Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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Now and again I was conscious of a leisurely sideways glance from her as though indifferently marking my continued but quite uninteresting existence in the landscape.

When we came to the wooden bridge she rested both hands on the rail and looked down at the limpid greenish pool. But her gaze seemed serious and remote, and I became quite sure she was not thinking about trout.

However, I rigged up her rod for her and was preparing to impale a worm upon her hook when she noticed what I was about and remarked that she preferred an artificial fly.

"That one," she added, coming up beside me and looking over my shoulder at the open fly-book in my hand.

So, that matter settled, we took the leafy path which ran through ferns along the northern bank of the stream.

VII
CONSERVATION AND CONVERSATION

Thusis hooked the first trout. It made a prodigious swirl in the pool and rushed to and fro in the shadowy depths – a slim, frantic phantom lacing the crystalline water with flashes of pallid fire.

She drew in the trout splashing and spattering in all its rainbow glory, and I thankfully thumped it into Nirvana and placed it upon a catafalque of wet green moss in my basket. Thusis looked on calmly while I performed the drudgery of the episode, and I heard her singing carelessly to herself:

 
"The old gods have gone away;
I follow them with feet astray,
But in my heart I'll faithful be
To Tenedos and Naxos!"
 

"There seems to be a dryad or two left," said I, looking up over my shoulder where I squatted by the brookside, scrubbing my hands in the under-water gravel.

"You mean me," she nodded absently, loosening and freeing her leader and line.

"I sure do, Thusis."

"You're so funny," she said in the same tranquil, detached voice, as though she were some young chatelaine and I her gillie.

We went on to the next pool where the green crystal water gushed in and spread out calmly through the woodland, reflecting every fern and tree.

The silken whistle of her cast made a pretty whispering sound in the mossy silence, and I watched her where she stood slim and straight as a silvery sapling searching the far still reaches of the water with the tiny tuft of tinseled feathers until the surface of the placid pool was shattered into liquid splinters by the splash of a trout, and her line vibrated and hummed like a taut violin string.

Like lightning the convulsive battle was joined there in the woodland depths and the girl, all fire and grace, swayed like a willow under the furious rhythmic rushes of the unseen fish.

Click-click went her reel, and the feathery whirr of the line accented the silence. Then that living opalescent thing sprang quivering out of its element, and fell back, conquered, in a shower of opal rain.

Toward noon we came to a pool into which poured the stream with a golden sound between two boulders mantled thick with moss.

And here Thusis seated herself and laid aside her rod.

"I am hungry," she said, looking over her shoulder at me with the same aloof composure that all the morning had reversed our r?les as master and maid.

But even as she spoke she seemed to realize the actual situation: a delicate color came into her cheeks and then she laughed.

"Isn't it funny?" she said, springing to her feet. "Such presumption! Pray condescend to unsling the basket and I shall give Don Michael his lunch."

"Don Michael," said I, "will continue to do the dirty work on this expedition. Sit down, Thusis."

"Oh, I couldn't permit – "

"Oh, yes, you could. You've been behaving like a sporting duchess all this morning. Continue in that congenial r?le."

"What did you say?" she demanded, her gray eyes frosty and intent on me.

"I said you've been behaving like a duchess."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because it's so."

She sat on her mossy throne, regarding me intently and unsmilingly.

"Don't say that again, – please," she said, coldly.

"I was merely jesting."

"I know. But please don't say it in that way. Don't use that expression."

"Very well," said I, not relishing the snub. And I laid out the lunch in silence, during which operation I could feel Thusis was watching my sulky features with amusement.

To make sure I looked up at her when I had finished, and caught the little devils laughing at me out of both her eyes.

"Luncheon's ready," said I, infuriated by her mockery.

"Monsieur is served," said Thusis, in a voice so diabolically meek that I burst out laughing; and the girl, as though flinging discretion to the summer breezes, leaped to her feet with a gay little echo of my laughter and dropped down on the moss beside the woodland banquet.

"What do I care after all!" she said. "From the beginning I've been at no pains to deceive you. So in the name of the old gods let us break bread together."

She picked up a bit of bread, sprinkled a pinch of salt on it, broke it, and offered me half with a most adorable air. And we ate together under the inviolate roof of the high blue sky.

"Now," she said, "you'll never betray me."

"You knew that in the beginning."

"Did I? I don't know. I've been perfectly careless concerning you, Don Michael."

"Was it from instinctive confidence, Thusis, or out of disdain?"

The girl laughed, not looking up but continuing to poke for olives with a fork too large for the neck of the flask:

"Disdain you, Don Michael? How could I?"

"I sometimes believe you do. You behave very often as though I were a detail of the surrounding landscape and quite as negligible."

