Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl

"Be silent, addlepate, I implore thee! Is the very devil in thee, Raoul, to endanger everything with thy empty-headed audacity?"

"Ruler of hearts," he rejoined, "remain tranquil. Nous les aurons!"

I went upstairs, discovered Smith lying on his bed and reading, and then and there told him the whole story. He did not appear to be very much surprised over the royal identity of my guests.

"That sort of king," he remarked, "is likely to run about under foot. You'll find them a nuisance." And he resumed his novel and his pipe.

I went downstairs again. Raoul passed with more luggage.

I stood motionless listening to the retreating footsteps of Raoul through the stone passageway. And, as I lingered, intensely curious and beginning to feel uneasy, Clelia came out of the kitchen looking like some flushed, excited school-girl, her golden hair in two braids, and her blue eyes very brilliant in the bright sunshine.


When Clelia saw me a startled expression came into her face, instantly controlled and concealed by the lovely smile so characteristic of her and of Thusis.

"Something," said I, "smells very appetizing in there."

"Tea-cakes," she nodded. "Shall I bring you one from the oven?"

"Bring one for yourself, too, Clelia."

At that she blushed, then with a pretty, abashed smile, went into the pantry and immediately reappeared with two delicious tea-cakes.

"We mustn't be caught here doing this," she whispered, offering me one of the cakes.

"Who'd object? Raoul?"

"Pouf!" she laughed.

"Who then? Josephine? Thusis?"

"Pouf! Pouf!"


She blushed a deep pink but shrugged her young shoulders.

"Pouf!" she said calmly.

"Well then, who is there to object to our taking tea together?"

"Your guests, Monsieur O'Ryan."

"My guests!" I mimicked her gaily: "Pouf! for my guests, Clelia. Do you think you could find two glasses of fresh milk for yourself and for me?"

"With cream on it?" she inquired na?vely.


She went back to the pantry. I heard Josephine demurring, then they both laughed, and Clelia reappeared with the milk and two more fresh tea-cakes.

We seated ourselves on the stone milk-bench in the cool, shadowy passageway.

"The way you behave with your servants," she remarked, "seems almost scandalous, doesn't it?"

"Outrageous," said I. "What does Josephine think?"

"Oh, you haven't attempted any familiarities with her."

"No. I'd as soon try to pick up Juno and address that goddess as 'girlie.'"

We both laughed, sitting there side by side absorbing milk and tea-cakes.

"Now," said I, "the illusion would be complete if you wipe your mouth on your apron and I do a like office for myself on my sleeve."

She looked up at me and did it. So did I.

"What else?" she inquired.

"Now we'll kiss each other, Clelia, and then you'll go back to your pots and pans and I'll go out and hoe potatoes."

"Do you think you'd better kiss me?"

"Yes, I do," said I.

"I've never done it."

"What!" I laughed incredulously.

"Why no," she said, surprised.

"Is that true, Clelia?"


"And you're willing to begin on me?"

"Oh, pour ?a one must beginif only to know how when necessary."

"You think you ought to know how it's done?" I inquired, controlling my gaiety with an effort.

"Well" she hesitated with adorable indecision "in an emergency, perhaps, it might be as well that I know how such things are accomplished."

"It's up to you, Clelia."

"Is it?" She thought deeply for a moment.

Then: "It's going to be a shock to me, I suppose. But I've made up my mind that it's likely to happen to me some day. And I think I'd better be prepared Don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

"Besides, I never was afraid of you."

"Of course not. Nobody is!" said I, laughing.

"Oh, yes, they are."


"Well, for one, my sister, Thusis, is."

"Thusis! Afraid of me!" I exclaimed.

Clelia nodded: "She's afraid."

"Of me!" I repeated incredulously.

"Well, of herself, too."


"I couldn't tell you why. You know Thusis and I differ in some things. Thusis has her own ideas about the world in general. And I'm afraid her ideas are rather old fashioned, and that they are going to make her unhappy."

"Can't you tell me what her ideas are?" I asked.

"No. She may tell you if she chooses. But it isn't likely that she will. Anyway they are not my ideas. My opinion is that the way to be happy is to accept the world as it is, not as it was or should be."

"You are quite wonderful, Clelia."

"Oh, no, I'm not. I'm just a human girl who desires to be happy and who detests gloom of all sorts gloomy ideals, gloomy pride, gloomy conventions that wrap their shrouds around the living and stifle them in a winding sheet of tradition."

I was astonished to hear this girl so fluently express herself. In her soft, fresh, brilliant beauty she seemed to have stepped but yesterday across the frontiers of adolescence.

"So, if you kiss me," she said, "I don't think the world is going to tumble to pieces. Do you?"

"I do not."

"However," she added, "if Thusis felt the way I do about the world, I wouldn't think of letting you kiss me."

I didn't understand, and I said so. But she laughed and refused to explain.

"Life is short and full of sorrow," she said. "And the world is full of war and we'll all get hurt, sooner or later, I think. What a pity! Because the world really is lovely. And when one is young, and just beginning to fall in love with life, one is naturally inclined to taste what few delights are offered between these storms of death brief glimpses of sunshine, Monsieur, that gleam for a few moments between the thunderous clouds that darken all the world So, if you choose to kiss me "

We sat quite motionless and in silence for a while. Then:

"How about Smith?" I asked tersely.

"Monsieur Smith?" she repeated, flushing. "Why do you ask?"

"I don't know I wondered wondered "


"How he'd feel about my kissing you. He might not like it, you know."

"You mean to tell him!" she exclaimed in dismay.

"No, of course not! But suppose he sauntered around the corner during the process "

Clelia laughed: "It might do him infinite good," she said, "to see that somebody is willing to kiss me "


" Because he won't. And he knows, I think, that he could if he asked to."

"Good heavens!" I said, "I thought Smith had become sentimental over you, Clelia!"

"He is a very gloomy young man," said the girl with decision.

"But isn't he very evidently enamored of you?"

"He's too respectful."

I gasped.

"I can't goad him into human behavior," she went on with lively displeasure. "He must see that I am quite willing to be friendly and light-hearted, that I am always ready to stop dusting and sweeping and making beds to converse with him. But all he does is to follow me about and remind me of the solemnity of life, and tell me that he is deeply concerned about my attitude toward the world. Fancy! It is not very gay, you see, my acquaintance with Monsieur Smith."

I was surprised. What she said presented Smith at a new angle. I had supposed him an idle philanderer.

"What worries him about you?" I demanded.

"He seems to think I'm an idiot. I told him I meant to take life gaily and happily when opportunity offered, because I, probably, had only a very short time to live. I told him that I found the world beautiful and that I had fallen ardently in love with life. I told him that I didn't want to die without learning a little something about men, and that my time was short, and I ought to neglect no opportunity."

"What on earth did he say?"

"He became angry."

"Didn't he say anything?"

She blushed: "Oh, yes. He said he wouldn't be used in such a manner. He said that he desired to be taken seriously or not at all. At which solemn statement I laughed, naturally enough. Then he became furious, demanding to be informed whether I had the soul of a soubrette or of a modest and properly brought up young girl.

"And I replied that to be modest did not necessitate deceit and hypocrisy; that I had told him the truth; that I loved life, adored happiness, was enamored of the world, knew nothing of men but wished to: imagined nothing more delightful than to be made love to, intended to take advantage of the first opportunity that offered."

"W-what did he say to that, Clelia?" I faltered, utterly bewildered.

"A lot of nonsense. He tried to make me believe that love is a tragic and solemn business as though I were not fed up on the solemn and tragic!

"He said I was a fool and didn't know what I was talking about. He said, in substance, that the subject of love was one to be approached on tip-toe, with awe, formality, prayer, and fasting. He said that such a man as he could love only an ideal, not a human and happy thing in love with life and willing to prove it with the first young man that passes. He said that I alarmed and grieved him; that I am unmoral; that my impulses are purely pagan; that the formalism of civilization alone can sanction any impulse attraction between his sex and mine."

"What did you say?" I asked, feebly.

"I said, 'Pouf!' And I meant it."

Her color was high and her eyes very bright.

"I did like him. He was the first man I had ever had a decent chance to talk to alone, I mean the first young man of education. And, knowing I hadn't much time, I was quite willing to play at being in love with him. I told him so."

"Maybe," said I, in a weak voice, "he wanted to do more than merely play at being in love."

"But my time is too short," she explained. "I haven't time to fall in love. Why doesn't he take what there is to take?"

"Your time is short what do you mean, Clelia?"

"It is."

"Are you ill?"

"No," she said impatiently, "I'm in perfect health."

"Then what makes you suppose you're going to die soon?"

"I can't tell you. Of course I may not die very soon. But it's likely I shall And if I do I hope it will teach Mr. Smith a good lesson!"

"W-what lesson?"

"To take what offers and thank the gods!"

She looked up at me and laughed: "You'd better kiss me," she said: "you'll never have a chance with Thusis."

I blushed violently.

"Did you think I desired to k-kiss Thusis?"

"I think you are a little in love with Thusis."

"I am."

"How wonderful! And don't you desire to kiss her?"

I was silent.

"Because," said Clelia, laughing, "I think she'd like to have you do it. She'd slay me if she heard me. And she'd slay herself before she'd ever let you And yet it is odd! I'm willing to learn how it feels to be kissed, but I am not in love; and Thusis likes you and won't admit it: you've turned my sister's head and she's horribly afraid of you; and never, never will she let you kiss her. And there you are!"

After a long silence she looked up at me shyly:

"Shall we?" she asked na?vely.

"I could show you how it's done," said I.

And then, just at the moment when the deed was about to be accomplished, a shadow fell across the floor. I looked up. Thusis stood there.

Her beautiful face flamed as she met our eyes.

Clelia stood up with a light laugh. "My first lesson!" she exclaimed, "and already ended before I learned a word of it! Take your young man, sister! He's quite as disappointing as his solemn friend!"

And she went into the pantry taking with her our empty glasses.

"So that is the sort of man you are," said Thusis calmly.

The utter hopelessness of the situation turned me flippant.

"Yes," said I, "I am a very dangerous, unprincipled man. I'm thoroughly and hopelessly bad, Thusis. What do you think about me now?"

"What I have always thought about your class, nothing!" she said in an even, smiling voice.

"Class!" I repeated, perplexed by the word, and the faint contempt in her voice.

"Exactly. That is most accurately what I mean your class in the social scale, Mr. O'Ryan. And you live down to it."

"Will you explain," said I, amazed and angry, "what you mean to infer?"

"I don't infer. I am direct and implicit. You behave as might be expected. Quality demands certain things of itself. Of you, Mr. O'Ryan, nothing is demanded. And nothing involving quality is expected And I have been a great fool," she added quietly. And walked out the way she entered, leaving me perplexed and thoroughly enraged.

And I would not have it left in any such way; and sprang up and overtook Thusis as she entered the empty living-room.

"What I want to know," said I, "is what you mean by implying that any social inequality exists between you and me?"

"Between you and your servant?" she inquired mockingly. And tried to pass me.

"You didn't mean that! You meant something entirely different. Who are you, Thusis? And I don't care a sou who you are, what you are! I am in love with you "

" And with my sister?"

"I'm in love with you! You know it!"

"I do not!"

"You do know it! And it disturbs you "

My voice shook.

"It leaves me utterly indifferent," she said disdainfully; but her gray eyes were lifted slowly to mine and the color came into her beautiful face.

"What sort of man are you!" she demanded. "You see how young my sister is how silly and inexperienced! And yet "

"I'd as soon kiss a healthy kitten," said I. "She's attractive because she is your sister. Anyway Smith is in love with her "

"I won't permit it!" cried Thusis. "I'll not tolerate such a thing!"

She clenched her hands; there was a glint of something in her eyes but if it came from angry tears they dried before I was sure.

"I've brought this on myself," she said. "I laid myself open to it invited familiarity and disrespect from you! The very devil must have been in me to so utterly forget myself! Now I've got to pay for it pay for it in bitter humiliation witness such a scene as I have just witnessed and then stand here and hear you tell me that that you are in love with me! endure what you say "

Suddenly it became clear to me what Clelia had meant when she said that Thusis was afraid of me.

"Thusis," said I, "you won't have to listen to any more of that from me. I shall not tell you again that I care for you. And anyway, in a little while it will no longer be true. Because I shall get over it."

She looked up.

"And I want you to know that I am not angry. And even if I were I want you to understand that you need not be afraid of my resentment."

"I am not!" she flashed out.

"You are! You are afraid that I might be the sort of creature to revenge wounded amour propre by proving faithless to the confidence you gave me. Don't worry," I added angrily, "because I'd cut my tongue out or face a firing squad before I'd utter one word to anybody concerning what you told me about your mission here."

There was a silence. Then Thusis' smile came back, a trifle tremulously:

"You silly boy!" she said. "Did you think I was afraid of that!"

"You say that, in my case, noblesse oblige means nothing to me."

She blushed scarlet: "I was angry hurt. I did not mean that."

"You meant it."

"I did not! I tried to believe I meant it. I knew it wasn't true. I knew it would anger you; that is why I said it."

"Then why are you afraid of me?"


"Yes, you, Thusis."

"I am not. I am afraid of nobody Except myself."

She looked up at me again, flushed, lovely, and her gray eyes seemed distressed.

"It's just myself, Don Michael," she said with a forced smile. "I seem changed, different, and it alarms me scares me to find myself capable of behaving so so imprudently with you."


But she had passed me in a flash and I heard her light feet flying up the stairs. I followed. She was at the top of the staircase, but heard me and turned on the landing to look down.

"My behavior with you mortifies me!" she repeated in a hurried whisper. "Why do you follow me, Michael?"

