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Chapter 9

IX

I have to jot things down as they come into my mind, and I am afraid I forget some of the most important. Everybody is so novel on this famous tour of ours that I am continually interested, but one has one's preferences even in Altruria, and I believe I like best the wives of the artists and literary men whom one finds working in the galleries and libraries of the capitals everywhere. They are not more intelligent than other women, perhaps, but they are more sympathetic; and one sees so little of those people in New York, for all they abound there.

The galleries are not only for the exhibition of pictures, but each has numbers of ateliers, where the artists work and teach. The libraries are the most wonderfully imagined things. You do not have to come and study in them, but if you are working up any particular subject, the books relating to it are sent to your dwelling every morning and brought away every noon, so that during the obligatory hours you have them completely at your disposition, and during the Voluntaries you can consult them with the rest of the public in the library; it is not thought best that study should be carried on throughout the day, and the results seem to justify this theory. If you want to read a book merely for pleasure, you are allowed to take it out and live with it as long as you like; the copy you have is immediately replaced with another, so that you do not feel hurried and are not obliged to ramp through it in a week or a fortnight.

The Altrurian books are still rather sealed books to me, but they are delightful to the eye, all in large print on wide margins, with flexible bindings, and such light paper that you can hold them in one hand indefinitely without tiring. I must send you some with this, if I ever get my bundle of letters off to you. You will see by the dates that I am writing you one every day; I had thought of keeping a journal for you, but then I should have had left out a good many things that happened during our first days, when the impressions were so vivid, and I should have got to addressing my records to myself, and I think I had better keep to the form of letters. If they reach you, and you read them at random, why that is very much the way I write them.

I despair of giving you any real notion of the capitals, but if you remember the White City at the Columbian Fair at Chicago in 1893, you can have some idea of the general effect of one; only there is nothing heterogeneous in their beauty. There is one classic rule in the architecture, but each of the different architects may characterize an edifice from himself, just as different authors writing the same language characterize it by the diction natural to him. There are suggestions of the capitals in some of our cities, and if you remember Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, you can imagine something like the union of street and garden which every street of them is. The trolleys run under the overarching trees between the lawns, flanked by gravelled footpaths between flower-beds, and you take the cars or not as you like. As there is no hurry, they go about as fast as English trams, and the clanger from them is practically reduced to nothing by the crossings dipping under them at the street corners. The centre of the capital is approached by colonnades, which at night bear groups of great bulbous lamps, and by day flutter with the Altrurian and Regionic flags. Around this centre are the stores and restaurants and theatres, and galleries and libraries, with arcades over the sidewalks, like those in Bologna; sometimes the arcades are in two stories, as they are in Chester. People are constantly coming and going in an easy way during the afternoon, though in the morning the streets are rather deserted.

But what is the use? I could go on describing and describing, and never get in half the differences from American cities, with their hideous uproar, and their mud in the wet, and their clouds of swirling dust in the wind. But there is one feature which I must mention, because you can fancy it from the fond dream of a great national highway which some of our architects projected while they were still in the fervor of excitement from the beauty of the Peristyle, and other features of the White City. They really have such a highway here, crossing the whole Altrurian continent, and uniting the circle of the Regionic capitals. As we travelled for a long time by the country roads on the beds of the old railways, I had no idea of this magnificent avenue, till one day my husband suddenly ran our van into the one leading up to the first capital we were to visit. Then I found myself between miles and miles of stately white pillars, rising and sinking as the road found its natural levels, and growing in the perspective before us and dwindling behind us. I could not keep out of my mind a colonnade of palm-trees, only the fronds were lacking, and there were never palms so beautiful. Each pillar was inscribed with the name of some Altrurian who had done something for his country, written some beautiful poem or story, or history, made some scientific discovery, composed an opera, invented a universal convenience, performed a wonderful cure, or been a delightful singer, or orator, or gardener, or farmer. Not one soldier, general or admiral, among them! That seemed very strange to me, and I asked Aristides how it was. Like everything else in Altruria, it was very simple; there had been no war for so long that there were no famous soldiers to commemorate. But he stopped our van when he came to the first of the many arches which spanned the highway, and read out to me in English the Altrurian record that it was erected in honor of the first President of the Altrurian Commonwealth, who managed the negotiations when the capitalistic oligarchies to the north and south were peacefully annexed, and the descendants of the three nations joined in the commemoration of an event that abolished war forever on the Altrurian continent.

