The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


At one o'clock that afternoon a young man earnestly consulting a map might have been seen pursuing his solitary way through Central Park. Fresh green foliage arched above him, flecking the path with fretted shadow and sunlight; the sweet odor of flowering shrubs saturated the air; the waters of the lake sparkled where swans swept to and fro, snowy wings spread like sails to the fitful June wind.
"This," he murmured, pausing at a shaded bend in the path, "must be Bench Number One. I am not to sit on that. This must be Bench Number Two. I am to sit on that. So here I am," he added nervously, seating himself and looking about him with the caution of a cat in a strange back yard.
There was nobody in sight. Reassured, he ventured to drop one knee over the other and lean upon his walking stick. For a few minutes he remained in this noncommittal attitude, alert at every sound, anxious, uncomfortable, dreading he knew not what. A big, fat, gray squirrel racing noisily across the fallen leaves gave him a shock. A number of birds came to look at him—or so it appeared to him, for in the inquisitive scrutiny of a robin he fancied he divined sardonic meaning, and in the blank yellow stare of a purple grackle, a sinister significance out of all proportion to the size of the bird.
"What an absurd position to be in!" he thought. And suddenly he was seized with a desire to flee.
He didn't because he had promised not to, but the desire persisted to the point of mania. Oh, how he could run if he only hadn't promised not to! His entire being tingled with the latent possibilities of a burst of terrific speed. He wanted to scuttle away like a scared rabbit. The pace of the kangaroo would be slow in comparison. What a record he could make if he hadn't promised not to.
He crossed his knees the other way and brooded. The gray squirrel climbed the bench and nosed his pockets for possible peanuts, then hopped off hopefully toward a distant nursemaid and two children.
Growing more alarmed every time he consulted his watch Carden attempted to stem his rising panic with logic and philosophy, repeating: "Steady! my son! Don't act like this! You're not obliged to marry her if you don't fall in love with her; and if you do, you won't mind marrying her. That is philosophy. That is logic. Oh, I wonder what will have happened to me by this time to-morrow! I wish it were this time to-morrow! I wish it were this time next month! Then it would be all over. Then it would be—"
His muttering speech froze on his lips. Rooted to his bench he sat staring at a distant figure approaching—the figure of a young girl in a summer gown.
Nearer, nearer she came, walking with a free-limbed, graceful step, head high, one arm clasping a book.
That was the way the girls he drew would have walked had they ever lived. Even in the midst of his fright his artist's eyes noted that: noted the perfect figure, too, and the witchery of its grace and contour, and the fascinating poise of her head, and the splendid color of her hair; noted mechanically the flowing lines of her gown, and the dainty modeling of arm and wrist and throat and ear.
Then, as she reached her bench and seated herself, she raised her eyes and looked at him. And for the first time in his life he realized that ideal beauty was but the pale phantom of the real and founded on something more than imagination and thought; on something of vaster import than fancy and taste and technical skill; that it was founded on Life itself—on breathing, living, palpitating, tremulous Life!—from which all true inspiration must come.
Over and over to himself he was repeating: "Of course, it is perfectly impossible that I can be in love already. Love doesn't happen between two ticks of a watch. I am merely amazed at that girl's beauty; that is all. I am merely astounded in the presence of perfection; that is all. There is nothing more serious the matter with me. It isn't necessary for me to continue to look at her; it isn't vital to my happiness if I never saw her again. . . . That is—of course, I should like to see her, because I never did see living beauty such as hers in any woman. Not even in my pictures. What superb eyes! What a fascinately delicate nose! What a nose! By Heaven, that nose is a nose! I'll draw noses that way in future. My pictures are all out of drawing; I must fit arms into their sockets the way hers fit! I must remember the modeling of her eyelids, too—and that chin! and those enchanting hands—"
She looked up leisurely from her book, surveyed him calmly, absent-eyed, then bent her head again to the reading.
"There is something the matter with me," he thought with a suppressed gulp. "I—if she looks at me again—with those iris-hued eyes of a young goddess—I—I think I'm done for. I believe I'm done for anyway. It seems rather mad to think it. But there is something the matter—"
She deliberately looked at him again.
