Robert W. Chambers’s supernatural short story collections, published at the turn of the century, influenced authors like H.P. Lovecraft as he brought American horror and science fiction writing into the 20th century. His collections The King in Yellow and The Haunts of Men presented murder stories with turns of superstition. “The Tracer of Lost Persons,” written for the Post, was collected into a novel, and then a radio drama series. The tracer is Mr. Keens, a detective type with an uncanny sense for solving strange disappearances.
Published on June 17-24, 1905
Earth could not answer, nor the seas
In flowing purple —
He was thirty-three, agreeable to look at, equipped with as much culture and intelligence as is tolerated east of Fifth Avenue and west of Madison. He had a couple of elaborate rooms at the Lenox Club, a larger income than seemed to be good for him, and no profession. It follows that he was a pessimist before breakfast. Besides, it’s a bad thing for a man at thirty-three to come to the conclusion that he has seen all the most attractive girls in the world and that they have been vastly overrated. So, when a club servant with gilt buttons on his coat-tails knocked at the door, the invitation to enter was not very cordial. He of the buttons knocked again to take the edge off before he entered; then opened the door and unburdened himself as follows:
“Mr. Gatewood, sir, Mr. Kerns’ compliments, and wishes to know if ’e may ’ave ’is coffee served at your tyble, sir.”
Gatewood, before the mirror, gave a vicious twist to his tie, inserted a pearl scarfpin, and regarded the effect with gloomy approval.
“Say to Mr. Kerns that I am — flattered,” he replied morosely; “and tell Henry I want him.”
“’Enry, sir? Yes, sir.”
The servant left; one of the sleek club valets came in, softly sidling.
“I’ll wear a white waistcoat, if you don’t object.”
The valet laid out half a dozen.
“Which one do you usually wear when I’m away, Henry? Which is your favorite?”
“Pick it out and don’t look injured, and don’t roll up your eyes. I merely desire to borrow it for one day.”
“Very good, sir.”
“And, Henry, hereafter always help yourself to my best cigars. Those I smoke may injure you. I’ve attempted to conceal the keys, but you will, of course, eventually discover them under that loose tile on the hearth.”
“Yes, sir; thanky’, sir,” returned the valet gravely.
“And — Henry!”
“Sir?” with martyred dignity.
“When you are tired of searching for my olivine and opal pin, just find it, for a change. I’d like to wear that pin for a day or two if it would not inconvenience you.”
“Very good, sir; I will ’unt it hup, sir.”
Gatewood put on his coat, took hat and gloves from the unabashed valet, and sauntered down to the sunny breakfast room, where he found Kerns inspecting a morning paper and leisurely consuming grapefruit with a cocktail on the side.
“Hullo,” observed Kerns briefly.
“I’m not on the telephone,” snapped Gatewood.
“I beg your pardon; how are you, dear friend?”
“I don’t know how I am,” retorted Gatewood irritably ; “how the devil should a man know how he is?”
“Everything going to the bow-wows, as usual, dear friend?”
“As usual. Oh, read your paper, Tommy! You know well enough I’m not one of those tail-wagging imbeciles who wakes up in the morning singing like a half-witted lark. Why should I, with this taste in my mouth, and the laundress using vitriol, and Henry sneering at my cigars?” He yawned and cast his eyes toward the ceiling. “Besides, there’s too much gilt all over this club! There’s too much everywhere. Half the world is stucco, the rest rococo. Where’s that Martini I bid for?”
Kerns, undisturbed, applied himself to cocoa and toasted muffins. Grapefruit and an amber-tinted accessory were brought for the other, and sampled without mirth. However, a little later Gatewood said: “Well, are you going to read your paper all day?”
“What you need,” said Kerns, laying the paper aside, “is a job — any old kind would do, dear friend.”
“I don’t want to make any more money.”
“I don’t want you to. I mean a job where you’d lose a lot and be scared into thanking Heaven for carfare. You’re a nice object for the breakfast-table!”
“Bridge. I will be amiable enough by noontime.”
“Yes, you’re endurable by noontime, as a mule. When you’re forty you may be tolerated after five o’clock; when you’re fifty your wife and children might even venture to emerge from the cellar after dinner — ”
“I said wife,” replied Kerns, as he calmly watched his man.
He had managed it well, so far, and he was wise enough not to overdo it. An interval of silence was what the situation required.
“I wish I had a wife,” muttered Gatewood after a long pause.
“Oh, haven’t you said that every day for five years? Wife! Look at the willing assortment of dreams playing Sally Waters around town? Isn’t this borough a bower of beauty — a flowery thicket where the prettiest kind in all the world grow under glass or outdoors? And what do you do? You used to pretend to prowl about inspecting the yearly crop of posies, growling, cynical, dissatisfied; but you’ve even given that up. Now you only point your nose skyward and squall for a mate and yowl mournfully that you never have seen your ideal. I know you.”
“I never have seen my ideal,” retorted Gatewood sulkily, “but I know she exists — somewhere between Heaven and Hoboken.”
“You’re sure, are you?”
“Oh, I’m sure. And, rich or poor, good or bad, she was fashioned for me alone. That’s a theory of mine; you needn’t accept it; in fact, it’s none of your business, Tommy.”
“All the same,” insisted Kerns, “did you ever consider that if your ideal does exist somewhere it is morally up to you to find her?”
“Haven’t I inspected every débutante for ten years? You don’t expect me to advertise for an ideal, do you — object, matrimony ?”
Kerns regarded him intently. “Now, I’m going to make a vivid suggestion, Jack. In fact, that’s why I subjected myself to the ordeal of breakfasting with you. It’s none of my business, as you so kindly put it, but — shall I suggest something?”
“Go ahead,” replied Gatewood, tranquilly lighting a cigarette. “I know what you’ll say.”
“No, you don’t. Firstly, you are having such a good time in this world that you don’t really enjoy yourself — isn’t that so?”
“I — well I — well, let it go at that.”
“Secondly, with all your crimes and felonies, you have one decent trait left: you really would like to fall in love. And I suspect you’d even marry.”
“There are grounds,” said Gatewood guardedly, “for your suspicions. Et après?”
“Good. Then there’s a way! I know — ”
“Oh, don’t tell me you ‘know a girl,’ or anything like that!” began Gatewood sullenly. “I’ve heard that before, and I won’t meet her.”
“I don’t want you to; I don’t know anybody. All I desire to say is this: I do know a way. The other day I noticed a sign on Fifth Avenue:
KEEN & CO.
TRACERS OF LOST PERSONS
It was a most extraordinary sign; and having a little unemployed imagination I began to speculate on how Keen & Co. might operate, and I wondered a little, too, that the conditions of life in this city could enable a firm to make a living by devoting itself exclusively to the business of hunting up missing people.”
Kerns paused, partly to light a cigarette, partly for diplomatic reasons.
“What has all this to do with me?” inquired Gatewood curiously; and diplomacy scored one.
“Why not try Keen & Co.?”
“Try them? Why? I haven’t lost anybody, have I?”
“You haven’t precisely lost anybody, but the fact remains that you can’t find somebody,” returned Kerns coolly. “Why not employ Keen & Co. to look for her?”
“Look for whom, in Heaven’s name?”
“Look for — for my ideal! Kerns, you’re crazy. How the mischief can anybody hunt for somebody who doesn’t exist?”
“You say that she does exist.”
“But I can’t prove it, man.”
“You don’t have to: it’s up to Keen & Co. to prove it. That’s why you employ them.”
“What wild nonsense you talk! Keen & Co. might, perhaps, be able to trace the concrete, but how are they going to trace and find the abstract?”
“She isn’t abstract; she is a lovely, healthy and youthful concrete object — if, as you say, she does exist.”
“How can I prove she exists?”
“You don’t have to; they do that.”
“Look here,” said Gatewood almost angrily, “do you suppose that if I were ass enough to go to these people and tell them that I wanted to find my ideal — ”
“Don’t tell them that!”
