Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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Russia, forcibly scrubbed, had put forth agonized howls; and now, Russia imprisoned, was battering at its door and yelling murder.

Now and then, a hun noticed the noise and inquired concerning its origin, but I always turned on more music and they soon forgot in the din of the dance.

Thusis had resumed her dance with Eddin Bey; Smith and Clelia were dancing. I said to Raoul, who was starting to crank the music-machine: "I'll just step up and quiet those Bolsheviki."

They were raining blows upon their door when I arrived. I rapped sharply.

"What do you want?" said I.

They gibbered at me in Russian.

"Speak English!" I insisted.

Perhaps Puppsky was so excited or so demoralized by his first bath that he forgot he could speak English.

I tried them in Italian: "Whata da mat'?" I inquired pleasantly. They chattered back at me like lunatic squirrels.

"What the devilovitch is the matsky?" I shouted, incensed at their stupidity. "You listen to me! Your clothes are being boiled and you've got to stay where you are! Stop your noise, Puppsky!"

And off I went to inspect the big wash boiler in the kitchen where, lifting the lid which had been the queen's shield, I was gratified to observe the garments of the Bolsheviki simmering nicely.

"It is not the only vermin that Germania's shield covers," said I. And much pleased with my jeu d'esprit, I poured in another bottle of sheep-dip and returned to the dance salon where supper was now being served at little tables.

As soon as I entered the room I felt trouble brewing. The inevitable hunnish reaction had set in. A tired boche is an ugly one; an intoxicated hun may become either offensively sentimental or surly and ingeniously bestial. And now they were about to become surfeited huns, heavy with wine, heavier with food. I did not fancy the looks of things very much.

The queen alone appeared to be perfectly sober; the others were engaged in that sort of half insolent raillery always provocative of a row, shouting German pleasantries at one another from table to table, lifting slopping glasses, cheering, singing and leering at the ladies.

Bummelzug demanded that the music-box play "Deutschland ?ber Alles," but the disk was non-existent.

Von Dungheim, who exhibited an inclination to weep at any mention of Germany, asked in a hoarsely saturated voice for a folk-song. And Raoul turned on two; and the huns sang first "Du bist wie eine Blume," which shattered them sentimentally so that loud sobs punctuated the "Lorelei" which, of course, followed.

Then Ferdinand, one arm around the Princess Pudelstoff, and a chicken wing in the other hand, lifted a voice choked with food and attempted a Bulgarian folk-song – something about the "Kara Dagh" and "Slivnitza" – but presently lost all recollection of what he was doing and challenged everybody to extemporaneous rhymes in praise of his native land.

Nobody obliged.

"Too stupid!" he remarked thickly.

"Nobody clever enough to rhyme 'Bulgarian' – eh, mine host?" looking around at me where I sat shielding Thusis from the playful attentions of King Constantine who was attempting to pinch her.

"Of course," said I, "'Bulgarian' rhymes with 'vulgarian'; but that's obvious." And I smiled at the Tzar of all the Bulgars and offered Thusis a bon-bon.

She looked at Ferdinand, at Tino, at the queen: suddenly she threw back her head, and that lovely, childlike, silvery laughter rippled through the Teutonic din.

There was no scorn in her laughter, only the delicious, irresistible gaiety of a young girl face to face with the excruciating. And there is nothing on earth more innocently insolent.

Every Teuton head was turned toward her in stupefied displeasure; fishy, fixed, pig-like eyes stared at this young girl who dared condone an insult to Bulgaria with her fresh, impulsive laughter.

Suddenly behind me there was a brusque movement; I heard Tino protest that his foot had been trodden on; and, turning, I saw the queen excitedly rising from her place.

"I know who that woman is now!" she said in a voice as sharp as a blade. She pointed at Thusis like a vixen from the markets:

"That's The Laughing Girl!" she cried. "Look at her! Anybody can recognize her now from her photographs!"

