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Chapter 4

A Case of Metaphantasmia


The stranger was a guest of Halson’s, and Halson himself was a
comparative stranger, for he was of recent election to our dining-club,
and was better known to Minver than to the rest of our little group,
though one could not be sure that he was very well known to Minver. The
stranger had been dining with Halson, and we had found the two smoking
together, with their cups of black coffee at their elbows, before the
smouldering fire in the Turkish room when we came in from
dinner—my friend Wanhope the psychologist, Rulledge the
sentimentalist, Minver the painter, and myself. It struck me for the
first time that a fire on the hearth was out of keeping with a Turkish
room, but I felt that the cups of black coffee restored the lost balance
in some measure.

Before we had settled into our wonted places—in fact, almost as
we entered—Halson looked over his shoulder and said: “Mr.
Wanhope, I want you to hear this story of my friend’s. Go on,
Newton—or, rather, go back and begin again—and I’ll
introduce you afterwards.”

The stranger made a becoming show of deprecation. He said he did not
think the story would bear immediate repetition, or was even worth
telling once, but, if we had nothing better to do, perhaps we might do
worse than hear it; the most he could say for it was that the thing
really happened. He wore a large, drooping, gray mustache, which, with
the imperial below it, quite hid his mouth, and gave him, somehow, a
martial effect, besides accurately dating him of the period between the
latest sixties and earliest seventies, when his beard would have been
black; I liked his mustache not being stubbed in the modern manner, but
allowed to fall heavily over his lips, and then branch away from the
corners of his mouth as far as it would. He lighted the cigar which
Halson gave him, and, blowing the bitten-off tip towards the fire,
began:

“It was about that time when we first had a ten-o’clock
night train from Boston to New York. Train used to start at nine, and
lag along round by Springfield, and get into the old Twenty-sixth Street
Station here at six in the morning, where they let you sleep as long as
you liked. They call you up now at half-past five, and, if you
don’t turn out, they haul you back to Mott Haven, or New Haven,
I’m not sure which. I used to go into Boston and turn in at the
old Worcester Depot, as we called it then, just about the time the train
began to move, and I usually got a fine night’s rest in the course
of the nine or ten hours we were on the way to New York; it didn’t
seem quite the same after we began saying Albany Depot: shortened up the
run, somehow.

[Illustration: “NO BURGLAR COULD HAVE MISSED ME IF HE HAD WANTED AN EASY MARK”]

“But that night I wasn’t very sleepy, and the porter had
got the place so piping hot with the big stoves, one at each end of the
car, to keep the good, old-fashioned Christmas cold out, that I thought
I should be more comfortable with a smoke before I went to bed; and,
anyhow, I could get away from the heat better in the smoking-room. I
hated to be leaving home on Christmas Eve, for I never had done that
before, and I hated to be leaving my wife alone with the children and
the two girls in our little house in Cambridge. Before I started in on
the old horse-car for Boston, I had helped her to tuck the young ones in
and to fill the stockings hung along the wall over the
register—the nearest we could come to a fireplace—and I
thought those stockings looked very weird, five of them, dangling
lumpily down, and I kept seeing them, and her sitting up sewing in front
of them, and afraid to go to bed on account of burglars. I suppose she
was shyer of burglars than any woman ever was that had never seen a sign
of them. She was always calling me up, to go down-stairs and put them
out, and I used to wander all over the house, from attic to cellar, in
my nighty, with a lamp in one hand and a poker in the other, so that no
burglar could have missed me if he had wanted an easy mark. I always
kept a lamp and a poker handy.”

The stranger heaved a sigh as of fond reminiscence, and looked round
for the sympathy which in our company of bachelors he failed of; even
the sympathetic Rulledge failed of the necessary experience to move him
in compassionate response.

“Well,” the stranger went on, a little damped perhaps by
his failure, but supported apparently by the interest of the fact in
hand, “I had the smoking-room to myself for a while, and then a
fellow put his head in that I thought I knew after I had thought I
didn’t know him. He dawned on me more and more, and I had to
acknowledge to myself, by and by, that it was a man named Melford, whom
I used to room with in Holworthy at Harvard; that is, we had an
apartment of two bedrooms and a study; and I suppose there were never
two fellows knew less of each other than we did at the end of our four
years together. I can’t say what Melford knew of me, but the most
I knew of Melford was his particular brand of nightmare.”

Wanhope gave the first sign of his interest in the matter. He took
his cigar from his lips, and softly emitted an “Ah!”

