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Chapter 21

XXI

It seemed to me that I became suddenly sensible of this luxury for the first time. I had certainly been aware that I was in a large and stately house, and that I had been served and banqueted with a princely pride and profusion. But there had, somehow, been through all a sort of simplicity, a sort of quiet, so that I had not thought of the establishment and its operation, even so much as I had thought of Mrs. Makely's far inferior scale of living; or else, what with my going about so much in society, I was ceasing to be so keenly observant of the material facts as I had been at first. But I was better qualified to judge of what I saw, and I had now a vivid sense of the costliness of Mrs. Strange's environment. There were thousands of dollars in the carpets underfoot; there were tens of thousands in the pictures on the walls. In a bronze group that withdrew itself into a certain niche, with a faint reluctance, there was the value of a skilled artisan's wage for five years of hard work; in the bindings of the books that showed from the library shelves there was almost as much money as most of the authors had got for writing them. Every fixture, every movable, was an artistic masterpiece; a fortune, as fortunes used to be counted even in this land of affluence, had been lavished in the mere furnishing of a house which the palaces of nobles and princes of other times had contributed to embellish.

"My husband," Mrs. Strange went on, "bought this house for me, and let me furnish it after my own fancy. After it was all done we neither of us liked it, and when he died I felt as if he had left me in a tomb here."

"Eveleth," said her mother, "you ought not to speak so before Mr. Homos. He will not know what to think of you, and he will go back to Altruria with a very wrong idea of American women."

At this protest, Mrs. Strange seemed to recover herself a little. "Yes," she said, "you must excuse me. I have no right to speak so. But one is often much franker with foreigners than with one's own kind, and, besides, there is something—I don't know what—that will not let me keep the truth from you."

She gazed at me entreatingly, and then, as if some strong emotion swept her from her own hold, she broke out:

"He thought he would make some sort of atonement to me, as if I owed none to him! His money was all he had to do it with, and he spent that upon me in every way he could think of, though he knew that money could not buy anything that was really good, and that, if it bought anything beautiful, it uglified it with the sense of cost to every one who could value it in dollars and cents. He was a good man, far better than people ever imagined, and very simple-hearted and honest, like a child, in his contrition for his wealth, which he did not dare to get rid of; and though I know that, if he were to come back, it would be just as it was, his memory is as dear to me as if—"

She stopped, and pressed in her lip with her teeth, to stay its tremor. I was painfully affected. I knew that she had never meant to be so open with me, and was shocked and frightened at herself. I was sorry for her, and yet I was glad, for it seemed to me that she had given me a glimpse, not only of the truth in her own heart, but of the truth in the hearts of a whole order of prosperous people in these lamentable conditions, whom I shall hereafter be able to judge more leniently, more justly.

I began to speak of Altruria, as if that were what our talk had been leading up to, and she showed herself more intelligently interested concerning us than any one I have yet seen in this country. We appeared, I found, neither incredible nor preposterous to her; our life, in her eyes, had that beauty of right living which the Americans so feebly imagine or imagine not at all. She asked what route I had come by to America, and she seemed disappointed and aggrieved that we placed the restrictions we have felt necessary upon visitors from the plutocratic world. Were we afraid, she asked, that they would corrupt our citizens or mar our content with our institutions? She seemed scarcely satisfied when I explained, as I have explained so often here, that the measures we had taken were rather in the interest of the plutocratic world than of the Altrurians; and alleged the fact that no visitor from the outside had ever been willing to go home again, as sufficient proof that we had nothing to fear from the spread of plutocratic ideals among us. I assured her, and this she easily imagined, that, the better known these became, the worse they appeared to us; and that the only concern our priors felt, in regard to them, was that our youth could not conceive of them in their enormity, but, in seeing how estimable plutocratic people often were, they would attribute to their conditions the inherent good of human nature. I said our own life was so directly reasoned from its economic premises that they could hardly believe the plutocratic life was often an absolute non sequitur of the plutocratic premises. I confessed that this error was at the bottom of my own wish to visit America and study those premises.

"And what has your conclusion been?" she said, leaning eagerly towards me, across the table between us, laden with the maps and charts we had been examining for the verification of the position of Altruria, and my own course here, by way of England.

A slight sigh escaped Mrs. Gray, which I interpreted as an expression of fatigue; it was already past twelve o'clock, and I made it the pretext for escape.

"You have seen the meaning and purport of Altruria so clearly," I said, "that I think I can safely leave you to guess the answer to that question."

She laughed, and did not try to detain me now when I offered my hand for good-night. I fancied her mother took leave of me coldly, and with a certain effect of inculpation.

William Dean Howells