“But how — ”
“There is no necessity for going into such trivial details. All you need say is: I am very anxious to find a young lady — and then describe her as minutely as you please. Then, when they locate a girl of that description they’ll notify you; you will go, judge for yourself whether she is the one woman on earth — and, if disappointed, you need only shake your head and murmur: ‘Not the same!’ And it’s for them to find another.”
“I won’t do it!” said Gatewood hotly.
“Why not? At least, it would be amusing. You haven’t many mental resources, and it might occupy you for a week or two.”
“You have a pleasant way of putting things this morning, haven’t you?”
“I don’t want to be pleasant; I want to jar you. Don’t I care enough about you to breakfast with you? Then I’ve a right to be pleasantly unpleasant. I can’t bear to watch your mental and spiritual dissolution — a man like you, with all your latent ability and capacity for being nobody in particular — which is the sort of man this nation needs. Do you want to turn into a club-window gazer like Van Bronk? Do you want to become another Courtlandt Allerton and go rocking down the avenue — a grimacing, tailor-made sepulchre? — the pompous obsequies of a dead intellect? — a funeral on two wavering legs, carrying the corpse of all that should be deathless in a man? Why, Jack, I’d rather see you in bankruptcy — I’d rather see you trying to lead a double life in a single flat on seven dollars and a half a week — I’d almost rather see you every day at breakfast than have it come to that!
“Wake up and get jocund with life! Why, you could have all good citizens stung to death if you chose. It isn’t that I want you to make money; but I want you to worry over somebody besides yourself — not in Wall Street — a pool and its money are soon parted. But in your own home, where a beautiful wife and seven angel children have you dippy and close to the ropes; where the housekeeper gets a rake-off, and the cook is red-headed and comes from Sligo, and the butler’s cousin will bear watching, and the chauffeur is a Frenchman, and the coachman’s uncle is a Harlem vet, and every scullion in the establishment lies, drinks, steals and supports twenty satiated relatives at your expense. That would mean the making of you; for, after all, Jack, you are no genius — you’re a plain, non-partisan, uninspired, clean-built, wholesome citizen, thank God! — the sort whose unimaginative mission is to pitch in with eighty odd millions of us and, like the busy coral creatures, multiply with all your might, and make this little old Republic the greatest, biggest, finest article that an overworked world has ever yet put up! … Now you can call for help if you choose.”
Gatewood’s breath returned slowly. In an intimacy of many years he had never suspected that sort of thing from Kerns. That is why, no doubt, the opinions expressed by Kerns stirred him to an astonishment too innocent to harbor anger or chagrin.
And when Kerns stood up with an unembarrassed laugh, saying: “I’m going to the office; see you this evening?” Gatewood replied rather vacantly: “Oh, yes; I’m dining here. Good-by, Tommy.”
Kerns glanced at his watch, lingering. “Was there anything you wished to ask me, Jack?” he inquired guilelessly.
“Ask you? No, I don’t think so.”
“Oh; I had an idea you might care to know where Keen & Co. were to be found.”
“That,” said Gatewood firmly, “is foolish.”
“I’ll write the address for you, anyway,” rejoined Kerns, scribbling it and handing the card to his friend.
Then he went down the stairs, several at a time, eased in conscience, satisfied that he had done his duty by a friend he cared enough for to breakfast with.
“Of course,” he ruminated as he crawled into a hansom and lay back buried in meditation — ” Of course there may be nothing in this Keen & Co. business. But it will stir him up and set him thinking; and the longer Keen & Co. take to hunt up an imaginary lady that doesn’t exist, the more anxious and impatient poor old Jack Gatewood will become, until he’ll catch the fever and go cantering about with that one fixed idea in his head. And,” added Kerns softly, “no New Yorker in his right mind can go galloping through these five boroughs very long before he’s roped, tied and marked by the ‘only girl in the world’ — the only girl — if you don’t care to turn around and look at another million girls precisely like her. Oh, Lord! — precisely like her!”
Here was a nice exhorter to incite others to matrimony.
Meanwhile, Gatewood was walking along Fifth Avenue, more or less soothed by the May sunshine. First, he went to his hatter’s, looked at straw hats, didn’t like them, protested, and bought one, wishing he had strength of mind enough to wear it home. But he hadn’t. Then he entered the huge white marble palace of his jeweler, left his watch to be regulated, caught a glimpse of a girl whose hair and neck resembled the hair and neck of his ideal, sidled around until he discovered that she was chewing gum, and backed off, with a bitter smile, into the avenue once more.
Every day for years he had had glimpses of girls whose hair, hands, figures, eyes, hats, carriage, resembled the features required by his ideal; there always was something wrong somewhere. And, as he strolled moodily, a curious feeling of despair seized him — something that, even in his most sentimental moments, even amid the most unexpected disappointment, he had never before experienced.
“I do want to love somebody!” he found himself saying half aloud; “I want to marry; I — ” He turned to look after three pretty children with their maids — ”. I want several like those — several! — seven — ten — I don’t care how many! I want a house to worry me, just as Tommy described it; I want to see the same girl across the breakfast-table — or she can sip her cocoa in bed if she desires — ” A slow, modest blush stole over his features; it was one of the nicest things he ever did. Glancing up, he beheld across the way a white sign, ornamented with strenuous crimson lettering:
KEEN & CO.
TRACERS OF LOST PERSONS
The moment he discovered it he realized he had been covertly hunting for it; he also realized that he was going to climb the stairs. He hadn’t quite decided what he meant to do after that; nor was his mind clear on the matter when he found himself opening a door of opaque glass on which was printed in red:
KEEN & CO.
He was neither embarrassed nor nervous when lie found himself in a big carpeted anteroom where an attendant bowed him to a seat and took his card; and he looked calmly around to see what was to be seen.
Several people occupied easy chairs in various parts of the room — an old woman very neatly dressed, clutching in her withered hand a photograph which she studied and studied with tear-dimmed eyes; a young man wearing last year’s most fashionable styles in everything except his features: and soap could have aided him there; two policemen, helmets resting on their knees; and, last of all, a rather thin child of twelve, staring open-mouthed at everybody, a bundle of soiled clothing under one arm. Through an open door he saw a dozen young women garbed in black, with white cuffs and collars, all rattling away steadily at typewriters. Every now and then, from some hidden office, a bell rang decisively, and one of the girls would rise from her machine and pass noiselessly out of sight to obey the summons. From time to time, too, the servant with marvelous manners would usher somebody through the room where the typewriters were rattling, into the unseen office. First the old woman went — shakily, clutching her photograph; then the thin child with the bundle, staring at everything; then the two fat policemen, in portentous single file, helmets in their white-gloved hands, oiled hair glistening.
Gatewood’s turn was approaching; he waited without any definite emotion, watching newcomers enter to take the places of those who had been summoned. He hadn’t the slightest idea of what he was to say; nor did it worry him. A curious sense of impending good fortune left him pleasantly tranquil; he picked up, from the silver tray on the table at his elbow, one of the firm’s business cards, and scanned it with interest:
KEEN & CO.
TRACERS OF LOST PERSONS
Keen & Co. are prepared to locate the whereabouts of anybody on earth. No charges will be made unless the person searched for is found.
Blanks on application.
WESTREL KEEN, Manager.
“Mistuh Keen will see you, suh,” came a persuasive voice at his elbow; and he rose and followed the softly moving servant out of the room, through a labyrinth of demure young women at their typewriters, then sharply to the right and into a big, handsomely furnished office, where a sleepy-looking elderly gentleman rose from an armchair and bowed. There could not be the slightest doubt that he was a gentleman; every movement, every sound he uttered settled the fact.
“Mr. Gatewood?” — with a quiet certainty which had its, charm — “This is very good of you.”
Gatewood sat down and looked at his host. Then he said: “I’m searching for somebody, Mr. Keen, whom you are not likely to find.”
“I doubt it,” said Keen pleasantly.
