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Questionable Shapes by William Dean Howells

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took one lamp and I the other, and he started up stairs before me. If he
were not coming down again, he meant to let the hanging-lamp burn, and I
had nothing to say about that; but I suggested, concerning the wide-open
door behind me, "Shall I close the door, Alderling?" and he answered,
without looking round, "I don't shut it."

He led the way into my room, and he sat down as when I had come, and
absently watched my processes of getting into bed. There was something
droll, and yet miserable, in his behavior. At first, I thought he might
be staying merely for the comfort of a human presence, and again, I
thought he might be afraid, for I felt a little creepy myself, for no
assignable reason, except that Absence, which he must have been
incomparably more sensible of than I. From certain ineffectual movements
that he made, and from certain preliminary noises in his throat, which
ended in nothing, I decided that he wished to say something to me, tell
me something, and could not. But I was selfishly sleepy, and it seemed to
me that anything he had on his mind would keep there till morning, at
least, and that if he got it off on mine now, it might give me a night of
wakeful speculation. So when I got into bed and pulled the sheet up under
my chin, I said, "Well, I don't want to turn you out, old fellow."

He stared, and answered, "Oh!" and went without other words, carrying his
lamp with him and moving with a weak-kneed shuffle, like a very old man.

He was going to leave the door open behind him, but I called out, "I wish
you'd shut me in, Alderling," and after a hesitation, he came back and
closed the door.


We breakfasted as silently on his part as we had supped, but when we had
finished, and I was wondering what he was going to let me do with myself,
and on the whole what the deuce I had come for, he said, in the longest
speech I had yet had from him, "Wouldn't you like to come up and see what
I've been doing?"

I said I should like it immensely, and he led the way up stairs, as far
As his attic studio. The door of that, like the other doors in the house,
stood open, and I got the emotion which the interior gave me, full force,
at the first glance. The place was so startlingly alive with that dead
woman on a score of canvases in the character in which he had always
painted her, that I could scarcely keep from calling out; but I went
about, pretending to examine the several Madonnas, and speaking rubbish
about them, while he stood stoopingly in the midst of them like the
little withered old man he looked. When I had emptied myself of my chaff,
I perceived that the time had come.

I glanced about for a seat, and was going to take that in which Mrs.
Alderling used to pose for him, but he called out with sudden sharpness,
"Not that!" and without appearing to notice, I found a box which I
inverted, and sat down on.

"Tell me about your wife, Alderling," I said, and he answered with a sort
of scream, "I wanted you to ask me! Why didn't you ask me before? What
did you suppose I got you here for?"

With that he shrank down, a miserable heap, in his own chair, and bowed
his hapless head and cried. It was more affecting than any notion I can
give you of it, and I could only wait patiently for his grief to wash
itself out in one of those paroxysms which come to bereavement and leave
it somehow a little comforted when they pass.

"I was waiting, for the stupid reasons you will imagine, to let you speak
first," I said, "but here in her presence I couldn't hold in any longer."

He asked with strange eagerness, "You noticed that?"

I chose to feign that he meant in the pictures. "Over and over again,"
I answered.

He would not have my feint. "I don't mean in these wretched caricatures!"

"Well?" I assented provisionally.

"I mean her very self, listening, looking, living--waiting!"

Whether I had insanity or sorrow to deal with, I could not gainsay the
unhappy man, and I only said what I really felt: "Yes, the place seems
strangely full of her. I wish you would tell me about her."

He asked, with a certain slyness, "Have you heard anything about her
already? At the club? From that fool woman in the kitchen?"

"For heaven's sake, no, Alderling!"

"Or about me?"

"Nothing whatever!"

He seemed relieved of whatever suspicion he felt, but he said finally,
and with an air of precaution, "I should like to know just how much you
mean by the place seeming full of her."

"Oh, I suppose the association of her personality with the whole
house, and especially this room. I didn't mean anything preternatural,
I believe."

"Then you don't believe in a life after death?" he demanded with a kind
of defiance.

I thought this rather droll, seeing what his own position had been, but
that was not the moment for the expression of my amusement. "The tendency
is to a greater tolerance of the notion," I said. "Men like James and
Royce, among the psychologists, and Shaler, among the scientists,
scarcely leave us at peace in our doubts, any more, much less our

He said, as if he had forgotten the question: "They called it a very
light case, and they thought she was getting well. In fact, she did get
well, and then--there was a relapse. They laid it to her eating some
fruit which they allowed her."

