Robert Chambers.

The Laughing Girl



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"A jolt," I repeated, "is what starts things. Clelia requires one. All you need is nerve to administer it."

"How?"

"Why not frivol with Josephine?"

"Good heavens!" he exclaimed. "A man can't get gay with a girl like that! You might as well try to two-step with the Statue of Liberty! You might as well play the Doxology on a jazz band! You might as well give a burnt-cork show on the Acropolis! You might as – "

"Calm your alarm," said I. "That girl, Josephine Vannis, is rather an overwhelming beauty, I admit. But it's just those big, handsome, impressive, monumentally magnificent girls who fall for some little squirt – "

"Who the devil do you mean!" he demanded, hotly.

"I don't mean you. But you are shorter than she is; you don't weigh as much. Get a move on you! Inject pep into yourself. Become witty, gay, degag?, inconsequential, brilliant, light-hearted, bristling with quips and epigrams – "

"Who? I?"

"Certainly. Pull yourself up short. Eliminate every moral instinct. Drink more Moselle than you ought to. Hook arms with that brace of kings down stairs and pull your hat over one eye! Then, after you've been the life of the dinner-party, drop into the kitchen and bestow a few repartees on Josephine. And if Clelia isn't shocked I'm a boche!"

"I can't do all those things," he said uneasily.

"You can try."

So I left him a prey to conflicting emotions, and entered my own room and sat down on the bed.

"I'm in love," said I to myself, "deeply, inextricably in love! And what on earth am I to do about it!"

XI
A PYJAMA PARTY

About midnight I was awakened from agreeable slumber by somebody knocking at my bedroom door. I leaned out of bed, switched on the electric light, got up and opened the door.

King Ferdinand stood there in night-shirt and bare feet holding a candle that shook like an aspen leaf in the darkness.

"Somebody's been trying to open my d-door," he stammered. "I want you to come in and help me l-look under the b-bed. Not that I'm n-nervous or af-f-fraid, b-b-but I d-d-don't want to be d-disturbed."

"You say you heard somebody trying your door?"

"Yes, I did. I never sleep well and when I sleep at all I sleep lightly. I heard it p-p-plainly, I tell you."

I smiled. "It's a windy night," said I. "Doors and windows rattle."

"Yes, but the wind can't turn the knob on your door!" he insisted, his eyes of a wild pig roving nervously about my room. "I don't like such things, and I want you to come and look under my bed."

"Very well," said I, "let us go and look under your bed, Monsieur Itchenuff."

The Tzar of all the Bulgars was not an agreeable spectacle in his night-shirt and enormous bare feet. His visage was pasty, his eyes had a frightened, stealthy restlessness like a wild thing's that hears and scents an enemy but has not yet perceived him.

So wabbly was the lighted candle in his large fat hand, that I was afraid he'd set fire to his night-shirt, and relieved him of it.

"We have our own dynamo here," said I.

"Why didn't you turn on the electric light by your bed?"

"It wouldn't work," he replied. "Do you suppose somebody has c-c-cut the wire?"

"Who?"

"God knows! Everybody has enemies, I suppose. You wouldn't believe it, Monsieur, if you knew me well, but even I am affected by enemies."

"Impossible!" said I, looking at him askance as he waddled along bare-footed beside me.

"Nevertheless, I assure you," he complained in a voice unctuous with virtuous self-pity, "I, who have never harmed a fly, Monsieur, have secret enemies who would d-destroy me."

Again I glanced sideways at this Bulgarian assassin – the murderer of Stambouleff, and of God knows how many others.

We came to the door of his dark bedroom and I went in with the lighted candle. First I examined the electric fixture.

"Nobody's cut your wire," said I. "The globe's burnt out."

"Does that seem at all suspicious to you?" he asked in an agitated voice, coming up behind me.

I smiled. "That happens daily as you must know." I got down on my knees and peered under his bed. Of course there was nobody there. Nevertheless he got down on all fours and took the candle to examine every corner. Then, puffing, he reared up, shuffled to his flat, splay feet, and went about peeping into closets, behind curtains and sofas, moving from room to room in his suite with a stealthy flapping of his bare feet on the parquet.

Meanwhile I went around trying the several electric switches. It was odd that all the globes should have been burnt out at once. Evidently some fuse in the cellar had blown out.

There was another candle on his dresser. I lighted it. And, as it flickered into yellow flame, something on the floor of the dressing-room beyond caught the light and sparkled. And I went forward on tip-toe and picked it up.

The Tzar of all the Bulgars was busy searching the sitting-room. Now, satisfied that there was no intruder concealed about the apartment, he waddled massively back to where I stood.

"All the same," he said, "I heard the knob of my door squeak."

"There are no robbers in this region," said I with a shrug.

