30 Oct A Presentiment
A Presentiment is a short story by William Dean Howells.
Over our coffee in the Turkish room Minver was usually a censor of our several foibles rather than a sharer in our philosophic speculations and metaphysical conjectures. He liked to disable me as one professionally vowed to the fabulous, and he had unfailing fun with the romantic sentimentality of Rulledge, which was in fact so little in keeping with the gross super-abundance of his person, his habitual gluttony, and his ridiculous indolence. Minver knew very well that Rulledge was a good fellow withal, and would willingly do any kind action that did not seriously interfere with his comfort, or make too heavy a draft upon his pocket. His self-indulgence, which was quite blameless, unless surfeit is a fault, was the basis of an interest in occult themes, which was the means of even higher diversion to Minver. He liked to have Rulledge approach Wanhope from this side, in the invincible persuasion that the psychologist would be interested in these themes by the law of his science, though he had been assured again and again that in spite of its misleading name psychology did not deal with the soul as Rulledge supposed the soul; and Minver’s eyes lighted up with a prescience of uncommon pleasure when, late one night, after we had vainly tried to hit it off in talk, now of this, now of that, Rulledge asked Wanhope, abruptly as if it followed from something before:
“Wasn’t there a great deal more said about presentiments forty or fifty years ago than there is now?”
Wanhope had been lapsing deeper and deeper into the hollow of his chair; but he now pulled himself up, and turned quickly toward Rulledge. “What made you think of that?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Because I was thinking of it myself.” He glanced at me, and I shook my head.
“Well,” Minver said, “if it will leave Acton out in the cold, I’ll own that I was thinking of it, too. I was going back in my mind, for no reason that I know of, to my childhood, when I first heard of such a thing as a presentiment, and when I was afraid of having one. I had the notion that presentiments ran in the family.”
“Why had you that notion?” Rulledge demanded.
“I don’t know that I proposed telling,” the painter said, giving himself to his pipe.
“Perhaps you didn’t have it,” Rulledge retaliated.
“Perhaps,” Minver assented.
Wanhope turned from the personal aspect of the matter. “It’s rather curious that we should all three have had the same thing in mind just now; or, rather, it is not very curious. Such coincidences are really very common. Something must have been said at dinner which suggested it to all of us.”
“All but Acton,” Minver demurred.
“I mightn’t have heard what was said,” I explained. “I suppose the passing of all that sort of sub-beliefs must date from the general lapse of faith in personal immortality.”
“Yes, no doubt,” Wanhope assented. “It is very striking how sudden the lapse was. Everyone who experienced it in himself could date it to a year, if not to a day. The agnosticism of scientific men was of course all the time undermining the fabric of faith, and then it fell in abruptly, reaching one believer after another as fast as the ground was taken wholly or partly from under his feet. I can remember how people once disputed whether there were such beings as guardian spirits or not. That minor question was disposed of when it was decided that there were no spirits at all.”
“Naturally,” Minver said. “And the decay of the presentiment must have been hastened by the failure of so many presentiments to make good.”
“The great majority of them have failed to make good, from the beginning of time,” Wanhope replied.
“There are two kinds of presentiments,” Rulledge suggested, with a philosophic air. “The true and the untrue.”
“Like mushrooms,” Minver said. “Only, the true presentiment kills, and the true mushroom nourishes. Talking of mushrooms, they have a way in Switzerland of preserving them in walnut oil, and they fill you with the darkest forebodings, after you’ve filled yourself with the mushrooms. There’s some occult relation between the two. Think it out, Rulledge!”
Rulledge ignored him in turning to Wanhope. “The trouble is how to distinguish the true from the untrue presentiment.”
“It would be interesting,” Wanhope began, but Minver broke in upon him maliciously.
“To know how much the dyspepsia of our predecessors had to with the prevalence of presentimentalism? I agree with you, that a better diet has a good deal to do with the decline of the dark foreboding among us. What I can’t understand is, how a gross and reckless feeder, like Rulledge here, doesn’t go about like ancestral voices prophesying all sorts of dreadful things.”
“That’s rather cheap talk, even for you, Minver,” Rulledge said. “Why did you think presentiments ran in _your_ family?”
“Well, there you have me, Rulledge. That’s where my theory fails. I can remember,” Minver continued soberly, “the talk there used to be about them among my people. They were serious people in an unreligious way, or rather an unecclesiastical way. They were never spiritualists, but I don’t think there was one of them who doubted that he should live hereafter; he might doubt that he was living here, but there was no question of the other thing. I must say it gave a dignity to their conversation which, when they met, as they were apt to do at one another’s houses on Sunday nights, was not of common things. One of my uncles was a merchant, another a doctor; my father was a portrait-painter by profession, and a sign-painter by practice. I suppose that’s where I got my knack, such as it is. The merchant was an invalid, rather, though he kept about his business, and our people merely recognized him as being out of health. He was what we could call, for that day and region–the Middle West of the early fifties–a man of unusual refinement. I suppose this was temperamental with him largely; but he had cultivated tastes, too. I remember him as a peculiarly gentle person, with a pensive cast of face, and the melancholy accomplishment of playing the flute.”
