Next> | <Prev | End

The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1890

Part First



AS SOON AS the door closed upon us, my wife broke out: "Well, my dear! it's just as I imagined. What a tiresome creature! And how ignorant and arrogant! Is that what you call a cultivated person in the West?"

"Well, I don't think I shall quite hold myself responsible for Faulkner; I'll own he hasn't improved since I saw him last. But I always told you he was a sentimentalist."

"Sentimentalist! He's one sop of sentiment; and as conventional! Second-rate and second-hand! Why my dear! Could you ever have thought there was anything to that man?"

"Well, certainly more than I do at present. But I don't recollect that I ever boasted him Apollo and the nine Muses all boiled down into one."

She did not relent. "Why, compared with him, that Mr. Nevil is a burning and a shining light."

"Nevil has certainly gathered brilliancy somehow," I admitted.

"It's quite like such a man as Faulkner to want a three-cornered household. I think the man who can't give up his intimate friends after he's married, is always a kind of weakling. He has no right to them; it's a tacit reflection on his wife's heart and mind."

"Yes, I think you're quite right, there," I said, waiting for her to put the restorative touches to the bang which the sea-breeze had made a little too limp for social purposes; and we went over together the list of households we knew in which the husband supplemented himself with a familiar friend. We agreed that it was the innocence of our life that made it so common, but we said all the same that it was undignified and silly and mischievous. It kept the husband and wife apart, and kept them from the absolutely free exchange of tendernesses at any and every moment, and forbade them the equally wholesome immediate expression of resentments, or else gave their quarrels a witness whom they could not look at without remembering that they had quarrelled in his presence. We made allowance for the difference in the case of Nevil and the Faulkners; there was now at least a real reason for his being with them; they would have been singularly lonely and helpless without him.

"They have no children!" said my wife. "That says it all. They are really not a family. Oh, dear! I hope it isn't wicked for us to be so happy in our children, Basil."

"It's a sin that I think I can brazen out at the Day of Judgment," I answered. "What does she say when you have her alone with another woman?"

"Well, there you've hit upon the true test, my dear. If a person's genuine, and not a poseuse, she's more interesting when you have her alone with another woman, than when you have her with a lot of men. And Mrs. Faulkner stands the test. Yes, she's a great creature."

"Why, what did she say?"

"Say? Nothing! You don't have to say anything. You merely have to be."

"Oh! That seems rather simple."

"Stuff! You know what I mean. You're the true blue, if you don't begin to fade or change your tone, in the least. If you remain just what you were, and are not anxious to get away. If you have repose, and are unselfish enough to be truly polite. If you make the other woman that you're alone with feel that she's just as well worth while as a man. And that can't be done by saying. Now do you understand?"

"Yes; and it appears difficult."

"Difficult? It's next to impossible!"

"And it can all be conveyed by manner?"

"Of course we talked--"

"She must have flattered you enormously."

"She praised you!"

"Oh!" I said, in admiration of the way my point was turned against me. But I was not satisfied with my wife's judgment of Faulkner. I could not say it was unjust to the facts before her; but I felt that something was left out of the account: something that she as a woman and an Easterner could not take into the account. We men and we Westerners have a civilization of our own.

She went on to say, "Of course, I couldn't be with her for a quarter of an hour, and especially after I had seen what he was, without understanding her marriage. She's a great deal younger than he is; and she was earning her own living, poor thing, and perhaps Supporting her family--"

"Oh, oh! What jumps!"

"At any rate, she was poor, and they were poor; and she was dazzled by his offer, and might easily have supposed herself in love with him. Her people would be flattered too, if they were not quite up to her, and he was a great swell among you, out there, and rich, and all that. Of course, she simply had to marry him. And then--she outgrew him. With her taste and her sense, it could only be a question of time. I know she was writhing inwardly through all his pretentious, ignorant talk about art and literature; but with her ideal of duty, she would rather die than let anybody see that she didn't think him the greatest and wisest of human creatures. They have no children; and that might be fatal to any woman that was less noble and heroic than she is. But she's simply made him her child, since his sickness, and devoted herself to him, and that's been their salvation. She won't let herself see any fault in him, or anything offensive or conceited or petty."

"Did she tell you all this?"

"What an idea! I knew it from the way she kept lugging him in, and relating everything to him. You could see she was simply determined to do it."

"Oh, then you've romanced all this about her! Suppose I begin, now, and romance poor old Faulkner?"

"You're welcome--if you can make anything out of him."

"Well, of course, I'm at a disadvantage. In the first place, he isn't quite so pretty as his wife--"

"No, he isn't!"

"And his name isn't Hermia, or Hannah."

"Oh, it is Hermia!" my wife interrupted. "I'm satisfied of that. But what geese her parents must have been to call her so!"

I ignored the interpolation. "And he hasn't got a regular two-horse carriage of a walk, nor immortal eyes with starlike sorrows in them; he seems plainer and limper than ever, poor old fellow. Ah, my dear, our miseries don't embellish our persons very much, whatever they do for our souls; and Faulkner's good looks--"

My wife had quite finished repairing her disordered bang, and we had abandoned ourselves entirely to controversy. A knock at the door startled us, and it was Mrs. Faulkner's voice which said outside, "Lunch is ready."

My wife seized my wrist melodramatically, and almost at the moment of answering, in a sweet, high society tone, "Yes, yes, thank you! We're quite ready too!" she hissed in my ear, "Basil! Do you suppose she heard you?"

"If she did," I said, "she must have thought I was praising Faulkner's beauty."

Next> | <Prev | ^Top