A TRAVELER FROM ALTRURIA
By W. D. HOWELLS
Author of "THE COAST OF BOHEMIA", "THE QUALITY OF MERCY", "A HAZARD OF NEW FORTUNES" etc.
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS NEW YORK AND LONDON 1908
A TRAVELER FROM ALTRURIA
I confess that with all my curiosity to meet an Altrurian, I was in no hospitable mood toward the traveler when he finally presented himself, pursuant to the letter of advice sent me by the friend who introduced him. It would be easy enough to take care of him in the hotel; I had merely to engage a room for him, and have the clerk tell him his money was not good if he tried to pay for anything. But I had swung fairly into my story; its people were about me all the time; I dwelt amid its events and places, and I did not see how I could welcome my guest among them, or abandon them for him. Still, when he actually arrived, and I took his hand as he stepped from the train, I found it less difficult to say that I was glad to see him than I expected. In fact, I was glad, for I could not look upon his face without feeling a glow of kindness for him. I had not the least trouble in identifying him, for he was so unlike all the Americans who dismounted from the train with him, and who all looked hot, worried, and anxious. He was a man no longer young, but in what we call the heyday of life, when our own people are so absorbed in making provision for the future that they may be said not to live in the present at all. This Altrurian's whole countenance, and especially his quiet, gentle eyes, expressed a vast contemporaneity, with bounds of leisure removed to the end of time; or, at least, this was the effect of something in them which I am obliged to report in rather fantastic terms. He was above the middle height, and he carried himself vigorously. His face was sunburned, or sea-burned, where it was not bearded; and, although I knew from my friend's letter that he was a man of learning and distinction in his own country, I should never have supposed him a person of scholarly life, he was so far from sicklied over with anything like the pale cast of thought. When he took the hand I offered him in my half-hearted welcome he gave it a grasp that decided me to confine our daily greetings to something much less muscular.
"Let me have your bag," I said, as we do when we meet people at the train, and he instantly bestowed a rather heavy valise upon me, with a smile in his benignant eyes, as if it had been the greatest favor. "Have you got any checks?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, in very good English, but with an accent new to me, "I bought two." He gave them to me, and I passed them to our hotel porter, who was waiting there with the baggage-cart. Then I proposed that we should walk across the meadow to the house, which is a quarter of a mile or so from the station. We started, but he stopped suddenly and looked back over his shoulder. "Oh, you needn't be troubled about your trunks," I said. "The porter will get them to the house all right. They'll be in your room by the time we get there."
"But he's putting them into the wagon himself," said the Altrurian.
"Yes; he always does that. He's a strong young fellow. He'll manage it. You needn't—" I could not finish saying he need not mind the porter; he was rushing back to the station, and I had the mortification of seeing him take an end of each trunk and help the porter toss it into the wagon; some lighter pieces he put in himself, and he did not stop till all the baggage the train had left was disposed of.
I stood holding his valise, unable to put it down in my embarrassment at this eccentric performance, which had been evident not to me alone, but to all the people who arrived by the train, and all their friends who came from the hotel to meet them. A number of these passed me on the tally-ho coach; and a lady, who had got her husband with her for over Sunday, and was in very good spirits, called gayly down to me: "Your friend seems fond of exercise!"
"Yes," I answered, dryly; the sparkling repartee which ought to have come to my help failed to show up. But it was impossible to be vexed with the Altrurian when he returned to me, unruffled by his bout with the baggage and serenely smiling.
"Do you know," he said, "I fancied that good fellow was ashamed of my helping him. I hope it didn't seem a reflection upon him in any way before your people? I ought to have thought of that."
"I guess we can make it right with him. I dare say he felt more surprised than disgraced. But we must make haste a little now; your train was half an hour late, and we shall not stand so good a chance for supper if we are not there pretty promptly."
"No?" said the Altrurian. "Why?"
"Well," I said, with evasive lightness, "first come, first served, you know. That's human nature."
"Is it?" he returned, and he looked at me as one does who suspects another of joking.
"Well, isn't it?" I retorted; but I hurried to add: "Besides, I want to have time after supper to show you a bit of our landscape. I think you'll enjoy it." I knew he had arrived in Boston that morning by steamer, and I now thought it high time to ask him: "Well, what do you think of America, anyway?" I ought really to have asked him this the moment he stepped from the train.
"Oh," he said, "I'm intensely interested," and I perceived that he spoke with a certain reservation. "As the most advanced country of its time, I've always been very curious to see it."
The last sentence raised my dashed spirits again, and I said, confidently: "You must find our system of baggage-checks delightful." I said this because it is one of the first things we brag of to foreigners, and I had the habit of it. "By-the-way," I ventured to add, "I suppose you meant to say you brought two checks when I asked you for them at the train just now? But you really said you bought them."
"Yes," the Altrurian replied, "I gave half a dollar apiece for them at the station in Boston. I saw other people doing it," he explained, noting my surprise. "Isn't it the custom?"
"I'm happy to say it isn't yet, on most of our roads. They were tipping the baggage-man, to make sure that he checked their baggage in time and put it on the train. I had to do that myself when I came up; otherwise it might have got along here some time next day. But the system is perfect."
"The poor man looked quite worn out," said the Altrurian, "and I am glad I gave him something. He seemed to have several hundred pieces of baggage to look after, and he wasn't embarrassed like your porter by my helping him put my trunks into the car. May I confess that the meanness of the station, its insufficient facilities, its shabby waiting-rooms, and its whole crowded and confused appearance gave me rather a bad impression?"
"I know," I had to own, "it's shameful; but you wouldn't have found another station in the city so bad."
"Ah, then," said the Altrurian, "I suppose this particular road is too poor to employ more baggage-men or build new stations; they seemed rather shabby all the way up."
"Well, no," I was obliged to confess, "it's one of the richest roads in the country. The stock stands at about 180. But I'm really afraid we shall be late to supper if we don't get on," I broke off; though I was not altogether sorry to arrive after the porter had disposed of the baggage. I dreaded another display of active sympathy on the part of my strange companion; I have often felt sorry myself for the porters of hotels, but I have never thought of offering to help them handle the heavy trunks that they manage.
The Altrurian was delighted with the hotel; and in fact it did look extremely pretty, with its branching piazzas full of well-dressed people, and its green lawns where the children were playing. I led the way to the room which I had taken for him next my own; it was simply furnished, but it was sweet with matting, fresh linen, and pure whitewashed walls. I flung open the window-blinds and let him get a glimpse of the mountains purpling under the sunset, the lake beneath, and the deeply foliaged shores.
"Glorious! glorious!" he sighed.
"Yes," I modestly assented. "We think that's rather fine." He stood tranced before the window, and I thought I had better say: "Well, now I can't give you much time to get the dust of travel off; the dining-room doors close at eight, and we must hurry down."
"I'll be with you in a moment," he said, pulling off his coat.
I waited impatiently at the foot of the stairs, avoiding the question I met on the lips and in the eyes of my acquaintance. The fame of my friend's behavior at the station must have spread through the whole place; and everybody wished to know who he was. I answered simply he was a traveler from Altruria; and in some cases I went further and explained that the Altrurians were peculiar.
In much less time than it seemed my friend found me; and then I had a little compensation for my suffering in his behalf. I could see that, whatever people said of him, they felt the same mysterious liking at sight of him that I had felt. He had made a little change in his dress, and I perceived that the women thought him not only good-looking but well-dressed. They followed him with their eyes as we went into the dining-room, and I was rather proud of being with him, as if I somehow shared the credit of his clothes and good looks. The Altrurian himself seemed most struck with the head-waiter, who showed us to our places, and while we were waiting for our supper I found a chance to explain that he was a divinity student from one of the fresh-water colleges, and was serving here during his summer vacation. This seemed to interest my friend so much that I went on to tell him that many of the waitresses, whom he saw standing there subject to the order of the guests, were country school-mistresses in the winter.
"Ah, that is as it should be," he said; "that is the kind of thing I expected to meet with in America."
