The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


Meanwhile, Gatewood was walking along Fifth Avenue, more or less soothed by the May sunshine. First, he went to his hatters, looked at straw hats, didn't like them, protested, and bought one, wishing he had strength of mind enough to wear it home. But he hadn't. Then he entered the huge white marble palace of his jeweler, left his watch to be regulated, caught a glimpse of a girl whose hair and neck resembled the hair and neck of his ideal, sidled around until he discovered that she was chewing gum, and backed off, with a bitter smile, into the avenue once more.
Every day for years he had had glimpses of girls whose hair, hands, figures, eyes, hats, carriage, resembled the features required by his ideal; there always was something wrong somewhere. And, as he strolled moodily, a curious feeling of despair seized him—something that, even in his most sentimental moments, even amid the most unexpected disappointment, he had never before experienced.
"I do want to love somebody!" he found himself saying half aloud; "I want to marry; I—" He turned to look after three pretty children with their maids—"I want several like those—several!—seven—ten—I don't care how many! I want a house to worry me, just as Tommy described it; I want to see the same girl across the breakfast table—or she can sip her cocoa in bed if she desires—" A slow, modest blush stole over his features; it was one of the nicest things he ever did. Glancing up, he beheld across the way a white sign, ornamented with strenuous crimson lettering:


      The moment he discovered it, he realized he had been covertly hunting for it; he also realized that he was going to climb the stairs. He hadn't quite decided what he meant to do after that; nor was his mind clear on the matter when he found himself opening a door of opaque glass on which was printed in red:


      He was neither embarrassed nor nervous when he found himself in a big carpeted anteroom where a negro attendant bowed him to a seat and took his card; and he looked calmly around to see what was to be seen.
Several people occupied easy chairs in various parts of the room—an old woman very neatly dressed, clutching in her withered hand a photograph which she studied and studied with tear-dimmed eyes; a young man wearing last year's most fashionable styles in everything except his features: and soap could have aided him there; two policemen, helmets resting on their knees; and, last of all, a rather thin child of twelve, staring open-mouthed at everybody, a bundle of soiled clothing under one arm. Through an open door he saw a dozen young women garbed in black, with white cuffs and collars, all rattling away steadily at typewriters. Every now and then, from some hidden office, a bell rang decisively, and one of the girls would rise from her machine and pass noiselessly out of sight to obey the summons. From time to time, too, the darky servant with marvelous manners would usher somebody through the room where the typewriters were rattling, into the unseen office. First the old woman went—shakily, clutching her photograph; then the thin child with the bundle, staring at everything; then the two fat policemen, in portentous single file, helmets in their white-gloved hands, oiled hair glistening.
Gatewood's turn was approaching; he waited without any definite emotion, watching newcomers enter to take the places of those who had been summoned. He hadn't the slightest idea of what he was to say; nor did it worry him. A curious sense of impending good fortune left him pleasantly tranquil; he picked up, from the silver tray on the table at his elbow, one of the firm's business cards, and scanned it with interest:



      Keen & Co. are prepared to locate the whereabouts of anybody on earth. No charges will be made unless the person searched for is found.
Blanks on application.


