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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Third



I FOUND MYSELF outside in the night, and at the gate I found Nevil in parley with my coachman, who was explaining to him that he was engaged to take a gentleman inside the house, there, to the depot, and could not carry Nevil home.

"Get in, Mr. Nevil," I said. "I've plenty of time, and can drop you wherever you say."

It was as if we had both just come Out of the theatre, and actor and spectator had met on the same footing of the commonplace world of reality.

"Oh, Mr. March!" he said. "Is that you? I will drive with you as far as my study, if you'll let me. I don't feel quite able to walk."

"Yes, certainly. Get in."

He gave the direction, "St. Luke's Church," and I followed him into the hack, and he shrank into the corner, and scarcely spoke till we reached the church. By the gleams that the street lamps threw into the windows as we passed them I had glimpses of his face, haggard and estranged. He tried to fit his latch-key to the door in the church edifice, and then gave it to me, saying with pathetic feebleness, "You do it. I can't. And don't go--don't leave me," he added, as we entered. "Come in, a moment."

I told the driver to wait, and I suppose he had his conjectures as to the condition in which I was getting the Rev. James Nevil into his study. He was like one drunk, and he went reeling and stumbling before me. Once within he seemed almost unconscious of me, where he sat sunken in an arm-chair, staring at the fire in the grate, and I waited for him to speak. At last I made a movement, and he took it as a sign of departure, and put out his hand entreatingly. "No, no! You mustn't go. I want to tell you--" And then he lapsed again into his silence. At last he broke from it with a long sigh: that "Ah-h-h!" which I remembered from the time when he spoke, on the cliffs by the sea, of Faulkner's unkindness to Hermia. "Well, it is ended!"

I had not the heart to pretend that I did not know what he meant. I said nothing, and he lifted his face toward me where I stood, leaning on his chimney-piece.

"Hermia has told me that you know about this unhappiness of ours," he said, hoarsely. "Your knowledge makes you the one human being whom I can speak to of it; perhaps it gives you the right to know all--all there is."

"No, no," I protested. "I have no claim, and I haven't the wish." I mechanically referred to my watch, and seeing that I had abundant time before my train went, I dropped into the chair beside the hearth, and ended by saying, "But I should be glad if I could in any way serve you or help you. I do know the painful situation in which you are placed, and though I can truly say that neither my wife nor I have ever tried to know of it, I confess that we have been most deeply interested, and you have both had our sympathy in a measure which I needn't try to express." I instinctively calmed my tone to an effect of quiet upon his agitation.

"You have been very good--far kinder friends than we could have hoped to find, and there is nothing that such friends as you may not know, so far as we are concerned. But there is very little more to tell. It is all over."

I thought he wished me to ask how, and I said, "Mrs. Faulkner's mother told me this morning that they were waiting to see you--or rather to let you know on your return--"

"Yes. I expected to return to-night, but I came back late this afternoon, and I went directly to them, of course. It was not what Hermia wished--it was what she dreaded most--but it was doubtless for the best; at any rate it happened. In a moment we were confronted with our question. She told me, fully and fearlessly, as she deals with everything, just what it was, and we set ourselves to solve it--to solve it, if possible, in favor of ourselves, our weakness, perhaps our sin!" His head dropped on his breast, and I saw his eyes fixed with a dreary stare on the smouldering fire. I was sensible, without looking about it much, of the character of the room. It was one of those studies which clergymen for their convenience sometimes have in their church buildings, and where I suppose they go to read and write and think, and transact church business with the officers of their church, and receive people who come to them for counsel or comfort in such straits as those which bring us in piteous entreaty before the ministers of conscience. It is a kind of Protestant confessional; and while I waited for Nevil to speak again, I recalled stories I had heard of guilty souls seeking such an asylum for that relief which we shall all know at the judgment-day, when we shall be stripped bare before the divine compassion down to our inmost thoughts and purposes. Women who have betrayed their husbands go there to own their shame; men that have cheated and stolen and lied, go there to lay the burden of their wrong-doing upon the priest of God; and with these a mass of minor sinners, with their peccadilloes of temper and breeding and deceit; as well as the self-accusers who wish to purge their spirits even of the dread of sin, and to receive the acquittal which they cannot give themselves. More and more as Nevil went on it seemed to me that the place was not favorable to a judicial examination of his own case; that the color of things he had heard there must stain and blacken the facts of his own experience, and prevent him from seeing them aright.

