The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


As a matter of fact, he was not. Too poor in imagination to invent, on the spur of the moment, charms and qualities suited to his ideal, he had, at first unconsciously, taken as a model the girl before him; quite unconsciously and innocently at first—then furtively, and with a dawning perception of the almost flawless beauty he was secretly plagiarizing. Aware, now, that something had annoyed her; aware, too, at the same moment that there appeared to be nothing lacking in her to satisfy his imagination of the ideal, he began to turn redder than he had ever turned in all his life.
Several minutes of sixty seconds each ensued before he ventured to stir a finger. And it was only when she bent again very gravely over her pad that he cautiously eased a cramped muscle or two, and drew a breath—a long, noiseless, deep and timid respiration. He realized the enormity of what he had been doing—how close he had come to giving unpardonable offense by drawing a perfect portrait of her as the person he desired to find through the good offices of Keen & Co.
But there was no such person—unless she had a double: for what more could a man desire than the ideal traits he had been able to describe only by using her as his inspiration.
When he ventured to look at her, one glance was enough to convince him that she, too, had noticed the parallel—had been forced to recognize her own features in the portrait he had constructed of an ideal. And she had caught him in absent-minded contemplation of the hands he had been describing. He knew that his face was the face of a guilty man.
"What is the next question?" he stammered, eager to answer it in a manner calculated to allay her suspicions.
"The next question?" She glanced at the list, then with a voice of velvet which belied the eyes, clear as frosty brown pools in November: "The next question requires a description of her feet."
"Feet! Oh—-they—they're rather large—why, her feet are enormous, I believe—"
She looked at him as though stunned; suddenly a flood of pink spread, wave on wave, from the white nape of her neck to her hair; she bent low over her pad and wrote something, remaining in that attitude until her face cooled.
"Somehow or other I've done it again!" he thought, horrified. "The best thing I can do is to end it and go home."
In his distress he began to hedge, saying: "Of course, she is rather tall and her feet are in some sort of proportion—in fact, they are perfectly symmetrical feet—"
Never in his life had he encountered a pair of such angrily beautiful eyes. Speech stopped with a dry gulp.
"We now come to 'General Remarks,'" she said in a voice made absolutely steady and emotionless. "Have you any remarks of that description to offer, Mr. Gatewood?"
"I'm willing to make remarks," he said, "if I only knew what you wished me to say."
She mused, eyes on the sunny window, then looked up. "Where did you last see her?"
"Near Fifth Avenue."
"And what street?"
He named the street.
"Near here?"
"Rather," he said timidly.
She ruffled the edges of her pad, wrote something and erased it, bit her scarlet upper lip, and frowned.
"Out of doors, of course?"
"No; indoors," he admitted furtively.
She looked up with a movement almost nervous.
"Do you dare—I mean, care—to be more concise?"
"I would rather not," he replied in a voice from which he hoped he had expelled the tremors of alarm.
"As you please, Mr. Gatewood. And would you care to answer any of these other questions: Who and what are or were her parents? Give all particulars concerning all her relatives. Is she employed or not? What are her social, financial, and general circumstances? Her character, personal traits, aims, interests, desires? Has she any vices? Any virtues? Talents? Ambitions? Caprices? Fads? Are you in love with her? Is—"
"Yes," he said, "I am."
"Is she in love with you?"
"No; she hates me—I'm afraid."
"Is she in love with anybody?"
"That is a very difficult—"
The girl wrote: "He doesn't know," with a satisfaction apparently causeless.
"Is she a relative of yours, Mr. Gatewood?" very sweetly.
"No, Miss Southerland," very positively.
"You—you desire to marry her—you say?"
"I do. But I didn't say it."
She was silent; then:
"What is her name?" in a low voice which started several agreeable thrills chasing one another over him.
"I—I decline to answer," he stammered.
"On what grounds, Mr. Gatewood?"
He looked her full in the eyes; suddenly he bent forward and gazed at the printed paper from which she had been apparently reading.
"Why, all those questions you are scaring me with are not there!" he exclaimed indignantly. "You are making them up?"
"I—I know, but"—she was flushing furiously—"but they are on the other forms—some of them. Can't you see you are answering 'Form K'? That is a special form—"
"But why do you ask me questions that are not on Form K?"
"Because it is my duty to do all I can to secure evidence which may lead to the discovery of the person you desire to find. I—I assure you, Mr, Gatewood, this duty is not—not always agreeable—and some people make it harder still."
Gatewood looked out of the window. Various emotions—-among them shame, mortification, chagrin—pervaded him, and chased each other along his nervous system, coloring his neck and ears a fiery red for the enlightenment of any observer.
