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Chambers, William / Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 421 Volume 17, New Series, January 24, 1852
Produced by Malcolm Farmer, Richard J. Shiffer and the PG Online
Distributed Proofreading Team






CHAMBERS' EDINBURGH JOURNAL


CONDUCTED BY WILLIAM AND ROBERT CHAMBERS, EDITORS OF 'CHAMBERS'S
INFORMATION FOR THE PEOPLE,' 'CHAMBERS'S EDUCATIONAL COURSE,' &c.


No. 421. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, JANUARY 24, 1852. PRICE 1-1/2_d_




THE WOLF-GATHERING.


One winter evening some years ago, I sat with a small circle of
friends round the fire, in the house of a Polish gentleman, whom his
acquaintances agreed in calling Mr Charles, as the most pronounceable
of his names. He had fought in all his country's battles of the
unsuccessful revolution of 1831; and being one of the many who sought
life and liberty in the British dominions, on the failure of that last
national effort, he had, with a spirit worthy of an exiled patriot,
made the best of his unchosen fortunes, and worked his way up, through
a thousand difficulties and privations, to a respectable standing in
the mercantile profession. At the period mentioned, Mr Charles had
become almost naturalised in one of our great commercial towns, was a
member of a British church, and the head of a British household; but
when the conversation happened to turn on sporting matters round his
own fireside, he related in perfect seriousness the following wild and
legend-like story of his early life in Poland:--

The year before the rising, I went from my native place in Samogitia
(Szamaďt), to spend Christmas at the house of my uncle, situated in
the wooded country of Upper Lithuania. He was a nobleman who boasted
his descent from one of the oldest houses in Poland, and still held
the estate which his ancestors had defended for themselves through
many a Tartar invasion--as much land as a hunting-train could course
over in a summer's day. But ample as his domain appeared, my uncle was
by no means rich upon it. The greater portion had been forest-land for
ages; elsewhere it was occupied by poor peasants and their fields; and
in the centre he lived, after the fashion of his forefathers, in a
huge timber-house with antiquated fortifications, where he exercised
liberal hospitality, especially at Christmas times. My uncle was a
widower, but he had three sons--Armand, Henrique, and
Constantine--brave, handsome young men, who kept close intimacy and
right merry companionship with their nearest neighbours, a family
named Lorenski. Their property bordered on my uncle's land, and there
was not a family of their station within leagues; but independently of
that circumstance, the household must have had attractions for my
cousins, for it consisted of the young Count Emerich, his sister
Constanza, and two orphan cousins, Marcella and Eustachia, who had
been brought up with them from childhood.

The count's parents had died in his early youth, leaving him not only
his own guardian, but that of his sister and cousins; and the young
people had grown up safely and happily together in that forest-land.
The cousins were like most of our Polish girls in the provinces,
dark-eyed and comely, gay and fearless, and ready alike for the dance
or the chase; but Count Emerich and his sister had the praise of the
whole province for their noble carriage, their wise and virtuous
lives, and the great affection that was between them. Both had strange
courage, and were said to fear neither ghost nor goblin--which, I must
remark, was not a common case in Lithuania. Constanza was the oldest
by two years, and by far the most discreet and calm of temper, by
which it was believed she rather ruled the household, though her
brother had a high and fiery spirit. But they were never known to
disagree, and, though still young, neither seemed to think of
marrying. Fortunately, it was not so with all their neighbours. My
stay at my uncle's house had not been long when I found out that
Armand was as good as engaged to Marcella, and Henrique to Eustachia,
while Constantine, the youngest and handsomest of the three brothers,
paid vain though deferential court to Constanza.

The rising was not then publicly talked of, though known to be in full
preparation throughout the country. All the young and brave hearts
among us were pledged to it, and my cousins did not hesitate to tell
me in confidence that Count Emerich and his sister were its chief
promoters in that district. They had a devoted assistant in Father
Cassimer. He had been their mother's confessor, and lived in the house
for five-and-thirty years, saying mass regularly in the parish church,
a pine-built edifice on the edge of the forest. Father Cassimer's hair
was like snow; but he was still erect, strong, and active. He said the
church could not spare him, and he would live to a hundred. In some
respects, the man did deserve a century, being a good Pole and a
worthy priest, notwithstanding one weakness which beset him, for
Father Cassimer took special delight in hunting. It was said that
once, when robed for mass, a wild boar chanced to stray past; whereon
the good priest mounted his horse, which was usually fastened to the
church-door, and started after the game in full canonicals. That was
in his youth; but Father Cassimer never denied the tale, and the
peasants who remembered it had no less confidence in his prayers, for
they knew he loved his country, and looked after the sick and poor.
The priest was my cousin's instructor in wood-craft, and the
boon-companion of my uncle; but scarcely had I got well acquainted
with him and the Lorenskis, when two Christmas visitors arrived at
their house.

