The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


The dinner that Kerns had planned for himself and Gatewood was an ingenious one, cunningly contrived to discontent Gatewood with home fare and lure him by its seductive quality into frequent revisits to the club which was responsible for such delectable wines and viands.
A genial glow already enveloped Gatewood and pleasantly suffused Kerns. From time to time they held some rare vintage aloft, squinting through the crystal-imprisoned crimson with deep content.
"Not that my word is necessarily the last word concerning Burgundy," said Gatewood modestly; "but I venture to doubt that any club in America can match this bottle, Kerns."
"Now, Jack," wheedled Kerns, "isn't it pleasant to dine here once in a while? Be frank, man! Look about at the other tables—at all the pleasant, familiar faces—the same fine fellows, bless 'em—the same smoky old ceiling, the same bum portraits of dead governors, the same old stag heads on the wall. Now, Jack, isn't it mighty pleasant, after all? Be a gentleman and admit it!"
"Y-yes," confessed Gatewood, "it's all right for me once in a while, because I know that I am presently going back to my own home—a jolly lamplit room and the prettiest girl in Manhattan curled up in an armchair—"
"You're fortunate," said Kerns shortly. And for the first time there remained no lurking mockery in his voice; for the first time his retort was tinged with bitterness. But the next instant his eyes glimmered with the same gay malice, and the unbelieving smile twitched at his clean-cut lips, and he raised his hand, touching the short ends of his mustache with that careless, amused cynicism which rather became him.
"All that you picture so entrancingly is forbidden the true believer," he said; and began to repeat:

"'O weaver! weave the flowers of Feraghan
Into the fabric that thy birth began;
Iris, narcissus, tulips cloud-band tied,
These thou shalt picture for the eye of Man;
Henna, Herati, and the Jhelums tide
In Sarraband and Saruk be thy guide,
And the red dye of Ispahan beside
The checkered Chinese fret of ancient gold;
—So heed the ban, old as the law is old,
Nor weave into thy warp the laughing face,
Nor limb, nor body, nor one line of grace,
Nor hint, nor tint, nor any veiled device
Of Woman who is barred from Paradise!'"