"I—I did not mean to offend you," said the girl in a low voice—such a gently regretful voice that Gatewood swung around in his chair.
"There is nothing I would not be glad to tell you about the woman I have fallen in love with," he said. "She is overwhelmingly lovely; and—when I dare—I will tell you her name and where I first saw her—and where I saw her last—if you desire. Shall I?"
"It would be advisable. When will you do this?"
"When I dare."
"You—you don't dare—now?"
"No . . . not now."
She absently wrote on her pad: "He doesn't dare tell me now." Then, with head still bent, she lifted her mischief-making, trouble-breeding brown eyes to his once more.
"I am to come here, of course, to consult you?" he asked dizzily.
"Mr. Keen will receive you—"
"He may be busy."
"He may be," she repeated dreamily.
"So—I'll ask for you."
"We could write you, Mr. Gatewood."
He said hastily: "It's no trouble for me to come; I walk every morning."
"But there would be no use, I think, in your coming very soon. All I—all Mr. Keen could do for a while would be to report progress—"
"That is all I dare look for: progress—for the present."
During the time that he remained—which was not very long—neither of them spoke until he arose to take his departure.
"Good-by, Miss Southerland. I hope you may find the person I have been searching for."
"Good-by, Mr. Gatewood. . . . I hope we shall; . . . but I—don't—know."
And, as a matter of fact, she did not know; she was rather excited over nothing, apparently; and also somewhat preoccupied with several rather disturbing emotions the species of which she was interested in determining. But to label and catalogue each of these emotions separately required privacy and leisure to think—and she also wished to look very earnestly at the reflection of her own face in the mirror of her own chamber. For it is a trifle exciting—though but an innocent coincidence—to be compared, feature by feature, to a young man's ideal. As far as that went, she excelled it, too; and, as she stood by the desk, alone, gathering up her notes, she suddenly bent over and lifted the hem of her gown a trifle—sufficient to reassure herself that the dainty pair of shoes she wore, would have baffled the efforts of any Venus ever sculptured. And she was perfectly right.
"Of course," she thought to herself, "his ideal runaway hasn't enormous feet. He, too, must have been struck with the similarity between me and his ideal, and when he realized that I also noticed it, he was frightened by my frown into saying that her feet were enormous. How silly! . . . For I didn't mean to frighten him. . . . He frightened me—once or twice—I mean he irritated me—no, interested me, is what I do mean. . . . Heigho! I wonder why she ran away? I wonder why he can't find her? . . . It's—it's silly to run away from a man like that. . . . Heigho! . . . She doesn't deserve to be found. There is nothing to be afraid of—nothing to alarm anybody in a man like that."
So she gathered up her notes and walked slowly out and across to the private office of the Tracer of Lost Persons.
"Come in," said the Tracer when she knocked. He was using the telephone; she seated herself rather listlessly beside the window, where spring sunshine lay in gilded patches on the rug and spring breezes stirred the curtains. She was a little tired, but there seemed to be no good reason why. Yet, with the soft wind blowing on her cheek, the languor grew; she rested her face on one closed hand, shutting her eyes.
When they opened again it was to meet the fixed gaze of Mr. Keen.
"Oh—I beg your pardon!"
"There is no need of it, child. Be seated. Never mind that report just now." He paced the length of the room once or twice, hands clasped behind him; then, halting to confront her:
"What sort of a man is this young Gatewood?"
"What sort, Mr. Keen? Why—I think he is the—the sort—that—"
"I see that you don't think much of him," said Keen, laughing.
"Oh, indeed I did not mean that at all; I mean that he appeared to be—to be—"
"Rather a cad?"
"Why, no!" she said, flushing up. "He is absolutely well-bred, Mr. Keen."
"You received no unpleasant impression of him?"
"On the contrary!" she said rather warmly—for it hurt her sense of justice that Keen should so misjudge even a stranger in whom she had no personal interest.
"You think he looks like an honest man?"
"Honest?" She was rosy with annoyance. "Have you any idea that he is dishonest?"
"Have you?"
"Not the slightest," she said with emphasis.
"Suppose a man should set us hunting for a person who does not exist—on our terms, which are no payment unless successful? Would that be honest?" asked Keen gravely.
"Did—did he do that?"
"No, child."
"I knew he couldn't do such a thing!"
"No, he—er—couldn't, because I wouldn't allow it—not that he tried to!" added Keen hastily as the indignant brown eyes sparkled ominously. "Really, Miss Southerland, he must be all you say he is, for he has a stanch champion to vouch for him."