Here I can imagine Mr. Makely asking who footed the bills for this beauty and magnificence, and whether these works were constructed at the cost of the nation, or the different Regions, or the abuttors on the different highways. But the fact is, you poor, capitalistic dears, they cost nobody a dollar, for there is not a dollar in Altruria. You must worry into the idea somehow that in Altruria you cannot buy anything except by working, and that work is the current coin of the republic: you pay for everything by drops of sweat, and off your own brow, not somebody else's brow. The people built these monuments and colonnades, and aqueducts and highways and byways, and sweet villages and palatial cities with their own hands, after the designs of artists, who also took part in the labor. But it was a labor that they delighted in so much that they chose to perform it during the Voluntaries, when they might have been resting, and not during the Obligatories, when they were required to work. So it was all joy and all glory. They say there never was such happiness in any country since the world began. While the work went on it was like a perpetual Fourth of July or an everlasting picnic.

But I know you hate this sort of economical stuff, Dolly, and I will make haste to get down to business, as Mr. Makely would say, for I am really coming to something that you will think worth while. One morning, when we had made half the circle of the capitals, and were on the homestretch to the one where we had left our dear mother—for Aristides claims her, too—and I was letting that dull nether anxiety for her come to the top, though we had had the fullest telephonic talks with her every day, and knew she was well and happy, we came round the shoulder of a wooded cliff and found ourselves on an open stretch of the northern coast. At first I could only exclaim at the beauty of the sea, lying blue and still beyond a long beach closed by another headland, and I did not realize that a large yacht which I saw close to land had gone ashore. The beach was crowded with Altrurians, who seemed to have come to the rescue, for they were putting off to the yacht in boats and returning with passengers, and jumping out, and pulling their boats with them up on to the sand.

I was quite bewildered, and I don't know what to say I was the next thing, when I saw that the stranded yacht was flying the American flag from her peak. I supposed she must be one of our cruisers, she was so large, and the first thing that flashed into my mind was a kind of amused wonder what those poor Altrurians would do with a ship-of-war and her marines and crew. I couldn't ask any coherent questions, and luckily Aristides was answering my incoherent ones in the best possible way by wheeling our van down on the beach and making for the point nearest the yacht. He had time to say he did not believe she was a government vessel, and, in fact, I remembered that once I had seen a boat in the North River getting up steam to go to Europe which was much larger, and had her decks covered with sailors that I took for bluejackets; but she was only the private yacht of some people I knew. These stupid things kept going and coming in my mind while my husband was talking with some of the Altrurian girls who were there helping with the men. They said that the yacht had gone ashore the night before last in one of the sudden fogs that come up on that coast, and that some people whom the sailors seemed to obey were camping on the edge of the upland above the beach, under a large tent they had brought from the yacht. They had refused to go to the guest-house in the nearest village, and as nearly as the girls could make out they expected the yacht to get afloat from tide to tide, and then intended to re-embark on her. In the mean time they had provisioned themselves from the ship, and were living in a strange way of their own. Some of them seemed to serve the others, but these appeared to be used with a very ungrateful indifference, as if they were of a different race. There was one who wore a white apron and white cap who directed the cooking for the rest, and had several assistants; and from time to time very disagreeable odors came from the camp, like burning flesh. The Altrurians had carried them fruits and vegetables, but the men-assistants had refused them contemptuously and seemed suspicious of the variety of mushrooms they offered them. They called out, "To-stoo!" and I understood that the strangers were afraid they were bringing toad-stools. One of the Altrurian girls had been studying English in the nearest capital, and she had tried to talk with these people, pronouncing it in the Altrurian way, but they could make nothing of one another; then she wrote down what she wanted to say, but as she spelled it phonetically they were not able to read her English. She asked us if I was the American Altrurian she had heard of, and when I said yes she lost no time in showing us to the camp of the castaways.

