The Real Issue  by William Allen White.


itHERE is a place in the Great American Desert where green grass grows. At the head of an estuary of the great dry sea, where a long arm of white alkali runs up among the foothills of the mountains, stands an inviting tavern. It is upon the hillside. Just below it, the garden hose and the landscape gardener, with water carried in troughs from the mountains, have wrought a miracle of green. Trees, bluegrass, flowers, wax strong and beautiful in the artificial oasis. Children and young men and maidens romp on the verdant mat, spread at the point of the estuary, and upon the hillside a score of languid guests sit in the healing sun and look down upon the picture and out into the endless miles of white sand that stretch billowy and fantastic into the blue of the horizon.

     Most of these idlers on the broad piazza of the tavern are invalids. It is a place of invalids. Here hundreds of wretched bodies are dragged by a tragic love of life. Here scores of souls watch other souls flicker and die out, and still hope on and wait, while the oil of life burns smudgy and low. There are those whom the sunshine and the dry clear air win back to life. But the dead are there. On the broad veranda - a very citadel of life - the dead are embattled, fighting with time. It is a most hideous battle, and all so hushed and sepulchral are its manoeuvres, that Life takes no heed of the empty pageant.

     Armed in such a combat sat Hawkins, the chief clerk, a grim man, dark, pallid, sinister. Of what, out in the world of life, Hawkins had been chief clerk, it does not matter now. He had been a busy man, firm, taciturn, self-contained, repellent. He sat now at his post in the battle, sneering at the folly of those about him who were trying to wrest a few mortal moments from eternity. It did not occur to him that he was one of the soldiers in the fight, yet by them he was classed among the hopeless.

      For a long time, as days go, Hawkins had been sitting in this sentry box when his captain - the doctor - ordered him into the infantry, and told him to march for dear life. Hawkins left the guards upon the terrace with loathing. He had a gnawing contempt for their silly belief, that they were warding off the enemy; that they were conquering death; and as the grim man set out upon his daily walk down the hill and around the beach of the great, shimmering, dead sea of sand and dust, he speculated diabolically on which of the enthusiasts would be in the hospital when he should return. During the first week of his marching orders, he made exactly the same journey every day. He noticed everything along his path. He was interested in nothing. In his mind the objects he saw were catalogued, but never referred to by his memory. There was a huge bluff, a railroad bridge, a quarry, a barbed wire fence enclosing a grave, a mud house, a herder, some sheep, a steep hill, a water trough, a cross road, and a pine grove on the hill over which he came back to his starting point. None of these objects was dignified by a prominence in his mind. One day, attracted by the most unimportant detail in the landscape, Hawkins started to walk a few rods from his path that he might examine more closely the grave, fenced in with barbed wire to keep the ghoulish desert beasts away. A second thought made the digression from the path the line of an ellipse, and he followed his course without veering.

     There were days when Hawkins spoke to none of the hotel guests, and the lack of interest in the place weighed heavily upon him. As he sat for hours after his walks, gazing between the hills that penned out the desert, the spot where the grave dotted the surface of the plain kept drawing his eyes to it in an annoying manner. He tried turning his back to the spot, but in his fancy the dot appeared on the picture of the scene, and he grew black with anger. Then he went to his room and forgot about it until the next day on his walk, or after it.

     As he took his lonely walk at the end of that fortnight, the grave began to irritate him. It aroused a certain curiosity within him, which was very distasteful. It was his pride that nothing outside of himself and his personal environment interested him. The mound in some way pushed through his armour of selfishness and he was pricked with what seemed a senseless desire to see it close at hand. He fought the whim, but a dozen times he was compelled to turn back in his path, so strongly did he seem drawn to the spot. There was nothing else to occupy his mind and one night, after his return from a walk, raging at his folly, the grave began to haunt his wakeful nightfancies. The next afternoon he walked over to the enclosure, thinking that he would be no longer disturbed by the thing if he examined it closely.

     Hawkins saw only an adult's grave with a cactus upon it. At the head was a board. At the foot was a broad wooden peg. The barbed wire was torn away at one end - perhaps by some stray animal wandering in the night. Hawkins did not approach nearer than a rod from the fence and he turned quickly as though he had overcome his weakness when he had gathered these details in his mind.