Gatewood smiled. “If,” he said, “you will undertake to find the person I cannot find, I must ask you to accept a retainer.”
“We don’t require retainers,” replied Keen. “Unless we find the person sought for, we make no charges, Mr. Gatewood.”
“I must ask you to do so in my case. It is not fair that you should undertake it on other terms. I desire to make a special arrangement with you. Do you mind?”
“What arrangement had you contemplated?” inquired Keen, amused.
“Only this: charge me in advance exactly what you would charge if successful. And, on the other hand, do not ask me for detailed information — I mean, do not insist on any information that I decline to give. Do you mind taking up such an extraordinary and unbusinesslike proposition, Mr. Keen?”
The Tracer of Lost Persons looked up sharply:
“About how much information do you decline to give, Mr. Gatewood?”
“About enough to incriminate and degrade,” replied the young man, laughing.
The elderly gentleman sat silent, apparently buried in meditation. Once or twice his pleasant steel-gray eyes wandered over Gatewood as an expert, a connoisseur, glances at a picture and assimilates its history, its value, its artistic merit, its every detail in one practiced glance.
“I think we may take up this matter for you, Mr. Gatewood,” he said, smiling his singularly agreeable smile.
“But — but you would first desire to know something about me — would you not?”
Keen looked at him: “You will not mistake me — you will consider it entirely inoffensive — if I say that I know something about you, Mr. Gatewood?”
“About me” How can you? Of course, there is the social register and the club lists and all that — ”
“And many, many sources of information which are necessary in such a business as this, Mr. Gatewood. It is a necessity for us to be almost as well informed as our clients’ own lawyers. I could pay you no sincerer compliment than to undertake your case. I am half inclined to do so even without a retainer. Mind, I haven’t yet said that I will take it.”
“I prefer to regulate any possible indebtedness in advance,” said Gatewood.
“As you wish,” replied the older man, smiling. “In that case, suppose you draw your check,” he handed Gatewood a fountain pen as the young man fished a check-book from his pocket — ” your check for — well, say for $5,000, to the order of Keen & Co.”
Gatewood met his eye without wincing; he was in for it now; and he was always perfectly game. He had brought it upon himself ; it was his own proposition. Not that he would have for a moment considered the sum as high — or any sum exorbitant — if there had been a chance of success; one cannot compare and weigh such matters. But how could there be any chance for success?
As he slowly smoothed out the check and stub, pen poised, Keen was saying: “Of course, we should succeed sooner or later — if we took up your case. We might succeed tomorrow — today. That would mean a large profit for us. But we might not succeed today, or next month, or even next year. That would leave us little or no profit; and, as it is our custom to go on until we do succeed, no matter how long it may require, you see, Mr. Gatewood, I should be taking all sorts of chances. It might even cost us double your retainer before we found her — ”
“Her? How did — why do you say her’?”
“Am I wrong?” asked Keen, smiling.
“No — you are right.”
The Tracer of Lost Persons sank into abstraction again. Gatewood waited, hoping that his case might be declined, yet ready to face any music started at his own request.
“She is young,” mused Keen aloud, “very beautiful and accomplished. Is she wealthy?” He looked up mildly.
Gatewood said: “I don’t know — the truth is I don’t care — ” And stopped.
“O — ho!” mused Keen slowly. “I — think — I understand. Am I wrong, Mr. Gatewood, in surmising that this young lady whom you seek is, in your eyes, very — I may say ideally gifted?”
“She is my ideal,” replied the young man, coloring.
“Exactly. And — her general allure?”
“Exactly; but to be a trifle more precise — if you could give me a sketch, an idea, a mere outline delicately tinted, now. Is she more blond than brunette?”
“Yes — but her eyes are brown. I — I insist on that.”
“Why should you not? You know her; I don’t,” said Keen, laughing. “I merely wished to form a mental picture … You say her hair is — is — ”
“It’s full of sunny color; that’s all I can say.”
“Exactly — I see. A rare and lovely combination with brown eyes and creamy skin, Mr. Gatewood. I fancy she might be, perhaps, an inch or two under your height?”
“Just about that. Her hands should be — are beautiful — ”
“Exactly. The ensemble is most vividly portrayed, Mr. Gatewood; and — you have intimated that her lack of fortune — er — we might almost say her pecuniary distress — is more than compensated for by her accomplishments, character and very unusual beauty … Did I so understand you, Mr. Gatewood?”
“That’s what I meant, anyhow,” he said, flushing up.
“You did mean it?”
“I did; I do.”
“Then we take your case, Mr. Gatewood … No haste about the check, my dear sir — pray consider us at your service.”
But Gatewood doggedly filled in the check and handed it to the Tracer of Lost Persons.
“I wish you happiness,” said the older man in a low voice. “The lady you describe exists; it is for us to discover her.”
“Thank you,” stammered Gatewood, astounded.
Keen touched an electric button; a moment later a young girl entered the room.
“Miss Southerland, Mr. Gatewood. Will you be kind enough to take Mr. Gatewood’s dictation in Room 19?”
For a second Gatewood stared — as though, in the young girl before him, the ghost of his ideal had risen to confront him — only for a second ; then he bowed, matching her perfect acknowledgment of his presence by a bearing and courtesy which must have been inbred to be so faultless.
And he followed her to Room 19.
What had Keen meant by saying, “The lady you describe exists!” Did this remarkable elderly gentleman suspect that it was to be a hunt for an ideal? Had he deliberately entered into such a bargain? Impossible!
His disturbed thoughts reverted to the terms of the bargain: the entire enterprise, the figures on his check; his own amazing imbecility appalled him. What idiocy! What sudden madness had seized him to entangle himself in such unheard-of negotiations! True, he had played bridge until dawn the night before, but, on awaking, he had discovered no perceptible hold-over. It must have been sheer weakness of intellect that permitted him to be dominated by the suggestions of Kerns. And now the game was on: the jack declared, cards dealt and his ante was up. Had he openers?
Room 19, duly labeled with its number on the opaque glass door, contained a desk, a table and typewriter, several comfortable chairs, and a window opening on Fifth Avenue, through which the eastern sun poured a stream of glory, washing curtain, walls and ceiling with palest gold.
And all this time, preoccupied with new impressions and his own growing chagrin, he watched the girl who conducted him with all the unconscious assurance and grace of a young chatelaine passing through her own domain under escort of a distinguished guest.
When they had entered Room 19, she half turned, but he forestalled her and closed the door, and she passed before him with a perceptible inclination of her finely-modeled head, seating herself at the desk by the open window. He took an armchair at her elbow and removed his gloves, looking at her expectantly.
“This is a list of particular and general questions for you to answer, Mr. Gatewood,” she said, handing him a long slip of printed matter. “The replies to such questions as you are able or willing to answer you may dictate to me.” The beauty of her modulated voice was scarcely a surprise — no woman who moved and carried herself as did this tall young girl in black and white could reasonably be expected to speak with less distinction — yet the charm of her voice, from the moment her lips unclosed, so engrossed him that the purport of her speech escaped him.
“Would you mind saying it once more?” he asked.
She did so; he attempted to concentrate his attention, and succeeded sufficiently to look as though some vestige of intellect remained in him, He saw her pick up a pad and pencil; the contour and grace of two deliciously fashioned hands arrested his mental process once more.
“I beg your pardon,” he said hastily; “what were you saying, Miss Southerland?”
“Nothing, Mr. Gatewood. I did not speak.”
And he realized, hazily, that she had not spoken — that it was the subtle eloquence of her youth and loveliness that had appealed like a sudden voice — a sound faintly exquisite echoing his own thought of her.
Troubled, he looked at the slip of paper in his hand: it was headed:
SPECIAL DESCRIPTION BLANK
And he read it as carefully as he was able to — the curious little clamor of his pulses, the dazed sense of elation — almost of expectation — distracting his attention all the time.
“I wish you would read it to me,” he said; “that would give me time to think up answers.”
