Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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XXI
SUS SCROFA

For two exasperating weeks, now, the Schwindlewald pass had remained hermetically sealed with snow, utterly isolating the valley. It is true that a Swiss airplane had appeared overhead and had dropped several tons of bread which we did not require, and a message couched in hysterical language reminding us that God would protect us while several score of sweating Swiss dug us out.

Personally I didn't care except for the highly objectionable colony of boches with whom I was obliged to share an imprisonment which otherwise would never have bored me.

But the royal circus was a dreadful visitation – kings, queen, lesser fry, and Bolsheviki became almost unendurable, even when, during the first week of our captivity, they flocked by themselves and conspired to their hearts' content.

Had this condition endured, the situation might have been borne with a certain philosophy. But the inevitable, of course, happened: one week of exclusive gregariousness was enough for these people: they began to bore one another.

It showed first, characteristically, at table. Tino and spouse, always engaged in continual bickering to the vast discomfort of everybody, now had it out in star-chamber proceedings; and the King, badly battered but jaunty, appeared at table with one eye partly closed and a mouth so swollen that he could not comfortably manipulate a cigarette. He explained that he had bumped his head in the dark. But it was perfectly understood who had bumped it.

King Ferdinand became moody, and his cunning, furtive features often bore a white, scared expression. He developed, too, a morbid mania for a most depressing line of conversation – celebrated assassinations being his theme, – and he ransacked the history of all times in search of examples, Eddin Bey slyly assisting him.

Sluggish livers and piggish feeding probably accounted for the sullen lethargy of Von Dungheim and Bummelzug. Their ever latent and brutal tempers blazed at absurd trifles, involving usually the bad manners and lack of respect shown them by the Bolsheviki, who chattered back at them like enraged monkeys, terrifying the Princess Pudelstoff who had never forgotten her "dream."

Admiral Lauterlaus, whose personal habits were always impossible, now spent most of his time bullying the wretched Secretary Gizzler or, with a telescope such as chamois-hunters carry, squatted on the veranda steps and swept the Bec de l'Empereur for "gamps," and heaven knows what else.

Only the Countess Manntrapp and Eddin Bey appeared to retain their good humor. The Turk, a handsome fellow of distinguished manners and gay address, evidently possessed a lively eye for pulchritude. He lost no time at all in paying his sly court to my servants, beginning with Thusis, progressing to Clelia, and ending with Josephine Vannis in the kitchen: and he accepted defeat with such cheerful and humorous alacrity that they all forgave him, I think, and his perfectly frank suggestions that they return to Adrianople with him and honor him by becoming the nucleus for a zenana.

He found, however, a pretty bird of his own vivacious and volatile temperament in the exceedingly bored Countess Manntrapp.

And they were often together and apparently having a jolly flirtation, being cleverly aware of each other's character and entertaining no delusions.

Except for these two at table and on the veranda, and except for the companionship of Smith, and now and then an opportunity for a few cautious words with Thusis, those days would have been insupportable for me. A hungry hun is bad enough; an ill-tempered one is worse; but a bored boche! – imagine a penful of them with time heavy on their hoofs!

The old story – "What's time to a hawg!" – has no significance among the Sus scrofa or the "Bosch Vark." Bored, the embers of that dull, slumbering rage glow hotter; the sulky silence is broken by grumbling, then by quarrels; the blind, senseless instinct to brutalize and rend obsesses. Small wonder the boche desires a place in the sun where his herds can spread out from the constricted and common wallow!

Tino had again appeared at luncheon with the other eye done in thunderous tints of purple, taupe, and an exquisite mauve. Parallel scratches adorned his nose; some of his mustache was missing. But I must admit he took it jauntily enough, and his bland explanation – something about tripping over a rock in the woods – was accepted by all and believed by none.

The queen, still somewhat pasty and pinched from the effects of this ritual in camera, ate haughtily, disdainful of what anybody might really think, and calm in her conviction that the Hohenzollern is responsible to Gott alone for whatever a Hohenzollern may choose to do.

That she had done plenty to Tino was painfully visible: but he was in a jocose and waggish humor, and his barrack-room quips and jests were plainer than usual. In fact, they became so coarse that even the Admiral bristled his beard and eyebrows, sniffing lack of respect for himself in the loud-mouthed levity of the King.

And I was getting madder and madder, Thusis and Clelia being present to wait on table as usual, and I was on the point of making a sharp observation to King Tino, when a sudden burst of applause from the other end of the table checked me. The Countess Manntrapp was speaking. She continued:

"This enforced imprisonment is becoming exceedingly dull for everybody. Why not divert ourselves? Has anybody any suggestions to offer?"

