The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


"This is a list of particular and general questions for you to answer, Mr. Gatewood," she said, handing him a long slip of printed matter. "The replies to such questions as you are able or willing to answer you may dictate to me." The beauty of her modulated voice was scarcely a surprise—no woman who moved and carried herself as did this tall young girl in black and white could reasonably be expected to speak with less distinction—yet the charm of her voice, from the moment her lips unclosed, so engrossed him that the purport of her speech escaped him.
"Would you mind saying it once more?" he asked.
She did so; he attempted to concentrate his attention, and succeeded sufficiently to look as though some vestige of intellect remained in him. He saw her pick up a pad and pencil; the contour and grace of two deliciously fashioned hands arrested his mental process once more.
"I beg your pardon," he said hastily; "what were you saying, Miss Southerland?"
"Nothing, Mr. Gatewood. I did not speak." And he realized, hazily, that she had not spoken—that it was the subtle eloquence of her youth and loveliness that had appealed like a sudden voice—a sound faintly exquisite echoing his own thought of her.
Troubled, he looked at the slip of paper in his hand; it was headed:

(Form K)

      And he read it as carefully as he was able to—the curious little clamor of his pulses, the dazed sense of elation, almost of expectation, distracting his attention all the time.
"I wish you would read it to me," he said; "that would give me time to think up answers."
"If you wish," she assented pleasantly, swinging around toward him in her desk chair. Then she crossed one knee over the other to support the pad, and, bending above it, lifted her brown eyes. She could have done nothing in the world more distracting at that moment.
"What is the sex of the person you desire to find, Mr. Gatewood?"
"Her sex? I—well, I fancy it is feminine."
She wrote after "Sex" the words "She is probably feminine"; looked at him absently, glanced at what she had written, flushed a little, rubbed out the "she is probably," wondering why a moment's mental wandering should have committed her to absurdity.
"Married?" she asked with emphasis.
"No," he replied, startled; then, vexed, "I beg your pardon—you mean to ask if she is married!"
"Oh, I didn't mean you, Mr. Gatewood; it's the next question, you see"—she held out the blank toward him. "Is the person you are looking for married?"
"Oh, no; she isn't married, either—at least—trust—not—because if she is I don't want to find her!" he ended, entangled in an explanation which threatened to involve him deeper than he desired. And, looking up, he saw the beautiful brown eyes regarding him steadily. They reverted to the paper at once, and the white fingers sent the pencil flying.
"He trusts that she is unmarried, but if she is (underlined) married he doesn't want to find her," she wrote.
"That," she explained, "goes under the head of 'General Remarks' at the bottom of the page"—she held it out, pointing with her pencil. He nodded, staring at her slender hand.
"Age?" she continued, setting the pad firmly on her rounded, yielding knee and looking up at him.
"Age? Well, I—as a matter of fact, I could only venture a surmise. You know," he said earnestly, "how difficult it is to guess ages, don't you, Miss Southerland?"
"How old do you think she is? Could you not hazard a guess—judging, say, from her appearance?"
"I have no data—no experience to guide me." He was becoming involved again. "Would you, for practice, permit me first to guess your age, Miss Southerland?"
"Why—yes—if you think that might help you to guess hers."
So he leaned back in his armchair and considered her a very long time—having a respectable excuse to do so. Twenty times he forgot he was looking at her for any purpose except that of disinterested delight, and twenty times he remembered with a guilty wince that it was a matter of business.
"Perhaps I had better tell you," she suggested, her color rising a little under his scrutiny.
"Is it eighteen? Just her age!"
"Twenty-one, Mr. Gatewood—and you said you didn't know her age."
"I have just remembered that I thought it might be eighteen; but I dare say I was shy three years in her case, too. You may put it down at twenty-one."
For the slightest fraction of a second the brown eyes rested on his, the pencil hovered in hesitation. Then the eyes fell, and the moving fingers wrote.
