- part: MY QUEEN;
- CHAPTER XII. A STORM ON THE DESERT.
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A STORM ON THE DESERT.
DESOLATION of desolation! A desert within a desert! A treeless, flowerless, grassless, voiceless waste. A world turned to ashes. A sepulchral solitude, over which brood, in dumb despair, the shadows of an awful past; shadows from which joyous, beauteous life recoils. The earth is shorn of its glorious motherhood; naught but abortive, hueless shrubs are born of the arid soil, infecting the atmosphere with their sickening breath, making the desolation more desolate.
To the North, to the South, stretches the limitless plain, till the gray earth meets the gray winter sky, and they fade away in a shadowy embrace.| | 62
To the East, rise jagged fantastic rocks--like an army of pitiless genii shutting out the world,--the world of love and beauty. To the West tower the stern hoary-headed sentinels of the land of Zion.
But the mountains are gray and barren, as if the desert upheaved itself in giant masses, to hurl defiance at heaven. Desolation enfolds the cloud-piercing height, the far-stretching plain, and over all reigns an awful silence, unbroken by song of bird, by whirr of wing, or rustle of grass. Even the streams lose their joyousness; they shrink, they creep along in silent fear till they sink into an alkaline grave.
The bold explorer shudders as he enters the lifeless realm; the Indian turns from it with superstitious dread.
Midway in that dreary desert, mere specks dotting the gray limitless space, we find the pilgrims; but it is difficult to recognize our old friends among these tattered, dust-stained, gaunt, haggard, hollow-eyed beings.
The caravan halts: to dig a grave--a double grave.
An aged woman and Bob Delville have succumbed. Poor Bob, the merry, light-hearted youth; how hard it was to die! How cruel it seemed so leave him there alone in that dismal solitude! He had been the life of the band, always looking on the bright side of everything, and enlivening, by some quaint, funny remark, the gloomiest moments.
He had devoted himself to his mother and sister. This devotion caused his death. They had begged him to think more of himself; but he answered their entreaties with a joke. And now he was dead. The heart-broken mother knelt by the grave of her first-born, while women wept and men groaned.| | 63
It was more than death to them--it was the breaking of God's promise.
The only Power that could save seemed to have deserted them.
For a moment Faith tottered, Despair triumphed. But Oreana doubted not, feared not.
From rank to rank she moved, exhorting, cheering. Her enthusiastic words rekindled their waning courage. Her hope and trust nerved the faint-hearted.
"'Tis but a trial of our faith," she cried. "Would ye wear a martyr's crown without meriting it? Be not faint-hearted. The Lord will not always turn away His face. Hope in him. Zion is near."
Oreana's heroic spirit was contagious: the wailings and groanings ceased. One last hymn over the lonely graves, and then once more on the march--"Onward to Zion."
While the air was yet tremulous with sad melody, there came a sound like the rushing of a mighty ocean:--now a roar, now a plaintive wail. The discordant prelude awakens the spirits of the desert. The alkali takes form. It wreathes, it winds itself into mystic spirals, and, keeping time to the weird music, the spectral dancers glide over the plain, mocking the lonely wanderers.
But even the heralds of the storm cannot daunt the pilgrims now, as Oreana's voice is heard above the wind:
"Brothers and sisters, look upwards. Beyond those mountains is the city of God."
The pilgrims press onward; but ah! how distant those mountains seem. Will the distance never decrease? An endless desert behind them, an endless | | 64 desert before them, and every hour brings nearer the winter's storms.
The bishop is silent. Perhaps he repents of his bold assertions. Mr. Delville seems dazed. Julian marches onward doggedly, determinedly. He has grappled with a fearful destiny; and that destiny he is resolved to conquer. It is not fanaticism that nerves him,--it is love and pity. Love for Oreana, pity for the pilgrims.
Rapidly, steadily, he pushes his cart, in which lies a pale, thin child, her features drawn by suffering. It is Lizzie, the pet of the Delville household, too weary to complain. Death will soon take her to join her brother.
Mrs. Delville walked beside her husband, a mere human automaton, her heart crushed with grief.
To Oreana, suffering seemed a delight. Her spirit grew stronger, and her body showed no signs of fatigue. Sometimes she appeared exultant. She exhorted, cheered, directed, undaunted even by death.
Two days have passed since the first burial in the desert; days cloudy and menacing; days of furious winds that hurled them one against another, and buffetted them about as though they were toys for the hurricane.
Many sank by the way, gladly welcoming death. Graves mark the pilgrims' path. The dead are no longer lonely.
Suddenly the wind ceases, the clouds sink lower and lower. The air becomes thick with fast-falling masses. The snow storm is upon them.
The pilgrims stop, bewildered. Another prophetic promise falsified. But there is not a moment to be | | 65 lost. Thought must be deferred; this is the hour for action.
Brother Simms, their guide, orders a rest for refreshments. God knows when they will be able to stop again.
Among the provisions was some good brandy. A little of the liquor was given to each one with the rations of oatmeal and dried meat. This done, the captain ordered the children to be placed in the carts. Then the carts, with their respective parties, were divided into bands of twenty, each twenty under the command of an energetic leader.
Oreana, who seemed endowed with man's strength, woman's fortitude, and the heroism of a martyr, took command of the weakest division.
These precautions were necessary to prevent stopping or scattering. Either would be certain death.
Very little time had been spent in these preparations, yet in that time a thick snow carpet hid the gray alkali, and the mountains were lost to view. The leaders intoned a hymn, and the pilgrims moved on. Warmed by the exercise in the snow, invigorated by the stimulant, they marched for hours, stopping only at stated intervals to rest and shake the snow from their garments, and from the light covering of the carts. All the time they continued the song, so that they might more easily keep together.
But in spite of these precautions many dropped off unnoticed, and sank without a groan into that slumber from which there is no waking.
Nor were they missed until the next day. Towards morning the storm ceased, the clouds broke, and the | | 66 moon and stars shone out. With them came the cruel frost.
Weary as they were, they dared not rest, for to stop on the freezing snow, exposed to the intense cold without fire, without sufficient clothing, was certain death. Their only salvation was in continued motion. Onward they dragged their weary limbs while the pitiless frost stung their hands, blistered with pushing the carts, stung their feet, bruised and bleeding with travel.
The morning brought the sun. In its warmth the pilgrims rested.
The successful battle with the storm gave them a sort of dumb courage.
For days they had expected it--dreaded it. Now it was over, few had perished, and the survivors rejoiced that there was no fresh horror to meet.
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