I began to think that the friend of my childhood had at last found the time fit to reveal himself to me now that age was gradually taking me into its weary arms. This would give reason for everything. The incident at the baker’s, the broken carriage-wheel, the Arabic-speaking priest all was clear, each was a strange signpost pointing towards the big house, where everything that was inexplicable and incomprehensible in my life would at last find its proper solution.
“Anyhow, it is a good thing not to forget what we learnt when we were young.”
My host had broken the silence.
“And I am very pleased to have been able to use my knowledge of Arabic in such an unexpected and uncommon way.”
“I would have been happy, reverend sir, to be in your place, and to have been familiar with the language, and able to speak to the Evli.”
The priest laid down his pipe and stared at me with an expression almost of fear.
“Evli?” he repeated. “How came you to know the word?”
I saw that I was to reveal something of the part the Man from the East had played in my life, and so I told him briefly what had happened in my earliest childhood the accident to the wax statuette under the glass case and the ceiling falling on to my bed. The statuette, I said, which disappeared after this accident, had never been given any other name than the Man from the East, or Evli. Although no one about me knew at all what this last word meant.
The priest drummed his fingers on the table, and shook his head repeatedly, as if an idea was forcing itself on him with which he disagreed. More than once he seemed about to speak, but he uttered one word only:
“Whether the word Evli is a name,” I went on, “or whether it means something of significance, I do not know. I heard it first from my great-uncle, who brought the statuette from Venice and considered it of great value. When I was a child…”
My host interrupted me at that point with more vivacity than he had shown hitherto.
“Then listen, Baron Dronte,” he said, “listen how wonderfully Divine Providence influences human life, and how by the will of the Almighty are people brought together to reveal things to each other in a way that no chance, as they call it, could ever have invented.
“This very day,” he continued, “as I was making preparations for your reception, I was summoned to a dying man. He was the aged cotter, Milan Bogdan, who had been a soldier in the Austrian army. With his certificate of leave and the few guldens he had saved up for many years he came to live here. He married, and acquired a small holding, which he may by this time have exchanged for the eternal Gardens of the Lord. He has been a brave and honest Croatian soldier in the Imperial army, and a good Catholic.
He won my esteem not only by his piety, but also by his industry and peacefulness. He had been an invalid a long time. No matter how often he is tapped, the fluid rises to his heart again, and he is in danger of death. He received the last sacrament two days ago with great piety.
“I was somewhat astonished, therefore, at being sent for by him again today, and in a great hurry. I went to him, of course, without delay. When I saw him sending his old wife and two sons out of the room, I remarked that this was unnecessary, as he had already settled his account with his Lord cleanly and honestly, and a new confession would be superfluous. But he insisted; and so they left me alone with him and I sat down by his bed.
“‘What is it that oppresses you, dear son?’ I asked him.
“‘Oppresses me? Nothing, your reverence,’ he answered, breathing hoarsely. ‘My sins have been pardoned, and yet I cannot go to rest in the peace of God, not until some pious and learned man has explained something that happened to me when I was a soldier. I think about it now more than ever before.'”
“I told him to speak out, and he related a matter which I will repeat to you, for it was not told me under the seal of confession, and will be of considerable interest to you.
“Bogdan was a young infantry soldier in a battalion garrison on the Turkish frontier. In the course of a skirmish on the Sava, as the river that falls into the Danube is called, he was taken prisoner by wild Bashibazouks and carried away. In his Turkish captivity he had to do hard work on the tread-wheel that irrigated the fields of a certain Bey. Otherwise he was not treated badly, and was allowed to move about freely in the little village where he was kept.
“He made the acquaintance of a young Turk, very handsome, but with a curious mark between the eyes. He was very friendly to the prisoner and rendered him many services without any payment. As it often happens in those unhealthy climates, our Bogdan had a very severe attack of dysentery. He waxed weaker and weaker, and could not take any food. The young Turk nursed him and showed much concern about him, often asking Bogdan whether he could not do anything else for him. When the end seemed very near and Bogdan had become so weak he could hardly speak, he said to the Turk:
‘Though it is so bad with me, brother, I believe I could be saved if I drank the plum-brandy that lies in our cellar at Zagrebbut only out of the glass with flowers painted on it that stands on my mother’s table.’ ”
The Turk, saying nothing, went out of the room. Bogdan became weaker and weaker, and commended his soul to God. But an hour had not passed before the Turk returned, carrying in his hand the painted glass that had stood on Bogdan’s mother’s table. It was filled with the strong plum-brandy. The Turk held it to the sick man’s lips: he drank it and fell asleep. When he woke again, he asked questions about the man who had saved him. But no one seemed able to tell him anything.
