The Laughing Girl
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But I rose from the table determined to settle her status in my house once for all.
"And, Clelia," I said, "I've heard other bells tinkling. Those kings upstairs are no good, and I wouldn't put it past either of them to demand that you serve them breakfast in their rooms."
"They have demanded it."
Smith turned an angry red and made as though to rise, but sat down again.
For a moment I was too mad to speak. Finally I said: "Of course you ignored their bells."
"No, I answered them."
"You didn't go into their rooms!"
"No. I knocked politely. Monsieur Xenos flirted with me – "
"In a whisper through the keyhole. So I went away to see what Monsieur Itchenuff desired." She laughed and, lifting the coffee-pot, filled Smith's cup. "Monsieur Itchenuff wanted me to bring him breakfast. He also said he always breakfasted in bed – "
"Keep away from that pair!" said Smith violently.
But Clelia's eyebrows went up and so did her nose, mutely signaling Smith to mind his own affairs.
"Clelia," said he, "I want to talk to you – "
"I'm here to wait on you, not to talk to you!" she retorted.
"Then at least you must listen – "
"Must? Must? Monsieur Smith, your bullying tone does not please me!"
Here was the beginning of a pretty row. But I had another on my own hands so I left them and went upstairs to interview the Queen.
"Come in!" she snapped when I knocked. Her voice chilled my courage and I sidled in batting my eyes ingratiatingly.
The Queen was in bed. Her hair was done up like a lady Hottentot's, all screwed into tight little kinks. Over her sharp, discontented features cold cream glistened like oleomargarine on a bun.
"I've ordered breakfast in bed," she said sharply. "Why am I kept waiting?"
I explained that there was only one waitress.
"But what of that?" she asked in astonishment. "The other guests can wait."
"Why should they wait?" I inquired, annoyed.
She shot an arrogant glance at me and started to say something but, evidently recollecting her incognito as Madame Xenos, merely choked and finally swallowed her wrath.
"Madame," said I soothingly, for I was really afraid of her, "I am extremely sorry to inconvenience you, but the rules of the chalet must be observed by everybody, otherwise confusion in the service is certain to result – "
"I am not interested in your domestic problems," she said, and turned over in bed.
"Madame," said I, "let me trouble you to remember that I am not an innkeeper whom you can bully. I am the grandson of an Admiral!"
At that the Queen sat up and stared at me like a maverick.
"That's true," she said. "I had forgotten that distinction. I am sorry if I spoke too severely. Nevertheless it's very annoying."
I said I regretted the necessity of making rules; she yawned and fiddled with her corkscrew kinks, but nodded acknowledgment to my perfectly correct bow.And so I left the Queen, yawning, stretching, and rubbing her neck and ears with the sleepy satisfaction of an awakened cat.
The bell of King Constantino was still ringing at intervals. So I continued along the corridor and knocked very lightly at his door. Listening, I heard a shuffle of unshod feet within, a rustle, then through the key-hole a persuasive voice thick with suppressed affection:
"Why so cruel, little one? Bring me my breakfast on a pretty tray – there's a good little girl. And maybe there'll be a big, shiny gold-piece for you if you're very amiable."
I hesitated, listening to his heavy, irregular breathing, then opened the door.
The King looked intensely foolish for a moment, then seized me by the shoulder, drew me into the room, and shut the door.
"We're a pack of sad dogs, we men!" he said jovially, smiting me familiarly on the shoulder again. "We're all up to our little tricks – every one of us, eh, O'Ryan? No – no! Don't pull a smug face with me – a good looking young fellow like you! No, no! it won't do, O'Ryan. We men ought to be frank with one another. And that's me – bluff, rough, frank to a fault! – just a soldier, O'Ryan – "
"I thought you were a wine-merchant, Monsieur Xenos."
"Oh, certainly. But I've been a soldier. I'm more at home in barracks than I am anywhere else." He chuckled, dug me in the ribs with his thumb:
"Be a good sport, O'Ryan. You don't want both of them, do you? My God, man, you're no Turk, I hope. Why can't that very young one – I mean the yellow haired one – bring me my breakfast and – "
Probably my features were not under perfect control for the King stopped short and took an instinctive step backward.
