Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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XIV
THE MYSTERIOUS MR. SMITH

The distinguished company at the chalet had already gathered on the veranda apparently to contemplate the flaming sunset when, separating from Thusis in the woods behind the barn, I sauntered into view with rod and creel.

Instantly I became a target for Teutonic eyes of the several sorts peculiar to the hunnish race, – cold disapproving eyes, narrow bad-tempered eyes, squinting eyes, gimlet eyes, pale pig-eyes, – all intent on my approach.

"Hello!" cried King Constantine in his loud, bluff way, "have you had any luck, O'Ryan?"

The fat Princess Pudelstoff began to pant cheerfully in anticipation of finny food:

"I hope you've caught some trout," she said in a thick, good-natured voice which the rolls of fat on her neck rendered husky and indistinct. "I like to eat mine Meuni?re and Blaue-gesotten. I like 'em breaded and fried in butter. I like plenty of melted butter." She pried open the creel cover as I passed. "Where are the fish?" she asked with a gulp of disappointment.

"I'm sorry, Princess – "

"Droly!" she exclaimed in English, turning to General Count von Dungheim, "he ain't caught a fish! And me smackin' my lips like I was eatin' onto a fat filet! Oh my God!"

Astonished to hear such east-side accents spurting from the lips of the Princess Pudelstoff, I politely explained that the stream was in flood, and that trout wouldn't take hold in high water. In the midst of my apology Baron von Bummelzug uttered a disagreeable laugh and said something rude to Admiral Lauterlaus who stared at me insultingly as he replied: "Skill is not to be expected in a Yankee. Instead of a rod he should have used a net. That's the way our peasants fish for trout."

I turned red and looked hard at the Admiral. "There's a net in the barn," said I, "if you want to try your skill!" which infuriated that formidable sea-warrior whose ancestry was purely peasant. He glared at me angrily and his bushy eyebrows worked up and down like the features of a mechanical toy.

"I said our peasants fish with a net!" he began, a far, hollow roar audible in his voice like the sound of the sea in a big shell.

"I heard you," said I. "You're welcome to use the net in your own fashion. Gentlemen fish otherwise."

I think everybody was astounded. Only the pretty Countess Manntrapp shot an amused glance at me.

The others were dreadfully shocked. As for the Admiral he got to his feet almost dazed with rage; but before he could expel the bellowing fury which was congesting his features I lost my own temper and walked over to him.

"Behave yourself!" I said sharply. "I tolerate no bad manners under my roof. And if you show me any further disrespect you'll have to leave my house!"

I think he was too amazed to roar. King Ferdinand waddled over to him and plucked him by the arm, restraining him. King Constantine burst into a heavy laugh:

"Here, gentlemen! This will never do! It's all a misunderstanding.

No offense was intended, Mr. O'Ryan – "

"Monsieur Xenos," said I, "it is difficult, I fancy, for a Prussian Admiral to avoid taking the offensive – except at sea."

And I walked into the house amid the most profound and paralyzed silence that ever assailed my ears.

Smith, in the living-room, having heard it all, was doubled up with laughter, but I was in no mood for mirth.

"Did you hear what Admiral Lauterlaus said to me!" I demanded, still hot. "Did you hear what that Prussian had the impudence to say to me under my own roof?"

"Yes, and I heard what you said to him, Michael!" And off he went into another fit of laughter.

"You don't know how funny it is," he said. "They've all been conspiring and perspiring all day long shut up in Tino's apartment with those two smelly Bolsheviks. And just when they'd come to some agreement about slicing up the world and ruling it among themselves, along you come and take all the joy out of life by sitting on a Prussian admiral!"

"I certainly shall put him out of the house if he's impudent to me again," said I, wrathfully. "And it will be tough on him if I do, because an avalanche has blocked the pass and we're all sewed up here together!"

"What!" exclaimed Smith with lively interest.

