The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


When the Tracer of Lost Persons entered Captain Harren's room at the Hotel Vice-Regent that afternoon he found the young man standing at a center table, pencil in hand, studying a sheet of paper which was covered with letters and figures.
The two men eyed one another in silence for a moment, then Harren pointed grimly to the confusion of letters and figures covering dozens of scattered sheets lying on the table.
"That's part of my madness," he said with a short laugh. "Can you make anything of such lunatic work?"
The Tracer picked up a sheet of paper covered with letters of the alphabet and Roman and Arabic numerals. He dropped it presently and picked up another comparatively blank sheet, on which were the following figures:

      He studied it for a while, then glanced interrogatively at Harren.
"It's nothing," said Harren. "I've been groping for three years—but it's no use. That's lunatics' work." He wheeled squarely on his heels, looking straight at the Tracer. "Do you think I've had a touch of the sun?"
"No," said Mr. Keen, drawing a chair to the table. "Saner men than you or I have spent a lifetime over this so-called Seal of Solomon." He laid his finger on the two symbols—

      Then, looking across the table at Harren: "What," he asked, "has the Seal of Solomon to do with your case?"
"She—" muttered Harren, and fell silent.
The Tracer waited; Harren said nothing.
"Where is the photograph?"
Harren unlocked a drawer in the table, hesitated, looked strangely at the Tracer.
"Mr. Keen," he said, "there is nothing on earth I hold more sacred than this. There is only one thing in the world that could justify me in showing it to a living soul—my—my desire to find—her—"
"No," said Keen coolly, "that is not enough to justify you—the mere desire to find the living original of this apparition. Nothing could justify your showing it unless you love her."
Harren held the picture tightly, staring full at the Tracer. A dull flush mounted to his forehead, and very slowly he laid the picture before the Tracer of Lost Persons.
Minute after minute sped while the Tracer bent above the photograph, his finely modeled features absolutely devoid of expression. Harren had drawn his chair beside him, and now sat leaning forward, bronzed cheek resting in his hand, staring fixedly at the picture.
"When was this—this photograph taken?" asked the Tracer quietly.
"The day after I arrived in New York. I was here, alone, smoking my pipe and glancing over the evening paper just before dressing for dinner. It was growing rather dark in the room; I had not turned on the electric light. My camera lay on the table—there it is!—that kodak. I had taken a few snapshots on shipboard; there was one film left."
He leaned more heavily on his elbow, eyes fixed upon the picture.
"It was almost dark," he repeated. "I laid aside the evening paper and stood up, thinking about dressing for dinner, when my eyes happened to fall on the camera. It occurred to me that I might as well unload it, let the unused film go, and send the roll to be developed and printed; and I picked up the camera—"
"Yes," said the Tracer softly.
"I picked it up and was starting toward the window where there remained enough daylight to see by—"
The Tracer nodded gently.
"Then I saw her!" said Harren under his breath.
"There—standing by that window. You can see the window and curtain in the photograph."
The Tracer gazed intently at the picture.
"She looked at me," said Harren, steadying his voice. "She was as real as you are, and she stood there, smiling faintly, her dark, lovely eyes meeting mine."
"Did you speak?"
"How long did she remain there?"
"I don't know—time seemed to stop—the world—everything grew still. . . . Then, little by little, something began to stir under my stunned senses—that germ of misgiving, that dreadful doubt of my own sanity. . . . I scarcely knew what I was doing when I took the photograph; besides, it had grown quite dark, and I could scarcely see her." He drew himself erect with a nervous movement. "How on earth could I have obtained that photograph of her in the darkness?" he demanded.
"N-rays," said the Tracer coolly. "It has been done in France."
"Yes, from living people, but—"
"What the N-ray is in living organisms, we must call, for lack of a better term, the subaura in the phantom."
They bent over the photograph together. Presently the Tracer said: "She is very, very beautiful?"
Harren's dry lips unclosed, but he uttered no sound.
"She is beautiful, is she not?" repeated the Tracer, turning to look at the young man.
"Can you not see she is?" he asked impatiently.
"No," said the Tracer.
Harren stared at him.
"Captain Harren," continued the Tracer, "I can see nothing upon this bit of paper that resembles in the remotest degree a human face or figure."
Harren turned white.
"Not that I doubt that you can see it," pursued the Tracer calmly. "I simply repeat that I see absolutely nothing on this paper except a part of a curtain, a window pane, and—and—"
"What! for God's sake!" cried Harren hoarsely.
"I don't know yet. Wait; let me study it."
"Can you not see her face, her eyes? Don't you see that exquisite slim figure standing there by the curtain?" demanded Harren, laying his shaking finger on the photograph. "Why, man, it is as clear, as clean cut, as distinct as though the picture had been taken in sunlight! Do you mean to say that there is nothing there—that I am crazy?"
"No. Wait."
"Wait! How can I wait when you sit staring at her picture and telling me that you can't see it, but that it is doubtless there? Are you deceiving me, Mr. Keen? Are you trying to humor me, trying to be kind to me, knowing all the while that I'm crazy—"
"Wait, man! You are no more crazy than I am. I tell you that I can see something on the window pane—"
He suddenly sprang up and walked to the window, leaning close and examining the glass. Harren followed and laid his hand lightly over the pane.
"Do you see any marks on the glass?" demanded Keen.
Harren shook his head.
"Have you a magnifying glass?" asked the Tracer.
Harren pointed back to the table, and they returned to the photograph, the Tracer bending over it and examining it through the glass.
"All I see," he said, still studying the photograph, "is a corner of a curtain and a window on which certain figures seem to have been cut. . . . Look, Captain Harren, can you see them?"
"I see some marks—some squares."
"You can't see anything written on that pane—as though cut by a diamond?"
"Nothing distinct."
"But you see her?"
"In minute detail?"
The Tracer thought a moment: "Does she wear a ring?"
"Yes; can't you see?"
"Draw it for me."
They seated themselves side by side, and Harren drew a rough sketch of the ring which he insisted was so plainly visible on her hand:

