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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDawn O'hara, The Girl Who Laughed - Chapter V - THE ABSURD BECOMES SERIOUS
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Dawn O'hara, The Girl Who Laughed - Chapter V - THE ABSURD BECOMES SERIOUS Post by :John_Williams Category :Long Stories Author :Edna Ferber Date :March 2011 Read :999

Click below to download : Dawn O'hara, The Girl Who Laughed - Chapter V - THE ABSURD BECOMES SERIOUS (Format : PDF)

Dawn O'hara, The Girl Who Laughed - Chapter V - THE ABSURD BECOMES SERIOUS

I can understand the emotions of a broken-down war horse
that is hitched to a vegetable wagon. I am going to
Milwaukee to work! It is a thing to make the gods hold
their sides and roll down from their mountain peaks with
laughter. After New York--Milwaukee!

Of course Von Gerhard is to blame. But I think even
he sees the humor of it. It happened in this way, on a
day when I was indulging in a particularly
greenery-yallery fit of gloom. Norah rushed into my
room. I think I was mooning over some old papers, or
letters, or ribbons, or some such truck in the charming,
knife-turning way that women have when they are blue.

"Out wid yez!" cried Norah. "On with your hat and
coat! I've just had a wire from Ernst von Gerhard. He's
coming, and you look like an under-done dill pickle. You
aren't half as blooming as when he was here in August,
and this is October. Get out and walk until your cheeks
are so red that Von Gerhard will refuse to believe that
this fiery-faced puffing, bouncing creature is the green
and limp thing that huddled in a chair a few months ago.
Out ye go!"

And out I went. Hatless, I strode countrywards,
leaving paved streets and concrete walks far behind.
There were drifts of fallen leaves all about, and I
scuffled through them drearily, trying to feel gloomy,
and old, and useless, and failing because of the tang in
the air, and the red-and-gold wonder of the frost-kissed
leaves, and the regular pump-pump of good red blood that
was coursing through my body as per Norah's request.

In a field at the edge of the town, just where city
and country begin to have a bowing acquaintance, the
college boys were at football practice. Their scarlet
sweaters made gay patches of color against the dull
gray-brown of the autumn grass.

"Seven-eighteen-two-four!" called a voice. There
followed a scuffle, a creaking of leather on leather, a
thud. I watched them, a bit enviously, walking backwards
until a twist in the road hid them from view. That same
twist transformed my path into a real country road--
a brown, dusty, monotonous Michigan country road that
went severely about its business, never once stopping to
flirt with the blushing autumn woodland at its left, or
to dally with the dimpling ravine at its right.

"Now if that were an English country road," thought
I, "a sociably inclined, happy-go-lucky, out-for-pleasure
English country road, one might expect something of it.
On an English country road this would be the
psychological moment for the appearance of a blond god,
in gray tweed. What a delightful time of it Richard Le
Gallienne's hero had on his quest! He could not stroll
down the most innocent looking lane, he might not loiter
along the most out-of-the-way path, he never ambled over
the barest piece of country road, that he did not come
face to face with some witty and lovely woman creature,
also in search of things unconventional, and able to
quote charming lines from Chaucer to him."

Ah, but that was England, and this is America. I
realize it sadly as I step out of the road to allow a
yellow milk wagon to rattle past. The red letters on the
yellow milk cart inform the reader that it is the
property of August Schimmelpfennig, of Hickory Grove.
The Schimmelpfennig eye may be seen staring down upon me
from the bit of glass in the rear as the cart rattles
ahead, doubtless being suspicious of hatless
young women wandering along country roads at dusk, alone.
There was that in the staring eye to which I took
exception. It wore an expression which made me feel sure
that the mouth below it was all a-grin, if I could but
have seen it. It was bad enough to be stared at by the
fishy Schimmelpfennig eye, but to be grinned at by the
Schimmelpfennig mouth!--I resented it. In order to show
my resentment I turned my back on the Schimmelpfennig
cart and pretended to look up the road which I had just
traveled.

I pretended to look up the road, and then I did look
in earnest. No wonder the Schimmelpfennig eye and mouth
had worn the leering expression. The blond god in gray
tweed was swinging along toward me! I knew that he was
blond because he wore no hat and the last rays of the
October sun were making a little halo effect about his
head. I knew that his-gray clothes were tweed because
every well regulated hero on a country road wears tweed.
It's almost a religion with them. He was not near enough
to make a glance at his features possible. I turned
around and continued my walk. The yellow cart, with its
impudent Schimmelpfennig leer, was disappearing in a
cloud of dust. Shades of the "Duchess" and Bertha M. Clay!
How does one greet a blond god in gray tweed on a country
road, when one has him!

