A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells

X

I sat down, and Mrs. Makely continued: “I have thought it all out, and I want you to confess that in all practical matters a woman’s brain is better than a man’s. Mr. Bullion, here, says it is, and I want you to say so, too.”

“Yes,” the banker admitted, “when it comes down to business a woman is worth any two of us.”

“And we have just been agreeing,” I coincided, “that the only gentlemen among us are women. Mrs. Makely, I admit, without further dispute, that the most unworldly woman is worldlier than the worldliest man; and that in all practical matters we fade into dreamers and doctrinaires beside you. Now, go on.”

But she did not mean to let me off so easily. She began to brag herself up, as women do whenever you make them the slightest concession.

“Here, you men,” she said, “have been trying for a whole week to get something out of Mr. Homos about his country, and you have left it to a poor, weak woman, at last, to think how to manage it. I do believe that you get so much interested in your own talk, when you are with him, that you don’t let him get in a word, and that’s the reason you haven’t found out anything about Altruria yet from him.”

In view of the manner in which she had cut in at Mrs. Camp’s, and stopped Homos on the very verge of the only full and free confession he had ever been near making about Altruria, I thought this was pretty cool; but, for fear of worse, I said:

“You’re quite right, Mrs. Makely. I’m sorry to say that there has been a shameful want of self-control among us, and that, if we learn anything at all from him, it will be because you have taught us how.”

She could not resist this bit of taffy. She scarcely gave herself time to gulp it before she said:

“Oh, it’s very well to say that now! But where would you have been if I hadn’t set my wits to work? Now, listen! It just popped into my mind, like an inspiration, when I was thinking of something altogether different. It flashed upon me in an instant: a good object, and a public occasion.”

“Well?” I said, finding this explosion and electrical inspiration rather enigmatical.

“Why, you know, the Union Chapel, over in the village, is in a languishing condition, and the ladies have been talking all summer about doing something for it, getting up something — a concert or theatricals or a dance or something — and applying the proceeds to repainting and papering the visible church; it needs it dreadfully. But, of course, those things are not exactly religious, don’t you know; and a fair is so much trouble; and such a bore, when you get the articles ready, even; and everybody feels swindled; and now people frown on raffles, so there is no use thinking of them. What you want is something striking. We did think of a parlor-reading, or perhaps ventriloquism; but the performers all charge so much that there wouldn’t be anything left after paying expenses.”

She seemed to expect some sort of prompting at this point; so I said: “Well?”

“Well,” she repeated, “that is just where your Mr. Homos comes in.”

“Oh! How does he come in there?”

“Why, get him to deliver a Talk on Altruria. As soon as he knows it’s for a good object, he will be on fire to do it; and they must live so much in common there that the public occasion will be just the thing that will appeal to him.”

It did seem a good plan to me, and I said so. But Mrs. Makely was so much in love with it that she was not satisfied with my modest recognition.

“Good? It’s magnificent! It’s the very thing! And I have thought it out, down to the last detail —”

“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “Do you think there is sufficient general interest in the subject, outside of the hotel, to get a full house for him? I shouldn’t like to see him subjected to the mortification of empty benches.”

“What in the world are you thinking of? Why, there isn’t a farm-house, anywhere within ten miles, where they haven’t heard of Mr. Homos; and there isn’t a servant under this roof, or in any of the boarding-houses, who doesn’t know something about Altruria and want to know more. It seems that your friend has been much oftener with the porters and the stable-boys than he has been with us.”

