Disturbing Charm


24. 2-7 Petrol And The Charm

"For your own ladies, and pale-visaged maids,
Like Amazons, come tripping after drums;
Their thimbles into armed gauntlets change,
Their needles to lances."


"I've got a table in the corner over here," said little Mr. Brown to Olwen through the buzz of talk that drowned all but the louder strains of the band in the tea-room of the Regent Palace Hotel.

It was, as ever on a Sunday afternoon, a welter of khaki and girls. The wicker chairs could not be seen for shrubberies of furs, coloured forest of millinery; there was scarcely a space on the floor clear of muffs, vanity bags, and feet; big feet in brown boots, little feet in high-heeled coloured shoes; swathed feet in hospital wrappings. It took Mr. Brown and Olwen minutes to steer their way through this labyrinth to the further corner by a window that the little campaigner had marked down and engaged just after lunch.

"Now, that's better," he said. "Nobody will come and walk over us here, and nobody can hear what I say through this racket, not that I care if they do.... Well, it's nice to see you again, Miss Olwen. I've been fairly bursting to have a good old mag with you, ever since all this happened.... What? Yes, two teas, please, Miss, if you can call 'em teas. Spelling it with an E at the end is nearer the mark nowadays; sort of reminding you of what once was tea. I've got some sugar here; pinched some out of HER cupboard yesterday--good start, wasn't it? Are you one of those people who miss lump sugar with every breath they draw, Miss Olwen?"

Olwen smiled into the pink, pug-dog face that looked pinker, more pertinacious than ever; the boy held his head even more assuredly in the air, but his blue, prominent eyes were humble as well as joyous, and the whole of him radiated amazement at Fortune as well as delight.

"Tell me about 'all this,'" Olwen begged, and little Mr. Brown zestfully drawing in his chair and letting a pleased grin crumple his cheeks, broke into his story....

Here and there Olwen interposed a question, a "Really," a "Why," a "What did she say to that?" but for the rest she listened mutely as a woman must, with the widening of her eyes, with a nod, a turn of the attentive head, while the cheerful boy's voice--a thread in that closely woven pattern of other voices all about them--ran on and on.

"It was only last Saturday it started. Imagine that! Seems ages ago to me now, so much happening.... However, to begin at the beginning. I'd been to my Board in the morning, and the silly old blighters had given me another three weeks' leave before putting me on light duty. I was in a taxi, coming away from them, because I was in a hurry, promised to meet a fellow I knew for lunch at the Troc....

"By Jove, I never even rang him up after! I've only just thought of that fellow who used to be in the Lace Department at that old show of mine, and I hadn't seen him since '14. Too bad. I'll have to write him. Anyhow I can't help it; absolutely everything seems to have gone straight out of my head.

"Well, I was going to lunch with this fellow, and then I thought after that I'd ring you up, Miss Olwen, and see what you were doing, and if you'd perhaps care to come with me to the Alhambra or something. If I couldn't get hold of you I was going to look up Ross, I thought, and Mrs. Cartwright.... This was where I was mapping out things that came rather different, as it happened!

"We were coming along Piccadilly towards the Circus when my taxi-man (an absolutely dud driver, as I'd noticed) barged straight into a motor-cycle and side-car that were going along at no end of a lick for Knightsbridge. He only pulled up in the very nick of time; the cycle and the rider were over and into the mud; a filthy day it was, p'raps you'll remember--drizzling and the streets like a soap-slide.

"Out I nipped, before the crowd had even begun to collect, and picked up the motor-cyclist with one hand, and started saying what I thought of the taxi-driver with the other--he was swearing away like a trooper at 'these here so and so and so and so side-cars'; and the little nipper who had been upset was cursing him to blazes, an octave higher. The voice took me by surprise, of course.... The little thing was so covered in mud that I couldn't have told you off-hand if it were a boy or girl or a retriever dog.

"A girl; yes, it was a girl, of course.

"One of those lady dispatch-riders, they call them. Cap like mine, trench-coat down to her knees, top-boots, riding-breeches ... laughing all over her little splashed face....

