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The Stolen Dream

BY RICHARD LE GALLIENNE


THE sun was setting and slanting long lanes of golden light through the trees, as an old man, borne down by a heavy pack, came wearily through the wood, and at last, as if worn out with the day's travel, unshouldered his burden and threw himself down to rest at the foot of a great oak-tree. He was very old, older far he seemed than the tree under whose gnarled boughs he was resting, though that looked as if it had been growing since the beginning of the world. His back was bent as with the weight of years, though really it had become so from the weight of the pack that he carried; his cheeks were furrowed like the bark of a tree, and far down upon his breast fell a beard as white as snow. But his deep-set eyes were still bright and keen, though sly and cruel, and his long nose was like the beak of a hawk. His hands were like roots strong and knotted, and his fingers ended in talon-like nails. In repose even they seemed to be clutching something, something they loved to touch, and would never let go. His clothes were in rags and his shoes scarce held to his feet. He seemed as abjectly poor as he was abjectly old.

Presently, when he had rested awhile, he turned to his pack, and, furtively glancing with his keen eyes up and down the wood to make sure that he was alone, he drew from it a sack of leather which was evidently of great weight. Its mouth was fastened by sliding thongs, which he loosened with tremulous, eager hands. First he took from the bag a square of some purple silk, stuff, which he spread out on the turf beside him, and then, his eyes gleaming with a wild light, he carefully poured out the contents of the bag onto the purple square, a torrent of gold and silver coins and precious stones flashing like rainbows—a king's treasure. The setting sun flashed on the glittering heap, turning it into a dazzle of many-colored fire. The treasure seemed to light up the wood far and near, and the gaudy summer flowers that a moment before had seemed so bright and splendid fell into shadow before its radiance.

The old man bathed his claw-like hands in the treasure with a ghoulish ecstasy, and let the gold and silver pour through his fingers over and over again, streams of jeweled light gleaming and flashing in the level rays of the sun. As he did so, he murmured inarticulately to himself, gloating and gurgling with a lonely, hideous joy.

Suddenly a look of fear came over his face; he seemed to hear voices coming up the wood, and, huddling his treasure swiftly back again into the leathern bag, and the bag into the folds of his pack, he rose and sought some bushes near by to hide himself from the sight of whosoever it was that approached. But, as he shouldered his pack, he half staggered, for the pack was of great weight, and he heaved a deep sigh.

"It grows heavier and heavier," he muttered. "I cannot carry it much longer. I shall never be able to carry it with me to the grave."

As he disappeared among the bushes, a young man and a young woman, with arms twined round each other, came slowly up the glade and presently sat down at the foot of the tree where the old man had been resting a moment or two before.

"Why, what is this?" presently exclaimed the young girl, picking up something bright out of the grass. It was a gold coin, which, in his haste, the old man had let slip through his fingers.

"Gold!" they both exclaimed together.

"It will buy you a new silk gown," said the lover. "Whoever heard of such luck!" And then he sighed.

"Ah! dear heart," he said, "if only we had more like that! Then we could fulfil our dream."

As the sun poured its last rays over them there at the foot of the oak, it was to be seen that they were very poor. Their clothes were old and weather-stained, and they had no shoes to their feet; but the white feet of the girl shone like ivory flowers in the grass, and her hair was a sheaf of ruddy gold. Nor was there a jewel in all the old man's treasure as blue as her eyes. And the young man, in his manly fashion, was no less brave and fair to look upon.

In a little while, they turned to a poor wallet at the young man's side. "Let us eat our supper," they said.

But there was little more than a crust or two, a few morsels of cheese, and a mouthful or two of sour wine. Still, they were accustomed to being hungry, and the thought of the gold coin cheered their hearts. So they grew content, and after a while they nestled close into each other's arms and fell asleep, while slowly and softly through the woods came the light of the moon. Now all this time the old man had lain hidden, crouched down among the bushes, afraid almost to draw his breath, but from where he was he could hear and see all, and had overheard all that had been said. At length, after the lovers had been silent for a long time, he took courage to peer out from his hiding-place, and he saw that they were asleep. He would wait a little longer, though, till their sleep was sounder, and then he might be able perhaps to creep away unheard. So he waited on, and the moon grew brighter and brighter, and flooded the woods with its strange silver. And the lovers fell deeper and deeper asleep.

"It will be safe now," said the old man, half rising and looking out from his bushes. But this time as he looked out he saw something, something very strange and beautiful.

Hovering over the sleeping lovers was a floating, flickering shape that seemed made of moonbeams, with two great shining stars for its eyes. It was the dream that came nightly to watch over the sleep of the lovers; and, as the miser gazed at it in wonder, a strange change came over his soul, and he saw that all the treasure he had hoarded so long—gathered by the cruel practices of years, and with which his back had grown bent carrying it about the world, was as dross compared with this beautiful dream of two poor lovers, to whom but one of all his gold pieces had seemed like a fortune.