I had only too great reason to fear so. In spite of my warnings and entreaties, he had continued to behave toward every human being he met exactly as if they were equals. He apparently could not conceive of that social difference which difference of occupation creates among us. He owned that he saw it, and from the talk of our little group he knew it existed; but, when I expostulated with him upon some act in gross violation of society usage, he only answered that he could not imagine that what he saw and knew could actually be. It was quite impossible to keep him from bowing with the greatest deference to our waitress; he shook hands with the head-waiter every morning as well as with me; there was a fearful story current in the house, that he had been seen running down one of the corridors to relieve a chambermaid laden with two heavy water-pails which she was carrying to the rooms to fill up the pitchers. This was probably not true; but I myself saw him helping in the hotel hay-field one afternoon, shirt-sleeved like any of the hired men. He said that it was the best possible exercise, and that he was ashamed he could give no better excuse for it than the fact that without something of the kind he should suffer from indigestion. It was grotesque, and out of all keeping with a man of his cultivation and breeding. He was a gentleman and a scholar, there was no denying, and yet he did things in contravention of good form at every opportunity, and nothing I could say had any effect with him. I was perplexed beyond measure, the day after I had reproached him for his labor in the hay-field, to find him in a group of table-girls, who were listening while the head-waiter read aloud to them in the shade of the house; there was a corner looking toward the stables which was given up to them by tacit consent of the guests during a certain part of the afternoon.

I feigned not to see him, but I could not forbear speaking to him about it afterward. He took it in good part, but he said he had been rather disappointed in the kind of literature they liked and the comments they made on it; he had expected that with the education they had received, and with their experience of the seriousness of life, they would prefer something less trivial. He supposed, however, that a romantic love-story, where a poor American girl marries an English lord, formed a refuge for them from the real world which promised them so little and held them so cheap. It was quite useless for one to try to make him realize his behavior in consorting with servants as a kind of scandal.

The worst of it was that his behavior, as I could see, had already begun to demoralize the objects of his misplaced politeness. At first the servants stared and resented it, as if it were some tasteless joke; but in an incredibly short time, when they saw that he meant his courtesy in good faith, they took it as their due. I had always had a good understanding with the head-waiter, and I thought I could safely smile with him at the queer conduct of my friend toward himself and his fellow-servants. To my astonishment he said: “I don’t see why he shouldn’t treat them as if they were ladies and gentlemen. Doesn’t he treat you and your friends so?”

It was impossible to answer this, and I could only suffer in silence, and hope the Altrurian would soon go. I had dreaded the moment when the landlord should tell me that his room was wanted; now I almost desired it; but he never did. On the contrary, the Altrurian was in high favor with him. He said he liked to see a man make himself pleasant with everybody; and that he did not believe he had ever had a guest in the house who was so popular all round.

“Of course,” Mrs. Makely went on, “I don’t criticise him — with his peculiar traditions. I presume I should be just so myself if I had been brought up in Altruria, which, thank goodness, I wasn’t. But Mr. Homos is a perfect dear, and all the women in the house are in love with him, from the cook’s helpers, up and down. No, the only danger is that there won’t be room in the hotel parlors for all the people that will want to hear him, and we shall have to make the admission something that will be prohibitive in most cases. We shall have to make it a dollar.”

“Well,” I said, “I think that will settle the question as far as the farming population is concerned. It’s twice as much as they ever pay for a reserved seat in the circus, and four times as much as a simple admission. I’m afraid, Mrs. Makely, you’re going to be very few, though fit.”

“Well, I’ve thought it all over, and I’m going to put the tickets at one dollar.”

“Very good. Have you caught your hare?”

“No, I haven’t yet. And I want you to help me catch him. What do you think is the best way to go about it?”

The banker said he would leave us to the discussion of that question, but Mrs. Makely could count upon him in everything if she could only get the man to talk. At the end of our conference we decided to interview the Altrurian together.

I shall always be ashamed of the way that woman wheedled the Altrurian, when we found him the next morning, walking up and down the piazza, before breakfast — that is, it was before our breakfast; when we asked him to go in with us, he said he had just had his breakfast, and was waiting for Reuben Camp, who had promised to take him up as he passed with a load of hay for one of the hotels in the village.

