Mary Ware's Promised Land, Chapter 7: A Desert Of Waiting

by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1912
Illustrated by John Goss

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Part I


IT was so still on the porch where Mary and her mother sat sewing that warm May afternoon that they could distinctly hear the Moredock phonograph, playing some new records over and over. One of them was a quick-step that the military band had often played at Fort Sam Houston, and as Mary listened an intolerable longing for stir and excitement took possession of her. She wanted to be back in the midst of people and constantly changing scenes. She felt that she could not endure the deadly monotony of Lone-Rock another day.

Usually she had much to say as they sat and sewed through the long still ,afternoons, but to-day the music claimed her attention. It was very pleasing at that distance, but it was disquieting in its effect. She dropped her embroidery into her lap and sat looking out at the narrow grass-grown road winding past the house and over the hill, and ending in a narrow mountain path beyond.

"Mamma," she asked suddenly, in one of the pauses of the music, "were any of our ancestors tramps or gypsies? Seems to me they must have been, or I wouldn't feel the 'Call of the Road' so strongly. Don't you feel it? As if it beckons and you must break loose and follow, to find what's waiting for you around the next turn?"

Mrs. Ware shook her head. "No," she said slowly. "I'm like, the old Israelites. When they came to Elim, with its wells and palm trees, they were glad to camp there indefinitely. This is my Elim."

"I wonder, now," mused Mary, "if they really were satisfied. I don't mean to be irreverent, but only last night I read that verse, 'Whether it were two days or a month or a year that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, the Children of Israel abode in their tents and journeyed not.' And I thought that among so many, there must have been a lot of them who were impatient to get on to their promised land; who fretted and fumed when day rafter day the pillar of cloud never lifted to lead them on. I'd have been like that. If we could only know how long we have to stay in a place it would make it lots easier. Now, if I had known last fall that eight months would go by and find me still here in Lone-Rock, I'd have made up my mind to the inevitable and settled down comfortably. It's the dreadful uncertainty that is so hard to bear."

Just then the phonograph started up one of its old records. "I want what I want when I want it!" They both looked up and laughed at each other.

"That is the cry of the ages," said Mrs. Ware merrily. "I've no doubt that even the tribes of Israel had some version of that same song, and wailed it often on the march. But their very impatience showed that they were not fit to go on towards their conquest of Canaan."

"Then you think that I am not fitted yet to take possession of my Canaan?" Mary asked quickly.

"I don't know, dear," was the hesitating answer, "but I've come to believe that every one who reaches the best that life holds for him reaches it through some Desert of Waiting. You remember that legend of old Camelback Mountain, don't you?"

Mary nodded, and Mrs. Ware quoted softly, "No one fills his crystal vase till he has been pricked by the world's disappointments and bowed by its tasks . . . . Oh, thou vendor of salt, is not any waiting worth the while, if in the end it give thee wares with which to gain a royal entrance?"

Mary waited a moment, then with an impatient shrug of her shoulders picked up her embroidery :hoops again. In her present mood it irritated her to be told that waiting was good for her. The legend itself irritated her. She wondered how any one could find any comfort in it, least of all her mother, whose life had been so largely a desert of hard work and hard times.

Presently, as if in answer to her thought, Mrs. Ware looked up, saying, "You spoke just now of the call of the road. It is strange how strongly I've felt it all afternoon, only my call takes me backward. I've been living over little scenes that I haven't thought of before in years; hearing little things your father said when Joyce and Jack were babies; seeing the neighbors back in Plainsville. Maybe that is one reason I am not impatient to push on any farther into the future. I have such a beautiful Memory Road to travel back over. I'd rather sit and recall the turns in that than wonder what lies on ahead."

"For instance," suggested Mary, and Mrs. Ware immediately began a reminiscence that Mary remembered hearing when a child. But to-day she realized that there was a difference in the telling. Her mother was not repeating it as she used to do to amuse the children who clamored for tales of Once upon a time. She was speaking as one woman to another, opening a chapter into the inmost history of her heart.

"She recognizes the fact that I'm grown up," Mary thought to herself with satisfaction, and she was conscious that her mother was taking quite as deep a pleasure in this sense of equal understanding and companionship as she.

It was nearly sundown when a slow creaking of wheels and soft thud of hoofs on the grass-grown road called their attention to a short procession of wagons and horsemen, winding along towards the house. A long pine box was in the first wagon, and several families crowded into the others.

