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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Second



I WAS IN no humor to tempt any confidence from Wingate when I hurried out to the street door to see him off after I heard him come out of the library. My curiosity, such as I had, was damped by a sense of the indecency of knowing in brutal vocables what I already conjectured, and I was still resentful of having been obliged to enter into the affair to the extent I had.

Wingate let me help him on with his overcoat, and he put his hand on the door-knob before he spoke. "The next time you have a case of this kind, old fellow, I hope I shall be in Europe."

He looked hot and dry, and he breathed harder than even a stout man need after being helped on with his overcoat. "I made a mistake in sending your wife and you out of the room. It was no easier for me, and Mrs. Faulkner says she shall tell her at once, anyway, and you might as well have had it at first-hand. She takes it worse than I expected. Good-night!" he added abruptly, after a pause, and an evident intention to say something else; and he flung himself down my steps and seemed to rebound into his coupé, which was standing before them.

I waited the next turn of events with an increasing sense of injury at the hands of our guest, for I knew that ultimately I must be drawn upon for the nervous force which my wife would spend in sympathizing with her; and I had not yet recognized the claim that she seemed to think our purely accidental relations had established for her upon us.

But the next turn of events was apparently to wait our motion. I mechanically expected Hermia to come out of the library, where I was mechanically impatient to take my book and pity her at my ease; but she did not come out, and I had to go and sit down in the parlor, which was less commodious for my compassion, and unusual for my book. I sat there, disconsolately trying to read, for what I thought a long time, till my wife came down stairs.

"Where is Mrs. Faulkner?" she asked, under her breath. I nodded toward the library. "But I thought the doctor had gone?"

"So he has. He went some time ago; but he didn't take her with him."

"I've been expecting her to ask for me," said my wife, vaguely. "I hated to go to her. It would have seemed like prying."

"To a lady who was willing to have the whole matter, whatever it was, talked out before us both?"

"That is true," said my wife. "Would you knock?"

"Perhaps I would listen at the key-hole first," said I, and I felt myself growing more and more sardonic, for no reason, except that I had such a good chance.

My wife meekly went and listened, and then, after a look at me, opened the library door and went in. It was nearly an hour before she rejoined me in our own room, having first gone with our guest to hers, and staid with her there a little while.

Then she said, "Well, Basil, I never knew anything so sad in my life. I don't know what we are going to do. She must go home at once, and I don't see how she is ever to get there. That is what we have got to talk over now."

"I supposed you had talked it over already," I suggested, still perversely affecting that cheap cynicism.

My wife took it for what it was, and ignored it.

"Poor, stricken creature!" she sighed. "I don't believe she had moved after the doctor left her till I came in, and then she hardly moved. She had that awful stony quiet that people--strong people--have, when you bring them bad news. I could hardly get her to speak. She said she wanted me to know everything, but she did not know how to tell me, unless I asked her; and so, little by little, we got it out together. But I think I'd better not tell you, dear, just in so many words, till she's out of the house; do you?"

"No; I guess I know pretty well what you have to tell," I answered, honestly enough, and without any ironical slant, even in my tone.

My wife went on: "I'm afraid Dr. Wingate didn't manage very well: he had something finer than nerves to deal with. But I don't blame him, poor man, either. He was thrown off his guard by her asking if her husband had dreamed that she was going to hurt him, and he thought that what he really did dream was so much less dreadful that it would relieve her; and I'm afraid he went at it too lightly. But it seems that she had never imagined that he could have dreamed that, and it perfectly crushed her. Basil! Don't you believe there are some natures so innocent that they have no suspicion of suspicion, that they can't conceive of it? Well, that is Hermia Faulkner! She is on such a grand scale, she's so noble and faithful and loyal, that she can't even understand the kind of nature that could attribute wrong to her: its baseness, its cruelty. She's crushed under the ruin of her own ideal of that wretched man!"

"Oh, oh, oh!" I cried. "Isn't that rather a high horse you're on? I don't think poor old Faulkner was to blame for his crazy dream. I wouldn't like to shoulder the responsibility for my dreams!"

"You are very different. You are good," said my wife, "and you couldn't have such a dream, if you tried; but if you go, now, and think it was worse than it really was, I shall hate you. I should like to tell you just what it was; but you are such a fool, dear," she added, tenderly, "that you'd be conscious the whole way, and couldn't help showing it every minute."