"Monsieur O'Ryan," he said solemnly, "you may not know it but I am a very important personage – person, I mean – that is," he explained hastily, "I am important in a business sense. And I have many envious business rivals who would not hesitate to follow me secretly from Berne and attempt to possess themselves of any – papers I might carry – in hopes of obtaining business secrets."

I said nothing. He stood on one leg, rubbing one shin with his large, fat toes, and his little mean eyes roaming everywhere.

"You should have brought a servant or two," I suggested.

"No, no, not this time," he said hurriedly. "No, this is just an – an informal little p-pleasure trip with friends – the Xenoses – quite – er – al fresco – sans fa?on, you see. No, I didn't want servants about." He shot a cunning glance at me and checked himself.

So I shrugged, showed him how to double-lock all his doors, bade him good night, and went back to my own room, trying the corridor lights on my way. None of them worked.

"There's no fuse blown out," thought I to myself, staring at my own bedroom light which burned brightly and which was controlled by the same switch.

Then, locking my door, I took out of my pocket the small bright object which I had picked up in Tzar Ferdinand's dressing-room.

It was a silver filigree button from the peasant costume of Thusis.

Of course she had probably lost it sometime during the day when airing the suite. Untidy little Thusis!

I dropped onto my bed still holding the silver button in my closed hand. Presently I touched it, discreetly, with my lips. And fell asleep after a while – to dream that the Bulgarian and the Hohenzollern had cut off my hands at the wrists and were nailing them to my front door, as happened, I believe, to Major Panitza.

About three o'clock I awoke in pitch darkness, all quivering from my dream, and heard the wind in the fir-trees and the slam of a heavy shutter.

For a while I lay there hoping the shutter would stop banging. But it did not. Then I tried to locate it by the sound. And after a while I decided that it must be some shutter on one of the windows overhead.

The servants' quarters were there. I didn't exactly like to go up and hunt about. But the racket was becoming unbearable; so I rose again, got into slippers, trousers and dressing gown, and went out along the corridor. It was pitch dark, but I decided not to go back and hunt up a candle because I could follow the strip of carpet and feel my way to the service stairs.

And I was doing this in a blind, cautious way, and was just turning the corridor corner with groping arms outstretched, when, with a soft and perfectly silent shock, somebody walked into them.

Such a thing is sufficient to paralyze anybody. My heart missed like a flivver out of gear, then that engine started racing, and my arms mechanically and convulsively closed around that unseen thing that had collided with me.

"W-who the devil is it!" I said shakily, as a shocked gasp escaped it and the thing almost collapsed in my terrified embrace.

Then, as I spoke, my half-stunned wits awoke; a faint fragrance grew on my senses; the yielding ghost in my arms came to warm life, and two hands clutched at my imprisoning arms.

"Michael!" she panted.

"Great heavens! Thusis!" I faltered.

Freed, she leaned against the corridor wall for a few moments in palpitating silence. I also needed that interval to recover.

"What on earth is the matter, Thusis?" I managed to whisper at last.

"N-nothing. There was a shutter blowing – "

"But it's on the floor above! It's on your floor, Thusis."

She was silent for a moment, then: "What are you doing – prowling about the house at this hour?" she demanded.

"In my case," said I, "it was the shutter."

"Very well. I'll go up and fix it, and you may go back to bed."

But I had begun to feel a little troubled, and I made no motion to depart.

"I'll fix it," she repeated. "Good night."

"Thusis?"

"What?" In her voice I distinguished the slightest tone of impatience, perhaps of defiance. "What is it?" she repeated.

"Tell me the truth. What are you really about in this corridor at three in the morning?"

"I've told you."

"No, you haven't, Thusis."

After a silence I could hear her laughing under her breath.

"Mind your own business, Michael," she whispered; "I'm not going to confide in you."

"I want to know what brought you here," said I.

"What if you do wish to know? I am not obliged to inform you, am I?"

I heard her retreating, and I followed to the service stairs. Here a dim light came through a high window faintly silvering the stairs; and I saw the phantom figure of Thusis standing where she had suddenly arrested her steps on the stair-case, half-seeing, half-divining, my pursuit.

"Is that you, Michael?"

"Yes."

"Why do you follow me?"

"I want to talk to you."

"What nonsense! At three in the morning? Also I am not in conventional attire."

"I'm not, either," said I, "but we'll waive ceremony."

"No, we won't!"

"Yes, we will – "

"No!"

"Why?"

"I've told you why. Do you suppose I wish Clelia or Josephine to find me sitting on the stairs with you under such circumstances?"

She seated herself on the stairs as she spoke and I came up and leaned on the newel-post.

"I'm a perfect fool," she said. But she looked like an angel there in the vague light of the windy sky, her splendid hair about her face and shoulders, and her little naked feet drawn close under the hem of her silvery chamber-robe which she was belting in with rapid fingers.

