The Tracer of Lost Persons

Robert W. Chambers


When Rosalind Hollis found herself on her feet again a slight sensation of fright checked her for a moment. Then, resolutely suppressing such unworthy weakness, the lofty inspiration of her mission in life dominated her, and she stepped forward undaunted. And Carden, seeing her advance toward him, arose in astonishment to meet her.
For a second they stood facing each other, he astounded, she a trifle pale but firm. Then in a low voice she asked his pardon for disturbing him.
"I am Rosalind Hollis, a physician," she said quietly, "and physicians are sometimes obliged to do difficult things in the interest of their profession. It is dreadfully difficult for me to speak to you in this way. But"—she looked fearlessly at him—"I am confident you will not misinterpret what I have done."
He managed to assure her that he did not misinterpret it.
She regarded him steadily; she examined the dark circles under his eyes; she coolly observed his rising color under her calm inspection; she saw him fidgeting with his walking stick. She must try his pulse!
"Would you mind if I asked you a few questions in the interest of science?" she said earnestly.
"As a m-m-matter of fact," he stammered, "I don't know much about science. Awfully glad to do anything I can, you know."
"Oh, I don't mean it that way," she reassured him. A hint of a smile tinted her eyes with brilliant amethyst. "Would you mind if I sat here for a few moments? Could you overlook this horrid unconventionality long enough for me to explain why I have spoken to you?"
"I could indeed!" he said, so anxiously cordial that her lovely face grew serious and she hesitated. But he was standing aside, hat off, placing the bench at her disposal, and she seated herself, placing her book on the bench beside her.
"Would you mind sitting here for a few moments?" she asked him gravely.
Dazed, scarcely crediting the evidence of his senses, he took possession of the end of the bench with the silent obedience of a schoolboy. His attitude was irreproachable. She was grateful for this, and her satisfaction with herself for not having misjudged him renewed her confidence in him, in herself, and in the difficult situation.
She began, quietly, by again telling him her name and profession; where she lived, and that she was studying to be a specialist, though she did not intimate what that specialty was to be.
Outwardly composed and attentively deferential, his astonishment at times dominated a stronger sentiment that seemed to grow and expand with her every word, seizing him in a fierce possession absolutely and hopelessly complete.
The bewildering fascination of her mastered him. No cool analysis of what his senses were confirming could be necessary to convince him of his condition. Every word of hers, every gesture, every inflection of her sweet, clear voice, every lifting of her head, her eyes, her perfectly gloved hands, only repeated to him what he knew was a certainty. Never had he looked upon such physical loveliness; never had he dreamed of such a voice.
She had asked him a question, and, absorbed in the pure delight of looking at her, he had not comprehended or answered. She flushed sensitively, accepting his silence as refusal, and he came out of his trance hastily.
"I beg your pardon; I did not quite understand your question, Miss Hollis—I mean, Dr. Hollis."
"I asked you if you minded my noting your pulse," she said.
He stretched out his right hand; she stripped off her glove, laid the tip of her middle finger on his wrist, and glanced down at the gold watch which she held.
"I am wondering," he said, laughing uncertainly, "whether you believe me to be ill. Of course it is easy to see that you have found something unusual about me—something of particular interest to a physician. Is there anything very dreadful going to happen to me, Dr. Hollis? I feel perfectly well."
"Are you sure you feel well?" she asked, so earnestly that the smile on his lips faded out.
"Absolutely. Is my pulse queer?"
"It is not normal."
He could easily account for that, but he said nothing.
She questioned him for a few minutes, noted his pulse again, looked closely at the bluish circles under his eyes. Naturally he flushed up and grew restless under the calm, grave, beautiful eyes.
"I—I have an absolutely new and carefully sterilized thermometer—" She drew it from a tiny gold-initialed pocket case, and looked wistfully at him.
"You want to put that into my mouth?" he asked, astonished.
"If you don't mind."
She held it up, shook it once or twice, and deliberately inserted it between his lips. And there he sat, round-eyed, silent, the end of the thermometer protruding at a rakish angle from the corner of his mouth. And he grew redder and redder.
"I don't wish to alarm you," she was saying, "but all this is so deeply significant, so full of vital interest to me—to the world, to science—"
"What have I got, in Heaven's name?" he said thickly, the thermometer wiggling in his mouth.
"Ah!" she exclaimed with soft enthusiasm, clasping her pretty ungloved hands, "I cannot be sure yet—I dare not be too sanguine—"
"Do you mean that you want me to have something queer?" he blurted out, while the thermometer wiggled with every word he uttered.
"N-no, of course, I don't want you to be ill," she said hastily. "Only, if you are ill it will be a wonderful thing for me. I mean—a—that I am intensely interested in certain symptoms which—"
She gently withdrew the glass tube from his lips and examined it carefully.
"Is there anything the matter?" he insisted, looking at the instrument over her shoulder.
She did not reply; pure excitement rendered her speechless.
"I seem to feel all right," he added uneasily. "If you really believe that there's anything wrong with me, I'll stop in to see my doctor."
"Your doctor!" she repeated, appalled.
