The Laughing Girl
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For such surveillance I didn't care a pewter penny. Spies had lagged after me ever since I entered Switzerland. It was rather amusing than otherwise.
But, as far as Thusis was concerned, I now decided that, no matter what she was or had been, she had voluntarily become my servant; and I intended that she should not again forget that fact.
As I sat there at my desk, grimly planning discipline for Thusis, I chanced to look up at the photograph of "The Laughing Girl"; and stern thoughts melted like frost at sunrise.
How amazingly, how disturbingly the lovely pictured features reminded me of Thusis!
The resemblance, of course, must be pure accident, but what an astonishing coincidence!
Musing there at my desk, possessed by dreamy and pleasing thoughts, I gradually succumbed to the spell which my treasured photograph invariably wove for me.
And I unlocked my desk and took out my verses.
They had been entitled "To Thusis." This I had scratched out and under the canceled dedication I had written: "To a Photograph."
I had quite forgotten that I had told Thusis to report for orders in half an hour: I was deeply, sentimentally absorbed in my poem. Then there came a low knocking; and at the mere prospect of again encountering my exceedingly impudent housekeeper I experienced a little shock of emotion which started my heart thumping about in a most silly and exasperating manner.
"Come in!" I said angrily.
She entered. I kept my seat with an effort.
"Well," said I in an impatient voice, "what is it now?"
Thusis looked at me intently for a moment, then the little devils that hid in her gray eyes suddenly laughed at me, totally discrediting the girl's respectful and almost serious face with its red mouth slightly drooping.
"Monsieur has orders for the household?" she inquired in her sweet, grave voice of a child.
That floored me. I had spoken about giving my orders through her. I didn't know what orders to give.
"Certainly," said I, Ц "hum-hum! Let me see.†Ц Let Ц me Ц see," I repeated. "Yes Ц certainly Ц the orders must be given Ц hum-hum!†Ц "
But what the devil I was to order I hadn't the vaguest idea.
"We'll have luncheon at one," I said, desperately. She made no observation. I grew redder.
"We'll dine, too," I added. Her gray eyes mocked me but her mouth drooped respectfully.
"For further orders," said I, "c-come b-back in half an hour. No, don't do that! Wait a moment. I Ц I really don't know what sort of an establishment I have here. Hadn't I better make a tour of inspection?"
"Monsieur will please himself."
"I think I'd better inspect things."
"What things, Monsieur?"
"The Ц the linen press Ц er Ц the batterie-de-cuisineЦ†all that sort of thing. Do you think I'd better do it, Thusis?"
"Would Monsieur know any more about them if he inspects these things?" she inquired so guilelessly, so smilingly, that I surrendered then and there.
"Thusis," I said, "I don't know anything about such matters.They bore me. Be a nice child and give what orders are necessary. Will you?"
"If Monsieur wishes."
"I do wish it. Please Ц take full charge and run this ranch for me and bring me the bills. You see I trust you, Thusis, although you have not been very respectful to me."
"I am sorry, Monsieur," she said with a tragic droop of her lovely mouth. But her eyes belied her.
"I won't ask you who you are Ц "
"Don't interrupt me. What I am going to ask you, is, why do you continually and secretly make fun of me Ц "
"Yes, you, Thusis. Always there is a hint of mockery in your smile,†Ц always the hidden amusement as though, in me, you find something ridiculous Ц "
" Ц Something secretly and delightfully absurd Ц "
"But you know you are funny," she said, looking a trifle scared at her own temerity.
"What!" I demanded angrily.
"Please be just, Mr. O'Ryan. I minded my own business until you tempted me."
That was perfectly true but I denied it.
"You know," she said, "when a man finds a girl attractive the girl always knows it, even when she's a servantЕ And certain circumstances made it much more amusing than you realizeЕ I mean to be respectful. I am your servantЕ But you know very well that it is funny."
"What is funny?"
"The circumstances. You found me attractive. It mortified you. And the way you took it was intensely amusing to me."
"Because you are you; and I am I. Because the fact that you found your cook attractive horrified you. That was intensely funny to me. And when, waiving the degradation, you actually attempted to kiss your own cook Ц "
Laughter burst from her lips in a silvery shower of rippling notes which enchanted and infuriated me at the same time.
I waited, very red, to control my voice; then I got up and set a chair for her. And she dropped onto it without protest.
"What are you doing in my household?" I asked drily.
At that her laughter ceased and she gave me a straight sweet look.
"Don't you really know?"
"Of course not. You're an agent of some sort. That's evident. Are you here to watch me?"
"Dear Mr. O'Ryan," she said lightly, "have I been at any pains to deceive you? I'm not really a servant; you learned that very easily. And I let you learn it Ц " She laughed: Ц "and it was a very pretty compliment I paid you when I let you learn it."
"I don't understand you," I said.
"It's very simple. My name really is Thusis; I wish to remain in your employment. So do my friends. We will prove good servants. You shall be most comfortable,†Ц you and your amusing friend, Mr. Smith Чthe Norwegian."
I smiled in spite of my suspicion and perplexity, and Thusis smiled too, such a gay little confidential smile that I could not resist the occult offer of confidence that it very plainly implied.
"You are not here to keep tabs on me?" I demanded.
"You very nice young man, of course not!"
"Do you really think I'm nice, Thusis?"
"I think you're adorable!"
The rush of emotion to the head made me red and dizzy. I had never been talked to that way by a young girl. I didn't know it was done.
And another curious thing about this perfectly gay and unembarrassed eulogy of hers, she said it as frankly and spontaneously as she might have spoken to another girl or to an attractive child: there was absolutely no sex consciousness about her.
"Are you going to let us remain and be your very faithful and diligent servants?" she asked, mischievously amused at the shock she had administered.
"Thusis," I said, "it's going to be rather difficult for me to treat you as a servant. And if your friends are of the same quality Ц "
"It's perfectly easy," she insisted. "If we presume, correct us. If we are slack, punish us. Be masculine and exacting; be bad tempered about your food Ц " She laughed delightfully Ц "Raise the devil with us if we misbehave."
I didn't believe I could do that and said so; and she turned on me that bewildering smile and sat looking at me very intently, with her white hands clasped in her lap.
"You don't think we're a band of robbers conspiring to chloroform you and Mr. Smith some night and make off with your effects?" she inquired.
We both laughed.
"You're very much puzzled, aren't you, Mr. O'Ryan," she continued.
"I am, indeed."
"But you're so nice Ц so straight and clean yourself Ц that you'd give me the benefit of any doubt, wouldn't you?"
"That's because you're a sportsman. That's because you play all games squarely." Her face became serious; her gray eyes met mine and seemed to look far into them.
"Your country is neutral, isn't it?" she said.
"You are not."
"I have my ideas."
"And ideals," she added.
"Yes, I have them still, Thusis."
"So have I," she said. "I am trying to live up to them. If you will let me."
"I'll even help you Ц "
"No! Just let me alone. That is all I ask of you." Her youthful face grew graver. "But that is quite enough to ask of you. Because by letting me alone you are incurring danger to yourself.
"Why do you tell me?"
"Because I wish to be honest with you. If you retain me as your servant and accept me and my friends as such,†Ц even if you live here quietly and blamelessly, obeying the local and Federal laws and making no inquiries concerning me or my three friends,†Ц yet, nevertheless, you may find yourself in very serious trouble before many days."
"All kinds of trouble, Mr. O'Ryan."
There was a silence; she sat there with slender fingers tightly interlocked as though under some sort of nervous tension, but the faint hint of a smile in the corners of her mouth Ц which seemed to be part of her natural expression Ц remained.
She said: "And more than that: if you let us remain as your servants, we shall trust to you and to Mr. Smith that neither one of you by look or word or gesture would ever convey to anybody the slightest hint that I and my friends are not exactly what we appear to be Ц your household servants."