"Where do you think you are, Monsieur Xenos?" I asked, striving to keep my voice steady. "Did you think you are in a cabaret, or a mastroquet or a zenana?"
"Oh, come," he began, losing countenance, "you shouldn't take a bluff old soldier too precisely – "
"You listen to me! Mind your damned business while you're under my roof or I'll knock your silly head off!"
I looked him over deliberately, insultingly, from the tasseled toe of his Algerian bed-room slippers to his purple pyjamas clasped with a magnificent ruby at the throat.
"Behave yourself decently," said I slowly, "or I'll take you out to the barnyard and rub your nose in it."
And I went out, leaving Tino stupefied in the center of his bedroom.
The Tzar's bell was ringing again, but I made no ceremony in his case, merely jerking open his door and telling him curtly to come down to breakfast if he wanted any. Then I closed his door to cut off argument and continued on.
I met Thusis in apron and dust-cloth, sweeping the stairs.
She looked up almost shyly as I passed her with a polite bow.
"Good morning," she said. "Did you sleep well, Monsieur?"
"The wind kept me awake," said I drily.
"And me, also." She glanced out of the stair window, leaning on her broom. "It is raining very hard," she observed. "The mountains will not be safe to-day."
"How do you mean?" I inquired coolly, but willing to linger, heaven help me!
"Avalanches," she explained.
We remained silent. Thusis inspected her broom-handle, tucked a curl up under her white head-cloth.
I said: "You and Clelia seem to exchange jobs rather frequently."
"It mitigates the monotony," she remarked, resting her rounded cheek against the broom-handle.
"Where did you leave that gun?" I demanded in a low voice.
"Do you remember my reply to you on the stairs last night, Don Michael?"
"You bade me go to the devil."
"That was rude of me, wasn't it? And so frightfully vulgar! Oh, dear me! I really don't know what I am coming to."
She smiled very gaily, however.
"Thusis," said I, "you wouldn't shoot up any of these kings and queens, would you?"
At that she laughed outright: "Not if they behave themselves!"
"Seriously – "
"I am quite serious, Don Michael."
"You're bent on searching their luggage," said I. "And Ferdinand has two big automatic pistols."
"You're such a funny boy," said Thusis with her adorable smile. "But now you must run away and let me do my dusting."
Her sleeves were rolled to her shoulders. I had never seen such perfect arms except in Greek sculpture. I said so, impulsively. And Thusis blushed.
"That is the sort of thing I had rather you did not say," she remarked.
"But if it's quite true, Thusis – "
"Does one blurt out anything merely because one believes it to be true? Besides, ill-made or agreeable, my arms do not concern you, Monsieur O'Ryan."
"Everything that you are concerns me very deeply, Thusis – "
"I will not have it so!"
"But you said I might pay my court to you – "
"But you don't pay court! You make love to me!"
"What is the essential difference?"
"To court a woman is to be polite, empress?, always ready to serve her, always quick with some stately compliment, some pretty conceit, some bon-mot to please her, some trifle of wit, of gossip." She cast a deliciously wicked look at me. "I have no doubt, Michael, that you could, without effort, measure up to the standard of a faultless courtier… If you'd be content to do so."
That was too much for me. I stepped toward her and slipped my arm around her pliant waist. She laughed, resisted, flushed, then lost her color and clutched my hand at her waist with her own, striving to unloosen it.
"Don't do that, Michael," she said, breathing unevenly.
"I love you, Thusis – "
"I don't wish to listen – "
"I'm madly in love with you – "
"Are you trying to kiss me?"
That is what I was trying to do. She twisted herself free and stepped aside; and I saw the rapid pulse in her white throat and the irregular flutter of her bosom.
For a moment the old blaze flamed once more in her gray eyes and I expected a most terrifying wigging, but all she said was: "You are very rough with me," in a small and breathless voice; and, suddenly, to my astonishment, turned her back and laid her head on the handle of her broom.
"Thusis – "
"Please d-don't speak to me."
"I only – "
"I ask you to go."
So I went, leaving her standing there with her clasped hands on the broom supporting her bowed head.
Smith was sulkily smoking his pipe. Clelia, beautiful and indifferent, leaned against the sideboard, awaiting the advent of royalty in the breakfast-room.
