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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Second



THE SITUATION, which seemed to our despondent philosophy tragically permanent, was of course only a transitory phase; and we quickly had news of a change. Nevil had grown better; he had been invited to resume his former charge, with a year's leave of absence for travel and the complete recovery of his health. The sort of indignant tenderness with which all his old friends had taken up his cause against his cruel fate had gone far to console and restore him. Mrs. Faulkner spoke of his joy in their affection as something very beautiful, and she dwelt upon the pleasure it gave them to see the old Nevil coming back day by day, in the old unselfish manliness. He had been troubled, in his depression, by the consciousness that it was ignoble to give way to it, and his courage was rising with his strength to resist. But still it was thought best for him to go abroad and complete his recovery by an entire change; and he was going very soon. He had accepted the means from his people as an advance of salary for services which he expected to render, and so the obstacle of his poverty and pride was got over.

I cannot say that it pleased us greatly to learn that Nevil thought of sailing from Boston, and hoped to see us; but we had our curiosity to satisfy, as well as our intangible obligation of hospitality to fulfil, and my wife wrote asking him to our house for such time as he should have between arriving and departing. He was delayed in one way or other so that he came in the morning, and sailed at noon; she did not meet him at all, but I went over to the ship in East Boston, and saw him off; and then gave her such report of him as I could. I am afraid it was rather vague. I said he seemed shy, as if he were embarrassed by his knowledge that I knew his story; he seemed a little cold; he seemed a little more clerical. I suppose I had really expected him to speak with intense feeling of the Faulkners, and that it disappointed me when he only mentioned them in giving me the messages they had sent. I do not know why I should have felt repelled, almost hurt by his manner; but I dare say it was because I had met him so full of a sympathy which I could not express and which he could not recognize. I was aware afterward of having derived my mood rather from Mrs. Faulkner's representations of him than from my own recollections. Perhaps I had a romantic wish to behold a man whom the waters had passed over, and who gave evidence of what he had undergone. But Nevil appeared as he had always appeared to me: pure, gentle, serene; not broken, not bruised, and by no means prepared for the compassion which I was prepared to lavish upon him. I did not reflect that the intimacy had proceeded much more rapidly on my part than on his.

He was in company with a wealthy parishioner, and he presented me as a fellow-Westerner. His friend ordered some champagne in celebration of this fact and of the parting hour, and we had it in their large state-room, the captain's room, which the parishioner was very proud of having secured. He filled Nevil's glass slowly, so that he should lose nothing in mere effervescence, and said, "Doctor's orders, you know." He explained to me that for his own part he did not care about Europe; he had seen too much of it; but he was going along to watch out that Nevil took care of himself.

My wife was even less satisfied with this interview at secondhand than I was at first-hand. She insisted that I should search my conscience and say whether I had not met Nevil with too great effusion, which he might justly resent as patronizing. I brought myself in not guilty of this crime, and then she said she had always thought he was tepid and limited, and she was disposed to console herself by finding in my rebuff; as she called it, a just punishment for my having liked Nevil so much. "You can see by that champagne business," she said, "that, after all, he's just as much a Westerner at heart as Faulkner. I doubt if he was so much hurt by that newspaper notoriety of his broken engagement as he pretended to be."

I admitted that he was a fraud in every respect, and that he had been guilty of something very like larceny in depriving her of a hero. "But," I said, "you have your heroine left."

"Yes, thank goodness! She's a woman!"

"A heroine usually is--unless she's an angel."

Nevil was gone a year, and during this time the correspondence between Mrs. Faulkner and Mrs. March, fevered to an abnormal activity by recent events, fell back into the state of correspondence in health, which tends to an exchange of apologies for not having written. Mrs. Faulkner's letters contained some report of Nevil's movements; and we had got so used to his being abroad that it seemed very sudden, when one came saying that he had got home, perfectly well, and had gone at once to work in his parish, with all his old energy. She sent some newspapers with marked notices of him; and then it seemed to me that we heard nothing more from her till the next spring, when a most joyful letter burst upon us, as it were, with the announcement of her engagement to Nevil.

I cannot say exactly what it was about this fact that shocked us both. The affair, superficially, was in every way right and proper. We were sure that, as Hermia reported, Faulkner's mother was as happy in it as herself, and that it was the just and lawful recompense of suffering that Hermia and Nevil had jointly and severally undergone for no wrong or fault of theirs; we ought to have been glad for them; and yet, somehow, we could not; somehow we were not reconciled to that comfortable close for the most painful passage of life we had ever witnessed. Instead of being the end of trouble, it seemed like the beginning. It brought up again with dreadful vividness all the experiences of that day when Faulkner died. It was as if he rose from the dead, and walked the earth again in the agony of body we had seen, and the anguish of mind we had imagined. Once more I saw him, with a face full of hate, push her from him, and fall back and gasp and die.

Hermia's letter came in the morning; and during the forenoon I received a telegram at my office from her asking if Dr. Wingate were in Boston. I sent out and found that the doctor was at home, and answered accordingly. Then I sent the telegram to my wife, and I hurried away from the office rather early in the afternoon, to learn what she made of it.

She had just got a telegram herself from Mrs. Faulkner, saying that she should start for Boston by the eleven o'clock train that night, and asking if she might come to our house.

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