He had a suite of rooms at the Palace Hotel, and he lived the life of any other rich man who is not addicted to pleasure. He knew some of the best people in the city, and conducted himself so sanely in all respects that a casual stranger would never have guessed his reputation for madness; but when you knew him better, you would find sometimes in the middle of a conversation that his mind was away from the subject; and were you to follow him in the street, you would hear him in conversation with himself. Once at a dinner-party he rose and left the room, and did not return. Trifles, but sufficient to establish a reputation of a sort.
One morning--to be precise, it was the second day of May, exactly eight years and five months after the wreck of the *Northumberland*--Lestrange was in his sitting-room reading, when the bell of the telephone, which stood in the corner of the room, rang. He went to the instrument.
"Are you there?" came a high Armerican voice. "Lestrange -right--come down and see me--Wannamaker--I have news for you."
Lestrange held the receiver for a moment, then he put it back in the rest. He went to a chair and sat down, holding his head between his hands, then he rose and went to the telephone again; but he dared not use it, he dare not shatter the newborn hope.
"News!" What a world lies in that word.
In Kearney Street he stood before the door of Wannamaker's office collecting himself and watching the crowd drifting by, then he entered and went up the stairs. He pushed open a swing-door and entered a great room. The clink and rattle of a dozen typewriters filled the place, and all the hurry of business; clerks passed and came with sheaves of correspondence in their hands; and Wannamaker himself, rising from bending over a message which he was correcting on one of the typewriters' tables, saw the newcomer and led him to the private office.
"What is it?" said Lestrange.
"Only this," said the other, taking up a slip of paper with a name and address on it. "Simon J. Fountain, of 45 Rathray Street, West--that's down near the wharves--says he has seen your ad. in an old number of a paper, and he thinks he can tell you something. He did not specify the nature of the intelligence, but it might be worth finding out.
"I will go there," said Lestrange.
"Do you know Rathray Street?"
Wannamaker went out and called a boy and gave him some directions; then Lestrange and the boy started.
Lestrange left the office without saying "Thank you," or taking leave in any way of the advertising agent who did not feel in the least affronted, for he knew his customer.
Rathray Street is, or was before the earthquake, a street of small clean houses. It had a seafaring look that was accentuated by the marine perfumes from the wharves close by and the sound of steam winches loading or discharging cargo--a sound that ceased not a night or day as the work went on beneath the sun or the sizzling arc lamps.
No. 45 was almost exactly like its fellows,. neither better nor worse; and the door was opened by a neat, prim woman, small, and of middle age. Commonplace she was, no doubt, but not commonplace to Lestrange.
"Is Mr. Fountain in? " he asked. "I have come about the advertisement."
"Oh, have you, sir?" she replied, making way for him to enter, and showing him into a little sitting-room on the left of the passage. "The Captain is in bed; he is a great invalid, but he was expecting, perhaps, someone would call, and he will be able to see you in a minute, if you don't mind waiting."
"Thanks," said Lestrange; "I can wait."
He had waited eight years, what mattered a few minutes now? But at no time in the eight years had he suffered such suspense, for his heart knew that now, just now in this commonplace little house, from the lips of, perhaps, the husband of that commonplace woman, he was going to learn either what he feared to hear, or what he hoped.
It was a depressing little room; it was so clean, and looked as though it were never used. A ship imprisoned in a glass bottle stood upon the mantelpiece, and there were shells from far-away places, pictures of ships in sand--all the things one finds as a rule adorning an old sailor's home.
Lestrange, as he sat waiting, could hear movements from the next room--probably the invalid's, which they were preparing for his reception. The distant sounds of the derricks and winches came muted through the tightly shut window that looked as though it never had been opened. A square of sunlight lit the upper part of the cheap lace curtain on the right of the window, and repeated its pattern vaguely on the lower part of the wall opposite. Then a bluebottle fly awoke suddenly into life and began to buzz and drum against the window pane, and Lestrange wished that they would come.
A man of his temperament must necessarily, even under the happiest circumstances, suffer in going through the world; the fine fibre always suffers when brought into contact with the coarse. These people were as kindly disposed as anyone else. The advertisement and the face and manners of the visitor might have told them that it was not the time for delay, yet they kept him waiting whilst they arranged bed-quilts and put medicine bottles straight as if he could see!
