The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


Harren started, then walked slowly to the center of the room as the pretty stenographer passed out with a curious level glance at him.
"Why do you say that photography plays a part in my case?" he asked.
"Doesn't it?"
"Yes. But how—"
"Oh, I only guessed it," said Keen with a smile. "I made another guess that your case involved a cipher code. Does it?"
"Y-es," said the young man, astonished, "but I don't see—"
"It also involves the occult," observed Keen calmly. "We may need Miss Borrow to help us."
Almost staggered, Harren stared at the Tracer out of his astonished gray eyes until that gentleman laughed outright and seated himself, motioning Harren to do likewise.
"Don't be surprised, Captain Harren," he said. "I suppose you have no conception of our business, no realization of its scope—its network of information bureaus all over the civilized world, its myriad sources of information, the immensity of its delicate machinery, the endless data and the infinitesimal details we have at our command. You, of course, have no idea of the number of people of every sort and condition who are in our employ, of the ceaseless yet inoffensive surveillance we maintain. For example, when your letter came last week I called up the person who has charge of the army list. There you were, Kenneth Harren, Captain Philippine Scouts, with the date of your graduation from West Point. Then I called up a certain department devoted to personal detail, and in five minutes I knew your entire history. I then touched another electric button, and in a minute I had before me the date of your arrival in New York, your present address, and"—he looked up quizzically at Harren—"and several items of general information, such as your peculiar use of your camera, and the list of books on Psychical Phenomena and Cryptograms which you have been buying—"
Harren flushed up. "Do you mean to say that I have been spied upon, Mr. Keen?"
"No more than anybody else who comes to us as a client. There was nothing offensive in the surveillance." He shrugged his shoulders and made a deprecating gesture. "Ours is a business, my dear sir, like any other. We, of course, are obliged to know about people who call on us. Last week you wrote me, and I immediately set every wheel in motion; in other words, I had you under observation from the day I received your letter to this very moment."
"You learned much concerning me?" asked Harren quietly.
"Exactly, my dear sir."
"But," continued Harren with a touch of malice, "you didn't learn that my leave is up to-morrow, did you?"
"Yes, I learned that, too."
"Then why did you give me an appointment for the day after to-morrow?" demanded the young man bluntly.
The Tracer looked him squarely in the eye. "Your leave is to be extended," he said.
"Exactly. It has been extended one week."
"How do you know that?"
"You applied for extension, did you not?"
"Yes," said Harren, turning red, "but I don't see how you knew that I—"
"By cable?"
"There's a cablegram in your rooms at this very moment," said the Tracer carelessly. "You have the extension you desired. And now, Captain Harren," with a singularly pleasant smile, "what can I do to help you to a pursuit of that true happiness which is guaranteed for all good citizens under our Constitution?"
Captain Harren crossed his long legs, dropping one knee over the other, and deliberately surveyed his interrogator.
"I really have no right to come to you," he said slowly. "Your prospectus distinctly states that Keen & Co. undertake to find live people, and I don't know whether the person I am seeking is alive or—or—"
His steady voice faltered; the Tracer watched him curiously.
"Of course, that is important," he said. "If she is dead—"
"Didn't you say 'she,' Captain?"
"No, I did not."
"I beg your pardon, then, for anticipating you," said the Tracer carelessly.
"Anticipating? How do you know it is not a man I am in search of?" demanded Harren.
"Captain Harren, you are unmarried and have no son; you have no father, no brother, no sister. Therefore I infer—several things—for example, that you are in love."
"I? In love?"
"Desperately, Captain."
"Your inferences seem to satisfy you, at least," said Harren almost sullenly, "but they don't satisfy me—clever as they appear to be."
"Exactly. Then you are not in love?"
"I don't know whether I am or not."
"I do," said the Tracer of Lost Persons.
"Then you know more than I," retorted Harren sharply.
"But that is my business—to know more than you do," returned Mr. Keen patiently. "Else why are you here to consult me?" And as Harren made no reply: "I have seen thousands and thousands of people in love. I have reduced the superficial muscular phenomena and facial symptomatic aspect of such people to an exact science founded upon a schedule approximating the Bertillon system of records. And," he added, smiling, "out of the twenty-seven known vocal variations your voice betrays twenty-five unmistakable symptoms; and out of the sixteen reflex muscular symptoms your face has furnished six, your hands three, your limbs and feet six. Then there are other superficial symptoms—"
"Good heavens!" broke in Harren; "how can you prove a man to be in love when he himself doesn't know whether he is or not? If a man isn't in love no Bertillon system can make him so; and if a man doesn't know whether or not he is in love, who can tell him the truth?"
