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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Third



IT WAS CERTAINLY a most anomalous situation, and I woke with the brilliant idea that for my own part in it the whole thing was to take it as naturally as possible; which was probably reflected into my waking thought from some otherwise wholly vanished dream.

I found it early, as to the daylight, but in that smoke-dimmed November air it might very well be still rather dark at seven o'clock. I went out for a breath of the pensive confusion which I found still persisted in it, and inhaled my glad youth and my first joy of travel in the odor of those bituminous fumes. The grass was still brightly green on the lawn;

"And parting summer lingering blooms delayed"

in the garden, which stretched with box-bordered walks and grape-vined trellises to the wall at one side of the house. The leaves had dropped from the trees, and I picked up from the fallen foliage, soft and dank under my feet, a black walnut, pungently aromatic, and redolent of my boyhood. At the same time a faint scent rose from the box, and transported me to that old neglected garden by the sea, where I saw Faulkner die. A thrill of immense pity for him pierced my heart. I thought with what a passion of tenderness for that woman he must have planned this house, from which he was now in eternal exile, and her willingness to forget him in her love for another seemed monstrous. It was hard to be a philosophical spectator; I found myself taking the unfriended side of the dead.

In the house, when I returned to it, I was met by Faulkner's mother, before that cheerful hall fire. She put aside the damp morning paper which she had just opened to dry in the heat, and gave me her old, soft hand.

"Do you find many familiar points about the place?" she asked.

"No; I'm afraid I hadn't kept any distinct remembrance of it. At least, it's all very strange."

"You would recognize my son's room, I suppose," she said, turning and leading the way down a corridor that branched away from the hall. "The old house is all here; the new one was built round it; and we've kept poor Douglas's den, as he used to call it, just as it was."

I thought it an odd fancy she should wish me to visit the place with her, but I concluded that perhaps she wished to tell her daughter I had already seen it, if she should ask. At any rate, I had no comment to make even in my own mind: we all deal as we best can with our bereavements. and it is but lamely, helplessly at the best.

We had to pass through the library, and I recognized some of the rare editions and large-paper copies with which poor Faulkner had so quickly surfeited me; and there were two or three of his ridiculous Madonnas hung about, cold engravings with wide mats in frigid frames of black, after a belated taste for the quiet in art. They made me shiver; and in the room which we entered from the library that night, and found Nevil smoking there, we were now met by a ghostly scent of tobacco, as if from the cigars that Faulkner kept on nervously consuming, one after another, as we had talked. It brought back my youth, which seemed haunting the city everywhere: not my youth bright and warm as we find it imagined in the lying books, but cold and dead: the spectre that really revisits after years, and makes us glad it is dead.

The stout-hearted old lady pushed back a blind that had swung to across an open casement, and let in the morning sun. "We keep it aired every day; I can't bear to let it seem to be getting out of use. Hermia feels as I do about it, and she would have asked you to come here and smoke and write your letters; but I thought perhaps I had better bring you first. She was very tired, and we sat up late, talking. Will you sit down? Breakfast will not be ready till half past eight."

I obeyed, and she sat down too. I wondered what could be her motive in wishing to keep me there, and what her theory was in bringing up the last matter that I should have supposed she would like to talk of in that place. Perhaps she spoke from that absence of sensation in regard to certain interests of life which we imagine callousness in the old: those interests are simply extinct in them, and they are no harder than the young who still feel them so keenly. Perhaps she still felt them, and meant to make a supreme renunciation of the past on the spot hallowed to her by the strongest associations. I do not know; I only know that she began to speak, and to speak with a plainness that I have no right to call obtuseness.

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