Dawn O'Hara, The Girl Who Laughed, by Edna Ferber

Dawn O'Hara, The Girl Who Laughed, by Edna Ferber



Christmas at Knapf's had been a happy surprise; a day of hearty good cheer and kindness. There had even been a Christmas tree, hung with stodgy German angels and Pfeffernuesse and pink-frosted cakes. I found myself the bewildered recipient of gifts from everyone—from the Knapfs, and the aborigines and even from one of the crushed-looking wives. The aborigine whom they called Fritz had presented me with a huge and imposing Lebkuchen, reposing in a box with frilled border, ornamented with quaint little red-and-green German figures in sugar, and labeled Nurnberg in stout letters, for it had come all the way from that kuchen-famous city. The Lebkuchen I placed on my mantel shelf as befitted so magnificent a work of art. It was quite too elaborate and imposing to be sent the way of ordinary food, although it had a certain tantalizingly spicy scent that tempted one to break off a corner here and there.
On the afternoon of Christmas day I sat down to thank Dr. von Gerhard for the flowers as prettily as might be. Also I asked his pardon, a thing not hard to do with the perfume of his roses filling the room.

The moonlight had put a spell of white magic upon the lake. It was a light-flooded world that lay below my window. Summer, finger on lip, had stolen in upon the heels of spring. Dim, shadowy figures dotted the benches of the park across the way. Just beyond lay the silver lake, a dazzling bar of moonlight on its breast. Motors rushed along the roadway with a roar and a whir and were gone, leaving a trail of laughter behind them. From the open window of the room below came the slip-slap of cards on the polished table surface, and the low buzz of occasional conversation as the players held postmortems. Under the street light the popcorn vender's cart made a blot on the mystic beauty of the scene below. But the perfume of my red roses came to me, and their velvet caressed my check, and beyond the noise and lights of the street lay that glorious lake with the bar of moonlight on its soft breast. I gazed and forgave the sour-faced landlady her dining room; forgave the elderly parties their shawls and barley soup; forgot for a moment my weary thoughts of Peter Orme; forgot everything except that it was June, and moonlight and good to be alive.

And the sheets. Oh, those sheets of Norah's! Why, they were white, instead of gray! And they actually smelled of flowers. For that matter, there were rosebuds on the silken coverlet. It took me a week to get chummy with that rosebud-and-down quilt. I had to explain carefully to Norah that after a half-dozen years of sleeping under doubtful boarding-house blankets one does not so soon get rid of a shuddering disgust for coverings which are haunted by the ghosts of a hundred unknown sleepers. Those years had taught me to draw up the sheet with scrupulous care, to turn it down, and smooth it over, so that no contaminating and woolly blanket should touch my skin. The habit stuck even after Norah had tucked me in between her fragrant sheets. Automatically my hands groped about, arranging the old protecting barrier.
But already I was lost in contemplation of a red-faced, pompadoured German who was drinking coffee and reading the Fliegende Blatter at a table just across the way.

Of Von Gerhard I had not had a glimpse since that evening of my hysterical outburst. On Christmas day there had come a box of roses so huge that I could not find vases enough to hold its contents, although I pressed into service everything from Mason jars from the kitchen to hand-painted atrocities from the parlor. After I had given posies to Frau Nirlanger, and fastened a rose in Frau Knapf's hard knob of hair, where it bobbed in ludicrous discomfort, I still had enough to fill the washbowl. My room looked like a grand opera star's boudoir when she is expecting the newspaper reporters. I reveled in the glowing fragrance of the blossoms and felt very eastern and luxurious and popular. It had been a busy, happy, work-filled week, in which I had had to snatch odd moments for the selecting of certain wonderful toys for the Spalpeens. There had been dolls and doll-clothes and a marvelous miniature kitchen for the practical and stolid Sheila, and ingenious bits of mechanism that did unbelievable things when wound up, for the clever, imaginative Hans. I was not to have the joy of seeing their wide-eyed delight, but I knew that there would follow certain laboriously scrawled letters, filled with topsy-turvy capitals and crazily leaning words of thanks to the doting old auntie who had been such good fun the summer before.

There were counterparts of my aborigines at Knapf's—thick spectacled engineers with high foreheads—actors and actresses from the German stock company—reporters from the English and German newspapers—business men with comfortable German consciences—long-haired musicians—dapper young lawyers—a giggling group of college girls and boys—a couple of smartly dressed women nibbling appreciatively at slices of Nusstorte—low-voiced lovers whose coffee cups stood untouched at their elbows, while no fragrant cloud of steam rose to indicate that there was warmth within. Their glances grow warmer as the neglected Kaffee grows colder. The color comes and goes in the girl's face and I watch it, a bit enviously, marveling that the old story still should be so new.

A hundred happy memories filled the little low room as Alma Pflugel showed me her treasures. The cat purred in great content, and the stove cast a rosy glow over the scene as the simple woman told the story of each precious relic, from the battered candle-dipper on the shelf, to the great mahogany folding table, and sewing stand, and carved bed. Then there was the old horn lantern that Jacob Pflugel had used a century before, and in one corner of the sitting-room stood Grossmutter Pflugel's spinning-wheel. Behind cupboard doors were ranged the carefully preserved blue-and-white china dishes, and on the shelf below stood the clumsy earthen set that Grosspapa Pflugel himself had modeled for his young bride in those days of long ago. In the linen chest there still lay, in neat, fragrant folds, piles of the linen that had been spun on that time-yellowed spinning-wheel. And because of the tragedy in the honest face bent over these dear treasures, and because she tried so bravely to hide her tears, I knew in my heart that this could never be a newspaper story.

