Disturbing Charm

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29. 2-12 Shrapnel And The Charm



"Never the time and the place and the loved one all together!"

Browning.

And what of the other people who had been at Mrs. Cartwright's party when that raid alarm came through?

Olwen Howel-Jones and young Ellerton had imagined that by taking "the Metropolitan" from Baker Street Station they might arrive at Wembley Park before the raid started in earnest.

This hope proved to be vain before their train reached Willesden Junction. Out went the lights as the train came to a dead stand between two stations. Up went the windows; above the iron bars that guarded them there craned the heads of passengers asking in every key what the matter was.

They were answered by the distant growling of those first guns.

"Bai Jove! Held up for the blessed raid," exclaimed the cheerful voice of young Ellerton, who was alone with Olwen in a first-class carriage in the front of the train. "How priceless! Here we are and here we stay until the blighters choose to finish their little call, I s'pose. That's all right.... Hope you don't feel nervous, Miss Howel-Jones?"

The soft voice of little Olwen came to him out of the dark. (She was sitting in the corner seat, opposite to him.) "Oh, no! I'm not nervous at all, thanks. I think it's quite exciting! I only hope Lizzie (that's my Aunt) won't be worrying about me; but then she knew where I was; she'll probably think Mrs. Cartwright kept me."

"Ah, yes. She'll probably think Mrs. Cartwright kept you," agreed Olwen's companion. "I thought it looked a likely night for our friends."

He had made this remark, by the way, twice on their way to Baker Street.

"Yes," said Olwen.

Silence, punctuated by a nearer muttering of the guardian guns fell between the two young people in the carriage to themselves. The voices of other passengers could be heard further along the train; and the guard appeared to be exchanging repartee with the engine-driver, whose name (as that of all drivers of 'bus or engine seems to be), was Bill. Olwen gave a little laugh as "Bill's" comments were shouted forth on the night air, and her companion chuckled also. But he started no conversation about it. Or about any other subject. The whole truth of the matter was that this quite good-looking and pleasant young man Harold Ellerton hadn't got very much conversation. Others besides Captain Ross (who was never inclined to be fair to him) had noticed this. Olwen herself had noticed it before now. It had been noticed by various girls whom he had taken out; for he was fond of taking out girls. But, unlike the majority of his sex, he preferred them to talk to him. He was perfectly happy to punctuate their treble twitter with his appreciative bass, "Ha!" "Bai Jove!" and "Priceless!" But (except for one other detail to be presently specified), he hardly knew what else to say to a young woman who was out with him. That was why he felt most at ease sitting beside her at a theatre (where, during two enjoyable hours, all the talking necessary was done for him by Mr. Owen Nares, or Mr. Leslie Henson, or somebody like that). Or at a restaurant, preferably at a table near the band; listening to that could always fill up any awkward pause. At dances, again, one could dance. At a little dinner party like tonight's, for instance, there was a crowd where everybody talked; made everything so much more cheery at once. But it was when these things came to an end, when one had the girl all to oneself to bring home----That, he found, was the crab!

Why was it, he wondered, that he found it so difficult to talk to her, except upon one subject?

He remembered delightful evenings, ending in these painful and tedious journeys à deux. Tonight, for instance, it was going to be the very dickens with this little Miss Howel-Jones. A jolly nice little kid, thought the sailor, a pretty kid! But here they might be held up together in this confounded train for another hour, perhaps, and he couldn't even see her face, and he was blessed if he knew what more to say to her----Why, he'd said everything as he sat next to her at dinner, he and that funny little Brown chap. He did envy the flow of chaps like that! Chaps who could yarn away upon this, that, and the other subject for three years or the duration of the War. Talk to girls for ever, they could, without repeating themselves!

"I thought it looked a likely sort of evening for a raid," he heard himself say at this point.

"Yes," said the girl opposite to him in the dark.

Of course he'd said everything there was to be said on the subject of air-raids in general and this air-raid in particular on the way to Baker Street. Yet he couldn't sit here in the dark opposite to her for the whole length of the raid, saying nothing?

Still the guns made distant thunder....

"I do hope you aren't frightened," he said. "It's quite all right, you know."

"Oh, I know. I'm not a bit frightened," came from Olwen; truthfully enough.

She was not frightened as she settled herself back against the padding of the carriage. She was only a little sleepy, a little anxious for the kind-hearted Lizzie, who would be waiting up for her in that pretty villa at Wembley Park; she was also excited and elated still after her lovely party.

