Through the Eye of the Needle
W. D. Howells
Part 4 out of 4
The scene has changed again, Dolly, and six months have elapsed without
your knowing it. Aristides and I long ago completed the tour of the
capitals which the Thrall incident interrupted, and we have been settled
for many months in the Maritime Capital, where it has been decided we had
better fill out the first two years of my husband's repatriation. I have
become more and more thoroughly naturalized, and if I am not yet a
perfect Altrurian, it is not for not loving better and better the best
Altrurian of them all, and not for not admiring and revering this
During the Obligatories of the forenoons I do my housework with my own
hands, and as my mother lives with us we have long talks together, and
try to make each other believe that the American conditions were a sort
of nightmare from which we have happily awakened. You see how terribly
frank I am, my dear, but if I were not, I could not make you understand
how I feel. My heart aches for you, there, and the more because I know
that you do not want to live differently, that you are proud of your
economic and social illogicality, and that you think America is the best
country under the sun! I can never persuade you, but if you could only
come here, once, and see for yourselves! Seeing would be believing, and
believing would be the wish never to go away, but to be at home here
I can imagine your laughing at me and asking Mr. Makely whether the
_Little Sally_ has ever returned to Altruria, and how I can account for
the captain's failure to keep his word. I confess that is a sore point
with me. It is now more than a year since she sailed, and, of course, we
have not had a sign or whisper from her. I could almost wish that the
crew were willing to stay away, but I am afraid it is the captain who is
keeping them. It has become almost a mania with me, and every morning,
the first thing when I wake, I go for my before-breakfast walk along the
marble terrace that overlooks the sea, and scan the empty rounding for
the recreant ship. I do not want to think so badly of human nature, as I
must if the _Little Sally_ never comes back, and I am sure you will not
blame me if I should like her to bring me some word from you. I know that
if she ever reached Boston you got my letters and presents, and that you
have been writing me as faithfully as I have been writing you, and what a
sheaf of letters from you there will be if her masts ever pierce
the horizon! To tell the truth, I do long for a little American news! Do
you still keep on murdering and divorcing, and drowning, and burning, and
mommicking, and maiming people by sea and land? Has there been any war
since I left? Is the financial panic as great as ever, and is there as
much hunger and cold? I know that whatever your crimes and calamities
are, your heroism and martyrdom, your wild generosity and self-devotion,
are equal to them.
It is no use to pretend that in little over a year I can have become
accustomed to the eventlessness of life in Altruria. I go on for a good
many days together and do not miss the exciting incidents you have in
America, and then suddenly I am wolfishly hungry for the old sensations,
just as now and then I _want meat_, though I know I should loathe the
sight and smell of it if I came within reach of it. You would laugh, I
dare say, at the Altrurian papers, and what they print for news. Most of
the space is taken up with poetry, and character study in the form of
fiction, and scientific inquiry of every kind. But now and then there is
a report of the production of a new play in one of the capitals; or an
account of an open-air pastoral in one of the communes; or the progress
of some public work, like the extension of the National Colonnade; or the
wonderful liberation of some section from malaria; or the story of some
good man or woman's life, ended at the patriarchal age they reach here.
They also print selected passages of capitalistic history, from the
earliest to the latest times, showing how in war and pestilence and
needless disaster the world outside Altruria remains essentially the same
that it was at the beginning of civilization, with some slight changes
through the changes of human nature for the better in its slow approaches
to the Altrurian ideal. In noting these changes the writers get some sad
amusement out of the fact that the capitalistic world believes human
nature cannot be changed, though cannibalism and slavery and polygamy
have all been extirpated in the so-called Christian countries, and these
things were once human nature, which is always changing, while brute
nature remains the same. Now and then they touch very guardedly on that
slavery, worse than war, worse than any sin or shame conceivable to the
Altrurians, in which uncounted myriads of women are held and bought and
sold, and they have to note that in this the capitalistic world is
without the hope of better things. You know what I mean, Dolly; every
good woman knows the little she cannot help knowing; but if you had ever
inquired into that horror, as I once felt obliged to do, you would think
it the blackest horror of the state of things where it must always exist
as long as there are riches and poverty. Now, when so many things in
America seem bad dreams, I cannot take refuge in thinking that a bad
dream; the reality was so deeply burnt into my brain by the words of
some of the slaves; and when I think of it I want to grovel on the ground
with my mouth in the dust. But I know this can only distress you, for you
cannot get away from the fact as I have got away from it; that there it
is in the next street, perhaps in the next house, and that any night when
you leave your home with your husband, you may meet it at the first step
from your door.