     The next day he came closer, and the day following, after a night in which he was kept awake, frenzied because of a gnawing ache to pick the cactus root out of the dead man's side, Hawkins came to the fence and leaned upon the post, looking back toward the hotel to see if the group on the veranda could see him. He did not touch the cactus, and not until he had straightened up to go did he so much as glance at the mound. He read the name on the headboard - and hurried away with fear dogging his steps. He looked behind by sheer force of will. It was the one name in the world that Hawkins loved to hate. With it came the recollection of the woman whom the grim man was proud that he had forgotten. At the road around the hill he checked his nervous gait and walked slowly back to the hotel. But all the way up the hillside the headboard kept rising before him with the word "Zain" over the word "Thweke.''

     Hawkins sat in his chair on the veranda when he had returned, and looked over the white plain, glistening in the sun. The blot on the white floor in the distance seemed magnified in his eyes. He fancied he could distinguish the headboard from the fence. Then he began to fight with the spell. He reasoned that it was an accident, and it came over him with a chill that he had been drawn to the place by an irresistible force. At this conclusion he smiled sardonically and lighted a cigar. He believed he had conquered the hallucination by giving it full rein. Then he began to hate his old enemy. Hawkins had not known that he man was dead until that day. He mused pleasurably upon the cactus. The doctor, seeing Hawkins in the sunset air with a cigar, swore at him, and the grim man went indoors. He was proud to be alive. His pride amounted almost to a thrill. Hawkins went to sleep early that night. When the lights in the hotel were extinguished, he wakened from a dream about figures and business and felt that there was something important on his mind. Then he remembered the discovery on the headboard. He trailed over his treasure with the harrow of his hate. There seemed to him to be a certain compensation in it, a kind of gruesome poetic justice. He wondered if there could be such a thing as that. If not, he asked himself, why had he been drawn to that lonely mound of sand and desert weeds? What, except outside himself, he reasoned, had torn him away from his habits and put that headboard before his eyes? The headboard seemed to be pictured in the shadows on the wall. What had brought him to it, he wondered? And then he dared not face an uncanny question that was all but forming itself in his mind. He tried to shake it off. He mentally smiled at himself for being afraid of the supernatural. He tried to think of something else; he began counting, finally it came. A sentence formed in his mind, "Was it the dead man's spirit?"

     When he aroused himself his mouth was dry, and he was wet with perspiration. Hawkins' normal mind then took control of his fancy and his hate for the conquered foe burned fiercely. The woman kept coming into his malignant speculations. He wondered if she had taken the man's name. He was curious to know if she had come with his enemy into the desert where he died. Hawkins pictured them together on the terrace. Then his sick fancy painted them in the very room where he was lying. For a moment he was in mental hell. A footfall startled him. He sprang to the floor to ring the bell and to ascertain if his imaginings had any foundation in fact. When the boy came Hawkins asked for icewater, and upon getting it sipped it, as he stood looking out at the quiet stars and the moon and listening to the sheep-bells and to the dogs barking out on the floor of the desert beyond the grave. This soothed him and he slept.

     The day following that night, and for many days thereafter, Hawkins stood gazing at the ugly sand heap in its barbed wire prison, exulting in his heart at the dead man's desolation. The moments he spent thus were almost happy ones for the grim man. His fancy made morbid pictures, and the figures of the man and woman danced before his eyes in a thousand horrid daydreams. Once he kicked the headboard and sneered at himself for so doing. Then Hawkins saw how like a cur he was. After that there were three in his circle of hate.

     One day, loathing himself, he began to wonder what had ever induced the woman to promise to love and to honor him. He recalled cowardly words he had spoken to her. Revelations of his own cruelty and meanness were made to him, and ghostly memories that he had strangled years before came hitting back. He remembered a white face looking up to him and a thick voice begging him to be good to her; and then with a shuddering blush he recalled the jealous taunt with which he had jeered a reply. He saved his most blighting maledictions for himself. A cancer of remorse began rotting his heart.

     He was oppressed with a sense of having done a terrible wrong. The face of the woman whom he had forgotten rose and floated on his stagnant fancies. Dialogues, that he had crowded into what seemed to him oblivion, came trooping back and whispered themselves into his ear. In each of these pictures and voices he saw his own selfishness. Hawkins began to know himself as he was known. A love that he had cursed and trampled out with his physical heel in a fit of rage, began to glow and warm his being. A faint blaze of sentiment fluttered in his heart, and one night, looking from his bed at the moon, Hawkins wondered where in the world it shone on her who was once his wife. Then he got up and pulled down the window curtain.

