The Lost Child

IF the family name was ever mentioned to me, I do not remember it. Everyone spoke of the professor, the professor’s family, and then his child. The family had come to pass the summer on a small farm which stretched lazily over the base of ‘Stony Ridge’ Mountain in Pennsylvania.

It was an unusually peaceful June Sunday; the winds and currents of air accustomed to churn about in the lowlands were leashed to the mountain top, and the absence of rustling leaves gave prominence to the note raised by the subtle forces of nature — things budding, popping, growing. The day was a peace offering to atone for the many days when gales send us scurrying to shelter, or heat drives us to seek shade. Nature was making a bid for confidence; the professor and his wife accepted it in good faith and went to stroll in the rolling foothills, leaving their two-year-old child in the care of the farmer’s daughter, a half-grown girl.

When the parents returned at three, they met the young girl carrying a glass of water, and they followed her to the playhouse. When they entered, all the toys were arranged for play, but the child could not be seen. Nor did he answer when the parents, believing that they were being invited to join a game of hide and seek, called his name. During the few minutes that the farmer’s daughter had been gone for a drink of water, the child seemed to have vanished completely.

A search was made through the house and all surrounding buildings. The situation became alarming. Neighbors were asked to give assistance. Hopeless eyes peered into wells and deep pits. As the search continued, more friends and neighbors arrived; it was evening and no leading trails had as yet been found. State policemen were summoned to take charge and organize patrols. Night, with all its black uncertainties, was slowly creeping into the mountains; calls for additional help were sent out to neighboring towns.

We first heard of it at eight, in a small town four miles away where I was passing a holiday. The town was animated at that hour by numbers of people walking home from evening services. A distress call had been received at the central telephone exchange; the message spread quickly. ‘The professor’s child is lost in the mountains. Help is wanted.’ The people, hearing the news, gathered in groups, then quickly scattered — the husbands to proffer aid, the wives to rush home to tell the tragic news to ears that had not heard it. My host offered his services and the use of his car. Volunteers soon filled the seats and some stood on the running boards; we started for the mountains.

The men in the car described the nature of the country where the child was lost — the thickets and woods, the dangers of foxes and other wild animals. They recounted moments of agony experienced by them when their own children escaped from their watchful eyes. Their sympathy for the professor and his wife was very great, sincere.

The car swung off the main highway and traveled over a rougher road which followed the winding course of a stream through narrow valleys where night and dampness were concentrated. We passed through and skirted patches of balsam-scented woodland into which would dart, with eyes of fire, small animals frightened by our headlights. Winding up on the knoll of a cultivated hill, which looked like a great bald head in the night, one of the men said, ‘We are very near, now.’ On the top of the hill we were afforded an excellent panorama of our objective. Stony Ridge rose as a wall, extending upward to great heights where it seemed to hold the starlit sky as a canvas tightly drawn. The blue-black barrier was sparkling with the many tiny lights of the searching parties combing the mountain side. We could follow their course by their lanterns and torches arranged in clusters and lines radiating from a group of buildings on the far side of the valley below us. The buildings stood out white in the glare of the many lights of automobiles parked around them. The scene had the appearance of a gay, wellpatronized amusement park; the lights and torches on the mountain side looked like long strings of Japanese lanterns — the scene of a fête, not a tragedy.

The questions we asked when we arrived at the house differed little from all the others that had been put by the many who arrived before us. ‘Where was the child last seen? Where had it usually played?’ And we received the same answers. There were no clues, no footprints, no toys dropped by the child on its flight to start us on a new trail. The child had last been seen in the playhouse; there the trail started and ended. We had gathered — friends, farmers, Boy Scouts, state policemen, townsmen. Some men brought their wives to cut bread, make sandwiches, to offer hot coffee to weary searchers. The professor, long exhausted, was mute, wide-eyed. Cries from the hysterical mother came to us from a second-story window to urge us to greater efforts.