You can very well imagine what a godsend the reports of Aristides and the
discussions of them have been to our papers. They were always taken down
stenographically, and they were printed like dialogue, so that at a
little distance you would take them at first for murder trials or divorce
cases, but when you look closer, you find them questions and answers
about the state of things in America. There are often humorous passages,
for the Altrurians are inextinguishably amused by our illogicality, and
what they call the perpetual _non sequiturs_ of our lives and laws. In
the discussions they frequently burlesque these, but as they present them
they seem really beyond the wildest burlesque. Perhaps you will be
surprised to know that a nation of working-people like these feel more
compassion than admiration for our working-people. They pity them, but
they blame them more than they blame the idle rich for the existing
condition of things in America. They ask why, if the American workmen
are in the immense majority, they do not vote a true and just state, and
why they go on striking and starving their families instead; they cannot
distinguish in principle between the confederations of labor and the
combinations of capital, between the trusts and the trades-unions, and
they condemn even more severely the oppressions and abuses of the unions.
My husband tries to explain that the unions are merely provisional, and
are a temporary means of enabling the employees to stand up against the
tyranny of the employers, but they always come back and ask him if the
workmen have not most of the votes, and if they have, why they do not
protect themselves peacefully instead of organizing themselves in
fighting shape, and making a warfare of industry.
There is not often anything so much like news in the Altrurian papers as
the grounding of the Thrall yacht on the coast of the Seventh Region, and
the incident has been treated and discussed in every possible phase by
the editors and their correspondents. They have been very frank about it,
as they are about everything in Altruria, and they have not concealed
their anxieties about their unwelcome guests. They got on without much
trouble in the case of the few sailors of the _Little Sally_, but the
crew of the _Saraband_ is so large that it is a different matter. In the
first place, they do not like the application of force, even in the mild
electrical form in which they employ it, and they fear that the effect
with themselves will be bad, however good it is for their guests.
Besides, they dread the influence which a number of people, invested with
the charm of strangeness, may have with the young men and especially the
young girls of the neighborhood. The hardest thing the Altrurians have to
grapple with is feminine curiosity, and the play of this about the
strangers is what they seek the most anxiously to control. Of course, you
will think it funny, and I must say that it seemed so to me at first, but
I have come to think it is serious. The Altrurian girls are cultivated
and refined, but as they have worked all their lives with their hands
they cannot imagine the difference that work makes in Americans; that it
coarsens and classes them, especially if they have been in immediate
contact with rich people, and been degraded or brutalized by the
knowledge of the contempt in which labor is held among us by those who
are not compelled to it. Some of my Altrurian friends have talked it over
with me, and I could take their point of view, though secretly I could
not keep my poor American feelings from being hurt when they said that to
have a large number of people from the capitalistic world thrown upon
their hands was very much as it would be with us if we had the same
number of Indians, with all their tribal customs and ideals, thrown upon
our hands. They say they will not shirk their duty in the matter, and
will study it carefully; but all the same, they wish the incident had not
I am glad that I was called away from the disagreeable point I left in my
last, and that I have got back temporarily to the scene of the
Altrurianization of Mr. Thrall and his family. So far as it has gone it
is perfect, if I may speak from the witness of happiness in those
concerned, except perhaps Mrs. Thrall; she is as yet only partially
reconstructed, but even she has moments of forgetting her lost grandeur
and of really enjoying herself in her work. She is an excellent
housekeeper, and she has become so much interested in making the marquee
a simple home for her family that she is rather proud of showing it off
as the effect of her unaided efforts. She was allowed to cater to them
from the canned meats brought ashore from the yacht as long as they would
stand it, but the wholesome open-air conditions have worked a wonderful
change in them, and neither Mr. Thrall nor Lord and Lady Moors now have
any taste for such dishes. Here Mrs. Thrall's old-time skill as an
excellent vegetable cook, when she was the wife of a young mechanic, has
come into play, and she believes that she sets the best table in the
whole neighborhood, with fruits and many sorts of succulents and the
everlasting and ever-pervading mushrooms.
As the Altrurians do not wish to annoy their involuntary guests, or to
interfere with their way of life where they do not consider it immoral,
their control has ended with setting them to work for a living. They
have not asked them to the communal refectory, but, as long as they have
been content to serve each other, have allowed them their private table.