“I wonder why nobody plays the flute nowadays,” I mused aloud.
“Yes, it’s quite obsolete,” Minver said. “They only play the flute in the orchestras now. I always look at the man who plays it and think of my uncle. He used to be very nice to me as a child; and he was very fond of my father, in a sort of filial way; my father was so much older. I can remember my young aunt; and how pretty she was as she sat at the piano, and sang and played to his fluting. When she looked forward at the music, her curls fell into her neck; they wore curls then, grown-up women; and though I don’t think curls are beautiful, my aunt’s beauty would have been less without them; in fact, I can’t think of her without them.
“She was delicate, too; they were really a pair of invalids; but she had none of his melancholy. They had had several children, who died, one after another, and there was only one left at the time I am speaking of. I rather wonder, now, that the thought of those poor little ghost-cousins didn’t make me uncomfortable. I was a very superstitious boy, but I seem not to have thought of them. I played with the little girl who was left, and I liked going to my uncle’s better than anywhere else. I preferred going in the daytime and in the summer-time. Then my cousin and I sat in a nook of the garden and fought violets, as we called it; hooked the wry necks of the flowers together and twitched to see which blossom would come off first. She was a sunny little thing, like her mother, and she had curls, like her. I can’t express the feeling I had for my aunt; she seemed the embodiment of a world that was at once very proud and very good. I suppose she dressed fashionably, as things went then and there; and her style as well as her beauty fascinated me. I would have done anything to please her, far more than to please my cousin. With her I used to squabble, and sometimes sent her crying to her mother. Then I always ran off home, but when I sneaked back, or was sent for to come and play with my cousin, I was not scolded for my wickedness.
“My uncle was more prosperous than his brothers; he lived in a much better house than ours, and I used to be quite awe-struck by its magnificence. He went East, as we said, twice a year to buy goods, and he had things sent back for his house such as we never saw elsewhere; those cask-shaped seats of blue china for the verandas, and bamboo chairs. There were cane-bottom chairs in the sitting-room, such as we had in our best room; in the parlor the large pieces were of mahogany veneer, upholstered in black hair-cloth; they held me in awe. The piano filled half the place; the windows came down to the ground, and had Venetian blinds and lace curtains.
“We all went in there after the Sunday night supper, and then the fathers and mothers were apt to begin talking of those occult things that gave me the creeps. It was after the Rochester Knockings, as they were called, had been exposed, and so had spread like an infection everywhere. It was as if people were waiting to have the fraud shown up in order to believe in it.”
“That sort of thing happens,” Wanhope agreed. “It’s as if the seeds of the ventilated imposture were carried atmospherically into the human mind broadcast and a universal crop of self-delusion sprang up.”
“At any rate,” Minver resumed, “instead of the gift being confined to a few persons–a small sisterhood with detonating knee-joints–there were rappings in every well-regulated household; all the tables tipped; people went to sleep to the soft patter of raps on the headboards of their beds; and girls who could not spell were occupied in delivering messages from Socrates, Ben Franklin and Shakespeare. Besides the physical demonstrations, there were all sorts of psychical intimations from the world which we’ve now abolished.”
“Not permanently, perhaps,” I suggested.
“Well, that remains to be seen,” Minver said. “It was this sort of thing which my people valued above the other. Perhaps they were exclusive in their tastes, and did not care for an occultism which the crowd could share with them; though this is a conjecture too long after the fact to have much value. As far as I can now remember, they used to talk of the double presence of living persons, like their being where they greatly wished to be as well as where they really were; of clairvoyance; of what we call mind-transference, now; of weird coincidences of all kinds; of strange experiences of their own and of others; of the participation of animals in these experiences, like the testimony of cats and dogs to the presence of invisible spirits; of dreams that came true, or came near coming true; and, above everything, of forebodings and presentiments.
“I dare say they didn’t always talk of such things, and I’m giving possibly a general impression from a single instance; everything remembered of childhood is as if from large and repeated occurrence. But it must have happened more than once, for I recall that when it came to presentiments my aunt broke it up, perhaps once only. My cousin used to get very sleepy on the rug before the fire, and her mother would carry her off to bed, very cross and impatient of being kissed good night, while I was left to the brunt of the occult alone. I could not go with my aunt and cousin, and I folded myself in my mother’s skirt, where I sat at her feet, and listened in an anguish of drowsy terror. The talk would pass into my dreams, and the dreams would return into the talk; and I would suffer a sort of double nightmare, waking and sleeping.”