Rulledge went further and interrogatively repeated the word
“Nightmare?”

“Nightmare,” the stranger continued, firmly. “The
curious thing about it was that I never exactly knew the subject of his
nightmare, and a more curious thing yet was Melford himself never knew
it, when I woke him up. He said he couldn’t make out anything but
a kind of scraping in a door-lock. His theory was that in his childhood
it had been a much completer thing, but that the circumstances had
broken down in a sort of decadence, and now there was nothing left of it
but that scraping in the door-lock, like somebody trying to turn a
misfit key. I used to throw things at his door, and once I tried a
cold-water douche from the pitcher, when he was very hard to waken; but
that was rather brutal, and after a while I used to let him roar himself
awake; he would always do it, if I trusted to nature; and before our
junior year was out I got so that I could sleep through, pretty calmly;
I would just say to myself when he fetched me to the surface with a
yell, ‘That’s Melford dreaming,’ and doze off
sweetly.”

“Jove!” Rulledge said, “I don’t see how you
could stand it.”

“There’s everything in habit, Rulledge,” Minver put
in. “Perhaps our friend only dreamt that he heard a
dream.”

“That’s quite possible,” the stranger owned,
politely. “But the case is superficially as I state it. However,
it was all past, long ago, when I recognized Melford in the smoking-room
that night: it must have been ten or a dozen years. I was wearing a full
beard then, and so was he; we wore as much beard as we could in those
days. I had been through the war since college, and he had been in
California, most of the time, and, as he told me, he had been up north,
in Alaska, just after we bought it, and hurt his eyes—had
snow-blindness—and he wore spectacles. In fact, I had to do most
of the recognizing, but after we found out who we were we were rather
comfortable; and I liked him better than I remembered to have liked him
in our college days. I don’t suppose there was ever much harm in
him; it was only my grudge about his nightmare. We talked along and
smoked along for about an hour, and I could hear the porter outside,
making up the berths, and the train rumbled away towards Framingham, and
then towards Worcester, and I began to be sleepy, and to think I would
go to bed myself; and just then the door of the smoking-room opened, and
a young girl put in her face a moment, and said: ‘Oh, I beg your
pardon. I thought it was the stateroom,’ and then she shut the
door, and I realized that she looked like a girl I used to
know.”

The stranger stopped, and I fancied from a note in his voice that
this girl was perhaps like an early love. We silently waited for him to
resume how and when he would. He sighed, and after an appreciable
interval he began again. “It is curious how things are related to
one another. My wife had never seen her, and yet, somehow, this girl
that looked like the one I mean brought my mind back to my wife with a
quick turn, after I had forgotten her in my talk with Melford for the
time being. I thought how lonely she was in that little house of ours in
Cambridge, on rather an outlying street, and I knew she was thinking of
me, and hating to have me away on Christmas Eve, which isn’t such
a lively time after you’re grown up and begin to look back on a
good many other Christmas Eves, when you were a child yourself; in fact,
I don’t know a dismaler night in the whole year. I stepped out on
the platform before I began to turn in, for a mouthful of the night air,
and I found it was spitting snow—a regular Christmas Eve of the
true pattern; and I didn’t believe, from the business feel of
those hard little pellets, that it was going to stop in a hurry, and I
thought if we got into New York on time we should be lucky. The snow
made me think of a night when my wife was sure there were burglars in
the house; and in fact I heard their tramping on the stairs
myself—thump, thump, thump, and then a stop, and then down again.
Of course it was the slide and thud of the snow from the roof of the
main part of the house to the roof of the kitchen, which was in an L, a
story lower, but it was as good an imitation of burglars as I want to
hear at one o’clock in the morning; and the recollection of it
made me more anxious about my wife, not because I believed she was in
danger, but because I knew how frightened she must be.

“When I went back into the car, that girl passed me on the way
to her stateroom, and I concluded that she was the only woman on board,
and her friends had taken the stateroom for her, so that she
needn’t feel strange. I usually go to bed in a sleeper as I do in
my own house, but that night I somehow couldn’t. I got to thinking
of accidents, and I thought how disagreeable it would be to turn out
into the snow in my nighty. I ended by turning in with my clothes on,
all except my coat; and, in spite of the red-hot stoves, I wasn’t
any too warm. I had a berth in the middle of the car, and just as I was
parting my curtains to lie down, old Melford came to take the lower
berth opposite. It made me laugh a little, and I was glad of the relief.
‘Why, hello, Melford,’ said I. ‘This is like the old
Holworthy times.’ ‘Yes, isn’t it?’ said he, and
then I asked something that I had kept myself from asking all through
our talk in the smoking-room, because I knew he was rather sensitive
about it, or used to be. ‘Do you ever have that regulation
nightmare of yours nowadays, Melford? He gave a laugh, and said:
’I haven’t had it, I suppose, once in ten years. What made
you think of it?’ I said: ‘Oh, I don’t know. It just
came into my mind. Well, good-night, old fellow. I hope you’ll
rest well,’ and suddenly I began to feel light-hearted again, and
I went to sleep as gayly as ever I did in my life.”

