Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 1


I could hardly have believed, my dear Dorothea, that I should be so late in writing to you from Altruria, but you can easily believe that I am thoroughly ashamed of myself for my neglect. It is not for want of thinking of you, or talking of you, that I have seemed so much more ungrateful than I am. My husband and I seldom have any serious talk which doesn't somehow come round to you. He admires you and likes you as much as I do, and he does his best, poor man, to understand you; but his not understanding you is only a part of his general failure to understand how any American can be kind and good in conditions which he considers so abominable as those of the capitalistic world. He is not nearly so severe on us as he used to be at times when he was among us. When the other Altrurians are discussing us he often puts in a reason for us against their logic; and I think he has really forgotten, a good deal, how bad things are with us, or else finds his own memory of them incredible. But his experience of the world outside his own country has taught him how to temper the passion of the Altrurians for justice with a tolerance of the unjust; and when they bring him to book on his own report of us he tries to explain us away, and show how we are not so bad as we ought to be.

For weeks after we came to Altruria I was so unhistorically blest that if I had been disposed to give you a full account of myself I should have had no events to hang the narrative on. Life here is so subjective (if you don't know what that is, you poor dear, you must get Mr. Twelvemough to explain) that there is usually nothing like news in it, and I always feel that the difference between Altruria and America is so immense that it is altogether beyond me to describe it. But now we have had some occurrences recently, quite in the American sense, and these have furnished me with an incentive as well as opportunity to send you a letter. Do you remember how, one evening after dinner, in New York, you and I besieged my husband and tried to make him tell us why Altruria was so isolated from the rest of the world, and why such a great and enlightened continent should keep itself apart? I see still his look of horror when Mr. Makely suggested that the United States should send an expedition and "open" Altruria, as Commodore Perry "opened" Japan in 1850, and try to enter into commercial relations with it. The best he could do was to say what always seemed so incredible, and keep on assuring us that Altruria wished for no sort of public relations with Europe or America, but was very willing to depend for an indefinite time for its communication with those regions on vessels putting into its ports from stress of one kind or other, or castaway on its coasts. They are mostly trading-ships or whalers, and they come a great deal oftener than you suppose; you do not hear of them afterwards, because their crews are poor, ignorant people, whose stories of their adventures are always distrusted, and who know they would be laughed at if they told the stories they could of a country like Altruria. My husband himself took one of their vessels on her home voyage when he came to us, catching the Australasian steamer at New Zealand; and now I am writing you by the same sort of opportunity. I shall have time enough to write you a longer letter than you will care to read; the ship does not sail for a week yet, because it is so hard to get her crew together.

Now that I have actually made a beginning, my mind goes back so strongly to that terrible night when I came to you after Aristides (I always use the English form of his name now) left New York that I seem to be living the tragedy over again, and this happiness of mine here is like a dream which I cannot trust. It was not all tragedy, though, and I remember how funny Mr. Makely was, trying to keep his face straight when the whole truth had to come out, and I confessed that I had expected, without really knowing it myself, that Aristides would disregard that wicked note I had written him and come and make me marry him, not against my will, but against my word. Of course I didn't put it in just that way, but in a way to let you both guess it. The first glimmering of hope that I had was when Mr. Makely said, "Then, when a woman tells a man that all is over between them forever, she means that she would like to discuss the business with him?" I was old enough to be ashamed, but it seemed to me that you and I had gone back in that awful moment and were two girls together, just as we used to be at school. I was proud of the way you stood up for me, because I thought that if you could tolerate me after what I had confessed I could not be quite a fool. I knew that I deserved at least some pity, and though I laughed with Mr. Makely, I was glad of your indignation with him, and of your faith in Aristides. When it came to the question of what I should do, I don't know which of you I owed the most to. It was a kind of comfort to have Mr. Makely acknowledge that though he regarded Aristides as a myth, still he believed that he was a thoroughly good myth, and couldn't tell a lie if he wanted to; and I loved you, and shall love you more than any one else but him, for saying that Aristides was the most real man you had ever met, and that if everything he said was untrue you would trust him to the end of the world.

But, Dolly, it wasn't all comedy, any more than it was all tragedy, and when you and I had laughed and cried ourselves to the point where there was nothing for me to do but to take the next boat for Liverpool, and Mr. Makely had agreed to look after the tickets and cable Aristides that I was coming, there was still my poor, dear mother to deal with. There is no use trying to conceal from you that she was always opposed to my husband. She thought there was something uncanny about him, though she felt as we did that there was nothing uncanny in him; but a man who pretended to come from a country where there was no riches and no poverty could not be trusted with any woman's happiness; and though she could not help loving him, she thought I ought to tear him out of my heart, and if I could not do that I ought to have myself shut up in an asylum. We had a dreadful time when I told her what I had decided to do, and I was almost frantic. At last, when she saw that I was determined to follow him, she yielded, not because she was convinced, but because she could not give me up; I wouldn't have let her if she could. I believe that the only thing which reconciled her was that you and Mr. Makely believed in him, and thought I had better do what I wanted to, if nothing could keep me from it. I shall never, never forget Mr. Makely's goodness in coming to talk with her, and how skillfully he managed, without committing himself to Altruria, to declare his faith in my Altrurian. Even then she was troubled about what she thought the indelicacy of my behavior in following him across the sea, and she had all sorts of doubts as to how he would receive me when we met in Liverpool. It wasn't very reasonable of me to say that if he cast me off I should still love him more than any other human being, and his censure would be more precious to me than the praise of the rest of the world.

I suppose I hardly knew what I was saying, but when once I had yielded to my love for him there was nothing else in life. I could not have left my mother behind, but in her opposition to me she seemed like an enemy, and I should somehow have forced her to go if she had not yielded. When she did yield, she yielded with her whole heart and soul, and so far from hindering me in my preparations for the voyage, I do not believe I could have got off without her. She thought about everything, and it was her idea to leave my business affairs entirely in Mr. Makely's hands, and to trust the future for the final disposition of my property. I did not care for it myself; I hated it, because it was that which had stood between me and Aristides; but she foresaw that if by any wild impossibility he should reject me when we met, I should need it for the life I must go back to in New York. She behaved like a martyr as well as a heroine, for till we reached Altruria she was a continual sacrifice to me. She stubbornly doubted the whole affair, but now I must do her the justice to say that she has been convinced by the fact. The best she can say of it is that it is like the world of her girlhood; and she has gone back to the simple life here from the artificial life in New York, with the joy of a child. She works the whole day, and she would play if she had ever learned how. She is a better Altrurian than I am; if there could be a bigoted Altrurian my mother would be one.

William Dean Howells