I left the Point I was assigned to the colored cavalry. They are
good men; we went up Kettle Hill together. Then came the Philippine
troubles, then that Chinese affair. Then I did staff duty, and
could not stand the inactivity and resigned. They had no use for
me in Manchuria; I tired of waiting, and went to Venezuela. The
prospects for service there were absurd; I heard of the Moorish
troubles and went to Morocco. Others of my sort swarmed there;
matters dragged and dragged, and the Kaiser never meant business,
"Being independent, and my
means permitting me, I got some shooting in the back country.
This all degenerated into the merest nomadic wandering—nothing
but sand, camels, ruins, tents, white walls, and blue skies. And
at last I came to the town of Sa-el-Hagar."
His voice died out; his restless,
haunted eyes became fixed.
"Sa-el-Hagar, once ancient
Saïs," repeated the Tracer quietly; and the young man
looked at him.
"You know that?"
"Yes," said the Tracer.
For a while Burke remained silent,
preoccupied, then, resting his chin on his hand and speaking in
a curiously monotonous voice, as though repeating to himself by
rote, he went on:
"The town is on the heights—have
you a pencil? Thank you. Here is the town of Sa-el-Hagar, here
are the ruins, here is the wall, and somewhere hereabouts should
be the buried temple of Neith, which nobody has found." He
shifted his pencil. "Here is the lake of Saïs; here,
standing all alone on the plain, are those great monolithic pillars
stretching away into perspective—four hundred of them in
all—a hundred and nine still upright. There were one hundred
and ten when I arrived at El Teb Wells."
He looked across at the Tracer,
repeating: "One hundred and ten—when I arrived. One
fell the first night—a distant pillar far away on the horizon.
Four thousand years had it stood there. And it fell—the
first night of my arrival. I heard it; the nights are cold at
El Teb Wells, and I was lying awake, all a-shiver, counting the
stars to make me sleep. And very, very far away in the desert
I heard and felt the shock of its fall—the fall of forty
centuries under the Egyptian stars."
His eyes grew dreamy; a slight
glow had stained his face.
"Did you ever halt suddenly
in the Northern forests, listening, as though a distant voice
had hailed you? Then you understand why that far, dull sound from
the dark horizon brought me to my feet, bewildered, listening,
as though my own name had been spoken.
"I heard the wind in the tents
and the stir of camels; I heard the reeds whispering on Saïs
Lake and the yap-yap of a shivering jackal; and always, always,
the hushed echo in my ears of my own name called across the star-lit
"At dawn I had forgotten.
An Arab told me that a pillar had fallen; it was all the same
to me, to him, to the others, too. The sun came out hot. I like
heat. My men sprawled in the tents; some watered, some went up
to the town to gossip in the bazaar. I mounted and cast bridle
on neck—you see how much I cared where I went! In two hours
we had completed a circle—like a ruddy hawk above El Teb.
And my horse halted beside the fallen pillar."
As he spoke his language had become
very simple, very direct, almost without accent, and he spoke
slowly, picking his way with that lack of inflection, of emotion
characteristic of a child reading a new reader.
"The column had fallen from
its base, eastward, and with its base it had upheaved another
buried base, laying bare a sort of cellar and a flight of stone
steps descending into darkness.
"Into this excavation the
sand was still running in tiny rivulets. Listening, I could hear
it pattering far, far down into the shadows.
"Sitting there in the saddle,
the thing explained itself as I looked. The fallen pillar had
been built upon older ruins; all Egypt is that way, ruin founded
on the ruin of ruins—like human hopes.
"The stone steps, descending
into the shadow of remote ages, invited me. I dismounted, walked
to the edge of the excavation, and, kneeling, peered downward.
And I saw a wall and the lotus-carved rim of a vast stone-framed
pool; and as I looked I heard the tinkle of water. For the pillar,
falling, had unbottled the ancient spring, and now the stone-framed
lagoon was slowly filling after its drought of centuries.
"There was light enough to
see by, but, not knowing how far I might penetrate, I returned
to my horse, pocketed matches and candles from the saddlebags,
and, returning, started straight down the steps of stone.
