Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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"Don't try to get gay and call her that," said I, setting fire to a cigarette. "Mind your business, anyway."

"But we ought to know what she calls herself. Suppose we wanted her in a hurry? Suppose the house caught fire! Suppose she fell into the fountain! Shall I go to the pantry and ask her what her name is? It will save you the trouble," he added, rising.

"I'll attend to all the business details of this establishment," said I, coldly. Which discouraged him; and he re-seated himself in silence.

To mitigate the snub, I offered him a cigar which he took without apparent gratitude. But Shandon Smith never nursed his wrath; and presently he affably reverted to the subject:

"O'Ryan," he remarked, leaning back in his chair and expelling successive smoke rings at the Bec de l'Empereur across the valley, "that red-haired girl of yours is a mystery to me. I find no explanation for her. I can not reconcile her extreme youth with her miraculous virtuosity as a cook. I cannot coordinate the elements of perfect symmetry which characterize her person with the bench show points of a useful peasant. She's not formed like a 'grade'; she reveals pedigree. Now I dare say you look upon her as an ordinary every-day, wage-earning pot-wrestler. Don't you?"

"I do."

"You don't consider her symmetrical?"

"I am," said I, "scarcely likely to notice pulchritude below stairs."

Smith laughed:

"For that matter she dwells upstairs in the garret, I believe. I saw her going up. I'm astonished that you don't think her pretty because she looks like that photograph on your dresser."

What he said again annoyed me, – the more so because, since her ablutions, the girl did somehow or other remind me even more than before of that lovely, beguiling creature in my photograph. And why on earth there should be any resemblance at all between that laughing young aristocrat in her jewels and silken neglig?e and my slatternly maid-of-all-work – why the one should even remotely suggest to us the other – was to me inexplicable and unpleasant.

"Smith," I said, "you are a sentimental and romantic young man. You shyly fall in love several times a day when material is plenty. You have the valuable gift of creative imagination. Why not employ it commercially to augment your income?"

"You mean by writing best sellers?"

"I do. You are fitted for the job."

"O'Ryan," he said, "it would be wasted time. Newspapers are to-day the best sellers. Reality has knocked romance clean over the ropes. Look at this war? Look at the plain, unvarnished facts which history has been recording during the last four years. Has Romance ever dared appropriate such astounding material for any volume of fiction ever written?"

I admitted that fiction had become a back number in the glare of daily facts.

"It certainly has," he said. "Every day that we live – every hour – yes, every minute that your watch ticks off – events are happening such as the wildest imagination of a genius could not create.

You can prove it for yourself, O'Ryan. Try to read the most exciting work of fiction, or the cleverest, the most realistic, the most subtle romance ever written. And when you've yawned your bally head off over the mockery of things actual, just pick up the daily paper."

He was quite right.

"I tell you," he went on, "there's more romance, more excitement, more mystery, more tragedy, more comedy, more humanity, more truth in any single edition of any French, English, Italian, or American daily paper published in these times than there is in all the fiction ever produced."

"Very true," I said. "Romance is dead to-day. Reality reigns alone."

"Then why snub me when I say that your red-headed maid is a real enigma and an actual mystery? She might be anything in such times as these. She might be a great lady; she might be a scullion. Have you noticed how white and fine and slim her hands are?"

"I notice they're clean," said I cautiously.

He laughed at me in frank derision, obstinately interested and intent upon building up a real romance around my maid-of-all-work. His gayety and his youth amused me. I was a year his senior and I felt my age. The world was hollow; I had learned that much.

"Her whole make-up seems to me suspiciously like camouflage," he said, "her flat-heeled slippers, for example! She has a distractingly pretty ankle, and have you happened to notice her eyes, O'Ryan?"

In point of fact I had noticed them. They were gray and had black lashes. But I was not going to give Smith the satisfaction of admitting that I had noticed my housemaid's eyes.

"Her eyes," continued Smith, "are like those wide young eyes in that pretty photograph of yours. So is her mouth with its charmingly full width and the hint of laughter in its upcurled childish corners – "

"Nonsense! – "

"Not at all. Not at all! And all you've got to do is to put a bunch of jewels on her fingers and a thin, shimmery silk thing showing her slender throat and shoulders, and then some; and then you can fix her hair like the girl's hair in your photograph, and hand her a guitar, and drop one of her knees over the other, and hang a slipper to the little naked foot that swings above its shadow on the floor – "

"I shall do none of those things," said I. "And I'll tell you some more, Smith: I believe it's your devilish and irresponsible chatter which has put the unpleasant idea into my head that my red-headed domestic resembles that photograph upstairs. I don't like the idea. And I'd be much obliged if you wouldn't mention it again."

