Dreams, by Fiona Macleod
"I have tried to feed myself on hopes and
through these years."
JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN.
"Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again!
For so the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day."
"Some there are who do thus in beauty love each
MAETERLINCK: La Beauté Intérieure.
THE BOOK OF THE OPAL
When my kinsman Ambrose Stuart died last year, he left me
many papers, family documents, and the MS. of a book, the third and final part of it
unfinished. He died, where for some years he had lived, in Venice. I remember when he
went: it was to join his intimate friend and foster-brother, Carolan Stuart, spiritual
head of a House of Rest there: and he left his birth-isle in the Hebrides because he could
no longer be a priest, having found a wisdom older than that he professed, and gods more
ancient than his own, and a vision of beauty, that was not greater than that which
dreaming souls see through the incense of the Church---because there is no greater or
lesser beauty in the domain of the spirit, but only Beauty---that was to him higher in its
heights and deeper in its depths.
The first part of this book is his own story, from childhood to manhood: a story of a
remote life, remotely lived; of a singular and pathetic loneliness. The second deals with
his thoughts and dreams in Rome during his novitiate, his life in Paris, his priesthood in
the Southern Hebrides. The third, and much the longest, though unfinished, is less a
narrative than a journal, and begins from the day when he first knew that the prayers in
his mind shaped themselves otherwise than as they came to his lips; and that old forgotten
wisdom of his people came nearer to his spirit than many sacred words, which, to him, were
not the wind, but the infinite circling maze of leaves blown before the wind.
The papers were, for the most part, pages written during those dull days of idle or
perplexed thought which came between this change and his abrupt relinquishing of the
priesthood. A bitter spirit inhabits them: a spirit of the flesh, and the things of the
flesh, and of the dust. Among the latest are one or two of which I am glad, for they show
that he sought evil, or if not evil, the common ways of evil, as a man will take a poison
to avert death.
The third part of the book comes to within a few days of his death. It deals with his life
in Venice: with his inner life, for he lived solitary, and went little among his fellows,
and for the most part dwelled with Father Carolan at the Casa San Spirito in the Rio del
It was there I saw him a week before his death. I was in Italy, where I had gone for a
light and warm air, after a northern winter damp and bleak beyond any I have known: and
when I had a letter from him, begging me leave my friends and to come to Venice to see him
before death put him beyond these too many dreams, I went.
From these papers, from that unfinished book, I learned much of a singular and perplexing
nature. I believe more readily now that a man or woman may be possessed: or, that two
spirits may inhabit the same body, as fire and air together inhabit a jet of flame.
"I am shaken with desire," he writes in one place, "and not any wind can
blow that fire out of my heart. There is no room for even one little flaming word of God
in my heart. When I am not shaken with desires, it is only because I am become Desire. And
my desire is all evil. It is not of the mind or of the body only, but is of the mind and
the body and the spirit. it is my pleasure to deny God. I have no fear."
And yet, within a page or two of where these words are, and written later on the same day,
I find: "There is a star within me which guides me through all darkness. Pride is
evil, but there is a pride which great angels know, they who do not stoop, who hear but do
not listen. What are all desires but dust to the feet? I fear above all things the
unforgiving love of Him who has dominion. But great love, great hope, these touch with
immortal lips my phantom frailties. What day can be vain when I know within myself that I
am kin to spirits who do not pass as smoke and flame?"
But because one can understand a man better from what height he may have reached, than
from any or all of his poor failings away, I learned more from a vellum-bound MS. book,
written also on vellum, as though he held it as his particular and most intimate
utterance, which he gave me the day before he died. For there are many among us who become
transparent through the light of their imaginations: who, when they mould images of
thought and dream, reveal their true selves with an insight that is at once beautiful and
terrible. My friend was of these: and I recall seldom, and with ever less heed, the morbid
agonies and elations, the bitter perversities the idle veering of shaken thought, but
remember what he wrote, not openly of himself or his apparent life and yet poignantly and
convincingly of himself, and of one whom he loved, in The Book of the Opal.
He gave me also the rare and beautiful stone after which he had named his book. He
told me that it possessed occult powers, but whether of itself, or in the making of its
perfect beauty, he could not say; or simply because of its beauty, and because perfect
beauty has an infinite radiation and can attract not only influences, but powers. It may
well be so.
