Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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She threw back her head and laughed; and I laughed too.

"Such a brute," she said. "His first wife, daughter of that kindly and philanthropic oculist, Karl Theodore of Tegernsee, died of his neglect and ill treatment. And now, at fifty-seven, he rolls his hog's eyes in his freckled face and smirks at a seventeen-year-old child Ц God help her!"

I gazed in amazement at the Countess Manntrapp. This was acting with a vengeance. Such perfection, such flawless interpretation of the r?le she was playing for my benefit, I had never dreamed possible. No emotion could appear more genuine, no sincerity more perfectly mimicked. Here was an actress without equal in my entire experience.

Suddenly I caught her eye, and turned very red.

"You don't believe me," she said calmly, and dropped her head.

There was a painful silence between us. Presently she looked up at me, flushed, curious, amused:

"You take me for a Hun, don't you?"

"If you are not pro-German," said I, much embarrassed, "what are you doing with those people?"

"Watching them. And you don't believe that, either?"

"I'm sorry, Countess."

"Why do you doubt me?"

"Because only a pro-German would confide to a stranger that she is not one. Were you really in the Allied service you'd keep your own council. Secret agents don't betray themselves to strangers. You have no means of knowing where my sympathies lie. How do you know I am not pro-German?"

"By your letters."

"My letters?"

"I opened several," she said na?vely.

"Where!"

"In Berne."

"You stole my letters?"

"Yes, I had to."

"How did you do it?"

"The postman is in my pay."

"That," said I angrily, "is a most outrageous confession, Countess."

"But I had to know what your politics are," she explained gently. "Besides, if I had not stolen all your letters the Swiss authorities would have opened them and found out that you are pro-Ally in sentiment. And then you would not have been permitted to come here and live in this house. And all these people would not have come here either. And I should have had nobody to help me while keeping these people under surveillance."

"You count on me to help you?" I demanded, too astonished to remain angry.

"May I not?" she asked sweetly.

"So that's the reason," said I, "that you let me kiss you."

"I must be honest, it is."

With every atom of conceit knocked out of me, wincing, chagrined, I found nothing to say to this pretty woman who sat so close beside me and looked at me with a half smile hovering on her lips and out of sweet, dark eyes that seemed utterly honest Ц God help her.

"It is only your vanity that is smarting a little," she said, smiling, "not your heart. I haven't touched that at all."

"How do you know?" I retorted.

"Because you are in love with somebody else, Mr. O'Ryan."

"With whom?" I demanded defiantly.

"I don't know.

But you are in love. A woman can tell."

"I am not in love," said I with angry emphasis, recollecting the treatment meted out to me by Thusis. "I'm not in love with anybody." I caught her doubting but interested eyes fixed intently on me Ц "unless," I added recklessly, "I'm in love with you."

"But you're not."

We looked at each other curiously, almost searchingly, not inclined to laugh yet ready, perhaps, for further mischief. Why not preoccupy my mind with this amusing and pretty woman, and slay in my heart all regard for Thusis?

So I kissed her with that object in view. She said nothing Ц scarcely defended herself Ц sitting with pretty head lowered and white jeweled hands tightly folded in her lap.

"I'll take you trout-fishing," said I, determined to exterminate and root out all tender memories of Thusis.

She looked up: "May I ask you a question?"

"What is it?" I returned, suspiciously, instantly on my guard again.

"Who is Mr. Smith?"

"A Norwegian." And I explained Smith's business with the Swiss government.

She nodded absently. Probably she did not believe this. As far as that was concerned, neither did I.

"Answer me a question, will you, Countess?" said I in my turn. She smiled: "What is it?"

"Is your kiss really worth the information you extract from me?"

In spite of her light laughter she turned quite pink, and when I bent toward her again, she laid her arm across her lips, defending them.

Then, as I was preparing for further indiscretion, the door behind us opened and was closed again instantly. I knew it was Thusis. The certainty chilled my very bones.

"Who was it?" I asked carelessly.

