The Laughing Girl
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"The King," I said soberly.
"Yes, the King of Italy. We were expected to return to Rome and defer to him all questions concerning our future… And we ran away."
"Because we happen to have minds of our own, Michael."
"And you immediately employed them by concocting a plot to kidnap some kings!" I said. "Oh, Thusis, you are the limit!"
"I know I am," she said na?vely. "A mind that does not range to its extremest limits is a rather dull one, isn't it?"
"It is," I admitted, laughing and crushing her hands between my own. "You are delightfully right, Thusis; you are always deliciously right. I don't know who you are except that you're the lovely and mysterious Laughing Girl. What else you may be I don't know, dearest, but you are doubtless somebody or the King of Italy wouldn't bother his clever head about you and your sister."
"He does bother, I am afraid," admitted Thusis, smiling. "I'm sorry we've been obliged to annoy him. But it couldn't be helped, because we differed, politically, with the King of Italy. And we ran away from Rome to prove to him that our conception of world-politics was right and his was wrong. And we expect him, some day, to be very grateful to us – because we really are, Clelia and I, two of his most loyal subjects."
She spoke so frankly, so earnestly, that I dared make no jest of what she said.
However, I think she saw a glimmer in my eyes, for she flushed.
"Nothing," she said, "is sacred to a Yankee. Let me go."
"Shall I tell you what is sacred to a Yankee, Thusis?" said I, retaining her hands.
"I'll tell you all the same: liberty of mind! – liberty within law! – liberty within the frontiers of conscience."
"Then you do not deny these privileges to me?"
"They are yours, Thusis. No man can deny essential rights and liberties."
"You believe I have a right to act as my conscience dictates?"
"To run away from authority?"
"If your mind approves."
"And – and devote my life – risk it – to free my native land and restore to my sovereign what once belonged to him?"
I said gravely: "If, in your self-dedication to this work there be no ulterior motive; – if you undertake this unselfishly, and with a heart clean of all personal ambition – then, Thusis, I say, go on! … And I am at your service."
Twice she started to speak, and hesitated. In her clear eyes, so intently, almost painfully fixed on mine, I saw she was fiercely pondering my words. Her intense and youthful seriousness in her concentration held me fascinated. And for a little while neither one of us stirred.
And it gradually began to appear to me that what I had said to her had suddenly opened to her young and ardent eyes a totally new view of some things in the world with which she had, perhaps, believed herself thoroughly familiar.
She turned from her absorption; and now she was presented to me in profile with downcast eyes and bitten lip, and a least relaxation of her slender figure which had been so straight and rigid.
It was becoming evident that she had nothing further to say to me, – no reply to make to what I had rather ponderously propounded as an ethical axiom.
But, as responding to the restless pressure, I released her hands, she turned back and stood looking at me out of painfully perplexed eyes – eyes that lacked no courage, either, yet doubted, now, almost wistfully.
Then, not speaking, she unlocked my door and went out.
Smith knocked at the doorway communicating between our apartments, and came in at my absent-minded invitation.
"Of course you're not in this, are you, Michael?" he inquired.
"We weren't asked.Besides, there are too many men now, and the Queen wants Thusis, Clelia, and Josephine Vannis to serve dinner in costume and join the party afterward."
"Are they going to do it?" he asked, surprised and amused.
"I don't know… Tell me, Smith, whom do you suspect Thusis to be? I can see you have some theory concerning Clelia – some idea. Haven't you?"
"Yes, I have."
"Would you care to share it with me?"
"Yes. But I can't."
"Could you tell me why you can't?"
"I think I may tell you that much. The King of Italy requested me to maintain silence in the possible event of my discovering the identity of Thusis and Clelia. I am here on the King's service, with certain definite orders. I shall scrupulously observe these orders. Among these is his request concerning the identity of these two charming young girls."
"Just one thing, then. Have you discovered the identity of Thusis?"
He reddened. "Yes, I have," he said. "Or rather she has confirmed what I had begun to suspect."
"Clelia has told you who she is!" I exclaimed.
"Isn't that disobedience of orders?"
"She told me before I could stop her. I never dreamed she was going to tell me. It came out – like a bolt of lightning – while I – I was – slipping over her finger that ring I used to wear – "
"She wears it!"
"Yes. She was glorious. She – "
"And she's going to marry you?"
