Disturbing Charm


30. 2-13 Vigil

"The raid is still in progress."

Morning Paper.

To other members of the party that raid had been less (obviously) eventful.

Little Mr. Brown, after he had seen Mrs. Cartwright's niece, the nurse, back to her rooms, trotted back to the Regent Palace Hotel all in a dither of undeniable funk.

Not funk for himself! Gallipoli and the Somme had found him "sticking it" with a music-hall joke between his teeth. But here he had something to be frightened about. The danger-zone was no place for women. At once he rang up his fiancée, Mrs. Robinson, in Baker Street. There was no reply!... On duty still? And Lord knew where....

[The little dispatch rider was at that moment, as we know, scorching along the road out of London and past the Kilburn Empire.]

Mr. Brown, M.C., took his cold feet and his pipe to another man's room, and sat there talking feverishly to drown the guns; from here he rang up at intervals, getting through to her at last.

"Worrying?... What about?" her cheeky little voice called back to him. "Been? Why I've been carting some young lunatic who's lost his 'bus or something, back to his 'drome.... I say! He tried to give me two pounds. Got off again, didn't I?... Yes, and I'm just going to turn in.... Silly ass.... Worrying about me? Well, drop it. I'm not marrying any worries, they're too old-fash. Go to bed!"

"Right you are," called back her future lord on the note of cheery docility which was to resound throughout his married life. "See you demang. Good night, Pet!"

"Good night, Pug."

She rang off; he sought his room, and slept through the rest of the raid.

Miss Agatha Walsh sat up for it. She sat up in the private sitting-room of her hotel, where there was also staying, on business, the old family lawyer who transacted her business. There she sat with him and her fiancé at midnight, feeling delightfully emancipated if not "fast," drinking stone ginger-beer and translating the lawyer's remarks to her half-dozing sergeant. Agatha was entirely happy, for the talk was all about arrangements for her approaching marriage, settlements for her husband, and so on. What, compared to these things, was the noise of gun-fire? The only attention that she paid to it was to exclaim once, "Oh, I do wish I could have a bit of the shrapnel set in gold as a paper-weight or something for Gustave, just as a souvenir of the first raid we've been through together!"

And now we come to Captain Ross.

Captain Ross would have allowed no questions as to where he was and what doing whilst that raid was in progress. Suffice it to say that he was on duty.

Not active duty; not strenuous duty, but duty which, unfortunately for him, gave him plenty of leisure to think, and to feel, as he himself put it curtly, "sick."

Very sick he felt.

First there was the standing grouse of his not being able to take a man's job, ever, in that sort of show. They would never allow a one-armed chap to go up in a plane, of course. Not even by altering the mechanism of the whole thing so that he could work the controls left-handed--that was off for good; and he was sick of it.

He also felt sick with young Jack. What on earth had he been trying to play at? He had no duty. He was married that morning; hadn't he, Ross, seen him married? What the something did he mean by leaving his wife and chasing off like that? Saying "All right; shut up----" What did the young fool mean by it?

Further, there was that little hussy that Captain Ross was sick with. Sitting----wherever he was sitting while the raid-guns scolded outside, he went over and over in his mind the many grouses that he had against that little hussy Olwen Howel-Jones. She didn't know how to treat him right.

She was a darned little flirt.

Look at her at Les Pins with that ass young Brown!

Look at her here in London, with that even worse ass, young Ellerton!

Scandalous.... Scandalous....

To Ellerton he meant to give such a telling-off as the young man had never heard in his life before.

And to the girl he was going to speak about it this very evening. Then the raid had come....

Of course Ellerton would see that child all the way home.

He'd done it before....

She admitted that herself.

She practically admitted that the fellow made love to her on the way home.

No doubt he was doing it again at that moment! Captain Ross could picture it. He did picture it....

Nothing could have been less like his picture than the reality of that proposal scene in the railway carriage of the train held up outside Willesden Junction at that moment, but how should this jealous brooder be expected to guess that?

He continued to brood so intently that it is unlikely he heard any of the firing....

That little hussy! How was it she always contrived to irritate him so? Always! Every time she spoke! The more meek and mild she was in the office the more downright impairrrtinence she managed to infuse, somehow, into the very meekness and mildness of the tone in which she spoke to her chief. Yep! Even if she were only putting somebody through to him on the telephone, she managed to convey an impression of--of--of something.

And why any busy man should waste a moment thinking of her the finest judge of women in Europe did not know.... How had she done it?

Yes; she was pretty; confound her! Awfully neat.... but weren't other girls? Why think of her, more than of all the others, dozens, scores, yes, hundreds of 'em that he'd known? What he demanded of a girl's society was that it should be kept in its right proporrrrtion as a relaxation for when a man wasn't occupied with a job.

Woman, it could not too often be reiterated, was the Plaything of Man----but not of young Ellerton, by the way. Why should any sensible man be obsessed by one more than another of these toys?

Let them keep in their places.

Dashed pretty she was! Taking little face, dandy little figure, hands and feet it.... Still, if she thought that he, with all his experience, was going to say that Miss Olwen Howel-Jones was the best-looking girl he'd ever struck, she had another guess coming to her. Casual little ways she had! Those spoilt her. Pursing up her mouth----which was as red as if she shoved on carmine by the stick every five minutes, though he could see she didn't. It would sairrrrrrrrve her jolly well right if a man (not young Ellerton) were to catch ahold of her and kiss her good and hard a couple of dozen times running and then leave her, having had all he wanted of her. That other maddening habit of hers, too; looking 'way over a man's shoulder when he was speaking to her! Refusing to meet his eyes ... though she could look straight enough into young Ellerton's.... What colour were her eyes when all was said: brown, green, or hazel?

He had arrived at this point by the time that the rushing by of cars began to be heard up the Strand, down the Embankment and along every street within earshot; cars containing joyously important children in Scout's kit who "woke to find that Noise was Duty," and who now roused London's echoes with their bugle calls of two long notes:

"All clear----! All----clear!"

Yes; the raid was over. Captain Ross of the Honeycomb found himself drawing a long breath and realizing that he did most bitterly resent these raids on account of the women that he knew who were in the danger zone. That child Olwen, now; had she been frightened? Very likely indeed. Scared to death, no doubt.

Poor wee girl!...

With the return to the thought of her, there suddenly stirred within him a feeling that lay so deep down and under so many other mere immediate things that he seldom allowed himself the chance of leisure to delve towards it....

It was----how express it? A gentle, reverent unspoilt tenderness. It was That which makes the difference in the ingrainedly sentimental mind of Man, between Woman----and his own women-folk. The key to the hearts of these finest judges of women in Europe is to be found held in the hands of a mother, a wife, or (most surely) of a baby-daughter.... This particular Scot had denied in toto that that chit of a Welsh girl could ever have part or lot in any of his jealously-secret dreams.

But denied it he had; yes! Already he was so far gone as all that.

Therefore it will be seen that he had reached the moment when a man pulls himself resolutely together and determines that having gone so far, he will go no further.

The moment had arrived when he told himself that, having taken all things into consideration, he had done with the girl.

Yes; he had done with this Olwen.

What was meant by this could only be judged by subsequent events. One cannot but surmise that it meant the following:

To come to that office on Monday and, as usual, to treat her as part of the office furniture. To speak to her as usual with the charm of manner of a bear with a sore head. To glower at her as usual in the Strand if she passed him with young Ellerton. To have lunch on Friday as usual at that restaurant where she had lunch and, still as usual, to spar and wrangle with her until it was time to get back to work. To meet her as usual at Mrs. Cartwright's; to meet her perhaps with her friend Mrs. Awdas; to----well, to carry on in the usual way, as he had done up to now, and so, indefinitely, to continue....

"Yes! I've done with her," he meditated aloud in the solitude of whatever place it was in which he found himself. The sound of his own voice pronouncing these resolute words was balm to his irritated, exasperated mood. "I've done with her. That's sett----"

Into the word there broke the shrill whirring call of the telephone.

He snapped it up. The silence of the place where he sat seemed to ring to the now irritated bark of his voice, answering.

"Spikkin'! Who is that?"

"Ell--what? Oh, Ellerton? Yes; what is it?" He listened, scowling, to the clear boyish voice that came through, obviously in the joyous high feather. "Oh, yes; I know the raid's over, yes.... Nothing of consequence; nothing at all.... You saw what? Miss Howel-Jones home safely? That's all?... You were held up? Is that so? Where? For how----For two hours, was it? All the lights turned out, I suppose?... Indid.... Ah.... Well! I don't know that I was worrying specially about either of you; not so as you'd notice it. But thanks all the same for reassuring me, Ellerton----"

(This with the bitter sarcasm which, the Celt maintains, is ever lost upon the Saxon.)

"And I suppose Miss Howel-Jones will make it her excuse for turrrning up late on Monday morrrrning.... Whatt? She won't be coming Monday? How's that?... Leave?"

His voice jumped up three notes.

"Going on leave?... Where's she going? Wales?... What part of Wales?... I said what part of Wales.... Aber-which?... Ah.... 'Night."

The finest judge of women snapped up the receiver and sat for a moment motionless: only the shapely feminine mouth under the hogged moustache moving to the form of inaudible words.

Then he sprung up and grabbed a paper-covered book from a shelf of reference books. He stood holding it.

Ellerton and she!

Held up for two mortal hours in the dark!

And the cub sounded in racing spirits....

Proposed to her! Not a doubt of it! And would he sound like that if he hadn't been acc----?

Here he slammed the book down on the table (it was an A B C), and, with his one hand, began violently fluttering the pages. Aber----Aber----

Gone, had she? Without a word.... How dare she? Got leave without telling him....

Leave, indeed....

He'd got some leave coming to him.

Right now was where he'd take it, and at this Aber-where-was-it--ah, here....

Done with the girl? He realized that he had not yet begun with her.