"Yes," I responded, in my flattered national vanity, "if America means anything at all it means the honor of work and the recognition of personal worth everywhere. I hope you are going to make a long stay with us. We like to have travelers visit us who can interpret the spirit of our institutions as well as read their letter. As a rule Europeans never quite get our point of view. Now a great many of these waitresses are ladies, in the true sense of the word—selfrespectful, intelligent, refined, and fit to grace—"
I was interrupted by the noise my friend made in suddenly pushing back his chair and getting to his feet. "What's the matter?" I asked. "You're not ill, I hope?"
But he did not hear me. He had run half down the dining-hall toward the slender young girl who was bringing us our supper. I had ordered rather generously, for my friend had owned to a good appetite, and I was hungry myself with waiting for him, so that the tray the girl carried was piled up with heavy dishes. To my dismay I saw, rather than heard at that distance, the Altrurian enter into a polite controversy with her, and then, as if overcoming all her scruples by sheer strength of will, possess himself of the tray and make off with it toward our table. The poor child followed him, blushing to her hair; the head-waiter stood looking helplessly on; the guests, who at that late hour were fortunately few, were simply aghast at the scandal; the Altrurian alone seemed to think his conduct the most natural thing in the world. He put the tray on the side-table near us, and in spite of our waitress's protests insisted upon arranging the little bird-bath dishes before our plates. Then at last he sat down, and the girl, flushed and tremulous, left the room, as I could not help suspecting, to have a good cry in the kitchen. She did not come back, and the head-waiter, who was perhaps afraid to send another in her place, looked after our few wants himself. He kept a sharp eye on my friend, as if he were not quite sure he was safe, but the Altrurian resumed the conversation with all that lightness of spirits which I noticed in him after he helped the porter with the baggage. I did not think it the moment to take him to task for what he had just done; I was not even sure that it was the part of a host to do so at all, and between the one doubt and the other I left the burden of talk to him.
"What a charming young creature!" he began. "I never saw anything prettier than the way she had of refusing my help, absolutely without coquetry or affectation of any kind. She is, as you said, a perfect lady, and she graces her work, as I am sure she would grace any exigency of life. She quite realizes my ideal of an American girl, and I see now what the spirit of your country must be from such an expression of it."
I wished to tell him that while a country school-teacher who waits at table in a summer hotel is very much to be respected in her sphere, she is not regarded with that high honor which some other women command among us; but I did not find this very easy, after what I had said of our esteem for labor; and while I was thinking how I could hedge, my friend went on.
"I liked England greatly, and I liked the English, but I could not like the theory of their civilization or the aristocratic structure of their society. It seemed to me iniquitous, for we believe that inequality and iniquity are the same in the last analysis."
At this I found myself able to say: "Yes, there is something terrible, something shocking, in the frank brutality with which Englishmen affirm the essential inequality of men. The affirmation of the essential equality of men was the first point of departure with us when we separated from them."
"I know," said the Altrurian. "How grandly it is expressed in your glorious Declaration!"
"Ah, you have read our Declaration of Independence, then?"
"Every Altrurian has read that," answered my friend.
"Well," I went on smoothly, and I hoped to render what I was going to say the means of enlightening him without offence concerning the little mistake he had just made with the waitress, "of course we don't take that in its closest literality."
"I don't understand you," he said.
"Why, you know it was rather the political than the social traditions of England that we broke with, in the Revolution."
"How is that?" he returned. "Didn't you break with monarchy and nobility, and ranks and classes?"
"Yes, we broke with all those things."
"But I found them a part of the social as well as the political structure in England. You have no kings or nobles here. Have you any ranks or classes?"
"Well, not exactly in the English sense. Our ranks and classes, such as we have, are what I may call voluntary."
"Oh, I understand. I suppose that from time to time certain ones among you feel the need of serving, and ask leave of the commonwealth to subordinate themselves to the rest of the state and perform all the lowlier offices in it. Such persons must be held in peculiar honor. Is it something like that?"
"Well, no, I can't say it's quite like that. In fact I think I'd better let you trust to your own observation of our life."
"But I'm sure," said the Altrurian, with a simplicity so fine that it was a long time before I could believe it quite real, "that I shall approach it so much more intelligently with a little instruction from you. You say that your social divisions are voluntary. But do I understand that those who serve among you do not wish to do so?"
"Well, I don't suppose they would serve if they could help it," I replied.
"Surely," said the Altrurian, with a look of horror, "you don't mean that they are slaves."
"Oh no! oh no!" I said; "the war put an end to that. We are all free now, black and white."
"But if they do not wish to serve, and are not held in peculiar honor for serving—"
"I see that my word 'voluntary' has misled you," I put in. "It isn't the word exactly. The divisions among us are rather a process of natural selection. You will see, as you get better acquainted with the workings of our institutions, that there are no arbitrary distinctions here but the fitness of the work for the man and the man for the work determines the social rank that each one holds."
"Ah, that is fine!" cried the Altrurian, with a glow of enthusiasm. "Then I suppose that these intelligent young people who teach school in winter and serve at table in the summer are in a sort of provisional state, waiting for the process of natural selection to determine whether they shall finally be teachers or waiters."
"Yes, it might be stated in some such terms," I assented, though I was not altogether easy in my mind. It seemed to me that I was not quite candid with this most candid spirit. I added: "You know we are a sort of fatalists here in America. We are great believers in the doctrine that it will all come out right in the end."
"Ah, I don't wonder at that," said the Altrurian, "if the process of natural selection works so perfectly among you as you say. But I am afraid I don't understand this matter of your domestic service yet. I believe you said that all honest work is honored in America. Then no social slight attaches to service, I suppose?"
"Well, I can't say that, exactly. The fact is, a certain social slight does attach to service, and that is one reason why I don't quite like to have students wait at table. It won't be pleasant for them to remember it in after-life, and it won't be pleasant for their children to remember it."
"Then the slight would descend?"
"I think it would. One wouldn't like to think one's father or mother had been at service."
The Altrurian said nothing for a moment. Then he remarked: "So it seems that while all honest work is honored among you, there are some kinds of honest work that are not honored so much as others."
"Because some occupations are more degrading than others."
"But why?" he persisted, as I thought, a little unreasonably.
"Really," I said, "I think I must leave you to imagine."
"I am afraid I can't," he said, sadly. "Then, if domestic service is degrading in your eyes, and people are not willing servants among you, may I ask why any are servants?"
"It is a question of bread-and-butter. They are obliged to be."
"That is, they are forced to do work that is hateful and disgraceful to them because they cannot live without?"
"Excuse me," I said, not at all liking this sort of pursuit, and feeling it fair to turn even upon a guest who kept it up. "Isn't it so with you in Altruria?"
"It was so once," he admitted, "but not now. In fact, it is like a waking dream to find one's self in the presence of conditions here that we outlived so long ago."
There was an unconscious superiority in this speech that nettled me, and stung me to retort: "We do not expect to outlive them. We regard them as final, and as indestructibly based in human nature itself."
"Ah," said the Altrurian, with a delicate and caressing courtesy, "have I said something offensive?"
"Not at all," I hastened to answer. "It is not surprising that you did not get our point of view exactly. You will by-and-by, and then, I think, you will see that it is the true one. We have found that the logic of our convictions could not be applied to the problem of domestic service. It is everywhere a very curious and perplexing problem. The simple old solution of the problem was to own your servants; but we found that this was not consistent with the spirit of our free institutions. As soon as it was abandoned the anomaly began. We had outlived the primitive period when the housekeeper worked with her domestics and they were her help, and were called so; and we had begun to have servants to do all the household work, and to call them so. This state of things never seemed right to some of our purest and best people. They fancied, as you seem to have done, that to compel people through their necessities to do your hateful drudgery, and to wound and shame them with a name which every American instinctively resents, was neither republican nor Christian. Some of our thinkers tried to mend matters by making their domestics a part of their families; and in the life of Emerson you'll find an amusing account of his attempt to have his servant eat at the same table with himself and his wife. It wouldn't work. He and his wife could stand it, but the servant couldn't."
I paused, for this was where the laugh ought to have come in. The Altrurian did not laugh, he merely asked, "Why?"
"Well, because the servant knew, if they didn't, that they were a whole world apart in their traditions, and were no more fit to associate than New-Englanders and New-Zealanders. In the mere matter of education—"
"But I thought you said that these young girls who wait at table here were teachers."
