Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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XIX
CONFIDENCES

As I walked through the corridor considerably concerned over the statements made to us by this east-side Princess and seriously disturbed by finding myself in the very vortex of this whirlpool of intrigue which every moment seemed to spew up from its dizzying depths new plots and counter-plots, I almost ran into the ex-Queen of Greece.

She was in curl-papers and negligee, standing just outside her door, an electric torch in one hand, a pistol in the other.

"Madame!" I exclaimed, "what in the world is the matter?"

"I don't like this inn," she said. "I consider it a suspicious place."

"Madame!"

"What do I know about your inn?" she demanded insolently, "or about you, either?"

"Madame!"

"You say you are a Chilean. You don't look it. Neither does your friend resemble a Norwegian. If you desire to know my opinion you both look like Yankees!"

"Madame, this is intolerable Ц "

"Possibly," she interrupted, staring at me out of chilly eyes that fairly glittered. "Possibly, too, I am mistaken. Perhaps your servants, also, unduly arouse suspicion Ц your pretty housekeeper may really be your housekeeper. The waitress, too, may be a real waitress. This is all quite possible, Monsieur. But I prefer to be prepared for any eventuality in this tavern!"

And she went into her room and shut the door.

The ex-queen's insolence upset me. I was possessed by a furious desire to turn them all out of doors. The prospect of living in the same house with these people for days Ц perhaps for weeks, seemed unbearable. Surely there must be some way out of the valley!

Down stairs I saw Raoul coming from the front courtyard leading two strange horses attached to a sort of carryall.

"Where on earth did you discover that rig?" I called out to him in the starlight.

"Two guests have just arrived," he replied, laughing.

I hurried out to where he stood.

"Guests!" I repeated. "Where did they come from? Isn't the pass closed?"

"Sealed tight, Monsieur O'Ryan. But when the avalanche fell this vehicle and its passengers were just far enough inside the pass to be caught.

"I understand they've been digging themselves out of the snow all this time. They've just arrived and are in the long hall asking for accommodations."

"Who are they?" I demanded in utter disgust; "more huns?"

"One is a Turkish gentleman," he said. "The other is the driver. I will take care of him. The Turkish traveler's name is Eddin Bey, and he says he's a friend of Admiral Lauterlaus."

I went into the house and discovered Eddin Bey entering his signature on the ledger while Clelia with keys and candle waited beside him to show him to his quarters.

"Ah!" he exclaimed cordially when I named myself, offering his dark, nervous hand, "I am inexpressibly happy to have the privilege, Monsieur O'Ryan! A narrow escape for us, I assure you!†Ц that mountain of snow roaring down on us and our horses whipped to a gallop! Not gay Ц eh? No, sir! And I thought we'd never dig out the horses and our wagon and luggage!"

I replied politely and suitably, and Clelia presently piloted this dark, lean, vivacious young man to his quarters across the corridor from General von Dungheim.

When she returned her flushed, set features arrested my attention.

"Did that Turk annoy you, Clelia?" I asked sharply.

She shrugged: "Tavern gallantry," she replied briefly: "men of that sort are prone to it."

I said: "If any of these people annoy you and Thusis come to me at once."

She laughed: "Dear Monsieur O'Ryan," she said, "Thusis and I know how to take care of ourselves." She came nearer, looking up at me out of her lovely, friendly eyes:

"Thusis is in her room. It isn't very proper, of course, but she is waiting for you. Will you go?"

"Yes."

Clelia laid one hand lightly on my arm, and her smile became wistful and troubled:

"You do care for my sister, don't you?"

"I am deeply in love with her."

"I was afraid so."

"Afraid?"

"Oh, I don't know how Thusis is going to behave,†Ц how she is going to take it!" said Clelia in frank anxiety. "Never before has she cared for any man; and I don't know what she's going to do about you Ц indeed I don't, Mr. O'Ryan!"

"Could you tell me," said I bluntly, "what obstacles stand in the way of my marrying your sister?"

"Thusis should tell you."

"She isn't already married?"

"Good Heavens, no!"

"Is it a matter of religion?"

"Thusis must tell you. I could not speak for her,†Ц interfere with her. My sister will act for herself Ц assume all responsibility for whatever she chooses to doЕ As I do."

I took Clelia's soft hands in mine and looked earnestly into her face:

"You, also, care for a man; don't you?"

She bent her head in wordless assent.

"What are you going to do about it, Clelia?"

"Whatever he wishes."

"Marry him?"

"If he wishes."

"You are an astounding girl!"

"I am an astounded girl. I never supposed I should take such a view of life, of its obligations, of my own position in the worldЕ Lately, in the probable imminence of sudden death, I became a little reckless Ц perhaps excited Ц willing to learn in these brief hours the more innocent elements of love Ц curious to experience even the least real of its mysteries Ц to play coquette in the pretty comedy Ц even with you Ц "

She gave me a vague smile and slowly shook her head.