"Only the waitress," said she.

"The red-haired one?"

"I believe so. Is she Swiss?"

I did not answer.

The Countess looked up and repeated the question. "Where did you find her?" she added.

There was a short silence. An almost imperceptible change came over her features. Then, daintily, and by degrees, she inclined her head a little nearer.

But it was not in me to betray Thusis for a kiss. Slowly, however, I became aware that I was betraying myself.

Presently the Countess rose in the gathering dusk, and I stood up immediately.

She inspected me steadily for a full minute, then that almost imperceptible smile edged her lips again and she gave me my cong? with a gentle nod.

XVII
MORE MYSTERY

I discovered Smith sitting on the rim of the fountain all alone in the dusk.

"Good heavens!" I blurted out, "was any man ever so completely entangled in the web of intrigue as I am? Plot, counterplot, camouflage, mystery Ц I'm in the very middle of the whole mess!

"I don't know who anybody is or what they're up to! Who is Thusis? Who is Clelia? Who is Josephine Vannis? Raoul? The Countess Manntrapp? And who are you, for that matter? I don't know! I don't pretend to guess."

"What's the trouble?" he asked, amused.

"Trouble! I don't know. There's all kinds of trouble lying around. I'm in several varieties of it. Where is the traveling circus?"

"In Tsar Ferdie's apartments."

"Probably conspiring," I added.

"Probably."

"What are you doing out here?"

"Oh, I'm not conspiring," he said, laughing, "I'm no saint to converse with the fishes in your fountain."

"Where is Clelia?"

He said he didn't know but somehow I gathered the impression that she was somewhere behind the lighted kitchen windows and that Smith was hanging around in hopes she might come out to take the air by starlight.

"Have you seen Thusis?" I asked guiltily. And felt my ears burning in the dark.

"Why, yes," he said. "She walked down the road a few moments ago."

"Alone?"

"Yes."

"Probably she went to take a look at the snow blockade," said I.

He nodded.

"Perhaps," I added carelessly, "I had better saunter down that way."

"No," he said, "you'd better not."

"Why?" I asked sharply.

"Starlight and Thusis might go to a young man's head."

"I'm no longer in love," said I in the most solemn tones I had ever used. "I am now able to contemplate Thusis without the stormy emotions which once assailed me, Smith. All that is over. To me she is merely an interesting and rather pathetic woman. I feel kindly toward Thusis. I wish her well. I would willingly do anything I could to Ц "

"Piffle."

"What the devil do you mean by that?" I demanded.

"What the devil do you mean by kidding yourself?"

"Haven't I just explained?"

"You've given yourself away. A man doesn't utter pious sentiments about a girl he no longer cares for. He doesn't bother to explain his regenerated attitude toward her. He doesn't trouble himself to talk about her at all. Nor does he go roaming after her by starlight. If you really care for her no longer, let her alone. If you do care you'll get mad at what I say Ц as you're doing Ц and start off to find her in the starlight Ц as you're doing Ц "

But I was too exasperated to listen to such stuff.

I discovered her, finally, in the starlight just ahead of me,†Ц a slim shadow on the high-road, outlined against a stupendous mass of snow which choked the valley like a glacier.

She heard my steps on the hard stone road, looked over her shoulder, then turned sharply, paying me no further attention, even when I came up beside her.

"Gracious!" said I, attempting an easy tone and manner; "what a tremendous fall was here!"

"I have known greater falls," she said very quietly.

"Really?"

"Yes; I once had a friend whose fall was greater."

"Poor fellow! He fell off a precipice, I presume."

"He fell from his high estate, Mr. O'Ryan."

"Oh. Did he also have an estate in the Alps?"

She said scornfully: "He fell in my esteem Ц deep, Mr. O'Ryan Ц into depths so terrible that, even if I leaned over to look, I could never again perceive him."

"Poor fellow," I muttered, chilled to the bone again.

"Yes." she said calmly, "it was tragic."

