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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Third



"MR. MARCH, Hermia has been telling me of what she learnt in Boston from Dr. Wingate."

"Yes?" I said feebly.

"It was my wish that she should go there, and see him, and find out to the last word all that he remembered of Douglas. She would not have gone without my wish; but it was her wish, too; or rather it was the necessity of both of us. After we found that paper of Douglas's, which she took with her, we could neither of us rest till we knew everything."

I nodded, for want of wit to say anything relevant, and she went on.

"I wish to say at once that I thoroughly approve of Hermia's engagement to Mr. Nevil, and that nothing she heard from Dr. Wingate has changed me in the least about it. At first, the engagement was rather a shock to me; but not more so than his offer was to Hermia; perhaps not so much." There was no faltering in Mrs. Faulkner's voice, but a tear ran down her cheek. "We are very strangely made, Mr. March. It is twenty years since my husband died, and I have never once thought of marrying again; but I cannot honestly say that I would not have married if I had met any one I loved. I know that such a thing was possible, though I did not know it then. At first, after we have lost some one who is very dear to us, it seems as if henceforward we must live only for the dead: to atone to them for the default of our lives with them, and to make reparation for unkindness. That is the way I felt when my husband died. I wanted to keep myself in communion with him. But that was not possible. Nature soon teaches us better than that; she shows us that as long as we live upon the earth, we Cannot live at all for the dead: we can live only for the living."

"Yes," I said. "I never thought of it before, though."

"Have you ever known any deep bereavement?"

"No; I have been very fortunate."

"If you ever have such a sorrow, you will understand what I say as you never can without it. I had learned the truth when my son died, and I tried to make my daughter accept it from me. But she could not; she could only accept it from experience. He had been her whole life so long that she did not wish to live any other. No woman ever devoted herself more utterly than she did to him. She could not realize that as long as she remained in the world she could not devote herself to him any more; that all that had come absolutely to an end. The truth was the harder for her to learn 'by reason of great strength.' She thought that for his sake she could bear not to know what was the trouble of mind in which he died. That was a mistake."

"My wife and I thought so, when we heard of it. Dr. Wingate told me about it. But it was very heroic."

"It was heroic, yes; but it was impossible. I knew it at the time. If she had made Dr. Wingate tell her then, she could have thought it out and lived it down; or, if she couldn't have done that, then at least what makes it so cruel now would never have happened."

"Yes, I see," I said, in the pause which Mrs. Faulkner made.

"I have always been willing," she resumed, "and sometimes I have been anxious that Hermia should marry again. Marriage is for this world. We are told that by Christ himself, and we know it instinctively. Death does dissolve it inexorably; and although I believe, as Swedenborg says in one of his strange books, that one man and one woman shall live together to all eternity in a union that will make them one personality, still I believe that, as he says, that union may or may not begin on earth, and that it will be formed hereafter without regard to earthly ties. I was not a fool, and I saw that Hermia was young and attractive, and I expected her to have the feelings of other young and attractive women."

There was a mixture of mysticism and matter-of-fact in this dear old lady's formulation of the case which was bringing me near the verge of a smile, but I said, gravely, "Of course."

"But she never showed the least sign of it; and when, after Mr. Nevil came back from Europe, their engagement took place, I was entirely unprepared for such a thing. He had been with us a great deal. We nursed him through a long sickness after that broken engagement of his in Nebraska, and he was quite like one of ourselves. In fact, his friendship with Douglas dates back so far--to the very beginning of their college days--that I can hardly remember when James did not seem like a son to me. You mustn't suppose, though, that I ever objected to the engagement, or do now. I highly approve of it. But I had always fancied that the very intimacy that Hermia was thrown into with him, was unfavorable to her forming any fancy for him. In fact, she has always been rather critical of him; and I know that she rather dislikes clergymen--as men, I mean. She is a religious person in her own way: I've nothing to say against her way. So, as I say, I was sufficiently astonished; but that is neither here nor there. I gave my cordial consent at once. James has not had a very joyous life; he has made it rather hard for himself, and I suppose that the idea of putting some brightness into it may have first made Hermia--But at any rate they were very happy together; and though Hermia had her morbid feelings occasionally about Douglas, and seemed to think it was wicked to turn from him to anybody else, and a kind of treason, still, she always listened to me about it, and would be reasonable when I showed her how foolish she was. I wanted her to put his things away, and there I suppose I made a little mistake, especially the things connected with his last days--writings and letters, and odd scraps, that she was always intending to look over, and never quite had the strength for. She consented to burn them; but she could not bring herself to do that without reading them; and so we found that paper which she carried to Dr. Wingate. Do you know what was in it?"

"No, certainly. She showed it to him in our presence, and I think she was willing we should know, but he decided very wisely that he would rather speak with her alone about it."

My feeling did not seem to make much impression upon Mrs. Faulkner.

"I suppose you do know, Mr. March, that my son was not quite in his right mind when he died?"

I admitted that I had some misgivings to that effect.