"All the while," she said, "I was in love with him. I didn't know it because I didn't know him. When I felt frivolous and wished to laugh he was serious. His solemnity stirred me to audacity; and when I said a lot of silly things I didn't mean he preached at me; and I bullied him and was impudent and showed my contempt for a man who would endure such tyrannyЕ That is how it beganЕ And all the while, not knowing it, I was falling more completely in love. Isn't it odd?"

She smiled, pressed my hands, shook her head as though at a loss to account for her behavior.

"The first hint of it I had," she said, "was when he coolly warned me that he would thwart me. And I looked into his eyes and knew him for the first time Ц knew him to be the stronger, the wiser, the more capable,†Ц and the more powerful.

"And I realized, all in a moment, that he had endured my contempt and tyranny merely because he chose to; that he was a real man, in cool possession of his own destiny; that, if he chose, he could clear his mind of me, and presently his heart; that I was not essential to him, not necessary; that, indeed, unless I instantly took myself in hand and made an effort to measure up to him, he'd turn from me,†Ц quite courteously Ц and go his own way with a kindly indifference which suddenly seemed terrifying to meЕ And I loved himЕ And let him knowЕ And that is how it happened with me."

After a long pause: "What would happen," I inquired, "if I tried that sort of thing on Thusis?"

Clelia shook her head: "Thusis and I are different. I don't wish to be a martyr."

"Does Thusis?"

"I'm rather afraid she is inclined that way. Of course we both were quite willing to suffer physical martyrdom if we failed to carry off these wretched kings. That is a different kind of martyrdom Ц a shot in the brain, a knife thrust Ц perhaps a brutish supplice from the boche Ц " She shrugged her shoulders. "We were not afraid," she added. "But when another sort of death suddenly confronted me Ц the death of love in him I loved Ц I had no courage Ц none at all. You see I am not the stuff of which martyrs are fashioned, Mr. O'Ryan."

"Is Thusis?"

"Alas!"

"She prefers to suffer?"

"I am afraid she will become a martyr to a pride which interprets for her the old, outworn doggerel of ages deadЕ I can't repeat it to you."

"Noblesse oblige?"

"That phrase occurs in it."

"OhЕ So Thusis, caring for me, will send me away," I said.

"I cannot answer you."

"Can you advise me, Clelia?"

She looked up at me; tears sprang to her eyes; she pressed my hands, but shook her head.

XX
A LOCAL STORM

I knocked very gently at Thusis's door and she opened it, signed for me to enter, then closed it cautiously.

"Do you know," said I, "that it is after midnight?"

"I know it is. But as long as others don't know you are here, what does it matter, Michael?"

"Of course," I muttered, "you and I know there's no cause for scandal."

Her delightful laughter welled up from the whitest throat I have ever seen, but she instantly suppressed it.

"We're very indiscreet," she said mockingly; "we've exchanged hearts and we're here in my bedroom at midnight. Can you imagine what that queen downstairs would say?"

"Had you meant to kidnap her, also?" I inquired.

"No," she said scornfully. "The Allies can take care of the Hohenzollern litter after they take the sty."

"Berlin," I nodded.

"Berlin. Hercules had no such task in his Augean stable. It was Hercules, wasn't it, Michael? I always get him and his labors mixed up with Theseus. But the Prince of Argolis used address, not bull forceЕ His mother's name was ?thraЕ My mother's name was ?thra, too."

"That is Greek."

"Very. And the name of the ancient pal Ц I mean the name of our old house on the island of Naxos was Thalassa!†Ц You remember the Ten Thousand?"

"Yes. Your house overlooked the sea?"

"The ?gean! You enter from the landward lawn, advance toward the portico Ц and suddenly, through the marble corridor, a sheet of azure! Thalassa!"

I said slowly: "Little white goddess of Naxos with hair like the sun and eyes of ?gean blue, why have you sent for me to come to your chamber at midnight?"

Thusis looked at me and her happy smile faded.

"To ask one question," she said very gravely, "and to answer one Ц if you ask it."

"Ask yours, first."

"What did that dreadful Princess say to you and to Mr. Smith after I left the room?"

I told her what had passed.

"What!" she cried fiercely, clenching her hands. "Tino had the impudence to offer her Naxos as a bribe!"

"The Duchy of Naxos," I repeated.

I have never seen an angrier or more excited girl. She sprang to her feet and began to pace the bedroom, her hands doubled in fury, her face tense and white.