"Fountain, wall, lagoon, steps,
terraces half buried—all showed what the place had been:
a water garden of ancient Egypt—probably royal—because,
although I am not able to decipher hieroglyphics, I have heard
somewhere that these picture inscriptions, when inclosed in a
cartouch like this"—he drew rapidly—
indicate that the subject of the inscription was once a king.
"And on every wall, every
column, I saw the insignia of ancient royalty, and I saw strange
hawk-headed figures bearing symbols engraved on stone—beasts,
birds, fishes, unknown signs and symbols; and everywhere the lotus
carved in stone—the bud, the blossom half-inclosed, the
His dreamy eyes met the gaze of
the Tracer, unseeing; he rested his sunburned face between both
palms, speaking in the same vague monotone:
"Everywhere dust, ashes, decay,
the death of life, the utter annihilation of the living—save
only the sparkle of reborn waters slowly covering the baked bed
of the stone-edged pool—strange, luminous water, lacking
the vital sky tint, enameled with a film of dust, yet, for all
that, quickening with imprisoned brilliancy like an opal.
"The slow filling of the pool
fascinated me; I stood I know not how long watching the thin film
of water spreading away into the dimness beyond. At last I turned
and passed curiously along the wall where, at its base, mounds
of dust marked what may have been trees. Into these I probed with
my riding crop, but discovered nothing except the depths of the
"When I had penetrated the
ghost of this ancient garden for a thousand yards the light from
the opening was no longer of any service. I lighted a candle;
and its yellow rays fell upon a square portal into which led another
flight of steps. And I went down.
"There were eighteen steps
descending into a square stone room. Strange gleams and glimmers
from wall and ceiling flashed dimly in my eyes under the wavering
flame of the candle. Then the flame grew still—still as
death—and Death lay at my feet—there on the stone
floor—a man, square shouldered, hairless, the cobwebs of
his tunic mantling him, lying face downward, arms outflung.
"After a moment I stooped
and touched him, and the entire prostrate figure dissolved into
dust where it lay, leaving at my feet a shadow shape in thin silhouette
against the pavement—merely a gray layer of finest dust
shaped like a man, a tracery of impalpable powder on the stones.
"Upward and around me I passed
the burning candle; vast figures in blue and red and gold grew
out of the darkness; the painted walls sparkled; the shadows that
had slept through all those centuries trembled and shrank away
into distant corners.
"And then—and then I
saw the gold edges of her sandals sparkle in the darkness, and
the clasped girdle of virgin gold around her slender waist glimmered
like purest flame!"
Burke, leaning far across the table,
interlocked hands tightening, stared and stared into space. A
smile edged his mouth; his voice grew wonderfully gentle:
"Why, she was scarcely eighteen—this
child—there so motionless, so lifelike, with the sandals
edging her little upturned feet, and the small hands of her folded
between the breasts. It was as though she had just stretched herself
out there—scarcely sound asleep as yet, and her thick, silky
hair—cut as they cut children's hair in these days, you
know—cradled her head and cheeks.
"'As though . . . scarcely sound asleep as yet.'"
"So marvelous the mimicry
of life, so absolute the deception of breathing sleep, that I
scarce dared move, fearing to awaken her.
"When I did move I forgot
the dusty shape of the dead at my feet, and left, full across
his neck, the imprint of a spurred riding boot. It gave me my
first shudder; I turned, feeling beneath my foot the soft, yielding
powder, and stood aghast. Then—it is absurd!—but I
felt as a man feels who has trodden inadvertently upon another's
foot—and in an impulse of reparation I stooped hastily and
attempted to smooth out the mortal dust which bore the imprint
of my heel. But the fine powder flaked my glove, and, looking
about for something to compose the ashes with, I picked up a papyrus
scroll. Perhaps he himself had written on it; nobody can ever
know, and I used it as a sort of hoe to scrape him together and
smooth him out on the stones."
The young man drew a yellowish
roll of paper-like substance from his pocket and laid it on the
"This is the same papyrus,"
he said. "I had forgotten that I carried it away with me
until I found it in my shooting coat while packing to sail for
The Tracer of Lost Persons reached
over and picked up the scroll. It was flexible still, but brittle;
he opened it with great care, considered the strange figures upon
it for a while, then turned almost sharply on his visitor.
