Disturbing Charm


10. 1-10 Divagations Of The Charm

"There's a girl wanted there, there's a girl wanted there,
And he don't care if she's dark or fair,
There's a nice little home that she's wanted to share."

Song of the Past.

The scene with which the last chapter closed would have been further undeniable proof to Olwen of the too-potent success of her talisman, had she known of it. But how about the working of the Charm, as it had been mapped out by herself?

As it was, guessing nothing as yet of how it had drawn to her friend, Mrs. Cartwright, the adoration of quite the wrong man, the girl was already in a mood of dissatisfaction. Chiefly, perhaps, because half the day was over, without a word or look for her from Captain Ross. It is true that the young Staff officer had announced the evening before that he guessed he was going to take the following day out in the open. But if her Charm had been strong as she had hoped it, Captain Ross would scarcely have wished to leave the hotel for an entire day while she (Olwen) was in it? Yet, how magic had been its effect in the case of Miss Walsh and her sergeant! They (the fiancés) were now inseparable, rather to the scandal of the French contingent, new to the code of the English betrothed. Olwen scarcely had a word with her friend, except for good night! Well, the unchaperoned Miss Walsh was entirely happy. That was one ray of brightness in the gloom of little Olwen's mood, for even she was now coming round to Mrs. Cartwright's expressed view that it was better to be happy with a quite unsuitable partner than to be bored with one who is apparently "cut out" for one. So much for what the Charm had done for Agatha Walsh.

But what about Olwen herself? What about Mrs. Cartwright? What about little Mr. Brown?... To the girl, in her present impatient frame of mind, there seemed to be absolutely "nothing doing," as Captain Ross would have said.

That very afternoon, when she and her Uncle were closeted together in that bare, shining study-room of his, she had tried to draw a discussion of Mrs. Cartwright into the rewriting of the Professor's article on old Welsh flower-names, but the old man was not to be diverted from his own subject.

"Never mind Mrs. Cartwright's new dress now, Olwen fach," he'd said, indulgently, but firmly. "Clothes, clothes, and stuffs----! Get on with this, now----" And he had laid down close to her typewriter a further page of notes, in his all but indecipherably small handwriting:

"Fox-glove--Bysedd cwn (Hound's fingers).
Mullein--Canwyll yr adar (Bird's candle).
Cotton-grass--Sidan y waun (Moor silk).
Snowdrops--Clych Maban (Baby's bells)...."

Olwen had tapped out a dozen of these names on a fresh sheet of paper, thinking, rebelliously: "Well, I don't see that these are any more important than 'clothes and stuffs' that one's got to wear; Certainly not half as important as an awfully nice woman whom Uncle might be marrying all this time. I do call it a waste----" Then, as she pushed the roller of her machine along the carrier again, a more optimistic thought had struck her. "Perhaps he's making up his mind to propose to her now."

"Perhaps he won't----Good gracious, what handwriting! What's this?

"'Briony--Paderau gatti (Cat's Rosary).'

"Perhaps he won't just say a word to me about Mrs. Cartwright, or how that goldeny jumper suits her, on purpose. He's afraid I might guess!"

Then the optimism had faded again into gloom.... Mechanically she finished her work, stamped the letters, tidied up the table after her Uncle had gone. She ought to write home, she knew. She owed letters to Auntie Margaret, who kept the big rambling house in Carnarvonshire for the family, and to her sisters Peggy and Myfanwy, and to some of the cousins. (The Howel-Jones family was as big and rambling as that old house of theirs.) But Olwen was in no mood for writing any letters of her own. She took out some picture postcards of the place, one showing the edge of the pine-forest silhouetted against the sea, one of the Baissin all a-flutter with the sails of yachts (a flight of giant butterflies) on regatta day, and one of a wave, marbled with foam, about to break on Biscay shore. On these Olwen scribbled messages to her home-people; then she took them up with her Uncle's letters, and ran out of the hotel to post them at the little bureau opposite to where the tramway started for Arcachon. Then, since there was nothing else to do until dinner-time, she turned to ramble in that forest that seemed to fling out its green, deep arms towards human beings clustered in their houses and villas, their hotels, and their chattering groups between its edge and the margin of the sea. That forest seemed to draw them as if it too held at its hidden heart some disturbing Charm, thought Olwen fancifully, as she roamed out westwards, apparently alone, but always in her thoughts accompanied by a sturdy compact form in khaki with scarlet tabs, his right sleeve tucked into his pocket, his gaze confident as the tone of his voice. Only, in her inmost thoughts, that voice was not wont to tease and laugh, and "rag" her, as in everyday life. She put, into the unexpectedly beautiful womanish mouth under that toothbrush moustache, the tone and the words that she would have wished to hear from it ... and one can hazard a guess at the feelings of Captain Ross and of most other young men could they but listen to the dream-language given to the dream-images of themselves by the girls who are interested in them.