"Naxos!" she kept repeating in a voice strangled by emotion. "That treacherous Tino offers Naxos to a miserable, fat Russian Princess! Oh! Was ever such an insult offered to any girl! Naxos! My Naxos! Could the civilized world believe it! Can the outrage on Belgium equal such an infamy! Even with the spectacle of martyred France, of Roumania in Teuton chains, of Russia floundering in blood Ц could the world believe its senses if Naxos is betrayed!"

Her emotion was tragic, yet it seemed to me that the lovely Thusis took Naxos a trifle too seriously. Because I was not at all certain that this same civilized and horrified world was unanimously aware of the existence of Naxos. But I didn't say this to Thusis.

As she paced the room she wrung her hands once or twice na?vely deploring the avalanche.

"Because," she said, halting in front of me, "Smith or no Smith, I should certainly attempt to seize this treacherous, beastly Constantine, and smuggle him over the frontier. The traitor! The double traitor! For Naxos is not his! No! It is a Venetian Duchy. What if Turkey did steal it! What if Greece stole it in turn? It is Venetian. It is Italian. It is my home and I love it! It is my birthplace and I worship it! It is my native land and I adore it!"

"The King of Italy," I reminded her, "does not seem to desire that Naxos be included in his domain."

"But I do!" she said passionately. "I am a Venetian of Naxos. Have I not the right to decide where my island belongs? For six hundred years my family has owed allegiance to Venice Ц and naturally, therefore, to Italy. Have I not every right to raise the banner of revolt in Naxos and defy this ruffianly ex-king who comes sneaking stealthily into Switzerland to plot for his own restoration?†Ц who comes here secretly to offer Naxos to a vulgar Russian as a bribe for financial aid?†Ц offers to sell my home for a few millions cash and buy cannon and men and send them into Greece to fight for him and his rotten throne?"

"Thusis Ц "

"No!" she said violently, "there is no argument possible. And God never sent His avalanche to ruin my hopes and destroy all chance of freedom for Naxos! It was the bestial Gott of the boche who loosed the snow up yonder Ц the filthy fetish of the hun who did that!" She flung out her white arms and looked upward. And "oh!" she cried, "for one hour of the old Greek gods to call on! Oh for the thunderbolts of Zeus!†Ц the spear of Athene!†Ц the tender grace and mercy of Aphrodite, and her swift and flaming vengeance when her temples were profaned!†Ц when her children were betrayed and disinherited!†Ц Naxos Ц my Naxos Ц "

All Greek now, pagan, beautiful, the girl's whole body was quivering with rage and grief. And I knew enough to hold my tongue.

While the fierce storm swept her, bending her like a sapling with gusts of passion, I stood silent, awaiting the rain of tears to end it.

None came to break the tension, though the gray eyes harbored lightning and her brow remained dark.

"As Naxos falls, so falls the world," she said. "The eyes of civilization are on her; the fateful writing runs like fire across God's heaven! Let the world heed what passes! The doom of Naxos is the doom of freedom and of man!"

I, personally, had scarcely looked at it in that light. It did not strike me that the hub of civilization rested on Naxos. Nor do I believe the world was under that impression. But I was not going to say so to this excited young Naxosienne Ц or Naxosoise Ц or Naxosette,†Ц whichever may be the respectful and properly descriptive nomenclature.

And so, standing near the window, I watched the tempest wax, wane, and gradually pass, leaving her at last silent, seated on her couch, with one arm across her knee and her head bent like the "Resting Hermes."

When I walked over and stood looking down at her she reached out and, without looking, took my hand.

"It is your turn now, Michael; and I already know what question you mean to ask."

"Shall I ask it, Thusis?" After a silence her hand closed convulsively in mine.

"I do love youЕ I am not Ц free Ц to marry you."

"Could you tell me why?"

She slowly shook her head: "You will learn why, some day."

"Is there no chance, Thusis?"

Again she shook her head. Presently her hand slipped out of mine and she rested both elbows on her knees, covering her face.

I dropped onto the couch near her, framing my own head in both hands.

The world had become sunless and quite empty except for human painЕ And so, thought I in a dull sort of way, this ends my romance with The Laughing GirlЕ The Laughing Girl of NaxosЕ Not laughing now, but very much subdued, brooding beside me with both hands covering her face, and the splendid masses of her hair now loosened to her shoulders like a hood hiding the bowed features.

"Don't grieve, Thusis," I whispered, forgetting my own pain; but she suddenly huddled up and doubled over, crying:

"If you speak to me that way I Ц can't Ц endure it Ц " Her voice broke childishly for the first time, and I saw her shoulders quiver.

We had a rotten time of it Ц self-restraint on my side, and on hers Ц a hard, sharp shower of tears Ц terrifying to me because of her silence; not a sigh, not a sob, not even one of those undignified gulps which authors never mention Ц but which nevertheless usually characterize all lachrymose feminine procedure, and punctuate its more attractive silences.