"Well, in about two twos I'd pushed his fare at the taxi-driver and sent him off and was assessing the damages to that motor-cycle of hers--nothing wrong at all luckily! while she wiped her face on a huge khaki handkerchief and put her cap straight. Short hair, of course, rather sticking out, curly.... I always thought I loathed short hair on a girl. Suits her A1, and it's most awfully soft and jolly to run your fingers through....

"What? Oh, no, not then. Give us a chance. I wasn't allowed a chance to touch her hair for ages--you'll see.

"All this time I was being all over myself with apologies, and she laughing and saying it was all part of the day's work, only the taxi-man had put her back up; taxi-drivers did always seem to be women haters! She told me (standing there by the kerb) that she was just coming off anyway before her three days' leave that she gets in a month, and that she was dashing up to Harrod's before they closed, because she was on duty from eight to six ordinarily, and never got any time to do any shopping for herself.

"(Mind you, that's the only grouse she seems to have at all after doing a man's job day in, day out; no time to get her shopping done!)

"I thought to myself at once, the way one does, 'H'm, here's a nice little bit of skirt, if you could see it for mud.' Not that it wore a skirt, but still. So I said, pretending to be rather fed, 'I don't suppose there's another taxi to be had for love or butter now, so I'll just push on to Harrods' on my flat feet.'

"'Oh,' she says, 'were you going to Harrods'?'

"'I am,' said I, determined to now, anyway.

"'And you're wounded, too, aren't you,' says she. 'I'll give you a lift. Hop in.'

"In I hopped into that side-car; and off we buzzed to Harrods', and we were just in time before they closed for her to buy half a dozen pair of the best quality brown silk stockings for herself. (I'd seen she was a lady, you know, and all that.) She said she hadn't a stocking left to her foot----Tiny feet she's got, Miss Olwen! Reminded me of yours, honest, they did. Same sort of hands, too. Coming out of her great gauntlets like snowdrops, growing in a drift of brown leaves----No, I didn't make that up, that's what she told me some ass of an old Colonel that she used to drive the cars for said to her once. I think it's neck, the way some of those old Johnnies with one foot in the grave go on giving the Glad to any pretty young girl that's near them....

"Well, after Harrods' shut, we went on to some place where she could get a wash and brush up, and we had a spot of lunch together. She was a real jolly little thing to go about with, I thought. We sat talking--you know the way ones does--until it was nearly tea-time.

"Tea we had out, too. She would stand me tea, said it was her shout, and because I was wounded. Seemed to think that because a fellow had been pipped once he was helpless for evermore. Generally I loathe women fussing over one for that, but she was different.... Struck one as so comic, you know, that tiny little thing with those hands and feet to be got up like any old mechanic, and to do all that hefty work in all weathers----and for her to get frightened that I might be tired!

"Well, so we went to Rumplemayer's.

"Afterwards I went with her to take her bike back to the Park. You know she's attached to the Royal Flying Corps there; yes, that's what she does now. Carries their letters and messages for them all over the show, to your people at the Honeycomb too, sometimes. Sometimes she drives out officers to the various training schools for flying, all about. Has to clean her own bike, too! Wouldn't let me give her a hand, said it didn't look well. Extraordinary, the lot she gets through!... And I used to hate girls being 'independent,' too.

"I asked her what put it into her head to do all this, and she said it was because one had to do one's bit somehow, and the harder the better, so that it sent one to bed tired enough to sleep.

"Dashed sporting little girl I thought her.

"It was dinner-time before I knew, and I asked her if she'd come out. (I had got just one pound note left on me!)

"She said, as naturally as if we always fed together, 'Shall I go up to my rooms and get into respectable clothes, or d'you mind if I came in my uniform?'

"I said, 'Oh, come along!' And we went off to a quiet little place at the back of the Palace.

"By that time, d'you know, I felt as if I'd known that little girl for years and years and years.