"The question was," he said, lifting his head, and bending that hopeless stare on me, "not what we should do, with that shadow of Faulkner's dream hanging over us, but what we had done--what I had done--to cause him the torment of such a dream."

"For Heaven's sake, Mr. Nevil," I broke in, "don't take that way of looking at it. You had no more to do with causing that dream than I had. The pain he suffered--the physical pain--caused the craze which his dream came from. It was a somnambulic mania--nothing more and nothing less. Dr. Wingate assured Mrs. Faulkner in the most solemn manner--"

"Ah, the sincerity of a doctor with his patient! He is a skilful man, very able, very learned; he knows all about the body, but the soul and its secrets are beyond science. There are facts in the case that he has never had before him. I knew Hermia first, in the loveliness of her young girlhood, and I brought her and Faulkner together."

I murmured, "Yes, I remember you told me."

"I saw the impression she instantly made upon him: it was love at first sight. But though the love of her had possessed his whole soul, he was first faithful to his friendship with me. In that childlike, simple, cordial truthfulness of his, which no one ever knew so fully as I, and which I shall never see in any other man, he pressed me to tell him whether I had any feeling for her myself, for then he would go away, and live his passion down, as best he could, and leave her to me. I assured him that I had no such feeling, no feeling but that pleasure in her beauty and goodness which every one must have in her presence; and they were married."

The silence following upon the gasp in which these words ended was not such as I could break. After a moment Nevil went on.

"I believed what I said; I have never doubted it till this day. But--how do I know--how do I know--that I was not in love with her then, that I have not always been in love with her through all his life and death? It is such a subtle, such a fatal thing in its perversion! I have seen it in others; why shouldn't it be in me? Why shouldn't we have been playing a part unknowingly to ourselves, hypocrites before our own souls? Why should I ever have consented to be with them, to qualify their home by an alien presence, through the daily, hourly lie of friendship for him, except that I loved her, and longed to be near her? Why could not I have kept the love of that poor foolish young girl, innocent and harmless, for all her levity, which she gave me Out there in the West, except that in the guilty inmost of my heart there was no room for anything but love for my friend's wife, whom it had made his widow? Why--"

"Hold on! Wait! This is monstrous!" I broke in upon him. "It's atrocious. You're the victim of your own morbid introspection, of a kind of self-analysis that never ends in anything but self-conviction. I know what it is, every one knows; and it's your right, it's your duty as a man to stand out against it, and not let the honest and lawful feeling you now have damn the past to shame!"

I spoke vehemently, far beyond any explicit right I had to adjure him, but I could see that my words had not the slightest weight with him.

"And Hermia," he went on, "why should she have cared nothing for Faulkner at first? Why, when she believed she had schooled herself to love him, should she have suffered the ever-repeated intrusion of my presence in her home? Why should she have refused so long to know what his dream was? Why should we have made such haste to separate after Faulkner's death; and then why should my thoughts have turned so instantly to her, with such longing for her pity, in that shame I underwent; and why should she have honored and not despised me for a misfortune that my own folly had provoked? There is one answer to it all!"

"And the answer is that your view of the case is as purely an aberration as Faulkner's dream."

"Ah, you can't account for everything on the ground of madness! Somewhere, some time, there must be responsibility for wrong."