"Oh, it's a funeral procession!" whispered Mary, pushing back a little further into the shadow of the vines, so as to be out of sight. "It must be that Mr. Locksley who was killed yesterday over at Hemlock Ridge by a falling tree. Isn't it awful?"

She gave a little shiver and her eyes filled with tears as they rested on the children in the second wagon. There had been a pitiful attempt to honor the dead by following the conventions. The woman who sat bowed over on the front seat like an image of despair, wore a black veil and cotton gloves; and black sunbonnets, evidently borrowed from grown-up neighbors, covered the flaxen hair of three little girls in pink calico dresses, who nestled against her. There was a band of rusty crape fastened around the gray cow-boy hat that the boy wore.

The pathetic little procession wound on past the house and up the hill, then was lost to sight as it passed into a grove of cedars on the right, behind which lay the lonely cemetery. Only a few times in her life had Mary come this close to death. Now the horror of it seemed to blot out all the brightness of the sweet May day, and the thought of the grief-stricken woman in the wagon cast such a shadow over her that her eyes were full of unshed tears and her hands trembled when she took up her needle again.

"It's so awful!" she exclaimed, when they had passed out of hearing. "They were all over at that dinner at Hemlock Ridge that Pink took me to last winter. I remember Mr. Locksley especially because he was so big and strong-looking, like a young giant, almost. I asked Pink who he was, because I noticed how good he was to his family, carrying the baby around on one arm and helping his wife unpack baskets with the other. Yesterday morning when he left the house he was just as well and strong as anybody in the world, Captain Doane told me. He went off laughing and joking, and stopped to call back something to his wife about the garden, and two hours later they carried him home --- like that! In just an instant the life had been crushed out of him."

Her voice broke and she swallowed hard before she could go on.

"I've always thought death wouldn't be so bad if one could die as dear Beth did, in 'Little Women.' Don't you remember how sweetly and gently she faded away, and so slowly that there was no great shock when the end came? She had time to get used to the idea of going, and to say things that would comfort them after she was gone. But to be snatched away like Mr. Locksley --- without a moment's warning --- it seems too dreadful! I don't see how God can let such cruel things happen."

"But think, little daughter," urged Mrs. Ware gently, "how much he was spared. No long illness, no racking pain, no lingering with the consciousness that he was a burden to others! There is nothing cruel in that. It's a happy way for the one who goes, dear, to go suddenly. It is the way of all others I would choose for myself."

"But think of the ones left behind!" said Mary, with a shudder. "I don't see how that poor woman can go on living after having the one she loved best in all the world, torn so suddenly and so utterly out of her life."

"But he isn't, dear!" persisted Mrs. Ware gently. "You do not think because Joyce has gone away to another land, which we have never seen, and an ocean rolls between us, that she is torn out of our lives, do you? She does not know what we are doing, and we cannot follow her through her busy, happy days over there, but we know that she is still ours, that her love flows out to us just the same, that separation cannot make her any less our own, and that she looks forward with us to the happy time when we shall once more be together. That's all that death is, Mary. Just a going away into another country, as Joyce has gone. Only the separation is harder to bear because there can be no letters to bridge the silence. I used to have the same horror of it that you do, but after your father went away I learned to look upon it as God intended we should. Not a horrible doom which must overtake every one of us, but as a beautiful mystery through which we pass as through an open gate, with glad surprise at the things that shall be made plain to us, and with a great sense of triumph."

As she spoke, the light of the sunset seemed to turn the mountain trail up which she was gazing, into a golden path which led straight up to the City of the Shining Ones, and its radiant glow was reflected in her face. Mary's eyes followed hers. Somehow she felt warmed and comforted by her mother's strong faith, but she said nothing. Only sat and watched with her, the gorgeous colors of the sunset that were transfiguring the gray old mountain.

If there were only some way of recognizing at their beginning, the days which are to be hallowed days in our lives! We know them as such after they have slipped by, and we enshrine them in our memories and go back to live them over, moment by moment.  But it is always with the cry, "Oh, if I had only known! If I had only filled them fuller while I had them! If I had not left so much unasked, unsaid!"