Alderling spoke with a kind of bitter patience, but in my own mind I was
not able to put all the blame on the doctors. Neither did I blame that
innocently earthy creature, who was of no more harm in her strong
appetite than any other creature which gluts its craving as simply as it
feels it. The sense of her presence was deepened by the fact of those
childlike self-indulgences which Alderling's words recalled to me. I made
no comment, however, and he asked gloomily, as if with a return of his
suspicion, "And you haven't heard of anything happening afterward?"

"I don't know what you refer to," I told him, "but I can safely say I
haven't, for I haven't heard anything at all."

"They contended that it _didn't_ happen," he resumed. "She died, they
said, and by all the tests she had been dead two whole days. She died
with her hand in mine. I was not trying to hold her back; she had a kind
of majestic preoccupation in her going, so that I would not have dared to
detain her if I could. You've seen them go, and how they seem to draw
those last, long, deep breaths, as if they had no thought in the world
but of the work of getting out of it. When her breathing stopped I
expected it to go on, but it did not go on, and that was all. Nothing
startling, nothing dramatic, just simple, natural, _like her!_ I gave her
hand back, I put it on her breast myself, and crossed the other on it.
She looked as if she were sleeping, with that faint color hovering in her
face, which was not wasted, but I did not make-believe about it; I
accepted the fact of her death. In your 'Quests of the Occult,'"
Alderling broke off, with a kind of superiority that was of almost the
quality of contempt, "I believe you don't allow yourself to be daunted by
a diametrical difference of opinion among the witnesses of an occurrence,
as to its nature, or as to its reality, even?" "Not exactly that," I
said. "I think I argued that the passive negation of one witness ought
not to invalidate the testimony of another as to his experience. One
might hear and see things, and strongly affirm them, and another,
absorbed in something else, or in a mere suspense of the observant
faculties, might quite as honestly declare that so far as his own
knowledge was concerned, nothing of the kind happened. I held that in
such a case, counter-testimony should not be allowed to invalidate the
testimony for the fact."

"Yes, that is what I meant," said Alderling. "You say it more clearly in
the book, though."

"Oh, of course."


He began again, more remotely from the affair in hand than he had left
off, as if he wanted to give himself room for parley with my possible
incredulity. "You know how it was with Marion about my not believing that
I should live again. Her notion was a sort of joke between us, especially
when others were by, but it was a serious thing with her, in her heart.
Perhaps it had originally come to her as a mere fancy, and from
entertaining it playfully, she found herself with a mental inmate that
finally dispossessed her judgment. You remember how literally she brought
those Scripture texts to bear on it?"

"Yes. May I say that it was very affecting?"

"Affecting!" Alderling repeated in a tone of amaze at the inadequacy of
my epithet. "She was always finding things that bore upon the point.
After awhile she got to concealing them, as if she thought they annoyed
me. They never did; they amused me; and when I saw that she had something
of the sort on her mind, I would say, 'Well, out with it, Marion!' She
would always begin, 'Well, you may laugh!'" and as he repeated her words
Alderling did laugh, forlornly, and as I must say, rather

I could not prompt him to go on, but he presently did so himself,
desolately enough. "I suppose, if I was in her mind at all in that
supreme moment, when she seemed to be leaving this life behind with such
a solemn effect of rating it at nothing, it may have been a pang to her
that I was not following her into the dark, with any ray of hope for
either of us. She could not have returned from it with the expectation of
convincing me, for I used to tell her that if one came back from the
dead, I should merely know that he had been mistaken about being dead,
and was giving me a dream from his trance. She once asked me if I thought
Lazarus was not really dead, with a curious childlike interest in the
miracle, and she was disheartened when I reminded her that Lazarus had
not testified of any life hereafter, and it did not matter whether he had
been really dead or not when he was resuscitated, as far as that was
concerned. Last year, we read the Bible a good deal together here, and to
tease her I pretended to be convinced of the contrary by the very
passages that persuaded her. As she told you, she did not care for
herself. You remember that?"

"Distinctly," I said.

"It was always so. She never cared. I was perfectly aware that if she
could have assured life hereafter to me, she would have given her life
here to do it. You know how some women, when they are married, absolutely
give themselves up, try to lose themselves in the behoof of their
husbands? I don't say it rightly; there are no words that will express
the utterness of their abdication."

"I know what you mean," I said, "and it was one of the facts which most
interested me in Mrs. Alderling."

"Because I wasn't worthy of it? No man is!"