"All right," he said cheerfully.

But what he had said about this resemblance left me not only vaguely uncomfortable, but also troubled by a sort of indefinite curiosity concerning my cook. I desired to take another look at her immediately.

After a while I threw aside my cigarette: "I'm going into the pantry," said I, "to discuss business with my housekeeper. Here's the key to the wine-cellar. There's more of that Moselle there, I understand."

And I started toward the house, leaving him to twiddle his thumbs and stare at the Bec de l'Empereur. Or he could vary this program by smoking his head off if he chose. Or investigate the wine-cellar. But my cook he could not flirt with as long as I was on the job.

He seemed to be a very nice fellow in his way, but he had put a lot of nonsense into my head by his random talk.

Yet he was certainly an agreeable young man. I had first met him in Berne – that hot-bed of international intrigue, where every other person is a conspirator and every other a boche.

Now Smith's papers and passport revealed him as a Norwegian; his reason for being in Switzerland a purely commercial one. He had arrived in Berne, he told me, with a proposition to lay before the Federal Government. This was a colossal scheme to reforest parts of Switzerland with millions and millions of Norway pines and hardwoods – a stupendous enterprise, but apparently feasible and financially attractive.

So far, however, he had made little headway. But somewhere in the back of my head I had a lively suspicion that Shandon Smith was no more a Norwegian than was I; and that he could tell a very interesting story about those papers and passports of his if he cared to. I had lived too long in New York not to recognize a New Yorker no matter what his papers showed.

Anyway we seemed to attract each other and during my enforced and bothersome sojourn in Berne we became companionable to the edge of friendship.

And when I told him about my ridiculous inheritance and the trouble I was having in trying to get rid of it, he offered to come up here with me and keep me company while the Swiss Government was making up its composite mind about his offer to reforest such cantons as required it.

That is how we came to be here in Schwindlewald together. I was to stay until the prescribed time elapsed when I should be allowed by law to sell the place: he was willing to remain with me until his offer to the Swiss Government had been either accepted or rejected.

I had begun to like Smith very much. We were on those terms of easy and insulting badinage which marks the frontier between acquaintances and friends.

Now as I entered the house I turned on the threshold and glanced back to see what Smith was doing. His hat was off; the Alpine breeze was ruffling his crisp, blond hair. He sat at ease beside the fountain, a fresh cigar balanced between his fingers, a cork-screw in the other hand. Beside him on the grass stood a row of bottles of light Moselle. He had investigated the cellar. And as I watched what appeared to me a perfectly characteristic type of American from Manhattan Island, his voice came across the grass to me, lifted in careless song: —

 
– "My girl's a corker,
She's a New Yorker,
She plays the races,
Knows the sporty places
Uptown, downtown,
Always wears a nifty gown." —
 

"Yes," said I to myself, "you're a Norwegian – aye don' t'ank!" which is good Norwegian for "I don't think."

And I smiled subtly upon Smith as he drew the first cork from the first bottle of that liquid sunshine called Ch?teau Varenn, and with which one may spend a long and intimate afternoon without fear of consequences.

As I entered the house his careless song came to me on the summer wind:

 
"My girl's a corker,
She's a New Yorker – "
 

"Such a saga," said I to myself, "could be sung only by that sort of Viking. Now why the deuce is that young man in Switzerland?"

But it didn't matter to me, so I continued along the wide hallway toward the kitchen in the rear.

III
IN THE CELLAR

She was peeling potatoes in the kitchen when I entered; – she did it as daintily, as leisurely as though she were a young princess preparing pomegranates – But this sort of simile wouldn't do and I promptly pulled myself together, frowning.

Hearing me she looked up with a rather sweet confused little smile as though aroused from thoughts intimate but remote. Doubtless she was thinking of some peasant suitor somewhere – some strapping, yodling, ham-fisted, bull-necked mountaineer —

"I have come to confer with you on business," said I, forestalling with a courteous gesture any intention she might have had to arise out of deference to my presence. I admit I observed no such intention. On the contrary she remained undisturbed, continuing leisurely her culinary occupation, and regarding me with that engaging little half-smile which seemed to be a permanent part of her expression – I pulled myself together.

"My child," said I pleasantly, "what is your name?"

"Thusis," she replied.

"Thusis? Quite unusual, – hum-hum – quite exotic. And then – hum-hum! – what is the remainder of your name, Thusis?"

"There isn't any more, Monsieur."

"Only Thusis?"

"Only Thusis."

"You're – hum-hum! – very young, aren't you, Thusis?"

"Yes, I am."

"You cook very well."

"Thank you."