She was thinking far more of that party than she was of her companion of the raid!

She was also wondering about Captain Ross.

What a disgusting temper the man had been in all that evening!

Positively scowling at her! Was he jealous, really? Was he?

Then she wondered what Captain Ross was doing at that moment.

If there had been no raid----! If it had been he who was seeing her home she might have asked him what she had done that he should scowl at her like that.

Or if only it were Captain Ross who was sitting with her here in this darkened carriage all smelling of engine-dust and cigarette smoke, waiting for the raid to finish....

Hurriedly Olwen put the thought away. It was no use allowing oneself to dwell on thoughts of things that were too good to be true. No, no, not too good. She told herself firmly that she did not wish Captain Ross were in this railway-carriage instead of Mr. Ellerton. Captain Ross would only be disagreeable.

Only----Well! She could imagine some girls feeling glad of a raid in these circumstances. Some girls to whom it would be as one long, long lovely dance "sat out" in a dark corner with their favourite partner of all. Perhaps there were girls "hung up" in this very train, feeling that it was the evening of their lives.

Whereas all she could feel was apologetic to Mr. Ellerton. He liked her, but she was sure he had never bargained for sitting out with her a dance of this length. Still, what was to be done? Here the train stuck. They couldn't get out and walk to Wembley!

"Shall we smoke?" suggested Mr. Ellerton. "You'll have a cigarette, won't you?"

He fumbled in his pockets and brought out his torch. Its tiny beams made rounds of light in the carriage and upon his face and upon the gold braid and gold rings of his uniform. He found case and matches. He lighted a cigarette for Olwen, who puffed at it with secret distaste (for the moderate smoker is not found among her sex; a woman being either a cigarette fiend or a passive objector).

The two red glow-worms winked and wavered in the dark carriage, their reflections shining in the glass of photographs over the rack. Outside the searchlights pointed, and now and again the sky showed the alien star of a shrapnel-burst.

Then, without warning, crash after crash seemed to rock the train on the rails. Some guns, very near, that had not yet spoken, were barking savagely, and between the barks a shrill "whee-you! whee-you!" hissed past the telegraph wires....

The start that Olwen gave made her drop her cigarette on to the floor of the carriage. She dug her little French heel into the spark. Young Ellerton threw his cigarette down beside it and rose quickly. Snapping up the arm of the seat by Olwen, he sat down close to her.

"You needn't be frightened," he said, encouragingly.

"I'm not frightened," she assured him. "Only it makes me jump."

"Brutes, frightening you!" exclaimed young Ellerton. "I say, I do wish I'd thought of bringing some chocolates or something for you."

"I'm not hungry either, thank you," laughed Olwen into the barking of those guns, but young Ellerton's voice repeated, "I wish I'd got any sweets for you. I've only this----"

She felt him move against her arm as he leant nearer to her to get something else out of his pocket: it was a phial of saccharine tablets, carried about since the sugar restrictions.

"Have some of these," he said. "Put out your hand ... here, where are you?" He shook half a dozen tablets out into her palm.

As it happened, Olwen disliked saccharine worse than she disliked Virginian cigarettes, yet she munched the substitute-sweets to please this young man who, according to his lights, was being nice and kind and protective towards her.

For the severalth time he informed her that she was not to be frightened.... Then, in a new tone, he added, "Dear little girl." Then, more softly still, "For you are a dear little girl, you know. Do you know, you're just about the sweetest I've ever met."

"Oh, pooh!" laughed Olwen, taken by surprise, nevertheless. She rather wished she could see the face of the young man sitting so close beside her. Had she done so, she would have seen it was what is known as "a study." For during the last half-hour or so the young man had become the prey to conflicting emotions indeed. Chief of these, perhaps, was a helpless fascination; the fascination of some one with a weak head who watches himself draw nearer and nearer to the brink of some giddy height.

Harold Ellerton knew he was drifting, as he'd done times and again, towards a fatal habit of his. Times and again, since before he had left Dartmouth, this thing had happened to him. It was as characteristic of him as was his lack of general conversation where women were concerned. In fact, it's not impossible that one of these characteristics may have led to the other.

He didn't know what to say to girls unless he were making love to them, and his sole conception of love-making was to ask them to marry him!

He saw it coming now in the dark accomplice solitude of this railway carriage. He knew that he was going to say a few more tender things to this little Howel-Jones girl, about her eyelashes and how sweet she'd looked at that party and how she ought to have a bridal party of her own, directly--dear little sweetheart she'd make to any fellow!

