Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
Not many years ago, a farmer who lived a hundred or so miles from the seaboard, became impressed with the idea that unless he adopted a close-cutting system of retrenchment, he would certainly go to the wall. Wheat, during the preceding season, had been at a high price; but, unluckily for him, he had only a small portion of his land in wheat. Of corn and potatoes he had raised more than the usual quantity; but the price of corn was down, and potatoes were low. This year he had sown double the wheat he had ever sown before, and, instead of raising a thousand bushels of potatoes, as he had generally done, only planted about an acre in that vegetable, the product of which was about one hundred and fifty bushels.
Unluckily for Mr. Ashburn, his calculations did not turn out well. After his wheat was harvested, and his potatoes nearly ready to dig, the price of the former fell to ninety cents per bushel, and the price of the latter rose to one dollar. Everywhere, the wheat crop had been abundant, and almost everywhere the potato crop promised to be light.
Mr. Ashburn was sadly disappointed at this result.
"I shall be ruined," he said at home, and carried a long face while abroad. When his wife and daughters asked for money with which to get their fall and winter clothing, he grumbled sadly, gave them half what they wanted, and said they must retrench. A day or two afterwards, the collector of the "Post" came along and presented his bill.
Ashburn paid it in a slow, reluctant manner, and then said —
"I wish you to have the paper stopped, sir."
"Oh, no, don't say that, Mr. Ashburn. You are one of our old subscribers, and we can't think of parting with you."
"Sorry to give up the paper. But I must do it," returned the farmer.
"Isn't it as good as ever? You used to say you'd rather give up a dinner a week, than the 'Post.'"
"Oh, yes, it's as good as ever, and sometimes I think much better than it was. It's a great pleasure to read it. But I must retrench at every point, and then I don't see how I'm to get along. Wheat's down to ninety cents, and falling daily."
"But the paper is only two dollars a year, Mr. Ashburn."
"I know. But two dollars are two dollars. However, it's no use to talk, sir; the 'Post' must be stopped. If I have better luck next year, I will subscribe for it again."
This left the collector nothing to urge, and he withdrew. In his next letter to the publishers, he ordered the paper to be discontinued, which was accordingly done.
Of this little act of retrenchment, Jane, Margaret, and Phoebe knew nothing at the time, and the farmer was rather loathe to tell them. When the fact did become known, as it must soon, he expected a buzzing in the hive, and the anticipation of this made him half repent of what he had done, and almost wish that the collector would forget to notify the office of his wish to have the paper stopped. But, the collector was a prompt man. On the second Saturday morning, Ashburn went to the post-office as usual. The postmaster handed him a letter, saying, as he did so —
"I can't find any paper for you, today. They have made a mistake in not mailing it this week."
"No," replied Ashburn. "I have stopped it."
"Indeed! The Post is an excellent paper. What other one do you intend to take?"
"I shall not take any newspaper this year," replied Ashburn.
"Not take a newspaper, Mr. Ashburn!" said the postmaster, with a look and in a tone of surprise.
"No. I must retrench. I must cut off all superfluous expenses. And I believe I can do without a newspaper as well as anything else. It's a mere luxury; though a very pleasant one, I know, but still dispensable."
"Not a luxury, but a necessity, I say, and indispensable," returned the postmaster. "I don't know what I wouldn't rather do without, than a newspaper. What in the world are Phoebe, and Jane, and Margaret going to do?"
"They will have to do without. There is no help for it."
"If they don't raise a storm about your ears, that you will be glad to allay, even at the cost of half a dozen newspapers, I am mistaken," said the postmaster, laughing.
Ashburn replied, as he turned to walk away, that he thought he could face all storms of that kind without flinching.
"Give me the 'Post,' papa," said Margaret, running to the door to meet her father when she saw him coming.
"I haven't got it," replied Mr. Ashburn, feeling rather uncomfortable.
"Why? Hasn't it come?"
"No; is hasn't come."
Margaret looked very much disappointed.
"It has never missed before," she said, looking earnestly at her father.
No suspicion of the truth was in her mind; but, to the eyes of her father, her countenance was full of suspicion. Still, he had not the courage to confess what he had done.
"The 'Post' hasn't come!" he heard Margaret say to her sisters, a few minutes afterwards, and their expressions of disappointment fell rebukingly upon his ears.
