Little Colonel In Arizona, Chapter 8: In The Desert Of Waiting

THE LITTLE COLONEL IN ARIZONA
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

Published July 1904

 

 

CHAPTER VIII.

IN THE DESERT OF WAITING

LLOYD sat with her elbows on the white kitchen table, watching Joyce at her Saturday afternoon baking. Five busy days had passed since her coming, and she felt almost as much at home in the Wigwam as any of the Wares. Phil had been there every day. Mrs. Lee had invited her to the ranch to tea, where she had met all the interesting boarders she had heard so much about. Jack, Holland, and Norman devoted themselves to her entertainment, and Mary followed her so adoringly, and copied so admiringly every gesture and intonation, that Holland called her "Miss Copy-cat" whenever he spoke to her out of his mother's hearing.

Lloyd could not fail to see how they all looked up to her, and it was exceedingly pleasant to be petted and deferred to by everybody, and on all occasions. The novelty of the place had not yet worn off, and she enjoyed watching Joyce at herhousekeeping duties, and helped whenever she would allow it.

"How white and squashy that dough looks," she said, as Joyce turned it deftly out on the moulding. board and began kneeding it. "I'd like to put my fingahs in it the way you do, and pat it into shape, and pinch in the cawnahs. I wish you'd let me try to make a loaf next week. Will you, Joyce?"

"You may now, if you want to," said Joyce. Lloyd started to her tent to wash her hands, but Jack's shout out in the road stopped her as she reached the door. He was galloping toward the house as fast as Washington could carry him, and she waited to hear what he had to say.

"Get your rifle, quick. Lloyd!" he called, waving his hat excitedly. "Chris says that the river is full of ducks. We can get over there and have a shot at them before supper-time if we hurry. I'll catch your pony and saddle him while you get ready."

"How perfectly splendid!" cried Lloyd, her eyes shining with pleasure. "I'll be ready in almost no time." Then, as he galloped on toward the pasture, she turned to Joyce. "Oh, I wish you could go, too!"

"So do I," was the answer; "but it's out of the question. We've only the one horse, you know, and I haven't any gun, and I can't leave the baking, so there's three good reasons. But I'm glad you have the chance, Lloyd. Run along and get ready. Don't you bother about me."

By the time Jack came back leading Lloyd's pony, she was ready and waiting at the kitchen door, in her white sweater and brown corduroy riding-skirt. Her soft, light hair was gathered up under a little hunting-cap, and she carried her rifle in its holster, ready to be fastened to her saddle.

"Oh, I wish you were going, too, Joyce!" she exclaimed again, as she stood up in the stirrups and smoothed the folds of the divided skirt. Settling herself firmly in the saddle and gathering up the reins with one hand, she blew her an airy kiss with the other, and started off at the brisk pace Jack set for her on Washington.

Joyce called a laughing good-bye after them, but, as she stood shading her eyes with her hand to watch them ride away, all the brightness seemed to die out of the mid-afternoon sunshine.

"How much I should have enjoyed it!" she thought. "I could ride as well as Jack if I had his pony, and shoot as well as Lloyd if I had her rifle, and would enjoy the trip to the river as much as either of them if I could only leave the work.  But I'm like that old Camelback Mountain over there. I'll never get away. It will be this way all the rest of my life."

Through the blur of tears that dimmed her sight a moment, the old mountain looked more hopeless than ever. She turned and went into the house to escape the sight of it. Presently, when the loaves were in the oven, and she had nothing to do but watch the baking, she brought her portfolio out to the kitchen and began looking through it for a sketch she had promised to show to Lloyd. It was the first time she had opened the portfolio since she had left Plainsville, and the sight of its contents made her fingers tingle. While she glanced over the sketches she had taken such pleasure in making, both in water-colours and pen and ink, her mother came into the kitchen.

"Joyce," she said, briskly, "don't you suppose we could afford some cookies while the oven is hot? I haven't baked anything for so long that I believe it would do me good to stir around in the kitchen awhile. I'll make some gingersnaps, and cut them out in fancy shapes, with a boy and girl apiece for the children, as I always used to make. Are there any raisins for the eyes and mouths?"

