A sharp, clinking sound was heard above the hum of voices in the smoke‑filled room as the dean touched his glass to that of the captain. He raised it to his lips, but stopped half way and got up from his white arm chair.
"Gentlemen!" He raised his glass in the direction of the card table at the near end of the room, where the gentry from Eksta, Saleby and Brocksholm were seated. "My friends!" The other hand described a graceful arc which included the clergy of the deanery who were gathered in small groups throughout the room. "I ask you all to join with us in a toast to the heroes of Sikajoki and Revolaks."
Dr. Savonius, the young curate, looked intently at his superior, and then let his eyes move with evident pleasure about the room. It was amazing, he thought, that so much esprit and culture could be assembled in that worm‑eaten old parsonage. He remembered how he but packed his books last Advent, choosing only a few authors‑‑mainly the poets of the Gustavian era‑‑to take with him on his exile, as he now left the University and journeyed home for his ordination. He remembered how sadly his fingers had caressed the de luxe edition of Kjellgren and how he had thought, Now you will have to comfort me in my loneliness. As a matter of fact, there had been no loneliness at all in this, his first appointment. The dean's residence at Odesjó was anything but a place of exile. The elderly dean was a refined and intellectual man, perhaps a bit too conservative and with a touch of the gout of orthodoxy in his make‑up, but still a very pleasant man to live with. He was a highly respected spiritual father to his community, where he took the same untiring interest in every matter, whether it be the catechizations in the homes, ancient parish lore, the growing of potatoes, or world politics. He was an admirable figure as he stood there straight and slender as a rod, his forehead high, the mark of authority on his stern chin. He was an honor to his class. Savonius noted with satisfaction that the captain from the manor house, who after all ranked as number one among the parish gentry, looked rather unimpressive by comparison, his jovial but somewhat bloated face sunk deep in his great collar between the epaulets. There could be no question as to who looked more the military man. Nor was there any question as to which of these two the people preferred to listen to at a parish meeting.
Savonius continued to look about him. The last touch of evening sun was finding its way through the leafy crowns of the linden trees. It danced playfully through the wreaths of smoke in the room and cast a warm reflection on the ceiling, which caused the shallow plane marks on the white boards to stand out like ripples on a mirror of water. Farthest away in the room, small spots of light moved over the pearl‑gray wallpaper, bringing its stencils into relief, and shining on the dark end boards so that the yellow roses on the hand‑painted paper edges stood out in all their pretentious elegance.
Across the room, between the two windows of the long wall, stood the pianoforte, with its black and white keys and its straight, fluted legs. A violin was also to be seen. Here the young people were gathered, a bright bouquet of colorful dresses and formal wear. Savonius noted the young people of the dean's own household, the girls from the captain's house, among them the captain's Babette and several others he did not recognize. They had been looking through the pieces of music and whispering among themselves. If only they dared ask the dean to take his guests into the parlor so that they might have the room for dancing, now that Johan‑Christofer was home from college and had his violin with him and the latest gavottes in his portfolio.
The pastors were either standing or seated in scattered groups about the room. There stood Hafverman from Nás, large and sturdy, with a tight grip on his long pipe. There were Nylander and Warbeck and the whole contingent of curates from the district. Many of them were strikingly young looking. Several were not yet attached to any parish. In general the cut of their coats was not at all out of style. The only ones who impaired this good impression were Runfeldt and Lindér. Runfeldt was a hopeless rustic; there was snuff on his coat sleeves, his boot leather was cracked, and there was an indescribable atmosphere of stable and sour cabbage about his thick‑set person. He would have fitted better in the back room where the farm foreman and the coachmen were eating their steak. Linder was a dark Savonarola type, not without fire in his manner, but it was a fire which lost its brightness like a bonfire in the sunlight as soon as the brilliant savants from Upsala began to sparkle with their quotations and witticisms.
The toast was drunk and was followed by the obligatory moment of silence. The only sounds heard were the beating of a bumblebee's wings against the ceiling and the scraping of a chair. One felt a light cloud of sadness stealing through the sunshine and heavy warmth. The shadow of war in the East, which had almost been forgotten in the festive spirit, crept out of its corner once more, bringing with it the winter's tragic memories.
Savonius felt a bit faint. His arms hung limp and the tips of his fingers were numb. He must have imbibed too much again. The next voice he heard seemed to come from a great distance.
The door of the entry hall opened. In the dark doorway stood a peasant. His boots were white with dust, his broad‑brimmed hat was held between his coarse hands, whose broken nails pressed nervously into the felt. His knock at the door had been drowned by the voice of the company, but he had finally ventured to make his way inside. Now he stood there, looking about him awkwardly and trying to get his bearings in all this confusion.
