The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 11
Saint Fronto's Camels
THIS is a story of Egypt. In the midst of a great yellow sea of sand was a tiny green island of an oasis. Everywhere else the sunlight burned on sand and rocks and low, bare hills to the west. But here there was shade under the palm-trees, and a spring of cool, clear water. It seemed a pleasant place, but the men who were living here were far from happy. There was grumbling and discontent; there were sulky looks and frowns. Yet these men were trying to be holy hermits, to live beautiful lives and forget how to be selfish. But it is hard to be good when one is starving.
There were seventy of them in this lonely camp in the desert,--seventy hungry monks, who for many days had had only a few olives to eat. And they blamed one man for all their suffering. It was Fronto who had induced them to leave the pleasant monastery at Nitria, where the rest of their brethren were living in peace and plenty. It was Fronto who had led them into this miserable desert to serve God in solitude, as holy men loved to do in the early days of Christendom.
Fronto was a holy man, full of faith and courage. He had promised that they should be fed and cared for in the desert even though they took no care for themselves, and they had believed him. So each monk took a few olives in his pouch and a double-pronged hoe to dig and plant corn with, and followed Fronto into the desert.
After trudging many days they found this spot, far to the east, where no caravans would come to interrupt them, for it was out of the way of travel. But soon also they found their provisions gone and no others forthcoming. What were they to do? They asked Fronto, but he only bade them be patient. It was when they had borne the pangs of hunger for several days that they began to grumble and talk of returning home. But Fronto was indignant. "The Lord will provide," he said, "O ye of little faith!" And he bade them go to work and try to forget their hunger. The monks drew the cords tighter about their waists. But that did little good. They had never fasted like this before! Day by day they grew more pale and thin, and their long robes flapped about their lean limbs. The few dates which grew on the palm-trees of their oasis were long since eaten, and the poor monks went about chewing the knotted ends of their rope girdles, trying to pretend that it was bread. Oh, how they longed for even a bit of the hard black bread which was Lenten fare at the monastery beyond the hills!
Day by day they grew more hollow-cheeked and despairing. At last one evening they came to Fronto in a body--such a weak, pale body. "Take us back to Nitria, or we starve!" they cried. "We can endure this no longer!"
Fronto stood before them even more pale and worn than the rest, but with the light of beautiful trust in his eyes. "Wait yet a little longer, brothers," he begged. "We are bidden to take no thought to the morrow, what we shall eat and drink"--
"Nay, 'tis to-day we think of," interrupted the monks. "If we could eat to-day we would indeed take no thought of the morrow. But we starve!"
"Patience, brothers," continued the Saint wearily. "If we return now we shall show that we distrust God's promise. Wait till to-morrow. If help come not then, I give ye leave to go, without me. I shall not return."
The monks withdrew, still grumbling and unhappy. But the words of the Saint had made some impression, and they agreed to wait until morning. Each monk stretched himself on his goatskin mat on the floor of the little cell which he had dug in the sand. And with groans of hunger mingled in their prayers they tried to go to sleep and forget how long it was since their last breakfast.
But Fronto could not sleep. He was sad and disappointed because his brothers had lost their faith, and because he felt alone, deserted in this desert by the friends who should have helped him with their sympathy and trust. All night he knelt on his goatskin mat praying that the Lord would fulfill His promise now, and prove to the doubting monks how mistaken their lack of faith had been. The other monks slept a hungry sleep about him, dreaming of delicious things to eat. Now and then one of them would cry out: "Another help of pudding, please;" or "Brother, will you pass the toast?" or "Thank you, I will have an egg, brother." And Fronto wept as he heard how faint their voices were.
At last the pink fingers of morning began to spread themselves over the face of the sky, pinching its cheeks into a rosy red. Suddenly Fronto, who was on his knees with his back to the door of his cell, started. Hark! what sound was that which came floating on the fresh morning air? Surely, the tinkle of a bell. The good Saint rose from his mat and went hastily to the door, his sure hope sending a smile to his pale lips and color to his hollow cheek. He knew that his prayer was answered. And lo! away in the northwest he saw a thread of black, crawling like a caterpillar over the sand toward his oasis. Nearer and nearer it came; and now he could see plainly what it was,--a line of great rocking camels, the little tinkling bells on whose harness gave the signal that hope was at hand.
But the sound had waked the other monks. With a cry of joy they came tumbling out of their cells and rushed toward the camels, which were now close to the camp. How the poor monks ran, to be sure, many of them tripping over the skirts of their long robes and falling flat in the sand from their weakness and excitement. They were like men on a sinking ship who had just caught sight of a rescuing sail. Some of them jumped up and down and clapped their hands like children, they were so glad. And tears stood in the eyes of nearly all.
