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Chapter 20

XX

While Mrs. Strange talked on, her mother listened quietly, with a dim, submissive smile and her hands placidly crossed in her lap. She now said: "It seems to be very different now from what it was in my time. There are certainly a great many beggars, and we used never to have one. Children grew up, and people lived and died, in large towns, without ever seeing one. I remember, when my husband first took me abroad, how astonished we were at the beggars. Now I meet as many in New York as I met in London or in Rome. But if you don't do charity, what can you do? Christ enjoined it, and Paul says—"

"Oh, people never do the charity that Christ meant," said Mrs. Strange; "and, as things are now, how could they? Who would dream of dividing half her frocks and wraps with poor women, or selling all and giving to the poor? That is what makes it so hopeless. We know that Christ was perfectly right, and that He was perfectly sincere in what He said to the good young millionaire; but we all go away exceeding sorrowful, just as the good young millionaire did. We have to, if we don't want to come on charity ourselves. How do you manage about that?" she asked me; and then she added, "But, of course, I forgot that you have no need of charity."

"Oh yes, we have," I returned; and I tried, once more, as I have tried so often with Americans, to explain how the heavenly need of giving the self continues with us, but on terms that do not harrow the conscience of the giver, as self-sacrifice always must here, at its purest and noblest. I sought to make her conceive of our nation as a family, where every one was secured against want by the common provision, and against the degrading and depraving inequality which comes from want. The "dead-level of equality" is what the Americans call the condition in which all would be as the angels of God, and they blasphemously deny that He ever meant His creatures to be alike happy, because some, through a long succession of unfair advantages, have inherited more brain or brawn or beauty than others. I found that this gross and impious notion of God darkened even the clear intelligence of a woman like Mrs. Strange; and, indeed, it prevails here so commonly that it is one of the first things advanced as an argument against the Altrurianization of America.

I believe I did, at last, succeed in showing her how charity still continues among us, but in forms that bring neither a sense of inferiority to him who takes nor anxiety to him who gives. I said that benevolence here often seemed to involve, essentially, some such risk as a man should run if he parted with a portion of the vital air which belonged to himself and his family, in succoring a fellow-being from suffocation; but that with us, where it was no more possible for one to deprive himself of his share of the common food, shelter, and clothing, than of the air he breathed, one could devote one's self utterly to others without that foul alloy of fear which I thought must basely qualify every good deed in plutocratic conditions.

She said that she knew what I meant, and that I was quite right in my conjecture, as regarded men, at least; a man who did not stop to think what the effect, upon himself and his own, his giving must have, would be a fool or a madman; but women could often give as recklessly as they spent, without any thought of consequences, for they did not know how money came.

"Women," I said, "are exterior to your conditions, and they can sacrifice themselves without wronging any one."

"Or, rather," she continued, "without the sense of wronging any one. Our men like to keep us in that innocence or ignorance; they think it is pretty, or they think it is funny; and as long as a girl is in her father's house, or a wife is in her husband's, she knows no more of money-earning or money-making than a child. Most grown women among us, if they had a sum of money in the bank, would not know how to get it out. They would not know how to indorse a check, much less draw one. But there are plenty of women who are inside the conditions, as much as men are—poor women who have to earn their bread, and rich-women who have to manage their property. I can't speak for the poor women; but I can speak for the rich, and I can confess for them that what you imagine is true. The taint of unfaith and distrust is on every dollar that you dole out, so that, as far as the charity of the rich is concerned, I would read Shakespeare:

'It curseth him that gives, and him that takes.'

"Perhaps that is why the rich give comparatively so little. The poor can never understand how much the rich value their money, how much the owner of a great fortune dreads to see it less. If it were not so, they would surely give more than they do; for a man who has ten millions could give eight of them without feeling the loss; the man with a hundred could give ninety and be no nearer want. Ah, it's a strange mystery! My poor husband and I used to talk of it a great deal, in the long year that he lay dying; and I think I hate my superfluity the more because I know he hated it so much."

A little trouble had stolen into her impassioned tones, and there was a gleam, as of tears, in the eyes she dropped for a moment. They were shining still when she lifted them again to mine.

"I suppose," she said, "that Mrs. Makely told you something of my marriage?"

"Eveleth!" her mother protested, with a gentle murmur.

"Oh, I think I can be frank with Mr. Homos. He is not an American, and he will understand, or, at least, he will not misunderstand. Besides, I dare say I shall not say anything worse than Mrs. Makely has said already. My husband was much older than I, and I ought not to have married him; a young girl ought never to marry an old man, or even a man who is only a good many years her senior. But we both faithfully tried to make the best of our mistake, not the worst, and I think this effort helped us to respect each other, when there couldn't be any question of more. He was a rich man, and he had made his money out of nothing, or, at least, from a beginning of utter poverty. But in his last years he came to a sense of its worthlessness, such as few men who have made their money ever have. He was a common man, in a great many ways; he was imperfectly educated, and he was ungrammatical, and he never was at home in society; but he had a tender heart and an honest nature, and I revere his memory, as no one would believe I could without knowing him as I did. His money became a burden and a terror to him; he did not know what to do with it, and he was always morbidly afraid of doing harm with it; he got to thinking that money was an evil in itself."

"That is what we think," I ventured.

"Yes, I know. But he had thought this out for himself, and yet he had times when his thinking about it seemed to him a kind of craze, and, at any rate, he distrusted himself so much that he died leaving it all to me. I suppose he thought that perhaps I could learn how to give it without hurting; and then he knew that, in our state of things, I must have some money to keep the wolf from the door. And I am afraid to part with it, too. I have given and given; but there seems some evil spell on the principal that guards it from encroachment, so that it remains the same, and, if I do not watch, the interest grows in the bank, with that frightful life dead money seems endowed with, as the hair of dead, people grows in the grave."

"Eveleth!" her mother murmured again.

"Oh yes," she answered, "I dare say my words are wild. I dare say they only mean that I loathe my luxury from the bottom of my soul, and long to be rid of it, if I only could, without harm to others and with safety to myself."

William Dean Howells