"What, after all, is it to me but a weary burden my shoulders grow too old to carry," he murmured, "and for the sake of which my life is in danger wherever I go, and to guard which I must hide away from the eyes of men?"

And the longer he gazed on the fair shining vision, the more the longing grew within him to possess it for himself.

"They shall have my treasure in exchange," he said to himself, approaching nearer to the sleepers, treading softly lest he should awaken them. But they slept on, lost in the profound slumber of innocent youth. As he drew near, the dream shrank from him, with fear in its starry eyes; but it seemed the more beautiful to the old man the closer he came to it and saw of what divine radiance it was made; and, with his desire, his confidence grew greater. So, softly placing his leather bag in the flowers by the side of the sleepers, he thrust out his talon-like fingers and snatched the dream by the hand, and hurried away, dragging it after him down the wood, fearfully turning now and again to see that he was not pursued.

But the sleepers still slept on, and by morning the miser was far away, with the captive dream by his side.

As the earliest birds chimed through the wood, and the dawn glittered on the dewy flowers, the lovers awoke and kissed each other and laughed in the light of the new day.

"But what is this?" cried the girl, and her hands fell from the pretty task of coiling up the sunrise of her hair.

With a cry, they both fell upon the leather bag, lying there so mysteriously among the wood-lilies in the grass. With eager fingers they drew apart the leather thongs, and went half-mad with wonder and joy as they poured out the glittering treasure in the morning sun.

"What can it all mean?" they cried. "The fairies must have been here in the night."

But the treasure seemed real enough. The jewels were not merely dewdrops turned to diamonds and rubies and amethysts by the magic beams of the sun, nor was the gold mere gold of faerie, but coins bearing the image of the king of the land. Here were real jewels, real gold and silver. Like children, they dabbled their hands in the shining heap, tossing them up and pouring them from one hand to the other, flashing and shimmering in the morning light.

Then a fear came on them.

"But folk will say that we have stolen them," said the youth; "they will take them from us, and cast us into prison."

"No, I believe some god has heard our prayer," said the girl, "and sent them down from heaven in the night. He who sent them will see that we come to no harm."

And again they fell to pouring them through their fingers and babbling in their delight.

"Do you remember what we said last night when we found the gold piece?" said the girl. "If only we had more of them! Surely our good angel heard us, and sent them in answer."

"It is true," said the young man. "They were sent to fulfil our dream."

"Our poor starved and tattered dream!" said the girl. "How splendidly we can clothe and feed it now! What a fine house we can build for it to live in! It shall eat from gold and silver plate, and it shall wear robes of wonderful silks and lawns like rainbows, and glitter with jewels, blue and yellow and ruby, jewels like fire fountains and the depths of the sea."

But, as they spoke, a sudden disquietude fell over them, and they looked at each other with a new fear.

"But where is our dream?" said the girl, looking anxiously around. And they realized that their dream was nowhere to be seen.

"I seemed to miss it once in the night," answered the young man in alarm, "but I was too sleepy to heed. Where can it be?"

"It cannot be far away," said the girl. "Perhaps it has wandered off among the flowers."

But they were now thoroughly alarmed.

"Where can it have gone?" they both cried. And they rose up and ran to and fro through the wood, calling out aloud on their dream. But no voice came back in reply, nor, though they sought high and low in covert and brake, could they find a sign of it anywhere. Their dream was lost. Seek as they might, it was nowhere to be found.

And then they sat down by the treasure weeping, forgetting it all in this new sorrow.

"What shall we do?" they cried; "we have lost our dream."

For a while they sat on, inconsolable. Then a thought came to the girl.

"Some one must have stolen it from us. It would never have left us of its own accord," said she.

And, as she spoke, her eyes fell on the forgotten treasure.

"What use are these to us now, without our dream?" she said.

"Who knows," said the young man, "perhaps some one has stolen our dream to sell it into bondage. We must go and seek it, and maybe we can buy it back again with this gold and jewels."

"Let us start at once," said the girl, drying her tears at this ray of hope; and so, replacing the treasure in the bag, the young man slung it at the end of his staff, and together they set off down the wood, seeking their lost dream. Meanwhile, the old man had journeyed hastily and far, the dream following in his footsteps, sorrowing; and at length he came to a fair meadow, and by the edge of a stream he sat down to rest himself, and called the dream to his side.

The dream shone nothing like so brightly as in the moonlit woodland, and its eyes were heavy as with weeping.

"Sing to me," said the old man, "to cheer my tired heart."

"I know no songs," said the dream, sadly.

