Disturbing Charm

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3. 1-3 The Launching Of The Charm



"A field untilled, a web unwove,
A flower withheld from sun or bee,
An alien in the courts of Love----"

Kipling.

Accident decided it for her.

As she was running down the broad red and white steps at the front of the hotel, Olwen met, coming up, the woman whom Mrs. Cartwright had noticed at lunch for her hopeless well-off spinsterishness. The Spinster carried a guide book, a flowering-plant in a pot with paper round it, and a bound map.

She wore over those expensive tweeds of hers those furs which none but the young and radiant should venture to wear; grey squirrel. Her face was blank.

It lighted into a tentative smile as the young girl turned and ran back a few steps to the top, waiting for her.

"Good afternoon; we mustn't cross on the stairs," Olwen called. "It's unlucky!"

Was it her fancy, or did the Spinster look pathetically pleased because some one had said "good afternoon" and had made a playful remark?

Up the steps she hastened, rather stiffly, her figure being of the kind that seems all clothes.

When she got to the top she said, with a shy, effusive little laugh, "Oh, are you superstitious?" and before Olwen could answer, she hurried on, "Oh, can one order tea here, at any time one likes? Could I order it in my own room, do you think?"

"I think so," said Olwen, surprised.

In spite of the gap in their ages, this woman of thirty-five seemed to speak as if she were a new girl, just arrived at school. In spite of her "set" figure, her mode of dressing, her big nose, there was--yes! something of suppressed schoolgirlishness about her yet. Some are born with the saddle to wear, some with the spur, says the proverb. This Spinster had the look, not only of having been born with the saddle, but of having been for years under the spur of others. Her timid eyes were those of a dog who has been turned adrift. They fastened upon Olwen.

"This is a lovely place, isn't it?" she hurried on as if afraid the girl would leave her. "Have you been here long?"

"About a week."

"Oh, have you? I have only just come. I came just before lunch. I saw you at lunch, with a tall lady in brown. Are you staying with her?"

"No," Olwen said, "I'm here with my uncle; I am his secretary."

"Oh, are you? How nice. I am not with anybody," volunteered the Spinster. Clutching her guide-book and plant and fixing the girl with that timid yet persistent eye, she seemed ready to stand there and talk for half an hour. "You are the first person I have spoken to here. I'm quite alone."

These were the three words which--with all the unspoken, unconscious pathos behind them--went to Olwen's heart. She tightened her fingers upon what she held in her hand, and she thought to herself, "Here's someone who needs the Charm!" Then she thought, caught back a little, "I can't give it just to the first person I meet. Oughtn't I to see a little more of her, first?"

The Spinster's next remarks seemed to fall in with this plan.

"I oughtn't to keep you here talking, without any hat on.... Oh, d'you always go without a hat in the woods?... I must just put this plant down; do come into my room a minute, won't you? It's only on the first floor, just at the top of the stairs; yes, do----"

It was the best room in the hotel to which Olwen followed this new acquaintance of hers; and it seemed crowded with belongings, all very obviously costly, and all--curiously enough!--quite incredibly new.

"Oh--couldn't you--couldn't you have tea with me?" was the Spinster's next suggestion. "My name is Walsh; Agatha Walsh. Do have tea with me. Please. I'll order some now----"

She rang the waiter's bell; and in halting French she ordered the sallow little Italian to bring up to her room tea for two.

"Simple?" asked the waiter.

"Oh--what does he mean?"

"He means do you want just tea," explained Olwen, "or anything with it?"

"Oh! Everything there is. You like cake, don't you? Girls do," said the Spinster with that timid, friend-hunting glance. "Jam, and pastries, and things. Tell him to bring everything, please."

"Complet," ordered little Olwen, feeling a woman of the world in comparison with this stranger who was abashed before waiters.

"Oh, how well you talk French," murmured the other. "Do sit down here. I wonder if I shall ever be able to talk it quickly. I've never been in France before, do you know? I----Isn't it funny? I have hardly ever been anywhere;"

"Haven't you?" said Olwen--who herself had known her native Wales, Liverpool, the South Kensington Museum, and some other museums in Paris.

The Spinster broke into further confidences. "Oh, no. You see, I lived a very secluded life. I had to. I lived with an elderly cousin of mine in Buckinghamshire, oh, quite in the country. Here she is."

From her silver-strewn table the Spinster took an ornate oval frame. It enclosed the portrait of an old lady in a Victorian cap of lace and ribbons, with beetle-brows and a mouth of steel.