“If you wish,” she assented pleasantly, swinging around toward him in her desk-chair. Then she crossed one knee over the other to support the pad, and, bending above it, lifted her brown eyes. She could have done nothing in the world more distracting at that moment.
“What is the sex of the person you desire to find, Mr. Gatewood?”
“Her sex? I — well, I fancy it is feminine.”
She wrote after “Sex “the words, “She is probably feminine”; looked at him absently, glanced at what she had written, flushed a little, rubbed out the “she is probably,” wondering why a moment’s mental wandering should have committed her to absurdity.
“Married?” she asked with emphasis.
“No,” he replied, startled; then, vexed: “I beg your pardon — you mean to ask if she is married!”
“Oh, I didn’t mean you, Mr. Gatewood; it’s the next question, you see” — she held out the blank toward him. “Is the person you are looking for married?”
“Oh, no; she isn’t married, either — at least — I trust — not — because if she is I don’t want to find her!” he ended, entangled in an explanation which threatened to involve him deeper than he desired. And, looking up, he saw the beautiful brown eyes regarding him steadily. They reverted to the paper at once, and the white fingers sent the pencil flying.
“He trusts that she is unmarried, but if she is (underlined) married he doesn’t want to find her,” she wrote.
“That,” she explained, “goes under the head of ‘General Remarks’ at the bottom of the page” — she held it out, pointing with her pencil. He nodded, staring at her slender hand.
“Age?” she continued, setting the pad firmly on her rounded, yielding knee and looking up at him.
“Age? Well, I — as a matter of fact, I could only venture a surmise. You know,” he said earnestly, “how difficult it is to guess ages, don’t you, Miss Southerland?”
“How old do you think she is? Could you not hazard a guess — judging, say, from her appearance?”
“I have no data — no experience to guide me.” He was becoming involved again. “Would you, for practice, permit me first to guess your age, Miss Southerland?”
“Why — yes — if you think that might help you to guess hers.”
So he leaned back in his armchair and considered her a very long time — having a respectable excuse to do so. Twenty times he forgot he was looking at her for any purpose except that of disinterested delight, and twenty times he remembered with a guilty wince that it was a matter of business.
“Perhaps I had better tell you,” she suggested, her color rising a little under his scrutiny.
“Is it eighteen? Just her age!”
“Twenty-one, Mr. Gatewood — and you said you didn’t know her age.”
“I have just remembered that I thought it might be eighteen; but I dare say I was shy three years in her case, too. You may put it down at twenty-one.”
For the slightest fraction of a second the brown eyes rested on his, the pencil hovered in hesitation. Then the eyes fell, and the moving fingers wrote.
“Did you write ‘twenty-one?’” he inquired carelessly.
“I did not, Mr. Gatewood.”
“What did you write?”
“I wrote: ‘He doesn’t appear to know much about her age.’”
“But I do know — ”
“You said — ” They looked at one another earnestly.
“The next question,” she continued with composure, “is: ‘Date and place of birth?’ Can you answer any part of that question?”
“I trust I may be able to — someday … What are you writing?”
“I’m writing: ‘he trusts he may be able to, some day.’ Wasn’t that what you said?”
“Yes, I did say that. I — I’m not perfectly sure what I meant by it.”
She passed to the next question:
“About five feet six,” he said, fascinated gaze on her.
“More gold than brown — full of — er — gleams — ” She looked up quickly; his eyes reverted to the window rather suddenly. He had been looking at her hair.
“Complexion?” she continued after a shade of hesitation.
“It’s a sort of delicious mixture — bisque, tinted with a pinkish bloom — ivory and rose — ” He was explaining volubly when she began to shake her head, timing each shake to his words.
“Really, Mr. Gatewood, I think you are hopelessly vague on that point — unless you desire to convey the impression that — she is speckled.”
“Speckled!” he repeated, horrified. “Why, I am describing a woman who is my ideal of beauty — ”
But she had already gone to the next question:
“P-p-perfect p-p-pearls!” he stammered. The laughing red mouth closed like a flower at dusk, veiling the sparkle of her teeth.
Was he trying to be impertinent? Was he deliberately describing her? He did not look like that sort of man; yet why was he watching her so closely, so curiously at every question? Why did he look at her teeth when she laughed?
“Eyes?” Her own dared him to continue what, coincidence or not, was plainly a description of herself.
“B-b-b — ” He grew suddenly timorous, hesitating, pretending to a perplexity which was really a healthy scare. For she was frowning.
“Curious I can’t think of the color of her eyes,” he said; “is — isn’t it?”
She coldly inspected her pad and made a correction; but all she did was to rub out a comma and put another in its place. Meanwhile, Gatewood, chin in his hand, sat buried in profound thought. “Were they blue?” he murmured to himself aloud, “or were they brown? Blue begins with a b and brown begins with a b. I’m convinced that her eyes began with a b. They were not, therefore, gray or green, because,” he added in a burst of confidence, “it is utterly impossible to spell gray or green with a b!”
“Miss Southerland looked slightly astonished:
“All you can recollect, then, is that the color of her eyes began with the letter b?”
“That is absolutely all I can remember; but I think they were — brown.”
“If they were brown they must be brown now,” she observed, looking out of the window.
“That’s true! Isn’t it curious I never thought of that? What are you writing?”
“Brown,” she said so briefly that it sounded something like a snub.
“Mouth? “inquired the girl, turning a new leaf on her pad.
“Perfect. Write it: there is no other term fit to describe its color, shape, its sensitive beauty, its — What did you write just then?”
“I wrote, ‘Mouth, ordinary.’”
“I don’t want you to! I want — ”
“Really, Mr. Gatewood, a rhapsody on a girl’s mouth is proper in poetry, but scarcely germane to the record of a purely business transaction. Please answer the next question tersely if you don’t mind: ‘Figure?’”
“Oh, I do mind! I can’t! Any poem is much too brief to describe her figure — ”
“Shall we say ‘Perfect?’” asked the girl, raising her brown eyes in a glimmering transition from vexation to amusement. For, after all, it could be only a coincidence that this young man should be describing features peculiar to herself.
“Couldn’t you write, Venus-of-Milo-like ‘? “he inquired. “That is laconic.”
“I could — if it’s true. But if you mean it for praise — I — don’t think any modern woman would be flattered.”
“I always supposed that she of Milo had an ideal figure,” he said, perplexed.
She wrote, “A good figure.” Then, propping her rounded chin on one lovely white hand, she glanced at the next question:
“White, beautiful, rose-tipped, slender yet softly and firmly rounded — ”
“How can they be soft and firm, too, Mr. Gatewood?” she protested; then, surprising his guilty eyes fixed on her hands, hastily dropped them and sat up straight, level-browed, cold as marble. Was he deliberately being rude to her?
As a matter of fact, he was not. Too poor in imagination to invent, on the spur of the moment, charms and qualities suited to his ideal, he had, at first unconsciously, taken as a model the girl before him; quite unconsciously and innocently at first — then furtively, and with a dawning perception of the almost flawless beauty he was secretly plagiarizing. Aware, now, that something had annoyed her; aware, too, at the same moment that there appeared to be nothing lacking in her to satisfy his imagination of the ideal, lie began to turn redder than he had ever turned in all his life.
Several minutes of sixty seconds each ensued before he ventured to stir a finger. And it was only when she bent again very gravely over her pad that he cautiously eased a cramped muscle or two, and drew a breath — a long, noiseless, deep and timid respiration. He realized the enormity of what he had been doing — how close he had come to giving unpardonable offense by drawing a perfect portrait of her as the person he desired to find through the good offices of Keen & Co.
But there was no such person! — unless she had a double: for what more could a man desire than the ideal traits he had been able to describe only by using her as his inspiration.
When he ventured to look at her, one glance was enough to convince him that she, too, had noticed the parallel — had been forced to recognize her own features in the portrait he had constructed of an ideal. And she had caught him in absent-minded contemplation of the hands he had been describing. He knew that his face was the face of a guilty man.