“Poor little devil!” Rulledge broke out. “It’s astonishing how people will go on before children, and never think of the misery they’re making for them.”
“I believe my mother thought of it,” Minver returned, “but when that sort of talk began, the witchery of it was probably too strong for her. ‘It held her like a two years’ child’; I was eight that winter. I don’t know how long my suffering had gone on, when my aunt came back and seemed to break up the talk. It had got to presentiments, and, whether they knew that this was forbidden ground with her, or whether she now actually said something about it, they turned to talk of other things. I’m not telling you all this from my own memory, which deals with only a point or two. My father and mother used to recur to it when I was older, and I am piecing out my story from their memories.
“My uncle, with all his temperamental pensiveness, was my aunt’s stay and cheer in the fits of depression which she paid with for her usual gaiety. But these fits always began with some uncommon depression of his–some effect of the forebodings he was subject to. Her opposition to that kind of thing was purely unselfish, but certainly she dreaded it for him as well as herself. I suppose there was a sort of conscious silence in the others which betrayed them to her. ‘Well,’ she said, laughing, ‘have you been at it again? That poor child looks frightened out of his wits.’
“They all laughed then, and my father said, hypocritically, ‘I was just going to ask Felix whether he expected to start East this week or next.’
“My uncle tried to make light of what was always a heavy matter with him. ‘Well, yesterday,’ he answered, ‘I should have said next week; but it’s this week, now. I’m going on Wednesday.’
“‘By stage or packet?’ my father asked.
“‘Oh, I shall take the canal to the lake, and get the boat for Buffalo there,’ my uncle said.
“They went on to speak of the trip to New York, and how much easier it was then than it used to be when you had to go by stage over the mountains to Philadelphia and on by stage again. Now, it seemed, you got the Erie Canal packet at Buffalo and the Hudson River steamboat at Albany, and reached New York in four or five days, in great comfort without the least fatigue. They had all risen and my aunt had gone out with her sisters-in-law to help them get their wraps. When they returned, it seemed that they had been talking of the journey, too, for she said to my mother, laughing again, ‘Well, Richard may think it’s easy; but somehow Felix never expects to get home alive.’
“I don’t think I ever heard my uncle laugh, but I can remember how he smiled at my aunt’s laughing, as he put his hand on her shoulder; I thought it was somehow a very sad smile. On Wednesday I was allowed to go with my aunt and cousin to see him off on the packet, which came up from Cincinnati early in the morning; I had lain awake most of the night, and then nearly overslept myself, and then was at the canal in time. We made a gay parting for him, but when the boat started, and I was gloating on the three horses making up the tow-path at a spanking trot, under the snaky spirals of the driver’s smacking whip-lash, I caught sight of my uncle standing on the deck and smiling that sad smile of his. My aunt was waving her handkerchief, but when she turned away she put it to her eyes.
“The rest of the story, such as it is, I know, almost to the very end, from what I heard my father and mother say from my uncle’s report afterward. He told them that, when the boat started, the stress to stay was so strong upon him that if he had not been ashamed he would have jumped ashore and followed us home. He said that he could not analyze his feelings; it was not yet any definite foreboding, but simply a depression that seemed to crush him so that all his movements were leaden, when he turned at last, and went down to breakfast in the cabin below. The stress did not lighten with the little changes and chances of the voyage to the lake. He was never much given to making acquaintance with people, but now he found himself so absent-minded that he was aware of being sometimes spoken to by friendly strangers without replying until it was too late even to apologize. He was not only steeped in this gloom, but he had the constant distress of the effort he involuntarily made to trace it back to some cause or follow it forward to some consequence. He kept trying at this, with a mind so tensely bent to the mere horror that he could not for a moment strain away from it. He would very willingly have occupied himself with other things, but the anguish which the double action of his mind gave him was such that he could not bear the effort; all he could do was to abandon himself to his obsession. This would ease him only for a while, though, and then he would suffer the misery of trying in vain to escape from it.
“He thought he must be going mad, but insanity implied some definite delusion or hallucination, and, so far as he could make out, he had none. He was simply crushed by a nameless foreboding. Something dreadful was to happen, but this was all he felt; knowledge had no part in his condition. He could not say whether he slept during the two nights that passed before he reached Toledo, where he was to take the lake steamer for Buffalo. He wished to turn back again, but the relentless pressure which had kept him from turning back at the start was as strong as ever with him. He tried to give his presentiment direction by talking with the other passengers about a recent accident to a lake steamer, in which several hundred lives were lost; there had been a collision in rough weather, and one of the boats had gone down in a few minutes. There was a sort of relief in that, but the double action of the mind brought the same intolerable anguish again, and he settled back for refuge under the shadow of his impenetrable doom. This did not lift till he was well on his way from Albany to New York by the Hudson River. The canal-boat voyage from Buffalo to Albany had been as eventless as that to Toledo, and his lake steamer had reached Buffalo in safety, for which it had seemed as if those lost in the recent disaster had paid.
