Frances has just passed away, but she can’t pass over—not quite yet. She returns home to find it “intolerably unchanged” at least at first. She notices the closed windows. She liked a cool house, but her sister, Theresa, liked warm rooms. She sees the disarray in her work basket. Why did so small a thing hurt her?
Her sister Theresa, with whom she’d been on good enough terms, though they’d never really spoken of their feelings, is sitting at her desk—her desk!—taking care of some correspondence.
Frances’ husband Allan comes in. She’s elated. After all, it’s he that she’s come back to see, even if Allan doesn’t believe in the supernatural:
“I came, therefore, somewhat nearer—but I did now touch him,” she tells the reader. “I merely leaned toward him and with incredible softness whispered his name. That much I could not have forborne; the spell of life was too strong in me.
“But it gave him no comfort, no delight. ‘Theresa!’ he called, in a voice dreadful with alarm—and in that instant the last veil fell…”
Poor Frances comes to realize that all the time she lived happily with her husband, he and her sister were in love with each other, but out of love for and loyalty to her, they did not speak to each other of it. She’s jealous, irrationally so, making this a sad little story. Now, when the two are free to be with each other (if it’s a bit tacky to rush into things), Frances decides to step in. In so doing, she binds herself to earth.
The reader is sad not only for Allan and Theresa, but also for Frances who really should have left a while ago.
Author Olivia Howard Dunbar is best remembered now for her ghost stories. She worked as a newspaper journalist and was married to the poet Ridgely Torrence.
Title: “The Shell of Sense”
Author: Olivia Howard Dunbar (1873-1953)
First published: Harper’s Magazine, December 1908
The story can be read at Project Gutenberg and is also available as an ebook from Librivox.
© 2018 Denise Longrie