“What is the next question?” he stammered, eager to answer it in a manner calculated to allay her suspicions.
“The next question?” Site glanced at the list, then with a voice of velvet which belied the eyes, clear as frosty brown pools in November: “The next question requires a description of her feet.”
“Feet! Oh — they — they’re rather large — why, her feet are enormous, I believe — ”
She looked at him as though stunned; suddenly a flood of pink spread, wave on wave, from the white nape of her neck to her hair; she bent low over her pad and wrote something, remaining in that attitude until her face cooled.
“Somehow or other I’ve done it again!” he thought, horrified. “The best thing I can do is to end it and go home.”
In his distress he began to hedge, saying: “Of course, she is rather tall and her feet are in some sort of proportion — in fact, they are perfectly symmetrical feet — ”
Never in his life had he encountered a pair of such angrily beautiful eyes. Speech stopped with a dry gulp.
“We now come to ‘General Remarks,’” she said in a voice made absolutely steady and emotionless. “Have you any remarks of that description to offer, Mr. Gatewood?”
“I’m willing to make remarks,” he said, “if I only knew what you wished me to say.”
She mused, eyes on the sunny window, then looked up. “Where did you last see her?”
“Near Fifth Avenue.”
“And what street?”
He named the street.
“Rather,” he said timidly.
She ruffled the edges of her pad, wrote something and erased it, bit her scarlet upper lip, and frowned.
“Out-of-doors, of course?”
“No; indoors,” he admitted furtively.
She looked up with a movement almost nervous.
“Do you dare — I mean, care — to be more concise?”
“I would rather not,” he replied in a voice from which he hoped he had expelled the tremors of alarm.
“As you please, Mr. Gatewood. And would you care to answer any of these other questions: Who and what are or were her parents? Give all particulars concerning all her relatives. Is she employed or not? What are her social, financial and general circumstances? Her character, personal traits, aims, interests, desires? Has she any vices? Any virtues? Talents? Ambitions? Caprices? Fads? Are you in love with her? Is — ”
“Yes,” he said, “I am.”
“Is she in love with you?”
“No; she hates me — I’m afraid.”
“Is she in love with anybody?”
“That is very difficult — ”
The girl wrote: “He doesn’t know,” with a satisfaction apparently causeless.
“Is she a relative of yours, Mr. Gatewood?” very sweetly.
“No, Miss Southerland,” very positively.
“You — you desire to marry her — you say?”
“I do. But I didn’t say it.”
She was silent; then:
“What is her name?” in a low voice which started several agreeable thrills chasing one another over him.
“I — I decline to answer,” he stammered.
“On what grounds, Mr. Gatewood?”
He looked her full in the eyes; suddenly he bent forward and gazed at the printed paper from which she had been apparently reading.
“Why, all those questions you are scaring me with are not there!” he exclaimed indignantly. “You are making them up?”
“I — I know, but” — she was flushing furiously — “but they are on the other forms — some of them. Can’t you see you are answering ‘Form K’? That is a special form
“But why do you ask me questions that are not on Form K?”
“Because it is my duty to do all I can to secure evidence which may lead to the discovery of the person you desire to find. I assure you, Mr. Gatewood, this duty is not always agreeable and some people make it harder still.”
Gatewood looked out of the window. Various emotions — among them shame, mortification, chagrin — pervaded him, and chased each other along his nervous system, coloring his neck and ears a fiery red for the enlightenment of any observer.
“I — I did not mean to offend you,” said the girl in a low voice — such a gently regretful voice that Gatewood swung around in his chair.
“There is nothing I would not be glad to tell you about the woman I have fallen in love with,” he said. “She is overwhelmingly lovely; and — when I dare — I will tell you her name and where I first saw her — and where I saw her last — if you desire. Shall I?”
“It would be advisable. When will you do this?”
“When I dare.”
“You — you don’t dare — now?”
“No … not now.”
She absently wrote on her pad: “He doesn’t dare tell me now.” Then, with head still bent, she lifted her mischief-making, trouble-breeding brown eyes to his once more.
“I am to come here, of course, to consult you?” he asked dizzily.
“Mr. Keen will receive you — ”
“He may be busy.”
“He may be,” she repeated dreamily.
“So — I’ll ask for you.”
“We could write you, Mr. Gatewood.”
He said hastily: “It’s no trouble for me to come; I walk every morning.”
“But there would be no use, I think, in your coming very soon. All I — all Mr. Keen could do for a while would be to report progress — ”
“That is all I dare look for: progress — for the present.”
During the time that he remained — which was not very long — neither of them spoke until he arose to take his departure.
“Good-by, Miss Southerland. I hope you may find the person I have been searching for.”
“Good-by, Mr. Gatewood … I hope we shall; … but I — don’t — know.”
And, as a matter of fact, she did not know, she was rather excited over nothing, apparently; and also somewhat preoccupied with several rather disturbing emotions, the species of which she was interested in determining. But to label and catalogue each of these emotions separately required privacy and leisure to think — and she also wished to look very earnestly at the reflection of her own face in the mirror of her own chamber. For it is a trifle exciting — though but an innocent coincidence — to be compared, feature by feature, to a young man’s ideal. As far as that went. she excelled it, too; and, as she stood by the desk, alone, gathering up her notes, she suddenly bent over and lifted the hem of her gown a trifle — sufficient to reassure herself that the dainty pair of shoes she wore would have baffled the efforts of any Venus ever sculptured. And she was perfectly right.
“Of course,” she thought to herself, “his ideal runaway hasn’t enormous feet. He, too, must have been struck with the similarity between me and his ideal, and when he realized that I also noticed it he was frightened by my frown into saying that her feet were enormous. How silly! … For I didn’t mean to frighten him … He frightened me once or twice — I mean he irritated me — no, interested me, is what I do mean … Heigho! I wonder why she ran away? I wonder why he can’t find her? … It’s — it’s silly to run away from a man like that … Heigho! She doesn’t deserve to be found. There is nothing to be afraid of — nothing to alarm anybody in a man like that.”
So she gathered up her notes and walked slowly out and across to the private office of the Tracer of Lost Persons.
“Come in,” said the Tracer when she knocked. He was using the telephone; she seated herself rather listlessly beside the window, where spring sunshine lay in gilded patches on the rug and spring breezes stirred the curtains. She was a little tired, but there seemed to be no good reason why. Yet, with the soft wind blowing on her cheek, the languor grew; she rested her face on one closed hand, shutting her eyes.
When they opened again it was to meet the fixed gaze of Mr. Keen.
“Oh — I beg your pardon!”
“There is no need of it, child. Be seated. Nevermind that report just now.” He paced the length of the room once or twice, hands clasped behind him; then, halting to confront her:
“What sort of a man is this young Gatewood?”
“What sort, Mr. Keen? Why — I think he is the — the sort — that — ”
“I see that you don’t think much of him?” said Keen, laughing.
“Oh, indeed I did not mean that at all; I mean that he appeared to be — to be — ”
“Rather a cad?”
“Why, no!” she said, flushing up. “He is absolutely well bred, Mr. Keen.”
“You received no unpleasant impression of him?”
“On the contrary!” she said rather warmly — for it hurt her sense of justice that Keen should so misjudge even a stranger in whom she had no personal interest.
“You think he looks like an honest man?”
“Honest?” She was rosy with annoyance. “Have you any idea that he is dishonest?”
“Not the slightest,” she said with emphasis.
“Suppose a man should set us hunting for a person who does not exist — on our terms, which are no payment unless successful? Would that be honest?” asked Keen gravely.
“Did — did he do that?”
“I knew he couldn’t do such a thing!”
“No, he — er — couldn’t. Because I wouldn’t allow it — not that he tried to!” added Keen hastily as the indignant brown eyes sparkled ominously. “Really, Miss Southerland, he must be all you say he is, for he has a staunch champion to vouch for him.”
“All I say he is? I haven’t said anything about him!”
