Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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"W-what the devil's the matter with everything to-day!" I exclaimed, getting up and beginning to pace the room.

But there was no use blustering. I suspected what the matter was. I was falling in love with Thusis.

"Good Lord!" said I in unfeigned distress, "an adventuress camouflaged as a servant! Has an O'Ryan come to this?"

Smith opened the door. He was in his shirt sleeves and had a pipe in one hand, a book in the other.

"Whatthehellsthematter?" he asked. "You're thumping about in here like an epileptic cat."

I told him I was exercising.

"Well, you'd better exercise your legs down the stairs," he remarked; "there's a wagonful of tourists at the front door."

"The deuce there is!"

"Look out of the window and then get a wiggle on."

Sure enough! From the window I beheld them. They already were disembarking.

"Where's Thusis!" I exclaimed. "This is the limit. It's Ц it's a confounded nuisance."

"Better go below, mine host," said Smith, resuming his recumbent attitude on his bed and opening his book. He puffed at his pipe, swatted a fly with a paper-knife, and looked at me.

"Mine host," he said, "you should greet your guests on the doorstep wearing a napkin over one arm."

I turned on my heel and went out, and met Thusis in the hallway.

"What the dickens is all this?" I demanded. "Have those tourists the impudence to come here and ask for accommodations in my house?"

She seemed surprised and also I thought a trifle excited.

"But, Monsieur, was it not understood?"

"Oh, yes, of course it was understood because the idiotic Swiss law must be obeyed," said I, gnawing my lip in vexation. "What do they want Ц these tourists? Tea?"

"I think," said Thusis, "they intend to stay."

"Over-night?"

"Longer, Monsieur."

"Hang it all!" I blurted out. "That spoils our perfectly delightful privacy."

Thusis observed me sideways. She wore the fine chemisette of some sheer stuff and the velvet bodice of the peasantry, both coquettish and cut low. Her straight short wool skirt and buckled slippers set off the fascinating costume of the Canton; but no peasant ever possessed such slender and thoroughbred loveliness.

I glanced down at her slim feet, at her hands so smooth and so prettily fashioned; I looked up into her gray eyes uneasily. And I thought to myself that I'd show the door to any guest who tried any nonsense with Thusis.

"Where are these tourists?" I asked sulkily.

"In the big lounging room."

As I started to descend the stairs Thusis touched me on the arm. A tiny and complex shock went quite through me at the contact.

"Don Michael?"

"Yes."

"Are you still vexed at me?"

"No."

"Because Ц I was rude to you. I did provoke you. I did lay myself open to light treatment from you. But Ц I do respect you, Don Michael."

"You are always laughing at me."

"I know.

It's my way Ц if I like a personЕ I plague them a littleЕ If I like them."

"But you not only plague me, you ridicule me!"

"You don't understand. You couldn't understand. I myself don't understand why I laugh at you and torment youЕ Because I never before did that to a manЕ To my sister Ц to my girl friends, yes. But never before to any man."

She stood near me, smiling, watching my expression.

"I like you, Don Michael," she said.

"And I you, Thusis."

"I know it. It won't do, either. I mean that we may laugh a little together, now and then. But it is safer not to think of each other as Ц as socially Ц equal."

I said magnanimously: "I am beginning to think of you in that way already."

"Are you really?" Her smile flashed out, mischievous, almost mocking.

"A servant?" she added. "Possibly even an adventuress? An agent, anyway, in the service of some government not yours? You consider admitting such a woman on terms of social equality? Oh, Don Michael! If you like me as much as that you must care a little more for me than mere liking."

"I do."

She began to laugh Ц a hushed, delicious sort of laughter, checked suddenly by my quick flush.

"If I take the trouble to be serious with you," said I, "as much is due me from you, I think."

It was, for me, utterly impossible to define the series of complex expressions which succeeded one another in her face.

