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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Third



HERMIA DIED a year later, and was buried by Faulkner's side; his mother lived on for several years.

It was inevitable, of course, that Hermia should accept Nevil's death as a judgment; we become so bewildered before the mere meaninglessness of events, at times, that it is a relief to believe in a cruel and unjust providence rather than in none at all. What is probably true is that she sank under the strain of experiences that wrung the finest and most sensitive principles of her being, or, as we say, died of a broken heart.

My wife and I have often talked of her and Nevil, and have tried to see some way for them out of the shadow of Faulkner's dream into a sunny and happy life. As they are both dead, we have dealt with them as arbitrarily as with the personages in a fiction, and have placed and replaced them at our pleasure in the game, which they played so disastrously, so that we could bring it to a fortunate close for them. We have always denied, in the interest of common-sense and common justice, any controlling effect to the dream itself; except through their own morbid conscientiousness, their exaggerated sensibility. We know people, plenty of them, who would have been no more restrained from each other by it than by a cobweb across their path: Hermias who would never have told their Nevils of it; Nevils who, if they had known it, would have charged their Hermias on their love to spurn and trample upon it. That evil dream had power upon the hapless pair who succumbed to it only because they were so wholly guiltless of the evil imputed to them.

Our Nevil's death, violent and purely accidental as it was, seemed to us a most vague and inconclusive catastrophe, and no true solution of the problem. Yet our Hermia being what she was, and Nevil being Nevil, we saw that it was impossible Faulkner's dream should not have always had power upon them; and the time came when we could regard their death without regret. I myself think that if Nevil had seen Hermia again, as he promised me, it would have been only to renew in her and in himself their strength for renunciation; and I have sometimes imagined a sort of dramatic friendship taking the place of their love, and uniting their lives in good works, or something of that kind. But I have not been satisfied with this conception; it is too like what I have found carried out in some very romantic novels; and my wife has always insisted that if they had met again, they would have married, and been unhappy. She insists that they could not have kept their self-respect and their perfect honor for each other, if they had married. But this again seems abominably unfair: that they should suffer so for no wrong; unless, indeed, all suffering is to some end unknown to the sufferer and the witnesses, and no anguish is wasted, as that friend of Nevil's believed. We must come to some such conclusion; or else we must go back to a cruder theory, and say that they were all three destined to undergo what they underwent, and that what happened to them was not retribution, not penalty in any wise, since no wrong had been done, but simply fate.

Of course there is always the human possibility that the dream was a divination of facts; that Hermia and Nevil were really in love while Faulkner lived, and were untrue to him in their hearts, which are the fountains of potential good and evil; but knowing them to be what they were, we have never admitted this hypothesis for a moment. For any one to do so, my wife says, would be to confess himself worse than Faulkner dreamed them to be. She does not permit it to be said, or even suggested, that our feelings are not at our bidding, and that there is no sin where there has been no sinning.


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