The Real Issue  by William Allen White.


a  GENERATION ago, a wagon covered with white canvas turned to the right on the California road and took a northerly course toward a prairie stream that nestled just under a long, low bluff. When the white pilgrim, jolting over the rough, unbroken ground through the tall "blue stem" grass, reached a broad bend in the stream, it stopped. A man and a woman emerged from under the canvas, and stood for a moment facing the wild, green meadow and the distant hills. The man was young, lithe, and graceful, but despite his boyish figure the woman felt his unconscious strength as he put his arm about her waist. She was aglow with health; her fine, strong, intelligent eyes burned with hope, and her firm jaw was good to behold. They stood gazing at the virgin field a moment in silence. There were tears in the woman's eyes as she looked up after the kiss and said:

     "And this is the end of our wedding journey; and - and - the honeymoon - the only one we can ever have in all the world - is over.''

     The horses, moving uneasily in their sweaty harness, cut short the man's reply. When he returned, his wife was getting the cooking utensils from under the wagon, and life - stern, troublous - had begun for them.

     It was thus that young Colonel William Hucks brought his wife to Kansas. They were young, strong, hearty people and they conquered the wilderness. A home sprang up in the elbow of the stream. In the fall, long rows of corn shocks trailed what had been the meadow. In the summer the field stood horse-high with corn. From the bluff, as the years flew by, the spectator might see the checkerboard of the farm, clean cut, well kept, smiling in the sun. Little children frolicked in the king row, and hurried to school down the green lines of the lanes where the hedges grow. Once, a slow procession, headed by a spring wagon with a little black box in it, might have been seen filing between the rows of the half-grown poplar trees and out across the brown, stubble-covered prairie to the desolate hill and the graveyard. Now, neighbors from miles around may be heard coming in rattling wagons across vale and plain, laden with tin presents, after which the little home is seen ablaze with lights while the fiddle vies with the mirth of the rollicking party dancing with the wanton echoes on the bluff across the stream.

     There were years when the light in the kitchen burned far into the night, when two heads bent over the table, figuring to make ends meet. In these years the girlish figure became bent and the light faded in the woman's eyes, while the lithe figure of the man was gnarled by the rigors of the struggle. There were days - not years, thank God - when lips forgot their tenderness; and, as fate tugged fiercely at the curbed bit, there were times when souls rebelled and cried out in bitterness and despair at the roughness of the path.

     In this wise went Colonel William Hucks and his wife, through youth into maturity, and in this wise they faced towards the sunset.

     He was tall, with a stoop; grizzled, brawny, perhaps uncouth in mien. She was stout, unshapely, rugged; yet her face was kind and motherly. There was a boyish twinkle left in her husband's eyes and a quaint, quizzing, one-sided smile often stumbled across his care-furrowed countenance. As the years passed, Mrs. Hucks noticed that her husband's foot fell heavily when he walked by her side, and the pang she felt when she first observed his plodding step was too deep for tears. It was in these days that the minds of the Huckses unconsciously reverted to old times. It became their wont, in these latter days, to sit in the silent house whence the children had gone out to try issue with the world, and, of evenings, to talk of the old faces and of the old places in the home of their youth. Theirs had been a pinched and busy life. They had never returned to visit their old Ohio home. The Colonel's father and mother were gone. His wife's relatives were not there. Yet each felt the longing to go back. For years they had talked of the charms of the home of their childhood. Their children had been brought up to believe that the place was little less than heaven. The Kansas grass seemed short, and barren of beauty to them beside the picture of the luxury of Ohio's fields. For them, the Kansas streams did not ripple and dimple so merrily in the sun as the Ohio brooks that romped through dewy pastures in their memories. The bleak Kansas plain, in winter and in fall, seemed to the Colonel and his wife to be ugly and gaunt when they remembered the brow of the hill under which their first kiss was shaded from the moon while the world grew dim under a sleigh that bounded over the turnpike. The old people did not give voice to their musings. But in the woman's heart there gnawed a yearning for the beauty of the old scenes. It was almost a physical hunger.

     After their last child, a girl, had married and had gone down the lane toward the lights of the village, Mrs. Hucks began to watch with a greedy eye the dollars mount toward a substantial bank account. She hoped that she and her husband might afford a holiday.