"A mountain party," rumbled Admiral Lauterlaus. "I, in my time, a famous hunter of 'gamps' have been."

"We don't wish to break our necks to divert ourselves," sneered the queen.

"A fishing party!" exclaimed Von Dungheim. "If there is a good big net we can all help draw it and clean out every trout in the stream!"

"Droly," expostulated Tino, "you have such wholesale ideas! Our host might possibly object, you know."

At the very idea of anybody objecting to the destructive wishes of a Prussian officer, General Count von Dungheim glared at me.

"Why not give a baby-party?" inquired Smith, blandly.

"A – a baby-party!" repeated Baron Bummelzug vacantly, in English; "what perhaps iss it a baby-party?"

Thusis, serving me, bent over and whispered in my ear: "Not the sort of baby-parties they gave in Belgium; there are no babies." And she moved serenely to serve the queen, her beautiful face placid and inscrutable.

The Princess Pudelstoff began to clap her pudgy hands excitedly:

"A baby-party! A baby-party! That'll be fun! That'll be great! And we'll have a feed and a spiel – "

"Ach wass!" shouted the Admiral exasperated. "Tell us once what it iss a baby-party, und stop your noises yet!"

But the excited Princess had become uncontrollable, and she began to hammer on the table with her fat fists, shouting:

"A feed and a spiel! For God's sake somebody start something in this hellofa hole!"

Amid her clamor and the ominous roaring of the infuriated Admiral, I tinkled my goblet with my fork and presently secured comparative silence for Smith.

In a few pleasant phrases he explained to them the simple intricacies of the American baby-party.

"I'll come!" cried the Countess Manntrapp, delighted.

"I also!" echoed Eddin Bey.

Tino was visibly enchanted at the prospect, and he clapped King Ferdinand on his elephantine back exultingly:

"We'll go as twins!" he cried. "This is most agreeable to me! Eh, Sophy? I'm half dead for a bit of a frolic! Everybody must come. Nobody is to be excused. Desperate cases require desperate remedies. Ennui is what is killing us; diversion is what we need!"

He was pounding the breath out of King Ferdinand who began to cough and dodge and blink wildly at everybody out of his little wild-pig's eyes, when I stood up giving the signal.

"The party," announced Smith, "is for to-night! There will be games, a dance, and a supper. All are politely invited!"

"My God," said Secretary Gizzler to me, rubbing his bony hands together, "to what foolishness does noble company resort in order that ennui may be escaped."

The Princess Pudelstoff overheard him:

"Crape-hanger!" she said, giving him a vigorous dig in the ribs which almost disarticulated his entire and bony frame.

The majority, however, trooping out to the veranda where they could teutonically enjoy their coffee and cognac "im gr?nen," appeared desirous of engaging in the proposed diversion.

Even the queen deigned to inquire of me whether there was, in the house, material with which to construct a pair of ruffled panties for her husband.

Only the Bolsheviki remained aloof, chattering and mouthing together and waving their soiled fingers at each other and, presumably, at the bourgeois world in general.

Later, Smith came into my room whither I had retired to resume my series of poems to Thusis, – a rather melancholy occupation yet oddly comforting, too.

"Why the devil," said I, "did you suggest such a party?"

"I don't know. It occurred to me. I'm rather tired of their wrangling."

"But a baby-party!"

He laughed: "You see how they take to the idea. Anything to dissipate this sullen, ugly atmosphere. It gets on my nerves."

"Are you going?"

"Certainly."

"In costume?"

"Of course."

"Good heavens, Smith! I didn't think you had it in you to frivol."

"Why – I don't know," he said, smilingly. "I'm intensely happy."

I eyed him gloomily: "Yes," said I, "no doubt you are – winning the affections of the girl you wish to marry. By the way, has she been civil enough to tell you who she really is?"

"No," he replied cheerfully.

"Do you mean to tell me you are engaged to marry a girl who refuses to disclose her identity?"

"Exactly."

"How the devil is she going to marry you? Under an assumed name?"

"That is for Clelia to decide."

"That," said I, "is a most remarkable view to take of the situation."

"Why? I am in love. I dare believe she cares for me. It makes no difference to me who Clelia may be. That she is Clelia is enough – enough that she will be my wife. And when a man stands for the first time inside the gates of happiness with the girl he loves – what an ass he'd be to bother her about details!"

This was a totally new and unexpected Smith, to me. I never dreamed it was in him.

"Don't you agree with me?" he inquired.

I nodded doubtfully.

"Wouldn't you accept Thusis as she chose to offer herself?" he insisted.

A pang shot through me:

"Good Lord, yes!" I said. "I'd marry her if she were a beggar or a convict or the least creature of her sex. I'd never ask a question; I'd take thankfully and happily what she offered. You are right, Smith – wonderfully right. If you love, love! If you don't, worry!"