"Whom are you looking for?" asked the dean. Soon there was quiet in the room. The searching, reproving glances of all these people caused the stranger to lower his eyes.
"It should perhaps be Pastor Hafverman," he answered slowly, "but otherwise any pastor who is available. A man is sick. He is Johannes in Bórsebo. But it is a bit urgent, as he may have only a short time left."
Hafverman crossed his hands behind him as he faced the peasant, who was well known to him. "Why do you seek me here, Peter?" he asked.
Humbly, and without a trace of reproach, the man answered, "I drove the fourteen miles to Nás to find you, Pastor, but learned there that you had left for the home of the reverend dean. So I came here. And now I beg of you for God's sake to come soon. Johannes began to wander in his thoughts even before I left."
Hafverman wrinkled his brow. "But Peter," he said, "Johannes of Bórsebo is really from Ravelunda parish."
"Yes, Pastor, but as you know he has lived with us ever since he lost his wife. We are brothers‑in‑law, he and I."
Hafverman lifted his great head with relief and looked toward the far end of the room.
"Listen, Warbeck, the sick man is one of your sheep. You had better take care of this matter."
It was apparent that Warbeck was not very eager to ride all the fourteen miles through the forest, with nightfall near. He excused himself by saying that the place where Johannes was now living was re You in Hafverman's parish and in the opposite direction from Ravelunda. It would not be Christian to expect the poor peasant, who had already traveled twenty‑four miles, to make the round trip again. If Hafverman made the call, he could drive directly home afterward. This would be easier for both the pastor and the horse.
"And it would be easier for our dear Brother himself," said Hafverman, with tongue in cheek. "Do you expect the communion set to return to the dean on wings? Or shall I have to return here with it tomorrow? It is not my practice to have church silver delivered by a servant."
The dean lifted his hand to end the wrangle.
"Please calm yourselves, gentlemen. You two remain here. Older people need their sleep. Let the younger men take care of the drudgery. Who among you will volunteer?" He looked at the young assistants.
It became very quiet in the room. Savonius felt that the question was really directed to him, but his eye wandered in the direction of Mademoiselle Babette. The party would last only a few short hours, and after that she would be swallowed up again in the social world of the manor house, where he had no daily entré. He waited with his answer.
The others also waited. The quiet was painful. There was a flash of impatience in the dean's eyes.
"We have had enough of that spirit, my dear sirs. If no one will go voluntarily, I shall have to give an order. Dr. Savonius is the youngest among us. He will have to make this pastoral call, and that without delay. Let the driver please go to the kitchen and have a sandwich and something to drink. Hedvig, will you tell Erik to get the horse ready? And now Johan‑Christofer will play for us."
As always, there was something firm and definite in the dean's order. The peasant left his place at the doorway. Hedvig slipped out unnoticed, and Savonius bowed a reluctant farewell to the company. Johan‑Christofer had already begun to play the violin when, a few moments later, Savonius again peered through the doorway and with dark mien viewed the gay company within.
Savonius was in an unhappy and agitated state of mind when he reached his room. This was hardly a civil way to treat one who had taken his doctorate. He almost regretted now that he had refused to take any shortcuts that might have gotten him a permanent post immediately. He had acted as he did from pure idealism, asking only for an ordinary appointment for the sake of the experience he would get. Now he had to pay for his romantic foolishness. He had absolutely no desire to ride through the dark forest this night. He threw off his blue coat and put on a black one. He put on the clergy collar and bands, threw his handbook into a bag and, after some shuffling of papers on his desk, found the outline of the communion address he had given in church on the Day of John the Baptist. That would have to do. The private communion case, shaped like an hour glass, was in the dean's study. He swung its strap over his shoulder and stepped out into the warm summer evening.
The driver stood waiting beside the carriage. He had hardly swallowed the last bit of his sandwich. The stable boy, who had watered the horse, carried away the empty bucket. Everything was ready. Through the deanery windows stole the sound of gay music.
As the carriage swung out under the big lindens, he looked back once more. It was a beautiful summer evening, the branches of the trees kissed his hatbrim playfully, and the dusk was filled with pleasant odors. First was the smell of the soft dust of the roadway and of the new‑mown hay, floating on the warm air between the gray log walls of the buildings on either side of the road. Then came the tangy smell of tar and wagon grease and the efflorescence of the barnyard, and the aroma of water plants and ooze from under the stone bridge. In the next moment the fields of the deanery farm came into view, and then the road turned sharply to the north down a long hill. Already there was a fresh stream of air from the lowlands, moist and cool, smelling of birch and sedge. On the right slope edging the valley, stood the church, clean and white. The spire rose broad and stately, the work of some builder in the time of King Fredrik. The south wall now lay in twilight with the dark windows sunk in reverie in the thick stone walls, but on the west and the north the white walls gleamed as if they had been able to absorb all the uncertain light that still glowed pale and melancholy in the northwest.
