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The Knight of the Silver Star

Chapter 1: The Dreamer

THE SUN DROPPED behind the snow-capped mountains to the westward as, at the summit of the road, I came upon the village of Brâyle.

I shifted my knapsack from my shoulders, and leaning upon my staff, stood contemplating one of the most glorious panoramas my eyes had ever rested upon. Behind me, to the north, stretching away eastward and westward, the great mountain range lifted its frowning tops to heaven, and in the last glow of sunset they were bathed in every tone of colour the mind of man can conceive, changing every moment from yellow to gold, from gold to burnished copper, from copper to a blood-red, which gradually turned to purple, growing deeper and deeper as darkness crept up the mountain sides. To the south and south-west, from whence I had come, the world fell down towards verdure and cultivation, and lands watered by streams, which grew slowly, and joined together into a river far away towards the horizon.

As evening came rapidly over the lower lands, and a chill wind struck the mountain road, I entered the village, and went towards a long low building, which seemed likely to afford a resting place for the night. All the dwellings—a couple of dozen of them perhaps—were built low, to offer less resistance to the wind storms which so constantly sweep down from the mountains. I had to bend my head as I stepped down from the roadway through a narrow door into a bare room, where four men were sitting at a rough table smoking and drinking. The thin wine looked poor comfort; but a big log was crackling musically on an enormous hearth, throwing a ruddy glow on to the weather beaten faces of the drinkers. They were in eager, if not an angry conversation, but stopped as I entered, and looked at me in surprise. One of them seemed delighted at my advent, for, after a moment’s pause, he cried out excitedly:

“The proof! The proof! Look, here is one of them!”

Another man, whom I rightly took to be the proprietor of the establishment, growled savagely at him to be silent, and then rose and saluted me.

“You’re going no further tonight?” he queried.


It seemed a tolerably foolish question, since it was already dark.

“You are a traveller—just an ordinary traveller?”

“Yes, oh, yes,” I answered.

There was something in his tone which had the effect of taking the conceit out of one. I have never considered myself quite an ordinary traveller.

“You see, Mustapha!” he said in triumph.

The man addressed looked at me fixedly, but did not speak. He had sprung excitedly from his seat at my entrance.

“I want to stay here tonight,” I went on. “Tomorrow I may go further, or the next day, or it may be next week. It all depends what I find to interest me. There is a fine waterfall near Brâyle, I have heard.”

“And many more sights,” said the landlord, scenting a profitable customer.

“Is it only for this you have come?” asked Mustapha, with some contempt.

“Yes,” I answered, throwing down my knapsack, and spreading out my hands to the blaze. “What else should I have come for?”

The disappointment in the man’s face was quite comical, and his companions burst out laughing.

“Take no notice of what he says,” laughed the landlord. “Mustapha is a dreamer. He sees armies along the mountaintops when others see only snow. He hears the ring of steel in every tinkling goat-bell, and the shout of war in the bark of every dog. A wonderful dreamer is Mustapha.”

“I said nothing of armies; I said armed men,” the dreamer returned sullenly.

“I am not armed,” I observed.

“Many of the men I have seen are not armed,” he returned, “but they are no ordinary travellers. They all go the same way—yonder.”

He was a striking figure in the red firelight, short of stature, but lithe and sinewy. His face was eager, his eyes sparkled with enthusiasm, and the muscles of his neck stood out like cords. His attitude was unconsciously dramatic as he stretched out his arm, pointing towards the mountains to the north.

“Where is yonder?” I asked, more for the sake of saying something than because I wanted to know.

By a “dreamer” I supposed a harmless lunatic was meant. A long sojourn in Brâyle would, I imagined, be enough to try the resisting power of the strongest brain.

His arm dropped to his side, and he shook his head.

“I only know the legend which everybody knows, and which everybody laughs at; but I am wiser than everybody, because I don’t laugh.”

A roar of merriment greeted this assertion. I could not help joining in it.

“Let me eat first, and then we’ll have the story. The story will wait, and my hunger is too ripe to keep.”

I ordered more wine, which put me on a friendly footing with my companions at once—as such an action is sure to do, the wide world over—and my landlord busied himself to get my supper, or, to be quite correct, ordered his wife about a great deal, which served the same purpose.

Of necessity, in this history, I must talk of myself. I am the hero of it, and he’s a poor hero indeed who isn’t worth talking about. I was a wanderer by inclination not of necessity, and although not actually seeking adventure, I was not unwilling to enjoy some mild form of enterprise should such come my way, but I little thought of the strange experiences which lay before me. If at the end of this narrative the reader should sneer, and wonder why I troubled to write about myself and my adventures, I can only refer him to a few of my personal friends who persuaded me to write. With them must lie the responsibility. Few people, even if they are interested, will believe the story, and will say of me, as was said of Mustapha, “He is a stupid dreamer.” To these I can honestly confess that I should sometimes doubt the history myself, had I not always before me one incontestable proof of the truth of it. For my personal appearance, I stand over six feet, am broad-shouldered and athletic, have fair hair, and am clean-shaven, and I believe there are less well-favoured men in the world than myself; all of which details may appear trivial, but are not really so, as will presently, appear.

