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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Second



I DID NOT SEE Wingate again till I met him at our first dinner in the fall. Then, as we sat at our corner together, with our comfortable little cups of black coffee before us, at a sufficient distance from the others, who had broken up the order of the table, and grouped themselves in twos and threes for the good talk that comes last at such a time, we began to speak of the Faulkners. They had probably been in both our minds, vaguely and vividly, the whole evening. He asked me if I had heard anything from Mrs. Faulkner lately; and I said, Oh, yes; my wife heard from her pretty often, though irregularly; and I told him how, with every intention and prepossession to the contrary, my wife had grown into what I might call an intimate friendship with her. The widow had gone back to the city where Faulkner and I had lived together, and had taken up her life again in the old place, with the old surroundings and the old associations.

"Then you were not especially intimate with him when you lived there?"

"No," I said; "it was a friendly acquaintance for a while, and then it was an unfriendly non-acquaintance;" and I explained how. "To tell you the truth, I never cared a great deal for him; and I was surprised to find that he seemed to care a good deal for me; though perhaps what seemed affection for me was only the appeal for sympathy that a dying man addresses to the whole earth."

"Perhaps," said the doctor.

"I hope I don't appear very cold-hearted. I liked his friend the parson a great deal better, and for no more reason than I liked Faulkner less. Faulkner was a sentimental idealist; he tried to live the rather high-strung literature that he might have written, if his lot had been cast in a literary community. You understand?"


"I have known several such men in the West; they're rather characteristic of a new country."

"Yes; I can understand how. I didn't know but you had been intimate," said Wingate, in a half tone of disappointment.

I recognized it with a laugh. "Well, Faulkner was intimate, doctor, if I wasn't. Will that serve the purpose?"

"I'm not sure." The doctor broke off the ash of his cigar on the edge of his saucer. "I should like to ask one thing!" he said.

"Ask away!"

He hitched his chair nearer me, setting it sidewise of the table, on which he rested his left arm, and then dropped his face on his lifted hand. "That day, just before I came, had he been telling you his dream?"

The doctor now used a whole tone of disappointment. "Well, I'm sorry. I should have liked to talk it over with you."

"You can't be half so sorry as I am. I should like immensely to talk it over. I always had a fancy that his dream killed him."

"Oh, no! oh, no!" said the doctor, with a smile at my unscientific leap to the conclusion.

"Hastened it, then."

"We can't say, very decidedly, whether a death is hastened or not--that kind. The man was destined to die soon, and to die what is called suddenly. He might have died at that very moment and in that precise way if he had never had any such dream. Undoubtedly it wore upon him. But I should say it was an effect rather than a cause of his condition. There's where you outsiders are apt to make your mistakes in these recondite cases. You want something dramatic--like what you've read of--and you're fond of supposing that a man's trouble of mind caused his disease, when it was his disease caused his trouble of mind: the physical affected the moral, and not the moral the physical."

"You mean that his mind was clouded?"

The doctor laughed. "No, I didn't mean that. But it's true, all the same. His mind was clouded, by the pain he had suffered, perhaps, and his dream came out of the cloud in his mind. If he had lived, it would have resulted in mania, as I told him substantially that day. But it was very curious, its recurrence and its unvarying circumstantiality. I don't know that I ever knew anything just like it; though there's a kind of similarity in all these cases."

I saw that Wingate would like to tell me what Faulkner's dream was; but I knew that he would not do so unless he could fully justify the confidence to his professional conscience. I said to myself that I should not tempt him, but I tried to tempt him. "He told you how long he had been having his dream?"

The doctor appeared not to have heard my question. "And you say she has gone back to their old place?"

"Yes, and to every circumstance of their life as nearly as possible." I did not like his running away with my bait in that fashion very well, but I thought it best to give him all the line he wanted, and then play him back as I could. "You know--but of course you don't know--that his mother always lived with them when they were at home--or they lived with her: it was the old lady's house, I believe: and the widow has even repeated that feature of their former ménage, and has her mother-in-law with her."

"And what's become of the parson?"

"The parson? Oh--Nevil! Nevil's given up his parish there, and gone further west--to Kansas, where he has charge of a sort of mission church--I don't understand the mechanism of those things very well--and is doing some good work. I believe he has ritualized somewhat. That seems to be the way with them when they take to practical Christianity. Curious; but it's so."