"Yes, this is Miss Walsh; the same name as mine, you see. She never left her house for the last fifteen years, you know. A beautiful house; such grounds! We never went out of them, except the half-mile drive to church every Sunday. And of course we scarcely ever saw anybody, except just the Rector and the old Doctor," the Spinster confided to Olwen. "All that money----But, poor thing, she was never really well. Of late years she had to have everything done for her; everything!"

"I suppose you had to do it!" volunteered Olwen, with a glance at the portrait and a pang of pity for the woman who showed it to her. The girl was too young to read the whole story as Mrs. Cartwright would have done; soaring years of a woman's youth harnessed to the bath-chair of a bitter-tongued tyrant in shawl and cap! But she guessed that the "poor thing" might more appropriately be applied to Miss Walsh the younger.

"Oh, well," said the Spinster, gently, "she only had me in the world. Except her nephew. She quarrelled with him. He was very outspoken, and--well, they quarrelled. He should have come in to her money, you know. She made another will only just before she died, poor thing. That's how----" She gave a gesture that seemed to take in the new portmanteau on the floor, the winking silver-backed brushes on the table, her own tweeds and furs, the wide view from the window, and the waiter bringing in the tea-tray. "It all came to me;" concluded Miss Walsh, diffident, amazed. "I can scarcely believe it yet; I couldn't believe I could leave the place and go away for as long as I liked!"

Olwen asked, "What brought you? Why did you come here?"

"Oh! because there was nowhere for me to go. I went to London because I'd only been there once in my life. Then I went over to Paris because I'd never been there. Then I stuck a hat-pin into the guide-book to see where I'd go next. It came out here. It seemed like Fate, didn't it? So I came."

Olwen looked at her as she poured out the tea. Her wrists clanked with gold curb bracelets (of a pattern as obsolete as was the enormous brooch of plaited gold and turquoises at her throat; the heavily set rings on her fingers, no doubt jewellery of the late Miss Walsh). They were chains that had fettered a patient slave--but she was a slave no longer.

"I'm so glad!" said little Olwen, impulsively.

"Oh! Thank you." Her hostess smiled as gratefully as if the girl herself had helped to alter that will. "I knew you were sympathetic. I could say things to you. One can talk to some people, can't one?" she added, as the waiter went out. "I thought at lunch what a sweet little face you had, if you don't mind my saying so. There--there's a charm about it! What is your name?... Olwen Howel-Jones.... Is your tea right? I didn't even know they had proper tea in France now; my cousin never would go Abroad because she said they gave you no tea.... Olwen! How pretty. How old are you? You don't mind my asking, do you? Nineteen? I was just nineteen when I went to live at the Grange--Miss Walsh's house. Nineteen.... I always liked young people; but of course we never saw any. My cousin disliked girls as a rule. Even the servants were quite elderly. I--sometimes" she went on in a rush as of the pent-up confidences of years, "I longed to see something young, do you know? I suppose you've always.... Brothers and sisters? Lots of cousins? How nice! And lots of friends, of course...."

She stopped, she fixed her eyes musingly upon the dainty creature helping herself to cherry compote and ended with a shy, quick involuntary question.

"Are you engaged to be married?"

"Me?" exclaimed Olwen with a swift turn of her little black head against the hotel easy chair. She laughed, with the traditional girlish rejoinder, "Oh, dear, no! I don't suppose I----"

It broke off short on her lips.

Footsteps, two sets of footsteps, were tramping up the polished shallow stairs outside the closed door. A man's voice rang out as it had rung out that morning under her Uncle's balcony. That accent which was as penetrating as Scots mist, as clear as Canadian frost, reached her ears in the giving out of this dictum:

"What I demand in Women is, firstly----"

Here a door above slammed, cutting off the rest.

Ah, thought Olwen, "They" were back again already, were "They"?

This breathless thought made her lose the thread for a moment of what this Miss Walsh, the wealthy waif, was pouring out to the first friendly soul she had encountered in the place.

Then the girl in love dragged herself back to that polished comfortable room, that tea-table, that woman who had stuck a hat-pin into a guide-book to decide where to go.

"Oh, you know, I often used to wonder if I should be an old woman before I'd ever made friends with anybody. I used to sit winding wool for my cousin and looking out of the morning-room window at the rhododendrons. Such rhododendrons! Every spring they came out ... a wall of pink! Then they dropped their blossoms on the lawn ... a carpet of pink! Every spring they came again. Not the same flowers; fresh flowers every spring. Fresh flowers.... But the springs went by, and of course I knew that I should never come young again----Oh, what is that?"

For Miss Walsh, taking up the tea-pot, had caught sight of something that Olwen had laid down on the tray while she spread the cherry jam on her biscuits. Hastily Olwen picked it up again. It was the sachet into which she had sewn the Disturbing Charm.