It resembled a natural rainstorm in April Ц abrupt, thorough; and then the sun. For after considerable blind fumbling, she suddenly leaned forward and dried her eyes with the edge of the bed-sheet.

"There," she said, "is an intimate act which ought to breed mutual contempt!"

We both laughed. She found a fresh section of the sheet and used it.

"You are an adorable boy," she said, keeping her face turned away but busy, now, with her sagging hair.

"It's got to come right some day," I said with the fatuous stupidity characteristic of the stymied swain.

"It won't," she remarked, "but let's pretend it willЕ Is my nose red, Michael?"

"I can't see it when you turn your face away."

"I don't wish you to see it if it's red."

"But how can I judge Ц "

We burst into that freer laughter which welcomes the absurd when hearts are heavy laden.

Her dresser was within reach. I gazed at her back while she powdered her nose.

"My eyes are red," she observed calmly.

"No, they're gray; it's your hair that is red, Thusis."

It was silly enough to invoke the blessed relief of further laughter. But when Thusis finally turned toward me there was a new shyness about her, exquisite, captivating, that held me quiet and very serious.

"What a dreadfully sober gentleman," she said. "The storm's all over, and it isn't going to rain again."

I quoted: "It rains Ц in my heart Ц " And she laid a quick, impulsive hand on my arm:

"Have I not confessed that I love you?"

"Yes Ц "

"Very well. Is it a reason for rain Ц in your heart or anywhere else?"

"No Ц "

"Well then! Е You may touch my hand with your lips."

Only her lips could be sweeter than the soft hand I kissed, long and closely, until she withdrew it with a tremulous little laugh of protest.

"We're becoming infamous; we're a scandal, Michael. Have you anything further to say to me? If not, please go home to bed."

Casting about in my mind for an excuse to linger I recollected the advent of Eddin Bey; and I told her about it.

"What a barnyard full!" she said scornfully, "all the creatures, now,†Ц Turk, Bulgarian, Bolshevik, and boche! Е To see them here Ц and the two principal scoundrels almost within my grasp! I don't believe I can stand it," she added breathlessly. "Smith or no Smith, and his exasperating majesty the King of Italy to the contrary, I think something is going to happen to Tino and Ferdie as soon as the pass is cleared."

"One thing more," I said; "do you believe there really was a bomb in the room next to the Princess Pudelstoff's?"

"Do you mean, Michael, that those murderous Russians might possibly suspect Clelia, Josephine, Raoul, and me?"

"Oh no, I don't think that. But possibly they had other assassinations in mind and were trying out a new species of bomb Ц experimenting with some untried fuse. That's what occurred to me Ц unless the fat Princess really did dream it all."

"When I make the beds to-morrow," remarked Thusis, "I shall search very carefully. The only trouble is that those Bolsheviki seldom leave their rooms except to eat. And then I'm obliged to wait on table."

I nodded, a little troubled. But it was unthinkable that these treacherous Reds should even dream of bomb-murder in Switzerland. Whom might they desire to slaughter, unless it were the poor, fat Princess? And they would scarcely blow up an entire establishment in a neutral country for the purpose of scattering portions of the Princess over the adjacent Alps.

And yet I began to feel oddly uneasy, now. Of what such vermin might be capable I could not guess, with the frightful example of the two arch-traitors Lenine and Trotzky staring a sickened world in the face,†Ц a world already betrayed twice since its sad history began Ц once by Judas, once by Benedict Arnold.

Judas would have sold the souls of all mankind: Lenine and Trotzky sold only one hundred and fifty million bodies to the anti-Christ. Things were improving on earth after all.

I said: "Smith is a good man to have here at such a time. He's a wonderfully level-headed fellow. I don't believe we need worry."

"I ought to dislike him. But I don't," remarked Thusis.

"Dislike Smith?"

"He's turned my sister's head!"

"But Ц good heavens!†Ц if she cares for him Ц "

"I care for you!" she cut in crisply. "But I haven't lost my head or my sense of proportion Ц "

"I wish you had."

She looked at me in silence almost hostile. Suddenly she blushed furiously:

"I wish I had, too! I care for you as much as my sister cares for Mr. Smith! More! Much more! I'm Ц I'm quite hopelessly in love! But I don't Ц don't Ц forget that Ц that Ц "

She shook her head but sat looking at me out of tragic eyes Ц suffered me to press her lovely hands to my lips, watching me all the while.

"You had better go, Michael."

I laid her hands in her lap. She clasped them so tightly that the delicate nails whitened.

"It will come out right," said I, rising.

"It never willЕ I Ц I love you."

At the door I hesitated. But she did not speak. And I opened it and went out.



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