"We used to come out here in the early morning, my little Schwester and I, to see which rose had unfolded its petals overnight, or whether this great peony that had held its white head so high only yesterday, was humbled to the ground in a heap of ragged leaves. Oh, in the morning she loved it best. And so every summer I have made the garden bloom again, so that when she comes back she will see flowers greet her.
"All the way up the path to the door she will walk in an aisle of fragrance, and when she turns the handle of the old door she will find it unlocked, summer and winter, day and night, so that she has only to turn the knob and enter."

The little white-cheeked maid hovered at the threshold while I lifted the box cover and revealed the perfection of the American beauty buds that lay there, all dewy and fragrant. The eyes of the little maid were wide with wonder as she gazed, and because I had known flower-hunger I separated two stately blossoms from the glowing cluster and held them out to her.
"For me!" she gasped, and brought her lips down to them, gently. Then—"There's a high green jar downstairs you can have to stick your flowers in. You ain't got nothin' big enough in here, except your water pitcher. An' putting these grand flowers in a water pitcher—why, it'd be like wearing a silk dress over a flannel petticoat, wouldn't it?"
When the anemic little boarding-house slavey with the beauty-loving soul had fetched the green jar, I placed the shining stems in it with gentle fingers. At the bottom of the box I found a card that read: "For it is impossible to live in a room with red roses and still be traurig."
How well he knew! And how truly impossible to be sad when red roses are glowing for one, and filling the air with their fragrance!
The interruption was fatal to book-writing. My thoughts were a chaos of red roses, and anemic little maids with glowing eyes, and thoughtful young doctors with a marvelous understanding of feminine moods. So I turned out all the lights, undressed by moonlight, and, throwing a kimono about me, carried my jar of roses to the window and sat down beside them so that their exquisite scent caressed me.

A huge stove glowed red in one corner. On the wall behind the stove was suspended a wooden rack, black with age, its compartments holding German, Austrian and Hungarian newspapers. Against the opposite wall stood an ancient walnut mirror, and above it hung a colored print of Bismarck, helmeted, uniformed, and fiercely mustached. The clumsy iron-legged tables stood in two solemn rows down the length of the narrow room. Three or four stout, blond girls plodded back and forth, from tables to front shop, bearing trays of cakes and steaming cups of coffee. There was a rumble and clatter of German. Every one seemed to know every one else. A game of chess was in progress at one table, and between moves each contestant would refresh himself with a long-drawn, sibilant mouthful of coffee. There was nothing about the place or its occupants to remind one of America. This dim, smoky, cake-scented cafe was Germany.

Christmas at Knapf's had been a happy surprise; a day of hearty good cheer and kindness. There had even been a Christmas tree, hung with stodgy German angels and Pfeffernuesse and pink-frosted cakes. I found myself the bewildered recipient of gifts from everyone—from the Knapfs, and the aborigines and even from one of the crushed-looking wives. The aborigine whom they called Fritz had presented me with a huge and imposing Lebkuchen, reposing in a box with frilled border, ornamented with quaint little red-and-green German figures in sugar, and labeled Nurnberg in stout letters, for it had come all the way from that kuchen-famous city. The Lebkuchen I placed on my mantel shelf as befitted so magnificent a work of art. It was quite too elaborate and imposing to be sent the way of ordinary food, although it had a certain tantalizingly spicy scent that tempted one to break off a corner here and there.

Half an hour later I stood before the cottage, set primly in the center of a great lot that extended for half a square on all sides. A winter-sodden, bare enough sight it was in the gray of that March day. But it was not long before Alma Pflugel, standing in the midst of it, the March winds flapping her neat skirts about her ankles, filled it with a blaze of color. As she talked, a row of stately hollyhocks, pink, and scarlet, and saffron, reared their heads against the cottage sides. The chill March air became sweet with the scent of heliotrope, and Sweet William, and pansies, and bridal wreath. The naked twigs of the rose bushes flowered into wondrous bloom so that they bent to the ground with their weight of crimson and yellow glory. The bare brick paths were overrun with the green of growing things. Gray mounds of dirt grew vivid with the fire of poppies. Even the rain-soaked wood of the pea-frames miraculously was hidden in a hedge of green, over which ran riot the butterfly beauty of the lavender, and pink, and cerise blossoms. Oh, she did marvelous things that dull March day, did plain German Alma Pflugel! And still more marvelous were the things that were to come.

With my arm about her we walked down the path toward the old-fashioned arbor, bare now except for the tendrils that twined about the lattice. The arbor was fitted with a wooden floor, and there were rustic chairs, and a table. I could picture the sisters sitting there with their sewing during the long, peaceful summer afternoons. Alma Pflugel would be wearing one of her neat gingham gowns, very starched and stiff, with perhaps a snowy apron edged with a border of heavy crochet done by the wrinkled fingers of Grossmutter Pflugel. On the rustic table there would be a bowl of flowers, and a pot of delicious Kaffee, and a plate of German Kaffeekuchen, and through the leafy doorway the scent of the wonderful garden would come stealing.

Together Von Gerhard and I had visited Alma Pflugel's cottage, and the garden was blooming in all its wonder of color and scent as we opened the little gate and walked up the worn path. We found them in the cool shade of the arbor, the two women sewing, Bennie playing with the last wonderful toy that Blackie had given him. They made a serene and beautiful picture there against the green canopy of the leaves. We spoke of Frau Nirlanger, and of Blackie, and of the strange snarl of events which had at last been unwound to knit a close friendship between us. And when I had kissed them and walked for the last time in many months up the flower-bordered path, the scarlet and pink, and green and gold of that wonderful garden swam in a mist before my eyes.