Next> | <Prev | End

The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1890

Part First



SOME former proprietor had built a paling of slender strips of wood ten or twelve feet high, and set so close together as almost to touch one another; and in this shelter from the salt gales had planted a garden on the southward, seaward slope, which must once have flourished in delicious luxuriance. The paling, weather-beaten a silvery gray, and blotched with lichens, sagged and swayed all out of plumb, with here and there a belvedere trembling upon rotting posts, and reached by broken steps, for the outlook over a tumult of vast rocks to the illimitable welter of the sea. Within the garden close there were old greenhouses and graperies, their roofs sunken in and their glass shattered, where every spring the tall weeds sprang up to the light, and withered in midsummer for want of moisture, and the Black Hamburgs and Sweetwaters set in large clusters whose berries mildewed and burst, and mouldered away in never-riping decay. Broken flower-pots strewed the ground about them, and filled the tangles of the grass; but nature took up the work from art, and continued the old garden in her wilding fashion to an effect of disordered loveliness that was full of poetry sad to heartbreak. Neglected rose-bushes straggled and fell in the high grass, their leaves tattered and skeletoned by slugs and blight; but here and there they still lifted a belated flower. The terraced garden beds were dense with witch-grass, through which the blackberry vines trailed their leaves, already on fire with autumn; young sumach-trees and Balm of Gilead scrub had sprung up in the paths, and about among the abandon and oblivion of former symmetry, stiff borders of box gave out their pungent odor in the sun that shone through clumps of tiger-lilies. The pear-trees in their places had been untouched by the pruning-knife for many a year, but they bore on their knotty and distorted scions, swollen to black lumps, crops of gnarled and misshapen fruit that bowed their branches to the ground; some peach-trees held a few leprous peaches, pale, and spotted with the gum that exuded from their limbs and trunks; over staggering trellises the grape-vines clung, and dangled imperfect bunches of Isabellas and Concords.

"Well, how do you like it?" asked Faulkner, with a sort of pride in our sensation, as if he had invented the place.

"Perfect! Perfect!" cried my wife, absorbing all its sentiment in a long, in-drawn sigh. "Nothing could possibly be better. You can't believe you're in America, here!"

He smiled in sympathy, and said, "No; for all practical purposes this is as old as Caesar. That's what I used to feel, over there. You can hold only just so much antiquity. The ruin of twenty years, if it's complete in its way, can fill you as full as the ruin of a thousand."

"Yes, that's true," my wife answered, and I saw her eyes begin to light up with liking for a man who could express her feeling so well.

"But to enjoy perfectly a melancholy, a desolation, a crazy charm, a dead and dying beauty like this," he went on, "one ought to be very young, and prosperous and happy. Then it would exhale all the sweetness of its melancholy, and distil into one's cup the drop of pathos that gives pleasure its keenest thrill." His voice broke with a feeling that forbade me to censure his words for magniloquence.

It seemed to make his wife uneasy; perhaps from long, close observation of him she knew how often the spiritual throe runs into the physical pang, and feared for the effect of his mood upon him.

"Shall we go on and show them the rocks from the Point, or from one of the belvederes here?" she asked.

"I don't care," he said, wearily; and again I saw that deadliness in the look he gave her. Then he seemed to recollect himself; and added, politely, "I'm afraid of those belvederes; you can't tell what moment they're going to give way. Better go out to the Point."

"Do you think," she entreated, "you had better walk so far?"

"Well, perhaps March will stay here with me awhile, and we can follow you later. I'm all right; only a little tired."

I acquiesced, of course, and the ladies, after the usual flutter of civilities, started on. Nevil lingered to ask, "Doug, don't you think I'd better go back and leave word for the doctor where he'll find you, if he happens to come before we return to the house?"

"Oh, I've arranged all that," said Faulkner, with a kind of dryness, as it seemed, though it might have been merely a sick man's impatience; and he did not look up after Nevil as he turned away.