Thusis colored crimson and shrank from the brutal publicity against my shoulder, staring wide-eyed at the hatefully sneering visage of the queen.

"The celebrated Laughing Girl!" repeated the queen mockingly; "Mr. O'Ryan's housekeeper, gentlemen – and our guest at dinner! And what does our German chivalry and nobility think of that insult launched at us by a Yankee inn-keeper?"

"Be silent, madame!" I said sharply. "If you don't know how to conduct yourself I shall request your husband to remove you!"

Then it came, the boche deluge! – a herd of huddling swine on their feet, all grunting at me, enraged, clamoring, waving their arms. And in the midst of the guttural uproar a thin, high voice pierced all sound and dominated it – the sniffling whine of Secretary Gizzler.

Possessed by a sort of cringing exaltation, he rose to his thin, splay feet, and pointed a meager finger almost in the shocked face of Thusis.

"That is the Duchess of Naxos!" he squealed.

At that Thusis was on her feet, white as a slim sword-blade, and her gray eye charged with lightning.

I rose, too, incredulous, astounded.

"Thusis, Duchess of Naxos!" piped the excited voice of Secretary Gizzler. "She and The Laughing Girl are one! I know! I was in the Intelligence! I procured that photograph so that if this woman ever gave our fatherland any trouble she could be easily recognized wherever she might be!" He beat his temples and glared at Thusis: "Stupid! Stupid!" he squealed; "why did I not recognize her at once! Why did not a single German present recognize the chief mischief-maker in Greece! – the instigator of revolt! – the pupil of Venizelos! – the enemy of their majesties King Constantine and Queen Sophia! – the plotter who aided in their downfall! – Thusis, Duchess of Naxos!"

The huns seemed thunderstruck; Thusis, very pale, swept them with insolent cool eyes.

All at once King Ferdinand got to his feet and loomed up like a bad dream.

"Naxos! Where is Naxos?" he demanded.

And when Secretary Gizzler would have answered him: "The man's mad," he said heavily; "there's no such place."

At that I saw Thusis's face flame; but the boche all around her burst into a roar of ironic laughter.

"Let the fatherland tremble!" bellowed General Count von Dungheim. "Naxos declares war!"

"Look sharp!" shouted Admiral Lauterlaus, "or we'll have Andorra invading us."

"And Monaco, too!" growled Bummelzug. "Gott in Himmel! If Naxos defies us through her Duchess we're as good as lost!"

"I tell you!" shrieked Secretary Gizzler, "that it's no laughing matter! That girl is the Duchess of Naxos! And the other – her sister – look well at her, gentlemen! – she is Duchess of Tenedos!"

"That belongs to my country!" cried Eddin Bey, laughing, "the island of Tenedos. I sincerely hope the Cyclades are not in revolt! But if they are I'm very glad so charming a lady is to own one of them."

But his attempt at a good natured diversion made no impression on the huns; and Gizzler, venomous and quivering, held the floor and kept his weak, vicious eyes on Thusis.

"It was the ?gean League that exiled the King and Queen of Greece!" he said. "She made that league! – that woman standing there – Thusis, Duchess of Naxos!"

"It isn't a Duchy!" cried the queen, choking with fury; "it's a Greek Island!"

"It's a Venetian Duchy and belongs to Italy, madame," I said calmly – having read up on it in the Encyclopedia since I had fallen in love with one of its inhabitants.

At that the queen turned on me like a fury.

"You lie!" she said.

I tried to control myself:

"Naxos is a Venetian Duchy, belonging to Italy," I repeated. "I am happy and proud of the privilege of acknowledging the restoration of Naxos to Italy – and I salute its ruler – Thusis, Duchess of Naxos!"

And I lifted the white hand of Thusis and touched it with my lips.

"There's conspiracy here!" shouted Tino, very drunk, and vainly attempting to stand up. "We're all tangled up in treason here! We're in the web of the ?gean League! What are these people doing here, anyway! – all these Yankees and Duchesses running about underfoot – "

A hiccough terminated his activities and he slid up against his spouse who shoved him away, her eyes flashing.

