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Chapter 10


Well, my dear Dorothea, I had been hoping to go more into detail about my mother and about our life in the Maritime Capital, which is to be our home for a year, but I had hardly got down the last words when Aristides came in with a despatch from the Seventh Regionic, summoning us there on important public business: I haven't got over the feeling yet of being especially distinguished and flattered at sharing in public business; but the Altrurian women are so used to it that they do not think anything of it. The despatch was signed by an old friend of my husband's, Cyril Chrysostom, who had once been Emissary in England, and to whom my husband wrote his letters when he was in America. I hated to leave my mother so soon, but it could not be helped, and we took the first electric express for the Seventh Regionic, where we arrived in about an hour and forty minutes, making the three hundred miles in that time easily. I couldn't help regretting our comfortable van, but there was evidently haste in the summons, and I confess that I was curious to know what the matter was, though I had made a shrewd guess the first instant, and it turned out that I was not mistaken.

The long and the short of it was that there was trouble with the people who had come ashore in that yacht, and were destined never to go to sea in her. She was hopelessly bedded in the sand, and the waves that were breaking over her were burying her deeper and deeper. The owners were living in their tent as we had left them, and her crew were camped in smaller tents and any shelter they could get, along the beach. They had brought her stores away, but many of the provisions had been damaged, and it had become a pressing question what should be done about the people. We had been asked to consult with Cyril and his wife, and the other Regionic chiefs and their wives, and we threshed the question out nearly the whole night.

I am afraid it will appear rather comical in some aspects to you and Mr. Makely, but I can assure you that it was a very serious matter with the Altrurian authorities. If there had been any hope of a vessel from the capitalistic world touching at Altruria within a definite time, they could have managed, for they would have gladly kept the yacht's people and owners till they could embark them for Australia or New Zealand, and would have made as little of the trouble they were giving as they could. But until the trader that brought us should return with the crew, as the captain had promised, there was no ship expected, and any other wreck in the mean time would only add to their difficulty. You may be surprised, though I was not, that the difficulty was mostly with the yacht-owners, and above all with Mrs. Thrall, who had baffled every effort of the authorities to reduce what they considered the disorder of their life.

With the crew it was a different matter. As soon as they had got drunk on the wines and spirits they had brought from the wreck, and then had got sober because they had drunk all the liquors up, they began to be more manageable; when their provisions ran short, and they were made to understand that they would not be allowed to plunder the fields and woods, or loot the villages for something to eat, they became almost exemplarily docile. At first they were disposed to show fight, and the principles of the Altrurians did not allow them to use violence in bringing them to subjection; but the men had counted without their hosts in supposing that they could therefore do as they pleased, unless they pleased to do right. After they had made their first foray they were warned by Cyril, who came from the capital to speak English with them, that another raid would not be suffered. They therefore attempted it by night, but the Altrurians were prepared for them with the flexible steel nets which are their only means of defence, and half a dozen sailors were taken in one. When they attempted to break out, and their shipmates attempted to break in to free them, a light current of electricity was sent through the wires and the thing was done. Those who were rescued—the Altrurians will not say captured—had hoes put into their hands the next morning, and were led into the fields and set to work, after a generous breakfast of coffee, bread, and mushrooms. The chickens they had killed in their midnight expedition were buried, and those which they had not killed lost no time in beginning to lay eggs for the sustenance of the reformed castaways. As an extra precaution with the "rescued," when they were put to work, each of them with a kind of shirt of mail, worn over his coat, which could easily be electrized by a metallic filament connecting with the communal dynamo, and under these conditions they each did a full day's work during the Obligatories.

As the short commons grew shorter and shorter, both meat and drink, at Camp Famine, and the campers found it was useless to attempt thieving from the Altrurians, they had tried begging from the owners in their large tent, but they were told that the provisions were giving out there, too, and there was nothing for them. When they insisted the servants of the owners had threatened them with revolvers, and the sailors, who had nothing but their knives, preferred to attempt living on the country. Within a week the whole crew had been put to work in the woods and fields and quarries, or wherever they could make themselves useful. They were, on the whole, so well fed and sheltered that they were perfectly satisfied, and went down with the Altrurians on the beach during the Voluntaries and helped secure the yacht's boats and pieces of wreckage that came ashore. Until they became accustomed or resigned to the Altrurian diet, they were allowed to catch shell-fish and the crabs that swarmed along the sand and cook them, but on condition that they built their fires on the beach, and cooked only during an offshore wind, so that the fumes of the roasting should not offend the villagers.

Cyril acknowledged, therefore, that the question of the crew was for the present practically settled, but Mr. and Mrs. Thrall, and their daughter and son-in-law, with their servants, still presented a formidable problem. As yet, their provisions had not run out, and they were living in their marquee as we had seen them three weeks earlier, just after their yacht went ashore. It could not be said that they were molestive in the same sense as the sailors, but they were even more demoralizing in the spectacle they offered the neighborhood of people dependent on hired service, and in their endeavors to supply themselves in perishable provisions, like milk and eggs, by means of money. Cyril had held several interviews with them, in which he had at first delicately intimated, and then explicitly declared, that the situation could not be prolonged. The two men had been able to get the Altrurian point of view in some measure, and so had Lady Moors, but Mrs. Thrall had remained stiffly obtuse and obstinate, and it was in despair of bringing her to terms without resorting to rescue that he had summoned us to help him.

It was not a pleasant job, but of course we could not refuse, and we agreed that as soon as we had caught a nap, and had a bite of breakfast we would go over to their camp with Cyril and his wife, and see what we could do with the obnoxious woman. I confess that I had some little consolation in the hope that I should see her properly humbled.

William Dean Howells