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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

Chapter XIII. — Priest and Peasant

page 64

Chapter XIII.

Priest and Peasant.

My last utterance provoked the Bishops. Not that they needed much provocation; for all through the interview I could [unclear: plain] see their eagerness to interfere, and that they were only waiting for some plausible excuse that would enable them to veil [unclear: they] partisanship under the cloak of spiritual duty. My simile of the dishonest steward afforded them a splendid opportunity, and they did not miss it. About half a dozen of them "nudged" the one who had the broadest phylactery, and whom I therefore regarded as their chief. But how I came to know his nam[unclear: e], why he should have been known to me as the Right Reverence Caiaphas, D.D., LL.D., I am unable to tell, since I d[unclear: o] remember anybody having introduced him by that or any other name. With a solemn, but not angry face, he said:

"I protest against your likening landlords to thieves. Such language should not be used of honest men, however humble their station, still less of gentlemen who occupy the [unclear: forem] places in Church and State, and who on every occasion [unclear: whe] Christian work is to be done—"

"Your indignation, sir," I interrupted, "would be perfectly justified had I done so. I did not liken landowners to thieves but only wished to illustrate that land monopoly was not single wrong act, which might be forgiven and forgotten, bu[unclear: t] a perpetual wrong, and that the monopolist is in a positio[unclear: n] exacting tribute in continuity, so long as his monopol[unclear: y] allowed to exist."

"Still there is no need for using such offensive language,"

"I am sorry if my words have given offense. But, although aware of the unsavoriness of the simile, it was not mean[unclear: t] apply to persons, but to the institution of landownership. [unclear: Act] this being in my opinion morally indefensible, I naturally—and as I think, legitimately—am endeavoring to present it in [unclear: its] native ugliness. The simile was, perhaps, an unfortunate one and I hasten to substitute another for it. We will suppose then, a village community living on what they produce from woods, fields, and meadows, and that the only road which lead from the said woods and fields to their habitations was owner by an individual, and that this individual, by virtue o[unclear: f] page 65 exceptionally advantageous position, did—well, did not take from the people, but had the power to make them give a certain amount of gate-money before they could carry their crops to their homes. Suppose, also, that the amount of this 'toll' was determined by the quantity which the people have raised in the fields; or, worse still, by the quantity which the man on the road thought they might or could have raised; taking all from those whose crop did not come up to his expectations, and nearly all from those who did exceptionally well; leaving them just sufficient to support life, so that they might be able to come again that way with fresh supplies, and thereby enable him to take fresh booty—"

"Stop!" exclaimed the Bishop. "Instead of softening down, you only aggravate your offense. Why, you are now actually describing a highwayman."

"That's very unfortunate for your cause," said I; "for I was only describing the functions of landlordism."

"Then you had better leave it alone altogether. Your similes are most objectionable. I know your views, and agree, in the abstract, with much what you say. As for the poor, I need hardly tell you that they have all my sympathies. But—"

"But?"—I asked impatiently, at hearing once more these stale, threadbare platitudes.

"My son," replied the Bishop, with pious emotion, "two wrongs do not make a right. You cannot right past wrongs by committing new ones, perhaps more grievous than the first."

"Good Heavens!" I exclaimed. "Do you call it wrong to stop wrong-doing?"

"You are interfering with ancient customs and institutions."

"Would you have us understand that the injunction 'Thou Shalt Not Steal,' does not apply where theft can be shown to have been an ancient custom?"

You are again using strong language. These gentlemen here have their documents, which secure to them certain rights. God forbid that the nation should break its moral obligations."

"Obligations! Moral obligations! Where is the morality of the thing? Is it in the fact that millions of people are daily born into this world without a resting place for the soles of their feet?'

"I fear you are too wordly-minded, and think of people's soles before you think of their souls."

"Because they have soles first; and if there is no sure resting-ground for these, the soul cannot healthily develop. We will pass by the untold misery, the starvation, the disappointed hopes, and broken hearts of the millions of disinherited people, occasioned by this confiscation of the soil. I will not reason with you that all this suffering need not have existed but for this monstrously iniquitous institution, which, page 66 till now, deprived the masses of their patrimony (for surel[unclear: y], you, right reverend sir, I may speak of the land as the Patrimony of the people without fear of being reminded that there are no natural rights!), but will confine my remark[unclear: s] the share this ancient custom had in producing crime and vice, Did it never occur to you that fully ninety-nine per cent of all crime and vice may be traced to land monopoly?"

"That is a ridiculous statement to make. Lying and hypocrisy are great vices, but I fail to see any connection between these and land monopoly."

