The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


All the way to the Whip and Spur Club he sat buried in a reverie from which, at intervals, he started, aroused by the heavy, expectant beating of his own pulses. But what did he expect, in Heaven's name? Not the discovery of a woman who had never existed. Yet his excitement and impatience grew as he watched the saddling of his horse; and when at length he rode out into the sunshine and cantered through the Park entrance, his sense of impending events and his expectancy amounted to a fever which colored his face attractively.
He saw her almost immediately. Her horse was walking slowly in the dappled shadows of the new foliage; she, listless in her saddle, sometimes watching the throngs of riders passing, at moments turning to gaze into the woodland vistas where, over the thickets of flowering shrubbery, orioles and robins sped flashing on tinted wings from shadow to sun, from sun to shadow. But she looked up as he drew bridle and wheeled his mount beside her; and, "Oh!" she said, flushing in recognition.
"I have missed you terribly," he said quietly.
It was dreamy weather, even for late spring: the scent of lilacs and mock-orange hung heavy as incense along the woods. Their voices unconsciously found the key to harmonize with it all.
She said: "Well, I think I have succeeded. In a few moments she will be passing. I do not know her name; she rides a big roan. She is very beautiful, Mr. Gatewood."
He said: "I am perfectly certain we shall find her. I doubted it until now. But now I know."
"Oh-h, but I may be wrong," she protested.
"No; you cannot be."
She looked up at him.
"You can have no idea how happy you make me," he said unsteadily.
"But—I—but I may be all wrong—dreadfully wrong!"
"Y-es; you may be, but I shall not be. For do you know that I have already seen her in the Park?"
"When?" she demanded incredulously, then turned in the saddle, repeating: "Where? Did she pass? How perfectly stupid of me! And was she the—the right one?"
"She is the right one. . . . Don't turn: I have seen her. Ride on: I want to say something—if I can."
"No, no," she insisted. "I must know whether I was right—"
"You are right—but you don't know it yet. . . . Oh, very well, then; we'll turn if you insist." And he wheeled his mount as she did, riding at her bridle again.
"How can you take it so coolly—so indifferently?" she said. "Where has that woman—where has she gone? . . . Never mind; she must turn and pass us sooner or later, for she lives uptown. What are you laughing at, Mr. Gatewood?"—in annoyed surprise.
"I am laughing at myself. Oh, I'm so many kinds of a fool—you can't think how many, and it's no use!"
She stared, astonished; he shook his head.
"No, you don't understand yet. But you will. Listen to me: this very beautiful lady you have discovered is nothing to me!"
"Nothing—to you!" she faltered. Two pink spots of indignation burned in her cheeks. "How—how dare you say that!—after all that has been done—all that you have said. You said you loved her; you did say so—to me!"
"I don't love her now."
"But you did!" Tears of pure vexation started; she faced him, eye to eye, thoroughly incensed.
"What sort of man are you?" she said under her breath. "Your friend Mr. Kerns is wrong. You are not worth saving from yourself."
"Kerns!" he repeated, angry and amazed. "What the deuce has Kerns to do with this affair?"
She stared, then, realizing her indiscretion, bit her lip, and spurred forward. But he put his horse to a gallop, and they pounded along in silence. In a little while she drew bridle and looked around coldly, grave with displeasure.
"Mr. Kerns came to us before you did. He said you would probably come, and he begged us to strain every effort in your behalf, because, he said, your happiness absolutely depended upon our finding for you the woman you were seeking. . . . And I tried—very hard—and now she's found. You admit that—and now you say—"
"I say that one of these balmy summer days I'll assassinate Tommy Kerns!" broke in Gatewood. "What on earth possessed that prince of butters-in to go to Mr. Keen?"
"To save you from yourself!" retorted the girl in a low, exasperated voice. "He did not say what threatened you; he is a good friend for a man to have. But we soon found out what you were—a man well born, well bred, full of brilliant possibility, who was slowly becoming an idle, cynical, self-centered egoist—a man who, lacking the lash of need or the spur of ambition, was degenerating through the sheer uselessness and inanity of his life. And, oh, the pity of it! For Mr. Keen and I have taken a—a curiously personal interest in you—in your case. I say, the pity of it!"
Astounded, dumb under her stinging words, he rode beside her through the brilliant sunshine, wheeled mechanically as she turned her horse, and rode north again.
"And now—now!" she said passionately, "you turn on the woman you loved! Oh, you are not worth it!"