"That lying Yankee," she began, almost beside herself, "has set a trap for us here!"

At the word "trap," King Ferdinand, drunk as he was, got up hastily and started toward the door.

"You'd better defend yourselves!" he shouted. "I've got pistols in my room – "

His voice ceased: Raoul blocked his way:

"Stay where you are," he said, smiling and cool. And placing a powerful hand on King Ferdinand's chest he shoved him backward onto a chair. Then, to my surprise, Raoul slipped a pair of automatic pistols from his side pockets and cast a merry glance around him at the company.

"The first man that moves," he remarked, "is not likely to continue the movement."

The dead silence which fell over everybody was startling. Raoul, resting gracefully on a table with one leg on the floor, looked about him as though immensely amused. Then, as we awaited further developments, his countenance assumed a thoughtful expression – and he absent-mindedly hummed aloud his favorite air:

 
"Crack-brain-cripple-arm
You have done a heap of harm – "
 

XXIV
RAOUL

Raoul looked up, thoughtfully, playing with his pistols, and said to King Constantine in an unaccented and conversational tone:

"After all, who were you to rule Naxos? – you cheap, treacherous, yellow dog!"

That partly cleared the king's muddy mind and he lurched to an upright position and began to take notice.

"You sold Greece to the boche," continued Raoul in his serene, even voice, toying idly with his pistols. "What else you did – what else you are – is a trifle too vile to repeat aloud – "

He turned and looked at the Tzar of all the Bulgars whose ungainly bulk as he sat on his chair was now agitated by visible tremors:

"Murderer and coward," mused Raoul aloud. "Every time you hire your gun-men to kill an enemy you hurry away to establish an alibi, don't you? You cheap peddler of duped people – you made a rotten bargain this time, didn't you? When your treacherous pal, Tino, betrayed Serbia, you swindled your own people, didn't you?"

He shrugged, dangled his pistols, glanced at Gizzler, – or rather through Gizzler as though, the wretched creature were not there, – and his eyes encountered the interested jet black orbs of Eddin Bey.

Both smiled, Eddin in the face of death; Raoul with the generous grin of a man who recognizes in his enemy a peer.

"Eddin Bey," he said, still smiling, "the Osmanli fight fairly. Ask the British Tommy… And your fool of a Sultan is dead. And what do you think of affairs at present?"

"They are not any too gay," replied Eddin Bey, laughing, "especially in the Alps."

The half smile on Raoul's face flickered and faded:

"You're about done for, you Turks," he said quietly. "You bet on the wrong horse, too. And now Enver Pasha keeps running to Berlin to ask why the all-highest doesn't make him Khedive of Egypt as he promised. And Taalat is scared, and the butcher Djavid is in the dumps. Oh, I know it was not you Osmanli that set the Kurds and Bashi-Bazouks on the Armenians. That butchery of a million souls, men, women, children, babies, was conceived by the Berlin government and superintended from the Yldiz Palace."

Raoul turned and looked contemptuously at the Germans:

"You square-heads," he said, "have achieved one thing, anyway. Never before in history has a nation been indicted, and it was supposed it could not be done. But it has been done in your case. And for the first time also in history an entire race is spoken of and known to civilization only by a revolting nick-name —boche!

"Do you know what it means? There have been disputes concerning the origin of the term boche. The French say it means a stupid fellow – a clown; the Belgians think that it is a vulgar term for 'blockhead.' But I shall tell you what it really does mean: it means, in South African Dutch, an unclean and degraded species of wart-hog; and it has been in use for fifty years!"

He lifted one pistol and sat idly twirling it around his fore-finger.

"I know why you came here to Schwindlewald," he said, "to put that back on the throne of Greece!" – he nodded toward Tino.