“Ah, that reminds me, Mr. Homos,” the unscrupulous woman began on him at once. “We want to interest you in a little movement we’re getting up for the Union Chapel in the village. You know it’s the church where all the different sects have their services; alternately. Of course, it’s rather an original way of doing, but there is sense in it where the people are too poor to go into debt for different churches, and —”

“It’s admirable!” said the Altrurian. “I have heard about it from the Camps. It is an emblem of the unity which ought to prevail among Christians of all professions. How can I help you, Mrs. Makely?”

“I knew you would approve of it!” she exulted. “Well, it’s simply this: The poor little place has got so shabby that I’m almost ashamed to be seen going into it, for one; and want to raise money enough to give it a new coat of paint outside and put on some kind of pretty paper, of an ecclesiastical pattern, on the inside. I declare, those staring white walls, with the cracks in the plastering zigzagging every which way, distract me so that I can’t put my mind on the sermon. Don’t you think that paper, say of a Gothic design, would be a great improvement? I’m sure it would; and it’s Mr. Twelvemough’s idea, too.”

I learned this fact now for the first time; but, with Mrs. Makely’s warning eye upon me, I could not say so, and I made what sounded to me like a Gothic murmur of acquiescence. It sufficed for Mrs. Makely’s purpose, at any rate, and she went on, without giving the Altrurian a chance to say what he thought the educational effect of wall-paper would be:

“Well, the long and short of it is that we want you to make this money for us, Mr. Homos.”

“I?” He started in a kind of horror. “My dear lady, I never made any money in my life. I should think it wrong to make money.”

“In Altruria, yes. We all know how it is in your delightful country, and I assure you that no one could respect your conscientious scruples more than I do. But you must remember that you are in America now. In America you have to make money, or else — get left. And then you must consider the object, and all the good you can do, indirectly, by a little Talk on Altruria.”

He answered, blandly: “A little Talk on Altruria? How in the world should I get money by that?”

She was only too eager to explain, and she did it with so much volubility and at such great length that I, who am good for nothing till I have had my cup of coffee in the morning, almost perished of an elucidation which the Altrurian bore with the sweetest patience.

When she gave him a chance to answer, at last, he said: “I shall be very happy to do what you wish, madam.”

Will you?” she screamed. “Oh, I’m so glad! You have been so slippery about Altruria, you know, that I expected nothing but a point-blank refusal. Of course, I knew you would be kind about it. Oh, I can hardly believe my senses! You can’t think what a dear you are.” I knew she had got that word from some English people who had been in the hotel; and she was working it rather wildly, but it was not my business to check her. “Well, then, all you have got to do is to leave the whole thing to me, and not bother about it a bit till I send and tell you we are ready to listen. There comes Reuben, with his ox-team. Thank you so much, Mr. Homos. No one need be ashamed to enter the house of God”— she said Gawd, in an access of piety —“after we get that paint and paper on it; and we shall have them on before two Sabbaths have passed over it.”

She wrung the Altrurian’s hand; I was only afraid she was going to kiss him.

“There is but one stipulation I should like to make,” he began.

“Oh, a thousand,” she cut in.

“And that is, there shall be no exclusion from my lecture on account of occupation or condition. That is a thing that I can in no wise countenance, even in America; it is far more abhorrent to me even than money-making, though they are each a part and parcel of the other.”

“I thought it was that,” she retorted, joyously. “And I can assure you, Mr. Homos, there shall be nothing of that kind. Every one — I don’t care who it is or what they do — shall hear you who buys a ticket. Now, will that do?”

“Perfectly,” said the Altrurian, and he let her wring his hand again.

She pushed hers through my arm as we started for the dining-room, and leaned over to whisper jubilantly: “That will fix it. He will see how much his precious lower classes care for Altruria if they have to pay a dollar apiece to hear about it. And I shall keep faith with him to the letter.”

I could not feel that she would keep it in the spirit; but I could only groan inwardly and chuckle outwardly at the woman’s depravity.

