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The Shadow of a Dream

By William Dean Howells, 1891

Part Second



THE DEATH of Faulkner precipitated in the same compassion all the doubts and reserves of its witnesses. Perhaps one of the reasons why sickness and death are in the world is that they humanize through the sympathies the nature that health and life imbrute. They link in the chain which must one day gall every mortal, the strong and happy with the weak and sorrowmg, and unite us in the consciousness of a common doom, if not the hope of a common redemption. "Some day," each of us tries to realize to himself in their presence, "I shall suffer so; some day I shall lie dumb and cold like that;" and at least we perceive that it is the mystery of our origin speaking to us in those groans, in that silence, of the mystery of our destiny. We have no refuge then but to forget ourselves in pity; and it is sorrow and shame forever if we fail of it. The pity of those who saw Faulkner die was not for him. He was swiftly past all that. In a moment, in the twinking of an eye, he had been changed. The fire that burned so fiercely, the flame that was the sum of his passions, his hates, his loves, had been quenched in a breath; but his end had been such as each of us might desire for himself if he were at peace with himself.

A little wind, cold, keen, stirring the leaves overhead and the long grass underfoot, was coming in from the sea; the sun was growing pale before the rising fog; the roar of the ocean seemed solidly to fill the air. I do not know how long we stood still. All of us knew that Faulkner was dead; no one made the ghastly pretence that he had fallen in a faint; but none of us recognized the fact till my wife, with a burst of tears, took his widow in her arms. Then it was as if we had each wept, and found freedom to move, to speak, to act, by giving way to our grief.

Mrs. March had never before had occasion in our happy life to deal with such an event, and now her instinct of usefulness surprised me; or rather it afterward surprised me, when I thought of it. From moment to moment she knew what to do, and she knew what to make me do. The doctor, whose office was with life, went away; and the priest, whose calling concerned after-life, was so stunned by what had happened, that he remained helpless in the presence of death. If it had not been for my wife and myself I hardly know who would have grappled with all those details which present themselves in such a situation with the same imperative claim upon us as eating, drinking and sleeping, and the other commonplace needs of existence. I was struck by their equality with these; in their order, they came like anything else.

Just before dark my wife sent me back to our children at Lynn. "Poor little things! They will be frightened to death at our staying so long; and you must explain to them as well as you can why I didn't come with you. Mrs. Wakely will get them to bed for you; and be sure that you see they have a light burning in the hall, if they're nervous without it. You won't be needed here. Of course I can't leave her now. You must do the best you can without me.

"Yes, yes," I said. "But how strange, Isabel, that we should be mixed up with these unhappy people in this way! Do you remember the critical mood in which we came here to-day?"

"Yes; perhaps we've always been too critical, and held ourselves too much aloof--tried to escape ties."

"Death won't let us escape them, even if life will," I answered, and for the first time I had a perception of the necessary solidarity of human affairs from the beginning to the end, in which no one can do or be anything to himself alone. "It makes very little difference now what that poor man's taste in literature and art was It seems a great while ago since we smiled at him for it. Was it only this morning?"

"This morning? It seems a thousand years--in some pre-existence."

"Why, it was in a pre-existence for him!"

"Yes; how strange that is!"

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