There were seventy camels, soft-eyed gentle creatures, whose flat feet held them up on the soft sand like snowshoes. They bore packs upon their backs which promised good things, and they came straight to the cell of Fronto, where they stopped. And what a welcome they received! The monks threw their arms about the beasts' necks, as they knelt on the sand, and kissed the soft noses as though they were greeting long-lost brothers. They were so glad to see the camels themselves that they almost forgot to wonder whence they came, or what they were bringing. But Fronto was looking for their owner, for the man who drove them. There was no one to be found. They had come all alone across the desert, without any one to guide them. Fronto's face was full of joy. "The Lord has sent them!" he said. And the other monks bowed their heads, and were ashamed because they had doubted.
Hungry though they were, first of all the good monks tended the tired beasts who had come so far to save them. They relieved them from their heavy loads, and tenderly washed their hot, weary feet, and gave them draughts of the spring water. Some of the starving monks skurried away to gather the green grass of the oasis for their hungry friends, and others unfastened the bales of hay which some of the camels had brought, and made beds for the animals to lie on. Then they all fell to and built a fold for the seventy camels in the shade of the palm-trees. And here they left the patient creatures to rest and chew their cud with a sigh of relief that the long, hot journey was over.
Then the monks hurried back to Fronto, wondering if it were not now almost time for their breakfast. They came upon him reading a letter which he had found on the harness of the foremost camel. It was written from the city of Alexandria, and it explained how the camels had been sent.
Four nights before this, Glaucus, the rich merchant, had been resting on a couch in his summer house. He had just finished an excellent dinner, with all his favorite fishes and meats and fruits and sweets, and he was feeling very happy. When suddenly he thought of the seventy monks who had gone out from Nitria many days before to live in the desert with the help which the Lord should send. And a pang smote him. Perhaps they were starving now, while he was feasting. And he wished he could help them to a dinner as good as his. Ha! an idea came to him. Why should he not indeed send them a dinner--many dinners? It should be done.
So the next morning he had loaded seventy camels with provisions, five of them with bales of hay for the camels themselves. And taking them to the border of the desert, without driver or any one to guide them, he had sent them out into the sea of sand, the great ships of the desert, to find the right harbor by themselves. For somehow he felt sure that the Lord would guide them safely to the monks. Here the letter of Glaucus ended.
Oh, how good that breakfast tasted to the poor, famished monks! There were all kinds of fruit,--fresh figs and olives and dates, citrons and juicy grapes and yellow pomegranates. There were bread and oil which the monks loved, and nuts and combs of the most delicious golden honey such as it makes one's mouth water to think of. Glaucus had sent them a breakfast fit for a king. And they all sat down on the sand in a happy circle and had the finest picnic that was ever seen in that desert.
When they had eaten they went out once more to visit the camels who had saved their lives, and to thank them with caressing words. The camels seemed to understand, and looked at them with gentle eyes, chewing their cud earnestly as if thinking: "You see, the Lord was looking out for you all the time. We are only poor, dumb beasts; but we came straight to you across the desert without any fear or wandering, because we trusted. Why were you not trustful, too?"
And again the monks were very much ashamed, and went back to Fronto to beg his forgiveness, promising never again to be faint-hearted nor to lose faith.
The next morning they made ready to send back the camels to Alexandria. For they knew Glaucus would be anxious to hear how his ships of the desert had fared on their errand. And half the provisions they returned, for they had more than enough to last them a year, according to their simple meals. Then, with tears in their eyes, the monks sent the great beasts forth again into the desert, confident that as they had come so they would find their way back to Alexandria, safe and sound. Each in his cell door the monks stood and watched them slowly winding away over the yellow sand, disappearing at last behind the hills which rose like great waves between them and the world of cities.
Now it was eight days since Glaucus had sent out the camels, and he was growing uneasy. Seventy camels are a valuable property, which even a rich man could not afford to lose. Glaucus feared that he had been foolish; the desert was full of robbers, and there was no one to protect this leaderless caravan. Would the Lord take care of affairs which were left wholly to His direction?
Glaucus was sitting with his family in the garden, silent and gloomy. His family felt that he had been rash, and they did not hesitate to tell him so, which made him still more unhappy. The leader-camel was the favorite of Glaucus's daughter, Æmilia. She was crying in a corner of the garden, thinking about her dear Humpo, whom she never expected to see again. When, just as Fronto had done, she heard a far-away tinkle. She jumped up and ran out to the road.
"What is it, Æmilia, my child?" called out her father, startled by her sudden movement.
"Oh, Father, Father!" she cried. "I think I hear the tinkle of a camel bell among the mountains!" And sure enough. As they all hurried down to the garden gate the sound of little bells drew nearer and nearer. And presently came in sight the line of seventy camels, Humpo at the head, half of them loaded with the provisions which the monks were too unselfish to keep. And soon Æmilia had her arms about the neck of her dear Humpo, and was whispering nice things into his floppy ears as he knelt before her, looking lovingly at her with his big brown eyes.
Thus it was that Glaucus, the good rich man, knew that the Lord was pleased with him for his kindness, and had helped him to do his duty. And every year after that he sent the seventy camels forth into the desert on their unguided errand to the far-off oasis. So they grew to be dear friends of Saint Fronto and his monks, looked for as eagerly as Santa Claus is at Christmas time.