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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1890

Part First



"HERMIA," said Faulkner, sounding the canine letter in her name with a Western strength that was full of the charm of old associations for me, "these people have got some children at Lynn, and they can't stay here overnight because they didn't bring them. I'm going to send over for them."

"Oh, I should like to see your children," she answered to my wife, cordially, yet submissively, as the way of one wise woman is with another concerning her children.

Mrs. March explained how it was in no wise possible to have the children sent for; and how we had only come for a short call. I perceived that all Mrs. Faulkner's politeness could not keep her mind on what my wife was saying: that she was scanning her husband's face with devoted intensity. The same absence showed itself in Nevil's manner. Of course they were both terribly anxious; I could understand that from what I had already seen of Faulkner's case; and in his interest they were both trying to hide their anxiety. Of course, too, he knew it on his part, and he tried to ignore their efforts at concealment. We were all playing at the futile and heart-breaking comedy which humanity obliges us to keep up with a dying man, and in which he must bear his part with the rest. We began to be even gay. Faulkner insisted again that we were good for the whole day; his wife joined him; he appealed to Nevil to put it to Mrs. March as a duty (that would fetch any New England woman, he said), and we consented to stay over lunch, in a burlesque of being kept prisoners. While this went on, I could not help noticing the quality of the look which Faulkner turned upon his wife and Nevil when he spoke to either: a sort of deadliness passing into a piteous appeal. It was very curious.

He asked if we should go down on the rocks, or up to the house, and we decided that we had better go to the house, and do the rocks after lunch: the tide was coming in, and the surf would be better and better.

"All right," he said, and we let Mr. Nevil lead the way with the ladies, while we came at a little distance behind. Faulkner began at once to praise Nevil, for his goodness in staying on with him so long after he had given up to him the whole past year in Europe. I said the proper things in appreciation, and Faulkner went on to say that Nevil had the richest and the poorest parish in our old home now, the most millionaires and the most paupers; and he had made St. Luke's a refuge and a sanctuary for them all. He said he did not suppose a man had ever been so fortunate as he was in his friendship with Nevil. At first his wife had been jealous of it, but now she had got used to it; and though he did not suppose she would ever quite forgive Nevil for having been his friend before her time, she tolerated him. I said I understood how that sort of thing was; and he added that there was also the religious difference: Mrs. Faulkner's people were Unitarians, and she was strenuous in their faith, where he never allowed her to be molested. We got to talking about the old times in the West, and the people whom we had known in common, and how the city had grown, and how I would hardly know where I was if I were dropped down in it. But he kept returning to Nevil and to his wife, and I became rather tired of them.

The cottage, when we reached it, afforded a relief by its extremely remarkable prettiness. Though it was so near the sea, it was almost hidden in trees, and as Faulkner said, if you did not purposely look out to the water, you could easily imagine yourself in the depths of the country. As we sat on the veranda that shaded three sides of the house, he named the different points on the coast, with the curious accuracy which some people like to achieve in particulars wholly unimportant to other people. I suppose he had amused the sad leisure of his sickness in verifying the geography, and I tried to be interested in it, though I was so much more interested in him. He sat deeply sunken in a low Japanese arm-chair of rushes, with his long lean legs one crossed on the other, and fondling the crook of his stick with his thin right hand, while he looked out to seaward under the brim of his hat pulled down to his eyes. Nevil went directly to his room when we reached the cottage, and after a little while Mrs. Faulkner took my wife away to show her the house, which was vast and extravagantly furnished for a summer cottage. "It had gone unlet until very late in the season," Faulkner said, "and you've no idea how cheap we got it. I suppose it's a little out of society, off here on this point; you see it's quite alone; but as we're out of society too, it just suits us."

He looked after his wife as she left the veranda with Mrs. March, and I fancied in his glance at her buoyant, strenuous grace and her beauty of perfect health, something of the despair with which a sick man must feel the whole world slipping from his hold, too weak to close upon the most precious possession and keep it for his helplessness even while he stays.

The ladies were gone a good while, and he rambled on incessantly as if to keep me from thinking about his condition; or at least I fancied this, because I could not help thinking of it. Just as they returned, he was asking me, "Do you remember our talking that night about Kant's dreams, and--" He stopped, and called out to my wife, "Well, don't you think we are in luck?"

"Luck doesn't express it, Mr. Faulkner. You're in clover, knee-deep. I didn't imagine there was such a place, anywhere."

"After lunch we must show you our old garden, as well as the rocks," said Faulkner. "At present I don't see how we could do better than stay where we are."

I thought he was going to recur to the subject he had dropped at sight of the returning ladies, but he did not. He asked my wife if Mrs. Faulkner had shown her the copy they had made of Murillo's Madonna, and he talked about its qualities with an authoritative ignorance of art which I should have found amusing in different circumstances. He had made a complete collection of all the engravings of this Madonna, and of all the sentimental Madonnas of the Parmesan school. He considered them very spiritual, and said he would show them to us, some time; he always carried them about with him; but he wanted to keep something to tempt us back another day. He asked her if she cared for rare editions, and said he wished he had his large paper copies with him. He told her I would remember them, and I pretended that I did. I do not think Faulkner had read much since I saw him. He talked about Bulwer and Dickens and Cherbuliez and Octave Feuillet as if they were modern. But nobody came up to Victor Hugo. Of course we had both read Les Miserables? Mrs. Faulkner, he said, was crazy about a Russian fellow: Tourguénief Had we read him, and could we make anything out of him? Faulkner could not, for his part. Were we ever going to have any great poets again? Byron was the last that you could really call great.

His wife listened in a watchful abeyance to see if he needed anything, or felt worse, or was getting tired. From time to time he sent her for some book, or print, or curio that he mentioned, and whenever she came back, he gave her first that deadly look. Afterward, I fancied that he despatched her on these errands to make experiment of how the sight of her would affect him at each return.

The sea stretched a vast shimmer of thin grayish blue under the perfect sky; and the ships moved half sunk on its rim, or seemed buoyantly lifting from it for flight in the nearer distance. The colors were those of an aquarelle, washes of this tint and that, bodyless and impalpable, and they were attenuated to the last thinness in the long yellow curve of beach, and the break of the shallow rollers upon it. Faulkner said they never got tired of looking; there was one effect on the wide wet beach, which he wished we could see, when people were riding toward you, and seemed to be walking on some kind of extraordinary stilts.

Mr. Nevil came down, and then Mrs. Faulkner said it must be near lunch-time, and asked my wife and me if we would not like to go to our room first.

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