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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Third



BOTH THEN and afterward, when we reached the Faulkner mansion, I was aware of not having done the Faulkners justice as personages, in our meeting at Swampscott. I had understood, in a careless way, that their occupation of that villa and the style of their living in it meant money; but Faulkner himself was such an informal sloven, and Hermia was so little attributable in character to anything about her, and the doom hanging over them was so exclusive of all other interest in them, that I had not conjectured the degree of state from which they were detached. The quiet richness of the equip age that had met us now was the forerunner of a sumptuous comfort, far beyond any expectation of mine, in all Mrs. Faulkner's belongings and surroundings. She was not a person you could imagine caring for the evidences or uses of wealth; she affected you at once as exterior to all such sordid accidents; as capable of being a goddess in any gown. As a matter of fact, however, the costliness in which her whole life was clad was certainly very great.

I had forgotten the spacious grounds in which Faulkner's house stood, or perhaps I now noticed them more because all the neighborhood had been closely built up in the process of the city's growth. In the heart of the town the mansion rose from the midst of ample lawns and gardens, enclosed by a high brick wall, such as I had always said was my ideal of stately bounds; and it all looked much older than anything at the East, from the soft-coal smoke with which wall and mansion and garden trees were blackened. I suppose it was the smell of this in the air, and the mat of ivy on the house front, that confused my memories of the farther past with more recent recollections of England, and imparted to my present sensations the vagueness of both, as we rolled up under the porte cochere. I saw that the house must have been vastly enlarged since I had been there last, and the bulk of the elms that overtopped it, and the height of the slim white birches on the lawn before it, warned me how long ago that had been. Within, I was met by the fresh, brisk warmth of a fire of hickory limbs, that burnt on the wide hall hearth, and I at once delivered myself up to the caresses of the velvety ease in which all life moved there. These influences are so subtly corrupting that a vulgar question formed itself in my mind, as I followed the servant up the broad staircase to my room, and I wondered how much the invitation of such luxury might tempt a man fagged in heart and mind. I said to myself that if I were Nevil, for example, and I were in love with the heart of this material bliss, I should certainly let no fantastic scruple bar me from possession. I cannot exactly say how the formulation of this low thought affected me with a perception of Hermia's charm in a way it was not apt to make its appeal. But when I went down to dinner, and met her again, mellowed to harmony with all that softness and richness by a dress that lent itself in color and texture to her peculiar beauty, I was abashed by her youth and loveliness. I had till then thought of her so much as a mysteriously stricken soul, that I had never done justice to her as a woman that some favored man might be in love with, as men are with women, and might marry. When I now realized this I was ashamed of realizing it, and was afraid of betraying it somehow, by some levity, some want of conformity in mood or manner to what I knew of her. I suffered myself to wonder if Nevil ever had this unruly sense of her, against which something sadly reproachful in her beauty itself seemed to protest, and which I feel that I have given undue import and fixity in putting it into words. I suppose it was all from seeing her for the first time in colors, and from perceiving with a distinctness unfelt before that she was in the perfect splendor of a most regal womanhood. Something perversely comic mixed with my remorse, when I met her eye with these thoughts in my mind, and fancied a swift query there as to the impression I had of her. I wished to tease, to mystify her, to keep her between laughing and crying, as a naughty boy will with some little girl whom he pretends to have found something wrong about. I have since thought she may have been questioning whether I read in her costume any conclusion as to the matter pending in her mind; and that she meant to express by this assertion of her right to be beautiful the decision which she had reached. If this was so, she had chosen a means too finely, too purely feminine; my wife might have understood her, but I certainly did not.

The dowager Mrs. Faulkner was there with her in the drawing-room, a plain old lady, whom I could see her son had looked like, in a rich old lady's silk. She welcomed me with a motherly cordiality, and put me on that footing of intimacy with Faulkner in the past which I was always wishing in vain to refuse. I perceived that I had for her only the personality that he had given me; she could not detach me from the period of my first acquaintance with him. She began at once to talk literature with me, as if that were the practical interest of my life; and I found her far better read, and of a far more modern taste, than her son had been. She was one of those old ladies who perhaps reach their perfection a little away from the centres of thought, or rather of talk, and in some such subordinate city as that where her life had been passed. She had kept the keen relish for books which seems to dull where books are written and printed, and she had vivid opinions about them which were not faded by constant wear. I found also that she knew personally a great many of the authors we discussed: it was still in the palmy days of lecturing, and the Faulkners had made their house the hospitable sojourn of every writer who had come to the place to read his essay or poem. She told me that I had the authors' seat at her table, and that the very chair I then sat in had been occupied by Emerson, Curtis, Wendell Phillips, Saxe, Dr. Holland, Bayard Taylor, Mark Twain, and I do not know who else.

I confess that she fatigued me a little with all that enthusiasm, but except for her passion for authorship in books and out of them, I found that I must revise my impression that she was a romantic person. Her relations with her daughter-in-law had nothing, certainly, of romantic insubstantiality; they were of the solidest and simplest affection, founded apparently upon a confidence as perfect as could have existed between them if Hermia had been her own child. She gave her the head of the table, and she let herself be ruled by her in many little things in which old ladies are apt to be rebellious to younger women. She seemed to wish only to lead the talk, but she deferred to Hermia in several questions of fact as well as taste, and though she always spoke to her as "child," it was evidently with no wish to depose or minify her. On her part Hermia, without seeming to do so, showed herself watchful of Mrs. Faulkner's comfort and pleasure at every moment, and evidently returned her liking in all its cordiality. There was no manner of jealousy between them, perhaps because Mrs. Faulkner could never have been a beauty, and could not even be retrospectively envious of Hermia's magnificence, and partly also because they were temperaments that in being wholly opposite did not in the least wear upon each other.

This at least was my rapid formulation of the case. The dinner was exquisite, and Mrs. Faulkner praised it with impartial jollity, assuring me that I should have had no such dinner if she had been in authority, but that Hermia's genius for house-keeping was such that its inspirations ruled even in her absence. As for herself, she did not know what she was eating.

"Nor, I hope, how much I am," I said.

In fact I felt quite torpid, after dinner. As we sat before the fire I began to have long dreams between the syllables of the words I heard spoken, and I had a passage of conversation with my wife and Faulkner, in which it was all pleasantly arranged in regard to Nevil, while I was dimly aware of Mrs. Faulkner's asking me whether I thought George Eliot would live as a poet.

I do not know whether I perceptibly disgraced myself or not. But we made a short evening, and a little after nine o'clock I acquiesced with an alacrity for which I am sure my wife would never have forgiven me, in Hermia's suggestion that I must be very tired, and would like to go to bed.

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