Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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Raoul laughed. "It's really a pity," he remarked to me, "that we can't catch and box up these kings and take them along with us. But Venizelos says no; and he's always right. So we had all better pack up and be on our way."

He went off whistling the "Crack-brain" song. Presently, without noticing me, Thusis turned from the music-box and walked over to where her sister was standing; and I heard her say something about dressing.

I turned away and went silently upstairs to my room, and, closing the door, seated myself.

The baby-party indeed was ended.

XXV
THE DUCHESS OF NAXOS

I was still sitting there when somebody knocked, and, supposing it to be Smith, I said, "come in."

Thusis entered, and I rose. We looked at each other in silence, then I set a chair for her by my table and she dropped onto it as though tired.

She wore a dark hat and a dark gown which I had never seen. Also she was gloved, another phase hitherto unfamiliar to me. And her beauty almost hurt me.

"You are not going with us?" she asked in a low voice.

"No."

"Why not?"

"There is no reason why I should go."

"You are not afraid to remain?"

I forced a smile.

"You choose to stay here in this house all alone with these huns?" she persisted.

"What else is there to do? Besides, they'll leave to-morrow."

"And then you'll be utterly alone here."

I nodded, smiling.

"Won't you come with us as far as France?"

I thanked her.

"Why won't you?"

"I think I'd be rather lonelier in France," I said lightly, "than I might be here."

"Will you be lonely?"

I did not answer.

"When I glanced across the table at her again she had unpinned her hat. I waited; but she tossed it from her onto my bed.

"Why do you do that?" I asked.

"I shall not leave unless you do," she said serenely.

"That's nonsense! I am in no danger!"

"I should be, if I left you alone here."

"In what danger?"

"In danger – of falling a prey to – grief – Michael."

My heart almost stopped: she was looking down at the gloves which she was slowly stripping from her wrists:

"Danger of grief," she repeated, "of lifelong sorrow – for leaving you – here – alone… Because, once, I gave my heart to you…"

"You were only Thusis, then," I said, steadying my voice and senses with an effort.

"Am I less, now, in your eyes?" She lifted her head and looked at me.

"You are the Duchess of Naxos."

She smiled faintly: "What was it you once said to me about revolutions? – about the necessity for purity of motive and absolute unselfishness for those who revolted against tyranny?"

I was silent.

"Michael?"

"Yes."

"How can I incite my people to revolt unless my motives are entirely free from selfish interest?"

"Are they not?"

"Why do you ask me? You know that I would be Duchess of Naxos if my country regains its freedom under the Italian crown."

"Has that influenced you?"

Her candid, sweet gaze met mine: "I think it has."

And, as I said nothing, "I hadn't quite considered it in that light," she said.

"I thought my motives were pure. Besides, I really am hereditary Duchess of Naxos – if ever there is to be such a Duchy again." She laughed a little. "A phantom ruler in a phantom realm. It must amuse you, Michael."

"It may all come to pass," said I.

"No."

"Why not?"

"Monsieur Venizelos does not wish it. Nor does the King of Italy. Also I am afraid that Naxos is really quite contented under the Greek flag, now that Constantino is exiled and because, moreover, that same flag flies beside the flags of England, France, and Italy… No, Michael, there will be no revolution now in Naxos; no Duchy, no Duchess… And," she rose and looked at me, and stretched out one fair hand, "come into France with me, Michael… I can't leave my heart here with you unless I stay here, too… I can't become disembodied and float off to France leaving heart and mind and body and soul here – in your arms – in the arms of the man I – love… Can I, dear Michael? —Can I my dear lover? – my dearest – my beloved – "

Her fragrant, flushed face was close against mine when we heard Smith's trunk banging in his room and Raoul's voice: "Easy, mon vieux! Mon dieu, but it's heavy, your Norwegian-American luggage."

"Darling!" she exclaimed in consternation, "you're not packed up! Quick, Michael! I'll help you – "

"Thusis, I don't want this junk! Do you know what I am going to take with me?"

"What, darling?"

"My poems to you; the portrait of the Admiral; and my photograph of The Laughing Girl… And nothing else whatever."

I picked up the photograph from my dresser as I spoke and slipped it into my breast pocket.

"Are we to start housekeeping with the portrait of the Admiral and your heavenly poems of which I never before heard?" she exclaimed, enchanted.

"Not housekeeping," I said smiling, and drawing her into my arms.

"Aren't we going to keep house, Michael?" she asked, her surprised eyes uplifted to mine.

"After the war," said I.

For a full minute she stood gazing at me. Then:

"I understand." And she offered her lips for the first time to any man. And for the first time I kissed her.

"Yes," said I gaily, "I join Pershing. Or the Legion, if the Yankees won't take a Chilean – "

Smith rapped loudly on my door:

"Is Thusis there?"

"She is," said I.

"Did she persuade you to come with us?"

"She did."

"Good business!" cried Smith. "Is your luggage ready?"

"It is."

I handed Thusis my poems, unhooked the portrait of the Admiral, and tucked it under one arm.

Thusis pinned on her distractingly smart little hat, turned, flung both arms around my neck.

"There may be the deuce to pay for this in Italy," she whispered. "Oh, Michael! Michael! I adore you!"

Half way down the corridor a door opened and the queen's head in curl papers was thrust out. When her hard eyes fell on us she stiffened for an instant, then the celebrated Hohenzollern sneer twitched her features:

"Your housekeeper!" she hissed.

And Thusis threw back her beautiful head and the silvery laughter of The Laughing Girl filled the house with its exquisite melody.

"Oh Michael, Michael!" she said, "they'll be the death of the world after all – the boche! – for we'll all perish of laughter before we're done with them!"

And we went gaily on downstairs, my poems clasped to Thusis' breast, the Admiral's portrait under my left arm, and the lovely little hand of Thusis in mine – for ever, God willing – for ever and a day.

THE END

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