It seemed so much like old times that Joyce sprang up to give her mother a squeeze. "That will be lovely!" she cried, heartily. "Here's an apron, and I'll beat the eggs and help you."

"No, I want to do it all myself," Mrs. Ware protested. "And I want you to take your sketching outfit, and go down to the clump of willows where Jack put the rustic bench for me. There are lovely reflections in the irrigating canal now, and the shadows are so soft that you ought to get a very pretty picture. You haven't drawn any since we left home, and I'm afraid your hand will forget its cunning if you never practise."

"What's the use," was on the tip of Joyce's tongue, but she could not dim the smile on her mother's face by her own hopeless mood, and presently she took her box of water-colours and started off to the seat under the willows. Mary and Norman, like two muddy little beavers, were using their Saturday afternoon playtime in building a dam across the lateral that watered the side yard. Joyce stood watching them a moment.

"What's the use of your doing that?" she asked, impatiently. "It can't stay there. You'll have to tear it down when you stop playing, and then there'll be all your work for nothing"

"We don't care, do we, Norman?" answered Mary, cheerfully. "It's fun while we're doing it, isn't it, Norman?"

As Joyce walked on, Mary's lively chatter followed her, and she could hear her mother singing as she moved about the kitchen. She was glad that they were all happy, but somehow it irritated her to feel that she was the only discontented one. It made her lonely. She opened her box and spread out her material, but she was in no mood for painting. She couldn't get the right shade of green in the willows, and the reflections in the water were blotchy.

"It's no use to try," she said, finally. "Mamma was right. My hand has already lost its cunning."

Leaning back on the rustic seat, she began idly tracing profiles on the paper, scarcely conscious of what she was doing. People's faces at first, then the outline of Camelback Mountain. Abstractedly, time after time, she traced it with slow sweeps of her brush until more than a score of kneeling camels looked back at her from the sheet of paper.

Presently a cough just behind her aroused her from her fit of abstraction, and, turning hastily, she saw Mr. Ellestad, the old Norwegian, coming toward her along the little path from the house. He had been almost a daily visitor at the Wigwam since they moved into it, not always touring in, usually stopping for only a moment's chat under the pepper-trees, as he strolled by. But several times he had spent an entire morning with them, reading aloud, while Joyce ironed and her mother sewed, and Norman built block houses on the floor beside them. Once he had taken tea with them. He rarely came without bringing a book or a new magazine, or something of interest. And even when he was empty-handed, his unfailing cheerfulness made his visits a benefaction. Mary and Norman called him "Uncle Jan," such a feeling of kinship had grown up between them.

"Mary said you were here," he began, in his quaint, hesitating fashion, "so I came to find you. I have finished my legend at last, --- the legend I have made about Camelback Mountain. You know I have always insisted that there should be one, and as tradition has failed to hand one down to us, the task of manufacturing one has haunted me for three winters. Always, it seems, the old mountain has something to say to me whenever I look at it, something I failed to understand. But at last I have interpreted its message to mankind."

With a hearty greeting, Joyce moved over to make room for him upon the bench, and, as he sat down, he saw the sheet of paper on her lap covered with the repeated outlines of the old mountain.

"Ah! It has been speaking to you also!" he exclaimed. "What did it say?"

"Just one word," answered Joyce, ---"'Hopeless!'  Everything out here is hopeless. It's useless to try to do anything or be anything. If fate has brought you here, kneel down and give up. No use to struggle, no use to hope. You'll never get away."

He started forward eagerly. "At first, yes, that is what I thought it said to me. But now I know it was only the echo of my own bitter mood I heard. But it is a mistake; that is not its message. Listen! I want to read it to you."

He took a note-book from his pocket. "Of course, it is crude yet. This is only the first draft. I shall polish it and study every word, and fit the sentences into place until the thought is crystallized as a real legend should be, to be handed down to future generations. Then people will not suspect that it is a home-made thing, spun from the fancy of one Jan Ellestad, a simple old Norwegian, who had no other legacy to leave the world he loved. This is it:

                              

"'Once upon a time, a caravan set out across the desert, laden with merchandise for a far-distant market. Some of the camels bore in their packs wine-skins that held the richest vintage of the Orient. Some bore tapestries, and some carried dyestuffs and the silken fruits of the loom. On Shapur's camel was a heavy load of salt.