And now the woods put in their appearance. First was the parsonage pasture, shielded by mothering birches. The grass was well grazed. Between the hillocks stood tall junipers that might well rival the cypresses of the South. They were like funeral guests at a wedding party, thought Savonius. The branches of the weeping birch were the bridal veil, while the graceful young birches were like little girls in white stockings standing in groups and gazing at the glories of the dinner table. But the junipers were like unbidden messengers of death. Really, this could be the theme of a whole long poem, he thought as they rode along.
"Pastor, can you tell me how one shall get a deeply distressed soul to believe in the grace of God?"
Savonius found himself suddenly startled out of his reverie. It was the peasant at his side who had broken the silence. He must have sensed that the question came inopportunely, for he continued, a bit uncertainly.
"You'll have to excuse me, Pastor. I was thinking of Johannes, the man who is sick. He is in such vexation of spirit that we fear for his sanity. He has for a long time been under powerful conviction of sin. He has always been a godly man in externals and has not neglected the means of grace. But now these agonizings of soul have come upon him. It seems as though all light has gone from him. He sees only his transgressions. He digs up all that has been forgiven and forgotten in the past thirty years. It is as though the devil had given him a witching glass that causes him to see nothing but hypocrisy and falseness within‑‑and God knows that he sees very keenly, Pastor. It makes one cringe under one's own wickedness just to hear him. But grace he cannot see. He has eyes like a cat to see in the dark, but he is blind to the light."
Savonius sat and stared at the edge of the ditch. Unreal, like flowers in a dream, some wild orchids swept by. What should he answer? With what had he gotten himself involved? He must take a little time to think before replying.
"Have you tried to read something of devotional character to him?" he asked. He was trying to feel his way.
"Read?" said the peasant, as if wondering at the suggestion. "Why, we always read at home. And we have certainly read a great deal to him these last days, both from the Scriptures, and from the Hymnal and Scriver's Soul Treasury. But when a man has been struck with blindness as Johannes has, he sees only threat and judgment and punishment, no matter what is read. And we are uneducated people in Hyltamálen. But we thought, Pastor, that you who are a learned man could instruct Johannes thoroughly about the evidences of the state of grace in a converted sinner. For in that case he must understand that he cannot be in such peril of soul as he believes."
Savonius was ill at ease. What was expected of him? Instruct a converted sinner about the signs of being in the state of grace? Never in all his life had he heard about anything like that.
He searched his memory. Large, brown leather‑bound volumes with titles in black floated before his vision. He had never taken theology very seriously. The great philosophers had interested him most. But in all of Leibnitz' Theodicée he could not recall a single line that even remotely dealt with such things as this. As a matter of fact, he could eliminate everything he had ever read, with the possible exception of Concordia Pia. In that volume there had indeed been something definite about the anguish of a frightened conscience. But what was it? He regretted that he had studied Concordia Pia so carelessly. He had, of course, always viewed the confessional writings as remnants of medievalism, understandable only against the background of papal darkness. But in Odesjó the darkness was perhaps just as thick. Such rude means as orthodox theology and true Lutheranism might perhaps be needed to make any headway against it.
But it was too late now to try to find help in such church‑historical reflections. He was faced with the necessity of extricating himself from an awkward situation and still keep face. What would he really have to say when he came to the sick man's bedside?
The communion address! He thought about the outline he had taken along, and it frightened him. It was a poetic discussion of the beauty of nature as a revelation of Providence in its wisdom and rule of the universe. Its three parts were presented with feeling. In the first there was a reminder of the lilies of the field as the reflection of the purity of an innocent heart. The second reminded the hearer of the immortal soul's growth in virtue through industrious care of the garden of the soul. Finally, a tender admonition to be moved by the wise kindness of God to discipline and a good life. On Midsummer Day that sermon had sounded so edifying in a church radiant with sunshine and smelling of birch leaves. And Mademoiselle Babette had let it be known afterwards that young Dr. Savonius had both genius and a talent for poetry that she hoped would soon be appreciated as they deserved. But here! The unhappy curate stared ahead helplessly.
The road had once more divided, and had be‑every narrower. A steep hill led to the ridge of the forest. The ground was stony and full of gravel. There were no longer any ditches, and the stone heaps and blueberry bushes reached the ruts in the road. The wilderness on either side seemed to encroach in an attempt to destroy the little road that human hands had built through the primeval forest. Round about firs stood sky high, their branches intertwined, making a black darkness which with evil eyes stared out beneath them.