"Do you have to ask me, Thusis?"

"You mustn't ever again pursue me," she repeated in a low, breathless voice.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because possibly I couldn't run as fast as you can. Do you think I would endure it to be overtaken? Do you suppose I could tolerate being run down and caught? By you? Can't you comprehend that such a thing is unthinkable?"

Again that slightest hint of contempt in her voice, not entirely recognized yet vaguely divined.

I said slowly: "If I really understand, Thusis, then you need not worry. Because I shall never again take a single step in the world to follow you."

She seemed to consider this very deeply, standing on the landing and looking down at me out of her beautiful and serious eyes.

"Suppose," she said, "that you do follow me not very fast just saunter along so that I need not run?"

She did not smile; neither did I.

"Would that be agreeable to you, Michael?"

"Would it be agreeable to you, Thusis?"

"Yes, it would Please don't come upstairs! Does it give you any pleasure to scare me and see me run?"

I had one foot on the stairs; and let it remain there.

"When I say saunter, I mean it, Michael. Just stroll around in my vicinity describing a few leisurely circles so that I'll not notice your approach. Couldn't you do that and keep within sight?"

"I'll try."

Suddenly her eyes grew brilliant and she smothered a laugh with her hands. Then, as both palms clung flat to her laughing lips she deliberately kissed them and, with a pretty gesture, threw the reckless salute at me.

"Your humble servant, Don Michael!" she whispered, "your housekeeper salutes you and runs!"

Which she did, vanishing like a flash of sunlight in the dusky corridor.

I dropped one hand on the newel-post quite unbalanced by a complexity of emotions which no experience in life had so far taught me to analyze and catalogue.

"It's probably love," said I to myself, calmly enough. "And what the devil am I to do about it?"

There was no answer. Reason, instinct, emotion, appeared to be paralyzed.

So I climbed the stairs in a blind, mechanical sort of way, and went into Smith's room.

"Were you ever in love?" I asked wearily.

He laid aside his novel, unhooked the pipe from his mouth, and considered me very gravely.

"Yes," he said, "I've been in love."

"What did you do about it?"

"The wrong thing, I fancy."

"What was that, Smith?"

"I took the matter too seriously."

"Shouldn't one?"


I nodded, blankly.

"To be too seriously in love, and to show it," said Smith, "is disastrous to a man. It won't do, Michael. Unless our sex takes it gayly and good humoredly we're patronized. Take it from me, the solemn side, the fasting and prayer, must originate in the other sex. It never does if we betray such symptoms. They always wait to see whether we'll break out. And when we do they treat us as though we were sick kindly but condescendingly. You get me?"


"All right. But here's the other aspect: when we fall in love, and say so, and then take the object of our vows gayly, amiably, and with perfect good humor always no matter how inwardly we doubt and fear and rage then, Michael, the girl we worship becomes very, very serious even ponderous at times and if she's got any brain at all it gets busy and remains busy. And what preoccupies her mind are questions concerning whether or not you really do love her seriously enough; and, if not, whether she can make you do it, which state of intellect causes perpetual anxiety and chronic uncertainty. And only when these emotions perpetually preoccupy a girl, can she finally fall in love with you sufficiently to forget what an ass you really are."

"Smith," said I, "are you in love with Clelia?"

"Yes, damn it," he said serenely.

"Then why don't you practice your theory on her?"

"My theory," he replied, "is the result of my experience with Clelia. That is how I came to evolve it. I believe in it, too. But it's too late to try on Clelia. Because already she has my number, Michael, and she knows me for a solemn, single-minded, and serious ass, very, very deeply in love with her. She's on to me, Michael."

I remembered my episode with Clelia and considered it for a while in silence. It was apparent to me that the girl's affections were completely and healthily disengaged. Her desire for happiness, her almost pagan love of gayety, her sheer delight in the mere joy of living, were not unmoral. And if, in her pursuit of pleasure there seemed something feverish, reckless, that was explained by her odd idea that she had but a little while to live.

"No use to argue, explain, reason, or preach to that girl," said I. "The thing to do is to give her a jolt."

"A jolt?" he repeated. "There's nothing left for me to say or do that could disconcert that girl. She knows I'm in love with her; she knows that I have lived a morally decent life, that my high ideals concerning women have never been lowered, that, to me, love is a sacred "

"You tried to kiss her sister."

"That," he said, reddening painfully, "was my only lapse from the rigid conservatism of a life-time. And doubtless I am now suffering from that moment of relaxation into folly "

"Doubtless you are not!" I returned. "I am certain that Thusis never mentioned it to Clelia. And I'm sorry she didn't because it might have furnished the required jolt."

Smith became gloomily interested.

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