Disturbing Charm

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26. 2-9 Champagne And The Charm



"Here's to the Wings of Love,
May they never moult a feather."

Toast.

Almost roughly he dragged Jack Awdas into the little entrance lobby, where, under a couple of mounted ibex heads, a carved oak chest was piled up with khaki caps, gloves, and British warms. The red silk-shaded hanging-lamp glowed down on the two young men reflected in a convex mirror on the other wall; Captain Ross's black head was therein enlarged until his figure had the proportions of a tadpole; his face showed the expression of a deeply-injured man, of one whom his friend had "let in" for something uncalled-for and gratuitous.

"See here," he began abruptly. "I've got to tell you. There's something I know that I don't know if I'm supposed to know."

Jack Awdas gave his husky boy's laugh.

"Well, dash it, there are a few things that a Captain on the staff is supposed to know after all. 'Wearing red things round his hat, he's employed at this and----'"

"Don't rag, Jack. This thing's about you." Then, almost violently, "I saw you this morning."

That red light glowed on a change in the fair one of the two faces as the young flying officer looked down upon his friend, "I say, d'you mean----?"

"Yep. I saw you."

Awdas, still startled, broke into another laugh. "Sorry, Ross. I didn't mean to steal a march upon you, you know. But look here, old thing, how the devil did you see me? You weren't there. Nobody was, ex----"

"I was in my office. Saw you all right from the window there."

"The deuce you did!... I say, if you let it get known about the Honeycomb, that you've got a view like that, you'll have some of the Mandarins snaffling that office of yours for themselves."

Captain Ross did not smile as he returned curtly, "There must be a dozen of our windows looking, straight out on to the entrance to the Adelphi Chapel."

Then a broad grin overspread Jack Awdas's fair face. "Well, is that all, old thing?" he asked, tucking his handkerchief up his sleeve and making as though he would turn back to the door, through which there rollicked, but subdued, the strains of "Me and My Girl" put on very quickly. "Weren't you going to congratulate me, Ross?"

Ross growled, "I guess a fellow doesn't want to put his foot into it by throwing about congratulations for a secret marriage----"

"Secret? Good Lord, nothing secret about it," the other young officer took up quickly, as he sat down for a moment on the edge of that heaped-up chest. "Look here! We haven't told anybody about it because there simply hasn't been time yet. When we came here tonight we were going to tell you. We wouldn't put off Mrs. Cartwright; we were going to come as if nothing had happened, and then make a wedding party of it; tell you all, first thing. But how've I been able to get a word in? First there was our gallant ally the Sergeant that everybody had to make a fuss over in French, and then there was young Brown and his widow, that announcement! and then there was you----"

"Me?"

"Yes, you yarning away about what women were and what they weren't, and if so why not. There hasn't been time to get a word in, man. Secret?" He laughed joyously. "Why, I expect Golden's just telling Mrs. Cartwright all about it now." The bridegroom crossed his long legs and grinned up into the unresponsive face of this bachelor standing before him. "Yes; this morning! I didn't see what there was to wait for ... here, have one of mine. Golden thought it was a bit quick, but then so she did when I wanted to be engaged to her, after three whole blooming days. Thought it was sudden; That's----why, it's nearly four months ago. Anyway I said to myself yesterday, 'This engagement's been dragging on long enough; looks like lasting for ever'----so I got the license right away, wired for my mother, broke it to Golden's governor, who has always been very decent, and----Well, they were the only guests as far as I knew, never guessing that you and the rest of the Honeycomb were gazing from the windows at my girl in her veil and orange-blossoms. So now will you congratulate me on my marriage?"

The face of the finest judge of marriage in Europe was a study.




For weeks past now, from the windows of cell 0638 at the Honeycomb, Captain Fergus Ross had been accustomed to glance up from his desk and to observe through the window various taxis, cars, or broughams drive up to the door of the Adelphi Chapel.

He had seen young people and their friends alight in ceremonial kit. He had watched them go in; and he had seen young couples presently come out again, sometimes under arches of swords, sometimes under those of crutches and walking-sticks, sometimes in a simple shower of confetti. No doubt these sights had confirmed him in his misogynistic broodings.

This very morning he had attracted the attention of his colleague, Major Leefe, to the window, and, pointing down upon a hurrying young figure in khaki with a sword, had announced with a grim and pitying smile, "There goes another good man to his doom."

Even as he pronounced the last word (which he did as though it were the German for "stupid"), he observed the hurrying figure below to raise its head for a moment as it looked quickly around.

He had recognized Jack Awdas.

Five minutes afterwards he had seen Golden in all her bridal glory, step out of a taxi with Mr. van Huysen.

You could have knocked Captain Ross down with a feather.

What was everybody coming to? he had pondered irritably ever since. All his friends....




"I congrrratulate----" he began stiffly, but at that very moment a clamour broke out above the music in the room they had left.

"Where is he?"

"Fetch him in----"

"Fancy bolting like that----" came the muffled cries.

The door was flung suddenly open as Brown, Ellerton, the Highlander, Sergeant Tronchet and the Master of the House burst suddenly into the lobby.

"Here he is!"

"Now, you rascal----"

"Dark horse, what?"

"Come in, you dog----"

"Ah, farceur; Félicita----"

"Bai Jove, trying to hush it up----"

"Mr. Awdas, I say. Mr. Awdas----"

"Ah, would you----"

"Monsieur de l'Audace!"

