A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells


I left my guest abruptly, with a feeling of vexation not very easily definable. His repetition of questions about questions which society has so often answered, and always in the same way, was not so bad in him as it would have been in a person of our civilization; he represented a wholly different state of things, the inversion of our own, and much could be forgiven him for that reason, just as in Russia much could be forgiven to an American if he formulated his curiosity concerning imperialism from a purely republican experience. I knew that in Altruria, for instance, the possession of great gifts, of any kind of superiority, involved the sense of obligation to others, and the wish to identify one’s self with the great mass of men, rather than the ambition to distinguish one’s self from them; and that the Altrurians honored their gifted men in the measure they did this. A man reared in such a civilization must naturally find it difficult to get our point of view; with social inclusion as the ideal, he would with difficulty conceive of our ideal of social exclusion; but I think we had all been very patient with him; we should have made short work with an American who had approached us with the same inquiries. Even from a foreigner, the citizen of a republic founded on the notion, elsewhere exploded ever since Cain, that one is his brother’s keeper, the things he asked seemed inoffensive only because they were puerile; but they certainly were puerile. I felt that it ought to have been self-evident to him that when a commonwealth of sixty million Americans based itself upon the great principle of self-seeking, self-seeking was the best thing, and, whatever hardship it seemed to work, it must carry with it unseen blessings in tenfold measure. If a few hundred thousand favored Americans enjoyed the privilege of socially contemning all the rest, it was as clearly right and just that they should do so as that four thousand American millionaires should be richer than all the other Americans put together. Such a status, growing out of our political equality and our material prosperity, must evince a divine purpose to any one intimate with the designs of Providence, and it seemed a kind of impiety to doubt its perfection. I excused the misgivings which I could not help seeing in the Altrurian to his alien traditions, and I was aware that my friends had done so, too. But, if I could judge from myself, he must have left them all sensible of their effort; and this was not pleasant. I could not blink the fact that although I had openly disagreed with him on every point of ethics and economics, I was still responsible for him as a guest. It was as if an English gentleman had introduced a blatant American Democrat into Tory society; or, rather, as if a Southerner of the olden time had harbored a Northern Abolitionist and permitted him to inquire into the workings of slavery among his neighbors. People would tolerate him as my guest for a time, but there must be an end of their patience with the tacit enmity of his sentiments and the explicit vulgarity of his ideals, and when the end came I must be attainted with him.

I did not like the notion of this, and I meant to escape it if I could. I confess that I would have willingly disowned him, as I had already disavowed his opinions, but there was no way of doing it short of telling him to go away, and I was not ready to do that. Something in the man, I do not know what, mysteriously appealed to me. He was not contemptibly puerile without being lovably childlike, and I could only make up my mind to be more and more frank with him and to try and shield him, as well as myself, from the effects I dreaded.

I fell asleep planning an excursion farther into the mountains, which should take up the rest of the week that I expected him to stay with me, and would keep him from following up his studies of American life where they would be so injurious to both of us as they must in our hotel. A knock at my door roused me, and I sent a drowsy “Come in!” toward it from the bedclothes without looking that way.

“Good-morning!” came back in the rich, gentle voice of the Altrurian. I lifted my head with a jerk from the pillow, and saw him standing against the closed door, with my shoes in his hand. “Oh, I am sorry I waked you. I thought —”

“Not at all, not at all,” I said. “It’s quite time, I dare say. But you oughtn’t to have taken the trouble to bring my shoes in.”

“I wasn’t altogether disinterested in it,” he returned. “I wished you to compliment me on them. Don’t you think they are pretty well done, for an amateur?” He came toward my bed, and turned them about in his hands, so that they would catch the light, and smiled down upon me.

“I don’t understand,” I began.

“Why,” he said, “I blacked them, you know.”

“You blacked them?”

“Yes,” he returned, easily. “I thought I would go into the baggage-room, after we parted last night, to look for a piece of mine that had not been taken to my room, and I found the porter there, with his wrist bound up. He said he had strained it in handling a lady’s Saratoga — he said a Saratoga was a large trunk — and I begged him to let me relieve him at the boots he was blacking. He refused at first, but I insisted upon trying my hand at a pair, and then he let me go on with the men’s boots; he said he could varnish the ladies’ without hurting his wrist. It needed less skill than I supposed, and after I had done a few pairs he said I could black boots as well as he.”

