This is the story of a dream that came to me some five-and-twenty years ago. It is as vivid in memory as anything that I have ever seen in the outward world, as distinct as any experience through which I have ever passed. Not all dreams are thus remembered. But some are. In the records of the mind, where the inner chronicle of life is written, they are intensely clear and veridical. I shall try to tell the story of this dream with an absolute faithfulness, adding nothing and leaving nothing out, but writing the narrative just as if the thing were real.
Perhaps it was. Who can say?
In the course of a journey, of the beginning and end of which I know nothing, I had come to a great city, whose name, if it was ever told me, I cannot recall.
It was evidently a very ancient place. The dwelling-houses and larger buildings were gray and beautiful with age, and the streets wound in and out among them wonderfully, like a maze.
This city lay beside a river or estuary–though that was something that I did not find out until later, as you will see–and the newer part of the town extended mainly on a wide, bare street running along a kind of low cliff or embankment, where the basements of the small houses on the water-side went down, below the level of the street, to the shore. But the older part of the town was closely and intricately built, with gabled roofs and heavy carved facades hanging over the narrow stone-paved ways, which here and there led out suddenly into open squares.
It was in what appeared to be the largest and most important of these squares that I was standing, a little before midnight. I had left my wife and our little girl in the lodging which we had found, and walked out alone to visit the sleeping town.
The night sky was clear, save for a few filmy clouds, which floated over the face of the full moon, obscuring it for an instant, but never completely hiding it–like veils in a shadow dance. The spire of the great cathedral was silver filigree on the moonlit side, and on the other side, black lace. The square was empty. But on the broad, shallow steps in front of the main entrance of the cathedral two heroic figures were seated. At first I thought they were statues. Then I perceived they were alive, and talking earnestly together.
They were like Greek gods, very strong and beautiful, and naked but for some slight drapery that fell snow-white around them. They glistened in the moonlight. I could not hear what they were saying; yet I could see that they were in a dispute which went to the very roots of life.
They resembled each other strangely in form and feature–like twin brothers. But the face of one was noble, lofty, calm, full of a vast regret and compassion. The face of the other was proud, resentful, drawn with passion. He appeared to be accusing and renouncing his companion, breaking away from an ancient friendship in a swift, implacable hatred. But the companion seemed to plead with him, and lean toward him, and try to draw him closer.
A strange fear and sorrow shook my heart. I felt that this mysterious contest was something of immense importance; a secret, ominous strife; a menace to the world.
Then the two figures stood up, marvellously alike in strength and beauty, yet absolutely different in expression and bearing, the one serene and benignant, the other fierce and threatening. The quiet one was still pleading, with a hand laid upon the other’s shoulder. But he shook it off, and thrust his companion away with a proud, impatient gesture.
At last I heard him speak.
“I have done with you,” he cried. “I do not believe in you. I have no more need of you. I renounce you. I will live without you. Away forever out of my life!”
At this a look of ineffable sorrow and pity came upon the great companion’s face.
“You are free,” he answered. “I have only besought you, never constrained you. Since you will have it so, I must leave you, now, to yourself.”
He rose into the air, still looking downward with wise eyes full of grief and warning, until he vanished in silence beyond the thin clouds.
The other did not look up, but lifting his head with a defiant laugh, shook his shoulders as if they were free of a burden. He strode swiftly around the corner of the cathedral and disappeared among the deep shadows.
A sense of intolerable calamity fell upon me. I said to myself:
“That was Man! And the other was God! And they have parted!”
Then the multitude of bells hidden in the lace-work of the high tower began to sound. It was not the aerial fluttering music of the carillon that I remembered hearing long ago from the belfries of the Low Countries. This was a confused and strident ringing, jangled and broken, full of sudden tumults and discords, as if the tower were shaken and the bells gave out their notes at hazard, in surprise and trepidation.
It stopped as suddenly as it began. The great bell of the hours struck twelve. The windows of the cathedral glowed faintly with a light from within.
“It is New Year’s Eve,” I thought–although I knew perfectly well that the time was late summer. I had seen that though the leaves on the trees of the square were no longer fresh, they had not yet fallen.
I was certain that I must go into the cathedral. The western entrance was shut. I hurried to the south side. The dark, low door of the transept was open. I went in. The building was dimly lighted by huge candles which flickered and smoked like torches. I noticed that one of them, fastened against a pillar, was burning crooked, and the tallow ran down its side in thick white tears.
The nave of the church was packed with a vast throng of people, all standing, closely crowded together, like the undergrowth in a forest. The rood-screen was open, or broken down, I could not tell which. The choir was bare, like a clearing in the woods, and filled with blazing light.
On the high steps, with his back to the altar, stood Man, his face gleaming with pride.
“I am the Lord!” he cried. “There is none above me! No law, no God! Man is power. Man is the highest of all!”