"D-did you care for him, Thusis?" I ventured, scared half to death.

"I trusted him."

"D-don't you trust him any more?"

"He is dead Ц to me," she said coldly.

There ensued a silence which presently I became unable to endure.

"You know, Thusis, that man isn't dead Ц "

"He might better be!"

"You don't understand him!"

"I no longer wish to."

"He loves you!"

"He does not!" she cried in tones so fierce that I almost jumped.

"Thusis," said I in a miserable voice, "you hurt and wounded that man until he was almost out of his senses Ц "

"And he lost no time in consoling himself with another woman!"

"He didn't know what he was doing Ц "

"He seemed to! Е So did she!"

"Thusis Ц "

"Did you kiss her?"

"I Ц "

"Did you?"

"Yes."

I was so scared that my teeth chattered when Thusis turned on me in the starlight.

Her gray eyes were aflame; her little hands were tightly clenched. I hoped she would upper-cut me and mercifully put me to sleep, for this scene was like a nightmare to me.

Then, of a sudden, the slender figure seemed to wilt before my eyes,†Ц shrink, bend, stand swaying with desperate hands covering the face.

"Michael," she whispered. "Michael!" Ц and her voice ended in a sigh.

Scared as I was I took her in my arms. She rested her face against my shoulder.

"You Ц you don't really care," I stammered, "do you, Thusis? Do you, my darling Ц "

"Oh, I don't know Ц I don't know. You've hurt me, Michael; I'm all hurt and Ц and quivering with your wound. I don't know!†Ц I don't understand myself. My heart is sore Ц all raw and sore. So is my mind Ц the blow you dealt hurts me there, too Ц "

"But, Thusis dear! You wounded me, too Ц "

"Oh, I knowЕ I scarcely knew what I said. I don't know now what I'm saying Ц what I'm doing Ц here in your arms Ц " She tried to release herself, and, failing, buried her face against my shoulder with a convulsive little shudder.

"You must love me," I whispered unsteadily. "I can't live without you, Thusis."

"But I can't love you, Michael."

"Can't you find it in your heart to care for me?"

"In my heart, perhapsЕ But not in my mind."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean exactly thatЕ I can't consult my Ц my heart aloneЕ I must not. I dare not. I am obliged to consult my senses, too. And Ц dear Michael Ц my senses tell me that I may not care for you Ц must not fall in love Ц with you Ц "

"Why?"

After a silence she lifted her lovely head and looked up at me out of beautiful, distressed eyes that dumbly asked indulgence.

"Well, then, you need not tell me, Thusis."

"You'll know, some day."

"I'll know, some day, why I won you in spite of everything."

She gently shook her head.

"Yes," said I, "I shall win you, Thusis."

"My heart Ц perhaps."

"Your mind, too."

We remained so, for a while, not speaking lest the spell be broken. And at last she slowly disengaged herself from my arms, then, confronting me, placed both her hands in mine with a sudden impulse that thrilled me.

"Let it remain this way, then," she said. "Win my heart, if you care to. I don't mind going through life with my heart in your kind keeping, Michael. I had rather it were so. I should be less unhappy."

"Unhappy?"

"Yes Ц because I am going to be unhappy anyway. And if I knew that you once cared, it would be easier for me Ц in after yearsЕ Michael Ц "

"Yes?"

"Would you care for that much of me?"

I drew her nearer.

"You must not kiss me," she whispered.

"I Ц "

"PleaseЕ It is a sign of troth plightedЕ And is desecration elseЕ Troth plighted is a holy thing. And that cannot be between us, Michael. That cannot happenЕ And so, you must not touch my lips with yours Ц dear MichaelЕ Only my hand Ц if you do care for me Ц "

I kissed her hand Ц then, slowly, each finger and the fragrant palm, until it seemed to disconcert her and she withdrew it.

"Now take me back," she said in an uncertain voice that trembled slightly, "and remain my dear, frank, boyish friendЕ And let me plague you a little, Michael. Won't you? And not be angry?" She asked so sweetly that I began to laugh Ц covered her hand with kisses Ц and laughed again.

