Disturbing Charm


27. 2-10 Her Bridal Night

"An airy devil hovers in the sky
And pours down mischief."


Presently the growling of the guns began to reverberate over London.

First came the far-off rumbling that is felt rather than heard; the hint whereat the mothers of households drop book or work to exclaim, "Hush!... It is;..."

"Don't think so, dear," return the men folk; to retract a couple of minutes later with an "Ah, yes; blast 'em. Here they are. I'll bring the kids down."

Then came the long, nerve-irritating pause.

In Mrs. Cartwright's Westminster flat there were no children to cause those anxieties with which the enemy had made himself more detested than by any legitimate act of war. Her son, as he would have wished you to note, was hardly a kid to be roused from his sleep. As he strolled back from the staircase window, hands in pockets, his manner was nonchalant in the extreme. He was no callow scout, either, to wait in a police-station for that thrilling moment when he should be allowed out to sound the bugle-call.

"Like the gramophone on again?" he suggested (luckily in the more manly of his two voices). "It would drown that boring noise for you."

"I don't think so, darling, thanks," said his mother. A pause; silence. "They may not get through after all. Won't you go to bed, Keith?"

"Oh, I don't know"--the over-grown lad was already dropping with sleep. "Wouldn't you women rather I stopped up with you?"

Golden and Mrs. Cartwright exchanged a tiny smile before the mother said, "Do you know, I don't think we'll stop up. I am going to show Mrs. Awdas to her room now. You do as you like."

The Master of the House moved from the traditional attitude, flat back against the sitting-room mantelpiece, feet wide apart on the Persian rug. "Oh, well, I don't see why I should hang about, waiting up for those wretched Huns, either," he pronounced, his pink mouth twisting sidewards as he strangled his yawns. "I'll turn in too, if you're sure you don't mind."

And he walked across the sitting-room to hold the door open for his mother and her guest to precede him.

Golden, who considered this English schoolboy "perfectly lovely," gave him a smiling good night over her shoulder.

"Good night, Precious," whispered his mother.

Very prettily the boy returned her kiss as he responded, "Good night, old Bean."

He turned out the lights behind him and betook himself to his room on the left of the corridor that skirted the flat. On the right were Reggie's room and his mother's; her old Belgian femme de ménage came in by the day. Her younger son's room was unoccupied tonight, but it was her own bedroom that Mrs. Cartwright gave up to Golden Awdas. Here she left her to undress, promising to come back.

She did not think that Golden would sleep at once.

She wandered back to turn up the lights again in the sitting-room, still full of cigarette smoke, and with its atmosphere still vibrant as if with young voices and laughter. And as she set chairs into their places, plumped up cushions, and, putting her hand carefully through the curtains, set a window open and wheeled her standing-desk back ready for her morning's work tomorrow, she thought smilingly of those guests of hers; all so many years behind her, in age, in emotion, in experience. She delighted in them, these young men who felt themselves masters of all wisdom, these girls on the right side of a barrier.... The passing of it had been an agony to Claudia Cartwright.

It did not take all women in the same way, she reflected. Many went through life so entirely satisfied with inessentials; so half-awake.

Most had never been lovers or had lovers. But those who had----!

No death of a sweetheart in early youth, no cruel jilting, no bitter matrimonial experience, nothing, nothing! could compare with the poignant, crushing, rending pain of those years when Youth and Love slip away from the woman. It is a long black tunnel of misery from which she emerges (having lost much but accepted, bowed her head, folded her hands) into the grey afternoon of Life. And then----Heaven's blessing on the maternal sense that is rich in any real woman's character, even if she never has a child at all! For it is this that comes to her aid; and she spreads it out over the girls and the men she knows; caring, helping, sympathizing with all their love emotions (or lack or them).

Henceforward everything must be vicariously felt by her. She must live in the lives of her children; in their professions and interests; she must love through her young friends ... Little Olwen ... Golden.... As she thought of these Untried, their friend smiled over a tag of verse that came into her mind with the image that seemed its illustration.