"Yes, certainly. Why not?"
"Don't do that! Please don't do that! I—why I discovered this case. I beg you most earnestly to let me observe it. You don't understand the importance of it! You don't begin to dream of the rarity of this case! How much it means to me!"
He flushed up. "Do you intend to intimate that I am afflicted with some sort of rare and s-s-trange d-d-disease?" he stammered.
"I dare not pronounce upon it too confidently," she said with enthusiasm; "I have not yet absolutely determined the nature of the disease. But, oh, I am beginning to hope—"
"Then I am diseased!" he faltered. "I've got something anyhow; is that it? Only you are not yet perfectly sure what it is called! Is that the truth, Miss Hollis?"
"How can I answer positively until I have had time to observe these symptoms? It requires time to be certain. I do not wish to alarm you, but it is my duty to say to you that you should immediately place yourself under medical observation."
"You think that?"
"I do; I am convinced of it. Please understand me; I do not pronounce upon these visible symptoms; I do not express an unqualified opinion; but I could be in a position to do so if you consent to place yourself under my observations and care. For these suspicious symptoms are not only very plainly apparent to me, but were even noted by that old gentleman whom you may perhaps have observed conversing with me."
"Yes, I saw him. Who is he?"
"Dr. Austin Atwood," said the girl solemnly.
"Oh! And you say he also observed something queer about me? What did he see? Are there spots on me? Am I turning any remarkable color? Am I—" And in the very midst of his genuine alarm he suddenly remembered the make-up box and what the Tracer of Lost Persons had done to his eyes. Was that it? Where was the Tracer, anyway? He had promised to appear. And then Carden recollected the gray wig and whiskers that the Tracer had waved at him from the cupboard, bidding him note them well. Could that beaming, benignant, tottering old gentleman have been the Tracer of Lost Persons himself? And the same instant Carden was sure of it, spite of the miraculous change in the man.
Then logic came to his aid; and, deducing with care and patience, an earnest conviction grew within him that the dark circles under his eyes and the tottering old gentleman resembling Dr. Austin Atwood had a great deal to do with this dreadful disease which Dr. Hollis desired to study.
He looked at the charming girl beside him, and she looked back at him very sweetly, very earnestly, awaiting his decision.
For a moment he realized that she had really scared him, and in the reaction of relief an overwhelming desire to laugh seized him. He managed to suppress it, to compose himself. Then he remembered the Tracer's admonition to acquiesce in everything, do what he was told to do, not to run away, and to pay his court at the first decent opportunity.
He had no longer any desire to escape; he was quite willing to do anything she desired.
"Do you really want to study me, Dr. Hollis?" he asked, feeling like a hypocrite.
"Indeed I do," she replied fervently.
"You believe me worth studying?"
"Oh, truly, truly, you are! You don't suspect—you cannot conceive how important you have suddenly become to me."
"Then I think you had better take my case, Dr. Hollis," he said seriously. "I begin now to realize that you believe me to be a sort of freak—an afflicted curiosity, and that, in the interest of medicine, I ought to go to an asylum or submit myself to the ceaseless observation of a competent private physician."
"I—I think it best for you to place yourself in my care," she said. "Will you?"
"Yes," he said, "I will. I'll do anything in the world you ask."
"That is very—very generous, very noble of you!" she exclaimed, flushing with excitement and delight. "It means a great deal to me—it means, perhaps, a fame that I scarcely dared dream of even in my most enthusiastic years. I am too grateful to express my gratitude coherently; I am trying to say to you that I thank you; that I recognize in you those broad, liberal, generous qualities which, from your appearance and bearing, I—I thought perhaps you must possess."
She colored again very prettily; he bowed, and ventured to remind her that she had not yet given him the privilege of naming himself.
"That is true!" she said, surprised. "I had quite forgotten it." But when he named himself she raised her head, startled.
"Victor Carden!" she repeated. "You are the artist, Victor Carden!"
"Yes," he said, watching her dilated eyes like two violet-tinted jewels.
For a minute she sat looking at him; and imperceptibly a change came into her face, and its bewildering beauty softened as the vivid tints died out, leaving her cheeks almost pale.
"It is—a pity," she said under her breath. All the excitement, all the latent triumph, all the scarcely veiled eager enthusiasm had gone from her now.
"A pity?" he repeated, smiling.
"Yes. I wish it had been only an ordinary man. I—why should this happen to you? You have done so much for us all—made us forget ourselves in the beauty of what you offer us. Why should this happen to you!"
"But you have not told me yet what has happened to me, Miss Hollis."
She looked up, almost frightened.
"Are you our Victor Carden? I do not wish to believe it! You have done so much for the world—you have taught us to understand and desire all that is noble and upright and clean and beautiful!—to desire it, to aspire toward it, to venture to live the good, true, wholesome lives that your penciled creations must lead—must lead to wear such beautiful bodies and such divine eyes!"
"Do you care for my work?" he asked, astonished and moved.
"I? Yes, of course I do. Who does not?"
"Many," he replied simply.
"I am sorry for them," she said.
They sat silent for a long while.
