The Real Issue  by William Allen White.


itT was in the reception room of a club house in an inland city, where the two young men had met by chance that evening. There was a stuffy profusion of leather furniture in the room that gave it a heavy cast. A long dark table was covered with papers fastened in automatic wooden holders. The presence of the table indicated that the club was economizing space by combining reception room and reading room. The firm grip of the wooden paper-holder gave rise to the suspicion that some one might sell his honor for a nickel and walk off with the papers. In the club-room, men were talking in knots of two or three, apparently on business, and when an outsider entered a group, conversation was distinctly and painfully suspended, or lagged in cold formalities until he had drifted away. The men there were clearly business men, and were there by business appointment, and the element of sociability was manifest only in the click of the billiard balls that echoed in from some invisible rear room, where the younger men, too tired to go to the theatre, or to the evening gathering with their wives or sweethearts, were walking uncounted miles after the ivory balls. The crowd in the room was dressed better than the crowd in the grocery store of a smaller town in the early evening. But in the club-room, adorned by etchings of the "Angelus" and "The Neapolitan Girl" and "The Horse Fair," the men gathered were inspired by much the same instincts which called the humbler group together, and the city men were discussing affairs that differed in degree, not in kind, from the problems which keep conversation adrift in humbler communities, -- the railroad, the bridge, the market, and the coming election.

     It was a brisk autumn evening, and the clock on the mantel was striking eight when two young men pulled their fat chairs to the window, where they could see the theatre goers hurrying by under the arc light, and where they might not be interrupted. Their backs were turned toward the center of the room, and they settled down among the springs with exclamations of comfortable satisfaction.

     "Well, old man, what d' you think of the East," asked the shorter of the two, a very stubby little man with a red face, red lips and a bristling, close-cropped mustache. His companion was a tall man with skinny features, square shoulders, a head poised too far back at times, but capable of bending, and he had a habit of picking at his moustache.

     "Oh, damn the East," said the tall young man. "Jim, I 'll tell you what 's a God 's truth, they are the worst lot of jays back there, -- absolutely the worst, that grow on earth. They do n't know any more about this country, and what 's in it, than a satrap of Persia. When I told them about our scheme, showed them the map of all this land that is to be foreclosed, and how the whole thing can be watered by a central ditch, and all -- you remember how it is out there -- one old rooster who has n't been out of his own barn-yard in all his life, he up and said, 'Yes, all very good, very good, indeed, but supposing there is an Indian outbreak -- then where 's all our money for your improvements gone?' Say, Jim, I just fell right over dead. I met old man Wilson there, -- say, hold on here, what's this I hear? Is that right? Say, when 's it going to be? There goes Martin and his kids, taking them to Ali Baba; see what you 're coming to. So you finally got your nerve with you: did you? Go-o-od!"

     With this outburst the bubbles of the promoter's enthusiasm subsided. His companion reddened slightly at the raillery and put one side of his under lip over his stubby moustache in an embarrassed silence that ended in a smirk.

     "Well, Harris," he responded addressing the taller friend, "you've guessed it the first time, I suppose. But we must all settle down sooner or later, and anyway a man do n't find that kind of a girl every day in the year," He paused a moment and Harris broke in --

     "Oh, yes, if it comes to that I suppose he must, I ain't a-kicking any, am I? Now, Jimmy, that's a good boy, come and tell ownest own all about -- " He was interrupted in his mock coddling by one of the drifters -- who had been knocked from half a dozen groups, and had floated around in front of the formidable chairs. He was a portly old man, who had been a country banker in his day, and had come up and put new life into a wobbling institution after a local panic. He cut in with, "Well, what are you kids gassing about? Hello, there, Harris, did you make your irrigation scheme go?"

     Harris looked up with annoyance written unmistakably on his face as he said, hardly civilly, "Yep," and lapsed into silence. "Have any trouble getting at old Sage with my letter?" persisted the elder man.

     "Nope," responded the younger. "Found him the only white man in New York. He knew that there have n't been any grasshoppers in Kansas for twenty-five years. Only man in town that did, though."

     There was a pause, in which Jim addressed a remark to Harris about the big crowd that was going to the theatre. A cable train had just unloaded at the corner. The Kansas man took the remark as general and replied: "Say, ain't they though; been that way, too, every night this week."

     "Lookie quick!" exclaimed Harris to his companion. "No -- this side -- there goes Cameron; who 's that with her? Got a new 'mash'?"

     "Why, you do n't mean to say that you have n't heard," replied Jim, as he shifted his position in his chair. "She's going to get married, too. All the old birds going home to nest."