"And she lives with her mother-in-law," the doctor mused aloud. "Property tied up so she had to?"

"No. I think not. It seems to be quite her own choice. I dare say they get on very well. The old lady is romantic, I believe, like Faulkner; and probably she's in love with her daughter-in-law."

"Well," said the doctor, "it isn't a situation that every woman could reconcile herself to, under the best conditions. But if she thought she ought to do it, she would do it. She has pluck enough. I should like to tell you one thing," and the doctor hitched his chair a little closer as he said this, and again he broke the ash of his cigar off on his saucer.

He did not go on at once, and lest it might be for want of prompting I said, "Well?"

"I don't know whether this is something your wife ever knew about or not?" he began, askingly.

"Really, I can't say," I answered, impatiently, "till I know myself."

He did not mind my impatience, but pulled comfortably at his cigar for a moment before he went on. "She came to my office with her."

"When they went to see you just before she started West? I understood she called on business."

"To pay my bill? Yes; and then she asked to see me alone. I suppose your wife thought she wished to consult me; and so did I. But it wasn't the usual kind of consultation; in fact she wasn't the usual kind of woman! She didn't lose an instant; she went right at me. 'Doctor,' said she, 'do you know what was on my husband's mind?' I like to deal with any one I can be honest with, and I saw I could be honest with her. 'Yes,' I said; 'he told me.' She caught her breath a little, and then said she, 'Can you tell me the form, the kind, of trouble it was?' 'Yes,' I said; 'it was a dream. A dream that kept coming, again and again, and finally had begun to color his waking thoughts and impressions.' She gave another gasp--I can see her now, just how she looked with the black crape round her face, all pale and washed out with weeping--and then she asked, 'Did it relate to--me?' 'Yes,' I said, 'it related to you, Mrs. Faulkner.' She came right back at me. 'Doctor Wingate,' said she, 'is it something that he could ever have told me, if he had lived?' I had to think awhile before I said, 'No, as I understood his character, I don't think he ever could.' She came right back again--I could see that she had made up her mind to go through it all in a certain way, and that she was ready for anything--and said she, 'I know that whatever it was, he was always struggling against it; and that when it forced itself upon him, he did not believe it at the bottom of his heart. I have seen that; and now I will ask you only one thing more. Is it something that for his sake--not for mine, remember!--you wouldn't wish me to know?' 'I would rather you wouldn't know it, for his sake,' said I. 'Then,' said she, 'that is all;' and she got up, and put out her hand to me, and gave mine a grip as strong as a man's, and went out."

"Splendid!" I said, overmastering my own disappointment, and wishing that in my interest Mrs. Faulkner had been a little less heroic.

"Splendid?" said Wingate. "It was superhuman! Or super-woman. Just think of the burden she shouldered for life! I don't know how much or how little she had divined, but all the worse if she had divined anything. She denied herself the satisfaction of her curiosity, and left me to make whatever I chose of her motives. She didn't explain; she simply asked and acted. I might suspect this, or I might suppose that; she left me free. I never saw such nerve. It was superb."

"Perhaps a little topping," I suggested.

"Yes, perhaps a little topping," the doctor consented. "But still, it was a toppingness that could have consisted only with the most perfect conscience, the most absolute freedom from self-reproach in every particular."

"C'&eactue;tait magnifique, mais ce n'était pas la guerre. I think I should have preferred a little more human nature in mine. I should have liked her better if she had gone down on her knees to you, and begged you to tell her what it was; and when you had told her, if it inculpated her at all, would never have left you till you had exculpated her. That would have been more like a woman."

"Yes, much more like most women," said the doctor. "But the type is not the nation, or the race, or the sex. The type is cheap, dirt cheap. It's the variation from the type that is the character, the individual, the valuable and venerable personality."

"Since when did you set up hero-worship, doctor? Really, you're worse than my wife. But I expect her to be worse than you when I tell her this story of Mrs. Faulkner. You will let me tell her?"

"Oh, yes. I suppose you would tell her whether I let you or not."

"There's always a danger of that kind," I admitted.

"I wonder," said Wingate, "whether the eagerness of women to hear things isn't a natural result from the eagerness of men to tell them?"

"Possibly they may have spoiled us in that way. Do you think you were as eager not to tell, as Mrs. Faulkner was not to hear?"

The doctor laughed tolerantly.

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