"In Berne you live luxuriously and wastefully in the midst of famine. You eat as usual; your bread is white; there are no restrictions for you in the matter of food amid a hungry people. You maintain a court there with flunkies, stables, motor-cars – every necessity and luxury which is now forbidden by Swiss law and by the law of decency you violate daily!"

He looked at the queen:

"Your effrontery, madame, is of course, in keeping with Hohenzollern tradition. But things are happening now – now, madame, – at this very moment! And I'm wondering just how long the Swiss are likely to endure your behavior in Berne."

He sat silent after that for a little while, twirling his pistols and whistling softly to himself:

 
"Crack-brain-cripple-arm – "
 

Suddenly Eddin made a quick motion and Raoul shot the leg off his chair letting him down with a crash.

The startling crash of the pistol-shot brought them to their feet.

"Sit down!" said Raoul sharply, "or it will be a living leg next time; and the time after that a wooden head!" He sat watching Eddin getting to his feet with a shame-faced laugh:

"No use," said Raoul in a friendly voice, "it can't be done, Colonel."

"I notice it can't," remarked Eddin, laughing. "Well sir, you have entertained us very pleasantly with your historical inappropos. Is there to be a denou?ment perhaps?"

"Did you expect one?"

Eddin shrugged: "A firing-squad, possibly. But of course I don't insist."

Raoul shook his curly head: "No, Colonel Eddin; no firing-squad. No Turkish atrocities, no Bulgarian murders, no boche bestialities." He turned contemptuously on Constantine:

"You laid plans in Berne to entrap the leaders of the ?gean League. You forged instructions sent to me by Monsieur Venizelos. You attempted to foment an uprising in Naxos because you foresaw the trouble it would bring between two of the Allied powers – between Italy and Greece!

"Also you conceived and encouraged a plot to attempt the capture of yourself and your wife because you believed that Greece, although now rid of you, would resent such an attempt; and that chivalrous America would be shocked at the kidnaping of a woman – even such a notorious one as your Hohenzollern wife."

He eyed him for a moment: "You are the cheapest back-stairs scullion who ever grafted, Tino," he said. "But remember this little couplet the next time you go gaily grafting:

 
"'Grecian gift and Spanish fig
Help the fool his grave to dig!'"
 

"That's the motto of the ?gean League!" burst out the queen in a white hot fury.

"It is, madame," returned Raoul, pleasantly.

Then he placed the other foot on the floor and got up leisurely from his seat on the table.

"You're all free to go," he said carelessly.

A moment of suspense, then the boche herd scrambled to its feet and rushed for the nearest exit. And Raoul came over to where I stood beside Thusis with Smith and Clelia beside me.

"All their weapons are locked up in the cellar," he said, laughing; "let them look for them. Also I have all their documents packed up. We're through with them," he added, smiling at Thusis.

But there was a thunder cloud on her white brow:

"Are we not going to secure and crate the kings, Raoul?" she demanded. "Do you and Josephine fail me, now?"

"Duchess," he said smilingly, "news came to-night – a real communication from Monsieur Venizelos."

"How could it come?" I asked.

"The Pass is open," he replied serenely. "And," turning to Thusis, "so is the road to France. And we should travel it this night unless we wish to see our papers taken from us and our persons subjected to arrest by these somewhat singular Swiss gendarmes."

"What did Monsieur Venizelos say?" insisted Thusis, tears of disappointment and vexation shining in her gray eyes.

"The letter is here," – Raoul touched his breast pocket – "at the disposal of her grace the Duchess of Naxos – "

"Tell me!" cried Thusis, angrily, "and let my 'grace' go to the devil!"

"Monsieur Venizelos warns us of Tino's forgery. We are not to touch these kings: we are not to proclaim Naxos an Italian Duchy and you its hereditary ruler."

There was a painful silence.

Very slowly Thusis turned and looked at me. And I remembered then what I had said to her about the purity and unselfishness of justifiable revolutions.

