Disturbing Charm


6. 1-6 The Clutching Of The Charm

"Fights all his battles o'er again;
And thrice he charged the foe, and thrice he slew the slain."


"Un aviateur, un de ces demi-dieux dont l'existence sur terre doit être courte. (La lumière dont ils procèdent les rappelle bientôt. On croit qu'ils tombent, mais ils remontent.)"

Marcel Astruc.

It came from the right, therefore it must be in the bedroom next to hers on the wall encircled by the balcony.

Quick as thought, Mrs. Cartwright ran a few steps along the balcony. Yes; the next window stood wide open. She dashed into the room, flooded with moonlight; white light that showed up, clearer than a star-shell, the figure of Mr. Awdas, the young wounded flying-officer, sitting bolt upright in his bed, with his eyes still closed, his mouth too working, and his face as the face of Death itself.

She ran to him, took him by the shoulder.

"Wake up! Wake up!" she called, clearly and firmly, in the voice which had often delivered her small son Keith from the bane of his childhood, nightmare. "Wake up, it's just a dream!"

A great shudder rocked the young man, he opened his eyes. Their wild stare met the woman's face, the woman's white-clad figure bending over him. "Oh Lord! Sister," he muttered. "It all came again. Oh, Lord! I thought I was crashing. I----"

"It all came again. Oh, Lord! I thought I was crashing!----"

Shuddering again, shaking like a leaf, he threw out his hands and grasped Mrs. Cartwright's arms, his fingers burying themselves in her flesh. "Don't leave me," he sobbed, hoarsely. "For God's sake don't leave me, Sister!"

Before Mrs. Cartwright could speak the door of his bedroom was flung open. There burst in a group of people in night attire, a group heterogeneous and agitated as on a raid night or at a fire, roused by the alarm of that sudden scream in the darkness, demanding "Qu'est-ce qu'il y a donc?" ... "What's up?..."

Mrs. Cartwright, pinned in the grip of the young man's shaking hands, had only time to realize two of these people, the portly French manager, draped in an eider-down and looking (as she afterwards said) a perfect advertisement for Michelin tyres, and Captain Ross, in violently-striped pyjamas, when she saw the door gently but firmly closing upon all of the invaders but Captain Ross.

In a curious medley of idiom Captain Ross was reassuring the others.

"It's all right. C'est seulement Monsieur de l'Audace. He's been drrrriming again; songe, crasher; comprenez? Pardon me, but please allez vous en. I guess we can fix him, me and this lady. Bon nuit!"

A final glimpse of open-mouthed faces, seen over dressing-gowned shoulders, and then the door clicked upon the murmuring, dispersing throng. Captain Ross, barefoot, turned back to the bed where his friend, utterly unnerved, was shaking as if with fever. His fingers still gripped the arms that had first been held out to him; his wet forehead was now pressed to a woman's shoulder, as if to shut out from his sight a vision of horror.

"Oh Lord!" he groaned.

"All over, Jack. Put a pipe on," said Captain Ross quietly.

And Mrs. Cartwright glancing at him over that rumpled head buried on her shoulder, beheld a Captain Ross quite new to her; not merely the finest judge of women in Europe, but the fine comrade of men. It was with an admirable mixture of gentleness and matter-of-factness that he spoke, moving as he did so quietly and quickly about the room; closing the shutters, to banish the ghastly radiance of the moon; turning up the yellow, mercifully ordinary lights; finding flask, a tobacco, pipe, and matches; handier and swifter with his one arm than many a man with two.

"Put a pipe on, man. Here. No? All right; presently. Rotten luck; I thought we were clear of these attacks. It's this darned moon.... He was shot down in the moonlight, I heard.... We used to get 'em every week one time, Mrs. Cartwright; the whole ward pulled up standing, and the girls on night duty thinking it was blue murder, I guess, the first time. I knew when I heard him; we were in hospital together."

"He thought he was still in hospital when he saw me," put in Mrs. Cartwright softly.

"Is that so? You only reached him first by seconds, I guess; I was up before he'd finished hollering," said Captain Ross, with a glance at the spent boy who was leaning up against the woman, his face still hidden, his breath coming in gasps. "It was a baddish go, this trip. A drink, man?"

Young Awdas shook his head without raising it. "I'm ... all right. Dashed sorry ... all right in a second...."

