He Whose Laugh Lasts

THERE was a man named Roper Browne and he had reached the middle thirties without ever having made a fool of himself. His parents, happily for them, were dead and he lived alone with one servant in an apartment in the East Sixties, where he wrote the satirical comedies which had brought him a small amount of money and a large succès d’estime. He was much sought after, for his wit was quick and corrosive, and although he had not laughed from the diaphragm since he was six, it was amazing the number of things he found to laugh at. He prided himself on his tolerance, although he was exquisitely intolerant of everything usual and normal. Like those lesser wits who build unconventionality into the rigidest of conventions, he had made an inflexibly dogmatic religion of heterodoxy. He would have been quite a good fellow if someone had beaten hell out of him about once a week.

Well, Mr. Browne had an aunt named Miss Agnes Slocum, who wore girlish hats and was thirty pounds overweight, owing to an inability to keep her mouth shut when a caramel was approaching it. Miss Slocum was kind, simple, romantic, talkative, and worth two million dollars. So Mr. Browne always accepted her invitations, which were usually for a long week-end at her country place and usually included a painfully healthy girl, smelling faintly of soap, in whom she hoped to interest him. For two million dollars is two million dollars even after the inheritance tax is taken out, and Mr. Browne had ways of discouraging healthy girls.

So one time when he went down Miss Slocum did not give him his usual room because of a dead mouse under the floor. ‘Come up,’ she said, ‘and I will show you where I am going to put you.’ And she led him upstairs and threw open a door and said, ‘I always call this room The Bower because of the wallpaper — are n’t the rosebuds sweet? And I know you will like it, Roper.’ And she went to the window and said, ‘There is such a lovely view of the garden. And at dusk,’ she said, lowering her voice and raising a forefinger, ‘if you watch v-e-r-y carefully you may see the little elves at play. And when you come downstairs,’ she added roguishly, ‘I have someone I want you to meet.’

‘Oh God,’ sighed Mr. Browne when she had gone, and he smiled commiseratingly at himself in the glass and then he walked over and fingered the books on the table beside the bed. Miss Slocum always selected these books for her guests herself and of course she knew he would not like anything heavy. There were several volumes of Barrie and Milne and a new Wodehouse and the current Saturday Evening Post and New Yorker and, for more serious reading, Gone with the Wind. So Mr. Browne picked up the New Yorker and sat down by the window. And after a minute he smiled. It was not a prominent smile, being composed mainly of a slight quiver in the right cheek, but there were a lot of people in New York who would have been overjoyed to have said something to cause it. And after another minute he smiled again, and as that was certainly as much as he could expect of the New Yorker he laid it down and looked out of the window.

So he looked down across the garden and tried to imagine Barrie and Milne and Aunt Agnes reduced in size and frolicking with the fairies, and he thought it would be amusing to do a short piece on the subject which would be a riot of the most abysmal whimsy, only, of course, prudently leaving out Aunt Agnes. And he had begun to plan it when there was a flicker in the garden and he looked more closely, and there, climbing up a foxglove stalk, was a fairy.

Well, Mr. Browne was armored against the blows of fate with his invincible irony, but he was n’t armored against this. He rubbed his eyes and looked again, and then he closed them and dropped back in his chair, feeling a little sick at the stomach. ‘I have a visual imagination,’ he said to himself, ‘but my God, it has never been as visual as this, and I had better see my oculist at once.’ And after a moment he felt better, and without looking out again he went downstairs.

Well, there were a number of people on the terrace flourishing cocktails, and when he had flourished a couple too and had met everybody and found them all quite normally tiresome he was able to forget the fairy. The healthy girl was there too, and he knew her because of the archness with which Miss Slocum introduced and then left them. She was a sunburned redhead rather on the husky side, though remarkably pretty. She said, ‘Do you play golf?’ And he said, ‘Good God, no!’ And after a few interchanges like that he got rid of her all right.

Well, the redhead, whose name was Margery Ware, sat next him at dinner, but she did not say much, and as he was still too shaken by his terrible experience to be actively unpleasant she did not seem definitely inimical when they rose from table.

While the others were having coffee Mr. Browne drifted into the house and started up to his room. But halfway up the stairs he stopped and stood for a minute thinking, and then he gritted his teeth and turned and went straight out into the garden. First he walked up to the stalk of foxglove and examined it carefully. It seemed normal. He shrugged and went on past beds and borders and hedges till he came to the maze, which was a good maze, and the only thing in the garden that appealed to him. Inside the paths were dim now, but he went through to the middle and sat down on the stone bench. ‘My God, I do enjoy my own company,’ he said. And then something laughed.