They were a brother and sister, Russian nobles, known as Count
Theodore and Countess Juana. Their native place was St Petersburg, but
they had spent years in travelling over Europe; and though nobody
knew the extent of their estates, it was supposed to be great, for
they spared no expense, and always kept the best society. Latterly
they had been somehow attracted to Poland, and became so popular among
our country nobles, that they were invited from house to house, making
new friends wherever they went, for Russians though they were, they
wished well to our country, and, among their intimates, spoke of
liberty and justice with singular eloquence. Considering this, their
popularity was no wonder. A handsomer or more accomplished pair I
never saw. Both were tall, fair, and graceful, with hair of a light
golden shade--the sister's descending almost to her feet when
unbraided, and the brother's clustering in rich curls about the brow.
They knew the dances of all nations, could play anything that was ever
invented, whether game or instrument, and talked in every tongue of
Europe, from Romaic to Swedish. Both could ride like Arabs. Count
Theodore was a splendid shot, his sister was matchless in singing, and
neither was ever tired of fun or frolic. They seemed of the Lorenskis'
years, but had seen more of the world; and though scarcely so
dignified, most people preferred the frank familiarity and lively
converse of the travelled Russians.

The Lorenskis themselves could not but applaud that general
preference. They and the travellers had become fast friends almost on
their first acquaintance, which took place in the previous winter; and
Count Theodore and his sister had performed a long wintry journey from
St Petersburg, to celebrate the Christmas-time with them. Peasants and
servants rejoiced at their coming, for they were known to be liberal.
The old priest said it had never been his luck to see anything decent
out of Russia before, and my uncle's entire household were delighted,
with the exception of Constantine. By and by, I guessed the cause of
his half-concealed displeasure. The brother of each pair took
wonderfully to the sister of the other. Count Theodore talked of
buying an estate in Lithuania; and the young cousins predicted, that
though Emerich and Constanza might be near neighbours, they would not
live all their days free and single. After the Russians' arrival,
there was nothing but sport among us. We had dances and concerts,
plays, and all manner of games; but the deep snow of our Polish winter
had not hardened to the usual strong ice, over marsh, river, and
forest-land. It continued falling day after day, shutting all our
amusements within doors, and preventing, to our general regret, the
wonted wolf-hunt, always kept up in Lithuania from the middle of
December till Christmas-eve.

It was a custom, time immemorial, in the province, and followed as
much for the amusement it afforded the young people, as for the
destruction of the deadly prowler. The mode of conducting it was this:
Every two or three families who chanced to be intimate when the ice
was sufficiently strong and smooth for sledge-travelling, sent forth a
party of young hunters, with their sisters and sweethearts, in a
sledge covered at the one end, which was also well cushioned and gaily
painted; the ladies in their best winter-dresses took possession of
it, while the hunters occupied the exposed part, with guns,
shot-pouches, and hunting-knives, in complete readiness. Beside the
driver, who was generally an old experienced hand, there was placed a
young hog, or a leg of pork, occasionally roasted to make the odour
more inviting, and packed up with cords and straw in a pretty tight
parcel, which was fastened to the sledge by a long rope twisted to
almost iron hardness. Away they drove at full speed; and when fairly
in the forest, the pork was thrown down, and allowed to drag after the
sledge, the smell of it bringing wolves from every quarter, while the
hunters fired at them as they advanced. I have seen a score of skins
collected in this manner, not to speak of the fun, the excitement, and
the opportunities for exhibiting one's marksmanship and courage where
one would most wish to have them seen.

