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Chapter 12

XII

At this point there came a sound from within the marquee as of skirts sweeping forward sharply, imperiously, followed by a softer frou-frou, and Mrs. Thrall put aside the curtain of the tent with one hand, and stood challenging our little Altrurian group, while Lady Moors peered timidly at us from over her mother's shoulder. I felt a lust of battle rising in me at sight of that woman, and it was as much as I could do to control myself; but in view of the bad time I knew she was going to have, I managed to hold in, though I joined very scantly in the polite greetings of the Chrysostoms and Aristides, which she ignored as if they had been the salutations of savages. She glared at her husband for explanation, and he said, gently, "This is a delegation from the Altrurian capital, my dear, and we have been talking over the situation together."

"But what is this," she demanded, "that I have heard about our not paying? Do they accuse us of not paying? You could buy and sell the whole country."

I never imagined so much mildness could be put into such offensive words as Cyril managed to get into his answer. "We accuse you of not paying, and we do not mean that you shall become chargeable to us. The men and women who served you on shipboard have been put to work, and you must go to work, too."

"Mr. Thrall—Lord Moors—have you allowed these people to treat you as if you were part of the ship's crew? Why don't you give them what they want and let them go? Of course it's some sort of blackmailing scheme. But you ought to get rid of them at any cost. Then you can appeal to the authorities, and tell them that you will bring the matter to the notice of the government at Washington. They must be taught that they cannot insult American citizens with impunity." No one spoke, and she added, "What do they really want?"

"Well, my dear," her husband hesitated, "I hardly know how to explain. But it seems that they think our living here in the way we do is orderly, and—and they want us to go to work, in short."

"To work!" she shouted.

"Yes, all of us. That is, so I understand."

"What nonsense!"

She looked at us one after another, and when her eye rested on me, I began to suspect that insolent as she was she was even duller; in fact, that she was so sodden in her conceit of wealth that she was plain stupid. So when she said to me, "You are an American by birth, I believe. Can you tell me the meaning of this?" I answered:

"Cyril Chrysostom represents the authorities. If he asks me to speak, I will speak." Cyril nodded at me with a smile, and I went on. "It is a very simple matter. In Altruria everybody works with his hands three hours a day. After that he works or not, as he likes."

"What have we to do with that?" she asked.

"The rule has no exceptions."

"But we are not Altrurians; we are Americans."

"I am an American, too, and I work three hours every day, unless I am passing from one point to another on public business with my husband. Even then we prefer to stop during the work-hours, and help in the fields, or in the shops, or wherever we are needed. I left my own mother at home doing her kitchen work yesterday afternoon, though it was out of hours, and she need not have worked."

"Very well, then, we will do nothing of the kind, neither I, nor my daughter, nor my husband. He has worked hard all his life, and he has come away for a much-needed rest. I am not going to have him breaking himself down."

I could not help suggesting, "I suppose the men at work in his mines, and mills, and on his railroads and steamship lines are taking a much-needed rest, too. I hope you are not going to let them break themselves down, either."

Aristides gave me a pained glance, and Cyril and his wife looked grave, but she not quite so grave as he. Lord Moors said, "We don't seem to be getting on. What Mrs. Thrall fails to see, and I confess I don't quite see it myself, is that if we are not here in forma pauperis—"

"But you are here in forma pauperis," Cyril interposed, smilingly.

"How is that? If we are willing to pay—if Mr. Thrall's credit is undeniably good—"

"Mr. Thrall's credit is not good in Altruria; you can pay here only in one currency, in the sweat of your faces."

"You want us to be Tolstoys, I suppose," Mrs. Thrall said, contemptuously.

Cyril replied, gently, "The endeavor of Tolstoy, in capitalistic conditions, is necessarily dramatic. Your labor here will be for your daily bread, and it will be real." The inner dullness of the woman came into her eyes again, and he addressed himself to Lord Moors in continuing: "If a company of indigent people were cast away on an English coast, after you had rendered them the first aid, what should you do?"

The young man reflected. "I suppose we should put them in the way of earning a living until some ship arrived to take them home."

"That is merely what we propose to do in your case here," Cyril said.

"But we are not indigent—"

"Yes, you are absolutely destitute. You have money and credit, but neither has any value in Altruria. Nothing but work or love has any value in Altruria. You cannot realize too clearly that you stand before us in forma pauperis. But we require of you nothing that we do not require of ourselves. In Altruria every one is poor till he pays with work; then, for that time, he is rich; and he cannot otherwise lift himself above charity, which, except in the case of the helpless, we consider immoral. Your life here offers a very corrupting spectacle. You are manifestly living without work, and you are served by people whose hire you are not able to pay."

"My dear sir," Mr. Thrall said at this point, with a gentle smile, "I think they are willing to take the chances of being paid."

"We cannot suffer them to do so. At present we know of no means of your getting away from Altruria. We have disused our custom of annually connecting with the Australasian steamers, and it may be years before a vessel touches on our coast. A ship sailed for Boston some months ago, with the promise of returning in order that the crew may cast in their lot with us permanently. We do not confide in that promise, and you must therefore conform to our rule of life. Understand clearly that the willingness of your servants to serve you has nothing to do with the matter. That is part of the falsity in which the whole capitalistic world lives. As the matter stands with you, here, there is as much reason why you should serve them as they should serve you. If on their side they should elect to serve you from love, they will be allowed to do so. Otherwise, you and they must go to work with the neighbors at the tasks they will assign you."

"Do you mean at once?" Lord Moors asked.

"The hours of the obligatory labors are nearly past for the day. But if you are interested in learning what you will be set to doing to-morrow, the Communal authorities will be pleased to instruct you during the Voluntaries this afternoon. You may be sure that in no case will your weakness or inexperience be overtasked. Your histories will be studied, and appropriate work will be assigned to each of you."

Mrs. Thrall burst out, "If you think I am going into my kitchen—"

Then I burst in, "I left my mother in her kitchen!"

"And a very fit place for her, I dare say," she retorted, but Lady Moors caught her mother's arm and murmured, in much the same distress as showed in my husband's mild eyes, "Mother! Mother!" and drew her within.

William Dean Howells