We fell in with a group reorganizing for another hunt. Given lanterns, torches, and long sticks to push aside the brush, we walked in a knotted group across a field to a point where we entered the woods. In a long line we walked, five or six feet between us, to comb a wide swath through the thicket. The task was slow, difficult, treacherous. Vines intertwined underbrush to retard our advance. Rocks, hidden from view, tripped us or threw us off our balance or sent us crashing into bushes covered with thorny briers. One man, thrown to the ground, broke his lantern on a rock, and spurting oil started a small brush fire. Clothing was shredded, skin torn. Men swore as they battled with the brambles. A seasoned hunter near me said, ‘No child could ever enter this thicket; even dogs pick their way through here with difficulty.’ But no foot of ground was to be left unsearched; so we ploughed on and on, hour after hour. When it was discovered that we had been passing through large areas of poison ivy, men susceptible to the deadly green let out wails, while others laughed at their discomfort.

Whenever a circuit was completed we would gather at the farmhouse, but just long enough to pick up a bite to eat, a sip of coffee, or to refill a canteen before starting out on another search. No one thought of quitting; the task was not without hope. I thought of nights in France when men crawled and groped about, suffering even greater hardships, filled with hate, bent on revenge, destruction of life. But how different all this was — many men, young and old, men who had served in France, untiring in their efforts to save the life of one child.

The night passed; early morning light let me see better the serious expressions on the faces of the men around me. Some faces were bearded; some smooth, delicate; others lean, drawn. Daylight made our task easier, but we had not been rewarded. The sun was rising above the hilltops; our limbs were sore from tramping through the brush, over rocks; we were tired, sleepy. We quit a patch of woodland and spread out across a field, working back toward the farmhouse. Out in the sunlight our eyes were dark from fatigue; torch-smoked faces were streaked with perspiration. Our steps became shorter; we moved slower and slower, like the swinging pendulum of a clock unwinding. Having failed in our mission, we dreaded the ordeal of facing the parents again.

Enthusiasm, eagerness to gain a goal, usually releases energy which makes us speed past roads leading to our objective. Perhaps the anxiety of the parents had caused them to overlook important clues, or our zeal had made us rush too quickly through the fields and woods during the early night. Our energy had now been spent; we were checked to a snail’s pace. Then one man, walking close to the edge of the woods, suddenly stooped and shouted, ‘Look here!’ High above his head he held a child’s small stocking. We rushed over to him, pulled aside the bushes around him, and found a shoe, another stocking; and then we heard the cry of a startled child. In a small clearing near the edge of the woods, a few hundred feet from the house, sat the child, rubbing eyes that had enjoyed a long, care-free slumber. When fatigue had checked his ambition to explore the world, he had taken off his shoes and stockings and curled up in his bed of balsam. He could not have picked a more secure place to hide. As our column had advanced through this thicket during the night, the men near the edge of the timberland saw the open field, broke ranks to avoid briers, and picked an easy path along the edge of the woods, leaving a wide strip uncombed.

Now that the child had been found, we cheered him as troops returning, tired and worn from battle, greet their sovereigns. Hands that trembled with excitement reached to pick him up. Older men, their eyes wet with tears, pleaded for a turn at carrying him back to his parents.

The signal of rescue was sounded — men with revolvers firing three shots in rapid succession. The shots were heard by other groups, and their guns in turn passed on the message to parties whose eagerness had carried them far into the mountains. We could hear the signal being relayed all around us. Men came from everywhere, — over fields, out of woods, — happy to see the child alive. The scene was dynamic, the atmosphere electric; dinner bells were clanging at all the neighboring farmhouses; a distant village church bell rang out the glad tidings as our procession marched back to the house with the child.

As we came over the brow of the hill, the parents, given new strength, rushed madly toward us. What feelings, what emotions the professor and his wife had lived through during that one night! Hope, fear, anguish, despair, death — and then suddenly life, joy, happiness. Their lost child had been found.