As soon as we saw their tents we went forward till we were met at the largest by a sort of marine footman, who bowed slightly and said to me, "What name shall I say, ma'am?" and I answered distinctly, so that he might get the name right, "Mr. and Mrs. Homos." Then he held back the flap of the marquee, which seemed to serve these people as a drawing-room, and called out, standing very rigidly upright, to let us pass, in the way that I remembered so well, "Mr. And Mrs. 'Omos!" and a severe-looking, rather elderly lady rose to meet us with an air that was both anxious and forbidding, and before she said anything else she burst out, "You don't mean to say you speak English?"

I said that I spoke English, and had not spoken anything else but rather poor French until six months before, and then she demanded, "Have you been cast away on this outlandish place, too?"

I laughed and said I lived here, and I introduced my husband as well as I could without knowing her name. He explained with his pretty Altrurian accent, which you used to like so much, that we had ventured to come in the hope of being of use to them, and added some regrets for their misfortune so sweetly that I wondered she could help responding in kind. But she merely said, "Oh!" and then she seemed to recollect herself, and frowning to a very gentle-looking old man to come forward, she ignored my husband in presenting me. "Mr. Thrall, Mrs. ——"

She hesitated for my name, and I supplied it, "Homos," and as the old man had put out his hand in a kindly way I took it.

"And this is my husband, Aristides Homos, an Altrurian," I said, and then, as the lady had not asked us to sit down, or shown the least sign of liking our being there, the natural woman flamed up in me as she hadn't in all the time I have been away from New York. "I am glad you are so comfortable here, Mr. Thrall. You won't need us, I see. The people about will do anything in their power for you. Come, my dear," and I was sweeping out of that tent in a manner calculated to give the eminent millionaire's wife a notion of Altrurian hauteur which I must own would have been altogether mistaken.

I knew who they were perfectly. Even if I had not once met them I should have known that they were the ultra-rich Thralls, from the multitudinous pictures of them that I had seen in the papers at home, not long after they came on to New York.

He was beginning, "Oh no, oh no," but I cut in. "My husband and I are on our way to the next Regionic capital, and we are somewhat hurried. You will be quite well looked after by the neighbors here, and I see that we are rather in your housekeeper's way."

It was nasty, Dolly, and I won't deny it; it was vulgar. But what would you have done? I could feel Aristides' mild eye sadly on me, and I was sorry for him, but I assure him I was not sorry for them, till that old man spoke again, so timidly: "It isn't my—it's my wife, Mrs. Homos. Let me introduce her. But haven't we met before?"

"Perhaps during my first husband's lifetime. I was Mrs. Bellington
Strange."

"Mrs. P. Bellington Strange? Your husband was a dear friend of mine when we were both young—a good man, if ever there was one; the best in the world! I am so glad to see you again. Ah—my dear, you remember my speaking of Mrs. Strange?"

He took my hand again and held it in his soft old hands, as if hesitating whether to transfer it to her, and my heart melted towards him. You may think it very odd, Dolly, but it was what he said of my dear, dead husband that softened me. It made him seem very fatherly, and I felt the affection for him that I felt for my husband, when he seemed more like a father. Aristides and I often talk of it, and he has no wish that I should forget him.