      "A nice sentiment!" said Gatewood hotly.
"Can't help it; you see I'm forbidden to monkey with the eternal looms or weave the forbidden into the pattern of my life."
Gatewood sat silent for a moment, then looked up at Kerns with something so closely akin to a grin that his friend became interested in its scarcely veiled significance, and grinned in reply.
"So you really expect that your friend, Mr. Keen, is going to marry me to somebody, nolens volens?" asked Kerns.
"I do. That's what I dream of, Tommy."
"My poor friend, dream on!"
"I am. Tommy, you're lost! I mean you're as good as married now!"
"You think so?"
"I know it! There you sit, savoring your Burgundy, idling over a cigar, happy, care free, fancy free, at liberty, as you believe, to roam off anywhere at any time and continue the eternal hunt for pleasure! That's what you think! Ha! Tommy, I know better! That's not the sort of man I see sitting on the same chair where you are now sprawling in such content! I see a doomed man, already in the shadow of the altar, wasting his time unsuspiciously while Chance comes whirling into the city behind a Long Island locomotive, and Fate, the footman, sits outside ready to follow him, and Destiny awaits him no matter what he does, what he desires, where he goes, wherever he turns to-night! Destiny awaits him at his journey's end!"
"Very fine," said Kerns admiringly. "Too bad it's due to the Burgundy."
"Never mind what my eloquence is due to," retorted Gatewood, "the fact remains that this is probably your last bachelor dinner. Kerns, old fellow! Here's to her! Bless her! I—I wish sincerely that we knew who she is and where to send those roses. Anyway, here's to the bride!"
He stood up very gravely and drank the toast, then, reseating himself, tapped the empty glass gently against the table's edge until it broke.
"You are certainly doing your part well," said Kerns admiringly. Then he swallowed the remainder of his Burgundy and looked up at the club clock.
"Eleven," he said with regret. "I've about time to go to Eighty-third Street, get my suit case, and catch my train at 125th Street." To a servant he said, "Call a hansom," then rose and sauntered downstairs to the cloakroom, where presently both men stood, hatted and gloved, swinging their sticks.
"That was a fool bet you made," began Kerns; "I'll release you, Jack."
"Sorry, but I must insist on holding you," replied Gatewood, laughing. "You're going to your doom. Come on! I'll see you as far as the cab door."
They walked out, and Kerns gave the cabby the street and number and entered the hansom.
"Now," said Gatewood, "you're in for it! You're done for! You can't help yourself! I've won my twelve-gauge trap gun already, and I'll have to set you up in table silver, anyway, so it's an even break. You're all in, Tommy! The Tracer is on your trail!"
In the beginning of a flippant retort Kerns experienced a curious sensation of hesitation. Something in Gatewood's earnestness, in his jeering assurance and delighted certainty, made him, for one moment, feel doubtful, even uncomfortable.
"What nonsense you talk," he said, recovering his equanimity. "Nothing on earth can prevent me driving to 38 East Eighty-third Street, getting my luggage, and taking the Boston express. Your Tracer doesn't intend to stop my hansom and drag me into a cave, does he? You haven't put knock-outs into that Burgundy, have you? Then what in the dickens are you laughing at?"
But Gatewood, on the sidewalk under the lamplight, was still laughing as Kerns drove away, for he had recognized in the cab driver a man he had seen in Mr. Kern's office, and he knew that the Tracer of Lost Persons had Kerns already well in hand.
The hansom drove on through the summer darkness between rows of electric globes drooping like huge white moon flowers from their foliated bronze stalks, on up the splendid avenue, past the great brilliantly illuminated hotels, past the white cathedral, past clubs and churches and the palaces of the wealthy; on, on along the park wall edged by its double rows of elms under which shadowy forms moved—lovers strolling in couples.
"Pooh," sniffed Kerns, "the whole world has gone love mad, and I'm the only sane man left."
But he leaned back in his cab and fell a-thinking of a thin girl with red hair and great gray eyes—a thin, frail creature, scarcely more than a child, who had held him for a week in a strange sorcery only to release him with a frightened smile, leaving her indelible impression upon his life forever.
And, thinking, he looked up, realizing that the cab had stopped in East Eighty-third Street before one of a line of brownstone houses, all externally alike.
Then he leaned out and saw that the house number was thirty-eight. That was the number of the Lees' house; he descended, bade the cabman await him, and, producing his latch key, started up the steps, whistling gayly.
But he didn't require his key, for, as he reached the front door, he found, to his surprise and concern, that it swung partly open—just a mere crack.
"The mischief!" he muttered; "could I have failed to close it? Could anybody have seen it and crept in?"
He entered the hallway hastily and pressed the electric knob. No light appeared in the sconces.
"What the deuce!" he murmured; "something wrong with the switch!" And he hurriedly lighted a match and peered into the darkness. By the vague glimmer of the burning match he could distinguish nothing. He listened intently, tried the electric switch again without success. The match burned his fingers and he dropped it, watching the last red spark die out in the darkness.
Something about the shadowy hallway seemed unfamiliar; he went to the door, stepped out on the stoop, and looked up at the number on the transom. It was thirty-eight; no doubt about the house. Hesitating, he glanced around to see that his hansom was still there. It had disappeared.
"What an idiot that cabman is!" he exclaimed, intensely annoyed at the prospect of lugging his heavy suit case to a Madison Avenue car and traveling with it to Harlem.
He looked up and down the dimly lighted street; east, an electric car glided down Madison Avenue; west, the lights of Fifth Avenue glimmered against the dark foliage of the Park. He stood a moment, angry at the desertion of his cabman, then turned and reëntered the dark hall, closing the door behind him.
Up the staircase he felt his way to the first landing, and, lighting a match, looked for the electric button.
"Am I crazy, or was there no electric button in this hall?" he thought. The match burned low; he had to drop it. Perplexed, he struck another match and opened the door leading into the front room, and stood on the threshold a moment, looking about him at the linen-shrouded furniture and pictures. This front room, closed for the summer, he had not before entered, but he stepped in now, poking about for any possible intruder, lighting match after match.
"I suppose I ought to go over this confounded house inch by inch," he murmured. "What could have possessed me to leave the front door ajar this morning?"
For an instant he thought that perhaps Mrs. Nolan, the woman who came in the morning to make his bed, might have left the door open, but he knew that couldn't be so, because he always waited for her to finish her work and leave before he went out. So either he must have left the door open, or some marauder had visited the house—was perhaps at that moment in the house! And it was his duty to find out.
"I'd better be about it, too," he thought savagely, "or I'll never make my train."
He struck his last match, looked around, and, seeing gas jets among the clustered electric bulbs of the sconces, tried to light one and succeeded.
He had left his suit case in the passageway between the front and rear rooms, and now, cautiously, stick in hand, he turned toward the dim corridor leading to the bedroom. There was his suit case, anyway! He picked it up and started to push open the door of the rear room; but at the same time, and before he could lay his hand on the knob, the door before him opened suddenly in a flood of light, and a woman stood there, dark against the gas-lit glare, a pistol waveringly extended in the general direction of his head.


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