"Quite right," he said; "it's either love or worry; the genuine article doesn't admit of both. If you really love you are satisfied; if you worry it isn't love – it's merely something resembling it. Love is specific; there are sub-species and varieties, none the real thing. The acid test of love is contentment; baser metal dissolves in trouble, and the sediment is worry. I – "

"Oh, shut up!" I burst out, nervously; "you're too darned eloquent on the subject. Besides," I added with a perfectly new and instinctive suspicion, "you're so confoundedly contented with yourself that I believe you have begun to guess the identity of Clelia, and that it pleases you enormously!"

He reddened.

"Have you any idea who she is?" I insisted.

"A vague idea."

"And that vague idea pleases you?"

"It does," he said with a shy sort of grin.

That was too much for me. "Go to Guinea!" said I, resuming my pen and paper and paying him no further attention.

Clelia came for orders, sweet and serious in her garb of service. Again I laid aside my poem to Thusis.

"I am glad," said I, camouflaging my melancholy with a sprightly allure, "that you have renounced kidnaping kings and have decided to kidnap Mr. Smith instead."

She didn't seem to think it was funny. The newly engaged lack humor.

"Josephine," she said with dignity, "suggests this supper-card." And she handed me the written sheet.

"Fine!" said I. "Stuff 'em till they're unconscious and we'll have peace."

At that she laughed.

"Josephine desires to know what time the party is to begin," she said.

"It begins with dinner, Clelia. They all come in costume. After dinner they play games. Supper at midnight. Then they dance – God help them."

"The Bolsheviki, too?"

"That's another breed of cat," said I. "I haven't the faintest idea what they intend to do. All I know is that they're not coming to the party. So give them a table by themselves in their rooms half an hour before we dine. Otherwise those chattering apes are likely to spoil the party."

She agreed with me.

After she had departed I began again on my poem called "Nobody Home":

 
"She who, risen from the sea, —
Body fashioned from its foam, —
Once appeared to favor me,
Now has left me all alone: —
When I call she's not at home;
Silent are the Temple closes
Where her priestess used to roam
Smiling at me, crowned with roses
Underneath the Temple's dome;
So I stand outside alone.
From the dead fire on her altar
Now I turn away and falter:
Aphrodite's not at home.
 
 
Goddess born of sun and sea,
Goddess born of sea and sun,
Blue-eyed Venus pity me,
I would wed my Dearest One: —
She denies; and I'm undone!" —
 

Just here I found myself in difficulties: the verse called for two more words to rhyme with "sun," and the available ones already unused included such words as bun, dun, fun, gun, hun, nun, pun, run, shun, ton, and won – at least these were all I could think of – none among them available for classical purposes.

Much disturbed I sat consulting my Rhyming Dictionary and smoking a cigarette without relish, when a terrific screaming from the Princess Pudelstoff's apartment brought me to my feet and out into the corridor.

The Princess stood in the hallway wringing her hands and almost dancing with rage and fright while, from their doorway across the hall, Puppsky and Wildkatz jabbered at her in apparent fury.

"What the dickens is all this!" I demanded angrily.

"They've got cooties!" she screamed. "I suspected it! I knew it! All Bolsheviki have 'em! Don't let 'em near me! Lock 'em up and turn the gas on! Make 'em take baths! They don't want to, but make 'em!"

"What do you mean?" said I, feeling suddenly ill and pale.

"I mean what I say!" she cried, wringing her jeweled hands. "They've got 'em but we don't have to have 'em! We ain't in the trenches, thank God! No, nor we ain't in Rooshia where them things is family pets! I d-don't want any! I don't want any even from my own brother – "

I strode over to Puppsky and Wildkatz.

"Get into that room or I'll knock your heads off!" I whispered in an ungovernable rage.

They began to chatter at me but thought better of it and fled; and I tore the key from their door and locked it on the outside. Then I went downstairs and out to the stable where I found Raoul and gave him the key.

"You will take a couple of gallons of sheep-dip," said I, still in a cold fury, "and you will go up and fill their bathtub with it, and then you may call me."

"Oh," said Raoul, coolly comprehending, "I can souse them myself, Monsieur."

"Tell them I'll beat them to death if they stir until I permit it," I added. "Also be good enough to burn their clothing and bedding, and fumigate their rooms."

"Give yourself no anxiety, Monsieur," he said, amused.

XXII
PARTICEPS CRIMINIS

Toward the dinner hour excitement in the house became intense as the royal circus fussed and pinned and basted and struggled with its impromptu costumes.