"Well?" she said, looking up at me.

"I found something which belongs to you," said I, quietly.

"What is it?"

"A silver filigree button."

"Oh. Where did you find it, Michael?"

"In the dressing-room of King Ferdinand."

There was a pause – a second's hesitation. "Well," she said, smiling, "you've a clean mind, Michael. Also you have a sense of humor. What do you infer from your very immoral discovery?"

"You might have lost the button this afternoon while airing his apartment."

"Thank you," she whispered laughingly.

"Or," said I, "you may not have dropped it then."

"What do you mean?" she said bluntly.

"Thusis," said I, "what do you mean by wearing a pistol under your chamber-robe?"

After a long silence she looked up at me.

"A guess?"

"No. I felt it when you ran into me in the dark."

She hesitated, then:

"If I should say that I am timid you wouldn't believe me. Would you, Michael?"

"No."

"Then – what do you wish me to tell you?"

"Tell me, for example, why no lights work in King Ferdinand's suite."

Again there was an interval during which I rather felt than saw her gray eyes fixed intently on my shadowy face. Then:

"Has a fuse blown out?"

"No, Thusis."

"Then no doubt the globes are burnt out."

"Do you think it likely that they all burnt out at the same time?"

"It is possible, isn't it?"

I did not reply.

She waited, then asked me in a mocking voice whether there was anything further that worried me.

"I was merely wondering," said I, "who it was that awoke King Ferdinand to-night by trying the knob on his bedroom door."

"Michael!"

"Well?"

"Do you mean to be insulting?"

I went over to her and coolly seated myself on the stair upon which her feet rested.

"Thusis," said I, "I'm just worried about you. That's all."

"Will you give me a single sensible reason, Michael, why you should be worried about me?"

"Yes. That fat Bulgarian keeps two big automatic guns under his pillow. And he's a physical poltroon. And you can never tell what a coward may do in a panic."

Her eyes were fastened on me all the while I was speaking but her expression remained inscrutable.

As I ended, however, it changed subtly.

"And —that is what worries you," she said in an altered voice, – a voice so winningly sweet that I scarcely recognized it for the gay, engaging, bantering voice I knew so well.

Then Thusis rose, and I stood up on the step below her.

"You funny boy," she said, "you mustn't worry about me."

"Does it surprise you?"

She laughed under her breath.

"Nothing surprises me any more, Michael. I am past being astonished at anything – at my own behavior, at yours. You wouldn't understand me if I say that, ordinarily, this rather improper costume of mine wouldn't embarrass me."

"You mean," said I, "that the social difference between us leaves you indifferent to me as a man?"

She bit her lip, looked at me with a flushed, distressed little smile.

"Yes, I meant that."

I nodded: "The indifference of a bathing princess to the slaves who stand beside her litter."

"It was – that way with me – once," she said, wincing, but still smiling through the color that surged in her face. "You would wish me to be honest with you, wouldn't you, Michael?"

"Certainly. And tell me, Thusis, who are you who condescend to converse with a plain republican? And what democratic whim has possessed you to so unbend?"

"Michael!"

"Yes?"

"You are mocking me!"

"But at least," said I, "you are a princess in camouflage – I don't mean a Russian one – "

She turned scarlet with anger and I saw her teeth busy at her under lip again.

"Piffle," said I. "You take yourself too seriously, Thusis. Whatever else you are you're the young girl with whom I'm in love – deeply in love. And I'm going to tell you so, and love you with all my might, and worry over you, and pursue you with advice and devotion until you make yourself too impossible."

"And – then?" she demanded in a voice strangled with rage.

"Then," said I, "if you really prove to be too idiotic and impossible, I shall stroll on until I encounter the next."

"Next – what?" The fury in her voice scared me, but I pulled myself together.

"Next girl," said I flippantly. "You know, Thusis, there are others."

She stood like a statue for a moment. Then:

"This," she whispered, "is what I ought to have expected for lowering myself! … I invited it – this affront – "

"Piffle," said I, "you know in your heart I'd sooner blow my bally brains out than affront you. Why say such things? Why pretend to yourself? You know well enough that I'm so head over heels in love with you that I don't know what I say – "

"I do!" she retorted in a white heat. "And I've got to listen to it – I'm obliged to listen to – to an insolent inferior – "

"I'm not your inferior."

"You are!"

"Why, you silly, unhappy little thing," said I, "what if you are some funny sort of princess – some pretty highness of the Balkans? Literature is full of them, and if you'd read a little fiction you'd learn that they all marry ordinary, untitled young men like me."