"It's a fact, Smith. The entire snow-field on the south shoulder of the Bec de l'Empereur let go about an hour since. Didn't you hear it?"

"I heard what I took to be thunder. Do you mean we're blocked from the outside world?"

"Completely."

"We can't dig out?"

"Who's to dig?"

"Good business!" he said, plainly delighted by the news. "How long will it last?"

"Thusis says they'll start digging from the other side, but that it may take weeks."

"Thusis knows about this?"

"She was with me at the time," said I, blushing.

He looked at me absently: "I wonder," he mused, "what Thusis thinks about the situation now."

"Our sudden isolation here?"

"Exactly."

"She doesn't seem to like it… Tell me something, Smith?"

"What?"

"Do you know why Thusis and Clelia and Josephine Vannis and Raoul Despres are here?"

"I can guess," he replied, coolly.

"They came here," said I, "to nab Tino and that murderous ass, Ferdinand, and spirit them across the frontier into France."

"I believe so," he said in a serene but preoccupied voice.

"Now they can't do it," I added, "because the only way out of this valley is blocked."

"Quite so."

"Smith?"

"Yes."

"What do you think of their doing such a thing?"

"It's all right but they can't get away with it."

"Would you – help them?"

"They haven't asked me."

"Would you?" I persisted.

"Would you, Michael?"

"Well, if I do, the Swiss Government would confiscate my property. If Thusis and I succeeded in kidnapping this bunch of Kings, I'd lose this place."

"And if you failed to bag your Kings," remarked Smith, "the Swiss Government would still confiscate your estate and lock you up besides."

"And if you went into this affair," said I, "the Swiss would cancel your forestry contract."

"That," said he with a grin, "would be ruinous, wouldn't it?"

"What are you, anyway, Smith?" I demanded bluntly.

"A Viking. What do you think I am?"

"An agent," I replied darkly.

"Timber agent," he nodded.

"Timber nothing. Much less a Viking. I'm on to you, Smith."

"Do you think you are?"

"Well, do you wish to know what I believe you to be?"

"You probably have guessed. So don't say it too loud, Michael. Besides, I have taken no pains to conceal my business from you."

"I think you are an agent of the United States Secret Service," said I. "And I think you learned, somehow or other, that this bunch of Kings was coming here to conspire. And I think you very cleverly picked me up in Berne with a view to being invited here so that you could watch their activities and keep your government informed. How near right am I?"

"You ought to know," he retorted, laughing.

"Well then – if I do know – what are you going to do about this enterprise of Clelia and Thusis? Help them collar this royal gang and smuggle them across the frontier into France?"

He shook his head: "No, I can't do that."

"Your duties do not permit such amusements?"

"No. I am engaged to fulfill a definite duty. In fact I'm pledged to carry out a certain mission. It's a matter of honor. I'm sorry."

"It limits you?"

"It does."

"Checks any adventurous or romantic inclination toward aiding Thusis and Clelia to nab Tino & Co.?"

"I'm afraid it does."

"So you can't do any kidnaping, Smith?"

He laughed. "Oh, as far as that goes, I may have to do some."

"Kidnaping?"

"Possibly."

"You're a strange creature, Smith. And, speaking of strange creatures, who the devil is that Princess Pudelstoff? She talks English like an east-side Jewess."

"She is."

"W-what!!!"

"Certainly."

"The Princess Pudelstoff!"

"Her name was Leah Puppsky. She's the sister of Leo Puppsky, the Bolshevik envoy sent here with his confrere Isidore Wildkatz by Trotzky and Lenine to confer with Tino and Ferdie. She was once pretty – and she acted in an east-side theatre with Nazimova. Prince Pudelstoff was an attach? of the Russian Embassy at the time. He saw her act, fell in love, and married her, – of course with the Czar's knowledge and consent. But why the Czar let him do it is one of those diplomatic mysteries which remain unfathomed. Some believe that Rasputin had a reason for approving such an alliance." He shrugged.