"'The hope of each merchant was to reach the City of his Desire before the Golden Gate should close. There were other gates by which they might enter, but this one, opening once a year to admit the visiting rajahs from the sister cities, afforded a rare opportunity to those fortunate enough to arrive at the same time. It was the privilege of any who might fall in with the royal retinue to follow in its train to the ruling rajah's palace, and gain access to its courtyard. And wares displayed there for sale often brought fabulous sums, a hundredfold greater sometimes than when offered in the open market.

"'Only to a privileged few would the Golden Gate ever swing open at any other time. It would turn on its hinges for any one sent at a king's behest, or any one bearing something so rare and precious that only princes could purchase. No common vender could hope to pass its shining portal save in the rear of the train that yearly followed the rajahs.

"'So they urged their beasts with all diligence. Foremost in the caravan, and most zealous of all, was Shapur. In his heart burned the desire to be first to enter the Golden Gate, and the first one at the palace with his wares. But, halfway across the desert, as they paused at an oasis to rest, a dire lameness fell upon his camel, and it sank upon the sand. In vain he urged it to continue its journey. The poor beast could not rise under its great load.

"'Sack by sack he lessened its burden, throwing it off grudgingly and with sighs, for he was minded to lose as little as possible of his prospective fortune. But even rid of its entire load, the camel could not rise, and Shapur was forced to let his companions go on without him.

"'For long days and nights he watched beside his camel, bringing it water from the fountain and feeding it with the herbage of the oasis, and at last was rewarded by seeing it struggle to its feet and take a few limping steps. In his distress of mind at being left behind by the caravan, he had not noticed where he had thrown the load. A tiny rill, trickling down from the fountain, had run through the sacks and dissolved the salt, and when he went to gather up his load, only a paltry portion was left, a single sackful.

" ' "Now, Allah has indeed forgotten me!" he cried, and cursing the day that he was born, he rent his mantle, and beat upon his breast. Even if his camel were able to set out across the desert, it would be useless to seek a market now that he had no merchandise. So he sat on the ground, his head bowed in his hands. Water there was for him to drink, and the fruit of the date-palm, and the cooling shade of many trees, but he counted them as naught. A fever of unrest consumed him. A baffled ambition bowed his head in the dust.

"'When he looked at his poor camel kneeling in the sand, he cried out: "Ah, woe is me! Of all created things, I am most miserable! Of all dooms mine is the most unjust! Why should I, with life beating strong in my veins, and ambition like a burning simoom in my breast, be left here helpless on the sands, where I can achieve nothing, and can make no progress toward the City of my Desire?"

"'One day, as he sat thus under the palms, a bee buzzed about him. He brushed it away, but it returned so persistently that he looked up with languid interest. "Where there are bees, there must be honey," he said. "If there be any sweetness in this desert, better that I should go in its quest than sit here bewailing my fate."

"'Leaving the camel browsing by the fountain, he followed the bee. For many miles he pursued it, till far in the distance he beheld the palm-trees of another oasis. He quickened his steps, for an odour rare as the perfumes of Paradise floated out to meet him. The bee had led him to the Rose Garden of Omar.

"'Now Omar was an alchemist, a sage with the miraculous power of transmuting the most common things of earth into something precious. The fame of his skill had travelled to far countries. So many pilgrims sought him to beg his wizard touch that the question, "Where is the house of Omar?" was heard daily at the gates of the city. But for a generation that question had remained unanswered. No man knew the place of the house of Omar, since he had taken upon himself the life of a hermit. Somewhere, they knew, in the solitude of the desert, he was practising the mysteries of his art, and probing deeper into its secrets, but no one could point to the path leading thither. Only the bees knew, and, following the bee, Shapur found himself in the old alchemist's presence.

"'Now Shapur was a youth of gracious mien, and pleasing withal. With straightforward speech, he told his story, and Omar, who could read the minds of men as readily as unrolled parchments, was touched by his tale. He bade him come in and be his guest until sundown.