Little Olwen's guileless imaginings, for instance, murmured, "Olwen! My sweetheart! My own, sweet, sweet little girl! No, no; I have never cared for any one else in my life. All my life I have been waiting for YOU; the one girl who was made for me. Tell me you've never cared for any one either; ah yes, darling! Tell me. Do tell me. I shan't be able to sleep all tonight unless you do----" Thus the Captain Ross of Olwen's maiden reverie.

"Then," she mused, with her head down and her eyes on the unseen carpet of pine needles, "I'd tease him for half an hour before I did tell him there'd never been anybody, seriously, but him. And then at last--yes, then I'd let him kiss me. Two or three times running, even," decided this abandoned Olwen, as she roamed the forest that might have been Arden, or Eden, or the woods of her native Wales, for all she noticed of it in her daydream.

Into that dream there broke a loud and cheerful shout of "Hullo, hullo, hullo, hullo!"

Olwen jumped on the path, glanced quickly to the right, and then found that she had reached, without knowing that she had come so far, that clearing among the pine-trunks where the paths converged upon the woodcutter's hut.

Upon that place the hand of Change had fallen. Those giant bramble-runners had been thrust aside from the entrance to it; a pile of green canvas camp-kit leant against the log-wall; a khaki coat and a service cap were hung upon the outstretched arm of the nearest tree; and, just within the open doorway, a small figure in shirt-sleeves was standing working. With the end of a bough, used as a maul, he was driving four stumpy stakes at right angles into the pine-needle strewn floor of the hut.

"Harry Tate, in 'Moving House,' that's what this is supposed to represent!" explained Mr. Brown cheerfully, as Olwen came up. "What d'you think of my little grey home in the West? Palatial and desirable family residence, is it not? (Not.) Standing in its own park-like grounds." He dropped the maul. "Allow me----"

He lifted the little green canvas chair out from among the pile of the other things, pulled the four legs of it into position, and set it on an even piece of ground close to the doorway.

"Take a pew, Miss Howel-Jones," said Mr. Brown, and Olwen sat down, laughing. In a whisk the shadowy and adorable companion of her dream had been for the moment banished. She turned to this substantial but unthrilling young man of everyday life.

"Are you really going to live out here?" she asked.

"Got to," said Mr. Brown, with a business-like nod of his bullet-head. He returned to his post just inside the doorway, and went on driving in his stake. She watched him; asked him what those were for?

"Table," he explained between thumps. "They're lending me a table-top from the hotel. (Very decent the old girl was as soon as she realized I wasn't going to do a flit without paying my bill.) These stakes are going to be the four legs, d'you see? Then I stick the festive board on top of 'em. Old Ross is bringing it along presently; he's been lending a hand."

"Oh, has he?" said Olwen, looking round with great interest at the rest of the furniture. "Are those all the things you've had in Camp, I suppose?"

"Things somebody's had in Camp," grinned the little subaltern. "I think----Yes, that is my bucket, with 'Brown' painted on it; but none of the other things seem to be mine. I've snaffled a lot of other fellows' kit. But then, they've snaffled mine--or where is it? The bed's marked 'Capt. Smith,' and the bath 'Robinson'--I'd better paint Crusoe in front o' that, eh? Monarch of all I survey touch."

She watched him as he drove in the last stake; then he turned, put down the clump of wood with which he had been hammering, and began to drag out the light, canvas-covered furniture.

"Shall I help you with that?" suggested the girl, idly, half rising.

He waved her back with his pink hands. "No! No! You sit here and watch me and talk to me. Having a pretty young lady to look on and make things pleasant when you're doing a job of work; what could be nicer?" prattled little Mr. Brown, picking up the camp-bed that, under his short arm, gave him rather the appearance of an ant carrying a twig. "There! I'll have done the lot before Ross comes back with that table-top; I bet he's getting in another drink while he's about it. Talking of drinks, won't you allow me to offer you a little light refreshment? Such as my humble mansion can afford; here you are----"

As he spoke he took his knife out of his pocket and gave a cut at one of those ten-foot bramble-runners that had sprawled before the doorway of the hut. He held it out; it was covered with clusters of those soft, juicy blackberries that grow largest in the shade.

"Try our fresh gathered fruit, at market prices," chattered the London-bred lad; he took the cut end of the prickly runner and stuck it between two logs of the wall, just to Olwen's hand. "There you are, you see. Help yourself, won't you?"

Olwen picked and ate a couple of the sweet cones, black and glossy as her own little hatless head. Then she held out half a dozen on her pink palm to her host. "Won't you have one?"

"Chuck it in," he said, from where he was squatting turning over the things in his hold-all, which was spread out on the ground almost at her feet. "Three shies a penny, Miss! Try your luck----"

He put back his head, opened his large pink mouth. He looked almost like a big bull-pup, to whom the girl was teaching, with lumps of sugar, the trick of "Trust" and "Paid for." Smilingly Olwen took aim with one blackberry after another, missing twice to each one that she dropped into the mouth not so far from her knee; a babyish game enough! But their combined ages scarcely reached forty-two. Their laughter rang pleasantly through the trees, greeting the ears of Captain Ross as he strode up with the light wooden table-top tucked under his left arm.

And it was quite an idyllic little picnic group that met his eyes in that woodland glade of green and russet-brown: the little lady-bird of a girl, black-headed and red-coated, enthroned there on that camp-chair set under the trees, and taking aim from a handful of fruit at the open-mouthed, wholesome-faced boy kneeling before those absurdly small boots of hers.

Perhaps the little slinger of blackberries aimed more successfully, at that moment, than she knew; hitting, as Woman often does, another mark than the one at which she looks.

Perhaps the Authority on Woman was not too pleased to see another man allowed a glance at his (the Authority's) special study, even at a stray page of it?

But it was with quite a genial "good afternoon" that Captain Ross set down the table-top beside the other furniture.

"Well, that's that, Brown," he said.

"Ah, thank you," from the other young officer. "Much obliged, I'm sure. Now, we'll fix this on to here----"

Olwen darted forward to help with the table-top, but the two young men had managed without her.

"That's the ticket. Now, Ross! What about this for a scene in a Canadian lumber camp? Yes; there's water over there, and I've got my old spirit-kettle. Might turn an honest penny, too, by giving teas in the forest. Parties catered for, eh? The Old Bull and Bush touch. Who speaks for the job of the pretty waitress?" with a cheerful grin at Olwen. "What, are you going on, Ross? I thought you'd come to lend a hand at my flit. Don't go. Stop and watch me work, anyway."

"I guess not," said the Staff Officer, with a flash of his splendid teeth, and with the gesture that always tore at Olwen's sympathy, the forward shrug of the shoulder that should have moved his right arm. "I'd just hate to think I was in anybody's way----" He saluted, without looking at Miss Howel-Jones any more than she was looking at him.

Another moment and his scarlet tabs had ceased to brighten that glade of a French wood, that heart of a Welsh maid.

Poor little Olwen sat there by Mr. Brown's hut, feeling as if she could with her own hands have pulled it down about his ears, just for sheer exasperation. It's true that he, Mr. Brown, was wearing the Charm that her own hand had tucked into his pocket--but that had no power over her here. Here she was, left! Left for the rest of the afternoon, possibly, in the company of a young man whom she didn't care if she never saw again. He could talk to her, it seemed; he could pick blackberries for her; he could suggest that she would make a pretty waitress.

But the one and only young man for whose attentions and compliments she would have wished--what did he do? Just chucked down, with a careless word, the table-top that he had been to fetch, and made off without a look or a thought for her, she told herself.

Yet she was wearing, as she always wore, hidden away next her heart, the disturbing Charm!

What was the meaning of that?

But for the engagement which it had already brought about, Olwen would have been forced to the conclusion that it was all a fraud, that Charm.

Couldn't be that for some people it possessed power, for others none at all?

Had it only no effect when it was worn by her, Olwen?

The "no" to this question came almost as she was asking it; but not in the way that the girl had wished.

Little Mr. Brown, having been busy as he chattered, unheeded by her! for the last ten minutes, had now moved into position the whole of his effects--except the canvas chair on which Olwen was sitting. His blue bulging eyes had glanced in her direction several times, as he pulled and shifted and set straight. Now he looked again, and at length.

"I say, you know, you do look top-hole, sitting there like that," he told her, suddenly. "Wish I'd got my little kodak that I had to leave at Southampton after all; I'd take a snap of you, just as you are. Sitting there, as if it were your own little place, and all----"

He paused, still looking at her with his head on one side. He had taken his coat down from the bough, and stood, one arm in a sleeve of it, while he considered Olwen as if from a new point of view.

He said: "It's just what it wants--what any house or cottage or anything wants. The little missus.... You'll be having a house of your own, o' course, one day."

Olwen shook her head. "Never," she said, with all the gloom of a temporary conviction.