Unconscious that this was such a time, Mary sat racking back and forth in the silence that followed, drifting into vague day dreams, as they watched the changing colors over the western mountain tops.  Then a click of the back gate-latch called them both back to speech, and Norman came around the corner of the house swinging a string of fish. He announced that Billy Downs had helped catch them and was going to stay to supper to help eat them.

Billy usually stayed to supper three or four times a week, and on the nights when he was not there Norman was at his house. The two boys were inseparable, and a pleasant intimacy had grown up between the families. That night as usual, he went home at nine o'clock, but came running back almost immediately, bareheaded and breathless. His mother had been taken suddenly ill. The only doctor in the place had been called to a case on the other side of the mountain, and nobody knew when he would be home. His father and Sara were nearly scared stiff, they were so frightened, and wouldn't Mrs. Ware please come and tell them what to do?

It was the beginning of a long siege, for no nurses were to be had in the little settlement, and there were only the neighbors to turn to in times of stress and trouble. What true neighborliness is, in the fullest meaning of the word, can be known only in pioneer places like this. Hands already full of burdens stretched out to help lighten theirs, and for awhile one common interest and anxiety made the families of Lone-Rock as one.

But most of the women who came to offer their services had little children at home, or helpless old people who could not be left long alone, or more work than one pair of :hands could manage. The only two of experience, not thus burdened, were Mrs. Ware and old Aunt Sally Doane. So they took turns sitting up at nights, and did all they could on alternate days to relieve poor frightened Sara and her anxious father.

Mary, not experienced enough to be left in charge in the sick room, did double duty at home. She did the baking for both families, sometimes three; for many a time old Aunt Sally, too worn out to cook, went home to find a basket full of good things spread out for her and the Captain on the pantry shelves. The Downs family mending went into Mary's basket, and Billy's darns and patches alone were no small matter. Several times a week she slipped over to sweep and dust and do many necessary things that Sara had neither time nor strength to do.

Remembering how valiantly the neighbors had served them during Jack's long illness, Mary gladly did her part, and a very large one towards relieving the stricken household. When she saw Mr. Downs' anxious face relax, at some evidence of her thoughtfulness, and heard Sara's tearful thanks poured out in a broken voice, she was glad that fate had kept her in Lone-Rock to play the good angel in this emergency. If she had not been at home, Mrs. Ware could not have been free to take charge of the invalid, and it was her skilful nursing, so the doctor said, which would pull her through the crisis if anything could.

After the first week, Mrs. Ware came home only in the afternoon each day, to sleep. While she was doing that, Mary tiptoed softly around the house till her tasks were done, careful not to disturb the rest that was so precious and so necessary. Then she took her mending basket out on the front porch, where she could meet any chance comers before they could knock, or could chase away the insistent roosters who tantalizingly chose that corner of the yard to come to when they felt impelled to crow.

It was hard to sit there alone through the long still afternoons while her mother slept. There were a hundred things she wanted to talk about, so many questions she wanted to ask, so many little matters on which she needed advice. There was not even the Moredock phonograph to listen to now, for it had not been wound up since the beginning of Mrs. Downs' illness, lest its playing disturb her. All she could do was to sit and stitch as patiently as she could, till she heard the bedroom door open, and then fly to make her mother a cup of tea and have a tempting little supper ready for her when she should come out, dressed and ready to go back to another exhausting vigil.

The few minutes while Mrs. Ware sat enjoying the dainty meal were the best in the day for Mary, for she poured out her pent-up questions and speeches, reported all that had gone on since the last time she sat there, and crowded into that brief space as much of Jack's sayings and Norman's doings as she could possibly remember.

"Oh, it'll be so good to have you home again to stay!" she would say every time when Mrs. Ware rose to start back, ending her good-bye embrace with a tight squeeze. "I miss you so I can hardly stand it. The house is so still when you are gone, that if a fly happens to get in its buzz sounds like a roar. You can't imagine how deathly still it is."

"Oh, yes, I can!" laughed Mrs. Ware. "I've been left alone myself. I don't need to imagine. I've experienced it."

Mary hung over the gate to which she had followed her mother, and looked after her down the road, thinking, "That never occurred to me before. Of course, if I miss her as I do, quiet as she is, she would miss a rattletybang person like me twice as much. I had never thought of her getting lonely, but she'd be bound to if I went away. How'd I feel if she'd gone with Joyce and I had to stay here day after day alone, and know that I'd never have her again except on flying visits, and that she was wrapped up in all sorts of interests that I could never have a part in?"

