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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Second



FOR A WHILE we expected with vivid interest Mrs. Faulkner's account of the infare, and her description of the bride, and of the bridegroom in his new relations. Then we ceased to talk of it, and I, at least, forgot all about it. The time for her letter had passed when it came, and then we reckoned up the weeks since the last one came, and found that this was almost a month overdue. When we had ascertained this fact, my wife opened the letter, and began to snatch a phrase from this page and another from that, turning to the last and returning to the first, in that provoking way women have with a letter, instead of reading it solidly through from beginning to end. As she did this I saw her eyes dilate, and she grew more and more excited.

"Well, well?" I called out to her. when this spectacle became intolerable.

"Oh, my dear, my dear!" she answered, and went on snatching significant fragments from the letter.

"What is it? Doesn't the bride suit? Was Nevil too silly about her? Were the dresses from Worth's? Or what's the matter?"

"The engagement--the engagement is off! Nevil is perfectly killed by it; and he's back on their hands, down sick, and they're taking care of him. Oh, horrors upon horrors! I never heard of anything so dreadful! And the details--well, the whole thing is simply inexpressible!"

"Suppose you give Mrs. Faulkner a chance at the inexpressible. I'd rather hear of the calamity at first hands and in a mass, than have it doled out to me piecemeal by a third person, and snatched back at every mouthful." I put out my hand for the letter, and after a certain hesitation my wife gave it me.

"Well, see what you can make of it."

"I shall make nothing of it; I shall leave that to the facts."

These appeared to be that the engagement had gone on like other engagements up to a certain point. The preparations were made; the dresses were bought; the presents were provided, presumably with the usual fatuity and reluctance; the cards were out; the day was fixed. All this had gone forward with no hint of misgiving from the young lady. She seemed excited, Nevil could remember; but to seem excited in such circumstances was to seem natural. Suddenly, a week before the day fixed for the wedding, she discovered that she had made a mistake: she could never have truly loved him, and now she was sure that she did not love him at all. She was not fit to be a clergyman's wife; she never could make him happy. He must release her; that was the substance of it; but there were decorative prayers to be forgiven and forgotten and accepted in the relation of a friend. She was the only daughter of rich and vulgar parents, and her father added a secret anguish to Nevil's open shame by offering to make it right with him in any sum he would name; the millionaire wished to act handsomely. Nevil could perhaps have borne both the secret anguish and the open shame; but the Sunday edition of the leading newspaper of the place found the affair a legitimate field of journalistic enterprise. It gave column after column of imagined and half-imagined detail; it gave biographical sketches of what it called the high retracting parties; it gave Nevil's portrait, the young lady's portrait, the portraits of the young lady's parents. It was immensely successful, and it drove Nevil out of town. He came back crushed and broken to his old home, and sought refuge with his old friends from the disgrace of his wrong. He would not see any one but the doctor, outside of their house; he was completely prostrated. The worst ofit was that he seemed really to have been in love with the girl, whom he believed to have been persuaded by her parents to break off the match; though he could not understand why they should have allowed her to go so far. Mrs. Faulkner had her own opinions on this point, which she expressed in her letter, and they were to the effect that the girl was weak and fickle, but that she was right in thinking she never had loved him, however wrong she had been in once thinking differently. This could not be suggested for Nevil's comfort, and they were obliged tacitly to accept his theory of the matter; he could not bear to think slightingly of her. In fact, it had been a perfect infatuation, and it had been all the more complete because Nevil, though past thirty-five, had never been in love before, and gave himself to his passion with the ardor of an untouched heart, and the strength of a manhood matured in the loftiest worship, and the most childlike ignorance of women, and especially girls. This was what Mrs. Faulkner gathered at second-hand from his talk with her mother-in-law; and she found herself embarrassed in deciding just how to treat the bruised and broken man, so strangely cast upon their compassion. He wanted to talk with her about his misery, but it seemed to her that she ought not to let him; and yet she could not well avoid it, when he turned to her with such a confident expectation of her sympathy. It was very awkward having him in the house; but they could not turn him out of doors; and he clung to Douglas's mother with all the trusting helplessness of a sick son. It was pathetic to see a man who had once been to her the very embodiment of strong common-sense and spiritual manliness, so weak and helpless. The doctor said he must get away as soon as he could; and he had better go to Europe and travel about. But Nevil was poor; they could send him, of course, and would be glad to do so; but he was sensitive about money, and had none of that innocent clerical willingness to take it.

The letter closed rather abruptly with civil remembrances to me.

"Isn't it cruel, dear?" my wife said, pleadingly, as if to forestall any ironical view I might be inclined to take of the case.

"Yes, it is cruel," I answered, quite in earnest, and we went on to talk it over in all the lights. We said, what a strange thing it was, in the distribution of sorrow and trouble, that this one should receive blow after blow, all through life, and that one go untouched from the beginning to the end. Any man would have thought that Mrs. Faulkner had certainly had her share of suffering in her husband's sickness and death, without having this calamity of his friend laid upon her; for in the mystery of our human solidarity it was clear that she must help him support it. But apparently God did not think so; or was existence all a miserable chance, a series of stupid, blundering accidents? We could not believe that, for our very souls' sake; and for our own sanity we must not. We who were nowhere when the foundations of the earth were laid, and knew not who had laid the measures of it, or stretched the line upon it, could only feel that our little corner of cognition afforded no perspective of the infinite plan; and we left those others to their place in it, not without commiseration, but certainly without trying to account for what had happened to them, or with any hope of ever offering a justification of it.

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