"Oh! Come! Don't say that," Mr. Brown besought her, cheerily. "Course you will. All girls say they'll never marry, and all girls do, after all. All the pretty----All the ones like you, I'm sure."

"I shan't," persisted Olwen, a trifle cheered however. "I'm not pretty."

"Oh! Who's fishing for compliments?" laughed Mr. Brown. He jerked the other arm into his coat and began to fasten it. "If you don't mind me saying so, you're the prettiest girl in the place by miles. You are. I'm not the only person in the hotel who thinks so, either."

"Aren't you?" said Olwen, with a lift of her head, and of her heart. "Who----?"

"Why that old boy who keeps the hotel; old Leroux. He said you were 'très jolie' the other day, when you were passing the steps. I said 'wee, wee, très.' You've got such ripping eyes."

"I don't think they're anything," said Olwen, disconsolate again.

"They are," insisted little Mr. Brown, his pink, ordinary face becoming dignified by his sincerity. "And it's not only--not only that you've got a lovely little face. There's--well, I don't know what there is about it."

"A charm, perhaps," suggested Olwen, with would-be irony; but he took up quite gravely: "That's it! Just what I meant. A charm. One sort of feels glad there is the kind of think walking about. It's like the song

'When we was in the trenches
Fighting beside the Frenchies,
We'd 'a' given all we 'ad for a girl like 'er,
Wouldn't we, Bill?

Or something of that sort. Really now. Seriously. It is awfully topping to know there is a girl like you!"

Olwen shook her head again, laughed, deprecated.... Impossible to assert that she was offended at his homage, even from the wrong young man. She listened as the guileless Brown went on to tell her it was a very lucky man for whom she'd be making a little home, some day; and, by Jove, anybody might envy him----

"Very nice of you to say so," murmured Olwen, pink-eared, and ardently wishing that Captain Ross had stayed on to hear this declaration.

The next remark of Mr. Brown's seemed to have nothing to do with it.

"Well, the War can't go on for ever."

"No, I suppose not," said Olwen, uncertainly.

"And I suppose----Well, it oughtn't to be quite as hard for a chap to get some sort of a posish of his own afterwards," said little Mr. Brown, thoughtfully, and as if he were already looking ahead, to a time when he should no longer wear that uniform, that belt that he was fastening as he came and stood nearer to the girl, looking down.

"I mean to say, I'm not going back to any stuffy shop and serving a lot of old trout--I beg their pardons--ladies with two and a half yards of écru insertion, pay at the desk, please. Not much. 'Tisn't the life for me; I know it now. They ought to find something different for me, after this. They've got to. Don't you think so?"

"Oh yes," agreed Olwen, a little vaguely.

"Well! There you are! All sorts of things might happen, with luck, even if it's no good planning 'em out now," took up the cheery boyish voice; and then there was silence for a moment under the pines.

Then lowering the voice, he said: "I say, I'll tell you something. That little mascot I found"--he touched his coat--"that you tucked in there for me, I'll always keep that. Nobody else shall touch it, you bet."

Olwen rose from the chair, putting her hand on the back of it. She was suddenly a little fluttered, as if by some ripple in the atmosphere, set stirring by some small and secret Force. The ripple was setting towards her this time; not from her, as she was wont to feel when she was putting out that childish soul of herself towards another man. But it touched her, the tiny Disturbance.

"Don't you want this chair?" she asked quickly.

Little Mr. Brown put his own hand on the back of it, closing his fingers for one moment over Olwen's--his fingers that had handled laces in a ladies' shop, had handled a rifle later, and, later still, a blood-stained revolver.... Decency and honesty were written on every line of the little fellow's face at that moment; and even if he were of a pattern that everyday England turns out by the thousand--well, so much the better for England.

Quite simply, and as one stating a fact, he said to the girl beside him: "I don't suppose you've ever let any fellow kiss you?"

He himself had no doubt kissed girls in dozens, but he knew now that even to mention the word to this girl was a different thing. It did not need Olwen Howel-Jones's aghast little "What----?" to forbid him to go further than the word.

He took his hand away with a little rueful laugh.

"'Archibald, certainly not!' Eh? I wouldn't have tried."

"No. Of course not," said Olwen, repressively, but feeling a trifle shaken. Who would have thought of his saying such a thing to her? Who would have dreamt that the Charm would threaten to work to cross-purposes like this? Her small face took an invulnerable look. She swept some bits of blackberry leaves off her skirt, and prepared to turn homewards.

He walked with her to where the trees met the telegraph-posts of the shaded road.

There, as he said good-bye to her, this little young officer added, with a wistfulness: "But I would give anything to!"