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The Unwilling Guide

Dreamed 1914/12/29 by E.M. Martin
Source: Dreams in War-Time by E.M. Martin (1915)

... on this night of the twenty-ninth of December, I, in my dream shape, was awake and alone on a road that, cut across the shoulder of a range of hills, runs between wide reaches of woodland; to the left the trees slope down to a narrow river valley, to the right they climb up to the crest of the hills, and so the road goes for miles, dark even on a summer afternoon, but in the twilight of this early autumn day oppressively dark and dreary to one walking alone and fearful.

For war now held the sway in my dream country, and I knew, for all the peaceful seeming, that down below in the valley outposts were camping, and at any minute I might hear the singing of a bullet through the trees, for the enemy were near and warning had been given of the activity of their spies. A reason (perfectly understood by my dream self, but that, as it did not pass in detail through my mind when sleeping, was not recoverable on waking) compelled me to make this journey that night alone and a-foot; I had twelve good miles to tread before I could come to the little town where it seemed I was sorely needed, and there was danger at every step I took.

Still I cannot remember feeling any acute sense of fear; only a grave realization of the weighty responsibility laid upon me, together with a deep pity for the beauty of the woods that might so soon be torn with shot and shell and trampled under the heavy feet of fighting men.

My dream self was predominant; only once as I walked into the growing darkness of that lonely wood did I think, "Suppose I awake and find that this is only a dream?" but I quickly dismissed the thought, as one puts away a foolish fancy when waking. I was in the very heart of reality, doing needed work in this the gravest hour England had ever known, and I quickened my pace when, through a slight break in the Underwood, I saw a wisp of blue smoke rise from the hidden valley; it might come from a woodman's cottage, but it reminded me that the outposts were there and I was not alone.

The road wound up the hill at a sharp angle, and as I turned the corner, I came suddenly upon three figures, two men and a woman. They seemed relieved to see me, and the taller of the men came forward with a courteous gesture, and asked me if they were on the right way for ----, naming the very town for which I was making. He was a man of about forty, tall, fair, with a singularly winning manner; his friend was shorter, with the heavy Teuton face that nothing can disguise, and though he spoke English well, my mind was full of the warning given me :--
              There comes a power,
Into this scatter'd kingdom; who already
Wise in our negligence, have secret feet
In some of our best ports, and are at point
To show their open banner.
--and I may have hesitated a little before I told them they had taken the wrong turn, for the woman moved impulsively towards me, waving the men aside and saying, "You will help us, I know you will help us. We are not English, and we must get to -----", again naming the little town, "where we are known and shall be safe."

She was a beautiful woman, pale and fair, and Time had not scythed all the innocence of her childhood from her sad face; I felt an immense pity for her, perhaps because the heavy mourning she wore told how nearly sorrow had touched her, perhaps because she was very much afraid and even her pride could not conceal her fear.

So, half against my will, I asked how I could help her, and the two men standing behind her as though on guard seemed by their tense silence to prompt her to trustful speech.

She told me that they must get to the little town tonight; but not being English, dare not ask their way for fear they should be mistaken for spies; they had heard there were soldiers in the wood, who had orders to shoot all travellers not giving a good account of themselves, so she had not dared to leave the highway, though her friends, pointing to the men, said her fears were foolishness.

I stood still in a deep perplexity. What should I do ? For I had but little doubt that these were the very people of whom I had been given warning; yet if I refused to help them, they might make it impossible for me to carry my message to the little town, while even if they were persuaded that I was as ignorant of the lie of the land as they were, I might rouse suspicion and so help a dangerous enemy to escape. On the whole, I thought it better to tell them the truth.

"I am going to----" I said, "so I can show you the way. But we must go carefully, for I, too, have been warned that this is a dangerous road, and I do not know how near the enemy may be."

I moved on and they walked with me; then the road narrowed, the men fell behind, and I was alone with the fair, pale woman. She seemed happier now, and talked of the woods and the country side, of the horrors of war and the sorrows of war; every now and again looking over her shoulder in the darkening shadows to see if her friends were near.

