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Chapter 2

II

I sent you a short letter from Liverpool, saying that by the unprecedented delays of the Urania, which I had taken because it was the swiftest boat of the Neptune line, we had failed to pass the old, ten-day, single-screw Galaxy liner which Aristides had sailed in. I had only time for a word to you; but a million words could not have told the agonies I suffered, and when I overtook him on board the Orient Pacific steamer at Plymouth, where she touched, I could just scribble off the cable sent Mr. Makely before our steamer put off again. I am afraid you did not find my cable very expressive, but I was glad that I did not try to say more, for if I had tried I should simply have gibbered, at a shilling a gibber. I expected to make amends by a whole volume of letters, and I did post a dozen under one cover from Colombo. If they never reached you I am very sorry, for now it is impossible to take up the threads of that time and weave them into any sort of connected pattern. You will have to let me off with saying that Aristides was everything that I believed he would be and was never really afraid he might not be. From the moment we caught sight of each other at Plymouth, he at the rail of the steamer and I on the deck of the tender, we were as completely one as we are now. I never could tell how I got aboard to him; whether he came down and brought me, or whether I was simply rapt through the air to his side. It would have been embarrassing if we had not treated the situation frankly; but such odd things happen among the English going out to their different colonies that our marriage, by a missionary returning to his station, was not even a nine days' wonder with our fellow-passengers.

We were a good deal more than nine days on the steamer before we could get a vessel that would take us on to Altruria; but we overhauled a ship going there for provisions at last, and we were all put off on her, bag and baggage, with three cheers from the friends we were leaving; I think they thought we were going to some of the British islands that the Pacific is full of. I had been thankful from the first that I had not brought a maid, knowing the Altrurian prejudice against hireling service, but I never was so glad as I was when we got aboard that vessel, for when the captain's wife, who was with him, found that I had no one to look after me, she looked after me herself, just for the fun of it, she said; but I knew it was the love of it. It was a sort of general trading-ship, stopping at the different islands in the South Seas, and had been a year out from home, where the kind woman had left her little ones; she cried over their photographs to me. Her husband had been in Altruria before, and he and Aristides were old acquaintances and met like brothers; some of the crew knew him, too, and the captain relaxed discipline so far as to let us shake hands with the second-mate as the men's representative.

I needn't dwell on the incidents of our home-coming—for that was what it seemed for my mother and me as well as for my husband—but I must give you one detail of our reception, for I still think it almost the prettiest thing that has happened to us among the millions of pretty things. Aristides had written home of our engagement, and he was expected with his American wife; and before we came to anchor the captain ran up the Emissary's signal, which my husband gave him, and then three boats left the shore and pulled rapidly out to us. As they came nearer I saw the first Altrurian costumes in the lovely colors that the people wear here, and that make a group of them look like a flower-bed; and then I saw that the boats were banked with flowers along the gunwales from stem to stern, and that they were each not manned, but girled by six rowers, who pulled as true a stroke as I ever saw in our boat-races. When they caught sight of us, leaning over the side, and Aristides lifted his hat and waved it to them, they all stood their oars upright, and burst into a kind of welcome song: I had been dreading one of those stupid, banging salutes of ten or twenty guns, and you can imagine what a relief it was. They were great, splendid creatures, as tall as our millionaires' tallest daughters, and as strong-looking as any of our college-girl athletes; and when we got down over the ship's side, and Aristides said a few words of introduction for my mother and me, as we stepped into the largest of the boats, I thought they would crush me, catching me in their strong, brown arms, and kissing me on each cheek; they never kiss on the mouth in Altruria. The girls in the other boats kissed their hands to mother and me, and shouted to Aristides, and then, when our boat set out for the shore, they got on each side of us and sang song after song as they pulled even stroke with our crew. Half-way, we met three other boats, really manned, these ones, and going out to get our baggage, and then you ought to have heard the shouting and laughing, that ended in more singing, when the young fellows' voices mixed with the girls, till they were lost in the welcome that came off to us from the crowded quay, where I should have thought half Altruria had gathered to receive us.

I was afraid it was going to be too much for my mother, but she stood it bravely; and almost at a glance people began to take her into consideration, and she was delivered over to two young married ladies, who saw that she was made comfortable, the first of any, in the pretty Regionic guest-house where they put us.

I wish I could give you a notion of that guest-house, with its cool, quiet rooms, and its lawned and gardened enclosure, and a little fountain purring away among the flowers! But what astonished me was that there were no sort of carriages, or wheeled conveyances, which, after our escort from the ship, I thought might very well have met the returning Emissary and his wife. They made my mother get into a litter, with soft cushions and with lilac curtains blowing round it, and six girls carried her up to the house; but they seemed not to imagine my not walking, and, in fact, I could hardly have imagined it myself, after the first moment of queerness. That walk was full of such rich experience for every one of the senses that I would not have missed a step of it; but as soon as I could get Aristides alone I asked him about horses, and he said that though horses were still used in farm work, not a horse was allowed in any city or village of Altruria, because of their filthiness. As for public vehicles, they used to have electric trolleys; in the year that he had been absent they had substituted electric motors; but these were not running, because it was a holiday on which we had happened to arrive.