We stood silent a moment, after he left us, and I said, to break the constraint, "How much all this seems like those been-there-before seizures which we used to make so much of when we were young! This garden, this sky, the sea out there, the very feel of the air, are as familiar to me as any most intimate experience of my life, and yet I know it's all as unreal, as unsubstantial historically, as the shadow of a dream."

"How horribly," said Faulkner, as if he had not heard me, "those old flower beds look like graves! I was going to sit down on one of them, but I can't do it."

"It would have been pretty damp, anyway; wouldn't it?" I suggested.

"Perhaps. We can sit in that idiotic arbor, I suppose."

He nodded at the frail structure on the terrace below where we stood: two sides of trellis meeting in an arch, and canted over like the belvederes; a dead grape-vine hung upon it. I stepped down, and made sure of the benches which faced each other under the arch. "Yes; they're all right. Nothing could be better;" and Faulkner followed me, and took one of them. After some experiment of its strength, he leaned back in the corner of the arbor, and put his legs up along the seat.

The hoarse plunge and wash of the surf on the rocks below the garden filled the air like the texture of a denser silence; around us the crickets and grasshoppers blent their monotonies with it.

"Why do you call the shadow of a dream unsubstantial?" he demanded.

"Well, I don't know," I said. "I don't suppose I meant to say that it was more unsubstantial than other shadows."

"No. Of course." He dropped his eyelids, and went on talking with them closed: the effect was curious; perhaps he found he could keep himself calmer in that way. "I began to speak to you a little while ago of the talk we had that night at my house about old Kant's nightmares."

"Oh, yes; poor old fellow! It was awful, his being afraid to go to sleep because he was sure to have them. I don't know but that's a touch worse than not being able to go to sleep at all. Just imagine: as soon as you drop off to refreshing slumber, as you would otherwise expect, you find you've dropped as it were into hell."

"Yes; that's it," said Faulkner. "I wonder if it was the same thing over and over?"

"I don't remember what De Quincey says about that; and I don't know whether that would be worse or not. Perhaps, torment for torment, infernal monotony would be more infernal than infernal variety. But there couldn't be much choice."

Faulkner did not speak at once. Then he asked, "Did you ever have a recurrent dream?"

"A dream that repeated itself several times the same night? Yes; I've waked from a dream--or seemed to wake--and then fallen asleep and dreamed it again; and then waked and slept and dreamed it a third time. I suppose nearly every one has had that experience."

"I don't mean that kind of dream," said Faulkner. "I mean a dream that recurs regularly, once a week or so, with little or no change in its incidents."

"No, I never had that kind of dream; I don't know that I ever heard of such a dream. I remember your speaking that night about shameful dreams, that projected a sense of dishonor over half the next day. I've had that kind. They're a great nuisance. And then, if I've made free, as one's appallingly apt to do in such dreams, with persons of my acquaintance, it's extremely embarrassing to meet them." Faulkner smiled, and I asked, "Do you find that your dream habit has changed since you were younger?"

"Yes; the dreams are more vivid; but usually I don't remember them so distinctly. I suppose it's like life: we experience things with a sharper and fuller consciousness than we once did, but they leave less impression."

"Yes, yes!" I assented. "I wonder why?"

"Oh, I suppose because the fact is inscribed upon a surface that's already occupied. We're all old palimpsests by the time we reach forty. In youth we present a tabula rasa to experience.

"Then I should think we wouldn't receive impressions with that sharper and fuller consciousness," I suggested. "And yet I know we do."

"I don't understand it either," said Faulkner.

"There's one thing I've noticed of late years in my own dream habit, which I don't remember in the past. I go to sleep sometimes--almost always in my afternoon naps--with a perfectly wide-awake knowledge that I'm doing so; and I'm able to pass the bounds with my eyes open, as it were. I can say to myself as I drowse off, 'This is a dream thought,' if I find something grotesque floating through my mind, and then, 'This is a waking thought,' when there is something logical and matter-of-fact. I come and go, that way, half a dozen times before I lose myself."