All that evening she thought about it, and all next morning; and when Mrs. Ware came home in the afternoon she met her with a serious question.

"Mamma, when I'm away from home and you're here by yourself, do you miss me as much as I do you

"Oh, a thousand times more!" was the quick answer.

"Then I've made up my mind. Promised Land or no Promised Land, I'm not going away to stay until Jack brings Betty here to take my place."

Taken by surprise, the look which illuminated Mrs. Ware's face for a moment showed more plainly than she had intended Mary to know, how much it had cost her to consent to her going away. After that if there were times when Mary was tempted to pity herself and look upon that decision as a great sacrifice, one thought of her mother's happy face and the glad little cry that had welcomed her announcement, immediately dispelled any martyr-like feeling.

"Such good news rests me more than any amount of sleep can do," declared Mrs. Ware, as she slipped into her kimono and drew down the window shades. "You don't know how the dread of having to give you up has hung over me. Every time that you've gone to the post-office since last October I've been afraid to see you come home --- afraid that you were bringing some summons that would take you away."

"Why, mamma!" cried Mary, surprised to see that there were tears in her eyes, "I didn't dream that you felt that way about it. Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I knew that you'd stay if I asked it, and I couldn't block the road in which you were sure you would find your highest good, just for my own selfish pleasure. Oh, you don't know," she added, with a wistfulness which brought a choke to Mary's throat, "what a comfort you've been to me, ever since the day you came back from school, after Jack's accident. You've always been a comfort --- but since that time it's been in a different way. I've leaned on you so!"

Deeply touched past all words, Mary's only answer was a kiss and an impulsive hug, before she turned away to hide her happy tears. All afternoon as she sat and sewed, the words sang themselves over and over in her heart : "You've always been a comfort," and she began planning many things to keep them true. She would do something to stir up a social spirit among her mother's small circle of friends; start a club, perhaps, have readings and teas and old-fashioned quilting bees; even a masquerade party now and then. Anything to give an air of gaiety to the colorless monotony of the workaday life of Lone-Rock. So with her energies turned into a new channel she at once set to work vigorously mapping out a campaign to be put into effect as soon as Mrs. Downs should be once more on her feet.

It was a happy day when Mrs. Ware came home saying that her services were no longer needed.

The family could manage without her, now that a sister had come up from Phoenix to help the invalid through her convalescence. 

"It is high time! You are worn out!" said Jack, scanning her face anxiously.

It was pale and drawn, and after a quick scrutiny he rose and followed her into the next room, saying in a low tone, "Mother, I believe you've been having another one of those attacks. Have you?"

"Just a slight one, last night," she confessed. "But it was soon over."

He closed the door behind him, but low as the question had been, Mary's quick ears caught both it and the answer, and she pounced upon him the moment he reappeared, demanding to know what they were talking about. He explained in an undertone, although he had again closed the door behind him when he came back to the dining-room.

"That winter you were at Warwick Hall she had several queer spells with her heart. The pain was dreadful for awhile, but the doctor soon relieved it, and she made me promise not to tell you girls. She said she had been over-exerting herself. That was all. It was that time the Fitchs' house caught fire while they were away from home. She saw it first and ran to give then alarm and help save things, and after it was all over she had a collapse. I made her promise just now that she'd go to bed and stay there till she is thoroughly rested. She's seen Doctor Bates. He gave her the same remedies she had before, and she insists she's entirely over it now."

With a vague fear clutching at her, Mary started towards her mother's room, but Jack stopped her. "You mustn't go in there looking like a scared rabbit. It will do her more harm than good to let her know that you've found out about it. And really, I don't think there's any cause for alarm, now that the attack is safely over. She responds so quickly to the remedies that she'll soon be all right again. But she must take things easy for awhile."

All the rest of that day Mary was troubled and uneasy, notwithstanding the fact that her mother dressed and came out to the supper-table, seemingly as well as usual. Twice in the night Mary wakened with a frightened start, thinking some one had called her, and, raising herself on her elbow, lay listing for some sound from the next room. Once she stepped out of bed and stole noiselessly to the door to look in at her. The late moon, streaming across the floor, showed Mrs. Ware peacefully sleeping, and Mary crept back, relieved and thankful.

Chapter 6   Part I   Chapter 8 >