“He tried to pierce his heavy cloud by argument from the security in which he had traveled so far, but the very security had its hopelessness. If something had happened–some slight accident–to interrupt it, his reason, or his unreason, might have taken it for a sign that the obscure doom, whatever it was, had been averted.
“Up to this time he had not been able to connect his foreboding with anything definite, and he was not afraid for himself. He was simply without the formless hope that helps us on at every step, through good and bad, and it was a mortal peril, which he came through safely while scores of others were lost, that gave his presentiment direction. He had taken the day boat from Albany, and about the middle of the afternoon the boat, making way under a head-wind, took fire. The pilot immediately ran her ashore, and her passengers, those that had the courage for it, ran aft, and began jumping from the stern, but a great many women and children were burned. My uncle was one of the first of those who jumped, and he stood in the water, trying to save those who came after from drowning; it was not very deep. Some of the women lost courage for the leap, and some turned back into the flames, remembering children they had left behind. One poor creature stood hesitating wildly, and he called up to her to jump. At last she did so, almost into his arms, and then she clung about him as he helped her ashore. ‘Oh,’ she cried out between her sobs, ‘if you have a wife and children at home, God will take you safe back to them; you have saved my life for my husband and little ones.’ ‘No,’ he was conscious of saying, ‘I shall never see my wife again,’ and now his foreboding had the direction that it had wanted before.
“From that on he simply knew that he should not get home alive, and he waited resignedly for the time and form of his disaster. He had a sort of peace in that. He went about his business intelligently, and from habit carefully, but it was with a mechanical action of the mind, something, he imagined, like the mechanical action of his body in those organs which do their part without bidding from the will. He was only a few days in New York, but in the course of them he got several letters from his wife telling him that all was going well with her and their daughter. It was before the times when you can ask and answer questions by telegraph, and he started back, necessarily without having heard the latest news from home.
“He made the return trip in a sort of daze, talking, reading, eating, and sleeping in the calm certainty of doom, and only wondering how it would be fulfilled, and what hour of the night or day. But it is no use my eking this out; I heard it, as I say, when I was a child, and I am afraid that if I should try to give it with the full detail I should take to inventing particulars.” Minver paused a moment, and then he said: “But there was one thing that impressed itself indelibly on my memory. My uncle got back perfectly safe and well.”
“Oh!” Rulledge snorted in rude dissatisfaction.
“What was it impressed itself on your memory?” Wanhope asked, with scientific detachment from the story as a story.
Minver continued to address Wanhope, without regarding Rulledge. “My uncle told my father that some sort of psychical change, which he could not describe, but which he was as conscious of as if it were physical, took place within him as he came in sight of his house–”
“Yes,” Wanhope prompted.
“He had driven down from the canal-packet in the old omnibus which used to meet passengers and distribute them at their destinations in town. All the way to his house he was still under the doom as regarded himself, but bewildered that he should be getting home safe and well, and he was refusing his escape, as it were, and then suddenly, at the sight of the familiar house, the change within him happened. He looked out of the omnibus window and saw a group of neighbors at his gate. As he got out of the omnibus, my father took him by the hand, as if to hold him back a moment. Then he said to my father, very quietly, ‘You needn’t tell me: my wife is dead.'”
There was an appreciable pause, in which we were all silent, and then Rulledge demanded, greedily, “And was she?”
“Really, Rulledge!” I could not help protesting.
Minver asked him, almost compassionately and with unwonted gentleness, as from the mood in which his reminiscence had left him: “You suspected a hoax? She had died suddenly the night before while she and my cousin were getting things ready to welcome my uncle home in the morning. I’m sorry you’re disappointed,” he added, getting back to his irony.
“Whatever,” Rulledge pursued, “became of the little girl?”
“She died rather young; a great many years ago; and my uncle soon after her.”
Rulledge went away without saying anything, but presently returned with the sandwich which he had apparently gone for, while Wanhope was remarking: “That want of definition in the presentiment at first, and then its determination in the new direction by, as it were, propinquity–it is all very curious. Possibly we shall some day discover a law in such matters.”
Rulledge said: “How was it your boyhood was passed in the Middle West, Minver? I always thought you were a Bostonian.”
“I was an adoptive Bostonian for a good while, until I decided to become a native New-Yorker, so that I could always be near to you, Rulledge. You can never know what a delicate satisfaction you are.”
Minver laughed, and we were severally restored to the wonted relations which his story had interrupted.