Of course, their adaptation to their new way of life has proceeded more
slowly than it otherwise would, but with the exception of Mrs. Thrall
they are very intelligent people, and I have been charmed in talking the
situation over with them. The trouble has not been so great with the
ship's people, as was feared. Such of these as have imagined their stay
here permanent, or wished it to be so, have been received into the
neighboring communes, and have taken the first steps towards
naturalization; those who look forward to getting away some time, or
express the wish for it, are allowed to live in a community of their own,
where they are not molested as long as they work in the three hours of
the Obligatoires. Naturally, they are kept out of mischief, but after
their first instruction in the ideas of public property and the
impossibility of enriching themselves at the expense of any one else,
they have behaved very well. The greatest trouble they ever gave was in
trapping and killing the wild things for food; but when they were told
that this must not be done, and taught to recognize the vast range of
edible fungi, they took not unwillingly to mushrooms and the ranker
tubers and roots, from which, with unlimited eggs, cheese, milk, and
shell-fish, they have constructed a diet of which they do not complain.
This brings me rather tangentially to Monsieur Anatole, who has become a
fanatical Altrurian, and has even had to be restrained in some of his
enthusiastic plans for the compulsory naturalization of his fellow
castaways. His value as a scientist has been cordially recognized, and
his gifts as an artist in the exquisite water-color studies of edible
fungi has won his notice in the capital of the Seventh Regional where
they have been shown at the spring water-color exhibition. He has printed
several poems in the _Regional Gazette_, villanelles, rondeaux, and
triolets, with accompanying versions of the French, into Altrurian by one
of the first Altrurian poets. This is a widow of about Monsieur Anatole's
own age; and the literary friendship between them has ripened into
something much more serious. In fact they are engaged to be married. I
suppose you will laugh at this, Dolly, and at first I confess that there
was enough of the old American in me to be shocked at the idea of a
French _chef_ marrying an Altrurian lady who could trace her descent to
the first Altrurian president of the Commonwealth, and who is universally
loved and honored. I could not help letting something of the kind escape
me by accident, to a friend, and presently Mrs. Chrysostom was sent to
interview me on the subject, and to learn just how the case appeared to
me. This put me on my honor, and I was obliged to say how it would appear
in America, though every moment I grew more and more ashamed of myself
and my native country, where we pretend that labor is honorable, and are
always heaping dishonor on it. I told how certain of our girls and
matrons had married their coachmen and riding-masters and put themselves
at odds with society, and I confessed that marrying a cook would be
regarded as worse, if possible.
Mrs. Chrysostom was accompanied by a lady in her second youth, very
graceful, very charmingly dressed, and with an expression of winning
intelligence, whom she named to me simply as Cecilia, in the Altrurian
fashion. She apparently knew no English, and at first Mrs. Chrysostom
translated each of her questions and my answers. When I had got through,
this lady began to question me herself in Altrurian, which I owned to
understanding a little. She said:
"You know Anatole?"
"Yes, certainly, and I like him, as I think every one must who knows
"He is a skillful _chef_?"
"Mr. Thrall would not have paid him ten thousand dollars a year if he had
"You have seen some of his water-colors?"
"Yes. They are exquisite. He is unquestionably an artist of rare talent."
"And it is known to you that he is a man of scientific attainments?"
"That is something I cannot judge of so well as Aristides; but _he_ says
M. Anatole is learned beyond any man he knows in edible fungi."
"As an adoptive Altrurian, and knowing the American ideas from our point
of view, should you respect their ideas of social inequality?"
"Not the least in the world. I understand as well as you do that their
ideas must prevail wherever one works for a living and another does not.
hose ideas are practically as much accepted in America as they are in
Europe, but I have fully renounced them."
You see, Dolly, how far I have gone!
The unknown, who could be pretty easily imagined, rose up and gave me her
hand. "If you are in the Region on the third of May you must come to our
The same afternoon I had a long talk with Mr. Thrall, whom I found at
work replanting a strawberry-patch during the Voluntaries. He rose up at
the sound of my voice, and after an old man's dim moment for getting me
mentally in focus, he brightened into a genial smile, and said, "Oh, Mrs.
Homos! I am glad to see you."
I told him to go on with his planting, and I offered to get down on my
knees beside him and help, but he gallantly handed me to a seat in the
shade beside his daughter's flower-bed, and it was there that we had a
long talk about conditions in America and Altruria, and how he felt about
the great change in his life.