"Oh, tarnish late on Wenlock Edge, Gold that I never see! Lie long, high snowdrifts on the hedge, That will not shower on me."

Prayer, she thought, can take odd forms----well, this was hers for the happiness of her girl-friends.

Golden, she thought, would be in bed by now.

A nearer growling of guns, from the north, she judged, sounded as she tapped at the door.

"Come!" called the charming un-English voice.

Mrs. Cartwright entered her own familiar room with its known mingling of kuss-kuss, rose, and orris scent. The toilet silver, the Indian numnah on the floor, her husband's sword and sash over the bookshelf, and the enlarged photograph of him laughing under the black, semi-lune shadow of his solar-topi----these things were Claudia's background. Her eyes opened upon them each morning. Tonight they all seemed suddenly new to her....

It was because they were now a background to this radiant stranger in her room. Out of that cloud of loosened gold on her pillow there looked the face of a beauty as rare as any that had ever been kissed awake by a fairy prince.

"Oh, my dear," exclaimed Mrs. Cartwright, involuntarily. "How lovely you are, Golden; how lovely!"

Paradoxical enough it might seem to some women, but this woman thanked Heaven it was a girl so beautiful who had supplanted her, or rather, to whom she had relinquished that beautiful boy. She could not have endured to see Jack choose a bride unworthy in body or mind, least of all one who might be as the ordinary "nice" pretty girl often is, a bundle of mere sentiment and frigidity. To Golden she could give him. Actually she had brought them together. And now it was to his best woman-friend that the young flier confided his sweetheart.

On this, of all nights! Their bridal night!

Mrs. Cartwright could have laughed outright at the strangeness of it. Jack's wedding-night!

She remembered that other night, months ago, when in a French hotel bedroom she had outwatched the hours with a nightmare-haunted man. In the very attitude that she had taken then, she sat down now on the edge of this other bed, tucking the eider-down about her as she began chatting, quietly and cheerfully, with his bride. Through speech and pause alike the elder woman's mind was echoing with memories. It was Jack Awdas's husky voice that she heard, clearly as when it was his face upon a pillow that she watched. How feverishly he had muttered, "That's why I always shout in my dream.... I was falling, falling, and calling out to my observer.... We were pals!... I don't think it could ever be exactly like that with a girl."

She, Claudia, had told him, "The girl is more to you or less to you, but not the same."

And now she lay in her beauty, the girl; that worshipped "girl" of Jack's. And this----This!--was her bridal night.

Guns! The nearer guns were uttering now. Bark after vicious bark set windows rattling. The racket died away only to break out afresh....

In an interval, Golden said suddenly. "Jack told me what a really fine friend you'd always been to him. And, d'you know? I've always known I should be friends with you."

"Have you?"

"Why, yes. I said so before we left Les Pins.... D'you remember, I saw you for a moment that very first evening, sitting with him in the lounge? But who would have thought where we should all be tonight?" mused the girl, lifting the throat that rose so pillar-wise and white above the silken edge of a night-dress of her hostess's. "In London, and me married to the Bird-boy, and an air raid going on outside. But do I have to keep you up this way? You're all dressed and everything: I'm so afraid you'll be dead tired."

"Not I. I shouldn't be able to sleep if I did undress. There'll be another hullabaloo on in another minute, I expect," said Mrs. Cartwright, cheerfully. The sound of the guns had died down for a moment. "And--well, it won't be the first time, Golden, that I've stayed up with somebody who could not sleep.... Ah, they're starting again."

Yes, they were starting again....

Throughout London, nurses in hospitals set their teeth angrily over patients whom they had hoped to drag back to life, out of the horrors of shock. Other nurses, in maternity homes, could have wrung dismayed hands over this terror added to Nature's ordeal. And in operating rooms the white-coated surgeons cursed below their breath the hellish interruption that might cause a slip of the hand or the instrument and leave all care, all science vain. These things were the danger and the damage; not merely the bomb dropped at random; the crumbling masonry. These, and the mischief to countless little children, disturbed past soothing now, with tender nerves a-fret, heads gathered to their parents' shoulders. Little heads! They ought never to have been visited by such questions as punctuated the din in homes where baby voices asked, "Was that a gun or a bomb, daddy?" ... "Where was that firing from?" ... "If a raid came right on Billy's cot, mamsie, what would you do?"

