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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Third



THE FAULKNERS of course knew nothing of my intention of going that night, and I staid rather late after dinner, so that I should not have much more time than I needed to pack my bag and catch my train. I thought that if I could not altogether escape an embarrassing urgence from them to stay longer, I could at least cut it short. But I found that it was a needless precaution when I went back to them. Mrs. Faulkner, the mother, received my reasons for hurrying home with all the acquiescence I could have wished. She said she knew I must be anxious to get back to my family whom I had left at such short notice; that Hermia and herself appreciated my kindness and my wife's goodness more than they could ever express; and they hoped and prayed that if our need should ever be like theirs we might find such friends in it as we had been to them. I felt an unintentional irony in these thanks so far as they concerned the perfection of my own friendship, but I still had no disposition to repair its lack by offering to see Nevil for her. That, I felt, more and more, I could not do; but I stood a moment, questioning whether I ought not to renew my expressions of regret that I could not do it. I ended by saying that I hoped all would turn out for the best with them; and I added some platitudes and inanities which she seemed not to hear, for she broke in upon them with excuses for Hermia, who would not be able to see me, she was afraid. I said, I knew what a wretched day she had been having, and I left my adieux with Mrs. Faulkner for her. Perhaps if I had not myself been so distraught I might have noticed more the incoherent attention Mrs. Faulkner was able to give me throughout this interview. But I did not realize it till afterward. I went to my room, glad to have it over so easily, and resolved to get out of the house with all possible despatch. I had a carriage at the gate, and I looked forward to waiting an hour and a half in the depot before my train started with more pleasure than such a prospect ever inspired in me before.

In the confusion which afterward explained and justified itself, Mrs. Faulkner had failed to offer me the superfluous help of a servant to fetch down my bag, and I was descending the stairs with it in my hand when I heard a door close in the corridor which led to Faulkner's den. Steps uneven and irregular advanced toward the square hall at the foot of the stairs, and in a moment I saw a man stagger into the light, and stay himself by a clutch at the newel-post. He looked around as if dazed, and then vaguely up at me, where I stood as motionless and helpless as he. I have no belief he saw me; but at any rate, Nevil turned at the cry of "James! James!" which came in Hermia's voice from the corridor, and caught her in his arms as she flew upon him. She locked her arms around his neck, and wildly kissed him again and again, with sobs such as break from the ruin of life and love; with gasps like dying, and with a fond, passionate moaning broken by the sound of those fierce, swift kisses.

I pitied her far too much to feel ashamed of my involuntary witness of the scene; though as for that I do not believe she would have foregone one caress if she had known that all the world was looking. I perceived that this was the end; and I understood as clearly as if I had been told that she had confided her secret to him, had left their fate in his hands, and that he had decided against their love. It maddened me against him, to think he had done that. I did not know, I did not care, what motive, what reason, what scruple had governed him; I felt that there could be only one good in the world, and that was the happiness of that woman. For the moment, this happiness seemed centred and existent solely in her possession of him. But I was sensible, through my compassion and my indignation, that whatever he had done, she was admiring, adoring him for it. I saw that, in a flash of her upturned face, as I stood, with my heart in my mouth, before the tragedy of their renunciation. The play suddenly ended. With one last long kiss, she pushed him from her, and fled back into the corridor.

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