He said these things.

He knew the other was coming.

It came.

"Look here, d'you think you could care enough to be mine?" he heard himself say. "Bai Jove, if you would----! If you'd marry me; Would you? Would you?"

There! He'd done it again.

Now came the agonizing moment.

Now again he'd have to wait for the girl's answer. That always seemed to him to be at least two hours in coming: except once, an anguished once when the girl had said, "Yes" directly. What would this one say; what? He waited in the dark; and sweat broke out on the young brow under the peaked cap.

In a long, uncertain breath the girl said, "Oh----"

Then, "D'you mean it, Mr. Ellerton?"

"Of course;" returned Mr. Ellerton, ardently, but digging his nails into the palms of his hands.

The soft voice beside him said, rather waveringly, "Wait a minute----"

The young man who had just proposed again set his teeth and waited. This was Hades. Serve him right for being such a double-blanked fool again! But this was the worst yet. Never before had he not been able to see the girl's face when he asked her to marry him. Never again, he vowed incoherently to himself, never again would he be such an ass as to propose to a girl during a raid with all the lights out! But then, never again would he let himself in for this with any girl alive! Not if he got safely out of this! Oh, Lord, the fool he'd been!... Could he possibly light a cigarette?... No, only wait.... "A minute" this little thing had said....

Before she spoke again, æons seemed to elapse.

Actually they were a few moments only, during which the mind of Olwen Howel-Jones dashed swiftly through four distinct phases of thought. The first was pure surprise.

The second was a "No" that came from the bed-rock of woman's nature, that fundamental thing which Convention must blast and quarry into acceptable shapes.

The third was a "Yes" compounded of a thousand artificialities inherited, acquired, fostered, observed, and taught. Fear was among them; fear handed down from generations of dowerless girls who accepted the first proposal lest they might die as old maids. Why not! thought little Olwen. Engaged! Fancy if she were! What would her Aunts think, and Uncle, and her sisters! She would be the first of her sisters to become engaged! And she had got her leave, too, and would be going down to Wales; fancy going home to tell them! Fancy telling them at the Honeycomb; Mrs. Newton and everybody! What fun! Engaged to Mr. Ellerton. She did like him so much; she did, she did! He was awfully nice, and jolly with people, and so good-looking and so----it appeared, so fond of her!... More than could be said for Captain Ross. Wouldn't it be absolutely ridiculous to miss a real thing like this, for just a fancy like that? Girls had to get engaged while they could. It was the happiest thing; getting engaged and having a ripping time for a bit, then getting married and having everybody congratulating you. Getting engaged in the middle of a raid, too! Nobody could say that wasn't romantic. Love?... Well, Captain Ross had said that men couldn't bear "that Love-with-a-capital-L" business. It wasn't for everybody. And why do without all the fun of getting engaged, simply for the sake of some man who evidently didn't care two-pence.... It would be awfully silly to say "No."

Swiftly as the flash of the guns this phase passed; swiftly as the following report there followed the fourth phase in the girl's mind. It flung her back to phase the second. But that had been composed of dumb Instinct. This was articulate.

No, no! She must not say "Yes" to this young man. However nice, however good-looking, however fond, he was not the man. She knew it. She did not love him. Golden said Love must be Lovely. What more unlovely than a loveless pact? The "fun" of this engagement? What would that be? A wretched substitute; no more real, sweet fun than the saccharine tablets which she had been munching were real sugar. Sugar in tea; Love in Life.... Some people put up with makeshifts cheerfully; but not she. Some other people (she pursued the childish analogy) never did take sugar in their tea. The luckier they! They missed nothing; Olwen would crave it forever. But better a thousand times to go without everything than to accept the wrong thing!

She came out of her swift inner reverie, back to the dark railway carriage and the young man.

"Oh, Mr. Ellerton," she said hurriedly and remorsefully. "I am dreadfully sorry but I can't possibly. I don't care for you. Not that way. I do like you ever so much. But if--if you don't mind, I couldn't marry you."

She heard the young man near her give, in the darkness, the profoundest sigh that she had ever heard torn from any human breast....

Remorsefully she repeated, "I am so sorry----" Then stopped abruptly. She seemed, in the darkness and the vibrating atmosphere, to have caught a floating idea that startled her somewhat.

She began again gravely. "Will you lend me your torch for a minute?"

She felt it put into her hand.

Quickly Olwen said, "It's very rude of me, but I must look at you, please: I must see your face!"

