The Real Issue  by William Allen White.


nightIGHT, and the stars, and the summer moon, large and opulent in yellow splendor, drifting on the billows that the soft south wind makes in the tops of the eastern elm trees; night, and the stars, and the quiet of the country, the large somber quiet, dotted here and there by the tinkle of country cow-bells, rumpled with the prattle of distant waters that the wind brings now and then; night, and the stars, and voices that blow from nowhere into dreams and are lost in the blur of intoxicated fancies which come trooping across the mind's well-beaten playground; night, and the stars, and love - the visions that young men see, and the dreams that old men cherish; night, and the stars, and the powerful spell of the half lights, the conjurer's draught working its great mystery upon the heart; here they sit under the night and the stars - comrades. They had been boys in the old days together. Perhaps to many reckoners of time the old days had not seemed far distant - a year, a decade - they are long at the threshold of youth, where small events are shaping eternal destinies. The old days to these two meant the dear days - the very young days, the days of guitar strings, and love songs, and oar-locks.

     These comrades had come back to the little town, one from the East, one from the West, and were sitting on the hill where they had stood of old. They were watching the lights twinkle and fade in the village. The roll of the absent ones had been called, and recalled, and names that each wished left unspoken were consciously breathed in a dozen silences. They were not so old; yet the dead were there. They were not so young that life was new to them. The night was a joy to them because its reminiscences were fresh; its potation exhilarated them with real thrills of hopes unexpressed - that delirium which youth has stolen from the barbaric gods. Faces, places, fancies passed them in bright review, and, filled with the maudlin witchery of the night and its brew, in a silence that fell gently between the two, the younger man lifted his voice in an old song that had been an outlet for their effervescent spirits in the other days. In those days they had roared it out, dwelling on the garish cadences, bearing down on the rude and imperfect sequences of harmony, and welling forth their youthful exuberance in a bubble of song. Now they were glad when the verse ended that they might clear their throats as the song went on, and half of the forgotten stanza came out "dah, dah." The chorus ran:

     "How the old folks would enjoy it! They would sit all night and listen, As we sang in the evening, By the moonlight."

     They crooned rather than sang the ballad; there was no spring, no clink of youth to the voices that sighed the old song. The words even now passed unheeded from their lips. He who took the tenor part could not reach the high notes, so he sang in unison with the other in places. It was not much past midnight, yet each felt his bed drawing him to it. After the song, they sat listening to the ripples of sound that beat upon the shore of the night.

     Suddenly below them, from some recently unhoused evening gathering, came a. song, whose melody throbbed to the chords of a guitar. "Bring back, bring back, bring back my bonnie to me,'' came the old song. The two comrades sat mute. It was such a lusty song; the notes were so full of animal vigor. The holds in the tune were clutched firmly by the virile tenors and voluptuous contraltos.

     "My Bonnie lies over the ocean, My Bonnie lies over the sea, My Bonnie lies over the ocean, Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me!"

     "They sing well, do n't they!" said one of the comrades, while the guitar was hunting for the thread of some fresh melody.

     "Yes; I could sit here all night and hear them sing. It is as in a looking-glass." The voice that replied was drowned in the other's ears by a new burst of song. "Nita, Juanita, ask thy soul if we must part," sang the glad voices - voices caressing and pledging other voices as the glowing harmony rose.

     "Flitting, hitting away, All that we cherish most dear; The violets pass with the May, The roses must die with the year."

     What did they who sang know of the words they sang? The two men on the hill were silent, and the stars gleamed through moist eyes. There was a lull in the singing. Neither man spoke for awhile, then a voice said: "It was good, wasn't it! - like old times.''

     "Yes - old times. I wish they would go on singing. Are you tired!''

     "No; I would never tire of that, would you?" Then from somewhat further down the street came the song:

     "In the evening by the moonlight, You could hear those banjoes ringing; In the evening by the moonlight You could hear those voices singing. How the old folks would enjoy it! They would sit all night and listen As we sang in the evening By the moonlight."

     That was the last song. The comrades sat for a few moments longer with lumpy throats, and then, arm in arm, walked down the hill. At the parting of their ways, the song each had been humming in his mind tried to find their lips: "How the old folks - " It broke then in a nervous laugh, and a flash of interrogatory silence. Then -

     "Yes, Jim - you see it, too."

     And he who was addressed replied: "I knew you would understand."

     "I suppose, Jim, we are old folks. It is our part now is to 'sit all night and listen.'"

      "To listen and dream, Joe - I think we never understood the words before."

     And so they parted, there under the night and the stars, and each fumbled over and over in his heart that new phrase, "old folk", while the tune gamboled lightly through a dozen hearts that night, and chased lovers' phantasies out into the star-dimpled field of dreams, out into the night, and the summer and the moon and the quiet of the country, large, and sweet, and wistful as an absent sweetheart's musings - herself gazing out at the moonlit night.


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