At last the door opened, and the woman said:
"Will you step this way, sir?"
She showed him into a bedroom opening off the passage. The room was neat and clean, and had that indescribable appearance which marks the bedroom of the invalid.
In the bed, making a mountain under the counterpane with an enormously distended stomach, lay a man, black bearded, and with his large, capable, useless hands spread out on the coverlet--hands ready and willing, but debarred from work. Without moving his body, he turned his head slowly and looked at the newcomer. This slow movement was not from weakness or disease, it was the slow, emotionless nature of the man speaking.
"This is the gentleman, Samuel," said the woman, speaking over Lestrange's shoulder. Then she withdrew and closed the door.
"Take a chair, sir," said the sea captain, flapping one of his hands on the counterpane as if in wearied protest against his own helplessness. "I haven't the pleasure of your name, but the missus tells me you're come about the advertisement I lit on yester-even."
He took a paper, folded small, that lay beside him, and held it out to his visitor. It was a *Sidney Bulletin* three years old.
"Yes," said Lestrange, looking at the paper; "that is my advertisement."
"Well, it's strange--very strange," said Captain Fountain, "that I should have lit on it only yesterday. I've had it all three years in my chest, the way old papers get lying at the bottom with odds and ends. Mightn't a' seen it now, only the missus cleared the raffle out of the chest, and, 'Give me that paper,' I says, seeing it in her hand; and I fell to reading it, for a man'll read anything bar tracts lying in bed eight months, as I've been with the dropsy. I've been whaler man and boy forty year, and my last ship was the *Sea Horse*. Over seven years ago one of my men picked up something on a beach of one of them islands east of the Marquesas--we'd put in to water "
"Yes, yes," said Lestrange. "What was it he found?"
"Missus!" roared the captain in a voice that shook the walls of the room.
The door opened, and the woman appeared.
"Fetch me my keys out of my trousers pocket."
The trousers were hanging up on the back of the door, as if only waiting to be put on. The woman fetched the keys, and he fumbled over them and found one. He handed it to her, and pointed to the drawer of a bureau opposite the bed.
She knew evidently what was wanted, for she opened the drawer and produced a box, which she handed to him. It was a small cardboard box tied round with a bit of string. He undid the string, and disclosed a child's tea service: a teapot, cream jug, six little plates all painted with a pansy.
It was the box which Emmeline had always been losing- lost again.
Lestrange buried his face in his hands. He knew the things. Emmeline had shown them to him in a burst of confidence. Out of all that vast ocean he had searched unavailingly: they had come to him like a message, and the awe and mystery of it bowed him down and crushed him.
The captain had placed the things on the newspaper spread out by his side, and he was unrolling the little spoons from their tissue-paper covering. He counted them as if entering up the tale of some trust, and placed them on the newspaper.
"When did you find them?" asked Lestrange, speaking with his face still covered.
"A matter of over seven years ago," replied the captain, "we'd put in to water at a place south of the line--Palm Tree Island we whalemen call it, because of the tree at the break of the lagoon. One of my men brought it aboard, found it in a shanty built of sugarcanes which the men bust up for devilment."
"Good God!" said Lestrange. "Was there no one there- nothing but this box?"
"Not a sight or sound, so the men said; just the shanty, abandoned seemingly. I had no time to land and hunt for castaways, I was after whales."
"How big is the island?"
"Oh, a fairish middle-sized island--no natives. I've heard tell it's taboo; why, the Lord only knows--some crank of the Kanakas I s'pose. Anyhow, there's the findings--you recognise them?"
"Seems strange," said the captain, "that I should pick em up; seems strange your advertisement out, and the answer to it lying amongst my gear, but that's the way things go."
"Strange!" said the other. "It's more than strange."
"Of course," continued the captain, "they might have been on the island hid away som'ere, there's no saying; only appearances are against it. Of course they might be there now unbeknownst to you or me."
"They *are* there now," answered Lestrange, who was sitting up and looking at the playthings as though he read in them some hidden message. "They *are* there now. Have you the position of the island?"
