[“The Dream by A. J. Alan (real name: Leslie H. Lambert) has hitherto languished out of print and unavailable on the internet. The story is a transcript of one of Alan’s pioneering broadcasts on BBC radio. It was first published in Good Evening Everyone (1928), and it has been occasionally included in subsequent anthologies. Alan’s stories combine something of Saki’s narration with the sort of stunts and trickery found in Ambrose Bierce’s fiction – the latter can perhaps be attributed in Alan to his early career as a magician – but “The Dream” itself furthers the premise of E. F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower” (1912). If there are any copyright problems about reproducing the story here, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org Ed.]
They’ve asked me to tell you about another of my experiences, and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try and describe to you a dream I often have.
Before describing the dream itself it may be as well to explain a few things about it.
First of all, I’ve had it some fifteen or twenty times altogether at quite irregular intervals. Sometimes it gives me a miss for two years, at others it will happen twice in six months. There’s no knowing.
It began – to visit me – when I was eight or nine years old, and I used to think then that it was just the same dream each time, but it wasn’t, and it isn’t. The general setting, or locale, is the same, but there’s a gradual moving forward of events which makes it somewhat interesting – to me, at any rate – and just a bit creepy.
It always begins in exactly the same way. I am walking up a broad flight of stairs in a very large house. The carpet is dark-blue and very thick, so thick that you sink right in.
The walls are all white.
The time, as a rule, is between eleven and twelve at night. It’s evidently a party I’m coming to, and I’m rather late for it. My left forefinger is poking a piece of paper down into my waistcoat pocket, and I’m aware in some occult way that it’s the ticket for my hat and coat.
The whole place seems deserted except for me, not even anyone to take my name and announce me. In fact, I’m not rather late, I’m very late.
At the top of the stairs there’s a broad sort of landing-place, and, immediately facing me, a very massive mahogany door with a large cut-glass knob. Through this door I go.
In my very young days I used to have quite a job to push it open, but now it’s merely heavy and solid.
There’s a screen inside the door which cuts me off from the rest of the room, and it just gives me the opportunity to pull down my waistcoat. I walk, with a certain amount of diffidence, round the screen. It’s a great big room – very high and brilliantly lighted. The walls are white and the carpet blue – like the stairs – and the furniture is very dark oak.
The scene is rather peculiar. There must be at least forty or fifty men in the room, and they are all sitting on chairs in front of a little platform against the far wall. They aren’t sitting in rows, but just anyhow. It looks as though they’ve drawn up their chairs as near the platform as they can get. I expect that’s what happens, really, but I’ve never got there early enough to see.
They are all much of the same class, as far as general appearance goes; but their ages are widely different. They range from twenty or less right up to seventy and more.
I used to wonder, many years ago, what it was all about, but now I realise that all these people are watching, with very great interest, a conversation which is taking place between a man and a woman. Incidentally, she is the only woman in the room.
These two are sitting on chairs on the dias or platform. It’s quite a low platform really – not more than a foot high.
I say they’re watching the conversation because I’m sure that unless one happens to be in the very front row it isn’t possible to catch more than a word here and there.
The man on the platform doesn’t call for any particular remark – at least, I don’t know – it is rather funny about him.
He is evidently just one of the audience who has been invited up, as it were, and I’ve usually seen him a few times before in the body of the room. But the thing is that once a man has spent the evening on the platform he never appears again.
Now we come to the lady. She is very beautiful – almost too beautiful to be respectable. In fact, if one didn’t actually know —. However, when I say respectable, I don’t mean that she would faint clean away if anyone said damn; but one would hesitate before digging her in the ribs on short acquaintance.
As far as I can tell, she’s on the tall side, and very graceful. I’ve never seen her standing up. She looks as though she could dance well. By dance I mean waltz, of course. She has lovely copper-coloured hair, and she’s had the sense not to cut it off. She apparently believes in looking like a woman and not like an ungainly boy. Most unfashionable – but then you must remember that this is a dream.
She’s usually dressed in a simple black evening-frock and a hat. The hat is rather of the – I think it’s called the turban type. It’s a little difficult to describe. It’s got a sort of asprey – no, osprey – thing that points backwards and downwards, rather like the tail of the comet does. I think Miss Lily Elsie wore something like that in The Merry Widow (if she doesn’t mind my dragging her in).
When I say she’s wearing a simple black frock, I mean one of those simple little frocks which you can pick up anywhere for fifty or sixty guineas.
And it’s never the same dress twice.
While she’s sitting down she isn’t having a perpetual struggle to make her skirt cover her knees. Not that I’ve any quarrel with knees – qua knees – but those rows of bony excrescences which stick out at you in the Tube, well, surely some of them might be left to the imagination. In fact, if things go on as they are doing now, one won’t want an imagination at all, and then what?
To go back to the lady’s hat for a moment, I must confess that it rather beats me – why she’s wearing one at all, that is – because she must be in her own house.