It was surely midnight by now. A lone bird called, and the individual trees melted together in one forbidding and unfriendly mass. To Savonius they seemed to incarnate this dismal adventure which had been thrust upon him against his will. Somewhere in the deep forest lay this demented man whom he was supposed to try to comfort and calm. If he had been a free student and not tied down with an appointment, he would simply have jumped out of the carriage. But as Dean Faltin's curate he had a reputation‑‑or at the least the possibility of a reputation and a career‑‑to defend. So he clenched his fists under his coat, straightened himself, and resolved to show himself equal to the occasion.
At last the sky began to brighten in the north. The road continued to ascend. Occasionally, when the hills were quite steep, they walked, while the empty carriage blundered along noisily over the stones. No farm gates had been seen for miles. The forest was evidently very dense.
In the bracing night air of the forest, Savonius had become completely sober. He felt a great weariness in his bones, but an almost unreal clarity of mind. Several times he tried by questioning the driver to learn more about the sick man. In between, he tried to prepare a new communion address.
"Now, Pastor, you may ride all the rest of the way. From here on, it is down hill."
Savonius looked up. They had evidently reached the highest point of the Heding hills. He saw ridge on ridge stretching endlessly before him. In the northeast the sky already glowed a golden red beneath the bank of clouds. A distant lake gleamed amid the forest darkness, and a thin layer of fog rose out of the swamplands.
The curate took his place in the carriage again. For the second time this strange night he felt, thanks to nature's wonders, in harmony with existence. The forest was no longer an enemy. This God‑forsaken wilderness had its beauty, too. Now, if he could only set things straight for the sick man! That was the thorn that still remained in his heart.
The road was again a bit wider. A few paths joined it, and the weary horse began to hurry along, knowing that they were nearing home. Clearings appeared in the forest, making it apparent that people must be living nearby. Then a row of small gray buildings loomed up, the road turned, and there against the bare hillside stood a two‑story frame house with small square windows.
Savonius had barely put his foot on the wheel hub when the door opened and a woman came out. She looked weary from lack of sleep and her hair was bedraggled.
"Yes, but it has been terribly difficult. To think that you have come at last! Thank you for coming, Pastor. You come in the name of the Lord. Welcome! Please come in."
She was already inside. Savonius had time to note the dirt floor in the entry. The next moment he was in the room to the left. It was the living room, which occupied half the space of the house. The three outside walls each had a little window. Pale daylight crept in from the north, but the room was still only dimly lighted. The air was almost unbearably stuffy. The sick man had evidently been lying there a long time. Fetid exhalations, moldy food, the smell of boot‑leather and medicaments were some of the ingredients of the choking atmosphere. The curate felt a desire to step out, but pulled himself together.
In the corner to the right stood a pull‑out bed. It was filled with blankets and pelts in wild disarray. The sick man lay with one knee drawn up. Beyond it only an arm was visible, an unnaturally thin and white arm reaching upward. It was crowned by an abnormally large hand with black pores in the rough skin and with cracked calluses. The bony and knotted fingers seemed to be grasping at something. They were thrust apart with wild intensity, only to close again on nothingness; they curled like the claws of a bird of prey and then opened again, ceaselessly repeating the painfully meaningless maneuver.
For the second time, Savonius pulled himself together. He forced himself to turn his eyes from the struggling hand and let them take note of the details of the room. He saw the rough log walls above the bed, the container at its head, which was filled with a few juniper twigs and offensive expectorations, and an old chair on whose wooden seat there were some worn books and a mug of water.
He moved a few steps nearer and heard his voice speak a timid greeting, "God's peace be with you!"
The giant hand was lowered, and from the semidarkness in the far corner a tortured face appeared, the whites of the eyes glistening. The eyes were wide open with terror, the hair was matted by the sweat of anguish, and the twisted mouth was like a black hole in which two yellow teeth were glimpsed.
This is Horror itself, thought Savonius, the anguish that ascends from the utter darkness of Chaos.
Without really knowing how, he landed on a chair that must have been pushed toward him from behind. Summoning all his power of self‑control, he grasped the struggling hand, which strangely enough allowed itself to be moved like a child's. Rough and scabrous, dead as a piece of wood, it lay between the curate's soft hands.
For a while he sat in silence, not knowing what he should say. Then words came to his lips, he hardly knew from whence:
"I wish you God's peace, God's eternal peace and blessing."
The sick man shook his head.
"Not for me! Not for me! Eternal damnation, punishment according to the measure of my sin, the judgment of wrath, and the everlasting flames‑‑that is for me. To me He will say, 'Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire!'"