"'So Shapur sat at his board and shared his bread, and rose refreshed by his wine and his wise words. And at parting, the old man said, with a keen glance into his eyes: "Thou thinkest that because I am Omar, with the power to transmute all common things to precious ones, how easily I could take the remnant of salt that is still left to thee in thy sack and change it into gold. Then couldst thou go joyfully on to the City of thy Desire, as soon as thy camel is able to carry thee, far richer for thy delay."

"'Shapur's heart gave a bound of hope, for that is truly what he had been thinking. But at the next words it sank.

" ' "Nay, Shapur, each man must be his own alchemist. Believe me, for thee the desert holds a greater opportunity than kings' houses could offer. Give me but thy patient service in this time of waiting, and I will share such secrets with thee that, when thou dost finally win to the Golden Gate, it shall be with wares that shall gain for thee a royal entrance."

"'Then Shapur went back to his camel, and, in the cool of the evening, urged it to its feet, and led it slowly across the sands. And because it could bear no burden, he lifted the remaining sack of salt to his own back, and carried it on his shoulders all the way. When the moon shone white and full in the zenith over the Rose Garden of Omar, he knocked at the gate, calling: "Here am I, Omar, at thy bidding, and here is the remnant of my salt. All that I have left I bring to thee, and stand ready now to yield my patient service."

"'Then Omar bade him lead his camel to the fountain, and leave him to browse on the herbage around it. Pointing to a row of great stone jars, he said: "There is thy work. Every morning before sunrise, they must be filled with rose-petals, plucked from the myriad roses of the garden, and the petals covered with water from the fountain."

" ' "A task for poets," thought Shapur, as he began. "What more delightful than to stand in the moonlighted garden and pluck the velvet leaves." But after awhile the thorns tore his hands, and the rustle and hiss underfoot betrayed the presence of serpents, and sleep weighed heavily upon his eye lids. It grew monotonous, standing hour after hour, stripping the rose-leaves from the calyxes until thousands and thousands and thousands had been dropped into the great jars. The very sweetness of the task began to cloy upon him.

"'When the stars had faded and the east begun to brighten, old Omar came out. "'Tis well;" he said. "Now break thy fast, and then to slumber with thee, to prepare for another sleepless night"

"'So long months went by, till it seemed to Shapur that the garden must surely become exhausted. But for every rose he plucked, two bloomed in its stead, and night after night he filled the jars.

"'Still he was learning no secrets, and he asked himself questions sometimes. Was he not wasting his life? Would it not have been better to have waited by the other fountain until some caravan passed by that would carry him out of the solitude to the dwellings of men? What opportunity was the desert offering him greater than kings' houses could give?

"'And ever the thorns tore him more sorely, and the lonely silence of the nights weighed upon him. Many a time he would have left his task had not the shadowy form of his camel, kneeling outside by the fountain, seemed to whisper to him through the starlight: "Patience, Shapur, patience!"

"'Once, far in the distance, he saw the black outline of a distant caravan passing along the horizon where day was beginning to break. He did no more work until it had passed from sight. Gazing after it with a fierce longing to follow, he pictured the scenes it was moving toward, --- the gilded minarets of the mosques, the deep-toned ringing of bells, the cries of the populace, and all the life and stir of the market-place. When the shadowy procession had passed, the great silence of the desert smote him like a pain.

"'Again looking out, he saw his faithful camel, and again it seemed to whisper: "Patience, Shapur, patience! So thou, too, shalt fare forth to the City of thy Desire."

"'One day in the waning of summer, Omar called him into a room in which he had never been before. "Now at last," said he, "hast thou proven. thyself worthy to be the sharer of my secrets. Come! I will show thee! Thus are the roses distilled, and thus is gathered up the precious oil floating on the tops of the vessels.

" ' "Seest thou this tiny, vial? It weighs but the weight of one rupee, but it took the sweetness of two hundred thousand roses to make the attar it contains, and so costly is it that only princes may purchase. It is worth more than thy entire load of salt that was washed away at the fountain."

"'Shapur worked diligently at the new task till there came a day when Omar said to him: "Well done, Shapur! Behold the gift of the desert, its reward for thy patient service in its solitude!"

"'He placed in Shapur' s hands a crystal vase, sealed with a seal and filled with the precious attar.