The peasants said it was never lucky when Christmas came without a
wolf-hunt: but that year it was like to be so; for, as I have said,
the snow kept falling at intervals, with days of fog and thaw between,
till the night before the vigil. In my youth, the Lithuanians kept
Christmas after the fashion of old northern times. It began with great
devotion, and ended in greater feasting. The eve was considered
particularly sacred: many traditional ceremonies and strange beliefs
hung about it, and the more pious held that no one should engage in
any profane occupation, or think of going to sleep after sunset. When
it came, our disappointment concerning the wolf-hunt lay heavy on many
a mind as well as mine; but a strong frost had set in before daybreak,
and at the early nightfall a finer prospect for sledging could not be
desired--over the broad plain, and far between the forest pines; the
ice stretched away as smooth and bright as a mirror. The moon was
full, and the stars were out by thousands: you could have read large
print by the cold, clear light, as my cousins and I stood at my
uncle's door, fervently wishing it had been any other evening.
Suddenly, our ears caught the sound of bells and laughing voices, and
in a few minutes up drove the Lorenski sledge in its gayest trappings,
with Constanza, the Russian countess, and the young cousins, all
looking blithe, and rosy in the frosty air, while Emerich and Theodore
sat in true hunter's trim, and Father Cassimer himself in charge of
the reins, with the well-covered pork beside him. They had two noble
horses of the best Tatar blood, unequalled in the province, as we
knew, for speed and strength; and Emerich's cheerful voice first
saluted us with: 'Ho! friends, it is seven hours yet till midnight:
won't you come with us?--it is a shame to let Christmas in without a
wolf-skin!'

That was enough for us: we flew in for our equipments. My uncle was
not at first willing that we should go; but the merry company now at
his door, the unequivocal countenance which Father Cassimer gave to
the proceeding, and the high spirits of the young Russians, who were,
as usual, wild for the sport, made him think that, after all, there
was no harm in the young people taking an hour or two in the woods
before mass, which on Christmas-eve begins always at midnight. Our
hunting-gear was donned in a trice; and with my uncle's most trusty
man, Metski, to assist in driving, away we went at full speed to the
forest.

Father Cassimer was an experienced general in expeditions of the kind;
he knew the turns of the woods where the wolves scented best; and when
we had got fairly among the tall oaks, down went his pork. For some
time it dragged on without a single wolf appearing, though the odour
came strong and savoury through cords and straw.

'If I were a wolf myself, I would come for that,' said old Metski. The
priest quickened his speed, vowing he would not say mass without a
skin that night; and we got deeper into the wilderness of oak and
pine. Like most of our Lithuanian forests, it had no underwood. There
was ample space for our sledge among the great trees, and the
moonlight fell in a flood of brightness upon their huge white trunks,
and through the frost-covered branches. We could see the long icicles
gleaming like pendants of diamond for miles through the wide woods,
but never a wolf. The priest began to look disappointed; Metski
sympathised with him, for he relished a hunt almost as well as his
reverence; but all the rest, with the help of the Russians, amused
themselves with _making_ game. I have said they were in great spirits,
particularly Count Theodore; indeed he was generally the gayer of the
pair--his sister being evidently the more prudent--and in this respect
they resembled the Lorenskis. Many a jest, however, on the
non-appearance of the wolves went round our sledge, of which I
remember nothing now except that we all laughed till the old wood
rang.

'Be quiet, good children,' said the priest, turning in his seat of
command: 'you make noise enough to frighten all the wolves in
creation.'

'They won't come to-night, father; they are preparing for mass,' cried
Count Theodore. 'Juana, if the old Finn were here now, wouldn't he be
useful?'

'Perhaps he might,' said the countess, with a forced laugh; but she
cast a look of strange warning and reproof on her brother.

'What Finn?' said the priest, catching the count's words.

'Oh, he is talking of an old nursery-tale we had in St Petersburg,'
hastily interposed the lady, though I thought her face had no memory
of the nursery in it.

'About the Finns I'll warrant,' said Father Cassimer. 'They are a
strange people. My brother the merchant told me that he knew one of
them at Abo who said he had a charm for the wolves; but somebody
informed against him for smuggling, and the Russian government sent
him to the lead-mines in Siberia. By Saint Sigismund, there's the
first of them!'

