He looked — well, he merely looked dubious, it's the most I can say; so did the others. I waited — to let the thing work. Dowley spoke at last — and betrayed the fact that he actually hadn't gotten away from his rooted and grounded superstitions yet. He said, with a trifle of hesitancy:
"But — but — ye cannot fail to grant that two mills a day is better than one."
Shucks! Well, of course, I hated to give it up. So I chanced another flyer:
"Let us suppose a case. Suppose one of your journeymen goes out and buys the following articles:
"1 pound of salt; 1 dozen eggs; 1 dozen pints of beer; 1 bushel of wheat; 1 tow-linen suit; 5 pounds of beef; 5 pounds of mutton.
"The lot will cost him 32 cents. It takes him 32 working days to earn the money — 5 weeks and 2 days. Let him come to us and work 32 days at half the wages; he can buy all those things for a shade under 14 1/2 cents; they will cost him a shade under 29 days' work, and he will have about half a week's wages over. Carry it through the year; he would save nearly a week's wages every two months, your man nothing; thus saving five or six weeks' wages in a year, your man not a cent. Now I reckon you understand that 'high wages' and 'low wages' are phrases that don't mean anything in the world until you find out which of them will buy the most!"
It was a crusher.
But, alas! it didn't crush. No, I had to give it up. What those people valued was high wages ; it didn't seem to be a matter of any consequence to them whether the high wages would buy anything or not. They stood for "protection," and swore by it, which was reasonable enough, because interested parties had gulled them into the notion that it was protection which had created their high wages. I proved to them that in a quarter of a century their wages had advanced but 30 per cent., while the cost of living had gone up 100; and that with us, in a shorter time, wages had advanced 40 per cent. while the cost of living had gone steadily down. But it didn't do any good. Nothing could unseat their strange beliefs.
Well, I was smarting under a sense of defeat. Undeserved defeat, but what of that? That didn't soften the smart any. And to think of the circumstances! the first statesman of the age, the capablest man, the best-informed man in the entire world, the loftiest uncrowned head that had moved through the clouds of any political firmament for centuries, sitting here apparently defeated in argument by an ignorant country blacksmith! And I could see that those others were sorry for me — which made me blush till I could smell my whiskers scorching. Put yourself in my place; feel as mean as I did, as ashamed as I felt — wouldn't you have struck below the belt to get even? Yes, you would; it is simply human nature. Well, that is what I did. I am not trying to justify it; I'm only saying that I was mad, and anybody would have done it.
Well, when I make up my mind to hit a man, I don't plan out a love-tap; no, that isn't my way; as long as I'm going to hit him at all, I'm going to hit him a lifter. And I don't jump at him all of a sudden, and risk making a blundering half-way business of it; no, I get away off yonder to one side, and work up on him gradually, so that he never suspects that I'm going to hit him at all; and by and by, all in a flash, he's flat on his back, and he can't tell for the life of him how it all happened. That is the way I went for brother Dowley. I started to talking lazy and comfortable, as if I was just talking to pass the time; and the oldest man in the world couldn't have taken the bearings of my starting place and guessed where I was going to fetch up:
"Boys, there's a good many curious things about law, and custom, and usage, and all that sort of thing, when you come to look at it; yes, and about the drift and progress of human opinion and movement, too. There are written laws — they perish; but there are also unwritten laws — they are eternal. Take the unwritten law of wages: it says they've got to advance, little by little, straight through the centuries. And notice how it works. We know what wages are now, here and there and yonder; we strike an average, and say that's the wages of to-day. We know what the wages were a hundred years ago, and what they were two hundred years ago; that's as far back as we can get, but it suffices to give us the law of progress, the measure and rate of the periodical augmentation; and so, without a document to help us, we can come pretty close to determining what the wages were three and four and five hundred years ago. Good, so far. Do we stop there? No. We stop looking backward; we face around and apply the law to the future. My friends, I can tell you what people's wages are going to be at any date in the future you want to know, for hundreds and hundreds of years."
"What, goodman, what!"
"Yes. In seven hundred years wages will have risen to six times what they are now, here in your region, and farm hands will be allowed 3 cents a day, and mechanics 6."
"I would't I might die now and live then!" interrupted Smug, the wheelwright, with a fine avaricious glow in his eye.
"And that isn't all; they'll get their board besides — such as it is: it won't bloat them. Two hundred and fifty years later — pay attention now — a mechanic's wages will be — mind you, this is law, not guesswork; a mechanic's wages will then be twenty cents a day!"
There was a general gasp of awed astonishment, Dickon the mason murmured, with raised eyes and hands:
"More than three weeks' pay for one day's work!"
"Riches! — of a truth, yes, riches!" muttered Marco, his breath coming quick and short, with excitement.
"Wages will keep on rising, little by little, little by little, as steadily as a tree grows, and at the end of three hundred and forty years more there'll be at least one country where the mechanic's average wage will be two hundred cents a day!"
It knocked them absolutely dumb! Not a man of them could get his breath for upwards of two minutes. Then the coal-burner said prayerfully:
"Might I but live to see it!"
"It is the income of an earl!" said Smug.
"An earl, say ye?" said Dowley; "ye could say more than that and speak no lie; there's no earl in the realm of Bagdemagus that hath an income like to that. Income of an earl — mf! it's the income of an angel!"
"Now, then, that is what is going to happen as regards wages. In that remote day, that man will earn, with one week's work, that bill of goods which it takes you upwards of fifty weeks to earn now. Some other pretty surprising things are going to happen, too. Brother Dowley, who is it that determines, every spring, what the particular wage of each kind of mechanic, laborer, and servant shall be for that year?"
"Sometimes the courts, sometimes the town council; but most of all, the magistrate. Ye may say, in general terms, it is the magistrate that fixes the wages."
"Doesn't ask any of those poor devils to help him fix their wages for them, does he?"
"Hm! That were an idea! The master that's to pay him the money is the one that's rightly concerned in that matter, ye will notice."
"Yes — but I thought the other man might have some little trifle at stake in it, too; and even his wife and children, poor creatures. The masters are these: nobles, rich men, the prosperous generally. These few, who do no work, determine what pay the vast hive shall have who do work. You see? They're a 'combine' — a trade union, to coin a new phrase — who band themselves together to force their lowly brother to take what they choose to give. Thirteen hundred years hence — so says the unwritten law — the 'combine' will be the other way, and then how these fine people's posterity will fume and fret and grit their teeth over the insolent tyranny of trade unions! Yes, indeed! the magistrate will tranquilly arrange the wages from now clear away down into the nineteenth century; and then all of a sudden the wage-earner will consider that a couple of thousand years or so is enough of this one-sided sort of thing; and he will rise up and take a hand in fixing his wages himself. Ah, he will have a long and bitter account of wrong and humiliation to settle."
"Do ye believe — "
"That he actually will help to fix his own wages? Yes, indeed. And he will be strong and able, then."
"Brave times, brave times, of a truth!" sneered the prosperous smith.
"Oh, — and there's another detail. In that day, a master may hire a man for only just one day, or one week, or one month at a time, if he wants to."
"It's true. Moreover, a magistrate won't be able to force a man to work for a master a whole year on a stretch whether the man wants to or not."
"Will there be no law or sense in that day?"