"Well, I can truly say," he answered much more at length than I shall
report, "that I have never been so happy since the first days of my
boyhood. All care has dropped from me; I don't feel myself rich, and I
don't feel myself poor in this perfect safety from want. The only thing
that gives me any regret is that my present state has not been the effect
of my own will and deed. If I am now following the greatest and truest of
all counsels it has not been because I have sold all and given to the
poor, but because my money has been mercifully taken from me, and I have
been released from its responsibilities in a state of things where there
is no money."
"But, Mr. Thrall," I said, "don't you ever feel that you have a duty to
the immense fortune which you have left in America, and which must be
disposed of somehow when people are satisfied that you are not going to
return and dispose of it yourself?"
"No, none. I was long ago satisfied that I could really do no good with
it. Perhaps if I had had more faith in it I might have done some good
with it, but I believe that I never did anything but harm, even when I
seemed to be helping the most, for I was aiding in the perpetuation of a
state of things essentially wrong. Now, if I never go back--and I never
wish to go back--let the law dispose of it as seems best to the
authorities. I have no kith or kin, and my wife has none, so there is no
one to feel aggrieved by its application to public objects."
"And how do you imagine it will be disposed of?"
"Oh, I suppose for charitable and educational purposes. Of course a good
deal of it will go in graft; but that cannot be helped."
"But if you could now dispose of it according to your clearest ideas of
justice, and if you were forced to make the disposition yourself, what
would you do with it?"
"Well, that is something I have been thinking of, and as nearly as I can
make out, I ought to go into the records of my prosperity and ascertain
just how and when I made my money. Then I ought to seek out as fully as
possible the workmen who helped me make it by their labor. Their wages,
which, were always the highest, were never a fair share, though I forced
myself to think differently, and it should be my duty to inquire for them
and pay them each a fair share, or, if they are dead, then their children
or their next of kin. But even when I had done this I should not be sure
that I had not done them more harm than good."
How often I had heard poor Mr. Strange say things like this, and heard
of other rich men saying them, after lives of what is called beneficence!
Mr. Thrall drew a deep sigh, and cast a longing look at his
strawberry-bed. I laughed, and said, "You are anxious to get back to your
plants, and I won't keep you. I wonder if Mrs. Thrall could see me if I
called; or Lady Moors?"
He said he was sure they would, and I took my way over to the marquee. I
was a little surprised to be met at the door by Lord Moors' man Robert.
He told me he was very sorry, but her ladyship was helping his lordship
at a little job on the roads, which they were doing quite in the
Voluntaries, with the hope of having the National Colonnade extended to a
given point; the ladies were helping the gentlemen get the place in
shape. He was still sorrier, but I not so much, that Mrs. Thrall was
lying down and would like to be excused; she was rather tired from
putting away the luncheon things.
He asked me if I would not sit down, and he offered me one of the
camp-stools at the door of the marquee, and I did sit down for a moment,
while he flitted about the interior doing various little things. At last
I said, "How is this, Robert? I thought you had been assigned to a place
in the communal refectory. You're not here on the old terms?"
He came out and stood respectfully holding a dusting-cloth in his hand.
"Thank you, not exactly, ma'am. But the fact is, ma'am, that the communal
monitors have allowed me to come back here a few hours in the afternoon,
on what I may call terms of my own."
"I don't understand. But won't you sit down, Robert?"
"Thank you, if it is the same to you, ma'am, I would rather stand while
I'm here. In the refectory, of course, it's different."
"But about your own terms?"
"Thanks. You see, ma'am, I've thought all along it was a bit awkward for
them here, they not being so much used to looking after things, and I
asked leave to come and help now and then. Of course, they said that
I could not be allowed to serve for hire in Altruria; and one thing led
to another, and I said it would really be a favor to me, and I didn't
expect money for my work, for I did not suppose I should ever be where I
could use it again, but if they would let me come here and do it for--"
Robert stopped and blushed and looked down, and I took the word, "For
"Well, ma'am, that's what they called it."
Dolly, it made the tears come into my eyes, and I said very solemnly,
"Robert, do you know, I believe you are the sweetest soul even in this
and flowing with milk and honey?"
"Oh, you mustn't say that, ma'am. There's Mr. Thrall and his lordship and
her ladyship. I'm sure they would do the like for me if I needed their
help. And there are the Altrurians, you know."
