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 3

III

Well, my dear Dorothea, the hearing before the Assembly is over, and it has left us just where it found us, as far as the departure of our trader is concerned.

How I wish you could have been there! The hearing lasted three days, and I would not have missed a minute of it. As it was, I did not miss a syllable, and it was so deeply printed on my mind that I believe I could repeat it word for word if I had to. But, in the first place, I must try and realize the scene to you. I was once summoned as a witness in one of our courts, you remember, and I have never forgotten the horror of it: the hot, dirty room, with its foul air, the brutal spectators, the policemen stationed among them to keep them in order, the lawyers with the plaintiff and defendant seated all at one table, the uncouth abruptness of the clerks and janitors, or whatever, the undignified magistrate, who looked as if his lunch had made him drowsy, and who seemed half asleep, as he slouched in his arm-chair behind his desk. Instead of such a setting as this, you must imagine a vast marble amphitheatre, larger than the Metropolitan Opera, by three or four times, all the gradines overflowing (that is the word for the "liquefaction of the clothes" which poured over them), and looking like those Bermudan waters where the colors of the rainbow seem dropped around the coast. On the platform, or stage, sat the Presidents of the Assembly, and on a tier of seats behind and above them, the national Magistrates, who, as this is the capital of the republic for the time being, had decided to be present at the hearing, because they thought the case so very important. In the hollow space, just below (like that where you remember the Chorus stood in that Greek play which we saw at Harvard ages ago), were the captain and the first-mate on one hand, and the seamen on the other; the second-mate, our particular friend, was not there because he never goes ashore anywhere, and had chosen to remain with the black cook in charge of the ship. The captain's wife would rather have stayed with them, but I persuaded her to come to us for the days of the hearing, because the captain had somehow thought we were opposed to him, and because I thought she ought to be there to encourage him by her presence. She sat next to me, in a hat which I wish you could have seen, Dolly, and a dress which would have set your teeth on edge; but inside of them I knew she was one of the best souls in the world, and I loved her the more for being the sight she was among those wonderful Altrurian women.

The weather was perfect, as it nearly always is at this time of year—warm, yet fresh, with a sky of that "bleu impossible" of the Riviera on the clearest day. Some people had parasols, but they put them down as soon as the hearing began, and everybody could see perfectly. You would have thought they could not hear so well, but a sort of immense sounding-plane was curved behind the stage, so that not a word of the testimony on either side was lost to me in English. The Altrurian translation was given the second day of the hearing through a megaphone, as different in tone from the thing that the man in the Grand Central Station bellows the trains through as the vox-humana stop of an organ is different from the fog-horn of a light-house. The captain's wife was bashful, in her odd American dress, but we had got seats near the tribune, rather out of sight, and there was nothing to hinder our hearing, like the frou-frou of stiff silks or starched skirts (which I am afraid we poor things in America like to make when we move) from the soft, filmy tissues that the Altrurian women wear; but I must confess that there was a good deal of whispering while the captain and the men were telling their stories. But, no one except the interpreters, who were taking their testimony down in short-hand, to be translated into Altrurian and read at the subsequent hearing, could understand what they were saying, and so nobody was disturbed by the murmurs. The whispering was mostly near me, where I sat with the captain's wife, for everybody I knew got as close as they could and studied my face when they thought anything important or significant had been said. They are very quick at reading faces here; in fact, a great deal of the conversation is carried on in that way, or with the visible speech; and my Altrurian friends knew almost as well as I did when the speakers came to an interesting point. It was rather embarrassing for me, though, with the poor captain's wife at my side, to tell them, in my broken Altrurian, what the men were accusing the captain of.

