The lost and the found

Recently I was in the South, where I came upon a story which seemed extraordinary in itself and which left me with a strange feeling of hope. I was in Wilmington, N. C., a charming town 20 miles from the sea. Shaded streets, bordered by houses going back to an earlier century, climb the gentle slope that rises from the Cape Fear River. The town escaped the worst ravages of the Civil War, though it was a thorn in the side of the union, being the principal point from which blockade runners carried on trade vital to the life of the Confederacy. Finally, in 1864, Fort Fisher, at the mouth of the river, was taken after what local historians claim to have been the heaviest bombardment ever launched. The unprotected town fell and Union troops took over.

Amid the general looting, one act was particularly deplored. The Bible of the First Presbyterian Church was removed from the sunctuary and carried away. The years pass, old bitternesses are healed, and in 1928, as if by a miracle, the lost Bible is returned. It had indeed been stolen, but then innocently purchased in camp by a Col. sidney Cooke. The colonel is subsequent fighting was gravely wounded behind Confederate lines and left on the battlefield as lost. Rescued, and nursed back to health by the enemy, Colonel cooke (in his later years in Kansas City) often told his family of his gratitude for Southern mercy, and displayed the Bible as a treasured remembrance of Civil War days.

The old colonel's son, after his father's passing, brought the Bible back to the Wilmington church, where it was received with rejoicing and where it can now be seen on public view. Two further facts add a special dimension to the story. The original church was burned in 1925, so that had the Bible been returned a few years earlier it would almost certainly have been destroyed forever. Also, crowning the tale, is this testimony: when the newly restored Bible was opened at random for a newspaper photograph, a verse from the Book of Jeremiah revealed itself to people's astonished eyes. "For out of the north," said the Bible text , "there cometh up a nation against thee, which shall make the land desolate. . . . They shall depart, both man and beast."

This little tale, with its coincidence and its happy ending, gives cheer in a world where so many things get lost, seemingly beyond recovery. I have been doing research on the life of Woodrow wilson -- indeed it was a desire to revisit one of the places where he had lived as a youth that brought me to Wilmington -- and one of the mysterious lacunae in the record is the collection of letters Wilson wrote to his father. Father and son were extraordinarily close; the elder Wilson was convinced Woodrow was headed for greatness, and it is inconceivable that he would deliberately destroy his side of the correspondence. But where is the treasure-box that holds the key to this intimate relationship?

Scholars have assumed that it must have been left in some attic in the South, as the old father moved restlessly about in his last years. They have hoped against hope that it would someday turn up. Does not the tale about the Bible in the First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington (where Wilson's father was once a pastor) somehow make one believe that in the end these letters will indeed see the light?

I read the other day that a painting by the French Impressionist Corot had been found. Connoisseurs long thought a certain portrait known as "The Thoughtful Young Woman" was by Corot; it was established that it was, instead, a copy by his favorite pupil.Where, then, was the original? Lost, it seemed, forever. But 70 years later it has turned up, after travels on both sides of the Atlantic and possession by various owners. At the end of May it will be again sold at auction.

So the world goes, full of strange journeys, marked by unexpected turns of fortune. What we guard zealously is lost, and what is lost is found once more. I suppose the moral is that one should never give up hoping -- or, what is more to the point, o ne should never give up searching with quiet faith.

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