I went on out. Raoul, standing under the dripping eaves, was just hoisting an umbrella, and I took advantage of it and went over to the bottling works.
"We're making quite a lot of money," said I, looking over the order book and ledger.
Raoul smiled and ran his well shaped fingers through his curly hair.
"It's good spring-water," he said, "and God permits you an innocent income not wrung out of the poor, not cheated out of the less fortunate, not gouged out of business rivals whose loss is your gain."
I also smiled: "It is quite true, Raoul, that I do harm to nobody by bottling and selling the water which God has seen fit to send out gushing from these deep rocks."
"You'd never harm anybody anyway!" he said coolly. "One knows a gentleman."
And he went about his work, singing the song he seemed always to prefer —
And I began to wonder how the Queen would like that song if he came carelessly caroling it in her vicinity.
However, it was not my business to direct the musical inclinations of my household. I took the umbrella and, stepping to the door, spread it.
"It's quite a storm," I remarked.
"There'll be avalanches," said Raoul. I thought he spoke uneasily and that there was a hint of apprehension in the glance he cast up at the Bec de l'Empereur.
"Of course," said I, "we are safe enough in this valley."
"Yes, but a bad slide might choke the pass."
"What would that do to us, Raoul?"
"Cut us off from the rest of the world," he said simply.
"For how long?"
"Days, weeks – longer perhaps. Who knows what might happen if a big snow broke loose from the Bec de l'Empereur?"
"Anyway," said I, "we have sufficient provisions."
"Then it would mean only a rather dull and exasperating imprisonment."
He looked at me with an odd smile: "It might mean the salvation of the world – or its damnation," he said.
I was silent but curious. He smiled again and shrugged. "For me," he said, "I pray that no avalanche falls to block this valley within the week." He looked upward into the heavily falling rain, standing there bare-headed.
"I ask," he said in a low, serious voice, "that God should be graciously pleased to hold His hand for one week longer before He lets loose His eternal snows upon this valley."
When I returned to the breakfast-room royalty was feeding. All acknowledged my greeting with civility, even Tino who, however, also turned red and nervously pasted his roll with marmalade.
"For diversion," inquired the Queen, "what does one do here?"
I enumerated the out-door sports. Nobody cared to fish except with a net. Tino expressed himself vaguely as in favor of a chamois hunt when he felt up to it. The Queen wished to climb the Bec de l'Empereur, but when I told her there were no guides nearer than Berne and also that this rain made the mountains very dangerous, she decided to postpone the ascent.
As for the Tzar of all the Bulgars he paid strict attention to his plate and betrayed no inclination for anything more strenuous than the facial exercise of chewing.
While the Queen was there neither King ventured to annoy Clelia, but after her majesty had left the table they both evinced symptoms of pinching, furtive leers and smirks.
However, there was a stoniness about my expression which served to discourage them. Ferdinand scrubbed his beard in his finger-bowl with a wallowing sound, dried it noisily on his napkin, rose, bowed to me, and waddled back upstairs.
Tino seemed very uncomfortable to find himself alone with me. But I conversed with him as good humoredly as though I had never told him what I should do to him in the event of his misbehavior under my roof. And we got on well enough.
He had mean eyes, however, and a fussy, jerky, nervous manner, yet furtive for all that. An odd monarch with the most false face, except for Ferdinand's, that I had ever beheld, though at first encounter one might easily be deceived and take him for what he pretended to be – a bluff, noisy, unceremonious, and somewhat coarse soldier with his t?te-de-militaire and his allure and vocabulary of the Caserne.
"We've some friends arriving to-day," he said. "Did my wife tell you?"
"Somebody mentioned it yesterday, I believe."
"Well, they'll be here to-day, so fix them up snugly, O'Ryan."
"The rain may prevent them from starting," I suggested.
"Rain or no rain they'll be here," he repeated, lighting a strong cigarette.
He went away presently upstairs. And I did not doubt they would all have their noses together in a few moments discussing whatever crisis had brought them to this lonely little valley without escort or servants and carefully camouflaged.
I went into the living-room where Smith sat reading.