"Oh, I beg your pardon; I ought to have explained. By this time it had become impossible, as it now is, to get American girls to take service except on some such unusual terms as we have in a summer hotel; and the domestics were already ignorant foreigners, fit for nothing else. In such a place as this it isn't so bad. It is more as if the girls worked in a shop or a factory. They command their own time, in a measure, their hours are tolerably fixed, and they have one another's society. In a private family they would be subject to order at all times, and they would have no social life. They would be in the family, out not of it. American girls understand this, and so they won't go out to service in the usual way. Even in a summer hotel the relation has its odious aspects. The system of giving fees seems to me degrading to those who have to take them. To offer a student or a teacher a dollar for personal service—it isn't right, or I can't make it so. In fact, the whole thing is rather anomalous with us. The best that you can say of it is that it works, and we don't know what else to do."
"But I don't see yet," said the Altrurian, "just why domestic service is degrading in a country where all kinds of work are honored."
"Well, my dear fellow, I have done my best to explain. As I intimated before, we distinguish; and in the different kinds of labor we distinguish against domestic service. I dare say it is partly because of the loss of independence which it involves. People naturally despise a dependant."
"Why?" asked the Altrurian, with that innocence of his which I was beginning to find rather trying.
"Why?" I retorted. "Because it implies weakness."
"And is weakness considered despicable among you?" he pursued.
"In every community it is despised practically, if not theoretically," I tried to explain. "The great thing that America has done is to offer the race an opportunity—the opportunity for any man to rise above the rest and to take the highest place, if he is able." I had always been proud of this fact, and I thought I had put it very well, but the Altrurian did not seem much impressed by it.
He said: "I do not see how it differs from any country of the past in that. But perhaps you mean that to rise carries with it an obligation to those below 'If any is first among you, let him be your servant.' Is it something like that?"
"Well, it is not quite like that," I answered, remembering how very little our self-made men as a class had done for others. "Every one is expected to look out for himself here. I fancy that there would be very little rising if men were expected to rise for the sake of others, in America. How is it with you in Altruria?" I demanded, hoping to get out of a certain discomfort I felt in that way. "Do your risen men generally devote themselves to the good of the community after they get to the top?"
"There is no rising among us," he said, with what seemed a perception of the harsh spirit of my question; and he paused a moment before he asked in his turn: "How do men rise among you?"
"That would be rather a long story," I replied. "But, putting it in the rough, I should say that they rose by their talents, their shrewdness, their ability to seize an advantage and turn it to their own account."
"And is that considered noble?"
"It is considered smart. It is considered at the worst far better than a dead level of equality. Are all men equal in Altruria? Are they all alike gifted or beautiful, or short or tall?"
"No, they are only equal in duties and in rights. But, as you said just now, that is a very long story. Are they equal in nothing here?"
"They are equal in opportunities."
"Ah!" breathed the Altrurian, "I am glad to hear that."
I began to feel a little uneasy, and I was not quite sure that this last assertion of mine would hold water. Everybody but ourselves had now left the dining-room, and I saw the head-waiter eying us impatiently. I pushed back my chair and said: "I'm sorry to seem to hurry you, but I should like to show you a very pretty sunset effect we have here before it is too dark. When we get back, I want to introduce you to a few of my friends. Of course, I needn't tell you that there is a good deal of curiosity about you, especially among the ladies."
"Yes, I found that the case in England, largely. It was the women who cared most to meet me. I understand that in America society is managed even more by women than it is in England."
"It's entirely in their hands," I said, with the satisfaction we all feel in the fact. "We have no other leisure class. The richest men among us are generally hard workers; devotion to business is the rule; but, as soon as a man reaches the point where he can afford to pay for domestic service, his wife and daughters expect to be released from it to the cultivation of their minds and the enjoyment of social pleasures. It's quite right. That is what makes them so delightful to foreigners. You must have heard their praises chanted in England. The English find our men rather stupid, I believe; but they think our women are charming."
"Yes, I was told that the wives of their nobility were sometimes Americans," said the Altrurian. "The English think that you regard such marriages as a great honor, and that they are very gratifying to your national pride."
"Well, I suppose that is so in a measure," I confessed. "I imagine that it will not be long before the English aristocracy derives as largely from American millionaires as from kings' mistresses. Not," I added, virtuously, "that we approve of aristocracy."
"No, I understand that," said the Altrurian. "I shall hope to get your point of view in this matter more distinctly by-and-by. As yet, I'm a little vague about it."
"I think I can gradually make it clear to you," I returned.
We left the hotel, and I began to walk my friend across the meadow toward the lake. I wished him to see the reflection of the afterglow in its still waters, with the noble lines of the mountain-range that glassed itself there; the effect is one of the greatest charms of that lovely region, the sojourn of the sweetest summer in the world, and I am always impatient to show it to strangers.
We climbed the meadow wall and passed through a stretch of woods to a path leading down to the shore, and, as we loitered along in the tender gloom of the forest, the music of the hermit-thrushes rang all round us like crystal bells, like silver flutes, like the drip of fountains, like the choiring of still-eyed cherubim. We stopped from time to time and listened, while the shy birds sang unseen in their covert of shadows; but we did not speak till we emerged from the trees and suddenly stood upon the naked knoll overlooking the lake.
Then I explained: "The woods used to come down to the shore here, and we had their mystery and music to the water's edge; but last winter the owner cut the timber off. It looks rather ragged now." I had to recognize the fact, for I saw the Altrurian staring about him over the clearing in a kind of horror. It was a squalid ruin, a graceless desolation, which not even the pitying twilight could soften. The stumps showed their hideous mutilation everywhere; the brush had been burned, and the fires had scorched and blackened the lean soil of the hill-slope and blasted it with sterility. A few weak saplings, withered by the flames, drooped and straggled about; it would be a century before the forces of nature could repair the waste.
"You say the owner did this?" said the Altrurian. "Who is the owner?"
"Well, it does seem too bad," I answered, evasively. "There has been a good deal of feeling about it. The neighbors tried to buy him off before he began the destruction, for they knew the value of the woods as an attraction to summer-boarders; the city cottagers, of course, wanted to save them, and together they offered for the land pretty nearly as much as the timber was worth. But he had got it into his head that the land here by the lake would sell for building lots if it was cleared, and he could make money on that as well as on the trees; and so they had to go. Of course, one might say that he was deficient in public spirit, but I don't blame him, altogether."
"No," the Altrurian assented, somewhat to my surprise, I confess.
I resumed: "There was no one else to look after his interests, and it was not only his right but his duty to get the most he could for himself and his own, according to his best light. That is what I tell people when they fall foul of him for his want of public spirit."
"The trouble seems to be, then, in the system that obliges each man to be the guardian of his own interests. Is that what you blame?"
"No, I consider it a very perfect system. It is based upon individuality, and we believe that individuality is the principle that differences civilized men from savages, from the lower animals, and makes us a nation instead of a tribe or a herd. There isn't one of us, no matter how much he censured this man's want of public spirit, but would resent the slightest interference with his property rights. The woods were his; he had the right to do what he pleased with his own."
"Do I understand you that, in America, a man may do what is wrong with his own?"
"He may do anything with his own."
"To the injury of others?"
"Well, not in person or property. But he may hurt them in taste and sentiment as much as he likes. Can't a man do what he pleases with his own in Altruria?"
"No, he can only do right with his own."
"And if he tries to do wrong, or what the community thinks is wrong?"
"Then the community takes his own from him." Before I could think of anything to say to this he went on: "But I wish you would explain to me why it was left to this man's neighbors to try and get him to sell his portion of the landscape?"
"Why, bless my soul!" I exclaimed, "who else was there? You wouldn't have expected to take up a collection among the summer-boarders?"
"That wouldn't have been so unreasonable; but I didn't mean that. Was there no provision for such an exigency in your laws? Wasn't the state empowered to buy him off at the full value of his timber and his land?"
"Certainly not," I replied. "That would be rank paternalism."
It began to get dark, and I suggested that we had better be going back to the hotel. The talk seemed already to have taken us away from all pleasure in the prospect; I said, as we found our way through the rich, balsam-scented twilight of the woods, where one joy-haunted thrush was still singing: "You know that in America the law is careful not to meddle with a man's private affairs, and we don't attempt to legislate personal virtue."