“Did anybody see you?” I gasped, and I felt a cold perspiration break out on me.

“No, we had the whole midnight hour to ourselves. The porter’s work with the baggage was all over, and there was nothing to interrupt the delightful chat we fell into. He is a very intelligent man, and he told me all about that custom of feeing which you deprecate. He says that the servants hate it as much as the guests; they have to take the tips now because the landlords figure on them in the wages, and they cannot live without them. He is a fine, manly fellow, and —”

“Mr. Homos,” I broke in, with the strength I found in his assurance that no one had seen him helping the porter black boots, “I want to speak very seriously with you, and I hope you will not be hurt if I speak very plainly about a matter in which I have your good solely at heart.” This was not quite true, and I winced inwardly a little when he thanked me with that confounded sincerity of his which was so much like irony; but I went on: “It is my duty to you, as my guest, to tell you that this thing of doing for others is not such a simple matter here, as your peculiar training leads you to think. You have been deceived by a superficial likeness; but, really, I do not understand how you could have read all you have done about us and not realize before coming here that America and Altruria are absolutely distinct and diverse in their actuating principles. They are both republics, I know; but America is a republic where every man is for himself, and you cannot help others as you do at home; it is dangerous — it is ridiculous. You must keep this fact in mind, or you will fall into errors that will be very embarrassing to you in your stay among us, and,” I was forced to add, “to all your friends. Now, I certainly hoped, after what I had said to you and what my friends had explained of our civilization, that you would not have done a thing of this kind. I will see the porter, as soon as I am up, and ask him not to mention the matter to any one, but, I confess, I don’t like to take an apologetic tone with him; your conditions are so alien to ours that they will seem incredible to him, and he will think I am stuffing him.”

“I don’t believe he will think that,” said the Altrurian, “and I hope you won’t find the case so bad as it seems to you. I am extremely sorry to have done wrong —”

“Oh, the thing wasn’t wrong in itself. It was only wrong under the circumstances. Abstractly, it is quite right to help a fellow-being who needs help; no one denies that, even in a country where every one is for himself.”

“I am so glad to hear it,” said the Altrurian. “Then, at least, I have not gone radically astray; and I do not think you need take the trouble to explain the Altrurian ideas to the porter. I have done that already, and they seemed quite conceivable to him; he said that poor folks had to act upon them, even here, more or less, and that if they did not act upon them there would be no chance for them at all. He says they have to help one another very much as we do at home, and that it is only the rich folks among you who are independent. I really don’t think you need speak to him at all, unless you wish; and I was very careful to guard my offer of help at the point where I understood from you and your friends that it might do harm. I asked him if there was not some one who would help him out with his boot-blacking for money, because in that case I should be glad to pay him; but he said there was no one about who would take the job; that he had to agree to black the boots, or else he would not have got the place of porter, but that all the rest of the help would consider it a disgrace, and would not help him for love or money. So it seemed quite safe to offer him my services.”

I felt that the matter was almost hopeless, but I asked: “And what he said — didn’t that suggest anything else to you?”

“How anything else?” asked the Altrurian, in his turn.

“Didn’t it occur to you that if none of his fellow-servants were willing to help him black boots, and if he did it only because he was obliged to, it was hardly the sort of work for you?”

“Why, no,” said the Altrurian, with absolute simplicity. He must have perceived the despair I fell into at this answer, for he asked: “Why should I have minded doing for others what I should have been willing to do for myself?”

“There are a great many things we are willing to do for ourselves that we are not willing to do for others. But even on that principle, which I think false and illogical, you could not be justified. A gentleman is not willing to black his own boots. It is offensive to his feelings, to his self-respect; it is something he will not do if he can get anybody else to do it for him.”

“Then in America,” said the Altrurian, “it is not offensive to the feelings of a gentleman to let another do for him what he would not do for himself?”

“Certainly not.”

“Ah,” he returned, “then we understand something altogether different by the word gentleman in Altruria. I see, now, how I have committed a mistake. I shall be more careful hereafter.”

I thought I had better leave the subject, and, “By-the-way,” I said, “how would you like to take a little tramp with me today farther up into the mountains?”