     Last year, Providence blessed the Huckses with plenty. It was the woman who revived the friendship of youth in her husband's cousin, who lives in the old township in Ohio. It was Mrs. Hucks who secured from that cousin an invitation to spend a few weeks in the Ohio homestead. It was Mrs. Hucks, again, who made her husband happy by putting him into a tailor's suit - the first he had bought since his wedding - for the great occasion. Colonel Hucks needed no persuasion to take the trip. Indeed, it was his wife's economy which had kept him from being a spendthrift, and from borrowing money with which to go on a dozen different occasions.

     The day which Colonel and Mrs. William Hucks set apart for starting upon their journey was one of those perfect Kansas days in early October. The rain had washed the summer's dust from the air, clearing it, and stenciling the lights and shades very sharply. The woods along the little stream which flowed through the farm had not been greener at any time during the season. The second crop of grass on the hillside almost sheened in vividness. The yellow of the stubble in the grain fields was all but a glittering golden. The sky was a deep, glorious blue, and the big, downy clouds which lumbered lazily here and there in the depths of it, appeared near and palpable.

     As Mrs. Hucks "did up" the breakfast dishes for the last time before leaving for the town to take the cars, she began to feel that the old house would be lonesome without her. The silence that was about to come seemed to her to be seeping in, and it made her feel creepy. In her fancy, she petted the furniture as she "set it to rights,'' saying mentally, that it would be a long time before the house would have her care again. To Mrs. Hucks every bit of furniture brought up its separate recollection, and there was a hatchet-scarred chair in the kitchen which had come with her in the wagon from Ohio. Mrs. Hucks felt that she could not leave that chair. All the while she was singing softly as she went about her simple tasks. Her husband was puttering around the barnyard, with the dog under his feet. He was repeating for the twentieth time, the instructions to a neighbor about the care of the stock, when it occured to him to go into the house and dress. After this was accomplished, the old couple paused outside the front door while Colonel Hucks fumbled with the key. "Think of it, Father," said Mrs. Hucks as she turned to descend from the porch. "Thirty years ago - and you and I have been fighting so hard out here - since you let me out of your arms to look after the horses. Think of what has come - and - and - gone, Father, and here we are alone, after it all."

     "Now, Mother, I -" but the woman broke in again with,

     "Do you mind how I looked that day? O, William, you were so fine and so handsome then! What's become of my boy - my young - sweet - strong - glorious boy?"

     Mrs. Hucks's eyes were wet, and her voice broke at the end of the sentence.

     "Mother," said the Colonel, as he went around the corner of the house, "just wait a minute till I see if this kitchen door is fastened."

     When he came back, he screwed up the corner of his mouth into a droll, one-sided smile and said, with a twinkle in his eyes, to the woman emerging from her handkerchief:

     "Mother, for a woman of your age, I should say you had a mighty close call to being kissed just then. That kitchen door was all that saved you."

     "Now, Pa, do n't be silly, " was all that Mrs. Hucks had the courage to attempt as she climbed into the buggy.

     Colonel Hucks and his wife went down the road, each loath to go and leave the homeplace without their care. Their ragged, uneven flow of talk was filled with more anxiety about the place which they were leaving, than it was with the joys anticipated at their journey's end. The glories of Ohio and the wonderful green of its hills and the cool of its meadows, veined with purling brooks, was a picture that seemed to fade in the mental vision of this old pair when they turned the corner that hid their Kansas home from view. Mrs. Hucks kept reverting in her mind to her recollection of the bedroom, which she had left in disorder. The parlor and the kitchen formed a mental picture in the housewife's fancy which did not leave place for speculations about the glories into which she was about to come. In the cars, Colonel Hucks found himself leaning across the aisle, bragging mildly about Kansas for the benefit of a traveling man from Cincinnati. When the Colonel and his wife spread their supper on their knees in the Kansas City Union Depot, the recollection that it was the little buff Cochin pullet which they were eating made Mrs. Hucks very homesick. The Colonel, on being reminded of this, was meditative also.

     They arrived at their destination in the night. Mrs. Hucks and the women of the homestead refreshed old acquaintance in the bedroom and in the kitchen, while the Colonel and the men sat stiffly in the parlor and called the roll of the dead and absent. In the morning, while he was waiting for his breakfast, Colonel Hucks went for a prowl down in the cow lot. It seemed to him that the creek which ran through the lot was dry and ugly. He found a stone upon which, as a boy, he had stood and fished. He remembered it as a huge boulder and he had told his children wonderful tales about its great size. It seemed to him that it had worn away one half in thirty years. The moss on the river bank was faded and old, and the beauty for which he had looked was marred by a thousand irregularities which he did not recall in the picture of the place that he had carried in his memory since he left it.

