The Real Issue  by William Allen White.


thereHERE was Riggs's bill for hay; that was $7. There was Morse's bill for pasture, due the day before, that was $3.75, and there was the old bill against Judge Blair for butter and milk, $6.70, and nothing had been paid on it for two months. It really seemed to Captain Meyers, picking his way along the rough stone walk upon the side streets and often walking in the path beside it, that there would be no difficulty at all in collecting the $5, that he and his wife had decided to spend upon their daughter Mattie's birthday present. The Captain made up his mind, as he trudged along, to collect all the money, and to buy the present that afternoon and have it over with. And to that end, he hurried past Riggs's livery barn, and on toward the postoffice, acting on the theory that if he went to the barn so soon after dinner, he would not find Riggs there. It was just mail time, when the Captain arrived at the postoffice. He waited there patiently, while the mail was distributed, and looked at the trinkets in the jeweler's case in the front part of the lobby. He fancied a certain gold and onyx pin, which he had looked at in the morning; and which he had then decided to buy for his daughter's birthday present, with the money he was about to collect. He knew that his wife wanted the family present to be a new dress; there had been some discussion on the subject before he left the house that noon, after the child had gone to school, but the Captain's heart was set on the pin. And as he stood peering into the glass case, his faith in it became firmly fixed. He might have bought the pin then and there, but he feared he would be refused credit, and the prospect of a humiliating refusal frequently kept the Captain out of debt. As he was feasting his eyes upon the pin, his neighbor, John Morse, who owed the Captain for pasture rent, elbowed along beside him.

      "Hullo, John," said the Captain, looking up suddenly and recollecting that he was going to collect his bill during the afternoon, and a little fluttered at the prospect. "They make a lot of durn fool purties - them jewelers - do n't they? Keep a feller pore just to look at 'em purt' nigh, do n't you think!''

      "I dunno, Cap," replied the other man, who was a trifle ill at ease in the presence of his creditor, and wished to ward off a dunning. "I dunno; I s'pose its as easy to get pore lookin' at the fixin's, as it is a-layin' 'round doin' nothin', as a feller's got to do, these days. And when you do get a little job of work it seems like you can't never get the money on it."

      Here Captain Meyers's heart sank; he was being outgeneraled, and he knew it. Morse went on: "I done a little job over here for Major Hanley the other day, and went down this mornin' to collect it - thought mebbe might get a little somethin' and square up with you and a few odd bills around - but, by Johnny, if the Major did n't stand me off till the first month."

      The crowd was moving, and the Captain knew that the delivery window of the postoffice was open. He did n't want to seem a hard man with his neighbors, so he said, as they walked toward the center of the crowd: "Oh, well, John, me and you understand each other; you need n't to go and worry about that little business of mine; I ain't in no rush.''

      The Captain's ''Veteran's Defender'' was in his box, and when he had put it in his pocket, he drifted in the current of the crowd, and found himself being carried up the broad smooth stone sidewalks of the business street to the row of straggling, one-story frame offices, carpenter shops, and millinery stores that marked the dividing line between the residence and business portions of the town. As he came to the crossing, a buggy bumping over the stones stopped the group of which he was a member.

      "Who's that with Riggs in the buggy?" asked the Captain.

      "Oh, him? Why that's a drummer; I heard him say he was going to drive over to Fairview to catch the main-line South, to-night," said an elderly member of the party, who responded when any one spoke to the "colonel." It would be wrong to say that Captain Meyers's heart sank at hearing this, for he thought with a feeling of relief that tomorrow would be the best time to collect Riggs's bill, anyway. The group sauntered into one of the little offices, as was the custom of its members, and the Captain told himself that he would wait until Judge Blair had finished his mail before disturbing him.

      The Colonel, and "Dec", and "J. L.", and the Captain, that was the coterie. They had become cronies during the years that followed the "boom" and left them idle. The colonel had been county surveyor, "Dec" lad been coroner years ago, before the young doctors crowded him out of his practice, and "J. L. " was the real estate dealer, who owned the office. Captain Meyers had been county clerk two terms, deputy one term, then city clerk, and finally, constable; he was sometimes made deputy sheriff when there was extra work. But he was at the end of his political rope. By close living his wife had saved the farm near town, which was their homestead, before they moved to the county seat. She had saved a little money, which was at interest, and the family lived off 'the farm and small sums coming from chickens and butter and eggs. The Captain's only child was the girl - Mattie - thirteen years old, and on her he lavished the affection of a heart still mellow. As he sat in the office "gassing" with the crowd, he thought of the pin and how beautiful it was, and how the child would enjoy it, and he almost lost the thread of the conversation.

      "Do n't you, Cap?" said the Colonel.

      "Do n't I what? ' said the Captain, waking from his reverie, ''I do, if you say I do, but what is it?"

      "Well," explained the first speaker, "I was just sayin' that there was just as smart folks down here on the 'Crick' as they is up there in the city, if they only had the swing that the other fellows had. And I said that's what you said, do n't you, Cap'n?''

