The Real Issue  by William Allen White.


theHE old man Beasly went over the whole matter to the big wheel that day, and the big wheel murmured a low, monotonous affirmative to everything he said. She had been a good daughter to him, he said, and the wheel assented; she had been more thoughtful of him, since she came back from the stranded theatrical company, than ever before, and the wheel mumbled its belief that this was true; she had stayed at home every night since she came back, and the wheel whirred sympathetically; she had added many bright touches to the little shanty on Jersey Creek, and the wheel rolled back no denial; why then should they say these things, he asked. "Why?" snarled the wheel, -- what if she had enjoyed the things young girls enjoy, pretty clothes, buggy rides, and the attentions of young men; do not other girls have these things? "They do," growled the wheel, as it struggled with the belt; then is she worse than other girls because she had no mother, he concluded, and "No, no, no," moaned the wheel in a constant torrent of wrath against the world -- the old man's little world that was organized against his daughter -- so that he was in a frenzy at it, and cursed it and its figure heads, who had told him, not in hints, but bluntly, that his daughter could not stay in the Jersey Creek neighborhood. The wheel ground the anger into his soul as he stood at his bench beside it; at lunch time he kept apart from the men in the shops and barely tasted his food. The thought of what Mrs. Hinkley had said to him as he passed her house that morning going to his work, inflamed him, and it seemed a wonder to him that he could stand there so dumbly and listen, without rage, and without uttering one resentful syllable, until she had closed her door behind her. How he longed to fly at her, and what a fury of words burned on his tongue as the hours dragged on, and he mumbled incoherent, passionate phrases to the wheel.

     As soon as the children were on the streets and the men well out of the houses, the women of the Jersey Creek neighborhood knew what Mrs. Hinkley had done. She told how Mr. Beasly, shame-faced and speechless, had listened to her protest against letting the girl remain in the honest neighborhood, and the women, mistaking his dumb surprise for a confession of guilt, let their indignation carry them to a point where it was decided that Mrs. Hinkley should go to the Beasly house and tell the daughter what had been said to her father.

     So, early in the afternoon, Mrs. Hinkley started on her errand. When the task was done, Mrs. Hinkley went straight to a neighbor's house, where two or three women were gathered to hear her report.

     "Well, I done it," she said, as she sank into a rocking chair. "I didn't waste no words, but just up and told her how we all knowed about her carryin's on, and how she'd got to go where she belonged, and how her pap knowed it, and how he just as good as said he'd see she went. Oh, I guess she won't flounce 'round here in her fine rags much more. Say! Why, bless you, what could she say! She didn't say nothin'; didn't even whimper, the brazen thing, at my tellin' her how her old pap hung his head and sneaked off when I faced him with her wickedness. And as they was nothin' else to say and she didn't want to argie, I got up and left."

     The wheel may have told the old man something of this, for it groaned and wailed and howled in agony that afternoon, until the workman's nerves were frayed and tattered by its lashings. At three o'clock he could stand it no longer, and he let the foreman put a substitute at his bench. During the half hour which he spent hurrying homeward, a thousand horrible fancies filled his brain. What if his motherless girl had been wayward, he thought, and then hated himself for thinking so. He saw, in the fever heat of his excitement, all the unnoticed carelessness of his course toward her; it flashed across his mind that he had allowed her to choose her own companions, and then he thought with horror of the big city beyond Jersey Creek. But a warm flush of tenderness came over him at the recollection of her gentleness; the hundred little caresses which she threw to him in passing, while at her work, erased his self-condemnation and thrilled him with happiness. The grim workingman was thinking as does a drunken man, reasoning with the syllogism of a delirium. A train thundered by as he passed Mrs. Hinkley's house. He met her at her door. She said something he did not hear for the crashing train. An instinctive fear that she had been taunting his daughter quickened his pace to a trot.

     The house was quiet, the dark blue cambric curtains were down. The thought of his poor girl suffering from the woman's cruel taunts frenzied him. As he ran around the house there was no thought of anything save his daughter's innocence in his mind. All her goodness rose before him as he darted in the back door. He did not connect the presence of a pungent smoke in the kitchen with anything at all, but pressed on to the front room.

     It was a minute -- sixty throbbing ages -- before he realized it all. Then he recalled the face of the taunting woman in the street. He instinctively knew what she had said, and in the very tension of his nerves, his iron frame was rigid and his pulse seemed calm. He did not break, and his eyes, which in cool hate saw only the taunting face, were not soothed by tears. He knew, with a wisdom wiser than his own simple deduction, that the taunting lips would call his daughter's death confession. Then he saw that she had done it to save him from the very disgrace she was bringing upon herself. He was conscious for the first time of the pungent odor of the smoke. He picked up the pistol which still smelled strongly of the burned powder. There was one load gone, and the tempter came as he looked at the loaded cylinders. Then, in a burst of lurid, unhealthy light that came, as he saw that his death would only attest his child's disgrace, he formed a plan for denying her confession to the world and to the taunting face. The jolting processes of his brain were being moved by a power that came from the jarring, broken logic of a dream.

     In another hour this power had welded into fact, the grotesque resolution of his dream. The record on the captain's blotter at the station read:

"John Beasly, aged 60. Held for the murder of Alice Beasly, his daughter. Confessed to the captain in charge."

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