The Laughing Girl
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"'Princess Pudelstoff'! She was that enormously fat woman, Michael, who kissed King Ferdinand on both cheeks and left two wet spots. She's one of those German-Russians from Courland attached to the Bulgarian court, and related to Ferdinand in some degree or other, – irregularly.
"'Countess Manntrapp'! The pretty girl. You remember her honeyed, cooing voice when you were presented to her? – and her ecstatic baby stare, as though acquaintance with a Chilean gentleman had been the secret ambition of her life, and the realization overwhelmed her? Well, old top, there you have Lila Shezawitch, Countess Manntrapp – the widow of that brainless old reprobate, the cavalryman, who disappeared in some Russian swamp-hole when Hindenburg made his mark among the lakes.
"'Adolf Gizzler'! Look out for that rat, Michael. He's a bum school-teacher, Bummelzug's secretary.
"'Leo Puppsky'! What do you know about that Bolshevik being here in Switzerland? And
"'Isidore Wildkatz,' too! Here they are with the huns, this pair of Judases! Oh, you're quite right, Michael. It's a pretty kettle of fish. I don't blame you for taking to the woods, rain or no rain."
"You won't come, too?" I asked. He smiled, and I understood.
He was such a decent sort. I had become very fond of him.
"All right," said I; "don't get yourself into trouble. That's certainly a sinister bunch of boches as well as an unpleasant one."
"Good old Michael," he said, patting my shoulder.
So I took to the woods with rod and book, and a camp-stool I picked up on the veranda.
Heavens, how it rained! But I stopped at the barn-yard, found a manure-fork, and disinterred a tin canful of angle-worms. Then I marched on in the teeth of the storm, umbrella over my head, and entered that pretty woodland path which Thusis and I had once trodden together on our food-conservation quest.
The memory inclined me to sentimental reverie, and, with my dripping gamp over my head, I slopped along in a sort of trance, my brain a maze of vague enchantment as images of Thusis or of my photograph of The Laughing Girl alternately occupied my thoughts.
For, when alone, these two lovely phantoms always became inextricably mixed. I could not seem to differentiate between them in memory. And which was the loveliest I could not decide because the resemblance was too confusing.
And so, in a sort of delicious daze, I arrived at the foot-bridge.
Here I spread my camp-stool by the green pool's edge. It was a torrent, now, but still as brilliant and clear as a beryl, and that it lacked its natural and emerald clarity did not deter me from baiting my hook with several expostulating worms, and hurling it forth into the foaming basin.
To hold a fishing rod in one fixed position bores me, and always did. So I laid the rod on the bank, placed a flat stone on the butt, and, sheltered under my umbrella, lighted a pipe and opened my book.
But the book soon bored me, too.It was a novel by one of the myriads of half-educated American "authors" who resemble a countryman I once knew who called himself a "natural bone-setter" and enjoyed a large and furtive practice among neighboring clodhoppers to the indignation of all the local physicians.
There are thousands of "authors" in the United States. But there are very few writers.
And this novel was by an author, and my attention wandered.
Through an opening in the forest on a clear day one might look out upon a world of mountains eastward. I realized there could be no view through the thickly falling rain, but I turned around. And, to my surprise, I beheld a cloaked figure poised upon the chasm's distant edge, peering out into the storm through a pair of field-glasses.
I knew that figure in spite of the cloak. Nor could the thickly slanting rain quench the glorious color of that burnished hair.
"Thusis!" I shouted.
Slowly the figure turned, glasses still poised; and I saw her looking in my direction.
"I'm fishing!" I called out joyously. "Come under my umbrella!"
She cast a glance behind her toward the blank void where, on clear days, the bulk of the Bec de l'Empereur towered aloft in its mantle of dazzling snow. Then she slowly walked toward me through the rain.
When she came near to where I sat, she began to laugh; and I never saw such an exquisite sight as Thusis, bare-headed in the rain, laughing.
"What on earth are you up to, Michael?" she said.
"Fishing. That herd of huns will eat us out of house and garden if we don't catch something. Sit beside me under the umbrella, Thusis. There's room if we're careful and don't let the camp-stool collapse."
She gave me an inscrutable glance, stood motionless for a few moments, then slowly came over.
"Careful now," I cautioned her, rising. "We must both seat ourselves at the same instant or this camp-stool will close up like a jack-knife. Are you ready?"
She laughed and inclined her pretty head.
"Then – one! two! three! Sit!"
We managed to accomplish it without an accident.