"But it's an attractive landscape and not negligible," she insisted, still poking for elusive olives. "Your simile is at fault, Monsieur O'Ryan."

"Thusis," said I, gravely consuming a sandwich, "you have made fun of me ever since I laid eyes on you."

"You began it."

"How?"

"You made fun of my red hair."

"It is beautiful hair."

"Indeed?"

"You know it. You know perfectly well how pretty you are."

"Se?or!"

"In fact," said I, offering myself another sandwich, "you are unusually ornamental. I concede it. I even admit that you resemble The Laughing Girl."

"The cherished photograph on Monsieur's dresser! Oh, that is too much flattery. What would the Admiral think to hear you say such things to your housekeeper! Don Michael, you are young and you are headed for trouble. I beg of you to remember your ancestors."

"How about yours, Thusis?"

"Mine? Oh, they were poor Venetians. Probably they ran gondolas for the public – the taxis of those days, Don Michael – and lived on the tips they received."

"Thusis?"

"Monsieur?"

"I'd be grateful for a tip – if you don't mind."

"A tip?"

"Yes. Just a little one."

The girl held out her glass and I filled it with cool Moselle.

"You're such a nice boy," she said, and sipped her wine, looking at me all the while. She was so pretty that it hurt.

"A tip," she repeated musingly. "That is the Anglo-Saxon slang for information. Is it then that you request information?"

"If you are willing."

"About what, pray?"

"About yourself, Thusis."

"That is unworthy curiosity."

"No, it isn't curiosity."

She elevated her delicate nose, very slightly. "What, then, do you term it, Don Michael?"

"Sympathy."

"Oh la! Sympathy? Oh, I know that kind. It is born out of the idleness of speculation and developed with an admixture of sentimental curiosity always latent in men."

She laughed: "It's nothing but emotion, Monsieur. Men call it budding friendship. But men really care for no women."

"Why do you say that?"

"It's true. Men seek friendship among men. Men like few or no women, but almost any female. That is the real truth. Why dodge it?"

"How old are you, Thusis?"

"Not old – as you mean it."

She had finished her luncheon, and now she leaned over and bathed her lips and fingers in the icy stream. There, like some young woodland thing out of the golden age of vanished gods she hovered, playing at the glimmering water's edge, scooping up handfuls of golden gravel from the bottom and letting them slide back through her dripping fingers.

"I'll tell you this," she said, looking at the water: "I don't like men. I never did. Any I might have been inclined to like I had already been born to hate… You don't understand, do you?"

"No."

She smiled, sat erect, and dried her fingers on her handkerchief.

"Be flattered," she said. "No other man before you has had even a glimpse of my real self. And I really don't know why I've given you that much. I ask myself. I don't know… But," – and her sweet, reckless laughter flashed – "the very devil seemed to possess me when I first saw you, Don Michael. I was amazingly careless. But you were so funny! I was indiscreet. But you were so solemn and so typically and guilelessly masculine."

"Was I?" said I, getting redder and redder.

"Oh, yes!" she cried, "and you are still! You are all man – the most comprehensive type of your sex – the most logical, and the most delightfully transparent! Oh, you are funny, Don Michael. You don't know it; you don't suspect it; but you are! And that is why I read you to the depths of your nice boyish mind and heart, and felt that I need be at no pains to play my little r?le with you."

"Then," said I, "if you consider me harmless, why not trust me further?"

"I do trust you. You know I'm not born a servant. You know, also, that nevertheless I'm in service. So is my sister. So is my friend, Josephine Vannis. So is my friend, Raoul Despres. Well, then! It seems to me that I have trusted you, and that you know a great deal about us all."

"That is not very much to know," said I, so na?vely that Thusis showered the woods with her delicious laughter.

"Of course it isn't much, Don Michael. But just think how you can amuse yourself in dull moments by trying to guess the rest!"

"I can't imagine," said I, "what your object may be in taking service here in this little lonely valley in the Swiss Alps. If, as seems probable, you all are agents of some power now at war – what on earth is the use of coming here?"

Thusis smiled at me, then, resting on one arm, leaned over the cloth on the moss and made me a little signal to incline one ear toward her. When I did so she placed her lips close to my ear:

"You have promised always to treat us like your servants in the presence of others. Do you remember?"

I nodded.

"Then I ask no more of you than that, Don Michael… Until your country enters the war."

Her breath close to my ear – the girl's nearness, and the sweet, fresh youth of her, all were doing the business for me.

"Thusis?"

"Yes?"

"Lean nearer. I want to whisper to you."

She inclined her dainty head: the fragrance of her hair interfered with my articulation:

"My country," said I, "is not likely to go to war… But I am."

She said, smilingly: "The fine army of Chile is organized and disciplined on the German plan. Doubtless this fact, and the influence of German drill-masters, prejudices many Chileans in favor of entering this war."