Mr. Browne sat up straight. ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Who’s there?’ There was no answer for a second, and then the creature he had seen among the foxgloves bounded over the eight-foot hedge and stood on the grass in front of him. ‘Hello, Roper,’ said the fairy. ‘Well, that remark of yours certainly gave us a laugh. Do you think you’d like your own company if you knew what it was really like?’ ‘You — you’re not real!’ stammered Mr. Browne. ‘Neither are you,’ said the fairy. ‘Real? Not as real as a stomach-ache, hey?’ He pointed his finger and Mr. Browne doubled up with an excruciating cramp. Then the fairy snapped his fingers and the cramp was gone. ‘Just a demonstration,’ he said.

But Mr. Browne did not listen to any more. He was on his way out. He knew the maze well enough. But after taking the proper turns he came out, not in the garden, but in the centre plot again. He tried three times and then gave up and sank down breathless on the bench. And the fairy laughed and there was a chattering and giggling behind the hedge.

Presently, with an immense effort, Mr. Browne pulled himself together. ‘Forgive me,’ he said. ‘Miss Slocum told me I might expect to see you here, but frankly, you know, I don’t believe in you.’ ‘You’re a fool,’ said the fairy. ‘Miss Slocum is simple. But it’s not the same thing.’ ‘She thinks you’re awfully cute,’ said Mr. Browne. ‘Well, she thinks you’re cute too,’ said the fairy. ‘My God, I’m afraid you’re right,’ said Mr. Browne. ‘I’ve heard her say so.’ ‘Why are you ashamed of your aunt?’ asked the fairy. ‘Good heavens, I’m not ashamed of her,’ said Mr. Browne. ‘I’m not ashamed of anything.’ ‘ You ’re ashamed of everything,’ said the fairy, ‘ including yourself — that simple inferior little self that’s just like everybody else in the world. So you cover it up with a laugh. But it’s not a very good laugh. And that’s why we’re here. We’re going to give you a good laugh for once, Roper. Come on, boys.’

And with that they came pouring over the hedge. He never knew how many there were, for they fell upon him with yells of cold fairy laughter and tickled him. They tickled Mr. Roper Browne until he rolled screeching and panting and howling with hysterical laughter. He rolled and struggled and drooled and tore at the grass as those sharp devilish fingers searched out the hidden nerves and twanged upon them mercilessly. And then suddenly they were gone. And he sat up wiping the sweat from his forehead, with his diaphragm still quivering and heaving like a speared salmon, to see Miss Ware standing beside him.

‘Golly!’ said Miss Ware, peering at him through the dusk, and then she held out her hand and pulled him to his feet. For perhaps the first time since he had learned to talk Mr. Browne was unable to think of anything to say. He knew only that he had made almost an obscene exhibition of himself before this commonplace girl. And yet he was glad somehow that she was there. ‘I heard you laughing,’ she said. ‘Miss Slocum sent me to find you. We’re going to play charades. I did n’t know you could laugh.’ Mr. Browne did n’t say anything.

She led him out of the maze and back to the house. She talked as they went along and he realized that she was doing it to cover his embarrassment. He tried to resent it, for he abhorred kindness, but he found he was grateful. When they reached the house Miss Ware and another girl chose up sides and to his surprise he was her first choice. They did staccato, and for the first syllable Miss Ware was to be burned at the stake as a witch. ‘You’ll do that well,’ she said to Mr. Browne. ‘I think you’re the kind that burned witches.’ ‘A Puritan?’ said Air. Browne. ‘Not a Puritan,’ said Miss Ware. ‘No. You’d only burn the normal people, would n’t you? A bigot.’ ‘You don’t like me very well, do you?’ said Mr. Browne indifferently. ‘Not very well,’ said Miss Ware. ‘Should I?’ And Mr. Browne said, ‘Heavens, no! We’re too utterly different.’ ‘Yes,’ said Miss Ware, ‘you have the bigot’s narrowness with only two alternating emotions — contempt and self-satisfaction. That laugh I heard could n’t have been you.’

She was n’t being kind any more, and Mr. Browne began to like her better, though the change displeased him, somehow, too. They went on with the charades. It was a form of entertainment which Mr. Browne had always thought incredibly puerile, but unfortunately he was unable to register this impression because his diaphragm was still under incomplete control and he kept bursting into hearty laughter, which puzzled Miss Ware, pleased Miss Slocum, and seemed perfectly natural to the others — all of which irritated Mr. Browne.

Well, the hell of it was that the next day the hearty laugh continued. Mr. Browne’s overstimulated diaphragm had got completely out of control. A mere giggle from someone else was enough to set it heaving, and then his mouth would open and out would come a dreadful fullbellied ‘Haw-haw!’ It was exactly as if he were being tickled, and indeed perhaps he was, though none of those horrible little creatures — he could not even to himself speak of them as elves or fairies — was visible. What was worse was that he began to rationalize these laughs and almost persuaded himself several times that the occasion for them was really funny.