I read often in this Book of the Opal. It is, to me, as the sea is, or the wind:
for, like the unseen and homeless creature which in the beginning God breathed between the
lips of Heat and Cold, it is full of unbidden meanings and has sighs and laughters: and,
like the sea, it has limits and shallows, but holds the stars, and has depths where light
is dim and only the still, breathless soul listens; and has a sudden voice that is old as
day and night, and is fed with dews and rains, and is salt and bitter.
It was not his will that it should be given to others. "I would like three to read
it," he said: "then, in time, it will be moonlight in many minds, and, through
the few, thousands will know all in it that has deep meaning for any but myself. For now I
am a husbandman who knows he shall not reap what he has sown, but is content if even one
seed only sinks and rise. I see a forest of souls staring at the stars which are the fruit
of the tree that shall grow from that single seed."
This that he desired may or not be: for there is another Husbandman who garners in His own
way and at His own time.
When I reached him I saw in his face the shadow of that ill which none may gainsay. He was
on a sofa which had been drawn close to the window. The house was in a poor and
unfrequented part, but the windows looked across the Laguna Morte, and from the roofgarden
one might see at sundown the spires of Padua, like white gossamer caught in that vast
thicket of flame and delicate rose which was the West.
It was at this hour, at a sundown such as this, that I saw him. Already the sweat of death
was on his brow, though be lived, as in a tremulous, uncertain balance of light and
shadow, for seven days.
His mind dwelled almost wholly upon secret things: ancient mysteries, old myths, the
forgotten gods and the power and influences starry and demoniacal, dreams, and the august
revelation of eternal beauty.
One afternoon he gave me four small objects, of which three were made of ivory and gold,
and the fourth was a rounded stone of basalt double-sphered with gold.
I asked him what meaning they had, for I knew he gave them with meaning.
"Do you not know?" he said. One was the small image of a sword, the other of a
spear, the third of a cup.
Then I knew that he had given me the symbols of the four quarters of the earth, and of all
the worlds of the universe: the stone for the North, the sword for the East, the spear for
the South, and the cup for the West.
"Hold the sword against the light that I may see it," he whispered; adding,
after a while: "I am tired of all thoughts of glory and wonder, of power, and of love
The next day, at sundown, he asked me to hold the little gold and ivory spear against the
light. "I am tired," he said, "of all thoughts of dominion, of great
kingdoms and empires that come and pass, of insatiable desires, and all that goes forth to
smite and to conquer."
On the day that followed I held before his dimmed eyes the little gold and ivory cup,
white as milk in the pale gold of a rain-cleat, windy set. "I am tired," he
said, "of all thoughts of dreams that outlive the grave, and of fearless eyes looking
at the stars, and of old heroisms, and mystery, and the beauty of all beauty."
It was on the next day he died. At noon his faint breath bade me lift the stone of basalt,
though he could not see that which I held before his eyes. I saw the shadow in his closed
eyelids become tremulous and pale blue, like faint, wind-shaken smoke.
When I put the stone on the marble by his side, not more still or white than that other
silent thing which lay beside it, I knew that of the eternal symbols of which he has so
often written in The Book of the Opal, one he had forever relinquished. With him in
that new passage, he had the spear, and the sword, and the little infinite cup that the
tears of one heart might fill and yet not all the dews of the incalculable stars cause to
Among the impersonal episodic parts of The Book of the Opal I found much diffuse
and crude material, often luminous with living thought---the swimming thought of timeless
imagination out of which an old-time romance of two worlds has been woven: two worlds, the
one as the other remote from us now, though each in degree to be recovered, if neither
till after a deeper "sea-change" than any modern world has yet known.
Though the soul is the still-water in which each of us may dimly discern this
"seachange"; Art, which is the symbolic language of the soul, is alone, now, the
common mirror with which all may look. And Art, we must remember, is the continual
recovery of a bewildered tradition, the tradition of Beauty and of joy and of Youth, that
like the Aztec word Ahecatl---which signifies the Wind, and the Breath, and the Soul---are
but the three mortal names for one immortal Word.