Mr. Keen nodded. “Exactly. Let its drop him for a moment … Are you perfectly well, Miss Southerland?”
“I’m glad of it. You are a trifle pale; you seem to be a little languid … When do you take your vacation?”
“You suggested May, I believe,” she said wistfully.
The Tracer leaned back in his chair, joining the tips of his fingers reflectively.
“Miss Southerland,” he said, “you have been with us a year. I thought it might interest you to know that I am exceedingly pleased with you.”
She colored charmingly.
“But,” he added, “I’m terribly afraid we’re going to lose you.”
“Why?” she asked, startled.
“However,” he continued, ignoring her half-frightened question with a smile, “I am going to promote you — for faithful and efficient service.”
“O — h!”
“With an agreeable increase of salary, and new duties which will take you into the open air … You ride?”
“I — I used to before — ”
“Exactly; before you were obliged to earn your living. Please have yourself measured for habit and boots this afternoon. I shall arrange for horse, saddle and groom. You will spend most of your time riding in the park — for the present.”
“But — Mr. Keen — am I to be one of your agents — a sort of detective?”
Keen regarded her absently, then crossed one leg over the other.
“Read me your notes,” he said with a smile.
She read them, folded them, and he took them from her, thoughtfully regarding her.
“Did you know that your mother and I were children together?” he asked.
“No!” She stared. “Is that why you sent for me that day at the school of stenography?”
“That is why … When I learned that my playmate — your mother — was dead, is it not reasonable to suppose that I should wish her daughter to have a chance?”
Miss Southerland looked at him steadily.
“She was like you — when she married … I never married … Do you wonder that I sent for you, child?”
Nothing but the clock ticking there in the sunny room, and an old man staring into two dimmed brown eyes, and the little breezes at the open window whispering of summers past.
“This young man, Gatewood,” said the Tracer, clearing his voice of its hoarseness — “this young man ought to be all right, if I did not misjudge his father — years ago, child, years ago. And he is all right — ”
He half turned toward a big letter file; “his record is clean, so far. The trouble with him is idleness. He ought to marry.”
“Isn’t he trying to?” she asked.
“It looks like it. Miss Southerland, we must find this woman!”
“Yes, but I don’t see how you are going to — on such slight information — ”
“Information! Child, I have all I want — all I could desire.” He laughed, passing his hands over his gray hair. “We are going to find the girl he is in love with before the week ends!”
“Do you really think so?” she exclaimed.
“Yes. But you must do a great deal in this case.”
“And — and what am I to do?”
“Ride in the park, child! And if you see Mr. Gatewood, don’t you dare take your eyes off him for one moment. Watch him; observe everything he does. If he should recognize you and speak to you, be as amiable to him as though it were not by my orders.”
“Then — then I am to be a detective!” she faltered.
The Tracer did not appear to hear her. He took up the notes, turned to the telephone, and began to send out a general alarm, reading the description of the person whom Gatewood had described. The vast, intricate and delicate machinery under his control was being set in motion all over the Union.
“Not that I expect to find her outside the borough of Manhattan,” he said, smiling, as he hung up the receiver and turned to her; “but it’s as well to know how many types of that species exist in this Republic, and who they are — in case any other young man comes here raving of brown eyes and ‘gleams’ in the hair.”
Miss Southerland, to her own intense consternation, blushed.
“I think you had better order that habit at once,” said the Tracer carelessly.
“Tell me, Mr. Keen,” she asked tremulously, “am I to spy upon Mr. Gatewood? And report to you? … For I simply cannot bear to do it — ”
“Child, you need report nothing unless you desire to. And, when there is something to report, it will be about the woman I am searching for. Don’t you understand? I have already located her. You will find her in the Park. And when you are sure she is the right one — and if you care to report it to me — I shall be ready to listen … I am always ready to listen to you.”
“But — I warn you, Mr. Keen, that I have perfect faith in the honor of Mr. Gatewood. I know that I could have nothing unworthy to report.”
“I am sure of it,” said the Tracer of Lost Persons, studying her with eyes that were not quite clear. “Now, I think you had better order that habit … Your mother sat her saddle perfectly … We rode very often — my lost playmate and I.”
He turned, hands clasped behind his back, absently pacing the room, backward, forward, there in the spring sunshine. Nor did he notice her lingering, nor mark her as she stole from the room, brown eyes saddened and thoughtful, wondering, too, that there should be in the world so much room for sorrow.
Gatewood, burdened with restlessness and gnawed by curiosity, consumed a week in prowling about the edifice where Keen & Co. carried on an interesting profession.
His first visit resulted merely in a brief interview with Mr. Keen, who smilingly reported progress and suavely bowed him out. He looked about for Miss Southerland as he was leaving, but did not see her.
On his second visit he mustered the adequate courage to ask for her, and experienced a curiously sickly sensation when informed that Miss Southerland was no longer employed in the bureau of statistics, having been promoted to an outside position of great responsibility. His third visit proved anything but satisfactory. He sidled and sidestepped for ten minutes before he dared ask Mr. Keen where Miss Southerland had gone. And when the Tracer replied that, considering the business he had undertaken for Mr. Gatewood, he really could not see why Mr. Gatewood should interest himself concerning the whereabouts of Miss Southerland, the young man had nothing to say, and escaped as soon as possible, enraged at himself, at Mr. Keen, and vaguely holding the entire world guilty of conspiracy.
He had no definite idea of what he wanted, except that his desire to see Miss Southerland again seemed out of all proportion to any reasonable reason for seeing her. Occasional fits of disgust with himself for what he had done were varied with moody hours of speculation. Suppose Mr. Keen did find his ideal? What of it? He no longer wanted to see her. He had no use for her. The savour of the enterprise had gone stale in his mouth; he was by turns worried, restless, melancholy, sulky, uneasy. A vast emptiness pervaded his life. He smoked more and more and ate less and less. He even disliked to see others eat, particularly Kerns.
And one exquisite May morning he came down to breakfast and found the unspeakable Kerns immersed in grapefruit, calm, well balanced and bland.
“How-de-dee, dear friend!” said that gentleman affably. “Any news from Cupid this beautiful May morning?”
“No, and I don’t want any,” returned Gatewood, sorting his mail with a scowl and waving away his fruit.
“Tut! Tut! Lovers must be patient. Dearie will be found some day — ”
“Someday,” snarled Gatewood, “I shall destroy you, Tommy.”
“Naughty! Naughty!” reflected Kerns, pensively assaulting the breakfast food. “Lovey must not worry; Dovey shall be found, and all will be joy and gingerbread … If you throw that orange I’ll run screaming to the governors. Aren’t you ashamed — just because you’re in a love tantrum!”
“One more word and you get it!”
“May I sing as I trifle with this frugal fare, dear friend? My heart is so happy that I should love to warble a few wild notes — ”
He paused to watch his badgered victim dispose of a Martini.
“I wonder,” he mused, “if you’d like me to tell you what a cocktail before breakfast does to the lining of your stomach? Would you?”
“No. I suppose it’s what the laundress does to my linen. What do I care?”
“Don’t be a short sport, Jack.”
“Well, I don’t care for the game you put me up against. Do you know what has happened?”
“I really don’t, dear friend. The Tracer of Lost Persons has not found her — has he?”
“He says he has,” retorted Gatewood sullenly, pulling a crumpled telegram from his pocket and casting it upon the table. “I don’t want to see her; I’m not interested. I never saw but one girl in my life who interested me in the slightest; and she’s employed to help in this ridiculous search.”
Kerns, meanwhile, had smoothed out the telegram and was intently perusing it:
John Gatewood, Lenox Club, Fifth Avenue:
Person probably discovered. Call here as soon as possible.
“What do you make of that?” demanded Gatewood hoarsely.
“Make of it? Why, it’s true enough, I fancy. Go and see, and if it’s she, be hers!”
“I won’t. I don’t want to see any ideal! I don’t want to marry. Why do you try to make me marry somebody?”
