To lose a child he loves is undoubtedly the greatest catastrophe that can happen to a man. I do not refer to its death.
A child wanders into the street, or is left by its nurse for a moment, and vanishes. At first the thing is not realised. There is a pang and hurry at the heart which half vanishes, whilst the understanding explains that in a civilised city, if a child gets lost, it will be found and brought back by the neighbours or the police.
But the police know nothing of the matter, or the neighbours, and the hours pass. Any minute may bring back the wanderer; but the minutes pass, and the day wears into evening, and the evening to night, and the night to dawn, and the common sounds of a new day begin.
You cannot remain at home for restlessness; you go out, only to return hurriedly for news. You are eternally listening, and what you hear shocks you; the common sounds of life, the roll of the carts and cabs in the street, the footsteps of the passers-by, are full of an indescribable mournfulness; music increases your misery into madness, and the joy of others is monstrous as laughter heard in hell.
If someone were to bring you the dead body of the child, you might weep, but you would bless him, for it is the uncertainty that kills.
You go mad, or go on living. Years pass by, and you are an old man. You say to yourself: "He would have been twenty years of age to-day."
There is not in the old ferocious penal code of our forefathers a punishment adequate to the case of the man or woman who steals a child.
Lestrange was a wealthy man, and one hope remained to him, that the children might have been rescued by some passing ship. It was not the case of children lost in a city, but in the broad Pacific, where ships travel from all ports to all ports, and to advertise his loss adequately it was necessary to placard the world. Ten thousand dollars was the reward offered for news of the lost ones, twenty thousand for the recovery; and the advertisement appeared in every newspaper likely to reach the eyes of a sailor, from the *Liverpool Post* to the *Dead Bird*.
The years passed without anything definite coming in answer to all these advertisements. Once news came of two children saved from the sea in the neighbourhood of the Gilberts, and it was not false news, but they were not the children he was seeking for. This incident at once depressed and stimulated him, for it seemed to say, "If these children have been saved, why not yours?"
The strange thing was, that in his heart he felt a certainty that they were alive. His intellect suggested their death in twenty different forms; but a whisper, somewhere out of that great blue ocean, told him at intervals that what he sought was there, living, and waiting for him.
He was somewhat of the same temperament as Emmeline--a dreamer, with a mind tuned to receive and record the fine rays that fill this world flowing from intellect to intellect, and even from what we call inanimate things. A coarser nature would, though feeling, perhaps, as acutely the grief, have given up in despair the search. But he kept on; and at the end of the fifth year, so far from desisting, he chartered a schooner and passed eighteen months in a fruitless search, calling at little-known islands, and once, unknowing, at an island only three hundred miles away from the tiny island of this story.
If you wish to feel the hopelessness of this unguided search, do not look at a map of the Pacific, but go there. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of square leagues of sea, thousands of islands, reefs, atolls.
Up to a few years ago there were many small islands utterly unknown; even still there are some, though the charts of the Pacific are the greatest triumphs of hydrography; and though the island of the story was actually on the Admiralty charts, of what use was that fact to Lestrange?
He would have continued searching, but he dared not, for the desolation of the sea had touched him.
In that eighteen months the Pacific explained itself to him in part, explained its vastness, its secrecy and inviolability. The schooner lifted veil upon veil of distance, and veil upon veil lay beyond. He could only move in a right line; to search the wilderness of water with any hope, one would have to be endowed with the gift of moving in all directions at once.
He would often lean over the bulwark rail and watch the swell slip by, as if questioning the water. Then the sunsets began to weigh upon his heart, and the stars to speak to him in a new language, and he knew that it was time to return, if he would return with a whole mind.
When he got back to San Francisco he called upon his agent, Wannamaker of Kearney Street, but there was still no news.