"But marriage," he said—"surely you have the institution of marriage?"
I was really annoyed at this. I returned, sarcastically; "Yes, I am glad to say that there we can meet your expectation; we have marriage, not only consecrated by the church, but established and defended by the state. What has that to do with the question?"
"And you consider marriage," he pursued, "the citadel of morality, the fountain of all that is pure and good in your private life, the source of home and the image of heaven?"
"There are some marriages," I said, with a touch of our national humor, "that do not quite fill the bill, but that is certainly our ideal of marriage."
"Then why do you say that you have not legislated personal virtue in America?" he asked. "You have laws, I believe, against theft and murder, and slander and incest, and perjury and drunkenness?"
"Then it appears to me that you have legislated honesty, regard for human life, regard for character, abhorrence of unnatural vice, good faith, and sobriety. I was told on the train coming up, by a gentleman who was shocked at the sight of a man beating his horse, that you even had laws against cruelty to animals."
"Yes, and I am happy to say that they are enforced to such a degree that a man cannot kill a cat cruelly without being punished for it." The Altrurian did not follow up his advantage, and I resolved not to be outdone in magnanimity. "Come, I will own that you have the best of me on those points. I must say you've trapped me very neatly, too; I can enjoy a thing of that kind when it's well done, and I frankly knock under. But I had in mind something altogether different when I spoke. I was thinking of those idealists who want to bind us hand and foot and render us the slaves of a state where the most intimate relations of life shall be penetrated by legislation and the very hearthstone shall be a tablet of laws."
"Isn't marriage a rather intimate relation of life?" asked the Altrurian. "And I understood that gentleman on the train to say that you had laws against cruelty to children, and societies established to see them enforced. You don't consider such laws an invasion of the home, do you, or a violation of its immunities? I imagine," he went on, "that the difference between your civilization and ours is only one of degree, after all, and that America and Altruria are really one at heart."
I thought his compliment a bit hyperbolical, but I saw that it was honestly meant, and as we Americans are first of all patriots, and vain for our country before we are vain for ourselves, I was not proof against the flattery it conveyed to me civically if not personally.
We were now drawing near the hotel, and I felt a certain glow of pleasure in its gay effect on the pretty knoll where it stood. In its artless and accidental architecture it was not unlike one of our immense coastwise steamboats. The twilight had thickened to dusk, and the edifice was brilliantly lighted with electrics, story above story, which streamed into the gloom around like the lights of saloon and state-room. The corner of wood making into the meadow hid the station; there was no other building in sight; the hotel seemed riding at anchor on the swell of a placid sea. I was going to call the Altrurian's attention to this fanciful resemblance when I remembered that he had not been in our country long enough to have seen a Fall River boat, and I made toward the house without wasting the comparison upon him. But I treasured it up in my own mind, intending some day to make a literary use of it.
The guests were sitting in friendly groups about the piazzas or in rows against the walls, the ladies with their gossip and the gentlemen with their cigars. The night had fallen cool after a hot day, and they all had the effect of having cast off care with the burden of the week that was past, and to be steeping themselves in the innocent and simple enjoyment of the hour. They were mostly middle-aged married folk, but some were old enough to have sons and daughters among the young people who went and came in a long, wandering promenade of the piazzas, or wove themselves through the waltz past the open windows of the great parlor; the music seemed one with the light that streamed far out on the lawn flanking the piazzas. Every one was well-dressed and comfortable and at peace, and I felt that our hotel was in some sort a microcosm of the republic.
We involuntarily paused, and I heard the Altrurian murmur: "Charming, charming! This is really delightful!"
"Yes, isn't it?" I returned, with a glow of pride. "Our hotel here is a type of the summer hotel everywhere; it's characteristic in not having anything characteristic about it; and I rather like the notion of the people in it being so much like the people in all the others that you would feel yourself at home wherever you met such a company in such a house. All over the country, north and south, wherever you find a group of hills or a pleasant bit of water or a stretch of coast, you'll find some such refuge as this for our weary toilers. We began to discover some time ago that it would not do to cut open the goose that laid our golden eggs, even if it looked like an eagle, and kept on perching on our banners just as if nothing had happened. We discovered that, if we continued to kill ourselves with hard work, there would be no Americans pretty soon."
The Altrurian laughed. "How delightfully you put it! How quaint! How picturesque! Excuse me, but I can't help expressing my pleasure in it. Our own humor is so very different."
"Ah," I said; "what is your humor like?"
"I could hardly tell you, I'm afraid; I've never been much of a humorist myself."
Again a cold doubt of something ironical in the man went through me, but I had no means of verifying it, and so I simply remained silent, waiting for him to prompt me if he wished to know anything further about our national transformation from bees perpetually busy into butterflies occasionally idle. "And when you had made that discovery?" he suggested.
"Why, we're nothing if not practical, you know, and as soon as we made that discovery we stopped killing ourselves and invented the summer resort. There are very few of our business or professional men now who don't take their four or five weeks' vacation. Their wives go off early in the summer, and, if they go to some resort within three or four hours of the city, the men leave town Saturday afternoon and run out, or come up, and spend Sunday with their families. For thirty-eight hours or so a hotel like this is a nest of happy homes."
"That is admirable," said the Altrurian. "You are truly a practical people. The ladies come early in the summer, you say?"
"Yes, sometimes in the beginning of June."
"What do they come for?" asked the Altrurian.
"What for? Why, for rest!" I retorted, with some little temper.
"But I thought you told me awhile ago that as soon as a husband could afford it he relieved his wife and daughters from all household work."
"So he does."
"Then what do the ladies wish to rest from?"
"From care. It is not work alone that kills. They are not relieved from household care even when they are relieved from household work. There is nothing so killing as household care. Besides, the sex seems to be born tired. To be sure, there are some observers of our life who contend that with the advance of athletics among our ladies, with boating and bathing, and lawn-tennis and mountain-climbing and freedom from care, and these long summers of repose, our women are likely to become as superior to the men physically as they now are intellectually. It is all right. We should like to see it happen. It would be part of the national joke."
"Oh, have you a national joke?" asked the Altrurian. "But, of course! You have so much humor. I wish you could give me some notion of it."
"Well, it is rather damaging to any joke to explain it," I replied, "and your only hope of getting at ours is to live into it. One feature of it is the confusion of foreigners at the sight of our men's willingness to subordinate themselves to our women."
"Oh, I don't find that very bewildering," said the Altrurian. "It seems to me a generous and manly trait of the American character. I'm proud to say that it is one of the points at which your civilization and our own touch. There can be no doubt that the influence of women in your public affairs must be of the greatest advantage to you; it has been so with us."
I turned and stared at him, but he remained insensible to my astonishment, perhaps because it was now too dark for him to see it. "Our women have no influence in public affairs," I said, quietly, after a moment.
"They haven't? Is it possible? But didn't I understand you to imply just now that your women were better educated than your men?"
"Well, I suppose that, taking all sorts and conditions among us, the women are as a rule better schooled, if not better educated."
"Then, apart from the schooling, they are not more cultivated?"
"In a sense you might say they were. They certainly go in for a lot of things: art and music, and Browning and the drama, and foreign travel and psychology, and political economy and Heaven knows what all. They have more leisure for it; they have all the leisure there is, in fact; our young men have to go into business. I suppose you may say our women are more cultivated than our men; yes, I think there's no questioning that. They are the great readers among us. We poor devils of authors would be badly off if it were not for our women. In fact, no author could make a reputation among us without them. American literature exists because American women appreciate it and love it."
"But surely your men read books?"
"Some of them; not many, comparatively. You will often hear a complacent ass of a husband and father say to an author: 'My wife and daughters know your books, but I can't find time for anything but the papers nowadays. I skim them over at breakfast, or when I'm going in to business on the train.' He isn't the least ashamed to say that he reads nothing but the newspapers."
"Then you think that it would be better for him to read books?"
"Well, in the presence of four or five thousand journalists with drawn scalping-knives I should not like to say so. Besides, modesty forbids."
"No, but, really," the Altrurian persisted, "you think that the literature of a book is more carefully pondered than the literature of a daily newspaper?"
"I suppose even the four or five thousand journalists with drawn scalping-knives would hardly deny that."
