Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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"If I weren't neutral," said I, "I'd not be afraid of admitting it to a New York Viking."

That put him out on first. I enjoyed his silence for a while, then I said: "Come on, old top, sing us some more Norse sagas about 'My girl's a corker.'"

"Can it!" retorted that typical product of Christiania.

So with quip and retort and persiflage veiled and more or less merry, we strolled about in the beautiful early summer weather.

"Why the devil don't you find Thusis and take another lesson in angling?" he suggested.

"Because, dear friend, Thusis hitched up our horse and went to Zurich this morning."

"What? When?"

"Ere the earliest dicky-bird had caroled – ere Aurora had wiped night's messy cobwebs from the skies with rosy fingers."

"What did she go for? – that is, what did she say she was going for?"

"To purchase various household necessaries. Why?"

"She's a funny girl," he remarked evasively.

"Yes?"

"Rather."

"In what humorous particular do you hand it so generously to Thusis?" I inquired.

"Oh, you know well enough she's odd. You can't explain her. She's no peasant, and you know it. She's not Swiss, either. I don't know what she is. I don't know quite what she's doing here. Sometimes she reminds me of a runaway school girl: sometimes of the humorless, pep-less prude who usually figures as heroine in a best seller. And sometimes she acts like a vixen! … I didn't tell you," he added, "but I was amiable enough to try to kiss her that first evening. I don't know where you were – but you can take it from me, O'Ryan, I thought I'd caught hold of the original vestal virgin and that my hour had come for the lions!"

"You beast," said I, not recollecting my own behavior in the cellar. "What did she say?"

"She didn't say anything. She merely looked it. I've been horribly afraid she'd tell her sister," he added na?vely.

"Smith," I said, laying an earnest hand on his arm, "you mustn't frivol with my household. I won't stand for it. I admit that my household is an unusual one. Frankly, I have no more idea than you have that Thusis and Clelia are real servants, or why they choose to take service here with me. Probably they're political agents. I don't care. But you and I mustn't interfere with them, first, because it disorganizes my m?nage; second, because I believe they're really nice girls."

"I think so, too," he said.

"Well, then, if they are, we don't want to forget it. And also we must remember that probably they are political agents of some country now engaged in this war, and it won't do for us to become involved."

"How involved?"

"Well, suppose I took Thusis more or less seriously?"

"Do you?"

"I didn't say I did. I said suppose I do? Who is she? With all her dainty personality and undoubted marks of birth and breeding – with the irrefutable evidence of manner and speech and presence – with all these ear-marks by which both she and Clelia seem plainly labeled —who is Thusis?"

"I don't know," he said soberly.

"Nor I.

And yet it is apparent that she has taken no pains to play the part of a peasant or of a servant for our benefit. Evidently she doesn't care – for I venture to believe she's a good actress in addition to the rest of her ungodly cleverness.

"But she seems to think it immaterial as to whether or not you and I wonder who she may be. Mentally, Thusis snaps her fingers at us, Smith. So does Clelia."

"Clelia is gentler – more girlish and immature," he said, "but she makes no bones about having been in better circumstances. She's sweet but she's no weakling. My curiosity amuses her and she pokes a lot of fun at me."

"Doesn't she tell you anything? Doesn't she give you any hint?"

"No, she doesn't. She's friendly – willing to stop dusting and exchange a little innocent banter with me… Do you know, O'Ryan, I never before saw such a pretty girl. She's only eighteen. Did you know it?"

"No, I didn't."

"And Thusis is twenty."

I thought deeply for a while, then:

"We'd better keep away from them except when business requires an interview," I concluded.

"Why," he pointed out in annoyance, "that leaves me out entirely."

"Of course. I shall not think of Thusis at all except on terms of business. That's the safe idea, Smith, business, – strictly business. It neutralizes everything; it's a wet blanket on folly; it paralyzes friskiness; it slays sentiment in its tracks. Become a business man. Engage in some useful occupation. Suppose, for example, I pay you a franc a week to feed my chickens."

"I've plenty to do, I tell you."

"Then do it, old top, and steer shy of that little blue-eyed parlor maid of mine."

He made no answer. We prowled about until nearly lunch-time. But the odd thing was that I had lost my appetite. It may have happened because I'd begun to worry a little about Thusis.

What the deuce had that girl been doing in Zurich all this while? She was too attractive to go about that seething city alone with market-cart and horse. Some fresh young officer —

"Smith?"

He looked up, mildly surprised at my vehemence.

"Where the devil do you suppose Thusis is?" I asked.

"In Zurich, isn't she?"

"Yes, but she's been gone a long time and she ought to be back."

