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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Second



I WAS SURPISED at the way my wife took the doctor's story when I repeated it to her the next morning at breakfast.

"Well," she said, "that is the first thing I've ever heard of Mrs. Faulkner that I don't like."

"It was certainly a base treason to her sex to go back on its reputation for curiosity in that manner."

"Oh, it was enough like a woman to do that--a certain kind of woman."

"The poseuse?"

"The worse than poseuse. The kind of woman that overtasks her strength, and breaks down with what she's undertaken, and makes us all ridiculous, and discourages us from trying to bear what we really could bear."

"Doctor Wingate admires her immensely for her courage in trying it."

"And I suppose you admire her too."

"No. When it comes to that, I'm all woman--the kind of woman that wouldn't attempt more than she could perform, unless she could get some man to carry out her enterprise for her. But perhaps she might do that."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't mean what, at all. I mean whom. Nevil."

"Basil," said my wife, "when you talk that way you make me lose all respect for you. No. She may be too exalted, but at least she isn't degraded."

"She couldn't very well be both," I admitted.

"And it shows what a really low idea you have of women, my dear. I'm sorry for you."

"Bless my soul! Why do you object to her being superwoman, as Wingate says, in one way, and not superwoman in another?"

"We both agreed, from the very beginning, that that ridiculous friendship was entirely between him and Faulkner. I think it was as silly as it could be, and weak, and sentimental in all of them. She ought to have put a stop to it; but with him so sick as he was, of course she had to yield, and then be subjected to--to anything that people were mean enough to think."

"Why not say base enough, vile enough, grovelling enough, crawling-in-the-mire enough?"

"Very well, then, I will say that. And I will say that any one who will insinuate such a thing is as bad--as bad as Faulkner himself."

"But not so much to blame, I hope. At least I didn't bring Nevil into his family."

"You admired him!"

"Yes, if I may say it without further offence, I liked him. I pitied him; it seemed to me that he was the chief victim of Faulkner's fondness. He couldn't get away without inhumanity; but I believe he was thoroughly bored by the situation. He felt it to be ndiculous."

"And she, what did she think of it ?"

"I don't believe she thought of it at all. She was preoccupied with her husband. He had to stay and simply look on, and see her suffer, because he couldn't get away. It was an odious predicament."

"Yes. I think it was too," said my wife. "And I felt sorry for him, though I didn't admire him. And I must say that he escaped from his false position as quickly and as completely as possible."

"Ah, I don't know that I've altogether liked his leaving the town. That looked, if anything, a little conscious. I should have preferred his staying and living it all down."

"There was nothing to live down!"

"No; nothing."

"You are talking so detestably," said my wife, "that I've got a great mind not to tell you something."

I folded my hands in supplication. "Oh, I will behave! I will behave! Don't keep anything more from me, my dear. Think what I've endured already from the fortitude of Mrs. Faulkner!"

"The letter came last night, by the last distribution, after you'd gone to your dinner," said Mrs. March, feeling in her pocket for it, which was always a work of time: a woman has to rediscover her pocket whenever she uses it. "He's engaged."


"Who? Mr. Nevil. Now, what do you have to say?"

I threw myself forward in astonishment. "What! Already! Why it isn't six months since--"

"Basil!" cried my wife, in a voice of such terrible warning that I was silent. I had to humble myself very elaborately, after that. Even then it was with great hauteur and distance that she said, "He's engaged to a young lady of his parish out there. The letter's from Mrs. Faulkner." She tossed it across the table to me with a disdain for my low condition that would have wounded a less fallen spirit. But I was glad of the letter on any terms, and I eagerly pulled it open and flattened it out.

"Just read it aloud, please," commanded my wife, from her remote height, and I meekly obeyed.

'DEAR MRS. MARCH,--You will be surprised to get a letter from me so soon after the last I wrote; but I have a piece of news which has excited us all here a good deal, and which I think will interest you and Mr. March. Mr. Nevil has just written my mother, Mrs. Faulkner, of his engagement.'

"What an astonishing woman!" I broke off. "Why in the world didn't she keep it for the postscript, after she had palavered over forty or fifty pages about nothing?"

"Because," said my wife, "she isn't an ordinary woman in any way. Go on."

I went on.

"'His letter is rather incoherent, of course. But he tells us she is very young, and he encloses a photograph to show us that she is pretty. She is more than that, however; she is a beautiful girl; but the photograph does not paint character, and so we have to take Mr. Nevil's word for the fact that she is very good, and cultivated and affectionate.'

"Affectionate, of course!" I broke off again; and my wife came down from her high horse long enough to laugh; and then instantly got back again.

