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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Second



THE GENERAL CHANGE in Hermia, no less than a phase of her character which had never before shown itself to us, struck me at the station where I went to meet her on the arrival of her train; and when I brought her home, I saw that she affected my wife in the same way. Personally we had known her only as the submissive and patient subject of an invalid's sick will, anxious to devote herself to the gratification of his whims. We remembered her as all gentleness, abeyance, self-effacement,and then as a despair so quiet that the wildest grief would have been less pathetic to witness. From Wingate's report of her interview with him we had inferred a strength which was rather hysterical; and though her letters of the last two years had given us the impression of a clear and just mind, able to decide impartially from uncommon insight, we had still kept our old idea of her, and thought only of the self-abnegation we had seen, and the somewhat abnormal self-assertion of which we had heard.

She now appeared younger than before, which I suppose was an effect of her having really grown thinner; and with her return to her youthful figure she had acquired an elastic vigor which we did not perceive at once to be moral rather than physical. It was when we fairly saw her face in the light of the half-hour which we had with her before dinner, that we knew this was the spirit's school of the body; and that underneath her power over herself was a weakness that had to be constantly watched and disciplined. She was like an athlete who knows the point in which lies the danger of his failure, and who guards and fortifies it. I am aware that this gives a false and theatrical complexion to the simple truth that touched and fascinated us; but I do not know how otherwise to express it; and I am not able to describe as I would like the appearance of a great happiness suddenly arrested and held in check, which we both believed we saw in her. It was this, I fancy, that kept us silent with those congratulations upon her engagement which we should both have felt it fit to offer. To tell the whole truth, we were a little quelled and overawed by the resolute strength of which she gave the effect, and we left it for her, if she would, to enlarge the circle of our talk from the commonplaces of her journey East, and her ability to sleep on the cars, and of her health, and Mrs. Faulkner's health, and ours; and include an emotional region where Nevil should at least be named. But she did not mention him, and she only departed from these safe generalities in asking if we could probably see Dr. Wingate that evening.

I said that he had no office hours in the evening, but I knew he was to be found at home between half past seven and nine, and we might chance it. "I must see him to-night," she answered, quietly, "and I wish you and Mrs. March would come with me. It's a matter that I may want you to know about. I may need--need"--she faltered a breath--"your help."

"Why, of course," said my wife; and then I had one of my inspirations, as she called them.

I said, "Why not send a messenger round for Dr. Wingate to come here? It will catch him at dinner, and then we can make sure of him," and I modestly evaded the merit I might have acquired through this suggestion, by going off to ring for a messenger, who arrived, of course, just when we had forgotten him, and made my wife believe it was the doctor.

We had a moment together before dinner for the exchange of impressions and conjectures, and I made my little objections to the hardship of being involved again in Mrs. Faulkner's affairs. "What do you suppose she meant by needing our help? Really I think I must be excused from being present at her consultation of Dr. Wingate! If she's going to break down on our hands--"

My wife saw the parody of her customary anxieties in the presence of any aspect of the unexpected. "Nonsense! It's nothing of that kind, poor thing! If it only were! But it's something that's on her mind--that Dr. Wingate knows about and she doesn't. And now the time's come when she must."

"Do you mean--the dream?"

"Yes. Or something connected with it. I saw it in an instant. Well, she's got her punishment!"

"Her punishment? What in the world is she punished for?"

"For trying to bear more than she could. For trying not to know what she must know before she could really ever take another step in life. I suppose at that time she expected to die. But she lived."

"Ah, that's a mistake we often make!"

"Yes, she could have borne it if nothing else had happened after that."

"But something else happened."

"And now she has to provide for this world instead of the next."

"Poor mortality!" I sighed. "Between the two worlds, how its difficulties are multiplied!"

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