"Probably," he said, "she's gallivanting with some handsome young fellow along the Lake promenade. Possibly she's lunching at the Baur-au-Lac with some fascinating lieutenant. Or maybe they've strolled over to the Caf? de la Terrasse or to Rupps; or," he went on as though interested in his irritating speculations, "it may be that Thusis has gone out in a motor launch with some sprightly cavalier; or she may be at the Tonhalle, or at Belvoir Park."

"No doubt," said I, exasperated. "You needn't speculate further."

"Business over, why shouldn't Thusis kick up her pretty heels a bit?" he inquired.

"Because Thusis isn't that sort."

"How do you know that she isn't that sort?"

I didn't, and his question made me the madder.

"Luncheon ought to be ready," he reminded me presently. I could actually hear the grin in his voice.

"All right," said I. "I'm hungry." Which was a lie. Then, as we turned toward the house, Thusis drove into the yard.

Blue ribbons fluttered from her whip, from the fat horse's head-stall, from his braided tail. There were bows of blue ribbon on her peasant's apron, too, which danced saucily in the wind. I went over to aid her descend from the cart, but she laughed and jumped out with a flash of white stockings and blue garters.

"I've been wondering," said I, "why you were so long."

"Were you worried?"

The demurely malicious glance she flung at me became a laugh. She turned to Smith:

"Did he think somebody might kidnap his young and silly housekeeper?" she inquired. "Pas de chance! I am horridly wise!" – she touched her forehead with the tip of one finger – "and a thousand years old!" – she laid one hand lightly over her heart. And turned to me. "I am a thousand years of age," she repeated, smiling. "Such as I are not kidnapped, Monsieur O'Ryan. Au contraire. I myself am far more likely to kidnap – "

She looked Smith gaily in the eye " – some agreeable young man – some day." And very slowly her gray eyes included me.

Then she tossed the reins to Raoul who had come up beside the cart:

"A protean moment," she said to me, "and I shall reappear as a very presentable waitress to wait upon you at luncheon."

And off went this amazing housekeeper of mine dancing lightly away across the grass with the buckles on her little peasant slippers twinkling and every blue ribbon a-flutter.

I turned and looked at Raoul. He returned my gaze with an odd smile.

"Of what," said I, "are you thinking?"

"I was thinking," he replied seriously, "that the world is a very droll place, – agreeable for the gay, but hell for those born without a sense of humor."

VI
MASTER AND MAID

I had become tired of following Smith about and of trying to keep an eye on Clelia. The little minx was so demure that it seemed difficult to believe she deliberately offered Smith opportunities for philandering. Otherwise my household caused me no anxiety; everything went smoothly. Thusis waited on table and ran the place, Josephine Vannis cooked to perfection, Raoul had started a garden and the bottling works; and no tourists had bothered us by interrupting the r?gime and demanding food and shelter.

Outwardly ours was a serene and emotionless life, undisturbed by that bloody frenzy which agitated the greater surface of the globe.

Here in the sunny silence of our little valley ringed by snow peaks, the soft thunder of some far avalanche or the distant tinkle of cow-bells were the loudest interruptions that startled us from the peaceful inertia consequent upon good food and idle hours.

Outwardly as I say, calm brooded all about us. True the Zurich and Berne newspapers stirred me up, and the weekly packages of New York papers which Smith and I received caused a tense silence in our rooms whither we always retired to read them.

Smith once remarked that it was odd I never received any Chilean papers. To which I replied that it seemed queer no Norwegian newspapers came to him.

We let it rest there. As for my household I never saw Josephine Vannis at all except by accident in the early evening when I sometimes noticed her in the distance strolling with Raoul.

On Clelia, I kept an unquiet eye as I have said. Thusis I saw only on strictly business interviews. And Smith thought it strange that there was so much business to be discussed between us. But every day I felt it my duty to go over my household accounts with Thusis, checking up every item. In these daily conferences there were, of course, all sorts of matters to consider, such as the farm and dairy reports from Raoul, the bottling reports, daily sales of eggs, butter, and bottled spring-water – a cart arriving from Zurich every morning to take away these surplus items to the Grand Hotel, Baur-au-Lac, with which Thusis had made a thrifty contract.

This was a very delightful part of the day to me, – the hour devoted to business with Thusis, while Smith fumed in his room. Possibly Clelia fumed with him – I was afraid of that – and it was the only rift in the lute.

Every morning I tried to prolong that business interview with Thusis, – she looked so distractingly pretty in her peasant garb. But though her gray eyes were ever on duty and her winning smile flashed now and then across the frontier of laughter, always and almost with malice, she held me to the matter of business under discussion, discouraging all diversions I made toward other topics, refusing to accompany me on gay excursions into personalities, resisting any approach toward that little spot of unconventional ground upon which we had once stood face to face.

For since that time when, for hours afterward, my hand remained conscious of her soft, cool hand's light contact – since that curious compact between us which had settled her status, and my own, here under this common roof above us, she had permitted no lighter conversation to interrupt our business conferences, no other subject to intrude. Only now and then I caught a glimpse of tiny devils dancing in her gray eyes; only at long intervals was the promise of the upcurled corners of her mouth made good by the swift, sweet laughter always hidden there.

There was no use attempting any less impersonal footing any more; Thusis simply evaded it, remaining either purposely dull and irresponsive or, gathering up her accounts, she would rise, curtsey, and back out with a gravity of features and demeanor that her mocking eyes denied.

Once, as I have said, I discovered a fishing rod in the attic, dug some worms, and started out upon conservation bent. And encountering Thusis digging dandelions for salad behind the garden, explained to her my attire and implements. As it was strictly a matter of business she consented to go with me as far as the brook. There, by the bridge in the first pool, she caught the first trout. And, having showed me how, retreated, resolutely repelling all suggestions that she take a morning off, and defying me with a gaiety that made her eyes brilliant with delighted malice.

"It was my duty to show you how Swiss trout are caught," she called back to me, always retreating down the leafy path – "but when you propose a pleasure party to your housekeeper – oh, Don Michael, you betray low tastes and I am amazed at you and I beg you most earnestly to remember the Admiral."

Whereupon I was stung into action and foolish enough to suppose I could overtake her. Where she vanished I don't know. There was not a sound in the wood. I was ass enough to call – even to appeal in a voice so sentimental that I blush to remember it now.

And at last, discomfited and sulky, I went back to my fishing. But hers remained the only trout in my basket. Smith and I ate it, baked with parsley, for luncheon, between intermittent inquiries from Smith regarding the fewness of the catch.

And now, it appeared, somebody had already told him that Thusis and I had gone fishing together that day. Who the devil had revealed that fact? Clelia, no doubt, – having been informed by Thusis. And no doubt Thusis had held me up to ridicule.

So now, at the hour when our daily business conference approached, instead of seating myself as usual at the table in my sitting-room, I took my fishing-rod, creel, a musty and water-warped leather fly-book, and went into Smith's room.

"Suppose we go fishing," I suggested, knowing he'd refuse on the chance of a t?te-?-t?te with Clelia the minute I was out of sight.

He began to explain that he had letters to write, and I laughed in derision and sent my regards to all the folks in dear old Norway.

"Go to the deuce," said I. "Flirt with my chamber-maid if you want to, but Thusis will take your head off – "

"Isn't she going with you?"

" – When she returns," I continued, vexed and red at his impudent conclusion. It was perfectly true that I meant to take Thusis fishing, but it was not Smith's business to guess my intentions.

"You annoy me," I added, passing him with a scowl. At which he merely grinned.

In the hallway I encountered Clelia in cap and apron, very diligent with her duster.

"Clelia," said I pleasantly, "has Raoul brought the mail?"

"Yes, Monsieur."

"Where is it?"

"There was only a bill from the Grand Hotel for cartage."

"What!" said I in pretense of dismay, "no letter yet from Mr. Smith's wife? And seven of his children down with whooping-cough!"

"W-wife!" stammered Clelia, her blue eyes becoming enormous. "S-seven children!"

"Seven in Christiania," I explained sadly, "the other eleven at school near Bergen. Poor fellow. His suspense must be dreadful."

I'm no actor; I saw immediately in Clelia's face that I had overplayed my part as well as the total of Smith's progeny, for the color came swiftly back and she shot at me a glance anything but demure.

"The other eleven," I explained, "were by his first three wives."

Clelia, dusting furiously, looked around at me over her shoulder.

"At least," she said, "he's done his duty by his country."

"W-what!" I stammered.

"The population of Norway is so very small," she added gaily. And went on with her dusting.

"Minx," thought I to myself as I marched down stairs and out toward the fountain where, from the servants' wing of the chalet Thusis could not fail to observe me. And she did. She appeared, presently, account books under one arm. Out of the subtle corner of my subtlest eye – the left one – I observed her. And with surpassing cunning I selected a yellow fly from the battered book and tied it on my leader.

"Monsieur!"

"Good-morning, Thusis. We're going fishing. So if you'll ask Josephine to put up some war lunch for us – "

"Has Monsieur forgotten his daily business interview?" she inquired smilingly.

"Not at all. But we're going to conserve time as well as food, Thusis. We can fish and consult at the same time."

"But – "

"All waste must cease," I said firmly. "We mustn't waste even a minute in the day. And if we can do two things at the same time it is our economic duty to do them." I smiled at her. "I shall dig worms," said I, "for two, while you prepare lunch for two. That is a wonderful way of economizing time and labor, isn't it, Thusis?"

She smiled, bit her lip, as though regretting an indiscretion, looked up at the cloudless sky, let her gray eyes wander from one snowy peak to the next, glanced almost insolently at me, then smiled with that delicious impulse characteristic of her.

"You know you have no business to take me fishing," she said. "Your cleverness is not Machiavellian; it is Michael-valian. It doesn't deceive me for one moment, Se?or Michael!"

I laughed, picked up a stable-fork that stood against the cow-barn:

"Worms for two; luncheon for two," said I.

"I don't like that juxtaposition!" she protested. "Do you really wish me to go with you? Why won't you sit here on the edge of the pool and go over these accounts?"

"Conservation of time and energy forbid doing one thing when two things can be accomplished at the – "

"You are absurd!"

I went over to the barnyard and began to dig.

"Hasten, Thusis," I called to her. "I'll be ready in ten minutes."

"I've a good mind not to go," she said.

"You've a good mind," said I, disinterring a fine fat worm.

"I have a mind, anyway, and it counsels me not to go fishing with you, Don Michael."

"Argue with it," said I. "It's a reasonable mind, Thusis, and is open to conviction. Prove to it that you ought to go fishing."

"Don Michael, you are ridiculous."

"Let it be a modest lunch," said I, "nourishing and sufficient. But not a feast, Thusis. Don't put in any wreaths of roses, or any tambourines. But you can stick a fry-pan into the basket, with a little lard on the side, and I'll show you how we cook trout in the woods at home."

"In Chile?"

"In the Adirondacks," said I, smiling.

I went on digging and accumulating that popular lure for trout not carried in the fly-books of expert anglers, but known to the neophyte as the "Barn-yard Hackle."

Once I glanced over my shoulder. Thusis was not there. Presently, and adroitly dissembling my anxiety by a carefully camouflaged series of sidelong squints I discovered her near the kitchen-wing of the chalet talking earnestly to Josephine.

And so it happened that, having garnered a sufficiency of Barn-yard hackles, I went to the fountain pool to wash my hands.

And when, with playful abandon, I stood drying them upon my knickerbockers, I saw Thusis emerge from the house carrying my pack-basket.

She came up rather slowly.

"Here is your lunch," she said, looking at me with an inscrutable expression suggesting amusement and annoyance in an illogical combination.

"You mean our lunch," said I.

"I mean your lunch."

"Aren't you coming, Thusis?"

I looked into the pack-basket and discovered her account books in it.

"An oversight," she said, calmly. "Give them to me."

I started to fish them out and caught sight of the package of lunch.

"Good heavens!" said I, "there is twice too much for one!"

She appeared to be greatly disturbed by the discovery.

"Josephine has made a dreadful mistake," she said. "She has put up lunch enough for two!"

"It mustn't be wasted," said I, gravely. "I'm afraid you'll have to come fishing with me after all, Thusis."

There appeared to be no other way out of it. At least neither of us suggested any other way.

"Oh, dear," she said, looking up at me, and the very devil was in her gray eyes.

Which discovery preoccupied me when she went back to the house for her hat and for another rod which she had, it seemed, discovered in the laundry, all equipped for business.

The agreeable tingle of subdued excitement permeated me as she returned with the rod but without any hat.

"I don't need one," she said, calmly, pulling out several hair pins.

And then I saw a thick mass of molten gold tumble down; and the swift white fingers of Thusis dividing it into two heavy braids – a thrilling sight – and once, in the thrall of that enchantment where I stood motionless to watch her at this lovely office, I became aware of her lifted eyes – two celestial assassins intent on doing me deep harm.

Then, still busy with her hair, she moved slowly forward across the grass beside me, silently, almost stealthily – for, in the slow and supple grace of her I seemed to divine something almost menacing to me.

Her account books and rod were in my pack-basket. She sauntered along the shadow-flecked path beside me, at first paying me scant attention, but singing carelessly to herself in a demi-voix snatches of any vagrant melody that floated through her mind.

I recognized none of them. One strange little refrain seemed to keep on recurring to her at intervals:

 
– "And Aphrodite's throat was white
As lilies opening at night
In Naxos,
In Naxos.
And red were Aphrodite's lips —
And blue her eyes and white her hips
As roses, sky, and surf that clips
The golden shore of Tenedos.
 
 
O Tenedos, my Tenedos,
Set in the purple sea!
O Naxos, my Naxos,
I hear you calling me!
The old gods have gone away;
I follow them with feet astray,
But in my heart I'll faithful be
To Tenedos and Naxos!"
 

She strolled on, singing to herself, an absent look in her starry eyes, switching idly at the leaves with some dead stalk she had picked up. And no matter what other fragments of melody occurred to her she was ever coming back to her odd little song of Naxos and of Tenedos, where flowers and sky and sea matched Aphrodite's charms.



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