"She seemed just like the best little pal a man could have. We talked--oh, about any old thing. I sort of felt at home with her. So she did with me. She told me so. But it was me that did most of the talking. Only, what d'you think? We never bothered to ask each other's names. That was the funny part. I'd told her all about me being in a shop before the War----Lace, forward----and how I thought of having a shot at in Canada, p'raps, and all that sort of rot. Miles I'd yapped to her; even about my mother dying when I was a nipper....

"I wonder the girl wasn't bored stiff. I can't make out now why she wasn't. However, as I say, they might never have named this child N or M for all she was given to hear about that.

"Fact was, I clean forgot about names until I took her home----she's got two rooms in one of those big old-fashioned houses in a street off Baker Street. Then, as I said good night to her on the doorstep, I said, 'Oh, by the way, who do I ask for tomorrow?'

"She said, 'Coming tomorrow?'

"I said, 'Well, you told me it was your three days' leave, and I thought p'raps you'd come for a walk'----thinking to myself that I might be able to raise another quid or so for meals from some man at the Regent Palace, which I was.

"'Oh,' she said, with a little sort of laugh. 'Rightoh. And I haven't told you, of course, my name's Robinson,' she said as she went into the house; big dark hall, it seemed to swallow her up.

"I said, 'Brown's mine,' and off I went----and I couldn't simply get the little thing out of my head all night, and what a jolly little chum she was. Don't laugh at me, Miss Olwen; no, I know you're not really laughing, but I am, I can tell you. 'They laugh last who laugh laughs,' as that chap says at the Hippodrome.

"Next morning I was round at that house so early that I hadn't the nerve to ring the bell. I had to patrol the street for another half an hour before I rang.

"'Miss Robinson?' says I to the old girl who opened the door, but before she could answer I could hear the little girl herself singing out over the banisters, 'Hullo, I think I know that voice! Come up, Mr. Brown----'

"I legged it up to the first floor. Her sitting-room door was open; well, in I went, and there I got a nasty one."

Here Mr. Brown stopped to draw a breath, to finish his cooling tea, and to offer a cigarette to Olwen, listening with all her ears. There is no audience to a love-story so intent and so satisfactory as the girl to whom one has been attracted. Curiosity as to her supplanter burns in the breast of the woman whether or no she had been attracted to the man; curiosity made of varied elements--sympathy is one, and competition is one, and the undying yearning to compare notes is another....

Little Mr. Brown went on.

"Well, it was a pretty room, full of sun in the morning. Pretty coloured curtains and cushions about; and lots of flowers and that yellow bobbly thingummybob scented stuff--mimosa. And then.... Her in the middle of it all----all different....

"I stopped dead and stared at her, never even saying good morning. Miss Olwen, I can tell you it was a shock to me.

"Last night, you see, I'd left her looking like a saucy little tomboy in that khaki working kit of hers with a cap the same as my own on her head and a black-and-white badge of the R. F. C. on her shoulder, and those brown riding bags....

"This morning here she stood all in a dead-black frock, with a widow's hat on and a long black veil streaming away from her little face.

"I stared, I tell you. I saw the situation absobloominglutely changed, in one.

"'Good Lord,' I said, 'you've been married?'

"She opened her eyes at me and said, 'Why shouldn't I?'

"I looked at her, such a little woman in her girl's clothes, but taller than she seemed in t'other rig-out, and I said, 'I didn't know you were married. I thought you were a kid of a girl. A widow. You didn't tell me.'

"'You didn't ask me,' she says. 'You might have seen I wore a wedding-ring. Men never do seem to notice rings--or anything else, I can't think why.'

"I stood there like a silly ass and said, 'I never thought of you being married. I s'pose I only looked at your face----'

"And I suppose I'd been magging so hard all yesterday about myself that I hadn't given the girl a chance to put her life history across me!

"She told me then, all quickly as I stood there, that she'd been married last year to her cousin, just before he went out. He was in the Flying Corps. He crashed in France just three months after they'd been married. Then she joined this Women's Legion. (You know they're jolly particular who they let into it, Miss Olwen: have to have no end of refs. from padres and lawyers and people.) She threw herself into her job.... She'd been working like a nigger ever since....

"All I could think to say was 'Well, this knocks me out.'