"And it stands to reason, doesn't it, that the habitual reader of carefully pondered literature ought to be more thoughtful than the readers of literature which is not carefully pondered and which they merely skim over on their way to business?"
"I believe we began by assuming the superior culture of our women, didn't we? You'll hardly find an American that isn't proud of it."
"Then," said the Altrurian, "if your women are generally better schooled than your men, and more cultivated and more thoughtful, and are relieved of household work in such great measure, and even of domestic cares, why have they no part in your public affairs?"
I laughed, for I thought I had my friend at last. "For the best of all possible reasons: they don't want it."
"Ah, that's no reason," he returned. "Why don't they want it?"
"Really," I said, out of all patience, "I think I must let you ask the ladies themselves," and I turned and moved again toward the hotel, but the Altrurian gently detained me.
"Excuse me," he began.
"No, no," I said. "'The feast is set, the guests are met, May'st hear the merry din.' Come in and see the young people dance."
"Wait," he entreated; "tell me a little more about the old people first. This digression about the ladies has been very interesting, but I thought you were going to speak of the men here. Who are they, or, rather, what are they?"
"Why, as I said before, they are all business men and professional men; people who spend their lives in studies and counting-rooms and offices, and have come up here for a few weeks or a few days of well-earned repose. They are of all kinds of occupations: they are lawyers and doctors, and clergymen and merchants, and brokers and bankers. There's hardly any calling you Won't find represented among them. As I was thinking just now, our hotel is a sort of microcosm of the American republic."
"I am most fortunate in finding you here, where I can avail myself of your intelligence in making my observations of your life under such advantageous circumstances. It seems to me that with your help I might penetrate the fact of American life, possess myself of the mystery of your national joke, without stirring beyond the piazza of your hospitable hotel," said my friend. I doubted it, but one does not lightly put aside a compliment like that to one's intelligence, and I said I should be very happy to be of use to him. He thanked me, and said: "Then, to begin with, I understand that these gentlemen are here because they are all overworked."
"Of course. You can have no conception of how hard our business men and our professional men work. I suppose there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. But, as I said before, we are beginning to find that we cannot burn the candle at both ends and have it last long. So we put one end out for a little while every summer. Still, there are frightful wrecks of men strewn all along the course of our prosperity, wrecks of mind and body. Our insane asylums are full of madmen who have broken under the tremendous strain, and every country in Europe abounds in our dyspeptics." I was rather proud of this terrible fact; there is no doubt but we Americans are proud of overworking ourselves; Heaven knows why.
The Altrurian murmured: "Awful! Shocking!" But I thought somehow he had not really followed me very attentively in my celebration of our national violation of the laws of life and its consequences. "I am glad," he went on, "that your business men and professional men are beginning to realize the folly and wickedness of overwork. Shall I find some of your other weary workers here, too?"
"What other weary workers?" I asked in turn, for I imagined I had gone over pretty much the whole list.
"Why," said the Altrurian, "your mechanics and day laborers, your iron-moulders and glass-blowers, your miners and farmers, your printers and mill-operatives, your trainmen and quarry-hands. Or do they prefer to go to resorts of their own?"
It was not easy to make sure of such innocence as prompted this inquiry of my Altrurian friend. The doubt whether he could really be in earnest was something that I had already felt; and it was destined to beset me, as it did now, again and again. My first thought was that, of course, he was trying a bit of cheap irony on me, a mixture of the feeble sarcasm and false sentiment that makes us smile when we find it in the philippics of the industrial agitators. For a moment I did not know but I had fallen victim to a walking delegate on his vacation, who was employing his summer leisure in going about the country in the guise of a traveler from Altruria, and foisting himself upon people who would have had nothing to do with him in his real character. But in another moment I perceived that this was impossible. I could not suppose that the friend who had introduced him to me would be capable of seconding so poor a joke, and, besides, I could not imagine why a walking delegate should wish to address his clumsy satire to me particularly. For the present, at least, there was nothing for it but to deal with this inquiry as if it were made in good faith and in the pursuit of useful information. It struck me as grotesque; but it would not have been decent to treat it as if it were so. I was obliged to regard it seriously, and so I decided to shirk it.
"Well," I said, "that opens up rather a large field, which lies somewhat outside of the province of my own activities. You know, I am a writer of romantic fiction, and my time is so fully occupied in manipulating the destinies of the good old-fashioned hero and heroine, and trying always to make them end in a happy marriage, that I have hardly had a chance to look much into the lives of agriculturists or artisans; and, to tell you the truth, I don't know what they do with their leisure. I'm pretty certain, though, you won't meet any of them in this hotel; they couldn't afford it, and I fancy they would find themselves out of their element among our guests. We respect them thoroughly; every American does, and we know that the prosperity of the country rests with them; we have a theory that they are politically sovereign, but we see very little of them, and we don't associate with them. In fact, our cultivated people have so little interest in them socially that they don't like to meet them, even in fiction; they prefer refined and polished ladies and gentlemen, whom they can have some sympathy with; and I always go to the upper classes for my types. It won't do to suppose, though, that we are indifferent to the working classes in their place. Their condition is being studied a good deal just now, and there are several persons here who will be able to satisfy your curiosity on the points you have made, I think. I will introduce you to them."
The Altrurian did not try to detain me this time. He said he should be very glad indeed to meet my friends, and I led the way toward a little group at the corner of the piazza. They were men whom I particularly liked, for one reason or another; they were intelligent and open-minded, and they were thoroughly American. One was a banker; another was a minister; there was a lawyer, and there was a doctor; there was a professor of political economy in one of our colleges; and there was a retired manufacturer—I do not know what he used to manufacture: cotton or iron, or something like that. They all rose politely as I came up with my Altrurian, and I fancied in them a sensation of expectancy created by the rumor of his eccentric behavior which must have spread through the hotel. But they controlled this if they had it, and I could see, as the light fell upon his face from a spray of electrics on the nearest pillar, that sort of liking kindle in theirs which I had felt myself at first sight of him.
I said, "Gentlemen, I wish to introduce my friend, Mr. Homos," and then I presented them severally to him by name. We all sat down, and I explained: "Mr. Homos is from Altruria. He is visiting our country for the first time, and is greatly interested in the working of our institutions. He has been asking me some rather hard questions about certain phases of our civilization; and the fact is that I have launched him upon you because I don't feel quite able to cope with him."
They all laughed civilly at this sally of mine, but the professor asked, with a sarcasm that I thought I hardly merited, "What point in our polity can be obscure to the author of 'Glove and Gauntlet' and 'Airs and Graces'?"
They all laughed again, not so civilly, I felt, and then the banker asked my friend: "Is it long since you left Altruria?"
"It seems a great while ago," the Altrurian answered, "but it is really only a few weeks."
"You came by way of England, I suppose?"
"Yes; there is no direct line to America," said the Altrurian.
"That seems rather odd," I ventured, with some patriotic grudge.
"Oh, the English have direct lines everywhere," the banker instructed me.
"The tariff has killed our shipbuilding," said the professor. No one took up this firebrand, and the professor added: "Your name is Greek, isn't it, Mr. Homos?"
"Yes; we are of one of the early Hellenic families," said the Altrurian.
"And do you think," asked the lawyer, who, like most lawyers, was a lover of romance, and was well read in legendary lore especially, "that there is any reason for supposing that Altruria is identical with the fabled Atlantis'?"
"No, I can't say that I do. We have no traditions of a submergence of the continent, and there are only the usual evidences of a glacial epoch which you find everywhere to support such a theory. Besides, our civilization is strictly Christian, and dates back to no earlier period than that of the first Christian commune after Christ. It is a matter of history with us that one of these communists, when they were dispersed, brought the Gospel to our continent; he was cast away on our eastern coast on his way to Britain."
"Yes, we know that," the minister intervened, "but it is perfectly astonishing that an island so large as Altruria should have been lost to the knowledge of the rest of the world ever since the beginning of our era. You would hardly think that there was a space of the ocean's surface a mile square which had not been traversed by a thousand keels since Columbus sailed westward."
"No, you wouldn't. And I wish," the doctor suggested in his turn, "that Mr. Homos would tell us something about his country, instead of asking us about ours."
