Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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Leo Puppsky made a violent gesture at her with the leg of a chicken:

"Is that the way to speak of us?" he said to his sister. "And you a Russian and my own sister!"

"Ain't it true?" she asked with a loud laugh. "Get sense, Leo. There won't be nothing to eat in Rooshia so long as you act ugly to Germany – "

"Princess!" interrupted the queen of Greece, sharply.

"That's right," said Tino in a loud, good humored voice; "one doesn't discuss politics while dining. No! One pays strict attention to what one eats and drinks; eh, Sophy?"

The queen ignored him, and he slyly batted one eye at the pretty Countess Manntrapp, his neighbor, and tossed off a brimming goblet of deep red claret.

"Aha!" he said, smacking his lips, "that beats even the wine of Naxos. Did you ever drink Naxos wine, Countess?"

"No," said she; "is it very excellent?"

"Heady, Countess, heady! After you crack one bottle you begin to see the old gods of Greece sitting beside you on pink clouds in their underclothes – "

"Tino!" snapped the Queen.

The Countess laughed. "I'd like to see them." She looked across at me with her fascinating, audacious smile: "Wouldn't you like to drink Naxos wine with me, Mr. O'Ryan, and see the old time gods come down out of the blue sky and sit at table all about you?"

"It seems to me," said I, bowing, "that Aphrodite has already arrived among us mortals."

She laughed, acknowledging the raw compliment, then pursing up her red mouth but uttering no sound she nevertheless formed her question so that I read every word on her mobile lips:

"Do – you – know – anybody – who – would – play – Adonis – to – my – Venus?"

And she laughed her daring little laugh and made me a pretty gesture, intercepted by Ferdinand of Bulgaria who took it for himself and continued to ogle her out of passionate, pig-like eyes until further engrossed in a new relay of food.

It was a dreadful dinner party. Both the kings made life wretched for Clelia and Thusis as they waited on table, slyly pinching them when unobserved until, from Thusis' burning cheeks and trembling hands as she served me, I almost feared she would launch a plate at the royal libertines.

It was a weird company. The Bolsheviki chattered and grabbed at food; all the Germans ate noisily – excepting only the pretty Countess Manntrapp, who had been Lila Shezawitch, and not a Teuton by birth.

Constantine had had more claret than was good for him and now he was pouring into himself countless little glasses of brandy, and was becoming loudly and somewhat coarsely talkative, retailing bits of barrack-room gossip to General Count von Dungheim and cracking dubious jokes with Baron von Bummelzug until his wife spoke to him with such cutting contempt that he winced and relapsed into a half hazy and giggling exchange of whispers with the Countess Manntrapp. As for the Princess Pudelstoff, she had never for one moment ceased stuffing herself.

Sweat stood in oily beads on her forehead and cheeks; her fat hands plied knife and fork and spoon without interruption save when she grasped her beer mug in both jeweled hands and drew mighty and noisy draughts from the heavy quart receptacle.

The whole performance at my table was becoming a horrid nightmare to me; I could not see any signs of satiation among these dreadful people – any desire to call it off and quit and retire to their respective sties.

Smith caught my eye and I saw him suppress the smile that twitched his features.

Then it suddenly occurred to me that I had news for the traveling circus that might modify their appetites; and I said, distinctly, and raising my voice sufficiently to command attention from everybody:

"There is some very serious information which I regret that it is necessary to share with everybody here. I did not wish to spoil your appetites. But dinner is over, and I had better speak."

All feeding ceased; everybody stared at me.

"I regret that I am obliged to inform you," I continued, "that the snow field on the south flank of the Bec de l'Empereur, loosened by the warm deluge of rain, has fallen, completely choking the pass which is our only entrance to and exit from this valley."

"An avalanche!" exclaimed the Queen of Greece sharply.

"Yes, madame, a very bad one."

"We are blocked in," she gasped.

"Absolutely."

At that the Princess Pudelstoff uttered a squeak of fright: "We're all going to starve!" she squealed in alarm; "that's what he means! There isn't enough food for us and we'll all die the way they are dying in Rooshia – "

"There's plenty of food," I interrupted.

"Ach, Gott sei dank! Gott sei dank!" she shouted, clapping her pudgy hands and seizing knife and fork again.

But the others were now rising from their seats, exchanging glances full of anxiety and perplexity; and, as I left the room with Smith, I saw them all gathering around the Ex-Queen of Greece as though general consternation had seized them. Only the Princess Pudelstoff remained in her chair, devouring tartlets, her triple chin agitated by a series of convulsive shudders as she bolted sections of pastry too large for her.

Coffee was to be served al fresco; Raoul had set a number of green iron tables and chairs out by the fountain.