“I should be delighted,” said the Altrurian, so gratefully that I was ashamed to think why I was proposing the pleasure to him.

“Well, then, I shall be ready to start as soon as we have had breakfast. I will join you down-stairs in half an hour.”

He left me at this hint, though really I was half afraid he might stay and offer to lend me a hand at my toilet, in the expression of his national character. I found him with Mrs. Makely, when I went down, and she began, with a parenthetical tribute to the beauty of the mountains in the morning light: “Don’t be surprised to see me up at this unnatural hour. I don’t know whether it was the excitement of our talk last night, or what it was, but my sulphonal wouldn’t act, though I took fifteen grains, and I was up with the lark, or should have been, if there had been any lark outside of literature to be up with. However, this air is so glorious that I don’t mind losing a night’s sleep now and then. I believe that with a little practice one could get along without any sleep at all here; at least, I could. I’m sorry to say poor Mr. Makely can’t, apparently. He’s making up for his share of my vigils, and I’m going to breakfast without him. Do you know, I’ve done a very bold thing: I’ve got the head-waiter to give you places at our table; I know you’ll hate it, Mr. Twelvemough, because you naturally want to keep Mr. Homos to yourself, and I don’t blame you at all; but I’m simply not going to let you, and that’s all there is about it.”

The pleasure I felt at this announcement was not unmixed, but I tried to keep Mrs. Makely from thinking so, and I was immensely relieved when she found a chance to say to me, in a low voice: “I know just how you’re feeling, Mr. Twelvemough, and I’m going to help you keep him from doing anything ridiculous, if I can. I like him, and I think it’s a perfect shame to have people laughing at him. I know we can manage him between us.”

We so far failed, however, that the Altrurian shook hands with the head-waiter when he pressed open the wire-netting door to let us into the dining-room, and made a bow to our waitress of the sort one makes to a lady. But we thought it best to ignore these little errors of his and reserve our moral strength for anything more spectacular. Fortunately we got through our breakfast with nothing worse than his jumping up and stooping to hand the waitress a spoon she let fall; but this could easily pass for some attention to Mrs. Makely at a little distance. There were not many people down to breakfast yet; but I could see that there was a good deal of subdued sensation among the waitresses, standing with folded arms behind their tables, and that the head-waiter’s handsome face was red with anxiety.

Mrs. Makely asked if we were going to church. She said she was driving that way, and would be glad to drop us. “I’m not going myself,” she explained, “because I couldn’t make anything of the sermon, with my head in the state it is, and I’m going to compromise on a good action. I want to carry some books and papers over to Mrs. Camp. Don’t you think that will be quite as acceptable, Mr. Homos?”

“I should venture to hope it,” he said, with a tolerant seriousness not altogether out of keeping with her lightness.

“Who is Mrs. Camp?” I asked, not caring to commit myself on the question.

“Lizzie’s mother. You know I told you about them last night. I think she must have got through the books I lent her, and I know Lizzie didn’t like to ask me for more, because she saw me talking with you, and didn’t want to interrupt us. Such a nice girl! I think the Sunday papers must have come, and I’ll take them over, too; Mrs. Camp is always so glad to get them, and she is so delightful when she gets going about public events. But perhaps you don’t approve of Sunday papers, Mr. Homos.”

“I’m sure I don’t know, madam. I haven’t seen them yet. You know this is the first Sunday I’ve been in America.”

“Well, I’m sorry to say you won’t see the old Puritan Sabbath,” said Mrs. Makely, with an abrupt deflection from the question of the Sunday papers. “Though you ought to, up in these hills. The only thing left of it is rye-and-Indian bread, and these baked beans and fish-balls.”

“But they are very good?”

“Yes, I dare say they are not the worst of it.”

She was a woman who tended to levity, and I was a little afraid she might be going to say something irreverent; but, if she were, she was forestalled by the Altrurian asking: “Would it be very indiscreet, madam, if I were to ask you some time to introduce me to that family?”

“The Camps?” she returned. “Not at all. I should be perfectly delighted.” The thought seemed to strike her, and she asked: “Why not go with me this morning, unless you are inflexibly bent on going to church, you and Mr. Twelvemough?”