"Yes, God bless her."
So I wrung his hand in silence and strove hard not to let any comparison of his situation and mine taint with the slightest trace of bitterness my happiness in his good fortune and my cordial recognition of it now.
Thusis was not mentioned between us. He didn't say "buck up, old chap," or "go in and win," or any insincere thing of that sort, for I felt that he believed my case to be hopeless.
Presently he returned to his room and closed the door. And I sat down at my table and produced pen and paper with a view to further poetry – my only form of relief from grief.
But rhymes evaded me; and finally I gave it up and rested my head on both hands, unhappy, unsatisfied, feeling that I was a failure, and always had been one.
After all what could such a glorious young thing as Thusis see in an interior decorator from New York? – a profession into which had minced all the lady-like young men and lisping sissies in Manhattan!
Perhaps, after all, the profession was all right, but the people who practiced it were weird and incompetent. And as for me I was perfectly aware that I had no taste, no color sense, no glimmering idea of composition.
Doubtless my artistic and financial success had been due to my utter incapacity.
I proceeded to masticate the cud of bitterness.
I had been masticating longer than I realized for the light in the room was already growing less when a knock came at my door; and I shoved my unuttered verses into the drawer and grunted out, "Come in!"
It was Thusis, transfigured, sparkling, mischievous, audacious. And she was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.
Her magnificent ruddy hair, unloosened, framed her face, its upcurled, burnished ends falling to her waist.
Otherwise she was an exquisite French doll in knee-skirts and sash and all over pale blue ribbons.
"I'm going to have a good time if I do murder to-morrow, Michael. Do you like my costume? Really? That is so sweet of you! You always are the most satisfactory of men! And you should see Clelia! She's like me only her ribbons and sash are primrose. She is really charming."
"Thusis," said I, "you and Clelia shall sit at table and Smith and I are going to turn waiters! No!" as she exclaimed in protest, "let's be logical in our grotesqueries! This little world of ours here in Schwindlewald is already absurd enough with you and Clelia waiting on table. Let's turn it completely upside down and stand it on its head."
She finally consented, forced by my gay ardour, and, I think, mischievously pleased at the prospect of protest from the Queen.
All over the house, now, I could hear snatches of loud laughter as my Teutonic guests began to gather and visit one another in their costumes. Thusis fled; and I opened the door and broke the news to Smith.
"Get into your evening duds," I added, "and announce dinner. We're all going stark mad and I'm glad of it."
So I dressed, and found him ready when I was; and we went downstairs into the large lounging room where Raoul was fitting disks into the music-box.
He laughed when we told him our intentions, and then we went into the kitchen and informed Josephine Vannis. That stately Juno condescended to smile on us. She was rather tremendously imposing as a baby with bonnet and stick-out skirts – as though somebody had decked out a masterpiece of Praxiteles.
Retiring, Smith murmured: "Only the Parthenon possesses such awe-inspiring symmetry; only the Acropolis could vie with her. Did you ever see such superb underpinning in all your life?"
Stunned by such stupendous symmetry I admitted that I never had. And we went away to announce dinner.
But it was not until the noisy company were gathered in the dining-room that the Queen perceived the two empty chairs and began to realize my intentions. And she came to me and made angry representations, refusing to be seated on the right of a servant, or, indeed, to suffer servants at all at table, and saying that if she chose to admit my waitresses to the dancing hall, it was because such privileges sometimes were graciously permitted to the peasantry who never misunderstood such condescension.
"Madame," said I, "my housekeeper, Thusis, sits in my place at table this evening. And if, madame, you are so deeply concerned about it, comfort yourself with the explanation that in my housekeeper you behold your host; she is my vice-reine, or vice-roy, or vice-regent – whatever you like best, madame! She represents me! In her you see embodied the inviolable authority of the master of this house wherein you are a guest! However, madame, if you prefer to be served alone in the bar, I will have a table set there for you – "
She almost spat at me; and Thusis entered, her hand linked in Clelia's.
I think the royal circus was stupefied by the beauty of these two young girls. A rather frightful silence reigned for a moment; then the Countess Manntrapp clapped her jeweled hands and sang out in her clear, soprano voice: "Brava! Bravissima! They are beautiful, our little waitresses!"
Eddin Bey removed his red fez and, swinging it by the tassel, gave three hochs.