"Must I listen to such outrageous insults?" she demanded, standing up very straight and slender in her offended pride, and forgetting that her bare feet under her nightie became the more visible the straighter she drew herself – lovely, snowy little naked feet as slim and delicate as the pedal extremities of a perfectly moral and early Victorian Bacchante.

"Am I to stand here and endure this insolence from you?" she repeated, her gray eyes ablaze.

"Not at all," said I. "You can always go upstairs to bed, Thusis."

Angry tears glittered in her eyes, not quenching their dangerous brightness, however. But I was now as mad as she was.

"Do you suppose," said I, "that this world war, this overwhelming disaster that is razing hill and city to one horrible and bloody level – this cataclysm which is obliterating the very contours of the world God made – is not also going to level such flimsy structures as the social structure? – such artificial protuberances as elevation of rank? I tell you, Thusis, that mankind will emerge naked and equal from this blood-deluge. You and I, too, are going to come out of it – if we do come out – not what our ancestors thought they were, but what we actually are! Very possibly, in generations gone with buried years, some doddering potentate may have managed to beget some ancestor of yours.

"What of it? Who cares to-day? – outside of the Huns and their barbarian allies? Who cares what you call yourself, I say? Who in God's name will care to-morrow? Do you imagine that the peoples who, like Christ, have descended into hell, can come out of those flames without the tinsel of rank being burned off? Do you suppose anything can remain except pure metal?"

I had let myself loose; and I fairly took away her breath.

She put out one hand and rested it on the bannisters in a dazed sort of way, still looking at me with a kind of fixed fascination.

"Have you any answer to what I have said?" I added after the silence had been sufficiently impressive.

She said faintly: "How about the Admiral, Don Michael?" And, as I choked and turned crimson, the girl turned, dropped onto the stairs, and rocked there convulsively, stifling her helpless, hysterical laughter with both hands over her lips.

I waited, hot with exasperation. There was nothing else for me to do.

Thusis struggled fiercely with her uncontrollable mirth, evidently terrified lest the indiscretion of her laughter awake the sleepers in the house.

"Thusis – "

"Wait! If you speak I shall expire. Because you never will know how funny you are, Michael! Oh – "

I waited until she was able to control herself.

"Thusis," I began, stiffly —

"Oh, don't! Please don't! I'm too weak. I'll go to bed – really I will, Michael. And leave you to wrap yourself in your nightie and stalk back to the Admiral – "

"Damn it all!" I broke out. She rocked, helplessly, her face buried in her hands.

After a while she got up, supporting herself by one hand on the stair-rail. The other hand pressed her heart.

"Michael dear," she said, "you are perfectly right. We are what we are. Nothing alters that. We are born what we are; we die what we are. No cataclysm can change what we really are… As for distinction of rank, don't you know, Michael, that social inequality always has existed and always will?"

"Not artificial social inequality. Minds alone will dominate. Personality only will count. Inheritance and tradition will play no part in the world's future after this war ends."

"You seem to be quite sure, Michael."

"Perfectly."

"But you are so young to be a prophet and a seer!"

"Good heavens, Thusis, is there nothing serious in you!" I exclaimed wrathfully.

"Not just at the moment," she retorted, controlling her laughter. "And I'd better go to bed or I'll be suggesting that we start that music-box down stairs and try a two-step."

I took a step toward her: "It amuses you to be funny," said I, "but before we take leave of each other suppose you hand me that pistol."

"Indeed I shall not!"

"If you don't hand it over," said I, "I shall be obliged to catch you and take it away from you." And I started toward her.

At that she flew up the stairs, turned on the landing and leaned down toward me with an adorable gesture.

"Go to the devil!" she whispered softly. And vanished in the dusk above.

XII
ROYALTY

The Queen demanded her breakfast in bed. Clelia came to the breakfast room to tell me so.

I had heard the furious ringing of her bell and I said to Smith that something of that sort was likely to happen.

"You tell her," said I to Clelia, "that no meals are served in rooms. What does she expect with only one waitress?"

Clelia went away and Smith and I resumed coffee, toast, and a poached egg apiece. Presently Clelia returned, her eyes and cheeks brilliant with suppressed emotion.

"Well," said I, "what's the matter now?"

"Madame Xenos is very, very angry, and she demands to see the landlord."

"Did she employ that word?"

"Yes, she did."

"You say she wants to see me?" I asked.

"She insists."

"But you tell me she's in bed, Clelia. How can I go up?"

Clelia shrugged her pretty shoulders! "Queens don't care. A landlord of an inn has no masculine meaning to a queen."

"Is that so!" I said. "Very well" – I finished my coffee at a gulp – "I'll go and see Madame Hohenzollern."

"You'd better be careful," said Clelia, smiling. "She really is a vixen."

I recollected the story of Constantine, and that it was commonly believed she had once stuck a knife into Tino when annoyed about something or other.



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