"It's all wrong for them to let loose a girl like that on people," he thought to himself, "all wrong. Everybody is bound to go mad over her. I'm going now. I'm mad already. I know I am, which proves I'm no lunatic. It isn't her beauty; it's the way she wears it—every motion, every breath of her. I know exactly what her voice is like. Anybody who looks into her eyes can see what her soul is like. She isn't out of drawing anywhere—physically or spiritually. And when a man sees a girl like that, why—why there's only one thing that can happen to him as far as I can see. And it doesn't take a year either. Heavens! How awfully remote from me she seems to be."
She looked up again, calmly, but not at him. A kindly, gray-whiskered old gentleman came tottering and rocking into view, his rosy, wrinkled face beaming benediction on the world as he passed through it—on the sunshine dappling the undergrowth, on the furry squirrels sitting up on their hind legs to watch him pass, on the stray dickybird that hopped fearlessly in his path, at the young man sitting very rigid there on his bench, at the fair, sweet-faced girl who met his aged eyes with the gentlest of involuntary smiles. And Carden did not recognize him!
Who could help smiling confidently into that benign face, with its gray hair and gray whiskers? Goodness radiated from every wrinkle.
"Dr. Atwood!" exclaimed the girl softly as she rose to meet this marvelous imitation of Dr. Austin Atwood, the great specialist on children's diseases.
The old man beamed weakly at her, halted, still beaming, fumbled for his eyeglasses, adjusted them, and peered closely into her face.
"Bless my soul," he smiled, "our pretty Dr. Hollis!"
"I—I did not suppose you would remember me," she said, rosy with pleasure.
"Remember you? Surely, surely." He made her a quaint, old-fashioned bow, turned, and peeped across the walk at Carden. And Carden, looking straight into his face, did not know the old man, who turned to Dr. Hollis again with many mysterious nods of his doddering head.
"You're watching him, too, are you?" he chuckled, leaning toward her.
"Watching whom, Dr. Atwood?" she asked surprised.
"Hush, child! I thought you had noticed that unfortunate and afflicted young man opposite."
Dr. Hollis looked curiously at Carden, then at the old gentleman with gray whiskers.
"Please sit down, Dr. Atwood, and tell me," she murmured. "I have noticed nothing in particular about the young man on the bench there." And she moved to give him room; and the young man opposite stared at them both as though bereft of reason.
"A heavy book for small hands, my child," said the old gentleman in his quaintly garrulous fashion, peering with dimmed eyes at the volume in her lap.
She smiled, looking around at him.
"My, my!" he said, tremblingly raising his eyeglasses to scan the title on the page; "Dr. Lamour's famous works! Are you studying Lamour, child?"
"Yes," she said with that charming inflection youth reserves for age.
"Astonishing!" he murmured. "The coincidence is more than remarkable. A physician! And studying Lamour's Disease! Incredible!"
"Is there anything strange in that, Dr. Atwood?" she smiled.
"Strange!" He lowered his voice, peering across at Carden. "Strange, did you say? Look across the path at that poor young man sitting there!"
"Yes," she said, perplexed, "I see him."
"What do you see?" whispered the old gentleman in a shakily portentous voice. "Here you sit reading about what others have seen; now what do you see?"
"Why, only a man—rather young—"
"No symptoms?"
"Symptoms? Of what?"
The old gentleman folded his withered hands over his cane. "My child," he said, "for a year I have had that unfortunate young man under secret observation. He was not aware of it; it never entered his mind that I could be observing him with minutest attention. He may have supposed there was nothing the matter with him. He was in error. I have studied him carefully. Look closer! Are there dark circles under his eyes—or are there not?" he ended in senile triumph.
"There are," she began, puzzled, "but I—but of what interest to me—"
"Compare his symptoms with the symptoms in that book you are studying," said the old gentleman hoarsely.
"Do you mean—do you suppose—" she stammered, turning her eyes on Carden, who promptly blushed to his ears and began to fidget.
"Every symptom," muttered the old gentleman. "Poor, poor young man!"
