"You have allowed yourself to be deluded", the stranger said with grave directness. "You must free yourself once and forever from these entanglements if you hope to ever share in the work pursued by the Brothers of the Silence."
"The Brothers of the Silence!" Ernest exclaimed bitterly. "It is because I sought them that I am where I am now."
"No, it is because you sought them in the wrong way."
"Tell me, then, do they exist?"
"Yes. I am one of them."
"Then why did you not set me right?"
"Because each member must earn his own entrance."
"I may be misled again."
"Why? The test is a very simple one. The Brothers do not work for self-interest, but for the good of humanity. That is the beginning and the end of their mission. Yet each one has a task of his own to perform, and each must find it by searching his own heart. Use your clearest judgment, your highest ideals, and the best of your faculties, for the work deserves all. In a year I will seek you again."
The year went by. Ernest had cut himself free from his old associations and joined the army that was fighting on the frontier. He had fought bravely, for the words of his unknown guide remained with him, and the thought that in serving his country he was surely doing the work of the Brothers gave him courage. He had a hope too that his probation might at last be done, for had he not won distinction as a soldier and more than once saved the field from disaster? All the land was ringing with his praise. He waited impatiently for the day when his friend had promised to return. It came.
"Have I won entrance yet?" Ernest demanded confidently. He could hardly credit the gravely spoken answer.
"How then? Is not the work I have done good work."
"It is good work and deserves a reward. You will have it. But you have not won entrance to the Brotherhood. That does not come to those who seek it for themselves, even though they seek it by the path of service. There may be selfish ambition even in self-sacrifice, and the Brothers, remember always, are not concerned with the advancement of themselves, but with the good of the whole. Yet, — courage for another trial!"
The reward came, for the king was graciously pleased to recognize Ernest's heroism on the battlefield by making him governor over a small province. He entered upon his duties with high hopes. Here at last was a fitting opportunity! He would govern his people so well that poverty and ignorance and wrong-doing should be banished from his province, and the Brothers should know that in one corner of the country at least there was no need for their oversight. But he found that the task was harder than he had thought. There had been bad governors before him, and the abuses could not all be corrected at once. The people were ignorant and cunning, and thwarted his efforts for their own welfare. He was inexperienced, and measures which he designed for good sometimes proved so ill-advised that their effect was worse than the old. When the end of the year came and he looked back at the great things he had planned and the small things he had accomplished, it seemed to him that his work had been all a failure. He stood with downcast eyes when the stranger who had grown his watchful friend found him again.
"What of the year past?" the Brother asked, and his voice was kinder than before.
"You know," said Ernest moodily. "At least you know what I have done. You cannot know what I meant to do."
"Why have you failed?"
"Because of my own ignorance, largely," he said at last. "I did not know how to deal with the conditions I had to meet. I see it now."
"Then do you see, too, why you have not yet gained entrance to the Brotherhood?" he asked gently. "In their work a mistake may be fatal. Well-intentioned effort is not enough. It must be wisely directed."
"Yes, I see," Ernest said patiently. "Well, I will study and wait."
His friend smiled as though well-content.
Ernest gave up the governorship of his province to plunge into study. With a mind disciplined and strengthened by the work of the last ardent years, he applied himself to assimilating the knowledge that is stored in the wise books of the world. He studied with humility, for his errors had revealed to him his own lack of wisdom, and he worked with ardor, for he felt that a greater undertaking awaited him when he should be fit. In the outside world the old throbbing life beat on, and ever and anon calls came to him to join in it as before. Some upbraided him with indifference in thus shutting himself apart, but he knew the scope of the task before him and followed it without pause or faltering. Then one morning, when the first rays of the sun put out the light of his lamp, he lifted his eyes from his books and remembered that the year of study he had set for himself had gone by. What had he gained? New ideas of life in many ways; new ideals and firmer judgment and deeper reverence for the men who in the past had thought their way into the deep places of nature. Strange that so few should come to share it! Strange that the world should go on and men live and die as though this legacy of wisdom from the greatest of earth's sons had been forgotten of all!
"Knowledge stored away and unused is like grain sealed in a granary," said his friend, who, unseen, had come to stand beside him. "The millions on the plain outside may starve for lack of it, and the grain itself will mildew — if it be not unsealed."
"I understand," said Ernest with a smile. "That, then, shall be my further task."
He shut up his books, left his room and returned to the world, this time as a teacher. Here a disappointment awaited him at the outset, for the people, busy with their own interests and quite content with their own ideas, were not as eager to listen as he to teach. Some laughed and some doubted, and of all that heard few heeded, but the burden of speech was laid upon him and he dared not keep silence. Sometimes the children listened, and in their earnest eyes he read a reassurance that the coming years might see the fruit from the seed he planted. And sometimes a youth who reminded him of what he had been in earlier years came and listened and went away with a new purpose. And sometimes old eyes, ready to close wearily upon a world that had yielded many cares and little content, brightened with a gleam of comprehension as he spoke. "Ah, that then was the meaning of the riddle!" Yet when the year had gone by the results seemed meager.
"I had hoped to bring to all men the truths I had found," he said to the friend who came as before," but they do not heed them."
"They will in time, and your efforts will bring the time nearer," was the serene answer. "One who works for humanity must never lose faith in the ultimate triumph of good. Yet he may not cease to work as though the salvation of all rested with him alone."
"Am I fitted yet to do the work of the Brothers?" Ernest asked after a pause.
The other gave him a kindly look.
"One task remains. I leave you to find it."
Six years had gone by since, an eager boy, he left his home in the mountains, and a yearning came into his man's heart to rest again in the high, pure solitudes where he had dreamed as a child. All places are alike to him who holds himself ready for service, so he turned toward the mountains. Steadfast and tranquil as of old, the white peaks lifted themselves above the purple mists as he had always seen them in memory. The dawn softened but could not melt them; the sunset illumined but could not stain them. Down the gorge as of old the mountain torrent tumbled in foamy wrath, and the little village beside it was no older than on the day he had turned his back upon it to seek the world. He went to the pass above where the bridge was to have been. The hewn timbers lay heaped on either bank as he had left them, only that a creeping vine with gay blossoms had twined about the beams which were gray with the weather and green with moss. His unfinished work reproached him, and with a blush for the impatient boy he had been he set himself to complete it. The villagers were busy as of old, therefore he worked alone. Through fair weather and foul he kept to the task, planting the foundations deep and making each part strong and true. The summer went by while the work was yet unfinished. The winter fettered the wild stream and on the ice he crossed from shore to shore, still carrying the work forward. The spring came and it was done, and when the freshets came down from the ice-fields above, the bridge stood firm and unshaken above the whirlpool. In the absorption of his work he had forgotten what day it was till all at once he saw the stranger of that old spring morning, the guide and friend of all the years between, standing on the bank.
"You found the task."
"It was yours. No other could do it."
They stood in silence a moment gazing at it, and then the Brother spoke again.
"Do you see now how the way has led through all the years? First steadfastness, for without that no effort can avail. Then clearness of vision, to prove all things and hold to the good. Then the conquering of passion, and the devotion of all faculties to the service of man and the training of self to the end that others may be enlightened. Lastly, to crown all, the simple duty that lay at your hand at the beginning."
"Is it done?" asked Ernest doubtingly. "Am I worthy to become one of you?"
The smile of the other was an illumination.
"You are one of us".
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