"We're too close together," she protested.
"Don't stir," said I. "Do you feel how it wabbles?"
She tested the camp-stool cautiously, and nodded.
"What an absurd situation," she remarked, glancing up at the gamp which I held over us.
"I think it's very jolly." She didn't look at me; we were too close – so close that we might possibly have rubbed noses if either turned. But in her side-long glance I noted both amusement and irony.
"Have you caught anything, Don Michael?"
"Not a bally thing."
"What are you reading?"
"A book of sorts – a novel by an 'author' who lacks education, cultivation, experience, vocabulary, and a working knowledge of English grammar. In other words, Thusis, a typical American 'author,' – one of the Bolsheviki of literature whose unlettered Bolshevik readers are recruited from the same audience that understands and roars with laughter at the German and Jewish jokes which compose the librettos of our New York musical comedies."
Thusis turned up her pretty nose and shrugged – or tried to, – but nearly upset me, and desisted.
"It's silly to sit here like two hens on a roost," she said.
"It's cozy," said I with a blissful smile that perhaps approached the idiotic.
"Cozy or not," she insisted, "we resemble a pair of absurd birds."
"Then," said I, "one of us ought to twitter and begin to sing."
We both laughed. "The last time we were here together," I reminded her, "you were singing all the while."
"Yes, and I liked it – although your detachment was not flattering to me."
"Poor Michael. Did you feel abused?"
"It's no novel feeling," said I.
"You ungrateful young man! Do you mean to insinuate that I abuse you? I – who go fishing with you, stop my house-work to gossip with you, sit on the stairs with you at three in the morning – and in my nightie, too – "
"What an incident for a best-seller!" said I. "Fancy the fury of the female critic! Imagine the rage of the 'good woman'!"
"You are satirical, Don Michael."
"Doesn't satire amuse you?"
"I adore it."
"Nothing," said I, "so angers ignorance as satire, because it is not understood, and ignorance becomes suspicious when it does not understand anything. Ignorance mistakes dullness for depth. That is why dull books are so widely read.
"There is, in America, Thusis, a vast desert inhabited by 'authors' who produce illiterature.
"Similar deserts, though less in area, exist in other sections of America. By its ear-marks, however, I guess that this book was 'authorized' somewhere west of Chicago. Don't read it. Only 'a good woman' could enjoy it."
Thusis laughed. "Don't you admire good women and critics?"
"The American critic," said I, "is usually female but not necessarily feminine in sex. It is what is reverently known as 'a good woman' – and like a truffle-hound its nose for immorality is so keen that it can discover a bad smell where there isn't any."
Thusis threw back her head and yielded to laughter unrestrained.
"So you think there was nothing immoral in sitting on the stairs with you in my nightie?"
"Of course not. Clean minds are independent of clothes. As for clothing, I often wish these were Greek times and I were rid of all my duds except sandals and a scarf."
"It's all very well for you to wish that, Thusis, but consider the spectacle of the Princess Pudelstoff, for example, in Olympian attire – "
And Thusis went off into a gale of laughter, endangering our mutual stability on the camp-stool. Which scared her, – an unpremeditated bath in the pool having been narrowly averted – and she said again that it was silly of us to sit there like a pair of imbecile dicky-birds.
"Then tune up, Thusis. You seem to know a lot of songs. I liked that odd, weird, sweet little song you kept singing about Naxos and Tenedos."
"I didn't suppose you noticed it, Michael."
"I notice everything concerning you."
Looking at her sideways I saw the charming color deepen in her cheeks.
"Is that paying court to you or making love to you?" I added.
"I don't know. Somehow, when you pay court to me, you make it sound like – the other thing."
"But I am in love – "
"Wait," she said hastily. "I'll sing another funny song – the same sort of song you found so amusing – about Naxos and Tenedos. It is called 'Invocations.'"
As a little bird looks up to heaven after every sip of water, so Thusis looked up after inspiration had sufficiently saturated her. She lifted her pretty voice as clearly and sweetly as a linnet sings in the falling rain:
"Oh, the cunning little song!" I exclaimed enchanted. "But what is Tenedos, anyway? It's an island, isn't it?"
"It is," said Thusis solemnly.
"Certainly. I remember. And so is Naxos – Greek islands in the ?gean."
"I shall mark you perfect," said Thusis gravely. And she wrote "perfect" in the air with one slim forefinger.
"Why," said I curiously, "do you sing songs about Naxos and Tenedos?"
"Perhaps because I have lived in Naxos and Tenedos."