"Go on," he said.
And Burke went on:
"The candle was burning low;
I lighted two more, placing them at her head and feet on the edges
of the stone couch. Then, lighting a third candle, I stood beside
the couch and looked down at the dead girl under her veil-like
robe, set with golden stars."
He passed his hand wearily over
his hair and forehead.
"I do not know what the accepted
meaning of beauty may be if it was not there under my eyes. Flawless
as palest amber ivory and rose, the smooth-flowing contours melted
into exquisite symmetry; lashes like darkest velvet rested on
the pure curve of the cheeks; the closed lids, the mouth still
faintly stained with color, the delicate nose, the full, childish
lips, sensitive, sweet, resting softly upon each other—if
these were not all parts of but one lovely miracle, then there
is no beauty save in a dream of Paradise. . . .
"A gold band of linked scarabs
bound her short, thick hair straight across the forehead; thin
scales of gold fell from a necklace, clothing her breasts in brilliant
discolored metal, through which ivory-tinted skin showed. A belt
of pure, soft gold clasped her body at the waist; gold-edged sandals
clung to her little feet.
"At first, when the stunned
surprise had subsided, I thought that I was looking upon some
miracle of ancient embalming, hitherto unknown. Yet, in the smooth
skin there was no slit to prove it, no opening in any vein or
artery, no mutilation of this sculptured masterpiece of the Most
High, no cerements, no bandages, no gilded carven case with painted
face to stare open eyed through the wailing cycles.
"This was the image of sleep—of
life unconscious—not of death. Yet is was death—death
that had come upon her centuries and centuries ago; for the gold
had turned iridescent and magnificently discolored; the sandal
straps fell into dust as I bent above them, leaving the sandals
clinging to her feet only by the wired silver core of the thongs.
And, as I touched it fearfully, the veil-like garment covering
her, vanished into thin air, its metal stars twinkling in a shower
around her on the stone floor."
The Tracer, motionless, intent,
scarcely breathed; the younger man moved restlessly in his chair,
the dazed light in his eyes clearing to sullen consciousness.
"What more is there to tell?"
he said. "And to what purpose? All this is time wasted. I
have my work cut out for me. What more is there to tell?"
"What you have left untold,"
said the Tracer, with the slightest ring of authority in his quiet
And, as though he had added "Obey!"
the younger man sank back in his chair, his hands contracting
"I went back to El Teb,"
he said; "I walked like a dreaming man. My sleep was haunted
by her beauty; night after night, when at last I fell asleep,
instantly I saw her face, and her dark eyes opening into mine
in childish bewilderment; day after day I rode out to the fallen
pillar and descended to that dark chamber where she lay alone.
Then there came a time when I could not endure the thought of
her lying there alone. I had never dared to touch her. Horror
of what might happen had held me aloof lest she crumble at my
touch to that awful powder which I had trodden on.
"I did not know what to do;
my Arabs had begun to whisper among themselves, suspicious of
my absences, impatient to break camp, perhaps, and roam on once
more. Perhaps they believed I had discovered treasure somewhere;
I am not sure. At any rate, dread of their following me, determination
to take my dead away with me, drove me into action; and that day
when I reached her silent chamber I lighted my candle, and, leaning
above her for one last look, I touched her shoulder with my finger
"It was a strange sensation.
Prepared for a dreadful dissolution, utterly unprepared for cool,
yielding flesh, I almost dropped where I stood. For her body was
neither cold nor warm, neither dust-dry nor moist; neither the
skin of the living nor the dead. It was firm, almost stiff, yet
not absolutely without a certain hint of flexibility.
"The appalling wonder of it
consumed me; fear, incredulity, terror, apathy succeeded each
other; then slowly a fierce shrinking happiness swept me in every
"This marvelous death, this
triumph of beauty over death, was mine. Never again should she
lie here alone through the solitudes of night and day; never again
should the dignity of Death lack the tribute demanded of Life.