      "That 's just what I've contended all the time; do n't take no smarter man to run a railroad than to run a street car line; and do n't take no more brains to run a street car 'n it does to run a stage line, and no more to run a stage 'n it does to run a dray, and a man that can't run a dray ain't worth his salt.''

      "That's right," broke in the real estate man. ''I've seen it worked time and again. Now take that Rushmer feller; warn't so overly much down here; I done him up, myself, in a little deal in College Hill lots. Now look at him; up there in the city, got a carriage and nigger driver, and every one thinks he's old persimmons. It's all owin' to the length of the leever you 're a workin' with. If you're workin' with cents, you make cents; if the handle of your leever is a little longer and you're workin' with dollars, you make dollars; if it's hundreds, you make hundreds; and if it 's thousands you get your picture in the paper as a 'Napoleon of finance.'"

      "I guess that's mighty near the truth," said the Doctor in the sententious pause that followed.

      The Captain was just starting for Judge Flair's to collect the butter and milk bill, when he saw the Judge come out of his office and go down street. He settled back in his seat by the window, to wait until the Judge returned. The talk droned along. From "Napoleons of finance" it turned to trusts, and from trusts to the great fortunes made in the insurance business. And it must have been nearly four o'clock when the Captain held the reins of the rambling discourse, and was guiding it by mere impulse as follows:

      "Yes, sir; a undertaker's insurance company. A sort of undertaker's trust. F'r instance, say our man Nichols here belonged; s'pose I 'd pay him say $5 a year, and would agree to keep it up for the rest of my life, if he would give me a certain specified burial. All right; say I move away from here. Very well; I have my receipt - my policy - from old man Nichols - and I go to the town where I move to, and take it to the member of the insurance company, or trust, or what you may call it, that lives there, and pay him while I live there; then if I move on I keep transferrin' my policy, and at last I'm buried in style, and my family ain't out a red. The trust has got the money, and if I only pay the last man a $5 bill, the trust pays him for givin' me a good burial. They have the use of my money; I do n't feel it; all right - and in the end it ain't hard for my family to raise the money, when they do n't know where to turn to get it. Rates can be just like insurance rates, high or low, accordin' to the age a man is and the style he wants to go out with.''

      "Then your idee," put in the real estate man, "is to take dyin' out of the luxuries of the rich and put it in the reach of all."

      The crowd laughed.

      Captain Meyers laughed with the rest, but his eyes glowed, and he was filled with the scheme that had evolved from his talk. It seemed so plain and feasible to him - this plan of forming an undertaker's trust to insure men decent burial. He saw that if he could get a place at the head of such an enterprise, and push it to a reality, he would be rich. He was afraid lest some of his companions should see the value of the idea, and he let the talk roll over him, saying nothing further of what was in his mind.

      Judge Blair, passing along the street toward his office, aroused the Captain from his castle building. As he crossed the street to Judge Blair's office, he concluded to take the Judge into his plans. He would need a partner, and a lawyer and a man of the world, he thought. Judge Blair was three in one and one in three - the very trinity he wanted. The Judge was the county politician; he knew all the statesmen in the state; he knew the bankers and the lawyers and the editors in the big city. In fact, when any one spoke of Willow Creek beyond its corporate limits, he always spoke of it as Judge Blair's town. Judge Blair was always in debt, yet his credit remained good, because he paid in smiles and patronage and railroad passes what he could not pay in cash; so the town took what he had to offer, and discounted it by pitying him for what it called "his extravagant family." He was Captain Meyers's idol; he sometimes paid the Captain money - an unusual distinction -and he always got the Captain railroad passes to the state G. A. R. reunions. The Captain was fairly bubbling with enthusiasm, when he reached Judge Blair's private office. The Judge thought Captain Meyers had come to ask for money, as in fact he had; he really intended to get it before he left, but he poured out his plans first, almost in a breath. "What do you think of it, Judge?" he asked, after the first pause, when the Judge had just finished telling him that it looked feasible. "Do n't you think it will go? Everybody's got to die, and everyone wants a nice funeral. What do they join lodges for, if they do n't? We get the use of the man's money; we get the profits on funeral expenses before they are incurred. We could issue ten, twenty, and twenty-five year policies, and with a certificate on him a man could move anywhere, and be sure of a good funeral. Say, Judge, won't you take holt of this? It's a big thing, Judge, a mighty big thing. What say, Judge, is it a go?" They talked until the gloaming fell, and walked home in the sunset glow, stopping for half an hour at the parting of their ways to go over again the elaborated scheme.

      Captain Meyers, who always came in through the back door of his house, brought a load of wood in his arms, this evening, as a flag of truce. He wanted to make peace with his wife before she asked about the afternoon's collections. Mattie was "laying" the supper table as he entered the kitchen door, and his wife was busy over the stove. He spoke as he laid down the wood. "Ma, I 've had a good talk with Judge Blair this afternoon; him and me stopped down there at Nichols's corner a few minutes and that's what made me late.''