"What the devil," said I, "has brought these Kings here, Smith? Can you guess?"
"I don't know. I might," he replied, looking over his book at me.
"Well, what is your guess?"
"Why, I suppose they're worried. Things are going very rottenly for the hun. British, French and Yank are kicking them about most brutally from Arras to the Vosges. That pasty-faced pervert, the Crown Prince, has had the very pants kicked off him. The U-boats are a fizzle. The Bolsheviki are running into cracks like vermin to escape fumigation. Austria is sick from Italy's kick delivered into the pit of her stomach. Enver Pasha, who was promised the Khediviate of Egypt when the boche started to carve up the world, is turning ugly and demanding why the banquet isn't ready."
He made a weary gesture toward the ceiling.
"Up there," he said, "sits the most cowardly, murderous, and despicable ruler in the world – Ferdinand of Bulgaria – scared stiff because he's beginning to believe he's bet on the wrong horse.
"With him sit a King and Queen recently kicked headlong out of Greece. They also are becoming intensely nervous about that promise made by the hun Kaiser – an oath thundered from Berlin that the boche sword should restore them to their thrones.
"You see, Michael, they're worried. They've sneaked away from Berne incognito to meet here and lay all their cards on the common table. They're here to consult, bargain, cheat if they can, but anyway they're here to come to some understanding and arrive at some agreement as to the best means to avert utter disaster. That's why they're here.
"They couldn't feel safe in spy-ridden Berne; they evidently dare not trust their own servants. It is plain to me that Switzerland, which is mostly pro-boche, engineered the affair, willingly or reluctantly, because the Kaiser's sister is involved and the Federal Government is horribly afraid of the boche.
"You see how it came about, don't you? This bunch of royal crooks desired a safe place for a get-together party. Long ago they had planned it. Then you appeared to take possession of your inheritance.
"What could be safer for them than this lonely valley and a neutral gentleman from Chili to make 'em comfortable?"
"And a Norse Viking," said I.
"Be careful," he said gravely.
"Of course. But they believe you are what you pretend to be, don't they?"
"Absolutely… And how do you know I am not?" he inquired smilingly.
We exchanged gay but significant glances. He went on speaking:
"That's all there is to it," he said, "a bunch of dips trying it on each other and still held together by the 'cohesive power of plunder' – the Prussian hun, the Austrian hun, the unspeakable Turk, the bloody Bulgar, the besotted Bolshevik! – a fine mess, Michael! – and here, under your roof, are three who have long ago been mugged, and who are known to the police of civilization everywhere."
"They've got their nerve," said I angrily, "to come here and discuss their dirty schemes! I've a damned good mind to ask them for their rooms. I've got enough of them already, Smith. I'm hanged if I stand for this another day – "
His hand closed on my arm in a leisurely grip of steel, and I winced and looked up at him in surprise and protest.
"Don't – spoil – things," he said quietly. His level glance met mine with a metallic glint, and I saw in his features something terrible – a fleeting gleam like the far reflection of lightning across a thunder cloud.
"Smith!" I exclaimed.
"Don't raise your voice, old chap."
"N-no. But – can't you tell me just what you really are?"
"I'm really quite all right," he assured me, laughingly.
"I assumed that. But – are you here, also, to keep an eye on these kings?"
"Well, you know one can't help noticing them – "
"Damn! Answer me."
"I admit," he said, "that they interest me."
So that was what brought Smith here, too! He must have known they were coming. He must have deliberately scraped acquaintance with me for this purpose.
"I thought," said I bitterly, "that you really liked me, Smith."
"I do, confound you!" he said. "If I didn't both like and trust you, do you think I'd have been so careless in concealing my identity?"
Both Thusis and Clelia had said the same thing to me.
"Did you know Thusis and Clelia before you met them here?"
"Do you know why they're here?"
"I can guess."
"Do you know who they really are?"
"No," he said honestly, "I don't. And I can not seem to find out. All I know is that their purpose in coming here does conflict with mine – "
The pretty fanfare of a postilion's horn cut him short.
"There," said I, "comes the rest of the precious bunch!"
"'Hail, hail,'" said he gravely, "'the gang's all here!'"
And we got up and went to the window to inspect the arriving diligence.