Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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Smith stood rigid. Thusis, looking intently at Clelia, went to her and passed one arm around her waist.

"This can't be," she said. Clelia laughed. "But it is, sister. It isn't orthodox, it isn't credible, it is quite unthinkable that I should care for him. But I do; and I've told him so. Now he can ruin us if he wishes." And she flung a sweet, fearless glance at Smith which made him tremble very slightly.

Thusis turned to me an almost frightened face as though in appeal, then she caught her sister's hands.

"Listen!" she cried, "I also gave my heart as you gave yours, sister! I couldn't help it. I found myself in love – " She looked at me – "I was doomed to love him.

"But for God's sake listen, sister. It is my heartI give. My mind and my destiny remain my own."

"My destiny is in God's hands," said Clelia simply. "My mind and heart I give – " She looked at Smith – "and all else that is myself … if you want me, Shan."

"You cannot do it!" exclaimed Thusis in a voice strangled with emotion. "You can do it no more than can I! You have no more right than have I to give yourself merely because you care! Your heart – yes! There is no choice when love comes; you can not avoid it. But you can proudly choose what to do about it!"

"I have chosen," said Clelia, "if he wants me."

Thusis clenched her hands and stood there twisting them, dumb, excited, laboring evidently under the most intense emotion.

And what all this business was about I had not the remotest notion.

Suddenly Thusis turned fiercely on her sister with a gesture that left her outflung arm rigid.

"Do you wish to find the irresponsible political level of those two Bolsheviki in there?" she said with breathless passion. "Are you really the iconoclast you say you are? I did not believe it! I can't. The world moves only through decent procedure, or it disintegrates. Where is your reason, your logic, your pride?"

"Pride?" Clelia smiled and looked at Smith: "In him, I think… Since he has become my master."

"He is not our master!" retorted Thusis. "If what we came here to do is now impossible – thanks to a meddling and misled gentleman in Rome – is there not a sharper blow to strike at this treacherous Greek King and his Prussian wife and that vile, Imperial Hun who pulls the strings that move them?"

Clelia looked at Smith: "Do you know what my sister means?"

"Yes."

"Will you stop us even there?"

"I must."

Thusis, white with passion, confronted him:

"It is not you who are bound in honor to check and thwart us," she said unsteadily, "but your duped block-head of a master who exasperates me! Does he know from whom I take my orders?"

"Yes."

"I take them from the greatest, wisest, most fearless, most generous patriot in the world. I take my orders from Monsieur Venizelos!"

I started, but Smith said coolly: "Is that what you suppose, Thusis?"

"Suppose? What do you mean?" she demanded haughtily.

"I mean that you are mistaken if you and Clelia believe that your orders come from Monsieur Venizelos."

"From whom, then, do you imagine they come?" retorted Thusis.

"From Tino!"

"You dare – "

"Yes, I dare tell you, Thusis, how you have been deceived.

Tino himself plotted this. Your orders are forgeries. Monsieur Venizelos never dreamed of inciting you to the activities in which you are now concerned – "

"That is incredible," said Thusis hotly. "I know who sent you here to check us and spoil it all – as though we were two silly, headstrong children! Tell me honestly, now; did not that – that gentleman in Rome give you some such impression of us? – that we were two turbulent and mischievous children?"

"I was not told who you were."

"But you were told that we are irresponsible and headstrong? Is it not true?"

"Yes."

"And you were sent here to see that we didn't get into mischief. Is it true?"

"Yes."

Thusis made a gesture of anger and despair:

"For lack of courage," she said tremulously, "a timid King refuses the service we try to render! We offer to stake our lives cheerfully; it frightens him. We escape his well meant authority and supervision and make our way into Switzerland to do him and Italy a service in spite of his timorous fears and objections. He has us followed by —who are you anyway, Mr. Smith?"

"I happen to be," he said pleasantly, "an officer in a certain branch of the Italian Army."

"Military Intelligence!" exclaimed Clelia. "And we were warned by Monsieur Venizelos!"

Thusis flung out her arms in a passionate gesture: "We offer the King of Italy two royal scoundrels! And he refuses. We offer the King of Italy two islands? And you tell us he refuses. When we were in Rome he laughed at us, teased us as though we had been two school-girls bringing him some crazy plan to end the war. And now when we are practically ready to prove our plan possible – ready to consummate the affair and give him the two most dangerous royal rascals in Europe – restore to Italy two islands stolen from her centuries ago – the King of Italy turns timid and sends a gentleman to ruin everything!"

"Because," said Smith pleasantly, "although King Constantine and Queen Sophia have been deposed, yet, were you to seize them and carry them across this frontier into France, Greece would resent it. So also would Switzerland. And the Allies would merely make two enemies out of an Allied country and a neutral one for the sake of a few odd kings and queens.