It seemed to Mr. Ashburn that he heard of little else, while in the house, during the whole day, but the failure of the newspaper to arrive. When night came, even he, as he sat with nothing to do but think about the low price of wheat for an hour before bedtime, missed his old friend with the welcome face, that had so often amused, instructed, and interested him.
On Monday morning the girls were very urgent for their father to ride over to the post-office and see if the paper hadn't come; but, of course, the farmer was "too busy" for that. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the same excuse was made. On Thursday, Margaret asked a neighbor, who was going by the office, to call and get the newspaper for them. Towards evening, Mr Markland, the neighbor, was seen riding down the road, and Margaret and Jane ran down eagerly to the gate for the newspaper.
"Did you get the paper for us?" asked Margaret, showing two smiling rows of milk-white teeth, while her eyes danced with anticipated pleasure.
Mr. Markland shook his head.
"Why?" asked both the girls at once.
"The postmaster says it has been stopped."
"Stopped!" How changed were their faces and tones of voice.
"Yes. He says your father directed it to be stopped."
"That must be a mistake," said Margaret. "He would have told us."
Mr. Markland rode on, and the girls ran back into the house.
"Father, the postmaster says you have stopped the newspaper!" exclaimed his daughters, breaking in upon Mr. Ashburn's no very pleasant reflections on the low price of wheat, and the difference in the return he would receive at ninety cents a bushel, to what he would have realized at the last year's price of a dollar twenty-five.
"It's true," he replied, trenching himself behind a firm, decided manner.
"But why did you stop it, father?" inquired the girls.
"Because I can't afford to take it. It's as much, as I shall be able to do to get you enough to eat and wear this year."
Mr. Ashburn's manner was decided, and his voice had a repelling tone.
Margaret and Phoebe could say no more; but they did not leave their father's presence without giving his eyes the benefit of seeing a free gush of tears. It would be doing injustice to Mr. Ashburn's state of mind to say that he felt very comfortable, or had done so, since stopping the "Post," an act for which he had sundry times more than half repented. But, as it had been done, he could not think of recalling it.
Very sober were the faces that surrounded the supper-table that evening; and but few words were spoken. Mr. Ashburn felt oppressed, and also fretted to think that his daughters should make both themselves and him unhappy about the trifle of a newspaper, when he had such serious financial troubles to bear.
On the next Saturday, as Mr. Ashburn was walking over his farm, he saw a man sitting on one of his fences, dressed in a jockey-cap, and wearing a short hunting-coat. He had a rifle over his shoulder, and carried a powder-flask, shot and bird bags. In fact, he was a fully equipped sportsman, somewhat rare in those parts.
"What's this lazy fellow doing here?" said Ashburn, to himself. "I wonder where he comes from?"
"Good morning, neighbor," spoke out the stranger, in a familiar way, as soon as the farmer came within speaking distance. "Is there any good game around here? Any wild-turkeys, or pheasants?"
"There are plenty of squirrels," returned Ashburn, a little sarcastically, "and the woods are full of robins."
"Squirrels make a first-rate pie. But I needn't tell you that, my friend. Every farmer knows the taste of squirrels," said the sportsman with great good-humor. "Still, I want to try my hand at a wild-turkey. I've come off here into the country to have a crack at game better worth the shooting than we get in the neighborhood of Putnam."
"You're from Putnam, then?" said the farmer.
"Yes, I live in Putnam."
"When did you leave there?"
"Four or five weeks ago."
"Then you don't know what wheat is selling for now?"
"Wheat? No. I think it was ninety-five or a dollar, I don't remember which, when I left."
"Ninety is all it is selling for here."
"Ninety! I would like to buy some at that."
"I have no doubt you can be accommodated," replied the farmer.
"That is exceedingly low for wheat. If it wasn't for having a week's sport among your wild-turkeys, and the hope of being able to kill a deer, I'd stop and buy up a lot of wheat on speculation."
"I'll sell you five hundred bushels at ninety-two," said the farmer, half-hoping that this green customer might be tempted to buy at this advance upon the regular rate.
"Will you?" interrogated the stranger.
"I'm half-tempted to take you up. I really believe I — no! — I must knock over some wild-turkeys first. It won't do to come this far without bagging rarer game than wheat. I believe I must decline, friend."
"What would you say to ninety-one?" The farmer had heard a rumor, a day or two before, of a fall of two or three cents in wheat, and if he could pawn off five hundred bushels upon this sportsman, who had let his coat fly open far enough to give a glimpse of a large, thick pocketbook, at ninety-one, it would be quite a desirable operation.
