Disturbing Charm


2. 1-2 The Accepting Of The Charm

"What I can do, can do no hurt to try."


That day, since the Professor chose (as he often did) to give lunch a miss while he wandered and pottered about in the Forest, he sent his niece into déjeuner alone. Her he never allowed to miss a meal; he held that young people must eat plenty and often.

Bareheaded, with a scarlet knitted coat over her frock, the girl threaded her way through the little round iron-legged tables and past the tubs of flowering cactus outside the piazza of the hotel. She pushed open a window and entered the big light salle. All one wall of it seemed to be windows from ceiling to floor, giving on to the plage and to that stretch of lagoon, and sandhills, pointed by that lighthouse. The other high walls were panelled with mirrors that reflected a dozen times the hanging chandeliers, the rococo gilded curves of carving, the moving heads of the visitors already at the tables.

The reflections of little Olwen's own head and shoulders, black-and-red like a lady-bird, appeared repeated in the picture; she did not see it.

It was another image that she sought....

Her bright glance, searching the thronged and buzzing place, fell on two empty chairs at the long table that ran down the middle of the room.

Ah! "They" weren't in for lunch, then? Nothing to be seen of "Them" until the dîner, perhaps. With a sigh of resignation Olwen Howel-Jones turned to the table for two near the end window where she was accustomed to sit with her Uncle.

But before she sat down, the tall Englishwoman in brown, who was sitting at the little table next to hers, caught the girl's eyes, smiled, nodded, and with a swift leaning forward of a supple body that made her look like the figurehead of a vessel, accosted her in a deep, rather attractive voice.

"I say! Are you alone today? So am I. Have your lunch at my table, won't you?"

"Oh! thank you, Mrs. Cartwright; I'd like to," said the girl, pleased. She took the chair opposite.

Mrs. Cartwright, who had been at the hotel for some days before the Howel-Joneses had arrived, was the widow of an Indian Army officer, the mother of two boys now at school in England, and a journalist under several names.

This was why, when she said she was as hungry as a hunter because she had been working like a nigger all the morning, Olwen asked her, with a shy smile, "Were you being 'Miss Claudia Crane' or the 'Wanderer through Western France'?"

"For a change, neither," returned Mrs. Cartwright cheerfully over the omelette which the frail little Italian waiter had brought to her. "I actually went back to being 'Domestica' and I turned out two thousand words of wisdom on ration-recipes--just for the pleasure of charging them eight times what my price used to be when I navvied for that paper regularly. What have you been doing--taking down sheaves of notes from that wonderful-looking old Welsh Nationalist, your uncle?"

The Professor's niece, as she answered that she had done nothing but tidy up and answer letters, was still absorbed by the thought of that epoch-making letter that she had read before she had even seen that it had not been left there for her to copy with the others. Her whole being was so taken up by the memory of what the letter had claimed for the powers of that hidden packet (now drawing warmth from the softness of her breast where it lay) that she only had half an ear for the talk of the woman opposite to her.

The Disturbing Charm.... Could it be anything but a fairy-tale? How many of that heterogeneous collection of people gathered there in that very dining-room--the English visitors, the little knot of uniforms on leave, the French family parties--how many of them would laugh incredulously if they were told what she, the celebrity's niece, was treasuring at that moment inside the bosom of her frock?

There she sat, demurely eating a plateful of those Edible Fungi of whose forest lives her Uncle made such a study. Yes, she sat hiding something that might change not only the current of her life, but of their lives as well. Perhaps it was true. What a thought!

"Some new people here today," chatted Mrs. Cartwright, who never seemed to look at anyone or anything in a room (Olwen had noticed that) but whom few details escaped; just as her eyes did not seem to be glancing about, so her lips hardly moved; but they had the habit of letting fall comment after comment, softly, casually, on every one of those details that the eyes above had noticed. "What a typical Hotel Spinster that is in the corner there! You can just see her over that young French soldier's head when he ducks to tuck in his napkin; yes, that survival in the expensive tweeds and the hair-net. Stays so old-fashioned that when she bends she comes away from the top of them as if it were over the rim of a vase into which she's been poured. How fatal it is to allow oneself to crystallize into the mode of the year when one was twenty-one! (But you, lucky child, don't even know what that mode is going to be.) English? Yes, of course. No wonder Prévost calls England 'that positive reservoir of old maids'!"

"Poor thing!" murmured Olwen, glancing at the new-comer, and of whom she now caught a clearer glimpse. She saw a woman of perhaps thirty-four or five, with uninteresting brown hair, elaborately dressed, an equally uninteresting brown face with a large nose and timid eyes that wandered from face to face.

