The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


"Good heavens!" he said, appalled, and dropped his suit case with a crash.
"W-what are you d-doing—" She controlled her voice and the wavering weapon with an effort. "What are you doing in this house?"
"Doing? In this house?" he repeated, his eyes protruding in the direction of the unsteady pistol muzzle. "What are you doing in this house—if you don't mind saying!"
"I—I m-must ask you to put up your hands," she said. "If you move I shall certainly s-shoot off this pistol."
"It will go off, anyway, if you handle it like that!" he said, exasperated. "What do you mean by pointing it at me?"
"I mean to fire it off in a few moments if you don't raise your hands above your head!"
He looked at the pistol; it was new and shiny; he looked at the athletic young figure silhouetted against the brilliant light.
"Well, if you make a point of it, of course." He slowly held up both hands, higher, then higher still. "Upon my word!" he breathed. "Held up by a woman!" And he said aloud, bitterly: "No doubt you have assistance close at hand."
"No doubt," she said coolly. "What have you been packing into that valise?"
"P-packing into what? Oh, into that suit case? That is my suit case."
"Of course it is," she said quietly, "but what have you inside it?"
"Nothing you or your friends would care for," he said meaningly.
"I must be the judge of that," she retorted. "Please open that suit case."
"How can I if my hands are in the air?" he expostulated, now intensely interested in the novelty of being held up by this graceful and vaguely pretty silhouette.
"You may lower your arms to unpack the suit case," she said.
"I—I had rather not if you are going to keep me covered with your pistol."
"Of course I shall keep you covered. Unpack your booty at once!"
"Madam, do you take me for a thief? Have you, by chance, entered the wrong house? I—I cannot reconcile your voice with what I am forced to consider you—a housebreaker—"
"We will discuss that later. Unpack that bag!" she insisted.
"But—but there is nothing in it except samples of marble—"
"What!" she exclaimed nervously. "What did you say? Samples of marble?"
"Marble, madam! Georgia marble!"
"Oh! So you are the young man who goes about pretending to peddle Georgia marble from samples! Are you? The famous marble man I have heard of."
"I? Madam, I don't know what you mean!"
"Come!" she said scornfully; "let me see the contents of that suit case. I—I am not afraid of you; I am not a bit afraid of you. And I shall catch your accomplice, too."
"Madam, you speak like an honest woman! You must have managed to enter the wrong house. This is number thirty-eight, where I live."
"It is number thirty-six; my house!"
"But I know it is number thirty-eight; Mr. Lee's house," he protested hopefully. "This is some dreadful mistake."
"Mr. Lee's house is next door," she said. "Do you not suppose I know my own house? Besides, I have been warned against a plausible young man who pretends he has Georgia marble to sell—"
"There is a dreadful mistake somewhere," he insisted. "Please p-p-put up your p-pistol and aid me to solve it. I am no robber, madam. I thought at first that you were. I'm living in Mr. Lee's house, No. 38 East Eighty-third Street, and I've looked carefully at the number over the door of this house and the number is thirty-eight, and the street is East Eighty-third. So I naturally conclude that I am in Mr. Lee's house."
"Your arguments and your conclusions are very plausible," she said, "but, fortunately for me, I have been expressly warned against a young man of your description. You are the marble man!"
"It's a mistake! A very dreadful one."
"Then how did you enter this house?"
"I have a key—I mean I found the front door unlatched. Please don't misunderstand me; I know it sounds unconvincing, but I really have a key to number thirty-eight."
He attempted to reach for his pocket and the pistol glittered in his face.
"Won't you let me prove my innocence?" he asked.
"You can't prove it by showing me a key. Besides, it's probably a weapon. Anyhow, if, as you pretend, you have managed to get into the wrong house, why did you bring that suit case up here?"
"It was here. It's mine. I left it here in this passageway."
"In my house?" she asked incredulously.
"In number thirty-eight; that is all I know. I'll open the suit case if you will let me. I have already described its contents. If it has samples of marble in it you must be convinced!"
"It will convince me that it is your valise. But what of that? I know it is yours already," she said defiantly. "I know, at least, that you are the marble man—if nothing worse!"
"But malefactors don't go about carrying samples of Georgia marble," he protested, dropping on one knee under the muzzle of her revolver and tugging at the straps and buckles. In a second or two he threw open the case—and the sight of the contents staggered him. For there, thrown in pellmell among small square blocks of polished marble was a complete kit of burglar's tools, including also a mask, a dark lantern, and a blackjack.
"What—w—w—what on earth is this?" he stammered. "These things don't belong to me. I won't have them! I don't want them. Who put them into my suit case? How the deuce—"
"You are the marble man!" she said with a shudder. "Your crimes are known! Your wretched accomplice will be caught! You are the marble man—or something worse!"
Kneeling there, aghast, bewildered, he passed his hand across his eyes as though to clear them from some terrible vision. But the suit case was still there with its incriminating contents when he looked again.
"I am sorry for you," she said tremulously. "I—if it were not for the marble—I would let you go. But you are the marble man!"
