John Hopkins's Notions on Political Economy

Marcet, Jane Haldimand
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First Pub. Date
London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman
Pub. Date
1st edition. Some essays published earlier as pamphlets
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Essay 7



JACKSON, a poor weaver, had all his life supported himself by working at the hand-loom. At length, finding that he could no longer gain a livelihood in this manner, he made up his mind to go to America. Before setting off, however, he went round the village to take leave of his friends; and when he came to the cottage of Hopkins, who was standing at his door, he was thus accosted by him:—


"So then, neighbour Jackson, you are off for America, are you? Well, good luck go with you! I have heard it's a rare place for wages; but it's a strange land, and there's no telling the changes and chances that may happen before you get well settled there."


"Happen what may," replied Jackson, "I have no choice but to go there or to the parish; and it shall not be said of me that, able to work, and without encumbrances, I became a burden to my country. I've staid here year after year, struggling and striving to get a livelihood in my old calling, but all to no purpose: since the invention of the power-loom, it's all over with us at the hand-loom. We work both harder and later to endeavour to make all ends meet, but there's no standing against these new machines; they do the work of a dozen of us. Ay," continued he, with a sigh, "machinery will be the ruin of us all one day or other. They are for ever finding out something that will do the work cheaper than we can; and unless we could work without wages, like their machines, that have neither hungry stomachs to feed nor helpless children to rear, we have no chance for it. Why, I remember the time when I made no less than twenty shillings a week by my hand-loom; but now, that the power-loom does as much work for the value of three or four shillings, they will give me no more, without considering how much more labour it costs me."


It's natural enough," replied Hopkins, "that the masters will get their work done at the cheapest rate; in the way of business, men look to their interest, and nothing else."


This was poor consolation to Jackson; and it pleased him little better, when Hopkins advised him to turn his hand to some other work: for he had stuck so closely to the hand-loom all his life, that he thought there was no other possible means of gaining his livelihood.—"Well, perhaps," said Hopkins, "you had rather try your luck in another country; and having neither wife nor children, you may be right to risk the venture."


"Though I have neither wife nor child," replied Jackson, "I have no wish to leave my own country and my kinsfolk; but when you have been used to one sort of work all the days of your life, it's no such easy matter to turn your hand to another. And, besides, if you did so," added he, "no sooner is a man again settled in an honest way of earning his bread, than there is some other new machine or invention that does the work cheaper, and so he is again turned adrift. It's my turn now, neighbour Hopkins, but it will be yours by and by: for, it's my belief, they will never stop finding out new helps till they come to tilling the ground with machines, as well as using them in factories."


"Why, for that matter," cried Hopkins, "they do so already, sure enough; for the plough is a machine, to all intents and purposes."


"Ay," retorted Jackson, "they say that once upon a time it was all spade husbandry. What numbers of men must have been employed in digging the cornfields! There could have been no lack of work then."—"No, but a sad lack of corn," replied Hopkins; "work as hard as they would, they could never produce half so much as the plough. Now, the people can get no more corn than there is to be had; you will grant me that?"


"There's no denying it; for it's as clear as two and two make four."


"Ay, and what's more," continued Hopkins, "the poor won't get all there is to be had; for the rich will have the largest share; which is natural enough, they having the most money to pay for what they want. Now, corn raised by the spade would be very scarce; and what is very scarce is very dear, as we all know: so we poor folk should scarcely get bread enough to keep life and soul together. Besides," added Hopkins (when he found that Jackson had not a word to answer), "if you are so averse to machines, a spade is a machine as well as a plough; so, if you are for doing away with machines, one and all, you must destroy the spade as well as the plough, and fall to scratching up the ground with your hands, like very savages. A famous improvement that would be, indeed! and I should like to know how much corn we should raise after that fashion?"


"Nay," replied Jackson, "now you are running into extremes; there's a wide difference between scratching up the earth with hands, and doing nothing at all with them. I don't say that all machines that help us on with our work are bad. A hand-loom is good enough, it has gained me a livelihood many a year; but the power-loom is the very devil."


"Suppose that, in after-times," said Hopkins; "a machine should be invented that would cut out the power-loom, just as the power-loom has cut out the hand-loom; would not the weavers at the power-loom call their own a good machine, and the new invention the very devil?"