"That is very curious, very interesting," said Faulkner; and he raised his heavy eyelids for a smiling glance at me, and then let them drop. His face sobered almost to frowning sternness as he went on. "There's a whole region of experience--half the map of our life--that they tell us must always remain a wilderness, with all its extraordinary phenomena irredeemably savage and senseless. For my part, I don't believe it. I will put the wisdom of the ancients before the science of the moderns, and I will say with Elihu, 'In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed; then He openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction.'"

"It's noble poetry," I said.

"It's more than that," said Faulkner. "It's truth."

"Perhaps it was in the beginning, when men lived nearer to the origin of life, but I doubt if it's more than noble poetry now; though that of course is truth in its way."

Faulkner opened his eyes and let his legs drop to the ground. I saw that my dissent had excited him, and I was sorry; I resolved to agree with him at the first possible moment.

"Why should God be farther from men in our days than He was in Job's?" he demanded.

"It isn't that," I said. "It's men who are farther from God."

"Oh! That's a pretty quibble. But it gives you away, all the same. Do you mean to say that if you had a graphic and circumstantial dream, about something of importance to you--something you intended to do, a journey you intended to take, or an enterprise you were thinking of--and your dream contained a forecast or warning, do you mean to say you wouldn't be influenced by it?"

"Certainly I should," I answered; and I couldn't help adding, "or rather, the ancestral tent-dweller within me would be influenced."

"Oh!" Faulkner sneered. "God's neighbor, or the neighbor of God?"

I had made a bad business of trying to agree with him. I braced myself for another effort. "Why, Faulkner, l don't deny anything. All that I contend for is that we should not throw away 'the long result of time,' and return to the bondage of the superstitions that cursed the childhood of the race, that blackened every joy of its youth, and spread a veil of innocent blood between it and the skies. There may be something in dreams; if there is, our thoughts, not our fears, will find it out. I am a coward, like everybody else; perhaps rather more of a coward; but if I had a dream that contained a forecast or a warning of evil, I should feel it my duty in the interest of civilization to defy it; though I don't say I should be able to do it. On the contrary, I think very likely I should lie down under it, and shudder out some propitiatory aspiration to the offended fetich that was threatening me."

Faulkner seemed a little placated. "I understand what you mean; and I know the danger of giving way to the nervous tremors that vibrate in us from the horrible old times when, on this very coast, a wretched woman would have been caught up and flung in jail, and hung on the gallows, because some distempered child had dreamed that it saw her with the Black Man in the forest. But I'm not ready to say that a dream, recurring and recurring with the clearest circumstance, and without variation in its details, is idle and meaningless. Who is that Frenchman who wrote about the diseases of personality? Ribot! Well, he tells how people about to be attacked by disease are 'warned in a dream' of what is to happen. A man dreams of a mad dog, and wakes up with a malignant ulcer in the spot where he was bitten; dreams of an epileptic, and wakes to have his first fit; dreams of a deaf-mute, and wakes with a palsied tongue. He says that these are intimations of calamity from the recesses of the organism to the nerve centres, which we don't notice in the hurly-burly of conscious life."

"Yes, I remember that passage. And I have had one such experience myself;" I said.

"Very well, then," said Faulkner. "If in the physical, why not in the moral world? If you dream persistently of evil, of perfidy, of treachery, so distinctly and perfectly bodied forth that when you wake the dream seems the reality, and your consciousness the delusion, why should you treat your vision with contempt? Why should not the psychologist respect it as something quite as gravely significant in its way as those dream hints of impending malady which no pathologist would ignore?"