" 'Wherever thou goest this sweetness will open for thee a way and win for thee a welcome. Thou camest into the desert a vender of salt. Thou shalt go forth an apostle of my alchemy. Wherever thou seest a heart bowed down in some Desert of Waiting, thou shalt whisper to it: 'Patience! Here, if thou wilt, in these arid sands, thou mayst find thy Garden of Omar, and from these daily tasks that prick thee sorest distil some precious attar to sweeten all life!' So, like the bee that led thee to my teaching, shalt thou lead others to hope."

"'Then Shapur went forth with the crystal vase, and his camel, healed in the long time of waiting, bore him swiftly across the sands to the City of his Desire. The Golden Gate, that would not have opened to the vender of salt, swung wide for the Apostle of Omar.

"'Princes brought their pearls to exchange for his attar, and everywhere he went its sweetness opened for him a way and won for him a welcome. Wherever he saw a heart bowed down in some Desert of Waiting, he whispered Omar's words and tarried to teach Omar's alchemy, that from the commonest experiences of life may be distilled its greatest blessings.

"'At his death, in order that men might not forget, he willed that his tomb should be made at a place where all caravans passed. There, at the crossing of the highways, he caused to be cut in stone that emblem of patience, the camel, kneeling on the sand. And it bore this inscription, which no one could fail to see, as he toiled past toward the City of his Desire:

"'Patience! Here, if thou wilt, on these arid sands, thou mayst find thy Garden of Omar, and even from the daily tasks which prick thee sorest mayst distil some precious attar to bless thee and thy fellow man."

"'A thousand moons waxed and waned above it, then a thousand, thousand more, and there arose a generation with restless hearts, who set their faces ever westward, following the sun toward a greater City of Desire. Strange seas they crossed, new coasts they came upon. Some were satisfied with the fair valleys that tempted them to tarry, and built them homes where the fruitful hills whispered stay. But always the sons of Shapur pushed ahead, to pitch their tents a day's march nearer the City of their Desire, nearer the Golden Gate, which opened every sunset to let the royal Rajah of the Day pass through. Like a mirage that vision lured them on, showing them a dream gate of opportunity, always just ahead, yet ever out of reach.

"'As in the days of Shapur, so it was in the days of his sons. There were those who fell by the way, and, losing all that made life dear, cried out as the caravan passed on without them that Allah had forgotten them; and they cursed the day that they were born, and laid hopeless heads in the dust.

"'But Allah, the merciful, who from the beginning knew what Desert of Waiting must lie between every son of Shapur and the City of his Desire, had long before stretched out His hand over one of the mountains of His continent. With earthquake shock it sank before Him. With countless hammer-strokes of hail and rain-drops, and with gleaming rills he chiselled it, till, as the centuries rolled by, it took the semblance of that symbol of patience, a camel, kneeling there at the passing of the ways. And to every heart bowed down and hopeless, it whispers daily its message of cheer:

" ' "Patience! Thou carnest into the desert a vender of salt, thou mayst go forth an Alchemist, distilling from Life's tasks and sorrows such precious attar in thy soul that its sweetness shall win for thee a welcome wherever thou goest, and a royal entrance into the City of thy Desire!" ' "'

There was a long silence when Mr. Ellestad closed his note-book. Joyce had turned her face away to watch the mountain while he read, so he could not see whether the little tale pleased her or not. But suddenly a tear splashed down on the paper in her lap, and she drew her hand hastily across her eyes.

"You see, it seems as if you'd written that just for me," she said, trying to laugh. "I think it's beautiful! If ever there was a heart bowed down in a desert of waiting, I was that one when I came out here this afternoon. But you have given a new meaning to the mountain, Mr. Ellestad. How did you ever happen to think of it all?"

"A line from Sadi, one of the Persian poets, started me," he answered. "'Thy alchemist, Contentment be.' It grew out of that --- that and my own unrest and despondency."

"Look!" she cried, excitedly. "Do you see that? A bee! A bee buzzing around my head, as it did Shapur's, and I can't drive him away!"

She flapped at it with her handkerchief. " Oh, there it goes now. I wonder where it would lead us if we could follow it?"