The Altrurian glanced at me, and I said I should be only too glad, if I could carry some books, so that I could compromise on a good action, too. “Take one of your own,” she instantly suggested.

“Do you think they wouldn’t be too severe upon it?” I asked.

“Well, Mrs. Camp might,” Mrs. Makely consented, with a smile. “She goes in for rather serious fiction; but I think Lizzie would enjoy a good, old-fashioned love-story, where everybody got married, as they do in your charming books.”

I winced a little, for every one likes to be regarded seriously, and I did not enjoy being remanded to the young-girl public; but I put a bold face on it, and said: “My good action shall be done in behalf of Miss Lizzie.”

Half an hour later, Mrs. Makely having left word with the clerk where we were gone, so that her husband need not be alarmed when he got up, we were striking into the hills on a two-seated buckboard, with one of the best teams of our hotel, and one of the most taciturn drivers. Mrs. Makely had the Altrurian get into the back seat with her, and, after some attempts to make talk with the driver, I leaned over and joined in their talk. The Altrurian was greatly interested, not so much in the landscape — though he owned its beauty when we cried out over it from point to point — but in the human incidents and features. He noticed the cattle in the fields, and the horses we met on the road, and the taste and comfort of the buildings, the variety of the crops, and the promise of the harvest. I was glad of the respite his questions gave me from the study of the intimate character of our civilization, for they were directed now at these more material facts, and I willingly joined Mrs. Makely in answering them. We explained that the finest teams we met were from the different hotels or boarding-houses, or at least from the farms where the people took city people to board; and that certain shabby equipages belonged to the natives who lived solely by cultivating the soil. There was not very much of the soil cultivated, for the chief crop was hay, with here and there a patch of potatoes or beans, and a few acres in sweet-corn. The houses of the natives, when they were for their use only, were no better than their turnouts; it was where the city boarder had found shelter that they were modern and pleasant. Now and then we came to a deserted homestead, and I tried to make the Altrurian understand how farming in New England had yielded to the competition of the immense agricultural operations of the West. “You know,” I said, “that agriculture is really an operation out there, as much as coal-mining is in Pennsylvania, or finance in Wall Street; you have no idea of the vastness of the scale.” Perhaps I swelled a little with pride in my celebration of the national prosperity, as it flowed from our Western farms of five and ten and twenty thousand acres; I could not very well help putting on the pedal in these passages. Mrs. Makely listened almost, as eagerly, as the Altrurian, for, as a cultivated American woman, she was necessarily quite ignorant of her own country, geographically, politically, and historically. “The only people left in the hill country of New England,” I concluded, “are those who are too old or too lazy to get away. Any young man of energy would be ashamed to stay, unless he wanted to keep a boarding-house or live on the city vacationists in summer. If he doesn’t, he goes West and takes up some of the new land, and comes back in middle-life and buys a deserted farm to spend his summers on.”

“Dear me!” said the Altrurian. “Is it so simple as that? Then we can hardly wonder at their owners leaving these worn-out farms; though I suppose it must be with the pang of exile, sometimes.”

“Oh, I fancy there isn’t much sentiment involved,” I answered, lightly.

“Whoa!” said Mrs. Makely, speaking to the horses before she spoke to the driver, as some women will. He pulled them up, and looked round at her.

“Isn’t that Reuben Camp, now, over there by that house?” she asked, as if we had been talking of him; that is another way some women have.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the driver.

“Oh, well, then!” and “Reuben!” she called to the young man, who was prowling about the door-yard of a sad-colored old farm-house, and peering into a window here and there. “Come here a moment — won’t you, please?”

He lifted his head and looked round, and, when he had located the appeal made to him, he came down the walk to the gate and leaned over it, waiting for further instructions. I saw that it was the young man whom we had noticed with the girl Mrs. Makely called Lizzie on the hotel piazza the night before.

“Do you know whether I should find Lizzie at home this morning?”

“Yes, she’s there with mother,” said the young fellow, with neither liking nor disliking in his tone.

“Oh, I’m so glad!” said the lady. “I didn’t know but she might be at church. What in the world has happened here? Is there anything unusual going on inside?”

“No, I was just looking to see if it was all right. The folks wanted I should come round.”

“Why, where are they?”

“Oh, they’re gone.”