“In his affliction he called for the Khojah, the Mahommedan priest, and told him what had happened and how miraculous it was that the Turk should have been able to run so many miles there and back in less than an hour. The Khojah answered:
‘Know then that thy friend was an Evli, one who has died and returned. Thou art fortunate and blessed to have him for thy guide through the Realms of Death.’
“Bogdan recovered, and at the next exchange of prisoners he returned home. His mother told him that on the day he began to recover a stranger had knocked at her door and asked for the painted glass and the brandy. She had given him both without hesitation. A little later there was a knock at the window. It was again the stranger. He handed her back the empty glass, saying:
‘Rejoice, Mother, thy son will come back.’ And so it happened….
“This, Baron Dronte, is what the dying soldier told me this afternoon. He asked whether it were a sin to think so much about an Evli in his last hour, about his face and the red mark between his brows. I told him he had better turn his thoughts to the Lord Jesus. He was trying to, with all his power, he replied, but the Face of the Lord Jesus always assumed in his mind the features of Evli. As I saw that the poor man’s conscience suffered from his being unable to master this vision, I consoled him and said that the Lord and Saviour was present to his pious heart, and for Him alone was it to choose in what form He presented Himself. Bogdan smiled, and said that he felt relieved, and that nothing could now rob him of his hope in a future life.”
I jumped up from the table. As if a bright light were suddenly shining down I saw with great clearness what it was that linked up all the baffling mysteries of my life. But I saw for a moment only. Dark veils soon hid the vision that was unknown to my ordinary senses.
“May I beg a great favour?” I asked.
“If it is in my power to grant it.”
“Take me to this Bogdan, this dying man.”
“Come along,” said the priest.
Quietly we reached the little house at the end of the village. A light glimmered through the tiny dim window-panes. We heard the murmur of many voices, and when we entered the low room we saw men and women praying on their knees. The old man was lying on a very humble bed. His small wrinkled face stood out against a blue pillow and was lighted by the shine of a taper that was burning at his head. Silently we approached. He breathed heavily, his eyes looked glassy, and his mouth was open.
I saw at once that this man on his deathbed could not answer the questions that were burning on my lips. But then a wonderful thing happened. His staring eyes slowly turned toward me. The face, already touched by the relentless finger of Death, quivered slightly; a joyful smile came to the thin, sunken lips, and before I knew what he was doing he half rose up and in a sobbing voice, weak with age, he exclaimed:
“Ah, you have come at last!”
Radiant joy was shining out of his eyes, and on all his face. Then his head fell back on to the pillows, a grey shadow ran over his face, and he lay rigid. The priest passed his hand gently over the old soldier’s eyelids.
“Rest in peace, thou faithful servant,” he murmured. “Let us pray.”
We repeated the Lord’s prayer after him, and as he and I left the room I felt that every eye was watching me. The dead man had imagined that he recognised in me his friend Evli. The priest did not speak until we were in his hospitable house again, and then he looked at me with a disturbed look.
“It must have been the scar,” he said, as if to himself.
“What scar?” I asked in astonishment.
“The red scar between your eyebrows, Baron Dronte. But no,” he cried suddenly, “we must not dwell on these things any longer. We must not tempt the Lord! … I will show you your room, Baron, if you are ready.”
I bowed, murmured my thanks, and followed him. When we had reached the room that was prepared for me he suddenly took me by the shoulders and looked for some time into my face.
“Please excuse this impolite behaviour,” he said, “but these experiences are too inexplicable and bewildering for an old man like me. I am not in a state to solve for myself the awful riddles of Providence. I would rather be alone. So please do not be angry with me if I do not talk. Out of the whirlpool of these uncanny happenings I escape into a safe refuge! I escape to the faith in Him who moves everything, to His supreme will, and to the peace of prayer!”
“Pray for me, too, honourable sir,” I asked, deeply moved.
The next moment I was alone. I groped restlessly in my mind for a solution, turning to my feelings when my reason could give me no help. But an impenetrable dark wall was before me, shutting me off from the knowledge I sought, and try as I would, I failed to find in that wall the door that leads to Truth. Now and then a feeble cry of presentiment would flash out in the sleepless night as it were through a chink in the wall. But all that I strove after in the deepest and darkest recesses of my soul remained as unattainable and elusive as ever.