'He seems very much in love, and we feel as happy as we can about him without knowing his fiancée. He has been so long like a son to Mrs. Faulkner, that of course it is a little pang to her, but she reconciles herself to losing him by thinking of his good. I am thoroughly glad, for I think his life was very lonely, and that he longed for companionship. He is of a very simple nature--you cannot always see it under the ecclesiasticism and I think he has missed Douglas almost as much as we have. He hints in his letter that if Douglas were living, and the old place here could welcome him as of old, he could wish for no other home.'

"Look here, Isabel!" I broke off again. "These seem to me rather wild and whirling words. If Mrs. Faulkner mère is so very happy, why does she have a little pang and have to brace up by thinking of his good? And if Mr. Nevil is so very ecstatic about his betrothed, why does he intimate that if the old home of his friends could still be his, he would not want a new home of his own?"

"That is very weak in him," my wife admitted.

"Yes; let's hope the future Mrs. Nevil may never get hold of that letter of his. She probably hates the very name of Faulkner already."

"If you will go on," said my wife, "you will see what Hermia says of all that."

"Hannah," I corrected her; but I went on.

"'I suppose,'" the letter ran, "'that this is the last of Mr. Nevil, as far as we are concerned. I could not adopt his old friends, if I were in her place, and I am persuading Mrs. Faulkner to disappear out of his life as promptly and as voluntarily as possible, after his marriage. I know that this is one of the things that men laugh at us for; but I cannot help it, and I grieve to think now that I could not help showing poor Douglas that his friends were less welcome to me than they were to him. Mrs. Faulkner sees the matter as I do; but she will have to play the part of mother-in-law at least so far as the infare is concerned. Mr. Nevil has no relations of his own (he is the most bereft and orphaned person I ever knew), and she has asked him to bring his bride here as he would to his mother's house. Of course it will all be very quiet; but we must go through some social form of welcome. The marriage is to be very soon--in a month. I will write you about it.'

I folded up the letter and gave it back to Mrs. March.

"Now, what have you got to say?" she demanded.

"I? Oh! May I ask why you didn't tell me about this letter in the beginning, instead of allowing me to go on with my defamatory conjectures?"

"I wanted to see you cover yourself with confusion; I wished to give you a lesson."

"Pshaw, Isabel! You know that you were so curious about what Wingate told me that it put the letter all out of your head."

"And do you say now," she retorted, quite as if she had got the better of me, and were making one triumph follow upon another, "do you still mean to say that she expected to get him to help her bear the--the shadow of Faulkner's dream?"

"Isn't that rather attenuating it?" I asked. But upon reflection I found that the phrase accurately expressed the case. "Why yes, that's just what it is. It's the burden of a shadow! In spite of Wingate's scientific reluctances, I believe that it crushed poor Faulkner; and I'm glad the weight of it isn't to fall upon her or upon Nevil. Weight! Why, Isabel, that letter has simply removed mountains from my mind! And the affair was really none of my business, either."

"Yes, I'm glad it's all over," said my wife, with a sigh of relief. "Now I can respect her without the slightest reservation."

"And isn't it strange," I suggested, "that this kind of burden she can bear alone, but if she had divided it with him she could not bear it?"

"Yes, it's strange," she answered. "And, as you say, this letter is a great relief. Dr. Wingate may account for it all on scientific grounds if he chooses, and say that Faulkner's disease caused the dream, and not the dream his disease. But if this had not happened, if this engagement did not give the lie so distinctly to the worst that we ever thought when we thought our worst about it, I never could have felt exactly easy. There would always have been, don't you know, the misgiving that there was a consciousness of something drawing them together during his life that frightened them apart after his death. But now I feel perfectly sure!"

There had never been any doubt with us as to the nature of Faulkner's dream, though we could only conjecture its form and facts. Sometimes these appeared to us very gross and palpable, and again merely a vaguely accusing horror, a ghastly adumbration, a mere sensation, a swiftly vanishing impression. We had talked it over a great deal at first, and then it had faded more and more out of our minds. We had our own cares, our own concerns, which were naturally first with us; and I feel that in giving the idea of our preoccupation with those of others, however interesting, however fascinating, I am contributing to one of those false effects of perspective which have always annoyed me in history. The events of the past are pressed together in that retrospect, as if the past were entirely composed of events, and not, like the present, of long intermediate stretches and spaces of eventlessness, which the rapidly approaching lines and the vanishing point can give no hint of. In spite of everything, since the story only secondarily concerns ourselves, we must appear concerned in it alone, though for that very reason we ought to be able to seem what we really were: spectators giving it a sympathetic and appreciative glance now and then, while we kept about our own business.

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