"Thusis," said I, "what the deuce are you up to?"
"What am I up to?" She laughed outright: Ц "Let me see! First Ц " counting on her fingers, "I am trying to find a way to live up to my ideals; second, I am going to try to bring happiness to many, many people; third, I am prepared to sacrifice myself, my friends, my nearest and dearest." Е She lifted her clear eyes: "I am quite ready to sacrifice you, too," she said.
I smiled: "That would cost you very little," I said.
There was another short silence. The girl looked at me with a curious intentness as though mentally appraising me Ц trying to establish in her mind any value I might represent to her Ц if any.
"It's like an innocent bystander being hit by a bullet in a revolution," she murmured: "it's a pity: but it is unavoidable, sometimes."
"I represent this theoretical and innocent bystander?"
"I'm afraid you do, Mr. O'Ryan; the chances are that you'll get hurt."
A perfectly inexplicable but agreeable tingling sensation began to invade me, amounting almost to exhilaration. Was it the Irish in me, subtly stirred, by the chance of a riot? Was it a possible opportunity to heave a brick, impartially and with Milesian enthusiasm?
"Thusis," said I, "there is only one question I must ask you to answer."
"I know what it is."
"You are going to remind me that, to-day, the whole world is divided into two parts; that the greatest war of all times is being waged between the forces of light and of darkness. And you are going to ask me where I stand."
The girl rose; so did I. Then she stepped forward, took my right hand and rested her other upon it.
"I stand for light, for the world's freedom, for the liberties of the weaker, for the self-determination of all peoples. I stand for their right to the pursuit of happiness. I stand for the downfall of all tyranny Ц the tyranny of the mob as well as the tyranny of all autocrats. That is where I stand, Mr. O'RyanЕ Where do you stand?"
She dropped my hand with an excited little laugh:
"I was certain of that. In Berne I learned all about you. I took no chances in coming here. I took none in being frank with you." She began to laugh again, mischievously: "Perhaps I took chances in being impertinent to you. There is a dreadful and common vein of frivolity in me. I'm a little reckless, too. I adore absurd situations, and the circumstances Ц when you unwillingly discovered that I was attractive Ц appealed to me irresistibly. And I am afraid I was silly enough Ц common enough Ц malicious enough to thoroughly enjoy itЕ But," she added na?vely, "you gave me rather a good scare when you threatened to kiss me."
"I'm glad of that," said I with satisfaction.
"Of course," she remarked, "that would have been the climax of absurdity."
"Fancy such a nice young man kissing his cook in the cellar."
"That isn't what you meant."
"Isn't it?" she asked airily.
"What did I mean then, Mr. O'Ryan?"
"I don't know," said I thoughtfully.
She gave me one of her smiling but searching looks, in which there seemed a hint of apprehension. Then, apparently satisfied by her scrutiny, she favored me with a bewitching smile in which I thought to detect a slight trace of relief.
"You will keep me, then?" she asked.
She stretched out her beautiful hand impulsively: I took it.
"Thanks Ц and good-by," she said a trifle gravely, Then, with a shadow of the smile still lingering: "Good-by: because, from now on, it is to be master and servant. We must both remember that."
I was silent.
"You will remember, won't you?" she said Ц the laughter flashed in her eyes: Ц "especially if we ever happen to be in the cellar together?"
I said, forcing a smile and my voice not quite steady: "Suppose we finish that scene, now, Thusis?"
"Good heavens!" she said: Ц "and the Admiral watching us!" She drew her hand from mine and pointed at the picture over my mantel.
"I'm afraid of that man," she said. "The cellar is less terrifying Ц "
But she laughed and slipped through the door. "Good-by, Don Michael!" she called back softly from the stairs.
I walked back slowly to the center of my room and for a long time I stood there quite motionless, staring fixedly at the Admiral.