She seemed inclined to laugh again but bit her lip and looked at me out of brilliant eyes. Mirth, surprise, gay disdain, a fleeting uncertainty, a slight blush,†Ц then the familiar sweet mockery once more Ц these I read and followed as I watched her.

"Such a strange young man," I heard her murmur to herself.

"And such a strange girl, Thusis."

"I know. And you and I have no business to play together. And we can't unless we're very, very careful. We ought not to. You think so from your standpoint, and I know it from mine. And yet Ц if you will be very, very careful Ц I'll risk it Ц a little while longerЕ Because I Ц I don't know why Ц I like to laugh at you, Don MichaelЕ And I laugh at those only whom I like."

"I think," said I, "that I'm rather near to falling in love with you, Thusis."

"Oh!" she cried with her breathless, bewildering smile, "I couldn't permit you to do that!"

"Permit me?"

"No. You mustn't. That would never do! No Ц no indeed! Never! Just find me gay and frivolous and rather pretty in my way Ц just attractive enough to remain good humored when I plague you."

"If I should fall in love with you I couldn't help it."

"But it would be such a mistake. You mustn't do it. I don't wish to think about such things. It wouldn't do for me. Or for you. I mean as far as I am concerned."

"You mean you could not respond, Thusis?"

"Oh, no, I couldn't." In her hurried voice there was a faint hint of alarm, I thought.

I was falling in love. I knew it.

"Unless you take me lightly Ц unless you are willing that we play together," she said, "I couldn't talk to you, Don Michael. I may not take you seriously; nor you, me. That is essential."

"I may not p-pay court to you, Thusis?"

"Oh, that? Yes Ц in the nice way you have been doing. At least I thought you had been doing it, haven't you?"

"Yes Ц not realizing it. Yes Ц that's what I have really been doingЕ Am I not to make love to you, Thusis?"

"W-what kind of love?"

"Honest, of course."

"D-demonstrative Ц love?"

"Yes."

"Oh, no! No, not that sort. No, please." For I had taken her smooth little hand in mine, and she withdrew it swiftly.

"You know," she said, "your guests are waiting."

She laughed. Then she came up to me slowly:

"Don Michael, do you really like me?"

"Yes."

"Then Ц will you do something for me?"

"Yes."

"It is this. In the presence of these tourists remember always that I am your servant and a Swiss peasant. Never by word or glance permit them to believe otherwise. Do you promise?"

"Yes."

She smiled, laid both her hands frankly in mine.

"I'm going to tell you something," she said. "Your guests below are the ex-king Constantine of Greece, his wife, the ex-queen; Ferdinand, King of Bulgaria Ц or Tzar of all the Bulgars Ц as he loves to call himself; Ц and their several assorted shadows."

My eyes were widening at every word.

"Thusis," I said, "what nonsense are you talking?"

"Michael," she said, using my given name for the first time without some absurd prefix, "I am telling you the truth. Those are the people who, dressed like ordinary tourists, are now seated below drinking coffee and cognac and eating nice little cakes prepared by Josephine and served by my sister Clelia."

"Do you mean to say that the ex-king and queen of Greece, and King Ferdinand of Bulgaria are in Switzerland incognito?" I demanded incredulously.

"They are,†Ц that is, Ferdinand is here incognito for the first time. You know, of course, that Constantine and his queen were living in Berne since the Allies kicked them out of Greece?"

"I have heard so."

"Well, then, here they are, incognito, without servants or any outward show, dressed like any tourists, arriving in an ordinary wagon. Yes, here they are, evidently desiring to escape observation, arm in arm with him of Bulgaria. I thought I'd tell you, Michael."

There was an odd little glint in her gray eyes; an odd smile on her lips.

"What the devil are these birds doing here?" I asked, astonished.

"These allies of Germany?"

"Yes," I said, disgusted; "what do you suppose these fancy gentlemen are doing here in a little obscure inn among the Alps while all the world which they have helped to set on fire is in flames around them?"