"Priceless!"

Among them they almost carried Jack's Herculean young form back into the sitting-room.

Captain Ross followed.

The golden head of the Sunburst Girl towered above the heads of Olwen and of Miss Walsh as they pressed upon her their enthusiastic good wishes. Laughing, flushed, sparkling, she was giving her version of that dilatory courtship of Jack's; while Mrs. Cartwright in the corner by that desk of hers, was hunting in some cache of hers for something (to wit, the last drop of Bubbly she possessed).

"Here's more surprises about your English ways," the American bride was laughing. "Here's this Bird-boy of mine----well, you all know the quick and sudden start of our engagement! There was father and I thinking maybe it wouldn't matter so much provided we had a sensible time to get to know one another in after say a year! Then yesterday Jack gets suddenly scared that we'll both be grey and rheumatic fossils if we aren't married half an hour from then.... Say, Olwen? What could I say? I don't know how he does it--it's mesmerism or a charm, I guess, for when once Jack takes it into his head----"

Here the laughter and cheering of the men broke out. The Master of the House was seen to be advancing, carrying at the full length of his young arms a tray of glasses. Mrs. Cartwright rose from the chest, smilingly holding a gold-topped bottle in either hand.

"Who's going to open these?"

Already Mr. Brown had whisked a skirt of his tunic under his arm and was slipping his sapper's knife from its swivel. "Stand from under!" sang out the little second lieutenant as pop! went a cork. "Right! I'll fill 'em, Mrs. C. I'm the next starter for the matrimonial stakes, after the giddy bridegroom. Out o' the way, Ross! Don't take up the earth.... Invited out to supper, and staying to wedding-breakfast, eh?... Here's yours, Miss Olwen; a bridesmaid, are you?... No, you don't, Ellerton; I'm booked for best man.... I'm going to have one from everybody.... After you've finished with my feet, Ross----"

Captain Ross, glaring above his glass at the group about that tall and resplendent bridal pair, found his bad temper of the day culminating in a very curious decision.

He was going to leave directly he'd finished this glass of champagne in which they toasted the young Awdases. And he was going to take with him, Olwen Howel-Jones. He was going to see her home. He was; not that gibbering idiot Brown, who was engaged anyway, nor that hopeless ass Ellerton, that Naval outfitter's dummy; no fear. Most certainly not. As for that fellow Jack, what the Hades did he mean by looking as if he were the only man on God's earth whose wedding-night it had ever been or ever could be? Was Jack Awdas the first young fool who'd ever managed to get himself marked down and married by a girl?... The whole party seemed to be one confounded whirl of tomfoolery.... Well, he, Ross, was leaving, and taking that chit home. (It was high time.) Drive her all the way, too; because he'd got something to say to her. Straight away he'd say to her, "Now, see here, damn it, there's going to be no more of this, there's been enough of it, and I won't have it."

Just that was what he intended to say, and----

At this instant the Master of the House, in the treble one of his voices, called, "I say, Captain Ross, please--they're asking for you."

The telephone-bell had rung a moment before, and Keith had run out of the room to answer it.

The telephone was just outside; Captain Ross went to it....

In a minute or so he returned. He was seen to draw his hostess aside, to murmur something to her. Mrs. Cartwright nodded quickly. Then he went up for the second time that evening to catch hold, with his one remaining hand, of the arm of Jack Awdas. The young flying officer gave a jerk of his fair head; a whisper to Golden, another to his hostess.... Before the rest of the group had realized that they were going, those two, Ross and Awdas, were out of the flat, down the one flight of steps and out into the clear moonlight above Westminster.

Then, composedly and carelessly, Mrs. Cartwright slipped her arm through Golden's, and turned to her other guests.

"I'm so sorry to be inhospitable, dear people, but I think it would be better if you went, now!" she announced, smilingly. "There's heaps of time. You see Captain Ross gets the warning from the Honeycomb half an hour before any of us, and they've just rung him up to say----"

"Raid on!" ejaculated Keith's highest squeak.

"Probably, he thinks," said his mother with a shrug. "Tiresome people these Huns are; no sense of fitness. Well--finish your bubbly and off with you."

There was a scurrying of the women-folk to get their wraps from Mrs. Cartwright's bedroom; a chorus of comment half exasperated, half amused. Raids were less of a terror by night than a source of deep boredom to Londoners by this time.... They had all been in them before; they knew (with luck) just what would happen from the first whistling signals of the "Take cover" to the "All clear."

"Bother them," exclaimed little Olwen, disgusted. "In the middle of the party for you, Golden!"

The men, coated and capped, thronged the tiny lobby, waiting.... Mr. Brown and Captain Ross's friend would escort Mrs. Cartwright's niece to her hotel. Young Mr. Ellerton was all eagerness to see Miss Howel-Jones all the way home again. Agatha's sergeant had secured a taxi to take his fiancée Victoria-wards; they offered a lift to Golden, imagining that the young bride would now return to her father's house in Grosvenor Gardens. But in the midst of the little bustle of departure Mrs. Cartwright had given a gentle clasp to the American girl's arm.

"Don't go," she said softly. "I am going to put you up, Golden. You are to stay with me. He told me he wanted you to stay with me tonight----"

As she finished speaking, the first warning maroon went off with a bang.