A tremor of wonder and dismay, of excitement and division, shivered through the crowd. Some covered their faces. Others stretched out their hands. Others shook their fists in the air. A tumult of voices broke from the multitude–voices of exultation, and anger, and horror, and strife.
The floor of the cathedral was moved and lifted by a mysterious ground-swell. The pillars trembled and wavered. The candles flared and went out. The crowd, stricken dumb with a panic fear, rushed to the doors, burst open the main entrance, and struggling in furious silence poured out of the building. I was swept along with them, striving to keep on my feet.
One thought possessed me. I must get to my wife and child, save them, bring them out of this accursed city.
As I hurried across the square I looked up at the cathedral spire. It was swaying and rocking in the air like the mast of a ship at sea. The lace-work fell from it in blocks of stone. The people rushed screaming through the rain of death. Many were struck down, and lay where they fell.
I ran as fast as I could. But it was impossible to run far. Every street and alley vomited men–all struggling together, fighting, shouting, or shrieking, striking one another down, trampling over the fallen–a hideous melee. There was an incessant rattling noise in the air, and heavier peals as of thunder shook the houses. Here a wide rent yawned in a wall–there a roof caved in–the windows fell into the street in showers of broken glass.
How I got through this inferno I do not know. Buffeted and blinded, stumbling and scrambling to my feet again, turning this way or that way to avoid the thickest centres of the strife, oppressed and paralyzed by a feeling of impotence that put an iron band around my heart, driven always by the intense longing to reach my wife and child, somehow I had a sense of struggling on. Then I came into a quieter quarter of the town, and ran until I reached the lodging where I had left them.
They were waiting just inside the door, anxious and trembling. But I was amazed to find them so little panic-stricken. The little girl had her doll in her arms.
[Illustration with caption: The cathedral spire… was swaying and rocking in the air like the mast of a ship at sea.] “What is it?” asked my wife. “What must we do?”
“Come,” I cried. “Something frightful has happened here. I can’t explain now. We must get away at once. Come, quickly.”
Then I took a hand of each and we hastened through the streets, vaguely steering away from the centre of the city.
Presently we came into that wide new street of mean houses, of which I have already spoken. There were a few people in it, but they moved heavily and feebly, as if some mortal illness lay upon them. Their faces were pale and haggard with a helpless anxiety to escape more quickly. The houses seemed half deserted. The shades were drawn, the doors closed.
But since it was all so quiet, I thought that we might find some temporary shelter there. So I knocked at the door of a house where there was a dim light behind the drawn shade in one of the windows.
After a while the door was opened by a woman who held the end of her shawl across her mouth. All that I could see was the black sorrow of her eyes.
“Go away,” she said slowly; “the plague is here. My children are dying of it. You must not come in! Go away.”
So we hurried on through that plague-smitten street, burdened with a new fear. Soon we saw a house on the riverside which looked absolutely empty. The shades were up, the windows open, the door stood ajar. I hesitated; plucked up courage; resolved that we must get to the waterside in some way in order to escape from the net of death which encircled us.
“Come,” I said, “let us try to go down through this house. But cover your mouths.”
We groped through the empty passageway, and down the basement-stair. The thick cobwebs swept my face. I noted them with joy, for I thought they proved that the house had been deserted for some time, and so perhaps it might not be infected.
We descended into a room which seemed to have been the kitchen. There was a stove dimly visible at one side, and an old broken kettle on the floor, over which we stumbled. The back door was locked. But it swung outward as I broke it open. We stood upon a narrow, dingy beach, where the small waves were lapping.
By this time the “little day” had begun to whiten the eastern sky; a pallid light was diffused; I could see westward down to the main harbor, beside the heart of the city. The sails and smoke-stacks of great ships were visible, all passing out to sea. I wished that we were there.
Here in front of us the water seemed shallower. It was probably only a tributary or backwater of the main stream. But it was sprinkled with smaller vessels–sloops, and yawls, and luggers–all filled with people and slowly creeping seaward.
There was one little boat, quite near to us, which seemed to be waiting for some one. There were some people on it, but it was not crowded.
“Come,” I said, “this is for us. We must wade out to it.”
So I took my wife by the hand, and the child in the other arm, and we went into the water. Soon it came up to our knees, to our waists.
“Hurry,” shouted the old man at the tiller. “No time to spare!”
“Just a minute more,” I answered, “only one minute!”
That minute seemed like a year. The sail of the boat was shaking in the wind. When it filled she must move away. We waded on, and at last I grasped the gunwale of the boat. I lifted the child in and helped my wife to climb over the side. They clung to me. The little vessel began to move gently away.
“Get in,” cried the old man sharply; “get in quick.”
But I felt that I could not, I dared not. I let go of the boat. I cried “Good-by,” and turned to wade ashore.
I was compelled to go back to the doomed city. I must know what would come of the parting of Man from God!
The tide was running out more swiftly. The water swirled around my knees. I awoke.
But the dream remained with me, just as I have told it to you.
A Remembered Dream – Henry van Dyke
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