“Yes; gone West. They’ve left the old place, because they couldn’t make a living here any longer.”

“Why, this is quite a case in point,” I said. “Now, Mr. Homos, here is a chance to inform yourself at first hand about a very interesting fact of our civilization”; and I added, in a low voice, to Mrs. Makely: “Won’t you introduce us?”

“Oh yes. Mr. Camp, this is Mr. Twelvemough, the author — you know his books, of course; and Mr. Homos, a gentleman from Altruria.”

The young fellow opened the gate he leaned on and came out to us. He took no notice of me, but he seized the Altrurian’s hand and wrung it. “I’ve heard of you” he said. “Mrs. Makely, were you going to our place?”

“Why, yes.”

“So do, then. Mother would give almost anything to see Mr. Homos. We’ve heard of Altruria, over our way,” he added to our friend. “Mother’s been reading up all she can about it. She’ll want to talk with you, and she won’t give the rest of us much of a chance, I guess.”

“Oh, I shall be glad to see her,” said the Altrurian, “and to tell her everything I can. But won’t you explain to me first something about your deserted farms here? It’s quite a new thing to me.”

“It isn’t a new thing to us,” said the young fellow, with a short laugh. “And there isn’t much to explain about it. You’ll see them all through New England. When a man finds he can’t get his funeral expenses out of the land, he don’t feel like staying to be buried in it, and he pulls up and goes.”

“But people used to get their living expenses here,” I suggested. “Why can’t they now?”

“Well, they didn’t use to have Western prices to fight with; and then the land wasn’t worn out so, and the taxes were not so heavy. How would you like to pay twenty to thirty dollars on the thousand, and assessed up to the last notch, in the city?”

“Why, what in the world makes your taxes so heavy?”

“Schools and roads. We’ve got to have schools, and you city folks want good roads when you come here in the summer, don’t you? Then the season is short, and sometimes we can’t make a crop. The frost catches the corn in the field, and you have your trouble for your pains. Potatoes are the only thing we can count on, except grass, and, when everybody raises potatoes, you know where the price goes.”

“Oh, but now, Mr. Camp,” said Mrs. Makely, leaning over toward him, and speaking in a cosey and coaxing tone, as if he must not really keep the truth from an old friend like her, “isn’t it a good deal because the farmers’ daughters want pianos, and the farmers’ sons want buggies? I heard Professor Lumen saying, the other day, that, if the farmers were willing to work as they used to work, they could still get a good living off their farms, and that they gave up their places because they were too lazy, in many cases, to farm them properly.”

“He’d better not let me hear him saying that,” said the young fellow, while a hot flush passed over his face. He added, bitterly: “If he wants to see how easy it is to make a living up here, he can take this place and try for a year or two; he can get it cheap. But I guess he wouldn’t want it the year round; he’d only want it a few months in the summer, when he could enjoy the sightliness of it, and see me working over there on my farm, while he smoked on his front porch.” He turned round and looked at the old house in silence a moment. Then, as he went on, his voice lost its angry ring. “The folks here bought this place from the Indians, and they’d been here more than two hundred years. Do you think they left it because they were too lazy to run it, or couldn’t get pianos and buggies out of it, or were such fools as not to know whether they were well off? It was their home; they were born and lived and died here. There is the family burying-ground over there.”

Neither Mrs. Makely nor myself was ready with a reply, and we left the word with the Altrurian, who suggested: “Still, I suppose they will be more prosperous in the West on the new land they take up?”

The young fellow leaned his arms on the wheel by which he stood. “What do you mean by taking up new land?”

“Why, out of the public domain —”

“There ain’t any public domain that’s worth having. All the good land is in the hands of railroads and farm syndicates and speculators; and if you want a farm in the West you’ve got to buy it; the East is the only place where folks give them away, because they ain’t worth keeping. If you haven’t got the ready money, you can buy one on credit, and pay ten, twenty, and thirty per cent. interest, and live in a dugout on the plains — till your mortgage matures.” The young man took his arms from the wheel and moved a few steps backward, as he added: “I’ll see you over at the house later.”