"You lie," said the old man, "I saw the songs last night in the depths of your eyes."

"I cannot sing them to you," said the dream. "I can only sing them to the simple hearts I made them for, the hearts you stole me from."

"Stole you?" said the old man, "did I not leave my treasure in exchange?"

"Your treasure will be nothing to them without me," said the dream.

"You talk folly," said the old man. "With my treasure they can buy other dreams just as fair as you are. Do you think that you are the only dream in the world? There is no dream that money cannot buy."

"But I am their own dream. They will be happy with no other," said the dream.

"You shall sing to me, all the same," said the old man, angrily. But the dream shrank from him and covered its face.

"If I sang to you, you would not understand. Your heart is old and hard and cruel, and my songs are all of youth and love and joy."

"Those are the songs I would hear," said the old man.

"But I cannot sing them to you, and if I sang them you could not hear."

"Sing," again cried the old man, harshly, "sing, I bid you."

"I can never sing again," said the dream. "I can only die."

And for none of the old man's threats would the dream sing to him, but sat apart, mourning the loved ones it had lost.

So several days passed by, and every day the dream was growing less bright, a creature of tears and sighs, more and more fading away, like a withering flower. At length it was nothing but a gray shadow, a weary shape of mist that seemed ready to dissolve and vanish at any breath of wind. No one could have known it for that radiant vision that had hovered shimmering with such a divine light over the sleep of the lovers.

At length the old man lost patience, and began to curse himself for a fool in that he had parted with so great a treasure for this worthless, whimpering thing. And he raved like a madman as he saw in fancy all the gold and silver and rainbow-tinted jewels he had so foolishly thrown away.

"Take me back to them," said the dream, "and they will give you back your treasure."

"A likely thing," raged the old man, "to give back a treasure like that for such a sorry phantom."

"You will see," said the dream.

As there was nothing else to be done, the old man took up his staff.

"Come along then," said he, and started off in the direction of the wood, and though it was some days' journey, a glow flushed all through the gray shape of the dream at the news, and its eyes began to shine again.

And so they took their way.

But meanwhile the two lovers had gone from village to village, and city to city, vainly asking news of their dream. And to every one they asked they showed their treasure and said:

"This is all yours if you can but give us back our dream."

But nowhere could they learn any tidings, but gleaned only mockery and derision.

"You must be mad," said some, "to seek a dream when you have all that wealth in your pack. Of what use is a dream to any one? And what more dream do you want than gold and precious stones?"

"Ah! our dream," said the lovers, "is worth all the gold and jewels in the world."

Sometimes others would come, bringing their own dreams.

"Take this," they would say, "and give us your treasure."

But the lovers would shake their heads sadly.

"No, your dreams are not so beautiful as ours. No other dream can take its place. We can only be happy with our own dream."

And, indeed, the dreams that were brought to them seemed poor, pitiful, make-believe things, often ignoble, misbegotten, sordid, and cruel. To the lovers they seemed not dreams at all, but shapes of greed and selfish desire. So the days passed, bringing them neither tidings nor hope, and there came at length an evening when they turned their steps again to the woodland, and sat down once more under the great oak-tree in the sunset.

"Perhaps our dream has been waiting for us here all the time," they said.

But the wood was empty and echoing, and they sat and ate their supper as before, but silently and in sorrow, and as the sun set they fell asleep as before in each other's arms, but with tears glittering on their eyelids.

And again the moon came flooding the spaces of the wood, and nothing was heard but their breathing and the song of a distant nightingale.

But presently while they slept there was a sound of stealthy footsteps coming up the wood.

It was the old man, with the dream shining by his side, and now and again running ahead of him in the eagerness of its hope. Suddenly it stopped, glowing and shimmering like the dancing of the northern lights, and placed a starry finger on its lips for silence.

"See," it whispered, and there were the lovers, lying lost in sleep.

But the old man's wolfish eyes saw but one thing. There lay the leather bag of his treasure just as he had left it. Without a word, he snatched it up and hastened off with it down the wood, gurgling uncouthly to himself.

"Oh, my beauties!" he cried, as he sat himself down afar off and poured out the gold and the silver and the gleaming stones into the moonlight. "Oh, my love, my life, and my delight! What other dream could I have but you!"

Meanwhile, the lovers stirred in their sleep, and murmured to each other.

"I seemed to hear singing," each said.

And, half opening their eyes, they saw their dream shining and singing above them in the moonbeams, lovelier than ever before, a shape of heavenly silver, with two stars for its eyes.

"Our dream has come back!" they cried to each other. "Dear dream, we had to lose you to know how beautiful you are!"

And with a happy sigh they turned to sleep again, while the dream kept watch over them till the dawn.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1947, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.