Disturbing Charm


22. 2-5 The Best Girl-Friend

"She was Sweet of Heart."

Epitaph on the Tomb of an Egyptian Princess, 700 b.c.

Olwen, with Golden's furs, hurried through the billiard-room to the outer hall with the "Enquiries" counter, the long bar, and the rows of refreshment-tables crowded by soldiers and sailors.

One table was empty, reserved for Mr. Awdas's party, but the young flying officer had been called away on duty just after his fiancée's second song. Olwen was sorry for him, but his loss was her chance; and she saw so little of this friend of hers.

As she handed over the great leopard-skin muff, she said, rather appealingly, "Are you staying, Golden?"

"Why, aren't you?" Golden said, glancing towards the group who were ordering coffee. "It's quite early."

"Yes; and I felt like a walk," said the other girl, wistfully, "and I thought if we got out of this crush I might see you to speak to----"

Golden laughed. "Very well," she agreed. "I'll come with you; wait while I shake hands with Mrs. Cartwright...."

The two young girls bade a quick good night to the party, and before it was quite realized that they were leaving, they had passed through the hall, descended the wooden staircase, and reached the entrance to the Strand.

It was a clear and sparkling night above the murky lamp-glasses, with a touch of frost. Away to the west the spoke of a single searchlight could be seen creeping this way and that like a snail's horn.

The tall girl and the little one turned to take the quieter streets in the direction of Baker Street, Olwen's terminus.

Already they had walked many a mile together, those oddly contrasted girl-friends, during that growth of this quick, firm friendship. Several times the Welsh girl had been invited to the big house near Grosvenor Gardens, which was Golden's home; the little house at Wembley Park had in its turn welcomed the American. There had been appointments for matinées together, and for lunch. Olwen, in fact, would have wished to claim the Sunburst girl whenever Jack Awdas was out of town, bound for France with a new machine. Taking aeroplanes across the Channel was now his job. Little Olwen had been the first of her girl friends to whom Golden had confided the pact on Biscay Beach that had made of her Bird-boy the happiest man flying.

But as Golden was not of the type that lets any Third (however dear) into details that concern a happy two, Olwen had never heard of the part played in that scene by a trifle of pink ribbon and satin in which her own hand had bestowed a Charm....

If she had known of it, it might have been better for her. It might have startled her out of the lines that her own life was taking; humdrum lines, she knew--she scarcely realized that they were also growing towards the lines of disillusionment, even of cynicism. Being gloriously in love was a thing for the few, she thought. Certainly a bright fixed star seemed to shine over this girl by her side and over the Jack she appeared to adore. But what gleam of it touched the life of Olwen? She had now reached twenty, and the phase when a girl believes herself to have outgrown everything she ever used to feel. Certainly she had gained, by that casting off of some of her feverish emotionalism and credulities, but was there nothing this young girl was in danger of losing?

It was as they were turning into Cranbourne Street that Golden van Huysen, who had been swinging along without speaking, did startle her by a sudden remark:

"Olwen! I didn't know you could be so cruel."

Quickly Olwen's little head went up. "Cruel, Golden? What can you mean?"

"I mean just plain cruel. What made you say good night in the way you said it, as if you didn't care if it were good night, or good-bye, or good riddance?"

"'Good night' to whom? I spoke to Mrs. Cartwright; she was the one who mattered," Olwen said a little defensively. "All those other people from the Honeycomb----well, I wanted to get away with you, and I see them every day."

"And are 'they' all the same to you?"

"Of course," said Olwen in a resigned voice, "you mean Captain Ross."

"Certainly I didn't mean your little Major Leefe, who talks as if it hurt him, not your young sailor-boy, who loves to laugh."

"Well, I see Captain Ross every day, and I expect he thinks that's far too much."

Golden's reply was a soft laugh. "Oh, you British, you are the funniest things! Either you want to grab a thing before you take another breath, or else you wait staring at it until you can't see it!----Why, Olwen, that man's crazy about you."

"Not he!" returned Olwen, decidedly, and with another sort of laugh--a slightly bitter one.