"Give it him presently," murmured Captain Ross; then glancing at the woman beside the bed, "There won't be much sleeping for him or me; but it's no reason why you should lose your night's rest, Mrs. Cartwright. I'm staying. No need for you to wait up any longer."

But at this, those clutching hands of the boy gripped her tight again, closing upon the silken folds above her breast. She answered the quick involuntary appeal, feeling herself caught back to the times when little Keith, waking in fright, had clutched her, and cried: "Don't go Mums! I want you to stay with me!"

"I'm not going," she said, just as she had said then. She let herself slip down in a sitting posture to the edge of the bed.

Captain Ross paused, with another swift glance at the group.

"You'll stay with him?"

"Of course."

"I guess he's better in your hands; I'll leave him there," said Captain Ross with a nod. He glanced about, picked up the thick dressing-gown that lay over the bed-rail, and tucked it like a railway rug about her. Then he turned to the door. "I'm just across the corridor. If you want anything, just call, ever so softly. I shall hear."

He went out, leaving Mrs. Cartwright to the oddest vigil she had ever spent. For the first time she found herself watching through the small hours in the company of a wounded lad who had come through that Hell which is not always left behind on the battlefield. They bring some of it away with them, too many of these boys! its fiery traces still impressed upon mind and brain and nerve, however plucky. Its memory persists, robbing them of laughter, despoiling them of that dreamless perfect sleep which is Youth's heritage, making of night a thing to be dreaded.

So this young airman, who had been shot down in an air duel one moonlight night last spring, must live it through again and again before he might live it away....

Presently he raised his head. He began to mutter.

She listened, pitifully, knowing that the lad scarcely knew even yet whom he was holding--save that it was human, and friendly, and warm. He scarcely cared to whom he was babbling in hoarse little snatches, incoherently--save that it was a woman, and kind.

"Five--five of them! Five Australians!" he began, suddenly. "You know what splendid fine chaps.... I had to watch.... I was lying ... out there ... pinned under the wing. They ... they tried to get at me with stretchers--six times they tried ... came across No Man's Land...."

"Yes; but you were dreaming," she said, in the most soothing tone of her deep voice. "You just had a bad dream----"

"No, No! It was what happened," he said hoarsely. "They were trying to bring me in after I'd crashed. Those blighters ... turned a machine-gun on to them. They did in five. I--I saw it!"

She could only look at him, only give him the comfort of her touch, could only put out to him, silently, all the pity that was in her.

He took one hand away for a moment, passed it back over his hair in the known gesture of the flyer who adjusts his crest like cap, then returned his clasp to her arm.

He began again:

"I ... I never take an Australian's salute in the street without remembering ... that!... I had to lie there ... couldn't lift ... finger. Five of them, were stretched out ... killed.... Just for me! My God! Think of it----" He seemed about to break down once more.

"Hush!" Mrs. Cartwright said, steadily. She bent her eyes upon his. "Hush! One can't think like that. It's impossible."

"Those splendid chaps----"

"S'sh! Remember only that they were killed doing one of the finest things a soldier is called to do," interrupted the soldier's widow, quickly. "Remember that their people would be proud to know how it happened. They volunteered to save you; took their chance. Think how your own people would have been proud, Mr. Awdas----"

"Yes," he muttered, letting her hold his eyes, clinging to her for the strength that had slipped.

She repeated, firmly: "When you see Australians in the street, think only of that;"

"Yes," said the youngster, simply. "Yes.... All right, I will."

When he next spoke there was a thought less strain in his husky voice.

"I'm everlastingly sorry, routing people up like this. They got quite fed-up in the hospital.... I couldn't help it.... Falling, falling--oh, it's beastly.... So weird, too.... You wouldn't think.... Well, I couldn't take more than about two and a half minutes to crash, could I?"

"I suppose not," she said, forcing herself to be as matter-of-fact as Captain Ross had been.

"Two and a half minutes; well, it seemed a week, at least. Absolutely. It always seems a week till I come down.... Down, down, down--I seemed to have time to think ... no end of things. I yelled out to my observer.... That's why I always shout in those dreams of mine.... I was falling, falling; and calling out to my observer, trying to make him hear. He was killed."

"Was he?" she responded gently--not too gently, lest he should melt.

"Yes! He was dead before we came down. Jolly good chap, my observer. (Ross knew him.) Ferris, his name was. The first time we went up together over the Boche lines, I remember his saying to me: 'Now, when you hear a dog bark, don't take any notice; it's only Archie!'"