"Yes," I coincided, "I'm sure we should all find it a good deal easier. At least I should; but I brought our friend up in the hope that the professor would like nothing better than to train a battery of hard facts upon a defenceless stranger." Since the professor had given me that little stab, I was rather anxious to see how he would handle the desire for information in the Altrurian which I had found so prickly.
This turned the laugh on the professor, and he pretended to be as curious about Altruria as the rest, and said he would rather hear of it. But the Altrurian said: "I hope you will excuse me. Sometime I shall be glad to talk of Altruria as long as you like; or, if you will come to us, I shall be still happier to show you many things that I couldn't make you understand at a distance. But I am in America to learn, not to teach, and I hope you will have patience with my ignorance. I begin to be afraid that it is so great as to seem a little incredible. I have fancied in my friend here," he went on, with a smile toward me, "a suspicion that I was not entirely single in some of the inquiries I have made, but that I had some ulterior motive, some wish to censure or satirize."
"Oh, not at all," I protested, for it was not polite to admit a conjecture so accurate. "We are so well satisfied with our condition that we have nothing but pity for the darkened mind of the foreigner, though we believe in it fully: we are used to the English tourist."
My friends laughed, and the Altrurian continued: "I am very glad to hear it, for I feel myself at a peculiar disadvantage among you. I am not only a foreigner, but I am so alien to you in all the traditions and habitudes that I find it very difficult to get upon common ground with you. Of course, I know theoretically what you are, but to realize it practically is another thing. I had read so much about America and understood so little that I could not rest without coming to see for myself. Some of the apparent contradictions were so colossal—"
"We have everything on a large scale here," said the banker, breaking off the ash of his cigar with the end of his little finger, "and we rather pride ourselves on the size of our inconsistencies, even. I know something of the state of things in Altruria, and, to be frank with you, I will say that it seems to me preposterous. I should say it was impossible, if it were not an accomplished fact; but I always feel bound to recognize the thing done. You have hitched your wagon to a star, and you have made the star go; there is never any trouble with wagons, but stars are not easily broken to harness, and you have managed to get yours well in hand. As I said, I don't believe in you, but I respect you." I thought this charming, myself; perhaps because it stated my own mind about Altruria so exactly and in terms so just and generous.
"Pretty good," said the doctor, in a murmur of satisfaction, at my ear, "for a bloated bond-holder."
"Yes," I whispered back, "I wish I had said it. What an American way of putting it! Emerson would have liked it himself. After all, he was our prophet."
"He must have thought so from the way we kept stoning him," said the doctor, with a soft laugh.
"Which of our contradictions," asked the banker, in the same tone of gentle bonhomie, "has given you and our friend pause just now?"
The Altrurian answered, after a moment: "I am not sure that it is a contradiction, for as yet I have not ascertained the facts I was seeking. Our friend was telling me of the great change that had taken place in regard to work, and the increased leisure that your professional people are now allowing themselves; and I was asking him where your working-men spent their leisure."
He went over the list of those he had specified, and I hung my head in shame and pity; it really had such an effect of mawkish sentimentality. But my friends received it in the best possible way. They did not laugh; they heard him out, and then they quietly deferred to the banker, who made answer for us all:
"Well, I can be almost as brief as the historian of Iceland in his chapter on snakes: those people have no leisure to spend."
"Except when they go out on a strike," said the manufacturer, with a certain grim humor of his own; I never heard anything more dramatic than the account he once gave of the way he broke up a labor union. "I have seen a good many of them at leisure then."
"Yes," the doctor chimed in, "and in my younger days, when I necessarily had a good deal of charity practice, I used to find them at leisure when they were 'laid off.' It always struck me as such a pretty euphemism. It seemed to minify the harm of the thing so. It seemed to take all the hunger and cold and sickness out of the fact. To be simply 'laid off' was so different from losing your work and having to face beggary or starvation."
"Those people," said the professor, "never put anything by. They are wasteful and improvident, almost to a man; and they learn nothing by experience, though they know as well as we do that it is simply a question of demand and supply, and that the day of overproduction is sure to come, when their work must stop unless the men that give them work are willing to lose money."
"And I've seen them lose it, sometimes, rather than shut down," the manufacturer remarked; "lose it hand over hand, to keep the men at work; and then as soon as the tide turned the men would strike for higher wages. You have no idea of the ingratitude of those people." He said this toward the minister, as if he did not wish to be thought hard; and, in fact, he was a very kindly man.
"Yes," replied the minister, "that is one of the most sinister features of the situation. They seem really to regard their employers as their enemies. I don't know how it will end."
"I know how it would end if I had my way," said the professor. "There wouldn't be any labor unions, and there wouldn't be any strikes."
"That is all very well," said the lawyer, from that judicial mind which I always liked in him, "as far as the strikes are concerned, but I don't understand that the abolition of the unions would affect the impersonal process of 'laying off.' The law of demand and supply I respect as much as any one—it's something like the constitution; but, all the same, I should object extremely to have my income stopped by it every now and then. I'm probably not so wasteful as a working-man generally is; still, I haven't laid by enough to make it a matter of indifference to me whether my income went on or not. Perhaps the professor has." The professor did not say, and we all took leave to laugh. The lawyer concluded: "I don't see how those fellows stand it."
"They don't, all of them," said the doctor. "Or their wives and children don't. Some of them die."
"I wonder," the lawyer pursued, "what has become of the good old American fact that there is always work for those who are willing to work? I notice that wherever five thousand men strike in the forenoon, there are five thousand men to take their places in the afternoon—and not men who are turning their hands to something new, but men who are used to doing the very thing the strikers have done."
"That is one of the things that teach the futility of strikes," the professor made haste to interpose, as if he had not quite liked to appear averse to the interests of the workman; no one likes to do that. "If there were anything at all to be hoped from them, it would be another matter."
"Yes, but that isn't the point, quite," said the lawyer.
"By-the-way, what is the point?" I asked, with my humorous lightness.
"Why, I supposed," said the banker, "it was the question how the working classes amused their elegant leisure. But it seems to be almost anything else."
We all applauded the neat touch, but the Altrurian eagerly entreated: "No, no; never mind that now. That is a matter of comparatively little interest. I would so much rather know something about the status of the working-man among you."
"Do you mean his political status? It's that of every other citizen."
"I don't mean that. I suppose that in America you have learned, as we have in Altruria, that equal political rights are only means to an end, and as an end have no value or reality. I meant the economic status of the working-man, and his social status."
I do not know why we were so long girding up our loins to meet this simple question. I myself could not have hopefully undertaken to answer it; but the others were each in their way men of affairs, and practically acquainted with the facts, except perhaps the professor; but he had devoted a great deal of thought to them, and ought to have been qualified to make some sort of response. But even he was silent; and I had a vague feeling that they were all somehow reluctant to formulate their knowledge, as if it were uncomfortable or discreditable. The banker continued to smoke quietly on for a moment; then he suddenly threw his cigar away.
"I like to free my mind of cant," he said, with a short laugh, "when I can afford it, and I propose to cast all sorts of American cant out of it in answering your question. The economic status of the working-man among us is essentially the same as that of the working-man all over the civilized world. You will find plenty of people here, especially about election time, to tell you differently, but they will not be telling you the truth, though a great many of them think they are. In fact, I suppose most Americans honestly believe because we have a republican form of government, and manhood suffrage, and so on, that our economic conditions are peculiar, and that our working-man has a status higher and better than that of the working-man anywhere else. But he has nothing of the kind. His circumstances are better, and provisionally his wages are higher, but it is only a question of years or decades when his circumstances will be the same and his wages the same as the European working-man's. There is nothing in our conditions to prevent this."
"Yes, I understood from our friend here," said the Altrurian, nodding toward me, "that you had broken only with the political tradition of Europe in your Revolution; and he has explained to me that you do not hold all kinds of labor in equal esteem; but—"
"What kind of labor did he say we did hold in esteem?" asked the banker.
"Why, I understood him to say that if America meant anything at all it meant the honor of work, but that you distinguished and did not honor some kinds of work so much as others; for instance, domestic service, or personal attendance of any kind."