The stranger paused again, and Wanhope said: “Those swift
transitions of mood are very interesting. Of course they occur in that
remote region of the mind where all incidents and sensations are of one
quality, and things of the most opposite character unite in a common
origin. No one that I remember has attempted to trace such effects to
their causes, and then back again from their causes, which would be much
more important.”

“Yes, I dare say,” Minver put in. “But if they all
amount to the same thing in the end, what difference would it
make?”

“It would perhaps establish the identity of good and
evil,” Wanhope suggested.

“Oh, the sinners are convinced of that already,” Minver
said, while Rulledge glanced quickly from one to the other.

The stranger looked rather dazed, and Rulledge said: “Well, I
don’t suppose that was the conclusion of the whole
matter?”

“Oh no,” the stranger answered, “that was only the
beginning of the conclusion. I didn’t go to sleep at once, though
I felt so much at peace. In fact, Melford beat me, and I could hear him
far in advance, steaming and whistling away, in a style that I recalled
as characteristic, over a space of intervening years that I hadn’t
definitely summed up yet. It made me think of a night near Narragansett
Bay, where two friends of mine and I had had a mighty good dinner at a
sort of wild club-house, and had hurried into our bunks, each one so as
to get the start of the others, for the fellows that were left behind
knew they had no chance of sleep after the first began to get in his
work. I laughed, and I suppose I must have gone to sleep almost
simultaneously, for I don’t recollect anything afterwards till I
was wakened by a kind of muffled bellow, that I remembered only too
well. It was the unfailing sign of Melford’s nightmare.

“I was ready to swear, and I was ashamed for the fellow who had
no more self-control than that: when a fellow snores, or has a
nightmare, you always think first off that he needn’t have had it
if he had tried. As usual, I knew Melford didn’t know what his
nightmare was about, and that made me madder still, to have him
bellowing into the air like that, with no particular aim. All at once
there came a piercing scream from the stateroom, and then I knew that
the girl there had heard Melford and been scared out of a year’s
growth.”

The stranger made a little break, and Wanhope asked, “Could you
make out what she screamed, or was it quite inarticulate?”

“It was plain enough, and it gave me a clew, somehow, to what
Melford’s nightmare was about. She was calling out, ‘Help!
help! help! Burglars!’ till I thought she would raise the roof of
the car.”

“And did she wake anybody?” Rulledge inquired.

“That was the strange part of it. Not a soul stirred, and after
the first burst the girl seemed to quiet down again and yield the floor
to Melford, who kept bellowing steadily away. I was so furious that I
reached out across the aisle to shake him, but the attempt was too much
for me. I lost my balance and fell out of my berth onto the floor. You
may imagine the state of mind I was in. I gathered myself up and pulled
Melford’s curtains open and was just going to fall on him tooth
and nail, when I was nearly taken off my feet again by an apparition:
well, it looked like an apparition, but it was a tall fellow in his
nighty—for it was twenty years before pajamas—and he had a
small dark lantern in his hand, such as we used to carry in those days
so as to read in our berths when we couldn’t sleep. He was
gritting his teeth, and growling between them: ‘Out o’ this!
Out o’ this! I’m going to shoot to kill, you blasted
thieves!’ I could see by the strange look in his eyes that he was
sleep-walking, and I didn’t wait to see if he had a pistol. I
popped in behind the curtains, and found myself on top of another
fellow, for I had popped into the wrong berth in my confusion. The man
started up and yelled: ‘Oh, don’t kill me! There’s my
watch on the stand, and all the money in the house is in my pantaloons
pocket. The silver’s in the sideboard down-stairs, and it’s
plated, anyway.’ Then I understood what his complaint was, and I
rolled onto the floor again. By that time every man in the car was out
of his berth, too, except Melford, who was devoting himself strictly to
business; and every man was grabbing some other, and shouting,
‘Police!’ or ‘Burglars!’ or ‘Help!’
or ‘Murder!’ just as the fancy took him.”