I now perceived that I was in the presence of what was on Faulkner's mind. I did not know what it was, and I did not expect that he would tell me. I did not wish him to tell me; I fancied that I might help him better, if I did not know just the make and manner of his trouble; and I longed to help him, for I saw that he longed for help. I felt that his logic was false, and I believed that he had entangled himself in it only after many attempts to escape it; but I did not know just which point of it to touch first. I felt him looking at me with imploring challenge, but I did not lift my head till I heard a step in the long, tangled grass, and heard the voice of Dr. Wingate in a cheerful, "Hello! hello! You here, March? Well, that's good!"

Another step, another voice would have been startling; but these were with us, in a manner, before we heard them, and they brought support and repose with them.

"I'm glad to see you, doctor," I said, without making ceremony of the greetings which I saw he was disposed to ignore.

He shook hands impartially with Faulkner and with me as if he were no more interested in one than the other; his large, honest, friendly stomach bowed out as he stood a moment wiping the sweat from his forehead, and looking round him. "Isn't this a nice old place? I never see this garden without a kind of satisfaction in it as one of the things that money can't buy. There are mighty few of them. But here's one that only the loss of money can buy. Heigh?"

Wingate sat down, tentatively at first, on the other end of my seat, and faced Faulkner, still without seeming to take any special interest in him.

I repeated, "I'm glad to see you, doctor; and I'm particularly glad to see you in a metaphysical mood, for Faulkner, here, has got me in a corner, and I want you to get me out."

"Ah? Am I in a metaphysical mood? What's your corner?" The doctor worked his elbow into the trellis behind him, and then swayed back on it.

"We were talking about dreams," I said, "and we had got as far as Ribot, and his instances of dreams that prophesy maladies. You know them."

"Oh, yes. Well?"

"Well, Faulkner says if a man dreams of physical evil, and the dream is prophetic, or worthy of scientific regard, why shouldn't the dream that forebodes moral evil be considered seriously too; why shouldn't it be held to be truly prophetic?"

The doctor smiled. "It seems to me you're pretty easily cornered. I should say that the dream of moral evil should certainly be seriously considered: not as prophetic in the least of what it foreboded, but as prophetic of very grave mental disturbance,--if it persisted. I should be afraid that it was the rehearsal of a mania that was soon to burst out in waking madness. If it persisted," said the doctor, looking still at me, "and he yielded to it, I should feel anxious for the dreamer's sanity."

Faulkner sat with his face twisted away from us, as if the doctor had been looking at him, and he wished to avoid his eye. "I don't see," I said, "but what that settles it, Faulkner?"

"Oh, it's a very good answer in its way," said Faulkner, still without looking at us. "But it takes no account of the spiritual element in such experiences."

"No," said the doctor; "and I should be ashamed of it if it did. As long as we have on this muddy vesture of decay, the less medicine meddles and makes with our immortal part, the better. Of course, I'm not speaking for the Christian Scientists."

"Then you don't consider the mind immortal?" demanded Faulkner.

"I don't consider the brain immortal. And I think I've seen the mind in decay."

We were all silent. I found a comfort in this robust and clear refusal of Wingate's to dally with any sort of ifs and ands, and to deal only with the facts of experience, which I felt must impart itself in some measure to Faulkner, even through his refusal. At the same time I was a little ashamed of not having myself been able to come to his rescue. The silence prolonged itself; and I began to see that the doctor wished to be alone with his patient, who perhaps was willing to part with me too.

Wingate asked, "Where's Mrs. Faulkner?" and this gave me my chance to get away with dignity.

"She and my wife are off at the Point, looking at the rocks. I'll go and tell her you've come."

"Oh, there's nothing especial. I merely wanted to ask her a few little things. You needn't hurry her back."

He left his place beside me, and went over to Faulkner, whose wrist he took between his fingers. He had dropped it, when I looked back, after I left them, and then, with the distinctness that one sense lends another, I partly heard, partly saw him say: "If you don't, it will not only drive you mad; it will kill you."

The doctor's voice came to me in the same key of strenuous, almost angry remonstrance, after I hurried into the lane from the garden, but I could not make out the words any longer.

Next> | <Prev | ^Top