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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Second



DR. WINGATE arrived with his professional face, in which I fancied a queer interrogation of mine. Then I said, "It's Mrs. Faulkner who wishes to see you. You remember? She's here with us."

But he only asked, "How long has she been in town?" and he gave a poke or two at his hair after taking his hat off in the hall, where I went out to meet him when I heard his ring.

"Since four o'clock."


"She was anxious to see you at once, and I made bold to send for you, instead of taking the chance of not finding you in."

"Oh, that's all right," he said, and he rubbed his hands with an air of impatience which decided me not to tell him, as I had imagined myself doing, of her engagement to Nevil by way of preparation. I saw that it was not my affair; and I decided not to put my fingers between the bark and the tree.

He preceded me into the library, where Mrs. Faulkner sat waiting with my wife, and I saw him make a special effort to temper his bluff directness with a kindly deference. It was she who was brusque, and who put aside the preliminaries which he would have interposed.

"Doctor Wingate, I have come to Boston to see you in the hope that you can help me. But now I almost think that no one can help me. You can't change the truth!"

"Rather an undertaking, Mrs. Faulkner, I admit," he said with a smile for her exaltation. "But it depends somewhat upon the nature of the truth. I have known cases in which I could change the truth back. They're not so very uncommon." He looked at her with smiling insinuation, and she smiled pathetically in response.

"This isn't one of that kind," she said, and she had to make the effort of beginning afresh. "Do you remember when I came to you just--just after my husband's death, and spoke to you about the dream that killed him?"

"The dream didn't kill him," said Wingate. "But I remember the interview you refer to." He looked round at my wife and me, and then at Hermia, as if to question whether it was really her intention that we should be present, and we both made an instinctive motion to rise.

"Don't go," she said. "I wish you to stay. I was afraid, then, to face it alone, and now I wish to know what it was. Oh, yes! I made a feint of refusing to know it for his sake. I believed that I was sincere, but I was a miserable hypocrite. I was sparing myself, not him. Now, all that must come to an end. I ask you to tell me what his dream was, and to tell it in the presence of those who saw him suffer from it, die of it." Wingate opened his mouth to protest again, but she hurried on. "You said then that his dream concerned me, and I want them to judge me by it, and I will judge myself by their judgment."

"Really, Mrs. Faulkner," said Wingate, with the laugh of a man whose perplexity passes any other expression, "you are almost as bad as he was! Where shall I begin? How much can you bear? The whole thing's very painful! Why must you know it now, when you've held out against it so bravely, so wisely, for two years?"

"Because," she answered, as if she had prepared herself for some such question, "I was going to take a great step, and I wished to look at every thought and fact of my life, to be sure that I was worthy to take such a step. I got to thinking of that dream, which you said concerned me; and I found that I could have no peace, no certainty of the kind I wanted till I knew what it was. I must have been-there must have been something in me--terribly wrong, terribly bad, to have inspired such a dream, and--"

"Ah-h-h!" the doctor broke out, "you're as wild as he was in that reasoning," and to both of us men her logic was pitiably childlike; but I could see that for my wife it had a force inappreciable to us, because she was a woman too; no doubt she would judge Hermia as severely as she judged herself. "What you say," the doctor went on, "is perfectly monstrous, and I should not feel justified in telling you anything about it, unless I could bring you to see the matter in a reasonable light. And in the first place, I want you to realize that whatever you were, or whatever you were not, it had absolutely no more to do with his dream, than the character of an inhabitant of Saturn, if there is one. Why, just consider! You wish to judge yourself, and if possible condemn yourself--I can see that!--for something he dreamed about you; and yet I suppose you dream things about others--we all do!--that dishonor and defame them, without thinking evil of them for it?"

I laughed. "Why, of course!" but the two women were silent.

My wife said, finally, "Why, of course, we don't blame them for it; but we can't feel exactly the same toward them afterward; and if I knew that a person had such a dream about me, I should not be comfortable till--till--"

"Till you knew just why they had it," I suggested; and I tried to lighten the situation with another laugh.

Hermia gave my wife a grateful look for her sympathy, quite as if it had eased her of her self-accusal, instead of darkening her case against herself, and asked the doctor, "Did his dream dishonor me--defame me--to you?"

"No!" the doctor cried out. "I did not say that. His dream concerned you, and it distressed him; but I couldn't say that it was one to make me or any one think wrong of you. Now, won't that do! Isn't that enough?"

"No," said Hermia, "it isn't enough. I must be judge of whether I was guilty of anything wrong, and I must know what his dream accused me of. Why did it keep coming and coming?"

"How do you know it kept coming and coming?"