And now I realized that part of this revolution in Naxos was the restoration of an ancient Duchy and of a family as ancient, embodied in this young girl before me.

At that moment Tino came lurching into the room followed by the queen, and presently by the majority of the huns in the house-party.

"Somebody has been through my luggage!" he barked. "Now I'm damned if I put up with that – "

Raoul still held one of his pistols in his hand and Tino's bloodshot eyes fell on it.

"Oh, very well," he said, turning on his heel.

The queen, pallid and ghastly with fury, faced us a moment:

"You'll all pay this reckoning!" she whispered, – "every one of you!"

"Madame," said Raoul gaily, "the Pass is open. And really very wonderful news has come through. But I'm afraid you don't like Yankees, and it won't interest you to hear that the Yankee General Pershing has wiped out the St. Mihiel salient, and the guns of Metz are saluting the event."

"Lies!" she retorted; "Yankee lies!" She bit her lip, glared at us all, turned her Hohenzollern back on us. Behind her stood the huddled huns, sullen, enraged, baffled in their headlong rush to find weapons for avenging Prussian "honor."

They were quite helpless although outnumbering us; and they seemed to realize it.

Raoul, watching them, passed his pistols to me and walking coolly in among them and shoving the Admiral and Von Dungheim out of his way, went to the kitchen. Josephine had wrung out the disinfected garments of the Bolsheviki. But they were still steaming when Raoul unlocked their door and flinging the clothing at them, bade them dress and depart.

"The Pass is open," he said. "It's a summer night and you won't take cold. Get into those things and get out of this house! And," he added, "you ought to be obliged for what I've done to you."

When Raoul came back the huns had retired to their several apartments; Smith and Clelia stood by the window whispering together; Thusis was absently looking over the letter from Monsieur Venizelos; and I leaned in the doorway gazing out at the high stars above the disfigured Bec de l'Empereur.

"Nature pulled his nose and twisted it, too," murmured Raoul, passing me. Then he said aloud:

"It really is not healthy for us here any longer. The Swiss gendarmes will arrive in the morning. I have held the wagon that penetrated the Pass. It's waiting for us. So if you'll be kind enough to pack your luggage – "

"Are you going?" I asked, appalled.

"We must," said Raoul gaily. "And I regret to say that I think you and Mr. Smith had better come with us."

I shrugged my shoulders.

"It's too bad to have done this to you," said Raoul, "but we couldn't very well avoid it. You had better cross with us into France until this blows over. The boche are sure to raise a terrific row; and the Swiss are mortally afraid of invasion. So if you remain you'll be annoyed – held for examination – possibly imprisoned. But they won't confiscate your estate: you know too much about the Swiss Government's cognizance of these hun conspirators, and their use of neutral soil."

I scarcely heard him; I was looking at Thusis who stood bending over the music-box and studying the disks lying there.

"Could I help you to pack up?" insisted Raoul.

"Thanks; I shall remain here," said I quietly.

At that moment the door burst open and Puppsky, his clothing still steaming in spots, rushed in upon us followed by Wildkatz in similar and vaporous attire:

"I been robbed!" yelled Puppsky. "All my papers und evertings it bass been robbed me alretty!"

Raoul shot a contemptuous glance at the chattering pair of Reds: "I haven't bothered about your papers," he said.

"Did I say you done it! No, I did not say you done!" shouted Puppsky. "I see this here Countess hanging around by the room of comrade Wildkatz. What for iss she in this, I ask it? She iss who, perhaps? I think she got my papers also comrade Wildkatz he also believes it – "

"Go and ask her!" said Raoul bluntly.

When they were gone Smith turned from the window where he had been whispering with Clelia:

"It's quite en r?gle," he said coolly. "The Countess Manntrapp is in the employment of the Siberian government. She came here to get what she wanted and report on these Reds. She left for the Pass an hour ago, on foot."

The unseen web in the center of which I had unwittingly stood for so long suddenly became partly visible to me.



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