"Well, Thusis," I said, "I suppose when Mr. Schmitz engaged you to come up here, he told you what are the conditions and what vexatious problems confront me."

"Yes, he did tell me."

"Very well; that saves explanations. It is evident, of course, that if I am expected to board and feed any riff-raff tourist who comes to Schwindlewald I must engage more servants."

"Oh, yes, you'll have to."

"Well, where the deuce am I to find them? Haven't you any friends who would perhaps like to work here?"

"I have a sister," she said.

"Can you get her to come?"

"Yes."

"That's fine. She can do the rooms. Could you get another girl to wait on table?"

"I have a friend who is a very good cook – "

"You're good enough! – "

"Oh, no!" she demurred, with her enchanting smile, "but my friend, Josephine Vannis, is an excellent cook. Besides I had rather wait on table – with Monsieur's permission."

I said regretfully, remembering the omelette, "Very well, Thusis. Now I also need a farmer."

"I know a young man. His name is Raoul Despres."

"Fine! And I want to buy some cows and goats and chickens – "

"Raoul will cheerfully purchase what stock Monsieur requires."

"Thusis, you are quite wonderful."

"Thank you," she said, lifting her dark-fringed gray eyes, the odd little half-smile in the curling corners of her lips. It was extraordinary how the girl made me think of my photograph upstairs.

"What is your sister's name?" I inquired – hoping I was not consciously making conversation as an excuse to linger in my cook's kitchen.

"Her name is Clelia."

"Clelia? Thusis? Very unusual names – hum-hum! – and nothing else – no family name. Well – well!"

"Oh, there was a family name of sorts. It doesn't matter; we never use it." And she laughed.

It was not what she said – not the sudden charm of her fresh young laughter that surprised me; it was her effortless slipping from French into English – and English more perfect than one expects from even the philologetically versatile Swiss.

"Are you?" I asked curiously.

"What, Mr. O'Ryan?"

"Swiss?"

Thusis laughed and considered me out of her dark-fringed eyes.

"We are Venetians – very far back. In those remote days, I believe, my family had many servants. That, perhaps, is why my sister and I make such good ones – if I may venture to say so. You see we know by inheritance what a good servant ought to be."

The subtle charm of this young girl began to trouble me; her soft, white symmetry, the indolent and youthful grace of her, and the disturbing resemblance between her and my photograph all were making me vaguely uneasy.

"Thusis," I said, "you understand of course that if I am short of servants you'll have to pitch in and help the others."

"Of course," she replied simply.

"What do you know how to do?"

"I understand horses and cattle."

"Can you milk?"

"Yes. I can also make butter and cheese, pitch hay, cultivate the garden, preserve vegetables, wash, iron, do plain and fancy sewing – "

I suppose the expression of my face checked her. We both laughed.

"Doubtless," I said, "you also play the piano and sing."

"Yes, I – believe so."

"You speak French, German, English – and what else?"

"Italian," she admitted.

"In other words you have not only an education but several accomplishments."

"Yes. But in adversity one must work at whatever offers. Necessitas non habet legem," she added demurely. That was too much for my curiosity.

"Who are you, Thusis?" I exclaimed.

"Your maid-of-all-work," she said gravely – a reproof that made me redden in the realization of my own inquisitiveness. And I resolved never again to pry into her affairs which were none of my bally business as long as she made a good servant.

"I'm sorry," said I. "I'll respect your privacy hereafter. So get your sister and the other girl and the man you say is a good farmer – "

"I told them in Berne that you'd need them. They ought to arrive this evening."

"Thusis," I said warmly, "you're a wonder. Go ahead and run my establishment if you are willing. You know how things are done in this country. You also know that I don't care a rap about this place and that I'm only here marking time until the Swiss Government permits me to sell out and get out."

"Do you wish to leave the entire responsibility of this place to me, Mr. O'Ryan?"

"You bet I do! How about it, Thusis? Will you run this joint and look out for any stray tourists and keep the accounts and wait on table? And play the piano between times, and sing, and converse in four languages – "

We both were laughing now. I asked her to name her monthly compensation and she mentioned such a modest salary that I was ashamed to offer it. But she refused more, explaining that the Swiss law regulated such things.

So that subject being settled and her potatoes pared and set to soak, she picked up a youthful onion with the careless grace of a queen selecting a favorite pearl.

"I hope you will like my soup to-night," said this paragon of servants.

I was for a moment conscious of a na?ve desire to sit there in the kitchen and converse with her – perhaps even read aloud to her to relieve the tedium of her routine. Then waking up to the fact that I had no further business in that kitchen, I arose and got myself out.