Her firm hands pressed mine, very slightly.

"Do you feel it so keenly, Michael?"

"Feel what?"

"That these kings below have helped set the world afire?"

"Certainly I do."

She stood looking at me, her hands still resting in mine.

"And now," she mused, "the Americans are in it. But you are not a YankeeЕ Otherwise Ц "

"Otherwise what?"

"But you are a Chilean."

"I'm a human being, too. What do you want me to do, Thusis?"

"Permit me to assign them their rooms."

I said: "You are here to watch these kings. You knew they were coming. You are here to watch them in the interest of your government."

"Well, Michael?"

"Is it so?"

"Yes."

I looked at her in wonder, dismay, and deep concern.

This young girl Ц this fresh, sweet, laughing, slender little thing a spy? And yet I had vaguely supposed her to be some sort of political agent masquerading in my service for purposes occult.

But the sinister agent who lurks at the heels of suspects Ц the shadow that haunts marked men Ц the unseen, unheard presence that lingers by doors ajar, by unlighted corridors, in the shade of trees!†Ц I had not thought of Thusis in such a way.

Something of this I think she read in my eyes fixed on her, for she flushed slightly and made as though to withdraw her hands.

But, still looking at her, I lifted her hands tightly imprisoned between my own, and touched them lightly with my lips.

"Oh," she said faintly, and I felt her sudden impulsive clasp.

"You are fine, Michael," she whispered. "I ask nothing in the way of help, only that you give me my chance in this affair."

"Take it," said I. "There are those imbecile kings! Raise the devil with them if you like. And if you need help Ц "

"Michael!"

" Ц You know where to look for it," I ended. "But for goodness' sake be careful, Thusis. Not that I care about myself. The chances are that I'll enlist anyway. But they'd intern you here in Switzerland if they catch you at anything militant. And that would worry me half to death."

"Would it?"

In her laughing voice there was the vaguest hint of a softness I had never heard there.

"Yes, it would." I drew her a little toward me, but she turned grave, immediately, and we stood so in silence while her gray eyes regarded me.

Then she gently disengaged herself.

"Be nice to me. Michael, even when I don't deserve it," she said; "even when" Ц she laughed almost maliciously Ц "even when I seem to court destruction."

"Nevertheless," said I, reddening, "I shall pay court to you."

"Please do."

"And make love to you, Thusis."

"That," she said, "is not even on the knees of the gods: it is impossible."

IX
REX, REGIS Ч

As I descended the stairs to greet my unbidden guests, through my noddle ran the flippant old time sing-song of earliest schooldays Ц "Rex, Regis, Regi, Regem, Rex, Rege" Ц an ironic declension of the theoretical in contrast to the actual which I could not very well decline.

Now, as I entered the long lounging room which Smith and I had used as our living-room, I very easily recognized God's anointed, thanks to Thusis. Otherwise it never would have occurred to me that what I now beheld was a bunch of kings in camouflage.

Constantine, the ex-King of Greece, sat near a window drinking a pint of impossible Greek wine and reading one of last month's New York newspapers. The ex-Queen of Greece stood with hands linked behind her well-made back, looking out at the mountains. At another little table the Tzar of all the Bulgars loomed up majestically. He was eating coffee-cakes and drinking coffee. I could hear him.

As I entered the room they all turned their heads to look at me. And I thought I had never gazed upon anything more subtly disturbing than the Hohenzollern visage of the ex-queen. Indeed she seemed to lack only the celebrated imperial mustaches to duplicate the sullen physiognomy of her brother, the Kaiser. That family countenance of a balky horse was unmistakable; so were the coarse features of Constantine, with his face of a typical non-commissioned officer. But of all faces I had ever gazed on the fat, cunning visage of the Bulgarian Bourbon, Ferdinand, was the most false. A long thin nose split its fatness; under a pointed beard a little cruel and greasy mouth hid close, while two stealthy eyes of a wild thing watched over this unpleasant and alarming combination.