As the priest spoke, a large wolf appeared, and half the guns in the
sledge were raised. 'Not yet, not yet,' said our experienced
commander, artfully turning away as another and another came in sight.
'There are more coming,' and he gradually slackened our pace; but far
off through the moonlit woods and the frozen night we could hear a
strange murmur, which grew and swelled on all sides to a chorus of
mingled howlings, and the wolves came on by troops.

'Fire now, friends!' cried Father Cassimer. 'We are like to have skins
enough for Christmas;' and bang went all our barrels. I saw five fall;
but, contrary to expectation, the wolves did not retire--they stood
for an instant snarling at us. The distant howlings continued and came
nearer; and then from every glade and alley, down the frozen streams,
and through the wide openings of the forest, came by scores and
hundreds such a multitude of wolves as we could not have believed to
exist in all Lithuania.

'Hand me my gun, and take the reins, Metski,' cried Father Cassimer.
'Drive for your life!' he added in an under tone; but every one in the
sledge heard him. Heaven knows how many we killed; but it seemed of no
use. Our pork was swallowed, straw and all. The creatures were
pressing upon us on every side, as if trying to surround the sledge;
and it was fearful to see the leaps that some gray old fellows among
them would take at Metski and the horses. Our driver did his part like
a man, making a thousand winds and turns through the woods; but still
the wolves pursued us. Fortunately, the firing kept them off, and,
thanks to our noble horses, they were never able to get ahead of us;
but as far as we could see behind us in the moonlight, came the
howling packs, as if rising from the ground of the forest. We had seen
nothing like it, and all did their best in firing, especially Count
Theodore; but his shots had little effect, for his hand shook, and I
know not if any but myself saw the looks of terrified intelligence
which he exchanged with his sister. Still, she and the Lady Constanza
kept up their courage, though the young cousins were as white as snow,
and our ammunition was fast decreasing.

'Yonder is a light,' said Constanza at last, as the poor horses became
unmanageable from fright and weariness. 'It is from the cottage of old
Wenzel, the woodman.'

'If we could reach that,' said Father Cassimer, 'and leave the horses
to their fate: it is our only chance.'

No one contradicted the priest's arrangement, for his last words were
felt to be true--though a pang passed over Constanza's face at the
thought of leaving our brave and faithful horses to the wolves: but
louder rose the howls behind us, as Metski urged on with all his
might, and far above all went the shout of Father Cassimer (he had the
best lungs in that province): 'Ho, Wenzel! open the door to us for
God's sake!'

We heard the old man reply, sent one well-aimed volley in among the
wolves, and as they recoiled, man and woman leaped from the
sledge--for our Polish girls are active--and rushed into the cottage,
when old Wenzel instantly double-barred the door. It was woful to hear
the cry of pain and terror from our poor horses as we deserted them;
the next instant the wolves were upon them. We saw them from the
window, as thick as ever flies stuck on sugar. How we fired upon them,
and with what good-will old Wenzel helped us, praying all the time to
every saint in the calendar, you may imagine! But still their numbers
were increasing; and as a pause came in the fearful din, we plainly
heard through the still air the boom of our own great bell, ringing
for the midnight mass. At that sound, Father Cassimer's countenance
fell for the first time. He knew the bellman was a poor half-witted
fellow, who would not be sensible of his absence; and then he turned
to have another shot at the wolves.

Shots were by this time getting scarce among us. There was not a man
had a charge left but old Wenzel, who had supplied us as long as he
could; but at length, loading his own gun with his last charge, he
laid it quietly in the corner, saying one didn't know what use might
be for it, and he never liked an empty gun.