"It wasn't a question of that in my mind; I don't believe that occurred
to me. It was the _Ding an sich_ that interested me, or as it related
itself to her, and not the least as it related itself to you. Such a
woman's being is a cycle of self-sacrifice, so perfect, so essential,
from birth to death, as to exclude the notion of volition. She is what
she does. Of course she has to put her sacrifice into words from time to
time, but its true language is acts, and the acts themselves only
clumsily express it. There is a kind of tyranny in it for the man, of
course. It requires self-sacrifice to be sacrificed to, and I don't
suppose a woman has any particular merit in what is so purely natural. It
appears pathetic when it is met with ingratitude or rejection, but when
it has its way it is no more deserving our reverence than eating or
sleeping. It astonishes men because they are as naturally incapable of it
as women are capable of it."

I was mounted and was riding on, forgetful of Alderling, and what he had
to tell me, if he had anything, but he recalled me to myself by having
apparently forgotten me, for when I paused, he took up his affair at a
quite different point, and as though that were the question in hand.

"That gift, or knack, or trick, or whatever it was, of one compelling the
presence of the other by thinking or willing it, was as much mine as
hers, and she tried sometimes to get me to say that I would use it with
her if she died before I did; and if she were where the conditions were
opposed to her coming to me, my will would help her to overcome the
hinderance; our united wills would form a current of volition that she
could travel back on against all obstacles. I don't know whether I make
myself clear?" he appealed.

"Yes, perfectly," I said. "It is very curious." He said in a kind of
muse, "I don't know just where I was." Then he began again, "Oh, yes! It
was at the ceremony--down there in the library. Some of the country
people came in; I suppose they thought they ought, and I suppose they
wanted to; it didn't matter to me. I had sent for Doctor Norrey, as soon
as the relapse came, and he was there with me. Of course there was the
minister, conducting the services. He made a prayer full of helpless
repetitions, which I helplessly noticed, and some scrambling remarks,
mostly misdirected at me, affirming and reaffirming that the sister they
had lost was only gone before, and that she was now in a happier world.

"The singing and the praying and the preaching came to an end, and then
there was that soul-sickening hush, that exanimate silence, of which the
noise of rustling clothes and scraping feet formed a part, as the people
rose in the hall, where chairs had been put for them, leaving me and
Norrey alone with Marion. Every fibre of my frame recognized the moment
of parting, and protested. A tremendous wave of will swept through me and
from me, a resistless demand for her presence, and it had power upon her.
I heard her speak, and say, as distinctly as I repeat the words, 'I will
come for you!' and the youth and the beauty that had been growing more
and more wonderful in her face, ever since she died, shone like a kind of
light from it. I answered her, 'I am ready now!' and then Norrey scuffled
to his feet, with a conventional face of sympathy, and said, 'No hurry,
my dear Alderling,' and I knew he had not heard or seen anything, as well
as I did afterwards when I questioned him. He thought I was giving them
notice that they could take her away. What do you think?"

"How what do I think?" I asked.

"Do you think that it happened?"

There was something in Alderling's tone and manner that made me, instead
of answering directly that I did not, temporize and ask, "Why?"

"Because--because," and Alderling caught his breath, like a child that is
trying to keep itself from crying, "because _I_ don't." He broke into a
sobbing that seemed to wrench and tear his poor little body, and if I had
thought of anything to say, I could not have said it to his headlong
grief with any hope of assuaging it. "I am satisfied now," he said, at
last, wiping his wet face, and striving for some composure of its
trembling features, "that it was all a delusion, the effect of my
exaltation, of my momentary aberration, perhaps. Don't be afraid of
saying what you really think," he added scornfully, "with the notion of
sparing me. You couldn't doubt it, or deny it, more completely than I


I confess this unexpected turn struck me dumb. I did not try to say
anything, and Alderling went on.

"I don't deny that she is living, but I can't believe that I shall ever
live to see her again, or if you prefer, die to see her. There is the
play of the poor animal instinct, or the mechanical persistence of
expectation in me, so that I can't shut the doors without the sense of
shutting her out, can't put out the lights without feeling that I am
leaving her in the dark. But I know it is all foolishness, as well as you
do, all craziness. If she is alive it is because she believed she should
live, and I shall perish because I didn't believe. I should like to
believe, now, if only to see her again, but it is too late. If you disuse
any member of your body, or any faculty of your mind, it withers away and
if you deny your soul your soul ceases to be."

I found myself saying, "That is very interesting," from a certain force
of habit, which you have noted in me, when confronted with a novel
instance of any kind. "But," I suggested, "why not act upon the reverse
of that principle, and create the fact by affirmation which you think
your denial destroys?"