“Most extraordinary!” Wanhope commented as the stranger
paused for breath.

In the intensity of our interest, we had crowded close upon him,
except Minver, who sat with his head thrown back, and that cynical cast
in his eye which always exasperated Rulledge; and Halson, who stood
smiling proudly, as if the stranger’s story did him as his sponsor
credit personally.

“Yes,” the stranger owned, “but I don’t know
that there wasn’t something more extraordinary still. From time to
time the girl in the stateroom kept piping up, with a shriek for help.
She had got past the burglar stage, but she wanted to be saved, anyhow,
from some danger which she didn’t specify. It went through me that
it was very strange nobody called the porter, and I set up a shout of
‘Porter!’ on my own account. I decided that if there were
burglars the porter was the man to put them out, and that if there were
no burglars the porter could relieve our groundless fears. Sure enough,
he came rushing in, as soon as I called for him, from the little corner
by the smoking-room where he was blacking boots between dozes. He was
wide enough awake, if having his eyes open meant that, and he had a shoe
on one hand and a shoe-brush in the other. But he merely joined in the
general up-roar and shouted for the police.”

“Excuse me,” Wanhope interposed. “I wish to be
clear as to the facts. You had reasoned it out that the porter could
quiet the tumult?”

“Never reasoned anything out so clearly in my life.”

“But what was your theory of the situation? That your friend,
Mr. Melford, had a nightmare in which he was dreaming of
burglars?”

“I hadn’t a doubt of it.”

“And that by a species of dream-transference the
nightmare was communicated to the young lady in the
stateroom?”

“Well—yes.”

“And that her call for help and her cry of burglars acted as a
sort of hypnotic suggestion with the other sleepers, and they began to
be afflicted with the same nightmare?”

“I don’t know that I ever put it to myself so distinctly,
but it appears to me now that I must have reached some such
conclusion.”

“That is very interesting, very interesting indeed. I beg your
pardon. Please go on,” Wanhope courteously entreated.

“I don’t remember just where I was,” the stranger
faltered.

Rulledge returned with an accuracy which obliged us all:
“‘The porter merely joined in the general uproar and shouted
for the police.’”

“Oh yes,” the stranger assented. “Then I
didn’t know what to do, for a minute. The porter was a pretty
thick-headed darky, but he was lion-hearted; and his idea was to lay
hold of a burglar wherever he could find him. There were plenty of
burglars in the aisle there, or people that were afraid of burglars, and
they seemed to think the porter had a good idea. They had hold of one
another already, and now began to pull up and down the aisles in a way
that reminded me of the old-fashioned mesmeric lecturers, when they told
their subjects that they were this or that, and set them to acting the
part. I remembered how once when the mesmerist gave out that they were
at a horse—race, and his subjects all got astride of their chairs,
and galloped up and down the hall like a lot of little boys on laths. I
thought of that now, and although it was rather a serious business, for
I didn’t know what minute they would come to blows, I
couldn’t help laughing. The sight was weird enough. Every one
looked like a somnambulist as he pulled and hauled. The young lady in
the stateroom was doing her full share. She was screaming,
‘Won’t somebody let me out?’ and hammering on the
door. I guess it was her screaming and hammering that brought the
conductor at last, or maybe he just came round in the course of nature
to take up the tickets. It was before the time when they took the
tickets at the gate, and you used to stick them into a little slot at
the side of your berth, and the conductor came along and took them in
the night, somewhere between Worcester and Springfield, I should
say.”

“I remember,” Rulledge assented, but very carefully, so
as not to interrupt the flow of the narrative. “Used to wake up
everybody in the car.”

“Exactly,” the stranger said. “But this time they
were all wide awake to receive him, or fast asleep, and dreaming their
roles. He came along with the wire of his lantern over his arm, the way
the old-time conductors did, and calling out, ‘Tickets!’
just as if it was broad day, and he believed every man was trying to
beat his way to New York. The oddest thing about it was that the
sleep-walkers all stopped their pulling and hauling a moment, and each
man reached down to the little slot alongside of his berth and handed
over his ticket. Then they took hold and began pulling and hauling
again. I suppose the conductor asked what the matter was; but I
couldn’t hear him, and I couldn’t make out exactly what he
did say. But the passengers understood, and they all shouted
‘Burglars!’ and that girl in the stateroom gave a shriek
that you could have heard from one end of the train to the other, and
hammered on the door, and wanted to be let out.