Smith, lolling in his chair by the fountain with half a dozen empty Moselle bottles in a row on the grass beside his chair, was finishing another Norse Saga as I approached:

 
– The farmer then to that young man did say:
"O treat my daughter kindly,
Don't you do her any harm,
And I will leave you in my will
My house and barn and farm; —
My hay in mows,
My pigs and cows,
My wood-lot on the hill,
And all the little chick-uns in the ga-arden!"
 
 
The city guy he laffed to scorn
What that old man did say:
"Before I bump you on the bean
Go chase yourself away.
Beat it! you bum blackmailing yap!
I never kissed your daughter's map
Nor thought of getting gay!
I'm here on my vacation
And I ain't done any harm,
I do not want your daughter, Bill,
Nor house and barn and farm,
Nor hay in mows
Nor pigs and cows
Nor wood-lot on the hill.
Nor all them little chick-uns in the ga-arden!"
 
 
Them crool words no sooner said
Than Jessie fetched a sob:
"I'll shoot you up unless we're wed!"
Sez she – "You prune-fed slob!
Get busy with the parson – "
 

Here Smith caught sight of me and ceased his saga.

"Yes," I said, "you're a Norwegian all right. Three cheers for King Haakon!"

"You speak in parables, O'Ryan."

"You behave in parabolics. I don't care. I like you. I shall call you Shan."

"Your companionship also is very agreeable to me, Michael. Sit down and have one on yourself."

We exchanged bows and I seated myself.

"By the way," I remarked carelessly, "her name is Thusis." And I filled my glass and took a squint at its color. Not that I knew anything about Moselle.

"What else is her name?" he inquired.

"She declines to answer further. Thusis seems to be her limit."

"I told you she was a mystery!" he exclaimed with lively interest. "What else did she say to you, Michael?"

"Her sister is coming to-night. Also a lady-friend named Josephine Vannis; and a farmer of sorts called Raoul Despres."

"Take it from me," said Smith, "that if truth is stranger than fiction in these days, this red-haired girl called Thusis is no more Swiss than you are!"

"No more of a peasant than you are a Norwegian," I nodded.

"And whoinhell," he inquired, keeping his countenance, "ever heard of a South American named O'Ryan?"

"It's a matter of Chilean history, old top."

"Oh, yes, I know. But the essence of the affair is that an Irish family named O'Ryan have, for several generations, merely been visiting in Chili. Now one of 'em's in Switzerland as close to the big shindy as he can get without getting into it. And, the question is this: how long before he pulls a brick and starts in?"

"Chili is neutral – "

"Ireland isn't. Sinn Fein or Fusiliers – which, Michael?"

"Don't talk nonsense," said I, virtuously. "I'm no fighter. There's no violence in me. If I saw a fight I'd walk the other way. There's none of that kind of Irish blood in me."

"No. And all your family in the army or navy. And you practically a Yankee – "

I stared at him and whistled the Chilean anthem.

"That's my reply," said I. "Yours is:

 
"My girl's a corker,
She's a New Yorker – "
 

"What piffle you talk, you poor prune," said this typical Norwegian.

So we filled our glasses to our respective countries, and another round to that jolly flag which bears more stars and stripes than the Chilean ensign.

It being my turn to investigate the cellar I went. Down there in one of the alleys between bins and casks I saw Thusis moving with a lighted candle – a startling and charming apparition.

What she might be doing down there I could not guess, and she was so disturbingly pretty that I didn't think it best to go over and inquire. Maybe she was counting the bottles of Moselle to keep reproachful tabs on us; maybe she was after vinegar. No; I realized then for the first time that the girl was far too pretty for any man to encounter her by candle-light with impunity.

She did not see me – wouldn't have noticed me at all in the dim light had not my bunch of bottles clinked – both hands being loaded, and a couple of extra ones under each arm.

The sound startled her apparently; she turned quite white in the candle-light and stood rigid, listening, one hand pressing her breast.

"It is I, Thusis," I said. "Did I frighten you?"

She denied it rather faintly. She was distractingly pretty in her breathless attitude of a scared child.

I ought to have said something cheerful and matter of fact, and gone out of the cellar with my cargo of bottles. Instead I went over to her and looked at her – a silly, dangerous proceeding. "Thusis," I said, "I would not frighten you for one million dollars!"

Realizing suddenly the magnitude of the sum I mentioned I pulled myself together, conscious that I could easily make an ass of myself.

So, resolutely expelling from voice and manner any trace of sex consciousness, I said in the spirit of our best American novelists: "Permit me, Thusis, to recommend a small glass of this very excellent Moselle. Sipped judiciously and in moderation the tonic qualities are considered valuable as a nourishment to the tissues and nerves."

"Thank you," she said, slightly bewildered.



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