"No, you don't," said Thusis, smiling.
We sat for a while in silence watching the foaming current swerving my line. But no fish moved it.
"They must be pretty – those Greek islands," said I vaguely.
"Do you know their history?"
"Would you like to hear it?"
"Whatever you say I like to hear," I replied, beginning to ooze sentiment as well as rain.
"You annoy me," said Thusis. "Listen sensibly, if you wish me to tell you about those islands."
Snubbed, I sat silent with an injured expression that afforded her lively satisfaction, judging from her vivacious voice and manner:
"You are to know, Michael," she began, "that Naxos is one of the Cyclades, and from the day of the old gods it has been famous for its wine.
"In the thirteenth century it was conquered by Venice. It was made into a duchy. So was Tenedos.
"But these two Venetian Duchies were conquered and annexed by the unspeakable Turk in the sixteenth century. Then Greece recovered Naxos."
She looked down pensively at her folded hands. Presently they became interlocked and I saw the fingers twisting nervously.
"There are," she said, "some people – descendants of the old Venetians in Naxos, who believe that the island ought to belong to Italy … and that the duchy ought to be revived and reconstituted."
"Are you one of these people, Thusis?"
"Yes. I am descended from those Venetians. I was born in Naxos."
She remained absorbed in her own reflections for a few moments, then:
"Tenedos, also, ought to become a duchy again. The Turk rules it. He calls it Bogdsha-Adassi. But it was allied with Greece before Christ lived. It should be either Grecian or Italian… And Clelia and I believe that it rightly belongs to Italy."
"How big an island is it?"
"About seven miles long."
We both laughed.
"Are seven miles worth fighting for?" I asked, amused.
"One's back-yard is worth fighting for, isn't it?" she asked calmly.
"Of course. But not for the purpose of establishing a duchy in it."
Thusis didn't seem to consider that remark very funny.
"I'll freely give anything I have," she said hotly, "but I'll fight like a wild-cat to resist the robbery of a single button!"
"I didn't steal that button," said I. "I brought it back to you – from Ferdie's dressing-room."
"I wish you wouldn't be so flippant, Michael!"
She really seemed vexed and I asked her pardon.
"But you oughtn't to mention theft to a thief," I added. "I'm trying to steal your heart, you know – "
"Michael, you are insufferable!" she exclaimed with a movement of impatience that almost sent us into the pool. In fact she clutched me and held fast while I struggled to recover our balance. And after I had re?stablished our equilibrium I was low enough, mean enough, to pretend we were still in danger, so heavenly sweet it was to me to feel her little hands close clinging.
Whether or not she discovered my perfidy I was not certain, for presently she released her grasp and sat very still and flushed beside me, her eyes fixed on the frivolous brook.
Which drove me uneasily toward conversation – the first refuge of the guilty.
"And so," said I, in a casual and pleasant voice, "you are really a descendant of those ancient Venetians who once occupied Naxos."
"I don't wish to continue the subject," she said.
Snubbed again I relapsed into mournful inertia. Which presently she inspected sideways. And after a while she laughed.
"You are so ridiculous," she said. "No girl, I fancy, can remain angry with you very long."
"I want to court you. May I?"
"Yes – if you don't make it resemble the other thing."
"I'll be careful."
And, as I remained buried in reflection: "You may fire when ready, Michael."
"Have you ever lived in the United States?" I asked, astonished.
"I was educated there," she replied demurely.
"Oh, Lord!" said I, "that accounts for a lot of things! Why on earth I didn't suspect it I can't imagine – "
"Oh, I'm not typical; I'm international, Michael – cosmopolitan, inter-urban, anti-insular, so to speak – "
"You're inter-stellar, you beautiful bright star! – "
"Is that courtship? Or the other?" she inquired.
"Courtship. It's a perfectly proper flight of astronomical fancy. It's a scientific metaphor, Thusis dear. I'll tell you another:
"What?" said I, annoyed at being checked in my fine frenzy.
"Is – is that courtship?"
"Certainly! Did you never hear of a troubadour? I'm improvising and for God's sake don't interrupt me."
At that she relapsed into meek silence. But I had lost my momentum. It was all off; she had ruined that totally unexpected burst of inspired fluency which had astonished and intoxicated me, whatever it had done to her.
"Damnation," I said.
"Forgive me, Michael. I'm so truly repentant… And it was very, very beautiful."
"It wasn't so bad," I admitted, mollified. "I had no idea I could do it, Thusis."