"And, moreover, if you should proceed, as you had planned, to the Cyclades; and if you succeed in fomenting a revolution in Naxos and Tenedos, and induce these two islands to declare themselves part of Italy, because seven hundred years ago a Venetian conquered them, then you turn Greece into a bitter enemy of Italy and of the Allies. And that is what you accomplish in exchange for a couple of little islands in the ?gean which Italy does not want."

"Then," retorted Thusis violently, "why did Monsieur Venizelos suggest that we attempt these things? Is the greatest patriot on earth a traitor or a fool?"

"No, but Constantine of Greece is. And the boche is his tutor. Oh, Thusis – Thusis! Can't you see you have been tricked? Can't you understand that Venizelos had no knowledge of these things you are attempting in all sincerity? – that you have been deluded by the treachery of the hun – that those who counseled you to this came secretly from Tino and the Kaiser, not from Venizelos?"

Thusis gazed at him bewildered. Clelia, too, seemed almost stunned.

"Do – do you mean to tell me," stammered Thusis, "that these kings know that Clelia and I are here to try to kidnap them?"

"No," said Smith coolly, "because I censored their mail in Berne. Their agents in Rome had warned them, in detail, by letter."

"Had those agents penetrated our identity?"

"They seemed to have no notion of it. But they described you both minutely."

Clelia seemed to come out of her trance. She turned to Thusis and said in a na?ve, bewildered way:

"It's rather extraordinary, Thusis, that nobody seems to have found out who we really are… It's almost as though we are not of as much importance as we have been brought up to suppose."

Thusis blushed hotly: "Because," she said, "nobody has discovered our incognito, is no reason for us to underrate our positions in Europe."

"Still – it is extraordinary that nobody recognizes us. And we use our own names, too. I can't account for it," she added honestly, "unless we are of much less importance than we have been accustomed to consider ourselves – "

Her voice was lost in a fearful scream from the house.

"Good Heavens!" said I, "what has happened?"

At that moment the door flew open and King Ferdinand waddled out in his wrapper and slippers.

"Help!" he shouted, "help! Is there a physician in the Alps?"

"I'm one," said Smith, coolly, "among other things."

And we all started hastily for the house.

XVIII
THE GANGSTERS

The Tsar of all the Bulgars, wearing a green and yellow wrapper, and bright blue slippers over his enormous flat feet, exhibited considerable nervousness as we entered the house.

"I wasn't doing anything," he said; "I trust that nobody will misunderstand me. Heaven is my witness – "

"What's the matter?" asked Smith tersely.

"The Princess Pudelstoff is screaming. I don't know why; I didn't go near her – "

We hurried up stairs. The door of the Princess' room was open, the light burning. The Princess sat up in bed, tears rolling down her gross, fat face, screaming at the top of her voice; while beside her, in Phrygian night-cap and pajamas, stood King Constantine.

He had her by the elbow and was jerking her arm and shouting at her: "Shut your fool head! Stop it! There's nothing the matter with you. You've been dreaming!"

Smith went straight to the bed, shoved Constantine aside, and laid a soothing hand on the Princess' shoulder.

"I'm a physician," he said in his pleasant, reassuring voice. "What is the trouble, Princess?"

"There's turrible doin's in this here house!" she bawled. "I peeked through the key-hole! Them there Bolsheviki next door is fixin' to blow us all up. I seen the bomb a-sizzlin' and a-fizzlin' on the floor like it was just ready to bust! And then I run and got into bed and I let out a screech – "

"It's all right," said Smith kindly. "It was just a bad dream. There isn't any bomb. Nobody is going to harm you – "

"I didn't dream it! I – "

"Yes, you did. Calm yourself, Princess. You have eaten something which has disagreed with you."

She ceased her screaming at that suggestion and considered it, the tears still streaming over her features. Then she began to blubber again and shook her head.

"I ain't et hoggish," she insisted. "If I had et hoggish I'd think I drempt it. But I ain't et hoggish. That wasn't no dream. No, sir! I had went to bed, but I was fidgety, like I had a load of coal onto my stummick. And by and by I heard them Bolsheviki next door whisperin'. And by and by I heard a fizzlin' noise like they was makin' highballs in there.

"Thinks I to myself that sounds good if true. So I gets up and I lights up and I peeks through the key hole. And I seen King – I mean Monsieur Xenos, and Monsieur Itchenuff, and Puppsky and Wildkatz and a long, black box on the floor in the room next door, and somethin' sticking out of it which fizzled without smokin' – "

"It was all a dream, madame," interposed Smith soothingly. And to my surprise, he took from his inner breast-pocket a small, flat medicine case.