The banker laughed again. "Oh, he drew the line there, did he? Well, we all have to draw the line somewhere. Our friend is a novelist, and I will tell you in strict confidence that the line he has drawn is imaginary. We don't honor any kind of work any more than any other people. If a fellow gets up, the papers make a great ado over his having been a woodchopper or a bobbin-boy, or something of that kind, but I doubt if the fellow himself likes it; he doesn't if he's got any sense. The rest of us feel that it's infra dig., and hope nobody will find out that we ever worked with our hands for a living. I'll go further," said the banker, with the effect of whistling prudence down the wind, "and I will challenge any of you to gainsay me from his own experience or observation. How does esteem usually express itself? When we wish, to honor a man, what do we do?"
"Ask him to dinner," said the lawyer.
"Exactly. We offer him some sort of social recognition. Well, as soon as a fellow gets up, if he gets up high enough, we offer him some sort of social recognition; in fact, all sorts; but upon condition that he has left off working with his hands for a living. We forgive all you please to his past on account of the present. But there isn't a working-man, I venture to say, in any city or town, or even large village, in the whole length and breadth of the United States who has any social recognition, if he is still working at his trade. I don't mean, merely, that he is excluded from rich and fashionable society, but from the society of the average educated and cultivated people. I'm not saying he is fit for it; but I don't care how intelligent and agreeable he might be—and some of them are astonishingly intelligent, and so agreeable in their tone of mind and their original way of looking at things that I like nothing better than to talk with them—all of our invisible fences are up against him."
The minister said: "I wonder if that sort of exclusiveness is quite natural? Children seem to feel no sort of social difference among themselves."
"We can hardly go to children for a type of social order," the professor suggested.
"True," the minister meekly admitted. "But somehow there is a protest in us somewhere against these arbitrary distinctions—something that questions whether they are altogether right. We know that they must be, and always have been, and always will be, and yet—well, I will confess it—I never feel at peace when I face them."
"Oh," said the banker, "if you come to the question of right and wrong, that is another matter. I don't say it's right. I'm not discussing that question; though I'm certainly not proposing to level the fences; I should be the last to take my own down. I say simply that you are no more likely to meet a working-man in American society than you are to meet a colored man. Now you can judge," he ended, turning directly to the Altrurian, "how much we honor labor. And I hope I have indirectly satisfied your curiosity as to the social status of the working-man among us."
We were all silent.
Perhaps the others were occupied like myself in trying to recall some instance of a working-man whom they had met in society, and perhaps we said nothing because we all failed.
The Altrurian spoke at last.
"You have been so very full and explicit that I feel as if it were almost unseemly to press any further inquiry; but I should very much like to know how your working-men bear this social exclusion."
"I'm sure I can't say," returned the banker. "A man does not care much to get into society until he has something to eat, and how to get that is always the first question with the working-man."
"But you wouldn't like it yourself?"
"No, certainly, I shouldn't like it myself. I shouldn't complain of not being asked to people's houses, and the working-men don't; you can't do that; but I should feel it an incalculable loss. We may laugh at the emptiness of society, or pretend to be sick of it, but there is no doubt that society is the flower of civilization, and to be shut out from it is to be denied the best privilege of a civilized man. There are society women—we have all met them—whose graciousness and refinement of presence are something of incomparable value; it is more than a liberal education to have been admitted to it, but it is as inaccessible to the working-man as—what shall I say? The thing is too grotesquely impossible for any sort of comparison. Merely to conceive of its possibility is something that passes a joke; it is a kind of offence."
Again we were silent.
"I don't know," the banker continued, "how the notion of our social equality originated, but I think it has been fostered mainly by the expectation of foreigners, who argued it from our political equality. As a matter of fact, it never existed, except in our poorest and most primitive communities, in the pioneer days of the West and among the gold-hunters of California. It was not dreamed of in our colonial society, either in Virginia or Pennsylvania or New York or Massachusetts; and the fathers of the republic, who were mostly slave-holders, were practically as stiff-necked aristocrats as any people of their day. We have not a political aristocracy, that is all; but there is as absolute a division between the orders of men and as little love, in this country as in any country on the globe. The severance of the man who works for his living with his hands from the man who does not work for his living with his hands is so complete, and apparently so final, that nobody even imagines anything else, not even in fiction. Or, how is that?" he asked, turning to me. "Do you fellows still put the intelligent, high-spirited, handsome young artisan, who wins the millionaire's daughter, into your books? I used sometimes to find him there."
"You might still find him in the fiction of the weekly story-papers; but," I was obliged to own, "he would not go down with my readers. Even in the story-paper fiction he would leave off working as soon as he married the millionaire's daughter, and go to Europe, or he would stay here and become a social leader, but he would not receive working-men in his gilded halls."
The others rewarded my humor with a smile, but the banker said: "Then I wonder you were not ashamed of filling our friend up with that stuff about our honoring some kinds of labor. It is true that we don't go about openly and explicitly despising any kind of honest toil—people don't do that anywhere now; but we contemn it in terms quite as unmistakable. The working-man acquiesces as completely as anybody else. He does not remain a working-man a moment longer that he can help; and after he gets up, if he is weak enough to be proud of having been one, it is because he feels that his low origin is a proof of his prowess in rising to the top against unusual odds. I don't suppose there is a man in the whole civilized world—outside of Altruria, of course—-who is proud of working at a trade, except the shoemaker Tolstoy, and is a count, and he does not make very good shoes."
We all laughed again: those shoes of Count Tolstoy's are always such an infallible joke.
The Altrurian, however, was cocked and primed with another question; he instantly exploded it: "But are all the working-men in America eager to rise above their condition? Is there none willing to remain among the mass because the rest could not rise with him, and from the hope of yet bringing labor to honor?"
The banker answered: "I never heard of any. No, the American ideal is not to change the conditions for all, but for each to rise above the rest if he can."
"Do you think it is really so bad as that?" asked the minister, timidly.
The banker answered: "Bad? Do you call that bad? I thought it was very good. But, good or bad, I don't think you'll find it deniable, if you look into the facts. There may be working-men willing to remain so for other working-men's sake, but I have never met any—perhaps because the working-man never goes into society."
The unfailing question of the Altrurian broke the silence which ensued: "Are there many of your working-men who are intelligent and agreeable—of the type you mentioned a moment since?"
"Perhaps," said the banker, "I had better refer you to one of our friends here, who has had a great deal more to do with them than I have. He is a manufacturer, and he has had to do with all kinds of work-people."
"Yes, for my sins," the manufacturer assented; and he added: "They are often confoundedly intelligent, though I haven't often found them very agreeable, either in their tone of mind or their original way of looking at things."
The banker amiably acknowledged his thrust, and the Altrurian asked: "Ah, they are opposed to your own?"
"Well, we have the same trouble here that you must have heard of in England. As you know now that the conditions are the same here, you won't be surprised at the fact."
"But the conditions," the Altrurian pursued—"do you expect them always to continue the same?"
"Well, I don't know," said the manufacturer. "We can't expect them to change of themselves, and I shouldn't know how to change them. It was expected that the rise of the trusts and the syndicates would break the unions, but somehow they haven't. The situation remains the same. The unions are not cutting one another's throats now any more than we are. The war is on a larger scale—that's all."
"Then let me see," said the Altrurian, "whether I clearly understand the situation as regards the working-man in America. He is dependent upon the employer for his chance to earn a living, and he is never sure of this. He may be thrown out of work by his employer's disfavor or disaster, and his willingness to work goes for nothing; there is no public provision of work for him; there is nothing to keep him from want nor the prospect of anything."
"We are all in the same boat," said the professor.
"But some of us have provisioned ourselves rather better and can generally weather it through till we are picked up," the lawyer put in.
"I am always saying the working-man is improvident," returned the professor.
"There are the charities," the minister suggested.
"But his economical status," the Altrurian pursued, "is in a state of perpetual uncertainty, and to save himself in some measure he has organized, and so has constituted himself a danger to the public peace?"
"A very great danger," said the professor.
"I guess we can manage him," the manufacturer remarked.
"And socially he is non-existent?"
The Altrurian turned with this question to the banker, who said: "He is certainly not in society."
"Then," said my guest, "if the working-man's wages are provisionally so much better here than in Europe, why should they be discontented? What is the real cause of their discontent?"