Mrs. Thrall made no motion to take my hand from him, but she said, "I think I have met Mr. Strange," and now I saw in the background, sitting on a camp-stool near a long, lank young man stretched in a hammock, a very handsome girl, who hastily ran through a book, and then dropped it at the third mention of my name. I suspected that the book was the Social Register, and that the girl's search for me had been satisfactory, for she rose and came vaguely towards us, while the young man unfolded himself from the hammock, and stood hesitating, but looking as if he rather liked what had happened.

Mr. Thrall bustled about for camp-stools, and said, "Do stop and have some breakfast with us, it's just coming in. May I introduce my daughter, Lady Moors and—and Lord Moors?" The girl took my hand, and the young man bowed from his place; but if that poor old man had known, peace was not to be made so easily between two such bad-tempered women as Mrs. Thrall and myself. We expressed some very stiff sentiments in regard to the weather, and the prospect of the yacht getting off with the next tide, and my husband joined in with that manly gentleness of his, but we did not sit down, much less offer to stay to breakfast. We had got to the door of the tent, the family following us, even to the noble son-in-law, and as she now realized that we are actually going, Mrs. Thrall gasped out, "But you are not leaving us? What shall we do with all these natives?"

This was again too much, and I flamed out at her. "Natives! They are cultivated and refined people, for they are Altrurians, and I assure you you will be in much better hands than mine with them, for I am only Altrurian by marriage!"

She was one of those leathery egotists that nothing will make a dint in, and she came back with, "But we don't speak the language, and they don't speak English, and how are we to manage if the yacht doesn't get afloat?"

"Oh, no doubt you will be looked after from the capital we have just left. But I will venture to make a little suggestion with regard to the natives in the mean time. They are not proud, but they are very sensitive, and if you fail in any point of consideration, they will understand that you do not want their hospitality."

"I imagine our own people will be able to look after us," she answered quite as nastily. "We do not propose to be dependent on them. We can pay our way here as we do elsewhere."

"The experiment will be worth trying," I said. "Come, Aristides!" and I took the poor fellow away with me to our van. Mr. Thrall made some hopeless little movements towards us, but I would not stop or even look back. When we got into the van, I made Aristides put on the full power, and fell back into my seat and cried a while, and then I scolded him because he would not scold me, and went on in a really scandalous way. It must have been a revelation to him, but he only smoothed me on the shoulder and said, "Poor Eveleth, poor Eveleth," till I thought I should scream; but it ended in my falling on his neck, and saying I knew I was horrid, and what did he want me to do?

After I calmed down into something like rationality, he said he thought we had perhaps done the best thing we could for those people in leaving them to themselves, for they could come to no possible harm among the neighbors. He did not believe from what he had seen of the yacht from the shore, and from what the Altrurians had told him, that there was one chance in a thousand of her ever getting afloat. But those people would have to convince themselves of the fact, and of several other facts in their situation. I asked him what he meant, and he said he could tell me, but that as yet it was a public affair, and he would rather not anticipate the private interest I would feel in it. I did not insist; in fact, I wanted to get that odious woman out of my mind as soon as I could, for the thought of her threatened to poison the pleasure of the rest of our tour.

I believe my husband hurried it a little, though he did not shorten it, and we got back to the Maritime Region almost a week sooner than we had first intended. I found my dear mother well, and still serenely happy in her Altrurian surroundings. She had begun to learn the language, and she had a larger acquaintance in the capital, I believe, than any other one person. She said everybody had called on her, and they were the kindest people she had ever dreamed of. She had exchanged cooking-lessons with one lady who, they told her, was a distinguished scientist, and she had taught another, who was a great painter, a peculiar embroidery stitch which she had learned from my grandmother, and which everybody admired. These two ladies had given her most of her grammatical instruction in Altrurian, but there was a bright little girl who had enlarged her vocabulary more than either, in helping her about her housework, the mother having lent her for the purpose. My mother said she was not ashamed to make blunders before a child, and the little witch had taken the greatest delight in telling her the names of things in the house and the streets and the fields outside the town, where they went long walks together.

William Dean Howells