Then she turned the little beam right upon him.

Then she exclaimed, "Mr. Ellerton!"

"Yes----" he said, unmistakably sheepish.

Olwen burst out laughing. "You are a fraud," she exclaimed gaily. "You aren't one bit sorry that I refused you. You're trying not to, but you're looking----yes, relieved. You're glad! Don't pretend!"

"Oh, I say----"

"No! Don't pretend! You were laughing. You're feeling gladder than you've ever felt over anything in your life because I don't want to marry you! I know;"

Young Ellerton dragged his handkerchief from his cuff, pushed back his cap and wiped his forehead. "Bai Jove," he said with the sincerest admiration in his tone, "you are a clever little thing. I--I don't think any of the others have ever tumbled to that."

A moment later he found himself talking to her with more real ease and enjoyment than he had ever talked to a girl in his life; with real fluency. To her (during the second hour for which they were hung up) he confessed that no, he didn't want to get married. There were people----anyhow, men, who didn't. Not to the sweetest and prettiest girl in the world. Not to anybody. To tie himself up like that for life, declared the young sailor, was what he wouldn't want to do for anything under the sun; certainly not for anything under a hat. Never!

Olwen, finding she had ceased to be bored by him for the first time since she had left Mrs. Cartwright's turned her face towards him in the dark and plied him with question after laughing question.

"But you ask people to marry you!"

"Can't stop myself! It's the devil!"

"And none of them have accepted you?"

"Yes; one! A girl who was at college with my sister. A nice girl. I did get to loathe her!" with feeling. "We were engaged for one whole awful week!"

"How did you break it off, then?"

"She did. I loved her for that. She said I was too much like the young man in Stevenson who said being engaged was all right as long as her sisters were there. So she chucked me. And after that I've been lucky----I mean, you know what I mean!"

Olwen shook with laughter. "But, then, why d'you do it?" she persisted.

"I tell you I can't help it. It happens!"

"Why? For instance, why did you let it happen tonight? Quite frankly, why did you ask me?"

"Oh, you----!" he began, and he paused for a minute. "Oh, come," he said, "you are an awful nice little girl, you know. Anybody might be excused for losing his head. You were looking extra pretty at the party tonight, too. Some peach, you looked, if I may say so; and it wasn't just looks either. There was something about you. Sort of disturbing.... I swear there was. You attracted me till I----"

"Don't propose to me again," Olwen warned him. "I might think better of it."

"Oh, no," laughed Harold Ellerton. "You're an absolute little sportswoman, I know."

The little sportswoman, while she continued to laugh and chat with him in the friendliest way until the signal sounded for the train to start again, the little sportswoman had been really arrested by one of his remarks.

"Something about her" tonight, he thought. She'd heard something like that before. She thought she might know what it meant.

She went back to early on the afternoon of that eventful day.




Very late she had found herself as she was dressing for her tea with Mr. Brown at the Regent Palace; even as she was putting on her nicest silk stockings she had known that it would mean a scamper down the drive if she meant to catch that train....

Then in her hurry a suspender had snapped.

"Dash!" she had cried.

No time to stitch it.

She had cast round for the nearest bit of ribbon wherewith to garter herself securely, and had snatched it up from where it dangled on her dressing-table, hardly seeing which bit of pink ribbon it was with what satin sachet attached. She'd wound it hastily about her slim and silk-sheathed leg and forgotten all about it. That's how she had come to be wearing it that evening, not in the orthodox way round her neck, but wearing it nevertheless; the Disturbing Charm!

Hidden thus, it almost seemed as if it had done its work again?




As they said good-bye at the wicket gate of her Aunt's house, she found herself quite affectionately promising to write, while on leave, to this young sailor who never would be anything but a friend to her. She found herself submitting quite naturally to one of those flavourless and definite kisses on the cheek, of which the entirely brotherly quality can never be mistaken by the recipient.

A looker-on may be more easily mistaken.

Olwen's Aunt Lizzie was coming up the Drive behind her, having been delayed in another carriage of that very same train, since she had also been dining in town. From some distance she had observed the farewell at the gate. But she exchanged greetings, quite unprejudiced, with the young sailor who passed her. She was a modern Aunt....

At the house she found her niece already in the bedroom, so busy with her little straw work-basket and two lengths of pink ribbon, that before any talk even of the raid, she asked, "What have you got there, Olwen?"

"I'm just mending something," returned the intent Olwen, "that I've got to wear."