Normally these people would not have noticed me; but now, in their r?les of tourists, they recollected themselves.

When I quietly introduced myself Constantine got up, and I went over and welcomed him, bowed to his wife, and, when Ferdinand, also, concluded to get up, I greeted him with the same impeccable formality.

"So you are the fortunate Chilean gentleman who has inherited this valuable property," said the ex-queen, her hard Prussian eyes fixed intently upon me.

"Yes, madam, I am that unfortunate Mr. O'Ryan," said I smilingly. "The duties of an inn-keeper are not yet entirely familiar to me but I trust that my servants can make you comfortable."

The queen remarked indifferently that if she were not comfortable enough she'd let me know,†Ц and turned her back, paying me no further attention. Doubtless her scrutiny of me had satisfied her. Possibly the Chilean flag flying from the flag-pole in front of the house also reassured her. She gazed out at the Bec de l'Empereur, named from the august nose of her brother. Constantine's flickering glance rested on the rigid back of his spouse, shifted toward me uncertainly, but always reverted to that straight, stiff back as though in awe and unwilling fascination.

I went over to the counter and picked up the guest ledger: "May I trouble you to register in order that I may fulfill my obligations toward the Swiss police?" I said pleasantly. For none of them had so far offered me whatever noms-de-guerre had been decided upon.

At this the queen turned and said something to Constantine in a surly voice, and he got up with alacrity and swaggered over to the desk.

"M. Constantine Xenos, wine merchant, Zurich, and Madame Xenos," he wrote, his tongue in his cheek. His shifty eyes flickered toward King Ferdinand who had again become rather noisy over his coffee and cakes. Then, apparently remembering his instructions, he wrote:

"Monsieur Bugloss Itchenuff. Investments and business opportunities. Zurich."

He handed me the pen with a flourish: "There you are, Mr. O'Ryan," he said with a misleading heartiness in his barrack-room voice contradicted always by restless and furtive eyes and remarkable royal fingers which were never still Ц twitching, wandering, searching, unquiet fingers,†Ц irresolute, uncertain, timid, prying fingers not to be depended upon in emergencies, never to be trusted, even in their own pockets.

"Do you expect to remain over night, Monsieur Xenos?" I inquired, glancing at the wet signatures on the ledger, and blotting them.

"Oh, yes," he said. "This inn looks like a damn fine place to spend a few weeks in Ц doesn't it, Sophy?" appealing to his wife in the loud, familiar, bluff tone characteristic of him, and which seemed to me neither genuine nor carelessly frank, but an assumed manner covering something less confident and good humored.

The Princess of Prussia, so abruptly addressed, turned slowly from her contemplation of the Bec de l'Empereur:

"We shall remain as long as it suits us," she said coolly. "And if our suites are ready Ц "

"Rooms," corrected the King in jocular protest.

"Suites," repeated his wife sharply.

Ferdinand, gobbling his slopping coffee, wiped his wet beard:

"If there are any suites in your chalet," he said to me, "I'll take one Ц that is, if it isn't too expensive. I can't afford anything very expensive, and I'll trouble you to remember that."

He got up, continuing to wipe his greasy mouth with the back of a fat, soft hand, and came toward us,†Ц a massive man, and bulkily impressive except that his legs were too short for his heavy body, which discrepancy gave to his gait a curious duck-like waddle.

"I like plenty of privacy," he explained, "that's what I like. I want to see my rooms and I want to know in advance exactly how much they are going to cost me and what extras are not included in the Ц "

"Oh, for God's sake don't begin that hard luck history of yours," interjected Constantine in his best barrack-room manner. "Mr. O'Ryan is a gentleman and he's not going to rob you, Buggy!"

It was instantly evident to me that the Tzar of all the Bulgars did not like to be called Buggy,†Ц the familiar, affectionate and diminutive, no doubt, for his first nom-de-guerre, which was Bugloss, and was, in the Bulgarian language, pronounced Bew-gloss, not Bugg-loss.