"But they are used to it, Robert, and--Robert! Be frank with me! What do
you think of Altruria?"
"Quite frank, ma'am, as if you were not connected with it, as you are?"
"Well, ma'am, if you are sure you wouldn't mind it, or consider it out of
the way for me, I should say it was--rum."
"_Rum_? Don't you think it is beautiful here, to see people living for
each other instead of living _on_ each other, and the whole nation like
one family, and the country a paradise?"
"Well, that's just it, ma'am, if you won't mind my saying so. That's what
I mean by rum."
"Won't you explain?"
"It doesn't seem _real_. Every night when I go to sleep, and think that
there isn't a thief or a policeman on the whole continent, and only a few
harmless homicides, as you call them, that wouldn't hurt a fly, and not a
person hungry or cold, and no poor and no rich, and no servants and no
masters, and no soldiers, and no--disreputable characters, it seems as if
I was going to wake up in the morning and find myself on the _Saraband_
and it all a dream here."
"Yes, Robert," I had to own, "that was the way with me, too, for a long
while. And even now I have dreams about America and the way matters are
there, and I wake myself weeping for fear Altruria _isn't_ true. Robert!
You must be honest with me! When you are awake, and it's broad day, and
you see how happy every one is here, either working or playing, and the
whole land without an ugly place in it, and the lovely villages and the
magnificent towns, and everything, does it still seem--rum?"
"It's like that, ma'am, at times. I don't say at all times."
"And you don't believe that the rest of the world--England and
America--will ever be rum, too?"
"I don't see how they can. You see the poor are against it as well as the
rich. Everybody wants to have something of his own, and the trouble seems
to come from that. I don't suppose it was brought about in a day,
Altruria wasn't, ma'am?"
"No, it was whole centuries coming."
"That was what I understood from that Mr. Chrysostom--Cyril, he wants me
to call him, but I can't quite make up my mouth to it--who speaks
English, and says he has been in England. He was telling me about it, one
day when we were drying the dishes at the refectory together. He says
they used to have wars and trusts and trades-unions here in the old days,
just as we do now in civilized countries."
"And you don't consider Altruria civilized?"
"Well, not in just that sense of the word, ma'am. You wouldn't call
"Well, not in just that sense of the word. Robert,"
"You see, it's rum here, because, though everything seems to go so right,
it's against human nature."
"The Altrurians say it isn't."
"I hope I don't differ from you, ma'am, but what would people--the best
people--at home say? They would say it wasn't reasonable; they would say
it wasn't even possible. That's what makes me think it's a dream--that
it's rum. Begging your pardon, ma'am."
"Oh, I quite understand, Robert. Then you don't believe a camel can ever
go through the eye of a needle?"
"I don't quite see how, ma'am."
"But you are proof of as great a miracle, Robert."
"Beg your pardon, ma'am?"
"Some day I will explain. But is there nothing that can make you believe
Altruria is true here, and that it can be true anywhere?"
"I have been thinking a good deal about that, ma'am. One doesn't quite
like to go about in a dream, or think one is dreaming, and I have got to
saying to myself that if some ship was to come here from England or
America, or even from Germany, and we could compare our feelings with the
feelings of people who were fresh to it, we might somehow get to believe
that it was real."
"Yes," I had to own. "We need fresh proofs from time to time. There was a
ship that sailed from here something over a year ago, and the captain
promised his crew to let them bring her back, but at times I am afraid
that was part of the dream, too, and that we're all something I am
"Just so, ma'am," Robert said, and I came away downhearted enough, though
he called after me, "Mrs. Thrall will be very sorry, ma'am."
Back in the Maritime Capital, and oh, Dolly, Dolly, Dolly! They have
sighted the _Little Sally_ from the terrace! How happy I am! There will
be letters from you, and I shall hear all that has happened in America,
and I shall never again doubt that Altruria is real! I don't know how I
shall get these letters of mine back to you, but somehow it can be
managed. Perhaps the _Saraband's_ crew will like to take the _Little
Sally_ home again; perhaps when Mr. Thrall knows the ship is here he will
want to buy it and go back to his money in America and the misery of it!
Do you believe he will? Should I like to remind my husband of his promise
to take me home on a visit? Oh, my heart misgives me! I wonder if the
captain of the _Little Sally_ has brought his wife and children with him,
and is going to settle among us, or whether he has just let his men have
the vessel, and they have come to Altruria without him? I dare not ask
anything, I dare not think anything!
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