The driver touched his horses, and we started briskly off again. But I confess I had quite enough of his pessimism, and as we drove away I leaned back toward the Altrurian and said: “Now, it is all perfect nonsense to pretend that things are at that pass with us. There are more millionaires in America, probably, than there are in all the other civilized countries of the globe, and it is not possible that the farming population should be in such a hopeless condition. All wealth comes out of the earth, and you may be sure they get their full share of it.”

“I am glad to hear you say so,” said the Altrurian. “What is the meaning of this new party in the West that seems to have held a convention lately? I read something of it in the train yesterday.”

“Oh, that is a lot of crazy Hayseeds, who don’t want to pay back the money they have borrowed, or who find themselves unable to meet their interest. It will soon blow over. We are always having these political flurries. A good crop will make it all right with them.”

“But is it true that they have to pay such rates of interest as our young friend mentioned?”

“Well,” I said, seeing the thing in the humorous light which softens for us Americans so many of the hardships of others, “I suppose that man likes to squeeze his brother man when he gets him in his grip. That’s human nature, you know.”

“Is it?” asked the Altrurian.

It seemed to me that he had asked something like that before when I alleged human nature in defence of some piece of every-day selfishness. But I thought best not to notice it, and I went on: “The land is so rich out there that a farm will often pay for itself with a single crop.”

“Is it possible?” cried the Altrurian. “Then I suppose it seldom really happens that a mortgage is foreclosed, in the way our young friend insinuated?”

“Well, I can’t say that exactly”; and, having admitted so much, I did not feel bound to impart a fact that popped perversely into my mind. I was once talking with a Western money-lender, a very good sort of fellow, frank and open as the day; I asked him whether the farmers generally paid off their mortgages, and he answered me that if the mortgage was to the value of a fourth of the land, the farmer might pay it off, but if it were to a half, or a third even, he never paid it, but slaved on and died in his debts. “You may be sure, however,” I concluded, “that our young friend takes a jaundiced view of the situation.”

“Now, really,” said Mrs. Makely, “I must insist upon dropping this everlasting talk about money. I think it is perfectly disgusting, and I believe it was Mr. Makely’s account of his speculations that kept me awake last night. My brain got running on figures till the dark seemed to be all sown with dollar-marks, like the stars in the Milky Way. I— ugh! What in the world is it? Oh, you dreadful little things!”

Mrs. Makely passed swiftly from terror to hysterical laughter as the driver pulled up short and a group of barefooted children broke in front of his horses and scuttled out of the dust into the road-side bushes like a covey of quails. There seemed to be a dozen of them, nearly all the same in size, but there turned out to be only five or six; or at least no more showed their gleaming eyes and teeth through the underbrush in quiet enjoyment of the lady’s alarm.

“Don’t you know that you might have got killed?” she demanded, with that severity good women feel for people who have just escaped with their lives. “How lovely the dirty little dears are!” she added, in the next wave of emotion. One bold fellow of six showed a half-length above the bushes, and she asked: “Don’t you know that you oughtn’t to play in the road when there are so many teams passing? Are all those your brothers and sisters?”

He ignored the first question. “One’s my cousin.” I pulled out a half-dozen coppers, and held my hand toward him. “See if there is one for each.” They had no difficulty in solving the simple mathematical problem except the smallest girl, who cried for fear and baffled longing. I tossed the coin to her, and a little fat dog darted out at her feet and caught it up in his mouth. “Oh, good gracious!” I called out in my light, humorous way. “Do you suppose he’s going to spend it for candy?” The little people thought that a famous joke, and they laughed with the gratitude that even small favors inspire. “Bring your sister here,” I said to the boldest boy, and, when he came up with the little woman, I put another copper into her hand. “Look out that the greedy dog doesn’t get it,” I said, and my gayety met with fresh applause. “Where do you live?” I asked, with some vague purpose of showing the Altrurian the kindliness that exists between our upper and lower classes.

“Over there,” said the boy. I followed the twist of his head, and glimpsed a wooden cottage on the border of the forest, so very new that the sheathing had not yet been covered with clapboards. I stood up in the buckboard and saw that it was a story and a half high, and could have had four or five rooms in it. The bare, curtainless windows were set in the unpainted frames, but the front door seemed not to be hung yet. The people meant to winter there, however, for the sod was banked up against the wooden underpinning; a stovepipe stuck out of the roof of a little wing behind. While I gazed a young-looking woman came to the door, as if she had been drawn by our talk with the children, and then she jumped down from the threshold, which still wanted a doorstep, and came slowly out to us. The children ran to her with their coppers, and then followed her back to us.