"Yes, and I'm probably a madman, too. I don't know what I am! I don't know what is happening to me. I ought to be going, that is all I know—"
"I cannot let you go."
"But I must! I've got to catch a train."
The feebleness of his excuse chilled her pity.
"I shall not let you go," she said, resting the hand which held the pistol on her hip, but keeping him covered. "I know you came to rob my house; I know you are a thoroughly bad and depraved young man, but for all that I could find it in my heart to let you go if you were not also the marble man!"
"What on earth is the marble man?" he asked, exasperated.
"I don't know. I have been earnestly warned against him. Probably he is a relative of my butler—"
"I'm not a relative of anybody's butler!"
"You say you are not. How do I know? I—I will make you an offer. I will give you one last chance. If you will return to me the jewels that my butler took—"
"Good heavens, madam! Do you really take me for a professional burglar?"
"How can I help it?" she said indignantly. "Look at your suit case full of lanterns and masks—full of marble, too!"
Speechless, he stared at the burglar's kit.
"I am sorry—" Her voice had altered again to a tremulous sweetness. "I can't help feeling sorry for you. You do not seem to be hardened; your voice and manner are not characteristically criminal. I—I can't see your face very clearly, but it does not seem to be a brutally inhuman face—"
An awful desire to laugh seized Kerns; he struggled against it; hysteria lay that way; and he covered his face with both hands and pinched himself.
She probably mistook the action for the emotion of shame and despair born of bitter grief; perhaps of terror of the law. It frightened her a little, but pity dominated. She could scarcely endure to do what she must do.
"This is dreadful, dreadful!" she faltered. "If you only would give me back my jewels—"
Sounds, hastily smothered, escaped him. She believed them to be groans, and it made her slightly faint.
"I—I've simply got to telephone for the police," she said pityingly. "I must ask you to sit down there and wait—there is a chair. Sit there—and please don't move, for I—this has unnerved me—I am not accustomed to doing cruel things; and if you should move too quickly or attempt to run away I feel certain that this pistol would explode."
"Are you going to telephone?" he asked.
"Yes, I am."
She backed away, cautiously, pistol menacing him, reached for the receiver, and waited for Central. She waited a long time before she realized that the telephone as well as the electric light was out of commission.
"Did you cut all these wires?" she demanded angrily.
"I? What wires?"
She reached out and pressed the electric button which should have rung a bell in her maid's bedroom on the top floor. She kept her finger on the button for ten minutes. It was useless.
"You laid deliberate plans to rob this house," she said, her cheeks pink with indignation. "I am not a bit sorry for you. I shall not let you go! I shall sit here until somebody comes to my assistance, if I have to sit here for weeks and weeks!"
"If you'd let me telephone to my club—" he began.
"Your club! You are very plausible. You didn't offer to call up any club until you found that the telephone was not working!"
He thought a moment. "I don't suppose you would trust me to go out and get a policeman?"
"Certainly not."
"Or go into the front room and open a window and summon some passer-by?"
"How do I know you haven't confederates waiting outside?"
"That's true," he said seriously.
There was a silence. Her nerves seemed to trouble her, for she began to pace to and fro in front of the passageway where he sat comfortably on his chair, arms folded, one knee dropped over the other.
The light being behind her he could not as yet distinguish her features very clearly. Her figure was youthful, slender, yet beautifully rounded; her head charming in contour. He watched her restlessly walking on the floor, small hand clutching the pistol resting on her hip.
The ruddy burnished glimmer on the edges of her hair he supposed, at first, was caused by the strong light behind her.

      "This is atrocious!" she murmured, halting to confront him. "How dared you sever every electric connection in my house?"
As she spoke she stepped backward a pace or two, resting herself for a moment against the footboard of the bed—full in the gaslight. And he saw her face.
For a moment he studied her; an immense wave of incredulity swept over him—of wild unbelief, slowly changing to the astonishment of dawning conviction. Astounded, silent, he stared at her from his shadowy corner; and after a while his pulses began to throb and throb and hammer, and the clamoring confusion of his senses seemed to deafen him.
"'This is atrocious,' she murmured, halting to confront him."
She rested a moment or two against the footboard of the bed, her big gray eyes fixed on his vague and shadowy form.
"This won't do," she said.
"No," he said, "it won't do."
He spoke very quietly, very gently. She detected the alteration in his voice and started slightly, as though the distant echo of a familiar voice had sounded.
"What did you say?" she asked, coming nearer, pistol glittering in advance.
"I said 'It won't do.' I don't know what I meant by it. If I meant anything I was wrong. It will do. The situation is perfectly agreeable to me."
"Insolence will not help you," she said sharply. And under the sharpness he detected the slightest quaver of a new alarm.
"I am going to free myself," he said coolly.
"If you move I shall certainly shoot!" she retorted.
"I am going to move—but only my lips. I have only to move my lips to free myself."
"I should scarcely advise you to trust to your eloquence. I have been duly warned, you see."
