[box_light]NOTE: This is a public domain short story by Lord Dunsany, who is credited as an inspiration for many famous authors including J.R.R. Tolkein and H.P. Lovecraft. This story is part of his compilation, “A Dreamer’s Tales.” The story is free to read and download.[/box_light]
“Why do you not dance with us and rejoice with us?” they said to a certain body. And then that body made the confession of its trouble. It said: “I am united with a fierce and violent soul, that is altogether tyrannous and will not let me rest, and he drags me away from the dances of my kin to make me toil at his detestable work; and he will not let me do the little things, that would give pleasure to the folk I love, but only cares to please posterity when he has done with me and left me to the worms; and all the while he makes absurd demands of affection from those that are near to me, and is too proud even to notice any less than he demands, so that those that should be kind to me all hate me.” And the unhappy body burst into tears.
And they said: “No sensible body cares for its soul. A soul is a little thing, and should not rule a body. You should drink and smoke more till he ceases to trouble you.” But the body only wept, and said, “Mine is a fearful soul. I have driven him away for a little while with drink. But he will soon come back. Oh, he will soon come back!”
And the body went to bed hoping to rest, for it was drowsy with drink. But just as sleep was near it, it looked up, and there was its soul sitting on the windowsill, a misty blaze of light, and looking into the river.
“Come,” said the tyrannous soul, “and look into the street.”
“I have need of sleep,” said the body.
“But the street is a beautiful thing,” the soul said vehemently; “a hundred of the people are dreaming there.”
“I am ill through want of rest,” the body said.
“That does not matter,” the soul said to it. “There are millions like you in the earth, and millions more to go there. The people’s dreams are wandering afield; they pass the seas and mountains of faëry, threading the intricate passes led by their souls; they come to golden temples a-ring with a thousand bells; they pass up steep streets lit by paper lanterns, where the doors are green and small; they know their way to witches’ chambers and castles of enchantment; they know the spell that brings them to the causeway along the ivory mountains—on one side looking downward they behold the fields of their youth and on the other lie the radiant plains of the future. Arise and write down what the people dream.”
“What reward is there for me,” said the body, “if I write down what you bid me?”
“There is no reward,” said the soul.
“Then I shall sleep,” said the body.
And the soul began to hum an idle song sung by a young man in a fabulous land as he passed a golden city (where fiery sentinels stood), and knew that his wife was within it, though as yet but a little child, and knew by prophecy that furious wars, not yet arisen in far and unknown mountains, should roll above him with their dust and thirst before he ever came to that city again—the young man sang it as he passed the gate, and was now dead with his wife a thousand years.
“I cannot sleep for that abominable song,” the body cried to the soul.
“Then do as you are commanded,” the soul replied. And wearily the body took a pen again. Then the soul spoke merrily as he looked through the window. “There is a mountain lifting sheer above London, part crystal and part myst. Thither the dreamers go when the sound of the traffic has fallen. At first they scarcely dream because of the roar of it, but before midnight it stops, and turns, and ebbs with all its wrecks. Then the dreamers arise and scale the shimmering mountain, and at its summit find the galleons of dream. Thence some sail East, some West, some into the Past and some into the Future, for the galleons sail over the years as well as over the spaces, but mostly they head for the Past and the olden harbours, for thither the sighs of men are mostly turned, and the dream-ships go before them, as the merchantmen before the continual trade-winds go down the African coast. I see the galleons even now raise anchor after anchor; the stars flash by them; they slip out of the night; their prows go gleaming into the twilight of memory, and night soon lies far off, a black cloud hanging low, and faintly spangled with stars, like the harbour and shore of some low-lying land seen afar with its harbour lights.”
Dream after dream that soul related as he sat there by the window. He told of tropical forests seen by unhappy men who could not escape from London, and never would—forests made suddenly wondrous by the song of some passing bird flying to unknown eyries and singing an unknown song. He saw the old men lightly dancing to the tune of elfin pipes—beautiful dances with fantastic maidens—all night on moonlit imaginary mountains; he heard far off the music of glittering Springs; he saw the fairness of blossoms of apple and may thirty years fallen; he heard old voices—old tears came glistening back; Romance sat cloaked and crowned upon southern hills, and the soul knew him.
One by one he told the dreams of all that slept in that street. Sometimes he stopped to revile the body because it worked badly and slowly. Its chill fingers wrote as fast as they could, but the soul cared not for that. And so the night wore on till the soul heard tinkling in Oriental skies far footfalls of the morning.
“See now,” said the soul, “the dawn that the dreamers dread. The sails of light are paling on those unwreckable galleons; the mariners that steer them slip back into fable and myth; that other sea the traffic is turning now at its ebb, and is about to hide its pallid wrecks, and to come swinging back, with its tumult, at the flow. Already the sunlight flashes in the gulfs behind the east of the world; the gods have seen it from their palace of twilight that the built above the sunrise; they warm their hands at its glow as it streams through their gleaming arches, before it reaches the world; all the gods are there that have ever been, and all the gods that shall be; they sit there in the morning, chanting and praising Man.”
“I am numb and very cold for want of sleep,” said the body.
“You shall have centuries of sleep,” said the soul, “but you must not sleep now, for I have seen deep meadows with purple flowers flaming tall and strange above the brilliant grass, and herds of pure white unicorns that gambol there for joy, and a river running by with a glittering galleon on it, all of gold, that goes from an unknown inland to an unknown isle of the sea to take a song from the King of Over-the-Hills to the Queen of Far-Away.
“I will sing that song to you, and you shall write it down.”
“I have toiled for you for years,” the body said. “Give me now but one night’s rest, for I am exceeding weary.”
“Oh, go and rest. I am tired of you. I am off,” said the soul.
And he arose and went, we know not whither. But the body they laid in the earth. And the next night at midnight the wraiths of the dead came drifting from their tombs to felicitate that body.
“You are free here, you know,” they said to their new companion.
“Now I can rest,” said the body.
This story is part of Lord Dunsany’s “A Wanderer’s Tales,” which is a compilation of short stories. The other stories in this book can be found below:
Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean
The Madness of Andelsprutz
Where the Tides Ebb and Flow
Idle Days on the Yann
The Sword and the Idol
The Idle City
The Hashish Man
Poor Old Bill
The Day of the Poll
The Unhappy Body
[box_light]The main image is “Romance Comes Down Out of Hilly Woodlands,” an illustration for Lord Dunsany’s “A Dreamer’s Tales.” It was illustrated by Sidney Sime (1867–1941) (cavetocanvas.com), and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.[/box_light]