "but I told the lady she had other thoughts in her head. Now this place would just suit Betsey, who is a nice tidy body, and has reared up her brothers and sisters, and is fit for a nursery."
John turned towards his daughter Patty, who was sitting by the casement window, sewing. When she saw that her father observed her, a blush came over her face, for she could not conceal the tears that were trickling down her cheeks. "Hey day, what is to do now?" cried he, "have you and Tom Barton had a lover's quarrel? never fear girl, you will soon make it up again."—"Oh no," cried Patty, "he never gives me so much as a cross word; but I have heard all you have been saying, and I am no older you know than Betsey; nay, even younger by three months, so I suppose," added she, sobbing, "I must give up the wedding, and think of going out to service as well as Betsey."
"Hey, never take on so, child," cried the father, "that is quite another thing, Barton is able to support you, aye, and as many brats as you may chance to have. He has neither kith nor kin, and his father has left him the shop and all the stock in trade, and a good lot of money beside, so there is no harm can come of your marrying him. Quite the reverse you see, deary, for you are a burthen upon us, who have so many of your brothers and sisters to maintain." Patty cast up her tearful eyes, which seemed to lament that she should be thought a burthen. The mother, who understood her looks, said, "your father does not mean that we shall be glad to be rid of you, Patty; nay, nay, child, but we shall be glad to see you happy, and to have your share of the meals to give to your brothers and sisters."
Patty brightened up at these words; but a cloud passed over her brow as she thought of poor Betsey!
The Plague having been mentioned in the foregoing Story, it may not be amiss to inform our readers that what has been emphatically called the great plague, was the most terrible, but also the last of those calamitous visitations so often mentioned in the earlier History of England. It took place in the year 1665, nearly 170 years ago. It is thus awfully described in "God's terrible Voice to the City, by Plague and Fire."—"Now the cloud is very black, and the storm comes down very sharp. Death rides triumphant on his pale horse through our streets, and breaks into almost every house, where the inhabitants are to be found: people falls as thick as leaves from the trees in Autumn, when shaken by a mighty wind. There is a dismal solitude in London streets: every day looks with the face of a Sabbath, observed with a greater solemnity than it would be in the city. Shops are shut up; people run; and few that walk about, insomuch that grass begins to grow in some places, and a deep silence in almost every place, especially within the city walls."
Why has the plague not visited England for nearly two centuries? because the habits of the people, and with them their morals, have greatly improved. There is now more cleanliness, a better arrangement of dwellings, both for convenience and for air; more sobriety; more healthful diet; better medical attendance for the poor as well as the rich; laws of quarantine established. Many countries of Europe have been visited lately by a disorder scarcely less disastrous, though in many respects totally different. Hitherto this country has escaped it; our improved habits, if we persevere in them and carry them still further, are the most likely means of softening and shortening the calamity, should it reach our shores.