Snow covered the expanse of house-tops without, and the sky without was glorious with chill stars. That white city belonged to him, he knew, with a host of other cities. He was the strongest of kings. People dreaded him, he knew; and he wondered why an y one should esteem a frail weakling such as he to be formidable. The hand of this great king--his own hand, that held aside the curtain before him--was shriveled and colorless as lambs' wools. It was like a horrible bird-claw.
("But then I have the advantage of remembering the twentieth century," he thought, fleetingly, "and all my contemporaries are superstitious ignorant folk. It is strange, but in this dream I appear to be an old man. That never happened before." )
A remote music resounded in his ears, and cloying perfumes were about him....
"I want to be happy. And that is impossible, because there is no happiness anywhere in the world. I, a great king, say this--I, who am known in unmapped lands, and before whom nations tremble. For there are but three desirable things in life--love and power and wisdom: and I, the king, have sounded the depths of these, and in none is happiness."
Despairing words came to him now, and welled to his lips in a sort of chaunt:
"I am sad to-night, for I remember that I once loved a woman. She was white as the moon; her hair was a gold cloud; she had untroubled eyes. She was so fair that I longed for her until my heart was as the heart of a God. But she sickened and died: wor ms had their will of her, not I. So I took other women, and my bed was never lonely. Bright poisonous women were brought to me, from beyond the sunset, from the Fortunate Islands, from Invallis and Planasia even; and these showed me nameless endearments and many curious perverse pleasures. But I was not able to forget that woman who was denied me because death had taken her: and I grew a-weary of love, for I perceived that all which has known life must suffer death.
"There was no people anywhere who could withstand my armies. We traveled far in search of such a people. My armies rode into a country of great heat and endless sands, and contended with the Presbyter's brown horsemen, who fought with arrows and brightl y painted bows; and we slew them. My armies entered into a land where men make their homes in the shells of huge snails, and feed upon white worms which have black heads; and we slew them. My armies passed into a land where a people that have no languag e dwell in dark caves under the earth, and worship a stone that has sixty colors; and we slew them, teaching ruthlessly that all which has known life must suffer death.
"Many stiff-necked kings, still clad in purple and scarlet and wearing gold crowns--monarchs whose proud faces, for all that these men were my slaves, kept their old fashion and stayed changeless as the faces of statues--such were my lackeys: and I burne d walled cities. Empires were my playthings, but I had no son to inherit after me. I had no son--only that dead horrible mangled worm, born dead, that I remember seeing very long ago where the woman I loved lay dead. That would have been my son had the thing lived--a greater and a nobler king than I. But death willed otherwise: the life that moved in me was not to be perpetuated: aad so, the heart in my body grew dried and little and shrivled, like a parched pea: for I perceived that all which has k nown life must suffer death.
"Then I turned from warfare, and sought for wisdom. I learned all that is permitted any man to know--oh, I learned more than is permissible. Have I not summoned demons from the depths of the sea, and at the Sabbat have I not smitten haggard Gods upon th e cheek? Yea, at Phigalia did I not pass beneath the earth and strive with a terrible Black Woman, who had the head of a horse, and wrest from her what I desired to know? Have I not talked with Morskoi, that evil formless ruler of the Sea-Folk, and made a compact with him? And has not even Phobetor, whose real name may not be spoken, revealed to me his secrets, at a paid price of which I do not care to think, now I perceive that all which has known life must suffer death?
"Yea, by the Hoofs of the Goat! it seems to me that I have done these things; yet how may I be sure? For I have learned, too, that all man's senses lie to him, that nothing we see or hear or touch is truthfully reported, and that the visible world at be st stands like an island in an uncharted ocean which is a highway, none the less, for much alien traffic. Yet, it seems to me that I found means whereby the universe I live in was stripped of many veils. It seems to me that I do not regret having done t his.... But presently I shall be dead, and all my dearly-purchased, wearily-earned wisdom must lie quiet in a big stone box, and all which has known life must suffer death.
"For death is mighty, and against it naught can avail: it is terrible and strong and cruel, and a lover of bitter jests. And presently, whatever I have done or studied or dreamed, I must lie helpless where worms will have their will of me, and neither t he worms nor I will think it odd, because we have both learned--by how countless attestings!--that all which has known life must suffer death."
A remote music resounded in his ears, and cloying perfumes were about him. Turning, he saw that the walls of this strange room were of iridescent lacquer, worked with bulls and apes and parrots in raised gold: black curtains screened the doors: and the bare floor was of smooth sea-green onyx. A woman stood there, who did not speak, but only waited. So did he perceive what terror was, for terror possessed him utterly; and yet he was elated.
"You have come, then, at last...."
"To you at last I have come as I come to all men," she answered, "in my good hour." And Ettarre's hands, gleaming and half-hidden with jewels, reached toward his hands, so gladly raised to hers; and the universe seemed to fold about him, just as a hand c loses.
Was it as death she came to him in this dream?--as death made manifest as man's liberation from much vain toil? Kennaston, at least, preferred to think his dreams were not degenerating into such hackneyed crude misleading allegories. Or perhaps it was a s ghost of the dead woman he had loved she came, now that he was age-striken and nearing death, for in this one dream alone he had seemed to be an old man.
Kennaston could not ever be sure; the broken dream remained and enigma; but he got sweet terror and happiness of the dream, for all that, tasting his moment of inexplicable poignant emotion: and therewith he was content.