The Real Issue  by William Allen White.


inN the morning the house, which faced eastward, presented a square expanse of white stone shining in the sun through a bower of old elms. It sat somewhat further back in the lot than most houses on the street, and at night the shadows of the elm branches almost hid it.

     When the night was windy - and it is often windy in this zone - the great square house came in and out of the shadows, as the branches bent to disclose it, and then to hide it, like a ghostly thing.

     The house was a generation old, and in the corners and upon certain sides, ivy had grown. The ivy made it seem less austere; yet its straight lines at the eaves, its unbroken sides, its high porches unrelieved by fret-work or gewgaws, despite the softening ivy, gave it something of a sepulchral look. The wayfarer thought, as he passed it, of great cheerless rooms, with high ceilings and damp walls.

     On a night when the autumn leaves rode the gusty wind, a man and a woman alighted from a public carriage in front of the house, and proceeded to its doorway where the man unlocked the door and the two entered. It was not yet midnight. They were evidently expected, for the servants had lighted the fire in the grates, and an electric bulb glowed in the hallway.

     Just inside the door the man and woman, finding there was no servant in sight or hearing, embraced rapturously, and walked, entwined in each other's arms, through a double door to a sparkling fire.

     Their voices were low and sweet. They had been married a month; it was their home coming. The bluster of the wind outside made the fire feel grateful. They sat almost silently in sheer joy before it, for a few moments. The woman rose to go to another room. The man detained her. He said:

     "Sweetheart, wait a minute, won't you?''

     She came to his side with a word of endearment and a caress that had even then become almost a habit.

     "You won't mind, will you darling, if I talk just a little bit about Ruth - right now - will you?''

     A look answered; he went on. "You know she was a very good woman" - he was going to say "little woman," but checked it. The wife only pressed her husband's arm. She was a woman of twenty-eight, and very sane.

     "She always wanted me to - to do this, to marry again," the man stammered.

     "I suppose so," said his wife.

     "Yes" - the man continued - "and darling, one day just before the last - she made me promise one thing. It was all she ever asked, and I - I - you would n't have me break it, would you?"

     His wife pressed his arm reassuringly, and he went over to a desk and there in a drawer found a large manilla envelope addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. James Gordon." The writing was a woman's. He crossed the room to his wife with the envelope.

     She watched him curiously. He was visibly embarrassed. The woman advanced and said:

     "What is it, James, don't be afraid of me. My poor boy, I honor you so much for this.''

     She had not seen the envelope. When she saw it, she looked surprised.

     "Yes," said the man - noting her look. "It's her writing - Ruth's - I promised I'd open it the night I brought any one - you know - home. She was a sick child, Margaret, andů'' He feared to go further in deprecation. He knew he should despise himself if he did, and he feared his wife would despise him.

     He tore open the envelope and two smaller white ones, each addressed - one to James Gordon, and the other to Mrs. James Gordon, fell out on the table.

     "I think," said the husband, "she desired us to read them. Can you for me - Margaret?" he asked?

     The woman snapped on an electric current, and taking her letter from its sheath, read, while her husband did the same. They were sitting by the fire as they read. The man's epistle was the shorter. It was this:

     "My Dear, Dear Boy: - I wanted so to be resurrected for a minute or two, - real and alive to you, and I thought it all over so many times at the last, Jim, and I said, I want to be with Jim when he is like he was when I know he was the happiest. I didn't want to come back for the last time to a sad, tearful Jim, but to just my Jim as he was when I loved him best. It will make me happier to see you as you are tonight, Jim. Oh! it makes me so happy to see you happy, my boy. I must not stay any longer; it will make you feel bad, and I won't be a selfish thing. Now that I've seen you, my own Jim, and had this little talk with you, I do n't mind it at all. Oh! goodbye Jim, goodbye, goodbye! Oh! I - I - no I must not say that - just goodbye. RUTH.'' The other letter ran thus:

     "My Dear Mrs. Gordon: You won't be jealous of a poor dead woman, will you? Nor grudge her just a minute out of your joy. I 'm so glad you married Jim, and you know I wanted to see you right now at your happiest. Is n't life good? I won't ever come back anymore, and you won't blame me for being a little childish tonight. I 'll tell you what, I did n't feel it right to tell Jim - that I love him. There, I've said it - and he was my God. You must not tell him this nor anything, but you 'll like Jim better, and me too, for saying it. It feels good to wash my soul of all dross and give Jim to you - all of him. But, O, my dear, my dear, be good to him. He has a gentle heart, has my - your boy. God bless him and you. I was going to sign Mrs. Ruth Gordon, but I can't, can I? Is n't it strange? You 'll be good to Jim now, wo n't you? Yours,"

                "RUTH MASON."

     The woman walked to the grate and burned her letter without saying a word. The man, who was standing near her, let his paper slip and fall into the flames. Each sat down, and the gust of wind clicked a latch somewhere in the great house. This startled them. Each saw that there was a vacant chair between them. Something clutched sharply at each heart a moment, then the woman crept swiftly to the man with a sob, and life - warm and sweet with love, took up its rushing course again.

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