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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Third



IT WENT THROUGH my mind that the affections being the main interest of women's lives, perhaps they dealt with them more practically if not more wholesomely than men. Certainly their treatment of them seems much more business-like.

Heaven knows what was really in that old woman's heart, as she talked so bravely of a future from which even her son's memory was to be obliterated. Whether it was a sacrifice of herself she was completing, or whether she was accomplishing an end which she freely intended, I shall never be certain; but I thought afterward that she had perhaps schooled herself to look only at Hermia's side of the affair, and had come to feel that she could do no wrong to the dead, whom she could no longer help, by seeking the happiness of the living, whom she could help so much. I myself have always reasoned to this effect, and in what I had to do with it I did my best to bring others to the same mind; and yet at that moment, in that place, it seemed a hellish thing. I saw Faulkner with the inner vision, by which alone, doubtless, we see the dead, standing there where I first met him, by that table where we were sitting, with his long nervous fingers, yellowed at their tips by his cigar, trembling on an open page; and then I saw him fall back on the seat of the arbor in the old sea-side garden and die. What a long tragedy it was that had passed between those two meetings! Had not his suffering won him the right to remembrance? None of us would have denied this; but what was proposed was to forget him; to blot his memory and his sorrow, as he had himself been blotted, out of the world forever. The living must do this for their lives' sake; the dead must not master us through an immortal grief. All the same I pitied Faulkner, pitied him for his baleful dream, whose shadow had clouded his own life, and seemed destined to follow that of others as relentlessly; and I pitied him all the more because there seemed no one to do it but me who had cared for him so little while he lived. He had suffered greatly, and by no fault of his own, unless you could blame his folly in having his friend so familiarly a part of his home that his crazy jealousy must make him its object almost necessarily. But even this weakness, culpable as it was, was a weakness and not a wrong; and no casuistry could prove it malevolent. Something impersonally sinister was in it all, and the group involved was severally as blameless as the victims of fate in a Greek trilogy. Neither I nor any other witness of the fact considered for a moment that Faulkner had cause for the dark suspicion which was the beginning and the end of his dream.

I do not know whether Mrs. Faulkner had been saying anything else before I woke from these thoughts and heard her say, "I have spoken very fully and freely to you, Mr. March, both because you knew much of this matter already, and because I need--Hermia needs--your help. We depend upon your kindness; we are quite helpless without you; and you were one of my son's early friends, and can enter into our feelings."

"I assure you, Mrs. Faulkner--" I began; and I was going to say that the matter of my early friendship with her son had somehow always been strangely exaggerated; but I found that I could not decently do this, under the circumstances, and I said--"There is nothing in my power that I wouldn't gladly do for you."

"I was certain of that," she answered. "James must know of this--of the whole fact--as soon as he gets back. But Hermia can't write to him about it, and I can't speak to him." I began to feel a cold apprehension steal over me; at the same time a light of intelligence concerning Hermia's hospitable eagerness to make me her guest dawned upon me. Could that exquisite creature, in that electrical moment of relief from her trouble, have foreseen my usefulness by the same flash that showed her the simple duty she had in the matter? I do not think I should have blamed her, if that were the case; and I was prepared for Mrs. Faulkner's conclusion: "We must ask you to speak to James."

I was prepared, but I was certainly dismayed, too; and I promptly protested: "My dear Mrs. Faulkner, I don't see how I could possibly do that. I am very sorry, very sorry indeed; but I cannot. I should not feel warranted in assuming such a confidential mission to Mr. Nevil, by my really slight acquaintance, or by anything in my past relations with your son. I have been most reluctant to know anything about this painful business," and if this was not quite true, it was certainly true that I had not sought to know anything. "At every point my wife and I have respected the secrecy in which we felt it ought to remain, even against the impulse of sympathetic curiosity."

"Then Mrs. March did not tell you what it was when you started home with Hermia?"

"Surely not! She would have thought it a betrayal of Mrs. Faulkner that would have been embarrassing to me; and how could you suppose I would let you go on and tell me the whole story if I knew it already.

"I didn't think of that," said Mrs. Faulkner. "Hermia and I both took it for granted that Mrs. March had told you." I did not say anything, and she added ruefully, "Then I don't know what we shall do. Is it asking too much to ask if you can suggest anything?"

I knew from her tone that she was hurt as well as disappointed by this refusal of mine to act for them; strange as it appears, she must have counted unquestioningly upon my consent. I said, to gain time as much as possible, for I had no doubt on that point, "Excuse me, Mrs. Faulkner: do I understand this request to come from you both?"

"No; my daughter knows nothing about it. The idea of asking you was entirely my own; and I made a point of seeing you as soon as possible, this morning. If you must refuse, I beg you will not let her know."

"You may depend upon my silence, Mrs. Faulkner. But," and I rose and began to walk about the room, "why should you tell Mr. Nevil what the dream was; or at least that it concerned him? We must consider that, in the light of reason, the thing is non-existent. It has no manner of substance, or claim upon any one's conscience or even interest. Dr. Wingate did not wish Mrs. Faulkner to know it; and I really think that when she insisted, he would have done wisely and righteously to lie to her about it. I'm sure he would have done so if he had known that she was engaged to Mr. Nevil. But it's too late now; the mischief's done, as far as she's concerned. The question is now how to stop the evil from going farther; and I say there is no necessity for Mr. Nevil's knowing anything about it. Treat it from this moment as the unreality which it is; ignore it."

I went on to the same effect; but as I talked, I knew more and more that I was wasting my breath, and in a bad cause, and I saw that Mrs. Faulkner even ceased to follow me. One of the maids came to my rescue with the announcement that breakfast was served. We followed her, and I ate with the appetite to which I have noticed that the exercise of the sympathies always gives an edge of peculiar keenness.

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