"I can," said the Tracer calmly.
"What! When I tell you I myself don't know?"
"That," said the Tracer, smiling, "is the final and convincing symptom. You don't know. I know because you don't know. That is the easiest way to be sure that you are in love, Captain Harren, because you always are when you are not sure. You'd know if you were not in love. Now, my dear sir, you may lay your case confidently before me."
Harren, unconvinced, sat frowning and biting his lip and twisting his short, crisp mustache which the tropical sun had turned straw color and curly.
"I feel like a fool to tell you," he said. "I'm not an imaginative man, Mr. Keen; I'm not fanciful, not sentimental. I'm perfectly healthy, perfectly normal—a very busy man in my profession, with no time and no inclination to fall in love."
"Just the sort of man who does it," commented Keen. "Continue."
Harren fidgeted about in his chair, looked out of the window, squinted at the ceiling, then straightened up, folding his arms with sudden determination.
"I'd rather be boloed than tell you," he said. "Perhaps, after all, I am a lunatic; perhaps I've had a touch of the Luzon sun and don't know it."
"I'll be the judge," said the Tracer, smiling.
"Very well, sir. Then I'll begin by telling you that I've seen a ghost."
"There are such things," observed Keen quietly.
"Oh, I don't mean one of those fabled sheeted creatures that float about at night; I mean a phantom—a real phantom—in the sunlight—standing before my very eyes in broad day! . . . Now do you feel inclined to go on with my case, Mr. Keen?"
"Certainly," replied the Tracer gravely. "Please continue, Captain Harren."
"All right, then. Here's the beginning of it: Three years ago, here in New York, drifting along Fifth Avenue with the crowd, I looked up to encounter the most wonderful pair of eyes that I ever beheld—that any living man ever beheld! The most—wonderfully—beautiful—"
He sat so long immersed in retrospection that the Tracer said: "I am listening, Captain," and the Captain woke up with a start.
"What was I saying? How far had I proceeded?"
"Only to the eyes."
"Oh, I see! The eyes were dark, sir, dark and lovely beyond any power of description. The hair was also dark—very soft and thick and—er—wavy and dark. The face was extremely youthful, and ornamental to the uttermost verges of a beauty so exquisite that, were I to attempt to formulate for you its individual attractions, I should, I fear, transgress the strictly rigid bounds of that reticence which becomes a gentleman in complete possession of his senses."
"Exactly," mused the Tracer.
"Also," continued Captain Harren, with growing animation, "to attempt to describe her figure would be utterly useless, because I am a practical man and not a poet, nor do I read poetry or indulge in futile novels or romances of any description. Therefore I can only add that it was a figure, a poise, absolutely faultless, youthful, beautiful, erect, wholesome, gracious, graceful, charmingly buoyant and—well, I cannot describe her figure, and I shall not try."
"Exactly; don't try."
"No," said Harren mournfully, "it is useless"; and he relapsed into enchanted retrospection.
"Who was she?" asked Mr. Keen softly.
"I don't know."
"You never again saw her?"
"Mr. Keen, I—I am not ill-bred, but I simply could not help following her. She was so b-b-beautiful that it hurt; and I only wanted to look at her; I didn't mind being hurt. So I walked on and on, and sometimes I'd pass her and sometimes I'd let her pass me, and when she wasn't looking I'd look—not offensively, but just because I couldn't help it. And all the time my senses were humming like a top and my heart kept jumping to get into my throat, and I hadn't a notion where I was going or what time it was or what day of the week. She didn't see me; she didn't dream that I was looking at her; she didn't know me from any of the thousand silk-hatted, frock-coated men who passed and repassed her on Fifth Avenue. And when she went into St. Berold's Church, I went, too, and I stood where I could see her and where she couldn't see me. It was like a touch of the Luzon sun, Mr. Keen. And then she came out and got into a Fifth Avenue stage, and I got in, too. And whenever she looked away I looked at her—without the slightest offense, Mr. Keen, until, once, she caught my eye—"
He passed an unsteady hand over his forehead.
"For a moment we looked full at one another," he continued. "I got red, sir; I felt it, and I couldn't look away. And when I turned color like a blooming beet, she began to turn pink like a rosebud, and she looked full into my eyes with such a wonderful purity, such exquisite innocence, that I—I never felt so near—er—heaven in my life! No, sir, not even when they ambushed us at Manoa Wells—but that's another thing—only it is part of this business."