"Probably to some neighbour's almond orchard," answered Mr. Ellestad.

"Oh, dear!" sighed Joyce. "I wish that there was a bee that I could follow, and a real rose garden that I could find. It sounds so beautiful and easy to say, 'Out of life's tasks and sorrows distil a precious attar in thy soul,' and I'd like to, heaven knows, but, when it comes to the point, how is one actually to go about it? If it were something that I could do with my hands, I'd attempt it gladly, no matter how hard; but doing the things in an allegory is like trying to take hold of the girl in the mirror. You can see her plainly enough, but you can't touch her. I used to feel that way about 'Pilgrims Progress,' and think that if I only had a real pack on my back, as Christian had, and could start off on a real road, that I could be sure of what I was doing and the progress I was making. I wish you'd tell me how to begin really living up to your legend."

She spoke lightly, but there was a wistful glance in the laughing eyes she turned toward him.

"You will first have to tell me what is the City of your Desire."

"Oh, to be an artist! It has always been that. To paint beautiful pictures that will live long after I am gone, and will make people better and happier. Then the work itself would be such a joy to me. Ever since I have been old enough to realize that I will have to do something to earn my own living. I've hoped that I could do it in that way. I have had lessons from the best teachers we could get in Plainsville, and Cousin Kate took me to the finest art galleries in Europe, and promised to send me to the Art League in New York if I finished my high school course creditably.

"But we had to come out here, and that ended everything. I can't help saying, like Shapur, 'Why should I, with life beating strong in my veins, and ambition like a burning simoom in my breast, be left here helpless on the sands, where I can achieve nothing and make no progress toward the City of my Desire?'  It seems especially hard to have all this precious time wasted, when I had counted so much on the money I expected to earn, --- enough to keep mamma comfortable when she grows old, and to give the other children all sorts of advantages."

"And you do not believe that these 'arid sands' hold anything for you? " said Mr. Ellestad.

Joyce shook her head.

"It takes something more than a trained hand and a disciplined eye to make an artist," he answered, slowly. "Did you ever think that it is the soul that has to be educated? That the greater the man behind the brush, the greater the picture will be? Moses had his Midian before he was worthy to be 'Lawgiver' to his people. Israel had forty years of wilderness-wandering before it was fit for its Promised Land. David was trained for kingship, not in courts, but on the hillsides with his flocks.

"This is the secret of Omar's alchemy, to gather something from every person we meet, from every experience life brings us, as Omar gathered something from the heart of every rose, and out of the wide knowledge thus gained, of human weaknesses and human needs, to distil in our own hearts the precious oil of sympathy. That is the attar that will win for us a welcome wherever we go, --- sympathy.  The quick insight and deep understanding that help us to interpret people. And nobody fills his crystal vase with it until he has been pricked by the world's disappointments and bowed by its tasks. No masterpiece was ever painted without it. A man may become a fine copyist, but he can never make anything live on canvas until he has first lived deeply himself.

"Do not think your days wasted, little friend. Where could you learn such lessons of patience and courage as here on this desert where so many come to die? Where could you grow stronger than in the faithful doing of your commonplace duties, here at home, where they all need you and lean upon you?

"You do not realize that, if you could go on now to the City of your Desire, the little you have to offer the world would put you in the rank of a common vender of salt, --- you could only follow in the train of others. Is not waiting worth while, if it shall give you wares with which to win a royal entrance?"

"Oh, yes," answered Joyce, in a quick half-whisper, as the musical voice paused. She was looking away toward the mountain with a rapt expression on her uplifted face, as of one who sees visions. All the discontent had vanished now. It was glowing with hope and purpose.

As Mr. Ellestad rose to go, she turned impulsively to thrust both outstretched hands into his. "I can never thank you enough!" she exclaimed. "Old Camelback will be a constant inspiration to me after this instead of an emblem of hopelessness. Please come in and read the legend to mamma! And may I copy it sometime? Always now I shall think of you as Omar. I shall call you that in my thoughts."

"Thank you, little friend," he said, softly, as they walked on toward the house. "I have failed to accomplish many things in life that I had hoped to do, but the thought that one discouraged soul has called me its Omar makes me feel that I have not lived wholly in vain."

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