Olwen thought, "No; I can't imagine anybody liking her--in that way!" Then she thought with a little start, "But if it were true--if all women were allowed even a tiny grain of that Charm, there would be no such thing as an 'Hotel Spinster.' No old maids in the world! How lovely!"

"Enter several characters from a French novel by Abel Hermant," pursued Mrs. Cartwright, as the door of the salle nearest to their table swung open and admitted two ladies in deepest mourning, an old gentleman with a red speck in his button-hole, and a boy of four. "The son of those old people has just 'fallen on the field of honour'; the lovely young Madonna is his widow; that's his little boy. What a splendid child!"

The little French boy that followed his grown-ups so sedately down the room was as dark as a damson and clad in a white tunic that showed his dimpled arms and his strong brown legs. He left a wake of smiles. The Hotel Spinster put out a finger and touched him as he went by.

"There. I knew she'd do that," commented Mrs. Cartwright; that deep soft voice of hers running out in the sort of monologue that scarcely moved her lips. "That woman's fonder of children than anyone here, and a better hand with them, I bet. Did you see the little boy smile back at her? Only at her. Yet Fate has decreed that she's never to have a chick or child (though what point 'a chick' would have I never could fathom). Private means. Stodgy connections in Debrett. Left with a house of her own, probably, crammed with mahogany and Coalport--and no man's ever looked at her in her life."

"Dreadful!" murmured little Olwen; and her hand went up involuntarily to her breast.

(If that letter was true, what a gift she had it in her power to bestow upon that woman; upon any woman!)

"The latest in British officers, I see," ran on Mrs. Cartwright, pursuing the nonchalant soft stream of comment as she pursued her lunch. "Staying here on his pay. Giving as much for one déjeuner here as would keep him for half a week at some little pension in the town, where he ought to be. Very new; very temporary commission. He had a talk with me in the lounge just now. A nice frank little Cockney. Told me he was a shop-assistant before he joined. 'And the next, Madame?' Poor lad! The next is that he's learned what it is to be considered IT, and what the insides of the best hotels are like, and the chief seats at revues. He's learned Bubbly-tastes on Beer-pay. Overdrawn everywhere. What will he go back to in civil life, if he goes back? Another tragedy of the war. Dozens of them!... Pleasant little pink face, too.... His only hope would be to get some profiteer's heiress to marry him----"

"Yes, he might do that," agreed little Olwen, again conscious of that packet at her breast. She looked down the tables at the rosy, undistinguished young face of the Second Lieutenant of whom Mrs. Cartwright had been murmuring. One of the waiters was deferentially endeavouring to understand this British officer's French. The boy looked self-conscious; at sea. Even a man might be glad enough of some magic that could bring him Love and Fortune, thought Olwen. Some men were without charm, just as some other men--ah, yes!--were all Charm.

Here Mrs. Cartwright, still seeming to look another way, followed the young girl's glance as it turned again to the objective that it first had sought--to the two empty places at the long table.

"Captain Ross and Mr. Awdas have gone into Bordeaux for the day," commented Mrs. Cartwright. "I hope they'll bring me back the fountain-pen ink and the 'Vie Parisienne,' and the brown darning silk that I commissioned them to get----" and here, quickly, she turned away as if to gaze out of the window at the little motor-boat that was making its way up the lagoon, where the tide was high, to the wooden pier. Actually, her movement was to avoid seeming to stare at the face of the girl before her, where Consciousness had again flamed out into a live and lovely red.

"So that's it ..." she thought.

"I wish I didn't blush!" Olwen Howel-Jones was scolding herself angrily. "I am a little idiot to blush at the sound of the man's name! Nobody in the whole world thinks of doing such a thing nowadays; it's like wearing your hat on the back of your head! Yet here I am, going on like this as if it were Eighteen Seventeen! I do wish to goodness I had another sort of skin. Mrs. Cartwright might easily have thought----!"

But Mrs. Cartwright was talking pleasantly on about the journey to Bordeaux; about the forest of Les Pins, the air of it....

"Such a becoming place, too," she laughed. "Makes you feel well; look well. May I make a personal remark, Miss Howel-Jones? You yourself are getting twice as pretty as when you came here."

"Oh, no," protested the enraptured girl. "No one could--no one has ever called me pretty!"

"No? But they will. Perhaps you are only just growing up to it," said Mrs. Cartwright with a very kind glance into the face opposite to her. "So many people make a virtue of blurting out unpleasant truths; why shouldn't one tell the truths that aren't unpleasant? Today (I saw it when you came in) you are quite lovely. You look as if a charm had touched you."

Little Olwen's whole heart went suddenly out in emotion and gratitude towards the woman who had said this thing.