"The whole way? Every minute? What do you mean?"

"I've decided that you must take Hermia home."

"Oh, I see! That was why you were so willing we should inquire how she could get there. But supposing I can't leave my business?"

"But I know you can. You were going to New York with me next week, and we can give that up. There's nothing else for it. We must! It will give you a chance to see your old friends out there, and you've simply got to do it; that's all." She added, in terms expressive of the only phase of her anxiety that could be put concretely, and by no means representative of her entire motive: "I can't have her getting sick here on my hands; and there's no other way. Her mother-in-law is too old to come for her, and--"

"We might telegraph the Reverend James Nevil to come," I suggested.

"Basil!" cried my wife.

"Oh, it's no use, my dear! I'd better know just what I'm to be conscious of."

"You know it already; we've both known it from the beginning; but I can't tell you. It isn't her fault, though it covers her with such cruel shame that she can't look herself in the face. It's his fault for having him there to dream about; and it's HIS fault for being there to be dreamt about." I knew that my wife meant Faulkner by her less, and Nevil by her greater, vehemence of accent. "I suppose she felt, all the time--such a woman would--that he had no right to bring his friendship into their married life that way. She must have felt hampered and molested by it; but she yielded to him because she didn't want to seem petty or jealous. There's where I blame her. Basil! A woman's jealousy is God-given! It's inspired, for her safety and for her husband's. She ought to show it."

"How about a man's?"

"Oh, that's different! Men have no inspirations. Jealousy's a low, brutal instinct with them. Just see the difference between her feeling that his friend had no business in their family, and his making that very friend the object of his suspicions!"

"If you conjecture one fact," I said, "and hold Faulkner responsible for the other, the difference is certainly very much against him. But, as I understand from Dr. Wingate, Faulkner's dream foreshadowed his alienation."

"Oh, don't talk to me of Dr. Wingate!" she cried. "He doesn't know anything about it. No! It was his miserable jealousy that turned his brain; it wasn't his insanity that caused his jealousy; and if you keep saying that, Basil, I shall think you are trying to justify him."

"Bless my soul! What question of justification is there?"

"If he was not responsible for his dream," she went on, "he was certainly responsible for the occasion of his dream, and so it comes to the same thing at last. It was his folly, his silly, romantic clinging to a sentiment that he ought to have flung away the instant he was married, which did all the harm. A husband shouldn't have any friend but his wife."

"You will never get me to deny that, my dear, at least as long as you're in this dangerous humor."

"I know I'm ridiculous," she said, nervously. "But I do feel so sorry for that poor creature! She seems to me like some innocent thing caught in a trap; and she can't escape, and no one can set her free. I shall begin to believe that there is such a thing as Fate, in that old Greek sense: something that punishes you for your sorrows and for the errors of others."

"There is certainly something that does that," I said, "whether we call it Fate or not. We suffer every day for our sorrows, and for the sins of men we never saw, or even heard of. here's solidarity in that direction, anyway."

"Yes, and why can't we feel it in the other direction? Why can't we feel that we're helped, as well as hurt, by those unknown people? Why aren't we rewarded for our happiness?"

"It's all a mystery; and I don't know but we are rewarded for our happiness, quite as much as we're punished for our misery. Some utterly forgotten ancestral dyspeptic rises from the dust now and then, and smites me with his prehistoric indigestion. Well, perhaps it's some other forgotten ancestor, whose motions were all hale and joyous, that makes me get up now and then impersonally gay and happy, and go through the day as if I had just come into a blessed immortality."

"Ah, those awful dead! Basil," she entreated, "from this time on, let's live so that whichever dies first, the other won't have anything to be remorseful for!"

"We can't do that, and I don't believe we were meant to do it. We have to live together as if we were going to live together forever."

"Why, we are, dearest! Don't you think we are?"

"I can't imagine anything else; but I don't understand that this is the prospect that now looks so disheartening for Mrs. Faulkner. If it were a question of her going on forever with Faulkner, it would be very simple, or comparatively simple. In that case the wrong he had helplessly done her in his crazy dream would only endear him to her the more, for it would be something for her perpetually to exercise her love of forgiving upon. But the difficulty is that she now wishes to go on living with somebody else forever. I don't blame her for that; on the contrary I think it's altogether well and wholly right, something to be desired and praised. But if the one she now wishes to go on living with forever happens to be the very person whom her dead husband's dream foreboded--"


"Why, you see, it complicates the affair." We had touched the quick, and we were silent a moment, quivering with sympathy. "It's all a mystery, and one part no more a mystery than another; but I suppose that when we come really to know, it will all be so very, very simple that we shall be astonished. Mrs. Faulkner's trouble isn't about the future, though; that has to be left to take care of itself; her trouble is about the present and about the past. I haven't the least idea that she ever gave a thought to Nevil as long as her husband lived, or for long after he died."