He tightened his clasped hands over his knee until the knuckles whitened.
"That's my story, Mr. Keen," he said crisply.
"All of it?"
Harren looked at the floor, then at Keen: "No, not all. You'll think me a lunatic if I tell you all."
"Oh, you saw her again?"
"N-never! That is—"
"Not in—in the flesh."
"Oh, in dreams?"
Harren stirred uneasily. "I don't know what you call them. I have seen her since—in the sunlight, in the open, in my quarters in Manila, standing there perfectly distinct, looking at me with such strange, beautiful eyes—"
"Go on," said the Tracer, nodding.
"What else is there to say?" muttered Harren.
"You saw her—or a phantom which resembled her. Did she speak?"
"Did you speak to her?"
"N-no. Once I held out my—my arms."
"What happened?"
"She wasn't there," said Harren simply.
"She vanished?"
"No—I don't know. I—I didn't see her any more."
"Didn't she fade?"
"No. I can't explain. She—there was only myself in the room."
"How many times has she appeared to you?"
"A great many times."
"In your room?"
"Yes. And in the road under a vertical sun; in the forest, in the paddy fields. I have seen her passing through the hallway of a friend's house—turning on the stair to look back at me! I saw her standing just back of the firing-line at Manoa Wells when we were preparing to rush the forts, and it scared me so that I jumped forward to draw her back. But—she wasn't there, Mr. Keen. . . .
"On the transport she stood facing me on deck one moonlit evening for five minutes. I saw her in 'Frisco; she sat in the Pullman twice between Denver and this city. Twice in my room at the Vice-Regent she has sat opposite me at midday, so clear, so beautiful, so real that—that I could scarcely believe she was only a—a—" He hesitated.
"The apparition of her own subconscious self," said the Tracer quietly. "Science has been forced to admit such things, and, as you know, we are on the verge of understanding the alphabet of some of the unknown forces which we must some day reckon with."
Harren, tense, a trifle pale, gazed at him earnestly.
"Do you believe in such things?"
"How can I avoid believing?" said the Tracer. "Every day, in my profession, we have proof of the existence of forces for which we have as yet no explanation—or, at best, a very crude one. I have had case after case of premonition; case after case of dual and even multiple personality; case after case where apparitions played a vital part in the plot which was brought to me to investigate. I'll tell you this, Captain: I, personally, never saw an apparition, never was obsessed by premonitions, never received any communications from the outer void. But I have had to do with those who undoubtedly did. Therefore I listen with all seriousness and respect to what you tell me."
"Suppose," said Harren, growing suddenly red, "that I should tell you I have succeeded in photographing this phantom."
The Tracer sat silent. He was astounded, but, he did not betray it.
"You have that photograph, Captain Harren?"
"Where is it?"
"In my rooms."
"You wish me to see it?"
Harren hesitated. "I—there is—seems to be—something almost sacred to me in that photograph. . . . You understand me, do you not? Yet, if it will help you in finding her—"
"Oh," said the Tracer in guileless astonishment, "you desire to find this young lady. Why?"
Harren stared. "Why? Why do I want to find her? Man, I—I can't live without her!"
"I thought you were not certain whether you really could be in love."
The hot color in the Captain's bronzed cheeks mounted to his hair.
"Exactly," purred the Tracer, looking out of the window. "Suppose we walk around to your rooms after luncheon. Shall we?"
Harren picked up his hat and gloves, hesitating, lingering on the threshold. "You don't think she is—a—dead?" he asked unsteadily.
"No," said Mr. Keen, "I don't."
"Because," said Harren wistfully, "her apparition is so superbly healthy and—and glowing with youth and life—"
"That is probably what sent it half the world over to confront you," said the Tracer gravely; "youth and life aglow with spiritual health. I think, Captain, that she has been seeing you, too, during these three years, but probably only in her dreams—memories of your encounters with her subconscious self floating over continents and oceans in a quest of which her waking intelligence is innocently unaware."
The Captain colored like a schoolboy, lingering at the door, hat in hand. Then he straightened up to the full height of his slim but powerful figure.
"At three?" he inquired bluntly.
"At three o'clock in your room, Hotel Vice-Regent. Good morning, Captain."
"Good morning," said Harren dreamily, and walked away, head bent, gray eyes lost in retrospection, and on his lean, bronzed, attractive face an afterglow of color wholly becoming.


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