I talk of the men, but it was really only one of them who at first, by their common consent, spoke for the rest. He was a middle-aged Yankee, and almost the only born American among them, for you know that our sailors, nowadays, are of every nationality under the sun—Portuguese, Norwegians, Greeks, Italians, Kanucks, and Kanakas, and even Cape Cod Indians. He said he guessed his story was the story of most sailors, and he had followed the sea his whole life. His story was dreadful, and I tried to persuade the captain's wife not to come to the hearing the next day, when it was to be read in Altrurian; but she would come. I was afraid she would be overwhelmed by the public compassion, and would not know what to do; for when something awful that the sailor had said against the captain was translated the women, all about us cooed their sympathy with her, and pressed her hand if they could, or patted her on the shoulder, to show how much they pitied her. In Altruria they pity the friends of those who have done wrong, and sometimes even the wrong-doers themselves; and it is quite a luxury, for there is so little wrong-doing here: I tell them that in America they would have as much pitying to do as they could possibly ask. After the hearing that day my friends, who were of a good many different Refectories, as we call them here, wanted her to go and lunch with them; but I got her quietly home with me, and after she had had something to eat I made her lie down awhile.

You won't care to have me go fully into the affair. The sailors' spokesman told how he had been born on a farm, where he had shared the family drudgery and poverty till he grew old enough to run away. He meant to go to sea, but he went first to a factory town and worked three or four years in the mills. He never went back to the farm, but he sent a little money now and then to his mother; and he stayed on till he got into trouble. He did not say just what kind of trouble, but I fancied it was some sort of love-trouble; he blamed himself for it; and when he left that town to get away from the thought of it, as much as anything, and went to work in another town, he took to drink; then, once, in a drunken spree, he found himself in New York without knowing how. But it was in what he called a sailors' boarding-house, and one morning, after he had been drinking overnight "with a very pleasant gentleman," he found himself in the forecastle of a ship bound for Holland, and when the mate came and cursed him up and cursed him out he found himself in the foretop. I give it partly in his own language, because I cannot help it; and I only wish I could give it wholly in his language; it was so graphic and so full of queer Yankee humor. From that time on, he said, he had followed the sea; and at sea he was always a good temperance man, but Altruria was the only place he had ever kept sober ashore. He guessed that was partly because there was nothing to drink but unfermented grape-juice, and partly because there was nobody to drink with; anyhow, he had not had a drop here. Everywhere else, as soon as he left his ship, he made for a sailors' boarding-house, and then he did not know much till he found himself aboard ship and bound for somewhere that he did not know of. He was always, he said, a stolen man, as much as a negro captured on the west coast of Africa and sold to a slaver; and, he said, it was a slave's life he led between drinks, whether it was a long time or short. He said he would ask his mates if it was very different with them, and when he turned to them they all shouted back, in their various kinds of foreign accents, No, it was just the same with them, every one. Then he said that was how he came to ship on our captain's vessel, and though they could not all say the same, they nodded confirmation as far as he was concerned.

The captain looked sheepish enough at this, but he looked sorrowful, too, as if he could have wished it had been different, and he asked the man if he had been abused since he came on board. Well, the man said, not unless you called tainted salt-horse and weevilly biscuit abuse; and then the captain sat down again, and I could feel his poor wife shrinking beside me. The man said that he was comparatively well off on the captain's ship, and the life was not half such a dog's life as he had led on other vessels; but it was such that when he got ashore here in Altruria, and saw how white people lived, people that used each other white, he made up his mind that he would never go hack to any ship alive. He hated a ship so much that if he could go home to America as a first-class passenger on a Cunard liner, John D. Rockefeller would not have money enough to hire him to do it. He was going to stay in Altruria till he died, if they would let him, and he guessed they would, if what he had heard about them was true. He just wanted, he said, while we were about it, to have a few of his mates tell their experience, not so much on board the _Little Sally, but on shore, and since they could remember; and one after another did get up and tell their miserable stories. They were like the stories you sometimes read in your paper over your coffee, or that you can hear any time you go into the congested districts in New York; but I assure you, my dear, they seemed to me perfectly incredible here, though I had known hundreds of such stories at home. As I realized their facts I forgot where I was; I felt that I was back again in that horror, where it sometimes seemed to me I had no right to be fed or clothed or warm or clean in the midst of the hunger and cold and nakedness and dirt, and where I could only reconcile myself to my comfort because I knew my discomfort would not help others' misery.