Mrs. Makely called to her before she reached us: “I hope you weren’t frightened. We didn’t drive over any of them.”

“Oh, I wasn’t frightened,” said the young woman. “It’s a very safe place to bring up children, in the country, and I never feel uneasy about them.”

“Yes, if they are not under the horses’ feet,” said Mrs. Makely, mingling instruction and amusement very judiciously in her reply. “Are they all yours?”

“Only five,” said the mother, and she pointed to the alien in her flock. “He’s my sister’s. She lives just below here.” Her children had grouped themselves about her, and she kept passing her hands caressingly over their little heads as she talked. “My sister has nine children, but she has the rest at church with her today.”

“You don’t speak like an American,” Mrs. Makely suggested.

“No, we’re English. Our husbands work in the quarry. That’s my little palace.” The woman nodded her head toward the cottage.

“It’s going to be very nice,” said Mrs. Makely, with an evident perception of her pride in it.

“Yes, if we ever get money to finish it. Thank you for the children.”

“Oh, it was this gentleman.” Mrs. Makely indicated me, and I bore the merit of my good action as modestly as I could.

“Then thank you, sir,” said the young woman, and she asked Mrs. Makely: “You’re not living about here, ma’am?”

“Oh no, we’re staying at the hotel.”

“At the hotel! It must be very dear, there.”

“Yes, it is expensive,” said Mrs. Makely, with a note of that satisfaction in her voice which we all feel in spending a great deal of money.

“But I suppose you can afford it,” said the woman, whose eye was running hungrily over Mrs. Makely’s pretty costume. “Some are poor, and some are rich. That’s the way the world has to be made up, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Makely, very dryly, and the talk languished from this point, so that the driver felt warranted in starting up his horses. When we had driven beyond earshot she said: “I knew she was not an American, as soon as she spoke, by her accent, and then those foreigners have no self-respect. That was a pretty bold bid for a contribution to finish up her ‘little palace’! I’m glad you didn’t give her anything, Mr. Twelvemough. I was afraid your sympathies had been wrought upon.”

“Oh, not at all,” I answered. “I saw the mischief I had done with the children.”

The Altrurian, who has not asked anything for a long time, but had listened with eager interest to all that passed, now came up smiling with his question: “Will you kindly tell me what harm would have been done by offering the woman a little money to help finish up her cottage?”

I did not allow Mrs. Makely to answer, I was so eager to air my political economy. “The very greatest harm. It would have pauperized her. You have no idea how quickly they give way to the poison of that sort of thing. As soon as they get any sort of help they expect more; they count upon it, and they begin to live upon it. The sight of those coppers which I gave her children — more out of joke than charity — demoralized the woman. She took us for rich people, and wanted us to build her a house. You have to guard against every approach to a thing of that sort.”

“I don’t believe,” said Mrs. Makely, “that an American would have hinted, as she did.”

“‘No, an American would not have done that, I’m thankful to say. They take fees, but they don’t ask charity, yet.” We went on to exult in the noble independence of the American character in all classes, at some length. We talked at the Altrurian, but he did not seem to hear us. At last he asked, with a faint sigh: “Then, in your conditions, a kindly impulse to aid one who needs your help is something to be guarded against as possibly pernicious?”

“Exactly,” I said. “And now you see what difficulties beset us in dealing with the problem of poverty. We cannot let people suffer, for that would be cruel; and we cannot relieve their need without pauperizing them.”

“I see,” he answered. “It is a terrible quandary.”

“I wish,” said Mrs. Makely, “that you would tell us just how you manage with the poor in Altruria.”

“We have none,” he replied.

“But the comparatively poor — you have some people who are richer than others?”

“No. We should regard that as the worst incivism.”

“What is incivism?”

I interpreted, “Bad citizenship.”

“Well, then, if you will excuse me, Mr. Homos,” she said, “I think that is simply impossible. There must be rich and there must be poor. There always have been, and there always will be. That woman said it as well as anybody. Didn’t Christ Himself say, ‘The poor ye have always with you’?”


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