In a flash she thought to herself: "Yes! she is the one! This poor dear, who's never had anything! Before she's quite too old! Something ought to be done!"

"... Fifteen--sixteen of those springs," Miss Walsh was murmuring again, "and such appleblossom. But looking at things alone makes spring so much sadder than winter.... Of course, you'll never have to understand that--my dear."

Olwen was thinking definitely and finally, "I must try the Charm upon her. I will. It's probably rubbish.... But if it isn't----! Now how do I set about getting her to wear it? I can't say, 'Tuck this inside your blouse and you needn't be lonely any more, you'll begin to have people falling in Love with you!' How shall I----?"

The method seemed to dart ready-made into her head as she held out on her pink palm the tiny square of mauve satin, scarcely larger than a postage-stamp.

She turned upon the Spinster the appealing smile that had made "little Miss Howel-Jones" such a successful worker on the last Welsh Flag Day, in Liverpool.

"Will you buy one? I'm selling these," announced the inventive Olwen. "They"--(then to herself, "Quick, what shall I say?") "It--it's for the Croix Rouge."

"Oh, is it? Oh, yes. What's it supposed to be? A scent sachet? How pretty," exclaimed Miss Walsh, taking the thing in her hand. "Yes; of course I'll buy one. Where is my little bag?" (Bag, of crocodile and purple satin, produced.) "I'll give you something at once."

The "something" proved to be a hundred-franc note.

"Oh, no! Not all that!" gasped the impromptu Red Cross Flag seller. "It's only a franc! I can't take any more!"

"Oh, but of course you can. It's for the soldiers," put in Miss Walsh, a look of surprise crossing her mild, Roman-nosed face. "Of course you must take it. I like giving things.... There! Where's the little sachet? How sweet! Did you make it yourself? I must put it in among my writing-paper." (Case produced, all Bond Street pig-skin and gold-monogrammed A. W.)

Olwen hesitated. Of course the Charm would be of no earthly good there, even if it were of any good at all, she thought, half fluttered, half ashamed of herself. One curious thing she had noticed about this Charm already.

Alone with it, the whole incredible theory seemed real. Brought into contact with other people, it appeared nonsense. Still, since she was going to give it a trial, she might as well do it properly. For a moment she listened again to the lonely, talkative woman.

"Oh, you know, I've always longed to give things! Only I've no one to give to. Shopping is lovely, but not when it's only for oneself----"

"No," absently from Olwen (who sometimes felt she had all Carnarvonshire commissioning her to shop for them as soon as she got to town). "That sachet----" she ventured presently, eyeing the case. "It's supposed to be a mascot, you know. To bring you luck."

"Oh?"

"Perhaps you don't believe in it? But if you wouldn't mind.... To please me," said Olwen. "I mean to please the Red Cross! If you'd wear it!"

"Oh, I must wear it, must I?" (Case opened; sachet pinned by a large pearl bar to the front of the thick white satin shirt.)

"Er----Not quite like that," from Olwen. "It--I believe it has to be worn hidden. Out of sight somewhere."

"Oh, yes. Very well." (Sachet unpinned, and refastened to the brocade lining of the tweed coat.) "There!"

"But you take off your coat in the evening, don't you?" demurred Olwen, quite anxiously.

Not alone this woman's history might be changed by the wearing of a Charm, but her own. It was her love-story, Olwen's! for which that Charm was to be put on trial, too. She drew breath quickly.

"Miss Walsh! I'm so sorry to bother you! But it's something that has to be always worn about you. Please would you mind pinning it right inside your blouse? Or--or to the top of your stays! French people often do wear a sachet there, don't they? Then I shall--I mean you'll always be sure about it...."

"Oh, very well!" agreed Miss Walsh, smiling. She turned her back modestly upon Olwen, and by the movement of her elbows seemed to be busy with countless fastenings. Then she reached for a gold lace-pin from her pin-cushion. There were more jerks and fastenings-up, and presently she turned smiling to the girl.

"I have safety-pinned it right in there," she announced, patting a slab of satin over Heaven (and Heaven alone) knew how many layers of Jaeger, whale-bone, coutille, and solid white embroidery, and long-cloth. "There! Will that be all right?"

Olwen gave a little sigh; a breeze to carry the ship of this Adventure. It was launched!

"Thank you," she said. Then she glanced at the hundred franc note in her hand. "But I do rather feel as if I'd got this under false pretences!"

"Oh, no!" smiled the Spinster. "If the little mascot does really bring me so much Luck, it will be worth a few more francs, won't it?"

"Yes, indeed," agreed the demure Olwen, feeling as if she exchanged a mental glance with the unknown Inventor of that Charm. "It will be worth it."