"You little girl," I exclaimed Ц "oddly mature in some ways Ц a child in others Ц you may torment me and laugh at me now to your heart's content. Isn't laughter, after all, your heaven born privilege?"

"Why do you say that?"

"Oh, Thusis! Thusis! I am more convinced than ever of what I have half believed. Before I ever set eyes on you I had begun to care for you. Before I ever heard your voice I had begun to fall in love with you. Thusis Ц my Thusis Ц loveliest Ц most wonderful of God's miracles since Eden bloomed Чyou are The Laughing Girl!"

"Michael Ц "

"You are!"

Suddenly, as she walked lightly beside me, resting on my arm, she flung up her head with a reckless, delicious little laugh: "I am The Laughing Girl!"

A slight yet exquisite shock went clean through me as I realized that even to the instant of her avowal I had not been absolutely convinced of her identity with the picture.

"And I wish to tell you," she went on, her smile changing, "that when the photograph Ц which unhappily has become so notorious Ц was taken, I never dreamed that it would be stolen, reproduced in thousands, and sold in every city of Europe!"

"Stolen!"

"Certainly! Do you imagine that I would have permitted its publicity and sale? Never has such an exasperating incident occurred in my life! And I am helpless. I can't prevent it."

"Who stole it?"

"I haven't the slightest idea. It was this way, Michael; it happened in my own home on the island of Naxos, and my sister Clelia and I were amusing ourselves with our cameras, dressing each other up and posing each other.

"And she dressed me Ц or rather almost un-dressed me Ц that way Ц isn't it enough to make a saint swear Ц for when I had developed the plate and had started to print, somebody stole the plate from the sill of the open window. And the next thing we knew about it was when all Europe was flooded with my picture under which was printed that dubious caption Ц 'The Laughing Girl.' Can you imagine my astonishment and rage? Could anything more utterly horrid happen to a girl? Had I at least been fully dressed Ц but no: there I was in every shop window among actresses, queens, demi-mondaines, and dissipated dukes just as Clelia had posed me in the intimacy of our own rooms, all over jewels, some of me mercifully veiled in a silk scarf, audaciously at ease in my apparent effrontery Ц oh, Michael, it nearly killed me!"

"Didn't you do anything about it?"

"Indeed I did! But where these photographs were being printed we never could find out. All we were able to do was to forbid their importation into Italy."

"How did you manage that?" I asked curiously.

She hesitated, then carelessly: "We had some slight influence at court Ц "

"Influence?"

"Possibly it amounted to that," she said indifferently.

"You are known at court, Thusis?"

She shrugged: "We are not, I believe, completely unknown." She walked on beside me in silence for a few moments, then:

"I do not wish to convey to you that I am persona grata in Italian court circles."

"But if you are known at court, dear Thusis, how can you be otherwise than welcome there?"

"I am not welcome there."

"That is impossible."

"You adorable boy," she laughed, "I must beg of you to occupy yourself with your own affairs and not continue to occupy yourself with mine."

"That's a heartless snub, Thusis."

"I don't mean it so," she said, her hand tightening impulsively on my arm. "But, Michael dear, I don't wish you to speculate about my affairs. It does no good. Besides, the situation in which I find myself is fearfully complex, and you couldn't help me out of it."

"Perhaps I can, Thusis."

She laughed: "You are delightfully romantic. You almost resemble one of the old time cloak-and-sword lovers of that dear Romance which died so long ago on the printed page as well as in human hearts."

"It is not dead in my breast, Thusis."

"It is dead in every breast. Only its frail ghost haunts our hearts at moments."

"When I offered you my heart, Thusis, did you suppose it empty save for a trace of selfish passion?"

"Men are menЕ I do not understand their hearts."

"Take mine; tear it apart, look into it,†Ц even if I die of it. Will you?"

