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Chapter 19

XIX

The talk at Mrs. Strange's table took a far wider range than my meagre notes would intimate, and we sat so long that it was almost eleven before the men joined the ladies in the drawing-room. You will hardly conceive of remaining two, three, or four hours at dinner, as one often does here, in society; out of society the meals are despatched with a rapidity unknown to the Altrurians. Our habit of listening to lectors, especially at the evening repast, and then of reasoning upon what we have heard, prolongs our stay at the board; but the fondest listener, the greatest talker among us, would be impatient of the delay eked out here by the great number and the slow procession of the courses served. Yet the poorest American would find his ideal realized rather in the long-drawn-out gluttony of the society dinner here than in our temperate simplicity.

At such a dinner it is very hard to avoid a surfeit, and I have to guard myself very carefully, lest, in the excitement of the talk, I gorge myself with everything, in its turn. Even at the best, my overloaded stomach often joins with my conscience in reproaching me for what you would think a shameful excess at table. Yet, wicked as my riot is, my waste is worse, and I have to think, with contrition, not only of what I have eaten, but of what I have left uneaten, in a city where so many wake and sleep in hunger.

The ladies made a show of lingering after we joined them in the drawing-room; but there were furtive glances at the clock, and presently her guests began to bid Mrs. Strange good-night. When I came up and offered her my hand, she would not take it, but murmured, with a kind of passion: "Don't go! I mean it! Stay, and tell us about Altruria—my mother and me!"

I was by no means loath, for I must confess that all I had seen and heard of this lady interested me in her more and more. I felt at home with her, too, as with no other society woman I have met; she seemed to me not only good, but very sincere, and very good-hearted, in spite of the world she lived in. Yet I have met so many disappointments here, of the kind that our civilization wholly fails to prepare us for, that I should not have been surprised to find that Mrs. Strange had wished me to stay, not that she might hear me talk about Altruria, but that I might hear her talk about herself. You must understand that the essential vice of a system which concentres a human being's thoughts upon his own interests, from the first moment of responsibility, colors and qualifies every motive with egotism. All egotists are unconscious, for otherwise they would be intolerable to themselves; but some are subtler than others; and as most women have finer natures than most men everywhere, and in America most women have finer minds than most men, their egotism usually takes the form of pose. This is usually obvious, but in some cases it is so delicately managed that you do not suspect it, unless some other woman gives you a hint of it, and even then you cannot be sure of it, seeing the self-sacrifice, almost to martyrdom, which the poseuse makes for it. If Mrs. Makely had not suggested that some people attributed a pose to Mrs. Strange, I should certainly never have dreamed of looking for it, and I should have been only intensely interested, when she began, as soon as I was left alone with her and her mother:

"You may not know how unusual I am in asking this favor of you, Mr. Homos; but you might as well learn from me as from others that I am rather unusual in everything. In fact, you can report in Altruria, when you get home, that you found at least one woman in America whom fortune had smiled upon in every way, and who hated her smiling fortune almost as much as she hated herself. I'm quite satisfied," she went on, with a sad mockery, "that fortune is a man, and an American; when he has given you all the materials for having a good time, he believes that you must be happy, because there is nothing to hinder. It isn't that I want to be happy in the greedy way that men think we do, for then I could easily be happy. If you have a soul which is not above buttons, buttons are enough. But if you expect to be of real use, to help on, and to help out, you will be disappointed. I have not the faith that they say upholds you Altrurians in trying to help out, if I don't see my way out. It seems to me that my reason has some right to satisfaction, and that, if I am a woman grown, I can't be satisfied with the assurances they would give to little girls—that everything is going on well. Any one can see that things are not going on well. There is more and more wretchedness of every kind, not hunger of body alone, but hunger of soul. If you escape one, you suffer the other, because, if you have a soul, you must long to help, not for a time, but for all time. I suppose," she asked, abruptly, "that Mrs. Makely has told you something about me?"

"Something," I admitted.

"I ask," she went on, "because I don't want to bore you with a statement of my case, if you know it already. Ever since I heard you were in New York I have wished to see you, and to talk with you about Altruria; I did not suppose that there would be any chance at Mrs. Makely's, and there wasn't; and I did not suppose there would be any chance here, unless I could take courage to do what I have done now. You must excuse it, if it seems as extraordinary a proceeding to you as it really is; I wouldn't at all have you think it is usual for a lady to ask one of her guests to stay after the rest, in order, if you please, to confess herself to him. It's a crime without a name."

She laughed, not gayly, but humorously, and then went on, speaking always with a feverish eagerness which I find it hard to give you a sense of, for the women here have an intensity quite beyond our experience of the sex at home.

"But you are a foreigner, and you come from an order of things so utterly unlike ours that perhaps you will be able to condone my offence. At any rate, I have risked it." She laughed again, more gayly, and recovered herself in a cheerfuller and easier mood. "Well, the long and the short of it is that I have come to the end of my tether. I have tried, as truly as I believe any woman ever did, to do my share, with money and with work, to help make life better for those whose life is bad; and though one mustn't boast of good works, I may say that I have been pretty thorough, and, if I've given up, it's because I see, in our state of things, no hope of curing the evil. It's like trying to soak up the drops of a rainstorm. You do dry up a drop here and there; but the clouds are full of them, and, the first thing you know, you stand, with your blotting-paper in your hand, in a puddle over your shoe-tops. There is nothing but charity, and charity is a failure, except for the moment. If you think of the misery around you, that must remain around you for ever and ever, as long as you live, you have your choice—to go mad and be put into an asylum, or go mad and devote yourself to society."

William Dean Howells