"Oh, Basil! I like to hear you say that!"

"I dare say you'd like to say it yourself: it's very magnanimous. But I can understand how such a woman would now begin to question whether she had not thought of him, and would end by bringing herself in guilty, no matter what the facts were. I didn't like her attempting to ignore the tenor of Faulkner's dream when she went to talk with Wingate about it immediately after his death. That was romantic."

"I didn't like that either," said my wife. "Yes, it was romantic."

"If she had made Wingate tell her then, it would have been all over with by this time. Either she would have resented it, and set about forgetting Faulkner, and living a denial of all fealty to the memory of a man who could wrong her so--"

"Basil! You said he was not responsible for it!"

"Or else she would have succumbed to it, and refused ever to see Nevil, and this frightful quandary that she's got us all into never would have been brought about."

My wife could not laugh with me at our personal entanglement in Mrs. Faulkner's affair, which my words reminded her of. She began to enlarge upon the hardship of it; and she was not reconciled to it by my arguments going to show how nothing any one did or suffered could be done or suffered to one's self alone, and that probably at that very moment some nameless savage in Central Africa was shaping our destiny in some degree, and was making favor with his fetich for our disaster, when he supposed himself to be merely invoking protection against a raid of Arab slavers. Those were the days of frequent railroad accidents, and she recurred to her fixed principle that I must never go a railroad journey alone, because it was necessary that when I was killed on the train she and the children must be there to be killed with me. Nothing less than the infatuation she had for Mrs. Faulkner would have supported her in the sacrifice of such a principle, and I am not sure that even that would have been enough without the lively fear of having Mrs. Faulkner break down with a nervous fever, or something, before we could get her out of the house. I recurred to this consideration, which Isabel had already touched upon, and treated it in a philosophic spirit, as an instance of the grotesque and squalid element which is so apt to mar a heroic situation, in order apparently to keep human nature modest; but she could not follow me. She said, yes, that decided it; and she drew a sigh of relief, which she cut short to express her wonder that Dr. Wingate should have told Hermia what Faulkner's dream was when he knew it would perfectly kill her. She said she had long had her doubts of his wisdom, and she now proceeded to disable it, with that confidence in her ability to judge him which all women feel in regard to physicians. At least, she said, if he had any sort of intuition, or even the smallest grain of common-sense, or the slightest delicacy, he would not have told her that the man whom the dream involved was the very man she was going to marry. I said that perhaps Wingate did not know she was going to marry Nevil; and she acknowledged that this was true, and began to rehabilitate him. I was in hopes that she would not ask me why I had not told him; for I now saw, or thought I saw, that I had been mistaken in the delicacy which had kept me from doing it. But I was not to escape: the question came, in due course, and all my struggles to free myself only served to fix the blame for the whole trouble more firmly upon me. She said that now she saw it all; and that I need not go to Central Africa for the cause of our predicament.

I spent a troubled night, tormented, whether sleeping or waking, by a fantastic exaggeration of the whole business, and exasperated by a keen sense of its preposterousness. It seemed to me intolerable that I should be made the victim of it: that this gossamer nothing, which might perhaps accountably involve the lives of those concerned through a morbid conscience, should have power upon me, to drag me a thousand miles away from my family, and subject me to all the chances of danger and death which I must incur, seemed to me atrocious. I spent myself in long imaginary dialogues with my wife, with Hermia, with Nevil, in which I convinced them to no effect that I had nothing whatever to do with the matter, and would not have. Faulkner appeared to me a demoniac presence, at the end of the lurid perspective, running back to that scene in the garden-implacable, immovable, ridiculous like all the rest, monstrous, illogical, and no more to be reasoned away than to be entreated.

I woke in the morning with the clear sense that there was only one thing for it, and that was simply to refuse to go with Mrs. Faulkner. I spent the forenoon in arranging my business for a week's absence, and I started West with her on the three o'clock train.

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