Here was the appointed watcher—I, who had found her alone
in the wastes of the world—all alone on the outermost edges
of the world—a child, dead and unguarded. And standing there
beside her I knew that I should never love again."
He straightened up, stretching
out his arm: "I did not intend to carry her away to what
is known as Christian burial. How could I consign her to darkness
again, with all its dreadful mockery of marble, all its awful
"This lovely stranger was
to be my guest forever. The living should be near her while she
slept so sweetly her slumber through the centuries; she should
have warmth, and soft hangings and sunlight and flowers; and her
unconscious ears should be filled with the pleasant stir of living
things. . . . I have a house in the country, a very old house
among meadows and young woodlands. And I—I had dreamed of
giving this child a home—"
His voice broke; he buried his
head in his hands a moment; but when he lifted it again his features
were hard as steel.
"There was already talk in
the bazaar about me. I was probably followed, but I did not know
it. Then one of my men disappeared. For a week I hesitated to
trust my Arabs; but there was no other way. I told them there
was a mummy which I desired to carry to some port and smuggle
out of the country without consulting the Government. I knew perfectly
well that the Government would never forego its claim to such
a relic of Egyptian antiquity. I offered my men too much, perhaps.
I don't know. They hesitated for a week, trying by every artifice
to see the treasure, but I never let them out of my sight.
"Then one day two white men
came into camp; and with them came a government escort to arrest
me for looting an Egyptian tomb. The white men were Joram Smiles
and that Eurasian, Emanuel Gandon, who was partly white, I suppose.
I didn't comprehend what they were up to at first. They escorted
me forty miles to confront the official at Shen-Bak. When, after
a stormy week, I was permitted to return to Saïs, my Arabs
and the white men were gone. And the stone chamber under the water
garden wall was empty as the hand I hold out to you!"
He opened his palm and rose, his
narrowing eyes clear and dangerous.
"At the bazaar I learned enough
to know what had been done. I traced the white men to the coast.
They sailed on the Scythian Queen, taking with them all that I
care for on earth or in heaven! And you ask me why I measure their
distance from me by a bullet's flight!"
The Tracer also rose, pale and
"Wait!" he said. "There
are other things to be done before you prepare to face a jury
for double murder."
"It is for them to choose,"
said Burke. "They shall have the choice of returning to me
my dead, or of going to hell full of lead."
"Exactly, my dear sir. That
part is not difficult," said the Tracer quietly. "There
will be no occasion for violence, I assure you. Kindly leave such
details to me. I know what is to be done. You are outwardly very
calm, Mr. Burke—even dangerously placid; but though you
maintain an admirable command over yourself superficially, you
are laboring under terrible excitement. Therefore it is my duty
to say to you at once that there is no cause for your excitement,
no cause for your apprehension as to results. I feel exceedingly
confident that you will, in due time, regain possession of all
that you care for most—quietly, quietly, my dear sir! You
are not yet ready to meet these men, nor am I ready to go with
you. I beg you to continue your habit of self-command for a little
while. There is no haste—that is to say, there is every
reason to make haste slowly. And the quickest method is to seat
yourself. Thank you. And I shall sit here beside you and spread
out this papyrus scroll for your inspection."
Burke stared at the Tracer, then at the scroll.
"What has that inscription
to do with the matter in hand?" he demanded impatiently.
"I leave you to judge,"
said the Tracer. A dull tint of excitement flushed his lean cheeks;
he twisted his gray mustache and bent over the unrolled scroll
which was now held flat by weights at the four corners.
"Can you understand any of
these symbols, Mr. Burke?" he asked.
"Curious," mused the
Tracer. "Do you know it was fortunate that you put this bit
of papyrus in the pocket of your shooting coat—so fortunate
that, in a way, it approaches the miraculous?"
"What do you mean? Is there
anything in that scroll bearing on this matter?"
"And you can read it? Are
you versed in such learning, Mr. Keen?"
"I am an Egyptologist—among
other details," said the Tracer calmly.
The young man gazed at him, astonished.
The Tracer of Lost Persons picked up a pencil, laid a sheet of
paper on the table beside the papyrus, and slowly began to copy
the first symbol: