Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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So I knocked off the neck of the bottle in medieval fashion Ц which wasted its contents because she was afraid of swallowing glass, and said so decidedly. I then noticed a row of corkscrews hanging on a beam, and she, at the same moment, discovered a tasting porringer of antique silver under one of the casks.

She picked it up na?vely and polished it with a corner of her apron. Then she looked inquiringly at me.

So I drew the cork and filled her porringer.

"It is delicious Moselle," she said. "Is it Ch?teau Varenn?"

"It is. How did you guess?"

"I once tasted some."

"Another of your accomplishments," said I, laughing. She laughed too, but blushed a little at her expert knowledge of Moselle.

"I have rather a keen sense of taste and a good memory," she explained lightly; and she sipped her Moselle looking at me over the rim of the silver porringer Ц a perilous proceeding for me.

"Thusis," said I.

"Yes, Monsieur O'Ryan."

"Did you ever, by chance, see that photograph they sell all over Europe called 'The Laughing Girl'?"

Her dark-fringed eyes regarded me steadily over the cup's silver edge:

"Yes," she said, "I've seen it."

"Do you think that b-b-beautiful c-creature resembles you?"

"Do you?" she inquired coolly, and lowered the cup. There ensued a little silence during which I became vaguely aware of my danger. I kept repeating to myself: "Try to recollect that your grandfather was an Admiral."

After a moment she smiled: "Thank you for the tonic, Monsieur. I feel better; but I am afraid it was a presumption for me to drink in your presenceЕ And no cup to offer you."

"I'll use yours," said I, taking it. She was still smiling. I began to feel that I ought to pull myself together and invoke the Admiral more earnestly. But when I remembered him he bored me. And yet, could it be possible that an O'Ryan was drinking Moselle in his own cellar with his cook? In no extravagance of nightmare had I ever evoked such a cataclysmic scene. I have dreamed awful dreams in the course of my life: Ц such grotesqueries as, for example, finding myself on Fifth Avenue clothed only in a too brief undershirt. I have dreamed that I was wedded to a large Ethiopian who persisted in embracing me passionately in public. Other horrors I have dreamed after dining incautiously, but never, never, had I dreamed of reveling in cellars with my own cook!

A slight perspiration bedewed my brow; Ц I said in a strained and tenor voice not my own, but over-modulated and quite sexless: "Thusis, I am gratified that the slight medicinal tonic of which you have partaken in moderation has restored you to your normal condition of mental and bodily vigor. I trust that the natural alarm you experienced at encountering me in the dark, has now sufficiently subsided to enable you to return to your culinary duties. Allow me to suggest an omelette for luncheonЕ I thank you."

The girl's bewildered eyes rested on me so sweetly, so inquiringly, that I knew I must pull myself together at once or never.

But when I evoked the image of that damned Admiral he was grinning.

"Thusis," I said hoarsely, "you do look like that girl in my photograph. I Ц I can't help it Ц b-but you do!"

At that her perplexed expression altered swiftly and that bewitching smile flashed in her gray eyes.

"Good heavens," I exclaimed, "you look more like her than ever when you smile! Don't you know you do?"

Instantly the hidden laughter lurking in the curled corners of her mouth rippled prettily into music.

"Oh, Lord," I said, "you are 'The Laughing Girl' or her twin sister!"

"And you," she laughed, "are so much funnier than you realize,†Ц so delightfully young to be so in earnest! You consider the world a very, very serious place of residence,†Ц don't you, Mr. O'Ryan? And life a most sober affair. And I am afraid that you also consider yourself quite the most ponderous proposition upon this tottering old planet. Don't you?"

Horrified at her levity I tried to grasp the amazing fact that my cook was poking fun at me. I could not compass the idea. All I seemed to realize was that I stood in my cellar confronting a slender laughing stranger by candle-light Ц an amazingly pretty girl who threatened most utterly to bewitch me.

"I'm sorry!†Ц are you offended?" she asked, still laughing, and her dark-fringed eyes very brilliant with mischief.†Ц "Are you very angry at me, Mr. O'Ryan?"

"Why do you think so?" I asked, wincing at her mirth.

"Because I suppose I know what you are thinking."

"What am I thinking?"

"You're very, very angry with me and with yourself. You are saying to yourself in pained amazement that you have no business in a cellar exchanging persiflage with a presumptuous servant! You are chagrined, mortified! You are astonished at yourself Ц astounded that the solemn, dignified, distinguished Cabalero Don Michael O'Ryan y Santiago de Chile y Manhattanos Ц "

I turned red with surprise and wrath Ц and then slightly dizzy with the delicious effrontery of her beauty which daring had suddenly made dazzling in the candle-light.

For a minute my brain resembled a pin-wheel; then I pulled myself together, but not with the aid of the Admiral. No! The Admiral made me sick. In my sudden rush of exhilaration I derided him.

"Thusis," said I, when I recovered power of speech, "there's just one thing to do with you, and that is to kiss you for your impudence."

"Your own cook! Oh, shocking! Oh, Se?or! Oh Don Michael Ц "

Ц†"And I'm going to do it!†Ц†" said I solemnly.

"Remember the seriousness of life!" she warned me, retreating a step or two as I set all my bottles upon the ground. "Remember the life-long degradation entailed by such an undignified proceeding, Don Michael."

That was too much. She saw trouble coming, turned to escape what she had unloosed: and I caught her near the cellar stairs.

Then, under the lifted candle, I saw her face pale a little, change, then a flush stain the white skin to her throat.

"Don't do that," she said, still smiling, but in a quiet and very different voice. "I invited it by my silly attitude; Ц I know it perfectly well. But you won't do it Ц will you, Mr. O'Ryan?"

"You deserve it, Thusis."

"I know I do. But don't."

My arms slipped from her. I released her. She was still smiling faintly.

"Thank you," she said. "I'm sorry I offered you provocation. I don't know why you seem to tempt me to Ц to laugh at you a little Ц not unkindly. But you are so very young to be so solemn Ц "

"I tell you I will kiss you if you repeat that remark again!"

It was on the tip of her tongue to retort that I dared not: I saw defiance in her brilliant eyes. Something in mine, perhaps, made her prudent; for she suddenly slipped past me and fled up the stairs.

Half way up she turned and looked back. There was an odd silence for a full minute. Then she lifted the candle in mocking salute:

"I defy you," she said, "to tell Mr. Smith what you've been about down here in the cellar with your cook!" I said nothing. She mounted the stairs, her head turned toward me, watching me. And, on the top step:

"Try always to remember," she called back softly, "that the world is a very, very solemn and serious planet for a ponderous young man to live in!"

I don't remember how long after that it was before I picked up my bottles and went out to the fountain where Smith sat awaiting me. I don't know what he saw in my face to arouse his suspicion.

"You've been in the kitchen again!" he exclaimed.

I placed the bottles on the grass without noticing the accusation.

"What was it this time Ц business as usual?" he inquired sarcastically.

"I have not been in the kitchen," said I, "although I did transact a little business with my cook." I did not add: Ц "business of making an outrageous ass of myself."

As I drew the first cork I was conscious of Smith's silent and offensive scrutiny. And very gradually my ears revealed my burning guilt under his delighted gaze.

Calm, but exasperated, I lifted my brimming glass and bowed politely to Smith.

"Go to the devil," said I.

"A rendezvous," said he.

And we drank that friendly toast together.

IV
MODUS VIVENDI

Smith's luggage and mine, and my other effects Ц trunks, boxes, and crates Ц arrived very early the next morning: and several large, sweating Swiss staggered up the stairs with the impedimenta until both they and their job were finished.

When I left New York, not knowing how long this business of my ridiculous inheritance might detain me in Switzerland, I packed several trunks with clothing and several crates with those familiar and useful Ц or useless Ц objets-d'art which for many years had formed a harmless and agreeable background for my more or less blameless domestic career in New York.

Rugs, curtains, furniture, sofa-pillows, books, a clock mantel set, framed and unframed pictures and photographs including the O'Ryan coat-of-arms Ц all this was the sort of bachelor stuff that Smith and I disinterred from the depths of trunks, crates, and boxes, and lugged about from corner to corner trying effects and combinations.

Before we had concluded our task I think he had no opinion at all of me as an interior decorator. Which revealed considerable insight on his part. And although I explained to him that interior decorators became so fed up on gorgeous and sumptuous effects that they themselves preferred to live amid simpler surroundings reminiscent of the Five and Ten Cent Store, he remained unconvinced.

"It's like a lady-clerk in a candy shop," I insisted. "She never eats the stuff she sells. It's the same with me. I am surfeited with magnificence. I crave the humble what-not. I long for the Victorian. I need it."

He gazed in horror at a framed picture of my grandfather the Admiral.

"Oh God," he said, "what are we to do with this old bird?"

Intensely annoyed I took it from him and hung it over my mantel. It wasn't a Van Dyck, I admit, but it demanded no mental effort on my part. One can live in peace with such pictures.

"Some day, Smith," said I, "you'll understand that the constant contemplation of true Art is exhausting. A man can't sleep in a room full of Rubens. When I put on my dressing gown and slippers and light a cigarette what I want is relaxation, not Raphael. And these things that I own permit me to relax. Why," I added earnestly, "they might as well not be there at all so little do they distract my attention. That's the part of art suitable for domestic purposes,†Ц something that you never look at, or, if you do, you don't want to look at it again."

He said: "I couldn't sleep here. I couldn't get away from that old bird over the mantel. However, it's your room."

"It is."

"Doubtless you like it."

"Doubtless."

"On me," he remarked, "it has the effect of a Jazz band." And he went into his own apartment. For half an hour or so I fussed and pottered about, nailing up bunches of photographs fanwise on the walls, arranging knickknacks, placing brackets for curtain-poles and shoving the poles through the brass rings supporting the curtains. They had once belonged to the Admiral. They were green and blue with yellow birds on them.

After I finished draping them, I discovered that I had hung one pair upside down. But the effect was not so bad. In domestic art one doesn't want everything exactly balanced. Reiteration is exasperating; repetition aggravating to the nerves. A chef-d'oeuvre is a priceless an?sthetic: duplicated it loses one hundred per cent of its soporific value. I was glad I had hung one pair of curtains upside down. I went into Smith's room. He was shaving and I had him at my mercy.

"The principal element of art," said I to Smith, "is beauty Ц or rather, perhaps, the principal element of beauty is art Ц I am not very clear at this moment which it is. But I do know that beauty is never noisy. Calm and serenity reign where there is no chattering repetition of effects. Therefore, as an interior decorator, I always take liberties with the stereotyped rules of decoration. I jumble periods. I introduce bold innovations. For example: Old blue plates, tea-pots and sugar-bowls I do not relegate to the pantry or the china-closet where they belong. No. I place them upon a Louis XV commode or a Victorian cabinet, or on a mantel. A clock calms the irritating monotony of a side-board. A book-case in the bath-room produces a surprisingly calm effect amid towels and tooth-mugs. A piano in the dining room gives tone Е if played. And so, in my profession, Smith, I am always searching for the calm harmony of the inharmonious, the unity of the unconventional, and the silence of the inexplicable. And, if I may venture to say so, I usually attain it. This is not a business card."

And having sufficiently punished Smith, I returned to my own room.

Lovingly, and with that unerring knowledge born of instinct, I worked away quite happily all the morning decorating my room, and keeping one eye on Smith to see that he didn't drift toward the kitchen. He betrayed a tendency that way once or twice but desisted. I think he was afraid I might decorate his room in his absence. He need not have worried: I wanted all my things in my own room.

While I was busy hanging some red and pink curtains in my dressing-room and tacking a yellowish carpet to the floor Ц a definitely advanced scheme of color originating with me Ц I heard voices in the rear court and, going to the window, beheld my consignment of brand new servants arriving from Berne by diligence.

Smith, who had come up beside me to peer out through the blinds, uttered an exclamation.

"That girl in Swiss peasant dress!†Ц she looks like the twin sister to your cook!"

"She is her sister. But she isn't nearly as pretty."

"She's infinitely prettier!" he asserted excitedly. "She's a real beauty!†Ц for a peasant."

I corrected him in my most forbearing manner: "What you are trying to convey to me," said I, kindly, "is that the girl is flamboyantly picturesque, but scarcely to be compared to Thusis for unusual or genuine beauty. That's what you really mean, Smith; but you lack vocabulary."

"Whatever I lack," he retorted warmly, "I mean exactly what I said! For a peasant, that girl is beautiful to an emphatic degree,†Ц far more so than her sister Thusis. Be kind enough to get that."

I smiled patiently and pointed out to him that the hair of the newcomer was merely light golden, not that magnificent Venetian gold-red of Thusis' hair; and that her eyes were that rather commonplace violet hue so much admired by cheap novelists. I don't know why he should have become so animated about what I was striving to explain to him: he said with unnecessary heat: "That's what I'm trying to drive into your Irish head! That girl is beautiful, and her red-headed sister is merely good-looking. Is my vocabulary plain?"

I began to lose my temper: "Smith," said I, "you fell for Thusis before I noticed her at all Ц "

"I merely called your attention to the resemblance between her and your photograph of 'The Laughing Girl.' And I did not 'fall for her' Ц as you put it with truly American elegance Ц "

"Confound it!" I exclaimed, "what do you mean by 'American elegance'? Don't hand me that, Smith Ц you and your 'My girl's a corker!' Of the two of us you'd be picked for a Yankee before I'd be. And I have my own ideas on that subject, too Ц you and your Sagas about Ч


"'She plays the races' Ц "

"In my travels," he said, looking me straight in the eye, "it has happened that I have picked up a few foreign folk-songs. You understand me, of course."

"Yes," I replied amiably. "I think I get you, Smith. Whatever you say goes; and you're a Viking as far as I'm concerned."

The slightest shadow of a grin lurked on his lips. "Good old Michael," he said, patting me on the shoulder. And, reconciled, we looked out of the window again in brotherly accord. Just in time to see the golden-haired sister of Thusis rise and jump lightly from the wagon to the grass.

"Did you see that!" he demanded excitedly. "Did you ever see such grace in a human being? Did you, Michael?"

What was the use? I saw nothing supernaturally extraordinary in that girl or in her flying leap. Of course she was attractive in her trim, supple, dainty, soubrette-like way. But as for comparing her to Thusis! Ч

"Her name's Clelia," I remarked, avoiding further discussion. "She's to do the rooms; Thusis waits on table and runs our establishment; and that other girl down there Ц her name is Josephine Vannis, I believe Ц she is to cook for us. You know," I added, "she also is very handsome in her own wayЕ"

He nodded without interest. She seemed to be of the Juno type, tall, dark-haired, with velvet eyes and intensely white skin,†Ц too overwhelmingly classical to awaken my artistic enthusiasm. In fact she rather scared me.

"And to think that six-foot goddess is my new cook," said I, rather awed. I took another intent survey of the big, healthy, vigorous, handsome girl; and I determined to keep out of her kitchen and avoid all culinary criticism.

"She'd not hesitate to hand us a few with a rolling-pin," I remarked. "Juno was celebrated for her quick temper, Shan, so don't find fault with your victuals."

"No," he said very earnestly, "I won't."

My new gardener was now carrying in the assorted luggage,†Ц bundles and boxes of sorts done up in true peasant fashion with cords.

He seemed to be a sturdy, bright, good-looking young fellow with keen black eyes and a lively cock-sure manner.

"He'll raise jealousies below stairs," remarked Smith. "That young fellow is the beau ideal of all peasant girls. He'll be likely to raise the deuce below stairs with Thusis and Juno."

Somehow or other the idea of such rustic gallantry did not entirely please me. Nor did Smith's reference to Thusis and his cool exclusion of Clelia.

"I don't believe Thusis would care for his type," said I carelessly. "And if he gets too Ц too Ц " I hesitated, not exactly knowing what I had meant to say.

"Sure," nodded Smith; "fire him if he bothers Clelia."

I dimly realized then that I didn't care whether he cut up with Clelia or not. In fact, I almost hoped he would.

A little later when I was in my room, alone, and agreeably busy, there sounded a low and very discreet knocking at my door. Instantly my pulse, for some unexplained reason, became loud and irregular.

"Come in," said I, laying aside my work Ц some verses I had been composing Ц trifles Ц trifles.

Thusis came in.

As the hostile Trojans rose unanimously to their feet when Helen entered Ц rose in spite of their disapproval Ц so I got up instinctively and placed a chair for her. She merely dropped me a curtsy and remained standing.

"Please be seated," said I, looking at her with uneasy suspicion.

"Monsieur O'Ryan forgets himself," she protested in the softest and most winningly demure of voices. But I saw the very devil laughing at me out of her gray eyes.

"I don't know why a man should receive his servants standing," said I. "Sit down," I added coldly, seating myself.

"Pardon, but I could not venture to seat myself in Monsieur's presence Ц "

Perfectly conscious of the subtle mockery in her voice and manner, I told her sharply to be seated and explain her errand. She curtsied again Ц a most devilishly impudent little curtsey Ц and seated herself with the air of a saint on the loose.

"My thisther Clelia, and my friend Jothephine Vannith, and Raoul Dethpreth requetht the honor of rethpectfully prethenting themthelves to Monsieur's graciouth conthideration," she said with an intentional lisp that enraged me.

"Very well," I replied briefly. "You may go back and get rid of your lisp, and then explain to them that you are to be waitress and general housekeeper here, and that they are to take their orders from me through you."

"Yes, Monsieur."

I don't think she relished my dry bluntness for I saw a slight color gather in her cheeks.

I thought to myself that I'd come very close to spoiling the girl by my silliness in the cellar. I'd made a fool of myself, but I'd do it no more in spite of her heavenly resemblance to my photograph.

"That will be all at present, Thusis," I said coldly. "Come back in half an hour for orders. And see that you wear a clean apron."

Her lovely face was quite red as she passed out, forgetting to curtsey. As for my own emotions they were mixed.

One thing was certain; there was going to be a show-down between Thusis and me before very long.

If she were indeed the peasant girl she pretended to be, she'd recover her balance when I did, and learn her proper place. If she were, perhaps, a child of the bourgeoisie Ц some educated and superior young girl compelled to take service through family misfortune Ц and I now entertained no further doubt that this was really the case Ц she had nobody but herself to blame for my present attitude.

But!†Ц but if, by any inexplicable chance, her social circumstances were, or had once been, even better than bourgeoise, then the girl was a political agent in masquerade. But, whoever she was, she had no business to presume on her wit and insolent beauty to amuse herself at my expense. And if she had really been sent by the Swiss police into my household to keep an eye on me she was going about it in a silly and stupid manner.



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