"My heavens, Smith," said I, "we should serve them coffee in a common trough. Did you ever before endure such misery at any table?"

"Oh, yes," he said, "I've lived in Germany."

"Well I haven't, and I'm going to skip the demitasse," I rejoined. And I walked around the house and entered the back door where two latticed arbors flanked the stone walk.

Here I seated myself and lighted a cigarette, still unnerved by the martyrdom of that dinner table.

It was quiet and peaceful in the sunset light under my roof of curly grape leaves where sun spots glowed amid the tender green and two little active birds climbed busily and silently about the foliage in search of aphids.

I had been sitting there for ten minutes, perhaps, when the door opened behind me and Thusis appeared with coffee. Her lovely features still were tinged with the rosy glow of recent wrath; her gray eyes were still brilliant with the same emotion.

"Coffee, if you please, sir?" she said crisply.

I had risen, smiling.

"You need not have taken so much trouble, Thusis – "

"Pardon. It is what servants are hired for."

"Why do you keep up this masquerade with me?" I asked, laughingly, taking the cup from the tray.

But Thusis seemed to be in no pleasant humor, and she turned to go without answering.

"Thusis!"

She halted.

"I'm sorry those beastly kings annoyed you at table – "

"They're men," she retorted angrily. "What can a woman expect?"

"Do you think that is fair to me, Thusis, to lump me with men in general?"

"I don't know what's fair to you. And I'm really not very particular about it. Little chance that men ever suffer too much from being misunderstood in this world."

"You are amazingly unjust, do you realize it?"

"I'm not sure that I am," she said sullenly. "You made your d?but by trying to kiss your own cook. Tino is coarser, he pinches; Ferdie the furtive, pushes one with his knees and rolls wild eyes at one. There are three masculine examples. Take your choice, Monsieur," she added, going.

"Wait!"

She turned haughtily, her gray eyes suddenly insolent.

"Because you are hurt and offended and humiliated by a pair of scoundrels," said I, "is no reason why you should visit your displeasure on me."

"I make no difference in men."

"Not even in the man who is in love with you?"

"Love? Love!" She laughed, not agreeably. "I am not flattered, Monsieur, to have offered to me the same adoration which you were quite willing to bestow upon your cook. I tell you all men arealike! – including the Pharisee."

"Do you mean me?"

"Haven't you practically just thanked God you are not like other men?"

"What have I done to deserve this, Thusis? I'm trying to be patient – "

"You don't need to be. Heaven deliver me from a patient man!"

Then I blew up: "You listen to me, you little idiot," I said in a low, enraged tone; "I'm in love with you and you can't help it whatever you choose to do about it. You came here as a servant and I fell in love with you as a servant. You are probably something else – God knows what – and I'm more in love than ever with God-knows-what! I don't care what you are, servant, bourgeoise, actress, princess, or demi-mondaine – "

"What!"

"I tell you I wouldn't care. I love you. I want to marry you – "

"Marry me if I were – a demi – "

"Yes!" I said violently; "yes! yes! yes! It's too late to have whatever you are make any difference to me. I'm an O'Ryan and I love only once."

"Do you suppose I'm flattered by what you've just shouted at me? You'd marry me – or you'd do the same for a demi – "

"Confound it!" I exclaimed, "it's you, whatever you are! Can't you understand – "

"Certainly I can. All men are men first, last, all the time. That Serbian married Draga; any man will do as much for any drab if he can't have her otherwise. I've seen enough of men, I tell you. Royal, noble, landed gentry, bourgeoisie, peasantry – all are men first, last, all the time; and all are exactly alike!"

She clenched her hand and confronted me with scornful eyes:

"And why any honest woman should ever fall in love with one of them is one of those ignoble mysteries which I have never cared to fathom!"

Her contempt and my own fury almost paralyzed me.

I said, finally, in a very quiet voice, not my own:

"Very well, Thusis, expect nothing more of me than you expect of any man – including those royal gentlemen out yonder. And I'll not disappoint you."

I stepped nearer, forcing a smile:

"You've succeeded in slaying any consideration I entertained for your sex. You've enlightened me. In future I'll take them as I find them, easily, lightly, good-humoredly, with gaiety, with gratitude to the old time gods when they send a pretty one my way."

And I smiled at Thusis who looked darkly back at me with the faintest hint of uncertainty in her eyes.

"It is wonderful," said I, "how a word or two from a woman sometimes clears up the most serious situations. Your revelations concerning my sex in general have opened my eyes. I take your word for it that man is always man, as you explain so convincingly, and that he is, first, last, and all the time, merely a jackass endowed with speech."

I emptied my coffee cup and set it upon the tray which she held in her left hand.

"I had," said I, "something else to tell you – and which had nothing whatever to do with love. But, on second thoughts, I am so certain that a self-sufficient girl like yourself is amply able to look out for herself, that I shall not bother to say what I had intended saying."

