A Case Of Metaphantasmia
by William Dean Howells
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?”
“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.”