She had seen Carden turn a vivid pink; she now saw him fidget with his walking stick; she discovered the blue circles under his eyes. Three symptoms at once!
"Do you believe it possible?" she whispered excitedly under her breath to the old gentleman beside her. "It seems incredible! Such a rare disease! Only one single case ever described and studied! It seems impossible that I could be so fortunate as actually to see a case! Tell me, Dr. Atwood, do you believe that young man is really afflicted with Lamour's Disease?"
"There is but one way to be absolutely certain," said the old gentleman in a solemn voice, "and that is to study him; corroborate your suspicions by observing his pulse and temperature, as did Dr. Lamour."
"But—how can I?" she faltered. "I—he would probably object to becoming a patient of mine—"
"Ask him, child! Ask him."
"I have not courage—"
"Courage should be the badge of your profession," said the old gentleman gravely. "When did a good physician ever show the white feather in the cause of humanity?"
"I—I know, but this requires a different sort of courage."
"How," persisted the old gentleman, "can you confirm your very natural suspicions concerning this unfortunate young man unless you corroborate your observations by studying him at close range? Besides, already it seems to me that certain unmistakable signs are visible; I mean that strange physical phase which Dr. Lamour dwells on: the symmetry of feature and limb, the curiously spiritual beauty. Do you not notice these? Or is my sight so dim that I only imagine it?"
"He is certainly symmetrical—and—in a certain way—almost handsome in regard to features," she admitted, looking at Carden.
"Poor, poor boy!" muttered the old gentleman, wagging his gray whiskers. "I am too old to help him—too old to dream of finding a remedy for the awful malady which I am now convinced has seized him. I shall study him no more. It is useless. All I can do now is to mention his case to some young, vigorous, ambitious physician—some specialist—"
"Don't!" she whispered almost fiercely, "don't do that, Dr. Atwood! I want him, please! I—you helped me to discover him, you see. And his malady is to be my specialty. Please, do you mind if I keep him all to myself and study him?"
"But you refused, child."
"I didn't mean to. I—I didn't exactly see how I was to study him. But I must study him! Oh, I must! There will surely be some way. Please let me. You discovered him, I admit, but I will promise you faithfully to devote my entire life to studying him, as the great Lamour devoted his life for forty years to his single patient."
"But Dr. Lamour married his patient," said the Tracer mildly.
"He—I—that need not be necessary—"
"But if it should prove necessary?"
"Answer me, child."
She stared across at Carden, biting her red lips. He turned pink promptly and fidgeted.
"He has got it!" she whispered excitedly. "Oh, do you mind if I take him for mine? I am perfectly wild to begin on him!"
"You have not yet answered my question," said the old gentleman gravely. "Do you lack the courage to marry him if it becomes necessary to do so in order to devote your entire life to studying him?"
"Oh—it cannot be necessary—"
"You lack the courage."
She was silent.
"Braver things have been done by those of your profession who have gone among lepers," said the old gentleman sadly.
She flushed up instantly; her eyes sparkled; her head proudly high, delicate nostrils dilated.
"I am not afraid!" she said. "If it ever becomes necessary, I can show courage and devotion, as well as those of my profession who minister to the lepers of Molokai! Yes; I do promise you to marry him if I cannot otherwise study him. And I promise you solemnly to devote my entire life to observing his symptoms and searching for proper means to combat them. My one ambition in life is personally to observe and study a case of Lamour's Disease, and to give my entire life to investigating its origin, its course, and its cure."
The old gentleman rose, bowing with that quaintly obsolete courtesy which was in vogue in his youth.
"I am contented to leave him exclusively to you, Dr. Hollis. And I wish you happiness in your life's work—and success in your cure of this unhappy young man."
Hat in hand, he bowed again as he tottered past her, muttering and smiling to himself and shaking his trembling head as he went rocking on unsteady legs out into the sunshine, where the nursemaids and children flocked along the lake shore throwing peanuts to the waterfowl and satiated goldfish.
Dr. Hollis looked after him, her small hand buried among the pages of her open book. Carden viewed his disappearing figure with guileless emotions. He was vaguely aware that something important was about to happen to him. And it did before he was prepared.


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