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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1890

Part First



THE LUNCH was a proof of Mrs. Faulkner's native skill as a house-keeper, in all its appointments, and of her experience and observation of certain details of touch and flavor, acclimated and naturalized to the American kitchen from the cuisines of southern Europe. It meant money, but not money alone; it meant sympathy and appreciation and the artistic sense. I could see that my wife ate every morsel with triumph over me: I could feel that without looking at her: and she rendered merit to Mrs. Faulkner for it all, as much as if she had cooked it, created it. In fact I knew that my wife had fallen in love with her: and when you have fallen in love with a married woman you must of course hate her husband, especially if you are another woman.

I thought this reflection rather neat, and I wished that I could have a chance to put it to my wife; but none offered till it was forever too late; none offered at all in effect. After lunch we went that walk they had planned, and this time Faulkner took the two ladies in charge, or rather he fell to them, that he might tacitly be under his wife's care. I heard him, as I lagged behind with Nevil, devoting himself to Mrs. March with his decorative politeness, and I longed in vain to beg the poor man to spare himself.

Nevil and I spoke irrelevancies till we had dropped back out of ear-shot. Then he asked, "How do you find Faulkner?" and looked at me.

There was no reason why I should not be honest. "Well, I confess he gave me a great shock."

"When he had that seizure?"


"But generally speaking?"

"Generally speaking he seems to me a very sick man."

"You see him at his best," said Nevil; and he fetched a deep sigh. "This is an exceptionally good day with him."

"Does he suffer often in that way?"

"Yes, rather often."

"And is he in danger at such times?"

"The greatest. The chance is that he will not live through such a seizure; he may die at any moment without the seizure. Any little excitement may bring on the paroxysm. I suppose it was seeing you unexpectedly."

"Of course, I didn't know we should meet him."

"Oh, no one was to blame," said Nevil. "The inevitable can't be avoided. Somehow it must come."

We were silent. Then I said, "He seemed to be in great agony."

"I suppose we can't imagine such agony."

"And is there no hope for him?"

"I understand, none at all."

"And he must go on suffering that way till--It's horrible! He'd better be dead!" I said, remembering the atrocity of the anguish which Faulkner's face had betrayed: the livid lips, the suffused eyes, the dumb ache visible in every fibre of his dull, copper-tinted visage.

"Ah!" said Nevil, with another long, quivering sigh. "We mustn't allow ourselves to say such things, or even to think them. The appeal to death from the most intolerable pain, it's going from the known to the unknown. Death is in the hands of God, as life is; he giveth and he taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord! Blessed, blessed!" He dropped his head, and lifted it suddenly. "We must say that all the more when we see such hopeless, senseless torment as Faulkner's. I've often tried to think what Christ meant by that cry of his on the cross, 'My God, why hast thou forsaken me?' It couldn't have been that he doubted his Father; that's monstrous. But perhaps in the exquisite torture that he suffered, his weak, bewildered human nature forgot, lost for the dire moment, the reason of pain."

"And is there any reason for pain?" I asked, sceptically. "Or any except that it frays away the tissues whose tatters are to let the spirit through?"

"I used not to think so, and I used to groan in despair when I could see no other reason for it. What can we say about the pain that does not end in death? Is it wasted, suffered to no end? Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall man work wisely, usefully, definitely, and God work stupidly, idly, purposelessly? It's impossible! Our whole being denies it; whatever we see or hear, of waste or aimlessness in the universe, which seems to affirm it, we know to be an illusion: our very nature protests it so. But I could not reason to the reason, and I owe my release to the suggestion of a friend whose experience of suffering had schooled him to clearer and deeper insight than mine. He had perceived, or it had been given him to feel, that no pang we suffer in soul or sense is lost or wasted, but is suffered to the good of some one, or of all. How, we shall some time know; and why. For the present the assurance that it is so is enough for me, and it enables me to be patient with the suffering of a man who is more to me than any brother could be. Sometimes it seems to me the clew to the whole labyrinthine mystery of life and death, of Being and Not-being."

"It's a great thought," I said. "It's immensely comforting. What does Faulkner think of it? Have you ever suggested it to him?"

I could not tell whether he fancied an edge of irony in my question; but it seemed as if he spiritually withdrew from me a little way, and then disciplined himself and returned. "No," he said, gently. "Faulkner rejects everything. As he says, he is going it blind. He says it will soon be over with him, and then if he sleeps, it will be well with him, and if he wakes, it can't be worse with him than it is now; and so he won't worry about the why or wherefore of anything, since he can't help it."

"That doesn't seem a bad kind of philosophy," I mused aloud.

"No. Whatever we call such a frame of mind, it's practically trust in God. And I don't judge Faulkner, if his resignation is sometimes rather contemptuous in its expression. I wish it were otherwise; but I doubt if he's always quite master of himself."

We walked slowly on. Faulkner, I knew, was aware of his condition, and I thought his courage splendid, in view of it. I wondered if his wife knew it as fully as he; probably she did; and when I considered this, I appeared to myself the most trivial of human beings, though I am not so sure now that I was. We are all what the absence, not the presence, of death has made us.

I found myself at a stand-still, and I perceived that Nevil had halted me. "Did it strike you--have you seen anything strange-peculiar--in Faulkner's manner?"

"No," I returned. "That is, how do you mean?"

"I've sometimes fancied, lately--I've been afraid--that his mind was giving way under the stress of his suffering. It's something that often happens--it's something that Dr. Wingate has apprehended."

"Good heavens! That would be too much. I saw no sign of it. He recurred once, just before lunch, to that night when we first met at his house, and had that talk about Kant's dreams, and De Quincey. I thought he was going to say something; but just then the ladies came back to us, and he began to talk to them."

Nevil looked at me fixedly. "Very likely I'm mistaken. Perhaps my own mind isn't standing it very well! But the fear of that additional horror--I assure you that it makes my heart stop when I think of it. I ought to go away. I ought to be at home; I've spent the past year in Europe with the Faulkners, as--as their guest--and I have no right to a vacation this summer. There are duties, interests, claims upon me, that I'm neglecting in my proper work; and yet I can't tear myself away from him--from them."

We stood facing each other, and Nevil was speaking with the perturbation of an anxiety still suppressed, but now finding vent for the first time, and carrying us deep into an intimacy unwarranted by the casual character of our acquaintance.

I heard my wife's voice calling, "Come, come!" and I looked up to see both of the ladies waving their handkerchiefs from an open gate where they stood, and beckoning us on.

"Oh, yes," said Nevil. "That's the old garden."

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