Jackson could make no reply: but he knew that the argument afforded him no relief, so he returned to the old point, and said,—"But I don't allow that the spade is a machine; it is but a simple tool at best."—Well," replied Hopkins, "in my mind a machine, a tool, an implement, or an instrument, is all one. Besides, what matters the name? I call machinery, whatever helps us to make things easier or better than we could do with our naked hands; whether it be a spade or a pickaxe, a hammer or a chisel, or the great steam engine that sets all the cotton-winders' machines a-going."


"Well, but granting the spade to be a machine," replied Jackson, "it's one that does us no harm. It can't turn us out of work, for there must be a man to every spade; just as there is a man to every hand-loom. And those are the only right sort of machines, I maintain," said he, raising his voice, and laying a stronger emphasis on his words as he felt himself stronger in his argument: "they help you on, and never turn you off. Whilst the machines, that do the work of twenty men, and require only one to manage it, throw nineteen out of work; that's clear. No, a spade and a hand-loom for my money; with a man tacked to each of them." Having finished his phrase, he stood looking with an air of triumph at Hopkins, whom he thought he had now fairly mastered.


"Why," said Hopkins, casting a look at him somewhat between a smile and a sneer, "that's just the reason they are not used. For, look ye, if every spade must have his man, every man must have his wages; so that it would cost the farmer a mint of money to raise corn by the spade."


"What care I for the farmer?" cried Jackson, vexed to be again crossed, when he thought he had made out his point. "It is better to care for the poor who eat the bread, than for the rich who grow it."


"Ay, but what costs dear to grow, cannot be sold cheap, and that's what the poor look to. Unless, indeed," continued Hopkins, laughing, "men can gain a livelihood by driving a losing trade."


"I'm no such fool as to think that a farmer will sell his corn for less than it cost him to raise," said Jackson; "he ought to get a fair and reasonable profit too."


"Well, then," said Hopkins, "a plough, with a team of oxen, or of horses, and a couple of men, will do the work of fifty spades; and the corn, being raised so much the cheaper, will be sold the cheaper. The poor will be able to pay the price of it, and will be better supplied with it."


"Yet it is well known," said Jackson, "that the spade breaks up the ground better than the plough; else, why is it used in gardens?"


"I don't deny that the spade is the best instrument of the two," replied Hopkins; "but for all that it would not raise so much corn as the plough; because farmers could not afford to employ spades enough, and the poor could not afford to pay the price of corn raised by spade husbandry. Take my word for it, that it is because the plough digs up our fields, the drill sows our corn, the thrashing machine beats it, and the wind or water-mill grinds it; that bread does not cost one half of what it would, were these cheap means of producing and preparing it unknown. And should more new contrivances be made to till the land easier, and make bread cheaper, why, so much the better, say I."


Jackson, finding that he was not a match for Hopkins, had no other resource than to stick obstinately to his old argument, "that if all work was done by machines, those who had no means of living but by their labour must starve."


"We are apt to say," replied Hopkins, "that we live by our labour; but that's only a way of speaking; for labour would rather be the death of us than make us live, if it was not for the wages it brought us."


"Well, methinks it is you, Hopkins, who are speaking after an odd fashion; we are none of us such fools as not to know that labour, on the long run, wears us out, and that when we say we live by our labour, we mean by the wages we earn by it. Nay, indeed, if you are so particular, we do not live by wages either, for we can neither eat nor drink, nor wear the wages we get. They are of no use to us till we spend them; so that we live on what our wages will buy."—"Ay, you are in the right road now," cried Hopkins. "And the cheaper things are the more we can buy with our wages; eb, Jackson?"


"Sure enough," returned the latter.


Well, then," continued Hopkins, "which is the way to have things cheap and plenty? Is it by making them by the hands of man, or with such helps as mills and steam engines, which receive no wages, but are set a going by a puff of wind or a bubble of steam, or a stream of cold water, good creatures, that do the work of hundreds of men, and all free cost; and yet, instead of being thankful, you fall abusing them."


Jackson, who had felt his losses too bitterly to be easily satisfied, replied—"I grant you they work cheaper, and mayhap better than we do; but I say it again, what's that to us who are turned adrift by them? If we have no work we have no wages, and then we have no means of getting at the goods, be they cheap or dear."