"She laughed and asked me why it should make any difference, her being Mrs. Robinson instead of Miss? She asked me if I didn't like her in those things she'd got on? She said, 'Most people think it's rather becoming, all this black.'

"It made her little face look like a wild rose coming out of a coal-bucket, but what could I say to her? I tell you I was so flummoxed I stood there like a stuck pig--I don't know what I said next; honest, I don't.

"So then she offered me cigarettes, and I took one in a sort of dream, and felt all over myself for matches. Couldn't find any.

"Only, then----

"D'you know what I found, Miss Olwen? Blessed if I didn't stick my fingers into my belt pocket here, and feel something soft. I brought it out. It was that little mascot of yours. She asked me quickly what it was.

"'Oh,' I said, 'something a girl put there once, to bring me luck,' and I stuck it back again.

"'Oh,' she said. I saw her looking at that pocket.

"Then she said, 'What about going for that walk we've heard so much about?'

"'Right you are,' I says, pulling myself together. 'I'm ready if you are, Mrs. Robinson.'

"Then she said, 'No; I'm not quite. I shall have to keep you five minutes, not longer.'

"She popped through a door at the other end of the room and left me gazing at a big photograph in a silver frame on her table with violets in front of it. 'Yours, JIM,' on it. Him, of course. Fine-looking chap in R. F. C. uniform. I didn't wonder she'd taken him. Anyhow, he'd had a short life and a merry; a topping time! Marrying her, and then getting shot down in action before he knew he was for it. I was envying him when the door opened and in she came again----

"By Jove, she had done a quick change in five minutes and no mistake!

"She'd got out of the widow's weeds again and into khaki the same as yesterday, except that there was nothing on her curls, and she'd put on a short skirt and little brown brogues and a pair of those silk stockings she bought yesterday; and she came straight up to me and said quietly, 'Now, look here----why were you all upset when you came in? What's put you out? My being a widow?'

"'No,' I said, straight. 'It wasn't just that, but never mind.'

"'Yes, let's have it out,' she said, and I looked at her standing there in her khaki, but somehow I only saw her in a frock again, and I thought to myself all in a rush, 'All right, you asked to have it out, and you shall,' and so I just blurted out, 'It was seeing you, and knowing all in a minute how much I wanted you myself--and remembering.'

"'Remembering what?' she says as sharp as a needle.

"And I said, 'My dear, I haven't a bean.'

"And I grabbed up my hat and gloves and I think I would have said 'Good-bye' and bolted.

"But she just looked at me so that I couldn't.

"Then she looked away and said, 'If beans are all that matter----!' and then she picked a couple of violets out of the vase by that photograph, and tucked them into her jacket, and, just like a kid, said, 'Jim always loved me to have a good time. Jim would like me to have everything I liked, I know he would----'

"And here's where the room seemed to go round and round until it steadied down with me holding her tight....

"Well, then, Miss Olwen----well, then, there we were; engaged! Or practically then," amended little Mr. Brown, his pink face deepening in hue. "It was hours after that that I began to grasp how little it mattered about my not having anything but debts to ask any girl to marry me on; why, great Scott, d'you know who she is? Her Uncle, her hubby's father, is old Jack Robinson of Robinson and Mott; he's got the biggest aeroplane-body business in the Midlands, and he, this Jim of hers----well, she's got all he was to have. He arranged it so. She was to marry again if she liked, and whom she liked. And----Well, she's a girl who might have her pick; apart from the money. Then there's all her money as well; and yet----yet----"

He paused for words just as the band at the other end of the tea-room got the upper hand of the buzz of talk and sent a lilt of insistent melody through the air above the parties.

"Fancy you fancying me" was the tune.

"Fancy you fancying me,
I can fancy anybody fancying you,
But fancy you fancying me."

"Incidental music; jolly appropriate," laughed little Mr. Brown, happily. "What that girl could possibly see in your humble beats me. I expect most people who meet us thinks she's balmy----"

But Olwen, smiling and interested and sympathetically murmuring, was thinking again (secretly) of the Charm.