"It was – agreeable. I liked it. Will you forgive me? Because when I interrupted I punished myself most of all."
"You sweet little thing! – "
"I did. I was worse than Psyche," she went on, "who blew out the candle – too late – the torch of inspiration – Oh, dear, that metaphor is very sadly mixed, Michael, but you understand what I mean. Do you pardon me?"
To reassure her I touched her hands which lay clasped in her lap. She gave a slight start, but as my hand settled and rested there upon both of hers she seemed to become unconscious of the contact.
"I had no idea that you could improvise so cleverly," she said.
"Nor I," said I, frankly. "It's true, however, that I've had some little practice in writing verses – er – recently."
"Have you been writing verses, Michael?"
She became interested in my fishing line, and watched it intently. But it was only the current moving it.
"Thusis dear – "
She said hastily: "Remember the difference between courtship and the other!"
"Won't you let me make love to you?"
"I can't, Michael!"
After a pause: "Would you let me if you could?"
"Yes," she said under her breath.
"Dear – "
"Please don't say that!"
"I want to ask you one thing."
"You're not married, are you?"
"Then – "
"It's a more hopeless barrier than that!" she interrupted with a sudden catch in her breath. "I can't let you make love to me. I can't let you love me! I c-can't love you – let myself – do it – "
Her voice was drowned in a terrific roar. All the thunders of the skies seemed to unite in one tremendous outburst.
Deafened, almost stunned, we sat there partly stupefied by the mighty concussion which lengthened into bellowing thunder until the bank of the stream trembled under our feet, and the umbrella wiggled in my hand.
"Good Lord!" I whispered; but Thusis sprang up with a little cry of dismay.
"Don't be afraid, darling!" I cried, preparing to gather her to my breast. But she was excitedly adjusting her field-glasses and focussing them on the Bec de l'Empereur.
And then I perceived that the rain had ceased; that the sun was already blazing through the pass below.
"The devil!" cried Thusis, stamping her pretty foot. Then, in a fury of despair, she turned to me and stretched out one arm, pointing toward the valley pass.
And I saw that it had been utterly obliterated by the mighty avalanche, the earth-shaking thunder of which had petrified us.
Suddenly the gray eyes of Thusis filled with tears of fury and disappointment.
"Oh, Michael! Michael!" she faltered, "what shall we do now! We had them all in the trap! We were ready to spring it to-night! Oh, Michael! Michael! M-my heart is b-broken – "
She walked blindly into my arms – she didn't know what she was about, I suppose. I petted and soothed her; she hid her face on my breast.
"Darling," I said, "I can't bear to see you suffer. I suppose that you and Clelia and Josephine and Raoul had some scheme cooked up to kidnap that bunch of huns at the house and get them over the frontier into France. Didn't you, dear?"
"Y-yes. And just l-look what's happened! Look at this act of God! Why has God let it rain? Why has He let loose this avalanche at such a moment! – at such an agonizing moment when we had all the rats trapped! And our own agents on the frontier to let us through! … Doesn't God realize that all civilization – all Christendom is tottering? Doesn't He know what hell threatens it? Why has He done this thing to us! Can He not see France bled white! – England reeling! – Italy agasp! – America only half ready! – Naxos prostrate under the Greek tyrant's usurping heel! – Tenedos thrown to the Turk! I – I have begun to lose my faith in God!" she cried violently; "the old gods were less cruel – less indifferent. And at least they displayed enough interest to take sides!"
I continued to pet and comfort and soothe her as I would a half hysterical child.
"God is on duty," I said. "Who are we to divine His strategy? Why take even General Foch. His own officers can't penetrate his purpose; much less can the huns. But he drives the spirits of evil before him; he hustles the hellish legions toward destruction in his own way. The maddened swine are stampeding, Thusis! God's ocean waits."
"Y-yes. I – shall pull myself together… I'm ashamed."
"No, you're all right, Thusis. Take heart. And, if there's any comfort in knowing I'm with you, always, loyally, through life to death – "
I thought, against my breast, there was the slightest pressure in response, but concluded that Thusis had merely braced herself to get away and stand on her own legs. Which she now did, resolutely, but keeping her face averted.
We stood so, gazing down in silence at the snow-choked pass which now cut us off from the world entire.
"After all," said I, "it pens in the huns as well as it cages us. We may get them yet."
The girl straightened up and turned toward me. Her features were radiant, transfigured.
"Nous les aurons!" she cried, throwing her arm out toward the valley with the superb gesture of some young goddess launching thunderbolts.
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