"There's no factory that can go alone," replied Hopkins: "there are always men and women, ay, and children too, wanted to manage the machinery.—Now, answer me this one question. Do you think that as machines improve, and new ones are invented, there are more or fewer people employed in factories than before?"—"Fewer, no doubt," said Jackson, "by just the number thrown out of work by the new or improved machinery."


"So it is, if you look no further than your nose," answered Hopkins. "You never think of the increase of work at the factories in consequence of the new machinery; and of the number of people in the end employed in them. I have heard old Master Spires, who has had no less than fifty years' experience in the manufacturing line say, that when first spinning-mills were set up, numbers of hand spinners could no longer get their bread, the mills doing the work so much cheaper than the spinning-wheel. So there was great alarm among the people, and rioting to such a pitch, that several of the mills were destroyed; but at last the mills were built up again, and the rioters put down."—"Ay," interrupted Jackson, "that's the way of the world, the rich are the strongest and always gain their point in the end."


"Well, but let us see what that end is," cried Hopkins. "Old Spires told me, that no more than ten years after the setting up of the spinning mills, the trade increased so much, in consequence of the goods being cheaper, that the number of people employed, both as spinners or weavers, was no less than forty times as many as when the spinning was done by hand. So, you see, that if the folks were thrown out of work one while, they had ample amends afterwards."


"Ay, but they might have been all starved before the ten years were out."


"Why, look ye, Jackson; the mills did not employ forty times as many all on a sudden, as it were, at the end of ten years. No, it increased by degrees. When the mills were first set up they began on a small scale. Let us say, that they turned half of the hand spinners out of work. At the end of a twelvemonth the trade, perhaps, had increased so much, that all those who had forsaken their wheels might find work at the mills, if they chose it. The next year the mills would perhaps employ double the number, and so go on regularly increasing, till at the end of ten years they set to work forty times as many as gained their livelihood by spinning before the mills were set up.


"Master Spires told me another story, about an old crone, who was somewhat of your way of thinking, Jackson.—'She was sitting at her wheel,' said he, 'in the chimney-corner, and grumbling at me who was concerned in the factory, because she could not get half so much by her spinning as she did formerly. Just then the bell at the mills rung, and the people were let out from work. Soon after, in came two men, three women, and four or five children, who were all grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of the old woman.—"And what do these get by their work?" said Spires; "twenty times as much as you ever made by your wheel, I'll warrant?" But she would not listen to reason, and fell abusing the factory, insisting that the old times were the best. I asked her how much she gave for a cotton gown in those good old times.' "Why, I never had one to my back," replied she. "Cotton gowns were only made for our betters in those days; for they cost a power of money far beyond our reach."—"Well," said Spires; "look at your grandchildren, the lads have cotton shirts, and the lasses neat cotton gowns; and I'll be bound to say, they do not cost them more than five shillings each; whilst I know that in the days of your youth they cost a guinea, or more. And why are they so much cheaper now? Because the cotton is spun and woven at the factory."—"Umph!" cried she, drawing herself up; "they might have worn stuff gowns, as their betters did before them."—"Ay, but," said one of the lads, "we could not wear stuff shirts, grandam."—"And as for stuff gowns," said a smart looking girl, turning up her nose with a look of contempt; "they are not half so nice and so clean as cotton ones, for summer at least."—"Besides," said Spires, "stuffs are made in a factory as well as cottons." The old woman still stood out for the good old times, so Spires thought he would take her upon another tack, and asked her what she paid for stockings in the days of her youth? "Nothing at all," answered she; "for I was fain to go barefooted: stockings were too dear, and we never found the want of them."—"Then, why not do without them now, and spend the money in something you do want? But, methinks, you would be loth to part with that pair of worsted stockings that keeps your feet so warm and comfortable; and your grandchildren would not be willing to part with theirs either, for the comfort or the look of it."—"There's no need we should," cried the old crone; "they are cheap enough now for us to afford to wear them."—"And why?" replied Spires; "because they were woven in a loom, and made with half the labour that was bestowed on them, when they were knitted."—"Lookye, goody, added he; "not only is this large family of yours supplied with food and clothing by machinery, but some of them may owe their very lives to it; for they might have died from want, had there been no factory here."—"For that matter," cried the dame; "it pleased the Lord to take more than half my children; for I had twelve born alive, and I reared only four."—"That was in the good old times," said Spires, smiling archly. "But tell me, have you lost half your grandchildren?"—"No," replied she; "their mothers had better luck. I have had sixteen grandchildren born, and only six died."—"No luck in the case," replied Spires; "only the children were better provided for, and it is the will of God, that children should die, when their parents either do not or cannot provide for them. So, it's my belief, that these likely lads and buxom lasses not only owe their cotton shirts and gowns to the factory, but one half of them their lives to it also."'—"And he was right," continued Hopkins; "there's no reckoning up the good that comes of machinery one way or other. We manufacture goods not only for ourselves, but for almost every other country, as I've heard say, and why? Because we can make goods cheaper, and all on account of the superiority of our machinery. I tell you there's no country has so many factories as Old England; and there's none employ so many hands. How, then, can machinery prevent labour? on the contrary, it increases it, and affords a maintenance to thousands." Hopkins now stopped, fairly out of breath, and left time for Jackson to observe, that other countries had factories as well as England. "They have," replied Hopkins; "they are always after copying our machinery; but John Bull is a shrewd fellow, and contrives to keep a-head of them all. He has a quick insight and a ready hand, and is for ever inventing something new to improve his machinery, and get the work done better or cheaper than his neighbours, so as to be able to undersell them."