As a result everybody began to like him. He had never experienced liking before. It made everything a little strange, as if he were bewitched. People asked him to play games or take walks and a Mrs. Barlow told him all about her winter in Honolulu and Miss Slocum said, ‘Why, Roper, it’s so nice seeing you enjoy yourself! You’re quite blossoming out.’ Even Miss Ware said, ‘I’m sorry I was nasty to you last night. But you were quite nasty to me, you know.’ ‘Well,’ said Mr. Browne, ‘were n’t we predestined to quarrel, since Aunt Agnes so obviously hopes we’ll like each other?’ ‘I don’t see why that should influence you one way or the other,’ said Miss Ware. ‘Ah,’ said Mr. Browne, ‘you have n’t been the object of Aunt Agnes’s matrimonial plots for ten years.’ ‘Oh, you were afraid of me,’ said Miss Ware. ‘Well, still your fears and come on down to the tennis court with the others. Are you going to hang around the house all day?’

Well, Mr. Browne had indeed been going to stay indoors, for the thought of the garden, where God knew what lurked beneath the leaves, was terrifying. But he went. ‘She’s so damned sane,’ he said to himself, ‘those cursed visions can’t come when she’s around.’

They sat down on the grass and watched the play. Mr. Browne smelt the usual faint smell of soap, but it was rather nice soap. They talked and she told him a lot of things about herself which are of no interest to us, and Mr. Browne’s diaphragm heaved at appropriate moments and the laugh came out. And then once he laughed all by himself. And then he sat up sharply very straight, and said, ‘Oh!’

‘What is it?’ said Miss Ware. ‘Are you — is anything—’ ‘I laughed,’ said Mr. Browne rather stupidly. ‘Evidently it surprises you as much as it does me,’ said Miss Ware. Mr. Browne looked rather fixedly a moment and then said, ‘Come over into the maze with me, will you?’ So she got up, looking puzzled, and they went into the maze and sat down on the stone bench. And Mr. Browne said, ‘Tell me what you saw in here last night.’

So Miss Ware smiled and said, ‘ Well, I saw you rolling around and laughing and being silly all by yourself and I changed my idea about you. Because I like people who don’t mind being silly — even as silly as you certainly acted.’ ‘I don’t think I understand that,’ said Mr. Browne, looking perplexed. ‘I was making a fool of myself.’ ‘Well, that’s permissible,’ said Miss Ware. ‘What is not permissible is to try to make a fool of other people.’ ‘Listen,’ said Mr. Browne. ‘Something rather frightful happened to me here last night. I can tell you — I’ve got to tell you about it because — oh, because you saw me stripped bare of all my pretensions and defenses.’ ‘ I was n’t making fun of you! ’ she broke in angrily. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Listen.’ And he told her what had happened.

When he finished he got up and turned partly away from her. ‘God help me,’ he said, ‘it’s pure whimsy, even to the gossamer wings and the little red caps. And yet I know it’s true!’ He turned. ‘Is it whimsical?’ he asked. ‘Miss Slocum would love it,’ she said, smiling. ‘I was afraid so,’ he said bitterly. ‘You see, I can’t really tell, because it was real.’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But feeling about me — about people — as you do, why did you tell me?’ ‘Because your seeing me like that did something to me,’ he said. ‘You know, somehow, all there is to know. The worst. So that with you I feel — safe. Secure. Whether I like it or not — whether you like it or not.’ He burst into loud frank laughter. ‘To have fairies happen to me!’ he shouted.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Ware, ‘it could n’t have been funnier. And yet,’ she said, ‘I’m glad it happened.’ ‘Why do you say that?’ he said. ‘For your sake,’ said Miss Ware. He looked at her steadily and said, ‘And not at all — for yours?’ ‘Why not?’ she said and put her hand on his and looked into his eyes. Then she got up. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘you have seen me — as I am.’

Well, it may seem strange to you that Mr. Browne, who always had the last word to put the final flourish to a conversation, had nothing to say to that. He took her hand and together they walked out of the maze and down past the tennis players without seeing them, and they did n’t get back until long after dinnertime.

I wish I could tell you that they were married and lived happily ever after and that Mr. Browne’s laugh got into his next comedy and made it literally a howling success. But as a matter of fact, although they were married and did indeed live very happily, Mr. Browne never wrote any more comedies, for Miss Slocum died the next year and he and Mrs. Browne moved to California. And his laugh grew on him and began to be susceptible to even the most trivial stimuli, such as radio gags. They say he has now taken to making puns.