"Even if we have to find it in innocence! I tell you that your view of the situation is as false as that which the lowest scandal-mongering mind of an enemy could take of it. You are bound to let your own character--or if not your character, then her character, her nature--count for something in making up such a judgment. I will leave you out of the question, if you like, but I would stake my life upon the singleness of her devotion, in thought, feeling, and deed, to that wretched man whose misery seems such an inextinguishable poison. It's preposterous that I should be defending her to you; but if you have suffered her to share these misgivings of yours, I say you've done a cruel thing. I know--her mother told me--that after what she underwent from learning just what Faulkner's dream was--and my wife and I saw something of her suffering, both in Boston and on the way out here--"

"Ah-h-h!" he breathed.

"She had found peace in her reliance, her perfect faith in your conscience, in your sense of justice, and your instinct of right; and, if you will allow me to say so, you were most sacredly bound not to let any perverse scruple, any self-indulgent misgiving, betray her trust in you. You are a man, with a man's larger outlook, and you should have been the perspective in which she could see the whole matter truly. If you have failed her in this, you have been guilty of something worse than anything you accuse yourself of. Take the thing at its worst! I refuse to consider that she ever allowed her fancy to stray from her duty, but suppose that you were in love with her, in that unconscious way you imagine: who was hurt, who was deceived by it? What harm was done? I will go farther, and ask what harm was there, even if you knew you were in love with her? You let no one else know it--her, least of any." The words, when I had got them out, shocked me; they certainly did not represent my own feeling about such a situation; I was glad my wife had not heard them; and I saw the horror of me that came into Nevil's face. I felt myself getting hot and red, and I hastened to add, "You will forgive me, if I try to put before you the mere legal, practical, matter-of-fact view of the affair"; and I could not help remembering that it was also the romantic view, which I had found celebrated in many novels, as something peculiarly fine and noble and high, something heroic in the silently suffering lover. "I admit that I have no right to speak to you at all--"

"Go on; I invite you to speak," he said gently.

"Then I will say that my only desire is to-to--how shall I say it?--urge that this is altogether an affair of the future, and that if you allow the unhappy past, which is dead, and ought to be buried with Faulkner, to dominate you, or to shape your relations, you seem to me to be--"

I found myself talking sophistries, and I had nothing to say when he took up the word where I broke off.

"Recognizing the fact that the future is the creature, the mere consequence of the past! Without what has been, nothing can be. Oh, we have looked at it in every light! At first, when she told me, I was as bold, as defiant, as a man can be who finds himself unjustly defamed. I said that if ever we had felt reluctance or doubt in our allegiance to the dead, now it was our right, our duty to feel none. We should accuse ourselves if we admitted that any accusal could lie against us. The very innocence of our lives demanded vindication; we should be recreant to our good consciences if we did not treat that wretched figment of a dreaming craze as it deserved. For a moment--for an hour--we were happy in the escape which my defiance won for us, and we built that future without a past, which you think can stand. It fell to ruin. We had deceived each other, but the deceit could not last. Our very indignation at the treason imputed to us by Faulkner's dream made us examine our hearts, and question each other. We could not tell when our love began, and that mystery of origin which love partakes of with eternity, and which makes it seem so divine a thing, became a witness against us. We said that if we could not make sure that no thought we had ever had of each other in his lifetime was false to him, then we were guilty of all, and we must part."

"Oh," I groaned out, "what mere madness of the moon!"

"It was not I who pronounced our sentence; she saw herself that it must be so; it was she who sent me from her."

"Yes; only a woman could be capable of it, could be such a moral hypochondriac! But if she sent you away, and you know, as you must know, that in her heart she wished you to stay, why not in Heaven's name go back to her?"

"Ah, you think I didn't go back! You think we parted once only! We parted a hundred times!"

"But," I said, "you will see it all differently to-morrow, and you must go back to her, and whether she bids you go or not, you must never leave her."