      There was something in his voice which the woman recognized to distrust. She saw he was maneuvering; it angered her; she knew he had not collected the bills she had given him; she knew very well he was trying to talk her out of scolding him. She was a large woman, fat and lusty. He was much older, and thinner, and less vigorous than she. She was cruel to him that night, as she often was, and his great scheme only unfolded itself as an apology for his idleness, after she had rebuked him; it did not come as he would have had it come, as a justification for forgetting everything else. His daughter did not understand it at all, but when he had finished, and stood leaning on the threshold of the dining-room door, hesitating, she beckoned him into the room where she was clattering the knives and forks. She gave him a good girlish hug and a kiss, and pointed to a plate of corn bread near his plate. He knew that she had made it for him. Her mother did not eat it, and never cooked it, though it. was his favorite dish.

      "Now, Mattie, what 'd you go and cook that for," he said, "and get yourself all played out for the party! I could 'a' ate light bread just as well.''

      But he patted her cheek as he said it, and sat on the lounge and watched her lovingly, as she went about her task. And he lay awake far into the night furnishing an air castle with ivory and gold, wherein his daughter was to be the queen.

      The next day was Mattie's birthday; Judge Blair had gone out of town..The Captain felt that it would do no good to see his neighbor Morse, after the rebuff of the previous day. He was afraid to delay a minute in seeing Riggs, and yet he feared to see him, for on him, alone, lay all his hopes; he knew that he must have that $7 hay bill, or forego the onyx pin, and his heart was set on that. He walked past Riggs's livery barn to the postoffice, the first thing in the morning, and looked at the pin in the jeweler's case, in walking by.

      He faltered, as he eyed it, coming from the postoffice wicket; the jeweler saw him; there was no one in the lobby that morning. "Can we show you anything this morning, Cap'n!" asked the clerk, turning from his work bench with a rubber-cased microscope stuck over his eye.

      "Nothin' partic'lar - well, I do n't know, but what you can let me look at that onyx pin you was showin' me here the other day."

      He carried the image of the pin in his mind to Riggs's stable; it made him bold to clear his throat before saying, "Well, Jim Riggs, how 'd you and that drummer make it yesterday, goin' over to Fairview!"'

      "M-hm-n, I dunno; all right,I guess," replied the liveryman, who knew what was coming.

      "Well - say Jim - would it be pushing you too much to ask you for a little something on the hay account?" It was out, and the Captain knew he had said it poorly. To mend it, he added, "I'm needin' it, right now for a little matter."

      Of course, he did n't get it, and when he met Mattie on the street, coming home from school, he sent word to her mother that he was busy and would not be home to dinner. He forgot all about the undertaker's trust that day as he walked listlessly from one leafing place to another and back again, trying to get away from the dread of going home empty-handed at nightfall. He lounged into the postoffice with the crowd at mail time in the afternoon, and gazed longingly at the coveted jewel. But he could not bring himself to ask for credit, especially since he had said in the morning that he was coming around to get the pin when he got some money, and the jeweler had not taken the hint. He felt of the half dollar in his pocket, and looked at everything which he thought could be had for that sum, but nothing suited his purpose.

      It was nearly sundown, when a peddler of whittled trinkets stumbled into the real estate office where the cronies were leafing. The peddler was an oldish man, and claimed to be blind. The fact that he had whittled the intricate fancies, although he was blind, lent value to them in the eyes of his customers. There was a large, circular piece of pine, fretted with holes and with serrated edges; it was made from one block of wood. "What's that wheel business for!" asked "J. L." of the vender.

      "Oh, that! That's just a kind of a purty; a card case some uses 'em fer."

      "What 's it worth?" asked a curious bystander.

      "I get a dollar and a half for them," responded the peddler, holding it up to show it to advantage. The Captain was rolling his fifty-cent piece idly in his pocket, when the answer came. Suddenly desperation seized him at the thought of going home on his child's birthday without a present, and as the peddler was moving out of the door, Captain Meyer said:

      "I 'll give you fifty cents for that whirl-a-ma-gig, thing-a-ma-bob card case, or what-ever you call it."

      It was the last one the peddler had, and he took the Captain's money.

      The child met her father at the gate, and took his arm as they walked down the path. The thought of the gold and onyx pin made the wooden trifle he carried in the hand farthest from her seem very cheap to him.

      "It is n't much, Mattie,'' he said as they reached the front steps, "but I thought maybe you 'd understand it was all your ma and me could do. It 'll look purty on the organ, or on the center table. The man said it was a card case." The old man's voice faltered as he went on: "Maybe at your next birthday your pa will have more to do with."

      He was thinking of the undertaker's trust. The child was her father's child, and she hugged him and thanked him over and over again for the toy. It made him happy, and he was radiant in her reflected smiles. They had gone around the house to the kitchen door when the girl said: "And oh, Pa, did you see the gold and onyx pin Ma brought me from the store this afternoon?"

      Captain Meyers kissed his wife for the first time in years. It was all over so quickly that she did not think to scold, but mingled her tears with his, and her laughter with that of the child.

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