There was another incident of my first day which I think will amuse you, knowing how I have always shrunk from any sort of public appearances. When Aristides went to make his report to the people assembled in a sort of convention, I had to go too, and take part in the proceedings; for women are on an entire equality with the men here, and people would be shocked if husband and wife were separated in their public life. They did not spare me a single thing. Where Aristides was not very clear, or rather not full enough, in describing America, I was called on to supplement, and I had to make several speeches. Of course, as I spoke in English, he had to put it into Altrurian for me, and it made the greatest excitement. The Altrurians are very lively people, and as full of the desire to hear some new things as Paul said the men of Athens were. At times they were in a perfect gale of laughter at what we told them about America. Afterwards some of the women confessed to me that they liked to hear us speaking English together; it sounded like the whistling of birds or the shrilling of locusts. But they were perfectly kind, and though they laughed it was clear that they laughed at what we were saying, and never at us, or at least never at me.

Of course there was the greatest curiosity to know what Aristides' wife looked like, as well as sounded like; he had written out about our engagement before I broke it; and my clothes were of as much interest As myself, or more. You know how I had purposely left my latest Paris things behind, so as to come as simply as possible to the simple life of Altruria, but still with my big leg-of-mutton sleeves, and my picture-hat, and my pinched waist, I felt perfectly grotesque, and I have no doubt I looked it. They had never seen a lady from the capitalistic world before, but only now and then a whaling-captain's wife who had come ashore; and I knew they were burning to examine my smart clothes down to the last button and bit of braid. I had on the short skirts of last year, and I could feel ten thousand eyes fastened on my high-heeled boots, which you know I never went to extremes in. I confess my face burned a little, to realize what a scarecrow I must look, when I glanced round at those Altrurian women, whose pretty, classic fashions made the whole place like a field of lilacs and irises, and knew that they were as comfortable as they were beautiful. Do you remember some of the descriptions of the undergraduate maidens in the "Princess"—I know you had it at school—where they are sitting in the palace halls together? The effect was something like that.

You may be sure that I got out of my things as soon as I could borrow an Altrurian costume, and now my Paris confections are already hung up for monuments, as Richard III. says, in the Capitalistic Museum, where people from the outlying Regions may come and study them as object-lessons in what not to wear. (You remember what you said Aristides told you, when he spoke that day at the mountains, about the Regions that Altruria is divided into? This is the Maritime Region, and the city where we are living for the present is the capital.) You may think this was rather hard on me, and at first it did seem pretty intimate, having my things in a long glass case, and it gave me a shock to see them, as if it had been my ghost, whenever I passed them. But the fact is I was more ashamed than hurt—they were so ugly and stupid and useless. I could have borne my Paris dress and my picture-hat if it had not been for those ridiculous high-heeled, pointed-toe shoes, which the Curatress had stood at the bottom of the skirts. They looked the most frantic things you can imagine, and the mere sight of them made my poor feet ache in the beautiful sandals I am wearing now; when once you have put on sandals you say good-bye and good-riddance to shoes. In a single month my feet have grown almost a tenth as large again as they were, and my friends here encourage me to believe that they will yet measure nearly the classic size, though, as you know, I am not in my first youth and can't expect them to do miracles.

* * * * *

I had to leave off abruptly at the last page because Aristides had come in with a piece of news that took my mind off everything else. I am afraid you are not going to get this letter even at the late date I had set for its reaching you, my dear. It seems that there has been a sort of mutiny among the crew of our trader, which was to sail next week, and now there is no telling when she will sail. Ever since she came the men have been allowed their liberty, as they call it, by watches, but the last watch came ashore this week before another watch had returned to the ship, and now not one of the sailors will go back. They had been exploring the country by turns, at their leisure, it seems, and their excuse is that they like Altruria better than America, which they say they wish never to see again.

You know (though I didn't, till Aristides explained to me) that in any European country the captain in such a case would go to his consul, and the consul would go to the police, and the police would run the men down and send them back to the ship in irons as deserters, or put them in jail till the captain was ready to sail, and then deliver them up to him. But it seems that there is no law in Altruria to do anything of the kind; the only law here that would touch the case is one which obliges any citizen to appear and answer the complaint of any other citizen before the Justiciary Assembly. A citizen cannot be imprisoned for anything but the rarest offence, like killing a person in a fit of passion; and as to seizing upon men who are guilty of nothing worse than wanting to be left to the pursuit of happiness, as all the Altrurians are, there is no statute and no usage for it. Aristides says that the only thing which can be done is to ask the captain and the men to come to the Assembly and each state his case. The Altrurians are not anxious to have the men stay, not merely because they are coarse, rude, or vicious, but because they think they ought to go home and tell the Americans what they have seen and heard here, and try and get them to found an Altrurian Commonwealth of their own. Still they will not compel them to go, and the magistrates do not wish to rouse any sort of sentiment against them. They feel that the men are standing on their natural rights, which they could not abdicate if they would. I know this will appear perfectly ridiculous to Mr. Makely, and I confess myself that there seems something binding in a contract which ought to act on the men's consciences, at least.

William Dean Howells