     Colonel Hucks trudged up the bank from the stream with his hands clasped behind him, whistling "O, Lord, Remember me," and trying to reconcile the things he had seen with those he had expected to find. At breakfast he said nothing of his puzzle, but as Mrs. Hucks and the Colonel sat in the parlor alone, during the morning while their cousins were arranging to take the Kansas people over the neighborhood in the buggy, Mrs. Hucks said:

     "Father, I've been lookin' out the window and I see they've had such a dreadful drouth here. See that grass there, it's as short and dry - and the ground looks burneder and crackeder than it does in Kansas.''

     "Uhm, yes," replied the Colonel. "I had noticed that myself. Yet crops seem a pretty fair yield this year."

     As the buggy in which the two families were riding rumbled over the bridge, the Colonel, who was sitting in the front seat, turned to the woman in the back seat and said:

     "Lookie there Mother, they've got a new mill - smaller'n the old mill, too.''

     To which his cousin responded, "Bill Hucks, what's got into you, anyway? That's the same old mill where me and you used to steal pigeons."

     The Colonel looked close and drawled out, "Well, I be doggoned! What makes it look so small? Ain't it smaller, Mother?" he asked, as they crossed the millrace, that seemed to the Colonel to be a diminutive affair compared with the roaring millrace in which as a boy he had caught minnows.

     The party rode on thus for half an hour, chatting leisurely, when Mrs. Hucks, who had been keenly watching the scenery for five minutes, pinched her husband and cried enthusiastically as the buggy was descending a little knell: "Here 't is, Father! This is the place!"

     "What place?" asked the Colonel, who was head over heels in the tariff.

     "Do n't you know, William?'' replied his wife with a tremble in her voice, which the woman beside her noticed.

     Every one in the buggy was listening . The Colonel looked about him; then, turning to the woman beside his wife on the back seat, he said:

     "This is the place where I mighty nigh got tipped over trying to drive two horses to a sleigh with the lines between my knees. Mother and me have remembered it, someway, ever since." And the old man stroked his grizzled beard and tried to smile on the wrong side of his face, that the women might see his joke. They exchanged meaning glances when the Colonel turned away, and Mrs. Hucks was proudly happy. Even the dullness of the color on the grass, which she had remembered as a luscious green, did not sadden her for half an hour. When the two Kansas people were alone that night, the Colonel asked:

     ''Do n't it seem kind of dwarfed here - to what you expected it would be? Seems to me like it's all shriveled and worn out and old. Everything's got dust on it. The grass by the roads is dusty. The trees that used to seem so tall and black with shade are just nothing like what they used to be. The hills I've thought of as young mountains do n't seem to be so big as our bluff back - back home.''

     Kansas was "home" to them now. For thirty years the struggling couple on the prairie had kept the phrase "back home" sacred to Ohio. Each felt a thrill at the household blasphemy and both were glad that the Colonel had said "back home,'' and that it meant Kansas.

     "Are you sorry you come, Father?" said Mrs. Hucks, as the Colonel was about to fall into a doze.

     ''I do n't know, are you?'' he asked.

     "Well, yes, I guess I am. I have n't no heart for this, the way it is, and I've some way lost the picture I had fixed in my mind of the way it was. I do n't care for this and yet it seems like I do, too. Oh, I wish I had n't come to find everything so washed out - like it is!"

     And so they looked at pictures of youth through the eyes of age. How the colors were faded! What a tragic difference there is between the light which springs from the dawn, and the glow which falls from the sunset.

     After that first day Colonel Hucks did not restrain his bragging about Kansas. And Mrs. Hucks gave rein to her pride when she heard him. Before that day she had reserved a secret contempt for a Kansas boaster and had ever wished that he might see what Ohio could do in the particular line which he was praising. But now Mrs. Hucks caught herself saying to her hostess, "What small ears of corn you raise here!"

     The day after this concession Mrs. Hucks began to grow homesick. At first, she worried about the stock; the Colonel's chief care was about the dog. The fifth day's visit was their last. As they were driving to the town to take the train for Kansas, Mrs. Hucks overheard her husband discoursing something after this fashion:

     "I tell you, Jim, before I'd slave my life out on an 'eighty' the way you're doin', I'd go out takin' in whitewashin'. It's just like this - a man in Kansas has lower taxes, better schools, and more advantages in every way than you've got here. And as for grasshoppers! Why, Jim West, sech talk makes me tired! My boy Bill's been always born and raised in Kansas and now he's in the legislature, and in all his life, since he can remember, he never seen a hopper. Would n't know one from a sacred ibex if he met it in the road.''