Her gray eyes became intently fixed on mine while her color came and went under the sting of irony.

But I made up my mind to let matters take their course. If she tried to body-snatch this Greek and Bulgarian carrion, let her! If Smith interfered, let him! What was it to me after all? I was becoming fed up on love and feminine caprice – on kings and queens and shocking manners, – on intrigue and treachery and counter plot.

Suddenly, as I stood there, a wave of disgust swept over me. I was sick of Switzerland; sick of the ridiculous property which was causing me all this trouble and discomfort; sick of the grotesque whim of Fate which had yanked me out of an orderly, unaccented life and a peaceful profession in Manhattan and had slammed me down here in the midst of love and Alps and kings!

"I'll chuck the estate and go home!" I exclaimed. "I'll go now, to-night!" And then I remembered the accursed avalanche.

She was watching me intently, curiously, and I noticed she had lost some of her colour.

"Do you suppose," said I, "that there is any way of climbing over that mass of snow? – any way of my getting out of this valley to-night?"

"Would you go if you could?" she asked in a rather colorless voice.

"Yes, I would," said I savagely. "I've had enough."

"I'm sorry."

"Sorry that I've had enough?" I sneered.

"Sorry you cannot leave the valley to-night," she said quietly.

"Then it is not possible?"

"I'm afraid not… If it were, I also would leave this valley to-night."

"With a bagful of kings," I added.

"Yes," she said simply.

"Oh, no, you wouldn't," said I with unworthy satisfaction in my knowledge of Smith's mission. "And let me tell you a thing or two, Thusis. You seem to resemble, more or less, a very naughty little girl, spoiled but precocious, who has run away from school and is raising the devil out of bounds, throwing stones and ringing door-bells and defying policemen with derisive tongue. Pretty soon you'll be caught and led home and soundly spanked. And," I added fervently, "I'd like to be in the vicinity of that wood-shed when discipline begins."

My laughter was fairly genuine. I lighted a cigarette and, gazing at this girl who had so outrageously maligned me, felt so much better that a macabre sort of gaiety verging upon frivolity invaded me.

"All women," said I, "are women, first, last, and all the time."

Thusis flushed.

"I am wondering," said I airily, "whether the r?le of Adonis might suit me."

"What!" she exclaimed.

"Adonis," I repeated. "He was that poor fish of an amateur who played opposite Aphrodite. And got the hook. But the r?le is all right and it's a no-character part if you play it straight… I'm wondering – " And I smiled at my own thoughts and blew three rings of smoke up at the sun-lit grape leaves overhead.

Suddenly Thusis unclosed her soft, fresh lips, which seemed a trifle tremulous:

"That woman," she said breathlessly, "is notorious in Vienna! And if you are – sufficiently abandoned – to d-degrade yourself by – an affair – with her – "

"But what do you care, Thusis?"

Her face flamed. "I care —that!" she said, snapping her white fingers. And turned swiftly on her heel.

XVI
THE COUNTESS

I was very unhappy. I was not only madly in love with Thusis but also mad enough to spank her. And I sat down in the arbor once more a prey to mixed emotions.

The two silent little birds had gone to bed. Soft mauve shadows lay across the scrubby foreland; snow peaks assumed the hue of pink pearls; a wavering light played through the valley so that the world seemed to quiver in primrose tints.

Then, through the pale yellow glory, a girl came drifting as though part of the delicate beauty of it all, – her frail, primrose evening gown and scarf scarcely outlined – scarcely detached from the golden clarity about her. It was as though she were lost in the monotone of living light the only accent the dusky symmetry of her head.

I had not realized that the Countess Manntrapp was so pretty.

I was not sure that she had discovered me at all until she turned her head en passant and sent me one of those vague smiles calculated to stir the dead bones of saints.

"I suppose," she said, "you only look lonely, but really you are not."

I was lonely and sore at heart. Possibly she read in my forced smile something of my state of mind, for she paused leisurely by the arbor and glanced about her at the grape leaves.

"Evidently," she said, "this spot is sacred to Bacchus. But I was not looking for gods or half-gods… Do you prefer your own company, Mr. O'Ryan?"

"No, I don't," said I. So she entered the arbor and seated herself. There was only that one seat. With strictest economy it could accommodate two; but I had not thought of attempting it until she carelessly suggested it.

"How heavenly still it is," she murmured, an absent expression in her dark eyes. "Are you fond of stillness and solitude?"

"Not very," said I. "Are you, Countess?"

She said, dreamily, that she was, but her side glance belied her. Never did the goddess of mischief look at me out of two human eyes as audaciously as she was doing now. And it was so transparent a challenge, so utterly without disguise, that we both laughed.