“Because it’s good for you, dear friend. Otherwise you’ll go to the doggy-dogs. You don’t realize how much worry you are to me.”
“Confound it! Why don’t you marry? Why didn’t I ask you that when you put me up to all this foolishness? What right have you to — ”
“Tut, friend! I know there’s no woman alive fit to wed me and spend her life in stealing kisses from me. I have no ideal. You have an ideal.”
“Oh, yes, dear friend, there’s a stub in your checkbook to prove it. You simply bet $5,000 that your ideal existed. You’ve won. Go and be her joy and sunshine.”
“I’ll put an end to this whole business,” said Gatewood wrathfully, “and I’ll do it now!”
“Bet you that you’re engaged within the week!” said Kerns with a placid smile.
The other swung around savagely: “What will you bet, Tommy? You may have what odds you please. I’ll make you sit up for this.”
“I’ll bet you,” answered Kerns deliberately, “an entire silver dinner-service against a saddle-horse for the bride.”
“That’s a fool bet!” snapped Gatewood.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, if you don’t care to — ”
“What do I want of a silver service? But, all right; I’ll bet you anything.”
“She’ll want it,” replied Kerns significantly, booking the bet. “I may as well canter out to Tiffany’s this morning, I fancy … Where are you going, Jack?”
“To see Keen and confess what an ass I’ve been!” returned Gatewood sullenly, striding across the breakfast room to take his hat and gloves from the rack. And out he went, mad all over.
On his way up the avenue he attempted to formulate the humiliating confession which already he shrank from. But it had to be done. He simply could not stand the prospect of being notified month after month that a lady would be on view somewhere. It was like going for a fitting; it was horrible. Besides, what use was it? Within a week or two an enormous and utterly inexplicable emptiness had yawned before him, revealing life as a hollow delusion. He no longer cared.
Immersed in bitter reflection, he climbed the familiar stairway and sent his card to Mr. Keen, and in due time he was ushered into the presence of the Tracer of Lost Persons.
“Mr. Keen,” he began, with a headlong desire to get it over and be done with it, “I may as well tell you how impossible it is for you, or anybody, to find that person I described — ”
Mr. Keen raised an expostulatory hand, smiling indulgence:
“It is more than possible, Mr. Gatewood, more than probable; it is almost an accomplished fact. In other words, I think I may venture to congratulate you and say that she is found.”
“Now, how can she be found, when there isn’t — ”
“Mr. Gatewood, the magician will always wave his magic wand for you and show you his miracles for the price of admission. But for that price he does not show you how he works his miracles,” said Keen, laughing.
“But I ought to tell you,” persisted Gatewood, “that it is utterly impossible you should find the person I wished to discover, because she — ”
“I can only prove that you are wrong,” smiled Keen, rising from his easy chair.
“Mr. Keen,” said the young man earnestly, “I have been more or less of a chump at times. One of those times was when I came here on this errand. All I desire, now, is to let the matter rest as it is. I am satisfied, and you have lost nothing. Nor have you found anything or anybody. You think you have, but you haven’t. I do not wish you to continue the search, or to send me any further reports. I want to forget the whole miserable matter — to be free — to feel myself freed from any obligations to that irritating person I asked you to find.”
The Tracer regarded him very gravely.
“Is that your wish, Mr. Gatewood? I can scarcely credit it.”
“It is. I’ve been a fool; I simply want to stop being one if anybody will permit it.”
“And you decline to attempt to identify the very beautiful person we have discovered to be the individual for whom you asked us to search?”
“I do. She may be beautiful; but I know well enough she can’t compare with — someone.”
“I am sorry,” said Keen thoughtfully. “We take so much pride in these matters. When one of my agents discovered where this person was I was rather — happy ; for I have taken a peculiar personal interest in your case. However — ”
“Mr. Keen,” said Gatewood, “if you could understand how ashamed and mortified I am at my own conduct — ”
Keen gazed pensively out of the window: “I also am sorry; Miss Southerland was to have received a handsome bonus for her discovery — ”
“Exactly ; without quite so many S’s,” said Keen, smiling.
“Did she discover that — that person?” exclaimed the young man, startled.
“She thinks she has. I am not sure she is correct; but I am absolutely certain that Miss Southerland could eventually discover the person you were in search of. It seems a little hard on her — just on the eve of success — to lose. But that can’t be helped now.”
Gatewood, more excited and uncomfortable than he had ever been in all his life, watched Keen intently.
“Too bad, too bad,” muttered the Tracer to himself. “The child needs the encouragement. It meant a thousand dollars to her — ” He shrugged his shoulders, looked up, and, as though rather surprised to see Gatewood still there, smiled an impersonal smile and offered his hand in adieu. Gatewood winced.
“Could I — I see Miss Southerland? “he asked.
“I am afraid not. She is at this moment following my instructions to — but that cannot interest you now — ”
“Yes, it does! — if you don’t mind. Where is she? I — I’ll take a look at the person she discovered; I will, really.”
“Why, it’s only this: I suspected that you might identify a person whom I had reason to believe was to be found every morning riding in the Park. So Miss Southerland has been riding there every day. Yesterday she came here, greatly excited — ”
“Yes — yes — go on!”
Keen gazed dreamily at the sunny window. “She thought she had found your — er — the person. So I said you would meet her on the bridle-path, near — but that’s of no interest now — ”
“Near where?” demanded Gatewood, suppressing inexplicable excitement. And as Keen said nothing: “I’ll go; I want to go, I really do! Can’t — can’t a fellow change his mind? Oh, I know you think I’m a lunatic, and there’s plenty of reason, too!”
Keen studied him calmly: “Yes, plenty of reason, plenty of reason, Mr. Gatewood. But do you suppose you are the only one? I know another who was perfectly sane two weeks ago.”
The young man waited impatiently; the Tracer paced the room, gray head bent, delicate, wrinkled hands clasped loosely behind his bent back.
“You have horses at the Whip and Spur Club,” he said abruptly. “Suppose you ride out and see how close Miss Southerland has come to solving our problem.”
Gatewood seized the offered hand and wrung it with a fervor out of all reason; and it is curious that the Tracer of Lost Persons did not appear to be astonished.
“You’re rather impetuous — like your father,” he said slowly. “I knew him; so I’ve ventured to trust his son — even when I heard how aimlessly he was living his life. Mr. Gatewood! May I ask you something — as an old friend of your father?”
The young man nodded, subdued, perplexed, scarcely understanding.
“It’s only this: If you do find the woman you could love — in the Park — today — come back to me some day and let me tell you all those foolish, trite, tiresome things that I should have told a son of mine. I am so old that you will not take offense — you will not mind listening to me, or forgetting the dull, prosy things I say about the curse of idleness, and the habits of cynical thinking, and the perils of vacant-minded indulgence. You will forgive me — and you will forget me. That will be as it should be. Good-by.”
Gatewood, sobered, surprised, descended the stairs and hailed a hansom. And all the way to the Whip and Spur Club he sat buried in a reverie from which, at intervals, he started, aroused by the heavy, expectant beating of his own pulses. But what did he expect, in Heaven’s name? Not the discovery of a woman who had never existed. Yet his excitement and impatience grew as he watched the saddling of his horse; and when at length he rode out into the sunshine and cantered through the Park entrance, his sense of impending events and his expectancy amounted to a fever which colored his face attractively.
He saw her almost immediately. Her horse was walking slowly in the dappled shadows of the new foliage; she, listless in her saddle, sometimes watching the throngs of riders passing, at moments turning to gaze into the woodland vistas where, over the thickets of flowering shrubbery, orioles and robins sped flashing on tinted wings from shadow to sun, from sun to shadow. But she looked up as he drew bridle and wheeled his mount beside her; and “Oh!” she said, flushing in recognition.
“I have missed you terribly,” he said quietly.
It was dreamy weather, even for late spring: the scent of lilacs and mock-orange hung heavy as incense along the woods. Their voices unconsciously found the key to harmonize with it all.
