On 10 November 1619, at Neubourg, in Saxe-Wurtemberg, on the banks of the Danube, it is a bitterly cold evening. Freezing rain, driven by a violent wind, smashes against the window-panes. Trees are torn up, draughts rush down chimneys, and swinging metal signs creak loudly.
Inside an over-heated bedroom, curled up in an armchair at a table, next to a big, earthenware stove, is a young man of twenty-three. Oblivious to the weather outside, he is reading by the bright light of a candelabrum.
The young man does not come from Neubourg. He is a soldier of the Duke of Bavaria, whose armies have just taken up their Winter quarters. Like his army colleagues, he is lodged with a town inhabitant, and is living a gentle, comfortable life while waiting to leave, in Spring, to fight the Protestant troops of the Palatine Elector Frederic V.
The young soldier rarely leaves the house where he is billeted. Tonight, he is reading a treatise on music. But, perhaps due to the excessive heat of the stove, he keeps nodding off. So, he puts away the book, undresses, blows out the candles, and goes to bed. And, in spite of the tempest which continues to rattle the house, blowing away weather-vanes and whistling through the roof, the young soldier quickly goes to sleep.
He immediately has a strange dream: he is walking in an unknown street, when suddenly ghosts appear in front of him. Terrified, he wants to flee, but he feels a great weakness on his right side, and he is obliged to lean on his left to be able to advance. Ashamed of walking in this grotesque position, he makes an immense effort to stand upright, but an impetuous wind suddenly makes him spin three or four times on his left foot, like a top.
Then, he stops spinning and forces himself to continue to advance. But his body’s position makes walking difficult, and he thinks that he is going to fall with each step that he takes. A college, whose door is open, then appears in his path. He enters it, thinking to find refuge there, and perhaps a remedy for what is ailing him. Then he sees the college church and wants to go there to pray, but he notices that he has passed a man whom he knows, without greeting him. So, he wants to turn back to say something agreeable to him. But he is violently pushed back by the wind which is blowing against the church and stopping him from advancing. At the same time, he sees, in the middle of the college courtyard, another person who calls him by his name and says to him:
“Would you be kind enough to carry something to one of our friends?”
The young man asks what he is to carry. He receives no answer, but imagines, we don’t know why, that it is a melon brought from some foreign country.
He continues walking, dragging himself along and tottering, while the people whom he meets are walking firmly on their feet, and the wind has dropped. He is so unhappy that he wakes up.
The dream, from which he emerges with difficulty, has anguished him so much that he thinks that a bad genie has come to torment him. So, he makes a long prayer to secure himself against the bad effects of his vision.
After two hours of unhappy thoughts, he goes back to sleep. He is immediately transported into another dream where he hears a sharp, explosive noise, which he takes for thunder. Fear wakes him. Opening his eyes, he sees sparks from the fire scattered in his bedroom. But this doesn’t worry him, for it has happened several times before. On some nights, the sparks are so bright that they allow him to see the objects around him.
After a short time, he goes back to sleep once more, and finds himself in a third dream. In front of him, on a table, is a book. Having opened it, he sees that it is a dictionary. Then he notices a second book. This one is a poetry anthology. He flicks through it and immediately comes upon the latin verse: “Quod vitae sectabor iter?”: “Which path in life will I choose?”.
At the same time, an unknown man appears and presents him with a poem which starts with Est et non (what is and is not). He adds that it is an excellent work. The young soldier says:
“I know. It is in this book of poems. Look!”
But he flicks through the anthology in vain. He can’t find the poem. So, he takes up the dictionary and notices that some of the pages are missing. He is exchanging a few more words with the stranger when, suddenly, the books and the man disappear.
When he wakes up, the young soldier, very troubled by these three dreams, thinks that they have been sent to him by Heaven and starts to try to find out what they mean.
To be continued.