"I have. Missus, hand me my private log."
She took a bulky, greasy, black note-book from the bureau, and handed it to him. He opened it, thumbed the pages, and then read out the latitude and longitude.
"I entered it on the day of finding--here's the entry. 'Adams brought aboard child's toy box out of deserted shanty, which men pulled down; traded it to me for a caulker of rum.' The cruise lasted three years and eight months after that; we'd only been out three when it happened. I forgot all about it: three years scrubbing round the world after whales doesn't brighten a man's memory. Right round we went, and paid off at Nantucket. Then, after a fortni't on shore and a month repairin', the old *Sea Horse* was off again, I with her. It was at Honolulu this dropsy took me, and back I come here, home. That's the yarn. There's not much to it, but, seein' your advertisement, I thought I might answer it."
Lestrange took Fountain's hand and shook it.
"You see the reward I offered?" he said. "I have not my cheque book with me, but you shall have the cheque in an hour from now."
"No, sir," replied the captain; "if anything comes of it, I don't say I'm not open to some small acknowledgment, but ten thousand dollars for a five-cent box--that's not my way of doing business."
"I can't make you take the money now--I can't even thank you properly now," said Lestrange--"I am in a fever; but when all is settled, you and I will settle this business. My God!"
He buried his face in his hands again.
"I'm not wishing to be inquisitive," said Captain Fountain, slowly putting the things back in the box and tucking the paper shavings round them, "but may I ask how you propose to move in this business?"
"I will hire a ship at once and search."
"Ay," said the captain, wrapping up the little spoons in a meditative manner; "perhaps that will be best."
He felt certain in his own mind that the search would be fruitless, but he did not say so. If he had been absolutely certain in his mind without being able to produce the proof, he would not have counselled Lestrange to any other course, knowing that the man's mind would never be settled until proof positive was produced.
"The question is," said Lestrange, "what is my quickest way to get there?"
"There I may be able to help you," said Fountain tying the string round the box "A schooner with good heels to her is what you want; and, if I'm not mistaken, there's one discharging cargo at this present minit at O'Sullivan's wharf. Missus!"
The woman answered the call. Lestrange felt like a person in a dream, and these people who were interesting themselves in his affairs seemed to him beneficent beyond the nature of human beings.
"Is Captain Stannistreet home, think you?"
"I don't know," replied the woman; "but I can go see."
"He lives only a few doors down," said Fountain, "and he's the man for you. Best schooner captain ever sailed out of 'Frisco. The *Raratonga* is the name of the boat I have in my mind--best boat that ever wore copper. Stannistreet is captain of her, owners are M'Vitie. She's been missionary, and she's been pigs; copra was her last cargo, and she's nearly discharged it. Oh, M'Vitie would hire her out to Satan at a price; you needn't be afraid of their boggling at it if you can raise the dollars. She's had a new suit of sails only the beginning of the year. Oh, she'll fix you up to a T, and you take the word of S. Fountain for that. I'll engineer the thing from this bed if you'll let me put my oar in your trouble; I'Il victual her, and find a crew three quarter price of any of those d----d skulking agents. Oh, I'll take a commission right enough, but I'm half paid with doing the thing "
He ceased, for footsteps sounded in the passage outside, and Captain Stannistreet was shown in. He was a young man of not more than thirty, alert, quick of eye, and pleasant of face. Fountain introduced him to Lestrange, who had taken a fancy to him at first sight.
When he heard about the business in hand, he seemed interested at once; the affair seemed to appeal to him more than if it had been a purely commercial matter, much as copra and pigs.
"If you'll come with me, sir, down to the wharf, I'll show you the boat now," he said, when they had discussed the matter and threshed it out thoroughly.
He rose, bid good-day to his friend Fountain, and Lestrange followed him, carrying the brownpaper box in his hand.
O'Sullivan's Wharf was not far away. A tall Cape Horner that looked almost a twin sister of the ill-fated *Northumberland* was discharging iron, and astern of her, graceful as a dream, with snow-white decks, lay the *Raratonga* discharging copra.
"That's the boat," said Stannistreet; "cargo nearly all out. How does she strike your fancy?"
"I'll take her," said Lestrange, "cost what it will."