The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


He was thirty-three, agreeable to look at, equipped with as much culture and intelligence as is tolerated east of Fifth Avenue and west of Madison. He had a couple of elaborate rooms at the Lenox Club, a larger income than seemed to be good for him, and no profession. It follows that he was a pessimist before breakfast. Besides, it's a bad thing for a man at thirty-three to come to the conclusion that he has seen all the most attractive girls in the world and that they have been vastly overrated. So, when a club servant with gilt buttons on his coat tails knocked at the door, the invitation to enter was not very cordial. He of the buttons knocked again to take the edge off before he entered; then opened the door and unburdened himself as follows:
"Mr. Gatewood, sir, Mr. Kerns's compliments, and wishes to know if 'e may 'ave 'is coffee served at your tyble, sir."
Gatewood, before the mirror, gave a vicious twist to his tie, inserted a pearl scarf pin, and regarded the effect with gloomy approval.
"Say to Mr. Kerns that I am—flattered," he replied morosely; "and tell Henry I want him."
"'Enry, sir? Yes, sir."
The servant left; one of the sleek club valets came in, softly sidling.
"I'll wear a white waistcoat, if you don't object."
The valet laid out half a dozen.
"Which one do you usually wear when I'm away, Henry? Which is your favorite?"
"Pick it out and don't look injured, and don't roll up your eyes. I merely desire to borrow it for one day."
"Very good, sir."
"And, Henry, hereafter always help yourself to my best cigars. Those I smoke may injure you. I've attempted to conceal the keys, but you will, of course, eventually discover them under that loose tile on the hearth."
"Yes, sir; thanky', sir," returned the valet gravely.
"Sir?" with martyred dignity.
"When you are tired of searching for my olivine and opal pin, just find it, for a change. I'd like to wear that pin for a day or two if it would not inconvenience you."
"Very good, sir; I will 'unt it hup, sir."
Gatewood put on his coat, took hat and gloves from the unabashed valet, and sauntered down to the sunny breakfast room, where he found Kerns inspecting a morning paper and leisurely consuming grapefruit with a cocktail on the side.
"Hullo," observed Kerns briefly.
"I'm not on the telephone," snapped Gatewood.
"I beg your pardon; how are you, dear friend?"
"I don't know how I am," retorted Gatewood irritably; "how the devil should a man know how he is?"
"Everything going to the bowwows, as usual, dear friend?"
"As usual. Oh, read your paper, Tommy! You know well enough I'm not one of those tail-wagging imbeciles who wakes up in the morning singing like a half-witted lark. Why should I, with this taste in my mouth, and the laundress using vitriol, and Henry sneering at my cigars?" He yawned and cast his eyes toward the ceiling. "Besides, there's too much gilt all over this club! There's too much everywhere. Half the world is stucco, the rest rococo. Where's that Martini I bid for?"
Kerns, undisturbed, applied himself to cocoa and toasted muffins. Grapefruit and an amber-tinted accessory were brought for the other and sampled without mirth. However, a little later Gatewood said: "Well, are you going to read your paper all day?"
"What you need," said Kerns, laying the paper aside, "is a job—any old kind would do, dear friend."
"I don't want to make any more money."
"I don't want you to. I mean a job where you'd lose a lot and be scared into thanking Heaven for carfare. You're a nice object for the breakfast table!"
"Bridge. I will be amiable enough by noon time."
"Yes, you're endurable by noon time, as a rule. When you're forty you may be tolerated after five o'clock; when you're fifty your wife and children might even venture to emerge from the cellar after dinner—"
"I said wife," replied Kerns, as he calmly watched his man.
He had managed it well, so far, and he was wise enough not to overdo it. An interval of silence was what the situation required.
"I wish I had a wife," muttered Gatewood after a long pause.
"Oh, haven't you said that every day for five years? Wife! Look at the willing assortment of dreams playing Sally Waters around town. Isn't this borough a bower of beauty—a flowery thicket where the prettiest kind in all the world grow under glass or outdoors? And what do you do? You used to pretend to prowl about inspecting the yearly crop of posies, growling, cynical, dissatisfied; but you've even given that up. Now you only point your nose skyward and squall for a mate, and yowl mournfully that you never have seen your ideal. I know you."
"I never have seen my ideal," retorted Gatewood sulkily, "but I know she exists—somewhere between heaven and Hoboken."
"You're sure, are you?"
"Oh, I'm sure. And, rich or poor, good or bad, she was fashioned for me alone. That's a theory of mine; you needn't accept it; in fact, it's none of your business, Tommy."
"All the same," insisted Kerns, "did you ever consider that if your ideal does exist somewhere, it is morally up to you to find her?"
"Haven't I inspected every débutante for ten years? You don't expect me to advertise for an ideal, do you—object, matrimony?"
Kerns regarded him intently. "Now, I'm going to make a vivid suggestion, Jack. In fact, that's why I subjected myself to the ordeal of breakfasting with you. It's none of my business, as you so kindly put it, but—shall I suggest something?"
"Go ahead," replied Gatewood, tranquilly lighting a cigarette. "I know what you'll say."
"No, you don't. Firstly, you are having such a good time in this world that you don't really enjoy yourself—isn't that so?"
"I—well I—well, let it go at that."
"Secondly, with all your crimes and felonies, you have one decent trait left: you really would like to fall in love. And I suspect you'd even marry."
"There are grounds," said Gatewood guardedly, "for your suspicions. Et après?"
"Good. Then there's a way! I know—"
"Oh, don't tell me you 'know a girl,' or anything like that!" began Gatewood sullenly. "I've heard that before, and I won't meet her."
"I don't want you to; I don't know anybody. All I desire to say is this: I do know a way. The other day I noticed a sign on Fifth Avenue:


      It was a most extraordinary sign; and having a little unemployed imagination I began to speculate on how Keen & Co. might operate, and I wondered a little, too, that, the conditions of life in this city could enable a firm to make a living by devoting itself exclusively to the business of hunting up missing people."
Kerns paused, partly to light a cigarette, partly for diplomatic reasons.
"What has all this to do with me?" inquired Gatewood curiously; and diplomacy scored one.
"Why not try Keen & Co.?"
"Try them? Why? I haven't lost anybody, have I?"
"You haven't, precisely lost anybody, but the fact remains that you can't find somebody," returned Kerns coolly. "Why not employ Keen & Co. to look for her?"
"Look for whom, in Heaven's name?"
"Your ideal."
"Look for—for my ideal! Kerns, you're crazy. How the mischief can anybody hunt for somebody who doesn't exist?"
"You say that she does exist."
"But I can't prove it, man."
"You don't have to; it's up to Keen & Co. to prove it. That's why you employ them."
"What wild nonsense you talk! Keen & Co. might, perhaps, be able to trace the concrete, but how are they going to trace and find the abstract?"
"She isn't abstract; she is a lovely, healthy, and youthful concrete object—if, as you say, she does exist."
"How can I prove she exists?"
"You don't have to; they do that."
"Look here," said Gatewood almost angrily, "do you suppose that if I were ass enough to go to these people and tell them that I wanted to find my ideal—"
"Don't tell them that!"
"But how—"
"There is no necessity for going into such trivial details. All you need say is: 'I am very anxious to find a young lady'—and then describe her as minutely as you please. Then, when they locate a girl of that description they'll notify you; you will go, judge for yourself whether she is the one woman on earth—and, if disappointed, you need only shake your head and murmur: 'Not the same!' And it's for them to find another."
"I won't do it!" said Gatewood hotly.
"Why not? At least, it would be amusing. You haven't many mental resources, and it might occupy you for a week or two."
Gatewood glared.
"You have a pleasant way of putting things this morning, haven't you?"
"I don't want to be pleasant: I want to jar you. Don't I care enough about you to breakfast with you? Then I've a right to be pleasantly unpleasant. I can't bear to watch your mental and spiritual dissolution—a man like you, with all your latent ability and capacity for being nobody in particular—which is the sort of man this nation needs. Do you want to turn into a club-window gazer like Van Bronk? Do you want to become another Courtlandt Allerton and go rocking down the avenue—a grimacing, tailor-made sepulcher?—the pompous obsequies of a dead intellect?—a funeral on two wavering legs, carrying the corpse of all that should be deathless in a man? Why, Jack, I'd rather see you in bankruptcy—I'd rather see you trying to lead a double life in a single flat on seven dollars and a half a week—I'd almost rather see you every day at breakfast than have it come to that!
"Wake up and get jocund with life! Why, you could have all good citizens stung to death if you chose. It isn't that I want you to make money; but I want you to worry over somebody besides yourself—not in Wall Street—a pool and its money are soon parted. But in your own home, where a beautiful wife and seven angel children have you dippy and close to the ropes; where the housekeeper gets a rake off, and the cook is red-headed and comes from Sligo, and the butler's cousin will bear watching, and the chauffeur is a Frenchman, and the coachman's uncle is a Harlem vet, and every scullion in the establishment lies, drinks, steals, and supports twenty satiated relatives at your expense. That would mean the making of you; for, after all, Jack, you are no genius—you're a plain, non-partisan, uninspired, clean-built, wholesome citizen, thank God!—the sort whose unimaginative mission is to pitch in with eighty-odd millions of us and, like the busy coral creatures, multiply with all your might, and make this little old Republic the greatest, biggest, finest article that an overworked world has ever yet put up! . . . Now you can call for help if you choose."
Gatewood's breath returned slowly. In an intimacy of many years he had never suspected that sort of thing from Kerns. That is why, no doubt, the opinions expressed by Kerns stirred him to an astonishment too innocent to harbor anger or chagrin.
And when Kerns stood up with an unembarrassed laugh, saying, "I'm going to the office; see you this evening?" Gatewood replied rather vacantly: "Oh, yes; I'm dining here. Good-by, Tommy."
Kerns glanced at his watch, lingering. "Was there anything you wished to ask me, Jack?" he inquired guilelessly.
"Ask you? No, I don't think so."
"Oh; I had an idea you might care to know where Keen & Co. were to be found."
"That," said Gatewood firmly, "is foolish."
"I'll write the address for you, anyway," rejoined Kerns, scribbling it and handing the card to his friend.
Then he went down the stairs, several at a time, eased in conscience, satisfied that he had done his duty by a friend he cared enough for to breakfast with.
"Of course," he ruminated as he crawled into a hansom and lay back buried in meditation—"of course there may be nothing in this Keen & Co. business. But it will stir him up and set him thinking; and the longer Keen & Co. take to hunt up an imaginary lady that doesn't exist, the more anxious and impatient poor old Jack Gatewood will become, until he'll catch the fever and go cantering about with that one fixed idea in his head. And," added Kerns softly, "no New Yorker in his right mind can go galloping through these five boroughs very long before he's roped, tied, and marked by the 'only girl in the world'—the only girl—if you don't care to turn around and look at another million girls precisely like her. O Lord!—precisely like her!"
Here was a nice exhorter to incite others to matrimony.


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