I can hardly tell how, but even the first day a sense of something terrible spread through that multitude of people, to whom the words themselves were mere empty sounds. The captain sat through it, with his head drooping, till his face was out of sight, and the tears ran silently down his wife's cheeks; and the women round me were somehow awed into silence. When the men ended, and there seemed to be no one else to say anything on that side, the captain jumped to his feet, with a sort of ferocious energy, and shouted out, "Are you all through, men?" and their spokesman answered, "Ay, ay, sir!" and then the captain flung back his grizzled hair and shook his fist towards the sailors. "And do you think I wanted to do it? Do you think I liked to do it? Do you think that if I hadn't been afraid my whole life long I would have had the heart to lead you the dog's life I know I've led you? I've been as poor as the poorest of you, and as low down as the lowest; I was born in the town poor-house, and I've been so afraid of the poor-house all my days that I hain't had, as you may say, a minute's peace. Ask my wife, there, what sort of a man I am, and whether I'm the man, really the man that's been hard and mean to you the way I know I been. It was because I was afraid, and because a coward is always hard and mean. I been afraid, ever since I could remember anything, of coming to want, and I was willing to see other men suffer so I could make sure that me and mine shouldn't suffer. That's the way we do at home, ain't it? That's in the day's work, ain't it? That's playing the game, ain't it, for everybody? You can't say it ain't." He stopped, and the men's spokesman called back, "Ay, ay, sir," as he had done before, and as I had often heard the men do when given an order on the ship.

The captain gave a kind of sobbing laugh, and went on in a lower tone. "Well, I know you ain't going back. I guess I didn't expect it much from the start, and I guess I'm not surprised." Then he lifted his head and shouted, "And do you suppose I want to go back? Don't you suppose I would like to spend the rest of my days, too, among white people, people that use each other white, as you say, and where there ain't any want or, what's worse, fear of want? Men! There ain't a day, or an hour, or a minute, when I don't think how awful it is over there, where I got to be either some man's slave or some man's master, as much so as if it was down in the ship's articles. My wife ain't so, because she ain't been ashore here. I wouldn't let her; I was afraid to let her see what a white man's country really was, because I felt so weak about it myself, and I didn't want to put the trial on her, too. And do you know why we're going back, or want to go? I guess some of you know, but I want to tell these folks here so they'll understand, and I want you, Mr. Homos," he called to my husband, "to get it down straight. It's because we've got two little children over there, that we left with their grandmother when my wife come with me this voyage because she had lung difficulty and wanted to see whether she could get her health back. Nothing else on God's green earth could take me back to America, and I guess it couldn't my wife if she knew what Altruria was as well as I do. But when I went around here and saw how everything was, and remembered how it was at home, I just said, 'She'll stay on the ship.' Now, that's all I got to say, though I thought I had a lot more. I guess it'll be enough for these folks, and they can judge between us." Then the captain sat down, and to make a long story short, the facts of the hearing were repeated in Altrurian the next day by megaphone, and when the translation was finished there was a general rush for the captain. He plainly expected to be lynched, and his wife screamed out, "Oh, don't hurt him! He isn't a bad man!" But it was only the Altrurian way with a guilty person: they wanted to let him know how sorry they were for him, and since his sin had found him out how hopeful they were for his redemption. I had to explain it to the sailors as well as to the captain and his wife, but I don't believe any of them quite accepted the fact.

The third day of the hearing was for the rendering of the decision, first in Altrurian, and then in English. The verdict of the magistrates had to he confirmed by a standing vote of the people, and of course the women voted as well as the men. The decision was that the sailors should be absolutely free to go or stay, but they took into account the fact that it would be cruel to keep the captain and his wife away from their little ones, and the sailors might wish to consider this. If they still remained true to their love of Altruria they could find some means of returning.

When the translator came to this point their spokesman jumped to his feet and called out to the captain, "Will you do it?" "Do what?" he asked, getting slowly to his own feet. "Come back with us after you have seen the kids?" The captain shook his fist at the sailors; it seemed to be the only gesture he had with them. "Give me the chance! All I want is to see the children and bring them out with me to Altruria, and the old folks with them." "Will you swear it? Will you say, 'I hope I may find the kids dead and buried when I get home if I don't do it'?" "I'll take that oath, or any oath you want me to." "Shake hands on it, then."