"What a strange, fat, vulgar, good-natured woman," said I. "And what a grotesque company! Can you beat it? – Bulgar and Bolsheviki, King, Queen, Countess, Baron, Admiral, all jumbled up in this little rest-house where I am trying to live in peace and privacy. And now comes an act of God called an avalanche! – and we're all trapped together – you and I, Thusis and Clelia, and this beastly Bulgarian with his beak of a bird of prey; and that vulgar Greek King and his vixen of a wife, – Oh, Lord!"

"I'm glad God acted," he said cheerfully.

"You're glad that avalanche fell?"

"Yes; I'm very much relieved."

"Why, in the name of Heaven?"

"It simplifies my duties," he said, smiling. And that's all I got out of him except that he advised me to have nothing to do with this enterprise of Thusis and her sister.

"They'll only get you into mischief," he said. "It's a perfectly crazy scheme. Anyway I think it's nipped in the bud, now."

"If the avalanche hadn't fallen – "

"That makes a difference. But it couldn't have been done anyway. So you'd better not encourage Thusis by enlisting with her as a recruit, Michael. Avalanche or no avalanche it can't be done."

"Smith," said I, "if Thusis needs me I am going to help her bag this brace of kings."

"You are?"

"I am."

"You'll lose your property."

"I can't help that."

Smith glanced up at me curiously: "You are in love, Michael.

"I think I am."

"Don't be."

"What!"

"Don't be in love," he repeated gently. "It isn't any use. It's no good, Michael."

What he said annoyed me and he perceived it.

"Oh Lord," he said wearily, "this is a mess all around. You don't know what a mess it is, Michael. But all I can tell you is, don't fall in love with Thusis! Because it won't do you any good."

"What do you mean? Do you know who Thusis really is?"

"No, I don't. But I do know that it will do you no good to fall in love with her."

"Has it done you any good to fall in love with her sister Clelia?" I retorted sharply.

"Not a particle."

"Then why have you done it?"

He winced but said pleasantly: "I fell in love with her before I realized it. Now I'm falling out of love with her. I'm curing myself… Besides, she cares nothing about me… It will be easier for me to cure myself than for you to recover if you fall in love."

"Thusis will not listen to a serious word from me," said I with sudden bitterness. "I ought to try to cure myself now! … But I don't want to."

"Michael," he said, "the pretty Thusis, also, had better be very careful, because she already is as close to caring for you seriously as it is safe for any young girl to care for a man whom she knows she never is going to marry."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because, although I do not know who Thusis really is, I do know that she is not going to marry you. And I do not believe you will ever see Thusis again after this herd of conspirators leaves Swiss soil."

I thought very hard for a while. Then: "Smith, I have become firmly convinced that Thusis is the original of The Laughing Girl! Find out who she was and you will learn who Thusis is. I'm certain of this. Now who was this Laughing Girl?"

"Nobody knows."

"Have you tried to find out?"

"Yes."

"Did you learn anything at all?"

"Not much."

"What did you learn?"

"That the photographs of The Laughing Girl are not permitted to be sold in Italy."

I looked at him, perplexed. He shrugged his shoulders: "Photographs for sale in European cities," he said, "are usually portraits of celebrities – actresses, demi-mondaines, royalties. Do you suppose Thusis to be one of these?"

"Good heavens!"

"One of the three alternatives is, of course, unthinkable. Your choice would seem to lie, then, between royalty and the drama. But– the photographs of the Italian Royal family are sold everywhere in Italy. So are photographs of pretty actresses. Why is the sale of The Laughing Girl forbidden in Italy?"

"Forbidden? You didn't say that."

"Forbidden," he repeated calmly.

"That's very strange," said I. "What does it signify, Smith?"

"Well, of course, I have my own theory as to that."

"You don't care to discuss it?"

He shook his head.

"No, Michael. But it seems to fit in with my general idea concerning the identity of Thusis."

