An Experience is a short story by William Dean Howells.
For a long time after the event my mind dealt with the poor man in helpless conjecture, and it has now begun to do so again for no reason that I can assign. All that I ever heard about him was that he was some kind of insurance man. Whether life, fire, or marine insurance I never found out, and I am not sure that I tried to find out.
There was something in the event which discharged him of all obligation to define himself of this or that relation to life. He must have had some relation to it such as we all bear, and since the question of him has come up with me again I have tried him in several of those relations–father, son, brother, husband–without identifying him very satisfyingly in either.
As I say, he seemed by what happened to be liberated from the debt we owe in that kind to one another’s curiosity, sympathy, or whatever. I cannot say what errand it was that brought him to the place, a strange, large, indeterminate open room, where several of us sat occupied with different sorts of business, but, as it seems to me now, by only a provisional right to the place. Certainly the corner allotted to my own editorial business was of temporary assignment; I was there until we could find a more permanent office. The man had nothing to do with me or with the publishers; he had no manuscript, or plan for an article which he wished to propose and to talk himself into writing, so that he might bring it with a claim to acceptance, as though he had been asked to write it. In fact, he did not even look of the writing sort; and his affair with some other occupant of that anomalous place could have been in no wise literary. Probably it was some kind of insurance business, and I have been left with the impression of fussiness in his conduct of it; he had to my involuntary attention an effect of conscious unwelcome with it.
After subjectively dealing with this impression, I ceased to notice him, without being able to give myself to my own work. The day was choking hot, of a damp that clung about one, and forbade one so much effort as was needed to relieve one of one’s discomfort; to pull at one’s wilted collar and loosen the linen about one’s reeking neck meant exertion which one willingly forbore; it was less suffering to suffer passively than to suffer actively. The day was of the sort which begins with a brisk heat, and then, with a falling breeze, decays into mere swelter. To come indoors out of the sun was no escape from the heat; my window opened upon a shaded alley where the air was damper without being cooler than the air within.
At last I lost myself in my work with a kind of humid interest in the psychological inquiry of a contributor who was dealing with a matter rather beyond his power. I did not think that he was fortunate in having cast his inquiry in the form of a story; I did not think that his contrast of love and death as the supreme facts of life was what a subtler or stronger hand could have made it, or that the situation gained in effectiveness from having the hero die in the very moment of his acceptance. In his supposition that the reader would care more for his hero simply because he had undergone that tremendous catastrophe, the writer had omitted to make him interesting otherwise; perhaps he could not.
My mind began to wander from the story and not very relevantly to employ itself with the question of how far our experiences really affect our characters. I remembered having once classed certain temperaments as the stuff of tragedy, and others as the stuff of comedy, and of having found a greater cruelty in the sorrows which light natures undergo, as unfit and disproportionate for them. Disaster, I tacitly decided, was the fit lot of serious natures; when it befell the frivolous it was more than they ought to have been made to bear; it was not of their quality. Then by the mental zigzagging which all thinking is I thought of myself and whether I was of this make or that. If it was more creditable to be of serious stuff than frivolous, though I had no agency in choosing, I asked myself how I should be affected by the sight of certain things, like the common calamities reported every day in the papers which I had hitherto escaped seeing. By another zigzag I thought that I had never known a day so close and stifling and humid. I then reflected upon the comparative poverty of the French language, which I was told had only that one word for the condition we could call by half a dozen different names, as humid, moist, damp, sticky, reeking, sweltering, and so on. I supposed that a book of synonyms would give even more English adjectives; I thought of looking, but my book of synonyms was at the back of my table, and I would have to rise for it. Then I questioned whether the French language was so destitute of adjectives, after all; I preferred to doubt it rather than rise.
With no more logic than those other vagaries had, I realized that the person who had started me in them was no longer in the room. He must have gone outdoors, and I visualized him in the street pushing about, crowded hither and thither, and striking against other people as he went and came. I was glad I was not in his place; I believed I should have fallen in a faint from the heat, as I had once almost done in New York on a day like that. From this my mind jumped to the thought of sudden death in general. Was it such a happy thing as people pretended? For the person himself, yes, perhaps; but not for those whom he had left at home, say, in the morning, and who were expecting him at home in the evening. I granted that it was generally accepted as the happiest death, but no one that had tried it had said so. To be sure, one was spared a long sickness, with suffering from pain and from the fear of death. But one had no time for making one’s peace with God, as it used to be said, and after all there might be something in death-bed repentance, although cultivated people no longer believed in it. Then I reverted to the family unprepared for the sudden death: the mother, the wife, the children. I struggled to get away from the question, but the vagaries which had lightly dispersed themselves before clung persistently to the theme now. I felt that it was like a bad dream. That was a promising diversion. Had one any sort of volition in the quick changes of dreams? One was aware of finding a certain nightmare insupportable, and of breaking from it as by main force, and then falling into a deep, sweet sleep. Was death something like waking from a dream such as that, which this life largely was, and then sinking into a long, restful slumber, and possibly never waking again?
Suddenly I perceived that the man had come back. He might have been there some time with his effect of fussing and his pathetic sense of unwelcome. I had not noticed; I only knew that he stood at the half-open door with the knob of it in his hand looking into the room blankly.
As he stood there he lifted his hand and rubbed it across his forehead as if in a sort of daze from the heat. I recognized the gesture as one very characteristic of myself; I had often rubbed my hand across my forehead on a close, hot day like that. Then the man suddenly vanished as if he had sunk through the floor.
People who had not noticed that he was there noticed now that he was not there. Some made a crooked rush toward the place where he had been, and one of those helpful fellow-men who are first in all needs lifted his head and mainly carried him into the wide space which the street stairs mounted to, and laid him on the floor. It was darker, if not cooler there, and we stood back to give him the air which he drew in with long, deep sighs. One of us ran down the stairs to the street for a doctor, wherever he might be found, and ran against a doctor at the last step.
The doctor came and knelt over the prostrate figure and felt its pulse, and put his ear down to its heart. It, which has already in my telling ceased to be he, drew its breath in those long suspirations which seemed to search each more profoundly than the last the lurking life, drawing it from the vital recesses and expelling it in those vast sighs.
They went on and on, and established in our consciousness the expectation of indefinite continuance. We knew that the figure there was without such consciousness as ours, unless it was something so remotely withdrawn that it could not manifest itself in any signal to our senses. There was nothing tragical in the affair, but it had a surpassing dignity. It was as if the figure was saying something to the life in each of us which none of us would have words to interpret, speaking some last message from the hither side of that bourne from which there is no returning.
There was a clutch upon my heart which tightened with the slower and slower succession of those awful breaths. Then one was drawn and expelled and then another was not drawn. I waited for the breathing to begin again, and it did not begin. The doctor rose from kneeling over the figure that had been a man, and uttered, with a kind of soundlessness, “Gone,” and mechanically dusted his fingers with the thumbs of each hand from their contact with what had now become all dust forever.
That helpfulest one among us laid a cloth over the face, and the rest of us went away. It was finished. The man was done with the sorrow which, in our sad human order, must now begin for those he loved and who loved him. I tried vaguely to imagine their grief for not having been uselessly with him at the last, and I could not. The incident remained with me like an experience, something I had known rather than seen. I could not alienate it by my pity and make it another’s. They whom it must bereave seemed for the time immeasurably removed from the fact.