The blond god solved the problem for me.

"Hi!" he called. I did not turn. There was a
moment's silence. Then there came a shrill, insistent
whistle, of the kind that is made by placing four fingers
between the teeth. It is a favorite with the gallery
gods. I would not have believed that gray tweed gods
stooped to it.

"Hi!" called the voice again, very near now.
"Lieber Gott! Never have I seen so proud a young woman!"

I whirled about to face Von Gerhard; a strangely
boyish and unprofessional looking Von Gerhard.

"Young man," I said severely, "have you been
a-follerin' of me?"

"For miles," groaned he, as we shook hands. You walk
like a grenadier. I am sent by the charming Norah to
tell you that you are to come home to mix the salad
dressing, for there is company for supper. I am the
company."

I was still a bit dazed. "But how did you know which
road to take? And when--"

"Wunderbar, nicht wahr?" laughed Von Gerhard. "But
really quite simple. I come in on an earlier train than
I had expected, chat a moment with sister Norah, inquire
after the health of my patient, and am told that she is
running away from a horde of blue devils!--quote your
charming sister--that have swarmed about her all day. What
direction did her flight take? I ask. Sister Norah shrugs
her shoulders and presumes that it is the road which shows
the reddest and yellowest autumn colors. That road will
be your road. So!"

"Pooh! How simple! That is the second`disappointment
you have given me to-day."

"But how is that possible? The first has not had
time to happen."

"The first was yourself," I replied, rudely.

"I had been longing for an adventure. And when I saw
you 'way up the road, such an unusual figure for our
Michigan country roads, I forgot that I was a
disappointed old grass widder with a history, and I grew
young again, and my heart jumped up into my throat, and
I sez to mesilf, sez I: `Enter the hero!' And it was
only you."

Von Gerhard stared a moment, a curious look on his
face. Then he laughed one of those rare laughs of his,
and I joined him because I was strangely young, light,
and happy to be alive.

"You walk and enjoy walking, yes?" asked Von Gerhard,
scanning my face. "Your cheeks they are like--well, as
unlike the cheeks of the German girls as Diana's are
unlike a dairy maid's. And the nerfs? They no longer
jump, eh?"

"Oh, they jump, but not with weariness. They jump to
get into action again. From a life of too much
excitement I have gone to the other extreme. I shall be
dead of ennui in another six months."

"Ennui?" mused he, "and you are--how is it?--
twenty-eight years, yes? H'm!"

There was a world of exasperation in the last
exclamation.

"I am a thousand years old," it made me exclaim, "a
million!"

"I will prove to you that you are sixteen," declared
Von Gerhard, calmly.

We had come to a fork in the road. At the right the
narrower road ran between two rows of great maples that
made an arch of golden splendor. The frost had kissed
them into a gorgeous radiance.

"Sunshine Avenue," announced Von Gerhard. "It
beckons us away from home, and supper and salad dressing
and duty, but who knows what we shall find at the end of
it!"

"Let's explore," I suggested. "It is splendidly
golden enough to be enchanted."

We entered the yellow canopied pathway.

"Let us pretend this is Germany, yes?" pleaded Von
Gerhard. "This golden pathway will end in a neat little
glass-roofed restaurant, with tables and chairs outside,
and comfortable German papas and mammas and pig-tailed
children sitting at the tables, drinking coffee or beer.
There will be stout waiters, and a red-faced host. And
we will seat ourselves at one of the tables, and I will
wave my hand, and one of the stout waiters will come
flying. `Will you have coffee, _Fraulein_, or beer?' It
sounds prosaic, but it is very, very good, as you will
see. Pathways in Germany always end in coffee and Kuchen
and waiters in white aprons."

But, "Oh, no!" I exclaimed, for his mood was
infectious. "This is France. Please! The golden
pathway will end in a picturesque little French farm,
with a dairy. And in the doorway of the farmhouse there
will be a red-skirted peasant woman, with a white cap!
and a baby on her arm! and sabots! Oh, surely she will
wear sabots!"

"Most certainly she will wear sabots," Von Gerhard
said, heatedly, "and blue knitted stockings. And the
baby's name is Mimi!

We had taken hands and were skipping down the pathway
now, like two excited children.

"Let's run," I suggested. And run we did, like two
mad creatures, until we rounded a gentle curve and
brought up, panting, within a foot of a decrepit rail
fence. The rail fence enclosed a stubbly, lumpy field.
The field was inhabited by an inquiring cow. Von Gerhard
and I stood quite still, hand in hand, gazing at the cow.
Then we turned slowly and looked at each other.

"This pathway of glorified maples ends in a cow," I
said, solemnly. At which we both shrieked with mirth,
leaning on the decrepit fence and mopping our eyes with
our handkerchiefs.

"Did I not say you were sixteen?" taunted Von
Gerhard. We were getting surprisingly well acquainted.

"Such a scolding as we shall get! It will be quite
dark before we are home. Norah will be tearing her
hair."

It was a true prophecy. As we stampeded up the steps
the door was flung open, disclosing a tragic figure.

"Such a steak!" wailed Norah, " and it has been done
for hours and hours, and now it looks like a piece of fried
ear. Where have you two driveling idiots been? And
mushrooms too."

"She means that the ruined steak was further enhanced
by mushrooms," I explained in response to Von Gerhard's
bewildered look. We marched into the house, trying not
to appear like sneak thieves. Max, pipe in mouth,
surveyed us blandly.

"Fine color you've got, Dawn," he remarked.

"There is such a thing as overdoing this health
business," snapped Norah, with a great deal of acidity
for her. "I didn't tell you to make them purple, you
know."

Max turned to Von Gerhard. "Now what does she mean
by that do you suppose, eh Ernst?"

"Softly, brother, softly!" whispered Von Gerhard.
"When women exchange remarks that apparently are simple,
and yet that you, a man, cannot understand, then know
there is a woman's war going on, and step softly, and
hold your peace. Aber ruhig!"

Calm was restored with the appearance of the steak,
which was found to have survived the period of waiting,
and to be incredibly juicy and tender. Presently we
were all settled once more in the great beamed living
room, Sis at the piano, the two men smoking their
after-dinner cigars with that idiotic expression of
contentment which always adorns the masculine face on
such occasions.

I looked at them--at those three who had done so much
for my happiness and well being, and something within me
said: "Now! Speak now!" Norah was playing very softly,
so that the Spalpeens upstairs might not be disturbed.
I took a long breath and made the plunge.

"Norah, if you'll continue the slow music, I'll be
much obliged. `The time has come, the Walrus said, to
talk of many things.'"

"Don't be absurd," said Norah, over her shoulder, and
went on playing.

"I never was more serious in my life, good folkses
all. I've got to be. This butterfly existence has gone
on long enough. Norah, and Max, and Mr. Doctor Man, I am
going away."

Norah's hands crashed down on the piano keys with a
jangling discord. She swung about to face me.

"Not New York again, Dawn! Not New York!"

"I am afraid so," I answered.

Max--bless his great, brotherly heart-- rose and came
over to me and put a hand on my shoulder.

"Don't you like it here, girlie? Want to be hauled
home on a shutter again, do you? You know that as long
as we have a home, you have one. We need you here."

But I shook my head. From his chair at the other
side of the room I could feel Von Gerhard's gaze fixed
upon us. He had said nothing.

"Need me! No one needs me. Don't worry; I'm not
going to become maudlin about it. But I don't belong
here, and you know, it. I have my work to do. Norah is
the best sister that a woman ever had. And Max, you're
an angel brother-in-law. But how can I stay on here and
keep my self-respect?" I took Max's big hand in mine and
gathered courage from it.

"But you have been working," wailed Norah, "every
morning. And I thought the book was coming on
beautifully. And I'm sure it will be a wonderful book,
Dawn dear. You are so clever."

"Oh, the book--it is too uncertain. Perhaps it will
go, but perhaps it won't. And then--what? It will be
months before the book is properly polished off. And
then I may peddle it around for more months. No; I can't
afford to trifle with uncertainties. Every newspaper man
or woman writes a book. It's like having the measles.
There is not a newspaper man living who does not believe,
in his heart, that if he could only take a month or two
away from the telegraph desk or the police run, he could
write the book of the year, not to speak of the great
American Play. Why, just look at me! I've only been
writing`seriously for a few weeks, and already the best
magazines in the country are refusing my manuscripts daily."

"Don't joke," said Norah, coming over to me, "I can't
stand it."

"Why not? Much better than weeping, isn't it? And
anyway, I'm no subject for tears any more. Dr. von
Gerhard will tell you how well and strong I am. Won't
you, Herr Doktor?"

Well," said Von Gerhard, in his careful, deliberate
English, "since you ask me, I should say that you might
last about one year, in New York."

"There! What did I tell you!" cried Norah.

"What utter blither!" I scoffed, turning to glare at
Von Gerhard.

