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In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
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page: 252

WHAT TO DO, THEN?

THAT Count Leo Tolstoi makes his own boots, and gives away parcels of his ancestral land, is known to all cosmopolitan readers. Wherever has spread the fame of his great novels, the story has followed of his personal eccentricities. But the reason is far to seek, and even a careful perusal of the book in which he has embodied it does not render it easy to understand.

He begins by painting the misery of the poor in Moscow—and more penetrating pages have never been written. Unfortunately, the very poor are perforce dumb creatures. Not the cotter’s son, who becomes a missionary; nor the lad who runs away to become Captain Cook; nor yet the traditional boy with half‐a‐crown, who comes to London, and sells his cat to the King of Morocco. But the real poor of the slums; or the lowest women, or the convicts at page: 253 Portland. They are dumb; more dumb than the dog that runs after you, or the cat that rubs itself against your knee. How on earth should they speak! and if they did speak, who on earth could bear to listen? Their language is a very veil. They hide themselves in slang. Fifty years ago Harrison Ainsworth wrote a book called “Jack Sheppard.” And a certain little schoolboy caught up a song from its comparatively harmless pages—for, after all, it was the fancy portrait of a criminal by a man of letters. I can see the nursery fire and the tea table, and the bread and butter spread with fine brown sugar, and hear the little impish voice singing gaily, “In the box of a ‘stone‐jug’ I was born.” The little gentleman had not the remotest conception of the reality of which he was singing, any more than his great‐nephew, fifty years later, can have of the choice expression, “blooming blazes.” Have we ever really taken it into our minds that the lowest class of all our fellow‐creatures have a language of their own—a detritus, not a new growth? It needs a genius to divine and translate it. Count Leo Tolstoi has managed to do it. Whatever be the real page: 254 state of things in Moscow, he has so described it as to make his readers shudder at the picture, and wonder why in primitive Russia the same things should be reproduced to which we are supposed to be accustomed in Bethnal Green. Siberia and slavery, the convict prison and the knout, the gorgeous court and the communal village—all these are the properties of the Russian mise en scène. But a slum one does not expect.

And Tolstoi describes, with his accustomed power, many attempts on his part to mend the slums. Being a noble, and a man of great worth and reputation, he persuaded the authorities to help him. And for his pains he got cheated and worried, and the gigantic mass of human misery loomed up before him as big as ever. The pages read like extracts from the diary of Lord Shaftesbury or Mr. Frederick Charrington, with a literary sprinkling of Sir Walter Besant. The more he plunged up against the seething people, the oftener he recoiled worsted. Something could have undoubtedly been done by building a People’s Palace in a bad part of the Russian city. But, after all, only the decent poor would frequent its learned halls, and the poor page: 255 who have fallen from all sense of decency go on multiplying in its immediate neighbourhood. So the Palace does real good to ten thousand people out of a rough total of three millions, who are either deplorably poor or on the immediate verge of becoming so.

Tolstoi also confesses that he was inwardly conscious of his own benevolent kindness, and regarded himself with modest approval as a benefactor of the poor. Till, one day, seeing that he made no real way, he suffered a spiritual revolution. It was borne in upon him that it was useless to try and help others, because he was himself a thief! Well, yes, a thief, who had spent his life in thieving. His coat and his cloak—to take the biblical expressions—and his silver cigar‐case, and the nicely bound books in his library, and the horse he rode, to say nothing of the lands his father had left him, had all been made by the labour of other people, and, however complicated had been the process of stealing, stolen they were.

At the first presentation this idea is almost unthinkable. It is so alien to all one’s notions of the relation between capital and labour, so destructive of the sacred principle of saving, of page: 256 thrift, so absolutely condemned by the first quarter of an hour’s walk in Oxford Street, that the mind refuses to grasp it. After sleeping upon it for a fortnight certain considerations emerge as follows as intended by Tolstoi.

A man can scarcely make to grow by the actual work of his hands more than he requires for his own sustenance and that of his family. And a woman can scarcely do more in a day than the necessary cooking, washing, and sewing required for the family. If either of them can save a surplus with which to buy somebody else’s labour, it must at first be a tiny surplus; but if by superior cleverness this surplus is made to roll up, it becomes little by little an engine of dire oppression, and ought to be put down by law. It is already forbidden to use your mechanical knowledge in certain directions. You may not race steam carriages through the Strand. You may certainly not invent a machine with claws capable of carrying off all the cats in the country. If, unhappily, you are a giant, even though you were Gog and Magog, it is doubtful whether you would be allowed to contract for the exclusive sweeping of the City streets. Neither, says page: 257 Tolstoi, ought you to construct that monster, a baby capital—the Frankenstein creation of modern days. When it is in swaddling clothes it will be only equal to opening a small shop, but as it fattens and fattens it will grow big enough to start a store, and presently, when it is quite a grown‐up young capital, it will build a mill, and will buy up an army of workers, whom it will enslave almost as if they were blacks, and make them work for it, and at last, like the starling, they “can’t get out.” But mind well, its endings are but the natural growth of its beginnings. You must not save your first shilling with any view to personal aggrandisement. Saved capital is like the imp in the “Lay of the Last Minstrel”—as soon as it can get a voice it will be heard by the attentive ear to be shrieking “Lost, lost, lost!” It is not the offspring of honest labour—it is a devil which has taken its place.

I have tried to disentangle from Count Tolstoi’s wonderfully eloquent pages the thoughts which logically underlie them. St. Paul will help you to make your own boots, and St. Matthew will forbid you to keep your own coat if anybody wants it. Holy poverty, or, at least, page: 258 the holding of riches as though you had them not, has been a counsel of Christianity from the very first. But the extremely intricate mechanism of modern industrial life, and the problem of the middlemen and the sweater, require definite thought, if they are touched at all. And the fundamental idea of Tolstoi is that the very first accumulations of capital are wrong.

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