Wenzel was the son of a small innkeeper at Grodno, but after his
father's decease, which occurred when he was a child, his mother had
married a Russian trader, who, when she died, carried the boy to
Moscow. There Wenzel bade fair to be brought up a Russian; but when a
stepmother came home, which took place while he was still a youth, he
had returned to his native country, built himself a hut in the woods
of Lithuania, and lived a lonely hunter till the time of my story,
when he was still a robust, though gray-haired man. Some said his
Muscovite parents had not been to his liking; some that he had found
cause to shoot a master to whom they apprenticed him at Moscow; but be
that as it might, Wenzel hated the Russians with all his heart, and
never scrupled to say that the gun which had served him so long would
serve the country too if it ever came to a rising. So much for
Wenzel's story, by way of explaining what followed; but as I stood
beside him that night at the hut's single crevice of a window, I could
have given Poland itself for ammunition enough to do service on the
wolves. They had now left nothing but the bones of our horses, which
they had dragged round and round the cottage, with a din of howlings
that almost drowned our voices within. Then they seized on the bodies
of their own slain companions, which were devoured to the very skins;
and still the gathering was going on. We could see them coming in
troops through the open glades of the forest, as if aware that some
human prey was in reserve. The hut was strongly built of great
pine-logs, but it was fearful to hear them tearing at the door and
scratching up the foundations. The bravest among us got terrified at
these sounds. Metski loudly avowed his belief that the wolves were
sent upon us as a punishment for hunting on Christmas-eve, and fell
instantly to his prayers. Wenzel flung a blazing brand among them from
the window, but they did not seem to care for fire; and three of them
were so near leaping in, that he drove to the log-shutter and gave up
that method of defence. None of the party appeared so far overcome
with terror as Count Theodore: his spirit and prudence both seemed to
forsake him. When the wolves began to scratch, he threw himself almost
on his face in the corner, and kept moaning and praying in Russian, of
which none of us understood a syllable but old Wenzel. Emerich and I
would have spoken to him, but the woodman stopped us with a strange
sign. Count Theodore had taken the relic of some saint from a
pocket-book which he carried in his breast, and was, in Russian
fashion as I think, confessing his sins over it; while his sister sat
silent and motionless by the fire, with livid face and clasped hands.
It was burning low, but I saw the woodman's face darken. He stepped to
the corner and took down his gun, as I believed, to take the last shot
at the wolves; but Count Theodore was in his way. He levelled it for
an instant at the prostrate man, and before I could speak or
interpose, the report, followed by a faint shrill shriek from the
Russian, rang through the hut. We rushed to him, but the count was
dead. A bullet had gone right through the heart.

'My gun has shot the count, and the wolves will leave us now,' said
Wenzel coolly. 'I heard him say in his prayers that a Finn, now in the
Siberian mines, had vowed to send them on him and his company wherever
he went.'

As the woodman spoke, he handed to Count Emerich, with a hoarse
whisper, a bloody pocket-book, taken from the dead body, and turning
to Juana, said something loud and threatening to her in the Russian
tongue; at which the lady only bowed her head, seeming of all in the
hut to be the least surprised or concerned at the death of her
brother. As for us, the complicated horrors of the night had left us
stunned and stupified till the rapid diminution of the wolfish din,
the sounds of shots and voices, and the glare of flambeaux lighting up
the forest, brought most of us to the window. The wolves were scouring
away in all directions, there was a grayness in the eastern sky, for
Christmas-day was breaking; and from all sides the count and my
uncle's tenantry, with skates and sledges, guns and torches, were
pouring to the rescue as we shouted to them from the cottage.

They had searched for us almost since midnight, fearing that something
terrible had detained Father Cassimer and his company from mass. There
were wonderfully few wolves shot in the retreat, and we all went home
to Count Emerich's house, but not in triumph, for with us went the
body of the Russian, of which old Wenzel was one of the bearers. The
unanimous determination we expressed to bring him to justice as a
murderer, was silenced when Emerich shewed us in confidence a letter
from the Russian minister, and a paper with all our names in a list of
the disaffected in Upper Lithuania, which he had found in Theodore's
pocket-book. After that, we all affirmed that Wenzel's gun had gone
off by accident; and on the same good Christmas-day, Count Emerich,
with a body of his retainers, escorted the Lady Juana to a convent at
the other end of the province, the superior of which was his aunt.
There she became a true Catholic, professed, and, as I was told,
turned to a great saint. There is a wooden cross with his name, and a
Latin inscription on it, marking Count Theodore's grave, by our old
church on the edge of the forest. No one ever inquired after him, and
the company of that terrible night are far scattered. My uncle and his
sons all died for the poor country. The young cousins are married to
German doctors in Berlin. Constanza and her brother are still single,
for aught I know, but they have been exiles in America these fifteen
years. Father Cassimer went with them, after being colonel of a
regiment which saw hard service on the banks of the Vistula; and it
may be that he is still saying mass or hunting occasionally in the Far
West.