"Because you are blind, reverend leader of the blind Bethink yourself, and see whether most of the crimes and [unclear: vice] are not begotten of poverty or the fear of poverty. Burgling stealing, cheating, swindling, forgery, legacy hunting, [unclear: arson] child murder, and suicides: are not all these crimes committee out of need or for the sake of pecuniary gain? And is not this eagerness for wealth, where it is not occasioned by actual poverty and want, due to a fear of poverty? Even lawyers quibblings, the perjuries in the law courts, and certainly [unclear: simons] may be included in the list of sinful acts which spring from this source. Now, I put it to you whether there is any necessity for that fear of poverty; whether, if each pair of hands were free to work, each mouth could not get its loaf of bread; whethe[unclear: r], the people were not denied access to bountiful Nature, there would be that stern necessity for taking thought for their life what they shall eat, or wherewithal they shall clothe themselves?

"Ah! it's perverse human nature."

"You libel human nature, which is capable of greatness and nobility, were it not stunted by unnatural conditions. Human nature is prompted by the natural instinct of self-preservation. Put no impediment in the way of their existence, and men an kind and noble. Threaten their existence, and they becomes fierce and ferocious. When you are sitting at your sumptuous table, with full knowledge that there will be more than enough to satisfy the appetites of all those present, you are kind and attentive to your neighbor. The soup that has been placed before you, you pass courteously to him, because you know you will not lose by your politeness. But fancy yourself on a desolate island in company with several thousand fellow-beings with just a few ship-biscuits, barely sufficient for a day's provisions, and with no hope of immediate relief. It is under conditions like these that human nature becomes perverse. There is a general stampede and rush for the means of life—a struggle for existence, in which the bestial instincts gain mastery over the finer qualities of man. And if some of the nobler souls escape becoming murderers of their fellow-men for the sake of a morsel, it is only because they have hearts stout enough to take their own lives by preference."

page 67

"That's a horrid picture

"It is the picture you have beheld all your life, and the loss of which you are now lamenting on moral grounds. I repeat my challenge. Excepting the crimes due to the jealousies of the sexes, or occasioned by mental aberrations, could you name me a single crime that is not traceable, directly or indirectly, to poverty or the fear of poverty? Add to that the thousands of poor wretches who, under the shadow of your own palace and cathedral, walk the streets in shame, forced to it mostly by poverty—or ignorance, the result of poverty—and then tell me where the moral obligation comes in to perpetuate the institution which is the primary cause of all this."

"You introduce a lot of irrelevant matter. These deeds," pointing to the parchments, "secure to their owners certain rights, which can be withheld only by the committal of an immoral act."

"You argue more like a lawyer than a bishop. That is, you are pleading morality as a justification for perpetuating the grossest of all immoralities."


"Oh! you need not be outraged! Maybe you are doing so in ignorance. But the fact remains, nevertheless, as I will show you. Suppose I owe a man a sum of money, but that he has neither a note from me nor any witnesses to prove me his debtor. Would it then be moral in me to refuse payment because the creditor could not prove my indebtedness?"

"That would be grossly immoral, indeed."

"Or suppose that a man did possess a writing which set out that I was his debtor, but that I had paid the debt or never received the loan, or that the writing was a forgery. Indeed, I allow you to suppose any explanation you please, the facts being that I did not owe any money to Jones, although he possessed a deed to the contrary. Would Jones, under such circumstances, still have a moral claim on me? And would it be my moral duty to thrust those dependent on me into hopeless poverty, and pay Jones the amount set forth in the document?"

"Certainly not."

"Then your moral argument, based on the fact that these people possess parchments, falls to the ground if you cannot show the justice of the claim. You would have to show first, what none of your clique has as yet attempted, that the earth belongs of right to the parchment lairds."

"You travesty the Bible."

"No; it is you who travesty it. The verse in question reads, 'The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof.' Show me a parchment signed by this Lord, and its provisions shall be carried out. Of course," I added, as a precaution, remembering the great talent for "interpretations" which Bishops sometimes page 68 display, "you would have to convince us first of the genuineness of the signature."

There must have been a sting in my last remark, for the Bishop, hitherto full of meekness and humility, suddenly flared up.

"The Lord you speak of has given us certain commandments, he said in a severe tone, "which it is my duty to see should not be broken. You have the masses with you because you appeal to their sordid natures, and tempt them with filthy lucre. Its for this reason that we are here, to remind you and the people of the commandment, 'Thou shalt not covet.'"

This piece of ecclesiastical strategy took me by surprise, i had no immediate reply ready, and had no time to think of out For before the Bishop had finished his little impromptu [unclear: sermo], a brawny man with an honest sunburnt face, wearing a smock and slouched hat, sprang forward, like a lion suddenly roused on hearing the words, "Thou shalt not covet." His appearand was so sudden and unexpected, his countenance so earnest and determined, that it froze the rest of the sentence in the Bishop's throat.