"A glass of water and two spoons, please," he said to Clelia. And she went away to fetch them.

There was another glass on the wash-stand. In this he rinsed a clinical thermometer and inserted it under the tongue of the sobbing Princess.

Thusis and I stood near him, silent. King Constantine and the Bulgarian Tsar appeared to be unsympathetic and at the same time slightly nervous.

"If she'd stop gorging herself," remarked Tino, "she'd have no nightmares."

"I seen you in there! Yes I did!" retorted the Princess in another access of wrath and fright, the thermometer wagging wildly between her lips. "And I seen you too!" she went on, pointing at King Ferdinand, who stared wildly back at her out of his eyes of an alarmed pig and wrinkled his enormous nose at her.

"Don't tell me I was dreamin'," she added scornfully, "nothing like that."

Clelia came with the two spoons and glass of water; Smith selected a phial, mixed the dose, withdrew the thermometer, shook it, examined it, washed it at the basin, and, returning to his patient, administered a teaspoonful of medicine.

Then, in the other glass, he dissolved a powder, gave her three teaspoonfuls of that, and placed the two glasses on the night table beside her bed.

"If you happen to awake," he said gently, "take a teaspoonful of each. But I think you'll sleep, madame. And in the morning you'll be all right."

He turned on King Constantine and the Tsar so suddenly that they both took impulsive steps backward as though apprehensive of being kicked.

"The Princess needs quiet and rest, gentlemen," said Smith. "Kindly retire."

"Perhaps I'd better sit beside her for a while," began Constantine, but Smith interrupted him:

"I'll call you into consultation if I want you, Monsieur Xenos." His voice had a very slight ring to it; the ex-King of Greece looked at him for a moment, then winced and backed out of the room, followed by King Ferdinand who seemed to be in a hurry and crowded on his heels like an agitated pachyderm.

Clelia, who had remained mute and motionless, looking at Smith all the while, now came toward him. And in the girl's altered face I saw, reflected, deeper emotions than I had supposed her youthful heart could harbor.

"Do you need me?" she asked. "I am at your service."

"Thank you, there is nothing more," said Smith pleasantly. He turned to include Thusis in kindly but unmistakable dismissal.

Clelia gave him a long, slow look of exquisite submission; Thusis sent an odd, irresolute glance at me. As she passed me, following her sister, her lips formed the message: "I wish to see you to-night."

When they had gone Smith shut and locked the door, and with a slight motion to me to accompany him, walked over to the bed, seated himself beside it, and took the fat hand of the Princess Pudelstoff in his as though to test her pulse.

The lady rolled her eyes at us but lay still, her mottled cheeks still glistening with partly dried tears.

"What's on your mind, Princess?" inquired Smith in a soft, caressing voice.

"Hey?" she exclaimed in visible alarm, and evidently preparing to scream again.

"Hush. Don't excite yourself, madame," he said in his pleasant, reassuring way. "There is no occasion for alarm at all."

"Am I a sick woman?" she demanded anxiously. "Is that what you're a-goin' to hand me? Is it?"

"No, you're not physically ill. You have no temperature except as much as might be due to sudden shock."

"I got the scare of my young life all right," she muttered. "Say, Doc, was it a dream? On the level now, was it?"

"Probably – "

"Honest to God?" she insisted.

"Why do you think it was not a dream, Princess?" he asked gently.

"Why? Well, I've run with Rooshians enough to know a infernal machine when I see one. And I never dream plain, that way. I can see that darn thing yet – and hear it! And I can see them men in there all a settin' onto chairs in a circle like, and a-watching that there bomb sizzling. It made a blue light but no smoke and no smell. How could I have drempt all that so plain, Doc?"

"Princess! You're not afraid of me, are you?"

She looked up into his clean-cut, pleasant American face.

"No, I ain't," she said. "You come from God's country" – she suddenly began to beat her pudgy fists on the sheets – "and whyinhell I ever was crazy enough to leave little old Noo York I don't know excep' I was damfoolenough to do it!"

Smith smiled at her: "You sure were some peach," he said, dropping gracefully into the vernacular, "when you played with Nazimova in that Eastside theater."

The Princess flushed all over, and the radiance of her smile transfigured her amazingly.

"Did you see me in them days, Doc?"

"You betcha!"

"Well-f'r-God's-sake!" she gasped in wonder and delight. "Say, you had me fooled, Doc. I understood you was a Norsky – a sort of tree-peddlin' guy. But, thinks I to myself, he looks like a Yank. I says so to my brother, Leo Puppsky – "

"Don't say it to him again, Princess. Or to anybody."