"Because," he repeated wearily, "it is too late. You might as well ask
the fakir who has held his arm upright for twenty years, till it has
stiffened there, to restore the dry stock by exercise. It is too late,
I tell you."

"But, look here, Alderling," I pursued, beginning to taste the joy of
argument. "You say that your will had such power upon her after you knew
her to be dead that you made her speak to you?"

"No, I don't say that now," he returned. "I know now that it was a

"But if you once had that power of summoning her to you, by strongly
wishing for her presence, when you were both living here, why doesn't it
stand to reason that you could do it still, if she is living there and
you are living here?"

"I never had any such power," he replied, with the calm of absolute
tragedy. "That was a delusion too. I leave the doors open for her, night
and day, because I must, but if she came I should know it was not she."


Of course you know your own business, my dear Acton, but if you think of
using the story of the Alderlings--and there is no reason why you should
not, for they are both dead, without kith or kin surviving, so far as I
know, unless he has some relatives in Germany, who would never penetrate
the disguise you could give the case--it seems to me that here is your
true climax. But I necessarily leave the matter to you, for I shall not
touch it at any point where we could come into competition. In fact, I
doubt if I ever touch it at all, for though all psychology is in a manner
dealing with the occult, still I think I have done my duty by that side
of it, as the occult is usually understood; and I am shy of its grosser
instances, as things that are apt to bring one's scientific poise into
question. However, you shall be the judge of what is best for you to do,
when you have the whole story, and I will give it you without more ado,
merely premising that I have a sort of shame for the aptness of the
catastrophe. I shall respect you more if I hear that you agree with me as
to the true climax of the tragedy, and have the heroism to reject the
final event.

I stayed with Alderling nearly a week, and I will own that I bored
myself. In fact, I am not sure but we bored each other. At any rate, when
I told him, the night before I intended going, that I meant to leave him
in the morning, he seemed resigned, or indifferent, or perhaps merely
inattentive. From time to time we had recurred to the matter of his
experience, or his delusion, but with apparently increasing impatience on
his part, and certainly decreasing interest on mine; so that at last I
think he was willing to have me go. But in the morning he seemed
reluctant, and pleaded with me to stay a few days longer with him. I
alleged engagements, more or less unreal, for I was never on such terms
with Alderling that I felt I need make any special sacrifice to him. He
gave way, suspiciously, rather, and when I came down from my room after
having put the last touches to my packing, I found him on the veranda
looking out to seaward, where a heavy fog-bank hung.

You will sense here the sort of _patness_ which I feel cheapens the
catastrophe; and yet, as I consider it, again, the fact is not without
its curious importance, and its bearing upon what went before. I do not
know but it gives the whole affair a relief which it would not otherwise

He was to have driven me to the station, some miles away, before noon,
and I supposed we should sit down together, and try to have some sort of
talk before I went. But Alderling appeared to have forgotten about my
going, and after a while, took himself off to his studio, and left me
alone to watch the inroads of the fog. It came on over the harbor
rapidly, as on that morning when Mrs. Alderling had been so nearly lost
in it, and presently the masts and shrouds of the shipping at anchor were
sticking up out of it as if they were sunk into a body as dense as the
sea under them.

I amused myself watching it blot out one detail of the prospect after
another, while the fog-horn lowed through it, and the bell-buoy, far out
beyond the light-house ledge, tolled mournfully. The milk-white mass
moved landward, and soon the air was blind with the mist which hid the
grass twenty yards away. There was an awfulness in the silence, which
nothing broke but the lowing of the horn, and the tolling of the bell,
except when now and then the voice of a sailor came through it, like that
of some drowned man sending up his hail from the bottom of the bay.

Suddenly I heard a joyful shout from the attic overhead:

"I am coming! I am coming!"

It was Alderling calling out through his window, and then a cry came from
over the water, which seemed to answer him, but which there is no reason
in the world to believe was not a girlish shout from one of the yachts,
swallowed up in the fog.

His lunging descent of the successive stairways followed, and he burst
through the doorway beside me, and without heeding me, ran bareheaded
down the sloping lawn.

I followed, with what notion of help or hinderance I should not find it
easy to say, but before I reached the water's edge--in fact I never did
reach it, and had some difficulty making my way back to the house,--I
heard the rapid throb of the oars in the row-locks as he pulled through
the white opacity.

You know the rest, for it was the common property of our
enterprising press at the time, when the incident was fully reported,
with my ineffectual efforts to be satisfactorily interviewed as to
the nothing I knew.

The oarless boat was found floating far out to sea after the fog lifted.
It was useless to look for Alderling's body, and I do not know that any
search was made for it.

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