"Who warned you?" he asked curiously. And, as she disdained to reply: "Never mind. We can clear that up later. Now let me ask you something."
"You are scarcely in a position to ask questions," she said.
"May I not speak to you?"
"Is it necessary?"
He thought a moment. "No, not necessary. Nothing is in this life, you know. I thought differently once. Once—when I was younger—six years younger—I thought happiness was necessary. I found that a man might live without it."
She stood gazing at him through the shadows, pistol on hip.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I mean that happiness is not necessary to life. Life goes on all the same. My life has continued for six years without that happiness which some believe to be essential."
After a silence she said: "I can tell by the way you speak that you are well born. I—I dread to do what I simply must do."
He, too, sat silent a long time—long enough for an utterly perverse and whimsical humor to take complete possession of him.
"Won't you let me go—this time?" he pleaded.
"I cannot."
"You had better let me go while you can," he said, "because, perhaps, you may find it difficult to get rid of me later."
Affronted, she shrank back from the doorway and stood in the center of her room, angry, disdainful, beautiful, under the ruddy glory of her lustrous hair.
His perverse mood changed, too; he leaned forward, studying her minutely—the splendid gray eyes, the delicate mouth and nose, the full, sweet lips, the witchery of wrist and hand, and the flowing, rounded outline of limb and body under the pretty gown. Could this be she? This lovely, mature woman, wearing scarcely a trace of the young girl he had never forgotten—scarcely a trace save in the beauty of her eyes and hair—save in the full, red mouth, sweet and sensitive even in its sudden sullenness?
"Once," he said, and his voice sounded to him like voices heard in dreams—"once, years and years ago, there was a steamer, and a man and a young girl on board. Do you mind my telling you about it?"
She stood leaning against the footboard of the bed, not even deigning to raise her eyes in reply. So he made the slightest stir in his chair; and then she looked up quickly enough, pistol poised.
"The steamer," said Kerns slowly, "was coming into Southampton—six years ago. On deck these two people stood—a man of twenty-eight, a girl of eighteen—six years ago. The name of the steamer was the Carnatic. Did you ever hear of that ship?"
She was looking at him attentively. He waited for her reply; she made none; and he went on.
"The man had asked the girl something—I don't know what—I don't know why her gray eyes filled with tears. Perhaps it was because she could not do what the man asked her to do. It may have been to love him; it may have been that he was asking her to marry him and that she couldn't. Perhaps that is why there were tears in her eyes—because she may have been sorry to cause him the pain of refusal—sorry, perhaps, perhaps a little guilty. Because she must have seen that he was falling in love with her, and she—she let him—knowing all the time that she was to marry another man. Did you ever hear of that man before?"
She had straightened up, quivering, wide eyed, lips parted. He rose and walked slowly into her room, confronting her under the full glare of light.
Her pistol fell clattering to the floor. It did not explode because it was not loaded.
"Now," he said unsteadily, "will you give me my freedom? I have waited for it—not minutes—but years—six years. I ask it now—the freedom I enjoyed before I ever saw you. Can you give it back to me? Can you restore to me a capacity for happiness? Can you give me a heart to love with—love some woman, as other men love? Is it very much I ask of you—to give me a chance in life—the chance I had before I ever saw you?"
Her big gray eyes seemed fascinated; he looked deep into them, smiling; and she turned white.
"Will you give me what I ask?" he said, still smiling.
She strove to speak; she could not, but her eyes never faltered. Suddenly the color flooded her neck and cheeks to the hair, and the quick tears glimmered.
"I—I did not understand; I was too young to be cruel," she faltered. "How could I know what I was doing? Or what—what you did?"
"I? To you?"
"Y-yes. Did you think that I escaped heart free? Do you realize what my punishment was—to—to marry—and remember! If I was too young, too inexperienced to know what I was doing, I was not too young to suffer for it!"
"You mean—" He strove to control his voice, but the sweet, fearless gray eyes met his; the old flame leaped in his veins. He reached out to steady himself and his hand touched hers—that soft, white hand that had held him all these years in the hollow of its palm.
"Did you ever love me?" he demanded.
Her eyes, wet with tears, met his straight as the starry gaze of a child.
"Yes," she said.
His hand tightened over hers; she swayed a moment, quivering from head to foot; then drawing a quick, sobbing breath, closed her eyes, imprisoned in his arms; and, after a long while, aroused, she looked up at him, her divine eyes unclosing dreamily.
"Somebody is hammering at the front door," he breathed. "Listen!"
"I hear. I believe it must be the Tracer of Lost Persons."
"Only a Mr. Keen."
"O Lord!" said Kerns faintly, and covered his face with her fragrant hands.
Very tenderly, very gravely, she drew her hands away, and, laying them on his shoulders, looked up at him.
"You—you know what there is in your suit case," she faltered; "are you a burglar, dear?"
"Ask the Tracer of Lost Persons," said Kerns gently, "what sort of a criminal I am!"
They stood together for one blissful moment listening to the loud knocking below, then, hand in hand, they descended the dark stairway to admit the Tracer of Lost Persons.


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