At first his overwhelming desire was to tell her of the deception practiced upon her; but he could not do that, because in exposing himself he must fail in loyalty to the Tracer of Lost Persons. Besides, she would not believe him. She would think him mad if he told her that the old gentleman she had taken for Dr. Atwood was probably Mr. Keen, the Tracer of Lost Persons. Also, he himself was not absolutely certain about it. He had merely deduced as much.
"Tell me," he said very gently, "what is the malady from which you believe I am suffering?"
For a moment she remained silent, then, face averted, laid her finger on the book beside her.
"That," she said unsteadily.
He read aloud: "Lamour's Disease. A Treatise in sixteen volumes by Ero S. Lamour, M.D., M.S., F.B.A., M.F.H."
"All that?" he asked guiltily.
"I don't know, Mr. Carden. Are you laughing at me? Do you not believe me?" She had turned suddenly to confront him, surprising a humorous glimmer in his eyes.
"I really do not believe I am seriously ill," he said, laughing in spite of her grave eyes.
"Then perhaps you had better read a little about what Lamour describes as the symptoms of this malady," she said sadly.
"Is it fatal?" he inquired.
"Ultimately. That is why I desire to spend my life in studying means to combat it. That is why I desire you so earnestly to place yourself under my observation and let me try."
"Tell me one thing," he said; "is it contagious? Is it infectious? No? Then I don't mind your studying me all you wish, Dr. Hollis. You may take my temperature every ten minutes if you care to. You may observe my pulse every five minutes if you desire. Only please tell me how this is to be accomplished; because, you see, I live in the Sherwood Studio Building, and you live on Madison Avenue."
"I—I have a ward—a room—fitted up with every modern surgical device—every improvement," she said. "It adjoins my office. Would you mind living there for a while—say for a week at first—until I can be perfectly certain in my diagnosis?"
"Do you intend to put me to bed?" he asked, appalled.
"Oh, no! Only I wish to watch you carefully and note your symptoms from moment to moment. I also desire to try the effects of certain medicines on you—"
"What kind of medicines?" he asked uneasily.
"I cannot tell yet. Perhaps antitoxin; I don't know; perhaps formalin later. Truly, Mr. Carden, this case has taken on a graver, a more intimate significance since I have learned who you are. I would have worked hard to save any life; I shall put my very heart and soul into my work to save you, who have done so much for us all."
The trace of innocent emotion in her voice moved him.
"I am really not ill," he said unsteadily. "I cannot let you think I am—"
"Don't speak that way, Mr. Carden. I—I am perfectly miserable over it; I don't feel any happiness in my discovery now—not the least bit. I had rather live my entire life without seeing one case of Lamour's Disease than to believe you are afflicted with it."
"But I'm not, Miss Hollis!—really, I am not—"
She looked at him compassionately for a moment, then rose.
"It is best that you should be informed as to your probable condition," she said. "In Lamour's works, volume nine, you had better read exactly what Lamour says. Do you mind coming to the office with me, Mr. Carden?"
"Yes. The book is there. Do you mind coming?"
"No—no, of course not." And, as they turned away together under the trees: "You don't intend to begin observing me this afternoon, do you?" he ventured.
"I think it best if you can arrange your affairs. Can you, Mr. Carden?"
"Why, yes, I suppose I can. Did you mean for me to begin to occupy that surgical bedroom at once?"
"Do you mind?"
"N-no. I'll telephone my servants to pack a steamer trunk and send it around to your apartment this evening. And—where am I to board?"
"I have a dining room," she said simply. "My apartment consists of the usual number of servants and rooms, including my office, and my observation ward which you will occupy."
He walked on, troubled.
"I only w-want to ask one or two things, Dr. Hollis. Am I to be placed on a diet? I hate diets!"
"Not at once."
"May I smoke?"
"Certainly," she said, smiling.
"And you won't p-put me—send me to bed too early?"
"Oh, no! The later you sit up the better, because I shall wish to take your temperature every ten minutes and I shall feel very sorry to arouse you."
"You mean you are coming in to wake me up every ten minutes and put that tube in my mouth?" he asked, aghast.
"Only every half-hour, Mr. Carden. Can't you stand it for a week?"
"Well," he said, "I—I suppose I can if you can. Only, upon my honor, there is really nothing the matter with me, and I'll prove it to you out of your own book."
"I wish you could, Mr. Carden. I should be only too happy to give you back to the world with a clear bill of health if you can convince me I am wrong. Do you not believe me? Indeed, indeed I am not selfish and wicked enough to wish you this illness, no matter how rare it is!"
"The rarer a disease is the madder it makes people who contract it," he said. "I should be the maddest man in Manhattan if I really did have Lamour's malady. But I haven't. There is only one malady afflicting me, and I am waiting for a suitable opportunity to tell you all about it, but—"
"Tell me now," she said, raising her eyes to his.
"Not now."
"I hope so. I will if I can, Miss Hollis."
"But you must not fear to tell a physician about anything which troubles you, Mr. Carden."
"I'll remember that," he said thoughtfully, as they emerged from the Park and crossed to Madison Avenue.
A moment later he hailed a car and they both entered.


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