"Ninety-one — ninety-one," said the stranger, to himself. "That is a temptation! I can turn a penny on that. But the wild-turkeys; I must have a crack at a wild-turkey or a deer. I think, friend," he added, speaking louder, "that I will have some sport in these parts for a few days first. Then, maybe, I'll buy up a few thousand bushels of wheat, if the prices haven't gone up."
"I wouldn't wonder if prices advanced a little," said the farmer.
"Wouldn't you?" And the stranger looked into the farmer's face with a very innocent expression.
"It can't go much lower; if there should be any change, it will doubtless be an increase."
"How much wheat have you?" asked the sportsman.
"I've about a thousand bushels left."
"A thousand bushels. Ninety cents; nine hundred dollars — I'll tell you what, friend, since talking to you has put me into the notion of trying my hand at a speculation on wheat, I'll just make you an offer, which you may accept or not, just as you please. I'll give you ninety cents cash for all you've got, one half payable now, and the other half on delivery of the wheat at the canal, provided you get extra help and deliver it immediately."
Ashburn stood thoughtful for a moment or two, and then replied —
"Very well, sir, it's a bargain."
"Which, to save time, we will close immediately. I will go with you to your house, and pay you five hundred dollars on the whole bill for a thousand bushels."
The farmer had no objection to this, of course, and invited the stranger to go to his house with him, where the five hundred dollars were soon counted out. For this amount of money he wrote a receipt and handed it to the stranger, who, after reading it, said —
"I would prefer your making out a bill for a thousand bushels, and writing on it, 'Received on account, five hundred dollars.'"
"It may overrun that quantity," said Ashburn.
"No matter, a new bill can be made out for that. I'll take all you have."
The farmer saw no objection to the form proposed by the stranger, and therefore tore up the receipt he had written, and made a bill out in the form desired.
"Will you commence delivering today?" inquired the sportsman, who all at once began to manifest a marked degree of interest in the business.
"Yes," replied the farmer.
"How many wagons have you?"
"As it is down hill all the way to the canal, they can easily take a hundred bushels each."
"Very well. They can make two loads apiece today, and, by starting early, three loads apiece on Monday, which will transfer the whole thousand bushels to the canal. I will go down immediately and see that a boat is ready to commence loading. You can go to work at once."
By extra effort, the wheat was all delivered by Monday afternoon, and the balance of the purchase-money paid. As Mr. Ashburn was riding home, a neighbor who had noticed his wagons going past his house with wheat for the two days, overtook him.
"So I see, friend Ashburn, that, like me, you are content to take the first advance of the market, instead of running the risk of a decline for a further rise in prices. What did you get for your wheat?"
"I sold for ninety cents."
"Ninety cents!" exclaimed the neighbor. "Surely you didn't sell for that?"
"I certainly did. I tried to get ninety-two, but ninety was the highest offer I could obtain."
"Ninety cents! Why, what has come over you, Ashburn. Wheat is selling for a dollar and twenty cents. I've just sold five hundred bushels for that."
"Impossible!" ejaculated the farmer.
"Not at all impossible. Don't you know that by the last arrival from England have come accounts of a bad harvest, and that wheat has taken a sudden rise?"
"No, I don't know any such a thing," returned the astonished Ashburn.
"Well, it's so. Where is your newspaper? — Haven't you read it? I got mine on Friday evening, and read the news. Early on Saturday morning, I found two or three speculators ready to buy up all the wheat they could get at old prices; but they didn't make many deals. One fellow who pretended to be a fancy sportsman, thrust himself into my way, but, even if I had not known of a rise in the price of wheat, I would have suspected it as soon as I saw him, for I read, last week, of just such a looking chap as him having got ahead of some ignorant country farmers by buying up their produce, on a sudden rise of the market, at price much below its real value."
"Good day!" said Ashburn, suddenly applying his whip to the flank of his horse; and away dashed homeward at a full gallop.
The farmer never sat down to make a regular calculation of what he had lost by stopping his newspaper; but it required no formality of pencil and paper to arrive at this. A difference of thirty cents on each bushel, made, for a thousand bushels, the important sum of three hundred dollars, and this fact his mind instantly saw.
By the next mail, he enclosed two dollars to the publishers of the "Post," and re-ordered the paper. He will, doubtless, think a good while, and retrench at a good many points, before he orders an other discontinuance of the paper!