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Chapter 6


But I must not get away from my personal experiences in these international statistics. Sometimes, when night overtakes us, we stop and camp beside the road, and set about getting our supper of eggs and bread and butter and cheese, or the fruits that are ripening all round us. Since my experience with that pullet I go meekly mushrooming in the fields and pastures; and when I have set the mushrooms stewing over an open fire, Aristides makes the coffee, and in a little while we have a banquet fit for kings—or for the poor things in every grade below them that serve kings, political or financial or industrial. There is always water, for it is brought down from the snow-fields of the mountains—there is not much rainfall—and carried in little concrete channels along the road—side from village to village, something like those conduits the Italian peasants use to bring down the water from the Maritime Alps to their fields and orchards; and you hear the soft gurgle of it the whole night long, and day long, too, whenever you stop. After supper we can read awhile by our electric lamp (we tap the current in the telephone wires anywhere), or Aristides sacrifices himself to me in a lesson of Altrurian grammar. Then we creep back into our van and fall asleep with the Southern Cross glittering over our heads. It is perfectly safe, though it was a long time before I could imagine the perfect safety of it. In a country where there are no thieves, because a thief here would not know what to do with his booty, we are secure from human molestation, and the land has long been cleared of all sorts of wild beasts, without being unpleasantly tamed. It is like England in that, and yet it has a touch of the sylvan, which you feel nowhere as you do in our dear New England hill country. There was one night, however, when we were lured on and on, and did not stop to camp till fairly in the dusk. Then we went to sleep without supper, for we had had rather a late lunch and were not hungry, and about one o'clock in the morning I was awakened by voices speaking Altrurian together. I recognized my husband's voice, which is always so kind, but which seemed to have a peculiarly tender and compassionate note in it now. The other was lower and of a sadness which wrung my heart, though I did not know in the least what the person was saying. The talk went on a long time, at first about some matter of immediate interest, as I fancied, and then apparently it branched off on some topic which seemed to concern the stranger, whoever he was. Then it seemed to get more indistinct, as if the stranger were leaving us and Aristides were going a little way with him. Presently I heard him coming back, and he put his head in at the van curtains, as if to see whether I was asleep.

"Well?" I said, and he said how sorry he was for having waked me. "Oh, I don't mind," I said. "Whom were you talking with? He had the saddest voice I ever heard. What did he want?"

"Oh, it seems that we are not far from the ruins of one of the old capitalistic cities, which have been left for a sort of warning against the former conditions, and he wished to caution us against the malarial influences from it. I think perhaps we had better push on a little way, if you don't mind."

The moon was shining clearly, and of course I did not mind, and Aristides got his hand on the lever, and we were soon getting out of the dangerous zone. "I think," he said, "they ought to abolish that pest-hole. I doubt if it serves any good purpose, now, though it has been useful in times past as an object-lesson."

"But who was your unknown friend?" I asked, a great deal more curious about him than about the capitalistic ruin.

"Oh, just a poor murderer," he answered easily, and I shuddered back:
"A murderer!"

"Yes. He killed his friend some fifteen years ago in a jealous rage, and he is pursued by remorse that gives him no peace."

"And is the remorse his only punishment?" I asked, rather indignantly.

"Isn't that enough? God seemed to think it was, in the case of the first murderer, who killed his brother. All that he did to Cain was to set a mark on him. But we have not felt sure that we have the right to do this. We let God mark him, and He has done it with this man in the sorrow of his face. I was rather glad you, couldn't see him, my dear. It is an awful face."

I confess that this sounded like mere sentimentalism to me, and I said, "Really, Aristides, I can't follow you. How are innocent people to be protected against this wretch, if he wanders about among them at will?"

"They are as safe from him as from any other man in Altruria. His case was carefully looked into by the medical authorities, and it was decided that he was perfectly sane, so that he could be safely left at large, to expiate his misdeed in the only possible way that such a misdeed can be expiated—by doing good to others. What would you have had us do with him?"

The question rather staggered me, but I said, "He ought to have been imprisoned at least a year for manslaughter."

"Cain was not imprisoned an hour."

"That was a very different thing. But suppose you let a man go at large who has killed his friend in a jealous rage, what do you do with other murderers?"

"In Altruria there can be no other murderers. People cannot kill here for money, which prompts every other kind of murder in capitalistic countries, as well as every other kind of crime. I know, my dear, that this seems very strange to you, but you will accustom yourself to the idea, and then you will see the reasonableness of the Altrurian plan. On the whole, I am sorry you could not have seen that hapless man, and heard him. He had a face like death—"

"And a voice like death, too!" I put in.

"You noticed that? He wanted to talk about his crime with me. He wants to talk about it with any one who will listen to him. He is consumed with an undying pity for the man he slew. That is the first thing, the only thing, in his mind. If he could, I believe he would give his life for the life he took at any moment. But you cannot recreate one life by destroying another. There is no human means of ascertaining justice, but we can always do mercy with divine omniscience." As he spoke the sun pierced the edge of the eastern horizon, and lit up the marble walls and roofs of the Regionic capital which we were approaching.

At the meeting we had there in the afternoon, Aristides reported our having been warned against our danger in the night by that murderer, and public record of the fact was made. The Altrurians consider any sort of punishment which is not expiation a far greater sin than the wrong it visits, and altogether barren and useless. After the record in this case had been made, the conference naturally turned upon what Aristides had seen of the treatment of criminals in America, and when, he told of our prisons, where people merely arrested and not yet openly accused are kept, I did not know which way to look, for you know I am still an American at heart, Dolly. Did you ever see the inside of one of our police-stations at night? Or smell it? I did, once, when I went to give bail for a wretched girl who had been my servant, and had gone wrong, but had been arrested for theft, and I assure you that the sight and the smell woke me in the night for a month afterwards, and I have never quite ceased to dream about it.

The Altrurians listened in silence, and I hoped they could not realize the facts, though the story was every word true; but what seemed to make them the most indignant was the treatment of the families of the prisoners in what we call our penitentiaries and reformatories. At first they did not conceive of it, apparently, because it was so stupidly barbarous; they have no patience with stupidity; and when Aristides had carefully explained, it seemed as if they could not believe it. They thought it right that the convicts should be made to work, but they could not understand that the state really took away their wages, and left their families to suffer for want of the support which it had deprived them of. They said this was punishing the mothers and sisters, the wives and children of the prisoners, and was like putting out the eyes of an offender's innocent relatives as they had read was done in Oriental countries. They asked if there was never any sort of protest against such an atrocious perversion of justice, and when the question was put to me I was obliged to own that I had never heard the system even criticised. Perhaps it has been, but I spoke only from my own knowledge.

William Dean Howells