She said: “Well, I think I have succeeded. In a few moments she will be passing. I do not know her name; she rides a big roan. She is very beautiful, Mr. Gatewood.”
He said: “I am perfectly certain we shall find her. I doubted it until now. But now I know.”
“Oh — h, but I may be wrong,” she protested.
“No; you cannot be.”
She looked up at him.
“You can have no idea how happy you make me,” he said unsteadily.
“But — I — but I may be all wrong — dreadfully wrong!”
“Y — es; you may be, but I shall not be. For do you know that I have already seen her in the Park?”
“When?” she demanded incredulously, then turned in the saddle, repeating: “Where? Did she pass? How perfectly stupid of me! And was she the — the right one?”
“She is the right one … Don’t turn: I have seen her. Ride on: I want to say something — if I can.”
“No, no,” she insisted. “I must know whether I was right — ”
“You are right — but you don’t know it yet … Oh, very well, then; we’ll turn if you insist.” And he wheeled his mount as she did, riding at her bridle again.
“How can you take it so coolly — so indifferently?” she said. “Where has that woman — where has she gone? … Never mind; she must turn and pass us sooner or later, for she lives uptown. What are you laughing at, Mr. Gatewood?” — in annoyed surprise.
“I am laughing at myself. Oh, I’m so many kinds of a fool — you can’t think how many, and it’s no use!”
She stared astonished; he shook his head.
“No, you don’t understand yet. But you will. Listen to me: this very beautiful lady you have discovered is nothing to me!”
“Nothing — to you!” she faltered. Two pink spots of indignation burned in her cheeks. “How — how dare you say that! — after all that has been done — all that you have said. You said you loved her; you did say so — to me!”
“I don’t love her now.”
“But you did!” Tears of pure vexation started; she faced him, eye to eye, thoroughly incensed.
“What sort of man are you?” she said under her breath. “Your friend Mr. Kerns is wrong. You are not worth saving from yourself.”
“Kerns!” he repeated, angry and amazed. “What the deuce has Kerns to do with this affair?”
She stared, then, realizing her indiscretion, bit her lip and spurred forward. But he put his horse to a gallop, and they pounded along in silence. In a little while she drew bridle and looked around coldly, grave with displeasure.
“Mr. Kerns came to us before you did. He said you would probably come, and he begged us to strain every effort in your behalf, because, he said, your happiness absolutely depended upon our finding for you the woman you were seeking … And I tried — very hard — and now she’s found. You admit that — and now you say — ”
“I say that one of these balmy summer days I’ll assassinate Tommy Kerns!” broke in Gatewood. “What on earth possessed that prince of butters-in to go to Mr. Keen?”
“To save you from yourself!” retorted the girl in a low, exasperated voice. “He did not say what threatened you; he is a good friend for a man to have. But we soon found out what you were a man well born, well bred, full of brilliant possibility, who was slowly becoming an idle, cynical, self-centered egoist — a man who, lacking the lash of need or the spur of ambition, was degenerating through the sheer uselessness and inanity of his life. And, oh, the pity of it! For Mr. Keen and I have taken a — a curiously personal interest in you — in your case. I say, the pity of it!”
Astounded, dumb under her stinging words, he rode beside her through the brilliant sunshine, wheeled mechanically as she turned her horse and rode north again.
“And now — now! “she said passionately. “You turn on the woman you loved! Oh, you are not worth it!”
“You are quite right,” he said, turning very white under her scorn. “Almost all you have said is true enough, I fancy. I amount to nothing; I am idle, cynical, selfish. The emptiness of such a life requires a stimulant; even a fool abhors a vacuum. So I drink — not so very much yet — but more than I realize. And it is close enough to a habit to worry me … Yes, almost all you say is true; Kerns knows it; I know it — now that you have told me. You see, he couldn’t tell me, because I should not have believed him. But I believe you — all you say except one thing. And that is only a glimmer of decency left in me — not that I make any merit of it. No, it is merely instinctive. For I have not turned on the woman I loved.”
Her face was pale as her level eyes met him:
“You said she was nothing to you. Look there! Do you see her? Do you see?”
Her voice broke nervously as he swung around to stare at a rider bearing down at a gallop — a woman on a big roan, tearing along through the spring sunshine, passing them with wind-flushed cheeks and dark, incurious eyes, while her powerful horse carried her on, away through the quivering light and shadow of the woodland vista.
“Is that the person?”
“Y — es,” she faltered. “Was I wrong?”
“Quite wrong, Miss Southerland.”
“But — but you said you had seen her here this morning!”
“Yes, I have.”
“Did you speak to her before you met me?”
“No — not before I met you.”
“Then you have not spoken to her. Is she still here in the Park?”
“Yes, she is still here.”
The girl turned on him excitedly: “Do you mean to say that you will not speak to her?”
“I had rather not — ”
“And your happiness depends on your speaking?”
“Then it is cowardly not.to speak.”
“Oh, yes, it is cowardly … If you wish me to speak to her I will. Shall I?”
“Yes … Show her to me.”
“And you think that such a man as I am has a right to speak of love to her?”
“I — we believe it will be your salvation. Mr. Kerns says you must marry her to be happy. Mr. Keen told me yesterday that it only needed a word from the right woman to put you on your mettle … And — and that is my opinion.”
“Then in charity say that word!” he breathed, bending toward her. “Can’t you see? Can’t you understand? Don’t you know that from the moment I looked into your eyes I loved you?”
“How — how dare you?” she stammered, crimsoning.
“God knows,” he said wistfully. “I am a coward. I don’t know how I dared. Good-by.”
He walked his horse a little way, then launched him into a gallop, tearing on and on, sun, wind, trees swimming, whirling like a vision, hearing nothing, feeling nothing, save the leaden pounding of his pulse and the breathless, terrible tightening in his throat.
When he cleared his eyes and looked around he was quite alone, his horse walking under the trees and breathing heavily.
At first he laughed, and the laugh was not pleasant. Then he said aloud: “It is worth having lived for, after all!” — and was silent. And again: “I could expect nothing; she was perfectly right to side-step a fool … And such a fool!”
The distant gallop of a horse, dulled on the soft soil, but coming nearer, could not arouse him from the bitter depths he had sunk in; not even when the sound ceased beside him, and horse snorted recognition to horse. It was only when a light touch rested on his arm that he looked up heavily, caught his breath.
“Where is the other — woman?” she gasped.
“There never was any other.”
“You said — ”
“I said I loved my ideal. I did not know she existed — until I saw you.”
“Then — then we were searching for — ”
“A vision. But it was your face that haunted me. And I am not worth it, as you say. And I know it, for you have opened my eyes.”
He drew bridle, forcing a laugh. “I cut a sorry figure in your life; be patient; I am going out of it now.” And he swung his horse. At the same moment she did the same, making a demi-tour and meeting him half-way, confronting him.
“Do you — you mean to ride out of my life without a word?” she asked unsteadily.
“Good-by.” He offered his hand, stirring his horse forward; she leaned lightly over and laid both hands in his. Then, her face surging in color, she lifted her beautiful dark eyes to his as the horses approached, nearer, nearer, until, as they passed, flank brushing flank, her eyes fell, then closed as she swayed toward him, and clung, her young lips crushed to his.
There was nobody to witness it except the birds and squirrels — nobody but a distant mounted policeman, who almost fainted away in his saddle.
Oh, it was awful, awful! Apparently she had been kissed speechless, for she said nothing. The man-fool did all the talking, incoherently enough, but evidently satisfactory to her, judging from the way she looked at him, and blushed and blushed, and touched her eyes with a bit of cambric at intervals.
All the policeman heard as they passed him was: “I’m going to give you this horse, and Kerns is to give us our silver; and what do you think, my darling?” “W-what?”
But they had already passed out of earshot; and in a few moments the shady, sun-flecked bridle-path was deserted again save for the birds and squirrels, and a single mounted policeman, rigid, wild-eyed, twisting his mustache and breathing hard.
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