     "Why, do you boys know Mrs. Cameron?"asked the banker with some surprise. "I did n't know she was in your set,"

     "Ho! Ho! and so you know the widow, too? L. No. 384 of the Cameron series, eh, Jimmy?" said Harris.

     The woman, holding to a rather slender young fellow, perhaps thirty-five years old, dark and serious, who was watchfully bending over her, to catch her chatter, passed the club window, and disappeared in the cover of darkness that surrounded the are light, She was a woman who, even on close inspection, showed little age, though instinct would have told a man -- where a dozen other things would have told a woman -- that she was thirty-three or thirty-four years old. As she scurried under the light, she seemed to cling to the man's figure, and tripped, rather than walked, along. One would have said that die was very happy as she passed, or that she could simulate happiness excellently.

     "Me? Oh yes, I knew Mrs. Cameron when she was a little girl," said the elder man. "She came from my town -- down in Baxter. Say, how is she making it here? I have n't seen her for going on two years now -- two years next December, I think," mused the banker. The two young fellows looked quizzically at the old man, and then at each other. Then Harris shook his head and the short, fat, little man nodded back. They were satisfied that the old man was telling the truth.

     "Well," began Jimmy, "she was n't cut out for a vagabond, and she has n't been making it very well, I guess."

     "What 's the matter?" said the old man, who did not grasp the young fellow's meaning.

     "Well, Mr. Martin, if you care to know, it's nothing more unusual than wolves," replied Harris, as he swung his feet over the arm of the chair; "just plain, old-fashioned wolves. But I'm mighty glad she is going to break for shelter. I'm mighty glad -- for her," Harris added in broken sentences. "Who 's the fellow, Jimmy?" he asked a moment later. By that time the slow processes of the elder man's mind had caught the idea that the woman under discussion was to be married, and he broke in without giving the young man a chance to answer , well, so Mrs. Cameron is going to get married again! Her of all women!"

     "Byers," put in Jimmy in answer to Harris's question, as Martin rubbed his chin, and pulled up a chair to sit down and get the idea firmly fixed in his mind.

     "Going to get married!" continued the old banker, thinking aloud. "Well, if that do n't beat all! Why, boys, I've knowed her since she was a little slip of a girl -- could n't a been more'n ten years old -- when they moved to Baxter. I see her graduate at the high school -- handed her the diplomy, as president of the board, myself. And she's going to get married again. Well, that gets me. I went to her wedding with old Cameron. She was the oldest of seven children, four of 'em girls, and Mrs. Griggs was mighty glad to get Mattie off her hands, though she wasn't more'n eighteen when she was married; but every one thought she done so well, getting old Cameron, and his fine house that he'd built her -- and all. But I 'd 'a' thought she 'd 'a' got enough of marrying when she got done with old Cameron. If ever a woman lived ten years in hell, that woman did. And such a nice, little woman, too. Seemed like she tried ever so hard to make it pleasant; done all her own work, flaxed around and fixed up the house, putting little odds and ends here and there, keeping up with the Chautauquy, and having the young folks around her, and being just the world and all to them babies of her'n. Used to hear her singing at her work summer mornings before I got up. (We lived next door neighbors.) She used to know all the sick old ladies in town, and take 'em jell and preserves and elderberry wine, and go around and tell everybody to run in and see 'em, before anyone else in town had any idee they was sick.She was that way, clean to the last, and hardly anybody knowed they was anything wrong, until she filed her suit. And we did n't know it, ourselves, living right there, until two years before, when old Cameron come home and chased her out of the house, one cold winter night, and she had to come over to our house or freeze. Many and many's the time she 's stayed out all night of summers when he'd come home full and ugly, rather than let the neighbors know. Well, I must tell mother she 's a-going to get married again."

     The old man sat thinking silently, and the two younger men evidently did not care to speak. Each was wondering if the other had not heard that story before, and each was thinking hard things of the other, if he had. Harris remembered the picture of a petite figure in a red silk wrapper, sitting before the fire in a hat, popping corn, and looking around to say in a soft voice, while the fire-light made her face radiant: "Tom, I used to wear this wrapper, hundreds of years ago, when I popped corn for my own little girls." Something tightened in his throat then, and there were tears in his eyes when he had replied that evening.

     So when the story came up again, he only beat his stick on his shoe-tip and said nothing. It was Martin who broke the silence. He resumed where he had run out of words.

