Disturbing Charm


25. 2-8 Rations And The Charm

"A dinner of herbs where Love is."


"If there is one thing that bores a man," gave out Captain Ross, in a voice like the clashing together of Tube lift-gates--a tone that he had adopted all that evening, since nothing seemed to be going right, "if there is one thing that bores a man stiff, it's when some woman starts in to 'Love' him."

He paused to glance across the table at Olwen, gaily chattering with Mr. Ellerton.

"It don't matter what woman," pursued the young Staff-officer inexorably. "Any woman. If he's keen before, that chokes him dead off. He's not out for any of this Love-with-a-capital-L business that women are such nuts on. Once he's done the chasing, he's gotten all he wants out of it, I guess. Man's a hunter, Mrs. Cartwright."

"I know," cooed his hostess. Inwardly she exclaimed, "Dear Ass!... But is he going on like this for the whole of my party?"

Up to then Captain Ross had only spoken to her and to the other young Scotsman whom he had brought with him. At Olwen he had simply glowered. At Miss van Huysen on the other side he had not looked.

"What's Love?" he continued, still to Mrs. Cartwright. "It's an amusement. That's what it ought to be. An Episode. It's the Women who insist on spoiling it; taking it seriously. Nothing in this world is worth taking seriously; barring a man's job.... What's woman? The Plaything of Man. And what's Marriage?"

It was, as he pronounced it, a word of one syllable.

"Marriage," he answered his own question, "is an idea that the sensible man looks at from every angle, and then cuts right out until he can't find anything better to do. If he is really a sensible man, he invariably can find it."

"Ah," uttered Mrs. Cartwright with the little appreciative laugh of one who hears for the first time an original thought brilliantly phrased.

But she wanted to be soothing; she was fond of Captain Ross. One does not sob out one's weakness on a man's shoulder once and think of him as a stranger thereafter. She had asked him to forget. She never forgot....

A pity he'd come in this absurd mood, she thought.

Her party, at her flat in Westminster, had arrived at the stage of the feast when tongues were loosed and the young guests were gossiping and chirruping in merry twos and threes.

Little Mr. Brown was beamingly loquacious in spite of the absence of his khakied fiancée, kept out of town that evening on late duty. Between Mr. Brown and the fresh-faced naval boy, Mr. Ellerton sat little Olwen Howel-Jones, enjoying herself without disguise and looking her very best. She was a girl who had "days"; this was one of them. Never had her glossy black hair "gone up" so well, or her face lighted up so vividly; never, against her pale skin, had her laughing mouth bloomed in such a carnation-red. Never had any dress suited her so well as that flapper's frock of succory-blue with touches of cream, and dull pink. It was the frock Mrs. Cartwright had worn once on Biscay beach; she had pressed it upon Olwen as she said good-bye at Les Pins, telling her it was a young girl's colour after all. There Olwen sat in it now, laughing and being talked to by two young men at once and looking a picture in it....

It was from this picture that Captain Ross's dark eyes looked so pertinaciously away, as with new sardonic energy he informed Mrs. Cartwright that by the time a man had learnt to handle women he'd learnt that their place in his life was not all that important that he wanted to handle them at all.

Mrs. Cartwright passed him the Sauterne.

"Thank goodness that there is at least enough to drink," she reflected with a quick whimsical glance about the well-cleared dishes on her supper-table that had held:

1. Remains of chicken, with an intolerable deal of rice and curry to a very little fowl.

2. Allotment potatoes.

3. A pound of Normandy butter bought that morning in Boulogne and brought over in Sergeant Tronchet's haversack.

4. Pease-pudding.

5. Beetroot....

6. Green salad.

Well, they'd seemed to enjoy what there was.

"Ah!" exclaimed Mrs. Cartwright, here catching a remark from over the table. "A penny from you, Mr. Brown!" And she pushed over to him a money-box with the Blue Cross upon it, known as "The Fine-box."

This claimed a penny from whomsoever entering Mrs. Cartwright's abode should make any allusion to a subject which she declared was now inadmissibly boring: namely, food. One met quite intelligent people who became hopelessly tedious about "recipes," "how they managed," and so on. Rations had to be; and catering, food-cards, and substitute foods. But why intensify the Unspeakable by unnecessary speaking about it? Hence this box.

She took Mr. Brown's penny (a fine for some cheese anecdote or other), rattled the box, and glanced, as usual without seeming to do so, at her other guests.

Next to young Ellerton sat a niece of her own; a pretty girl in grey and scarlet nursing kit; the red- and blue artilleriste uniform of Gustave Tronchet next; delighting the eyes of his fiancée opposite.

Agatha Walsh had taken off years, Mrs. Cartwright thought, since they had parted at Les Pins. In place of the "old-maid" look, she was acquiring that of the young and prosperous woman--her smile seeming not yet entirely her own, and she had a new gesture or two modelled on those of Madame Leroux, her aunt-to-be. Also, her speech was altered. Some one must have rallied her on her "English" habit of beginning every sentence with "Oh"----Mrs. Cartwright missed it as she caught fragments of Miss Walsh's talk to Jack Awdas, who sat on her left.

