The Real Issue  by William Allen White.


Folks like to pamper the prodigal son  
-- Maybe no more than they'd orter --
But no one as yet has been able to get  
Any veal for his prodigal daughter.       

From the Rhymed Reflections of Elder Twiggs

a  FEW years ago the Beasly girl worked in the overall factory. She was a pretty girl then, and naturally the neighbors talked about her, for the people who lived along Jersey Creek are really no better than they who live on Independence Avenue, in spite of the theories that poverty and charity go together. So when she left the factory the women of the Jersey Creek neighborhood hinted that the foreman had been too polite to her. But if she had remained at the factory they would have given the same reason for her staying. After that, she went to the theatre with young men who turned up their coat collars and wore their hands in their pockets in the fall and spring, in lieu of overcoats. During the summer following her discharge from the overall factory she became a park fiend.

     When she gave up her counter in the cheap dry-goods store, she remained at home, apparently keeping house for her father. He worked in "the shops" somewhere over in "the bottoms," and came home tired and grimy at night, and went to bed early. He slept in the room off the kitchen, and his daughter slept in the front room. He did not know when she came in at night, and he did not think of caring to know. Her father paid no attention to the little brother and sister who teased the daughter at table about the young men who frequented the house. If the other members of the family had been plaguing the ten-year old girl who led in the raillery, the father would have been equally heedless of their chatter. The eldest daughter made him very happy by simple tendernesses, though, of course, he did not understand that his warmth for her and the longing which he felt all day to get home for supper, was happiness.

     But, unconsciously, his daughter grew very necessary to him. He was not of the world that analyzes its emotions, yet he could not fail to see her beauty, nor to be proud of her for it; and when she was dressed to go out -- and she went out early and often -- his pride blinded him to the gaudiness of her clothes, her frowsy hair, and the shocking make-up on her pretty face. Probably his discernment was not keen enough to see these faults, even had he not been so fond of her. But other fathers who had daughters saw these things, and mothers of the neighborhood who had sons did not mention the Beasly girl in the family circle. It was only after Miss Beasly had joined a Comedy Company, organized to play the "White Slave" and "Only a Farmer's Daughter" through the West, that her name was mentioned at all freely by Jersey Creek's aristocracy, and then it was as if she were dead. And Mrs. Hinkley, who took care of the children and looked after the lonely man, often said to inquiring women of the neighborhood, "It would break your heart to see Mr. Beasly a-grievin' an' a-grievin' for that hussy; an' whiniver he gets a letter from her he reads it at the supper table before them children wid that flourish you'd think -- tch, tch, tch, I do wonder if he knows." And after some discussion she would sigh, "Well, it's not for me to tell him."

     What a wonderful thing is absence. It is like the dark in its power to transform people and situations and the relations of things. Though she had grown up under his eyes, the old man and his daughter had scarcely spoken a serious word to each other. The father had never inquired what his daughter was or was not. She was only "her" in his thoughts. They were strangers, but when he began to forget her presence, he found himself continually thinking of things he would like to say to her. "Her" disappeared, and dreams altogether different from his former conception of her, took her place. He longed for her, and yearned to tell her the great love in his heart. Among the noisy wheels, he mumbled to himself, speeches that he wanted to make to her, and in the scrawled letter he sent her occasionally, he wrote some of these tender things.

     One day she wrote that she was coming home for a vacation, and his heart was very glad. He read and re-read the letter, and droned it off at the supper table to Mrs. Hinkley and the children. As he read it, neither the hearers nor the reader realized how much feeling the writer had put into the matter-of-fact words, "I want to be home with you all again." These words were meant to tell a story of heartache and loneliness and despair, but they were commonplace and fell short. For poor people are as blunt in sensibility as the comfortably rich, and the suggestion to Mrs. Hinkley of the possibility of any human feeling in the Beasly girl's heart would have fallen on barren soil.

     When the day for the girl's coming arrived, Mrs. Hinkley was gone from the Beasly home, but the old man had "laid off" a day from his work. He was joyful in the hope that he might say some of the tender things he had written, and then keep up the new happiness that had come to him, yet he feared that his daughter would be so far above him that she would not care for it. He put on his best suit of clothes, and sent the children away. The house was in conspicuous "company order;" he arranged things, himself, and a Sunday stiffness and quiet prevailed. He sat in the front room waiting for her. When he heard voices at the fence, he recognized that of his daughter, and his pulse quickened; but when he looked through the curtain and saw a stranger with her, his heart sank.

     Father and daughter met at the door; he held out his hand to her and she passed in, followed by the stranger, while the father said awkwardly, "Well, Allie," -- and after a pause, "how are you?"

     A smile enclosed the commonplace answer, and the old man continued in a high-keyed tone with the upward inflection, looking vacantly at the dapper stranger who had not been introduced, "I s’pose you've been gettin' to be such a grand lady -- " He laughed nervously, and with conscious embarrassment. The daughter seated her guest, and the father, with a feint at cheer, chirped, "Well, you're lookin' hale and hearty."