Jackson could answer nothing but a repetition of his old complaint; he declared, that the new inventions made the fortunes of the master manufacturers, but starved the labourers.


The patience of Hopkins was well nigh exhausted, at having this argument again brought forward, when he thought he had completely refuted it; but he was so desirous to bring round Jackson to his way of thinking, that he determined to make another trial.—"Yours is a hard case, Jackson, I allow," said he; "and it is that which blinds you to the truth; but there cannot be many cases like yours; else, how could the country become more and more populous every year? and that no one can deny. Why, if machinery drove people away to foreign lands, or starved them at home, there would be a decrease instead of an increase of people, would there not?"


"As for that matter," replied Jackson, "the population depends on the numbers that are born; and I think, for my part, that the poorer folks are, the more children they have."


"Remember what Master Spires said to the old crone, Jackson; though many be born, few can be reared, unless there be food for the stomach, and clothes to the back. So, if there are more children reared now than there were formerly, you must admit that their parents are better off. Now, it is not so much because more are born, but because fewer die, that the country increases in population.


"Fewer die!" repeated Jackson, laughing; "why, you know as well as I, that they are all sure to die one day or other."


"Ay! but it makes a rare difference, whether that day comes soon or late, eh, Jackson? I tell you, people's lives last out longer than they used to do years ago. More children grow up to man's estate—grown-up men are more healthy, and the old have fewer infirmities, and are not so soon cut off. Fifty years back, one man in forty died every year; now only one in fifty-eight dies; that makes eighteen years difference; and you and I shall not be sorry to have a fair chance of living eighteen years longer than our forefathers? Nay, if you go back to the good old times, some hundred years ago, there were two died then for one that dies now. And why? Because we are better fed, better clothed, better nursed when young, and better doctored when sick. Now, all this bettering comes from things being made cheaper, and sold cheaper through the help of machines; so, instead of grumbling at them, you should thank God for having given men the power of inventing contrivances to shorten and cheapen labour; and the sense to find out, that wind, and water, and steam will work without tiring, both by night and by day; and, what's more, without pay." "Ay, I wish you had heard the story an old pedlar told us one day; he said, that wind,' and water, and steam worked like giants, and without requiring either food or clothing, or lodging, or wages."


"And for what purpose?" interrupted Jackson, who was only waiting for an opportunity to thrust in his old argument, "just to turn us poor folk out of work!"—"No such thing!" retorted Hopkins, impatiently; "for the purpose of making the good things of this world cheap and plenty; so that the poor may be able to get at them as well as the rich."—"Talk till doomsday," replied Jackson, "you will never persuade me, that when the master manufacturer hits upon some new devise to improve his machinery, it's with an eye to the good of any but himself."