     While the women were sitting in the buggy at the depot waiting for the train, Mrs. Hucks found herself saying:

     ''And as for fruit - why, we fed apples to the hogs this fall. I sold the cherries, all but what was on one tree near the house, and I put up sixteen quarts from just two sides of that tree, and never stepped my foot off the ground to pick 'em.''

     When they were comfortably seated on the homeward-bound train, Mrs. Hucks said to her husband:

     "How do you suppose they live here in this country, anyway, Father? Do n't any one here seem to own any of the land joinin' them, and they'd no more think of puttin' in water tanks and windmills around their farms than they'd think of flyin'. I just wish Mary could come out and see my new kitchen sink with the hot and cold water in it. Why, she almost fainted when I told her how to fix a dreen for her dishwater and things.'' Then after a sigh she added, "But they are so onprogressive here, now-a-days."

     That was the music which the Colonel loved and he took up the strain and carried the tune for a few miles. Then it became a duet, and the two old souls were very happy.

     They were overjoyed at being bound for Kansas. They hungered for kindred spirits. At Peoria, in the early morning, they awakened from their chair-car naps to hear a strident female voice saying:

     "Well, sir, when the rain did finally come, Mr. Morris he just did n't think there was a thing left worth cutting on the place, but lo, and behold, we got over forty bushel to the acre off of that field, as it was."

     The Colonel was thoroughly awake in an instant, and he nudged his wife, as the voice went on:

     "Mr. Morris he was so afraid the wheat was winter killed; all the papers said it was; and then come the late frost, which every one said had ruined it - but law me - .''

     Mrs. Hucks could stand it no longer. With her husband's cane she reached the owner of the voice, and said:

     "Excuse me, ma'am, but what part of Kansas are you from?''

     It seemed like a meeting with a dear relative. The rest of the journey to Kansas City was a hallelujah chorus wherein the Colonel sang a powerful and telling bass. When he crossed the Kansas state line, Colonel Hucks began, indeed, to glory in his state. He pointed out the schoolhouses that rose in every village, and he asked his fellow passenger to note that the schoolhouse is the most important piece of architecture in every group of buildings. He told the history of every rod of ground along the Kaw to Topeka. He dilated eloquently, and at length, upon the coal mines in Osage county, and he pointed with pride to the varied resources of his state. Every prospect was pleasing to Colonel Hucks as he rode home that beautiful October day, and his wife was more radiantly happy than she had been for many years.

     As the train pulled into the little town of Willow Creek that afternoon the Colonel craned his neck at the car window to catch the first glimpse of the big, red standpipe, and of the big stone schoolhouse on the hill. When the whistle blew for the station, the Colonel said:

     "What is it that fool Riley feiler says about 'Grigsby's Station, where we used to be so happy and so pore'?"

     As the Colonel and his wife passed out of the town into the quiet country, where the shadows were growing long and black and where the gentle blue haze was hanging over the distant hills that undulated the horizon, a silence fell upon the two hearts. Each mind sped back over a lifetime to the evening when they had turned out of the main road in which they were traveling. A dog barking in the meadow behind the hedge from them did not startle their reveries; restless cattle wandering down the hillside toward the bars made a natural complement to the picture which they loved.

     "It is almost sunset, Father," said the wife as she put her hand upon her husband's arm.

     Her touch and the voice in which she had spoken tightened some cord at his throat. The Colonel could only repeat, as he avoided her gaze:

     "Yes, almost sunset, Mother, almost sunset.''

     "It's has been a long day, William, but you have been good to me. Has it been a happy day for you, Father?"

     The Colonel turned his head away. He was afraid to trust himself to speech. He clucked to the horses and drove down the lane. As they came into the yard, the Colonel put an arm about his wife and pressed his cheek against her face. Then he said drolly:

     "Now lookie at that dog - come tearin' up here like he never saw white folks before!"

     And so Colonel William Hucks brought his wife back to Kansas. Here their youth is woven into the very soil they love; here every tree around their home has its sacred history; here every sky above them recalls some day of trial and of hope.

     Here in the gleaming tonight stands an old man, bent and grizzled. His eyes are dimmed with tears, which he would not acknowledge for the world, and he is dreaming strange dreams while he listens to a little, cracked voice in the kitchen, half humming and half singing:

     "Home again, home again, From a foreign shore."

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