"Now could you tell me, Mr. Awdas, the really best sort of man's wrist watch?... I want to get a really special one for Gustave--it is his 'fête' on Thursday ... not time to engrave anything, I'm afraid.... Ah, yes, if you could come with me on Monday, you and Miss van Huysen, to help choose! That would be so amiable of you--nice, I mean. So stupid of me. I keep putting in the French words for things always, now!

"Ah, a bracelet-watch like yours, that would be perfect....

"Was there a cadeau de fiançailles--let's see, what do you call it in English, an engagement present?"

And she put her carefully dressed head on one side as she inspected the watch that Jack Awdas, smiling, held out towards her. Jack was silent this evening, Mrs. Cartwright had noticed already, as she noticed every detail, still, of the young flyer's looks and manner.... He was in some happy abstraction, she saw, worlds away from the brightly-lighted table thronged with these young people chattering over their grapes and oranges....

There was a light behind those horizon-blue eyes of his even when they were not turned upon the sweetheart at his other side. There was an undernote of something new and joyous in the tone of his voice as he spoke to her.

("What d'you think about it, girl?")

From the Sunburst Girl, as ever, a radiance seemed to emanate that was more than the effulgence of her white-and-golden dress. But she, too, was quieter than usual as she sat; now giving a little friendly smile to her hostess across Captain Ross and his dogmas, now leaning to the right and putting in a word about the matter of the engagement present.

("But, Bird-boy, if Miss Walsh wants it in platinum----!")

Now turning her wide eyes affectionately upon the girl friend opposite to her. Olwen was not flirting with the young sailor who talked so much and had so little to say beyond his "Bai Joves" and "Ha's"; she was only blooming in what Mr. Brown had already called "the sunshine of his smile"; she was also caught in and made beautiful by some of that happiness that flowed in a current about the table under the pink inverted parasol of lights, flowed from Golden and her Jack....

Golden and Jack.... What pretty lover's secrets was between them now?

Still watching them covertly, Mrs. Cartwright could only wonder why, since it was possible for young human beings to be grown so big and beautiful--why in the name of a thousand pities did Nature turn out so many samples of the stunted, the plain, the commonplace? Must this well-matched pair stand for the exception rather than the rule? She watched them, and that scene of physical perfection which had so nearly brought Claudia Cartwright to shipwreck over a boy-lover was no longer her torment, but her comfort.

She had wept all her tears; she had tossed sleeplessly through all her hours of fierce rebellion; she had gone through the most agonizing ordeal of her woman's life. But thank God it was over now....

It was over! and her eyes travelled now to that which is a woman's only balm for such wounds as hers had been.

He sat, the master of the house, with a school-fellow between himself and Agatha Walsh. This school-fellow was sixteen, a year older but three inches shorter than young Keith Cartwright. Keith was already well over six foot. Coltish at present, with great wrists shooting ever too quickly beyond his cuffs, and feet that seemed four sizes too large for his ankles, but wait until he began to fill out! thought Claudia proudly. Her rightness of bone, her limbs, her suppleness had gone to her boys; Reggie, on a visit in the country, was just as good, but it was her elder son who seemed the child of her soul as well as of her body. He had her tastes, her impatiences. Her own ardour would presently be breaking into flame in his heart. She felt (as even the mute-bird mothers feel) that she at least would not fail to understand him. She smiled across the table into his face, pink and free of care, with its clear eyes, thick lashes (those were from his father's side), and the fruit-like, perfect oval that does not outlast twenty-five. She, the mother, faded; but she had set in these young plants and they were budding.

Keith's voice (or rather voices, for he himself never knew in what octave his words might break forth) came roughly but affectionately across the table to his mother.

"I say, mums! What about coffee----" so far in the bass, and now a treble squeak of "if you don't mind. Harrison says he's got to get back home, and I wanted to put on these new records"--relapse into the bass, "for him first?... Rightoh...."

They had coffee before they adjourned to the sitting-room. It was a low-ceilinged, soothing place with soft brown walls, low cushiony seats, a richly-glowing Persian rug, some brass, and a few pictures. Mrs. Cartwright's standing-desk at which she worked had been wheeled away into a corner near an old oak coffer. Its place was usurped by the tall stand of a gramophone. About this the young people clustered, talking "records" ...

"I say, have you got that topping thing of George Graves's----?"

"Not a talking one; Miss Walsh wanted something pretty----"

"Well, what about 'The Naughty Sporty Girl,' Miss Olwen?"

"Bai Jove, did you hear him in----?"

"Heaps of room to dance, if----"

"Look out, please," said Keith Cartwright, lugging at a heavy flat packet; and presently he put on a loud "selection" from some revue.

It was under cover of this music that Captain Ross who had been carrying on with his Scots friend a conversation that seemed to consist of variations on the letter R, suddenly left him in the middle of a question as to the "Pairrrrrrrrrrsonnel" at the Honeycomb, and came up to Awdas, who was making his way to a vacant place on the arm of the couch whereon Golden was sitting.

With some force, Captain Ross gripped him by the upper arm. In the tone of one who has been for hours storing up some accumulated grievance, he muttered, "Say, Jack. I've got to have a word with you. Now," he added, peremptorily, "Come out here, will you?"