The last time I saw Wenzel and Metski was in the trenches at Minsk,
where they had a tough debate regarding our adventure in the forest:
the woodman insisting it was the Finn's spell that brought the wolves
in such unheard-of numbers, and the peasant maintaining that it was a
judgment on our desecration of Christmas-eve. For my own part, I think
the long storm and a great scarcity of food had something to do with
it, for tales of the kind were never wanting in our province. The
wolf-gathering, however, saved us a journey to Siberia: thanks to old
Wenzel. And sometimes yet, when any strange noise breaks in upon my
sleep even here in England, I dream of being in his wild hut in the
forest and listening to the wolfish voices at the door.




THE DROLLERIES OF FALSE POLITICAL ECONOMY.

PLANS FOR PAYING THE NATIONAL DEBT.


It is not customary to associate the ludicrous with financial
operations--with budgets, schemes of taxation, and national debts. In
general, they are considered to assume a formidable aspect; and when
that is not the case, their details are looked on as dry and
uninteresting--they are universally voted a 'bore.' Yet we engage to
shew, that there have been some financial projects which at the
present day we can pronounce essentially ludicrous. And they are not
the mere projects of enthusiasts and theoretic dreamers. They were put
in practice on a large scale; they involved the disposal of millions
of money; and they were in operation at so late a period, that the
present generation paid heavy taxes for the purpose of carrying them
out--taxes paid for nothing better than the success of a practical
hoax.

The round hundreds of millions in which our national debt is set forth
seem to have often confused the brains of our most practical
arithmeticians and financiers. They seem to have felt as if these did
not represent real money, but something ideal; or perhaps we might
say, they have treated them like certain results of the operation of
figures which might be neutralised by others, as the equivalents on
the two sides of an equation exhaust each other. We never hear of a
man trying to pay his own personal debts otherwise than with money,
but we have had hundreds of projects for paying the national debt
without money, and generally through some curious and ingenious
arithmetical process. We might perhaps amuse our readers by an account
of some of these, for to their absurdity there are no bounds; but we
adhere in the meantime to our engagement, to shew that on this subject
even the practical projects of statesmen of our own day have been
ridiculous.

We shall suppose that some one has occasion for L.100, which he finds
a friend obliging enough to lend him. On receiving it, he requests the
loan of other L.10; and being asked for what purpose, he answers, that
with that L.10 he will pay up the original L.100. This is a rather
startling proposal; but when he is asked how he is to manage this
practical paradox, he says: 'Oh, I shall put out the L.10 to interest,
and in the course of time it will increase until it pays off the
L.100.' The lender is perhaps a little staggered at first by the
audacious plausibility of the proposal, but it requires but a few
seconds to enable him to say: 'Why, yes, you may lend out the L.10 at
interest; but in the meantime, as you have borrowed it, interest runs
against you upon it; so what better are you?' The lender, so far from
concurring with the sanguine hopes about the fructification of the
L.10, will only regret his having intrusted the larger sum to a person
whose notions of money are so loose and preposterous.

Yet the proposal would only have carried into private pecuniary
matters the principle of the sinking-fund, so long deemed a blessing,
and a source of future prosperity to the country. A sinking-fund is an
expression generally applied to any sum of money reserved out of
expenditure to pay debt, or meet any contingency. Now, observe that
our remarks are not directed against it in this simple form. A surplus
of revenue obtained by moderate taxation, saved through frugal
expenditure, and applied to the reduction of the national debt, is
always a good thing. But the sinking-fund to which we chiefly refer
was a system of borrowing money to pay debt. It might be said that the
identical money which was borrowed was not the same which was used for
paying the debt; but it came to the same thing if the sinking-fund was
kept up while the nation was borrowing. Thus, taking the case of the
private borrower as we have already put it, if he took L.10 of his own
money and put it out at interest, that it might increase and pay off
his loan, and if, by so doing, he found it necessary to borrow L.110,
instead of merely L.100, it was virtually the same as if he applied
L.10 of the borrowed money for his sinking-fund. Thus for the year
1808, the state required L.12,200,000 in loan above what the taxes
produced. But in the same year L.1,200,000 were applied to the
sinking-fund; consequently, it was necessary to borrow so much more,
and therefore the whole loan of that year amounted to L.13,400,000.
The loan was increased exactly in the way in which our friend added
the L.10 to the L.100. It was borrowing money to pay loans.