The Queen, paying no attention to her loud-mouthed husband or to King Ferdinand, crossed the room with a firm, quick step, and examined the ledger and the indifferent penmanship of her royal husband. Then, to me:

"Be good enough to show me to my suite," she said. "My husband will occupy separate but connecting apartments."

I banged on a large, brass bell. The door opened. Thusis appeared.

Her instant and abrupt appearance had an odd effect upon these three people. They all started perceptibly. The Tzar of all the Bulgars even jumped. Then he stared at her with the intentness of a wild pig in the rutting season. And King Constantine also regarded her with a stealthy sort of pleasure discreetly screened by a mask of bluff and hearty indifference:

"Now, my good girl," he said loudly, "kindly show us to our quarters and be quick about it. And maybe you'll find a pretty silver franc in your apron pocket if you step lively! Such things have happened Ц haven't they, Sophy?"

Thusis curtsied, then I saw her beautiful gray eyes lifted slowly and fix themselves upon the coldly staring orbs of the Hohenzollern princess.

"Madame will graciously condescend to follow," she murmured. "A thousand reverent excuses that I precede the gracious lady. But it is inevitable when the humble guide the well born."

The Queen's hard, suspicious face never stirred a muscle. She leisurely inspected Thusis from head to toe, from toe to head without approval and without mercy.

"Are you the chamber maid?" she demanded coldly.

"My house-keeper and waitress, Madame," I explained. "Her name is Thusis."

The Queen stared intently at Thusis, then very insolently at me:

"Your house-keeper? Really," she said,†Ц "your house-keeper? Fancy! One might almost doubt that such a very young girl could possess sufficient domestic experience for such an important position."

I turned red; not Thusis, however; and either the vulgar innuendo had left her quite unconscious, or she coolly scorned the implication. And she merely smiled upon the Hohenzollern and awaited her Prussian pleasure.

"Come on, Sophy," said King Constantine, with a covert leer at Thusis's ankles. And they all started upstairs, King Ferdinand shuffling in the rear with the peculiarly ponderous waddle which characterizes the progress of an elephant's hind quarters.

King Constantine halted on the stairs to turn and call back to me in his noisy, unceremonious, jovial way:

"Wait a bit, O'Ryan! I forgot to say that we're expecting some friends of ours. So fix 'em up in good shape when they Ц "

"Go on, Tino!" interrupted the queen impatiently. "Don't you even know enough to keep on going when you start? And God knows," she added in her disagreeable voice, "it's hard enough to start you."

"All right, my dear," he exclaimed with his loud forced laugh. "I only wanted to rest Buggy's legs a bit."

And the anointed of the Lord resumed their shuffling progress upward at the heels of the swift, light feet of Thusis.

As for me I went out to the court where their luggage lay piled. The wagon which had brought them was gone, but Raoul stood there, his hat on one side, hands on hips, chewing a wheat-straw and gazing blandly at the pile of royal luggage.

"These," said I carelessly, "belong upstairs. Thusis will tell you where to carry them, Raoul."

"Bien, Monsieur!"

We both looked gravely at the luggage, then my glance rested on his pleasant, reckless face in which I seemed to notice a gaiety more marked than usual.

For one moment, as he caught my eye, I thought he was going to wink at me, but, even as his eyelid quivered, he seemed to recollect himself. And, with an absolutely indescribable expression, he seized upon the luggage, and, both arms full, strode toward the back stairs. And, far in the passageway, I heard him singing under his breath:


"Crack-brain-cripple-arm,
You have done a heap of harm Ц "

until Josephine Vannis came to the pantry door, her superb arms all over flour, and said in French: "Hush, Raoul, or I slay thee with my rolling-pin, thou imbecile, curly, hot-head!"

"My Josephine adored," he retorted, "thou slayest me hourly with thy Olympian beauty Ц "



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