Here the ghost of a smile seemed hovering about the young flyer's face. Mrs. Cartwright did not speak; but surely the warm sympathy that flowed from her caught him in some restoring current. His voice grew less strained with every sentence.

"It's--it's a funny thing how fond one gets of one's observer; the man one's always with. Each of you depending so much on the other, I suppose; being for it together, always together. You've no idea what pals one gets. I--I sometimes think there can be nothing like it. We were pals; I was sick; they'd done him in----"

Mrs. Cartwright nodded; listening to the husky English boy's voice, that seemed to fill this room of a sleeping, silent French hotel, and hearing also in her heart that immortal plaint of the young fellow-soldier mourning down the ages--"I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan...."

"D'you know, I sometimes think there can be nothing else in the world as good as just friendship. To be absolute friends with some other fellow," young Awdas said presently; shyly, but earnestly looking into the woman-face so near him. Without speaking a word, Mrs Cartwright was encouraging him to talk on and on. Yes; let him talk--of Friendship or the Differential Calculus, if he liked; anything, rather than let him be haunted again by this useless, this unreasoning Remorse that he had been the death of five other brave men--or by this dream of falling, falling. He talked on, sitting up; taking his hands at last from her (badly-marked) arms and clasping them about his knees.

"Absolute friends," he mused. "Understanding everything the other chap means, or doesn't mean. Not minding if he's ratty sometimes; being ratty yourself if you want to, and going off on your own, knowing it'll be all right whenever you come back. Good times or rotten times, always with him. Not seeing each other for ages, perhaps. Then finding him just the same. Caring for all the things you're keenest about; barring the same things. I don't think it could be ever exactly like that with a girl."

"Never," murmured Mrs. Cartwright; "the girl will be more to you or less to you, but not the same."

"A girl would never be more to me," said young Awdas, and now his voice sounded almost normal. He broke off suddenly, and turned to her protestingly. "Mrs. Cartwright, I don't know what you must think of me. Keeping you up like this----Good Lord! it's three o'clock. Sitting there, catching cold----?"

"I'm never cold."

"And I'm all right now. Please--please do go to bed."

Mrs. Cartwright smiled obstinately. "My good young man, I am on night-duty. You called me 'Sister' yourself when I came in. I am going to be 'Sister' for once."

"You're too good," he said, with a sigh of obvious relief that she was not going. "I couldn't sleep ... but why should you miss yours?"

"I couldn't sleep now, either; I couldn't have slept. I'd only just finished working when you called out. I shall stay"--she tucked the dressing-gown a little more closely about her--"and----No, I won't have a cigarette. I'll light one for you, however. And here's your drink, and I shall just stay and talk to you until you go to sleep."

"Too good," he said again, taking the cigarette from her hand and giving her a shyly grateful glance. "I've been bucking no end--I don't know why--I don't generally talk a lot."

She knew it; knew also that the distraught boy would not have talked to a man as he had let himself babble, almost hysterically, to her. (It is only women, the so-called talkative sex, who could give statistics of how much men talk, and of what they will talk, upon occasion!) Up to that night, he had not exchanged a dozen sentences with her since they had been staying at the hotel. That same evening, when Mrs. Cartwright and his friend Ross had chipped each other in the salon over her "Manual of Courtship," had been the first occasion that Awdas had found himself sitting next to this tall countrywoman of his.

But now he turned his eyes upon her as if she were all that is meant by the word Home.

These wakeful, solitary, strange hours had made them friends such as two years of ordinary companionship could not have seen them. Both knew that never again could they be mere hotel acquaintances.

She looked at the face that was falling at last into lines of composure; no longer a white mask of strain and anguish. Colour was coming back, and a smile took the place of that intently thinking ghost behind the blue eyes. He lifted that small head, set so eagle-wise upon the wide shoulders, breathed more deeply; and she knew that it was she who had restored him, this fallen cloud-sweeper. Fancifully she thought of his daring job as something still verging on the super-human; after all, these flying lads, with their freedom of one element more, are the half-gods of our time. She thought of that myth of the other half-god Antaëus, who, to gain fresh life, must draw it from the touch of earth; and she remembered that Woman (that last creature to be civilized) is still generations nearer than man to the healing soil. Yes; she had healed him.

Without showing him that she did so, she studied his face, with its soft fruit-like oval that does not survive the first quarter of a century. Twenty-two! He seemed, as most young soldiers do nowadays, more than his age. Yet in some ways he looked younger.