It seemed to me, though I could not approve of it, a capital joke, and so it seemed to all the members of the little group whom I had made especially acquainted with the Altrurian. It is true that the minister was somewhat troubled with the moral question, which did not leave me wholly at peace; and the banker affected to find a question of taste involved, which he said he must let me settle, however, as the man’s host; if I could stand it, he could. No one said anything against the plan to Mrs. Makely, and this energetic woman made us take two tickets apiece, as soon as she got them printed, over in the village. She got little hand-bills printed, and had them scattered about through the neighborhood, at all the hotels, boarding-houses, and summer cottages, to give notice of the time and place of the talk on Altruria. She fixed this for the following Saturday afternoon, in our hotel parlor; she had it in the afternoon so as not to interfere with the hop in the evening; she put tickets on sale at the principal houses and at the village drug-store, and she made me go about with her and help her sell them at some of the cottages in person.

I must say I found this extremely distasteful, especially where the people were not very willing to buy, and she had to urge them. They all admitted the excellence of the object, but they were not so sure about the means. At several places the ladies asked who was this Mr. Homos, anyway; and how did she know he was really from Altruria? He might be an impostor.

Then Mrs. Makely would put me forward, and I would be obliged to give such account of him as I could, and to explain just how and why he came to be my guest; with the cumulative effect of bringing back all the misgivings which I had myself felt at the outset concerning him, and which I had dismissed as too fantastic.

The tickets went off rather slowly, even in our own hotel; people thought them too dear; and some, as soon as they knew the price, said frankly they had heard enough about Altruria already, and were sick of the whole thing.

Mrs. Makely said this was quite what she had expected of those people; that they were horrid and stingy and vulgar; and she should see what face they would have to ask her to take tickets when they were trying to get up something. She began to be vexed with herself, she confessed, at the joke she was playing on Mr. Homos, and I noticed that she put herself rather defiantly en evidence in his company whenever she could in the presence of these reluctant ladies. She told me she had not the courage to ask the clerk how many of the tickets he had sold out of those she had left at the desk.

One morning, the third or fourth, as I was going in to breakfast with her, the head-waiter stopped her as he opened the door, and asked modestly if she could spare him a few tickets, for he thought he could sell some. To my amazement the unprincipled creature said: “Why, certainly. How many?” and instantly took a package out of her pocket, where she seemed always to have them. He asked, Would twenty be more than she could spare? and she answered: “Not at all. Here are twenty-five.” and bestowed the whole package upon him.

That afternoon Reuben Camp came lounging up toward us, where I sat with her on the corner of the piazza, and said that if she would like to let him try his luck with some tickets for the Talk he would see what he could do.

“You can have all you want, Reuben,” she said, “and I hope you’ll have better luck than I have. I’m perfectly disgusted with people.”

She fished several packages out of her pocket this time, and he asked: “Do you mean that I can have them all?”

“Every one, and a band of music into the bargain,” she answered, recklessly. But she seemed a little daunted when he quietly took them. “You know there are a hundred here?”

“Yes, I should like to see what I can do among the natives. Then there is a construction train over at the junction, and I know a lot of the fellows. I guess some of ’em would like to come.”

“The tickets are a dollar each, you know,” she suggested.

“That’s all right,” said Camp. “Well, good-afternoon.”

Mrs. Makely turned to me with a kind of gasp as he shambled away. “I don’t know about that.”

“About having the whole crew of a construction train at the Talk? I dare say it won’t be pleasant to the ladies who have bought tickets.”

Oh!” said Mrs. Makely, with astonishing contempt, “I don’t care what they think. But Reuben has got all my tickets, and suppose he keeps them so long that I won’t have time to sell any, and then throws them back on my hands? I know!” she added, joyously. “I can go around now and tell people that my tickets are all gone; and I’ll go instantly and have the clerk hold all he has left at a premium.”

She came back looking rather blank.