“It seemed to take the conductor by surprise, and he faced
towards the stateroom and let the lantern slip off his arm, and it
dropped onto the floor and went out; I remember thinking what a good
thing it didn’t set the car on fire. But there in the
dark—for the car lamps went out at the same time with the
lantern—I could hear those fellows pulling and hauling up and down
the aisle and scuffling over the floor, and through all Melford
bellowing away, like an orchestral accompaniment to a combat in Wagner
opera, but getting quieter and quieter till his bellow died away
altogether. At the same time the row in the aisle of the car stopped,
and there was perfect silence, and I could hear the snow rattling
against my window. Then I went off into a sound sleep, and never woke
till we got into New York.”

The stranger seemed to have reached the end of his story, or at least
to have exhausted the interest it had for him, and he smoked on, holding
his knee between his hands and looking thoughtfully into the fire.

He had left us rather breathless, or, better said, blank, and each
looked at the other for some initiative; then we united in looking at
Wanhope; that is, Rulledge and I did. Minver rose and stretched himself
with what I must describe as a sardonic yawn; Halson had stolen away
before the end, as one to whom the end was known. Wanhope seemed by no
means averse to the inquiry delegated to him, but only to be formulating
its terms. At last he said:

“I don’t remember hearing of any case of this kind
before. Thought-transference is a sufficiently ascertained
phenomenon—the insistence of a conscious mind upon a certain fact
until it penetrates the unconscious mind of another and is adopted as
its own. But in the dream state the mind seems passive, and becomes the
prey of this or that self-suggestion, without the power of imparting it
to another dreaming mind. Yet here we have positive proof of such an
effect. It appears that the victim of a particularly terrific nightmare
was able to share its horrors—or rather unable not to
share them—with a whole sleeping-car full of people whose brains
helplessly took up the same theme, and dreamed it, as we may say, to the
same conclusions. I said proof, but of course we can’t accept a
single instance as establishing a scientific certainty. I don’t
question the veracity of Mr.—”

“Newton,” the stranger suggested.

“Newton’s experience,” Wanhope continued,
“but we must wait for a good many cases of the kind before we can
accept what I may call metaphantasmia as being equally established with
thought-transference. If we could it would throw light upon a whole
series of most curious phenomena, as, for instance, the privity of a
person dreamed about to the incident created by the dreamer.”

“That would be rather dreadful, wouldn’t it?” I
ventured. “We do dream such scandalous, such compromising things
about people.”

“All that,” Wanhope gently insisted, “could have
nothing to do with the fact. That alone is to be considered in an
inquiry of the kind. One is never obliged to tell one’s dreams. I
wonder”—he turned to the stranger, who sat absently staring
into the fire—“if you happened to speak to your friend about
his nightmare in the morning, and whether he was by any chance aware of
the participation of the others in it?”

“I certainly spoke to him pretty plainly when we got into New
York.”

“And what did he say?”

“He said he had never slept better in his life, and he
couldn’t remember having a trace of nightmare. He said he heard
me groaning at one time, but I stopped just as he woke, and so
he didn’t rouse me as he thought of doing. It was at Hartford, and
he went to sleep again, and slept through without a break.”

“And what was your conclusion from that?” Wanhope
asked.

“That he was lying, I should say,” Rulledge replied for
the stranger.

Wanhope still waited, and the stranger said, “I suppose one
conclusion might be that I had dreamed the whole thing
myself.”

“Then you wish me to infer,” the psychologist pursued,
“that the entire incident was a figment of your sleeping brain?
That there was no sort of sleeping thought-transference, no
metaphantasmia, no—Excuse me. Do you remember verifying your
impression of being between Worcester and Springfield when the affair
occurred, by looking at your watch, for instance?”

The stranger suddenly pulled out his watch at the word. “Good
Heavens!” he called out. “It’s twenty minutes of
eleven, and I have to take the eleven-o’clock train to Boston. I
must bid you good-evening, gentlemen. I’ve just time to get it if
I can catch a cab. Good-night, good-night. I hope if you come to
Boston—eh—Good-night! Sometimes,” he called over his
shoulder, “I’ve thought it might have been that girl in the
stateroom that started the dreaming.”

He had wrung our hands one after another, and now he ran out of the
room.

Rulledge said, in appeal to Wanhope: “I don’t see how his
being the dreamer invalidates the case, if his dreams affected the
others.”

“Well,” Wanhope answered, thoughtfully, “that
depends.”

“And what do you think of its being the girl in the
stateroom?”

“That would be very interesting.”


William Dean Howells

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