      "Oh," observed the Tracer, "she wears the Seal of Solomon on her ring."
Harren looked up at him. "That symbol has haunted me persistently for three years," he said. "I have found it everywhere—on articles that I buy, on house furniture, on the belts of dead ladrones, on the hilts of creeses, on the funnels of steamers, on the headstalls of horses. If they put a laundry mark on my linen it's certain to be this! If I buy a box of matches the sign is on it. Why, I've even seen it on the brilliant wings of tropical insects. It's got on my nerves. I dream about it."

      "And you buy books about it and try to work out its mystical meaning?" suggested the Tracer, smiling.
But Harren's gray eyes were serious. He said: "She never comes to me without that symbol somewhere about her. . . . I told you she never spoke to me. That is true; yet once, in a vivid dream of her, she did speak. I—I was almost ashamed to tell you of that."
"Tell me."
"A—a dream? Do you wish to know what I dreamed?"
"Yes—if it was a dream."
"It was. I was asleep on the deck of the Mindinao, dead tired after a fruitless hike. I dreamed she came toward me through a young woodland all lighted by the sun, and in her hands she held masses of that wild flower we call Solomon's Seal. And she said—in the voice I know must be like hers: 'If you could only read! If you would only understand the message I send you! It is everywhere on earth for you to read, if you only would!'
"I said: 'Is the message in the seal? Is that the key to it?'
"She nodded, laughing, burying her face in the flowers, and said:
"'Perhaps I can write it more plainly for you some day; I will try very, very hard.'
"And after that she went away—not swiftly—for I saw her at moments far away in the woods; but I must have confused her with the glimmering shafts of sunlight, and in a little while the woodland grew dark and I woke with the racket of a Colt's automatic in my ears."
He passed his sun-bronzed hand over his face, hesitated, then leaned over the photograph once more, which the Tracer was studying intently through the magnifying glass.
"There is something on that window in the photograph which I'm going to copy," he said. "Please shove a pad and pencil toward me."
Still examining the photograph through the glass which he held in his right hand, Mr. Keen picked up the pencil and, feeling for the pad, began very slowly to form the following series of symbols:

      "What on earth are you doing?" muttered Captain Harren, twisting his short mustache in perplexity.
"I am copying what I see through this magnifying glass written on the window pane in the photograph," said the Tracer calmly. "Can't you see those marks?"
"I—I do now; I never noticed them before particularly—only that there were scratches there."
When at length the Tracer had finished his work he sat, chin on hand, examining it in silence. Presently he turned toward Harren, smiling.
"Well?" inquired the younger man impatiently; "do those scratches representing Solomon's Seal mean anything?"
"It's the strangest cipher I ever encountered," said Mr. Keen—"the strangest I ever heard of. I have seen hundreds of ciphers—hundreds—secret codes of the State Department, secret military codes, elaborate Oriental ciphers, symbols used in commercial transactions, symbols used by criminals and every species of malefactor. And every one of them can be solved with time and patience and a little knowledge of the subject. But this"—he sat looking at it with eyes half closed—"this is too simple."
"Very. It's so simple that it's baffling."
"Do you mean to say you are going to be able to find a meaning in squares and crosses?"
"I—I don't believe it is going to be so very difficult to translate them."
"Great guns!" said the Captain. "Do you mean to say that you can ultimately translate that cipher?"
The Tracer smiled. "Let's examine it for repetitions first. Here we have this symbol

repeated five times. It's likely to be the letter E. I think—" His voice ceased; for a quarter of an hour he pored over the symbols, pencil in hand, checking off some, substituting a letter here and there.
"No," he said; "the usual doesn't work in this case. It's an absurdly simple cipher. I have a notion that numbers play a part in it—you see where these crossed squares are bracketed—those must be numbers requiring two figures—"
He fell silent again, and for another quarter of an hour he remained motionless, immersed in the problem before him, Harren frowning at the paper over his shoulder.


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