"You are quite right," he said, turning very white under her scorn. "Almost all you have said is true enough, I fancy. I amount to nothing; I am idle, cynical, selfish. The emptiness of such a life requires a stimulant; even a fool abhors a vacuum. So I drink—not so very much yet—but more than I realize. And it is close enough to a habit to worry me. . . . Yes, almost all you say is true; Kerns knows it; I know it—now that you have told me. You see, he couldn't tell me, because I should not have believed him. But I believe you—all you say, except one thing. And that is only a glimmer of decency left in me—not that I make any merit of it. No, it is merely instinctive. For I have not turned on the woman I loved."
Her face was pale as her level eyes met him:
"You said she was nothing to you. . . . Look there! Do you see her? Do you see?"
Her voice broke nervously as he swung around to stare at a rider bearing down at a gallop—a woman on a big roan, tearing along through the spring sunshine, passing them with wind-flushed cheeks and dark, incurious eyes, while her powerful horse carried her on, away through the quivering light and shadow of the woodland vista.
"Is that the person?"
"Y-es," she faltered. "Was I wrong?"
"Quite wrong, Miss Southerland."
"But—but you said you had seen her here this morning!"
"Yes, I have."
"Did you speak to her before you met me?"
"No—not before I met you."
"Then you have not spoken to her. Is she still here in the Park?"
"Yes, she is still here."
The girl turned on him excitedly: "Do you mean to say that you will not speak to her?"
"I had rather not—"
"And your happiness depends on your speaking?"
"Then it is cowardly not to speak."
"Oh, yes, it is cowardly. . . . If you wish me to speak to her I will. Shall I?"
"Yes . . . Show her to me."
"And you think that such a man as I am has a right to speak of love to her?"
"I—we believe it will be your salvation. Mr. Kerns says you must marry her to be happy. Mr. Keen told me yesterday that it only needed a word from the right woman to put you on your mettle. . . . And—and that is my opinion."
"Then in charity say that word!" he breathed, bending toward her. "Can't you see? Can't you understand? Don't you know that from the moment I looked into your eyes I loved you?"
"How—how dare you!" she stammered, crimsoning.
"God knows," he said wistfully. "I am a coward. I don't know how I dared. Good-by. . . ."
He walked his horse a little way, then launched him into a gallop, tearing on and on, sun, wind, trees swimming, whirling like a vision, hearing nothing, feeling nothing, save the leaden pounding of his pulse and the breathless, terrible tightening in his throat.
When he cleared his eyes and looked around he was quite alone, his horse walking under the trees and breathing heavily.
At first he laughed, and the laugh was not pleasant. Then he said aloud: "It is worth having lived for, after all!"—and was silent. And again: "I could expect nothing; she was perfectly right to side-step a fool. . . . And such a fool!"
The distant gallop of a horse, dulled on the soft soil, but coming nearer, could not arouse him from the bitter depths he had sunk in; not even when the sound ceased beside him, and horse snorted recognition to horse. It was only when a light touch rested on his arm that he looked up heavily, caught his breath.
"Where is the other—woman?" she gasped.
"There never was any other."
"You said—"
"I said I loved my ideal. I did not know she existed—until I saw you."
"Then—then we were searching for—"
"A vision. But it was your face that haunted me. . . . And I am not worth it, as you say. And I know it, . . . for you have opened my eyes."
He drew bridle, forcing a laugh. "I cut a sorry figure in your life; be patient; I am going out of it now." And he swung his horse. At the same moment she did the same, making a demi-tour and meeting him halfway, confronting him.
"Do you—you mean to ride out of my life without a word?" she asked unsteadily.
"Good-by." He offered his hand, stirring his horse forward; she leaned lightly over and laid both hands in his. Then, her face surging in color, she lifted her beautiful dark eyes to his as the horses approached, nearer, nearer, until, as they passed, flank brushing flank, her eyes fell, then closed as she swayed toward him, and clung, her young lips crushed to his.
There was nobody to witness it except the birds and squirrels—nobody but a distant mounted policeman, who almost fainted away in his saddle.
Oh, it was awful, awful! Apparently she had been kissed speechless, for she said nothing. The man fool did all the talking, incoherently enough, but evidently satisfactory to her, judging from the way she looked at him, and blushed and blushed, and touched her eyes with a bit of cambric at intervals.
All the policeman heard as they passed him was; "I'm going to give you this horse, and Kerns is to give us our silver; and what do you think, my darling?"
But they had already passed out of earshot; and in a few moments the shady, sun-flecked bridle path was deserted again save for the birds and squirrels, and a single mounted policeman, rigid, wild eyed, twisting his mustache and breathing hard.


.. .. ..
.. Copyright @ 2003 miskatonic university press / yankee classic pictures, inc. all rights reserved. ..