"And do you, too, believe that Thusis is the original of The Laughing Girl?" I asked.

"I have come to believe so."

"Then," said I, "I shall marry her! I've been in love with that photograph ever since I laid eyes on it, and now, when I've found the original, do you suppose I shall let it go at that? You don't know the O'Ryans!"

He began to laugh, but my excitement was rising.

"I'm going to make love to her," said I. "I'm going to help her bag these kings if she wants them. And when we tie them neck and heels and smuggle them into France and turn them over to a pair of strapping gendarmes I shall enlist with the American forces in France, whether Thusis accepts me for her husband or not. That, Smith, is my unalterable decision and my inflexible programme! And my property in Switzerland can go to the devil!"

"There are," said Smith with a peculiar smile, "two reasons why you should not remain in love with Thusis. One is that she won't marry you."

"What's the other?"

"The other is that she couldn't marry you if she wished to."

There was a short silence, then he went on: "Also there are two reasons why you should not help Thusis to kidnap Tino and Ferdie. One is that she isn't able to."

"What's the other?"

"The other is that —I won't let her."

I felt myself growing red and angry.

"That sounds almost pro-hun," said I.

"It does sound so," he admitted.

"Of course you're not pro-German," I added incredulously.

"Of course not," he rejoined calmly.

"Then – "

"I can't explain. I'm merely warning you not to aid her in this affair."

"Does Thusis know your attitude?"

"No, but she will."

"You are going to tell her?"

"No; but you are."

"I certainly shall," said I, warmly. "And I'd like to know why you are interfering with what she desires to do."

"I can't tell you why, Michael; but I'll tell herwhy – if she asks me."

"You may be very sure that Thusis will ask you, Smith," said I, perplexed to the verge of exasperation by his amazing attitude.

"Suppose you tell her," he said, amused. "All you need do is to repeat this couplet to her:

 
"Grecian gift and Spanish fig
Help the fool his grave to dig!"
 

"What idiot's jargon is that!" I demanded.

"A jargon that is likely to hold our pretty Thusis for a while. It is a word of warning – a signal of danger used by members of a secret society known as the ?gean League. Also it is likely to start her looking for me. And when she finds me I think she'll listen to reason and renounce this silly and useless attempt to trap royalty wholesale for export purposes. Not," he added gaily, "that I shouldn't expire with laughter to see Raoul and you, for example, take that pair of kings by the slack of the pants and run them Spanish into France. I'd applaud it, old top. I'd give frequent cheers during the process. But Thusis and Clelia mustn't start any such shindy. No! And if they inquire why, just repeat that verse to them and refer them to me."

"Then you are not here to watch these hun conspirators?" I asked in astonishment.

"Only incidentally."

"Do you mean to say that you are here, primarily, to watch Thusis and Clelia?"

"That is exactly why I am here, Michael. And I don't mind your telling them so. I myself was going to tell them. I had intended to break the news to them to-night. But the avalanche makes it unnecessary; they can't get out of this valley with their cartload of kings, now. However, let me suggest that you repeat that couplet to Thusis."

"This," said I, "is a most astounding and disagreeable series of complications. I don't understand them. I don't understand Thusis or you or that bagful of boches downstairs."

"Don't try to, old chap," he said in his friendly way. "And above all, don't break your heart over Thusis. For when the snow that blocks the pass melts, or when somebody digs through, I don't believe you are ever likely to see Thusis again."

His kindly sincerity scared and angered me.

"Watch me!" said I. "An O'Ryan never loves but once. But when he does love – "

"All right, old fellow. Go to it and God help you. They say He has a warm spot in His heart for the Irish."

I nodded, looking at him very seriously: "It's quite impossible," said I, "that she's royal. And if she's an actress I don't care, because I'm so deeply in love with her that I don't know whether I'm afoot or on horseback. And when an O'Ryan feels that way the world is his or he continues on to Heaven."