      "Mistuh Keen will see you, suh," came a persuasive voice at his elbow; and he rose and followed the softly moving colored servant out of the room, through a labyrinth of demure young women at their typewriters, then sharply to the right and into a big, handsomely furnished office, where a sleepy-looking elderly gentleman rose from an armchair and bowed. There could not be the slightest doubt that he was a gentleman; every movement, every sound he uttered, settled the fact.
"Mr. Keen?"
"Mr. Gatewood?"—with a quiet certainty which had its charm. "This is very good of you."
Gatewood sat down and looked at his host. Then he said: "I'm searching for somebody, Mr. Keen, whom you are not likely to find."
"I doubt it," said Keen pleasantly.
Gatewood smiled. "If," he said, "you will undertake to find the person I cannot find, I must ask you to accept a retainer."
"We don't require retainers," replied Keen. "Unless we find the person sought for, we make no charges, Mr. Gatewood."
"I must ask you to do so in my case. It is not fair that you should undertake it on other terms. I desire to make a special arrangement with you. Do you mind?"
"What arrangement had you contemplated?" inquired Keen, amused.
"Only this: charge me in advance exactly what you would charge if successful. And, on the other hand, do not ask me for detailed information—I mean, do not insist on any information that I decline to give. Do you mind taking up such an extraordinary and unbusinesslike proposition, Mr. Keen?"
The Tracer of Lost Persons looked up sharply:
"About how much information do you decline to give, Mr. Gatewood?"
"About enough to incriminate and degrade," replied the young man, laughing.
The elderly gentleman sat silent, apparently buried in meditation. Once or twice his pleasant steel-gray eyes wandered over Gatewood as an expert, a connoisseur, glances at a picture and assimilates its history, its value, its artistic merit, its every detail in one practiced glance.
"I think we may take up this matter for you, Mr. Gatewood," he said, smiling his singularly agreeable smile.
"But—but you would first desire to know something about me—would you not?"
Keen looked at him: "You will not mistake me—you will consider it entirely inoffensive—if I say that I know something about you, Mr. Gatewood?"
"About me? How can you? Of course, there is the social register and the club lists and all that—"
"And many, many sources of information which are necessary in such a business as this, Mr. Gatewood. It is a necessity for us to be almost as well informed as our clients' own lawyers. I could pay you no sincerer compliment than to undertake your case. I am half inclined to do so even without a retainer. Mind, I haven't yet said that I will take it."
"I prefer to regulate any possible indebtedness in advance," said Gatewood.
"As you wish," replied the older man, smiling. "In that case, suppose you draw your check" (he handed Gatewood a fountain pen as the young man fished a check-book from his pocket)—"your check for—well, say for $5,000, to the order of Keen & Co."
Gatewood met his eye without wincing; he was in for it now; and he was always perfectly game. He had brought it upon himself; it was his own proposition. Not that he would have for a moment considered the sum as high—or any sum exorbitant—if there had been a chance of success; one cannot compare and weigh such matters. But how could there be any chance for success?
As he slowly smoothed out the check and stub, pen poised, Keen was saying: "Of course, we should succeed sooner or later—if we took up your case. We might succeed to-morrow—to-day. That would mean a large profit for us. But we might not succeed to-day, or next month, or even next year. That would leave us little or no profit; and, as it is our custom to go on until we do succeed, no matter how long it may require, you see, Mr. Gatewood, I should be taking all sorts of chances. It might even cost us double your retainer before we found her—"
"Her? How did—why do you say 'her'?"
"Am I wrong?" asked Keen, smiling.
"No—you are right."
The Tracer of Lost Persons sank into abstraction again. Gatewood waited, hoping that his case might be declined, yet ready to face any music started at his own request.
"She is young," mused Keen aloud, "very beautiful and accomplished. Is she wealthy?" He looked up mildly.
Gatewood said: "I don't know—the truth is I don't care—" And stopped.
"O-ho!" mused Keen slowly. "I—think—I understand. Am I wrong, Mr. Gatewood, in surmising that this young lady whom you seek is, in your eyes, very—I may say ideally gifted?"
"She is my ideal," replied the young man, coloring.
"Exactly. And—her general allure?"
"Exactly; but to be a trifle more precise—if you could give me a sketch, an idea, a mere outline delicately tinted, now. Is she more blond than brunette?"
"Yes—but her eyes are brown. I—I insist on that."
"Why should you not? You know her; I don't," said Keen, laughing. "I merely wished to form a mental picture. . . . You say her hair is—is—"
"It's full of sunny color; that's all I can say."
"Exactly—I see. A rare and lovely combination with brown eyes and creamy skin, Mr. Gatewood. I fancy she might be, perhaps, an inch or two under your height?"
"Just about that. Her hands should be—are beautiful—"
"Exactly. The ensemble is most vividly portrayed, Mr. Gatewood; and—you have intimated that her lack of fortune—er—we might almost say her pecuniary distress—is more than compensated for by her accomplishments, character, and very unusual beauty. . . . Did I so understand you, Mr. Gatewood?"
"That's what I meant, anyhow," he said, flushing up.
"You did mean it?"
"I did: I do."
"Then we take your case, Mr. Gatewood. . . . No haste about the check, my dear sir—pray consider us at your service."
But Gatewood doggedly filled in the check and handed it to the Tracer of Lost Persons.
"I wish you happiness," said the older man in a low voice. "The lady you describe exists; it is for us to discover her."
"Thank you," stammered Gatewood, astounded.
Keen touched an electric button; a moment later a young girl entered the room.
"Miss Southerland, Mr. Gatewood. Will you be kind enough to take Mr. Gatewood's dictation in Room 19?"
For a second Gatewood stared—as though in the young girl before him the ghost of his ideal had risen to confront him—only for a second; then he bowed, matching her perfect acknowledgment of his presence by a bearing and courtesy which must have been inbred to be so faultless.
And he followed her to Room 19.
What had Keen meant by saying, "The lady you describe exists!" Did this remarkable elderly gentleman suspect that it was to be a hunt for an ideal? Had he deliberately entered into such a bargain? Impossible!
His disturbed thoughts reverted to the terms of the bargain, the entire enterprise, the figures on his check. His own amazing imbecility appalled him. What idiocy! What sudden madness had seized him to entangle himself in such unheard-of negotiations! True, he had played bridge until dawn the night before, but, on awaking, he had discovered no perceptible hold-over. It must have been sheer weakness of intellect that permitted him to be dominated by the suggestions of Kerns. And now the game was on: the jack declared, cards dealt, and his ante was up. Had he openers?
Room 19, duly labeled with its number on the opaque glass door, contained a desk, a table and typewriter, several comfortable chairs, and a window opening on Fifth Avenue, through which the eastern sun poured a stream of glory, washing curtain, walls, and ceiling with palest gold.
And all this time, preoccupied with new impressions and his own growing chagrin, he watched the girl who conducted him with all the unconscious assurance and grace of a young chatelaine passing through her own domain under escort of a distinguished guest.
When they had entered Room 19, she half turned, but he forestalled her and closed the door, and she passed before him with a perceptible inclination of her finely modeled head, seating herself at the desk by the open window. He took an armchair at her elbow and removed his gloves, looking at her expectantly.


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