I would have left the matter there, had not a dream that very same night disturbed me greatly. I was climbing a staircase and there was a large oak door at the top, which was firmly closed. It frightened me but I summoned all my strength and pushed it open. It should have been the bedroom, but instead I found myself in a gloomy and humid cellar.
The sight inside was a fearful one; my father was lying on a bed, as naked as Noah, and covered in blood. Sarah Blundy, dressed all in white and wearing that same smile, stood over him, knife in hand. As I entered, she turned placidly toward me. “Thus dies a man of honor,” she said in a whisper.
I shook my head, and pointed accusingly at her. “You have murdered him,” I said.
“Oh no.” And she nodded at me. I looked down, and in my hand was the bloody dagger she had been holding herself only a moment before. I tried to let it go, but it would not leave my hand. “You see? You are forever stained now,” she said.
That was the end of the dream, or, if there was more, I cannot recall it. I woke up frightened, and it took some effort to rid my spirit of the pall that it cast over me, which was strange considering that I had never before paid much attention to such phantasms and, indeed, had always laughed at those who placed such store by them.
I asked Thomas what he thought when I encountered him and we went for a drink in a tavern, and he, of course, treated the matter with gravity, as he did everything. Their meaning, he informed me, depended on my constitution. What was the dream exactly?
Naturally, I left out the background to it; he was exceptionally condemnatory of fornication, and I did not wish to dispute with him over trifles.
“Tell me, do you tend to a dominance of the choleric humor?” he asked when I had done.
“No,” I said. “Melancholia, rather.”
“I take it you don’t know much about dreams?”
I admitted the fact.
“You should study them,” he said. “Personally, I find them superstitious nonsense, but there is no doubt that the vulgar believe all sorts of stuff can be read from them. One day, such foolishness may be condemned; certainly no reputable priest should pay any attention to such drivel. However, that age has not yet come, so we must beware.
“You see,” he said warming to his theme and shifting his thin backside in his seat in the way he did when he was settling down for a long discourse, “dreams come from various sources all acting in conjunction. Generally there is a dominant source, and it is that which we must isolate to identify the true nature of the apparition. One source is vapors rising from the stomach to the brain, causing it to overheat; such an occurrence happens when you have overindulged in food or drink. Did you do that before the dreams?”
“Far from it,” I told him, thinking back to my meal at Mother Roberts’s.
“The next is an imbalance of your humoral constitution, but as you tell me that melancholia is dominant in you, we must rule that out as well; this is obviously a dream in which the choleric exerts its influence, the choler tending to produce black dreams, because of its color.
“So that leaves the spiritual influence; a vision, in other words, either inspired by angels as a warning, or by the devil as a torment and temptation. Either way, the dream does not look well; the girl is strongly associated with the death of a man, a father. A dream of murder is a terrible sign; it foretells hardship and imprisonment. Tell me again, what else was there?”
“The knife, the girl, the bed, my father.”
“Again, the knife bodes ill. Was it bright and sharp?”
“Must have been.”
“A knife indicates that many people of ill will are ranged against you.”
“I know that already.”
“It also foretells that if you have a lawsuit pending, you are likely to lose it.”
“The bed?” I asked, becoming more and more miserable at the prospect he was laying out before me.
“Beds, of course, are about your marriage prospects. And for it to be occupied by the corpse of your father again does not signify well at all. As long as he is there, you will not marry; his body prevents it.”
“Which means that no woman of quality would touch the son of a traitor like myself,” I exclaimed. “Again, I hardly need a divine messenger to tell me that.”
Thomas looked forward into his tankard. “And then there is the girl,” he said, “whose presence puzzles me. Because the dream says plain that she is your misfortune and your judge. And that cannot be. Why, you scarcely know her, and I can see no possibility that your current difficulties can be laid at her door. Can you explain this to me?”
Even though I knew more than I could comfortably tell Thomas, I could not explain it. I can do so now, for I have pondered long and hard on the matter. It is clear to me that my initial visitation to Widow Blundy created an imbalance amongst the spirits, a dependency in which I was embroiled, and that by taking my pleasure with the daughter I allowed myself foolishly to fall into a trap. That I was prompted by the urgings of a devil and was seduced into her power is now equally obvious.
The message of the dream was in fact simple, had I only the wit to understand. For it showed clearly that the girl’s entrapment was aimed at deflecting me from my quest, with the result that failing to clear my father’s name would be a form of murder. Once I understood that, I was fortified, and encouraged in my resolve.
Of course, such insight did not come instantly, for I have never claimed to be a cunning thinker in such matters. I learned, as all men must, by experience and from the application of common sense, so that ultimately only one explanation is left which answers all. At that time, my only thought was that the girl might lay some piddling complaint against me to the proctors of the university, who took a poor view of students consorting with the town’s whores, and that the investigation might force me to remain in town. A defense was needed and attack is the best form of it.
When I left Thomas and walked up Carfax, I came on an exceedingly ingenious solution; in brief, I tipped Mary Ful-lerton, a vegetable girl in the market and one of the most dishonest and scurrilous wretches I knew, to confirm the story by telling how she had gone one day to deliver some fruit to Dr. Grove and been mistaken for Sarah. The moment she got in the room (I instructed her to say), Grove had come up behind her and started fondling her breasts. When she protested (here she claimed to be a virtuous girl, which certainly was not the case), Grove said “What, girl? You do not want what you were so eager to have yesterday?’’ Better still, I sought out Wood and told him a story about Dr. Grove and his rutting ways with his servant. It was guaranteed that, within a day or so, the story would spread and soon get back to the Fellows of New College, such was Wood’s ability as a gossip.
So let the slut complain if she will, I thought. No one will believe her and she will do nothing but bring scandal and shame on her own head. Looking back now, I am less sanguine. My cunning did not deliver the living into Thomas’s hands and, though it might have fended off Sarah Blundy’s worldly revenge, it enraged her to ever greater heights of malice.