     "Old man Cameron, he war n't so mean with men, that way. Take him in the bank, and though he was in the opposition concern, I can say that I never heard a man say an unkind thing of him, and that 's a good deal for a banker. My wife says Mrs. Cameron told her that there was times when he would be awful sorry, and promise to do better, and be as rational as you or me. But he got them jealous spells and was a regular devil, she said. Used to beat her, I guess, though she never said so. One time, -- so she told my wife -- after one of his tantrums -- that was pretty near the end -- he had went down to Cincinnati, and while he was gone, she made up her mind to leave him. When he came home, he wanted to be sugar and spice, and he seemed so penitent. She had n't been more than civil to him, for a year before, and the bad streak he took made her see things could n't go on that way. Well, sir, when he was down to Cincinnati he turned in and bought her a seal-skin sacque, and a new set of solid silver knives and forks and spoons, and any amount of little trinkets to wear. It was the first time he had ever done anything of the kind, and when she was getting supper for him, she told my wife, he set the table with the new things, and put the trinkets at her place, and the sacque in her chair, and then called her to see it. She come in and shook her head, and turned to the kitchen-door without a word. And she told my wife if she'd 'a' tried to said a word, she would 'a' burst out crying.

     "It was hard for her, but she did what was for the best, I guess. 'T would n't 'a' been six months before old man Cameron would 'a' been up to his old tricks again. She knew that then, just as well as I know it now. But he was so big and strong, and I suppose he was tender, too, when he felt like it. But that was a mighty brave thing to do, and I should n't wonder if she cried that night for the first time in years -- he'd hardened her that way, you know, for so long before."

     There was no one with a voice to speak, when the old man paused, so he sighed and continued, "And now she's going to get married, eh? Who 's the fellow?"

     Morrison was the first to speak: "A man named Byers, of Denver," he said. "Did you know her after she came down here, Mr. Martin?"

     "Only a little; she was trying to learn to be a trained nurse or something; used to see her at the theatre, with young fellows from the club. She come back to Baxter, now and then. Wife saw her there, and said she appeared to be cheerful. All the old ladies were tickled to death to see her. Made up a tea-party for her, about six months ago, when my wife and she happened to be back together at the same time, and my wife said they, every one of them old people -- made over her like she was their own child, and she did seem to be so happy and all -- to be back with 'em. And so you fellows say she tried to be a vagabond down here -- poor little woman! And her just yearning for a home and some one to do for, all the time! What about the wolves, Harris? Tell me," said the elder man as he lighted a cigar and looked grimly at the charred match before throwing it away.

     "There isn't much to tell, I guess. If every man would only tell what he knows, himself, there would be blame little. But as every man tells what he thinks a lot of other fellows know -- it 's the old story, and a good deal too long. The chief trouble with wolves, you know, is their noise."

     "It occurs to me, Harris," said young owing look sideways, "that you are getting mighty highminded all of a sudden. I say it 's a shame about young Byers, of Denver. He seems to be a pretty decent fellow."

     "Has a little money, hasn't he?" chipped in Harris.

     "Sheep-buyer for a packing house, I believe. We had some dealing with him," said the banker, as he puffed, and put his hands back of his head as a pillow for a moment.

     "Something like that," said Jimmy. "Anyway, he looks like an honest fellow.

     Somebody ought to tell him about Cameron. It 's tough to see him going into this thing -- like an ox to the slaughter." The speaker evidently thought he had said something funny, for he laughed a dry, mean, little laugh. It may have irritated Harris, for he turned on the younger man quickly and said:

     "Oh, you do, do you? Well, Jimmy Morrison, maybe you would like to have the same man, who tells what he has heard of this woman, tell the same thing to the future Mrs. Morrison, a few weeks before the cards are out." He, too, laughed derisively, and as he sat looking at his smirking companion, who was clearly proud rather than ashamed at the thrust, Martin arose, evidently aroused from a reverie. It was in a soft, deep voice, a trifle husky -- such as old men not used to scenes use on occasions -- that he replied:

      "Do you boys know you are talking of a human being? This business that is so funny to you, it is all of that woman's life! It 's your farce, maybe; but, great God, it 's her -- her -- her tragedy!"

     After an abashed silence Martin walked slowly away from the two friends. Each one thought, for an instant, of a face that he remembered, lighted up by the warm glow of the grate fire. Each knew the story as the old man had told it. Each thought of the way he had heard it. It was fully a minute after the old man walked away with his hands behind him, when Harris spoke:

     "Funny thing, this life, ain't it?" he said.

     "Yes, damned funny -- the more you know of it," said Morrison as he arose. "Is n't it getting about 'that time?' Whose turn is it to buy the old Falernian?"

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