For she had just remembered that this was the second time some one had thought this thing. She heard again the mercilessly shrewd voice of that French manageress at Les Pins.

"Monsieur le Capitaine, he with the one arm, who admires Mademoiselle."

She, Olwen, had actually been silly enough to believe it, then. She didn't believe it now; how could she? Did she have any reason? Those Fridays were the only time she saw him to speak to, and even those, as he'd practically pointed out to her, were the purest accident.

The rest of the time--she laughed again.

"My dear Golden, if you could only see him at the Honeycomb!"

And there seemed to resound in her mind echoes of Captain Ross's voice at the Honeycomb--or were they echoes of Mrs. Newton's mimicries of Captain Ross?

"Hullo--yes?" curtly down the telephone in his office where Olwen had come for instructions. "Yes; Miss Howel-Jones is working on the Honeycomb. You will find her number in room 0369----" Then, in an iron tone to Olwen, "Miss Howel-Jones, I should be glad if you would give your correct telephone number to any friends whom you wish to ring you up...."

And so on. Was that the manner of a man who cares?

More echoes were broken in upon by the gentler voice of Golden.

"I don't need to see him at any Honeycomb. I saw it in one, at the Eagle Hut. If he's different in the office, why, that's his fine sense of duty, and you ought to like him for that.... Jack thinks a deal of Captain Ross. So does Mrs. Cartwright, and she's a real, intelligent woman. Why, do you know, just before Captain Ross came on to the meeting tonight, your little friend Mrs. Newton said something about him; I think she likes to make fun of him a little. Mrs. Cartwright said, quite quietly, 'I have a great affection for Captain Ross!'

"I guess she wouldn't have said that without some reason for liking him. Jack thinks he's fine," young Awdas's sweetheart concluded her plea for the absent. "Don't you like him, Olwen?"

There was a silence as the two girls walked up Tottenham Court Road, comparatively empty at this time of the evening.

Then Olwen drew a quick little breath, turned up her face to her friend's, and let out an emphatic "I did like him." Then in a soft hurry of words, "I liked him all that time in France. Yes. Awfully! I thought of him and thought of him, Golden. It seemed to make everything ... beautiful to me." Then a little ashamed laugh, "I was----silly, then!"

"Silly?" repeated her friend gently. "That's not the way it seems to me. That's a lovely thing in a girl's life." She lifted her chin over the leopard-skin stole and looked ahead to the stars above the murky lamps, to the skies in which lay her own lover's pathless way. "Make everything beautiful; that's what love should do. I know," said Golden, shyly, but proudly. "I didn't know for certain, until Jack showed me. I'm so pleased you know too...."

"Oh, but--that's not new," Olwen protested quickly. "That's over."

"Over? Then--if you don't mind telling me, what do you feel about Captain Ross now? What does he mean in your life?"

Little Olwen had asked herself this very same question until she'd given it up, and now she scarcely knew whether to laugh or to shrug her shoulders.

"I'll tell you," she said lightly, after a moment, "exactly how I feel about Captain Ross. I would have told you before, if you'd asked me. To start with, I work all day at the Honeycomb, where there are hundreds of other girls, and men. Some of these people amuse me, and some don't, so----"

"But----'amuse'----" repeated Golden, blankly. "Does that stand for anything big?"

The soft Welsh voice of the other girl retorted, "It does, when you are working, and--and there isn't anything else. Isn't it natural that one likes the amusing people best? Mrs. Newton is amusing. Major Leefe doesn't mean to be, but he is. Mr. Ellerton is nice to go about with----"

Again Golden broke in gently. "Olwen! I don't like to hear you talk that way."

"Why not? Les Pins is over. And when a thing's over," pronounced this sage of twenty, "sensible people don't waste any more time on it."

"When you say that, it seems to me to be belittling a very----" Golden made the characteristic American pause after the adverb--"beautiful thing."

"It's different for you who have one man meaning the whole world to you. As I haven't. Well, I want to be amused, Golden."