I placed my lips close to her little ear:

"Don't be silly," I whispered.

At that she straightened up with a breathless little laugh and sat looking at me.

"You knew where I stood," said I. "Why practice deception?"

"Yes," said she, "you are practically Yankee."

"So is that Viking, Smith."

"I know. And the Yankees are at war."

"They are, God bless them."

"God bless them," she said; and her face grew very still and serious.

After a silence: "There is a common ground," she said, "on which we both may stand. And that is no-man's land. To redeem it I am long since enlisted in the crusade… Your heart, Monsieur, is enlisted too… I knew that… Else I had never trusted you."

"How did you know?"

She shrugged: "Long ago we had all necessary information concerning you and your Viking friend. Yet for all that it was not prudent for me to so carelessly reveal myself to you… But when I saw you – " she laughed mischievously – "as I have admitted, already, you inspired me to indiscreet behavior. And I didn't resist – knowing you to be safe."

"Safe?"

"Certainly. And so I permitted myself to relax – a little."

"In the cellar?"

"Yes… And I nearly paid for it, didn't I?"

"I ought to have kissed you," said I with sulky conviction.

"Do you think so?"

"I'm sorry I didn't."

"I'm sorry, too." She sprang to her feet, laughing and scared: "Wait! Listen. I'm sorry only because it was the only moment that ever could have happened in my life when I might have submitted to that simple and bourgeoise experience known as being kissed. Now it can never happen again, Don Michael. And I shall journey, unsaluted, to my virgin tomb."

She lifted her gray eyes sparkling with malice:

"Because a young man was too timid to offer me the curious and unique experience of being kissed, I must expire, eventually, in total ignorance of that interesting process."

Her face changed subtly as I started to my feet, and something in the beautiful altered features halted me.

After a moment's silence: "It's perfectly rotten of me," she said slowly. "But you, also, seem to realize that it can't happen."

"You mean it can't happen without forfeiting your friendship, Thusis?"

"Without incurring my hatred," she said in a curiously still voice, her eyes as cold as grayest ice. "Do it, if you like," she added. "I deserve it. But I shall hate myself and detest you… Is it worth it? Seriously, Mr. O'Ryan, is your revenge worth my deepest enmity?"

I shrugged. "Thusis," said I pleasantly, "you take yourself very seriously. Don't you?"

"Don't you!" she demanded, flushing.

"I'm sorry, but I really can't." And I lighted a cigarette and picked up my fishing-rod.

"You ask me," I continued, switching my flies out over the water, "whether the possibly interesting operation of kissing you would be worth your cataclysmic resentment. How can I guess? It might not even be worth the effort involved – on my part. To be frank, Thusis, I'm not at all convinced that you'd be worth kissing."

"Is that your opinion?" inquired the girl, nibbling at her under lip and regarding me out of eyes that darkled and sparkled with something or other I could not quite define.

"That is my opinion," said I pleasantly. "Besides, I have a photograph on my dresser which if chastely and respectfully saluted, would, no doubt, prove quite as responsive to a casual caress as would you. And without any disagreeable results."

"Do you do that?" she asked, coloring brightly to the temples, her teeth still busy with her lip.

"I don't always make a practice of doing it."

"Have you ever done it?"

"I haven't happened to."

"Do you intend to?"

"What's the matter with you, Thusis?" I retorted impatiently. "Does it concern you what I do to that picture?"

"Yes, it does," she retorted, turning deeply pink.

"In what way?"

"You say the photograph of the Laughing Girl resembles me. And if you are under that impression I do not wish you to take liberties with it. You have no right to – to kiss a picture because you think it looks like – like somebody you don't dare kiss!"

Her flushed audacity was irritating me.

"Don't dare kiss you?" I repeated, switching my rod about in my increasing exasperation. "You'd better not repeat that, Thusis!"

Her flushed features quivered, then suddenly her eyes were full of little devils all mocking me.

"I do repeat it," she said. "You dare not!"

At the same instant my hook caught in a branch; I gave it a furious jerk; crack! – my rod broke at the second joint. And the clear laughter of Thusis rang out uncontrolled.

"Alas," said she, "this nice young man is violently offended at something or other."

An unfeigned damn escaped me.

"Mea culpa!" she exclaimed, breathless with laughter. "Mea maxima culpa! This exceedingly nice young man is dreadfully offended."

Mad all through, I picked up the wreck of my rod and stood silent, mechanically fitting together the splintered ends of the second joint. Presently I was aware that she had come up behind me.

"I'm a beast," she said in a small, weak voice.

I said nothing.

"Are you very angry, Don Michael?" – sorrowful but subtly persuasive.

"I've ruined this rod," said I.