Her laugh became less genuine and there was no gaiety in it.

"Tell me what I should find in your heart if I dissected it?"

"Love Ц and a sword!"

"You Ц you offer me your life, Michael?"

"This life Ц and the next."

She made no answer, walking slowly on beside me, her arm linked in mine, the starlight glimmering on her bent head. Down the road beyond us the illuminated windows of my house glimmered. As we moved toward them along the stony highroad, I said:

"Thusis dear, I know nothing about you or about your affairs. I do not even guess your identity. But that you and your sister are here for the purpose of taking these miserable kings across the frontier into France, by violence, I do know.

"And this, also, I have learned, that, if you attempt to execute this coup-de-main, my friend Shandon Smith will do all he can to prevent it."

The girl stopped as though I had struck her and stared at me in the silvery lustre of the stars.

"What?" she said slowly.

"I have told you what Smith told me. He said that he didn't care whether or not I informed you. He added that, in case I chose to inform you, I should also repeat to you the following couplet:


'Grecian gift and Spanish fig
Help the Fool his grave to dig.'"

A bright flush stained her face yet she seemed to be more astounded than angry.

"Is it possible," she said, "that your friend Mr. Smith Ц this Norwegian promoter Ц repeated that couplet to you?"

"He certainly did repeat it to me, Thusis."

"Did he Ц did he tell you what it meant? Did he tell you anything more?"

"He mentioned a secret society called the ?gean League."

"This is amazing," she murmured, looking up the road at the lights of the house.

"Of all people," she added, "that man Smith, the last person on earth we could suspect." She passed her hand across her eyes Ц a gesture of perplexity and consternation:

"I wish to find Mr. Smith, Michael. I desire to see him immediately. Please let us walk faster."

We fell into a quick pace and she released my arm as the light from the windows fell on us.

"He was sitting by the fountain," I began.

"He is there now, with Clelia," she exclaimed, and walked directly toward him where he was seated near Clelia on the stone rim of the pool.

They looked up as we approached, and Smith rose.

"Mr. Smith," said Thusis with a trace of excitement in her voice, "have you any knowledge concerning my identity?"

If the blunt question were a shock to him he did not show it. He answered in his pleasant, even voice:

"I don't know who you are, Thusis."

"Have you any idea?"

"None."

"How can that be," she asked, flushing, "when you send me such a couplet?"

"I've told you the truth," he said simply; "I don't know who you are, Thusis. I don't even suspect." He turned and looked at Clelia who had risen from her seat on the fountain's edge.

"You do not like me, Clelia, and now you are going to like me less. You resented it when I preached at you concerning proper behavior for a young girl. And now that you learn I am going to interfere in your political and military maneuvers, I suppose you hate me."

Nobody moved or spoke for a moment. Then Clelia took a step toward Smith, and I saw her face had become deadly pale.

"No," she said, "I don't hate you. On the contrary I am beginning to like you. Because it takes a real man to tell the woman he loves that he means to ruin her."

"Clelia, you and Thusis are ruined only if I hold my hand."

"We are done for unless you hold your hand!" she said. She stepped nearer.

"Mr. Smith?" she said sweetly, "you think you are on your honor. You are not. He who has sent you here to thwart us is deceiving you."

"He who sent you here, Clelia,†Ц and you, Thusis, is deceiving you," he rejoined very quietly.

Thusis said: "You know who sent us, and yet you don't know who we are! How can this be, Monsieur?"

"It's true. I do know who sent you here. But you don't!"

Clelia, still very pale, bent her gaze on him.

"Mr. Smith?"

"Yes, I hear you, Clelia."

"Suppose Ц suppose Ц I prove kinder to you."

"No," he said, grim and flushed.

Thusis turned sharply on her sister: "Have you given him your heart?"

Clelia answered, her eyes still fixed on Smith:

"I gave it to him from the first Ц even when I thought him a pious dolt. And was ashamed. And now that I know him for a man I'm not ashamed. Let him know it. I do care for him."



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