You can tell that from the way she behaves – I mean, that she’s obviously acting as hostess, and her manner is a treat to watch.
She sits quietly in her chair without looking as if she’d been spilt into it, and she doesn’t fidgit. She hasn’t any of those irritating little affectations which one often sees. She doesn’t drag out a repair outfit every two minutes and plaster a lot of stuff on her face. Perhaps she doesn’t have to. I don’t believe she’d even powder her nose in public. Oh, I know that on this subject I’m only a locust crying in the wilderness, but it is refreshing to see anyone who isn’t ashamed of her complexion.
I’ve mentioned before that the conversation, or whatever it is, between the good lady and the man on the platform is so quiet that I’ve never been able to hear her voice, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the kind that anyone vulgar, who wished to be extra offensive, would describe as a “refained voice”; but he wouldn’t be there, so it doesn’t matter.
I’ve racked my brains trying to imagine what on earth they can be talking about for such a long time. In the early part she seems to be asking questions and getting very deferential answers. Perhaps she’s applying some sort of test. Later on it’s more as though she is giving information or instructions, and he just puts in a word here and there.
At about half-past twelve she usually lights a cigarette. Betwen you and me, I think it’s a signal as much as anything to tell all the rest of us that we can smoke if we like. Some of us do.
Now, it’s a rather funny thing about the time. More often than not the place where I’m standing gives me a view of a clock there is on the mantelpiece. It’s one of those clocks which pretend they haven’t got any works, like the women of the present day. You know them – er – the clocks. All you can see is a sheet of plate-glass with the figures and hands on it, and the hands go round in some mysterious way. This clock goes and it’s right. How do I know it’s right – let’s see – how do I know it’s right? Oh, yes, because it always indicates the time of about one hour after I’ve gone to sleep, and that may vary quite a lot.
As regards the age of the lady – well, it’s a little hard to say. In my extreme youth she was about as old as an aunt. When I grew up she seemed more like a sister, and now I’m blowed if I know how old she is. Early thirties probably. It’s rather unusual to grow past anyone.
I think I said at the beginning that there aren’t quite enough chairs for everyone, and those who come late – like me – have to stand up at the back. All the same, it becomes apparent every now and then during the evening that there is a vacant chair a little way in. It’s always a mystery to me how this happens, because no one would ever seem to go out (only a blind man would), but when it does happen one of the men at the back sort of tiptoes in and takes it.
We just settle amongst ourselves who – like you do in the Tube – “That’s all right, I’m getting out at the next station” – you know. A man who has once sat down always has a chair after that, so you see there’s a process going on all through the years whereby everyone gradually works forward to the front and eventually finishes up on the platform. It has often, undoubtedly, been my turn to take a vacant chair, but some instinct has always warned me not to. Even our hostess has noticed it, and she’s occasionally looked at me as though to say: “Aren’t you going to sit down?” but I’ve always half-shaken my head and let someone else have it – the chair, that is. Then she has given a slight, very slight, shrug of the shoulders, and I’ve felt rather ungracious and left it at that. I know now why I don’t sit down, and I’ll tell you about that presently.
It’s extremely difficult to give you the facts about this dream in their proper order, because there isn’t a proper order, and it differs in so many ways from ordinary dreams. There are none of the mad things in it that you ordinarily get… The one I’m telling you about is so abnormally normal.
The one constantly variable factor is the man on the platform, and it’s rotten bad luck that I’ve always been too late to see how he comes to be chosen out of all the others. He was once just sitting down, but that’s the nearest I’ve ever got.
It used to strike me what a rag it would be if only I could recognise anyone there. After all, it stands to reason that all these other people must be dreaming, too – and then we could compare notes next day.
Well, one night the man on the platform was a man, a rather famous man, whom I knew very well. When I say I knew him very well, I really mean that I knew his secretary very well, which is infinitely better, believe me. So next morning I rang her up – the secretary – and said, “I say, I wish you’d fix me up an appointment with the old man some time during the day, because I want to see him very particularly.” And she said, “I’m afraid you can’t because he was found dead in bed this morning.”
Wasn’t it just my luck? Fearful hard lines on him, too, of course, but it absolutely dished my chance of finding out what the dream meant.
However, the Fates were kind. Three or four years later I again saw a man on the platform whom I knew perfectly well. His name was Ribblechick, but he couldn’t help that, poor chap. He recognised me, too, and we grinned at each other, and I thought now it’s all right – he’ll have heard her speak, and will be able to tell me what she is – if not who.
So next morning I trotted round – they lived quite near us – and will you believe it, the whole house was upside down. He, poor old Ribblechick, had been found dead in bed, too. Heart-failure, they said it was.
Please don’t think that I’m suggesting for a moment that it was anything but the purest coincidence that these two unfortunate people happened to die in the same way. But all the same, each time I dream my dream nowadays, and a chair does fall vacant, I still let someone else have it, and the good lady still shrugs her shoulders.