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The Last Mass

Dreamed 1914/11/23 by E.M. Martin

That war should find its way into my dreams was what I feared when the fourth of August (1914) came, even though I had often found the events of the most soul-stirring of days to have little or no influence on the consciousness that is awake when the body lies inert, and the real world (as we reckon reality) exists for it no longer. At first my fears were vain, and my dream country was still, for me, a land of peace, content and plenty.

But on the twenty-third of November (and this, the starry month, together with October, gives birth to stranger dreams than any other) war began, and I first heard the guns of the enemy in an old castle I know well, and have learnt to look upon as a dream friend; for I know it through all the changing seasons, and have gathered roses and honeysuckle from the high hedges that now bound its outer fosse, or picked ripe blackberries from them, sometimes with friends, but more often alone.

In this dream I was alone, and the time was autumn, for the leaves in the hedgerow and on the tall trees that grow on the castle mound were yellowing to decay, while the warmth of the sun was welcome, for in spite of its softness, there was a tang of cold in the air. Some boys were playing at ball in the hollow that forms the right side of the outer fosse, and just before me a man walking with two girls was pointing to the fine old keep, while he told them something of its story.

The scene was so peaceful, of such quiet, untouched beauty, that it was hard to realize we were in the midst of the greatest war the world has ever known, that the enemy had landed, and were marching through England, pillaging and burning. At any moment (for so I believed in the consequent inconsequence of sleep) we might hear their guns and the old castle know its last siege, and I was here to warn these people, the boys playing in the green hollow, and the man displaying his narrow store of learning to the laughing girls.

I tried to call to the boys, but the wind carried my voice away; I tried to speak to the man, but he moved on quickly and was out of sight; in the distance I could hear the sound of heavy firing, yet no one else seemed to hear it, and, of a sudden, my feet grew heavy, so that speed was impossible to me.

Instead of trying to follow the man, I thought I would go between the two walls (all now left of the great gate-house); the dry moat lies on either side and the pathway is narrow; by taking it, I should be at the keep almost as soon as he. And all the time I could hear the heavy firing, and wondered whether I could save these people, or if we must taste of death together in this dream castle of mine.

For often in a dream, a certain dual consciousness prevails, and though mind and body are active, and all around one is clear and tangible as the world is when waking, yet there is a sense (difficult to define but well known to such scientific dreamers as Mr. Havelock Ellis and Professor Bergson) that we are in a dream and that there is a possibility of our coming back again into the daylight world we have grown to look upon as the only proven reality. In this particular dream, the baffling sense of a twofold consciousness oppressed me: was the castle real, and would death itself be real, or only another and more troubled phase of dreaming?

I was on the pathway between the two walls of the gate-house; the one wall is solid, the other shows a wide gap made by those leather guns that gave so good an account of themselves in the Civil Wars at the siege of Worcester. A stone seat runs along this riven wall, where, while their masters had audience of the lord of the castle, men-at-arms would sit waiting, looking through the narrow slit that served for a window and yet gave so wide a view of the world outside.

And I was not alone on the gate-house floor. An old priest, in a cassock, had set the sacred vessels on the stone seat, and was arranging some pink-coloured foliated paper or his altarcloth; as I looked, I knew he was preparing to say his last mass, and that I, being no Catholic, could not offer myself to be his server. Though no words passed between us, my mind was as clear to him as his mind to me; he wanted a server and I was willing to help him.

"Fetch me the little lad who is playing in the hollow," he said at last.

"The fair-haired boy?" I asked. He bowed his head for answer, and the sound of the guns grew louder; the enemy must be very near now (for in my dream, I forgot to reckon with the long carrying power of the new guns) and this was the last mass the old priest would say or the walls of the old castle echo.

I ran quickly in search of the boy, but he was all intent on his game: I could see the boys were shouting at their play, but the firing drowned their voices, though they themselves were all unconscious of any noise save their own. Of this noisy little band the fair-haired boy was leader; he would, I thought, be sorry to be called from his play to take his part in the solemn mystery. As the thought passed through me, the walls of the castle rocked, the ground rose as if to strike me in the face, there was a blaze of light from the tall trees that were all afire, and of the merry players only three were left; the fair-haired boy's head was rolling after the leather ball, while his body lay in the trodden grass, yet I was unhurt, held only by this horror of war, brought suddenly to my very feet.

Looking up at the ruined gate-house, I saw the wall was still standing, and the priest watching through the gap pointed to the tallest of the boys who were left, a blackhaired boy with a sullen mouth. I ran down the slope, and taking him by the shoulder, I dragged him after me; for part of the keep had fallen, the trees and some farm buildings beyond were blazing, and there was no time to be lost if the old priest was to say his mass in this world. The black-haired boy was too bewildered to understand aright what was wanted of him; but the habit of obedience was strong, and the priest began the office, while I knelt on the floor and waited for the end.

There was another crash and I saw the chalice like the Grael in Sir Bors' vision silhouetted against a rose-red sky, while the priest's face, lighted from within, was of a strange glory, for he had left age behind him, and had entered into his heritage of undying youth. The smell of the smoke mingled with the scent of the incense, and the heat from the burning timber struck across me like a blow, and then I saw the tawdry pink paper was alight. Some spark from the burning wood had touched it, and I rose from my knees to help the priest, who seemed all unwitting of the flame the wind had fanned into a screen of fire and smoke that filled the gap in the wall. But with the stir of sudden movement my dream self was alone, and I awoke to the heavy darkness on the edge of dawn.

I wrote this dream down the same morning (as I always do with any impressive dream) for my own satisfaction and that I might neither omit nor exaggerate the least little detail; wrote it with a heavy heart, that war had come into my dream life, so that it might no longer be possible for me to balance carefilled days by peace-filled nights.

But the next night was as barren of adventure as a heavy sky is empty of stars, and I hoped, after such a strangely living experience, to enjoy weeks of untroubled rest.


He didn't. Just two nights later he dreamed of a subtler but deadlier apocalypse: The Changed River.

--Chris Wayan

Source: Dreams in War-Time by E.M. Martin (1915)

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