"Mayhaps not," replied Hopkins; "but the fact is, that they can't do good to themselves without doing good to others also. I tell you, it's in the nature of things; for," added he, devoutly raising his eyes, "there is One above who looks to the good of the poor as well as of the rich; and if he puts it into the head of manufacturers how to shorten labour and to cheapen goods, he does it for our advantage as well as theirs. Yes," added he, with a pious emphasis, "God Almighty, who made 'the sun to shine upon the just and the unjust,' is good to all; and he created wind, and water, and steam, to work for the benefit of all, the poor as well as the rich."


"Well, if it had pleased God," exclaimed Jackson, "to have given us food and clothing ready to our hand, as he has given us water to drink and air to breathe, without stir or trouble, we should have wanted neither work nor wages. The world would have gone on famously then," added he, chuckling at his bright idea. Hopkins was not sorry to hear something new. There was some ingenuity in Jackson's observation; and, though Hopkins thought it could not be true, he knew not what objection to raise against it. He had recourse (as he commonly had in such a dilemma,) to scratching his head; and if the action did not call forth new ideas, it at least gave him time to reflect on what he should say. "So one would think," at length replied he; "but you may be sure God knows best what is good for us: and, since it has not been his pleasure to give us food and clothing gratis, as it were, you may be certain that it would not have been for our good. Why and wherefore is more than I can tell: perhaps," added he, with more alacrity, a bright thought having crossed his mind,—"perhaps, because it would have made us all idle: and I am apt to think that would have led us to frequenting the public house. If beer and spirits had been as plenty as water, what drunkards we should have all been! and then the broils that would have followed! No, Jackson, it is better as it is: idleness is the parent of vice, you know."


"Why, now you are not consistent," quoth Jackson: "if it is good for man to labour, why get machines to do the work instead of us?"


"Not for the sake of being idle," replied Hopkins; "but because the less labour we bestow on one thing, the more we shall have to give to another; and the less labour things cost, the cheaper we shall buy them. Now, it is quite as important for us to have things cheap as to have plenty of work; for the wages of one week will buy as much of cheap goods as the wages of two weeks will of dear ones. And I have told you, over and over again, (but I cannot hammer it into your head,) that the way to make things cheap is to produce them by machinery. When wind, and water, and fire and steam do the work, the goods are sold so reasonably, that almost every one can afford to buy. You well know there's a much greater demand for cheap than for dear goods; and, in order to satisfy so great a demand, more and more must be made, and more hands taken in at the factory; till, in the end, many more come to be employed to manage the machinery than there was before to do the work without it. And, when increase of employment goes along with cheapness of production, you have every thing you can wish;—more commodities, more work, and more comfort and enjoyment within your reach."


"And, pray, where did you pick up all this learning?" enquired Jackson. "It's surely never out of your own head."—"No, for a truth," replied Hopkins; "my head has, however, been given to these matters for a long time past; and I never missed gathering what I could from those who knew more than myself. I have learnt a good deal from talking with my landlord, who has a great knack at these things, and he gave me a little book, called 'The Working Man's Companion;' but, small as it is, there's a world of knowledge in it. "I found it rather hard at first; but he helped me on with it by an explanation now and then; and it's there I learnt all the good that comes of machinery, and the folly and wickedness of opposing it."


"Well, I should like to see the book," said Jackson.—"Here it is," returned Hopkins, producing the volume on the results of machinery. "Come, I will read you a bit," continued he, turning over the leaves till he came to a place which he thought suited his purpose. "Here," said he, "they are talking of a poor ignorant people called the New Zealanders, who had no machinery whatever; scarcely so much as a tool to work with.


"Page 31. 'The chief distinction between man in a rude, and man in a civilised state of society is, that the one wastes his force, whether natural or acquired; the other economises, that is, saves it. The man in a rude state has very rude instruments; he, therefore, wastes his force: the man in a civilised state has very perfect ones; he, therefore, economises it.... One of the chiefs of the people of New Zealand, who, from their intercourse with Englishmen, had learnt the value of tools, told Mr. Marsden, a missionary, that his wooden spades were all broken, and he had not an axe to make any more:—his canoes were all broken, and he had not a nail or a gimlet to mend them with:—his potatoe grounds were uncultivated, and he had not a hoe to break them up with:—and that, for want of cultivation, he and his people would have nothing to eat. This shows you the state of the people without tools.......