Then, instantly, the cheers broke out everywhere: I gave Thusis my arm; Smith offered his to Clelia; and we seated them amid shouts and the waving of napkins, the queen's eyes glittering like twin daggers all the while.
Such an uproar as Smith and I served the soup! Gurgles, gulps, scraping, sucking sounds arose from feeding Teutons. The fish produced a frightful clatter of knives and forks, and the Princess Pudelstoff cut her lip with her knife but stuck a patch on it and joyously immersed it in gravy.
They – the kings and admirals and generals were drinking too much; I noticed that in the din. And toward the wrecked climax of the dinner when everybody was offering everybody else tinsel bon-bons, and people were pulling snapping-crackers with one another, I sent Raoul out to start the music-box; and Josephine Vannis emerged all clean and fresh and scented to join the revelry.
Her appearance awed us all; again I felt that innate reverence for the prodigiously beautiful, that awe for things superbly Greek. Her effect upon the two kings, however, was pronounced. The wild-pig eyes of Ferdinand became fixed and vitreous for a full minute; King Constantine's orbs bulged. Both made straight for her when Thusis gave the signal to rise; and I saw the exasperated Queen staring at her spouse and fingering a large, sharp, jeweled pin.
But I went into the dancing room and took command without loss of time; and Smith followed with a bottle of wine and a roast chicken – our own dinner which we intended to discuss while supervising this party and keeping the music-box busy.
"Silence!" said I, hammering on the glass lampshade with my fork. "The party begins, like all children's parties, with children's games. 'Going to Jerusalem' will be the first game played!"
"How is that played?" demanded several at once.
I instructed them, gravely; and presently Smith and I, eating our dinner beside the music-box, beheld our guests in their baby costumes marching around and around a row of chairs and, at a given signal, falling into the unoccupied seats with squeals and shrieks and bellows of laughter.
They tired of that, presently, and I laid aside my chicken and glass of claret and, rising, instructed them in the game called "Oats-peas-beans." They listened attentively, but Thusis and Clelia appeared much disconcerted when further revelations on my part disclosed that it was a "kissing" game; and they both withdrew, firmly declining to play it, much to the dissatisfaction of Eddin Bey and Tino.
So Thusis and Clelia came over to where Smith and I were installed, and, while we resumed our dinner, they cranked the music-box in which I had inserted a disk containing the immemorial air of "Oats-peas-beans."
We then became pleased observers of royalty and nobility in baby clothes, hands joined, walking very seriously in a circle in the center of which stood the Princess Pudelstoff, and singing in unison and with all their might:
The singing ceased; the Princess Pudelstoff giggled; then, to his dismay, she pounced upon Eddin Bey, almost throttled that handsome Moslem in her enthusiasm, and gave him a resounding smack amid screams of laughter and roars of approval.
And then the game waxed fast and furious: Eddin Bey chose the Countess Manntrapp and kissed her delicately and courteously; she chose King Constantine, but merely saluted his cheek, much to his exasperation.
Then Tino held the ring, waggish, jocose, bantering everybody with their expectations. But though the queen eyed him commandingly, furiously, he swaggered over to Josephine Vannis and soundly kissed that classic memorial in animated Grecian marble.
The Teutons behaved rather grossly; King Ferdinand ranged the ring like a liberated wild hog and presently charged the object of his osculatory intentions – Josephine.
Probably nobody dared kiss the queen, but such respectful abstention seemed to please her none the more, for presently she hissed something into Tino's ear, and he chose her into the ring with an agility born of terror.
Once there she glared at everybody and then, with a sneer, selected Tino again, and the game, promising to become a monotony and a deadlock, I rose and, waving a leg of the chicken to impose silence, proclaimed that the games had ended and that dancing would now begin.
Raoul inserted a fox-trot of sorts; and the next instant everybody was footing it.
"Raoul," I said in a guarded voice, "did you souse those Bolsheviki in sheep-dip?"
"I did, sir."
"What did they do?"
"They made an agonizing noise, Monsieur. I fear it was, perhaps, their first bath."
"Go up and dip 'em again."
"All Bolshevikdom will shriek," he said, grinning.
"Let it for a change. It's set all the world scratching. Let Bolshevik Russia do a little shrieking, now that she feels the boche biting her worse than her native cooties! Get some more sheep-dip and de-louse that pair of things upstairs."
He went away, laughing.