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Chapter 4


You must not think, Dolly, from anything I have been telling you that the Altrurians are ever harsh. Sometimes they cannot realize how things really are with us, and how what seems grotesque and hideous to them seems charming and beautiful, or at least chic, to us. But they are wonderfully quick to see when they have hurt you the least, and in the little sacrifices I have made of my wardrobe to the cause of general knowledge there has not been the least urgence from them. When I now look at the things I used to wear, where they have been finally placed in the ethnological department of the Museum, along with the Esquiman kyaks and the Thlinkeet totems, they seem like things I wore in some prehistoric age—

"When wild in woods the noble savage ran."

Now, am I being unkind? Well, you mustn't mind me, Dolly. You must just say, "She has got it bad," and go on and learn as much about Altruria as you can from me. Some of the things were hard to get used to, and at first seemed quite impossible. For one thing, there was the matter of service, which is dishonorable with us, and honorable with the Altrurians: I was a long time getting to understand that, though I knew it perfectly well from hearing my husband talk about it in New York. I believe he once came pretty near offending you by asking why you did not do your own work, or something like that; he has confessed as much, and I could not wonder at you in your conditions. Why, when we first went to the guest-house, and the pretty young girls who brought in lunch sat down at table to eat it with us, I felt the indignation making me hot all over. You know how democratic I am, and I did not mind those great, splendid boat-girls hugging and kissing me, but I instinctively drew the line at cooks and waitresses. In New York, you know, I always tried to be kind to my servants, but as for letting one of them sit down in my presence, much less sit down at table with me, I never dreamed of such a thing in my most democratic moments. Luckily I drew the line subjectively here, and later I found that these young ladies were daughters of some of the most distinguished men and women on the continent, though you must not understand distinction as giving any sort of social primacy; that sort of thing is not allowed in Altruria. They had drawn lots with the girls in the Regionic school here, and were proud of having won the honor of waiting on us. Of course, I needn't say they were what we would have felt to be ladies anywhere, and their manners were exquisite, even to leaving us alone together as soon as we had finished luncheon. The meal itself was something I shall always remember for its delicious cooking of the different kinds of mushrooms which took the place of meat, and the wonderful salads, and the temperate and tropical fruits which we had for dessert.

They had to talk mostly with my husband, of course, and when they did talk to me it was through him. They were very intelligent about our world, much more than we are about Altruria, though, of course, it was by deduction from premises rather than specific information, and they wanted to ask a thousand questions; but they saw the joke of it, and laughed with us when Aristides put them off with a promise that if they would have a public meeting appointed we would appear and answer all the questions anybody could think of; we were not going to waste our answers on them the first day. He wanted them to let us go out and help wash the dishes, but they would not hear of it. I confess I was rather glad of that, for it seemed a lower depth to which I could not descend, even after eating with them. But they invited us out to look at the kitchen, after they had got it in order a little, and when we joined them there, whom should I see but my own dear old mother, with an apron up to her chin, wiping the glass and watching carefully through her dear old spectacles that she got everything bright! You know she was of a simpler day than ours, and when she was young she used to do her own work, and she and my father always washed the dishes together after they had company. I merely said, "Well, mother!" and she laughed and colored, and said she guessed she should like it in Altruria, for it took her back to the America she used to know.

I must mention things as they come into my head, and not in any regular order; there are too many of them. One thing is that I did not notice till afterwards that we had had no meat that first day at luncheon—the mushrooms were so delicious, and you know I never was much of a meat-eater. It was not till we began to make our present tour of the Regionic capitals, where Aristides has had to repeat his account of American civilization until I am sick as well as ashamed of America, that I first felt a kind of famine which I kept myself from recognizing as long as I could. Then I had to own to myself, long before I owned it to him, that I was hungry for meat—for roast, for broiled, for fried, for hashed. I did not actually tell him, but he found it out, and I could not deny it, though I felt such an ogre in it. He was terribly grieved, and blamed himself for not having thought of it, and wished he had got some canned meats from the trader before she left the port. He was really in despair, for nobody since the old capitalistic times had thought of killing sheep or cattle for food; they have them for wool and milk and butter; and of course when I looked at them in the fields it did seem rather formidable. You are so used to seeing them in the butchers' shops, ready for the range, that you never think of what they have to go through before that. But at last I managed to gasp out, one day, "If I could only have a chicken!" and he seemed to think that it could be managed. I don't know how he made interest with the authorities, or how the authorities prevailed on a farmer to part with one of his precious pullets; but the thing was done somehow, and two of the farmer's children brought it to us at one of the guest-houses where we were staying, and then fled howling. That was bad enough, but what followed was worse. I went another day on mushrooms before I had the heart to say chicken again and suggest that Aristides should get it killed and dressed. The poor fellow did try, I believe, but we had to fall back upon ourselves for the murderous deed, and—Did you ever see a chicken have its head cut off, and how hideously it behaves? It made us both wish we were dead; and the sacrifice of that one pullet was quite enough for me. We buried the poor thing under the flowers of the guest-house garden, and I went back to my mushrooms after a visit of contrition to the farmer and many attempts to bring his children to forgiveness. After all, the Altrurian mushrooms are wonderfully nourishing, and they are in such variety that, what with other succulent vegetables and the endless range of fruits and nuts, one does not wish for meat—meat that one has killed one's self!

William Dean Howells