"And what sort of life would that be? A life of defiance, of recklessness, a mere futureless present! I am a priest of the Church, and I teach submission, renunciation, abnegation, here below, where there can be no true happiness, for the sake of a blessed eternity. Shall I cleave to this love which we feel cannot innocently be ours, and preach those things with my lying tongue, while my life preaches rebellion, indulgence, self-will? Every breath I drew would be hypocrisy. What heart should I have to counsel or admonish others in temptation, when I was all rotten within myself? What--"

"Ah, but only listen a moment! This would be all well enough if you were guilty of what you accuse yourself! But don't you see that in this reasoning, or this raving, of yours, you have violated the very first principle, the very highest principle of law? You have held yourself guilty till you were proven innocent, and you offer no proof that you are guilty, not the least proof in the world. You are only afraid that you are guilty; it amounts to that, and it amounts to nothing more; for I hold that Faulkner's crazy jealousy forms no manner of case against you. I confess that though I may have seemed to imply the contrary, I should not feel it lawful for you to marry his widow if you had ever allowed yourself to covet his wife. But you never did; the very notion of such a thing fills you with such shame and horror that you accuse yourself of it. I know that kind of infernal juggle of the morbid conscience; but I thank Heaven I have my own conscience in such good training now that it accuses me of nothing I haven't done; it finds it has quite enough to do in dealing with the facts; I don't supply it with any fancies! It ought to be on your conscience not to leave that noble and beautiful creature to be the prey of doubts and fears, of ifs and ands, that will blast her whole life with the shame of a thief who has given up his booty to escape punishment! Suppose you look at that side of it! You say you left her because she bade you, but she bade you only because she knew you believed you ought to go; and now you must go back to her not only for her sake and for your sake, but in the interest of human enlightenment, from the duty every educated man has to resist the powers of darkness that work upon our nerves through the superstitions of the childhood of the world. You not only ought not to let Faulkner's dream have any deterrent influence with you, but, as you saw yourself, exactly and entirely because of his dream you ought to act in defiance of it, if you have the good conscience which you've said nothing yet to prove you haven't."

I saw that I had touched some points that had escaped him; we talked a long time, and at last I pulled out my watch in a scare, lest I had overstaid my time. I jumped to my feet. "Good heavens! I've lost my train!"

Nevil looked at his watch. "You have Eastern time; there's nearly a whole hour yet. I'll go to the station with you."

I would not sit down again. "Suppose, then, we let the driver take my bag, and we walk? We can talk better."

"You are very good," he said; "I should like that."

The night was dark, and we had the seclusion of a room for our talk, as we walked along together; and in the vast depot, starred with its gas jets far overhead, there was an unbroken sense of communion. Long before we parted, Nevil had consented to revise his own conclusions, and so far to take my view of the situation as at least to see Hermia again, and lay it before her.

My spirits rose with my success, and I set myself to cheer the melancholy in which he assented to my urgence. I understood afterward that he was yielding to reason against that perverse and curious apparatus which we call the conscience; and I perceived that he was loath to have me leave him, as if he were afraid to be left alone, or wished to be still farther convinced. He followed me into the sleeping car, and there he fell into the hands of that rich and cordial parishioner of his whom I remembered meeting when I went down to the steamer at East Boston to see Nevil off for Europe. The gentleman recalled himself to my recollection, and rejoiced that we were to be fellow-travellers as far as Albany.

Nevil could not hide his disappointment and vexation from me, though his parishioner did not see it. He made us both light cigars with him in the smoking-room, and he talked us silent. The car began to move, and I said, "Well, good-by," and followed Nevil out upon the platform for a last word. "Remember your promise! Better get off!"

"Oh, I sha'n't forget that. If I live, I will see her again, and tell her all you have said. And I thank you--thank you--" Clinging to my hand, he pressed it hard, and stepped backward from the car to the ground. I saw him look up at me, and then he gave a wild cry, and I could feel the car grinding him up against the stone jamb of the archway through which the train was passing. There was a hideous crashing sound from his body, and I jumped at the bell-rope. The train stopped; Nevil stood upright, with his face turned toward the light, and a strange effect of patience in his attitude. When the train slowly backed and set him free, he dropped forward a crushed and lifeless lump.

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