"You may take mine," humbly sweet.

But I feared her gifts and her contrition.

A light breath – a ghost of a sigh escaped her.

"I'm such a beast," she said… "But I've never before taken the trouble to be beastly to a man – if that flatters you at all, Don Michael."

"It does not," said I, coolly.

"It should," she retorted.

"Do you know what I think?" said I, turning, after the manner of other worms.

"What?"

"I think you overestimate your own importance. And that you'd be far more attractive if you were not too bally busy thinking about yourself every minute."

"If that is your opinion," she said, "we had better go home at once."

We went, in solemn silence.

VIII
THE KNEES OF THE GODS

The afternoon was growing very warm. Smith had stretched himself out on his bed to read a novel and combat flies. Occasionally he called out to me demanding to know how soon we were going to have tea by the fountain.

Which incessantly reiterated question put me out of humor – for I was writing another poem – and presently I got up, cursed him out, and slammed the door.

Recently something – whatever it was – had driven me pell-mell toward Parnassus.

As a matter of record, until I had purchased that photograph of The Laughing Girl, I had never before written a poem or attempted to write one, or even considered such an enterprise.

Nor had I most remotely suspected myself capable of producing poetry. Neither had I, hitherto, desired to so express my thoughts and private emotions. Of what serious people call the "Urge" I had, hitherto, been ignorant.

But since the photograph of The Laughing Girl had come into my possession, hidden springs totally unsuspected had begun to gush and bubble somewhere deep within me. And, to my pleased astonishment, I suddenly found myself not only endowed with the desire but also with the ability to rhyme.

And now on this warm, quiet, flyful afternoon, and still considerably upset over my morning on the trout stream with Thusis, I found myself at my table, abandoning myself to an orgy of self-expression in verse.

Having slammed the door I now returned to my poem; and first I carefully re-read as much of it as I had accomplished:

To THUSIS
I
 
Slender girl with eyes of gray —
Charming mystery called Thusis —
Teach me all your lore, I pray! —
How your loveliness seduces —
How each dimple has its uses
Leading men like me astray!
 
II
 
You display in gay array
Deadly charms, without excuses;
Are they fashioned to betray
Hearts unwary, naughty Thusis?
Are your russet hairs but nooses
To ensnare some soul distrait?
 
III
 
Love's a tyrant, sages say;
What he chains he never looses,
Making slaves of grave and gay,
Dashing blades and gray recluses,
Snaring with a thousand ruses
One and all, alackaday!
 
ENVOI
 
Cupid's sway the very deuce is!
His caprices and abuses
All endure and all obey.
Laugh away my pretty Thusis
He'll get you some summer day!
 

I re-read the Envoi with satisfaction born of the pride of prophecy. Also, no doubt, some slight personal bitterness gave an agreeable tang to the couplets.

"Clever, – very clever," said I, dotting a few i's and crossing several t's. And, feeling better, I laid away the poem and began to walk up and down the room exhilarated by my own genius.

"When a man," said I, "can turn out such verses" – I snapped my fingers – "just like that! – he is in little danger of any sentimental subjugation."

As I turned, my glance chanced to fall on The Laughing Girl, and, for the first time, I thought I noticed a faint and delicate malice in her laughing eyes.

"Good heavens," said I to myself, "how vividly she resembles Thusis!"

Oddly enough as I continued to walk to and fro in my room I began to feel a trifle less gay, less confident regarding my prophetic poem depicting the sentimental fate of Thusis.

"She's really very lovely," thought I, "and three-quarters devil. She'll do mischief to man, yet. Probably she's already done a good deal to some poor young man… Poor simpleton! … Unhappy simp!"

I walked over and looked fixedly at The Laughing Girl.

"Poor simp," I murmured mechanically, not meaning anybody in particular. But as I said it I lifted my absent and troubled eyes, and beheld my own reflection in the mirror. It shocked me. Never had I believed myself capable of a simper. And by heaven I wore one now – a moon-eyed sentimental simper upon my virgin features.

"Confound it!" said I furiously, "why should I look like that? What's the matter with my face?"

Very deep somewhere within me, in a still and serene obscurity so far unagitated and un-plumbed, something stirred.

"I – I'm not in d-danger of f-falling in love," said I in a scared voice. "Am I?"

Something was the matter with my heart. It had become irregular and seemed frightened.

"If for one moment I supposed," said I, "that I were actually in the slightest danger of – of – "

I looked at the Laughing Girl; looked away. And went to a chair and sat down.

After a long interval I gave tongue to my inmost convictions. "It isn't done," said I. "Fancy! Ha-ha!"

But my laughter was a failure.

I looked up at the Admiral to steady myself. I had never before considered his features sardonic. He seemed to grin.



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