The application of millions in this manner by our statesmen, was in a
great measure owing to the enthusiastic speculations of Dr Richard
Price, a benevolent, ingenious, and laborious man, who, unfortunately
for the public, possessed the power of giving his wild speculations a
tangible and practical appearance. He was, to use a common expression,
'carried off his feet' by arithmetical calculations. He believed
compound interest to be omnipotent. He made a calculation of what a
penny could have come to if laid out at compound interest from the
birth of Christ to the nineteenth century, and found it would make--we
forget precisely how many globes of gold the size of this earth. He
did not say, however, where the proper investments were to be made;
how the money was to be procured; and, most serious of all, he
overlooked that where one party received such an accumulating amount
of money, some other party must pay it, and to pay it must make it. In
fact, the doctor looked on the increase of money by compound interest
as a mere arithmetical process. The world, however, finds it to be a
process of working, and the making of money by toil, parsimony, and
anxiety.

When any one seizes on such a theme he is sure to be carried to
extremities with it. It was one of Price's favourite theories, that
the time when interest was highest was the best time for borrowing
money, because the borrowed sinking-fund would then bring the highest
interest. One is astonished in times like these, when people think
taxes and national debt so serious, at the easy carelessness with
which the doctor treats the disease, and his sure remedy. He says in
his celebrated work on Annuities (i. 277): 'It is an observation that
deserves particular attention here, that in this plan it will be of
less importance to a state what interest it is obliged to give for
money; _for the higher the interest, the sooner will such a sum pay
off the principal_. Thus, L.100,000,000 borrowed at 8 per cent., and
bearing an annual interest of L.8,000,000, would be paid off by a fund
producing annually L.100,000 in fifty-six years; that is, in
thirty-eight years less time than if the same money had been borrowed
at 4 per cent. Hence it follows that reductions of interest would in
this plan be no great advantage to a state. They would indeed lighten
its present burdens; but this advantage would be in some measure
balanced by the addition which would be made to its future burdens, in
consequence of the longer time during which it would be necessary to
bear them.'

'Certain it is, therefore,' says the doctor, in a general survey of
his arithmetical salvation of the country, 'that if our affairs are to
be relieved, it must be by a fund increasing itself in the manner I
have explained. The smallest fund of this kind is indeed omnipotent,
if it is allowed time to operate.' And again: 'It might be easily
shewn that the faithful application from the beginning of the year
1700, of only L.200,000 annually, would long before 1790,
notwithstanding the reductions of interest, have paid off above
L.100,000,000 of the public debts. The nation might therefore some
years ago have been eased of a great part of the taxes with which it
is loaded. The most important relief might have been given to its
trade and manufactures; and it might now have been in better
circumstances than at the beginning of last war: its credit firm;
respected by foreign nations, and dreaded by its enemies.'

That such a tone should be assumed by an enthusiastic speculator is
not wonderful. The payment of the national debt has been one of the
staple dreams of enthusiasts. It would be difficult to believe the
wild nonsense that has been written on it; and Hogarth, in his
dreadful picture of a madhouse, appropriately represents one of his
principal figures hard at work on it. But the remarkable thing--and
what shews the perilous nature of such speculations--is, that these
theories were worked out by chancellors of the exchequer, and adopted
by parliament. There was a faint sinking-fund so early as 1716; but
Walpole one day swept it up and spent it, having probably just
discovered that it was a fallacy. It was in the days of the younger
Pitt, however, that it came out in full bloom. After it had been for
several years in operation, a retired and absent-minded mathematical
student, Robert Hamilton, shewed its falsity in a book printed in
1813. The exposure was conclusive, and no one since that time has
ventured to support a sinking-fund.