"Does it really mean Life or Death to you already, Michael?" he asked gravely.

"Life or death, sink or swim, survive or perish, – as some Yankee orator said once. Nothing matters now except Thusis. That's my only reason for living. Yesterday I wanted wealth, to-day my estate can go to the deuce. Yesterday I was a rather sober, decent citizen, perpetrating interior decoration in New York, to-day I figuratively kick the varnish off period furniture, tear down tapestries, smash Chinese pottery, and wipe my feet on the rags of Renaissance! Art is nothing! Thusis is everything. If she wants a few kings to play with, she shall have them. I'll bag them for her. I'll do anything in the world for her. And if that's not enough I'll step off this damned old planet and pull wires aloft for the honor and glory and happiness of the noblest, sweetest, loveliest, most beauti – "

A slight exclamation behind me checked my excited confession.

Slowly turning in my tracks I beheld Thusis at the door in cap and apron.

There was a terrific silence.

Then Thusis, her fair face deeply flushed, dropped us a curtsey.

"Dinner is served, sir," she said faintly. And was gone like a shadow.

XV
A TRAVELING CIRCUS

The royal traveling circus was already seated and whetting its appetite with hors d'oeuvres, when I arrived in the dining-room and, saluting my guests, took my place as host at the head of the long table.

Heaven! What a collection! Being incognito, I was not supposed to be aware of the identity of royalty; but Thusis had seated the ex-queen of Greece on my right and Tino on my left, and, beyond Queen Sophia, she had put the Tsar of all the Bulgars, – with a clean napkin where he had soiled the cover.

The new accessions to this traveling show had, very evidently, decided among themselves the places at table to which they were entitled by precedence of rank. And these they now occupied.

The two Bolsheviki, Leo Puppsky and Isidore Wildkatz, had been relegated to the foot of the table where they sat hunched up and scowling about them until noodle soup presently preoccupied them.

I do not know which one of my guests was the noisiest: the Tsar of all the Bulgars sucked up his soup with the distressingly acute sound of a sick horse drinking; the Princess Pudelstoff lapped and slobbered and wheezed in her slopping plate; but the technique of the Bolsheviki was simple and more effective, being reduced to a primitive, incessant gobbling noise, followed by patient and persistent scraping.

Behind my chair stood Raoul as extemporary butler; Thusis and Clelia in spotless caps and aprons sped lightly hither and thither; while from the depths of the kitchen, Josephine Vannis fed us all with the most delectable dinner which I think I ever tasted.

Ordinary wine being included on my bill of fare, the Tsar guzzled it while his sly eye of a wild pig roved about reading labels on the various bottles of more expensive wine ordered by the others.

The Bolsheviki, having plenty of the Russian people's money, demanded "bowcoo tchimpagne"; King Tino drank goblets of a rather heavy claret; his wife sipped only bottled water, while her cold, steely eyes glittered from guest to guest.

I conversed politely when spoken to; otherwise I made no effort. The Prussian admiral worked his bushy eyebrows and his coarse, fan-shaped beard while munching, but whether in hostility to me or because he was built that way, I did not know, and did not care.

He and Baron von Bummelzug sat all hunched up side by side, gobbling in their whiskers and exchanging Teutonic grunts which seemed to be their substitute for human conversation. Herr Secretary Gizzler, factotum to the Baron, and seated with the Bolsheviki, devastated his plate and seized ravenously upon anything eatable in his vicinity, which presently elicited a chattering protest from Puppsky; and a quarrel rapidly developed until squelched by General Count von Dungheim.

"Silence!" he said angrily: "you make so much noise that it is impossible to hear oneself eat!"

The Princess Pudelstoff nodded violently, balancing a knifeful of mashed potato before committing it to its dreadful destiny:

"They act," she said in English, "like they was never to a high-toned dinner. It's them two Bolsheviks that ain't had a square meal since Hindy licked the Rooshians at the Missouri Lakes."



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