After a puff or two of cigarette-smoke had risen into the air, she asked gently, "Why did you say, just now, that a girl could never mean more to you than friendship?"

He said simply, "I don't know. Perhaps it is because I don't really know any girls much. They've never come my way."

"Not?" she exclaimed, scarcely believing this.

He said quite seriously: "You know it makes a lot of difference when one hasn't any sisters. I haven't any; there were just three of us; me, and my brother in the Navy, and the Nipper--the youngest. (Cadet Corps.) My people live in the country, you know--Kent. It's not a bad old place; orchards and a moat for punting about on when we were kids, and the paddock. We had quite a decent time. But there were no girls in the house."

Mrs. Cartwright suggested "Other people's sisters?"

"Not often. My mother used to try and get girls to stay with her sometimes, but----" He moved his wide shoulders. "It was rather a wash-out. When there aren't other girls to come for, you know. There's a sort of feeling of their having been dragged in. Everybody's shy and stiff. At least, they were; the girls who came. I suppose that's why I haven't thought much of girls. They always seemed a nuisance, and self-conscious, you know. Wooden. Glad when it was time for them to go, and I can tell you I was. They were thundering difficult to talk to."

Mrs. Cartwright, always ready to hear of the bringing-up of boys, gave thanks inwardly that her Keith and Reggie possessed countless girl-cousins who were to them as sisters; creatures dispossessed of glamour, but a channel into those fields where glamour ripens. Then she said, softly, to this other boy: "But when you went away from Home, when you came up to Town, and--oh, all that sort of thing, like other young men of your age, surely you met plenty of girls who were--well! Easy enough to talk to?"

He nodded slightly. "Oh, yes; one met those. But----" There crept over his face the look that some think is more often to be seen in these days of Emancipation than in more guarded times; the scrutiny of the young man who is at least as fastidious in his love affairs as the young woman. "They weren't very amusing either--or, probably, I wasn't--to them. Of course, one knows lots of top-hole fellows who were always about with girls. Permanent address: 'Stagedoor, Frivolity,' sort of thing. But when I got leave, I'd just as soon go round with my people, or poor old Ferris, or some other fellow----"

He had finished his cigarette, and leant his fair rumpled head back on the pillow.

Mrs. Cartwright, watching it, knew suddenly and certainly that--but for his own mother and his nurses at that hospital--she was the first woman who had seen it thus.

Then she could hardly check the smile that rose to her lips; for there was stealing over his face a look that made it not merely boyish, but little-boyish. A film was blurring those keen blue eyes; he opened them more widely, precisely as she had seen the eyes of little Keith open widely, obstinately, against her breast when he was dropping with the sleep that he defied. Young Awdas, she saw, was fighting down a well-disguised yawn. For a moment there was silence in the bright, isolated room. Then he said, "Mrs. Cartwright, do go to bed."

"I am not sleepy."

"No, nor am I," with a drowsy smile. "If you go, I'll get out a book and read until it's time to get up."

"Don't do that," she said. "I suppose you wouldn't try and go to sleep for a bit?"

"I couldn't." The blue eyes opened again fixedly upon her face. "I----"

It seemed in the midst of the sentence that his lashes fell against his cheeks, closely and suddenly as the lashes of her babies used to fall. In the idiom of those old days he was "off," he was "down."

Afraid of moving, to snap off the lights, lest she might disturb the sleeper, she sat on, watching that peaceful face, that broad chest heaving rhythmically. She sat, watching him; or letting her glance take in the room with his neat, soldier-like appointments; his folding-case for brushes and shaving-kit, his one photograph (obviously of his mother) in a celluloid glazed frame, his leather writing-case, with his name and the name of his Corps printed in ink on the cover. Her eyes upturned to him, as she sat--thinking ... thinking....

It was nearly five o'clock when the door opened cautiously, and Captain Ross, that adequate campaigner, entered, with a Service dressing-gown over his zebra-stripes, and carrying two steaming cups of excellently-made tea. His glance fell upon Jack Awdas, slumbering like a child. Mrs. Cartwright, rather cramped, rather chilled, and rather drawn in the face between her straight-falling plaits of hair, was still sitting there like a statue, in a white robe with gold patterns, from the folds of which there peeped an end of narrow pink ribbon--the ribbon which held, hidden at her breast, and all unsuspected, a Charm.