"'The New Zealanders live exactly on the opposite side of our globe; and, therefore, very seldom come near us; but, when they do come, they are acute enough to perceive the advantages which machinery has conferred upon us: and the great distance, in point of comfort, between their state and ours, principally for the reason that they have no machinery, while we have a great deal. One of these poor men burst into tears when he saw a rope-walk, because he perceived the immense superiority which the process of spinning ropes gave us over his countrymen. Another of these people, and he was a shrewd and intelligent man, carried back to his country a small hand-mill for grinding corn, which he prized as the greatest of all earthly possessions.'


"Now," continued Hopkins, laying down his book, "you must know that Old England and New Zealand are much of a size; and, while we have twenty-six millions of people, New Zealand has only ten thousand; that is, two thousand six hundred men in England to one in New Zealand. And, moreover, one of us working people in England is better off by far than the chiefs of New Zealand;—better fed, better clothed, and more comforts in every respect: and that because they have not yet found out how to make wind, and water, and fire, and steam work for them; and so they remain poor, half starved, half naked savages, living in huts, such as you would scarcely put a pig in.


"And, do you know, Jackson, that, if you read the history of England, you will see that, once upon a time, (it's ages ago; before any factories were set up,) England was no better off than New Zealand; so you see what we have gained by our machinery."


Jackson still looked discontented; and Hopkins confessed that his was a hard case, a very hard case; "But you cannot," added he, "say that the power-loom does an injury to the people at large. If the weaving is cheaper done by it, the goods are cheaper sold; and all those who buy are gainers by it; you and I as well as others. You are always harping after the loss you make as a weaver, and never think of the benefit you receive as a consumer."


"Much good will the cheap weaving do me here," cried Jackson, "when I am far away."


"I don't know for that," replied Hopkins; "go where you will, the English manufactures will follow you; especially in America; and there you would not be sorry to get them as low as you could."


"All I know," grumbled Jackson, "is, that the power-loom has been the ruin of me here."


"But when we talk of the good of the people and the good of the country," said Hopkins, emphatically, "we must remember that there are others in the country besides yourself and your fellow weavers at the hand-loom. You are the only sufferers, whilst the whole of the population are gainers. Now, I ask you, would it be fair to set aside the power-loom merely to benefit these few, to the loss of millions of men? It would be injuring ten thousand, at least, for the good of one. Then, let me tell you, if you had not stuck so obstinately to your hand-loom, though losing ground by it every year, you might have turned your hand to something else, as many others have done. I have been told there are no less than twenty thousand journeymen silk weavers who were turned adrift, and are now working at the cotton factory at Manchester. One must take courage, man, and go along with the stream; for we cannot stop it, do what we will. Many have tried hard at it by rioting and violence; but what was the end of it? The rioters were always put down, sooner or later: some were hanged, others transported, and the improvements in machinery went on all the same."


"They had their revenge, however, on the masters of the factories," said Jackson; "for many a steam-engine and a factory has been destroyed in such riots."


"And where's the good of that?" cried Hopkins: "why, it is burning your own house to set your neighbour's stables on fire! for, when the factory is destroyed, the workmen are all turned adrift; and what are they to do? no one will employ them; so, for one master ruined, there are perhaps five hundred of his men in the same predicament. Then take the people at large: the goods the factory made would become more scarce and dearer than before; and they would suffer from this till the factory was rebuilt and placed again upon the old footing. So, after quarrelling, and fighting, and being punished, (some by the law, others by their own folly,) you just return to the point from whence you set out. Can there be greater madness, than, when you want to live cheap, to destroy the very means of making things so? Why, it is much of a piece with burning the stacks of corn to make bread cheaper. No, believe me, if you could show a machine to be an evil, you only increase the evil by attempting to destroy it. Master manufacturers will make their goods at the cheapest rate: do what you will, you can't prevent it; and I say, thank God for it: for the cheaper they make, the cheaper they sell; and we are all benefited by that. But, since you choose to seek your fortune elsewhere, why, I wish you success with all my heart; a prosperous voyage, and good luck at the end of it."


Upon this he shook Jackson cordially by the hand, and they took leave of each other; Hopkins fancying that his arguments had produced a great effect; but Jackson was too much blinded by his prejudices, and the losses he had sustained, for his mind to be open to conviction; and, as he went away, he mumbled to himself,—"Ay, it's fine talking; but where's the good of all these helps, when they do not help me to a single meal?"

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