"I don't understand," she went on, "why we should be so ashamed to acknowledge that any one connected with us is not perfectly sane. As if the world were not full of crazy people! As if we were not all a little crazy on some point or other! The pain he suffered had affected his mind; it's very common, I believe; and he had a delusion that showed itself in the form of a dream, but that would have been sure, if he lived, to have broken out in a mania.

She stopped, as if she expected me to prompt her or agree with her, and I said, "Yes, Dr. Wingate told me something of the kind."

"But he gave you no hint of what the dream--the delusion--was?"


"We used often to try to think what it could be. It seemed to give him a dislike or distrust for Hermia; and we thought--we hardly ever spoke of it openly; now we must handle it without shrinking, no matter what pain it gives! We thought--that it involved some fear of violence from her. People whose minds are beginning to be affected, often have such dreadful fancies about those who are dearest to them."

"Yes, yes, I know," I said, and I hope I did not let my tone express the slight impatience I felt at being obliged to traverse ground I had been over with Hermia already in this quest.

"But it was nothing of that kind whatever. It was"--Mrs. Faulkner hesitated, as if to prepare me for a great surprise-"jealousy."

"Jealousy?" I repeated, and I could not help throwing into the word a touch of the surprise which she evidently expected of me. I had not followed her so far without perceiving that an old lady so devoted to literature valued the literary quality of the situation; that with all her good sense and true and just feeling she had the foible of being rather proud of a passage in her family life which was so like a passage of romance.

"Yes," she went on. "And of all things, jealousy of her with--with James." I could say nothing to a fact which I had conjectured long before, and she continued: "Dr. Wingate seemed to think that now she had better know exactly what the dream was, since the paper we had found distressed her so much, and take it in the right way. It was a scribble in one of his note-books, on a leaf that he had torn Out and probably meant to tear up. It had the date, and it spoke of his having that dream again; that he had begun to have it every night, and if he fell asleep by day. The leaf was torn out at the side in places, and you could only read scraps of sentences, but it all accused her of wishing his death. It would have driven any other woman wild, but Hermia had been through too much already. She told me something of it, to explain the paper as well as she could; and she said that she knew you and Mrs. March had noticed something strange in Douglas's manner toward her the day you were there; and I urged her to go right on and consult you both, and see Dr. Wingate, and find out exactly what the trouble was."

I was silent, for want of anything fitting to say, though she seemed to expect me to speak.

"The doctor told her that Douglas had been having the dream almost a year before he died: at first every month or two, and then every week. So far as he could remember it was always exactly the same thing from the very beginning. He dreamed that she and James were--attached, and were waiting for him to die, so that they could get married. Then he would see them getting married in church, and at the same time it would be his own funeral, and he would try to scream out that he was not dead; but Hermia would smile, and say to the people that she had known James before she knew Douglas; and then both ceremonies would go on, and he would wake. That was all."

"It seems to me quite enough. Horrible! Horrible! I'm surprised that Wingate should have told her."

"He had to do so. There was nothing else. She got it from him by questioning; though I suppose he thought it best she should know just what the trouble was, so that she could see how perfectly fantastic it was, and be able to deal with it accordingly."

"Poor man! How he must have suffered from that unrelenting nightmare! And it seems too ghastly to drag from his grave the secret he kept while he lived." These thoughts were so vivid in my mind that I should not have been surprised if Mrs. Faulkner had replied to them like spoken words.

But she only said: "There were some strange details of the dream, which it seems Dr. Wingate recalled; he may have written it down after hearing Douglas tell it; and from the description of the church which he gave, Hermia recognized it as one here in the city: James's own church. Of course," said the old lady, ignoring the shudder with which I received this final touch, "Dr. Wingate might not have been so explicit if he had known of Hermia's engagement to James. I suppose you hadn't told him?"

"No," I said, and I set that omission down as the chief enormity in a life which has not been free from some blunders worse than crimes.

"Well, that is the whole affair, and we must act at once," said Mrs. Faulkner.

"Break off the engagement, of course," was at my tongue's end; but I found out I had said nothing when she added:

"James must know it all without delay. He has been out of town, but he will be home to-night, and he must know it before he meets Hermia again."

"Of course," I said.

"We talked it over late into the night, and we both came to that conclusion. In fact, Hermia had thought it out on the way home; and she said that just as the train came in sight of home yesterday, it all flashed upon her what she must do. She must leave the future wholly to James, to do whatever he thought right after he knew everything. She says it came to her like a sudden relief from pain. You must have thought it strange we could keep up, as we did in the evening, but it was the revulsion of feeling with her, and I knew nothing till you left us. She merely said, when we met, 'It is all right, mother,' and I should have thought so, if she had told me every word. The decision she reached is the only one. We must leave it to James. She rests in that, and I can't say whether the thought of my poor son's illusion troubles her or not, in its elf. I know that it ought not to trouble her; but at the same time I know that it is something which we ought not to keep from James. Men often look at things very differently from women, the best of women."

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