"Did you write 'twenty-one'?" he inquired carelessly.
"I did not, Mr. Gatewood."
"What did you write?"
"I wrote: 'He doesn't appear to know much about her age.'"
"But I do know—"
"You said—" They looked at one another earnestly.
"The next question," she continued with composure, "is: 'Date and place of birth?' Can you answer any part of that question?"
"I trust I may be able to—some day. . . . What are you writing?"
"I'm writing: 'He trusts he may be able to, some day.' Wasn't that what you said?"
"Yes, I did say that. I—I'm not perfectly sure what I meant by it."
She passed to the next question:
"About five feet six," he said, fascinated gaze on her.
"More gold than brown—full of—er—gleams—" She looked up quickly; his eyes reverted to the window rather suddenly. He had been looking at her hair.
"Complexion?" she continued after a shade of hesitation.
"It's a sort of delicious mixture—bisque, tinted with a pinkish bloom—ivory and rose—" He was explaining volubly, when she began to shake her head, timing each shake to his words.
"Really, Mr. Gatewood, I think you are hopelessly vague on that point—unless you desire to convey the impression that she is speckled."
"Speckled!" he repeated, horrified. "Why, I am describing a woman who is my ideal of beauty—"
But she had already gone to the next question:
"P-p-perfect p-p-pearls!" he stammered. The laughing red mouth closed like a flower at dusk, veiling the sparkle of her teeth.
Was he trying to be impertinent? Was he deliberately describing her? He did not look like that sort of man; yet why was he watching her so closely, so curiously at every question? Why did he look at her teeth when she laughed?
"Eyes?" Her own dared him to continue what, coincidence or not, was plainly a description of herself.
"B-b-b—" He grew suddenly timorous, hesitating, pretending to a perplexity which was really a healthy scare. For she was frowning.
"Curious I can't think of the color of her eyes," he said; "is—isn't it?"
She coldly inspected her pad and made a correction; but all she did was to rub out a comma and put another in its place. Meanwhile, Gatewood, chin in his hand, sat buried in profound thought. "Were they blue?" he murmured to himself aloud, "or were they brown? Blue begins with a b and brown begins with a b. I'm convinced that her eyes began with a b. They were not, therefore, gray or green, because," he added in a burst of confidence, "it is utterly impossible to spell gray or green with a b!"
Miss Southerland looked slightly astonished.
"All you can recollect, then, is that the color of her eyes began with the letter b?"
"That is absolutely all I can remember; but I think they were—brown."
"If they were brown they must be brown now," she observed, looking out of the window.
"That's true! Isn't it curious I never thought of that? What are you writing?"
"Brown," she said, so briefly that it sounded something like a snub.
"Mouth?" inquired the girl, turning a new leaf on her pad.
"Perfect. Write it: there is no other term fit to describe its color, shape, its sensitive beauty, its—What did you write just then?"
"I wrote, 'Mouth, ordinary.'"
"I don't want you to! I want—"
"Really, Mr. Gatewood, a rhapsody on a girl's mouth is proper in poetry, but scarcely germane to the record of a purely business transaction. Please answer the next question tersely, if you don't mind: 'Figure?'"
"Oh, I do mind! I can't! Any poem is much too brief to describe her figure—"
"Shall we say 'Perfect'?" asked the girl, raising her brown eyes in a glimmering transition from vexation to amusement. For, after all, it could be only a coincidence that this young man should be describing features peculiar to herself.
"Couldn't you write, 'Venus-of-Milo-like'?" he inquired. "That is laconic."
"I could—if it's true. But if you mean it for praise—I—don't think any modern woman would be flattered."
"I always supposed that she of Milo had an ideal figure," he said, perplexed.
She wrote, "A good figure." Then, propping her rounded chin on one lovely white hand, she glanced at the next question:
"White, beautiful, rose-tipped, slender yet softly and firmly rounded—"
"How can they be soft and firm, too, Mr. Gatewood?" she protested; then, surprising his guilty eyes fixed on her hands, hastily dropped them and sat up straight, level-browed, cold as marble. Was he deliberately being rude to her?


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