And while we walked and she talked, I was busy working out a problem, such a problem as should have been laid before some old Court of Honour where knights gave judgment and kings approval, and the problem was this : Should I help this woman and her friends, or was it my duty to betray them?

If they were spies, by the love I bore my country I must give them up; I remembered the curl of blue smoke and knew how easy it would be to lead them down through the wood into the river valley where the outposts lay. As I thought this I moved to the left, and began to slip down among the trees, and at once the woman's fears were set alight.

"Where are we going?" she asked. I told her that, unless she were willing to take a by-path, we should be hours on our journey; this reassured her, and she asked me to forgive her for having been afraid. "I know we can trust you, I know we can trust you." She said the words over and over again like the tag of some old ballad, and they hurt me more than the sting of a lash.

Suppose, after all, these people were not spies? No harm would be done, for they could then no doubt prove their innocence; but what a sorry part should I have played? By every law of honour I must be judged a coward, and for ever deserve my own contempt; while, if they were spies, still they had trusted me. And that this trust was absolute I had no doubt; the men were as ready to believe all I told them as was the woman, and talked without restraint as to some old and tried friend, rather than to a stranger met by chance on a lonely road in a time of stress and danger. There was to me, something unspeakably touching in the almost childish faith that never so much as dreamed of the possibility of betrayal, and I knew, come what might, I could never betray their trust.

All at once my foot slipped on a dry twig that snapped under it, and this little noise, in the stillness and mystery of the wood, was magnified to the rattle of thunder; we all stood still to listen, and I fancied I heard footsteps.

The woman heard them too, and taking my hand, peered into the darkness with fearhaunted eyes. I told her, speaking in a whisper, that we had better go back to the road and then choose an easier path, and I was as well content as she when we had left the trees for the highway. As we walked on I heard the men behind me talking together in low voices and in a foreign tongue; what tongue it was I could not tell, but all my mistrust of them was born again, and I thought that this was a strange way of serving my country, putting my honour before her welfare.

I turned quickly to the left, and the woman asked anxiously, "Is there a better path here?" Something in her voice a note of almost caressing confidence, made me shake my head, and then in the distance we heard the slow rumbling of heavy mud-caked wheels. She stepped down the bank, but I called her back. "Come up here; we can get to the upper road," and in less than a minute we were, all four of us, well hidden in the thick undergrowth.

But I, what had I done? and what must I do? The left side or the right; my duty to my country, or my pledged word to these unknown people who had come to me out of the darkness of the woods, had claimed my help, and trusted me with their very lives?

With the agony of doubt I awoke, and am still wondering which path my dream self would at last have taken; the left, the right, or the highway.


This was, in its way, a sadder dream than the others, having all the greyness of some old morality and none of the colour or excitement of war; on waking, I still felt the shadow of the wood upon me, and walked by the pale, fair woman's side, heavy with the weight of a divided duty, until I almost hoped I should not dream again when the new year came.

For the dreams that had been a joy to me, those easeful dreams when the soul went adventuring along untrodden ways, discovering new lands where there was neither let nor hindrance, but castles and forests were mine for the wishing,--these dreams had left me, and I doubted if they would ever come back again, or whether the war had not taken them from me for ever, as it has taken so many good, desirable and wholesome things.

--E.M. Martin


This quiet, anxious dream of what Martin feared would happen to England in the near future seems to catch the real spiritual shock of the Great War. Not invasion, or any physical conflict--it's moral conflict that troubles him most. Rightly so. The war's horrors arose from unquestioning moral certainty--the loyalty to country that Martin's dream questions. Of course he longs to crawl back into the moral womb. Too late!

I think the dream ends just where it wants to. Unlike a story, it never reveals the strangers' guilt or innocence, never tells if they live or die in that sniper-wood. It poses his moral dilemma and ends. Many of my own dreams end this way--posing a choice or question for the waking mind to wrestle with, such as Hobbit Sniper, And Then I Woke Up, or Clay Beheader.

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: war - the future - fear - rescue fantasies, promises and trust - duty, ethics and fairness - choice - more E.M. Martin - England, 1915 -

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