Then there came to their ears a new sound--the gutteral, syncopated drone of twin engines--beating over the roofs.

"Ah! There's one got through, then," said Mrs. Cartwright. Following on her words came the outburst of nearer gunnery, to which the whole house seemed to shake; in twos and threes--"Brroum--brrroum!--brrroum!--brroum!--brrrroum!" then a more ponderous crash than all.

Then, a light tap at the door and a voice in two keys, calling with zest, "Mums! Are you all right? Is Mrs. Awdas? There's nothing to be frightened at really."

"No; all right, Keith darling. You're all right, aren't you?"

"Top-hole. I say, did you hear that last? I'm sure it was a dud shell just outside on the pavement, so----"

"Keith, you're to promise you won't go outside until they've gone," called his mother, starting up. "Go to your room!"

"Oh ... all right, then. I'll nip out as soon as the all-clear goes though." The Master of the House pattered off down the corridor to his room.

"I wonder if any others will get through tonight," said Mrs. Cartwright, listening.

Golden, who had not yet lost any of her kin or seen them broken in this War, suggested that these German flyers were, anyway, brave.

"So are other beasts of prey," returned the Englishwoman.

Again the firing rolled away in the distance, following the raiders' course....

But a thoughtfulness seemed to have fallen upon the wakeful girl. For the first time she had given a little shiver at the sound of that receding turmoil.

"Now I hope it isn't too cowardly of me, what I'm going to say," she began, suddenly, turning on her rounded elbow. "But I can't help thinking of boys flying up there in the dark, in the teeth of guns like that.... He was doing it, of course, until he crashed. My Bird-boy!... He's always glad when he goes up; he was grousing to me, as you call it, yesterday, because he hadn't been off the ground for a week ... but, oh, Mrs. Cartwright! do you know, I'm real glad, just for tonight, that Jack can't be up."

Mrs. Cartwright smiled at her, answering her in two words that seemed ordinary enough.

"I know."

But they meant, to the elder woman, something very different from the gentle agreement that they conveyed to the girl.

Claudia Cartwright heard again the hasty whisper with which Jack had taken leave of her those hours ago. "I want Her to stay here," he told her. "I'd want you to take care of her."

At the time Mrs. Cartwright had been paralyzed with surprise. Golden Awdas to stay with her? Why?

Why on earth should Jack leave her----tonight of all nights? She, the bride, had seemed to see nothing stupefying in his action in going off with Captain Ross when the warning came through.

But Mrs. Cartwright knew that Captain Ross had his own duty, not anything in which Jack must help him. Jack was free, she'd heard, until ten o'clock tomorrow morning. It was not Jack's pidgin to do anything until then.... Therefore why in the name of all that was extraordinary hadn't he taken his bride away when the others all went? Why hadn't he taken her off home with him, or to the hotel where he put up, or wherever it was?

Then, very quickly, she'd seen why.

One of the cleverest soldiers of her acquaintance had already told Claudia that, could the true history of these campaigns ever be written, it would read not merely like another version of the War, but like another War. She guessed how many things planned never happen and how many things happen that were never planned, and how few of either get into the papers. Oh, the difference between the published account and the story of the man who was there! Tomorrow would see a report of this raid, which would say nothing at all of the men whose duty ... it had not been to beat back the raiders. It was not Jack's duty to go up that night. It was his duty not to go.


Up there he was now, she knew it. Up there, in the darkness and the din! Perhaps over the house now, the joyous eaglet-boy, fighting those circling hawks ... now, at this moment!...

She knew it in her heart.

And, thinking of that, she sat there smiling at the white and golden bride who was glad to think of her boy safe from this danger at least.... There was no reason why Golden should know it too.

The woman he had loved continued to watch with the girl he loved, during her bridal night.