More gently still Golden repeated, "I don't like to hear you talk that way, Olwen. Don't you feel any more that Captain Ross is different from the others?"

"I feel he's less amusing," declared the girl, walking beside her.

"And how," asked Golden, "does that young Mr. Ellerton 'amuse' you, then?"

"Well, he gives me a good time. I like being with him. He rattles away all the time. He doesn't snap my head off----"

For half a minute there was silence as they walked along. Then Golden stopped by one of those dimly-gleaming lamps and peered down into her friend's small, mutinous face; her voice dropped a whole note as she said slowly:

"Olwen! You wouldn't do such a thing as play Mr. Ellerton off against Captain Ross to make Captain Ross jealous?"

"Oh, no," Olwen said quite honestly; forgetting something as entirely as a change of mood can cause one to forget. She had mischievously enough, allowed Captain Ross to go on thinking that the young R.N.A.S. officer had held her hand.... She didn't even care enough to remember it....

But at her answer the American girl heaved quite a sigh of relief. "Forgive me," she begged. "Forget I said that. I ought to have known it wasn't like you."

And here Olwen really felt herself humbled by the standards of the straight young goddess at her side. For the first time the younger, less womanly but more feminine and complex girl suffered a pang of remorse on account of a certain little Mr. Brown. Him she had certainly made use of at Les Pins to annoy Captain Ross. The blackberry time was not intentional; but that time on the terrace? Would Golden ever have talked to a young man "at" another young man? It would be better, she knew, if every girl could think and act like Golden ... it would be better.... But to every girl her problems.

Golden went on, "You've done it without wanting to, then. He was scared tonight that Mr. Ellerton would sit by you. You aren't out to make him jealous, but have you wondered if he thinks that's what you're doing? I've told you that he watched every look of yours!"

"But I don't believe it," persisted Olwen, feeling somehow more disturbed, less contented with life as it was then she had been that day. "Why should I?" and into her voice there crept another note.

It was a note of unspoken irritation, exasperation, and appeal. In how many soft girl voices does it not sound, telling of budding emotions nipped by the frost of silence--of hopes that had grown tired of raising their heads--of womanly impulse turned back upon itself--of influences that might have made the sunshine of two lives, but that dies of forbiddance because some man has shown himself so near to speaking----and has not spoken!

"He cares," said Golden with the conviction of some young great-eyed oracle.

A passer-by separated the two girls for the moment. As they came together again Olwen retorted, "Then why can't he say so? Men do, when they like a girl well enough. Your Jack did, in a minute."

Golden gave a happy little laugh. "But, as I say most every day, you British are so queer! You're so different! Some of your men want to propose before they even say 'Pleased to meet you.' Others seem to have this habit of waiting and waiting until some cows of their own come home, I guess."

"It's the second sort that I don't understand," sighed the Welsh girl. "If a man is fond of a girl, why doesn't he want to say so at once?"

Golden shook her head. "Now that is something that I can't tell you."

Presently Olwen said, as if getting rid of something that had been a little on her mind, "I read in a book of essays about engagements and things, that Mrs. Newton lent me, that 'a Proposal was one-half the Engineering of Some Girl, and one-half the False Pretences of Some Man' ... but I hope that's not quite true...."

"It is not true," said the American girl serenely. "It's ugly."

With this profoundly simple remark, uttered as if it were some creed, she turned with Olwen down Warren Street; and they were half-way to Baker Street station before either of them spoke again.

Then said the Sunburst Girl, "I wouldn't have missed this walk. I think you needed to talk to somebody who knows Love's lovely."

"Somebody who seems to upset things I thought were settled," grumbled Olwen, affectionately.

"That's why I'm glad I came with you. I just hate to see you in a hurry to settle all the wrong things!"

Olwen persisted. "For the umpteenth time, as Mr. Ellerton would say, that man doesn't care two-pence about me, Golden."

"Just because he hasn't proposed?" smiled Golden as she took the last word. "But he will. Watch out for it. Good night, dear."

The heavy furs lifted to her gesture as she turned, then swung away under the stars towards the South.