Bells jangled to summon Thusis and Clelia; the Princess Pudelstoff was too fat to braid her own hair; the Countess Manntrapp required basting into her boy's breeches; the Queen, desiring to go as the infant Germania, had pasted tin-foil all over her high Austrian corset, but still it didn't resemble armor, nor did the oval boiler-lid furnished by Josephine Vannis particularly resemble a shield.

Otherwise a blonde wig of tow in two obese braids and a shiny fireman's helmet of 1840 which I discovered in the garret, consoled the queen. To these properties I rashly added an eel-spear; and then, remembering her quick temper, I feared for King Constantine, wondering whether, if fatally prodded, he would name me as accessory after the fact.

As for the men, they continually rang for Raoul who acted as dresser and as messenger between them and Josephine Vannis who had constructed their costumes from odd scraps and from such of their own garments as would serve.

Admiral Lauterlaus was monstrous as a sailor-boy of six; Von Bummelzug, Eddin Bey, Von Dungheim, and Secretary Gizzler were school-lads in socks, bare knees, and denim blouses. King Constantine who, it appeared, rather fancied his own legs, went as a smirking doll in a costume principally constructed out of his wife's underclothes.

But the most gruesome sight of all was Ferdinand as a youthful ballet-girl; and he most horridly resembled an elephant on his hind legs in a stick-out tulle skirt, and his enormous feet, cross-ribboned, went shuffling and flapping to and fro as he waddled about busy with powder and rouge.

Raoul laced his stays and tugged in vain to indent his bulk. It was useless, but we got him into his corsage and left him before a mirror ponderously prancing in imitation of the pony ballet, and singing la-la-la! furtively peeping the while at his own proportions with the unfeigned pleasure of perfect approval.

Really, except for the characters of these impossible individuals, the jolly noise and confusion they made with their preparations and the lively excitement that pervaded hall, corridor and stair, resembled the same sort of delightful uproar one hears at a week-end party in a big country house under similar circumstances.

The queen's bell had been jangling persistently for some minutes when, stepping from my room into the hallway to see whether anybody was answering it, I came face to face with Thusis.

Warm, and delicately flushed with her exertions, she was half vexed, half laughing now as she cast a prudent glance right and left along the corridor before slipping through the door into my room. I followed, locking the door.

"Michael," she began, "the queen says there are not enough women in the party and she insists that Clelia and I find costumes and join. I was furious – and she's making a violent row about it now, insisting, bullying, ordering Clelia about – "

"What! Ordering my servants about!" I interrupted angrily.

"Yes – your servants, Michael," dropping me an ironical curtsey which brought me back to my senses. We both laughed. And suddenly it occurred to me how adorable Thusis would be at a baby-party.

"Why not?" I exclaimed. "Why not drop hostilities for an hour and enjoy the ridiculous? Absurdity always appeals to you, anyway, Thusis," I added, "and the entire situation is so impossible that it ought to attract you!"

"It does," she admitted with that engaging and reckless little laugh I had come to know so well. "Besides, you are my host, Michael, and I am under your roof. So who your ragamuffin-bobtail guests may be does not concern me. Clelia and I are not responsible, are we?"

"Not at all," said I. "The ignominy of this royal riff-raff rests upon my shoulders. Anyway, you do not need to dance except with me," I added reassuringly.

"Eddin Bey is rather attractive," she mused, letting her glance rest on me sideways while the innocent pleasure of this discovery parted her lips in a honeyed smile.

"All right," said I shortly, "dance with him!"

"Michael – "

"Go ahead and dance with him," I repeated, stabbed by the most ignoble of emotions.

"What an absolute boy you can be," she said. "If I do this thing at all it is because the tension of months is becoming unendurable. Reaction from the tragic usually lands one on the edges of the grotesque… If you had been a girl, Michael, always sheltered, secure, living a colorless restricted life, and if you suddenly were cast upon your own feet with the accumulated responsibility of your race on your shoulders, – and if, in the very middle of your first years of liberty and opportunity you suddenly found this wonderful world flaming like hell all about you, and all its inhabitants at each other's throats, and all delight in living turned to hate and fear – and if you concluded to take your fate into your own hands and run away from authority, and, in your own way, fight the good fight for God and King and Country, – and if the strain became, for an hour, too great – wouldn't you react – perhaps to the verge of folly?"

"You bet I would, sweetness," said I, taking her lovely hands in mine.

"I was a school-girl," she said, "when – it devolved upon me, and upon Clelia, to determine our own futures… The loss of parents is a – bewildering thing… Our mania was travel and education to fit us for – for what we considered to be our rightful future positions in the world… We have been in your country, – I don't mean Chile. We know England and France – God bless them both. Then, owing deference anyway if not perhaps blind obedience to the – to a – gentleman in Italy – "



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