"Because I know. Because--because--His mother and I were looking over some things he had left--I wished to do it--letters and papers; and we found a scrap that said--that said--that spoke of his having a dream, and how he had been dreaming the same thing for months, sometimes every night, sometimes once a week. And I can remember how he would be very good to me for days, and then some morning he would not speak to me or hardly look at me; so that--so that I was afraid his mind--"

"Did you keep that scrap?" Wingate interrupted.

Hermia took it out of her pocket, where she must have been keeping her hand upon it, and gave it him. He read it over, glanced again at the characters, and handed it back to her.

"If you needed any proof of what I must say to you now, Mrs. Faulkner," he began, very gravely and tenderly, "you could get it of the first alienist whom you showed that paper. I suppose, if you've been brooding over this matter, it will be a relief, a help to know that your fears were right. When your husband wrote that paper, he was not in his right mind. The signs are simply unmistakable; they couldn't be counterfeited; there's insanity in every line, in every word of that handwriting. It would be interesting to know whether his hand was the same when he wrote of other things. But that's irrelevant. What's certain is that on one point he had a delusion, and that this delusion had begun to show itself in the form of a dream. Isn't it enough, now, if I assure you that his dream had no more real significance, no more rightful implication, than any other form of mania?"

She shook her head. "No. Why should it persist?"

"Ha-a-a!" he breathed in desperation. "Why should any mania persist in a disordered mind?"

"It isn't the same thing at all."

"But it is exactly and perfectly the same thing! It was the presence in his sleep of a maniacal delusion that was gradually overshadowing his waking consciousness, and that must have ended in his open insanity if death had not come to his relief."

She simply asked, "What was it?"

"What was it?" he echoed. "Well, you have a sort of right to know; perhaps you had better know. But I wish--I wish you had the strength to forego it--to accept my assurance, the most solemn, the most sincere I could give any one on a matter of life and death, that although his dream involved you, it no more rightfully inculpated you than it inculpated me, and that it ought to have no more consideration, no more influence, in your life than the ravings of any lunatic that came to you from an asylum window as you passed in the street. Now, won't that do? Can't you accept my assurance, and go home satisfied?"

"When I know what his dream was," she answered. "I can never rest again, now, till I know it."

"But there is this to be considered, Mrs. Faulkner," he urged. "There is the regard you have for him, his memory. He was no more responsible for dreaming his dream than you are for having been the subject of it. But you know how involuntary, how helpless, we often are in our judgments of others; and I warn you--it's my duty to warn you--that the danger is not that you may not be able to forgive yourself, but that you may not be able to forgive him."

"I must take the risk of that. I must know everything, now, at any cost. I am not afraid of being unjust to him. I saw him suffer, and I can make every allowance." Wingate was silent, with his head down, and she began with a kind of gasp: "Did he--was he afraid of me? I know how suspicious people are who are affected as you say he was beginning to be--though I can't believe it, I can't imagine it !--and I can understand, if he was! Did he think I would hurt him, somehow? Was that what he dreamed? Did he dream that I was going to do him some harm--kill him--?"

"Oh, no! no! no!" cried Wingate, getting to his feet. "Nothing of that kind, I assure you!" He spoke with the relief, as I fancied, of having found out the worst she had feared, and of being able to console her with something indefinitely less terrible. I had often known my wife push out a skirmish line of apprehension far beyond the main body of her anxiety, so as to have the comfort of finding herself within the utmost she had imagined of evil; and I understood the feminine principle on which Wingate counted, and shared his relief.

"Then what was it?" Hermia asked.

"What was it? Nothing. Nothing at all, in a manner! Nothing of the kind you feared. But if you must know"--Wingate glanced at us where we sat spellbound by our sympathy and interest--"though it's ridiculously unimportant in comparison with what you've suggested, I think perhaps you'd better hear it alone, Mrs. Faulkner."

"By all manner of means!" I said, and my wife said, "Yes, indeed!" as we rose together.

I felt from the first an odious quality in the part we had been obliged to bear; and I confess that I was beginning to bear it with some measure of resentment, in spite of my curiosity, and with some misgiving as to the delicacy of the woman who had required our presence at this interview. But perhaps I judged her too severely. In some of the most intimate affairs and sentiments, in which women are conventionally supposed to play a veiled and hidden part, they really have an overt, almost a public role, which nature no doubt fits them to sustain, without violence to their modesty, without touching susceptibilities that in men would be intolerably wounded.

I was impatient of the mechanical effort Hermia made to detain my wife, to whose hand she clung, and whom I had to draw from her with me out of the room. My wife agreed with me that we must have gone, but I doubt if she perfectly thought so; and they both had an effect of yielding out of regard to the sensibilities of us men.

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