     A miracle was wrought on the day that a shriveled tear trembled in his eye. He went to the grave and stood a longer time than usual after that. He left the place with a sigh and walked slowly with his eyes upon the ground. He walked slowly, partly from choice, partly because his former gait sapped his strength. On the veranda they were counting the weeks left him.

     He now went to the mound every day for company. To those whom he met in the routine of his physical life, Hawkins preserved his cold exterior. His habit of austerity was not broken. Yet strange things were working within his breast. He had lived his life alone and no one outside himself could know of the softening of his heart. The visits to the grave grew necessary to his happiness. For the first time in his life, Hawkins felt as desolate as he really was. He visited the grave as a man of ordinary temperament would call upon a comrade. When his strength permitted a trip every other day, only, he sat in his room looking out between the hills at the plain and at the fascinating dot upon the white stretch of sand and alkali.

     It was at these times that Hawkins began to try to recall the possible good qualities of his dead enemy. Hawkins remembered how he had condemned the man out of hand when his name was first brought up, because Thweke wrote a copy-book hand. Hawkins remembered also that he had sneered at the man on account of a certain curl of the moustache, and that the fellow had incurred a husbandly hate by knowing how to play the piano. Remembering these prejudices, Hawkins tried to make some entries on the other side of the account.

     As the Shadow flitted nearer and nearer to the grim man, now confined to his barren room more closely than before, he began to lose the horror he once had felt at what he fancied might be the presence of the dead. One day he found himself curiously listening for some token from the dead man in the grave. His mood was not one of horror, but of longing. He reasoned that his strange finding of this grave, the inexplicable power that drew him against his will and against his nature to the lonely spot, and the influence which it had wrought upon his life, indicated the presence of some outside power. He built up a theory of hypnotism from disembodied spirits, and sat watching for a signal to verify through his material senses the existence of the supernatural force with which his spirit seemed to have been communing. In this frame of mind, he forgot the wasting of the flesh. He sat by his window, overlooking the desert, and mused by the hour upon life and the coming of the end. His whole being was softened by the approaching dissolution of his body.

     He longed for some sign that would tell him that he had fellowship - real and palpable - with the spirit of the man in the deserted grave. But the sign did not come. He traced false signs to their natural causes, and was sad. The habit of a lifetime as a scoffer strangled credulity, even though it was the child of hope. So Hawkins sat in the silence, listening and waiting for the greater silence.

     There came a time when he rallied - when he left the window for the veranda. Then it was that a great yearning came to his heart to go and lie prone upon the grave and to be as simple as a child in grief. He could not explain this yearning; he did not try to analyze it. He felt some way that it was a thing the woman would have done and the desire became a master passion. It seemed cold to him on the porch, but out on the desert the sun shone gaily and seductively. Day after day, he walked the length of the veranda. He seemed to be gaining strength. There was a day when he walked the entire distance around the hotel twice without sitting or resting. It was a day of triumph. That night he planned his journey to the fence and the mound between the foothills.

     His mental strain brought a slight relapse in his malady. He did not notice it the next morning. He kept his plans to himself. That afternoon he slipped away. Slowly, slowly, he crept down the terraces. He sat down often by the wayside. A notion that he was making a pilgrimage that she - Hawkins only thought of the woman as "she," now - would have him made warmed something in his grim heart, not unlike a tenderness. He was very weak, and his emotions were loose. He took every tortured step as a penance and his throat tightened with a boyish joy as he thought he was doing something the woman would approve. Once he fainted when he sat down by a stone. When he returned to consciousness he hurried on in a dazed, fumbling sort of way. He felt then that it would be his last visit to the grave, but he was not sad. He was only glad that he had come in Her name. Pride was purged from his flesh. His heart was that of a little child. He uttered foolish little prayers that were bargains with God for strength to reach his goal. When he reached it, he crawled into the wire enclosure, weak and panting. There they found Hawkins at the close of day, grim, repellent of feature, apart from his kind, alone in his very death. Men said it was a fitting end for him.

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