"Gently," warned Max. "Such disrespect to the man
who pulled you back from the edge of the yawning grave
only six months ago!"

"Yawning fiddlesticks!" snapped I, elegantly. "There
was nothing wrong with me except that I wanted to be
fussed over. And I have been. And I've loved it. But
it must stop now." I rose and walked over to the table
and faced Von Gerhard, sitting there in the depths of a
great chair. "You do not seem to realize that I am not
free to come and go, and work and play, and laugh and
live like other women. There is my living to make. And
there is--Peter Orme. Do you think that I could stay on
here like this? Oh, I know that Max is not a poor man.
But he is not a rich man, either. And there are the
children to be educated, and besides, Max married Norah
O'Hara, not the whole O'Hara tribe. I want to go to
work. I am not a free woman, but when I am working, I
forget, and am almost, happy. I tell you I must be well
again! I will be well! I am well!"

At the end of which dramatic period I spoiled the
whole effect by bowing my head on the table and giving
way to a fit of weeping such as I had not had since the
days of my illness.

"Looks like it," said Max, at which I decided to
laugh, and the situation was saved.

It was then that Von Gerhard proposed the thing that
set us staring at him in amused wonder. He came over and
stood looking down at us, his hands outspread upon the
big library table, his body bent forward in an attitude
of eager intentness. I remember thinking what wonderful
hands they were, true indexes of the man's character;
broad, white, surgeonly hands; the fingers almost square
at the tips. They were hands as different from those
slender, nervous, unsteady, womanly hands of Peter Orme
as any hands could be, I thought. They were hands made
for work that called for delicate strength, if such a
paradox could be; hands to cling to; to gain courage
from; hands that spelled power and reserve. I looked at
them, fascinated, as I often had done before, and thought
that I never had seen such SANE hands.

"You have done me the honor to include me in this
little family conclave," began Ernst von Gerhard. "I am
going to take advantage of your trust. I shall give you
some advice--a thing I usually keep for unpleasant
professional occasions. Do not go back to New York."

"But I know New York. And New York --the newspaper
part of it--knows me. Where else can I go?"

"You have your book to finish. You could never
finish it there, is it not so?"

I'm afraid I shrugged my shoulders. It was all so
much harder than I had expected. What did they want me
to do? I asked myself, bitterly.

Von Gerhard went on. "Why not go where the newspaper
work will not be so nerve-racking? where you still might
find time for this other work that is dear to you, and
that may bring its reward in time." He reached out and
took my hand, into his great, steady clasp. "Come to the
happy, healthy, German town called Milwaukee, yes? Ach,
you may laugh. But newspaper work is newspaper work the
world over, because men and women are just men and women
the world over. But there you could live sanely, and
work not too hard, and there would be spare hours for the
book that is near your heart. And I--I will speak of you
to Norberg, of the Post. And on Sundays, if you are
good, I may take you along the marvelous lake drives in
my little red runabout, yes? Aber wunderbar, those
drives are! So."

Then--"Milwaukee!" shrieked Max and Norah and I,
together. "After New York--Milwaukee!"

"Laugh," said Von Gerhard, quite composedly. "I give
you until to-morrow morning to stop laughing. At the end
of that time it will not seem quite so amusing. No joke
is so funny after one has contemplated it for twelve
hours."

The voice of Norah, the temptress, sounded close to
my ear. "Dawn dear, just think how many million miles
nearer you would be to Max, and me, and home."

"Oh, you have all gone mad! The thing is impossible.
I shan't go back to a country sheet in my old age. I
suppose that in two more years I shall be editing a
mothers' column on an agricultural weekly."

"Norberg would be delighted to get you," mused Von
Gerhard, "and it would be day work instead of night
work."

"And you would send me a weekly bulletin on Dawn's
health, wouldn't you, Ernst?" pleaded Norah. "And you'd
teach her to drink beer and she shall grow so fat that
the Spalpeens won't know their auntie."

At last--"How much do they pay?" I asked, in
desperation. And the thing that had appeared so absurd
at first began to take on the shape of reality.

Von Gerhard did speak to Norberg of the Post. And
I am to go to Milwaukee next week. The skeleton of the
book manuscript is stowed safely away in the bottom of my
trunk and Norah has filled in the remaining space with
sundry flannels, and hot water bags and medicine flasks,
so that I feel like a schoolgirl on her way to
boarding-school, instead of like a seasoned old newspaper
woman with a capital PAST and a shaky future. I wish
that I were chummier with the Irish saints. I need them
now.

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