Only the very young can realize how much they mean--the very first compliments to the very young girl! Especially to the very young girl in Love; she who feels the special need of beauty, the special need of encouragement to think herself beautiful.

And now here was a clever woman (who knew what men admired, and who had seen so many lovely people) pronouncing her, Olwen, to be "quite lovely."

Oh, Event!

As she went up after luncheon to her room--the replica of her Uncle's study, with its parquet floor and high balconied window--she felt there was nothing she could not have done for this Mrs. Cartwright.

To do something for other people; that was the wish that filled the child's heart in its overflowing mood.

Throwing a look to her hair and eyes in the glass, she thought of the woman whom Mrs. Cartwright had classified so promptly as the Hotel Spinster. She thought of that woman's meaningless but "good" clothes, of the hungry eyes which she fastened upon that little French boy seated at table with his mother. How the Spinster had watched that mother bending over her child, turning his chair, showing him how to hold his little silver spoon shaped like a wine-taster, folding his napkin for him; ah, how she'd watched!

"Poor, poor thing!" thought the soft-hearted Olwen. "Anyone could see how she would love a little child of her own----"

And then she thought of the other rather "out of it" guest at that hotel; the very young New Army subaltern whom Mrs. Cartwright had said was living a life to which he hadn't been brought up and which he must leave again unless he could find a rich wife. Not an attractive type, thought Olwen (forgetting that for her at the moment there existed only one masculine type that showed any attraction whatsoever). It wasn't likely, she considered, that he would find anyone to care about him.

"Poor boy!" She felt quite motherly. For she was the type of girl whom personal emotion drives outwards to include the world in her thoughts, rather than the commoner type of lover who is driven inwards, upon concentrated narrowed sympathies. Ever since she had come to that hotel and had fallen in love, Juliet-fashion, with the first glance at a good-looking male face seen across a dinner-table, the little creature had longed for everyone, not only herself, to be lucky in Love.

She found it horrible that in this supreme matter everything must be left to Fate, to Chance, to the merest Toss-up.

No woman could lift a finger to help either her own love-affair or anybody else's. The pity of it!

But wait----Again the delighted thought thrilled her----If that discovery were true?... The Disturbing Charm! If that could really help. If ... after all?

What was it that Mrs. Cartwright had said to her?

"You look as if a charm had touched you."

Could that have meant more than her friend had known?

Olwen threw another wondering, searching look into her glass.... Was it her imagination, or did she look prettier already than she had ever before seen herself? Oh....

She stood there, reflected; an image of Uncertainty hovering between belief and doubt. "Uncle wouldn't believe a word of it, I'm sure," she told herself. "I'm sure he thought he'd thrown the letter away. He may be quite right, of course. It sounds nonsense. Yet----"

("As if a charm had touched you," Mrs. Cartwright said, knowing nothing.)

"The writer of the letter said it was the result of years of research," pondered Olwen. "If he could give years, surely I can give just--just a try?"

She paused, hands clasped upon her breast.

"Shall I? Shall I?... Supposing I tried the effect of the Charm upon somebody else, first? Somebody here? There are at least two people besides myself in this hotel whom it could help...."

Then she thought defiantly, "The inventor said he shirked responsibility. Well, I wouldn't! If it doesn't do any good--well! There's no harm done! I----"

Another second's pause. Then the decision.

"I will. Yes! I will try it!"

Half believing, half longing to believe, and wholly excited by the thing, the girl began busying herself as if in answer to some mysterious Command.

She opened a drawer of her toilette-table, taking out a square work-basket in which reels, scissors, thimble, and darning skeins were packed into the smallest possible compass; Olwen being as neat in her habits as her uncle was chaotic. From another corner of the drawer she took a carefully rolled-up length of the mauve satin ribbon she used for slotting through her underclothes. From this she cut enough to sew up into a tiny sachet.

Then she sat by the window and stitched, the young Welsh girl into whose busy, dimpled hands there had fallen this maybe tremendous Power. While the autumn sun glowed redly on the bodies of those pines without, while the border of far-off Biscay rollers tossed their cloud-like columns of white against the sky-line, she sat at her needle like a Fate with a face of a grave-eyed child, the mouth of a flower.

In a few minutes she had the square of satin ready for filling. She drew the packet from her bosom; opened it with a hundred precautions; poured into the sachet a little--a very little!--of the musky scented powder.

The packet itself she bestowed at the bottom of her work-basket, locking that carefully away. Yes; some of that was for her to wear again, but not now. Later on.

The curious fact persisted that she would wish to see first the effect of that Charm upon another wearer.

She had stitched up the sachet before she had answered her own question, "Whom shall I give it to first?"