CHAPTER I  MAD LESTRANGE

    They knew him upon the Pacific slope as "Mad Lestrange." He was not mad, but he was a man with a fixed idea. He was pursued by a vision: the vision of two children and an old sailor adrift in a little boat upon a wide blue sea.

    When the *Arago*, bound for Papetee, picked up the boats of the *Northumberland*, only the people in the long-boat were alive. Le Farge, the captain, was mad, and he never recovered his reason. Lestrange was utterly shattered; the awful experience in the boats and the loss of the children had left him a seemingly helpless wreck. The scowbankers, like all their class, had fared better, and in a few days were about the ship and sitting in the sun. Four days after the rescue the *Arago* spoke the *Newcastle*, bound for San Francisco, and transshipped the shipwrecked men.

    Had a physician seen Lestrange on board the *Northumberland* as she lay in that long, long calm before the fire, he would have declared that nothing but a miracle could prolong his life. The miracle came about.

    In the general hospital of San Francisco, as the clouds cleared from his mind, they unveiled the picture of the children and the little boat. The picture had been there daily, seen but not truly comprehended; the horrors gone through in the open boat, the sheer physical exhaustion, had merged all the accidents of the great disaster into one mournful half-comprehended fact. When his brain cleared all the other incidents fell out of focus, and memory, with her eyes set upon the children, began to paint a picture that he was ever more to see.

    Memory cannot produce a picture that Imagination has not retouched; and her pictures, even the ones least touched by Imagination, are no mere photographs, but the world of an artist. All that is inessential she casts away, all that is essential she retains; she idealises, and that is why her picture of a lost mistress has had power to keep a man a celibate to the end of his days, and why she can break a human heart with the picture of a dead child. She is a painter, but she is also a poet.

    The picture before the mind of Lestrange was filled with this almost diabolical poetry, for in it the little boat and her helpless crew were represented adrift on a blue and sunlit sea. A sea most beautiful to look at, yet most terrible, bearing as it did the recollections of thirst.

    He had been dying, when, raising himself on his elbow, so to say, he looked at this picture. It recalled him to life. His willpower asserted itself, and he refused to die.

    The will of a man has, if it is strong enough, the power to reject death. He was not in the least conscious of the exercise of this power; he only knew that a great and absorbing interest had suddenly arisen in him, and that a great aim stood before him- the recovery of the children.

    The disease that was killing him ceased its ravages, or rather was slain in its turn by the increased vitality against which it had to strive. He left the hospital and took up his quarters at the Palace Hotel, and then, like the General of an army, he began to formulate his plan of campaign against Fate.

    When the crew of the *Northumberland* had stampeded, hurling their officers aside, lowering the boats with a rush, and casting themselves into the sea, everything had been lost in the way of ship's papers; the charts, the two logs--everything, in fact, that could indicate the latitude and longitude of the disaster. The first and second officers and a midshipman had shared the fate of the quarter-boat; of the fore-mast hands saved, not one, of course, could give the slightest hint as to the locality of the spot.

    A time reckoning from the Horn told little, for there was no record of the log. All that could be said was that the disaster had occurred somewhere south of the line.

    In Le Farge's brain lay for a certainty the position, and Lestrange went to see the captain in the "Maison de Sante," where he was being looked after, and found him quite recovered from the furious mania that he had been suffering from. Quite recovered, and playing with a ball of coloured worsted.

    There remained the log of the *Arago*; in it would be found the latitude and longitude of the boats she had picked up.

    The *Arago*, due at Papetee, became overdue. Lestrange watched the overdue lists from day to day, from week to week, from month to month, uselessly, for the *Arago* never was heard of again. One could not affirm even that she was wrecked; she was simply one of the ships that never come back from the sea.


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