"Thou—shalt—not—covet," he repeated with great deliberation, making a short pause after each word. "That's me Bishop. It's I who am so covetous as to want a loaf—a whole loaf, mind you—for every one of my children. Each of the: has been sent by God, and every one of them has a mouth and you have told me that God never sends a mouth but what He sends a loaf. I want delivery of what has been sent for my children. I will not stand by any longer and see them robbed of their share. I am covetous, you see. I covet what is their's and will not see them starving, and give them cause to curse the hour that has made them see the light of life, while the gifts our All-Father intended for them, are taken from them under the authority and with the sanction of the Church."

"There, there!" said the Bishop. "Do you see now the fruits of your doings?"

"The fruits of his doings?" continued the farmer. "Let me tell you first the fruits of your doings."

And turning toward myself—"You spoke of a man owing the road that leads from the fields to the village. I have passed that road, and had to unload many and many a time. But it's not quite correct as you told the story. The landlord not only owned the high-road, but the fields and huts as well. And he didn't keep watch on the road to plunder the wayfarer, as you said he did, but spent his time in France and Italy, while I had to toil from day to day, until I could barely rest my wearied bones for pain. Had he been on the high-road when I carted home my crop, and robbed me there of it, it would have been a mercy compared to the agony I had sometimes to endure."

page 69

And after a pause, broken only by the sobs of a few women and children behind him, he continued:

"No; my landlord has never stopped me on the road. I was allowed to cart the crop home; I had it under my roof, with the children crying for food, and I durst not touch it—dared not take a handful of grain to make them a porridge—because I was backward with my rent. The crop I had gathered was not sufficient to make it up, and I under notice to quit if I could not pay up within twenty-four hours. This is far more cruel than being robbed by a highwayman—to stand between one's own hungry children and the food, warding them off lest they might be turned out of doors. I am telling you nothing but a fact, sir. The wife cut up carefully the last crust she had, divided it among our hungry children, moistened—aye, literally drenched—with her tears. Ah, my Lord Bishop, had you seen the children that night eagerly snatching the bits of crust from their mothers trembling hands, while their father was guarding his lordship's rent against their hunger, you would have seen what a covetous lot they were. Yet of such is the kingdom of heaven—of children who, before they had yet learnt the Sacred Rights of Property, are already conscious of the Sacred Rights of Life. I drove to market, sold the loaves which God had sent for my bairns, and took the money to his lordship's agent."

"You have then acted as an honest man," interposed the Bishop.

"No; I acted as a thief to my own children, and may God forgive me the sin. For when I came home one of my children, the youngest, was dead, because the mother had no milk for it; and the wife died the next day of a broken heart. And in all this misery I was threatened to be turned out of my home because I could not pay up the whole of my arrears."

"You are ungrateful, John," remonstrated the Bishop, who seemed to know him well; "for at the time, your case having been a very hard one, a collection was made for you."

"Yes, to pay his lordship with. It is he who received every penny of what the kind folks—Heaven bless them for it—have given me. It was for him I was begging, so that we should not be turned out of our home in the midst of winter. I say our home," he added, after wiping away a tear, "for it was we who built it, the children helping to carry the stones; but it has been stolen from us under cover of law. You did not then preach of covetousness to his lordship."

"How ungrateful of you, John, to speak thus of his lordship, after all the kindness and forbearance he had shown you. Only last Christmas he gave all the poor of the parish a free dinner, and you and your children had a good feed."

The poor farmer, overcome by grief or shame, or both, made page 70 no reply, but buried his head in his hands. The Socialist answered for him:

"They would not have been in need of his degrading charity, had he not first robbed them of the fruits of their toil."

"Oh, what wicked language!" remonstrated the Bishop; "to say this of one of the kindest landlords. Only a few yean ago he granted a plot of land, and to Dissenters too, for a chapel—"

"How kind! Actually permitted Englishmen to worship their God in England!"

"And granted two acres of land to the parish at half-price for a cemetery."

"And you think it wise to remind us of the fact that the people could not even rot in their native land without his lordship's sanction?"

"What wicked language! And that of one who did the bidding of his Master by giving to the poor—"

"Who was it that made them poor?"

"Alas! it is the inscrutable will of the Lord. 'The poor ye have always with you,' and He made some poor and some rich, so that the latter should manifest their charity toward the former."*

"It is a lie and libel; it's rank blasphemy!" exclaimed John, who was stung by this remark. And had I not interfered in time, it might have gone hard with the Bishop. There was considerable confusion for some time, and I had great difficulty in restraining John's sinewy arm. At last I succeeded. And in the meantime all the Bishops had disappeared, and with them, as I thought, the last plea of landlordism—namely, the plea on moral grounds.


* Vide a sermon by the Bishop of Salisbury some time back.