The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature

Author: Henry Van Dyke


For several months I continued to advance in intimacy with my picture. It grew more familiar, more suggestive; the truth and beauty of it came home to me constantly. Yet there was something in it not quite apprehended; a sense of strangeness; a reserve which I had not yet penetrated.

One night in August I found myself practically alone, so far as human intercourse was concerned, in the populous, weary city. A couple of hours of writing had produced nothing that would bear the test of sunlight, so I anticipated judgment by tearing up the spoiled sheets of paper, and threw myself upon the couch before the empty fireplace. It was a dense, sultry night, with electricity thickening the air, and a trouble of distant thunder rolling far away on the rim of the cloudy sky—one of those nights of restless dulness, when you wait and long for something to happen, and yet feel despondently that nothing ever will happen again. I passed through a region of aimless thoughts into one of migratory and unfinished dreams, and dropped from that into an empty gulf of sleep.

How late it was when I drifted back toward the shore of consciousness, I cannot tell. But the student-lamp on the table had burned out, and the light of the gibbous moon was creeping in through the open windows. Slowly the pale illumination crept up the eastern wall, like a tide rising as the moon declined. Now it reached the mantel-shelf and overflowed the bronze heads of Homer and the Indian Bacchus and the Egyptian image of Isis with the infant Horus. Now it touched the frame of the picture and lapped over the edge. Now it rose to the shadowy house and the dim garden, in the midst of which I saw the white blot more distinctly than ever before.

It seemed now to have taken a new shape, like the slender form of a woman, robed in flowing white. And as I watched it through halfclosed eyes, the figure appeared to move and tremble and wave to and fro, as if it were a ghost.

A haunted picture! Why should it not be so? A haunted ruin, a haunted forest, a haunted ship,—all these have been seen, or imagined, and reported, and there are learned societies for investigating such things. Why should not a picture have a ghost in it?

My mind, in that curiously vivid state which lies between waking and sleeping, went through the form of careful reasoning over the question. If there may be some subtle connection between a house and the spirits of the people who have once lived in it,—and wise men have believed this,—why should there be any impassable gulf between a picture and the vanished lives out of which it has grown? All the human thought and feeling which have passed into it through the patient toil of art, remain forever embodied there. A picture is the most living and personal thing that a man can leave behind him. When we look at it we see what he saw, hour after hour, day after day, and we see it through his mood and impression, coloured by his emotion, tinged with his personality. Surely, if the spirits of the dead are not extinguished, but only veiled and hidden, and if it were possible by any means that their presence could flash for a moment through the veil, it would be most natural that they should come back again to hover around the work into which their experience and passion had been woven. Here, if anywhere, they would "Revisit the pale glimpses of the moon." Here, if anywhere, we might catch fleeting sight, as in a glass darkly, of the visions that passed before them while they worked.

This much of my train of reasoning along the edge of the dark, I remember sharply. But after this, all was confused and misty. The shore of consciousness receded. I floated out again on the ocean of forgotten dreams. When I woke, it was with a quick start, as if my ship had been made fast, silently and suddenly, at the wharf of reality, and the bell rang for me to step ashore.

But the vision of the white blot remained clear and distinct. And the question that it had brought to me, the chain of thoughts that had linked themselves to it, lingered through the morning, and made me feel sure that there was an untold secret in Falconer’s life and that the clew to it must be sought in the history of his last picture.

But how to trace the connection? Every one who had known Falconer, however slightly, was out of town. There was no clew to follow. Even the name "Larmone" gave me no help; for I could not find it on any map of Long Island. It was probably the fanciful title of some old country-place, familiar only to the people who had lived there.

But the very remoteness of the problem, its lack of contact with the practical world, fascinated me. It was like something that had drifted away in the fog, on a sea of unknown and fluctuating currents. The only possible way to find it was to commit yourself to the same wandering tides and drift after it, trusting to a propitious fortune that you might be carried in the same direction; and after a long, blind, unhurrying chase, one day you might feel a faint touch, a jar, a thrill along the side of your boat, and, peering through the fog, lay your hand at last, without surprise, upon the very object of your quest.


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Chicago: Henry Van Dyke, "II," The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed June 7, 2023,

MLA: Dyke, Henry Van. "II." The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 7 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: Dyke, HV, 'II' in The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Ruling Passion; Tales of Nature and Human Nature, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 7 June 2023, from