     "Is there anything in the cupboard, Pa?" asked the girl, as she took off her soiled gloves and threw her long, shabby cloak and her expensive, but betowsled hat upon the bed. "I am just dyin' for a bite; we didn't get any breakfast." The old man went to get something, and when he returned the stranger was gone. She did not taste what he had brought, but turned and threw her arms about his neck; there were tears in her eyes as she said, "Oh, Pa -- Pa -- ain't it good to be back again!"

     The father, summoning all his courage to break away from the common words of welcome began again in a quavering, nervous voice, "Well, Allie -- I guess 'at mebbe you -- you think someway that yer daddy has forgot you, but -- Allie, I tell you, I -- well, do you know, I think a whole lot of you, Allie." It was the best he could do, but he kissed her, and that was something -- it was a great deal for both of them. Then they relaxed, and talked of the children, about whom she asked a great deal, and of the neighbors, about whom she asked nothing.

     The "Comedy Company" had failed, and she was at home to stay. Her absence had made both father and daughter understand how much each was to the other. The little signs of endearment did not vanish as the days wore on. She smoothed his hair when she passed him, and he caught at her dress and touched her simply with his hand as she came near him at her work. So much was his heart wrapped up in her that he did not notice the absence of the neighbors from the house, and when he asked them to come, and laughingly upbraided them for their social carelessness, he accepted their explanations with no thought of their insincerity.

     His pride in her knew no conventionality and no propriety. Once, when the boys in the shop were eating their noonday lunch in the shade of the building, he looked up from a piece of pie to say in a lull of the conversation, "You fellers may talk all you want to about your purty girls, but I bet I've got one at home 'at'll beat all yours put together. Some o' you young fellers orto come out an' see her." And when the fellows winked at one another and set up a ]augh, the old man laughed, too, and said, "That's what I said; and I didn't smile when I said it; she's the purtiest girl you ever saw -- ef her dad does say so."

     He told her that night how they had laughed, and how he had "stuck to his words and made them shut up," but she was bending over the stove in the dark corner, and he could not see the flash in her eyes, and the quick quiver of hate that curled the muscles of her upper lip. The old man and the children prattled on until she composed herself, and joined the family group.

     That night she tossed in her bed and turned her feverish pillow a hundred times. She cursed the world, its people, and its social arrangement. She wanted to make people suffer. Her father's disgrace, and the thought that she could not defend him made her frantic. When it was nearly morning she cried herself to sleep, brooding over her own personal sorrow. She was awakened by her father scraping the ashes from the kitchen stove, and her heart rose to her throat with great love for him. During that entire day the girl held her father in her mind as she went about her household duties. It seemed to her that her life with him was really worth living, and she was glad that since her return, she had sent her old companions away. Yet her hand was raised against the world -- her narrow world that is the epitome of the great narrow world -- because it persecuted her and pointed its finger at the one being she loved. But the very fact that her father was set apart from his fellows because of her, drew him close to her. And the night thoughts followed her all through the day, till she longed for his return. It was a good day in her life.

     She heard his footsteps on the walk in front, and heard him coming around the house to the kitchen door. When he crossed the threshold she kissed him. The old man was a little abashed at the suddenness of it, but he was pleased. He took a chair and sat in the back yard leaning against the house. From there he talked with her through the open door. They had passed the usual questions of the day, when the old man said, "Allie, y' can't guess what Mrs. Hinkley said about you, this evening." The daughter blanched as she stood in the doorway, and said nothing. It was dusk, and the old man did not notice her. “She said, sez she, 'Mr. Beasly, do you know that you are doin' wrong to keep that Allie in the house there?' I says, 'Why so, Mrs. HinkIey!' and she wouldn't say nothin' but ‘Well, y' are, that 's all.' I s'pose Mrs. Hinkley thinks that 'cause you're so purty an' -- an' all that -- you're ashamed to stay down here in Jersey with your old daddy." Strange things were crowding into the girl's mind - a fearful impulse to unburden her soul struggled for mastery in her heart. Then the temptation came with her father's question, "But you ain't ashamed to stay with your poor, honest ol' pap, are y', Allie?"

     There was a short silence. As it lengthened into a distinct pause the man's heart was shot with fear. He felt remorse wrap him about -- remorse and humiliation. He sprang lamely from the leaning chair to his feet and staggered to the door, crying piteously with woe in his voice, "Oh, Allie, Allie -- my -- my little girl, Allie! We'll move, Allie; we'll move."

     He came to her and stood helplessly before her. He could not know why she was dumb. He misunderstood and was turning away in a slow agony of shame, when her love for him swept her as upon a wave into his arms, sobbing.

     She recovered quickly, and hastened to a sputtering pan which she pretended needed her attention. The old man touched her dress in his wonted way, as he passed her going toward the door. He hesitated, and seemed to have another protest upon his lips. The daughter felt that she could not keep her sorrow back if he spoke. The old man did not note the pathetic tremble in her voice as she cried to her little sister, playing at the door: "Jen-nee, Jennie, o-o-h Jennie, you go cut me a switch; I got to tend to your Pa. He's makin' me spoil this supper." She added in a firmer voice. "The very idee of our movin'."

     And the old man, looking back with a smile, went into the twilight full of joy.

Go to Previous Chapter     Go to Next Chapter     Go to Table of Contents