As already stated, it is a very good thing to save something out of
the revenue and pay off part of the debt. But no good is done by
keeping it to accumulate at interest, because the debt it would pay
off is just accumulating against it. Apply this to private
transactions. You are in debt L.110. You have L.10, and the question
is: Are you to pay it at once, and reduce your debt to L.100, or are
you to keep it accumulating at interest? It is much the same which you
do, only the latter is the more troublesome mode. If you pay it at
once, you will just have so much less interest to hand over to your
creditor. If you put it out at interest, you will have to pay over to
him what you receive for it, in addition to the interest of the L.100.
There is an incidental purpose for which it has been deemed right that
the government should, however, have a fund at its disposal--that is
for buying into the funds when they fall very low, and thus
accomplishing two services--the one the paying a portion of the debt
at a cheap rate, the other stopping the depreciation of the funds.
This is in itself we doubt not a very just practical object, but we
believe the sums that can be applied to it are very small in
comparison with the reserves which formed the old sinking-fund.

But another and a very different argument has been adduced, not
certainly for the re-establishment and support of a sinking-fund,
since its fallacy has been exposed, but against the policy of having
exposed it. It is said that the belief in the potency of a
sinking-fund for clearing off the debt inspired public confidence in
the stability of the funds, and that it was wrong to shake this
confidence even by the promulgation of truth. It has often been
supposed, indeed, that the statesmen who mainly carried out the system
were in secret conscious of its fallacy, but were content to carry it
out so long as they saw that it inspired confidence in the public. It
is in allusion to this that we have spoken of the sinking-fund as a
great hoax. We cannot sanction the morality of governments acting on
conscious fallacies; and in this instance the natural confidence in
the funds rather enlarged than decreased when the fallacy was exposed
and the system abandoned.

Keeping in view Dr Price's views of the potentiality of compound
interest, we now give a brief account of a singular attempt made in
France to put them in practice, and by their omnipotence pay our
national debt and that of other nations too, out of a small private
fortune. In the year 1794, a will was registered in France by one
Fortuné Ricard, disposing of a sum of 500 livres, a little more than
L.20 sterling. Fortuné stated that this sum was the result of a
present of twenty-four livres which he had received when he was a boy,
and had kept accumulating at compound interest to a period of advanced
age. By his will he left it in the hands of trustees, making
arrangements for a perpetual succession, as the purposes of the trust
were not to be all accomplished for a period of several centuries. The
money was to be divided into five portions, each of 100 livres, and so
to be put out at compound interest.

The first portion was to be withdrawn at the end of a century: it
would then amount to 13,000 livres, or about L.550. It is scarcely
worth while mentioning the purposes to which this trifle was to be
applied, but for the credit of M. Ricard it may be mentioned that they
were all unexceptionable. In two centuries the second sum would be
released, amounting to 1,700,000 livres. At the end of the third
century, the third instalment was to be released, when it would
consist of 226,000,000 livres. The destination of these magnificent
sums was also unexceptionable--it was for national education, the
erecting of public libraries, and the like. The instalment to be
released at the end of the fourth century would amount to about
30,000,000,000 livres: it was to be employed partly in the building of
100 towns, each containing 150,000 inhabitants, in the most agreeable
parts of France. 'In a short time,' says the benevolent founder,
'there will result from hence an addition of 15,000,000 of inhabitants
to the kingdom, and its consumption will be doubled--for which service
I hope the economists will think themselves obliged to me.' Malthus
had not then published his principles of population.

We must draw breath as we approach the destination of the fifth and
last instalment. It was to amount to four millions of millions of
livres--about a hundred and seventy thousand millions of pounds. We
take for granted that Fortuné's calculations are correct, and have
certainly not taken the trouble of verifying them. Among other truly
benevolent and cosmopolitan destinations of this very handsome sum, it
may be sufficient to mention these:--

'Six thousand millions shall be appropriated towards paying the
national debt of France, upon condition that the kings, our good lords
and masters, shall be entreated to order the comptrollers-general of
the finances to undergo in future an examination in arithmetic before
they enter on the duties of their office.

'Twelve thousand millions shall likewise be employed in paying the
public debts of England. It may be seen that I reckon that both these
national debts will be doubled in this period--not that I have any
doubt of the talents of certain ministers to increase them much more,
but their operations in this way are opposed by an infinity of
circumstances, which lead me to presume that these debts cannot be
more than doubled. Besides, if they amount to a few thousands of
millions more, I declare that it is my intention that they should be
entirely paid off, and that a project so laudable should not remain
unexecuted for a trifle more or less.'[1]

M.



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Library mainpage -> Chambers, William -> Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 421 Volume 17, New Series, January 24, 1852