"All I say he is? I haven't said anything about him!"
Mr. Keen nodded. "Exactly. Let us drop him for a moment. . . . Are you perfectly well, Miss Southerland?"
"Why, yes."
"I'm glad of it. You are a trifle pale; you seem to be a little languid. . . . When do you take your vacation?"
"You suggested May, I believe," she said wistfully.
The Tracer leaned back in his chair, joining the tips of his fingers reflectively.
"Miss Southerland," he said, "you have been with us a year. I thought it might interest you to know that I am exceedingly pleased with you."
She colored charmingly.
"But," he added, "I'm terribly afraid we're going to lose you."
"Why?" she asked, startled.
"However," he continued, ignoring her half-frightened question with a smile, "I am going to promote you—for faithful and efficient service."
"With an agreeable increase of salary, and new duties which will take you into the open air. . . . You ride?"
"I—I used to before—"
"Exactly; before you were obliged to earn your living. Please have yourself measured for habit and boots this afternoon. I shall arrange for horse, saddle, and groom. You will spend most of your time riding in the Park—for the present."
"But—Mr. Keen—am I to be one of your agents—a sort of detective?"
Keen regarded her absently, then crossed one leg over the other.
"Read me your notes," he said with a smile.
She read them, folded them, and he took them from her, thoughtfully regarding her.
"Did you know that your mother and I were children together?" he asked.
"No!" She stared. "Is that why you sent for me that day at the school of stenography?"
"That is why . . . When I learned that my playmate—your mother—was dead, is it not reasonable to suppose that I should wish her daughter to have a chance?"
Miss Southerland looked at him steadily.
"She was like you—when she married . . . I never married . . . Do you wonder that I sent for you, child?"
Nothing but the clock ticking there in the sunny room, and an old man staring into two dimmed brown eyes, and the little breezes at the open window whispering of summers past.
"This young man, Gatewood," said the Tracer, clearing his voice of its hoarseness—"this young man ought to be all right, if I did not misjudge his father—years ago, child, years ago. And he is all right—" He half turned toward a big letter-file; "his record is clean, so far. The trouble with him is idleness. He ought to marry."
"Isn't he trying to?" she asked.
"It looks like it. Miss Southerland, we must find this woman!"
"Yes, but I don't see how you are going to—on such slight information—"
"Information! Child, I have all I want—all I could desire." He laughed, passing his hands over his gray hair. "We are going to find the girl he is in love with before the week ends!"
"Do you really think so?" she exclaimed.
"Yes. But you must do a great deal in this case."
"And—and what am I to do?"
"Ride in the Park, child! And if you see Mr. Gatewood, don't you dare take your eyes off him for one moment. Watch him; observe everything he does. If he should recognize you and speak to you, be as amiable to him as though it were not by my orders."
"Then—then I am to be a detective!" she faltered.
The Tracer did not appear to hear her. He took up the notes, turned to the telephone, and began to send out a general alarm, reading the description of the person whom Gatewood had described. The vast, intricate and delicate machinery under his control was being set in motion all over the Union.
"Not that I expect to find her outside the borough of Manhattan," he said, smiling, as he hung up the receiver and turned to her; "but it's as well to know how many types of that species exist in this Republic, and who they are—in case any other young man comes here raving of brown eyes and 'gleams' in the hair."
Miss Southerland, to her own intense consternation, blushed.
"I think you had better order that habit at once," said the Tracer carelessly.
"Tell me, Mr. Keen," she asked tremulously, "am I to spy upon Mr. Gatewood? And report to you? . . . For I simply cannot bear to do it—"
"Child, you need report nothing unless you desire to. And when there is something to report, it will be about the woman I am searching for. Don't you understand? I have already located her. You will find her in the Park. And when you are sure she is the right one—and if you care to report it to me—I shall be ready to listen . . . I am always ready to listen to you."
"But—I warn you, Mr. Keen, that I have perfect faith in the honor of Mr. Gatewood. I know that I could have nothing unworthy to report."
"I am sure of it," said the Tracer of Lost Persons, studying her with eyes that were not quite clear. "Now, I think you had better order that habit . . . Your mother sat her saddle perfectly . . . We rode very often—my lost playmate and I."
He turned, hands clasped behind his back, absently pacing the room, backward, forward, there in the spring sunshine. Nor did he notice her lingering, nor mark her as she stole from the room, brown eyes saddened and thoughtful, wondering, too, that there should be in the world so much room for sorrow.
"'I am sure of it,' said the Tracer of Lost Persons."

"'I am sure of it,' said the Tracer of Lost Persons."


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