“He hasn’t got a single one left. He says an old native came in this morning and took every last one of them — he doesn’t remember just how many. I believe they’re going to speculate on them; and if Reuben Camp serves me a trick like that — Why,” she broke off, “I believe I’ll speculate on them myself. I should like to know why I shouldn’t. Oh, I should just like to make some of those creatures pay double, or treble, for the chances they’ve refused. Ah, Mrs. Bulkham,” she called out to a lady who was coming down the veranda toward us, “you’ll be glad to know I’ve got rid of all my tickets. Such a relief!”

“You have?” Mrs. Bulkham retorted.

“Every one.”

“I thought,” said Mrs. Bulkham, “that you understood I wanted one for my daughter and myself, if she came.”

“I certainly didn’t,” said Mrs. Makely, with a wink of concentrated wickedness at me. “But, if you do, you will have to say so now, without any ifs or ands about it; and if any of the tickets come back — I let friends have a few on sale — I will give you two.”

“Well, I do,” said Mrs. Bulkham, after a moment.

“Very well; it will be five dollars for the two. I feel bound to get all I can for the cause. Shall I put your name down?”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Bulkham, rather crossly; but Mrs. Makely inscribed her name on her tablets with a radiant amiability, which suffered no eclipse when, within the next fifteen minutes, a dozen other ladies hurried up and bought in at the same rate.

I could not stand it, and I got up to go away, feeling extremely particeps criminis. Mrs. Makely seemed to have a conscience as light as air.

“If Reuben Camp or the head-waiter don’t bring back some of those tickets, I don’t know what I shall do. I shall have to put chairs into the aisles and charge five dollars apiece for as many people as I can crowd in there. I never knew anything so perfectly providential.”

“I envy you the ability to see it in that light, Mrs. Makely,” I said, faint at heart. “Suppose Camp crowds the place full of his trainmen, how will the ladies that you’ve sold tickets to at five dollars apiece like it?”

“Pooh! What do I care how they like it! Horrid things! And for repairs on the house of Gawd, it’s the same as being in church, where everybody is equal.”

The time passed. Mrs. Makely sold chances to all the ladies in the house; on Friday night Reuben Camp brought her a hundred dollars; the head-waiter had already paid in twenty-five. “I didn’t dare to ask them if they speculated on them,” she confided to me. “Do you suppose they would have the conscience?”

They had secured the large parlor of the hotel, where the young people danced in the evening, and where entertainments were held, of the sort usually given in summer hotels; we had already had a dramatic reading, a time with the phonograph, an exhibition of necromancy, a concert by a college glee club, and I do not know what else. The room would hold perhaps two hundred people, if they were closely seated, and, by her own showing, Mrs. Makely had sold above two hundred and fifty tickets and chances. All Saturday forenoon she consoled herself with the belief that a great many people at the other hotels and cottages had bought seats merely to aid the cause, and would not really come; she estimated that at least fifty would stay away; but, if Reuben Camp had sold his tickets among the natives, we might expect every one of them to come and get his money’s worth; she did not dare to ask the head-waiter how he had got rid of his twenty-five tickets.

The hour set for the Talk to begin was three o’clock, so that people could have their naps comfortably over, after the one o’clock dinner, and be just in the right frame of mind for listening. But long before the appointed time the people who dine at twelve, and never take an afternoon nap, began to arrive, on foot, in farm-wagons, smart buggies, mud-crusted carryalls, and all manner of ramshackle vehicles. They arrived as if coming to a circus, old husbands and wives, young couples and their children, pretty girls and their fellows, and hitched their horses to the tails of their wagons, and began to make a picnic lunch in the shadow of the grove lying between the hotel and the station. About two we heard the snorting of a locomotive at a time when no train was due, and a construction train came in view, with the men waving their handkerchiefs from the windows, and apparently ready for all the fun there was to be in the thing. Some of them had a small flag in each hand, the American Stars and Stripes and the white flag of Altruria, in compliment to my guest, I suppose. A good many of the farmers came over to the hotel to buy tickets, which they said they expected to get after they came, and Mrs. Makely was obliged to pacify them with all sorts of lying promises. From moment to moment she was in consultation with the landlord, who decided to throw open the dining-room, which connected with the parlor, so as to allow the help and the neighbors to hear without incommoding the hotel guests. She said that this took a great burden off her mind, and that now she should feel perfectly easy, for now no one could complain about being mixed up with the servants and the natives, and yet every one could hear perfectly.