I don't know why I laughed unless the soreness in mind and heart had provoked their natural reaction. A listless endurance of suffering is the first symptom of indifference – that blessed anodyne with which instinct inoculates unhappy hearts when the bitterness which was sorrow wears away and leaves only dull resignation.

"At dinner," she said, "I made up my mind that you are an interesting man. I am wondering."

"I came to a similar conclusion concerning you," said I. "But I'm no longer wondering how near right I am."

"Such a pretty compliment! Also it dissipates any doubts regarding you."

"Did you have any, Countess?"

"Well, you know what I asked you at dinner. You understood? You read lips, don't you?"

"I read yours."

"I wasn't sure. You gave me no answer."

We laughed lightly. "What answer can a mortal make when Aphrodite commands?" said I.

"Then you are willing to play Adonis?"

"Quite as willing – as was that young gentleman."

"That isn't kind of you, Mr. O'Ryan. He wasn't very willing, was he?"

"Not very. But possibly he had a premonition of the tragic consequences," said I, laughing. "One doesn't frivol with a goddess with impunity."

"Are you afraid?"

She turned in the narrow seat. She was altogether too near, but I couldn't help it. And I was much disturbed to find our fingers had become very lightly intertwined.

She was smiling when I kissed her. But after I had done it her smile faded, and the gay confidence in her expression altered.

I had never expected to see in her eyes any hint of confusion, but it was there, and a sort of shamed surprise, too – odd emotions for a hardened coquette with the reputation she enjoyed.

"You proceed too rapidly," she said, the bright but subtly changed smile still stamped on her lips. "There seems to be no finesse about Americans – no leisurely technique that masters the intricacies of the ante-climax. Did you not know that hesitation is an art; that the only perfect happiness is in suspense?"

"Didn't you want to be kissed?" I asked bluntly. "I had perhaps surmised that it might not be a disagreeable sensation. Was it?"

She seemed to have recovered her careless audacity, and now she laughed.

"At all events," she said, "I shall not repeat the experiment … this evening." She laid one soft hand in mine with a gay little smile: "Let us enjoy our new friendship serenely and without undue emotion," she said. "And let me tell you how you have made me laugh at what you said to those absurd Prussians!"

We both laughed, but I was now on my guard with this girl who had come here in such company.

"No Prussian ever born ever knew how to make a friend," she said. "To-day they have the whole world against them – even your country – "

"I am Chilean," said I pleasantly.

"Are you really?"

"I think you and your friends are quite sure of that," said I drily.

"Suppose," she said in a lower voice, "I tell you that they are not my friends?"

I smiled.

"You wouldn't believe me?" she asked.

"What I believe and do not believe, dear Countess, should not disturb you in the slightest."

"I thought we were friends."

"Do you really think so?"

"I hope so. I wish it – if you do. And friendship does not fear confidences."

"Neutrals have no confidences to make. My country is not at war."

"Is not your heart enlisted?" she asked, smilingly.

"Is yours?"

"Yes, it is! See how my friendship refuses no confidence when you ask? I do not hesitate."

"On which side," said I, warily, "is your heart enlisted?"

"Shall I tell you?"

"If you care to."

She sat looking at me intently, her soft hand in mine. Then, with a pretty gesture, she placed the other hand over it, and her shoulder came into contact with mine.

"I am Russian," she said. "Is that not an answer?"

"So is Puppsky," I remarked.

For a second an odd expression came over her face and it turned quite white. Then she laughed.

"I'll tell you something," she said. "I have a girl friend. I love her dearly. I have a country. I love it still more dearly. The girl I love is Adelaide, Grand Duchess of Luxemburg. Prussia has practically annexed it. The country I love is Russia. Prussia holds it… Do you still doubt me?"

"Good Lord," thought I, "how this girl can lie!" But I said: "Tell me about Luxemburg, Countess. Is it true that Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria means to marry the seventeen-year-old sister of the Grand Duchess Adelaide?"

"Yes," she said. And I distinctly heard her teeth snap.

"What sort of man is Ruprecht?" I inquired, to steer the conversation toward easier ground.

"Ruprecht! Did you ever see him?"

"No."

"Well, he has the manners of the barn-yard and the distinction of a scullion! Picture to yourself a man of fifty-seven with a head as square as a battered bullet and the bodily grace of a new-born camel. He is the stupidest, coarsest, commonest vulgarian in Europe.

"Why, the man is ridiculous! He once set all Munich laughing by appearing in the English Garden on skates wearing his spurs and saber. And all his military suite had to do likewise. Picture the result – and Ruprecht scarcely knew how to stand on the ice! Why their swords got between their legs and their spurs did the rest, and the entire lake resounded with the incessant crash of falling warriors."



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