The two men met in front of the tribunal and clasped hands there, and their reconciliation did not need translation. Such a roar of cheers went up! And then the whole assembly burst out in the national Altrurian anthem, "Brothers All." I wish you could have heard it! But when the terms of the agreement were explained, the cheering that had gone before was a mere whisper to what followed. One orator after another rose and praised the self-sacrifice of the sailors. I was the proudest when the last of them referred to Aristides and the reports which he had sent home from America, and said that without some such study as he had made of the American character they never could have understood such an act as they were now witnessing. Illogical and insensate as their system was, their character sometimes had a beauty, a sublimity which was not possible to Altrurians even, for it was performed in the face of risks and chances which their happy conditions relieved them from. At the same time, the orator wished his hearers to consider the essential immorality of the act. He said that civilized men had no right to take these risks and chances. The sailors were perhaps justified, in so far as they were homeless, wifeless, and childless men; but it must not be forgotten that their heroism was like the reckless generosity of savages.

The men have gone back to the ship, and she sails this afternoon. I have persuaded the captain to let his wife stay to lunch with me at our Refectory, where the ladies wish to bid her good-bye, and I am hurrying forward this letter so that she can take it on board with her this afternoon. She has promised to post it on the first Pacific steamer they meet, or if they do not meet any to send it forward to you with a special-delivery stamp as soon as they reach Boston. She will also forward by express an Altrurian costume, such as I am now wearing, sandals and all! Do put it on, Dolly, dear, for my sake, and realize what it is for once in your life to be a free woman.

Heaven knows when I shall have another chance of getting letters to you. But I shall live in hopes, and I shall set down my experiences here for your benefit, not perhaps as I meet them, but as I think of them, and you must not mind having a rather cluttered narrative. To-morrow we are setting off on our round of the capitals, where Aristides is to make a sort of public report to the people of the different Regions on the working of the capitalistic conditions as he observed them among us. But I don't expect to send you a continuous narrative of our adventures. Good-bye, dearest, with my mother's love, and my husband's as well as my own, to both of you; think of me as needing nothing but a glimpse of you to complete my happiness. How I should like to tell you fully about it! You must come to Altruria!

I came near letting this go without telling you of one curious incident of the affair between the captain and his men. Before the men returned to the ship they came with their spokesman to say good-bye to Aristides and me, and he remarked casually that it was just as well, maybe, to be going back, because, for one thing, they would know then whether it was real or not. I asked him what he meant, and he said, "Well, you know, some of the mates think it's a dream here, or it's too good to be true. As far forth as I go, I'd be willing to have it a dream that I didn't ever have to wake up from. It ain't any too good to be true for me. Anyway, I'm going to get back somehow, and give it another chance to be a fact." Wasn't that charming? It had a real touch of poetry in it, but it was prose that followed. I couldn't help asking him whether there had been nothing to mar the pleasure of their stay in Altruria, and he answered: "Well, I don't know as you could rightly say mar; it hadn't ought to have. You see, it was like this. You see, some of the mates wanted to lay off and have a regular bange, but that don't seem to be the idea here. After we had been ashore a day or two they set us to work at different jobs, or wanted to. The mates didn't take hold very lively, and some of 'em didn't take hold a bit. But after that went on a couple of days, there wa'n't any breakfast one morning, and come noontime there wa'n't any dinner, and as far forth as they could make out they had to go to bed without supper. Then they called a halt, and tackled one of your head men here that could speak some English. He didn't answer them right off the reel, but he got out his English Testament and he read 'em a verse that said, 'For even when we were with you this we commanded you, that if any one would not work neither should he eat.' That kind of fetched 'em, and after that there wa'n't any sojerin', well not to speak of. They saw he meant business. I guess it did more than any one thing to make 'em think they wa'n't dreamin'."

William Dean Howells