In a certain country there once lived a youth whose name was Ernest. The mountains closed about the little village which was his home, and the beauty and mystery that dwell on the mountains had folded him in from his childhood. When the sun rose he knew it first by the pale gleam that grew into light on the highest peaks, and when it set at the day's end it wrapped those peaks again in purple and violet mists through which the level rays pierced like spears of gold. Far below lay the valley, where the herdsmen took their droves in winter-time, and beyond that again lay the great world of cities and ships and palaces. Sometimes travelers, crossing the mountain, would bring some word of how life went in that other world. Now it was a war, and now it was a famine, and now it was a great rejoicing or a wonderful triumph. Ernest listened and wondered, till wild longings came into his heart to be himself a sharer in that keener life, and then the rock-bound steeps of his home seemed like prison walls to him. But chiefly he loved to hear the tales that came with others of how some man had arisen to right the wrongs of the people or to sacrifice himself for the salvation of his country.
"Who was the man? His name?"
The answer was always the same.
"He was one of the Brothers of the Silence. We did not know his name."
"But who are the Brothers of the Silence? Tell me more of them."
And the answer was always:
"Who they are no one knows unless he is one of them. They keep their secret bond. It is said that men about the king, in the very heart of the court, belong to the Brotherhood, but no one knows who they may be. And it is certain that humble artizans are of the brotherhood also, and scholars and travelers and artists and men who toil with their hands. They work together for a common end, but they work in secret and each in his own way. Only this marks them all, that they work not for themselves. They have vast wealth, but it is used for the furtherance of their common aim; and great learning, but no display is made of it; and power greater than a monarch's, yet it is never shown save when there is need."
"But why are they unknown, and why do they work in secret?"
"Because they work against the king," was the guarded answer. "The king does not rule righteously. Evil is done and suffered, and wrong is uppermost. Those who serve the king seek to break their power. Therefore they have banded themselves together in secret and do their work so no man knows it. But a time will come, and then the king will learn his weakness and the people will learn their friends. They can wait as well as work."
And Ernest would wander off into the solitary places of the mountains and look out over the level land that stretched away before him, with his heart so full of passionate ardor to share the work of those unknown men that he could not put it into words, — hardly into thoughts.
But the travelers with their tales came more and more seldom, for the mountain pass was dangerous and men mostly chose to take the long way that led past the foot-hills. In the gorge above the village ran a swift stream that had never been bridged, and more than one adventurer, essaying the passage in the rude skiffs of the mountaineers, had been caught in the fierce current and carried down helplessly over the precipice below. Often the villagers talked together of throwing a bridge across the torrent, but they were men of many little cares, and each season was too full of its own work to leave room for a larger task. But one spring, when the melting fields of snow upon the mountains had made the gorge impassable for weeks, they agreed that the work should be no longer delayed. Each man must bring his share of timber, and Ernest, who was skilful and strong, would construct the bridge. Soon tall trees were hewn to solid beams and lay ready piled on either bank. Pins for fastening, and planks and framework, were made ready. One day, as Ernest worked, a stranger stood beside him. It was long since he had seen a man from the outer world, and he questioned him eagerly.
"What of the king? Does evil still have power in his kingdom?"
"It still has power, alas."
"But the Brotherhood? The men who live for the good of their fellows! Do they still work?"
"Yes, and ever will while there is need."
"I dreamed once of joining them," Ernest said wistfully.
The stranger gave him a kindly glance.
"Well, why not?"
"But no one knows where to find them."
The stranger smiled oddly.
"They are never far. One of them was even today at the foot of this mountain of yours."
He waved his hand in farewell, but long after he had passed out of sight the youth sat pondering over his words. One of the Brothers had been at the foot of the mountain that day! Then he could not yet be far away. Ernest flung his axe to the ground and took the path towards the valley from which the stranger had come.
He wandered far and long. Wherever he went there were rumors of the men he sought, but nothing more. One who might have been of the brotherhood was here a fortnight since. It was said another was even now in the next village. Nay, they had all gone to the war on the borders. Or, their secret places of meeting had been discovered by the king, and they had all been scattered or buried in dungeons. Well, it was not so certain that they had ever existed. There had been much talk, but who could make proof? So the rumors flew, and Ernest's zeal blew hot and cold as he listened. It would have been well worth living, truly, if one might have lived and worked as one of such a brotherhood, but if the Brotherhood were chimerical, — why, it was worth living still in a world which held such wonders as the palaces and pageants and festivals he saw. The months came and went, and ever as he traveled some new wonder put the last out of mind. The first object of his search had almost been forgotten when one day a stranger accosted him in the streets of a city.
"You have traveled far."
"I do not recollect you," Ernest said.
"A year ago you were building a bridge over a dangerous gorge in the mountains. You asked about the Silent Brothers then."
"True. And I left the mountains to seek them."
"Have you found them?"
"No. Tales fly about, but many are idle and some are false and all are fugitive. It is impossible to find the Brothers."
"It is not impossible," said the stranger, with a searching glance, "but vague desires bear no fruit unless they grow into will and blossom into action." He lingered a moment as though he would have added more, then turned and was lost in the crowd.
But his words had vividly recalled to Ernest the hopes and purposes with which he had left his home, and in a rush of passionate self-reproach he blamed himself for losing sight of that aim in the allurements of novelty. Faithless and vacillating, how could he hope to be trusted with the work of those who first of all were faithful and steadfast?
Someone touched him on the shoulder.
"Well, will you join us?"
"Who are you?" Ernest asked, drawing back in astonishment.
"Do you not know. We know you. We are men who work to overthrow the power of the king. Will you join us?"
"Are you then the Brothers of Silence?" Ernest demanded eagerly.
"Who knows anything of them? Have you found them?"
"Yet you have been seeking a whole year! You are a fool if you trust such shadows. There must be a revolution. It will be a thousand years before the Brothers bring it about with their cautious measures. We know a shorter way. We shall bring it to pass ourselves, and then we shall govern instead. Come, are you with us?"
"Yes," cried Ernest. "Why should I wait?"
He plunged at once into a labyrinth of plots and conspiracies which grew day by day more inextricable. There were secret meetings and goings to and fro and mysterious ambassadors on mysterious errands, all of which at first seemed the signs of a most ardent activity in the cause he had at heart. But gradually, as he became more familiar with the details, an uncomfortable doubt came into his mind and lodged there. It was a revolution they contemplated, — true; and the government was evil. But was the object of the conspirators to establish a better rule? Little by little he came to see with fatal clearness that they only sought to overthrow the established order to place themselves in power. Not for the sake of their country, not for the sake of better laws or for the good of the oppressed people were they banded together, but only that they might drain their country of wealth for themselves and make laws that would protect them in their rapine and oppress the people still more bitterly. It grew upon him like a horror, and as he came to feel himself bound with them, entangled in their plots and smirched with their baseness, he loathed himself and hated all who had had part in leading him into these underground ways. A year had gone by when one day the stranger whom he had met twice before sought him out.
(Concluded in June)
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