At that the Princess fixed her shrewd little eyes on Smith, shifted them for an instant to me, then resumed her scrutiny of his serene and smiling features.

"What's the idea?" she asked at last.

"I'm going to lay all my cards down for you, Princess, – faces up. I am an American serving in the Italian army."

"The-hell-you-say!" There was a silence that lasted a full minute. Then, suddenly, the Princess began to laugh. Soft, fat chuckles agitated her tremendous bosom; a seismic disturbance seemed to shake her ample bulk beneath the bed-clothes.

"Tabs!" she exclaimed. "You're keepin' tabs on these here down-and-outers! That's what you're a doin' of! Am I right?"

"And what are you doing here in Switzerland, Princess?" he inquired smilingly.

"Say! I'm their goat! Now, do you get me?"

"Not exactly – "

"Well listen. Puppsky's my brother. He was in the suit and cloak business in Noo York before the Rooshian revolution. Then he beat it for Petrograd – workin' for his own pocket same's you and me, Doc; and seein' pickin's – Trotzky bein' a friend of ours, and Lenine a relation. I was in Stockholm fixin' to go to Noo York, when that poor fish, Wildkatz, comes in and talks me into this game. And look at me now, Doc! Here I am financin' this here bunch o' homeless kings, sittin' into a con game, holdin' all the dirty cards they deal me – busted flushes, nigger straights, and all like that! And what," she demanded passionately, "is there in it for me? Tino, he says I'll be a Greek duchess an' rule a island called Naxos! – And, Gawd help me, I fell fur it. And wherethehell is Naxos? And is it as big as Coney Island? Wasn't I the big dill-pickle to stake 'em to a Greek revolution? And me a princess! Sure, I know a Rooshian princess ain't much of a swell, and the Duchy of Naxos looked good to me.

"But the more I mix in with these here kings the wiser I get. Four-flushers is four-flushers wherever you find 'em. And these guys is all alike – old Admiral bushy-whiskers, Bummelzug, General Droly and that sore-eyed little Gizzler! – all want to sell me gold bricks for real money!"

She waved her short, fat arms in furious recollection of her wrongs.

"Say, even the Greek Queen ain't too particular about chousing the long-green outer me! She wants to hand me the order of the Red Chicken! – costs ten thousand plunks! What do you know about that, Doc?"

I don't know whether Smith was as amazed as was I by these revelations in argot. He smiled his kindly, undisturbed smile and patted her hand encouragingly; while from depths long plugged burst the excited recital of the woes of the Pudelstoffs.

"I'm through," she said. "I got enough. And I told 'em so at the meeting after dinner to-night. They talked rough to me, they did. Puppsky, he got riled and tells me I'm no sister of his. And the Greek Queen she was crazy and called me a kike in German. Which upset my dinner.

"Say, Doc, the Gophers and Gas-house gangs ain't one-two-three with this bunch. I'm scared stiff they'll get me – that Ferdie has croaked more guys 'n people know. I'm scared Sophy sticks me. They say she stuck a hat-pin into Tino. You bet she knows how to make that big stiff behave! And she's got a way of lookin' at you! – Me, I quit 'em cold to-night. 'Nothing like that,' says I; 'no revolution in Greece at $250,000 a revolute! No Naxos! No Red Chicken! Me, I'm on my way via Berne, Berlin, Christiania, and Noo York!'"

"You've quarreled with them, Princess?" asked Smith.

"I sure did. Say, I don't have to stand for no rough stuff from Wildkatz neither. We ain't in Petrograd. But, mind you, I don't put it past him to try his dirty tricks on me with bombs!"

"But why – "

"They're like all gun-men! Once in you can't get out, or they'll try to get you. If you've got enough and try to quit peaceable they think you've been bought out. You're a squealer to them."

"You believe they might offer you violence?" I asked, incredulously.

"How do I know? What was they doin' with that bomb? They're sore on me. They know they're gettin' no more dough outen me. They know I've quit and I'm goin' back to God's country."

"But Leo Puppsky is your own brother!" I exclaimed, horrified.

The Princess shrugged her fat shoulders.

"He's a Red, too. Bolsheviks is Bolsheviks. You don't know 'em. You don't know what they done in Rooshia. No boche is bloodier. Call 'em what you like – call 'em all sons of boches – and you won't be wrong."

Her flabby features had grown somber; suddenly a shudder possessed her, and she opened her mouth to scream; but Smith instantly filled the gaping orifice with medicine, and only a coughing fit followed.

To me he said: "Please leave me alone with her now. It will be all right, Michael."

And he turned tenderly to the convulsed Princess and patted her vast back.



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