Brâyle lies, if indeed there is still a village there, at the foot of one of the southern spurs of the great Caucasian range. It is an out-of-the-way place, which probably few tourists have discovered. I am not an ordinary tourist. I have a rooted objection to guidebooks of every description, and to have the places worth seeing in a neighbourhood catalogued for me, is detestable. I invariably steer clear of such places, which may be foolish, but is nevertheless my rule. I had never heard of Brâyle until I was within a day’s journey of it, and then was told that there was nothing to see there except a waterfall, which was not worth seeing; so I went, feeling relieved that there was little chance of meeting any of Mr. Cook’s ticketed sheep, or of being asked afterwards: “Oh, Mr. Verrall, have you been to Brâyle?”

Hating guidebooks, I will not attempt a long descriptive paragraph of the mountains. Of late years a good deal has been written about the range, and the military operations of Russia have doubtless caused changes since the time I write of. It is enough to say that, while the slopes of the western range are clad in verdure, the central range, as it may be called, is arid, rocky, and desolate. Of comparatively uniform height, the mountaintops rise majestically into the region of perpetual snow. There are, practically speaking, no passes, only here and there a goat track, dizzy enough to contemplate, of a mountaineer’s zigzag path which leads nowhere in particular, and in the neighbourhood of Brâyle, sheer rock rises perpendicularly from the mountain road which runs through the village. So to my story.

Supper finished, and a briar pipe set going, I suggested another log on the fire, more wine—it was very thin wine and harmless—and Mustapha’s tale. The man had drunk at my expense, or I do not think he would have told the legend. Once started, however, he became very excited over it, and his manner of telling it was fascinating.

“It’s little I know,” he said. “Everyone knows nearly as much, only they do not believe. Long ago, long before Brâyle existed, somewhere near here there was a pass from this side of the mountains to a country beyond. There was constant intercourse between the people on this side of the mountains and that country, whose inhabitants, though different, were friendly. The men were strong and warlike, and the women more than beautiful, far superior to ours, it is said, and the wealth of the country was enormous. In the King’s treasury were stored gold, and silver, and precious stones, greater wealth than man could name. It was a pleasant country, too, warm and sunny, for the great mountains shut it in and sheltered it. Its fields yielded rich harvests, and its wine was not like this we drink, but generous, such as I have heard is known in Western Europe.

They were a strong people, and, therefore, dwelt in safety; a contented people, and, therefore, happy. A day came when the pass was no more. It was a year of fierce storms, such as had not been known until that time, nor have been since; floods were in the lower lands, sweeping away village after village, and in the mountains were shakings, rumblings, and great earthquakes. Mountains split asunder and changed their shapes. Great snowdrifts and ice walls rushed down from the heights and buried the land where we now are for weeks; and when the storms were over, the pass was gone. The mountain walls of it had split and fallen in, shutting that fair land out of the world for ever.”

“The legend improves with every telling,” said the landlord.

“And it’s all a lie,” said one of the other men contemptuously. “No one has been more upon the mountains than I have, no one knows them better than I do, as everyone in Brâyle can tell. There are difficult paths leading only to snow-capped, impassable ridges, where a wild goat dare not venture, and there are deep torrent gorges which have never been bridged. I’ve been lost a day and a night upon the mountains, and know every inch of them that is to be known. It’s all a tale. Mustapha is a stupid dreamer.”

He poured the remainder of his wine down his throat as though he had settled the matter once and for all time.

“If one could cross the mountains far enough, there is Russia,” said the landlord, rather proud of his geographical knowledge.

I nodded. I thought he had probably struck the right nail home. Indeed, I was not at all sure that the history of the Flood had not helped the legend. Deep waters were in the lowlands, the story said, and we were near enough to Mount Ararat to make my theory possible, if not probable.

Mustapha watched me. My criticism was the only one he cared about. His companions’ jeers he had heard often enough before.

“I thought it all a tale once,” he said, when I made no comment. “I know better now. There was, until lately, a wise woman in Brâyle, and she told me much of this strange country.”

“And that same woman was killed three months back for her wisdom,” savagely returned the man who knew the mountains so well. “She was a great dreamer and a devil, and one of her victims found her out, and killed her. Look to yourself, Mustapha. A sharp sword well swung is a rude awakening from dreams.”

Mustapha took no notice of him.

“Only a few weeks before her death she told me a great deal,” he went on. “She told me that though the pass was destroyed, there remained a secret entrance to this fair country through the mountains, and that she had seen armed men going there. I did not believe it, and I laughed, but now I laugh no more.”

“A sharp sword and a swinging arm. Look to yourself, Mustapha,” said the other man.

“Fools believe nothing but what they see,” burst out Mustapha angrily. “If they could sleep before darkness, and wake at dawn, they would declare there was no night just because they had not seen it. I have seen these strange men more than once.”

“Where?” I asked.

“On the road you will take tomorrow if you travel to the east. I will show you the place.”

“Very well, you shall show me tomorrow,” I answered.

His face brightened suddenly, as a landscape does in a gleam of sunlight on an April day. There was no harm in humouring the poor fellow a little, for he had evidently been much abused by his neighbours.

“We will start early, Mustapha,” I said, as I prepared to go to rest for the night.

“I shall wake at dawn,” he answered.

“And you will return?” asked the landlord.

“We shall be back before sunset, ready for an excellent supper,” I answered.

Back before sunset! I little knew how many sunsets would sink into night before I saw Brâyle again.