I have always been suspicious, in the company of practical men, of an atmosphere of condescension to men of my calling, if nothing worse. I fancy they commonly regard artists of all kinds as a sort of harmless eccentrics, and that literary people they look upon as something droll, as weak and soft, as not quite right. I believed that this particular group, indeed, was rather abler to conceive of me as a rational person than most others, but I knew that if even they had expected me to be as reasonable as themselves they would not have been greatly disappointed if I were not; and it seemed to me that I had put myself wrong with them in imparting to the Altrurian that romantic impression that we hold labor in honor here. I had really thought so, but I could not say so now, and I wished to retrieve myself somehow. I wished to show that I was a practical man, too, and so I made answer: "What is the cause of the working-man's discontent? It is very simple: the walking delegate."
I suppose I could not have fairly claimed any great originality for my notion that the walking delegate was the cause of the labor troubles: he is regularly assigned as the reason of a strike in the newspapers, and is reprobated for his evil agency by the editors, who do not fail to read the working-men many solemn lessons and fervently warn them against him, as soon as the strike begins to go wrong—as it nearly always does. I understand from them that the walking delegate is an irresponsible tyrant, who emerges from the mystery that habitually hides him and from time to time orders a strike in mere rancor of spirit and plenitude of power, and then leaves the working-men and their families to suffer the consequences, while he goes off somewhere and rolls in the lap of luxury, careless of the misery he has created. Between his debauches of vicious idleness and his accesses of baleful activity he is employed in poisoning the mind of the working-men against his real interests and real friends. This is perfectly easy, because the American working-man, though singularly shrewd and sensible in other respects, is the victim of an unaccountable obliquity of vision which keeps him from seeing his real interests and real friends—or, at least, from knowing them when he sees them.
There could be no doubt, I thought, in the mind of any reasonable person that the walking delegate was the source of the discontent among our proletariate, and I alleged him with a confidence which met the approval of the professor, apparently, for he nodded, as if to say that I had hit the nail on the head this time; and the minister seemed to be freshly impressed with a notion that could not be new to him. The lawyer and the doctor were silent, as if waiting for the banker to speak again; but he was silent, too. The manufacturer, to my chagrin, broke into a laugh. "I'm afraid," he said, with a sardonic levity which surprised me, "you'll have to go a good deal deeper than the walking delegate. He's a symptom; he isn't the disease. The thing keeps on and on, and it seems to be always about wages; but it isn't about wages at the bottom. Some of those fellows know it and some of them don't, but the real discontent is with the whole system, with the nature of things. I had a curious revelation on that point the last time I tried to deal with my men as a union. They were always bothering me about this and about that, and there was no end to the bickering. I yielded point after point, but it didn't make any difference. It seemed as if the more I gave the more they asked. At last I made up my mind to try to get at the real inwardness of the matter, and I didn't wait for their committee to come to me—I sent for their leading man, and said I wanted to have it out with him. He wasn't a bad fellow, and when I got at him, man to man that way, I found he had sense, and he had ideas—it's no use pretending those fellows are fools; he had thought about his side of the question, anyway. I said: 'Now what does it all mean? Do you want the earth, or don't you? When is it going to end?' I offered him something to take, but he said he didn't drink, and we compromised on cigars. 'Now when is it going to end?' said I, and I pressed it home, and wouldn't let him fight off from the point. 'Do you mean when is it all going to end?' said he. 'Yes,' said I, 'all. I'm sick of it. If there's any way out I'd like to know it.' 'Well,' said he, 'I'll tell you, if you want to know. It's all going to end when you get the same amount of money for the same amount of work as we do.'"
We all laughed uproariously. The thing was deliciously comical; and nothing, I thought, attested the Altrurian's want of humor like his failure to appreciate this joke. He did not even smile in asking: "And what did you say?"
"Well," returned the manufacturer, with cosey enjoyment, "I asked him if the men would take the concern and run it themselves." We laughed again; this seemed even better than the other joke. "But he said, 'No'; they would not like to do that. And then I asked him just what they would like, if they could have their own way, and he said they would like to have me run the business, and all share alike. I asked him what was the sense of that, and why, if I could do something that all of them put together couldn't do, I shouldn't be paid more than all of them put together; and he said that if a man did his best he ought to be paid as much as the best man. I asked him if that was the principle their union was founded on, and he said, 'Yes,' that the very meaning of their union was the protection of the weak by the strong and the equalization of earnings among all who do their best."
We waited for the manufacturer to go on, but he made a dramatic pause at this point, as if to let it sink into our minds; and he did not speak until the Altrurian prompted him with the question, "And what did you finally do?"
"I saw there was only one way out for me, and I told the fellow I did not think I could do business on that principle. We parted friends, but the next Saturday I locked them out and smashed their union. They came back, most of them—they had to—but I've treated with them ever since 'as individuals.'"
"And they're much better off in your hands than they were in the union," said the professor.
"I don't know about that," said the manufacturer, "but I'm sure I am."
We laughed with him, all but the minister, whose mind seemed to have caught upon some other point, and who sat absently by.
"And is it your opinion, from what you know of the working-man generally, that they all have this twist in their heads?" the professor asked.
"They have, until they begin to rise. Then they get rid of it mighty soon. Let a man save something—enough to get a house of his own, and take a boarder or two, and perhaps have a little money at interest—and he sees the matter in another light."
"Do you think he sees it more clearly?" asked the minister.
"He sees it differently."
"What do you think?" the minister pursued, turning to the lawyer. "You are used to dealing with questions of justice—"
"Rather more with questions of law, I'm afraid," the other returned, pleasantly, putting his feet together before him and looking down at them in a way he had. "But, still, I have a great interest in questions of justice, and I confess that I find a certain wild equity in this principle, which I see nobody could do business on. It strikes me as idyllic—it's a touch of real poetry in the rough-and-tumble prose of our economic life."
He referred this to me as something I might appreciate in my quality of literary man, and I responded in my quality of practical man: "There's certainly more rhyme than reason in it."
He turned again to the minister:
"I suppose the ideal of the Christian state is the family?"
"I hope so," said the minister, with the gratitude that I have seen people of his cloth show when men of the world conceded premises which the world usually contests; it has seemed to me pathetic.
"And if that is the case, why, the logic of the postulate is that the prosperity of the weakest is the sacred charge and highest happiness of all the stronger. But the law has not recognized any such principle, in economics at least, and if the labor unions are based upon it they are outlaw, so far as any hope of enforcing it is concerned; and it is bad for men to feel themselves outlaw. How is it," the lawyer continued, turning to the Altrurian, "in your country? We can see no issue here, if the first principle of organized labor antagonizes the first principle of business."
"But I don't understand precisely yet what the first principle of business is," returned my guest.
"Ah, that raises another interesting question," said the lawyer. "Of course, every business man solves the problem practically according to his temperament and education, and I suppose that on first thoughts every business man would answer you accordingly. But perhaps the personal equation is something you wish to eliminate from the definition."
"Yes, of course."
"Still, I would rather not venture upon it first," said the lawyer. "Professor, what should you say was the first principle of business?"
"Buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest," the professor promptly answered.
"We will pass the parson and the doctor and the novelist as witnesses of no value. They can't possibly have any cognizance of the first principle of business; their affair is to look after the souls and bodies and fancies of other people. But what should you say it was?" he asked the banker.
"I should say it was an enlightened conception of one's own interests."
The manufacturer had no hesitation in answering: "The good of Number One, first, last, and all the time. There may be a difference of opinion about the best way to get at it; the long way may be the better, or the short way; the direct way or the oblique way, or the purely selfish way, or the partly selfish way; but if you ever lose sight of that end you might as well shut up shop. That seems to be the first law of nature, as well as the first law of business."
"Ah, we mustn't go to nature for our morality," the minister protested.
"We were not talking of morality," said the manufacturer; "we were talking of business."
This brought the laugh on the minister, but the lawyer cut it short: "Well, then, I don't really see why the trades-unions are not as business-like as the syndicates in their dealings with all those outside of themselves. Within themselves they practise an altruism of the highest order, but it is a tribal altruism; it is like that which prompts a Sioux to share his last mouthful with a starving Sioux, and to take the scalp of a starving Apache. How is it with your trades-unions in Altruria?" he asked my friend.