She could not rest until she had sent for Homos and told him of this admirable arrangement. I did not know whether to be glad or not when he instantly told her that, if there was to be any such separation of his auditors, in recognition of our class distinctions, he must refuse to speak at all.

“Then what in the world are we to do?” she wailed out, and the tears came into her eyes.

“Have you got the money for all your tickets?” he asked, with a sort of disgust for the whole transaction in his tone.

“Yes, and more, too. I don’t believe there’s a soul, in the hotel or out of it, that hasn’t paid at least a dollar to hear you; and that makes it so very embarrassing. Oh, dear Mr. Homos! You won’t be so implacably high-principled as all that! Think that you are doing it for the house of Gawd.”

The woman made me sick.

“Then no one,” said the Altrurian, “can feel aggrieved, or unfairly used, if I say what I have to say in the open air, where all can listen equally, without any manner of preference or distinction. We will go up to the edge of the grove overlooking the tennis-court, and hold our meeting there, as the Altrurian meetings are always held, with the sky for a roof, and with no walls but the horizon.”

“The very thing!” cried Mrs. Makely. “Who would ever have thought you were so practical, Mr. Homos? I don’t believe you’re an Altrurian, after all; I believe you are an American in disguise.”

The Altrurian turned away, without making any response to this flattering attribution of our nationality to him; but Mrs. Makely had not waited for any. She had flown off, and I next saw her attacking the landlord, with such apparent success that he slapped himself on the leg and vanished, and immediately the porters and bell-boys and all the men-servants began carrying out chairs to the tennis-court, which was already well set round with benches. In a little while the whole space was covered, and settees were placed well up the ground toward the grove.

By half-past two the guests of the hotel came out and took the best seats, as by right, and the different tallyhoes and mountain wagons began to arrive from the other hotels, with their silly hotel cries, and their gay groups dismounted and dispersed themselves over the tennis-court until all the chairs were taken. It was fine to see how the natives and the trainmen and the hotel servants, with an instinctive perception of the proprieties, yielded these places to their superiors, and, after the summer folks were all seated, scattered themselves on the grass and the pine-needles about the border of the grove. I should have liked to instance the fact to the Altrurian, as a proof that this sort of subordination was a part of human nature, and that a principle which pervaded our civilization, after the democratic training of our whole national life, must be divinely implanted. But there was no opportunity for me to speak with him after the fact had accomplished itself, for by this time he had taken his place in front of a little clump of low pines and was waiting for the assembly to quiet itself before he began to speak. I do not think there could have been less than five hundred present, and the scene had that accidental picturesqueness which results from the grouping of all sorts of faces and costumes. Many of our ladies had pretty hats and brilliant parasols, but I must say that the soberer tone of some of the old farm-wives’ brown calicoes and outdated bonnets contributed to enrich the coloring, and there was a certain gayety in the sunny glisten of the men’s straw hats everywhere that was very good.

The sky overhead was absolutely stainless, and the light of the cool afternoon sun streamed upon the slopes of the solemn mountains to the east. The tall pines in the background blackened themselves against the horizon; nearer they showed more and more decidedly their bluish green, and the yellow of the newly fallen needles painted their aisles deep into the airy shadows.

A little wind stirred their tops, and for a moment, just before the Altrurian began to speak, drew from them an organ-tone that melted delicately away as his powerful voice rose.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38